My Coolest Story From Comic Con 2014

Sergio Out Take 3I’m a bit late in posting this, but I wanted to share the coolest thing I saw at San Diego Comic Con two weeks ago. I took no pictures (wish I had) so I guess you’re gonna have to take my word for it. But Sergio Aragones is a genuinely nice man, and I think he’ll bear this story out if you just ask him.

Whenever I go I invariably see celebrities, and my daughter and her friend always grill me about who I saw. This year crossing the street I could’ve reached out and slapped Chris ‘Captain America’ Evans on the shoulder (and got my arm broken by his entourage for it), I shared a train with Anthony Head, and spied Robert Carlyle on the corner with his little girl hanging on his arm.

But I haven’t braved the colossal lines of Hall H since they announced the title for Revenge Of The Sith, and I don’t really go to star watch anyway. It’s Comic Con. I go to buy comics and just generally gawk and mingle.

So I’m a big Sergio Aragones fan, a big Groo The Wanderer fan. I don’t think you can be a fan of Robert E. Howard’s Conan without liking Groo – or you shouldn’t. It’s wonderful social satire centering around a bumbling barbarian parody of Conan. One of the first comics I ever collected, and filled marging to margin with astounding art. For those that don’t know, Sergio Aragones is one of the best artists working today – a living legend. He’s an Eisner Award winning cartoonist who began his career doodling in the margins of Mad Magazine and he’s probably the fastest cartoonist alive. He’s….aw heck, just look at these samples.

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Mad #500-028-29The way Sergio fills a page is nothing short of extraordinary. A running joke in the pages of Groo was the exasperation of colorist Tom Luth who had to inject color into these staggeringly detailed crowd scenes….a task involved enough to drive anybody insane, but which Luth performed admirably on a monthly basis for a number of years. Sergio packs his splash pages with dynamic individuals and a myriad of hidden side jokes.  The only artist that comes close to what Sergio does, in my opinion, is Geoff Darrow.geoffReally, if I had the money to commission them both, and if they were willing, my dream is to have two pieces of art hanging side by side on my wall, one featuring Groo slicing his way through one of Geoff’s backgrounds, and the other of Darrow’s Shaolin Cowboy fighting through an army of Sergio’s cartoon denizens.

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Anyway, all gushing aside, I always make it a point to stop by Sergio’s table when I’m at San Diego. It’s always a treat to see what he’s up to, and just listen to him, and once his wife baked a plate of awesome brownies for everybody.  This year I was in line to pick up a copy of his new Groo Vs. Conan comic (something I’ve anticipated for decades), and he was telling a story to the guy in front of me out of the pages of Sergio Aragones Funnies, his anthology series of illustrated autobiographical anecdotes (he has led a fascinating life). I had read somewhere his father had once been a line producer on movies in Mexico, but he was talking about his dad’s work on the movie Animas Trujano, which featured his (and my own) idol Toshiro Mifune as a Mexican revolutionary.

animas-trujanoMifune is one of the all-time great Japanese film actors, who solidified his place in history in movies like Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai. He was the John Wayne to Akira Kurosawa’s John Ford, like DeNiro to Martin Scorcese, and if he’s been in a bad movie I’ve frankly never seen it. Apparently Animas Trujano, as absurd as his casting may sound, was no exception – Sergio said it was nominated for the Mexican Academy Award, and a little internet digging confirms this.  Sergio told us Mifune didn’t know a word of Spanish, but learned his lines phonetically, like Shih Kien in Enter The Dragon. As we were geeking out about this cool little inside story, Sergio pulled the topper, the thing that put this neat little moment over the edge for me. He reached into his thick, worn wallet, dug a bit, and produced one of those old Kodak photographs where the colors are mostly orange and a bit blown out and there’s a white border around the image – those kind you don’t see anymore and is basically only preserved in Instagram filters and crackling old photo albums.  In the picture are two sun reddened men with their arms over each other’s shoulders buddy style, smiling at the camera through their brushy black whiskers. From the peon costume of one of the men it looked almost like a behind the scenes still from a Sergio Leone movie, as if Gian Maria Volonte had taken a break in his Indio costume and taken a shot with a friend on the crew.

“Here’s a picture of my father on set with Mifune,” he said. “He really looked Mexican.”

Totally blown away. Knowing my tastes as readers of this blog may, it was like all the stars of my fandom aligned perfectly at once in some kind of Great Conjunction. I was standing at San Diego Comic Con, talking with one of my all-time favorite artists, looking at a candid, unpublished photo of one of my all-time favorite actors.

I felt weird asking to take a picture of him holding a personal photo of his dad, so I didn’t. But next time you’re at Sergio’s table, if you’re a Mifune fan, ask to see it.

animastrujano2

 

 

Published in: on August 4, 2014 at 10:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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From Pompeii To The Endeavour

Visited the California Science Center yesterday to see the Pompeii exhibit.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThe Ancient Roman artifacts were very elegant and striking, but the last room with its casts of dead men, women, and children left me a bit shaken. The physical attitudes of a group of three people who expired on a set of stairs, the last apparently huddled behind the legs of another, and that of a young pregnant woman turned on her face, one hand to her belly…. I couldn’t help but project myself into the lives of those long deceased citizens facing what must have amounted to Armageddon. With no word for volcano in the ancient Latin language and no mass communications lines to inform them of natural phenomena they did not personally have knowledge of, what must they have experienced on that final terrible day when the ambivalent mountain in whose shadow they’d lived their lives suddenly burst open and vomited fire and hot ash into the sky? It must have been horrifying; mind-splitting. They must have died in abject terror; what an ant suddenly exposed to focus sunlight through some unfathomable child’s magnifying glass must experience – to have your life choked off by something completely beyond your comprehension.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESWe ended the visit with a look at the space shuttle Endeavour, a really awe-inspiring sight in its own right. When you walk in the shuttle is like an immense bird only a few feet overhead, a bit battered and weathered from its journies.

The myriad heat panels that cover it are very like an intricate mosaic from the floor of one of Pompeii’s atriums, perfectly interlocked shingles whose individuality are only perceivable upon close inspection. Nearly two thousand years in the span of an hour or two. I couldn’t look at the two without thinking that one was the pinnacle of human achievement and the other one of the deepest troughs of human tragedy. Did the children of Pompeii, who probably didn’t understand the volcanic eruption that killed them ever conceive of the world 2000 years in the future in their daydreams?

