Monday, December 29, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Buddha Hands

     I know I’ve probably said this before, in posts such as the ones for lychees (see November 15, 2013 post), and mangosteens (see March 27, 2014 post), but this time I really, really mean it—Buddha hands are the strangest looking fruit I’ve ever seen.  The most common term for them is pretty apt:  As someone who’s exhumed many graves, and seen many de-fleshed hands, take it from me, it’s a decent resemblance.  I’ve also heard “Cthulhu fruit” as a nickname, and that’s fair too.  Or, to continue our parade of similarities, it looks kind of like a lemon and an octopus had a baby.  (Does this mental image challenge the internet’s Rule 34?  Maybe.)  Anyway, it’s roughly hand sized, of course, has a lemon-ish outer rind, and about 6-10 fingerlike tendrils coming off of it.  Oh, one more comparison—it resembles one of the “facehugger” aliens from the movie series of the same name.
     In a funny way, the “Cthulhu fruit” moniker is appropriate, too, as Buddha hands are a type of citron, which is one of the three original citrus fruits (Mandarin oranges and pummelos (see February 20, 2014 post) are the others).  Every other citrus fruit is a hybrid of these O.G., parent fruits.  Or “Old Ones,” as H.P. Lovecraft would have put it.  They are believed to have originated in Asia, either China or India.  As with many fruits, now they’re grown in other places which have hot enough climates.  Evidently they’re not that common, though, at least here in the U.S., because they’re very expensive.  They go for as much as $24 a pound, and the regular sized one I bought was $10.
     As for what people do with them, eating them is rather low on the list.  They’re prized as ornamentals, for both their tree and the fruit themselves.  But their most valued attribute is their odor—they’re used as religious offerings (“closed” fingered, more immature ones are considered best, as they’re mimicking praying hands), in perfumes, to freshen laundry, or to simply give a room a nice smell.  Because here’s the thing—they don’t really have pulp:  Under the outer rind is basically just inner rind, like the yellowish-white coating on an orange’s pulp.  Therefore, to consume them people usually use them as twists for drinks, or made into jams, or candied, or juiced and drizzled over salads.
     As even semi-regular readers know, I’m adverse to cooking foods, or even doing much preparation.  I checked out some of the complicated recipes for candying them, or jamming them (is that a proper verb usage?  It is now), and just laughed.  I didn’t feel the yearn to use the stove top, or, as I like to call it, the “little room underneath the burners” (i.e. the “oven”).  Instead I tried some of the quasi-pulp (inner rind) plain, and then attempted to make “Buddha hand-ade” by putting chopped up ones in water for a couple of days, and adding sugar.
     The results were awful.  I couldn’t even swallow the inner rind, and the drink was weak and barely had a taste, even with sugar.  Maybe the jams and candied varieties are decent, but I have to admit I’m not optimistic.  I can’t recommend these as food.
     However, this may be a unique case where I nonetheless recommend buying them anyway.  The odor, which is activated by cutting into them, is as pleasant as advertised.  But, mainly, I think they’re fun for pranks.  In my household, we pretended the Buddha hand was conscious, and evil, and told jokes in that vein, and put notes in its “fingers” that “it” wrote.  Or, it would probably freak people out if you substituted one for a lemon overnight.  They might think, “Did my lemon get syphilis or something?”  They’d probably make for effective Halloween decorations, too.  Yes, they’re definitely overpriced, but if you get some friends to chip in, maybe, I still think they could be worth it.  Just think twice (or three times) about eating them.
     (Oh, and finally, I don’t get the sense that the name is considered insulting to those who are Buddhists.  But if so, I apologize.  My intent was to try a new fruit, and write an entertaining post about it, and not to mock anyone’s spiritual beliefs.)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Creature Stew" Cover Reveal

     Here it is!  As luck would have it, this picture could be showing a scene from my story in the anthology ("The Existence Mezzanine").  I think the publication date is basically any day now.  Obviously, I'll post more information here when I get it.
     And to those that celebrate it, Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Dogfish Head Brewery's Ancient Ales

     Dogfish Head Brewery (out of Milton, Delaware) is one of the more famous craft breweries in the U.S.  (Don't know if they export much to other countries--hope so, for their sakes.)  And with good reason--they're excellent.  My personal favorites include their 60 Minute and 90 Minute IPA's, as well as their Saison du Buff.
     But one of the things I like best about them is their willingness to experiment with different beer styles and ingredients.  If you take a look at their brewery's offerings over the years, it's well into the dozens, if not three digits.  Essentially, pick a beer style and they've probably already produced a version, or are presumably planning to.
     Given my profession, it seemed appropriate for me to try and rate beers from their Ancient Ales series.  Starting in 1999, Dogfish Head has partnered up with Dr. Patrick McGovern, from the University of Pennsylvania Museum, who specializes in studying ancient beverages.  One of Dr. McGovern's methods is to chemically analyze drinking vessels from archaeological sites and determine what was in the beverages.  Sometimes the results indicate that the drinks were alcoholic in nature.  So, looking at these chemical results, as well as from botanical samples, pollen samples, and written documents, McGovern has been able to roughly figure out recipes for some of these.
     The first Ancient Ale put out by Dogfish Head was Midas Touch.  This is a beverage somewhere between a wine and a mead, based on information found in a tomb in Turkey believed to be that of the real King Midas.  (Clearly, the myths and stories about him, such as his cursed ability to turn things to gold by touching them, are fictitious, but there does seem to have been an actual ruler.)  This beer is flavored with honey, white muscat grapes, and saffron.
     Chateau Jiahu is based on evidence found in a tomb at the 9000 year old Neolithic site of Jiahu in the Henan province of China.  Other highlights of this site include some of the earliest examples of writing, and some of the oldest playable musical instruments, in the form of their distinctive flutes.  The beer, which may be the oldest example of alcohol ever, is made with barley, honey, hawthorn fruit, and sake rice.
     Moving to Central America, another Ancient Ale, Theobroma, is based on analysis of pottery found at a 3000 year old site in Honduras.  It's flavored with honey, cocoa, chilies, and annatto.  It's inspired by the chocolate drink that was reserved only for the ruling elite, and the gods.
    Ta Henket is based on Egyptian hieroglyphics.   It consists of a wheat and bread base, with chamomile, doum palm fruit, and Middle Eastern herb flavoring, using yeast from Cairo.
     Birra Etrusca Bronze is based on the chemical analysis of drinking vessels found in 2800 year old Etruscan warrior tombs in Tuscany, Italy, along with botanical evidence from the same.  Flavorings include the ubiquitous honey, hazelnut flour, heirloom wheat, myrrh (appropriate for this season), gentian root, raisins, and pomegranate.  Additionally, it's also listed as being fermented in bronze.
     Kvasir is inspired by evidence found in a drinking vessel in the tomb of a leather-clad woman believed to have been either a priestess or a upper class dancer.  The tomb is Danish, and is 3500 years old.  Ingredients include wheat, lingonberries, cranberries, myrica gale, yarrow, (of course) honey, and birch syrup.
     Other offerings, some of which were discontinued, were their versions of sahti (see July 30, 2012 post), the African, honey and tree root flavored tej, and chicha, a traditional South American brew.
     I was able to locate some of these, and my opinions are below.  As before, if I find any of the missing ones, or when Dogfish Head inevitably makes more kinds, I'll of course try to find these, try them, and update this post.  As I often do, I'll be using the U.S. scholastic system of A (excellent), B (good), C (average), D (poor, but passing) through F (failing, awful), with pluses and minuses as necessary.

1) Midas Touch:    C-.  Okay, but a little too barley wine-ish (barley wine is a beer style I don't usually like).  The honey sweetness helps.

2) Chateau Jiahu:  C+.  Weird.  Almost like a wine, or a barley wine.  Taste is hard to pin down, and describe.

3) Theobroma:  D.  Didn't like.  Unpleasant.  Bad tastes include metallic, chalky, and plastic-y.  Couldn't really detect the chocolate or chili.

4) Birra Etrusca Bronze:  B.  Nice.  Some weird flavors--fruity, almost like a golden ale.  Very solid.

5) Kvasir:  B-.  Pretty good.  Finishes nicely--tart.  Fruity, in a good way.  Hides alcohol well.

