All posts by John McCallum Swain

About John McCallum Swain

John McCallum Swain wrote his first story in the sixth grade. Whilst other children were writing about kittens and summer vacations, he wrote of the annihilation of humanity by invading aliens. He progressed from longhand to typewriters to laptops and continues to write tales ranging from graphic horror to alternate history, while exploring new territory with screenwriting. A co-founder of Dark Red Press, the writer behind the transatlantic partnership Grab a Half Productions and a current member of The Imagination Syndicate, Swain previously published novels and short stories under the name Jack X McCallum.

Hey, Remember Him In…

Is it possible to leave behind a legacy more pleasing than Bill Paxton’s?

He popped up in Stripes, Terminator and Commando, before what his fans saw as his breakout role as Hudson in Aliens, and he followed that up with a kickass role in the cult fave Near Dark.

He paid his dues as a character actor in a bunch of forgotten thrillers and action flicks (Trespass being a good one) before a one-two punch of memorable roles in Tombstone and True Lies, and finally got mainstream exposure with Apollo 13, Twister, and Titanic.

After that he kept on working, appearing in over two dozen more movies, one of them being Frailty, a dark masterpiece he starred in and directed.

With all this he still found time to play Bill Hendrickson for 5 seasons in Big Love on HBO, and wasn’t beyond appearing in TV movies or shows like Agents of Shield. And he worked right to the end, having just completed the first season of Training Day on CBS.

Everyone liked him, no one had a bad word to say about him, and it was always such a joy to see him onscreen, whether he was playing a good guy, or a bad guy, and he played some really nasty bad guys.

He was the quintessential character actor, and the kind of actor writers love. Leading men and woman come and go, but it’s the character actors that we can all relate to, and it’s why so many people who never met Bill Paxton feel like they lost a friend today.

Comic-Con International, 2016.

The Albatross

Remember the story of the intrusive old woman who went on a B&E and vandalism spree, breaking into the Three Bears’ home and trashing their stuff?* Not long before she was brutally punished for that series of offenses, she discovered that some of the Bears’ food and furnishings were not too big, and not too small, but just right.

That’s how I feel about Redemption Road, a story I have come to think of as my albatross, a story I may never be able to sell.

I just sent the albatross off to another publisher, but I’m not holding my breath that they will take it.

Redemption Road is as dear to my heart as it is a hard sell, because [1] it is a mix of surreal horror and Christian mythology (think LOST if written by Stephen King for the tone of the story), and [2] it has a plot line that is hard to to summarize (what the hell is that squiggle up in the sky, and what is the deal with the three-legged dog?) which would make selling it to an anthology with a set theme a real challenge, and [3] it has a 42,000 word count, which means it was born in an unincorporated part of Storyland on that dangerous turf between Novella Town and Novel City, and that has always been a troublesome place. For a lot of publishers it isn’t worth the work that would go into a full novel, but it would take a lot more commitment from a publisher and a reader than a short story. There is also the chance that Redemption Road is a steaming pile of human waste, but positive feedback from complete strangers makes me doubt that.

I could have cheated and padded the story with pointless bullshit (I’ll pause for the inevitable shout of, “Isn’t that what you do with all of your stories, Swain?”), or cut out material I thought was important (“Let me be the judge of that,” said every editor ever), but in the end the story is its own thing. It ends when it ends, and there isn’t a whole lot I can do about it.

And as much as I bitch about it, I truly love my albatross. If I didn’t love it I could have cut it down or overworked it until it conformed to a certain standard, but I didn’t. It’s pure story, and since I write for me first, it’s a part of me; the gruesome deaths, the bizarre landscape, the unanswered questions, and even that goddamned rocketship.**

Do you have an albatross? If so, let me hear about it – and let me hear if you’ve had success selling novellas too!

Don’t Ignore that bird hanging around your neck – wear it with pride! And keep trying to sell it every chance you get.

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Gustave Doré, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1876).

*This is referring to the original version of the story we know as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Eleanor Mure’s 1831 tale that ended with the disgruntled ursians trying unsuccessfully to burn the old woman alive, and then drown her, and in what can only be seen as a final act of frustration, flinging the intruder into the air and impaling her on the steeple of St. Paul’s. Jesus!!!

*The rocketship is the power of hope, the last thing an artist will ever let go of.

Every Story Must Come to an End

I said goodbye to my sweet old Siamese cat Jack this afternoon.

She had been ailing for some time. A recent checkup revealed pancreatitis, which is brutally painful, and I was treating her at home with fluids and medication. At the same time, X-rays revealed cancer in her chest and abdomen, and tests showed she had chronic liver failure.

I’ve been working half days for the past two weeks, spending all the time I could with her while letting her eat whatever she could eat – no more dieting!

Jack’s vet suggested chemo and other measures but I declined for three reasons. First, Jack has been to the doctor more than any other cat I’ve ever had (my current vet is wonderful, and she saved Jack’s life five times), but Jack hated the vet, and the thought of a long cycle of treatments that may not have worked and would only stress her out was too much. Second, she was almost 17, and her liver was shot to hell, and if I prolonged her life it was only a matter of time before more cancer or diabetes or kidney failure kicked in. And third, the cost was insanely expensive and as it is I have younger cats who need medical care.

Letting her go was the right thing to do. She had a wonderful life, because she was loved and protected for as long as she could remember. To tarnish that life by letting her die an ugly death would be obscene.

As brutal as this was it was also beautiful, I was able to say goodbye to Jack while holding her in my arms, not long after sitting in the sun on the porch – easily her most favorite place ever.

