Wednesday, April 14, 2021

A STIR OF ECHOES by Richard Matheson

      Richard Matheson’s 1958 novel, A Stir of Echoes, is more than a horror story. The plot is speculative—Tom Wallace, after being hypnotized at a neighborhood party, is able to read people’s thoughts and see events in the near future. He thinks his new abilities are connected with a ghostly woman who visits his home in the night’s quiet hours, but nothing is as simple it seems.      Matheson paints the 1950’s Southern California suburban setting vivid with a lucid and cinematic style. The characters are full-bodied. Tom’s neighbors look  and act genuine. They love, dream and live. At least that’s how it appears on the surface, but what Tom discovers with his new abilities is much darker because he now also sees their lust and hate, anger and fear, betrayal and vindictiveness; all those unsavory emotions and actions we do our best to hide.
      There’s a mystery, too, that is rife with Cold War paranoia. The paranoia reflects the attitude of the American society in the 1950s: Everything’s great! Except we’re all going to die (figuratively through communist assimilation and literally with the hydrogen bomb). But it’s the humanity Matheson uncovers that provides the power and longevity of the work and the great thing about A Stir of Echoes is, it can be read as illuminative literature or as a straight horror novel, and even better, as both.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Coming Soon: Killers, Crooks & Spies: Jack Bickham's Fiction


      My companion to the late-Jack Bickham’s novels, titled Killers, Crooks & Spies: Jack Bickham’s Fiction, is coming out next Tuesday, April 13. Bickham wrote in every popular genre, except horror and romance (although he did write a few “sleaze” novels for Midwood that may be a touch romantic). He started in Westerns in 1958, and finished with a posthumously published traditional mystery in 1998. Bickham wrote The Apple Dumpling Gang, which Disney translated into a 1975 box office hit. He wrote six espionage thrillers, featuring aging tennis pro Brad Smith, and so much more.
      Killers, Crooks & Spies includes a brief overview of Bickham’s life. A detailed look at his writing career, including articles about his significant books, series, and publishers. There is a bibliography, and a bunch of book reviews.
      Here is a snippet from the Introduction:

Breakfast at Wimbledon was my first experience with Jack Bickham’s writing. I purchased the paperback on a rainy summer afternoon in 1992. I was in my teens, lonely and scared, as my mother battled a cancer that would kill her in less than two years. I escaped this bleak reality by slipping between the covers of books. I traveled the world with the superhero-like characters populating the thrillers of David Morrell, Jack Higgins, and Tom Clancy, and with philosophical outsiders like Travis McGee.

The cover blurb comparing Breakfast at Wimbledon with one of my favorite writers— “Jack M. Bickham is doing for professional tennis what Dick Francis has done for horse racing.” —encouraged a closer look. Those first few paragraphs bounced off the page. I walked out of the store five minutes later with a new book and a jolt of excitement to get home and start reading.

For now, Killers, Crooks & Spies is an Amazon Kindle exclusive, but that may change in the coming weeks.
      Follow this link to visit the Amazon selling page:

Monday, March 01, 2021

Shameless Self-Promotion: A New Short Story in Honor of Bill Crider


    The Bill Crider tribute anthology, Bullets and Other Hurting Things, edited by Rick Ollerman (Down & Out Books), hit the street a few days ago. It features 20 original stories written in honor of the late Bill Crider. I’m honored that my story, “Asia Divine”, somehow made the cut since there are a bunch of great contributing authors. Joe R. Lansdale, Charlaine Harris, William Kent Krueger, Bill Pronzini, James Sallis, James Reasoner, are only a few. 

“Asia Divine” is set is Utah’s West Desert, from the Great Salt Lake’s Stansbury Island to somewhere near the Bonneville Salt Flats. 

Here are the first few lines of “Asia Divine”:


Detective Mike Giles gagged on the stink as the Maglite’s glare bobbed across the dim and ragged interior of the bus. He leaned against the pock-marked pole next to the torn-out driver’s seat, a hand cupped over his mouth and nose.

From the back of the bus a disembodied voice said, “It gets worse.”

A bright white light exploded and retreated, fireworks popped in Giles’ eyes.

The simulated whir and click of a digital camera saturated the confined area, and the dull ache in his head blossomed into a roar.

As his vision recovered, another flash bounced. The camera clicked.

“Jesus, Danny.” Giles stroked his throbbing head. “Hold off on the photos until I have a look, huh?”

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Saturday, January 23, 2021

DOUBLE FEATURE by Donald E. Westlake

Double Feature, a 2020 release from Hard Case Crime and originally published as Enough in 1977, includes a short novel and a novella. The novel, A Travesty, is a slanted whodunit, which is more of a can-he-get-away-with-it since the protagonist – a film critic – is the murderer doing anything he needs to do to stay out of prison. A humorous story that begins with the genre’s usual, but grows into something quite original. The unexpected, but perfectly ironic ending, gives it a smile-inducing appeal.

The novella, Ordo, is more hardboiled than its pairing, and my favorite of the two because of its working class narrative. A career navy man, Ordo, discovers his short-time wife of fifteen years earlier has become a Hollywood sex symbol. She is unrecognizable as the girl he knew, and Ordo wants to figure out how his ex-wife became someone else. What he discovers is painful and melancholy, but has a purely American vibe of creating your personal mythology; similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but much less sinister.

Double Feature is a great pairing of tales, told in different styles and with contrasting themes, that showcase Westlake’s brilliance as a storyteller.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Hollywood Nocturnes"

Hollywood Nocturnes, by James Ellroy, was published in hardcover by Otto Penzler Books in 1994. The edition that caught my eye is Dell’s paperback reprint published in 1995. The bright and rich colors of the 1990s – orange and pink and that rich and deep purple – are exciting and enticing. And, there’s that accordion player to add a bit of “hmmh?” The artist: Unknown (to me at least)

The first sentence of the story, “Out of the Past”:

“A man gyrating with an accordion – pumping his ‘Stomach Steinway’ for all it’s worth.” 

Hollywood Nocturnes is a collection of seven of James Ellroy’s crime stories.

Monday, November 09, 2020

THE NICKEL BOYS by Colson Whitehead

This is review is for a book different from the usual fare at Gravetapping, but it is a marvelous and important novel that satisfies on every level of good literature. It entertains, it educates, it illuminates.

Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys is as brilliant as it is uncomfortable. Elwood Curtis, a black teenager living in 1960s Tallahassee, is sent to a segregated reform school, The Nickel Academy, after the police catch him in a stolen car. Elwood was hitchhiking for the first day of his early-entry college class in the next town, when the car thief picked him up. His pleas of innocence go nowhere with the police or the judge.

Nickel’s staff trade the boys’ state allotted food to local businesses for kickbacks. They beat and whip any of the “students” perceived as trouble-makers. A few of the boys disappear into unmarked graves after severe beatings, the staff claiming they ran away. The boys are offered to local bigwigs as free labor. The pedophiles on staff have unlimited access to the boys.

The school’s degrading atmosphere is more than Elwood can stand. He wants to fight, in a similar way that his hero Martin Luther King Jr. confronts segregation and racism, but the more he struggles against Nickel, the harder his life becomes. The Jim Crow South setting is vividly drawn, uncomfortable, and for this naïve reader, startling. Elwood's journey from a hopeful boy, listening to King’s sermons in his grandmother’s house, to his descent into Nickel is both tragic and disturbing.

The Nickel Boys is fiction, but it was inspired by the very real Dozier School for Boys, which operated in Marianna, Florida, between 1900 and 2011. The beatings, killings, and everything else actually happened at Dozier, but the story and the characters are the invention of Whitehead.

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Books in Film: "Dark Passage"

 When books appear as set background in film and television, I spend more time identifying the books than paying attention to the story. When a book gets actual screen time, it makes me happier than something so insignificant should.

This happened with David Goodis’ Dark Passage in the 1991 film, Past Midnight. A film I haven’t watched enough of to decide if a connection exists between novel and film, but man do I dig that featured Dell edition and, even more, its prominence the scene.

Past Midnight was directed by Jan Eliasberg, written by Frank Norwood (it is rumored Quentin Tarantino heavily revised the script), and stars Rutger Hauer, and Natasha Richardson.