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Rena Mason’s The Evolutionist

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My friend Rena Mason’s debut novel dropped almost two months ago, and I reviewed it for the New York Journal of Books. On a more personal note, one that wouldn’t have been appropriate for the NYJB…I am so goddamn proud of her for pushing this one out of the nest. I’ve known her since WHC ’11 in Austin, when she was just breaking onto the scene and I had debuted my third project (my novella, WILD) mere months earlier.

We have a pretty good relationship as a pair of writers who’ve critiqued each other’s work with brutal honesty and have advised each other on such peripheral matters as web design, social media and pitching. However, I wouldn’t have reviewed the book if I didn’t truly think it kicked ass. Nobody made me do it. She didn’t even send me the copy I read. And while it’s a bit surreal at times, and probably not to everyone’s taste (and honestly, I wouldn’t wipe my ass on some of the books the masses RAVE about), I dare somene to send me a 2013 debut science fiction or horror novel that tops The Evolutionist.

The Evolutionist is a perfect storm of life experience and talent, ending on a somber note with most of the loose ends tied up and just the hint or two of a question raised.

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My Religious Roller-coaster Part 4

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After building years of fascination with Catholic ritual into a working knowledge of eclectic Witchcraft and then stripping out the spiritual aspects of the craft in favor of hard-line Satanism, I gave up priesthood of a small group of fellow high school students in favor of attendance at a fundamental Baptist church. This was not an overnight change by any means–the guy who eventually brought me into his church community pestered my friends and I for months of one school year and part of the next.

Pretty much THIS, every day, at lunchtime -- for months.

Keep in mind that we were not only asshole teenagers, but Satanist asshole teenagers, and this guy preached Jesus to all of us–in the cafeteria at breakfast andlunch, in the hallways, if he saw us outside–every chance he got. He totally had Attention Deficit Disorder, and I mean bad. He got detention sometimes for reading the Bible in class instead of doing his work, I’m dead serious. This guy was a sitting duck for pretty much anyone in the school, and even moreso for us. We did everything short of physical violence to this dude for months, I’m sorry to say. And he kept coming back.

Eventually, I tired of hostility and opted instead for simple cold dismissal. I forget why, but one day I said yes when he invited me to his house. That pretty much sealed it for me. He didn’t listen to any ‘worldly music’ or read any ‘wordly books,’ but the rest of his family were normal, except that they really loved God a whole lot. And after talking to this guy’s dad, a church deacon, for hours, I agreed to come out to their church. And while on the surface mixing me with a Fundamentalist church just seems like a recipe for disaster, it really wasn’t. I figured out a few things–that it wasn’t God that I hated, it was saying the same exact prayers and singing the same exact songs week after week during Mass. I was annoyed about things that didn’t make sense, like confessing your sins to another guy or having celibate priests despite the alleged first Pope being married–stuff like that. The church was independent of any other church–took it’s lead from the pastor, not a group of bishops or anything like that–and had strict moral standards, which was one of the things I liked about Satanism.

I still talk to that guy and his family sometimes to this day. That church played a big part in my seventeenth year of life. A few months after I started going regularly, my brother and I got into it over something stupid–we were living together, by ourselves, in New Jersey–and he kicked me out of the house for the second time (which is another story for another day). The church was there for me. I lived with the pastor and his family for a month or two, then with one of the other deacons, before finally moving in with my friend — we had absolutely become friends by this point — and his family for months. We don’t talk as much these days, but they are important to me to this day. I’m friends with the guy and his sister, and his father, on Facebook. I was upset for days when I found out his mother had passed away a couple years back. My life today is different because of them.

Faith Baptist Camp, 2011, much as I remember it being in 1999.

Pretty much what I did for the next six months or so was go to school, go to work and go to church. And I liked it. I joined the youth group. I helped bring other kids into church. Sometimes, I even preached. I took notes in my Bible and cross-referenced stuff. I studied. I crafted sermons just like the pastors, and gave ’em too, sometimes. I had Jesus in my life. I liked it. It was a struggle sometimes, but by and large, I liked the people I was associating with, and the guys at school that still spent time with me despite my changes — well, I can count on the fingers of one hand, the people I still talk to from high school, and they’re most of them.

Right around the tail end of the year, I had a few experiences I didn’t like: half the church completely ostracized one of our youth leaders for a relationship he was having with a woman in the church (they were both single, but not married, and had begun living together), and we’d recently attended a week of meetings at Faith Baptist Camp in Resaca, Georgia. Along with all the stuff you’d expect to hear from an old-school, Fundamentalist church camp, there were a few dudes who actually climbed into the pulpit to preach against things like women wearing pants and interracial marriage. Seriously. My friend even caught hell for the beard he was growing until my friend started quoting the guy verses from Isaiah where it was prophesied that Jesus’ beard would be ripped out. All emotion, lots of screaming, not a lot of measured, rational discourse. Not what I needed to be around as what some call a ‘babe in Christ.’

So when, at the end of the year, when events conspired to send my back to my mother’s home in Rochester, NY in 2000, I didn’t seek out another Fundamentalist church. I went back to what I was comfortable with — not Satanism, but eclectic Paganism with a bit stronger worldview than Gardner and Buckland’s ‘Harm None’ philosophy.

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The Only Three Books to Seriously Mess Me Up

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Author’s Note: I came across this guest blog while answering a friend’s question about Stephen King books on Facebook, and realized I’d never brought it over here for safekeeping. So, you get it now. It originally appeared on the Undead Rat’s website, preceded the previous day by a review of WILD, the book I was touring (virtually) for in March 2011.

Let’s face it; when you write the scary stuff like I do and review horror books on a regular basis, it’s easy to… take the chills for granted, so to speak, or to become jaded. Kinda like how you can eat your dinner while watching the evening news because you see the same murders and genocide night after night.

Now, there have been quite a few novels that made me cringe; I made the mistake of reading Brian Keene’s Urban Gothic and J.F. Gonzalez’ Survivor while eating meals, for instance. Grossing me out isn’t the same as really sticking with me, though, and while I don’t want to take anything away from the authors I enjoy reading every week, I read horror for entertainment and only three books come to mind as having actually horrified me.

I first encountered Pet Sematary by Stephen King while in high school, though the novel was released the year after I was born. I’d been reading horror for a couple of years by this point, was a freshman at a local Catholic high school and routinely broke the religion teacher (a priest)’s balls by ignoring his lessons in favor of Stephen King but still maintaining an ‘A’ average. Even at that age I didn’t lay awake for hours after reading a horror novel or get creeped out by reading about the various bad guys.

However, I almost didn’t finish Pet Sematary, the story of a family’s dealings with an ancient Native American burial ground. I put it down about 2/3 of the way in and couldn’t pick it back up for two months, as I recall. Imagine how gratified I was when I discovered that King almost didn’t publish the book and considers it the most horrifying of his works.

Last year I had the pleasure of personally telling Jack Ketchum how affected I was by his novel The Girl Next Door. In return, he shared with me how affected he was by the real-life story that inspired the book, of a girl in 1965 Indianapolis tortured to death by a family friend and her children. My autographed mass-market paperback of the book is probably my favorite signed book of all because of the impact the story had on me, but I have to admit it’s the book I’m least likely to ever read in public again.

The first time I read the book I didn’t know what to expect; I’d heard good (bad?) things about it, but I read horror daily, you know? There were certain points in the story that I reached while sitting in a large group of people, praying that no one would look over my shoulder and see what a sick freak I was, while at the same time unable to put the damn thing down.

Finally, Succulent Prey by Wrath James White really did me in, to such an extent that I still found myself thinking about it weeks later. It starts out intriguingly enough, with an unorthodox theory about the propagation of serial killers, but quickly degenerates into a horrifying string of brutal cannibal episodes interwoven with the protagonist’s quest to discover whether serial killers create other serial killers.

Wrath’s a good writer, but so are a lot of the other authors I read for fun, too. There’s something about cannibals that really screws with me, though; I guess everyone has their thing, right? For some people, it’s clowns. Succulent Prey not only has the gore-factor going for it, but the emotional impact of the story, especially the end, was the icing on the cake.

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Thank You, and I Hate You Forever

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Today’s Secret Origin installment is a reprint of a guest post I did last year in support of my weird-western novella, WILD.

Today, for Sue’s fans and readers (and hopefully a few of my own!), I offer up one of my darkest secrets. One so dark and so secret I myself didn’t know it myself until recently, though it’s been with me over half my life. When it hit me, I’m pretty sure I got a taste of what Paul did on the road to Damascus.

I owe everything I am today, to include all my creative successes and joys, to a man whose grave I’d cheerfully piss on every day for the rest of my life.

When I was eight or nine my mother started dating this guy, Russ. He was a friend of the guy she’d been dating before, and before him there was nothing and before that was my dad, who’d gotten loaded at a party hosted by one of my friends’ parents, checked into rehab and never came back (except for the occasional weekend, which looking back, I kinda sorta miss). My mom really knew how to pick ‘em: my old man liked the occasional impromptu boxing match with the old lady after a few beers and her first boyfriend after he left was a pothead, an unemployed waste and, apparently, allergic to soap. Russ liked to smoke up, but at least he washed his ass. And he worked, at least some of the time.

Shortly after they started dating, my mother could no longer afford the rent on the half-house she and my father had been renting and they moved in with some friends of Russ’. I lived with my aunt and her girlfriend for a few months, to give me some sort of stability. I really miss those days, too, incidentally, and maintain that even though my father died after not seeing me for ten years (and only missed me by an hour, too), he’s smiling down through the clouds (or up through the flames, perhaps) every time I visit his side of the family again, since being reunited at his funeral after more than a decade apart. Long story short, a few months later my mother and Russ got an apartment, and then they got me. And that’s where the adventure begins.

Besides God and my family, the only things that really matter to me in life are reading, writing and music. I played music on and off for seventeen years; in school bands, garage bands and church bands. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, and getting published, in school magazines, community magazines, school newspapers, real newspapers, and books. I always have a book or two around and have been reading on my own since about the age of three. If somehow music, books, or writing were removed from my life I would cease to be Lincoln Crisler. This holds true now and at any point in my life to date. Those three things have always been there, whether I was full or starving, clean or dirty, married, divorced or separated, living with my family, my friends or on my own. Forever and ever amen.

Now here’s the kicker: Russ gave me those things. He was into all the seventies and eighties rock you could think of. There was always rock and roll playing in the house. He brought home recordings of Nik and the Nice Guys shows when they went out of town and brought me to local shows. I even played on stage one time, strumming a beat-to-hell guitar as part of the Air Guitar Army. My birthday and Christmas gifts always consisted, at least in part, of bootleg cassettes of albums by Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Journey, Fleetwood Mac, Reo Speedwagon and many other bands. Most importantly, he introduced me to the music of Rush. To this day, they’re my favorite band. If I woke up in a bathtub full of ice with my kidneys missing, I’d call it good as long as the bathtub was center-stage front row at a Rush concert. To this day if I were to come up with a setlist to play on a half-hour’s notice, most of it would be music I first listened to while my mother and I lived with Russ.

He introduced me to all of my favorite authors. He gave me Piers Anthony’s Incarnations and Mode series’. He gave me the first seven books of Terry Brooks’ Shannara series. He gave me Eddings’ Belgariad, Elenium and Tamuli (though not the Mallorean, and though I now own it, I still haven’t read it). He gave me my first Poul Anderson, Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Anne McCaffery and Stephen King books. He bought me my first copy of The Lord of the Rings. I pick up new books by most of these authors to this day. I still read the old ones he gave me seventeen years ago. Today I write and publish science fiction, fantasy and horror almost exclusively, and I think most of that comes from all the great books from those genres I read when I was young and impressionable.

The monster of my childhood created a monster himself. In his own image, but better in some ways. Perhaps in the way that Frankenstein’s monster could be said to be better than the Doctor. I don’t beat women, for instance, but I definitely write about worse things than he ever acted out. Instead of working behind the scenes, I’ve been on the stage. If I saw him right now, I can’t say with any certainty whether I’d hit my knees and thank him or kick him in the scrotum.

So much damned gray area. Such is life.

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Meet Dexter (or, Lincoln’s Uncanny History with Pets)

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Chirping bird at 5AM--cute when you're five, and bored. When you're 18 and home on leave during Army Basic Training? Not so much.

When this weekend comes, it’ll mark two weeks of dog ownership in the Crisler house. I’ll introduce you to the little guy in a minute or two–but I’m certain most of you don’t understand what a milestone this is, both for me and my family as a whole. So bear with me a bit. Most of you read this ’cause you like my storytelling anyhow, right? Right?

Pets have always been a big deal in my life; sometimes a good one, sometimes not so much. When I was a child, I had a few. My first cat was named Frisky. I don’t remember the circumstances, but I remember him being taken away one day. After that (I don’t remember how much time elapsed) I got a bird for my birthday, a cockatiel named Sammy. My mother’s owned a couple other cockatiels since, and in my opinion, they’re much more enjoyable when you’re seven than when you’re seventeen. Sammy flew out the window one weekend while I was visiting my father.

Some time after Sammy took off for greener pastures, my mom and stepfather got me a turtle. I named him Dino, short for Donatello. My previous anecdotes indicate a poor history with animals, but up until now, none of the misfortunes were my doing. I can’t say the same for Dino. One morning before going to school, I turned up the water heater in his tank, thinking to make him more comfortable, and when I came home that afternoon, the water was too hot and poor Dino was dead.

I was mortified. Stricken with fear. My heart was a block of ice as my mother and stepfather tried to revive it in the bathtub with cool water. No bueno. How the heck was I going to own up to this one? Luckily, my mother, odd bird that she is (God love her) blamed the building super, a crotchety old woman who lived a floor below us and had a master key. Mom figured old Doris came in and did it, just to be a mean bitch. To this day, I’ve never told her anything different. You read it here first. To replace Dino, my mother got me a new turtle. I named him Mikey (after Michaelangelo). He had a mean temper and a tendency to snap, however, and we soon returned him to the shop.

My mom’s not this bad–but we knew a chick who was WORSE. At least a hundred cats–straight up–and all the associated filth you’d expect. And you folks wonder why I write the scary stuff.

My mother’s always had cats–multiple ones, copious amounts of cats–in the house from the time I was about 13 or 14, up until now. She’s the quintessential cat lady; lives alone, upwards of five cats in a one-bedroom apartment, pays to get them cremated when they die and keeps the ashes, etc. She’s always had good luck with her animals, though. She loves them, they love her, and they live long lives.

When I moved out for the second and last time at 17, I took my cat, Lucifer, with me. I rescued that cat from the yard next door to the home of my then friend-with-benefits, a girl named Katie, and named it after her until I discovered it had a scrotum. I had to leave Lucifer behind when I joined the Army. I hope my roommate took care of him. The guy moved out by the time I came home to visit after training. From 2000-2005, I had no pets–you can’t have them in military barracks, and the one attempt my ex-wife and I made at feline ownership ended (in less than 48 hours) in the cat running off into the woods during a pagan ritual after slipping the leash (Megan insisted on bringing it with us).

In 2005, Connie and her daughter (now my adopted daughter for over five years) Cheyann moved in with me in Watertown, when I got stationed at Fort Drum. Cheyann brought a cat, Mocha, with her, that she’d had since she was five. I tried to like Mocha. I really did. Mocha was a beautiful animal. But she hated everyone but Cheyann. I tried to get Connie to let me find it a good home, but Cheyann’s feelings came first. I was finally able to find Mocha a new home in 2010, while stationed in El Paso, Texas, when Cheyann grew unattached to the cat and it began urinating on furniture. To this day, it is one of my sweetest victories. Cheyann was fine with the cat’s departure, and she was in good hands less than twelve hours after I posted her on Craigslist. Everyone won.

Buy my books or the dog gets it.

In 2007, while still stationed in Watertown, Cheyann and I acquired a purebred Pembroke Welsh Corgi puppy, to the tune of around a thousand dollars–the cost of the dog, it’s plane ride, roundtrip gas to New York City and back when I miscalculated the destination airport of choice and the vet bill for when Chupa (short for Chupacabra) ran under Connie’s feet while Connie was carrying a basket of laundry. Cheyann and I had wanted a Corgi for the past couple of years, since before we’d met, and we’d decided to get one after I came home from Afghanistan. A month later, I gave the bloody thing away to a neighbor after failing to housebreak it. In 2008 or -09, my brother-in-law brought us his dog to keep in El Paso when he could no longer house it. It dug out from under our backyard fence and ran away the next day while we were taking my mother-in-law to visit her childhood home in Albuquerque.

Before leaving El Paso in 2010, we bought a baby turtle which moved to Augusta, Georgia with us. We named him Pollo–Spanish for chicken. About a year after we got him, he ran away while I was cleaning his tank. Read that again, folks–my damn turtle ran away. I put him in the backyard, in my son’s water table so he could stay moist. It took me under fifteen minutes to clean the tank. No more Pollo.

Obviously, the Crislers aren’t meant to own pets. Cheyann and I have good intentions, but piss-poor luck. Connie doesn’t even like pets in the house, and only tolerated Mocha for Cheyann’s sake. The dogs and turtle acquired during our marriage each came with their own uphill battle.

A few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to try again, and Connie agreed to give it a try. I was shooting for a kitten–much easier to housebreak–but she shifted gears to a puppy overnight. My lovely wife actually did the legwork on finding us a kickass Doberman puppy–he looks to be 6-8 months old, but we’re not sure. Some country folk rescued him from a ditch and gave him to us for $25. He had bright eyes and good teeth and his coat shined after three back-to-back flea baths and brushings. So far, so good. And after a couple days of accidents, he learned to walk on a leash (I don’t think he’d ever been on one, before living with us) and is mostly housebroken. It took him a week or so to become fully confident, but he now barks when he hears other dogs in the distance, and when someone comes into the house unexpectedly (Chey had a really late night at work Tuesday).

So, meet Dexter. Cheyann named him, after the television serial killer whose show Connie and I have watched every episode of. I think this one’s gonna work out.

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