Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Little Tour Bus on the Prairie

This weekend we went to Dighton, Kansas, to celebrate my step-grandmother's 90th birthday. The celebration lasted three days, and good times were had by all.

Kinfolk and friends from all over the place gathered Friday evening at G'ma's house. After the hellos, handshakes, great food, and companionship, we broke for the night. We stayed at Shay's Inn, a tiny little place that was clean, quiet and pleasant. Its' eleven rooms was also full to overflowing, which turns out to be the case most of the time, so if you're passing through call ahead for reservations.

Saturday morning we met again at G'ma's house for breakfast. Then a tour bus came up a little later from Montezuma, Kansas. The plan was to visit all the places in the area that were important to G'ma Roberts. It was overcast and foggy when we started, but it cleared as time went by. We visited houses, farms and an old country school house for lunch. One of the more memorable stops was at the Bentley gravesite overlooking the old Butterfield Overland Dispatch Route. The view from this grave is really nice. As Carl said, "You almost see the old stage coming up through the valley and going off west across the prairie." The route went in hops all the way to Denver from this point. There is no road there now, (see the picture below) and it was a real experience riding the tour bus across the tufts of blue grama and buffalo grass. G'ma Roberts talked about her experiences as we traveled, sometimes using the bus' microphone, other times using a megaphone!

At four o'clock the bus had to get on to Dodge City, Kansas, for another tour, so we headed back to Dighton. We had supper at the Calico Apron, a family-owned catering concern. The food was outstanding. Call 'em at 620-397-5914 to try their cooking for yourself. The building at 140 S. Lane is large and has quite an interesting history.

Sunday morning we got together again at the Calico Apron for breakfast. We had a slide show of old (and some not so old) photographs. Later we went to Church and with all the relatives, we practically doubled the attendance. The parishioners were gracious and generous enough to share a potluck dinner with us.

We had a great time and hope to see everyone again soon. Most of all it was great to see G'ma Roberts again and wish her a happy 90th birthday and many more to come.

Johnny and Barbara ... again

Yeppers, I'm taking Steven E. Wedel's class "Writing Character Driven Horror Fiction" for the third time. It's being taught at the Moore-Norman Vo-Tech (again). The class is a lot of fun, informative and just plain worthwhile.

Yes, I've said this before, but ... unanswered question in "The Night of the Living Dead" is what happened to Johnny between the time his head was smashed on the headstone and when he pulled Barbra out of the house. The events of these infamous minutes are left as an exercise for the student. Here is my homework for class. Let me know if this is how you think the "missing minutes" passed.

* * * *


Johnny awoke to sound, the desperate buzzing of a thing in a web. It was above him, screaming, shuttering between weathered marble headstones rusted by lichens, withering in the undignified yowl of a moon frozen to a spot in the sky.

This odd buzzing burned in his head like a tuning fork on overdrive. It was hard to breathe. Lungs pumped but nothing happened. He gulped at the air as though he were drowning, forcing each mouthful down deep, and that awful winged vibrating buzz crunched, spackling his dry mouth with rancid black pepper gruel.

He sat up, gagging and spitting the goo of flies from of his mouth. The broad canopy of the spider's web blanketed his face, and he flailed his arms to free himself. He screamed.

"Oh God, this is not happening to me!" he said. "It can't be happening."

He got to his feet, still clawing at the spider silk on his neck and coat. What kind of dream was this? He looked at the ground around his feet. His glasses were gone, and so was the car. Was this some sort of dream? When he remembered - that man, the stink of mold and compost, falling, hitting his head, everything - a dread hit him.

"Barbara?" he called out. His dry and swollen tongue clucked the syllables, smearing them into a mess of b's and n's.

"Where are you?"

He pinched himself hard in the webbing of his fingers to wake up. Nothing changed. It didn't even hurt. He didn't feel anything at all.

"Barbara!" he cried.

Where in the hell was she? He spun on his heels scanning the cemetery. Shadow sprites whirled under the brooding elms. Everything went fuzzy. He lost his balance and fell. He landed on his hands and knees, panting.

