A True Crime Evening


Night predation
Flickers on TV,
British tea
Pleasantly bitter
On the tongue.
Cool air stirs
Patient curtains.
Distant sounds echo.
Dogs bark, engines rev,
Car doors slam,
Words clump for me,
Attempts to catch time.
Moments, impressions,
Sensations, thoughts,
Experiences evanesce.
Breathing calms.
Mind clears from
Drowsy to alert.
Up too late again.
Fast-forward through
Commercial breaks.
Finish the show.
Capture the predators.
Finally get to bed.
Lay back to stare
In a cool dark room.

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/ Gene Stewart – Mon/Tue, 6/7 April, 2015, 00:47 – 77 words, 26 lines

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Finding Your Own Voice In Writing


Developing writers with ambition all want to find their own voices, craft their own styles, and become known as the only source for their particular writing.

Then they grow up and discover that editors hate that and want mostly pastiche of H. P. Lovecraft or Arthur Conan Doyle along with retreads of anything that has sold big before, anything familiar, reassuring, or soothing. No one wants challenged, no one wants to learn to deal with anything new, no one wants innovation, creativity, and style.

Most are blind to style anyhow and read for plot points, and those plot points used had better be recognized from countless other strings of plot points or it’s no go. Most are suspicious of words they don’t use everyday, of sentences more complicated than a grunt, of any kind of metaphor. Abstraction of any kind convinces most readers they’re being had, and that rankles — they resent feeling stupid.

So most writers crash and burn and if they learn anything at all they become commercial fiction hacks cranking out extruded fiction product to the very low standards of the masses.

Why? Because “that’s what sells” and making money is the only reason for publishing, according to publishers.

Thus we see that artistic ambition is corroded, undermined, and thwarted by capitalism, by greed, by the lust for gain, by the demand that art pander in order to profit.

This is why no one is ever happy unless they are an idiot.

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Art & Artist Considered As a Venn Diagram

Brain Burst

About the Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld and even Bill Cosby thing: I’m all for keeping considerations of the art apart from the artist, but when it’s as blatant as MANHATTAN makes it, you’ve got to deal with it. When the artist’s personal flaws begin seeping into and warping the work, (Orson Scott Card for instance), then it’s time for reassessing one’s responses.

Lovecraft’s racism caused a stir recently but it was absurd because he was able to sublimate and transform his ugly responses into brilliant horror fiction. He was never directly racist in his fiction, and in fact some of the interpretations came as a bit of a shock to long-time HPL readers. In this instance, keeping artist distinct from his art is no problem.

Robert E. Howard may well have been a repressed gay. He was certainly a momma’s boy. His powerful, ruthless heroic figures might be seen as overcompensation. Maybe Conan and Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane and Costigan would be called homoerotic ideals. Who knows? Point is, once again, Howard did not overtly let his own demons warp his fiction in obvious ways so it remains a matter of academic speculation.

Seinfeld never openly dealt that I can recall with his penchant for underage girls. That was kept in his private life. However, his show was about 90% Larry David anyhow, so to analyze SEINFELD you’d have to deal more with the George Costanza charater, played by Jason Alexander.

Again, Cosby kept his personal darkness out of his act, except of course for that one creepy comedy skit about Spanish Fly. Even then he kept it cute.

Woody Allen, though, in MANHATTAN, actually dives right in, directly using his own compulsions and actions as the material of his script and film, in which he stars no less. Even Hitchcock at least had the savvy to hire Cary Grant to substitute for his frustrated desires and projections.

The novel Lolita comes to mind. Nabokov took flack for it, but I’m unaware of any basis in reality in his own life. No doubt there was some, observational if not experiential, but who knows?

Kubrick’s film LOLITA with James Mason is somewhat toned down and slightly changed from the novel, inevitably. It is more comedic too, less dire. Still, do people accuse of Kubrick of being a stalker and romancer of underage girls, especially slutty, seductive, precocious ones?

Nothing anyone can say will sort this stuff out, and each of us must find our way through the brambles, but remember, as you struggle, the big, loud, simplistic answers are usually bullshit, and might cover things in yourself you don’t want to deal with. Just sayin’.

I’ll keep making the arch pronouncement that Art and Artist are two distinct things, but we all know it’s a Venn diagram with some, and sometimes a lot of, overlap.

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The Madness of Empty Spaces by David E. Cowen, a review

The Madness of Empty Spaces:
The Dark Poetry of David E. Cowen
Weasel Press, 2014, 61p
Introduction by Danel Olson
ISBN: 978-069-233-2962

A Review by Gene Stewart

A poetry collection featuring cover art, front and back, by the poet, published by a small press imprint, introduced by an academic; let’s examine it.

The cover art, in black and white, is moody and evocative. This matches the poetry, which also has the grace to root itself in reality. Some of the poems herein are gritty, others cynical, and a few eerie. All are tactile, realistic, and noir. Not that metaphor is not present. Merely that everything is rooted in everyday things, daily sensations, quotidian thoughts.

A trial attorney, David E. Cowen is rooted in Galveston, TX. His tropes stem from what he experiences and has considered. Evoking crossed purposes, thwarted ambitions, and the dust of lost desires, his work here shares a mood with noir detective fiction and no-nonsense suspense. Tricks are eschewed in favor of concrete correlatives chosen carefully to bring the reader to a grounded, context-heavy realization.

“Seven Hauntings In Seven Storms: Galveston, TX”, a favorite of mine, offers glimpses of murders and crimes at a house spanning the years 1900 to 2008. Each vignette is chosen perfectly to reveal both situation and character. Each syllable carries us inexorably through a hall of horrors. It is like a dirge dancing a macabre with a medieval ballad, all in language plain enough for the crime pages of a newspaper.

“The Choice of the Last Child of Proveglia” shows us a parallel to the notorious Italian death isle, where plague victims were sent to die. Echoes of both defiance and despair captured by murderous intent are offered in counterpoint to a little girl’s insight as aristocrats are ushered toward execution. Passing through doors, led by axemen, she chooses instead of freedom to run toward another door, another axe, and certain death. Is it release? Is it fulfillment?

I read this book in one sitting, mesmerized. The poems kept drawing me back to examine how this was done, why that was cited, what words carried the most impact. “Palmetto Ghosts” gives us a tour of a battlefield long forgotten, a place where spirits mingle with fog in a confused bleat of pain and death. “Prayer to the Killer of Children” makes explicit our cries into the void for surcease and understanding, cries never answered. The titular poem, “The Madness of Empty Spaces” discusses abandonment by theological concepts, ours and the deities we create.

“Gothique” mixes love, sex, and death with predatory chills and false assurances. It is overtly a poem of horror, not merely darkness.

Taken together, this is a consistently excellent collection throughout. Each poem pulls you into a moment, an insight, a world. As they flow together this collection demonstrates a unified effect, if not quite a theme. It gives the impression of a down-to-earth mind perceiving the eyes in the shadows most of us pass by every day. Definitely worth seeking out, The Madness of Empty Spaces by David E. Cowen did not quite make this year’s Stoker Award final ballot, but exposure to it lingers. Find a copy and see for yourself what quality dark poetry is all about.

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To Call the Dark

“To Call the Dark”

Dust between its teeth;
Dessicated unbrushed food
Or simply years of absence
Ignored by apathy?

Condemned house
Taken apart, torn down;
Floorboards revealed
Confusion, surprise, shock.

Details delivered disgust:
Crushed cranium,
Shattered teeth,
Fractured eye sockets.

Violence summed this
Figure of hidden death.
Murder, they whispered,
Those humbled laborers.

Underfoot all those years.
Babies played on this floor.
Mice lived inside it.
Did they eat it hollow?

No other bones, look.
Where could they be?
Hidden in the walls?
Half the workers quit that day.

Demolishing continued,
Costing more time and cash.
No further bones arose.
Her skull remained mysterious.

Across town a grave unnoticed
Contained all but Harriet Alvira Morten’s
Empty little head; her daddy’s words:
If it weren’t attached you’d lose it.

She had, when Samuel Dryden Post
Detached it for his experiments
In arts he considered dark.
He had it for years in a velvet bag

Until his mother found the skull
While finally cleaning his room.
Appalled, she smashed the horror,
Calling it abomination when he got home.

He made a midnight gathering to
Put the pieces under floorboards.
No one knew he slept over her,
Dreaming of what he’d been taught
To call the dark.

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/ W B Kek

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Victorian Now Literacy


Why has 50 Shades of Gray sold like crazy despite everyone of any relevance condemning it as a badly-written, badly-conceived infantile book unworthy of attention?

