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Writing (Fox)
Last year, I was listening to the BBC podcast series Shakespeare's Restless World. In the episode "Treason and Plots," the host Neil MacGregor deadpans, "During sixteenth century, France lost so many monarchs it started to seem like carelessness."

That's a great line (particularly when delivered in MacGregor's affable-but-serious British tone.) I immediately started thinking about a royal crypt filled with the ghosts of monarchs who'd all either killed or been killed by one another. That image eventually became the story "Sic Semper" which Crossed Genres published in their Conspiracy Issue earlier this year.

You can read "Sic Semper" on Crossed Genre's website and/or support the magazine by buying an annual subscription.

Vladislav IX had been the first monarch ever assassinated by bullet, a fact his ghost was quite proud of. “No brutish stabbing and hacking for me!” he crowed. “Powder and lead, efficient and to the point.”

Backed against the wall of the royal crypt, Alexander nodded. “Sure… I can tell.” The historic shot had left Vladislav IX with very little face above his curled white mustachios. This made talking to him unsettling. Luckily, the ghost carried most of the conversation.

“My reign was very forward-looking that way. I was also the first Cynanian monarch to eat a plantain.”

“Oh? Did you like it?”

“Not particularly. Mushy.”

Alexander kept nodding. He tried to remember something about Vladislav IX’s reign he might add to the conversation, but the truth was, Cynan had lots of Kings Vladislav. After a while, they all blurred together into one endless mustachio.
Just then, the shade of Queen Ludmila the First drifted close. “Vlad, stop pestering him. Can’t you see he’s nervous?”

Vladislav IX harrumphed. “I’m simply giving him some historical context for what he’s about to do.”

“He doesn’t need any historical context.” Queen Ludmila smiled at Alexander. “Just do what comes naturally, dear. Assassination isn’t difficult.”

Alexander gulped. “Y-you know why I’m here?”

The ghosts filling the royal crypts laughed. “We’re nobles, boy! Can’t slip an assassin past us,” Boris the Younger said.

“Unless he’s hiding in the privy with a spear, eh, Boris?” asked Mad King Casimir. This made all the ghosts – except Boris – laugh even harder. Boris the Younger (also known to the annals as the Man-Eater King and Boris Lutheran-Bane) snipped back,

“Well, at least I wasn’t poisoned like some woman!”

“No, you just died with a spear-point rammed up your–”

“Lords, please!” Queen Ludmila drifted between them, then turned back to Alexander.

“The point is, you’re hiding in the royal crypt fiddling with a gun. I’d know what you were up to even if I hadn’t killed my husband’s first wife.”

Alexander stuffed the revolver in his pocket, but the queen was right. He was here to kill the king.

Read the rest at Cross Genres's website.

The Delphi Antinous

Personal (Krypton)
Antinous was the handsome lover of Roman Emperor Hadrian. In 130 A.D. he died while still in his early twenties. Afterward, Hadrian had him declared a god, funding the sculpting of many statues and temples in Antinous's honor. the cult of Antinous flourished briefly until Hadrian's own death eight years later. Then, Antinous was largely forgotten.

In 1893, a statue of Antinous was unearthed from the overgrown ruins of the Delphi temple complex by the French archeologist Théophile Homolle. He and his team stopped work for a moment to take this astounding photograph.

I love how the 2,000-year-old statue is in crisp focus while the mortal men surrounding it are blurred, as if their time on earth was already fading away.

After being buried and forgotten for centuries, the statue is again on display at the Archeological Museum of Delphi. Théophile Homolle and all the men on his team have crumbled to dust, leaving a few faded photographs behind.

3 years, 5 months, and 18 days

Writing (Fox)
I've been fiddling around with this novel too long.

The earliest outline I wrote for this (which is dramatically different from the current plot) is dated January 20, 2011. I can make excuses. I can point out other stuff I've done in the 3 years, 5 months, and 18 days since I started, but I can't help but wonder where all that time went.

