Thursday, March 25, 2004


I'm going to start posting little rough draft excerpts from Shriek inbetween "real" blog entries as I begin to reach the end of my work on the novel. Just to kind of reward myself for lurching ahead with it by releasing some of it into the world. The narrator of the novel is Janice Shriek, and throughout there are parenthetical asides by her brother Duncan.


The war continued in Ambergris...

And yet, on certain days, in certain parts of the city, you could walk down a dozen streets and not even realize a war was going on—if you could rationalize the mortar fire as thunder. Markets were open, people walked to work, the telephones operated (even if few wanted to use them!), restaurants served what food they had. The Religious Quarter, for political reasons, remained largely safe, with both H&S and F&L doing a respectable trade in foodstuffs and clothing—sometimes while fighting raged only a few blocks away. A few times, I was still able to meet with artists and gallery owners, and I regained a little respect from them because of my new profession. People tended to find it amusing, but not in a mocking way.
In part, this sometimes sense of safety was caused by a retrenchment by both sides after the first seven or eight months of the war. After House Lewden’s original probes and feints toward H&S headquarters, and toward taking control of the docks, and after several intense battles, F&L had been held to the northern third of Ambergris. They controlled part of the docks, a portion of Albumuth Boulevard, but they could not smash through to H&S headquarters. After the initial shock, H&S had recovered enough morale and discipline to hold their ground. Thus, the “front” became relatively stable, except for sneak attacks and mortar fire, and spies, of course. The regularity of it became a kind of comfort. (I was never comforted. The whole conflict had troubled me from the very beginning. Just trying to guess the reasons for gray cap involvement bothered me. Never before had they backed one faction over another, or even seemed to recognize the difference between factions—or seemed to care. Why now should they change tactics? Besides, their weapons were everywhere, but they were nowhere to be seen.)
Still, it could not go on forever. The city was in real danger of becoming less than a city, of becoming rubble and black smoke and piles of bodies—of becoming twenty different cities that only loosely formed a country called “Ambergris.”
Duncan sensed this, but could not anticipate (articulate) it.
“We’re near the end,” he said one evening eighteen months into the war, as we sat in the smoldering remains of the Café of the Ruby-Throated Calf. It was more or less neutral ground now that most of it had been destroyed by mortars. At least, we could count on no one trying to kill us as we sat there, protected by overturned tables and a few strategically-placed shrubs. The service was terrible, but, then, the waiters were all dead.
Duncan was pale but whole, face dark with dirt, a flurry of cuts rubbed red. We were drinking a couple of bottles of Smashing Ted’s Finest Ale, which we had found in an abandoned store, miraculously unbroken under a fallen, splintered door.
“Near the end?” I prompted.
“Yes,” he said, and took a long pull on his beer. “We’re near the end. