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Literary Devices: Booze



In some of my writing, I have characters who use guns a lot, and every now and then I get some detail about guns wrong and I get flooded with notes from helpful people explaining my mistake. Which is fine and good. So, let’s turn the tables a little. I may not be an expert on firearms, but I am an expert in firewater (see what I did there? Me good professional word person).

I am in many ways, a walking cliché: The writer who enjoys his liquor a little too much. It’s certainly not my fault that my ancestors made alcohol both delicious, all-natural, vaguely healthy if you believe European doctors, and man’s best friend. I am the victim here, is what I’m saying. And my books often reflect this lifelong love affair with The Drink: In the Avery Cates books, in Lifers and Chum and We Are Not Good People my characters all drink heavily and while you might argue this also explains why the stories they find themselves in are so dark and awful (and yet, hilarious!) because getting shitfaced is itself dark and awful (but hilarious!) it remains a literary device I use a lot. Admittedly, I use the Booze Device mainly so my characters have something to do with their hands (see also: Cigarettes).

Still, if you’re imagining that I myself get all ginned up and plow through fifty pages of golden prose while my eyes are crossed (method writing, in other words), you’re wrong. I remember once Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane being interviewed and he was asked about playing live shows while high, and he dismissed it out of hand, saying something about how you can’t do that because the guitar strings would suddenly seem like they were as thick as firehoses and everything would go to hell (I’m paraphrasing). While a glass of the brown stuff has often been my companion when writing, it’s not like you can guzzle a fifth of bourbon and then write fifteen pages of really coherent prose.

Of course, characters actually in the book? Why not. From what I can tell no one wants verisimilitude when it comes to liquor in our stories.



“Lucy” & The Art of Pulling Back

Scarlett Johansson in Believably Bloated Mode

Scarlett Johansson in Believably Bloated Mode

Lucy, written & directed by Luc Besson and starring Scarlett Johansson, is currently enjoying a 66% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is, frankly, amazing, since it’s not a good movie or a good story. Oh, it’s pretty-looking. Some of the imagery is breathtaking, there are a few kind of cool action moments, and I’ll admit that the first forty minutes or so of the film is rendered with a bouncy, off-center energy that is enjoyable, cutting back and forth between Lucy’s increasingly dire predicament with some gangsters and an incredibly daffy lecture being presented by Morgan Freeman, uttering some of the most ridiculous bad science in recent memory.

But the story is pretty dumb. (SPOILERS, HO!) In a nutshell, Lucy (Johansson, looking believably bloated and rough as a young woman apparently surviving on tequila shots, questionable sex partners, and ramen) is conned by a skeezy boyfriend into taking a briefcase to a gangster (Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi), who turns out to be lamentably unconcerned about Lucy’s wellbeing. In the case is a new drug the gangster is smuggling around the world, accomplished by surgically inserting plastic packets of the powder into his drug mules’ bellies. On Lucy’s part, at least, it’s an involuntary job. After some shenanigans, Lucy gets kicked in the stomach hard enough to rupture the packet, and this experimental drug begins to leak into her system.

And Lucy turns into a god.

More specifically, the drug somehow unlocks the “unused cerebral capacity” of the old, bullshit saw about how we only use 10% of our brains. This wonder drug allows Lucy to suddenly use increasing amounts of her own brain, which in turn allows her to first control her own body, then the bodies of others, and finally, as she consumes more and more of the drug, matter and energy (and, ultimately, time).


So, this is kind of silly. Johansson goes into Stonefaced Goddess mode, and the rest of the story lacks any sort of tension whatsoever because Lucy is almost immediately unstoppable. One scene where she causes a bunch of thugs to float to the ceiling like balloons as she walks stiffly beneath them is a nifty visual, and completely boring. When Lucy can make people collapse, wall them into invisible boxes, and make their weapons fly off as if suddenly magnetized, there’s little doubt who wins the confrontations she gets into.

Fixing a Hole

You know what, though? This could have been a much better story with one simple tweak: Instead of the drug granting Lucy what are, essentially, magic powers, if all it did was sharpen her perceptions and reflexes to godlike levels, this could have been an interesting revenge tale: Lucy starts off as a crying, weak person confused and terrified, is abused and brutalized, and then through sheer accident uses the gangster’s own product to destroy his organization via uncannily accurate shooting, superhuman reflexes, and a sudden ability to plan sixteen steps in advance like a boss.

In that version of the film, Lucy would still be mortal and would still be able to be injured. The story would still have tension. And we’d still get to see Scarlett Johansson kicking ass and taking names while looking slightly hungover the entire time. In other words, if Besson had just pulled back a little with his premise, this might have been a fun film. Instead, it’s a lot of crazy imagery with an ending lifted straight from The Lawnmower Man.

Of course, there’s the alternate explanation that the last hour of Lucy is just the titular character’s death hallucination as she quietly overdoses on the drug, which is more interesting but no more entertaining, frankly.


Mr. Benders’ New House

This story was originally published in Brutarian Quarterly 48/49.

