Showing posts with label Robert Mangeot. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Mangeot. Show all posts

13 April 2024

Adventures In Spelling (Or, An Author Gives Up)

Words. They're kind of important in writing. Words are comprised of letters, optimally in the correct order. I'm a liberal arts major and know these things. And yet. The mind and typing fingers can struggle.

I'm actually a darn good speller, or I was. I hung in there on spelling bees as a kid, and nobody geeked out more on PSAT vocabulary than this guy. One thing the young me could've learned better was typing. My mom considered typing a life skill and made us take runs at her IBM Selectric. A sweet machine, the Selectric. The clack of keys, the thump of ball element, precision stuff engineered to sequence manual keystrokes just right, and it never stood a chance. Not with me and my pecking method impervious to parental correction.  

Not all letter combinations are kind to the pecking method. Here are the dreaded words that get me every time.


Every time. Every time I want to type camouflage, I type "camoflage." If I'm overthinking my dropped vowel, I type "camoflague." Maybe it's an extension of living in the South, all these folks in daywear camos. Maybe it's the pronunciation. Said lazily, it can come out as all different kinds of ways. Said correctly, there's no "o" in there anywhere. It's a sneaky little unstressed "uh" vowel that, ironically, blends in with mastermind stealth. YouTube has videos on this pronunciation trick. 

Or maybe lifestyle is my problem. It's not a word that comes up much. I try to live a life neither hiding from anyone nor fixing to bushwhack them, either.


This is less of a misspelling routine than willful disregard. I understand full well the English language contains both the words "farther" and my habitual "further." Farther, a grammarist will tell you, means at a greater distance or to a greater extent. Further covers that but goes, well, further. The adverb and adjectival forms denote something additionally or an additional amount, to include extents and distances. 

This distinction can become fighting stuff, but only for word nerds. Many people go through entire lives not caring about nearly interchangeable word nuance. The difference doesn't matter when writing dialogue unless the character is a fellow word nerd. I hear "further" much more than "farther" in conversation, but that could be a personal filter. "Further" sounds everyday. "Farther" sounds like Thurston Howell asking if you have Grey Poupon.


This is a simple enough word. 9 letters. Pronounced how spelled. And yet. My fingers type it "hypocrasy" or "hypocricy" or the double-up "hypocracy." I'm old enough to know when things aren't gonna get better. It wouldn't be honest to skip this on my typing issues list.


I literally just mistyped that subtitle as "manuever." Frankly, I'm not sure I'm to blame. The second syllable of maneuver (I just mistyped that, too) rhymes with true and blue. Same diacritical marks. The U before the E? Nope, and maybe just what I expected the spelling to do. Anyway, thanks spell check.


"Publically." In the hunt and peck storm, "publically" is what flows. The hodgepodge we call the English language has a rule. A rule, folks, and it says adverbs made from adjectives ending in "ic" get an "ally." A rule, specifically. Except. Oh, the exception. I give you the adverb "publicly." The real lesson is to avoid adverbs. Except in speech because people use adverbs non-stop in speech. And dialogue is done publicly. I have to edit hard, is what I'm saying.


This one is a different glitch. It's tactical somehow, like how my hand positioning gets pulled wide chasing each next letter. Whenever I hunt-and-peck any word with the prefix "semi," things go haywire. The "semi" part is fine. What comes next breaks down into stray characters. The entire remaining word plunges into babble until a rally when some vague semblance of meaning returns. But too devoid of meaning for spell check to fathom. Microsoft Word flags the babble as if a hell-if-I-know shrug. 

If anyone out there wonders who is holding natural language algorithms back from brilliant adoption of "semi" words, it's me. Not sure I can explain it. Only semi-sure I should explore it.


True story. 

Once, I argued at length that superseded was--and could only ever be--spelled "superceded." This wasn't in the spelling bee or PSAT days, either. I was then a young paid professional with a liberal arts education, and I was arguing the pure necessity of "superceded" in my workpapers. "Super," of course, meant the act of revising or replacing. "Ceded" meant the ceding of that ground. I could not have been more wrong. What has me laughing years later isn't that. It's that my boss didn't interrupt. She let me go on. 

Superseded is correct spelling. I know that now. I knew it then, too, except in the moment my better judgment was revised or replaced. The struggle is real and continues. My left index finger--the one in charge of "c"--still gets the itch. 

There It Is, Then

I crank through the typing well enough. With corrections. Sometimes, the head gets in the way, or the method. Sometimes, it's a mental thing, the misspelled word so engrained that I'm head-cased and doom-looped. But some words are writer kryptonite, and I've given up pretending otherwise. Writing is nothing if not a learning process, and that includes accepting the trick words.

09 March 2024

What the Hell, Let's Make Wine: On "Noble Rot" in Murder, Neat

I'm told this entry winds up our collective series going behind Murder, Neat. I've enjoyed these backgrounders as much as I've enjoyed reading the anthology. Pick up a copy, and you'll see what I mean. Murder, Neat is also perfect for birthdays, spring solstices, allergy season, or any occasion you've got going on.

* * *

Given my name, you won't be surprised to hear I'm of French heritage. As best we know the history, the Mangeots did okay over there--until the Revolution. Ah, well. C'est la guerre

Having old France in my blood, you also wouldn't be surprised to hear I enjoy wine. I'll go so far as to claim I've accumulated minor wine knowledge. I said minor, so don't quiz me. One nugget explained to me on a vineyard tour way back was a winemaking technique with a particularly catchy name: noble rot.

What a word combination. Noble plus rot catches the eye, dances on the tongue, sparks the imagination. It's that juxtaposition, noble to rot, a lofty start and steep descent as if inevitable. Poetry? Depends on your tastes. In real life, the term is more like good marketing. 

What's known today as noble rot started out in Hungary or Germany, depending on the account. To oversimplify, the vintner inoculates their ripening grapes with a fungus. Happy little fungi from the same family as makes penicillin, bleu cheese, and athlete's foot. Then, the vintner walks away. It's not until a late harvest and a chill in the air that picking time arrives. By then, the fungi turns the grapes into super-intense raisins. Those raisins are the secret behind some of the finest sweet wines on this planet. Tokay, Sauternes, Riesling. 

That's the high-gloss version, but let's be honest. The method surely sprung from desperation. Rewind however many centuries, and surely a German or Hungarian vintner schlub dilly-dallied at harvest time. It got to be October, and the wind bode a frost, and wolves howled from the foothills, and the vintner's family shoved him outside to get the grapes picked. The vintner sidled to the vines and discovered that a nasty fungal situation had spread something fierce, and the vintner said, "What the hell, let's make wine."

Rot done well. For art. I'd wanted to write about all that. For a while, actually.

Opportunity came when Sleuthsayers decided on an anthology. The call was for stories with a bar somehow a core element. My fellow Sleuthsayers' submissions would include amazing stories using saloons and dives and well-drawn noir tones. So I went another direction. I played with other types of bars and landed on a wine bar. I might've been sitting at my basement wine bar at the time. 

Anyway, a submission. I kept brainstorming wine things and soon landed back on that brewing noble rot concept. All I needed next was a story. About a state of rotting. Nobly. And for that, folks, let me welcome you to Nashville.

We Mangeots aren't alone in moving along when fortunes take a turn. Middle Tennessee boasts a near-inexhaustible supply of ex-rockers settled here after their chart-topping runs ended. That isn't a critique. The ex-rocker colony makes large and welcome civic contributions, and they invest in stuff. Stuff like wineries. And rich winery owners have tasting rooms.  

Rockers moving here makes sense from their lens. Nashville has long had country chart-only stars, and the city culture protects their privacy. A faded rocker can run to the grocery with no hassles. Nashville has a cheaper cost of living (or used to), no state income tax, a bevy of top studios and historic venues, and a chance to plug into a peer group with similar life experiences and creative bents. 

These rockers haven't lost their talent. The voice might be going, the hand a beat slow sometimes, but the creativity and musicianship are still there. It's excellent that they hang around the music scene. One might say noble, in its way. Noble, but also fair game. After all, these headliners used to embody sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Now, they're on YouTube cooking their favorite recipes and aging with their audiences. Not always comfortably, which is the core idea behind my story "Noble Rot."

To smash-summarize the premise, a 90s grunge guitarist moved to Nashville after both his fame and edge waned. He's in that nostalgia-act phase, a short set at festivals guy. He doesn't care that his career is on life support. He only wants to make wine. His agent, though, isn't done with music yet. To grasp for relevance, it's time to embrace a Great American Songbook cover album. The plot centers around the agent's pitch, with the inevitable complications and moral choices. Plus a hit of gonzo, if I did it right.

You might've also been wondering about Tennessee wine-making beyond huckleberry. Few grape varietals thrive consistently in the mid-South. Too humid, the climate too ideal for--hang on for it--fungal diseases. 

Grapes do grow, over thirty varietals, and many more tons get shipped in. Noble rot wine can happen here, given the right winemaker and the right microclimate. That's what Nashville is for those aging rockers, a microclimate where some of them put out the best music of their lives. And that's what "Noble Rot" is about, microclimates and life choices, the inevitable fade of great things and the fight against it, that eternal hope for beauty in life's next act. 

* * *

13 January 2024

A Near-Luddite Tries Bing AI

My Windows 365 updated a few weeks ago, and there on reboot was Microsoft selling hard to check out Edge’s new AI tool. Come on, Edge said. Try making a fun holiday image.

Was I tempted? A little. Mostly, I regard the rise of Big AI such as large language models with a combination of dread (look out for the bad Terminator!) and intellectual curiosity at what advances these unlocks (hooray, it's the good Terminator!). The risks and rewards of AI’s future applications are for expert thinkers. AI’s impact on writing is more in my wheelhouse, and there was my writing laptop wanting me to check out Bing's Copilot.

I’ve never Venmo-ed money. Don't know how. Don’t even have the app. I don’t know how to deposit checks by smartphone scan. I don’t use Alexa or Siri, and our newer smart appliances aren’t set up on the home Wi-Fi. I’m doing swell without all that. I’m not a technophobe, though. I use voice remote for TV and my smartphone for the usual stuff: music, news, texts, video calls, pet photos, health monitoring, and so forth. These help me stay connected and get where I want to go faster.


As with all discussions, let's start from intellectual honesty. The modern writer has long been using AI. Internet search algorithms, word predictors, spell check, Grammarly plug-ins. It's all narrow AI. What’s new is AI’s computing power and availability to the masses. AutoCrit’s AI critiques your story and gives style comparables (full disclosure: I've started using AutoCrit’s free version to spot repeated words and phrases). Sudowrite’s Story Engine handles the writing for you, including that dreaded synopsis. Other tools abound, and that number will mushroom.

I write when I can carve out time. In a productive year, I’ll write a handful of stories (I wrote three in 2023). About half of those will be publishable with effort. AI can crank out stories 24/7. They're junk. Fine, AI has almost won literary prizes. That's one in a billion, from what I've seen. People submit this anyway. As their own work. I don’t understand that justification. Someone presses a button. A prompted algorithm spitting out words is no more authorship than is copying pages straight from a Dickens novel. Hell, the algorithm may have copied Dickens.

I despair of rot. AI will evolve to produce more natural prose. Even so, AI will never be imaginative. Insightful, sure, but AI has no mind with which to imagine. And it’s a copycat, even of itself. The more AI builds its dreck into its model, the more AI will reproduce dreckier dreck. Markets will struggle for quality and even survival. There's no human effort barrier to slow the AI onslaught. Let’s stay honest, though. Many readers won’t mind so long as AI entertains.


So in that mindset, I clicked the link to generate a holiday image. My command: a festive boiled custard drinking contest in old-time illustration style. Here’s its swing at my curveball:

generated by AI

generated by AI

generated by AI

Weird. But you know what? AI tried its robot best. And it brought fun.

Game on. I asked Edge to make a theoretical book cover of “Lord, Spare the Bottom Feeders,” a story of mine from AHMM a few years back. My prompt described the story as crime fiction with a few plot particulars about the lawyer character and let the tool rip. 

The tool returned an over-the-top cartoon cover with a generalissimo-type crime lord surrounded by central casting mafia goons, everyone armed as if up against the Untouchables and the Five Families and even the bad Terminator. Vivid, but it highlights important AI concerns. My prompt didn’t say what kind of crime ring was involved. I didn't mention guns. Fine. The tool made these assumptions. AI is teaching itself from an internet archive that, as we all know, includes significant biases and worse. Absent way more controls than we have today, AI is going to spread these biases rapid-fire.

AI is a parrot, so I re-prompted with a load more story specifics. The tool returned:

Okay, better-ish. It's still cartoonish tropes, but this one at least addresses the prompt about mussel smuggling. No lawyer, but props on the broken scales of justice. And it does grab attention, as a cover should do. 

I don’t worry for folks who design bad book covers. They need to find other gigs. I do worry for the many great cover designers on some level. Hopefully, those folks can lean into AI as a way to craft even better covers in less time.

For my next test, I took a story idea that has refused to gel in my head for months now. It’s about a guy getting initiated into the burly beard grooming life. As usual, the character came right to life. A workable plot hasn’t. So I prompted with:

Write an outline for a 3,000-word crime short story with three twists about a criminal who can't grow a beard despite trying.

AI returned (again, this is NOT my work):

"That sounds like an interesting premise for a crime story. Here is a possible outline for your short story:

  • Title: The Beardless Bandit
  • Genre: Crime/Comedy
  • Summary: A young man, Eddie, dreams of becoming a notorious criminal, but he has a problem: he can’t grow a beard. He believes that having a beard is essential for being a successful and respected criminal. He tries various methods to grow a beard, but nothing works. He decides to resort to drastic measures: he robs a bank wearing a fake beard. However, his plan goes awry when he encounters three unexpected twists.
  • Outline:
    • The story begins with Eddie preparing for his bank robbery. He has a fake beard that he bought online, a gun that he borrowed from his cousin, and a getaway car that he rented. He is nervous, but also excited. He thinks that this will be his big break into the criminal world.
    • He enters the bank, points his gun at the teller, and demands the money. He tries to act tough and menacing, but his voice cracks and his fake beard slips. The teller recognizes him as a regular customer and calls him by his name. Eddie panics and runs out of the bank, leaving behind his gun and his fake beard.
    • The first twist is that the bank was actually a front for a money laundering operation run by a powerful crime boss, Mr. Big. Mr. Big is furious that someone tried to rob his bank and orders his men to find and kill Eddie. He also wants his gun and his fake beard back, as they are valuable evidence.
    • The second twist is that the gun that Eddie borrowed from his cousin was actually a rare and antique weapon that belonged to a famous gangster, Historic Boss. The gun is worth millions of dollars and is sought after by collectors and criminals alike. Eddie’s cousin had stolen it from a museum and was planning to sell it to Mr. Big, but he lied to Eddie and told him it was a cheap replica.
    • The third twist is that the fake beard that Eddie bought online was actually a real beard that belonged to a famous actor, Major Celebrity. The beard was cut off by a crazed fan and sold on the internet. The beard is also worth millions of dollars and is sought after by fans and celebrities alike. Major Celebrity himself is looking for his beard and is willing to pay a huge reward for its return.
    • The story ends with Eddie being chased by Mr. Big’s men, the police, the museum security, and Major Celebrity’s agents. He manages to escape with the help of a friendly barber, who gives him a shave and a haircut. He realizes that he doesn’t need a beard to be a criminal, he just needs to be smart and brave. He decides to give up his criminal dreams and start a new life. He also returns the gun and the beard to their rightful owners and collects the rewards. He uses the money to buy a house, a car, and a dog. He names the dog Beardy."
    • — generated by AI

I changed one thing in AI’s summary for here. AI's fixation on famous people went as far as to use actual famous people’s names. Let’s leave them and their attorneys out of this.

AI's outline hangs together, mostly. Parts of this are even good. Resorting to a fake beard was something I hadn’t thought of, and that fake beard becoming a McGuffin is an actual twist. The stakes ramp up as stakes should, and the happy ending with Beardy made me grin.

There are problems.

AI crams in way too much plot for 3,000 words. The gun twist pulls the thing thematically out of whack. The friendly barber is funny, but fake beards don’t need to be shaved off. And you cannot run up to someone and cut an entire, reusable beard off their face. That’s either magic realism or horror.  

I didn’t ask AI to write the story. I won’t, and I won’t write “The Beardless Bandit” myself. This isn’t my idea, and I won't pretend otherwise. I do reserve the right to take inspiration from this.

I tried other story summary prompts and got repeated interesting nuggets and major plot holes. I was having fun. Did it feel like I’d created anything? No. It was like playing with a toddler while they explained their toys. I did feel creative-adjacent in a way. Using the tool forced me to consider prompt sharpness and to read the generated content critically.

In the debate about whether or not AI undermines and supplants fiction writers, I’m still in some despair. AI's expansion is a cycle that threatens to drag us downward. Downward, but not out. Fatalism is a human quality and usually a mistake. Enhanced AI tools can help us carbon-based writers. We’ll be better researchers, better self-editors, better brainstormers. These same AI tools are great at spotting missed cancers and asymptomatic Alzheimer’s. If AI can do that, there is a place for it to boost our craft.

We’ll need to find that place. Soon, because the AI debate is pointless. The technology is here. What we humans do with it– and about it– will determine whether we get good Terminators or bad ones. Until then, this near-

Luddite will get back to my Venmo-less life.

09 December 2023

Character Tests and Conference Rooms

Last summer, I did a Killer Nashville panel on character contrasts, and I got stumped on a question. Now, and this is important, I knew the question was coming. It was there in the panel leader's planned topics emailed around beforehand. I'd read those questions and agreed that these were great ideas. And I think a lot about characters and how to characterize. A whole lot. But these are the sorts of thoughts writers often think alone in our lairs. Suddenly, I had to verbalize my inner conjuring in front of a conference. With examples from my own stuff.

The question was how character interactions reveal each other's psyche and values. It's a sharp question. It frames a simple fact: No protagonist or antagonist or supporting cast shines alone. Other characters must test them, vex them, find common cause with them, and ultimately shape them. These characters need not be human. Places, weather, a monster brought to life by lightning. A proper story tests mettles and motives and echoes the tests throughout.

Most in that crowd were seeking tips to polish their novel manuscripts. My lens worth sharing is short fiction. If anything, though, a short story's hyper-compression presents this character interplay in teachable chunks. And what are good stories if not echo chambers for their compressed worlds? Extraneous character interactions in a story stick out worse than, I don't know, say a writer mulling over examples in front of a conference room crowd.

I think I stalled well enough while finding my answer. By panel rules, the examples were to come from recent work. The recent work in reach was my "Spirits Along the One North Road," in AHMM this last summer. "Spirits" has a train ride scene where the main character, a corporate embezzler guy hiding in Quebec, meets the other primary character, a middle-aged woman who becomes the embodiment of the new Canadian life he seeks. Their first scene together is all brief exchanges and awkward silences. What small talk the guy elicits cuts to their parallel core: family relationships and belonging.

That scene also shapes their very different takes on those things. He is newly divorced after his wife can't take being with a crook. He's in a lousy headspace of suppressed guilt and sees Quebec as an overromanticized sanctuary. The local lady already has a normal family life and a peaceful Canadian existence. To her, it's humdrum, too boring even for chitchat. He treasures his every-other-weekends with his kids. She's a good mom but despises her older kid's life choices.

They engage each other differently, too. He's expansive and carrying the conversation. She answers tersely, in clear signals to shut him down. His bad mojo vibe creeps her out a little. This initial meeting sets up their end-of-story parting moment, where it comes out that they ultimately share not just desires and disillusionments but also self-destructive greed. At core, they both think that somewhere else in this world life offers a release. He tried it and struck out. He'll circle home or die alone. Her shot at escape is just starting.

One strategy on character contrast I've picked up magpie-like goes like this:

Forgive me a Venn Diagram and also any missed credit for the construct. I've found this triad to be a great baseline for character inner selves, and there are endless ways to riff off it. "It" might be a McGuffin or a place or an emotional state. Maybe Character D doesn't want this thematic thing at all. The point is the connecting echoes among the characters. It's the third perspective that for me brings magic. Two characters arguing simply shows an argument.

But characters should argue. They should want to argue. Characters should raise old grudges and talk around each other and misunderstand because of their personal filters and motives. Character values come alive in the ground they hold, the ground they cede, when they get angry, when they deflect, when they go silent. Especially when they go silent. In that silence is deep truth.

Which is way better articulated than I managed in that conference room. Months later, that panel question still has me thinking about these nested character interactions and how to get better at it as I grow. And any question that leads to wonder is a gift.

14 October 2023

I Recapped the Meddling So You Don't Have To

My last two October slots delved into Shirley Jackson's A Haunting at Hill House and We Have Always Lived at the Castle. For this Halloween season, let's really go creeps and crawls. Let's talk Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?

Scoob is everywhere these days. He's on Max and Tubi. He's in the cookie aisle, the t-shirt rack, the toy section. It's hard to remember that Scoob only got started as 25 Saturday morning episodes, in 1969 and 1970. The show was a hit, and Hanna-Barbera immediately set about expanding the franchise concept. Nothing clicks or brings the style like the original Scoob, though. 

Scoob almost didn't get started at all. The Hanna-Barbera writers pitched CBS the original concept as The Mysteries Five, inspired by the 1940s I Love a Mystery radio serial and Enid Blyton's Famous Five kid stories. That first pitch had a five-person Archies-style traveling rock group that solved supernatural-related mysteries. Their bongo-playing sheepdog was named Too Much.

It didn't fly. Neither did a second pass, Who's S-S-Scared?, floated after the fifth character, "Geoff," was cut to streamline the gang. Ah, Geoff, we never knew ya. Anyway, CBS thought the mock-ups were too scary. The execs already had a snoot-full of parent groups complaining that cartoons were too violent.

It was the third try that sold, with no rock band angle and Scooby-Doo as the dog. CBS exec Fred Silverman took the name from Frank Sinatra's scat closer to "Strangers in the Night," after hearing it on a red-eye flight to a production meeting. As things happened, "Fred" also replaced "Ronnie" as the leader guy. All four of this final gang were borrowed straight off Dobie Gillis

Original Scoob was in re-runs by when my Saturday mornings came around. I consider it a virtue that I've never outgrown this kind of good fun. And Scoob has something for the adult side, a surprisingly gothic vibe if you delve past those chase scene gags and improvised traps. Walter Peregoy, the Disney vet behind 101 Dalmatians, designed gorgeously bleak background paintings, blurred reality studies of fog and shadow and desolate places, in sharp juxtaposition to the gang's bright colors. Those hallway chase scenes pop because the place feels legit haunted. Even Velma is often creeped out that this ghost might be real. 

This is a crime blog, so let's talk the crimes in Original Scoob. Glorious, goofball crimes. Behind each supposed monster was the inevitable family treasure, land swindle, or hoax to scare away meddlers. Sometimes, the motive was just old-fashioned revenge. And each scheme was needlessly extravagant. Pay off a few locals, already. Why draw inevitable attention with the supernatural hoo-hah? 

In that spirit, I've analyzed Original Scoob's 25 monster hoaxes so that you don't have to.  

Meta-capers emerge. In classic Scoob, there's something of value in play or rumored to be nearby. Bluestone the Great, a washed-up magician, concocted a ghost scare while he searched Vasquez Castle for pirate treasure. No one else seemed to have the least interest in that lonely island, but hey, Bluestone does Bluestone. 

A lot of plain criming goes on in Original Scoob. The gang breaks up an art forgery operation (the Black Knight, aka Mr. Wickles the curator), counterfeiters (the Puppet Master, aka Mr. Pietro the theatre owner), a jewel theft ring (the Snow Ghost, aka Mr. Greenway the Inn owner and an appreciated hat tip to Sidney Greenstreet), and sheep rustlers (the Ghost Werewolf, aka, well, a sheep rustler). 

Yes, many of these monster-fakers are organized. How a crime organization decided on a cover so hard to maintain and so sure to draw curiosity need not be explained in the Scoobyverse. Still, no wonder they don't get away with it. 

But some of these schemes are downright clever, stuff you might see in crime fiction. Zeb and Zeke pose as a witch and zombie while they search the swamps for an armored car score they'd ditched there. Professor Wayne poses as a caveman to steal the rights to cutting-edge technology. Hank Buds the caretaker faked being the Miner Forty-Niner to scare the schlub of a ghost town owner into missing out on an undiscovered oil claim. 

The Scoob writers pulled a few nice switcheroos. The descendent of Dr. Jekyll confesses to the gang he might or might not be turning into a new Mr. Hyde, but it's head-casing. Jekyll dresses up as Hyde the jewel thief after he's failed at honest science. In a tweak of the formula, the gang and a phantom chase each other around a mansion over some lost family jewels. The phantom, though, turns out to be the rightful owner there looking for his property. Those knocking noises have been the other fake ghost we forgot was in Scene One. He's the real crook after those jewels.

There are a few proper ghost stories. Stewart Weatherby poses as the ghost of neighbor Elias Kingston to cheat Daphne's friend out of a fortune. The plot comes with spooky graveyards and disembodied voices and strange disappearances. 

Perhaps the most traditional ghost story hides inside one of the silliest episodes. The gang heads to bayou country--Southern goth--to collect Scoob's surprise inheritance from Colonel Beauregard. The Colonel's whole family has come for their shares, but the will has a catch: Whoever can survive the night in the haunted mansion gets the Colonel's money. Sure enough, family members start disappearing one-by-one.

Well, none of them were ghosts. 25 hoaxes out of 25 cases. Scoob and The Haunting Of Hill House have an overlay here. Way different audiences and methods, sure, but both explore how human minds can cope with the supernatural. Such things aren't even supernatural. Jackson's ghosts at Hill House were as much part of a natural order as you and I. We just don't have a scientific explanation for ghosts--yet. 

Dobie Gillis, AP 1960
In Scoob, that explanation comes and is pretty mundane. Hauntings are smoke and mirrors. 

Then again, Scoob and Shaggy did come across talking skulls and floating sandwiches that remain unconnected to the caper solution. Maybe the supernatural does exist in Original Scoob. Fine if so. Jackson would agree that humans do commit worse sins in this world than ghosts. 

Which is pretty deep, sure. You can ruin things through analysis. Not Scoob, though. Original Scoob's embrace of goofball makes it impervious to overthinking. The Rube Goldberg stuff and Scooby Snack bribes and those extravagant capers are pure fun, and those shadowy backdrops are pure art. There are a lot worse ways to spend October than to fire up Scoob and the gang. 

12 August 2023

Holy Turnstiles! When Batman Took the Show to Shea

It was showtime. After two years of development, industry vet William Dozier's Greenway Productions let its Batman project roar loose on a caped crusade. Dozier wasn't especially a batfan--he'd barely read the comic--but he saw opportunity in reviving a tired yet bankable franchise. Most everyone else wasn't quite so sold. On January 12, 1966, Batman's ABC debut was put up or shut up.  

Dozier drew an inside straight. Batman smashed past its guarded ratings expectations, biff-ing and boff-ing aside The Virginian and Lost in Space. Batmania was born. It would die young as crazes must, but not before a glorious 1966 ride all the way to a Shea Stadium spectacular. 

We all know Dozier's Batman, a groovy, goofy riff on the World's Greatest Detective. He's the ultimate square, the droll upholder of the establishment. Dozier believed that the whole Batman concept, on an objectively rational level, was silly. Here's a guy wearing bat-themed tights and cape. To fight crime. Against gang leaders self-styled as penguins and clowns. For Dozier, nothing so fantastical held together as a TV series unless done for comedy. Dozier leaned in on an epically comic vision, that of a deadpan hero contrasted against gleefully villainous villains and all of them in on the joke. Dozier himself jumps in as "Desmond Doomsday," the overly-dramatic narrator. 

Critics and purists tried to kaplonk this over-the-top style. Didn't matter. In those early weeks, the Wednesday and Thursday Batman camp-fests weren't just winning their time slots. The show zapped atop every major television market for any program on any night. For its half-season, Batman beat out The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Bewitched.

ABC had bet on Batman with hesitation. Network execs grumbled at Dozier's production budget, but their line-up was taking a powie off CBS and NBC. ABC needed something with zam. Never mind that Adam West barely won a screen test to play Batman. Never mind that those preview audiences hated the pilot. ABC had slots to fill and a Bat Cave full of interested advertisers, so many advertisers that the writers were forced to accommodate an unheard-of fourth commercial break. Batman got rushed in as a January replacement. 

The accelerated TV debut jumped months ahead of the summer movie Dozier had expected to launch the franchise. In its hurry, ABC backtracked on a one-hour time slot. Thirty minutes was the max in their patchwork schedule, but ABC could make back-to-back Wednesdays and Thursdays happen. Dozier's team rewrote episodes into halves, with those now-famed woe-is-our-dynamic-duo cliffhangers tacked on to the Wednesday half. As happens, luck met opportunity. Batman's short scenes zip along antically to leave audiences wanting more, more, more.

And oh, the '66 marketing. Stores filled up with Batman costumes and gear, pedal Batmobiles, Batman playsets, Batman watches, Batman housewares, Batman toiletries, Batman snacks meant for Batman lunchboxes. Batman and Robin (Dick Ward) did a commercial for Lava Soap. West was on the cover of Life and TV Guide. He'd agreed to a summer live tour ahead of the movie release and before season two began shooting.

No small part of Batmania were those cackling and mugging villains. Credit Dozier here, too. He'd been around the biz for decades. He knew everybody and how to land his guest stars. Season one's baddies included Burgess Meredith (The Penguin), Cesar Romero (The Joker), George Sanders (Mr. Freeze), and Julie Newmar (Catwoman). 

That first January episode pitted Bats against Frank Gorshin's Riddler, a lavish bad guy performance that would land an Emmy nomination. In that debut episode, Batman tracked the riddle-wrapped clues to the What a Way to Go-Go nightclub where he breaks into the Batusi with Jill St. John. Robin gets nabbed, and Batman only escapes with the random aid of the Batmobile's Batostat Antifire Activator. The Batusi and the Batostat in the first episode? The audience knew what this show was about. And they loved it, again and again, same Bat time and same Bat channel. 

Batman tempted viewers with more than humor. The episodes zip madcap through those shortened scenes. The sets and costumes brim with Pop Art flair.  Those now-iconic WHAMM! and SOCK! bat-fight overlays splooshed onscreen amid each inevitable brawl. The camera perspectives could go Dutch Tilt rakish. In April, Dozier used that camerawork to introduce a recurring gag, the Batclimb. He'd scored Jerry Lewis to open a window and chat up Batman and Robin scaling the building after the Bookworm (Roddy McDowell). Whatever Batman lacked in serious tone, it brought style, satire, and production value. The overall package was almost too polished for camp. That polish came with a cost that vexed ABC. But in spring '66, the money and ratings flowed. Bat life was good.

Here's how good: In March, Neil Armstrong and the Gemini 8 orbiter suffered America's first critical in-space system failure, and ABC couldn't bring itself to scrub Batman. Instead, an announcer broke in with occasional updates on the spacecraft. ABC was flooded with complaints -- about interrupting this week's tangle with Catwoman. 

Meanwhile, on the Billboard charts, the Batman Theme was peaking at #17. Nelson Riddle's official TV show soundtrack album would be a swingin' must-have. In June, shooting wrapped on the movie tie-in. Twentieth Century Fox had a July release set. Fox grumbled over the film's massive cost ($1.8M), but the outlays would introduce new opportunities into the marketing mix. Dozier rented a spiffy new Batcycle for $50 a week. He traded a promise to premier the movie in Austin for a custom-modified Batboat. Bat life steamed along.

It was time to take the show on the road. To Shea Stadium.

Batman Live! would have everything. Everything. The two-and-a-half-hour Batarama would have the Temptations, Junior Walker, and the Chiffons among the opening acts. The Young Rascals would bring their #1 sensation "Good Lovin'." Twenty-six go-go girls would dance the Batusi. This thing even had Skitch Henderson and his Tonight Show Orchestra. And of course, it had Adam West in cape and cowl squaring off against Gorshin as the Riddler. This spectacular had everything, and it was set for Saturday, June 25, 1966.

It flopped. 

Only an estimated 3,000 tickets sold for a stadium that seated 54,000. For two hours, those bands played to an empty house. The bands that showed up, anyway. Some pulled out over ticket sales warnings or when the event promoter landed in a newspaper expose. Cost-cutting cut the Batmobile. West rode onto the field in a Cadillac. The crowd roared approval anyway. His short give-and-take with Gorshin was filled with groaner jokes about Mets baseball. Soon enough, West and Gorshin were even out of costume. West sang a song. Gorshin did celebrity impressions. And then it was over. 

And it really was over. A few weeks later, the movie thunked at the box office. After Labor Day, season two's premiere fizzled. Sure, it brought the same Bat formula and those new Bat vehicles. It brought Art Carney, Shelly Winters, Vincent Price, Liberace, Lesley Gore, Otto Preminger. The problem was what season two didn't bring. More penny-pinching replaced the Bat-fight word overlays with title cards. Gorshin was holding out for a raise. And the gags were last January's news. Batman didn't win its time slots. 

Worse, NBC and CBS copycats had arrived to compete for any viewers still jonesing for goofball. Dozier launched his other pet resurrection project, The Green Hornet. None of them lasted, and neither could Batman. For 1967's season three, Dozier resolved things with Gorshin and tinkered with the format and introduced Yvonne Craig's Batgirl, but nothing could rekindle the magic. ABC brought down the big splatt. 

Batman was pop art indeed, perfect for its moment. And what a moment, one of luck meets skill, one with undeniable appeal even today, a moment with its high water mark lapping at Shea's gates.

Your essayist's personal Bat Signal

08 July 2023

Weapons and What Comes Around

Crime fiction has a weapon. Figuratively, I mean, not pistols, wrenches, or candlesticks. Not mystery, not suspense. I’m talking about something essential about us, a heart and soul thing. Crime fiction asks a particular question set about humanity. What crimes do we let ourselves commit, and how do we justify it? From there, consequences. 

Yes, all storytelling is about characters and the choices they make, or let’s hope. Abstract examinations of being are best left as philosophy. In fiction, character choices are intensely personal—and personalized. I keep reading crime stuff for these particular questions. How far will someone go, whether to commit or solve a crime? Where and why do they draw their line? Are the laws broken truly just? Is the choice self-deceived? What success or tragedy eventually arrives, as it must? Eventually is the magic.

Flashback to 2017, and I was on a plane to Quebec. Because it was there. Seriously. I hadn’t ever gone, and the bucket list item stared me down. I went. Quebec was there. More than there. Montreal was terrific, a true world city, but it wasn’t always the city I’d imagined. For each touch of flair or cool neighborhood, there were blocks and blocks of the usual stores, generic restaurants, and that same old North American hustle.

Quebec City—highly recommended—carried a vibe closer to the Quebec of my imaginings. The backstreets and old fortress gates have the feel of Old Europe. A lingering touch of wilderness rides the air, an après moi warning in that vastness north. If this was a French Canadian bastion, though, it sure drew an international crowd. Gaggles of cruise ship tours clogged the streets and beer gardens.

I try to journal when traveling. Something about being free of the home routine opens the mindset. And, importantly, on the road I have actual discretionary time. On that 2017 trip, I looked out my Quebec City hotel window and mulled over what to write. I remember the moment clearly because cannons along the escarpment were aimed back my way. The old guns are for show, but still, pressure is pressure.

I started wondering about Quebec and my expectations gap. My mind changed that thought toward a comic premise. What if someone followed this same track but for different reasons? And with way more need and expectation pumping up those illusions? I’d come to discover, but what if someone was escaping here? What were they running from, and why Quebec of all places? Americans on the lam have safer refuges.

Fast forward through several days of drafting under a possible cannon barrage. The story wasn’t working. That first pass was part literary abstract, part buddy comedy. I couldn't finagle the perspective to a cogent third-person distance. When this happens, and it does, I’ve been known to give up and run with first person. My stuff usually rewards following a character and their voice. Not an option here. This guy still wasn’t sharing, even as I fleshed out the shape of him. Hell, I gave him my travel itinerary. But no, he was just running around in quiet despair. When he did talk, it was to justify himself. He wasn't such a bad guy, right? 

Fine. It was time for consequences. I became his judge and jury and heaped consequences on his actions, especially his silences. If he want to run, it would exhaust him. If he wanted to keep mum, he would feel alone and isolated. His crime details started coming out: theft, suspicion, fleeing expected justice. Those had consequences, too. Action, consequence, reaction, consequence. Whatever I piled on him, he wouldn’t stop moving, wouldn’t stop looking for respite in Quebec. There was some idyllic point in that deep north forest only he would recognize. 

He did, eventually. Months and multiple rewrites later, he found his somewhere beside a northern lake already freezing over. He opened up to me, or more precisely, he broke down. His big why for running was a far cry from the crime comedy I’d planned. He'd been chasing the greatest consequence—an ultimate judgment on what he'd done with his life.

Back to now and crime fiction’s weapon. My slapdash journal exercise under cannon threat became “Spirits Along the One North Road,” in the current July/August 2023 edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. And this near-miracle happened because what I love most as a reader bailed me out as a writer. 

Consequences. It’s a weapon better than any candlestick.

10 June 2023

Trains of Thought: Train Trip Fails and Foibles

It's June, and your author is out and about traveling. Not by train this year, though trains are my favorite way to get around. In the vacation spirit, I present a few of my train rides that went gloriously wrong and transcended to life experiences.

The Germans Are Coming. And In Song? (2004)

The Flying Scotsman is the famed express service between Edinburgh and London's King's Cross station. The line dates back well over a century in various livery and under prior names. 

In 2004, the route was a round trip, a four-hour dash with a pause for breath in Newcastle, and we took it. Four quick hours and we would be in rainy Edinburgh. We waited in some sort of King's Cross lounge while Great Northern Rail attended to our luggage and wine needs. 

We were gods.

As we boarded, the Flying Scotsman hissed and rumbled in the mysterious way that great trains do. Also boarding, and comprising ninety percent of the passengers, was a horde of German college students loaded with beer and ready to sing their hearts out at Germany-Scotland football match. A straight-up menchenmassen, and already the kids were in strong voice. 

Four hours. It's an eternity when set to foreign chants. 

Chunneling Your Demons (2009)

I've taken the Chunnel a few times, but the first descent is the doozy. Since 1994, the Chunnel has connected the Continent and England via a tunnel carved into the Strait of Dover seabed. You're not underwater. You're underneath seventy-five meters of rock that is underwater. For 38 kilometers of track. Oh, lots of trains and cars are down there with you, which at least means you won't get crushed alone.

You might think a bit before spending extended time under rock that's underwater. I did. Death capsules in the deep dark, I have pause. We left on Belgian Rail out of St. Pancras, and by the time we neared Dover, I was really admiring the landscapes and thinking we ought to skip Brussels and focus on white cliff watching. Two things drove me on. One, pommes frites. There is no food in the world quite like what Belgium crafts. Two, the train was clear of London and had opened the throttle to 225 kilometers per hour. I was chunneling.

Here is the thing, though. One minute I was staring at fields and towns, and the next we eased into a tunnel. It was just a tunnel, with tunnel pipes and tunnel lights. It stayed all tunnel things for a while, and suddenly there was much France outside. I wouldn't call the Chunnel boring or anticlimactic. More like clarifying.

This Guy Could Be a Character (2011)

Here's a trip with short story tendrils. I'd only just tried fiction and was in a true explorer's space. Train travel is perfect for writers. It doesn't swamp you with wait time. There is no TSA line or stowing a laptop for takeoff. From boarding to hearing your stop is next, it's just you and a patterned upholstered seat and hopefully no international soccer matches nearby. A writer can write.

This particular trip was a sweep across Provence. In Aix-en-Provence, we toured the local museum that inspired my first sale to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. In Arles, the famed Mistral wind buffeted me Van Gogh-style into a magic realism story. Before those were polished and submitted, there was what I wrote on those trains, a comic lark about overcrowded bateaux mouche in Paris. I needed a key descriptive feature for a principal character, something to make him pop. Across the aisle was a guy with a Matterhorn nose, large and peaked and textured. That story became my first piece I held in print. And I owe it to hours on rattletrap regional trains. 

The Heavens Have Spoken (2014)

Another great thing about train travel is the time management. Timed correctly and fates permitting, the window from finding the platform (not to be underestimated) to taking that patterned upholstered seat is barely a blip. Even us nervous travelers allow minutes instead of an hour.

Operative words: fates permitting. 

The surname branch of my people goes back to French Lorraine, in and around Metz. In 2014, we were in the neighborhood, Strasbourg, close enough to pay our historical respects. Now looking at a map, Strasbourg to Metz is doable even in a country the size of Texas. Two hours by timetable, and two hours did get us there. 

We should've checked a weather map instead. 

Metz boasts a soaring cathedral and dragon symbols everywhere, and after a lovely day taking that in--sure, we had the usual occasional showers--we headed back for the station. A nightcap in Strasbourg would crown the family mission accomplished. The showers picked up. And picked up. So did the wind. Finally, the heavens unleashed punishment someone apparently had coming. We had monsoons, we had gale force action, and we had zero timetable for any next train in or out of this Mother Nature beatdown.

You don't think clearly in mid-Biblical plague. I was thinking it was just water. I was thinking that even major wind can't lift trains. Let's get home for a schnapps. Nature wasn't thinking that. The longer we disagreed, the more people bunched around waiting for trains that were somewhere blocked by trees or any of obvious issues severe weather means for trains. An end of days feel hung in the air.

When we did drop into bed, no one was pouring nightcaps. Too early. I learned my lesson about random travel elements until...

Can't Get There from Here (2018)

...French rail workers went on strike. A swathe of Southern France was still on the bucket list, and 2018 was the year to taste that wine and slap those mosquitos and ride those white horses. In particular, the castle town of Carcassonne (you might've played the board game) was a setting for one of those early batch short stories. I'd walked the streets only by Google Earth. It was time to use shoe leather. 

We were in Bordeaux, and we had legitimately purchased and conservatively planned for rail tickets for Carcassonne. Texas distances, acts of God. The French rail people assured us that, given their mess of a strike-altered schedule, there were no trains to Carcassonne. Not happening. Simply impossible.

Americans think the French are rude. Wrong. The French are open and generous if you work on their terms. This means that your problems are yours. We know the dynamic, and sure enough, we had fresh options. The French Rail guy could get us to Arles. Our hotel reservations were for Carcassonne, but now destiny shone on Arles. We changed hotel reservations while the train bundled east into the southern mountains and stark Provençal light. 

A Texas-sized time lapse later, the conductor announced that the next stop was Carcassonne. And it was. We stopped there. The doors opened, a big castle loomed amid the mountainscape, and people got off to check it out. We blinked and clutched our luggage. And stayed put. 

No, the French aren't rude. Their assurances, however, might not be literal. 

Pulling Into the Station

It's back to vacation mode. Trains are great ways to see the world and to write about what you're seeing. You're still grounded and experiencing the world as the train pulls you forward. 

There's a river of life metaphor in there somewhere, but why work that hard? Just relax, check the weather forecast, factor in labor conditions, get centered about any long dark spells underground, and enjoy the ride. Maybe the dining car has good wine, or maybe you can borrow a beer from some German kid.

13 May 2023

Mother's Day and Why I Crack Foxy

Perched atop my basement cabinet is a Maltese Falcon. 

Not the Maltese Falcon prop, understand, but it’s the same size as the movie dingus, the same regal pose, same black matte if less dramatically lit. I bought the thing off eBay complete with that needless sort of tack-on certificate that calls authenticity into question. The whole room is a nod to The Maltese Falcon, with replica period furniture and sidelight insets of Spade and Archer-style frosted glass. The reason behind the homage goes back long ago, to the woman who first encouraged me to dream.

My mom. She died in February.

Mom was always drawn to the creative, to art and architecture. She wrote histories of Louisville homes and reveled in garden design wherever she traveled—and over a lifetime she traveled her share. She loved plays, musicals, the orchestra, anything with a story. She read widely and constantly. Biographies were her staple, to feed her curiosity about what people did and what made them tick. Her tastes in fiction leaned toward literary--but only a lean. Mom could talk Poirot or Rumpole or Morse with anybody. Perry Mason was a favorite show, and maybe she had a little thing for Paul Drake.

One weekend, Mom and Dad bundled the whole family into the car and drove us to UofL’s Speed Art Museum. Young Me wasn’t exactly stoked over art museums. I was more of a dinosaur man then. Mom’s lure was that we would catch a movie. A black-and-white classic, she said, which did not boost Young Me’s excitement. Young Me wasn't getting a vote. There was a classic movie festival, and I was going.

To The Maltese Falcon.

I don’t know why Mom picked this particular festival that particular day. It occurs to me now that I never asked. That’s another thing about grief. You keep stumbling on so many half-stories and so many fuzzy memories you want to be remembered. There stays this shape of a loved one where they'd filled your life. I keep thinking it’s time to call her. And I can’t.

But I've long understood why Mom wanted her kids to see classic films. Because they were classics. Mom believed in a way of living. There was the world of family, of practical safeguarding and careful shepherding. Beyond that was the reason we're all here, a big world that we're to seek out. 

Life is a beautiful community, in her view, or at least it should be. People are meant to engage each other, to laugh and enjoy good company. To live well Mom’s way, you had to be up on events, on dance steps, on the classics. You had to be on the scene and conversation ready.

Plus, she liked Bogart. Of course, she did. Even the name is evocative a half-century later. Bogey made any story crackle. Young Me sure thought so watching him match wits with Astor, Lorre, and Greenstreet. That noir patter was corny--in a great way. These people snapped off terrific line after terrific line like champs in pro banter. This was gold, this stuff about black birds and sending up gunsels and birds cracking foxy. And anything could happen in this black-and-white San Francisco. Anything, even a sea captain bursting into Sam's office.

I spent the next weeks letting my imagination revel in Bogey and this character-palooza. Mom could've shut me down, and no doubt wanted to a few times, but she did what she always did. She egged me on. She'd put books in our hands as soon as we could read. When she spotted my storyteller's instinct, she bought me a notebook and asked me to write. 

It's only fitting on Mother's Day to thank her for that and being right about a million other things. This world is huge. Fascinating, and it can even be beautiful on its best days, with the best stories and best teachers to help us through. 

Last night I re-watched The Maltese Falcon for the umpteenth time, this time in her honor. I still think about that darkened museum theater whenever Sam Spade lands a wisecrack or my maybe-authentic Maltese Falcon replica makes me smile. My dingus has a few chips in it, but don't we all? So, yes, I enjoy the classics. Yes, sometimes I listened to my mother. Admitting stuff like that puts you in solid with the boss.