Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A blanket correction

My wife, Sydney, is quite right to point out that the copy of Worse Things Waiting that I bragged about earlier is not my sole possession, but co-owned by the two of us, like everything else bought since we merged our bank accounts and, not coincidentally, our lives. Should I ever imply otherwise on this blog, I stand corrected.

Of course, this means Sydney also co-owns a Dimension Collector's Series DVD of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back -- which is not what she expected from the marriage at all.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Horror: Another 100 Best Books

My Clarion 2004 student Andy Wolverton says nice things on his ever-interesting blog about Horror: Another 100 Best Books, edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. I was delighted to be one of the book’s 100 contributors; I wrote the essay on Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers.

Andy rightly laments how many of the books are out of print or available only in pricey limited editions. I do, however, proudly own two of the hard-to-find books he mentions, and I acquired them both in time-honored ways. Manly Wade Wellman's Worse Things Waiting I bought in a dealers' room at a science-fiction convention -- at Chattacon, I think -- after hours of dithering, because I could ill afford it at a time. (I was bequeathed it by my hero Klon Newell, longtime Georgia book lover/collector/dealer.) Michael Marshall Smith's More Tomorrows and Other Stories I was mailed gratis by the publisher in hopes I would give it Stoker Award consideration. (It did win an International Horror Guild Award, but not a Stoker.) This is one of the baser reasons people join the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and/or the Horror Writers Association, volunteer for awards juries, etc. But not me, I swear.

Andy wonders when a third volume in the series might come out, given the 17-year gap between the two existing volumes. I can't speak for the editors, but I do know that part of their aim with the second volume was to come up with a completely new list of 100 contributors, commissioning essays from no one who had written an essay for the first volume. (They did get an introduction from Peter Straub, who had written an essay the first time around, but who can blame them for that?) A number of contributors to the second volume had not even started publishing in the field when the first volume came out, and I am one of them; in 1988 I was a cub reporter for the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. So waiting for a fresh crop of 100 contributors to come along may take awhile.

Horror: Another 100 Best Books just won a Stoker Award for non-fiction, as did its predecessor, Horror: 100 Best Books, also edited by Jones and Newman. By my reckoning, this makes the third award-winning original anthology to which I've contributed: Starlight 1 won a World Fantasy Award, and The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction won a Hugo Award. But who's counting? Bruce Sterling on awards: "The smart money is not to care."

More on the Wizards anthology

My Clarion 2004 student Andy Wolverton asks:
Any release date on Wizards?

Co-editor Gardner Dozois tells me it should be out in May or June of 2007. Thanks for asking! Probably too soon to order it, though ...

At Ruby Tuesday last night, I saw a really snazzy Wizards poster and was delighted by the advance publicity, but then I realized it was for some basketball team.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Bruce Chrumka asks ...

When can we look forward to your next fine book, Mr. Duncan?

Bruce, my wife, Sydney, was watching over my shoulder as I typed this, and she said: "That's a good question. I'd like to know the answer to that question myself, because then I'd know when the next CHECK is coming in." She says CHECK the way Jon Lovitz, on the Subway commercials, says FRESH.

By the time the next ICFA rolls around, in March 2007, I hope to have a few new stories written -- enough to round out a second collection -- and to have a novel mostly knocked in the head, as well. I've joined a writers' group, and writers' groups are notorious for expecting actual writing from their participants. I'm also working on a collaboration with a Very Well Known and Cool Fiction Writer, and collaborators are notorious for expecting actual writing from their collaborators.

In the meantime, I'm thrilled to have a new story coming up in Wizards, an original young-adult fantasy anthology from Penguin Putnam, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann. The others in the table of contents are Kage Baker, Peter S. Beagle, Terry Bisson, Eoin Colfer, Terry Dowling, Jeffrey Ford, Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Hand, Nancy Kress, Tanith Lee, Patricia A. McKillip, Garth Nix, Mary Rosenblum, Tad Williams, Gene Wolfe and Jane Yolen. My story is titled "A Diorama of the Infernal Regions; or, The Devil's Ninth Question."

Friday, July 21, 2006

Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Episodes 3 and 4

The second week of TNT's Stephen King anthology series, like the first week, gave us one hit and one miss.

The hit was "The End of the Whole Mess," one of King's few outright science-fiction stories, about two brothers, one a genius and the other merely talented and successful, who together bring peace to the world -- at a terrible price. King's story is an interesting recent contribution to the long tradition of sf stories about the nature of genius, for example C.M. Kornbluth's "Gomez," and it consciously echoes the most famous one, Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon," by having the narrator's writing style deteriorate along with his mental state.

The tight teleplay, by savvy genre veteran Lawrence D. "Larry" Cohen, turns the narrator from a writer into a documentarian, so that he tells his story via a documentary rather than a manuscript. This necessarily costs us the "Algernon" element, but otherwise framing the whole episode as an impromptu documentary works really well; I'm particularly impressed with the blinking "low battery" image at the end. Director Mikael Salomon keeps everything visually interesting via Forrest Gump-style collage effects, incorporating still photos, news footage, home movies, etc. Together, Cohen and Salomon sail us over the episode's more preposterous elements, and keep our focus squarely where it should be, on the relationship between the brothers. As the genius, Henry Thomas is fine, but Ron Livingston is excellent in the more difficult role of the narrator.

William H. Macy is good, too, in "Umney's Last Case," as both a 1930s-era Los Angeles private eye and the 21st-century schlub of a fiction writer who created him, but otherwise I lost all patience with this increasingly mean-spirited tale. If the writer just wants to flee reality by trading places with his creation, why kill off all the detective's friends first, in various unpleasant ways? Just to show who's boss? And when the detective arrives in our reality, he proves himself just as self-absorbed and cruel as the writer was, ditching the grieving wife almost immediately to frolic with the hottie who cleans the pool. The wife -- Jacqueline McKenzie, good in a thankless role -- is thus twice-abandoned, and what's the point? That men, whether real or fictional, are pigs?

A final out-on-a-limb thought on "The End of the Whole Mess": Like so much science fiction, this could be read as a reactionary screed against attempts at human betterment (what Mencken sarcastically called "the uplift"), against science, against experts in general. The message seems to be, "Try to bring about world peace, boyo, and look what you get!" Sadly fitting, perhaps, that it aired the day President Bush ignored the scientific experts and vetoed stem-cell research. The old slogan of science fiction fandom -- "Saving humanity through science and sanity" -- is a largely rejected notion in the U.S. this days; by over-emphasizing the Frankenstein theme, science fiction may share much of the responsibility for this. Further reading: Thomas M. Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The slippery slope

I was delighted to get a comment from my N.C. State creative-writing classmate Trish Shore, whom I've been out of touch with for -- Gosh! Ten years? In the meantime, she has acquired a husband, three children and a minivan. Of that Honda Odyssey, a recent acquisition, she writes July 9 on her blog:
I couldn't help but think of what's gotten me to this point, to being completely and totally kicked out of Coolville. Honestly, it all started with this liking boys thing. Then came the dating boys thing, the getting engaged to boys thing, and then, the marrying boys thing. Then, and this combination has only happened with one particular boy: the marrying and reproducing thing. Oh, man. Let's face it: Love, lust, and liquor lead to a Honda Odyssey.

Cornwell and the Ripper

Thanks to my Clarion 2004 student Charles Schoenfeld (and his wife, Becky) for the detailed comment (at the next post below) on Donald Rumbelow's Jack the Ripper tours.

Charles mentions Rumbelow's disdain for Patricia Cornwell's recent book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed (awkward title, that). I haven't read the book, but I read the lengthy excerpt published in Vanity Fair at the time, and it struck me as a good example of an investigator deciding on a theory ahead of time, then diligently amassing the few scraps of evidence that support the theory, while ignoring the great mass of evidence that doesn't. Stephen Ryder does a good job analyzing what Cornwell did and did not prove, again on the excellent website Casebook: Jack the Ripper.

Ripper tours

In response to my previous post, my Clarion 2004 student Trent Hergenrader writes:
Have you done a Jack the Ripper walking tour in London? A must-do event on the chance that you haven't.

I have, once, and I much enjoyed it. I tagged along one summer day when Judith Clute led Sydney's class on a walking tour of Whitechapel.

Sydney was teaching "Madness, Monsters and Murder," a class on the British Gothic, in the Alabama at Oxford program at Wadham College in summer 2004, so Judith emphasized not only sites associated with the historical murders but sites featured prominently in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's graphic novel From Hell, which was on Sydney's syllabus.

The most notable of the latter was Nicholas Hawksmoor's Christ Church Spitalfields, a place of occult power in both From Hell and two books that greatly influenced it, Iain Sinclair's Lud Heat and Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor. The folks who keep the church going put on their website the least sinister photo of the place I've ever seen, and valiantly remind us through their good works that Christ Church is, after all, a church, albeit one of more architectural interest than most. But in truth, the thing does loom over its surroundings with a sort of geometric Wrongness, and it casts quite a shadow. (Catherine Wright offers a good short appraisal of Hawskmoor that takes the recent occult interest into account.)

An exceedingly interesting thing Judith did was start the tour at its most redeveloped, least Victorian spot -- an unrecognizably paved-over murder site, a few paces from the Whitechapel tube station and street market -- and lead us into progressively more "preserved" areas (which meant, of course, increasingly narrow streets, claustrophobic courts, etc.), so that in effect she led us from 2004 into 1888, and left us there. I admired that deeply.

Trent, I presume you've taken a Ripper tour yourself; tell us about it. I would love, when I'm next in London, to take the tour led by Donald Rumbelow, author of The Complete Jack the Ripper. That came out when I was 11, and was one of the books I checked repeatedly out of the Lexington County Public Library in Batesburg, S.C. My parents never objected, God bless them. (Rumbelow updated his book in 1990 as Jack the Ripper: The Complete Case Book, but I treasure my copy, acquired in adulthood, of the original.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Knowing my lifelong fascination with outre Victoriana, Gregory Frost passes along the latest "Jack the Ripper identified" headline, this one from The Times of London.

As with so many such headlines, this "news" about Aaron Kosminski is old news to Ripperologists, and not terribly convincing news at that. Those new to the field will get an idea of its complexity from the excellent website Casebook: Jack the Ripper.

Whom do I suspect? It's tempting to reply, "Everybody," like the narrator of James Thurber's "The Macbeth Murder Mystery," but the truth is that I tumble to Tumblety, myself.

More American Gothic

The photo I posted earlier of Sydney and me in the front yard inspired New York City writer and artist Kris Dikeman, one of my students at Clarion West 2005, to send me this -- with apologies to Grant Wood, of course.

Given the countless American Gothic parodies and ripoffs, surely no artist deserves more apologies than Grant Wood! Not even da Vinci.

I've seen the actual painting only once, during a daylong visit to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1987, when I was in town for the national Society of Professional Journalists convention. (I see on the SPJ website that the convention is in Chicago again this year.)

While I'm freely associating, I should mention that Wood's two severe, vertical figures always remind me of the work of Wood's fellow regionalist Lee Brown Coye, best remembered today for his beautifully ghastly illustrations in Weird Tales and books from Arkham House and Carcosa Press. Check out the well done new book by Luis Ortiz, Arts Unknown: The Life & Art of Lee Brown Coye.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Episodes 1 and 2

I've been looking forward to this TNT anthology series of Stephen King adaptations, and the first episode did not disappoint.

In "Battleground," William Hurt is a hit man who murders a world-famous toymaker only to be attacked, in turn, by a box of vengeful toy soldiers. It reminded me, by design I'm sure, of the old Twilight Zone episode "The Invaders," in which Agnes Moorehead battles the tiny title creatures. Like "The Invaders," "Battleground" is almost dialogue-free (the only exception this time around being a closed-captioned TV broadcast), and like "The Invaders," "Battleground" is scripted by a Matheson (Richard Christian Matheson, son of Richard Matheson, who wrote "The Invaders").

The director of "Battleground" is Brian Henson, a good choice not only because of his puppetry experience but because he's the son of a world-famous toymaker himself. I figured Henson would handle the effects well, but he handles the human actors very well, too. Note the ambiguous facial expressions of the toymaker (rage? grief? terror? exultation?) and the woman on the airliner (flirtation? concern? unease?).

I might add that the fanboy in me loved the in-joke cameo by the murderous fetish doll from Trilogy of Terror, another attack-of-the-little-people Richard Matheson script; and I also loved the delirious point-of-view shot from the cockpit of the tiny helicopter, as its occupants buzz a snarling Hurt as if he were Godzilla. I regret that Henson repeated the shot later; he should have made it fleeting and one-time-only, like our glimpse of the tiny commuter in the Addams Family movie.

Mostly, though, this is Hurt's show, and he's excellent, generating a complete character through facial expressions, gestures and body movements. The tiny assailants don't terrorize him so much as they astonish him, intrigue him and challenge him. One gets the idea, thanks to Hurt's performance, that this evening at home, horrible as it may be, is a lot more welcome than the quiet, solitary one the hit man had planned.

Hurt is so good, in fact, that I pretty much forgave the fact that the story makes not one lick of sense. Why would this detail-obsessed professional paranoid carry a suspicious package into his apartment and open it, even after recognizing the signature? And where are all the neighbors, security guards, cops, etc., during the noisy, evening-long free-for-all? By the end, the whole high-rise looks as deserted as the Overlook Hotel, for the simple non-reason, I suppose, that it has to be in order for the story to work. Maybe the toy soldiers gave everyone else tickets to Pirates of the Caribbean.

Still, "Battleground" is a model of plot construction compared to Episode 2, "Crouch End," in which American newlyweds in London are lured into a warren of Lovecraftian horrors for no discernible reason. One survives, again for no discernible reason; one (mostly) doesn't, again for no discernible reason. Do they suffer because they're Americans, because they're good-looking, because they happened to flag down the cabbie with the most sinister monologues in the city, because they have bad agents, or what? Maybe they're just schmucks, or God is, or Stephen King. Claire Forlani and Eion Bailey (who suggests the young Jim Hutton) are both appealing performers, but they have nothing to do here but overact in front of bluescreens.

For creepy extradimensional goings-on in England's capital city, I refer you instead to China Mieville's masterful story "Reports of Certain Events in London."

Oh, well. One up, one down, six to go.

If you were expecting meticulous comparisons between the episodes and the original King short stories, sorry to disappoint you; I've read neither, and all my King books, like all my other books, are still packed up from the move.

Dead Man's Chest

In the middle of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, the two rancid pirates Pintel (of the bad hair and teeth) and Ragetti (of the bad eye) debate the correct pronunciation of "kraken," and in the middle of a packed opening-weekend theater, Sydney and I were the only people to burst out laughing. The woman behind us hissed: "I don't get it."

Much later, after an apparent climax gave way to yet another elaborate bit of scene-setting, the same woman said aloud: "You mean it's not over yet? Lord!"

The critics seem to share this woman's opinion. Their consensus seems to be that the much-hyped sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is both too confusing and too long. As if that weren't true of the first movie, too! The only real problem with the new movie is that now we're expecting all the shtick, whereas the first one took us utterly by surprise. Disney probably should have let this one take us by surprise, too, rather than bombarding us with so much pre-release hype and merchandizing that millions who didn't even see the first picture shuffled in that first weekend and found themselves, like the woman behind us, hopelessly confused. They thought this was going to be a real pirate movie, and look what they got instead!

Sydney and I enjoyed the new picture a lot. Elements we loved included: Davy Jones and his half-crustacean crew; the kraken, and Jack's beautifully staged final confrontation with it; the runaway water wheel; the shipboard uses Elizabeth finds for her dress; Stellan Skarsgard as Bootstrap Bill (who actually seems, amid the camp, to be sincerely playing an actual character with actual feelings); Naomie Harris as the seer Tia Dalma; Kevin McNally as the roaring first mate Mr. Gibbs (who's channeling Thomas "Land, Katie Scarlett" Mitchell even more than in the first movie); all the Pintel-Ragetti bickering; and the whole Elizabeth-and-Jack relationship, including her compass' annoying tendency to point only at him.

Sure, I could have improved the movie at the script stage, with 30 minutes' work and a pencil, but of what recent movie can I not say that? I'd have cut most (if not all) of the opening exposition, including the introduction of Jack and the Black Pearl's crew; I'd let the cannibal sequence be our introduction to Jack and the crew this time around (having the audience discover them the same time Will discovers them, basically); and I'd better explain what's going on with that dice game aboard Davy Jones' ship, so that the scene had the emotional resonance the filmmakers intended. I'm sure I'd have made other tweaks, but so what? All was forgiven at the end when the Special Guest Pirate clumped down the stairs, and he wasn't even Keith Richards.

American Gothic

This photo documents just how happy Sydney and I were to be doing yard work on the Fourth of July.

It also documents our ongoing efforts to publicize the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts wherever we go, however grumpily.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Incest and folk dancing

I am amused by a quote on Andrew Wheeler's blog, from the British composer Arnold Bax:
You should make a point of trying every experience once, excepting incest and folk-dancing.
I must confess that I have tried folk dancing. More than once. I was young.

In brightest day

Knowing my lifelong love of comic books, Sydney couldn't resist taking a photo of me at the intersection of old U.S. 40 and Green Lantern Road.

This Green Lantern Road apparently got its name from a hotel and restaurant called the Green Lantern, which sat for many years at that intersection, west of Frostburg, Md., near the Eastern Continental Divide. Hundreds of hotels, bars and restaurants nationwide were named the Green Lantern in the heyday of the railroads, when a signalman waving a green lantern on the tracks meant that all was well.

In fact, the signalman's green lantern inspired the comic-book superhero Green Lantern, back in the 1940s. Many years later, creator Martin Nodell recalled that he got the idea as a New York City commuter:
The subway platform was crowded. There was some kind of delay; the train was not coming into the station. On the tracks I could see a trainman holding a red lantern as he checked the rails. Then he hit behind a pole, waving a green lantern, indicating that all was now safe. At last, the train pulled in, and I had a title: Green Lantern. It still sounded good to me by the time I reached home.
(Thanks to Sleestak's blog for this info.)

I don't think the Green Lantern on U.S. 40 is in business anymore
-- but the Green Arrow Restaurant is! It's in nearby Mount Savage, Md.

Whenever I pass our Green Lantern Road, I pledge to recite:

In brightest day, in blackest night
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil's might
Beware my power, Green Lantern's light!

The Grantsville lighthouse

Turns out the Noah's Ark replica under construction in our town of Frostburg isn't the only roadside Christian attraction with a misplaced nautical theme to be found in the mountains of western Maryland.

Just a few miles west of our Ark, a working lighthouse overlooks I-68, built in 1992 as part of the World Lighthouse Worship Center in Grantsville. The relevant scriptures, of course, include John 8:12: "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life."

According to the church's website, The Grantsville lighthouse is a replica of the oft-photographed Peggy's Cove Lighthouse in Nova Scotia.

Around the lighthouse are boulders with the various roles of Jesus inscribed on them -- Prophet, Pastor, etc. -- and jutting from its base is a cross-shaped platform that affords a fine view of rural Garrett County. That's Sydney on the platform, below. Noting that the Frostburg Ark faces west, and hence the lighthouse, Sydney suggested that the lighthouse could be guiding the Ark safely home, a pleasing thought.

To get to the lighthouse, take Exit 19 from I-68 and take North Park Road (a frontage road) past the industrial park, then climb the church's switchback driveway.

Horrors in the 100 Aker Wood

On Saturday, Sydney and I discovered that the drive from Frostburg, Md., to Morgantown, W.Va., takes only an hour by interstate (in good weather) and winds through gorgeous mountain scenery the whole way. We went over to say hello to one of our ICFA cronies, who was doing a signing at Barnes & Noble. Mike Arnzen is a horror writer and an associate professor at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pa.

Soon after we arrived, Mike and his fellow Raw Dog Screaming Press author Alyssa Sturgill commandeered the children's corner of the store to do a reading. "Hello, boys and girls!" Mike told his all-adult audience. Because their backdrop was Winnie the Pooh's 100 Aker Wood, as illustrated by Ernest Shepard, both performers proceeded to read stories in which small children are murdered, tortured and traumatized in countless unpleasant ways. I don't think any actual children were within earshot, but if there were, I daresay you'll soon be able to read all about it at Focus on the Family. At one point, just to further alarm passers-by, Mike concealed his manuscript behind a copy of Scooby-Doo! and the Creepy Chef.

Mike has one website devoted to his horror writing and quite another devoted to the scholarship of teaching. It's good to have varied interests!

At the 2003 Nebula Awards weekend in Philadelphia, Mike and I were standing in the Radisson Plaza-Warwick Hotel, talking shop, when my hero Ellen Datlow walked up and told both of us that as fellow active members of the Horror Writers Association, we should do the honorable thing and volunteer for service on the Stoker Additions Jury, where she could use some help. I never will forget Mike's response: He threw back his head, roared with laughter like a Pirates of the Caribbean extra, then turned and walked away, without another word. But because I politely stood there in Ellen's cross hairs, thinking I could talk her out of the idea, I wound up toiling the next three years on the awards jury, the third year as chair. And on many occasions during those three years, I told myself, "Next time, emulate Mike Arnzen, dummy! Mike Arnzen's a smart guy!"

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Clueless again

On his blog, Jeff VanderMeer says the fact that award-winning fiction writer Joe Hill is Stephen King's son was, until recently, "the worst-kept secret in the history of secrets," common knowledge "for MONTHS all over genre."

On her blog, my hero Gwenda Bond agrees that "most everybody knew ... And it's time people are talking about this openly."

I'd just like to say for the record that once again, I am the most clueless "insider" in the field of science fiction, fantasy and horror, proof that one can publish and read and network like mad for a decade and still miss all the gossip, tumble to none of the secrets. I guess I should be proud of my wholesale ignorance; what choice do I have, really?

I guess this means Joe Hill, under his birth name, was a Vassar classmate of my old friend Melissa Sorongon, because I remember her telling me she went to school with Stephen King's son. Melissa also went to high school with Blair Beitner, now movie star Selma Blair.

The Frostburg Ark

If not for a couple of intervening houses of little curiosity value, the back deck of our new house would afford a fine view of the Noah's Ark replica under construction in Frostburg, Md., for the past 30 years.

The Frostburg Ark is the work of God's Ark of Safety Ministry. Its pastor, the Rev. Richard Greene, says God came to him in a series of visions in 1974 and told him to build his congregation's new church as a replica of Noah's Ark. The work has proceeded off and on, funding permitting, since groundbreaking on Easter Sunday 1976.

The plan calls for a structure 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high. The steel structure of the front third has been completed, and when you walk around the base of it, you can see the foundations for the other two-thirds have been laid.

The photo above looks westward toward the front of the Ark -- the prow, I should say -- which points toward Morgantown. The photo below, the view from down the hill, gives an idea of the size of the structure. Remember that this is only the front third.

The ministry's extensive website explains that this Ark is designed as a permanent steel structure, not as a floating watercraft, because God promised in Genesis, Chapter 9, not to destroy the Earth by flood again. "We are not building this Ark because of another flood," the website says, "but as a sign to the world of God's love and Jesus' soon return!"

Along the continuum of roadside edifices erected by Christians to get non-Christians' attention, the Frostburg Ark may not rank with Chartres Cathedral, but I'm charmed by it anyway.

The Ark is easily visible from I-68, between exits 33 and 34. To examine it up close and safely, take Exit 34 onto Highway 36 northbound (toward Frostburg) and make an immediate left onto Cherry Lane.

Timely name changes

I just read on Arthur D. Hlavaty's ever-interesting blog that the Bernard Kerik Complex, a Manhattan jail, has hastily reverted to its old name, the Manhattan Detention Complex, in the wake of Kerik's guilty plea on corruption charges.

To Manhattanites, all these official name changes are irrelevant anyway, since the institution in question is known universally as "The Tombs" -- a name far more evocative, Dickensian and, let's face it, accurate. A jailhouse has sat on that site since before the Civil War, and the design of the original structure was inspired by an ancient Egyptian mausoleum, hence the nickname. (An illustrated history of the original "Tombs" is here.)

The Tombs news does remind me, however, of one of my longstanding grievances in Alabama, where I lived for 10 years. A prominent exit from I-20/59 in Birmingham, Ala., still points the traveler toward the Richard M. Scrushy Parkway, years after the public disgrace of the former HealthSouth CEO in a $2.7 billion accounting fraud. Scrushy was controversially acquitted in that case, though 15 executives, including every finance chief who worked for Scrushy over HealthSouth's 20-year history, pleaded guilty.

This past week, Scrushy was convicted in federal court (along with the former governor) of a half-dozen corruption charges, so maybe that will prompt someone -- the Birmingham City Council, maybe? -- to change the name of the street back to what it was before, Lloyd Noland Parkway, in honor of the visionary physician who rid Birmingham of smallpox, typhoid, dysentery and malaria and virtually introduced the concept of public health to Birmingham.

My favorite political name change of recent memory came when King County, Wash. (where Seattle is located), decided to change not its name but its namesake. The county announced that it no longer was named for U.S. Vice President William Rufus de Vane King, an Alabama slaveowner, but for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They didn't even have to change the signs. Complaints were voiced by gay activists who believe, like some historians, that King was gay ... but methinks that's far enough off topic for one post.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Letter to the editor

My first letter to the editor of the Cumberland Times-News was published today. The headline: "In U.S., Constitution overrides Leviticus."

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Mineta and me

A perennial topic of late-night conversation is that of Brushes With Greatness: The celebrities that one has met through life, with points awarded for unlikelihood, personal interaction, etc. While I was in Washington, D.C., on business this past week, I met a political celebrity I've been reading about -- and, occasionally, writing about -- for years. I score no unlikelihood points, though: I happened to be covering a meeting he attended, and during a break I simply walked up and introduced myself to "my favorite Cabinet member." I refer to Norman Yoshio Mineta, U.S. transportation secretary.

During World War II, with the rest of his family, Mineta was incarcerated in the Heart Mountain internment camp for Japanese-Americans in northwest Wyoming. Had he come out of that experience bitter, wanting nothing more to do with the United States, one hardly could have blamed him. Instead, he's pretty much dedicated his life to serving the country that once treated him so shamefully: as a U.S. Army intelligence officer; as a San Jose, Calif., city councilman, and then mayor (the first Asian-American mayor of a major U.S. city); as a member of Congress, representing Silicon Valley in the U.S. House for 20 years; as President Clinton's final commerce secretary, confirmed late in Clinton's second term (the first Asian-American Cabinet member); and, of course, as the only Democrat in President Bush's Cabinet these past five years, and the longest-serving U.S. transportation secretary ever.

On Sept. 11, 2001, when the nature of the day's threat became horribly evident, Mineta safely grounded every aircraft in U.S. airspace -- public and private, domestic and international, passenger and cargo, large and small -- in two hours.

As a member of Congress, Mineta tirelessly argued for, and ultimately achieved, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, in which the United States apologized for "the grave injustice" done to Japanese-Americans during World War II, and provided reparations. As Joe Hill wrote, at the end: "Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize."

On the floor of the U.S. House, in support of that landmark legislation, Mineta said:

I was one of those interned. I was 10 years old. If someone, anyone, could show me how by any stretch of the imagination, any reasonable person could suspect me to have been a security threat, I would abandon this effort instantly. ...

My own family was sent first to Santa Anita Racetrack. We showered in the horse paddocks. Some families lived in converted stables, others in hastily thrown-together barracks. We were then moved to Heart Mountain, Wyo., where our entire family lived in one small room of a rude tarpaper barrack.

Some say the internment was for our own protection. But even as a boy of 10, I could see that the machine guns and the barbed wire faced inward. ...

Yes, it was a time of great national stress. But moral principles and rules of law are easy to uphold in placid times. But do these principles stand up in times of great difficulty and stress? That is the test of a great nation: Can it stand by its laws and codes even while threatened? ...

Chiseled in the marble over the entrance of our Supreme Court, it does not say "Equal justice under law, except when things get sticky."

In that same speech, Mineta quoted Abraham Lincoln: "Those who would deny freedom to others do not deserve it themselves, and, under a just God, they will not retain it long."

In a graceful letter to President Bush, Mineta recently announced his resignation as transportation secretary. I salute him.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Frostbite Falls Picayune Intelligence

Thanks, everyone, for the comments.

Christopher's description of my part of Maryland as "half West Virginia and half Pennsylvania" reminds me of James Carville's description of Pennsylvania: "Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west and Alabama in the middle."

I'm also pleased to be reminded of Frostbite Falls, Rocky and Bullwinkle's Minnesota homewown. The city leaders of Frostburg insist that our town was named not for its climate but for a family of 19th-century settlers named Frost. At least Frostbite Falls had its own newspaper, the Picayune Intelligence; in Frostburg, we make do with the paper published in nearby Cumberland, the county seat.

My favorite fictional newspaper name was on the old sitcom Green Acres: The Hooterville World Guardian.

The veteran newspaper columnist Bill Maxwell argues that a five-times-a-week column is easier than a once-a-week column, because the former enables you to spread a single column topic over two or three days and do "reader mail" at least one of the days. That I'm already doing "reader mail," as Blog Entry No. 3, is my Claim To Lame for today.

(By the way, Christopher, I think I fixed the Comments function, so that non-Blogger folks can comment, too. Y'all try it and see.)