About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.


My granddaughter S. went missing for a very short time several years ago. 

It happened on a Thursday during the first week of June. S. was a student at a wonderful public elementary school in the Clintonville neighborhood of Columbus. A picnic for the students, teachers, and parents was — and still is — annually held on the school playground during the closing hours of the last day of class. My son J. — her father — took an extended lunch hour from his job and dutifully presented at the time appointed. He was somewhat puzzled when he did not see S. among the students cavorting around the swings. J. approached S.’s teacher and inquired as to her whereabouts. The teacher asked another teacher, who asked another, who asked the school secretary, who asked the principal. Within the course of a few minutes, a hue and cry quietly started up, one that was on the verge of quickly rounding the corner to full-blown hysteria. J., having learned at his father’s knee how to react to an emergency, fought down the tide of his own rising panic and quickly called his neighbor to ask if S. was in sight. The neighbor advised that yes, S.  was on J’s front porch, bearing the look of someone who finds themselves in a situation resulting from an action that wasn’t entirely thought through prior to its execution.  

It was learned a bit later that S., being a somewhat willful child at that time, had concluded that she had experienced enough school for the year and decided to skip the picnic. She didn’t think to tell anyone about her decision, and with the skill of a Ms. Pac-Man circumvented the carefully maintained school security labyrinth which was in place to keep such a thing from occurring. She then walked the few blocks from her school to her home in order to jumpstart her summer vacation by a couple of hours.   

J. told the teachers that S. was at home. Those assembled collectively breathed a sigh of relief. As J. left the school to deal with the wayward S. he heard the name “Kelly Prosser” mentioned as the instructors talked among themselves. He wondered who she was. 

Kelly Ann Prosser in 1982 had been an eight-year-old student at a much-acclaimed alternative school in the same neighborhood as my granddaughter’s. The school year was barely three weeks old when Kelly disappeared while walking home. Her body was found two days later in a cornfield located in a quiet community contiguous to Columbus. She had been beaten, raped, and murdered. 

Several individuals were questioned by Columbus police detectives but no one was ever charged with Kelly Ann’s murder. J., who was four years old at the time, probably wondered why his parents held him and his younger siblings just a little more tightly and watched them just a bit more closely for the next, oh, thirty-eight years or so (and counting). For the teachers at Kelly Ann’s school, and virtually every school in the area., there was an additional nightmare a-borning. Whoever visited the horrors of Kelly Ann’s final hours upon her was, as far as anyone knew, still out there watching and waiting for another opportunity. While the safety of their students was uppermost in the minds of the teachers and administrators, I suspect that no one wanted to bear the burden of having another such act repeated on or after their watch. 

That fear carried over across the decades. The Columbus Police Department, for its part, never gave up on Kelly’s case. Decades passed. Forensic tools were created, improved, and sharpened. The Columbus Police  Cold Case Unit, announced on June 26, 2020, that the case had been closed. A DNA sample obtained from material originally gathered at the crime scene conclusively linked her attack and death to one Harold Warren Jarrell. He was no stranger to the criminal justice system. Jarrell had been arrested, tried, convicted, and incarcerated for abducting a little girl in 1977 from another Columbus neighborhood. He was released from prison after five years and had been walking among the innocent and unknowing for but a short time before Kelly Ann’s path crossed his. Jarrell for whatever reason was not considered a suspect in her murder at the time, and at some subsequent point left Columbus, drifting across the country with stops in Florida and Las Vegas among other places, more often than not attracting the attention of law enforcement before moving on rather quickly and without notice. He met his end at some point — how, where, and why is not immediately clear — and thus cannot face justice for Kelly Ann’s murder and the grief that ripples through time across the lives of her family members to this day. Investigations being conducted in other jurisdictions indicate that Jarrell’s horrible misdeeds continued. One can only hope that his end was slow and excruciating, one where any calls for help which he might have made were unanswered at least and mocked at best. 

It is people such as Jarrell who cause me to prefer the company of dogs and cats to people. That said, the tenaciousness of the personnel of the Columbus Police Cold Case Unit — with a mighty and timely assist from a forensic genealogical service named AdvancedDNA —  restores, at least partially, my faith in humanity.

I am well aware that in the majority of cases of sexual molestation and abuse the victim and the aggressor are known to each other. There is still a sizable group of opportunistic predators who randomly prey upon the innocent. There are tools available to combat them. Most if not all county sheriff departments now provide a sexual offenders’ database on their websites. There is also a smartphone app for iPhones named Offender Locator which I cannot vouch for, but I can for Truthfinder, an Android app that provides sobering information about sex offenders living and working within a given area.  You may want to consult this should you or a family member decide to move to a new neighborhood or take things a step further with that new acquaintance who might seem just a tad too friendly with your child. The writers and authors among you may also — and I am not making light of the problem by suggesting this, not at all — use this app as a means of obtaining inspiration for the truly wretched characters in your latest work in progress. The woods, as they say, are full of them. The lambs walk in sunlight and the wolves wait in darkness for one or more to stray into shadow. 

Be safe. Be well. Be alert. 


