Friday, March 29, 2013

Reflections on Swann Street

The other night I took a walk.  The air was cool and crisp, causing me to button my Artful Dodger jacket all the way to the neck, and the city was as quiet as it gets around here.  Down by the train yard,  boxcars boomed like thunder as they were coupled together and somewhere off in the distance sirens wailed.  I was on my way to the corner store for a pack of smokes and, since we are moving this weekend, was looking around the neighborhood with a critical eye.  I passed the alley where a drunk guy came at me one night, brandishing a 40 ounce malt liquor above his head like a club;  I passed within a block of the apartment buildings that had been shot up not too long ago, victims of a drive-by shooting that luckily ended without bloodshed or loss of life.  It seemed like every other house had a pit bull chained in the yard and the dogs’ barking echoed off the surrounding buildings, making it sound as though I were surrounded by a vicious pack.

As I got closer to the corner store, muffled strains of Southern rock drifted through the air, but this was to be expected. The music came from the LST Club.  The windowless building leans to the left so badly I was actually surprised it remained standing after last year’s dericho turned our town into a post-apocalyptic wasteland;  a faded sign informs passersby that it was established in 1945 under the name Granny’s and that its current acronym is an abbreviation for Lynn Street Tavern.   The LST is a private club with a reputation for violence and I always cross the street before passing it because you can never tell when a scuffle will spill out of the front door and onto the street.  It’s always seemed a bit ironic to me that people who've spent their entire lives paying their dues now pay monetary dues so they can obliterate that past entirely.  But I digress….

The store I was heading to is catercorner to the LST Club and just across the street.  It sits at a four-way intersection, a block or two from an abandoned house that was riddled with bullets, and a stop sign is posted just outside the front door.  Between the beer and sweet wine sold at the store and the LST Club, many a drunk has held onto that stop sign for balance as their bodies purged alcohol saturated stomachs.  So many, in fact, that the sidewalk surrounding the sign has been stained with a Rorschach pattern of old vomit.  The store’s employees have a way of dealing with the mess, however;  they take bags of potato chips and cheese curls that have gone stale and crunch them up, covering the puke entirely.  The chips absorb what they can overnight and in the morning birds flock around the stop sign, carrying away the evidence to waiting nests and keeping the sidewalk clean.

The store itself is deeply integrated into this neighborhood.  It seems as if there are always people hanging around inside, swapping stories about who has recently been arrested, who’s been paroled, and whose ass deserves to be kicked.  The first week we lived in this neighborhood, I walked into that store to discover a young guy with a busted nose and split lip.  He was bleeding all over the counter and floor, despite the wad of paper towels the clerk had given him, but this was no big deal… just another night on Lynn Street.  At the this store, you can buy what I've always thought of as a meth-kit;  it’s a brown paper bag which contains everything you need to smoke meth, bundled together for one convenient price.  You can also place some bets in under the counter gambling and, despite the Health Department ban, someone is always smoking cigarettes. When you get there a few minutes before closing, the lines are always longer.  People sway and stagger, their arms loaded with six packs, malt liquor, and little bottles of Bootlegger Jack, desperate to get what they need before it’s too late.

Walking back home, I chose to cut down the alley, which is what I usually do. In a neighborhood infested with drunks and tweakers, this may not seem like the smartest plan in the world, but I have my reasons. For one, the alley butts up against a state cop’s backyard on the far end;  but there is also always enough litter and garbage lying around that I could easily find a makeshift weapon if needed.  Thankfully, it’s never come to that but I like to be prepared, just in case.

When I was almost home, I remembered the young girl I’d seen one evening.  It was about 3:30 AM and she was standing on the corner, directly across from our building.  She couldn't have been older than fifteen or sixteen, but she was draped in a flowing, white wedding dress and was dancing in circles in the heart of a redneck ghetto.  Another time, we were sitting on our second-story porch when a guy we’d never seen before decided to give us an impromptu stand-up comedy routine from street level.  I remember one of his bits involved Wilford Brimley doing a commercial for crack and the guy had us near tears by the time he moved on.  But moments like that are few and far between around here.

We’re moving this weekend and I can’t imagine that I will ever miss this place. In all honesty, we should’ve been out of this neighborhood long, long ago.  It was only meant to be temporary, somewhere with cheap rent where we could get our finances back into order before moving on with our lives.  The first month we lived here, our car was broken into twice and when my wife called the police, the dispatcher responded with, “Well, that’s what you get when you live on Swann Street.”;  that should have told us something then and there.  I’ve got this sarcastic suspicion that Swann is spelled with two Ns to ensure the street isn't mistakenly associated with a thing of grace and beauty…  but that’s just me.  

