Reflecting on a Dumpy House, and A Wonderful Home

our old house
Our house was a total crap-shack when we bought it. (Speaking of which, this photo shows part of a new septic installation.)

 I play a goofy game with my kids when we’re out. If we pass a mirror, I’ll pause and say, “Hey, check out those good lookin’ kids!” The kids turn, look, and see that the “good lookin’ kids” I’m referring to are them.

I’ve played this game with my kids for years, since they were infants, really. It used to illicit smiles and laughs, but now it usually only gets me an eye-roll and/or an exasperated sigh. Sometimes my kids ignore me completely. It might be time to retire the “good lookin’ kid” game.

But my daughter recently flipped the script on me.

house refurb
Our house finally got a much needed facelift in 2010, thanks to my son (allegedly) eating lead paint chips in the old porch … but that’s another story.

My kids splashed around in the kiddie pool. I kept one eye on them, and looked over our property with the other. Our lawn was a mix of brown patches (courtesy of our dogs) and crabgrass. The flowerbeds needed weeding, Preening, and mulching.

The inside of the house wasn’t much better — baseboards missing from renovations begun a decade ago, hardwood floors gouged and pitted (again, courtesy of our dogs). Every room needed a fresh coat of paint. The basement needed waterproofing, and a sump pump.

Homeownership is an ongoing battle, one I often feel I’m losing. When do you find the time and energy to keep up with all the work that needs to be done? How do you afford to improve, or even maintain, your home when it’s a struggle to keep up with the monthly bills? And what am I trying to pay off? A dumpy yellow shack that’s small and cramped.

Sometimes I look at our place, and I don’t see a house. I see an albatross around my neck, a lightening rod strapped to my back, a stone tied to my ankle as I try to keep afloat in deep water.

“Hey, Dad!” my daughter yelled. “I see a beautiful yellow house over there!”

“Where?” I tried to see where she was looking. Was there new construction in our neighborhood?

“There!” She pointed to our neighbor’s windows.

New front steps
Homegrown pumpkins line our new front steps, fall of 2012.

“What? What are you talking about?”

“It’s our house, Dad!” she said. “In the glass. See it? It’s our beautiful yellow house!”

I saw it then, a wavy reflection in the neighbor’s glass windows.

Our house.

Perspective is everything. If you don’t like the way something looks, walk around and look at it from a different angle. Viewed through my daughter’s eyes, our house never looked better, not a shabby shack at all, but a love shack.

“I see it now,” I told her. “And it’s the most beautiful house in town.”

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, June 2010.

The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage by Justin Cronin
The Passage by Justin Cronin

Justin Cronin’s The Passage is an impressive work. The first book in a planned trilogy, The Passage reads like a series of short novels and novellas stitched together, creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

There are shades of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises here. The Passage is a long, sprawling, character-driven novel. It’s got werewolf-like vampires in it (enjoy, Twihards!), and there’s a magical child at the heart of the story (Potter Fans rejoice!). There are also parallels to Max Brooks’ World War Z — portions of The Passage detail a military response to an exponentially expanding army of the undead.

The Passage takes us through the before, during, and after of a vampire apocalypse. The book begins with a Men In Blackstyle government agency gathering subjects for mysterious medical experiments. All of the subjects are death row inmates, except for a little girl named Amy. The test subjects are turned into something no longer human, and the long teeth and thirst for blood suggests there’s a vampire in the woodpile.

Cronin’s vampires — nicknamed virals, jumpers, and smokes — have more in common with killer bees and werewolves, than Count Dracula. The virals are feral killing machines, but they retain a remnant of their humanity. These monsters long to remember who they once were.

My favorite passage in The Passage is Cronin’s detached depiction of the fall of the United States. Amy spends the Fall of the Western World in a remote Oregon cabin with a protector / disciple / father figure named Wolgast. America crumbles out of frame, in the background, with Cronin dropping hints that fall as softly as the Oregon snow. (A three-month-old newspaper headline, “Chicago Falls!” … the flashbang and fallout of nuclear warheads exploding in the distance.)

Three hundred pages in, we meet the novel’s primary characters — a band of survivors embarking on an epic quest to return Amy to the Colorado lab that spawned her. Along the way there are many Mad Max-style battles with both human and virals. Life beyond Thunderdome isn’t easy, even though Amy is a pretty powerful good luck charm.

I won’t spoil the ending of The Passage. But I’ll say that Cronin comes up with one of the most creative and compassionate solutions to the zombie apocalypse ever imagined.

Cronin’s compelling characters tell a unique story. The Passage is a page-turner, and Cronin a masterful storyteller.

As much as I dislike series/trilogies (What ever happened to stand alone books? The Great American Novel isn’t part of a series, damnit!) The Passage has me hooked. I’m all in for its sequel, The Twelve. The end of the world was just the beginning!

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The Cellar by Richard Laymon

The Cellar by Richard Laymon
The Cellar by Richard Laymon

Some people dismiss the late Richard Laymon as a hack horror writer.

Those people should go fuck themselves.

An originator of the early splatterpunk movement, Richard Laymon was an unsung artist who made the job of “novelist” look easy with his literary virtuosity and prolific output.

But, like Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Laymon got no respect. He never found a big American audience for his work during his lifetime. He pumped out thrillers alongside Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, John Saul, and Stephen King, but never achieved the fame and fortune of his contemporaries. Critics dismissed his work as too sexiest and/or too violent. Laymon was an “underground favorite” who had a hard time finding American publishers for his novels.

Fortunately, Laymon found an audience overseas. His sales in England and Australia during the ’80 and ‘90s kept his literary career alive. He was able to eek out a living, feed his family, and keep a roof over their heads.

This alone qualifies him as a literary hero.

Things improved for Laymon in the late ‘90s. Leisure Books published his back catalog to great success. Laymon’s American fan-base grew.

But — because life is as random and violent as … well, a Richard Laymon novel — Richard Laymon died of a massive heart attack in February 2001.

The Cellar by Richard Laymon, paperback 1st edition.
The Cellar by Richard Laymon, paperback 1st edition.

The Cellar (1980) is Richard Laymon’s first published novel, and one of his best (rivaled only by 1988’s Resurrection Dreams). It’s the first volume in The Beast House Series, and showcases Laymon’s lean writing style, penchant for fast-paced plots, and masterful use of dialogue.

The Cellar is a blend of creature-feature and crime thriller, like From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. A mother and daughter flee an abusive boyfriend just released from prison. But their car breaks down in remote Malcasa Point, home of a strange tourist attraction called The Beast House. According to local legend, several gruesome murders occurred in the The Beast House, committed by “demonic beasts” that allegedly still haunt the place.

Mom and Daughter cross paths with a Monster Bounty Hunter, a Creepy Old Man, and The Creepy Beast House Homeowners before Psycho Ex-Boyfriend makes the scene, and fireworks fly.

But things really go ass over teakettle when The Beasts show up, hellacious gargoyle-like creatures sporting enormous, gnarled erections. Creepy, indeed.

The true gem of The Cellar is its epilogue. Laymon’s crafts a twist(ed) ending using only dialogue that is one of the best endings in any novel ever. Period.

Richard Laymon press shot
RIP Richard Laymon, 1947-2001.

Long live. Richard Laymon! I am humbled by his greatness!

Miss you, Dick.

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