Stories of Weird Mystery

Author: Will Ludwigsen (Page 2 of 9)

A Scout is Going on a Book Tour, Sort Of

I wish you’d all stop asking me for more content to promote my forthcoming book, A Scout is Brave. I’m working as fast as I can.

In the meantime, book tour news!

This coming week from March 14th through the 16th, I’ll be kicking off my A Scout is Brave Half-Assed Book Tour at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando.

Will Ludwigsen holding up a bookmark of his book A Scout is Brave.

You can catch me reading from A Scout is Brave at a 4:15 panel on Thursday, serving as the undercard well beneath actual luminaries James Morrow, Ellen Kushner, and Eileen Gunn.

I will also have fancy bookmarks to give away plus TWO advance reading copies of the actual physical book (with the hope that whoever gets each will kindly post a review).

Other stops on the ASBHABT include:

I’m not sure yet if I’ll be on programming for any of those events, but you can certainly find me at the Lethe Press table in the Dealer’s Room for the first two.

Stay tuned for an announcement soon with details about the actual launch of the book in late June!

Would you like me to tour my book for your blog, podcast, or event? Let me know!

A Stunted Imagination

Sometimes I worry that I have a stunted imagination.

If you’ve read my work before, it’s likely that you’ve noticed that I have some themes that I return to over and over again:

  • Conspiracies of seemingly powerless but imaginative people thwarting evil and darkness
  • Nostalgia distilled to its metaphorical root
  • People who are wrong about the universe in interesting ways for interesting reasons
  • People who pursue their delusional theories off a cliff and suffer the consequences
  • Strange phenomena that turn out not to be random

A Scout is Brave (coming in July 2024!) has all five of those things, and as I read through it again a few weeks ago for a quick line edit, I wondered:

Am I imaginative enough for this business?

Though I often read and enjoy flamboyantly visionary mind-blowing fiction with wild ideas (Philip K. Dick, let’s say, or Ted Chiang), I seem to have a strange fuse in my mind that stops me from writing it. I’m not comfortable building castles in the air with nothing underneath them.

Will Ludwigsen with a copy of Missing! by Daniel Cohen
Like this book I recently found from my childhood.

Much of my early reading was what I jokingly refer to as “horror non-fiction,” things like ghosts and vampires putatively told as true. There was a participatory aspect to it for me, an idea that if I looked around the right corner fast enough, I’d see something wondrous.

I could imagine seeing Bigfoot in the woods, but not a dragon. That blows the fuse, unfortunately, which is why I’ll probably never write a heroic fantasy story.

And while I enjoy visionary writers like Clark Ashton Smith and Thomas Ligotti and Arthur C. Clarke who really press the gas pedal on going to the frontiers of their stories, I just can’t write that way.

Dog with a doll's head, why do you ask?
An image I created after a dream.

I’m more of a weirdener.

I take normal things and make them plausibly weird because I hope to this day that I’ll come around a corner and see something wondrous. I’ll never ride aboard a starship or fend off an army of orcs at Helm’s Deep, but man, I will find my way into a secluded place in the woods or an abandoned mental institution.

You need a story about a house creeping slowly across the landscape? I’m your guy. You want to read about a television show that’s production was as strange as its content? I got you covered. You curious about what the Zodiac killer thought of the Moon landing? I’m on it.

David Lynch isn’t asking me to write a fourth season or feature film of Twin Peaks, but if he did, a question I’d have to answer for myself would be whether the whole world was “Twin Peaks-y” or if it only happened in odd Lynchian pockets. I’d prefer the latter because we’d all have known by now if we were living in a 100% Lynchian world, but if we could come upon that strangeness in certain places and times, it would give us a lot more hope that we could still be surprised by reality.

I think that’s how my stories, including A Scout is Brave, work. They’re all about the 10% chance that they aren’t completely untrue, a combination of cultivating our garden and fertilizing it with the strange.

You know, weirdening.

Let Me Look on You with My Own Eyes

On Wednesday the 6th, it will be twenty years since I went to see my father for the first time after sixteen years of no contact.

Luke dueling Darth Vader on Death Star II.
It didn’t actually turn out like this.

(Oh, no. He’s talking about his father again? Yes, he is.)

