Ripping Ghost Stories for a Blacked Out Halloween

Carnacki, The Ghost-FinderIt’s beginning to look like Halloween will be a “dark and stormy night” for much of the East Coast this year, with a paucity of mini-ghouls and goblins knocking at the door. In fact, some of our BVC authors and many BVC friends may be reading by candlelight that night.

For them, and for anyone who would like a lights-out reading thrill, I highly recommend getting acquainted (or re-acquainted) with William Hope Hodgson, who’s unlikely to come knocking at your door, seeing that his career as a writer of supernatural horror—and his life—ended in the mundane horror of the Great War. In the preceding eleven years he had produced an oeuvre about which H. P. Lovecraft commented, in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature :

“Of rather uneven stylistic quality, but vast occasional power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life, is the work of William Hope Hodgson, known today far less than it deserves to be. Despite a tendency toward conventionally sentimental conceptions of the universe, and of man’s relation to it and to his fellows, Mr. Hodgson is perhaps second only to Algernon Blackwood in his serious treatment of unreality. Few can equal him in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and insignificant details, or in conveying feelings of the spectral and the abnormal in connection with regions or buildings.”

There, quite concisely, is a clue to what you’ll encounter if you dip into Hodgson’s books—although it’s best to be careful what you start with, especially if you’re not enamored of Edwardian prose. I recommend Carnacki, the Ghost Finder, a collection originally serialized in The Idler. You could also call it “Ripping Ghost Stories” for the enthusiasm and purple-tinged prose. It’s a quick read. But I guarantee that, with Carnacki, you will encounter things that you will never forget. When Hodgson is good, he’s unbeatable. Continue reading

Proclaim liberty throughout all the land

The full quotation behind the famous excerpt on the Liberty Bell goes like this:

And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. (Lev 25:10)

In the jubilee year, all debts were to be cancelled, alienated property returned to its original owners, and slaves freed. As Ched Myers says, “God’s people are instructed to dismantle, on a regular basis, the fundamental patterns and structures of stratified wealth and power, so that there is ‘enough for everyone.’”

That’s not the understanding of liberty that most people are celebrating today. It’s not anything our rulers—nor the Domination System in which they move, and live, and have their being—are willing to allow. So instead of jubilee, year by year we get a increasingly shallow, idolatrous celebration of nationalism and militarism on Independence Day, lest we hear and see and turn.

I think the prophets—of whom Frederick Buechner said none ever received a second invitation to dinner, let alone a BBQ and fireworks display—have much to say to us on this day. Here are three excerpts that especially resonate for me. Reading them in context makes even more vivid their applicability to our present state.

This one is for “malefactors of great wealth” who no longer understand the meaning of a commonwealth:

Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land. The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing: “Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. (Isaiah 5:8-9)

This one is for militarists, who no more than Isaiah’s audience understand “blowback:”

Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we have an agreement; when the overwhelming scourge passes through it will not come to us; for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter”; therefore thus says the Lord GOD… I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet; and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter.” (Isaiah 28:15-20)

Then your covenant with death will be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not stand; when the overwhelming scourge passes through you will be beaten down by it. As often as it passes through it will take you; for morning by morning it will pass through, by day and by night; and it will be sheer terror to understand the message. For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on it, and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself in it.

And this is for all those among our rulers—the politicians, the pundits, the plutocrats, and the whole apanage of the Powers—who take this day in vain, prating of liberty while forging ever stronger chains for us:

“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)


Giveaway at the New Bookstore in Town

Balloons and books at Book View CafeWe’ve officially launched our new bookstore over at Book View Café, and we’re giving away books to celebrate.

It’s been quite a process getting to this milestone, as vividly described a couple of weeks ago by Linda Nagata, whose WordPress-fu was indispensable to the effort. We’ve been running the bookstore in “stealth” mode since then, and aside from a few mysterious rumblings and hissings from the basement (which could as easily be a dragon or Dr. Ovamilla’s steam-powered nostriscope acting up again), nothing has blown up. So it’s entirely safe for you, dear reader, to drop in and browse. No hard hats required.

To make you welcome, we’re giving you a chance–no, multiple chances–to win the book of your choice. Just drop in any time between June 1 and June 7 and choose the book you want. Eligible books are marked with a gold star–that’s just about everything except omnibus editions and the Breaking Waves anthology.

Then come back here and leave a comment with the name and author of the book and why you want it (we may use that comment for publicity purposes). When the promotion ends, the comment posted closest to a date and time I’ve already chosen is the winner, and if you’re the winner, I’ll send you a coupon for the book of your choice. You can also enter to win at the bookstore itself, and on the other member sites listed in the Grand Opening Celebration post.


Ambush Proposal

In May of 2003 I had a rather delightful problem on my hands. Deborah and I had been “serious” for five years, and we had been looking forward to marriage for some time, but I hadn’t felt easy about proposing to her before her divorce was finalized. But now it was, and I could.

The problem? How could I make the proposal a surprise? I couldn’t ask her out to a nice restaurant or a romantic getaway spot—even if we hadn’t been together for half a decade, she’s as close to a mind reader as you’d want to meet when it comes to emotional matters, and would have known immediately what was up. But I didn’t want it to be a casual affair, either.

So I ambushed her in church.

At the time we were regularly attending St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Ben Lomond, California. I was a long-time Episcopalian, and Deborah, who is Jewish, had become what I jokingly referred to as a “flying buttress” of the church, supporting it from the outside. She would listen to—and sometimes read—the Old Testament lesson and join in the recital of the Psalm, and then read the Talmud the rest of the time. I sang in the choir.

So Deborah had no warning at all on the first of June, 2003 when, in the middle of the service, between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, after the announcements and blessings, I stepped out of the choir and asked her to join me at the front of the church. (The rector and parish secretary were delighted co-conspirators.) After a brief extemporaneous introduction, I delivered my proposal in the form of a sonnet, giving her my maternal grandmother’s wedding ring at the ultimate couplet:

We bless God for this grace: that He once said,
“It is not good for you to be alone;”
That, two-by-two, he weaves a tale whose threads
Are intertwined as close as bone to bone.
As Christ ‘twas this he chose to bless with His
First miracle, as water became wine;
‘Twas this He meant that evening we first kissed:
A first knot in our tapestry divine.
For then, as if in echo to that greater
Story that Abraham and Sarah heard;
Passing, much like them, through tears and laughter
We found a destiny we’d judged absurd.
And so, to tie the next knot in our life
I ask you, Deborah, will you be my wife?

Great poetry it is not, but it had the desired effect—although, being speechless, she could only nod at first. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a picture of my compliance when Deborah found her voice and asked “Aren’t you supposed to be kneeling?”

Almost as memorable were the reactions of the congregation, which were almost entirely gender-dependent. The women all said it was one of the most romantic things they’d ever seen, and the men, with a couple of exceptions, said they thought it was one of the bravest things they’d ever seen.

But I say that necessity makes heroes of us all—there was no way I was going to let her get away!

(Cross-posted at Book View Cafe.)

Ruler of Naught: Coming December 27 from Book View Cafe

Ruler of Naught


December 28: Sherwood and I talk about how ebook publishing let us dive into rewriting a 20-year-old space opera at Scalzi’s Big Idea.

December 28: Sherwood Smith talks about Star Wars, Dave Trowbridge, and the Zing! of inspiration.

December 27: Deborah J. Ross talks about The Lesbian Chocolate Sex Scene, or Life With Exordium.

December 27: The The Phoenix in Flight is on sale for $0.99 through January 27th to help new readers get started on the series.

In the sequel to The Phoenix in Flight, Brandon vlith-Arkad, who fled the Mandalic Palace and his old life only hours ahead of assassination, is now heir to the Panarchy. He only wants to rescue his father, the Panarch. But everyone wants of piece of him. The Dol’jharians, who smashed the Panarchy and took his father prisoner. A Rifter pirate and her crew, who helped him escape a doomed planet—twice—and now wonder what to do about a royal prisoner with the price of ten planets on his head. And the remnants of the government of the Thousand Suns, for whom he’d at best be an inconvenience.

And that’s before things go seriously pear-shaped. Racing ahead of the light-speed news of their attack with FTL comms and weapons looted from a fortress built millions of years ago, the Dol’jharians and those Rifters allied with them are consolidating their victories. Elements of the Panarchist Navy struggle to understand what’s happening, find surviving units, and strike back. And Eusabian of Dol’jhar, now master of the Mandala from which his defeated enemy once ruled the Thousand Suns, awaits news of the Heart of Kronos, the missing key to ultimate power.

Which lies in the hands of Brandon’s captor. The chase is on, and unexpected detours await.

Sherwood and I are fortunate to have the services of the talented Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein as cover artist for the revised edition of our space opera, Exordium. Book Two, Ruler of Naught, comes out December 27th from Book View Cafe, and Rhi has captured perfectly the feeling of the book. It carries forward the theme of the new cover she did for The Phoenix in Flight, which will continue with the next three books.


When a Book Can Change You Forever

In the acknowledgements for the 10th anniversary edition of American Gods, Neil Gaiman mentions “the inimitable Harlan Ellison, whose collective Deathbird Stories burned itself into the back of my head when I was still of an age where a book could change me forever” (my emphasis).

At Loscon this year, Sherwood Smith, Deborah, and I will be doing an “unpanel” inviting participants to share their experience of such a book or story with others. This won’t be your usual “we talk, you listen” format, but a structured “deep listening” exercise designed to let everyone be heard. We’ll start with an introduction by Deborah, then Sherwood will talk about deep reading and how it relates to deep listening, and then I’ll introduce the format.

Here’s the handout we’ll have for people who show up late, which explains the process.

Continue reading

The Parable of the Young Man and the Old

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets the trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen was killed in action one week before the Armistice. His mother received the news of his death a week later as the church bells were ringing out in celebration.

God bless Peru

We got our the first red potatoes of the season yesterday. They started life as about 50 potatoes that neighbors gave us two years ago because they’d sprouted. I didn’t harvest last year because the plants didn’t do well. This year they came back up more vigorously.

red potatoes in cardboard box

Red potatoes from alley plot

There are about six more rows that should yield this many or more, so we’re looking at 30-40 pounds of potatoes. That’s actually not a very high yield, but the soil in that part of the garden is very poor. It was once a road, which was “metaled” (oiled) in the 5os, creating an impermeable hardpan that’s now about eight inches down, locking the soil away from the nutrients contributed by the oak leaves and acorns that fall everywhere. Two years ago, when we got the potatoes, I broke up the hardpan in seven rows with a pickaxe, but it will take several seasons to bring up the fertility sufficiently.

Here’s the row after I dug up the potatoes. I took the opportunity to widen it by digging up more hardpan on each side. The black strip down the middle is the T-tape irrigation, which had been buried.

trench in garden with spade and garden fork

A potato trench after harvest

Once I’ve finished the harvest, I’ll fill the trenches in with an aged horse manure and sawdust mixture and some oak mulch, layer some dirt over it, and plant fava beans for the winter. That will get things ready for corn and curcurbits next year.

Friday evening we pressure-cooked the potatoes and had them with butter and a bit of salt and pepper. Creamy and delicious–potatoes, too, are better fresh from the garden!

A new mesopredator in our semi-feral garden

Gayatri in the garden for the first time (From Blog Pictures)

I maintain a semi-feral garden to encourage a lively ecology of beneficial insects and predators, which tends to minimize the need for intervention to control pests.

To attract bees, small wasps and other useful insects I let catnip, feverfew, foxglove, white clover, lemon balm, borage, bee balm, marigolds, Love-Lies-Bleeding Amaranth, German chamomile, and a variety of flowering weeds come up anywhere there aren’t vegetables. Yarrow, fennel, a huge drift of self-sowing parsnips (very attractive to ladybugs and finches) in the back alley plot, and a blackberry patch do their bit as well. There are plenty of random edibles too: purslane (great Turkish-style in yogurt thinned with olive oil along with diced tomatoes and mint) and arugula are everywhere, garlic is starting to establish itself, and the asparagus patch is spreading west.

The foundations of the garden sheds are unscreened, so we generally have one skunk family a year for rodent control: no gophers for four years now. (The dog is not allowed in the garden, nor outside after dusk.) Wood piles here and there shelter garden snakes, so we have little trouble with pillbugs and earwigs, and the rodent population is only occasionally a problem. We live in a small oak grove, so prolific with acorns that squirrels don’t do much more than steal an occasional apple. In fact, up until this week, the only troublesome animal has been raccoons: I have to put an electric stock fence up each year when the Syrah grapevines reach veraison to have any grapes at all.

But a couple of days ago I saw a brush rabbit in my garden, perhaps attracted by the white clover throughout the garden, one of a rabbit’s favorite foods. Up with that I will not put, for we’re getting a lot of produce out of our garden now–all of tonight’s dinner except the salmon: cucumber salad, German butterball potatoes pan-fried with red onion, and Sunburst squash. And I’m not willing to share more than a few nibbles, which is not the kind of behavior one can expect from lepine invaders.

So we’re introducing a new predator to the garden:I spent a few hours outside with our two young cats, who’ve lived indoors since we got them from the animal shelter. The garden is securely fenced against dogs and coyotes (we haven’t heard any of the latter for five years; bobcats have been more common), and I’m introducing the cats to the outdoors a couple of hours at a time. They won’t be out at night.

Our little pirate cat, Gayatri, although quite vocal, and determined to follow me everywhere for the first hour or so, loved it. Pretty soon she was dashing across the garden and up the fruit trees (there are going to be some very surprised squirrels), or crawling under the garden shed (where the rabbit vanished to when I came upon it). Didn’t find anything. Yet. The fact that she has only one eye didn’t slow her down at all; she’s long since learned to move her head to give herself depth perception.

By contrast, our large black cat, Shakir, did not enjoy the experience. He hid in the orchard (semi-dwarf apple and pears trees) and ventured out into the former vineyard only a couple of times. He’ll adapt, I think. He seemed reassured by Gayatri’s relative insouciance, and even started to stalk her a couple of times until paranoia reasserted itself.

I’m hoping that the cats’ presence, their scent, and their scat here and there will discourage the bunnies, and other small furry pests. I’ll be monitoring their predation, and controlling it as much as I can (for instance, they won’t be allowed out if I hear quail moving through the neighborhood). I suppose we’ll be receiving gifts on the doorstep too as Gayatri and Shakir do their part for the household economy.

What a Good Dog!

Our German Shepherd Dog Oka had a vet adventure today, and his good behavior saved his owners several hundred dollars.

From Blog Pictures

Oka is almost eleven, although he still moves like a much younger dog, with that uncanny floating trot that only the GSD has. But for several years he has suffered from pannus (chronic superficial keratitis), an immune-mediated inflammatory condition of the cornea that is most often seen in GSDs. Untreated, it leads to blindness, but it is easily controlled by corticosteroid eye drops.

However, being steroids, these drops result in an immune-compromised tear film, which raises the risk of infection. About a month ago, Oka developed an indolent ulcer on the cornea of his left eye. Our vet tried stopping the steroids and putting him on a course of topical antibiotics plus Metacam (an NSAID), but it still didn’t heal. So today I took him to Ann Gratzek, the local animal ophthalmologist.

The usual treatment for an indolent ulcer is a superficial keratotomy: basically playing tic-tac-toe on the dog’s cornea with a needle to promote the migration of surrounding epithelial cells. This is done with a topical anesthetic. But after beginning the procedure, Dr. Gratzek decided that Oka’s ulcer was too deep and a superficial keratectomy was called for, which usually requires general anesthesia, or at least heavy sedation.

Here’s the amazing part: she just switched to the proper knife and kept going, and Oka sat there and let her slice away the surface of his cornea until all of the degenerative tissue was gone. I was straddling his back and gently holding his muzzle while the vet tech assisted in stabilizing his head, but apart from a bit of a grumble during the prep (before the actual surgery), Oka was pretty much relaxed, and didn’t try to move. He got lots of cookies, and lots of praise, and walked out with a brand-new contact lens in his eye to protect the cornea while it heals.

Right now he’s chilling out in the living room on Tramadol, a narcotic painkiller, which has so far spared him the Cone of Indignity, but I’m watching him carefully to make sure he doesn’t start rubbing his eye. With any luck, his recheck in a week will reveal a healed cornea, and the inevitable granulation will fade over time, leaving only a minor impairment of his vision (and I suspect, that like 30% of GSDs, he’s rather nearsighted, so that probably won’t make any difference).