Here’s Something That Ain’t Right

That Ain’t Right: Historical Accounts of the Miskatonic Valley is now available in print!

For the (currently) low, low price of “under $10” you can get your guide to the strange events that have happened along the northern coast of Massachusetts. This collection includes my own story “The Pull of the Sea”, which reveals the terrors that face even the dead in this haunted region.

Buy it from Amazon! You won’t be safe without it!


Bugs and The Loved One are in My Head

I don’t know how old I was when I started reading, but I’ve never stopped. As a little kid I had a small number of my own books, and I read them each many times over. As a teenager I reached the point where I had to be choosy about which ones to re-read, and in college I passed the point where I would ever lack for unread books.

Now, according to LibraryThing, I have 1,218 books that I haven’t read. (Three of them I bought just today.) Keep in mind that I also have a stack of books that LibraryThing won’t acknowledge. It has a feature for adding unknown books — which some wonderful person out there seems to have done for my mini-comic “Dope Fiends of the Zombie Cafe!” — but I am intensely lazy and haven’t entered them.

So with everything I have read and have yet to read, my reaction to the “List 15 Books That Will Always Stay With You” game on Facebook caused me to giggle like Robert Carlyle’s Rumpelstiltskin before staring uncomprehendingly at my life choices.

After a great deal of thought (I need something to do in all those work meetings) I’ve settled on two books that, while rarely in my thoughts, are always on my mind. They are works that didn’t influence me so much as they crystallized realizations I’d come to during that final transition to American adulthood — joining the workforce.

The Loved One
My first exposure to Evelyn Waugh’s critique of life and death in America came in a high school film class, where I saw the movie of it that starred Jonathon Winters and Jonathon Winters as the high and low-class mortician brothers. Then, what I got out of it was mostly just chuckles.

Reading the book as a young man, I noticed that it was about commerce — particularly it was about the subversion of art and culture through commerce. The main character, visiting from England, discovers that his uncle now dashes off paintings for use in movies. The woman he falls in love with works for a mortician for the elite, who has so aggrandized funerals that he has become the leader of a death cult. Meanwhile, the mortician’s brother makes a mockery of ritual with his bombastic pet cemetery.

For me, this book encapsulates my leeriness of motivations where money is involved. Not perhaps an earth-shattering revelation, but one that is expressed with wit and restrained chaos.

A short, satiric book by John Sladek, “Bugs” tells the story of a man who accidentally becomes hired to manage a project at a high-tech company. Knowing nothing about management, technology, or the project, he essentially keeps his head down and lets his team run wild. The result is that they produce a sentient robot, who promptly escapes.

I bought this from the clearance table (being a fan of his murderous robot novel “Tik Tok”), and while it amused me I promptly forgot about it. Years later I accidentally became a programmer and found myself expected to perform miracles for which I felt utterly unqualified. I spent ten years feeling like a fraud until I realized that in that time I had actually become a real programmer. I looked around and my skills held up fairly well against those of my colleagues.

Sladek’s absurdist tale of success through pretense came back to me, and it seemed to me to be a fairly accurate portrayal of my career, symbolically. For that reason alone I’m certain I’ll never forget it, but there’s more. As a lead developer, I’ve tried to stay out of everybody’s way as much as possible. I’ll never know if they can make an A.I. if I don’t let them direct their own work.

Book Review: Red Planet (Russ Winterbotham, 1962)

Red Planet, by Russ Winterbotham, is in many ways typical of science fiction in the decade leading up to the Moon landing, but its theme of humans in space being little more than beasts and its charmingly goofy aliens have earned it a place in my jaded little heart.

The Martians would be less goofy if they actually looked like this.

The Martians would be less goofy if they actually looked like this.

The events of the novel are narrated by Bill Drake, who is one of five astronauts already selected for the historic mission to Mars. He begins the tale as the final candidate for the sixth position completes his final test. All he has to do is land, and he’ll have earned his way onto the crew of the Jehad (the rather unfortunate name of the ship designed for the mission).

