Happy Birthday, Bob Dylan

If I can trust my memory, which I think I can, I stumbled onto Bob Dylan’s music through MTV, back in the early years when pretty much all it played were music videos.  There was a video of Dylan playing “Tangled Up in Blue” live, and right from the get-go, I was blown away.  I loved the brilliance of his lyrics, the story whose contours they traced.  A little later, I saw the video for “Tight Connection to My Heart,” from the just-released Empire Burlesque, which became the first Dylan album I owned.  There was something about being a fan of Bob Dylan in the mid-eighties:  compared to even the more outré artists and bands some of my friends were listening to, Dylan was out there, his own thing.  Eventually–a surprising number of years after I first heard “Tangled Up in Blue,” actually–I bought Blood On the Tracks in cassette form and wore it out on a succession of tape decks.  Somewhere in there were the Traveling Wilburys albums, on which Dylan sounded as if he was having a blast, and then, later still, Time Out of Mind, with the astonishing “Highlands.”  After my wife and I got together and we consolidated our CD collections, I spent one fall listening to a lot of Dylan’s early albums, amazed at how timeless they sounded–they still sound.  As with so much of his music, those albums could have been released last week.

I suppose the biggest complaint my family and friends who don’t like Dylan have had over the years has been his voice, which, while tuneful more often than I think he’s given credit for, does go in its own direction.  For me, though, that remains part of Dylan’s fundamental appeal, his stubborn insistence on being himself, on performing his way.  He’s seventy-five today, and he continues to put out innovative and exciting work.  It’s hard for me to think of anyone like him in America  music.  I sometimes envision the late Johnny Cash as a mountain, this great, craggy rise.  If that’s the case, then Dylan would have to be the Mississippi, father of waters.  May his music continue to flow on.

Here’s that original video from all those years ago.

 

A lesser-known Dylan track, but well worth a listen.

 

Dylan having fun with some other greats.

 

 

The Numbers of the bEast–Gripped

Gripped

 

For Joe Pulver

 

This was maybe ’91 or ’92.  The economy losing its footing, stumbling into recession, the glories of the Gulf War receded in the national rearview.  The turn of the century—of the millennium—no longer a description of past events, but a predictor of things on the way, less than a decade’s distance.  Across central Europe, groups manacled by toppled tyrants massaged raw wrists, regarding one another from the corners of their eyes while reaching for the knives.  HIV-AIDS rampaged through the bloodstreams of young and old, rich and poor, celebrity and nobody.

Joe was working as a bouncer at the End Zone, a strip club in Latham.  Most of his job consisted of taking money at the door and maintaining a generally hostile expression to everyone who handed him cash, from the college boys up from SUNYA, down from Sienna, or over from RPI, to the truckers and businessmen in town for the night, to the assorted regulars, most of whom knew how to circumvent the club’s no-alcohol policy by gulping from their bottles in their cars in the parking lot.  He kept the camo patrol cap on because it added to his bellicose appearance, and when he inclined his head forward the bill made it more difficult for the customers to be sure where he was looking.  Even in the club’s air-conditioned atmosphere, his denim jacket rapidly grew humid, but it lent a good ten pounds to him, and he figured the bigger he seemed, the less chance there was of a random asshole trying anything with him.  Plus, the jacket’s pockets were capacious enough to hold a flask of rye on the right and a dog-eared paperback of French poetry on the left.  The liquor, he treated himself to after locking the club’s door behind the last patron to exit.  The verse, he read as the alcohol’s heat spread from his stomach and the girls changed into their regular clothes and prepared to leave.  He murmured the French:  “Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,” “La lune s’attristait,” “A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien.”  When it was time for the girls to go, he walked those who did not have rides waiting for them to their cars.

He encountered less trouble than he’d been warned to expect by the man who hired him.  In most cases, his arrival was enough to put a stop to whatever bullshit was in progress—usually, a guy who couldn’t or wouldn’t get the message that the dancer he was crowding wanted him gone.  Every so often, he found it necessary to grip the arm of the offender high on the bicep and steer him to another part of the club, up to and including the front door.  Although plenty of customers played tough, thrusting out their chests and glaring at him, they were roosters, showing off for the other cocks.  The only one who truly made him nervous, to the point he retrieved the aluminum bat he’d propped behind his stool at the front door, was a short guy with curly red hair and a van dyke who entered one afternoon not just drunk but angry drunk, his face flushed, his eyes sparked bright by an altercation with his girlfriend, or the woman he thought was his girlfriend, from what Joe overheard of the tirade the man unloaded on Kelly, the bartender, and then to the mirror behind the bar.  Before he was done with his speech, he grabbed the empty glass in front of him and smashed it onto his forehead.  When he stumbled off his seat, blood was streaming down his face, shards of glass shining in his hair.  He opened his mouth and screamed, a howl of frustration and rage that turned all the heads in the room his direction and sent Joe hurrying for the baseball bat.  His fingers had just closed on it when the man burst into tears and sat down on the floor.  Kelly was already on the phone to 911, and although Joe hustled to where the man was sitting, the situation was over.  During the five minutes the Sheriff’s deputies took to arrive, the man screamed twice more, but no one paid attention to him.  That night, Joe remained in the club after the last girl had departed, smoking his way through a pack of Marlboros and reading Baudelaire:  “Dans des terrains cendreux, calcinés, sans verdure, / Comme je me plaignais un jour à la nature.”  As dawn was bloodying the horizon, he crept into the backseat of his Dodge and plummeted into dreams of men with glass studding their skin.

A week after that, Joe had his encounter with the shirtless guy.  It was closing time, the last girl left from the stage, the music switched off, the house lights raised.  Joe had thought all the customers were gone.  But when he glanced at the stage, he saw a lone figure seated on one of the chairs that lined it.  One sneakered foot propped on the railing that ran the stage’s perimeter, the guy had pushed his chair up on two legs.  Didn’t your mother ever tell you, Joe thought.  At some point after entering the club, the guy had doffed whatever shirt he’d worn in, which had escaped Joe’s notice—odd, because if there was one thing the patrons of a strip club were absolutely obliged to do, it was to remain clothed, themselves.  The guy was skinny, but his flesh was roped with muscle.  None of the girls had mentioned a ride waiting for them inside, so it was likely Mr. Shirtless was waiting to surprise one of them with his attentions.  Joe approached quickly and quietly.  He considered kicking the guy’s chair out from under him, but on the off-chance he wasn’t there for some nefarious purpose, Joe opted for the usual bicep grab, ready to ease the guy to the floor should he startle and topple the chair.

Instead of closing on the man’s arm, however, Joe’s fingers grasped the man’s right hand.  In a move whose serpentine specifics happened too fast for him to follow, the guy corkscrewed to his feet and twisted to catch Joe’s grip in his.  Joe’s brow lowered, his frown becoming a grimace as the shirtless man tightened his hold.  The guy couldn’t weight more than one-fifty, and that was assuming you threw in the sneakers and black corduroys hanging from his hips, but he possessed circus-strongman strength.  As best he could, Joe returned the pressure, but it was no contest.  The man squeezed his hand, pain lighting Joe’s arm as his bones gave to the brink of breaking.  No telling what the guy’s next move was going to be, but if it was preceded by breaking Joe’s hand, it couldn’t be anything good.  The baseball bat was hopelessly out of reach; Joe clenched his left hand and brought it back for a roundhouse.

And the guy released him and stepped away, hands open and up.  “Well,” he said, “I guess I should be going.”

“Yeah,” Joe said once he could catch his breath.  “I guess you should.”  In the combined relief and pain that rushed over him, he saw that the guy was older than he’d first taken him for, at least his age.  He had a tattoo of some kind on his right shoulder, a figure Joe didn’t recognize, done in jaundiced ink.  Rubbing his right hand with his left, he walked the shirtless man to the front door and out into the parking lot.  He wanted to watch this guy get into his vehicle, start it, and drive away from here.

The man took half a dozen steps across the gravel, stopped, and turned.  There was a cigarette Joe hadn’t seen him roll or light between his lips.  “Almost forgot,” he said.  He reached his left hand behind him.  When he brought it around front, it was holding a pistol, a black automatic Joe had failed to notice tucked into the guy’s waistline as he trailed him.  The man held the gun by the bottom of the grip, dangling it upside down.  “Here,” he said, holding the weapon out to Joe, “take it.”

He couldn’t see how a gun in this guy’s possession was a good idea.  He caught the pistol with his left hand and the man released it.  “Two bullets,” the guy said, holding up the index and middle fingers of his right hand.

“Two,” Joe said.  “Why?  For what?”

“You’ll know.”

Joe slid the gun into his jacket.  He heard gravel crunching, looked up to the sight of the shirtless man striding out of the parking lot and along the shoulder of the road.  Before Joe lost sight of him behind the silhouette of the auto parts place next door, the guy shouted something at him Joe couldn’t distinguish.  It sounded French; something to do with Carcassonne, maybe.

His right hand hurt for days, to the point he considered a visit to the emergency room.  He opted to increase his intake of rye.  It didn’t help, nor did the painkillers Kelly slipped him.  What reduced if not relieved the pain he discovered one night he was playing with a ballpoint pen.  Silver, the kind with the button on one end you click to extend and lock the point, and again to release and retract it, it had been left behind by one of the customers.  Doubtful the owner was going to return for it, but Joe had it at his place at the front door, just in case.  Bones aching, he pressed the button over and over—until, prompted by a sudden and ferocious impulse, he dug the book of French poetry out of his pocket and opened it to the inside back cover.  His hand felt as if it was filled with fire.  He pressed the tip of the pen to the blank surface, and started to write.

The room wheeled.  High overhead, the moon rolled across the sky, crashing through the stars, cracking the firmament.  The pen drove across the paper.  Cities shuddered, burst, collapsed in glittering ruin.  Across a great distance, someone was speaking.  Joe leaned forward to hear what was being said.

 

 

 

 

Here’s Me Reading a Brief Excerpt from “Corpsemouth”

A few months ago, Jordan Krall contacted me to ask if I would be interested in providing a recording of me reading from one of my stories for one of the activities scheduled at his annual KrallCon.  (Which sounds vague and possibly sinister, I know.)  The other night, my older son, Nick, stayed up late with me to record this excerpt from my story, “Corpsemouth,” which first appeared in Ellen Datlow’s anthology, The Monstrous.  I thought it would be fun to share it with anyone who’s interested.

 

 

Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror

I think you have to file this one under bucket-list items you didn’t realize were on your bucket-list:  my story, “The Shallows,” from Darrell Schweitzer’s Cthulhu’s Reign a few years back, will be appearing in Ellen Datlow’s forthcoming survey of recent horror fiction, Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror, which will be out from Tachyon later this year.

NightmaresCover

Some cover, huh?

The table of contents for this book is humbling:

 

  • Shallaballah by Mark Samuels
  • Sob in the Silence by Gene Wolfe
  • Our Turn Too Will One Day Come by Brian Hodge
  • Dead Sea Fruit by Kaaron Warren
  • Closet Dreams by Lisa Tuttle
  • Spectral Evidence by Gemma Files
  • Hushabye by Simon Bestwick
  • Very Low-Flying Aircraft by Nicholas Royle
  • The Goosle by Margo Lanagan
  • The Clay Party by Steve Duffy
  • Strappado by Laird Barron
  • Lonegan’s Luck by Stephen Graham Jones
  • Mr Pigsny by Reggie Oliver
  • At Night, When the Demons Come by Ray Cluley
  • Was She Wicked? Was She Good? by M. Rickert
  • The Shallows by John Langan
  • Little Pig by Anna Taborska
  • Omphalos by Livia Llewellyn
  • How We Escaped Our Certain Fate by Dan Chaon
  • That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love by Robert Shearman
  • Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8) by Caitlín R. Kiernan
  • Shay Corsham Worsted by Garth Nix
  • The Atlas of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud
  • Ambitious Boys Like You by Richard Kadrey

Thanks so much to Ellen Datlow for including me in this, and congratulations to everyone else in the book.

 

A Quick Boskone Recap

I had a tooth pulled the day before I drove out to Boston for this year’s Boskone (the 53rd), and I feel like I spent most of the convention telling everyone I met about it.  This may have been due to the pain med I was taking, which, when combined with a beer or two, gave me vivid nightmares in which Billy Bob Thornton’s character from the first season of Fargo was on a murder spree on my side of the Hudson River, and also in which I had to avoid a pair of frighteningly large alligators while trying to swim to my mother’s house.

But I also had the pleasure of staying with Paul Tremblay and his long-suffering family, of meeting up with Brett Cox and JoAnn Cox (who are not related), of hanging out with J.T. Petty and Sarah Langan (who says we’re not related, but come on, really?) and their irrepressible girls, and of seeing Jack Haringa, on the road to recovery from his recent heart surgery and already up to 98% snarkiness.  The lovely Barry Lee Dejasu and Catherine Grant had a bunch of us up to their hotel room for a small party featuring some wonderful beer; Chris Irvin and Errick Nunnally hosted a Noir at the Bar reading on Friday night that I took part in and that went very well; and Erin Underwood launched The Grimm Future, a book of stories inspired by the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, in which I have a steampunkish story inspired by “The Brave Little Tailor.”

GrimmFuture

 

This convention felt a bit more subdued than past Boskones.  In part, I’m sure this was due to the absence of the recently-deceased David Hartwell.  I wonder, too, if it wasn’t due to memories of last year’s blizzard.  But I had a fine time, got to make the acquaintance of some splendid new folks (Chris Irvin, Errick Nunnally, E.J. Stevens), and managed my annual meals at the L Street Diner, the No-Name Seafood Restaurant, and Maxie’s Diner.  Thanks to Erin Underwood and the other fine folks who made the convention happen.  I’m already looking forward to next year.

 

 

 

Five Minutes’ Worth of Publishing Advice

One of my wife’s former students, now a professor herself, e-mailed me the other day to ask if I’d mind putting together a two to three minute audio interview on my first experiences with professional publication, for a class she’s teaching.  Fiona and I made this short video, which is about twice as long as what her former student asked for, not to mention, it’s a video.  I thought I’d post the link here in case it’s of interest to anyone.

Publishing advice.