The Simpsons and The Undertaker

November 6, 2016

I’m thirty-five years old, and there have been some aspects of or influences in my life that have been around for nearly as long as I can remember. They’ve been there, in some cases, going back to when I was growing up in a lower-middle class section of Cincinnati, Ohio. Now, as I’m approaching middle age, I find myself reflecting more and more on the fate of some of those things that have for so long been a part of my life, because, in all probability, they’re not going to be around for much longer. One of those things to which I’m referring is a television show…The Simpsons…and another is professional wrestler the Undertaker.

Now, at first glance, these appear to be completely disparate things, with nothing that could possibly link them, Mark Calaway, the WWE wrestler known as the Undertaker, and the beloved Matt Groening television show featuring Homer, Bart, and the other classic characters that has been a part of the American consciousness even before it officially debuted in 1990. But, if we are to pause right there for a moment, the time of the debut of Undertaker can be seen as corresponding almost exactly to The Simpsons‘ first appearance as an episodic half-hour television show. Calaway made his debut as the Undertaker character in 1990 as well, as a heel, or bad guy, feuding with Hulk Hogan in what was at that point the World Wrestling Federation. With his menacing stare, his black funereal attire, and his manager with the sing-song voice, the inimitable Paul Bearer, it wasn’t long before he made the transition to baby face (good guy), and was a huge draw for master carnival barker Vince McMahon. It so happened that I got into wrestling, and The Simpsons, right at the same time, not just because they burst onto the scene simultaneously, but because at that point my family didn’t own a television. I don’t want to imply that we were too poor to afford one, or something. My father, an English professor at nearby Xavier University, wanted his children to live “the life of the mind,” so he refused to buy us one, instead giving us books and telling us to play outside. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily, it’s just that anything that is taboo is desirable, and this meant that I had to go across the street to sleep over at my friend Mike’s house and get my fix of the warmly flickering idiot box. What was on the screen, more times than not, was what Mike was into…new sensation The Simpsons, and professional wrestling, specifically the WWF, which was at that point in the middle of the Federation Years, with Taker, Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, Randy Savage, and other larger-than-life personalities that I came to know and love.

My interest in professional wrestling, and The Simpsons, never completely went away, not when I moved from across the street from Mike in that same year, 1990, not when my father finally relented and let me get that TV for which I’d been pining, not even when I slogged my way through high school, went off to college in Pittsburgh, then graduated and joined the “real world,” and the work force. My time and inclination to keep up with both went through its ebbs and flows. In high school I was obsessed with the NWO and the Monday Night Wars, in what would later come to be known as the Attitude Era in the WWF. In college, I lost interest in much of anything other than drugs and trying to get laid. When I came out of the drug haze and my hormones had calmed down a little, Vince McMahon had just finalized a deal to buy WCW, and the landscape of professional wrestling had changed in earnest. The Simpsons had gone through a number of creative teams, the Undertaker had gone through a number of “turns,” having successful runs as both a face and heel, but always remained a top star in Vince’s stable, as his bearing and physical stature, not to mention his tendency to have consistently top quality matches with all sorts of different opponents, made sure to keep him relevant. As for me, I lived in a number of different cities, had a number of different jobs, eventually got married, and have come at last to the age of thirty-five, which is somewhat surrealistic to me, but hey, such is life.

What’s also surrealistic to me is the fact that the Undertaker still hasn’t retired, and The Simpsons is still going strong. Mark Calaway, the man, is now 51. He looks good for his age, and obviously keeps himself in great shape. Still, this is a guy who has been walloped in the head with steel chairs and squashed by four and five hundred pound men countless times, and in your fifties your age starts to tell on you even if you haven’t lived a particularly physical lifestyle. The Undertaker now wrestles only once or twice a year, and it’s rumored that the upcoming Wrestlemania 33, in Florida, might be his last match. But then again, the last two or three years he’s been dogged by retirement rumors, and he’s still going strong. But it all has to end sometime, and it seems clear that at his age, even though he obviously loves the business and never wants to leave it, he’s going to have to hang the boots up at some juncture.

As for The Simpsons, it recently began its 28th season, and, just as I have for so many other season debuts, I was sitting smack-dab on my couch, ready to welcome this oldest and most venerable one of my friends back into my home. I consider The Simpsons to be, without a doubt, unequivocally, the greatest and best show, ever, in the history of television. There are literally dozens of classic characters and episodes. That show made me aware of concepts that I had been ignorant of before, improved my vocabulary, and lights up a special part of my brain that no other imitation has ever quite duplicated. Since first watching The Simpsons, I’ve been introduced to and become a fan of South Park, Futurama, Family Guy, and others, but there’s nothing quite like the original. Even if the quality of some episodes has dipped, now that it’s in its freaking 28th season, I have come to the understanding that I’m never going to stop watching it, until they stop making it. It’s that simple.

I’m a fairly cynical guy, but there are certain things that are always going to be magical for me, and instill in me once again that sense of childlike wonder. The Simpsons, even once they ride off into the sunset, probably some day soon, will have reruns going probably until the end of time, which is great, because nearly any time I flip on the boob tube, if an episode is on, that’s right where I’m going to set down the remote. As far as Mark Calaway, known to not one but several generations as the Undertaker, one of the best of all time, a first ballot Hall of Famer, he’ll always be a guy that captures my imagination. I’ve seen him numerous times in person…I was there in New Orleans, watching in stunned silence as Brock Lesnar broke the streak at Wrestlemania 30…and every time I hear that gong, I know I’m going to get those shivers up my spine that only the Dead Man, unafraid to wear eye liner at his age, can deliver. These are simple pleasures for me, broadcast into my living room over the years regardless of what city, or state, I was calling home. I know that, due to the simple age of both of these institutions, I will probably have to say goodbye to them very soon. That’s unavoidable, I’m afraid; nothing lasts forever. But both of them have made an indelible impression on me, and my life is richer for them. The Undertaker’s music is always going to be my ring tone, even if I live to be a hundred, and I’m always up for arguing the cultural merits of The Simpsons with any stranger on the street. Some people have Don Giovanni and Tchaikovsky. I have cartoons and musclebound guys in tights. To each their own.


Why I’m Leaving New York City

October 20, 2016

In 2006, I lived for six months in New York, for no other reason than that I thought the writing industry was mostly here, and I had a better chance of getting my stuff noticed. While the publishing industry is indeed mostly in NYC, I had no luck getting the right manuscript into the hands of the right person, and I was forced out due to lack of money. I always knew I was going to come back, though, and indeed I did, along with my then-girlfriend Megan in late June of 2009, after sojourns in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and South Carolina. Both of us wanted to live in New York. I still felt it was the best place for me as a writer, and she, as a small business owner, felt that the city afforded her unique opportunities in networking. We came here with little money, but plenty of ambition.

I got a job in the security industry, and, in the seven-and-a-half years in between now and then, I’ve risen to the pinnacle of that profession, to the point that now, as I prepare to leave my current job, I hold four different titles, security officer, fire safety director, emergency action plan director, and security supervisor in my building. I can’t complain about the work, really. There are parts of it that are infuriating sometimes, but it’s been steady income, and I’ve found that I have an aptitude for it. Of course, all the time I’ve been doing it, I’ve been writing on the side. In the time that we’ve been here, I’ve written several novels, and many short stories and essays. Megan has sold her goods at a number of different craft shows around the country, has had products featured in dozens of national and international publications, and has sold her stuff to several celebrities.

So why now, after meeting with some measurable degree of success, are we leaving New York and moving upstate? Well, there are a number of reasons for it, but here’s the biggest one, summed up in one word: expense. New York, if you’ll excuse my language, is just too goddamn expensive. Brooklyn is literally the most expensive place to live in the country, and our rent here in Bay Ridge has continued rising and rising exponentially. It used to be somewhat “reasonable” living here, since we’re in deep south Brooklyn, far off the beaten track, but lately, the neighborhood is being discovered more and more, as denizens are being forced out of Park Slope, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and other locales closer to Manhattan. It’s getting more crowded, and also, crime stats are going up. There was a murder in nearby Owl’s Head Park; the police think it was drug related. There have been several armed robberies in broad daylight. In the nearly six years that we’ve been the neighborhood, this is the first we’re hearing about this sort of thing.

So why, you might ask, don’t we just try to find another neighborhood? New York is a huge city, and we might have better luck in Queens, or the Bronx, or even Staten Island. But it’s expensive everywhere, and there are other issues. We’re tired. I mean that in every sense of the word: we’re just fatigued, weary to the bone, ground down by the City That Never Sleeps like previously sharp pencils now reduced to stubs. This city is hard on you, man. I’ve been working at that good old steady job of mine fifty hours a week since 2012. That’s a long time. I know that people in some industries will scoff at that. Fifty hours a week, that’s nothing! I work sixty, seventy, eighty hours a week, you pussy! Well, maybe so. But there comes a time when grinding and grinding to make ends meet, and to live a lifestyle that is only “comfortable” by a very dubious definition of the term, is just insufficient. Me and Megan want more and different things now that we’re in our thirties, like a back yard, one big enough for a dog to run around in. Like a back deck, where I can grill out on sultry summer nights. Like a house, one that we can actually own. And when a confluence of events took place last year that allowed us to get some money together, we had a sincere and earnest discussion with each other about what we both wanted going forward. It was to leave. That’s what we decided on, and we’ve taken steps since then to make it happen.

