Manuscripts Burn


"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov

Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Monday, December 29, 2014

I Don't Want to be a Big Shot. But I Do Want to be Able to Contact You.

If I was on the front page of AOL in 1997 you'd probably think I was a big shot.

If I had ten followers on LiveJournal in 2000, you'd probably think I was a big shot.

If I had a hundred subscribers to my blog in 2003, you'd probably think I was a big shot.

If I had a thousand friends on MySpace in 2006, you'd probably think I was a big shot.

If I had ten thousand friends on Facebook in 2009, you'd probably think I was a big shot.

If I had a hundred thousand followers on Twitter in 2012...well, you get the idea.

What'll be the sign that I'm a big shot in 2015?  Who knows?

That's the thing about social media.  It's ephemeral.  It's constantly changing.  And as potentially fun and rewarding as it can be, there's no guarantee that the effort I put into building my social media platform today will guarantee that I'll have an audience tomorrow.  You could all move on in the blink of an eye.

Not to mention the very real threat that you may come to find me on one of my social media outlets one day and find I've given up on it.  I can't even list all the detritus out there on the internet with my name still on it.  All internet communication exists under the implicit threat that you could lose contact suddenly and permanently.

With one exception.

I've had the same e-mail address since I made it up in the middle school library in 7th grade.  Of course, I've changed providers and everything else since then, but if I ever want to access my old account, I've still got it, and it's still forwarding even to my professional account today.

E-mail is, for good or ill, the gold standard of contacting your audience.  I've said more about this phenomenon here.  But, long story short, as much as I hate mailing lists, as an artist and a small businessman it's absolutely imperative that I have one.  So I hope you'll sign up for mine today.  You have my ironclad guarantee: one e-mail for each release, no spam.  Thanks everybody!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Psychic Spam (Interview with Puppeteer Sylvia Bagaglio)

ZOMG, you guys.  If you've read my guest policy you know how stoked I get about the opportunity to host members of unusual vocations.  And if you've ever read anything by me ever you know how much I love puppets.  So it's with an inordinate amount of delight that I'm pleased to welcome puppeteer, book reviewer, stage hand, and general jane-of-all-trades Sylvia Bagaglio to the blog!  (You can probably guess which one of those is getting top billing though.)  Sylvia's actually been featured on the blog before, but never in her own words, and you probably won't recognize her without the octopus costume.  Also, I've misspelled her name every time before, but it's all been corrected, so it's all good now!  So, without any further ado about nothing (that's kind of a theaterish joke, right?) let's meet our guest and then jump right into the interview.

About Sylvia Bagaglio:

Sylvia began reading before the age of four and was lucky enough to grow up in a house with a library. Her parents instituted the rule that she and her sister were allowed to read any book they could reach, so they learned how to climb the shelves. It seems Adams and Tolkien and King were far more interesting that Dr. Seuss (even if he had better pictures). While she is always seeking to procure and read new books, she has a habit of re-reading old favorites like Dickson’s THE DRAGON AND THE GEORGE once a year or so. Sylvia is happy to interrupt her reading to work as a professional art thief - er - handler - during the day and play stage hand and spotlight operator for burlesque shows at night. Working with such a wide array of people gives her ample fodder for her quote collection, much of which is posted on her Twitter account.


SK:  Hello, Sylvia, and welcome to Manuscripts Burn!

SB:  Thanks for having me!

SK:  As anyone who has read THE GHOUL ARCHIPELAGO knows, I have an ongoing love affair with saucy puppets. Can it possibly be true that you were a real life puppeteer?

SB:  Well, that's debatable. Having worked in a number of props departments, I've built and/or refurbished my fair share of puppets. Which means testing them. A lot. The biggest one was a two-man crocodile puppet for a production of "Peter Pan"; I think I performed emergency orthodontic services on it about a dozen times while I was on tour with that show. We also had an ostrich that needed occasional re-inflating, since she was mostly a rugby ball. I also once made my Kermit the Frog a full habit so he could appear in "Nunsense". But aside of entertaining friends and little kids (and myself), I've never been a real puppet performer, myself.

SK:  For the purposes of the title of this blogpost I'll be ignoring that thoughtful, nuanced answer.  Let's talk a little bit about your work as a book reviewer.  How do you go about reviewing a book? Do you have a process or is it just kind of an organic thing?
SB:  It depends on the book. I always bookmark passages I know I'll want to recall or that might make a good opening quote, but other than that, I usually read through just for the story. Sometimes I go back and skim read the first couple of chapters just before I write the review, if I need to refresh my memory on exposition. I find having a cup of tea is usually helpful when I'm reading. Once I'm ready to write the review, I often get the nuts and bolts down first (title, publisher, price, interesting quote, etc), and then draft the review. Then I usually give it a day or two before I go back to it, self-edit, and submit it to the full editing crew for polishing.

SK:  What is the best way to handle dry ice?

SB:  With tongs or gloves!  Water ice is frozen at 32 degrees Farenheit. Dry ice is carbon dioxide, frozen at -109 degrees Farenheit. That's more than 200 degrees colder than regular human body temperature, and it will burn your skin just as quickly as something 200 degrees hotter than your body temperature (300 degrees). Properly handled though, it's a really great thing to use in science experiments! (Here's an excellent basic guide on eHow: Experiments With Dry Ice.  

SK:  Damn, I thought I would stump you with that one.  Let's move on.  How did you get involved with the Bookshelf Bombshells project?

SB:  I got involved with Bookshelf Bombshells because of Dawn.  I've known her for (mumble) years and she put out a call for ladies who love to read and wanted to write about what they read. I saw a chance for free books and took it.

SK:   How do things work behind the scenes over there?

SB:  Well, Dawn and Lacy both get sent an inordinate number of books in print without even asking for them. They also get sent emails about books and letters about books and for all I know get psychic spam about books too. The contact comes from PR people, publishing houses, and sometimes directly from authors. Those of us who have been reviewing for a while also get contacted directly by all of the above. We all have day jobs, so we can't review everything we're offered. We pool what we're offered, accept as much as we can, divvy it up, and get cracking on reading and writing. Oh, and did I mention that we live all over the country? We email.

SK:  Hmm, I guess I've been guilty of that.  I need to remember to bother Dawn instead of you.  But let's talk about some fun stuff that the non-reading types will be interested.  Can you tell us about some of the more unusual jobs you've done over the years?

SB:  Well, you've read above about performing orthodontic services on a giant crocodile puppet and re-inflating an ostrich. I've taught kindergarteners about traditional Japanese architecture; I've built custom masts for carbon-fiber racing yachts; I've provided lighting design for a beauty pageant that was part of the Miss America franchise; I've worked as a hilt-smith, making the decorative bronze hilts and pommels for swords and daggers (in a converted goat shed); I've had more than one job that required me to set things on fire and/or blow up things; and I've covered a 17' elephant in 1.6 million jelly beans. Her name is Lucy, and she lives at Caesar's Palace in Atlantic City, in a candy store called It'Sugar.

Courtesy of Flickr user iirraa

SK:  Good Lord, that sounds amazing.  All of it, but Lucy especially.  Well, thanks for being with us today, Sylvia.

SB:  You're welcome.

SK:  Any last words for our readers? 

SB:  It's the holiday season. Have that cookie without the side of guilt, ok?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Rats Off To Ya!
It's the reason for the season, Tom.
We're past the point now where even Amazon can't promise to get you a gift by Christmas morning anymore.  You can brave the brick and mortar stores for your last-minute shopping, but that's so far beyond a nightmare it's like a night-thoroughbred.

Here's an alternative.  If you know someone with a Kindle you can give them an e-book as a present.  It's simple.  (And if you're an older person who normally has technology issues, your young family members will think you're "hip" and "with it" and can "Macarena.")

1.  Go to the entry for the Kindle book you want to buy.  For instance, BILLY AND THE CLONEASAURUS, which is conveniently on sale for only $0.99 now through 3:00am EST Christmas morning!

2.  Click on "Give as a Gift."

3.  Enter your loved one's e-mail address. 

4.  Schedule the date and time you want it delivered.  So, for instance, 8:00 am Christmas morning if you know they'll be unwrapping gifts, or 6:00 pm on their birthday if you know they'll be at their party, etc.

And there you have it!  No lines, no crowds, no waiting, and no wrapping.  You can even make a big show of telling your loved one not to be checking their phone because this is family time, dammit, and then it's kind of like a big prank when they finally see it was you sending them a gift.  See, you can't buy memories like that.  But you can still buy BILLY...

Monday, December 22, 2014


BILLY AND THE CLONEASAURUS is on sale for only $0.99 from now until 3:00 am EST December 25th! That's right, it's a ho-ho-horrible ho-ho-holiday sale!  And, of course, it's always free if you have Kindle Unlimited.

I love BILLY.  This is a plucky little book, and it's still my only published work that's never made it to "bestseller" status.  Maybe we can change that with this sale!  I hope you'll pick up a copy if you haven't.  And if you have, I hope you'll share this sale with your friends, both cyber and real.  Here's the purchase link:


Want to know more?  Well, every review of BATC is listed here. And here are what some of the reviewers have said:

"Billy and the Cloneasaurus is a fascinating tale that brings to mind 1984 and The Matrix but manages to be wholly unique and absolutely worth the read."

"Billy and the Cloneasaurus is a well written novel. Right from the first sentence, I loved the humor undercurrent that melds with the serious questions the plot raises. The more we learn about the world with Billy, the more you find yourself questioning the values of our own world."

Friday, December 19, 2014

So Long, and Thanks for All the Truthiness

I suppose I'll throw my paean onto the fire along with all the others.

It seems strange to think of it, considering his near-total pop culture ubiquity now, but when Stephen Colbert first came on the air no one knew what the hell he was doing.  I mean, some people knew.  The writers and producers, presumably, but the average viewer tuning in was flabbergasted.

I remember watching the first episode of The Colbert Report.  My wife and I had recently moved to Oklahoma as part of my job (I was an army officer.)  I grew up in the suburbs of Philly, a place so liberal we didn't really even realize there was another option.  And we had both just graduated from college, again, not exactly a bastion of rightist thought.  Moving to a red state - perhaps the red state - and being exposed to genuine, I'm-not-shitting-you conservative Southerners in the army was a bit of a culture shock for us, to say the least.

My wife got fired for her outspoken liberal views.  I got told by a Texan First Sergeant that the North was "all just pretty much one state up there anyway."  But I don't mean this post to be some kind of gripe-fest.  We adjusted, as best we could, just agreeing that as soon as we could we'd get back home where we were more comfortable.  Nevertheless, our one oasis in the vast Red Desert of Middle America was The Daily Show.

This was nine years ago and neither Jon Stewart nor The Daily Show were the institutions they are now, but at about the halfway point of the Bush administration something electric was happening.  People were discovering this weird, honest, crude form of criticism.  And this was all being broadcast out of New York City, not unlike Philadelphia in that Stewart probably isn't even aware how left-leaning he is just by default.  For my wife and I it was like a panacea.  And when they started talking about having their best correspondent, Colbert, have his own show, we sort of shrugged and, like everyone else, assumed it would be yet another failed experiment in the wreckage that is Comedy Central's attempts to capitalize on their four or five mega-hits.

(Brief aside: Ah, Kröd Mändoon.  How I miss you.)

So this show came on, and this is the part that everyone forgets: no one got it at first.  We had watched Colbert - who we now know, since it has been repeated ad nauseum by those trying to explain the show, is a character - with a cracking voice and almost palpable lack of confidence say the sorts of crazy things that Bill O'Reilly was saying on Fox News.

There were more than a few times in those first few weeks when either I or my wife would turn to the other and say, "Is he serious?  Or is he playing."  We just didn't get it.  There had never been anything like this on television before.  We were the dedicated fanbase and it took us a few months before we fully "got" the game.  When Jon Stewart put on a character, he immediately broke it to tell us what he really thought.  With Colbert, the character never broke and everything had to be picked up through innuendo.  Imagine trusting your audience enough to literally have to pick up on what's not being said.  I'm sure part of the appeal for watchers like myself was feeling oh so incredibly smart to be able to read between the lines.

It took the non-watchers quite a while longer to figure it out.  I have no idea what it's like to be a guest (or target, as it were) on Colbert, but watching the discomfiture of people like Barney Frank in those early years was amazing.  One had to wonder if some producer, or maybe Colbert himself, off-camera had to eventually start clueing in the poor people to the game.  It was many years before guests started coming on fully aware of what they were getting into, that they were going to be forced into the "straight man" role while Colbert danced to the interview table every night and bloviated.  No, in those early years it was uncomfortable to watch, and visibly uncomfortable for the subjects.  This was groundbreaking stuff.

Now the ground is broken and I don't even know if it can ever be done again.  I guess Sacha Baron Cohen has a somewhat similar shtick.  But we haven't seen a glut of imitators or pretenders.  Could the right pull off a reversal and have a faux-liberal Colbert-type?  I dunno.  They sure haven't tried it.  It's kind of surprising, in a sense.  I mean, almost any kind of success in show business leads to imitators and fakers, usually of varying degrees of quality.  Stephen Colbert has none that I can think of.

Was he unique?  Certainly.  Was he positioned in a unique time of history to do what he did?  Maybe.  Can it never be repeated?  I dunno.  Maybe Stephen Colbert the performer was just so uniquely talented that nobody else will ever be able to pull it off again.  I find that hard to believe, but so far it seems to be the case.

One thing that's sad for me, in a sense, is the mayfly nature of a news show, even a satirical one.  I've never popped in an "old fave" of Colbert or The Daily Show and watched it.  Would a show from 2005 or 2007 still be amusing, even assuming I'd forgotten all the jokes and content and was coming to it essentially "fresh?"  I doubt it.  There will be, I suppose, a few immortal moments that stand the test of time.  Maybe the "Truthiness" Word segment or his interview with Jane Fonda or something will become clip show fodder in the future.

But for the most part The Colbert Report is dead.  My kids won't watch it.  I won't be able to explain to them the frenetic power it had, the way I tuned in every night without fail to watch my favorite fake blowhard skewer things in a way that nobody who even aspired to be taken seriously could.  In a whiff, it's gone, lost behind the couch cushions like a teenager's heartbreaking poem scrawled on looseleaf paper. 

You can't recreate the magic of a topical show, feeling like you had a friend who you could see every day, even if maybe he didn't respond to you.  So that's all gone.  And Colbert the character...well, he'll be back, no doubt, periodically.  But an era is over.  And I'm deliberately avoiding talking about how wretched last night's finale was, because I don't want it to sully the otherwise good memories of nine years.

I've probably pontificated on long enough.  Time to pull the plug.  Good night, sweet pundit, and flights of Bud Light Limes sing thee to thy rest.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Let me tell you something, blogtocrats: today's guest is one of the most genuine and flat-out kindest human beings I've ever met.  S.G. Lee will give you the shirt off his back or (in case you are a zombie) the still-beating heart out of his chest.  I never met the fellow until we happened to both be included in the AT HELL'S GATES charity horror anthology.  Since then we've worked closely together marketing that book, and (I like to think) become fast friends.  Now I'm pleased to announce that S.G. has released his first solo work.  So without any further ado, let's take a look!


The residents of Littleville, Pennsylvania are about to meet their new neighbors…

New to Littleville, the Wexley twins, Matt and Emma assume fitting in at Lincoln High and making new friends will be their biggest worries. They couldn’t be more wrong. Fate would introduce Evan Stone into the neighborhood and all three attempt to navigate the murky labyrinth of eleventh grade but Evan has a secret. His godfather is Dr. G.E. Mitchell, author of Journal of the Undead: A Survivor’s Guide and Evan has been learning about zombies from one of the best.

With an excellent school system, safe streets, and a strong sense of community, the Philadelphia suburb of Littleville has proudly attracted a diverse blend of people but up until now they’d always been living. When Lincoln High School is overrun by flesh-eating corpses, Evan rescues Emma and they battle their way through the zombies to Matt but fleeing the school doesn’t solve their problems. Friends, enemies, and loved ones are lost in the battle against the undead and the entire town is completely overrun. The true terror unfolds, as the survivors must escape and make the dangerous trek from suburban Philadelphia to the highest mountains of West Virginia with the hope of finding a safe haven at the Stone family cabin. If they can reach the secluded refuge, they just might survive the Littleville Uprising.

Purchase it now on Amazon and tell your friends about it on Goodreads!

About S.G. Lee

S.G. Lee was born in Philadelphia and raised in its suburbs. Forever a die-hard Philly sports fan, S.G. bleeds a dedicated swirl of Orange & Black, Red & White, or Green & Silver, a phenomenon that baffles nurses and phlebotomists alike. Still, it is the love of reading and writing that trumps all else...all except for an encouraging spouse and a rambunctious puppy. Currently, all three reside in North Central West Virginia but this author's heart still belongs to the City of Brotherly Love.

Though it is rumored that the desire to write about zombies was spawned by intense road rage, and a secret longing to club slow drivers with a tire iron, that claim has yet to be substantiated. S.G. is also a contributing author for the Zombie Response Team's blog in addition to a personal blog containing free horror stories and random musings. You can always connect with S.G. on Twitter and Facebook.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Why Z-Nation is Better than The Walking Dead, an Essay in Three Parts: Part Three

Part I
Part II

And so we come at last to the end of what I expect will be the most controversial week in my blog's history.  On Monday I explained why I dislike beloved super-popular property The Walking Dead.  Then on Wednesday I followed up by defending contender for most-hated show on television, Z-Nation.  Now, as Jerry Springer would say, a few words to sum up my thoughts.

