I’m compiling thirty-years of gaming notes, wisdom, angst, and a twelve-pack of whoop-ass into an upcoming series of Dungeons & Dragons supplements. If you like informal writing that enlightens as it insults the reader then this series is for you. Each book includes my very own crappy ink pen and watercolor pencil art. Expect the first book in the next week or two, which I will be offering through Dungeon Masters Guild. It’s going to suck be awesome!
Chapter 5: Ghosts of the Past That Are Actual Ghosts
Whenever I watch TV and see those poor starving kids
all over the world, I can’t help but cry,
I mean I’d love to be skinny like that,
but not with all those flies and death and stuff.
— Mariah Carey
“Looks like it’s just you and me tonight,” Melantha said after Salvador had left to return to his mausoleum. Between him catching on fire and arrival of the gillman pizza delivery guy, the evening’s sensual mood had been completely ruined.
“Yeah,” Gary replied. “I guess I had better break out some ice cream and the VHS collection of Frasier. Boooooo . . .”
Melantha felt grateful that even though Gary was dead, he could still be in her life. They had been dating for a year and had just broken up when he had died of mysterious causes that she still didn’t quite understand. There hadn’t been a funeral, or even an obituary. One day, he just showed up and explained that he had died and had come to haunt her for being such a bitch to him. His spirit still remained even after they had reconciled and become best friends.
“You’re not going to get me with that trick, Gary! I know that you can only become a ghost if you drink chocolate milk after midnight, and I know that all we have in the freezer is chocolate ice cream, which I saw you left out on the counter to thaw. Frasier though, I’ll take you up on that offer!”
“You got me! Boo. But you know it is lonely being a ghost with you being the only one who can see me on account of me having to hide in the closet whenever there are people around.” That was certainly true enough. There was still a pair of her underwear stuck to his ectoplasm, although that was kind of confusing. Gary typically hid in the linen closet, whereas most of Melantha’s underwear was on the floor of her bedroom with the rest of her clothes. “People don’t understand ghosts. They don’t understand me . . . nobody but you, that is. This white sheet makes me look like a racist.”
“No, Gary. They have pointy heads,” Melantha replied. She touched him where his shoulder would have been had he been human still. His ectoplasm felt like two-hundred thread count linen, and it really did feel like there was a human shoulder beneath his spectral outer layer. Gary had explained that she was the only one who could touch him on account of her being a deep and caring person who felt more and felt more deeply than other people. This was true.
Gary would have smiled had he been alive. Instead, his face was an unchanging white expanse punctuated only by two black eye holes through which Melantha sometimes thought she could catch a glimpse of his human eyes. At least once, a nose had protruded through one of them, which Gary had explained was a ghost glitch, like when his ectoplasmic exterior fell off and he looked like his old naked self. Ghosts were much more confusing than other supernatural beings.
“Hey baby, I hear the blues a-callin’, tossed salad and scrambled eggs!” Gary crooned while inserting the Frasier tape into the VCR, which was like a Blu-ray player but bigger and with an oversized rectangular slot.
Melantha laughed, because he sang like shit. He inserted the tape slowly and sensually, teasing the tape into the gaping orifice. It reminded Melantha of their time together, the countless nights of . . . passion? No. It had not quite been passion. Gary was awful at foreplay and had once punched her in the breast because he hadn’t known what else to do. He said that the spirit world had taught him a lot about sex, but everything Melantha had read about ghosts said that they did not have genitalia. Gary denied this. She didn’t argue, because embarrassing a ghost was too sad to imagine.
While she waited for the show to begin, Melantha slipped a Licki brush into her mouth and began grooming her cats on the couch. The brush simulated the action of an actual cat tongue, which allowed Melantha to bond with her cats as though she were a true part of their pride. She felt a rush of feral feline hormones as she pawed at the couch on all fours, running the artificial tongue down the back of her favorite cat. Excitedly, she realized how much Salvador would enjoy it if she licked him with its silicone bristles.
“Why are you fondling yourself while licking the cat?” Gary asked. “Boo?”
“Sorry. I was just thinking about someone special. This device bonds me to the cat on a physical level, but it bonds me to my vampire lover on a spiritual level that transcends all understanding. I forgot you were here.”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot vampires were real. That was really scary having a monster in the house.” Gary almost sounded sarcastic, but Melantha knew better.
“How can you say that? You’re a ghost!”
“Oh . . . yeah. I forgot about that too. Boo. By the way, all of your beer was sucked into the spirit world again along with the leftover Chinese food.”
“Crap. It’s just like in Ghostbusters.” That was the worst part about having a ghost in her apartment. Her fridge had become a gateway to the other side, his poltergeist powers kept clogging the toilet and filling the shower drain with hair, and some otherworldly agent kept shopping online with her credit card. Gary insisted that supernatural purchases couldn’t be returned, refunded, or donated to the homeless, but what was she supposed to do with a men’s electric razor?
“Yeah, I know, but fortunately I’m here to stop angry spirits and demigods from escaping your refrigerator. Booooo!”
“What would I do without you, Gary?” Melantha said more than asked, because it was a rhetorical question. Frasier had started playing. It was the episode where Niles and Frasier have to handle an awkward situation involving their father. She had seen it already, but every fresh viewing revealed some overlooked detail or deeper meaning. Melantha was quite sure that their psychic housekeeper, Daphne, was a reincarnation of her. She was always freaked out by the screaming skeletons in every episode though. Nobody else ever seemed to see or hear them.
Gary plopped down on the couch and threw a spiritual appendage around Melantha’s shoulder. His ectoplasm shifted, and she was reminded how even in death he wore the same black, size 10W SAS sneakers that he had inherited from his grandfather. Somehow, they looked even more worn out than they had been before he had died.
“You know, boo, that I’ve been haunting you nearly as long as we were dating,” Gary said.
“I do.”Their situation reminded Melantha of nearly a decade ago when she had been the only survivor of a plane crash in the Rocky Mountains. A charming man, named Downy Soft Feather, who was half Bigfoot and half Native American, had gently nursed her back to health with his pillow-soft hands and butterfly kisses. She could have stayed there forever, but an aggressive rescue party had killed Downy Soft and burned down his log cabin in the process of retrieving her. They had then attended a Metallica concert before bringing her back to civilization.
“Well . . . booooo . . . I was just thinking that maybe we could make it official. Maybe we could go back to being a couple again.”
“Silly, Gary! You know that ghosts can’t date mortals. You are only able to have romantic entanglements with fairies, Valkyries, and hardcore Norwegian black metal bands. Plus, I hate to remind you, but . . . ghosts don’t have penises.” Melantha gave the approximate area of his crotch a friendly rub to demonstrate. It felt weird.
“Right, because you have books about this stuff, dammit — I mean, boooo! But what if I told you that all of those books were wrong, and I’d know, because I’ve been to the other side –”
“You can’t have passed on or you wouldn’t have been able to come back and be a ghost. Trust me, Gary. I know a lot about the supernatural. Sometimes ghosts think that they still have human attributes, which is why you sometimes manifest as a naked man in my bed or generate ectoplasmic discharges into my used underwear, but that is all tied into the trauma of your passing. We really need to get around to resolving the unfinished business that is binding you to this plane of existence.”
“Right, but it’s like I said, booo! I think that unfinished business is us having sex.” Gary rose from the couch, and although he never actually quite floated, it looked like he was standing on his ghostly tippy-toes.
“Which isn’t possible, because you have no penis, so it is clearly a symptom of you avoiding your true purpose.” Melantha felt sad that there was no attraction between her and Gary. It wasn’t that he was a ghost — that would have been a huge turn-on in any other case. It was just that he was . . . well, Gary. “I mean, Gary, your parents still think you are alive. They bring groceries here, thinking you are my roommate, and I don’t have the heart to tell them you are dead.”
“Fuck’s sake! Don’t do that! Boo!”
“You need to give them peace. We already tried the pricey prostitute idea you had, and you know how that worked out.” It was a gross idea, and Melantha had only went along with it because she felt sorry about the Post Traumatic Death Disorder that he suffered from.
“I think, boo, that it would have gone better if you hadn’t told her that I was an invisible ghost, and that she could just keep the money if it turned out that she couldn’t see me. That woman was a very deep and caring person, and it would have worked out if you hadn’t biased her . . . uh . . . chakra against me. I mean, bit — er, boo! Look at the bulge in my ectoplasm! That’s all for you. Boo.”