The last few weeks before she got noticeably sick – cats can hide these things from us for some time – she spent every minute she could out on the porch, in the sun. And every single night for the last two weeks before she became seriously ill, whenever I turned out the light and got into bed each night, she jumped up and curled up on my pillow, at least for a little while, purring away. That was something she rarely ever did, since she preferred sleeping in her own bed. It’s almost like she knew the end was near and she wanted to make all of her time as special as possible. She also demanded a shitload of back scratches and belly rubs then, too, and I indulged her every time. One of those magic moments happened this morning, before she took a final turn for the worst, and I’m so glad I took the time to pet her, making me late for the train to work, as always.

An old woman who lived in a shitty part of the Tenderloin used to collect neglected kittens and give them to anyone passing by, people she saw every day from her spot in downtown San Francisco. If you walked by a few days in a row at the same time and your were nicely dressed, she knew you had a job and could provide for a cat.

Jackson, named after Jackson Street, was the third and final cat I adopted from that woman. That old lady has long since passed on, and if she went to her God, He better be treating her kindly.

Jack was only four or five weeks old when I brought her home. I took a picture of her when she fell asleep on my couch. She was as small as a dollar bill, and her eyes were like tiny blue stars.

I was looking for a boy cat, and I had picked one out, but the old woman handed me Jack and insisted I take her instead. It was meant to be. It really was.

Jack snuck into my house under cover of boyness and she was the biggest pain in the ass cat I ever had when she was young, always pissing off the older cats and stealing food and letting out bizarre warbling yowls in the middle of the night.

I like to think the old woman gave me Jack because she knew I’d fall in love with that tiny Siamese kitten, and not throw her out the goddamned window.

In the last eight years Jack was my rock, getting me through the brutal losses of three other cats, a terribly bleak year of depression and anxiety that nearly took a toll on my health, and a year spent worrying that I might lose my job during a big shake up at work.

I can’t tell you how many times I soaked her soft coat with tears when I was afraid or depressed, and her response was always a loud, calming purr.

She was extremely smart and very affectionate, an opinionated individual who would only bend so far, and she was occasionally hilarious (and yes, cats can have a sense of humor – like kids, they develop incredibly complex personalities if you nurture that growth).

Jack got me through five terrible times in my life, and now all of those crises have passed. I feel better and things are looking up. I am finally published, and working on getting my name out there.

I like to think Jack felt she could move on now, after a job well done.

In her last days, when she spent most of her time lying in her cozy bed, I cried on her again and again, and even though she was probably in pain she responded with a purr – not quite as loud as before, but it was still there, and still reassuring. And that happened today as well, her last day.

On Saturday, Ash and Juno (who knew Jack the longest) spent the day in the same room as Jack, instead of out on the sunny porch where they would have been any other day.

Today, as I waited for the vet to come to my home, Jack wanted to hide in the bedroom closet and I let her – another sign the end was near. My big boy cat Ash, who is eight (and who can be a real dick to the other cats at times), sat in the bedroom, watching the closet door for hours. Jack has been there his entire life.

Jack’s doctor saved her from life-threatening conditions five times before her luck ran out. Five times I could have lost her. Five times I got her back. But not this time. This time Fate went all out, and Jack fought with everything she had.

A wonderful vet and her assistant came to my home and helped me say goodbye in the most peaceful way imaginable.

I carried Jack home in my arms that first day, and she died in my arms on her last day.

There is beauty in that. It will be hard for me to find at times, but it is there.

Thanks for being there for me, Jackson. If there is any life after this one, wait for me. I’ll be along one day.

jackandcashJack was about 5 weeks old when I brought her home in October of the year 2000.

jack in the sun 2013 11 17Jack in her favorite place in the world, on the porch and in the sun.

Image-1Jack and me posing in October 2015, for National Cat Day.

The Con Must Go On


(The following is an excerpt from a work in progress…)

Author’s Introductory Note

Everyone believes they know William Shatner, the real William Shatner. He has played Captain Kirk, T.J. Hooker, and Denny Crane. He is a spokesman and an author. He’s been an enduring and entertaining presence in our lives for decades now.

Yet there was a time, a dark time, when Shatner had to struggle to find work. Between 1969, when the original series of Star Trek was cancelled, and 1978, when production began on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Shatner struggled to get by. He kept working wherever and whenever he could. He did B movies and TV guest appearances, including game shows and talk shows. He worked hard to get Star Trek back on the screen, and he worked hard to provide for his children.

What follows are the shocking, moving, alarming and amusing true stories from what William Shatner has referred to as that period, when he toiled in obscurity just to pay the bills, unwilling to take a handout, yet willing to risk humiliation if that’s was what it took to put food on the table.

These incidents have been carefully reconstructed after years of archival research and interviews, and I have made every effort to be as accurate as possible in presenting the chronicles of Shatner: The Lost Years.

 

The Con Must Go On

San Diego, July 1977

William Shatner was in a foul mood. He was sitting in an uncomfortable plastic chair in a stuffy room behind a stage in the El Cortez Hotel. He sipped watered-down bourbon, checking the pockets of his out-of-date blazer to make sure he had some honey-lemon Halls. It simply wouldn’t do to breathe booze over the crowd of pimple-faced geeks waiting to see him.

Be nice, Shatner thought. Those geeks are the future, your future.

The entire Enterprise crew had their velour-covered asses handed to them by NBC eight years ago when Star Trek was cancelled, despite the freakishly obsessed fans and their letter-writing campaigns. Since then life had been a mixture of middle-class humdrum and scrabbling for roles, any roles that would pay the rent and keep his three girls clothed and fed.

