Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Word Eater

I'm a word-omnivore. I'll read about anything I can put eyes to-- cereal boxes, toilet paper wrappers, the backs of old CTA transfers left in a pocket years earlier. I have a sneaking suspicion that I sometimes write a specifice something just to have an excuse to pore over books quaint and curious. Fact is, over the last few decades, research reading has become an obsession with me.

I write from the inside out...maybe I just postpone having to write for as long as possible or maybe I'm just a lazy sod who tells himself that reading is work. BUT...every time I write I butt into my own ignorance and find I've got to research something or another just to get my head and gut into the same place and get that place next to my characters.

For example: I recently, I shipped a novella for an upcoming anthology. The setting for the story, "Wind Shadows" is in the British trenches in Belgium during WW I. I knew what I wanted to say about the people in the tale. I knew roughly what the plot would ask them to do and what would happen to them, but the only clue I had to what their world was like from kidhood reads of "All Quiet on the Western Front" and seeing movies like "Paths of Glory."

By the time I finished "Wind Shadows," I had at least an academic understanding not only of how the whole debacle of trench warfare evolved during that conflict, but I came away with a gut appreciation of what a trench smelled like three days after a big push, I knew what sort of shit the troops got into when they rotated to the rear, I had some sense of the lives and routines of these men.

I'd have to go look at my "Wind Shadows" shelf, but I'd estimate that I read all or significant parts of about a dozen books in getting 15,000 or so words of story onto the screen. I cut a lot in subsequent and final passes, but the research reading had informed the shape and feel of the story. Hell, it's still there in subtext.

Research reading has become a staple of my morning and evening commutes. Even when I'm not working on a story, I find I'm drawn to books that most people have passed by. I love the dump-bins at bookstores, the last chance for some poor old things, nobody wants... Sometimes, passing by, something just pops. During the build for "Wind Shadows" for instance, a long skinny thing called "Harry's War: Experiences in the Suicide Club in World War One" caught my attention in a bin at Powell's in Hyde Park, Chicago. Filled with crude, hand colored sketches and trench-time jottings by a guy named Harry Stinton...just a bloke who was stuck out there figuring each day would probably be his last... "Harry's War," was a heady read -- I went through it twice for "Wind Shadows" and have since spent time with the pictures. There's more to this...but I have to run. Off to work, reading "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail."

Friday, May 26, 2006

Hazel's Dunes Shack

This is the interior of Hazel's shack -- I found it on another person's site and have no idea how to credit him/her. This is not where Hazel lived when we knew her, but it is typical of a P'town dunes shack... The places give comfort, in that way that a supra-simplified life snuggles and strokes artists and writers in need of isolation. When I was 30, I would loved one. I might have when I was 40. Now...I need a nearby bathroom and a place to plug the computer!

The Salon-Keeper of P'Town, Mass.

Hazel Hawthorne Werner...was the literary hostess, doyenne salon-keeper of Provincetown, Massachusetts, during the town's gathering years as America’s beaux-arts colony extra ordinaire.

During the 20s, 30s, 40s Hazel also kept a salon in Greenwich Village.

Edmund Wilson, E.E. Cummings, (before he lost his upper case), Eugene O'Neill -- the literary mob we kids of the 40s were raised on -- all hung out with her and her husband, Morrie Werner (editor, writer, drunk and P.T. Barnum biographer), in the Village then followed them up to P'Town on the Cape to hang with them on the dunesey sand. Hazel rented O'Neill the shack on the dunes in which he lived when he was writing his early plays. She rented, then gave it to him, kept him up and working, didn't let him slip into the booze and end-of-life drama he was writing himself into at the time. Hell, the "Sea Plays" were all written in Hazel and Morrie's shack on the beach and were first performed in a little potting shed down off Commonwealth Street (I think it was off Commonwealth -- it 's been a while since I've been there) before the plays went to New York and that city's "Provincetown Playhouse."

I knew Hazel when I lived in P'Town, 1970-71. She was lean, straight, and palsied, her voice, thin, reedy, and cut-glass proper. But despite seeming infirmity, Hazel, using no authority but strength of character, kept the Northeastern American literary establishment proper...not on-track artistically (she didn't seem to care about that), but she kept it, at least, minding its table manners through the 70s. She did, indeed. I watched.

I was married to a woman named Ernestine Worrall at the time. She and I attended a political meeting on behalf of George McGovern and a local candidate for the House of Representatives, Gerry Studds, in a church basement in P'Town.