If you don’t know by now that my father was a terrifying and chaotic presence in my family’s lives during his reign, let me offer this brief anecdote:

For years, my father swore that if my mother ever left him, he’d find us wherever we went and kill us. It ended up that my father left my mother for another woman instead, but we were still terrified that he’d come looking for us one day.

One incident that reinforced that threat happened during a hearing for my child support after the divorce. There had been an altercation in another courthouse a few days prior where someone had attacked a judge, so there was a newly-installed metal detector at our courthouse. My mother and I went through to the other side, and we watched as my father walked up to the metal detector, looked it over, and then left.

He preferred to get a contempt of court charge than to walk through that metal detector.

So we all stayed as far from him as possible for sixteen years after the divorce, following his life as best we could as a matter of security. Luckily for us, his criminal activities made his status and location easy to find in the state offender database.

So sixteen years went by, and I grew up in a slow, circuitous fashion, still believing that I should one day confront him as Luke Skywalker did with Darth Vader. I didn’t want to reconcile with him or save his soul…mostly, I wanted to gloat that I’d turned out okay despite his best efforts.

In 2004, I decided it was time. The state database listed his address (back in Arcadia) as a condition of his parole, so I took a day off from work and drove the five hours down to see him (and also some friends who still lived there at the time).

My father's little house

I pulled into the driveway of his mobile home, decorated to disguise that it was a mobile home, and I parked. I walked up to his front door, which was ajar behind a screened door. From inside, I could hear hymns playing loudly on a radio.

I’ll say that again. Hymns.

I knocked a few times and got no answer. On my way back to the car, my shoulders tensed expecting him to shoot me in the back, but he didn’t.

I visited with my friends and then on the way out of town decided to try once more. This time there were no hymns and my knocking was louder, so I heard heavy footsteps coming to the door. I realized that I had no idea what I intended to say or do.

For years, I’d considered decking him or even shooting him, but I wasn’t armed and I’ve never been much of a fighter.

My father and his cat
This was a little later on and he didn’t have the cat yet (whom we’d later inherit), but he looked basically like this.

An old man squinted out at me through the screen door. He was thinner than my father had been and his face was bloomed red with broken capillaries from years of drinking.

“Can I help you?”

I didn’t have a line prepared. One good choice might have been, “Hey, go fuck yourself.” Another might have been to say, “Karen and Mother send their regards,” while jabbing my knee into his groin.

I settled for, “Hello. I’m Will.”

He squinted harder and then threw open the door. I braced for a swing, but instead he wrapped his arms around me in a terrifying Klingon bear hug that my arms were too pinned to return, even if I’d wanted to.

He pulled back weeping, which wasn’t something I’d seen him do before. He shook his head and pulled off his hat and rubbed the white stubble on his scalp and then replaced it. He kept doing that, apparently amazed that I was there.

My father standing on his front porch.
I didn’t take this picture, but this is what he looked like at the time.

We chatted on that porch for about two hours. He had a slight Southern accent which faded away the longer he talked to me. He said a few half-hearted things about Jesus. He told me that his second wife had died of cancer recently and he was by himself, that he was tired of all the rubes and rednecks in town but at least they left him alone, and that he was looking into finding a lawyer to prove he was innocent of the crime he’d been sent to prison for.

“Don’t believe everything you read in the papers about that,” he said.

I did do some gloating, mentioning my fiction publications and graduate school, and—always class-conscious and into cars—he admired my parked Volvo.

He said he couldn’t drive a stick shift anymore because of arthritis, and though it could have been one of his cons, the man standing in front of me looked like every single member of my family including my youngest toddler niece could beat him to the ground.

That’s what I’d come to see: that this figure who’d terrified us for decades was now weakened by his own choices, living a life far worse, far emptier, than any punishment we could have wished on him.

People think that karma is some magical ironic force that sweeps in to serve justice, but the meaning is more about “suffering the logical consequences of your actions.” Karma had indeed come for my father, and it was all self-inflicted.

He was still strange and creepy and bizarrely tone deaf to feelings – “I wish I’d thought to run up my wife’s credit cards before she died because they can’t come to get you for that” – and there wasn’t much sign that he was aware of anything he’d done wrong. He asked about my mother and my sister, and I gave vague answers to protect their security.

He asked if I’d ever gotten to Eagle Scout and was disappointed when I said I didn’t.

