Review: Escape from Beckyville: Tales of Race, Hair and Rage by Nicole Sconiers

When my friend Kate Maruyama, author of Harrowgate, showed me this book, I immediately bought a copy. It was then promptly lost in the TBR piles littering my home. When I found it again recently, I couldn’t read it fast enough.

At times surreal and at other times completely frightening, these tales are rooted in reality. That’s what makes them terrifying to this Becky. And so absolutely fucking awesome.

Using the backdrop of life on Heliotrope Drive and Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles, Sconiers brings home powerful truths about life as a woman of color by using horror. It’s one of the best uses of the genre, like Get Out. Several of the stories gutted me or creeped me out, but probably my favorite was “Here Come the Janes.” This story is about a black woman who catches her white work colleague sneaking into her home to steal her hair. As the Janes morph into dangerous, inhuman hair devourers, Sconiers unleashes the character’s humiliation and rage over the incessant invasion of her personal space and objectification. While I cannot begin to relate to being either the toucher or touchee, I felt the cathartic blow to the solar plexus in the telling. Same with tales such as “Happy Black Bitches Club” and “The Death of Common Women.”

Sconiers gives us many openings for empathy and connection in these sometimes terrifying tales. I deeply relate to her feelings of loneliness in Los Angeles expressed in a lot of the stories. I moved here myself after my divorce, and I was single for 8 years. I suspect a lot of single creative women can relate. Themes of invisibility, sexual addiction, and healing also thread through her universe. But this Becky (me) didn’t need to relate to appreciate the stories. This Becky wanted to dive into the world that Sconiers wanted me to experience and come out changed by the thunder, whispers, and fear rustling within the walls. I can’t promise the same for everyone, but I loved every minute of it.

Escape from Beckyville on B&N

And on Apple Books

Review: Dead on the Delta by Sherry Knowlton

I’m so happy that Sherry Knowlton gave me a chance to read her new book, Dead on the Delta, before its release on February 16, 2021! When I saw this gorgeous cover — a photo taken by her husband on safari — I couldn’t wait to read it. I’m a virgin when it comes to the her Alexa Williams series, so I knew it would be interesting to find out what kind of trouble her protagonist would get into out in the bush.

The short answer: a lot.

The story opens with the grisly discovery of a poaching kill that left an enormous number of elephants dead and mutilated. Alexa has joined her boyfriend, Reese, during a multi-month contract where he’s to, in part, help negotiate how villagers deal with the problems of random big cats on their land and threatening their livestock. They’re en route to their camp when their truck comes upon the tragedy.

The poachers are bold and seemingly uncatchable. Botswana has the most stringent anti-poaching laws on the continent — even the military gets involved when there’s a poaching crime. Who’s behind these attacks? There must be something more than usual.

This highly atmospheric novel is a beautiful introduction to the problems of poaching and conservation in Botswana. Alexa is a lawyer with a track record for wrangling thorny situations. And she certainly encounters several during her time in Botswana. Knowlton has been on many safaris and has done extensive research, therefore her intimate knowledge of the conservation industry and the country itself enriches the story in luscious detail. You feel like you’re right there with Alexa as she camps and interacts with the locals. I learned so much about the country that I fell in love with it a bit just reading the descriptive passages. I felt the relationships — especially the conflict eating at Alexa about Reese — were very real and understandable.

I don’t know if I would have classified the book as either a thriller or mystery, possibly not even suspense. Maybe more of a drama? Because a lot happens around and to Alexa, and not because of anything she does. She’s more of an observer, giving us a window to the world around her, as well as the details that fall into her path as she pursues tangential goals. However, she takes the relationship conflicts much more in hand, having difficult conversations and discovering that emotions are messy. The book ends in a whirlwind of danger where we get to see Alexa’s resourcefulness, which I really enjoyed.

So, if wildlife conservation, Botswana, safaris, big cats, or all of the above are your thing, you should definitely pick up this novel with haste!

Amazon | B&N | Indiebound

The Symbel: Pandemic Edition

Fourteen years ago, when I was in Paris, I decided to recreate The Symbel, a Norse ritual introduced to me years ago by my friends Kerry Noonan and Steve Wehmeyer when they were Ph.D. students in folklore at UCLA. Quoting the original blog post:

Everyone sat in a circle around the fire. It started with a round of dedication to the gods. When the horn of alcohol was passed to you, you declared your dedication to a god, and you sealed it with a drink before passing the horn to the next person. The next round was the bragging round. One bragged of their accomplishments during the year, drank to them, then passed on the horn. In the last round, one made oaths for the coming year. When the symbel ended, we poured the remaining alcohol on the ground as an offering to prove to the gods we weren’t greedy.

It isn’t necessarily the historical or “correct” way to perform a symbel. However, at the time I needed to focus on the positive things that had happened that year. (Although, come the fuck on. I was in France, writing, drinking, and living my best life. I must have been wallowing in some kind of weird self pity.)

The Symbel

But this year was different. Shit got real as hundreds of thousands of Americans died, and we turned into a nation of ghosts. The anxiety, the exhaustion, the isolation—burdens were never ending. The challenges wrung the positivity from my soul at every turn. I found myself working every healthy coping mechanism (and some not-so-healthy) I’d ever learned to keep from disasterbating as I always do.

As a result, the Symbel feels more phoenix rising from the ashes rather than standing on a pile of dead enemies after a war. I still feel the need to do it, though. It’s especially important now during a year that I largely spent cooped up at home, broke as dirt.

The Dedication Round

I dedicate the coming year to Cernunnos, the god of the forest. The Horned God. The Lord of the Wild Beasts. He is also associated with travel, treasure, and mediation between humanity and the forest. This year I became aware of how deep and broad my Celtic heritage is. Shortly after the revelation, he appeared in one of my meditations, and now I return to him every time I meditate. May I one day soon see him again in Paris, where his image resides on the Pillar of the Boatmen alongside Jupiter, and Castor and Pollux, in the Musée du Moyen Age. (Drink!)

The Bragging Round

I’ve made more money with my creative writing this year than I have in 20 years. (Drink!)

I signed a very special contract that I can’t discuss, but it brought me a lot of light this year. (Drink!)

I started writing stories for Shortz, and learned a new form of storytelling. (Drink!)

My first story for Shortz landed in the Top 3 Most Read Stories. (Drink!)

I had two short stories published, both in crime fiction anthologies, which is a first for me. (Drink!)

I had a story published in an anthology with one of my favorite authors, Joe Hill. (Drink!)

I had a story published in an anthology edited by another author I love, Heather Graham. (Drink!)

I began learning Scottish Gaelic, which is insanely hard. (Drink!)

I outlined my first cozy-caper novel. (Drink!)

I started a TikTok account and have a post with over 20,000 views. (Drink!)

I became certified as a UX Writer, with an “A” grade on my final project and a score of 98.5% on my final exam. (Drink!)

I wrote and designed a new UX-friendly resume using new-to-me software called Lunacy. (Drink!)

I didn’t go bankrupt. (Drink!)

I didn’t lose my house or my car. (Drink! Drink!)

Snowblind, the third book in the Bloodline of Yule Trilogy, came out! (Drink!)

A secret community project I spearheaded 3 years ago wound up having a HUGE win that ultimately benefitted the entire state of California. (DRIIIIIIIIINK!)

I helped get two beautiful Bengal kitties adopted. (Drink!)

I have fabulous pandemic hair. (Drink!)

I didn’t kill my noisy neighbors when they threw pandemic parties. (Drink!)

I grew closer to my handsome, sweet husband, and we had lots of fun. (Drink!)

Shot my first-ever footage for an award-winning film in the 48-Hour Film Project. (Drink!)

I baked six apple pies and (as of tonight) three trays of apple bread using apples from our tree. (Drink!)

I helped Robie go into remission from diabetes. (Drink!)

My freelance business started to pick up despite the pandemic. (Drink!)

I learned to reach out to my fellow writers for help when stuck. (Drink!)

I’ve at long last figure out how to write the memoir I’m meant to write, and I am 20,000 words in. (Drink!)

I started writing a collection of haiku based on Japanese blades. (Drink!)

David Gerrold said I was a great writer, and I didn’t even bribe him with chocolate! (Drink!)

The Oath Round

My first oath is to finish a draft of the new memoir by March 26, 2021, which is the 25th anniversary of the life-changing event that concludes the memoir.

My second oath is to write more poetry, in particular poems I can submit to the HWA poetry showcase, but also the haiku collection.

My third oath is to continue studying Scottish Gaelic.

My fourth oath is to take care of myself as best I can, because while this Symbel and the year might be over, nothing else is…

/pours

My Unusual Purse Named Trog

In December 2001, a friend was visiting me in Los Angeles from Washington State. I showed him the usual sights, taking him to lunch at the Newsroom, a popular eatery then in Beverly Hills. It sat across a small courtyard from what was then one of the most wonderful children’s book stores of all time, Storyopolis. We went into Storyopolis after we ate. My friend could hardly believe he was seeing original artwork on the walls by Tim Burton and Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel. It was a marvelous place.

There amongst the books and toys I found a delightful children’s backpack from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, which had been my favorite book as a child. It hadn’t just been my favorite book, though. It had been my favorite thing. My mother checked it out of the library several times before finally buying me my own copy, which I dragged everywhere.

Trog lamenting the graffiti on Oscar Wilde’s tomb.

So, when I saw this little guy, I fell hopelessly in love with him. I turned to my friend and announced, “This is my forever purse.”

And he still is.

It’s been a mad ride with him, riding quasi-shotgun with me. I have so many anecdotes about what it’s been like carrying him. For the most part, people love him. Everywhere I go, people compliment him, asking me where I got him. Occasionally I get the flirty comment, “I like your Wild Thing.” To which I reply, “Honey, they all like my Wild Thing.”

Trog didn’t have a name in the book, but he was modeled after Sendak’s Uncle Moishe. I named him Trog because my friend Abbie Bernstein pointed out that the song “Wild Thing” was written by the band, The Trogs.

The thing is, I wore out the first Trog pretty quickly. So, I bought several more. For the better part of the last 15 years, I’ve used the same two, swapping them back and forth, laundering them, stitching their little butts, and replacing the zippers. But I have several more if need be.

Trog loves a masquerade.

He’s been overseas. While I was living in France, I had the pleasure of explaining in French what exactly he was and where he came from because he’s not part of their culture. The security guard at the Louvre asked me if he was my “doudou,” which means a stuffed animal that children carry. I explained he was “mon sac,” which means my purse. Her eyes widened as I unzipped him and she smiled. Most Parisians were won over once they realized what he was.

Trog looking up at the grave of Charles Baudelaire in Paris.

He loves writers. The highlight of his career was when Clive Barker “honked” his nose. But when Maurice Sendak died, I tied a black ribbon to Trog’s arm for a month.

I’ve always liked posing him on the graves of famous authors.

Trog visits the grave of Guy de Maupassant, the author whose story “La Horla” inspired H.P. Lovecraft to write “The Call of Cthulhu.”
While we’re on the topic of authors, here’s Trog at Ray Bradbury’s grave in Westwood, CA.

Trog loves the great outdoors, especially the magical standing stones of Brittany.

The Druids. No one knows who they were, or what they were doin’.

He really didn’t think much of the Picasso Museum in the South of France. Not his thing.

Although, he had to admit that the view was pretty awesome.

While most people like Trog, he makes friends with cats quite easily. When I returned from living in France, I stayed with friends who had a cat named Miru. The two quickly fell in love.

Miru would pat Trog on the head in her sleep. Here they are tête a tête.

It’s sort of a thing, actually.

Robie and Saphron liked cuddling with each other and Trog, too.
And bearded lizards? Okay…

France isn’t the only country Trog has been to. He’s visited Ireland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Canada.

Visiting my friend Lucien Soulban in Montreal.

He’s been all over the United States. He’s even been to Walt Disney World Resort in Florida (kind of its own country). The security guard broke his zipper the first time I entered the park, so Trog had to stay in my room for the rest of my stay at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. When the housekeeper found him lying on the bed, she did this.

Since I was on a work trip for Disney at the time and didn’t have to pay for the room, I was able to give her a ginormous tip for making me so happy.

Trog hanging around at the Guillermo del Toro exhibit.

I do think Trog tries to find his own kind. While he certainly fit in at the Guillermo del Toro exhibit when it was here in Los Angeles, he really grooved on Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Trog in the Meow Wolf gift shop checking out his alien cousins.

Sometimes I think he’s just looking for his Dad.

At the Getty Museum with someone Trog thinks might have been his dad.
“Are you my Daddies?”
(I knew I shouldn’t have taken him to the samurai exhibit at LACMA.)

As you can imagine, Trog is a wild thing and therefore a heathen. However, he keeps an open mind. He attended his first bat mitzvah earlier this year and really got into the spirit of it.

I think he looks pretty dapper in the pink kippah.

But Trog’s favorite place to hang other than on my shoulder is the library.

He finally found his real daddy.

In October, people ask if this is my Halloween purse. I tell them, “This is my ALWAYS purse.”

So now you know.

Maria’s 10 Favorite Horror Films and TV Shows

Since I was a child, October has been my favorite month. The idea of becoming something or someone else has always been high on my list of fun. But October also promises something much greater: an encounter with the other side of the veil. That happened for me in the biggest way on Samhain 25 years ago. I’ll tell that story in due time. But I’ve always loved the chill of that promise and everything that comes with it.

While I love Halloween as much as the next horror fan, my taste in horror runs counter in many ways to that of the general populace. Also, I’m the person who didn’t find Blair Witch remotely scary. If you’re one of those people who thinks most horror is simply awful, but appreciates gems of writing and acting, this list might be for you.

1. Fortitude

This horror-thriller for television is possibly the scariest, creepiest, bloodiest things to hit the airwaves in the last decade. It’s a true mystery that leaves you wondering: is what’s happening supernatural or scientific? And look at that cast. Jesus! Stanley Tucci, Richard Dormer, Sofie Gråbøl, Michael Gambon, Christopher Eccleston…shitty lineup, right? OMG. Everything about this show is incredible. Just don’t eat a lot before watching.

2. Marianne

New Netflix Horror Series Marianne Reviews

I’ve written about this show before, but honestly this French TV show is fucking scary as shit and incredibly well written. The performances sell this wild tale that, in the hands of Americans, would have surely soured. But this is the nation that brought us Guy de Maupassant, father of “The Horla,” the story that inspired Lovecraft to write “Call of Cthulhu.” Recently they’ve upped their game in a major way when it comes to horror. Bros might not appreciate the female relationship issues that drive the plot, but I just fell deeper in love with the show because of them.

3. Trollhunter

A scene from “Trollhunter,” André Ovredal's mock documentary, which mixes the Norwegian landscape and dry Nordic humor.

This mockumentary is at turns hilarious and terrifying, playing with the conceit of Blair Witch to far greater effect. Supposedly found footage was assembled from the abandoned film of a journalism student’s camera to create this tale of students convincing a real troll hunter to take them on to record what he does for a living. You will literally be holding your breath in certain scenes. It’s too bad you can’t see it on the big screen like I did because the trolls are unbelievably scary — especially when they smell Christian blood.

4. Let the Right One In

Let the Right One In' Pilot Ordered by TNT | IndieWire

I know, I know — where are the American horror shows, Maria? Just sit the hell down and watch this movie if you haven’t already because it’s genius. Based on the book Let Me In by John Alvide Lindqvist, this beautiful vampire movie (and I do not like vampire movies) transports us back to when we were lonely kids and we just wanted a friend who looked out for us. And who, you know, drank blood. This subtle, gorgeous, and immensely fucked up story will frighten you and touch your heart.

5. The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man,' This Time on Blu-ray - The New York Times

THERE IS ONLY ONE VERSION OF THIS MOVIE. ONE. IF YOU COME UP TO ME AT A CONVENTION AND SAY, “But what about that remake…”, YOU ARE ASKING ME IS TO RE-ARRANGE YOUR GODDAMN FACE SO THAT THE BONES ARE ON THE OUTSIDE. OKAY? OKAY.

I feel a bit strongly about this film.

This gleefully wicked thriller-horror story about a devout yet hubristic Christian policeman coming to an island of pagans is truly brilliant. Because it worked its way into my psyche at an early age, this cross-genre fear-fest is the entire reason that I can’t write a “proper” horror story. It must have creepy stuff, a crime, a mystery, and a bellyful of social commentary to satisfy my storytelling taste buds.

Oh, and try to find the 101-minute version, not the 99-minute one if you can.

6. REC

You guys, I am NOT a zombie movie fan. However, I found this Spanish film incredibly well written, acted, and shot. Yes, I know there was an American remake called Quarantine. I haven’t seen it because I’m told the protagonist screamed so much in it that you were begging the zombies to kill her off ASAP. In this original Spanish version, I was rooting for the protagonist in the biggest way because she was brave and intelligent. There are sequels, but I’ve never had the heart to watch them because I worry they won’t be as great as the first film.

7. Candyman

candyman 1992

Based on Clive Barker’s novella, “The Forbidden,” this tale of urban legends still gives me chills after countless viewings. It stars Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd, with Bernard Rose directing. I mean, come on. Bernard Fucking Rose! He also made Paperhouse, which is a deliciously creepy movie based on the book Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr. But this is a Clive Barker story at heart, so you can count on blood, mayhem, and insects. Mostly bees. Lots and lots and lots of bees. And to say it’s racially charged is an understatement. I’m really looking forward to Nia DaCosta’s and Jordan Peele’s remake.

8. Black Spot

Another foreign horror TV series I’ve boosted before, Black Spot (aka Zone Blanche) is a horror thriller crime series with heavy pagan influence from France and Belgium. It is also unexpectedly hilarious. There’s no shortage of gore or violence as this small French town in the mountains is plagued by a series of brutal murders. It’s also seriously packed with badass women. I’m personally dying for a third season.

9. Frankenstein, National Theatre Live

Benedict Cumberbatch-Jonny Lee Miller's 2011 play 'Frankenstein' to be streamed as part of National Theatre at Home

Danny Boyle, who directed Trainspotting and Slum Dog Millionaire, directs two versions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. One stars Benedict Cumberbatch as The Creature and Johnny Lee Miller as Dr. Frankenstein, and the other has the two actors swap roles. Both versions are utterly genius, but I prefer Cumberbatch as the creature because it’s a more surprising role for him. The ending is somewhat different from the book, but no less wrenching.

10. The Devil’s Backbone

The 100 best horror films, horror movies, the devil's backbone

I love almost everything that Guillermo del Toro does, but this movie has stuck with me — yes, even more than Tom Hiddleston’s handjob in Crimson Peak. Set during the Spanish Civil War, this ghost story is about 10-year-old Carlos whose father has been killed and now he’s left in a desert orphanage where he uncovers its haunting secrets. But it’s a combination of the acting and writing in this film that elevates it above the usual ghostly fair.

Asian Horror

Lest anyone think I’m not a fan, I most definitely am. It’s just that movies I love like Ringu, Dark Water, Tale of Two Sisters, and Audition (shudder) are already fairly well known. But if you’re looking to wet your feet, the movies I just mentioned in addition to this Ranker list are a good place to start.

That’s it! Let’s grab some snacks and bring new meaning to Netflix and chill.

This Is Not the Apocalypse My Parents Wanted

My parents, God bless ‘em, were kooks.

It all started in the mid-1970s, when my mother read Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, which prophesied that the world was coming to an end in 1988. The reason for this abrupt end to Ronald Reagan, leg warmers, and Roseanne was the Apocalypse, a series of global catastrophes that heralded the return of Jesus Christ. However, none of this would happen until after someone referred to as the Antichrist brought upon the world a period of time called the Tribulation.

Just so we’re clear, here was the supposed order of things that would happen according to my mother:

  1. Antichrist
  2. Tribulation
  3. End of leg warmers
  4. Jesus returns

Also to be clear, not all Christians that believe in this business think Jesus will show up at the end. Some believe he’ll “rapture” those who are “saved” before the Antichrist comes on the scene. Personally, my mother preferred the order in which we suffered the most before the Jesus bus arrived, at which time he’d get out and force everyone to bow down and declare He is Lord before sending the non-believers to hell. (That was apparently a second bus that would arrive later.)

That Beastly Barcode

My mother would go on at length about the Antichrist and how he’d start the Tribulation. According to her, the Antichrist would be “a dark-skinned man from the Middle East. Probably Saddam Hussein or that Gaddafi.” (Wow. Not racist AT ALL, Mom.) As soon as he was in power, the Antichrist would first destroy Israel. Next, he would unite the world under one government, and then make us all take the Mark of the Beast or else cut off our heads. We wouldn’t be able to buy or sell without The Mark. Lindsey’s book featured crude drawings of “the Mark” that looked like a barcode would be tattooed on our foreheads. This outlandish imagery persists 50 years later.

I mean, FFS.

My mother enjoyed adding that, “If you take The Mark, Jesus won’t take you to heaven when he comes back.” That might have been a bit of improvising on her part, or it might have even been in the Bible, but to baby Maria, it sounded scarier than the best monster movie she’d ever watched on Saturday’s Million Dollar Movie. Baby Maria was ALL IN.

So that they wouldn’t have to take said Mark to get food, my folks started hoarding dried canned goods, stuffing the giant boxes of cans in our closets and under our beds. As a kid, it sucked because the boxes fought with our clothes, games, and hiding places for space. And I couldn’t have anyone over because then they might see the food boxes. “Someday, your friends will kill you for this food,” my mother would warn. This didn’t seem very likely to me, as my Bluebird troop was a bit pacifist, but whatever. I decided to inflict my own bit of hell raising on my friends about the whole Antichrist business with mixed results.

My mother continued over the years to rail that we needed to be ready for the day that we were called to stand up for our faith and die rather than take The Mark. In my teens, our Pentecostal church showed my youth group a movie dramatizing the Antichrist beheading people who refused to take The Mark. It was the worst version of “Cake or Death” you can imagine, but I took it to heart. As a devout teen, I swore I’d brave the axe rather than renounce my faith.

No Jesus, Know Peace

Of course, I eventually did renounce my faith. The religious terrors of my childhood melted away one day, gifting me with the far more peaceful life of a nonbeliever. The Antichrist is what I named a particularly evil Hyundai that I owned, and the Tribulation is how I refer to my time working at FOX Studios.

Meanwhile, as I was pursuing my career and reclaiming my brain, my parents continued to gear up for the global disaster of biblical proportions they’d been hoping for. We became estranged at some point — not over religion or anything like that, but over some other painful family stuff — so I wasn’t privy to the Lindsey-esque shenanigans they were pursuing to ensure their survival during the inevitable End Times. While the world didn’t end in 1988 as Lindsey had predicted, my folks were sure it would happen in their lifetimes.

It didn’t.

Decades later, I entered the house after my dad’s death to discover my childhood home had turned into Indiana Jones and the Costco of Doom. There were closets packed with canned goods; giant plastic storage bins full of pasta; a two-story garage with toilet paper stacked to the rafters; poorly maintained guns with boxes of ammo stashed in the living room end tables; and huge amounts of hidden cash. They might have thought they were preparing for the Tribulation, but they were definitely ready in some ways for the current crisis…

This Ain’t Yo’ Mama’s Apocalypse

I write this as I sit at home during the COVID-19 Pandemic, which is the closest we’ve ever come to either the Tribulation or Apocalypse, and I think about my parents. I suspect my mother would have been disappointed with the lack of beheadings, as well as the fact that she’d still be able to buy and sell stuff without any embarrassing, soul-endangering forehead tattoos — just a face mask that she could take off whenever. She might have derived some satisfaction from the persecution she’d feel when told she couldn’t go to church for a few months, but any conservative news-induced persecution would have paled next to the imagined adrenaline rush of kneeling before a guillotine to defend her faith.

She might have written this global tragedy into the grand drama of the Book of Revelation, casting it in the role of the Horseman of the Apocalypse called Plague. She would probably quote the death numbers to support her point, but would have ignored anything a real scientist had to say about the matter. With all that toilet paper, she’d be ready to ride it out until Judgement Day. But anyone who said the world would recover from this pandemic would basically be saying we could reschedule Jesus’ arrival, and that would be unthinkable.

My parents were never logical. They were paranoid, wildly contradictory eaters of myth that relished cocktails of terror and persecution sweetened with the promise of life everlasting. This COVID-19 apocalyptic cocktail would definitely be missing something for them. Maybe it would have a half-ounce too much cooperation mixed with that jigger of science and uncertainty. That’s not to say there isn’t any terror to be had these days — there are god awful amounts of it everywhere. The world is racked with grief in the wake of so many deaths, not to mention our current economic disaster. But with the threat virtually invisible and everyone confined to their homes, I doubt my parents would have savored the terror in quite the same way.

There is some explanation for all this. My parents were children during The Great Depression, and my mother was an incest survivor. Her father eventually went to prison for the crimes he committed against his daughters. It’s fair to say that trauma was hardwired into their thinking from these cataclysmic childhood events. I think it’s also fair to say that people like Hal Lindsey preyed upon and profited from the splinters festering in the psyches of people who suffered such trauma. He and anyone doing so today deserve a long, agonizing ride on that hell bus more than any non-believer.

Shut The Fuck Up, Hal

In his book, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, Lindsey predicted that “the decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.” He was, once again, completely wrong. The 2010s were the last decade of history — of life — as we know it. And it’s in 2020 that life veers onto a strange highway with twists and turns that are leaving us lonely, depressed, anxious, hungry, broke, and profoundly annoying to our cats.

I still get choked up whenever I’m in a grocery store. The reality of what’s happening is always a knuckle punch to the gut. But I hear a small voice that says we’ll get through this. It isn’t the end of the world as my parents would have hoped. It’s the beginning of a new, weird world with no buses up or down, just forward, together, with stops along the way to mourn.

More Women with Swords: I Approve This Message

It’s been a while since I posted any women with swords — disappointing or otherwise. While I’ve certainly seen some terrible examples since my original post (they never go away), I’ve also come across some astonishingly great ones.

Anna Podedworna, Artist

This illustration by Anna Podedworna made my heart sing! A warrior woman shedding blood, rather than doing something “sexy” or otherwise dangerous to herself. Anna is also the artist for The Witcher Card Game. Click the link on her name to feast your eyes on her extraordinary work.

Kai Carpenter, Artist

I found this stunning painting in the latest Llewellyn’s 2020 Astrological Calendar: 87th Edition of the World’s Best Known, Most Trusted Astrology Calendar. Artist Kai Carpenter of Seattle created all of the stunning paintings for this calendar. In addition to Llewellyn, his other clients include DC Comics, Vertigo, Riot Games, and many, many others. Notice how his female warrior safely holds the bastard sword with it partially drawn — just enough to show us there’s a dangerous blade within? That, and he’s avoided the entire issue of boob armor with this fantastic armor design. You’re amazing, Kai. Thanks for this!

“Mike”

My sleuthing hasn’t turned up the artist of this oft-stolen painting. I hope that will change because this painting of Julie D’aubigny aka La Maupin — even though they’re both using the wrong sword for the time period — is brilliant because it shows her as she was: a deadly duelist.

(ETA: My husband found it! His name is Mike, and he’s been on DeviantArt forever. Well done, Mike! Thank you!)

As everyone knows, I’m completely obsessed with La Maupin, and I’ve written a YA novel about her. I’ve had agents and editors requesting the manuscript. Fingers crossed!

Beforeigners and Alfhildr

I love this fucking show from HBO Nordic. Unfortunately, this isn’t the photo I wanted to show you. The photo I really, really wanted to show you is a snippet that we get in the first episode of the character Alfhildr Enginsdottir played by Krista Kosonen. In that snippet, we’re flashing back to a Viking battle where Alfhildr is soaked in blood as she fights with shield and one-handed sword. She’s screaming. More like this, although this cropped photo sadly leaves out the carnage at her feet:

And she’s terrifying. (Not to say anything of Urd, who is delightfully lionhearted in this show.)

That’s how you do it. Big thanks to Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin, the show’s creators, for these absolutely believably badass women.

Lagertha on Vikings

And who could forget Lagertha? Virtually any scene where she’s holding a sword and shield is brilliant.

Played by the award-winning actress Katheryn Winnick and based on the historical character, Lagertha always manages to look beautiful and dangerous at the same time without the show having her resort to chainmail bikini shenanigans.

I have to wonder if people specifically visualize Viking shieldmaidens differently than any other kind of woman with a sword because I see fewer faux pas for this kind of artwork and photography than for any other female sword fighter imagery.

More to Come

It’s hard to come by great depictions of female sword fighters where they look more like they’ll hurt someone besides themselves, but I’ll keep at it. Meanwhile, if you’re just seeing this for the first time, here’s the full list of blog posts in this series:

Why I Hate Most Photos and Drawings of Women with Swords (the viral post that started it all)

Depictions of Sword Women that are (Mostly) Awesome

Why I Should Never Have Mentioned Michonne

Some Hilarious Additions to the Women with Swords Wall of Shame

Social Media Distancing

So, you all know what’s happening out there.

Actually, some of you don’t because you are listening to politicians rather than scientists. Whatever. More planet for the rest of us.

While everything is going bananas, I’ve quickly realized that daily social media contact is unbearable. It’s hard enough reading the news and getting the city emergency alerts. But watching the constant deluge of the exact same scary announcements over and over and over, with the same memes over and over and over, and the same (understandable) screams of frustration at blue-check randos and our so-called leaders over and over and over and over…

It’s exhausting.

Like a lot of writers, I struggle at times with depression and anxiety. I was already barely coping with my economic situation when imminent global economic collapse came along. The prospect of losing everything is too much for me to handle — and that’s where my mind goes, to despair and bankruptcy, when I’m in that online mudslide of panic and rage.

(Except for Instagram. It seems to be fireproof. Go figure.)

I’m block captain in my neighborhood. I should check on my elderly neighbors. See if they need anything. Be involved in my community while I still have one. And I do have business clients. I need to take care of them, too.

I keep thinking back to 9/11. Those were dark times, too. However, I think many of us got through them because we didn’t have social media. In fact, I’m convinced that’s why. Can you imagine having all those cuckoo conspiracy theories shoved in your face? Every troll in creation having his or her outrageous, weak-ass “take” elevated by people with huge platforms? I remember taking a shower that morning of the attack and my hair falling out. It was already intense, to say the least.

The economy tanked, but I had a job. I kept that job for another year or more. And then when they laid us off, I got another right away. In the airline lull immediately following the attack, I bought super-cheap tickets to Chicago and flew there just before Thanksgiving. There was light in the darkness.

It’s very different now. Much bleaker in many ways. I’ve got to stop disasterbating, right-size my problems, and deal with things only as they come. I wish I could stay online the same way while I did that.

I’ll still be promoting Snowblind when the time comes. And that time will come. If anything else happens, I’ll announce that, too. I’ll also be posting to Instagram, with the occasional check in everywhere else. I’m on Messenger if you need me.

So, you all know what’s happening.

As for the rest of you…

…whatever, dude. I just hope somehow you stay safe.

Peace, out.

Musings on Being Snowblinded

I can’t wait for you guys to read this last book in the trilogy. Here’s the blurb:

In this final chapter of roller coaster suspense, Charity and her friends must help Aidan defend the fortress against a militia led by Aidan’s “disenfranchised” half-human half-siblings who want only one thing: the power of the Klaas. Everything is on the line as Charity must venture into a terrifying world called The Withering to find Perchta, their last hope for help. But will Charity survive the strange creatures and even more shocking truth that awaits her?

Cover art by Daniele Serra.

I’m also incredibly sad to leave this series. Charity Jones is unlike any character I’ve ever created, and the thought of no longer writing about her is difficult. This whole series has been about doing the right thing even when it hurts, and that includes ending a story when one should. And in this last book, Charity has to look at herself in a whole new way despite the pain of her circumstances to make that choice. Sometimes doing the wrong thing is safer and seems like it’ll be less painful, when it’s not.

Don’t worry! It’s not a sad ending, but we’ve been coming up on the consequences of Charity’s relationship with Aidan for awhile. There’s always a reckoning between reason and faith.

I plan on writing the prequel about Aidan’s parents. I feel the need for that more keenly than ever. And by popular demand — because I listen to my fans! — part of this last book is from the POV of Michael Allured. I hope you guys enjoy it. And given what happens to Michael in this last book, maybe the adventures don’t have to end. Maybe they’re just beginning…

Sister, Redacted: The Other True Story

10/23/1989

I’m 22 years old. I live in South Sacramento with a roommate. I left school a year ago and moved out of the family home because of my father’s violence. You, my little sister, helped me pack, and swore at Dad on my behalf, calling him an “asshole.” I like to write, to make roleplaying games, but being a writer isn’t even a dream. I have no dreams. Not anymore. I haven’t even graduated from college. I just returned to school full-time because my mother is secretly paying for my education. Life is looking up.

I call the family doctor this afternoon to get the results of my sinus x-rays. The receptionist is confused when she hears my voice. Haven’t you heard? she asks. Has no one told you?

No one has called. There are no messages on the machine. She says you, my little sister, have been in a life-threatening accident and are now in a coma. You’ve been flown from Marshall Hospital to U.C. Davis Medical Center.

The floor disappears beneath me. I plunge into a boiling void of grief.

The receptionist says I should get someone to drive me. I don’t know who to call, nor do I know how to ask for help. I don’t have friends nearby. I’m not even entirely sure what a friend is or does because Mom has always said that “friends are snakes.” And even if they’re not a snake, you can’t ask for help from someone you like because they might stop liking you. Or think you’re weak. My roommate is at work. My boyfriend lives two hours away. I don’t call anyone. In the same dangerous rains that slickened the asphalt under your boyfriend’s car, I drive myself. When I arrive at the hospital, I have no idea how I got there.

Our parents are in the ICU lobby. Mom prays with church people. Dad stands apart, hunched over, his dark face wrinkled with rage and despair. They don’t acknowledge me at first. Eventually Dad tells me tearfully what happened, his voice trailing off into a squeak. Your head took the brunt of the impact. You have a severe brain injury and the surgeons have been operating. When the ICU doors open, I brace myself for what will surely be a horrific sight. But the nurse says I can’t see you. Parents only. Despite my intense religious beliefs, I have never felt so helpless. So alone.

When they finally let me see you a week later, you are incredibly fragile, like a sparrow with the feathers plucked from its head. Thick bloody stitches criss-cross your shaved scalp, your scrawny naked wings tethered to massive machines. A thousand years of sleep encrust your eyelids. You are also like a princess in a fairy tale, but you kiss the plastic breathing tube instead of a prince. The neurosurgeon says that in a year, you’ll be more or less the same girl. This news infuses us with hope. Eventually, it will prove entirely, devastatingly wrong.

I can’t stop crying. Or praying.

Take me, not her.

I cancel my Halloween plans. Later, I hear that the people I was to see said I need to “get over” what’s happened and get back to my life. So this is what Mom meant. Their callousness drives a railroad spike in my already agonizing heart.

My boyfriend is kind. He tries to distract me with silly movies. When that doesn’t work, he prays with me. But the truth is I want to die. The pain thrashes inside me, chewing and clawing its way out. I’ve never felt anything like this in my life. Yet I refuse to let it debilitate me. I stay in school. I write stories, poetry. A respected professor in filmmaking reads my work and invites me to take her graduate-level screenwriting course. I’m starting to taste who I am.

For eight months, you’re in a coma. It’s not like it is in the movies, where you wake up suddenly. Day by day, you slowly regain consciousness. Opening your eyes but not seeing. Grasping my hand but not holding it. Agitation strikes without warning at times like a cymbal crash, sending you into hellish gyrations. The doctors move you to a hospital in Pacifica where you are in a room with another Greek girl. She’s a “vegetable” from her head injury. She doesn’t speak or acknowledge others. Her family visits once a month. The rest of the time she stares at the wall. No light in her eyes. Just darkness.

As you eventually awaken, a changeling emerges. A creature who looks like you but who has halting, garbled speech and twisted memories. Childlike. Unable to walk or relate to others. Wild temper tantrums strike you like earthquakes. Whoever this is, it’s not you.

The truth is this: you died. But no one says it. I alone know, but I’m not allowed to speak. Not allowed to feel. Your tragedy is so big that there’s no room for my feelings. Shame presses its foot on my throat. I’m okay. I don’t have a severe head injury. I’m not disabled. I don’t have problems or needs. It’s true, true. Not compared to you. I understand. That’s just how it is.

I assume that someday I will be responsible for you. I decide not to have children. Not that I have any desire for them now.

Nine months after your accident, I get married. The doctor said it would give you something to look forward to. To encourage you to wake up. I have not finished school. On my wedding day, Mom orders me to take care of you in your wheelchair while she sets up everything. Can’t Aunt Velda do it? I ask. I have to get dressed. Do my hair, makeup, eat. I’m getting married, I remind her.

I’m getting married. And I feel so alone.

After the wedding, I move to the Bay Area. I do not see you as often. I finish school. I graduate. I even start working as the Editor-in-Chief of a magazine at Intel. I start making new friends. Friends I can call if something happens. Say, if I need a ride to the hospital because my sister is dying. But I don’t need them for that, thank goodness. Mom and Dad never visit. They come to the Bay Area with you, but they never tell us when they are here.

I don’t talk about your accident. If I do, people ask how you are. I never know how to answer. When I say the truth, the only thing they know about me is your tragedy. They don’t see me anymore. The first thing they ask is if you can walk. I say yes, and then they exclaim, “Oh, that’s good!” As if walking meant you were okay. I want to explain that you died, but that I’m the ghost. They wouldn’t understand. Obviously, you are alive. Even if it isn’t you. And so am I, even if I have no feelings. Or needs.

I realize early on that Mom and Dad shouldn’t be taking care of you. The burden is overwhelming. Mom gets sick with breast cancer but doesn’t tell me until after treatment is over. They say they don’t need help, but in reality they distrust authority figures. Government services. Doctors. Nurses. Mom and Dad keep you isolated. And angry. They tell you things that aren’t true about the people who want to help you.

My grief stretches into years. Mom talks excitedly on the phone about your progress, but when I see you, the changes seem small. You are still dead. I visit your neuropsychologist. He says my feelings are normal. If I were living with you as our parents do, I would be able to accept your condition. But I can’t. I’m still in the Bay Area and now going through a divorce. My life — my God, my life — is in extreme turmoil, but not from the divorce. Not from you, or anyone in the family. My religious beliefs have joyfully, rapturously fled in the wake of real miracles. Someday the world will know the powerful tale of what happened.

But that story is for another time.

During my turmoil, Mom and Dad decide to marry you off to a sweet, disabled man who cannot speak because the plastic breathing tube atrophied his vocal chords. He uses sign language and writes little notes. And he’s very wealthy from his accident settlement. Mom tells me on the phone that he’s the answer to your problems. I ask to speak to you. My heart riots as you tell me you don’t love this man. Mom says you are confused. The wedding happens in the Greek Orthodox church. I refuse to look the priest in the eye.

A couple of months later, I am waiting for a scheduled phone call from Clive Barker — yes, that Clive Barker — when the phone rings. It’s the caregivers assigned to you and your new husband. They beg me to tell them where you are. I can’t. I have no idea what’s happened.

Mom and Dad have kidnapped you, I soon learn. Unable to get control of your husband’s money, Dad abducts you, lies to you about your husband, and forces you to divorce him. I imagine your husband howling mutely with anguish when he realizes you’re never coming home, and I’m enraged. I am not there, they tell me high-handedly. I don’t know what’s going on…

I have no right to speak.

Less than a year passes. I’m disabled myself, in chronic pain. I live in Los Angeles. Alone. And I’m scared for my life. My future looks bleak. Mom calls multiple times a week. Will you be your sister’s caregiver if something were to happen to us? she asks. We need to put it in the will. I’m disabled, I explain. I can’t even take care of myself right now. I promise her that I would make sure you have the best care. This angers her. She calls. And she calls. Over and over. The same question.

No one asks if I’m okay. If I need anything. I’m not a ghost, goddammit.

I stop answering.

10/23/2019

Thirty years have passed since that catastrophic day. Mom and Dad are both dead. Your life is far better than I could have ever hoped. Thanks to your disability benefits, you will never go hungry. You will always have care. The house, which is in a special needs trust, is well maintained. You see doctors on a regular basis. A very special woman cares for you 24/7 with a team of other special women. I didn’t stay away that whole time. I went into therapy to learn how I could deal with Mom and Dad so that I could stay as close to you as possible. Because you wouldn’t understand why I left. And you needed me, especially after Mom died.

When Dad died, I was disabled yet again, awaiting my surgery date. I came to stay with you that first chaotic week until the government agencies could step in. Dad had made no plans for you. He and Mom had lied on legal forms so that you would fall off the grid. He told you that you were not disabled. So, you lashed out whenever anyone mentioned those agencies. (You still do.) You were taught they’re evil, but they saved your life. The weight of Dad’s denial nearly crushed me that week. In three days, I was so exhausted I didn’t know what day it was. I awoke at night shivering, not from cold but from extreme stress.

I jokingly called the house “Indiana Jones and the Costco of Doom.” Dad and Mom were hoarding guns, food, and money. Lots of money. One day, I found $70,000 in cash. I could have tossed it into my car trunk in a burlap grocery bag. No one would have known. But I didn’t. Instead, I turned it over to your trustee. Legally, you can only spend the money you inherited that’s in the special needs trust on vacations and gifts. You rarely buy either.

I did the right thing, but I worry it was a mistake.

Dad wrote me out of the will because I was a “traitor.” I spoke to the authorities when another family member reported him for refusing to take you or Mom to the doctor. I wrote to the court when he abused and neglected you. I called the police when he took you out of state against court orders. (I later learned that, after Mom died, he was seen in public kissing you on the mouth. I’d suspected he was doing much worse in private. I wanted to dig him up and murder him a thousand times.) He wrote such terrible words about me in the will that, when my boyfriend found it in the mountain of dining room paperwork, he wouldn’t let me read that part. I already knew Dad had poisoned his side of the family against me for watching over you. Consequently, he wasn’t the only one to disinherit me.

The painful irony is that you’ll never understand my heartbreak. The significant damage to your cerebral cortex means you can’t feel compassion. It’s not your fault. That’s just the way it is. Yet I have found a way to build a relationship with the new you. It’s not nearly the relationship we could have had or even what we had, but it’s what we have now.

The truth is this: thirty years ago, I lost all three of you. I’ve stumbled along in a daze for decades, stitching my wounds with ink and binding them with silences. The therapy and self-help groups helped, but the healing truly grew as I gathered to my heart our family members on Mom’s side. They see me, love me, appreciate me, as I do them. They remind me of what family should be.

And I have friends. Real friends. The kind that find you when you’ve crawled off and drawn the drapes to hide the bleeding. That hold you when you’re splintering apart. That help when you can’t do something on your own. That call, listen, and make you laugh. I’m even lucky enough to have a loving husband now who is all of this and much more. His family is everything.

I’ve lost so much. The financial and emotional impact of what’s happened has been beyond devastating. My life isn’t perfect by far. But I do have love. And my art. Hopefully others who have suffered losses like mine will read this and realize that they aren’t ghosts, either, but people with feelings and problems and needs.

Not needs like some, true, true, but still incredibly, extraordinarily important.