Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Toys of Yesteryear

(I’m DNBD after busting my ass on a story that was submitted on the day of the deadline, so here’s something lighthearted – I wrote this many years ago, but you may enjoy it.)

I’ve been thinking about toys lately, the old toys my friends and I used to play with before puberty hit and started screwing with our heads, toys from a more innocent time. A lot of those toys are now considered vintage and sell on collector web pages and sites like eBay for astounding prices.

In defiance of today’s politically-correct, safety-first, health-conscious, education-oriented entertainment systems, I’d like to list just a few of the risky and dangerous toys I played with as a kid, some of them mine, some of them hand-me-downs from my older brothers.

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THE AUTO-DESTROYER – This very heavy machine gun was powered by D cells and fired 20 soft plastic pellets a second. If you put the pellets in the freezer beforehand, they became so hard they could be embedded in targets like plastic, soft woods, and faces. Magnificent. The damn things were pulled off the shelves in 1971 after they were used in a Leavenworth prison break.

BARBY’S KITCHEN OF THE FUTURE – The only item on the list just for girls, this Barbie rip-off from Hong Kong was a hit in the summer of ’61, until parents got hip to the fact that the little Atomic Oven had a timer, but no thermostat, and the timers only shut off the heating element in the oven 50% of the time. A lot of little girls’ bedrooms went up in smoke before they stopped this toy at the border. The mortal flaw of this toy led Hasbro to experiment with light bulbs in place of heating elements, and a few years later the Easy-Bake Oven was born.

CAPTAIN YARRG – A lumpy alien action figure (boys do not play with dolls), Captain Yarrg had a hollow interior and some plastic reeds in his throat. If you squeezed him, the air rushed past the reeds and he yelled, “YARRG!” Once the pressure was released his plastic body would resume its normal shape, ‘inhaling’ more air. Even better, if you squeezed Captain Yarrg empty and then let him inflate over, say, a bowl of Campbell’s Mushroom Soup, he would suck up the soup, and you then had a much better toy because it could projectile vomit at least three feet.

THE DOO-SLING – Let’s not beat around the bush here. The Doo-Sling was a small slingshot that fired a piece of dog or cat crap about fifty feet. The special stick-free surface of the payload pocket ensured that moist projectiles were launched with ease. Historic note; this was the first mass-market toy to use Teflon.

THE FLY TRAP – The Fly Trap was a giant plastic bag that zippered shut. It was pretty much air tight, but it had ventilation holes in the top. It didn’t do much besides seal you inside like a giant sandwich bag, but if you took it to the beach you could walk on the water briefly before it filled up. After a couple of dumb kids drowned they took it off the market.

GUMBALL OF THE GODS – Most chewing gums have a bit of rubber in them, but in 1968 China’s Crazy Monkey Gum Company took the concept too far. They created gumballs with a base of chicle modified in the laboratory. When the gum base was broken free of its shell and exposed to the air, as happened when a kid chewed on it and blew a bubble, the modified chicle expanded at an incredible rate, creating massive bubbles. It was unfortunate that a few wimpy kids suffocated when they had the air sucked out of their lungs by this self-inflating bubble gum, because this stuff kicked ass.

HEAVEN IS FUN! – This board game from Parker Brothers was on the verge of becoming a big seller until kids who played it found it too addictive. It made Heaven seem so nice, compared to the real world of being picked on at school and yelled at by your parents, that almost a dozen kids killed themselves to get a taste of the real thing. In the same month (April of 1962) Parker Brothers denied any liability and stopped producing the game.

THE STINK CANNON – So big it could only be fired using the shoulder-mount (included free), this toy fired a ball of air, but when you loaded little ampules of a volatile organic cocktail into the cannon it shot an atrocious, violently foul odor thirty feet away from the shooter. Kids across America enjoyed playing with the Stink Cannon in the early sixties, until complaints from parents (reporting instances of widespread vomiting fits) forced the FDA to step in and ban the toy. Descriptions of the smell gave the impression of huge vats containing turbid pools of rotting meat and feces, shimmering under a hot sun.

THE IMPOSSIBLE BOX – This toy box was imported from China, where it was actually used as an inexpensive safe for valuables. It looked like a plain varnished wood box, three feet on each side, with an open hand symbol on one side. A hinged lid opened into (and not out from) the box, and toys could be safely hidden inside. To open the other end and retrieve toys one had to memorize a complex combination of pressure points to be pushed. Most kids forgot the combination and ended up breaking the box open to get their stuff back. In 1966 some kid down in Florida crawled into one of these things and died. His parents only found him after he started to smell.

THE MUD BAZOOKA – This baby could have been used on the front lines in Vietnam. A variation on the Stink Cannon, this air-powered bazooka fired balls of mud. This fantastic toy was recalled after a kid in Indiana or Illinois got a mud ball in the kisser at close range and had all the flesh flayed from the front of his skull. I think they rebuilt his face with skin from his butt or something like that.