By then, it was getting late and I’d gotten what I hadn’t known I’d come for: assurance that justice had come for my father and we’d all far outgrown any threat he could make.

We traded phone numbers and I said goodbye. He waved as I drove away, and years later when we cleaned out that house after he died, I saw that he wrote my name with an exclamation point on that day in his calendar.

I drove home in a weird kind of relieved euphoria. Yeah, he was still a predatory shark in his heart, but he had no teeth.

More importantly, I’d done something I’d always sworn I’d do.

My mother and sister were horrified that I went to see him, and an ebullient blog entry that I wrote about the encounter didn’t help. I unintentionally implied that we’d reconnected for a new beginning when the truth was much closer to discovering that the Soviet missiles in Red Square were just empty metal tubes.

I’d gone to find out that he couldn’t hurt us, and though I knew that now, it wasn’t my place to risk other people on the gamble.

I was his informal parole officer for the rest of his life. For the next several years until he died, we had stilted awkward phone calls every six months or so. He asked computer questions. He tried to sell me his mother’s wedding ring. He talked about lawsuits he wanted to file and encouraged me to go to law school.

He deftly avoided all questions about what he thought about his actions or his crimes. The closest he ever came to admitting his abuse was to say that living in Florida away from the life he’d known in New York had made him anxious and angry: “flapping in the breeze” was his expression for it.

I didn’t see him in person again except on his deathbed from colon cancer, where he asked me how my car and cats were doing and complained about the ambulance ride to the hospice while ignoring my sister standing next to me.

Not the most contemplative man in the world, certainly not one who’d write this much on the twentieth anniversary of something.

I’m not sure what good my reckless visit did. It was handy to know about his doings from a safety perspective, and that thin channel of communication perhaps sated his curiosity enough to prevent him from looking for us.

Maybe I needed to look at him with adult eyes and know I was different than he was. Maybe I needed to know I’d “won,” ignoble as that is. Maybe I wanted to give him the slightest chance to show any growth of consciousness.

Unlike Darth Vader, he never did.

Handbooks, Nominally Fictional

In my last post, I wrote about some of the non-fiction handbooks that influenced me, but I left the fiction handbooks for their own post.

Like my character Bud Castillo in my forthcoming novella A Scout is Brave (heard of it?), I took books very seriously (and somewhat uncritically) as a kid. To me, every book was a kind of handbook, containing secrets on how to live competently.

My head back then felt like the opening sequence to The Twilight Zone with weird shit flying all over the place, clocks and doll heads and action figures and electronic components and Legos.

Actually, it still feels like that.

What I assumed books would help me do is fake the level of calm consistency that I assumed everyone around me performed as a matter of course. So I combed through every book for hints on a Grand Unifying Theory of how to be human.

(Which is what Aubrey Marsh is doing in my novella, too.)

Here are some of the books that influenced me greatly as a young person (elementary school through early college). I don’t necessarily recommend them or even still adhere to their points of view; they just each had moments of gravitational pull.

The Mouse and the Motorcycle, by Beverly Cleary

Cover of The Mouse and the Motorcycle

People who know me from work meetings and social situations may be surprised to hear this, but I’m actually oozing with empathy. It’s just sometimes a little…delayed. Or misplaced.

As a kid, I suspected that almost everything (especially if it was shaped like a person or an animal) had feelings. When Skylab fell from orbit, I fashioned helmets for my stuffed animals out of plastic soda bottle bottoms.

So it made complete sense that a sentient mouse could ride a toy motorcycle simply by making the noise of its engine, and every story I’ve written or believed in since about the heroism of seemingly powerless people comes from Ralph’s ride with Keith’s aspirin tablet.   

Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls

Cover of Where the Red Fern Grows

This was probably the first (relatively) sophisticated work of fiction I encountered as a kid, along with the Ramona Quimby books.

(I didn’t get much advice from her, just validation that sometimes mischief came for you with the inevitability of the tides.)

My fourth grade teacher Mr. Clark read this to us after lunch for a few weeks, which probed to be a bad idea when he had a classroom of weeping nine-year-olds at the end…including me, to my great surprise. It was a revelation to have something untrue make me feel something real.

