Heath Lowrance

Oct 242014
 

Tonight, network television is premiering a new show called Constantine. It's based on the long-running (but now defunct) comic series from DC/Vertigo called Hellblazer; or, more accurately, I guess, it's based on the safer version that can be found in the newer DC re-boot of the character, simply called Constantine.

I won't be watching. No, I'm not boycotting it or anything. I'm at work tonight. But honestly, even if I was home, I'm not sure how excited I would be about it. The DC re-boot is pretty much a toothless version of a character I love dearly.

Hellblazer was the only comic I read consistently for well over twenty years, and that version of John Constantine is as close to a fully fleshed out and complex personality as you're ever likely to see in the pages of a comic book. He grew and changed over the course of the series in a very realistic way. He aged in "real time". He was a hero and a bastard and a con-man and a savior at various points; like real people, he was never just ONE thing.

That's why so many different writers were able to do such great work with him over the years. Making Constantine "consistent" was silly, because real people are not consistent.

If you don't know, here's the deal about John Constantine: he appeared initially in the much-lauded Alan Moore run of Swamp Thing, back in 1985, as a mysterious supporting character, guiding Swamp Thing (or manipulating him, if you prefer) on a series of grisly adventures that tested the swamp elemental's powers as he was rediscovering himself. Constantine was a stylish but somewhat seedy Brit, conceived as a "working class magician", a bit snarky, a bit cynical, always with a hidden agenda and a last-minute plan. He always seemed to know something that everyone else didn't, that was his thing. He was a master manipulator who was willing to do some very bad things for the greater good.

The character was a huge hit with readers, and in 1988, after a few more important appearances in Swamp Thing, he was spun off into his own series-- at first meant to be called Hellraiser, but Clive Barker had just beaten them to the punch with that title, so the last minute change up was called Hellblazer.

Written by Jamie Delano and drawn mostly by John Ridgeway, Hellblazer took the bare bones concepts of Alan Moore and expanded on them beautifully. Even though Moore created the character, Delano was really the one who made Constantine great. Over the course of his initial 40-issue run, he filled in Constantine's background, he gave him the internal struggles, he pulled back the curtain to show what was really going on in Constantine's brain. He made him human, and he set up the themes that would be consistent throughout the history of the title-- namely, the toll Constantine would always pay for his work. The working-class mage/con-man was often forced to make horrible sacrifices for the greater good, losing friends along the way, and pieces of his own soul (literally and figuratively). Delano also used Hellblazer to comment on the social and political climate of Britain in those dark days of Margaret Thatcher, and gave us bits like Constantine's stay in a mental asylum after inadvertently causing a young girl to die and be sucked into Hell, being partly responsible for the death of his father at the hands of a serial killer called The Family Man, and strangling his "good" twin brother in the womb. All of these things would be referenced many times over the years. Delano's run remains the hallmark, in my opinion.

With issue 41, Garth Ennis took over the title, and began what is still the most popular run ever of Hellblazer. With artist William Simpson at first, and then Steve Dillon, Ennis' approach to Constantine was a little less refined and less political, instead choosing to go a more personal route. He showed us a Constantine with friends, a Constantine in love, and ultimately a Constantine who would once again lose it all in the end. It was an angry run of comics that confronted racism, corporate greed, homelessness, and religion, but it also had great moments of black humor. Ennis gave us probably the most famous Hellblazer story, in which Constantine gets lung cancer and manages to save himself by utilizing a ballsy con against the Devil himself (the First of the Fallen) and two other lords of Hell.

Ennis wrapped up his run with issue 83, and, after a one shot by returning writer Delano and a three-parter by Eddie Campbell, the reins were picked up by Paul Jenkins, with the great Sean Phillips on most of the art.

Jenkins run is highly under-rated, and at this time is the only run on Hellblazer that hasn't been collected in trade paperback. I think that's a damn shame. Jenkins opted to go in a different direction than the one pointed out by Ennis, instead focusing his run on British folklore and mythology. It was less bombastic than Ennis, less colorful and profane, and showed a Constantine trying once again to have some kind of normal life with his eccentric circle of friends. But the one constant of his life, the inevitable crash and burn, happens at the end and once again he's left alone and devastated.

Garth Ennis came back briefly after the Jenkins run, for a gruesome 6-part dark comedy called Son of Man, about the consequences Constantine has to deal with after bringing back the life the dead son of a London gangster, using a demon with a... well, a devastatingly huge dong.

The great Warren Ellis was next, with a terrific but way too short run that focused on Constantine the bastard-- a six part arc first, in which John finds out a former lover has been murdered by an upstart young mage, and the brutal retribution John brings down on him. This was followed by a handful of excellent one shot stories with a variety of artists. But Ellis' run was cut short by a disagreement with DC/Vertigo over a story involving school shootings, this in the wake of the Columbine tragedy.

