Archive for January, 2014

In Which I Meet R. Crumb by Alex S. Johnson

Posted in Uncategorized on January 27, 2014 by Alex S. Johnson

We stand at the cusp of two decades, the “Me Generation” poised reluctantly to pass the torch to the “Greed Generation.” An overcast day in late August and a crisped fairgrounds in Sausalito, California. I’m 14. My father, Steven M. Johnson, has brought me here to see in person what I’ve only read about. This is the Whole Earth Convention, the live manifestation of the catalog, then quarterly review, that detailed for the first time trends that many years later went mainstream, indeed global. Personal computers. Software. Smart drugs. Cyberpunk. Sustainability. Deep ecology. All beginning with a vision by Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand of the earth from space.

I am only just aware of Brand, the Merry Prankster who got off the bus with a head full of good hash, obsessed with the idea that everybody, not just freaks and heads, needed to see our planet as it actually is–a globe without borders, enfolded in a fragile atmosphere that sustains billions of lives. The iconic NASA photograph that graced the first Whole Earth Catalog would be the catalyst for so many features of our physical and mental landscape we take for granted now, from recycling to the Internet. Because–well, just look at it. The thing speaks for itself. No barriers based on politics, religion or ideology. One planet, one home for all of us.

But for me at 14, all this is well, not irrelevant exactly, but superfluous. Because while I can see Brand himself walking about amidst the crowds of aging hippies, along with people like Woodstock luminary and premier acid clown Wavy Gravy, I’m more interested in a stoop-shouldered guy with Coke-bottle glasses and a bow tie who looks like he stepped bewildered from a 1930’s jug band and is still getting his bearings. In other words, R. Crumb.

It’s a family ritual by this point–when the Whole Earth Review arrives in the mail, my dad and I immediately scan the table of contents to see if there is fresh Crumb. We know what we’re looking for, and what we’re going to get–the satirical comic version of comfort food. Crumb’s take on the eco-green gestalt is much more pessimistic, and his jaundiced parody of the NASA photo depicts an orb of disease-puckered, purulent flesh rotting in the firmament. He’s not so easily taken in by the glad handing longhairs who shortly will shear their locks and put away the God’s Eyes and the patchouli oil  to emerge as Yuppies, turning peace and love into commodities. He is a realist, a skeptic, and a fan of big thighs and nuclear-proofed butts. In other words, my kind of guy.

We make our way over to a group of fans clustered around Crumb. From his pained expression, it’s obvious that the Crumblebum has already reduced them to clusters of heavily cross hatched ink sprouting desultory appeals for autographs. “I don’t give autographs,” he’s saying as my dad and I move in.

“Are you Robert Crumb?” asks my dad.

The last of the great medieval thinkers looks for the source of the voice. “Yeah,” he mutters.

“My son and I are big admirers of yours.”

“Thanks,” he says. The air seems to coagulate around us and you can practically hear a faucet tap somewhere squeezing out a single drop of water.

My dad clears his throat and gestures to me. “I raised my son on your comics,” he says proudly.

“Poor kid,” says Crumb.

And that is it–our encounter with the creator of Zap, Weirdo, Hup, Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, Devil Girl, Mode O’ Day and so many other characters inhabiting the permanent pantheon of comic book fame. It is brief, awkward and anticlimactic.

“Well, what did you think?” my dad asks.

“He seems like he’s trying to squeeze himself out of his own skin,” I say.

And then I realize something that will serve me well in the future: Crumb’s greatness is in the work itself. The art. The magnificent, limber girls his comic alter egos subject to degrading sexual assaults, all vain and ultimately pointless in the face of their superiority to him. The man is not to be found in the flesh and blood and bone, but in the inked simulacra. And I can’t wait to go home, if only to anticipate the appearance in the mailbox of new issues of The Whole Earth Review, in which, months from now, braless women with enormous thighs will torment the libido of a former greeting card artist from the midwest who cannot escape his cravings for old jazz records and healthy Amazons.

And as for the whole earth? It’s still riven with religious and sectarian and political conflict, now more than ever. Not a week goes by without reports of random violence, school shootings, massacres. The social media, the grandchild of Brand’s eureka moment, is awash with hostility and flame wars. Far from bringing us all together, our technology exposes the fault lines in painful relief. But there is still Crumb, and satire, and lovingly rendered ass, and for that, I am thankful.

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Book Review: What Price Gory by Terry M. West

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , on January 17, 2014 by Alex S. Johnson

There are few things more satisfying than a good short story collection, if in What Price Gory, Terry M. West has provided just that. The horror film director-turned-writer ably delivers eight tales of the weird and macabre that range from the traditional Lovecraftian to Edward Lee-style splatterpunk and some gloriously strange places in between. I think my favorite from this book is “Cecil and Bubba Meet a Succubus,” which relates one of what we can only hope is a series of episodes featuring two Texas rednecks, a gipsy curse and, in this case, a metrosexual parapsychologist and a “suck a bus.” Then there is the title story, a dark allegory of the writing life, the creepy “Held Over” and the E.C. Comics-meets-Dante poetic retribution meted out in “Midnight Snack.” West’s prose is distinguished by its careful attention to craft and detail, his ability to re-conceive hoary terror tropes in ingenious new ways, and most of all by his sly wit. Fans of Stephen King, John Shirley, Joe Lansdale, Joe Hill and Karl Edward Wagner will find much to enjoy here and I recommend it without reservation.

Frumple Must Die! by Alex S. Johnson

Posted in Uncategorized on January 16, 2014 by Alex S. Johnson

“Get up,” said Frumple. “You lazy bastard.”

“Warm in here,” said Sam. “Cold out there. You do the math.”

“Already did, and it says, Sam Jones is a lazy bastard.”

“Right, ok, on the writing thing? You can do the story today.”

“Ha! What makes you think I’m going to bail your lazy ass out again?”

“Simple. You always do. It’s, I don’t know, reverse psychology. I invented you to write my stories in the event that I’m too–not lazy, that’s not the word–and no, I’m not too comfortable, ’cause comfort would imply a state of grace that is rare to never for me and might possibly indicate…”

“Blah blah blah. I see you’re hung up on intellectualizing your experience without having any. Moribund soup and no mistake! That is some slaggy shit you’re having for breakfast. I’m here to save you from yourself. If it wasn’t for Frumple–your friend, your palsy-walzy, your long-suffering rookie–you’d be sleeping in till noon and then go on Facebook and complain that you don’t have it in you today. Am I right, or am I solid?”

“You’re immaterial. I can do this myself. Just…go warm up the computer.”

“Been there, done that. I warmed your chair. You should be grateful. Fucking polar vortex out there. And the heat–it doesn’t turn itself on. You have to do that. I’m a cat. I can do a lot of things, but the radiator is your baby, baby.”

“I’ve seen you literally tie yourself  in knots. You have amazing powers, Frumple. If you wanted to turn on the heat, you could certainly do so. Hey, I hope you didn’t hide the cigarettes again.”

“You and your pathetic crutches! Man, if I get myself a day job, ciggies alone will not help you. Jack yourself up, then jack yourself off, then put yourself to bed again. I don’t care. I am Audi.”

“Fine, I’ll get up. Just got to get some coffee and…fire up the word machine.”

“Hey, what did you mean by ‘Frumple Must Die!’ anyway?”

“Huh?”

“That’s the title of the story. ‘Frumple Must Die.’ I don’t think you understand the true meaning of the word ‘co-dependent.’ You take out a Frumple, you wax yourself, bitch.”

“You mean ‘interdependent.’ That’s something entirely different.”

“No, I mean co-dependent. As in, we lean on each other to support our own weakness.”

“Then Frumple really must die. That’s it. You are history.” Sam prepared to pop a love cap in the cat’s ass.

“Did you just write ‘pop a love cap?'”

“Yeah, so?”

“Get some coffee. You’re even more random than usual. And I am personally offended at the strange fusion of eros, agape and bestiality you call affection.”

Sam sluggishly made his way to the Mr. Coffee and poured himself the first of many cups for that day. Silently, he drank. Feverishly, Frumple laid out a plot outline for Sam to fill in. 

“You sure are leaning hard on the adverbs,” said Frumple.

“Look,” said Sam. “It’s only 8:30. I can’t get that clean line this early. Already late for the party when it comes to the clean line dance.”

“That is almost clever,” said Frumple.

“Thanks for the ‘almost,’ dude,” said Sam.

“‘Almost clever’ is not a compliment.”

“I know that. Okay, so we’re locked and loaded. Got cigs, got coffee, got stubble–shit, I need to do something about the stubble.”

“You could, I don’t know, buy a razor?”

“Yeah, but it’s more fun to get those disposable blades and pick the hair out of them.”

“Why do you think they call them ‘disposable?’ Just buy yourself a real razor and some replacement blades. Save some money.”

“Ah, Christ. All these little details.”

“Yup, but you let the little details sit there while you’re rearing up on your mighty hind legs and preparing the grand plan, dude. When the time comes to actually execute the plan, the little details come in mighty handy.”

“Just go away. Go, go away.”

“Fine, I’m leaving.” The cat primly gathered its few belongings and prepared to march out the door forever. “You’ll be sorry.”

Sam sprang out of bed. “No, wait, I didn’t mean that.”

“You have work to do,” said Frumple. “Then we’ll talk.”

“Okay.”

“But you have to do the work.”

“Fine.”

“I hope you’re not just saying ‘fine’ because you think a Frumple story will substitute for some actual creative effort on your part.”

“It doesn’t?”

“Hells no.”

“Okay, you are right, just leave me alone for a second and I’ll check out your outline.”

“That’s better.”

“Now go.”

Frumple stayed.

Frumple must die.

That Darn Frumple! by Alex S. Johnson

Posted in fiction on January 15, 2014 by Alex S. Johnson

Sam awoke from the usual tedious dreams of cockroaches to find himself intact on his bed. Frumple sat at the foot, staring at him with huge emerald green eyes.

“Whoa, shit, for a second there I thought I was trapped inside a Franz Kakfa story. Hey, how come I can see you all the time now?”

Frumple yawned and stretched his paws.

“Well, are you going to say something?” He groaned. “What time is it? I need a fucking smoke.”

“Good luck,” said Frumple.

“Don’t tell me you’ve hidden my cigs again. Look, I gave up solvents, PCP, mescaline, alcohol, shit-huffing, corpse-sniffing, even gerbils. I need a fookin’ hit, man!”

“You’ve been watching Trainspotting again, I see.”

“Yeah, because it’s a great movie. So many good lines in that thing. ‘Better than any fucking cock in the world.’ You never gave me a line like that. I had to steal it from Irvine Welsh.”

“Oh, now I’m responsible for your acts of literary theft?”

“No, no, I’m not saying that at all. Just that you sit there and look at me and it makes me feel…guilty. Uncomfortable. Hey, I thought I sold you to that traveling circus.”

“Right, now you’re selling me off. Frankly, I think you’re a lazy, lazy shit. What kind of writer are you? You used to get up at 6:00 in the morning and write these crazed sorta kinda cyberpunk like stories before the internal critic hit you and you got paralyzed.”

“Yeah, man, well I don’t know which is worse, you or the internal critic.”

“You really wound me. I should scratch the shit out of you.”

“Go on, scratch. Scratch me. Might wake me up. Damn, I feel so itchy. Uncomfortable. Nervous. And I could really use a smoke.”

“Okay, your wish is my command. Just write something.”

“I lost my mojo.”

“What are you talking about? Your mojo was just fine yesterday. Weren’t you working on that black metal gothic horror doom thing?”

“Lost it. Ran out of steam.”

“You are getting right back on that horse and no mistake. Or maybe you’re beyond the simple carrot and stick approach now.” The cat jumped down from the bed and ran into the kitchen. Sam could hear shelves being banged. Then the cat ran back with a pack of cigarettes in its mouth. It coolly lit one up in front of him. Sam sniffed the smoke. Ah, there was simply nothing like second hand smoke. Maybe it was deadlier than the first-hand version, but boy did it smell great. He began to salivate.

“You know where the computer is,” said the cat.

“You are just a pestilent arsehole with no morals or compunction whatsoever, Frumple. When I need you, you ain’t there, and when you ain’t there, I can’t write, and when I can’t write, I get on that fucking Facebook thing and by the time I’ve finished ‘liking’ every post in my feed, it’s time for lunch and then dinner and then my day is totally shot.”

“You blame me for a lot of things,” said Frumple.

“Because you are guilty of a lot of things,” said Sam.

“Such as?”

“As a muse, you’re more than inconvenient. You leave me hanging just when I’m about to solve a plot problem and then you start to play around with the narrative. You…”

Frumple yawned. “So? I think we’ve established that already. Keeps you on your toes, doesn’t it?”

“On my toes? Not exactly. More like trying to do triage after a traffic accident. I can practically smell the burning rubber and hear the screams of desperation. People are trapped down there and there’s nothing I can do. Too mangled, too ripped. Give us a fookin’ hit!”

“Hey, did you hear that?”

“No, what?”

“I think it’s your two favorite guys. Sweet and Joe.”

“Fucking soft detectives? Now? They aren’t even real police!”

There was a heavy knock on the door.

“Go away!” shouted Sam.

“You gotta let us in, dude. We’re material. How much material do you have in there anyway?”

“Look, I’ve already got the cat, and he stole my cigs! I am in no mood. I’m getting withdrawals, my hands are shaking, my brain is fuzzing over, and if you don’t go away you will learn the true meaning of the term ‘chump-wax.'”

The door eased open and Sweetback Glide stuck his head in. “Oh dude, you have got to clean this place. It’s filthy. When do you do laundry?”

“Haven’t done laundry since you guys made off with all my Tide.”

“Hey, that was some good shit. Sold it to these Albanians. Made a clean profit and bought some more. It’s all good as long as you don’t poach your own stash. And there is no way I’m getting a Tide jones. That stuff will rot your brain in no time.”

Joe chuckled.

“Oh, what, you think that’s ironic? Didn’t you get the memo? Just noticing a disparity between two apparent facts and commenting on it does not make you a clever motherfucker. It just makes you annoying.”

“Since you let yourselves in and you’re here anyway, why don’t you make yourselves at home?” said Sam. “I’m going to hop in the shower and then I’m going to the market and stock up on cartons. Man, I can practically taste them. That is what I am talking about.”

“Is Jesus your niggah?”

“Huh?”

“I’ve heard that kind of talk before, and the cracker always winds up praying to Jesus for guidance. Why would you need Jesus when you’ve got Frumple? Or us?”

“Are you saying you’re better than Jesus?”

“Not better, but more here and present. Me and Joe, we’re the new Jesus.”

“So much for not poaching your own stash. Anyway, I have to shower. Could you guys like, make me some breakfast or something like that? Eggs and bacon. And none of those runny eggs. And the bacon needs to be crisp.”

Sweetback laid his purple pimp hat on the dresser drawer next to Sam’s bed and shrugged off his jacket which was lined with what looked like real Jaguati fur. “Joe, the man wants breakfast.”

“What do I look like, a short-order cook? Homey don’t play that.”

“Are you guys going to sit around and squabble and basically waste my time?”

“You wanted material. Oh, so now you better than some material just walks right in your front door and gets comfortable. Man thinks he’s better than the material.”

Joe plunked himself down in an easy chair. “If we ain’t material, what is?”

“I’ve got the fucking cat!” screamed Sam.

“Imaginary cat,” said Joe under his breath.

“So, he’s an imaginary cat, but I claim him.”

“I always look better in contrast, don’t I?” said Frumple. “You take me for granted. I should just walk right out this door and never come back.”

“Don’t go,” said Sam. “Look, I’m sorry, again. I’m just frustrated. Every day I get up and I swear to myself I’m going to write. Stick to one project. Get that cannibal story out of the way, maybe, or the sequel to that western, or my horror novel…”

“The problem with you is,” said Sweetback, “is simple. You think you’re better than genre. So you make fun of genres. But then when it comes time to prove that you can actually do it, whether it’s a western or cannibalsploitation or horror, you start throwing out the rules. Laughing at them. You think genre likes that? You think you can just play around with pulp fiction?”

“You may have a valid point,” said Sam. “But I’m in no mood to argue it. Right now I just want to get myself clean and dressed and maybe, just maybe, Frumple here will give me a smoke. Just one. One cigarette, and you can hide them again and do whatever you need to do to annoy the shit out of me until my nerves are frayed and I’ve lost even more hair and I’m basically crazed.”

“Frumple, you happy here?”

“Not really,” said Frumple.

“Let’s leave this sad sack in the mess he made for himself,” said Sweet.

Frumple jumped on Sweetback’s shoulder and Sweetback, Joe and Frumple left.

Sam walked over to his iMac, reluctantly tapped the left-hand button on his silver mouse and began to type. “Sam awoke from the usual tedious dreams of cockroaches…”

Frumple by Alex S. Johnson

Posted in fiction with tags on January 13, 2014 by Alex S. Johnson

His hands typed but his mind was elsewhere. He was thinking of the spectacular mess he had come home to the previous night. The last thing he needed after a night of partying was to be confronted with the leavings of Frumple, the imaginary cat. It was almost inconceivable what havoc an imaginary pet could wreak, at least to Sam’s friends, but to Sam the inconceivable had become a daily affair. His cigarettes and coffee went missing, which was intolerable, and even with a bloated stomach and a head that kept shifting size he was obligated to make another run to the liquor store that was open until liquor couldn’t be legally sold. The man who owned, Marv Plotken, was a fierce old bastard and the cash register was a rusty and recalcitrant antique. Sometimes the Plotken aimed his finger at the cash register like a gun and pulled it for no apparent reason. Was he getting back at ancient enemies by some metaphysical means or had he simply lost his mind? Sam didn’t care. Cursing Frumple and the circumstances that bound them together, he wearily rose from his writing desk, shrugged on his jacket and opened the door. The icy wind hit him full in the face. There was a part of him that even blamed Frumple for the weather, which might seem peculiar if you didn’t know Frumple as well as Sam did.

“You shouldn’t smoke,” said Plotken, squeezing his index finger. Sam thought he saw the cash register shake and a tiny puff of smoke curl out from the drawer, which opened of its own accord. Plotken banged the drawer shut. Sam was used to this kind of contrary behavior and just pointed at the stack of his favorite brand, Deadly Strikes, which sat on a countertop of its own as though waiting for him. Ploken took Sam’s money and handed him his change, tattered one dollar bills and green coins. There was no use arguing that the currency was on its last legs and he’d have trouble exchanging it for anything. Sam took the small paper bag containing the instant coffee and two packs of Deadlies and was about to leave when he thought he heard a cat’s faint mewing from the back. Plotken glared at him as if telling him to mind his own business, but Sam was curious. He had long suspected Plotken of fobbing Frumple off to him some time ago under similar conditions in a paper bag not unlike this one.

He wondered if other writers had similar problems. Did Harlan Ellison have his own Frumple, and if so, how did he handle it? Frumple was not the worst imaginary pet anyone could possible have, except that the cat usually appeared when Sam was right on the verge of solving a narrative problem or untying a knot in the plot that hadn’t been there five minutes ago, when the characters had begun to talk to him and the dialog was flowing like a clear mountain stream. Perhaps the cat was not his nemesis at all, but simply a fucked-up postmodern variety of muse. But in that case, the owner of the liquor store took on a different aspect. And that was supposing that the owner had indeed snuck Frumple into the bag along with the smokes and the coffee only two months previously.

Imaginary cat or no, the two months had been murder on his creative flow. No sooner had he introduced a new character than the character developed insane quirks and insisted on relating an entirely new story, or suddenly inserted a frame into the narrative that required another frame to accommodate it, and so forth, until Sam was headed in the direction of yet another mis-en-abyme. He had sworn off the hall-of-mirrors approach to writing but the cat was very much a fan, and as long as Sam was stuck with the dreadful feline he was forced to work through the animal’s channels.

Sam considered again his theory about Plotken and Frumple’s origins. If the cat were indeed imaginary, then it stood to reason that its characteristics could be adjusted to a new owner. Sam knew little about Plotken except that he was a nasty old bugger with straw-colored patches of hair sprouting from his wrinkled pink skull and that he smelled of exotic essential oils. His gnarled hands were frosted with tiny white scars like little mouths and he usually wore a neatly knotted red velvet bow tie. There was nothing unusual about him aside from the mind games he played with Sam over cigarettes and the shooting at the register, but his eyes held something uncanny. If that something was a stronger imagination than his own, then the cat would need extensive retraining. The trouble with that plan was manifold: first he would have to find Frumple, and Frumple was invisible except on Sundays when he appeared to be a fat tabby with wicked green eyes who lived in the closet.

Firing up a Deadly Strike, Sam faced the blank screen again. He thought he could hear something scrabbling in the closet. He shut his eyes. The sound stopped. He began to type: “His hands typed but his mind was elsewhere.” It seemed he had written this sentence before. Standing up, he walked over to the closet and violently pushed the door along its hinges. “I know you’re there, you shit! Don’t think just because you’re imaginary I can’t have you put down.”

“Oh yeah?” Sam whirled around. Now the cat was sitting at the desk in front of Sam’s computer, pounding the keys with his claws. Sam stood over the cat to see what he was writing.

“Frumple’s problems with Sam were never-ending. The man appeared to suffer from the delusion that Frumple was interfering with his creative flow, driving his plots into endless divagations, also known as ‘hall of mirrors syndrome,’ and either acting as a problematic muse or a complex problem that Sam could not solve on his own. From the cat’s perspective, it was the man who was ceaselessly trying to correct very elegant and deliberate riddles Frumple had introduced into the narrative. Frumple was only trying to help, because the man was hopelessly committed to a linear approach and the cat was well aware that linearity was not the man’s strong suit. Had he been born in different circumstances, perhaps, but the seeds of a baroque fashion of writing modeled after Bach’s keyboard concertos had been sewn in his childhood. Frumple missed the relative simplicity of the liquor store, where he sat in the stock room on a crate of chartreuse dreaming of Swiss monks. The old man left him alone, and in return, Frumple did his accounts, although he couldn’t help but play tricks with the cash register–as a kitten, he had been fascinated by this very same, antique model.”

“We appear to be stuck with one another,” said Sam after reading the cat’s paragraph. Puzzled, the cat leapt down from the chair and disappeared through the half-open door into the night.

He decided that instead of erasing the cat’s work he would save it as a separate file. As he had never interacted with the cat to the extent he had that night, he wondered if the cat usually returned. He lifted the keyboard and shook free the wiry black hairs that Frumple had left, then started another file.

“Perhaps,” Sam wrote, “the cat who had just left him wasn’t Frumple after all, but a copy-cat of some kind.” The thought tormented him in actual fact. He saved the sentence and shut down the computer.

When he awoke, he saw immediately that the computer had been restarted and a fresh file created. Wiping the crust from his eyes, he eased himself into his chair, lit up a Deadly Strike and read.

“Not only can I copy myself, I can add, subtract, multiply and divide. A Frumple by any other name is just a goad, a spike, a kick in the pants. You think you can avoid me by giving up the writing game, as you do regularly whenever you face a challenge. I am here to remind you that there will always be challenges. Try to write a straight sentence, and you may see a twist coming that you never intended. Try to write a twist and it may just smooth itself out. Regardless, you cannot quit and as long as you create I will be here. As a torment sometimes, a guide when you least expect it, and the pattern of symbolic ink on paper. There is no need to berate me, to argue and complain that you can do without me, or crave my attention or try to summon me in a tight spot or rid yourself of my presence when you feel the flow come. If it weren’t for my claws and tail and sparkling green eyes and yes, the occasional spray, you would have no desire to place word after word, sentence after sentence, symbol after symbol and theme after theme together until something strange and wonderful emerges from the torture you have chosen as a career. The damn cat will always be back, my friend. And incidentally, you asked for me when you first entered that store. Sure, you wanted stimulation, but for what? To agitate your spun nerves and squeeze out yet another chunk of verbiage that nobody may ever see. To strike the keyboard and wait and puzzle over the noun that seeks a verb that waits to pounce upon an object, like a cat with a mouse. Or a Frumple with an imaginary writer. Well, you may not be the luckiest fool who ever aspired to be a scribe, but you’re damn near close. I’m there saving those sentences you delete and binding them together as you sleep, until one day you will arise and all those aborted phrases and clauses will spring to life again, stretching at first, looking around, realizing that there is no impediment that stands in their way and that nothing prevents them from becoming–the poem, the story, the novel. Or at least the first chapter. By the time you read this you will have completed your first real lesson in writing. Take it from me, as I can take care of myself. Yours, Fondly, Frumple.”