Catcher in the Rye | The Count of Monte Cristo | The Great Gatsby

Cover of Catcher in the Rye

When I got to high school, I of course fell into the Emo Boy Sociopath three-pack.

If you had a boardroom full of devious marketers and charged them with inventing stories for angry teenage boys with big feelings who felt forgotten by girls who should like them, they’d come up with this trilogy almost word for word.

Gatsby is basically Edmond Dantes in the American Gilded Age, right? A man with a sudden fortune uses it to impress a girl who spurned him and avenge himself on other men. The message of both books, that revenge isn’t healthy, is whispered at the end so as not to disrupt the fantasy.

Holden Caulfield, of course, is Gatsby as a teenager, surrounded by emotionally-dead phonies and not yet sure what to do about it. (Revenge, Holden! That’s what’s next.)

I loved all three of them.  

The Planiverse, by A.K. Dewdney

Cover of The Planiverse

My friend William Simmons loaned me his copy of this book when I was in high school, and I immediately latched onto its scientific conceit: how biology and chemistry and physics and engineering could function in a two-dimensional world.

But the quest of its central character Yndrd for meaning has stayed longer with me than all of the little science lessons he encounters along the way.

There’s a quote in the book that sooner or later, every intelligent being must explore its options, that almost physically cracked open my skull to the possibilities of my life. I didn’t have to take my purpose for granted, and it was my responsibility to physically find out what it was instead of merely thinking about it.

I gave this book to my friend Chris Swinney, now passed away, because I thought it was the kind of book about being a seeker that a rationalist like him would connect with. I have his copy in my own library and I value it.

Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke

Cover of Childhood's End

I went through a phase of shunning science fiction when I entered college, and I made it through seven of ten courses as an English major perplexed why I didn’t give a shit about what I was reading.

A summer class on science fiction taught by Kent Beyette gave me permission to read the genre again, like Margaret Mead observing the people of the Manu’a Archipelago. We read Dune, The Mote in God’s Eye, A Clockwork Orange, and an anthology of classic short stories…but first there came this book, which made me cry with a sublime certainty that we could be a better species if we tried.

I cried too for the time I’d wasted on the 17th century poetry that no one reads anymore.  

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

Cover of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Really, this is a book about an idealistic philosophy professor who is driven mad by the terrible writing of freshman composition students. His rants about Quality, about seeking some form of excellence in even the smallest acts, were a revelation to me as a former gifted kid who just assumed he could half-ass his way through life because it had been working okay so far.

It’s scary to think that we live in a society so inured to whatever’s easy and comfortable that the theme of “give a shit about what you do even if it seems easy and minor” is a revelation.

But it certainly was to me.

A Prayer for Owen Meany

Cover of A Prayer for Owen Meany

To say that I had a confused sense of God’s role in my life as a young person would be something of an understatement. I wasn’t sure if God was fucking with me because I deserved it or because I needed to be stronger for some noble purpose.

Either way, I assumed God thought about me a lot.

In this book, young oddball Owen Meany struggles with what he believes to be a great destiny, interpreting his entire life as leading to a moment of service and sacrifice for others. He happens to be right (which was a message I grabbed onto the first time I read it), but that doesn’t change the fact that his awareness of that destiny makes his life myopic (which is what I get from it now).

Aubrey Marsh from A Scout is Brave is related to Owen Meany in many ways, though Aubrey believes his destiny is a far darker one.

This book snapped me out of thinking (too much) about my ultimate meaning as a human being while letting all the little moments that make that meaning slip by.

Handbooks of My Youth

You may have heard that I have a book coming out this summer called A Scout is Brave. What? You haven’t? Pre-order it now by clicking the button below!

One of the themes of the book is the disconnect between the model of reality that we place in books and the one we allow or reinforce in the real world. As a kid, I had a hard time understanding why people didn’t take books as seriously as I did, and to me, every book was a handbook.

As a kid with ADHD and anxiety, it was a revelation that there were actual books that could tell you how to live and do things, books that you could go out and make real in the world.

Let me introduce some of them to you.

Covers of Model Railroading and the Boy Scout Handbook

Model Railroading, published by Lionel Trains in the late forties, was hopelessly obsolete by the early eighties when I read it, but I loved the idea of making my own tiny wholesome, controllable world. I can’t imagine why.

