Category Archives: story

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.

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.

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.


We CAN blame the writer on this one…

I’ll usually be the first person to defend a writer when a story that sounds good on paper turns to shit on the screen. Not this time, not after watching the series finale to CSI…

When CSI first came out I watched it because it was visually different, the hyperactive editing, supersaturated palate and often extremely graphic nature of the visuals making for irresistible eye-candy, but I eventually tired of it because it was too much procedural and not enough character driven TV, and as a writer I like character driven stories. I held out with the show until William Petersen left, and I stopped watching after that, and in truth, the show never again reached the heights of the season 5 episode directed by Quentin Tarantino, the one with Nick Stokes buried alive. That was some damn good TV.

Anyhow, I watched the two-part series finale last night, and it was abysmal. I don’t know how they got Petersen to come back for such utter tripe. I can only assume he felt he owned it to the show that made him comfortably rich, because I sure as hell couldn’t see any other reason for him to be there. If you were thinking of watching this last two-part tale, skip it. It was almost depressing, with a lackluster plot (centered around Lady Heather, the most boring character the show has ever had—please, Hollywood, enough with shows featuring smart guys bewitched by vapid dominatrixes) and even worse, a Villain from Nowhere.

Use of the Villain from Nowhere is a cardinal sin because [1] it is lazy writing, and [2] it always sucks balls, but it is especially egregious here. The production team had 15 YEARS of Crime Scene Investigation to draw inspiration from, and this was the best they could do? To hell with that! You need to pay homage to what has gone before, and if you can’t find a suitable baddie from past years, why not have one of the established cast members snap and turn into a psycho killer? Shit, the show was over anyway, so trash the fucking stage on your way out! God knows some of the characters had been through hell and back, and could be believably unhinged.

Imagine Jim Brass going off the deep end and quietly mumbling one-liners like, “Let me give you a .45 caliber reminder of what is happening here,” while blowing people away, and then using his knowledge of crime scenes to evade detection? That would have kicked nine kinds of ass.

But no, instead of going out with a bang, this once groundbreaking show went out with a whimper.

[It was almost as offensive as the very last episode of Enterprise. Almost. But no finale will ever be as shockingly, inappropriately awful as These are the Voyages, and that wound will never heal. Yes, I’m looking at you, Brannon goddamned Braga.]

I guess the smartest cast members may have been George Eads and Elizabeth Shue, both of whom turned down the chance to take one last spin across the blood-spattered floor, probably after reading that pathetic excuse for a script.

The CSI finale was an absolute failure, and this time there is no one to blame but the writer.

PIC – George Eads and Elizabeth Shue are unable to even FAKE enthusiasm while hearing show creator and abomination birther Anthony E. Zuiker’s pitch for the CSI finale.
George Eads and Elizabeth Shue are unable to even FAKE any enthusiasm while enduring show creator and abomination birther Anthony E. Zuiker’s pitch for the unforgivable CSI series finale.

You’re Weird!

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably been there once or twice. If you’re a writer of horror fiction you’re familiar with the neighborhood. If you’re a writer like me* you’ve got a passport to the Land of Weird and you don’t have any trouble crossing the border. It’s where you grew up and where you are most comfortable.

Other (mainstream, regular, normal) people don’t get that.

You write something strange… odd… or downright disgusting. Sometimes you do it for the plot, sometimes you do it to get an image or setup out of your head, and sometimes, as Stephen King once said, you go for the gross out.

There will always be a place for movies that accentuate the disgusting; look at the SAW franchise. There are big bucks there. Normal people can get their little fix of “Eww that’s gross!” and then carry on.

If you come up with strange twists of fate or gruesome scenarios for a living (or hope to make a living doing it) you are weird. If you describe death or suffering in delicious detail, if you write about a violent assault or a rape or brutal emotional torture, sooner or later you will get the look, the uncomfortable, questioning look others (normal people) will give you when they wonder about you; how can you think about upsetting stuff like that? And how can you think about it in so much detail? You are weird.

I don’t know how it works with other writers, but I’m fine with blaming any atrocities on my characters. It wasn’t me, I didn’t do that, I just wrote it down. They said that. They did that. I just watched.

To hell with how many words you can type in a minute. Watching and listening are the essentials. Most writers are really just voyeurs. We watch real people talk and walk and argue and fight and kiss and make up and we store that away in our heads. Appearances, accents, attitudes, it’s all story fodder, resources for our characters to use when you are ready to put the machine in gear and drive.

Writers like me watch and listen to things unfolding in the real world, and then they watch and listen as the story unfolds inside their heads. And when bad things happen in my stories, it isn’t my fault. Blame my characters. It’s true with me, and it’s true with many other writers. And it makes you sound completely fucking insane.

Which of course would make it all the better to be able to make a living writing this kind of thing. You know. Being paid to be insane.

When I write I do plot my stories to varying degrees, specifically the opening, the ending, any major moments and key scenes, and of course any gross stuff that I’ve been dying to get on paper. It is all very fluid, very flexible, with lots of room for change and revision. It has to be.

Usually my characters will begin talking and interacting at point A, make it to point B without any problems, and then suddenly veer off to point G or T or Z. What the hell happened to points C, D and E? Don’t ask me, I just wrote down what happened as I watched the characters walk and talk and fuck each other over.

There is no other way to describe this writing process. Maybe it is channeling. Maybe it is schizophrenia. Maybe it’s just an imagination gone completely off the rails. Whatever it is, that’s the way it works, and it works for me. I enjoy it.

I like nothing better than creating a couple of solid characters and then dropping them in the shit. Sometimes characters the readers are supposed to hate will die. Sometimes characters I like will die. And sometimes, supporting characters will step up and take center stage. The most obvious example of this (hopefully not to the reader) is in my forthcoming release of Made in the USA by Dark Red Press. When writing that novel I had an A character, a B character, about a dozen C characters, and many smaller supporting characters all interacting with each other. Yet something very odd happened when writing that novel. My B character began speaking to me more and assumed a more prominent place in the tale. My B character became the A character and will remain the A character in the sequel to MITU.

I had nothing to do with it. I created them. I let them motorvate when things were cooking, and turned on the GPS when it was time to get back on track. In the end the A and B characters came to a completely different place than I had originally envisioned, and I tossed my original plotted ending in the trash.

It was a bit scary, and really exciting.

It wasn’t me, it was them.

Then again, I’m weird.

* I like to mix the mundane with the bizarre, it’s like making cookies. Start with your basic cookie dough and then toss things in that might to create new or interesting flavors. Most of the time you get shit. Sometimes you get an absolute delight.

(This first appeared on JXM’s Dark Red Press blog in May of 2011)