Have Your Hugged Your Driller Today?

My brother’s birthday is coming up, but he won’t be around to celebrate it. He died of a heroin overdose in 1987. Here’s what I have left of him: The hardhat he wore as an oil exploration worker. The old trunk, plastered with decals, that held his clothes and books when he traveled. Old photographs. And of course my memories. Some of the photographs are inherited from my grandmother. On the back of each one she diligently noted the date it was taken and who was in the shot. I’m grateful to her for that. Sometimes I can’t recognize faces from long ago. Looking at them makes me sad. Steve died young. Life wasn’t always kind to him, and he wasn’t always kind to himself. The photos show how he grew. And changed. They stir memories that have been submerged a long time.

I don’t remember where or when this picture of Steve and me was taken. It looks like an airfield. Those are the Wasatch Mountains in the background. Steve and I used to make up stories for hours on end, speaking in the voices of the characters we imagined. Maybe that’s why I rely so much on dialogue in my fiction.

This one with me in the ridiculous dress was taken on Easter. Every year on Easter Sunday we went with Mom and Grandma to an all-you-can eat buffet, always the same one. Steve loved their pie. One year we noticed the restaurant had raised the price for children and blamed the increase on Steve. But I’ve attached that sweet memory to the wrong picture. We’re too young here. The buffet came later.

Here is Steve with Grandma. He was in high school then. Since he lived with Dad and I lived with Mom, we only saw each other on holidays and during summer vacations.

He was a party animal who could down a six-pack faster than anybody. His favorite novel was Crime and Punishment. He got straight and stayed that way for a year or so before he relapsed.

Steve and I lived a thousand miles apart and seldom saw each other as adults. But when we did, things were the same as they always had been. He never stopped being my brother.

I’m always on the lookout for a good urban fantasy. I found a great one in R.L. King’s The Threshold, the third book in a series chronicling the adventures of mage Alistair Stone. Alistair is a white mage; he doesn’t power his spells by siphoning the life force of other human beings.  In The Threshold, Alistair and his companions, Verity Thayer and her brother, Jason, are battling an extra-dimensional enemy called the Evil that feed on human emotions and seek world domination. The trio must find and destroy the portals through which the Evil are invading this world.

As incorporeal beings the Evil can possess the bodies of most humans, but not the bodies of mages, although a few black mages allow themselves to be possessed  in exchange for the power the Evil  gives them. A mysterious group known as the Forgotten are also immune to possession. The special abilities of the Forgotten come with a downside: — they suffer from various mental disorders that make it difficult for them to function in society. Most of the Forgotten are homeless.

The story moves briskly without sacrificing the descriptive detail so necessary to this genre. The author weaves the magic seamlessly into a very concrete everyday reality. The extra-dimensional portal in the basement of an Indian restaurant, aptly named A Passage to India, seems as real and believable as a broom closet.

Alistair and his companions are altogether sympathetic. I prefer antiheroes, so this threesome is a bit too white magic for me. But their quirks and passions keep them from being bland. Englishman Alistair comes across as a typical college professor, unconventional and sometimes acerbic. His mysterious past makes him intriguing. Teenager Verity is both Forgotten and a mage. Apprenticed to Alistair, she is discovering her abilities as she wrestles with the problems of adolescence. Jason’s only gift is the ability to power Alistair’s spells without depleting himself, a kind of magical battery, but his fierce love for his sister makes him stand out.

Secondary characters are well-drawn, even those who make only a brief appearance. Eleanor Pearsall, the white mage in the opening chapter, is so sweet that it hurts when she’s ambushed by the Evil. And gray mage Trevor Harrison is so compelling that I wish he had a larger role in the story.

Later books in a series are tricky. Often the beginning gets bogged down by exposition or the story cannot stand on its own. King avoids both these pitfalls. She gives just enough information so readers can understand what’s going on. At times the Evil seems like an abstract menace, though, and the trio’s history with the Forgotten feels thin. After finishing The Threshold I backed up and read The Forgotten, which filled in everything that was missing — and more. The first book, Stone and a Hard Place, tells a separate story featuring Alistair Stone.

If you enjoy urban fantasy, you don’t want to miss this series. You can read The Threshold first, like I did, but for the optimal experience, start with The Forgotten. Or better yet, Stone and a Hard Place. Once you enter the world of Alistair Stone, you won’t want to leave. And you won’t have to. The Source: Book Four of the Alistair Stone Chronicles, is coming soon.



The Threshold Cover

Fiction writers often begin with autobiography, especially young writers. Life is painful and incomprehensible. Their stories cry out and struggle to comprehend the world. My early fiction was cathartic in this way. But I soon figured out that personal experience is limiting. The characters in autobiographical stories are distorted fragments of the people on whom they’re based, and what happened is often less significant than what might have happened.

There’s a sea of darkness beyond the uncertain light of memory. The truth is somewhere out there, and once my imagination enters the darkness, I abandon any pretence of autobiography. I’m not writing about actual people or events anymore. I’m writing about ghosts and dreams. The story can become anything.

I’d reached that point when I wrote “Mandarian Training School.”