Before coming up to P’town to work on a few projects, I had spoken passionately back home in Philadelphia on behalf of McGovern and of my ongoing dedication to that race. And at the meeting in Massachusetts, I committed my wife, talents and sacred hours to working not only for the McGovern presidency but for Mr. Studds election. It was the right thing to do...

A chum of ours, the just-down-from-Harvard editor of the Provincetown weekly paper (whenever you find yourself suddenly in a small town -- get to know the local editor!), rose, too, in personal defense of the Democratic Party and of George McGovern; he spoke of Richard Nixon’s perfidy and the ineffectiveness of the incumbent House Member from the Cape. We all filled with the rightness of our cause, the new rising of the young. Yada, yada.

Though it all, Norman Mailer bullied, railed, raged, threatened and called down the wrath of celebrity upon any who disagreed...

Without standing, with barely a look, a whip-thin, horsey, elegant old woman spoke. Pale, in a flowered dress, white socks rolled over sneakers, her voice ululating like a 78 Victrola on a bad road, her head quivering when she spoke. She froze Norman, all of us...

"Oh Norman, do sit down, for heaven's sake! You're behaving like a very bad boy!"

He did. Such was her authority.

That cut through the crap, the blowhardery. In 3 minutes, she'd focused the chatter and formed the kernel of a group to support Studds’ candidacy and, almost incidentally, to help McGovern.

If Senator McGovern can’t take Massachusetts without our help, she thought aloud, we can forget him, period.

Simple. That was that.

Hazel was the great-great-something-granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The which did not impress her, in particular (she wasn't easily impressed). Her fetchin’s did, however, impart to her an impeccable authority as a New Englander. At least to other New Englanders. That sort of thing is important there. If you arrived at 15 and lived to be 85, you were still referred to as "the new fellah," to the natives.

Maybe that's true everywhere...

Hazel and Morrie had split up years before. I have no idea why. Why do those things happen anywhere?

She lived in the converted garage near where their house once stood. Fire, I believe, had removed the place. That was out on Shankpainter Road. My memory wants it to have been there...such a grand name for a forested trail along the dunes.

(Edit: While my memory might have wanted her place to be on Shankpainter Road, it was actually on Howland Street. Ah well...)

Morrie kept their apartment in New York.

She stayed in P'Town until each year became too cold to have her, until the winds threatened to stop her in her tracks or rush her off her feet. Then she'd go spend a few months to the South, in brick, with Morrie on the Upper East Side.

In Spring, she'd be back on the dunes.

For whatever reason, Hazel adopted Ernie, me; took us under her wing for the year we lived there.

I had come, commissioned by the Annenberg Center in Philly, to write a play -- a musical comedy about the Black Death.


For this endeavor I was reasonably well-accepted into the Confraternity of P'Town artists. Most of the people Ernie and I hung with were Pulitzer winners, National Book awardees, such and the like. A good part of our social life consisted of going to readings, openings, showings, presentations, lectures, events... Like that.

Hazel was not part of it but seemed to hover, invisibly around it; a mentioned absence, a spoken-of non-presence, a noted vacancy.

When our laureate chums found that, in addition to the serious -- and understandable -- work of writing a funny play about the Bubonic Plague, I was also interested in -- and actually DID write -- science fiction and fantasy, there was much side-glancing, wide-eyeing, and staring... Uncomprehending squints, stares and slow turns of heads.

Norman and Beverly Mailer, whose children we used to babysit from time to time, seemed to get it, seemed to be okay with it.

Others, simply passed us by.

Hazel, it seems, came to our rescue. By inviting us to dinner, by attending a few events with us, with her as our "guest", she turned the questioning stares of the entire arts community.

I don't doubt that it was a conscious choice on her part, this small intervention. She never did like pomposity, disdained arrogance.

Maybe she liked that I didn't care if this group accepted me. I actually didn't. Not too much, anyway.

Perhaps she liked Ernie's bread or the fact that we used to sit and chat with her at her place Saturday mornings, coffee and oatmeal, steamy windows and foggy skies and rolling ocean beyond her trees and dunes. Maybe she liked our talk of city streets, of Philadelphia, of chums and villains. Maybe she liked that we had time to talk about things other than bookish things.

Maybe she liked science fiction and fantasy.

Whatever it was, I liked her and so did Ernie. I got over her being the great great-grand-something-daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Hazel seemed, at once, fragile and razor strong. As I mentioned, she was palsied. Her hands ran a constant round-and-round circle of tremors and quivers. Her head bobbed, her voice quavered. To watch her eat, pour a cup, water a plant, was painful. Once, early, I made the beginning of a move to help her pour from her coffee pot.

