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It’s time for me to rewatch—actually, in most cases, watch for the first time—the series of Frankenstein movies produced by Hammer Films from the late fifties through the mid-seventies. There are six films starring Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein:

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)

The first two tie together more or less, then the third is basically a reboot with the continuity picking up again after that, after a fashion. I’ll address continuity or lack thereof in the individual posts. I’ll be watching the Cushing films in order, then 1970’s definitely out-of-continuity The Horror of Frankenstein, with Ralph Bates stepping in as Frankenstein. And I’ll be writing snarky spoiler-filled comments, so let’s get to it.

curseoffrankenstein_us30x40First up, The Curse of Frankenstein, in which Christopher Lee (Dracula to Cushing’s Van Helsing in the Hammer Dracula series) plays the unfortunate creature stitched together by Frankenstein and his increasingly reluctant tutor/assistant, Paul Krempe. Yes, you read that right, Krempe starts as a tutor (hired by the young Frankenstein himself !) and then just stays with the baron until he becomes his worried sidekick.

But let’s back up to young Frankenstein, so to speak. We meet him early in the film after his mother dies, and we immediately see that, for the most part, the teenage baron (his father died years earlier) is a self-centered, unlikeable jerk weasel. He doesn’t grow out of it.

The adult Victor brings his cousin Elizabeth to his estate to become his bride, apparently only for appearances, because he exhibits no real affection for her and spends very little time with her, as that would cut into his experiments as well as the time he needs for boinking the maid.

As Frankenstein ruthlessly gathers the necessary parts for his Creature, Krempe increasingly spends all his time 1) telling Frankenstein to stop, without doing much of anything to actually stop him, and B) telling Elizabeth she should leave, without telling her why. For her part, Elizabeth is always cutting Frankenstein slack, even though he continues to treat her abominably (that final word choice may have been influenced by Peter Cushing having been in the lesser-known Hammer Film The Abominable Snowman [1957]).

The maid has more spine than Krempe and Elizabeth put together, threatening to expose Frankenstein for all his shenanigans (including knocking her up), and then she actively looks for evidence in the laboratory. Unfortunately for her, this allows Frankenstein to lock her in a room with the Creature. Problem solved for the Baron . . . or so it seems.

But, wait, the Creature! Lee doesn’t appear until fifty minutes into the eighty-three minute film—what with earlier experiments and then finding the necessary parts and sticking them together and all—and once he’s finally unwrapped, he has frightfully little to do. As in the Boris Karloff version of the story (and unlike the original novel) Frankenstein’s creation doesn’t speak, and after various mishaps reduce his brain to chip dip, he’s little more than a half-trainable animal that, one imagines, would make a lot of messes on the carpet if he survived long enough for Frankenstein to try to housebreak.

But high jinks ensue, and the Creature ends up dead and dissolved in acid, which pins the maid’s murder—justly so—on Frankenstein. Krempe has apparently gotten up the courage to lie to the police so that Frankenstein is the only person claiming there was a reanimated monster at his estate. As the movie ends, the baron is being led to the guillotine and the audience has no reason to feel sorry for him as he begs for his life.

All that said, you may think I dislike the movie, but, no, I’m quite fond of it. Although the baron is twisted and evil and the other main characters generally simpering and ineffectual, there is something about the unreserved glee the film takes in its Grand Guignol plot that still entertains. Although tame by today’s standards, the amount of  blood and body parts—in vivid color, no less!—were shocking in its day, and the performance of Peter Cushing still infuses much of the film with a disturbing creepiness. And one could argue that the aristrocratic baron prefigures characters like, say, Patrick Bateman of American Psycho: rich, privileged, self-involved, and devoid of genuine human feelings.

It’s a solid and gruesome start to the series. Next time, The Revenge of Frankenstein.

[Years ago I watched a bunch of Hammer’s Dracula movies and blogged some thoughts on them. You can find the first post here on my old Live Journal site, then just click the “hammer time” tag at the bottom to find the rest; read from the bottom up.]