WE KNEW the old green house on the northeast corner of the intersection as the Gooly House, because in the dim recesses of our young minds we all knew that Mrs. Gooly, whom we had feared and hated, had lived there for some years, keeping our errant tennis balls, frisbees, and gliders, a reign of tyranny over our childhoods. We’d hated Mrs. Gooly, because she insisted we stay outside her low, crumbling stone fence, because she wouldn’t let us reclaim our lost toys, because she snitched to our parents whenever we did anything in her sight, because she smelled slightly of dust at all times. We called her Mrs. Ghouly, not very original, but appropriate enough, and fought the urge to run past her house, forcing ourselves to walk sedately, untroubled by an obvious witch in our midst.

The house was mysterious. Three floors, with wickedly peaked roofs, and a dark, mulchy green. The windows were always shuttered, giving it a blind, moon-faced appearance. The yard surrounded it like a moat, a continuous band of green, overgrown to the extreme with odd plants we didn’t see in any other yard, a narrow path of slate leading from the slumped gate to the front door. The stone fence was only about three feet high, and was of a chalky substance we weren’t sure was really stone. It could be vaulted with one well-timed jump, unless you were Clarence from four doors down who was fat and always split his pants. We were terrified of the Gooly House, and of Mrs. Gooly, and we were shocked, and distrustful, when informed that she had passed away.

For weeks we feared ghosts. The house looked exactly the same; shuttered, moldy, brooding. Mrs. Gooly, being the undead, had no family that anyone knew of, so her spirit was free, we were convinced, to roam the house as she had in life, except, certainly, with new untold powers of evil. We crept past it, an eye out for black magic, and didn’t find out that someone had bought the house until the daring daylight raid we planned, almost a year after Mrs. Gooly’s demise.

A year is a long time in childhood. A whole slate of holidays had come and gone, a whole school year. Mrs. Gooly faded into the past, and if we still moved quicker when passing her looming green house, we didn’t do it consciously anymore. As she faded from fearsome witch to crabby old lady who used to live there, the neighborhood kids began more and more to look longingly towards the uncharted reaches of the Gooly House, where years’ worth of sporting goods lay waiting in the dim recesses of the tall grass, on the slightly slanted roof, in the gutters. Even after a year it took some weeks for us to come up with the combined courage to plan and execute a raid on the Gooly house.

There were five of us in charge. Myself, so pale I was almost invisible, and thin and known as the fastest runner on the block, a boy who fought back challengers every week, defeating kids from whole other neighborhoods in races; there was Rapheal, Rafe, who was my polar opposite: deeply tan, with dark hair and a muscular build, even at that age, that I envied; Marcia, who would, three years later, be my first kiss, but who was then just a freckled, red-haired, skinny girl who sometimes punched us in the shoulders for no reason; Lewis, deceptively nerdy in his thick, taped-up glasses; and Tanya, bossy, always bruised, who stole from us whenever we accidentally let her into our houses. Over grape sodas and Flav-or-Ice, we began by idly discussing how many balls we had lost at the Gooly house, and slowly devised a plan which we figured would net thousands of dollars in rubber and plastic – what we planned to do with all those toys, I couldn’t say. It was just a challenge.

The details of the plan were as follows:

The raid would be conducted during daylight, because even if we were bigger kids than ever, there was no way we were going into the Gooly house in the dark – I would challenge you today to do so, and you’d make some excuse up. We would enter the Gooly house perimeter from Webster Street through the King’s yard – the Kings were tolerant of us using their yard as a shortcut through the neighborhood, and this would allow us to enter the Gooly house perimeter without being observed by any stray parents who might have wandered from the house. Our parents never left the house during the day on a weekend, we knew that, although we couldn’t figure out why. Dads stayed in their easy chairs watching sports, Moms did whatever Moms did, mysterious things we didn’t want any part of. While unlikely that any of them would be seen on the streets, we didn’t want to take chances. Finally, we would start on the roof, beginning with the most dangerous and vulnerable area and working our way downward into the concealing safety of the tall grass, the myserious, lush jungle of the untended yard.

We crashed over the Kings’ fence boldly, trying to impress whatever ghosts there might be with our lack of fear. The house loomed before us as it always had – forbidding, not so much dark as a lack of light in the shape of a house- only closer. The siding was water-damaged, and we discovered to our mild surprise that part of the deep green color of the house was a thriving ivy plant that was consuming it, slowly. I remember we stood there, staring at it, for a few seconds, and then Marcia snorted in derision at men in general and began hoisting her slim frame up the side of the house, which was actually pretty easy; the small shed outside the back door gave easy purchase for the porch window sill, which was a quick lunge away from the porch roof, which was in turn just a few seconds of huffing and puffing from the second story roof, which, we theorized, was the pot of gold. And then, unexpected, an adult voice.

What the hell are you kids doing back here?”

We didn’t know his name then, but Mr. Benders was standing in the dark rectangle of the porch door. He was Our Parents’ Age, which was the only other age we knew aside from Our Age and Younger Than Us. he was balding and paunchy, wearing ridiculously baggy shorts and a bright shirt with a floral pattern. Holding a beer in one hand, he was dirty, with dark smudges on his face.

We froze, stupefied by the one variable we hadn’t considered: someone was actually living in the Gooly House. It stunned us. Who would live here? It was inconceivable!

