Along Came A (Really, Really Big) Spider

I originally published this column back in October 2010, but I was inspired to post it today by my friend’s Carmen Bastante’s creepy spider encounter.

Carmen Bastante’s big, creepy spider.

His body is the size of a quarter, fatter than a Concord grape, and with his legs extended he’s almost as big as a silver dollar. He’s unquestionably one of the scariest spiders I ever saw.

And he’s living right outside my kids’ bedroom window.

We’re currently staying at my in-laws house while renovation work is being done on our home (more on that in future columns) and the spider was here when we moved in. Judging from the massive, intricate web outside the bedroom window, he’d been here for a while.

Death Sentence

My six-year-old daughter immediately sentenced him to death. (I read an article recently that implied girls are born with an innate fear of spiders and snakes, and my daughter bears this theory out.) Even my wife wanted to see him go, and she doesn’t normally “scheeve bugs” (mice are another story).

“He’s scary and looks like the kind that bites,” was her entomological observation. “And he’s the size of a dinner plate!”

How to dispose of such a creature? This called for more than a fly swatter and paper towel. My wife suggested we suck him up with the vacuum but it seemed cruel.

“I’d rather blow him out into the yard,” I suggested. “Give him a chance to build a new web elsewhere.”

I didn’t want to kill the spider. Sure, he was scary-looking, but anything that built a web so beautiful and complex couldn’t be all bad.

Six-Legged Showtime!

“Boris The Spider” became a kind of showpiece at the house. My daughter would drag anyone who visited up to her bedroom to look at the spider living outside her window. Sometimes the show could get graphic.

“The spider was sucking the blood out of a dragonfly!” My daughter announced happily after dragging a family friend up to look at Boris. Our friend looked pale.

“That was disgusting,” she said. “You should really get rid of that thing.” The opinion seemed unanimous.

Still I resisted. There was something about the spider I respected. Plus, he was here first. My family and I understood the feeling of being displaced all too well. I didn’t want to do that to another living creature if I didn’t have to.

In Douglas Coupland’s novel about slackers in the 1990s, Generation X, there’s a character who refuses to bathe because a spider had built an intricate web in his bathtub (yet he had no problem smashing the windshields of rich Yuppies’ expensive cars). I could relate. I used to be part of “Generation X,” people who reached adulthood in the 1980s. Now I’m “Generation PG-13” at best.

There are many superstitions about killing spiders. An old English nursery rhymes has it, “If you want to live and thrive, let the spider run alive.” Other legends tell of financial ruin that has befallen people who killed spiders. We were already living in financial ruin…how much worse would it be if we squashed Boris?

Common, But Cool

I did some spider research, figuring we had something exotic like a brown widow or a goliath birdeater. But it appeared Boris was a parasteatoda tepidariorum, a common house spider. And, judging from the yellow-banned legs, Boris was probably a girl.

At night my wife and I would take our dogs out before bed and we’d look up at the kids’ window. Boris would be there, a plump, silent sentinel in the middle of her web.

“What if the spider isn’t here to scare or harm us, but to protect us?” I asked my wife. Maybe Boris was warding evil spirits away from the children’s window. She certainly looked intimidating up there. I didn’t want to mess with her.

Seeing Boris as a protector instead of predator struck a chord with my wife. It also bought Boris a stay of execution…at least until her next dragonfly meal.

-30-

Originally published in Wayne TODAY, October 2010.

Toss The Bookshelf, Not The Books

Since this is my official book blog, I figured this is the appropriate place to post this column from October 2011 about the future of books.

I still miss my books…

Books are beautiful.

Their construction is so basic — paper, ink, glue, and cardboard. But each is a doorway into another time and space, alternate dimensions both real and imagined.

It doesn’t matter if you’re reading true crime, historical fiction, or a cookbook; all are woven from the fabric of the human condition. Books are a reflection of us, who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we might be headed. Books offer a double whammy of knowledge and enlightenment coupled with escapism and fun, simultaneously invigorating and relaxing.

Books have been my friends and teachers since childhood. I loved cracking open a new book when I was a kid (still do). The smell and feel of crisp pages beneath my fingers felt like opening a treasure chest. I borrowed from the library often, and learned to appreciate the beauty of well-thumbed books, too. The ghosts of old dog-ears, the depth of the creases in the spine, and the occasional handwritten note in the margin told the story of all the people who had touched — and been touched — by this book. Who else had feasted upon this tome, and how did their mind digest its contents?

Once upon a time, before the modern printing press (itself a dinosaur now facing extinction), books were rare, precious commodities. They still are and always will be. Because books are the ideas and the words used to express those ideas, not the ink and paper they’re delivered on. Books are created in the heart and mind of the author, and live in the hearts and minds of readers. The bound stack of pages with writing on them is merely a transfer method. There are other ways to read a book now.