To everyone’s dismay, the test goes horribly wrong. The candidate sustains a serious injury and, as the Jehad is to launch within days, cannot join the crew. Although the mission could be accomplished by a crew of five, the commander (Dr. Spartan) insists that they need a full complement. There is, however, no time to fully train another astronaut for the mission. Unless…

There is one other person who is fully qualified, who has taken every test and worked closely with Dr. Spartan on the project. The only hitch is that this astronaut is… A WOMAN! Public sentiment would be very much against sending an unmarried woman on a two-year mission with five men, we’re told, and the space program can’t afford to lose popular support.

The solution is gloriously absurd. If she marries a member of the crew, then somehow everything is copacetic. With her limited selection of grooms, Gail Loring chooses Bill Drake. She makes it clear that this is a marriage only for creating the illusion of respectability, which does nothing to dim Drake’s hopes of making the union real.

The rest of the story largely concerns the struggle for “ownership” of Gail Loring. There’s no other way to put it. The men of the Jehad are incapable of sharing space with a woman without fighting over her.

Actually, that’s not completely true. Of the five men, only three join the contest to try to “win” Loring — one is too perfect and noble to do anything untoward and another too craven. Drake, of course, tells us that he’s only trying to protect her from the others.

There are a lot of ways to die in space, and life requires vigilance and discipline. Some of the best speculative fiction from the mid-1900s used this struggle against the extreme environment as their central plots. Teamwork and ingenuity are emphasized as the key to survival. Where this book works best is in reversing this formula. One of the “suitors” begins to use the perils of the journey to eliminate his rivals. The dangers of the expedition are amplified by the division and mounting paranoia of the crew.

Then they land on Mars, and the plot takes a detour to crazy town.

Astonishingly, this is a fairly accurate description of the events in the book.

Astonishingly, this is a fairly accurate description of the events in the book.

Like many since H. G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds, Winterbotham portrays Mars as a world past its prime. Life can be sustained only at the bottom of deep channels, and it is deadly to outsiders; ruined cities silently crumble amid the wastelands of the surface; and the fallen descendents of the builders of Martian culture are as aggressive as they are incredibly silly.

Picture a green ball, about the size of the bottom tier of a snowman. Add spindly limbs and a growth on top that resembles a beanie with a radar dish. Picture rows of them holding hands, sharing their generated electricity to produce a lightning bolt. Try to take the threat seriously.

With this story, Winterbotham managed to combine all of the best and worst of the science fiction of the time. The admission of female accomplishment while maintaining repressive sexual politics is all too common for the era. The exceptional woman can be equal, but she really just wants to make house. Racial equality is mentioned, but the scope of it is limited to white Europeans. It’s a frustrating mix of nascent ideas and recycled plot points — a weird specimen of pulp adventure that fascinates me with its contradictions.

I can’t say I recommend Red Planet, but if you happen to stumble on a copy, have a taste for the less conventionally good, and can put up with a work so rooted in its time, you could pass a lazy afternoon with it.

Adapting to Changes

With Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby looming over us like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the matter of film adaptations is once again a topic of unhappy internet chatter. As usual, it’s largely breaking along the views that a classic is being ruined and that the book remains intact. (Although this time a number of people are hoping that the film is a masterpiece of ill-conceived excess.)

For my own part, while I have always been fine with the glorious misfire that was the 1960s release of “Casino Royale”, the recent version incensed me. Given the opportunity to restart the Bond film franchise, the decision was made to start with him as a violent thug. To me, the core of the book was that he had been more or less playing at espionage until the events surrounding this job hardened him and gave him focus. So to throw that aside seemed to miss an opportunity as well as the point.

It’s not on a level with the attack by natives in “The Scarlet Letter”, but it’s a cinematic grudge I’ve held on to with all the strength that nerdrage allows. I still haven’t gotten over “Congo”, and to be honest the book wasn’t even especially good.