Marcia slipped and grunted, and Mr. Benders glanced up sharply. “Is someone on the roof, for crying out loud?”

Regaining her feminine grace, Marcia dropped lightly to the ground directly in front of Mr. Benders, and they faced each other through the screen door for a few moments, Benders with beer in hand, Marcia with one hand on a cocked hip, like she owned the place.

Benders looked over her shoulder. “You kids got parents?”

We began making our retreat, mumbling vague apologies and making our way through the messy yard. Mr. Benders watched us go, and then disappeared inside the house. He was the topic of hot conversation for the rest of the day, and we actually pumped our parents for information, slyly, in roundabout ways they wouldn’t be able to decipher. All we learned was that Mr. Benders had nothing to do with Mrs. Gooly, that he had simply bought the house and moved into the neighborhood. Instantly, our feelings for Mr. Benders turned sympathetic, because he obviously didn’t know that the house was haunted. On the phone that evening, Marcia and I solemnly decided that it was too late to save him; Mrs. Gooly would likely murder him in his sleep that very night. This also meant we could return for the lost Super Pinkies shortly.

Summer back then was a real Time, an actual period in our lives. We recalled, dimly, Summers past. We looked forward to, brightly, Summers to come. There was School, and there were Holidays. And there was Summer. Today, of course, things have been diced much finer as we’ve aged: we don’t even have Days any more, we have Hours. Rush Hour. Lunch Hour. Happy Hour. But during the Benders Incident, as we always called it, we still had Summers, endless tracts of fertile time in which to explore, and make up games, eat junk food, and nap.

The day after our bold but failed daylight raid, we all woke up, as usual, watched cartoons, as usual, ate cereal, as usual, and emerged into the hot street to being wasting the day, as usual. There we all stopped, because up the hill, outside the Gooly House, something unexpected had happened at some point. While we’d been sleeping, or eating, or watching, Mr. Benders had begun cleaning out the house, and there was a large collection of stuff out on the sidewalk for the garbage, beckoning us with subtle glints in the sunlight and mysterious shadows.

Rafe and Lewis were standing on the opposite corner, drinking Cokes.

Hey, Ramis,” Rafe said with his light accent, “Can you believe all that crap?”

That guy’s gonna be doing this for weeks, man.” Lewis confirmed.

We crossed the street and arrived at the growing collection of stuff just as Mr. Benders appeared, hauling a lagre black trunk down the front stairs.

We watched him, amazed. The Gooly House’s secrets were being spilled out onto the street. Who knew what kind of arcana Mrs. Gooly had collected in her hundreds of years living there, hunting the children of the neighborhood, poisoning our drinking water, flying through the night on her broom, stealing our prized possessions. Mr. Benders was struggling with the trunk as if it weighed a lot, and Rafe nudged me out of my fantasies.

How much you wanna bet the old bat’s in that trunk?”

A chill ran through me. We watched Mr. Benders huff and puff the trunk down onto the sidewalk, then pause to pull a rag from his back pocket and wipe sweat from his brow. With a slight start, he noticed us.

Great, it’s the goddamn Little Rascals again. Your parents just let you run wild around here?”

Sure,” Rafe said, always an instigator, “why not?”

Mr. Benders shook his head, and bent down to grsp the trunk by its cracked leather handle.

Hey, Mister,” I said, “you mind if we look through all this stuff?”

Mr. Benders paused, breathing hard, bent at the waist. “Knock yourself out, kid. But don’t make a mess. Whoever lived here before left three houses worth of stuff the goddamn Realtor couldn’t be bothered to clean out, and I don’t want to have to clean it up twice, got it?”

I nodded. It would be some time before we realized that Mr. Benders’ favorite word was ‘goddamn’.

We regarded the epic pile of trash professionally, although most of it wasn’t immediately familiar to us. There were boxes, moldy and unlabelled. There were two huge, beaten leather chairs that had backs like wings arching out over you, which we all probably considered sitting in but were too scared – they didn’t look like chairs made for humans, but rather like chairs made for vampires, or demons. While Mr. Benders loudly grunted and panted behind us, struggling with the trunk, we gingerly picked over the junk, looking for anything we could make sense of.

Hey, Mister,” Lewis suddenly said, making us turn, “what’s in the trunk?”

Mr. Benders, standing beside the trunk like a winded Great White Hunter, shrugged. “Who cares? The old bat who lived here kept everything. Wouldn’t be surprised if it was full of goddamned bottlecaps.”

Bottlecaps piqued mild interest, as we played Bottlecaps now and again on chalked boards in the street. While we wouldn’t use that many bottlecaps in our whole lives, there might, we all suspected, be some real humdingers in there, unusual caps that would prove to be the secret ingredient to a championship season.

Can we open it?”

Mr. Benders glanced down at the trunk and toed it with his sneaker. “Kid, if you can get it open, be my guest.”

With that he wiped sweat from his face and walked back into the Gooly House. We waited until the door had shut behind him, swallowing him back into the Gooly universe that was humming inside it like greased, blackened machinary whose use had been forgotten, and then we swarmed over the junk.

