born to ruin

So I’m riding on this Bruce Springsteen anthology (downbound) train and wanted to type up some words about my own Broooooooooooooooose! superfandom and get some shouts out to all the people who gathered us together for Trouble in the Heartland, a collection of crime fiction inspired by Springsteen songs. This thing turned out to be bigger than I originally thought, as they ended up recruiting writers as huge as the Mystic Pizza guy. Seriously, though, Dennis Lehane’s in here, the man behind instant classics Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, and Mystic River (how many of us reenact Sean Penn’s “Is that my daughter in there???” scene on a weekly basis, right? Oh, just me). Here’s a link to Joe Clifford’s blog where he talks more about the project, an inspired and unholy merger between Gutter Books and Zelmer Pulp. The book also does some good in the world, too, as part of the profits go to the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which helps wounded veterans and their families. Now check out the cover. Rusty cars all gritty ‘n’ shit:

This car chase has been going on for decades.

This car chase has been going on for decades.

That great album-like artwork is by Chuck Regan. I’m pretty sure Joe Clifford was just trying to be nice, but I was told my name can’t be on book covers because it’s too damn long. I choose to believe this story. Not that it’s any slouch to be a “Many More” up in here. There have been many, many noble Many Mores throughout history. But the name thing is not my fault. I know I’ve said this before, but it’s that other David Keaton, exonerated from Death Row (whose life story would make a great Springsteen song actually), who did this to me because he will always get more Google hits if I don’t slap the “James” in there.  They even made a movie about that guy starring Danny Glover. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to claim that distinction either. But the “James” does make for fun confusion with James David Osborne. Seriously though, very grateful to be on this album with a band like this. Thanks, Joe!

But, yeah, to justify our inclusion in such an ambitious project, everybody’s doing a little blog tour to get the word out. I for one would feel bad if I didn’t do some kind of promotion for a publication that refuses to pay for this grill (I’m talking all three possible kinds of “grills” here). Also, before they had settled on the name “Trouble in the Heartland,” I want credit for trying to talk them into the title… Born To Ruin. Get it? “Ruin!” And the title could have the “I” be a different color so it would still look like “Born to Run,” you see? But I guess there’s no “I” in team because that idea didn’t float. I kid! Of course, now that they revealed the cover, I see the error of my ways. And at the very least, I can give those rusty pickup trucks the googly-eye treatment, Pixar that sucker up a bit. Haven’t you heard? Those eyes improve everything

This is what happens when your eyes get acclimated to the Darkness on the Edge of Town...

This is what happens when your eyes get acclimated to the Darkness on the Edge of Town…

So I’ll talk a little about the story I wrote for this. I picked “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and came up with something called “The Ghost of Jim Toad.” I did this for a couple reasons. You’ll have to read the story to find out who Jim Toad is, but one of the reasons for this particular selection was (and I hate to say it) because it’s one of the only Springsteen albums with decent artwork.

Maybe if you pan back though, this guy is building a giant Bruce Springsteen head.

Maybe if you pan back though, this guy is building a giant Bruce Springsteen head.

Bruce has the same problem as my other absolute favorite musicians, Nick Cave and Warren Zevon. They all suffer from Giant Album Head Affliction (okay, except for Murder Ballads). I’ve complained about this for years. Most of the time with their albums, you just get a picture of their giant head on the front, which I guess means they’re so popular that they don’t need album art at all. But Tom Joad was one of the exceptions. And Nebraska of course, which also contained murder ballads! Murder ballads for everybody! 

Now that I think of it, as good as Springsteen’s album cover is, Rage Against the Machine one-upped them with their cover version cover cover. But what can you do. Other reasons for picking this song - it has “Ghost” in the title, so I figured a story would pretty much write itself. Which it did, but no real ghosts showed up in it to make things easier. I guess that’s not what “ghost writing” means. There was some ghost barking though. I’ll explain. A few months ago, my neighbor got drunk and broke into his own house after he locked himself out. I got confused and called the cops when I heard the glass shatter, and when the cops showed up to grill him and gently bump his chest, the dumb fucks left his door open and his little dog got loose. So I felt real guilty and crept out to help him look for it, denying the entire time I was the one who called the fuzz.

"Tom said, 'Wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy...'"

“Tom said, ‘Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy…’”

So this story is my confession, because the fool moved away, so he can’t get mad about it now! It’s also a “What If?” As in “What if things got worse and worse that night?” Because things got weird but they coulda got bad. So my story tries to give you both. Also, it’s one of Bruce’s “important stuff” songs (I mean, we’re talking Grapes of Wrath references here), which I normally don’t gravitate towards. I prefer his story songs and murder ballads (!) and dead-ender fables, like all of Nebraska. But I keep coming back to this tune and its mournful harmonica. And isn’t there a theory that Springsteen, much like the Star Trek films, alternates big studio albums for insular labors of love? So if the album Ghost of Tom Joad falls between The Rising and the poppy Doublemint twins Lucky Town & Human Touch, it fits the profile. But what does all this have to do with my Tom Joad story? Nothing. But it has everything to do with a “Jim Toad” story. (“Why does he keep saying that? Are there toads??”) Give it a look, you’ll see. And if you’re my neighbor, hey, can’t a man say “I’m sorry!’ and “Fuck you!” at the same time? Can there be neighborly redemption a year later? Is the Tom Morello-shredding live version of “Ghost of Tom Joad” a jarring mistake?? Was this his reward for doing that great cover version when he was in Rage Against the Machine? What were his hands doing in that video??? (if you watch the clip, check out the dude from The Sopranos just slinking away from guitar heroics like that) Do geee-tars work even like that?? All these questions will be answered very soon.

They haven’t published the full table of contents yet, but I’m going to read all these story songs I keep hearing about. I know everybody always says that about the collections they’re in, and then they never do it. But there’s a reason we gathered here. We all got Bruce fever. And I’ll tell you right now whose song stories I’ll be reading first because of mad curiosity about how they made a story out of these tunes that have long been favorites: Court Merrigan’s “Promised Land,” Steve Weddle’s “Meeting Across The River,” Ryan Sayles’ “Highway Patrolman.” Mr. Sales has got some big shoes to fill here. Not only is that song already a fully-fleshed out story – possibly one of the most fleshed-out story songs in all of music outside of the 900 versions of “Stagger Lee” – but also Sean Penn already made a goddamn movie out of it! And a good one. No idea what he’s gonna do with that. Dennis Lehane’s “State Trooper,” of course, not just because he’s clearly the most famous judging by his giant name (head) on the cover, but I’ve always thought of that song as “Frankie’s” story, the brother in “Highway Patrolman.” I’ll want to see what Keith Rawson does with “My Best Was Never Good Enough,” and Chuck Regan’s “Radio Nowhere” (love that noisy opening tune), Les Edgerton’s “The Iceman” has got to have something to do with that crazy hitman, right? Todd Robinson’s, too, because I bet someone ten bucks his last line would be “We Take Care of Our Own.” I’m surprised no one grabbed “(American Skin) 41 Shots” for a story. I’m surprised I didn’t do “41 Shots” actually. How perfect would that song have been for a story? What the hell was I thinking? What else? Chris Holm’s “Mansion on the Hill” will be good. Love that song’s narrative, and the odd Crooked Fingers cover version off the Badlands tribute album is weird and great. Proceeds from Badlands went to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). Speaking of that other tribute, Paul J. Garth will be on my radar, too, because the version of “Nebraska” on that tribute album back there is, in my opinion, actually better than Bruce. Blasphemy, I know. Something about a woman singing it, I think. I don’t know. And when she’s sitting in the electric chair and says she wants her baby right there on her lap when they pull the switch….. chills. I’ve always wondered about that line though. Does she want her lover to die, too? Or is that just a murderer’s idea of romance. I vote romance. There’s still a heart in “heartland,” right?

 

 

 

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rumble kitsch

Update: this book is finally out of the garage and you can get yours here. That phrase sounds weirdly threatening, I know. But do it. Get yours.

So, the upcoming Hoods, Hot Rods, and Hellcats project I was rambling about now has an active IndieGoGo page (kinda like Kickstarter, except that Zach Braff is not allowed to use it for gas money and blow). Click here or here or here to read all about the fundraising campaign or to let Chad explain why and how you can be a part of this. And the book is looking better and better. Artwork by Skott Kilander. Introduction by Mick Farren (this guy has written over thirty novels, and a dozen nonfiction books, four on Elvis alone!), and there are pin-up prizes and original songs, even switchblade combs, depending on your level of contribution. Why contribute? Well, there’s those things I just said, but most of all, mastermind Chad Eagleton had this crazy idea to… pay the writer! What?! It’s shaping up to be quite the event. Please, if you’re strapped for cash, maybe just spread the word?

cover art by Skott KIlander

cover art by Skott KIlander

A couple weeks ago, our editor posted a picture online of the manuscript with his red pen hovering, and I was able to catch a glimpse of the story titles and authors sharing the rumble seat. Nik Korpon, Matt Funk, Christopher Grant, Heath Lowrence, Thomas Pluck, Eric Beetner, and Chad Eagleton, the fevered brain behind the whole beast. It’s gonna be greasy. It’s gonna be Wild Ones and Elvisidal Tendencies and a ton of exhaust fumes. There have even been rumors of irresponsible motorcycle handling during inclement weather.