The David and Goliath-style story is one of our favorites.  It appeals to something innate in human nature.  We always consider ourselves the underdog.  Just look at politics.  Everyone considers themselves the underdog, even billionaires.  I know I'm not an underdog in any strict sense.  I'm well off, I live in a nice area, have plenty of access to everything I need.  And yet whenever that David and Goliath story comes on, I'm just like, "Yeah, that's me, overcoming my trials!"

But there's also an element of Goliath being a dick.  In fact, that's usually why David wins.  Goliath is a big, boisterous asshole who doesn't even take David seriously.  The rabbit lays down two feet from the finish line so the tortoise beats him. 

I feel like that's what I'm looking at here.  When TWD was the scrappy young newcomer ("A zombie television series? Preposterous!") they were actually trying.  Rick had guts and gusto.  Hell, he had a purpose.  That guy was gonna find his family, apocalypse be damned.  And then when he finally did find his family there were consequences, and the consequences had consequences, and Merle got left handcuffed on the roof, and on and on.  Not unlike Battlestar Galactica, in fact.

Now, though?  Now TWD has gotten bloated and fat.  It's the most popular show on cable TV.  So it's become complacent.  Hell, it's practically become sedentary.  It's the rabbit literally lying down at the finish line.

"Why mess with a good thing?" the producers seem to be saying.

Have everyone stand around and talk and yell and pretend to emote a lot.  Kill a character no one cares about every couple episodes, then kill a character people do care about once or twice a season.  Introduce new characters every so often and give them a little back story the episode you plan to kill them.  Throw in a zombie once in a blue moon so that horror watchers get what they want.  Throw in a character from the comic books every once in a while to keep the chatter going.

You don't need a writer to write this stuff.  A kid could write this stuff.  As I (and Kirkman and Romero) said, it's not horror.  It's a soap opera.  It's like a fucking shell game is what it is.  It promises one thing and delivers another.  And it had success so it just sits there, like Goliath, wallowing in its own popularity.

And then, by contrast, you have Z-Nation.  This is something that is so demonstrably, so obviously crappy that literally the only way for them to succeed is to innovate.  There's a certain number of people (myself included) who will watch literally anything with zombies in it.  But ZN has nothing to lose!  Why not do a Run, Lola, Run episode?  Why not have a cosmonaut crash at Northern Light?  Why not have a Three Olives product placement so the characters can drive a vodka-powered airplane?

TWD is all about the "Why fix what ain't broke?"  Meanwhile, ZN is all about the, "Why the fuck not?"

Z-Nation has the giddy glow of kids playing in the sandbox.  They're not trying to reinvent the zombie genre, but they are throwing all the spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks.  If the zombie bear turns out to be a hit, why not have more zombie bears in the future?  If Murphy controlling the dead turns out to be interesting, maybe there'll be more of that in the future.  Who knows?  The sky's the limit!

Meanwhile TWD is calcified.  "This is what we do, boys," the showrunners seem to have decided, "It doesn't matter whether we do it competently or not.  We're going to stick to the bread and butter.  Besides, the viewers will all tune in for Daryl.  The viewers are morons."  That's really part of what galls me about TWD.  They don't want to try anything intelligent or truly innovative because they think we're all too dumb to enjoy that.  The easily replaceable characters all just wander around Atlanta, being easily replaced, to provide the charade that things are changing, but really nothing ever changes.  Anything really innovative is discarded after an episode or two because it would change the status quo.

And Z-Nation has no status quo!  Every episode is somewhere different!  Every episode has a different premise!  When characters die, you notice they're gone.  Because they have true franchise.  They can choose to do dumb, even petty stuff.  Or they can do great noble things and pay the price. 

In TWD a couple of characters have invisible shields.  Nothing will ever happen to Rick, Carl, Daryl, Maggie, or Glen.  The others are faceless zombie bait, promoted to near-main character status just before death.  In Z-Nation, two of the main "Rick Grimes" characters have already bought it, one in the first episode.

I could keep beating a dead horse, but I think you get the point.  ZN the underdoggy Rocky Balboa has managed to give a beating to TWD's Apollo Creed who's been resting on his laurels.  Feel free to sound off in the comments.  I'm totally open to hearing dissenting opinions.  This is all, of course, one man's opinion, and since it's on the internet, it's most likely wrong. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Why Z-Nation is Better than The Walking Dead, an Essay in Three Parts: Part Two

Part I

If you tuned in on Monday, you read how what I had intended as a single blogpost had ballooned into a weeklong monstrosity.  In that post I talked about my ongoing disdain for The Walking Dead.  Today I'm going to talk about how surprisingly great Z-Nation is.

Better than it so many ways...

As much as I've come to dislike TWD itself, I do still feel indebted to it.  We are experiencing what I can only describe as a renaissance in horror television, and it is basically due to the success of TWD.  In the wake of TWD's first season, FX released American Horror Story, and those two surprising popular (and sometimes critical) successes have stood as pillars propping open the gate for a whole new onslaught of television horror.

In the last few decades the only horror I can think of on TV was either blended with other genres (Buffy, Forever Knight) or slipped into an anthology series (The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, lesser imitators.)  Now, though, we're in the unique position of being able to see horror, actual horror, on television without equivocating.  FX's flawed-but-excellent The Strain debuted earlier this year, a concept for a television vampire show that had been stuck in development hell so long Guillermo del Toro finally simply published the story as a novel.

Along with the quality horror there was bound to come imitators and cash-grabs.  When SyFy (which has gone so far around the bend in terms of nonsensical cash-ins and deliberate shlock that it has practically become a parody of its forebear The Sci-Fi Channel) announced that it was releasing a new show called Z-Nation, every sign seemed to point to "non-union Mexican equivalent to TWD."  The fact that it was made by The Asylum, a degenerate production company which exists solely to cash in on existing properties with cheap knockoffs, seemed to billboard that fact more clearly than even the cheesy television commercials did.

Seriously?  This dumbass zombie baby was supposed to entice me?  After it had already been done, and better in Dawn of the Dead (2004), not to mention Dead Alive...

Z-Nation promised to be bad.  Spectacularly bad.  And the premiere episode delivered on that promise in spades.  People like me who had sat down to watch it out of a sense of obligation were so disheartened that the social media backlash was instant and brutal.  To call this...this thing...a warmed over rehash of TWD was unkind both to TWD and to the proud culinary tradition of rewarming hash.  Horror freak friends of mine swore off it right then and there.

And then there was this stupidity.  Whoever that dude is supposed to be...what's he doing with Addy's Z-Whacker anyway?  And, yup, that's actually what they called it in-universe.  A "Z-Whacker."

I'm not a sadist but I am, well, I guess "stubborn" is the best word for it.  When I start a television show I almost never stop watching it.  I watched Enlisted in its entirety, even after it was cancelled.  And Pan-Am.  I've yet to DNF a book.  And I've yet to encounter a piece of zombie fiction that had nothing to recommend itself to the true aficionado.  So I ground through the next episode, a somewhat tepid affair about zombies at an oil refinery.  Admittedly, I did find myself grunting, "Huh, well, this has improved."

Then something astonishing happened.  I'm a Philadelphia native, so when the third episode of ZN turned out to take place in Philly, I paid a little more attention than I normally would have.  (Yeah, I'm that guy who's always on his phone even when watching TV.)  And suddenly I was riveted. 

The third episode of Z-Nation was without a doubt the best piece of zombie fiction I've watched in years.  I even laughed and pulled my hands down my face because the topic under consideration was a cannibal family - the exact same storyline that TWD had been alluding to in its last season finale and was about to take up again in a few weeks when it premiered.  And yet somehow this scrappy little Asylum-produced (!) show on SyFy (!!) had managed to lay down the best riff on post-zombocalyptic cannibalism I've ever seen.

Z-Nation had my attention now.  It had gone from a crappy show that I had taken pity on because of my affection for the subject matter to something I was actually interested in watching.  And as the weeks passed I realized that this was no rehash of TWD after all.  The characters in Z-Nation actually got somewhere.  Five seasons in, the cast of TWD is still futzing around in Atlanta and its environs, with only a single abortive attempt to go to Washington, D.C. to their credit.  The characters of Z-Nation had started in upstate New York and by episode 7 were in Kansas.

This wasn't Generic Zombie Show For Cash Idea #17.  This was a tour of a post-apocalyptic United States.  Z-Nation had stated its premise right there in the title and it had simply taken me a while to catch on.  The quality of the local flavor varies from episode to episode - for instance, except for some jokes about the Liberty Bell, the Philly episode could have taken place just about anywhere - but these characters are making real, genuine progress.  ZN is a road trip.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with zombies!

And I realized by episode 10 there was something else ZN was doing that TWD had long since given up on.  It was experimenting.  The oil-coated zombies of the sophomore show had been weak sauce, but since then we've seen a zombie tsunami, speed-addled zombies (and a few, thankfully offscreen, on Viagra), a zombie hulk, and even radioactive zombies.  TWD's sole idea that innovated on anything Romero had ever done was The Herd.  And even that was way back in season 2.

With ZN, there's a different kind of zombie threat every week.  And since it doesn't take itself so seriously, even the storytelling is experimental.  A Run, Lola, Run parody?  That's something that's never been combined with the zombie genre to my knowledge.  A Mormon settlement comprised entirely of women?  Interesting.  What about a zombie messiah?

The inclusion of Murphy as a character in the beginning was a bit of an obvious McGuffin.  Here was a guy, a whining, puling character of Dr. Smith caliber, who possessed a vaccine to the zombie virus in his blood.  The only reason for him to be around was comic relief and as a reason for the characters to start their road trip to California.  But as time goes on we begin to realize the full scope of Murphy's powers.  He goes unmolested by zombies who consider him one of their own.  And then, after encountering a deranged religious sect, he pretends to be the zombie messiah to escape...and realizes later that it's the truth.  He can even control zombies, and begins to feel an affinity for them.  Where does his true loyalty even lie anymore?

You know what?  I cut myself off on Monday when I reached about a thousand words, so I'm going to do the same thing now.  And what's telling to me now is that I still have a few more points I wanted to make, about how Z-Nation is braver in a lot of ways than TWD in killing off its characters, and how the characters are more real and immediate and have actual motivations...but like I said, in the interests of fairness I'll cut it off here, and wrap things up on Friday.  Hope to see you then!  And feel free to flood my comments section with angry diatribes.  That's what the internet is for, after all.

Part III

Monday, December 8, 2014

Why Z-Nation is Better than The Walking Dead, an Essay in Three Parts: Part One

My wife thinks I'm a hipster.  She doesn't use that word.  But she has said on multiple occasions that I've only stopped caring about a show I used to love because it became popular.  Classic hipster behavior, right?  "I liked Breaking Bad BEFORE it was popular" kind of stuff.

I can't really say if that's true or not.  It does happen to me, although I do wonder sometimes if it's simply that showrunners, when faced with an unexpected hit, begin doing things differently.  I loved the first season of Battlestar Galactica, enjoyed the second, and watched the rest more or less out of a sense of obligation.  I personally believe I stopped enjoying it because the show changed.  Of course, my wife would have you believe I just cared about the fact that everyone else started watching it.

Which leads me to The Walking Dead.  I loved, loved, loved the first season of TWD.  From Halloween night of 2010 right through the end of the season I sat down with a giddy little thrill and watched as my favorite monsters finally invaded my favorite medium.  Zombies on television!  What could be better?  And more than that, it was good!  Soooo good.

Remember this?  How fucking awesome is this?

