Saturday, May 30, 2015

PI PSA


I do a lot of geocaching in the woods — I hid a new cache on one of Greensboro watershed trails just this morning — and especially at this time of year, I run into lots and lots of poison ivy. It's North Carolina's de facto state plant, as it grows more profusely here than anywhere else I've ever been. Certainly, in this part of the state, you can't step into a wooded area without being surrounded by it, and the fact I am deathly allergic to the stuff does me no favors. Years ago, I had such a bad outbreak of it — when I say I had a rash everywhere, I mean everywhere — the only relief I could get from the itching was to scrape my skin with a razor blade to break up all little blisters and then bathe in alcohol. Why, yes, as a matter of fact, it was agony, but compared to the endless, maddening, driving-me-to-the-brink-of-insanity itching, it was a little slice of heaven. The outbreak was so bad that I eventually had to see a doctor, who had me take steroids and regularly apply some kind of ointment, which did, in fact, dry up the poison ivy; the ointment was so potent, however, it also dried up any unaffected skin until it withered and flaked off.

Since then, I have taken desperate measures to avoid a repeat of such an affliction. Abandoning or postponing geocaching is not an option, so prevention and treatment have been very high on my agenda. I've read and heard all kinds of anecdotes and recommendations; tried quite a few; and, happily, found an effective, very inexpensive solution that I will pass onto you here. Consider it a little public service announcement.

Rather than spend bunches of money on Tecnu and other poison-plant-specific products — which, by the way, for me have been essentially ineffective — I carry around a little bottle of Purell hand sanitizer with me. It's good for general hand-cleaning as well as breaking up urushiol oil, which is the nasty substance that causes the rash. While geocaching, I find myself frequently wading through vast gardens of poison ivy, climbing trees laced with its vines (mind those big fuzzy ones, by the way, as touching them will also result in some serious grief), and occasionally grabbing bunches of the plants while making my way through some challenging woodland corridor. If I can apply a generous amount of hand sanitizer to any exposed skin within about an hour of contact, the urushiol oil won't bond and cause the rash. Just as a matter of course, I always scrub up with some sanitizer after a deep woods outing. Then, once I get back home, I scrub even more thoroughly with dishwashing liquid, which is also good for breaking up oil on the skin, and cold water (not warm, since it will open your pores and make your skin more likely to absorb any urushiol). Plain soap and water is better than nothing, but it isn't anywhere near as effective as an alcohol-based product or what is essentially a degreaser.

For about the past five years, I have conscientiously used the hand sanitizer and dishwashing liquid treatment, and I've been all but poison-ivy free ever since. The only times I have suffered an outbreak at all, and these very minor, are when I've failed to scrub up after handling the clothes or shoes I was wearing while out in the woods. The urushiol oil will stick to your apparel and remain potent for some time. It pays to be careful on that count.

Everyone reacts differently to poison ivy exposure, but even people who believe themselves immune can occasionally receive a nasty shock. I've passed this technique along to numerous folks of my acquaintance, with highly positive results. Now, forearmed with this information, you may feel free to get out there and hunt my new cache when it's published — it's a Twin Peaks-inspired hide called "Let's Rock" and requires that you overcome a little challenge to secure the coordinates before you hit the woods. I can assure you, you'll want to do some serious scrubbing up after you've visited this one.

And beware of Bob, by the way.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Exists


I've gotta tell you, I'm a sucker for movies about Bigfoot and other cryptozoological beasties. During my teenage years, it was a rich time for all things Bigfoot, with movies such as... wait for it... Bigfoot, with John Carradine (surely one of the world's worst movies, yet such an all-fired hoot I can't help but love it); The Legend of Boggy Creek; The Creature From Black Lake; Sasquatch: The Legend of Bigfoot; et. al. Exists hearkens back to just that kind of movie — both hokey and creepy as all get-out. It's directed by Eduardo Sánchez, who brought us The Blair Witch Project and others some years back. Not unlike Blair Witch, this one is largely seen through the eyes of various cameras — Go-Pros, cell phones, and such — though it isn't found-footage per se. The camera's eye views are not as erratic and shaky as Blair Witch or Cloverfield (the latter of which I refuse to watch again because the shaky-cam footage isn't just overdone, it's stupidly overdone). Exists, fortunately, is largely shown through a more traditional camera lens and features an honest-to-god score, composed by Nima Fakhrara.