The younger generations today may not be familiar with the Vietnam War’s infamous My Lai Massacre. On March 16, 1968, a company of American soldiers went on a rampage, killing hundreds of Vietnamese civilians, including women and children, committing other heinous crimes along the way, including rape and the mutilation of bodies.

I find myself thinking about My Lai during these troubled times of racist violence perpetrated by the police upon our citizens. Because at My Lai an American helicopter pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr., saw what was happening and did what he could to stop it—including telling his crew to open fire on their fellow soldiers if those soldiers fired upon the women, children, and old men that Thompson was trying to evacuate. Thompson and his crew were awarded various medals for their heroism.

The story of Hugh Thompson Jr. should be required reading for police officers. If we are to stem the tide of murders committed by the cops, we need other cops to follow in Thompson’s footsteps. We need cops who will put themselves between citizens and the guns of other cops when they recognize a cop has lost control. And, really, how good a cop are you if you stand by while a fellow cop does bad things and you don’t try to stop it?

 

 

It’s con season, as noted over on the Generations Geek blog. I will be at CONvergence over the Fourth of July weekend and at Shore Leave the weekend of July 15. Cons are a weird experience for me. Although I’ve been a sci-fi geek essentially my entire life, cons were not a big deal for me for decades. I think part of that is because I grew up in northern Minnesota, far from any conventions. Combine that with my neuroses around crowds and strangers and places I haven’t been before—imagine that, a neurotic writer!—and you can see why I wasn’t rushing out to cons even after I moved to the Twin Cities, where there are many wonderful cons. But then I started being a writer guest at Shore Leave, thanks to Star Trek fiction. For years, Shore Leave was the only con I regularly attended, halfway across the country, even though there were lots of cons in my own backyard. Finally, a few years ago, I started going to CONvergence as a writer guest, and I’ve grown quite fond of it. But cons are still roller coasters for me, full of ego boosts, awkward social interactions, reunions with old friends, and crowd-induced claustrophobia. So if you ever meet me at a con and I look a bit skittish, like a dog during a thunderstorm, give me a moment, my mood will soon swing back the other way!

Still not really talking about what I’m not talking about: Star Trek fan films. Trek fandom has been biting its own tail for months about this, and with the fan film guidelines CBS and Paramount have recently released, it’s gotten worse. I’m not going to rehash the whole story here. If you’re a fan you already know it; if you’re not, well, neither of us has the time or energy to go over the history. But I’m in the middle on this. I’ve watched and enjoyed fan films. I’ve considered writing for them, but never did. But, as a writer, I’m also big on intellectual property. And I’ve written official Star Trek fiction, published by Simon & Schuster—which, according to the guidelines, disqualifies me from working on a fan film. I don’t take that personally, but I was never really invested in the idea in the first place. Which brings me back to why I haven’t been talking about this. I know people on both sides of the issue, people who totally support the studio’s point of view and people who are deeply invested in fan films either as viewers or creators. Online debates have been intense, and there have been people on both sides who have—I like to give the benefit of the doubt and assume in the heat of the moment—veered off into regrettable personal attacks. The whole situation saddens me. It’s the fiftieth anniversary year of the franchise we all love, and instead of wholehearted celebration, there is instead an atmosphere of taking sides. No matter how many justifiable fingers can be pointed in either direction, the end result is disheartening.

It’s a good thing I’ve got that degree in how to be a freelancer in the new world of publishing. Oh, wait, that never happened. I really don’t think anyone in the industry really knows what they’re doing. Not in a bad way, like, “That guy is driving the wrong way on a one-way street,” but more like, “Uh . . . is this the detour? Is this even a road? Why have all the street signs been painted over?” So you’ve got a lot of people—writers and editors from beginners to pros alike—just trying to keep moving forward, but the rules keep changing, and the game board, instead of being a proper map, is just a white board anyone can erase and redraw with the full conviction that people on the internet seem to have about anything. All I want to do is write my little stories, get them out there for people to read, and somehow make a fair amount of money to pay the bills. That was hard enough in olden days when publishing was a relatively straightforward business that followed the same traditions it always had. Nowadays, on the frontier of e-books and print on demand, when big publishers are buying up self-publishing businesses like farm teams, it’s hard to know what to think. So I just keep on writing my little stories, and I try to get some printed traditionally and self-publish others, and I’ll see where it takes me. Check out my author page on Amazon, where you can see them all. (In theory. It’s kind of buggy. Because it’s not like a little site like Amazon has the resources to . . . oh, wait.)

Animals in Cheap Suits

That’s what humans are. Only a thinly woven layer of civilization covers millions of years of selfish animal urges. We wear that civilization like an ill-fitting rental tux, our primitive reptile brains always lurking and ready to burst out. Werewolves, Jekyll and Hyde, Bruce Banner and the Hulk—through such stories we recognize this on some level, but we are still loathe to admit it openly.

Why? people ask at every new atrocity, like this morning’s shooting in Florida. The answer is simple: because that’s what humans do. That’s bleak and pessimistic, some would say. Pragmatic and realistic, I would reply. But to acknowledge our darker selves is not to deny our better angels. Volunteers lined up to donate blood in the wake of the shooting, so many that some had to be turned away.

“You are at your very best when things are worst,” the visiting extraterrestrial of Starman says of humans. It’s a moving line in an Oscar-nominated performance by Jeff Bridges, but the sad truth underlying it is that those worst things have often come from our hands to begin with, as happened at closing time in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. The Starman could have said, “Some of you are at your best when others are at their worst.”

As eager as we are, through our tribal nature, to delineate those not of our tribe, those who are somehow other and therefore not deserving of our mercy or compassion, the surreal juxtaposition is that throughout the whole of human history and back into our hazy prehistoric past, there has been one human characteristic that crosses all boundaries of race and culture: our capacity for committing violence upon one another for all reasons great and small, from the significant to the nonexistent.

Will we ever rise above this? If a Starman visited us, but did not take human form, would we look out across the sea of human faces around the globe and finally see them all as if simply looking in a mirror? Would we then rise above the tribalism among ourselves—only to unleash it on those extraterrestrials so much more other than our fellow humans have ever been?

How many more millennia of civilization do we need to accumulate until our beasts within are as dead and buried as fossils, to be studied as inanimate relics instead of bloody reality? Or will we continue to stoke those inner flames of hate for all time, always finding some other rationalization, some new justification, to do to others what we would not want done to ourselves?

On days like today, it’s hard to find good answers.

I’m No. 1[,289,791]!

51JTLaVVaTL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Back at my old day job as an editor for Zenith Press, I would sometimes have authors call with concern about their Amazon ranking. “I was at X just last week, now I’m at X-1,245,619. What happened? What can we do?” My stock answer was to explain that no one really knows the algorithms Amazon uses to kick out those rank numbers. I had a joke to go with it, if the author seemed in the mood for it: “I think there’s just a big room with numbers on the floor, and a chicken walks through the room and wherever it poops, that’s your Amazon ranking.”

My opinion hasn’t changed much over the years. Exult in good numbers, it’s fun, but try not to get to hung up on the bad ones, because what the hell do they really mean? Let’s take a look at one of my little efforts, “The Squid that Came to Phil’s Basement,” a humorous Lovecraft pastiche. It was originally published in Space and Time Magazine in 2014, and I recently made it available as a Kindle Single. I’ve done almost no promotion for it, just a Tweet here and there, some Facebook posts, some earlier blog posts. I don’t exactly have millions of followers, so these things don’t reach a large audience.

