Dystopia Versus Utopia

I think I was first exposed to dystopia in fifth grade. Not that my fifth grade teacher was some kind of demon or sadist, mind you. But it was around that time that I read for the first time, in quick succession, 1984, Brave New World, and Anthem (not to mention discovered its musical adaptation). There’s something seductive and compelling about dystopias, warnings about how things can go so very wrong. I’ve dived back into them a lot over the years, on the screen and on the page.

I’ve had less experience with utopias. I’ve never read the Thomas More work that gave birth to the name, if not the concept. I did read Plato’s Republic in college, but it’s hard to look at that as really being utopic to modern eyes. The other utopian novel I really remember reading is Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Written in 1888, it’s about a guy who sleeps for more than a century and awakes to find it a socialist paradise. Given what had actually happened by the time 2000 rolled around, it was a hilariously out of date prediction.

But I started thinking more about utopias as works of fiction recently after I read Island.

Island

It’s Aldous Huxley’s last novel and a kind of rejoinder to Brave New World. It covers a lot of the same big ideas as the earlier dystopian novel, but in an (allegedly) positive way. There’s a chart in the Wikipedia entry for the book that does a good job of boiling down the comparison:

IslandChart

Whatever the charms of Pala, the fictional southeast Asian island nation that provides the backdrop for Island, it’s not a very engaging work of fiction. Nominally it’s about a Brit, Will, who washes ashore there (intentionally, it seems) and experiences all the island’s many facets while recovering from his injuries. Said facets are a blend Buddhism, western liberalism, and (to at least one person’s eyes) Scientology and make sense in a lot of ways. Still, Will just basically drifts from place to place and while some individual scenes are well executed (there’s a very expected death later on that’s really touching), there isn’t much of a story.

I think this might be a problem inherent to utopian stories. Dystopias are about struggle, usually individuals standing up to some kind of overwhelming force. It’s easy to empathize with those characters, to buy into their struggle. Likewise, it’s easy to see where the antagonists in such stories are coming from. Written well, they think they’re doing the right thing, too. It’s the basis of good conflict, which is what drama is all about. In utopias, by contrast, everyone is pretty much happy. There’s not much conflict and, thus, not much drama. The narrative can be interesting, maybe even occasionally compelling, but it’s hardly something that sucks you in as a reader.

Another issue with utopias is that they can often seem kind of dystopic, depending on your point of view. I mentioned Plato’s Republic earlier, in which he sketches out his version of an ideal society – one that is anti-democratic, requires a rigid class system, and squishes individuals for the benefit of the state – that sounds more like a dystopia to me. Huxley’s Pala sounds like a pretty nice place – tropical weather, mind expanding drugs, all the sex you can have, creative alternatives to criminal justice – but it’s not perfect. For one thing there are mynah birds constantly harping out slogans (“Attention! Here and now, boys!”) that would be aggravating to no end. For another, all this apparently comes from the top down, mandated via a government overhaul that happened a generation or two back. There’s no indication what happens when somebody dissents from this version of the perfect life, how that’s handled. The only naysayers are the soon-to-be ruler and his European mother who are so out of touch that it’s clear Huxley doesn’t want you to take them seriously.

But the thing that struck me the most as dystopic in Island comes near the end, when the main character is talking with a local child about Oedipus Rex. They have the play in Pala, but it has a happy ending, wherein two children from Pala enter the play and convince everyone not to kill or maim themselves because none of this is their fault. To the problem of Oedipus being married to his mother, they simply advice stop being married to her. It all reeks of one of those stories modified by a totalitarian regime to show Dear Leader giving wisdom to historical figures and changing history. It’s also bizarrely simple minded in terms of a “solution” to the problem.

In the end, what makes it most difficult for me to get into utopias is that they are, at bottom, dreams that we know will never come true. Dystopias, by contrast, always seem prescient and just over the horizon (the good ones, at least). It’s not for nothing the More’s term means “no place.” Huxley basically concedes this in Island, as the book ends with the island’s new ruler (the one with the European mother) joining forces with the neighboring nation’s strongman to begin a quest to “modernize” Pala. Even in fiction, such places can’t last long.

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There Goes My Credibility

I am, as The Decemberists say, “a writer, writer of fictions,” but does that make me a lying sack of shit? I don’t think so, but I hope I never have to find out in court, at least in Alabama.

