NORMALLY, AT THIS TIME on New Years morning (it’s 1 a.m., an hour after the ball dropped as I start to write this), I pull out my notebook or keyboard and reflect upon the victories of the past year. I relive all of the things that happened that I know helped to shape the me I am today a year later than the last time I did this. Travel to various other cities, vacations, concerts, conventions…
But in 2020… there were… none of those things. I was supposed to go to San Francisco and New Orleans — two of my favorite places — for business trips. But… those trips didn’t happen. The New Orleans trip was supposed to happen right as I got the copyeditor notes to go over on Voodoo Heart. It would have been awesome to have done the final edits on that book IN New Orleans, where the story is set. But… the meeting was cancelled two weeks before it happened.
I was supposed to see a Keane concert and help out my son’s Marching and Jazz bands on their concert trails and competitions in the fall. Again… cancelled. The annual pinball conventions in Kalamazoo and Chicago that I always attend were cancelled, as were Chicago’s Flashback Weekend and Indianapolis’s Horrorhound Weekend.
And Naperville’s public library was hosting a national librarian event focused on horror fiction in partnership with the Horror Writers Association (HWA). My editor, Don D’Auria was flying in and I was going to help play “local host” to him and all of the writers coming in for panels for the event. Instead… we ended up recording panels on Zoom a few months after the event was supposed to happen.
It was like “the year that wasn’t.”
We sat at the table for our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners talking to our families on a laptop via Zoom. And tonight, for New Year’s Eve? I sat on Twitch and chatted with some old music friends from the Facebook Strangies group while our “leader” DJ Mikey spun a virtual NYE Dance Party mix… complete with old club footage. The whole year was spent behind glass.
The one convention I was able to do was Capricon, a venerable SF/F/H fan convention in the north Chicago suburbs that I attended the year prior with my writing friends W.D. Gagliani, Dave Benton and Brian Pinkerton. The show was over Valentine’s Day weekend and they ended up not being able to attend this year, so I was solo for the weekend, which was a little lonely, but also forced me to meet some new people and check out things at the convention that I normally wouldn’t… so it was still a good time. And it started out with a panel that was close to my heart — beer! We staged a “tasting” panel with “Beer from the Tropics.” Read my Capricon Blog for pix.
A Country in Quarantine
COVID-19 turned up shortly after Capricon by the end of February and essentially cancelled the rest of the year. Nobody grasped at the time that all conventions, concerts, travel, etc. would be killed not for weeks, but for months. But… that’s what happened. At first we watched the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 map on a daily basis… but eventually that stopped. The cycle didn’t break after a few weeks as we all hoped… it just kept escalating. Watching the numbers rise every day was just too painful.
Last January 1, I would never have believed that so many things could be cancelled and that just a few weeks after New Year’s the whole world would be walking around in public in masks. I could never have conceived that I would become a “telecommuter” every day or that my son would be doing all of his high school classes via Zoom.
But… that’s what happened. I was lucky; I could easily do my job from home since the bulk of what I do is project management, writing, editing, and creative direction. For me.. it actually meant more work than less… while I didn’t have to drive to the office, my workday somehow expanded from 8 in the morning until 8 at night an awful lot. I didn’t spend time in the car, but I also didn’t get as much writing done this year… but I was lucky — unlike so many others — to have a good job.
And honestly… I’m not a very social person, so I ended up largely enjoying the isolation of 2020. The only thing I really missed was writing at my favorite bars, eating at my favorite places and attending the horror and pinball conventions I attend every year. I wrote about my easy acclimation in March in my Joy of Isolation blog.
Chicago entered quarantine right after my birthday. On March 14, Geri and Shaun and I went out to celebrate my 54th birthday at Two Brothers Roundhouse, a fairly local brewery that I love. A couple days later, all indoor dining in Illinois was cancelled. I was already telecommuting, and decided to grow a COVID beard. I didn’t shave until our restaurant quarantine was fully lifted — almost three months later. We went out for Father’s Day on June 12 to Two Brothers to celebrate both the day and the return to restaurants… and I shaved my COVID beard that day to commemorate our “release from prison”. Here’s the before and after:
We didn’t completely return to our normal routine of going to a bar and grill on Friday nights to celebrate the end of the week, but we did eat out on restaurant patios a lot during the summer. We didn’t do much else though! We stayed close to home and stayed mainly isolated from friends and relatives. On a couple occasions we had people over for patio barbecues or “driveway” visits, but basically, I only left the house once a week for most of the year to go grocery shopping.
Things fall apart…
While we rarely left the house, we did still have some minor dramas during the year. I had my car fixed in March and then didn’t drive it for weeks… When I DID finally drive it, I heard a noise under the hood right after I left the expressway. And then I looked up and in my rearview mirror, I saw a round piece of metal bouncing along the road behind me as my steering locked up. Seems the repair folks had forgotten to put the screws back in the belt assembly that drives power steering and other things. That was a little frightening to be driving your car as pieces of it are literally falling off!