New York didn’t beat us, not this time. On the contrary, I feel like we’re walking away victorious. No doubt, there have been some ups and downs in the seven-plus years that we’ve been here, but we did more than “keep our heads above water” during this stretch. I think it could be accurate to say that we’ve thrived. Yes, we’ve thrived…but it’s taken a lot out of us. By moving upstate, and getting our own house, with all the amenities I’ve mentioned, we’re not admitting defeat. What we’re doing is slowing down. We’re getting away from the hustle and bustle, from the aggressive beggars and the train traffic and the vague fears of a terrorist attack that are a grim reality of a big American city in modern times. We’re going to have, literally, a change of pace. And I can’t wait. New York City can be a magical place, and I’ve had some experiences here that I’ll never forget. Megan and I got married here. I’ve attended Yankee playoff games, Wrestlemania at Metlife Stadium, my Bengals beating the Jets and spoiling their season opener. I’ve seen Hurricane Katrina batter the five boroughs, the end of Bloomberg’s reign and the beginning of DeBlasio’s, and I’ve eaten more great meals and seen more scintillating live music than I can ever even remember. It’s been a privilege to look out my window and be able to see Brooklyn, Staten Island, New Jersey, and the lights of Manhattan in the distance, all in one dizzying panoramic shot. Likewise it has been a privilege to see Lady Liberty holding up her torch, proud and true in the idealism she represents, on my way to work over the Manhattan Bridge every morning. I wouldn’t change anything that’s happened; it’s all helped to mold and shape me. But I find I simply don’t need to be here anymore. I can do my writing anywhere. And so, New York, farewell. You have been a home to me, but you are and always will be a harsh mistress. It is bittersweet leaving your embrace, but for the sake of my own sanity, it is necessary. Perhaps I’ll tread your streets again, somewhere off down the road.


Still Out Of Reach

September 5, 2016

For many years, I’ve wanted to support myself exclusively through my writing. It seems like a tangible goal, but has it ever been a realistic one? It’s hard to say, but what’s undeniable is that it hasn’t happened yet. I’ve now written six books, five fiction and one nonfiction, and I’ve self-published four of them- three novels, and the story short collection, the link to all of which can be found here on the website. I’m thirty-five years old, and I don’t believe I’m any closer to that goal now, the goal of my writing being my primary source of income, than I was fifteen years ago, which was about the same time I decided to really get serious about being an author. It’s a strange time to be a writer. The print industry is dying, and it’s the age of the Kindle and other electronic formats for viewing written content, both older and classic novels, short stories, etc, and the new stuff that’s coming out. Whether that will ultimately be beneficial to writers remains to be seen, but it’s true that self-publishing is easier than ever. As a writer, I’m glad of that. Since none of the literary agents I’ve ever approached have been willing to represent me, I was at least able to get my writing out there. The three novels and the short story collection are available on Amazon, for Kindle or as print-on-demand options, and if I hadn’t decided to take the initiative and do that, those stories would still be languishing on my computer, or on a flash drive in a drawer somewhere. In that respect, self-publishing technology, and technology in general, have been a boon to me as a writer.

But there’s a flip side to all that. The novels and the collection haven’t sold particularly well, and the reason for that is very simple. I genuinely don’t believe it has to do with the quality of the work. That might be just ego in my part, but I think each one of those projects is solid, and was well worthy of publication. The reason they haven’t gotten the attention they deserve is because there’s no advertising campaign behind them. And let’s face it, that’s what a literary agent is really for. An agent’s job is to sell your work to a publishing company…it’s to say “hey, I feel that this is a guaranteed hit, and you’d be well served to get behind it.” And, based on the reputation the lit agent has established, the publishing company does just that. They get behind the project, they promote it, and they get people in the literary world whose opinions matter to read it and say nice things about it, so that they can be used as blurbs on the book jacket. By my self-publishing, I have assured that there is no campaign to promote my work. There’s no promotion for it at all, so there’s no fanfare. There’s no one famous saying “this is worth reading.” So, other than a little word-of-mouth I’ve been able to spread among family and acquaintances, no one has been enthusiastic about my published efforts. None of them are likely to become a best seller that way.

Perhaps it would be different if I was a social media-oriented person. I suppose I’m a Millennial, but I’m one of the oldest of that group, and, unlike so many others in that category, I hate Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and all those other self-promotion tools that seem to be second nature to so many fresh-faced youngsters now in their twenties and early thirties. Since I have no patience for that sort of thing, that’s yet another form of advertisement for my work that I’m not utilizing. The bottom line is, without things like that, I’m not likely to sell any more books than what I have been. I’m halfway through a new one right now, but unless I manage to attract some interest in it from a literary agent, I don’t find it likely that it’s going to sell any better than any of the others, even if it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.

I feel like the narrative surrounding who I am as a writer keeps changing, at least to myself, the older I get. If I had been “discovered” right out of college, while still in my early twenties, I would have been a prodigy. Much as I wanted that to happen, I can  now recognize that the quality of my work was nowhere near good enough to warrant that kind of attention. Finding success when in one’s late twenties or early thirties happens to a lot more writers, so if I had followed that career trajectory, then it would have seemed normal or natural when comparing myself to many of my peers. Now, in my mid-thirties and still not having achieved the success I crave, I’ve gotten to the point when I wonder if I ever will get to where I want to be. I know that there are writers who didn’t find an audience or widespread success until they were well into middle age, or past it. I think of Brian Jacques, for instance, writer of the Redwall series. I know he didn’t really catch on until he was into his middle years. And there are many other examples…but what I keep thinking, as it relates to myself, is simply this. I’m past the time where wanting and needing to be a famous or successful author made me get up in the morning burning to achieve that goal and that one alone, where it seemed like nothing else would do. I think I’ve reached a point now, mentally,where I understand that I’m never going to reach the lofty heights that I set for myself. I’ve come to a time where I allow other things besides my writing to define me, and honestly, I’m glad of that, because if I still wanted so badly what I don’t think I’ll ever have, I’d probably have driven myself completely crazy a long time ago. The fact is, I’ve adjusted my expectations. And maybe I’ll still find the success that I want, miraculously, against all odds. But if it does happen, at this rate, it won’t be till I’m an old man…and by that point, I may well find that what was once so important to me no longer has the same luster that it did when I was a younger man, and a more idealistic one. As a famous poem has it, a dream deferred has the capability of exploding, but just as many times, I think, it wilts away on the vine.

