“I’m Your Number One Fan”

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That line, and Stephen King’s Misery—which I wrote about last week—are apparently inseparable. In the hope of finding some more material I entered “writers’ number one fans” into a search engine, and guess what: the first four links that show up are for Misery and Annie Wilkes. Here are a few final thoughts on this claustrophobic gem.

                                                            YOU WROTE THIS—WHY?

misery coverStephen King, in interviews given through the years, discussed a number of reasons for writing Misery. First, of course, had to do with his own (numerous) encounters with Number One Fans at signings and other book events. As I well know, when you write creepy, blood-and-gore stories your readership can tend to be a bit…well, weird. I recall Dean Koontz saying the same thing, and at one point, after some uncomfortable confrontations, he gave up doing appearances altogether. When some came up that he could not avoid, he brought along a security guard. (Think of what John Lennon’s Number One Fan did to him. And of all the celebrity stalkings. It is not something to be taken lightly.)

Second, by having Paul Sheldon burned out of writing so many books about Misery and wanting to try something different, King was expressing his weariness about writing horror, horror, and more horror. When he wrote a fantasy novel in the mid-eighties titled The Eyes of the Dragon, his fans went ballistic. They wanted telekinetic terrors, haunted hotels, New England vampires, and so on.

And last—possibly most important, by King’s reckoning—Annie Wilkes became a metaphor for the drug addiction that King suffered from at the time. That addiction, just like Annie, became his Number One Fan and had no intention of relenting.

In addition to the novel being turned into a film, it subsequently was adapted as a stage play—which made sense, given the few characters and the minimalist set. It ran off-Broadway, and later in London, Athens, and—I kid you not—Dubai. And just this past summer, “Misery: A Feel Bad Musical”—I am NOT making this up—opened in Amsterdam.

“HEY MIKE, I’M YOUR NUMBER ONE FAN!”

Yes, even non-celebrity lowlifes like me have stories to tell. My first published novel, The Prisoner of Reglathium, came out in 1978, and it may have sold enough copies to pay for a grand slam breakfast at Denny’s. Maybe two. You get the point. But it did win me a Number One Fan.

The first snail mail letter arrived through my publisher. (No email or texting back indannus 1 the day.) It came from a guy in Arizona. He loved the book, blah blah blah, what a great writer you are, Mike, blah blah blah, I’m your Number One Fan—the usual. Thrilled to have any fans, I wrote the guy back…with my home address on the envelope. Yeah, you’re right: dumb thing to do.

The next letter came to the house. More praise, questions and suggestions about the characters, when is the next book coming, maybe I should think of doing this or that, etc. Didn’t seem like anything scary, so I corresponded with him for a couple more letters after that. Then, another letter announced his plans to come to San Diego for a vacation, and wouldn’t it be great if we could get together, etc. Oh crap!

Given that the guy had my home address, I wrote back and told him I would be out of town that week. I forget where I told him; Borneo, Uzbekistan, somewhere like that. Still, I worried about him showing up at my door, and during the time he was here I must’ve looked out the window a thousand times. Fortunately, he was a no-show.

He wrote me again when he got home, but this time I didn’t respond. His letters stopped after that. Do I need to tell you that, thenceforth, I never put my home address on any correspondence?

ANOTHER SCARY LETTER

Well, you might think a four-page letter that opens with the following salutation is scary:

“Dear Mike, I hate you!”

BicyclingYep, that’s what it said. Oh crap wouldn’t do, nor would Holy shit, because this was definitely a WTF moment. This happened many years after that first letter and was in reference to my satirical science fiction trilogy, Bicycling Through Space and Time. Fortunately, I read on, and what came after proved to be one of the nicest, most thoughtful fan letters I’d ever received. The writer “hated” me because she loved the books so much that she read and re-read them and neglected to take care of other day-to-day stuff, which got her into trouble with the family…that sort of thing. And, of course, she was my Number One Fan. I replied to her by writing a one-page “unpublished scene” from the trilogy, in which she became a character. That was fun.

“YOU SHALL BURN IN HELL!”

I can see King and Koontz and other superstars of our craft encountering crazies at book events—but me? Back in 1990 Bantam Books published my Native American-themed horror novel, Demon Shadows. I made suggestions for the cover art, which included a creepy dead guy, snow, and lodgepole pines, since the story takes place during the winter in the Sierras. Bantam added a pentagram—an occult symbol—in the snow, which had nothing to do with the story. But what the hell…you get published by Bantam, you keep your mouth shut.

So I’m performing my due diligence and making an appearance at a B Dalton bookstore in a local mall. They set me up with a table outside the door and left me to my own devices. I’m chatting people up, signing a few books, when a guy approaches, picks up a copy of the book and stares at the cover with an expression on his face akin to someone who just bit into a roach-infested hamburger. “You wrote this book?” he asks me. “That’s right,” I reply. He slams the book down, points at the pentagramDemon Shadows Old Cover, and launches a fire-and-brimstone sermon about it being the mark of the devil, and that I should burn in hell for writing such evil, and all kinds of fundamentalist claptrap. I thought he might attack me, but some of the bookstore people came outside, and the whacko took off into the mall, still summoning lightning bolts to strike me dead. To this day I still get creeped out thinking about it.

If you want to be a published author, you’ve got to take the bad with the good. Here’s wishing you a lot of nice, normal Number One Fans.

SUCH A DEAL

As long as I mentioned Demon Shadows, how about a deal? From Thursday, September 18th through Sunday, September 21st, the book will be available for .99 cents on Kindle download. Join bestselling novelist Paul Fleming as he travels to a prestigious writers’ colony in the High Sierras to battle the demons of his writer’s block. But the woods surrounding this colony hold their own demons, the kind that Paul may be ill-equipped to fight. Enjoy!

Films About Writers: Misery

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Authors, athletes, actors—heck, just about everyone in the public eye—all have a Number One Fan. Or two. Or a thousand. Even I had some Number One Fans back in the day. Sounds like an interesting topic for a post—which will appear next week.

Today we’ll talk about Paul Sheldon’s Number One Fan. Sheldon is a bestselling misery posternovelist in Stephen King’s 1987 claustrophobic novel, Misery, and in Rob Reiner’s excellent 1990 film version, with James Caan playing Sheldon. The spare title has a double meaning: it’s the name of the lead character, Misery Chastain, in Sheldon’s successful Victorian era romance novels, and it is the nightmare that Sheldon is about to endure in the story. William Goldman wrote an outstanding screenplay based on the book.

PAUL SHELDON USED TO WRITE FOR A LIVING—NOW, HE’S WRITING TO STAY ALIVE

Despite having great success with his Misery Chastain novels, Paul Sheldon has burned out in writing so many stories about her. He wants to write something more…well, serious. In the latest Misery novel, due out shortly, he’s killed the poor girl off, a great catharsis—and closure—for him.

A creature of habit, Paul has written nearly all of his books in a cozy cabin up in the Rockies. His new, serious novel is no exception. Having just finished it, he plans on driving back east to bring his New York literary agent (Lauren Bacall) the sole draft of the manuscript. Snow is falling as Paul drives down the winding mountain road, and it soon turns into a blizzard. The car goes off the road and rolls over. Critically injured, Paul is rescued by a heavily bundled figure and carried off. When he regains consciousness he finds himself in a warm bed inside a remote cabin. His broken legs and dislocated shoulder have been tended to by his rescuer, a nurse named Annie Wilkes, who stands smiling at his bedside, pain pills at the ready.

Annie is quite handy with tools.

    Annie is quite handy with tools.

Meet Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates, in her brilliant, Academy Award-winning performance), who is at least twenty-seven cans short of a six-pack. Get the point? A whack job extraordinaire, Annie at first comes off as the sweetest, most caring person on the planet. She won’t even spout a cuss word, instead using adjectives like “oogy” and “cockadoody,” and she has a pet pig named Misery. Yes, she says, she’s let everyone know that Paul is there, but because of the horrible weather it would be best if he stayed put for a while, especially since she’s qualified to take care of him. She even reveals that she loves all of Paul’s Misery novels, that she’s his Number One Fan. Oh crap…

While we get a few glimpses of Annie’s odd behavior early on, Paul is grateful to her for saving his life. To thank her, he offers to let her read his new manuscript. Uh-oh, bad call. She goes off on him about the subject matter, and all of the bad language. Paul has now come to suspect that Annie is a bit…uh, disturbed.

With the weather improved, Annie drives off to town to pick up her copy of the new Misery novel. Though in pain, Paul works his way to the door with the hope of getting to a phone. Surprise: Annie has locked him in.

Annie returns with the book and is thrilled to begin reading it. Every few chapters or so she comes in to praise Paul for his wonderful writing. Paul can’t wait for her to finish the book…not!

Annie goes bat-shit crazy when she learns that Misery dies at the end, and she nearly puts a table upside Paul’s head. How could he do such a thing! She then reveals that she hadn’t notified anyone of what happened, that no one knows he is there and they likely believe that he’s dead. She doesn’t even have a workable phone.

Indeed, the local sheriff, Buster (Richard Farnsworth), has been searching for Paul. He’s found the car buried under the snow, and the consensus is that Paul managed to get out and wander off, only to die. His body will show up in the spring. But he wonders about the marks on the car door that indicated a crowbar might have been

Annie gives Paul's manuscript a harsh critique.

Annie gives Paul’s manuscript a harsh critique.

used to pry it open. Curious about this occasional visitor to his jurisdiction, he starts reading some of Paul’s novels.

The next morning a calmer Annie hauls in a barbecue grill and tells Paul to burn his new manuscript. For emphasis she “accidently” splashes some lighter fluid on his bed. She also orders him to write a new book titled Misery’s Return, in which he’ll bring Misery back to life. Convinced that Annie is psycho enough to kill him, Paul agrees to both.

Now in a wheelchair, Paul manages to get out of his room while Annie is away. He stockpiles painkillers in his mattress (Annie has a shitload of them, stolen from the hospital where she worked) and manages to cajole Annie into a candlelight dinner, where he spikes her wine. But she accidently spills it.

Annie has set Paul up with an old typewriter and paper, but Paul insists on a different kind of paper, so off to town she goes. He explores the ground floor of her house again, this time finding a scrapbook. Shocker: Annie might have killed a fellow nursing student, and her husband, and a number of infants in the hospital, but each time she managed to beat the charges. (In King’s novel the possible body count for suspected serial killer Annie Wilkes was in the dozens.) She even quoted lines from some of Paul’s books during one of her trials.

Paul tries to meet the deadline for his new book.

Paul tries to meet the deadline for his new book.

With the new Misery novel nearly done (in the book, King presents actual pages from Misery’s Return), Paul awakens one morning to find himself strapped to the bed. Annie has discovered that he’s gotten out and has decided to “hobble” him. The ensuing scene, in which she smashes both of his feet with a sledgehammer, is disturbing, and was voted Number 12 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Check out the video. (Could’ve been even worse: in the book she slices off a foot and a finger.)

SPOILER ALERT: The sharp-witted Sheriff Buster soon makes a connection between Paul and Annie. As he drives up to her cabin, Annie deposits Paul in the basement. Buster searches the place, and when he sees Paul in the basement, Annie takes him out with a shotgun. She then tells Paul that they must die together. He agrees, but only if he can finish the novel so they can “give Misery back to the world.”

Paul has concealed a can of lighter fluid. When the manuscript is done, he douses it and puts it on the floor. Annie had given him a match to light up his celebratory cigarette after finishing a book. He lights the manuscript, and when a screaming Annie gets down on the floor to save it, he clocks her with the heavy typewriter. But she’s a psycho bitch and doesn’t go down easily. He finally kills her with an iron statue of a pig. (The confrontation in King’s book is a bit more convoluted.)

Flash forward eighteen months: although walking with a cane, a dapper Paul Sheldon meets his agent for lunch in New York. His new, serious novel is a roaring success. Maybe he’ll write about his nightmare in Colorado, she suggests. Hell no, he replies. As they talk, a server approaches with a dessert tray. Oh shit, it’s Annie Wilkes! No, it’s another woman…just a trick of his troubled mind. The woman approaches the table, a smile on her face. Can you guess what she says to Paul?

“I’m your Number One Fan.”

A Head Case?

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“Hi, I’m Mike, and I’m a head case.”

Okay, I hope that didn’t prompt you to counter with the typical twelve-step response, because if it did, I gotta worry about you.  :) 

Tell the truth, we’re probably all head cases when it comes to one thing or another—something from our past, more than likely. With me, it’s an incident that happened nearly five years ago, something that did not get resolved—until now.

aa-heart1In December 2009 I had open-heart, quadruple bypass surgery. No need to get into that; I wrote about it in “A Memorable Date,” if you’re interested. It’s what happened a month or so before the surgery that rendered me a head case. Permettez-moi de vous expliquer.

I walk a lot. I did back then, and I still do. A couple of months before the surgery I started feeling back pain whenever I walked uphill. In my Oceanside neighborhood you’re almost always walking uphill or downhill. Guess that’s why they call theocean hills area Ocean Hills. Initially just annoying, the weird pain—not like any back pain I’d ever felt—escalated, and I’d have to stop once in a while to rest, something that I’d never had to do.

A month before the surgery Jacqueline and I drove to our favorite El Pollo Loco on South Melrose Drive for lunch. (El Pollo Loco is a food group; we love the place.) Instead of driving back with her, I decided to walk the hilly mile or so to our local supermarket, where we’d meet up after she got some groceries. Actually, only the last third of that portion of Melrose goes up. I would later dub that third of a mile, The Hill.

That day, I had to stop many times on The Hill. At one point I thought the Mother Ship had come, given the severity of the pain. I made it to the supermarket and told my wife that I needed to get to my doctor. He diagnosed angina, and the whole party began.

"One day, Mike. But not for a long time."

“One day, Mike. But not for a long time.”

After a lengthy recovery (seemed like forever anyway) I resumed walking, and before long I was back doing my three-plus miles a day, and tackling most of the hills that my ‘hood put in front of me. But the memory of that day on The Hill—here’s where the “head case” part comes in—would not let me go, and even though I’d walked it many times before, I could not make myself retrace those steps.

What was I so afraid of? Who knows; I’d probably need counseling for that answer. I mean, over the past five years I’d conquered every other hill that had caused me pain. Hell, I’d even gone over to a nearby wilderness area and climbed a hill that—I swear—is like walking up a wall, it’s that steep! But I could not make myself walk The Hill…

…until this past Labor Day weekend. I don’t know why I decided to try it now, after all these years. Maybe Yoda’s classic advice did it: “Try not; do, or do not; there is no try.” I had Jacqueline drive me over to El Pollo Loco and told her that I’d see her at home, three miles away. After covering the easy part I started up The Hill, my eyes on the ground, my brain swirling with other thoughts, as it usually does for distraction, but with more purpose this time. Hmm, this is easy, I thought; probably not up too far yet. So I looked up for the first time. The top of The Hill was about twenty steps ahead.

Piece. Of. Cake!

And I waited five years to do this…why? Okay, so I’m no longer a head case…at least on this one issue.

Speaking of head cases, in my next post I’m going to write about one of the all-time greatest head cases in fiction, a whack job named Annie Wilkes. Do you remember from whence she came?

Common Writing Mistakes

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In my centuries of evaluating and editing manuscripts I’ve probably been through five million of ’em. (Wait, I’m not supposed to exaggerate; it’s only one million.) With that large a sample size it’s clear that many of the same mistakes plague writers, whether they’re newbies or successful, multi-published authors. Here are just a few of them.

EACH OTHER/ONE ANOTHER

I’m going old school on this to say that I use “each other” when referring to two people (“John and Mary looked at each other in disbelief”) and “one another” when referring to three or more people (“The tour group took care of one another after their guide disappeared”). This rule has evolved through the years to the point where, these books 2days, most grammarians will agree that the two are interchangeable.

So why do I go old school? Years ago I submitted a couple chapters of a novel to a literary agent. The proposal came back with a rejection note. (What a surprise, eh?) The agent’s only comment? I didn’t know the difference between “each other” and “one another.” As I’ve always said, why give an agent or publisher ANY reason to reject your work? I’ll be using the old rule on this until the Mother Ship arrives.

EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!

To be sure, an exclamation point is perfectly good punctuation! But here is the thing! Many writers tend to overuse them! Just like I’m doing here! I assume it’s annoying the crap out of you!

Seriously, the less of them you use, the stronger effect they’ll have when you do insert one. There is a school of writing thought that suggests not using any at all. I don’t buy into that. Why? Read this same sentence two ways:

  • The piano is going to fall on that man’s head.
  • The piano is going to fall on that man’s head!

I see far more overuse of exclamation points than the other way around. The record breaker (I’m not making this up): a manuscript in which every second sentence ended with one. I mean, read these sentences with the proper emphasis on the last word.

  • I’m going to the store!
  • The car is parked in the driveway!
  • I think I’ll brush my teeth!

You get the point (pun intended): save your exclamation points for when they count.

LOOSE/LOSE

So many of my best and most educated writers mess this one up. All wrong:

  • He had so much to loose.
  • The wild horses ran lose on the plain.
  • Did you loose all your money at the blackjack table?
  • There are lots of lose women in that bar.

If it ever does stump you, remember this sentence: “I hope that I don’t lose all of the loose change in my pocket.”

TWO- AND THREE-BREATH SENTENCES

William Faulkner wrote some long sentences.

William Faulkner wrote some long sentences.

Some writers get carried away with their prose and write sentences that seem to go on forever and ever and what they don’t realize is that they can lose their readers when they do this kind of thing because people like to be able to take a breath now and then and when you write endless sentences with little or no punctuation they don’t have a place to insert the figurative bookmark so they say to themselves that this person writes sentences like Faulkner used to write and since they didn’t like Faulkner when they had to read him in high school they’re going to put this book down and…

Did I make my point? Avoid overlong sentences.

 

This ad had it right AND wrong.
      This ad had it right AND wrong.

 

EVERYDAY/EVERY DAY

I’ve seen this one handled improperly on billboards, in TV and newspaper ads, you name it. I’m sure you have too. For example: “Low prices everyday!” Wrong-o. “Everyday” is a one-word adjective meaning “used routinely.” The two-word phrase “every day” can be interchanged with “each day.”

  • Wrong: “John did his chores everyday.”
  • Correct: “John did his chores every day.”
  • Wrong: “John did his every day chores.”
  • Correct: “John did his everyday chores.”

Jimmy Durante, a great comic from back in the day, used to say, “I got a million of ’em.” Same here with regard to common writing mistakes. We’ll look at some more in future posts.

PRAISE FOR FREEDOM’S HAND

A recent review: “You can’t stop reading it once you start. Yes, it’s well written. Yes, it’s framed in a believable manner that makes you think it really could be possible in our day. Yes, it’s gripping. But that’s not why you can’t stop reading once you start.

“We hear about the Nazi concentration camps, see clips of black and white film strips, Freedom's Hand Ebook Covermake movies that try to recreate what it must have been like, and go to museums. But…nothing makes you feel like ‘you’ are a character in those camps, experiencing the terror yourself. Sirota places you there, in this modern day story of a resurgence of Nazism and death camps—but here in America. You feel trapped with the characters, one of them. Your survival instincts will kick in as you read, and you’ll feel the need to plan an escape in your head…or die trying.”

Guilty Pleasures: Conan The Destroyer

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Over two years ago I wrote a “Guilty Pleasures” post for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first screen romp as Conan the Barbarian in 1982. Since that time this particular post has conan 2 posterreceived more views than any of the others I’ve done on my blog. Must be a lot of Conan—or Arnold—fans out there. At the time I also hinted at a post about Arnold’s 1984 sequel, Conan the Destroyer. The time has come to pay off on that.

While Conan the Barbarian is a true guilty pleasure—I love the film—I had to stop myself short of referring to its sequel as a guilty displeasure. There is much wrong with Conan the Destroyer—a good deal of which has to do with an acting-challenged cast. (Some even make Arnold look good.) But what the heck, it’s mildly entertaining, and it’s a sword & sorcery flick, and there has never been enough of those to go around.

The story opens with Conan, author Robert E. Howard’s brooding Cimmerian, mooning after his lost love Valeria, who died in the first film, while fellow thief Malak (the always annoying Tracey Walter) sizes up their loot from a recent heist. The nasty

A true teenage crush...

A true teenage crush.

Queen Taramis of Shadizar (Sarah Douglas, even nastier as über-villain Ursa in the old Superman films) approaches with her head guardsman, Bombaata (the acting-challenged Wilt Chamberlain, who should’ve stuck to basketball). She wants Conan to accompany her niece, Princess Jehnna, on a quest to retrieve first a gem, then a horn. For that, she’ll bring Valeria back to life.

Seems like a good deal, though Conan never thinks to ask Taramis why she can raise up the dead but not take a trip with her niece. (Conan the Gullible?) They travel to the queen’s palace, which drips with intrigue. Taramis orders Bombaata to kill Conan after the horn is retrieved, and then return dear little Jehnna to the palace, where she will be sacrificed in a ceremony to bring Dagoth, the Sleeping God, back to life so that he can rule the world. Indeed, foul play abounds.

Sheltered from men and in the throes of raging hormones, teenager Jehnna (a terminally cute and minimally acting-challenged Olivia d’Abo) is kind of whiny and pushy, but she also has the hots for Conan. (Oy!) On the journey they pick up a wizard named Akiro (Mako, reprising his role from the first film) and an amazon warrior named Zula (the wild, acting-challenged Grace Jones). First stop: an ice

Zula kicks butt!

      Zula kicks butt!

fortress in the middle of a lake, where Thoth-Amon, a wizard, possesses the gem that they seek. They succeed, though not before Conan, in a cool scene, does battle with a man-ape in a weird roomful of mirrors.

The six next travel to a temple where the horn of Dagoth is guarded by a bunch of religious whackos. Even when they’re ambushed by the queen’s men on the way, and Bombaata appears to take their side, Conan (the Gullible) doesn’t figure it out. At least, not until the horn has been retrieved and, as they escape through a tunnel after killing half of the whackos, old #13 brings a ton of rocks down on him and the others and flees with Jehnna.

Their number now reduced to four after they dig out, the band reaches Shadizar just as the “ceremony” begins. Jehnna has finally figured out that her aunt is a psycho bitch, but maybe too late, because they’ve stuck the horn on the forehead of Dagoth—at this point he looks like a statue of a spaced-out guy—and as soon as he begins to move, Jehnna will be toast at the hands of the high priest and his nasty knife.

Conan kills Bombaata, and his little band does the same to a bunch of other guys. They arrive in the throne room just as Dagoth begins to move. Zula impales the high priest before he can kill Jehnna, and everything goes to hell. Dagoth transforms into a hideous, pissed-off monster. (André the Giant; anybody want a peanut?) It kills Queen

Dagoth is anything but horny.

       Dagoth is anything but horny.

Taramis (cheers abound!) but is in turn killed by Conan who, in a gross scene, rips its horn out.

The final scene, done with great solemnity (I don’t know how the actors kept a straight face), has now-Queen Jehnna appointing Zula her Captain of the Guard, Akiro her advisor, and Malak her court jester. She offers Conan the chance to rule Shadizar with her as king, but the barbarian, possibly fearing statutory rape charges, declines and heads out to seek his own kingdom. Maybe he wasn’t so gullible after all.

A closing voiceover promises another Conan story, but that didn’t happen, as Arnold went on to play numerous other entertaining roles, including his starring gig as Governator of Calee-fornia. Well, it didn’t happen until now. Believe it or not, a new Conan movie has been announced, with Arnold reprising his role. Say what?!? The dude is a year younger than me, and take my word for it, THAT’S OLD! I foresee a lot of work for his stunt doubles.

Anyway, this post is about Conan the Destroyer, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Like I said, it’s a sword & sorcery movie, and even a so-so one in this genre is better than a good chick flick, by Crom! Happy viewing.

“Chilled Monkey Brains”

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Chilled monkey brains, yum!
Chilled monkey brains, yum!

 Memorable lines from our favorite movies are always a hoot. Here are a few more of mine.

“Ah, dessert! Chilled monkey brains.” A dinner guest at one of the funniest and most disgusting meals you’ll ever witness grosses out Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

“Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker.” A signature line uttered by Detective John McLane (Bruce Willis) in Die Hard.

“It lies to her. It tells her things only a child can understand. It has been using her to restrain the others. To her, it simply is another child. To us, it is The Beast.” A psychic named Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein) gives this unsettling bit of news to the Freeling family in Poltergeist.

“Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in. Not by the hair of your chinny-chin-chin? Well then I’ll huff and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.” Nope, this isn’t from a Disney movie. Crazed Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson)

"Hee-ere's Johnny!"

               “Hee-ere’s Johnny!”

bellows these lines in The Shining as he takes an ax to a door. (And we all know what he says once he breaks through, eh?)

“Well, ain’t it a small world, spiritually speaking. Pete and Delmar just been baptized and saved. I guess I’m the only one that remains unaffiliated.” Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) in the hilarious indie film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

“License to kill gophers by the government of the United Nations. Man, free to kill gophers at will. To kill, you must know your enemy, and in this case my enemy is a varmint. And a varmint will never quit—ever. They’re like the Viet Cong—Varmint Cong. So you have to fall back on

Bill Murray and the gopher have issues.

Bill Murray and the gopher have issues.

superior intelligence and superior firepower. And that’s all she wrote.” Groundskeeper Carl Spackler (Bill Murray) has a one-track mind in the outrageous Caddyshack.

“Bunch of slack-jawed faggots around here. This stuff will make you a goddamned sexual Tyrannosaurus, just like me.” A pre-gubernatorial Jesse Ventura, as Blain, shares his thoughts on chewing tobacco in the original Predator—which, of course, starred another pre-gubernatorial actor of some note.

“What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate.” One of the most often-uttered lines in history came from the Road Prison Captain (Strother Martin) in Cool Hand Luke. ferris(Holy crap, that movie is now forty-seven years old!)

“Pardon my French, but Cameron is so tight that if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you’d have a diamond.” Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) talking about his BFF in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (I crack up just thinking about this movie.)

As always, let me know some of your favorites. If you missed them, check out my posts, “She Wouldn’t Even Harm A Fly” and “We All Go A Little Mad Sometimes” for more classic movie lines.

OUCH! MY EXPANDING SKULL!

Anyone know of a cure for SHS (Swelled Head Syndrome)? This newly posted five-star review on Amazon for FIRE DANCE speaks for itself. I am humbled.

“Sirota has created a blended genre ghost story-walk-in tale that has shiver-producing moments side-by-side with moments of extreme empathy. Is there pure evil in the world? Is that evil strong enough to reanimate? What happens when innocent souls are trapped in place and cannot rest eternally?

“Sirota is a masterful story teller and FIRE DANCE confirms his spot in the horror/gothic realm of Dean Koontz and Edgar Allan Poe.”

Myths And Legends: Haunted Anza Borrego

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Years ago, when I set my ghost story, Fire Dance, in the Anza Borrego Desert east of San Diego, I had no ideaFire Dance New Small just how haunted this bleak landscape actually was. Well, I do now. The following stories are courtesy of the Paranormalistics, a highly trained team of investigative paranormalists and paranormal investigators, headquartered in Carlsbad, CA. Paranormalists are experts in the paranormal field and occult sciences.

THE FORBIDDING DESERT

It is no wonder that so many ghosts haunt the lonely trails, mountains, and landmarks of the forbidding desert. The desert can be so unforgiving and, at the same time, unbelievably generous. Many travelers, prospectors and adventures have gone into the desert, never to return or be seen again. Others have returned with gold nuggets and treasures so rare and unique that we could only dream of being so lucky ourselves.

Desert lore, stories and quests for loot and gold have made men greedy. Gunfights, murders, and death from starvation and

Anza-Borrego: rather bleak.

Anza-Borrego: rather bleak.

dehydration have left many dead on the barren desert trails. Their ghosts still walk the mountain ridges, gullies, and deserted locations they once traveled or lived, spirits with unfinished business, who cannot rest. Some guard buried treasures and lost mines, while others battle perpetually until death, forever replaying their last moments of life.

THE LADY IN WHITE

The trip from Yuma to Vallecito was an arduous desert trek, long stretches of desperately dry sand and desiccated terrain. The stagecoach and its passengers staggered from one rancid, warm watering hole to the next, a bumpy, jarring ride across baked and burning countryside. You moved at a crawl, with shuddering winds and sudden cloudbursts. Choking dust was the passengers’ cruel and most steadfast escort. There were times where the road became so bad, the passengers had to get out and push the coach. People went mad in the midst of this 150-mile trek. Some coined the name for this tract of the Butterfield Stage Coach line, “The Journey of Death.”

The most well-known ghost story of Vallecito is about “The Lady in White”. Late in the 1850s, a young girl from the east arrived by stage at Vallecito. She was on her way to Sacramento to meet her lover, who had struck it rich. She was a frail young woman, worn with the hardships of travel and ill from improper food and doubtful water. She was carried from theghost coach, put to bed and given the best care available. But nothing could save her, and her fight was a losing one. Her journey came to an end at the Vallecito stage station.

Her baggage was examined and a brand new white dress was found. It was to have been her wedding dress. They dressed her in this and buried her in the Campo Santo, a few hundred feet east of the station. They thought they had put her to rest, but on moonlight nights she has been seen, down through the years, walking restlessly about the station. She harms no one but her presence is disturbing even to the most obstinate non-believer.

THE WHITE HORSE GHOST OF VALLECITO

Vallecito is famous for its ghosts. Its history contains many murders, deaths, robberies, and other wicked tales. One story involves a double murder at Vallecito Station. It all started with a stage holdup that yielded $65,000 worth of loot to four men on horseback, who robbed the eastbound stage before it reached Carrizo Wash en route to Vallecito Station.

As the men fled the scene, the driver of the stage fired one shot, killing one of the four men. When he reached the thief he had shot, he found not one, but two dead bodies. The driver concluded that the leader of the thieves had shot one of his own men so he would not have to divide up the loot.

The bandit leader and one other thief rode on to Vallecito Station. Shortly before arriving they buried their loot in some nearby hills then rode on to the station for a drink and some food. It is said that the two bandits argued while having a shutterstock_44312743drink. The leader went outside to check on his horse, promising to continue the discussion when he returned. He did return to the station, entering through the doorway mounted on his big white horse, and shot his companion.

As the wounded bandit lay dying, he drew his gun and fired back at the leader, killing him. The white horse, spooked by the gunfire and death of his master, ran off into the hills. It is said that when someone is in the valley around midnight, near the location where the bandits buried their loot, the ghost of a White Horse will appear from nowhere, galloping through the sand and then disappearing without a trace.

THE EIGHT-FOOT SKELETON

If you find yourself out late in the desert night, somewhere between the Superstition Mountains and Seventeen Palms, you may see the apparition of an eight-foot skeleton with a lantern in his chest. A prospector by the name of Charley Arizona first saw the ghost about four miles southeast of Borrego.

It was a dark night and Charley had already set up camp and was settling down for the night. Not long after he turned in, something disturbed his burros and he went to investigate. Suddenly, he saw a large human skeleton with a lantern light shining through its ribs. The skeleton walked in a crazy fashion, as if looking for something, or as if it were lost. Shortly after Charley sighted the skeleton, it disappeared over a small ridge.

About two years later, two prospectors had a similar experience while camping in the Superstition Mountains. They caught sight of a flickering light in the distance and wondered what it was; it quickly disappeared. One of the prospectors thought it looked like a skeleton carrying a lantern, but they figured it was the fire reflecting off a rock.

A year later, a traveler came into the Vallecito Station with the tale of a skeleton he saw wandering in the desert and skeletoncarrying a light. It wasn’t long before news of the skeleton got around and two adventurers went out into the desert to search for this legendary skeleton ghost.

During their third night in the desert, they encountered the ghastly lit skeleton. One of the men shot at it with a gun, but the skeleton continued on, unfazed by the gunfire. The two men followed the skeleton for three miles as it wandered in a strange and intermittent gait, over ridges and through valleys, before they lost track of it.

Many believe that the skeleton is the ghost of a prospector who discovered and worked the Phantom Mine, which has been lost for many years. The skeleton is no better off than the rest of us, for he too continues to search for the lost Phantom Mine, wandering the dark desert nights looking for his final resting place.

These tales barely scratch the surface with regard to the many spirits that continue to haunt the Anza Borrego Desert. Perhaps I’ll scare up some more of them in future posts.

 Copyright ©2014 Paranormalistics. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. For information visit their website or their blog.

Read & Critique: The Drama Queen

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In facilitating read & critique workshops in my home for over a dozen years I’ve encountered more than my share of drama queens—and kings. The subject in this post is a compilation of them all.

First off, what do I mean by a drama queen? Well, just like actors rehearsing for a play or movie with script in hand, actress 2participants in read & critique are reading chapters from their current work in progress, usually a novel but upon occasion a narrative non-fiction project. The big difference: while the actors and actresses are worried as much or more about how they DELIVER those lines as what those lines say, we writers are only concerned with the basic elements of the story. Are the characters believable? Do the expository passages move the story forward? Is the dialogue crisp and authentic? Is there a story arc? And so on.

Remember, unless we’re talking about an audiobook (we’re not), people will be reading your words on paper, and they’ll be providing the appropriate emotions in their heads. With the infrequent exception of getting to read an excerpt of your book at a library or bookstore event, you won’t have the luxury of physically “entertaining” your readers.

ACT I

With multiple read & critique groups running simultaneously, and with turnover through the years, I had to continually “educate” my writers in the skill of dealing with a drama queen. Let me give you an example—an example we’ll call Shirley. This enthusiastic writer actually came from L.A. and had a (brief) background in stage and film, so what transpired from the first time she read in class was, I suppose, inevitable. Shirley stood (most of my writers never did), made eye contact withactress everyone in the room, and launched into her “act.” She read with great passion, modulating her voice to fit the characters, using hand and body language, facial expressions and so on, as if she were auditioning for a role in a play at the Old Globe. My other writers loved it; so did I.

ENCORE!

But by the time Shirley was done—to a round of applause—I had scribbled down quite a few notes—issues that I found with one thing or another in her story; the usual, I guess, as it is with most works in progress. As facilitator I was always the last to speak, so we went around the room and discovered that my well-trained group, mesmerized by Shirley’s read, had practically nothing to say of a helpful nature. They had succumbed to the presentation, not the writing.

So yeah, they were surprised—and humbled—when I proceeded to deliver my litany of “this is what didn’t work for me in the pages you read.” Shirley took it well—why else was she there?—and afterward I gave the group my spiel on critiquing the words, not the “performance.” From then on they had no problem helping Shirley improve her story.

So does that mean I asked Shirley—and my other drama queens and kings—to cool her jets and read her work without the readertheatrics? No way! As noted before, I enjoyed it as much as everyone else. We all looked forward to hearing Shirley read more—and helping her make the writing better.

“YOU PUT ME TO SLEEP”

There is, of course, a 180° side to the drama queen and king. I had hundreds of writers participate in read & critique, and while just about all of them wanted to be there to work at improving their writing, quite a few were uncomfortable reading before a group. We had quiet ones, stammering ones, and—inevitably—ones who read in a dull monotone from beginning to end. Once again the group listened to the presentation, not the words, and some negative critiques ensued—even though the writing may have been spot on.

I recall one of my writers saying the following after a read such as that: “Wow, your chapter just about put me to sleep!” Yeah, I nipped that bit of nastiness in the bud; stuff like that doesn’t belong in a good read & critique group. But I actorunderstood where the guy was coming from. It’s not easy listening to a monotonic fifteen-minute read, even if the writing, on paper, is solid. I ultimately added comments on dealing with both overly dramatic and monotonic reads to my Workshop Guidelines, which all potential participants were required to read before I added them to a group.

“Alas, poor writer, I knew him well—before he joined one of Sirota’s workshops!”

Another Milestone: 150 Posts

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Those of you who know me are quite aware that I am seldom at a loss for words. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised about reaching that number, although I must admit, early on I wondered if I’d have that much to say on a consistent basis. Well, those concerns are way in the past, and as long as I’m still here (chief), and as long as I still have a brain (debatable at times), the posts will keep on a’comin’. Here are some thoughts on what has been and what will be.

WRITING. By far, writing, and writers, and all things relevant to writing and writers will remain primo in this blog. I have a lifetime of experiences ranging from practical to outrageous, from writing that first sentence to attending book

This film told of Robert E. Howard, one of my favorite writers.

This film told of Robert E. Howard, one of my favorite writers.

launches and signings for my most successful writers. Been there, done it all, happy to share.

FILMS ABOUT WRITERS. I just added what will now be a regular feature of this blog, combining my affection for movies with my love of all things writing. While there are a fair amount of films from which to choose, I welcome input from readers. Let me know if you have a particular favorite.

GUILTY PLEASURES. Sad to say, but many of my favorite film genres—horror, fantasy, science fiction—seem to spawn alleged clunkers that the critics (curse them!) enjoy tearing apart. But I love many of these movies, and based on your reactions, so do a whole lot of you. We all have our guilty pleasures, whether it be “Eight Legged Freaks” or “Lake Placid” or “Mimic” or “An American Werewolf in London.” So we’ll keep on watching, and I’ll keep on writing about the gazillion others.

NATIVE AMERICANS. Given the fact that three of my novels—The Modoc Well, Demon Shadows, and The Burning Ground—have their basis in Native American culture and mythology, I’ve already written much about The People, in context with both literature and film. (Check out a few other posts: “California Genocide”, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” “This Film Left a Strong ‘Imprint’”, and others.) That said, my

Tonantzin Carmelo as Shayla Stonefeather.

 

feelings about the abhorrent treatment of these, the first Americans, over centuries ensures that I will be writing a great deal more.

Sneak preview: later this year, in a departure from what I usually write, I will be releasing a historical novel based on the true story of a little-known Native American tribe. As seen through the eyes of a remarkable woman from this tribe, their story is at once heroic and tragic. You’ll be hearing a lot more about this one.

MYTHS AND LEGENDS. I love this particular category, simply because there is so much from which to draw. Be it the robert 4mythology of different cultures, such as the dybbuk or Kokopelli, or ghostly legends such as Kate Morgan or Robert the Doll, there are numerous untapped stories to be told.

So, on to the next milestone of two hundred posts. I imagine there will be plenty of surprises along the way. Enjoy!

A FREEBIE!

To celebrate this milestone I am making my desert-themed ghost story, Fire Dance, available for free Kindle download on Friday and Saturday, July 25th and 26th.

PRAISE FOR FIRE DANCE: “Sirota returns…with this atmospheric tale of horror in the American Southwest. Horror fans will enjoy this updated take on the western ghost town.” – Publishers Weekly, 12/6/10

The setting for Fire Dance is the bleak but surprisingly beautiful Anza-Borrego Desert in Southern California. It was there Fire Dance New Smallthat Concordia Sanitarium stood, home to the mentally ill—mostly elders suffering from senile dementia—until a fire leveled the adobe buildings in 1878. All of the staff and the inmates perished…

…including the monster in the dungeon, the deranged mass murderer named Bruno Leopold.

There, in the sand amid the ruins, the tormented spirits remain trapped—until over a century later, when one of them decides to free himself from his prison and renew his atrocities in the nearby, unsuspecting town of Smoke Tree.

Films About Writers: Finding Forrester

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We writers don’t usually find cause to save the country, or the planet, or the galaxy (except in our own stories), so forrester postermaking us the heroes up on the silver screen is not something that gets box office-driven Hollywood all atwitter. That said, there are more movies about writers and writing than one might think.

With that in mind, today’s post launches a new series for the blog. My first choice is a particular favorite: the 2000 drama, Finding Forrester, starring Sean Connery and Rob Brown.

I suppose if you want to get technical, this is the second time I’ve featured a film about a writer. In 2012 I wrote about a little-known movie titled, The Whole Wide World, which chronicled the last couple of years in the life of sword & sorcery author Robert E. Howard, one of my all-time favorite storytellers. This gem starred Vincent D’Onofrio and Renée Zellweger. Check it out.

