My First Concussion: A Heartwarming Thanksgiving Tale

 

People sometimes ask me, “What the hell is wrong with you? Were you dropped on your head when you were a baby?”

The answer is maybe. It doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility, since my parents were very old and tired when I was born. I may have been dropped by accident when one or the other of them fell asleep while holding me. They never confessed to it, but there are several dents in my skull that make me suspect that I was dropped on the noggin on the regular.

Anyway, this story is not about the dents in my skull but about how my dad and his brother-in-law and partner in crime, my Uncle Earle, made a little girl’s Christmas wish come true and thereby caused her to have a head injury.

The year I turned seven a girl named Debbie moved next door. She was almost exactly the same age as me and was in my class in school. We became what are now called “frenemies.” We hung out together and did stuff together and were deeply, bitterly competitive with each other. I could twirl a baton. Debbie could not. Debbie couldn’t twirl for shit. I mercilessly flaunted my twirling prowess in front of her, twirling not one but two batons simultaneously, throwing them up high in the air and casually catching them behind my back. I bragged about how I was going to be the head twirler for the marching band when we got to high school, making her seethe with rage.

Spoiler alert: I wasn’t made head twirler. Maureen DeFasio was.

Debbie retaliated by doing cartwheels, jeering at me as I stood watching her, red-faced with fury. No matter how hard I tried, and believe me, I tried hard, I couldn’t do a single cartwheel. I flopped over and hit the dirt, as if I had no bones. Debbie would rub in my humiliation by doing back flips. I couldn’t do those, either.

Then Debbie upped the ante by getting a swing set. It came from Sears and it had two swings, a shiny metal slide and two of those rings that gymnasts use to pull themselves up and flip over.

To say I was envious was an understatement. I wanted a swing set so badly that I could practically taste it. I begged my parents to get me one, but they refused, on the grounds that it would ruin the lawn. My parents, middle-class suburbanites to the core – were very proud of our lawn. In the suburbs at that time having a well-cared-for lawn was a sign of moral superiority. Ours was regularly doused with pesticides and meticulously mowed to verdant perfection by my dad every week, using a hand-pushed mower with rotating blades. My parents cherished their lawn and didn’t want it getting messed up.

That meant no swing set for me.

Until a Christmas miracle happened.

It happened on Thanksgiving, but it involved my Christmas present from Uncle Earle and Aunt Alma. The present was (you guessed it) a swing set!

When Uncle Earle and Aunt Alma showed up at our house on Thanksgiving, Uncle Earle pulled open the back of their station wagon and hauled out a big box.

“What do you think is in here?” he asked me, grinning.

The box had a color picture of a swing set on it so I took a wild guess.

“A swing set?”

“Correct!” Uncle Earle said. “It’s your Christmas present. You’re getting it now so you can have fun playing with it before it gets too cold.”

Devoted readers may recall another Christmas present that my dad and Uncle Earle gave me. It was a little metal barn, part of a farm-themed play set. It got blood all over it because the metal pieces were wickedly sharp and my dad and Uncle Earle were very drunk when they assembled it. Finding a blood-smeared barn under the Christmas tree, with my dad and Uncle Earle passed out next to it was quite the Yuletide surprise, let me tell you.

The swing set was just as bad as the bloody barn, but in a different way.

For starters, my dad refused to stabilize its four metal legs by anchoring them in cement.

“It’ll ruin the lawn,” he said, once he and Uncle Earle got it put together. “Just be careful when you’re swinging on it and it’ll be okay.”

Was I careful?
I was at first. I got on and swung. Debbie came out and watched from the other side of the fence which separated our back yards.

“You’re swinging like a baby,” she said.

“No I’m not,” I said.

“Yes you are. Baby, baby! Jill swings like a baby! Ha-ha!”

That did it. I gave a mighty push, thinking, The heck with you, Debbie. I’ll show you.

The swing went up pretty high, almost looping over the top rail. I laughed contemptuously as Debbie looked on in awe.

“Ha-ha! You’re the baby! You are!” I jeered. “Look how high I…”  That’s as far as I got before the swing set toppled over. I sailed out of the swing and onto my mom’s rock garden. My head hit a rock and I blacked out. Debbie, I discovered later, ran into her house and turned on the TV, settling down to watch cartoons, the picture of innocence. She didn’t tell anybody what happened because she thought she’d be blamed for goading me to swing higher. To her credit, she later apologized.

I’m not sure how long I lay there among the rocks, unconscious. My mom was busy making Thanksgiving dinner and gossiping with Aunt Alma. My dad and Uncle Earle were in the living room watching football and drinking beer. It wasn’t until Mom happened to glance out the kitchen window and saw the overturned swing set that she realized something was wrong.

She went outside, untying her apron, angry that I’d managed to knock over my new swing set. She found me sprawled in the rock garden, apparently lifeless.

I woke up to her screaming and pouring the contents of the bird bath over me. I suppose she thought that if I wasn’t dead the cold water would bring me around. It did.

“We gee wazzoo? How you make do this? Razum numkur,” I complained, soaking wet and completely fuddled.

Mom dragged me across the street, moaning and speaking gibberish, to Dr. Daniel’s house. He was a retired dermatologist who’d gotten his medical license way back during the Depression. Dr. Daniel knew more about psoriasis and acne than he did about head injuries, but even he could see what was up.

He shone a light in my eyes and noted that the pupils were different sizes. Then he asked me how many fingers he was holding up.

“Buzzum? Grakus? Floop,” I replied. Then I threw up on his shoes.

“She’s got a concussion,” he told my mother. “Keep her awake. Don’t let her go to sleep. If she goes to sleep she might sink into a coma.”

And that was that. He went to clean off his shoes and my mother dragged me back across the street.

My head hurt. I didn’t eat any of the Thanksgiving dinner, which happened to be a real turkey that year and not one made out of Spam. (Devoted readers may recall how my mother lovingly crafted a turkey one year out of whatever red, gelatinous substance Spam is. She’d seen a Spam turkey in a magazine and was captivated by its originality.)

Mom followed Dr. Daniel’s orders to a T. She didn’t let me go to sleep, not for five days, having misunderstood him to mean that she should never let me sleep again. By then I was hallucinating fish coming out of the walls. A second visit to Dr. Daniel cleared it up. I fell into bed and slept the sleep of the dead for twenty-four hours.

When I woke up the swing set was gone.

“It was too much trouble,” my father said. “I gave it to a man at work for his kids.”

And that was that.

Happy Thanksgiving. Don’t get a concussion.

A Conversation With Wayne Turmel

Today we’re speaking with author Wayne Turmel. His newest book, Johnny Lycan & the Anubis Disc, is about a Chicago detective who happens to be a werewolf. Wayne’s previous books were non-fiction business guides focusing on leadership and three historical fiction novels, The Count of the Sahara, Acre’s Bastard, and its sequel, Acre’s Orphans.

Wayne used to be a standup comic. He’s very, very funny. There were parts of The Count of the Sahara that made me LOL. The same with Acre’s Bastard and Acre’s Orphans, although they were more serious, taking place as they did in Jerusalem during the Crusades, with bloodshed and all kinds of depravity unfolding around the streetwise young hero.

Wayne lives in Las Vegas, having moved there from Chicago, allegedly to avoid the cold, snowy winters. However we suspect he wanted to be closer to the nonstop action and the free buffets at the casinos.

Q. Is that true? Did you move to Las Vegas so you could gamble and eat oysters at Caesar’s Palace?

A. Caesar’s ain’t my style. I’m more of a local dive-bar casino and race book kind of guy, although any time you can eat oysters is good. My ideal life would be a sea otter—floating on my back and eating seafood off my belly all day.

Q. What, if anything, do you miss about Chicago, where Johnny Lycan & the Anubis Disc takes place?

A. I miss everything about Chicago except the weather. My daughter, Her Serene Highness, still lives there, and I still follow the Blackhawks and Cubs. In many ways, what was fun about Johnny Lycan was I got to write about what I love—and what drives me crazy—about a city where I spent eighteen years. I would be there still, but my bride informed me that if I wanted to continue living with her it would be somewhere warmer and sunnier. Oh, and local bookstores like Centuries and Sleuths support local authors.

Q. How did you come up with the idea of a detective who’s a werewolf?

A. I think it began years ago when I read Robert McCammon’s The Wolf’s Hour. Here was a secret agent. Okay, a Russian secret agent. Wait, he’s a Russian secret agent fighting Nazis. Oh, and he’s a werewolf. How freaking cool is that? Werewolves have always been my favorite monster…. Ever since I was 13 and saw Oliver Reed in The Curse of the Werewolf. At that age I could identify with something hairy and vicious hidden inside me and trying to get out.

Then I had the idea for the opening scene of Johnny Lycan. I write almost everything in first person, and I kept imagining what it would be like to have this rage-monster stuck inside you when you’re basically a good, normal dude. Johnny is a typical blue-collar thirty-year old Chicagoan who just has this THING inside him and we get to be in his head as he navigates the world. He thinks his being a werewolf is the weirdest thing there is… and he’s about to find out he’s wrong. The Anubis Disk is actually something I wrote in a short story that was published at Storgy.com. I love taking things I’ve written and melding them together. I’m forming the Johnnyverse, like the Arrowverse only way more obscure and less financially successful.

Q. What appeals to you about detective fiction? What made you decide to switch to that genre after writing historical fiction?

A. I grew up in the late 60s and 70s so it was all cop shows and detectives in my house. Truthfully, this is more of an Urban Fantasy story laid on top of a detective tale. (Book marketing and genres make my head hurt.) I was actually reluctant to tackle this story because so far all my novels have been historical fiction, which has a certain air of class about it. Who wants to hear a 59-year-old man talk about imaginary monsters? I was afraid I’d hurt my author brand, but then I realized I wasn’t selling much anyway, what was I going to offend BOTH of my readers? So, I decided to do it and it’s been so much fun. I’m already starting on the second book.

Q. Wisecracking Philip Marlowe or brooding Sam Spade? Or do you prefer Sherlock Holmes and his pal Dr. John Watson?

A. If I had to pick one, it would be Spade in the Maltese Falcon. If you’re looking for Johnny’s inspiration, though, it’s more like Spenser for Hire… a blue collar mook who is a little rough around the edges.

Q. What scene gave you the most trouble in Johnny Lycan?

A. Oh, Lord, it was the sex scene. Yes, not only is it werewolves, but he has a rather energetic romp with an older woman. One of the people I asked to blurb my book said he wouldn’t do it because the sex scene was too much for him and I thought, “dang I must have written the snot out of that scene.” You get told to write what you know…. But I wrote it anyway.

Q. Without giving away the ending, what did you enjoy most about writing Johnny Lycan?

A. I got to take my filters off. In my business writing, I have to be a grown up. In my historical novels, I’m restrained by the genre and the language and way people acted in a certain time. This is 2020 Chicago and I can be as unfiltered as I want. There are a couple of jokes I’m either ashamed or proud of, depending on who’s reading them. Plus I got to write about werewolves!

Thank you, Wayne, and good luck with Johnny Lycan & the Anubis Disc. Here’s the link to buy it from Amazon in Kindle or paperback format:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08KQHJQ7D/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

Here’s the link to purchase it from Black Rose Writing, and to check out all the other great books available:

https://www.blackrosewriting.com/scififantasy/johnnylycan?rq=Johnny

From Barnes & Noble:

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/johnny-lycan-the-anubis-disk-wayne-turmel/1137330104

 

 

To hear more from Wayne Turmel:

http://wayneturmel.com/about-wayne/

 

 

 

Fun With Tulpas

Black Willows, book 2 in the Trapnell Thriller series, will be released tomorrow. So far, the reviews have been gratifyingly positive, although one reviewer said she didn’t care for that sort of thing. That’s okay. Some people don’t care for caviar, or cilantro. There’s no accounting for tastes, as the chorus girl said to the bishop.

Another reviewer, a teacher, said she liked Black Willows so much that she intended to include it the material she shares with her students. I hope her students aren’t little children, since the book has swear words in it, as well as acts of violence, not that little children aren’t violent sometimes, and use bad language, but it’s best not to encourage them.

Today’s topic is tulpas. One of the minor characters in Black Willows is a tulpa, or that’s how it appears. I’d read about them long ago and was fascinated. I was gratified to find that David Lynch included a tupa in his latest Twin Peaks series. You can always count on David Lynch to be weird, and tulpas are very, very weird.

Here’s a story I wrote several years ago about a man who created one. It explains how it’s done, if you want to give it a go. Just remember, difficult as it is to create a tulpa, it’s even more difficult to get rid of them.

The Trouble With Tulpas

How did I learn how to make a tulpa? The same way I learned how to install a ceiling fan, and to stop the kitchen faucet from dripping: I watched a YouTube video. You can find out how to do just about anything from YouTube, including flying an airplane and performing thoracic surgery.

The question nobody asks is why I made a tulpa. They’re more interested in the how-to part of it, not that I blame them. Not everyone can make a tulpa. It seems I have a knack for it. I’d have preferred to have a knack for making money, or getting women to agree to go out with me, but I don’t.

Tulpas, as you may know, are beings that are created through intense concentration and spiritual discipline. They’re sort of like an imaginary friend made real. Tibetan Buddhist monks are rumored to sometimes create tulpas as part of their religious exercises. I made my tulpa so I could drive to work in the HOV lane.

HOV stands for high-occupancy vehicle. Cars with just a driver aren’t allowed in them. You need at least one passenger to qualify for admission to the HOV lane, the usage of which would cut my commute from forty-five minutes of crawling, bumper-to-bumper, white-knuckle hell to about twenty minutes of breezing down the highway at sixty miles per hour.

My problem was that no one I worked with lived close enough to me so we could car-pool. I live in a suburb and work in a major city. My hours are midnight to eight a.m., doing something very boring in a medical research laboratory.

The notices I put up in the coffee shop I frequent, and the dry cleaner, asking if anybody wanted to ride-share with me, got no responses. Not many people work those hours. Serial killers probably do, but if any of them saw my notices, they didn’t call me.

Of course I tried using the HOV lane anyway, hoping to sneak by under cover of darkness and not be detected by the highway patrol. It worked once, but on the second night, flashing blue lights appeared in my rearview mirror, followed by a stern, amplified voice commanded me to pull my vehicle to the shoulder of the roadway. Have you noticed it’s never a car with the police? It’s always a vehicle, and it’s never a road, it’s a roadway.

I pulled over, and a highway patrol officer strode up to my door, his hand hovering near the gun he wore on his belt. He probably called it his “weapon,” or his “firearm” in police-speak, just like my car was a “vehicle.” He studied me accusingly through narrowed, pale blue eyes, and asked if I knew I’d been driving in the HOV lane.

The lane was clearly marked with big, luminescent white letters painted on the surface of the road every hundred feet or so, making it impossible not to know, but I feigned ignorance.

“No! Really? I had no idea,” I said, trying to sound shocked. “Thanks for pointing that out, officer.”

His eyes narrowed even further. “Are you being a wiseass?”

The upshot was, he gave me a ticket. He told me he’d be watching for me, and I’d better stay out of the HOV lane, unless I had someone else in the car with me.

That’s when I remembered hearing Beerman talk about tulpas.

Beerman lived in my dormitory during my freshman year of college. His real name was Dave, but everybody called him Beerman, as if he was some kind of superhero whose superpower was frenetic, hectic energy, fueled by an almost-continuous intake of beer.

Beerman was a freshman, but he looked like he was around twenty-five. He may actually have been twenty-five, for all I knew. Beerman loved beer. He used to come bursting into people’s rooms at 2 a.m., snapping on the lights, brandishing a six-pack and chanting, “Beer! Beer! Beer! Wake up and drink some beer!”

If we tried to get him to leave us alone by pretending to be asleep, he’d shake our beds until we got up and had a beer with him. He was amiable but relentless, like the Hari Krishnas who used to haunt airport terminals. Many mornings, I’d stumble to my first class, blinking my eyes to bring them into focus, having sat up drinking with Beerman until the sun rose.

I would have locked my door to keep him out, but the doors didn’t have locks on them. That’s because my dorm, or my house, as the individual dorms were called, was called Honesty House, and none of the doors had locks, not even the bathrooms. The idea was that the residents of Honesty House were supposed to be completely open and honest with each other, in an environment of trust and mutual respect.

Theft was rampant in Honesty House, as I discovered after someone stole my laptop and my iPod during my first week there.

The other houses were called Sky-Clad House, where everyone walked around naked, and Earth House, and some other hippie-dippy names that I can’t recall now. I won’t tell you the name of the school. You’d probably recognize it, not so much for its academic cachet as for being the alma mater of one of the minor beat poets, as well as a woman who wrote a best-selling book about her intimate relations with not one but two famous rock musicians.

It wasn’t so much a college as a cliché of artsy-fartsy pretentiousness. I can only describe it as being like going to school at Burning Man. I went there because I was sort of a hippie in high school, but my experiences during my freshman year purged any inclination in that direction right out of me. It was somewhat like being scared straight by having convicts shout at you, except in my case, it was a required class called “Mindfulness,” taught by an awful woman named Waterfall that brought me around. I changed my major from philosophy to chemistry and made a beeline out of there, transferring to another school that was more or less normal.