No one reads for style. Maybe a handful of us, sure, but mostly people read ONLY for plot-points, with a strong preference for a fourth-grade reading level in sentence and scene construction. Keep the vocabulary simplistic, with the occasional big word carefully explained so they can feel oh so smart. Best exemplar is the prose of Arthur Conan Doyle.

This means discussion of quality falls on not only deaf but ignorant ears. Readers do not know what we’re talking about. Oh, good readers do. Literate readers, that tiny group, they know, but the masses who make 50 Shades a big seller have no clue. Tad’s right, it’s not a zero-sum game, it’s just Gresham’s law, is the thing: Bad writing forces out the good writing.

That’s what worries me about the popularity of empty fakes like 50 Shades. ERB did not preclude PKD but Gerald Kersh is already forgotten and Harlan Ellison will be, once he actually croaks instead of taking about it.

What’s sad but true: the best boil off. They become “writers’ writers” and are known in tiny coteries of literate appreciators. Meanwhile the bad forces out the good, there being no room for it, no patience. Exploitative pulp will always sell wider and faster than quality.

So maybe we should stop grousing when sub-literate crap floats. Instead, decide: Are you commercial or serious in your writing? Can’t be both, they won’t let you. Those who mix in quality with popularity are the ones we tend to admire but it’s deucedly hard.

As an example, Dickens is far less sentimentalist than he’s so often charged with being. Yes, he did indeed address the masses in their concerns, and spoke for the common man. However, he did not write down to them. His prose is as eloquent, as high and pure as any; the public back then was far more apt to be largely illiterate but those who were literate were actually up to reading Dickens.

When his installments came out, people who could read would stand on boxes and read the work aloud to rapt listeners. His stories penetrated to the whole society the way addictive mini-series or binge-watched shows do now, despite being “too hard to read” as many modern students complain.

Read the Victorian newspapers, or try to, and you’ll see what I mean about the standards and levels of general literacy having been higher in Victorian times. Today’s readers cannot read the average front page of a Victorian newspaper meant for general consumption.

We’ve lost much by thinning and diluting literacy in order to spread it wider, and now we see the GOP destroying literacy and education so it can rule with impunity.

Back to the debtor’s prisons and indentured servants, etc. Slavery in the mines, child labor, etc. Will this also mean a return to writers writing for themselves and for the people, the readers, by-passing corporate editors and gatekeepers in order to shrug off limitations and controls?

Let’s hope so.

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My Name is Marnie by Tracy L. Carbone Shadow Ridge Press, 2014 trade pb, 245p, ISBN: 978-989-77963-0 cover design by Kealan Patrick Burke

Marnie, Carbone
A mystery ghost story with oomph, crisply written, with sharply-drawn characters, this book is a one-sitter. It pulls you through seamlessly, adding layer, shadowing the tangles, and delivering you to a denouement that has you wondering how it got so complex so fast.

Carbone’s prose is clean. Her approach to scenes is to being in media res and let the actions carry you through. It’s effective, especially when she is dropping hints about the crimes, the ghostly goings on, and the possible reasons for it all.

A compleat professional, Carbone does not let the reader lapse into dull spots or wander off for a cup of coffee. Her story, and the plight of Marnie, is compelling: Fired from her job after her husband is murdered, pregnant, Marnie seeks a place of refuge so she can have the baby and get her shattered life back on some kind of acceptable track.

She finds a lovely cottage in a charming New England village. Almost at once, though, unsettling aspects arise. A deja-vu familiarity with the cottage and town, for one. Her importunate, perhaps crazy neighbor, an intrusive guy who keeps saying upsetting things that make little sense. Dire warnings, hints of hauntings, and a hair-trigger nervous energy make the man seem crazy, yet Marnie senses things that might just confirm some of what he’s saying.

Who is he? Does she know him? Does he know her? Is he a stalker?

Then the little girl shows up. Sad, silent, and misty. The visits are short and spectral, puzzling Marnie. She moves from startled through fearful to curious. What is the ghostly little girl trying to lead her to? What does she want her to realize? A part of her must know. Another, deeper part screams at her to stop, to run, to get away from the deepening shadows.

When the revelations come it is an unraveling worthy of a Hitchcock film and darker than one of Clive Barker’s night frights. This is an enjoyable horror mystery ghost story that deserves to be filmed in 1940s style. Grab a copy at www.shadowridgepress.com or from your favorite small press source.

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Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead by Christine Wicker Harper trade pb, 2004, 282pp, $13.95 8pp b&w photo insert, ISBN: 0-06-008667-X

Lily Dale by Wicker
Lily Dale, on Cassadagah Lake in upstate New York, is one of those places where a spell has been cast, or conjured. It is a small town, a hamlet or village really, of Spiritualists. Founded in 1879, it is the oldest Spiritualist community in the world. That we know of.

At the time Wicker wrote this book it had a population of 450 residents in the summer, although upwards of 20,000 tourists flocked there. In winter months the place shrinks as registered mediums go elsewhere, usually south, leaving only about half the houses inhabited year-round.

Spiritualism is generally credited to, or blamed on, the Fox sisters, Kate & Margaret, who communicated, they claimed, with spirits who used knockings or table or wall rapping in elementary codes. This began in 1848 when their family moved into a house in Hydesville, NY. Later confessions said these knockings were faked, and those confessions were later recanted, having been issued in order to get money offered them by religious groups opposed to encouraging spirit communications. One’s conscience, or cynicism, must be the guide here.

While it is evident such things as spirit boards, divining rods, pendulums, crystal gazing, scrying, and other means of communing with spirits had existed for millennia — ask the Delphic Oracles, for instance — the Hyde Sisters created a huge public stir and interest in Spiritualism, or the communication with spirits, exploded in popularity. Spirits were generally thought to be the shades of dead people but demons and djinn and other forms quickly got into the act, much to Harry Houdini’s disgust.

Christine Wicker is an excellent, sharp-eyed reporter with a charmingly ironic take on things. Her approach to Lily Dale is part personal quest, curiosity, and assignment. She is skeptical but open-minded and fair, and eventually learns to let things flow without questioning them too much at the time. This helps her experience things she otherwise might have missed.

This is an engaging, amusing book full of wonderful anecdotes, trenchant character sketches of various eccentrics, and a human, genuine affection for her subjects, even as she keeps their claims mostly at arm’s length. Turns out, most of the folks in Lily Dale are highly skeptical of each other, too. Turns out, they are a contented, happy lot, and not nearly as mindless as many would have us think.

Finding ways to be happy in this world, this veil of tears, is not easy, but it can be, if we get out of our own way. Wicker finds this out slowly, and never fully. By fighting and struggling and straining to make her way in life, she made things hard for her. By learning to accept things as they are, and as they come, she was able to relax into a much more productive mode, even though she was never a slacker. Far from it.

We meet so many folks she includes a partial list of characters in the back of the book. She also includes a couple pages of excellent suggestions for further reading, prime among them the work of William James, the famous and ground-breaking American psychologist, brother to writer Henry.

Much of Lily Dale is Wicker confirming, to her own surprise, James’s conclusions from the 1800s, when he was a found of and active in the Society for Psychical Research. Where Houdini found only cynical exploitation of the bereaved, James found genuine flashes of amazing ability amidst the dross of fakery and fraud. He even understood that some genuine mediums learned to fake in order to continue pleasing clients when their natural gifts got tired.

Wicker does not set out to prove or disprove. Her interest is the people. Why do they believe and behave as they do? Does it help or harm them? Is it based on delusions, projected hopes, or is it mere patter, a carny barker’s advertisement for this or that type of ESP? She is also deeply interested in the spiritual impulse in most people. Why do we respond to such things so deeply? Why do some crave it enough to allow themselves to be duped?

These and other questions she raises are serious but the book maintains a generally light, bemused tone. It sprawls among many people she meets, to the point she must remind us now and then which person she is now talking about. Oddly, this lack of overt order doesn’t matter by the end of the book. It was never about portraiture.

Christine Wicker is a hard-core physics devotee. She is a hard-headed skeptic. She is reality-based and grounded in materialism. These flaky folks with their readings are alien to her and she is justifiably curious. She is as unlike today’s cheating, lying debunkers as a poltergeist is from a residual haunt. She is not desperate to dismiss even the discussion of things paranormal, as the debunkers are. She has no fear, no dread, and no mistrust of reality, despite baggage from her religious upbringing, which she readily admits to.

This book was a brief sensation when it first came out but it’s nearly forgotten now in the welter of ghost hunting merchandise flooding us today. It’s well worth finding and reading; check your library or the used books section of your favorite online provider. Skeptic, believer, or anyone else will enjoy this book thanks to its discursive style and level-headed, honest accounts.

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The Demon of Brownsville Road: A Pittsburgh Family’s Battle with Evil in Their Home by Bob Cranmer and Erica Manfred Berkeley mass market pb, 2014 $9.99, ISBN: 978-0-425-26855-1 appendix, 8pp b&w photo insert

Demon Brownsville

Well made book, physically, with a striking sepia cover, soft paper, and clear typesetting. Well-written book; the ghost writer Erica Manfred, an experienced journalist and essayist, does a very good job of delivering Bob Cranmer’s story of a haunting and his response to it in his own distinct voice.

Too good a job. His self-impressed, fatuous bragging, his ego mania, and his narcissism combines with a huge urge to testify about the massive religion chip on his messianic shoulder to make him one of the most repellent liars one could hope to encounter. He makes Holden Caulfield almost tolerable.

In consequence I abandoned trying to ignore Cranmer’s twittery for any meat that might be in the book. Unreadable for anyone allergic to right wing entitlement, religious bigotry, and dumb-ass pronouncements about the paranormal from a typically fearful and willfully ignorant god-yap view. Avoid.

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Doctor Sleep by Stephen King Scribner hc, 1st edition, 531pp ISBN: 978-1-4767-2765-3

Doctor Sleep

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Scribner hc, 1st edition, 531pp
ISBN: 978-1-4767-2765-3

The sequel to The Shining, in which Danny is all grown up, succeeds in remaining consonant to the original novel enough to justify considering them a duad, a single whole in two distinct parts.

This is not to say the tone is the same. This is not a direct sequel, until the very end, where there is a show-down scene at the site of the now-burned Outlook, in Colorado, where Jack Torrance, Danny’s father, died. Where spirits wait for vengeance. Where there is emotional and spiritual power for all, light and dark.

Prior to that we see that Danny has had a rough life. He’s inherited his father’s propensity to get drunk; in his case, to dampen the shining, which can otherwise drive him crazy with all the ghostly chatter and appalling insights. He takes the latter syllable of redrum to heart for a long while.

We meet him during his last-ditch effort to pull himself out of the self-destructive downward spiral he has been in too long. He comes to a tidy New England town that has a small gauge steam locomotive for tourists during the season. He falls for its charm and, even better, finds a job at a local hospice where his skills with the shining allow him to help ease dying patients’ final moments.

He’s doing well and even psychically links with a little girl named Abra who may well be even stronger and better at shining than he is. His bond with her grows through occasional mental images, words on a chalk board, and other hints, winks, and nudges, but eventually they are communicating fully. They are birds of a feather and support each other. He’s like an uncle to her.

Less avuncular, more threatening is the True Knot. This is a group of travelers who look like slightly below-average retirees and families in battered RVs who roam the United States in a ragged group. What is not evident at first glimpse is how dark a group this is, and how old, and how powerful. Seems they like to feed on people, on the energies they release when tortured to death. They even bottle this energy and feed off it during lean times.

They’re hungry again, and if they don’t get what they call steam, which is what Danny calls shining, they will perish. Can’t have that, now can they?

Sensing Abra’s great power like an X station from across the border of humanity, they zero in, trying to find her so they can torture her to death or maybe, just maybe, keep her alive and tortured so she keeps producing that sweet steam.

Danny and Abra just can’t catch a break, and will not be left alone to enjoy their unusual lives. Not with the True Knot around.

King weaves the story lines well, bringing things together naturally into the kind of all-out show-down we crave. Shades of The Stand struck me, but perhaps that is in the nature of such chiaroscuro tales. Harsh contrast breeds apocalyptic conflict, and readers benefit.

Not knowing what to expect from a sequel to The Shining, I trusted King and let the book work its charms. It satisfied me in surprising ways and one can but applaud the bravura performance. Stephen King is King Stephen for a reason, and he continues to get better with age and experience. That can be said about few writers at his current stage of career.

Ignore the naysayers and grab a copy, especially if you loved The Shining and always wondered what happened to that intense little boy and his finger-pal who lives in his mouth, Tony. Incidentally, King also supplies some rational, reasonable explanations for his concept of the shining. Bonus material, no strings of goo attached.

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