My own contribution, “Headless Hoggy Style,” can only be found in this collection, and it’s the longest, looniest thing I’ve written in awhile. (At first it was called “Rumble,” then for awhile, “Jake Braking,” then “Jake Breaking,” then “Rumble” again for a second, then all the way back to “Headless Hoggy Style,” because that’s the name his mama gave him!) A little preview of what it’s about. First off, our editor told us to indulge in longer stories here, so this ain’t a flash party. In fact, my story started out right on the verge of “novella” koala-fications (speaking of, tell me a koala isn’t genetically engineered to cling to the back of a motorcyclist), and it’s kind of about two generations of “Jakes,” and the girls on the back of their bikes. I’d call it sort of a one-upmanship competition gone wrong if it didn’t already start off wrong. But I don’t want to give away what happens.

Valid as currency in all fifty states.

Valid as currency in all fifty states.

Just as a teaser though, I will say my story was birthed a few months ago in the middle of the night when I asked the internet for help answering the age-old question: “Can someone have sex with a motorcycle?” Glenn G. Gray came to my rescue with some scary science. It also contains a game that I dream about playing quite often, “The Princess and the Pea” (but using a pool table for the bed and M-80s for the peas). Hopefully, this makes sense later. Saying any more about the greasy noir in here would be cheating, but from what I’ve seen, everybody involved took a look at the ’50s from a crazy different angle, an angle way closer to weird, which if our world is any indication, is a lot closer to reality.

Also, if you get a chance to click on that fundraising page here (or probably even here) you can get a better idea what the other authors have cooked up for you. Wait, did I see something about a “stash of lurid paperbacks”? Did I see something else about a “stuffed rabbit”? Who is running this show??

From Mick Farren’s introduction:

“The world of Hoods, Hot Rods, and Hellcats is a dirty cocktail of fact, fable, fears, and fantasies. The 1950s are recreated one more time, but here it’s with a savage, razor-honed edge you’ll never find in Grease, Happy Days, or American Graffitti…”

Rockabilly. Psychobilly. Hellbilly. Billy is a problem.

Rockabilly. Psychobilly. Hellbilly. Billy is a problem.

More to come…

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lynx review – robotron: 2084

Okay, okay, I’ll review another one! Can’t get an hour of sleep without the world (nobody) demanding more Lynx reviews. Boy, do you guys love outdated game systems. Who knew! So, looking through my stash, I thought I’d dissect another popular arcade conversion that tried tackling a unique control system and a baffling story line. Anyone remember Robotron: 2084?

"Stand behind me, Mikey! Your mom and dad will be just fine...oops."

“Stand behind me, Mikey! Your mom and dad are gonna be A-okay… oops.” (in case you’re wondering, this is exactly what the game play looks like)

It was eye-catching and ear-catching back in the salad days of arcades. It had those intense, “futuristic” sound effects (remember how Defender sounded so cool the first time you walked by), all those synthy sounds that kind of reminded me of this song by The Fixx actually. And all sorts of pulsing colors, too (the memorable level-change animation with that trippy 2001-ish ”stargate sequence” effect is also intact in the Lynx conversion). But for the longest time, I always got it confused with Gorf, a game that pleaded with passers-by to “play with Gorf…play with Gorf” in this creepy, desperate electronic voice. Or I got it confused with Berzerk (“Coins detected in pocket!”). Or all three confused with each other. But of course Robotron never talked at all, so my confusion makes little sense. They looked kind of the same maybe? Hell if I know. Trivia note: a better reason to pretend every game is as cool as Berzerk might be how it secured its place in history by, um, actually killing people (check out number one on this list).

But what really got the crowds wasting quarters on this game was the control system. Robotron had two, count ‘em, two joysticks. Say what?! Welcome to Crazy Town. One controlled your robot dude. The other one controlled his inexhaustible gun, which I guess was just his arm, like Megaman or something, only he was too tiny to be sure (but there’s no way such a ridiculous weapon looked the way it’s depicted on that box up there). Also, like the rest of Williams Electronics’ oeuvre, this game was borderline impossible, tailor-made for arcade quarter munching (the Lynx is only tailor-made for battery munching). Of course, this enticing control system was the perfect carnival barker for the swindle, making victory seem almost within your grasp.

Where's the clutch on this thing?

Where’s the clutch on this thing?

Why two joysticks? Interesting story really. The designer, Eugene Jarvis, claimed his double-joystick control brainstorm came to him in rehab after an automobile accident injured his right hand, making it impossible to use the usual joystick/button combination (and, I assume, a manual transmission). Instead, he imagined a protagonist named, er, “Eugene,” who fired his weapon nonstop, sort of like a heavily-armed drunk (or a Pittsburgh police officer), who you could maneuver with one joystick while aiming his constant barrage of deadly bullets with the other. This did give you a fighting chance for a few early screens, which like I said earlier, were still hard as shit.

Lucky for Lynx owners, Robotron’s challenging difficulty level is fully intact in this conversion. But what about that unique and utterly essential control system? Nope!

Game Play 

Your little Eugene still fires nonstop like Jesse “The (Dead) Body” Ventura and his trusty Gatling gun “Painless” from Predator, but instead of that second joystick (or control pad), you’re forced to rotate your gunfire around your body clockwise or counterclockwise by hitting A or B. This means shooting someone above you now requires three taps of the button to aim down, left, then finally up. This means you’re sort of shooting your weapon like a lazy firefighter struggling to aim his hose and spraying everyone and everything on the way. This means you won’t make it very far. But the game is replayable as hell. And that’s what ultimately saves it, even if it didn’t save Jesse…

"I ain't got time to breathe."

“I ain’t got time to breathe.”

But how about this crazy, futuristic story line? According to the cycling, between-quarters plot screens (transferred intact and word-for-word from the arcade version), you are some sort of experiment gone wrong, trying to save the “last human family,” consisting of a “Mommy,” “Daddy,” and, uh, “Mikey.” But unlike Mikey from Life cereal fame, he’ll eat anything…except a robot’s foot! You see, if you don’t save these helpless human specimens, they are unceremoniously stomped to death by lumbering green automatons. It’s sort of horrible really. The green robots seek them out and…splat. They walk right over them, leaving nothing but a skull and crossbones and a tiny electronic scream in their wake. Yeesh. I’m going to assume that the skull and crossbones is there to mask what really happens to Mikey and his parents, and the makers of the game are just censoring the carnage. That’s gotta be right because I’m pretty sure being curb-stomped with metal feet doesn’t transform you into a pristine skull and crossbones every time. Unless those green robots are actually eating Mikey and the Last Human Family (-Sized Meal).

Each progressive screen is like a time-lapse video of multiplying bacteria.

Each progressive screen is like a time-lapse video of multiplying bacteria.

But, yeah, did I mention this game is hard? You aren’t going to save them for long, no matter how many joysticks they give you. Things escalate quickly. Things become difficult to follow. Things are screaming, squawking, thumping in every direction. Basically, the screen just fills up with more and more piles of digital bullshit.

Weapons

“Due to a genetic engineering error, you possess superhuman powers.” Wait a minute. Who made who? Who made you? (♪ “The video game she play me…” ♪) Surely not the Last Human Family. Since they’re constantly running away from you in fear, it can’t be them. Even more incriminating, the Last Human Family sometimes has like ten Mikeys on the screen. What is this, Screamers? So if the Last Human Family is something we’ll never understand, this means you must have been created by your Robotron overlords…in what has to be the most colossal fuck-up of all time. Picture how that scene must have gone down:

“Hey, Blarg, got a sec? We were experimenting on the Second To Last Human Family over here in the lab, and in the middle of all the blood and screaming, uh, well, we seem to have give one of them a lethal gun hand with unlimited ammunition.”

“Bleep!” (anger)

Enemies

Grunts: “Red Lectroids from Planet 10!” I always think these are the “Electroids” mentioned in this game’s introduction because I’ve seen Buckaroo Banzai way too many times. No, these are just red-suited clockwork fools called “Grunts.” Sorry, I mean “Ground Roving Unit Network Terminators.” Easy to zap. Don’t deserve the name.

Hulks: These Robotrons are green, blocky robots who step on the family’s heads like this is appropriate in a game readily available to children.

Spheroids: Just a red circle. It zips around creating “Enforcers,” little triangles that shoot odd little plus signs at you, like a constant assault of bad news from the pregnancy test you just peed on. And the Spheroids seem to have a limited amount of Enforcers they can birth. But Enforcers are pretty dangerous, too, as they’re the first enemies you’ll encounter that fire back at you.

Quarks: Just a purple square. It zips around creating “Tanks,” little rolling robots that shoot bouncy balls at you. The screen that introduces the Quarks and Tanks is by far the hardest screen to clear, especially when it’s full of those lethal bouncing Quark-spawned Tank balls. What did I even just say?

Electroids: Any swirl or triangle or square littering the game area. You die if you touch them, but they make no move to attack you.