We also had an unexpected small flood in our basement in May when an old concrete patch (which has to have been in place for at least 15 or 20 years!) gave out during a rainstorm. All of the carpet by Shaun’s drumset was waterlogged and I had to use a saw to carve out the corner of the basement paneling to find the source of the leak. I ended up creating a plastic “riverbed” to guide the water across the carpeted room to the utility room drain. And then we spent the next three weeks getting the carpet cleaned, the patch repaired, and then I had to piece the paneling back together. Not fun… but it made May go by a lot faster!
The Horror Must Go On
While all other life as we know it was cancelled, I did end up writing a new novel in 2020 called Five Deaths for Seven Songbirds. It’s a giallo homage, and so… on weekends over the summer, I binged on giallo films, rewatching many of the movies that inspired the novel (I have scores of giallo DVDs and Blu-Rays on my shelves!).
I usually do a lot of writing in bars when I’m in the midst of working on a novel, but that obviously couldn’t happen this year. Instead, I spent a lot of writing hours at the glass outdoor bar on my patio… which is truly an enjoyable spot to write. Also good for bird watching, since I have finch and hummingbird feeders out in the summer.
Late this fall, right about the time that I was working on the final chapters of Five Deaths for Seven Songbirds, my 12th novel (and third from Flame Tree Press) was released.
Voodoo Heart came out on October 20th and has been getting some great reviews since its release and ended up on a couple “Best of the Year” lists. It’s a novel about voodoo and New Orleans that I outlined a decade ago and is based on the title story to my collection Vigilantes of Love, which came out 17 years ago… so this one was a long time gestating!
Voodoo Heart is my first novel to be available in Target stores since the days of my Leisure paperbacks, thanks to a distribution deal Flame Tree scored with Simon & Schuster… so I’m hoping lots of new readers find it.
Right after Voodoo Heart was released, I also had my first release come out in the Czech Republic.
Carcosa Press worked with my publisher, Flame Tree Press and translated and published my novel The House By The Cemetery this year. It was released there as Dům u hřbitova, one of their Halloween releases.
It’s a gorgeous hardcover edition (click on the cover to see a larger version!), so I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to work with them on additional future translations!
That was a translation a long time in coming… I had signed a contract with a different Polish press several years ago and they ultimately never produced the book and voided the contract. So… I was really excited that this novel was finally out in Poland.
I can only hope it sells half as well in Poland as it did for Festa Verlag in Germany.
I also participated this year in Survive With Me, a charity anthology book spearheaded by my labelmate Glenn Rolfe. It was envisioned long before COVID, but the “survival” theme certainly took on new meaning this year.
I wrote “Forest Butter” a brand new story for Survive with Me, which includes authors like Ronald Malfi, Hunter Shea, Tim Waggoner and more, and has all proceeds going to benefit the American Indian College Fund.
Playing The Silver Ball
I spent a LOT more time after work this year at my pinball machines in my basement. I’ve got a collection of five tables — Mata Hari, Sorcerer, Fireball Classic, Galaxy and Meteor, and for most of the year, for an hour or two a night, I’ve enjoyed heading to my basement arcade and setting new high scores on all of them. Since I didn’t have to get up as early in the morning to go to work… I’ve been staying up a lot later!
I hoped that all this would make me a better player, and I suppose it has to an extent, but I’ve grown to realize that I will never be a tournament-level player. I have learned a few things about maintenance though. Since I’ve played the hell out of these 40-year-old tables, I’ve also had to do repairs ranging from replacing fuses and drop target assemblies to doing paint touch up and clearcoating on one playfield that was peeling.
Still… I’ve put up some impressive high scores on my game room board over the course of the year. Click on the photo to launch the full size version and scroll through some of my “maintenance pictures”:
Getting Bonded and more Film Fun
My son Shaun agreed to watch the entire James Bond film catalog this summer, to get ready for the release of the 25th Bond film… which ultimately got delayed for release… and then delayed again.
Nevertheless… we did get through the entire film history of Bond over the summer… which was fascinating. While I’d seen a lot of the movies, I’d never seen all of them, let alone in order.
I blogged about the experience in A Summer to get Bonded.
Plowing through all of those films, plus trying to rewatch a slew of giallos, totally inflated my usual “movies I watched” list. To gear up for Halloween this year, I tried to watch a giallo a night for the two weeks leading up to Halloween, which resulted in a thumbnail review blog of what I watched called 10 Giallo Films for Halloween.
