Thursday, October 23, 2014

HALLOWEEN NEW "IT" story & homage to Theodore Sturgeon's classic, inspiration for ET

HALLOWEEN! (originally published in Maglomaniac)

It Started In The Primeval Ooze Of My Father’s Ancient PC

In some way, I think it was my fault. I’m twelve and sick of the idiotic “nanny cam” he got to watch me, thinking I don’t know he’s a paranoid idiot who wants to know what his daughter’s doing all the time. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, he said, “but sometimes I wonder ..." 
In some way, I think it was my fault. I’m twelve and sick of the idiotic “nanny cam” he got to watch me, thinking I don’t know he’s a paranoid idiot who wants to know what his daughter’s doing all the time. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, he said, “but sometimes I wonder if you’re getting any sleep, staying up all night on that laptop your mother got you in a fit of insanity.”
Okay if my grades weren’t just passing, I might have had more clout. But if he hadn’t been so lame as to confuse nanny programs with nanny cams, this would never have happened.. A program I could have circumvented like any kid with half a brain. But the camera was always on, one huge unblinking eye. I got even less sleep, having to wait until he’s snoring to hack his PC and turn the damn thing off.
One night, I was hardly able to stay awake, when I saw it in the camera lens, a huge red eye surrounded by black gooey stuff. An instant and gone. I turned off the cam and searched the hardware, wondering if there was some lubrication problem. Then software, reading descriptions for something I feared would not be found. Overactive imagination, mom would say, like she always does with the irritating head pat, meaning don’t let it run away with you.
Exactly what I didn’t want the following night, when it came close to my bed, oozing and blinking red. I woke up wanting licorice, after dreaming about damned licorice nubs in the shape of a honey bear squeeze bottle. It smelled like licorice and honey. I opened my eyes on red ones and screamed. The cam was off.
The creature smeared black goo over the lens and looked at me. Pet it? It wasn’t just the smell, like candy that’s been in your pocket on a hot day, but the way it starred–wanting. What? Was it lonely or just hungry?
I raised my hand, palm up, primate sign for friendship instead of cannibalism. Then the creature did something beyond weird. The black stuff oozed and bubbled, until in front of me was the black honey bear from my dream. I laughed and it vibrated. Having a friend that laughs with you is one thing, having one bubble and ooze through a pour spout is another.
Mind-reader, I thought. I wished the creature would dissolve like Drano down the drain, or stop up some giant volcano hole, cover the surface of some cratered moon. No change, the same red eyed black honey bear. Did it ooze some hurt feeling or was I projecting? Then I thought affection, it was cute in that form. Cuddle the sticky bottle? No change. And then I visualized, clear as light, that pouring spout oozing golden honey.
Plop on my bare feet, I felt before seeing, because my eyes were scared shut, heavy stickiness. When I opened the bear wasn’t black but golden yellow. The red eyes waited, maybe for thanks?
“Honey, you have to get up for school. This is your first warning!” called mom. I realized it was broad daylight. If I didn’t get in that shower, she would show up. “Getting washed, mom!” I shouted downstairs. I looked at the honey bear and pointed it should go back into the goo smeared cam. I took my clothes off, realized it was still there, grabbed my pillow and glared at the honey bear! Maybe it was a pervert or just curious what human looked like. I figured the latter and opened my closet door. I pointed the way inside. Round red eyes looked at all the crap in my closet and the life sized squeeze bottle bear rolled under my bed.
There was mom, up the stairs, her exasperated voice, “Thought you were in the shower?”