Brains: Aaaaaaah! These are terrifying. My money is on the Brain Robotrons as the culprits who created you. They’re these blue-and-purple guys who look a lot like the Martians in Mars Attacks! Their mission is to grab Mom, Dad, or Mikey and transform them into “Progs.” Aaaaaaah!!! I’m not sure what the Brains do to them exactly, but it must be horrible. Once they touch your precious family, they turn the humans into glowing, murderous versions of the Xanadu cast, leaving beautiful light trails behind them as they streak around after you. Probably on roller skates. You know you’re in trouble when you hit this level and the Brains teleport in at the beginning, buzzing all slow and cocky. One more thing, in the opening scrawl, it says “Beware of the Brain Robotrons that possess the power to reprogram humans into sinister Progs.” Hold up…

Reprogram?

Reprogram.

I rest my case.

Strategy

Run! Ignore the last family. Real people can’t be “reprogrammed.” No way they’re not in on it.

p.s. A note about my ongoing Lynx World Records and Twin Galaxies’ “International Scoreboard.” I do have the world record in this game, just like the rest of the games I’ve reviewed. My proof is a little sketchier this time around, but according to a tiny notebook which I just discovered (having apparently kept it since 1993 when I cut it in half to store in a Lynx box!), I reached the seemingly ridiculous Level 39 and accumulated 698,875 points. This score beats some guy named Ron by a healthy 274,425 points.

(update: things are even worse now than what comes after this paragraph. Now you have to register to even view the scores, so that purple link above goes nowhere. Ron, don’t hide behind red tape and my lack of registration patience/skills!)

(second update: things have gotten worse yet, as the link now goes to a GoDaddy domain up for grabs. See that, Twin Galaxies, your extortion plan was a terrible business model! Where are the Brains when you need ‘em?)

So it turns out you won’t ever see my name on that International Scoreboard anyway because, yes, it’s true, they wanted you to pay (!!!) for such a privilege. Yes, you heard that right. You had to pay them 20 bucks or something equally silly to submit your record-setting scores to Twin Galaxies. Because that’s your reward for being the best, kids. So it looks like they’re going to have to settle for me submitting my record-setting balls in their breakfast because, yeah, I’ll just keep track of everything in my head or on adorable half notebooks, thanks, scammers.

Future Dave looks back at his teeny half notebook! Such high scores! Silver dollar included for scale.

Future Dave looks back at his precious half diary! Such high scores! Watch battery included for scale.

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lynx review – joust

Since no reasonable person is clamoring for more reviews of games from a two-decade old handheld system, let’s do another one! Tonight, it’s Joust.

Exactly what the game play looks like

Exactly what the game play looks like.

Famously conceived by Williams Electronics in 1982 as an arcade alternative to the usual spaceship theme (Asteroids was big at the time), this game was programmer John Newcomer’s baby. According to my friend Rob, Mr. Newcomer also worked with Python Anghelo, the man behind the alarming and wonderful Bride of Pin-Bot, probably the strangest pinball machine ever (which you can play over at Zanzabar if you’re a local). You know the one, the table with the creepy Cylon voice where apparently the goal is to finger-bang the flippers around until the power of your metal balls can turn the moaning machine beneath you from a cyborg into a human female (the plot of the Battlestar Gallactica reboot decades early!). It all makes sense when you play it, or not (“My God, she’s alive!”). But, yeah, Anghelo is the guy who designed those memorable knights and ostriches and vultures on the cabinet that catch your eye from a distance.

Sort of looks like Bakshi's Wizards, huh?

Sort of looks like Bakshi’s Wizards, huh?

And storks! You can ride storks, too, if you’ve got two players doing the co-operative game-play thing. On the Lynx, this means you’ll have to hook up the “ComLynx” cable. But then, of course, you’ll also need two Lynxes, as well. And two copies of Joust. And two people who like to double-up on equipment just to play one game on a two-decade-old game system. In other words, just like children who were lied to about where babies come from…you’ll never see any storks.

Game Play

So, how’s the Lynx conversion? Pretty much perfect. It’s probably Atari’s most successful arcade adaptation (they produced this game for all their systems actually, all the way up to the Jaguar). And game play is virtually identical to the arcade, with no notable exceptions. The object remains successfully “jousting” with your enemies, which means striking them on a slightly higher trajectory. Once eliminated, bizarrely enough, the enemy rider turns into an egg, and the bird he was riding flies off unscathed. This egg then hatches into the next-more-dangerous rider. At least that’s what I always thought was going on. But now I wonder if the bird is not just laying a spontaneous egg the moment its rider is eliminated. I mean, what’s the point of the bird gimmick with this game if that’s not where the eggs are coming from? And if the eggs are squirting out of the birds when their riders are killed (maybe due to fright or reproductive instinct), then why do they hatch into little soldiers instead of birds? Is it the chicken or the egg? Or terrifying bird people? What is happening here??? Need more funding to continue research…

Neither storks nor where babies come from

Neither where storks nor where babies come from.

Anyhow, as with the arcade game, you still “flap” your wings by clicking the A or B button as fast as you can. This was kind of a genius move back in the early arcade days, kind of the first Dance Dance Revolution level of interaction, because, much like the ol’ trackball on Missile Command, you had people actually exerting effort when they played. This is a display of plumage in the bird kingdom (sweaty arcade) that can attract a mate. Also, flying should be hard. Didn’t the flying machines in Dune have to flap their wings to stay aloft? That was weird. And remember the disastrous earliest attempts at manned flight with those crazy contraptions? This is a little off-topic, but I’m just trying to explain that the flapping is why this game endures. And the Lynx was wise to hold onto that. Sure, it’s a little harder to tap, tap, tap with your thumb rather than it was to smack, smack, smack a button with your entire hand in the arcade, but it works. And even more brilliantly, this strenuous flapping has always been your only weapon in this game…

Weapons

I just told you! You flap! Yeah, no other “real” weapons to speak of, except for your lance, of course. But that doesn’t really do anything. Either end of your ostrich simply has to make contact while flying higher than the enemies in order to defeat them. So learning to fly is learning to kill. Kind of like Top Gun. Except you don’t accidentally kill a Goose. You kill some vultures! See below.

Enemies

Bounder: Supposedly, these knight are riding nasty vultures while you ride a noble ostrich, but they look just like red versions of you (you’re like a baby-blue hue). Bop them on the head.

Hunter: These look like gray versions of you, maybe a little faster on the flap. Bop them on the head.

Shadow Lord: These guys looks like dark-blue versions of you but flap like a motherfucker. Don’t let them get to the top of the screen or you’re doomed. Your best bet is to catch them under overhanging platforms when they rebound off of them. Which they do a lot because of the manic caffeinated flapping I was talking about earlier. Red Bull. “It gives you wings!”

Lava Troll: What the hell is this thing?! Keep clearing waves, and eventually the lava rises and burns away the bridge, meaning you can’t run along the bottom and make that awesome tire-screeching noise with your bird’s feet anymore. But it also means the Rise of the Lava Troll! It’s probably a fascinating creature that someone could spend their life studying the life cycle of, but you’ll only get to see a red hand that takes shape out of a little lick of fire when you fly too low over the moat. So it’s tough not getting constantly distracted imagining what the entire thing might look like. At least it is for me. In fact, why didn’t Python Anghelo make a pinball machine called Bride of Lava Troll based on copulating with this amazing abomination? Anyway, if it grabs your bird’s feet, you have to flap, flap, flap your little heart out to escape. This also makes you easy pickings while you’re struggling. The Lava Troll is unique in this game, too, as it’s the only enemy that can destroy other enemies (enemy knights bounce harmlessly off each other, no matter where their lances hit), and this Troll won’t hesitate to snag the occasional foe and drag it down to its doom. There’s also the high comedy of the spastic Shadow Lords who get to flying way too fast and bonk their heads and do this suicidal slam dunk right into the fire. Red Bull. “It gives you barbecue wings!”

Pterodactyl: Last seen in the movie WarGames, where the heroes shrugged off the fact that a prehistoric beast was not only still alive, but under the radio control of a madman!

fossilized remains, courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Fossilized remains, courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

This pesky thing comes out when you take too long to clear a level (or later during the second Survival Wave, where the screen begins with one already zipping around and screeching), and it’s impossible to kill without a perfectly placed stab in the beak. It doesn’t matter if you’re positioned higher when you strike, it has to be a well-timed hit or you’re killed instantly. Therefore, they’re best avoided or you’ll get the dreaded “Thy Game Is Over.” There is a bit of a trick to killing them, and I’ll get to that below in the “strategy” section. They also slowly but relentlessly target you and you alone. So work fast to clear the screens.

P.S. They make a horrible sound. Just like early Trent Reznor vocals. And if you find an old arcade machine where they haven’t fixed the bug, killing them over and over and over will sound just like a Nine Inch Nails song…

Strategy

Flap, you fools! And maybe during the Egg Wave you should clear the eggs from the top down so any that do hatch will have to mount their feathered beasties on the bottom of the screen instead of the higher platforms. This will give you a slight advantage, as higher is always better. Just ask Cypress Hill.

They mostly look like engorged mosquitoes actually.

They mostly just look like engorged mosquitoes.