The Empty House

Photo by Rudy Rodouin from unsplash.com

Some of you — okay, both of you — have told me in the past that you like my stories about houses. Here comes another. It also happens to illustrate (as I have once or twice here) that Facebook isn’t always so bad after all.

I misspent my formative years in Akron, Ohio.  I was driving with a young woman one afternoon in 1971 when she pointed out a nice ranch-style house on a corner. “No one has ever lived there,” she said. I stopped the car for a few seconds and checked the place out. It displayed a well-maintained exterior with a nicely manicured lawn. That said, there were no curtains hung in the window and it gave off that psychic wheeze of non-occupancy that some houses do when they sit empty for a while. “What’s the story?” I asked.

The story as told to me was that the house had been built by a husband for his wife to her specifications. He had gone over the plans with her regularly and frequently brought her to the building site, making changes that she requested. When the house was finished she decided that she did not like it and refused to move in. He refused to sell it. They accordingly stayed in the home they were living in and never moved into the new one. The husband continued to maintain both homes. 

I would occasionally drive past that house to see if anyone had moved in. No one had. Time passed.  I moved from Akron in 1978 and rarely returned. Life went on. I would intermittently think of that house and that story but only in passing, such as when telling the tale to someone else as a bit of whimsy.

Fast forward. The world, as Roland the Gunslinger would say, moved ahead. My fifty-year high school class reunion resulted in a return trip to the city which had been known as the “Rubber Capital of the World” (due to the manufacture of tires, as opposed to what you were thinking!) but was now known as “Crakron” as the result of the illicit drug trade which had taken root. I began woolgathering and thought of all the times that I had driven past that empty house. I remembered what it looked like and the general area where it was but couldn’t remember the streets that formed the intersection where it rested. I mentioned the story to a few friends of mine who had lived in the area but no one knew what I was talking about. One friend even patiently drove me around the area for a couple of hours in an attempt to locate the house but to no avail. 

 I started wondering about the house again last weekend after watching You Should Have Left — a contemporary haunted house movie — and did what anyone does these days when they have a question. I went on Facebook. I went to a page devoted to Akron’s history and posted the story about the house. I also asked if anyone had heard the story and knew where the house was located. 

It only took a few minutes for me to receive several responses. There were some variations but the consensus was that the story I had been told wasn’t quite accurate. A man had purchased the house with the intent that he and his betrothed would live there after their wedding. She, as the story went, literally left him standing at the altar. He was devastated and retained ownership but not occupancy of the house until his own death, apparently hoping that the love of his life would return. She did not. Someone else purchased the house subsequent to his death, tore it down, and built a new one on the lot. 

I did an online search to find the name of the original owner but the available records on the website didn’t go back far enough.  Finding that information may well involve another trip to Akron and a physical document dive in a government office but I want to hunt down the name of the heartbroken owner and then pay him a visit at his last resting place. I’m going to tell him that whoever jilted him did him a  solid. Better to have one major hurt than experience a thousand smaller ones every day. 

There is a story everywhere. You just have to find it. There is also a country song for everything. There are two that apply to the story of the jilted groom from Akron. One is by George Jones and the other is by Trace Adkins. 

If you would like to share an unusual or eccentric story about your home town, we would be interested in reading about it. It can be an urban legend or one that is lesser-known, even if it is known only to you. Either way, please share it with us. Thank you.



The Long Rain…


The Columbus, Ohio metropolitan area where I reside averages forty inches of precipitation per year. Seattle, which has the reputation of being rainy all of the time, averages thirty-eight inches annually. I am given to understand that Seattle receives a steady, gentle rain (and a bit of snow in the winter) throughout the year, with precipitation occurring a bit more frequently than every other day. It rains every few days in Columbus over a period of about six months — April through October —  and then we of course get some snow during the rest of the year. 

We sometimes get some spells of heavy, flood-warning rain. We had several days of those a couple of weeks ago.  I didn’t have any damage, outside or inside. It was still a bit emotionally wearing, in a seasonal affective disorder way. It is easy to wonder by the second or third straight day of rain whether the sun will ever be seen again.

It is on such days that I think of Ray Bradbury, or, to be more precise, two of his stories. The first of these was originally titled “Death by Rain” and appeared in the pulp magazine Planet Stories in an issue published on September 23, 1950, almost one year to the day before I was born.

Forgive me for exhibiting a moment of looseness of association. I actually had the opportunity to buy that magazine for a dollar in 1962 at a used bookstore. I instead used the dollar to buy several brand new comic books, including one titled The Amazing Spider-Man #1, which I still own. My logic at the time was that I already had “Death by Rain,” retitled as “The Long Rain,” in the Bradbury short story collection The Illustrated Man. The original cover price of Planet Stories was twenty cents, and the merchant was selling it for a whole dollar. It seemed like a bad deal to me. I was right. I can buy that issue of Planet Stories for under thirty dollars on e-bay while that Spider-Man comic is worth considerably more than that. 

To digress from the digression,  I have read “The Long Rain” dozens of times. It presents a future in which a rocket ship crashlands on Venus in the early days of Venusian colonization by Earth. The astronauts on board who survive are beset by constant rainstorms which, in the 1940s, were thought to occur to occur on Venus. The astronauts attempt to reach one of the sun domes — shelters constructed during earlier visits to Venus — in a last-ditch survival effort. Hilarity does not ensue. Tragedy does. The ending is enigmatic, even more so upon each rereading. Folks still argue about it. I think of that story whenever the rain never seems to stop and the sun becomes a memory stay thankful for having my own sun dome, as well as the (almost) certain knowledge that the rain will eventually pass. 

The second Bradbury story that comes to mind during the central Ohio version of monsoon season is titled “All Summer in a Day.” It isn’t as well known as “The Long Rain” but is a bit more poignant and ultimately maybe the better tale of the two. “All Summer in a Day” published in the March 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction which, unlike Planet Stories, is still around. Bradbury is mentioned on the cover but does not get top billing, interestingly enough. His contribution to that issue is a classic nonetheless. “All Summer in a Day” is also set on  Venus. The Venus of this story is somewhat similarly inhospitable to the Venus of “The Long Rain” but has been sufficiently colonized to have children residing there who were born planetside and elementary schools built for them to attend. One of the school children is a girl named Margot who moved from Earth to Venus five years prior to the story’s present. Margot is the only one in her class who has seen the sun. The reason for this is that (in the story) the sun is only visible on Venus for one hour every seven years, The event is coming up, and it’s a big deal, particularly for Margot, who misses seeing that which she had previously taken for granted. The problem is that some of Margot’s classmates are unhappy with her, and as a result they…well, you will have to read the story to find out, but I will tell you that it is for me one of the saddest stories I have ever read (I’m getting a little misty-eyed just writing about it, but don’t tell anybo… Oops).  “All Summer in a Day” has been collected in a number of Bradbury’s anthologies, including the U.S. Edition of A Medicine for Melancholy. Bradbury, as the result of stories such as “All Summer in a Day”  and the chilling “The Small Assassin,” acquired the reputation of hating children. Maybe he did. I don’t share that opinion, but after reading “All Summer in a Day” you will understand why he was painted with that brush, and why I think of it after several days of central Ohio gloom.

I doubt Bradbury thought at the time he wrote the stories I’ve been discussing that either of them would be remembered decades later. He lived long enough to see that happen, and to see them taught, studied, and even adapted to other media. That’s pretty good for a couple of stories that were purchased by editors at the rate of a couple of pennies per word and published in what were referred to as “pulp” magazines. The lesson here is that you might have a story or five that accumulated some rejection slips. Check your hard drive or your file drawer and read a few of them, pick up a couple, shine them up, and send them out again. It is possible that the churl who rejected them initially now sleeps with the fishes and that a pair of fresh editorial eyes will look more favorably upon them. Sixty years from now someone may be discussing your story as a result. I assure you that stranger and more unlikely things have happened. You might even be still alive to see it.

Back to the rain… I am not alone in feeling this way, at least about “The Long Rain.” Our own blogger emeritus Joe Moore reported having a similar reaction to that story in this space way back in 2012. What about you? Do you have a favorite story that deals with weather that has been written either by you or someone else? And sure. It can take place on any world, including this one. 

Enjoy your weekend. May it be sunny. 



Knowing When to Be Quiet

Photo by designecologist on unspalsh.com

I am writing this on Thursday, May 28, after writing and rejecting two posts over the past week. You might or might not see them at some point in the future. One is about a couple of stories by Ray Bradbury that use climate in very different ways. The other is about the application to writing of the subject matter of what was once a regularly published newspaper cartoon whose author’s name has entered our lexicon.

You are not seeing either one of them now because I couldn’t hit the bullseye with either post. Both of them in my opinion had some great turns of phrase, were entertaining in places, and utilized multi-media presentations. They were ultimately, however, bowls of air that looked nice but were leaking badly, perhaps fatally so. If I wasn’t happy with them I didn’t think that you would be either.

The common denominator was me. I decided that at the core of each post I was being too clever and talking too much about things which really weren’t all that interesting to anyone outside of my own life at the moment. There wasn’t a fix, either. Pulling anything out caused the entire post in each case to collapse under its own weight. 

The major problem that a writer has — this writer anyway — is filling that white space with black letters. Resolving that problem isn’t enough.  Miles Davis used to say that in jazz knowing what not to play was as important as knowing what to play. The same is true in writing, whether it’s a post for your blog or your character’s interior dialog in your breakthrough novel or something in between. Sometimes it works. At other times you have to be quiet, walk away, and start somewhere else entirely. 

That’s what I am doing. Have a great weekend.

But wait, there’s more. Please permit me, in lieu of our regularly scheduled programming, to introduce to you a handy little tool called a “title case converter.” There are only a few rules to remember when properly capitalizing the words in a title but this is a quick and dirty way to check yourself to make sure that you have it right. Enjoy!


Stone Libraries

I was recently asked by a family member as to whether I had a preference with respect to being either buried or cremated. My immediate response, ala Bob Hope, was “Surprise me.” 