I have no idea what became of Beerman. He might be a mercenary fighting in some foreign jungle, or he may have joined a bizarre religious cult. It’s even possible that he became an undersecretary of defense, he was that strange a person.

In addition to being obsessed with beer, Beerman was obsessed with a book he’d once read by a French woman named Alexandra David-Néel, in which she described having created a tulpa while living in Tibet. The tulpa she created looked like a jolly Buddhist monk. It was apparently so realistic that other people besides her were able to see it.

Beerman dearly wished he could make a tulpa.

“It was a funky little Friar Tuck-type guy. I’d love to have me a tulpa like that to chill with,” he said.

But, not surprisingly, Beerman was unable to muster the necessary concentration it takes to form a tulpa.

I thought I’d give it a go. What did I have to lose? I had to spend hours and hours at work in the lab, basically doing nothing but watching a lot of dials and flashing lights, while various chemical processes took place. Why not kill the time by concentrating on making a tulpa, to share my rides to and from work? If I made a tulpa, and other people could see it, I could take the HOV lane without fear of being pulled over by the police.

I decided to try and make a tulpa that looked like Beerman.

With a bank of whirling centrifuges taking the place of Tibetan prayer wheels, I’d sit on one of the rolling stools they have in the lab and let my mind go blank. Then I’d start to concentrate on my tulpa. I’d visualize Beerman, shaking his shaggy, dark blonde hair out of his eyes as he leaned down to tap a keg, or raising the enormous foaming stein to his mouth that he’d brought back from Oktoberfest in Munich. I’d picture him, howling like a Viking as he slid down the snow-covered hill behind the pottery studio, on a tray he’d swiped from the dining hall. I envisioned him striding purposefully down the side of the road that led into town, thumb out, on his way to buy more beer.

I remember the first time I managed to summon up a shadowy form. I’d gone to the snack machines in the break room, and was walking back into the lab, my mouth full of pretzel sticks, when I noticed a semi-transparent figure lurking in one corner of the room. It was grey and featureless, but it looked vaguely humanoid. The sight of it startled me so much that I inhaled sharply, causing me to choke on salty pretzel crumbs. I wheezed and gasped for breath, doubled over coughing. When I recovered, the shadowy figure was gone.

Encouraged by my initial success, I kept at it, night after night, until one night, a solid-looking being that looked exactly like Beerman materialized and stood before me.

Eureka! I’d made a tulpa.

I nervously asked it, “How’re you doing?”

It grinned broadly, but it made no reply. Perhaps it couldn’t speak, as I never heard it utter a word during our brief association. It surveyed the room, frowning, as if it were looking for something, then it held up a forefinger, as if struck by an idea. It looked searchingly at me and mimed raising something to its lips. Then it threw its head back and appeared to drink.

“Beer! You want a beer!” I said.

The tulpa leveled a forefinger at me and winked, in the universal sign for, “You got it.”

I concentrated again, summoning up an image of a red and white can of Budweiser, Beerman’s beverage of choice. Instantly, a can of Bud appeared in the tulpa’s hand. It even had droplets of condensation on it, as if it had been chilled.

The tulpa’s grin widened. It popped the top.

Awestruck as I was to have created a tulpa, I needed to get it out of there before my supervisor saw it. We weren’t supposed to have visitors, especially long-haired, beer-drinking visitors, but first, I wanted to find out if anyone else could see the tulpa. That would be key, if I wanted to use the HOV lane without getting pulled over.

I was alone in the lab where I worked, but there was another guy who worked next door, doing something unpleasant to mice. His name was V.J. Patel. He was a decent sort. I doubted he’d rat me out for having a visitor.

“Follow me,” I told the tulpa.

V.J. was injecting a squirming white rodent with a syringe full of pinkish fluid when I walked in, followed closely by the tulpa. He glanced up, and did a double-take.

I told him, “This is my friend, uh, Dave. I’m giving him a ride home.”

The tulpa waved amiably at V.J.

“Hi, Dave,” V.J. said. He asked me, “Are you leaving now?”

I said I was, as soon as I logged the results of the tests I’d been running and clocked out. V.J. nodded and reached for another mouse from the cage in front of him.

“It was nice meeting you,” he told the tulpa, who smiled and flashed him the peace sign.

That proved it. Other people could see the tulpa. I quickly finished up at work, eager to be on my way home. I noticed that the tulpa had already gone through several cans of beer, and I carefully collected them and put them in a paper bag, to dispose of at home. The cans kept materializing without my willing them to. I was reminded uneasily of the scene about the overwhelmed sorcerer’s apprentice in Fantasia that had frightened me as a boy.

 I was interested to see that the cans appeared to be exactly like ordinary beer cans. One of the cans wasn’t quite empty. I could hear liquid sloshing around inside it when I picked it up. I hesitated a moment before tilting it to my lips and swallowing. It tasted just like beer. Remarkable, I thought.

I was headed home, the tulpa seated beside me in the passenger seat, drinking yet another beer, when flashing blue lights appeared in the rear-view mirror. Oh, shit! I thought, and pulled over.

A highway patrolman got out of the cruiser and approached my door. He leveled a flashlight at me that threw an intense beam of light in my face. I realized with a sinking sensation that it was the same cop who’d pulled me over before.

He must have recognized me too, because he said, “You again!”

He shined the light onto the passenger seat, which was empty, save for a can of beer that was lying on its side, emitting a trickle of liquid onto the seat, where a sizeable puddle had collected. Several empty beer cans had rolled out from under the seat and were rolling around, clanking, on the floor mat. The car smelled like a brewery. Of the tulpa, there was no sign. He’d vanished without a trace, gone back to wherever such things come from.

The cop looked at me funny.  “Where’s the other guy that was just here? And what’s with all the beer cans? Have you been drinking tonight? Are you aware you were exceeding the speed limit?”

Of course I said I hadn’t been drinking. And of course, when he made me get out of the car and attempt to walk a straight line, one foot in front of the other, like a tightrope walker, I was so nervous that I stumbled and staggered.

