Thursday, February 23, 2017
Ask any writer and he or she will tell you that the question most commonly asked of him or her is, “Where do you get your ideas?” You’ll get the same answer if you ask any writer for his or her least favorite question. It is a question that has no good answer. Ideas fall into our heads or are developed over long periods of time, and they come from everywhere, from...we don’t know where. Writers hate the question because we have no answer.
Well, I think I’ve found the answer.
For some years now, I’ve been having a lot of neuropathic pain on the left side of my body. The entire left side, top to bottom, front and back, and even in my mouth, tongue, and eyeball. It has grown steadily worse, become increasingly disruptive, and has seriously damaged my ability to work.
A month ago, I saw a neurologist who pulled up my records on his computer and showed me an MRI of my brain that clearly revealed a prominent spot in the center of the right side of my brain. A tumor there would explain the weird left-side-only pain I’ve been having. The problem with that MRI was that it had been taken in 2007—and I had never seen it! I stared at that spot, shocked into apoplectic silence. When I told the doctor I had never seen the MRI before, he did not believe me. “Oh, I’m sure you reviewed it with the doctor who ordered it.” But I had not. He said he wanted to take another MRI to see if the spot had grown or multiplied.
That was a month ago. I just got the MRI results today.
In the meantime, while I waited in paralyzing suspense, I decided to do a little research on that 2007 MRI I had never seen. It had been ordered by a neurologist I was seeing back then for pain control. I’d just had the third operation on my right hip, a hip replacement to replace the first replacement that didn’t take. I was having a lot of pain and needed help managing it. But I soon realized this was probably not the man to address the problem. He was disheveled, frequently confused, he forgot an appointment, and his office was a mess. Records were stacked everywhere—on tables, in boxes, boxes on top of boxes. I assumed he was either on drugs or mentally ill and only saw him a handful of times.
I was having a lot of procedures back then because of that hip and I guess I decided it was conceivable that I had forgotten that MRI. I had no memory of having it done and still don't. But I know I would have remembered a spot on my goddamned brain. I never saw that MRI, but knowing who ordered it makes that easier to understand. I found some California Medical Board documents online and discovered that, two years after ordering that MRI, this doctor killed a patient.
He had a female patient on the Fentanyl patch, a pain pump, morphine, and Valium, and he allowed an unlicensed, inexperienced assistant to administer the woman’s pain pump refill. The assistant gave her eight times the prescribed dose and the woman collapsed in the parking lot outside the office and died later that evening. The doctor was stripped of his license, but was told that if he decided to renew his license, he would have to take an extensive course in record keeping, because his records were a disaster.
I wondered if that could be the problem. Maybe that MRI with the spot wasn’t mine at all. Maybe it was someone else's MRI, someone else's brainspot, and had been misfiled, or something, by Dr. Julius Kelp. I could hope. And I did, fervently, for a month. But little could distract me from the gigantic deep-purple neon sign that kept flashing in the middle of my mind: BRAIN TUMOR!
I was surprised that even more frightening than a brain tumor itself was the prospect of brain surgery. The idea of my skull being cut open and my brain being tampered with probably kept me from sleeping more than anything else. With it came the fear that such an operation might leave me spending the rest of my life begging George to tell me about the rabbits.
Not knowing something about your health, like whether or not you have a tumor growing in your head, is a monster that gets bigger and more menacing the later the night gets. It’s been a rough month.
Today, I saw the doctor to get the results. It turns out that old MRI is mine after all. So is the spot. It’s still there and has not changed in ten years. It’s a...spot. I didn’t know you could have just damned spot on your damned brain, but apparently you can and I do.
I’ve decided I’m going to carry a picture of that MRI with me wherever I go, and every time someone asks me that question—“Where do you get your ideas?”—I’m going to take it out, point to that spot on my brain, and say, “See this? That’s where they come from. That’s my cerebral idea sphincter. The ideas come out of there. Sometimes in fragments, sometimes in one whole piece. It’s long been speculated that every writer has a cerebral idea sphincter, but mine is the first one that’s ever been captured in an MRI.”
Hey, these days people will believe anything.
NOTE: I’ll be selling wallet-sized photos of the MRI showing my brain and its spot—which you can call your own!—to writers only (be ready to show your license) in the lobby.
I managed to keep from spending the past month under my bed thanks to a small group of friends who were extremely supportive and generous. You know who you are. Thank you. I love you.
Friday, October 28, 2016
All writers have influences. One does not decide to become a writer in a vacuum. Every one of us were so moved by other writers, so emotionally marked by their books and stories and movies and comic books and poetry, that we were compelled to write our own books and stories and movies and comic books and poetry. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was heavily influenced by Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories about C. Auguste Dupin inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes. What inspired me to write Crawlers?
Monster movies. Okay, so it’s not Cervantes. But I assure you I was just as moved as Flaubert.
Crawlers was originally published by Cemetery Dance Publications for their Collectors Club as a hardcover novella limited to only 303 copies and it was my first homage to the monster movies I practically lived on growing up. The second was 'Nids, my salute to the big bug movies of the 1950s, which is currently available from Open Road Media. And I’m sure at some point I will write another. I still frequently revisit those old movies and am still inspired by them.
Many of those monster movies were set in small towns, often in the desert, the kind of town where most people know each other. The monsters were sometimes aliens from outer space, as in It Came from Outer Space, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Sometimes, they were the result of science gone wrong, as in The Fly or Tarantula, or the product of atomic testing, as in so many monster movies of the era from the destruction wreaked by Godzilla in Japan to the giant ants of Them! crawling out of the southern California desert. And sometimes, they were freaks of nature, like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, or the result of alien tampering as in Attack of the 50-foot Woman. Whatever their origin, one thing is certain—the 1950s had an abundant supply of them.
The flowers in Crawlers invite comparisons to 1962's apocalyptic sci-fi classic The Day of the Triffids, it bears no similiarity to that movie. However, it’s worth noting that the movie inspired a line in the song "Science Fiction Double Feature" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and that The Day of the Triffids was based on John Wyndham’s 1951 novel of the same of name, and it was the opening scene of that novel—in which the protagonist wakes in a hospital bed with his eyes bandaged—that inspired Alex Garland to write the 2002 movie 28 Days Later Monsters are begetting monsters all over the place.
In Crawlers, I wanted to use a monster of my own devising—as opposed to, say, the giant spiders of 'Nids, which had been done numerous times before—and set it in the kind of small town so familiar to those old movies. I decided to set it in the town of Mount Crag—the location of my novellas The Folks and The Folks 2: No Place Like Home, although it is otherwise unrelated to those books—because it is a somewhat isolated mountain town that lends itself well to such a story.
I have rewritten the ending of Crawlers. I explain my rather embarrassing reasons in the book’s introduction. The original ending is somewhat uncharacteristic of my work because it’s...well...happy. Yes, that’s right, I wrote a happy ending. Not just happy but treacly, an ending in which the sun quite literally breaks through the dark clouds. That in itself is not such a bad thing, but the ending...well, it was a bad thing, in my opinion, a logistical mess that urgently needed changing. If you’ve read the Cemetery Dance edition, this isn’t it, and things turn out differently.
I’m likely to pop a monster movie in the moviola any old time, but it’s at this time of year when I most frequently revisit the kind of movies that inspired Crawlers. It’s just not Halloween without some monsters or even some of their remakes, like The Blob from 1958 and from 1988, or 1951's The Thing or John Carpenter's horrifying 1982 remake, or The Spider from Bert I. Gordon, aka Mr. B.I.G., who specialized in giant monsters like The Amazing Colossal Man or the huge grasshoppers in The Beginning of the End.
When 1950s audiences were tossing their popcorn during monster movies, the subconscious fears were of more down-to-earth things like nuclear war and the communist threat. The movies were in black and white, as were their morals. Reviewing my monster movie homages has helped me to understand the kind of fiction I’m writing today. It addresses more current fears, both directly and indirectly, and reflects a more complex moral landscape. Paranoia has once again seized the country, the entire globe. Now, rather than communism, it is the mythical Illuminati that is the focus of a lot of fear. Now, instead of worrying about communist infiltration, many fear the activities at Bohemian Grove and the mysterious goals of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Bilderberg Group. Much attention is being paid to shady and nefarious government activities of the past, like Project Paperclip and MK Ultra, and many wonder what the government might be up to right now, what kind of experiments it could be performing on us today, and whether we'll be around to learn about them two or three decades in the future. And then, of course, there are the usual terrors, chief among them the possibility of another devastating nuclear world war.
From decade to decade and generation to generation, many things change, but one remains the same: We are kept in a continuous state of ongoing fear and anxiety. Therefore, we look for relief, for escape.
I humbly offer Crawlers to serve your escapist needs. It can be purchased for Kindle at Amazon. Other outlets will be forthcoming.
Take some time to smell the flowers.
Sunday, July 24, 2016
I really don’t. I’ve found the most shocking thing about being a horror writer is how many people think I do simply because I’ve written novels about werewolves.
For the last two decades, I’ve been denouncing a book I wrote called In a Dark Place, which was initially published as “the story of a true haunting.” I’ve been denouncing it because the book and the two “demonologists” who "investigated" the "case," Ed and Lorraine Warren, were frauds. (I made all of those quotation marks in the air with my fingers.) I made every effort to make the book entertaining and scary and I encourage people to read it for that, but it's certainly not a "true story." (It has been reprinted without those claims at my insistence.) In the process of denouncing the book and the Warrens, I’ve also expressed my feelings about the entire paranormal industry, which are no different. And yet, people are still appalled to learn that I don’t believe in ghosts because I wrote a ghost story called The Loveliest Dead. Or that I don’t believe in vampires because I wrote about them in three novels.
Others seem to think that writers condone everything they write about. My father believed that if I wrote about violence, then I condoned it, and if I didn’t condone it, I wouldn’t write about it. Of course, my dad left school for good in the sixth grade. But that particular excuse is not always available.
I once approached a respected, well-educated horror writer for a blurb for one of my werewolf novels, both of which include brutal rapes committed by werewolves. She explained, quite haughtily, that she had heard my books depicted violence toward women and she could not endorse that. (I wonder what she would have thought had she actually read them. We'll never know.) This suggests to me that because I’ve depicted violence against women in my fiction, she believes that I condone violence against women. She gave me no reason to come to any other conclusion. Of course, it doesn’t matter what her reasoning was because I cannot take seriously anyone who judges books not by merit but by agenda — including books she hasn’t read.
Things like rape and other violent acts do exist, they do occur, they are part of life on planet earth. If fiction cannot reflect that, then it is useless and has no purpose. If art cannot hold a mirror up to the entire scope of the human experience, then it has no other reason to exist. And if you can’t endorse horror fiction that depicts violence toward women and only because it depicts violence toward women, what the hell are you doing in the genre?
For those who have not read my fiction, I have always made a great effort to portray violence of any kind, including rape, as horrifically as possible. I don’t want it to appear on the pages of my work as anything but what it is, one of the many horrible things we humans have been doing to each other for ages now and show no signs of stopping.
Rape is an act of violence, although I have seen it depicted in fiction as a kind of rough foreplay, which I personally find disgusting. That is not how I depict rape in my fiction. I do not, for the record, condone rape. I do not condone rape by werewolves. Nor do I condone rape by any other fictional, nonexistent creatures like vampires, lizard men, interdimensional monsters, or honest, decent human beings who are successful politicians — none of which I believe in, by the way.
We as a species seem to be having an increasingly difficult time differentiating between fiction and fact, fantasy and reality. I blame video games and binge-watching.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
“See anything you like, professor?” That’s what Frank Langella asked Laurence Olivier after running through the room naked.
He knew Bette Davis late in her life, when she was, he writes, “heading toward her grave resolutely maintaining the courage to be hated.”
Rex Harrison was a “son of a bitch.”
Upon their first meeting, Anthony Perkins asked him, “How big is your cock?”
In a TV version of The Mark of Zorro, Yvonne de Carlo played his mother in front of the cameras while treating him “like a pretty girl in the back seat of a convertible on a hot summer night” off camera.
These are some of the names dropped in Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Have Known Them, Frank Langella’s sexy, funny, bittersweet, and sometimes downright sad memoir of his decades as a stage and screen actor. Each of the sixty-five chapters in the book covers someone he knew or met or had some connection with, however briefly, someone who is no longer with us and can no longer protest or, worse, sue.
Langella happily confesses his own youthful narcissism in what is, however entertaining, a litany of narcissists, people firmly convinced that they are the center of the universe. While spending time with such people is rarely an agreeable experience for us civilians, Langella, having a typically inflated actor’s ego himself, is able to cut through all of that in most cases and show us the person within all that bluster and pomp.
This is not exactly a showbiz tell-all. Rather than giving us every sordid detail, Langella teases us with bits and pieces of his life, glimpses of past moments and experiences, and manages to leave us wanting more. Dishy without being mean, it’s a breezy book filled with familiar faces and names (to people old enough to recognize all the names, anyway) that makes for pleasant reading for anyone who enjoys books about show business. Best of all, unlike so many showbiz memoirs, it doesn’t leave us feeling like we need to take a shower with lye soap and a steel brush.
While I’m on the subject, I want to point out one of my favorite Frank Langella performances in a movie that never received much attention. In Starting Out in the Evening, based on the novel by Brian Morton (which I have not read), Langella plays a formerly celebrated writer who has been forgotten by virtually everyone as he works on his final novel, which he has been writing for a decade. The story involves his relationship with his daughter (Lili Taylor) and a graduate student named Heather (Lauren Ambrose), who tries to convince him to let her pick his brain for her Master’s thesis. Langella gives a quietly powerful performance in a movie that is just as quietly powerful. See it if you can.
Thursday, June 30, 2016
The title of this blog post will make no sense to you unless you’re a regular listener of Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast
If you are a regular listener, then those three names just set off an explosion of information inside your head, which resulted in you laughing out loud and embarrassing yourself because now you have to explain to the people around you what it was you found so funny.
You’re on your own with that. I’ve tried doing that very thing and it’s extremely difficult to do without sounding like a gibbering lunatic who may, at any moment, begin to fling his own waste at others. You probably already know that not everyone understands your love for this podcast. I discovered it a couple of weeks ago and have been making my way through the shows, and it is my new favorite thing. But I know others won’t get it. That’s OK.
Everybody knows who Gilbert Gottfried is, and while opinions of him vary about as widely as it is possible for opinions to vary on a performer, I think he’s a brilliant, explosively funny comic, which is why, like him or not, everybody knows who he is.
His cohost on the podcast is Frank Santopadre, who I was not familiar with when I started listening. He’s a comedy writer who’s written for live events like roasts and award shows and he produced The Joy Behar Show on HLN, and he knows his stuff. The “stuff” to which I refer is comedy history, old movies and TV shows, and particularly bad movies and TV shows. Frank is funny, but on the podcast, he’s the grounded one. Frank is never the one who says, “Can I see your wife’s tits?” Frank is the one who apologetically says things like, “It was the Cesar Romero reference earlier, it got him worked up.”
Together, Gilbert and Frank discuss the kind of stuff that my brain, on its own and with no effort from me whatsoever, used to absorb automatically when I was growing up. The podcast itself is named after a Bert I. Gordon movie that mesmerized me when I was about eight years old, The Amazing Colossal Man, which was followed by the sequel War of the Colossal Beast
It’s very possible that I spent all of those years watching Creature Features every Saturday night and being hypnotized by anything with a monster or some kind of special effect in it only so I could enjoy Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast so much all these decades later.
I also grew up watching all of the comics and performers they talk about — Jackie Gleason, Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers (Gilbert does an eerily on-the-money impression of Groucho in his final years), the Bowery Boys (or whatever the hell they were being called at any given time), George Burns, Red Skelton, Totie Fields, Dick Van Dyke, the list goes on and on. Oh, and Milton Berle, I can’t forget Milton Berle. You know, because of the penis.
Gilbert and Frank talk to comics, actors, writers, directors, people who have some connection to those old days or who were part of them, like Chuck McCann, who was a beloved staple of television for both kids and adults and, significant to me, starred in a forgotten 1970s late-night Norman Lear soap opera spoof set in a world in which men and women have reverse roles called All That Glitters. Another guest was Barbara Feldon, who played Agent 99 on Get Smart, and talk show host Dick Cavett, singer and actor Frankie Avalon from all those beach movies, and Larry Storch from F Troop, and TV’s Batman Adam West, and the brilliant illustrator Drew Friedman, writer and producer Bill Persky, who’s written for every major sitcom on TV since McHale's Navy, and talk show host Joe Franklin, and Butch Patrick, who played Eddie Munster, and Marilyn Michaels, an impressionist I was in awe of growing up, and actors like James Karen and Paul Dooley — all of these people who are like familiar ghosts emerging from the misty past, but who are still vibrant and funny. Well . . . except Joe Franklin, who is no longer vibrant because he’s dead and who really wasn’t that funny in the first place.
If you don’t know who any of those people are, this may not be the podcast for you. But even so, you should give it a listen because it’s also hysterically funny. I often find myself gasping for breath with tears in my eyes. Of course, if you don’t like dick jokes or show business anecdotes involving bizarre things like a coprophagic night club comic or TV theme songs sung by Gilbert Gottfried, again, this podcast may not be suited to your tastes.
It’s hard to explain why I’ve clicked so well with this show. Gilbert and Frank discuss — sometimes in exhaustive detail — the kind of stuff I noticed growing up but have never been able to talk about with most people without sounding a little . . . you know, off.
Like the terrible backdrops on what I’ve always referred to as the “color” Honeymooners. No, I’m not referring to the 2005 movie The Honeymooners starring an all-black cast, I’m referring to the “Honeymooners” sketches on The Jackie Gleason Show, which ran on CBS from 1966 to 1970. That was the first time the Kramdens and the Nortons were seen in color, which is why I refer to it as the “color” Honeymooners.
It was also the first time those characters sang and danced. I wasn’t quite four when the show premiered, so it’s one of my earliest memories of professional show business comedy, and I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know that nobody wanted to hear Jackie Gleason sing anything, or that an earlier incarnation of The Honeymooners existed that showed Gleason and Art Carney and the rest of the cast working at the height of their talents. I had been using the bathroom for only half my life, so what the hell did I know?
I have not seen any of those shows since they first aired, but I’ve always remembered that, for some reason, the Kramdens and Nortons were traveling at one point, and in those episodes, the backdrops were ugly and amateurish, nothing more than simple drawings suggesting cities or landscapes, if I remember them correctly. Those backdrops always bothered me because they did not live up to the standard of quality held by all the variety shows on TV as far as I could tell, and I watched as many as I could.
There were only three networks in those olden days and they all did pretty much the same stuff, and at that time, it was mostly a lot of spies, satirical superheroes, and comedy-variety shows, and no matter how idiotic things might have gotten, it all looked professional and attractive. But those backdrops on the “Honeymooners” sketches SUCKED! And Gilbert Gottfried is the only other human being I know of who noticed and was bothered by the same damned thing. THAT is why people like me are devoted to this podcast. It scratches itches for us that no one else can even find.
More than simply entertaining us, Gilbert and Frank are serving as archivists for a fading era of show business. They booked Jack Carter for a show and he promptly died. As far as I know, they did Joe Franklin’s last interview. They have to keep crossing names off their prospective guest list because people keep dying. If these aging celebrities were smart, they’d stay the hell away from this podcast because it’s always surprising on the rare occasion when Gilbert references someone who’s still alive, so if he wants to talk to you, your days are probably numbered.
I wish they had started earlier so they could have had guests like, say, Gene Rayburn, and anyone from Match Game, or comics like George Gobel and Red Buttons, or classic sitcom stars like Abe Vigoda, who just died, or Bob Crane. I bet Gilbert’s first question for Crane would be, “Is it true that you like to make movies of yourself fucking women?”
If you enjoy movies that are so bad they’re entertaining, Gilbert and Frank have you covered. Along with many others, they frequently discuss Skidoo, Otto Preminger’s 1968 psychedelic disaster starring Jackie Gleason who trips on acid, Carol Channing who does a strip tease, Mickey Rooney, Frankie Avalon, podcast favorite Cesar Romero (sans orange wedges), Peter Lawford, Groucho Marx as God, two more Batman villains Frank Gorshin and Burgess Meredith, with music by Harry Nilsson, in what is regarded by many to be the worst movie ever made by a major director and a major studio. Avalon was a guest and discussed his experience working on the movie.
And if you have any interest in glass-topped coffee tables or if you love citrus fruits, this is your podcast.
I’ve gotten so much enjoyment from these guys in the last few weeks. I know there are other people out there whose priorities in life are as weird as mine who will enjoy these guys and their guests as much as I do, and I wanted to spread the word.
Saturday, March 26, 2016
On Thursday, March 24, I logged onto the computer in the afternoon and the first thing I saw was a headline stating that Garry Shandling had died at the age of 66. I stared at it for several long seconds, then looked for any indication that it was satire, or some kind of marketing campaign, or something, anything but the truth.
No such luck.
The older I get and the more of my favorite funny people die, the more I understand just how much, and how deeply, I value them. I’m sure it’s a little out of proportion. When Johnny Carson died, I cried. George Carlin’s death was like losing a friend. When I learned that Joan Rivers had died, I wanted to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head. The news that Robin Williams had committed suicide darkened my mood for days, and it took some time before I could watch his recorded performances, whether in movies or on stage, without tearing up. On one level, I know it’s absurd. I knew none of these people, I’d never even met them. I really have no idea what kind of people they were in their personal lives. For all I knew, they hated dogs and cats, beat their kids, or drugged women so they could have sex with them while they were unconscious. But . . .
. . . every time I saw them, they made me happy. No matter what was going on in my life at the time, no matter how down I might have been, they made me drop my problems and laugh. The more life I live, the more I understand what an awesome, miraculous thing that is.
There is no way to control laughter. When we laugh, we surrender ourselves to feeling good, no matter how bad we might feel at the time. It’s an explosive thing, totally involuntary. You can try to fake it, and you might fool others with your artificial laughter. But you cannot fool yourself. Real laughter is an uncontrollable response to something that — somehow, almost magically — reaches inside of us and tickles us in some mysterious place, pushes internal buttons that cannot be ignored.
We all have internal buttons, and when we refer to someone pushing our buttons, we usually mean it in a bad way. Someone has made us angry or hurt us by pushing a button that elicits a negative response. I would guess that we all have more of those buttons than the ones that make us laugh. The laughter buttons are buried deep in our viscera. They’re much harder to find, especially as we get older. But when someone does find one (or more) and pushes it, we are rendered helpless and we surrender to that involuntary, explosive response, like a sneeze. Maybe sneezing is a bad analogy because it’s unlikely that someone can make us sneeze, but a genuine laugh is just as spontaneous and uncontrollable.
As far as I’m concerned, the people who can make me laugh are akin to wizards and witches, people with supernatural powers. They don’t know me, we’ve never met, and yet they are able to find that button buried deep inside me that makes me open my mouth and throw back my head and let loose. Think about it for a while. We take it for granted, but it is a truly amazing and mysterious thing.
I am in awe of anyone who can make me laugh, especially if it is a deliberate act performed by someone who has never met me, knows nothing about me or my life, and yet is capable of reaching inside me and finding and pushing that deeply hidden button.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a young boy. I started writing as soon as I was capable of it, and most of what I wrote was horror, very dark and violent. I’ve written a great deal about what a salvation horror movies and fiction were to me when I was growing up because my childhood in a perpetually frightening apocalyptic religious cult, with the added threat of a physically and emotionally abusive father, kept me in a continuous state of terror. Scary movies and stories were not a genuine threat, I knew they weren’t real, but they could scare the hell out of me in a way that was fun and enjoyable and safe, and it was a release from the more real terrors I faced. I wrote horror as a natural response to that, as a cathartic release. It was a way of stabbing my middle finger in the air to all the fears that I lived with back then.
At the same time, I sought out comedy, anything that would make me laugh, whether it was Mad magazine or TV sitcoms. The funny people who brightened my childhood were Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, Totie Fields, Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett — don’t get me started, I could go on like this for hours because, my god, the list is endless. Even though I was an almost obsessive fan of horror and spent so much time watching and reading it and, in my own primitive and childish way, writing it, my secret desire was to be Rob Petrie when I grew up. For those not familiar with the name, that was the character played by Dick Van Dyke on The Dick Van Dyke Show. He was the head comedy writer on The Alan Brady Show and wrote comedy in an office — with a piano, no less! — with Buddy Sorrell and Sally Rogers (incidentally, Dawn and I have cats named Buddy and Sally), writing monologues and sketches for the show, with occasional visits from Mel Cooley, Alan’s son-in-law. That was my dream job. Hell, it still is, even though I’ve since learned that a room full of working TV writers bears no resemblance to that today. And it probably didn’t then. I mean, it’s TV, so everything is softened, watered down. Alan Brady never held Buddy Sorrell out of a window in the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, high over Michigan Avenue, as Sid Caesar once did to Mel Brooks.
It was The Dick Van Dyke Show that made me start noticing the names in the credits — written by, created by. Carl Reiner, the show’s creator, writer of 54 of the 158 episodes, and the man who played Alan Brady, was an early writing idol of mine, as were Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, who co-created and sometimes wrote Get Smart, along with Neil Simon, who wrote The Odd Couple and Plaza Suite and The Star-Spangled Girl and The Out of Towners and other things that made me laugh, along with so many other practitioners of what was, to me, an amazing and mysterious art. I wanted to be them, too, when I grew up. Or maybe I just wanted to be Jewish, I don’t know. As a child, I was mystified by how they managed to get such an uncontrollable response from me as laughter. Like I said, they were wizards.
How did they do it? What kind of secret knowledge did they possess? What they did seemed so impossibly far above me that I would never be able to reach it, like writing music or having a baby. I knew what was scary and had some confidence that I could work within that, but the ability to create laughter out of thin air — that seemed like magic. Like sawing a woman in half or making doves appear out of nowhere. Of course, I soon learned that those things were merely manufactured illusion. But generating laughter? That is some real, genuine, unfakeable magic.
The pros make it look effortless. A comedian walks onto the stage, goes to the microphone, and starts talking to us in a way that makes us laugh and makes us believe that those words are spontaneous, those movements and gestures and that body language are natural and unrehearsed. A stand-up comedian is an actor, and as with all actors, the really talented ones convince you that they’re not acting, they’re just standing there, talking to you, and being funny. But first, a stand-up comedian is a writer. The entire performance on the stage is first written. That’s a damned juggling act, and I am in awe of those who do it well.
When I write, I do it alone in my office, and when I’m done with the story or book, I deliver it to its destination, and move on to the next, which I also write alone in my office. The worst thing that can happen to me as a writer is having to write a synopsis of a book, whether it’s one I haven’t written yet or one I have, it doesn’t matter. I complain about this bitterly at every opportunity. A stand-up comedian, on the other hand, then has to test the written material on stage in front of a group of strangers at various levels of inebriation. What a terrifying thought! The response is immediate — laughter or silence, possibly heckling. (If you’re a novelist, now that I’ve made you consider that for a moment and imagine yourself having to do that with your work, you’re probably going to have nightmares about it.)
What I’m trying to say is that we tend to take comedians for granted and enjoy their work without ever giving any thought to precisely what it is they do while standing at that microphone. It’s astonishing how much they have to master to convince us that they’re just telling us some funny stories and observations in a conversational way that happens to bend us over laughing.
When they leave us, people who have that talent and go to all that work to make us laugh always leave behind a painful silence once filled with laughter. In the last five years, we have lost some spectacular talent in comedy. People like Patrice O’Neal, Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, David Brenner, John Pinette, Rick Mayall, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, Jan Hooks, Taylor Negron, Mike Nichols, Reynaldo Rey, Rick Ducommun, Stan Freberg, Anne Meara, Jack Carter. Garry Shandling is the latest, and unfortunately he will not be the last. But like all of those other people, Shandling made us laugh in his own unique way. Other comedians do impressions of his distinctive voice, facial expressions, and mannerisms, as they do of other legendary comedians from Jack Benny on, and they will be doing Shandling impressions for a long, long time to come, but they are only impressions. They cannot not push our buttons in the way that only Garry Shandling could because they are not Garry Shandling. No one is Garry Shandling. Now, not even Garry Shandling is Garry Shandling. He’s been cancelled.
But we still have the reruns.
Wednesday, March 16, 2016
Mt. Shasta is many things to many people. In its mystical slopes, some people see a sleeping woman, others a sleeping Indian, and still others an Indian princess. I see horror fiction.
It is a beautiful sight, with a lovely, small town at its foot bearing the mountain’s name. The drive alone — from my house, it’s 45 minutes on I-5 — is breathtaking as it winds past dark forests and craggy, gray peaks. If it weren’t for all the traffic, you’d swear you were in Middle Earth. I have returned to Mt. Shasta many times over the years. In 1987, I attended the Harmonic Convergence there, a New Age fair of channels, psychics, healers, drum circles, and vendors selling just about every woo-woo goo-gaw you can think of and some that never occurred to you. Dawn and I have stayed at the nearby Dunsmuir Railroad Park Resort on a few occasions, and we enjoy visiting the town of Mt. Shasta. But I’ve returned to Mt. Shasta a few times in my fiction, as well.
My novel Dark Channel was the first story I set there, inspired by a combination of my visit to the Harmonic Convergence and popular channel J.Z. Knight. In The Loveliest Dead, psychic Lily Rourke owned a New Age book store called the Crystal Well. The area has shown up in disguise, as well. In The Folks (1 and 2, both of which will be available later this year), Pinecrest and Mt. Crag are pseudonyms for the Mt. Shasta area. My novella Vortex returns to Mt. Shasta, and it takes Karen Moffett and Gavin Keoph with it.
Moffett and Keoph first appeared in Night Life, the sequel to Live Girls. Martin Burgess, a wildly successful horror novelist, has an insatiable curiosity about the paranormal. He wants to know if the stuff he writes about — ghosts, vampires, werewolves — really exist, and he has a small army of computer geeks and conspiracy theorists seeking out bizarre incidents and esoteric activity for him. When they inform him of the possibility that vampires are active in Los Angeles, he searches for the right private investigators to hire for the job. After deciding on Karen Moffett of Los Angeles and Gavin Keoph of San Francisco, he hires them and send them in search of vampires. In Bestial, the sequel to Ravenous, Burgess hires them again to look into the possibility of werewolves in the northern California coastal town of Big Rock.
I wanted to do more with Moffett and Keoph, but instead of having them show up in a sequel to investigate vampires or werewolves, I wanted to do something completely different with them. I decided to have Burgess send them to Mt. Shasta and see what would happen. I didn’t have many specifics in mind when I started VORTEX, but the novella has opened a lot of possibilities.
In Mt. Shasta, the investigators meet Penny Jarvis, a young woman with some extraordinary abilities who comes from a secret, government-run school called Aquino Academy, where all of the students have extraordinary abilities. The first thing I wanted to do after finishing Vortex was to start on a novel about Penny and Aquino Academy. I was committed to do other things, though, and had to set that idea aside. But the academy is a fertile subject and I would like to do that sometime soon. I’m not sure how, but Moffett and Keoph would be involved, as would the new nemesis they encounter in Vortex when a creature named Pyk comes out of —
Whoa. I’m getting carried away. I don’t want to spoil the story for you. My point is that Vortex is going to be a new jumping-off point for Moffett and Keoph. In it, the possibility of a relationship between the two investigators is introduced, and I will be pursuing that in future stories, as well.
But for now, I will shut up and leave you to read Vortex. At the moment, it is available for Kindle, but other formats and a paperback edition are coming very soon. If you enjoy Vortex, I hope you'll post a review and spread the word.
Go with Moffett and Keoph to Mt. Shasta. Enjoy the scenic beauty. Have a bite to eat. But don’t let your guard down. Something has come out of the mountain . . . and it’s hungry.