The sincere question and my flippant response brought to mind a story that my mother told me many years ago. A college professor of hers took her class to a graveyard near Cincinnati where they examined headstones. Over half of them bore the same year of death for those occupying the graves beneath. The reason for this, according to the professor, was that an illness — it might have been smallpox — had swept through a village adjacent to the graveyard, all but wiping the population out. 

I then found myself thinking about cemeteries generally. I have visited many graveyards and cemeteries in Louisiana — in Baton Rouge, St. Martinville, and, of course, New Orleans — but have neglected what is practically in my own backyard of Westerville, Ohio, just northeast of Columbus. While the Westerville cemeteries do not contain the remains of anyone of the notoriety of Marie Leveau or Huey Long, the very ordinariness of those who now rest hidden from view of the living  provides grist for conjecture. The collection of granite headstones and markers constitute what I have come to call stone libraries, which tell or hint at stories in words carved rather than printed or spoken. What follows are three of many.

1909 was a tragic year for the Ballard family. The document standing in evidence of that conclusion is a tombstone in Pioneer Cemetery. The cemetery is a relatively small plot of land which somehow has managed to constitute a tranquil island in the middle of a sea of commerce which has formed around it over several decades while Westerville made its transition from a farming community to a bedroom suburb.  The Ballard gravestone is large, though neither Ozymandias-sized nor ostentatious by any means. It notes the location of the remains of the three Ballards, being  Bessie L., Herman F., and Irma Ruth. It is Irma Ruth — remarked as “Daughter” — whose birth and death years are listed as 1909, who gives us pause. History has not recorded the reason for the shortness of her journey, but we can certainly draw the conclusion that she was not forgotten in her wake. Bessie L. and Herman F. are recorded as “Mother” and  “Father” rather than “Wife” and “Husband.” It is understandable if we conclude that a sorrowful chill permeated the home of Irma’s mother and father until their respective passings some six decades later. 

Otterbein Cemetery is a fifteen-minute drive north from its sister Pioneer and is tucked into the corner of a quiet residential neighborhood, not far from a private college.  The oldest part of the cemetery is in the back.  There one will find the grave markers for the Hanby family. Benjamin R. Hanby is a major figure in Westerville. Hanby was an abolitionist and minister but is best remembered now as a composer. You know his work. His song “Lovely Nellie Gray” was recorded by Louis Armstrong with the Mills Brothers, later by Bing Crosby, and as “Faded Love” by Bob Wills, but it is “Up On the Housetop” for which Hanby is most famously remembered.  Hanby’s compositions were popular but did not gain a wide audience until a half-century or so after his death in 1867 at the age of 36. The fame of his compositions aside, probably no one of that era would have been more surprised than Hanby himself to learn that in Westerville an elementary school, a small shopping center, and a street have been named after him. He might also be somewhat nonplussed to learn that the cemetery to which he is consigned, as well as the private college nearby, is named after his brother.  Hanby’s life was unexpectedly cut short thanks to a visit to a disease-ridden locale known by its residents to this day as “Chicago,” where he contracted tuberculosis and passed away after a short hospitalization. Hanby was survived by his family which included his father, who was also a minister, and his brother, who was a physician. I have no way of knowing but I would guess that as each of them wondered at the premature passing of their son and brother they must have concluded that neither of their fields of vocation fully possessed the answer to the question as to why a life so demonstrably full of promise was taken so quickly.   

A similar question was undoubtedly asked by the Kern family, who rest near the Hanbys in the Otterbein Cemetery. Ruth Ann Kern was consigned to dust at the tender age of 13 in 1863. She was so young, undoubtedly on the cusp of the promise of adolescence. Her death at that age could have come from any number of sources. Perhaps it is better that we don’t know.

In death, we mark the inevitable as tragic. The converse is true as well. The world is a dangerous place, one in which we — or most of us, anyway — drag our feet as we are inexorably tugged toward the final precipice. It is that tragedy and inevitability which, ironically, make our world and the stories we tell — the ones ultimately marked in those stone libraries — so interesting. It is one reason that I often tell people that boring, as a day-to-day state, is good. 

I looked neither long nor hard for the stories I have remarked upon. It took me about a half-hour to find them and others in two different cemeteries. There are undoubtedly more in cemeteries near you, waiting for you to give voice to what you find.

Today’s fun fact: the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery is that a graveyard is a burial ground located on the property of a church or occasionally on a family farm. A cemetery is a larger burial ground not usually affiliated with a church. I did not know that until today, demonstrating that life and death are learning processes. 

Good day and be well. And be boring, in your life but not your writing. 

Photos by Al Thumz Photography and used with permission. All rights reserved.


Don’t Forget the Mask

Brunias, Agostino, A West Indian Flower Girl and Two Other Free Women of Color, 1769, Public Domain

You may be familiar with the tignon laws which were applied to free women of color in Louisiana in the late eighteenth century. A “tignon” is a scarf worn to cover the hair. The purposes of the laws were 1) to infer that the women to whom they were applied belonged to the slave class and 2) to make the women unattractive to white men. 

What the women who were selectively targeted by the law did was ingenious. They observed the letter of the law by wearing scarves, but arranged them in elaborate patterns and accessorized them with jewels, beads, and feathers, among other things. The tignon laws were abolished after the United States purchased Louisiana, but the style continued. You can still encounter proponents of the fashion — primarily women of Creole descent — in present-day New Orleans.

The evolution of the tignon laws is an interesting research topic but is a little off the track of my visit today. I suggest that you do a deep research dive into the topic on your own. You won’t be sorry. My purpose for mentioning them, however, is that we are seeing somewhat the same thing — in practice though not purpose — occurring with government-mandated face coverings. While the majority of folks around me (and my age group) seem to be eschewing fashion for the familiar white or generic medical mask look, others are taking it a step or three further, utilizing designs, colors, and the like when they go stepping down Aisle 4 of the local supermarket. What started as a safety precaution has become a fashion statement. Some companies have begun selling entire outfits that coordinate with a face covering. Or is it vice versa? You can see some examples of this here, and they are interesting, to say the least. 

My purpose in mentioning this during our regularly scheduled Saturday morning visit is aimed at those of you who find writing fodder within our current collective experience.  If you are working on your dystopian novel using the coronavirus pandemic as a backdrop (as Mark Alpert encouraged you to do in his “Turning Crisis into Fiction” post last week) you might want to utilize the prevalence of masks or facial coverings as a plot element, particularly if you want to straddle genres and insert a crime of some sort into the proceedings. You need only peruse your local newspaper to discover that crimes of all sorts are still occurring in spite of or perhaps because of the secondary effects of the pandemic.

A mask as a general rule is an instrument of concealment. In the now, when most people in public places are wearing face coverings either by decree or due to being “strongly encouraged” to do so. This is fine as far as people with good intentions are concerned, but it gives the wolf in your story an opportunity to stalk unnoticed among the sheep since he is “dressed” pretty much like anyone else.  A mask can also distract, however, particularly if it is accessorized or otherwise made different from those worn by others in the immediate vicinity. Witnesses to crimes tend to remember, to the exclusion of much (if not most, or all) else, a mask, particularly a distinctive or memorable one. A mask or face covering can also with a bit of planning be quickly removed, disposed of, or changed to another more generic type to confuse things further, should such be advisable.   There is also a romantic and/or erotic element that the anonymity of a mask can occasionally spark. Ask anyone who has been to Mardi Gras or a costume party. 

It is a small detail, but conflagrations can result from tiny flames. I hope that your creative one burns long and bright as you hopefully take advantage of the free time created by the current impromptu gardening leave.

Enjoy and be well.







I submit to you on this fine day — and every day above ground is a fine day — that a bit of perspective is in order as we continue to deal with the cleanup in the surreal aisle. Whenever I hear one of the network talking heads talking about how the current situation is something that is “unprecedented in our lifetimes” my immediate response is, “Well, maybe in yours, Junior. You apparently never had a fallout shelter in your house.”

A little background might be appropriate. The Soviet Union and the United States in 1961 were engaged in what was known as “The Cold War.” It threatened to heat up when the possibility of atomic warfare between the two nations was thrown into the mix. People were scared. There was a headline in one of the local newspapers that read “30 Minutes: Moscow to Columbus.” We were saying the Prayer for Peace in church every day. The Catholic school I attended was rehearsing what students would do if the air raid sirens sounded while we were in class, which was to either put our heads down on our desks or to huddle under them. What they didn’t tell us was that we were figuratively tucking our heads between our legs and kissing our posteriors goodbye. More on that in a minute.

Somewhere along the way, it was suggested — nay, encouraged — for American families to either designate an area in their homes (preferably the basement, if you had one) as or to outright construct something called a “fallout shelter.” 

A fallout shelter wasn’t a man cave. It was supposed to protect the folks huddled inside it from radioactive debris in the event that an atomic bomb or missile was launched at (fill in the name of your city) and hit its target. The term “fallout shelter” really became chiseled into the national consciousness when President John Kennedy suggested in a letter published in Life Magazine that the state of world affairs was such that the utilization of fallout shelters was advisable.  

The collective shirtsleeves of the nation were rolled up. Areas of government buildings were adapted to that purpose but it wasn’t as if they could hold a lot of people. No one wanted to be caught napping when the sirens went off and thus be the one standing outside when the doors got locked after the shelter got filled to capacity.

The alternative which people went for was making their own. Most folks, like the Hartlaub family, dedicated a portion of their basement to the task.  It wouldn’t have withstood a stick of dynamite, let alone a 50 megaton indirect hit, or anything in between, but that’s what we had. My dad solemnly stated over dinner one night that our dog and cat would have to remain above ground while we were downstairs. The rest of the family replied that we would be upstairs with the pets if that were the case. As with the United States and the Soviet Union, neither side’s resolve on the issue was put to the test. 

