Tuesday, August 15, 2017

40 Years Later. The King's Best Songs.


I can't believe Elvis died 40 years ago. When we first heard the news, my mom and I sat together on the stairs near the living room and cried. My dad's gentle "You still have me" not enough to comfort. Even now, all that matters to me is his music. I don't give a shit about anything else. Each time I hear his voice, he tells me "I love you." I could never ask more of an entertainer. Or of anyone else.

Elvis recorded 711 songs in the studio. They've also released hundreds of his live cuts and alternate takes. Here's my list of his best 40 songs in chronological order with minor annotations. These aren't necessarily my favorites. Some are. That would've taken a completely different approach. You don't have to be a dedicated fan to enjoy these treasures. They're revolutionary and timeless. Sift through the crappy '60s soundtracks and the maudlin country of his latter years and you'll find pure gold.

1. That's All Right (7/54) - The Big Bang. As soon as Elvis, Scotty, and Bill jump on this vintage blues track by Arthur Crudup in tiny Sun Studios under the guidance of rock-n-roll founding father Sam Phillips, music and culture are never the same. Also, check out the '68 Comeback performance and his live rendition from August 1970. Two completely different, yet equally remarkable, treatments. The first of three Elvis songs that inspired me to pick up the guitar.

2. Blue Moon of Kentucky (7/54) - The "b" side to "That's All Right." Every bit as riveting and controversial. Audiences didn't know what to think of Elvis' rhythm and blues adaptation of this Bill Monroe country and western classic. Neither did Bill Monroe until he finally conceded and re-recorded his own song in Elvis' style!

3. Good Rockin' Tonight (9/54) - Elvis kicks it into high gear on this second Sun single. The template for all rock songs to follow: driving lead guitar, howling vocals, sexy undertones.

4. Baby, Let's Play House (2/55) - This fourth Sun single finds Elvis exuding confidence and humor. Bill Black slaps the bass while Elvis' hiccuping underscores another sexual romp.

5. Mystery Train (7/55) - The haunting melody and Scotty Moore's churning guitar riff reflect Elvis' longing to conquer the road and subsequently the nation. Fittingly, this was his final single at Sun.

6. Heartbreak Hotel (1/56) - Nobody, including Sam Phillips, thought this choice for Elvis' first national release through RCA would score big. His introduction to the world with this solitary tale of death by suicide shocked audiences and inspired a couple of fabulous Brits to later pen "A Day in the Life" as a musical nod to the King. Paul McCartney voted for this as the greatest rock song of all-time.

7. Blue Suede Shoes (1/56) - Although Carl Perkins scored the big hit on the national charts with his original countrified version, Elvis amps up the tempo and fun in this wild rocker. Scotty Moore's lightning guitar breaks stand as some of the best he ever recorded.

8. My Baby Left Me (1/56) - Another Arthur Crudup blues song turned into straight rock-n-roll with a rumbling drum intro by D.J. Fontana. Elvis rips through the vocals like a caged tiger hungry to be free.

9. Lawdy Miss Clawdy (1/56) - Elvis' cover of Lloyd Price's rhythm and blues smash is both playful and taunting. This is the second song that inspired me to pick up the guitar, especially the '68 Comeback performance where Elvis pounds the guitar and roars the vocals in black leather reclaiming his rock-n-roll throne.

10. Hound Dog (7/56) - Although Big Mama Thornton scored the original hit with her slower blues version, Elvis was inspired by a Las Vegas nightclub act who re-arranged the song into a powerful rocker. The most dynamic of his '50s live performances, this is the song that caused the uproar, forcing television cameras to shoot him from the waist up. Scotty Moore's lead guitar electrifies.

11. Don't Be Cruel (7/56) - This straight-up rhythm and blues signifies a change in Elvis's musical career. Everything he'd released prior had been a melding of country and western with rhythm and blues into rock-n-roll (or rockabilly). This song buries Scotty Moore's guitar (except for that tuned down intro) under a delightful piano rhythm and supporting vocals by the Jordanaires. The first of many hits written for Elvis by musical genius Otis Blackwell. Issued as a double "a" side with "Hound Dog" and spent 11 weeks at #1 on the pop charts.

12. All Shook Up (1/57) - This follow-up Blackwell-penned smash is equally catchy rhythm and blues with a softer guitar and dominant piano. Inspired Paul McCartney to write "She Loves You."

13. One Night (2/57) - Elvis returns to full force playing lead guitar on this bluesy rocker. The modified lyrics downplay the sexuality but Elvis' performance does not. The third song that inspired me to pick up the guitar, especially his '68 Comeback performance.

14. Jailhouse Rock (4/57) - Probably the most recognizable song of Elvis' career thanks to an early incarnation of the music video in the hit movie. The power chords and crashing drums elevate Elvis' raunchy vocals into the heaviest rock song of his career.