He felt a snarling cramp in the pit of his stomach. In a few seconds its gradual creeping pinch seized his whole body. He was certain he would be sick. Flecks of light danced in his eyes. There was an emptiness inside him, and just acknowledging it, knowing that it was there, released the clench it had his insides. He wouldn't stand up so quickly this time.

He had to find Barbara. First, he needed his glasses. He patted semicircles in the damp grass. A sickening crunch nearby meant someone else found them first. It was a woman in red dress. The woman didn't notice Johnny. Johnny called out, the words mangled in his mouth. In reply, the woman muttered something tortured, low and incomprehensibly insane.

She was one of Them, like the man who had come after Barbara. Johnny lunged at her, and she crashed over a granite headstone. Where her feet had been, tiny pieces of glass glittered in the grass, both lenses smashed. Years of impotent rage found a focus in this strange woman, and a murderous fire burned in Johnny.

The woman climbed back to her feet, shrieking as loudly as she could. With a fast right cross, Johnny knocked her down again. Her back snapped across the concrete curb like a wishbone. She threw her arms and head into wild spasms dictated by some electrical violence more than any coherent thought, a violence that no longer reached below the waist. Her legs were dead.
He recoiled from her thrashing. That's when he noticed the others. There were so many of Them around.

"Barbara!" he cried.



The horrible people rambled by, just trudging in a stream through this cemetery and down the hill. He stepped back and they passed by him without a glance back - or down. The shrieking woman in the red dress was trampled by the mob eagerly moving down the hill, even as she began pulling herself along the driveway with her elbows and hands bent into claws, dragging those dead legs behind like fishing weights.

"What the hell are you - things?" Johnny screamed. The words boiled in his tight throat, and came out as a gurgle of constants.

Another man brushed against Johnny, pushing him backwards. Johnny's left foot twisted off the pavement and a wet crack echoed up from the ankle. Instinctively Johnny reached to protect it, to soothe it, and he screamed. He knew what to expect from that sound. Four years ago, he'd broken his ankle trying to ski. It was always stiff after that. The pain rush didn't come through.
He gingerly put the foot down and tested it with a little weight. It was board stiff, but didn't hurt. It probably would hurt like hell later, so he'd better hurry up and find Barbara. If something happened to her, Johnny wouldn't be able to face going back to Pittsburg. Mother would never let him hear the end of it.

A great relief washed over him when he saw the car at the base of the hill below the cemetery. Barbara could have locked herself in and these things out. At least she'd be safe. As fast as he could, he limped on bad ankle at the edge of the pavement and the stream of ghouls.
When he got close enough to see that the car was empty, crumpled alongside the tree, its windows smashed out. He thrummed his fists on the roof of the car. Barbara was gone.

"Why me? It's not fair!" he groaned.

He stabbed a finger at the sky.

"Why, God, why?"

Barbara was as timid as a titmouse. How dare He let something happen to her? She wouldn't last a minute on her own.

His head began tingling again. It was just like a foot or a leg would go to sleep if he had been sitting on it wrong. That buzz was coming back. It was louder this time. He clamped his mouth shut and pressed his hands against his ears to make it stop, but the pressure made it worse. It felt like an electrical short arcing across the synapses of his brain. A paralysis seized him and he fell against the car unable to move a single muscle in his body. He couldn't flex his chest to breathe. His mind raced. He even thought his heart was still. Was this what it's like to die? The body goes before the brain, the mind.

Please, he thought, please let me find Barbara.

It came to him like predator in the night. It shook him hard. It was a hunger more powerful than any he had ever felt. It was a craving. It had a name too. He knew what all of these things marching down the road were after - Barbara.

Please, he thought, I'll do ... anything.

It let go of his diaphragm. With all his might, he forced his ribs to flex, and a whistling thimbleful of air came inside. Each breath after that drew in more air. He should have felt dizzy from the oxygen rushing into his body, or at least from it being gone so long, but there wasn't any of that. He felt like he was standing on a mountaintop in the thin blue air above the clouds. His body weighed a ton and it took plenty of effort just to think.