“Almost, was thinking through my math.”
My mother looked worried, the tutor said you know the stuff. If you fail again, I want you to see someone about test anxiety.”
“Thanks for your confidence!”
Mom sighed and sat on the bed. She seemed discouraged.I did study but it didn’t stick. Maybe some kind of math dyslexia, but who wants to be in special ed? I’d rather see a shrink. And that’s a last resort. I could copy off Morgan. She sat in front of me every year, seating was alphabetical order. Morgan was religious so I didn’t like to ask her, but if she thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown or cause the death of my mother she’d let me. Also, Morgan liked my mother’s BLT’s. Today was that day. Maybe luck was with me.
When I got back to the room, mom was gone, and odd as it might seem, miraculous actually, everything in my room was where it should be. The layers of dirty clothes on the floor were in the hamper in the closet. I could see the rug. My ancient surge protector wasn’t sparking with the extension cords that had extension cords. Instead they were tied off with twistees. It must have found the collection under the bed. But then it went too far.
My computer with its many pages was all turned off. “What’s the idea?” My mom believed the tech guy at Staples that leaving so many pages up destroyed my hard drives. I knew better. Technology is wasted on adults. Did this mean the creature wasn’t a kid or just got where my mom was coming from?
That was a chilling thought. Blinking at, from within the cam, were round red eyes. Then it shut down the cam. Must have noticed I still had the towel on. I got dressed, thinking, it could shut it off, yet all this time it watched me. Creepy, but I kind of liked it for cleaning my room.
Downstairs was the same boring breakfast, cereal I never liked and a banana. I grabbed the banana, my book bag, then remembered my lunch in the insulated turquoise bag. She’d put in some chocolate soy with the BLT and a protein bar for snack. You can be too healthy but what was this, a Nestle’s bar. My dad pouring his coffee had a conspiratorial grin. When did this ever happen? Like never.
I walked to school. The bus was too rowdy for comfort. I wondered if I was becoming a nut job, hallucinating some ET fantasy—awake! I didn’t even like that movie, the creature was so fake, and it was really corny, ET COME HOME
No sooner was the thought in my brain, then I saw it go by on a bicycle. I am not kidding.ET was wearing the clothes and the bike of Ryan, this cute boy down the street. He’s 14 and out of middle school, so you know he’s not looking at me. But ET grinned kind of charming and slowed down to my pace.
Then I got it, the eyes were very round and red. “Penny, how’s it going?” I played along, imagining it was Ryan, relieved ET here was only the creature from my nanny cam. Ryan probably didn’t know my name. It’s Penny for Penelope, you know from Greek mythology, the faithful wife, who doesn’t know Odysseus after 40 years, her keeping suitors at bay still beautiful. Why was she not a hag?
“Okay,” I answered ET. “But math test today. Always fail it.” “That’s my best subject,” he said his wizened face crinkling. I thought. Yeah, try calculating five million three hundred and eighty thousand three by twenty one thousand fifty…” Without a calculator he gave me a number that must have been right. What extra-terrestrial wasn’t a genius to us?
“There’s tricks, he said, I’m not that smart. And he showed me tricks and short words to remember them. When I get distracted, which is all the time, and getting worse my dad says because I have all those pages up and watch everything all the time on the Internet. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember anything. My mom says she’s just naturally like that. I could just have her gene.
That’s why I wrote down the tricks on a file card, I had in my book bag. I try to keep these in the front to remember things. But then I forget to look. After ET left, waving good bye with one gnarly arm, I repeated the tricks a lot so they’d stick. Interestingly, as he got in the distance, I saw Ryan’s black hair instead of ET’s bald head. Maybe Ryan had been there?
The rest of the day was very up. I unfolded that card and could remember what ET/Ryan said. For the first time ever, I wasn’t scared I’d forget the numbers. My stupidity wasn’t a fact on the ground.
There was also the weirdness of mean girls turned nice. It was unnatural for beautiful Allison Whatley, a deb in training, to withhold the evil barb, the compliment that veiled an insult, always timed for public humiliation. Character assassination was her specialty. Mine was being invisible, under her radar, glad to be deemed unworthy of notice.
At lunch, Allison’s honeyed voice loudly proclaimed how I was really looking fab-u. Arms out, she welcomed me to her cool girls’ table. Now I’m not terminally ugly, but this is something she wouldn’t do with a gun to her head. Pretty embarrassed with this display and flattered in a kind of sick way, since I didn’t even like her, I moved my tray to her table.
Hard to believe the cashmere mixed with Juicy Couture at that table. I might be an Emo type, I favor black converse sneakers and would put hot pink streak in my hair, if I knew how, but it’s also a matter of economics—the most cool for my scarce dollars.
Let’s face it, I don’t wear Free People, let alone try on Dolche & Gabbbino. The only label I’ve got is Old Navy and GAP on sale, yet they were cooing about my black flared jeans in a stretch denim straight leg season. Something in their designer water; maybe not, since Courtney Stango had some very round red eyes.
The Disney like flavor of my existence was confirmed at dinner time. Dad emerged from his basement den, cheerful! With a twinkle he said, “How about going to Sonic tonight? Just you and me. Mom’s got book group.” “What about my homework?” “You just had your math test. Sure you Aced it! Take a break. You deserve it!”
A bit weird, considering my dad hated Sonic and would make me do my homework first and forget he offered a treat afterward—kind of a sick incentive. This would not last, wasn’t real. Life sucked. And the it in the nanny can was a big fake, like Santa, the Easter Bunny, and ET. Though he was all special effects and perhaps it was a similar illusion?
I needed to wash my face and change my shirt. Though it was near June, it was nice and cool in Maplewood, New Jersey. I put my sleep shirt over the nanny cam, though of course I knew it could peek, even if it was in the cam. I pulled on a faded pair of loose jeans, a ratty t-shirt I’d painted with fabric dye, and my all-purpose black sweater with unstrategic moth holes. I checked myself out in the mirror. WHOA!
The girl in that mirror was me but terrific. My dirty blonde hair was midnight blue and covering my face at a sharp diagonal. My Fail of a T-shirt looked avant runway, my pants were like boys narrow and closely fit my puny form. I got a sick chill, realizing that it didn’t just reflect images, it read hopes–wishes, wants. Why would it want my world to work out? What was in it for him/her whatever it was?
Maybe she ate energy and liked the positive kind; some kind of psychic vampire or spiritual gardener planting happy seeds? I must have been getting closer to its truth,, since my eyes were getting redder by the moment.
It was a fine night on the highway, when dad and I took the Sonic exit. We parked our car and looked at the menu board. He gave our order to the lady on the intercom inside; a double carmel milkshake and chicken strips for me. Dad didn’t order his usual iced tea, but a Caesar salad with chicken. “Can use the protein,” he explained, giving mom’s line. He was trying to please her and she wasn’t even there. I wondered about that.
A guy came out on roller skates with a bag I hoped was our order, but it went to another car. A girl came out with another bag, skated a figure eight over to another car. So it went for fifteen more minutes in a drive-by places that advertises food in five. My dad should have been busting a gut, all these other people getting their orders. Instead, he was smiling, humming music along with his IPhone.
