THIS WAS ONE action-packed year for me. Seems like every year slips by faster than the one before these days, but 2023 really cooked! A big part of that was my son Shaun starting college. He’s a music major focused on percussion, so the first quarter of the year we went to several schools so that he could audition.
We visited Butler University, VanderCook College of Music, Illinois State University, Northern Illinois University, University of Illinois (my alma mater!) and University of Iowa… and… Iowa became choice #1 immediately. Great professor, amazing Voxman Music building and probably one of the nicest integrated college towns I’ve ever seen. Needless to say, despite the price tag (he had sweeter $$ offers at other schools) that’s where he ended up.
University of Iowa is three hours from us, and we have since learned the route well — over the summer he had to do a couple of Drum Clinics there to prepare for his University of Iowa Hawkeye Marching Band audition. And then we had to go to the audition… and then we went to see him play in four of the home football games. And… this week, we drove him back there to catch a plane out of Cedar Rapids so that he could play in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando on New Year’s Day.
We’ve seen a lot of I-88/80 and Iowa this year.
On the fiction front, there was a big change for me in March which altered my whole spring/summer. Flame Tree Press was planning to republish NightWhere in May and the new sequel The Night Mother in June. I posted the Flame Tree covers in last year’s New Year Wrap-Up. But in March, just as the books were finalized and going to press, it was decided that they were a little too extreme and risque for the imprint in the current environment of #EverybodysOffendedAtEverything. Soooo…. the books suddenly were without a home just a few weeks before they were scheduled to appear in bookstores.
I could have lost a year looking for a new home for them, but after promising The Night Mother for months — and since I had a professionally copy-edited version that was print-ready — I decided to keep the original publication schedule and publish them through my own Dark Arts Books. That meant… my April/May disappeared as I worked on a new cover for The Night Mother, put the book into Dark Arts layout, AND, put the little NightWhere novelette, Field of Flesh into actual print for the first time. So the “trilogy” was live by June.
Since I was independently releasing the books, I really focused on promotion, and did more in-person reading/signing/selling events than I have in years from July – October. Here was my “Book Tour” schedule for the summer/fall:
So, if we weren’t driving to Iowa for a weekend, I was driving to downstate Illinois or Indiana or someplace else for a book event. My calendar was basically full every weekend for over four months. At the same time, I was also writing The Bloodstained Doll, which I was contracted to finish for Flame Tree Press by December 15 (I got a little extension and am editing/proofing now to deliver in January). It’s no wonder the year flew by.
Here are some highlights for me from 2023!
This year, I saw The Cure, The English Beat, Depeche Mode, VNV Nation, Goblin, and Kansas, (all with my “concert partner” Brian Pinkerton), as well as The Elvis Brothers doing a guest set with The Spindles, Alan Howarth (playing his horror theme music at Flashback Weekend) and a goth fest bill at Elysium in Austin of Vosh, Sacred Skin, Twin Tribes and Nuovo Testamento. It was a good year in concerts!
The Cure is probably my favorite band of all time, and I’ve seen them several times over the years… but they still managed to wow with an amazing, long jammy set, and the best show I saw this year. But close seconds were VNV Nation and Depeche Mode, my bucket list shows of the year.
Here’s a video playlist from The Cure’s almost 3-hour set:
I’m a relatively new VNV Nation fan, having been turned onto them by a couple of the DJs I watch every week on Twitch.tv while I play pinball in my basement at night. They were my most “Shazammed” band in 2020… every time I heard one of their songs I went, “damn, this is great, who is it?” I’d hit the Shazam app on my phone to see what band it was and time and again… turned out it was VNV. So I was pretty psyched to see them at Cabaret Metro, one of my favorite concert venues in Chicago (and a venue I haven’t been to in quite a few years).
They delivered. It was a non-stop NRG show. I haven’t moved that much in a long time. Here’s my video playlist from that show, when I wasn’t bouncing too much:
I am a huge Depeche Mode fan but somehow had never seen them before November. Vince Clarke — one of my favorite keyboardists of all time — founded Depeche Mode (he wrote “Just Can’t Get Enough”), recorded one album and then left to create Yaz and ultimately settled in for the long haul with Erasure. I have loved all of his work and seen him several times, but since he left Depeche Mode, I stupidly never went and saw them in their prime (“well, Vince is gone now, why bother?”).
Over the years, I’ve learned to regret that because their catalog is amazing. And on their new album, they co-wrote a couple songs with Richard Butler, the lead singer of Psychedelic Furs… another one of my top bands of all time. Here’s my video playlist from that amazing show:
Books & Records
This used to be a category I could fill with dozens of entries but honestly, I didn’t read much this year outside of editing work and while I did hear new music, I didn’t listen to a hundred new albums, like in my old reviewing days.
