NOBODY IMAGINED TWO YEARS AGO that we’d spend the past 21 months wearing masks and closeting ourselves in our homes whenever possible to avoid a frequently deadly virus. Or that temporary telecommuting would turn into a permanent situation. It has for me… and I’m loving it (not a lot of upsides to a pandemic, but that’s been one for me!)
Certainly when we began 2021, we all hoped to be “back to normal” with the release of vaccines, rather than enduring a new spike of record hospitalizations from COVID-19 variants at the end of the year. Nevertheless, here we are, with no end in sight. But some things are the same as ever. My ritual on New Year’s Eve is to open a bottle of something good (this year – Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout) and ruminate on the events of the past 12 months. So… the following were some of my personal highlights and lowlights of the year we are leaving behind, written just before the ball drops.
The good thing about 2021 was that we did finally get vaccines in the spring for the coronavirus and life for most did get somewhat back to normal. Restaurants and entertainment centers have been more or less open all year. For me, I got to celebrate Father’s Day at Revolution Brewing again, which had been an annual tradition for us until 2020.
For those hailing the end of 2021 and “bring on 2022,” all I’ve got to say is that things may very likely not be that different next year than they were this year. We’re going to be fighting COVID and trying to reestablish our “old” lives for a long time to come. Some things may never go back to the way they were in 2019.
For me, 2021 was not a bad year overall. It didn’t START great. We were still in the throes of lockdown, and in February, my longtime friend and publisher David G. Barnett was killed in a car crash by a reckless driver. That eventually led to me republishing Needles & Sins, my one active book still on Dave’s Necro Publications imprint on my own Dark Arts Books. It was a sad moment late this fall when I hit “publish” on the new edition and put the original Necro edition to bed. I was proud of being on Necro and will forever miss Dave.
I got the J&J vaccine in the spring, and thought I was going to die from the vaccine the night I got it. But things have looked up from there!
In the following months, I returned to horror conventions like Flashback Weekend and HorrorHound, was in the front row to see the Psychedelic Furs in Chicago once again, and saw a few movies in the theater, including the latest Godzilla movie and the new James Bond film that Shaun and I had waited for a year to see. We watched all of the Bond movies a year and a half ago to get ready for it… and then No Time to Die was delayed twice. So… that was a long awaited highlight of 2021.
Tonight, we celebrated New Year’s Eve by driving 45 minutes to have dinner at the original Aurelios Pizza in Homewood, IL. Geri and I have made that an annual tradition for decades since it used to be our high school hangout, and last year… couldn’t do it, because restaurants in Illinois were all locked down. So… a lot of things got more back to normal this year.
The Year of Twitch.
For me, 2021 was The Year of Twitch. It all started on NYE 2020, when a Detroit DJ that I’ve followed for the past 20 years decided to hold a New Year’s Eve party on Twitch.TV. I was vaguely aware of the platform because I’d seen pinball hobbyists use it to show live gameplay while chatting (Twitch works similarly to Zoom and Teams with a main video screen and sidebar “chatroom”). After having a great time listening to classic alternative rock and Britpop tunes and chatting with some old online friends from DJ Mikey’s old online Strangeways Radio days last NYE, I quickly discovered that when COVID closed all the clubs, the most enterprising DJs had flocked online to continue to hold their spinning sessions and entertain their audiences… while earning subscription fees and tips to replace their lost club income.
There are a ton of DJs with weekly shows on Twitch.TV. It wasn’t long before I had found a handful of favorites who always spin the kind of music I like, and are entertaining themselves to boot. In 2020, I used to play pinball in my basement three or four nights a week while listening to my favorite LPs and CDs. Early in 2021, I started instead putting on Twitch DJs whenever I played pinball. That candle-heavy photo is from DJMelting Girl’s show, who I usually listen to twice a week. I bought an Amazon Firestick so I could play Twitch easier on my gameroom TV (instead of screensharing from my phone) and dropped a subwoofer under my pinball tables. Pretty soon, our basement started to sound like a dance club every weekend, with the floors upstairs rattling while I played pinball and blasted goth rock, industrial, 80s dance pop and modern dark club music.