For the week of 5/22, my average rank in e-books was #1,289,791. That was up 30% from a month ago, when it was at 1,841,556, but down 25% from last week at 1,034,844. But if we drill down into some niches, like, say, horror comedy, then my ranking skyrockets to #515. Huge leap, right? But there’s only about 1,600 titles in that category, putting me low in the top third. Could be worse, but, hey, I’m in the top third! But wait . . . how many sales gets me in the top third of horror comedy e-books? Let me check my sales for the week of 5/22 and . . . oh. Nada. Zip. Goose egg. I didn’t sell a single copy of “Squid” the week I was 515th of 1,626. So, what, did those below me sell negative numbers? How do a bunch of books that sold nothing get assigned a specific ranking? Maybe only 514 titles actually had sales and all the rest of us were ranked at 515. I do know that one week I bought a copy myself for my iPad so I could see how the final product looked, and that week my average overall rank jumped up to somewhere around 500,000. One sale propelled me from around a 1,000,000th to 500,000th. How does that work? That’s just it. No one knows.

Or maybe there is a way to figure it out if you put in the time. But that time, like trying to understand the current presidential campaign, is better spent writing. Or reading. For example, you could all buy  and read “The Squid that Came to Phil’s Basement,” and then I could see what my Amazon sales ranking does. Just as an experiment, you understand. For a friend.

2016-05-19 19.51.52I’ve been resisting upgrading my OS for five years because I knew several of my most-used and/or most-loved pieces of software would no longer work. I didn’t want to have to buy yet another version of Quicken (to be clear, that’s in the most-used department) and, dang, living without Rise of Nations is no way to live. I had a back-up computer, an old tower that I rarely used, running on older OS, but it had a small (by today’s standards) hard drive. So I embarked on a fabulously ridiculous and ridiculously fabulous journey of geekitude: I bought two new large hard drives for the tower, which has two drive bays, and installed two out-of-date OS versions, one per drive. Counting the updated OS on my desktop, and the unbelievably old OS 9 on my iBook, that means I now have not one, not two, not three, but four, FOUR different versions of the Mac OS running. Yeah, I’m just that geeky. But it gets better than that—or worse, depending on your point of view.

Because video games have a limited shelf life after which selling them seems pointless, I 2016-05-19 19.49.34tend to just throw them in a stack in the closet, not being able to bring myself to add them to the million of CDs already in our landfills (AOL install discs, WALL-E and I are looking at you). But now that I have all these legacy versions of the Mac OS available to me, I got busy installing all of those games in whichever was the highest OS they would run in. And—you better sit down—some of these games originally came on floppy disks, but I had transferred them to CDs decades ago when floppies were hit by an asteroid and went extinct. I’m almost done with this project, so I can now sit back and simply behold the glory of what I have created. So, now that you ask, at upper left, that is indeed 1998’s Yoot Tower running on my 2001 iBook. At right we have 1991’s SimAnt, which actually runs fine under the Classic emulation of OS 10.4 on the tower. Yoot Tower is buggy in emulation, so that had to go into OS 9 on the laptop. Back with SimAnt, I also have SimEarth (1990), SimLife (1992), SimFarm (1994), SimTown (1995), and SimSafari (1998). Holy crap. Somebody help me.

I’ve got a bunch more games all available to me across three computers . . . but, of course, I barely have time to play any of them. Not to mention all the new games I have on my iPad. This has always been an issue for me: buying more books, games, movies, and CDs than I can ever really appreciate. I’ve gotten much better and resist buying new stuff. But if anyone wants to play decades-old Mac games, I’ve got a museum right over here. By appointment only.

Minnesota Stories

IMG_2706I’ve been revising my short story “The Satellite Dish,” which is a follow-up to “The Mailbox” and takes place  three years later, in 1984. Back in my college years while I was working toward my English degree with an emphasis on creative writing, I generally wrote nongenre fiction for my classes, what is sometimes called “literary fiction,” but that always sounds so pompous that I’m reluctant to use the label.

The first one was “Me and the Mean Kid,” which was about Nicky and the rocky start he had with Jimmy, a kid in his new Twin Cities neighborhood. After that came “The New Kid,” where the tables had turned; now Jimmy and Nick are best friends and a new kid moves into the house between them. Around the time I graduated I wrote “The Mailbox,” about Nick’s grandparents on his father’s side, who live outside the small fictional town of Lewis near the real cities of Cloquet and Carlton (my home town) south of Duluth. I still have the first typewritten draft of that, as the photo shows.

There were other stories and lots of notes about the intertwining characters. The setting of the earliest story I’ve written is 1944. A number of the stories take place in the eighties and nineties because that’s when I was writing them. I had grand plans for two short story collections and a novel; I even wrote the first chapter of the novel. Its present day is 1995, but the bulk of the story would be a flashback to 1965. Not all of these details were known in the stories’ first drafts, but have been fleshed out and added in over the years.

At some point I started calling them the Minnesota Stories, and I still have a fondness for them. The ones that focus on the extended family tend to be nice little stories. There’s a subset of the Minnesota Stories set in Duluth that are more tangential and edgier, however. Some are about Nick’s dad’s cousin, but the rest are about people who he knows or crosses paths with. Those stories and vignettes are more Raymond Carver inspired than Garrison Keillor inspired.

As my schedule permits, I’ll probably continue revisiting these pieces, revising them and putting them out as e-books. Realistically, I can now imagine someday having a modest collection of stories and a novella. If I ever get there I would probably look into a print version: I like to think that could be a solid regional seller. But that is still down a long, dusty country road . . .

Clothes cover.pngClothes Make the Man and Other Crimes is my latest e-book, a collection of four crime stories. In “The Sun Dress,” a dress, an affair, and a gun lead to a surprising and explosive confrontation. Officer Peggy Roberts makes a traffic stop and hopes to catch a killer in “Clothes Make the Man.” The flash fiction “Details, Details” illuminates the research behind David’s perfect plan to kill his boss. Finally, “First Impression” is a night on the town with a cold-blooded assassin who has made going unnoticed the cornerstone of his profession.

The lead character of “Clothes Make the Man,” police officer Peggy Roberts, had a cameo in my second Kate Sullivan mystery story, “Of Murder and Minidonuts.” Roberts will return in the third Kate Sullivan story when I get around to writing it.

“Clothes Make the Man” was my contribution to Writes of Spring, an anthology edited by Gary Schulze and his wife Pat Frovarp, the then-owners of the fabulous Once Upon a Crime Mystery Bookstore in Minneapolis.

For more than a decade they provided unwavering support for mystery writers in general and Twin Cities writers in particular. Even though for years I had but one mystery short story to my credit—my first Kate Sullivan story, “Out of the Jacuzzi, Into the Sauna,” in Resort to Murder—they always invited me to participate in their annual Writes of Spring signing event. They provided my second mystery credit when they included “Clothes Make the Man” in Writes of Spring, which celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Writes of Spring and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the bookstore.

So I was particularly saddened to learn that Gary had passed away just as I was preparing to release Clothes Make the Man and Other Crimes. A big thanks to both Gary and Pat for everything they have done for the mystery community of writers and readers. It was well deserved when they won a Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 2011.

I’d also like to give a shout-out to Jeff Ayers, Kevin Lauderdale, and Michael Allan Mallory, whose insightful comments helped put an extra polish on each of the stories in Clothes Make the Man and Other Crimes.

SMPLogoI first stuck my toe into the water of self-publishing four years ago with “The Mailbox,” a revised version of my first pro sale. Then I got distracted by other things. Now that I’m a full-time freelancer, I’ve been getting back into it. I’ve got a handful of Kindle singles available and more projects on the way. Eventually I’ll have all my e-books available for Kindle, Nook, and iBooks, but I’m not there yet; all the links in this post are to Amazon.