Fortunately, a roadside breathalyzer test registered only a minute trace of alcohol, well under the legal limit. I was thankful I’d only had a swallow of the tulpa’s beer. The cop gave me a searching look.

He said, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t like it. I’m not going to give you a ticket for speeding, because a court appearance is required, and frankly, I don’t want to have to see you in court. I don’t want to have to see you ever again, got it?”
I said I got it, and drove slowly home. I never saw the tulpa again, although I have the uneasy feeling that he may return someday, probably at an inopportune moment. That’s the trouble with tulpas, you can never be sure what they’re going to do next.

Act 2

The sequel to my first thriller, White Oaks, will be released on Oct. 22. It’s called Black Willows and you should, by all means, hurry on over to Amazon, let your finders do the walking, and preorder a copy right now. The preorder price is $5.99. You can read it for free on Kindle Unlimited. Such a deal, amirite?

Here’s the link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08DH43KX7

The big question is why write a sequel? Why not move on and write something else? Maybe something with characters in it who aren’t vain, greedy, foolish, untrustworthy, and in most cases, not nice at all.

Some readers didn’t like that about White Oaks: the lack of niceness. In addition to complaints about the swearing and the violence they griped that the characters were unlikable. My response is that most real people are unlikable. I certainly am.

The fact that the two nicest people in White Oaks are an international arms dealer and a teenage recovering addict also annoyed some readers. People who sell land mines and fighter jets aren’t supposed to be sympathetic. Neither are heroin addicts. Yet Marsh Trapnell and his nephew Benjamin are sympathetic. Odd, that.

The thing is, real people are complicated. So why shouldn’t imaginary people be complicated too? The Trapnells are rude, self-absorbed, and very, very funny. If you had inherited millions of dollars and were in line to inherit billions more you’d be pretty weird too.

I don’t want to give the impression that everyone hated White Oaks. Far from it. Most readers liked it a lot and didn’t hold back from saying so. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have made something that people enjoyed. Thank you. That’s why I write, because I like making up stories and sharing them.

So back to the Trapnells. After I wrote The End and closed the last page in the Word document that made up White Oaks I thought it was the end of their journey. They’d recovered a stolen ancient artifact with mysterious, deadly powers, uncovered a plot to destroy the world, and thwarted the evildoers. What more was there to say?

Plenty, as it turned out.

The Trapnells wouldn’t leave me alone. I kept thinking about them and wondering what happened next. Would Ewell Haskins ever accomplish his dream of becoming sheriff? Would Gordon Buzzy continue to operate his horrible convenience store? Would the Trapnells ever find a new butler? Was it really a good idea for Marsh to be friends with someone called The Madman of the Steppes? These questions and others haunted me. That’s why I wrote Black Willows. It has a tulpa in it. In the next blog I’ll talk about those.

A Visit With Dan Kalin of Feral Cat Publishers

Our guest today is author and publisher Dan Kalin. Dan runs Feral Cat Publishers. We became acquainted in 2018, when he was kind enough (or foolish enough) to publish my short story, “Goodnight, Pretty Molly,” in an anthology called Bubble Off-Plumb.

 “Goodnight, Pretty Molly,” is about a robot police officer and a parrot, the only survivors of some kind of unspecified catastrophe which killed everyone in the world. It’s grim, but people who’ve read it say they like it. All the stories in Bubble Off-Plumb are good. Here’s a link to learn more about it, and about Feral Cat Publishers:

https://feralcatpublishers.com/books/bubble-off-plumb

Later this month Feral Cat Publishers plans to release Dear Leader Tales. It’s a collection of humorous or satirical poems and short stories about clueless CEOs, ham-handed politicians, and various annoying/appalling overlords. I think we can all relate, can’t we?

In addition to being an author and publisher, Dan has done many things. He has worked as an engineer and a management consultant. He’s an inventor and a member of Mensa, a non-profit organization for highly intelligent people.

Dan is also a competitive swimmer, competing in Masters events. Most recently he has taken part in open-water races in Florida, where he lives.

And now for the Q and A!

Q: Please tell our (very few) readers a little bit about being an independent publisher. What is that, exactly? How did you get involved in it? What are its challenges? What are its triumphs?

A: It’s kind of a moving target. Initially I started the company to handle in-house content as a liability breakwater. After putting out a couple of books, I realized we had sufficient resources to do even more, so we branched out. It became apparent there are many companies feeding off those who can least afford it, namely indie or self-publish authors. So we only sell books, not services.


We have a free book review program which is unique in a couple of ways. First we actually buy a copy of a book and write the reviews as readers, which means they are most useful kind: “verified purchase” reviews on Amazon. The industry, especially the pay-for-literary reviews segment, has diluted the objectivity of reviews to the point where it adds little useful data for potential buyers. One paid service only provides 4 and 5 star reviews, for example, and many truly horrible books have 5-star ratings there. Great for an author’s ego, but not useful for a potential buyer. FCP has a more objective review standard, which we use for all of our reviews. So a poorly written book is going to be rated accordingly. We have a monthly budget for the program and execute against it. The program is kind of a karmic experiment in that we’ll review books and hopefully it will eventually come back around in the form of reviews for our growing catalog.

Q: How many books has Feral Cat published so far? How do you decide what to publish next?

A: Seven as of next week. The goal is to publish two to three good books per year. Recently we started a “Publisher-Lite” program, but so far we haven’t found the right mix of author interest and content. It’s an optimization exercise. The question is how can we release the most high-quality content with the resources at our disposal?

Q: Is it true you were never a member of the covert intelligence community?

A: It is true.

Q: What are you currently reading? Do you prefer prose or poetry? Fiction or non-fiction, biography, history, how-to manuals, or are you an eclectic reader who’s happy to peruse whatever is at hand?

A: I generally have two or three books in process at any given moment, finishing five or sometimes as many ten per week. For entertainment, I stick close to fiction for the most part (science fiction and fantasy). I’m one of those people who can learn how to do something by reading a how-to book, but those aren’t usually front-to-back reads just the parts needed. Dear Leader Tales story and poem submittals ran about 600K words, which all had to be read and rated within a two week period. Luckily I read fast and have fairly good recall.


Prose or Poetry? Generally I think there is more well-written prose than there is poetry, especially in the indie author space. Poetry is harder to write, and few do it well. I want to read well-written texts, so prose gets most of the mind-share.

Q: What’s it like living in Florida? Do you have a Florida Man story you’d like to share?

A: If you live in Florida, you also have county-level Florida Men, and Brevard County has some especially thick examples. One thing I have noticed is most Florida Man stories involve native-born Floridians, rather than transplants. I’m planning to relocate to Denver to be closer to my grandcats and to have four seasons.

Q: How would you describe your own writing? Do you have a work in progress?

A; I have a science fiction novel in edits (Pandora’s Children), a Martyrs sequel about half complete, and four or five other projects in various stages of completion. I’m not counting short stories which get done pretty fast. I have the luxury of being able to write whatever I want to, which means it never really gets boring. I try to write a certain quota of words per day, but it isn’t tied to a specific project. If I’m blocked on one project I just switch to one that isn’t and things progress. The mix in genres makes it difficult to build a reader base, but that isn’t existential for me. My goal is to spend most of my time writing, as that is what creates intellectual property. The other elements are important for various reasons but do not contribute to that goal.

Q: Please tell us about your pets. I believe you have a dog, or more than one dog. Do you have cats also? Is it a peaceable kingdom at your house or are there occasional dust-ups among the animal population?

A: You heard of the uprising then? In years past, the kingdom was peacefully administered by a feline overlord (naturally), but when he passed it created a power vacuum which no canine can fill. So currently there is unrest, a scrambling for position. I await the return of the once and future monarch to restore a balance.

Q: Is there anything I forgot to ask that you’d especially like to mention?

A: Just to note that I’m a recovering Engineer/Mensan. Both things warranted a 12-Step program. One day at a time!

Can Wiggins Talks About Ghosts, Grits, and Writing

Let’s welcome Can Wiggins. Can and I came to know one another through mutual Facebook friends, and by having short stories published in some of the same anthologies. Can’s body of work includes “Haint,” in The Phantasmagorical Promenade, and “I’ve Lived in This Place a Long Time,” in Test Patterns, both from Oxygen Man Books. Her short story, “King o’ the Wood,” will be in the folk horror anthology, A Walk in a Darker Wood, coming this fall from Oxygen Man Books and edited by Duane Pesice, Sarah Walker, and Gordon B. White.

Q: What are you currently working on?

I have four – at this time – projects including a short story I’m sending out in a few days; I have a novella in the works, a dystopian after the end tale which is told from a girl’s viewpoint in a rural environment. There aren’t many Appalachian/Deep South post-apocalyptic tales so I thought it would be fun to get that going. And my partner and I are resurrecting a SF mythos *plus* a crime/noir series set in Georgia.

Q: You describe your home as “The Spooky Old House.” How old and spooky is it?

A: It’s a rambling three-story house built in the 1980s (I think) by a guy who never intended to live here and you can tell. Some things are just “off.” But I’m surrounded by greenery, including a side yard I call The Nursery as deer drop their fawns there every year. There are massive water oaks on a nice piece of land with a creek, deadfalls, possums, hawks, mushrooms, fairy rings, and wildlife. I’m very careful to not take that for granted or disturb it. I don’t cut the grass in the back yard, which is fenced in. This means I get to grow things there and in The Sacrificial Pit, on all three decks, and watch the deer and birds and butterflies come in and make themselves at home and I really like that. It’s spooky because I leave it alone and let animals live there. I let Nature take Her course. And when the Hallelujah Chorus (owls in the trees outside my windows) starts up at 2 in the morning? FUN. Plus I watch/read/write/discuss the weird, the odd, the scary with my partner on the regular and we also report to each other when we do have something weird or spooky happen. The things that go bump in the night? Those. I am cheek by jowl with those.

Q: Have you ever seen a ghost? If so, what was it like? If not, would you want to see one, or would you prefer ghosts not manifest when you’re around?

Not that I was or am aware of, although I have had “experiences” and have witnessed things not easily explained or understood. I’m writing a story about one such time, because that’s what I do. I would prefer ghosts do what they have to do.

Q: You live in Athens, Georgia, home of the University of Georgia, beloved alma mater of Blanton Trapnell, patriarch of the mad Trapnell family in my series of Southern Gothic thrillers. Have you always lived in Athens? What are its pluses and minuses?

I have lived in The Classic City for approximately 15 years, moving up from Atlanta where I lived even longer. I visited off and on when I still lived in Atlanta and Decatur, usually Thanksgivings, or to check out a restaurant. I’ll never forget the first time I ate at “The Last Resort” on Clayton. That was heaven on earth on a plate. “Five & 10” by Hugh Acheson was/is also a treasure but it’s a little pricey so it’s a twice-a-year treat.

A lot of people don’t realize that Athens is a great foodie destination. That’s the plus. The minus? Blind-drunk vomiting and crying out-of-control kids downtown during home football games. I don’t mean a few. I mean a few hundred, a few thousand.

Q: You eat well at the Spooky Old House, judging by the photos you share on Facebook. What’s your stance on grits? Salt and pepper only? Cheese? Hot sauce? There are people who put sugar on grits. Are you one of them?

Thanks for the love! I do eat grits but usually only in the colder months. I would never ruin grits with sugar or hot sauce. I butter my grits, I don’t use much salt or pepper but on weekends, I top them with bacon and a soft-boiled egg or chopped up scallions. I basically make a ramen bowl, but with grains.

Q: You have a number of side gigs, in addition to writing. You edit and proofread and you’re a scopist. Please tell our (very few) readers what that is and how you got into it.

A scopist is a proofreader/editor who edits transcripts of official proceedings, like those created by court reporters, for official hooha such as court hearings. They transcribe spoken word to written text. I worked for Reuters AP and that’s what I did, only for financial earnings LIVE calls of any company on the NYSE/NASDAQ, as well as the other stock markets around the world. I’m good with languages but – whew. I also did a couple of Congressional hearings after 9/11. I also worked for CNN and TBS and did this. Had a ball but it was incredibly stressful. You had to be 100-percent every second. I was tapped for those jobs by folks who had worked with me and thought I’d be a good fit.

Q: Who’s your favorite author, and why?

Uh-oh. This is similar to asking me which child is my favorite, isn’t it?. So, let me give you a handful of authors I always search out or those I always come back to.

First things first: I read a lot. I read books for a living one year and it was like entering the Kingdom of Heaven Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. So, here we go.

Lawrence Block, especially his short stories – his economy of language is a gift and he grabs you from the first sentence; Flannery O’Connor; Carson McCullers; Ursula K. LeGuin; Laurie Colwin – a very different genre and writer for me; China Mieville – a definite trip off the rails with his mixing of genres. Noir AND Science Fiction? I’m in!; Shirley Jackson – her short stories are still first in class, sparse and to the point; Kij Johnson – if you haven’t read “26 Monkeys or The Abyss,” do that as soon as you can; Elizabeth A. Lynn no longer writes but in the ‘80s she wrote a fantastic series titled “The Chronicles of Tornor,” which changed the way I looked at alternative worlds in science fiction and fantasy including POC and gay characters well before it was “cool.” Well worth finding/reading.

Now, I want to talk about some others. I also read and search out small presses and their authors. I enjoy Duane Pesice’s work quite a lot. I cut my teeth on the Golden Age of Science Fiction and it’s always fun and honestly comforting to see someone with that similar background roll out fresh takes on the nuts and bolts fiction that drives the machine. Jayaprakash Satyamurthy is another favorite. His short stories and poetry always make me see the world through a much wider lens. Who else? Craig L. Gidney is an incredible writer and, if I ruled the world, reading his work would be mandatory.  Nadia Bulkin’s stories are like pearls washed up on the beach, just laying out there for you to pick up.

There are so many folks to tap here, it’s crazy hard to keep up with everyone and everything. I mean, I have to stop but I don’t want to. You scratch this surface and you will find so much more underneath.

I will wrap this up by telling you that I like Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction but it’s his and Ann VanderMeer’s co-edited anthologies that are the real juggernauts worth investigating. They are doing great and important work – I can’t emphasize this enough – with compiled works from decades, even centuries ago, from around the world, and from other authors. I can’t say enough good things about this.

Brandon Barrows talks about cats, organized crime, and his new novel

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Brandon Barrows, whose exciting new novel, Burn Me Out, was released September 2 from Black Rose Writing. Here’s what he had to say:

Q. Tell us about Burn Me Out. How did you get the idea for writing it?
BURN ME OUT is actually a story I started back around 2012. I had the idea for the characters and the basic situation at least that far back. It started as a short story, but it didn’t work the way I wanted/needed it to. I put it away for a long time and when I finally went back to it, writing the novel was actually surprisingly easy. A lot changed in my life in the nearly six years the story sat fallow, much of it not great, and I think I needed those feelings and experiences to tell this story the way it needed to be told.
Q. Do you identify with the main character, Al Vacarro? If so, in what way. Tell us a little bit about him.
Very much. I think many people who read the book will, too. Al Vacarro is a man who’s made his own bed and has been lying in it for decades, and hating it most of the time. We all make decisions on a daily basis, but sometimes it’s years before the cumulative effect of those decisions are recognizable. We can’t go back and make those decisions again, and as a result, I think many of us feel trapped in the situations we’ve created for ourselves. Perhaps not as dramatically as Al Vacarro has trapped himself, but the feelings are the same.
Q. You write in a variety of genres, horror, detective fiction, and Westerns. As for the latter, you’re a fan of Louis L’Amour, who grew up in North Dakota in the final days of the American frontier. He used stories told to him by his older relatives as background in writing his many novels. How did you research Burn Me Out? Unless we’re very much mistaken you don’t have personal knowledge of what it’s like to be a member of an organized crime family, so how did you make Al and his associates seem believable?
Well, to be perfectly honest, I can’t say I did any research at all. I purposely left much of the setting vague so that it could seem to take place most anywhere. That aside,  I think most people fit into certain archetypes regardless of what they do for a living, and I really don’t think the average organized crime syndicate is that different from your average workplace in terms of the personalities you’ll meet. I didn’t directly base any of the characters on any specific people,  but all of the personalities in the Castella organization are personality types you’ll find just about anywhere. How those aspects of their personalities are expressed may vary, depending on the situation, but as I said, I believe people are people.
Q. What is one thing you hope readers will take away from Burn Me Out?
That there’s always a way forward. It may not be the way forward you’d pick in an ideal world, but we always have a choice.
Q. You read a lot of books. By that we mean a staggering amount of books, more than seems humanly possible. How many books a month would you say you read? Have you always been a voracious reader?
Strictly prose, I read an average of 25-30 books a month. I also read a lot of manga, and if you take tankōbon (individual manga volumes) into account, as well, it’s at least double that.
Q. Who’s your favorite author, and why?
That answer will change over time, of course, but for the last six or seven years, at least, it’s been Gil Brewer. The majority of his career is largely compacted into less than a decade, but he was of the first generation of paperback original authors and an absolute giant of noir. From 1951 to 1960, he wrote about thirty novels and hundreds of short stories, and they cover just about every aspect of crime and mystery fiction that I love. His characters struggle with themselves and the problems they’ve (usually) created for themselves and they rarely have happy endings, but even knowing they’re doomed, they don’t give up or give in. They’re not good people, usually, but they’re very human. That’s something I tried very hard to do with BURN ME OUT. 
Q. Tell us about your cats.
They’re monsters, but they’re my monsters. Flip is a cranky old man. Rosco is a gentle giant who occasionally, inexplicably, goes on misbehavior jags, like eating all my plants or stealing a random loaf of bread. Mochi is an adorable little squishy ball of sweetness who has more energy than any other cat I’ve ever known.