15. Stuck on You (3/60) - Elvis hit big with this first post-army single thanks to an Otis Blackwell rhythm and blues number keeping in line with "Don't Be Cruel" and "All Shook Up." Elvis displays a maturity to his playfulness but remains able to unleash fury each time he belts the chorus.

16. It Feels So Right (3/60) - This haunting blues appears on Elvis Is Back, his first and best album after his return from the army. Elvis drives the rhythm guitar in his classic style, letting loose with the vocals in a desperate cry for sexual consummation.

17. Like a Baby (4/60) - Another bluesy rocker off Elvis Is Back, Elvis tears into the soulful lyrics with equal parts anger and defeat. The evocative background vocals by the Jordanaires echo Elvis' call of self-pity and misery.

18. Reconsider Baby (4/60) - This best blues song of Elvis' career includes an incredible sax solo by Boots Randolph, the first on an Elvis record. The defiant sexual swagger of Elvis' vocals is highlighted by his pounding rhythm guitar and catcalls.

19. Little Sister (6/61) - One of the few rockers by Elvis to feature distortion on lead guitar, played by country ax-man Hank Garland with grace and tornadic force. The catchy melody and youthful adoration make this one of the finest performances of Elvis' career.

20. His Latest Flame (6/61) - A lighter rhythm and blues song in the spirit of Otis Blackwell's hits featuring a rockabilly Bo Diddley beat and softer, poignant vocals. Shared the double "a" side with "Little Sister" and soared up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

21. Devil in Disguise (5/63) - Bright guitar licks and shifting tempos make this Elvis' most enjoyable hit right before the British Invasion. Elvis undersells the vocals on the verses only to hit with sheer bluster each time he roars through the chorus.

22. It Hurts Me (1/64) - The best track cut while Elvis was lost in Hollywood. This power ballad co-written by Charlie Daniels gave Elvis the freedom to show off his maturing vocals and fight for the respect he'd lost in the industry.

23. Guitar Man/What I'd Say (Uncut Master) (9/67) - One of the best stories of Elvis' recording career is how his entourage snatched country songwriter Jerry Reed off his fishing boat to replicate the cherry picking guitar riff heard on his demo for Elvis' take because the Nashville studio musicians couldn't nail it. This snappy travelogue about a wandering musician is Elvis' "Johnny B. Goode" and opens the door to his inevitable comeback from the nightmare that was Hollywood. Find the uncut version to hear Elvis launch into an improvised rendition of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" with complete lack of restraint and total exhilaration.

24. Big Boss Man (9/67) - Jerry Reed also plays lead guitar on this rocking blues hit that helps reinvent the rebellious Elvis for modern audiences. His raw, confident vocals are countered by a shrieking harmonica and sax. With a crisp and wild funk unknown to country music at the time, this precursor to what will eventually be known as Elvis' Nashville Sound is unlike anything else he recorded.

25. If I Can Dream (6/68) - The best vocal performance of Elvis' entire career. Perhaps the most passionate one I've ever heard on record. Elvis sings for civil rights in one of only a handful of his politically charged anthems. Legend has it that he collapsed into the fetal position on the studio floor in tears after the master take. He'd finally escaped the shackles of Hollywood.

26. Wearin' That Loved on Look (1/69) - This powerful rocker about betrayal opens From Elvis in Memphis, the second best album of his post-army career. Elvis' raw vocals are fueled by a funky lead guitar, both reckless and raunchy like the rock-n-roll of his youth.

27. In the Ghetto (1/69) - Another political song, this time from the famed Memphis sessions with Chips Moman at the helm of the American Sound Studios. Give the undubbed version a listen to hear how beautiful the rhythm guitar sounds accompanying Elvis' tender, yet dramatic, vocals. A poignant saga at a volatile time in our nation's history.

28. Suspicious Minds (1/69) - Elvis returned to the top of the pop charts for the first time in seven years with this modern rock song about mistrust between lovers. Elvis fuses rock, country, and rhythm and blues into his own brand of soul. Definitely the best of his non-'50s songs, this became the centerpiece of his live show for the remainder of his career. Check out his legendary performance in the rockumentary Elvis That's the Way It Is.

29. Stranger in My Own Hometown (2/69) - Supported by legendary studio guitarist Reggie Young, Elvis launches into this inspirational blues number about a hero who's lost his way. The relentless chorus and self-deprecating humor highlight Elvis' awareness of how he disappeared from the music scene while making disappointing trash in Hollywood.

30. Power of My Love (2/69) - Another excellent cut from the American Sound Studios, Elvis's sexual vocal abandon is equalled by more powerful bluesy guitar by Reggie Young. Elvis' vocals on this underrated modern rock hit are energized and impassioned.

31. Kentucky Rain (2/69) - The final song from the American Sound Studios to make my cut, Elvis takes this Eddie Rabbit-penned country song into new territory as a soulful rocker with dramatic tempo shifts and a pounding piano by then unknown Ronnie Milsap.