I do agree that the source is still there, and I’ve even clung to the thought that even a bad adaptation could get new readers for the book. I think it’s more likely that viewers unfamiliar with the work will simply move on.

I’d like to be able to move on, myself. I only have so much energy for outrage, and I need to save it in case Tom Hanks gets another Oscar.

A New Local Bookstore

A new book store has opened in downtown Ann Arbor. Literati Bookstore, on the corner of E. Washington and S. Fourth is a cozy two-story shop with a selection that brings to mind the sections of Borders that weren’t devoted to genre fiction — back when Borders actually was a local store.

I did a double-take when I first noticed the open sign.

I did a double-take when I first noticed the open sign.

I didn’t have a lot of time to peruse the shelves, but I did get a sense for the sections. Fiction, children’s books, poetry, and books about media are upstairs, along with a small selection of magazines. Downstairs are humor, various types of history, biographies and reference. Crafts and religion are in there somewhere, I forget exactly where, and I’m certain that I’ve forgotten at least two categories — most likely from the basement.

The staff seemed very friendly, and they let me wander on my own after attracting my attention with a greeting. As an anxious sort, I appreciate that. It’s nice to know who I can ask for assistance but be trusted to ask when I need it.

There was a nice amount of customers milling around late in the lunch hour. Not crammed in, but enough to raise hope that there’s enough interest to keep the place open. Both registers were going, and for my part I purchased a copy of Sean Howe’s “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.”

(I have my fingers crossed that it will reveal Jack Kirby was a space god and Steve Ditko a pan-dimensional sorcerer. We all know Stan Lee sustained a papercut from a radioactive comic book.)

Anyway, I wish them well. With Literati and Aunt Agatha’s only a block apart, all we need now is a nearby source for new horror, science fiction, and fantasy!

Step Away From the Book Store

Hi. My name is Sean, and I’m a mass media addict.

I guess it started with taping movies off of cable. Having secured a film on the permanent archival format of a Beta cassette, I felt that I couldn’t let it slip out of my clutches. After all, now I could watch it again whenever I pleased! Media was finally at my convenience instead of at the whim of broadcasters! The collection of tapes grew quickly, and some I never did get around to watching even once. What mattered was that I could have.

Actually, it may have started before then, with comic books. On my mom’s side, I’m the youngest of my cousins. I don’t recommend being last in a generation, by the way; it’s the nuisance position. Even the kids table doesn’t want you. What I did get was everybody’s cast-offs, which for the purposes of this essay means comic books.

Comics from my kin accumulated at my grandma’s house, and when I tired of exploring the old hay barn and chicken coop I’d curl up with the stack of leftover comics. They were mostly from the Harvey line: Richie Rich, Casper, Little Lotta, and the rare Lil’ Devil which I loved most of all. Few of these had covers, and many were missing pages. I’m sure this helped fuel my desire to possess my own things.

Whatever the cause, the effect is that one room of our house is dedicated to the hoard. Somewhat hopefully, I call this room the library. There’s a pile of boxes in the center of the library, and I no longer recall what they contain. I can’t even get to them to find out; the rest of the floor is adrift in stacks of books that have been catalogued but await shelving. The walls are concealed behind boxes of DVDs. There’s a treacherous path that leads about three feet into the unstable mass of media. The door to this room cannot close.

So, yeah. I have a media addiction. At least I admit it, right? And I’ve already made strides in resolving to pare down the collection. The problem is that my compulsions keep interfering. First they demanded that I write a custom application to track media. Then I could enter everything, discover duplicates (hopefully only due to bundled packages…), track which I’ve read/watched/consumed, and mark which I’ve given away.

For months I picked away at this program. I’d make good progress and then get lost in other projects again. When I’d return to coding the damn thing, I’d inevitably discover that nothing worked anymore because some third-party library had been updated. The next week would be lost to cursing and bug-fixing, I’d add one more feature, and then I’d get lost in something else again.