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESPeople live and die, new people are born. Do we feel cheated when we expire that we won’t see the progress of humanity? Is every individual a single piece in the advancement of all of humankind? The shuttle doesn’t mourn the loss of one or two heat tiles, and the artisans of Pompeii did not abandon their portraits in the face of a handful of broken tesserae.

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Dionysus (Bacchus) Enthroned

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Ptolemy II

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Unidentified bust of a forgotten Roman

Bit depressing I guess, but it was kind of an emotional seesaw to go from sorrow to elation SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESpompeiithat quickly.

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Household Lare

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Published in: on July 14, 2014 at 10:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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My Panel At San Diego Comic Con

The Thursday schedule for San Diego Comic Con 2014 is now up at their site, and if you scroll down to the 7pm slot you’ll see a familiar name…..

Word Building -

Robert Roach (Menthu, The Roach), Gini Koch (Alien Collective), Ed Erdelac (Terovolas),Nathan Long (Blackhhearts Omnibus), and Nancy Holder (Wicked Saga) discuss structure and storytelling, the use of pacing, and how certain creators use a timeline to build flow. Moderated by Jeffrey Twohig.
Thursday July 24, 2014 7:00pm – 8:00pm
Room 32AB
So if you’re in the neighborhood of Room 32AB that evening, come by and give a listen.

On This Day Richard Matheson Found What Dreams May Come

Today is the first anniversary of the day one of my five favorite writers of all time passed away.

little_girl_lost_chalk_portalMy first exposure to Richard Matheson was undoubtedly the Twilight Zone, where he delivered such classic episodes as the Nightmare At 20,000 Feet, Steel, Death Ship, and for me, the unforgettable Little Girl Lost, about a girl who tumbles through a spot in her bedroom wall into a pocket dimension.

Matheson famously split Captain Kirk into two halves via the transporter in The Enemy Within on the original Star Trek.

enemey-within-kirkThe first novel of his I can remember is I Am Legend. My high school English teacher had an old paperback copy of it sitting on the shelf. The cover art was of a man reaching up to heaven howling with a stake and a mallet in his hands as dozens of grasping hands clutched at him from the shadows. The cover copy read “The Last Man Alive On A Planet Of Vampires.”

It would be years before I read it, but it always stuck with me. It’s a seminal work, singularly most responsible for the zombie craze.

iamlegendI think the first book I read of his was The Shrinking Man, a harrowing, surprisingly existential story about a man shrinking to subatomic size.

The next, I think, was The Memoirs Of Wild Bill Hickock, a ‘found’ journal of the famous gunfighter debunking the myths of his life. I relished that book, one of the first westerns I ever read, and was astounded to make the connection at the end between this and ‘the guy who wrote for The Twilight Zone.’

Then I read What Dreams May Come.

It’s probably one of the finest, most life affirming novels I’ve ever read about the possibility of the continuance of the human soul unfettered by denominational dogma. A book I cherish, constantly recommend, and hope to pass on to my own children.

beardlessMatheson constantly surprised me. When I found out he’d written a World War II memoir, The Beardless Warriors, I rushed out and got it.  It’s a powerful first person account, deftly bringing a modicum of comprehension to the total insanity of war.

Another book that holds an honored place in my library is his collection of western short stories, some weird, many rivaling even early Elmore Leonard, By The Gun.

And prose wasn’t enough. Matheson was an accomplished screenwriter, penning such great flicks as The Devil Rides Out, and Somewhere In Time (based on his own novel, Bid Time Return).

Last year the world lost a very great talent.

Nothing further to add, except if you haven’t read Matheson, do so.

 

http://www.amazon.com/Richard-Matheson/e/B000AQ285E/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1403582681&sr=8-1

 

 

Star Trek Continues

ld_star_trek_cast_ll_120820_wmainI’m an old school Trek fan. Specficially TOS (The Original Series), the classic 60’s show with Shatner, Nimoy, Kelly, Doohan, Nichols, Takei, Koenig et al. I love the interplay between the characters, I love the killer retro look and sensibility, the appealing primary color palette.  If you haven’t checked out the Animated Series, it’s like a lost fourth season, with much of the same talent both in front of and behind the camera returning. DC Fontana and some of the other writers handle scripts, all the principals return to voice their characters. I discovered it a few years ago on Netflix Instant and it was like going home again for a little while.

But TOS lasted three (four with TAS) seasons and that’s it.

My wife is a big Next Gen fan, but I’m not. The sterile look never really grabbed me like classic Trek, and while the characters and stories are great, I never latched onto them like the original. I got some enjoyment from Voyager and Deep Space Nine, and from the last season of Enterprise when it started doing what it had originally promised, but I’m not a fan of the new movie universe at all.

Nothing ever quite took hold of me like Classic Trek.

star_trek_tos_zps73d073cdA fellow writer, Bobby Nash, was raving about this fan production Star Trek Continues, the other day on his Facebook page, and the stills intrigued me, particularly the re-enacted pose of the TV Guide cover featuring Kirk and Spock looking up at the camera with their arms folded. It was a nifty insider homage, I thought, and the actors playing Kirk and Spock really looked the part.

Reading a bit on it, I realized the crew behind the web series had managed to raise in excess of $120,000 on Kickstarter (Kirkstarter they called it) to get the show running and I was understandably curious.

So I caught the first episode on Youtube (Pilgrim Of Eternity – check it out HERE). It was a sequel to the Who Mourns For Adonais? episode, in which the Greek God Apollo turned out to be a powerful alien being which required the subservient worship of humans to thrive. At the end of that classic episode Apollo is defeated by Kirk and crew and fades out, calling to his fellow exiled Olympians.

startrekcontinues-cast1Right from the get-go I could see where that Kirkstarter money had gone. They have perfectly recreated the 60’s era Enterprise set. The bridge, the corridors, the crew quarters, even the Jeffries’ tube made an appearance. The costumes were spot on, and most importantly, the lightning was perfect. This looks like a hi-def episode of Classic Trek, precisely like the remastered editions that came out a few years ago, right down to the aspect ratio.