People told me about it in that, "Hey, you're a zombie nut, you might enjoy this crazy thing" way.  They weren't watching it.  They were seeing commercials and saying, "Well, I wouldn't enjoy it, but my nutty friend Steve might."  I admit, it was still underground.  I was in the minority.  The zombie genre in general was still a fringe thing.  The average person had maybe seen Shaun of the Dead, maybe enjoyed Zombieland, but certainly had delved no further into the lore.

Then something happened.  The Walking Dead became popular.  I wasn't watching alone in the dark with a giddy thrill anymore.  My wife was watching it with me and the lights were on and the cats were cuddling.  And a certain percentage of people were talking about the show on Facebook after every episode.  And it was neat for a while that something I enjoyed was more broadly popular, but... had gotten terrible.  I didn't know it at the time, but creator and showrunner Frank Darabont, most famously the director of The Shawshank Redemption, had been sacked at the beginning of season 2.  And a bunch of, let's be frank, hacks had been brought in to fill his shoes.  So suddenly we went from having a Shawshank-level dramatic television series to something that looked and sort of tasted like TWD of season 1, but was all hollow inside.  Ironically, the world's first zombie show had become a zombie.

I hoped against hope that maybe things would come back together.  I mean, the characters were still there, Robert Kirkman's excellent source material was still there to draw from.  There were game actors, writers, and crew, the network was finally throwing money at a show that had achieved cinematic quality on a shoestring in its first season.  Surely something would have to click? 

Darabont had promised to show us the Battle of Atlanta in the first episode of season 2.  How tantalizing!  How thrilling!  How fucking awesome would that have been?  And instead we got...the farm.  I knew by the end of 22 excruciating episodes of eighteen characters sitting on a farm, yelling about where Carl was, that this Walking Dead was no longer my Walking Dead.  It had become, as both Robert Kirkman has admitted and godfather of gore George Romero has pointed out, a soap opera.

Frank Darabont accomplished this shit with pilot money.  Pilot money!  Then they spent 22 episodes on a single set?  Give me a freaking break.

It exists to exist.  It shambles from one half-baked idea to the next.  It has a lot of yelling, and almost twice as much talking, but nobody every says anything.  No character ever takes an action that seems born of character.  Everyone is a walking plot device.  And even the plot devices still need plot devices.  Beth is in the middle of the woods and a mysterious car that we later find out never otherwise leaves Atlanta shows up, knocks her out and kidnaps her, and Daryl mysteriously misses it all?  The Governor is defeated, his army scattered, his town destroyed, but he manages to scrape together a whole new army of people we didn't even know about with a few obvious lies?  Who would even follow that guy that just showed up at the encampment?

Everything in this new Walking Dead just seems to happen because the writers thought it might be cool.  And then, as if to betray its entire raison d'être, it inexplicably never manages to deliver on actually being cool.  I mean, honest to God, people, I am not a hard man to please.  A few squishy zombie explosions is enough to please me, and yet all that ever seems to happen on TWD is a lot of yelling.  And talking.  And crying.  When the zombies actually do show up, they're almost always immediately dispatched, unless it's time to "up the stakes" (read: not actually) by killing one of the characters that everyone had long since given up giving a shit about. 

Oh, no, not...Andrea.  Oh, no, not...T-Dawg.  Oh, no, not...

Is this even still amusing anymore?  I haven't thought so for years.  I continue to watch out of a sense of obligation.  Yeah, that's right.  I'm a zombie author.  I have to be able to talk about The Walking Dead, unfortunately. 

So do I hate it because it's popular?  Well, I don't think so.  I just think it's not very good.  But I have to admit, the fandom has truly become just exhausting.  I never thought Firefly was all that bad, but I do find Firefly fans just absolutely obnoxious so I do sort of start to hate that thing they like.  It's getting to be the same way with TWD fans. 

I don't get the whole Daryl thing.  Why is Daryl so popular?  Because he's sort of attractive?  This whole Daryl-love thing has become like a parody of itself.

Now there are worries that when the time comes for the obligatory Joss-kill of Daryl that women will simply begin boycotting the show.  Really?  Is this show really so fundamentally weak that 50% of its viewers tune in solely to look at a cute guy's abs or whatever?  And then even more recently there was some debate, which I have no idea if it was justified or not, about whether Daryl was gay or not.  And, admittedly, he's never had a physical relationship on the show, so we don't know, but...who cares?  Again, if Daryl comes out of the closet, are fans really going to stop tuning in?  I'm reminded of the old Simpsons adage, when Homer must pretend to be single for his career as a pop star, "You see, a lot of women are going to want to have sex with you, and we want them to think they can."

You know something?  I was initially going to make this post about why Z-Nation is better than The Walking Dead.  But I realized I just wrote over a thousand words just about how disappointing TWD has become, and I couldn't even really do justice to Z-Nation by bringing it up at this point in the diatribe.  So, new plan: let's make this a weeklong thing.  Today I'll write about TWD, Wednesday I'll write about ZN, then Friday I'll wrap it all up.  Thanks for reading, everybody!  And feel free to flame out in the comments.  Remember, I insulted both Firefly and Daryl Dixon in one post.  Enjoy!

Part II
Part III

Friday, December 5, 2014

On Controversial Topics

Most of you know me.  If you're just a fan, you can still probably guess from my writing where my political and ideological predilections lie.  I even post here on the blog every now and again a liiiiittle something political, but usually couched enough in the silliness of the internet at large not to be too much of a flamewar inducer.

As a general rule, though, I eschew politics, religion, and third-rail issues here and in other social media.  The reason was always one of pragmatism.  Like most people over the age of 12 I have strong opinions about a lot of subjects, but I just don't feel a need to splash it like acid in the faces of the various Harvey Dents of the world.  (In that metaphor I was Sal Maroni.)