Ellis left, and after a two part fill-in by writer Darko Macan, Brian Azzarello took over. Azzarello was the first and only American to write Hellblazer, and so his run takes place entirely in the States. It opens with Constantine in an American prison, then backtracks over the course of the run to explain the circumstances of his incarceration. Azzarello used the title to take Constantine into some of the darkest places in America, backwoods redneck territory as well as the hidden pleasure palaces of the filthy, morally bankrupt rich. It's a controversial run, but elevated sales on Hellblazer higher than they'd been since the Ennis days. Constantine comes off as particularly wicked in these issues, but mostly because we're seeing him through other people's eyes, which works. It served as a sort of reminder of Constantine when we first met him in Swamp Thing, a mysterious and slightly sinister figure.

Mike Carey followed Azzarello, taking John back to England to confront the consequences of his long absence. This run on Hellblazer is my favorite, one, because Carey is terrific at set-up and pace, and two, because he draws on lore established by previous writers and takes them to new and unexpected places. Some horrible things happen in Carey's run, deaths of characters who had been in the title since the very beginning, and Constantine's friendship with Chas (a constant throughout the series, the long-suffering Chas) reaches a breaking point. John pretty much loses it during Carey's run, suffering beyond anything the previous writers had ever put him through. Carey also made John's niece Gemma an important ongoing character, as the young woman follows in the dark footsteps of her uncle. Also, the second half of Carey's run features art by Leonardo Manco, whom I adore.

When Carey wrapped up, crime fiction author Denise Mina took over. I have mixed feelings about Mina's run; she was the first woman to write the character, and she really manages to nail John Constantine's personality perfectly. Also, she utilizes Gemma expertly. Sadly, the story itself dragged a bit, and didn't offer Constantine any real noteworthy challenge. Still, though, it should be said, Mina was absolutely terrific at character stuff.

Andy Diggle was next, with a very short but clever run that saw Constantine trying to get his act together yet again, and finally confronting the Golden Child-- that is, the supposedly "good" twin he murdered in the womb.

And finally, Peter Milligan, with the final (and longest) run on Hellblazer. While previous writers worked to strike a balance between the dark magical world of John Constantine and a more-or-less "real world", Milligan's run is noteworthy for it's dismissal of any sort of reflection of reality. It's a bright, comic-bookish world in Milligan's Hellblazer, even when the stories themselves get dark (and they do get very dark indeed at points). Constantine actually gets married about midway through Milligan's time on Hellblazer, but during the wedding his niece Gemma is sexually assaulted by "Demon Constantine", a vessel previously locked away in Hell, whom John had at one point during Jenkins' run poured all his own darkest impulses into. Even though it wasn't John that committed the deed, the incident creates a wedge between him and Gemma that ultimately costs John everything at the end. Issue 300 wraps up Hellblazer on a downbeat note, a fate you could argue as being worse than death for someone like Constantine, and a feeling of melancholy that John Constantine's long journey is at last over.

Reading the very last issue of Hellblazer marked what I knew was the end of my time as a serious reader of comics. I still pick up trade paperbacks from time to time, but it was Hellblazer that kept me showing up at the comic shop on Wednesdays. I have a very strong attachment to Our John, as I've read his ongoing story and watched as he struggled and failed and even occasionally won. I've stayed with him as he's saved the world, lost his soul, betrayed his friends and himself, aged and changed and survived crisis after crisis.

As goofy as it sounds, John Constantine is almost like an old friend (who I wouldn't trust alone!) I met when I was in my early 20's and knew peripherally ever since. I actually kinda mourned the end of Hellblazer.

DC, of course, re-booted him as a part of their mainstream DC universe, but this Constantine is clearly not the same guy. He's younger, for one thing. All that life history in Hellblazer doesn't exist for him. He doesn't operate in the "real world"; instead, he hangs out with superheroes and saves the world from alien threats and even turns into goddamn Shazam at one point. Sigh.

Anyway, the show premiering tonight. Depending on reviews, I may watch when it comes out on DVD or Netflix. Maybe. But it will always just be an actor, an imitation, of one of the most important fictional characters in my life, John Constantine. Cheers.

How to Chop off someone’s head with a sword

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Oct 232014
 

Christian Klaver has been a close friend of mine for many years, and he's one of those guys it's impossible not to like. He's friendly and gregarious and always has something interesting to say. He's also a terrific writer (you can find some of his work here) and a formidable martial artist. 

I sent him a message asking about katanas and samurai swords: "Hey, you know how in Walking Dead, Michonne is always chopping zombie's heads off with one swipe of her katana? Is that actually possible in real life? It seems like cutting someone's head clean off would be harder than that. I need answers!!"

His answer was so fantastic I had to share it here on the blog. Hope you get as much out of it as I did. Thanks, Christian!

"I can help. Mostly, yes. I totally think it would work, but not quite they portray it. And not indefinitely. A sword would certainly do damage to a person’s neck, though a decap would be unlikely. The proper stroke for a katana includes a pulling motion so the sword slides to cut. Think about the slide you have to do cutting food. (They always show it like she’s hitting with a bat, just straight through, which wouldn’t work on a person. On a super sharp sword, maybe once, maybe, before you dulled the crap out of your sword. Also probably not right through the skull like they often show. It would, sooner rather than later, just chunk into the flesh and bone like an axe into wood, and stick. (Especially if you don’t slide!) You almost never see that in the show. That goes double when you see her whipping it around with one hand. It’s meant to be used with two, hands spaced as far apart as you can for leverage. Now if zombies are decayed and gooier than people, that might allow a lot more latitude.
I was part way through this post and did a little research. You can find a ton of sites with people putting swords through bottles of water and occasionally a hunk of beef. It would do lethal damage to a person no problem. So certainly a zombie. Hell, even a non-sharp sword would do the trick if you had all the time in the world and weren’t worried about getting stuck. It’s when you want to do it repeatedly, with no hang-ups, then it gets unbelievable. Also, most of the time, these are made out of not great metal. So after a few dozen zombies, I’d think you'd break it sooner or later. (We just found out the Michonne found hers, which makes this even more likely.)
There’s a site with a real Samurai Master declaring “there are only a handful of people on the planet who could effectively use a katana in battle. For the rest of us it would be nothing more than a recipe for certain death.” I get where he’s coming from, but I think he’s overstating the case. He’s thinking of combat against an armed opponent that knows what he’s doing, where you’d be hitting metal (sword on sword, armor, etc). Zombie fighting is kind of the cake walk of combat, it’s only in attrition that they’re dangerous, right? Any length of metal will do the trick, Kouno, I’m pretty sure a katana could dispatch a zombie ok, buddy.

 If I had to pick for me, tomorrow, for under $100, my top choice would be the Kukri. (I like this one with the lanyard so you can lose it as easily.) Small enough you could get a good metal one. Or a good old machete.

If I had to pick out of my basement, I would certainly use my katana (with backup machete). And, you know, a fucking rifle and pistol. Sure, the katana won’t last forever, but it’ll last until I find something better.
 
Honorable mention to this tactical tomahawk, which wouldn’t ever break, I think, unlike the less-than stellar metal of the $30 Chinese Broadsword above
Practical, but not anywhere near as sexy as a sword.
That being said, I’ve never actually had a problem with Michonne’s swordwork in walking dead while I’m watching her. It’s a little bit of a stretch because she does it one-handed and she’s kind of skinny, but so cool that I’m willing to go with it."

My friends are awesome, right?
Oct 122014
 

Once in a while, I'll find myself focusing on my most obvious flaws and think I should maybe work toward fixing them. You ever do that? I mean, consciously work toward making yourself a better person? Most of the time, I imagine, we do it instinctively, but on some occasions it becomes a more conscious thing.

Anger, that's my big one. I have a lot of rage boiling in my gut-- rage over horrible tragedies in the world, rage over stupid people making stupid decisions for the rest of us, rage over circumstances I have no control over. It simmers inside me for long periods of time, and then, without warning, erupts over and out of me and I find myself ranting and raging at a world that's not really listening. 

Folks who know me would probably tell you that I'm a pretty calm, easy-going guy and that it takes an awful lot to stress me out or get me worked up. That's because I tend to internalize my strongest emotions. Truth is, I'm a bit like Bruce Banner in The Avengers movie-- I'm ALWAYS angry. But the only time I really cut loose, emotionally, is on the page. More about that in a minute.

It doesn't help anything when I rage off the page and in the real world. In fact, the only discernible effect I've noticed is that it takes everything out of me and makes me feel awful. My anger seems to effect nothing and nobody except me-- and in a very negative way.

So. Time to reign that rage in and learn to calm the fuck down, right? Maybe.

One thing I've found that really helps when you're trying to be a better human being: thoroughly examine the ideals you love, pick them apart, throw away the ones that prove meaningless and focus hard on the few that remain. Write them down. Know them, live them.

I care about reason, compassion, kindness, and truth. Those are the four greatest things a human can aspire to, in my opinion. Not finding "happiness" (a selfish goal if ever there was one), but easing the universal burden somewhat. 


I have my own ideas about what each of those four things mean, but I won't bore you with that. You probably have your own definitions, and I'm sure they're fine the way they are.

Now, having said that--- none of this applies to my work as a writer. Reason flies right out the goddamn window. Compassion is nowhere to be seen. Kindness? Pffh. And truth, well... truth rarely exists.

You know what there's a lot of, though? Anger. Wild, raging, uncontrollable anger. I'd like to say it's therapeutic, but that might be bullshit. 

Regardless, I'm not sure if I could even write at all without the anger. 

Why You Shouldn’t Camp on LSD

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Oct 072014
 

One Easter weekend, way back in 19-blahty-blah, me and my friend Jorgensen decided to drive up north and camp out in the woods. We brought a tent and some cans of Sterno and various food items, but more importantly we packed a gallon of vodka, three baggies of weed, and a few hits of LSD, just to make it memorable. Smoking pot on the way was a given, but about halfway there we decided to make it interesting and so broke out the acid early. We each took a tab and kept going.
I won’t bore you with the details of what being on acid is like. You’ve no doubt heard enough stories about that. But we’re driving along the freeway, getting fairly close to our destination in the wilds of northern Michigan, when it starts to snow. Hard. And it keeps snowing and snowing and snowing. By the time we arrived at the woods we’d set our minds to, it was a full-blown blizzard. On Easter weekend.
Well, naturally, there was no one else around. So after it stopped snowing Jorgensen set up the tent, I went walking by myself, trudging through snow up to my thighs. Whacked out of my skull on acid and weed, with a tumbler full of vodka and Seven-Up. I stumbled across a deer in a clearing, who looked at me for a full minute, judging me I felt certain, before leaping into the air and disappearing.
I kept walking, pretty much lost but not that worried about it, when I saw a face peeking at me from some brush. It was a man, with deer antlers on his head. I said, “Uh… hey,” and he vanished.
Saw him again a few minutes later, and that was when I realized that wasn’t quite normal.
I made my way back to the tent, where Jorgensen was smoking another joint and trying to get some soup heated up on one of the Sterno cans. I told him about the guy with antlers, and he of course dismissed it as a case of me being baked out of my skull. I shrugged, because he was probably right.
So we’re sitting there in front of our tent in the snow, trying to get the goddamn Sterno can to work, when a pick-up truck pulls up right in front of us and the guy driving honks his horn. We look up at him rather stupidly, and he rolls down his window, leans out and yells, “What the hell do you two think you’re doing?”
Jorgensen looks at me, and I say to the guy, “Uh… we’re camping, man.”
The driver says, “Camping?? What the… you dumb asses have pitched your tent right in the middle of the road!”
We look around us and notice that, yeah, it does seem to be a long, narrow clearing after all. Very quickly, we take down the tent, too stoned to be embarrassed, and hustle off to the side. The guy yells one last time, “Dumb asses!” before driving off.
We pitched the tent farther into the woods and I don’t remember anything else about that evening. We went to sleep.
When we woke, we were soaked to the bone and there was snow everywhere in the tent and we were freezing. We both decided to call the camping trip a wash. We packed up, both of us sneezing and shivering, got in the car, and drove away.
I saw the guy with antlers one more time as we left, peering at us intently as we drove off. I thought about mentioning it to Jorgensen, but decided it didn’t matter. I rolled up a joint and lit it and settled back for the long drive home. 

The Walking Dead and their weird Death Fetish

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Oct 012014
 

THE WALKING DEAD is a show that really benefits from binge viewing, a quick two or three day blast dedicated to just barreling through to the end. That's the way I've watched each season, and I'm pretty sure I would never have maintained interest in it if I'd watched an episode a week. Luckily for me, I don't have/want/need cable, so it's an entirely Netflix streaming experience for me.

I'm one of those infuriating WALKING DEAD viewers who bitches and moans about the show and yet anxiously awaits each new season. Sorry. I know I'm wrong to do that.

But the thing is, the show is so... frustrating sometimes. Uneven. The first season was amazing and fresh, but the beginning of the second just dragged on and on, even watching it over a couple of days. And the second half of the third season, same deal. The show has always seemed to have trouble finding its pace, figuring out where it wanted to go and how it wanted to get there. It's difficult to balance great character moments with scary action, and even the most die-hard WD fan will probably admit the show hasn't always been successful in that regard.

When the show is good, though, it is very good indeed. There are some characters who I've grown very emotionally invested in, whether I like it or not. And the moments of action usually pay off very well, even if they come sporadically.

I'm happy to say, though, that I was really pleased with season four. They seem to have finally found that balance between character and action they've been striving for. It was the most enjoyable season since the first.

I'm not going to worry about spoilers here, since I assume that most WD fans are already caught up. So if you're concerned about reveals, maybe you should stop reading. I don't know, it's up to you.

Season four succeeded for many noteworthy reasons-- one, as I said, the pacing was as close to perfect as they've been so far. In 16 episodes, a LOT happened. The survivors lost their sanctuary in the prison when the Governor returned. We got an excellent pay-off to wrap up the Gov's story (and those three flashback episodes dealing with his adventures post-Woodbury were terrific). As walkers descended on the prison, the survivors were forced to flee, and the tight-knit group were scattered, none knowing the fate of the others.

It was an inspired idea, separating the group. It gave the writers amble opportunity to focus on each of them and tell stories that highlighted each of their strengths and flaws. It also gave us a chance to get to know some of the newer characters.

One aspect that really works this season is the new diversity of our heroes-- for the first time, WD has several significant black characters: not just Michonne, but Tyreese, Sasha, and new addition Bob. Each of them has their own deal and their own focus, which is worth mentioning because, previously, we had only T-Dog... remember him? Maybe not, because in the first two and a half seasons T-Dog just sort of hung around and never did anything worth mentioning. He never got a back-story, was never the focus of anything. When he died, it didn't even feel like an important moment, did it?

Also: the female characters REALLY shined in season four. I mean, they were all terrific and the writers did an excellent job with them. Carole really came into her own as a strong but flawed human being, making insanely difficult decisions and living with the consequences. Maggie kicked ass. Michonne, of course, got fleshed out a bit more and opened up. Finally, Beth got serious screen-time and proved that she deserves to be listed in the opening credits. And new addition Tara, the sole survivor of the Governor's group, had value right away (also worth noting, Tara is, as far as I can remember, WD's first gay character, another stride forward in diversity). Remember when the show had, basically, two female leads and both of them were irritating as hell and seriously under-developed? Lori and Andrea never worked for me, because they both seemed like an immature boy's idea of what women would act like during the zombie plague.

Speaking of Lori and Andrea, that brings me to what I've always considered the biggest problem with WD, and how I think they've addressed it somewhat in season four.

Death.

Death has long been a gimmick on WALKING DEAD. A plot point designed to shock you, even if it isn't satisfying from a story point of view. It's a weird kind of death fetish, substituting actual drama for shock. Yes, I understand that, if a zombie plague really happened, people we love would die. I get that. But you know... this is a story. And in a story, you need to rely on something more than "Who's going to die this season??" The writers (influenced, I'm sure, by Robert Kirkman) have focused on that, to the detriment of good story-telling. For the writers, with a gleeful glimmer in their eyes, to tease viewers with POTENTIAL CHARACTER DEATHS!! all the time is just sloppy and lazy and a cheap way to keep people watching. In season three, so many main characters died that my reaction when all was said and done was a combination of depression and antipathy. I didn't care anymore, and I wound up distancing myself emotionally. Too often, a character death signified nothing except... well, another dead character.

Season four proves my point, I think. It's the best season since the first, and guess what? Only ONE major character dies. Just one (note that by "major character", I mean someone who has been on the show for two or more seasons). And his death was a shocker. It was emotionally devastating and signified a HUGE moment on the show and what happens  next. It didn't feel gratuitous. It felt like: nothing will ever be the same now. It pushed the story forward.

That's how you do a character death. You give it meaning. You don't make it yet another useless death that does nothing to advance the story.

One death, and the best season yet.

Finally, and in relation to that, I just want to say that if they kill off Glenn (which there have been some hints about upcoming in season five) I'll be done with the show. This isn't just a pissy comment-- I consider Glenn essential to the show's success. Rick is, of course, the head of the show, and by extension Carl; Darryl is a fan favorite, so killing him off would be idiotic, unless they wanted to lose HALF their viewers; but Glenn is the HEART of that show and always has been. He's the glue that holds everything together on an emotional level.

I just hope the show runners realize that.

A Biography in Books

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Sep 302014
 

I didn’t read a lot when I was a little kid.
Scratch that—I didn’t read a lot of books. I read comics, that was what I did. I’ve mentioned in other posts how much comic books shaped my life, even as an adult, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned that comics actually taught me how to read. My mom took full advantage of my bizarre obsession with dudes in tights and capes running around beating up bad guys by making sure I never ran out of comics to read (they were super-cheap in those days). And so, through them, I learned about story structure, conflict, character development (as miniscule as it was) and all those other things that go toward making a story work. 
At about ten years old, I began casting around for other heroic tales to put myself into, and that’s when actual books started playing a role. We started studying Greek mythology in school, and I fell in love, devouring Bulfinch and Edith Hamilton. I discovered the exciting and bloody tales of King Arthur via Mallory (no, I didn’t read Le Mort D’Arthur at ten years old, but rather an illustrated children’s version). Basically, these were like super-hero stories, except that the teacher didn’t seem to judge them as harshly. Perfect.
But my first actual adult reading occurred pretty much by accident: stumbling across this short story collection hidden away in the basement, something my mom had apparently forgotten. It was called HAUNTINGS. It had this gorgeously creepy cover by Edward Gorey, and stories by Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, John Collier, and a bunch of others as well. The cover sparked my morbid little imagination, and I sat there in that dark basement and read three or four in a row and everything—I mean, everything—changed for me. It would never be the same again.



Heroics fell by the wayside for a while then, to be replaced by an overwhelming need to have the shit scared out of me.
Through my teens and even well into my twenties I was a horror nut, reading every horror novel I could find and becoming quite the little expert on the genre. I especially fell in love with Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, and Manly Wade Wellman's John the Balladeer stories. This all coincided with the so-called “horror boom” of the eighties, so it worked out pretty well. 
Not to say that I never read anything but scary shit. There were books we read in school that I actually quite liked. The usual stuff, you know: Lord of the Flies (which is still one of my favorites), Huckleberry Finn, Call of the Wild. 
I also got hold of some old Doc Savage re-prints then, great heroic stuff if not exactly brilliantly written. The Shadow followed (to a lesser extent), and Robert E. Howard’s stories about Conan and Solomon Kane.
At fifteen or so, on a whim, I read a couple Mack Bolan Executioner books, by Don Pendleton, and absolutely lost my shit. Ultra-violent, non-stop action. The perfect thing for removing an awkward young man from a world he had no control over and giving him some "realistic" heroic fantasy to cling to. At that time in my life, I needed the well-crafted escapism that the Executioner books provided, and within two months I’d read every single book in the series up ‘til then (which was somewhere around fifty, I think).



Anyway… the finest (and occasionally trashiest) of horror, along with the bloody campaigns of Mack Bolan, sustained me throughout my teenage years. There was other stuff, granted, but that was what made up the bulk of my reading then.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that my reading habits took a monumental turn and opened right up. Books and writers that I still read now, and that had an enormous influence on my own writing. 
I read Hammett, then, and Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.
But it really started with Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson.
The Black Lizard re-prints of classic paperback original stuff from the 50's were just coming out then, and I can't really over-state what an impact they had on me. I've talked elsewhere about how Pop. 1280 changed things for me, and on the heels of that one I discovered Charles Willeford, Peter Rabe, Dan J. Marlowe, Day Keene, etc. 
I started seeking out similar writers, stumbled across John D. MacDonald, Chester Himes, Patricia Highsmith. 
If I had to boil it down, the "noir" writers had the biggest impact of all. I still loved other genres (and still do), but those paperback original writers who slaved away in relative obscurity made a permanent mark on me like no one else.
In my early 30's I started developing a taste for Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner, and discovered that, tonally, they read very much like the noir writers.
For a while, I flirted with a lot of modern speculative fiction, and was particularly blown away by James Morrow, Tim Powers, and George Saunders (who, honestly, is some kind of genius).
All of this varied reading wound up informing the story and structure of my first novel, THE BASTARD HAND, which, for good or ill, defies categorization. 
Lately, I've been reading a lot of Westerns. One more genre thrown in the mix, right?
The thrill of discovering new writers and new kinds of stories never gets old. With any luck, it will never stop happening. 

Publication History

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Sep 262014
 

A few days ago, someone asked me when and where my first story was published. I couldn't remember. Isn't that nuts? I honestly could not tell her the year the story came out, and I had to think for a minute before I could even remember where it appeared. Crazy.

It was important to me, obviously, but damn. There is clearly something wrong with my brain.

So... I took some time yesterday to piece together my publication history, more for myself than anyone else. I've always been really horrible about keeping track of stuff like this. But there were enough resources on my hard drive and on line for me to work it out.

If you're interested, here it is. But like I say, this is mostly for me.

 2007
--“Battle of the Carson Hotel”, to WELL-TOLD TALES podcast. Made twenty bucks, and heard the story read by a really terrific voice talent named Andy Hoff. Later republished in DIG TEN GRAVES. I got lucky right out of the gate, but I wasn't able to sell another piece of fiction for almost two years after this. Well-Told Tales is gone, but you can still find the podcast on line.

2008
--“How the Great Depression Gave America the Blues”, to HISTORY MAGAZINE. Non-fiction, but I’m including it because it was the first time I ever got a substantial amount of money for writing. I have found it plagarized by students in several places on line. Oh well. It actually made me consider giving up fiction writing and going entirely for essays and articles. That didn’t take.

2009
--“Emancipation, with Teeth”, to NECROTIC TISSUE. A very good horror mag which I was proud to be in. They insisted on changing the ending. When I reprinted it in the story collection DIG TEN GRAVES, I re-instated my original ending. No disrespect to the mag, I just liked my way better.

2010
--“It Will All Be Carried Away”, to CHIZINE (number 44). A real breakthrough for me, as Chizine is a very well-respected mag. The editor cited “Carried Away” as one of the best stories he ever read for publication, and it was nominated for a storySouth award. Go, me. Also republished in DIG TEN GRAVES.

2011
--THE BASTARD HAND, my first novel, published by Jon Bassoff at NEW PULP PRESS.  Things sort of broke open for me that year because of it.

--“Blood Relations”, published in CRIME FACTORY #8. My first shot at a Western.

--“Nine Pale Men” and “Bones of the Conquerors”, the Grey Hawthorne adventures, published at THE NAUTILUS ENGINE. Grey Hawthorne was sort of the proto-type for the later character Hawthorne.

--“The World is Made of Candy”, “Greener”, and “Bleed Out” published at Jason Michel’s PULP METAL  over the course of the year. To this day I love working with Jason and I consider him a friend. “Bleed Out” was republished in DIG TEN GRAVES. "Greener" was later reprinted in Pulp Metal's anthology LAUGHING AT THE DEATH GRIN, which, sadly, is no longer available.

--Two chapters of a zombie serial called “Deadland USA” published as e-stories by a small press. Unfortunately, these chapters were a dead end and are no longer available.

--DIG TEN GRAVES, a self-published collection of short stories. Some had seen publication previously. About half were new to the collection.This is the only thing I've ever self-pubbed.

--“Miles to Little Ridge”, a novella published as an e-book by David Cranmer’s BEAT TO A PULP, and featuring his character Gideon Miles. My first contracted work and huge fun to write. 

--“Now I Wanna Be Your Dog”, a very nasty short story published in the anthology OFF THE RECORD.

--“No-Account Sonofabitch”, a very short story published at the great webzine SHOTGUN HONEY.

2012
--“A Freeway on Earth”, published in the anthology BURNING BRIDGES.

--“My Life with the Butcher Girl”, published in the anthology PULP INK 2.

--“Baby Jebus’ Big Score”, published at PULP METAL.

--“That Damned Coyote Hill”, the first Hawthorne weird western, published as an e-book by BEAT TO A PULP.

--“The Long Black Train”, the second Hawthorne, published as an e-book by BEAT TO A PULP.

--“The Spider Tribe”, the third Hawthorne, published as an e-book by BEAT TO A PULP. 

--FIGHT CARD: BLUFF CITY BRAWLER, a novella, under the name Jack Tunney. Published on Sept 1. This is part of the ongoing series of Fight Card novellas published by Paul Bishop and Mel Odom.  

--CITY OF HERETICS, my second full-length novel, published by Ron Earl Phillips and SNUBNOSE PRESS. It came out only days after the FIGHT CARD novella.

2013
--“Bad Sanctuary”, the fourth Hawthorne, published by BEAT TO A PULP. All four Hawthorne e-books are unavailable now, as they've been collected in one volume.

--“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, published in the Lee Marvin-themed anthology LEE, from CRIME FACTORY PUBLICATIONS.

--“The Unholy; or, How the Gowan Gang Died”, a very short Hawthorne story, published at the webzine THE BIG ADIOS.

--“The Dead Hagedorns”, a flash fiction piece featuring Hawthorne, published in 5 BROKEN WINCHESTERS, from ZELMER PULP.

--HAWTHORNE: TALES OF A WEIRDER WEST, collecting all the Hawthorne stories except “The Dead Hagedorns”, published by BEAT TO A PULP.

2014
--“Five Bucks Buys Some Goddamn Vodka”, published in the crime fiction magazine/anthology NEEDLE, editor Steve Weddle.

--“Scarred Angel”, published in the anthology HOODS, HOT RODS & HELLCATS, from Chad Eagleton and CATHODE ANGEL PRESS.

--THE AXEMAN OF STORYVILLE, a novella about an older Gideon Miles in 1921 New Orleans, published by BEAT TO A PULP.

 --To be released: A Western novel that I can't say anything about yet.

--To be completed: A screenplay that I also can't say much about yet.


Doing this actually made me feel a little better about what I'm doing. Not a bad body of work for a few short years. With any luck, this is just the beginning. But you know how these things go... Thanks for reading.

Heath

How to Be Robert Mitchum

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Sep 252014
 

Of all the cool sonsofbitches ever to grace the flickering black and white landscape of a movie screen, none ever tilted the cool meter the way Robert Mitchum did. This is a fact. We watch a Mitchum movie and marvel at the nonchalance, the wry, cynical poise, the sheer wicked-coolness of his persona. His Kind of Woman, Out of the Past, Crossfire… even when he played a baddie, like in Cape Fear or Night of the Hunter, he radiated the kind of laid-back charm that squares like you and me can only dream of.

But don’t feel bad. With a little practice, you too can Be Like Mitch—or at least come passingly close.


Here are three quick examples of Mitch-ness, and how you can emulate them:


In the early ‘50’s, Mitch was arrested for possession of marijuana. In those squeaky clean public image-obsessed days in Hollywood, a drug bust would’ve spelled the end of an acting career… but not so for our Mitch. There’s a great photo of him doing his time in prison, wearing the grays and pushing a mop around, that laconic smile still firmly in place. 

And of course America couldn’t stay mad at him after that photo. He apologized to the public for his “immoral behavior” but if the photo was any indication he didn’t feel particularly torn up about it. And to judge by the fact that his career didn’t lose even half a step afterwards America didn’t mind either.

So, Be Like Mitch lesson one: if you make a bad move and everyone finds out about it, so freaking what? Smile and shrug and get on with things.


Catch-phrases. Hollywood loves ‘em. Ah-nold had “I’ll be back”, Eastwood had “Make my day”. But the phrase most associated with Mitch, uttered with casual aplomb in His Kind of Woman, was much cooler: “Baby, I don’t care.”


Be Like Mitch lesson two, then: Don’t be overly-concerned with what the hell anyone else thinks. Let them all pose and poster and spout off in their self-involved ego trips. None of it has to touch you.


In his later years, Mitch did a movie with a young actor who told the story of how, on set one day, he witnessed Mitch going through his script and marking ninety percent of the pages with the initials N.A.R. The young actor asked him what N.A.R. meant. Mitch grinned and said, “It means No Acting Required, kid.”


And that’s Be Like Mitch lesson three: don’t waste energy or effort when you don’t need to. Banging your head against the wall and putting more into a project than it requires is for suckers. Mitch-types save their energy for things that are worthy of it.


So that’s it. Follow those three simple rules, keep that laconic half-smile on your face, and don’t let the posers and squares touch that inner, cool core of yours. Mitch never did, right? And the world would be much better if we would all just Be Like Mitch!
Sep 242014
 

I suppose it's likely, assuming that I have many more years of reading ahead of me, my choices for personal favorite ANYTHINGS will change. But I'm a sucker for lists. As long as I don't have to be held to them the rest of my life.

Here are my ten personal favorite Western novels, all read within the last two years or so. If you've never read a Western, any one of these would be a great place to start. Oh, and I've limited myself to choosing just ONE book per writer, otherwise this thing would get lopsided in a hurry.





VENGEANCE VALLEY- Luke Short


This was one of the first Westerns I read, and set a pretty high bar for everything to follow. I've read a few other Luke Short's since, and he hasn't let me down. 

From Goodreads: "The Fasken brothers strode into town with a grim announcement: they were going to kill a man before they left--the man who had brought disgrace upon their sister. The man they thought they wanted was Owen Daybright. And Owen was indeed involved with their sister. But he was innocent of any wrong-doing--he just wanted to help her. He also knew the name of the guilty man, but even a confrontation with Fasken guns won't get it out of him. Here is an explosive, fast-moving Western, in which a man's fierce loyalty to a coward makes him a target for killers' guns.




REDEMPTION, KANSAS- James Reasoner


It's no secret I'm a great admirer of Reasoner's. This wasn't the first thing I ever read from him, but it's an excellent example of his skills. 

From Amazon: "Injured in a cattle stampede on a drive through Kansas, Bill is healing in Redemption. Tended to by a shopkeeper's lovely daughter, Eden Monroe, there are worse places he could be. But Bill knows something's wrong. A series of unexplained killings plagues the town. It's up to Bill to figure out what's going on before his beloved Eden gets caught in the cross fire."




APPALOOSA- Robert Parker


I didn't expect to like this one so much, as I'm not a big fan of Parker's "Spencer" novels. Very glad I gave it a chance. It was terrific. 

From Amazon: "When Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch arrive in Appaloosa, they find a town suffering at the hands of a renegade rancher who’s already left the city marshal and one of his deputies dead. Cole and Hitch are used to cleaning up after scavengers, but this one raises the stakes by playing not with the rules—but with emotion."



DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER- Lewis B. Patten


Along with Luke Short, Lewis B. Patten is my favorite of the "old school" Western writers, and this, in my opinion, is his best.

From Goodreads: "Frank Patch had outlived his usefulness to the town of Cottonwood Springs and the townspeople were determined to get rid of him--one way of the another.But Patch had been their sheriff for twenty years. He had fought, bled and killed to turn a lawless cattle town into a peaceful community and being sheriff was the only life he knew.
Then Luke Mills, a harmless drunk, tried to gun Patch down."



DEATH GROUND- Ed Gorman


I knew Ed Gorman as a writer of tight suspense, mystery and horror, but this, his first Western I read, was a revelation. 

From Amazon: "Bounty hunter Leo Guild is on the trail of a wily mountain man wanted for a deadly bank robbery, but he’s not entirely convinced his quarry is the true guilty party."



ADVENTURES OF CASH LARAMIE & GIDEON MILES Volume Two- Edward A. Grainger

The first volume in this series of short stories was terrific, and one of the books that opened my eyes to what could be done in the Western genre. But this one, the second, was even better. Terrific short stories.

From Amazon: "In 1880s Wyoming Territory, two Deputy U.S. Marshals find themselves on the outside of societal norms. Cash Laramie, raised by the Arapahos, is known as The Outlaw Marshal for his unorthodox conduct toward criminals and his cavalier approach to life. Gideon Miles, one of the first African Americans in the marshal service, is honorable, fearless, and unrivaled in his skills with guns, knives, and tracking."



SMONK- Tom Franklin


I hesitated to include this one, as it is decidedly odd and not what you'd consider a straight Western. But damnit, I enjoyed the hell out of it, so here it is.

From Amazon: "It's 1911 and the townsfolk of Old Texas, Alabama, have had enough. Every Saturday night for a year, E. O. Smonk has been destroying property, killing livestock, seducing women, cheating and beating men, all from behind the twin barrels of his Winchester 45-70 caliber over-and-under rifle. Syphilitic, consumptive, gouty, and goitered—an expert with explosives and knives—Smonk hates horses, goats, and the Irish, and it's high time he was stopped. But capturing old Smonk won't be easy—and putting him on trial could have shocking and disastrous consequences, considering the terrible secret the citizens of Old Texas are hiding."




THE SISTERS BROTHERS- Patrick DeWitt

A very clever, well-written pastiche that deliberately stomps all over the classic Western tropes. 
From Amazon: "darkly comic, outrageously inventive novel that offers readers a decidedly off-center view of the Wild, Wild West.  Set against the back-drop of the great California Gold Rush, this odd and wonderful tour de force at once honors and reshapes the traditional western while chronicling the picaresque misadventures of two hired guns, the fabled Sisters brothers."



GUNSIGHTS- Elmore Leonard


I was torn between this one from Leonard and FORTY LASHES LESS ONE, but GUN SIGHTS won out because it's more a traditional western, whereas FORTY LASHES takes place almost entirely in Yuma Prison.

From Amazon: "Brendan Early and Dana Moon have tracked renegade Apaches together and gunned down scalp hunters to become Arizona legends. But now they face each other from opposite sides of what newspapers are calling The Rincon Mountain War. Brendan and a gang of mining company gun thugs are dead set on running Dana and "the People of the Mountain" from their land. The characters are unforgettable, the plot packed with action and gunfights from beginning to end."



TRUE GRIT- Charles Portis


If you don't read any of the above, then read this. Not just one of the greatest Westerns ever written-- one of the greatest novels, period. An absolute joy to read.

From Goodreads: "Mattie Ross, 14, from Dardanelle, Arkansas, narrates half a century later, her trip in the winter of 1870s, to avenge the murder of her father. She convinces one-eyed "Rooster" Cogburn, the meanest available U.S. Marshall, to tag along, while she outdickers and outmaneuvers the hard-bitten types in her path."