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Thursday, November 30, 2017

What's the Scariest Book You've Ever Read?

I know that Halloween is over and we're supposed to be focused on giving thanks at this point and shopping for Christmas, but allow me one more horror-filled post. 

What's the scariest book you've ever read?

Talk about a tough question!  

If you piled up all the scary books I've read over the years and put them on a scale, I'd wager that I've literally read a ton of horror books. It takes a lot to actually scare me though.  More often, I get intrigued and engaged to a point where I can't stop turning pages.  

As a kid, when I was first reading books like Peter Benchley's JAWS and Stephen King's The Shining, I'd get nightmares from what I read.  Then the next day, I'd be back to reading them to find out what was happening to these poor characters! 

I remember reading Shirley Jackson's story The Lottery and really feeling creeped out.  The same with Richard Matheson's short story Duel.  After that one, I thought every semi-truck on the highway was being driven by an insane murderer.  

As I got older though, scaring me to the point of nightmares got a lot harder. The exception is a book that was first published in 1979, but that I didn't read until about ten years ago.  That book is Peter Straub's Ghost Story.  

It starts with these words:

What was the worst thing you've ever done?

I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me... the most dreadful thing...

What spills out from there is a tale of four men in a small town called Milburn, New York.  They've gathered back together because of something they did when they were younger.  It's something they thought was behind them but all the evidence points now to the contrary.

There are two reasons I wanted to bring this book up in a blog post. 

1.  It's scary.  Very scary.  The final showdown between our main characters and the antagonist filled me with so much dread that I didn't want to read further even as my hand was turning the pages.

2.  It's possibly the most original take I've ever read on the idea of what a "ghost" actually is.  So much so, that it inspired me to write my own "ghost story" book, but not using Mr. Straub's idea.  Instead, his book inspired me to jump far outside the normal box people usually write ghost stories in.  When another book inspires you, then it's done more than its job! 

Since I read Ghost Story, I've read one other book that's scared the pants off me, but I'll write about that in another post at another time.  For now, if you've never read Ghost Story, you should pick it up.  I'd be highly surprised if you didn't love it.

And while you're perusing the horror titles over at Amazon, why not pick up my book The Wash.  It will be like a horror drive-in double feature, not that I'm comparing my writing in any way to Peter Straub's.  At this particular drive in, my book is definitely the "B" movie in that billing.  It's still fun though!

Monday, November 27, 2017

Southern California Vol. 3 - What the Hell is a Zzyzx?

About 20 years ago, my wife took me to Las Vegas for my very first time.  We decided to drive since from our door to the Strip is only about 4 hours or so.  It quickly became one of my favorite drives.  You leave Orange County with all its office buildings and planned housing developments and cross over Saddleback mountain into what's called the Inland Empire.  There, you'll see more housing and a lot more industry.  Giant distribution and production facilities for brands like Monster Energy Drink and Amazon line either side of the highway as you head further out into the desert.  

Soon you're getting out to areas where there just aren't any cities to speak of.  It's just desert and highway as far as you can see.  It's in this area that I'm reminded of growing up in Florida.  You start to pass billboards for things like the "real ghost town" and "the world's largest thermometer". Sure they're blatant attempts to get people to pull off the highway and spend a few bucks on cheap food and souvenirs, but they remind me of tourist traps I grew up around. Traveling through South Florida in the 1970's, you'd see billboards for Gatorland (which is still a thing and is pretty awesome), McKee Jungle Gardens (which is now a neighborhood) and Spook Hill near Bok Tower (where your car would roll uphill even when the engine was off!).  

That first time we traveled to Sin City, we passed an exit sign for the most oddly named road I'd ever heard of.  

I remember looking as we passed the exit and there was nothing on it.  Not a gas station or convenience store in sight.  It was just a road that went off into the hills and desert.  For years after that, it became one of those landmarks we looked for on the way out to Vegas.  I just figured it was a weird joke of some kind and never wondered much about where the name really came from.  It's a pretty fascinating story though and it involves this man.

Curtis Howe Springer was a radio evangelist who had developed a following in the 1930's despite his amazingly bad hair choice (well, I guess it was radio).  He'd been stationed in Pittsburgh but soon decided to head West because as some of his contemporaries had discovered, there was gullible gold in them there hills.  He staked his claim (literally, a mining claim) in the Mojave desert in 1944.  On the land there was a mineral spring and Curtis Springer set about building the resort he'd dreamed of.  He named it Zzyzx claiming it would be the last word in the English dictionary and also easy to find in the phone book.

He promoted the resort through his radio show and soon he had guests coming in by the busload.  Literally.  Because he offered free rides via his own bus that departed every Wednesday from Los Angeles.  People visiting Zzyzx Mineral Springs could stay in the onsite hotel.  They were encouraged to bathe in the supposedly healing waters of the artificial lake, swim in the cross shaped pool, soak in concrete tubs (pictured below) and of course, listen to Springer preach at the on-site chapel.  They were served meals that included his health restoring "Antideluvian Tea" and were encouraged to try some of the health promoting cures he'd developed using the mineral springs miraculous waters.

There was only one problem with all of this.  Well, actually two problems.  First, the cures were complete bunk and soon people started to call him out on it. That caused the local government to pay more attention to what Springer was doing and he lost more than a few court cases where he had to pay fines for duping former guests.  

The second (and bigger) problem was that his ambition got the better of him.  Springer began selling lots next to the resort.  He pitched it as a way for wealthy people to take full advantage of his healing mineral spring by having access to it every day of the year.  Unfortunately, Springer didn't own the land he was selling.  It belonged to the U.S. government and once they found out what he was doing, they booted him off the property.  That was in 1974.

Since then, California State University has used the land to house its Desert Studies Center, but you can still drive out on Zzyzx Rd. and see what's left of the Zzyzx Mineral Springs resort.  While there, marvel at a simpler time when people believed that mineral water could cure hemorrhoids and baldness.  While you're at it, consider that the man selling it to them had a haircut that made his head look like a cross between a guitar pick and a penis.

Speaking of marketing hucksterism, here's the point where I tell you to go visit my Amazon Author Page and pick up either my book The Wash, the anthology Murder, Mystery and Mayhem or one of my short stories.  They are every bit as good for curing hemorrhoids and baldness as mineral water.  I guarantee it!

Until next time, adios! 


Thursday, November 23, 2017

Time to Give Thanks

It's going to be a short post today because let's face it, no one is reading.  You're all stuffing yourself full of turkey and sides (it's all about the sides, people!) and you're gearing up for your Black Friday shopping spree.

With that in mind, I want to say thanks for a few things.

Thanks to those of you who have been reading this blog, commenting and furthering the conversations.  I've had a great time meeting and interacting with you and look forward to more of it!

Thanks to those of you who picked up The Wash and especially to those of you who have reviewed it.  I can't tell you how much I appreciate it.

Finally, thanks to my family for being so supportive as I continue this whole writing endeavor.  You're the best.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving and I'll catch up with you next week!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Southern California Vol. 2 - Ancient Chinese Explorers

There may be nothing I love more than hearing about an odd discovery or a weird mystery that either hasn't been explained yet or has turned accepted facts upside down.  There have been plenty of times that I've used those as jumping off points for a story.  More often than not though, I just love to think about them and wonder just how much we don't know about the stuff we think we know.

One of my favorites comes from my adopted home state of California and it happened to be discovered less than an hour away from where I live.  It also involves diving, which is always a big draw for me.  

Back in 1975, a couple of guys who ran a scuba equipment shop were diving off Palos Verdes.  The area is a beautiful place to dive.  There is plenty of reef available to find lobster and abalone which these two gentlemen were doing at the time.  Instead of finding dinner though, they found one of these.

Now, obviously Mother Nature doesn't usually make donut shaped rocks and she definitely doesn't make them over 300 pounds each.  The two men got one of the rocks to the surface and back to their shop and over the course of a few weeks of diving found many more.  It was a pretty strange phenomena and as word of it got around in the diving community it was eventually brought to the attention of Professor James Moriarty III at the University of San Diego.  He and an associate Larry Pierson studied the rocks and determined something groundbreaking.  