We left the trunk for last, for when the girls showed up, because we figured it would be the big discovery of the day and knew we’d be in trouble if we tried to hoard it for ourselves. The pile offered plenty of junk, anyway; aside from old lady clothes and a collection of strange, heavy records that seemed to be made of stone, there were three objects that captured the rest of our day’s attention, and solidified Mrs. Gooly’s legacy as a witch of some sort.

First, there was the Box with the crank. It was black, cracked everywhere like old skin, and had no lid or hinges we could detect. It did, however, have a worn wooden crank that reached out of it like a twisted arm. Lewis cranked it once or twice, and it produced an ominous ticking noise from within -whether this meant it was broken or if this meant it was winding up for something, we didn’t know, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know; the ticking made my back tighten up in anxiety. We shook it, but nothing rattled inside. We turned it over and over in our hands and could see no possible way inside.

Underneath a pile of chemically-smelling dresses – nothing we had ever seen Mrs. Gooly wearing – we found a jewelry box full of photographs. We were at first not interested, expecting just the usual photos – pictures of Mrs. Gooly in happier times, looking much like our own grandmothers in their own stiff, fading pictures. A closer look, however, revealed that the photos were neither of Mrs. Gooly, or very ordinary. They appeared to have all been taken at the same time, in the same place, but we couldn’t be sure – they were all confused, blurred images, with shapes that might have been people, or furniture. In some of the photos there was a perceived violence, a horror of motion that we couldn’t seem to look away from. In others, there didn’t seem to be anything – just blurry shots of an empty room, beaten wood floors, pale plaster walls.

We sat on the curb and went through the photos one at a time, carefully, passing them down the line and staring at them. I felt as if there was something in those photos, a puzzle, and if I had enough time to stare at them, I might piece them together. In one, a man wearing baggy dress pants, a short, thick tie from black and white movies, and a towering pile of curly dark hair seems to float above a group of seated people. Their blurred faces appear to be raised in awe, or panic, arms half raised as well in a desperate attempt to fend something off, or block their sight, or maybe in hysteria.

The girls, fresh from mysterious girl business somewhere, arrived in time for the third discovery: an ominous book written entirely in runes. The dark green leather of the book was cracked but somehow velvety, and gave me goosebumps to touch. The paper bound within was smooth and felt wet to my fingers, as if it were leaving some oily residue behind. We all stood around wiping our hands on our pants and shirts after touching it. The runes were inscrutable, darkly printed, stark against the yellowed white of the paper. Each page was a solid block of symbols, with no paragraphs, punctuation, or illustration. They began neatly on the first page, and ended abruptly on the last unnumbered sheet. The smell of the book was one of neglect and time and something that scratched our throats and made us cough.

The girls were excited by the book. Declaring it a witch’s spellbook, they claimed only girls could handle it and clutched it between them possessively. Honestly, I recall being very glad to let them have it, but Rafe had to make a stand and threatened them with the usual if they kept it for themselves: torment, vandalism, exclusion from the next thousand days of Running Bases and stickball. Tanya and Marcia paid him no mind, and Rafe was forced to admit that he was not going to hit a girl any time soon. The girls cackled over their grimoire and threatened to turn us into rodents if we bothered them.

The rest of the stuff was equally inexplicable, and equally useless to us, but didn’t seem very dark or magical: old clothes, pieces of sagging and empty furniture, boxes and boxes of shoes we didn’t think anyone had ever worn. After a few hours a truck came and three large men who spoke a foreign language began collecting everything. When we claimed our three prizes, they shrugged and muttered and didn’t cause us any trouble.

I spent the night staring at the photos, seeking clues. In one, the one where a group of people seemed to be running for their lives from a sparsely furnished room, and among the people there was a tall, bony woman tht could certainly have been Mrs. Gooly. I dug my plastic microscope from under the bed, dusted it off, and ran the photo beneath it, searchin for clues. Up close the photo was just a grayscale jumble, darks and greys, dots. I did discover, on the edge of the print, what could only be a cat’s tail, puffed and the tail bit of a fleeing animal, one paw still barely visible as it fled.

The next day the five of us gathered across from the Gooly house and discussed our treasures. The girls had not been able to pry any secrets from the spell book, and were seriously considering bring Marcia’s older sister Maryanne into the discovery process, Maryanne being seventeen and well read, an untapped resource of knowledge we had never found a use for.

Rafe had nervously cranked the mysterious box for a full five minutes, listening to its dry clickings, and came out to us on the corner convinced it was merely broken, and not mysterious at all.

Lewis had claimed the trunk, and had enlisted his older brother in dragging it to his house. He had not been able to pick the lock or otherwise break into the trunk, but felt confident that he would be able to, because his brother had learned how to pick the locks on the lockers at his high school

As would become the daily ritual of the summer, Mr. Benders emerged a few minutes later lugging a new load of stuff out onto the street, huffing and puffing. Pausing to catch his breath, he noticed us across the street and shook his head a little.

You kids got no ambition, huh? Watching me clean this house out the best you can do? What happened to vandalism, or juvenile delinquency.”

