Yesterday, I discovered some notes I took about a harrowing incident that happened to my dad on February 6, 1956 when he was working for the State Department at an office in Thessaloniki, Greece. Every step of the story he relayed is a monument to what a fecking idjit my father was, even at the age of 28. I’m not kidding. He does so many colossally stupid, dangerous things, you can’t begin to feel sorry for him. Still, there’s enough here that I can fictionalize the hell out of it and turn it into a wee spy thriller short story.
The 1953 Refugee Relief Act
Meanwhile, I’m looking into some of the statements my dad made, namely about the 1953 Refugee Relief Act for which he was conducting investigations of applicants for visas. A 1954 report from the CIA (declassified in 2006) about that act provided definitions of refugee, escapee, and expellee. I don’t know what the current legal definitions are, but this is a fascinating window into the past.
What’s definitely of interest is that it seems the U.S. only recognized European and Asian countries in this CIA report. No countries south of the border, in the Middle East, or on the African continent are part of the refugee program. They even define refugees as people who are displaced due to either natural disasters or military action. An escapee, however, is a refugee escaping a Communist country or Communist-occupied area. The Cold War was certainly foremost on their minds.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your thoroughly investigated”
That said, the government failed to provide adequate financial support to staff the overseas operations necessary to process the proposed “preference quotas.” However, the appointed Administrator — Edward Corsi — sounded (unrealistically) optimistic that they’d surpass the quotas by the following year. He doesn’t say why. This is especially interesting given that he was in the middle of a fight with Congress. Before he was dismissed for being involved in a Communist group, Corsi went on record as saying that the law was being “wholly dominated by psychology of security” and the applicants were being “investigated to death.” *
Sound familiar? It’s sad to think at that point it was already more “American” to be paranoid than welcoming.
Perfect Window into the Past
I wish I’d been able to ask my dad more questions, but our relationship was already worn thin. It’s probably okay, though. This perfect window into the past gives me more than enough for personal education and imaginative exploration.
English professor Lila Maclean knew drama would be involved when she agreed to consult on Stonedale University’s production of Puzzled: The Musical. But she didn’t expect to find herself cast into such chaos: the incomprehensible play is a disaster, the crumbling theater appears to be haunted, and, before long, murder takes center stage.
The show must go on—yet as they speed toward opening night, it becomes clear that other members of the company may be targeted as well. Lila searches for answers while contending with a tenacious historical society, an eccentric playwright, an unsettling psychic, an enigmatic apparition, and a paranormal search squad. With all of this in play, will she be able to identify who killed her colleague…or will it soon be curtains for Lila too?
“Lila Maclean returns with theatrical hilarity and otherworldly suspense. A fabulous backstage whodunit.” — Gretchen Archer, USA Today bestselling and Agatha Award-nominated author of the Davis Way Crime Caper Series
“An A+ academic mystery! This delightful cozy deserves extra credit for its clever protagonist, laugh-out-loud dramatics, and layers of mystery. Add in ghostly intrigue and a haunted opera house, and The Spirit in Question is the perfect Halloween read.” — Nora Page, author of the Bookmobile Mysteries
“Murder, protests and a haunted theater–Stonedale University English professor Lila Maclean deals with it all with wit and humor in The Spirit In Question, a must-read for cozy mystery fans.” –Sybil Johnson, author of the Aurora Anderson Mysteries
“Delightful heroine Lila and her supporting cast conjure a fun show stopper in The Spirit in Question. Old scandals, new rivalries, a ghostly menace–and a determined killer will keep readers puzzling over whodunit until the final act.” –Vickie Fee, author of the Liv & Di in Dixie Mysteries
Cynthia Kuhn writes the Lila Maclean Academic Mystery series: The Semester of Our Discontent, an Agatha Award recipient for Best First Novel; The Art of Vanishing, a Lefty Award nominee for Best Humorous Mystery; and The Spirit in Question. Her work has also appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Literary Mama, Copper Nickel, Prick of the Spindle, Mama PhD, and other publications. She is professor of English at Metropolitan State University of Denver and president of Sisters in Crime-Colorado. For more information, please visit cynthiakuhn.net.
Hi everyone! Today, I have the joy of interviewing author S.L. Huang who sold her action-packed, self-published Amazon series to Tor, starting with Zero Sum Game. More about the book soon, but first onto the questions.
Congratulations on selling your series to Tor! You started this series as a self-published author, which gives you a lot of creative and financial control. What factored into your decision to sell the publication rights to a traditional publisher?
A few reasons. First of all, I’d discovered that I was not actually that good at self-publishing. I think I did a great job writing a book people loved and releasing it with top-notch production value, but it turned out I was not at all good at the sales-driving aspects. More importantly, I was not a fast enough writer to do well in self-publishing—I was only able to put out a book every nine months, whereas in self-publishing, it’s hard to do well if you’re going longer than three or four months between releases.
Meanwhile, I’d started working in short fiction and found that working with an editor and publisher suited me extremely well, and I love it!
So when I managed to get a fantastic agent and he asked me if I wanted to look into getting a traditional deal, I said yes. He was confident he could get me an incredible contract—which he did, and that’s why I said yes!
And I haven’t regretted it. I love my editor, and Tor has given me an unbelievable amount of support—I think the book is better than it’s ever been and is going to go to much greater heights.
Having a degree in mathematics (and probably loads of related classes like physics) must give you a lot to work with when getting Cas in and out of trouble. How do you know when to let up on the math and let in the muse?
My first draft I was actually worried about putting too much math in, so I went very light on the math details. My first readers, none of whom where math people, told me to add more! They said it didn’t matter to them that they didn’t understand it, but they wanted the texture of it, because in the book it’s so fun. I was delighted to oblige them.
Believe it or not, I can’t use a whole lot of my background for the little details—I didn’t, for example, take classes in the mathematics of exploding buildings or how blood spatters when someone is murdered. So I have to do a lot of research for each new bit of overpowered mathematics my main character works in the series, and often end up scribbling in a notebook to do the equations for real and figure out what’s possible.
Do you know where your towel is? If so, where did you buy it?
I do, and I didn’t buy it, I won it in a Japanese speech contest by talking about the tooth fairy. (True story. 歯の妖精.)
I frequently wrap it around my head to ward off the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.
What’s your favorite real-life hand gun and why?
A Belgian-made Browning Hi-Power in nine-millimeter. It is my very favorite gun.
As someone who’s worked in theatrical combat, you probably know that every fight tells a story. What’s your favorite screen or fiction fight? And how did that make you a better writer?
Oh, I 100% agree about fights telling stories! To me, the least interesting fights are usually two people whaling on each other with no stakes or relationship behind it.
It’s hard to pick a favorite fictional fight, but in my top handful would be the sword fights in The Princess Bride, and they were certainly one of the most illuminating to young S.L. Huang’s understanding of how fights work in narrative. When I was a kid, I was watching a commentary track in which some of the creators talk about the fight between Inigo and The Man in Black as being the second-best fight in cinema—after the fight scene between Inigo and Count Rugen, which comes at the end of the film. I didn’t understand what they meant by that until I’d started studying fight choreography.
If you’ve never seen the movie, the Inigo/Man In Black sword fight is the flashier, longer, funnier one. The technicality of the fight choreography is incredible, and it’s a great lesson in how to write a long clashing of swords in a way that still keeps unfolding in an entertaining manner.
But it doesn’t match the stakes of the second fight. Inigo and the Man In Black are nearly equal in blade mastery and not truly invested in killing the other; their fight functions like a very skillful and entertaining dance. Whereas in the Inigo/Rugen fight, Inigo is the clearly superior swordsman . . . but he’s also bleeding to death in three places while trying to complete the revenge quest that has consumed his entire life since age eleven.
The choreography and performance of the first sword fight is nothing short of marvelous. But the choreography in the second is much more entrenched in story and character and stakes in a way that was a revelation to me when I figured it out!
Who have been your favorite fight masters with whom you’ve either worked or studied? And how have they influenced your storytelling?
I’ve studied fighting nearly everywhere I’ve lived, and the amount I’ve learned from some truly incredible fight masters would take too long to list here. And of course on movie sets I’ve worked for stunt coordinators and fight choreographers who are the top of the field.
But I’ll say that one of the most significant and influential fight instructors I’ve had is still my first: Ted Hewlett, whom I credit with giving me a deep foundation and formative understanding that helped shape the rest of my career. It was Ted who first taught me about how much the characters’ relationship impacts how arresting a fight is going to be to an audience. He also taught me that the more two characters love each other, the more painfully they can hurt each other.
Who are your most beloved authors?
Oh, this question is always overwhelming because I feel like I could easily list twenty names and still be leaving people out. So how about I give a little overview of the stories and authors that have blown me away lately?
Books I’ve read in the past few months that I’ve especially enjoyed include Death’s End by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu (last sequel to The Three Body Problem); Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi; All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders; The SEA Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng; Alice Payne Arrives, by Kate Heartfield; and Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse.
I’m also a big short story reader. Some of my favorite short story writers include K.M. Szpara, JY Yang, A. Merc Rustad, Alyssa Wong, Isabel Yap, and S. Qiouyi Lu. I highly encourage people to check them out as well!
You, S.L. Huang, have to kidnap Batman with what you have at your place right now. How do you do it?
This might be the best question I’ve ever been asked.
I’ll have to be creative, because I just moved back to the U.S. from Japan and I have hardly anything in my new apartment yet. I only barely got a mattress. So this is how it’s going to go:
I invite Batman over to my place to see my trampoline, dropping my MIT cred and claiming it’s a new especially-bouncy trampoline that will help him leap up onto balconies. While he’s looking at it and determining that it is not, in fact, any sort of a special trampoline at all, I whack him over the head with a math textbook.
While he’s dazed I stuff his mouth full of the levothyroxin I take for my dysfunctional thyroid, a medication that I have just been assured causes “confusion, shock, and light coma” if taken in overdose. I gag him with my Japanese towel so he has to swallow, and then I wrap him in my hammock, tie it shut, and drag him to a proper hiding place.
Supplies needed: trampoline, math textbook, levothyroxin, aforementioned Japanese towel, and hammock, all of which were clearly so essential to me that they beat a mattress into my apartment!
Awesome! Thanks, Lisa!
Check out Lisa’s book:
A blockbuster, near-future science fiction thriller, S.L. Huang’s Zero Sum Game introduces a math-genius mercenary who finds herself being manipulated by someone possessing unimaginable power…
Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good. The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight, and she’ll take any job for the right price. As far as Cas knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower…until she discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master. Cas should run, like she usually does, but for once she’s involved.
There’s only one problem… She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.
Just a quick note to everyone following this blog that I have some very special, time-sensitive news. So, please sign up for my newsletter this holiday weekend to get the heads up. Go to the bottom of this post, enter your email in the box, and click “Sign up.” That’s it!
Do it! Do it now! Don’t say I didn’t give you a chance!
I generally don’t like chiming in on social media about the ever-increasing number of mass shootings. I prefer to vote, make calls, etc., because we clearlyhave a gun problem. But in this case I’ve been contemplating the fact that the Santa Fe shooter was a Greek boy. It hits close to home for many reasons.
My Big Toxic Greek Family
Maybe some of my Greek friends haven’t had this experience, but I grew up with intense toxic masculinity that continues to this day in my Greek family. Some of you are familiar with one of my early short stories, “The King of Shadows.” My Greek father, who didn’t want me to go to college, was the inspiration for that brutal faery tale. And when he died a few years ago, my life changed in ways I never dreamed. I also have a trunk story called “Scarlet, Lavender, Lapis” about a Greek woman trying to escape her roots, but she gets pulled back into one of the darkest Greek myths we teach today. The idea that I can’t escape my heritage has always haunted me, especially the hideous racism that riddled every family conversation.
My father had guns. He almost never used them — he certainly didn’t take care of them, leaving them unsecured in a half-open closet — but later in life he’d regularly threaten to kill my mother with them. She told me on the phone so that I’d know “in case something happens.” This just added to his many other abuses, some of which I only learned after his death. One was so sickening that, if I could have dug him up and murdered him with my own hands, I would have.
It wasn’t just my father. Almost every Greek man in my family abused women with impunity. One exception I can recall is when a distant Greek relative screamed at her pre-pubescent son as she pulled him off of me, saying, “You will respect women!” He’d been trying to climb onto teenaged me as I was sitting in a chair, minding my own business. I have a hunch he never learned that lesson.
Attack in London
As if that weren’t enough, when I was in London back in 2001, I was assaulted on an otherwise empty tube platform by a young Greek male tourist. I knew he was Greek because he tried to strike up a conversation with me about where he was from. I made the mistake of saying, “That’s nice. I’m Greek, too.” He then grabbed me and tried to force me to kiss him.
After a struggle, I broke away just in time to jump onto the next train. He followed me onboard. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. We had a standoff in an occupied car, where I told him to go away. When the train doors opened again, I flung myself out of the train and ran as fast as I could to the nearest tube employee, who comforted me until I stopped trembling.
Thankfully, I lost the bastard.
I’ve never been to Greece as a result, and have never had any desire to go because I hate being harassed on any given day, much less assaulted while I’m traveling in another country.
The Hellenic Community
In a thorough blog post by Greek American Girl about violence in Greek homes, she details why violence is tolerated in Greek families, including those in America:
Greek culture is traditionally patriarchal, it tolerates and “waters down” abuse more so than someone from American culture. The Greek culture socializes women and men to believe that the husband is the head of the home and that a wife’s function is to keep the family intact. As a highly patriarchal culture, men are taught to believe they merit a position of power over women who believe it is their fate to live in violence. Due to these ingrained cultural ideas about marriage, family and sex roles, abuse tends to be overlooked, tolerated, and even condoned.
When I heard the Santa Fe shooter cum would-be bomber was Greek, I wasn’t fazed. In fact, I wondered why it hadn’t happened sooner. And then the Los Angeles Times had this quote:
One of Pagourtzis’ classmates who died in the attack, Shana Fisher, “had 4 months of problems from this boy,” her mother, Sadie Rodriguez, wrote in a private message to the Los Angeles Times on Facebook. “He kept making advances on her and she repeatedly told him no.”
Sound familiar? And yet his family says, “what we have learned from media reports seems incompatible with the boy we love.” Guess what? My Greek family has always been similarly baffled that anyone would complain about the boys they love, as the boys themselves blamed the women in their lives for their problems.
Of course, Greek men aren’t the only ones who grow up infused with garbage attitudes toward women. This is an everywhere-problem. A Mediterranean-Asian-Middle Eastern-All-American plague. Still, this is just a reminder that the Greek American community is responsible for doing their part to make better men. Straight up, my family failed. I know many others have, too. I’ve watched it happen my entire life.
I also know a couple of perfectly sweet Greek men, writers I’ve befriended over the years, like the late David Thomas Lord aka John Sumakis, and the always-lovely and hilarious Mark McLaughlin. We need to make a lot more of these guys, not another goddamned Milo Yiannopoulos or this newly minted, psychopathic asshole.
Heartbreak in Santa Fe
Meanwhile, my heart breaks for the families and friends of those who were killed. Sylipiteria to you all. I’ll be doing my part politically to work toward a safer America for every student.
First, I was headed down Coldwater Canyon on a quick jaunt to a friend’s house just south of Ventura Boulevard. After I’d safely crossed an intersection, some jackhole in a super-sized SUV with tinted windows and paper plates decided at the last (im)possible second to turn left in front of me to enter a strip mall.
Thankfully, I was:
Wearing big-ass Doc Martins, and
In possession of fantastic reflexes
I slammed on the brakes hard and fast enough to stop my car within perhaps a couple of inches from plowing into the side of that SUV. It’s funny how we instinctively know when to throw everything into that brake. It took every ounce of leg strength to halt my sedan.
So. Damned. Close.
My heart ka-thunked the rest of the way to my friend’s house. I remained shaky for a little while after I arrived until the adrenaline eventually cooled.
Later, I was to meet with friends who were visiting this weekend from San Francisco at a local restaurant. I figured I’d just take an Uber. I’ve had very few bad experiences with ride sharing.
Less stress, right?
The driver who picked me up kept glancing down to her left side. I craned my neck to see that she was holding her cell phone in her left hand. I asked her not to look at the phone. I told her the restaurant was a straight shot down the road we were on, and then we’d turn right on the destination street.
Yet she continued to glance down at her phone surreptitiously every few seconds. I kept thinking about what happened to me earlier today with that SUV driver. If someone pulled something like that on this woman during our short drive, we’d not just be toast, but crispy-fried, Belgian roadkill waffles sprinkled with gravel granola.
As we drove, I kept looking on the Uber app for a way to report the driver in-route, but I didn’t find anything. I should have just demanded she stop and I get out. Nothing is worth that kind of risk. But we arrived pretty quickly. When she dropped me off, the app prompted me to rate her, and I reported her. They refunded my ride. To think, this driver supposedly had a 4.72 rating out of 5.
I Live, Obviously, But…
Thankfully, I’m home safe and glad the day is drawing to a close. Today is the Baron Samedi’s Day. Maybe the ghede just needed to dangle a bit of danger in front of me to remind me that every moment of every day is both precious and precarious, even when we feel like we’re in the driver’s seat.
Wishing you all a beautiful Sunday tomorrow! As usual, I’ll be writing.
I’m incredibly excited to announce that SNOWBOUND: Book 2 in the Bloodline of Yule Trilogy will be coming out September 8, 2018 from Ghede Press! This is the sequel to SNOWED, which won the 2016 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Young Adult Novel and was nominated for the 2017 Anthony Award for Best Children’s/Young Adult Novel.
SNOWBOUND: Book 2 in the Bloodline of Yule Trilogy
The events of that deadly Christmas night changed Charity, her friends, and the entire world forever. Since then, Charity has been dreaming about a set of latitude and longitude coordinates in the Arctic Ocean where she believes Aidan has been taken by his monstrous father, Krampus. Driven by revenge and desire, Charity harnesses trickery, technology, and questionable resources to lead her team to those coordinates to kill Krampus and save Aidan. What she encounters on and beneath the ice nearly destroys her. But when Charity discovers Aidan’s shocking fate, she makes a fatal mistake that starts a countdown to environmental apocalypse. Can she stop the clock? Or will humanity pay the ultimate price?
Release Date: September 8, 2018
With over 20 years of professional marketing and fiction writing experience, I realized it was time to apply my expertise to my own indie publishing company. With the critical acclaim of both Mr. Wicker and especially Snowed, I decided this was the place to start. Also, many people in my crime writing family have urged me to publish my Detective Henry Cake crime satire series, starting with the first book, No Rhyme Goes Unpunished. This sort of niche writing can more easily find its audience online. Ghede Press is perfect for that. No Rhyme will be coming out sometime in early 2019. Stay tuned!
This essay appeared in the program book for the 2017 StokerCon convention, which took place April 27 – 30 of this year on the Queen Mary. George R.R. Martin was the Guest of Honor.
“Pfui, I say. Let’s mix this with that and see what happens. Let’s cross some genre lines and blur some boundaries, make some stories that are both and neither. Some of the time we’ll make a mess, sure… but once in awhile, if we do it right, we may stumble on a combination that explodes!”
— GRRM, “Hybrids and Horrors,” Dreamsongs: Volume I
Each year on Epiphany, Len Wein and Christine Valada throw a remarkable party that they simply call “Twelfth Night.” If you’ve ever been to a party at the home of the man who created Wolverine and Swamp Thing, and whose wife is a four-time Jeopardy Champion and former photographer for the Washington Post, you’d know this party is a Who’s Who of fantasy, science fiction, comics, animation, TV and film. Notables such as Nichelle Nichols, Harlan Ellison, David Gerrold, Melinda Snodgrass, Larry Niven and Steven Barnes are just a few of the major talents decking the halls at this event. Even when I love an author, I tend not to find out what they look like. With the exception of Harlan, it’s been at Len’s parties that I’ve put a face to the name of many literary heroes.
It was Epiphany night, 2010. I’d been to dinner numerous times at Chris and Len’s house, but this was my first time at their famed Twelfth Night. As soon as I entered, a fellow named Michael greeted me, anxious to introduce me to someone called “George” wearing a Greek fisherman cap and suspenders. But “George” seemed to be surrounded by people all the time, and since I had no idea who he was, I didn’t pursue the introduction. Besides, there were so many interesting people there. No rush. Instead, I ambled, ate, and chatted with other guests, some of whom were friends.
Eventually my back ached and I wandered into a room on the far side of the kitchen, searching for a seat. Unable to find one, I tried crouching on a footstool when Michael’s wife, who was sitting on the futon with “George,” got up and insisted I take her place. I thanked her profusely and proceeded to have a wonderful conversation with “George” about LiveJournal, Lovecraft, Robert A. Heinlein, and much more. He asked me how I knew Len, and I told him about how we met at LosCon. I then asked him, “So, how do you know Len?”
“Oh, we used to write comics together.”
“Of course you’re a writer! What’s your name?”
At that moment, I was dimly aware that the room had fallen silent, all eyes and ears locked on the unlikely exchange. You could have heard the wind whistling past the tumbleweeds as he replied:
“George… R.R. …Martin.”
I sighed and rested my head on his shoulder. “I…love you.”
The room erupted with laughter, including George’s. (Chris told me later that he’d loved my reaction.)
Thinking back on that conversation, I realize I got a glimpse into Martin’s personal chemistry lab in his approach to horror. His this and that in our discussion were H.P. Lovecraft and Heinlein, but he has many other ingredients. Not only does the blurring of boundaries make his work “explode,” but he’s also changed the boundaries of the horror genre itself.
His 1979 novellette, Sandkings, for which he won both a Hugo and a Nebula Award, brilliantly illustrates. Simon Kress is a wealthy man who adopts alien pets called Sandkings and tortures them to make them war with each other. The Sandkings’ bloodlust mingles psionically with Simon’s, and it’s not long before a prolonged bloodbath ensues at Simon’s hand. And then in 1980, Martin’s Nightflyers novella would introduce an unusual serial killer on a spaceship. In it we discover blood and brains are messier in Zero-G, and that laser cutters wielded by disembodied hands are more terrifying than bad guys with guns.
Martin certainly doesn’t need to smudge genre lines to scare the living hell out of us. His short story “The Pear-Shaped Man” falls right in the boardroom of the Horror, Inc. It won the 1988 Bram Stoker Award for Long Fiction from the nascent Horror Writer’s of America, and left its readers gagging on imaginary cheese curls for months after reading.
But it’s when he reaches into his chemistry set and mixes with glee that we see his greater genius. Fevre Dream set the genre world on fire with its antebellum vampires. In this story, Martin’s new species of nocturnal humanoids embark on a life and death quest as they travel Mark Twain’s historic Mississippi on the Fevre Dream, the latest and greatest steamboat ever made. We feel for its captain, Abner Marsh, our simple yet respectable protagonist struggling with his enigmatic partner, the soft-spoken Joshua York, who eventually takes them and their glorious steamboat into utter peril. As it explores the concept of slavery in surprising ways, the story is so atmospheric that you can feel the humidity of New Orleans and taste the savory meals that Marsh eats with gusto. Nominated in 1983 for the World Fantasy Award, this book was like no other vampire story we’d seen before. People who didn’t like horror or Anne Rice’s books couldn’t get enough of Martin’s vampires.
And then there’s the ubiquitous A Song of Ice and Fire series. “J.R.R. Lovecraft” is an apt description because Lovecraft’s nihilism pulses in the molten core of Martin’s medieval fantasy. The pervasive darkness of the series, brightened only by Tyrion’s bon mots, is its overriding feature, providing a cornucopia of horrific elements. Rape. Betrayal. Cannibals. Murder. Homicidal demons. Human sacrifice. Torture. Mutilation. Vivisection. Execution. Assassination. Resurrection. Patricide. Infanticide. Suicide. Regicide. Genocide. Crushed skulls. Flayed corpses. Animated corpses – that is, the White Walkers, Martin’s zombie hoards that are about to overrun the Seven Kingdoms from the North. If their blue eyes that “burn like ice” don’t chill you to the bone, nothing will.
HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation has put horror in almost every home in America, not to mention across the globe. People who would never read Stephen King devotedly read the A Song of Ice and Fire series and watch Game of Thrones. It’s an unprecedented advancement of the horror genre, and we have George R.R. Martin to thank for that.
I first met Len Wein, famous co-creator of Wolverine and the new X-men, in the hallway late one Saturday night at LosCon in 2003. I wore a pink satin corset with garters and a big Betty Page sunhat as I was helping BDSM friends sell corsets and floggers out of their hotel room. I’d done my author gig earlier that day, and now it was time to play. Parties abounded and Len was no stranger to them.
I winced with embarrassment when I told him I was a guest at the convention. Compared to Len, I was a baby writer, a mere infant running back and forth over the pages, leaving messy inky footprints. But he never spoke to me as if I were. Not that night.
We kept in touch. A little, anyway. Honestly? I never knew what to say in email. “Hi, Len Wein. How genius are you today?” Because the truth was I’d had a crush on Wolverine ever since I could remember. (I crushed on larynx bruisers and bad boys. What can I say?) I thought the sexiest thing I’d ever seen was a painting of Wolverine kissing Jean Grey, her fist pressed to him as she sort of protested. I died when I saw that.
Anyway. Six years later.
In January 2009, I’d started dating a sweet Jewish man named Bret who I thought was the dreamiest of my goth girl dreams. We’d only been together a couple of months when I got a strange phone call from him. Somewhere in my daze phrases like, “Len and Chris’ house,” “digging through the ashes,” and “Harlan was here” drilled into me like lightning. Worlds literally collided. Bret knew Len. Harlan Ellison, of course, knew Len. (“My only two friends in the world are Len Wein and a dead dog,” Harlan is famous for saying.) I’d met Harlan before through mutual friends. And apparently Len and his amazing wife Chris had just lost their home and one of their dogs to a terrible fire.
We helped move them from their temporary home to the gorgeous new permanent one in Northridge. I’ll never forget those countless rows of looooong comic book boxes stacked like beehives in the living room.
Len and Chris then invited us to their famous annual Twelfth Night Party the following January 2010. That’s where I met and promptly embarrassed myself in front of George R.R. Martin. (I wrote about this incident for StokerCon this year. Jesus, I can’t believe I forgot to post that essay. Okay, soon. I promise.)
When “Game of Thrones” first aired, Len and Chris invited us to watch the premier at their house as part of their Super Sunday Supper Squad — a group of friends who met every Sunday evening to watch “The Amazing Race” and now “Game of Thrones.” Those friends were writers, actors, and other creative types. All wonderful people. Many of them have since become beloved friends of my own. After that night, as we wondered if it would be okay to ever come back, we were informed that once invited always invited. So, we returned.
Every Sunday night, Len sat at the head of the table, busting out the puns and Broadway lyrics. One night he sang a line from musical theater to me. My blank stare must have given away my ignorance, a palpable sin.
“You’ve never heard that?” he said.
“Remind me why we keep you around?”
“Because I’m cute?”
He nodded. “Yeah. Okay.”
We both laughed.
I cherished those Sunday nights. No matter what happened during the week — and wow a LOT happened between 2010 and 2017 — I knew I had somewhere to go where I could natter with kindred souls. Where I could eat delicious home cooked food, and someone would get my dorky jokes. However, I first had to survive the ritual of three very excited golden retrievers bombarding me at the front door. Len’s pride and joy. I loved those dogs and still do. There’s nothing more wonderful than a golden retriever bringing you a slobbery toy and rolling over, feet in the air for a belly rub. I even helped name their youngest dog, Ginger.
He couldn’t have married anyone better than Chris. I admired her the moment I met her. She was not only the Mama Lion who looked out for him and the family, but also a gifted photographer who took photos for the Washington Post, an IP attorney, a phenomenal cook, and multiple Jeopardy Champion. God, I can’t believe the things I’ve watched her pull out of the air at King’s Trivia. We used to regularly crush the hopes of dozens every trivia night at the Paragon Bar & Grill. Between Chris and Lisa Klink (TV writer, author, and yet another multiple Jeopardy Champion), few stood a chance.
Damn, I have smart friends.
Len and Chris visited my condo on my birthday just after my mother had passed away. Once again, I cringed with embarrassment because in my grief I’d forgotten to put away the two Wolverine figurines I kept in my office. Still, Len kindly signed my Watchmen book. I think I only have one other thing he signed. And very few pictures taken with him except this:
I think this was a timer photo of our Sunday Super Supper Squad. That’s me and Bret standing behind Len on the right.
I made so many incredible friends at Len and Chris’ house, like David Gerrold and Steven Barnes. I (re-)met Larry Niven, have had several conversations with Melinda Snodgrass, and befriended Chris’ sister, T, a fabulous actress. I even live-tweeted a food fight there between Harlan Ellison and Emo Phillip’s wife, Kipleigh Brown, at David’s birthday party. Earlier that night, I’d been in a bouncy house on Len’s front lawn with both Emo Phillips and David Gerrold, which meant only one thing: I had to dream a new dream.
Swamp Thing by Charles Vess. Used with permission.
When Len’s health started to seriously deteriorate, I silently panicked. Well mostly silently. I sent Neil Gaiman increasingly crazed messages. “Come see Len! He’s stopped eating! He’s talking to the guy with the scythe RIGHTFUCKINGNOWGETOVERHERE!!” I stopped bothering him because I didn’t want him to feel guilty for not being able to be here.
I tried to see Len in the hospital whenever possible, toting PBJs made his special way (creamy peanut butter, grape jelly, white bread, no crust) when he stopped eating. Towards the end, he was as paper-thin and fragile as an autumn leaf. He reminded me so much of my mother in her final weeks. Unlike my mother, however, his mind remained extraordinary. He died with open contracts for work on his desk, a powerful storyteller to the very end. His body might have failed him prematurely — from diabetes and other ailments — but his mind would have continued to generate lights bold and brilliant for many years to come. Len the punster, the ineffable weaver, splicer and dicer of words. Singer of All The Songs. Giver of hugs and encouragement. Ever gracious, kind and consoling.
And funny. Jesus, he was funny. (Of course, right now I can’t think of any Len jokes. Instead, I’ll just sit here, makeup running down my face, looking like Alice Fucking Cooper.)
I cried my head off while we were watching Logan because Len was in the hospital at the time. Again. Logan reminded me that even Wolverine would leave this earth someday. And I didn’t want that to happen. Ever.
(By the way, Logan was the best X-men movie. Fight me.)
Anyway, some of our mutual friends are saying that, while we can’t ever hope to have the cultural impact that Len did with his work, we can certainly emulate his kindness, generosity, and good humor. They’re right. But goddamnit, I’m going to try to make the best impact possible. Even if I never succeed, I’ll know I’ve done my best. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my work won two Bram Stoker Awards and was nominated for an Anthony Award since I became friends with Len. His presence in my life was profoundly inspiring.
And like I said, he never for a moment spoke to me like I couldn’t make an impact like his, even if it isn’t possible. That kind of gentle spirit is precious. That’s really what made Len a treasure. Not just his coterie of fantastic characters — Wolverine, Lucius Fox, Storm, and Swamp Thing to name just a few — but his utter sweetness.
Just before the funeral, we gathered our cars at the foot of the hill at Forest Lawn, anticipating the procession up to the grassy hillside overlooking the DC Comics corporate building. Bullet gray clouds thickened in the sky. Chris had asked us to wear some “comic flair.” While others wore capes and comic book t-shirts, I drew the signature black swirl of Neil’s Death under my right eye and carried a black parasol. Seemed fitting. One of our mutual friends hugged me tight and said in my ear, “You know he was proud of you, right?”
“No,” I whispered, taken aback.
“Seriously?” she replied. “He talked about you. He was very proud of you.”
Goodbye, Len. It meant more to me than you could have ever known to be a part of your life. And please don’t worry about Chris, Michael and T. We’ve surrounded them in love.
I originally wrote this post back in January 2016 and never finished it. Things are obviously far worse now. Internet lynch mobs and more got me thinking about this post. So, I’m publishing what I wrote at the time and adding some retrospective commentary at the end. Read on.
I was talking to my friend, author Christa Faust, about the never-ending parade of Internet asses who continuously shower others online with obscenities, insults, and threats. We’ve all experienced someone saying something online they’d never dare to say face to face. It’s usually inexplicably vicious or socially unacceptable. I mean, if a guy at a party started shouting at a woman that she “deserves to be raped,” he’d probably (unless the hosts were even bigger jerks) be told to leave and universally condemned by the other party goers. But online, that happens constantly with perhaps condemnation but rarely expulsion.
Christa asked me if I remembered The Invisible Man — not just the H.G. Wells novel, but rather its first movie adaptation of the same name directed by James Whale in 1933. It’d been a long time since I’d seen that film, so I rewatched it and found it’s a prophetic look at how people act when they’re “invisible.”
Claude Rains’ character is a scientist named Jack Griffin who, at the movie’s opening, is already under the effects of a drug he created that includes an ingredient called “Monocaine,” which had been used experimentally as a bleaching chemical. He is totally invisible when he arrives at a village inn and starts abusing the people there. As his violence escalates against men and women both, we learn from a speech given elsewhere by Dr. Griffin’s old employer, Dr. Cranley, that Monocaine was once injected into a dog and, not only did it turn white, it went “raving mad.” And even though dozens of people have experienced the invisible man’s terrors, the police chief thinks it’s a “hoax” or in their imagination. He blames the victims for getting hurt.
Because he suffers no repercussions for his actions, the Invisible Man realizes the power he has. He thinks he can make people “grovel” at his feet. He wants to “put the world right” — and by “right,” he means doing whatever it is that he wants. Just after he strongarms his old science colleague, Dr. Kemp, to become his “partner,” he then the kills a policeman.
Suddenly, now everybody takes the whole “invisible man” thing seriously. After someone — an authority figure — has died.
The Invisible Man runs off and kills a lot more people. Everyone locks themselves inside in their homes, terrified that the Invisible Man is going to hurt them. We learn from Dr. Griffin’s girlfriend, Flora, about how sweet he used to be. How deeply in love they were. But now that he’s invisible, he’s a homicidal maniac.
Obviously every Internet troll isn’t out there killing people. Ask them, and they’ll insist they’re just “reacting” to something someone says or “expressing an opinion” when they disgorge a cataract of insulting, hateful, abusive verbiage. It’s as if they’re not talking to real people, just screennames.
But online, every single person is the Invisible Man. He or she feels empowered by the invisibility — that is, the inability to see people face to face — and wants to “put the world right.”
I don’t think Vint Cerf, Steve Crocker and the other folk who engineered the early Internet knew they were essentially developing Monocaine. I think they believed they were building a powerful tool that enabled unprecedented communication. And, boy, did they. It’s also enabling the sickest, most virulently racist people to find each other and feel empowered. It’s enabled people who were otherwise shamed into keeping quiet by this passé thing called common decency to start letting their ids ejaculate into the public drinking water.
So, that’s what I wrote. It seems quaint in retrospect that back in January 2016 all we were worried about were the “invisible men” being hateful on the internet when in the meantime they’d found each other and were championing their quite visible, Twitter-loving hero: Trump.
It’s not to say there aren’t people of all political stripes engaging in the “invisible man” behavior, because they most definitely are. Internet lynch mobs of every persuasion are driven by the Monocaine buzz when it comes to “putting the world right.” Data-starved people are ruining other people’s lives via doxxing and death threats, not to mention just plain old harassment, and they’re totally okay doing so because they feel justified and sufficiently removed. But it’s mostly people of a particular political stripe that are engaging in domestic terrorism — shooting up a pizza restaurant due to an Internet conspiracy theory, killing black people in a church, bombing a mosque in Minnesota, shooting Hindus in a Kansas bar, murdering Sikhs in Wisconsin, just to name a few. The invisibility is emboldening these folk the way it did character Jack Griffin to “put the world right” IRL.
We can no more take away the Internet than we can roll back anything else to the 1950s. Nor would we want to. But we’ve got to be aware of when we’re personally under the influence of “Monocaine.”
The question is: Would we admit it, much less stop, when we are?