FryLying

William McKinney choked his girlfriend and then stabbed to death her mother’s boyfriend. At his trial he claimed he was acting in self defense (to the stabbing, at least). He was also a writer (unpublished, apparently). Thus, when he was testifying in his own defense, he was asked:

Defense counsel objected to the relevance of all this, but was overruled. The prosecutor continued:

Q. Did you consider yourself a writer? Writer of fiction?

A. Inside that book bag, I’m pretty sure my book was in it maybe.

Q. Okay. Now, so you were writing your own book, right?

A. Well, I had written a book, yes.

Q. Okay. When did you write your book?

A. Back during my incarceration.

Q. And you had it — they were composition notebooks, right?

A. (Witness nods head affirmatively.)

Q. That you had written chapters in; chapter one, chapter two, chapter three? All that, right?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. In fact, that is bigger than the bag that’s State’s Exhibit 47. It was a very large book that you were writing, wasn’t it?

A. Yes, sir, I assume.

Q. Lots of handwritten pages?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. And it was a work of fiction, I assume?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. So you at least considered yourself a writer?

Defense counsel objected to the relevance of all this, but was overruled. The prosecutor continued:

Q. Did you consider yourself a writer? Writer of fiction?

A. No, sir.

Q. You’re not a writer of fiction?

A. I wouldn’t call myself a writer, no, sir.

***

Q. But this book of yours is a work of fiction. But everything you’re testifying here — now, you’re telling us the truth today, aren’t you?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. You know you’re under oath and you’re looking at these folks and you’re going to tell them what happened that day, right?

A. Yes, sir.

In other words, “since you can make something up in one context, why should we believe you in any other situation?” That logic is dubious, at best. But it was good enough, at least for the court of appeals:

McKinney is not entitled to relief on this issue. As the State notes, ‘[t]he obvious inference the prosecutor was trying to draw was that, if McKinney writes novels or other fiction, then his account of the murder of Mr. Jackson [was] also fiction …. Whether McKinney was telling the truth was very relevant and a proper subject for cross-examination.’ (State’s brief, pp. 24-25.) See generally Wiggins v. State, 193 So. 3d 765, 805 (Ala. Crim. App. 2014) (“‘Counsel is given wide latitude and has the right and duty to cross-examine vigorously a defendant who takes the stand in his own defense. “A [prosecutor] may ask a defendant … questions tending to discredit [his] testimony, no matter how disparaging the question may be.”‘ State v. Rush, 340 N.C. 174, 186, 456 S.E.2d 819, 826 (1995).”).

I tend to agree with Eugene Volokh that:

To be sure, it’s perfectly plausible that McKinney was lying, just as it’s plausible that anyone else is lying; but I don’t think that would-be novelists are any more likely to lie on the stand than anyone else, or even any better at lying (unless perhaps they are novelists of proven and substantial gifts).

But I’d go further – even a writer of “proven and substantial gifts” knows the difference between truth and fiction. George RR Martin can spin him some tales, but I don’t think that means he’s lying if he testifies that the light at the intersection was really green. I do tend to agree with Volokh, however, that this was a “wet noodle of an argument” that wasn’t really prejudicial to McKinney. Still, it was irrelevant and the prosecutor was certainly trying to be prejudicial. Intent should count for something.

All in all, I think I’m insulted. I mean, I thought I’d sunk about a low as I could go, in terms of societal approval, by being a public defender. I had no idea that my scarlet letter, warning the wary of my wickedness, would be a W!

KeepCalm

On the Heartbreak of Mediocrity

I think I’ve mentioned before that I have an anti-hype reflex. If I hear too effusive praise about a book or movie or album my natural skeptic comes out. Nothing can be that good. But we all have our blind spots and mine when it comes to hype is my alma mater’s football program. I tend to get a little irrational.

Every year before WVU sets foot on the field it seems like this year is going to be the big one. Sure, some teams get more hype than others, but they all get some of it. It helps that we usually have a schedule that’s weak up front, so we run up a few wins before we play anybody good. This year that was particularly true, with the hype machine going into overdrive with senior QB Will Grier starting the season as a legit Heisman candidate.

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And yet, it’s all still hype. Here we are at the end of the regular season with a good, but hardly great, 8-3 record and a realization that we beat all of one team with a winning record. The familiarity of all this made me dig into the numbers a bit and has led me to a sobering, but fairly obvious, conclusion – WVU is only a mediocre football program.