Shatner looked around the room, taking another sip from his drink and making a mental note to skip the ice when he got a second one. The bourbon was bottom shelf swill, and the room was so warm the ice melted instantly, watering down the booze.

Damn it all to hell, Shatner thought, I’ve had stronger cough syrup.

A comic book writer left the room and the crowd went crazy when the guy reached the stage. His stories must be good, Shatner mused, because the guy looked like a sweaty-palmed, panty-sniffer. Then again, he thought, so did most of the convention attendees.

The only other person in the room smiled and nodded at Shatner. The man had a spectacularly awful comb-over and he reeked of pot.

If I start balding to that extent I’ll never resort to covering up like that, Shatner said to himself.

The man opened his mouth to say something. Shatner got up and went to the bar to pour himself another drink.

Christ, Shatner thought, I hope Gene can get the ball rolling again.

Roddenberry had been leading a one-man assault on Paramount for years now, relentlessly hammering the studio with storylines for a theatrical Star Trek feature film, and Paramount had finally gave Gene a green light, before shutting down The Planet of the Titans while it was still in pre-production.

Shatner tried to convince himself it was for the best, because the proposed feature was ludicrous horseshit with more writers on the payroll than cast members . . . but ludicrous horseshit paid the bills, as he knew all too well, having recently read an appalling script about a town overrun with spiders. Shatner was willing to take the role because cash was cash, and it would be a quick shoot.

Gene was now shifting gears and trying to get another series on the air. He wanted to call it Star Trek: Phase Two. That title wasn’t very exciting, it was silly, in fact, but Shatner didn’t care. He would be on The Show again; all of the old crew would be together again, except for Leonard Nimoy.

That had surprised and annoyed Shatner, but he knew why Leonard said no. Roddenberry attended conventions on his own, and he showed a crude blooper reel at every one of them, shots of the cast flubbing their lines, dropping props, and walking into the sets. For some reason, people laughing at Spock got right up Leonard’s ass. Didn’t he realize these conventions were a joke?

Shatner had already done a few of these conventions, and they seemed to be growing in popularity. For a modest per diem and a free meal he would endure an hour-long Q&A session because it was a chance to promote The Show, keeping it alive in the public consciousness and encouraging the fans, these paragons of social ineptitude, to write letters to the studio and demand more Star Trek.

The downside was that he would inevitably have to answer questions about what Jim Kirk was thinking or feeling during a particular scene, focusing his thoughts on a single moment within a hectic shooting schedule years ago. It was ridiculous, but he had to keep the fans happy, masturbating, pizza-faced fatties, the lot of them.

Now, if they asked him what it felt like having Nichelle’s photon torpedoes pressed against his chest, or demanded that he confirm the rumors that Majel often came to the set in her Nurse Chapel getup without any panties on, brother, that he could certainly—

“You look troubled, my friend.”

Shatner looked over his shoulder at the man with the comb-over. Odd way of speaking, he thought, as he poured a drink. After a moment he realized he had seen the man before. “You seem . . . familiar,” he said.

The man gave him a wide grin.

“Got it,” Shatner said. “You’re that astro-whatsis who’s always talking to Carson on the Tonight Show.”

The man nodded, and as Shatner came closer he could see that the man’s eyes were thoroughly bloodshot.

“I’m Carl Sagan,” the man said.

“You’re . . . stoned,” Shatner said in awe. “Stoned out of your . . . goddamned mind.”

Sagan responded with a deep laugh.

Shatner sat facing the man. The plastic chair creaked under him. Christ, he thought, if we do get the whole wagon train to the stars back on the rails, I’m going to have to hit the gym and lose this belly. He looked Sagan up and down, figuring the man was one of those skinny pricks like Nimoy who could eat all day and still stay slim. He’s tall like Leonard too, Shatner thought.

Sagan looked up at the ceiling and smacked his lips.

Shatner decided he despised this man. Tall, thin, carefree pricks really got under his skin at times.

Sagan was wearing one of those ugly leisure suits so fashionable these days. The houndstooth jacket had wide lapels and epaulets, and both the jacket and matching trousers were made from a double-knit synthetic. Under the jacket was a turtleneck sweater.

Shatner glanced down at himself. He was wearing a blazer thinning at the elbows, a flannel shirt, blue jeans, and his old dusty boots. He was heading to a friend’s ranch afterward to do some riding. Whenever the pressure started to build he was always able to blow it off by saddling up a horse and just heading away from people.

“We’re working toward the same future, you and I,” Sagan said.

Shatner held his tongue, thinking the man sounded as loopy as fuck.

“We see a world in which science moves us toward unity and enlightenment, sating both physical hunger and man’s thirst for knowledge, a world of physical comfort and intellectual bliss. A world in which we realize the truth of this existence.”

Shatner raised his eyebrows and sipped his drink, thinking he made the right call. The cheap stuff had a better kick without the ice.

Sagan raised his hands, his fingers moving. “A world in which we realize that we are God, awaiting realization.”

Christ almighty, Shatner thought.

“You look dooobious,” Sagan said.

Shatner shrugged. “You’re . . . out of your tree, buddy. I’m just an actor.”

Sagan gave him another toothy smile.
“All we need is love and science,” Sagan said. “Hardcore love and science.”

Shatner watched as Sagan pulled a bent joint out of his jacket and lit up with a pink Bic lighter.

“The doorway to cosmic enlightenment,” Sagan whispered, holding the smoldering spliff between finger and thumb. He took a deep draw and held it, pursing his lips. He offered the joint to Shatner.