The story is classic drive-in movie fare: five young adults — brothers Matt (Samuel Davis) and Brian (Chris Osborn), Dora (Dora Madison Burge), Todd (Roger Edwards), and Elizabeth (Denise Williamson) — take a weekend trip to a remote cabin, located somewhere in the wilds of eastern Texas. On the way, they run over some critter, which they take to be a deer until they discover some odd hair stuck in the radiator grill. It isn't long before something begins making scary squalling sounds out in the woods and then comes prowling around the cabin. Next thing you know, said something has smashed the youngsters' car, leaving them stranded and all but helpless. Matt decides to try fleeing on a bicycle so he can bring help. Alas, he never reaches his destination. And the remaining four young people become subject to a relentless assault by the thing — or things — out in the woods. There is much destruction, screaming, hollering, and even some blood. These young 'uns at last realize that their chances of getting out of the woods alive are mighty slim.

The wooded setting and cabin couldn't be more conducive to frightening things happening; happily, it's all filmed on location, without any dopey-looking sets or crappy CGI. There's an atmosphere of both serenity and strangeness about the woods that couldn't be more genuine. (As a matter of fact, the woods closely resemble those around what I call the Bigfoot Trail, just a few miles up the road, where I've done quite a bit of geocaching over the years.) Until just about the end of the film, the critters are shown only in silhouette or in quick cuts, and one scene, in which the monster is seen as a black shadow racing through the woods alongside a trail in pursuit of Matt on his bicycle, is actually pretty hair-raising. When, at the end, we have the big reveal, it's not disappointing. It's pretty damned good. I'd go so far as to say Exists offers a few of the best-staged Bigfoot scenes, well, maybe ever.

What Exists also offers... unfortunately... is a great big nasty-tasting, nausea-inducing, brick shit house full of stupid. Oh, my lord. The characters, to the last, are obnoxious, ever-swearing, hyper-screaming, pot-smoking, stereotypical boneheads who can't formulate a rational thought even when they're not panicking, and there's more than enough panic going on here for about four movies. Yes, it may bloody well be true that in highly stressful, likely deadly situations, many people will, in fact, lose their shit. But I think that segment of the population has been more than adequately represented in horror movies over the years, and I am weary beyond weary of them. (And even most of them would have a fair idea of when to actually get rid of the Go-Pro.) Why not make a movie with the same scenario but with characters who, between them, have more than a single functioning brain cell? Or at least make them colorful. Ever see Creature From Black Lake, with Jack Elam, Dub Taylor, Dennis Fimple, and John David Carson? Talk about enjoyable characters. Dopey, maybe, but what hoots! In The Legend of Boggy Creek, we have plenty of not-necessarily-bright characters, but the audience never looks down on them. They're kind of charming in their way. Hey, Travis Crabtree even had his own ballad written about him. It doesn't get much more charming than that. I tell you, the world is dumbed down aplenty as it is, and Exists, despite so many wonderful aspects that work, is insulting to an even marginally thinking audience. Mr. Sánchez, is it really, really true that your film won't make a buck unless your characters are idiots?

I believe you're wrong. Really, really fucking wrong.

That doesn't even begin to cover some of the contrivances, the hackneyed plot devices, and the almost note-by-note reproducing of scenes from The Blair Witch Project. Even these would be somewhat more palatable if it were possible to give a hoot about the people on the menu.

Four and a half Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis for the atmosphere and the Bigfoot scenes. One Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetini for the overall movie.

