Friday, August 13, 2010

MEETING AUTHORS #2: CHUCK PALAHNIUK, CONFESSOR



It takes a lot for me to call in to work pretending to be sick in order to meet an author, but when I found out a few years ago that Chuck Palahniuk was going to be signing at the Barnes and Noble up in Skokie, I had no choice. I called in to the library, told my boss I was bedridden, and I started making my way out to Skokie with every one of Palahniuk’s books that I could find (except I wasn’t able to find my copy of CHOKE) in addition to the issue of PLAYBOY in which his short story, “Guts,” appeared.

When I entered the store, I was given a sheet of paper with a number on it: 269. Not bad at all, or so I thought at the time. This is not an uncommon practice, and considering how popular Palahniuk is, 269 did not sound too outrageous.

I was directed to where the signing was to take place, and I was slightly amused to find that he’d been situated near the kids section. What really surprised me, however, was that Palahniuk was already there. I glanced at my watch to make sure it hadn’t stopped, but sure enough, the author was early.

For those who have never been to a signing, the author is NEVER early. In fact, very few of them are on time. The signing had not started, of course, but there was Palahniuk, meeting his fans, letting them take pictures and everything.

I had heard many wonderful stories about Palahniuk’s signings—-anyone who has ever been to one says it’s like a show—-and I would not be disappointed. He started out by answering questions, mostly about what was going to be filmed next. At the time, CHOKE had just finished photography, and he told us that all of his other work had been optioned. He also talked about his next book, RANT, and that is when the gift giving began. He literally showered the audience with presents, starting with giant rubber rats followed by gelatinous eyeballs and hearts. I tried desperately to catch something, but my arms simply weren’t long enough, and I was too far back.



Then, it was story-time. He told us he planned on reading “Guts”—-to which my heart thrilled, as I had heard that at many such readings, people became so nauseous that they fainted—-but he changed his mind and read to us a then-unpublished story, straight from the manuscript. It has since seen print (I believe in ESQUIRE), but it was a real treat for his fans. Just before he started reading the story, he passed out scented roses, enough so that everyone—-including me—-received one. He did this so “it will smell just like your grandmother’s bathroom in here,” he said. Never let it be said that Palahniuk isn’t a giving, caring writer when it comes to his fans.

After this, he started talking about how signings are always interesting to him because his readers tend to look upon him as a confessor, especially after “Guts” was published. He thought this might be because if he had written something so grotesque, then whatever his fans had to say would not be judged by him. He told a number of such confessions to us, but my favorite was when he told the story of the man who came in with a Hefty bag full of Polaroid photos. This gentleman started flipping these pictures out on the table as if he were dealing a hand of poker, and as Palahniuk looked at them, he realized they were a bunch of old people . . . naked and apparently sleeping.

No, according to the fan, these people were dead. This fellow worked at a porn shop, in which a customer could sample the wares before purchasing them by going into a private booth to view them. Part of this man’s job was to check the booths at the end of each shift, and every once in a while, he would find that an elderly customer had died while masturbating.

Before calling for an ambulance, he would grab the Polaroid camera they used to take pictures of banned customers, and he would pose the bodies and take a few “candid” shots.

Palahniuk went on to mention that as a promotion for one of his previous books, he went around the country throwing out plastic severed hands to the audience. He bought them in bulk and shipped them out to the bookstores he was going to be at the following week. It turned out that his agent also represented another writer who was following the same route. What had this other writer written about? His experience in the wilderness, when a boulder had fallen on his arm and the only way he survived was by cutting off his own hand and hiking back to civilization. The managers at the bookstores receiving the severed hands thought it was a horribly sick joke, but as it turns out, the writer in question thought it was kind of funny.

Now, it was finally time for the signing to begin. They asked for numbers 1-50 to line up in order, and the waiting began. I found a comfortable corner and started reading one of his books that I hadn’t yet read: SURVIVOR. Let me tell you, by the time I walked out of that Barnes and Noble, I was finished with the whole thing. It’s not a long read, but the fact that it took so long for the signing was a bit crazy. (It is also now my favorite of his work. If you haven’t read it, you should. You’ll learn a lot about the world, and maybe, if you’re lucky, even yourself.)



An hour passed before they called the next group, so I decided to investigate. I looked down into the kids section to see that he was spending quite a bit of time with each fan, signing everything in sight and taking a variety of pictures. Some of the fans had the severed hands from previous signings, and he was autographing those and using them to pose with fans in compromising positions. The whole time, he was grinning, and it was very clear that he was actually happy to be there. Most writers get tired and take breaks, but he seemed to be full of energy, and he kept going.



He spent so much time with his fans that it was obvious that Barnes and Noble employees were getting tired of it. By the time they called 200-250, they were telling people to be fast, and that he was only going to sign books from here on out. However, I was at a good vantage point by then, and I hadn’t seen ANYONE from B&N approach Palahniuk. This was an executive decision.

I kind of wished I could have gotten that PLAYBOY signed, but oh well.

Soon, my number range was called, and I got in line. As I slowly approached, I decided that I was going to be one of those memorable confessions, but I didn’t know what the hell I was going to tell him. I engaged in conversation with a few other fans around me as we waited, but it seemed that they were just interested in meeting him . . . again. That’s right, it seemed like I was the only one around there who was meeting him for the first time.

Finally, it was my turn, and I stepped forward with my stack of books balanced in one hand and my other hand extended in greeting. He was very polite, and he looked me in the eye when he asked for my name. His handshake wasn’t strong, but it was firm and excited.

And then, it hit me. “You know,” I said to him, “I have a confession to make.”

His eyes lit up. “What’s that, John?”

“Have you ever seen Kevin Smith’s movie, MALLRATS?”

“No, I’m afraid not.”

“Oh.” I deflated a little, but not too much. “Are you familiar with the term, ‘stink-palming’?”

“No,” he said as he signed.

“It’s when you stick your hand in your ass and clench tight until the stink latches on to your hand, and you then shake hands with your enemy. The stink transfers to him, and he’ll spend the rest of the day trying to figure out where the smell is coming from. It won’t wash off for at least that long, you know.”

He raised an eyebrow, and then smelled his own hand.

I laughed. “Don’t worry, I didn’t do it to you.”

“That’s a relief,” he said.

“But I did do it to Oliver North.”

He broke out into laughter. “You met Oliver North?”

“At a book signing,” I said.

“And you, what is it, stink-palmed him?”

“Yep.”

“I have to give you kudos for that,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve heard a confession like that before.” He handed over the final signed book, LULLABY. “It was nice to meet you.”



I reached out to shake his hand again, and he glanced sidelong at me. “I promise, I didn’t do it to you.”

“Okay,” he said, and he shook my hand.

When I got back to the car and looked at the signed pages, I noticed that he’d signed LULLABY in an interesting way: “To John—-I wash my hands! Chuck Palahniuk.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. If you ever get the chance to meet him, I suggest you do. He really is the nicest writer you can ever meet.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

COOL SHIT 8-12-10

[NOTE: THIS IS GOING TO BE A WEEKLY COLUMN IN WHICH I TELL YOU ABOUT THE GOOD BOOKS I PICKED UP ON NEW COMICS DAY. THESE ARE NOT REVIEWS; I JUST WANT TO TELL YOU ABOUT THE AWESOME THINGS I’M READING IN THE HOPES THAT YOU WILL GO OUT AND BUY THEM, SO THEY WILL CONTINUE BEING PUBLISHED, SO I WILL CONTINUE BEING ENTERTAINED.]



LOCKE & KEY: KEYS TO THE KINGDOM #1: Holy shit, if you’re not reading this series, what the fuck is wrong with you? Writer Joe Hill (HORNS, HEART SHAPED BOX) and artist Gabriel Rodriguez (THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW) bring us back to the world of the Locke family as they battle their personal demons (not to mention a few actual demons) in the town of Lovecraft. The new issue features a story in which a flock of birds and a pack of wolves do battle with one another with the Locke kids in the middle of it all. Very bloody, and very . . . CALVIN AND HOBBES?! You’ve got to see it to believe it, chum.



THE ASTOUNDING WOLF-MAN #24: It’s hard to believe this series is coming to an end with #25. Still, it’s not too late to get on board. Writer Robert Kirkman (BATTLE POPE, THE WALKING DEAD, MARVEL ZOMBIES) is known for his twists, and this book is no exception. The Wolf-Man’s former best friend and mentor, Zechariah, is getting ready to kill Wolf-Man’s daughter, Vampire Girl, but a pack of werewolves interrupt the two-fisted (or clawed?) battle.



THE WALKING DEAD #76: I know a lot of you are eager for the AMC series based on this monthly, and I’m sure it’s going to be awesome, but there is no way it can match the amazing writing of the books. Kirkman, once again, treats us to his mastery of character as he shows the protagonist (I would never call him a hero; he’s too fucked in the head, but who can really blame him?) disintegrate even further as he tries to maintain the safety of his son and the group of survivors around him. And for those of you keeping track: we finally get to find out about this shady Davidson character.

Buy these books. Keep them going. Thank you.

Monday, August 9, 2010

SON OF RETRO PULP TALES HAS TEETH . . . AND TENTACLES



In an open letter to the editor, contributor Harlan Ellison® calls Joe R. Lansdale, editor and contributor, a “sick, perverted, grotesque, and loathsome twisto-pervo-devo sumbitch.” He goes on to address the darker aspects of Lansdale’s work before saying, “I am quietly humble and proud to be in this book with you.” And what august company! William F. Nolan, Timothy Truman, David J. Schow, Mike Resnick, and a few others also grace the pages of Lansdale’s new anthology, SON OF RETRO PULP TALES. In fact, almost every story is good, and this is a rarity when it comes to anthologies.

A vampire who bites the heads off his victims to get to the blood he desires. A child who faces down Death with ghost bullets fired from his father’s service pistol. A Parker pastiche. A self-professed god who argues with a self-professed emperor of a forgotten kingdom in South America. A possessed nanny who wishes to take over the body of the child she’s supposed to take care of. Famed boxer Joe Louis vs. a Nazi werewolf. A prostitute on Mars who finds herself in a tale of espionage in the Martian pleasure dome. These are just a few of the situations you will find between the covers of this incredible homage to pulp magazines of old.

The only problem is, very few of these stories actually play by the rules of the pulps. Most are better defined as nostalgia pieces. Not to say that you won’t be entertained, but if these stories had been published back in, say 1930, they would have terrorized their readers. They would have blown brains out of heads. In short, these are definitely works of our time.

The best comes from Lansdale himself, “The Crawling Sky.” (Usually, it’s tacky for an editor to include a work by himself in his own anthology, but in Lansdale’s case, it is forgivable. JRL is so damned good that he doesn’t need to prove himself to anyone.) For those who read his novel, DEAD IN THE WEST, you will be glad to find his gunslinging preacher, Jebediah Mercer, is back in action. This time, he is helping the town pariah defeat a creature that lives in a bricked up well on the outskirts of town. As usual, the questionable man of god provides plenty of dark humor as he deals with the forces of evil.

One of the only stories that plays by the rules of the pulps is Stephen Mertz’s “The Lizard Men of Blood River.” It has everything you would expect: flaming zeppelins, bloodthirsty tribes in South America, a lantern-jawed superman hero named Speed McCoy, and a lost city. This one would have been at home in the golden age, alongside folks like Edgar Wallace, Manly Wade Wellman, and the rest.

The most memorable story, though, is Matt Venne’s “The Brown Bomber and the Nazi Werewolves of the S.S.” The title alone is worth the price of admission. But imagine national hero and boxer, Joe Louis, getting captured by the Nazis and forced to fight a Nazi werewolf in the ring, and you’re still falling short of this outstanding tale’s mark.

There is only one story that doesn’t cut muster: Cherie Priest’s “The Catastrophe Box.” Inspired by real life paranormal investigator, Harry Price, it fits with the theme, but the writing and the appeal simply doesn’t live up to the quality of the other stories in this volume.

And while still being a good read, Harlan Ellison®’s “The Toad Prince or, Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure-Domes” is kind of a letdown. Unlike many of the other stories in this book, this one was actually written back in the ‘Fifties, but unfortunately this was a time before Ellison found his voice. His fame and renown was still ahead of him, and this story has none of the Ellison earmarks about it. The difference is so noticeable that it could have been written by someone else. It doesn’t possess the visceral, gut-twisting prose that Ellison would eventually be known for.

This is, of course, a small press book, so it’s pretty expensive. For collectors, it is definitely worth it (especially if you get the special signed edition), but even for the common reader, this book will make an excellent addition to your collection. Shell out the extra money, and you won’t be disappointed. And keep in mind that the likelihood of this book being mass marketed is very, very slim. If you want in on this action, you’re going to have to do so now, before all the copies are gone. Then, you’ll probably be stuck paying a hundred bucks for it on E-Bay. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

SON OF RETRO PULP TALES
Edited by Joe R. Lansdale and Keith Lansdale
Published by Subterranean Press
Deluxe hardcover edition: $40
211 pages

Friday, August 6, 2010

MEETING AUTHORS #1: OLLIE NORTH GETS STINKPALMED



When I woke up that morning, all those years ago, I swear I had no intention of stinkpalming Ollie North. In fact, I had the evening off from work, so all I had to do was get through my morning job, and I could relax and do nothing the rest of the day.

I showed up to the Public Works garage and found out that I had about five hours of parts runs in front of me, so I hit the road almost right away, and over the course of the day, I listened to the radio. It was while listening to a morning show that I learned that Oliver North was going to be signing books at the Borders in Oak Brook. My Borders. Holy shit, Ollie North was going to be in my neighborhood!



Most of you probably think of him as a correspondent for Fox News and as the host for the show, WAR STORIES. For those of you with a longer (and more unforgiving) memory, you will remember his part in the Iran Contra Scandal, in which he was the fall guy for President Reagan (allegedly, of course). It was such a weasel-type move that most people vilified him for being even worse than Nixon. Maybe that’s true, but like Nixon, North has recently regained favor in the eyes of the public. I have no doubt that when he dies, people will look favorably upon him as a statesman and a true military hero.

Which is horseshit, of course. But who cares? He can no longer hurt our country.

I felt like it was time for a little bit of revenge. It wasn’t going to be much in the big picture, just a tiny fuck you from one of the little people. I decided to take a page from Kevin Smith’s playbook; I was going to stinkpalm the bastard.



For those of you who haven’t seen MALLRATS, stinkpalming is when you stick your hand in your own ass and wait for the stink to take hold. You then shake hands with your enemy, to whom the stink will transfer, and they will spend the rest of their day trying to figure out what that horrible smell is. And it will stick to them after a few washings, too. The only drawback is that your hand will smell like that, too, but as one character noted, “It’s a small price to pay for the smiting of an enemy.”

When I got home from work, sweaty from heavy lifting, I inserted my hand into the crack of my ass and waited. And waited. And waited. I wanted to make sure this was going to work, so I waited for an hour before removing my hand and giving it a tentative sniff.

Joliet Dumpster flies would have dropped dead if they were in my vicinity.

I put a disposable plastic glove on that hand, so it wouldn’t lose any of its potency, and I then got into my car and drove to Borders. When I got there, much to my dismay, I learned that I had to purchase a copy of North's most recent book at the time, THE JERICHO SANCTION, in order to get in the signing line. (By the way, it’s worth noting that the book is written by North and Joe Musser, which leads me to believe that North came up with the idea and Musser did the actual writing. Never ignore the ghost writer.)

It was twenty bucks. Again, a small price to pay. I bought the fuckin’ book and got my ticket to get into line.

Before I stepped up to the velvet ropes, I went to the bathroom, where I removed the glove and threw it away. Just to make sure I was still in good shape, I smelled my hand and was not disappointed. I had to remind myself not to touch anything with that hand, to just let it hang loosely by my side.

As I waited in line, it became very clear to me that I was surrounded by Republicans. Shit, I was in the den of the enemy. I’m not a Democrat, and I am conservative in a few respects, but still, I had this horrible feeling in my guts that I was doomed. They were on to my ruse, and they’d tear me to pieces like the beasts they are.



I started to sweat a little, and I was about to switch the book from one hand to the other when I remembered about the stinkpalm. Instead, I transferred the book to my armpit, so I could wipe my left hand off on my pants.

Behind me, a group of vets were reminiscing about the good times in Vietnam. It wasn’t like this was some kind of vacation they were talking about, they were talking about violent situations, killing actual people, and they were laughing about it. One of them said that he was going to rib North about having to come to his rescue one time. I guess you had to have been there, out in the shit, to get that kind of joke. I started wondering if my stinkpalm to North would have a chain reaction, that it would spread to the assholes behind me, and then to people they know.



Finally, after moving through a zigzagging line, I had Ollie North in my sights. I almost expected him to have arrived wearing his dress uniform, but he was really wearing a suit and tie. He was smiling for cameras and shaking hands and signing books at a lectern. There was a microphone in front of him, presumably so everyone could hear his pithy remarks as he met average, everyday people.

After having waited for so long, it was my turn to meet the man, the legend, the myth. He smiled, holding out his hand. I took a hold of it with my right and squeezed for all I was worth. He had a strong handshake, himself. In fact, it was almost as if we were in a contest to see who was stronger.



“Firm handshake,” he said. “Good to see in someone your age. What’s your name?”

“John,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”

He took my book and opened it to the dedication page, where he signed it. (This is unusual; usually, authors sign the title page.) “You watch my show on Fox?”

“Every chance I get,” I lied.

“Good man. It’s good to see a young man like you interested in conservative politics. We need more of your kind.”

“Thank you,” I said.

He put a bookmark—-an advertisement for WAR STORIES—-into my book and handed it back. This time, I offered my hand. Just to make sure the stinkpalm worked. Once again, he offered his brightest smile, and I was on my way. I looked back just once to see if he detected something was wrong. Sadly, I never got to see his reaction.

I went to the bathroom to scrub at my hand, but it was to no avail. I would be stuck with the stink for another day before I felt safe enough to touch anything with it.

On my way out of the store, I saw one of the guys who had been standing behind me. It gave me some satisfaction to see him sniff the air and grimace. “You smell something?” he said to his war buddy.

“Yeah. Don’t know what it is, though.”

On the car ride home, I kept thinking that North would have the same question circulating in his head. Maybe he’d figure out it was coming from his hand, but what could he do about it? Nothing, at least not for a day.