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secret identity

Ever since the pandemic started, just about the first question anyone asks who hasn’t talked to me in a while is, “Have you been keeping busy?” To some extent, that’s a time-honored placeholder question, but in my case, it’s also often a question about my overall stability, since I freelance full time and work tends to happen either in drips or in floods.

Happily for me, pretty much ever since the pandemic started, it’s been the latter, rather than the former. There were a few months in there where clients were tightening their belts and I saw some lean moments, but for the most part it’s been feast, rather than famine, when it honestly could have gone either way. Turns out, when everyone is stuck at home consuming content, it can be a good time for the content creators.

Or “good,” anyway. I haven’t churned out a lot of fiction in this time because, let’s face it, my productivity, indeed my general habits and life cycle, have taken a weird hit from all of this, like they have for everyone. But I’ve kept busy with freelance work, the kind that pays the bills, and that’s not nothing.

Right now, I’m buried under one big project that I can’t really talk about, in addition to the usual stuff, and it’s only going to get heavier as its looming deadline continues to loom ever nearer. It’s good stuff – the kind of work that is both fun to do and will be fun to announce, when that’s possible – but it’s also stressful, as any big project always is.

Add to that a number of other factors – most of them secret identity stuff that I don’t really want to get into here right now – and, well, see the subject line of this post. You can see it on my Letterboxd, where May was the lightest month of the year so far, with only 13 movies clocked in the whole month. Unlucky, for some…

And I can feel it in, well, just about everything – a weight that presses down without surcease, a exhaustion that sleep can only do so much to cure. Insert that panel from Watchmen, about being tired of Earth and of these people, the tangle of their lives, etc. It’s not as bad as all that, though. Some of those external frustrations I was talking about are just putting extra weight on what is already a busy period – not only adding stress on top of stress, but making work harder to focus on, harder to do.

Which is all a long way of saying that I might be a little scarce; not that my being a little scarce looks, honestly, all that much different from my being here a lot. I’m still posting to Twitter every day, continuing my year-long daily aesthetic thread, sure, but also posting daily tweet-length flash pieces about giant monsters for the entire month of June. My usual columns and reviews will be popping up, and I’ll be doing other things. Movies at the movie theatre are becoming a thing again, which means the triumphant return of #AnalogSunday, the thing that I missed most of all the many things I missed during the pandemic.

In short, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll just be under the gun a bit, is all.

It’s all-too-easy to get drawn into the soft undertow of minutia and lose track of how much time has passed, how much has happened, what has changed. The sediment shifts so gradually that it seems like each day is largely the same as the one before, even when they aren’t. So, what’s been going on?

I got my second jab of the Pfizer vaccine a week ago and so far there’s nothing much to report. I was tired right after, and my arm hurt for a day or two, but no other ill effects, save for a disappointing lack of monsterism, as I reported on social media. It’s a surprising weight off my shoulders, honestly, given how low-risk my lifestyle is generally, which is good because my shoulders are going to need that extra weight freed up to hold the giant eyeball I’m hoping to get there.

While the production of new fiction remains throttled, I’ve been working on various freelance stuff apace, including forthcoming game writing projects that, for now, have to remain under wraps. (In case you missed the last game writing stuff I was doing, you can read a bit about it here.) I’ve been doing my usual stuff, too, watching weirdo movies and occasionally reviewing them at Signal Horizon and Unwinnable, as well as continuing to write my regular columns various places, ranging from my column on Friday the 13th: The Series at Signal Horizon to my column on board games at Unwinnable to my column on … whatever the hell at Weird Horror.

I’m also continuing to sort of accidentally co-host the Horror Pod Class at Signal with Tyler Unsell, where we talk about horror movies chosen more-or-less at random and try to apply their lessons haphazardly to the classroom. You can watch it live at the Facebook group or stream it wherever you get podcasts. Speaking of which, I recently bought a new permanent addition to my ensemble from 1000 Dead Draculas, which will be making its Horror Pod Class debut on the upcoming Viy (1967) episode.

In hobby-related news, I’ve played a few games of Warcry and more than a few of Warhammer Underworlds, and I’ve continued collecting the various Underworlds warbands as they’re released. Which means that I’m very excited about the recent announcement of the final warband for this season, Elathain’s Soulraid, because it involves a giant crab!

I’ve said before that Mollog’s Mob is never going to be unseated as my favorite band, and that’s still true. It is basically impossible to top a big, doofy monster with mushrooms growing out of his back who is followed into battle by a gaggle of squiggly beasts. But these guys might end up being a close second. Only time will tell…

I also finally got in my first (solo) game of Cursed City, and while nothing may ever quite top Silver Tower for me in the Warhammer Quest category, Cursed City was fun at first blush and, as with Blackstone Fortress (which I’ve owned for months and still haven’t played), the dynamite miniatures absolutely make it worth it, even without playing.

So, it’s been a minute. (Approximately 28,800 of them, actually.) What have I been doing with myself during quarantine? Not what I would have expected, necessarily.

For example, unlike a great many people, I haven’t been watching a lot more movies or television, though, like, I gather, a great many other people, I also haven’t been reading any more books than I was before, maybe less.

Mostly, I’ve been working, and while that’s occasionally been on fiction, more often it’s been on, more or less, the same kind of freelance stuff that I was doing before the pandemic. I’ve also increased the frequency of my appearances on the Horror Pod Class, where we’ve been doing weekly episodes due to the lockdown.

Recent episodes have included talking with author Max Brooks about bigfoots and the reassuring quality of Peter Graves, chatting with Pitch editor and semi-professional podcast haver Brock Wilbur about how, where we’re going, we won’t need eyes to see, and just our usual bullshit about cursed films.

None of that new fiction stuff is in any fit state for public consumption just yet, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some news on that front, too. My story “Screen Haunt” will be showing up in mailboxes and bookstores (if there are still such things) later this year in It Came from the Multiplex, a fun-looking antho from Hex Publishers themed around ’80s horror. My contributor’s copy came the other day, and the book looks fantastic, even if I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

Speaking of reading, I somehow managed to swallow down my anxiety enough to perform the narration of my story “Dream House” for Pseudopod recently. (Listen to the story and you’ll hear why.) You have my apologies for the narration, but the story has always been a favorite, and it brings back good memories.

The lockdown means that I haven’t been out to the theater in a while, and there’s been a commensurate slowdown in my reviews of other titles, as well. But I haven’t been idle! Earlier this month, I kicked off the first in a new recurring column that I’ll be writing at Unwinnable in which I talk about the eternal allure of board games … especially those that we pretty much never play.

The first installment talks about playing Horrified in the midst of a global pandemic, which has naturally limited my playing options. I have plans for future installments that will hopefully include, y’know, playing them with actual other people. We’ll see.

On a similar note, I’ve also been digging into 5e D&D for the first time in a while and … enjoying it a lot more than I would have expected. While the lockdown has put certain necessary constraints on my actual playing options, I’ve really been enjoying what we have done, and just paging through the books and acquainting myself with setting and rules. I’m surprised, but happy to be so.

Oh, and I did that Penguin Classics cover generator thing that was going around for a minute there with my books, too. So that’s fun.

So, I guess I posted yesterday’s update a day too soon. No, none of us are sick, still, but last night the Kansas City metro area enacted a mandate to shut down all restaurants (except for take-out and delivery), bars, and movie theaters.

That last one, naturally, is the one that I’m here to talk about, though I have friends and loved ones who work at restaurants and bars who will be directly and irrevocably affected by this.

Please note that I’m not saying that it’s not the right thing to do. I’m not an epidemiologist, and I’m not sure anyone knows what the right thing to do is right now. But I do know that local businesses – as well as those who are employed by them and non-local businesses alike – are going to have a tough time in the coming weeks. Hell, we all might.

The Screenland is more than a movie theater for me. It’s a home-away-from-home; a place where found family congregates. The relationships that I’ve made at the Screenland are some of the best ones in my life right now, and the Screenland is one of the best things about living in Kansas City.

Last night, they closed their doors, and right now we’re not sure when they’ll be able to open them again. If you’re local, help out one of the best theaters I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing a movie at by buying a gift card that you can use when this thing blows over. If you’re not, consider donating to help them through a hard time.

We’re all in this together, and hopefully we’ll all pull through together. The Screenland and its people mean a lot to me, so please consider helping them out in this difficult moment.

Hey, I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but there’s a pandemic on. About the only thing I can really say for it is that at least it has a name that sounds suitably like something that would have killed us all in a post-apocalyptic movie.

You, dear reader, haven’t heard much from me since it all started – I haven’t even been posting much on social media – but it’s not due to any sinister reasons.

My health is fine. The cough that has been malingering since October is even continuing to clear up at the most incremental pace you could possibly imagine. I wasn’t trampled in some kind of toilet paper-related stampede. Everything is going as well as can be expected, given the circumstances.

I just haven’t been online much, and when I have been, I’ve been working. There are much worse things.

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No one in my immediate orbit is sick. I’ve checked in with most at-risk friends and family members. I haven’t even had to practice much social distancing because, let’s face it, I’m a boring freelance writer who works from home – I usually go out about once or twice a month anyway, and that’s to the movies.

Even for people like me, though, I know that times have been rough. I was supposed to be at the Outer Dark Symposium in a couple of weeks, but that can has now been kicked down the road, thanks to the wisdom of the event organizers. The airline let me credit the cost of my ticket toward a future flight.

Small businesses are already struggling. My favorite local theatre, my home-away-from-home, the Screenland Armour is having a tough time, as all the big movie releases for the next few weeks and even months have been pulled. The people who work there are going to suffer, and there’s precious little that I can do to help.

So far, my work has continued to come in steadily, but who knows what the future holds, at this point? Pretty much everyone I know who can work from home is working from home. Schools are closing. The other day, I posted a photo of an entirely empty bread aisle at the grocery store.

I know that every few years there’s something for everyone to panic over, but I also know that we’ve never encountered anything quite like this in my lifetime. For the most part, I’m not fretting about it any more than I can help, but there’s a lot of free-floating stress in the world right now.

So, if you’re reading this, stay safe and take care of each other.

February has been extremely busy for me so far, and I’m still behind on lots of things from the cough that has kept me a prisoner since the end of October (it’s still here, by the way, but it is gradually weakening). Which is why you haven’t heard from me much in the last couple of weeks.

But last Saturday I went thrifting with Eli (of Analog Sunday fame) for his birthday, then back to his place to watch some weird tapes, as we are wont to do. Thrifting was a huge success, and I’ve been posting some of my loot over on Instagram, if you wanna go be jealous.

I’ve made a few other stops various places while I was out running this or that errand lately, and had similarly great luck, as has Grace in her efforts to track down rare and unusual dice. So, while February has still been extremely busy, it has also been nice.

I’ll take busy and nice. And today, I got an email from a client telling me that I was getting an unasked-for raise on my regular freelance rates from them due to the “consistent positive feedback from our editors in regards to your work.” Which is always a nice thing to hear.

So, not every day is great, but today is pretty good. I’ll take it.

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eye_homepageIt’s that very special time of year again – Panic Fest time! Thursday night was opening festivities featuring Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space, while yesterday (Friday) was the first full day of the Fest. Sadly, I’m out of commission today (Saturday), but I’ll be back at it Sunday and into next week.

I’ll be updating social media with one-sentence or so reviews of everything that I see, so if you want up-to-the-minute updates, keep an eye out there or follow along on my Letterboxd. So far, my favorites of the Fest are Extra OrdinaryVHYes, and the aforementioned Color Out of Space, but I’ve got a lot more movies to go.

I had hoped to be over this cough before Panic Fest rolled around, but it seems that isn’t in the cards. In spite of what several people have now tried to assert, this is not my new identity, and I am not going to become a consumptive Victorian dandy with decoratively bloodstained handkerchief. I will shake this cough eventually, but when is anybody’s guess.

I saw the doctor again on Thursday, and the prognosis continues to be that it’s nothing more serious than post-viral bronchitis – essentially minor nerve damage caused by coughing that is, in its turn, causing me to continue to cough.

Those who have been following along for a while now know that Panic Fest is an emotional time for me. It was years ago, at Panic Fest, that I got the call that began a series of tumbling dominoes that ended with my dad’s death – although, of course, that wasn’t the ending, just the beginning of a lot of work and therapy on my part over the intervening years.

But, thanks to that association, Panic Fest became the last weekend for a very long time that I got to feel “normal” for a couple of days. That isn’t the only reason it’s emotional, though. Not anymore, anyway.

Over the last few years, I’ve developed a new family here in the KC area. They’re scattered and scattershot and they aren’t often in the same place at the same time, but if this new family has a living room, it’s the Screenland Armour. And the one holiday that they all gather for is Panic Fest.

Folks like Adam and Tim and Eli and Andrew and Steph and Bryce and Amy and Liz and Blair and Kaleigh and Adrian and Brock and Viv and Tyler and Greg and Jenius and many, many others. These folks have become my Screenland family, and they mean a lot to me, even if I don’t see them as often as I would like, or always know how to say it.

For a long time, Panic Fest represented the last time I was really happy. The last time I didn’t feel like my skin was just draped haphazardly over a jagged jumble of uncomfortable emotions. Now, though, things are better, cough notwithstanding, and I feel more comfortable with myself than I ever did before. And Panic Fest has come to represent something else, too. A new family, and a new place where I feel at home.

There is a gag in the MST of Hobgoblins where, after the film’s cold opening, the titles come up and Tom Servo goes, “Hey, the end credits! Well, it was a terrible movie, but at least it was short.” To which Mike replies, “These are the beginning credits,” and Servo says, “Oh, well, then kill me, please?”

Remember that, cuz we’ll come back to it.

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I don’t know if the turning of the new year is really a time when people make ill-fated resolutions to improve their lives, or if that was just a gimmick cooked up to sell gym memberships. But I do know that this time in the dead of winter – from Christmas Eve until … well, it varies, year to year, but sometimes the end of February – has routinely not been a great time of year for me.

Unfortunately, so far 2020 is no exception. In fact this whole first week (!) feels like every day has been about a year long by itself. Each time I realize that we’re only a week in, it feels like that gag from Hobgoblins that I mentioned above.

Years ago, Grace and I had to let go of our first cat, Corwin, in a fairly sudden and traumatic fashion on Christmas Eve. Yesterday, we had to say goodbye to our cat Abracadabra, or Abby, who we’ve had for twelve years – nearly a third of my life.

It was time, and I’m grateful that she’s no longer suffering, but it was terribly hard to say goodbye, and we already miss her so much. That was the year’s biggest kick in the teeth to me, personally, so far, but it was far from the only one.

Meanwhile, I’ve still got this hacking cough that I have had since October 30, the world is on fire in a way that’s more literal than usual, America’s warmongering and imperialism threatens to escalate a war that has, for all intents and purposes, been going on for most of my lifetime, and I’m sure there’s plenty that I’m forgetting.

I don’t know if all ages are as apocalypse-haunted as my generation, but it seems like I’ve grown up always in the shadow of the end of the world. I was a kid in the tail-end of the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed large. The Day After was set and filmed not far from where I live now.

Our movies were preoccupied with life in the wake of a future that was sometimes literally post-apocalyptic, other times caught in the midst of the inevitable aftermath of late stage capitalism and its ravages on the planet. A world in which a handful of people lived in comfort while everyone else survived in the gutters, when they survived at all.

I graduated class of 2000, which means that I remember, vividly, the Y2K scare. I remember the fear of global pandemics. Outbreak came out when I was fourteen years old.

Revisiting the movies that I grew up on, I’m often flabbergasted by how quickly they expected the end to come. When you’re making a movie about a blasted future where humanity survives in dregs, and you set it a decade out? Let’s just say, that ain’t optimism.

I’m no kind of historian, but I do routinely consume media, both for work and pleasure, from a lot of different decades. And one thing I’ve learned is that the problems that we face now are, for the most part, the same as the problems we’ve faced all my life. Take a movie from two, three decades ago, strip away the markers of its moment in time, and you’ll find the same themes.

We knew that climate change was going to doom us all if we didn’t do something about it. We knew that the wealth gap was growing. We knew that our warmongering would only ever lead to more and more violence. We knew the self-serving hypocrisy of the “moral majority.” We knew that white supremacy underpinned much of our society – and that it was a trap that held both whites and PoC alike.

Sometimes it’s comforting to see how little has changed, and sometimes it’s terrifying.

Knowing that the fin absolue du monde has hung over us for longer than I’ve been alive helps me to not give in to the apocalyptic mindset that the news often seems so keen to engender, but I can’t deny that the images of Australia, in particular, have an immediacy and ferocity that is hard to ignore.

On the plus side, I made my first sale of the year this week, which is a nice, early start. 2020 may have punched us in the mouth right out of the gate, but sometimes the only thing you can do then is grin with blood in your teeth.

Unknown SkeletonAt the start of this decade, I made my first-ever professionally-qualifying sale. (Pro rates were somehow even lower then than they are now.) I had been writing since I learned how, and seriously attempting to publish since I graduated college not quite a decade before that.

In 2012, the first edition of my first collection, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, came out. In five years it would be out of print, then back in print, in a new, hardcover deluxe edition from Strix Publishing.

Looking back, it came out too soon. Not that I’m not proud of the collection – I am, completely, if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have allowed it to be reissued. I just wasn’t at the “first collection” stage in my career quite yet, but I didn’t know that then.

In the years since, I’ve published two more collections of stories, both with Ross Lockhart’s Word Horde press, not to mention two collections of essays on vintage horror films, both with Innsmouth Free Press. I’ve published more than fifty short stories, and been in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year three times.

I co-edited my first anthology with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, which got translated into Japanese.

I’ve done work for Privateer Press, writing short fiction and in-game content, adventures, and even a licensed novel that is technically my first published novel-length work. In the last year alone I’ve written nearly fifty movie reviews for Unwinnable and Signal Horizon, where I also now co-host a podcast.

I’ve written introductions for reissues of some of my favorite books, including Benighted and collections by Robert Westall, from Valancourt Books, and introductions to collections by some of my favorite contemporaries, including Nick Mamatas and Amanda Downum. I have nonfiction bylines in places like Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Nightmare Magazine.

I’ve been a guest at several wonderful conventions and festivals, gone on a great many podcasts, introduced movies at the local movie theatres, and much more. There are so many things on this list that, had you told me about them ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Of all the many surprising things that have happened to me over the course of the last decade, though, perhaps the most surprising is that I quit my day job to write full-time all the way back in 2013, and I haven’t had to give it up yet.

Fiction writing certainly doesn’t pay the bills, so most of my time is dedicated to freelancing, but, as they say in Major League 2, a day of playing baseball is better than whatever most people have to do for a living.

It wasn’t until Grace was asking me if I was planning to do some kind of decade-in-review that I realized how much my life has changed in these past ten years, so it seemed worth taking note. I went from being virtually unpublished (I had sold a few stories, but not many) to having six or more books (depending on how you count) with my name on the spine and writing for a living.

Not too shabby, all in all.

As regular readers are already aware, I got sick the day before Halloween. It followed a busy October in which I probably spread myself a little thin, and I’m sure it’s no more than I deserved.

I’d had a good month, and I was willing to let it tank my birthday and Halloween. What I wasn’t prepared for was that it would hang on for another entire month and then some.

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I got, apparently, the same thing a lot of other people have gotten – a cold that went away in relatively short order but left behind a cough seemingly caused by nothing and improved by nothing. I’m not writing this for advice. I’ve had it all. I’ve been to the doctor several times, tried every medication under the sun. They say that it may just hang on for up to six weeks.

So, I lost November. Pretty much entirely. I’ve been able to keep my head above water with freelance work, but everything I had been putting off because October was too busy got put off further because November was too sick. If you’re one of those things, I’m genuinely sorry about that.

Every time I tried to go out, the cough got worse, so I paid for every excursion with rough days and nights. It’s minor, in the grand scheme, but it’s also exhausting, frustrating, and depressing. For the most part, I’ve kept it together decently well.

If it’s gonna last for six weeks, I’ve got another week or two to go. I’m hoping that’s not the case, but we’ll see. Pretty intense rest seems to decrease the severity of the cough, but any activity sets it off.

In spite of that, I’ve done a few things. Put up the tree in the living room, hung Christmas lights inside – not outside, cuz it’s cold out there. I’ve kept caught up on my work, even if I haven’t gotten into some longer-term projects that I had hoped to by now.

Halloween is my favorite holiday. It’s kind of contractually obligated to be. Just as autumn is my favorite season. But Christmas is my (perhaps more unlikely) second favorite holiday.

Not for any religious reason – I’m an agnostic, and pretty much always have been. And not because I like receiving – or even giving – presents all that much. In fact, I rather despise the crass consumerism of the season, just as I rather despise crass consumerism more generally.

But I love the atmosphere of Christmas. I love Christmas lights more than just about anything. I love the cold, crisp nights. The green of pine needles and the red pop of berries. I love driving through town and seeing everything lit up against the long, dark night.

I love Christmas ghost stories and Christmas horror movies. I love the muffled hush of snow piling upon snow. I love the artificial isolation of a snowstorm.

I don’t mind Christmas music or all the Christmas decorations in the stores – if I ever complain about them, it’s only the creep that gradually replaces Halloween earlier and earlier every year.

I like this time of year – from the beginning of October through New Year’s Day. I like to participate in it as much as I can, but if I’m sick I’m sick, there’s not much I can do about it. Today, I put up the tree and watched Krampus. That’s a good thing to do on December 1.

Tomorrow, I’ll do something else. One day at a time, until this stupid cough is gone. That’s all I can do, and for now, at least, it’s good enough.