Publication News

New Story Available Now Online

July 26, 2016

Hello loyal readers, hope you’re enjoying the summer. My new horror short story “Kin Folks” is now available at Hello Horror, in Issue #19, Summer 2016. This is my third time collaborating with Hello Horror, and I encourage you to check out the other stories in this issue. Be sure and tell your friends. Happy reading, more soon.

Publication News

New Short Story To Be Published This Month

July 3, 2016

Hello readers, hope you’re enjoying your fourth of July weekend. I just wanted to let everyone know that my new short story “Kin Folks” should be appearing in the online lit mag Hello Horror later this month. This is the third time my work will be featured in that publication, and I’m excited they chose to continue their working relationship with me. I will mention here on the site when the story goes live. Till then, happy Independence Day, and happy summer!


Successful Adaptions vs Unsuccessful Ones

June 19, 2016

When you’re a fan of a certain media property- book, comic series, etc- you can be elated when the news comes about that it’s going to be presented in a different format. I’ve been excited lately, for example, with the thought that a full-length, big-budget movie of the Marvel comic Dr. Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, is going to make its way to the big screen this November. It’s a lesser known, and, if I might say so, stranger comic than some of the better known Marvel properties, Spiderman, the X-Men, etc, and I think that in the current climate, it’s pretty cool that so many of the lesser known heroes like Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy have gotten some attention, and even resulted in movies that were genuinely fun to watch. I’m excited, too, with the news that a movie adaption is coming of the Stephen King Dark Tower series of books, with Edris Elba as Roland, the main protagonist, and Matthew Mcconaughey as his antagonist Walter. Talk of a movie or TV show based on that series, King’s most iconic, has been going on literally for decades, and now it seems like it’s actually going to happen.

The flip side of such excitement, though, is the dread that you feel as a serious fan at the thought that a book, a comic series, or whatever else, that you held in such high esteem, is going to be made into a movie, or a TV show, and the result is not going to do justice to the source material. A perfect example of this is the trio of Hobbit movies that made it into theaters a few years ago. I thought the Lord of the Rings trilogy was very strong, and indeed, those were books that I thought would never be able to be made successfully into movies, just because of their epic grandeur and scope. But Peter Jackson pulled it off, so I had every confidence he could do the same with “The Hobbit,” one of my favorite novels ever. He couldn’t. Whether it was pressure from the studio or Jackson himself, the movies were a trilogy when they should have been a pair of movies at most, they were bloated to the point that they were nearly unrecognizable, and characters were invented out of whole cloth and inserted into the films for reasons that still baffle me…here’s looking at you, Tauriel.

Which leads me to the Preacher TV series, currently three episodes in, on AMC. The fourth episode airs tonight. Preacher is based on a comic book series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, the writer-illustrator combo that also had a very good run on John Constantine in the ’90s. I loved the entire Preacher series; I had graphic novels that covered the whole story, which is finite, rather than stretching on into forever, as is the case with Batman, or Superman, or so many other series. The Preacher comics were hilarious, thought-provoking, masterfully written, and beautifully illustrated. There just wasn’t anything else on the market like them at the time. Along with Sandman, by Neil Gaiman, Preacher epitomized to me what comics could be, and should be. I sold my whole collection a couple of years ago, because it was so large that there simply wasn’t room for it any longer, but Preacher remains a favorite of mine, holding a special place in my heart. I was nervous, therefore, when I heard that it was being adopted for TV, because of the same reason that I was originally worried about the Lord of the Rings trilogy when I saw the trailer for the first one way back in 2001. It was the thought that the scope was going to be too big, and what could be done on the page couldn’t be duplicated on the screen, especially on a basic cable network like AMC. But I hoped for the best, and was at least encouraged by the fact that another one of my favorite comics, The Walking Dead, had been extremely successful on network television, the same network, no less.