He rested that way for a moment longer. There was plenty to see. The farmhouse across the field was lit up like a beacon. The lights hurt his eyes, but the column of monsters was aimed directly for the place. That is where Barbara had to be. That one desire, hunger, directing this army of beasts steered them toward the farmhouse like water to the sea.

The little farmhouse was surrounded. The mob battering on the doors would overcome its defenses soon. That much was inevitable. Their hammering racket sealed the last option for those inside, one of whom would be his little sister Barbara.

Depression settled over Johnny. He wondered what, if anything, he would be able to do against such a mob. What if, he thought, and then he didn't dare answer. He would have started to long for a cigarette, but all that was the old Johnny. He had a new craving now, and he didn't dare answer it either.

The awful buzzing started in his right leg before sparking through his stomach and up into his head. Its electrical jerking made him spasm. Johnny felt his body giving in to "the disease", whatever it was. None of his anger or the bargain he'd sought before in a moment of desperation had done anything at all to slow it down. All of this, these changes, everything, might be permanent soon. The last battle would be fought in his mind. He had to hold out long enough to do something for Barbara.

Johnny fought the numbness, reconnecting thought with action. First a fingertip fluttered and then another. Soon enough, he had control of his hand back. When he was able to push way from the car, he did so. In the staggering crowd he was faceless and alone, but marching with them in the strange parade to the farmhouse across the field.

He didn't even notice the barrier until he was upon it. A weed covered ditch crowned by a barbed wire fence five thorny rows high. There was no other way through. The glittering farmhouse beyond the fence was just a quick walk away through a flat hay meadow.

A phalanx of the groaning things were shredding their limbs trying to climb the vicious barbed wire fence, others were mired in the waist-deep weeds, mud and water that filled the ditch.
One of them bumped Johnny from behind, and then another. The throng crushed forward forcing him along with them. Johnny tripped into the weeds and fell into the water. The dark syrup water boiled up his nose and into his mouth. Others surged forward. Johnny felt feet on his back driving him deeper into the water. The pressure built in his ears and then his face hit the muck bottom. Foot after foot stamped into his back ramming his head down, driving the pine needles and elm leaves digested by the ditch further into his mouth, packing filth down his throat.

Johnny fought against the soupy mud bottom with his hands, but the weight of those stomping over his back was too much. Then there were hands against him instead of feet and shoes and boots. He flailed against the hands and flipped over. The hands snaked across his chest, its finger tentacles pinned him to the bottom. A looping, animated swath of red fabric clung to his face. He felt hands dragging the dead weight of legs over him. Finally he had to breathe. He clutched at the air inside him and the image of a terrified Barbara.

Choice. He could only hang onto to one of them. It had to be Barbara. He let all his air out at once and in one gasp drew what he could. He choked against the inward rush of cool wet murk. He felt it fill his chest and the weight of it held him on the bottom even as the legs of the body dragging itself over him passed.

That buzzing returned. He felt it inside his bowels and it crept up into his head. It grew so loud that it might drive him insane. His body writhed against the gnawing buzz inside him. Nerves sparked, and the twitching spasms got vicious. A blight entered his mind that he could not consciously stop. Hunger for meat came upon him like a fist at full swing. It met that image of Barbara as it crashed through his defenses.

It struck him that this was so perfectly natural, even logical. This was the way things had to be. A sadness lifted. He was ready. There was nothing weighting him down anymore, and he simply stood and climbed out of the ditch and then over the barbed wire fence.

Johnny swung his stiff weight foot over foot. Even the unintended movements of his arms and head seemed perfectly ordinary to him now. An unwanted call came from his body. The others knew what it meant even if he didn't understand it himself. He didn't know how he had made a sound that loud, but that didn't to matter to him now. He was so close to finding Barbara. Everything was fine, he couldn't have planned it any better.

He saw the lights inside the house, and the scurrying figures inside it scream as the mob wrenched the boarded doors down. There was Barbara screaming. Her tiny hands drawn up to shield her face, eyes widened in terror and then recognition.

Another unwanted call came from Johnny's body. The others heard him and acknowledged its meaning. Somehow he had avoided understanding it before. The long pursuit was over, he had found Barbara. The voice inside him cried out again and he understood it too. It answered that craving inside him with a single word - "Mine!"

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A disturbing bit of fiction ...

"Something Haunts Us All" by four time Bram Stoker winner Brian A. Hopkins is the kind of short story collection that stands up and demands to be noticed. In an extremely quick one hundred pages, Brian tells seven stories, two of which were published here for the first time. The ultimate recognition of the quality of these stories is that each and every one of them have gone on to reprinted again and again since the original 1995 publication of "Something Haunts Us All".

Two of the stories are especially disturbing. The first one, "Night Bite", is about a man, a mosquito and Hell. Not just any hell either. No, this is a southern Hell with a banjo moment that makes "Deliverance" seem tame. The ending will keep 'em talking for years.

"The Night Was Kind to Loretta" shares a southern slant. The illustrations by Donald W. Schank really bring the stories to life, none more so than "The Night Was Kind to Loretta". Brutal, honest and raw - the permanent state of things in a Louisiana bayou and the trunk of a Chevy Camaro - both places where history repeats itself in the most revolting way.

Brian's mastery of dialogue and characterization shine through in "Something Haunts Us All". He adds rich details that pop the stories into different energy levels and states. He layers the language with meaning and depth that makes the stories fun to read again and again.

"Something Haunts Us All" is a fast read and worth the effort to find a copy of this limited edition gem.
The seven stories in "Something Haunts Us All" are:

1. "Scarecrow's Dream" -- fantasy; published in The Best of the Midwest's Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, Volume 2, Mar 93; reprinted in The Barrelhouse, Vol 2, No 1, Jun 93; reprinted in Something Haunts Us All, 1995; reprinted in Flesh Wounds, Apr 99, Apr 02; reprinted in These I Know By Heart, Nov 01.

2. "Gaffed" -- horror; published in Something Haunts Us All, 1995; reprinted in White Knuckles, Vol One, Issue Eight, Sept 98 (available for $4 from POB 973, New Providence, NJ, 07974-0973); reprinted in Flesh Wounds, Apr 99, Apr 02; reprinted at Count Gore's Creature Feature, Dec 02; received an honorable mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Volume Nine.

3. "The Night Was Kind to Loretta" -- horror; published in The Tome, Issue #10, Nov 92; reprinted in Something Haunts Us All, 1995; reprinted in Flesh Wounds, Apr 99, Apr 02; reprinted at Count Gore's Creature Feature in conjunction with an interview, Oct 00; received an honorable mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Volume Six.

4. "Night Bite" -- horror; published simultaneously (kinda) in Eldritch Tales, Issue #30, May 95, and the collection, Something Haunts Us All, 1995; reprinted in Flesh Wounds, Apr 99, Apr 02.

5. "To Walk Among the Living" -- horror; published in The Midnight Zoo, Vol #2, Issue #2, Jun 92; reprinted in Something Haunts Us All, 1995; reprinted in Flesh Wounds, Apr 99, Apr 02; translated to French and reprinted as "Je Marche Au Milieu Des Vivants" in Tenebres #9, Apr 00; reprinted in These I Know By Heart, Nov 01; reprinted as "Je Marche Au Milieu Des Vivants" in 11 Minutes En Septembre, Spring 06.

6. "Thunder of the Water" -- horror; published in Aberations (sic), Issue #2, Feb 92; reprinted in Something Haunts Us All, 1995; reprinted in Flesh Wounds, Apr 99, Apr 02.

7. "And Though a Million Stars Were Shining" -- horror; published in After Hours, Issue #22, Apr 94; reprinted in Something Haunts Us All, 1995; reprinted in Flesh Wounds, Apr 99, Apr 02; received an honorable mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Volume Eight; translated to German and reprinted online by Storisende Verlag, July 2000; reprinted in These I Know By Heart, Nov 01; reprinted at the Horror Authors Network, Jan 2002.

The histories of these stories hails from the bibliography link on Brian's webpage. (http://www.sff.net/people/brian_a_hopkins/)
Stop by and say "Hi!". He's always got something interesting going on over there.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

A strange, strange read ...

Caitlin R. Kiernan’s "Frog Toes and Tentacles" is an experiment in eldritch sensuality that makes absolutely certain that you'll never forget you were in the laboratory with her. It's surprisingly good - as good as it is disturbing.

Not many books begin with a disclaimer like this: ' ... Should your idea of "kinky" begin and end with fleece-lined handcuffs and spankings, be warned ... '. Not many have to, but this one does.

This limited edition gem reads very fast. At only 116 pages, 14,000 words more or less, the images flicker by all too quickly. These shorts are erotic, first person explorations of the eerie, weird, alien and uncanny.

It's eight tales take us from a familiar seashore to the warm pool of a Salamander working girl to the dark workshop of a puppeteer with many waypoints in between. The companions chosen for us begin with a fish demon, a lycanthrope, and get more imaginative as the pages go by. This exploration feels like an experiment, the author's first to be sure. It's voice builds from a trembling start to brilliance by the end. The characters grow richer and more adventurous with each passing story. By the time "Pump Excursion" comes, Caitlin's brilliant characterization and atmospherics are at their best. The final story, "Ode" to Katan Amano, is an absolute masterpiece that combines the very best of this genre with Caitlin's signature styling.

"Frog Toes and Tentacles" is a "quickie" that really hits the spot.

Frog Toes and Tentacles
By Caitlin R. Kiernan

Illustrated by Vince Locke

Subterranean Press
Limited: 1-59606-050-6
Trade: 1-59606-051-4

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Good, but could have been great ...

The first book assignment in my Strategic Leadership and Decision Making (SLDM) elective for Air War College was "American Generalship: Character Is Everything: The Art of Command" by Edgar F. Puryear Jr. The level of leadership this study aims at is very high indeed - the ranks of the general officers. The kind of strategy that leaders at this level create and conceptualize, during both peace and war, involves all of the nation's forces, and applies itself through large-scale, long-range planning and development, to ensure security or victory. This book deals exclusively with the sort of character, mentorship and values that a leader at this level must possess, and it does so with a tidal wave of good examples and meaningful quotes.

The subtitle of the book, "Character is Everything: The Art of Command", defines the focus of this study in leadership. Although the leaders studied in this book are chosen from fairly narrow sections of time and from only one country (USA), those times are the greatest perils. Ike, Patton, MacArthur, and Clark are drawn from World War 2. Grant, Sherman, Lee, and Jackson are cited from the American Civil War. Extensive passages on Billy Mitchell's experience as well as that of his ardent supporters Hap Arnold and Tooey Spaatz. George Washington's contribution is discussed in detail. There is a far too small, albeit tasty, portion for more recent leaders, like Colin Powell, Schwarzkopf, Meyer, and Creech, who have had to deal with the today's hyperpolitics, scandal-centric journalism, perpetual war and a evaporating budgets.

As good as "American Generalship: Character Is Everything: The Art of Command" is, some important details of the leadership experience are left in rather soft focus. The rationale behind Operation Market Garden (p288, listed in other references as "disastrous"), continued support for Wedemeyer (p318-9, a similar set of "circumstantial" charges against an officer today would certainly be career ending), and clearing the Hooverville shantytown built by "Bonus Army" marchers (p264-265, brutal tactics used and the unfortunate remarks made at the press conference that immediately followed). These details could have provided the all important context that framed these actions and decisions. Character is revealed through actions inside context.

More examples could have been provided about leaders who did not read books. The book only lists one leader, the confederate Longstreet (p152-153), who did not read extensively. On the other hand, the narrative bogs down with mountains of evidence that reading books, particularly biographies and historical works, helps leaders think more broadly and learn from the timeless lessons of the past.

All things considered, "American Generalship: Character Is Everything: The Art of Command" is certainly worth a read. It is a very good book that could have been great if only it had spent a little more time in the hands of an editor.