One could also buy plans to construct fallout shelters, and some construction companies made a killing by building them.  I don’t know anyone who did that, but people did. Apparently there are still some that can be found as outbuildings in older neighborhoods, the same way that you can occasionally find Fotomat kiosks done over as drive-up keymaking services and the like in shopping center out lots

Whichever course one took, their fallout shelter needed to be stocked with food and supplies. I don’t recall lines at the supermarket, shortages,  or anything like what we are seeing now — people were, generally, a little more polite and genteel than they are now — but it seemed for quite a while as if everyone had a supply of groceries stashed in a special room in the house that they called the fallout shelter. 

Photo courtesy Smithsonian

The basic awful truth was that it was a way to keep folks busy and distracted. Busy hands are happy hands. If the big one had dropped we would almost all have been toast. Burnt toast. No one talked about what the aftermath would have been like, either. Time passed, however. People continued to go to work and school and stopped cringing every time a plane flew overhead. The repurposed room in the house got repurposed to its original purpose. Things got back to normal after a year or so. Then the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. That’s another story, for another time. 

Fallout shelters are more or less forgotten now. The term lives on in popular culture here and there. As recently as 2015 a semi-light-hearted video game named Fallout Shelter was released for PlayStation. It wasn’t a laughing matter in 1961. There was nowhere to run. Putting on a mask or maintaining social distance wasn’t going to change things. We were quietly terrified as we went about our business. 

My favorite story of the era was and is “Inside the Fall Out Shelter!” It was a comic book tale that was published in Marvel Comics’Tales of Suspense #30. It was written by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko, the gentlemen who created a little known, all-but-forgotten character named Spider-Man. “Inside the Fall Out Shelter!” was one of those five-page understated masterpieces that populated the Marvel monster comic titles in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

Copyright Marvel Worldwide Inc.

The plot of the story was simple enough. A guy named Mr. Clagg constructed a home fallout shelter for one, that being himself. He installed a timelock on the door that would not open for a month from either the outside or the inside. Clagg also bought enough groceries to last him for the duration in a manner which we would now call “hoarding” and announced every couple of panels that he wasn’t sharing with anyone. He actually seemed eager to have something happen so that he could test drive the shelter and at the end of a month be one of the few (if any) survivors.

In due course — page three or so — the NORAD emergency alert sounded. Mr. Clagg rushed into his shelter and locked the door behind him. He almost gleefully listened to the people outside pounding on the door and laughed at them for not planning ahead as he had. Clagg decided that he would open a can of — beans? soup?— to celebrate his foresightedness. His celebration turned into hysteria, however, when he realized that he had forgotten to pack a can opener (ring pull tops had not been invented at the time). Oh, The Humanity! The End. Well, almost the end. The point of view shifted to outside of the cad’s shelter, where the folks who were pounding on the door walk away, unable to tell Clagg that the siren was only a test. That’s The End. 

Copyright Marvel Worldwide Inc.

I am accordingly a little blase about the current situation. I’ve been through worse. So, too, the majority of the world’s population, who deal with hunger, disease, and lack of shelter and water on a day-to-day basis. How would you like to be a cane cutter in Haiti who is helplessly watching their child suffer from dengue fever? I wouldn’t. I have food, internet, a computer, a television, a radio, a solid home, a bed to sleep in, and chairs to sit on. I also get to watch my cat watch a bird resolutely taking twigs one at a time to a nest it is building in a tree in my backyard, which is much more entertaining and informative than Tiger King, if you think about it.

Coronavirus? Isolation? Travel restrictions? I think I’ll have a Bud Lite. Or a peach soda. And keep writing.


Salt Pork Bacon

Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

You may have noticed that things are a little interesting at the moment. Jobs, schools, vacations, careers, and the like are all upended. We are not used to that on such a wide and all-encompassing scale. We all to varying degrees have become used to getting what we want when we want it and doing what we want when we want to do it. All that got upended, however temporarily, in a hurry just a few weeks ago. Were you ever told that it only takes one person to change the world? That turned out to be true. All it took was one guy licking the wrong bat and here we are…

…so I was in the middle of working on something when a new album crossed my desk by a vocal group calling themselves “The Legendary Ingramettes.” My first thought was “Wow. Not too humble.” My second thought, which I had about thirty seconds into the first song, was “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.” I have been playing the album over and over since then.  The song that I want to share with you today, particularly if you feel as if all of what is going on is never going to end, is “Beulah Land/I Wanna Go There”, or at least the first three minutes and thirty seconds of it. That introduction is a narrative spoken over a piano/bass accompaniment, with the narrator’s voice threatening to take right off to the stratosphere on every tenth syllable or so. She is telling a story that everyone needs to hear right now. It’s better and more vivid than anything you will see or hear on Netflix. Consider it as an example of oral tradition. 

Some of our younger visitors may not be familiar with the term “oral tradition.” I would ask that they think of it as an ancestor of the podcast. Before we had our television, computers, and phones people sat and with family and friends and told stories. Some had been passed down to the storyteller from older relatives while others were cases of first impression, but the best of them were told and retold. Some folks, particularly those in the American South, became really good at it, which is why some of our greatest authors come from that region. 