     As further explanation, except for the Midas Touch, which I did find in 12 ounce bottles, all of these were only sold in 25 ounce "bomber" bottles.  And the prices for the bombers were steep--$12 to $13 each.  So if you're not reasonably sure you'll like it, maybe split one with a friend.  Also, these are all very strong in alcohol content.  The weakest is the Etrusca, and even that's 8.5%!  (The others are 9-10%.)  Looking at my scores, you can see I didn't love any of them, but really only disliked one.  Most were at least alright.  And I don't regret even the Theobroma--I didn't enjoy it, but I was trying something new, and different.  The expression "Variety is the spice of life," is one I try to adhere to, at least with foods and beverages.  And at the risk of sounding cliché and cheesy, imbibing any of the Ancient Ales is like reliving the past, embracing liquid history, if you will.



Saturday, December 13, 2014

Writing Updates

     Just went through the first round of edits on my story for the "Creature Stew" anthology, and it went very well.  As I mentioned in a post a couple of months ago, this horror anthology is being put out by Papa Bear Press, and will probably be available in January or February of next year.  My contribution, "The Existence Mezzanine," is a tale about vicious zombies--but with a distinctive twist.
     Also, I'm please to announce that another story, "See?", was recently accepted for an anthology from NoodleDoodle Publications.  This anthology will be Volume 2 of "Fear's Accomplice."  Volume 1 of "Fear's Accomplice" has done very well, and hopefully this bodes well for the sequel.  This book is scheduled for a mid February release.
      And as usual, I'll continue to update new information on both of these, such as when the covers are chosen, and when the release dates are made official.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Kiwano

    (I'm writing this while at the local laundromat, which contains paintings of Darwin, Karl Marx (?), and an anonymous figure who looks clinically depressed, head in his hands.  Just to explain if the tone of this post goes awry.)
     Kiwano (aka horned melon, hedged gourd, and my personal favorite, blowfish fruit) is an extremely distinctive fruit.  It's roughly fist-sized, oval, and is a bright orange color (or, inside joke to my field archaeologist friends, a "strong brown" tint).  It also appears to be daring you to eat it--it's covered in multiple, fairly sharp thorns.  So when I saw it in the Tops supermarket in Wysox, PA, I knew I had to try it.
     I pretty much had it quickly, and proceeded to cut it open.  The inside was unusual, too--4 chambers with light yellowish/whitish walls, filled with green, very seedy pulp.  I dug in with a spoon.  Then, after I ate half of it, I looked it up on the internet.  Here's when I had a brief moment of terror.  The first couple of mentionings of it on the world wide web posited whether or not the seeds were poisonous.  I immediately kicked myself for being lazy and sloppy, perhaps with extreme consequences.  I enjoy doing these short essays every week, but I don't want an obituary which relays how I accidently killed myself while trying out wacky foods.  Well, since you're not reading this, letter by letter, on a Ouija board, you know I survived.  Later websites confirmed that the seeds aren't deadly toxic.  Which is a good thing, too--there are so many, and they're so mixed in with the pulp, that picking them out would be tediously time consuming.
     Kiwano is of African origin, but now it is also cultivated in other hot climates, like in the Southern U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Chile.  Westerners have been slow to embrace it (except for rural Pennsylvanians, evidently (!)).  It's important to those that live in the Kalahari Desert, since it's a rare source of water during the region's dry season.  Nutritionally it contains significant amounts of iron and magnesium, and smaller amounts of B vitamins, phosphorus, and zinc.
    Anyway, kiwano was decent.  The taste is tart, but not overpoweringly so, certainly not similar to a lemon.  Others maintain it's like a cross of cucumbers, zucchini, and lemons, or like bananas, but I didn't agree with any of these.  I wasn't dazzled by it, but it was alright.  I wouldn't leap to buy it the next time I see it in the store (which if history is any indication, might be quite a long time), but I would probably pick one up again every now and then. 
     Additionally, like I was discussing before, it served as an important reminder that I should research exotics before consuming them, a lesson I should have already learned by now.  Supermarkets don't always include warnings and detailed preparation instructions with their offered foods.  And, most of us aren't callous dictators with food tasters on the payroll.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Yerba Mate

     We're heading back to South America for this post.  Yerba mate is a plant whose leaves are used to make a stimulating beverage.  It's believed that this drink was first discovered and developed by people living in southern Brazil, although now it's popular throughout most of the continent, as well as Syria.  It's also making inroads into the U.S. and Europe.
     The traditional manner of preparing the beverage is fairly rough and rustic.  The leaves (and sometimes the twigs) are put in a hollow gourd, and hot water is poured in.  Sometimes cold water is used, and occasionally sugar is added as well.  Another common way of using the yerba mate is to mix an infusion of it with cold water, and sometimes combine this with fruit juices.  This is called, terere.
     As with many of the exotics I've discussed, there are many health claims for yerba mate.  Some assert it's good for combatting allergies, boosting the immune system, preventing diabetes, suppressing the appetite, and improving mental energy and mood.  However, these claims haven't been scientifically proven as of yet.  Conversely, there are evidently health problems from consuming this drink.  It appears that long term use can significantly increase the chances of getting oral cancer, as well as causing high blood pressure.  Less dramatically, many drinkers report that it gives the energy of coffee, but without coffee's negative "jittery" effect, and later dramatic "crash."  I was unable to find out if yerba mate has less or more caffeine in it than coffee--it seems this can vary.
     Clearly I didn't try yerba mate in the traditional way.  I saw it, pre-bottled and pre-canned, in Whole Foods.  I usually try to sample a variety of companies and brands, but here I was stymied.  Guayaki appears to have a stranglehold of the yerba mate, a monopoly, at least in in the Albany, NY area.  I bought the traditional terere, the citrus terere, and the sparkling cranberry pomegranate flavor.  Each container also listed the relative energy, as measured by its caffeine content, from a low of "light," up through "bright," "lifted," "glowing," and "mighty."  Both the tereres were "glowing," while the cranberry pomegranate was "lifted."
     I began with the traditional terere.  It tasted like weak tea.  It finished kind of weird.  In short, I wasn't a big fan.  The citrus terere was essentially the same as its plain cousin--I couldn't really discern a citrus-y flavor.  Finally, the cranberry pomegranate was by far the pick of the litter.  It was still tea-ish, but the cranberry tint really helped.  I don't think I have these again--maybe the cranberry pomegranate one for an occasional change of pace.
     As for the energy boost, I didn't notice any.  But, as I've stated in previous posts, caffeine doesn't seem to affect me very much.  And because I despise coffee, I can't really compare and contrast yerba mate vs. java.    

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Sea Cucumbers

     After learning a bit about sea cucumbers, I came away quite impressed.  What a wonderfully bizarre creature!  In fact, I think the platypus may have some serious competition for the title of World's Weirdest Animal.
     As their name suggests, while there is variety amongst the species, most look like a cucumber that lives on the ocean floor.  However, despite their moniker, they aren't plants, but are marine animals. They're echinoderms, related to starfish and sea urchins, although they don't resemble either of these.
     So what's odd about them?  Pretty much everything.  Let's start with the brains.  Oh wait, we can't--they don't have any.  They do have a ring of neural tissue that helps them decide when to feed, when to move, when to fight, etc., but even this isn't that important.  If this neural ring is removed, they carry on just fine.  Then there's the way that sea cucumbers breathe.  They lack lungs, or even gills.  They extract oxygen using "respiratory trees."  These organs are located inside their rear end.  They intake water through the anus, and it then gets to the respiratory trees.  So they breathe through their asses.  But we're not done.  When their fellow sea creatures try to attack and eat them, they have a strange but effective defense strategy.  They expel internal organs at the would be predators, sometimes through their butt, sometimes through a tear in their abdominal wall.  These projected innards are often sticky, and occasionally even toxic to the attacker.  You might be wondering the obvious question, mainly, how does the sea cucumber then function without these organs?  Just fine, as it turns out.  They're regenerated within a few weeks.
     Sizewise, again there is quite a bit of variation.  They range from 3 millimeters in length to 3 meters (about 10 feet) long.  Although the average size is, not shockingly, about the size of a cucumber (10-20 centimeters long).  They can also live in extremely deep, pressure packed environments, as they've been found at depths of over 10,000 meters.
     Sea cucumbers are mainly an Asian culinary staple, and that's where I had them.  Specifically, at A La Shanghai, in Latham, NY (Thanks to Pat for the recommendation).  The appearance was, predictably, strange.  At first glance it resembled chunks of eggplant, but if one looked closer, you could see a blackish outer skin which had a circular pattern on it.  The texture was mostly soft and chewy, although every so often there was a slight crunch at the end.  Initially I found it mediocre, but it really grew on me.  The more I had, the more I enjoyed it.  I would definitely have this again, although I realize opportunities to do so will be limited.  For the record, the other dishes at A La Shanghai were very good as well.  My friends and I particularly liked the dumplings filled with soup.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Cherimoya

