Three and a Half Stories Tall

“So how’s that writing thing going?”

People generally assume I’m writing something, but if they ask anything specific I shut down, say something trite and sarcastic, and change the subject. Questions about my work like “What’s it called?” or “What’s it about?” tend to only illicit grumpy-bear noises from me. I appreciate that friends and family are interested, but nothing kills a work-in-progress faster than talking about it. If a story comes spilling out of my mouth, it won’t come spilling out of my fingertips and into a keyboard like it’s supposed to. This is a common affliction among writers. If you say it, you won’t write it. Many a terrific story has died a premature death by being spoken out of existence.

Once it’s done, then I can safely blab about it. To that end, there are a couple of new and a couple of old short stories I should mention.

shotgunhoneyAs of today, Table d’hôte is live on Shotgun Honey. This is home to a wide variety of noir flash fiction from authors around the world. Given that their unofficial mascot is Frigga from Thriller: A Cruel Picture (AKA They Call Her One Eye), that legend of Swedish exploitation cinema, I knew I had to submit some material to them. At under 700 words, you should be able to absorb it about as fast as this blog post.

Newly added to the short story section of the Eyestrain homepage is Probe, the very first short story I ever had published, a mere quarter century ago now. It wasn’t my first published work – that happened a year earlier with my scripts for the comic book anthology, Shattered Earth, but we’re still going waaaaaay back into the dusty recesses of the filing cabinet. It’s vaguely cute, kinda funny, so I figured I might as well own up to it and give it a new home.

Underwriter is something much more recent I finished and decided to host here, rather than flog it around to other venues. Mostly because it’s completely self-indulgent. In an effort to exorcise some of the demons from my screenwriting career, I thought I might like to have a go at a few of the meetings I’ve sat through over the years. Yes it’s fiction, but it’s also very much inspired by some sadly all-too-real encounters behind the scenes of the film and television industry. Have fun deciding for yourself how much of it is grotesque exaggeration for comedic effect, and how much of it is grotesque reality for soul-crushing effect.

A little farther down the road, Big Pulp will be reprinting my story, Carrion Luggage (originally from the Island Dreams collection of 2003), in their upcoming zombie anthology. I thought I’d offer it to them because hey, who the hell writes voodoo zombie stories anymore? Apparently nobody. It’s all The Walking/Talking Dead now – George Romero, two generations removed. I figured they’d jump at it as a welcome change of pace to all the flesh eating that goes on with recently reanimated corpses these days. And I was correct. More details (like the actually name of the upcoming collection) will appear in this space when I find out for myself.

I have another half-a-dozen new short stories waiting in the wings as well. I’m still on the fence about exactly what I want to do with them. I feel I should at least go through the motions and give a few of them a fair kick at the can with paying magazines, but my patience with the whole submission process isn’t what it used to be. In the midst of my mid-life crisis (something that’s been going on since I turned 30 – or, if I’m being perfectly honest, 20) I’m less interesting in pursuing the often paltry sums offered for fiction in lieu of just taking the raw material directly to my audience. Editors and gatekeepers too often operate as a barrier between what I write and what ultimately gets read. I feel my material gets filtered quite enough (“butchered” is the more accurate word) in the work I do for the screen. Prose is what I write to relax, so I can say exactly what I mean, warts and all.

I kinda like a good wart every now and then. It adds character.

 

Tommy Can You See Me?

If you don’t know about the phenomenon of cinematic awfulness that is The Room, I’m not going to reiterate it here. Just go read the wiki article about the film and the madman behind it, Tommy Wiseau.

After watching it once, years ago, I thought I was done. I can’t say I ever climbed on board the ironic-cult bandwagon that surrounds what has become everyone’s favourite bad movie since Plan 9 from Outer Space. If anything, I was always a tad more intrigued by the backstory of After Last Season, a much worse movie on every level, but not as entertainingly bad as The Room. Whereas absolutely everything in After Last Season is wrong (every shot, every line, every prop – something is always so very off), the attraction of The Room is the wrongness Wiseau brings to the proceedings as writer, director, producer and star. Everyone else involved in the film is trying to make sense of it all (including a fair number of genuine industry professionals behind the scenes), but none of them can make any headway against the madness-tsunami that is Wiseau. He tears the whole six-million-dollar self-financed vanity project down around him, and there’s nothing anyone can do to prop it up. It’s fascinating to watch.

Eventually I ended up sitting through The Room a second time when Cindy, a friend since we both worked on Radio Active so very long ago, poked me (literally) for six months, asking, “When are we going to watch The Room?” She had been introduced to a highlight reel on YouTube and had become obsessed. My second screening did not disappoint, and I was enlightened as to the benefit of watching The Room with other people who could share in the laughter and horror.

I figured that was it. But recently, word spread that The Room personified was coming to town. The Dollar Cinema (long misnamed since admission is now $2.50 for regular screenings) was hosting a special event with Tommy Wiseau himself, and co-conspirator, co-star, co-producer Greg Sestero. How could we not go?

A trio of us took an afternoon excursion to the Decarie Square mall – one of those economically depressed shopping malls so dead, it would be perfectly safe to seek shelter there in a Dawn of the Dead scenario. Even the zombies would find better places to hang out during the apocalypse. I’d bought tickets online a few days earlier, and although we’d heard the show had sold out, we were unprepared for the epic crowd.

“This mall hasn’t had this many people in it since the ‘80s,” I declared. And I wasn’t joking. I think that was an accurate assessment. We were the better part of an hour early, and already the line of ticket holders was long. It would double by the time we were let in. There was even a lengthy line of people waiting for standby tickets. An entire second screening had been scheduled to meet demand, and it looked like it would be no less crazy.