Finally, I've hunted and pecked the manuscript all the way to the climax, everything had been cleared for the final battle that I've been plotting out for, literally, years. June was going to be my month. I socked away some money from freelance jobs, cleared my schedule as much as possible, and planned to push through to the end.

Then… nothing.

I wrote--maybe--4000 words the whole month. I kept getting distracted by books, preparing for a Dr. Who convention, and re-watching old episodes of King of the Hill.

I don't even like King of the Hill very much.

Last week, while having coffee with a friend, she reminded me of C. S. Lewis's comments about the bottleneck from The Screwtape Letters. Essentially, most human endeavors are bottle-shaped. They start off easy enough, then enter a bottleneck, getting harder and harder before the breakthrough finally occurs. Humans have a tendency to give up when they enter the bottleneck, turning back just before the big break-through.

It always was like this. All horrors have followed the same course, getting worse and worse and forcing you into a kind of bottleneck till, at the very moment when you thought you must be crushed, behold! You were out of the narrows and all was suddenly well. The extraction hurt more and more and then the tooth was out. The dream became a nightmare and then you woke. You die and die and then you are beyond death.

I've got to finish this book. I've been fiddling with it too long. It doesn't matter anymore if nobody want to represent it, or publish it, or read it. I've just got to finish it. I'm in the narrows now, and I've put too much blood and exhaustion into it to turn back.


Batman '89

Comics (CCA)
Twenty-five years ago today, Tim Burton's Batman arrived in theaters. With a new superhero movie popping up every couple of weeks these days, it's hard to remember what a seismic event that was, especially for a ten-year-old kid like myself. Batman was already fifty years old by point, but to my limited perspective, superheroes were relegated to Saturday morning cartoons and the occasional comic book my parents bought to keep me quiet on long car trips. Once Tim Burton's movie appeared, though, it really seemed like everybody was talking about it.

For me, not only did I see Batman multiple times that summer, I also attended my first ever comic book convention (a scrappy little affair at the Wheeler Basin Public Library.) I saved my allowance for weeks to buy a Batmobile toy. (Tim Burton's Batmobile remains my favorite version to this day) and began watching reruns of the Adam West Batman TV show religiously.

Recently, I re-watched the movie for the first time in a decade or so, and I was struck by how...offbeat it is. I hate when people call superhero media "campy" because it's usually accompanied by an unspoken assumption that superheroes shouldn't be any fun or, god forbid, something a kid might enjoy. But the 1989 Batman is definitely a Tim Burton movie. A whirl of whimsy and lurking dread, it has as much in common with Nightmare Before Christmas as The Dark Knight Returns. The props and art deco set designs make it impossible to say if the movie is set in the 1930s or sometime in the near future. Where Heath Ledger created a Joker who was terrifying other, Jack Nickolson's Joker was much more of a puckish, pied piper character. At ten years old, even though I knew he the bad guy, it was impossible to watch him bopping through the art museum, "improving" all the paintings, and not want to be him a tiny bit. And then you have Robert Whul's Knox, wandering through the movie, commenting on the action like a one-man, Borcht Belt chorus. Seriously, what the hell was up with Knox?

The movie isn't perfect. Neither Michel Keaton nor Kim Basinger seem to have any idea how to play their characters, and the batsuit looks so stiff and cumbersome, I'm pretty sure a hard shove would have trapped Batman on his back like a turtle. Still, that summer twenty-five years ago marked the first time since Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent that superheroes took a central place in popular culture. Moreover, that summer began a lot of the obsessions and loves that would define my life.

Since then, superhero movies have become big business, and especially with DC/Warner properties, deathly serious business as well. I can't imagine them releasing anything as idiosyncratic, as bizarre, or and brilliant anytime soon.

country church

Johnny Cash
We got whacked pretty hard by the tornadoes late last month, losing power for about a week and a half. Still, we got off a lot easier than many people. The local high school closed indefinitely because so many students had lost their homes and been displaced.

The damage included a tree landing directly on the roof of the old Limestone Presbyterian Church.

Established in 1893, the congregation has since moved to a larger building downtown, but they keep this land due to the cemetery behind the church. I've always liked this church; it's just the classic, white-clapboard country church that have populated the rural South for 200 years. In fact, they actually used this church as a set for the not-all-that-good Tom Sawyer adaptation Tom and Huck.

Today, I stopped by the church to check out the damage. Besides the roof, it seems like some light fixtures had broken inside and the frame was askew enough that the front doors wouldn't close. As you can see from the photos, nobody has done much to repair the damage besides throw a tarp on the roof and nail the door closed. Even the glass from the light fixtures was still scattered on the floor. I do hope they repair the church and don't just let it fall apart now.

And also, a picture from the church's cemetery: the grave of Willard Earl Bland, age two, decorated with marbles.

Personal (Krypton)
We've got a huge storm heading this way. Schools and some businesses have closed early, so people can get home and hunker down. I'm in the process of getting everything ready for a job fair I'm going to Wednesday in case the power goes out: printing out resumes, making sure everything I need washed is washed, etc.

Appropriately, the American Life in Poetry poem this week is also about a huge storm. Enjoy.

"Rain on a Barn South of Tawas" by William Jolliff

It may be as close as an old man in Michigan
comes to the sound of the sea. Call it thunder
if you want, but it’s not thunder, not at all.
It’s more like the rush of semis on a freeway

somewhere between Bay City and Flint,
the road a son will take when he learns,
sometime around the last taste of a strap,
that the life he was born to is nothing

at all like a life he’d ever bother to live.
There’s an anger in it, a tin-edged constancy
that has no rhythm, quite, something more
like white noise that still won’t let you sleep.

Think of some man, needing to get a crop in,
but the fields are sop, so he’s trying to find
something to fix, something to keep his hands
working, something to weld, something to pound,

something to wrap his calloused palms around
that might do less damage than a lead-rope
knotted and tossed over the limb of a tree.
If you ever decide to lose your years

by working this land, you might think again,
about the barn you build, or roofing it with tin.

used book stores

Personal (Krypton)
Thursday, after substituting at my old high school, I made a stop at one of my favorite books stores. The Priceville Bookmark is a cramped strip mall storefront with Harlequin romances and Dean Koontz thrillers piled into shopping carts out front, four for a dollar. I hadn't been there in a couple years, and since then, they'd expanded into the old tanning salon next door. Inside, books cover almost every square inch of space. They're piled on the floor and tables, stacked two deep on the shelves, and fill old jewelry display cases. Tight little nooks are dedicated to westerns and World War II histories. The corridor between the two stores is cramped passage with classics pressing in from both sides.

After an hour of browsing, I picked up three books of mythology, one on Shakespeare's comedies, one on life in a Medieval castle, one of endangered species in Alabama, an anthology of "gothic fantasy," a novel based on a murder that occurred in my home town, and a Babysitter's Club graphic novel by an artist I really like.

I didn't walk into the shop looking for any of these things, and that's what makes used book stores fundamentally different from regular book stores. Regular book stores are set up with order and care. They assume customers come in looking for something specific, and they're designed to allow you to walk in, find what you want, and leave quickly.

Used book shops--the good ones, at least--are more chaotic and eclectic. They're set up (to the extent that they're set up at all) for browsing, for poking into dusty corners, for getting lost. You walk in not looking for anything in particular, and most of what you see is uninteresting. Then your eyes land on one book in the pile that you never knew you needed, but suddenly realize you can't live without.

There's no experience like it.


Personal (Krypton)
In 1972, the city of Verona, Italy, installed a bronze statue of Juliet in the courtyard of Juliet's House, a fourteenth-century estate turned into a Shakespeare-themed tourist attraction.

Over time, a tradition developed around the statue: rubbing its right breast would make you lucky in love. Now, I'm a single guy who hasn't given up on finding that special someone someday. Still, I would be hesitant to partake of this tradition for two reasons…

1. It involves groping the statue of a pubescent girl. This action rarely brings luck. More often, it brings court orders forbidding you from getting within 500 yards of schools or playgrounds.

2. Even in fondling this particular statue makes you lucky, "lucky" here apparently means "stabbing yourself in the heart after your boyfriend of three days kills your cousin, kills your other suitor, and commits suicide in your lap."

But apparently, my qualms put me in the minority here. Not only do people flock to Juliet's House to rub the statue, so many show up that they've damn near rubbed her boob off, turning her right breast into an innie.

The Telegraph reported earlier this year:

The wear and tear to the statue, which is of modern creation and has stood in the courtyard since 1972, included a crack in Juliet’s right breast, which has been worn shiny by contact with so many hands, and another fracture in her right arm, which people often lean on as they have their photographs taken.

The statue has been moved to a museum within the Juliet House, and a local foundry is casting a new, identical statue to stand in the courtyard. Will people flock to rub up on this statue too? Probably. Will it grant them the sweet, passionate, murder-y, suicide-y love that made Juliet so famous? Let's hope not.
Personal (Krypton)
About ten years ago, I walked into the Books-a-Million in my hometown, looking to buy a copy of Othello for English 102. I was, in academic terminology, a "non-traditional student," meaning I was 23 and working full time. Maybe it was the excitement of finally getting to college--a hunger for words and thoughts--that compelled me into buying The Complete Penguin Shakespeare for fifty bucks instead of the paperback Othello for a tenth of that.

I remember just barely getting home before the buyer's remorse set in. I did not have fifty bucks to spend on books. I barely had fifty bucks to spend on food. And besides, the thing was a cinder block, heavy and unwieldily. How was I supposed to carry this thing back and forth to class?

But there wasn't much I could do at that point, so I lugged it to class, highlighted lines and scratched notes in the margins. After English 102, I carried it through British Lit, World Lit, and Drama classes, adding more and more marginalia. I was also an untraditional student because I left college several times for extended periods. During one of those times, determined to continue learning on my own, I decided to read the entire book straight through. It took me a year, but I did it, jotting in question marks plenty of places, but also underlining lines that I really loved.

When I returned to college, there was Shakespeare and the Elizabethans with Dr. Shaw and Drama Production with Dr. Elmore. More highlighting, more notes. There were education classes and student teaching where I had to stand in front of a class of ninth graders and talk about Romeo and Juliet. Now there are notes about words to define and foreshadowing to point out.

Recently, after watching a production of Merry Wives of Windsor, I threw myself once more into the breech, pulling the book off the shelf and delving between its rubbed-raw covers. Flipping through it, I noticed how many notes I've added over the years. In some places, they fill the margins and spill across the text. They're made in pen, pencil, and five different colors of highlighter.

My academic career moved in fits and starts, and took a lot longer than I ever thought it would. But I carried this book through the whole thing. In a way, it became a record, as impressive as any college transcript or diploma, of what I learned and asked, and the depths I plumbed. I think that's well worth fifty bucks, even for a broke college student.

When I took my first drama course, I was assigned Othello again. On my second read through, I noticed some bit of symbolism or character aspect I hadn't noticed the first time I'd read it for English 102; I can't remember exactly what it was. What I do remember, though, admitting, somewhat chagrined, that I hadn't noticed it the first time around, and the professor saying, "That's the thing about Shakespeare. You never see everything. You could read this play twenty times, and you'd discover something new every time." As I transition from learning about Shakespeare's plays to teaching them, I certainly hope that's true, and I'm glad to see that there's still plenty of margins in this book left to fill up.

the uselessness of YA authors

Writing (Fox)
Sometimes I wonder about the point of young adult authors. I really don't know what any of us have to say to kids except, "Sorry we messed everything up." (And I think this is a partial explanation for the popularity of the Hunger Games, presenting a world were adults have completely abandoned their responsibility to protect their children.)

I think, at best, YA authors are akin to John the Baptist, preparing the way, keeping the next generation reading and thinking until one of THEM is ready to step up and really say something new, something worth saying. And when that messiah arrives, we will be pushed aside and forgotten. That's probably for the best.

"But John tried to deter him, saying, 'I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?'"