Wednesday, September 23, 2020

All Star Squadron, by Roy Thomas, Jerry Ordway, et al.

 So, since early in the COVID quarantine, my buddies and I have been doing weekly video calls to talk some classic comics. We've read Geoff Johns's initial FLASH run, THE NEW TEEN TITANS by Wolfman & Perez, and the QUESTION by Denny O'Neil and Denys Cowan. Now, we're reading Roy Thomas's paean to DC's golden age, ALL STAR SQUADRON. This week, we're reading issues 14-20, plus JLA 207-209, and I wanted to share some panels from these comics that brought a smile to my face. 

From All Star Squadron #17, by Thomas, with art from Adrian Gonzalez & Rick Hoberg.

This issue was a trial to determine if Robotman was human or merely a mechanical facsimile that should be melted down for slag. The turning point comes when the courthouse begins to collapse and Robotman must break from his chains and use his super strength to save those within, most especially the lawyer who brought suit against him. Revealing his humanity, he is deemed human and free to go. But how can he speak to the judge at his bench when the building collapsed????

From All Star Squadron #15, by Thomas, art by: Gonzalez & Jerry Ordway

Per Degaton, the villain of this 5-part crossover with the JLA, is going to "conquer an earth!" Melodrama aside, I love the reactions of the henchmen in the background -- genuinely funny stuff. I wish there was more of this in these comics.

From All Star Squadron #16, by Thomas, Gonzalez & Hoberg. 


I gotta give points to Nuclear, the Magnetic Man (no, I'd never heard of him before either) using Robotman's arm as a weapon against the other All-Stars. Well played!

Another from All Star Squadron #15: 

Luckily, Superman and Dr. Fate have super voices and are able to utilize the very, very few oxygen molecules in space to speak with one another. 
I . . . don't know if that's how that would work. But, it's comics!

And, from JLA #209 by Gerry Conway & Don Heck, more fun with oxygen


If Per Degaton is without oxygen (read Zatanna's spell backward, to see what she did to him), then how is he still speaking?!!? 

Another from JLA 209

This should have been the opening page, rather than a couple of pages of backstory exposition. (I know, I know! It was a different time, when exposition was the way things were done in comics . . . except that Larry Hama was doing it with far more aplomb in G.I. Joe, the same year this was published, and Alan Moore was beginning his legendary run on Swamp Thing that same year as well. So, there were other ways of doing it.)

Again, from All Star Squadron #16

Wonder Woman claims she's never needed the help of other heroes. But, she worked with the JSA and All Stars in issues 1-3 of this series. AND THERE'S AN EDITOR'S NOTE TO THAT EFFECT. Why doesn't she remember?!!? And why does Roy Thomas, who wrote all these comics, make her not remember?!!? What the hell is going on?

Sunday, September 20, 2020

WHAT IT IS, week ending September 20, 2020

It's been a week, and I've kept to my writing habit (I did take yesterday -- Saturday -- off, but I have responsibilities, like mowing the lawn and doing the laundry and being a father and husband, so back off inner-monologue-me, I had shit to do!). I've even begun a new short story, which is exciting. 

Typically, when I've taken time off from writing before, my mind has still been churning with ideas and turns of phrase, while working to problem solve the narrative corners I've backed myself into. But these past three-plus months, nothing. So the return of that was surprising and pleasing (though now I need to prepare for more sleepless nights, but what're you gonna do?). It's like I've written here before, the one way to lure the muse is to make writing a habit, and it worked. 

Also interesting was how the short writing exercise I did here, a couple of weeks back, fed into this new story -- though I wasn't fully aware of it until later. In that exercise I wrote about a character tied up in a completely dark room. Neither the characters nor the setting transferred to this new story -- it's in a totally different genre, for one thing -- but the idea of absolute darkness did shift over into this new story, and it's working out to not only be a perfect setting for a later revelation, but also a fine thematic parallel that should enhance the narrative. Regardless, I find it interesting how one's experiences can subconsciously feed into one's writing. (ah, but I'm sounding a bit pretentious now, so time to split and head on down the list. Follow me...)


My wife and I watched Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. This movie guts me every time. Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing as Newland Archer, Michelle Pfeiffer is radiant as Ellen Olenska, and Winona Ryder is pitch perfect as May Welland, the vacuous wife of Archer who proves to have more mettle, in the end, than most any of the socialites orbiting her world. The romantic ideal of honor, or giving up that which you so dearly want in order to fulfill one's responsibilities, is epitomized by Day-Lewis's Archer, and yet, one could also say he was trapped by convention in a marriage that, if not as exciting as the one he might have had with Madame Olenska, was, at least, fulfilling with his children and the adherence to tradition and family. So much is said in this film without saying anything at all, and the heartache and sacrifice is palpable. I love this film, and it is easily my favorite of Scorsese's magnificent catalogue of work. If I'm looking for a good cry, this is the one that'll do it. (It's 2020, men are allowed to cry . . . at least, they can do it behind their keyboards, as long as nobody sees them)


From 1990 and Adventure Comics, written by Charles Marshall, with art by Kent Burles and Barb Kaalberg. 
I bought the first issue of this series right off the rack, thirty years ago, and I really enjoyed it. For some reason, though, I never purchased any others (maybe it was a title that didn't sell at the comic shop, and subsequent issues went unordered by the owner). I recently got the next 11, to see if they were as entertaining as that first one, which I've read multiple times in the years since. 
They are.
The art is satisfactory, not great but not terrible, but the story is intriguing and engaging. Caesar's grandson, Alexander, is carrying on the legacy of trying to bring peace to apedom, but while out in the wastes, General Ollo begins a campaign of terror in Ape City, in order to take over the city and subjugate the citizenry to his will. Ollo has no qualms about ape killing ape. 
I'm only a few issues in, but thus far the narrative threads are interesting and sets up nicely the impending conflict between Alexander and Ollo.


Typically, this spot is set aside for inspiration as far as writing and creativity, but we lost a giant, and a hero, this past Friday, in Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Words cannot do justice to her legacy. If you're not well familiar with the late Supreme Court Justice, please do yourself a favor, read about her, watch the recent documentary on her, learn about one of the most important Americans of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. She will be sorely missed. 


An old standby, but a perfect one to write by, Vangelis's soundtrack (the 3-volume collection is the way to go) of Ridley Scott's classic film, BLADE RUNNER. Haunting, ethereal, moving, heartbreaking -- these all describe the sensations elicited by Vangelis's music. Wonderful.


When writing a short story, in particular, you need to capture the attention of your audience as soon as possible. That means, you need a spark of an opening scene, a hell of an opening sentence. I wrote about that here, with able assistance from a quote by Harlan Ellison, a man who knew a thing or two about story openings. 


Thursday, September 17, 2020

I'm writing a New Story

Day #10 of the return to the writing habit, and a byproduct of getting back to work and writing all those blogposts is that the fiction side of my brain has turned back on. During the three-plus months of my writing drought, this was the most frustrating and unfamiliar aspect. Typically, when I've gone through a spell of no writing, my mind was still working on story ideas. But nothing like that occurred. Now that I'm making the time to write again, though, it seems The Muse TM has returned. Which isn't that surprising. I already wrote about that, here

So, to offer something other than self-congratulations, here's the opening sentence for the new story (I hope it does the job I stated it should in this recent piece):

Andre Johnson was seven years old when he stepped into another world.   

Thanks for indulging me. I mean, it is my blog, so I suppose I'm entitled. 



Tuesday, September 15, 2020

ON WRITING: Short stories -- grab 'em by the throat!


Short stories. You don't have much room to work with these; most submissions guidelines ask for nothing more than 5,000 words, but some will cut it to 3,000. So, you need to be concise, and you need to make all your words count. And most importantly, you need to start -- from word one -- at a dead sprint. 

Especially today, with all the distractions and the enhanced ability of people to process information quickly, you need a killer opening for your story, or it's just going to be tossed in the circular file with all the rest of the dreck. If you don't excite and engage your readers (and that initial reader, the editor of whatever publication you're submitting to, is the ultimate reader) from the very beginning, they are going to question why they should tag along for the rest of the narrative and probably just drop off and read or do something else. So, kick your story into high gear from sentence number one.

Which is easier said than done. The key is that you need to find the latest possible moment from which to begin your story. Throw readers right into the action, or present a compelling conundrum up front, do something to make readers take notice. They have put their trust in you, and it would be criminal to abuse that faith by plodding along for eight pages meandering through the luckless and boring history of characters they haven't had a chance to give a shit about, yet. Kick down the door with two semi-automatics and start firing (above their heads, because a dead audience is almost -- almost -- the worst audience you could ask for . . . a bored audience would be far worse, because they're going to tell you all about how they feel). 

Sometimes, that opening may come easy. Most of the time it won't. It's difficult. But, as always, all you have to do is start writing. Once I've gotten into the writing of most of my stories, I am able to go back to the opening and just slash out all the detritus keeping me from the actual opening of the story. It's not uncommon for me to have written a page-and-a-half or more, only to find out that the good opening, the proper opening to the story resides on page four, at which point I highlight and delete those opening three pages and find myself with an additional 750 words to work with. It's magic! 

Seriously though, don't get too caught up on crafting that perfect opening, the writing of the story will open up your mind to possibilities and realities of your narrative that wouldn't be there without the words you've gotten onto the page. That's what revising is all about. You go back and you make the rough words into something that sings (or at least something that doesn't sound as bad as that first pass did). As Harlan Ellison wrote in his essay How Do We Get Into This Mess?

"...go to the middle of a situation, go past the backstory material that got you interested in the first place, the stuff you can slide in as slivers of enlightenment throughout the first third of the story, the stuff that formed the original plot epiphany, when you said to yourself, 'hey, wouldn't it be interesting if...' It's what happens after that initial idea the world has come to call 'a story.'"

Now, get writing!


Monday, September 14, 2020

Alan Moore is a Mad Wizard! (thoughts on JERUSALEM, his second novel)

Alan Moore's JERUSALEM is a tour-de-force of writing that is mesmerizing, frustrating, incomprehensible, and enlightening, all at once. Long considered the best writer in the comics medium, ever, over a decade ago he decided to put his toward his second novel. Following the old saw, write what you know, and also, I imagine, wishing to choose a subject that would keep him interested long enough to complete the story, which clocks in at a near-devastating 1266 pages, Moore chose to write about his home of Northampton -- in the east Midlands of England, where he has lived his entire life -- most specifically writing about the Boroughs, a small, impoverished section of Northampton that is home to the downtrodden working class, from which Moore's family draws its origins. 

The conceit of the novel is the belief that Northampton is the center of England, not only geographically, but also politically and culturally and religiously, among other aspects of life. Charlie Chaplin has a connection to the Boroughs, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett as well, Oliver Cromwell, George Washington, Thomas à Becket, and many others also passed through the Boroughs or came from this part of England. It's impressive to think so many important names many of us are familiar with touched this tiny town, and Moore wants to share that. 

We follow the lives of the Vernall/Warren clan, from the mid to late 19th Century through to the middle of the 21st (with a long trek to the very end of time in one of the chapters, up in Mansoul, the dimension just above ours, which some might consider Purgatory). And through them, we learn about this small patch of land, encompassing no more than a square mile. Through various points of view, we are taken on a tour of the Boroughs, and through the personal reminiscences and historical knowledge of these characters, we learn about this history, we see the rise (for ever so short a time) and gradual decline of this area, we come to understand how these citizens have been poorly treated by their government, and yet, they still cling to a humanity and a hope that is laudable. 

Moore also plays with ideas he has examined in his comic work, most especially that of eternalism, or the idea that time, rather than something that flows from immutable past to present to unseen future, is already set in stone. Time, in this philosophical take, and all the events comprised of our lifetimes have already occurred, will always occur, and will be repeated ad nauseum. This is similar to one of his and Dave Gibbons's approaches to their seminal work, WATCHMEN, wherein Moore & Gibbons wanted readers to be able to go back and forth within the comic, in order to make connections that would add more layers to the story they were telling -- all the information was provided for a full understanding of their narrative, but it might not be in the order one needed to fully digest it, so the idea of flipping pages back and forth to fill in those informational gaps was something they wanted their audience to undertake, which is an apt metaphor for the eternalistic viewpoint. 

In JERUSALEM, there is a higher-level dimension, known as Mansoul, wherein one of the characters, Mick Warren, finds himself after a candy lodges in his throat, killing him. Ten minutes later, he miraculously regains consciousness, but during that interim he is able to have myriad adventures up in Mansoul, as a collection of dead children, known at the Dead Dead Gang, take him through the seams of this fourth dimension, to see various important moments in Northampton's history. And since they can return Mick back to any time they wish -- again, with their ability to dig through time to any point they want, in this upper dimension -- he can take as long as he wants and they will drop him back down when he needs to be there to awaken. 

It is in this upper dimension that the inhabitants are able to look down at us and see how our lives are made up of moments that repeat forever, as we cycle through our lives. Instead of seeing people in a single snapshot, as we might view them, here on Earth, they see long habitrails of color, which represent their movement throughout a certain space. They are also able to see around walls and roofs and such, so that they can view these skeins of color that make up a life. Consider:  if we, in our three-dimensional reality, look at a picture of the interior of a house on a piece of paper (a two-dimensional reality), we are able to see inside that house because we are at a higher level dimension. Or consider what an ant walking along a leaf (a relatively two-dimensional experience) must think is happening if a human hand comes down from the sky and picks it up, taking it into a higher dimension (thanks to JMS and Babylon 5 for that description). Similarly, these characters in Mansoul are looking down on a dimension one below itself, so it only seems logical they would be able to see our 3D structures as if they were unfolded, offering them a view not available to those of us "down here."

JERUSALEM is broken into three sections. The first follows the major players in the Warren/Vernall clan, throughout history, offering a multitude of characters for readers to remember. The second section follows Mick as he joins the Dead Dead Gang in Mansoul and traverses the history of the Boroughs, back to medieval times and up through the future. But, where Moore really goes to town with his distinct perspective is in the third section of the book. This section starts to tie things together, showing interactions from part one in a different light, at times, as we discover whom some of the famous people are that these Vernalls and Warrens have met. In doing this, Moore chooses to write each chapter in a different manner -- one is a poem, one is a private detective pastiche, one is in the vein of Samuel Beckett, and one includes another one of Moore's well-known fascinations: wordplay. 

When Moore was 40, he decided to become a wizard. His affection for writing, for words, for the alphabet, would seem obvious from his productivity as a writer, but he also views letters as the basis of magic. A spell is something one casts as a magician, and to spell is to create words that describe, in the abstract, something concrete and real, a sort of magic. It's an interesting point of view, and one that Moore likes to play with. In his first novel, the opening chapter was set far back before written language, and so he restricted himself to a very small set of words for the writing and would only write in the present tense, making that a challenging 40 pages to get through. With JERUSALEM, Moore wrote a chapter, a page of which is shown above, that used new words and non-words to get across the essence of Lucia Joyce's experiences in the novel, while she was in an insane asylum in Northampton. 

Moore combines words and phonetic combinations, to create new words, and if he utilizes an English word, such as "see," it is most likely not the word needed at that point and probably is actually a middle syllable for the word needed for that particular idea. It's amazing, not only in the bravura manner with which he writes these 40-plus pages, but also amazing in the way that it utterly and completely works. It took me a week to get through this chapter, but if you let yourself give over to what Moore was doing, it made complete sense. You could fathom what was being said by allowing for the sounds of the various nonsense words to string together in your head . . . BUT, even more fascinating was the fact that many times, most all of the time, the words Moore utilized to craft these other words actually added a second layer to what was happening and made me think more deeply about the story. And this wasn't just a page here or a page there; it was multiple times on a page, multiple times in a paragraph. It was brilliant, and so satisfying.  

It was a bloody magic trick!

In the end, it took me a couple of months to read JERUSALEM. If you're a fan of Moore's and have read a lot of his earlier work, I think you would enjoy it. Even if you aren't familiar with him, this would be a good read, if you're not afraid of working hard when you open a book. It's ambitious and amazing, and if you like a good challenge for your bedtime reading, you should definitely check it out. You'll certainly get your money's worth at well past 1200 pages long.


Sunday, September 13, 2020

WHAT IT IS: week ending September 12 (the "get back on the horse" edition)

It's been a long time since I've written one of these. For almost three-and-a-half months, during this COVID pandemic, I haven't done any writing. This week was my time to try and get back to doing what I do in my spare time, write. (though, to be more precise, it's not that I utilize my spare time to write as much as I carve out writing time from my daily schedule . . . it's work, and you need to make sure to do it, or you won't. Pretty simple) 

So, this is day 6 of my return to the writing habit. Let's go.


My wife and I finally watched the Downton Abbey film, from a couple of years back. Having enjoyed the original series, this was a must-see, and it was like coming home again to see some old friends. The story revolves around the fact that King George V is going to pay a visit to Downton Abbey, during a tour through his kingdom. This puts everyone on high alert, in order to get the house in order for such a Royal visit. 

It's interesting to see how Julian Fellowes moves characters around, so that they can all get their moment in the spotlight. Managing to craft a narrative that allows for so many characters to stand out, in only a 2-hour film, is commendable. That said, there were many instances where I was thinking about how quickly things progressed in a certain storyline -- for example, Tom Branson's budding affection for Lucy Smith. It felt, to me, that this could have been better done as a seventh season of the series. Allowing things to progress more slowly would certainly have added to the emotional resonance and satisfaction of watching these characters "living their lives" once more. But, when watching a film, one should be cognizant of the inherent constraints of the medium. 

In the end, as is to be expected, everything turned out for the best, for all at Downton, and Lady Crawley, as is her wont, had all the best lines. She, most assuredly, had to have been the character Fellowes look forward to writing the most. 


Ducks, Newburyport was recommended to me by a friend, Johanna Barrett, who runs the bookstore in Castine, Maine. So, I picked it up, and upon completing Alan Moore's gargantuan tome, Jerusalem (clocking in at 1256 pages), I moved onto Lucy Ellman's latest novel, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and only runs to 988 pages (minus glossary). 

This book is amazing, propelling me along with every page. Thus far, at 200 pages in, it's a day-in-the-life story, but taken to an extreme I've not experienced before, in that it is a rolling internal monologue of the main character. Mother of four, living in Ohio, an adjunct professor at a local college who also has a pie business, she is an overly anxious woman whose life has been overcome by hardship, in the form of her mother's death, her failed earlier relationship, and her own battle with cancer. 

The book is primarily a single sentence, wherein the narrator rolls through the needs of the day, the past experiences that have shaped her, along with non-sequiturs and random strings of words that often take on a poetic feel, with their connective tissue often being a rhyming scheme or an aural similarity. It's a brilliant bit of writing, to my mind, in that the continuous stream of consciousness manner of the narration, coupled with Ellman's facility with words, pushes you along its narrative thread, while also feeling very much like the way that my brain will often be working, jumping from idea to idea, shifting mid-sentence, and making connections that nobody else would readily make. It's a propulsive book that also feels familiar, and I'm anxious to continue on with it. 


Tom Taylor (not the DC comics guy). 

I discovered Taylor when I started listening to the great podcast, Indiana Jones Minute, which examines each Indy film, one minute at a time, which he co-hosts with two of his friends. It's great fun, and through listening I discovered that Taylor was a writer and had self-published a YA novel, In Memory of Todd Woods. I bought it and read it, and it was pretty good. I was really impressed with the characterizations in the book. Taylor managed to make them feel genuine, and there was nobody who was fully good or fully an asshole. It was terribly impressive. 

So, when I heard he was starting a patreon, I jumped on. The promise Taylor has put forth is to share a new short story every month, at the $5 level, and if you support him at the $10 level, he will also share a new short-short story on a postcard mailed to you. I know how challenging this can be, and so far he's hit the mark. I applaud Taylor for challenging himself in this way, and I look forward to seeing what he has coming next -- one of those things being his second novel, The Nearly-Useless Powers League. Judging by the initial chapter he shared in his patreon, it should be a lot of fun.


Getting back to writing means getting back to music without words. How I love my soundtracks -- and my jazz and flamenco and classical playlists. John Wick, chapters 1-3, have been playing loudly when I've been writing this week. The heavy bass and dance music vibe adrenalizes my fingers as they play across the keyboard. It's energetic and exciting and just what I needed to get me back into the habit. 


Filed under:  Taking too literally the old saw of "write what you know." 

All of my writing, this week, has been in public, with six blogposts (this one being number 6; THE PRISONER!) Two of those involved making writing a habit, and why that's important. (very meta) 

Basically -- and obviously, though it took me years to get to this point -- without making a daily habit of writing, the work won't get done, and you won't begin to recognize problems with your writing. Only through doing it, living with it, working on it will you ever get to a point where your writing will be ready for primetime. 


Saturday, September 12, 2020

ON WRITING: Why the Habit?


Day 5 of getting back into the writing habit (looking at the title, seems like I'm taking the "write what you know" saw a bit too seriously; ah, well):

The most obvious benefit from making your writing a habit is the fact that you actually get some writing done. Working every day, the words build up until you have pages of your work, which becomes dozens of pages, and, eventually, hundreds of pages. From that, one ends up with stories and articles and analytical essays, for submission. After that, it's just a matter of aiming well and firing off your shot (in this metaphor, the aiming represents...oh, forget it; moving on).

All through school, I excelled at my studies. Writing was no different -- straight A student, all the way down the line. I was the cream of the crop, baby. 

And I had no effing idea what the hell I was doing.

This is the biggest frustration, I've discovered, since I set on this journey of actually writing fiction for possible publication. My teachers didn't give me the tools that I needed, in order to do this work with the facility necessary to get published. I've had to learn a lot -- often aspects of writing of which I was aware but had no idea how to recognize them, or fix them if I found them in my work -- as I've written stories and articles and blog posts over the course of these 15 - 20 years. These are issues I know were a part of my writing in high school and college, when I was getting excellent grades. I don't want to dwell on this, or take the time to try and investigate why this occurred (that would be one helluva research hole to fall into), but I do want to make it clear:  even though I did extremely well in my written pieces for academic classes, all of that writing was sloppy and unprofessional and in need of some serious revising. 

And that's the other -- and I'd say, far more important -- thing that will come from a writing habit that has you in the chair, tapping the keys on a daily basis. You actually do get better at your writing (people like to make the comparison of writing daily with a physical workout at the gym, and I never bought into that, but it's true, writing daily strengthens the "muscles" necessary for making good work). I found it easier to get the word I was looking for, found it easier to craft metaphors and comparisons, found descriptions to come more easily (all things being relative; this is a weakness in my writing, I think). Maybe it's a better focus, or just years of checking the online thesaurus and working to come up with a pithy description, I don't know, but there are definite benefits. 

Also, and more to the point in my mind, is the fact that, having written, examined, considered, and revised, thousands and thousands of pages of my own fiction, I've come to discover what people meant by keeping your tenses consistent and not writing in a passive voice, among other literary offenses. I know, for a fact, that I committed both of these stated errors, on a regular basis. 

In the first case, I think that's just how I tell a story, aloud, and I don't believe I'm alone in that regard (maybe I'm wrong, but I'd like to think I'm not a complete dimwit). When speaking off the cuff, it's easy to switch from present to past tense and back. And it wouldn't be uncommon in a first draft of a story, especially from an inexperienced writer, as I was. But, at some point along the way, I became aware of what I was doing, how I was flip-flopping around in those drafts, and I worked to fix that. Soon after I first started to notice it, it became a glaring red light, whenever I would read through some bit where I'd fallen back into that hole. It was a matter of living with this writing every day that had allowed that major lesson to seep into my brain. 

It's a similar thing with the second idea -- not writing passively -- that I mention above. Stephen King, in his great memoir ON WRITING, states that passive writing is a sign of a lack of confidence. Check! This is completely spot-on. Being definitive in your writing, especially when you're just starting out or haven't had all that much success, feels wrong somehow. There's a built-in guilt complex because you're completely making up a story and then expecting others to find it worthy enough of publication, of being read, and of being enjoyed and appreciated. That's pretty heavy. So, it's natural to fall into a passive voice; it's not as obtrusive, not as in-your-face, not as demanding of notice. The word 'seem' is a common culprit. Instead of writing that something happened, you will write that it seemed to happen. There's a bit of romanticization in the use of the word seem; it sounds like something from a very proper fairy tale, like the ones we were fed as children, but it's wishy-washy and it doesn't engender confidence from an audience. This was something I wasn't overly conscious of in my writing, and I can't say when it finally clicked (I do know it was many years after I read On Writing), but when it hit, it hit like a hammer. And now, I excise it whenever I find it. Strut like a peacock, I say, because anything less isn't your best.

[and keep that habit going, because good things will come of it.]


Friday, September 11, 2020

The Private Files of the Shadow by Dennis O'Neil & Michael W. Kaluta



I recently purchased a copy of the late-80s collection, The Private Files of the Shadow, which reprinted 5 of the 12 issues published by DC Comics in 1973-74. These were the stories written by legendary writer & editor Dennis O'Neil -- who passed away several months back -- and drawn by iconic Shadow artist Michael W. Kaluta. It also included a then-new story from Kaluta, who did writing and art for the additional tale. Classic!

I admit, I wasn't sure what to expect with this collection. I'd read their Marvel graphic novel from 1989, which included inks by Russ Heath, who's a great artist but whose style overwhelmed the light and airy linework of Kaluta, and didn't remember much from that book -- at least, not enough that I would want to re-read with any urgency.  So, when I started reading and found these stories to be just what I was hoping for and looking for, I was more than pleasantly surprised. 

O'Neil has a long introduction that puts the comics into proper context. Though probably best-known from the radio drama, O'Neil felt that didn't properly convey the character of the Shadow. The Shadow of the radio drama was a bit more lenient, preferring to capture rather than kill those he pursued. O'Neil wanted to take the character back to his pulp roots, where the Shadow was a ruthless vigilante, hell-bent on meting out justice to those of the criminal underclass, a character without the extranormal powers ascribed to his radio doppelganger -- most importantly, the power of invisibility. This Shadow utilized twin semi-automatic pistols to take care of crime. 

And that's how the Shadow is portrayed in these comics. And it's great. This Shadow is indefatigable, pursuing his victims with the able assistance of his entourage, including Margo Lane, Shrevvy, and Burbank, until he puts them to rest. There's a fair bit of investigation by Lamont Cranston, the alter-ego of the Shadow, along with undercover work by his cohort mentioned above, though truncated by the page limit of the comics, but in the end, the Shadow always provides a cathartic climax with his twin pistols. It is also entertaining to see the Shadow get out of seemingly impossible traps and situations -- such as when dozens of Chinese henchmen collapse on the Shadow, appearing to tie him up in a drape or rug, before presenting his body to their leader, only to discover that one of their own was inside when they inflicted the death blows -- with no explanation, other than:  he's the Shadow. Personally, I prefer this. The Shadow is a wisp of smoke in the corners of an alley, handing out justice on an elemental level, and I don't need any explanation of how he manages to do what he does; I just need him to succeed, and succeed with aplomb and panache, while cackling throughout it all.  

O'Neil is more than ably assisted by the moodily beautiful artwork of Mike Kaluta. A master craftsman, whose linework is delicate and bold at the same time, with a marked excellence rarely achieved by comic artists, these stories could not work as well as they do without Kaluta. He sets the mood from page one, with heavy fog, deep shadows, stark angles, all coupled with an ability to draw bodies in motion and classic vehicles in a manner that pulls you into the story -- it's a tour-de-force of cartooning. These are dark images, complementing the dark themes being put forth by O'Neil. Kaluta's fine linework meshes wonderfully to produce a classic look that grounds these stories in the 1930. But the images are also just plain beautiful to look at, absent the narrative. Kaluta has long been a top-tier artist, but this combination of art and character (abetted by O'Neil's stories) is one of the best examples of what comics can achieve, as far as high art. Especially if you're one who isn't prejudiced against Low Art TM (the pulps) being considered High Art TM.


Thursday, September 10, 2020

ON WRITING: The Habit's the Thing

Day 3 of working to get back into the habit of writing. Here we go:

I've written about this before, but you can't allow yourself, if you want to write, to fall into the trap of waiting for the muse. That's a mug's game, a romantic notion that sounds lofty and artistic but will only hamper you, if you truly want to be a writer. [And note, being a writer is many things, but at its core, as Harlan Ellison stated and I will paraphrase: if you write, then you're a writer, full stop. Other good advice, from Neil Gaiman:  finish what you begin.]

But it's an easy trap to fall into. I did, when I first had the idea of writing. Of course, I have a tendency to romanticize things, which is probably why my reading and entertainment choices have leaned toward fantasy and the fantastical -- Star Wars being the prime example of this, with comic books a close second. So, when I first considered writing as something I could do, I though it was necessary to just wait for the ideas to come, to allow the muse to fill me up with creativity and direct me on the proper path. I had this one story idea that I believe was a good one. I would work on that, whenever I felt like it, with days and weeks and months passing in between writing spurts, those gaps expanding once I got into the revising phase. And here, as well, I had no idea what I was doing. I thought you needed to revise the fuck [sorry, Mom] out of a story before submitting it. I was into my 13th or 14th revision, at which point I am certain I was just changing words back to ones I'd had in previous drafts, when I finally stopped, put it aside, and tried to figure out what I was doing, and, more importantly, what I was doing wrong. 

Writing is work. Harlan Ellison, my favorite author, famously would write stories in bookstore windows, from ideas offered by friends or attendees, without any foreknowledge of the subject. He wanted to prove that writing was just like plumbing or teaching or any other job. You worked at it, you became better, it was something you were able to do with some facility, But, like any job, you had to work at it, otherwise, what was the point? 

If you want to be a writer, you need to write. That's advice #1 from any author. You have to write. Every day. It's not easy, because there are plenty of distractions calling out for our attention. You have to sit down, in the chair, spark up the computer, and begin smacking those keys. You have to do it regularly, every single day (though I like to take weekends off to be with my family), and, most importantly, you need to have a goal in mind toward which you're working. This goal will keep you honest, and it will allow you to forge ahead and finish those stories you start. Your goal can be a timed one, or a quantity one, whatever works for you -- write for an hour, write until you've gotten 500 words down, write until you have a full scene completed. Anything that gives you something to shoot for and keeps you moving forward. Consider:  if you write 1,000 words a day, after three months you will have written 90,000 words, roughly, which equates to a standard sized novel. Of course, there would still be revising to finish, but once you have a rough draft to work from, the writing is a bit easier. 

The most important thing about making your writing a habit -- and this is probably obvious, but bear with me -- is to make it a regular thing, within your personal schedule. Set a time, the same time, every day, for when you're going to write. Set up a writing space, dedicated to just that, and it can be at the dining room table, in a home office, on your porch, wherever, but utilize the same space very day. Your mind, and your body, will come to recognize this as the writing space, and when you sit down to the keyboard you will know, subconsciously, that it is your writing time. Patterns can be important, especially when beginning a habit. Choose some music, something that will relax you and focus you, that won't be distracting. I prefer to use soundtracks or classical music or jazz, something without lyrics. Currently I'm listening to the John Wick soundtracks. The music energizes me, and it drowns out distractions (I used to do this in high school, when I did my homework); it keeps me focused on the task at hand and allows me to work toward my goal, which has changed over time. Used to be I would try to write for 2 hours a day, then I worked to a 1000 words a day goal, now I've taken on something Joe Hill does, which is to work on a single scene and finish that scene, during my writing time. It's not always doable, but it does give me something to aspire to. 

In the end, the only person who can make you write is you, and whatever means you utilize to get to that place, I applaud you. Just remember, you need to write on a daily (regular) basis, and you need to finish what you begin. Other than that, everything else is fair game. 


Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Succeeding (or Failing) in public

So, this is the week where I am working to get back into the habit of writing. And my plan is to do it in public (at least, as public as this blog may be . . . not overly public, though technically it's totally public, but one must take into account one). 

It's not enough just to spit out something onto a screen, as it were, though that's apparently where I'm heading with this. I had a few ideas of what I could do:  write about something I'd recently read or maybe craft a scene or a setting just as an exercise; of course, I could be doing THE WORK -- revising one of my stories, or going through that novel manuscript on a final pass, or working on the synopsis I need for that (87,000 summed up in less than 200, please). Any of these would be good. 

But I also considered writing extemporaneously . . . like I'm doing right (write?) now. Annnnnnnnnd, I'm not feeling it (most especially because it just feels like an exercise in futility with nothing to gain, either for you the reader [singular for multiple reasons, hahaha!] or for me.  So, a scene or a setting. Let's see if I can do that. 

Cue music: 

And, let's begin.

Antoine opened his eyes. Darkness. 

He could feel a chill on the back of his neck, a soft breeze licking the skin just below his hairline, coming from . . . somewhere. Sitting in a wooden chair, his arms were pulled back; he tried to move his hands, found they were bound. Rope or wire or plastic cut into his wrists, he couldn't help but let out a tiny scream. Eyes pinched closed with the pain, Antoine took a breath, tried to fill his lungs with air, but found it impossible. 

On his left, a sound, something moving. He turned, looked. 

The darkness looked back. 

"Who's there?" Antoine's voice cracked, was weak. Questions tumbled through his mind, refused to congeal into anything coherent. He opened his mouth again:  "What do you want?" 


Antoine sucked at the air again, tried to regain some control of the situation. His breaths were quick, shallow, unfulfilled. He could feel himself panicking, worked to push that thought down, continued to grasp for oxygen and finally managed to calm down his lungs. He took three long, slow breaths, then opened his eyes wide. 

A slight glimmer on his right. An outline -- tall, square, a window(?), maybe. 

A thicker shadow to his left. Heavy. Solid. A piece of furniture -- a bookcase or a dresser. 

The chair he was in. Wood, with delicately carved decorations on its back (he could feel the empty spaces scattered across his shoulder blades, down the rest of his back; he could almost picture a similar chair from his childhood, in his grandmother's apartment). The legs were narrow, the seat solid. Antoine felt like he should be able to break it if he could get the right leverage to lift it from the floor and topple it over. Of course, this thought led to the discovery that his legs were bound as well, at the ankles and the knees. 


"What are doing?" 

A soft laugh, so low Antoine thought it might be his imagination. 

The female voice following it told him it was genuine. "Isn't it obvious?" the voice said. "We want to kill you. But first, we want to play." 

So, roughly 350 words. Not bad for a first draft. At least, I hope it's not too bad. I only had an image, of someone locked in a room, when I started. I didn't know it was pitch black until I began writing. In my mind, I wanted to write something that might elicit the anxiety one would experience if in this situation. I don't know that I succeeded in that regard. I would need to know what I'm doing in order to achieve that with a quick first draft. I'm not even sure if could achieve it on a third pass. But I feel like I may have crafted something that is, at the very least, interesting. And, given the opportunity to revise it and flesh out a larger narrative around it, I believe I could come up with something worthwhile. Maybe I'll try that someday. But, for now, I got a chance to flex the "fictive" muscles for the first time in a long time. 

I'll be back tomorrow with something else. Not sure what it'll be, but hopefully it will be engaging. 


Tuesday, September 8, 2020

You're either in the game . . .

On May 22, 2020, I completed the first draft of a new short story (looking in my files it might be "Life Giver," though I'm not one hundred percent certain). The next day, I started a string of 108 consecutive days of no writing. I haven't had a drought like that for at least a decade and a half. And that might be the problem. 

Sure, we are all dealing with the COVID pandemic, and it has turned everything inside out. Maybe that contributed to this dry spell. But I think, more likely, it's the fact that I've been writing on a fairly regular basis for at least 15 years now, and it's tiring pushing against that tide and finding that the weight of water can be overwhelming (if I may be allowed to extend that metaphor). 

Always before, when I would put off writing for a short while -- a few days up to a week -- there would be an anxiety that would churn in my gut, telling me to get back to the keyboard, urging me not to waste all the time I've put into this by just giving up. I would become irritable, though at a low level, because of this urge to write. And eventually, I would sit back down and start that habit all over again. Because that's the key:  you have to make it a habit, and you can only do that by sitting down to do the work. That's how the muse comes to you, how the words get written, how inspiration sparks in your brain -- not through divine intervention but through sitting in your chair banging away at the keys. I know this; I've experienced it, and I know how simple it can be to get back into that habit (for me, the threshold tends to be 3 days; once I've "done the work" for three days straight, then it becomes easier and the sitting down isn't such a chore, BUT the ugly flipside is:  it only takes one days to break that habit, and easing into that as a new habit is way too easy). 

I'm a full-time dad, full-time husband, full-time employee, which means carving out time to write is a challenge. But that doesn't mean it's impossible. I just need to take time from other aspects of my life, aspects revolving around my free time (put that in scare quotes, because free time is at a premium in this game of life), and during these past few months, I've really enjoyed reading some old comics, reading Alan Moore's JERUSALEM (what a beast, and brilliant!), watching baseball on TV now that it's back, and generally just appreciating my free time. It's been good, especially since I haven't experienced any of that anxiety I would, when I stopped writing before. 

But now, I am hoping to get back on that horse. It won't be easy (I know that) because I've really enjoyed grabbing comics from my longboxes and creating stacks of books to cycle through. But I have a novel just about ready for querying, and I'm halfway through the first draft of another novel (I'm looking at you, Dan; we're gonna finish this, and maybe I'll take on the balance of this initial draft, once I set up my synopsis and stuff for contacting agents), and there are any number of short stories I want to write or revise or just submit. There's plenty on my plate. I just need to get cracking. 

Like I've noted many times before in my writing posts, if you want to write you need to write. 





Sunday, August 30, 2020

You Gotta Give Good...

Here's one of the first stories I had published (of the very small number I can say that about). I saw a call for submissions that Greg Rucka had retweeted, seeking stories of the steampunk genre set in Civil War-era New Orleans, and thought that sounded promising. I chose to include voudou in my story, and knowing little of that subject -- while also wanting to depict it in a serious manner -- or steampunk, I set to work doing my research. Luckily, I work at Fogler Library at the University of Maine. Reading furiously while taking notes, I eventually came up with a spine for my story, and once I'd completed my reading, I went to work writing. 

When it was accepted for publication in the New Orleans by Gaslight anthology, I was surprised along with being excited. It always feels good to get validation on something you've put a lot of work into. I'm quite proud of this story. I hope you enjoy it.  






By C.M. Beckett

Shadows rippled across the page of Charlotte Lacroix’s book as the flame of the gaslamp fluttered above her head.  Outside, she could hear a clamor of voices.  Charlotte closed her book and got up to investigate.  As she did, a spring released and clockwork gears churned to life in the corner of the room. 

“It’s okay T.O.M.A.S.  There’s no need for you to get up,” said Charlotte, and she stepped outside.

The heavy air pressed against her dark flesh, popping beads of sweat down the backs of her arms.  The surrounding homes were quiet, Charlotte’s neighbors more forgiving of the hot New Orleans nights than she. 

A few minutes later Charlotte came to the edge of town where a small mob had formed – as many men holding pints of beer as pitchforks and torches.  Charlotte – lean and wiry with long braids and sharp, piercing eyes – approached the men, who were focused toward the middle of their circle. 

Edmand Renaud, a large, pale man with bushy white hair and piercing eyes, turned to address Ms. Lacroix.  “We don’t need your kind here,” he said, as he moved to block her path. 

“I be goin’ through you if I cain’t go around,” said Charlotte. 

The large man hesitated, but quickly relented.  Charlotte pushed to the edge of the mob and all eyes turned to her – the vigor draining from their faces. 

Jacques Renaud – Chief Constable, younger brother to Edmand, taller and leaner than his elder sibling – stood in the middle of the group, his truncheon swinging ominously over a black man wearing a frayed Confederate uniform. 

Charlotte stepped into the middle of the circle and glared at the constable.  “I see,” she said.  “This man be some great and powerful threat, all beat and bloodied as he is.”

“You have no right being here,” said Jacques.

“I gots every right,” said Charlotte.  “We a free city and ain’t nobody turned away if they need help.”

Charlotte pushed past the younger Renaud and knelt by the soldier.  Close up, she could see welts covering his bare arms and dried blood caked on his face.  The man was haggard, struggling for breath.  She ran her fingers over his shoulders.

“He gots a hex on him,” said Charlotte.  She turned to the crowd, found a friendly face.  “Isaac.  Bring some o’ dem peaches,” she said to an older man, nodding to the tree behind him.  “Hurry.”

Jacques Renaud stepped closer, glaring down at Charlotte.  “Do not act in a manner you may regret later.”

“I gots no worries, Constable,” said Charlotte.  “What your conscience tellin’ you?”

Jacques Renaud raised his truncheon and held it for a long moment, but chose not to act on his rage.

Isaac knelt down beside Charlotte and handed her the fruit.  “Thank Papa you come,” he said.

“We see if Papa watchin’ over us tonight,” said Charlotte.  She took the peaches and passed them over the soldier’s body. 

When she finished, Charlotte threw the peaches into the tall grass, disposing of the evil spirits that now clung to the fruit.  Then she leaned in close to the beaten soldier.  “You hear me, son?” she said.

The man nodded and opened his eyes.

“What your name?” she said.

“Abram.”  His voice was hardly a whisper. 

“Okay, Abram.  We gonna take care o’ ya, all right?”

He nodded and let his eyes fall shut again.

“Isaac,” Charlotte said.  “Take this one ta my place.  He need rest.”

Isaac lifted the man onto his back. 

“And be quick,” Charlotte said.  “There’s somethin’ on the wind I don’t like.”



Captain Seward rode to the front of the company, which had stopped without explanation.  “Sergeant Major!” he bellowed.

The clattering of steel rippled through the blackness as Sergeant Major Campbell raced to where Captain Seward sat on his horse. 

“Yes, Captain,” said the Sergeant Major, out of breath.

“Why are we not moving forward, Sergeant Major?” said the Captain.

The Sergeant Major hesitated.

“Don’t stand there like some imbecile.   What is keeping us from our duty?” said the Captain.

“The city is a haven for magicks,” said the Sergeant Major.  “The men are scared.”

“Are they sucklings still in need of their Mama’s teat?”

“No,” said the Sergeant Major.

“No!” said Captain Seward.  “They are soldiers of the Confederacy.  And I want them moving now, or by God, I’ll know why not.” 

 “There is another problem,” said Sergeant Major Campbell.

Captain Seward could only stare at his Sergeant Major.

“New Orleans is a free city,” he said.  “We cannot just march in there without provocation.”

“Without provocation?” bellowed Captain Seward.  “They have my property, and I aim to get it back or receive reparations.”

“Yes, Captain,” said the Sergeant Major.  “But I expect Colonel Radcliffe would relish an opportunity to cite you for insubordination if we circumvented the free city ordinance.”

The Captain was silent.  He stared across the black fields to New Orleans, torches like pinpricks on the dark canvass. 

“We could send in Corporal Butters to parlay with city elders,” said the Sergeant Major.

The Captain looked down from his horse, his teeth clenched.  “You have one day, Sergeant Major.  One day.  Then we do it my way.”


Charlotte Lacroix stood off to one side, arms crossed, as Corporal Butters entered the clearing on his horse.  Jacques Renaud was at the head of the group, while his brother stood back in the shadows. 

“Ho!  I speak for Captain John G. Seward of the Second Virginia Army. Who speaks for this crowd?” said the Corporal.

“Jacques Renaud.  Constable,” said the younger Renaud.  “I speak for this group.  And what might your name be?”

“That be no need of yours,” said the Corporal.

“But it be mine,” said Charlotte, stepping over to the center of the group.  “’Spect you lookin’ for that poor man come runnin’ in earlier.” 

“Who might you be?” said the Corporal.

“Charlotte Lacroix.   And you be the one needs ta explain how that man come to be as sickly as he is,” said Charlotte. 

“He’s a deserter,” said the Corporal.  “His health means little to me.”

“He may be a deserter, but I don’t imagine he signed up hisself,” said Charlotte.  “’Spect he had nothin’ to say in the matter.”

 “You impudent bitch!”  Corporal Butters rose up in his saddle.  “How dare you address your betters in that manner.”

“New Orleans a free city,” said Charlotte.  “We don’ answer to you.”

The Corporal threw one leg over his saddle and made to jump down, but Jacques Renaud stepped between the soldier and Charlotte.  “Now, now,” he said.  “No need for violence.  I expect we can all come to some agreement.”

“Only agreement the Captain’ll grant you is one sees his property returned,” said the Corporal.

“She has a point,” said Edmand, his soft voice wending through the tiny crowd.  “We are a free city.” 

“What?”  Jacques turned on his brother, grabbing the older Renaud by his lapels.  “What is wrong with you?” 

Charlotte stepped over to the brothers.   “Jacques.”  Her voice was soft but firm as she placed a hand on his shoulder.  He turned to look at Charlotte and eased his grip on Edmand.  “Don’t try to work your magicks on me, witch,” he said. 

“I do no such thing,” said Charlotte.  “I put out good causes, good feelings.  I no wanna hurt you, Jacques.” 

Charlotte turned back to the corporal.  “That your camp?” she said, pointing past him to the fires along the tree line. 

Corporal Butters said nothing.

“I be there in an hour,” said Charlotte.

“Not without me,” said Jacques.

“You free to go where you want,” said Charlotte.

The Corporal nodded in Renaud’s direction, then turned his steed and slipped back into the night.

Jacques moved up behind Charlotte.  “I hope you don’t believe that soldier will be getting out of this city alive,” he said.

“We see ‘bout that,” said Charlotte.  “We see.  I best go get T.O.M.A.S.  Then we head out.”


Captain Seward strode through the tall grass with Corporal Butters at his side.  “Well, what do we have here?” he said.  “A man of worth and…”  His voice trailed off as he eyed Charlotte and the large automaton by her side.  T.O.M.A.S. was a collection of gears, springs, and formed sheet metal that resembled a seven-foot-man in the abstract.  He (it) was Charlotte’s assistant and her confidant – one for which loyalty was never a question.

“Sir,” said Corporal Butters.  “These are the two who have come to speak on behalf of the city.”

“That is quaint,” said the Captain.  “But I see no reason to negotiate for what is rightly mine.”

“Cain’t own a man ‘ceptin when he wants ta be,” said Charlotte, taking a step forward. 

“Is that so?” said the Captain.  “You are an uppity one.”

“Captain,” said Jacques.  “I believe there is a way for us all to prosper here.”

“You do?” said the Captain.  “I find that almost humorous.”

“You aims ta kill that boy, don’t ya?” said Charlotte. 

“What?” said the Captain.

“I know what you be,” said Charlotte.  “How you treat us.”

“What exactly do you mean?” said the Captain.  “What am I?”

“A killer,” said Charlotte. 

“But isn’t that a soldier’s job?” said Captain Seward. 

“Yes,” said Jacques, trying to wedge himself into the conversation.

“I din’t know we was the enemy,” said Charlotte.  “Unless you ain’t got the courage ta go North.”

Captain Seward stepped right up to Charlotte, his breath hot on her face.  “You overstep your bounds,” said the Captain, resting a hand on the hilt of his saber.

T.O.M.A.S.’s gears screeched to action beside Charlotte, startling many of the soldiers.  The clockwork automaton raised its arms and aimed the miniature steam cannons housed there at the Captain and his corporal.  Seward took a step back.  “Do you truly believe a single tin man can stand against an entire company of Confederate soldiers?”

“What I believe is that you plan ta kill that boy,” said Charlotte.  She stared hard at the Captain, as she squeezed the gris-gris in her hand.  The small pouch was filled with secret herbs, and it radiated a warmth across Charlotte’s palm.  The silence built for a long minute before Charlotte finally reached out to T.O.M.A.S.  The automaton lowered its arms and powered down. 

Captain Seward looked from Charlotte to the clockwork man and back.  “You do a disservice to the honor of the uniform I wear,” he said.  “As much as I might like to be rid of my problem immediately, there are protocols to follow.  A deserter may speak on his own behalf.  For whatever good it will do.”

“That don’t reassure me none,” said Charlotte.

“I care little about your reassurances,” said the Captain.  “But,” he continued, “You’d be foolish not to consider the persuasive quality of a hundred armed soldiers who would do whatever their captain ordered.” 

“You plan to kill him, yes?” said Charlotte.

“Will you stop,” said Jacques.  “That slave belongs to the Captain.  It is his, by right, to do with as he wants.”

Captain Seward acted as if he didn’t hear Jacques.  “I expect I will kill him,” he said to Charlotte. 

“Why you so venomous?” said Charlotte.

“I only want what’s mine,” he said.

“And then you’ll leave us be?” said Charlotte.

Captain Seward nodded, his eyes twinkling in the firelight.

“Let me give the boy some comfort first,” said Charlotte. 

“If you try to whisk him away, I will bring my company of men down on your head,” said Captain Seward.

“We be back at first light,” said Charlotte. 

“No later,” said the captain.

“Don’t you worry.  You get what’s yours come sunup,” Charlotte said.  Then she turned and, with T.O.M.A.S., headed back across the dark field to the city.  Jacques hesitated but soon followed.

None of the soldiers noticed the gris-gris she dropped into one of the campfires as they left.


“How you feelin?” said Charlotte.

Abram sat up a little straighter on the simple bench in Charlotte’s front room.  “Better,” he said.

“Good,” said Charlotte.  “Cuz we got some work to do.”  She opened her front door and motioned for him to join her.

Ten minutes later they returned to the clearing where they first met hours before.  A group of citizens, larger than earlier with more women than men, was already gathered – some faces familiar to Abram, ones who had watched Jacques Renaud beat him. 

Abram stopped short of the circle, shunning the illumination of the torches.   

“What is it?” said Charlotte.

“I won’t do this again,” he said.  “You offered help.  This ain’t no help.”

“These my people” said Charlotte.  “You gots nothin’ to fear.”

Abram refused to move.  Charlotte waited before continuing into the circle, where a simple altar became visible beyond the parting crowd.

Charlotte nodded to the darkness beyond the altar.  Jacques Renaud was led into the circle by T.O.M.A.S. – the clockwork man’s metal arms holding the struggling man with little effort. 

Charlotte reached behind the altar and produced a rooster.  She turned toward Abram and nodded in his direction.  A shiver ran up the man’s back, and Abram walked over to the altar.

Charlotte held the bird like a chalice, its red crest a stain of blood in the flickering light, and ran it over Abram’s body, drawing away the evil spirits. 

Jacques strained against the automaton.  “You witch!  You’ll pay for this!  My brother will see to that.”

“Your brother done seen to this already,” said Charlotte.  “You want good, you gotta give good in this world.” 

She turned to the altar and began to chant, raising the chicken high above her head as she prayed in Yoruba to Elegba, Ogun, Obatala, and Oshund.  Others joined in, a soft chorus that sailed into the darkness.  And then…

Charlotte held the rooster away from her body with one hand and twisted the bird’s neck with the other, followed by a second quick motion that ripped its head from its body. 

Charlotte dropped the head and held the body above the altar, blood pouring over it all. 

Then Charlotte turned and walked to Abram, the decapitated rooster in her left hand.  She dipped the middle finger of her right into the neck socket and placed the bloody finger onto the soldier’s brow, tracing a line all the way around his head.  Dipping the finger again, she knelt down to mark each of Abram’s big toes with the rooster’s blood. 

Charlotte rose, turned on Jacques Renaud, and did the same to him.  Renaud struggled, spitting in Charlotte’s face multiple times, but he couldn’t hope to break from T.O.M.A.S. 

When she finished, Charlotte laid the carcass on the altar, offered more prayers to the spirits, then plucked some feathers and scattered them over the altar.  Next, she took up a jug of homemade gin – the favored libation of Elegba – sucked deeply from its neck and spattered that across the altar.  Charlotte took another long draught of the gin and misted that over Abram’s feet and the top of his head.  She did the same to Jacques, who continued to struggle as he spat expletives at the voudou priestess. 

Charlotte set the gin down and washed her hands in a small bucket off to the side.  In the water were floating four coconut shells – divination implements known as obi – which she retrieved and threw.  The first throw was black – all four husk side up, Oyekun – a bad omen.  She threw them again.  And again.  And again.  These next three times, they came up ejife – two black and two white – a very good sign.  Charlotte was pleased. 

She rose and placed the rooster into a small gunnysack in front of the altar.  She then poured palm oil and honey into the sack and spit another mouthful of gin over the rooster.  Charlotte brought the sack to Abram.

“Seal it,” she said. 

Then she walked back to the altar and retrieved a small bucket filled with a thick grayish liquid.  Charlotte handed it to Abram.  “Take this,” she said.  “You bring it back to my place, where you be staying tonight, and you clean yourself with it.  Pour it all over your naked body and don’t wash it off until just before dawn.  And make sure you throw away that gunnysack on your way back to be rid of them bad spirits.”

Abram nodded.

“Now scoot,” said Charlotte.  She turned and looked at Jacques Renaud.  “We got other business to finish here.” 


Mist burned off the grasses as Charlotte and her two companions – T.O.M.A.S. and Abram, whose face was hidden by a gunnysack as he struggled against the grip of the clockwork man – approached the soldiers.  The sun, a deep orange that burned the eyes, broke over the tree line – dawn, when the spirits are most restless. The trio stopped a hundred yards from the edge of the Confederate camp. 

Charlotte stepped over to Abram and placed a gris-gris in his shirt pocket as she leaned up and whispered through the gunnysack, “I sorry for this.  But to get good you need to give good.”  She kissed the rough cloth and then turned for the encampment. 

Charlotte searched the faces, but did not see Captain Seward.  One of the soldiers, working to get his suspenders over his shoulders, locked eyes with her and immediately took off into the woods. 

Shortly, Captain Seward arrived in full uniform, clean-shaven, and more alert than any of his company.

“I must admit,” he said, “I am mighty surprised.”  The Captain looked as if he’d just screwed a two-dollar whore and then gotten her to return the money on his way out. 

“We all get what we deserve,” said Charlotte.  “And I ‘spect that’s as should be.” 

“That’s wiser thinking than I would have given your kind credit for,” said Captain Seward.

Charlotte, ignoring the knot forming in her stomach, said, “You be killin’ him this morning?”

“If that were your business, I might feel obliged to share,” said the Captain.  “But…” 

He let the word trail off as he turned his attention to the bound refugee in the automaton’s steel arms.  “I do not mean to cast aspersions,” he said, “but might I be able to see the face of that which you brought?  Just to make certain this is indeed the one I seek.” 

Charlotte turned and nodded to T.O.M.A.S.  The clockwork man lifted the sack, revealing the bloodied visage of Abram.  A thick stitch of cloth was tied around his mouth, stifling protests.

“That be him?” said Charlotte. 

“Indeed it is,” said Captain Seward.  He walked over and punched Abram hard across his face. 

Blood trickled from the slave’s nose as he pulled his head back up, eyes wide, fear trying to claw its way out. 

“Corporal Butters!”  The young soldier came running, his saber rattling against his leg as he worked to keep his balance through the tall grass.  “Yes, sir,” he said. 

“Take this and prepare for the ceremony.  We need to meet up with Captain Jackson’s company in Baton Rouge by mid-afternoon, so we haven’t much time.”

“Yes, sir.”  The corporal motioned for two soldiers to take the deserter away. 

Abram shook his head fiercely, eyes pleading with Charlotte as he disappeared into the forest shadows. 

“You best leave now, before I forget my manners,” said Captain Seward, and he turned and walked away.

 “’Spect you’ll hang him,” said Charlotte.  “’Spect that’s right.” 


That afternoon, Charlotte Lacroix returned with a handful of others to the soldiers’ deserted encampment.  She peered into the shadows as she cautiously stepped into the forest.  Soon enough, Charlotte found what she was looking for.

The creaking of an oak branch shuddered across the silence, a limp body a pendulum at the end of a thick noose.

“Damn.”  The muted exclamation came from just over Charlotte’s left shoulder.  She turned and looked at Abram.

“Yes,” she said.  “But you give good to get good in this world.”

“How will Edmand feel about this?” said another of the group.

“He knows,” said Charlotte. 

“Yeah, but –” 

Charlotte cut off the statement with a searing look that urged the rest of the group back a step.  Then she turned back to Jacques Renaud, in a tattered Confederate uniform, hanging above her.

“Someone hoist me up so we’n cut him down,” she said.

“Why?” said Abram, the venom obvious in his voice.

“Cuz,” said Charlotte, “every man deserve a proper burial.”