The 1963 Boy Scout Handbook appears in my story, and I had the same problem with it that Bud has: the huge gap between theory and practice, between what we say we believe and how most people behave. I was a kid in the eighties behaving like one from the sixties.

Covers of How to Run a Railroad and Filming Works Like This.

How to Run a Railroad was a book I found in our local library and checked out so many times that my father suggested we steal it when we moved away. It was a great book with kid-plausible ideas for building a model railroad out of random shit in your house.

In 1982, I discovered Steven Spielberg and the idea that some lucky people were actually PAID to make up stories instead of merely annoying others with them. That sparked the idea of becoming a film director, and Filming Works Like This was all we had in our elementary school library on the subject. The technology wasn’t too far off for the early eighties, but I had no access to it and had to settle eventually for…ugh…just writing stories down.

Cover of Real Ghosts by Daniel Cohen

My elementary school library also had a small shelf of books for weirdoes, focused mainly on vampires, missing people, UFOs, Bigfoot, and ghosts.

Daniel Cohen was an author who specialized in telling dubious stories to young people with absolute credulity. I finished each one convinced that yes, there were spirits and aliens among us that nobody wanted to talk about.

So you might say that I started my artistic sensibilities with horror NON-fiction. Or at least fiction couched like it.

Cover of Stranger Than Science by Frank Edwards

Frank Edwards was another crackpot who gathered what we’d call now “Forteana”: the kinds of bizarre happenings chronicled originally by the patron saint of crackpots, Charles Fort. My sister had a few of his books.

These are where I learned about the Marie Celeste, the shifting coffins of the Chase tomb in Barbados, the Bermuda Triangle, frogs dropping from the sky, and the Loch Ness monster.

My experience with more practical handbooks inspired me to imagine ways that we could actually resolve these mysteries, exploring the loch with a submarine, say, or examing the Marie Celeste with a forensic team instead of a bunch of dumbass sailors.

Cover of the Hardy Boys' Detective Handbook.

The Hardy Boys’ Detective Handbook was where I got some of those investigative ideas, and like almost every other imaginative kid, I started my own detective agency. I don’t remember solving any actual crimes, which is ironic given how many my father was routinely committing.

I guess there’s a lesson there in how context affects our morality.

Cover of Gnomes

One of my long-term investigations involved searching for gnomes. My mother bought me the book at the height of the gnomes fad of the early eighties, prouder of the family’s Scandinavian heritage than the rest of us.

Despite the map inside saying that at best we’d find extremely rare Beach Gnomes in Florida, I still kept searching the woods.

They decided not to show themselves, probably because I wasn’t ready.

Cover of the Commodore 64 Programmer's Reference Guide.

Then came the computer handbooks. I started with a Commodore 64 in 1985. My father refused to buy games or even a disk drive for it, asserting that this was for “serious business.” We had a tape drive instead, so I made my own games when my father wasn’t hectoring me to create an automated address book for him.

To find an address in the golden Commodore future, you’d just turn on the computer, insert a tape, fast forward the tape to the program, type LOAD, and wait patiently for the address book to appear. Simple as that!

Covers of Dungeons and Dragons and Star Frontiers.

Next came the gaming books, starting with that red Dungeons and Dragons basic set for which I still have that book. My mother ordered it from their ill-fated bookstore because she’d heard that “gifted kids” played it.

I preferred science fiction, though, and later on I found Star Frontiers at Waldenbooks and then Star Trek from FASA.

And that’s just the non-fiction!

We are all constant compliers (conscious or not) of our own handbooks. I was luckier than some kids to have parents who owned a bookstore (however briefly) and believed in the importance of reading, not to mention a sister who was into weird books like Alive and the ouevre of Frank Edwards, and later friends who enjoyed speculative and imaginative ideas.

I’d be a much different person with different books, and I’m grateful for the ones I got.

Behold! A Scout is Brave!

A Scout is Brave cover image

It’s been a long time coming (as mentors and fellow students of the Stonecoast MFA program can attest, among others), but my novella A Scout is Brave is finally emerging from the twisted gray woods of the Massachusetts coast in July of 2024!

That gorgeous cover is the work of Jeremy Parker who went to extraordinary lengths to encapsulate the 1960s Scouting milieu in the design. My publisher Lethe Press pulled out all the stops.

What’s it about? Boy Scouts in 1963 Innsmouth, the dreaded town of fallen cultists invented (or is it discovered?) by H.P. Lovecraft.

I’m guessing you have questions.

A Lovecraft pastiche? Do we need that?

Maybe not, but some readers COULD need a coming-of-age story that explores some of the social consequences of Lovecraft’s original story.

If you’re a fan of Stephen King’s “The Body” or Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, I think you’ll like this story, too.

Is it scary?

It’s as scary as the rest of my work, meaning that it’s a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of thing: not overtly terrifying but with implications that sneak up on you.

It may not keep you up at night, but it’ll pop into your head in the middle of the day and make you mutter, “Wait. What the hell?”

Is that you on the cover?

No, that’s a representation of the book’s protagonist, Bud Castillo. Most pictures of me in the Scouts include me squinting at the sun or lugging a backpack larger than I am.

Are you aware that the Boy Scouts [insert wince-worthy practice here]?

Author Will Ludwigsen standing in his Boy Scout uniform like a big ol' geek.
Portrait of the author as a Scout taking it way too seriously.

Yeah. I read the 1963 Boy Scout Handbook as a kid and had very strange expectations when I joined my local troop in 1984. There was a lot more burning random shit in the woods and a lot less enjoying the sublime mysteries of nature than I expected.

I achieved the rank of Life Scout (just below Eagle), and this story comments on why that was enough for me.

What little I’ve followed of their political direction since then doesn’t inspire me much. Can we just get back to helping old ladies across the street?

Are you going on some sort of tour to promote the book?

I am indeed, so subscribe to the newsletter or visit here frequently for announced dates and locations!

Where can I get a copy?

I’m glad you asked! The book is available for pre-order through Lethe Press, and pre-orders are very important to the success of books. Please support me, this book, and Lethe Press by joining our Scout troop today!

Our A.I. Future: Acres and Acres of Porpipe

My story “Acres of Perhaps” has been summarized by the site WritingAtlas.com, and I feel better than ever about A.I.’s potential to replace me as an artist.

Behold this glorious robot-generated cover:

Hideous and inaccurate A.I.-generated cover for my story Acres of Perhaps.

I’m not sure what a Porpipe is, but apparently there’s acres of it in my story.

That cover is a perfect symbol of the utter creative failure of “artificial intelligence.” The garbled text (“A the Fantay Comical Telvioin Optionitory Prorellsate”) and random images (Is that a toaster with a CB radio microphone clip on the top?) show exactly what it’s good at: filling space with a simulacrum of content without caring about its meaning.

We are finally on the cusp of replacing the freshman composition student, a dream all teachers have had since the age of Socrates.

If you want six hundred words or 700×700 pixels or four minutes of anything, literally anything, to earn money from curious but ultimately disappointed clicks, we now have the technology to complete the ouroboros. We can now game our own system by using algorithms to trick other algorithms into a crass imitation of value.

And I’m not even mad about it! I’m vaguely proud that my work is hard for a computer to understand.

A writer for the ’60s most famed and experimental television series watches the shows phantasmic creator choose between recluse genius and a quaint life of normalcy. Faced with stubborn alcoholism, a hit television series resemblant of the twilight zone, and a tree stump with questionably magical properties, the narrator watches cinematic wunderkind David Findley toe the line between brilliance and delusion.

A.I. apparently cloned from a High School Freshman at Writingatlas.com

In fact, I propose that we refer to spam-like slabs of meaningless imagery and text as “porpipe,” as in:

  • “Did you see that tub of porpipe they tried to sell off as a new recording artist?”
  • “What we need for this side of our fraudulent website is just a column of pure, Grade D porpipe. I don’t care where you get it or what it’s made from.”
  • “Excuse me, professor, but the syllabus doesn’t say what percentage of our papers have to be porpipe.”
  • “Take the porpipe. Leave the cannoli.”

If you produce creative work that’s better than porpipe, that taps into something unique and interesting and human and fucked up, the good news is that you needn’t worry about porpipe replacing you yet.

The bad news? It may not be long until most people can’t tell the difference.

My Too-Late Holiday Shopping Guide for Procrastinators

Now that it’s too late for Christmas shopping recommendations except for the truly masochistic and insane, let me share some of my entertainment highlights from 2023!

