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secret identity

While I was in San Jose, Grace was doing some remodeling around the house. I knew this much already, though I hadn’t stopped to consider the thematic unity of it, what with me being at the Winchester House and all. We had talked before I left about some of it. Replacing the old TV stand, lowering the bar in the kitchen and putting some built-in shelves underneath it on the living room side. That sort of thing.

When I came home, I stopped at the bottom of the stairs, intentionally not looking around, because I figured she might want me to be surprised by the changes to the house. And when she was ready and I walked up the stairs, I expected to be surprised, indeed.

I didn’t know the half of it. Could not even imagine. I’m sitting in the midst of it now, and I still can barely imagine. I was so overwhelmed by what I came home to that my brain processed the information it was presented with backward. Hey, I thought, the TV is on the wall now! Only then, moments later: Wait, that’s not my TV…

The speakers are up in the corners of the ceiling, my brain informed me, translating information thrown to it from my widened eyes, pupils no doubt expanded in their attempts to process this new data quickly enough to make sense of it. Followed only later by the added information: There are speakers now.

My sound system went out some time back, and for ages now I’ve needed a new TV. Grace and I had talked about what my plans were in both regards, but they had been pipe dreams for me. “In a few years, when I finally get around to it, this is what I would like to do.” While I was in San Jose, Grace had done it. Done it all. But not alone. Her family had come to help, Steve and Bear, Jeremy and Jay, Darin and James and other friends had all pitched in, in various ways, to bring this project to fruition while I was away.

I write this now because last night, when I was too exhausted from my trip and a day spent flying that I couldn’t process any of this information, I promised an explanation. Even as I type these words, though, I feel enormously inadequate to the task of summarizing what all this means to me, just as I know this post should be accompanied by a photograph, but no photo can capture it all. It’s more than just the TV and the sound. New lights in the living room and kitchen. So many things. But it’s more than just the things, too. It’s the people who came together to help make them happen.

Perhaps this is not the part that I should share of this experience, but when I saw everything, I just sat down on the couch and wept. I was so touched, so overcome. Maybe that doesn’t make any sense, or maybe it makes perfect sense. I’m not sure I know which is which anymore; maybe I never did.

That’s the surprise that I came home to, what so many of the people closest to me were working on while I was in California, with some of the other people closest to me. I wish I had some better way to express how it makes me feel, but I don’t. Right now, this is all I have. There’s apparently a betting pool about what I’ll watch first. I haven’t decided what that’s going to be yet, but I’ll let you all know when I do.

Thursday night, we called 911 to get an ambulance to take Grace to the hospital. That’s the bad news. The good news is, the culprit turned out to be her gallbladder, a thing that I had forgotten human beings even had until that very moment, and she is now home, one gallbladder lighter than before, and seems to be recovering well.

Still, it was an unexpected couple of days in-between, and certainly just feels like one more straw on an already broken camel’s back. I have spent more time in hospitals over the last few months than in my entire life up to this point. Hopefully we have now hit our quota, and can take a well-deserved break for a while.

Both fortunately and unfortunately, Grace had just hit the magic six week point in her recovery from back surgery, and was supposed to go back to work (albeit just a few days a week) next week. Those plans have currently been scuppered, of course, but there is some hope that the recovery from this latest surgery will go quickly and will only delay her return by a week or two more.

In the meantime, and as has been the case more times than I can count these last few months: I may be a bit scarce, and if you need anything from me, or if I owe you anything, don’t hesitate to remind me, because there is every chance that I have forgotten.

Two days ago, Grace had the staples removed from her back. That’s a pretty intense opening sentence, right? We were only dimly aware that she had gotten staples until the first time we had to change her dressing, and we revealed something from a low-rent Frankenstein flick. Getting her staples out hurt, though not as bad as it sounds like it would. She likened it to receiving a bunch of paper cuts. Fortunately, as soon as they were out she immediately started feeling much better.

So far her recovery seems to be coming along at a pretty good pace. She’s more independent now than she was just a few days ago. Because the first six weeks are the biggest risk for recurrence, she’s off work until sometime in the middle of February, but the days when I had to play full-time caregiver are probably behind us already, though there are still plenty of things she can’t do.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s still too early to tell if the surgery really accomplished what we were hoping it would. While some people experience significant relief right away, for others it takes some time to know if the surgery did its job, and Grace appears to fall into that latter category.

Between my surgery back at the end of October, several visits to the emergency room, and now Grace’s surgery and recovery, it’s been a rough few months in the Grey household. Fingers crossed that we’ve seen the end of such excitement for a while. But if I owe you anything, or you’re waiting for me on something, please bear with me, and don’t hesitate to remind me if it’s been a while since you heard from me. We’ve had a lot going on.

20171202_104727Friday afternoon I left KC and headed south for what was supposed to be an overnight trip to visit the Ray Harryhausen exhibit at the Science Museum Oklahoma, on literally the day before the exhibit closed down. I was able to make the trip at all thanks to lots of help from my patient, affectionate, and extremely supportive wife. Up until that day, about the most strenuous excursion I had attempted since my surgery was a couple of trips to the movies (notwithstanding a couple of trips to the emergency room, which, while plenty strenuous, weren’t exactly voluntary).

I ended up overdoing it a bit at the museum, and what was supposed to be a one night trip turned into a two night one, but other than that I seem to have returned no worse for the wear than when I left. And I got to see the Harryhausen exhibit!

20171202_105835For those who may not know, Ray Harryhausen is one of my biggest inspirations, and, for my money, easily one of the greatest monster designers who ever lived. I own a book of his art and a book of behind-the-scenes stuff from his films, as well as just about every movie he ever worked on. My first novel was dedicated to him. So the opportunity to see some of the models and illustrations that had gone into five of his most famous films up close and in person was one that I didn’t want to miss, surgery or no surgery. (It is only thanks to Grace that I didn’t miss it, so she deserves another shout out here.)

 

It’s difficult to put into words what seeing these objects in person meant to me. Earlier this year, I got to go see the Guillermo del Toro exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and while the influence of GDT on my own work is probably more immediately obvious than the influence of Harryhausen, I would be extremely hard pressed to say which exhibit affected me more.

On the car ride back, Grace and I were discussing the exhibit, and I talked about the magic that is present in stop motion animation, especially that animation done by Ray Harryhausen. How much personality he was able to breathe into all of his creatures, how watching his films is like watching your toys come to life. And that magic was in the air everywhere at the exhibit, all of the models seeming like they were just one moment away from stirring into motion.

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In spite of the books I’ve read, documentaries I’ve seen, and commentary tracks I’ve listened to, I learned things at the exhibit that I didn’t already know. I learned how some of the armatures were cannibalized and repurposed for other creatures in other films, I learned about them strapping a bunch of stuntmen together in order to capture the motions of the Kali statue. I was already aware of Harryhausen’s own debt to the engravings of Gustave Dore, but I was happy to see that debt laid out in detail, and to see illustrations done by Harryhausen that obviously owed a heavy debt to Dore.20171202_105608

I know that I didn’t see most of Harryhausen’s other films until I was older, but I saw Clash of the Titans on TV when I was just a kid, and it had the same impact on me that Star Wars had on other people around my age. Seeing creatures like Harryhausen’s iconic take on Medusa or the Kraken in person was amazing beyond my ability to put into words.

Sadly, since the exhibit focused on Harryhausen’s fantasy films, I wasn’t able to see my very favorite of his creations–Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth–who may not exist in any significant form anyway, since his armature got reused on other creatures later on.

The rest of the Science Museum was pretty amazing as well, and I probably could have spent easily twice as much time there as I did, had I not run completely out of energy. As it was, I missed a lot of what it had to offer, but was able to see a planetarium show, check out an exhibit on Cabinets of Curiosities and an exhibit on shoes, and watch a live chemistry show where they made things explode. Grace even got to be a volunteer and hold an explosion in the palm of her hand!

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There’s so much more I could say about the trip, about the exhibit, about the museum, about Harryhausen, but I need to catch up on the things that I didn’t get done while I was away over the weekend, so I should probably wrap this up. I promised lots of pictures, some of which I’ve already been posting over on Instagram, but I’ll leave a few more in this post for those who weren’t able to make it out to the show themselves. Do yourself a favor, and if anything like this ever comes anywhere near you, make it a point to go. (And if you live within traveling distance of the Science Museum Oklahoma, go even though this exhibit is no longer showing. It’s worth it.)

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Today I went out to a movie for the first time since my surgery. I saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri instead of Thor: Ragnarok, partly because I figure Thor is likely to be around for a while, while Three Billboards may prove a little more transient, at least as far as convenient showtimes go. I drove up to the Alamo Drafthouse and cashed in my free birthday movie with… 5 whole days to spare. (Also affecting my decision: I decided to go somewhat spur-of-the-moment, and by the time I got to the theatre the showing of Thor had already started.)

Three Billboards was really good, but, as will come as probably no surprise to anyone who has seen the rest of Martin McDonagh’s filmography, a hell of a downer in spots. I probably should’ve picked the (doubtless more upbeat) Thor for my maiden voyage, but such is life.

As you can guess from all of that, I’m healing up, though the healing process–which started out at an incredible pace–has plateaued somewhat. I am still getting better, it’s just moving a lot more slowly than it did for the first couple of weeks. Still, making it out to see a movie is a pretty good step. Next up, getting a haircut, painting my nails, and maybe, if I’m really ambitious and really lucky, making the trip to go see the Ray Harryhausen exhibit at the Science Museum Oklahoma sometime in the next week, before it packs up. (Given how long it took to get to today, though, I’m not exactly holding my breath.)

Still, I’m a lot better today than I was this time last month, so I’ll take what I can get. Grace has also been doing better, though there may be surgery of one kind or another lurking in her future, as well, and we’re waiting for some diagnostics to get a better idea of where that’s all headed. Still, things are stable for now, and given how the last few weeks have been, I’ll take stable.

I’m still behind on a lot of stuff, but I’m catching up. I took down the Halloween decorations just before Thanksgiving, with Jay’s help, and I put up some of the Christmas decorations yesterday because the weather was pleasant. I was able to make it out to have Thanksgiving dinner with Jay and the rest of my adopted family, which was really nice. We had little place cards with our names on them, and spaces on the back to write things we were thankful for, and I found that, in spite of, or maybe because of, how rough it’s been, I had a lot. This whole thing has made me a lot more grateful for some of the things that I might easily take for granted at other times. Hopefully I can hold onto at least a little of that as I heal up.

Content Warning: Body Horror

Wednesday I had my follow-up with the surgeon regarding my recent emergency appendectomy, where I received a clean bill of “healing adequately,” even while I was also warned that my recovery process might be slower than normal because of how much time I spent under the knife, and how much damage had already been done.

It seems that what happened was that I had acute appendicitis–the same kind you normally have, the same kind that sends people to the emergency room or sometimes just flat kills you–only I had it a couple of months ago. Because I didn’t display all the most common symptoms (apparently only about 40% of people do), nobody caught on to what it was until my CT scan weeks later. By then, my appendix had literally died inside my abdomen and had begun to rot, sticking various parts of my colon and other internal organs together with necrotic tissue, and slowly poisoning me, which explains why I had been feeling so bad for so long. The doctor said that my operation took roughly three times the normal length of an appendectomy.

The good news is that, all things considered, I seem to be healing admirably. The bad news is that, in the last two weeks, I’ve increased by fully a third the total number of times I’ve been to the ER in my life. Fortunately (?) only one of those visits was for my own emergency appendectomy. The other two have been in the last few days, as Grace has been visited by nosebleeds so severe that they seem to deserve another name. These are not the dramatic nosebleeds of film and television, the ones that indicate you’ve been overtaxing your psychic powers. These are like someone turned on a tap, only bright red blood came out, in quantities that you could readily measure.

Twice now these nosebleeds have sent her to the ER, though, ultimately, there is precious little that even they can do for her. The first time they attempted to cauterize the bleed, which, after a couple of tries, took for a few days. The second time, today, they had to pack her nostril, which doesn’t sound so bad, but I was present for it, and can attest that it was probably some of the worst pain I have ever watched her experience, and I have seen her go through some shit.

Between this and the back problems that she’s already been dealing with, not to mention my slow convalescence, it has been a rough few weeks, to put it mildly. But we’ve had friends who have been able to help, sitting with us in the ER. running to get groceries, helping me up the stairs, that kind of thing. Without them, I don’t know what we would have done, to be honest.

So, hopefully we’ll both be on the mend soon enough, and in the meantime, once again, if I owe you anything and you haven’t heard from me, feel free to remind me, but I also beg your indulgence. It’s been a mean season.

Content Warning: Body Horror

Anyone who has been following along here or on social media is probably already aware that I have not been feeling 100% for a few months now, at the very least. On Friday, we somewhat abruptly discovered at least part of the reason. After two months (plus) of illness, including various gastrointestinal discomfort, my doctor ordered a CT scan. I went in for the scan expecting to come home right after, but before they performed it they let me know that I would have to wait up to an hour after it was done while they looked at the scan before they sent me home.

Not ten minutes after the scan was completed, someone came out to the lobby and informed me that I was being sent over to the emergency room and, it turned out, from there pretty much directly into surgery. I’m still waiting to get some of the details, but from what I understand my appendix had not burst, as I am led to believe appendixes generally do, but for whatever reason had been rotting inside my body for literally weeks, the necrotic tissue actually sort of gluing parts of my colon together. Which not only explains why I’ve been feeling poorly, but also makes it something of a miracle that I wasn’t doing worse. (This also means that, for the immediate future, that body horror anthology Silvia Moreno-Garcia and I keep half-joking about editing together may hit a little close to home.)

This also neatly solves my conundrum about which of the various movies playing at the theatre now and in the immediate future I’m going to go see. The answer is definitely none of them any time soon.

Surgery was, I gather, pretty serious, and I was under the knife quite a bit longer than is normal for an appendectomy. I spent Friday night in the hospital, and experienced literally the worst pain I have thus far felt in my entire life. I’m home now, and seem to be on the road to recovery, though I imagine that road is probably going to be decently long and more than a little bumpy.

Over the course of Friday and Saturday, a partial list of the indignities visited upon me include three (3) IVs in a single day, two (2) catheters in a single day (which, incidentally, is about five catheters too many), and no less than four different hospital bracelets, for various reasons. I still have a drain to help siphon off some of the unpleasant gunk left over from having a rotting organ in my abdomen for so long.

While this is not exactly how I was hoping to spend my birthday or Halloween, I have a feeling that it’s better than the alternative, and I’m grateful to have at least a partial explanation, finally, for why I’ve been in such bad shape for so long. If I owe anything to anyone, I’ll try to gradually start working through any backlog sometime after the start of November, though I honestly have no idea right now how quickly I’m going to bounce back from this.

Thanks to all the kind wishes from everyone, and to those local folks who have already helped out. I’m afraid that, with Grace recovering from a severe back injury, as well, we may be asking more of you in the future, too. It means more than I can say to have people in my corner at a time like this.

In the meantime, my birthday present to myself this year is, I guess, not being dead yet, which, I gather, might have actually been a possibility for a moment there, and at least seemingly being on the mend, finally, rather than getting worse, even if mending is maybe going to take a pretty long time. As birthday presents go, I’ll take it.

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Picture I took prior to totality, by pressing my eclipse glasses against the lens of my phone’s camera.

Sometime when I was a kid, I saw a partial solar eclipse. I don’t really remember much about it besides that we went out to see it during school and we had to wear special glasses. It didn’t impress me too much. Cut to: 2017. I know that there’s an eclipse coming up, and that it’s a big deal, because it’s the first total solar eclipse to be visible in the United States since before I was born, and the first to cut a path of totality across the entire continent in almost a hundred years. What I don’t realize, until I hear people talking about it on the radio, is what the difference between totality and not is.

Olathe, where I live, is going to get something like 99.7% of the eclipse, so I figure, that’s enough, right? But I hear the people on the radio explaining the immense difference between, say, that 99.7% and 100%. Apparently, even 0.1% of the sun is still 1000 times brighter than the full moon. At 100% all sorts of weird things happen. It gets dark as night in the middle of the day, there’s a “sunset” on every horizon, the temperature drops considerably, and so on. So we decide that we want to see totality, which can be accomplished just a short drive away.

Luckily for us, one of our friends has already picked out a spot that’s having a special “eclipse brunch” up north of Atchison, pretty much smack dab in the middle of the totality. So we drive up there super early to avoid traffic, and wait around keeping a wary eye on the clouds in the hopes that we’ll get to see the eclipse. Spoiler: We are not disappointed.

So, prior to actually experiencing the totality, I was pretty keen to see the “day-to-night” effect, but, remembering (or mostly not remembering, as the case may be) my prior experience with (partial) eclipses, I was prepared to be underwhelmed. I wasn’t.

I had heard people talk about what being in the path of totality was like in almost religious terms, and I assumed it was overstatement, but it wasn’t. I have never had another experience quite like it. Watching the light drop away was literally like watching someone turn a dimmer switch on the planet. I can understand why people would go so far out of their way to experience this, and why even a few more precious seconds of totality would be worth an awful lot of extra effort. (We were lucky and got more than two minutes.)

Sadly, the eclipse doesn’t seem to have automatically knocked us back into the prime timeline yet, but on the other side of it, at least for today, it really does feel a little bit more like magic is possible in this world.

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The false sunset that was visible all the way around the horizon during totality. Photo taken a few minutes after 1pm.

I’ve been having adventures!

Two weeks ago today, I left town to spend a week in Colorado, just a few minutes outside of Denver. I didn’t spend much of my time there sightseeing, though I did visit a cool movie theatre, catch up with a couple of writing acquaintances, and make several trips to the Flatiron Crossing mall where I bought cool shirts, ate delicious crepes, and picked up a vintage Warhammer Armies book complete with Zoats, Fimirs, and really racist Pygmies. Most of the time, though, I was in the hotel room working while Grace was attending an alto flute workshop. I wrote a 5,000 word story in a day, and also caught up on a bunch of freelance projects.

On the way back from the trip, I stopped off at a dinosaur museum in Hays, one that I had passed I don’t know how many times on similar trips but had never visited. It was amazing, though perhaps the best exhibit wasn’t any of the dinosaur stuff but a giant alligator snapping turtle in a tank just inside the entrance. His name was Levi, and he was apparently unusually active that day, and watching him was pretty much exactly like watching a kaiju swim around.

After I got home I had to start playing catch-up on everything that didn’t get done while I was out of town, including finally getting around to buying a new desk and a new laptop. I’m still working on getting the laptop set up and configured the way I want it, so I’m currently still doing work (and typing this) on my old laptop until I get used to the new one. I got a Lenovo Yoga 910, in case anyone is curious. So far I like it, though I haven’t actually done much with it yet. I also made it out to our local cool movie theatre the Screenland Armour to catch a double-feature screening of Creature from the Black Lagoon and the practical suit-monster short film “Shallow Water.”

Catching up got interrupted a bit, however, in order to have more adventures when, for various reasons, Grace spontaneously decided that she wanted to go fishing and rock hunting his past weekend. I tagged along, made friends with a snapping turtle and a bug, explored what was clearly some sort of troll tunnel, found a mess of snakes and a tide pool, wandered among the flotsam on the shore of a big lake, and mostly had a great time. Shortly after I got back from that trip, I found a box on my doorstep containing a whole pile of copies of the first Japanese edition of Fungi, the anthology of weird fungal fiction I co-edited with Silvia Moreno-Garcia. (The Japanese edition is getting split into two volumes, so this one is just the first half.)

As you can imagine, I’m still recovering from so much adventuring, and also still catching up on work, so if I owe you anything, including responses about getting copies of Fungi from Japan for those of you who were contributors, please bear with me.

monster_thriller_scifi_headerPanic Fest is something that I look forward to every year; after all, why wouldn’t I? A world-class horror/monster/sci-fi film festival right in my own backyard, put together by my good friends at Rotten Rentals and the Screenland Armour; what’s not to love? But for me, at least, Panic Fest has become something of a fraught weekend.

Two years ago, just as I was leaving the house to go to Panic Fest, I got a phone call about my dad’s declining health. It wasn’t the first phone call on the subject, but it was one of the ones that triggered the fall of dominoes which made up the end of his life, the realization of a lot of trauma and baggage, and various other things that I’ve been dealing with in one capacity or another for the last two years. As such, Panic Fest always feels like an anniversary: the last weekend where I got to feel normal for a while and just have some fun.

Every year since, when Panic Fest has come around it has brought with it a weird combination of emotions–fraught, like I said. This year was the first time I attended as a “private citizen.” In the past I’ve helped out with the fest in some capacity; manning the Rotten Rentals booth or whatever. This year I just bought my ticket like everyone else and showed up to watch movies and bullshit around in the (really nice) vendor loft. I picked up a copy of the really great-looking book Unsung Horrors, which contains a couple of essays by my friend (and former boss, way back when I still worked at a video store) Jeff Owens.

I also watched four movies over the course of the weekend, along with a handful of really good shorts. That is, I believe, fully twice as many movies as the most I ever managed at a previous Panic Fest, so I’ll call it pretty good. To make matters better, I enjoyed all four movies, which is always nice. Here are my brief thoughts on each, presented in ascending order of quality.

The Barn – An 80s-style VHS throwback, The Barn was funded at least partially via IndieGoGo, and it shows. Because of the film’s intentionally low-rent aesthetic, the budgetary limitations are never really a problem for it, and the result is something pretty charming for anybody who has a nostalgic yen for 80s slashers and monsters that are just guys in Halloween masks. What The Barn can’t do is rise much above that. It’s never quite funny enough to function as pure parody, nor strong enough to stand on its own as anything else. So what you get is a pleasant throwback that seems like it ought to be watched on an old tube TV, popped out of one of those clamshell VHS cases; but a surprisingly crowded theatre at a horror film festival is probably the next best thing.

Don’t Knock Twice – A few days before Panic Fest, I watched last year’s Lights Out for the first time. Don’t Knock Twice shares a lot of parallels with that film–minus its specific light-related central conceit–but Lights Out suffers every time by the comparison. Which is not to say that Don’t Knock Twice is any particularly great shakes, but it stands up better than most of the familiar ghostly fare that so often haunts our multiplexes these days.

The Void – Imagine if the Astron-6 guys couldn’t decide whether they wanted to make a fan film of HellraiserThe ThingPrince of Darkness, or The Fly–so they just did all four. That’s pretty much The Void in a nutshell, and as such it manages to seem both inventive and derivative, while also feeling more like watching someone play Resident Evil than the Resident Evil movies ever managed. The visuals are strong, and there are plenty of gloppy monsters all done with practical effects, so I love that, but I also can’t help noticing that all of the effects feel like they would probably have been more confidently deployed in the hands of any of those other directors.

It’s been called Lovecraftian–as anything with cultists, tentacles, or horror on a larger-than-human scale will be (and The Void certainly has all three in spades)–but it owes a much bigger debt to Barker than to Lovecraft. Call it Hellraiser with the aesthetic of Carpenter and Cronenberg and you’re damn close. All this probably sounds a little down on The Void, but it absolutely isn’t meant to be–it’s sitting in my number two spot here, after all–it’s just that, for all its promise and its many great qualities, it never quite rises to what it almost is. (A problem that, honestly, seems to plague many of even the very best of our crop of contemporary horror movies.)

Train to Busan – In a year that has already been full-to-bursting with surreal moments, few were as jarring as walking out of Train to Busan to the news of Trump’s Muslim ban. Train to Busan is, essentially, a Korean zombie movie of the contemporary fast, swarming zombie school, and one that, as you’ve no doubt heard from other people than me, is handled brilliantly well. There’s a lot going on in it, but possibly its biggest and least subtle theme can be summed up as: Turning people away because you are afraid makes you into something worse than the monsters that scare you. As such, it has maybe never felt more topical than in this moment.

All that aside, though, it is also just an extremely solid movie. Like Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist from a few years back–which was also very emphatically a product of its moment with a very heavy social message, but that still plays fine without that context–Train to Busan holds up amidst a sea of similar fare as one of the best of the modern crop of swarming zombie flicks.