“Well, we need to figure out something, because Salvador will soon turn me into a vampire, and I don’t know if the undead can interact with the dead. They certainly can’t watch Frasier together, because as a vampire my media preferences will change.”
“Yeah . . . right, a vampire. I’m sure that will work out. Boo.” Yet again, Gary’s spectral voice could easily be mistaken for having a tinge of sarcasm to it. “Listen, I’m going to go haunt the bar for a few hours and blow off some steam doing poltergeist stuff. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the leprechaun broke in again and stole twenty-dollars from you.”
“Again! Dammit, Gary! You were supposed to stop him. We spent six hours working together building leprechaun traps. We were supposed to have his gold by now!”
“Yeah. Boo. You keep believing in that stuff.” Gary turned away, and since he was a considerate ghost, he opened the door and closed it behind him instead of passing through and leaving a nasty stain that looked like grape jelly. Melantha heard him greet Mrs. Halls, although sadly Mrs. Halls would not hear him.
The Resident Evil movie franchise is barely coherent, but it could be worse. It should be worse, because the games are total nonsense. RE games are all about brief glimmers of horror, ludicrous premises, and ridiculous crap that totally undermines any sense of eeriness or suspense. They are made by Capcom, so inevitably you need to shoot a bad guy in his vulnerable spot to turn him into an even more powerful bad guy powered by several glowing nodules that are its only weak spots. Then you fight more zombies. Then you find out things aren’t really what they seemed and someone probably betrayed you.
Having watched what is hopefully the last Resident Evil movie, I have some advice for the director of the inevitable reboot on how to stay true to the franchise’s video game roots:
Camera Angles: Resident Evil movies can’t stay true to the games without awkward camera angles and abrupt transitions that leave the protagonist confused and often running in the wrong direction. As a bonus, the audience could be left totally disoriented, as though they were watching a Transformers film.
Alice, the protagonist, is running away from a zombie with no apparent goal in sight, suddenly the camera angle switches, she looks confused but notices a door that she had overlooked before. She rushes toward the door, and the camera angle changes again, leaving her so befuddled that she actually reverses course and runs into the zombie that she had been trying to avoid.
Green Herb: The central theme of the RE video games is finding green and red herbs, which you use to restore your depleted health.
Alice sits in a burned out car smoking marijuana. She is motivated to leave the car when she sees a pot plant through the window of a nearby house. She fights several zombies to gain access to the house and then harvests the plant to prepare another joint. She sits down and smokes it, which relieves her chronic pain condition.
Smashing Crates: True, Alice does search the movie set on occasion for equipment, but her visual pat downs are a mere tip of the hat to the game franchise.
Alice enters a room in which several crates are stored. She immediately pulls out her knife and slashes the crates until the wood explodes into tiny fragments. She finds a single box of bullets inside of each crate, which leads her to question what sort of company would package single items in such unnecessarily large and unwieldy containers without any packing material whatsoever. She then rips open every locker in the room in search of green herb and white powder.
Arbitrary Collectibles: Video game characters in general have an obsessive tendency to collect bottle caps, bobble heads, snow globes, and other assorted brick-a-brac. Yet the protagonist of the RE movies does not horde garbage.
Alice is talking to another character but pauses in mid-sentence when she spots something glimmering in the distance. She clambers up into an air vent and crawls through a convoluted series of obstacles so that she can take a potshot to dislodge the object wedged in a crevice. She returns to her companion with a bottle cap and says, “I think this will come in handy.” It doesn’t. In the director’s cut of the movie an additional half-hour of footage is devoted to her collecting bottle caps.
Bizarre Shenanigans: From a cinematic perspective, Resident Evil films get an A+ for defying common sense, but Capcom adaptations demand an almost Uwe Boll level of claptrap, as though reality were an inconvenient afterthought sunk in the wake of the S.S. Pandering to Pubescence. There just aren’t enough subterranean shooting ranges beneath small European mountain villages and elaborate columns of spinning blades integrated into prison security systems when you watch it on video.