She looked.

That was enough. I relaxed, so did she.

Despite multi-planar shakes Hazel didn't spill a drop; each move of each hand somehow found its correspondent move on the other.




Not important, her acceptance of me, her by-her-acts defense of me, not important at all in the long run of anything, but it was typical of her. She placed her person and the tradition which she seemed, unconsciously, to represent, at the service of a person whom, for whatever reasons, she liked.

After her "acceptance," Stanley Kunitz and his lady-woman embraced us; Alan Duggan, almost always drunk but still writing god-wonderful poetry, seemed to forget that in addition to doing a comic play about the Black Death, I also wrote pulpy things. He began publicly sharing the16oz cans of Blatz he always carried in his parka pockets with me up on Commonwealth by the coffee shop. Jack and Wally Tworkov had us in and that was that...

That was then, the McGovern year in Provincetown. By accident, in April, 2000, I found that Hazel, doubtless edging toward a hundred, was still alive. Standing possibly, probably, with one foot in the shadow of the 19th century, another in the 21st. She was then the oldest resident of Cape Cod.

How amazing.

Friday, May 19, 2006

One of the Sights at WHC 2006

The Boy George of Genre

This isn't what I meant when I mentioned the hyper-testosteroned lads of WHC, below, but it is another reason to think about World Horror in the way that one might consider bungie-jumping without a cord. This fellow's name is Wilum H. Pugmire the working partner of Jessica Amanda Salmonson. He writes pretty decent Lovecraftian stories. Has the Lovecraft patois down pat.

World Horror Convention - 2006

Thank you for wondering! I’m back.

I’ve mentioned somewhere in here that I sometimes write horror and not just contemporary fantasy. When I become pissed at something or someone, when an event or person really grabs and twists my Forevers, when the world just starts crowding me, I sometimes crank out one of my “vile tales” – literally as fast as it takes to type them.

“Little Girl Down the Way” is one -- you can hear that podcast on the Twilight Tales website ( “Catching” is another (available in the anthology, SEX CRIMES, at disreputable booksellers, everywhere)...stories that arose, fully vented, out of pique, disgust, anger and all those more noble urges we human critters experience from time to time. Some people get drunk or beat their cats. I write. I’m too old to drink without severe next-day agony and my cat’s too old to take a thrumping. Besides, I like him.

So, here I am: just returned from the 2006 World Horror Convention in San Francisco. Typically, World Horror (WHC) is not my favorite genre con – that would be NECon (more on that anon), held yearly in Rhode Island. Fact is, I generally feel about an upcoming WHC the same way I do, say, about a root canal: necessary but a lousy way to spend a few days.

It’s required because ‘business’ gets done.

It’s lousy because the field is filled with over-testosteroned macho-posturing swaggerers who all seem to come, cookie-cuttered, one like another, all from the same t-shirt store, all from the same barber college... All of whom seem to have confused the ability to describe gore-fests and ass-kicking with horror writing. Basically a squall of post-frat, pre-angst middle aged boys sniffing for each other like those little black and white plastic dogs with magnets in their noses.

And that’s just the women!

Okay? Not really.


But this one -- WHC 2006 -- this one left me hopeful. Maybe I mingled more than usual (holy hell, maybe I really AM a self-important asshole?) and actually talked to people outside of the panels I was on or hung out with some after my reading or had grub with strangers, but I looked into some eyes and actually listened to some voices.

I found quite a few remarkably literate people, a whole coterie of writers who were saying something within their work, who seemed concerned with craft and style.

There always were a few, of course, people I tended to hang with: P.D. Cacek, Wayne Allen Sallee, David Thomas Lord, Gene Wolfe (of course! but who, alas, wasn’t in San Francisco), Peter Straub (who, thankfully, was) and others. Good writers, good people all! I also made the acquaintance of one Adam Golaski, an exceptional writer whom I had met briefly at an earlier WHC. I recommend that people search him out and read him. Adam also publishes an annual anthology-magazine, “New Genre” that contains some of the best material – both essay and fiction – from the field that I’ve read in quite a while.

That picture, by the way, is P.D. (Trish) Cacek. She's an old chum and a truly wonderful writer. And NOT one of the boys.

Another guy is William Jones, editor and publisher of the excellent magazine, “Book of Dark Wisdom.” William is another who seems to give a damn about good writing in addition to the usual! His Lovecraftian anthology, “Horrors Beyond,” has some elegant and subtle work in a sub-genre that’s usually rife with faux sensitivity and epic pretention.

There were others. The artist, Alan Clark was there. He's the one who did the cover illustration for my book, "Just North of Nowhere.

I met Joe Medina and Jamie Lawson who are producing horror-themed audio drama...good people!

I’ll be back to this matter in a few days. Right now, I’ve got a book to finish writing and a field to re-think!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Ann Sather's

Ann Sather's. A lovely Swedish restaurant, that began life in the 1940s as a coffee shop owned by, well, an old Swedish woman. The first location was in a space that eventually became a pet store that specialized in rats, snakes, bugs and spiders.

Sather's moved two doors west just after I moved to Chicago. It's now in classy digs -- a former funeral home with a polished black granite exterior.

And the spider shop? The owners, drug dealers on the side, vanished one weekend after opening their cages and setting free the creepy, crawly and squirmy.

But Sathers...Sathers is where Tycelia and I had our reception. Great Scandanavian grub -- Tycelia's half Swedish -- and world-class sweet rolls!

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Old Ghosts

A few posts ago I noted that my wife's father, William White, was an artist. I also hung up a few photos of his paintings and pretty much left it at that. This one has always intrigued me. I've called it "Old Ghosts" ever since I saw it...I have no idea what Bill called it, but some day I’ll do a story that resonates within this thing. Bill was not a fan of fantasy or horror, yet his private work – the work he did for himself and not for hire – invariably posed dark questions and frequently offered no answers. Of course he was a southerner.

Sad. I barely knew him and what I did know was based on the understandings of a very, very young man who was courting his daughter with no hope of winning her.

Friday, May 05, 2006

...the Wedding

...the reception at least
Being old enough to be our own parents, this was a do-it-yourself -do from invitations to vows. Well, okay, we didn't make the grub. We invited a few close friends to come have a meal with us at a local restaurant we both like. We loved it and I believe everyone had a grand time. DVDs are available! There will be more anon.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Romance

My wife, Tycelia, and I have known each other for more than 40 years. We married just three years ago. When they hear the story, people typically say, “Oh, that’s the most romantic thing!” It is. It’s also sad. Here, let me strip away some of the romance in the telling:

I met Tycelia in September of 1963 in an empty apartment above a shoe store in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. It was my 21st birthday and I was transferring into Kutztown State College from -- well, from several other places which are not important here. I was looking at the walls of the apartment I was about to move into and share with one friend and several strangers. A noise, I turned and there she was. She had come in behind me and was looking for someone. Not me.

Of course I fell in love.

She, apparently, did not.

We went out a few times. Enough, I guess, for both of us to confirm our initial feelings about each other. As college relationships will, ours drifted apart. She started dating one of my roommates who shared that now-filled apartment where we’d met on my birthday.

She graduated.

I went into the Air Force shy of my degree. It was 1965.

By 1969 I was out of the service, recently married, living in Philadelphia and majoring in Theater at Temple University. I was happy.

I’d heard from mutual friends that Tycelia had married and was going to graduate school in Montreal.

She called sometime in the mid-70s, left a message on the machine. She was divorced and back in the States. By then I was working toward my Master’s in theater at Villanova University. I was still married, still more or less happy. I never returned the message. I knew what would happen -- at least from where I was standing.

A few years later, I divorced, moved to Minneapolis and, eventually, came to Chicago.

In 1999 or so an old friend from the Kutztown era interviewed me for an article he was writing for the alumni magazine. The article was about people who had been writers while at school and who continued to write and publish into their adult years.

He mentioned that he’d interviewed Tycelia for the story, that he’d found her through the alumni association. She was still divorced, teaching and living in a small town in Maine.

Would I like her phone number?

Yes. Sure. Okay.

I didn’t call.

Eventually, I did.

We began with letters, email, visits. I was still in love and, now, miraculously, she was too.
Several years later we married. We just celebrated our 3rd anniversary.

We love each other very much. We’re very happy together. While part of me laments the loss of 40 years of being together, I also know that at the time we met I (at least, I) was not ready for a serious relationship. Had we gotten together then, had we married... Well, I know enough now to know that while we seem perfect for each other, that perfection of fit took a good chunk of a lifetime to create. Had the two of us gotten together in 1963, I think Tycelia and I would be a distant memory. As I say, I miss those 40 years, but I am as happy as a human can be that we’re together today.