Shame on you, Eduardo. Shame on you for taunting me with all kinds of goodies and then throwing a rancid pie in my face.
A rare moment of non-panic, and not a bad one at that. (For this, you need to watch the deleted scenes.)
Nincompooper! Is upside down!
You'd think that with this beast in hand, Todd might not panic quite so badly. You would be wrong.
"If you say 'Where's my Go-Pro?' one more time, I'm gonna drown you."
That ain't Harry out there.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Face Your Phobia

I like snakes. They're neat creatures, and it really distresses me when people say things like "The only good snake is a dead snake," and other such nonsense. Without snakes, you personally would probably have to deal with all kinds of unpleasant pestilence you never even think about, and I'm betting that since you probably don't really have to deal with snakes all that often, you're better off leaving the snakes be than suffering the pestilence. I bring this up mainly because of a couple of Facebook posts from the past few days that included photos of snakes, and the sheer venom of some of the comments really showcased the irrationality of people's fears.

The photos above are from two or three years ago when I ran across this very friendly, six-foot-long black racer at Cedarock Park in Alamance County, NC. When I'm out geocaching, I'm often in their environment, and over the years, I've encountered just about every variety of slithering serpent that North Carolina has to offer. Make no mistake: even the venomous ones — around here, primarily Copperheads — would rather do their own things than mess with you, and most often, they'll make every effort to avoid dealing with you and your phobia. A while back, I was crossing a creek and inadvertently stepped on a Copperhead, and the fellow had the decency to vacate the premises with all due haste when he could have, had he been so inclined, just as easily given me a chomp on the leg. (Note that I call the snake "he" only because he had very masculine shoulders; nothing against the female of the species.)

I'll tell you something. Up until I started geocaching and found myself, not only in snakes' environments, but in spiders', I had a damn near debilitating case of arachnophobia. I was always fascinated but truly, deeply terrified by spiders of all types and sizes (of course, the bigger the more horrifying). Any spider I encountered was a dead spider, no ifs, ands, or buts. Awful, awful creatures; predators; alien-looking. Then I did a cache called Greensboro Underground, and the name says it all. To claim this cache, I had to go considerable distances through underground pipes, and at one stage, I was forced to confront my gravest imaginary dread.
Northern Black Widow (Lactrodectus variolus).
Don't mess with it, and it won't mess with you.

It went like this:

I was with a couple of gentlemen (who, I might add, are not wimps, in the technical sense of the word) that I will call Tom and Ethan. (To answer your question: yes.) To reach stage 1, we had to enter a very tight culvert, and Ethan had the good grace to go first. It wasn't moments before he was screaming in a panicked, high-pitched voice that led Tom and me to believe he must have been gravely injured. We're hollering, "What is it? What's wrong?" And he cries back, "This is the biggest spider I've ever seen! Wait — there's another one. And another one. Oh, Christ, the place is full of them!"

Tom and I debated a moment. There were spiders, and there was the geocache. All right, then; we do have our priorities, you know. The two of us wormed our way into the pipe, and — oh, my Christ — the confined space was absolutely crawling with big honking spiders, the smallest of which probably had a four-inch leg span. Our destination lay through a specific pipe, above which a huge wolf spider was resting on its laurels. Ethan put his foot down and declared that he was not going into the pipe with that spider hanging right there. Well, feigning the air of the undaunted, I took my hiking stick and knocked the spider off the wall — at which point it angrily began to scurry straight toward Ethan.

At this point, Ethan screamed a piercing scream and began a dance routine that would have shamed Gene Kelly. Tom and I took to chuckling, and since said spider had vacated its perch, I decided to take advantage of the moment, and go into the next pipe.

Oh, shit, did I really do that?

At this point, I did question my wisdom, for this pipe was also full of spiders. They were all just hanging around on the walls and ceiling, and not really bothering me. However, as I ducked to go in, something fell onto my shoulder with a distinctive plop.

"Tom, my dear friend," I said. "Please tell me that was a not a big spider."

"Nope, just a hunk of grass and mud from the drain up there."

"You wouldn't lie to me, would you?"

"Not about that."

All right then. On I went, past veritable walls of spiders that sat contentedly watching me. They didn't really do diddly but scare the living crap out of me. Yet, after Ethan's little dance there, it was hard for me not to go through that pipe overtaken by paroxysms of laughter.

From that moment on, I never again suffered a fear of spiders. They didn't want to bother me. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure they were all laughing at Ethan too.

For what it's worth, if you come upon a snake — or a spider, or some other basically innocuous creature — that for reasons anything other than rational make you want to kill it, try instead picturing it in its underwear or maybe a big old dude like Ethan break dancing inside a culvert filled with spiders. Really, it's funny as hell.

You don't need to kill or otherwise antagonize the critters. Just give it some thought. Face your phobia. Fuck your phobia.

It worked for me.
A fun little black rat snake that was meandering about in the heat of winter, a couple of Decembers ago.
I'm sure he would rather have had cool weather and been taking a nap.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Gravely Park Haunts


There are several geocaches in Gravely Park, in Henry County, VA, including three I hid myself some years ago. A few new ones have recently given me opportunity to return to the trail system, which I've enjoyed because it's a beautiful area with a quite a few scenic views of the Smith River, several historical structures, and an old graveyard. Despite having hiked all around there any number of times, I had never previously come upon what is surely the most haunted location in these woods. I've got to say, it was agreeably creepy back in there today, so I'm grateful to the cache owner for enticing us to come back here.

The Gravely Nature Trail greeter today was, sadly, a dead bat hanging on the fence at the trail head. The poor little guy appeared to have gotten hung in one of the barbs on the fence. From there, Ms. B. and I went on into the woods, where we found the cache readily enough — and from which I happened to notice several crumbling structures some distance away through the trees. Being that such old relics are among my favorites things to discover in the woods, we decided to do a bit of exploring. Most pleasantly, we were the only ones in the woods today, and the afternoon was growing a little dark and breezy, with rain clouds beginning to gather. (At least the bottom was considerate enough not to drop out until after we got out of the woods.) At one of the old barns, we found another of my favorite things: a dead baby — okay, actually a rather ancient doll — tucked into the hollow of a near-collapsing support post. (I have a cache in the woods in Greensboro, called "No Dead Baby Jokes, Please," with a similar such doll at ground zero. Hey, it's a nice theme.)

Ms. B. talked me out of worming my way down into one of the old structures, which I suppose is just as well, as I'd have gotten filthy dirty, and I wasn't wearing my best clothes for getting filthy dirty. Still, it was all a nice bit of Halloween-style fun in the middle of spring, and that just can't be bad.

It wasn't all just skulking around in old haunted places, since we took Mum out for lunch after church, where she had been honored for fifty-plus years of singing in the church choir, from which she recently retired. That was all nice and everything too. Sometimes you just have to do that kind of thing.
An unfortunate bat hung in the barbed wire greeted us as we set out on the trail.
Ms. B. at one of the old collapsing barns. Take note of the base of the support post on the right.
A slightly more intact structure. The barn, I mean; not sure about the old geocacher.
Not quite so haunted — a nice Mother's Day lunch with Mum at the Dutch Inn in Collinsville.
That's one lucky son right there.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Beyond the Mountains of Madness


"The umbrella has collapsed. The portal is open."


This one was sure a beast getting onto the street, but — finally, at long last — here it comes. Some years back, editor Robert M. Price approached me wondering whether I might be interested in writing a story for an anthology based on H. P. Lovecraft's short novel, At the Mountains of Madness, which is one of his better known — and one of my personal favorite — works of fiction. Of course I was, so I wrote a story, titled "The Danforth Project," which takes place in contemporary times. In it, a phenomenon in Antarctica reveals a mountain range that has never been seen — except by a number of individuals, specifically, those from Lovecraft's tale plus a handful of others over a long span of years. An air reconnaissance mission is hurriedly launched to investigate, and most of my story is an account of the pilot's experiences on his long excursions over the mysterious Antarctic continent. Solidly based on Lovecraft's epic work, I've also woven in a bit of lore from some of his other tales, "Dreams in the Witch House" being the most prominent of them.

Dark Quest Books was initially slated to produce the book, but over time, problems with the publisher began to mount. Some authors were paid, some were not. A few copies of the book were printed, but it was never put into official release, and for all intents and purposes, as a product, it died a cold, ignominious death — at least until Celaeno Press, which had recently come onto the scene with In the Court of the Yellow King (which includes my story, "Masque of the Queen"). Publisher Edward Lipsett and editor Price worked to get the book repackaged, using the same cover art and most of the same content, with two additional tales. At long last, the deal was done, and now the book is available for purchase. I can safely say this one is a winner, and my hat is off to all parties who worked hard to make this happen. There couldn't have been a more deserving volume to be rescued from the pit into which it had been shamefully discarded.

Besides myself, contributors to Beyond the Mountains of Madness include Ken Asamatsu, Glynn Owen Barrass, Pierre Comtois, Laurence J. Cornford, Cody Goodfellow, C.J. Henderson, Willie Meikle, Edward Morris, William Patrick Murray, Joe Pulver, Peter Rawlik, and Brian M. Sammons, with a special guest appearance by Weird Tales legend John Martin Leahy and an introduction by Robert M. Price.

Here's a link to the Amazon page: Beyond the Mountains of Madness

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The City Built on the Dead

My birthday was Saturday, and to help me cope with the number of candles on the cake*, Ms. Brugger and I made a long weekend of it in Savannah, GA. I'd visited that town a couple of times in years past, first during in my college days (where I had my introduction to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, an experience I'm not likely to ever forget), and then again in 2009, which was the last trip Mrs. Death and I took before our permanent parting of the ways. Ms. B. had never been, and I've enjoyed my experiences there, so we settled on Savannah for a brief but invigorating Spring trip together. We headed down on Friday morning, naturally laying claim to a few interesting geocaches on the drive, and rolled into town early in the evening. We had made a reservation for a fairly late birthday dinner at Alligator Soul in the historic district, so we trucked down there from our hotel in Pooler, making a first stop at the nearby Jazz'd tapas and wine bar for a couple of glasses of vino. Both locations proved satisfying and then some. Alligator Soul is anything but inexpensive, but that is why we have really nice girlfriends. (Heavens, though — mine has an upcoming birthday too, so there will be fair turnabout.) When I saw that Alligator Soul had bison hanger steak on their menu, that pretty much sewed up my choice. The steak was perfectly prepared and presented, our server first-rate, and I don't think I could have been happier with a birthday dinner. Ms. B. was equally taken with the vegetarian fare she ordered (I don't even know). We spent the rest of the evening wandering about the historic district and grabbing a few caches. This part of Savannah is gorgeous at any time of day, but it is especially appealing by night. It's the ghosts, don't you know. More on that shortly.

*Hell no, there was no cake, and thus no actual candles.
On a nighttime walkabout in Savannah's historical district — near one of the caches I hunted.
Yesterday, the actual day of the dreaded birthday event, we left the hotel early and booked over to Bonaventure Cemetery, which is huge, a lot older than I am, and quite picturesque. We spent a good hour and half exploring its graves, crypts, and haunted corners, then headed back to the historical district, where we found a fair lunch at The Flying Monk Noodle Bar. I had a dish of spicy red noodles and calamari, while Ms. B. opted for spicy noodles with tofu. Service was a little spotty here, but the food was satisfactory. Then we wandered and cached, cached and wandered, and wandered yet some more. Our friends Terry and Beth from Winston-Salem had been on a Caribbean cruise and were heading through Savannah on their way back, so, early in the evening, we met them for drinks and dinner. Since Kimberly and I had enjoyed the atmosphere at Jazz'd and also found their tapas menu rather alluring, we decided to go back and give them a go for dinner. What a great choice this turned out to be. We had several different small plates, including shrimp spring rolls, chicken lettuce rolls, fried mushrooms, lasagne with goat cheese, and asparagus & prosciutto flatbread. Good food, good service, and good friends made for an unexpectedly fine second birthday dinner. From there, we headed over to In Vino Veritas wine bar, which offered an excellent selection of wines — all with a smile from our congenial server who than took better-than-good care of of us. Another Savannah winner, this. I'd go back just to get the grenache they served straight from the keg. Lovely stuff.


Finally, though the evening was wearing down, part of it was really just beginning. Ms. B. had booked us a late-night ghost tour of the historical district, and though we were starting to feel the effects of walking many miles over the course of the day, we perked up and trekked over to Colonial Park Cemetery, the oldest in Savannah — interestingly, also where Nathanael Greene, for whom Greensboro is named, is buried. Colonial Park is also filled with corpses of victims of Yellow Fever, which plagued Savannah just after the War Between the States. Back then, it was not common knowledge, as it is today, that malaria is carried by mosquitoes, and lying amid the marshes as it does, Savannah has more than its fair share (not to mention stinging sand gnats, which assailed us mercilessly over the weekend). With countless casualties of both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars also buried in areas that are now part of the historical district, Savannah truly is a city built atop the bodies of the dead — a fact that, according to our ghost tour guide — accounts for its plentiful hauntings. No, I'm not a believer in such things, but I do find the history and many of the decidedly grim stories of life and death from the past most intriguing.

One thing I did miss from my past trips to Savannah was the giant spider invasion, which occurs in late summer and early fall. Massive numbers of huge nephilim spiders invade the city and spin webs amid the buildings and trees, sometimes three or more stories high. I recall in 2009 seeing entire building facades covered by webs and these huge red and gold spiders, with leg spans up to five inches, hanging in their midst. I also recall, in no uncertain terms, hunting for a cache on the ground, standing upright, and finding myself face to face with one of the spiders, hanging just inches away. Now, I'm nowhere near as arachnophobic as I was in my younger days, but while these huge creatures are fascinating, they can also be a tad unnerving. Next time we go back, it's gotta be in the fall.


This morning, I made an intriguing discovery at our hotel. As I was returning to my room from the lobby area with a cup of fresh coffee, I heard a demonic child caterwauling. I know it was a demonic child because it had a really gruff, deep voice — gah-wooh-gah-wooh-oooh — and it was coming from behind a hotel room door that was padlocked from the outside. Really, honestly, I don't know what gives here, but given the town's character, this just seemed so Savannah. I'm sure there was a perfectly rational explanation for it; maybe the kid I heard was actually out in the courtyard beyond that room's window so it only sounded like the crying was coming from inside. Whatever, I don't know. Agreeably unnerving, that's what it was.

Finally, after a brief stop at the National Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force, both to get a cache and to satisfy this old military aviation fanatic, we hit the road again for Greensboro. It seemed a very long return trip; I did stop for a handful of caches, as usual, but our forward progress was twice impeded by very long, very slow funeral processions, which dragged on no end. I gotta tell you... it's one thing to show respect for the dead, but it's a whole 'nuther to stop the world so they can parade on by. Me, I want no such thing. When I go, get me cremated, put my ashes in a travel bug so I can see the world by way of geocaches, and fuck the funeral procession. I won't have it.

Despite it being just another day in the forward progress toward that funeral procession I refuse, it was a damned fine birthday. A bit different, I think, than what Kimberly and I had expected — whatever we might have expected — but I reckon that's just one of the great things about living, don't you think?
Yep.
Beth, Terry, Ms. B., and old dude at In Vino Veritas
Old Rodan with F4C Phantom at the National Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force