They were approximately two thousand years old and were part of a shipwreck.  That's right!  Somewhere around the time of Christ a large man-made sailing vessel had cozied up to the shoreline near Palos Verdes and gotten a little too close to the reef.

This was a major find, mostly because the accepted history up to that point was that no ancient civilization from another continent had ever set foot in what is now Southern California.  In fact, the commonly accepted theory was that the Spanish were the first non-native people to explore this area of North America and that was only about 500 years ago.  

So who were these ancient sailing explorers?  A lengthy study of the stones revealed they were anchors and ballast and that the sandstone they were made from originated from Southern China.  

History books still don't recognize that Chinese explorers visited California centuries before the Spanish but there are other clues that point to that being the case.  Aside from these stone anchors and others discovered along the coastline, there have been rock carvings of Chinese origin discovered in Nevada and even a small idol with Chinese characters uncovered in Colorado. 

Fascinating, huh?  

It gets better although this next part is heavily disputed and should be read with an open mind.  Twenty years before the anchors were discovered, a well traveled attorney named Henriette Mertz wrote a book called Pale Ink: Two Ancient Records of Chinese Exploration in America.  

In it, she dug into the writings of Chinese explorers who documented their visits to a mysterious land called Fu Shang.  The texts are extremely old.  One is from 500 AD and the other from 2200 BC.  Mertz drew some interesting parallels between their descriptions and major landmarks in the western United States. Now, be aware that Mertz made some mistakes in her research, mostly by misidentifying some texts and making a few assumptions when she probably should have let the facts speak for themselves. 

However, if you just look at the facts presented, she makes a strong case.  For one, she converted the old Chinese units of measures into miles and when she did, she found that they indeed would have placed the Chinese explorers in California. She also pointed out descriptions of landmarks that sound very much like Mount Shasta and the Grand Canyon among others.

We may never end up knowing for sure who came to California originally and perhaps recorded history will always stick with the Spanish being the first explorers, but it sure is fun to think about there being a hidden history behind the accepted one.

If you're looking for other fun stories, check out my author page over at Amazon.  There you'll find my book The Wash and a couple of other items.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Monsters! - An Interview with Lisanne Harrington

Those of you who have followed the blog know that I have a huge love of horror, but while that may be the case, slasher films don't really float my boat.  I'm a monster guy.  Give me something supernatural, otherworldly or just oversized from nuclear testing and you've got me hooked into seeing your movie or reading your book.  

One of my favorite people to talk about monsters with just happens to be a damn fine author as well.  Her name is Lisanne Harrington and if you haven't already, check out her excellent books MOONSPELL and MOON WATCH.  They stood out to me right away because they're about werewolves!  The world needs more werewolf stories and especially some that don't involve vampire love triangles. 

Lisanne loves monsters as much if not more than I do.  She loves them so much that her blog features an in-depth look at a different monster each week.  You can find it at this link and I encourage you to go back and check out some of her older posts.  My favorites so far have been about Momo (a meat eating Bigfoot cousin from Missouri) and The Wendigo (a mysterious cannibalistic creature from Native American lore).  

Last week, Lisanne and I sat down to talk about monsters and writing.  The conversation took some fun turns, so without further ado, here's it is.  Enjoy!


First, have you always loved monsters or was this something that came to you later?

I think I was just born this way. Can't remember a time when I didn't love monsters. Never was a Princess or Fairy Queen for Halloween. Always had some sort of monster get-up. Kids' costumes used to have these plastic masks that were held on your face with rubberized string, and even though you could barely see out of the eye-holes (especially when you wear glasses!) and it was hard to breathe, I always wanted to be Frankenstein or Dracula. At least until I was old enough to put together a costume myself.  Drove my mother nuts. She always wanted me to be something "cute."

I remember those costumes! I had them as a kid also. 

One year at work, I dressed up as a huge cobweb with tons of plastic spiders everywhere. My boss wouldn't look at me all day, except to tell me I looked horrible. I was 34...

That's a great idea for a costume!  

Do you have brothers or sisters that influenced you also? I was the oldest so I didn't, but I had a great aunt who liked to stay up for Creature Feature and I spent the night with her on most weekends. My introduction to the classic movies was when I was probably seven or eight and it was all thanks to my Aunt Maude.

I had an older brother, but he was 5 years older than me and pretty much ignored me most of the time. I also watched the Creature Features. For a time, I wanted to be Elvira. I still love her!

I grew up in Florida so we had Dr. Paul Bearer as our movie host. He was great! His signature thing was singing the song "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park".

Paul Bearer! That's hilarious!

Looking back on it, I've tried to figure out why I gravitated to horror and monsters because my parents are not big horror fans.  Like you, I figure I was just born this way.  What is it about monsters that appeals to you?

Freud talked about catharsis as a way for people to relieve pent-up emotions; in the case of horror, negative emotions. Jung taught us about how the human race has a collective unconscious that contains certain archetypes buried deep within it, and a love of horror is the manifestation of our dark side.

I didn’t have the easiest childhood and had a lot of anger, so maybe monsters was my way of coping, my catharsis. A way to let out my dark side without hurting anyone.

But  it’s also a sort of a chemical hardwiring. Fight or flight comes to us courtesy of several neurotransmitter chemicals like epinephrine and dopamine, which is actually the brain’s happy juice. Some people produce more than others, and it hangs around longer.
I get a bit of a rush when I watch horror, something I rarely feel in day-to-day life. Some people get it when exercising, or bungee-jumping, or diving with sharks. That happy juice floods our brains and we get a kind of high from it.

My love of horror—and likely yours—isn’t simply a personal preference. We’re just built this way. 

So what is it I love about monsters? Good question. I don’t really have an answer, other than everything. Except zombies and vampires. They’ve been done to death, so I’m pretty much over them. But I love all the rest of them!

After all, some of us are just born this way!

For me there is also the outcast thing. I lived up in my head for a lot of my childhood and I was never really interested in playing sports or that sort of thing until I was older. That made me feel a little like an oddball or outcast and that’s what the Universal Monsters were to me.  They’re all outcasts that live on the fringes of society so I identified with them and still do on some levels.  They’re my peeps!

So, when did you start writing fiction?

I used to journal a lot as a kid. Always loved reading, so it was a pretty natural slide into writing. I co-wrote my first novel when I was 11. It was a Brady Bunch type of story. I have a love of research, so I always wrote more than I really needed to whenever I had a term paper or report due. I find that love translates into my fiction as well.

I know you worked as a paralegal. Did you write short stories and stuff during that time?

I did. I'd eat lunch at my desk and spend my lunch hour writing. Then I'd edit at night and send out my stories on the weekends.  Back then (the 90s) there were a lot more places that published short stories than there are now. Did a lot of writing at Carl's Jr. They had the best soda...

So, are the Wolf Creek Mysteries your first novels or did you write others before those?

The first novel I wrote, after that disastrous one in sixth grade, was called Killer Secret. I took an online Advanced Novel Writing course. We had to write 10,000 words every three weeks, then critique all the other students' works. It was grueling, but it taught me so much about the craft of writing. I was already familiar with meeting deadlines (tons of them in the legal world), but the course taught me how to stay focused. By the way, that novel was just awful!

Okay, before we go further I need to get on my werewolf soapbox here.  I love werewolves. I mean, when I was a kid, I wanted to actually BE a werewolf. The idea of running around wreaking havoc at night was so awesome. With the explosion of the Twilight books, Underworld movies, etc. I was really hoping for some solid werewolf fiction that didn’t involve a love triangle. I was waiting for the second coming of The Howling and An American Werewolf in London.  Instead, the world just got more werewolf/vampire love triangles.  I feel completely ripped off, so I’m really eager to read your books. The world needs some good werewolf fiction.  What made you choose werewolves?

Before I answer that, let me just say, I agree wholeheartedly with you. Twilight really killed vampires for me (what self-respecting vampire would sparkle, for God’s sake?). I really liked The Howling and ADORE An American Werewolf in London! Such great stories.
But I digress.

Werewolves really chose me. I live with my characters for as long as it takes before I actually begin writing. By that I mean they chat with me, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for months at a time. They tell me bits and pieces of their story. Once they begin to trust me, then and only then, I get the whole thing.