But three episodes in, I’m underwhelmed by Preacher. Maybe it’s the fact that it was inexplicably developed for TV by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, talented guys, I suppose, in their way, but not anyone that would immediately spring to mind to handle such a project. The two of them are comedy guys, known for bro-ish sorts of movies like Superbad and Pineapple Express. Those aren’t bad films, but it seems kind of strange that those two guys should have gotten the intellectual property rights to Preacher. I guess they’re fans of the series, but Peter Jackson was a huge fan of Tolkien, and look how the Hobbit movies turned out. In any event, the show’s not great, or at least I’ve been underwhelmed with it so far. Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy have all been introduced, as well as some of the minor characters, but already it seems as though the series is going in a very different direction from the comics. In the first issue of the series Jesse and company have met up on the road, away from Annville, and are going on a sort of road trip to catch up with God and make him answer for miseries that he has inflicted on human kind. In the first few episodes, it doesn’t seem like the trio are going anywhere, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason is exactly what I feared, because the epic scope and the bigger set pieces that show up in the first couple of story arcs in the comics just can’t be depicted on film because the budget for the TV series won’t allow it. There’s nothing to say that Preacher cant get better, but it’s off to a bad start, and I feel like, because it’s a TV show, some of the stuff that it was easy enough to have on paper isn’t likely to make its way onto the small screen.

To sum up, it’s a crap shoot when something you love undergoes a metamorphosis. You can be excited about it and it can tun out just fine, like the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, or it can be a disaster, like the Hobbit movies. The Walking Dead turned out okay, but Preacher seems to be heading in the wrong direction, and it’s a pity. I suppose I’ll keep watching for the moment, in the hopes that it improves, but if that hasn’t happened by the end of this season, I may get off the train. There’s so much good TV these days, and I only have so much free time. As far as the Dr. Strange movie and the Dark Tower movie, I have my doubts, but I’m more than willing to give them a shot. Optimism doesn’t come easily to me, but I’m making the effort to be a glass-half-full type of person these days, so I’ll try and by appreciative of the projects that translated well from book or comic to the big or small screen, and try my best to forget misfires like Peter Jackson and his woefully disappointing Hobbit trilogy.


Sex in the Fantasy Genre

May 22, 2016

If you’re a regular here on the site, you know that I’m a big fan of the fantasy genre. My novel Rogue: Time Out Of Mind is currently being published on Juke Pop Serials, and I’ve been reading Tolkien since I was five years old. Since falling in love with The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, I’ve gone on to read Terry Brooks, R.A. Salvatore, Robert Jordan, and many others. I talked here on the site a few weeks ago about my opinions regarding the quality of the writing of some of those authors. Terry Brooks is an interesting case. He’s best known for his Shannara series, which spans some two dozen books and recently spawned the Chronicles of Shannara series on MTV (I tried giving it a chance but it was clearly intended for a teen audience, and I couldn’t get into it). I first read a Terry Brooks novel, The Druid of Shannara, when I got it for fifty cents at a book sale at my local library. I’d never heard of Brooks, but the book looked interesting, and I was impressed with the quality of the writing. The characters were well developed, the language was clear and concise, and I found it easy to become invested in the story. But there was something that I noticed with Brooks’ writing that I thought bears mentioning, or, I should say, there’s a lack of something. There’s no sex scenes. In fact, there’s hardly even any reference to the sexual act. It’s like it doesn’t exist; in this world of elves and ogres and trolls and every manner of fantastical creature, bumping uglies, which happens every day here on the “real world” is glaringly absent.

Now, I’m not saying that as a criticism, necessarily. Look at Tolkien. It’s the same. There’s absolutely no sex, nor even, it feels like, the possibility of any sex, in The Hobbit or the Rings trilogy. Aragorn and Arwen love each other, presumably, but to hear Tolkien tell it, they probably express that love with a hearty handshake. It’s like that for several other fantasy writers too. Robert Jordan doesn’t really have any sex scenes in the Wheel of Time books. At least R.A. Salvatore hints clearly at sexual attraction occasionally in his writing, even if it’s just to speak about, in passing, the swell of some buxom bar maid’s chest.

So, why should that matter? Am I just sex obsessed, or are those fantasy books that don’t mention sex automatically inferior in some ways to those that do? Well, that’s certainly a matter of opinion, but here’s one thing that I’ve noticed. There is one author that doesn’t shy away from graphic sex scenes in the fantasy genre, and you know who that is? George R.R. Martin, writer of the Game of Thrones series, the most popular fantasy series, bar none, in the past two decades. I hardly need talk about the widespread popularity of those books. The HBO series has routinely scored the highest ratings for a scripted TV show in television history. I’ve both read the books and watched the show, and there’s nudity and sex galore, on the screen, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the pages. I mean, a major plot thread that opens the first novel involves the Lannister twins being involved in an incestuous relationship, and it’s not just hinted at. We have it described in graphic detail, and while some people would never admit to wanting to read about such scandals, would never admit to desiring such crude imagery, I have no problem saying that I like reading about graphic sex in fantasy…or in other genres as well. I’m not saying I want my literature to be inherently pornographic, because then we’re just talking about erotica, and, while there’s nothing wrong with that, what I look for, ideally, is titillation that is not gratuitous. It can be a fine line, but I admire authors that don’t mind hunting for it. It spices things up. It’s better to have it than not to have it.

