Friday, September 28, 2018

Look out! Here comes Twisted Tales from Tornado Alley!

Finally, I hear you saying, Stuart's done yakking about his trip to the Amazon, just like that drunk uncle at Thanksgiving who can't quit going on about his visit to a Wisconsin cheese factory.

So it's back to shameless self-promotion! Hold on, hold on...don't go anywhere yet. I promise it'll be easy. If it helps, just read this post in a stilted, hammy William Shatner voice and I swear we'll get through it together.

In an odd manner of serendipity, my brand-spanking-new (First! Evah!) short story collection is also entitled "Twisted Tales from Tornado Alley." Just like my blog! Weird coinkydink, yeah?

This short story collection is full of horror, suspense, dark humor, satire, shameless guffaws, and terrifying edge-of-the-seat, turn-the-lights-on scares. (I hope. YOU be the judge).That was my intention when I began the project, at least.

But the more I got into it--all tales taking place in the Midwestern state of super bizarre Kansas--a theme developed, one not entirely intentional. A few of these stories had appeared before on a blog, but have been extensively revised and altered. Yet all of the tales--particularly the newer, longer ones--started forming a cohesive theme.

As my British critic/artist extraordinaire pal, Karen Ruffles, said, "It's a peek beneath the blankets of Kansas."

It is. And then some. It ain't pretty.

Most of the stories were written directly after the last American presidential election. I was angry. So was the entire (un)United States . It didn't matter which side of the political fence you fell over, everyone was splintered, distraught, shell-shocked, empowered, helpless, you name it. The only thing people had in common were negative feelings and a sense of outrage. A country torn apart, the worst America's been since the Civil War.

Nowhere was this seismic melt-down felt more than in my little Kansas City suburb. The worst in people came out. (Not getting into sides here, but yes, my political party of choice was/is guilty of tossing rocks as well).

Twisted Tales from Tornado Alley can be seen as allegory, social satire even. The stories are still horror and entertaining (again, I hope), but sometimes things just work out the way you hadn't intended. For once, I think my book turned out even cooler than my original vision. 

Witness the incredibly bitter, hateful old woman who wages war on trick or treaters (think Big Orange with his dreamed about wall). Pity the guy, insistent he's not racist, who wakes up in the body of a Middle Eastern man. Freak out over the trauma that happens to a young college woman (based loosely on a true incident), who literally goes deep, deep underground into the pits of Hell. Visit the super-secretive night school class where tolerance for vampires and zombies is preached. Break bread with the mafia (yes, the mafia still exists in Kansas City) at a particularly spooky Thanksgiving dinner. Watch Bigfoot deal with marginalization and monster-shaming. See how corporate downsizing ruins a family and chases them into a rural dump of a haunted house.

My wife said the closing, go-for-broke, straight-up, no yoks involved horror novella is the most intense and dark thing I've written. Strong praise from my harshest critic.

There's lots more and I'm really proud of the writing on this book for once. Come see for yourself. Pull up a cracker barrel, sit a spell, lock the doors, and turn down the lights. There's a lotta haunting--perfect for Halloween--both supernaturally and of a nation torn apart (not perfect for any time) in your immediate future.

Pleasant nightmares. From the fine folks at Grinning Skull Press comes Twisted Tales from Tornado Alley.
One click away from madness!

Friday, September 21, 2018

Adventures in the Amazon: Aftermath and Aftermess

Goodbye Peru...
Well, all good things must come to an end, I suppose. Even if there were times I didn't think I'd survive the Amazon jungle. Not due to life-threatening situations, mind you, but rather the strenuous activities of hiking through a sauna-like environment in long pants, shirts, and those damned boots.

But I made it. Even though the plane trips back were trying--eight days in the jungle and no ailments, but everyone on the plane was hacking and wheezing, sure to be my downfall; also, we had an encounter with an ugly American teenage girl who tried to cut in line (but my wife put a stop to that!)--we began the long, dull process of settling back into routine.
Fun in a germ-ridden flying tin can!
Kansas seemed rather...lifeless. Sure, it felt safer and was definitely cleaner, but it lacked the energy, the vibrancy of Iquitos and the unfettered nature of the jungle. Everything about the Midwest appeared so ho-hum.
Except, of course, for my week-long bout with diarrhea. Yay, TMI! (At least I didn't suffer while in the jungle; I can't even begin to imagine...wait, yes I can).
Wake me when we leave Kansas...
I learned a lot on my adventures. While I'm not quite ready to bunker down in a tent (too many serial killers lurking in the woods), or go backpacking in the Himalayas (too many yetis), or cannonball into a hot tub with Buddha (not enough room for both of us), I've decided to embrace nature as my friend. Finally. Call me ridiculous, but the other day there was a grotesque, hard-carapaced bug skittering down the hallway. I managed to scoop him up and put him outside. In the past, he would've been instant floor-kill.

The incredible power of the Amazon--nature at its wildest, most untainted state--proved awe-inspiring, not only in its beauty and yin and yang of terror, but also in the potential it has as a natural state of energy. If people would learn to coexist peacefully with the river, harness it without doing damage, it has the potential to power a good chunk of the world. It is to be respected.
So are people. After my trip, I've vowed to try and be nicer. A tough chore, but I'm committed. Our visit to Iquitos made me realize just how "rich" we are, comparatively speaking. We saw squalor, miserable living conditions, and even worse health care issues. But the locals' living conditions didn't get them down. On the contrary, they carried on with life, making our trials and tribulations appear petty. We could all learn something from the people of Peru.
I also came out the other side with the pleasure of bonding with new friends and reacquainting with old ones. You can't go through a boot camp of that type, storming the gates of hell, without growing close to those experiencing the trip next to you. And seeing as I write full-time from home, it was the most socializing I'd done in years. Big ol' honkin' baby steps!

New friends/family!
Best of all, I love the fact that "jungle pants" has become a nonchalantly dropped word in our everyday lexicon.

Onward and upward, the world's a great big, ol' beautiful and wondrous and scary place, much more than my previously staked-out back yard of Kansas City. I can't wait to explore more. (But, um, just with air conditioning this time).


Friday, September 14, 2018

Adventures in the Amazon Final Day: Day Drinking with a Shaman!

During our final meal at the lodge, one of the teens in our group mesmerized Antonio, our shaman in tow, with excellent sleight-of-hand coin tricks. Pretty amazing, something I thought I'd never witness: old magic meeting new.
Our new family.
Even more astounding is what transpired on our last day in the jungle, something I never thought I'd do in my lifetime, something that I'd never even considered: day-drinking with a shaman!

Cheers! ("Tink.")

We were told we were visiting the rum "factory." Yay! Something finally more my speed. Still, to get there we had to go via boat, so I blundered into my usual seat (the anchor position), and off we went. Across from our destination, I witnessed entropy in action as a tree toppled into the river with a gargantuan splash. Just another amazing sight, one of many. But the best was yet to come.
Shaman at work in the rum factory.

Calling the rum joint a "factory" was pure embellishment. Our tour consisted of standing around a hot shed, where an old-fashioned press was operated by a horse to squeeze sugar from cane. Antonio passed around the resultant sugar for us to sip from. I figured if I hadn't caught a rare disease by now, sharing germs with my fellow travelers wasn't gonna kill me. 
Victor explaining rum to a thirsty crowd.

Our shaman then dumped the resultant sugar into a fermenting barrel. Once he set the bowl back on the ground, a friendly pig lapped up the rest (I still don't know if he was a family pet or breakfast). Hey, alcohol kills germs! Apparently the pig had too much to drink and then sat on my wife's feet.
Rum-guzzling pig.
We hurried through the rest of the "tour": there's the fermenting barrel, over there's the oven to boil it, bla, bla, bla, let's drink!
All creatures, great and small, love them some rum.
Gathered around a table, three bottles were plopped down in front of us. Again, we shared a shot glass, all of us practically family now. After the first several shots, germs began to not matter so much.

Na zda-rĂ³-vye! 
Ay caramba, dios mio!
The first bottle was straight up "aguardiente," aka "firewater." Akin to grain alcohol, it could strip paint off a wall and melt a clown's face. My chest nicely warmed, we moved onto the next bottle of booze, a ginger-infused alcohol.

To your health!

Antonio nudged my wife, pointed at the bottle, then wound a finger around his ear: muy loco! Didn't stop him from enjoying his rum, though. What's good for a shaman's good for me. 

Here's mud in your eye!
Ay, yi, yiiii, Viagra!
Next came "Siete Raices," which Antonio described as Viagra. For some reason, the factory owner kept pushing it on me. Did he know something I didn't? Hey, who was I to stand in the way of medicine?

Down the hatch!

Soon, our guide Victor filled up his cup by mixing two of the rums. He claimed it was Antonio's fault since he said he needed his Viagra. We weren't about to let him drink by himself, so the men joined him. 
Education can be fun!


Not to be outdone, the women had their turn at the bottles. Again and again. 
Gettin' some good learnin' done about nature!


A perfect way to end our jungle adventures, this went on for a while...
Incredibly, my boat balance appeared to have improved by the time we left.


All in all, a very peculiar day. Which leads me into an extremely awkward and shameless segue: Have you read Peculiar County yet? Here's what critic "The Cellophane Queen" had to say about it: "Amazingly good. Brilliant. Pitch perfect characterizations and intriguing use of language remind me of the master writer, Stephen King. Dibby is a heroine of the first order taking charge in a very Peculiar County in Kansas." Visit alluring and strange Peculiar County now.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Adventures in the Amazon Day Seven: Piranha Fishing!

After another night of sleeplessness in the jungle, we... Oh. Wait. Did I not tell you the unfortunate sleeping circumstances of our lodgings?
You see, the Heliconia Lodge is very nice, offers great food, and the staff is top-notch. 

But seeing as we're in the jungle, of course, air conditioning is unheard of. Electricity, too, for the most part, which is why the lodge runs off a generator. Naturally it wouldn't make much sense to run it full time, so they turn it off three times a day, usually when I wanted to shower.

(Side note on showering: Our first day at the Heliconia, we kept going out on excursions and each time I'd soak through my clothes. Not by rain, mind you, but sweat. So I kept showering and changing clothes. Six wardrobe changes in one day, I felt like Cher in Vegas. By the next day, I pretty much just gave up on hygiene. Sure, you didn't want to sit downwind of me, but everyone in our group was in the same boat. Literally.).

Anyway, I could live without electricity during the days. We were never in our room anyway. But then they'd power down the generator every night at midnight. The room fans would stop as the entire compound ground down with a dying, monstrous groan: pretty much an alarm clock to jolt me awake. I usually clocked in a solid 45 minutes before the generator stopped.
In bed. NEVER asleep!
Then nature's sound machine took over, keeping me up most of the night. (And the endless sweat, natch. In fact, I've come up with the perfect slogan for the Heliconia Lodge: "At Heliconia, we sweat the hell outta you!")

What does nature's sound machine sound like, you ask? Kinda like this (ahem)...


You get the drift. Some kind of unidentified bug/animal/monster took to haunting me right outside our room: it sounded like a blacksmith pounding out metal. Also, I was too busy wondering what sort of varmints were scampering around in our dark room to sleep. The horror stories about scorpions, tarantulas, and snakes didn't help.

So. Sleep deprived, missing the wonders of air conditioning and quiet, we wandered once again into the jungle on a medicinal plant trail, great for pharmacists, exhausting for we mere authors. 
Antonio using his version of G.P.S.: "Great Product of Survival"
However, we did something very cool. We planted mango trees in the Amazon jungle in honor of Earth Day. I'll gladly brave the sleepless nights, nocturnal monsters, and near death experiences by visiting again in five years to eat a mango from our tree.
Cool was the order of the day as later we went out piranha fishing. Danger's my middle name (not really, not even close).

Time and time again on our trip, we'd been told piranha were good to eat. I'd never realized piranha was an edible fish, just sort of thought of it as an eating fish (remember: movies are my education). I kinda think it might just be practical on the Peruvians' behalf to eat what they have plenty of (otherwise I'm completely baffled by the choice of goat's head soup). Oddly enough, though, it was never offered to us at the lodge. But we were prepared to catch dinner for everyone.

Off we went on our fishing expedition! I warned everyone I was prepared to fall. They all agreed, hardly a shocker. 
Before the fishing trip with happy and high expectations!
Hooks were baited, lines were sunk, and we waited. And waited. And waited, just merrily bob-bob-bobbing along. The blasted piranha kept nibbling at our bait, just eating it. Our buddy fed the piranha a lot (next fisherman: "Man, that's one fat fish.").

Only one of us snagged a piranha (teacher's pet, teacher's pet, teacher's pet!), a small one at that. 
Expectations dashed!

Still, all in all, how very awesome it is to snootily drop into conversation, pinky finger raised, "The other day we were on the Amazon River, fishing for piranha..."

While we're on the subject of sharp toothed critters, check out the second in the Zach and Zora comic mystery series, Murder by Massage. My hapless heroes face all sorts of shark-toothed, crocodile-teared types such as
dancing cops, ex-radical hippy militants, pompous pastors, and a creepy set of "Furries." What're you waiting for? The party's started and it's a blast!