Monday, December 28, 2015

Best Reads of 2015

I spent a lot of time writing this year. I finished Queensboro last winter, wrapped Winter in early August, and cranked out a couple of short stories this fall (my "Cat's Eye" won a contest!). The entire Crow Creek series will be released through Samhain Publishing over the next 13 months (a little shameless self-promotion shall not perish from the Earth).

I also read as much as possible, balancing the classics (I have Elmore Leonard, Jack Ketchum, and Neil Gaiman sitting on the shelf beside me) with contemporary works so I can stay current in my practice. Picking the best books (or the best of anything) is never easy, but I love lists, so I thought I'd throw my two cents into the year-end pot. Here's what I read and what I liked. Thank you to these wonderful authors for sharing their passion. My reviews are general so as not to give away any spoilers. I've cropped some of what I previously posted on Goodreads.

10. Those Who Are Left by Josh Stricklin
I found this through an Amazon recommendation, actually. When you order enough horror novels, they have an algorithm that suits your interests. Clever. This one is fast-paced and intense. Better than the ones Stephen King put his brand name on this year. Maybe this hasn't passed his desk yet. Could be too low-budget for him. It's apocalyptic but funny. The protagonist is endearing. The violence and horror are appropriately surreal. I hope the rest of the series is as much of a thrill ride.

9. Dust of the Dead by John Palisano
I met this fellow Samhain author at the World Horror Conference in Atlanta last spring. He's original and inspiring. I read this twist on the zombie apocalypse in a day. He does a believable job creating a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles without being mundane or cliche. He effectively blends suspense, horror, and dark comedy and leaves you gasping for more. This harrowing odyssey is a must read for all fans of the zombie genre.

8. Shutter by Courtney Alameda
I also met Alameda at the World Horror Conference. She's creative, dedicated to her craft, and brooding. Everything a horror writer should be. This young-adult ghost story is very engaging. It has the perfect blend of fantasy and reality. The descriptions are balanced evenly with the acton. The lead characters are strong and believable. Her ear for dialogue is spot on. It's creepy, cool, and funny at times. My teenage daughter read it in two days.

7. Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong
Not so much horror/comedy as satirical science fiction, David Wong continues to impress. His vision of the future is thoroughly frightening, especially his commentary on social media and our culture of dehumanization. An exciting and hilarious adventure, Futuristic Violence is stylistically superb. One can only wonder how soon his nightmare world will become all-too real.

6. The Cure by JG Faherty
I shared interview time on Zombiepalooza Radio with this Samhain author. He's intelligent and inspiring. The Cure is one of the scariest novels I've read in a long time. It's also one of the best. Faherty is a master at building characters. The reader can't escape the torture the protagonist endures. This powerful story of love, corruption, redemption, and loss is a mature read. I can't wait for his next.

5. Sarah of the Romani by Tom Calen
Quite different from his Pandemic Sequence, Tom Calen's found his voice in this suspenseful tale of witchcraft and murder. The two brothers crafted as contrasting protagonists are compelling. Calen creates a suspenseful tale of grisly murders while building a mythos that's sure to a launch another powerful horror series.  Part Lovecraft, part King - a novel you won't be able to put down.

4. The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker
One of the true masters of horror returns with the final, long-awaited tale of Pinhead and the Cenobites. This time, protagonist Harry D'Amour goes to hell to rescue his blind best friend. He's well-crafted and memorable. The powerful imagery creates a demonic world of sex and violence as only Barker can create. His writing is beautiful yet horrifying. After Peter Straub, he handles language and commands words better than anyone else in the field.

3. Finders Keepers by Stephen King
This book is vintage King. Brilliant story, amazing character development, and non-stop action. I devoured this book faster than any of his I've read in a long time. Enjoyed it so much more than Revival and Mr. Mercedes. I was happy to see King return to his roots in the final scene with the set up for the next book in the series.

2. Such a Dark Thing by Jess Peacock
An engaging, thoughtful essay about the theology of horror. Drives home the point that in a world created by God, God remains culpable for all things evil. Includes an excellent annotated bibliography that covers the best of vampires in pop culture. The writing is so brilliant and intellectual that I felt like I was captivated by a favorite college professor. Peacock takes his writing and his themes seriously. He's a committed and inspiring author.

1. Strange Animals by Chad Kultgen
I've enjoyed all five of Chad Kultgen's novels. He's my favorite author right now (and also the world's greatest squirrel photographer). This book cuts right to the heart of the pro-choice/pro-life debate by exposing the radical Christian right for what they are - corporate machines aimed at controlling women and denying freedom to all those with different ideologies. The narrative alternates seamlessly between the two main characters and builds momentum until their final confrontation. This book will haunt you. As always, Kultgen's work is aggressive and genuine.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Why We Need Star Wars

Use the Force.

I haven't seen the new Star Wars movie yet, so there won't be any spoilers here (not that there would be anyhow).  I have tickets for a Monday matinee, but I'm not sure I can wait until then.