An Old Friend

Recently I was happy to find that The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers is available on Kindle.

I first came across it years ago, when I was vacationing with my parents in Maine. It was in a cardboard box full of old paperbacks that a lady was selling at a yard sale, two books for fifty cents. The pages were yellow and the cover was torn, but I liked the looks of the cover art so I bought it, along with a paperback about a woman who was turned into a log through black magic.

I kid you not.

The woman-into-log book  had a terrific cover — men with flashlights in a swamp, recoiling from the hideous sight of the wrinkled, leering log — but the narrative wasn’t very good. I read it through then  left it behind at the cabin where we were staying. The other book I bought at the yard sale that day I kept for years, reading it and re-reading it until it fell apart.

It’s that good. I can think of only a handful of books that made that kind of impression on me.

The Red Right Hand is a masterpiece, IMO. Joel Townsley Rogers wrote many short stories for pulp magazines, none of them particularly memorable, as far as I can tell. He also wrote four novels. The Red Right Hand is by far the best of the lot.

What distinguishes it from other mystery novels of  the World War II era is its stream-of-consciousness, almost hallucinogenic quality. Events unroll not smoothly — A happened, then B, then C and so on until the murder is solved —  but by glimpses. Objects appear in the dark, to be illuminated for a split-second before disappearing.  There’s a Panama hat, and a stone wall covered with ancient, warty vines of poison ivy. There’s a bread knife and a nineteen-year-old woman from a little Pennsylvania town who agrees to marry a handsome, self-assured Oklahoma oilman. There’s a tape-recording machine in the kitchen of a professor’s house and a wristwatch with a second hand. There’s a surgeon, or someone claiming to be a surgeon, driving through Vermont on his way to New York City after his patient died on the operating table. There’s a shopping list and a sink filled with dirty dishes and strawberries which have rotted and turned to black mush. There’s all this and more, some important clues, some meaningless. Most of all there’s a missing right hand.

I’ve always loved unreliable narrators and Harry N. Riddle, M.D. is highly unreliable. While driving a borrowed car which breaks down on a narrow dirt road in rural Vermont, he either stumbles onto a seemingly impossible scenario, or he’s lying. All signs point to lying. There’s something about young Dr. Riddle that’s highly suspicious. Either he’s having an unusually unlucky time of it, his patient dead, his surgery implements gone missing from the trunk of his borrowed car, or he’s a killer.

The great joy of The Red Right hand is its language. It flows like music, with a cadence that’s haunting and lovely.  The point isn’t to solve the mystery, although it is solved, by the end, but to sit back and enjoy the work of a master at the top of his game.

You won’t be disappointed.

World’s Best Shrimp Curry

Can you spare a few minutes to hear about shrimp curry? In the spirit of food evangelism I want to share a fantastic recipe with you, my friends and fellow eaters of food. It’s easy to prepare yet it tastes like something you’d find on the menu in a gourmet restaurant. Honest, it’s really, really good.

Here’s how to make the world’s best shrimp curry:

Ingredients:

One pound of cooked and peeled shrimp. Don’t be chintzy; buy the big ones, the ones that cost one dollar each. Trust me, they’re worth it. Don’t forget to remove the tails!

2 tablespoons peanut oil

1/2 sweet onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, chopped (I detest peeling and chopping garlic, but you gotta do what you gotta do, am I right?)

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1-1/2 teaspoons ground tumeric (Add more if you want. I do. I love how tumeric gives a smoky, subtle flavor to food)

1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon red chili powder

1 tablespoon curry powder (Or more than 1 tablespoon, Buy the good stuff. Really pile it on. Curry powder is magical)

1  (14.5-oz.) can chopped tomatoes (I use the kind with peppers added)

1 (14-oz.) can coconut milk

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons chopped, fresh cilantro (Only if you like cilantro. If you think it tastes like soap, as some people do, bypass it)

Directions:

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat and cook the onion until it’s translucent, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool a couple of minutes. Add spices and stir over low heat. Add the tomatoes and coconut milk. Add salt and pepper. Stir in the shrimp and cilantro. Cook 1 minute before serving over jasmine rice or basmati rice, or whatever kind of rice you like.

Enjoy!  The original version of this recipe comes from Allrecipes.com

In other news, my next book, Black Willows, is available for preorder NOW! It’ll be free on Amazon Prime! It’s another wild ride for the terrible Trapnells, those crazy rich siblings from the swamps of Georgia.

Amazon Kindle – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08DH43KX7

Next week I’ll be talking about one of my favorite books, The Red Right Hand, by Joel Townsley Rogers. If you like mysteries you’ll love this.

I’m back!

It’s been over a year since my last blog post. I wrote one post and then… crickets. Utter, arctic silence. There’s no excuse. It was sheer laziness on my part. I’m a bad, bad blogger. I’ll try and do better. Cross my heart and hope to die. Stick a needle in my eye.

While I’m a lazy blogger I’m not a lazy writer. There’s a new book coming out in October, the second in the series of Trapnell thrillers from the fine folks at Black Rose Writing. Black Willows is the title and it features the continuing adventures of the terrible Trapnell family. The Trapnells are not nice people, not by any of the usual standards of determining what is and isn’t nice, but they’re never boring and they’re hilariously funny. I love them and I hope you will too.

Stay tuned for more. I faithfully promise to post at least once a week.