I did really enjoy Holly Knight‘s autobiography I Am The Warrior, since I’ve followed her songwriting career since her first records with Spider (one of my favorite pop albums ever). That started the year and after a longgggg period of non-reading, I closed the year with Richard Laymon‘s Flesh. What a fun ride! I’ve only read a handful of his novels and really need to read more.
On the album front, I was excited for Memento Mori, the new Depeche Mode album, though ultimately there are far too many slow, dirge-y songs on the disc. The lead single “Ghosts Again” is a worthy entry into their extensive hits catalog, however. And I dig the almost sinister synths of “Wagging Tongue” and the low whispering poetry of “Caroline’s Monkey,” which sounds like a furtive Psychedelic Furs track thanks to Richard Butler’s songwriting phrasing.
The new Duran Duran, Danse Macabre, intended as a “Halloween vibe collection,” has a couple of solid new tracks, including the title song and the infectious groove of “Love Voudou.” Most of the album is made up of cover songs of other artists as well as reworkings of a couple older Duran songs, and while they always do good covers, I could absolutely live without hearing anyone sing “Paint it Black” again. And really… nobody should sing “Psycho Killer” but David Byrne. The best cover for me here was The Specials’ “Ghost Town” but a couple of the others just made me yearn for more original DD material.
More exciting from the “old guard” was the new album from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Bauhaus Staircase, which I played a lot this fall. Since their reformation, they have released a consistent stream of great albums that hint at their classic ’80s synth sound while updating and expanding their approach perfectly for the 2000s. “Bauhaus Staircase,” “Don’t Go,” and “Look At You Now” would have been additional standouts on their “classic” era albums, while the dark sci-fi futures of “Anthropocene” and “Evolution of the Species” are perfect examples of OMD’s “modern” sound and I can’t get enough of them!
Kesha returned this year with Gag Order, a sometimes schizophrenic collection which once again shows why she’s one of my favorite modern artists. From the trippy intro suite of “Something to Believe In” and “Eat the Acid” to the intensely personal vocal and acoustic guitar musing of “Living in My Head” to the old school rappy-Kesha of “Only Love Can Save Us Now,” she’s all over the map here, trying out new things while not forgetting where she came from. It’s not as cohesive for me as 2020’s High Road, but I dug it.
The real winner for 2023 for me was VNV Nation‘s Electric Sun. This is a tour de force that shows the absolute best aspects of the band on every track. The opening title song is a yearning, slowly building anthem that I could just play on repeat, except that then I’d miss the percolating “Before the Rain” and the rocking beauty of “The Game” which bitterly notes “Some play for fortune, some for fame/Some play for love/of all, the most dangerous game.” And that’s just the first three songs before we get the dance floor banger “Invictus.” This is an amazing album that I know I’ll be still listening to years from now.
This was an awesome year in giallo for me. I ended up seeing Barbara Magnolfi (Suspiria, Sister of Ursula, The Suspicious Death of a Minor) twice in Chicago. Stephanie Sack, an Italian film lover and event orchestrator brought Barbara here in April for a special showing and Q&A for one of my favorite films of all time, Suspiria, at Facets Multimedia.
Then in October, Stephanie brought her back for a showing of The Suspicious Death of a Minor. I ended up introducing and co-hosting a post-film discussion with Stephanie which was a ton of fun. And that night, Barbara ended up appearing on stage at the Goblin show (which I also went to) along with Geretta Geretta. Here are some pictures from those events.
With all of the travel this year, I ended up watching fewer films than usual; this is the first year since 2015 when I began tracking the films I watch in a spreadsheet that I’ve seen fewer than 100 films (94, though I could have missed logging a couple).
As usual, most of the films I watched were from prior to 1990, but I saw a couple from 2023 (Renfield, Evil Dead Rise, Godzilla Minus One). What stood out to me?
Films I rated 5 stars that I saw for the first time in 2023:
- The Last Romantic Lover, a 1978 French erotic drama directed by Just Jaeckin
- Marathon Man, a 1976 Dustin Hoffman thriller directed by John Schlesinger
- The Graduate, a 1967 romantic comedy that launched Dustin Hoffman’s career directed by Mike Nichols
- Playing with Fire, a 1975 French-Italian surreal, absurdist sado-masochistic drama by Alain Robbe-Grillet
- Godzilla Minus One, a 2023 Japanese reboot of the most famous reptilian monster by Takashi Yamazaki
While they didn’t get 5 stars, I quite enjoyed discovering the late ’60s b/w exploitation films of director Doris Wishman this year, like Bad Girls Go to Hell, Indecent Desires, A Taste of Flesh and Another Day, Another Man.