In 2011 WVU jumped to the Big XII from the remnants of the Big East conference, which subsequently rebirthed itself as the American Athletic Conference (“AAC”). So we’ve had seven seasons to see how WVU stacks up in one of the “power 5” conferences, where aspirations of national championships live. In those seasons (all with the same head coach, mind) we’ve gone 51-37 overall, 33-30 in conference. Not horrible, but not great either, particularly when you consider that seven of those non-conference wins were against FCS programs. Digging further, in that time we’ve only won one bowl game (out of five), and our record against teams ranked in the AP top 25 at the end of the season is just 4-19. Against the two big prestige programs in our conference, Texas and Oklahoma, we’re 4-10. All four of those wins came against Texas, by the way, who have been down for several seasons. In those seasons we’ve finished in third place in the conference twice (including this year), with other finishes between fifth and eighth place. Our average conference finish is 5.28.

This is the very definition of mediocre. We generally finish in the middle of a power 5 conference and rarely beat “big” programs. Oh sure, we get a few big wins here and there (hello Texas this season), but those are outliers. Or, as we call them in sports, upsets. They’re games where we play better than we really are, punch above our weight. It’s what mediocrities sometimes do.

That we’ve become a mediocrity is even clearer if you look at what WVU football was doing before the Big XII. In our last seven years in the Big East we were 70-20 (64-20 without the FBS teams), with a 37-12 conference record. We won the conference three times and never finished lower than third, for an average finish of 1.71. Along the way we produced a 10-7 record against top 25 teams and won five of seven bowl games – including beating Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. That’s right, the Big East Mountaineers did something the Big XII ones have never done.

Now, the Big East by that point wasn’t the biggest of conferences (schools like Miami, Virginia Tech, and Syracuse had already left or were on the way out) and the AAC, which rose from its ashes, isn’t one of the Power 5 conferences for football, but maybe that’s the point? Some fans thought we were a big fish in a small pond in the Big East (and would be in the AAC), but it looks like a conference like that is about the right-sized pond for us. Would I love to see WVU win the Big XII and make it into the “playoff?” Sure, but how likely is that to ever happen? We had our best shot in years to make that kind of noise in 2018 and we couldn’t pull it off. Is it really better to struggle to finish mid-pack in a Power 5 conference than compete for a title regularly in a smaller conference? Given the geographical weirdness of us being in the Big XII, I’m not so sure.

All of which makes me think of the film Amadeus.

In spite of the movie’s title being his name, the center of Amadeus really isn’t Mozart. Rather, it’s his lesser contemporary (and rival, of some sort), Salieri, who has to toil in the genius’ shadow. At the end of the film, as Salieri is being wheeled to breakfast, he says to the priest who’s been interviewing him:

Goodbye, Father. I’ll speak for you. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.

Then, to the assembled loons:

Mediocrities everywhere, now and to come: I absolve you all! Amen! Amen! Amen!

I guess what I’m saying is that after all these years, we maybe need to reconcile ourselves to our fate as mediocrities. Maybe WVU should change its mascot to the Fightin’ Salieris!

On Judging A Book By Its Cover

The old saw is that you shouldn’t just a book by its cover. That’s a good rule of thumb when you’re dealing with people or if your presented with new ideas, but when it comes to actual books it’s kind of silly. Truth is a cover can often be someone’s first impression of a book and it can say several things about its contents, from the level of professionalism involved to the genre to particular aspects of the story or characters a reader might find intriguing.

Take, for example, the cover of The Water Road:

TWR Cover

That cover, I hope, tells you several things. Most notably, that this is the first book in a trilogy, so it’s part of an epic story. The background image and script mark it as fantasy, but the crossed muskets mark it as a different kind of fantasy – this isn’t your traditional sword and sorcery story. Without reading word one, you’ve got some idea of what to expect going in.

I don’t always pay that much attention to covers as a reader, since I do most of my reading via Audible listening and I rarely have the full-sized book in my hand. Not that covers never make a difference – one of my recent reads, Johannes Cabal: Necromancer, I got purely because the cover on the shelf at the bookstore drew me in (it was darkly funny – highly recommended). So, anyway, the blurb usually controls, as it did for Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz. Here’s the first half:

Autonomous features a rakish female pharmaceutical pirate named Jack who traverses the world in her own submarine. A notorious anti-patent scientist who has styled herself as a Robin Hood heroine fighting to bring cheap drugs to the poor, Jack’s latest drug is leaving a trail of lethal overdoses across what used to be North America—a drug that compels people to become addicted to their work.

Pretty cool, huh? I loved the idea of a rogue drug maker slipping through the high seas like a 21st-century Captain Nemo. But here’s the cover for Autonomous:

Autonomous_Design by Will Staehle

Does that really match the blurb? It doesn’t and, turns out, for good reason. Autonomous (which is pretty good – I recommend it) really isn’t about Jack so much as it is the beings in her orbit, particularly the robots and other enhanced beings. The book is really about their place in the world and what it means to really be free (or not). Hence the title. Hence the mechanical arm in chains. Hence some of my disappointment with the book itself.

Which is to say that covers can be tricky things. We, as authors, want people to judge our books by them – judge them as worthy of picking up, of clicking on, of reading. But they’re also a first impression, something you only get one chance to make. The right cover is a high wire act, one that most of us aren’t comfortable performing without a net.

Weekly Read: How to Stop Time

Every time I finish reading a book or watching a movie I have a routine I call “doing my due diligence.” I hop on the Web and read up on what I’ve just finished, looking for critical reviews, viewer feedback, and any interesting interviews/analyses I can find. Rarely do I find a review headline that so completely nailed my feeling about book during this due diligence as I did after I finished How to Stop Time. As the Irish Times put it:

StopTimeHeadline

I mean, it can’t get much better for a writer than for a critic to say “the only thing wrong is there’s not more of it,” right? Always leave them wanting more, as the saying goes.

It’s not quite that clear cut when it comes to How to Stop Time, but it does get pretty close.

The central conceit of the book is a reverse of progeroid syndromes, actual conditions where people age rapidly, usually dying young. The main character here, Tom Hazard, has just the opposite problem – he only ages one year for every 14 that pass. He’s not immortal, but long lived and robustly healthy. Needless to say, it causes issues.

The book bounces back between “now,” where Tom is trying to lead a normal life as a history teacher (makes sense), and various points in his past. Thus we see (in the 16th century) Tom do the one thing that all nearly immortal souls make – falling in love. The scars of that love run deep, reaching into the “now” world as Tom tries to overcome them. Along the way he rubs elbows with some famous folks – works for Shakespeare, sails with Captain Cook, hangs out with Fitzgerald and Zelda – but mostly drifts kind of aimlessly.

Trying to give some structure to things, and help those like Tom stay off the radar (because there are others), is the Albatross Society, so named because the birds have long life spans. Hendrich, the leader of this group of “Albers” who’s been around so long he actually looks old, dictates the parameters of Tom’s life as a mean of protection, he says, although it’s never really clear if there’s much of a threat.

Which is part of the problem with How to Stop Time. While the flashbacks are all interesting and dive deep into Tom’s character, the actual story doesn’t really get going very far until well past the book’s midpoint, at which is careens into motion so fast that it’s hard to keep up. In truth, this seems like about half a book, rather than a full novel. Is the threat Hendrich repeatedly intones real? Could Tom really find love with a regular woman in the modern world? What about his daughter with that long-dead love, a woman who has the same condition as he? So many areas go unexplored as the book barrels to its finish.

So it’s not so much that How to Stop Time is so great from beginning to end that you just want more of the good stuff; it’s more that it feels incomplete. Which is a shame, because the run up is really good and the basic idea is executed really well. Still highly recommended, even if you might wind up saying “is that all?” when you’re done.

HowtoStopTime

And Then There Were Two

Since I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year because I’m still knee deep in working on the first book of the Unari Empire Trilogy, I figured now was a good time to let y’all in on some exciting developments with the book.

First and foremost – it has a title! A working title, at least. Right now the first book in the trilogy is going to be Gods of the Empire. That should be followed by Widows of the Empire and, finally, Heroes of the Empire. Subject to change, of course, but it’s a far sight better than Untitled.

Second, the trilogy has been reshaped somewhat (again). My original plan was to have three main characters whose stories developed through the three books. After doing a lot more writing, I’ve decided to cut one of those characters out, for the most part. He has a role to play in the end of things, so he’ll make an appearance, but I ultimately decided not to make him a main character. It will help keep the word count in the right area and, I hope, sharpen the story a bit by narrowing the focus. He’ll get a stand-alone short story to flesh out his background, eventually.

That means that . . . third – the complete first draft is finally done! Recall that I had what was going to be book one of seven done before restructuring it into a trilogy. Now I’ve written a draft of the second half of the first book, so after a couple of editing passes to bring it up to speed with the first half I will have a good, solid base to start a more holistic edit of Gods of the Empire.

If all goes according to plan, I should have a finished product in the first half of 2019.

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Off I go!

Author Interview – Natalie Sypolt

After a little hiatus we’re back with West Virginia short story writer Natalie Sypolt.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I’m Natalie Sypolt. I live in Preston County, West Virginia and I teach at Pierpont Community & Technical College. I also run the high school portion of the West Virginia Writers Workshop, held each summer at WVU. I write primarily short fiction set in Appalachia.

What is it about West Virginia (or Appalachia more generally) that makes it such good fodder for stories? Is it because it’s home or something else?

I think for me I write about West Virginia and Appalachia because it is what I know, what is in my heart. Any place can be fodder for story. I also think it is important to write about this region–to show the stories and lives of people who may not get the spotlight much (or who get it only for certain, usually unfortunate and sometimes completely wrong, reasons). No one ever asks why a story is set in NYC or LA. Those just seem like natural choices. WV is a natural choice for me, and when I talk to young writers, I try to get them to see that they can tell an important story and set it here, where they know. They don’t  have to set their work in a metropolitan city for it to be taken seriously.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

My first book, The Sound of Holding Your Breath, is out in November from WVU Press. It is a collection of short stories. All are set in West Virginia. I am currently completing my second book, which is a collection of linked stories, also mostly set in West Virginia.

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Which story in The Sound of Holding Your Breath is your favorite or means the most to you? Why?

I don’t know that I can really name a “favorite”. I do really feel close to “My Brothers and Me”. I wrote that story all in one setting after a summer of local news stories involving domestic violence and partner murder/suicides. It felt important and necessary. I also really love the last story in the collection, “Stalking the White Deer”, because I wrote it at Hindman and then had the story published in Appalachian Heritage, which had always been a goal publication.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

I primarily write fiction. I’ve always been a great reader, since I was a child, and I think I first started writing as a way to enter into the stories I loved.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

Honestly, process is not something I think a lot about in my own work. Most writers I know do, and I respect that a lot, but for me I don’t have a set “process” that I follow every time I write a story. Usually, I will have thought about the story—or at least the start of a story—for a long time before I ever put words to paper. If I’m writing a short story, I most love to write it all in one setting so that the voice and energy stay the same. I often will start by writing by hand—a couple paragraphs or a page or so—and then switch over to a computer once I’ve gotten started.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

 I don’t know that I can name a favorite character.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

 I love research, so I guess nothing would ever seem too weird to me. Most of my stories, though, are pretty realistic and set here, in the world that I best know. One of my more recent stories, though (not in this current book) does take place partially in Ireland. I knew I wanted to have the main character visit the Cliffs of Mohr and that she’d had a situation that involved a loved one attempting suicide. When I’d been at the Cliffs a year before, I had wondered if people came there to kill themselves—a morbid thought, yes, but it is ridiculously easy to reach the edge. So, when writing this story, I did a little research on this and discovered that the Cliffs of Mohr is close to the top of this list of suicide locations in Ireland. I then fell down a depressing rabbit hole of research that did end up in the story.

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What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

Oh, boy. Well, a lot of things. I think the most important thing I learned after making myself miserable in grad school is that my voice is just as important as anyone else’s. Just because someone talks louder doesn’t mean that they’re right, especially when it comes to my writing. I learned to trust myself more, and to worry about what other people thought a little less.

Do you have your work read by beta readers or others before it becomes final? How do you handle that feedback while trying to “worry what other people thought a little less”?

It depends. Sometimes I will send a story to my friend Melissa, who I went to graduate school with. We’re very good readers for one another and I trust her explicitly. (She, by the way, is embarking on a year long road trip in which she will visit all 50 states in a camper van–follow her at EdgyontheRoad.com.). More often, though, I don’t show anyone. That’s a bad answer, and I should do more workshopping, but I just don’t. I’ve learned to trust myself, and that has to be enough for now. I would not mind having a writer’s group someday, though.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

Well, I would maybe not have to work quite as much, which would be nice. Having some structured time is good, though, and nothing really structures time as much as having a job.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

This is a great question for me because I love talking about books. Within the last couple of years I have discovered the novels of William Gay. I had read some of his short fiction in school but had no idea how great his novels are. They are dark and creepy, but also have this beating heart of humanity. I also read We Have Always Lived at the Castle by Shirley Jackson (who is best known for “The Lottery”) and was totally blown away. So, so good. As for contemporary writers that I am in love with right now: I really enjoy the work of Michele Young-Stone who writes these magical realism stories that I could never write but love to read and think about. I also liked Silas House’s latest novel, Southernmost.

What do you think your next project will be?

As I said, I’m finishing the first draft of my linked collection. I have also started writing a novel set in West Virginia and loosely based on a family story that my grandfather told me.

Why did you decide to make your second book a collection of linked stories? How has the need to link them together made writing them different from the stories in your current book? 

 In my head, everything is already connected. That’s how my brain works. Even though my current book isn’t called a linked collection, I imagine all those people inhabiting the same world, living as neighbors or family members. I think that the idea for the linked stories started several years ago when Melissa and I decided we were going to write linked collection together–she’d write one story, and then I’d write one to respond to it. That idea didn’t really work out, but I just kept going with the same characters. I also found that it was easier to write when I sat down to work or when I went to a writer’s retreat if I already had a project underway. I could just enter back into the project with a new story.

Learn more about Natalie at her website.

Have Fun Storming the NaNo!

It’s November, which means it’s also National Novel Writing Month!

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I’ve participated in NaNo several times over the years, but I’m sitting this one out. Not because I’m not writing, but because I’m still knee deep in working on the first book of the Unari Trilogy. I’m just not in a good spot to start something new right now.

But, to all of you participating in NaNoWriMo, whether you’re at it for the first time or you’re a seasoned veteran – good luck! Fifty thousand words are only a month away!

have-fun-storming-the-castle

“Killer Queen” – A Short Story

Once again, author Eric Douglas has invited other writers to do some short fiction for Halloween. Once again there’s no word limit or target, so naturally my entry this year is twice as long as last year’s. You can read that one here, as well as my two prior 100-word entries here and here. And, as always, head over to Eric’s place to check out stories from all the other folks.

Now, without ado – “Killer Queen”


Sanchez wasn’t surprised that there was a crush of onlookers and paparazzi when she arrived. A bloody murder at the Calabria Club was just the kind of thing that got social media in an uproar. She whipped out her badge and used it to cut a swath through the gawkers.

“Evening, detective,” said a young officer. “Quite a scene.”

“Nothing like what’s inside, from what I’ve heard,” Sanchez said, slipping under the crime scene tape.

“It ain’t pretty.”

She already knew the basics. They didn’t make any sense, so she did her best to put them out of her mind. She wanted to view the crime scene with the freshest eyes possible.

The Calabria Club was the kind of small, hip club Sanchez could never hope to get into. She imagined it was usually all dim lights and pulsing music. Now it was deadly quiet except for the muffled talk of cops and lit as brightly as the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. It was like when you see the person you took home the night before for the first time in the cold light of morning. Never a pretty picture.

The vic was on the floor next to the bar. She was a young woman of indeterminate ethnicity, with long black hair and a short, sparkly silver dress. She lay on her back, hair spread around her head like ink spilled from a well.

Most of her face was gone.

Sanchez leaned down. “Holy shit.”

Doc Forbes, the medical examiner on call, stepped over. “Never seen anything like it.” She pointed to the vic’s throat. “Ripped clear out. I mean, somebody went in with bare hands and literally tore this woman’s throat apart. I’ve seen mob killings, dismemberments, you know? Where they’re sending a message? Never anything like this.” She shivered and walked away.

Sanchez had never seen anything like it, either. The vic’s face was a mess of blood and torn flesh. In a couple of spots Sanchez could even see bone. The vic’s throat was nothing more than a dark, damp chasm where her windpipe had been.

Sanchez shook her head. There was another officer nearby. “There’s a perp, I understand?”

He nodded to a back room.

Sanchez thanked him and headed behind the bar, toward the back office. She knocked and let herself in.

“I don’t believe it,” was the only thing Sanchez could say. “Twitter was right.”

Stina Blomgren, the up and coming model and social media star, sat slumped in a chair, flanked by a pair of officers. Her hands, caked with blood up past the wrist, lay limp on her lap. Her dress had once been electric blue, but now it was a symphony of arterial red streaks and splashes that would have made Pollock proud. A red smear streaked across her face from her lips, mixing with slowly flowing tears. She was mumbling something Sanchez couldn’t quite make out.

Sanchez tapped Cal Cooney, her partner, on the shoulder. “What happened?”

“We’re getting security footage now,” Cooney whispered, all the while keeping an eye on Stina, “but the witnesses all say that she just went nuts and attacked that girl.”

“Is she a friend? A rival?” Sanchez had a hard time figuring out what could make somebody do that to another human being.

“That we don’t know. She’s not being very helpful, saying ‘something just came over me.’ Over and over, that’s it.” Cooney said. He nodded back over his shoulder. “Stina’s purse is in the next room. Take a look through it, see if there’s anything interesting.”

Sanchez nodded and backed out of the room. In a collection of coats and bags she found a small clutch that matched the dress Stina was wearing. She cleared a spot on the table and dumped the contents out. Out came a state ID card and a couple of credit cards with Stina’s name on them. It was definitely hers. No phone. Maybe somebody in the crowd nicked it. The only other thing of interest was a tube of lipstick.

Sanchez picked it up. The tube was plain white plastic, without any of the design elements she was used to. The only thing on it was a small sticker on the bottom. “Killer Queen,” it said, along with “PINTURA,” the cosmetics company.

“Ooh,” she said. Pintura was so hot these days stores could barely keep it on the shelves. Not that it mattered to Sanchez. This would probably go for at least a sixty, seventy bucks a tube, well out of her reach on a detective’s salary. She popped the top. It was a bright, fiery red, more dazzling than any Sanchez had ever seen, sharp and forceful. It was probably a prototype of some kind, given the plain white tube. One thing was certain – Stina wasn’t going to need it where she was going. It was a shame that it would just wind up rotting in an evidence back somewhere.

Sanchez looked around for moment and, convinced she wasn’t seen, slipped the tube into her pocket. One of the perks of the job.

~~~~~

While the Calabria Club Cat Fight, as the press had dubbed it, was bloody and sensational, it was an easy case to put down. The murder had been filmed by multiple security cameras from beginning to end, with a few cell phone videos managing to capture the bloody conclusion. It was just as the witnesses had said – Stina jumped on the victim without provocation and ripped her apart. They didn’t know each other and had barely interacted at the club. Sanchez’s job was to figure out what happened – that was obvious. She’d let the ADAs and their shrinks try to figure out the why. That was above her pay grade, so she moved on to more pleasant things.

Sanchez grabbed her phone and texted Teo, a guy she met on a dating app a couple of weeks back. They’d met once in person, for afternoon coffee, just to check each other out and make sure they weren’t serial killers. He was cute and had been as nervous as she was, so she decided he was okay. She’d also run his name through the databases at the station. Sure, it was against the rules, maybe even illegal, but this wasn’t the kind of thing you took chances with. She was satisfied that Teo wasn’t a criminal, so it was time to push things to the next level.

They agreed to meet for dinner that evening at a small bistro in Sanchez’s neighborhood. She put on her best little black dress, the one that let her show off the curves she had to pretend she didn’t have at work, and grabbed the lipstick she’d taken from Stina’s bag.

She’d gone to the Pintura website to look up the color, but couldn’t find anything called “Killer Queen” in their lineup. That meant it had to be a prototype or early edition. It went on more smoothly than any lipstick she’d ever used. It was as bright red as she’d imagined, like the paint job on a Ferrari. It glistened just a bit, enough to add a thin shine to her lips. She wondered if there was something else in it, as it burned just a bit on her lips. It was like one of those Aztec chocolates that warms up the back of your mouth just as the chocolate flavor dies off. It wasn’t painful, just odd.

~~~~~

She and Teo sat at the bar and had a drink while they waited for their table to be ready, making small talk. He knew she was a cop, but not yet that she worked homicide. It was too early for her to tell stories of blood, bullets, and ripped apart families. Someday she hoped to have someone she could share those burdens with, but for now she kept him entertained with stories from her days as a beat cop. Amusingly insistent drunks, drag queens on bath salts, and neighbors engaged in the most intense disputes over the most mundane things, by contrast, made for good conversation.

Teo laughed at all the right places and showed some compassion when expected.

Teo didn’t have any amusing work stories. He was an office manager for a law firm that handled “boring business stuff,” as he put it. That made for steady work, but wasn’t particularly exciting. He came to life, though, when he talked about music and photography and his rec league basketball team which, he insisted, was the oldest in New York City.

Sanchez nodded and smiled, then did that flirty thing with her hair that was pretty much reflex when she was feeling like this. She liked Teo and could see something worth building here. She was also getting warm, like she already had an entire bottle of whiskey in her. Part of that was the flush of arousal and excitement at how well this date was going, but it was more intense than she’d ever felt before.

They were shown to their table in the corner. They kept talking over an appetizer and salads, but Sanchez increasingly found herself with less to say. Teo picked up the slack, but she started to feel like her mind was slowing down, keeping her from contributing much to the conversation. The warmth that had begun in her belly had risen and become even fiercer. Although it was winter and she knew the restaurant wasn’t hot, she found herself sweating. She became intensely aware of her own breathing.

She finished another glass of wine.

Were all of Teo’s stories this boring? She started noticing that he wasn’t really able to string two coherent thoughts together, like he was just vomiting up a stream of conscious. Was it her? She wiped her forehead, which was hot and damp. She chugged an entire glass of water in one go.

“Are you all right?” Teo asked. He cocked his head a bit, like he was genuinely curious. He touched her hand on the table, but she pulled away.

“Fine,” she said, shaking her head. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It felt like her insides were on fire, like electricity was coursing up and down her body. She started breathing fast, like she was running a race. Her heart pounded in her ears, driving on and on like a thumping dance beat. Even after the water and wine her throat was parched. Whatever she did she couldn’t get herself to settle down.

“Melissa,” Teo said. “Are you all right? Can I get you something?”

The table, bare wood without a cloth, was softer than she imagined. Her fingers dug into it while she tried to calm herself. She looked up at Teo. The rest of the restaurant was a blur, but he remained in perfect focus. His look of concern sickened her. Who was he to care about her, anyway? What was his real motivation in all this? That little smile, that smirk he’d worn all night. Something had to be done.

“Melissa?” he asked again. “What’s wrong?”

Sanchez bolted up in her chair, overturning the table and driving Teo to the floor. He yelled something, but the screams that boiled up from inside her, then erupted from her, drowned out his pathetic cries. She went for the face first, slashing and grabbing chunks of dull flesh. Blood flowed, staining her hands, but she didn’t care. She had to keep going.

~~~~~

It wouldn’t have been Cooney’s case anyway – not in his precinct – but it surely would have been taken from him given that his partner was the suspect. Not suspect, killer. A room full of diners saw her do it.

He weaved his way through the onlookers and found the primary, an old friend of his from the academy. Cooney looked at the scene and had flashbacks from the Calabria Club.

“She still here?” he asked.

“In the back,” the primary said. “You look like you’ve seen this before.”

“I don’t know.” Cooney shook his head. “I just don’t know at this point.”

Cooney went to the back room, where Sanchez was sitting in a chair, flanked by a pair of uniformed officers. It gave him a strong sense of déjà vu – blank expression, blood all over her hands and dress, and she kept repeating something over and over. Cooney knelt down beside her.

“Jesus, Michelle, what did you do?” He looked for some kind of understanding in her eyes, but they were blank and empty, like windows of a house where everyone had moved out.

“Something just came over me,” she mumbled. “Something just came over me. Something came over me.”

~~~~~

Pintura Won’t Proceed With “Killer” Line

By Hope Williams, Beauty Business Daily

Cosmetics giant Pintura (NYSE: PNT) quietly announced that it was stopping development on a new line of products that was to be marketed under the “Killer” brand. The press release merely stated that initial reports from beta testers had not been as strong as the company hoped for and, in charting its course for the future, resources were better allocated elsewhere.

The “Killer” line was first announced 18 months ago and received some pushback because of the name’s violent connotations. The company had touted that the products, infused with proprietary compounds developed exclusively for Pintura, would have helped create a bold new look for the modern woman.

Social media has been abuzz with talk of incidents involving some of the “Killer” prototypes. Last month model and Pintura endorser Stina Blomgren was charged with murder after a violent outburst in a New York club, but there is no evidence that she was one of the “Killer” beta testers.

A Pintura spokesperson would not respond to our requests to comment.


Of course, I’m aware of the musical reference (you thought that was a coincidence?).

Happy Halloween!

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Come See Me! Learn From Me(?)

I wanted to let folks know about a couple upcoming appearances I’ll be making – getting out of the office and into the bright light (hopefully) of day!

First, on October 26 and 27 I’ll be at the West Virginia Book Festival at the newly renovated Charleston Convention Center (formerly known as the Civic Center). I’ll be in the marketplace both days (11:30 to 6:30 on Friday, 8 to 5 on Saturday) selling books, signing them, and just generally chatting people up. In addition to the marketplace there’s the annual used book sale, lots of workshops and such, and loads of great authors. Come check it out.

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Then, on November 17, I’ll be part of the West Virginia Writers fall conference in Flatwoods, West Virginia. I’ll be doing a pair of workshops:

Lines in the Speculative Sand – When Genre Matters in Fantasy & Science Fiction (and When It Doesn’t): Is my story fantasy? Is it science fiction? Does it even matter? Dive into the weird world of speculative fiction and learn some of the rules of the road (so you can go break them if you want).

Law 101 for Writers – Getting It Right When Your Character Goes to Court: Into every character’s life a little law must fall. Even if you’re not writing legal thrillers, there’s lots of reasons for characters to wind up in court. Learn some tips and discover some valuable resources to make your legal writing feel real.

There will be lots of other workshops, too, from marketing on the cheap to short play writing to ekphrastic poetry (I had to look it up, too). Something for just about every writer, in other words. Find out how to register at the WVWI website.

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