After nearly a year of this, I realized that this process had gotten in the way of actual progress. I chucked the application and started transferring DVDs into binders. This went well until I finished with all the titles starting with ‘C’, at which point other projects captured my attention.

One of these was the ongoing effort to catalog all my books and make an initial pass at culling some for donations. I’ve already removed several bags of books that have been given away or donated to libraries. There are only a few shelves left to sort through, after which I plan to put up new shelves for the books that remain. Of course there are boxes of DVDs where I’d like to put the new shelves…

The biggest problem I have with the books is that there are a lot I don’t know if I’d read again because I’ve not read them in the first place. Currently there are just under a thousand unread books in the library, according to what I’ve entered at LibraryThing. This is only that low because I decided that I’d never read dozens of the books I’ve already donated.

Actually, that’s merely a big problem. The biggest problem is that I continue to bring new books into the house. I’ve slowed the pace considerably, mind you. On average I’m only buying 3-4 books and 1-2 movies a week. I’d like to turn that into an average for a month, but it’s better than when it was a daily average.

Netflix instant and the availability of ebooks is helping to some extent, as I can enjoy books and movies without bringing new material into the house. Ultimately, what I think will help more is that I’m growing more interested in doing things and creating. I’m writing more, thanks to this blog, and for the first time in years I’m working on a short story. I’ve written another comic and have plans do more. The musical dry spell is over, and I’m working on a holiday EP.

I don’t have time to consume media, because I’m too busy creating it. It’s starting to sink in. All of these things that fired my imagination threaten now to snuff out the expression of it. If it comes to a choice between making and having, I’ll choose making.

Just as soon as I get this room cleared out…

Review: Brick and Mortar Book Recommendation

I told you about that book I got at Aunt Agatha’s. You know, the one that Jamie recommended when I went in to sell a book. It was A Cold Day in Paradise by Steve Hamilton. I’ve got an embarrassing amount of unread books, so at the time I put it on a nearby stack with a mental note to get to it soon. Since I had mentioned it in a blog entry, I thought I’d like to read it fairly soon and follow up with a review.

Not of the book — a review of the Jamie recommendation system.

Now that I’ve finally had the chance to read it, I am happy to report that the recommendation did well in all categories. Let’s break it down.

Customer data

Here’s what Jamie knew. I’d come in to sell back a mystery novel that I hadn’t liked. It had grabbed my attention with its setting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My stated objections centered on the lack of action and of general threat.

Additionally, he knew that I am a big fan of the Hard Case Crime line of new and reprinted noir. These include works by authors like Donald Westlake, Lester Dent, and Mickey Spillane. They tend to be violent, pile up the corpses, and involve a bit of enthusiastic back stabbing.

Alignment of book content

The first correlation of the book’s content to known user data is that the action of A Cold Day in Paradise centers in the Upper Peninsula. Specifically, the murders happen in and near Sault St. Marie, and the protagonist lives just a short drive away. Since the setting was what had attracted me to the book I’d returned, this is a strongly relevant component of the recommendation.

As for addressing my objections to the other book, Hamilton’s novel has a gun fight, a couple of brawls, a murderous stalker, and an extremely suspicious sheriff. This certainly addresses my desire for more action and danger. Here again the recommendation scores well.

Moreover, the book has a great pulp feel to it. The hero is fallible, a cop who retired because he froze and carries a bullet near his chest like a badge of shame. He’s afraid of guns and still has nightmares about the incident that ended his career and his partner’s life.

As a reader I wanted him to succeed, to conquer his fear and start living again. This is important to me. A plot is a series of events, but a character interacts with those events and struggles to gain even the smallest bit of control over them. That’s a story, and that’s what I’d returned the other book for lacking.


Jamie took my statements about the book I’d sold back, mixed them with knowledge of my purchase history, and made an accurate and effective recommendation of a book I would like.

