Book Review – The Dark Land by D.M. Shepard

Alaska is the land the U.S. seems to have forgotten. Other than a brief flirtation with the state back when Sarah Palin claimed to be able to see the back of Vladimir Putin’s head from her porch, it seems like Alaska doesn’t really exist in popular culture. There’s plenty going on about the rest of the country from sweet tale of overcoming cancer in New Mexico that was “Breaking Bad” to the lovely travel documentary of Georgia in “Deliverance”. But aside from that terrible Steven Segal movie back in the day, Alaska seems to have fallen off the face of the planet. Which is a pity because there’s a lot of cool stuff in Alaska beyond the annual winter-time vampire feeding fest and HAARP.

So that’s why DM Shepard’s The Dark Land makes for such a great story. Don’t get me wrong, it’s more than just Alaska, the story is good and well-written, too. But setting something in Alaska and having it written by someone who actually lives in the state brings a great deal of detail to the story. In fact, if you’re so inclined, go read Shepard’s guest-post about the myths and legends she tapped to spin her yarn of terror, adventure, and romance.

Details are all fine and good in a story, but it is possible to get bogged down in them. They’re like tequila – fine in small doses but too much can leave on the floor questioning your sanity. Fortunately, Shepard understands that and uses the real-world details to add spice and depth to the story without overpowering it. In other words, she makes the frozen hell-hole that is Alaska live and breathe. She populates the world with characters you feel like you can almost touch and monsters that are just as alien as anything you can imagine. And throughout the whole thing makes a Southwestern guy like me wonder what the hell people are doing trudging through the snow when its, like, four degrees below absolute zero out there.

As I said earlier, this is blend of action, horror, and romance. Which would seem to make for strange bedfellows, but Shepard pulls it off brilliantly and lets each style emerge on its own terms. It would be easy to have a romantic interlude in the woods that leads to getting eaten by monsters. It’s far harder to put two characters together and not have them go steamrollering straight to the sack. She lets the story develop in its own time. So, you can go from some pretty intense action to a calming sequence to some pretty intense action of another type, if you get my drift. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. Say no more.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book. It’s a good story, well-told, with enough mystery and detail added to make it feel real, even when the tale points the car toward mythology town and steps on the gas. Truly a treasure. This is the kind of story they make movies out of.

A dark tale of legendary creatures stalking the isolated trails of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in the deep cold of winter.

Lured by her high peaks and vast forests, adventurers swarm to the siren call of Alaska’s backcountry. Her harsh bite scars many. Some never return.

Please find my son’s remains…

Haunted by the last request of her foster mother, experienced outdoorswoman, Rose Long, skis into the Wrangell-St. Elias wilderness to search for clues surrounding the missing man. Concerned about the suspicious circumstances surrounding the older woman’s death, her childhood friend, Ulrik, joins the quest to protect the woman he secretly loves.
Ancient evil seethes in the ice-locked boreal forest, watching their every move during the long northern nights. The legend of the Headless Ravine is steeped in blood. The Dark Land’s hunger for flesh never sleeps, even in the deepest cold of winter—and it has marked Rose as its next victim.

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Guest Post – Athabascan Languages and Legends by Daniella Shepard

“The Headless Ravine? You mean up Chitistone Gorge? That’s just a legend.”

“Yeah, the Athabascans didn’t name it that for nothing, kid.”

Myths and Legends of all cultures have fascinated me since I was a little girl. One of my favorites is that of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe of the Mojave Desert (near Death Valley). They tell of early times, when the Coyote Spirit carried the First People into the Living Valley (what the Europeans would later name Death Valley) in a basket. He fell asleep, and the people crept out and populated the world. This took place at the Wosa, now known as Ubehebe Crater, a large extinct crater shaped like a basket in the National Park. I always liked to picture the coyote sleeping under the multitude of desert stars, while the curious people wandered away.

As I grew older, my brother, cousin and I would sit around and tell darker stories. Those of the of the Yucca Man and Skin Walkers. The southwest like every region of the world has its own tales of creatures that stalk the empty, uninhabited spaces of the land.

Native Legends

Navajo Legends

Yucca Man

Athabascan Language Groups

When I moved to Alaska in 2007, I became fascinated with the differences and similarities between the legends I grew up with and the ones I encountered in my new home. Something that I didn’t know, and others may be surprised to learn, is that Alaska Natives First Peoples of the interior of Alaska, called the Northern Athabascans, are actually related to the Apache-Navajo tribes of the American Southwest. The Apache Navajo are considered to be Southern Athabascan (also spelled Athapascan). The language structure, verb usage and words are similar, though the two groups live more than 3000 miles apart and have had no contact for many millennia. Some words have become obsolete over time and distance as the languages have evolved, but they have found that if they bring members from the different groups together, they are able to understand each other with some difficulty. I have included some links below that talk in more detail about the Athabascan Languages, relationships, dialects and origins.

Athabaskan Peoples Languages

http://qenaga.org/relationships.html

http://athabascanvoice.blogspot.com/2013/05/athabaskan-languages.html

Of the 31 dialects of Athabascan in Alaska, my particular story, The Dark Land is derived from legend of tailed creatures in the interior of Alaska in the region of the Ahtna (referring to the Upper Ahtna). The Dene, Han, Upper Tanana and other tribes have similar stories and legends revolving around evil creatures in the Alaska-Yukon wilderness, the most complete version resides in the book, Tatl’ahwt’aenn Nenn’ or The Headwater’s People’s Country, transcribed and edited by James Kari.

Cet’aenn Nal’aen’de (When the Tailed Ones Were Seen), is a chilling account of the Upper Ahtna’s encounter with the Cet’aenn (pronounced: Ket-ANN) detailed in the aforementioned book. It described evil, monkey-like creatures* that would come out of the ground at night and watch from the hills. The story describes how the Ahtna vanquished the creatures in the particular area known as Roasted Salmon Place (Batzulnetas), but the implication is that they didn’t eliminate them entirely.

*English translation-no word for monkey in Dena’ina/Ahtna.

Talking with some of my other friends who are more closely related to the Tanacross/Tanana tribes, this oral story/legend is not familiar to them. But they are very familiar with what is known as the Bush Men (Ts’el’eni or Kol’eni) or “Wild Men of the Tundra.” According to legend these men are known for kidnapping women and children and waging war against the First Peoples. There is also fervent belief in “The Hairy Man,” or the Wood Man (Nuhu’anh) what we would call Big Foot or Sasquatch.

http://www.native-languages.org/ahtna-legends.htm

No matter where you go, the theme of something sinister lurking in the woods beyond the shadows of the campfire prevails. No matter what our differences, tales of things waiting to devour those that stay too far from the path permeate every culture. Blending these tales into my own brand of fiction was a fun adventure, at the same time I wanted to share the inspiration. I also wanted to share the reason why I will definitely think twice before investigating the strange noise outside my cabin in the darkness.

Thanks for reading. If you want to read about legendary bloodthirsty creatures stalking the frozen trails of Alaska, you can find The Dark Land on Amazon.

You can also check out more of my blog posts about my Alaska adventures on my website:

http://dmshepard.com/blog/

Daniella’s book, The Dark Land, a wonderful mix of romance, terror, and action will be released May 4th. Yes, I’ve read it. Yes, it’s a lot of fun. Check back on May 4, 2020 for a full review.

You can also find Daniella on Twitter.

WATWB – Your Monthly Shot of News That Doesn’t Suck

Time has no meaning anymore. It’s just a filmy haze of going from room to room in my house, pretending different rooms are different places for different jobs. Living room is writing. Front room is for working.

Like a lot of people, we’ve been working from home full time while a virus runs roughshod over the country. It’s been an experience. I even bought a Bluetooth headset for phone calls. I’ve discovered that Bluetooth headset + lots of phone meetings = plenty of time to develop nunchuck skills.

But, of course, the biggest difference is not driving as much. Although you wouldn’t know it driving around Albuquerque, vehicle traffic worldwide has taken a nosedive. Which, you know, is kind of a pity since gas is so cheap right now. I feel like I should drive around, speeding through school zone and doing a lot of sudden stops and starts just to take advantage of low gas prices. And also to piss off that jackass in the 4×4 with a lift kit who likes to tailgate everyone.

Just like countless songs have crooned over the decades, every cloud has a silver lining. And right now that lining is a precipitous drop in airborne pollutants. People all over the world, stuck in their homes and drinking themselves into a stupor, have suddenly discovered that there’s thing called a “sky” and that “sky” has stuff like clouds and stars in it. Hell, even in Albuquerque, we can now see distant mountain ranges that are normally hidden by smog.

In some cases, and in some particularly filthy cities – I’m looking at you, Wuhan, airborne pollutants are down by as much as 60%. So, that weird feeling you get when take a deep breath outside? That’s air. Without all the crap driving adds to it.

So, while it won’t last forever, take a moment to appreciate the air quality. It’s one of the few good things to come out of this little pandemic. Well, that and I finally get to practice nunchuck twirling in meetings.

Check out the original article here

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And now your moment of Zen.

Reprint – Writing the Villain

This was originally posted on Originality By Design as a guest post by yours truly back in October 2019. I figure it’s probably safe to repost it here now.

I grew up in a trailer park on the outskirts of Farmington, NM. I’m
not gonna lie and say it was the greatest place on Earth. It was home and that was good enough.

We had a real rouge’s gallery of people that lived out there. For some, I suspect, it was an opportunity to get out of the hustle and bustle of Farmington, a town with a population of a little over 30k at the time. For others, it was probably the fact that trailers were cheap, and rent was cheap, and living out on the hill in a trailer they owned was better than renting any of the run-down apartments in town.

On one side of us, we had a guy who had the occasional party. Nothing too big, just some friends drinking beer and hooting it up. What made the parties interesting in a terrible kind of way was the fact that, no kidding, he’d go out and steal someone’s sheep for dinner.

Across the street was a guy that woke me up at 3 a.m. one morning screaming about how terrible the world was. Apparently, he’d gotten drunk as a skunk and managed to bounce his girlfriend’s head off the cement. She was out cold, probably massive head trauma. The cops and ambulance showed up and we never saw those people again.

But the sheep smuggler and skull smasher aside, the real bull-moose loony were our other neighbors.

Brett and Joyce used to have epic fights. The kind of fights that rattled not only the windows in their trailer, but the windows in ours. They were experts at escalating, too. They’d feed off each other’s rage and amplify it in a massive feedback loop until the screaming was so loud it became pure white-hot noise.

On the nights when it got really bad, we’d see the back door of their trailer fly open and Joyce would fling one of Brett’s beloved beer steins out. Some bounced when they hit the back yard, others shattered. A few minutes later, the back door of the trailer would fly open again and Joyce would go sailing out. She’d hit the same rocky ground, get up, brush herself off, and go right back in again.

Then another beer stein would fly out the door. Then Joyce would fly out the door. Lather, rinse, repeat until they were both so exhausted they couldn’t keep the rage going anymore. In the morning, my mom and would I gather up the unbroken beer steins and put them on the rickety wood steps to Brett and Joyce’s trailer and life would otherwise go on as normal.

This wasn’t an every night affair, by any means. You’d have to be superhuman to do that level of fighting every night. But it happened. The SWAT team would show up, using our trailer as a wall, tactical gear and full-auto weapons trained on Brett and Joyce’s trailer and we’d just move to the other end of the trailer and keep our heads down until it was all over.

Eventually Brett and Joyce split up, which was probably a good thing for everyone involved. She left, hooked up with some other guy and everything was quiet for a while. But the thing is, both of those two had learned to hate each other and they never let that go. Things finally came to a head when Joyce – after moving out and finding someone else – hired a hit-man to take Brett down. Brett survived because he happened to bend down to pick something up just as the shot was fired.

Joyce wound up in prison. Brett moved out. Things quieted down. It was just us and sheep smuggler and a whole bunch of people we didn’t know. Everyone kept to themselves and, other than the trailer down the block from us catching fire, things were quiet on our end of the park.

From the outside, that place was like a war zone. SWAT teams, sheep smugglers, hit-men, guys bouncing their girlfriend’s heads off driveways. Most people would see that as madness. I just saw it as something that happened and went about my business of riding BMX bikes and getting into the occasional fight. That, as far as I was concerned, was just what life was.

Now, here’s the really interesting thing. For all their screaming and violence, Brett and Joyce were fundamentally good people. She made the best tortillas in the world. He collected rare beer steins. They took care of me when I was sick, and my mom couldn’t stay home from work. Literally, anything you needed, they’d help out with. Our back doorsteps got rickety over time and we came home one day to find the sheep smuggler out there fixing them. My mom got sick and Joyce made her dinner and brought it over.

We, as a species, have a tendency to focus on the negative. Those people are fighting all the time? Must be bad people. He steals sheep for dinner? Bad person. Stay away. But people are just people. Unpredictable, dangerous sometimes, but ultimately they’re just people. And, no matter what anyone says, no one sets out deciding to be the bad guy that day. Even in the heat of the fight, when beer steins and wives are flying, no one thinks they’re the bad guy. As a species, we also have a wonderful ability to justify our actions to ourselves, flimsy though that may sometimes be.

It was that kind of early exposure to what most people would write off as the “criminal element” or “bad people” that shaped me. There’s that realization that people can be complete train wrecks one minute and ready to give you the shirt off their back the next. Or they try to tear each other apart one second and be the most gentle, reliable people you’ve ever met the next. People are just people. They do stuff and that stuff ain’t always pretty.

So, flash forward a few decades and I’m revising Brett and Joyce, a couple I haven’t even thought about in years, and wondering if they didn’t provide some kind of template for characters in my books. I don’t write about nice things. You can call it urban fantasy, you can call it crime noir… call it whatever you want, but I tend to have less-than-stellar good guys and I always strive for sympathetic bad guys. Because, just like Brett and Joyce, those bad guys are just people doing what they do. Be it revenge, power, freedom, whatever, the difference between good and bad has nothing to do with the want; it has everything to do with how they try to fulfill that want.

And that right there is the key to villainy. No one is evil all the time. From their point of view, they know what they’re doing, they’re doing the right thing. Be it protecting your beloved beer stein collection or destroying beer steins because he loves them more than he loves you, there’s always a good reason. Seen from the outside, especially when things and people are flying out the door, it may look despicable, but to make a truly believable bad guy you have to look a little deeper and have some sympathy. Maybe not sympathy for the action, but sympathy for the reasons behind the action.

Book Review – An Audience of Corpses by John Maygrove

It’s not often you get to read a first novel and think, “Ah, this author’s gonna go somewhere”. First novels are oftentimes clunky, kludgy affairs. A labor of love, to be sure. And for that reason alone there’s usually something good lurking in the text. But to come across first novel well-written enough and complicated enough to feel like it came from someone seasoned is a rare thing.

Which is exactly how I felt about John Maygrove’s An Audience of Corpses. It’s a brilliantly conceived story arc that manages to incorporate serial killers, a murder where the victim is caught on tape wandering around an hour after his death, and an apprentice private eye unsure of his own skills, and not only wrap it up nicely, but put a black silk bow with skulls on the package.

I have a particular love affair with crime noir. You know, the stories where the criminals didn’t do something pedestrian like knock off a jewelry store or file their taxes late. Stories with some meaty sections. Human trafficking, cavorting with evil, selling tainted drugs because reasons, stuff like that is what gets me hooked and keeps me interested. Because, let’s face it, a string of convenience store robberies was probably perpetrated by some poor schmuck who just wanted to feed his family. But the guy who figured out how to weaponize religion and use it to gain wealth and power probably has some interesting psychological ticks.

The hard-boiled private eye story has been done. It’s a classic thing and there’s certainly nothing wrong with doing it again, so long as there aren’t any black birds driving the plot forward. What separates Maygrove’s work from the classics of the genre is not what it does, it’s where it starts. Classic private eyes tell their tales from a place of long experience. They get to draw on experiences and reference histories. Maygrove’s P.I. has just buried his teacher and is starting on his own on his very first day. Some experience, sure, but it all came from working with a mentor. Now, in the midst of losing a friend he’s dropped into the middle of a case with nothing to draw on but the musings of a dead man.

That adds something special to the genre. It’s an origin story. And, one would hope, won’t be the last mystery Jack Hornby has to unravel.

Apprentice P.I. Jack Hornby had only just buried his friend and mentor, stricken with grief and contemplating his future. Sitting alone in the office they once shared, he is accosted by an eccentric woman in desperate need of help. Reluctantly, he agrees. But a case of suspected infidelity turns out to be so much more when his target winds up dead in the middle of a grisly scene.

Jack finds himself pitted against his old nemesis- now a highly decorated police investigator- in a bid to uncover the truth behind what really happened in that seedy hotel room, and just how the victim was sighted walking down the street shortly after his death. In a case where nothing makes sense and no one is what the seem, Jack’s only ally is his old mentor’s peculiar yet alluring niece, the former secretary from the now-defunct detective agency.

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Book Review – Night Life by B.K. Bass

Serial literature is gaining a resurgence in popularity thanks to ebook publishing. Way back in the murky mists of time, novellas were very much a thing because they were cheap to print and people could consume them during lunches and other off hours. Tastes changed over time and novellas fell out of fashion in favor of massive tomes of fiction that could break your toe if they fell on it. And that was for the paperbacks.

Anyway, novellas and serial literature take a certain kind of author to pull off. You have to come up with a story that’s not novel length and can’t be wrapped up in a short story. Duh, right? It’s a little trickier than it seems. If a story is too simple – think a tightly packed short story – there is no way to extend it to novel length without it being obvious that some filler got tossed in. The original Star Trek movie (yeah, the one from ’79) was like that. It had enough story for a television episode because that’s what it was supposed to be. Everything else was filler. Conversely, the recent Dark Tower movie was abysmal because it condensed 4,316 pages into 95 minutes. Not even the magic of Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey could save that one.

So there’s a fine line to tread. Not too short. Not too long.

Back in December, B.K. Bass threaded the needle with Night Shift, a taut, tense cyberpunk-detective-noir crossover. As with its predecessor, the newest edition in Bass’s Night Trilogy, Night Life, maintains that same taut, uh, tenseness. Is that a word? If it wasn’t, it is now. Both books read like classic detective novellas with bad guys and anti-heroes and basically no one to trust. Bass does an admirable job of building a world that no one in their right mind would want to live in and then dropping his characters into it. His characters are natural products of the gritty, rain-soaked, neon-drenched, flashing, filthy city. They feel like they belong there. Like no matter how many times you take the fire hose to them, the stench of life will cling to them like that a needy girlfriend.

Also, as with Night Shift, Night Life carefully treads the rails of technology. In Cyberpunk, as with Sci-Fi, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of over-describing the tech and letting it be the star of the show. I like my laptop, but I don’t want to read a book about it. Bass keeps the narrative centered. He allows the technology to exist and to be a force lurking in the background, but it never takes center stage. The center of Bass’s stage is reserved for corrupt politicians, mobsters, and all the delightfully seedy things they do.

If you like your Cyberpunk more punk than cyber, check out Bass’s Night Trilogy.

Night Life will be available for purchase on August 11, 2020 from all the usual places, although that date may get pushed forward. If the release date changes, I’ll update this page. You can find links to Amazon, Kobo, and B&N on his website.

Framed for murder, detective Harold Jacobson must delve into the gritty underbelly of the city if he wants to clear his name. To solve the crime pinned on him, he must first solve the murder of a local woman. From the steel towers of downtown to seedy nightclubs and decrepit slums, Harold delves into the night life of the city to pull the threads of the mystery together and becomes part of the criminal element he once hunted down. Going off the grid in New Angeles can be deadly, but he’s out of options and out of patience.

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COVID-19 And The End Of Complacency

First off, let me just say I thought COVID-19 was the name of the virus and the sickness you got was just a sickness. Apparently, I was wrong. COVID-19 is the sickness and SARS-CoV-2 is the virus. Personally, I think they need to come up with better names for both the disease and the virus. Although, to be fair, COVID-19 has done an admirable job of striking fear into the hearts of the world.

But, let’s face it, it’s only a matter of time before the first COVID-19 World Tour 2020 shirts start popping up.

As of this writing, we’re still semi-confined to our houses. I say semi-confined because essential businesses are still operating. Restaurants are doing take-out orders, grocery stores are still operating, and half of Albuquerque is at Lowe’s at any given point in time. Drive around the city and there’s still traffic, albeit less than usual. But all the fun stuff – libraries, bars, movie theaters, that Savers thrift store I love to visit, gyms, etc – are closed. Those of us still fortunate enough to have jobs are primarily working from home and school is moving to an online model of education.

The online world is filled with people saying, “When this is all over, I’m gonna…” It could be go bar hopping, or hug friends, or go to a movie, or have wild, drunken sex in a truck stop parking lot, or whatever. All the stuff we used to do without thinking about it. Pumping iron and listening music. Hitting a punching bag. Shaking someone’s hand without worrying about a slow, lingering death. Interacting with people face-to-face. Checking a book out at the library or buying used pants. Little things. The stuff of normal day-to-day life.

These are weird times. And whatever son-of-a-bitch keeps saying, “May you live in interesting times” needs to shut the hell up. But it’s important to realize this isn’t forever; it’s just an intermission. This is a chance to sit at home and wonder if all the crap we used to think was important really is all that important. Or maybe all the stuff we took for granted was really the important stuff all along.

A weird thing people do is put things off, thinking there will always be the time to do something. And then, when it’s well and truly gone for a while, we realize the right time to do that thing was always right then and there. Take that trip. Adopt that cat. Hug that friend. Write that damned book. If there’s one thing we should be taking away from this whole mess it’s that putting things off for some made-up reason isn’t doing us a damned bit of good.

We got complacent. We thought all that stuff would always be there because it’s free or cheap or sounded like it might be hard or uncomfortable or that thing would always be there.

Someday this pandemic is going to end and we’ll all be free to go back to whatever passes for normalcy. The question is how much of that normalcy was frivolous and how much of it was actually important and worth returning to?