QUART ‘O WARTS – A short-lived Halloween item, this plastic jug (shaped like a milk bottle) contained little rubber warts. All you had to do was peel off the paper backing to expose the adhesive, and stick them on your face or body. They were hilarious. Unfortunately they were also a source of permanent disfigurement. It was discovered that compounds in the adhesive reacted with natural oils on children’s skin, the end result being that holes were burned into the epidermis so quickly and painlessly that it looked like the rubber warts were burrowing into them.

THE VENUSIAN SPACE BLANKET – In 1959 this foil blanket was included in the Junior Space Protection League Survival Kit, along with a bunch of plastic crap like sparking ray guns and a cheap compass and a tiny telescope. A forerunner of the metal foil survival blankets we have today, this little item reflected back 100% of any heat directed at it. On one bitterly cold winter day a kid up in Minnesota wrapped one around his torso and put a shirt over it before going off to school. By the time the lunch bell sounded the kid had slumped over his desk dead, most of his internal organs cooked by his own body heat.

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God, I miss those good old days.

Ride Your Crazy Like A Horse

When you get right down to it, most writers are probably crazy. Seriously. Wouldn’t we HAVE to be a bit crazy to spend a good part of our all-too-short life span actively involved in the lives of imaginary people who exist in made-up places? My fellow writers will no doubt deny this, but denial is always the first sign you have a problem, and in saying that, I have just burdened my crazy writer friends with a circular logic trap that will drive them crazier than ever.

For some odd reason it seems in vogue to say ‘oh I’m so crazy hahahaha’ when you really aren’t. It is just said to impress, the same way the most painfully insipid individuals will insist to all and sundry, ‘Oh, I’m zany and wacky!!!’

Crazy is the new cool.

Just as some smoking-hot chick who once caught a few minutes of a Star Trek rerun on TV  will put on a pair of glasses from the Marcello Mastroianni Collection and insist she is now a nerd, people will go to great lengths to insist they are crazy by displaying affected mannerisms or posting the occasional monosyllabic outburst online.*

These poseurs don’t seem to understand that one does not simply spritz on a little crazy like a perfume or cologne. Crazy runs deep, my friends. Deep and dark and occasionally… ridiculous.

And the richest vein of crazy running through a writer may not be madness at all, but a shocking clarity of insight. Maybe the characters we write about are actual people who exist somewhere in the multitude of parallel universes. Maybe we are just attuned to these characters, these faraway people. We don’t create them and bring them together and name their children and separate them and kill them off with that cold half smile that puts off our family and friends when we are off and away and wandering the Story Zone, no, we are simply reporters, describing real events occurring in a place only we can access.

Is that idea so crazy?

Most of my friends have heard me mention my dislike of water before. I can swim, barely, but I don’t swim because I once nearly drowned as a kid (in an event that may also have had a paranormal aspect, but that’s another story) . . . and now I know beyond a shadow of doubt that the water nearly got me.

To this day I most sincerely believe that water knows things and that all water shares what it knows; it evaporates, it moves elsewhere, it condenses, it rains down. And it passes on everything it learns.

It was only a matter of time before every drop of water on Earth could chortle with malicious anticipation whenever I’d go near it, saying, “It’s him, look, it’s him, GET HIM!” in soft splooks and splinks, if I did so much as dip a toe in a bathtub (which is why I take showers instead).

Now I avoid the water as much as I can, which takes effort, because I spend half my time between a large bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Water is out to get me, any way it can. And the ways of water are most wicked, my friend.

As I was standing on the BART train platform this morning and trying not to think about the fact that I ride through more than three miles of tunnel under San Francisco Bay twice daily (and simple physics suggests that seeing the results of a rupture in the Transbay Tube would be similar to watching ants being flushed down a toilet bowl), I popped the cap on a fresh bottle of spring water and took a small sip.

A small sip.

A raging jet of ice cold water shot up both nostrils and all over my shirt.

A couple of ladies who get on the same train car every morning gave me their usual pitying look that said there’s the village imbecile at it again as I ground my teeth and tried not to shout obscenities.

How do you explain what happened? How? A muscle spasm? A sudden increase in air pressure around the bottle? A poltergeist?

No . . .

It was the water, my friends. The water. The water that is the same everywhere, the water that still remembers having a terrified ten year old in its grasp, the water that burns with a furious, frustrated rage over the loss of the squirming morsel it nearly swallowed, the water that will do anything to finish that foul task begun so long ago.

As I stood on the train platform, the water tried to drown me.

Am I crazy, or am I revealing a great, undiscovered truth?

Am I crazy, or just imagining that ordinary water is actually a malignant intelligence?

In the end, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.

As long as I keep writing stories fueled by ‘crazy’ thoughts.

And keep away from the water.

*To my fellow nerds who actually SUFFERED for their nerd status in school I say we rise up and take that word back because we EARNED it with every drop of hair grease, oh-my-god-I-actually-have-to-engage-in-social-interaction flop sweat, and pimple pus.

 one does not spritz 3

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

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)

The Frugal Writer – Using Leftovers

(I thought it only fitting that for my first post I go with some writing advice, talking about using ‘leftovers’ in a blog post from a site no longer with us.)