Rafe sneered at him. “Hey man, we’re watching you have a heart attack – who’s dumb?”

Mr. Benders surprised us by laughing, which turned into a bad coughing fit. Finally, he waved at us dismissively, and continued hauling three overstuffed cardboard boxes out to the curb. We waited until he turned his back on them, and then swarmed over to them. They revealed nothing more than a collection of faded tablecloths, musty and uninteresting. We settled down to wait for more treasures anyway.

Over the next few months, we watched Mr. Benders clear out the Gooly house with growing excitement, seeing mysteries heretofore unsuspected revealed daily, and our collections of oddities grew with each batch. Everything seemed to confirm our suspicions about Mrs. Gooly’s nature: her possesions, once exposed to the harsh summer sun and our sharp inspection, were arcane and obviously heavy with black magic. We found a soft velvety bag filled with smooth, black stones, seized upon as magical stones. We claimed what Lewis identified as a camera, a black box with a lens protruding from one end. We could find no way to load film into it, and Marcia immediately began referring to it as the Soul Camera, a term which made us all shiver with expectation. Who knew what you might do with a Soul Camera once you learned how to use it? There was a long, smooth black rod, inexplicable but vibrating with implied violence. A glass cube. A small jewelry box filled with sand. Gold coins from some distant land none of us had heard of.

Every day Mr. Benders hauled a quantity of stuff from within the Gooly House, and every day we found new, arcane items to add to our collection. But no matter how hard we studied it all, nothing fell into place. The Gooly House made no more sense than it had before. I stared at the photos until my eyes ached, under my blankets with flashlights, but no inspiration came to me. They remained fuzzy, indistinct photos that may have been about amazing happenings, or simply badly photographed. We all fell into private and separate contemplations of the meaning of our treasures, and stopped talking about the Gooly House, and shared none of it.

Finally, the days bled into Fall, and school began firming up into a reality. We were dragged into clothing stores and department stores, we were measured and groomed, largely against our wills. Shoes were purchased. September came and we all began eyeing the calendar with dread, knowing that one Sunday evening we would be shuffled off to bed earlier than we’d become used to, and we’d be woken up earlier than we wished, pushed into good clothes, and pushed out the door with bookbags and bag lunches in hand, stunned, amazed, and regretful of a million things. Another summer gone.

Mr. Benders was finally done cleaning out the Gooly House by this time, and we didn’t see him much that final week as he resumed the normal interior lifestyle of an adult. Our parents hinted that he was gutting the place and having it all redone in a more modern style, which seemed like grown-up parlance for driving out the haunting Spirit of Mrs. Gooly, which we all expected to see rise up from the chimney someday, hovering over the neighborhood angrily for a moment, and then fly off to possess a familiar, like a squirrel or cat. We’d fallen out of the habit of waiting for him outside his house anyway, and had finished the last two weeks of our vacation playing stickball a block away, Rafe bossing everyone but Marcia around. Marcia would just cross her arms and stick out her butt and tell Rafe to soak his head, and he would just give a sly latin smile and shrug, as if it was all a big joke he’d cooked up. I hit a grand slam, and was a minor celeb for a day, something I still remember, since I don’t hit very many grand slams.

The last Saturday of vacation we played basketball in the park, Rafe humiliating me and Lewis with various trick shots and in-your-face stuffs. We took it in stride, used to it. Walking home in sweaty, drooping clothes, Lewis suddenly looked up.

Hey, y’know what? I never did get that goddamn trunk open.”

For a moment we didn’t remember what he was talking about. Then it hit us. The trunk! The Gooly Trunk! All the terrible secrets we’d imagined hidden in that house came flooding back, and I was sure that the key to it all, the last piece of the puzzle that had eluded us, was locked inside that trunk. All we had to do was get it open.

On the way to Lewis’ house, he explained what steps had already been taken, and it became clear that Lewis and his older brother had exhausted subtlety. Picking the locks would not do. Brute force was called for. We located a hammer and chisel in the garage, where Lewis’ mother had banished the musty old trunk, and dragged the trunk to the top of their sloped driveway, a cool late-summer breeeze making us shiver in our sweaty clothes. Rafe took the tools up confidently, in charge, and we all stood around it as he knelt, pushed the chisel into the small gap of the latch, and raised the hammer up for a final blow at Mrs. Gooly.

I’ll never forget what happened. I’ll never forget the five of us, as we were. Lewis, pudgy but thinning with age, sheened with sweat, his eyes bright and wide, expectant. Marcia radiant, skinny, just beginning to hint at curves, her hair up, mouth open nervously, skin pink. Rafe, strong back bunched with muscle, curly hair matted from exertion. And Tanya, on the edge, already fading from our thoughts even when she’d still been there, just out of my peripheral vision. Saying something I never heard as Rafe raised the hammer, because when he brought it down, there was an explosion.

Or so it seemed to me at the time. Certainly, the trunk exploded, splitting open with such force that the lid banged loudly on the pavement. And we all dived instinctively away from a sudden cloud of green, yellow, and tan: hundreds of tennis balls, Spaldings, Super Pinkies, compressed impossibly into a steamer trunk for years, freed with a startling expulsion of suppressed kinetic energy. Rafe was hit in the face by the lid flying upward, and landed hard on his back in the driveway. The rest of us were pummeled for three seconds by hundreds of hard rubber balls, and then found cover as the explosion turned into a steady rain of balls falling back to earth, where they then rolled down the driveway and into the street.