Janet Reid finally put my attitude into an excellent set of words in this piece earlier this week.  We all have a right to free speech, but in exercising that right you agree to the consequences.  In my case, potentially turning off readers.  And I don't want to turn anybody off because of my online persona.  Let them be turned on or off by my writing.  Let them decide whether that's something they want to pay for, not whether I'm going to turn around and donate all their money to the NRA or Greenpeace or [insert your preferred partisan charity here.]

I and, I think all Americans (and, yes, citizens of the rest of the right-thinking world where speech is free) have always tacitly understood this.  Along with rights comes responsibilities.  (If only Spider-Man had come up with a clever bon mot to better express that concept...)  If you say something dumb you open yourself up to criticism, perhaps even boycott.  Perhaps even ostracism.  There's a reason the KKK wears masks, you know, and a reason Edward Snowden fled the country.  Free speech comes with consequences.  Sure, you can call the boss an asshole, but don't be surprised if he fires you.

And yet it seems like in just the last few years this has sort of been flopped on its head.  There's a new assumption that speech should be consequence-free, rather than simply free.  As though when you call the boss a dick he has no right to fire you because, hey, free speech.  There's a sort of bristling about consequences, as though somehow it's unconstitutional to boycott someone for being racist or whatever.  Counter-speech, you see, is also free speech. 

I'm thinking of examples here, but, of course, I don't want to be accused of being a partisan hack by bringing them up.  It's all part and parcel of my loose policy of not getting involved with flamewars on the internet.  But still, I don't really care for the "just sayin'" mentality that has cropped up in recent years, that is, that by tacking "just sayin'" onto the end of a sentence, this absolves you from the content of that sentence.  "I didn't really do anything, I'm just saying words!"  Yeah, well, the power of words is the reason that the First Amendment is such a potent right.  Words are action, the pen is mightier than the sword, and all that hoo-ha.

I'll actually give you all an example.  I was sitting on a panel at a convention once when an audience member stood up and all but called me out.  This person said something to the effect of, "I like all horror.  I think it's all great.  Except zombies.  I don't understand zombies.  I think they're stupid.  Maybe one of you on the panel can explain?" 

It doesn't really matter what my response was.  I made a game response.  You've all read me go on ad nauseum about the living dead before.  But then the audience member repeated the question a second time.  A bit more belligerently this time.  And I ground my teeth and answered again.  And then a third time.  By this point, a couple of my fans in the audience had their hands high up in the air, all armed and ready with answers.

I'll be honest, gentle readers.  I didn't much care for being called out once.  But by the third time I knew that this person either wanted me to admit that what I do for a (sort of) living is stupid or just make it clear to all present that I am an asshole.  Conventions being as they are, discussing topics there is a lot like the real-life version of the internet.  Some people feel that they can change your mind by being insulting because they're just so damned convinced.  Others just have no social skills.  Some topics are fruitfully explored, others less so.

So I was sitting there at this panel which I had volunteered my time for just to, you know, entertain other human beings, and one of them was standing there insistently calling me an asshole to my face.  There were several options that went through my mind at that moment.  (And trust me, I've come up with dozens more since then, mostly in the shower, and along the lines of George Costanza's legendary Jerk Store quip.)  But here are a few things I might reasonably have said in the heat of that moment:

"And what do you do for a living?  Oh.  I always thought that was fucking stupid, too."

"Is there an answer that will satisfy you or do you just want me to admit that I'm an asshole?"

"You're being damn rude.  You've asked and I've answered the same question three times, so I can only guess that you're deliberately trying to be rude."

And other variations.  But I didn't.  You know why?  Because even in the heat of that moment I knew there was no value in calling out an audience member.  Of course in my head I played out the triumphal montage, where my rejoinder was so sizzling it scorched the air, and everyone erupted in applause and the rude person slunk out into the night, tail tucked firmly between legs.  And then I immediately played out the opposite, where I was kicked off the panel for treating an audience member that way, and not just an audience member but a wounded veteran and an orphan, too, and my name got whispered around the con as "that guy who thinks he's too good for his fans" and suddenly my whole reputation is sullied and I'm a pariah.

Consequences.  I considered the consequences of my responses.  And I opted to shut up and take the abuse with good humor.  Because...consequences.  Plus I knew I could always put it on my blog and get sympathy that way, without having to call anybody out to their face.  Yay, passive aggression!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Spotlight: DAMN THE DEAD by Phillip Tomasso

In case you don't know, behind every professional-seeming artist such as myself there is a squeeing fan-boy or -girl.  (I imagine that when Stephen King dies and goes to Valhalla or wherever he'll fall all to pieces when he meets Lovecraft and Poe.)  And along those lines, today's guest has me truly excited and starstruck. 
I've admired Phillip Tomasso's work for years, and the fact that he would even know who I am, let alone be interested in being on my blog, is truly humbling.  Let's hear a little bit about Phil's latest novel, DAMN THE DEAD (aka your official Cyber Monday deal), and then learn a little about the man himself


DAMN THE DEAD marks the beginning of an exciting new stand-alone series from Phillip Tomasso and takes place some 3 years after the conclusion of the best-selling VACCINATION Trilogy.

Even in the heat of the zombie apocalypse, a time must come to rebuild. Charlene McKinney and her friends are on the run in the mountain ranges of North Carolina. They’ve stolen an 18 wheeler filled with food and supplies and the brutal gang they stole the vehicle from won’t give up until they get back what belongs to them.

The band of survivors stumble across Arcadia, a fortified town erected deep in a valley. There is food, shelter and electricity. Arcadia is fully functional as a community. They offer employment, have a fire department, peace officers, and a judge. The welcome sign posted by the front entrance boasts 3 simple laws for citizenship. No stealing. No fighting. No murder.

Seeking sanctuary within the walls of Arcadia seems like the perfect place to hide. But in Arcadia, if you break the law you will find yourself damned with the dead.

About Phillip Tomasso:

Phillip Tomasso is the author of 16 novels. DAMN THE DEAD is his latest release. He lives in Rochester, NY with his three children and works full time as a Fire / EMS Dispatcher for 911. While DAMN THE DEAD is the first in a new series, it is also a continuation of his Best-selling VACCINATION Trilogy.  You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, and his website.