Four more 4-star entries which ironically are all foreign films that made a big impression on me were:
- Rapture, a 1965 French drama directed by John Guillermin
- American Mary, a 2012 Canadian horror film by the Soska Sisters
- Julia, a 1974 Danish erotic coming of age film by Sigi Rothemund
- A Quiet Place in the Country, a 1968 Italian giallo thriller directed by Elio Petri starring Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave.
While I don’t watch a lot of TV series, I did enjoy the ’70s rock band rise-and-fall drama Daisy Jones & The Six, and had to catch the 2nd seasons of Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens and Star Trek’s Strange New Worlds. I also binged the cartoon Trek — Lower Decks.
This year I got to attend both of my fave pinball conventions — Pinball at the Zoo in Kalamazoo, MI and Pinball Expo in Schaumburg, IL.
Pinball at the Zoo, held in April, is a smaller event where I really get to hang with my friends in the hobby (one of whom hosts an after party every year that’s better than the show itself!) I always stop at Bell’s Brewery’s Eccentric Cafe while I’m in town, and this year was no different. This time, though, I finally checked out the Beer Exchange, a bar where beer prices fluctuate by the hour.
Pinball Expo, in October, is the longest running pinball show in the country, and I love being able to spend a couple days just playing tables — there are hundreds there set on free-play. This year, they debuted a new Elton John machine as well as Labyrinth and Venom at the show… but it was Galactic Tank Force (where the mission is to save the cows from being abducted by aliens) that really kept me coming back to the flippers.
This year, I also played in a few tournaments (there’s a monthly one held at a good gaming bar called Enterrium). I never do great since most of my pinball experience is with older games and I don’t know the scoring strategies for most of the newer games that are used in the tournament play. But it’s been fun, I have an IFPA Ranking and I’ve achieved my goal of “just don’t come in last place” each time (the last one I played I came in at #51 out of 72).
I also discovered a couple of places in downtown Iowa City where I can play the silver ball, when we’re in town to see Shaun. 🙂
As I mentioned above, I appeared at a bunch of conventions and book events this year, and I could spend pages talking about them. I’ll try to encapsulate here and just let the pictures tell most of the story.
In March, I did C2E2 for a day, supporting the Horror Writers Association Chicago Chapter booth there. It was cool to finally see a mega-show (at McCormick Place Convention Center) that I’ve heard about for years.
I also had my author booth at HorrorHound Weekend in Cincinnati and enjoyed catching up with some of my best friends in Horror over the weekend. You can see a bunch of pix in my post about that show here.
On July 2nd, I held the kickoff launch party for The Night Mother at Ghoulish Mortals Bookstore in St. Charles, IL. It was a super fun afternoon (and kind of a Flashback Weekend reunion since virtually everyone there I see at Flashback every year). I did a reading from the novel and then challenged any takers to beat me at the Halloween pinball table the store has — winner got a free book!
At the end of July, I held a second book launch reading and signing event at Chicago’s Bucket ‘O Blood Books & Records for The Night Mother with my friend Brian Pinkerton. It was a great night that started with burgers and beer down at Kuma’s Corner and ended with some website redesign work for Brian’s site a couple doors down at DMen Tap.
The very next day, I had a booth at Comicopolis, a one-day comics-artists-toys and books convention that I love attending in Lockport, IL. I was a guest of honor there last year, but ironically I ended up selling twice as many books there this year despite NOT having my picture on the promo posters.
Maybe that’s telling me something about my face…
The next weekend, August 4-6, was Flashback Weekend in Rosemont, IL. This is my “hometown family” con where I have had a booth for more than a decade. It was a blast as always with tons of reunions, conversations and a couple of fun group dinners. Plus, I met Charles Band, founder of Empire Pictures and Full Moon Features, who hung out in my booth for a few minutes.
Two weeks later, I did the HorrorHound Weekend show in Indianapolis. It was awesome to be back in Indy again — their first there since COVID. Vinegar Syndrome‘s table was right next to mine, so I had plenty of Blu-Ray temptation all weekend. And I got to introduce my friends from Synapse Films to the Yard House there (I stop there whenever I’m in the area — it’s usually my dinner stop on the way home from Cincinnati).
I did four different library events in Sept.-Oct., sitting outside for a Local Author Fair at Berwyn Public Library, driving out to Indiana for the Starke County Library’s Beyond the Book Festival, giving a 90-minute talk and live reading at Lockport’s White Oak Library and finally, appearing at the Glen Ellyn Library’s Haunted Library event, where high school actors performed two short skits that I wrote just for them. That was super fun to see!
I also did a group author signing at my local Naperville Barnes & Noble, where I’ve done several signings over the last 15 years, starting with one for the Leisure Books release of my novel Covenant.
