The Surreal Trapdoor: Taxidermy and Charlie, the Lonely Sentinel

Grinning Halloween lantern vector illustration.This story is true. Strange things always happen to me.

Last Halloween, our friend, whom I’ll call Eric, invited us to a party at his place. It’s a gently decayed mansion divided into flats with high ceilings, narrow twisting corridors and connecting backstairs so that he and his friends have as much company or privacy as they want.

Eric is a software engineer by day but by night, he’s a gifted and well-known cabaret performer. His friends, whom I’ll call Fred and Mary, are musicians who play regular gigs in Toronto. 

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Tommy Wiseau
Me, not exactly as illustrated
Me, not exactly as illustrated

Costumes were de rigueur. Ed went as Tommy Wiseau ,  creator of The Room, possibly one of the worst films ever made. I went as a cat, aiming for so-bad-it’s-good.  We were meeting Fred and Mary for the first time so knowing Eric, I expected the unexpected.

Fred and Mary’s flat was dark and crowded with denizens of Toronto’s demi-monde. Costumes ranged from drag to burlesque to clowns. Wine glass in hand, I wandered past dimly lit museum exhibits of fossils and stuffed rodents.

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“That’s cool,” I said, eyeing one of the stuffed squirrels. “Very Halloween.”

“Oh, they’re here all the time,” said a fellow guest. “They live here with Fred and Mary.”

“Permanently?” I squeaked.

“That’s nothing. Did you see the stuffed dog?” He pointed to a shadowy lump on the floor next to a large potted plant. Sure enough, it was a remarkably life-like black and white spaniel.

Charlie the dog
Charlie the lonely sentinel

Later Fred explained how he and Mary came by Charlie. In life, he belonged to a decrepit and eccentric acquaintance down the street. When Charlie exited this Vale of Tears, the elderly man had him stuffed. And he continued walking him along the street on a set of rollers.

 “That’s creepy,” I said.

“Well, the guy came by it honestly. He ran the Toronto Explorers Club,” Fred said.

“There’s an explorers club?!” What an absurd Victorian anachronism, I thought.

“Yeah, there is. And the old guy acquired a load of stuffed trophies from the club. Legit or not, who knows? Anyway his house was crammed with them. When he died, his relatives rented a dumpster and tossed all the stuffed animals into it. Mary spotted it on her way home from work. It was really bizarre, looking inside that steel crate and seeing it full of deer heads and stuff.” 

Fred took a sip of beer. “What was really sad was seeing Charlie lying there on top of  all that. Especially since we knew him when he was alive. Mary didn’t know what to do at first, but then she decided to rescue him.  The problem was that she’d biked to work that day.  So she strapped Charlie onto the back carrier and rode home with him.”

Our friend, Eric, continued the story. “I saw Mary riding along on her bike with this cute black and white dog on the back.  I thought, ‘Wow, Fred and Mary got a dog! And boy, is he well-trained. Look at him sitting still and riding along on the bike like that.’ But when she stopped, Charlie kind of rotated and stayed sitting still in the same position.  That really freaked me out. I didn’t know what I was looking at.”

Now Charlie now stands guard in Fred and Mary’s home: the lonely sentinel.

I leave you with this clip from Monty Python about their erstwhile  mountaineering expedition.

 

 

Surreal Trapdoor: Vegas, Baby Part duh!

Vegas, Baby, where even the dragons wear rhinestones!20160107_142920

 

 

It’s Chinese New Year and the casinos are set to retrieve some of the $$$ lost to off-shore manufacturing. Everywhere are displays of dragons or monkeys since 2016 is the Year of the Monkey.

Gambling is a popular pastime in China. As a student at UBC, Vancouver, I remember hearing the clatter of mah-jong parlours in the not-so-hidden upstairs rooms of popular restaurants and seeing whole families picnicking at the race track. (So what if my friend and I were betting on the same Exacto.)

One day till we storm through the exhibits at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES),  so I end up doing  another 20,000 Fitbit steps through this R-rated  Disneyland.

T-rex, real or pretend?
T-rex, real or pretend?

First stop, the Cosmopolitan, a newer addition on The Strip. The décor is big, bold eye candy like the silvered T-rex head above. The décor materials aren’t cheap: the two-storey chandelier bar is cloaked in real crystal, though it looks like plastic. The overall effect to my mind is vintage “Scarface”, the cult classic gangster movie starring Al Pacino.

The Chandelier Bar
The Chandelier Bar

 

My favorite casino after The Venetian has to be Paris.  Boulevard cafes crowd round the casino tables in a perpetual dusky twilight, the French signs are pure “Pepe le Pew” and the pastries look French but taste American. Even the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe outside are spotlessly sanitized.  Love it!   

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Eiffel Tower

 

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Arc de Triomphe

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bellagio’s and Caesar’s Palace are the high end with a string of shops outdoing Rodeo Drive.  Caesar’s was the first casino to feature Disneyland animatronics and fantasy boulevards where blue skies turned into glowing sunsets and starry nights.  Once Caesar’s ruled the strip, but now crowds shun it and it’s in bankruptcy protection. I find it hard to understand why. The food and atmosphere are still great. I sip a nostalgic Americano beside the oversized Trevi fountain.

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Bellagio’s fab Venetian glass ceiling
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Nostalgia by the Trevi fountain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old Vegas is almost gone. Darwin is in overdrive: billion dollar behemoths crushing under smaller places, like the Imperial Palace and the Hilton, their identities obliterated by white paint to lure in time share buyers. The veteran burlesque shows like Jubilee are hanging in, but for how long?

Vegas has a sleazy, dark side. The homeless camp out on the pedestrian skyways. A van circles constantly with in-your-face T&A ads promising girls delivered to your room. And elderly Hispanic women snap hookers’ business cards in your face as you plough through the crowds.

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The A-list mingles with the B-team on the Strip, but the B-team can still be fun. My personal fav is Miracle Mile at Planet Hollywood, which features, I kid you not,  a zombie burlesque and Popovich’s Comedy Pet Theatre, starring trained cats and dogs. Popovich is for children of all ages and I adored it!

And if you think cats can’t do tricks, watch this video!

 

 

 

Surreal Trapdoor: Vegas Baby!

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Harrah’s hideous statue

Las Vegas: where the surreal becomes real. Where else can you eat a Nathan’s New York hot dog inside a pyramid while listening to a Mariachi band? All while deciding whether to brave the infamous Bodies exhibit or to see an actual piece of the  Titanic wreck.

What makes the surreal become real? Money, Baby! Lots and lots of money. Billion dollar hotel complexes. More high-end stores in Caesar’s Palace than on Rodeo Drive. More Venetian glass in the lobby of Bellagio than in Venice itself. And to quote Bally’s, “thousands of rhinestones  covering very little flesh”. The constant T and A does start to get to me though there are Ozzie beefcake shows for the ladies and gays. 

The myth and promise of Vegas is captured perfectly by the crass statue at Harrah’s: all that lovely $$$ will eagerly flow your way. Erm, not exactly. The odds against are astronomical and so are the prices of everything. Even Starbucks. But you will have great fun losing your money.

BTW the Harrah’s statue  gets my vote for “coyote ugly”.  For non-noir fans that means waking up the morning after with a sex partner so appalling that you chew your arm off in haste to escape your own appalling lack of judgment.

Hey, I’m just miffed because the quarter slots devoured my $6.

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Management consultant gathering

Today, like Dan Simmons’ president character in Hyperion, I wandered the worlds, passing through Harrah’s to catch the monorail and tram to the farthest point, Mandalay Bay casino.  Feeling a pang of nostalgia for management consulting, I visited its aquarium, Shark Reef. 

Set in a Disney-like temple ruin, it sports beautifully kept fish tanks and a plexiglass shark tunnel though the sharks themselves are rather small.  The guide tells us that of the 400 species of sharks only four, such as the Great White of Jaws infamy, are dangerous to humans who nevertheless are busy exterminating hundreds of millions a year of these creatures for shark fin soup.

What I really wanted to see though was the komodo dragon. Long ago, I  sketched out an adventure novel where my heroes fought off one of these giant lizards. They’re hungry buggers, aggressive, with a nasty bite that includes venom and malicious bacteria to cause your wounds to fester even if you manage to survive a biting attack.

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Lonely komodo dragon

The KD of Shark Reef does not disappoint. It resembles a good-sized crocodile though with a lizard’s head. The yellow and brown colouring matches its dried mud habitat. To my surprise, I learn that it, too, is an endangered species.

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Inside Luxor

To Luxor for my lunch of Nathan’s hotdog under the gaze of Ramses. And if you think I was kidding about the Mariachi band, the neon T & T on the right stands for “tacos and tequila”.

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Inspired by Nathan’s, I take the tram back to New York, which boasts an impressive skyline and sizeable Statue of Liberty.  Rain begins to fall.  It comes down in a clammy mist rather than a downpour. It’s the first time I’ve seen rain in Vegas.

Taking shelter inside New York casino, I’m confronted by yet another replica of the Statue of Liberty: this time in jelly beans! Running late, I return to our hotel, having clocked 20,000 Fitbit steps, nearly twice the steps I count on running days. 

More weird stuff, next blog.

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Jelly bean freedom

 

WOW! What a year!

cover4EFD2-World-Enough-Cover-FINAL-199x300Seraphim Windigo Fire

 

2015 was a tumultuous year – many upheavals, but all ended well. Friends fought but won against deadly medical challenges. Our daughter and her husband moved to Montreal – but settled happily in a lovely new condo. And it was the year of bittersweet farewells. Friend and teacher, Rosemary Aubert, retired her novel writing course at Loyalist College in Belleville. And in November, Anne Hillerman gave the sad news that this year’s Hillerman Conference would be the last.  Both have been a source of joy and new friends for many years.

This was my first year as a “real” writer. In other words, a traditionally published novel writer.  Though many of my short stories have appeared in print, like most authors, my secret longing was always to have a novel to put on my book shelf.

Windigo Fire was released late in 2014 by Seraphim Editions, a leading Canadian literary publisher with a 20+ year history. I’m delighted to be a Seraphim author: I still have to pinch myself sometimes. My publisher’s email of acceptance truly changed my life! 

Finalist-400SMFSocy-150-TinyWF got great reviews and was a finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel. Huffington Post Canada put WF on its fall list of Books for Book Clubs and Margaret Cannon of the Globe and Mail dubbed me ” a writer to watch”. And as it that wasn’t enough, my short story, “The Ultimate Mystery” in Carrick Publishing’s anthology, World Enough and Crime, was short-listed for the prestigious Derringer Award. Heady stuff!

I spent most of this year promoting Windigo Fire via readings organized through our group, The Mesdames of Mayhem , the Crime Writers of Canada (thanks Nate Hendley and Sharon Crawford!), the Writers Union and Noir at the Bar (thanks Tanis Mallow and Rob Brunet!)  I also gave several workshops on how to get traditionally published to writers’ groups in Hamilton, Sudbury and Toronto.

Now that my friends, Cheryl Freedman and Caro Soles have retired, our national conference, Bloody Words, alas, is no more. So I tried out three new conferences: two on the west coast and one in Sudbury.

galianoThe Galiano Literary Festival is one of Canada’s best kept secrets, held in an idyllic setting on wildly beautiful Galiano Island. There a debut author, such as myself, can mix and mingle with the nation’s leading writers – even Elizabeth May, the local MP and leader of the Green Party!

pearlLeft Coast Crime was held in Portland, Oregon, this year, entitled “Crimelandia” in honour of the hilarious sketch show, Portlandia. Portland is an amazing city: the best microbreweries in North America, a fab retro city centre called the Pearl District and a light rail transit system that actually works! I had the honour of presenting Windigo Fire at the New Authors Breakfast and of moderating a panel on plot twists, which included friend and Canadian crime writer, Barbara Fradkin and fellow debut author, Ray Daniel.

LCC was a fine mix of cozy and noir, both sides having great respect for one another. I had a wonderful time hanging with fellow Canadians, Barbara, Robin Harlick, Linda Wiken and Vicki Delany. As you can see, conference seminars largely lost out to food and beer.

What really made LCC a winner was hitting it off with the Noir crowd, including two great Canadian writers, E.C. Brown and Sam Wiebe.  If you haven’t read either of these guys, you’re missing some of Canada’s best crime fiction. Many thanks, too, go to friendly Americans Brian Thornton, Kate Dyer-Seeley and Hilary Davidson, terrific writers all – just don’t play poker with Brian!

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In June, I headed north to Sudbury’s literary festival, Wordstock. Most southern Ontarians regard Sudbury as a remote northern outpost accessible by bush plane or snowmobile, but in fact, it lies a mere four hours north of Toronto via a modern expressway. That’s a lot closer than either Ottawa or Montreal. Presumably  north of Barrie, Torontonians believe one crosses a Startrek-like quantum barrier into a wilderness empty of cars yet full of bears and moose.

Once again I had the privilege of meeting some terrific authors: poet Melanie Martila,  radio personality and crime writer, Scott Overton and Laura E. Young, who has penned a fascinating history of Great Lakes swimmers, Solo Yet Never Alone.

Sudbury was a breath of fresh air quite literally. No smog, two pristine lakes and a water tower that looks very “War of the Worlds”(see photo above). Imagine, too, a book festival where the mayor officially welcomes the authors – Toronto wasn’t Ford-free yet – and where everyone enjoyed a performance by two of Canada’s comedy treasures: Terry Fallis and Sandra Shamas.

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While busy promoting, I did manage to do some writing. Stumbling across an unofficial memorial garden near our cottage was a gift I couldn’t ignore. My suspense novelette, “Glow Grass” drew on this and it’s one of the 15 stories in The Mesdames of Mayhem’s latest anthology, 13 O’clock (Carrick Publishing). We Mesdames had a wonderful time promoting 13 O’clock via our cyber launch in September and in October, partying in the real world at our favorite bookstore, Sleuth of Baker Street.

PrintAs the year faded, it was time to refocus. I spent time in October learning Word Press so that I could take control of my website. My previous site required a software engineer to update it, so I scrapped it in favour of WP, the results of which you see here.  My take: WP is easy to start, but time-consuming and challenging to master.  Yet totally worth the time input!

In November, my friend, TO Poet,  led our group of NaNoWriMo Misfits back to basics:  writers write – go figure! NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month and it challenges writers to produce 50,000 words in one month. Churning out this volume felt overwhelming at times, but I pulled it off.  My second book in the Danny Bluestone series, Windigo Ice, took shape. More importantly, it kick-started my creativity: I have since then sketched out two noir stories. NaNoWriMo is a lifesaver for any writer who needs to refocus. (Read my previous blog, “Riding the NaNoWriMo Tiger” for the deets).

The year ended with another serious medical challenge for a fellow writer. Her crime writer friends got together and wrote a “chain story” to cheer her up. I was honoured and delighted to be part of the gang. The only proviso: total license. What lurid and outrageous imaginations were on display: cross-dressing, cute dogs, dragon ladies, Russian mafiosos, purple exploding dildos, oh, my!  Most importantly,  we made our friend laugh.

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!!

 

 

Evil Santa – Meet him in Windigo Fire!

cropped-Seraphim-Windigo-Fire.jpgcover4Ever visited a Santa’s village as a kid? What if the Santa was up to no good? What if his fish camp was a front for a grow-op and other dark things?

 

 

Meet my favorite villain in Windigo Fire, now available in e-book on Amazon!

And for a Christmas treat, do check out the new stories by the Mesdames of Mayhem in 13 O’clock, which also features my suspense novella, Glow Grass.

Wanderings: Worthington’s Bronze Dog

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My friends and I regularly run through Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. Why, you may ask? Well, traffic is light, the roads are paved and in good repair. The hundreds of species of trees provide shade in summer and in winter, its hardworking staff plow and sand the roads way before Toronto’s regular streets.

I first saw Mt. Pleasant Cemetery walking across the ravine bridge on St. Clair Avenue West.  New to Toronto, my curiosity was piqued by what appeared to be small Greek temples set in distant greenery. These mythical structures proved to be the mausoleums of worthies such as the Eaton family, tombs that wouldn’t be out of place in a vampire movie. 

Our futures can indeed prove strange. I had no idea then that I would end up living next to the cemetery, nor that my friends and I would run and bike through it almost daily.  For the record all you bikers and hikers, once around the cemetery is about 7 kilometres.

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Timothy Eaton Memorial

Mt. Pleasant was established in 1873 on a 200-acre farm outside the city limits.  Initially, only Roman Catholics or Anglicans were allowed to be buried here, but times fortunately have changed. Its 168,000 permanent residents now reflect Canada’s multi-cultural heritage in nationalities and faiths.

Which brings me to the resting place in the photo above.  My running buddy and I spotted the little brass dog that guards the grave of Peter Worthington, founder of the right-leaning Toronto Sun newspaper and well-known journalist. What people may not know is that he was an eye witness to the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby on November 24, 1963, as depicted in this world famous photo below.

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A far sunnier and uplifting fact is that Peter Worthington was a strong believer in animal welfare and a long-time supporter of the Toronto Humane Society. We like to think that the little brass dog was once his pet who now stands by him forever.

Riding the NaNoWriMo Tiger!

nanoNovember comes across an “also-ran” month: somber Remembrance Day on Nov 11th, serious charity drives (take a bow Movember) and almost unfailingly dismal weather. A bridge of sighs between the glories of fall foliage and the sparkly explosion of Christmas.

So don’t just sit there: bloody do something!

For the last two years, my friend and fellow author, TO Poet, has encouraged me to join him and his friends who are burning up their keyboards during this 50,000 word marathon. TO Poet has ridden the NaNoWriMo tiger no less than six years running.

So I jumped in feet first with little – let’s be honest – no preparation!

What is National Novel Writing Month?

NaNoWriMo was created in San Francisco, July, 1999 by Chris Baty and 21 of his writer friends who challenged themselves by trying to write a novel in a month. The next year  140 signed up. Through the power of the internet, by 2008 more than 200,000 novelists, experienced or emerging, young or adult, had joined in.  In 2015, participants span the globe in places as far away as central Russia and Micronesia.

Oh, well, I was always late into a trend.

How did y’all keep going?

nanooneTO Poet set up a Facebook page for the NaNoWriMo Misfits, our team name.  He kept us inspired with daily pics, such as this one on the left.  We logged on every day to report our progress: peer pressure is a compelling motivator.

And coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.  At a write-in at TO Poet’s home, I discovered that his coffee mugs rival goldfish bowls.

Why embark on this marathon?

Why not? As many first-published authors discover, promotion is up to you. I’d spent the past 12 months promoting Windigo Fire,  through conferences, meet-ups, bookstores and libraries. On my own or with our group, The Mesdames of Mayhem, I literally did hundreds of events. I needed to do get back to doing what authors do: write!

cover4Not that my keyboard was idle. I’d completed my suspense novelette, “Glow Grass”, for the Mesdames of Mayhem’s second anthology, 13 O’clock.  But now I needed to work on the second novel in the Danny Bluestone series, Windigo Ice.

I ran across some early chapters of Danny’s second adventure that I’d written before Windigo Fire was accepted by Seraphim Editions.  So much had changed after Windigo Fire was finalized, that they weren’t useable. But they inspired me to get moving!

What plan / approach to use?

As a former scientist and MBA’er, I take a quantitative view of life.  I knew that an overwhelmingly large project can be managed once it’s broken down into incremental steps. That translates to approximately 1700 words over 30 days to reach the required 50,000 word count. I did a couple of test runs on a new suspense story I’m writing and found that 1700 words per day was doable. November 1st dawned and I was off and writing!

How did NaNoWriMo go? Did you make the word count?

PrintI did indeed make the word count: 50,048 to be exact. I kept a tally of my daily word count on a trusty Excel spreadsheet.  Here are the stats: I averaged 1700 words per day fairly consistently, with a range between 1600 to 2200 words. My max output happened on the last two days as I neared 50,000 words where I wrote 2200 and finally 3300 words  to get done!

What worked with NaNoWriMo?

For me, NaNoWriMo was a lifesaver. I refocused on writing, which is what authors do, right?  To my surprise, I found time in my daily life to do it since writing became a real priority.

Mega thanks go to TO Poet and team mates, Lizzie, Heather, October, Betty, Cathy and the Misfits for unfailing support and inspiration.

Meeting the word count meant turning off the editor in my head. I tend to be a deliberate, measured writer in terms of word-smithing, so NaNo was immensely freeing. I got to know my characters again, resolved tricky plot problems, churned out fun action sequences and created an encounter between Danny and Santa, the escaped villain from Windigo Fire, that was a joy to write.  I have several ideas for the core theme(s) and a goodly chunk of words to draw on – or to store for Book 3 or 4.

What challenges remain?

A thriller usually runs between 80,000 to 100,000 words, so that means I’m halfway there. Now is the time for hard thought, ie. to put my “plotter” hat back on while surrendering my “pantser” plumage with a sigh. And the wording will be refined and re-refined: I rewrite and revise a lot.  For example, I rewrote my novelette, “Glow Grass” twenty times.

Would I do it again?

Most definitely! In an ideal world, I’d have my plot meticulously laid out so I could go straight to work and have a near-ready product at the end of November. But I’m pumped about Windigo Ice, can’t wait to wrestle with its plot and finish writing Danny’s winter adventures.  Thanks to NaNo, I’ve rediscovered the joy of writing and I’m planning to be back next year.

 

 

 

 

 

Cyber Central: The Joli Pantry

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Today, my daughter and her husband launched their new blog, The Joli Pantry, where they share cooking tips and enjoying life in Canada’s food capital, Montreal!

First recipe, Jul Glogg, or a very spirited warm Christmas drink from Sweden.  I grew up on it so I can guarantee it’s a panacea for winter chills and blahs!

Second recipe, Spaghetti Carbonara, which they made for us and it’s excellent though Montreal has better cremini mushrooms so I’ll leave the cooking to Mitch.

 

 

 

 

 

Surrealist Trapdoor: Invasion of the Ladybugs

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My friend, Gail Hamilton, fellow author and nature photographer, captured this gathering of lady bugs on her farm house.

We, too, in the city are noting a massive invasion in our attic, porch and garden. Strange variation in their spotting, too, from profuse to none.

A bit late for the mating season, eh what? They better get at it before the snow starts flying.  Wonder how long lady bug eggs last in the Deep Freeze.

For more breath-taking pics of country scenery, check out Gail’s website, www.gailhamiltonwriter.com.

 

 

November Gigs of the Mesdames of Mayhem

cover4Check out the upcoming November events for me and my friends at www.mesdamesofmayhem.com!