Monday, December 1, 2014

On Geezer Fiction (Guest Post by Russ Hall, author of TO HELL AND GONE IN TEXAS)

You may not know this about me but I do not care about book covers.  (Or maybe you do, and you've been silently judging me for my crappy covers for years.  Whatevs.)  But, yeah, when it comes to judging a book by it's cover, no worries if it's me.  I mean, I can tell when a cover is butt-ugly, in the same way I can tell the difference between hamburger, steak, and cat food, but when it gets down to the nitty-gritty I have an artist's eye the way I have a great face for radio.  Color, composition, may as well be talking about wampeters, foma, and granfalloons (except I actually know what those mean.)

However, I do have a lot of author friends.  And a lot of them do have a lot of strong feelings about covers.  Which I have to listen to.  So when the cover of TO HELL AND GONE IN TEXAS by Russ Hall came out I was surprised to find myself the first one to jump in:

"It's Elmore Leonard meets The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly!  Awesome!"

Take a look for yourself:

Now, ain't that a sexy book you want to know more about?  And almost as amusing as that beautiful cover on its own is this found art from the Red Adept Publishing Facebook page photo album of New York Times Bestseller Kate Moretti looking like she's about to blow you all to Hell and gone:

But enough bloviating.  Let's get to meet the author and then let's jump right in with a guest post.  And, as always, stick around for the end where our mutual publisher RAP will be hosting a giveaway.

About Russ Hall

Russ Hall is author of fifteen published fiction books, most in hardback and subsequently published in mass market paperback by Harlequin’s Worldwide Mystery imprint and Leisure Books. He has also co-authored numerous non-fiction books, most recently DO YOU MATTER: HOW GREAT DESIGN WILL MAKE PEOPLE LOVE YOUR COMPANY (Financial Times Press, 2009) with Richard Brunner, former head of design at Apple, NOW YOU'RE THINKING (Financial Times Press, 2011), and IDENTITY (Financial Times Press, 2012) with Stedman Graham, Oprah’s companion.

His graduate degree is in creative writing. He has been a nonfiction editor for major publishing companies, ranging from HarperCollins (then Harper & Row), Simon & Schuster, to Pearson. He has lived in Columbus, OH, New Haven, CT, Boca Raton, FL, Chapel Hill, NC, and New York City. Moving to the Austin area from New York City in 1983.

He is a long-time member of the Mystery Writers of America, Western Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime. He is a frequent judge for writing organizations.

In 2011, he was awarded the Sage Award, by The Barbara Burnett Smith Mentoring Authors Foundation—a Texas award for the mentoring author who demonstrates an outstanding spirit of service in mentoring, sharing and leading others in the mystery writing community. In 1996, he won the Nancy Pickard Mystery Fiction Award for short fiction.

Guest Post

In the past, in addition to other thrillers, I had written some cozy mysteries that featured a retired school teacher named Esbeth Walters. She didn’t brook a fool gently and would get involved in solving crimes even when the local law asked her to butt out, especially then. In one of her adventures she got next to some quite gritty characters and Booklist Review said: “Agatha Christie meets Elmore Leonard.”

Well, I quite like Elmore Leonard, and I would say that this time there’s a lot more of his influence in TO HELL AND GONE IN TEXAS—certainly far less Agatha Christie, if any. I think of a number of thriller writers to aim for who are at the top of their game, like Lee Child, the team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Dennis Lehane, and a host of other luminaries in this space. But this latest thriller of mine falls in a new and growing category as well, that now beginning to be known as geezer fiction.

Al Quinn is a protagonist who just retired as a sheriff’s department detective. His brother is a year older, and while they should both be enjoying their so-called “golden years,” they are instead swept into the jaws of fierce jousting between brutal Mexican cartel killers and federal agencies that have learned to be as vicious in return. Like the early Clint Eastwood films, it’s not always easy to tell who the good guys are, and worse if you happen to be between them.

The category of geezer fiction deserves a word or two. When the protagonist is no longer necessarily young and attractive, as such characters once were almost without exception, you have people at the same age of a good number of those in the reading audience who actually deal with real world threats. For baby boomers, and anyone no longer threatened by acne, this is worth a whoop or two.

Take, for instance, the mystery series of Colin Cotterill, which begins with The Coroner’s Lunch and features Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year old reluctant coroner in 1975 Laos. One of the things that endears us to such characters is perseverance in the face of adversity and challenges, and being a senior and taking on hardened criminals is certainly that.

Now consider Al Quinn, who hoped to live alone and have a quiet retirement, but finds himself having a brother he hasn’t spoken to in twenty years foisted onto him. Together they must face some of the most vicious members of a Mexican cartel murder team. Not your everyday happy retirement, is it? Al Quinn must indeed hone his edges and be as tough as those coming after them if he and his brother aren’t to lose their heads, literally, a penchant of the cartel killers.



Trouble big as all hell.

Retired sheriff’s detective Al Quinn hasn’t spoken to his brother, Maury, in twenty years. When Maury lands in the hospital under suspicious circumstances, though, Al reluctantly abandons his quiet country seclusion to look into the matter. A second attempt to take Maury out drives the brothers back to Al’s lakeside home, where Al knows the territory, but they’re not alone for long. ICE agents demand that Maury rat on his silent partner, city cop Fergie Jergens comes investigating the murders of Maury’s lady friends, and someone takes a match to Al’s house.

Al soon learns his problems are only getting started—his brother’s in trouble on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Caught in a ruthless power struggle between the ICE and Los Zetas, a vicious Mexican mafia bent on ascendancy, Al learns the hard way who he can trust—and who’s willing to do whatever it takes to succeed.

With everything he loves on the line, Al will learn just how far he’ll go to protect his own.

Buy it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes, or GooglePlay!  And make sure to tell all your friends about it on Goodreads!

Read an excerpt
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