I’ve seen some very well-produced fan films of Trek, Star Wars, and superheroes. There is some very impressive work out there, but one uniform problem I’ve had with them is the quality of story and acting. You can have a technical, visual masterpiece on the screen, but if you can’t capture the mood and story of the original, all you’ve got is a pretty copy of something far superior – like a digital photograph of a white sand beach in sunny Puerto Rico. The postcard is never quite as nice as being there with the sand in between your toes.

Now, the STC cast play their parts well. It took me maybe thirty seconds to accept this wasn’t Shatner, Nimoy etc. before I started being drawn in by the story.

Yeah, the story.

In a fan production.

It was pretty cool, and full of nods to the original show without coming across as fan service.

They got Michael Forest to reprise his role as Apollo (here physically diminished by an energy drain) and he picked up the part like he’d only played it the other day, yet with the experience that comes with age, actually making the role…better than the original.

I showed it to my wife.

“The acting’s not bad,” I said. “And the story’s pretty….good.”

So we cued up Lolani.

Man!

lolaniThe show took off for me at this point.

The STC guys took the old nudge nudge wink wink boy’s club trope of the green skinned Orion slave girl and brought it into modern day context without destroying the sixties framework. They took an eye candy character and gave her nuance and heart, and presented as subtext a condemnation of the poor treatment of women passed off as cultural more existing today. THAT’S Star Trek! Plus, they brought in Lou Ferigno….as a quality, imposing villain….in green body paint!

Plus, Vince Mignogna, who I kind of dismissed as passable in the previous episode, shined in this outing.

ferignoAnd the third episode, The Fairest Of Them All, set in the mirror universe, is even better!

In this one Mignogna once again impressed me with his tyrannical Kirk counterpart, but Todd Haberkorn, knocked it out of the park as Spock. I admit my first impression of him in the part was, well, he doesn’t quite have that resonant but flat voice and he’s a little more human looking than Nimoy. But I forgot all that in this episode. He’s got Spock down pat. There’s a great scene where he and his former captain part ways, and Kirk screams his name as the shuttle doors close….loved it.

The rest of the cast hasn’t escaped my attention either. Grant Imahara was seriously echoing the dark version of Sulu in this one, and the lovely Kim Stinger had me from the first singing in the galley as Uhura. Chris Doohan, son of James Doohan, carries on the Scotty role his father originated so admirably it borders on uncanny, and Michelle Specht is a welcome addition as ship’s counselor Elise Makennah.

stc_fairest_06If I have any criticism it’s more Bones, my favorite character. I haven’t quite seen enough of Chekov to make a judgment either way.

Yeah, the whole show has me giggling in a good way.

This is a labor of unfettered love for 60’s era Trek and if you’re a fan like I am, you need to check this out right now. This is stellar work, I think even transcending the appellation ‘fan film.’

I can’t wait to see more (and I hope they open up for script submissions!).

It’s probably the greatest gift a Trekkie could ask for.

Check their website here.

http://www.startrekcontinues.com/

The Reverend Mr. Goodworks And The Yeggs Of Yig Appearing In Steampunk Cthulhu

Up for preorder from Chaosium Books and editors Brian Sammons and Glynn Owen Barrass is Steampunk Cthulhu, featuring stories from Jeffrey Thomas, Adam Bolivar, Carrie Cuinn, William Meikle, John Goodrich, Lee Clark Zumpe, D.J. Tyrer, Christine Morgan, Christopher M. Geeson, Thana Niveau, Leigh Kimmel, Josh Reynolds, Robert Neilson, Pete Rawlik, and including my story The Reverend Mister Goodworks and The Yeggs of Yig.

The book is due out June 16th and features a killer cover from Daniele Serra, who also did the cover for my novel Coyote’s Trail.

Readers of my Merkabah Rider series  may recognize the name The Reverend Mister Goodworks from the final book in the series, Once Upon A Time In The Weird West.

Also known as The Reverend Shadrach Mischach Abednego Carter, a former train engineer who, after a horrific crash, is partially reconstructed with steam engine parts and becomes a battling preacher dedicated to the destruction of evil, the Reverend Mr. Goodworks plays a sizable part in the events of Once Upon A Time In The Weird West.

NehushtanThis story can be considered a prequel spinoff which directly ties into the the last MR novel, and provides some insight into the character.

I actually wrote this some time before I published Once Upon A Time In The Weird West, so I’m excited to see it in print at last. It involves the servants of the Lovecraftian deity Yig (obviously), and ties into the Old Testament story of the Nehushtan.

yigIn this story, the Reverend encounters a distraught pregnant Mexican woman fleeing across the desert at night. Although she begs him to kill her before they are born, the Reverend delivers her children, only to be attacked by them as they slither from her womb; a pair of vicious serpent-human hybrids. He sets out to find those responsible for this abomination….

Here’s an excerpt.

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The Reverend lurched into New Valusia sometime before noon, the sand grinding in his knee joints. It was little more than a few communal frame houses, some gardens, and a couple outbuildings, all arranged around a two story farmhouse with a veranda.

On the porch stood a strikingly tall, lean, yellow haired woman in a white and purple robe. She folded her sun freckled arms at his approach.

Several of the New Valusians in white cassocks rose from their various tasks to interpose themselves, bearing only shovels and hoes as weapons. The Reverend was forced to halt or else plough through them.

He stood quietly, a head taller than their tallest, and surveyed the small crowd.

“Which of you is Susannah?” he bellowed at last.

“I’m Sister Susannah Coyle,” said the woman on the porch. “What brings you here?”

“The Lord brang me here,” drawled the Reverend, unfastening his coat.

“Well, the Lord welcome you.”

“Not your lord, bitch,” growled the Reverend.

He threw open his greatcoat like a knightly tabard.

Beneath, his body was flat black with steel accents, like the shell of a richly ornamented locomotive engine. Indeed, his chest resembled the face of a locomotive, with the dim lamp set in the center. His torso was further festooned with dancing pressure gauges and valve wheels, like a harness of little metal daisies. His heavy, ironclad legs bristled with pistons and driveshafts that plunged and hissed as he moved.

There was a thick bandolier belted around his blocky waist. Hanging from the belt was an old LeMat pistol. He brought his left arm up sharply, accompanied by a series of mechanical whirs and clicks. The sleeve was split down the middle from elbow to cuff, allowing the arm to emerge from the fabric unencumbered. His right hand went to his elbow and jacked a brass lever there. A strange amalgamation of octagonal rifle barrels, three in number, and situated in a kind of pyramid one atop the other, appeared at the end of the metal arm.

The Reverend rightly assumed any of these New Valusians walking around of their own volition were acquiescent in the hell the young woman he’d buried had been put through. He had no compunctions about firing into their midst, but he directed his aim at the statuesque Susannah Coyle, furiously levering his tri-repeater arm and cutting loose with a rapid barrage.

The New Valusians weren’t used to facing gunfire and scattered, dropping their makeshift weapons in their mad flight.

Susannah Coyle didn’t budge. To his amazement, the fifteen bullets he had flung in her direction all stopped and hung suspended in mid-air a few feet from the porch, spinning in a tight group.

When he lowered his smoking arm, frowning, he became aware of a deep thrumming in the air.

The door to the house opened and two muscular white-clad men armed with primitive, two-handed stone headed mallets appeared.

“The Pacifier Field,” Susannah explained, flicking the spinning bullets one by one with her finger until they bounced down the porch steps and rolled harmlessly in the dust at the Reverend’s feet. “An electromagnetic generator. It protects our Nesting House from those who do violence. It’s on its most agreeable setting now, but when I order it directed against your person, it will repel all your metal components, even from each other. That suit of yours will come apart and fly to the compass points.”

“It’s not a suit,” said the Reverend.

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Steampunk Cthulhu is up for preorder now on Amazon.com.

Steampunk Cthulhu: Mythos Terror in the Age of Steam (Chaosium Fiction #6054)

Steampunk Cthulhu: Mythos Terror in the Age of Steam (Chaosium Fiction #6054)

Buy from Amazon

 

Phoenix Comic Con

I’ll be appearing on the Kaiju Rising panel at Phoenix Comic Con this Sunday from 10:30-11:30AM alongside authors Gini Koch, Mike MacLean, and artist Robert Elrod, so if you’re in town swing by and give a listen!

http://www.phoenixcomicon.com/programming

Meaner Than Hell (2009)

This is the true story of the most spectacular failure of my life, the time I went for broke,swung for the fences, and made a feature film.

It was a ten day shoot, cost around ten thousand dollars, and clocked in around 89 minutes. It was a western.

It was Meaner Than Hell.

castwithsign2I moved from Chicago with my fiancée and son out to Los Angeles in the hope that I’d be able to make a living writing screenplays. I’d gone to school for it, graduated from Columbia College in Chicago with a degree saying I could do it, but had no ins. I spent my first two years out here temping at a major mortgage company, pretending to be busy in a cube, alternating between the same two pairs of beige slacks and basically hating my life.

Then in 2005 or so, Kaiser Permanente Hospital intervened in my future by buying the apartment building we’d been living in (we were now married and I had a little girl) and giving each of the residents $8500 to facilitate their move.

If I were smart, I would’ve put that money towards a down payment on a home which in the intervening years would have nearly quadrupled in value. We could’ve sold that house and lived almost anywhere in the country in comfort.

But I got the brainy idea to use the money to shoot an independent film. It was fresh off of Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without A Crew and my head was throbbing with Elmore Leonard stories, Blood Meridian, Leone and Corbucci.

Really, I think the idea germinated in the 20th Street Writers Group, an informal group of aspiring screenwriters who met irregularly of which I was a member.

I had once met Christopher McQuarrie, the writer of The Usual Suspects, the weekend before he won the Oscar, and he advised me to never pay attention to budgets or limit your writing according to what could be done conceptually. “If your script has to be filmed on location in space, don’t worry about it.”

So all my scripts had gone that route, big epic things that only Cecil B. Demille or James Cameron could put together.  A biopic about the abolitionist John Brown, a post-apocalyptic adventure about a kick ass trucker out to avenge the death of his dog, a story of rugby players in World War I Scotland.

topeandpicaro4But with this money coming in, and with my dear wife willing to take the plunge with me and let me use the kitty for this crazy movie, I started writing to a budget, thinking about what I could pull off. I came up with a cool concept for a western that I was sure was gonna revitalize the genre. It was dirty, brutal, clever, like Chato’s Land and The Great Silence had a baby that was adopted by Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.  Westerns of late, I thought, had become bogged down by reality. I wanted to bring the coolness back to them, the muddy, bloody brawls and the insanely rich tough talk that led to the big shootout. I wanted to write a thinly veiled love story between two guys where the much anticipated kiss was a gundown.

I took the title, Meaner Than Hell, from a Johnny Cash song, and a line uttered by the nearsighted kid in Unforgiven.  A sadistic bounty hunter Tope Mullins, ambushes wild bespectacled outlaw Picaro’s gang and kills them all around the campfire one night. He shoots Picaro in the foot to induce him to share the location of the loot from his last robbery before he turns him into the authorities (adding a ticking clock element as Picaro’s foot begins to mortify).  Unfortunately when they wake up in the morning, Indians have stolen all the horses, and they have to make their way back to civilization on foot, contending with the threat of attack, the harsh elements, and of course, each other, the whole way.

thescalpingI wrote the thing in a couple weeks, shared it with the writer’s group, and sure enough, one of the guys in it, who would go on to become my Assistant Director, said, “I think we could shoot this ourselves.”

I took it as a sign.

Plans kicked into high gear.

I had gone to school with an absolutely brilliant cinematography student. He lived out in LA now, worked as a set electrician. He agreed to do it for five hundred bucks.

One of the guys in the group was a pretty talented SFX guy, another an editor with a home editing suite.

My dad had a collection of black powder revolvers.

My mother and wife were both talented seamstresses.

So I asked my aunt for an advance on my inheritance, got an HD camera for $3,000, put out a call for actors in Variety, and spent a year gathering props and costume material, and scouting Death Valley and unincorporated Lancaster.

I had a very talented group of guys respond to the casting call (though my ad for honest-to-God Native American actors went unanswered) and filled most of the bit parts with friends, expanding other roles as I went to give the guys that didn’t get cast in the principal roles more to do because I just thought they deserved it.

I budgeted the thing, set aside eleven days to shoot. Two of my best and oldest friends kicked in money and scheduled time to come out and help me with the thing, playing partially obscured Indians and corpses when needed and hoisting equipment.

As game time approached, I started to run into bumps.

First, with maybe two months to go, my extremely talented DP bailed for the chance to go be an electrician on The Gridiron Gang (I think it was).  He took a much better paycheck than I could offer, and continues to work steadily in the industry to this day on A-list productions as a Gaffer, Cameraman, and Electrician.  So be it. I lost his eye. I frankly think we all did.

He lined up a meeting with a friend of his, but the guy advised me to ditch the idea of making a feature and just concentrate on a short film. I recalled an anecdote Martin Scorcese related about how he made a short film and got it in front of some executive who shrugged and said, “Now go make a feature.” I was eliminating the middle step, I thought. Besides, I’d shot four shorts in college. I hadn’t come out to LA to make more shorts.

So I decided to shoot the thing myself.

More money for the budget, I figured.

Then, the whole cast and crew….I won’t say they totally mutineed on me, but we had a disagreement.

During a read-through of the script I mentioned that I intended to shoot the entire picture without live sound and foley all the dialogue and sound FX later.

Nobody wanted any part of that.

directingI argued that this was the way spaghetti westerns had always been shot, but I guess nobody liked the idea of trying to dub voices in later. The big worry was it would look stupid and amateurish, like a badly dubbed kung fu movie.

I think this was the part where I failed my movie. It was mine. Mostly my money, my vision, but I caved. If nobody wanted to do it that way, what could I do?

I scrambled to research boom mics and sound equipment, and I think, in the end, I was ill-prepared to shoot live sound and the end result suffered for it. The rattling of shingles on an old cabin by a howling desert wind can be evocative, but not when your actors are shouting over it. The sound quality of Meaner Than Hell varies pretty wildly from scene to scene.

But, mea culpa. I was the director, I shoulda put my foot down, but I didn’t.

So game day comes. My oldest friend flies in from Illinois and we bug out about how we’re shooting a movie in California over a table of In ‘N Out.

I gather up the actors, we drive out to the desert, shoot the first scene in a dry culvert.

My two principals are a great couple of guys.

Tope

Tope

Playing the bounty hunter Tope Mullins is Thomas Crnkovich, a guy whose father actually coached one of my relatives in football or something way back in the day, but who is twenty years older than me and whom I’ve never met, though we’re weirdly from the same general area. I could not write Tom as a character if I tried. When he sent me his portfolio, it included pictures of him wrestling with fucking tigers. He had worked for a time as a wild animal trainer for the shows in Las Vegas. He was a funny, funny guy, into Alice Cooper and his van. He was my pick for Tope from his first audition. Skin like leather, crazy eyes, I think his biggest role had been in Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD.  When I asked him in his audition what the first thing he had to do when training wild tigers was, he answered, in his Eastwoodian hiss, “Well the first thing I hadda do was teach the tigers not to kill me.”

picaro

Picaro

My pick for Picaro Gonnoff was a tough one. I left the ethnicity, nationality, body type, appearance, everything entirely to chance. I wanted to craft the role around the actor I chose. It was a hard pick for me between three guys, one of whom nailed the dangerousness of Picaro, the other who nailed the Tuco-esque craziness and humor, but only one of whom I thought could portray the balance between the two – be a charming, funny asshole one minute and be grinding his heel in your face the next. That was Jared Cohn (credited as Jared Michaels). Jared had a Colin Ferrel kinda look, but he brought this outrageous faux-southern accent that just won me over. He sounded like a guy that had gotten the shit kicked out of him at an early age and learned to kick back when you weren’t looking.  After I selected him for the role, I tailor made the character’s backstory for him, and wrote in some lines to incorporate who he was. I don’t know if a badass Jewish outlaw has ever been portrayed in film before or since, but that was Picaro/Jared.

jaredwithrifleguitarstyleAnyway, the guys were a little worried about my ability to point a camera in the right direction, and I remember Thomas asking to review the first shot after we’d done it. I remember it was a long take of the two of them stumbling down the gully into the foreground. It began with lots of negative space which the characters then gradually filled as they approached. I was proud of it, and apparently it alleviated their fears, because they both crowed over it and never questioned my framing again.

Film school, bitches! And extensive storyboards!

Well, storyboards which I swiftly abandoned as the day wore on and the light in the gully began to fade.

The second problem I ran into was my own insane scheduling. I really thought I could cram all these scenes into a set number of hours. I didn’t take sleep deprivation, egos, setup times, and getting lost driving in the freaking desert at night without GPS into account.

I reverted to a simple three shot set up for most of the early campfire scenes (one shot of each speaker, medium shot of the two of them).

edandcastI killed my minivan battery probably three times running the lights off of it. I remember too that Thomas had a hard time delivering his lines over the sound of the engine which he swore he could hear (but nobody else could) and we had to keep backing the van up behind boulders until he was happy. At the end of the shoot, my buddy Tom threw the wanted poster prop into the fire.

“WHAT THE FUCK DUDE?!” I hollered, snatching it out.

He had thought we were done with it. But eh, since it’s plucked off a corpse later, the big burn mark wound up looking cool. Happy accidents.

By the time we finished the initial shooting, it was dawn.

We pitched some tents and slept out there for about three or four hours and I got them up again to shoot the rest.

Two of the guys who had been rendered corpses needed to leave, but one of them was in the shot and I had to shoot several takes around the guy lying there dead and eventually getting scalped. Nightmarish.

I also remember this was the day my good friend Jeff Carter was scheduled to show up at the extremely remote cabin location of Ballarat in Death Valley to render a couple of the guys into living corpses for a dream sequence. The shoot felt so bad, I nearly abandoned the idea. We were far out of cell range, and I assumed because Jeff hadn’t heard from me, he would stay home. I very nearly went home without heading to the cabin, but decided at the last minute to do it anyway.

cabinWhen we showed up at the cabin, something like three hours late, Jeff was sitting there with his makeup kid on the porch of the little store run by the only two residents of Ballarat, a rawboned old father and son pair. I had to hide my freakin’ tears when I pulled up because I had nearly left him there and he had showed up to do his part. God bless that guy. We didn’t even end up using the ‘zombie’ shot, but we heard a passel of crazy ghost stories about Indian spirits in the mountains and jet fighters from Edwards Air Force Base crashing out in the dead lake where Charles Manson’s van still sat mired in the alkali.

That first day, nobody talked much on the drive home, and when I climbed into my bed I broke down when my wife asked me how it was going (did Sam Peckinpah cry like a girl so much while shooting The Wild Bunch? He probably just got drunk a lot – I wasn’t budgeted for booze) .  I remember saying I felt like I was trying to paint with boxing gloves on. I was in over my head.

The next day one of the actors slept late and we lost an hour knocking on his door and windows. We drove back up to the desert and had another grueling day/night shoot, but my AD Elliott McMillan, God bless HIM, suggested we not drive back and instead get a cheap hotel room out in the desert and thus get an early jump on the next day.

That was one of the most fun nights I ever had. It was Elliott, Jared, Tom, and I with my buddy Tom from kindergarten drinking beers and half-watching a monumental Dodgers game, laughing over Tom’s crazy sex stories and just being a buncha guys.

I think it was the next day’s shoot at the cabin that was one of the best days of my entire life.

I don’t know if you’ve ever made a movie, or seen something you’ve written adapted by actors, I mean…RIGHT.

jaredwithgunAt this point in the story, Tope and Picaro are holed up in a remote cabin. They have a heartfelt moment in the night, sharing their personal stories of killing and mayhem (this is the scene I think most suffered from live sound as the wind wouldn’t die down and we had to keep stopping to accommodate the jets flying maneuvers in the distance).  When Picaro tries to shoot Tope, they wind up beating the shit out of each other (in my storyboards, their crazy brawl across the cabin floor is portrayed like a sex scene with clenching hands and tangled feet – I don’t think it came through in the final project) and at this moment the Indians decide to attack.  Tope kills an Apache in the doorway and they both look on in shock as the guy’s corpse is whisked away by an unseen comrade.

Tope makes some remark about ‘His squaw must’ve had summer waiting’ which causes both of them to forget their enmity for the moment and share an honest laugh. And in the middle of that laugh, Picaro produces a hidden Derringer and blasts Tope through the face.

It was written to be a jarring moment, and of course I knew it was coming, but Jesus Christ, I swear, when it did….when Jared and Thomas played it PERFECT on the first take….I nearly ruined it by hissing an appreciative “FFFFFFUCK!” at the end of the scene. Haha.

I don’t know. Seeing that, something just clicked.

We had to beat the sundown to get the rest of this sequence finished. At first Thomas didn’t wanna roll around on the ground, which had old nails and glass scattered across it. So I, in a t-shirt, dove down to the ground and rolled around first to show him it was OK. I don’t know if it was OK but you wanna hear the funny part? You know what made me do that? It was a line from a Larry Hama GI Joe comic – or maybe it was the cartoon. But General Hawk told somebody ‘Don’t order men to do anything you aren’t willing to do yourself.’ And that stuck with me through years and years of adulthood, and reared its head in my mind at that moment.

Or maybe it was something from Patton’s War As I Knew It.

I don’t know.

edandtom

Magic day

But after that, and after I expressed such unbridled exuberance for what they were doing, it was like all of us were on the same page, and we were killing it. We zipped through the scenes. And Jeff was there, and he had to create a blossom of blood – a bullet hole in the side of Tom’s face, and it seemed like slow, meticulous work that was taking forever while I shot what I could of Jared. A gust of wind blew a cloud of particles into my wide angle lens and I unscrewed the thing and handed it over to my buddy Tom (from kindergarten). We were revolving, hunched around that cabin, grabbing the footage like war photographers.

In between takes I was jumping in place urging Jeff to hurry up with the makeup, saying it looked good enough, but professional as he was, he urged me to shut up till he got it right – till Thomas’ face was a mess of hamburger and powderburns, leaking Kayro all over the place.

We shot the hell out of that scene and it was goddamned beautiful. So beautiful that years later, when I brought a promised DVD copy of the finished product to the two guys that ran the Ballarat story, I walked through that ruined cabin (half of it is collapsed now), and I started crying like I had PTSD or something.

That day, I was a filmmaker. I was a freakin’ auteur, wearing every damn hat on the tree.

topesilhouetteWhen we finished, the sun was plunging into the desert and all the land was painted orange, and out of the mountains a flock of bats came spiraling out across the desert to light on a wading pool the residents kept out there behind their trailer. They whipped all around you, little flying mice, swarming erratically but taking no interest in you.

We were all of us buzzing. It was utterly awesome and one of the best days of my life.

We shot under a railroad trestle, Elliott mimicking Jeff’s makeup on Thomas’ face perfectly. I shot him pursuing a ghost through the stark, over exposed desert while Thomas assured my two year old daughter Magnolia that all that blood was just because he’d cut himself shaving.

We shot out near the Kill Bill church.

We shot Thomas’ last scene on a hilltop – the big climactic gunfight. It looked great, but I made the mistake of telling him he could keep the black hat that was part of his costume, so when he was supposed to get drenched in blood, he kept protecting that goddamned hat.

bodieWe applauded his last scene, and moved on the next day to the mountains near Bodie, California, where a perfectly preserved 1880’s mining town sits up there as part of the National Park Service. We spent the night in some absolutely freezing cabins (one of which John Wayne had apparently stayed in at some point), my friends playing guitar and drinking beer, smoking weed with the cast. Stayed up late, had a great time, got up at the crack and went to shoot the final scenes of the movie on the steps of a period church.

Now as I mentioned, I couldn’t get any real live Indians for the shoot because none responded to the casting call. So I put my eldest son in a black wig, and my buddy Dan, who is Mexican, and a guy named Maeis who was the only guy that came to the Indian casting and was Middle Eastern or something. On the ride up there I spied an Indian Casino, and I had the guys walk through there and offer seventy five bucks to anybody who’d come to the two hour shoot, suit up, and participate. I budgeted for three guys. Jared brought me one, a guy named Richard Sallee. But damn if he didn’t look the part.

tragedyWe put him in Apache costume, and set him front and center to offset the questionable Indians. I think he worked out great. Plus he got paid three times what I offered him since he was the only guy there.

Meaner Than Hell was a wrap. The back of my van looked like we had birthed a calf back there.

We moved into a slow editing process.

I inquired into getting the rights to two professional songs, Johnny Cash’s God Is Gonna Cut You Down for the credits (which we originally cut the ending to) and Bill Monroe’s haunting My Last Days On Earth, which I envisioned as the recurring theme throughout the picture, and which we cut the trailer to.

But the price was, in the words of the Duke, “absolutely re-god-damned-diculous.” indiansIt was almost two thirds of my entire budget. So I picked up a guitar, having never played before, brought a Jaw harp and a harmonica to my buddy and editor Ryan Gerossie’s apartment, and somehow he mixed the disparate elements together into a cohesive theme which you hear now on the soundtrack. We attributed it to John McGovern, a portmanteau of his relatives and mine, but that’s us. Believe it or not, I was originally in talks with Vince ‘Rocky IV’ DiCola to do the score, but it fell through.

We ended up having to foley some of the sound in a makeshift sound booth that basically consisted of Tom Crnkovich, Jared Cohn, and Robert Vertrees taking turns in Ryan’s hallway with a microphone and pillows and towels stuffed under the doors. I think those scenes have some of the best sound work of the movie.

bloodytiger2SFX, we had a blast doing those, selecting various gunshots (at one point Elliott and Ryan put this ridiculous cannon explosion over the shot of Jared’s Derringer going off which made all of us lose it hysterically). We did Rebel Yells, officer calls, volleys of fire, Indian screams, all from a Westwood apartment.

We shot pick ups out in the desert, and even brought the desert home to Ryan’s back alley for the shot of Picaro’s foot getting a bullet (it was actually, I think either my foot or Ryan’s).

We premiered the thing at a bar in Hollywood. Thomas and Jared showed up with their character’s hats. Jared introduced me to a few people who never called me. I got the drunk on hard hard liquor for the very last time in my life, until I puked up my guts in the street afterwards. It surprised me the people that turned out for the thing – old coworkers, friends of friends. It surprised me who didn’t show too.

5652_112203793691_112183918691_2319596_6612763_nI didn’t get to give a speech or anything before the movie ran for the only audience it ever had. I kept everybody waiting up to the last possible minute, affording no time for a proper introduction. I don’t know that I had anything to say. I think maybe by that time I hated Meaner Than Hell. It wasn’t precisely what I wanted to accomplish, and I was sick of it. Much of the crew had stopped believing in it, dismissing it as crap. I guess a lot of it is.

In the intervening years it garnered no attention. I submitted to all the big indie festivals and a lot of the small ones. Nobody wanted it.

I had, in my mind, taken the best shot I could, and nobody had turned their head. Nobody had noticed it. It sat on Ryan’s computer. I made half hearted attempts to put it on Netflix and Amazon over the years, but always turned to other projects. Thomas would call me out of the blue and ask about it now and then. Everybody had their DVD’s. Every actor had been paid (except Alex Bakalarz, who played the wounded soldier – I owe him fifty bucks for the two hour shoot still). I couldn’t even look at it anymore.

jaredwantedposterAnd over the years, as my tenuous connection to the film industry dwindled and my fiction writing began to supersede it in terms of success, Jared’s, conversely grew. I started doing script work for his projects, and now the guy seems to be directing a movie every other month. I see him on Netflix and all over Facebook, shooting in freaking Thailand. His movies show up in my newsfeed, getting reviewed on major websites. He’s a driven guy.

Thomas….last year, Thomas called me again. “This is Tope,” he said, as always, and by God he was.

He told me he was playing Dillinger, in an indie film shooting back in the Midwest, where he was currently living. He asked me about Meaner Than Hell as always, and about any other projects I had going. But I was just writing novels now and had nothing for him.

Elliott and I had such plans for Thomas. One late night ride back from the shoot we talked about how we wanted to do a kick ass Lone Ranger movie, and Thomas and Lance Henricksen would play the Cavendish brothers. Thomas would be a Lash LaRue type character with a bullwhip. When I was still writing scripts, I put a role for him in an unrealized zombie project, as a cantankerous caretaker of an amusement park. I even talked about redubbing Meaner Than Hell the way I wanted, if I could get Thomas and Jared together to do it.

5652_112212353691_112183918691_2319636_882466_nBut around Memorial Day Thomas got killed by a train, almost out of nowhere. Well, out of nowhere for me. That guy palled around with tigers. I thought he was unflappable, untouchable. The obituary said it was deliberate, though. I don’t know. Friends of his I’ve talked to doubt it. I don’t know what I think.

My affection for Meaner Than Hell grows with each subsequent viewing now, though.

It’s no masterpiece, but I really believe there is a good movie in there. Maybe I should have shown the Indians more. Maybe I should have cut the dialogue down. My biggest regret about the whole thing is that I feel like I failed the talent involved. There was a great group of guys that gathered together and believed in this thing while they were doing it, and in the end, I guess they got nothing from it. Or at least, it wasn’t something they felt proud of, could point to, or that (perhaps most importantly) got them more work.

But I’ll tell you what. I firmly believe that at the fifty five minute mark to the end, I made almost exactly the movie I wanted to make. It’s right there. It started for real on that day I wrote about above, when I nearly ruined a take with my own excitement.

And how many people can say they did that?

I like Meaner Than Hell. How can I not?

Anyway, if you want to watch it, we put the whole thing up on Youtube now. You can watch it here. And if you get bored out of your mind, fast forward to the 55 minute mark I guess and give it a half hour of your time.

It’s a very slow burn, but I lit it with the help of some good friends.

The Wood Of Ephraim in Sword And Mythos

swordandmythosMy Lovecraftian sword and sorcery story The Wood Of Ephraim appears in Sword And Mythos, a beautiful new book from Innsmouth Free Press featuring stories from the ever lovin’ Willie Miekle, my friend and master of steamfunk/sword and soul,  Balogun Ojedate, Maurice Broaddus, Graham J. Darling, Paul Jessup, Nadia Bulkin, Bogi Takacs, Orrin Grey, Diana L. Paxson, Adrian Chamberlain, Thana Niveau, E. Catherine Tobler, Nellie Geraldine Garcia-Rosas, and Greg Yuen, and featuring essays by G.W. Thomas, Paula Stiles, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who is even now bringing you She Walks In Shadows, an all-female author anthology of Lovecraftian fiction.

Set during the reign of King David, The Wood Of Ephraim is a retelling of the Biblical account of the death of David’s rebel son Prince Absalom. While fleeing David’s men, Absalom’s long and lustrous hair was famously caught in the low hanging branches of a tree. He was discovered by David’s high general, Joab, who hated Absalom’s guts over various slights in the past, and promptly slain.

ms-KingConan-15I suppose indirectly this story takes place in the universe of my Merkabah Rider series, which posits the existence of the Outer Gods as being which existed in the chaos prior to the creation of the physical universe, and directly references an idea put forth by one of the characters in MR, that the Old Ones (in particular, Shub Niggurath) were unleashed on the earth in Noah’s time, and once again, unwittingly, by King David himself….