32. Polk Salad Annie (Live) (2/70) - The best live rock song of Elvis' career. I prefer the Elvis That's the Way It Is version for its earth-shaking false ending and outro, but the infectious bass romp in Madison Square Garden makes for raucous and compelling soul as only Elvis can deliver.

33. An American Trilogy (Live) (2/72) - The third political entry in my list, this medley of spiritual songs reflect how Elvis embraced America with all its glory and imperfections. His vocals soar to operatic heights as they often did in the '70s. The dramatic orchestration and powerful momentum shifts make this Elvis' unmatched showstopper.

34. Separate Ways (3/72) - The mournful longing of Elvis' vocals and melodic lead piano accent the most mature offering of Elvis' latter career. With divorce looming, Elvis reaches out to his beloved wife and innocent child in a chilling ballad of loss and despair.

35. Burning Love (3/72) - One of his last rockers. Possibly his best. A throwback to the '50s infused with chord changes inspired by Creedence Clearwater Revival. The churning guitar riff and swampy Southern-rock catapult Elvis' soulful vocals into a passionate hymn.

36. Always on My Mind (Alternate Master) (3/72) - Issued as a double "a" side with "Separate Ways," another solitary ballad co-written for Elvis by "Suspicious Minds" creator Mark James. The alternate master is hard to locate but worth a listen for Ronnie Tutt's rolling drum breaks.

37. My Boy (12/73) - An overlooked gem from his '70s catalog, this evocative tale of caution and doubt offers tempo shifts unique to many of Elvis' most endearing adult ballads. Recorded at the famous Stax Studios in Memphis, Elvis reaches a new pinnacle of country and soul with this tearjerker.

38. Promised Land (12/73) - Elvis wouldn't cover a song if he couldn't add to the original, and he doesn't disappoint with this Chuck Berry rock-n-roll masterpiece. James Burton's leads are the best of his tenure with Elvis. The song drives wild into rhythmic frenzy with thumping bass, heavy drums, and striking piano. Also cut at Stax, Elvis rarely had as much fun rocking out this late in his career.

39. For the Heart (2/76) - Dennis Linde, writer of "Burning Love," penned this inspired country tune for Elvis who recorded it as part of his famed Jungle Room sessions in the den at Graceland. If you listen to the countless alternate takes, you'll see how much fun Elvis had with songs he admired despite the addiction and despair that ravaged his final years. A vigorous rocker with swinging background vocals provided by gospel quartet, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps.

40. Way Down (10/76) - This final hit during Elvis' lifetime is beyond magical. Elvis ratchets up the energy in what becomes almost a remake of "Burning Love" in style and passion. J.D. Sumner again hits those famous low notes as Elvis finds his love and passion in unrivaled soulful depths.

Bonus Track
A Little Less Conversation (JXL Remix) (2002/Original Recording 6/68) - This incredible remix launched Elvis into the 21st century after appearing in a commercial during the World Cup and in the box office smash Ocean's 11. The groovy guitar and gritty vocals trace back to the '68 Comeback Special, and JXL compliments Elvis with a bright energy and timeless sound for a new generation of music lovers.

This list was next to impossible to create. Elvis gave us so much to choose from. I didn't pick many ballads because I think the rockers belong. Elvis was the King of Rock-n-Roll for a reason. Many people forget, or choose to ignore, that fact.

So many things have been said about Elvis, but my favorite quote comes from John Lennon (I'm paraphrasing slightly here): "Elvis was my religion."

I still believe in him. Hope you find something worth listening to. Hope the world continues to do so long after we've all left the building.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Why I Love Wonder Woman



Because she kicks ass.

Because she has integrity.

Because she loves.

Because of her innocence.

Because she makes me smile.

Because I never thought for a single moment that she couldn't accomplish what she set out to do.

Because I believe in heroes.

Because I enjoyed watching her kick the shit out of the bad guys.

Because I never questioned whether or not she could do it.

Because she was a role model for my wife when Lynda Carter created the role.

Because Gal Gadot is one for my daughter now.

Because Gal Gadot was five months pregnant when she filmed the movie. (Are you fucking kidding me!)

Because of all the posts I've seen on social media, especially by my former female students, praising her greatness.

Because she inspires.

Because she empowers.

Because she listens.

Because she's a fierce warrior.

Because she takes all the fire for the soldiers at they cross No-Man's Land during the siege of Veld.

Because she's the God Killer.

Because she brings hope to the current DC Comics Cinematic Universe, which sucks without her. (Where are you Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton?)

Because of how she sees snow for the first time.

Because "Really, specs? And suddenly she's not the most beautiful woman you've ever seen?"

Because she believes in us.