“Have you noticed no food? “ I asked. He was singing Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want…but you find some time, you just might find, you get what you need.”Wisdom,” he said. “A rolling skater gathers no food,” I said with an edge. I got out of the car and walked towards the Sonic building.
A blonde with a California tan, and we’re in New Jersey, and the damn summer has barely started, came skating over to me. Her skirt flared, like she was performing in a rink. She stopped, a perfect three point stop, and offered me a bag.“Your order?” she asked with perfectly white teeth in a Cover Girl smile.
I looked in, saw the carmel shake.“Yes, but don’t you want payment?” “Not Really. It’s on the house.” “Why is that? It’s not my birthday?” “Every day is your birthday,” said the girl with a sincerity that creeped me out.”
“I don’t want your damned food,” said I, shoving the bag back to her. “You never want what you can have,” said the girl, amused. She scissored into a half camel-back turn, before her face twisted, running off in carmel milkshake. Soon there was no dazzling smile, no cute uniform with flirty skirt, no long tanned legs. In fact, no legs. IT was moving fast, milky sludge in its wake.
I ran after it, angry. “Nothing pleases my father. He wants me to be perfect, to act like him. My mother always thinks she’s right and wants me to do what she says, which means I can’t be me unless I hide. I hate my life! Who are you, to give people what they think they want? You’re fake. Go back to where you came from! I sat on the curb, teary.
U mean the nanny cam, she asked but not in spoken words. Then I faced the huge eye, the lens of the camera. It was in, the lower half. It invited me. I hesitated, looking around me. Time was stuck. Sonic rollerskaters midturn, drivers in cars mouths open giving orders, kids bouncing in air. Dad was stuck on the Stones’ channel or maybe it was Pandora. At first there was just a look between us. Then I fell inside the cam, inside the vortex of red eyes into its consciousness.
Red-eyed creatures, lots of them, glowy incandescent, like jellyfish, were their bright bodies. Some explosion and black sludge erupted in geysers like oil wells. Electronic screams, interference that hurt not just my ears, but inside, who I am, in this life where I seem to be one of the its. Piercing, excruciating, then done, Only a set of eyes seeing through cams on earth. That was the vehicle! I’m bewildered watching babysitters and kids, kids mugging for camera; babysitters, smoking,drinking, kissing boyfriends, remembering to put cloth on the camera or not, parents fighting, doing whatever happens in houses when kids were asleep. And the same babysitters or parents, telling somebody what they wanted to hear.
The Its listened to kids, who wanted their parents or their babysitters, and found it hard to understand the duality of adults. The Its felt the same. They had once had kids before the great sludge and a greater sadness.
It wanted to give everybody what they wanted. Interesting enough, I got that Ryan wanted an excuse to talk to me, that the cool girls had wanted to invite me, that dad really liked the salad at Sonic. And that I was the one, who looked down on me. I came out of the cam with one desire.
Once the scenery began to move, I gave dad our food. We ate and I couldn’t wait until we were home again. I’d dream of It. But in my dream. I took it, sludging running off in a trail behind us, and put it into our yard. I hosed it down good, all that cosmic sludge down the gutter. It was now beautiful silvery shining, incandescent. You know where I sent It? I pointed the cam at my computer screen. It loved Las Vegas, lit up in the desert. I could tell It wanted more. I showed her a images of Caesar’s, the Sands, Tropicana, and let her choose.

It’s on a postcard, Red Eyes atop a new casino. It’s enormously popular. Everyone wins every night, though not every hand. It’s up to the player, the way they feel about themselves and the game. For those that want to win, think they deserve to win, don’t think they are undeserving or it’s not their karma to win, there are endless prizes. Strangely, the house never loses. The odds are more than in their favor. Its power is free.

It copy


Homage to the IT! Story

THE “It!” Story “It!” is an influential horror short story by Theodore Sturgeon, first published in Unknown August 1940. The story deals with a plant monster that is ultimately revealed to have formed around a human skeleton, specifically that of Roger Kirk, in a swamp. P. Schuyler Miller described “It!” as “probably the most unforgettable story ever published in Unknown. “[1]   –WIKIPEDIA   
Theodore Sturgeon’s “It!” story was an “unforgettable” story, as was his most well-known novel, “More Than Human,” though today he’s probably more often recognized by readers of classic science fiction anthologies. One of the poignant facts about his “It! is that it may be the first story set in the new American suburbs. There were tensions between the threatened rural life–the old swamplands with their bogeyman–and the burgeoning American dreamscape.
Sturgeon, who originally wanted to be a New Yorker writer, is credited as the inventor of the something “weird” happens in suburbia genre. The idea of the wild, natural or supernatural, unleashed amid manicured lawns and copycat houses has been well-mined in fiction and film; perhaps popularized best in Steven Spielberg movies.
In a revealing interview, Spielberg once said he owed the suburban world of his films to Theodore Sturgeon. That his movies would not exist, if he hadn’t read Sturgeon’s stories. You have only to read “It!” and view ET to get the connection. While not a huge Spielberg fan, I respect the unusual generosity of giving credit to a predecessor.
In the U.S., unlike Europe, successful artists rarely give recognition to those whose works they borrowed or built upon. Everyone here is a genius, whose work attests to a one of-a-kind talent. Artists from older countries give homage to those, whose shoulders they “stand-upon,” proud to be part of a tradition. Here, people think it detracts from their fame.
A couple of examples:
Movies, like “Being There,” “Forrest Gump,” “Zelig,” all borrow from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. The idea of a divine fool, who becomes a blank slate for all to project on and functions as a critique of a whole society, is central to The Idiot. In Being There, the “idiot” hero meets a Prince Mishkin, the same name as the title character of the novel. Gump and Zelig also drop hints pointing to the original conceit.
A novel on high school reading lists is Doctorow’s Ragtime, celebrated for the technique of mixing real people with fictional ones, and to present scenes visually, through the cinematic eye, as the novel travels through time. Yet John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy was first, from his broad historical canvas, mixing real people with fictional, and his chapter, “The Camera Eye,”which pioneered filmic perspective. Dos Passos’ take on the beginning of Wall Street, not to mention the public relations field, is an eye-opener in 2014. Our culture is much poorer for the fact that Doctorow guarded his fame and Dos Passos, as easy to read as a mini-series, has fallen off the high school map.
Some people may have discovered Sturgeon from the oblique references to Kilgore Trout, a brilliant janitor in Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. Colleagues in science fiction, Vonnegut was amused by the fish allusion, and may have wanted to “out” his modest friend, who had worked as a janitor. It’s one of those not really mythic stories about genius in low places, like Einstein’s gig as a night watchman..Vonnegut’s Trout was probably a form of homage, though he may not have called it such.
I once encountered Vonnegut in Iowa City. He was getting off a plane and I was waiting to get on one. I was reading Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-up,” when I sensed someone trying to get my attention. I looked up, surprised. I had never met Vonnegut. He smiled, pointed to the cover, and gave me a big thumb’s up. He mimed he loved Fitzgerald, I mimed back same. This was a guy enthusiastic about great writers.
Another true story. I did publicity for Blue Jay Books, then a small publisher of classic science fiction/fantasy–in hard-cover with acid free pages! I worked briefly with Theodore Sturgeon toward the end of his life. This was a writer, who never made much money but loved the work and having readers. Among the more humble of writers, he was all about the process and the miraculous. Sturgeon also suffered years of writer’s block.
My point with all this? Writers may need to imitate those they admire. And the truth is that genius usually stands on someone else’s shoulders. Most writers, like Mr. Sturgeon, play the long game. They write and hope their work makes some splash. They also hope to continue, despite obscurity. Recognizing progenitors benefits everyone—especially readers.
I am happy this Halloween to publish my own “It!” story. IT STARTED IN THE PRIMEVAL OOZE OF MY FATHER’S ANCIENT PC. It's on MAGLOMANIAC tomorrow. 
Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

FIGURES OF BEAUTY is a novel about marble and human emotion, what is timeless and enduring

David McFarlane's FIGURES OF BEAUTY (Harper, Oct.) is a novel about youth's passion in the sensual Old World and maturity in the tepid New World. What makes the story unique is the role of marble, which links characters of different eras to the same town, Pietrabella, in Carrera, Italy. Whether Michelangelo actually got his marble there is disputed but not the quality of the stone. It's beauty, and the ancient techniques of local miners, remain unchanged.

The marble is wrested from the ground and transported to lower ground, often at great cost to the men of the town. Danger is always present, yet they are proud of the industry. For centuries, Carrera's marble has gone around the world for monuments and facades, urinals and sinks. The streets of the town are marble, as are the cutting boards. Among the locals miners and craftsmen are sculptors, like Anna, who lives to carve marble. Her understanding of life is through her work and she's happiest covered in marble dust, mallet in hand.

While Anna's passion for marble is creative, Julian Morran's is both aesthetic and mercantile. In 1922, he is the owner of the marble mines and workshops of the town. A sophisticated Scottish businessman, Morran found fulfillment in the unpretentious Italian town. His talent as salesman meant prosperity and fame, since no opportunity was ever lost to export the stone. When he encounters the honeymooning Bartons, a Canadian newspaper magnate and his art critic wife, he finds soul mates, who make their home into a duplicate of his very tasteful estate.

This includes a marble pool and a mysterious statue of a woman with a jug, that may date before the Romans. In 1968, when Anna meets Oliver Hughson, that statue is outside her rented farmhouse on the same site. And it will figure in their destiny.
Oliver is vagabonding in Europe, when he must flee Paris and fatefully decides to look up an acquaintance in Carrera. He falls in love with Anna, shares her Bohemian life of art, food and friends, even occasionally modelling for money. Though entirely different from what he's know, Oliver has never been as comfortable in his life. He wants to be a writer and live with Anna, when he learns he must leave to help his adopted parents.

Anna is furious that he would walk away from something so good. She knows it's the worst mistake of their lives, though Oliver doesn't realize this until later. Anna never answers his letters, she never tells him he fathered a daughter. In 2013, that adult daughter, a writer, goes to Canada to track down the father she never knew and the stories that led to her birth. Hers is the first and the last narratives of FIGURES OF BEAUTY.

In intermittent chapters, FIGURES OF BEAUTY tells Anna's story, as a single Bohemian mother in a traditional town, as well as her birth, in 1944, during the German occupation and a horrendous event. There is Oliver's story about the cost of passion denied; a life of yearning despite decades without contact. There's his career as an art critic, taking care of his parents, then the final chance for happiness, after discovering the daughter he never knew.

Along with these lives, there is the story of one family of workmen, who paid the ultimate price. After a fateful accident, their son, Lino, became a carver of marble and, later an independent craftsman in America. His story is a linchpin to the fate of others in this well crafted and feeling novel.

In McFarlane's FIGURES OF BEAUTY, the figures are the intertwined lives of characters of great feeling. Like hidden fault lines in marble, which can split a stone apart, the figures in this novel are torn by what is unknown or lost. Together, they weave a human story of beauty and power.

As art student in Rome, I went to Carrera and picked out a piece of marble. I eagerly learned carving techniques, spending months gaining the muscle to release what I saw inside the stone. Half through, the stone split diagonally, and all was lost. In this book, I learned that no one could predict a fault, not even Michelangelo. But he knew the right paste to hold it together.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Short Takes: SHANE CULLAINE SERIES & NUMA. A Hard-boiled Guy & A Shape-Shifting Girl

The Savage Dance, Shane Cullaine Book 1 by Patrick King

This novel reminds me of Mickey Spillane modern, a guy with his own ethical compass and a softness for the ladies. Shane, known as "cool," from his previous life as a high school athlete, Shane is rough around the edges with huge simmering emotion underneath. This guy has a poet's perception of the tarnished beauty of life--observing it's beauty and the ideal, while absorbing the worst. This is a page-turner, exciting, funny dialogue, and over-the-top action. Shane is a surprise, even to himself, and his reflexes are super hero. Yet his flaws and regrets are only human. I look forward to Book 2. 

Numa:An Epic Poem with Photo Collages by Katrinka Moore, Published
by Aqueduct Press' Conversation Pieces. This poem tells the story of a shape shifting girl in the woods, who gives birth to a cub and must deal with an interloper. But what impressed me was not the story but the feeling of being alien in nature. Numa experiences and becomes feral beauty. You discover with her what it means to be human, in a primal sense--shape shifting to survive.

So what could a new detective series and an epic literary poem have in common?  Shape-shifting has a few meanings but both Shane and Numa use it to keep balance in unpredictable terrain.--S.W.


bird's head on
a young girl's body/feathery
crest, yellow
tipped/thin fast
down legs     hop
from one
foot to the
other/ a berry
in her hand