Sadly, it was to be the last one… the store announced right after Christmas that they’re closing (which will leave a huge hole in downtown Naperville, where they’ve been a destination for a quarter century!)
And finally, I appeared at Tomes of Terror! a brand new horror author event put on by Bobzbay Books and hosted at Bloomington, IL’s Red Raccoon Games. It was a really successful event, particularly for a first-time outing, so I was glad I made the 90-minute drive down there.
Going Out — and In — with a Bang
This year I spent a lot of time simply marveling at the talent of my son Shaun. The first half of the year, he finished his run at Naperville Central High School by playing in a regional jazz band while also performing (and arranging two songs for) the NCHS popular Drum Show weekend. This year, they managed to get the Drum Show parents (who build and design all the sets) on stage for a number as well (yikes).
And right after that… he appeared in the NCHS production of Les Miserables, which is my favorite musical of all time. I starred in musicals and plays myself all through high school and even did one in college, so I was so glad he finally gave it a shot — and had a blast doing it. I was amazed at the quality of this high school production overall.
He ended up performing at both his high school pre-graduation Commencement Ceremony (with a jazz combo) and then at the actual graduation with the choir. Can’t just sit in the seat and get the sheepskin.
Over the summer, he had to do all-day drum clinics to prep for auditions for the University of Iowa Marching Band. He made it in ultimately, as Bass Drum #3. That meant I spent quite a few days in Iowa over the summer and enjoyed checking out arcades, bars and academic buildings. I even got to see an evening of Shakespeare in the Park (Twelfth Night) — and took a day trip 20 minutes south to visit Riverside, Iowa, the “Future Home of James T. Kirk.” They actually have a Star Trek museum there!
We then visited Iowa a half dozen times over the fall to see Shaun and the Iowa Marching Band perform at football games (I’ve now seen more football this year than I had in the rest of my life combined, I think). The band did some amazing things this season — they ended up getting a mention from Sports Illustrated for a show celebrating U Iowa’s mega women’s basketball star Caitlin Clark, and they entered a contest to put on the best Metallica themed halftime show and are currently in the top 5 finalists (the contest finals are judged by Metallica themselves).
The Hawkeye Marching Band also played the state fair, and at the end of the season, flew to Orlando to play the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day, since the Iowa football team had a great season (sadly, the season playoffs and bowl game ended poorly, thanks to losing a couple of their best offensive players).
Since Shaun is a music major, he also played in steel pan band and orchestral concerts during the fall… so it was a pretty action-packed first semester of college for him all the way around!
In addition to all of the college trips to Iowa City, and my HorrorHound convention trips to Indianapolis and Cincinnati, I also spent an afternoon up in Milwaukee to hang with my good friends W.D. Gagliani, Dave Benton and Brian Pinkerton (we all went to a Kansas show).
I had two longer trips for work to Austin, TX in October and San Diego in November. I stayed over an extra couple days in Austin because it’s one of my favorite places and I wanted to have some dedicated time there to write without interruptions. My convention ended Sunday afternoon, so I wrote from Sunday night through Tuesday night… and then went out on the street to enjoy the raucous Halloween celebration there. I ended up writing over 10,000 words of The Bloodstained Doll there (it clocks in overall at 86,000, so that’s a big chunk!)
Over 20 years ago, I was in Austin for Halloween, and they close off the 6th Street Bar District so people can parade in costume every year. That made its way into the beginning of my 2nd novel, Sacrifice, so I couldn’t be in Austin right before Halloween and NOT stick around to see it again. I actually got to see it three times — because the street was as full of costumes Friday and Saturday as it was on Tuesday night! I also got to enjoy my favorite BBQ place (Stubb’s), my favorite goth club (Elysium) and discovered a couple new BBQ joints — Franklin’s and Lamberts. And, one afternoon, it was warm enough that I camped out by the river and worked on The Bloodstained Doll for a couple hours. (It was sadly unseasonably cool and rainy most of the rest of my trip).
Once I got home from Austin, I had one more trip (San Diego) to scout locations and convention setup things for my dayjob’s annual conference which will be there in the fall. I’ve been there a few times before, but this time I actually stopped at the bar where they filmed a couple scenes of Top Gun and got to go back to Stone Brewing’s World Bistro and Gardens.
Otherwise, the year finally settled down a bit after October — and good thing, since I needed to FINISH my first draft of Bloodstained Doll by mid-December (which I just managed to do).
And suddenly… the year was over and we were exchanging gifts and enjoying dinners with friends and relatives. 2023 was a great year, with a wealth of experiences. But I have to admit, I’m excited at the prospect of spending the next few weeks at the start of 2024 just… staying home!