Because our world needs her.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Drago Goes to the Movies or How I Learned to Love Writing Horror Stories (Pt. 1)

Why I Write Horror (Pt. 1)

This is the first in a series of entries about what inspired me to write horror stories. I've started with movies as they've always been an integral part of who I am as an artist. My first ambition was to be a filmmaker. As children, my younger brother and I would spend hours pretending our bedroom was a movie studio. We'd develop scripts and act at our stories as if the cameras were rolling. Those are some of the finest memories I have of my childhood. You'll notice a concentration of movies in the early 80s. This is when I first started writing with intent and absorbed everything I could as an artist. I kept this list to ten. It isn't intended to be a reckoning of the scariest or the best horror movies ever made. Not even close. It's only a compilation of what influenced me at various moments in my life.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
The first of a handful of scary movies I watched on Saturday mornings while growing up in NYC. This film was really my first introduction to the classics: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man. It might surprise you to know that the character who resonated with me the most at the time was the Wolf Man. Lon Chaney Jr.'s portrayal of a disconsolate, misunderstood villain incited my early interest in monsters and my portrait of compassion for those less fortunate. He's the reason I give my heroes flaws. We're compelled to shoulder those who are imperfect.

The Blob (1958)
Clearly, no movie has ever frightened me more in my entire life than The Blob. I shudder even now when I picture that mournful old man digging around in the molten meteor as the film opens. The power to consume is frightening. I have a dread of being eaten alive. Many of the villains I create in my stories are the Blob, often in human form.  

Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1972)
My horror stories include their fair share of science fiction. Godzilla as a metaphor for nuclear destruction; the Smog Monster as the embodiment of human corruption and waste. Even as a child I understood these concepts. They scared the shit out of me. Still do. I love cheering for monsters. Godzilla was my ultimate childhood hero.


The Shining (1980)
The first horror movie that gave me pause as an artist. This was before I read the novel. I now understand the film to be something completely different than what Stephen King wrote. Stanley Kubrick used only the title of the source material and the character names. Nothing else is the same. I love both. I watched this movie dozens of times on bootlegged HBO and VHS. It made me start thinking about how characters evolve, interact. The vulnerability of children. The destructive force of humanity. The power of love and thought. I embrace all these themes in my writing. It forced me to understand how films tell stories with camera shots and editing. After seeing this movie, I wanted that authorship and control.


An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Another film watched endlessly on HBO and VHS. Looking back, the movie reminds me more of Dracula than anything else. The mystery of the moor, the insidious locals, the haunting zombies, the graphic violence all quenched my thirst for everything graphic. I appreciated the understated humor. The special effects and rhythmic chords of "Bad Moon Rising" during the initial transformation sequence were enough to captivate my youthful vigor.  A big influence on the early horror stories I crafted with pen and paper in my bedroom after dark.

Silent Rage (1982)
This critical and box office failure retells the Frankenstein story. I loved it. I often wonder if my Sheriff Brad Gleason is the reincarnation of this Chuck Norris character, but without the martial arts expertise. I'm often impressed with the subtle presence of science fiction in horror. The medical lab and genetic modifications are in Queensboro. Like the Wolf Man, I have pity on the monster, a mentally ill patient who violently murders members of his family. I appreciate how the film blurs the lines of good and evil and punches home the notion that evil can never be stopped. It's why I enjoy placing cliffhangers at the ends of chapters and entire novels.

Poltergeist (1982)
Probably my all-time favorite horror movie. Spielberg doesn't get credit for directing, but his signature's all over this nail-biter. My mom lost a baby girl a few short months after this release. In some ways, I always connected her loss with the little girl who gets taken in Poltergeist and equated the terror and heartfelt anger of JoBeth Williams with all the pain my mom endured. This film infuses everything I've ever written.

The Fly (1986)
Jeff Goldblum's best role. My heart breaks for him when that little fly gets caught in the pod. His decay and futile attempts to resist the transformation only serve to increase my empathy. By this time, I was reading and writing horror at a rate I've never equalled. The Fly fed my appetite for the grotesque while massaging my compassion for the diseased. The special effects of Brundlefly impress me even today. The tagline "Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid." could be the best ever.

Event Horizon (1997)
After a lull in writing once I graduated college, I had a short run publishing short stories again in the late 90s. This film reinvigorated my passion for horror while feeding my literary stroke for more science fiction. The mysteries of the universe and the isolation of deep space create an intriguing landscape for this disturbing film and my creative output. I visit its domain in my latest novel Winter where villain Amanda Simmons attempts to build a bridge through space-time and across parallel dimensions.

Super 8 (2011)
This movie was Stranger Things before Stranger Things ever happened. It re-awakened my soul to everything I did and wrote while growing up at the dawn of the 80s. Super 8 is directly responsible for my Crow Creek series. The film explores the relationship between father and son and exposes the challenges of dealing with loss. I watched not only with a nostalgic yearning for my childhood but also with the hope and longing for what the future held for my writing. Since its release, I've written five novels, six short stories, and two plays. The second most prolific run of my career.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Winter Images

Winter is here.

I thought it would be cool to compile a few images I found online that reflect what my new novel Winter is about and/or where I got my ideas. My friend, author Chad Kultgen, told me it shouldn't matter how many books I sell because the worlds I create still exist. I hope you love the Crow Creek universe as much as I do. I've been on this journey for three years now. There will always be more stories here. These photos are in no particular order.

Mushroom Cloud

I'm fascinated with nuclear bombs. The atomic bomb drills we had when I was a kid growing up in NYC left an impression. So did those film strips that showed the nuclear tests. My favorite part in Indiana Jones 4 is when the bomb erupts at the beginning (and yes, he hides in the refrigerator, who the fuck cares?). I love that shit. There's something monumental about destruction. Maybe that's why The Trashcan Man seems so fucking bad-ass in Stephen King's epic novel The Stand. I loved Ozzy's Ultimate Sin album. "Thank God for the Bomb." Winter starts with nuclear bombs. I based them on what happened in Goldsboro, NC, in the early 60s.

Solar Flare

The power of the universe is mind-blowing. I'm sad when I don't see the sun. Our dependency on our home star is something none of us really thinks about. I do. Every day. How incredible would it be to harness that power? So, of course, I did. And I put it in the hands of the most despicable of villains, Amanda Simmons. Remember her? If not, you need to brush up on your Queensboro. She screwed over the Red Queen and toppled Entech. Even though Sheriff Brad and his band of heroes think they did. We know better. In Winter, she sets off a Solar Pulse that fucks up everything.

Bags of Blood

When I wrote Queensboro, I wanted to include vampires. My last name is Drago, for fuck's sake. Yes, we share something with Dracula. It might only be our family crest, who knows? Could be more. But it's not nothing. I also knew I didn't want to recreate anything that's already been done. Bram Stoker's original novel, 'Salem's Lot, Robert McCammon's They Thirst. That's about all we really need for vampire tales, right? So I tied my blood drainers into a social commentary about the health care industry and hooked everyone on a drug that's fueled by blood. That shit comes back in Winter.

Zombie Hands

As a horror writer, I'd be stupid if I didn't throw myself into the zombie scene. Flesh eaters are fun no matter how you look at them. Shaun of the Dead is my favorite zombie film. I kinda feel like The Walking Dead has jumped the shark, but we'll see what Negan has to offer this season (I love Jeffrey Dean Morgan from his Supernatural days). Like my vampires, my zombies are also original. They're a sick side effect of Amanda Simmons' solar mayhem in Winter.

Dragons

Crow Creek. Pastor Aken. The Cavalli. Need I say more? If you have no idea what the fuck I'm talking about, how did you make it to Winter? You should start at the beginning of the series!

Lightning

I'm deathly afraid of lightning. It's my biggest phobia. During a thunderstorm, I'll hide from windows. I'm not proud. Just look at the fucking picture. Compare it to the trees. It gives incredible perspective. In Winter, you'll meet Frank Edwards (no relation to the senator from Chapel Hill who fucked around behind his dying wife's back). He's a truck driver struck by lightning while out on the road. He's away from home when the Solar Pulse hits. He's left his wife alone. She's a former Entech employee dying from ecGen2 withdrawal (that's the Red Queen's drug, but if you're with me this far, you know that!). Not good. Frank soon learns "lightnin gits you once, usually gits you again."

JFK

Politicians piss me off. JFK's no exception. The idea that a single family could hold power in America for generations is bullshit. We should also have term limits on all elected officials and judges (when not elected). That's your rigged system right there. Anyhow, those nuclear bombs dropped at the beginning of Winter are meant for JFK. Things don't go as planned, so the bombs make a comeback in the current day.

Maggots

Like my idol Stephen King, I'll go for the gross out when I need to. In Queensboro, you could tell folks were hooked on the Red Queen's death drug if they had maggots squirming under their skin. Kind of how flies are a precursor to dragons in Crow Creek. Both the maggots and the flies return in Winter. Keeps you on the lookout for the monsters they portend.

Big Ugly Fat Fucker


The B-52 Stratofortress that dropped the nuclear bombs over Winter, NC (and Goldsboro). Sometimes, nature isn't the only thing to impress. Look at that fucking machine. Human beings are quite remarkable when they wanna be.

Rootwork

Crow Creek wouldn't be Crow Creek without Black Jesus. He meets up with Sheriff Brad's wife Shana and together they fight zombies and hunt dragons while attempting to save the world from Amanda Simmons. Their narrative line could be my favorite of all that happens in Winter. It's definitely the most action-packed. I can't remember a time as an author when I've loved a character more than Black Jesus. He's also a fan favorite.

1949 Ford

Black Jesus has an ancestor who survives the nuclear bomb detonations. His name's Roosevelt Goods. He's a farmer (and part-time trucker) who befriends Frank Edwards after the lightning strike. There's plenty of Stephen King influence in this character and plot line. I don't want to spoil the story, but Rosie's 1949 Ford factors prominently in the telling. Sometimes they come back.

The Black Cat Trail

I love playing, singing, and listening to blues music, so I wanted to give Winter some soul. I researched NC musicians and found out about Carolina Slim. After the bombs fall, Rosie's old pickup truck will only play Carolina Slim's song, "The Black Cat Trail." I needed an omen and his lyrics didn't disappoint. I avoid black cats like lightning. I suggest you do the same.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Winter - Chapter One



Here's an excerpt from my upcoming horror novel, Winter. Winter is the third book in my Crow Creek series and will be published through Gold Avenue Press in October. Preorders are  now available on my website at www.tsdrago.com/winter/ for only $10 with free shipping. Thank you!

Saturday, September 17, 1960

            Pastor Aken dragged the limp teenager out of the passenger seat of his blood-red Chevy Corvair. She didn’t make a sound. Her smoky eyes fluttered, but she kept quiet.
It was after midnight. He’d kept Bishop Lundby waiting for over two hours. The girl had been difficult to snatch. Not because she’d struggled. She’d stayed with her boyfriend in Braxton Park longer than her parents might’ve wanted, had they known of her whereabouts. But that didn’t matter. The pastor had considered interrupting their tryst and slitting the boyfriend’s throat (he despised his oily hair and faded motorcycle jacket) but didn’t. They’d need someone to blame for her disappearance.
The early-morning sliver of moon glimmered as he traveled with her across the empty parking lot. He glanced at a toppled oak tree. Several thick branches rested against the roof of the church, peeling away the weathered shingles. Muddy leaves tap-danced against the siding in the cool breeze. There were a dozen broken windows, and the gutters had partially dislodged. The remnants of Hurricane Donna.
Pastor Aken hated the bishop. Despised his entire congregation and Mount Olive Church. Would burn each and every member alive if he didn’t have to follow protocol. He’d spent the entire ride to Chasm County digging his fingernails into the steering wheel and talking himself out of driving back to Crow Creek. He could’ve finished the job in the root cellar under First Baptist. No one ever went down there. The place was dark and musty. Put a lock on the door, and they’d have no idea. He could’ve been fast asleep by now and dreaming of his own family, not satisfying someone else’s needs.
He had his sights on Pattie Lynn Briggs, Jake Riddle’s wife. She was just fine. Flowing red hair. Crystal blue eyes. Skin as fair as fresh snow. His chiseled Native American jawline and her Yorkshire complexion would produce bold, handsome progeny. And if her firefighter husband somehow died in the line of duty, all the better for the pastor and Crow Creek. Folks needed a little prodding now and again.
            The languid girl winced. He’d yanked on her blonde hair without realizing, curling the locks into his fist.
            “Just a while longer,” he told her.
She sighed but seemed comforted. He was confident she and her boyfriend had consumed enough Old Fitzgerald to put all of Holt County to sleep. Her father managed the flat yard in Queensboro for Southern Railways and probably had no idea she’d been nipping his supply. The freight companies knew how to grease their engineers, especially with Southern bourbon, and the softer taste of Old Fitzgerald had the local teenagers scrounging to imbibe. The pastor understood. Sneak off with a bottle of sour mash from your old man’s liquor cabinet, pocket a pack of Lucky Strikes from the corner store at Ninth and Mill—what juvenile could resist such carnal paradise?  Partly why he loved his own church as much as he did. Something about the company of sinners.
He wrenched her up the short set of wooden steps at the rear of the church. The doorway was unlit. Not surprising. Bishop Lundby dwelled in darkness. Pastor Aken preferred the spotlight. The perfect metaphor for their contrast. With any luck, this fourth and final girl would complete the bishop’s cycle, and the pastor would earn the right to sire his own flock and never return to Winter again. He’d serviced the state elders for more than a century, biding his time. His devotion had even included a murder of the Cavalli (an ancient order of knights) during World War II. While presiding over the Baptist church at Fort Bragg, he hunted the high-ranking officers until he’d located the right one. Flat-topped bastard never saw him coming. Drove the penknife squarely into his temple while he slept in his barracks. Didn’t spill a drop of blood.
Pastor Aken knocked. The door rattled on its hinges and squeaked open. A business of flies hovered about the musty sanctuary. The pastor swatted at them with his free hand.
The man slouching in the shadows wasn’t Bishop Lundby.
“McCrory?” the pastor shouted. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
The hunched furniture salesman licked his lips and pushed wire-rimmed glasses up the slope of his greasy nose. The pastor heard the crooked man sucking on candy. The scent of peppermint wafted in the humid air between them.
“Lundby told me you’d be coming.” His eyes widened. “With a girl.”
Pastor Aken stepped in front of the subdued teenager and shoved McCrory inside the church. He released the blonde’s hair and grabbed her wrists as he hurried inside with her and closed the door.
The church was almost too dark. Too quiet. Pastor Aken kept his eyes on McCrory. He knew the runt wouldn’t hesitate to snatch the girl if the pastor dropped his guard even for a moment. Not because he would ever take a meal from the bishop. That was out of the question. He’d do things that were worse. Dirty things.
“She’s special,” McCrory hissed. “I can smell her from here.”
Pastor Aken puffed his chest. “Where’s Lundby?”
“Can I have her for a moment?” McCrory slid into a wooden pew and raised both palms, wheezing softly in the darkness and ignoring the pastor’s question. “I just wanna take off her shoes and sniff her feet. That’s all. I promise. Nothing more.”
The massive oak tree slapped the outside of the church, knocking loose a few window slivers. Pastor Aken jumped and narrowed his eyes.
“I’ll only ask you this one more time, McCrory. Where’s the bishop?”
McCrory dropped his shoulders.
“William Blount Air Force Base.”
The pastor scratched his pointy chin and waved slender fingertips at a fly buzzing his ear. “Near the coast?”
McCrory nodded. His eyes never left the slumping girl.
“Yes, Ethan. Bishop Lundby phoned my father’s shop yesterday and asked if I’d come wait for you. Keep an eye on your delivery till Monday. What was I supposed to say?”
Pastor Aken flickered, his skin melting. Thick black scales flashed. For a moment, he felt his wings pull at his shoulder blades, threatening to erupt.
“He expects me to leave her with you all weekend? After all the work I did collecting her?”
McCrory’s response was more of a grunt than anything else.
Pastor Aken grabbed him by the throat. The hunched man squealed.
“I owe your father, McCrory. He helped me with my first feed. He’s the only reason I don’t kill you right now. But, someday, after your father’s long gone, I’ll run Crow Creek. Then I’ll have you. You’ll slip up, and you’ll be mine. Mark my words.”
The pastor withdrew, tossing McCrory to the hardwood floor in front of the rotting pew. The slimy man scrambled on his knees toward the feeble girl.
“Her toes,” he begged. “Let me kiss them. Just once. Please! You have no idea how much I need—”
Pastor Aken kicked McCrory as hard as he could across the jaw, slicing open his translucent skin with the sharp edge of a polished Italian loafer. The wretched creature bounced off the back of the wooden pew and collapsed to the worn floorboards in a puddle of his own drool.
“As much as I’m sure you’d love that opportunity,” Pastor Aken shouted, twirling on his heels, “I have other plans for her now.”
And with that, he stormed toward the altar, towing the girl by his side. He thought she might’ve giggled but no longer cared. He would be finished with her directly. He was through playing second fiddle to the bishop. And to McCrory’s father. And to anyone else ignorant enough to get in his way. Crow Creek would be his now. And if the bishop wasn’t careful, so would Winter. The people needed him. Loved him. Wanted his leadership and spiritual guidance, especially at the start of a decade that promised to be as turbulent as any in recent memory.
He thought about the black hitchhiker who’d been lynched (misdirecting blame was easier with colored folks) on Route 119 after the last girl he’d collected for the bishop. Out near the new subdivision beside Braxton Lake. Since Martin Luther King’s appearance on the cover of TIME magazine, radical white Southerners jumped at every chance to hunt, innocent or not. A recipe for disaster. The pastor imagined the horrors that would define the nation by the end of the 1960s and smiled.
As he approached the altar, he scooped the girl in his arms and plopped her hard on top of the communion table. She stopped giggling and arched her back, dividing her pouty lips. Before she could speak, Pastor Aken drove his fingernails into her neck and tore open her throat. Blood sprayed the clean satin tablecloth. The girl tried to scream but only gurgled. She kicked her feet and tossed her arms, but the pastor snapped her neck with a quick flip of his wrists. She lay motionless. He ripped the lavender little-nothing dress away from her chest and opened his mouth, gnashing his teeth as he dipped into her ivory flesh.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Why I Wrote Winter

Last summer, I wrote the rough draft of Winter in about 10 weeks. At that point in my career, I'd signed contracts with Samhain Publishing to release the first three books in the Crow Creek series over a period of eight months. I was excited and couldn't crank out the pages fast enough. The first draft wrapped shy of 90,000 words (I've since trimmed some 5,000 off the total). If you've followed my career at all, you know that my deal with Samhain fell to shit. They downsized their company, threatened to close their doors, announced their resurrection, threatened to close again, and I don't have any idea where they stand now. They reverted my rights, however; so I restored Crow Creek and Queensboro with Gold Avenue Press and await the release of Winter. I've been out of the author game for 18 months, so trying to regenerate interest in my work has proved daunting.

Anyway, as the presidential election gained momentum last year, I watched the rise of the candidates and assumed Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton would win the nominations. I thought for sure we'd see a rematch of the 1992 election, only with different family representatives and a bigger, crazier billionaire as the third-party candidate (sorry Ross Perot, but the Donald trumps you). Things didn't turn out exactly as I expected (what the fuck happened, Jeb?), but I think the novel's premise still holds water. I have concerns about the concept of an American royal family and political nepotism. The Kennedys are probably the most recent example of an elite American dynasty, so I knew when I drafted the book that I wanted to connect the Kennedys with the absurdity of the current presidential election and my fictional Crow Creek universe.

Enter the Goldsboro bombs.

For those not up to speed, two Mark 39 nuclear warheads were accidentally dropped in rural North Carolina in the early 1960s. They didn't detonate. I can't recall exactly why I remembered hearing about those, but at some point, I posed the question to myself, what if those two bombs had been a failed attempt to assassinate JFK a few years before the real hit in Dallas? Further research told me that JFK toured North Carolina during his 1960 run (the first candidate since George Washington to do so, by the way) against then incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon. How perfect! I tweaked a few dates, combined some events, created a fictional mastermind, and presto - I had my conspiracy: kill Kennedy. The bombs go off and wipe out the entire town of Winter (yes, I couldn't resist the nuclear winter play on words - I'm a smart ass, remember?), save one farmer and his pickup truck and lazy old hound dog.

Flash forward fifty odd years and Amanda Simmons, the covert rascal who devastated the Red Queen in Queensboro, finds herself at the center of a new assassination attempt with her fingertips on the nuclear trigger. Sheriff Brad Gleason returns, so do his ex-wife Shana, shaman Black Jesus, my original breed of dragons, vampires, and zombies, familiar villains, new heroes, and plenty of jiggery-pokery to go around.

I hope you have as much fun reading this one as I did writing it. The action is nonstop; the emotions, a rollercoaster ride; and the twists and turns exactly what I hope you'll want from my series. I don't think I'll ever leave Crow Creek, honestly. The people and places have become my friends and neighbors. I see them in my dreams. Well, they haunt my nightmares.

If you'd like to read a couple of good books about the historical incidents, try The Goldsboro Broken Arrow and John F. Kennedy's North Carolina Campaign. They both helped me a great deal.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

How Will We Afford College?


My wife and I have no idea how we'll be able to afford to send our children to college. I imagine many parents have the same concern. Maybe a tuition fairy will reduce the costs or provide assistance? If not, we're fucked. Well, our children are.

Before you start giving me bullshit like we should've saved more money or minimized our debt, you should know we've done both. We've put as much money away for our children's education as we could possibly afford since each was born. Their 529 plans haven't exactly yielded the best results, but the money remains nonetheless. It barely scratches the surface of what we'll owe. And except for the 3% interest on our 15-year home loan, we have no debt. Our credit score floats around 850. Actually, I think this hurts us. We might have a better chance of being awarded financial aid if our credit was in the toilet.

Wanna tell me to work harder or earn more? Go fuck yourself. I've worked at least two jobs at the same time since I graduated high school 30 years ago. Work ethic isn't my problem, believe me. I have no more blood to drain or sweat to perspire. I've sacrificed more life as a working parent - missing ball games, recitals, etc. - than I ever should've. I could've seen my boy swing a bat or my girl kick a soccer ball; instead, I was teaching a class or running a rehearsal. Yes, we made the decision for my wife to be a stay-at-home mom. Should we be penalized for not wanting our children to be raised in daycare because that's the expected standard for our generation? I don't think so.

Look, I have a master's degree. I've taught for 25 years. I'm about maxed out at what this backwards-ass state is willing to pay me to teach kids. You wanna know what that is? Just north of 50K. That's all. What a joke! How many professionals with a master's who've given 25 years to the same career are only making 50K annually? It's pure bullshit. Finished laughing at me? Hope you choked.

Here's the kicker: my son's up first for college. He wants to go to film school at USC. He has good grades but doesn't play the "let's take as many advanced placement courses as possible so I can graduate at the top of my class" game. I hate that fucking game, as a teacher and as a parent. He takes the classes that mean something to his future. He's done the research to see exactly what courses a filmmaker needs. It's not AP Calculus, I assure you. I took that class in high school. Totally worthless.

USC costs 67K each year for out-of-state tuition. Remember how much I earn? Still laughing? It gets better. My wife and I completed the Expected Family Contribution online calculator to determine how much money colleges will expect us to pay out-of-pocket when our first child attends. We filled out an application and provided information about our income and assets. It's a simple formula. They expect us to pay a little over 12K each year. Okay. I accept that. We can do that. I work more than one job, to be fair.

But, wait a minute, USC costs 67K annually. Where does the rest of the money come from? I'm not a math teacher, but I think we'll need to come up with 55K each year. That's more than my base salary teaching high school! Will we get financial aid? I don't think we'll qualify. Not for that much. No way. And what about when my daughter goes to college? Guess what she wants to be? A plastic surgeon. Medical school! I don't even wanna think about those costs.

Yeah, I'm pissed. You know what I've learned? Hard work only pays off if you pick a career the public respects and values. If not, better hope you're born into a rich family or qualify for some serious financial assistance. Otherwise, you're fucked. Well, your children are.