Misanthropy for the Win



So, we’ve made some friends on our block with some neighbors, and it’s generally a good thing because the neighbors we’re friendly with all like to drink a lot. They’re generally all good people I’m happy to know, and the ones who aren’t we just sort of wave at and smile and keep moving – always keep moving. That’s the secret.

Since we’re living in a society and I am nothing if not a team player, we do favors for our neighbors and vice versa. For example, we all have copies of each other’s keys so that when the husbands (occasionally, wives, once, cats) come stumbling home, pantsless and blind drunk, with no house keys anywhere in sight, we can help each other out.

So this morning I am asleep, and the phone rings and wakes me. I look at Caller ID, and it says the grocery store across the street is calling. For a sleepy moment I actually wondered if they were calling to tell me they knew I ate that grape without paying for it six years ago, or that I’d once clogged the toilet over there when we were having our bathroom remodelled.

Then, I woke up sufficiently to not answer. Because it was the grocery store.

Anyway, the message clicks on and its my neighbor, who has locked himself out. Neighbor X is a great guy who shares my love of pre-dinner cocktails, sarcastic remarks, and that third, ill-advised bottle of wine, so naturally I got up and went downstairs to get his keys. And poor Neighbor X is standing there freezing his ass off in his pajamas. I did him the courtesy of not asking why he was at the grocery store at 5AM in nothing but his pajamas, because that’s what neighbors do for each other, natch.

The moral? Having friends rips you from your warm bed at 5AM. Having no friends doesn’t. Make of that what you will.


Let’s Cut Out the Middle Man: Send Me $100

Stock photography gives us everything.

Stock photography gives us everything.

So, increasingly it’s popular for writers who have, shall we say, less than great book sales (hi there!) to go begging for pennies on sites like Kickstarter or Patreon. This isn’t a bad idea, as we’re basically already beggars when it comes to our book contracts:

Writer: I am hungry and my wife just left me for a homeless man to improve her lifestyle. Here’s a book I spent six years writing.

Publisher: I’ll give you six dollars and a vague promise of a sandwich sometime next week.

Writer: SOLD.

Publisher: Now, I never said *American* dollars.

Writer: <stuffs bills into mouth and eats them>

And: scene.

Now, naturally enough if I were to go the Kickstarter or Patreon route, I’d no doubt take in some very dark, very unfortunate directions. Because, if you think about it, these sorts of arrangements are already kind of weird. Take Patreon: You offer me $5 a month and I offer you some flash fiction. Sounds innocent enough, except it has the ring of an organ grinder and me in a cute little monkey-appropriate outfit. My flash fictions would almost certainly become epic exercises in passive aggression, ending, no doubt, in the sort of murder/suicide pact that future writers will turn into Pulitzer-winning True Crime novels.

Plus, I would likely just get lazier and lazier, ultimately creating $1 support tiers where you’d get an angry, drunken voicemail in the middle of the night, and one-penny support tiers where you’d get a voicemail in the middle of the night that was just me weeping inconsolably.

And Kickstarter would start off fine and dandy, but there are two scenarios I’m seeing: One where no one donates, and I wind up being cited on comedy websites as how not to do a kickstarter, and one where I am fully funded and manage to blow all of the money in one weekend via an increasingly unlikely series of coincidences involving liquor and an impaired ability to make decisions. Either way: Tears.

Plus, to be honest, all these alternative ways of raising money are a lot of work. If I wanted to work for a living I wouldn’t be a writer. I wouldn’t have these delicate, soft hands and this fragile, glass-like lower back. I wouldn’t have this debilitating fear of other people, leprechauns, and sweat.

So let’s keep it simple, shall we? Y’all send me $100 each and I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing. Deal?


The Time I Got Taken

You're right - I don't *have* any dignity.

You’re right – I don’t *have* any dignity.

Although my brand, as you all well know, is “Genius Alcoholic” (my justification for this branding is my expectation that just as my liver explodes and claws its way from my body in a death struggle, science will have advanced to the point where I can print a new liver at home and hire someone from the Internet to transplant it – or possibly have a new liver and a surgeon delivered via drone, either way), the fact is, I am sometimes surprisingly stupid. Like, amazingly, incredibly, bone-shatteringly stupid.

My agent just appeared in a blaze of purple fire, laughed manically while pointing at me for five seconds, and then vanished.

I’ve been freelance writing for a few years now, and have reached a point where every day isn’t a soul-killing hustle for work reminiscent of Samuel L. Jackson’s crack-dance in Jungle Fever, except instead of crack, I am dancing for writing jobs. These days I am quite fancy in my freelancing (I’ve considered wearing a monocle and top hat while working, yes, why do you ask?) but in the early going, of course, I was willing to entertain a lot of dubious writing jobs. Not subject matter, which continues to be something I’m more or less neutral on (I have written about some very, very horrible things and cashed the checks without a single regret) but dubious rather in the sense of basically dealing with shadowy figures from across the globe who regard paying writers to be a crazy idea.