“No thanks,” Shatner said, swallowing the rest of his bourbon in one gulp. “I like a clear head.”

“Head,” Sagan grunted. He pursed his lips again and started to laugh, releasing yellowish smoke in short chuffs.

Shatner waved away the smoke and made a face. He wasn’t a prude, hell, he’d taken a hit of LSD once, and aside from the enduring mystery of his morning-after discovery that his genitals had been painted green, he had enjoyed the ride. He just didn’t like the foul stench of pot.

Sagan frowned and took another deep hit, speaking in soft gasps. “Anti-intellectual asshole.”

“New-age freak,” Shatner replied. He got up to get another drink. He would never know if it was intentional, or just bad timing, but Sagan stretched those long legs, tripping him up. He stumbled and knocked over his chair.

Sagan laughed tiny clouds through pursed lips. “fff-fff-fff-fff.”

Shatner turned to face Sagan. “What . . . the hell is wrong with you?”

Sagan flicked the remains of the joint and it moved between them like a tiny meteor, an orange streak. The roach ricocheted off of Shatner’s forehead in an explosion of sparks and ash.

Shatner roared something unintelligible and reached for Sagan, who scooted backwards, pushing his chair across the floor.

When Sagan’s chair hit the far wall he jumped up and looked back at it in surprise.

Shatner said, “You’re completely baked!”

With an unexpected quickness Sagan grabbed the plastic chair and tossed it at Shatner’s head. Shatner somehow caught the chair, and as he raised it overhead to throw it back, Sagan ran directly at him, bending at the waist.
Sagan let out a laugh, ramming head first into Shatner’s round Canadian gut.

Shatner mouth a silent oh, doubled over, and then vomited cheap bourbon as Sagan stepped back, smoothing his comb-over into place. Shatner caught his breath and leaped at Sagan in a flying leg kick, his old boots connecting with the astronomer’s forehead.

Boot heels clocked against skull and Sagan was slammed against the wall, where he slumped onto his ass just as Shatner completed a shoulder roll and bounced to his feet.

“What’s your name,” Shatner asked. “Who’s your daddy?”

“I see stars,” Sagan said. “Billllions and billllions of them.”

“I don’t like head butts,” Shatner said, setting his chair on its feet and sitting down. “They give me a bellyache . . . and I’ve got a beauty right now.”

Shatner rested a moment, and then he got up and went to Sagan, trapping the man in a headlock. Sagan got to his knees, his long arms swinging. A fist cracked against Shatner’s chin, then connected with his left eye, and his balls.
Christ, this is like fighting an orangutan, Shatner thought woozily, as he began slamming Sagan’s head into the wall.
A moment later Shatner reeled and collapsed.

The door to the waiting room opened and two young men stared in disbelief.
One of them said, “Oh my.” On one side of his nose was a pimple so massive it caused the plastic frames of his glasses to lean off center.

The other smacked wet lips that were as red as slabs of beef liver. He was as white as paste and he looked as if he were about to cry.

Shatner was lying on his back. One eye was swollen, and blood was running out of his nose. He had damp spatters of puke on his flannel shirt and his left knee.

Sagan was slumped against the wall on his knees, his head hidden inside a hole knocked into the drywall. He looked as if he had been decapitated.

“This can never be made known,” Canted Glasses said. “This atrocity must remain secret for all time. Nothing can stain the sacred nature of the Con.”

“The Con must go on,” Wet Lips said.

The room was cleaned, chaos restored to order. The men were revived and generously compensated and sent home. New convention programs and posters were printed, minus Shatner and Sagan. Anyone who had seen the dishonorable guests there that day was sworn to secrecy.

Shatner and Sagan had never been there. Their names were stricken from the history of Comic-Con. The reputation of that sacred venue remains untarnished to this day.

The Con must go on.

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The Frugal Writer II: Keep Everything

Last year I wrote about keeping your writing leftovers, because unfinished storylines, openings and any other bits and pieces of the creation process can usually be repurposed, sometimes to great effect.

I would apply the ‘keep everything’ rule to sketches, drawings and doodles as well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found some old drawing that helped me get back into a story I had left unfinished, or expand upon something already written. The attached sketch is a perfect example of this.

A few years back I’d gotten halfway through a sci-fi horror tale set on a floating science platform, when life interrupted, as it so often does.

When I recently read through what I had written so far, I enjoyed it, but I was having a hard time recalling what the floating science platform looked like in my mind at the time I wrote about it. It sounded ridiculous, because I had not described it in any detail yet.

I was fortunate enough to stumble across this old sketch. I had tucked it away, just in case I needed it… And I do.

Before you chortle over my drawing let me say, “Damn it, Jim, I’m a writer, not an artist!” The illustration may be crude and the airship may be preposterously impossible, but it worked for me as a roadmap to the past and helped me do my job, and my job is making people believe in the preposterous and the impossible, if only for a little while.

So remember to never throw anything away,* because the time will come when you will thank your past self for keeping those essential bits and pieces of your imagination.

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*Unless it is that fanfic piece you wrote about Supergirl giving The Flash superhandjobs in nanoseconds and then watching him try to explain his o-faces to friends and coworkers. No, you don’t need to save those. Then again, with the exploitation of niche markets I’m seeing these days, I wouldn’t rule out an open call for submissions to an anthology of fanfic handjob stories.

