Monday, August 20, 2012

The End of the Party: Tapping the Source

I have to admit I read the last two books in our series out of order. The New York Public Library was on top of their game and got me The Dawn Patrol fairly soon after I placed a hold on it, but the post office let me down in the media mail department and Tapping the Source took nearly a week to reach me. Based on what I've read and how I feel generally (more on that later), I've decided to make an executive decision: this will be the last post I'll write in the Beach Noir Book Club.

The Dawn Patrol just isn't up to our high standards. It's not a bad book, and I whipped through it fairly quickly. I found myself enjoying some of its digressions on local history (I learned a lot about San Diego and Pacific Beach) and it was admittedly suspenseful in parts but ultimately a let down, with a cliched scenario and some fairly poorly drawn characters. It was -- and I realize it's slightly ironic for me to use this term here -- a beach read. In the traditional sense of the word.

If you've already bought the book, by all means read it (and feel free to offer to guest post) . You won't want to throw it against the wall or anything. But it won't stay with you.

Tapping the Source, however, will fucking stay with you. Right? If you've read it you know what I mean. Outlandish as certain elements are (e.g. the climactic party scene) their very insanity will make a deep, lasting, impression. If you haven't read it and just know it vaguely as "the book that inspired Point Break," please know the novel is a totally different animal. It's basically as different as In A Lonely Place is from its film adaptation. Except times a million.

I haven't actually seen Point Break, but based on the fact that it didn't receive an NC-17 rating, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there were probably many key differences between these two artifacts. Here are some elements from the novel that I imagine are missing from the movie: incest, mutilation, severed limbs, teenage runaways getting gang banged, murder, maiming, and extreme despair.

Ike Tucker, the book's protagonist and source of this despair, reminds me a bit of some of S.E. Hinton's outsiders; Nunn's writing also has a similarly rough hewed quality. Apparently author Kem Nunn didn't go to college until he turned thirty, and his gritty life experience (surfing, working on boats) breaks through in his prose: repetitions betray a limited vocabulary, descriptions are workmanlike and somewhat coarse, but the dialogue feels realer than real, with surfing lingo so seamlessly interwoven you know Nunn's no poser. It feels like the gut-effort of a prodigy less concerned with style than telling a story, one borne of a desperate emotional urge. Yet the book is no fluke, it can't be -- the mystery is too good. It simply reads like the work of a natural.

The L.A. Times pull-quote in the edition I read compares Nunn to Hammett, Chandler, Raoul Whitfelm, Paul and James M. Cain, Horace McCoy and "yes, Ross Macdonald." I wouldn't go that far, but there are definite similarities to McCoy's They Shoot Horses... in its overall effect of total bleakness, as well as echoes of Macdonald's soul-searching. Every once in a while Tapping the Source goes over the top, but Nunn's spare prose pulls it off.

Mostly I was haunted by the emotionally wraith-like Ike Tucker and his heartbreaking quest for his lost, wild sister. How this character ever got translated into "Johnny Utah" I'll never know.

Perhaps the melancholy that pervaded Tapping the Source got into my head somehow, because when it was done I closed the book and thought, "This is it. Summer is over." In all honesty, I've been leading up to that point for a little while now. Maybe it has something to do with it getting hot so early this year, but I feel like it's been summer for a long time. Certain trees I've seen seem to feel the same way; I've recently spotted both yellow and red leaves fluttering down from their tops these past few weeks. Also the weather feels cooler. And my big beach trip of the summer ended yesterday with a series of signs telegraphing the end of a season. I think it's time to close the book on the summer of 2012. At least on the Beach Noir part of it.... It's been amazing. I've been re-inspired by some of my old favorites by Macdonald and Dorothy B. Hughes, and truly shattered by Horace McCoy. I read a novel I never would've encountered otherwise. And I've learned that I mostly pair hardboiled/noir books with beer, and occasionally gin and tonics.

It's been real. And it's time to let it fade. I'll do so with Nunn's own words:

"He thought of what it must have been like then, beaches like this one scattered up and down the coast like jewels at the edge of the sea. It must have seemed too good to be true, and it must have seemed that it would be that way forever, and yet now it was the wreckage of that dream that lay between them. And he saw too that it was not just Preston and Hound who had lost. He thought of the pier, the crowds fighting for waves, the entire zoo of a town crouched on the sand and what had once passed for hunger and vitality had only a certain desperateness about it now, coked-out fatigue, because they had all lost..."

Now that's beach reading. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Helen Gurley Brown: A Broad We Liked

Re-posted from the original, February 2009

I recently finished reading Sex & the Single Girl as research for a mid-twentieth century period piece I'm writing. I always dismissed Cosmopolitan magazine and anything to do with it as fluff, but found myself strangely and surprisingly charmed by its wacky, long-reigning Editor-in-chief, Helen Gurley Brown. It's hard to forgive her for presiding over the masthead of such a cringe-worthy and horrendous "lifestyle" publication, but from time to time she'll do something endearing, like titling her editorial column "Step into my Parlor" and other humorous -- intentional or otherwise -- flourishes.

When reading the book I realized that inside the Cosmo-girl morass, there was a woman I actually didn't hate. She's kind of an old-fashioned broad: tough, sassy, solo, offering up a great big "I don't give a damn what you think" to everyone. This woman was a single career gal for seventeen years in the late '40s and early '50s before she married a film producer, so she knows whereof she speaks. It must have been a tough climate for her. I also wonder if she was the inspiration for Peggy on Mad Men, because she started as a secretary and moved up into writing ad copy after being mentored by a boss-man who noticed her talent. Here's another endearing quality she has: she grew up desperately poor and gives some amazing advice about living on a budget, including a section on how to save, buy stocks ("Choose a company that has an asset to liability ratio of at least four to one"), and negotiate a lower rent with your landlord. Her warning never to buy anything on layaway seems like the lone rational voice in the wilderness in these days of post-credit card remorse.

HGB advises living life to the fullest while living solo, whether it means working your way up the ladder at your office, taking violin lessons or traveling to Australia for a year: "Paradoxically, living dangerously lengthens and strengthens your life." She does not advise waiting for a man to call, predating "He's Just Not That Into You" by several decades. She's all about getting out there, having fun, working hard and really relishing this world, an ethos that isn't so easy for any woman who's ever spent weekends and holidays alone with the "lonely fidgets." ("But how much easier it is to bear if you have a really intriguing job to return to next morning and enough money to buy yourself a Ferrari to race around in and forget.") Her hardworking no-nonsense advice and bloody-minded dedication to "routing out the trembles" and eschewing self-pity is quite astonishing when you consider the how-to-land-a-man sensibility she and her magazine would later become associated with.

For instance, Cosmo readers appear to have little do other than sleep their way to the top, right? Not such a great idea, advises Mother Brown: "You would ... do yourself more good by staying right where you are and learning to read a statistical report. After all, girls to go to bed with he can always find. No real training required, but where is a boss going to get a girl who can read statistical reports?"

I don't know, maybe the last 2.5 decades of backlash and post-feminism have lowered the bar, but I found HGB's "make yourself useful" philosophy kind of refreshing, and despite whatever she did later in life, despite all the unforgivable dating/dieting advice she doled out to women, I think this still stands:

"Those who glom onto men so that they can collapse with relief, spend the rest of their days shining up their status symbol and figure they never have to reach, stretch grow, learn, face dragons or make a living again are the ones to be be pitied. They, in my opinion, are the unfulfilled ones."

Or, put another way, "There's such a long time to settle down by the hearthside."

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Specter Spectacular: Thirteen Ghostly Tales

 My story "A Fitting Tribute" has been published in what sounds like a sure-to-be-awesome anthology of ghost stories! You can find the full press release below, but the important facts are that it comes out on September 25th, I'm in it, and you should buy it.



New York, NY (August 9, 2012) World Weaver Press (Eileen Wiedbrauk, Editor-in-Chief) has announced Specter Spectacular: 13 Ghostly Tales, an anthology of new twists on the classic ghost story, will be available on Tuesday, September 25, 2012.