An pre-movie opportunity to buy merchandise, meet Tommy and Greg, and get shit signed was offered and seized by Cindy and myself. Knowing there was a recent book about the production by Sestero, I took this moment to buy a copy. I’m halfway through The Disaster Artist now, and it’s kind of magnificent – certainly the best Hollywood-underbelly book I’ve read since Nightmare of Ecstasy. It’s a compelling story in the genre I like to call “Normal guy tries to be buddies with weird guy.” As such, the book is a modern day Of Mice and Men, with Tommy in the role of Lennie, excepting the fact that fewer puppies and pretty girls get accidentally strangled. Okay, maybe it’s just a modern day The Cable Guy. Either way, it’s rocketed to the top of my recommended reading list.

Film industry titans, Greg Sestero, myself and Tommy Wiseau. Photo by Lucinda Davis. NB: Greg is wearing a knockoff of the scorpion jacket worn by Ryan Gosling in Drive. Unless, of course, he defeated Gosling in a duel and skinned him alive.

Film industry titans, Greg Sestero, myself and Tommy Wiseau. Photo by Lucinda Davis. NB: Greg is wearing a knockoff of the scorpion jacket worn by Ryan Gosling in Drive. Unless, of course, he defeated Gosling in a duel and is wearing his skin as a trophy following his victory.

Intriguingly, Greg Sestero crossed out his own name before signing. Insanely, Tommy crossed out co-author Tom Bissell's name before signing.

Intriguingly, Greg Sestero crossed out his own name before signing. Insanely, Tommy crossed out co-author Tom Bissell’s name before signing.

Back outside and in line, we heard the crowd erupt into cheers and hoots. Tommy had decided to come out and bask in the love, running the length of the queue to deliver as many high-fives as he could to his adoring fans. Tommy doesn’t seem to smile much (unless you count those unnerving humourless chuckles from his bag of acting tricks), but there seemed to be genuine joy on his face in this moment. He looked like a big shaggy dog let off his leash in an open field after being cooped up in the house all week.

The Running of the Tommy.

The Running of the Tommy.

Cindy looks adoringly at her signed DVD. The ladies get an extra heart-and-arrow scribbling on their merchandise.

Cindy looks adoringly at her signed DVD. The ladies get an extra heart-and-arrow scribbling on their merchandise.

Pete models the sexiest piece of Wiseau memorabilia offered to fans. We can only hope each item was pre-worn by Tommy himself. I know I'd rather have his name on my underwear than that goddamn Hilfiger creep.

Pete models the sexiest piece of Wiseau memorabilia offered to fans. We can only hope each item was pre-worn by Tommy himself. I know I’d rather have his name on my underwear than that goddamn Hilfiger creep.

The Running of the Tommy Part II: The Rebound Lap.

The Running of the Tommy Part II: The Rebound Lap.

Inside the theatre, we were subjected to a surreal Q&A session with the featured star duo. I usually find screening Q&As tedious, filled with bad and awkward questions from the audience that really bring the mood down. In this case, nothing could bring the mood down. It didn’t matter what was asked of him, Tommy was quick with answers that came directly from an alien world in an alternate universe. He was multitasking bizarre queries, photo requests, and film-scene re-enactments in a way only someone completely uninhibited can. It’s astonishing how much you can accomplish when you don’t think about anything before you say or do it. Tommy just runs with it, whatever it may be. He may not arrive anywhere that makes the least bit of sense, but dammit, he’ll get there.

The Q&A. We sat near the very back because we didn't want to get pelted by plastic spoons the whole movie. It was a wise move.

The Q&A. We sat near the very back because we didn’t want to get pelted by plastic spoons the whole movie. It was a wise move.

Pete assumes the crash position, doubling over with laughter during Tommy's barking-mad responses. Cindy watches with awe, admiring a true thespian at work.

Pete assumes the crash position, doubling over with laughter during Tommy’s barking-mad responses. Cindy watches with awe, admiring a true thespian at work.

In the decade-plus since its release, The Room has very much arrived at a Rocky Horror level of cult. I knew about the spoons that would be thrown, the footballs, the people who would inevitably arrive dressed as their favourite character. But I didn’t expect the audience interplay with the film to be as solid as it was. There were some classic reply lines, sing-alongs and Mystery Science Theater 3000 moments. In this post-Oscar season, what’s to be said when the most entertaining picture I’ve seen lately is a piece of crap from 2003 I’d already watched twice before?

Of course, in the wake of this, Cindy wants to watch After Last Season, complete with its paper sets, paper MRI machine, and paper-thin acting. I don’t know if it can hope to match the magnificence of The Room should we gather an audience, but I expect we’ll find out soon enough. The poking has begun, and past experience has shown I can only bear that for six months max before my resolve crumbles.

A Little Pussy

The new kitten is working out well. Having brought the number of cats in my home up to the nice round figure of 846 (by my rough calculation at least), she is settling in well and integrating with all the others. The kitten has secured all the choice spots on the cat-tree-jungle-gym and established the order in which she is to be fed (first). Her development continues at a rapid pace and, as of today, she has safely suffered through a rite of passage that must befall every kitten – falling into a bathtub full of water for the first time. She did so with dignity, grace and surprisingly little panic or alarm.

The interloper in question.

The interloper in question.

Although her socialization with her brethren has gone smoothly, her arrival has thrown the established balance out of whack and thoroughly screwed up the feline sexual politics of the house. Our five-year-old male is particularly confused by the new girl in his life. He doesn’t quite know how to act around her, and this has extended to his sister. Everybody is fixed, so it shouldn’t be much of an issue. Or so I thought.

Last week, I came out of my office late at night to investigate strange noises. They were cat noises, but unlike anything I’d ever heard from my own brood – a vibrating staccato of nervous energy. I looked around for a moment before spotting the male, Finnegan, in what can only be described as a passionate embrace with his sister, Casey. They were in the cat bed that lies beneath an antique telephone table. She had her paws wrapped around him in a hug, he was on top, trying to hump her in the missionary position.