I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet over the past six years to track what films I watch in a given year and thanks to the Bond marathon and COVID, I ended up seeing nearly 165 films in 2020 — 30 more than in 2019 and 40 more than in 2018. The films come from all genres, but I’ve been really drawn to ’70s exploitation and Euro-horror from that era in recent years. 15 of the films I watched in 2020 were released in 1972 and 13 were released in 1971. Another 13 were from 1975. That’s over 40 of my 165 films watched coming from just three years.
Not surprisingly this year especially, Giallo films topped the “most watched” genre for me — I saw 34 of them. Horror was right behind, at 33. Thanks to the Bond marathon, Thrillers came in at 28 and Exploitation films came in at 27.
Also in there were Arthouse films, SciFi, Drama, Comedy and, I actually saw 4 Documentaries (typically it would be unusual for me to see 1). I don’t ever tally up the number of “Making Of” featurettes that I watch on the DVDs after viewing the films, but I also watch a LOT of those.
You might ask… what was your favorite film out of all that viewing? That’s a tough one! In my Bond blog I ranked my favorites of that series. And I watched a ton of Giallo classics, so I could never pick just one, but Argento’s Deep Red, Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark and The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh are favorites.
Outside of those genres, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite was the best Western I watched, Tammy and the T-Rex was the best silly Horror/Comedy, Angel was the best exploitation film, The Story of O was the best Arthouse and Gwendoline the best Fantasy/Adventure film (interestingly, the last two were both directed by French auteur Just Jaeckin). And An Awkward Sexual Adventure was the best Comedy. And at the end of the year I finally watched Anna and the Apocalypse, a ZomRomCom musical. I became an instant fan and may be revisiting that one every Christmas from now on!
Music and Reading…
Over the past few years, I’ve barely gotten time to do any reading for pleasure and I’ve not written and recorded any new music. I did a little bit more of both this year (I read Anne Rice‘s 2nd Angel novel and wish she’d write a third, as well as both of her werewolf books, The Wolf Gift and The Wolves of Midwinter).
It was not the best year for music, with most concert stages being closed for most of the year and recording studios also locked up. A lot of artists did live streams from their homes, which was very cool and helped make the quarantine a little less lonely for many. There were some new albums released though that I was excited to hear: The Psychedelic Furs released Made of Rain, their first new studio album in almost 30 years which was super exciting for me… I’ve probably seen them play more than any other band, which tells you what a fan I am. And Erasure, another of my lifelong favorites, unleashed The Neon. Both were solid outings. And some of my more modern faves also had new albums — Dua Lipa and Kesha both released great new discs which I listened to a lot.
I also rediscovered some albums in my collection that I’d basically forgotten. Since I was playing pinball a lot in the room with the house’s only turntable, I put on more vinyl this year than I have probably since the 80s! And I pulled out a lot of things that I haven’t listened to since they came out. As a music critic for 20 years, I accumulated roughly 4,000 CDs and over 600 vinyl LPs… as you can imagine, the bulk of that collection goes largely unlistened to. But it’s a great library for times like this year… you can pull out something you vaguely remember and rediscover it.
This year, I put on Let’s Active‘s Every Dog Has His Day, an album I remember getting good critical raves when it was released, but one that never clicked with me. Fast forward 35 years and guess what… I LOVE this record! I also rediscovered the haunting, rich, lush quality of Romeo Void‘s Instincts LP (really, a perfect record) and realized that the Divinyls first record Desperate from 1983 is one of the best female-fronted pop-rock records ever. I think I bought this when their 1991 album with “I Touch Myself” was big but never really listened to it much. Now? I’ve been playing it every week for the past couple months. I also rediscovered how much I loved The English Beat and The Pandoras.
2020 also made me realize that I need to rediscover my own personal music creativity, whcih I’ve largely given up over the years as I focused on writing. I bought a USB synthesizer keyboard at the start of COVID so that I could play a bit while in my office, but after a month or so, I stopped using it as I focused on writing Five Deaths for Seven Songbirds. I’m hoping to get back to it this month, now that the novel is basically done. If I’m lucky, by the time we are finally inoculated and out of the COVID crisis, I’ll have written a soundtrack for Five Deaths for Seven Songbirds (all gialli should have a good soundtrack!)
And here we are. January 1, 2021.
We’re still at least three or four months from seeing a solid recovery from the horrors of 2020, but with vaccines rolling out finally, there is a light of hope at last. With a little luck, the coming weeks will pass quickly and that we can finally start moving forward again with life instead of staying in stasis. While I’ve “enjoyed the silence,” I would like to see friends and family again, especially at the holidays. And more than anything for me, I’d like Shaun to be able to get back out and live the life of a teenager. High school was not meant to be experienced via Zoom and Facetime.
So here’s to 2021… the year we work to erase the scourge of 2020!