What to read in a time like this?

I try to find the humor in every situation I face. Somehow, if I can laugh about something it just doesn’t seem that scary/depressing/overwhelming/(insert emotion). I remember when I was hospitalized for a three foot blood clot and I had made a joke about it to my wife (at the time). She doesn’t share my humor for laughing in the face of disaster.

Maybe that’s why we’re no longer together. Hmmm…

Anyhoo, so for those that are self-quarantined, staying away from the public, or just simply an introvert here are some choices in reading material for this time of season. And please, just know that even though this list is themed toward pandemics, it’s simply a literary book list with some dark humor to it.

So for your reading pleasure, here is my 2020 Pandemic Book List:

the stand1. The Stand, by Stephen King. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this horror classic. The premise of this ginormous novel is a detailed vision of the total breakdown of society after the accidental release of a strain of influenza that had been modified for biological warfare causes an apocalyptic pandemic that kills over 99 percent of the world’s population. It’s an amazing read about what happens to humanity and the good vs evil theme is quite page turning. I’m currently watching the television adapted movie and reading the uncut version of the novel. I’ve been sniffling and coughing up phlegm all the while.

Makes a man a bit paranoid, haha.

the-andromeda-strain2. The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton. First off, I love when people call books a techno-thriller. It’s such a great name for a genre. So this novel handles the narrative differently. It documents the efforts of a team of scientists investigating the outbreak of a deadly extraterrestrial mirco-organism in Arizona.

Year-One-Nora-Roberts3. Year One, by Nora Roberts. Okay, so if you’re not that into Stephen King because of the length of books he writers, I get it. However, if you’re looking for a pandemic themed book that invokes King’s The Stand without the 1,000 + page count then this one is it. I’ll warn you though, it’s part of a trilogy so if you’re wanting a one and done read, then you may reconsider it. It’s a great read about a sickness that spreads suddenly and within weeks, everything starts to crumble. This is different than your basic pandemic. Where science and technology falls, magic rises and people start developing magical powers and turning into elves and other magical creatures.

world_war_z_book_cover4. World War Z, by Max Brooks. So, without getting into all the zombie fiction out there (and believe me there’s a lot) I’ll just offer this one beacon of light among the undead. This book, written by Director Mel Brook’s son, is a collection of individual accounts following the devastating global conflict against the zombie plague. For those that have read The Zombie Survival Guide, this is the same author and it’s equally well written. While the guide was written in a half-comical nature, WWZ is written in a serious tone that examines survival-ism, uncertainty, and the ineptitude of individuals and governments. It’s really a must-read.

As an additional note, I really disliked the movie simply because it was nothing like the book. In my opinion, it would’ve been better to make it a strict adaptation of the novel. And you can fight me on that.

dracula_book_cover5. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Okay, hear me out on this one before I get an angry voicemail about how I need to “get my facts straight.” Dracula is about a vampire that travels to England so that he may find new blood and spread the undead curse. However, the good Count is defeated by a band of humans that wield science as a weapon. Sound familiar? It should because that’s the basic theme of almost all pandemic themed fiction. I once wrote a college paper about how Dracula was a metaphor for Cholera. It was pretty good paper inspired by a very good work of fiction. Check it out.

Well, that’s five pandemic inspired fictional works. While I hope you all don’t fall ill with the coronavirus, I do hope you read some of the books on this list. All have a soft spot in my literary heart and have earned a place on my Hall of Fame for books.

With any luck, I’ll talk to you all next week.

A Decade Remembered

For my work, I was tasked in combing through ten years’ worth of Starke County Leaders to find highlights from the last decade. It’s only natural, while making your way through almost 500 editions of a newspaper, that I began to think about the highlights from my own life.

Dictionary.com defines highlight as “an important, conspicuous, memorable, or enjoyable event, scene, part, or the like.”

I think it’s important to consider the fact that a highlight can include negative events as well as positive ones. After all, you can’t take the good without taking the bad. For example, look what happens to the Jedi Order when you don’t study the Dark Side of the Force. You end up on the bad side of Order 66. Nobody wants that.

Here are some of the highlights from my own personal decade:
– I celebrated my one-year wedding anniversary on July 11, 2010.
– In March 2010, I wrote this joke: Q. What do you call a sleep walking nun? A. A Roaming Catholic. It was received with mild success.
– In 2011, I went back to school at IUSB. Instead of Computer Science, I began studying English.
– In December 2012, I wrote a 1,600-word paper on King Arthur’s court collapsing due Marxist Theory. It was pretty spectacular.
– My grandfather, James Norton, passed away on March 7, 2013. He was a great man, role model, and grandpa.
– Signed with Permuted Press to have my book series published in February 2014.
– Spent an amazing week in Seattle for the American Writers & Publishers (AWP) conference with fellow IUSB writing friends.
– In 2014 I got a mortgage for a home in Plymouth with my wife of five years.
– On March 2, 2015, I found out that Permuted Press cancelled the book contract.
– I finished my college education at IUSB in May 2015. It took me 11 years, but I did it.
– Left my job at IUSB and started work at the Pilot News Group, where I’m still employed and loving it.
– Found out I had a ginormous blood clot in my left leg. That was fun (sarcasm).
– November 2015 I signed a new book contract with Burning Willow Press for that series that was earlier canceled.
– In 2017 I became a published author. Since then I’ve published three books, four short stories, and a combined book with several other authors.
– After a two-year separation my wife and I divorced in 2018. This event ended nine years together.
– When BWP closed in 2019, my books were once again homeless. But only for a day when Random Evolved Media offered to pick them up.

There have been many other good and bad highlights that I won’t mention. From the list above, it looks to me as if my life has been filled with more bad memories than good. That might make some people feel depressed. Admittedly, there were times during the last ten years that I feel deep into depression. I still do sometimes.

Since I’m a nerd, I thought of this quote from the BBC show, Doctor Who. “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things,” says The Doctor, portrayed by Matt Smith. “The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

There’s no way of knowing what the next ten years will throw at us. However, as long as we cherish that pile of good things while learning how to overcome the pile of bad things, I’m sure I’ll be writing another decade rewrap. And hopefully you’ll be here to read it.

Goodbye 2010-2019 and hello 2020-2029!

See you all next year.

Books make the best gifts

Okay, so maybe books don’t make the best gifts. I’ll admit that I’d rather be given a Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ over a Stephen King book. One exception to that if the Stephen King book was a first edition signed copy. If my “Secret Santa” was looking to gift me one of those phones, then make sure it’s able to be on the Sprint network. Just saying. Now onto this week’s rant.

There are many reasons why books make the perfect gift. Here are some reasons why:

1. Books are easily transportable. You can’t take a 72-inch flat screen television with you to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and watch as you wait in line to renew your driver’s license. You also can’t take a Playstation 4 with you to a government meeting and play the new Star Wars game a few minutes before the meeting convenes. I’ve tried. You just end up with council members giving you weird looks as you try to plug an HDMI cable into the monitors. Books can be taken with you wherever you go. It doesn’t matter where you go: churches, meetings, the BMV, even the bathroom. All of those places and more, a book can be taken with you. Last detail about that: if you’re borrowing a book from the library or a friend, don’t take it into the bathroom. That’s common courtesy.

2. Books are cheap. If you’re like me, a writer, you can’t really afford to spend a bunch of money on Christmas presents. I mean, you could spend rent and bill money to buy that perfect, albeit expensive, gift for your loved one. You might be asking them for a place to stay while you catch up on bills, but whatever. Books are the perfect alternative. You don’t have to drop $400 dollars on a book unless it’s a signed first edition of Stephen King.

3. Books are personalized. Fantasy, Horror, Romance, Science Fiction, etc. Everyone has a preference when it comes to works of fiction. Or non-fiction. Choosing the perfect book for that person tells you that you know them enough to know what types of books they like to enjoy. Televisions aren’t personal like a book can be. Just make sure you take in deciding which book is right.

4. Books require no assembly. Unless you buy a book from Ikea, you don’t need to assemble anything the night before Christmas. Plus, they need no batteries. I can’t tell you the money I’ve spent buying batteries for gifts that didn’t include them.

5. Books make the perfect re-gift. When you’re finished reading a book, you can pass them on as a White Elephant book. If you’re like me, you wear a book out in the first reading. I typically crack a spine of a book more than I crack my own. If it’s a hardback, then maybe that’d be an okay book as a regular gift. However, if you bend the edges of the pages like I do, then maybe consider buying a newer version.

6. Books don’t hurt as much as other things. Have you ever stepped on a bunch of Legos? Have you ever banged your head on a television? Stepping on the edge of a book, a pointy hardcover, is a pretty difficult thing to do. I don’t think I’ve ever done that.
Literature is something that I’ve tried to purchase for my friends and relatives for birthdays and Christmas gifts. Personally, I like hunting for the right book. Sure, it may take time but that’s what makes gifts so enjoyable. Remember that old saying, “It’s the thought that counts?” Books personify that sentiment.

Happy hunting and merry Christmas!

The Thankful Writer

As I write this, I’m sitting in the living room of my aunts and mother’s home. It’s mid-afternoon and we’re all waiting for Thanksgiving Dinner. My sister’s family and I piled into their van early in the morning to travel to Illinois where our aunt and mother live. It’s a rather short trip, just under three hours, and we were fortunate not to experience any kind of traffic. We stopped for gasoline once and I was able to refuel my caffeine tank while my brother-in-law filled the van’s. The dinner we had consisted of turkey, ham, potato casserole, cheesy broccoli, and some type of cranberry concoction. It was delicious. When we finished and washed the dishes, we had dessert. As tradition dictates, that dessert was pumpkin pie with whipped cream. While we devoured the pie, the Disney Plus movie “Noelle” played. That too was pretty good. Sure, it had a lot of product placement and a predictable ending, but the casting was great and the humor was flawless.

Overall it was a rather perfect day free of any kind of drama.

To say that I have a lot to be thankful for is an understatement. The first thing that I’m thankful for is my family. My family has supported me and has had my back even at my darkest, lowest moments. I count myself blessed to be apart of this family. Another thing I’m thankful for is my job. As an author, it’s difficult to find a job that grants the flexibility needed to actually get some book writing done. It’s also very fulfilling and entertaining. Covering the news, you will always get something different coming across your desk. Being able to help get the word out on various topics, organizations, and causes is something that I take pride in. I’ve also made many friends and acquaintances in my four and a half years as a news writer.

My faith is something that I don’t touch on very often during these times together. That’s something I could talk about later on, but for now let me just say that without God, I might’ve succumbed to the devastating depression that followed my separation and divorce. I’m so thankful for all the things that God has done for me, even if some of those things weren’t all that great.

One of the final things that I’m thankful for is… you. The reader. You’re the one that reads my weekly rants, my articles, and (hopefully) my books. Without you guys, I might not be here every week ranting about one thing or another. I’d most likely be working at a gas station on third shift. As a side note, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I had worked third shift at a gas station in South Bend and I despised it. Working nights at a gas station in the south edge of a minor city in Northern Indiana was boring and soul-crushing. However, I did meet a lot of interesting individuals during those nights. An example was this one guy that was walking to Kokomo from Michigan because he was kicked out of the state.

There’s always one person on my Facebook feed that likes to remind their friends that this holiday was based on White people taking advantage of the natives. Whether that was the case or not, it really doesn’t matter much because the past is the past.

What does matter is that on Thanksgiving, we acknowledge the blessings that we have been given. We need to remember that not everyone has been blessed as we have. For me, I know that things could have gone a very different route if it hadn’t been for my family, my God, my job, and readers like you.

So, what I guess what I’m trying to say is… thanks.

If You’ve Never Watched Horror

So, I have a lot of people tell me that they don’t like watching Horror films because they have too much violence/gore/swearing/jump scares/takes place in Michigan or some variety of other reasons. Or maybe you have a rule about not watching films that are Rated R. Since it’s Halloween soon, this rant I’ll be listing my top five Horror film picks for people that don’t watch a lot of the genre.

1. Psycho (1960) directed by prolific Auteur Alfred Hitchcock. Basic premise: Woman decides to embezzle money from employer and during her escape she finds refuge in a motel ran by a psycho with a mother obsession. And yes, it’s Rated R but hear me out. Back in the ‘60’s this was considered R, but in today’s standards, it’s PG-13. Hardly any violence or gore (Hitchcock used chocolate syrup as blood since it was filmed in black and white), one profanity and that’s the “OMG” phrase, and the only nudity was a silhouette of Janet Leigh in the famous shower scene. Having sad this, Hitchcock was a master at building suspense and crafting deeply disturbing narratives.

2. Insidious (2010) directed by James Wan is bordering on what I’m including on this list. Basic premise: family moves into a new house and are plagued by evil spirits and soon realize that a demon has trapped their son. So, it’s rated PG-13 and includes a single use of the “F” word. There’s a bunch of other mild obscenities. The violence in this film is very little, but there are multiple jump scares. No sexual content which is a plus. What might deter some people from watching this is the intense demonic entity that threatens the family.

3. The Sixth Sense (1999) directed by M. Night Shyamalan is another film that borders what I’m comfortable suggesting to you all. However, it’s such a great PG-13 rated film, I have to include it on this list. Basic premise: kid sees dead people and a psychologist tries to help the kid. Mild profanity, moderate frightening and intense scenes, mild sexual content, but moderate violence and gore are in this film. The ghosts appear how they looked at time of death, so some scenes are pretty grisly looking. However, if you’re wanting to watch a ghost film, this one is a must see.

4. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) directed by Scott Derrickson. Try finding a decent exorcist film that isn’t Rated R and you have this film here. Basic premise: A lawyer that doesn’t believe in good and evil takes on a negligent homicide case centered on an exorcism. The lawyer begins to question whether or not good and evil exists. This film is unique because it focuses on the exorcism after the fact from the lawyer’s point of view as she tries to unravel the mystery of what happened to Emily Rose. There are a handful (maybe two handfuls) of curse words, moderate violence, and really no sexual content. It’s the perfect film for someone wanting to dip their toes in an exorcism movie.

5. Beetlejuice (1988) directed by Tim Burton is one of those films that you watched when you were younger, but when you watch it with your kids you wonder “Why did my parents allow me to watch that?” It’s Rated PG, but in reality, it should be Rated PG-13. In fact, the entry above is tamer than this one and that was about a demonic possession. Basic premise: Homeowners die and haunt their house. They seek help from the “ghost with the most” when new homeowners move in. It’s a great scary/funny film, but I’d suggest watching it first before letting your kids watch it.

With all that being said, I really thought that finding five films that weren’t all that gory and graphic wouldn’t have been so hard. I’m sure there are a plethora of other films that would make this list, but I either never came across them or I’ve forgotten about them. Hopefully you all have/had (depending on when you read this) a Happy Halloween! Wishing you all a treat filled and no trick night. Dress up as something and eat some candy because dressing up as a character from your favorite movie/book/show/video game only comes once a year. Right? Oh wait, that’s what cosplayers do every day.

If I survive the night, I’ll talk to you all later.

The Curse of the Written Word

Keeping up with this month’s theme of the spooky and creepy, I want to share my feelings about one of the curses of the Written Word. Don’t worry, it’s not really one of those curses that’ll turn you into a frog, newt, or any other amphibian. I don’t have that power.

But I do have another power granted to me by the Written Word.

See, words have power. The power to create, to sustain, to build up, and to grant freedom. Take the United States Declaration of Independence for example. Written in 1776, this document explained why 13 colonies sought to free themselves from the Kingdom of Great Britain.

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

You can’t tell me those two paragraphs are simply a well-connected string of words and punctuation. Those words have meaning. They, and the entire document that follows them, contain a power that has created a nation, has sustained that nation for over 200 years, has built up other countries that have sought independence, and has granted freedom to an unmeasurable number of men, women, and children.

People say magic doesn’t exist. Whenever I hear that claim, I ask them if they’ve ever read a book.

With all powerful things, there are neglectful people that use it haphazardly. And, of course, there are evil people that use it for abusive practices. Look at Twitter to see some of those abusive practices.

You might be thinking, “Jim, who are you to accuse us of abusing the power of the written word?” Because, dear reader: I’m a horrible practitioner of the written word. If you’ve read my past rants, you’ll know what I think of both James Patterson and the State of Michigan. Unlike the Founding Fathers, I’ve never used my power for good when it came to those two subjects.

Recently, I’ve been using it without thinking of the implications. The true curse of the written word is that it’s hard to interpret a message from a friend. I remember when I was married, my wife accused me once that I didn’t love her. It was on a way home from work. She was sitting in the passenger seat of our van and I was driving. She was abnormally silent, and I knew something was up. You could always tell when she was angry about something when she was quiet. Silence, in this case, was deadly.
After spending some time coaxing her into talking, she responded that I hadn’t ended a text with “I love you.”

It didn’t help that I laughed when she said that. I couldn’t help it. I thought I’d accidently done something wrong. After a few more minutes of driving in silence (her anger had renewed and grown after my outburst of laughter), she informed me that when I had texted back “Sure, Taco Bell sounds good” and I had left out those essential three words, the message was interpreted that while I loved Taco Bell, I somehow didn’t love her. So, after that day, I’d always text back with those three words. Even when I was indisposed. Example: “I’ll be downstairs in a minute. I’m using the bathroom… I love you.”

It’s been my experience that I often text something I think it funny, but when others read it, they are offended, confused, or think I’m serious. That’s why if I ever text you, you’ll usually receive another text saying “lol jk.” For those that don’t know lol means laugh out loud and jk means just kidding.

It hits me hard when I hear back from people that I’ve offended them by something I’ve texted. I recently hurt someone close to me due to this. It’s painful for them, and it’s painful for me.

Texting someone is convenient, but we lose something in the translation between word of mouth and the written word. That’s the true curse of the written word.

As Uncle Ben once said to one of my favorite superhero’s: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

Treat the power you have. Don’t trick people with it.

Book vs Film: Scaring your Audience

Since it’s October, I thought it’d be appropriate to write a series of scary topics to coincide with All Hallows’ Eve. To kick off this series, I’ll be discussing the differences between a horror book and a horror film.

Boo!

By your reaction (yes, I’m watching as you’re watching this) I failed in my attempt at a jump scare. You see, that’s the main difference between a visual media and a written version. For those that don’t know the term, a jump scare is used to scare the audience by surprising them with an abrupt change in image or event. Typically, that means something, or someone appears in front of the audience and often accompanied with a loud noise. At this point, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two friends of mine. One friend, we shall call Angela, is particularly good at two things: hiding and jump scaring the other friend. The other friend, we shall call Kenny, is particularly good at one thing: being scared. Let’s just say, jump scares are an effective way to frighten your audience.
When used in films in an effective manner, jump scares can be a sudden payoff to a long period of suspense. As the tension builds up, the jump scare is the climax. They’ve been called “one of the most basic building blocks of horror movies.”

Recently, the use of jump scares has been criticized as overused and a lazy method to scare the audience. Which is true. Going back to my two friends, Kenny is like the audience and Angela is like the movie. Kenny’s been scared so many times by Angela that he’s used to it by now. Of course, that just means that Angela (and films) have to figure out new ways of scaring.

In a literary work, the author doesn’t have the above-mentioned technique to scare readers. Like film, authors must find alternative ways to scare the reader. One of those methods (there are many and I have just a limited amount of space, so I’ll only cover one in this article) is to create a false sense of security.

Simon Kurt Unsworth, author of The Devil’s Detective, talks about creating a false sense of security. He explains that if you make your story based in the real world so that readers recognize and relate to it, then add elements that show that world’s weaknesses. “Real fear comes from seeing in the narrative a set of events that, if they occurred, could threaten what’s important to the reader, and could change their world into something they no longer recognize or understand,” he once said. He goes on to say, and I really like this line, that “monsters aren’t really scary; monsters walking up the street where we’re living and threatening our children? That’s scary.”

Why do you think Stephen King’s books are so scary? IT, The Shawshank Redemption, The Institute, The Shining, Carrie, Firestarter… I could go on. He’s written so many books that are set in the real world and shows us that sometimes it isn’t a scary monster that’s the villain. It’s often society or the government that’s scarier than the space alien that feeds on children’s fear and then feasts on their flesh.

Even when your story is fantasy, there are still elements of realism that can be incorporated into it to make it more relatable to readers. In Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, the characters are effected by addiction and mental issues even as they traverse across Mid-World on the Path of the Beam. Sometimes, the things that scare you are the ones that live inside your head.

Like the King of Horror once said in The Shining, “Sometimes human places, create inhuman monsters.” Sure, he was talking about a haunted resort, but it also meant Danny’s father turning into a homicidal abusive patriarch.

The real world is scary folks. Hopefully, we only experience it through the pages of a book or through the screen. It’d be nice to think that. Maybe that’s why we read and watch cinema. To escape the horrors of our everyday life. One last quote by Stephen King, I know, I quote him a lot. I think this sums up the article so here goes:

“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win,” King said. Isn’t that the scariest part of life and literature, when the monsters win?