What you hear described in the first few minutes of “Beulah Land” is about growing up without and finding joy in it. The story told is not an exaggeration. I have heard similar stories from people of the same age and background as the Ingramettes. One wonderful lady of my acquaintance had four sisters and grew up in the rural South in a very small home that had one bathroom. She told me that she never saw her dad use the facilities because, when nature’s call came upon him, he took a walk (sometimes a run) into the woods to answer it, so as to not tie up the facilities should his wife or daughters need them. The common theme that runs through my friend’s story and the story in “Beulah Land” is generally, “Yeah, I guess we were poor, but we never knew it. It wasn’t that bad.” I listen to “Beulah Land,” and I remember my friend’s story, and when I come out the other end my conclusion is that I am the most fortunate person who has ever walked on earth, comparatively. Particularly now. Next time I get impatient waiting in line or get cut off by somebody passing across two lanes I’m going to try to remember the story about salt pork bacon and getting ready for Sunday morning on Saturday night. I’m going to particularly attempt to remember it in a few weeks or months when things are more or less back to normal. 

Please enjoy and be comforted.



“Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “You are.”

Photo by Dimitri Houtteman on Unsplash

The best-laid plans…

I was so proud of myself for writing today’s blog ahead of time and finishing it on Monday, March 16. It was supposed to be about the ways in which authors could spend their time while dealing with all of the hoo-hah about social distancing and the like. The feeling lasted until Thursday, March 19, when the wondrous and wonderful Jordan Dane posted her blog titled “A Writer’s Guide to Surviving Social Distancing and Quarantine.” 

Whoops. Jordan’s post was so much better than what I had prepared — no surprise there — that I couldn’t even be frustrated. That said, one might expect that such a state of affairs would have put me into a state of panic, given that my deadline was near. Well,  contraire, mon frere. I have it covered. There is always something, and something else, to discuss. 

I am of the age at which one may find oneself attending at least one organ recital on a weekly basis, if not more often. By “organ recital” I refer to one of those gatherings which takes place — or at least used to until recently — at a coffee shop or diner, where a group of duffers might gather and trade war stories about their latest hospitalizations, surgeries, doctor visits, blood work results, and gradual deterioration. I don’t want this to be that at all. But here goes.  

I have for a few years experienced occasional episodes where I’ve been awakened at night by knocking. Two knocks, to be exact. My impression has in each instance been that someone is knocking at my front door. My bedroom and its window are in front of the house on the second story. I leave an outside light on at night as well. I accordingly can quickly obtain an excellent view of the front yard. I never see anything, such as a neighborhood urchin dashing madly way, following these knocking episodes. I also go downstairs and check to see if possibly Steve Harvey, Michael Myers, out-of-season after curfew trick-or-treaters, or missionaries are there. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

These episodes don’t happen frequently or regularly. I can go a year or more without one and then experience one every few weeks. In the past, I have forgotten about these episodes until I have had another. After experiencing one earlier this week, however, I did a little research and discovered that I apparently have something called EHS.

Photo courtesy quickmeme.com

What is EHS? It’s “exploding head syndrome.” EHS is described as being benign, and it is, in my experience. The condition was first noted in medical literature in 1876 by Dr. Silas Wier Mitchell but was given its charming name in 1988 by Dr. John M.S. Pinafo…er…Pierce.  Those who experience it hear loud noises and occasionally see flashes of light at the beginning or end of a sleep cycle. There is no medication for EHS but some prescription sleep aids have been reported anecdotally to be helpful. It doesn’t bother me enough to take Halcion or Ambien or one of those medications whose potential side-effects include walking down a highway disrobed while singing the soundtrack from Hamilton. It’s not worth it. 

EHS may have been around for quite a while. I found a British legend that solemnly declares that if someone is awakened by one phantom knock it meant that good fortune (Steve Harvey) was coming. If awakened by three, however, it meant that death (Michael Myers) was imminent.  The legend is moot, however, as to two knocks. Maybe hearing two knocks means that nothing will happen. I should be so lucky.

Have any of you heard of EHS or experienced it? My most experience has inspired me to fool around with writing a Cthulhu Mythos story, even though I don’t know what I’m doing with it.  Porter stumbled toward the front door, jumping each time the ponderous knock sounded. As he reached out to turn the doorknob Porter heard a slithering and hissing noise, as if hundreds of snakes were seeking entrance via the door hinges.  Porter tried to keep his voice steady as he yelled, “Get back, I say, get back! The Innsmouth Police are coming!” I might share it here if I finish it. Or not. In any event, be well and safe. Thanks for dropping by The Kill Zone, where you don’t need to call or knock first. 

Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash



To Buy or Not to Buy…

I recently had a defining moment in a used bookstore.