Although rooted in experience, the story is fiction. Most of the events never happened, and the characters only loosely resemble people I met at a summer school for high-school students with mathematical ability at San Diego State University. The distinction matters. The story reflects my imagination, not any kind of objective reality.

At fifteen I was a year younger than most of the participants. People who know me now might be surprised that I applied and even more surprised that I qualified. My friends at Charleston Scrabble Club will tell you that I’m not exactly a whiz at keeping score. My interest in math is mild at best, and I’ve forgotten most of what I learned. These days I can barely solve a binary equation.

Mathematics is an elegant and challenging language. It expresses concepts that cannot be understood in any other way. As a child I loved math. The summer in San Diego changed that. Emotionally I was unprepared for the workload or the competition. I worked my butt off and felt like the stupidest person in the program. But when I received our class rankings some months later, my name appeared in the middle of the list. I wasn’t a failure. Only mediocre. Somehow that seemed just as bad.

“Mandarian Training School” chronicles my emotional struggle during that summer long ago. And yes, writing it was cathartic. In retrospect, it marked a milestone for me as a writer, the point where I broke away from personal experience and learned to see in the dark.

Read the story here.


Image from fotolia.com

This is my husband’s acid comment when he catches me watching an episode of Sons of Anarchy for the second time. It annoys Joe when I view TV shows more than once. He and a coauthor write books on film and eco-criticism, and they study certain movies over and over to analyze them. Maybe he wonders why I would subject myself to the monotony for no productive reason. Or maybe the obsessiveness of my behavior disturbs him. (He’s threatened to divorce me if I re-watch another series that shall remain unnamed.)

The blond psychopath he’s referring to is Jax Teller, hero of Sons of Anarchy, played by Charles Hunnam. And yeah, I like looking at Jax. A more macho version of Brad Pitt, Hunnam frequently displays his lean, muscular, elaborately tattooed body in the shower and in bed. He talks in a flat, kind of dumb California accent and — in the early seasons before experience hardens him — walks with the swagger of a juvenile delinquent. Somewhere inside me, a sixteen-year-old self is altogether smitten. “He’s so tortured,” the sixteen-year-old sighs. “He’s good at heart, I just know.”

For those who missed the series, it follows the exploits of the Sons of Anarchy, a biker gang who make their living as gunrunners. They buy weapons from the IRA and sell them to other gangs, who seem to go through them the way a whore goes through condoms. The Sons style themselves as a motorcycle club and have a clubhouse at the Teller-Morrow automotive repair shop in the bucolic town of Charming, California. They even have their own acronym, SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original), pronounced Sam Crow. The townsfolk call them Sam Crow as if they were one individual, which is about right. Like any gang, they’re a tight-knit group with one set of rules among themselves and another set for the outside world.

However likable they seem at times, the Sons are psychopathic ruffians. Hardly an episode goes by without them gunning down two or three dozen people. If they walked into the bar where I was sipping my non-alcoholic beer, I’d head for the nearest exit. Slowly. I wouldn’t want them to notice me. Yet I can’t get enough of them on screen.

Episode-5-12-Darthy-Promotional-Photos-sons-of-anarchy-32833730Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), the grizzled club president, is one of nine founding members of the Sons. Another is John Teller, who died years ago in shadowy circumstances. It’s gradually revealed that Clay and John’s wife Gemma (Katey Sagal) — now married to Clay — caused John’s death. As John and Gemma’s son, Jax is heir apparent to the club’s leadership. He eventually takes over from his unwilling stepfather.

The other Sons, in fact all the show’s characters, are given enough complexity to make them real. Bobby (Mark Boone Junior) earns extra cashes for alimony payments by performing as an Elvis impersonator. It’s hard to reconcile the overweight, sequined guy on stage with the hitman who guns down a venal government official. Tig (Kim Coates)  is eager to pull the trigger but tortured by guilt afterward when his bullet hits the wrong target. Chibs (Tommy Flanagan) burns for vengeance against the psycho IRA guy who sliced his face from ear to ear and stole his wife and daughter. Wayne Unser (Dayton Kallie), Charming’s chief of police, has been in bed with SAMCRO for decades and at times almost seems like a member of the club. He’s in love with Gemma. When she’s framed for murder and on the run, he aids her without a moment’s hesitation.

Jax finds himself torn between his father’s idealism, as revealed in the journal he left, and the hard pragmatism and ambition of Clay and Gemma. His ambivalence about the club’s criminal enterprises drives much of the conflict within the family.  There are echoes of Hamlet, with Jax as the brooding son and Clay as the uncle who has taken his dead brother’s wife. Gemma, however, is no foolish Queen Gertrude. She’s more like Lady Macbeth without the guilt.

When Jax marries his childhood sweetheart, Tara (Maggie Siff), Gemma’s connection to her son is threatened. A skilled surgeon, Tara stitches up the Sons’ gunshot wounds and learns to shoot a gun, but she doesn’t want the outlaw life for their children. She urges Jax to abandon the Sons. He also wants something better, but his loyalty to the club and lack of middle-class job skills keep him from walking away. After Clay cedes the presidency to him, he tries to move Sons out of gunrunning and into pornography, a less violent business, but various forces work against against him. Tenuous alliances with other gangs and with the IRA suppliers depend on the continued arms trade. Feuds with other gangs and various federal investigations require his immediate attention. And both Gemma and Clay want things to remain as they are.