I think Tolkien is the greatest fantasy author ever, or at least that I’ve ever read, and he accomplished the high drama that he was looking for in his fiction without sex. It is therefore possible to separate one from the other. But the second greatest fantasy writer I’ve ever read is probably George R.R. Martin, so we also know that it’s possible to be salacious and it doesn’t hurt your writing at all. So, ultimately, here’s where I land on this thing. I like fantasy worlds where the characters lust after one another, because that’s what people do in real life, and fantasy with a touch of reality makes writing in this genre more compelling. Yes, we’re reading about lands where there are inhuman creatures and fantastical monsters, but that doesn’t mean a character’s motivation should be unrecognizable, and lust is a near-universal human trait. It’s nice to see it talked about and expressed on the printed page, because in my mind, it means that the author is treating his or her reader like an adult, who is capable of reading about grown-up situations. That doesn’t seem to be the case so much with someone like Terry Brooks and his Shannara series, where, like Tolkien, there’s this sort of sanitized fantasy…no sex, violence without that much gore, and no profanity. It’s still fun reading, still fulfilling reading. But it doesn’t pack quite the same wallop as Game of Thrones, because Martin is a writer who understands that a lot of the social misfits who read his books are sexually repressed little horn dogs who want to hear descriptions of unrepressed carnality. So yes, different fantasy strokes for different folks. But I have to say I’ve never thought less of a fantasy writer who wanted to spice up their writing by spelling out what their characters wanted to do to each other, other than gaze wistfully into each others’ eyes.


A Literary Titan

May 1, 2016

I’ve written here on the site before of my admiration for Cormac McCarthy. There are authors that I appreciate, and there are authors I try to emulate. But McCarthy is in a class entirely by himself. Who’s the greatest current living American writer? Could you make the case for Philip Roth, maybe, or Don DeLillo? Sure you could. Roth is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and DeLillo has written not one but several books that stir things in me in a fashion of which only a giant of the written word is capable. But McCarthy writes in a way that makes you sit up and take notice; he demands that you pay attention. Not just with his vocabulary, which can be dizzying, but with his mastery of every other element of craft, character development, dialogue, tone, and theme. His career now stretches over a half century, but he has written only something like ten novels, unlike, say, the recently deceased Elmore Leonard, another of my favorites, who cranked out a new book almost every year. But that’s okay, because McCarthy books are events, and they’re worth waiting for. His newest, The Passenger, has been pushed back again and again, and I’m content to wait for it. I know how good it’s going to be once it gets here. I’ve never read a book of his that I didn’t like. It’s not a question of whether one of his novels is going to be good once I pick it up. The only question is whether it’s going to become one of my new favorite novels ever, as is the case with Suttree and Blood Meridian.

I recently read Outer Dark and Child of God for the first time, earlier McCarthy, both grim books about people leading lives of questionable purpose, peppered with violence, sneaky humor, and a sense of hopelessness that pervades all McCarthy, regardless of whether he’s talking about a bygone time, as is the case in Outer Dark, close to the present day, as in No Country For Old Men, or the near future, as is the case with The Road. Outer Dark is about a child born of incest between a brother and sister in Appalachia near the turn of the nineteenth century. Child of God is about a drifter, a violent man, a serial killer, in fact, whose thinking and actions are a mystery both to the reader and to himself. McCarthy writes about people whose emotions and reasons for doing things are incomprehensible. The lesson he seems to want to make clear, again and again, is that everything is random, and if there is a God, then he, or she, or whatever, has long since left us to our own devices, and we’re doing a shit job of looking after ourselves, and each other. The problem being, as sad and pessimistic as this view of the world is, it’s one that is hard to argue against, because everything McCarthy writes seems to have the feeling of gospel. Preachers show up in McCarthy’s writing a lot, and McCarthy is himself a kind of preacher. His is the gospel of randomness and isolation and loneliness and chance and unrequited loves. There is very little purity in the world, he seems to say, in any time period. Good intentions are few, and they fail more often than not. Characters walk the earth for no other purpose, seemingly, than to speak cryptically and cynically, make a jest of our plight as human beings, and slaughter us indiscriminately. It is true of Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, it is true of The Judge in Blood Meridian, it is true of the wandering killers in Outer Dark.

Even though I view McCarthy as a literary idol, I would never want to meet him. Which is fine, because from what I understand, he shuns the spotlight, and doesn’t seek out the company of other writers. His friends are, instead, scientists, astrophysicists and the like. If I ever met the man, I think I would be intimidated out of my very wits. My own meager writing, put up alongside his, is like a chimp scribbling pictures in the dust with a stick while in the shadow of the Sistine Chapel. Some of us are able to do it on another level, and McCarthy is one like this. His words make him almost inhuman. They elevate him to a level that I cannot hope to reach, and, while I envy him his abilities, I understand that our writing is so dissimilar that it’s a foolish idea to even entertain, comparing myself to him. I might occasionally encounter a written author and think, angrily, this is crap. I can write better than this; how is it that this person got him or herself a book deal while I have to self-publish? But in the case of someone like McCarthy, it has to be understood that his gift is so massive that his stories are why language was created in the first place. He is a person who has literally mastered the art of writing, and if I lived a hundred lifetimes, I could never hope to do so. That’s not me putting myself down. It’s just fact.