Pete Mesling’s Bare Knuckle Podcast

I just listed to the latest entry in Pete Mesling’s Bare Knuckle Podcast, and I loved it. It was my good fortune that he decided to read The Wolf Who Never Was. Listening to his reading was like hearing the story for the first time, even though I wrote it. Pete nailed it, giving a pitch perfect performance by emphasizing the right words and pausing for effect in all the right places. This is no small task when you consider we have never met, or discussed his take on the story, yet his reading of Wolf sounds exactly as the story sounded in my head when I wrote it. Click on the link (in red text, above) to listen to Pete’s readings of Wolf, and his own tale, The Private Ambitions of Arthur Hemming, and once you are on his site bookmark it – it’s a treasure-trove of terrific story readings for anyone who enjoys a well-produced audiobook as much as I do. Both stories appear in Spawn of the Ripper, from April Moon Books, a wonderfully entertaining collection of horror tales selected by Neil Baker and inspired by the Hammer Horror movies I grew up watching. Click on the photo below for the Amazon link to purchase Spawn.

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On Voting, and the Triumph of Ignorance.

[I haven’t blogged in a while because I’ve been too damned busy, but a recent Facebook exchange in which a friend boasted about never voting really set me off, and I need to vent.]

I wasn’t born an American; I became an American by choice. I grew up believing that there were no better ideals than those upon which this nation was founded. Hell, even when I was a little kid eating up the Superman mythos I marveled at the idea of truth, justice, and the American way, no matter how much cynics may sneer over the constant perversion and erosion of those values, myself included (and no matter how much the writer in me may dwell upon the true motivations of those who steer the ship called the United States of America). Cherishing truth and justice and pursuing happiness were good notions then and they are good ones now.

The greatest attributes America and her citizens possess are traits shared by too few other peoples in other places; court systems that strive for equality in dispensing justice, an almost religious fervor in preserving freedom of speech for all, and the right to make your voice heard through the power of your vote.

Many Americans also share attributes that the citizens of some other countries often lack, such as a love of the flag that borders on the fanatical, a relentless retelling of our own joyful, grim, daunting or liberating stories through every media imaginable, and a seemingly bombastic pride in this nation’s achievements (I am well aware of our abuse and slaughter of Native Americans and our enslavement of Africans, and I hope I don’t have to school you on the fact that every single nation that has ever prospered has done so through the pouring sweat and spilled blood of other peoples at some point in their history—we are all culpable in the mistreatment of others).

These traits are good and bad by degrees, but in short, I’d rather hang out (online or in person) with people who love their country, including friends in Canada, Scotland and Sweden, than those who hate their country.

Another trait that far too many Americans share is a blasé attitude toward elections and an apathy that results in inexcusably low voter turnouts.

If you care about your country, or if you care at all about your own destiny, and that of your family, friends and neighbors, you need to use your right to vote every chance you get. When you vote you exercise a rare form of free speech that many among us still have to fight to enjoy, and for a rare moment the power lies with the people, and not their elected officials.

To throw away that opportunity is madness.

That’s why I think everyone needs to speak up when they hear a friend or a relative or a coworker saying they do not plan to vote (the former can be expressed with confusion, rage and profanity, and the latter should only be discussed in the most diplomatic way).

Equally important is the need to stay informed. By the time of the 1932 Presidential election in Germany, Hitler (yes, I went there) had only sold a few hundred thousand copies of Mein Kampf, which could have been subtitled My Ill-Composed Path to Insanity because that poorly written screed laid bare a lot of Hitler’s fucked up aspirations. He didn’t win, but he received over a third of the votes in that election, millions and millions of votes, from an uninformed multitude of Germans, and a lot of German Jews. And with that election, Hitler got his foot in the door.

One of the great tragedies of World War Two is that the average German back then was just like the average American now. They loved their children, they worked hard, and they wanted to see their country prosper after the losses of the First World War. They wanted to ‘Make Germany Great Again,’ but who hasn’t wanted that for their country when things have turned to shit?

The last thing the German people wanted was an unhinged dictator with an insane agenda.

The problem was that they didn’t know how crazy Hitler was, at least not before 1933, when he became Chancellor and began changing the rules of the game. It wasn’t until Hitler really came into power that sales of Mein Kampf skyrocketed, mostly because Adolf made it required reading in his fledgling German Empire.

When campaigning, Hitler was nearly hypnotic in the rousing delivery of his patriotic appeals, and he had a freakish knack for pushing people’s buttons in his early speeches. In his later speeches most of the people listening to him were thinking what the fuck have we done, but it was too late for that. Their own ignorance had sealed their fates. If the populace had been well-informed back then, if they had all read Mein Kampf before 1932, history may have taken a different turn.

With the rise of Donald Trump we are seeing the triumph of ignorance in America, the crest of a tidal wave of stupid that has been building for decades through the inexorable spread of religious intolerance, xenophobia, and the shameful lack of adequate funding for some of our most valued citizens, our schoolteachers.

I am not comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler; I don’t for a moment believe that Trump would ever advocate genocide or dream of building an empire beyond our borders. Yet I do believe that his apparently limitless ignorance, his self-centered bluster (which is not a purely American trait, if Kim Jong Un is anything to go by), his seething hatred and his unmanning fear of the unknown are as dangerous as a cache of nuclear weapons in the hands of a Putin or a Kim or any other of the 50 dictators in power today.

The damage a President Trump could do to this country is varied. No, he couldn’t initiate a nuclear war with American arms—Congress and the Joint Chiefs of Staff would never let him do that—but since he is an overindulged, petulant ten year old boy trapped in a man’s body I bet he could incite others to seriously consider launching those weapons at us. At the very least, electing a fog-horning, sexually insecure, misogynistic, boorish ignoramus to the office of President of the United States would be an embarrassment we would never live down. America will have pantsed itself in the eyes of the world.