One other note of interest: in researching lists about movies that feature writers, I noticed that the majority were either foreign films or were ones directed by Woody Allen. Hmm; not being a fan of the latter, my choices might be limited. But, I’ll manage.

IN AN ORDINARY PLACE, HE FOUND THE ONE PERSON TO MAKE HIS LIFE EXTRAORDINARY

Sixteen-year-old Jamal Wallace (Brown) attends a run-down high school in The Bronx, where survival is more important than learning. A gifted student, Jamal tries to fit in by maintaining average grades and excelling at basketball. He loves to write and keeps notebooks in his backpack, scribbling down stories and essays whenever possible.

Across the street from where Jamal and his friends play hoops, a reclusive old man (Connery) watches them from his

Jamal is not welcome at first in Forrester's world.

Jamal is not welcome at first in Forrester’s world.

window on an upper floor of a tenement. His friends dare Jamal to climb up and go inside the man’s apartment, which he does. The apartment is crammed with books, which fascinates Jamal. When the old man scares him off, he leaves his backpack behind.

The next day the backpack flies from the window and lands at Jamal’s feet. His notebooks are intact, and his writing has been redlined, with editing and many critical comments. Stunned, Jamal goes to the man’s apartment and asks him to read more of his writing. The old grump tasks Jamal with writing 5,000 words on why he “should stay the fuck out of my home.” Jamal does exactly that and leaves it on the man’s doorstep the next day.

Because of his outstanding test scores—and even more, his basketball skills—Jamal is offered a free ride at a prestigious prep school, Mailor-Callow. While contemplating this, he returns to the old man’s apartment and is invited in. The recluse, he learns, is William Forrester, an author who won the Pulitzer Prize over four decades earlier for his only published novel, Avalon Landing. No one has heard from him since. They make a deal: Forrester will help Jamal with his writing, but Jamal cannot tell anyone about him, nor can he ask about Forrester’s personal life.

Jamal chooses to attend Mailor-Callow where, other than academically, he is a fish out of water amid the spawn of rich

"How about 5,000 words on why you should stay the fuck out of my house!"

“How about 5,000 words on why you should stay the fuck out of my house!”

yuppie scum. His one friend is Claire (Anna Paquin), whose father is on the school’s board. Jamal’s skill at basketball (he ultimately leads the team to the state finals) wins him grudging acceptance from all but the school’s writing instructor, Professor Crawford (Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham).

Jamal’s writing improves dramatically with Forrester as his mentor, and the bond between them grows. But the asshole Crawford rags on him and even hints at plagiarism, given the high level of his writing. Crawford puts Jamal on notice. This putz is a frustrated writer of minimal talent and is quite familiar with Forrester’s work, even making Avalon Landing required reading.

Jamal convinces Forrester to leave his apartment for the first time in years and go with him to a basketball game at Madison Square Garden. Once there, Forrester is overwhelmed by the crowd and has a panic attack. Jamal instead takes him to Yankee Stadium, which is empty. He had seen an old photo of Forrester and others at the ballpark. Forrester opens up and tells Jamal about his family, specifically his brother, who suffered from PTSD and alcoholism after World War II and later died. That was when Forrester, blaming himself for his brother’s death, stopped writing and became a recluse.

Forrester trusts Jamal enough to pull out some of his old essays and have Jamal rewrite or expand upon them, with Jamal’s promise to never take them out of the apartment. Jamal uses the title and first paragraph of one particular essay then writes the rest of it in his own words. He decides to enter it in the school’s writing contest, not knowing that it had been published decades earlier in the New Yorker magazine. Crawford, in front of the board, accuses Jamal of plagiarism,

Professor Crawford is a real dick...

  Professor Crawford is a real dick…

and unless the boy can receive Forrester’s permission—that’s impossible, Crawford figures, as Forrester must be long dead—he’ll be disqualified from the contest, and likely expelled from the school. Jamal keeps his promise to Forrester and refuses to reveal that he knows him.

Jamal tells Forrester what has happened. The old man is angry about Jamal taking the essay from his apartment. They argue, and Forrester tells him to leave.

The school board comes up with a deal for Jamal: win the state basketball championship and the plagiarism charges will be dropped. Jamal, an excellent free throw shooter, has a chance to do just that with two shots at the end of the game. He misses both—on purpose? More than likely.

SPOILER ALERT: Jamal pours his heart out in an essay to Forrester about the importance of friendship and family but does not give it to him. He has chosen instead to attend the judging of the writing contest, where he will make an apology to the school. His brother finds the essay and gives it to Forrester, who is moved by what the boy has written. Overcoming his agoraphobia, he goes to the school and asks to read Jamal’s essay. Given his god-like status there,

An unlikely friendship grows stronger.

An unlikely friendship grows stronger.

Forrester reads the essay, and Jamal receives the accolades. The board, above asshole Crawford’s protests, withdraws the plagiarism charges. In an emotional scene, Forrester thanks Jamal for his great gift of friendship and says that he will be going back to his native Scotland for a visit.

The story ends a year later when Forrester’s attorney (Matt Damon!) tells Jamal that Forrester has died of cancer. He had been diagnosed with it before Jamal met him. There is a letter thanking Jamal for giving him the will to go on living, as well as the keys to his apartment for Jamal to have all of his books. And one more thing: a manuscript, the second novel of William Forrester, which is not to be published until Jamal Wallace has written the foreword.

Finding Forrester is a splendid story, and believe it or not, it did well at the box office. Was it the star power of Sean Connery? Or its excellent reviews and word of mouth? Don’t really know—but does it matter?

WRITE ON, OCEANSIDE!

Once again I will be participating in the Write On, Oceanside! Literary Fair on Saturday, July 19th, from 1-4 p.m. This is a free event where participants can meet and talk with Oceanside, California authors (there are lots of us), purchase signed copies of our books, and take part in writing/publishing workshops. For details visit the Oceanside Cultural Arts Foundation website.

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