Also, I recommend spending every waking moment you can on the right side of the screen, just above the platform that generates enemy combatants. Not only can you bop them on the noggin the instant they get beamed into the arena, their maiden voyage will tend to fly their noggins perfectly into position for said bopping – it’s very common for a steady stream to continuously fly off the left side of the screen, then reappears right under you. Once those platforms disintegrate in the later levels, however, your best best is to constantly hover right in the upper center of the screen. The bottom of the screen means death. Don’t linger down there. The only reason to hang around anywhere near the bottom is when a pterodactyl is buzzing the ground (or maybe to make the cool tire-screeching noise with your birdy feet). If you’re standing on the ground while facing the pterodactyl, flap once and tap your lance on its beak. Do this right, and the pterodactyl will be destroyed in a strange vibrating death dance. It’s a hard shot to master, but near the ground, the odds seem to be higher when you start off standing and line up your lance like this (unless you’re in an arcade and the glitch up there is still working, of course). So I guess I lied earlier when I said the lance did nothing. I can’t be trusted! But don’t get too excited about the above YouTube video. It’s gonna be fixed. So, in conclusion, if you see this creature anywhere else on the screen besides the bottom, treat it like you would in the real world. Run. I mean, flap!

This game is at Zanzabar, too!

Wait, another World Record Atari Lynx score, you say?

Okay, maybe that’s a little exaggeration. But, seriously, even though I can only ever get on the Daily Buzzard screen on the arcade version, according to the internet (which never, ever makes mistakes) I am the Joust Supreme World Champion on the space-age Lynx Machine! I’m telling you, I searched and searched, and I keep coming up with the same record score by the same dude. Oh, and some puny 60,000ish scores that some other people were crowing about, too, for some reason. Hell, I get 60,000 points before my cornflakes get soggy. So until someone else starts playing Joust on the Lynx again, my record score is going to be etched in internet stone (not stone at all). Check out my proof below that would stand up in any courtroom.

Jason C. Dove had a bird in his name, but it wasn't enough to hang on to the trophy

Jason C. Dove had a bird in his name, but it wasn’t enough to keep his talons on the trophy.

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lynx review – super asteroids & super missile command

Remember that movie King of Kong with the rival Donkey Kong guys and the wizened man in the referee outfit who logged all their high scores? Well, it looks like there’s an online version of Twin Galaxies now where they have an “International Scoreboard,” which includes… Atari Lynx games! I’ve emailed them regarding my score for Super Missile Command as it should top their list (I beat the current high score by over 33,000 points) but I haven’t heard back. In the meantime, in an attempt to bring readers to this site, and to help you become a serious contender with an outdated, notoriously unloved system, I will begin my reviews with the final Lynx game Atari ever produced (these days, you can find it for around 40 or 50 bucks on eBay). After this release, Atari only produced games for other systems, abandoning the poor cumbersome Lynx forever.

This is exactly what the game play looks like

Exactly what the game play looks like.

Super Asteroids also comes bundled on this same game card, but it’s horribly dull, and it’s missing the crucial vector graphics and hypnotic electronic heartbeat of the arcade favorite. So we’ll just stick with Super Missile Command, a solid, addictive update of the arcade classic. You remember the bowling-ball sized trackball and the bright red, seizure-inducing “The End” covering the screen when the missiles finally overwhelmed you? Yeah, none of that is here. But it’s still worthwhile.

Okay, the first thing you need to know is the early levels are actually harder than the intermediate levels. But after that, of course, just like the arcade version, it gets impossible. The reason the beginning three levels are so difficult is because you haven’t upgraded your missiles yet. This is one of several updates to earn the “Super” distinction in the title. Once this upgrade happens, it’s like the Goldilocks porridge that’s just right, and the game is at its most entertaining and playable. As your points accumulate, you can buy more weapons in a weapon shop interlude (not to be confused with The Weapon Shops of Isher by A. E. van Vogt, as this one doesn’t teach us any moral lessons).

"Use pounds instead of dollars. It'll be bigger than The Beatles!"

“Use pounds instead of dollars, I tell ya. We’ll be bigger than The Beatles!”

But until you can upgrade your main missiles, they are painfully slow, much much slower than they were in the arcade. This means leading the targets a good centimeter before firing (a centimeter on this small screen is approximately 17,000 miles of airspace). But the real problem is that once you learn to do this efficiently, you have to unlearn it just as fast because the missiles you’re going to consistently restock for the remainder of the game are of the “Laser Launched” variety, and those hit the target about ten times quicker. These are utterly essential when the screen fills up with targets after level 5. Here’s my breakdown of the weapons available and what they do (or in one case, what they were supposed to do). The cost of these weapons is depicted in British pounds, bizarrely enough. I’ve found no reason for this in my research.

Game Play

The terrain of this version differs slightly from its arcade ancestor. Although the layout and objectives are similar with a moon-like surface (perpetual night) and six cities and three missile bases to protect which regenerate after each wave (so it’s a good tactic to abandon the bases that are furthest from your remaining cities as the game goes on), you cannot, however, chose which base will fire (the arcade version had “Alpha,” “Delta,” and “Omega” bases and corresponding buttons). So it’s more like an automatic transmission than a stick shift. But don’t worry, the game always chooses the nearest base to launch from, so this isn’t really an issue.

If we can just make it until morning, I'm sure the missile will stop...

If we can just make it until morning, I’m sure the missiles will stop…

The cities also change appearance during each level from skyscraper-looking blocks, then to triangles, then to bulbous spheres. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for this, except perhaps to suggest you are defending different areas? But if this were the case, why does the number of destroyed triangles carry over to the number of destroyed skyscrapers and so on? Pointless. Even worse, it trivializes the loss of life. Certainly the denizens of a triangle-shaped city are more important than a spherical one.

Primary Weapons

Fast: These missiles are indeed faster than the ones you start with, but so is an Amish traffic jam. There is no need to buy these.

Megaton: These missiles produce a larger explosion, but they are as almost as slow as the starter missiles. There is no need to buy these.

Dual: These missiles produce two small explosions, the equivalent of the Megaton explosion but a bit more horizontal. This is perhaps more handy with larger groups of enemy missile, but because they are nearly as slow as the starter missiles, you guessed it, there is no need to buy these.

Cluster: Finally something worth that crazy British fish-and-chips currency! These are similar to the Dual missiles, except that they simulate approximately four small explosions in a long oblong pattern. Think of the famous witness descriptions of “cigar-shaped” UFOs in the ’60s. This is the burst they deliver, and this is very helpful for strings of missiles or for destroying all enemies as soon as they appear on screen at the top of the screen (more about this in the Strategy section).

Seek: I would very much love to tell you what these missiles do. I would rather do nothing else except explain the purpose of this mysterious game feature. The suspense you’re feeling is real. But we will never know. These missiles are around the same price as the Cluster missiles, and the little graphic in the weapon shop has their fuselage twisted and curving much like Lamar’s javelin in Revenge of the Nerds, so I can only assume that they somehow change trajectory to home in on targets? The problem is that they do not do this. They don’t do anything like this. They don’t seek. They don’t twist. They don’t win the annual Greek Games with their “limp-wristed aerodynamics.” In fact, I’ve stopped writing this review at this moment to try them out one more time… and they still react exactly like the Megaton missiles. It looks like the Atari programmers forgot to finish this aspect of the game. Consequently, there is no need to buy these unless your life is perfect and without frustrations.

Laser Launched: Now we’re talking. These zip across the sky faster than any other weapon, and they produce the large Megaton-level explosion. The speed and size of the explosion means that they can also be used much closer to the cities you’re trying to protect, as they actually appear to engulf them (although they only eliminate the target and not the populace). These are essential during large assaults. I would recommend that you ignore the other selections and use these missiles exclusively once they become available after level three.

Experimental: Available in later levels of the game, this is an entertaining option, as it simply cycles through all weapons randomly. This feature serves no usual purpose, however, besides adding mystery to your attack. It’s sort of like being The Mask for a day, but with no idea whether you’ll pull a balloon animal or a bazooka from your pocket. Try it once just to satisfy your curiosity.

Secondary Weapons

These are accessed by toggling Option 1 and then fired by pressing the B button. You are allowed to stockpile what I’m calling “secondary weapons” in addition to your primary weapons at any time, but these are typically in low supply, usually used as a last resort, and more expensive than the primary weapons. All are lovely to look at, but once you’ve exhausted your supply of regular missiles and turned to your secondary weapons for help, your sky is likely overwhelmed and nearing the end of your game, with a few exceptions detailed below:

Remote: When you fire one of these weapons, you don’t really fire anything. You actually leave a blinking cursor on the screen where you want the explosion to occur. Basically, you’re anticipating where a missile will pass by, and once it does pass over this marked area, the nearest missile base automatically fires to destroy it. I can’t think of a more useless feature (except maybe the Lambda Lambda Lambda javelins mentioned earlier), and there’s certainly no time for guesswork like this in such a serious situation. Come on. Do they think we’re playing games here? Not recommended.

Rain: This weapon produces a fireworks display that in turn detonates into a serious of Megaton-level explosions. The delay of the explosion makes it effective for shielded enemies (more on that later).

Star: This weapon is similar to the Rain fireworks display, but the explosion is even larger, covering almost a third of the screen (which on the Lynx is an area as vast and impressive as nine Boston album covers). Very effective for large groups of missiles and shielded enemies.

Shield: This defensive weapon is unique in that it produces a small half-circle anywhere in the sky to stop attackers. This shield lasts less than ten seconds, but if you’ve become overwhelmed, it can stop a concentrated effort of missiles and enemies on one side of the screen when you work the other. Or, even more importantly, it can protect your last remaining city while you focus the majority of your energies on clearing the sky. It’s also a surprising offensive weapon against the dreaded saucers (more on that later).

Armageddon: This weapon covers the screen in an explosion similar to the game-ending graphic in the arcade (but circular rather than that strange octagon). It destroys everything on the screen except your cities, and is essential in desperate situations. It’s also fun to use. Its name is a bit of false advertising though, as the Moon does not turn to blood.

p.s. Armageddon be damned, and despite Twin Galaxies refusal to acknowledge it so far, I achieved another World Record while writing this review. I’m no mathemagician, and I lost my abacus, but my score down there in that picture has got to be more than this score.

(update: those slippery fuckers at Twin Galaxies have buried their Lynx scores behind a veil of logins and fees, so you’ll have to trust me that my score on the screen below is 33,000 plus points more than their, er, “champion.”)

See all those dots still underground? No? That's because none of my missiles are still in their silos. Humans won't turn the key, eh? Dabney Coleman from WarGames was wrong...

See all those dots still underground? No? That’s because none of my missiles are still in their silos. Humans won’t turn the key, eh? Dabney Coleman from WarGames was wrong.

 

Enemies

ICBM: Enemy missiles that descend from the sky fairly relentlessly. They are easily dealt with and their pathways anticipated because of their exhaust trails, but they become a problem when other enemy attackers distract you from their assault. Also beware a second ICBM lagging behind a first, disguised when it follows along in the exact same trajectory.

Plane: These bombers show up early on, but they are among the most dangerous enemies simply because you have to destroy them before they travel halfway across the screen. If you don’t and they release their payload, the resulting bomb is extremely difficult to destroy, even with Laser Launched missiles. This bomb will almost always destroy a city or missile base.

Satellite: As slow-moving as the Plane, the Satellite at first glance seems more dangerous because of the Bomb/MIRVs they release. Not true. See below.

Bomb/MIRV: This is a slower version of the Plane payload, which typically bursts into two or three separate ICBMs. Although they will spring into existence much closer to your cities, they are as slow as regular ICBMs and easy to eliminate.

Blaster: These spacecraft are elusive and dangerous. They will avoid any missile of yours that is not a direct hit (which is no mean feat), and if they get down to your cities, much like the saucers in Independence Day, they will release a beam of lethal energy into the naïve/suicidal welcoming party on the top of the skyscraper and turn your city into a mushroom cloud. Also, the time you spend trying to score a direct hit on these Blasters will leave you vulnerable to the slow-moving ICBMs as well. A recommended stalling tactic is to distribute shields above your cities, or to force the Blasters off the screen with a barrage of explosions. They will avoid these bursts and fly higher, but they will keep returning as long as the missile assault continues. But as with all levels, the siege is over once the ICBMs cease. Therefore, after this, just like the Planes and Satellites, the Blasters will wander away like lost chickens.

Saucer: The worst of the enemy combatants. The Saucer is a large, shielded ship, which can withstand three missiles strikes (or three weapon strikes of any type) before its shield is finally depleted. But defeating it is harder than it sounds because there’s a catch, as every missile, or secondary weapon, has to fully detonate and disperse over the Saucer before you fire another. If you don’t and just continue to pump overlapping missile explosions into the Saucer, it will treat these bursts as just one missile. This means you spend a lot of time dealing with the Saucer while other attacks continue. And unlike the Blaster, which can be pushed off the screen or stopped with shields, the Saucer ignores shields and peripheral bursts and only has one objective – to suck your city up into the clouds Skyline-style (more like the ship-capture tractor beams in Galaga actually). Its routine is to position itself over a city, after which a thin, red beam appears from the bottom of the saucer. This red beam swells until it engulfs the buildings (or triangle, or silly bulbous mess).  Now, once the beam has swelled, the Saucer is vulnerable for approximately one second (more Independence Day inspiration), but typically your city is then drawn up into the sky into this beam of light and carried away. Three particular weapons are best utilized against this dastardly foe. One, the Star missiles, as already noted. Next up would be the Rain missiles, which have the delayed burst, which means striking the Saucer two extra blows in one shot and pretty much destroying it every time. And then number three, the Shield, which you can conjure up over top of a Saucer. Just placing a shield over a Saucer serves as a constant attack, even as it sits, and eventually the Saucer will detonate. Furthermore, this shield that remains hovering near the top of the screen will also help you concentrate defenses elsewhere.

One more thing to consider when dealing with a Saucer is the fact that the process of lifting your city into the air is surprisingly slow (well, cities are heavy), so this gives you plenty of time to finish off the abducting culprit if you choose. However, if you destroy it once the tractor beam has moved your city even one pixel up into the sky, unlike Galaga, you do not retrieve it. The captured city explodes along with the Saucer. So, since you’ve lost the city regardless, it’s a good idea to destroy the Saucer as it leaves, not just for spiteful satisfaction, but because who knows where they were taking your city. Perhaps the population was being relocated to a peaceful planet. Perhaps your people would have spent their remaining lives in horrible experiments. You’ll never know. It’s best not to take any chances. Shoot it down.

Now that you’ve been familiarized with all aspects of the game, below is the definitive guide to your very own high score.

Strategy

Move your cursor back and forth across the top of the screen and deplete your weapons in a steady stream. Repeat.

♪  beautiful friend...the end... ♪

♪ beautiful friend…the end… ♪

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exquisite lunch

A big project I was involved with sees the light today. GORGE: A Novel In Stories, published by Pure Slush is now available to order. It’s not just a pile of stories, not just a novel, but it was a massive undertaking. A year in the making. 54 stories, 33 authors. Over 300 pages. About a hundred and fifty email exchanges. I have three stories within:

“We’re Made of Meat,” “Last Last Meal,” and “Half Staff at the Grease Box.”

A ton of talented writers share the pages with me, too. Sally Reno, Gill Hoffs, and mastermind Matt Potter, all who’ve I’ve enjoyed reading in previous Pure Slush projects. Sally Reno’s “Blueberry Hill” opens the novel beautifully, painting a perfect picture of this joint, the saucy but fictional Café Gano in Machiasport, Maine (they hold out hope that Stephen King comes to visit one day). I’m glad she busted the bottle over the bough. I would have never been brave enough to go first.

gorgeous cover

I’m serious about this taking a year. At least a year. You ever see The Doors movie and hear them complaining about how hard it was to get together and record L.A. Woman? Imagine thirty more Morrisons. Worse, imagine thirty more Manzaraks! But it was way more fun than that. To start off, I was given the chef character to flesh out. Vinnie “Bruce” Lui. I got into Bruce’s head. I also learned a couple recipes, which I would never dare to actually try cooking. This character felt like some responsibility. I mean, all 300 plus pages of this novel take place in one day, and people gotta eat!

I also learned about the Last Meal program on Death Row during my research, since the imaginary Café Gano is dangerously close to a prison. But most of my stories were based on memories I had washing dishes at a fancy restaurant called Chris Berman’s Supper Club back when I was a whelp (I also got my ass kicked in that parking lot, but let’s not dwell on that, I grabbed a lotta free lobster). But at Berman’s, one of our dishwasher tasks was to take a giant bucket of hot grease to the smoldering grease trap in the parking lot, a seemingly simple adventure, until… I’ll just let you read it.

Check out all this legwork. Here are the character profiles and photos we used to get our brains jumpstarted. And Mr. Potter also sent us maps! So we could visualize our contributions, which proved crucial as you were doing basically an Exquisite Corpse game with dozens of people. More like Exquisite Lunch. Lots of “Naked,” too, actually.

And we were given a menu! That’s a lot of pressure on a chef who faints at the sight of blood. Bruce was fragile. But there was more going on in his over-worked brain than the staff realized. Here are some tasty quotes from GORGE to get an idea. I also learned the differences between American phrases and names. Did you know they don’t call it “cooking school” over there across the pond?

So, yeah, check it out. It’s full of food, so that’s perfect for Christmas, right? And editor Matt Potter (a very hands-on kind of guy, did I mention my 150 emails?) is partial to cramming some sex in this thing, which is a nice change from the crime writing I’ve been doing. It was definitely a lighter project to work on, although I couldn’t resist introducing a lonely bullet where a pearl would have sufficed. This is the most fun I’ve had working on something in awhile.

p.s. Bonus! Working on this novel with 33 other people had unique challenges. One thing I quickly realized was…you can’t move too quickly. We had access to each others stories as we read them, but sometimes I got carried away anyway and would write something, only to find out, the logistics of it would be impossible because of actions other authors were giving the same characters. A good example was at the end of “Half Staff at the Grease Box” previously called “Gingerbread Stakeout,” which was chef Bruce doing a bit of stalking, until Matt realized that the woman he was stalking…wasn’t going to be home. So maybe minor spoiler in this deleted scene below (which I liked a lot), but it had to be chopped because we were all in this boat together. So, read on if you like, this alternate timeline where Bruce revisits his old vehicle and some old memories. My final story in GORGE has a better ending, and it’s a better fit, but I’m still interested in where Bruce may have gone in this alternate universe…

“Gingerbread Stakeout” – Deleted Scene From GORGE:

“I’m parked outside of Mya’s house in my little hornet, hiding behind some pine trees like I used to. It’s midnight. The mirror on the passenger side is angling straight down, making it impossible to see anything but the road. Did someone tilt it on purpose? I can’t believe I’d forgotten about my truck. I try to angle the mirror back up, and it slumps back down again, the mechanism inside loose and weak. It reminds me of an eye rolling back in the socket if you peek inside someone’s head as they sleep. I walk around to the back of the truck and see a brown edge of rust eating into the flanks. I tap it with my toe, and the rust crumbles like burnt toast. I’m terrified by this, that if I kick the tire it will cover my foot like taffy. I fight the urge to rub the metal ash off with my knuckles and jump back inside to open the glove box. Still empty. I reach under the passenger seat and feel some gum in the carpet, probably from someone spitting out a half-open window and the wind bringing it right back inside. You see that happening a lot in the movies with cigarettes, but never with gum. I decide that if gum started a fire, people would take it more seriously. I wonder how much spit never makes it outside and people don’t know it. If spit started a fire, we probably wouldn’t risk that either. Yes, if we breathed fire, we wouldn’t be unknowingly driving around with our feet resting in a dried swamp of saliva. Needing some air, I roll down the windows and crack open the door so that the dome light stays on. There’s a dozen mosquitoes rebounding off my glowing red hand before I count to a hundred. As I wait for her to get home and play with the prize I found in my oyster, I think back to when I first started working with Mya, how I tried to teach her to drive stick shift, how she seemed to kiss me under the lights that gathered the most insects. How her sweaty fingers and high heels kept slipping and stalling my truck more than I ever did, how, impossibly, she was actually ashamed for once. It was the most vulnerable I’d ever seen her, learning how to drive stick, and that was enough. She told me to park out of sight every time, and I did. We circled the parking lot that day I taught her, never getting out of second gear, and I imagined the trail of grease and maggots from that upended bucket, a runway that might hold its heat forever, slowing rising from the blacktop behind us to mark every lurch and halt.”

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next next big thing

So there’s a round robin of bloggin’ going around where a writer tags you to answer 10 questions about your “Next Big Thing.” And I got double-tag-teamed by Chad Eagleton (0ver at Cathode Angel) and Richard Thomas (over at What Doesn’t Kill Him Makes Him Stranger), so here we go…

1.) What is the working title of your next book?

50 Shades Of DaveFISH BITES COP! Stories To Bash Authorities. It’s a collection of interwoven fiction attacking various authorities figures, easy targets, hard targets, deserving and undeserving, sacred cows, lots of bad cops and handcuffs that get slipped.

2.) Where did the idea come from?

In grad school at the University of Pittsburgh, I began writing grungier and grimier fiction in workshops to push back against what I perceived as a prevalent MFA-style of quiet epiphanies (I realize now this style wasn’t as rampant as my young workshop brain initially thought, my reading skills had to grow with my writing), and when I looked at the stories created in that time period from a distance, I realized a pattern of gleeful authority bashing had emerged. Not just cop bashing, but some weird God Complex paramedic bashing, too, which must come from the subconscious because I have nothing bad to really say about them. But they make a wicked Greek chorus when you need them to.

3.) What genre does your book fall under?

These stories are all over the place. Psychological horror, crime, western, humorous, experimental, creature horror, Choose Your Own Adventure, literary, slipstream, magical unrealism, “transgressive,” whatever that means, satire. There’s a good smattering of dark humor in most of them though, which I think of as the glue. Or silly string.

4.) What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

“Not only a brutal takedown of police officers, security guards, firefighters, police officers, bounty hunters, the military, organized religion, middle management, police officers, dyslexic paramedics with dog complexes, and more police officers…but, yeah, there is a lot of that, too.” or “A trunk full of surprises!”

5.) What actors would you chose to play the parts of your characters?

Hmm, of the recurring characters throughout these stories…Only early Piscopo could do this Bruce
“Jack” would be played by Stephen Dorff. Or Brad Douriff. Either one. “Rick” would be played by the scrawnier and more powerful Bruce Springsteen off the back of Darkness On The Edge Of Town. But wait! At the last second, I would switch those roles. See, that’s what they did with Bill Murray and Robert DeNiro in Mad Dog and Glory, and what they did with Keitel and DeNiro in Mean Streets. And this is how I will get the most out of my actors. And hopefully we could get the entire cast of Deadliest Catch to play their doppelgängers in the imaginary reality show Crabmasters (as depicted in my story “Greenhorns”). Who else? The character of “Gumby” in my prison story “Schrödinger’s Rat” would be played by 12 Monkeys Brad Pitt, not Babel Brad Pitt. The villainous “Officer Bigbeep” would be played by, I don’t know, Ray Liotta? The part of “Heck,” the fireman who burns for our enjoyment in “Hell,” will be played by that idiot I once saw getting a tattoo of a dragon attacking the World Trade Center a month after 9/11. He was also taking the “firefighter test” the next day, or so he said. Whoosh! Who else? All the dogs in “Do The Münster Mash” will be played by the annoying dogs that live next door to me now. Hopefully, they will suffer the same fate. “The Man In Blue” will be played by Johnny Cash’s disapproving dad. The part of the “Bait Car” would be played by my 1993 Chevy Cavalier, which was also ridiculously easy to break into. “Female Cop With Hair Spilling Dramatically Out Of Her Helmet” would be played by my Junior High School crush.Mike "Bad Cop Royalty" Brennan And of course, “Big Cop” would be played by Nick Nolte, but only if he channels monstrous Mike Brennen from the movie Q&A. “Small Cop” would be played by Harlan Ellison, but he’d probably fuck it up because of dressing room demands, and we’d have to make Stephen Dorff pull double duty. The part of “Nahla” in “Queen Excluder” would be played by my sister. And the part of “My Sister” in “Life Expectancy In A Trunk (Depends On Traffic)” would also be played by my sister. “C.A.T the Skip Tracer” (in that same trunk story) would be played by Hulk Hogan because he has stringy blonde hair and an orange-ish head like a certain bounty hunter, and it would come apart beautifully when we needed it to, like a soft pumpkin draped in corn husks.

6.) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Weird question considering the logical third alternative, which is, uh, neither? I’m still seeking representation for my three novels, but my lack of an agent doesn’t stop this particular book from being published by up-and-coming New York publisher Comet Press. Release date is May 1st, 2013.

7.) How long did it take you to write the first draft?

These stories were collected over a period of about three years. The title story “Nine Cops Killed For A Goldfish Cracker” was actually originally called “Fish Bites Cop!” in early drafts (it’s a goofy headline, get it?), and ever since I switched titles on that story back in 2009 when it was picked up for The Death Panel, an excellent “dark crime” collection Death Panels are real yo(my first big sale, and I was lucky to be included with talent like Tom Piccirilli, Fred Venturini, Randy Chandler, David Tallerman, and Simon Wood), I’d always thought it would be a good name for a book if I ever put together a themed collection.

8.) What other books would you compare your collection to within your genre?

I was going to say “Spoon River with more cop killing” to be a smart ass, but there’s a shit ton of death in Spoon River, beautiful as it is. Honestly though, I don’t know if I’ve read a collection where characters bounced around stories, resurrected, reset, or carried the baggage of previous stories, depending on how they’re needed. Maybe King/Bachman sort of did this with his characters in his Desperation/Regulators experiment, but not really? I don’t know. It straddles several genres, hopefully successfully. The position of these tales in the table of contents took, no joke, weeks to organize, as I believe there is a cumulative effect when read in a certain order. Not just exhaustion, but maybe also an understanding of a philosophy that started with a disregard for authority, but ended with a kind of manic celebration of abandon. It also feels very ’80s to me. All the King and Koontz and McCammon and Ellison and Ballard and Shane Stevens and Thomas Harris and Clive Barker I devoured back then kind of boiled back up.

9.) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I come from a long line of contrarians. And growing up, nothing made my family happier than sitting around a table talking about the extra officers necessary to apprehend an uncle. Also, I grew stressed from almost getting my novel published every six months or so, almost getting an agent every three months or so, therefore I assembled this book to keep my sanity. My most recent novel The Last Projector is in reading limbo again as we speak (as I speak with myself, I mean). See, I can get an agent to ask for a hundred more pages but not quite pull the trigger (hundred and fifty pages is my record, requested in lumps of 25). Also, I often make the mistake of searching for “bad cops” on YouTube and feel my blood pressure skyrocket when I watch those clowns shoot loose dogs or kick pregnant women in the heads. So I do horrible things to them on the page and use their real names and dare them to do anything about it (as long as they’re in jail or dead or far away back in Pittsburgh, of course).

10.) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

The book cover was designed by the talented Mark Dancey, co-creator of Detroit’s infamous Motorbooty magazine (clear inspiration for Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal magazine if you’ve ever read them both) and the artist behind iconic album covers like Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger (arguably their best). He’s done work for Tenacious D and Tricky, too, and I’ve had framed Big Chief albums sporting his cover art on my walls for a decade, ask anybody. wallflowersI have been a huge fan of his work since the ’90s, so when we needed a cover, I reached out to see if he liked the project, and I couldn’t believe it when he signed on. In total badass fashion, he said he had an authentic Ann Arbor police cap in his studio he could use for a model (or did he say “skull”?). But, yeah, we were very lucky to land him. The cover is in its final stages right now, but here’s Mr. Dancey’s rough sketch to get an idea where it’s going.

Fish Bites Sketch

And here’s my childlike rendition that Mr. Dancey likely got a chuckle out of. I like to doodle it on things…

 copskull!