     It probably goes without saying that small towns usually have less diverse choices of food than large towns, or cities.  But every so often one will surprise you.  The tiny Pennsylvania town Wysox (population of less than 2000 people) did so recently.  Their local grocery store, Tops, had an exotic or two hidden away.  And thanks also to Alix (aka Panther) for alerting me to this food's presence, and serving it to the crew.
     Cherimoya is a fruit of slightly questionable heritage.  Some scientists claim it's South American in origin, specifically in the Andes region, while others point out it's closely related to several Central American varieties.  But whatever New World area it originally came from, it's since spread in popularity.  It's also now grown in South Asia, California and Florida, Portugal, and Italy.
     To be frank, it's not an attractive looking fruit.  It's a green color, with occasional black markings, and has diamond shaped dimples all over it.  It's fairly large, being a little bigger than a grapefruit.  The interior pulp is whitish, with about 20-30 black seeds.
     The cherimoya tree is fraught with danger.  The seeds, young fruit, and leaves serve as insecticides to certain insect species.  The sap is irritating, and can injure people's eyes.  A chemical in the bark can be used to induce paralysis, (at least in toads).  Finally, the seeds are poisonous.  Luckily, since it's fairly easy to accidently consume one, they can safely pass through a person's digestive system--they're only hazardous if the seed is broken up.
     Cherimoya certainly has its fans.  Famous author Mark Twain claimed it was the "most delicious fruit known to men."  Others compare its taste to a blend of pineapples, papaya, bananas, strawberries, and peaches.  It's also known as the "custard apple" because of its flavor.
     I had it twice.  The first time it was presumably not as ripe, since the texture was rather firm.  It was okay, but it did have a weird chalky tint.  The second time I let it sit for a few day before I ate it.  This aged fruit was much softer--I was able to scoop it from the rind with a spoon.  I liked it much better this way--it was mild, sweetish, and pretty good.  Although it did give me a mild stomach ache afterward--evidently it was a tad overripe.  I didn't notice all the blended fruit flavors mentioned earlier, but maybe my palate isn't sophisticated enough, due to years of canned pasta, gas station beef jerky, and White Castle burgers.
     Anyway, to sum up, I don't quite agree with Mr. Twain's assessment, but cherimoya was good when it was aged a bit.  I would have it again.  Finally, like many fruits, it's nutritious, having significant amounts of fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin B-6, and several antioxidants.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Coming Back" Now Available

     I'm delighted to announce that "Coming Back" is now available from Thirteen O'clock Press.  This horror anthology includes a short story of mine, entitled "Next to Godliness."  This book is 180 pages, was edited by Dorothy Davies, and has stories from Evan Purcell, Ken Goldman, Shawna Rand, Michael B. Fletcher, Thomas M. Malafarina, and many others.

     Here's the official blurb: 
        Coming back from--that's the point at which the authors in this varied and fascinating anthology take off in all directions.
        Zombies through to returning parents, coming back proves to mean many different things to many people.
        Coming back to Thirteen O'clock Publications' premier authors and sample some dark, dark stories.

     My story is about a weird group which investigates and celebrates existence in all of its forms, and what happens when one of these searches goes horribly awry.
     You can find out more, and order this book at the following address:

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Coffin Hop Results and Farewell

     Well, Coffin Hop 2014 is dead.  But much like a horror movie monster, it will never stay that way--we'll just have to wait until next year.
      As always, thanks to Axel for orchestrating this theater of the morbid.  And thanks to all the other writers and artists who participated.  Finally, thanks to everyone else who took the time to stop by all of our blogs.  I'm sure we all learned about some interesting books, poetry, artwork, and films.  I hope everyone had as much eerie fun as I did.
     The winner of my blog contest was Julia Floyd, for her knowledge of horror movie trivia.  Congrats, Julia!  Just decide which of my ebooks you'd like to receive a free copy of ("Dead Reckoning" or "Kaishaku," info on both was posted on October 27th and October 31st), and drop me an email at:    and we'll make the arrangements.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Blurb and Excerpt for "Kaishaku"

     Below you’ll find the blurb and excerpt for my second ebook, “Kaishaku.”  Winners of the Horror Author Trivia contest and the Horror Movie Trivia contest will be able to get a free copy of either this book or “Dead Reckoning” (see October 27th post for more information on that book).  Kaishaku is also available on the Musa Publishing website ( and on Amazon.  The cover is on the right border of this blog.

  Kaishaku Blurb:

     After receiving a DUI, Dustin Dempster is working off some community service hours at a hospital.  While there he’s asked to do some amateur counseling of sometimes difficult patients.  He thinks this a waste of time, but he reluctantly agrees.
     One of these difficult patients is Levon Howard, a man paralyzed from the neck down because of a car accident.  He’s initially uncooperative, but after being charmed by Dustin’s brutal honesty and willingness to break some small hospital rules, he agrees to participate.  Soon he’s revealing his biggest secrets to Dustin…
     For Levon is an obsessed and unrepentant killer of the worst sort, only with a personal quirk.  Despite his revulsion, Dustin finds himself intrigued by Levon’s story.  Soon he finds himself doing what was once unthinkable, and realizes that he’s being affected by what he’s learned.  Will Howard’s madness claim yet another victim, or even another perpetuator?

Kaishaku Excerpt:

     Dustin pulled up his chair, and listened intently.
     “For starters, my name is Levon, so call me that.  Not big on ‘Mr. Howard.’  Fort is right in a way—I do want to talk.  Just not to someone like him, or his flunkies, or a nurse.  What I’m going to tell you I’ve never told anyone—but I figure, why not?  My life—my real life—is over.
     “You never told anyone?  Why not?”
     “Shut up and listen!  You’ll see.  But anyway, the most important thing in my life is that I’m obsessed with killing.  With a catch—I’m not a murderer.  I’ve never been arrested, never went to jail, and never even broke the law.”
     Levon paused to catch his breath, and Dustin just stared at him, and resisted the urge to laugh.  Come on!  This guy’s gotta be fucking with me!  Or was he?  He looked pretty sincere—could he be serious?  Maybe he would have been better off not talking to him.  But, on the other hand, Levon could hardly attack him even if he wanted to, and besides, Dustin was a little curious.  So he waited for the paralyzed man to resume.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Pumpkin Beers (Updated)

     (Regular readers of this blog might be saying, “Wait a second, this post sounds awfully familiar.”  And they’d be right, this is a reprint from a year ago.  However, I have updated it a little bit, as I was able to try some more pumpkin beer offerings.  Essentially, I needed another Halloween-related post for the Coffin Hop, and couldn’t think of anything else in time!  New updates are marked with an asterisk (*) in front of them.)
     Since it’s the Halloween season I thought I’d do a post about the brew of the season—pumpkin beers.  By doing so I may be risking alienating (or boring) any non-American readers, because pumpkin beers appear to be a nearly exclusive American beverage.  Also, these beers are probably pushing the “exotic” title, as due to their type’s popularity explosion in the past decade or so they’re probably more like “slightly unusual.”  But what the hell—I want to post about at least one food or beverage with a tie to Halloween this month, so let’s get on with it.
     In researching pumpkin beers, I was surprised to learn that their history is extensive.  Like before the U.S. was even a country.  One website I consulted noted that America’s first folk song, written in 1643, was a satire about eating (and drinking, in the form of pumpkin ales) nothing but pumpkins and parsnips.  The lyrics I viewed weren’t that funny to me, but humor can be culturally and time period bound, and this song is over 350 years old, so I’ll give it a break, and not mock it.  During this period, evidently malt was hard to come by, so early European colonists looking to brew beer turned to a local plant that was a good source of fermentable sugars, the humble pumpkin.  As a result, pumpkin ale was quite popular, especially in the 1700’s, along with regular porters and ales.  A recipe for making it survives from 1771, even.  However, this popularity took a major hit in the early 1800’s.  Pumpkin ale was seen as passé, and apparently malt sources weren’t such a problem to easily locate anymore.  Regular grain ales, porters, and then lagers especially came to dominate the U.S. beer scene in the mid to late 1800’s, and up until the present day.
     However, in the early days of the craft, microbrewing movement, in the late 1980’s, a brewer decided to experiment, and reintroduce the pumpkin beer.  This brewer, Buffalo Bill’s Brewery (out of the Pacific Northwest) even used one of founding father George Washington’s personal recipes for their prototype (although the commercial version was apparently different, and used pumpkin pie spices in place of actual pumpkin to make it).  Over the next couple of decades pumpkin beers steadily grew in popularity, and now hundreds of U.S. breweries offer them.
     And this in itself produced surprising information.  I didn’t realize how polarizing an issue pumpkin beer is.  People seem to mostly love it or hate.  I read a particularly vicious quote about the style from a Washington City Times beer writer, Orr Stuhl:  “Even picking a favorite is like picking a favorite airborne disease.”  Looking through some comments in the websites and blogs I looked at, I saw some similar opinions—how much they hated pumpkin beers, and in some cases, how they hated that they were sold, and how those that enjoy them are not “real” beer drinkers, etc.  These were balanced by comments defending pumpkin beers, many of whom extolled (or at least appreciated) the style.
     I myself, not shockingly, love to try new types of beer (and meat, organs, cheeses, vegetables, fruit—you get the idea), and I’m not adverse to all the fruit-flavored beer types, either, like lambics, krieks, winter seasonals—some are quite tasty.  Although I have to say that even the good ones, like decent ciders, are usually so sweet that I can only have one or two in a sitting, and can’t drink them all night.  But as a switch up, I can appreciate them from time to time.  Over the years I’ve tried the occasional pumpkin beer, and recall liking some, so I went into this project with enthusiasm.  But enough history and chatter, let’s get to the rankings.  I deliberately chose a mix of larger, macrobrewery offering, and smaller, local microbrews.  And these are listed, worst to best, using the school A(excellent) through F (failure) rankings.

Southampton Pumpkin Ale (New York State): D.  Very nasty, and astringent.  Not good at all.

Starr Hill Boxcar Pumpkin Porter (Virginia): D.  I like that they tried a different beer style—most pumpkin beers are ales or lagers—but the result was tremendously disappointing.  It was tasteless, like water.  Akin to a light beer—that’s how watery it was.

Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin Ale (Colorado): D.  Thin, tasteless, and not worth it.

*Long Trail Unfiltered Pumpkin Ale (Vermont): D.  Bad.  Metallic-tasting.  Not pumpkin-y at all.  What happened?  Long Trail is usually a quality brewery—a rare miss.

Buffalo Bill’s Brewery American Original Pumpkin Ale (Pacific Northwest): D+. You may recall from above, this was the one that reintroduced the style back in the late 1980’s.  So I expected it to be exceptional, since so many copied it, or at least the idea.  But no, for me.  I found it only slightly pumpkin-y, and a lot astringent.  

Lakefront Pumpkin Lager (Wisconsin): C-.  Disappointing.  Only a hint of pumpkin flavor.  Watery and weak.

Post Road Pumpkin Ale (Brooklyn Brewery, NY):  C.  Okay, not great.  Slightly bitter in an unpleasant way.

Shocktop Pumpkin Wheat (Missouri):  C.  Mediocre.  Had slight cinnamon taste.

Shipyard Brewing Pumpkinhead (Maine):  C.  Drinkable.  Not very pumpkin-y.  Rather bland and inoffensive.

*Wolaver’s Pumpkin Ale (Vermont): C.  Just average.  Kind of bland-ish.  Not bad, just not a very compelling flavor.

Ithaca Country Pumpkin (NY):  C+.  Okay, weakish.  Not great.

*Great South Bay Splashing Pumpkin Ale (Long Island, NY): C+.  Pumpkin-y at first, but ends a little weakly.

Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale (Massachussetts):  C+.  Slightly better than average, but still not very special.

The Traveler Beer Company Jack-o Shandy (Vermont)  C+.  Really different—it’s a shandy (lemon peel) mixed with pumpkin.  Weird.  Flavor pairing is a little off-putting and strange, but somehow is not terrible, and is oddly drinkable.

Uinta Punk’n Harvest Pumpkin Ale (Utah):  B-.  Nice odor.  Okay, a tad blandish.  Still a marked improvement over most of the others.

Harpoon Pumpkin UFO Unfiltered Ale (New England): B-.  A bit weak, but better than average.  Slightly more pumpkin-y.

*Harpoon Imperial Pumpkin (New England): B.  This was a surprise, as I usually do not like stouts at all.  Tastes very heavy and strong (it’s 10.5% alcohol!).  Slightly spicy.  Weird.  Has sweetish, vanilla-y burn at end.  Really grew on me.

* Southern Tier Pumking (NY): B.  Sweet, vanilla-y.  Good.  Hides alcohol content (8.6%) well.  To be fair, it didn’t taste very pumpkin-y, but it was tasty all the same.

Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale (New Hampshire): B+.  Nice odor, very good.  Spicey.  Tastes normal at first, than pumpkin flavor really kicks in nicely.

Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale (Pennsylvania): A-.  Very good.  Blend of spices was well done.

    In conclusion, looking at my rankings, I’m struck that I’m apparently an exception to the “love it or hate it” dichotomy.  Almost half (7, now 9) I found to be mediocre and average (“C” rating), and I disliked (“D”) 4 (now 5), and really enjoyed (“B to A”) 4 (now 6).  And even the 4 (now 5) lowest ranked ones weren’t terrible, weren’t drain pours or anything.  So it appears, if I generalize, that I kind of like the style, but only slightly.  Also, I should note that I wasn’t able to get my hands on two of the acknowledged superior pumpkin beers—Dogfish Head’s Punkin and Southern Tier’s Pumking (obviously, I did find this one—it’s ranked above).  If I can locate them I’ll add them to the list.
     * Furthermore, I’ve been a little puzzled, and amused, by the recent furor over “pumpkin spice.”  It appears that some people are really upset over this flavor being added to coffee/lattes, doughnuts, cakes, candy, candles, etc.  I get that many people don’t like pumpkin spice flavoring, or are a little annoyed that it’s being offered in tons of products, and you see the words everywhere, but it still seems like an overreaction.  It seems pretty easy to just not order the offending flavor, and just ignore the fad for a few weeks.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Horror Movie Trivia Contest

     Just to review, this is one of the contests I’m running for the Coffin Hop.  The first person to comment in with all 10 answers correct wins their choice of a free copy of one of my ebooks—“Dead Reckoning” or “Kaishaku.”  In the event that no one answers all 10 correct, it will go to the person who answers the most correct by the end of the Hop—12:01 a.m., November 1st, 2014, Eastern Standard Time.  (And in the event of a tie, I’ll flip a coin, or draw names out of a hat.)
     As usual, I tried to make this challenging, so some brief internet searches might be necessary to figure these out.  Enjoy!

1)      Famous (infamous?) entertainer/actor/comedian/performance artist Andy Kaufman made his movie debut playing a murderous policeman in a 1970’s sci-fi/horror movie.  Name it.
2)      What famous horror director had an early job working on “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” shooting the “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy” episode?  (Side note—at the time, future movie star Michael Keaton was also working on the show, as a grip.)
3)      What actor appeared in both a “Friday the 13th” movie, two “Return of the Living Dead” movies, and is reported a good friend of George Clooney?
4)      What actress appeared in 1985’s “Weird Science,” 1988’s “Return of the Living Dead Part 2,”  1988’s “Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” and in two episodes of “Seinfeld,” one in which she played a Nazi?
5)      What two later famous actors both appeared in 1994’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre:  The Next Generation”?
6)      What famous sci-fi/horror director played a character who is killed by Jason Voorhees in a “Friday the 13th” movie?
7)      What famous horror director played a party guest (and was uncredited) in a scene in the 1988 Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America”?
8)      What was the only movie that Wes Craven directed to receive an Academy Award nomination, (for acting)?
9)      Famous actress Jennifer Aniston had her first real movie role in an early 1990’s horror movie.  Name it.  (Technically she first appeared in 1988’s legendarily awful “Mac and Me,” but that was as a extra.)

10)  Rank the following horror series in order, from least number of films to most.  This counts all remakes/reboots, etc.  And this is as of right now, late October, 2014—sure to change!  “Friday the 13th,” “Halloween,” “The Howling,” Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Saw,” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”  I’ll provide the numbers:  6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 12.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Underrated Horror Movie Gems--"Motel Hell"

     “Motel Hell” was a horror-comedy (or, you could make a claim that it was a comedy-horror) that came out in 1980, and was a modest hit.  But, as you can tell from the title of this post, I don’t think it’s received the acclaim it deserves.  Its name is memorable, and sort of known, but I still think it rates a bit more attention.
     The movie is about Vincent Smith, who runs a small hotel, and a successful smoked meat business, in partnership with his sister, Ida.  Their home is located way out in the country, in an unspecified state.  The Smith’s younger brother, Bruce, is the local town policeman.  A young woman, Terry, is in a serious motorcycle accident with her boyfriend, who is reported dead.  Having few other options, she decides to stay with the Smiths.  Things start to get sinister, as it becomes evident that Vincent and Ida aren’t the kindly farmers they seem, and their delicious cured meats might not be 100% USDA pork….
     (SPOILERS AHEAD)  And now for the spoilerific recap, for those that have seen it, but are hazy on the details.  We know fairly quickly in that Vincent and Ida are serial killers and cannibals.  Mostly they do this by setting traps along the local highway—secretly shooting tires out, laying out literal (bear) traps, having Ida pretend to be injured by a fake car accident on the side of the road, etc.  But they also occasionally get victims at their hotel—they lure swingers in, and then pretend to be into S & M to securely tie up their prey.  But, they don’t kill their victims right away—instead they bury them up to their necks in a secret garden, feed them through a funnel, and then periodically kill them off and add them to the cured meat products.  The family, we learn, has a long history of doing this, dating back at least to their grandmother.  Vincent and Ida’s brother Bruce isn’t in on the crimes, as he ran away when he was young.  The pretty Terry resists Bruce’s wooing attempts, and instead falls in love with the much older Vincent.  However, love is not blind enough to overcome the revelation that Vincent is a murderous cannibal.  Bruce, too, has become suspicious, and his investigation reveals that Vincent and Ida are killers.  Bruce arrives in time to (eventually) kill Vincent in a chainsaw duel, while Ida is (presumably) killed by the would-be victims after they dig themselves out of the secret garden.
     “Motel Hell” is obviously a parody of horror films.  Most notably, of course, of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974), which both feature bizarre families, cannibalism, and the chainsaw as a featured weapon.  There’s probably also a nod to 1960’s “Psycho,” since both feature crazy murderers who run small, isolated motels.  And, in general, the Smith’s hypocritical religious moralizing, and prudish disdain for modern and alternative sexuality, are clearly typical horror themes.  Also, when the secret garden victims dig out and go after the Smiths, the imitation of George Romero’s slow zombies is pretty easy to see, as they advance, moaning mindlessly, on their attackers.  (You could argue that this is unrealistic, and it probably is, but on the other hand, being buried for days, and fed only through a tube, probably would be physically and psychologically traumatic.)
     Several underlying themes and philosophies can be seen, starting with a definite environmental/hippie-type theme.  Vincent’s meat is proudly billed as chemical and preservative free.  Ida is an herbalist, who heals Terry injuries using these alternative substances.  Even though they’re purportedly Christians, as they watch the programs of and attend the church run by Wolfman Jack’s character, Vincent at one point worries about the karmic implications of what they’re doing to the human victims.  And this is less hippy-ish, but Vincent seems like a Malthusian in philosophy.  His justification for killing and cannibalizing people is that there’s too much overpopulation, and not enough food for everyone.  (Kind of an update on Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”)  Finally, I was struck by Vincent’s pride in he and Ida’s tricks and traps to acquire victims.  He thinks they are creative, and even artistic.  Kidnapping as art—don’t think that even the most extreme performance artist has gone that far!
     It’s not all (dark) laughs, though.  There are several quite disturbing moments.  Most notably, the secret garden.  Vincent and Ida cut the victims’ vocal cords so that they can’t scream.  As a result, they make an unsettling, awkward gurgling sound that’s very chillingly memorable.  The scene where the Smiths bizarrely hypnotize the band members and then hang them is messed up, in a good, eerie way, too.  The overall idea is nasty as well.  The Smiths have implicated their neighbors in their crimes, indirectly, as the innocent customers have been made cannibals, too, have helped destroy the evidence of some murders with their own digestive tracts, like the cops in the cool Roald Dahl story and Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV episode “Lamb to the Slaughter.”
     Rory Calhoun’s portrayal of Vincent is very effective.  Despite his awful crimes, he’s still charismatic and sympathetic.  He’s got serious mental issues, clearly, and richly deserves his eventual fate, but you still sort of root for him.  Because he believes in what he’s doing—in his mind he’s not a bad guy.  He’s helping solve a problem.  One that’s unpleasant, but that needs to be done.  And, in his way, he’s not cruel.  He doesn’t gratuitously torture his victims, and in fact tries to be humane (in a crazy, psychotic way, granted).
     (END SPOILERS)  The acting in “Motel Hell” is a cut above the usual low budget horror fare.  Rory Calhoun as star Vincent, as noted above, carries the film.  Nancy Parsons, as Ida, is suitably odd and creepy.  Paul Linke, as Bruce, acquits himself well in a bumbling, sometimes oafish, but ultimately heroic role.  Nina Axelrod (Terry)’s role isn’t as challenging, but she does it competently.  Most of the supporting cast has one note (mostly victim) roles, but they’re okay, too.
     Looking at director Kevin Connor’s career, this appears to be the pinnacle.  Most of his movies were of the low budget sci-fi/fantasy type.  The only others I’ve seen were “The People That Time Forgot,” and “The Land That Time Forgot.”  Alas, both I recall as being horrendous.  Dumb stories (even to 13 year old me), and effects that were atrocious, not even so-bad-they’re-good.  To be fair, I haven’t seen his other features, and maybe I’d like some of them, but the titles and reviews don’t look too promising.  But, like I said, on “Motel Hell” at least he did a good job.
     Not to say that the movie was a perfect classic, though.  Those looking for a fast paced, straight horror film may be disappointed, for example.  Also, the climatic chainsaw battle scene was very poorly lit (or at least on the MGM Midnite Movies edition that I own).  I realize the dark can be atmospheric sometimes, but in this case I had a very difficult time seeing what was happening, which was a major problem when you’re watching such an important part of the story.
     Star Rory Calhoun had an interesting life.  He had serious behavioral problems early on, and served time in both juvenile reformatories and big boy prison like San Quentin.  He starred in numerous movies, such as “Adventure Island” (1947), “Way of the Gaucho” (1952), How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953), “Treasure of Pancho Villa” (1955), “Night of the Lepus” (1972) (See my August, 2014 post about rabbits for more info) and the camp classic “Hell Comes to Frogtown” (1987).  Not such a great guy to marry, though—one wife claimed he cheated on her with 79 other women.  Rory retorted that she didn’t include half of them!
     Paul Linke was fairly typecast as a cop, as he played one in various movies and on popular 1970’s-80’s TV show “CHiPs.”  Nancy Parsons is best known as Bealah Balbricker in “Porky’s” (1982) and “Porky’s: The Next Day” (1983), and also appeared in “Sudden Impact” (1983), and “Steel Magnolias” (1989).  Nina Axelrod did mostly TV—“CHiPs” (with Paul Linke), and “Charlie’s Angels.”  She went on to be a casting director.  Wolfman Jack (who played the preacher), was a famous 1960’s-70’s DJ, and also had a memorable role in “American Graffiti” (1973).  Of the supporting cast, one of the many victims was Monique St. Pierre, best known as a Playboy Playmate, and the punk band drummer of “Ivan and the Terribles” in the film was none other than John Ratzenberger, best known for his work on TV’s “Cheers” as annoying mailman Cliff Clavin.
     So if you’re looking for a horror movie with a few laughs, which pokes fun at some of the genre’s clichés, you could do a lot worse.    

Monday, October 27, 2014

Blurb and Excerpt for "Dead Reckoning"

      Below you’ll find the blurb and excerpt for my ebook, “Dead Reckoning.”  This is one of the ebooks available as a prize for those who win the Horror Author Trivia contest (posted Saturday, October 25th) and the Horror Movie Trivia contest (which will be posted Wednesday, October 29th).  Dead Reckoning was also nominated for Long and Short Reviews “Book of the Year” for 2012.  This book is available on the Musa Publishing website—    and on Amazon, among others. 

Dead Reckoning blurb:

      Kurt Minnifield is a fledging actor playing a zombie in a low budget horror movie.  The director and crew decide to move their shooting to lovely and isolated Watkins State Park… only they don’t get proper permission.
     Victor Newsome is a thirteen year old trying to both shed his nerdy image and learn outdoor skills at a special survival camp.  After teaching the boys how to make shelter and kill their own food, the counselors decide to take a day trip to the neighboring state park—Watkins.
     A series of ethical lapses, poor decisions, and bad luck lead to a colossal misunderstanding.  Violence erupts as both sides fight desperately against a dangerous set of foes.  Who will be more savage—the literal “monsters,” or the boys equipped with deadly weapons, and the knowledge of how to use them?

Dead Reckoning excerpt:

     Kurt struggled to catch up as the unknown actor continued to track the other zombies.  Now he saw that the other actors must have seen or heard the guy—they’d turned around and were advancing on him.  The guy wasn’t Chris, or Rickey, or Gene, either, this was definitely some new actor.  So what happens now?  No one had any special effects things on that he could see, so unless this man ran away the unscripted, natural shooting was over.
     The actor wasn’t fleeing.  He raised his gun and aimed it at the zombie in front, Will.  His hand shook for a second, and then he fired.
     The crack of the shot was loud, and Kurt nearly fell over in shock.  That was no blank!  That sounded real!  What the fuck?  And then he turned his head to look at Will.  Blood was running from a hole in his chest.  Kurt gasped.  Will had been the last zombie to be made up before Kurt—he was positive that T.J. hadn’t put any squibs on him.
     Will had stopped, and his zombie claws went to the wound, and he stared at the hole wonderingly.  The zombies nearest him—Tabby, Henry, and Ed, all dropped their arms down and were staring at Will too, and then back at the mystery man with astonished expressions on their faces.
     The guy hesitated, and then raised his gun a little, and fired again.  There was a second boom, and then Will’s eye broke up, followed almost immediately by the back of his head.  Blood, and pieces of whitish skull and grayish brains splattered out, onto the forest floor, and even slightly on Tabby’s arm.  Will fell on his side with a strange gurgling sound.
     Holy Shit! thought Kurt.  That was no squib either.  This was real!  This guy is psycho!  He watched as Tabby took off, into the bushes to the side of the clearing.  Henry and Ed crouched by Will’s body, and struggled to communicate with the alien assassin.  They waved their arms wildly, trying to signal “Stop” with their palms held up.  Their grunting was noticeably louder, but still inarticulate.  Kurt started to walk across the clearing to join the group.
     The armed man paused a moment more, and then aimed once again.  The two zombies tried to duck behind Will’s slumped corpse.  Two shots whined past, and then a third hit Henry in the shoulder.  Just then he whirled in Kurt’s direction and fired again, just as Kurt threw up his hands.  As soon as the gunman turned, Ed and Henry were in the bushes right behind Tabby.
     Fire rushed through Kurt’s left hand, just above the wrist.  He groaned as he saw blood, and tendons, and even bone through the hole in his mangled hand.  He dove to the ground, just as another bullet hit a tree right where his head had been.  And then he was gone, tearing through the bushes and trees almost without looking.
     The man trotted up to Will’s body, and kicked at it curiously.  He looked briefly at the spot where the hand-shot zombie had disappeared, and then he turned back and went after the first three zombies.
     It hadn’t been thirty seconds when the first fly landed on Will’s destroyed head, took off, and then landed again.  Soon a large crowd of them was jockeying for a prime position.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Halloween Myth

     With Halloween fast approaching, today I’d like to talk about a popular media topic about the holiday—tampered candy.  We’ve probably all heard the stories, either from newspaper/online stories, television segments, or accounts from relatives or the cliché “friend of a friend.”  The tales show an impressively detailed (and brutal) array of weapons—candy infused with poison or drugs, or candy (but most commonly apples) which have razor blades, needles, broken glass, etc. embedded in them.  The second “Halloween” movie featured this, with the poor kid who still has the razor-bladed apple stuck in his mouth.  It’s quite a serious matter.  Many folks don’t let their kids trick-r-treat (or at least severely limit it), and countless police hours have been spent investigating these alleged crimes.
     But here’s the thing—it’s almost completely overblown.  There have been a few incidents, but they are much less numerous, and serious, that what’s been presented.  To date, there’s never been a proven case where a child has been killed or even seriously injured from a tampered treat gotten during normal trick-r-treating.
     But let’s get into the history of this.  This type of mass hysteria reportedly started during the Industrial Revolution, which was the first time mass food production moved out of a person’s home (or at least a close, known person in your neighborhood, etc.).  Helping this out was that many food items were actually dangerous to eat during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s—reading Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle” (based on observing real meat packing (and general labor) conditions) is disturbing and horrific, and led to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in the same year.*
     However, the fear didn’t become specific to Halloween until about 50 years later.  In 1959, Fremont, CA dentist Dr. William Shyne gave trick-r-treaters candy-coated laxatives.  At least 16 received them, and there were several incidents of nausea and diarrhea resulting.  Dr. Shyne was charged with outrage of public decency and unlawful dispensing of drugs.  Then, in 1964, Greenlawn, NY housewife Helen Pfeil was supposedly put off by trick-r-treaters she thought were too old.  So, her “treats” passed out were dog biscuits, steel wool, and (clearly marked and packaged) ant poison buttons.  No one was hurt.  Pfeil said it was a joke, and received a suspended sentence.
     A later case was more serious.  In 1970 five year old Kevin Toston of Detroit died from eating allegedly poisoned Halloween candy.  This appeared to be a legitimate case of a treat poisoning initially.  Then, however, the truth emerged.  Kevin had come upon his uncle’s hidden stash of heroin, and ingested the fatal amount.  His family then tried to cover this up by sprinkling heroin on his candy.
     A 1974 incident was even grislier.  Eight year old Timothy O’Bryan of Deer Park, TX died after eating his Halloween candy.  Lab tests showed some Pixie Stix had been laced with deadly cyanide.  Preliminary investigations suggested a local neighbor, Courtney Melvin, was the source.  However, the neighbor had an airtight alibi—Melvin was an air traffic controller, and dozens of coworkers confirmed he was at work during Halloween night.  Suspicion grew when a salesman recalled selling cyanide to Timothy’s father, Ronald Clark O’Bryan, and even remembered Ronald inquiring about fatal doses for humans.  Plus, Ronald had also very recently taken out life insurance policies on his children, and was having serious money woes.  It turns out that Ronald had actually slipped poisoned candy in his daughter’s and three other children’s bags, but luckily they didn’t eat them.  Mr. O’Bryan was convicted of one capital murder charge and four attempted murders, and was executed in 1984 by lethal injection.  A crowd of 300 pro-execution people demonstrated outside the prison as he died, and showered anti-execution protesters with candy.  O’Bryan was dubbed “The Candy Man,” and “The Man Who Killed Halloween.”
     Several other children died or were seriously ill over the years, and this was initially thought to be from Halloween treat tampering.  But, lab tests and autopsies revealed other causes.  In 1978 two year old Patrick Wiederhold of Flint, MI died after eating candy, but lab tests proved there was no poison in the treats.  Ariel Katz (7) of Santa Monica, CA died while trick-r-treating.  The autopsy showed an enlarged heart was actually the reason for her tragic death.  In 1996 Ferdinan Siquig of San Jose was taken to a hospital after eating Halloween candy, and initial lab tests showed cocaine in his urine.  Subsequent re-tests indicated that the first test was in error.  Four year old Tiffany Troung of Vancouver, British Columbia died in 2001 after eating candy, but tests once again showed no poison, and that a streptococcus infection was actually the culprit.
     A couple of events were tragicomic.  In late September of 1988 in Emerson, NJ, a NY Times story reported that Sunkist Fun Fruit Dinosaurs had strychnine powder in them.  9400 cases of this candy were destroyed.  Tests indicated that this powder was actually harmless corn starch.  In 2000, in Hercules, CA, a Snickers bars were found that contained marijuana.  Police were able to track it to a single residence.  The investigation eventually indicated a convoluted, but innocent mistake.  A person had tried to mail pot to a friend disguising it as candy bars.  However, they used insufficient postage, so it was undelivered, and went to the dead letter department at the post office.  After the allotted time had passed a postal employee took possession, and thinking they were regular candy bars, handed them out to trick-r-treaters.  No injuries were reported.
     Here’s one final, legitimate tampering incident.  In 2000 in Minneapolis, MN, James Joseph Smith passed out Snickers Bars (again) with needles stuck in them.  A fourteen year old boy was cut slightly, but didn’t need medical attention.  Smith was charged with adulterating a substance to cause death, harm, or illness.
     And so on.  Joel Best, of the University of Delaware, has been studying this phenomenon for decades.  He checked out every alleged case he could find, and came to the conclusion I noted earlier—no one’s been confirmed to have been seriously hurt, much less killed, by treats handed out to trick-r-treaters.  The only deaths were by natural causes, or by accidental ingestion of illegal drugs found in the home (the Toston case), or a poisoning murder by the child’s own father (the O’Bryan case).  Best did find dozens of examples of minor tampering, but these were nearly all hoaxes, or pranks done to siblings or friends by people they knew.  Often, in response to hearing about the phenomenon from earlier media reports.  And as with other sensational reportings, many people read the initial, incorrect story, but fewer see the follow up or retraction where the mundane truth is revealed.
     There are real dangers about Halloween.  The day is fourth in the U.S. in number of injuries to children, after Labor Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July.  Mostly due to car accidents—children are out, sometimes after dark, sometimes in costumes that impede their mobility or vision, or are difficult for motorists to pick out.  Here is another example of how people view dangers to themselves.  Folks tend to obsess over dangers that are infinitesimally rare (terrorist attack, or SARS, or shark attacks) while pooh-poohing much more realistic dangers (car accidents, obesity, smoking, etc).
     To sum up, I’m not advocating that parents or children should blindly trust everyone, of course.  Just because no one has actually done this fatal crime yet doesn’t mean someone won’t potentially do so.  It’s probably a good idea for parents to quickly check over candy/treats their children have collected, and discard anything that seems opened or weird.  I’m just pointing out that people should keep the real details about Halloween candy tampering in perspective, and not be panicked about it.

*  I read “The Jungle” fairly recently, and heartily recommend it.  Its accounts of the meat packing conditions, and the conditions for poor immigrants laborers in the U.S. in the late 1800’s—early 1900’s are indeed harrowing.  It does suffer a bit at the end, when the pro-socialist message gets a little unrealistic, naïve, and even sappy, but still, overall a worthy read in my opinion.  Interestingly, author Upton Sinclair was quite annoyed that the uproar over his book was almost solely about the disgusting meat packing conditions, and not the overall plight of the poor laborers.  He was quoted as saying, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Horror Author Trivia Contest

     This is one of the contests I’m running for the Coffin Hop.  The first person to answer all 10 questions correctly wins their choice of one of my ebooks—“Dead Reckoning” or “Kaishaku.”  If no one answers all 10 correctly, the winner will be the person who answers the most correctly by the end of the Hop—12:01 a.m., November 1, 2014, Eastern Standard Time.  If there’s a tie, I’ll pick the winner randomly, by picking a name out of hat, or flipping a coin.
     Also, I reference these several times in the questions, so just to explain, the Bram Stoker Awards are the awards given out annually by the Horror Writers Association, since 1987. 

1)      Who is the only person to both receive a Bram Stoker Award nomination and see their band have two top 20 hits in the Billboard Hot 100 category?  (Hint—they are more famous as the musician.)
2)      Staying with music, what famous horror author also wrote the sort of unauthorized biography of Courtney Love, entitled, “Courtney Love:  The Real Story”?
3)      Not surprisingly, Stephen King holds the record for most Bram Stoker Awards, with 13.  Who is second all time, with 10?
4)      This famous horror author also wrote for a lot of television comedies in the 1970’s and 80’s, including for “Three’s Company,” “B.J. and the Bear,” and “The A-Team.”  Name them.
5)      What famous horror author is also a paleontologist, and has published several scientific articles in such periodicals as “The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology”?
6)      When movie directors used to want to not have their names included on a movie, they used the pseudonym “Alan Smithee.”  This famous sci-fi/horror author uses the alias “Cordwainer Bird,” when he/she wants to do this for a screenplay or story they’re not happy with.  Who is this?
7)      What famous true crime author was friends with, and a coworker of, real life serial killer Ted Bundy?  (This author’s first true crime book was about this relationship.)
8)      What famous horror author also wrote over 25 sex instruction books, with titles like “How to Drive Your Man Wild in Bed,” “How to Drive Your Woman Wild in Bed,” and “Your Erotic Fantasies”?
9)      What horror author is the only person to win both a Bram Stoker Award and (under the pseudonym Maxwell Hart) two AVN awards? (The AVN awards are the Adult Video News awards, sometimes referred to as the “Oscars of Porn,” given out since 1984.)

10)  The Universal Product Code (UPC), now printed on nearly all products, has long been rumored by extreme conspiracy theorists to be the Mark of the Beast mentioned in “The Book of Revelation” in the Bible.  (They erroneously think that the code has “666” in it.)  On that note, what horror author’s 1978 novel was the first book that had the “evil” code printed on its cover?

    (Readers may notice the answers to these questions were never printed, since folks didn't guess them during Coffin Hop 2014.  Should have included these earlier, but it kind of slipped my mind, and I got a bit lazy.  Anyway, if you want to know the answers, I put them in a comment to this post.)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ghost Stories

     I’m pretty much a skeptic across the board—I don’t really believe in the supernatural in any capacity.  This might seem incongruous with my love of horror fiction and horror movies.  Or maybe not.  I’m guessing there are few people who think that vampires, werewolves, zombies, and masked, near-immortal killers, etc., actually exist.  Reading or viewing frightening yet unreal subject matter is a nice escape, and a fun (for some), safe, way to scare yourself in an entertaining way.
     However, despite my strong doubts, I still do like scary, allegedly true stories.  Especially about ghosts.  I used to be very frightened by any ghost characters, almost including the Boo-Berry cereal ghost, and as an adult I still get a thrill from them.  Telling stories around a campfire, or, even once, in the attic of an abandoned, dilapidated house, is still my idea of a good time.  Even if it is more like an appreciation of the tales as folklore.
     So, with this disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to relay my one and only personal spooky story, followed by a few from friends.  Mine was over a decade ago.  A friend and coworker of mine, who I’ll call Greg (because that’s his name) was employed at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA as a tour guide.  Eastern State ceased functioning as an active prison in 1970, but it’s been declared a National Landmark, and is open for tours.  Greg took us on the usual tour one Saturday afternoon, which was great.  I highly recommend Eastern State as a tourist destination.  It was the first real penitentiary in the U.S., and was initially designed upon the Quaker idea of forcing prisoners to take stock of their lives, repent, and become law-abiding citizens.  This meant every single prisoner was given his own solitary confinement cell, and, aside from a Bible and a brief daily trip outside his cell to a walled in yard affixed to the cell, had no diversions.  No visitors, no mail, no conversation, for however many years the sentence was.  The guards even wore socks over their shoes to muffle their footsteps as they walked down the corridors outside.  Obviously, solitary confinement is now reserved for an extreme punishment, but the designers thought they were being kind.  Who knows how many relatively minor thieves, etc., were driven mad by this?
     Architecturally it’s pretty cool, tool.  One of the cell blocks is laid out like a giant wheel, with the central hub being where the guards stayed, and each prison wing as a spoke, so guards could spin around and see every section fairly quickly.  After over crowding became an issue, and perhaps, people realized how terrible solitary confinement was, Eastern State eventually became like a regular prison in 1913, up until its closing in 1970.  It had its famous convicts—Willie Sutton served there, and escaped temporarily in a tunnel.  Al Capone did too, and his cell is preserved.  It’s very reminiscent of the scene in “Goodfellas” depicting how relatively posh high Mob guys had it inside, with more room, gourmet food and drink, etc.  Eastern State has a weird location, too—initially it was on the outskirts of the city, but over time Philadelphia grew out and around it, so you have the giant stone walls of a massive prison just sitting in the middle of a city neighborhood.  Anyway, to sum up, and cut this a little shorter, I think Eastern State is a worthwhile visit for many reasons.
     Back to my story.  Greg had a set of keys to Eastern State, and said he’d spent the night there a couple of times.  As it got closer to Halloween we were intrigued.  Finally, one Saturday eight of us went to Philadelphia, had an awesome Italian dinner, and then
went over to the prison to camp out.  Some of us were more into the spooky vibe than others, but we were all excited.  I wanted to try to creep myself out but setting up my sleeping bag in an isolated cell by myself, etc.
     Alas, there was a snag.  It quickly became apparent that an official ghost chasing group had rented the place for the night.  Obviously, since we hadn’t paid, we weren’t supposed to be there.  Greg was in a bind, so as a compromise, he snuck us into the Administration Building near the front of the prison.  Even this was atmospheric and cool—a giant tower to climb; abandoned, paint-flaked rooms; and deserted ominous stone hallways.  When we were finally ready to call it a night, seven of us stayed in one room at the end of the hallway, while one guy stayed in a nearby room closer to the single, long stairwell to the second floor.  Greg, Herb, and myself were still awake, talking quietly, when it happened.  Slow, plodding, fairly loud footsteps, coming up the staircase.  After we confirmed that all of us had heard it, I rushed down the hallway and stood at the top of the stairs, and shown a flashlight down it.  Nothing to see, or hear further.  No eerie cold spots, or inexplicable feelings of terror, etc.  I recall noting that the one guy on his own (Hi Scott) was still in his room sleeping, so there we are—I can’t explain the footsteps.  About fifteen minutes later all hell broke loose.  We heard more footsteps coming up the stairs, but these were made by obvious sources—the ghost chasers and another tour guide found us in our “bedroom.”  The employee noted Greg, and said they’d talk later.  They left, and after a couple of hours of sleep, we packed up and left, too.  This story has a bad ending, as  the following Monday Greg was fired.  It was just bad luck—any other weekend no one would have known.
     Now, I’m certainly not claiming this is proof of anything.  I’m pretty sure Scott was accounted for, and wasn’t making the footstep sounds (possibly by going up the spiral staircase that went to the tower roof), but I’m not 100%.  Or, the ghost chasers were about—maybe they were walking around somewhere nearby, and we heard the echoes.  We were drinking, so there’s that, too.  I don’t think any of us were drunk, but “half in the bag” or “buzzed” is probably accurate.  But, like I said, I couldn’t explain the noises at the time, and it was fun in a mildly disturbing way.
     My next story is second hand.  When I think about it, I should be a prime candidate for experiencing ghost activity.  I’ve exhumed hundreds of graves, and, I’ve stayed in hundreds (thousands?) of hotel rooms in my long archaeological career.  Because people dying in hotel rooms is, I understand, a fairly common phenomenon.  Clearly, being by yourself, away from home, in a sometimes dingy room, can be depressing, so suicides probably make up a fair bit of the deaths.  Plus, things like heart attacks, overdoses, and strokes aren’t unusual, either.  Just looking at the numbers, the odds seem pretty strong that a room I stayed in must have been the scene of a death at least once or twice.  But still, nothing unexplainably weird so far.
     Anyway, my friend Dave was staying in a room, in a regular, random hotel.  His room had an adjoining door to his next door neighbor’s room.  (Something which I try my hardest to avoid.  Thin walls are problematic enough in some hotels, for noise disturbances.  But an adjoining door sometimes makes it seem like you’re in the room with them.  Which is especially awkward when there’s amorous activity going on.  (And doubly so when you know the neighboring room is occupied by only one person!))  After a while Dave started to hear his neighbors messing around with the adjoining door, and being noisy in general.  Whispering, children’s laughter, rattling of the adjoining door’s knob, knocking, that type of thing.  When this wouldn’t stop he called the front desk to complain.  The employee was sympathetic, but said they didn’t know what was happening, as the room wasn’t being rented out.  The noises continued.  Finally Dave went down to the lobby, and had the employee come back with him.  They opened up the door to his neighbor’s room, and the employee was correct—the room was empty, and showed zero signs of any recent human presence.
     And one more hotel story.  This tale was relayed to me about twenty years ago, so my grasp of the details is more tenuous.  A crew was staying in a fairly crappy hotel in Maryland.  The crew started noticing things that were “off.”  Noises, feelings of being watched, stuff like that.  Then they discovered that the hotel was built upon the site of a Civil War amputated limbs cemetery.  (Because in those primitive medical days, amputation was distressingly frequent.)  Most dramatically, my friend Laura one night felt an invisible someone sit down on the bed next to her, and even saw the depression form on the bed underneath “nothing.”  At some other point the spirit became more active, and pulled the bed covers off of her.  (Again, hazy on the details, but I’m guessing she immediately (and understandably) switched rooms.)
     This does raise some interesting questions.  Mainly, why?  Aren’t ghosts normally situated where their bodies died, or a place they frequented?  I didn’t think, say, a disembodied arm could haunt somebody, and how, since it presumably wouldn’t have a consciousness, soul, etc..  I guess maybe a bunch of guys died during the amputations, maybe nearby, and that’s the explanation.  But part of me is oddly amused at the thought of a ghostly body part clumsily roaming around a room, like “Thing” from “The Addams Family.”  Or where does it end?  Will a tuft of hair from my first haircut as a baby haunt the area around my baby book, and will the wisdom tooth I kept someday terrorize a later occupant of my room?  (I kind of want to think so.)
     In that vein, the house of another friend (Hi Leon!) just after college allegedly had a spirit in the attic.  Only, if it existed, it was either incredibly weak, or incredibly lame.  Its sole “haunting” consisted of turning on the attic light by itself.  (And now I’m picturing some ghost flipping the switch on and giggling maniacally, thinking, “That’ll show ‘em!” or, “Get ready to pay an extra three cents for your electric bill this month, puny mortals!”)  Really, when I heard this story (aside from thinking that the tenants just forgot and left the light on occasionally, maybe while tipsy, or that there was a simple wiring problem) I felt bad for the ghost.  I mean, c’mon man, at least put a little more time and thought in your efforts to scare us.
     One final spooky account, in a different way.  My friend Keith was making the interminable drive back home on the East Coast from his college in Colorado.  He was doing so in a run down van.  It was going really well for a while.  He and his friend were having some really good conversations along the way.  Really deep, significant stuff—Keith said he felt like he was getting to know his friend in an unusually rewarding way.  Finally, about three hours from home, Keith had a startling revelation.  He was by himself.  The van had a faulty exhaust system, and he hallucinated his friend’s presence, and the good talks.  He wanted to continue, being relatively close, so he drove the rest of the way with the windows all wide open.  (And then hopefully brought the van to a garage ASAP.)  I know there’s no ghost, but I find this story terrifying.  I can only imagine how disturbing this realization must have been, like some “Fight Club” style scenario.  (Not to mention, this meant a severely mentally hampered person drove a van for hundreds or thousands of miles, posing an extreme danger to himself and other motorists.)
     Anyway, that’s it.  Feel free to share any of our ghost stories, in shortened form I guess, in the comments.  I always love a good one.  Also, just as a reminder, the link to the Coffin Hop is: