Tuesday, December 31, 2013

'Dragon Rising' is coming tomorrow!

My latest novel is "Dragon Rising," Book One of The Shadow War. It will release on Kindle and in print via CreateSpace on New Year's Day (if all goes according to plan). Expect links and whatnot as soon as it is live and ready to order.

Here is the unfinished artwork/cover design from artist and graphic wiz Jayson Kretzer:

You'll get to see the finished version tomorrow, and I'll also be writing about the story behind the story for tomorrow's launch, so don't miss out.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Another year of fire and ice

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Every year, it’s the same thing: Columnists and commentators, fashionistas and critics, all spend the last days of December looking back at the year that was and trying to prognosticate about the year that’s yet to be.

That is, trying to make sense of events they didn’t understand and extrapolating from that place of ignorance about a future that they can’t imagine.

And by “they” I mean “me,” of course.

On a recent Sunday, I was walking in my neighborhood and thinking about a new year’s approach as the sun set and the temperature dropped. I considered the possibility that I might freeze to death before rounding the next corner, when I saw the sky erupt in red-orange flame. It was a gorgeous sunset, one that made me stop short and hug myself against the cold wind so I could soak it in.

A moment later, I remembered I could photograph it with my cell phone and carry it with me wherever I went, a sunset frozen in time. In the act of freezing that moment, I recalled Robert Frost’s poem about the ways the world might end. “Fire and Ice.”

The end of the world has been a long time coming, at least according to the seers, prophets and prognosticators that get the most press. In the old days, we had to worry about angry gods fighting their last war here, or wiping the planet clean so they could start over with a more agreeable population of worshipers.

These days, we’re able to do the job ourselves, either from pollution, climate change, nuclear war or engineered viruses. And now that our orbiting telescopes can spot massive asteroids zooming through the celestial neighborhood, we have a whole new set of fears to ponder.

I like to think that we’ve begun taking steps to ensure that this civilization of ours, and the species that created it, will continue. We’ve sent probes beyond the edge of our solar system, and the radio (and later, television) signals created here are now floating a century’s worth of light-years away.

Drops in a bucket, yes, but enough drops will get you a bucket full.

Along that line of thought: One of the films I’m looking forward to in 2014 is “Interstellar,” from director and co-writer Christopher Nolan. Set in modern times, it follows the discovery of a wormhole in space that allows astronauts to travel interstellar distances. As usual with Nolan’s projects, little is being said about it this early on, but the teaser trailer evokes the last century of advancement, from Chuck Yeager to Neil Armstrong — to the retirement of the Space Shuttle program signaling an end to manned space flight.

Having pressed into that unknown frontier, we draw back into our caves to see what the gods might throw at us from on high.

And that reminds me of a statement by one of my favorite writers, Warren Ellis, in an essay for Wired magazine. He wrote that the “single simplest reason why human space flight is necessary is this, stated as plainly as possible: keeping all your breeding pairs in one place is a (stupid) way to run a species.”

On the slightest of provocations, my mind goes a-roving. I see a sky alight with sun-fire on a cold evening and imagine a future in which we never stepped back from the frontier, in which the future is an unending quest to know and to be more.

Some say the world will end in fire. Looking to a new year dawning, I prefer to believe it won’t end at all.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Unraveling a warm Christmas mystery

Tony and Lisa, circa 1971
PANAMA CITY BEACH — I have no earthly idea where the cowboy outfits came from, except that Santa Claus must have had his reasons. Maybe it was a phase. Maybe it was a grandmother’s idea.

Whatever the origin, it’s now a personal Christmas mystery.

Back when I could still count my age and have fingers left in reserve, my family of four lived in a small woodframe house off U.S. 29 in Century, Florida. At least a couple of Christmases, part of the wonderment discovered under the Christmas tree included a full cowboy costume in the style of Gene Autry and his generation of singing cowpokes.

Now, please understand, Gene Autry’s movies were a bit before even my time. But my favorite Christmas music was an album of songs featuring Gene on the cover in all of his Hollywood-cowboy glory, standing tall as a miniature sleigh and tiny reindeer flew about his kneecaps.

Maybe that explains the costuming. Hat, boots, a shirt that would make a country music star swoon. One year, there was a fringe vest included, but I think by then I was in my Bobby Sherman phase.

My sister, as seen in a photo from about 1971 that she recently posted on Facebook, got a corresponding cowgirl outfit. We were a matched set — and pretty pleased to be so, if the picture is as accurate an indication as I believe.

I remember wearing the costume around to visit the relatives on Christmas Day. I recall wearing it to ride my bike, that trusty mount of my imagination, up and down the narrow road (not the highway!) beside the house.

What I don’t recall is actually asking Santa for the outfit. My father claims ignorance of the origins also, guessing that it’s possible “one of your grandmothers thought you’d be ‘cute’ in them — maybe Grandma Simmons.”

He’s probably right about that.

Now, Dad was a big fan of the singing cowboys in his childhood. He told me in some Facebook messages recently that he considered himself Gene Autry most of the time, and he had his third grade school portrait taken in a Roy Rogers shirt.

And Grandma Simmons often saw her youngest son (my dad) when she looked at me; she even had a habit of naming off her two boys before getting to my name, and her awareness of the mistake made any time she called after me sound like an angry exclamation at the end of the dusty trail (“Ed-Jerry-Tony!”). What I’m getting at is, I can totally understand her wanting to dress my sister and me like Dad’s cowboy heroes.

Grandma also had little gas heaters in the corners of each room back then, and in our house there was a gas heater in the living room that we would back up to on cold mornings. Christmas recollections thus come complete with sense memories of cold feet and clothing that got too hot on the back side for comfort.  

(Because of the way the heaters tried to warm the old house, Dad recalls “ceilings so high you were warm when you stood up but cold when you sat down.”)

I look at photos now of my children on Christmas mornings when they were little, and I wonder what mysteries the pictures will hold for them in the future. I hope they’re as warm as mine.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Friday the 13th Will Be Your Lucky Day

PANAMA CITY — Friday the 13th loomed in my thoughts this week for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that I needed to have a column written for that day’s edition of PanamaCity.com.

I’m not superstitious, and the number 13 doesn’t frighten me — neither do deadlines — but both have given me cause to reflect this week (not that I need much motivation there; it’s sort of second nature by now).

So luck in all its forms was on my brain Monday when I took a turn down into St. Andrews. The morning fog had lifted, and the glowing gray-white sky had turned a gentle pastel blue. Men stood with fishing poles on the marina as the sun warmed the earth and the sea.

A haze remained over the bay, but fluffy cumulous clouds were building to the northeast, far beyond the tops of oak trees with their dangling moss beards and sleeves of resurrection ferns. I stopped in at Chez Amavida for a coffee and to see what Crystal had drawn on the brown paper roll behind the counter: Alice’s Mad Hatter was offering a Sumatra blend rather than tea.

All the best people are mad, or so Alice told the hatter. Good to know I’m in the best of company.

A beautiful day, I thought as I heard Bob Dylan singing, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” and my mind tried to connect that song, about a man leaving a woman, to the concept of luck. Don’t question it, I thought. Don’t think twice. It’s a beautiful day, and you’re only passing through; it needn’t be more meaningful than that.

There are times when the obstacles life throws at us recall, for me, a song from the old “Hee Haw” TV show I remember watching many a Saturday evening at my Grandma Simmons’ home: “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all; gloom, despair and agony on me…”

The night before this, I carefully extracted the parts of an old foil Christmas tree from the original cardboard box; each metallic limb was inside a paper tube, and each fit into tiny angled holes along the wooden trunk of the tree. I constructed the thing atop my desk and hung ornaments on it that my children had made in preschool, along with a few Happy Meal toys they had picked up along the years.

I pointed a light with a rotating colored disc at the tree, and listened to the soft scraping of the disc’s edge against the inside of the light cover, wondering when it would finally refuse to turn. It’s an old thing, this tree and its light. It belonged to Grandma Simmons and passed to me after her death. I felt lucky to get it, and feel lucky now that the light still runs.

Other things happened over the weekend to which I could point and proclaim my gloom, despair and agony. My luck runs true, but it tends more toward a slow progression; rather than two steps back for every one forward, I just take one small stumbling half-step back these days. Still, that would be enough to make most people curse their luck.

And then there are the moments of clarity, when the sun is bright and the sky is clear, when strangers smile and good music plays on the radio. There are moments of purity, as colored lights swirl and twinkle on a tiny metal tree, or breezes make hanging moss sway under oak limbs.

We must take the bad luck, if such a thing exists, with the good. We just have to choose which one deserves more of our attention — because, one way or another, this is a lucky day.


Monday, December 09, 2013

Feeding hungry children at Christmastime

Moving pallet of food into pantry.
PANAMA CITY BEACH — I was touring The Ark recently, talking to director Bobbie Brigman and her husband Ric about activities and programs for seniors and winter visitors, when I met a young man named Jason.

He was volunteering in a food bank housed beside the worship sanctuary on the Ark’s campus; Jason’s family was staying in emergency housing on the campus until they could get back on their feet, and he was stocking the Food4Kidz pantry with items delivered that morning.

At another point during our interview, Ric’s phone rang and a hesitant female voice on the line asked if this was the place where she could get food for her family. His answer was, “Yes.”

“People are treated with respect and dignity here,” said Ric, a member of the Ark’s board, worship leader at the on-site church, and director of Food4Kidz, the pantry program housed at the Ark. “They call, make appointments to pick up food. There’s never a line here. Some of them I’ll see once, some I see every couple of months.”

The general policy is to feed a family once a month, but exceptions have been made in extreme circumstances, he said. For more information, call 249-KIDZ (5439), or visit Food4Kidz.org or Facebook.com/Food4Kidz online.

Food4Kidz is a local non-profit associated with the Feeding America program, receives supplies from the Bay Area Food Bank, and has been supported in its efforts by a grant from the St. Joe Community Foundation that purchased a van for the organization via Bill Cramer Chevrolet. Each month, Food4Kidz moves four or five tons of food — frozen, dry goods, canned items, pastries and more — and they feed hundreds of families.

“Some families are still trying to get on their feet after being decimated by the BP oil spill,” Ric said. “The family business is gone, their life savings is gone.”

The demand for help has doubled since last year, Bobbie said, and Ric added that the causes for that are difficult to pin down: Unemployment because of the end of tourist season jobs, general longterm under-employment, grandparents raising grandkids, or just because awareness of the program has grown.

On the two days prior to my visit, the pantry had served 11 families per day. In the worship center, I read notes left by parents and children who had picked up food there.

“Yesterday I had to decide between antibiotics that cost $80 or groceries,” wrote Paula, the mother of a 10-year-old son with health problems. “Of course I chose my son’s antibiotics. I wasn’t sure what I would do for food. I guess the lesson is to have faith.”

Ric stood at my shoulder, reading the note as I did. “That’s when we feel like we’re doing what we’re called to do,” he said.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

An adventure in mind

Me, shot by Andrew Wardlow
PANAMA CITY BEACH — It was a weird weekend, but that’s why I’m thankful for it.

Friday night, I enjoyed watching “An Adventure inSpace and Time,” the dramatic story of the creation and evolution of the British TV series, “Doctor Who.” That was followed on Saturday afternoon by joining the millions of viewers who tuned into the worldwide simulcast of the Doctor’s 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor.”

(For those still in the dark, “Who” premiered on the BBC the night after JFK’s assassination and it has continued in one form or other ever since. I discovered the show in the early 1980s when WSRE in Pensacola ran episodes featuring Tom Baker as the Doctor.)

Kendra Wardlow
Saturday evening, I loaned my sonic screwdriver (the Doctor’s trusty all-purpose instrument) to a friend for a photo shoot focusing on some geek iconography, including “Who” and the late, lamented “Firefly.”

Just before that, I had participated in a photo shoot involving smoke, flames and a face-full of flour tossed with glee from off-camera by people I thought I could trust. In the background, a child ran around wearing a Buzz Lightyear costume.

All in all, a pretty fun way to spend an evening.

But it set me to thinking, as I am prone to attempt, about the connections. Buzz’s catchphrase — “To infinity and beyond!” — would not be out of place on “Doctor Who,” where the adventures break all the rules of time and space in service to a good story, and the Doctor is apt to shout “Geronimo!” before leaping into action.

Buzz, of course, was a hero of the “Toy Story” movies, and what were we doing with the sonic screwdriver and T-shirts sporting sci-fi and comic emblems but playing with toys and wearing costumes? (The subject — as you might recall if you’ve been paying attention recently — of my column that appeared in The News Herald only a day before this photo shoot took place.)

Brady with Sparkler
Projecting my thoughts into the near future using that timey-wimey device called imagination, I realized that one of the things I would be giving thanks for on Thursday was to have days like this one in my metaphorical pocket: Friends gathered around a fire pit, doing something creative and silly, sharing our geekdom in an explosion of flour and smoke.

It was a simple thing on the surface, ephemeral even, but I feel certain I will draw this one out like a holiday ornament in years to come and marvel that it actually occurred; I was there when this happened.

And a final thought that connects along the flimsiest of circumstances: While flicking a borrowed lighter to ignite some sparklers by the pit, I recalled the words of actor John Hurt; in the “Who” anniversary special, he plays an incarnation of the ever-changing Doctor and states that, “Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.”

The words were fresh in my brain, and though the lighter sputtered and died in the night breeze, I thought, “My privilege, indeed.”

Happy Thanksgiving.


Friday, November 22, 2013

From cheesy toys and hobbies to cheese hats

Me and Jayson in his office/studio/play room.
PANAMA CITY BEACH — I have seen the arc of my life played out in a couple of encounters this week, from the cheesy toys in my “man cave” to the items in a friend’s home office to the laments of a newly minted Wisconsin resident visiting the beach this winter.

The upstairs bonus room in our house is filled with books, DVDs, graphic novels, records and CDs, as well as the toys of my childhood (and adulthood, such as it is) displayed on shelves and in shadow boxes. You’ll find items from 1960s Major Matt Mason and 1970s G.I. Joe astronaut figures to 1990s Starman and Doctor Strange, with more recent things like River Song’s sonic screwdriver from “Doctor Who,” Dumbledore’s wand from the “Harry Potter” films, and a “Firefly” flask.

It’s where I retreat to write in the late hours. I call it a library, or sometimes my lair. My wife calls it “a mess.”

This week I had the opportunity to gather in Lynn Haven with some friends and participate in the “Wannabe Podcast,” a look at “geek culture” created by graphic artist Jayson Kretzer as part of his Wannabe brand, which includes a web comic and a new series launching in print and digital formats.

Graphic Knowledge's Brady and Robert with Jayson
We talked about the creative work we’re involved in, joked a lot about comics and movies, and played a game in which we named the comic we’d most like to see adapted for television and who would play the main character.

To borrow an in-joke, we were like a group of trees falling together in the forest where only we could hear each other crash.

Jayson’s home office is full of the tools he needs for work, but it also includes comic-related posters, a shelf-size statuette and dozens of tiny figurines of comic book characters. I asked him if his wife, Heather, gives him the same kind of grief mine does for keeping all the “toys.”

The short answer was “not really,” though she did insist the statuette didn’t fit with the living room décor when he first brought it home.

The next morning, I visited the Ark in Panama City Beach, just at the right time to catch a handful of men (and one woman) having coffee and getting back to their woodwork projects. They weren’t really making toys, but they were clearly at play.

Buddy Dalluge showed me some of his creations, and he joked about having recently moved to Wisconsin from his native Minnesota at the behest of his wife.

“She expects me to wear a cheese hat,” he said with a mock look of disbelief.

I assured him that was deeply unfair. At least she still lets him share his toys with his friends.

We might grow older, but there’s no reason that has to equate with growing bored or losing our sense of play.

(My Undercurrents column for PanamaCity.com and The News Herald for Nov. 22.)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Something Like a Dream I Had...

PANAMA CITY — The stage goes dark and a spotlight picks out the lone figure bending under the weight of her despair. She begins, quietly at first but with growing intensity, to sing about a dream of a life worth living.

Susan Boyle famously leaped from obscurity to international renown in 2009 for her rendition of the song “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables.” It’s a song of desolation and hopelessness, sung as the character Fantine loses her job and drifts into prostitution, illness and death.

In the Gulf Coast State College production of the musical, opening Friday to a sold-out theater, the role and the song is performed by GCSC student Leeah Taunton.

“Fantine is a tragic character,” Taunton said. “She’s iconic for the women in poverty back then and the things they had to go through. She dreams of a life that she has always wanted and longed for, but unfortunately she doesn’t get that.”

As Clinton McCormick explains, that’s because people couldn’t change their stations in life in the days before the French Revolution. McCormick, as Jean Valjean, stands taller than just about anyone else on the stage — and it’s a suitable visual metaphor.

“Jean Valjean is the ultimate underdog,” McCormick said. “He got sent to prison just for stealing food to feed his family. … He’s given this chance by God to make something better out of himself. Back in this time period, this never happened. If you were poor, you stayed poor.”

McCormick said playing Valjean was the chance of a lifetime because he’s a symbol of hope and endurance, the struggle to make a better world one soul at a time: “It shows the goodness a man has in his heart. You hope to be this man in your own personal life. It inspires me to be a better person.”