The only way we can avoid having that happen is if every sensible American citizen takes a look at the issues—a task that has never been easier with non-partisan sites like http://www.factcheck.org/ offering balanced information—and then wields their right to vote.

The seawall built to hold back the aforementioned tidal wave of stupid is tragically weakened by the absence of every self-righteous liberal who won’t vote because they are convinced the system is rigged and a single vote doesn’t matter. They should know better.

It’s true that I should not be able to force someone to vote, but silence is no longer an option, not in this day and age. Stubbornly refusing to vote is as wrong as refusing to learn to read or write, or refusing to learn anything new, including learning as complete a story as we can about the people running for office, both those we favor and those we oppose. Abstinence from action is simply unacceptable in this day and age, if we are going to survive and thrive.

Refusing to learn about candidates and refusing to vote is sheer self-destructive ignorance. It is not a statement, it is a passive act of surrender; when you give up your vote and silence your individual voice, the opportunistic, the conniving and the black-hearted win. And we can’t let that happen.

I don’t care what your situation is; if you are physically able to do so, get your ass out the door and vote on Election Day. If you can’t do that, register to vote by mail, now. It’s no longer a choice; it’s an obligation to the past and the future, a duty every one of us shares.

Writers Never Change

I recently stumbled across a collection of complaints from medieval scribes, and since writing is my thing, I found these centuries-old comments amusing and moving. As you can see by my modern equivalents, nothing has changed in the last 500 years.

#1 New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing more is the same as, ‘God damn you Microsoft, your latest Windows update completely fucked up Word!’

#2 I am very cold was me before I moved from Canada to California.

#3 That’s a hard page and a weary work to read it is almost a word for word quote of comments recently left by editors tidying up one of my stories.

#4 Let the reader’s voice honor the writer’s pen is what every writer hopes for.

#5 This page has not been written very slowly is when you write a perfect page of prose that slides out of you like a turd from a healthy anus* instead of laboring over the same paragraph for hours and hours.

#6 The parchment is hairy is when your own relentless typos really start to wear you down.

#7 The ink is thin is the same as ‘my laptop/tablet battery is dying.’

#8 Thank God, it will soon be dark is when you have to throw in the towel and step away, cause you ain’t gonna get ‘er done tonight.

#9 Oh, my hand is me, because I never learned how to type properly.

#10 Now I’ve written the whole thing: For Christ’s sake give me a drink is what every writer thinks when getting a story in just under the deadline.

#11 Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides is truth, especially that last part, a clear reference to bad reviews from armchair critics.

#12 St. Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from writing is when you wonder why you put yourself through this shit and cannot find fulfillment in simply sitting on the couch and watching football while eating Doritos.

#13 While I wrote I froze, and what I could not write by the beams of the sun I finished by candlelight is when you are gonna finish this goddamned thing, and you are gonna finish it TODAY!

#14 As the harbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe is completing a story and having it turn out as you expected instead of collapsing like a house of cards and making you throw shit across the room.

#15 This is sad! Oh little book! A day will come in truth when someone over your page will say, “The hand that wrote it is no more” is every writer’s epitaph.

 * Richard Adams, The Plague Dogs

 

Welcome to Medieval Times!

On Spoilers, and the Self-Flagellatory Joy of ‘The Wait’

There’s a video going around online that features 5 minutes of footage from The Force Awakens, a video made up of scenes from trailers, all of it stitched together in chronological order. This is just another form of spoiler, and with Star Wars, spoiler-fever always hits a peak.

When it comes to spoilers, I always say NO THANK YOU.

I work hard to avoid spoilers. I have no problem with teasers and trailers showing random scenes, but other than that I want to wait until the movie comes out to see where the movie takes me. I want to be delighted, and surprised, and feel sad, and get excited, and shout holy shit! when something awesome happens. I want to do all of that instead of shrugging and saying, “Yeah, I knew that was coming,” like some blasé dipstick. I want to enjoy the wait.

If you let the story unfold as the creators intended to present it, I promise you that you won’t be disappointed. What will disappoint you is bypassing the agonizing pleasure of the wait to feed the beast called instant gratification. That will lead to you becoming jaded, and impossible to please.

When the first Star Wars film came out there was no internet; all we had back then was the rare TV show that might make passing mention of something George Lucas said, or sci-fi-geek magazines like Starlog, and the information on what was to come was thin and scattershot at best. Only a relative few of us cared enough to want to know more, because at that point sci-fi fandom’s big bang had not yet occurred (and I’d argue that the first Star Wars trilogy was the prime mover in that social movement, but back then admitting that you really dug things like Star Wars and Star Trek would get you the same looks as if you admitted you liked jacking off to Casper the Friendly Ghost comics).

After A New Hope blew the minds of kids all around the world, the few details we learned about what might lie ahead—in that limbo between episodes IV and V—proved to be way off the mark, as were curiosities like Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.*

Kids like me went nuts speculating on what future Star Wars films might bring us, and in my case it fueled my imagination even further, because I was already making shit up, and making shit up is one of the most fantastic, amusing, liberating, and empowering things you can do at any age.

I think my best buddy Pete Donaldson was equally fired up; while I wrote absolutely atrocious sci-fi tales that must never see the light of day (and I’m sure a few of you are saying, “What makes you think anything has changed, Swain?”),  Pete built an impressive spaceship from scrap model airplane parts and other bits and pieces he tossed together. We were exercising our imaginations, and that made the torment of the wait vastly entertaining.