The missionary position. Two cats. Siblings. Fixed.

In the midst of this tryst, they both slowly turned their heads towards me, as though this crime against the natural order of things, this violation of God’s laws, was perfectly ordinary, utterly mundane.

“Yeah? What?” said their bland, indifferent expressions.

To better paint a picture of this precise moment in my life, I have prepared a short film presentation. In this eerily close re-enactment, the part of myself will be played by Shelley Duvall.

Although Mr. Kubrick has remained slavishly faithful to the event as it unfolded, he did take some small artistic licence by giving me a knife and a vagina. Had I a knife, I might have attempted to slay the abomination on sight. Had I a vagina, it’s unlikely I wouldn’t have emerged from my office at all. I’d still be in there obsessing about my brand new vagina. Other than that, it’s pretty much 100% accurate.

Having been discovered in their unnatural act, the cats disengaged. To further distract them from their animalistic urges, I fed them, though it took a while longer for the boy to lose his painfully stubborn erection that caused him to walk around like a hunchback for several minutes after his case of human-induced blue balls. Can a cat even get blue balls when he’s had his testicles surgically removed? Apparently this one can.

I’m still trying to recover from the post-traumatic stress of what I saw, but I feel like I’ve personally witnessed the universe askew – like this was some lesser seal of the apocalypse, a sign of the beast, or a harbinger of the Lord Cthulhu.

I remain shaken to my core and can write no more of the disturbing incident.

A Pot to Piss in

I had a test tube of urine sitting on my desk all weekend.

No, I haven’t taken to drinking my own piss as a means of self-cleansing. I drink so much coffee, it would probably just taste like Columbian beans anyway, so why not just stick with coffee? As things-on-my-desk go, a test tube brimming with pee isn’t particularly out of place. Other things current sitting on my desk include a denarius of Clodius Albinus (from the brief period he stood as a usurper Augustus operating out of Lugdunum), a McDonald’s apple pie now in its 26th year of existence, a Lego minifigure of Christopher Lee, an alien-queen paperweight made entirely out of welded together hardware-store junk and bicycle chains, a 250 million year old trilobite fossil, a le Roy mechanical pocket watch from the 1950s and, inevitably, a cup of black coffee.

I wasn’t expecting to add urine to the collection, and I was eager to get rid of it. I found myself unexpectedly saddled with the burden last Friday when I went for a blood and urine test at the brand-spanking-new CLSC (centre local de services communautaires for the acronym-impaired (community service centre for the French-impaired)) around the corner. Purely a formality of my annual check-up, I popped over in the morning after the requisite 14-hour fast to get jabbed and bled.

The new facility had all the bells and whistles socialized medicine has to offer, including a touch-screen numbered-ticket dispenser, an elderly security guard to explain how touch screens work to the elderly patrons, a display monitor that goes “ping” when it’s your turn to check in at the counter, and bloated bureaucratic oafs to make sure it all runs as inefficiently as possible in the face of technological advancements in efficiency.

The bleeding part went smoothly. The urine part, not so much.

I’ll admit, my urine sample’s failure to launch was entirely my fault. The blood-test unit is only open in the morning, and closed by 9:00 am. That meant setting an alarm and getting up early. Mornings aren’t my thing, so I typically rely on autopilot to see me through my washing and dressing and eating a bowl of Shreddies (when I’m not fasting for a blood test). Purely on autopilot, I also indulged in my morning piss that day. Which meant I had nothing to offer by the time I was supposed to produce for my urinalysis.

I wish I could say this was the first time I’d done this to myself.

After the blood test, I sat in the waiting room, a bar-coded personalized specimen receptacle in my pocket, waiting for the magic to happen. In a concerted effort to force the aforementioned magic to happen, I made frequent trips to the water fountain to stockpile ammunition. A series of trips to a bathroom stall amounted to nothing but performance anxiety. I had a gallon of water sloshing around inside me, but my kidneys insisted on operating on their own schedule, in their own due time. Not unlike government-payroll bureaucrats, but I digress.

After nearly an hour of languishing in the waiting room, listening to a pair of grandmotherly junkie-rehab patients talk about the social dynamics of their halfway house, I was finally ready to perform. After squeezing out the first few drops through willpower alone, the floodgates opened and I was able to summon enough urine for a sample. More than enough. Much more than enough.

“Where were you?” I yelled at my copious stream of piss.

It offered no excuses.

Eagerly, I sealed the tube, returned it to its designated plastic bag, and rushed it to the clinic down the hall – which was locked tight for the day. It was past 9:00. Bugger.

I asked around and determined that, although no one would accept my sample because the daily shipment of bodily fluids had already departed for a lab across town, I could drop it off on Monday morning.

And so the piss sat, waiting patiently on my desk. Only last night did I empty the tube, rinsing it out and preparing it for a fresh morning sample. I left the empty tube in plain sight on the toilet tank where even my autopilot couldn’t fail to spot it.

This morning I embarked to drop off my new and improved sample like a good little patient. Returning to the CLSC, I avoided eye contact with any security guard eager to redundantly school me on how to use a touch-screen, and got my ticket number for a “sample delivery” with a single painfully obvious poke at a digital button.

It wasn’t long before I was called to the desk. I presented the plastic bag with a clear tube full of golden goodness.

“Where’s your requisition form?” demanded the all-too typical overpaid, over-unionized, under-motivated government stooge. Although there was no attempt to communicate what this requisition form entailed, the tone of her voice communicated so much more. Boredom and distaste mostly.

“I was told to drop this off here Monday morning.”

“You can’t do that without a requisition form.”

“That’s not what I was told.”

“We can’t accept it. This could be from anywhere.”

“My dick hole. That’s where it’s from,” I said with my sarcastic inside voice.

“It has a name and a bar code on it,” I said with my sarcastic outside voice.

I dropped the name of “Louise,” one of her co-workers who I’d discussed this with on Friday. The personal touch seemed to provoke some movement from the sloth-like government lummox. They don’t like it when you know their names. It gives you power. It arms you with a finger to point at somebody specific if you go over their heads to complain. She grunted and rose to her feet, lumbering off with my bag-o-piss.

“Louise, Louise, Louise…” she repeated, an annoyed mantra that suggested there would be hell to pay. Grunting, irritable, whining hell.

Realizing she’d made the terrible mistake of leaving the area with my sample in hand and not a single word of “excuse me” or “wait here, please,” I seized the opportunity and stealthily left the building like a ninja Keyser Soze. Poof, I was gone.

I expect one day, after the collapse of western civilization (which, I’m reliable informed, may happen as soon as next Tuesday morning around 10:30), my urine will be discovered by future archaeologists, still in its bar-coded test tube, safely ensconced in a ziplock biohazard baggie, forgotten at the bottom of a filing cabinet drawer. Or maybe the government worker bee just threw it away. I don’t know. She could have drank it for all I care. I don’t expect the lab technicians are likely to discover the secrets of the universe when they read the tea leaves (and coffee beans) that comprise the discharged contents of my bladder.

Perhaps the archaeologists will have more luck when it’s their turn to analyse my piss sometime in the post-apocalypse.

For those simulated-city-building nerds who expressed interest in my plug for Luke Hodorowicz’s incredible solo project, Banished, here’s a reminder that the game debuts tomorrow, February 18. It will be available through Steam (and elsewhere) for twenty bucks. Money well-spent if the hours of gameplay videos I’ve watched are any indication. I’ve been following the devlog for this project for over a year now, and it’s great to see it finally made available to all the eager fans who have been dying to play, myself very much included. Congratulations, Luke.

The Five Most Unkillable Characters on The Walking Dead

I hate how trendy zombies have become. What used to be a tiny niche of a horror subgenre has become an overexposed industry. Zombies have become tedious in much the same way Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer made vampires tedious. Admittedly, zombie romance isn’t that prevalent (although it certainly exists) and I’ve yet to see a single flesh-eater sparkle in the sunlight, but the ghouls have gone from horrifying and nightmarish to mainstream and cuddly.

That’s the downside. The upside is that there’s so much zombie product being churned out for all forms of media, the law of averages dictates that at least some of it turns out to be excellent.

I’ve been a zombie advocate for many years, dating back to where there were scant few examples of this now-ubiquitous trope. In the days of my youth there were only four viable entries in the cinematic niche of flesh-eating reanimated corpses: Romero’s Living Dead trilogy (back when it was only a trilogy) and the branching sequel Return of the Living Dead (the best of the zombie comedies until Shaun of the Dead arrived many years later).

And no, do not talk to me about Zombi 2 (the Italian pseudo-sequel to Dawn of the Dead – which was released in Italy as “Zombi”). Sure it had a classic injury-to-eye moment, but that’s pretty much the only thing in the entire movie that wasn’t stupid and worthless. One good gore effect does not a good zombie film make.

These days, in the midst of this glut of new material, some projects stand out amongst the fad’s cash-in fodder. The Walking Dead, now in its fourth year on AMC, is at the head of the pack – an ambitious, epic tale of survivors (who frequently fail to survive at all), derived from the hit comic book series of the same name. Fans have been left hanging since the mid-season climax late last year, waiting for the second half to pick up from the wrenching events we last witnessed. That’s the thing with The Walking Dead – you’re compelled to keep watching, even though you know awful horrific things are going to keep happening, often to a character you like.

WDdontlookbackAs a professional screenwriter, I always watch shows with a mind bent on figuring out who might live or die, who’s guilty of a crime, or which couples might pair up. I don’t do this by examining evidence and making sound deductions. I do it by observing character arcs and determining who has been played out, built up, purposely sidelined, or creatively cast. It’s a talent and a curse. I’m rarely surprised (Games of Thrones’ red wedding only elicited a shrug and a “meh, figures” from me rather than the intended horror and disbelief, for example) but I do still derive pleasure from watching a magic trick well performed, even when I know how it’s done on a technical level.

Since The Walking Dead has a reputation for being an anybody-can-die-at-any-time kind of show, I thought I’d put my money where my mouth is and make a few predictions. Here are the five most unkillable characters, according to me. Rest assured, if you like them, they are in no imminent danger. Unless I’m full of shit.

Number One: Carl. You can’t kill Carl because he represents hope for the future. He walks the road to hell like a post-apocalypse Daigoro to his father’s Ogami Itto. We may be seeing the story unfold largely through Rick’s eyes, but his experiences ripple down to his son. Whatever lessons Rick learns along the way, are ultimately Carl’s to benefit from and to carry into the post-post-apocalypse period, some time currently unforeseeable, when the dead stop walking the Earth.

Number Two: Daryl. When he made his first appearance in season one, he looked like trouble. I had him pegged for the first live human who would have to be murdered for the safety of the group. But removed from the bad influence of his brother, he started to come around. Then he got awesome and quickly became a fan favourite. Although the TV series isn’t married to anything that’s happened in the comic book source material, Daryl’s ultimate fate is wide open because he’s one of the few major characters created exclusively for the show. As long as fans keep cheering on the crossbow-wielding hick, he’s safe. And why would they stop cheering him on? I mean, the dude TOOK OUT A TANK single-handed in the mid-season climax. He’s a goddamn superhero.

Number Three: Rick. Killing off the main character would be problematic, but not impossible. It’s highly unlikely they’ll ever get rid of the character, except perhaps in a series finale. The only thing that could do Rick in before that moment is a bad round of contract negotiations with Andrew Lincoln’s management. If an actor becomes too expensive, the writer’s room will be given the task of disposing of him quickly and brutally. Money is king in Hollywood, and nobody is indispensable if they threaten the bottom line.

Number Four: Michonne. I won’t discount the possibility of her going out in some heroic blaze of glory in a future season, but right now she’s far too awesome to dispatch. I’m not making a serious romantic prediction here, but I feel I should point out that if Daryl and Michonne hooked up, they could repopulate the world with a warrior caste of asskickery. I also think they’d make a cute couple because Michonne has melee encounters covered with her katana, while Daryl can lend support with ranged combat. Oops. Sorry, that’s my video game/RPG geekiness leaking through. This is supposed to be about zombie geekiness. I’ll try not to mix my poisons.

Number Five: Judith. This is going out on a limb because she might already be dead. The last we saw of her was a blood stain in a stroller. But I’m betting she was ushered to safety by her entourage of little-kid bodyguards. The show has been pretty uncompromisingly ballsy, but I don’t think they have it in them to kill off a baby. Not at this moment, at least. As for the comics… Well, we’ve already seen that the original comic books make the TV show look like a Disney cartoon. For example – if you haven’t read the graphic-novel collections – let’s just say that the dispute between Michonne and The Governor was over rather more than a single poked-out eyeball. Killing Sophia was an early indication of the series’ big brass balls, but I know there are some suit-and-tie executives behind the scenes, wringing their hands as they count all the money, worrying that bumping off a baby will alienate too many TV viewers and adversely affect ratings. I’m sure there’s a memo or two circulating the production office to that effect. Whether this is a note or a decree will be confirmed soon enough.

Are these predictions bold or safe, daring or banal? I don’t know. I’m probably just shooting the shit because I like good zombie material and I want to help alleviate some of the viewer anxiety people experience when they watch this sort of thing and fret over their beloved characters who never seem to be free of mortal peril and gnashing teeth.

I know how it feels. I guess I still haven’t recovered from that day I first watched Roger and Flyboy take a bite for the team.

Spat at in the Face

I find spitting repugnant. I don’t like watching other people do it, and I don’t care to do it myself. When I absolutely must spit out some distasteful wad of phlegm, I do so with an offended face that serves not only as an expression of how I feel about the experience, but as a silent apology to whoever may stand in witness of the event. It’s me saying, in effect, “I know this is gross. I’m disgusted too. I’m so very sorry for the both of us that this had to happen.”

“Where does this come from?” is a question you may well ask. “Geez, you’re weird. Are you in therapy?” is another one that might come up.

The second answer is a quick and easy, “No.” I don’t need the help of some professional headshrinker to search through my repressed memories and figure out what exact traumas turned me into the asshole you see before you today. I’ve long since traced all my quirks and ticks back to specific moments in my developing years. I know where they come from. And it doesn’t do me a bit of good.

I’ve found that knowing the precise origin of all my phobias, buttons and mental disorders has been no help whatsoever in curing them. It’s like having total recall of the time, place and serial number of the thresher that mulched your hand off. You know where you lost it and how, but it doesn’t help you grow your hand back.

For example, I can name the girl who crushed all future romantic confidence with women out of me before puberty was even a looming threat. I can quote the cruel words said to me in childhood by another young boy that would convince me to never sing another note again in my life (up to and including all those birthday parties when the cake comes out). And I can also name the three key instances that forever turned spitting from a basic biological function into a vile and despicable act I can hardly stomach. I know where it all comes from. But the damage is done, and I can’t fix my brain now. All I can do is accept my irrational reactions to certain things, acknowledge that they’re irrational, understand their origins, and then go on feeling the same damn way.

My aversion to spitting began during an unfortunate shortcut on my way to elementary school one morning. I was running late and the area was vacant. All the kids were indoors already. The only people in sight were three teenagers from a nearby high school. In this era, when school boards were still divided along religious lines, we were all told to steer clear of that particular high school because it was full of angry young Catholic boys. They were angry not so much because they were Catholic, but because all the slutty young Catholic girls had been sent off to be schooled at the inconveniently distant Queen of Angels. As a result, they had a lot of pent up hostility they needed to work out. Kicking the asses of the Protestant grade-schoolers a few blocks away was one possible outlet.

In order to avoid a direct confrontation with these suspicious teens who were headed my way, I decided to scale the school fence and take the well-travelled shortcut over a flattened-out section of barbed wire that allowed easy access to dozens of kids daily who were too lazy to walk the extra thirty yards to the gate. I was halfway over the fence when my paranoia was validated. The three towering teenagers ran over and grabbed me by the jacket, leaving me dangling on the opposite side of the fence, unable to escape. An ass-kicking might have ensued had I still been on their side, but it proved impossible for them to haul me back over the top. Instead, they satisfied themselves with shouting abuse. And then one of them spat in my face before they finally released me and I fell to the ground on the other side. Wiping the vile hood’s copious saliva off my face, I walked the rest of the way to school crying, while they busied themselves throwing discarded cans and bottles at me for as long as I was in range. The refuse all missed, but the spit had been dead on target.

First lesson learned: People are shit and will assault you randomly for no other reason than to be mean. The seeds of misanthropy were planted. I was seven.

One day, while still attending that school, my class was subjected to the ritual of being introduced to a new student who had just moved to town. He was a little waif of a kid named Patrick, alone among strangers, isolated as an outsider. Just a few short minutes after the introduction, the students of my class were gathered in the hall in preparation to march us to the audio/visual room to watch an educational film. I found myself standing behind Patrick as the line was formed.

Understanding how difficult it must have been for him on his first day in a new school with so many new people, I decided to introduce myself. I tapped him on the shoulder and Patrick turned to see what I wanted.

“Hi!” I declared in my friendliest, most welcoming tone.

And instantly, like some expectorating dromedary who’d neglected to swallow for the last couple of hours, he spat skillfully and precisely in my face. Never saying a word, he turned back around, eyes forward, and concentrated on queuing once again.

Second lesson learned: Never talk to strangers or try to make new friends. I was eight.

On another occasion, I was driving with my parents in the family car. It was summer, the windows were down, and a cool breeze was blowing. We had just taken a curve near the airport, surrounded by light traffic, when the driver of a car somewhere up ahead decided to spit out his own open window.

Through some incalculable magic of physics and complexity theory, this flying glob of snotty mucus navigated the wind currents with the skill of a seaborne starling, crossed a lane of high-speed highway traffic, and was sucked into the open passenger-side window of our car, only to hit me squarely in the face, all the way in the back seat where I had incorrectly assumed I was safely ensconced against an assault by some random stranger’s bodily fluids. It took me a few moments to realize what had happened, but once the confusion had passed, the horror set in and I knew, at last, that I was cursed.

Third lesson learned: Random, horrible things will happen to you for no reason whatsoever other than the fact that the universe just sucks. I was nine.

Most people get through their entire lives without being spat at in the face. I managed to get nailed three times before I was out of my first decade. Is this bad luck, bad karma, or me simply being the repeat victim of a bad habit? I don’t know. But aside from offering me some valuable life lessons, my whole spitting aversion has taught me one very important thing which I shall share with you.

And it’s this: I’m totally going to fucking kill the next motherfucker who spits in my face.

You’ve been warned, universe.

Ad-Dressed

I was outside at 3:00 am last night, pacing back and forth on my stoop in the middle of a winter wind storm, quietly whistling the Mothra song to myself (don’t ask) as I tried to shake off a headache with a combination of fresh air, Advil and tea. It’s in moments like these that I worry some insomniac neighbour will spot me, get creeped out, and summon the police. I make no apologies for being an eccentric, which is challenging because, being Canadian, I feel compelled to apologise for everything.

For the better part of an hour, I walked back and forth on the same stretch of ice, trying not to slip, soaking up the drizzle, and thinking about work. Not the paying kind of work – the stuff that holds me under contract to produce pages on a deadline – but about the work that matters. The work I do for myself.

I still have a tremendous backlog of material that needs to be scanned or edited and then put into the posting queue for Eyestrain Productions. Plus there remain many other projects in various unfinished states that I want to wrap up and get in front of people – specifically, you. Yes, you. Since you’re the target audience, I don’t want to dick around with the middlemen anymore. Visits are up, the number of website followers is on the rise, and I see little benefit in sitting on stories, hoping to place them with some anthology, printed or online, for peanuts. I’ve grown weary of the gatekeepers. My interest in submitting stories to editors who don’t understand my sense of humour, or pitching films and television series to development executives who are – let’s be polite here – short sighted, has waned.

To that end, there’s a new short story called “Special” online. Getting people to read internet fiction is always an uphill battle, so let me entice you in the most cynical way I know how: this one involves cosplay sex. Yeah, it’s a bit pervy. Can you feel the irresistible pull? Don’t resist it, you’ll hurt yourself.

In no way should this be construed as being based on my own experiences signing shit in San Diego and at other comic-book conventions. My time on the bourse floor was never so interesting or rewarding. But there was plenty of inspiration to be had, much of which inevitably filtered down into this story. As usual, you can decide for yourself where reality ends and where my particular brand of bullshit begins.

All the News That’s Unfit to Air

I don’t watch CNN anymore. I can’t.

I try sometimes. I flip channels to get a sense of what’s on regular old television (which I barely watch anymore either). I check CTV News to see if Rob Ford fell down today, I swing by History Television to see if there’s any history-related programming on (there never is). Then I stop on CNN and wait to hear some bit of news, some headline that might grab my attention or inform me as to what’s going on in the world. About thirty seconds later, I turn the channel is disgust and acute irritation. CNN doesn’t do news anymore. Journalism? Reporting? Investigation? Please! That’s so 20th Century. This is the age of infotainment. And CNN, always on the cutting edge, has taken the next logical step past infotainment, refining it to the point that it no long contains any trace elements of information or entertainment. The only possible way CNN could be less insightful is to broadcast a test pattern 24 hours a day. And that might actually be a step up. At least a test pattern informs you that your television is on and working. CNN, as it now stands, can’t even assure me of that.

Is this thing on? It is? Oh, good. Thanks, CNN.

Is this thing on? It is? Oh, good. Thanks, CNN.

As an experiment, for the first time in a very long while, I made an effort to watch an entire hour of unabridged, uninterrupted, un-channel-surfed CNN, and see what it had to offer. I wanted to give it every chance to prove that my random 30-second samplings were merely ill-timed, and that if I put the time in I would be treated to some proper news, researched by proper journalists.

I sat down a few days ago, in the late afternoon, and this is what I learned watching sixty full minutes of headline news on CNN. I’m not leaving anything out. This was every story covered.

1. The Duck Dynasty douchebag said some more stupid shit. This was the “political lead.”

2. Netflix is adding 26 movie titles to their roster, including Good Burger (no mention of the many other titles they’re dropping, including a great many classics).

3. A fired NFL player is having issues with his ex-coach over homophobic remarks.

4. A lottery winner just remembered he had a winning ticket lying around somewhere.

5. It’s cold and snowy out. Bad weather in winter? Stop the presses!

6. It’s so cold, you might not want to sit out in a sports stadium. Because, brrrr!

7. The new, improved pope is packing in tourists at the Vatican.

8. Clay Aiken might go into politics. Maybe.

9. Car sales are up (no mention that this might be because even potted plants and single-celled organisms are being offered car loans these days).

And although it was only a promo, this was probably the most compelling bit of information offered:

10. CNN will be running March of the Penguins in prime time – which should offer them a 90-minute break from running more non-news the evening it airs.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Fukushima is in the process of becoming the single greatest disaster in human history (and will continue to be a globally damaging disaster for the next ten thousand years or so). The world economy is poised to collapse like a house of cards in a hurricane. The United States has descended into a war-mongering police state, with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights currently in flames. Japan and China are considering going to war over a few pimple-sized islands that happen to have oil. Saudi Arabia has been trying to provoke more war in the Middle East because you can never have enough. And all those depleted uranium shells the U.S. shot at everyone throughout the last couple of Middle-Eastern wars are causing horrific birth defects and promise to be radioactive for millions of years longer than Fukushima could ever dream of.

Of course CNN won’t cover these stories because there’s no sexy car-chase video to go with them, no celebrities twerking and, let’s face it, as news stories they’re all kinda bummers. Depressing news doesn’t get good ratings and, believe me, if there’s one thing CNN knows plenty about, it’s bad ratings.

I had high hopes for CNN just a few short years ago. It seemed like they were taking some of the criticism to heart. They dumped Rick Sanchez for being a moron, Lou Dobbs for being an asshole, and cancelled Crossfire for being terrible. Unfortunately, the purge didn’t end there, and they also unloaded every investigative journalist they ever worked with, including real deals like Michael Ware and Amber Lyon, as well as all the behind-the-scenes staff that did petty busywork – like fact checking and research. You know, boring crap.

Oh, but they made sure to retain the big names that best define what CNN is all about. Familiar faces like Wolf Blitzer, owner of the great American beard that grows out of his slack jaw, Anderson Cooper, the silver-haired silver-spooned rich kid who grew up interning with the CIA (no conflict of interest there, and we assure you he is no longer a CIA asset in any way shape or form) and, of course, Richard Quest – a guy so classy, he got busted in Central Park for trying to be a pickup artist with a rope tied around his neck and cock, armed with a sex toy and a pocket full of crystal meth. Really, that happened. But you wouldn’t know it if you get your news from CNN. Surprisingly, they didn’t cover it.

CNN, you never cease to disappoint. At least Jon Stewart managed to get rid of Crossfire after that notorious interview where he successfully articulated what a vulgar sham the whole pseudo-debate show was. He buried that piece of crap good and deep…

Wait, what? Oh, I see. Crossfire is back on the air, with a whole new cast of idiots, worse than ever.

Nevermind.

Tumbleweeds at the Box Office

At the end of every December, I’m used to someone asking me what the best film of the year was, because I’m known as the guy who watches shitloads of movies. This is always a hard question to answer, because by the end of any given year I haven’t seen all of the noteworthy movies that came out over the past twelve months. In fact, it will probably take me a few more years to be able to speak definitively on said given year. By now, I feel I might have the authority to weigh in on the best of 2010. I may be pretty solid on 2011. But I doubt I’m fully qualified to eulogize the year 2012 yet, and 2013 is out of the question. Hell, I haven’t even been out to take a look at the second part of The Hobbit. Sure I’ve seen more than most people, but there remain plenty of titles to catch up on.

“What’s the best western this year?”

That was a question I was asked only two days ago. And it was such a specific, narrow question, I had to respond right away. I felt I was qualified to answer this one.

“The Lone Ranger.”

Amidst the laughter: “It was that bad a year for westerns?”

Yes it was. And no it wasn’t.

The Lone Ranger earned this year’s epitaph of “Biggest Box Office Bomb.” And it was hardly surprising. The Lone Ranger has had his day. Starting as a radio show in 1933, the character has been played out. He was a hero once upon a time, harking back to more innocent times, but today appears corny and sentimental. Catch phrases and theme music remain recognizable clichés, but are rapidly fading from the collective cultural memory. This is no longer a franchise brand name that will pack in an audience. Today’s target audience doesn’t know who The Lone Ranger or Tonto is and has no Lone Ranger movie or TV show from their childhood to draw them to the theatre through nostalgic manipulation.

There have been other attempts to dust off the white hat and the black mask. The Legend of the Lone Ranger flopped in 1981, as did a TV movie/attempted pilot in 2003. Not taking the hint, Hollywood took yet another stab at it this year, hedging its bets with much of the creative force behind the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, including Johnny Depp as Tonto, and a budget and marketing campaign in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The results were disastrous, nobody turned out to see it, and those few who did hated it.

At least, that’s the perception. The reality is a little more complicated.

First off, the film has earned more than 260 million dollars worldwide so far. That’s a lot of bums-in-seats, each of them holding a freshly purchased ticket. In the mad accounting world of contemporary Hollywood, however, this qualifies as a bomb, because the film cost 225 to 250 million to make (nobody even knows for sure because, hey, what’s 25 million more or less, right?), plus another 150 million to market. We’re still in the early days of its DVD release, and it’s barely begun making the rounds of cable TV outlets. Given enough time to accumulate future rental fees and international television broadcast sales, The Lone Ranger might yet break even or even turn a small profit. But the perception of it being a bomb will never change (just like Waterworld which, a generation later, is still synonymous with “bloated Hollywood bomb” despite having been in profit for many years now).

But the real question is: is the movie any damn good?

Well, no. And yes.

Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer, Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, and pretty much everyone else involved in the production down to the caterers have all come out and said it’s a misunderstood classic that will be embraced in future years by new viewers giving it a fresh look. They are, of course, wrong. But I understand why they think this, because they were really trying to make a good movie (as opposed to a cynical cash-grab with a name-brand sure thing). And they didn’t entirely fuck it up. Chip away at all the excess and gobs of money and overblown CGI-laden action sequences and you’ll find, lying somewhere beneath the muddled surface, the best possible Lone Ranger movie we’re ever likely to see given the hackneyed concept.

It’s Little Big Man with better old-man makeup, I quipped after my screening. And I wasn’t really joking. The whole movie is told through the eyes of an old, decrepit Tonto – a character who is probably senile at this point, and is certainly (as the rest of the movie testifies) insane. Thus, if everything that follows falls under the “unreliable narrator” literary device, all the crazy shit that unfolds (bad CGI included) is forgivable. It’s rendered acceptable for being how a demented character misremembers the details of his own life.

This jumbled Photoshop nightmare fails as an advertisement, but does convey the busy mess of the film it promotes. Does it represent the story being told, or the crazed ramblings of a mad Indian?

This jumbled Photoshop nightmare fails as an advertisement, but succeeds in conveying the busy mess of the film it promotes. Does it represent the story being told, or the ramblings of a mad Indian?

What ensues in this crazed flashback is a mishmash of aboriginal mysticism, silly action sequences, and a movie that makes the traditional hero the sidekick, and the sidekick the stealth protagonist (a trick you may remember from Big Trouble in Little China – which is an apt movie comparison on several other levels as well). Fun and games and wholesome family entertainment follows – with lots of violence, cannibalism and genocide thrown in for good measure. It’s not so much that the movie can’t pick a tone, it’s that it wants to do a bit of everything and just runs with it.

One explanation we’re given for where Tonto’s head is at in the film is, “His mind is broken.” So is the rest of the movie. Yet both keep moving forward with a dogged determination to see their disorder through to the finish.

So yeah, I guess I kinda liked it. And I’ll still call it the best western of the year, even though there were one or two other entries in the genre worth mentioning. But man, pickings are slim.

Westerns have had a rough time in recent decades. The genre has been declared dead more often than Rasputin. What started as a glut throughout the first sixty years of cinema has tapered off to a few meagre offerings here and there. Occasionally something happens to revitalize the genre, like the spaghetti-western revolution of the 1960s, or the low-key gritty realism Unforgiven brought to the table. But between rare major releases and the occasional indie gem, the modern western wanders lost in the plains. Sometimes a misguided project tries to revitalize the old tropes by adding something to the mix – like vampires or aliens – usually with terrible results. It’s like they’re trying too hard to make people like a genre that’s fallen out of favour, rather than let the western be what it needs to be.

“But I don’t like westerns,” is a lament I often hear.

If you say you don’t like westerns, you might as well say you don’t like stories. Because all a western is, is a time and a place. Once you get past that fact, you can tell any story you care to whatsoever. The big sky is the limit. Even the location and period can be fudged and still have the end result be called a western (witness Lonely Are the Brave, set in its release-date time period of 1962, or Quigley Down Under, which relocated all the familiar trappings to Australia).

Although you can safely declare the chances of a Lone Ranger sequel dead on arrival, the American (and sometimes European) western remains a viable engine that will continue to draw talented writers and directors to try their hand at it. How many investors and moneymen it draws in future is another matter. The damage a 400 million dollar perceived failure causes will ripple for years. Don’t expect any giant-budget westerns to be greenlit for a long time.

Luckily, the best westerns tend to be the product of modest budgets. I hope to have a better answer at the end of 2014 should someone ask me again, “What was the best western this year?”

Sweetwater gets honourable mention for being the most nihilistic western of the year. NB: This one was shot, with a cast of names, for only seven million. It probably didn’t make its money back either.

Sweetwater gets honourable mention for being the most nihilistic western of the year. NB: This one was shot, with a cast of names, for only seven million. It probably didn’t make its money back either.

The Morbidity Before Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve, and is there ever a time when it’s more appropriate to give a gift? Especially if that gift is the wrong size and colour and can’t conveniently be returned to the store for a cash refund? Well I have a very special gift just for you (and whoever else in the world happens to have an internet connection – but really, this one’s expressly from me to you). That’s okay, you didn’t have to get me anything. I’m hard to shop for. An envelope stuffed with cash will do in a pinch, or you can always go hunting for my well-camouflaged donate button, hidden and misnamed at the bottom of my About page where no one will ever stumble across it, even accidentally. No pressure, no guilt.

The present? Oh right, the present. I wrote you story – my new-to-the-public short story, It’s the Thought That Counts – a heartwarming family history that begins, conveniently enough, on Christmas Eve.

Crickets? Do I hear crickets? It’s freezing cold and the snow is ass-deep out there. It seems terribly unseasonable for crickets. I’ll have to look into that.

Before you go diving under the tree for another gift-wrapped box with your name on it, hoping against hope that the next present in line will be way more awesome – something along the lines of socks, underwear, or a tie perhaps – take a closer look at what I just gave you, you ungrateful asshole. It’s free internet content. Okay, it’s not a YouTube video of a cat trying to act cool after pulling down the Christmas tree on top of itself, or your adorable second-cousin’s nephew belching “O Holy Night” after downing three Red Bulls in less than thirty seconds. It’s a bunch of text, which requires much more intellectual heavy lifting to appreciate than a video you can stare at and zone out to. Reading is hard, vegging to viddies is easy. But engaging with the written word is so much more rewarding. And after all, how likely are you to find something as troubling and morbid as one of my stories by randomly surfing YouTube or following the links of your Facebook friends? Well, I guess that depends on your friends. But if you’re looking for some more of that Eyestrain-brand gallows humour for the holidays, it’s only a click away, right here, right now.

Mood-setting clip art in the sidebar aside, the story is, admittedly, a solid block of prose. If you want something with more pictures – of a sort – you can also check out The Awfuls under my new Comic Strips section. I stealthily threw that up on the site a few weeks ago and never made an official announcement here. More strips will follow just as soon as I can be bothered to dig them out of deep storage and fire up the scanner.

When looking for some well-earned time away from your family, their awkward drinking, and their baseless alcohol-fuelled accusations this holiday season, feel free to seek a brief respite here at Eyestrain Productions. Because I’m not going anywhere. The gears of western commerce may have ground for a halt for the Christmas-to-New Year stretch, but I’m still working away late into the night – even though I’m owed money and everybody who can sign their name to my cheques has gone on vacation. The chains to my desk remain locked and my bony fingers still scratch away at the keyboard, day after day. Who has the time for such trifling things as seasonal cheer?

Call me Scrooge if you must, but I’m really only one gimpy kid away from being Bob Cratchit.