(Which makes his struggle also, if you consider it, a fitting metaphor for the community college experience as well.)

Valjean’s nemesis is the police officer Javert, whom we first meet as the overseer of a group of convicts. Javert gives Valjean his parole papers and sends him off into the world, warning Valjean that he will always be a criminal in the eyes of the law and society.

“He’s often villainized, but he’s not a bad guy,” said Stephen DeVillers, who portrays Javert. “He is a good guy, he’s just strict to the letter of the law.”

DeVillers has played the lead in a number of productions at Gulf Coast, but he said “Les Mis” is like no other show he’s done: “It’s the biggest show we’ll ever see, probably, here — probably the biggest show I’ll ever do. It’s just been awesome doing this show.”

Taunton echoed his experience, saying her favorite thing about the production is the complexity and challenge: “It’s the most difficult show I’ve ever been in. The challenge every day — it’s very rewarding.”

Not everyone lives the dream they dreamed. Not all can change their station. But that doesn’t make the challenge less rewarding. It’s the journey, after all, and not the destination.


(My Undercurrents column this week for PanamaCity.com and The News Herald.)

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Finding Redemption Through Art

Holly Scoggins' 'Light From Its Load, The Spirit Flies'
PANAMA CITY — Redemption is more than just a counter where you turn over your collection of tickets from the arcade games in exchange for cheap plastic trinkets.

Or at least, it should be.

The Visual & Performing Arts Division of Gulf Coast State College will allow visitors to explore artists’ interpretations of “Redemption” through the remainder of the semester. An art exhibit on this subject opens next Friday, Nov. 15, in conjunction with the premiere of the college’s stage production of “Les Miserables.”

Victor Hugo, writing about his novel on which the musical is based, said “Les Misérables” is about “a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God.”

He continues: “The starting point: matter; destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.”

(Which is, in my opinion, just as good a description of the artist’s visceral drive to create art as it is of one’s attempt to redeem one’s soul.)

Throughout the story, characters struggle with their perceptions of themselves and the most extreme of circumstances, and they pray to be redeemed from the lives and choices they have made for themselves and those closest to them.

“Redemption” will feature work by seven artists from across the United States who have, according to promotional materials, “contemplated the idea of redemption through painting with results as diverse as the people who made them.” Participating artists are Dina Brodsky, Gary Chapman, Megan Ewert, Richard Heipp, Logan Marconi, Kymia Nawabi and Holly Scoggins.

“While some address redemption in its most literal, theological meaning, others take a broader approach and focus on the idea of a journey, transformation, or self-actualization and self-perception,” according to a description of the show prepared by GCSC.

The exhibit will open with a reception, free and open to the public, from 5 to 7 p.m. Nov. 15. The work will be on display in the Amelia Center Main Gallery (Room 112) until Dec. 5. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and admission is free. For more details, email professor and ceramics artist Pavel Amromin at pamromin@gulfcoast.edu.

In some views, redemption must be earned through self-sacrifice. Others see it as a gift freely given to those who truly seek it — redeemed by grace, not works, as the Good Book says.

However, these particular works promise a wealth of redeeming value. Give them a look, and let me know if they transport you to a better place.



Friday, November 01, 2013

Zombie Interview

My friend and fellow author, Mark Boss, interviewed me this week about "Tales of the Awakening Dead," my new collection of zombie short stories (which is currently FREE on Kindle). >>He just posted the interview at his website<<

Thanks, Mark!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Requiem for the Restless Dead

(Note to regular readers: Some portions of this column for PanamaCity.com and The News Herald were "borrowed" from an earlier blog. Self-cannibalism is my life.)

Little PC Zombie Walkers
PANAMA CITY — Apropos of All Hallows Eve on Thursday and Saturday’s status as Day of the Dead, let’s talk about this whole “zombie” thing.

Now, some of you are thinking, “Here he goes again,” but just take a look around:
They’re everywhere.

 AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” based on the long-running comic book created by Robert Kirkman, is the highest rated series on television. (News Herald writer Brad Milner is blogging about each episode weekly at NewsHerald.com.)

 Sundance Channel just kicked off a series called “The Returned,” which is a different take on the recently departed. Sprint even has a TV commercial that uses a zombie to comic effect. And that’s just the drop in the bucket, not even mentioning the glut of movies, video games, novels, ads and comics seizing on the image of deathless humans hungry for living flesh.

I was asked this week why that is. Luckily, I had already asked that same question last week of Crystal Creamer, the Panama City woman who organized a recent Zombie Walk to gather nonperishable food for the Panama City Rescue Mission.

“I think it’s because they are us — but not us any more,” she said. “It’s just terrorizing because it’s something we can’t control.”

My writer friend, Mark Boss, said the fascination could be based on the sense that people find zombies more accessible than vampires, which were another recent cultural fad. (I once heard the Young Adult section of a book store referred to as the “brooding vampire” section; the person who said this was relieved that the witchcraft fad seemed to be fading at the time.)

“Vampires are powerful, immortal and often glamorous,” Mark said. “I don’t think most of us feel like that. However, we see zombies, and that zombie is still wearing her uniform from work, and the zombie over there is wearing a tool belt and hardhat, and we see these reflections of us — ordinary citizens. Somehow, that makes them easier to relate to.”

Crystal Creamer, left, and friend
Maybe the fact that they’re such twisted reflections of our everyday friends and family is what is most frightening and fascinating about them. Like Crystal said, they are us, just with our morals switched off and our hunger turned up to 11.

The stories inevitably focus on a small group of people (which often dwindle to a lone survivor), which also works as a metaphor for our sense of isolation in the modern world. We connect electronically with so many more people than ever before, while at the same time connecting to fewer and fewer in the real world. It’s easy to begin thinking of those around us as faceless, soulless zombies.

As a fiction writer, I’ve found zombies to be fertile territory for storytelling. They make excellent metaphors for just about any massive, mindless groupthink you want to apply (insert your own political joke here), and they’re guaranteed to break any writer’s block.

Hit a wall in your writing? Add a zombie. They’re like literary bacon.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Book Trailer: The Book of Gabriel

My friend, Lou Columbus, a videographer, writer and audio story narrator, created this trailer for my most recent novel, "The Book of Gabriel: An Endtimes Fable."

He used footage from this shoot on the shore of St. Andrew Bay, as well as found footage, and a photograph of Marisa, on whom I based the personality and image of the angel Joy; the text shown on the background of each scene is taken from the book and corresponds in some way to the scenes being depicted. I think he did a great job.

I hope you'll watch the trailer (1 minute) and check out the book, which is available in trade paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.

It's the story of Gabriel Jones, a man at the end of his rope who finds himself drafted into a celestial war, fighting fallen angels and heavenly hosts on the side of Shekinah, the female aspect of God. They take some advice from Cain, the first murderer, who lives outside of Eden Gardens State Park. Borrow a ride from Elijah, who likes cars with flames on the side. Meet the Watchers who hover in the night sky over Gulf Breeze.

Dream of new lives in other worlds, and awake to find them true. Step through a door into the torture rooms of Hell, and walk the wilderness with Lilith, first wife of Adam. Stand on the edge of the world, part the sea, and raise the light of hope in a world where Lucifer is lord of all.

Under the moon and the Milky Way

Photo by Andrew Wardlow
PANAMA CITY BEACH — Walking under a full moon last weekend, I listened to oak limbs creaking, the hiss of leaves shuffling in a breeze, and tried to convince myself there was more happening in the dark.

That the trees were shifting to keep an eye on me as I walked. That something lurked unseen among the limbs or in the utter blackness under the gnarled branches.

It didn’t work.

I know the woods around my house, sparse as they are, host foxes, deer, rabbits and coyotes, snakes and squirrels and other beasties. I have seen a hawk glide over the trees, and a large horned owl perched atop a pine, and I have heard the call of a lonely whippoorwill in the night.

But I have not felt the chill of fright on those empty streets, walking under the vast open dome of the Milky Way, or seeing the landscape light up in shades of blue as clouds parted for the moon. I have not feared the unseen creatures in the wild, or even the ones in my over-active imagination.

I wasn’t always so assured in the night. As a child, I hated going into my back yard after sunset. My family lived on the southern boundary of a small town, with a few acres of woodland surrounding the house. I was convinced something supernatural and predatory walked behind the fence at night; I heard it moving when I went out to feed our dog, or on evenings Mom asked me to bring in laundry from the clothesline.

It followed me on nighttime walks with my older cousins near my grandparents’ home. Or so they would tell me, weaving ghost stories and legends as the moon trailed us in the sky and noises carried from the trees lining the road.

It lurked on the corner, just outside the cone of light from the street lamp. It hid in the bushes beside the bedroom window, waiting for me to look outside so it could reveal itself. It never did, except one evening when we were moving into our home (I was 7) and my uncle (13 years old) snuck up to the window to scare me silly.

Even as an adult, I have felt my hackles rise from some unseen but nonetheless sensed danger in the dark. Because I have also learned to trust my instincts, I make it a rule not to remain in places or situations that cause me to feel uneasy.

But that hasn’t been the case of late. Maybe there are enough real-world dangers that imagined ones don’t register any more. Maybe I have put aside the childish fears of youth, or exorcised them through my writing.

But more likely, I think, I have merely recognized that I’m where I need to be for this time, and that includes a bit of walking under the light of the moon, in the narrow lane between the deep shadows, where leaves rustle and something unseen goes bump in the night.

(This is my Undercurrents column for PanamaCity.com and The News Herald this week.) 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Authors to present secrets behind scary stories

Lou Columbus reads at Writers Gallery
PANAMA CITY — The stories were ghostly and ghastly at Chez Amavida on Tuesday.

Among them, Lynn Wallace told of the fearful zombies hiding from costumed children on Halloween, Wayne Garrett told a spooky story of a traveler on a rainy bayou, and Lou Columbus related what happens when someone gets fed up with Facebook posts.

From their tales in the new ghost story anthology, “Between There,” Anthony Buoni read aloud a tale of haunted and hated pet, and Ruth Corley read the opening section of a story of ghostly vengeance. I read part of a tale of Jack Kerouac facing the zombie plague on the road in 1953, from my new collection, “Tales of the Awakening Dead.”

But the storytelling is far from over for the season. A more scholarly approach will take place Oct. 25 at the Bay County Public Library in Panama City, as three local authors explore the nature of evil in literature — and try to drum up support for “Friends of the Library.”

Michael Goldcraft, Ann Marie Knapp and Carl Lee, members of the Panama City chapter of the Florida Writers Association, will present talks on vampire legends and literary trends, the nature of menace as a literary effect, and other secrets of writing horror tales. Each will give four short talks over the course of the afternoon and read excerpts from their books.

Presentations start at the top of each hour — noon, 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. — and end with about 15 minutes to chat with audience members and possibly sign books. No hour is the same.

“The objective is to support the Friends of the Bay County Library by trying to invite more people to become ‘Friends of the Library’ by buying memberships at this presentation,” Goldcraft said. Memberships are $10 for individuals, $20 for families, $100 for patrons and $200 for corporations.

Here’s a peek at their presentations:

Michael Goldcraft
l Goldcraft (a pen name for Michael Brim) will discuss the creation of his horror works, including the short story collection “Thirteen Tales of Eclectic Evil,” and his “Dark Lyfe Trilogy” — “Ascent of Evil,” “Inherited Evil,” and “Arcanum of Evil.”

Ann Marie Knapp
l Knapp (the pen name for Dr. Kelley Kline) will discuss “The Myth of the Vampire,” “The Modern Fictional Vampire.” “The Concept of Menace” and “Murder Most Maddening.” She’ll start with a focus on the etiology of the vampire myth from Sumer in 4000 BC to the legendary acts of Vlad the Impaler, which set the stage for Bram Stoker’s depiction of Dracula.

Her second talk will focus on the dramatic shift from vampires as antagonists to protagonists with the groundbreaking release of Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire” (1976). Her latter sessions will cover homicide, menace in literature, and include excerpts from her book, “Ascent of the Immortal.”

l Lee’s four sessions will be based on “the four M’s” of horror writing. Three are being kept secret, but one is “Menace.” Self-described as a lifelong lover of science fiction and horror writing, Lee is currently in the final stretch of finishing his debut novel, “The Voice in My Head,” while working to complete his psychology degree at FSU-Panama City.

“The definition for ‘menace’ is a person or thing that is likely to cause harm,” Lee said. “After all, the most memorable killers captured within the pages of a good horror book have exuded menace in varying degrees. Take Hannibal Lector, Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula as examples.”

Lee added that sometimes fear can permeate an entire novel as a faceless, discorporate dread, giving the Harry Potter series as an example.

“From the very beginning, (Voldemort’s) presence runs throughout the plot’s entire tapestry like a storm cloud threatening to rain,” Lee said. “But he never regains his actual body until the end of book four. Up until that point, his menace is conveyed through hushed whispers and talk of dark deeds.”

Like ghost stories told in the black of night.



Thursday, October 10, 2013

In defense of zombies

Me, Zombified
Zombies scare me.

I don't know why, exactly. Maybe it's the idea that they are us, just with our morals switched off and our hunger turned to 11.

Maybe it's the idea that they can't be reasoned with (insert your favorite political joke here), or that they never tire, they never stop, and it seems like they come out of nowhere by the multitudes.

Maybe it's the overwhelming dread of a worldwide plague turning the planet into a dead zone where the slightest noise or a change in the direction the breeze blows can mean death.

I seldom have nightmares about zombies. I generally recall my dreams in detail, and my really bad dreams are usually about demons. (Don't even get me started.)

Then one night I dreamed that I was a zombie. I "woke up" in the middle of a feeding frenzy, at first frightened and confused by the walking corpses all around me and the prey they were devouring, and suddenly a weird calm came over me.

My new e-book of short stories
I realized what I was and why the horde wasn't trying to attack me. I was just like them. And I realized that was okay with me (in this dream, at least) — knowing what I was, I could deal with that. (I've tried to decipher the psychological implications of this dream. In fact, I'm writing a book to deal with them.)

But see:  There was a sense of personal freedom that set in once I realized that my continued existence had been made so simple. There were no worries, because the worst had already happened. All I had to do was feed myself, and the rest of the world could go to hell.

Like I said, I'm working this out: That's where the opening scene of my new novel takes place — as an undead man "awakens" (becomes self-aware) in the middle of an afternoon snack he's sharing with another undead man. (You can read this opening scene in my new ebook, "Tales of the Awakening Dead," only 99 cents on Kindle!)

I spent last year's NaNoWriMo exploring what happens next — a simple thing, as the man recognizes that the food stocks are being depleted while the number of predators rises. That won't do, of course, so he has to find a way to reduce the feeders and fatten the prey and ensure a steady supply of "This Mortal Flesh."

The trailer video for Tales of the Awakening Dead

As I wrote in the introduction to 'Tales of the Awakening Dead,' there's some cultural backlash already rising that indicates people think the zombie apocalypse is played out as a source for storytelling. That's being floated out there at a time when "The Walking Dead" is a hit comic book and a super-hit TV series. (It returns for its fourth season Sunday, and AMC is now developing a spin-off series to fill the seasonal hiatus next summer.)
The Walking Dead Season Four Trailer

So obviously, there are still plenty of stories to tell.

Myself, I write about zombies for a variety of reasons beyond my own desire to understand my dreamstates. One, they make excellent metaphors for just about any massive, mindless groupthink you want to apply. Two, you can set up different rules for how the creatures multiply and how they operate (can they speak? do they run or shamble? does only a bite spread infection?). Three, exploring how your human characters relate to one another and the zombies in such an environment reveals so many things about the human condition.

But an added bonus, and probably most importantly: You can tell any story in this framework. When it comes to human relationships, action/adventure, or even buddy cop stories, zombies are like bacon — they can make any story better.

Don't believe me? Next time you're writing and you hit a wall, and you don't know what happens next, have a zombie come through the window. Instant writer's block solvent.


Thoughts? Refutations? Please comment!

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

‘Between There’ features ghostly tales

PANAMA CITY — A young deputy trying to make a name for himself opens a cold case and is visited on Halloween by a restless spirit as he answers a call to Econfina Creek.

Homeless men witness a murder while hanging out under Hathaway Bridge.

Two supernatural creatures are involved in a paranormal investigation of Bay County’s Tram Road.

Those are descriptions of “Cold Case” by Ruth Corley, “The Dog Watch” by Mark Boss, and “Elusive Prey” by Anthony S. Buoni, three of 13 frightening tales in the new anthology, “Between There” Vol. 2.

Such ghostly stories will be on tap Tuesday evening at Chez Amavida in Panama City, which is hosting the launch party for “Between There” in conjunction with Writers Gallery, the monthly open mic gathering for local writers. Books will be for sale, and everyone will be invited to play haunted bingo for door prizes. Costumes are encouraged.

“The coffee shop has been home to the Writers’ Gallery meetings on the third Tuesday of each month, allowing local authors a stage for sharing their work,” Buoni said. “This month’s meeting will not only let writers read their material, but will showcase several authors featured in the anthology, reading and signing copies of the book.”

Buoni describes himself as “a haunted writer” living in Panama City Beach whose work has been featured in magazines, noir anthologies and his own local underground ’zine “the meow.” In addition to writing, he is a musician, father and ghost hunter.

“Between There” Vol. 2, , released by Pulpwood Press, features the work of regional and national writers exploring what happens when departed souls intrude upon everyday lives. Ranging from mystery and horror to philosophy and erotica, the book showcases short stories, flash fiction, campfire yarns and a screenplay that brings readers not quite to the realm of Death, but somewhere between here and there.

Many of the writers involved are from Bay County. Joining Buoni, Corley and Boss are N. Wayne Garrett, Conrad Young, Brittany Lamoureux, Kyle Clements, Angela Apperson and Joseph Davis. Others include Autumn Lishky from Oklahoma, Dee Jordan from Mobile, Ala., and Jacqueline Seewald, previously nominated for a Nebula Award for her short story, “Touched by Wonder.”

Mark Boss at left, Ruth Corley at right
 (Full disclosure: I’m part of a writing critique group that includes Boss and Corley (see photo at left for the whole group posing with author Tim Dorsey), and one of my short stories appeared in the first volume of “Between There.” I’m also a regular participant at Writers Gallery.)

Corley is a fiction writer in addition to her job as public information specialist with the Bay County Sheriff’s Office. The two interests led her down a surprising trail as she wrote “Cold Case.”

“I love to hear the stories of the ‘old days’ in law enforcement here in Bay County,” she said. “A friend told me how the top floor of the old Old Jail (before what we now refer to as the Old Jail/BCSO Office was built, which used to be next to the Court House) was considered haunted. … I thought I would use that bit of folklore in a story and set it back in 1990, when both buildings were used simultaneously. Oh, to make it even creepier, the county morgue was housed in the basement of the old Old Jail, which also gave the building a unique ambience.”

Boss, a freelance editor and author of thrillers, said his inspiration came from multiple sources.

“The title has a double meaning,” he said. “It refers to a dog they see, and it’s also the nautical term for the short watches on a ship that take place between 4 to 6 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. I drew on the excellent work our local Association of St. Jude does in helping the homeless, and combined that with a scary location. The stuff about the dog and the murder, I made up.”

Corley said her characters often surprise her as she’s in the process of writing.

And that bodes well for a book about things that go bump in the night.

(Rest in) Peace. 


What: Release party for ghost story anthology ‘Between There’; books for sale; play haunted bingo for door prizes; costumes encouraged
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15
Where: Chez Amavida, 2997 W. 10th St., Panama City

(This is my column for PanamaCity.com and The News Herald this week.)

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Speaking to strangers...

River Jordan speaks at Palms Conference Center
PANAMA CITY BEACH — Laughter initially filled the Palms Conference Center on Wednesday afternoon as author River Jordan took the stage to tell her stories. Soon enough, however, the deeper truth of those stories began to sink in as River led the luncheon audience to understand how the lives of strangers are intertwined.

“Sometimes the life chooses you,” she said. “You don’t choose the life.”

River, the author of “Praying for Strangers,” is a Panama City native now based in Nashville. She spoke at the fundraiser to benefit the Panama City Rescue Mission’s Bethel Village program for women and children, which is working to purchase new mattresses for the shelter, with the help of The Sleep Center in Panama City.

“So many of us think of prayer as a bedtime activity, as we prepare for sleep,” said Cathy Byrd, director of the Women and Family Ministries for the Mission. “So this is a nice tie-in with our campaign. River shows us we can pray anywhere, anytime, for anyone.”

(For more details on the fundraising effort, visit PCRMission.org.)

Fran, River and Leah (mom)
River, who wore a necklace marked “Dream” on Wednesday, is a natural storyteller. She says she was “discovered” as a writer by a sixth grade teacher. She considers herself a novelist — she’s currently working on a new novel about “bourbon, bullets and broads” — and never intended to write a nonfiction book.

Clearly, as she says, she also never wants to be “trapped in the box” that people might want to imagine for her.

I first met River when she was executive director of the Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center in Panama City. In her spare time, she was working on a novel that became her debut, “The Gin Girl.” Since then, she has published another three novels and two non-fiction books, including “Praying for Strangers.”

River started praying for strangers in 2009, as her sons were deployed to the Middle East and she realized she was selfishly praying for their safety. Instead, she vowed to pray for the strangers she met each day. She never meant to tell any of them that she prayed for them, and she never expected to know how her prayers might be received.

“It was never about anything except God’s love and blessings and perfect peace,” she said. “That they be loved, they be warm, that they be fed, or whatever (their need) may be.”

Me and River
But then she felt led to tell a woman in a bus stop that she had prayed for her, and the story that poured out of the woman inspired River to begin writing down what she learned through the year. Others shared stories with her, and she discovered that praying for people she didn’t even know was blessing her own life in unexpected ways.

“I don’t ‘look’ at the people in that moment,” she said. “I ‘behold’ them. I don’t judge them. I see them.”

And isn’t that, essentially, the prayer of everyone?

This is my Undercurrents column for PanamaCity.com and The News Herald this week.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Swapping Stories on the Porch

Karen, left, with Ann at Sundog
SEASIDE — Bob Hollis from Navarre pushed one of those wheeled walker contraptions that double as a chair right up to the front steps of Sundog Books Tuesday evening. He grabbed the handrail and climbed the stair, settling into the walker’s seat beside author Karen Spears Zacharias.

Karen perched on the porch with fellow novelist Ann Hite, sharing a table to greet customers, swap tales and sign copies of their new books, respectively, “Mother of Rain” and “The Storycatcher.”

Despite humidity that made clothes stick and skin glisten, this was a good place to catch a story.

Bob, for instance, brought cookies he had baked for Karen. Long story short: The last time she came through the area, Bob had been baking cookies for Karen’s grandson, who was one of her traveling companions on that tour, when he had a heart attack.

“I’ve only ever visited one fan in a hospital ICU,” Karen said, patting Bob’s hand.

That’s the kind of front porch tale-swapping you seldom get these days. At least, on a bookstore’s stoop. Or maybe it is exactly what you find there, and I just don’t hang out at Sundog as often as I should.

Karen and Me
A reformed newspaper reporter, Karen teaches journalism in Washington state. “Mother of Rain” is her sixth book and her first novel. She credits her great-aunt Lucille “Cil” Christian of Christian Bend, Tenn., for teaching her to tell stories, and I imagine them sitting on a front porch in the hills, maybe shelling butter beans and talking about haints.

Looking something like friendly haints from out of the past themselves, Karen and Ann wore frilly aprons and head wraps Tuesday, and Karen added what looked to me like bloomers. (Not that I’m a fashion expert.) She strolled around the store barefoot and giddy, like a spirit in a favorite haunt.

I asked her why she wore the costume — I took the chance that this was not her regular attire, and I joked that I was in my own “work costume” of Hawaiian shirt and black hat. Her response was down-to-earth.

“If you’re from Oregon and you’re going to be on tour 30 days, you don’t want to have to think about what to wear,” she said.

Fair enough.

I mention haints for two reasons. One, because friendly ghosts feature in Ann’s novel, and Karen recently blogged about how the subject offended a woman at one of their talks on this tour. The woman declared that Jesus warned believers not to call forth haints after hearing Karen relate the old rural legend about the hitchhiker that turns out to be Jesus.

Myself, I recall shucking sweet corn on the porch of my devoutly religious great-grandparents’ home in Century, and listening to aunts and uncles tell stories of haints in the woods, visits from the recently departed, and dream travels to foreign lands — and how those things fired my imagination.

Ann said the ghostly characters in her novel aren’t the scary ones. As in life, it’s usually the regular human beings that give you cause to fear.


Karen pretends to read my "33 Days" story collection.

(This was my Undercurrents column for PanamaCity.com this week.)

Friday, September 20, 2013

This weekend special: 15 PERCENT OFF of my books

NOTE: This special is now ended. Look for more savings in upcoming weeks.

In honor of the 14th annual Gulf Coast Writers Conference, I'm offering 15 PERCENT OFF each of my books available for purchase through the online distributor Lulu.com through this weekend. (Sale ends Sunday.)

Here are direct links to each of the books:
33 Days


The Book of Gabriel

The Best of Days

Welcome to the Dawning of a New Century

Welcome to the Dawning of a New Century: A Novel
(trade paperback)

City Limits (Vol.2)


City Limits (Vol. 1)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Weise wins, writers confer

Jillian Weise
PANAMA CITY — Back in the mid- to late-1990s, Surfside Middle School and later Rutherford High School student Jillian Weise wrote regular columns (under the heading “Weise Words”) for The News Herald’s Education and Generation NeXt sections. She’s now an associate professor at Clemson University, a poet, playwright and novelist.

This week, the Academy of American Poets announced Jillian’s second poetry collection, “The Book of Goodbyes,” was selected for the James Laughlin Award, the nation’s only prize for a second book of poetry. The prize includes $5,000 and support of the book through purchasing copies to distribute to academy members.

“This book reminds us that the pain of love and loss, in the hands of a powerful wordsmith such as Weise, might just morph into passion, thrill, strength,” wrote Laughlin Award judge Brenda Shaughnessy. “And that love-suffering can bring us ever closer to lovability because through it we learn to connect, renew, transform.”

(Learn more about the award at Poets.org.)

Jillian’s other books include the poetry collection, “The Amputee’s Guide to Sex,” and the novel “The Colony.” She will read from her latest work at the awards ceremony in New York City on Oct. 25.

Writers Conference
The Gulf Coast Writers Conference returns for its 14th session on Saturday — and this time, it’s free to the public. The conference is being held in conjunction with River Readings, a series of panels focusing on artistic creativity, inspiration and spiritual growth.

This year’s keynote speaker is Lynne Barrett, award-winning author of story collections “The Secret Names of Women,” “The Land of Go,” and “Magpies.” She teaches in the MFA program in Creative Writing at Florida International University.

(See more details about the conference at GulfCoastWritersConference.com.)

Author and Wewahitchka native Michael Lister, who established the writers conference in 1999, said he had no idea when it began that the event would go on for so long, or accomplish what it has for local writers and creatives.

“I’m so proud of this conference,” Michael said. “Can’t believe it’s been 14 years. We have inspired and helped so many writers over the years. It’s extremely gratifying.”

Michael credited Lynn Wallace, a novelist, poet and professor at Gulf Coast State College, for all of his help over the years. Wallace will participate in a panel discussion Saturday on “Telling Truth Telling Lies.”

“No one has helped me more or done more than Lynn Wallace,” he said. “He is such a treasure for the writers of this area and beyond.”

Lister said offering the conference for free was a leap that he was happy to take.

“I knew the moment I had the idea that it was inspired and we had to just do it — figure out a way and go for it,” he said. “I know the energy from this is going to make our conference even better this year, if that’s possible.”


This is my Undercurrents column for PanamaCity.com and The News Herald this week.

Monday, September 16, 2013

'Moonrise' Photo Blog

Cassandra King stopped by Panama City last week to promote her new novel, Moonrise, accompanied by her husband, author Pat Conroy. You can read more about the event >>here<< and check out these photos:
Pat Conroy poses for photo with fan.

Cassandra King with publicist Kathie Bennett

Conroy introduces King.

King grits her teeth for one. more. photo.

Debra and me after the reception.

King addresses crowd at PC library.

King signs books at the library.

Conroy works the crowd at the library.

Conroy poses for photos.