The situation was even worse between episodes V and VI, when viewers were left hanging after The Empire Strikes Back concluded with what is arguably the best cliffhanger in the history of American cinema. The wait for the release of Return of the Jedi was excruciating, and now that I look back on it, delightful. I was in my 20s by that time, but my imagination ran rampant whenever I thought of how much the Star Wars universe had been expanded with just two movies, and how much more it could grow, and when I finally stood in line to see the last episode in that trilogy, I felt like a little kid again.

Never underestimate the power of waiting for a thing to be. Waiting is important, it gives the thing you are waiting for weight, and in some cases the wait can be the best part of the experience because your imagination is firing on all cylinders.

Kids, don’t do spoilers. Daydream. Sketch. Build. Create. Write some embarrassing fanfic, or a really good story. Alan Dean Foster’s aforementioned Splinter of the Mind’s Eye proved to be way off the mark, it was still a great tale.

IMAGINE. Work the muscle that is your mind, and when the wait is over and you finally watch the opening crawl for Star Wars Episode VII, you will have primed your mind for a peak experience.

Trust me on this. I wouldn’t lie to you. Not where Star Wars is concerned.

spoilers VS wait

* Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, on Amazon.

Turkey Shoot

Is there any better way to get in the mood for Thanksgiving than enjoying a FREE seasonal tale? And this one comes with a happy ending—depending on your point of view, of course. Enjoy!

Turkey Shoot

“Come on, Manse,” Earlington said. “You gotta pick up the pace if we’re gonna get in and out before nightfall.”

They were on a high, forested hump of rock. Earlington didn’t know if it was a big hill or a small mountain, and he really didn’t give a shit. Below him to the east was Highway 101, and Lake Mendocino.

They’d been chasing a wild turkey for almost an hour now.

Earlington was pissed, and he’d given up trying to hide it.

He’d gotten a call from Manse a few days ago. They both worked on the loading dock at the Wal-Mart in Ukiah. They’d had a few beers now and then, but they weren’t buddies.

He found out later Manse had been calling around, looking for a hunting partner.

“There’s wild turkeys up there,” Manse had said.

“Yeah,” Earlington had replied, “If you got a permit. You got a permit, Manse?”

“No. But I know a guy who bagged a few, last weekend up in the hills. Up in the woods. West of the lake, on the other side of 101.”

“You can’t fucking just—”

“This guy told me where to go,” Manse had said.

Earlington had stifled a laugh. Manse had been whispering.

“I got the exact directions and everything. We roll in, bag two birds, and roll out.”

“So what d’ya need me for, Manse?”

“Well . . . my truck’s in the shop.”

And here they were. They had both called in sick that morning, the day before Thanksgiving. Earlington’s old Cherokee had taken them up into the hills, northwest of Ukiah, following a map Manse had drawn on the back of his Pacific Gas & Electric bill.

Earlington knew he blew it by ignoring common sense the moment they got out of the truck, parked on an incline at the end of a path in the woods. Manse had unzipped his rifle case and pulled out a nice Remington twelve gauge pump. Earlington had started loading his own Beretta and asked Manse about his choke.

Manse had shrugged and said, “What’s a choke?”

Earlington should have shut things down right there . . . but damn, it would be something to bag a wild turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.

“You don’t know what a fuckin choke is?” Earlington had held the end of his shotgun under Manse’s nose. “A choke tube is what stops you from shredding a bird. It concentrates the shot pattern, so you can take off a turkey’s head. Otherwise you’ll be picking shot out of the fuckin thing ‘til doomsday.”

Manse had gotten bent out of shape.

Like Earlington gave a shit.

They had set out uphill through the woods. They spent hours scrambling over fallen trees and climbing up and down the rocky terrain, and then they came across two wild turkeys.

Earlington didn’t know squat about turkeys, but he figured this was a mated pair, because one was bigger and colorful and the other one was smaller, with comparatively dull plumage. A hen and a . . . what the hell was the male called? A tom?

He’d hunkered down and whispered to Manse.

“Let’s take a moment to get settled here. If we’re lucky we can take out both birds at the same—”

Manse’s Remington fired less than a foot from Earlington’s right ear.

The female turkey exploded.

Manse had cheered, racking another shell into the chamber, the sound of the gun blast and his bull roar driving the tom into fitful leaps and bounds as it ran for cover.

Earlington had waited for the ringing in his ear to subside, hoping he hadn’t suffered any permanent damage. He’d watched Manse run forward and proudly hold up a shredded red and black mess by one twisted foot.

“I got one,” Manse had said, sporting a goofy grin.

Earlington had approached him, fighting down the urge to smack the man in the mouth with the butt of his gun.

“You fuckin moron,” he’d said. “You coulda deafened me. You never shoot that close to someone. The fuck is wrong with you?”

Manse had dropped the ruined bird. He looked around and said, “Jeez, I guess the other one booked.”

“No shit,” Earlington had replied, picking up the expended shell from Manse’s gun. “You crazy fuck. Double-ought nickel-plated? We’re hunting turkeys, not fuckin elephants.”

“Screw you,” Manse had said defensively. “I wanted to be sure I got it.”

Earlington had nudged the mess on the ground with the toe of his boot. “Oh, you got it, all right.”

They had set out after the fleeing tom. Manse had pissed and moaned, saying they had what they came for. Earlington had told him the shredded bird wasn’t worth shit, and he was pretty sure he could bag the tom with his copper-plated turkey loads, a mix of 4 and 6 shot.

Long, silent hours passed as the men did little more than grunt and curse and gesture at each other. They would get close to the tom, and the big turkey would burst out of the undergrowth, fluttering and leaping away in bounds that covered a lot more ground than Earlington would ever have expected.

He figured Manse must have clipped one of its wings, because he was certain wild turkeys could fly.

He was surprised by how quiet the wild turkey was. He’d seen domestic birds before, huge, awkward monstrosities lumbering around and gobbling mindlessly to each other. The big tom was different. It was quiet, knowing when to hide, and when to run.

When he finally blew the turkey’s head off, Earlington was gonna do it quick and clean. The bird deserved that much respect. More respect than Manse, anyway.

“Come on for fuck sake.”

As he approached Earlington, Manse was puffing like he had a two-pack-a-day habit, his face slick with sweat. His chest was heaving, and he was making a lot of noise.

“Ever hear of stealth, Manse?”

“Hey, fuck you, alright?”

Earlington looked up. The trees were still thick and close here, but they thinned out near the gray ridge of rock at the top of the hill they were on. There was enough green brush that the turkey was well-hidden. They were on a steep grade. Earlington didn’t like the thought of the long walk back to his truck empty-handed. It was quiet up here. He could smell pine needles, and the earthy mulch of the forest floor, and wood smoke from a distant fireplace.

He looked back and down. Manse was still a few yards below him.

Earlington heard a rustling in the brush just ahead of him.

Manse stepped on a twig and cursed when it snapped.

The turkey appeared a few feet away, running to the top of the bare ridge of rock. Earlington was amazed at how fast the bugger could run. It hesitated, looking over its shoulder at the men and turning back to whatever was down the other side of the hill.

“Gotcha,” Earlington said. He looked back, and whatever he was going to say to Manse evaporated in a fit of unease.

Manse was pointing his shotgun up the hill, at the turkey. Earlington was between Manse and the turkey. Manse didn’t know how to use the choke on his gun, and he was standing on an incline. His footing was unsteady, the barrel of his gun making little dips and swirls as he tried to draw a bead on the big bird.

“Manse.” Earlington’s voice was a dry croak. “Don’t—”

Earlington knew Manse was going to go for the shot. He turned and threw himself flat as the gun boomed behind him. If he had to get hit, he’d rather take the 00 shot in the ass or thighs than the face or throat.

Most of the buckshot hit the rocky ground beside Earlington, but something hot and fast passed through his right bicep. Earlington heard the clatter of buckshot on stone and felt chips of stone and metal fragments strike his face.

“Fucker,” Manse said, loudly sucking air as he lumbered past Earlington. “I’m gonna get that fuck!”

Earlington tried to open his eyes. Only the left one worked. The right one was numb, and his right cheek was wet.

It’s just grit in your eye, he told himself. Just a few scratches. You’re fine.

He couldn’t bring himself to reach up and touch his dead eye. He was afraid of what he might find.

Earlington raised his head and saw Manse closing in on the tom, and then the big bird jigged to one side and Manse disappeared. He could hear the sound of stone striking stone, and then Manse was calling for help. The man’s voice was high-pitched and filled with terror.

Brushing blood away from his good eye, Earlington staggered to the top of the ridge.

At some time in the past the other side of the hill had collapsed and fallen away. Earlington was standing near the edge of a cliff. There was a wide field of debris far below. Earlington didn’t want to get too close to the edge. The rock on the rim was fractured and looked fragile. He peered over the edge.

Manse was a few feet below the cliff edge. The man was spread-eagle, hugging the rock face, hanging onto nothing. His hands and feet were moving slowly, looking for any kind of hold.

Manse looked up. His voice was faint, merely a breath. “My jacket. I think I’m hung up. Help me, man. Help me.”

Earlington thought about it. He watched Manse grab at a shelf of rock, and watched the rock crumble and fall away. Some hidden part of Manse’s jacket began tearing away. Manse started to cry.

“Son of a bitch,” Earlington said. He got down, his belly flat against the exposed rock. He started inching forward, reaching over and down.

He still had a foot or so to go when Manse jerked and silently tumbled out of sight.

Manse left patches of red all the way down the cliff face, and burst open when he hit bottom.

Earlington panicked. Instead of inching backwards to safety he put his palms against the rock to push away. Fractured stone dropped out from under him.

His left hand found a jutting shard of stone shaped like a rhino horn. He grabbed it and cried out as chunks of gray rock slid past him and out from under him and thundered down the side of the cliff, raising dust and covering Manse.

Earlington tried to raise his right arm. His bicep burned. He couldn’t do it. He tried to pull himself up. The horn of rock moved. Rills of dust fell from the base of the rock.

“Oh Jesus,” Earlington said.

He couldn’t hang on forever. Sooner or later his strength would run out or the weakening horn of rock would break away.

He felt the vibration in his fingers again, and decided he had to try to pull himself up. One shot. Take it, now.

Earlington started to pull. The rock shivered and shifted, but he was sure it was going to hold his weight. He was gonna make it.

He heard the flutter of wings, the rustle of feathers. He heard an inquisitive gobble.

The turkey was standing on the cliff edge. It looked at him curiously, its little head bobbing up and down. It stepped onto the horn of rock.

Earlington had time to think, twenty-five pounds, it’s gotta weigh at least twenty-five pounds, and then the rock broke away.

The man fell.

The bird flew, its flight becoming an awkward glide back to the safety of the deep woods.

(Turkey Shoot is one of two dozen Dark Tales from the Golden State, now available in Califhorrornia. Click on the cover photo to buy it now!)

2012 04 06 Califhorrornia cover