Kitten Fangs: A Tale of Cats, Chocolate, and Disgustingly Lurid Vampire Romance (part II: The Middle: More Middle)

Chapter 3

“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.

CreatureLagoon“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.”

meyercollider“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.”

Melantha loved that too. Almost as much as cats.

Gillman

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Read a Book! March, 2017 Reading Introspective

saturday-evening-post-cover-1936_09_26
If there aren’t four guys singing, straight razors swinging, and bloodstained bandages wrapped around a pole outside then it’s not a barber shop.

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!

I did.

huntersrun
The best cover art conveys absolutely nothing about the story, evokes no emotion whatsoever, and uses central composition. Score!

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.

Schneider
You know you’ve written a stereotype when Rob Schneider plays the role in the screen adaptation.

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.

handicap
It’s like Dennis Leary says, “Sometimes I park in handicapped spaces while handicapped people make handicapped faces. I’m an asshole.”

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.

maul
I couldn’t resist:  Darth Maul with his namesake weapon at a mall. He is meeting up with Darth Pasta Special at Olive Garden. The lady in the background is perturbed.

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.

moranis
Kind of like “Game of Thrones,” but none of the people in the background are fucking.

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.

Dork Wednesday: Just an Ork

Ork001

One of my favorite paint and conversion jobs. Imagine your best Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons voice as you read about how this is an ork from the Blood Axe Clan, a faction within the Warhammer 40k game universe. His bolter dates back to the 1st or 2nd edition of the game, so it required a major overhaul with the customized barrel to put it on par with the scale of contemporary ork arsenals. The old figures were substantially smaller with hands that looked like Mickey Mouse gloves, so it can be a challenge to reconcile the bits and pieces when bastardizing models. I added some fun details with him toting around a Space Marine backpack and shoulder pad, because my rank-and-file troops are obviously murdering humanity’s finest in droves. I am most satisfied with the color scheme and little details on the base, and I’m sure this guy will look great as part of a unit if I weren’t painting at the rate of one miniature about every month or so. Maybe some day I’ll even play again!

Safe Words in Writing and How to Stretch an Analogy Past the Breaking Point

FiftyShadesHellraiser
The Hellraiser franchise. It’s like S&M in “Fifty Shades of Gray” but more realistic.

When having sex, a “safe word” is used by one partner to indicate that a kinky act has transcended what is fun and pleasurable and veered into the realm of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. So, in addition to “no” meaning “no,” “avocado” means “put out the candles, turn off the cattle prod, and let’s focus for now on inserting traditional appendages into traditional orifices.”

Fiction writers have their own sets of safe words, although they exist in a slightly different context, because a literal parallel would be unnerving. The written page looks up at its author and says, “suddenly!” Suddenly, and the author knows to put the brakes on the prose and bust out the repair kit.

suddenly_something_happenedfinal2“Suddenly, Gerard Petersmith stepped into the room. The assembled bohemians regarded him with sudden alarm, their expressions suddenly shifting from complacency to the aforementioned alarm in the most redundant fashion. ‘It all happened very suddenly,’ witnesses would later explain to the police who had arrived quite suddenly, as though they had not been there five minutes earlier. It is amazing how suddenly lives can change, things can happen, and people can change their minds or move their hands. She looked at him with eyes so damp a toddler must have drooled into them and said, ‘I don’t know. It all seems so . . . expected?’ Gerard nodded, glad for his own complete and utter lack of spontaneity.”

Every writer gravitates toward a handful or two of safe words, go-to, comfortable language that flows faster than conscious thought from the brain to the keyboard. Although “suddenly” is an offender endemic to novice and veteran writers alike, every author has a unique cozy sweater knitted together from their off-the-cuff vocabulary. My own characters were once prone to “turn their attention” to and “regard” far too much in spans of “five minutes” while “nodding.” Staring back at me, the page cries out a litany of safe words, signaling that this pleasurable act of unfettered writing must now be tempered into the dutiful missionary position of editing and revision.

The tragedy is reading a published work peppered with unheeded safe words, glaringly redundant and hackneyed, and realizing that nobody ever loved the book enough to notice its many cries for help. Love your work, and you can share a cigarette afterwards.

[I originally posted a less sensual version of this article on the Bedford Writer’s Group blog.]

 

Rue 21, Body Shaming, and a Time Travel Adventure

I do most of the shopping for our children, and there aren’t a lot of apparel options in our small town, so I occasionally end up at Rue 21 where their body shaming sizing scheme works out in our favor. My svelte daughter is eight-years-old, which is to say, their size small. I always feel a twinge of regret when I enter the store, thinking of the bulimic twenty-some struggling to fit into a shirt that is a perfect fit for a third-grader.

What really got me curious though was the aesthetics of their clothing lines. Fashion tends to trickle down to small towns, so I imagine that our city’s dominant trend of pajama pants, flip-flops, and despair is a decade or two behind what is popular in major metropolises.

Rue 21 is different though. They sell men’s clothing that I swear I have seen in family photos from the 1980s. I asked the manager about it. “How is it that so many of these clothes look so . . . vintage?”

“Let me show you,” she said, and right away, I established that this was nothing sexual and showed her my wedding ring, because my wife is insanely jealous.

She brought me to a secluded back room. I displayed my wedding ring again and pointed several times to my daughter, a byproduct of me having a wife. She moved aside a velour curtain to reveal what was clearly the time machine from the 1960s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel. I noticed several modifications, most notably what looked like a dryer vent hose projecting from the front of the device, along with a sign that read, “Fashion Output. Caution:  Apparel May Be Hot.”