Once I have that, I can begin to write. Of course, there are still surprises for me along the way. Like the twist at the end of MOONSPELL. It wasn't until that final scene was written that James (my character) told me the whole truth.

It's pretty standard among writers, don't you think? In my house, they call it Mommieland, as in, "Mom's gone to Mommieland again..."  My family can always tell when a new story has gripped me.

I know people who will read that and think it's creepy, but I fully understand it.  That's what happens to me also. Back in the Victorian era when there was a fascination with spiritualists and psychics there was a phenomenon called "automatic writing" where the spirits would guide your pencil.  I feel that way when I get in my writing ‘zone’.  The words are just coming out and it doesn’t feel like they’re even coming from my own brain.  I’ve had many times where all of a sudden, my plot or characters will just go in another direction that I never expected.  I love when that happens. It's my favorite thing about writing.

Yep, me too.  If I can surprise myself, it's a pretty good bet the reader will be surprised, too.  At least, I hope so!

Where do you tend to get most of your inspiration from? 

Inspiration usually comes to me when doing mundane chores like laundry or the dishes. Like I said earlier, my characters will just start talking to me one day. I find that the more I try to think about a story, the harder it is to write. As long as I relax and just let the muse come to me rather than insisting he pay me a visit, it’s almost like I’m simply transcribing the story as it's being told to me. When I was first contracted for the Wolf Creek Mystery series, MOONSPELL had been written, but the other two hadn’t. Nor did I have a clue what the stories even were. Because I tried to force it, after 30,000 words, I ended up scrapping the manuscript for the second book. It just wasn’t working, and everything in it was crap.
But once I relaxed and stopped thinking about it, both stories came to me almost simultaneously.

Every so often, I get inspired by a book or movie, but that’s rare. I am working on a short story right now inspired by one of the monsters I’ve written about on my blog, but I can’t tell you any more than that until it’s done. Because if I did… well, you know.
By the way, here’s a picture of my muse.

Nice!  So let’s talk about your blog.  You've been doing a post a week extensively exploring different monsters. How long is your list?

Well, let's see. I've researched and written enough to last me through to next January. Then I'll have to find some more. There are all different places that have monsters: different states, countries, societies and religions. There are an infinite number, the more obscure and unknown, the better. If I get stuck, I can always turn to those old black-and-white monster movies for inspiration!

Have you ever done any monster "tourism" so to speak? Visited places where there are lots of bigfoot reports or UFO sightings? That sort of thing?

No, unfortunately I've never had the opportunity. I wanted to do the Stanley Writer's Retreat a few years ago in Colorado, where the movie The Shining was filmed at the Overlook Hotel, but didn't get the chance.  What about you? You ever seen a monster?

No, I've never seen a monster, per se, but I've actually been in a cage with a great white shark swimming around me so that's pretty close.


As for supernatural monsters, there are a number of places in L.A/San Diego that are supposedly haunted or have dark pasts.  Have you ever been to any of those and if so, have you ever seen/experienced anything weird?

I went to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose when I was a kid, but to me it was more like it had been built by a demented madman than anything supernatural.

But I have had a few weird things happen. Growing up, we had this painting of a Spanish bullfighter in the living room. The figure in the painting would periodically change position, as if he were really fighting a bull. I never actually SAW him move, but there were several times he was in a different pose. Then when I would tell my mom, he would be back to the original position.

Can you say Night Gallery?

When my kids were little, we had a little mutt named Muggsy. After she died, I used to feel her cuddle up to me once in a while, usually at the small of my back when I was lying on the floor watching TV. It stopped when we got another dog several years later.
I’ve also seen a few ghosts in my house over the years, but nothing recently. However, the dog I have now, Fiona, frequently sits in the middle of the room and growls at nothing, and I wonder if she sees a spirit.

That’s something I’ve never experienced and to be honest, I’d love to.  I think some people are just more attuned to it than others and I got the short end of that particular stick.  I’ve had two times in my life where I had a premonition.  Both times were contests that I’d entered and both times I actually won.  Unfortunately, none were mega-millions lottery related.  One time I won a cookbook and the other time I won a live album by the Drive-By Truckers.

Have you ever had any ESP or psychic experiences?

My grandmother and I had a kind of ESP between us, but it only manifested itself once in a while. Usually when she would call. It would freak my mom out because the phone would ring and I would say, “That’s Gigi.” Mom would pick up the phone and Gigi would be on the line. I’ll never forget the look on Mom’s face the first time I did that. I think I was about eight.

I do periodically have dream premonitions. Whenever I dream about snakes, within three weeks, something bad happens. I have about a 75% accuracy rate.

The very first one was about my grandparent’s house. They had this tiny little clapboard house that was a converted print shop. There were several oak trees in the front yard. In the dream, it was autumn, and the yard was filled with fallen leaves. As I walked up to the chain link fence, thousands and thousands of snakes were making their way across the yard, trying to get into the house.

A week or so later, my grandfather had three massive strokes. I was 11, and I still remember that dream vividly. I’ve had many others over the years, all forgotten. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget that first one.

All in all, I think I’d rather have that painting.

I’d like to go back to the "Mommieland" thing a second. You said that you’ll have characters talk to you for days or months at a time. Do you have multiple characters from multiple stories doing that or do you tend to focus on one story at a time?

Usually one story at a time. Even my Wolf Creek Mystery series, which has the same characters throughout, came to me one story at a time.

So is your family into horror also?

My husband doesn’t get my fascination with it. But I actually raised my girls on horror movies. When Jennifer, my oldest, was a baby, there was a show on Saturday afternoons and into the night called USA Saturday Nightmares. It was always on in the background as she toddled around.  My girls and I can quote lines from just about any monster movie. They love them almost as much as I do.

Jenn and I are also into Serial Killers. When my murder mystery (MURDER IN THE FAMILY) comes out next year, I'll start blogging about some really fascinating murders.

That's fantastic! My daughter loves the old ones (like I do) but she's not as keen on the gorier, new ones. She does love Trick r' Treat though. She thinks Sam is cute so that helps.

That's a fun movie.

So I'm guessing it's going to be pretty hard to narrow down what your favorite horror books or movies are, but what are some monster movies that you wholeheartedly recommend?

Don’t really have a favorite, but the ones I find myself watching over and over are Fido, It, 1408, the series Dead Like Me, Day of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Needful Things, The Fog (1980 version), Halloween, Omega Man. Basically, I love ‘em all!

Oh, and the original Fright Night! How could I forget that one??

Let me ask you a question: Twilight Zone or Night Gallery?

Ooooh. Tough one.  I've seen way more of Twilight Zone than Night Gallery but I'm going to go against the grain and say, Night Gallery. I really like them both but the latter cast Elsa Lanchester (the actual Bride of Frankenstein) in one of my favorite episodes.

Night Gallery is my favorite, too. There was an episode with Pamelyn Ferdin where she was a lonely child who lived on an island. One day, she found a hole. A voice came to her from that hole, and it convinced her to do strange things until it basically got her to join it forever.  Talk about creepy.  I like Twilight Zone, but it always had a message, whereas Night Gallery was just plain fun.

Okay, last question. What are some of your favorite horror books?

So hard to pick, but would have to at least list these: The Mailman by Bentley Little, Needful Things, The Talisman, Salem’s Lot and Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King, Snowblind by Christopher Golden, The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, NOS4A2 and Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (who will undoubtedly become an even better writer than his father!)
The Mailman and NOS4A2 really creeped me out.

I totally agree on Heart Shaped Box. That book was terrifying and I couldn't put it down! I haven't read NOS4A2 yet but it's on my Nook. I just have a couple before it.

I have an entire bookcase (6 shelves) dedicated to Stephen King and Joe Hill, and am also collecting Bentley Little.  If you like vampires, JR Ward's Brotherhood of the Black Dagger series is amazing.

You have the two Wolf Creek books out. There's another on the way, right? When can people look forward to that?

MOON SHADOWS is due out in January 2018.  It piggybacks off book #2, MOON WATCH. Takes up minutes after #2 ends.

And Murder in the Family is due out sometime after that?

It doesn't have a pub date yet, but it'll be late summer or early fall, 2018.

Fantastic!  Thanks for doing this. I had a great time!

This has really been a lot of fun, Cary. Thanks for the opportunity to chat with you.