But it’s also a sword swinging adventure/ survival horror story of the type I absolutely loved to read in my teenaged years, as penned by Robert E. Howard, and probably takes a bit of inspiration from a King Conan comic (#15) I read and re-read as a kid (and also, just a little bit, Xenophon’s Anabasis). It features the Gibborim – David’s legendary hand picked band of elite warriors, who were the ancient Hebrew equivalent of the Argonauts and Robin Hood’s Merry Men wrapped into one.

This is a great book with some excellent, diverse stories and settings, ranging from Africa to Albion. I love what I’ve read of it so far.

Here’s an excerpt from my own offering.

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absalom_doreAt their approach the aspect of the hanging man grew clear. The ostentatious purple cloak, better suited to the court than the battlefield, the handsome mail, the golden spangles adorning the thin, struggling arms, the rich, jewel studded sandals ten feet off the ground.

Prince Absalom’s grimacing face was partly obscured in the tangle of branches and his own famously long and lustrous hair, which was drawn tightly across his eyes, likely a result of his own efforts to extricate himself.

They came to stand immediately below him in the road. Some of them smiled to see the unfortunate traitor so lucklessly suspended by the chief object of his own vanity.

Joab laughed aloud.

“It seems your pretty locks have caught you up, O prince,” he remarked.

“Shall we pluck this fruit down for you, General?” roared Ira ben Ikkesh.

“Let it ripen!” shouted Hezro.

“Yes,” laughed Gareb, “it’s yet too bitter for the general’s plate!”

“Perhaps we should leave it here to rot,” Elez suggested in all seriousness. “Or divide it amongst us.”

The laughter died down at that. All eyes went to Joab.

Naharai frowned.

“No,” said Joab. “We will cut him down.” He looked back at Zalmon. “The king’s orders are clear.”

“Yes master,” said Zalmon, nodding his approval and glancing at Naharai, who smiled broadly, vindicated.

Joab looked up at the prince, kicking and whimpering in the branches.

“Don’t worry about sparing his lovely hair, men,” said Joab. “He left me once with a bare field because I didn’t come quickly enough when he called. Now we’ll leave him stubble-headed because he didn’t come running when his father bade him.”

Zalmon and two other men moved off the road, intending to scale the tree and hack through bough or hair.

Then Jeribai the charioteer called out from behind.

“Wait!”

The three Gibborim stopped and looked back.

Naharai felt a chill then, as something wet splashed his bare arm. He looked down to see a perfectly round spot of blood, followed quickly by another.

“Look to his face!” Jeribai urged, pointing up at Absalom, his eyes bugging.

absalomThe men on the road moved around to Jeribai’s vantage to get a better look. Naharai backed away, smearing the blood down his arm.

They saw that the spindly fingers of the tree branch were hooked into the corners of Absalom’s clenched mouth, which oozed blood.

For a moment Naharai wondered why Absalom suffered the intrusion as a simple movement of his jaw could have easily dislodged the offending branches. But then he saw; they all saw. The tendons in his neck, the muscles in his jaw, were bunched in an effort to keep his teeth shut against the pull of some unknown force. There were ragged cuts in his lips. His breaths came out in terrified white puffs in the cold air. Before their eyes, his jaw wrenched open with a pop and he screamed.

Then with a hiss, something snaked its way rapidly up the branch, faster than any serpent, snapping twigs and shedding a few brown crackling leaves in its haste. White, shiny tubers circled up the base of every branch, converging on Absalom. They flowed down his throat, filling his gaping mouth with thick wood stuff, choking off his screaming.

The whole tree shuddered as if in ecstasy. A wet sucking sound came down to them. The slick tubers in his mouth quivered. The men staggered back at the perverse spectacle of the blindfolded prince dancing jerkily in the tree limbs. Something dark that was not blood filled the tubers spilling from his mouth, which were translucent enough to see the course it took back to the trunk of the great tree.

“Lord!” Naharai exclaimed. “What is it?”

Eliam looked about to answer when Joab commanded;

“Save the prince!”

Zalmon and the two other warriors at the edge of the road drew their swords and axes and hesitated, unsure whether to pursue their earlier course and climb the tree to reach Absalom, or hew it down instead.

“General!”

It was Eliam, now at Joab’s shoulder.

“It’s too late.”

Joab opened his mouth to protest, but then saw the weird wet stalks thrusting themselves further down Absalom’s throat, so far his neck bulged hideously outward beneath his chin.

He flipped the spear in his hand, drawing it back over his shoulder.

“No!” Naharai interrupted, pushing forward and grabbing Joab’s arm. “Remember the king’s edict!”

By now word had reached King David that the battle had ended in victory and that his son had fled. If Absalom were killed, no one would believe Joab had not murdered him.

But the general was a bull, and the strongest of them. With a mere shrug, Naharai clattered to the road.

youngJoab regained himself and cast the spear. It transfixed Prince Absalom through the chest, a killing blow. Yet still the prince thrashed and fought. His teeth ground loudly against the tubers, finally cracking off in his mouth under the strain.

“Spear!” Joab cried.

Jeribai took hold of one of the general’s spears and tossed it to Joab.

Joab ran Prince Absalom through a second time. The body lurched and sagged in the grip of the tree, blood spurting down the haft.

The flow of stuff from the corpse ceased. There was a sound like a cross between the groan of falling timber and a hysterical chittering.

Then before their eyes, the branches entwined about the dead prince’s head moved.

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Pick up a copy of the book here or on Amazon -

http://www.innsmouthfreepress.com/blog/tb-books/sword-and-mythos/

 

 

 

 

 

Congratulations To Eric J. Guignard On His Stoker Win

Huge congratulations to editor/author Eric J. Guignard on his Bram Stoker Award for Best Anthology for After Death (Dark Moon Books), an anthology speculating about what people experience once the lights go out for good.

You can read about my own contribution, Sea Of Trees, right HERE.

Published in: on May 12, 2014 at 2:47 am  Leave a Comment  
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