"That which is unknown, uncertain, and impossible to prove is a ripe ground for fantasy and horror writers, and the thirteen authors in Specter Spectacular have taken fullest advantage of it," commented Wiedbrauk.  "These stories have given me chills, made me tear up, and laugh by turnsmost of all, they’ve kept me glued to my seat.  I’m thrilled that World Weaver Press has taken a walk in the shadows for our first anthology, and I’m pleased to release it this fall to add some chill to your Halloween or any dark night."

Specter Spectacular: 13 Ghostly Tales features the literary talents of Amanda C. Davis (“My Rest A Stone”), A. E. Decker (“Death and Taxes”), Larry Hodges (“The Haunts of Albert Einstein”), Sue Houghton (“The Secret of Echo Cottage”), Andrea Janes (“A Fitting Tribute”), Terence Kuch (“What If It Could Speak!”), Robbie MacNiven (“The Little House at Bull Run Creek”), Kou K. Nelson (“Safe Upon the Shore”), Jamie Rand (“Alabaster”), Shannon Robinson (“Wendigo”), Calie Voorhis (“Cooter, Ass-munch, and Me”), Jay Wilburn (“Pushed Out”), and Kristina Wojtaszek (“Cinder”).

Spirits, poltergeists, hauntings, creatures of the darkSpecter Spectacular: 13 Ghostly Tales delivers all these and more in thirteen spooky twists on the classic ghost story.  From the heartwarming and humorous to the eerie and chilling, this anthology holds a story for everyone who has ever been thrilled by the unknown or wondered what might lie beyond the grave. Step inside and witness ghosts of the past, tales of revenge, the inhuman, the innocent, the damned, and more. But be warnedonce you cross the grave into this world of fantasy and fright, you may find there's no way back out.

Specter Spectacular: 13 Ghostly Tales will be available in print and eBook via,,,, and other online retailers. You can also find Specter Spectacular: 13 Ghostly Tales on Goodreads.

World Weaver Press is a publisher of fantasy, science fiction, and nonfiction, dedicated to producing quality novels, novellas, collections, and anthologies. As a small press, World Weaver seeks to produce books that engage the mind and ensnare the story-loving soul.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

In A Lonely Place

This week we continue our Hardboiled Ladies of Noir sub-set of the Beach Noir Book Club. One thing that really stood out for me about this Dorothy B. Hughes novel was its similarity to a little something called The Talented Mr. Ripley.

At the midpoint of In A Lonely Place, I started to wonder if Patricia Highsmith had ever read it, because there were some startling similarities between Dix Steele and Tom Ripley. They were both orphans, raised by relatives (Ripley was raised by an aunt, Steele by an uncle) whom they despised; they were both lower-income types with a yen for the good life but no desire to work; and they both committed murder and stole the identities of men whose lives they would then go on to inhabit.

Looking at the publication date, it's entirely possible there was some influence there. Hughes' book came out in 1947, Highsmith's in 1955. I'm not the only one to wonder this (this blogger also notices some similarities between Dix and the protagonist of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me) but there's not a lot written about the relationship between these two books, not that I could find online, anyway. Still, I'm fairly convinced of it.

Let's break it down.

First, the class angle. They're both frustrated rich men with chips on their shoulders about their lower-middle-class upbringings. Dix is especially bitter about his, and despises his uncle for working his way through Princeton and then imagining that Dix should do the same: "Dickson could see him, one of those poor boobs, peasants, owning one dark ill-fitting suit and a pair of heavy-soled shoes, clumping to class, study and work, and nobody knew he was at Princeton but the other peasants... Dix hadn't wanted to be a Princeton man. Not that kind." 

Throughout the book, Dix displays some severely classist contempt for "the help." He refers repeatedly to the maid as a "charwoman," "slattern," and a "broom and mop harridan," and the gardener he calls a "yahoo." Dix looks down on these people while living in murdered frenemy Mel Terriss' joint under false pretenses, and the irony is totally lost on him.

I found this angle fascinating, both in itself -- what else is a murderer but someone with the most supreme sense of entitlement possible? -- and for its resemblance to Tom Ripley's character. They both feel they deserve something other than what life has given them and they are well within their rights to take it. Of course, Dix has the added element of raping and killing girls for fun.

It's interesting that Hughes makes no attempt to explain Dix's motivations. I imagine that, by showing us the supremely entitled man, she feels she has made her point. I'm on her side with this one: I always find the explanations for killers' behavior extremely banal and inevitably a letdown, so I didn't mind this lack of explicit exposition. I just enjoyed the cat-and-mouse game Dix played with Brub, and the wonderful contrast between Dix's self-perception and that of everyone else around him. I've always thought the idea that you were mad and everyone could tell it but you was one of the creepiest concepts there is. Imagine, he's going through the motions the whole time thinking he's getting away with it and meanwhile everyone around him is like, "Holy shit, check out the crazy guy!" I don't know, that's just a secret fear of mine -- to go mad and not know it while everyone else is watching and clucking their tongues... it's a classic horror trope and it apparently works in suspense novels, too (and why not? the line between the two genres is fine and dark, sometimes invisible under the cover of night....)

Other things I liked about the book: good menacing sea-metaphors, like "Fear was the fog, creeping about winding its tendrils about you, seeping into your pores and flesh and bones" and "Sand was an evil and penetrating thing... if dust divulged a story, sand screamed its secrets." Points for that, Ms. Hughes. Excellent Beach Noir. And great female characters -- who essentially solved the mystery! -- were another plus.

A few detractors: the 2003 Feminist Press edition I read was riddled with typos ("busses" was used repeatedly when they meant "buses," and the back cover lists Hughes as an Edgar Allen Poe Award winner!). They may have since updated or remedied this, since their new edition seems to have a new cover as well. The afterward by Lisa Marie Hogeland was good though, particularly in its examination of Dix's lack of wanting to work and how that means male hardboiled readers wouldn't have identifed with him, since in their world, masculinity = work and vice versa (Brub is then the hero and Dix the villain). Hogeland, who draws on Draws on Erin A. Smith's Hardboiled: Working Class Readers and Pulp Magazines, points out that his refusal to work is somehow effeminate, as is his errand-boy role in Mel's life. Which brings us all back to Ripley, doesn't it?

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Happy Birthday to Melville and M.R. James

Two of my main men, Melville and Jame, were born this day, many, many years ago (150 for James, and 195 for Melville, if you're counting). If you're looking to celebrate this momentous occasion, but are stuck behind a desk today like most working sods, there are plenty of ways to do it online while pretending to, you know, work.

There's this great article by Emily Cleaver, Five Ghost Stories that Scared M.R. James, this birthday tribute by Jo Fletcher, and this fab essay over at Hypnogoria. The absolutely terrific Podcast to the Curious should be your background listening today as you type tiny columns of numbers or do whatever it is you're supposed to be doing. And for those who think, "Hm, I'd really like to craft a Jamesian tale of terror myself!" you can always read my old post on How To Write Ghost Stories, inspired by some advice from the old boy himself.

For the Melville fans, definitely check out the Moby Dick Marathon, which is live-streaming right now and will last until noon today. Or take a virtual walking tour of Melville's New York, courtesy of I also recommend listening to Mastodon's Leviathan album, which will make your workday 100% more badass. And, if you've got a particularly lenient or absent-minded boss, you can read Bartelby the Scrivener in its entirety, here. 

Finally, for your lunch hour reading, you can download my book of ghost stories, Boroughs of the Dead, on Kindle. I've lowered the price to only 99 cents (for today only!) in honor of my main men and their birthdays. The book contains ten short ghost stories all set in and around New York City (though stylistically they owe a huge debt to the Cambridge scholar) -- and one of them features the ghost of none other than Herman Melville himself!

If you have any more ideas, or just want to share enthusiasms, find me on Twitter and we can gush. The two things I love most in life are ghost stories and the sea, so this is a pretty big day for me.