Clay will do whatever it takes to protect himself and SAMCRO. He coldly orders the death of Opie (Ryan Hurst), a brother he believes has turned rat. Opie has been set up by villainous ATF agent June Stahl (Ally Walker), but Clay doesn’t know that. When Opie’s wife is killed by mistake, Clay feels — kinda bad, but not bad enough to fess up. The truth would destroy the club and turn Jax against him since Opie is Jax’s best friend. So he deflects blame onto a rival gang, leading to needless killing.

Tara discovers the truth about John Teller’s death. Clay tries to have his daughter-in-law killed. The attempt fails, so he settles for destroying evidence and killing a club member in whom Tara confided. Once again he deflects blame onto another gang. More needless killing.

newclubimage-sons-of-anarchy-37962003Knowing that Tara is serious about leaving Charming for good, Gemma frames her daughter-in-law for a crime and testifies against her. To save Tara from prison, Jax makes a deal. If the DA’s drops the charge against Tara, he’ll plead guilty to one of the many crimes he’s committed. It comforts him to know his children won’t grow up to be outlaws. Gemma learns that Jax is going to be arrested and assumes Tara has ratted him out to save herself. In a rage Gemma stabs Tara with a carving fork and drowns her in a sink of dirty dishwater. A brutal scene, but far from the worst in this series.

Jax goes crazy after his wife’s death. Gemma fingers an Asian ganger for the murder she committed, leading to yet more needless killing. (Seeing the pattern here?) Of course Jax wants revenge. He tortures and kills the poor guy. Brutally. At great length . . . Well, at least he strips off his shirt before getting to work. Those muscles and tattoos look good even with blood on them.


Photos courtesy of always fabulous fanpop.com.


I write violent stories. It’s hardly surprising that I enjoy violence in movies and on TV. Here’s a post on another of the antiheroes I’ve grown to love.

I never watched the series 24 while it was on TV. Then one evening I was casting about for something to pass the time on Amazon Prime and decided to try it. Big mistake. This series is like the popcorn at movie theaters. I generally avoid that popcorn — way too much salt, minimal nutritional value, and weird fake butter that smells like it could be carcinogenic — but once I start munching I finish the whole bucket. Same with 24. Caught in the relentless machinery of its suspense, I devoured every single episode of all eight seasons, plus the ninth one that aired last year.

suspense, violence, tortureThe series follows the exploits of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), a former Special Forces guy working on and off for a government agency called the Counter-Terrorist Unit. Season after season he saves America from deadly terrorist threats in a world where the terrorists are all masterminds and the government functionaries who combat them are — with the exception of Jack and a few others — incompetent or corrupt. At first he comes off as such a straight arrow that more than one bad guy refers to him sneeringly as a Boy Scout.

A Boy Scout with merit badges in assassination, carjacking, and torture.

Jack Bauer will do anything to complete his Mission. If he needs to persuade a white supremist gang of his bona fides, he shoots a prisoner and presents the guy’s severed head to the gang’s leader. Jack can be very cold. He’s ready to expose a terrorist’s innocent daughter to a horrific deadly virus to force the man to cooperate. And don’t piss him off. He’ll cut your guts out. Literally.

If Jack needs a vehicle to pursue a bad guy, he forces a random motorist from his car at gunpoint. Of course he says something like, “I need your car, sir,” or “I don’t want to shoot you,” instead of “Out of the car, bitch.” When you’re staring down the barrel of a semiautomatic, courtesy makes a lot of difference.

Jack Bauer tortures suspects to obtain information despite the unreliability of torture as an interrogation technique. Even in the world of 24, it often fails to yield results. Jack himself is tortured repeatedly but never gives up information, not even during the nineteen months he spends in a Chinese prison camp. Some of the terrorists are equally tough. Yet the good guys and bad guys torture their enemies routinely because, what the hell, now and then it works. And Jack is always Running Out of Time and compelled to Do Whatever It Takes.  In Season 6 he ends up in front of a Senate subcommittee investigating the illegal use of torture by the government — until the FBI borrows him to help fend off yet another terrorist threat and he interrogates a suspect with the help of a stun gun.

Kiefer Sutherland, 24Despite his violent ways, I can’t help liking Jack Bauer. He’s an idealist willing to give his life, if necessary, to complete his Mission. The US government doesn’t bother rescuing him from the Chinese prison camp until a terrorist offers vital information in exchange for him. (He once tortured the terrorist’s brother to death and understandably the man wants payback.) Jack is okay with being tortured to death in a good cause. “It would be a relief,” he says. This is so sad that I can’t help feeling for him.

Jack is loyal to his friends and fiercely protective of his family. Not that he has many of either. The people close to him keep getting killed, starting with his wife in Season One. His daughter manages to stay alive, but much of the time she can’t stand being around him. She’s kind of a whiny brat anyway.

So he battles his way through season after season, emptying countless clips of ammo into bad guys, becoming increasingly grizzled and stoic and lonely. His occasional private tears show that he understands how much his work is eroding his humanity. In the final season, I keep hoping he can retire at last and spend time with his granddaughter. Instead he meets a predictable unhappy fate. He gives himself up to the Russians to save the one friend he has left.

Photos from FanPop.com

Video streaming is dangerous for me. I’m obsessive, and unlimited access to TV episodes has turned me into a binge viewer who consumes up to fourteen 40-minute episodes in a single day. It’s unhealthy and certainly unproductive. Over time patterns have emerged from my viewing choices. Disturbing patterns. I prefer stories with violence — lots and lots of violence— and heroes who are psychopathic and downright scary. Now I’m setting out to understand who these characters are and why I’m drawn to them despite the terrible things they do. I’m beginning with Dexter Morgan, protagonist of Dexter. I wrote this post a few years ago, while Dexter was still on cable (and before poor Rita gets slaughtered by the Trinity Killer), but my feelings about the lovable serial killer haven’t changed.

As one of six million plus Facebook followers of the Showtime series Dexter, I occasionally visit his page to view the photos and video teasers. Photos of Dexter (Michael C. Hall) draw effusive comments from women who think he’s “so Hottttt!!!!” and “soo sexy.” A more thoughtful fan muses that he’s “nothing special,” but nonetheless “that guy is killing me softly.” Not that I’m judging anyone here. I’ve watched every episode of Dexter at least twice. Like the women who coo over the photos, I’m besotted. Sometimes I do wonder why. Dexter is, after all, a serial killer.

The third fan is right, it’s not his looks. Though Michael C. Hall has a certain animal magnetism, he isn’t wildly handsome. The attraction is to the character he plays so well. Thanks to his foster father, a policeman, Dexter has learned to channel his murderous impulses for the good of society. He only kills murderers. “Taking out the garbage,” he calls it. His job as a blood splatter analyst for the Miami police allows him to identity the people who have gotten away with murder, and he takes care to find them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But he’s still a psychopath with a compulsion to cut people into little pieces. It’s really, really icky.

Dexter-Morgan-dexter-8253574Much of the credit for Dexter’s lovability goes to the show’s writers. The stories are told from his point of view with voiceover narration, so viewers see the world from his perspective. At the beginning of the series, he presents himself as a monster incapable of connecting with other human beings. His loneliness is touching. Every season a story unfolds, and at the heart of each one is Dexter’s quest to find somebody who sees and accepts him for what he is. Things never work out. His would-be friends and lovers are either so homicidal he’s forced to kill them, or like Lumen — a woman seeking revenge on the men who raped and brutalized her — they aren’t homicidal enough.

This need to be truly seen could explain some of his ritual. He speaks to the murderers on his killing table and confronts them with their victims. He wants them conscious when he cuts their faces to make the blood slides he keeps as trophies. They must see what they’ve done. And they must see him.

Despite his expertise in killing and not getting caught, Dexter is hapless on a social level. He’s perplexed by the most ordinary situations. Since he can’t feel emotions the way others do, he has no idea what to say or how to act. Often he mimics what he observes other people doing or saying. Dexter botches his wedding proposal to Rita twice. Then he hears a stalker confess to killing the unreceptive object of her passion. “My life was an unanswered question,” she tells a detective tearfully. “He made everything real.” Dexter recycles the lines when he proposes to Rita a third time. She bursts into tears and says yes. As much as I like the character of Rita, I can’t help laughing at how easily she’s taken in.

As the series continues, Dexter slowly discovers his humanity. There are dramatic turning points. In the first season his biological brother – a psycho killer like him – demands that he kill his foster sister. “Does it have to be Deb?” he asks plaintively. “I’m – fond of her.” But of course it has to be Deb. Forced to choose, Dexter slays the newfound brother who sees and accepts him rather than the sister with whom he has grown up and who has “a blind spot” when it comes to him.

Rita-Season-2-dexter-17806622In the second season he chooses the clueless Rita over Lila, his soulmate. Over and over he thwarts the monster in himself and affirms his humanity. In the end he becomes a lovable human being with a bad habit. Messy and morally dubious, but no worse than drug addiction. It’s both apt and ironic that Dexter has to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings because Rita thinks he’s a heroin addict. Speaking to the group, he describes the Dark Passenger that compels him without specifying what it compels him to do. The other addicts assume he’s talking about drug addiction and nod in understanding.

Poor Dexter, he can’t help himself. He was traumatized as a child. And the world is better off without the murderers he kills. I’ve had my problems with substance abuse. I get lonely too. Sometimes I have no idea how to behave around people and have to fake it, just like Dexter. We’re so much alike. And now that I really look at him, he’s so Hottttt!!

I see you, Dexter! I love you just the way you are.



Photos from Fan Pop

My new novel Darkroom follows museum curator Kelly Durrell as she tracks her missing friend, Day, into a demimonde of drug traffickers and sexual predators. In this flashback, Day’s lover remembers his older brother.

When Gee was sixteen, Renny showed him how to do business.

He remembered the kids skateboarding in the darkening street, their raucous shouts joined to the chorus of starlings settling to roost. The scent of lilacs wafted from somewhere, too sweet. Gee hung back on the porch steps. Renny swaggered to the door, his thumb hooked in the front pocket of his jeans. No one answered the bell. He stepped to the window, cut the screen with his jackknife, and sent Gee inside to unlock the door.

Dougie was taking a shower. Light from the bathroom shined on Renny’s rapt smile. Gee heard the shower curtain rip, hooks popping off the rod, and a croaked “What —?” Thumps and scuffling. Then a louder thump and a scream.

They dragged Dougie into a bedroom and hogtied him with twine. He was a small dude with a hairless chest and not much pubic hair. He curled on the dirty carpet, wet hair pasted to his face, bleeding from his mouth and panting like a dog.

“The shit I tasted was rock,” Renny said. “The shit you delivered was stepped on.”

“The suppliers —”

Renny slammed his fist into Dougie’s face. “I bought from you, not them. Ain’t my fault you trusted a bunch of fucking spics.”

“Basement,” Dougie jabbered. “Third shelf up. Cinder block.”

“Check it out, Gee.”

Gee found the basement door where he expected it to be. Same with the light switch. As if the floor plan of Dougie’s house was burned into his brain at birth. As if he never had a choice. The shelves held the usual clutter — a busted toaster oven, a couple of bowling trophies, a glass jar of pennies. The money was stashed in the cavity of a cinder block. Not enough. Gee brought the pennies too.

The bedroom stank of urine. “Nine hundred seventy.” Gee tossed the roll of bill to Renny. “Plus change.” He shook the jar of pennies and placed it on the floor. Doing things like that — provocative things — made him less afraid of his brother.

Renny grabbed a sock from the floor and stuffed it in Dougie’s mouth. Shadows warped his smile into something monstrous. “You owe me seven large. I want my money, bitch. You gonna give me my money?” When he struck the first match, Gee looked away. A scream gargled in Dougie’s throat. The bedroom carpet was green and littered with tiny pebbles and burnt-out matches. The useless details stuck to Gee’s memory like lint. He wanted to bolt. But Renny would be waiting at home and their parents wouldn’t protect him. Dad thought weaklings deserved what they got, and Mom was just a slave.

“Where should I burn the cocksucker now? I’m thinking his balls.”

Gee tasted vomit. “He’d probably like it, the faggot.”

The hogtied body thumped like a landed fish. Dougie made an urgent whimpering noise. He had more to say. Renny yanked the sock from his mouth.

“Cl-cl-closet.” Dougie’s gaze jerked upward. “Sh-sh-shoe box.”

Gee pulled shoe boxes from the top shelf of the closet. In two of them he found Dougie’s real stash. Hundred-dollar bills and fifties and twenties, sorted into piles and rubber-banded. He showed his brother the money and began counting out loud. “Two hundred, three, four, five, six . . .” The diversion worked. Renny came and stood over him while he counted the money. Nine thousand, two hundred and thirty dollars.

“Asshole could’ve just paid me.”

Gee hoped it would end there, that his brother would be satisfied with a 3000-dollar profit and let Dougie keep his life. But Renny strangled Dougie with a belt from the closet and then tossed Gee the car keys. “There’s a can of gas in the trunk. Bring it.”

The firefighters showed up fast. Their station, it turned out, was two blocks away. Dougie’s body was mostly unburned, and the cops lifted a partial fingerprint from the belt. It wasn’t a certain match, but a neighbor IDed their car and Dougie’s friends testified to Renny’s psycho reputation.

Gee never rolled over. He was handcuffed to a table for hours. He begged for the toilet, but the two ugly cops just laughed. They laughed more after he pissed himself. They claimed a witness saw his face and showed him a drawing that looked like him. But Gee wasn’t stupid. It had been too dark for anyone to make him. The cops yammered on and on about their solid case and how he would be so popular in the slammer his asshole would be looser than his mama’s pussy. Now and then they changed tactics and called him a good boy, straight-A student, and promised him Renny was going down so he’d best cut a deal while he could. Through it all Gee kept the guilt and horror locked inside. And finally they had to let him go. They had nothing.

Renny was confident he would walk free, too. Gee had been in the courtroom when the jury came back. Had seen his brother’s face when the foreman spoke the word guilty — the rapt smile, like the moment he sailed into the bathroom to take Dougie down.

Darkroom will be available early next year.

Ultimately no one gets a happy ending. As every Game of Thrones fan knows, Valar Morghulis: All men must die. Even if you’re steadfast in your belief in an afterlife, you still have to die and the process is usually painful and scary.

The most we can hope for is a fortunate death. You rescue a child from a fiery building and get crushed by debris while the kid crawls to safety. At the age of 92, you and your beloved spouse die instantly in a car crash where no one else get hurts.

The inevitability of the unhappy ending may explain why so many readers of fiction crave happy ones. The storyteller brings the protagonist through conflict and danger to a moment of triumph or fulfillment—and then stops. The golden moment sails on forever. If it’s especially satisfying, the reader may reread the book and experience it all over again.

Some readers feel cheated when a story fails to deliver an upbeat ending or when it stops before the conflict is fully resolved (the open ending). “That’s all there is?” they ask. “What a downer!” A few might hurl the book across the room. Books have an advantage over e-readers here; they can be hurled without breaking.

Readers aren’t shy when they hate the ending of a book. They complain to friends and excoriate the offensive book in merciless reviews. Frustration and disappointment run deep, especially when there’s a large emotional investment in the story. Just read the reader reviews of Allegiant, in which Veronica Roth kills off the main character of her trilogy.


I understand why readers feel this way. It was hard for me to forgive JRR Martin for the Red Wedding. Never mind that Rob Stark brings his fate upon himself. His army dwindles as he alienates his allies from the other northern houses. Betrothed to one of Waldo Frey’s daughters for political reasons, he marries the woman he loves even though his advisors and his mother warn him not to. And his mother knows Waldo, knows his bitterness at being slighted by other houses. How can she even consider going anywhere near the old man? None of that matters. Martin makes me love these characters and then has them brutally slaughtered while they attend a wedding at Frey’s castle. My anger didn’t stop me from continuing the Fire and Ice saga but when I set out to reread it, I stopped in the middle of A Storm of Swords before coming to the Red Wedding. I just couldn’t go through that again.


I laughed when someone told me that the outcome of an “exotic massage” is called a happy ending. The analogy suggests the nature and depth of readers’ frustration. The author ramps up the tension with conflict and suspense and then delivers disappointment and frustration. True tragedy offers an elevated kind of release—catharsis—but melodrama depends on the happy ending.

Not every massage delivers sexual relief and not every kind of story ends well for the protagonist. Massage clients and readers know that. Their outrage comes when the benefit is promised and not delivered. Since the legality of a sex massage is iffy and readers don’t want to be told ahead of time how a story ends, the promise is implied. A suggestive sign outside the massage parlor, a book cover identifying the story as a romance.


It upsets me to see Daemon Seer categorized as a romance. I worry that somewhere a reader of romances loathed the ending and still blames me for her damaged Kindle.

So why not give deliver the happy ending every time? Because disaster is the logical end of certain stories, in which case the happy ending becomes a clumsy lie. Intelligent readers reject the lie—even when part of them yearns to accept it. And a few writers are hard cases who insist on delivering a truth that few people care to acknowledge. A truth stated beautifully by Anne Sexton in her poem “Cinderella”:

Cinderella and the prince
Lived, they say, happily ever after,
Like two dolls in a museum case
Never bothered by diapers or dust,
Never arguing over the timing of an egg,
Never telling the same story twice,
Never getting a middle-aged spread,
Their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.

Image credits:

Cinderella still from FanPop

Game of Thrones still from FanPop

JRR Martin meme by AryaArryWeaselNanSaltyCatofthecanalsBethNoOne via Mashable

Massage parlor sign from Bakersfield Now

dark fantasy, suspense, transgressive fiction

You’ve heard rumblings about it, now it’s finally here. SIN EATER by Pavarti K. Tyler and Jessica West is available now on Amazon.com. Check out the excerpt and giveaway at the end of this post!

Episode 1.1 is FREE 9/25 & 9/26 so grab your copy NOW. After that it will be $0.99 or free on Kindle Unlimited: Amazon.com

Episode 1.2 is available now for $0.99: Amazon.com

dark fantasy, suspense, transgressive fiction


From Award-Winning Author Pavarti K. Tyler and Speculative Fiction Author Jessica West, comes a Dark Urban Fantasy serial about evil, and the next step in its evolution.

**This is Episode ONE in a seven part urban fantasy/horror serial**

A Sin Eater who battles demons for souls

A Priest who must protect what he most desires, even from himself,

A rogue Romani mortician with an attitude, a secret, and a powerful weapon,

And a Secret Order of the Church who knows more than they’re saying…

Nikolai Grekh is the last Sin Eater.

Born into a world rampant with demon possession, Nik Grekh struggles to keep Hell’s hordes from consuming the world, but he grows weary of the constant battle against sin. Evil grows stronger as more souls are lost. With each new possession growing increasingly violent, Nik fears he may be losing the war.

When Nik confronts a demon he can barely defeat, he reaches out to the only man who can save him. The only man he trusts. The one man he can never have…

Evil has resided alongside humanity since the beginning of time, feeding on our weaknesses, our vices. Our sins. It hungers for our souls, its demonic offspring possessing humans, corrupting, manipulating, using us as unwitting pawns in a supernatural chess match for the ultimate price: life.

The Crucifixion of Christ saved humanity once. What will it take to save us this time?

*contains mature content, offensive themes, and general deviance*

Sin Eater 1.1 is approximately 10,000 words or 45 pages, and is the first of seven episodes in the first season of the Sin Eater serial. If you don’t enjoy serials, you can pre-order the full Box Set on Amazon.

A Note About Serials: These are not stand alone books, however, if that drives you crazy, you can PREORDER the full box set now:


For those reading alone as each episode is released, here is the full schedule:

Sin Schedule

Episode Publication Date
Episode 1 9/25/2015
Episode 2 9/25/2015
Episode 3 10/9/2015
Episode 4 10/23/2015
Episode 5 11/6/2015
Episode 6 11/20/2015
Episode 7 12/4/2015
Box Set 12/15/2015

Read an Excerpt

Nik’s hand dripped blood and his forehead throbbed.

“You can’t kill this man and that’s the only way you’ll get rid of me. You can’t take an innocent life without opening yourself up to my kind. So go ahead, kill him, and then I’ll wrap myself in your shell and consume your soul.” The monster licked its lips.


The leaky, red eyes of the demon’s host displayed the first real signs of fear. It was all but beat. He was almost finished.

“Behold and obey. By the power of Christ, invested in me by the Kingdom of Heaven and its mighty King, I command you to yield. For this vessel is a child of God, sacred unto him.”

Beads of sweat popped out on the brow of the man before him, now crouching and glaring up at Nik. One side of his face had melted away, leaving only sinew and bone. He curled his arms and fists, making his biceps bulge with effort.

His voice, empowered by his birthright and emboldened by experience, rang clear in the night. “I exorcise thee, every unclean spirit, in the name of God,” Nik pressed his bloody palm against the demon’s forehead, “and in the name of Jesus, and in the name of the Holy Spirit!”

Nik drew the sign of the cross on the demon’s flesh with his own blood.

“Tell me your name! The blood of Christ compels you!”

The man’s bulging muscles shook. He ground his teeth, trying his best to stop from revealing his name and giving Nik the only thing he needed to destroy him. He screamed, a long and low furious yell that revealed the only thing that might have kept him safe: “Naamah.”

Nik slapped his wet palm onto the man’s sweaty forehead. “I exorcise thee, Naamah, in the name of God, and in the name of Jesus,” Nik’s hand burned the man’s flesh, but he couldn’t stop, “and in the name of the Holy Spirit.” He pulled his face close until the two were eye-to-eye.

The black from the demon’s eyes receded into its head, traveling the surface of the man’s skin and turning it gray. He opened his mouth and a black cloud rushed out, choking its former host as it was expelled.

The monster let out a shriek as the last of its hold on the man was ripped out, sliding out of his human host’s mouth and into a black glob on the street.

The man came to his senses. Confusion showed in his eyes as his mind was once again able to access his body. As the evil left the man’s body, he slumped to the ground and Nik lowered with him. Nik stayed just long enough to make sure the man’s pulse was stable. His job was to get the evil out, not to worry about what happened after.

Nik’s head spun, he was too exhausted, sick, and confused to reason it out. He’d exorcised the demon. That’s all that mattered. He’d figure out the particulars later.

The blood on Nik’s hand glowed a deep red in the darkness as he reached out and grabbed the evil before him. With a silent prayer, he picked it up, black sin wrapping around his fingers like tentacles. Bile rose in his mouth at the thought of what he needed to do next. Twice in one night.

The throb in his head began again and Nik stuffed the evil into his mouth, swallowing its slick putrid essence in one gulp.

Nik stood, but he swayed and leaned heavily on the wall to his left, unable to see through the dark haze that descended over his eyes. He felt like someone had snuffed him out. Cold gripped his body, seeping into his bones, pulling him down, crushing him in its icy fist.

He instantly regretted treating this one as he had every other. He should have known better. There was nothing about this possession that had been like the others. After everything he went through to beat this thing, he came right back around to the same thought as before. This would be the one that killed him.

And now the fun part!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

In my novel Daemon Seer, Lu is twenty-five years old before she finally has a pet, her parakeet Foster. When the daemons descend on Lu, Foster can sense them coming.  Lu realizes how much Foster means to her when she finds her front door open and Foster gone. In fact, the daemon Black Claw has stolen the parakeet and Lu must get him back. I wrote the essay below as a tribute to my parakeet Benji. It first appeared on my personal blog, Dreambeast. Although Benji died quite a few years ago, he remains dear to my heart.

Benji and I met at a party given by the fiancée of Joe’s department chairman. I knew only a few people there and soon retreated to a chair beside a bird cage. A parakeet came over, jumped onto the bars and hung by his claws, showing his wide blue belly and snowy vent. He was bigger than average. Later I found out he was half English budgerigar, a larger breed than the American parakeets usually found in pet stores. I moved my face closer and said, “Hey, little guy, you’re a cutie.” I whistled and clicked my tongue. He chirped enthusiastically.

I spent more time with Benji than with any of the party guests. At the end of the evening the hostess offered to give him to me, cage and all. Her soon-to-be husband disliked birds and joked that she might come home one day and find him hanged in his cage, with a little sign around his neck reading Goodbye, Cruel World. Though we’d just met, Benji’s owner trusted me to give him a good home. I did my best to deserve her trust for the nine years he was with me.

His vocabulary included such staples as “Benji is a pretty bird” and “Hey baby, you’re cute.” He might have learned more if I’d had the patience to teach him. But I would have loved him whether he talked or not. Gentle and affectionate, he liked perching on my shoulder and nibbling my ear as I read or watched TV. He soon began joining me at meals where — to Joe’s disgust — he perched on the rim of my plate and nibbled my food. He especially liked spaghetti in tomato sauce.

Benji was a less than athletic bird. When I set him on a parakeet swing, he hunkered down and gripped the bar like an acrophobic old gent trapped on a rollercoaster. He struggled to fly, working his wings frantically to keep his chubby body aloft and occasionally bumping into a wall and fluttering to the floor. He never got up enough momentum to hurt himself in these collisions, but I couldn’t help being scared every time he went down. Joe dubbed him Blue Thunder.

Near the end of his life, Benji became too weak to fly. But he would flutter to the floor and walk through the house until he found me, and I would pick him up and hold him, and pretty soon he would fall asleep.

He never forgot his first owner. He chirped with excitement when she and her husband came for dinner. After we finished dessert, I brought Benji to the table and gushed about how much I loved having him around. He chattered and preened, basking in the attention. His first owner’s husband remarked grudgingly that he was kind of cute. Benji flew from my hand and landed on the head of the man who’d threatened to hang him. Squatting and wiggling his tail, he squeezed out a tiny drop of bird dung. Then, having vented his feelings, he flew to his cage on thunderous wings. Call it coincidence if you want. I call it payback time.

A few reviewers have compared Talion to the novels of Thomas Harris because of its graphic violence. I’m so thrilled and flattered by the comparison I could whoop like Daffy Duck. Harris is a master of his genre, and while his stories are undeniably horrific, the violence is a small part of what makes them awesome.

When readers think of Thomas Harris, they’re haunted by images of savaged bodies with shards of mirror in their eye sockets, skinned bodies with exotic insects jammed down their throats, or a man alive and conscious as Hannibal Lecter slices his brain from his open skull.  But in his earlier work anyway, Harris renders the quieter passages as memorably as the violent scenes. It’s not Lecter’s cannibalism and other gruesome acts that capture my imagination in The Silence of the Lambs, but his creepy conversations with FBI agent-in-training Clarisse Starling. Harris can make even minor characters unforgettable. One of the clearest images I retain from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is the witness who tips her head back so her mascara won’t run as she weeps for her missing friend.

serial killers, Thomas Harris, Hannibal Lector, Red Dragon

In Red Dragon, my favorite Harris novel, I find the narrative of Francis Dolarhyde’s childhood—his cleft palate and sadistic grandmother, the awful logic of what he becomes—as compelling as the descriptions of the ritual murders he commits. Dolarhyde has a brush with redemption when he becomes intimate with a blind coworker and fights the voice of the dragon demanding her blood. I care enough about him to wish he could have been transformed by love. But that kind of magic cannot exist in Harris’s world.

At the conclusion of Red Dragon, the emotionally and physically damaged ex-FBI agent Will Graham lies in the hospital critically wounded after his last encounter with Dolarhyde. His mind drifts in a narcotic haze to a visit he once made to Shiloh and his feeling that the place was haunted by everything that had happened there. He realizes now that, like the rest of nature, Shiloh has no meaning except what human beings project on it: “Beautiful Shiloh could witness anything. Its unforgivable beauty only underscored the indifference of nature, the Green Machine.” Nature is without mercy, Harris tells us. The concept of murder doesn’t exist in nature. “We make murder, and it matters only to us.” This grim determinism adds to the darkness of an already dark story and extinguishes whatever lingering pity I feel for Dolarhyde.

I understand that pity is beside the point.

“Sentimentality is loving something more than God does.”

—Kenneth Meyers


My horse, Tucker, lives on a farm forty minutes away from my home. The roads are flat and straight and sometimes so empty I drive for miles without seeing another car. One afternoon while driving out there to ride, I composed the above haiku in my head. (I’m not the sort of driver who wields pen and paper while behind the wheel.) Haiku is a Japanese form consisting of three lines: five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables. A haiku usually presents two images, but they don’t come together to form a metaphor. The reader discovers connections between them while contemplating the poem.

I seldom write poetry—as you can most likely tell from this effort. When I brought the haiku to my critique group, some praised the imagery while others faulted the poem for its sentimentality.

Say what? I thought. People dislike my writing for various reasons, but they seldom find it sentimental.

Sentimentality evokes emotion at the expense of critical thinking. It’s comfortable emotion, epitomized by the verses on certain greeting cards, the kind with rainbows and ribbons and nostalgic country scenes on the front. It horrifies sophisticated readers and most writers. A whiff of sentimentality sends them scurrying to open the windows and run the fans at high speed until the stink is gone. I suspect that readers without training in literary criticism don’t feel this horror. They recognize tearjerkers and sugary writing and accept them for what they are. Most of the time anyway.


I don’t think my haiku is sentimental. It shows two images of destruction on the highway. To find the poem sentimental, the reader must make a metaphoric connection (the piece of blown tire stands for the death of a human being in a car wreck) and an inference (because the tire claws the sky like a bird, the death of a bird is just as important as the death of a human being). But this line of thought reveals as much about the reader as about the poem.

I hate seeing dead creatures in the road and do what I can to avoid hitting them, but it wasn’t just pity that inspired my haiku. I was struck by how much the wing resembles the blown tire and how common it is to see both things on highways. Nearly everyone drives on highways. We need them. But there’s something inexorable and destructive about the process of hurtling over them at high speed.

Of course we feel worse about car wrecks than we do about roadkill, especially when people are maimed or killed, but ultimately we accept those fatal multi-vehicle highway disasters as facts of life. We accept them as surely as we accept the occasional crushed bird and woodchuck. Grieving when someone we loves dies in a car wreck doesn’t change that.