This did not always excite my family upstairs, but it was awesome for me. I used to love going to goth-y, industrial clubs in my 20s and 30s but never got to go to them often since we live a pretty good hike from Chicago. Suddenly, it was like having Chicago’s Berlin and Metro Smart Bar in my basement.
I thought maybe it would just be a “phase” but over the past 12 months, I’ve settled into a very consistent comfortable schedule. On Wednesday nights (and sometimes Sunday afternoons), I listen to the very gothy (and funny) Sean Templar on his RedPartyNYC channel. On Thursday nights, it’s all about DJMeltingGirl from San Francisco, who spins modern and classic industrial and darkwave. Friday nights are for Vancouver’s DJ Evilyn13, who spins a wide mix of 80s alternative, rock, and modern stuff on the Restricted Entertainment channel.
Saturdays are tough because Melting Girl and Evilyn are both on again, but I usually end the night listening to Denver’s DJSlave1 whose Mixtape show plays all my favorite 80s/early 90s fare from New Order, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, OMD, Siouxsie, The Cure, etc. Sunday nights have flipped around a bit, but lately DJSlave1 has been broadcasting live from her club instead of her house, so I’ve been tuning into that. And there are others who I enjoy and catch now and then, from JoeVirus in Dallas to DJJakeRudh in Minneapolis and DJGregHaus, Philly Peroxide, and Gil Burns who are all Chicago DJs.
Obviously, COVID has encouraged my life to revolve more than ever around music and pinball. And I’m OK with that! I don’t watch TV… I watch Twitch. I’m watching/listening to DJMeltingGirl now as I write this.
A New HAUNTER and the Return of Travel!
A few years ago, I used to travel for my dayjob at least once a month. I saw a lot of cities! And frequently posted pictures of greasy burgers and beer while in Irish Pubs all around the world. (It was kind of cool today – I saw the New Year rung in on a video posted at the Aldgate Pub, a British pub in Tokyo that I did some writing at a few nights when I was there for work almost six years ago. Was nice to see that place “live” again, albeit via Instagram.)
It was hard to fathom, but when I went to O’Hare Airport in October to spend a week in Atlanta for business, it was the first time I had flown in almost exactly two years. After years of constant travel, it was really weird to have had that much time go by. I definitely do not miss the “airport experience”.
My “return to travel” began in August, when I finally bought HAUNTER 2.0, my first (almost) new car in 16 years. I had been saving all of the money I made from book royalties for the past two and a half years so that I could get a big downpayment for a new Mustang Convertible.
My 2004 Mustang was getting a bit creaky after more than 200,000 miles on the road, but Mustangs are a LOT more expensive now than they were back then. I bought the original HAUNTER, a grey Mustang convertible, for $18,000 on New Year’s Eve 2004. I got it for an awesome price because they wanted it off the lot in winter on that last day of the year. Mustangs are almost three times that $$ now.
The old HAUNTER drove me to Toronto and Nashville and Atlanta and St. Louis and Indianapolis and all sorts of other places during its life, but it was time to let it rest. The radio only half-worked, the automatic convertible top had become painfully manual, the wheelwells and trunk were rusting out, and I had to jump it most days to get it out of the garage (there was some kind of constant electrical drain going on that sapped the battery).
The onset of COVID gave me an extra year of life out of the car while I saved, because while it wasn’t working dependably, it mainly just sat in the garage. When I did finally trade it in in August for a slightly used 2020 black Mustang convertible, the old HAUNTER had 215,000 miles on it.
Almost as soon as I had the new car, I took a road trip to Kalamazoo to go to a two-night “pinball party” at a friends. And when we weren’t playing the silver ball, I made excursions to Bells Brewery and Founders Brewing, two of my favorite breweries.
A week later, having tested my new pony on a short roadtrip, I drove it to Cincinnati to go to HorrorHound Weekend. I’ve always gone to the Indianapolis edition of the con, but this year, they were only holding it in Cincy. It was great to connect again with so many horror fans and it turned out to be my most successful convention ever… so… 2021 was looking pretty good to me in September!
I also did a small Krampus Market Curiosities & Oddities event in Lombard, Illinois to kick off December which was a good time. So… with three different horror conventions and a library event (I did a talk at the Lemont, IL library in October), this year felt a lot closer to normal for me than 2020.
It was a super busy fall overall, because high school marching band was back this year, so Shaun had events and competitions going on every weekend, including a state championship event at Illinois State University in Normal (where they made finals and finished in the top 15 bands in the state!). Between his schedule and my travel to Atlanta and Cincinnati, the Fall disappeared in a blink.
Books I Read
One of my resolutions for 2021 was to get back to a regular reading schedule. Prior to COVID I had gotten to the point where I was lucky to finish a handful of books a year. For 2021, I started reading a chapter or two before going to sleep again (used to do that all the time but had fallen out of the habit). I ended up reading a dozen books this year, which beats probably every year for the past decade. I don’t understand the lives of people who say they read 100 or 200 books a year. I’m glad they’re out there… but…damn, I’m just glad I got through a dozen! And the best part is, they were all good!
I started the year reading Anne Rice’s Wolves of Midwinter (was so sad when she died this month. There will be no more vampire, werewolf or angel books to look forward to!) Then I read Brian Pinkerton’s fun SF-horror thriller The Gemini Experiment and P.D. Cacek’s Second Lives.
After having them sit on my to-be-read shelf for more than 15 years, I then read JA Konrath’s Whiskey Sour, Christa Faust’s Money Shot, Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code and Richard Laymon’s Friday Night in Beast House. I loved them all, and ended up buying and reading Konrath’s sequels Bloody Mary and Rusty Nail later in the year, after reading a couple Edward Lee books I’d had sitting around for just about as long – The Chosen and The Backwoods. And I ended the year reading Laymon’s amazing closer to the Beast House saga, The Midnight Tour.
On my own book front, I turned in the final edits of my giallo homage novel, Five Deaths for Seven Songbirds, which will be out in February, and had a couple cool foreign short story collections released — Dark Erotic, a huge collection of my short erotic horror stories came out in Germany, and Secrety, a half & half collection of stories with Tomasz Czarny, who actually collaborated with me on writing a new Covenant tie-in tale. The Polish edition of Violet Eyes was also released! Plus, a new story appeared in the anthology Beyond the Veil.
Movies I Watched
This year, I watched 140 films (I keep a spreadsheet!) which is just a couple more than 2019, but down a couple dozen from 2020 (when we were “locked in” more). Half of those were Horror or Giallo films, followed by a good batch of Exploitation/Grindhouse fare and a scattering of dramas, comedies and, for the first time in a while, a couple documentaries. Highlights included all the movies we went to the theater for — No Time to Die, Godzilla Vs. Kong, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Dune as well as my home theater discoveries: the awesome Italian film-centric coming of age film Cinema Paradiso (1988), the Czech fantasy Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) and the Dutch art film My Nights with Susan, Olga and Julie (1975). I also enjoyed seeing the bizarre dialogue-free Human Animals (1983), Jose Ramon Larraz’s Whirlpool (1978) Flesh for Frankenstein 3D (I had only previously seen the 2D version) and I rewatched some 5-star classics like Malabimba, Trauma, Living Dead Girl and What Have They Done to Solange?, the perfect precursor to my Christmas gift Camille Keaton in Italy box set of three films that she made after Solange and prior to I Spit On Your Grave.
It was a good year in film for me!
Music I Bought
I did listen to more than Twitch DJs streaming 80s club hits this year. While 2021 did not bring us the long-promised new Cure album, it did bring a mind-blowing duet with Robert Smith on the new Chvrches CD, Screen Violence. One of my favorite new artists collaborating with my absolute favorite old artist? Yes, please!
Other highlights of the year in music included a phenomenal new disc from one of the premier songwriters of this generation, Brandi Carlile with In These Silent Days, a new Duran Duran album called Future Past, and a surprisingly good new Styx album in Crash of the Crown.
So that’s my wrap on 2021. The first half was pretty quiet, given continuing lockdowns, but by the fall, we were back to a fairly frenetic schedule of life. Hopefully 2022 will continue in that vein as “herd immunity” slowly grows; while I enjoyed the “quiet” time and got a lot of pinball, music and movies in, nobody wants to be “forced” to stay home.