I’m ready to say goodbye to the condemned buildings (and the ones which, by all rights, should be condemned) .  I’m ready to walk through a neighborhood without constantly being on guard, making eye contact with other pedestrians long enough to nod an acknowledgment, but not long enough to be considered a challenge.  I am ready to leave this all behind.  And not a moment too soon.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Covers for Books I've Never Written

When working on a new book, sometimes I need to stop and think things through for a bit.  If it’s something I plan on independently publishing, I’ll often work on a mock-up of the cover art as I turn things over in my mind.  However, as most authors can attest, some books just kind of fizzle out.  Maybe the timing for that particular work wasn't quite right and it will be revisited in the future or perhaps the initial excitement for the project waned.  Or, as is most often the case, I simply get swept up in another idea.  Because of these parts of my writing process, I’m left with a handful of covers for books I never actually finished writing.  Perhaps some day I really will come back to some of these ideas. Perhaps not.  Regardless, some of this left-over artwork is shown below, along with a brief description of what the book was to be about.

I started Albatross four years ago, but never really made it that far into the story.  It was intended to be a web serial with eventual print run once the plot had run its course.  The story centered around Albert Ross, a man charged with caring for his terminally ill mother.  Caretaking can be emotionally and physically exhausting at times and I wanted to set a character in that role who was ill-eqipped to actually handle it.  To exacerbate matters, his mother was to be a mean and spiteful old woman with a persecution complex who took some sort of sick glee out of pushing her son’s buttons.  This was to be a novel of human darkness and would not have ended well for any of the characters involved.  While working on this blog post, I found that the original chapters are still out there on the web.  Any interested parties can check it out here 

Drug Slaves of Satan was an attempt to write a horror novel in the style of a 1930’s propoganda film.  Drawing from inspirations such as Reefer Madness and Devil’s Harvest, I’d wanted to throw in a supernatural element as well.  The story was to center around a clean-cut, all-American teenager whose older brother was pulled into a world of sex, drugs, and black magic.  When the older brother was found sliced to ribbons in a dumpster, the younger boy begins to emmulate the behavior of his deceased sibling in a misguided attempt to figure out exactly what happened.  This is one I may very well return to at some point, perhaps with a different title though.

A Feast of Fools: The Cannibal’s Cookbook was to be a novelization of my short story Cooking With Grace.  The novel was to be told entirely through letters, emails, articles, recipes, and transcripts.  The short story (which followed this formula) was to be the first chapter in the book and the book was going to be a collaboration with my wife.  To further expand the story, I’d actually set up email accounts for every email address referenced within the original short story.  These accounts were then equipped with auto-responders.  Anyone curious enough to send an actual email to the addresses in the story would then get a reply from the character they were emailing, which I thought was a great way to expand the universe beyond the pages of the book.  I’d also planned on doing webisodes of a cooking show where I would be masked and playing the role of the serial killer/cannibal, which I think would have been a lot of fun.

The Curse of the Walking Dead was to be the first book in a series of Victorian-era steampunk novels featuring detective Bastion Folks.  Some of the characters from this book have really stuck with me over the years and I’m positive I will be exploring them in different works.  The most intriguing of these is the novel’s antagonist who goes by the moniker Lady Entropy.  Born into the upper-class, she turned her back on her country after her father was suspiciously killed while on an expedition funded by the Queen herself.  Vowing revenge, Lady Entropy’s sole purpose is to bring the government to their knees, even if it means destroying citizens in the process.  She is very prim and proper, given to wearing white, lacy dresses with lace-up leather boots, and her parasol is never far from her.  In one of my favorite scenes from what I’d actually written on this one, a laborer who has incurred her ire kneels before her.  Using the tip of her parasol, she lifts the man’s chin so he is looking directly into her eyes.  A lever on the parasol causes a spike to shoot out of the tip and into the man’s throat;  as she withdraws the weapon, the umbrella-portion deploys, shielding her clean clothes from the spray of blood which follows.  To date, Lady Entropy is my favorite villian that I’ve created.

Godhammer.  I have a feeling this one would have come to around novellas-size.  It was to be a dystopian tale, set after a series of events had crumbled the infrastructure, permanently changing the United States as we know it.  The madman who seizes control blames organized religion for every problem the old world knew and outlaws them all.  In their place, he calls for new religious orders which causes cults to spring up left and right.  The vast majority of the population has aligned themselves with one cult or another since that is the easiest way to gain supplies and protection.  Those who have not pledged their allegiance to a faction are bombarded with propaganda from the various cults and in a world where there is no regulation of the recruitment methods things can go bad very quickly.

Vigilante Messiah was to be a story about a homeless man and possible paranoid schizophrenic who finds a Jesus outfit in a dumpster behind a costume shop that’s gone out of business.  He lives in an old, burnt out church on the outskirts of the city, between the railroad tracks and the riverbank.  After witnessing a woman get brutally killed, he returns to his “home” and starts a fire in a rusted fifty-gallon drum to keep warm through the night.  The fire, however, turns into a flaming pillar from which a voice booms out instructions.  The voice tells him that he is the avatar of Christ and the second coming is at hand;  he must go out into the world and cleanse it from evil, freeing the demon-possessed souls of thieves, rapists, drug dealers, and pedophiles.  There is a damn good chance I might come back to this one as I really like what I've completed on the book so far.

The Bugout Bag of Holding is one of those books where I don’t really know what I want it to be.  I know it’s a tale of a terrorist attack on a city.  I know it involves a prepper who has 72 hours to find her way out of said city, thus securing her safety.  I just don’t know in what world I want it to be set in.  My initial thought was in our world and the title would come from the fact that the protagonist would be an avid role-playing gamer.  However, I've also toyed with a different idea.  In this one, the world is similar to ours in a lot of ways;  however,  it would be set in a Dungeons and Dragons style reality where those campaigns were part of their history, much in the way Vikings are a part of ours.  The city would be urban and there would be a fusion of magic and technology at play with the prepper protagonist being a half-elf.  When this cover was created, I was still thinking the tale would be set in our world and if the woman in the gas mask looks familiar then you probably know her.  It’s none other than Joy Killar, who’d graciously given me permission to use her image.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

How Film Appreciation Changed My Writing

In my twenties, I thought for a while that I wanted to direct films.  I had a bevy of equipment:  8mm cameras, projectors, screens, a film splicer, video camera, editing deck, and titler.  During my freshman year of college, I was still torn however, unsure of whether to pursue a degree in film or English, so I chose electives which would be an introduction to both.  One of these classes was Film Appreciation. We would meet in the college’s theater every Thursday and the first half of class consisted of a lecture, after which we’d watch a movie which best exemplified the topic currently being studied.  We watched everything from Singing in the Rain to The Terminator to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal

The topic which stuck with me most, though, was Mise-en-scene.   A French expression literally meaning “placing on stage”,  mise-en-scene is the art of composing a shot.   Before this class, I’d never given much thought to why particular props or actors were located where they were.  I’d just accepted the reality of the scene and flowed along with the plot, never realizing the subtle details at play.  In film, for example, things near the top of the screen usually carry a heavier weight and are thus more important than things at the bottom.  I can’t remember the film we watched as an example, but there was a scene with an argument between a man and a woman in it.  

When the scene began, the man was at the top of a staircase, glaring down at his companion, who stood at the bottom;  he controlled the argument at this point and had all the power, causing the woman to cringe at the bottom of the stairs (and thus, the screen), making her even smaller than what she already was.  Eventually, the woman had enough.  She charged up the stairs as he stormed down them to meet her.  Now they were both in the center of the screen and the argument was fairly balanced, each person making their point but no one really having dominance in the exchange.  Eventually the woman gained the upper hand and, uncertain how to proceed, the man stomped down the stairs, intent on leaving the room.  The woman, however, was having none of it.  She remained at the top and verbally controlled the argument, yelling down questions which flustered the now-powerless man at the bottom of the screen.

This, of course, was just one of the techniques we discussed.  We also learned how downward movement in film represents death (which is why it is raining in so many death scenes), how props can be used to both physically and symbolically isolate characters from one another, and so on. 

In the end, filmmaking proved too expensive for me… I simply couldn't afford all the things I required to create a world.  And, in all honesty, my passion for creating a story with words far outweighed my desire to create them with images.

These two interests, however, ended up merging.  I took what I’d learned about mise-en-scene and often apply it to my written works.  For example, there’s a scene in Apocalyptic Organ Grinder where the two antagonists (since I’m not really sure there is a protagonist in this book) are so close to one another their noses are nearly touching.  The scene is set at night and in the background, a torch burns in the darkness, filling the small gap between them.  This was meant to show the conflict raging between the characters, connecting them by something that can be all-consuming if left to its own devices.  At the end of Shadow of the Woodpile, Bobby was perched atop the massive mound of wood while Detective Maxwell and his parents stood below.  There are other examples of mise-en-scene in my work, but I think these will suffice.

Does anyone notice or even care that I apply film techniques to the written word?  Probably not.  But I’ve come to realize this is part of my personal style and I felt like writing a blog entry, so this was it.