I have mentioned here on a number of occasions that my formative years were delightfully and wonderfully warped by perusing crime fiction on a regular basis. Every drugstore and supermarket had at least one revolving wire rack of paperback novels with several — I’m thinking twenty-four — pockets which could hold four to six books in each slot. Not all of these contained mysteries and detective fiction but it seemed as if more than half of them did. There wasn’t any particular rhyme or reason to the display, either. It wasn’t neat and orderly, with everything arranged by genre or alphabetically by title/ author, Each slot might have as many as six different titles. The book in the front of each slot concealed its brothers and sisters behind it. Browsing accordingly took a while. It also seemed as if titles were only there for a few weeks before they disappeared and a new crop of books took over.  Most of the covers were variations on a theme — weapons wielded by women in various suggestive stages of undress were the order of the day — and had little or nothing to do with the stories. My favorites were the Carter Brown stories and Richard Prather’s Shell Scott mysteries. Scott on each and every cover sported a blond crewcut and a knowing leer. I decided I wanted to be Shell Scott when I grew up. I kind of got my wish, but that’s another story. There were also titles by authors whose names are only remembered by their families, if that, but who no doubt had the same excitement, however briefly, that we do now when we see our names in print and for sale in public.

I used to spend hours browsing those books. I could on a rare occasion sneak one into the house but given that I was ten or eleven it was tough. I still have a few of them but at some point wistfully came to the realization that I was born too late to buy most of them at their cover price of thirty-five to forty cents apiece. Life, however, goes on. 

Flash forward sixty or so years. Last week I was in a local used bookstore and noticed that there were new displays of used paperbacks all over the premises. These weren’t just any displays of used paperbacks, either. What I saw were many of the books that I saw a few times in my youth at this or that drugstore. Each of the titles on display at the bookstore was priced at three dollars, eight or nine times the cover price but a bargain in the current collector market.

I buttonholed a clerk I knew and asked him what the story was. He said that the books had been owned by an elderly gentleman who had recently passed away after an extended illness. His longtime caregiver had been tasked with disposing of his estate, which included over fifty boxes of the paperbacks that the store now had on sale. The deceased had a longrunning interest in genre fiction (as well as several boxes of some other printed material which I was told that the store couldn’t, um, “appropriately” sell). There were so many books that the store did not want to go through the books and individually price each one appropriately. It was decided that three dollars per book was a fair average price. I was also told that if a fine gentleman such as myself wanted to make a reasonable offer on the whole kit and kaboodle, as it were, such an offer would be entertained and probably accepted. 

I thought about it. Picture the scene in the movie Animal House where the debate between the devil and the angel unfolds on the shoulders of Larry “Pinto” Kroger. The devil was telling me “Buy ‘em! Buy ‘em all, you f*****k! Who cares if your granddaughter goes to college?!” The angel was at the same time telling me, “You have all of those books at home you haven’t read yet! You should donate the money to a charity instead!” 

Twenty or thirty years ago I would have jumped on the opportunity to buy those books like it was a three-dollar government mule. My plan would have been to read every one of those books and eventually sell most of them, though not before enjoying their presence and inhaling the scent of old paper and ink. And yes, admiring the covers, too. In the here and now, however, I am aware that even under the most optimistic of estimates I have fewer reading years left than otherwise. There is also the consideration of space. I don’t have room for what I already have and am trying to downsize my possessions. Where would I put some additional fifty-plus boxes of books? How would I even get them home, realistically? Yes, I would still admire the covers. It just wasn’t enough of a reason to do it. I accordingly walked out empty-handed, though not before calling a friend who collects old Nick Carter books to see if there was anything he could use (he laughed and told me that he had a complete run of them).  I do have to admit that I tried to cajole the caregiver’s contact information out of the bookstore clerk, given that I was curious about that material that the store didn’t buy. He laughed but would not tell me. It’s just as well. 

I wasn’t a dollar short but I was two or three decades too late. It’s okay. Everything happens for a reason, including a situation where you have the opportunity to wisely walk away from a temptation that, like most temptations, is more trouble than its worth. I still find myself intermittently thinking about those boxes full of books, however, the way you might think of a stranger who you encountered and found attractive but who kissed your cheek and said, “I’m trouble. Bye” before walking away, never to be seen again. Still, I occasionally wonder what I would have done should I have had some of those revolving wire racks at home. 


But wait, there’s more. A day or so after writing the above, I read a brand new mystery novel —published this week, actually — titled Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson. It is Swanson’s sixth book, and in some ways, his best. Eight Perfect Murders is a dark love letter to the mystery genre, used bookstores, and readers. The book, which you really should read, in part concerns a bookseller who compiles a list of eight classic mystery novels,  each of which features a murderer who gets away with “it.” I was brought up short by one of the books which made the list of the character in Swanson’s novel. It was The Drowner, an all but unknown stand-alone work by John D. MacDonald. A character named Travis McGee brought MacDonald fame and fortune, but he wrote a number of other books of lesser note as well. Indeed, when I was standing in that used bookstore trying to decide whether to buy those boxes, it was the presence of The Drowner, with which I was unfamiliar, among those rows and rows of all-but-forgotten books that almost — almost — tipped me over to the dark side. When I saw it on that fictional bookseller’s list in Eight Perfect Murders I felt my world tilt on its axis for just a moment. Maybe I should have bought those books. If so, I’ll chalk it up to a long list of mistakes and keep moving forward. 

That’s it, my friends, for me and for now. Be well.