Even though I’m publishing these myself, I decided to have a name for my virtual press, mostly to amuse myself. I settled on Stuck in the Middle Press for two reasons. First, most writers are stuck in the middle, wandering the no-man’s-land between their first sale and the lightning strike of fame. Second, my initials are SMP, but I couldn’t simply use that because of St. Martin’s Press.

Right now I have just four other titles available in addition to “The Mailbox,” all short stories. There are two Kate Sullivan mystery stories, “Out of the Jacuzzi, Into the Sauna” and “Of Murder and Minidonuts.” Wisecracking Kate likes to stick her civilian nose into crime, investigating murders that happen in her vicinity. High jinks ensue. The first story originally appeared in the regional anthology Resort to Murder, where each story was set on a resort in Minnesota.

In the science fiction story “Finders Keepers,” Cpl. M. J. Robeson faces an intruder trying to pirate the starship Alliance. The story was first published in the anthology Space Grunts. Robeson will return in her next adventure at some point.

The Lovecraft pastiche “The Squid that Came to Phil’s Basement” first appeared in Space and Time Magazine. It answers the question “What if there were a Cthulhu help line?”

I have four other projects in various stages. Clothes Make the Man and other Crimes is a collection of four short-short crime stories that is almost done. Happiness Through Philosophy and Other Nonsense is a larger collection of absurd stories and ludicrous vignettes. “The Satellite Dish” is another Minnesota story, featuring the same characters from “The Mailbox.” The last is an as-yet-untitled collaboration with another writer, details to be announced as we become more certain of them.

Please consider picking up these stories for Kindle, and by all means leave me a review on Amazon if you enjoy them. If you don’t, I apologize, and please play with a kitten until you forget about leaving me a review that compares me to fungus. Thanks in advance.

SpaceNextBack in 2011 I was an acquisitions editor at Zenith Press. That year I had the pleasure of working on two books about the space shuttle. The first was the NASA Space Shuttle Owners’ Workshop Manual by David Baker. That was simply the U.S. printing of the newest Haynes manual, so I didn’t have any real editing to do, just paperwork as I moved the project through production. Next up was Piers Bizony’s The Space Shuttle: Celebrating Thirty Years of NASA’s First Space Plane. That was a full start-to-finish project. It’s a subject I love, and Piers is a great author to work with; imagine getting paid to read about—and look through photos of—the space shuttle program. It’s great work if you can get it.

But that’s all just backstory. Those books led to me getting a call from Luke Ployhar of Afterglow Studios. He was researching CAD files of the space shuttle and was wondering if the authors had sourced such illustrations in their books. As it turned out, they had not. All the detailed cutaway illustrations in those books had been done the old-fashioned way, with pen and ink.

I asked why he needed CAD files. It turned out he was developing a 3-D CGI movie in the IMAX format about the past and future of human space travel called Space Next. Somehow it came up that the screenplay he’d been developing in-house wasn’t finished. “Well,” I told him, “I happen to be a published science fiction writer, I’m familiar with the screenplay format, and I’m a space program geek and a movie buff, so if you’re looking for a writer . . .” And that is how I schmoozed my way into doing a new draft of the screenplay.

Now we flash forward four years to the present. All that time Luke has been diligently working away at Space Next on the side of his regular workload at his busy CGI studio. The screenplay now needed some revisions as well as narration for new scenes. I jumped back into the fray, happy for the opportunity to revisit the project and excited by the quality of the animation I got to see in Luke’s office. The rough draft poster above depicts the Voyager probe (to the left of the placeholder release date) against the backdrop of Saturn’s rings.

The movie is still being edited and polished, and there will be some more revising and tweaking on the screenplay as we tighten up the timing of the narration to the final cut of the animation. For a movie and space nut, this has been and continues to be an unbelievably amazing project to work on. When I eventually see my name in the credits on the giant silver screen I may explode. Just a warning to anyone else in the audience that night.

Updates to come as the story develops . . .