For good or bad, I am a pack rat. Not a hoarder, I don’t keep everything (I couldn’t, I’ve lived in different countries, on different continents, and you can only carry around so much stuff), but I do keep anything that one day might have a use. I’ve tossed away once-favored things and retained the ones with which I have a deep connection, or things I think may on some distant day not only have a use but become ‘the perfect thing.’ Any guy with a garage full of treasures (which are known as ‘junk’ when translated into wife-speak) knows what I’m talking about. Some of us have our treasured mementos in boxes, crates, rooms. Some of us can fit them into a single bag. We all keep something, though. Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up with a dad who was a child of the Great Depression, but one thing I hate to throw away is food of any kind. The other thing I hate to throw away is writing. Both can be used to add spice or create something altogether new.

It could be a few scribbled lines, the only remnants of an idea never developed. It could be a detail about a character, their appearance, or an incident from their past. It could be a chapter, a short story, or most of a novel. These scraps and fragments accumulated as I wrote myself into a corner in a story or saw something hit market that was almost identical to my work or simply gave up in a fit of frustrated rage when I realized I bit off more than I could chew. Or I just lost interest and moved on to something else. It happens.

Stories are like friends in a way. There are a few we treasure; they’ll always be with us. Others move on and new ones take their place.

I never throw out those old ideas, though. They are leftovers, and a good cook can always create something appealing from them.

I have stories and notes and unfinished works going back many years. In working on Made in the USA, which should be available here in a few weeks, and plotting the prequel, the sequel and one spin-off novel (as much as I do plot; sometimes characters take the wheel and turn left when you wanted to turn right and all you can do is go along for the ride), I took another look at my discarded notes and unfinished stories from the ever-expanding universe that I call the Compound Tales. And I struck gold.

Back in the 90s I wrote most of a short story about a mixed-race woman on the run from a mean son of a bitch named Lincoln Goodcock. Let me digress for a moment. I mention that my character is of mixed-race specifically because I am painfully white, a dork, a square, and sometimes I have to make an effort in my writing to reflect the world I live in, especially since I live in California’s East Bay just outside San Francisco. For me it’s easy to Write White, but these days the thought of an all-white world is ludicrous, and boring, unless you are pining for the Fourth Reich. The tough part is that I have to fire up the Imaginatronic Make-Believe Engine and research cultures and viewpoints I’ve either never experienced or don’t fully understand. The bonus is that sometimes I get lucky and breathe vibrant life into a character. Also, I like names like Lincoln Goodcock. Linc is a mean son of a bitch, but he’s one of mine, so I like him even though he does the most awful things. Anyhow, I got ¾ into the story of this young woman named Cei (pronounced say) and then . . . got nowhere. I didn’t hit a wall, but I did blow out the tires running over a spike strip (while writing a car chase scene, no less) and crawled to a stop.

I liked the characters of Cei and Lincoln (and Lincoln’s suffering partner Big Dog) and I liked the set-up that had Cei on the run, but after a few chapters I realized I had NO idea where Cei was running TO, and instead of the typical girl-in-peril action movie ending (and then she got all girl-power and stuff and kicked his ass and lived happily ever after) I decided to set the story aside. I played with it again a few years ago, but found myself facing the original problem—how in the beer-battered fuck do I end this thing? Back into storage it went, cold storage, like leftovers sitting unnoticed in the back of the fridge.

Around about the year 2000 I was working on the plot for a novel called Sunday Morning, featuring one of my favorite characters from Made in the USA (I work on multiple projects all the time. This is a bad habit for a writer. Very bad. I do it anyway. It’s either that, or try and rewire my brain). I had all the elements I needed, except some believable bad guys that I wanted to throw into the mix (in a nutshell: when a science experiment goes terribly wrong, Deputy Sheriff Al Johnson and the little California town of Sunday Morning are shifted . . . somewhere else, a wonderful place where the sky rains deadly javelins of ice, a bite from a certain insect can make your body literally explode, and there, on the horizon, my god, what is that?). I set aside the issue of the bad guys and wrote out the entire plotline, and the first few chapters.

Here’s where things get even more complicated, especially for someone outside my head, which is all of you. Hometown, the direct sequel to Made in the USA, will also feature Al, the Deputy Sheriff mentioned above, and it will tie together and complete the stories told in three other novels (one being MITU). I really wanted to get my Sheriff to Hometown, but found myself struggling with a plausible reason for him being there, since the residents of Hometown . . . let’s just say that most of them are not like you and me. In fact, many of them are walking nightmares.

At this point I was scratching my head over unresolved situations in two novels and had a nearly forgotten short story lying idle.

Flash forward to yesterday. I stumble across my short story about Cei and Lincoln, and in a flash I have one of my bad guys and a plausible destination for Cei by sending her to Sunday Morning, and hallelujah praise Jesus, a legitimate reason for Sheriff Al Johnson to make the journey to Hometown after all.

If I had tossed out the uncompleted story of Cei a few years back, I would still be spinning my wheels today.

Be a frugal writer. Never toss out your leftovers.

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