I’m a rather plodding reader to begin with, but last year I was given an additional handicap, my adorable and precocious son, Ripley. In 2015, he transformed from a relatively inert, little pod into a full-blown toddler. Looking back, it’s amazing that I read anything at all. But after discounting all the random short stories and board books, I somehow managed to read two entire books.

1. Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for Dads, by Gary Greenberg and Jeannie Hayden. (Sincere thanks to my sister-in-law for this one.)

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2. Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts by Orrin Grey.

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This is a review of the latter.

The standard for modern horror fiction right now is very high, perhaps higher than it has ever been. And there is a certain pressure among that community of authors to create works that are constantly more grotesque and more despairing than the next author. (I say all this with the deepest possible affection for the genre.) And it is in this world that Orrin Grey distinguishes himself, not by coaxing his readers into the same black abyss, but by offering something more unique, and frankly, more fun.

Mr. Grey probably belongs–and he probably would be quite flattered for my saying so–in the same category as Mike Mignola, someone who is steeped in the same dark waters, who knows all the films and folklore, but uses these influences to create a highly intelligent form of pop-horror.

I also admire his spirit of sharing. Horror authors tend to Easter egg their influences by disguising them as subtle nods to the savvy reader. I’ve even attempted to do that myself, though I may be considerably less clever. Mr. Grey actually declares himself outright in an afterword to every story.

This is Grey’s second collection, and again, his personality seems to thrive in his stories—eclectic, exciting, and at their center, a heart of darkness.

Credit also to Ross Lockhart and Word Horde for consistently publishing some of the best, weird horror out there, and to Nick Gucker and Scott R Jones for making it look so snappy.

Little L & Ms. Violet Kay

October 15, 2015

book cover2

Lisa O’Brien is an entrepreneur, animal lover, artist, and (most recently) a children’s author. “Ms. Violet Kay” is the name of her new literary persona and “Little L” is her first creation. With dogged determination, I was able to track down the enigmatic O’Brien to question her about her new creation, pen names, and the time she was mistaken for a ghost.

JCT: Little L is a wild- eyed girl with a head full of wonder and unruly red hair. I get the impression that she is modeled after someone is particular. It’s me, right?

VK: It is you, yes. When you were a little girl, you were always running around with a noggin loaded with whimsical stories and lovable imaginary friendly monsters.

JCT: I’ll be expecting royalties, of course. But, for serious, I’ve know you for a while now, I’ll even be bold and call us “friends.” I was excited and surprised to learn that you wrote a kid’s book. However did you arrive at this point?

VK: Since we’re “friends,” I’ll tell you. I have actually been interested in writing books for children for many years. As you know, I’ve always been a painter and drawer of weird shenanigans. I completed all the illustrations for this particular book over a decade ago. The drawings for this story are sort of a love letter to my childhood; all the details point to something from my early life. Little L is wearing my favorite outfit from my preschool years. The strawberry pattern on the walls in some of the illustrations was the pattern of wallpaper in our kitchen. I still have Barney the Bear, in fact. However, when I initially completed all the illustrations, I couldn’t get the story out in a concise, meaningful way. I found myself just going on and on about inside jokes and things that no one but my family and I would understand. During the next several years, I ended up opening a vintage clothing boutique, then closing the store, then opening the store online, then closing that. Finally, I was once again focusing on my artwork. One day, I found those drawings of Little L. Suddenly the story I wanted to write fit together and made sense. I am now busily and happily working on not only another Little L story, but several others with different casts of characters, ranging in reading levels from first reader through about a 5th grave level. By the way, thanks for being excited about my book. I like you.

Ms. Violet Kay (a.k.a. Lisa O'Brien) at her recent book signing at Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, PA. photo: Christine Chiu

Ms. Violet Kay (a.k.a. Lisa O’Brien) at her recent book signing at Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, PA. photo: Christine Chiu

JCT: Same, same. I’ve always known you as Lisa O’Brien, good-humoured fahionista and artiste. Who is this Ms. Violet Kay character?

VK: Good question. When I paint, I sign my work “Lisa.” But for my writing, I wanted a name that stood out and that had some special significance to my life. The name “Violet Kay” honors my grandmother Violet. She was the original cantankerous redhead, full of sarcasm and silly stories. She had a wicked sense of humor. She stayed creative, writing plays for community theater and drawing hilarious cartoons in the letters she mailed out to family, well into her 90s. When she would write and send her work out to different magazines and publications, she would use the name “Nina Kay.” So I combined part of her real name and part of her pen name to make my own secret identity,which is now no longer a secret thanks to you and I have to kill you.

JCT: Speaking of killing and being dead, there’s some speculation going around that you might actually be a ghost. Care to comment?

VK: Speculation that I might be a ghost? Who told you? I’m not saying it’s true. I could be a ghost or a ghost wearing a human suit or a human wearing a ghost suit, but I’m curious as to where you heard this rumor. You may be referring to the time when I was stopped by a man yelling to me from his truck window when I was walking to my shop, and how he was relieved when I answered him because he “thought I was a ghost because of my old timey clothes and pale skin.” When I suddenly appeared inside his truck next to him, he peed his pants and then I sat on his lap and also peed his pants, but I’m not about to confirm that I’m a ghost.

For more Lisa O’Brien/Ms. Violet Kay, check out her awesome blog or drop by on facebook and say hi.  You can find Little L on Amazon. And she has an Etsy page.

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Tidying Up

June 4, 2015

Trying to finally put this space to good use. Check out the new Publications page!

I wrote this for NPR’s Three-Minute Fiction contest this spring. It had to start with the sentence, “She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.” It didn’t win. Here it is, slightly revised.

~

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.

It was the book that had opened the door, and already, it had begun to smolder. Soon nothing would be left but a useless heap of ashes and the iron clasp that had long kept it securely closed. The door, however, would remain open until she used it, and she had wanted to be sure.

The mice in the rafters would now have to take their chances outside. There would no longer be anyone to leave them morsels or to sustain the shaky truce between them and the owl that eyes them from its perch in the open window. The chickens would also have to adapt to the wild or perish. She had already propped open the pens, but whether that was for the birds’ benefit or for the foxes’ she was uncertain.

The goat had met its end days earlier. The best pieces of that stubborn, ugly thing were now salted and dried and packed along with what few essentials she could easily carry in a gunny sack. Other articles, including an oil lantern and a cracked vanity glass, were considered too bulky or impractical and were left beside the black book to be forgotten.

She looked once around the cabin, and, without further ceremony, rose from her stool, and cinched her load close to her body. She strode easily into the churning vortex of thick, grey smoke and was gone. In moments, the smoke was also gone, the last of it drawn into the cracks between the stones of the otherwise featureless stone wall.

The odd, young woman had lingered too long. Rumors were circulating in a nearby village of a woman living in the outskirts in collusion with unnatural forces. She had thought it ironic—it was nature that sustained her and kept her so improbably young. She had only turned to the dark arts when the intrusions of civilized society made it unavoidable. She had wanted only to escape. When the men of the village came soon after, waving their Bibles as angrily as their picks and torches, they were discouraged to find only an empty cabin to burn as they screamed their prayers.

The stones cooled, and, in time, they fell. Nature slowly reclaimed the old interior and a young tree took root. Over the decades, it twisted from the ruins into an ominous shape, like a tortured soul yearning for the sky. An innocent man was one day hanged from one of its deformed boughs and he continued to live on for several days in agony. Stories of his ghost were later told around a fire pit built from the remnants of the old chimney. However, the tellers were no more aware of this fact than of the unseen things that watched them from beyond the firelight.

More recently, a young scout aided by a sophisticated metal-detector came to posses a curious, metal clasp that he unearthed near the base of the tree. He later used it in a school art project and, unfortunately, gave the final creation to a sweetheart. She cherished it deeply, but did not identify it as the source of the bad luck that tormented her for the remainder of her short and tragic life.

Across an untold distance, in a shimmery pool deep in an ancient and unspoiled forest, the odd, young woman stood mournfully watching the reflection at her feet. In it, she saw these bleak events unfold and the promise of far, far worse things to come. It was a small consolation knowing that she was only partly responsible.

Perhaps she will forgive herself in time.

Hollywood Outpost

November 18, 2011

The day Linus arrived in Hollywood, I found a handgun at the bottom of the pool in the courtyard. He had made the drive from Pennsylvania in just over forty-eight hours only to be greeted at the gate by police.

I had not called the police myself, but I was watching from a space in the vertical blinds when Angela, the building superintendent, spotted the gun while hosing down the sidewalks later that morning – her regular ritual despite the drought. I hadn’t moved by the time a pair of detectives came to my door, nor did I move even then; I just lingered by the window in my damp swim trunks, unnoticed.

That’s when Linus arrived.

Linus typically has a hard enough time convincing people that he’s not on drugs even when he isn’t sleep deprived, so it was a small wonder that the detectives let him pass with minimal fuss. They probably made the same assumption everyone else does, that he’s just some harmless surfer-kid. Linus barely even uses the pool.

The detectives both looked my way when I opened the door for Linus, but they didn’t seem interested enough to confront me. They were gone before Linus could steer himself inside.

Linus groaned as he dropped a bulging duffel bag nearly twice his size on the scratched hardwood, right beside a stack of taped-up cardboard boxes. It was clear from his sunken and glazed eyes that he didn’t recognize their meaning, but I saw no point in delaying the conversation.

“Sean is moving out, we’re still going to need a third,” I said, nudging one box with my bare foot.

Wordlessly, he eased himself onto my futon – just then serving as a couch, to maximize precious floor space – and began to pack a bowl.

“He’s leaving his part of the deposit, so we’ll be good for a month, but after…”


When Sean came home late that night, I was laying on the hardwood in the dark with nothing but a pillow. Linus was face-down on the futon with his arm slung out in such a way that he looked like he was paddling a surfboard. A police helicopter was circling somewhere nearby and I kept looking to see if the searchlight would pass over our building. It finally did, briefly flooding the courtyard with its eerie glare, just as Sean let himself in.

He stalked silently into the kitchen, closing the partition before turning on the light, but it wasn’t until I heard him start his second dish of rainbow sherbet that I wandered in to join him.

I went right to the freezer for my pack of cigarettes – my own quiescently frozen treat – and bent over to light one from the stove.

“How was your last day?” I asked, trying to ignore how comically emo he looked just then.

“Someone stole my CD player again.”

“I told you you should’ve replaced your window first.”

“Yeah, well.”

He placed his unfinished sherbet on the stack of dirty dishes in the sink.

“Does Linus drive a green Dodge Shadow?”

“I think so, why?”

“He’s got a ticket.” He smirked, then added, “Welcome to Hollywood.”

“Welcome to Hollywood,” I repeated.

When I awoke the next morning, Linus was still sleeping and Sean’s boxes were gone. I watched the local news while I had the last of the sherbet for breakfast. The police were investigating the shooting death of a homeless man that I recognized. Afterward, I went for a swim and watched Angela wash down the sidewalks.

The Bad Work

June 27, 2010

     This spring I participated in that screenwriting contest again. This was my entry that got me to round two:

 INT. MANAGER’S OFFICE / GRANTLY HOTEL – DAY

Behind a lavish executive desk sits HAROLD GRANTLY. He wears a neat, black sack coat and nervously primps a thick, black mustache with a tortoiseshell comb. Beside him, wooden window blinds admit the only light into the room; It slants in swathes across his troubled but handsome face.

Neatly arranged on the leather blotter are articles that suggest refinement: an ornate fountain pen, a monogrammed gold pocket watch. But what occupies his interest lays heavy in his palm, a tarnished brass badge that reads, PINKERTON NATIONAL DETECTIVE AGENCY.

There is a knock at his door and he sweeps the badge into an open drawer.         

                  GRANTLY
         Yes?

ABIGAIL, an attractive woman in her 20’s, enters the office. She wears a modest corset dress with her long, dusky hair tied up with a ribbon.

                  ABIGAIL
         A Detective Worth to see you?

He forces a smile.

                  GRANTLY
         Thank you, Abigail.

INT. RECEPTION AREA / GRANTLY HOTEL – MOMENTS LATER

Detective MATHESON WORTH waits patiently at the main desk playfully drumming his fingers on the ledger. He is also handsome, but ruggedly so. His mustache and suit are less kempt, but a sly smile adds to his charm.

Grantly appears from an open door behind the desk and Worth’s posture straightens.

                  WORTH
         Ahh. Good morning.

Grantly directs a cool look towards Abigail who seems to understand. She silently excuses herself.

                  GRANTLY
         Whatever can I do for you Mr. Worth?

                  WORTH
         Detective.

                  GRANTLY
         Pardon?

                  WORTH
         Detective Worth. I’d show you my badge,
         but that seems to be part of the problem.

He leans in closer and flashes a smile. Grantly remains aloof.

                  WORTH (CONT’D)
         You see, someone at this hotel broke into my room
         last night. Lifted it and my service pistol right from
         under my nose!

                  GRANTLY
         That’s quite an accusation.

                  WORTH
         Now, before you start suggesting that I may have been
         careless, I’d like to mention again that I am a detective.
         I tend to notice these kinds of things.

A lone man seated by the front window looks over his newspaper at the two of them. Grantly notices and leans in a little closer.

                  GRANTLY
         Maybe we should discuss this privately.

                  WORTH
         Ordinarily, that might seem like enough, but before
         I could come back down here to lodge the complaint,
         I also noticed that my door would no longer open and
         my room was filling up with poison gas!

He smiles at the man with the paper.

                  WORTH (CONT’D)
         Good morning sir! How was your room?

Grantly tries to draw him back in, to tone it down.

                  GRANTLY
         Detective, I-

Worth leans in even closer than before and whispers. His smile now has an edge to it.

                  WORTH
         If I didn’t know any better, I’d suspect this
         hotel was a front to make transients disappear
         so you can perform deranged medical experiments
         on them!

Now Grantly smiles at the man with the paper. The context is plain; what a nut this guy is. The man resumes reading.

                  WORTH (CONT’D)
         You don’t seem all that surprised.

                  GRANTLY
         Certainly I am-

                  WORTH
         Your man seemed quite surprised this morning-
         to open my room and find me still breathing.
         Tell me, does your staff commonly wear masks
         like that when they come in to change the linen?
         Surely your guests don’t smell all that terrible.

                  GRANTLY
         I think there may be some gross misunderstanding.
         Will you allow me a chance to explain matters in private?

                  WORTH
         Delightful. Shall we adjourn to your office?

He gestures to the open door behind Grantly.

                  GRANTLY
         I have somewhere better in mind.

INT. BASEMENT HALLWAY / GRANTLY HOTEL – LATER

Grantly and Worth walk down a long, windowless hallway. The doorways to the rooms are all open and dark. Only a few flickering electric sconces light the way.

Worth glances into a room and notices heaps of crumbling plaster in a pool of standing water.

                  WORTH
         Where are we going, exactly?

                  GRANTLY
         I have an office down here. No one will bother us.

                  WORTH
         That’s not quite what I’m worried about.

At the end of the hall is one last door leading into a much larger room. Inside is an ominous surgical slab fitted with leather restraints.

Worth stops at the entrance and turns around.

Grantly pulls a revolver from his pocket and points it at Worth.

                  WORTH (CONT’D)
         Oh, you found it!

                  GRANTLY
         After you, please.

INT. BASEMENT LAB – CONTINUOUS

Grantly follows Worth inside as he closes and locks a formidable steel door.

Without prompting, Worth hops up and sits on the slab.

                  WORTH
         Shall I take my shirt-sleves off?

Grantly approaches and aims the revolver squarely at Worth’s forehead and fires.

Worth pitches backward over the slab and to the floor.

Grantly holds the revolver level, a curl of smoke issues from the barrel.

He steps around and sees Worth twisted on the floor, his face turned away from him.

Grantly crouches down and turns Worth’s head to face him. Worth is unharmed. There is only a black smudge where the bullet struck. His eyes focus on Grantly.

                  GRANTLY
         You’re not with Pinkerton, are you?

INT. BASEMENT LAB – LATER

Both men are now seated in chairs facing each other, both smoking cigars. The revolver now lies on the slab several feet away.

Worth exhales the smoke, regarding it fondly as it rises and lingers in the air.

                  WORTH
         You lead a charmed life, don’t you doctor?

                  GRANTLY
         How do you figure?

                  WORTH
         Someone’s looking out for you.

                  GRANTLY
         You, I suppose. My guardian angel.

Worth smiles.

                  WORTH
         I’m a private investigator. I couldn’t help you if I wanted to.
         Someone believes in your work though, someone with influence.

Grantly looks around him, at the squalor, the rust and dried blood.

                  GRANTLY
         I’m a has-been. What good could possibly come out of my work?

                  WORTH
         What good, indeed.

This seems to resonate with Dr. Grantly. He leans back in his chair and crosses his legs. A look of epiphany dawns on him as he enjoys his cigar.

Detective Worth notices the change. He stands, dropping his cigar on the floor. He crushes it out with his wingtip. He takes his gun from the slab and pockets it.

                  WORTH (CONT’D)
         There’s an old saying where I come from,
         God laughs while men make plans.

He walks to the door and opens it easily.

                  WORTH (CONT’D)
         It’ll be interesting to see if that’s true.

He leaves Grantly who does not watch him leave.