Archive for November, 2014

On Saturday, I drove four hours to the York Emporium bookstore in York, Pa., to attend a memorial observance for the horror writer J.F. Gonzalez, who recently died of cancer at the age of 50.

Some of his notable works include “Clickers,” “Fetish,” “Bully” and “Survivor.” About 40 people attended, including some prominent writers and editors whom I’d rather not name. Not that there was anything shameful or secretive about the gathering. Quite the opposite. Despite the occasion’s underlying sadness, it was very convivial and heart-warming. It’s just that the vibe was more about private paying of respects than public spectacle. And I don’t want to turn this post into an exercise in name-dropping that will take the focus away from Gonzalez — or Jesus, his real first name.

Gonzalez specialized in a singularly disturbing variety of horror. For a long time, he sported a daunting personal appearance that seemed consistent with the type of man who would write material like that — with long hair and a leather jacket.

Yet speaker after speaker on Saturday gave similar accounts of a first face-to-face encounter with Gonzalez. Of being unnerved at the prospect of meeting a man who looked and wrote like that, only to be surprised and eventually charmed by what a truly nice guy he was.

I met Gonzalez only once, and my experience was the opposite of that described by many of the other guests. By the time I met him at a book event, he’d ditched the leather-and-long-hair look. I’d yet to read any of his books. I spoke to him for a while and found him to be a very friendly, gracious and engaging person. I bought his book “Survivor,” in part because other readers whose tastes I respect were fans of his, and in part because I liked him instantly.

I took it home and read it. And … holy shit. “Horrific” barely covers it. The book was unrelenting in its utter brutality and hopelessness. Its depiction of the human capacity for evil at its most vile and depraved.

I tried to reconcile the contents of the book with the witty, affable man who signed it for me when I purchased it. I thought: “Goddamn. He’s a nice guy, but he’s got a real dark side to him.”

But you know who else has a dark side? Me. And you. And every other human being who’s ever walked the face of this earth.

The people who deny that do the real damage. They’re the ones who fear that part of themselves to a point where they try to shut it out. They’ll attempt to achieve this by denying that they harbor a dark side, and condemning anyone who does (ie: everybody) as fundamentally baneful, debased and sick.

Worse, those dark-side-deniers are vampiric. Listen to them, and they’ll convince you that you’re the only one with a dark side, and you should hate yourself because of it. That you must keep it hidden, lest anyone suspect. That the best way of accomplishing this is to lash out and accuse others. To become a dark-side-denier yourself.

Writers like Gonzalez? They simply acknowledge that dark side. They explore its parameters so that you can recognize it in yourself, and make a conscious decision not to give into it.Although you may occasionally want to dip a toe into it and savor the frisson, maybe through bracing works such as “Survivor” and “Clickers.”

In martial arts training, I’ve found that the toughest guys tend to be the nicest. Secure in their toughness, they aren’t plagued by the insecurity that forms the underpinning of so much asshole behavior. And I figure that’s why Gonzalez was so nice in person. He made peace with his dark side, and it held no power over him.

That was his talent. His artistry. Just wish he got to practice it a while longer.

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Pay DeadI’ve got a weird obsession with cards.

A while back, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I became fascinated with card sleights and began seeking out magicians and card mechanics who could show them to me.

I’m not talking about one of those ponderous, drawn-out, self-working card tricks your 12-year-old nephew tries to show you at family gatherings. I’m talking about someone who can swiftly, elegantly and invisibly shift cards around. Who can draw one card that magically turns into another in his hand. If you’ve never seen that kind of effect performed up-close by someone who really know what he’s doing, it’s hard to describe just how mind-blowing it can be.

The reason, I think, is because we tend to think of cards as inherently random. “It’s all in the draw of the cards.” You play the hand you’re dealt.” The idea of someone being able to manipulate them feeds into a primal fantasy of telekinetically directing the roulette ball’s trajectory, or the fall of the dice. Of controlling the very principle of randomness.

So I guess it was inevitable that I was gonna like the horror novel “Play Dead,” by Michael Arnzen, which is all about cards and that fantasy of controlling fate.

The story concerns a professional poker player named Johnny Frieze, who loses everything at the beginning of the book. He ends up in a Las Vegas homeless shelter. This being Vegas, many residents of the shelter owe their destitution to gambling.

But Johnny gets word of a high-stakes contest that could reverse his losing streak. Turns out there’s a mogul recruiting gamblers from the shelter to take part in a game called “Butcher Boy.” Here’s the catch. Players have to make their own decks — out of Polaroid photos of their murder victims.

I don’t even want to offer any hints as to what the rich puppetmaster’s motivation is, other than to say it’s very clever. “Play Dead” also incorporates one of my favorite narrative approaches to horror, in that it keeps you guessing as to whether something supernatural is really going on, or whether major characters just happen to be bugfuck insane.

The story unfolds as a tense, chilling and queasily hilarious exploration of obsession, addiction, gambling, chance, fate, and the kind of my-dick-is-bigger-than-your-dick dynamics that crop up whenever men compete in any endeavor. Arnzen manages the difficult trick of letting the horror and humor serve as counterpoints, with neither detracting from the other.

It’s a good book for the horror fan who’s getting a bit too jaded, and wants to read something new. It doesn’t easily fit into any subgenre of horror that I’ve ever encountered. No werewolves, vampires, ghosts or zombies here. Doesn’t even really fit the psycho killer mold either.

I don’t want to give the false impression that “Play Dead” is some kind of anti-gambling screed. Still, Arnzen seems to understand that the very existence of a multimillion-dollar gambling industry — one that owes its profitability to vast numbers of people voluntarily offering themselves up as de facto human sacrifices — is eerie enough without throwing any vampires or zombies into the mix.

Great story in The Onion A.V. Club this week about Sesame Street. Since it’s been around so long, it’s easy to forget what a brilliant, ground-breaking show it was at its inception. And as with all children’s entertainment, you run the risk of dismissing it as puerile and overlooking the considerable artistry that went into virtually every aspect of its production.

I actually watched the very first season of Sesame Street when I was a kid. Hell, I remember being confused when Oscar the Grouch showed up in the second season colored green instead of orange. (At least they didn’t replace him with Ted McGinley.)

It got me thinking about my favorite Muppet from back in the day. That would be Lefty, the street-corner scam artist.

No, I’m not making that up. I even found video evidence, which we’ll get to presently. I looked up some stuff about Lefty on the Internet. Apparently he hasn’t been on for a long time, which doesn’t surprise me. This was in the pre-Elmo days. The early ’70s. Children’s entertainment or not, Lefty was from the milieu of John Shaft and Frank Serpico. Edgy. A man of the streets.

By the way, all of the references to Lefty I found on the Internet refer to him as a “salesman.” I’m not buying it. Just look at the guy. Do you really believe his livelihood is anything so pedestrian and legal as “salesman?” He’s a con artist. Wake up and smell the mingled cigarette smoke, cheap booze and desperation. I can see him in a back alley, pocketing a few bills and giving Philip Marlowe the word on the street. Specifically, the Philip Marlowe played by Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s 1973 version of “The Long Goodbye.” Lefty has 1970s neo-noir written all over him.

In retrospect, I wonder if my early fondness for Lefty led to my later predilection for hard-boiled/noir fiction. Or was it simply an indication that the predilection already existed in my five-year-old subconscious? Oh well. Chicken or the egg, I guess. Lefty was cool. The fedora. The trenchcoat. The John Constantine-esque air of easy familiarity with dangerous realms that you and I sense only as an indistinct shadow on the periphery of our sheltered existence.

Anyway, watch this clip of Lefty in action. Remember that artistry I was talking about back there in the first paragraph? One thing that strikes me when I watch this now is how expertly this sketch is staged. Yes, the actors are puppets on a kids’ show. But it’s still freakin hilarious.

Since this sketch doesn’t include any lessons on letters or numbers, I don’t know if it was meant to be educational or not. But I like to think it was. I like to think that somebody at the Children’s Television Workshop figured: “Hey. Since we’re teaching these kids how to read and do math, we might as well teach them a few practical life lessons, too. Such as the existence of guys like Lefty. He may be cool, but watch your wallet around him.”

Important note: I was careful in the title of this post to specify that Lefty is Sesame Street’s coolest Muppet. Cool as Lefty is, some of the ones from The Muppet Show might give him a run for his money. I’ve always been partial to Animal and Beaker myself. R.I.P. Jim Henson. Someday I hope to buy you a beer in Valhalla.

 

 

 

Gerry LaFeminaI recently reviewed poet Gerry LaFemina’s debut novel “Clamor” for Chamber of the Bizarre. Drawing on his own background in the punk scene, Gerry crafted a complex portrait of a middle-aged punk rocker that I found refreshingly free of the kind of clichés you usually find in stories about musicians. Gerry agreed to talk a little bit about his personal history with punk, and about “Clamor.”

Q: Could you talk a little bit about your background, and your involvement with punk rock?

A: I started going to punk shows when I was 14/15. I was an outer boro kid—a Staten Islander—and didn’t really fit in with my peers. I had access to a lot of counter culture music from my older sister, mostly Zappa and Neil Young and the Dead, as a kid, but it wasn’t my music. I discovered the Ramones and Bowie and the Clash when I was about 13 and then Kraut, a band from New York, on MTV (was it the Basement Tapes?) at a friend’s house. Then it was onward to the Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains, etc. I joined my first band with that same friend when I was 15, but really didn’t do anything as a hardcore musician until I was 16 and founded Expletive Deleted. We eventually played with a ton of great bands, starting with our first show ever, opening for Suicidal Tendencies at CBGB.

Q: What drew you to punk rock in the first place?

A: I didn’t fit in anywhere. I was one of the few kids at my school whose parents were divorced. I loved books and music and just kind of had my own private life. Punk allowed me to reject mainstream values in an environment where rejection was not only accepted but encouraged. It felt safe at a time when I was looking for safety. That said, it didn’t take me long to realize the inherent limitations of punk as a cultural philosophy—nihilism was never my bag, nor was conforming even to a brand of non-conformity.

 

Q: What inspired the book, and what were you trying to accomplish?

A: “Clamor” started at a family party: I was looking at my older sister and brother and tried to imagine what it would be like to turn the volume of our personalities up to 11 as it were. I mean, those characters aren’t us in the least, but that’s how it started. Then I had to think what was going on. I don’t write with an outline or an agenda. Once I figured out that the father had died, I had some sense that this was a kind of Prodigal Son story, but that’s not enough to go on

What’s funny to me is that one of the most interesting characters in the book, for me, is Jessica — Johnny’s niece. She didn’t even exist as an idea when I first started writing. That’s all it took.

 

Q: Is there anything about the punk rock scene that you consider to be widely unknown or misunderstood?

A: When I was shopping the book I had one agent ask me to make it more “punk rock” — by which he said he wanted “more heroin or cocaine and some more sex.” I wanted to avoid these clichés. I was much more interested in the family dynamic that exists. This is a family drama. The drugs, the fighting, all that, that’s a very young take on punk. The fact is when punks survive into their thirties and forties, their concerns are adult concerns — paying the bills, raising the kids, living a life. Touring, writing new music, maybe some sort of secondary income source, all of that is real. Being a punk musician is a job at that point.

 

Q: Do you have any new projects in the works?

A: Always. I’m working on the fourth draft of a new, untitled novel. I’m playing around with a few short stories, and maybe I’ll eventually have another story collection. But it always comes back to the poems. I’m working on a new book of poems that is tentatively titled “The Story of Ash” but that’s still at least another year from being finished. My first book of essays on poetry, “Palpable Magic,” comes out in early 2015. And musically I’m working with a band called The Downstrokes.

 

 

Alex SeguraAlex Segura’s debut novel, “Silent City,” recently redefined Florida noir. Alex agreed to answer a few questions for “Chamber of the Bizarre.”

Q: Can you give us some background about yourself?

A: Happy to! I’m a comic book publicist by day, crime writer by night. My first novel, “Silent City,” came out late last year from Codorus Press. It’s a noir tale set in modern day Miami and features washed up journalist Pete Fernandez as he’s swept up by the search for a missing woman, which involves a much deeper — and deadlier — underworld conspiracy. When not writing crime novels, I write comics — mainly at Archie — and spend time with my wife and cats. I live in New York.

Q: What inspired “Silent City?”

A:I got into crime fiction in my early 20s, somewhat late. I read the classics — Chandler, Hammett and so on, but it was a copy of George Pelecanos’s excellent “A Firing Offense” that showed me that you could have a very flawed and relatable protagonist. It opened up a world of possibilities for me, not only in terms of what I could read, but also got me thinking about maybe writing myself. I point to Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane’s “Darkness, Take My Hand,” Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan books, Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder stories and Ellroy’s LA Quartet as the books from modern writers that made me think about possibly doing this myself. I should also note that I’m continually motivated and driven to keep at this by the work of other great writers, like Megan Abbott, Greg Rucka, Michael Connelly, Kelly Braffet, Reed Farrel Coleman and many more.

Q: Who are some of your influences, and how do you think they played out in the story?

A: Like I listed above, Pelecanos, Lippman, Lehane, Ellroy, Lawrence Block and older authors like Chandler, Jim Thompson and Ross MacDonald were huge influences. Pelecanos, Block and Lehane show up mostly in Pete — he’s definitely a distant cousin of Nick Stefanos, Matt Scudder and Patrick Kenzie, though there’s some Tess Monaghan in there, too. I think I learned a lot about mood from people like Chandler and Thompson, with Ellroy really showing me how important a role setting can play in a story. Which isn’t to say my book does anything in the same galaxy as these authors, but they definitely inspired and motivated me to be better, which I’m eternally grateful for.

Q: Why do you think Miami has proven so attractive to crime fiction writers?

A: It’s tropical, sexy, beautiful but with a dark and dangerous underbelly. It’s the perfect contrast — a beachfront paradise that houses the most dangerous criminals and killers. It’s full of possibilities, and can cover a wide range of genres even in mystery fiction — from hardboiled detective novels like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books to the funnier Carl Hiaasen stuff to Vicki Hendricks’s underrated, disturbingly dark and amazing “Miami Purity.”

Q: Was there anything distinctive you were trying to bring to a Miami-set crime novel that you feel other writers may have missed?

A: I think so. I think that was a big reason I wanted to set the Pete books in Miami. I felt like so many authors had done NY stories already that it’d be silly of me to take a stab at that out of the gate. I also had just moved to New York, so I didn’t feel as comfortable writing about it. Miami was my home and I felt like I knew it pretty well. I also didn’t feel like my Miami had shown up much in fiction — the suburban sprawl, the nooks and crannies I remember exploring as a kid. Those were fertile ground for me.

Q: What do you think makes for a good crime thriller?

 A: I think it starts with a good character — and the feeling of risk and potential threat. I’m drawn to characters that evolve. One series I really love are the Moe Prager books by Reed Farrel Coleman. They focus on an ex-NY cop who becomes a private eye. But each book pushes him forward — some even jump five years into the future, so you always have a new set of circumstances that are still true to the character. Good crime books keep readers on their toes while shining a light on society’s own problems. I feel like crime fiction can be the most socially conscious — because crime and criminals really show the cracks in the system and where government and society have failed. So, I guess I like my hardboiled stories to have some kind of message, too.

Q: Do you have anything in the works?

A: I’m hoping to have news on my second Pete novel, “Down the Darkest Street,” soon. I’ve got a few short stories in the works and my most recent Archie issue, #659, hit this month with #660 following in October. Keeping busy!