Also, the introduction to my book is being written by Jed Ayres of Noir at the Bar and Fuckload of Scotch Tape fame. Jed is an incredible writer, all-around great guy, approximately nine-feet tall, and he seemed like the only writer I’d met recently who was also an unabashed child of VHS like myself, an orphaned child of the ’80s video heyday, and someone who, through his own inability to be shocked (just read any of his work or attend a salty event he M.C.’s), would look deep enough into this book, past the pileup, to get some of the artsy shit I was going for. From Jed’s killer intro:

“He revels in the extremes of bad ideas. He cajoles and fondles them. He teases each for its full potential. His voice is nearly audible between the lines of the text pushing himself and the reader ahead – let’s take it just one step further – no, fuck that – if you can’t hang with me to the end of the line, I win. Keaton’s characters are blessed/cursed with preternatural abilities to avoid the brunt of natural consequence until it’s matured into something damn near apocalyptic. He’s daring you to finish…”

So, yeah, that’s my book. First whole book I’ll be able to slap my name on. It’s a good slapping size, too. I hope you’ll read it.

Okay, to keep the ball rolling through the cobwebs after Dr. Jones, I’ll goose five more people and see what they’ve got on the horizon. They probably already did this because I’m slow and I don’t fully understand the process of this chain letter. How about: Jason Stuart, Randy Chandler, Matt Potter, Heath Lowrence, and Matt McBride. Speaking of McBride, please read “The Tar Hole” from Noir at the Bar II immediately. One of the top five stories I’ve read this year. Okay, so I only read ten, but I don’t take unnecessary risks.

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these dogs ain’t dead yet

Hey, writer types! Rather than doing things I should be doing, I have an idea for another project. Have you ever had a story vanish from the internet because an online magazine went under, never got going, or magically transformed into horrible advertisements? Does that annoy the ever loving shit out of you? Do you think about all the back-and-forth revisions, community, and excitement that was squandered because of ten measly bucks in domain costs? Did you have to turn off the glowing blue hyperlink that steered people to your story, clicking that button with that same sad look in your eye you had when you pulled the plug on your eggbound turtle in the veterinarian’s office? It was exactly like that, wasn’t it, turtle lovers? No, I’m really asking. I’ve never had a turtle.

egg bound and down

The point is, you’re in luck. I’m doing a series of e-books that, as of today, I’m thinking I’ll call DOG PILE: Stories Rescued From The Dumpster Behind The Pound!

Because that is way more dramatic than just being rescued from the pound. This is more of an internet resurrection.

So, why don’t we start with crime/horror/noir stories for the first issue. Chime in down in these comments with your horror story behind your horror story; you know, which publication your story originally appeared in, or where it was gonna appear, or who dropped the ball, who punted, or who just cut open the ball to see what was inside, no matter what the cost to the other people playing the game. This is funny during a football game, if you were as terrible at the sport as I was. As a metaphor for online journals? Just tragic. Or confusing.

I’m thinking I’ll compile the best of these “lost” stories, slap them into an e-book on Amazon, and all the contributors will split the profits, or get a one-time payment, or use the profits for a print run, something. But whatever we choose to do, now the story is no longer relegated to fuzzy, television-addled memories and can live on in your crazy new-fangled electronic reading devices until the end of electricity! That’s a much better fate than the dumpter, right? So, please let me know what you think. Tell me about your dead dog (you can shoot me an email, too, of course, if you really want to vent).

Spoiler: When you pull out those fake stitches, a football has a bladder, just like the pig it came from.

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deconstructing scary

So, here’s an online version of a presentation I gave for our Elizabethtown genre-writing panel last month, cobbled together from about ten pages of bullet points and gibberish. No one believes the title is a Harry And The Hendersons reference and not a Woody Allen reference. Including me…

I’ve changed my title three times now, not including today. Doesn’t “surge” sound better than “swarm” though?

Deconstructing Scary: Gun Nuts & The Surge Of Zombie Media

I.  The Surge

Lately, zombies have reached a critical mass. Here are just a few titles of new zombie books and zombie films from this year alone. And there will likely be another zombie song written by the time I’ve finished this list:

Atom the Amazing Zombie Killer, Dead Season, Dead World, Dead of Night, Dead Juju, Dead Man Talking, A Few Brains More, The Harvard Zombie Massacre, I Walked With A Zombie, Infected, Invasion of Not Quite Dead, The Infected, Night of the Living Dead Origins in 3-D, Portrait of a Zombie, The Riot, The Uglies, Winter of the Dead, The Killing Floor, The Dead, Zombie Apocalypse Redemption, A Little Bit Zombie, Boy Scouts Vs. Zombies, Condition Dead, Dead Condition, Condition Red, Red Man Walking, Infected Dead of the Invasion of the Not Quite Dead, Dead Man Stalking, Dog of the Dead, Dead Dog Riding the Rising Tide of the Dead… Okay, I may have made a couple of those up, but they might be indistinguishable. And this doesn’t include the glut of zombie video games that have also flooded the market. And the three songs that were written just now.

Oh, and there’s some sequel-itis of course, Deadlands 3, Zombieland 2, Resident Evil 5, and 28 Months Later, the sequel to 28 Weeks Later, which was the sequel to 28 Days Later, which, along with the Dawn of the Dead remake, George Romero’s long-awaited Land of the Dead, were the introduction of a new sort of running, “rage-fueled” version of the undead.

Also, before we forget, this month a film with the deceptively simple title Cabin In The Woods was released. And it basically tried to throw a bone to every horror film ever made. But what’s telling is (minor spoiler alert) the characters in the film are betting on a horror-movie-type situation inside this cabin, on which horror movie staples the characters will inadvertently choose to do themselves in with: evil clown, creepy little girl, monster snake, unicorn, merman… (merman? yes, merman) et cetera, and one cautious gambler just picks “zombies” on their giant betting pool board. Indeed, zombies turn out to be that evening’s villains. But they also turn out to be a certain variety of zombie, and the woman who made the bet wants her money when they start popping out of their graves. But another, wiser character sets her straight with this:

“Yes, you picked ‘zombie,’ but this is a Zombie Redneck Torture Family. Entirely different thing. It’s the difference between an elephant and an elephant seal.”

We can hope for these kinds of subtle distinctions between these next hundred or so zombie films, but it’s probably more likely we’ll be looking at the difference between an elephant and an elephant. And, actually, once the true intentions of the film Cabin In The Woods become clear, it’s obvious that not only was that zombie redneck brood/run-of-the-mill zombie distinction unnecessary, but that the real reason zombies were chosen by the filmmakers is simply because they are an obstacle with the most easily recognizable characteristics, making them as unimportant to the proceedings as if the characters were battling the weather instead.

Another big movie on the horizon (and there’s been a lot of hope pinned on this one) is the much anticipated adaptation of Max Brooks’ sorta People’s History of the Zombie-fied United StatesWorld War Z. Truthfully, what this book’s structure most resembles is that verbal history of the Beastie Boys that Rolling Stone published in the 90s. It looked unfilmmable, and, oops, maybe it is. Because this movie has been pushed back another year, leading some to (perhaps unfairly) speculate that zombie oversaturation in (critical) mass media has finally occurred.

Maybe not though. In zombie literature, it was Max Brooks’ earlier Zombie Survival Guide, a tongue-in-cheek guide to surviving a zombie apocalypse, that was more than a little responsible for the resurgence of the genre. This was because it took these situations further out of the horror arena and more into the closing credits of Romero’s original film, the survivalist’s fantasy.

In this book, you discovered very matter-of-fact instructions on how to survive. For example, avoiding hooded sweatshirts because they’re way too easy for zombies to snag (a very timely warning considering the Treyvon Martin case). It also explained you should wear ear plugs so the constant moaning doesn’t rattle you, as well as other practical advice on choices of bladed or blunt weapons, treatment of the infected and so on. In fact, the recent Zombieland (soon to be its own TV series) cribbed its own variation of these tips, counting them down on screen as the heroes ignored them to their peril. That movie also tapped into what is so intoxicating about the genre (besides killing with impunity, of course) by featuring a scene also found in every respectable zombie film, novel, or comic book (it’s right up there with the scene where some motley crew trashes a grocery store or shopping mall, celebrating a completely new society). I’m talking about when the characters finally arm themselves during a montage, usually a somber, almost reverential stockpiling of wonderful weapons:

got nuts? (this doesn’t work by the way. save your squirt gun)

II.  Survival Nuts

Which leads me to my second subject. There’s a fine tradition of apocalypse scares and battening down the hatches and Y2Ks and Mayan calendar nonsense, giant sun flares, the occasional asteroid or rogue planet. But what most of these more popular scenarios have in common is not a genuine fear of impending doom. As someone who’s seen half of these trends come and go, realizing the most direct results are just empty grocery store shelves and a massive stockpiling of weapons, the connection has little to do with science fiction scenarios.

The latest “scare” (scare in scare quotes, because there’s nothing scary about it) is the zombie apocalypse. And this current incarnation of Armageddon really was the most predictable because even when offered up something obviously supernatural (hell, at least there is a sun that could have a sun flare), at the drop of a camouflaged hat people start hoarding guns and ammo, even hand-crafting blunt instruments in record numbers.

Recently, a student brought to my attention this advertisement video for “zombie” killer bullets:

http://youtu.be/bQWb-5nblx4

As you can see, a survival type ducks around cars, shoots hordes of zombies in the face and chest, slides across the hood like the Dukes of Hazzard, looking oh, so serious, but clearly having a blast. Did you get to the end? The disclaimer? They claim “this is only for use on zombies. Zombies is not a cute code word for anything except zombies!”

Uh, right. But “zombie” is a code word. In the inner city, it’s what they call drug addled homeless people, often minorities. The fact that they needed this disclaimer should be alarming. It proves that conversation happened at this manufacturer, just like it happens on the online hunting forums.

So, if we can substitute any reason at all for survival types to stock up on canned beans, bullets, and guns, then there must be a deeper reason, right? Could it be an economic reason? This downturn is no coincidence. Do the previous scares, Y2K, etc., coincidence with high rates of unemployment? Sure do. Or are human beings just wishing they can shoot someone in the head? That, too. (If you don’t already know, this is the most popular way to deal with a “zombie”) Could these rugged, zombie-minded men and women really be afraid of a horde of homeless, rather than anything voodoo-related? It doesn’t seem like too big of a leap that the homeless population would be the first victims in the event of any Orson Wells War of the Worlds-type media scare.

The original Twilight Zone had an episode that’s been often imitated called “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street.” The film The Trigger Effect was its most obvious descendent, even calling the intersection where the story begins “Maple Street” as an homage (or apology), and there’s Stephen King’s recent Under The Dome, too (that book is arguably a bit redundant of the plot of The Simpsons movie, or vice versa as the author recently presented evidence of a first draft of his book that dated back to the ’70s).

But in this Twilight Zone episode, a cul-de-sac suddenly loses power. And by morning…yep, they’re killing each other. Just like the popular new series Walking Dead demonstrates, the real problems result from the loss of phones, electricity, and technology, not from monsters. Zombies are only the flavoring on any apocalypse.

“We want you! (and any brains, if you got ‘em)”

III.  Zombies In Your Classroom

Up in Chicago at AWP this year, there was the usual talk about not restricting students to literary fiction in the workshop. This discussion has been around since my undergrad days, and no one had an easy answer then either. I would agree that genre fiction should be welcomed in the workshop arena, but I would also caution that a few restrictions never hurt anybody. I, myself, used to have trouble coming up with titles for works, much like Fiona Apple and her famous When The Pawn…blah blah blah…zzzzzzzzzz (and her upcoming The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, which is short for her), so I told myself they would all be three words. Three words, then I’m out! And for a while that worked. It turned out I had been hindered by creative freedom, or at least used it as an excuse for inactivity. A little focus did wonders for my own productivity. So, as obnoxious as it usually seems, I began to think that maybe my own solution could be universal? Therefore, I propose we ban literary fiction entirely, which is of course a genre just like anything else. Just kidding. Sort of. Not really. Flee!

Honestly, I would say it depends on the teacher. As a student, if your instructor has no knowledge (or, worse, no respect) of horror, crime, science fiction, or fantasy, he or she is less likely to be familiar with that genre’s strengths and less likely to offer good advice. As a student, you should always use your teachers to the best of their abilities and understand that there will always be a clash between what you’re required to read and what you enjoy.  If you restrict the genre in which you write to just one, you will have less to apply to your own writing as classes aren’t usually geared toward any particular genre. Oh, yeah, except literary fiction. Literary fiction becomes the catch-all. But, hopefully, quality will out. A good story, regardless of genre, should be recognizable to anyone with a passing knowledge of what constitutes good literature, student and teacher alike. Fingers crossed.

But good fiction of any kind mobilizes fears, horror fiction even more so. Therefore genre is a perfect opportunity to talk about the cultural imaginary in the classroom. So if you begin to notice an increased interest in guns, zombies, and the end of the world in your town, this will likely find its way into students’ work or into your class discussions in other ways. How can this fantasy to trash grocery stores, strap chainsaws onto your 4×4 (or kill with impunity!) be productively directed towards a critical engagement with a climate that’s producing such desires? Analyzing any zombie story by peeling away the random violence or genre tropes and instead concentrating on the characters’ concerns about their environment, the radical change in power structures, and of course the most dominating theme, the day-to-day survival such as finding food and caring for a family, is a good way to read these texts as a glimpse into the larger cultural imaginary, how we act out the priorities of a larger culture in which we make meaning.

So maybe we aren’t completely constructed by individual desire after all. And maybe our students here in the South (or students writing genre fiction) cannot be dismissed as typical gun collectors when they are collecting cultural anxieties instead.

Who’s nuts?

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spinal tap and puppet show

(update 5/1/12: I actually won this thing! Hurry up and start the car before they come to their senses! Here’s the final list of winners where they keep calling me “Jones.” Original post below)

Over at Spinetingler Magazine, I was recently nominated for Best Short Story On The Web for my story “Either Way It Ends With A Shovel.” It was published in Crime Factory #8, the issue with the disturbing Wheel Of Misfortune on the cover:

Is this what powered the creepy steamboat in Willy Wonka?

I’m very honored to be in the running with those monsters, and this nomination is extra exciting for a couple reasons. First of all, the title is based on a irate email a co-worker once sent me concerning our employer. The title was the subject line, and neither of us work there anymore. So that’s fun. Second, this story features a T-shirt with a flashing equalizer on the front of it! The true story of the T-Qualizer goes like this: I was attending a wedding in Vegas for a friend of mine, and I had this fond childhood memory of relatives buying me toys at weddings all my life so I’d stop crying, and this inspired me, in return, to buy silly stuff for the groomsmen. Like one guy got a Spider-Man pinkie ring watch thing (which the punk lost the same night) and I got the best man a T-Qualizer. He received the glowing American flag version below because he looks just like the kid from Varsity Blues

This is what it does if you get flipped over and over and over and over...it's like those pens with the naked girls on them.

…so I figured anyone wearing this around a casino would provoke someone into at least one drunken argument, right? But instead the crowds just loved it. The crowds by the gaming tables anyway. Until we slunk into some “world famous” (?) burlesque show around the corner. We had real good seats because we were living in the casino at this point, so when the show started and they turned down the lights and this pulsing dance beat started, we were right up front. Now, to be sure that everyone would get the full effect of the dancers when the curtain went up, the casino wanted it to be pitch black in there. Blackest black. None more black. Vin Diesel would be unable to kill someone with a teacup it was so dark in there. And it was.

Except for the T-Qualizer.

On the front of the best man’s shirt, the flag was pulsing with the music bright as hell and lighting up about half the room. There was sign warning the audience about immediately ejecting anyone who didn’t turn off their cellphones, so our wedding party expected to get the boot at any moment. And sure enough, a security guard with a red laser light to lead her way shows up and implores the Best Man to please please turn off his shirt. “Right. Now.” But instead of turning it off, (and this is probably why he gets to be the Best Man) he claims it’s “connected to him” and there’s “just no way to shut it off.” He pretends to struggle with the flag on his chest, pleading, “I can’t! I have no buttons!” And this confuses everybody, and there’s that moment when you can feel a crowd getting angry around you all at once. But then she reaches under his shirt and yanks his wires, plunging us mercifully back into darkness and saving us from the mob. Amazed at the balls on the Best Man, we buy him a bunch of beer after the show, flag happily pulsing away.

So, long story short, I wanted to get a T-Qualizer in a story somehow, around much higher stakes than just a weekend of assholes getting drunk and never getting the beatings they deserved, even if the shirt just made a cameo. So, hopefully, my story in Crime Factory answers the question, “What would Jesus do…if he was wearing this particular shirt and got Tasered.” (Also, the story teaches you how to rob a roulette table with bubble-gum machine toys! You’re all like, “Tell me something I don’t know.”)

But go read all the stories. I’ve read all but two as of now, and the competition is scary. Matt Funk wrote nineteen more stories on his way to get the mail today, and they’re better than most of what’s on the street, and Court Merrigan has one of those last names that just invokes happiness. How can I compete with that? Stephen Graham Jones has three names, which cancels mine out, and he just published a story about zombies fighting robots because just a zombie problem wasn’t enough for him. Hilary Davidson probably has so many of these awards, she’s got a trophy case topped off with a stuffed leopard by now. Nigel Bird is crawling all over these award categories like a coconut crab (Google it then scream) with nominations such as Best Cover, not to mention his Pulp Ink Zine everywhere, too, so that guy’s clearly got skills. His story is over at All Due Respect, two more stories are over at Beat To A Pulp, two more at Plots With Guns, one at Shotgun Honey, one with some great artwork over at Tehelka, one at Pank, one at Flash Fiction Offensive…see what I’m saying? What I’m saying is I’m probably doomed.

Go here to read my story (page 183).

Go here to read the rest of the stories.

Just kidding! I kid! I kid! I would never use shady political tactics to suppress voting.

Go here to read those stories! They’re all quite amazing. Funk & Merrigan! (sounds like the best encyclopedia set ever), writing machine Jones! Peter Ferris sticking it to Walt Disney! And a bunch more.

Go here to vote.

Go here to buy a T-Qualizer (do not do this).

But read everything.  There are 11 more categories besides Best Story, and a ton of new stuff to discover, like Jason Stuart’s Raise A Holler in Best Novel – New Voice.

It’s a huge list. Too many to list here without neglecting more work. And they all tap and tingle spines.

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