Alice is fighting Whisker, the feline clone of Wesker, and ducks into a utility closet to avoid an attack. Since this is Resident Evil, it turns out to be a warehouse-sized room where the janitor stored his rusty meat hook collection. She looks around to see if she is alone and calls out, “Is anyone here?” A voice in the darkness responds, “Got some rare things on sale, stranger.” Alice spots a mysterious merchant standing in a corner and purchases some extra ammunition from him while he modifies her gun. She wonders how and why the merchant managed to infiltrate a secure facility rife with death traps and zombified predators to set up shop in a location with almost zero foot traffic. They make out.
So why do I make my wife watch these movies, sequel after sequel? They have zombies in them. Duh! I’d watch Fox News if it had zombies.
Great idea for a character! He is me, but all of the women want to have sex with me — I mean him!
Had another brilliant idea last night. A guy named Martin . . . something, something, something . . . naked women want to have sex with me — I mean, him! Women have no sexual inhibitions and like well-groomed mustaches.
Flying cars? Maybe, but this guy . . . this guy has two three secretaries. They don’t like wearing clothes, but sometimes I make them — I mean, him!
Going to call this guy Roger B. Leinhein.
Nevermind. Changing it to Chumba Womba. Jubal Harshaw. My editor thought I was talking about myself, which I wasn’t. Totally different guy!
Okay, so this Martin guy — no, wait! Martian! He’s from Mars! — starts a religion where everyone has to have sex with me — I mean, Jubal. Except Jubal plays it cool, and is like, “Nah, I’ve seen plenty of boobs,” but then he joins and has sex with loads of women near the end.
Great idea! Jubal is an author, but he is also a doctor and a lawyer, because he is super smart and really popular. Everyone likes him.
Going to call it Heretic. No, Stranger in a Strange Land. Nah. Jubal Gets Some!
“Is this chicken, what I have, or is this fish?
I know it’s tuna, but it says ‘Chicken of the Sea.'”
— Jessica Simpson
Chapter 4: Add a Piece of Fish
There was a knock at the door, and Melantha wondered if the pizza had arrived or if something darker lurked beyond the threshold. Had metaphoric tendrils of darkness gathered outside of her apartment to literally pull her deeper into the groping embrace of the tenebrous night? She opened the door by disengaging the lock and twisting, then pulling on, the knob. It was an act of grace and defiance.
“Hey lady,” the pizza delivery guy said. He was tall and mysterious, shrouded in a trench coat with thick-rimmed, hipster glasses and a bristling mustache. He reminded Melantha of a virile groundskeeper she had known back when she had been reincarnated as Judith Pamplona, a syphilitic 9th century viscountess with severe nut allergies. “I’ve got a large pizza with . . . unh . . . extra bloody, raw ground beef on half and pineapple on the other half, a two liter of diet cola, and an order of breadsticks . . . ummm . . . broken in half so that they don’t resemble stakes. That’s quite a special order.”
“But that’s not all we ordered,” Melantha said out-loud in her most perky tone, which was the opposite of what she had intended, having meant to think it in an ominous tone. Half of the pizza was for Salvador, her vampire lover, but all of the delivery man was meant to sate his dark appetite. “Please come inside.”
“I smell anchovies!” Salvador shouted from the couch, where he convalesced. “I told you I just want pineapple.”
“I don’t think you understand, dear. The food has arrived,” Melantha countered.
“No, it hasn’t!” Salvador shouted from the couch, where he sat wrapped in Melantha’s most recent (and wackiest) quilt creation. “Even without eyes, I can smell it! That’s a fucking gillman wearing a trench coat and a fake mustache like some kind of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle reject. He only came here to crush your skull and hide the remains in his lagoon. Why did you let him inside?”
The pizza man breathed an audible sigh of relief and removed his novelty Groucho glasses. “Wow, wrapped in that quilt over there, I thought you were a mummy for a second, the natural enemy of my people. Vampires I don’t mind, and that quilt is as gorgeous as it is whimsical. Well, your order is twenty-eight-bucks, which includes tax and delivery. Don’t worry. I’m not going to crush your skull. Let’s just say, don’t be the fist person to place an order on Thursdays.”
“I had no idea,” Melantha said. It was such a strange coincidence that a creature like this would work for Pizza from the Black Lagoon, the restaurant just down the block, adjacent to the lagoon. His large, strong hands certainly seemed equally suited to crushing skulls and holding hands on a long, moonlit walk along the shore. His scales were like flecks of passion. She found herself inexplicably drawn to this supernatural sex bomb. She paid him thirty dollars and told him to keep the change. It was a crappy tip, but Melantha always deducted the delivery fee from her tips, because that fee should have been rescinded when gas prices dropped back down.
“Fine.” Salvador sulked. He changed the television channel to an old Doctor Who episode on PBS. “Someone tell me if this is the episode with vampires in it. They are hilarious.”
“It’s amazing. I’ve met three different types of supernatural creatures today,” Melantha said sensually to the delivery guy. Her life had changed so much in such a short time ever since she had found a magical lamp and wished to be true to herself, an individual, and for supernatural creatures to exist postdated to 1673. Then again, this change of events could be attributed to her pushing Stephenie Meyer into the Large Hadron Collider (now, the Meyer Collider) during her visit to Switzerland last year.
“Cool. I’ve met three different kinds of people tonight — four, if you are a lesbian. Isn’t life crazy that way,” the delivery guy replied. He stared deep into her eyes as though noticing them for the first time. His own eyes were like aquarium glass, a transparent barrier behind which underwater life teemed. Melantha felt like he could see into her soul, perceiving the dank darkness that dripped there. Could he smell her, like she smelled him? Could she . . . touch him?
Melantha touched him, and he did not recoil.
“Why is your hand on my face?” he asked.
“What? Why is your hand on his face?” Salvador asked, his passionate voice was engorged with curiosity.
“You are such an old soul,” Melantha replied. She felt torn, like her heart had been divided into three equal pieces and hurled into the waiting hands of a vampire, werewolf, and fish creature. Yet, the pizza delivery man could not offer her the promise of eternal life. Neither did he live a life of apparent affluence without any visible means of support. Unlike Salvador, the pizza man would live a mortal lifespan earning blue collar wages. Also, she could not breathe underwater and was not a very strong swimmer, even if she did enjoy long, scented baths in candle-lit rooms, reading Amish romance stories under the watchful eyes of her cats.
“Totes. We fish folk are servants of Xenu, so I’m filled with a crap-load of Thetans,” he said, as though reading her mind — was he? “I’m all about reincarnation and living multiple lives at once with the intensity of someone who only lives once. YOLO, right?” Fish man laughed. “Not me, but I like the message. This pizza thing is just something I do on the side, kind of to keep a low profile, because I make millions selling the identities of my victims and turning their crushed skulls into bizarre sex potions that I sell on the Deep Web, or whatever it’s called.”
Melantha felt her world change yet again. She had assumed so much about pizza delivery guys, but now all of her preconceived notions were undermined. She wondered if she would feel differently once Salvador’s horribly deformed countenance was restored to its former hotness.
“Well, time to drive my Gibbs Aquada amphibious car back to the sandcastle,” the pizza guy gurgled charmingly. “Hit me up some time if you ever want to crush some skulls together . . . or watch French Kiss, the one with Kevin Klein and Meg Ryan. The only thing I love more than that movie is keeping a diary.”
Authors who don’t read are like farmers who don’t eat. They are dead of starvation, all of their dependents perished for lack of food, and all of society collapses. Damn. Actually, that’s more of an analogy for how much more important agriculture is to society than art. Thanks farmers!
Okay, authors who don’t read are like barbers who don’t know how to use scissors or shave with a straight razor — which is every barber where I live. They just give clipper cuts. You can do that yourself at home! I bet they don’t even have a license. So yes, unread authors have the societal value of unlicensed barbers, placing them well beneath farmers and slightly below teenage car wash fundraisers in terms of absolute worth.
Read a book!
This month, I finished Hunter’s Run by George R.R. Martin, Gardner Dozois, and Daniel Abraham. I wish I had quit reading a quarter of the way through, around the time when I first thought, “I hope this book gets better.” It didn’t get better. It was inspired by Tom Sawyer taking a river raft ride up a painful catheter insertion. The first is alluded to, the latter overtly mentioned.Then again, I learned an important lesson from this book, and the afterword, like most afterwords, filled me with an accustomed sense of grief and regret.
I write some despicable characters. I’m pretty good at it, because it is easier for me to express the worst and dread the best, as though acknowledging goodness is like asking for a refund. I’ve consistently been told that my characters could be more likeable, but I have taken that advice with a grain of salt.
Hunter’s Run features a Mexican protagonist, Ramon Espejo, on account of the authors having noted a dearth of Hispanic characters thirty-years-ago when they had first started writing the novel. It’s an admirable sentiment, except that the end result all of this time later is a walking billboard for Trump’s deportation policies. Espejo is a Quentin Tarantino-esque caricature of a B-movie Danny Trejo/Rob Schneider love child, ostensibly an antihero, but actually more of a schmuck whose dialogue reads like excerpts from Spanish Invective for Dummies. Sadly, he lives through the entire book, because a world without him would be a much more interesting place. The otherwise intriguing setting is so diminished by his involvement that it feels like going to the Oscars and getting seated between Carrot Top and a suicide bomber. Espejo is worse than an unlicensed barber.
Hunter’s Run showed me that there is a point at which an antihero devolves from an unconventional protagonist into an irredeemable asshole. A character like that can’t even be considered a villain. He’s just the guy whose SUV takes up two parking spaces in a busy lot. Who cares about his backstory? He’s the doormat between good and evil, but it’s the muddy boot prints that I care about. A doormat is not the hero of its own story.
Somebody in my stories needs to be likeable. There needs to be an emotional connection on some level, which doesn’t necessarily have to reflect positive qualities but does need to be a congenial symptom of the human condition. George Lucas botched that premise when he introduced Jar Jar Binks into a story about senatorial proceedings, monastic warriors infected with some kind of supernatural STD, and a mute villain named after a wood splitting tool. Binks was the light side counterpart of Espejo, a hero whose sheer obnoxiousness translates into the same sort of asshattery. They are the Yin and Yang of crap characters.
But the man is the world, as we see the world through his eyes and experience its subjectivity. If the man is not greater than the world around him — more vibrant, flawed, fragile, what-have-you — then the reader spends his time looking out the window, awaiting the next chapter, like road signs on a long car ride. That’s the escapism of literature, a world filtered through eyes that are not our own — eyes that perceive more than we do in our daily lives, and a mind that re-contextualizes what we mistake for the mundane. I can do better in this way.
The sense of loss that I felt isn’t something specific to this book. Afterwords are an opportunity for authors to reminisce and maybe grandstand a little. Their stories are often fascinating (not in this case), but they fill me with a sense of mourning for the life that I thought I would have and where I once thought I would be today. This book describes a collaboration between three authors spanning thirty years. This is the first book that I’ve read by any of them, so my only exposure to George R.R. Martin’s work has been seeing a few dragons and about two dozen pornos worth of boobies on HBO in his fantasy/medieval adaptation of marry, boff, kill, Game of Thrones. Reading about his accomplishments and the fraternity between these men brings to mind an exchange between Dave Foley (Dave Nelson) and Phil Hartman (Bill McNeil) from the show, News Radio:
Bill: Did you know that when Dan Rather was 19 he was the youngest photographer for the Associated Press? Dave: Okay, well, what were you doing at 19? Bill: Drinking. Dave: Well, how about how hard it was to break into the industry? You know, all the struggles… Bill: My aunt owned a radio station. She hired me to try to get me to stop drinking.
That sums up about ten years of my life. While these three guys were building their careers, getting published, and making connections at workshops, “there I was… watching it on TV in my dorm and drinking.” I can live with that, and I nearly moved past it. But now I am faced with a nearly equivalent span of idle years, wondering if I could have better balanced a writing career with my caregiver duties were it not for some deficiency of character, if those years of drinking to avoid pain had been devoted instead to laying a foundation that could weather the hard years ahead. I kept my daughter alive (yes, you did too, but the odds were against us in this case). That should be enough, but it is an isolating and all-consuming experience, so that reading about the accomplishments of successful authors leaves me feeling like Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters, slamming his hands against the pane of glass that separates him from a room of fine diners while his own personal demon lurches up behind him.