I'm inspired by last night's episode of The Big Bang Theory.  I enjoyed their coverage of the new release, but one line gave me pause.  While three of the geeks await the show (Sheldon's in bed with his girlfriend finding another use for the force), they're joined by Will Wheaton, dressed in Star Trek grab and appropriately booed and hissed by the crowd.  Will tells our inept heroes something like, "Whether or not the movie is good won't make a difference when you wake up in the morning."  They nod and sigh in dejected acceptance.

I disagree.  We need Star Wars, and we need it to be good.  We need it to be the best fucking movie ever made.  It makes no difference whether or not you're a fan.  This is bigger than what George Lucas started in the 70s.  This is not just a cultural phenomenon.  This is how art shines.  How creativity and imagination take us to another level.  We're fed up.  We're frustrated.  We need hope.  We're desperate for light.  Star Wars gives us both.

I liken this to the arrival of The Beatles in 1964.  Kennedy's assassination, civil unrest, the brink of war in Vietnam; America torn apart at the seams.  The Fab Four descended like Gods (dare I say Jedi Knights?) from their jet airliner and swept us away.  I wasn't even born yet, and I'm hypnotized by the footage.  It doesn't matter whether or not you like their music.  (If you don't, you're fucked in the head.)  Look, I'm an Elvis fan, first and foremost, but this isn't about competition and rivalry.  Elvis opened the door for The Beatles.  That's not at question.  This is about basic human needs.  Love and belonging.  Self-transcendence.  About looking at the person sitting next to you in the theatre and knowing (without saying), we're here.  We've made it.  We're sharing this together.  It's fucking special.  It's important.  It's what makes life beautiful.  No matter what the hell is going on in the world, we have this.  Nobody can take this moment away.

Here's another example of my thesis.  I love the movie A Bronx Tale, but I question the part on the school bus when an angry Robert DeNiro asks his misguided son, "What did Mickey Mantle ever do for you?"  Mickey Mantle did so much.  He did everything!  He made so many people happy (even if you hate the Yankees!).  We care about our athletes and our sports teams for the same reason we love the movies.  They give us something to cheer for.

I saw Star Wars in 1977 with my older brother and one of his friends.  There was commotion in the parking lot.  A fender-bender, someone got cut off, not enough spaces.  I can't remember anymore.  It was New York City, though.  There's always somebody screaming at something there.  All I remember is being with my big brother.  I miss those days.  I wish I could see the new release with him (and my little brother).  We're a country apart now, but the Force is still strong in us.  I'll picture their smiles and hear their shouts when I see the Millennium Falcon and miss their grumbles at this generation's Darth Vader (while secretly loving him).  I'll wish for matching light sabers under the Christmas tree like we got when we were small.

But before that, I'll cry when I see those famous words light up the movie screen.  "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...."  I'll bawl like a fucking baby.  I need to.  We all do.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Life Is Beautiful!

A sweet rose.

I'm in the middle of a great run.  All in the last week or so, I signed a contract for a novel, accepted an offer to direct a play for a community theatre, worked out a deal to revise a film script, and won a writing contest.  I realize I'm not Stephen King or Steven Spielberg, but we have to take these things in stride.  There's only one Stephen King.  Only one Steven Spielberg.  The rest of us are playing catch-up.

I'm a late entry into the game, I think.  Although I've been writing and performing for as long as I can remember, at 46 years-old, this has been a bit of a break-through year for me.  I think two choices are most responsible for my good fortune.  I attended the World Horror Conference in Atlanta in May and auditioned for a role in a local production of Urinetown last summer.  Both of these events enabled me to see the world beyond my recliner.  The real world.  The one that's not on my television or in my iPhone.  I established relationships, connected with professional artists, and learned an invaluable lesson.  Life is too short not to appreciate beauty.

You might think Drago's gone crazy.  Fallen off his fucking rocker.  Maybe I have.  There's a lot of shit going on in the world.  I know it.  But, I also think it's very easy to fall into the trap of despair.  That's why I write horror.  It's easy.  Misery loves company, after all.  Simply put, I think the media dwells so much on the negative that it makes it convenient for all of us to do so.  The same is true with social media.  I make an effort to keep my posts positive; I don't always succeed, but I get so tired of reading the rants of those upset about one political issue or another that I can't force myself to join the conversation.  It's exhausting.

I choose to embrace beauty.  For every crazy lunatic plotting to kill and maim, there are thousands of others we never hear about struggling to do good.  To be good.  To elevate humanity.  These people come in all walks of life.  You know who I'm talking about.  There are the obvious ones.  The nurses, the teachers (fuck, yes, there are amazing teachers), social workers, firefighters, soldiers, etc.  The ones we always talk about every day.  But there are others.  The ones who'll let you merge lanes in traffic or give up their seats on a crowded plane or hand over their shopping carts when you have too much to carry.  I don't believe altruism starts with charity.  It's easy to give when you have something to give.  It's tough to give when you don't.  That's selfless.  I think it's called sacrifice.  It's beautiful.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm still as intolerant as ever.  I have no patience.  I'm completely neurotic.  Paranoid.  Frustrated.  Those personality traits will never go away.  I'm grateful my wife and children tolerate them.  But, at heart, I'm a hopeless romantic.  I try to do good things.  I search for beauty within nightmares.