Digital books, ebooks, are the new “dime paperbacks,” cheap and easy to distribute. Traditional publishing houses need to either embrace this new technology or face extinction. You don’t have to look any further than the nearest abandoned Borders to see the future of print publishing.

Publishers should sell print editions that come with free/discounted links to ebook and audiobook formats. Print-on-demand technology allows authors to sell reasonably priced print editions — even signed editions — to fans that want to put something on their bookshelves. These new technologies are changing — in fact, have changed — the face of the publishing industry

In the 1990s, the rise of digital music formats — and sites like Napster — caught the record companies off-guard. Sony, BMI and the other biggies were reluctant to say goodbye to the $18 CD, but eventually settled on a $9.99 iTunes download. Similarly, book publishers need to bid farewell to the $30 hardcover, and embrace a lower priced ebook format.

History may repeat in another way. Musical artists learned a decade ago they really didn’t need the support of giant record companies to connect with fans. They could do it themselves with You Tube, Facebook, and Twitter (Justin Bieber, anyone?) Authors may discover the same thing, finding an audience for their work without needing the support and approval of a handful of big New York publishers.

I learned to separate a book from its content when I became a book buyer. I’d read paperbacks because they were inexpensive, and easy to transport. It wasn’t a tragedy if I left one on the bus, or dropped it in the bathtub. If I read something I really enjoyed, I’d seek it out in hardcover, or — back when I could afford it (i.e. pre-kids) — in a signed, limited edition. Over the years I amassed a sizeable collection.

But I donated most of my books to the local library last year when we relocated/remodeled. I figure I’ll replace my favorite books with digital editions over time, much like I have done with my music collection.

But I miss my books, the fading covers and yellowing pages. My wife tells me to stop whining, there’s less on the shelves to gather dust, and I suppose she’s right. (Isn’t she always?) I already read all the books I was donating, consumed their contents, and if I want a refresher, I can find what I need on the Internet.

Still, I miss my books

Kill Whitey by Brian Keene

Cemetery Dance Publications
$4.99 Ebook, (both .epub and .mobi formats included).

Brian Keene has been both praised and criticized for writing books that read like the novelizations of yet-to-be-made B-horror movies. Giant bugs, weird aliens, zombies, and action, action, action — a Keene novel is like a raucous night at a ’70s drive-in creature feature. Personally, I like Keene’s style, maybe because I like bad B-horror movies.

Keene has the chops to tackle weightier themes, like the bonds of father/son love in his breakout debut, The Rising, or the desperation of a terminally ill man in Terminal (Keene nails the concept of “breaking bad” years before the popular AMC show coined the phrase).

But Brian Keene’s Kill Whitey is a straight up grindhouse funfest that would make Russ Meyer or Quentin Tarantino proud. Don’t let the race-baiting title fool you: Whitey is a Russian mobster who may just be an immortal version of Rasputin the Mad Monk! Either way, the guy is harder to kill than Michael Myers. Toss in a sexy Russian stripper, and the obligatory “buddies-who-must-die,” and you’ve got Keene rolling full throttle, and the thrills, chills and suspense build to a satisfactory, if implausible, climax.

Kill Whitey won’t win any awards for originality, or literary achievement, or…well, anything really. But it’s a fun, fast ride that will leave you both queasy and exhilarated.

Burial To Follow by Scott Nicholson

Burial To Follow
Scott Nicholson
$1.99 Amazon Kindle Edition

Scott Nicholson often writes about the strange burgs and creepy backwaters found along the Appalachian Trail, and Burial to Follow is no exception. I’ll admit, I didn’t understand everything that was going on in this novella – something about helping recently departed souls cross over by eating memorial pies – but Nicholson’s ability to create a genuine Southern Gothic atmosphere tinged with dread keep you engaged until the final page.

Waltz of Shadows by Joe Lansdale

Author: Joe Lansdale
$6.99 Amazon Kindle Edition

Joe Lansdale is a master storyteller and Waltz of Shadows is no exception. Like many of Lansdale’s novels, this is a tale of family, and the bonds that tie us to one another. It’s also the story of death-defying thrill seekers, cheating husbands, corrupt cops, child pornographers, and a henchman with horrendous body odor. It’s a wild ride, indeed! Despite these outrageous plot elements, Lansdale touches on some serious issues as well, treating them with his magic touch of humor and powerful prose. In the introduction to Waltz of Shadows, Lansdale explains that this novel languished for years in his desk drawer until he dug it out and revised it. Whatever he did, he did it right. Waltz of Shadows is a winner!

The Painted Darkness by Brian James Freeman

 

Author: Brian James Freeman
Publisher: Cemetery Dance Publications, 2011
Price: $2.99 ebook (both Epub & Mobi formats included)

A man in a remote locale is driven insane my personal demons, delves into strange artistry, and turns on his family. Oh, and he needs to keep an eye on a potentially explosive boiler too. No, it’s not Stephen King’s The Shining, though Brian James Freeman has a character-driven, flashback-obsessed style similar to King’s. But The Painted Darkness is a more personal tale about child abuse and tragic events buried deep in the soil of the subconscious. Freeman may lose some points for originality, but he gains them back with his crafted style and deft execution.

Shades by Brian Keene and Geoff Cooper

Author: Brian Keene & Geoff Cooper
Publisher: Cemetery Dance Publications, 2011
Price: $2.99 ebook (both Epub & Mobi formats included)

 

Geoff Cooper and Brian Keene know their stuff. Cooper’s Retribution Inc is one of the finest rock-n-roll horror stories I’ve read. And Keene’s The Rising and Terminal are two of the best novels written in years, both within the horror genre and without. Shades is a nice combo effort from Keene and Coop. Coop provides the setting (the fictional upstate New York town of Brackard’s Point is featured in several of Coopers other works) and Keene provides the mythos (courtesy of his “Labyrinth” stories, with a touch of Russian wizardry from his novel Get Whitey mixed in.) The characters aren’t the most original we’ve seen (the adolescent who harbors untapped magical powers, and the two warring wizards) but they are relateable and realistic enough to keep you engaged in the story, which is fast-paced and fun. Overall, a “good read” — you can’t go wrong with Cooper and/or Keene!

Elsewhere by William Peter Blatty

Author: William Peter Blatty
Publisher: Cemetery Dance Publications, 2011
Price: $2.99 ebook (both Epub & Mobi formats included)
OUT OF PRINT? WHY?

 

Sometimes good writers produce crappy novels. Such is the case with William Peter Blatty’s Elsewhere. Blatty is a master of supernatural and horror fiction. Hell, Stephen King might have remained a high school English teacher if Blatty hadn’t kicked the door to the horror genre open with The Exorcist in 1971. Blatty’s Legion is an equally important work in the field. But Elsewhere isn’t. This is the same “skeptics in a haunted house” set-up we’ve seen many times before, from The Haunting to House On Haunted Hill. And the “twist” ending Blatty offers is stale and simply doesn’t play in a post “Sixth Sense” society. Blatty gets two stars for the sheer force of his characters. His leads have awful names—a woman named Freeboard, and a gay man named Dare—but they’ve got the spark of life. At one point Dare finds himself an unexpected hero to Freeboard. “What is the meaning of this ludicrous courage? he marveled. It never would’ve occurred to him that the answer was love.” That’s a good line, written by a good writer. Unfortunately the rest of Elsewhere doesn’t measure up.

The Bone Worms by Keith Minnion

Author: Keith Minnion
Publisher: Cemetery Dance Publications, 2011
Price: $2.99 ebook (both Epub & Mobi formats included)

Minnion’s supernatural police procedural reminds me of the work of Graham Masterton. Minnion’s characters may no be wholly original — the emotionally unstable cop, his doting ma, his long-suffering gal, his trusted partner — but they’re lively, engaging, and they keep this story humming along. Kudos to Minnion for coming up with a truly creepy creature in the Bone Worms, one that would make Masterton proud! The Boneyard awaits!

The Sleepless by Graham Masterton


The Sleepless
Author: Graham Masterton
Artist: Jill Bauman
Pub. Date: April 3, 2012
Publisher: Cemetery Dance Publication
Price: 4.99 ebook (Epub&Mobi formats)

I wanted to like this book, because I like Graham Masterton. This British wordsmith has been cranking out tales of horror, mystery and suspense for close to four decades. The Manitou is a classic in the horror genre, and Masterton always crafts his stories with folklore, fairytales, and gritty characters.
All those elements are in The Sleepless, but they don’t gel the way they do in Masterton’s better works (like Charnel House, Family Portrait, or Mirror) . The novel’s racial themes seem forced, the action sequences are sometimes senseless, and there are a couple of over-the-top graphic sex scenes that are both gratuitous and perplexing. Toss in a couple of formatting errors and crucial typos, and you’re left with a less-than-satisfying read. (During a climactic scene, a father and son team-up to beat a bad guy, but the text claims the boy, “came to do what his fattier could not do himself.” There goes that touching, “fattier and son” moment!)

You can’t blame Masterton for formatting errors. That responsibility falls to the ebook publisher, Cemetery Dance Publications. This novel has a dated feel, too, and a peek at the copyright shows Masterton first published it in 1993. You have to wonder why CD Publications would choose to release this novel as part of its ebook line. The company has published limited print editions by some of the best SF/horror/fantasy writers of all time: Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Stephen King, Jack Ketcham.  Why are none of these masterworks offered digitally by Cemetery Dance? Where’s the backlist? Where is the complete line of Richard Laymon ebooks?

CD Publications needs to step up its game, stop sandbagging, and put its best foot — and authors — forward. Graham Masterton is awesome. The Sleepless is not. CD needs to offer a better quality ebook — something at least on par with its print line — if it wants readers to follow into the digital frontier.