A Monstrous Christmas Season

Spurred on by my limerick for “White Zombie”, Hilary Barta over at Limerwrecks has spent most of the season posting paeans to old horror movies. Here’s one I contributed for ol Doc Frankenstein:

His raising the dead’s not a living
and townsfolk are most unforgiving
But Doc isn’t crying
His monster’s undying
A gift that will never stop giving

Go over and enjoy the other ones.

Free Stories for Christmas!

Some readers out there might know that every Christmas for the past 20 years or so, I have attempted to write some kind of Yule-themed story for my wife. The first story I ever had published, entitled “Jerry’s Last Fare” in the late Chicago Tribune Magazine, was also the first I ever wrote as a gift to my wife. For better or worse, I took it as an omen.

Since then, there has been a veritable Whitman’s Sampler of stories, some funny, some frightening, some strange. And since my wife is the understanding sort, she always accepts them enthusiastically, even when it’s obvious from the writing that my muse has been snowed in at Denver Airport.

Some of these stories you’ll never see, and you’re lucky for that, but a few of them aren’t bad. In fact, three of them have been set up as separate pages for this blog. It’s hard to notice the links to them at the right, so I thought I’d pull them out here:

“Mr. Dickens Buys a Comb”–in which our hero, Victorian in taste if not in time, has to navigate the perils of a megastore at Christmas to buy himself an article of personal hygiene.

“Chex Mix Confidential”–What is it about Chex mix? Why is it so impossibly addictive? Why do people get in heated arguments about the correct way to make it? This bare-knuckle police procedural blows the lid off the whole enterprise.

“The Marketeers at Christmas”–in which two nameless, shameless, witless advertising men spitball ideas about how to link Christmas with a corn-borer pesticide.

Please enjoy these little presents, and pass them forward if you do to anyone who would like them.

Groovy Ghosts of Christmases Past

Some people’s Christmas memories smell like gingerbread, or pine trees, or egg nog.

Mine smells like English Leather cologne.

All my early childhood Christmases have melted into a blur. I can remember some gifts, and the decorations in the house (some of which I’ve inherited), but if we didn’t have photographs of those years, my memory vault would be even more empty than it is now. I remember sledding and tobogganing during the break, and trying to skate and giving up because no one would teach me and my knees couldn’t take the punishment, and hot chocolate in the warming house by the skating rink. I remember too when I was 4 or 5 and I pulled the whole tree down on top of myself. I couldn’t move, pinned not only by the nominal weight of the tree but also by the horror of my mistake and the guilt of somehow defiling our whole Christmas by my carelessness. The needles pricked, too.

Real strong memories of the Christmas SEASON, however, only begin for me around 1970. I would be 10 years old then, and whatever was going on in childhood was being replaced by hints of what teenage and adult life would bring. I had two older brothers, and watching them operate from a distance (which was the only way they’d let me) offered tantalizing hints of what was to come.

I remember shopping for my eldest brother, who would be 15 at this time. He wanted a copy of the LP “Steppenwolf 7”. It had a VERY psychedelic cover, with skulls and seascapes and the band acting tough. I could’ve bought it at Dearborn Music, a steady old store that’s still running, but instead I ventured to The Happy Apple, the “head shop” that had opened in town. Inside was run-of-the-mill hippie stuff: black light posters, clothes, candles, those brass bells on a cord that everyone was selling for some reason. They might have been selling something more illicit, but I was too young to know. All I know is, I felt pretty damn cool to be walking down our main shopping drag with the bag from The Happy Apple, with its drippy letters and fat, happy, purple, and obviously stoned apple mascot.

My next eldest brother would’ve been in junior high around that time, so he was concerned about hygiene and smelling good for the ladies. This is where the smell of English Leather comes in. I remember buying him a big bottle of the stuff, in a cedar box. There must have been six or seven ounces of the concoction, enough to supply a whole Polish disco. He might have never used it, but the smell of it permeated our dresser for years. besides, it was enough to have the feeling that I had nudged him a little along maturity by buying it for him (it was probably my failsafe present for him for years, regardless of whether he ever opened the bottle.)

Many of the other gifts of that time also had a distinct counter-culture vibe to them. Designs were getting bolder, sleeker. The Panasonic Ball radio was pretty “boss”, and lasted a surprisingly long time. Puzzles like SOMA were much cooler than the board games we used to get. Even the jigsaw puzzles in our stockings were getting cooler, in round shape with fantastical characters on them like giant Mer-men. We received macracmé belts and string art kits, because we were a pretty crafty family.

(Evidence of 1960s Christmas crafty: angel figurines made from turning down the pages of Readers Digest and spray-painting the books to make cone-shaped stand-alone items. Evidence of 1970s Christmas craft: Candles, candles, candles!)

And late at night, when everyone was asleep, I got to stay up late and watch “The Tonight Show”. It seemed like a swinging time back then. The men, including Johnny, were wearing sideburns and flashy jackets. The women were dressed up as if they were headed to a party, and everyone smoked and told double entendres that even my juvenile imagination thought were hilarious and naughty. (A year or two later, I found my first “Holiday” issue of Playboy, and enjoyed a full mental assault on what I thought grown-up Christmases would eventually be like: lascivious office parties, jazz concerts, slick cocktails, and naked women playing pool in my wood-paneled study.)

Innocence at Christmas? Sorry, it never grabbed my attention.

Delays for “Rex Koko, Private Clown”

For those fans out there who’ve heard me mention that Rex Koko’s new adventure, Honk Honk, My Darling, would be available soon, I apologize. The chapters that I included in the Kindle editions of my other books might just be have to remain excruciating teasers for the time being.

I’m waiting on the cover art for Honk Honk, and have been for several weeks. What complicates this is that none of the e-book distributors will carry a book that doesn’t have a cover. So, I could slap up a piece of junk and try to pull in some sales, or I could wait until I get the hella-cool cover that I’ve commissioned and which everyone will go ape over. For better or worse, I’ve chosen the latter route.

The new, whizbang Rex Koko website should be up before Christmas, in some shape or form, so readers will be able to catch up on the latest news there. In the meantime, everyone will just have to sit and wait. When a writer is late with his copy, you can motivate him by screaming at him abusively until he cranks out the desired verbiage. Apparently, this tactic does not work on artists, but I have yet to figure out what does. I’m open to suggestions.

E-Books Aren’t for Writers with OCD

It took me a while to get my e-books up on the system at Amazon, and then at Smashwords. It wasn’t that it was so all-fired complicated to do, although it took a few uploads before the layout and everything was to my satisfaction. It was easy enough to format for Kindle: All I had to do was convert it to an HTML document, and then follow their detailed instructions. Smashwords, which converts the books to the formats for Sony, Nook, iPad, and smart phones, as well as for their own sale, took a little more finessing with Word, but it was easy once I got the hang of it.

No, the big problem of launching manuscripts into electronic format is keeping your hands off the copy while you go over it. As Paul Valery (or DaVinci, or Truman Capote, or someone else, according to my extensive web research) once said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” Well, with e-books, that doesn’t have to be the case now! A writer can upload revisions to his or her ebook continually. The tweaking could be endless!

I’m lucky. I had a little guideline I could follow. Since these were ebooks of volumes that had already been released, changing much copy would put me in danger of creating a book that people wouldn’t recognize when they bought it. I could have updated some references from 15 years ago (When writing the original, I thought it was funny to make Scrooge aware of the passage of time by his buzzing alarm-wristwatch. Wow, very Dick Tracy! How was I to know that I should’ve made it his cell phone? I’m not a visionary like Steve Jobs). But most of the cultural references were still valid. I don’t think I mentioned anything that screamed “Clinton Era” too much. No talk of tech bubbles or “Celestine Prophecy”.

Worse, it was sorely tempting to heavily edit some of the stories in Once Upon a More Enlightened Time. They tend to ramble on, I think, and become shaggy dog stories. Because they had been read on stage, most of the stories in Politically Correct Bedtime Stories were shorter, punchier, and clearer in what they were making fun of. But If I had begun to edit the stories to any great extent, the e-book would probably never have made it in front of the public.

So, for better or for worse, the books in the Politically Correct Storybook are almost exactly as they were when they were published in 1994-5. I was tempted to insert a new introduction for one or all of them, but then what would I do with the original introductions, which I think are pretty funny and set the tone for the books almost perfectly? Can you insert an older introduction into an addendum? Is it still an introduction if you do that? To keep things from getting messy, I chose to keep things just as they had been. Whether the books are museum pieces or still have something to say to people, is the decision of the reader.

Of course, I still had problems tinkering with the new stories and poems I was inserting in these volumes. I even had to break out the OCR software to scan my first ever published story, “Jerry’s Last Fare”, which was published in the Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1989. No electronic version of that one, obviously. There were certainly a few lines in that chestnut I would change, but cripes, there comes a time when a guy has to abandon some things, right? I figure the reader will be forgiving.

The Continued Use of an Old Movie Palace

Last night, I went to the Winter Program for my daughter’s school over at the Copernicus Center on Lawrence near Milwaukee in Chicago. What a sumptuous auditorium that place is! I had no idea. It was formerly the Gateway Theater, the first movie palace built in Chicago for talking pictures, so the acoustics were very good and it felt very comfortable and intimate. Apparently the auditorium is busy almost every night, probably because of the dearth of midsized auditoriums on the North side. It also shows the vitality of the Polish community here. The lobby was beautifully redone and had a barmaid slinging Swarski Beer and Polish merlot.

And of course, the interior was tastefully done. Minimalist, even. With sparkling lights in the ceiling to simulate stars. (The only thing the Music Box Theater has over these guys is their cloud machine for the ceilng.)

Interior of the Copernicus Center, from their websiteGoing to the movies isn’t an event anymore. With Netflix and streaming videos, and smartphones playing movies, people can barely drag themselves out of their mancaves to enjoy the cinematic arts. But it’s gratifying to see a place like the Copernicus Center operating, because it gives a glimpse into a bygone era.

For a gallery of pictures of old, mostly empty or torn down Chicago movie places, click here. Bigger isn’t always better, obviously.

New E-Books for Politically Correct Bedtime Stories!

The time has come to announce that my first three bestselling books — long out of print in America — are now alive again. I have done it. I have brought the dead back to life, with the help of the newest technology.

Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, Once Upon a More Enlightened Time, and Politically Correct Holiday Stories are now all available as e-books, for all you e-literate readers out there. (All you illiterate readers out there will have to content themselves with the Twilight books.)

Kindle, Kobo, Nook, IPad, mobi — however you like reading a book that’s not made of a dead tree — they’re all available. You can even buy them as pdf’s to read on your regular old computer (the free apps, Kindle for PC and Kindle for Mac, also make this possible).

And to sweeten the pot, especially for those fans who already have the hardback editions, each volume contains extra material, most of it never before seen.

To wit:

PC Bedtime Stories: the rewritten rhymes of “A Child’s Garden of Political Correctness”; the story “A Royal Revenge,” commissioned by the BBC; and the long-awaited “The Duckling That Was Judged on Its Persunal Merits and Not on Its Physical Appearance”

Once Upon: A full-length PC novella of the adventures of Pinocchio!

PC Holiday Stories: the hardscrabble story of Santa’s poor Irish childhood, “Santa’s Ashes”, written with A.J. Jacobs (The Know-It-All); and my first published story, the Christmas tale “Jerry’s Last Fare”.

Each book also contains a free chapter of the upcoming Rex Koko debut novel, Honk Honk, My Darling. Yes, fans of clown noir and pantaloon pulp, Rex Koko’s first adventure will soon be available in e-book versions. Later, I’ll also have a paperback version and an audio podcast of Honk Honk available. The only thing holding it up is that I’m waiting for the cover art. A complete Rex Koko webpage is being forged as you read this. Yes, it’s Christmas in December. Well, Christmas in EARLY December. Yahoo!

Click here to order the Kindle editions from Amazon. (You know, you don’t need a real Kindle to buy these, right? You can download the free apps Kindle for PC or Kindle for Macs, and enjoy them on your home computer. You can also read them on your phone.)

Click here to order them from iTunes. (coming soon 12/2/10 — ISBN updates processing)

Click here to order the Nook edition from Barnes & Noble. (coming soon 12/2/10 — ditto)

Click here to order them from Smashwords (all the pdfs and epubs you’d ever want).