Which, I know, I just described everyone. The world hates us writers, doesn’t it?

Anyways, back in those dark days I responded to some seriously red-flag waving job postings in the early goings. Most were merely frustrating: People who didn’t know what they wanted, people who thought telling you to write like some famously successful blog was enough instruction to go on, people who had no sense of humor at all.

Most of the time it was fine: I’d write a few pieces and we’d mutually wander off to other things. Not every business relationship can be perfect, after all. But twice – twice! – I got rooked, because I agreed to do an unpaid trial.

The Scam

It’s obvious, really: Always get paid for your work. Always. But, a little nervous about doing freelance, about not having a job, about testing this theory of mine that the only thing I am good at without reservation is writing, I made some bad decisions. So when an otherwise great-sounding job came along that required me to write one, single 500-word article for no money so the employer could determine that I had the writing chops came along, I agreed.

You can see where this is going.

Nope, never got hired, never got paid, and when I (belatedly) looked into it, I was one among dozens of writers who got rooked into it. In other words, we all collectively provided this guy like 15,000 words for free. In other, other words, he got his whole project written for him by suckers like me.

You might think I learned my lesson, and I did, but not well enough: A few weeks later I fell for it again. I initially turned down the job because of the free trial bullshit – but then the person came back and defended it, saying it was just a very short piece and they simply had to require it, and again it was otherwise so attractive (aren’t scams always?) I gave in. After all, I thought, if it was just a scam why would they bother emailing me? So I wrote about 300 words, and yup, never heard from anyone again.

So, now I’ve really learned my lesson. Really, really. Now, in the grand scheme of things I lost maybe $50 of my time, so it’s not like I’m going to scream KKKKHHHAAANNNNNN at the sky and rip off my shirt (ripping off shirts is super hard, anyway). But it does burn me that I got played. And reminds us all that we writers, we’re at the bottom of the ant hill, and we get kicked around a bit. But you know what? Your time is worth something, and you get to decide what that is. Everyone else then gets to decide if they agree, and pay for your services or not depending on that. It really is that simple.


Phillip K. Marks

69448_7155Writing is a curious thing, sometimes. On the one hand it’s art and you have to respect the mysterious and largely amoral idea machine that lurks somewhere inside your head – mysterious and somewhat disturbing, most times. On the other hand, there’s artifice and artificiality to it as well – you take those ideas and you think about manipulating a plot, and the market you might sell it to, and how readers will react.

So, you sometimes develop crutches or tools – like, say, a character who exists mainly to star in a certain kind of story that you often return to. I’m a fan of detective novels, and I’m a fan of the old Kolchak: The Night Stalker series, and for some reason I keep coming up with gonzo supernatural stories that are presented and structured as mysteries. And so I’ve created a character named Philip K. Marks who often stars in these stories as an alcoholic former writer who investigates weird, strange situations.



In fact, he’s not that different in some ways from Lem Vonnegan, the main character in We Are Not Good People. He’s a bit run-down, has made bold, moral choices in his life that have cost him, and he’s oppressed by forces often – regularly – beyond his control or sometimes even his comprehension. Whereas in the earlier stories I wrote about him he was well-known and somewhat prosperous, over time he’s had adventures that went horrifyingly wrong, and there’s continuity in the stories themselves, so in the more recent ones he’s lost his memory and some of his focus and energy, and he’s fallen pretty far in social and economic turns, too. Although he’s not a mage or a gunner, he’d get along well with Lem and Avery Cates, I think, and his adventures always involve magic, horror, and science fiction elements.

I like almost all of the stories I’ve written about Marks, and I’ve actually sold a few. “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the MWA Anthology Crimes by Moonlight, edited by Charlaine Harris, in 2010, and “A Meek and Thankful Heart” appeared in Buzzy Mag in 2013. And I recently sold a third story, titled “Howling on for More” which should be appearing over at Black Denim Lit in April (or so I’m told).

Three stories ain’t exactly an anthology, but I have a bunch of others, and it’s been surprisingly successful for me to sell three stories with the same character, especially one so different from Avery Cates and Lem Vonnegan (or perhaps not so different). And since I have several other stories starring the amnesic and world-weary Mr. Marks, I guess I have a long-term project now to start sending out more of those stories so I can someday collect them into one anthology that no one will publish.

At my current apparent rate of selling one story every 2-3 years, I’ll manage this by the time I’m 157. Which is fine. I plan to live that long anyway through a careful application of booze, lack of exercise, and positive thinking.

In the mean time, Marks will remain a sponge character for all the ideas I have that need a bit of structure to hold them up. Even though Marks started off as a catch-all tool of sorts, he’s developed quite the backstory and personality. In fact, it might be time to write a Marks novel one of these days, if I can think of the right idea for it. All writers have tools they use to hide the gears from y’all, and sometimes it’s nice when those tools ascend a bit and become characters.


Bring Me Your Finest Single Malts and Cheeses

This essay originally appeared in The Inner Swine Volume 12, Issue 1, 2006.

