Posts Tagged ‘Passings’

Did Somebody Say “Wish”?

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2021
“Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood.”
Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

It’s odd, I think, how hard the death of someone you never met can hit you. If you’re into sports, an athlete’s passing; a movie fan, an actor…think of the impact James Dean’s automobile crash had on many of his generation. I remember how stunned I was when I heard Marilyn Monroe had died – it didn’t seem real. And the memory is vivid – I remember being behind the wheel of my car and even the specific intersection I was moving through in my home town when it came on the news. I heard about Bobby Darin over a car radio and had to pull over and get a grip. Belushi’s death came over my car radio, too, but that rated mostly a knowing sigh and shake of the head and a “Shit.”

Some are inevitable. Well, all death is inevitable, it’s the major thing we all have in common; that and birth.

John Paragon is someone I never met. I am pleased to have spent time, both in person and on the phone, with Paul Reubens and am brazen enough to consider him a friend. If you follow these updates, you may recall that Christmas is not officially Christmas for this household until (a) I’ve seen the original Miracle on 34th Street and the Alastair Sim Scrooge, and (b) the Collins family gets its Christmas card from Paul with another of a seemingly endless supply of Yuletide-themed images of Pee-Wee Herman.

I got on the Pee Wee Herman bandwagon early. The HBO special of the adult-oriented The Pee-Wee Herman Show captivated me as few things have in a life frequently captivated. Barb loved Pee-Wee, too. Terry Beatty, with whom I was collaborating on many things at the time, was similarly in the Pee-Wee thrall.

When I put Pee-Wee in the Dick Tracy comic strip (a cameo appearance but significant), the character wasn’t even a cult favorite yet…it was just beginning. But when Paul called me on the phone, I was thrilled to hear from him (and maybe relieved I wasn’t being sued). He said we should get together next time I was in Los Angeles. As it happened, San Diego Comic Con was coming up, and as Barb wasn’t going with me that year (she was expecting Nathan Collins’ arrival), Terry filled in and we drove to LA where we were welcomed into Paul’s home.

I’ve told this before, but I can’t resist repeating it. The Pee-Wee Herman suit was on a hangar and Paul was looking it over, because he had a gig the next night. I asked, “How many of these do you have?” And Paul, in that dry manner that is so un-Pee Wee but absolutely Paul, said, “Sometimes Pee-Wee doesn’t smell so good up close.”

Barb and I saw several live performances of Paul as Pee-Wee, in both New York and Chicago and perhaps elsewhere (it was a while ago). But he always welcomed us backstage and had time to chat. Our phone conversations were about the movie that Warner Bros was exploring making with him, and I am complimented that he ran some things by me. I don’t recall whether I offered or he asked, but I ended up sending him some movies on video tape that I thought might be helpful – these included Eddie Cantor in Roman Scandals and Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill (I am perhaps the only person on the planet who would assemble that double feature).

How many times Barb and I watched the HBO Pee-Wee Herman Show – again, his live stage show with the Groundlings – I can’t even hazard a guess. We showed it to friends and relatives like Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on doors, and I bet we made a higher percentage of converts. The point I am drifting toward is how deeply that original version of Pee-Wee got into the collective bloodstream of our family. And as our son grew up, and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse began its wonderfully subversive kid’s show run, Nathan shared our enthusiasm – the first movie he and I saw together in a theater was Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. (I have already shared the film with my grandson Sam, as well as many Playhouse episodes.) But did he have to play with all my Pee-Wee toys and make them uncollectible? (Sam, too.)

Over the years I met and chatted with Edie McClurg (Hermit Hattie in the original Groundlings stage show) and Cassandra Peterson, who is of course Elvira. I’ve met and talked to probably at least half a dozen other Groundlings, but I never got a chance to meet John Paragon.

Jambi the Genie with text: Long Live Jambi

Paragon was – as his obits point out – Jambi the genie in the original cast of the Groundlings show, and on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and in the Broadway revised revival of that original show, just a few years ago. He appeared (not as Jambi) in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday (2016). His writing credits were extensive, including eight episodes of the Playhouse (he also directed seven episodes).

I think it’s fair to say that of the original Groundlings collaborators, John Paragon was the one whose contribution to the world of Pee-Wee Herman was the most significant. His collaborations with Paul extended well past Pee-Wee, including Paragon of Comedy, a one-hour Showtime special in 1983. He was Elvira’s right-hand man, co-writing with Cassandra Peterson both Elvira feature films and writing (and appearing) on 13 Nights of Elvira.

He was a movie director, as well, and had a recurring role on Seinfeld (“Cedric”). I am not doing him justice, either. But the obits all focus on Jambi. Okay, fine. I’ll be the Road to Perdition guy in mine. I get that. But while on the one hand it’s not fair to make it just Jambi who died, I have to admit Jambi was a very special creation. He was at once something mystical to amaze kids and yet he also slipped in the sly double entendres that helped make Pee-Wee’s world big enough for kids of all ages.

And that smile. That wasn’t just Jambi’s smile – it was John Paragon’s smile, too. He radiated a sweetness that brought a warmth to the Playhouse – I mean, Pee-Wee’s kind of a brat, if a glorious brat. But it’s Jambi who gently nudges him toward sharing a wish with somebody who needs it more.

Meka Leka Hi Meka Hiney Ho indeed.


Barb’s Mom and Writing From Experience

Tuesday, May 11th, 2021

Barb’s mother passed away last week. I mention this not to initiate a flood of condolence wishes, which since Barb does not use Facebook might fall on deaf ears anyway. Dorothy Carolyn Jensen Mull was 97 and had endured a long bedridden convalescence, although saying Dot’s passing was a “blessing” in a way does not make it any easier for Barb and her six siblings.

I mention it here because Dorothy deserves thanks and recognition for inspiring, to a degree, the character Vivian Borne in the Antiques cozy mystery series that Barb and I write. This is not to say that Dot was a zany eccentric or a local theater diva – neither was the case. But she was highly spirited and for a number of years went antiquing with Barb from this flea market to that garage sale. This led to Barb and her mom running a booth at an antiques mall together for a good number of years, which was a major inspiration for the book series.

And I am happy to say that Dot enjoyed the Trash ‘n’ Treasures mysteries, which in her later years (with her eyesight failing) were read to her by Barb’s sister Anne.

I go into this in part because it speaks to Barb’s methods and mine where it comes to writing fiction. Though we work in a genre with its own conventions and (to use the tiresome current favorite term) tropes, we both instill elements from our own experience in our storytelling. The psychologist character in the Antiques books draws from Barb’s sister Cindi, yes, a psychologist. Barb has an older sister just as Brandy Borne does, although past a few superficial similarities the resemblance ends there. She also has a sister, Kathe, whose work in Broadway theater impacted our novel, Antiques Con. My brother-in-law Gary inspired a friend of Quarry’s who has somehow managed not to get killed, either in real life or fiction.

This kind of thing goes back to the earliest days of my career, when I was first able to inject elements of my real life into my crime-fiction fantasy. Mourn the Living had an Iowa City setting and reflected the hippie era there when I was in college. Bait Money finds Nolan and Jon robbing the bank where Barb was working at the time; she provided me with their security protocols!

Even in writing historical fiction I draw upon my own experiences. I wouldn’t have written The Titanic Murders if I hadn’t read in grade school a Tab book club edition of Jacque Futrelle’s The Thinking Machine. Getting betrayed by my best friend from high school (who embezzled from me) played a part in any number of my novels in the last twenty years, including Quarry’s Ex, which also drew upon my experiences making indie movies.

Anyway, it’s a lesson aspiring writers in any genre should take to heart. Don’t just write out of the books you’ve read and movies and TV you’ve seen. Draw on your experiences even in the context of mystery fiction or s-f or westerns or…really, any genre.

And one last thing – thank you, Dorothy. You inspired me, through your daughter and your own unique spirit.

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Scarface and the Untouchable Cover

Scarface and the Untouchable – the Capone/Ness non-fiction work by Brad Schwartz and me – hit the entertainment news last week. CBS is exercising their option to pick up the property for a series and it’s going to Showtime. We’ll see if it happens.

Read about it here, where you’ll discover my middle name is “Allen” and that apparently no one but me (and you) remembers that this all began with The Untouchables TV series starring Robert Stack.

* * *

Barb and I went to a movie at the local theater for the first time since the pandemic hit – something like fourteen months. We are, as you may be aware, frequent moviegoers and it was definitely strange to be back doing something so familiar after over a year and a half away from it. The theater did a good job with every other row blocked off and masks in the outer areas. We went at an off-time (3:30 pm on a Sunday) and were among perhaps seven other moviegoers.

The film was terrific – Wrath of Man, starring Jason Stratham and directed by Guy Ritchie. I like Ritchie’s films very much – he is essentially the UK’s Tarantino. It’s a very hardboiled crime story and not for the faint of heart (or the five year-old whose parents took her to this screening), minus the humor and quick cutting of most Ritchie films. This has more of a Richard Stark feel than the Parker film Stratham starred in a few years ago.

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Here’s a wonderful review of Shoot-out at Sugar Creek, the new Caleb York.

And another.

Jeez, maybe you guys ought to read this one.


In This Exciting Issue!

Tuesday, February 16th, 2021

One of the small pleasures denied me during this pandemic, where Barb and I have been largely sheltering in place for almost a year now, is going to Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million to check out the new magazines.

But magazines have been a stubbornly dying breed for some time, and my favorites – most dealing with B-movies – have been hit hard. A particularly tough loss to take comes as a double hit – the writer/editor/publisher behind VideoScope, Joe Kane, has died.

And with him has gone his wonderful magazine.

Cover of VideoScope magazine

VideoScope was among the last of a handful of magazines combining reviews of what a prior dead magazine called psychotronic movies with news, articles and interviews. I never met Joe, but we exchanged many e-mails and I was an occasional contributor to the magazine. He was a consistent booster of my films and, when he was writing for the New York Daily News, reviewed both Mommy movies generously.

I looked forward to receiving VideoScope in the mail the way I used to (in my high school years) look forward to snagging my father’s gift subscription copy to Playboy before he got home from work. Of course Playboy – like my father – is gone now, but perhaps that magazine’s demise has to do not just with changing times, but the reality that certain magazines – yes, like the otherwise dissimilar VideoScope – were so much extensions of their creators/editors that they could not survive their absence. The fate awaiting Hustler, now that Larry Flynt is gone, is likely the same.

I dealt with a Flynt-like editor of the Hustler-like Climax magazine in Quarry’s Climax, the sexual content of which offended some readers – usually the same readers who weren’t offended by the violence. And I revisit aspects of that story in the forthcoming Quarry’s Blood. I liked Flynt’s Hustler, which had an outrageous sense of humor and a unique combination of blue-collar sensibility and left-wing politics (only “Asshole of the Month” could do a Tucker Carlson justice). The interviews and articles were often of interest as well (I will stop short of defending myself by saying, “I read Hustler for the articles,” even if it is sort of true – but I doubt I’ll be picking it up again).

Among the more respectable magazines I have looked forward to are two devoted to Old West history/pop culture, True West and Wild West. Both remain excellent and the former is the work of Stuart Rosebrook, a friend of mine who I’ve watched in recent years rise to the position of editor (the magazine’s publisher and creative guiding hand is the great artist/writer, Bob Boze Bell). Stuart Rosebrook’s screenwriter father Jeb wrote the classic “modern” western, Junior Bonner and much else (including The Waltons and The Yellow Rose on TV, The Black Hole feature film and The Gambler TV movies); when Stuart was living in Iowa City, he arranged for me to meet his visiting dad, which was an honor and a thrill.

Shock Cinema cover

With VideoScope gone, only a few stalwart defenders of the psychotronic side of cinema remain. A standout is Steven Puchalski’s Shock Cinema, which combines in-depth interviews with actors and filmmakers with reviews of obscure movies, Blu-rays/DVDs, and books. It has the same kind of fannish yet professional touch as Joe Kane’s VideoScope but with its own distinctive spin. The current issue is typical, featuring incredible interviews with actors Candy Clark (American Graffitti), Veronica Cartwright (Alien), Robert Wuhl (Arli$$), and director Jack Hill (Switchblade Sisters). A similar survivor is Darryl Mazeski’s Screem, another newsstand survivor. Like Shock Cinema and the now-lamented VideoScope, Screem has a personal touch and its own look and feel.

A slicker classic cinema magazine that somehow endures is the UK’s Cinema Retro, with incredible in-depth articles, wonderful reviews, and contributions by my pal Raymond Benson. Every issue is a feast, and occasionally they do a special issue devoted to a single classic film, with the emphasis on the ‘60s and ‘70s.

But these baby-boomer delights are a dying breed, as are magazines themselves, I fear.

Among the first things I did when it became clear we’d be sheltering in place until a vaccine arrived (and we still are waiting, Barb and I, for our shots) was to subscribe to all of the above and a few other magazines. But the joy of going to the magazine section of a book store, to see if a new issue of a favorite periodical is on the stands, is among the small yet keenly felt losses of this pandemic.

Joe Kane, who called himself the Phantom of the Movies, is a loss particularly keenly felt. So are the many magazines we have all loved…and taken for granted.

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Here’s my introduction to the just-published IAMTW tie-in anthology, Turning the Tied. (Kindle link)

I also discussed tie-in writing in the forthcoming MWA, Lee Child-edited mystery writing handbook.


New Horror and Dark Suspense Antho from Wolfpack

Tuesday, January 19th, 2021
Book cover for Reincarnal and Other Dark Tales
E-Book: Amazon Purchase Link

In about a week, my latest Wolfpack release – Reincarnal & Other Dark Tales – will be available on Kindle, and shortly thereafter as a physical book.

When I have copies of the trade paperback, I will announce a book giveaway here. For those that haven’t noticed, this update/blog has a new post every Tuesday morning. [10 Eastern/9 Central unless I mess something up. –Nate] So check in – they go fast.

Obviously, Wolfpack has provided me with another outstanding cover. I continue to be delighted by what they come up with. I realize some of you may be overwhelmed by how much of my material Wolfpack has unleashed upon an unsuspecting world pretty much all at once. Publisher Mike Bray and editor Paul Bishop were good enough to take on virtually all of my remaining backlist, as those who come here regularly know. Nine of these books are novels, but the others are anthologies. Of those anthologies, only three (including a forthcoming one by Barb and me, Suspense – His and Hers) are new collections…new books.

Reincarnal is one of them.

It’s a special one for me, because it collects virtually all of my horror short stories. In addition, the book includes two radio plays that I wrote for Fangoria’s Dreadtime Stories: “House of Blood” and “Mercy.” I adapted a number of the yarns in the collection for Dreadtime Stories, but the two radio plays were original to the series.

While I’ve spent most of my career writing suspense and crime fiction, the horror genre has been an interest since childhood, undoubtedly having to do with watching old monster movies on TV. In Reincarnal, you meet the big three: Frankenstein’s monster, a werewolf, and more than one vampire.

Some of the stories are more in a “dark suspense” vein, though the majority have a supernatural element. And they have another element that may either please or not please you: this is definitely a “parental advisory” type book. Several stories were originally written for the famous Hot Blood and Shock Rock series, whose co-editor Jeff Gelb was my co-editor on Flesh and Blood. The format of those anthologies was to combine horror with an erotic element.

I mention this because – much to my surprise – in recent years some readers are offended by sexual content, and many of you are undoubtedly saying, “Boy, did they sign up with the wrong writer.” In re-reading the stories, I realized that changing times and attitudes are reflected therein, but I made no edits to bring them up to date. They were written over a thirty-year period and, like Popeye, yam what they yam.

But also in re-reading the stories I discovered that some of these dark tales are among my best work. I would be hard-pressed to come up with a better story of mine than “Traces of Red,” for example. “Reincarnal,” the lead story, was much praised at the time of its original publication, and I adapted it into a screenplay. That project still rears its head now and then. “Interstate 666″ was written originally as a screenplay, and the story herein is actually a condensed version. It came very close to being made as a TV pilot (one iteration involving Rob Zombie!).

Both radio plays in the new collection were conceived in hopes of movie production and they too are not yet off the table in that regard. Those stories are collected in audio anthologies available at Amazon and elsewhere. Producer Carl Amari did a great job on them.

My interest in horror should come as no surprise to my regular readers, even though they may missed the stories collected in Reincarnal when originally published. Such novels of mine as Butcher’s Dozen, Angel in Black, and What Doesn’t Kill Her, as well as the two J.C. Harrow novels by Matt Clemens and me, are in part horror novels. So is Regeneration by Barb and me (a new edition is coming from Wolfpack).

Speaking of which, let me get back to Wolfpack. You supporting my efforts there by ordering Reincarnal & Other Dark Tales and the John Sand novel, Come Spy With Me, paves the way for me to do new novels in various series that have run their course at other publishers. When fans ask a writer, are you ever going to do another novel about such-and-such a favorite character, the true answer is: it’s not up to the authors. We need publishers who believe in us, and frankly most publishers want the next big thing, not the last modestly successful thing.

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We lost Parnell Hall recently, and the parade of hurtful losses to the mystery genre continues. The great John Lutz of Single White Female fame is gone.

outdoor portrait of author John Lutz wearing a black shirt and jacket.

This from Janet Rudolph:

John Lutz: 1939-2021.

I was lucky to know John Lutz over the years. John wrote over 50 novels of political suspense, private eye novels, urban suspense, humor, occult, caper, police procedural, espionage, historical, futuristic, amateur sleuth, thriller — just about every mystery sub-genre. He also wrote over 200 short stories and articles. John was a past president of both Mystery Writers of America and Private Eye Writers of America. Among his awards were the MWA Edgar, the PWA Shamus, The Trophee 813 Award for best mystery short story collection translated into the French language, the PWA Life Achievement Award, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Golden Derringer Lifetime Achievement Award. And, he was a kind, supportive, and generous man. He’ll be missed.

I knew John well, and Barb and I know his wonderful wife Barbara, too. John was a terrific writer and also displayed a dry wit second to none. For many years, John was a welcome, low-key presence at Bouchercon, one of those friends I saw almost exclusively in that manner. He was shy and modest, but that sense of humor came through, or I should say sneaked up on you.

This one hurts.

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This mind-bogglingly wonderful review of Skim Deep is at Book Reporter. Please feast your eyes upon it.