I’m not a religious person, in the conventional sense. Reading and writing are my religion, and, with that being said, someone like McCarthy is a veritable saint to me. So I’ll continue to read his books…and reread them…and reread them…but he’s never going to somebody like Stephen King, about whom I think, hey, he actually sounds like a guy I’d like to talk to in real life, have dinner with, maybe. If I ever went to dinner with McCarthy, I know I’d be a stuttering idiot. That’s okay. It’s good for all of us to know our place. I don’t know exactly where mine is, in literary circles. But I know where McCarthy is. He’s at the top of the mountain, standing larger, grander, wiser, than almost any other I’ve encountered.


Fantasy Heavyweights and Pretenders (Part 2)

March 20, 2016

Hello again. This week is the second installment of my fantasy author critique. Last time I talked about some very fine members of the pantheon, and here’s a few more noteworthy ones, and my thoughts on each.

Ursula K. Le Guin: is best known for her Earthsea books, about wizards who attempt to master control of the elements. There’s also dragons, and evil magicians whose efforts try to stop those of their good and well-meaning counterparts, who seek to preserve the balance of nature. It’s fairly familiar territory; what I like about Le Guin is that her prose is very sparse and clean, measured and controlled. It’s a good study of using little to say much. When she writes about the sea, a focal point of her novels, you understand its majesty and power, and her protagonists are well fleshed out, fully realized. It’s a shame she didn’t write more; I think there are five Earthsea novels, if I’m not mistaken. I’ve read two so far, but I’m on the lookout for the others. This is an author worth reading.

R.A. Salvatore: best known for his creation of the dark elves, and Drizzt do’ Urden, a drow, a male dark elf who goes against the inherently bloodthirsty tendencies of his people, and tries to use his formidable fighting and killing abilities for good. Salvatore has written something like twenty novels, and was most prominent throughout the nineties and the early 2000’s. He wrote for Tor Fantasy, part of the flood of Dungeons and Dragons novels that came out when the game was at its most popular. A lot of the D and D novels of that period range from decent to utter crap. Salvatore was cranking his books out as quickly as many of the other writers who were getting published, but his prose and creativity was a cut above the rest. It’s not on the level of Tolkien or Martin, and never will be, but it’s still enjoyable in a “junk food fantasy” kind of way, good to kill time, if not to marvel at the skill of the craft or the complexity of the narrative structure.

Salvatore is creative, no question; where he trips himself up sometimes is his trying to describe, in too great of detail, what is happening in the combat scenes. You want a clear description of what is happening, but here’s a guy who gets a little too bogged down in the minutia of the sword fighting techniques, punching, kicking, etc. It gets a little tedious at times. He would be better served concentrating on an overall impression of what he’s trying to convey. Still, a minor critique, that should not dissuade you from discovering Drizzt, Wulfgar, Regis, and the other members of this band that show up at some point in most of his stories.

Michael Moorcock: best known for his creation of Elric, a wraith-like warrior-king who has a sentient, magical sword. My father got me a collection of Elric stories, my introduction to Moorcock, and I was eagerly looking forward to checking him out, as he was a favorite of  my dad as a young man, and I know that Moorcock is well respected and much discussed in fantasy circles. I have to say that I was pretty disappointed with the dubious skills of this particular author. Elric is an interesting creation, no question, a tortured, decadent wanderer whose enemies, when they are vanquished, are essentially fed to the sentient sword that is his constant companion. I thought that Moorcock’s prose, though, is severely lacking in polish. Whether it’s the dialogue, the description of character or setting, or the battles and adventures that Elric gets himself into, this strikes me as poor stuff, a pale, weak telling of a world that never becomes fully realized. Moorcock may be well known and well liked, but I have to say that I just didn’t see it.

What’s especially ironic about that is that I also happened to read an article by Moorcock at one point, where he’s very critical of Tolkien, and talks about how little he thinks of a writer who, in my personal opinion, is his better in every conceivable way. Moorcock didn’t like the style of Tolkien’s prose, of which I think very highly, while Moorcock’s prose, by comparison, is about on the level to me of many of those Dungeons and Dragons writers who were published by the dozens in the nineties. Look, we all have our own ideas of what makes good writing. Moorcock can think what he likes of Tolkien, and I can think what I like about Moorcock. But the characters and world created by Tolkien burn strongly in my mind, and always will. I’ve read of their adventures dozens of times. By comparison, I doubt that I would ever want to give Moorcock and his Elric saga so much as a second glance. That’s just truth.

Robert Jordan: the late Robert Jordan is best known for his interminable Wheel of Time series. I think there were originally slated to be twelve novels, and he died before he quite got to the end. No great loss, in my opinion. I got started reading Jordan at a friend’s recommendation in college, got through about five exhausting novels, and just couldn’t take it any more. Rand al’ Thor, the Dragon Reborn, is the protagonist of this series, along with a grab-bag of friends, and then there’s a shadowy power at work, like there usually is in fantasy, and various minions serving that power. In many respects this is just typical fantasy, with decent prose and dialogue. The problem I kept running into with Jordan is just that his world becomes completely sprawling before very long. There are just too many minor characters and situations to keep track of, to the point that it became a chore to keep up with it all, and I wasn’t enjoying the series; I found that I no longer cared what happened to Rand and his friends, meaning the author had lost me as a reader.

Jordan is an example of what happens when you have a writer who creates a world as gargantuan as that occupied by the multitude of players in Game of Thrones, but the characters and situations aren’t compelling enough to hold your interest. What George R.R. Martin was able to do, Jordan attempted, and failed, in my opinion. Just can’t in good conscience recommend this guy.

So that’s it for now, my take on just a handful of the hundreds of fantasy authors out there. I love the genre, and will continue to read it, I’m sure, as long as I live. Let me know if you agree or disagree with my opinions, and let me know some of your favorites. I’m always happy to discover new writers, and new worlds. More soon, faithful readers.


Fantasy Heavyweights and Pretenders (Part 1)

March 6, 2016

I’ve always loved the fantasy genre. Every since reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a young boy (and then rereading them, again and again), I’ve been captivated by it. Since my early introduction to Tolkien, I’ve gone on to read countless other fantasy novels, some of them “high fantasy,” some tinged with sci-fi elements, some of them memorable, worthy of places of honor on my bookshelf, some of them so bad that it’s a wonder the authors were ever able to get them in print. Today I’ll be looking at a few popular authors and series, and giving my opinion of them. They’re listed in order of my favorites to those of which I think the least.

J.R.R. Tolkien: I seriously doubt that anyone would be capable of knocking the champion off the top of the heap for me. The only one who has ever come close is George R.R. Martin. Tolkien is the be all and end all of fantasy writers, as far as I’m concerned, and I know that there are many who feel the same way. Part of what makes Tolkien so special for me is how few books he actually wrote. He pretty much just has The Hobbit and the Rings trilogy, and, as for his other efforts, The Silmarillion, I feel, should be largely ignored, just because the writing style is completely different; it’s almost like the Bible according to Tolkien, the mythos of Middle Earth written of without the attention to detail and character development, and with much less dialogue, than appears in his more beloved efforts.

The four novels that comprise Tolkien’s largest contributions to literature are some of my favorite books, period, of any genre. I care about the characters and their exploits much more than I do about almost all the living, breathing humans that are out and about in the real world, and I have envisioned myself going on their quests with them more times than I can count. Tolkien was able to make that world live for me more than any other author I have ever known, and when I die, if we all get our customized version of heaven, it would look pretty much like the Shire for me.

George R.R. Martin: the Game of Thrones creator seems to be kind of a miserable person in real life, but no matter. Lots of great authors are. And make no mistake about it, Martin is a great author, second, I think, only to Tolkien. His sprawling world is well realized, with all of the political intrigue that makes up the “game of thrones” the royals and would-be royals play with one another described in such a way that the reader is enraptured rather than bored, as would probably happen with a less talented writer. The quality of the prose is excellent, the dialogue is top-notch, and indeed, all the elements of style are handled masterfully. Memorable characters abound, like the Hound, the Mountain, the Imp, and all the Starks and Lannisters.

The only caution with Martin is this: when one creates a world so vast, one runs the risk of having simply too many characters and plot threads. Martin walks a fine line with this, where some other authors, who I will mention later, simply shoot over that line to the point that there are so many characters and locations to keep track of that it becomes one immense muddle. There’s a lot to keep straight in Game of Thrones, what with all the different factions and minor characters, but it is a testament to Martin’s skill that the reader wants to. That has made this series a success with me, and with so many other readers.

Terry Brooks: Brooks is best known for his Shannara series, a vast epic that deals with druids, talismans, and magical powers. It was recently made into a series on MTV called The Shannara Chronicles. I was able to tolerate about five minutes of it before I had to turn it off. It seems like MTV decided to make it a fantasy version of one of those insufferable teenage-geared, angst-ridden melodramas, like Twilight or The Hunger Games. Needless to say, the actual books aren’t anything like that. They deal with most of the typical swords and sorcerers tropes, but the quality of the prose is excellent, the characters are well fleshed out, the villains are appropriately sinister…in short, these books do well everything that fantasy is all about, if not quite at the same level of the true titans of the genre.

One of the things that I appreciate about Brooks is that he has had a long and prolific career, sort of the opposite of Tolkien. With Tolkien you have the Hobbit and the Rings trilogy, and they are to be savored and pored over, because, like I said before, that’s just about all Tolkien wrote that is worthwhile. At last count, there were something like twenty novels by Brooks dealing with the characters introduced in the early Shannara adventures, and then picking things up with the next generation, and the next, and the next. I’ve read five or six of them now, and it seems that the author has managed to keep up the quality of the series over a period of roughly four decades, no easy thing to do. I have no doubt that I’ll continue seeking out other books in this long-running series, and I was glad to have stumbled upon Mr. Brooks when I chanced to find one of his novels at a library book sale last year.

Next time I will talk about some other fantasy authors of note, including Ursula K. Le Guin, R.A. Salvatore, and Michael Moorcock. Be sure to check out the the first book of of my own Rogue fantasy series, available now absolutely free on Juke Pop Serials.