Ice is for suckers.

Ice is for suckers.

The Inner Swine Goes to Whiskyfest 2005

OPERATION: WHISKYFEST. Generally speaking, I’m not one for overly formalizing everything; there are people in this world who just don’t feel right unless every single activity has been choreographed and arranged according to in-depth bylaws. These are people to whom ‘expertise’ is darling, who love to be able to explain why something is better than some other thing, in great detail. Many of these people are baseball fans, who will bore you to death with long-winded diatribes about the infield fly rule or how to throw a breaking ball. Many others are wine enthusiasts for whom simply enjoying a glass of wine is not good enough, you must be able to feign an appreciation of 655 subtle characteristics, many of which were made up a century ago and still amuse the French to this day.

Despite my appreciation for a good breaking ball, I am not one of those people. I like wine, but my palate does not advance much past knowing what I like, which tends to be just about every single bottle of wine I’ve ever imbibed, with the sole exception of a bottle given to me by TIS Staff Artist Jeof Vita a few years ago, a nondescript green bottle with a plain label that read, in toto, CHEAP WHITE WINE. That wine was. . .not good, and I wish someone had told me it was a joke before I drank the entire bottle and spent a week shivering. I like baseball, too, but I grow weary of endless discussion of minutiae—I just like to have the games on about a hundred times a year and get out to a few games. I am, in other words, a pretty simple person. I like what I like, and I distrust unnecessary complexity.

Despite this lack of sophistication, I’ve come to love whisky in general and Scotch in specific. It’s amazing how you can be a kid and love cheap beer and peppermint schnapps and wonder why anyone pays more than a dollar and change for their liquor, and just two decades later you’re willingly shelling out lots of money for specific types of booze because you actually believe they taste better: Maturity is obviously just a code word for crazy. But I digress; although I’ve always had a taste for bourbon, I’d never really investigated Scotch or any other type of whisky. Partly it’s the cost—you can’t just shell out for bottles of booze on the off chance you’ll like it—and partly it’s just my general lack of focus and energy. I’m a lazy, lazy man and discovering new booze usually falls under the heading of more shit I gotta do. Eventually, however, good sense prevailed and over the past few years I’ve gotten into Scotch and appreciate its subtleties. This translates to: Jeff has been drinking an awful lot of Scotch.

So when my wife, The Duchess, presented me with a ticket to Whiskeyfest for my birthday and informed me that founding member of TISIC Jeof Vita was also planning to attend, I was immediately excited. It’s not often you are handed a ticket to drink—by your wife, no less—and I immediately went into training and plotting, determined to make the most of my sudden opportunity.



Prompting the Question

Just a story.

Just a story.

So, as noted in this great review from Matt Handle, many people are assuming/hoping that the new Avery Cates story The Shattered Gears is a teaser for a new Cates novel. I’ve had a lot of emails along those lines, asking if this is leading to something and if I have a clear storyline for a new Cates book, and whether The Shattered Gears is part of that.

The answer is yes and no. Yes, I have a very clear idea of what Cates gets up to and a lot of notes for a new novel. And yes, The Shattered Gears is directly connected, so it’s canon, baby. In fact, Gears started off as a way of organizing some thoughts for a new Cates book. But no, I have no plans to write that book right now. It will remain just a collection of ideas for now.

The same goes for We Are Not Good People and the Ustari universe. Do I have ideas for another novel or fifteen with Lem and Mags? Sure! Am I working on them right now? No! Reasons include:

  • It’s the holidays and I am incapacitated by drink more or less continuously
  • No one has paid me an enormous amount of money to write those novels (yet)
  • My work writing and composing the world’s worst rock songs in my home office takes too much of my time
  • I’m far too busy perfecting my Irish accent
  • I’m actually in the middle of writing a novel now that not only has nothing to do with Cates or Lem Vonnegan, it has nothing to do with cyborgs or magic at all.

Anyways, I’m delighted people seem to enjoy The Shattered Gears so much. If it sells well I might make releasing Cates stories a more or less regular event, though not all of those potential stories would be directly related to a new storyline, some might be flashbacks. Who knows? It might be fun.

Anyways, you know the best way to guarantee sequels? Buy the existing books and then emotionally manipulate everyone you know to follow suit.


Baby Levon Rocks On at The DOT

But it really did happen.

But it really did happen.

Friendos, this originally appeared in The Inner Swine Volume 4, Issue 1, March 1998. That’s a long time ago. This is an absolutely true tale of what I experienced after my car was towed in New York back in The Day.

The fucking New York City Police towed my car the day after Christmas and I travelled to 38th street and 12th avenue to pay $150.00 to get it back. I wasn’t happy to be paying $150.00, but I wasn’t in full-postal mode because it was just after Christmas and I was resigned to the perpetual screwing the universe was handing out to me on a daily basis anyway. Once you get resigned to the screwing, as any prison bitch will tell you, it really stops bothering you. That’s pretty much the definition of resigned anyway.

So I wandered into the tiny, unwindowed, bunker-like DOT office on December 26th and immediately read and comprehended a big 3X6 poster on the opposite wall which explained the proper way to collect your car. It read: