The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp


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Jason Arnopp’s The Last Days of Jack Sparks is a book you can judge by its minty delicious cover. The title is what you get – an account of the last days of Jack Sparks. The telling comes to you straight from the source: Jack Sparks.

I read this in 2 sittings because sometimes it’s nice to spend a fat chunk of time reading a great book by a swell writer. Also the pacing and spinning plot distracted me from a fever that wouldn’t go away, along with a dad who kept calling to ask if I’d “cooked it out yet” and sisters who kept calling to remind me not to take dad’s medical advice*. Fast is a good way to read this one. Then I handed it to my boyfriend for his commute and he took his sweet time. We both loved it, but he missed connecting some of the dots that make this book so clever and fun. I recommend full surrender. Keep reading. Dirty dishes can wait.


Fresh out of rehab and riding the success of his first three pop books “Jack Sparks on a Pogo Stick” “Jack Sparks on Gangs” and “Jack Sparks on Drugs”, social media addict Jack Sparks begins what will surely be his next big hit. In “Jack Sparks on the Supernatural”, Jack Sparks will completely debunk all things supernatural beginning with a demon, naturally. And in case you haven’t guessed, Jack Sparks likes being Jack Sparks.

It’s hard to say where the story begins. Work on the supernatural book starts in a remote church in Italy during the exorcism of a young girl. For some reason the priest allowed Jack Sparks to observe quietly from a pew in the back. Jack Sparks being Jack Sparks, he doesn’t stay quiet. He laughs, mocking the demon’s big scary moment. Things get messy.

As with Paul Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts, I almost missed out on this book after hearing it was sort of about a possession, assuming it was another Holy back bends, What’s coming out of her mouth? kind of storyIt’s not like that. Jack is firm in his stated premise that when it comes to the supernatural people are either deceiving or being deceived. Sure there’s a third possibility, but no way. No way is there more to our existence than lying or being lied to, and racking up as many followers as possible while doing it.

The third possibility is an uncomfortable door to open. For Jack, it’s not an option. Can you question faith if you never had it or pretended not to have it? And how can you think about these things when there’s Twitter to update and Instagram and how many new followers did he just get? Ooh shiny things with buttons and the certainty that the whole world is hanging on his every word because he has so many followers.

This is the first novel I’ve read that incorporates social media in a way that’s not annoying. It’s a huge part of Jack’s existence, his success and his end. Jack’s obsession with his online presence underscores his already apparent narcissism but it also moves the plot forward. Arnopp never tries to convince us that Jack is best friend material. He’s an arrogant self absorbed ass feeding on the empty glow of likes and follows. He’s completely aware that he’s a product of his time. That self awareness eventually makes his self destruction compelling, adding heft to a book that doesn’t need it, but maybe some of its readers do.

Jack is doomed and doesn’t know it. We know the end yet still we’re racing to catch up, to puzzle out the mysteries because it’s human nature. As it’s human nature to bury our most terrifying experience so deep that it becomes a powerful part of we are.

I haven’t read many horror novels that are actually scary. I like the ones that take the mind to dark places and leave you there to work your own way out. I love when the creeps are unexpected and fleeting. Jack Sparks is entertaining throughout with several chilling moments and a bang end that is the very opposite of a twist. No closure unless you think about it and the more you think about it the more disturbing it gets. Fun, fascinatingly disturbing, not dark and heavy I-feel-icky-about-about-the-world-and-just-need-to-lie-down-for-a-week disturbing. (Looking at you, Song of Kali.)

This is a fun, thrilling read. People who love horror will eat it up. People who enjoy thrillers, mysteries and milkshakes will love it, too.

*Don’t try to cook out a fever. Cooking out a fever can cause brain damage.



Order a fiend, save a friend


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Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear by Margee Kerr


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I loved everything about Margee Kerr’s Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. Plus the title kept putting the Misfits in my head. Specifically, Scream!. Before starting every chapter I absolutely had to enjoy the video directed by George Romero. There are worse urges.

As a sociologist working at Pittsburgh’s ScareHouse, a haunted attraction many consider among the best in the U.S., Kerr studies a kind of fear. I don’t know the technical term, let’s call it fun fear. The kind you experience when you sign up, wait in line, drive to a theme park. This is where she starts us. Her research on the benefits of fear and it’s potential application goes much deeper than Weeee!.


The book is divided into four sections: Physical Thrills, Psychological Chills, Real Fears and Bringing It Home. Kerr takes us on a ghost hunt at Eastern State Penitentiary, to the edge of a skyscraper in Canada, from roller coasters, haunted houses and the suicide forest in Japan, to a dodgy street in Bogota and a dream job research lab. She details each adventure along the way, contextualizing and contrasting the physiological effects of, for example, 2-minute thrill rides versus walking around the edge of a skyscraper for an hour.

The science behind sensations and intuitive responses is fascinating. Thrill seekers will appreciate learning that the stomach-dropping feeling you get on roller coasters is no illusion. It really does sort of drop. Apparently the stomach is so loosey-goosey that gravity affects it separately. When we get tunnel vision and temporary loss of hearing, that’s our primal instincts kicking in. The body is hard-wired for survival. Doing scary things like throwing ourselves out of a plane goes against every natural instinct. Maybe we get paralyzed with fear because those primal instincts don’t know about parachutes. In any case, doing scary things opens a door to euphoria and profound personal growth, which Kerr demonstrates throughout.

Kerr’s account of her adventure on the top of Toronto’s CN Tower is surprisingly gripping. My first impression was that this is one of many (pricey) interactive attractions contrived to cash in on the public’s growing appetite for not-so-cheap thrills and look-at-me-doing-something-Dangerous selfies. EdgeWalk  entails walking on a metal grate 1,467 ft from the ground, performing “stunts” like leaning over the edge. She reconstructs the experience of how she felt at each progression and what it was like to work through unexpected terror while also explaining the science behind her reactions and why she left feeling empowered. 

Understanding more about fear doesn’t mean you won’t get scared anymore. Kerr shares feelings of dread and terror in lucid detail.  A heightened emotional state enables us to remember things vividly. That’s why memories of scary experiences are so powerful. Kerr touches on post traumatic stress and potential ways to help people suffering from PTSD by re-associating some memories with more positive fear experiences.

My favorite parts were her Japan adventures. Japan should export their haunted houses. Or scooch closer. Better yet, build bullet planes so the flight from NYC would be the length of a nice nap. 

The haunted houses in Japan take a nuanced, artful approach to stimulating all of the senses with headphones, things you have to touch, and not worrying so much about scaring people forward. Imagine walking through a haunted house with a buddy and you’re both wearing headphones and maybe you’re not hearing the same thing. Maybe you two have a completely different experience. Maybe you have flashlights to find your way through the dark, multiple doors you have to choose from, a task you must perform.

My personal bubble is massive so a haunted house with a mission or narrative puzzle sounds ideal. The most memorable haunted house I went to was horror movie themed. The first room was small, quiet and barely lit. There was a girl sitting up in a bed, disturbed and very gross. The bed occupied the entire room so to get through you had to climb over the bed, over her legs. On the other side of the bed was a door to a dark room with a lot of hanging barely lit bodies you had to find your way around. Part way through some of the bodies started to move. A walkway over squishy things took you back to Nancy running up the marshmallow stairs in Nightmare on Elm Street. I loved the physicality and use of haunt actors to animate the scenes without the cheesiness of direct address, but we still felt like cattle being herded through as quickly as possible.

You’ll have to wait until the end for a glimpse of The Basement, the result of Kerr’s ongoing collaboration with ScareHouse. The Basement is an “interactive theater experience” scientifically designed to take people to psychologically dark places AND leave them feeling great after. As with other professional attractions labeled “extreme”, The Basement has a safe word so people can end the experience whenever they want to.

Scream offers something for runners, too. Near the end the author has herself tested at a research facility and learns she uses the same mental technique many ultra runners intuitively use to grit through long distances. Its not that they don’t feel the pain and stress of 50+ miles. Some tell themselves it doesn’t hurt or even that it feels good. Detaching themselves, re-framing what they’re feeling or simply focusing on something else minimizes the pain or at least the perception of pain, which is kind of the same thing. Maybe this why so many runners prefer the outdoors with its endless array of external diversions.

I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t gain something by reading this book. Fear is something every one of us experience so why not learn more about it? The author leaves her readers in launch mode, encouraging them to do more things that scare them. Out of context do something that scares you sounds like a flimsy affirmation. Coming from Margee Kerr, it’s just good advice.



What? This old thing?


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I’m breaking in a new computer and the smooth functionality feels so wrong, a betrayal to the machine I bought eleven years ago after living on cereal for a few weeks. Bowl after bowl of crunchy corn flakes does not a well balanced diet make. Fancy past me even splurged on a laptop bag with a red velvety interior for extra protection as we rode the subway to meetings in loud cafes with tiny tables and massive muffins.

My 11-year-old laptop still works. Slowly. It works for my purposes. I turn it on and in 5 minutes it’s ready for action. Now it’s sitting cold on the dining table where I work. The old beside the new as I delay transferring files or backing them up. Once I close the lid it may never show an image again. The hinges broke 5 years ago and with them the display connection loosened and portability became a two-person event. One of us moves the stack of books needed to support the open screen while the other gently lifts the aging laptop, careful to hold the screen at just the right downward angle. Forget traveling with it.

Most keys stick. None of the arrow keys work. The volume button is like one of those false drawers by the kitchen sink. Most of the letter characters on the keyboard are gone; I don’t type lightly.

The letters I use the most, according to the blank keys:


The Q Y P F G J Z X are only partially faded.

Beside the keyboard is a little pink sticker of a porcupine holding a heart. I found this sticker stuck to the seat of my pants after a day with my nieces and taped it where I’d see it all the time every day. Beside the porcupine is an old cutout of a Wonder Woman comic there so long I forget why. The tape over these stickers is sort of melded over the plastic. With tweezers I’m slowly working them off, trying to keep them whole.

The battery and left click on the touch pad are also false drawers. The battery is moot anyway considering the computer cannot be moved without choreography and props. Figuring out workarounds for each new development in my laptop’s failing health, rather than shopping for a replacement or expensive repairs, revived stubborn habits created in my scrappy student days and refined over years without health insurance. Who needs a doctor when you have a cabinet full of healing herbs and spices? Not me. Poultice anyone?

My old laptop features excellent security. There’s much to be said for being the only person who knows the amount of pressure and angle of cord needed to turn it on. Robbers may break in but they won’t be able to check their email. Not on my computer. And they probably wouldn’t steal it to boot.

I’m attached to the old and smitten with the new. We’re in a love triangle minus the drama, love and smoldering looks. We’re a triangle. Soon Raj will get tired of me squishing next to him at dinner and old reliable-for-my-purposes will have to go or be moved to the backroom just in case the new one breaks or I suddenly have need of two. Two sounds nice. Lots of people have two cars, two homes, two kids. Why can’t I have two computers? The senior isn’t taking up much space. Soon it’ll be vintage…

For now, both have a strip of pink post-it paper taped over the camera because nobody’s going to Ratter me (fun movie, by the way). The old one holds photos and documents from the last eleven years of my life. The new one isn’t cloaked in dust because I can close the screen.

Change is good. Changing the tilt of the screen is incredible. It took me but a second to write this sentence though it includes all my favorite sticky, worn away letters.

Happy new year. Cheers to the old year.


Springsteen – how much do you love him?


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A chunk of yesterday vanished as I madly combed the universe for affordable seats to Bruce Springsteen’s extended Broadway extravaganza, verified fan code I’ve been hoping to get for months in hand. My dad’s love for Bruce Springsteen predates my existence. They’re from the same nook of New Jersey. Springsteen is special. When I first heard about this show it sounded like it’d be such a treat for him. Prior to receiving my special code text and sinking into the Ticketmaster void, my definition of an “affordable” price to a live performance with a super high production value had 2 digits. How quaint. Two digits would barely cover Ticketmaster’s processing fees.

But what’s money when you harbor a financial lunatic inside you?

Years ago, Raj and I set out on one of many apartment hunts. The journey taught me how much I know about budgeting under pressure. Back then we lived in a nightmare with a busted front door that didn’t lock. I nailed the fire escape window shut after some dude squeaked open the window and started climbing in while I was working from home, about two feet away. The lopsided floors imbued each sleepy morning with confused panic. Are we tipping over?

Apartment hunting in Brooklyn on a normal budget is fun if you enjoy exploring the very edges of livability. One real estate agent with slick hair found his bliss by showing us places further and further beyond our budget. By the end of the day, we’re on the balcony of a duplex with a lovely view of Greenwood Cemetery. Raj went back to searching Craigslist while I arranged pretend patio furniture on our magical balcony because I can work three jobs. I want to work three jobs. Anything for you, Duplex with radiant floor heating.

Yesterday, that lunatic returned. In a matter of seconds, getting my dad tickets to see Bruce Springsteen morphed from a wouldn’t-that-be-fun to my life’s mission. The reason for my existence. No $75 tickets? So began the hunt. No $200 seats left on any date? And up and up jumped my budget odometer. Ah, a $400 seat way off to the side and a $300 ticket way up there for his friend. They can wave to each other and everything. Score! What a steal!

To buy or not to buy? I put those seats in my cart with 5 Ticketmaster minutes to decide. How did I go from willing to splurge on 2 tickets for a dream total of $150-ish+fees to possibly parting with $700+fees for my dad’s only chance to be happy ever. To buy or not to buy? Of course none of my sisters answered their phones to advise while the clock counted down.

King Lear asked his daughters How much do you love me? It didn’t go well. When we were kids the answer was an easy This much with arms wide. That was enough. That’s still enough. I know that. Lunatic doesn’t.

Because it’s Bruce Springsteen and it’s for my dad. He hasn’t seen Springsteen play since before he was a dad, lifeguard by day and hanging around The Saint at night, chatting with Clarence Clemons in the parking lot after shows, telling us what a nice guy he was anytime we heard that sweet saxophone so many years later. The need to put my dad in a seat at this show swelled. Finally, the same part of me that didn’t want to work three jobs to live in a duplex snapped to attention with a simple suggestion to ask if he even wanted to go. I called my dad fully expecting an excited Yes and you were always my favorite.

What I got was Nah. I don’t want to go all they way up there for that.

So now I’m clear. A real show in New Jersey with the full band is a cranky yes. Absolutely. Sitting in a lousy seat in a Broadway theater listening to stories and songs about the working class for $400 is a don’t you dare pay that much money.

The effort wasn’t fruitless. I finally harassed my dad into revealing something he actually does want for Christmas. A fruit cake. He loves fruit cakes. The kind he grew up with – dark and fruity with lots of booze. A good one, he felt the need to specify, meaning please don’t bake it yourself. I won’t. I’m still hearing about a cake I baked him in the 90’s. It looked like a cake. Smelled like lasagna and tasted like chocolaty bologna due to a mix-up in the adding savory seasoned oil department. So begins a new hunt.

Catch the Geminid meteor shower at its peak


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All eyes are on Alabama today. At night, let’s look up.

We’re about to learn a whole lot about Alabamians based on the kind of person they elect to represent them. I’m straining to be optimistic that Alabama will not elect a racist homophobic pedophile for the Senate. Over Doug Jones, who helped convict members of the KKK for bombing a church. Come on. No matter what happens, there’s some peace of mind to be found in the night sky. I think. It may be fleeting, but it’s always there, especially this week.

The Geminid meteor shower peaks this week on the 13th and 14th. Conditions are prime for viewing some of the 60-120 meteors an hour. Unless you live in a light polluted city as I do, but maybe we’ll be able to see some if these clouds ever clear. We’ll try. The key to catching meteors is to try. I missed bits of my namesake comet during October’s Orionid meteor shower because I forgot to look up.

Dress warm, go out after dark and be patient. Look up and enjoy the show for a few nights.

The bright streaks of light you’ll see are pieces of the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, which will  zip by our planet on December 16th, and possibly bits of comet debris all burning in our upper atmosphere.

Watching meteor showers is one of my favorite things to do. They’re gone in a blink, but then maybe there’s another over there or over there. Before you know it everything else melts away. All you have to do is watch for something spectacular and it’s best to do so passively. Soften your gaze and relax. The thrill of seeing a meteor jolts through you. See as many as possible because they’re brilliant and we need brilliance.

Blooded on the Appalachian Trail – Lemon Squeezer hike


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Anybody want, nay, need a VCR with a VHS tape stuck inside it? I discovered this sweet treasure a few weeks back tucked snug behind a book of CDs. Flipping through our CD books is a pre-hike ritual. Usually it happens before dawn because we like to be out of the city and starting on the trailhead as the sun comes up, especially when hiking in Harriman park. Close to NYC, this park gets very crowded on weekends and weekend hikes are our only option lately.

Nobody’s ever accused me of being a people person, but I like seeing other hikers on the trail. I just don’t want them directly in front of me, behind me or close enough for me to hear them. It sort of ruins the illusion of being one wrong step away from being lost and hunted in the woods by a crafty witch.

I guess it could’ve sufficed to say we woke up early for our Lemon Squeezer hike. This isn’t the same pricey climb by the Mohonk Mountain House. This is a free 7+-mile hike with more than 10 trail switches. It’s very easy to get lost in the spider web of intersecting trails huddled up in this section of the park. We brought a map and printed directions from HiketheHudsonValley, a thorough site which hasn’t steered us wrong yet.

The route begins on the Appalachian Trail through a frosted misty meadow. The AT takes you up and then down to Island Pond.

Shortly after, you hit the Lemon Squeezer, a fun rock formation for those who enjoy a modest scramble and squeezing themselves through some not-too-tiny spots.

After the squeeze we said good-bye to the AT and backtracked to pick up our next of many rolling trails. Again, we lucked into going in the opposite direction of the crowd.

My favorite section came near the end on the White Trail as we made our way through the Valley of Boulders. Maybe you can’t guess from the cryptic name, but there are boulders everywhere. Traveling through calls for hopping from rock to rock. We ate lunch by a cascading stream, enjoying what felt like the aftermath of that scene in The Hobbit when misty mountains battle each other.

Little did I know what awaited.

This year we’ve bagged a handful of peaks towards our 35er goal, climbing the 35 Catskills peaks over 3500 ft. We’ve ascended, scrambled, tried some beginners’ bouldering, crossed streams, peeked over cliffs and out from fire towers, and even got to hike along a ridge. All without incurring much in the way of injury other than some sore muscles.

The many trail switches along this route form a rough loop, bringing you back to the meadow along the AT. This is a strait trail with a flat hard-packed dirt surface. Easy as la la la. I look over at this ghostly tree with green vines up one side and orange vines woven through the other. Then I’m on the ground with a bloody knee because a straight, flat walk to the car was just too much. I’m happy to report my favorite pants for hiking didn’t rip. Just my flesh.

My true scar stories are no fun. How’d I get the crescent on my left knee? Well, I bumped it while washing the car when I was 8 and there was so much blood I wasn’t allowed to go inside until hosing off and I probably needed stitches but we don’t roll that way.

So this post gets a makeover if my papery knee scars yet again. The revision will include misty mountains fighting, me saving a puppy and flying boulders. Technically, this day did include mist, there were puppies on the trail, Raj does have a charming habit of kicking back rocks when he leads and I am kind of a hero to animals who don’t need saving. So that’s the story if it scars.

The Hobbit

Net Neutrality vote December 14th


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Have you called congress yet to defend Net Neutrality? As someone using the Internet right now, why not?

Congress votes on Ajit Pai’s, known around these parts as The Tool, proposal to gut the Internet in 14 days. The FCC released it’s final plans to repeal Net Neutrality over Thanksgiving. If this is for our benefit, why did they sneak in this future-changing proposal during a major national holiday when constituents are conveniently distracted?

We’ve learned again and again that we cannot count on congress to act in the public interest. The front page of Reddit today shows what some members of congress, mostly republicans, are up to. Guess what? It involves accepting large sums of money from the telecom lobby so they can do what congress does best: fund re-election campaigns.

What is Net Neutrality?

Save Net Neutrality.

What’s wrong with repealing Net Neutrality?

From SaveTheInternet:

What is Net Neutrality?

Net Neutrality is the internet’s guiding principle: It preserves our right to communicate freely online.

Call congress.

Send emails to congress.

Don’t be distracted by the many distraction stories they’ll throw our way until December 14th. On December 14th members of congress, many of whom are already bought by telecom companies and/or are being mislead by the FCC, will vote on whether to repeal Net Neutrality.

A repeal of Net Neutrality hands over full control of our Internet to telecom companies.  They will control which voices are heard and which ones aren’t.

Control the medium, Control the message.

Repealing Net Neutrality will transform the Internet from this ocean of ideas, creativity and entrepreneurship to sliced and diced plastic packages of products stuffed with 90% crap you don’t want and 10% sites and apps you now have to pay to access and if you access them too much you can go ahead and pay some more and even then the information you’re looking for can be buried or blocked or drowned in molasses.

If you’re glancing at this, and you’re not one of the bots or deceased people used to corrupt the “comment period” over the repeal  of Net Neutrality, then hopefully you’re a human who values freedom, pure freedom, knowledge, ideas, information. The ability to work and live without companies putting a price on what we can and cannot do.

Let’s back up. Find out if your identity or the identity of someone you care about was misused to support the repeal of Net Neutrality.  Check and report it.

The argument in favor of repealing Net Neutrality is that it will spur investment. Investment in power and control, not in us.

The way we live, earn a living, connect with people, share opinions, ideas and creativity, and learn, is for sale. Our freedom is for sale.

If you support Net Neutrality, make today one of those days where you do something you feel good about. Put your phone on speaker and let your kids hear you use your voice to fight back. Defend the freedom of the Internet.

It only takes a few minutes.

Call congress.

Send emails to congress.


Extreme scare experience by me, for me


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A frankenstorm converged in my head the other day. Several are to blame and I’m not one of them. It started long before I needed an afternoon break and called my sister, let’s call her Sister X, to wish her an early happy birthday. The phone rang and rang and eventually went to voicemail, adding to a series of dots about to form a fist punching the panic button.

An hour passes and I email, text and call a few more times. No answer. Why is Sister X doing this to me? Every lucky soul on my contacts list knows that sometimes, out of nowhere, I get a little fidgety about unreturned phone calls.

Work is done for the day because now the only thing I can think about is why won’t Sister X call me back? What happened? What’s happening right now? I call my boyfriend, the calming source of reason. He’s going out on a work function, but assures me Sister X is just running errands or one of the girls put her phone on silent again.

Sure. But he’s not around to neutralize and soon I’m not buying it.

I go for a run, which usually helps, but because I’m running alone my brain begins to mine. When was the last time I heard from Sister X? It’s the first question movie coppers ask and I don’t know. Back from the run and still nothing. I call our other sisters, leave a few messages with mutual friends. They say Sister X hasn’t posted on Facebook in a week, unusual for her. Suspicious.

Over the course of an hour worried me morphs into Sister X’s only hope. Must find the car keys. Now it’s clear I need to drive the 2.5 hours to their house. If all the lights are out I need to enter, start looking for clues and assemble a search posse.  My oldest sister says to wait a day. My little sister plans to drive up later, but I can’t wait. I find the keys and do what I loathe, drive in NYC at rush hour because I’m totally convinced something bad happened. It’s the only possible explanation. It’s the only explanation I can believe in the moment.

Meanwhile, at a cozy resort, Sister X returns from dinner and story time with her hubs and kids to find dozens of messages ranging from ‘call me back‘ and ‘where r you?‘ to ‘R u guys ok?’ and ‘remember the plan‘. (When we were kids we had a plan covertly called What To Do In A Home Invasion. It entailed mastering karate.) I’m driving to their house wishing I mastered Karate or some deceptively complex survival trapping skills just in case and now I’m pretty sure I’ll need to take down some evil. Stupid adrenaline jacked on caffeine will have to do. I pull into WaWa for more coffee.

My phone is on silent, a maddening habit considering, but because of the circumstances I check my phone. The first text is from my empathetic brother-in-law:

I murdered her, jackass. What do you think? Translation: He took them on a surprise getaway. I was not to bust into their house.

So I spent a night in extreme overdrive. This time of year, people pay good money to be kidnapped, restrained and tormented all in the name of extreme. My experience was for free, assuming Sister X doesn’t send me a bill for my troubles.










Song of Kali by Dan Simmons


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Dan Simmons is one of my go-to authors when I want meaty horror. The subject doesn’t matter. Reading him is like getting in a car with a friend and knowing you’re going to have a good time no matter where you go. It’s watching a Hitchcock film or putting on the Misfits. He’s one of my favorite authors. That said, the substantial heft of his books calls for some commitment.

Song of Kali, published in 1985, was his first published novel. It’s delightfully short, but in no way is this an easy read. If you’re in the mood for something dark and bone-chillingly nasty, here you go.


The story is set in Kolkata, Calcutta at the time it was written. Aside from Rabindranath Tagore’s stories, I’ve never read anything set in this city but my boyfriend’s family is from there so I’m basically an expert. He actually grabbed the book from my pile when I told him where it was set, but I got it back the next day as he took quick offense to the way Kolkata’s depicted. I don’t blame him. This is a fascinating book, though were it written by any other author I probably would’ve put it down, too.

Poet and publisher Robert Luczak is sent to Calcutta on a magazine assignment to retrieve a supposedly new manuscript from a supposedly dead poet. He brings along his Indian-American wife and their baby girl. It all seems very simple and they expect to fly back in a few short days, manuscript in hand.

Luczak’s efforts to gain possession of the manuscript and gather fodder for his article lead him on a convoluted trail from the company of an uppity writing society to members of the secret cult of Kali, goddess of death and destruction. Soon we find ourselves trapped in a story within a story. If you put yourself in Luczak’s shoes, listening to a stranger’s horrifying, seemingly irrelevant account of a secret barbaric cult in a sweltering city flanked by extreme poverty in the midst of monsoon season, you understand why he retreats to a presumably safe place of utter disbelief and thanks but this has nothing to do with me reaction.

This story just keeps getting darker and never went where I expected it to. The source of the horror lingers. Ghosts and monsters are fun and slashers are good times because they’re all absurd. The good ones come from a real place, but on the surface they roll around in bloody absurdity. You know it and the author knows it and so the ride can go anywhere. In Song of Kali, the true horror isn’t what moves in the shadows or a city’s continuous assault on the senses. It’s what people do to people, our capacity for violence.

Simmons wrote a novel in which a sprawling city and a fearful deity are characters, but the monsters are human. Where I anticipated a more heightened reality, the story remains grounded in every dirty minute. The actions Luczak takes to achieve his purpose dig him deeper and deeper. Normally, I want more awareness from a smart protagonist, but Simmons cleverly immerses him in the haze of being in a foreign land. There’s not a full moment of lucid orientation until suddenly there is and then you don’t want it but it hammers you anyway.

I’m glad I didn’t put this book down, but it is not a good time. It’s nothing like Stephen King or even the other Dan Simmons books I’ve read. One of the reasons I love horror is for it the breadth of its scope. This one goes to the dark corners and pulls out the things that scare us so much we don’t want to think about them let alone spend hours holding them close to our faces, reading every detail in teeny tiny text – my copy is old.

Unfortunately, Simmons disregards the nuances of Kali’s dual nature – death and rebirth, fierceness and compassion. Things we naturally think about this time of year as the trees fade so beautifully around us and lifelong traditions feed the urge to do something new.

I meant to write about this book sooner, but we were busy last week making food and having people over to celebrate Kali Puja and Diwali along with millions or others around the world. Pray, eat, party.