“Well,” a convenient paper tiger may reply. “So what? Amazon does as much.”

Here is the difference.

While Amazon knows my book purchase history (and my item ratings, if I used that feature) it doesn’t know why I’ve bought them. Was it the writer? Genre? Appearance of a big damn spider? The word zombie in the title? When Amazon recommends something to me it’s based on algorithms comparing my recent purchases with the purchase histories of other users, playing the odds that people who buy enough similar items will have the same general taste.

It’s a good attempt, and honestly I find a lot of cool stuff based on these recs, but the price is having to sift through a lot of things that I don’t want at all. Sometimes it takes a few pages of recommendations to find something in which I’m vaguely interested.

Jamie got it in one try. I recommend his recommendations.

There, I Said It

You’d think that I might have admired my high school English teacher, that she had inspired me to pursue my BA in English and had imparted wisdom that guides my life to this day.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I thought that Mrs. White was unimaginative and didn’t really understand literature at all. She was inarticulate in her obsessive love for Emily Dickenson, and I hated the poet until a college professor explained her merits. Mrs. White taught English as though it were history. Names and dates were important, not for context but for providing objectively gradable information. When she did venture into analysis it was simply regurgitation of what she’d been told long decades previously, when analysis consisted solely of cramming stories into rigidly defined types.

As for wisdom, the words I recall most fondly are a stream of curses.

Our class was about to read “Catcher in the Rye”, and a few students would be spending their time in the library instead. This is because their parents found the book objectionable, and not for being dull. With the affected children still in the room, our teacher explained.

“It’s because of a word. ‘Fuck’. There, I said it. Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

Carpet Bomb

Dropping F-Bombs all over the place!

She kept talking, but all of us were still processing what had just gone down. Old Mrs. White had just carpet-bombed us with F-words! We didn’t expect to hear that from any teacher, much less from our prim English teacher.

Perhaps we should have expected it, as she liked to regale us with tales of her rebelliousness. You see, when she married her cousin she wore her glasses.

Selling a Mystery

I read a lot of crime fiction, and I’m fortunate enough to work close to a great local bookstore — Aunt Agatha’s New & Used Mysteries, Detection & True Crime Books. Co-owner Jamie really knows his books, and his love for the genre is evident. I’ve had several conversations with him about books, movies, and everything noir; and he doesn’t generally display that glaze in the eyes that typically afflicts others when I speak.

I’ve been sorting through my collection of books and have donated several bags worth to libraries and raffles. After finishing a recently purchased mystery book and deciding that it wasn’t a keeper, it dawned on me that I could probably sell it to Jamie. I took it in to work with me to test this theory, and it sat on my desk for a month while mental notes about selling it piled up in my brain.

Finally on a warm, sunny afternoon I picked it up to go try my luck. Wendi went with me for the excuse to get outside. We walked into the mystery shop, and Jamie greeted us. I presented the book and announced that I’d come to sell it. He sized it up quickly and offered a dollar. That was a buck I didn’t have before, so I readily agreed.

Then he asked if I hadn’t liked the book. I admitted that it hadn’t really grabbed me. After the novelty of being set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula had worn off, there really hadn’t been anything to hold my attention: murder, treachery, or the like. Jamie allowed that series didn’t have wide appeal, then as an aside mentioned that there was another series based in the UP that might be more my speed.

He walked over to a nearby shelf as he talked and deftly picked out a paperback without seeming to have looked for it. It was the first book in the series, and he thought it’d better suit my taste. Before I knew what was happening, I had paid $3.50 for the book (less the $1 credit) and was heading back to work.

Wendi glanced at my new book curiously. “What’s that?”

I stammered a bit. “He’s really good,” I finally confessed. She just shook her head and allowed that I at least hadn’t increased my book count.

Aunt Agatha’s can’t give the discounted prices that Amazon does, but I’ll happily spend a few extra bucks for recommendations based on actual knowledge.