“This is where we get out merchandise,” the manager said. “As you seem to have guessed, we have exploited a temporal rift to suction our clothing directly from the mid-’80s. Occasionally, we get people too . . . or parts of them, since the hose is pretty small. I think they were Asian factory workers, which is sad.”

“You have a time machine?”

“Yes.”

“And you use it to suck clothes here from the past.”

“In layman’s terms. It’s the same place that JC Penny stocks their women’s clearance rack from.”

“Why the ’80s?”

“That’s how time machines work. It’s not like there is some lever or dial that allows you to adjust the temporal coordinates.”

“Yes, there is! It’s right there!” I am not an expert on time travel, but I’ve seen enough episodes of the original Doctor Who to know what’s-what (as opposed to the new episodes that teaches absolutely nothing practical).

“Huhn? I’ll be damned. Yeah, looks like we can set it to any year we want.”

“Can I buy some parachute pants from the ’90s then?”

“I don’t see why not.” She began fiddling with the dials and levers, which were totally intuitive and self-explanatory. “This should do it!”

It did not do it. We ended up with two dozen Cortinthian helmets with the heads still inside of them. The stream of ancient Grecian helmets continued unabated with no sign of stopping, and we were forced away from the machine by the steadily accumulating deluge.

Rue21.jpg

I tried to lighten the mood by holding up one of the helmets and saying, “This is Sparta!” The manager did not laugh. She would probably lose her job over this stunt, and so I decided not to follow things up by saying, “I’ll take two,” even though I actually did want a couple — assuming they were reasonably priced and the heads could be cleaned out of them.

Two weeks later, I drove by and saw that the store’s signage had been replaced with a hastily strung banner, which read, “Corinthian Helmet Outlet Center.” A line of nerds extended out the door and wrapped around the block, so I suppose everything worked out for the best in the end. There was an article in the newspaper the next day about an employee at the neighboring Walmart who discovered numerous garbage bags of severed heads in their dumpsters, each marked “Grade B, Not For Experimentation” on the forehead.

 

Stranded on a Desert Island: Deconstructing a Stupid Question

“If you were stranded on a desert island, which three people would you want with you?” We have all been asked that question, or one like it, at some point in our lives. Far too many people give terrifyingly egocentric answers.

Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump . . . I don’t know, Charles Manson. Those are logical answers with potentially global consequences for the common good. On the other hand, a best friend, loved one, spouse, child, or celebrity. Answers like those beg the question, “You do understand that you are sentencing these people to a slow death by dehydration or starvation, right?”

Of course, it is all a matter of perspective. “What if?” exercises like these demonstrate how forcefully a person’s ego can assert itself on a theoretical environment. A self-centered respondent will inevitably provide self-satisfying answers that would be horrifying if realized in real life, while an optimist would be more prone to envision a “desert island” as a picturesque Gilligan’s Island rather than the desolate patch of sand without ready food, shelter, or potable water that a pessimist would expect.

Optimism versus Pragmatism

The optimist expects the best of any theoretical scenario. Asked what they would do with six months left to live, the optimist isn’t going to plan a bucket list around the medical condition that is killing him. The optimist will climb a mountain assuming that health won’t be an issue, unworried about their access to the prescription drugs and medical facilities that a dying person tends to favor. It’s a theoretical scenario, which means an opportunity to explore boundless hope and joyful abstractions. A desert island seems more like a weekend retreat for people whose perception of fantasy is disconnected from real world considerations.

The pragmatist is drawing up a will and meticulously planning out his last six months in a fantasy scenario bound in anchor chain to real world considerations. It’s not quite pessimism, but having to pick three people to be stranded on a desert island with is pragmatically equivalent to being asked who you’d want piling on top if you had to jump on a grenade. There’s no dental care on that island. Survivor’s accounts are rife with despair and madness. Who would you wish that on?

These characteristics define two very different types of readers and media consumers. Understanding their needs helps an author to plot out how much suspension of disbelief they must sustain.

Altruism versus Egocentricity

Lost-Jack-4x01-jack-shephard-3403719-500-277
If I were “Lost” on an island, the first person I’d want to bring would be a megalomaniac convinced that he is the main character in our story. That would be dandy.

An optimist and pragmatist may both agree in answering that they would bring a survival expert, doctor, and shipwright, but such an answer still suggests a strong degree of egocentricity. What the respondents are really asking for are caregivers and providers, a sort of hazily-defined island welfare system dedicated explicitly to their own support and well-being. It would be a singular person who suggests, “I’d want to be stranded with a survival expert who will go off on his own and leave me to die, a doctor whose own survival skills will be sub-par to my own but who will nonetheless expect me to demur to his authority on account of his social standing, and then a shipwright who will have a far easier time crafting a boat for himself, although he will promise to send someone looking for us as soon as he finds help.” Egocentric people don’t walk away from such questions thinking how useless they would be outside of their specialized environment.

A novel is often an exercise in stranding people on literal or figurative desert islands. Understanding the interplay between altruism and egocentricity gives character depth but also allows authors to identify the biases in the own worldview.  It helps authors to avoid writing “protagonists” who are actually complete assholes, like Jack Shepherd in “Lost.”

Sycophancy

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Survival 101:  America? Check!!!

The sycophant is best exemplified by the alternate version of the desert island question, “What three things do you bring?” Well, the Bible, the American Constitution, and a spare Bible, obviously. Not because the sycophant really spends much time reading either of those documents, nor because of their pertinence to the scenario, but because it’s the “right” answer, the crowd-pleaser for their immediate group. Whereas others find an opportunity to satisfy their own internal sense of wonder and curiosity, the sycophant uses theoretical quandaries as another method of fitting in without any actual sense of self-expression. Someone like that would write great copy for Bill O’Reilly but isn’t quite cut out for fiction.