Books

I’m terrible about reading current books, so these aren’t really recent.

  • I re-read The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas) for the first time in twenty years, and this unabridged edition reminded me of how this was the equivalent of appointment television in its time, full of tangents and asides and cross-purposes to draw out the story into a pleasant weighty significance.
Cover of Joe Sharkey's book Death Sentence
  • Death Sentence: The Inside Story of the John List Murders (Joe Sharkey) tells the story of one of my “favorite” true crimes. List murdered his wife, mother, and three children in 1971 and bolted on the lam for seventeen years. He was caught in 1989 after an episode of America’s Most Wanted showed an eerie sculpted bust of his age-progressed head. What I find fascinating about his story is that he was an uptight devout Lutheran with obsessive compulsive disorder and a horror of failing to keep up appearances, much like many of my older relatives. He killed his family to “spare them” from poverty, he claimed. The book covers the case well with good detail and insight.

  • The Elephant in the Brain (Keith Simler) explains a lot of our more annoying human tendencies as artifacts of our evolutionary heritage and desire to be part of a group. I think it’s a key text in understanding how we apply so much of our higher mental powers to rationalizing our baser drives.    

TV

This is going to sound a little one-note, but Star Trek had a hell of a year with three fabulous seasons of television.

Picard Season 3
  • Picard Season Three may have pulled off the most dizzying reversal in television history from its first two abysmal seasons to a soaring and triumphant third. Showrunner Terry Matalas, a fan himself, finally understood what people wanted all along: 80% things we know and love mixed with 20% new cool shit. It’s a balance that the new Star Wars trilogy completely failed to achieve.
Strange New Worlds
  • Strange New Worlds Season Two took amazing risks with mostly fabulous results; though I still have mixed feelings about the musical episode, I’m glad they were brave enough to make it. The cast and producers are capturing the variety of the original series with a modern sensibility for continuing consequences, and this was fun to watch every week.
  • Lower Decks Season Four was still hilarious, but they faced some pretty heavy emotional consequences that demonstrated that this isn’t just a zany cartoon satire. What I like about Lower Decks is that it answers or addresses so many of the things we let pass us by unquestioned in the other iterations of Star Trek, patching holes and adding context with a sense of humor.

Movies

I don’t actually watch a lot of movies anymore, I’m sorry to say. It’s hard to sit still that long.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
  • Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was very good, though of course idiots came out to complain and demonstrate their commitment to the dogma of their childhoods by damning it as fan service. As I age, I’m enjoying stories more where heroes grapple with the longer term consequences of their lives, choosing once again to be heroic even when it costs more than it ever has.
  • The Menu was a wonderfully dark psychological study, full of surprises that turn out to be fully earned by the characters who get them.

  • I’m not sure what I’d pick for an even third film. Everything Everywhere All at Once was moving when I saw it, but I don’t remember much of it now and have no desire to watch it again. The Fabelmans should have been right up my alley (a nerdy kid learning to take command of his creativity), but it felt like it was missing a third act. Cocaine Bear was hilarious and had the virtue of delivering exactly what it said. So too did Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.

Looking over this list and thinking back on my year in entertainment, I feel old and unwilling to take risks on weird new things that creators are making (or re-making). I’m falling out of the demographic for profitability.

When they remake Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I’m moving out to the woods away from all human contact.

Oh, yeah: Gratitude

I’m grateful all the time, believe it or not, for people and pets and inanimate objects. I once kissed an Amtrak train as a little kid to thank it for safely getting us home from Florida, and my mother had to yank me away before it decapitated me.

Many years later, I was driving somewhere with my (eventual ex-) wife, contemplating the universe in my quiet Scandinavian way, when a profound insight sparked across a few neurons.

“You know what I don’t appreciate enough?”

She looked over at me, eyes filled with hope.

Nestle Nesquik. I’ve been drinking it since I was five years old across multiple states and economic conditions, and it’s always been a comfort to me.”

So Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, an excuse to eat and talk a lot with family and friends, but I don’t always articulate what specifically I’m thankful for because it’s always Thanksgiving in my heart. (Aw!)

Let’s do some articulatin’!

Interpersonal

  • Of course I’m grateful for the family, friends, colleagues, and inanimate objects that support me every day, no matter how difficult I make it.
  • We had a great Willcon this year, enjoying some gaming and ribald conversation with old friends and new.
  • It was wonderful to take a family vacation with my sister, brother-in-law, and nieces to Great Britain for a few weeks this summer, something we’ve done very infrequently over our lives. Even getting COVID couldn’t slow down our good time (or endless walking).
  • As annoying as it was to spend FIVE WEEKS as a juror in a civil trial, I appreciated the chance to meet people I’d never have encountered in my normal life and see things from their perspectives, however wrong. (I kid, I kid!)
  • My immediate team at work has never been just a group of coworkers, and not just because I bully them all the time to go out to lunch together at Tony D’s. I decidedly DON’T appreciate the layoff that sent most of them off to better destinies, but I AM very grateful that they continue to influence my life.
  • We’ve got a pretty good team of cats at home, two older boys and two younger ones, who fill our hearts with love and our lungs with dander. Our famous dog Sylvia, mayor of the neighborhood, will now occasionally listen to reason between trying to tear pizza out of our hands and barking during work meetings. 
  • Aimee, of course, remains awesome, very tolerant of my quirks and difficulties.

Professional

  • Though I miss my lost team members at my day job, I’m grateful my company decided to keep me around for their own mysterious reasons. They’ve always been tolerant and often even bemused by the weirdness I bring to my work.
  • There’s something to be said after a layoff for how it sure clarifies who you can trust to help get things done, including my boss.

Writing

  • I actually finished a short story this year after a time we’re politely calling “fallow.” It’s made it to a second round of consideration at one of my favorite magazines, so maybe you’ll read it one of these days. (People liked it when I read it at Willcon, at least politely.)
  • The well-known publisher that was considering my novella A Scout is Brave decided to pass after a whirlwind 850 days, which is either a compliment that it was so hard to decide or an insult that it wasn’t easier to decide.
  • And the reason I’m grateful for that? A Scout is Brave has found its real home at Lethe Press and will be appearing next June. Don’t worry: I won’t let you forget that in the coming months.

Emotional

  • This has been a very strange year, and I couldn’t have done it without the fistful of medications that my doctor prescribed to keep me alive during it.
  • In a similar vein, I’m glad to have reached an age where I know enough about my strengths and weaknesses to work WITH them instead of against them. You call it depression, I call it introspection! You call it a rude disregard for the feelings of others, I call it a child-like honesty! You call it ADHD, I call it a need for novelty and challenge!

Inanimate Objects

  • I’m glad I figured out (with no help from three visits to the dealership) what the rattling noise under my car was before I just drove it off a bridge.
  • I’m enjoying a board game these days called HeroQuest which is like Dungeons and Dragons for impatient people fearful of commitment.
Family playing HeroQuest at Thanksgiving
I even persuaded the family to try HQ on our early Thanksgiving.
  • Red Dead Redemption 1 & 2 have been boon companions for the last few months. I wish I could quit you!
  • Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and Lower Decks were fantastic this year.
  • I’m also thankful for the new (and very expensive) pipe that allows my bodily wastes to go out to Jacksonville’s sewer system instead of just kind of seeping under my lawn.

..and Finally…

I’m grateful for you, supporting my intense desire to capture the world in words!  

Ten Years? It Seems Like Yesterday!

Ten years ago today, my father died in hospice from colon cancer, an event that was more stunning than sad…mostly because I assumed Satan had more work for him yet to do on the Earth.

Here, my mother gives back a little of the ol’ tune up to his ashes at Thanksgiving in 2013.

I crack a lot of jokes about how awful he was, how his weird sociopathic tone deafness to human feeling made him no more conscious than a shark, how his leaving of my mother was like the fall of the Empire from Star Wars.

You might even say at this point that I’m really punching down…just like he did to me!

Hey-o!

I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that I’ve squeezed a lot of humor and horror out of him over the years, or that I need to let it all go and move on, or that I’d have made even the best father into a villain if it made my stories or my life more interesting.

I wonder all of that, too.

I was glad that we had the chance to play D&D one last time, at least.

Of our complicated relationship, I’ll just say this:

If you’re someone who takes pride in how your son inherited your gift for eloquent bullshittery, you’d better be nicer to him.

He’s the one who will write your epitaph.

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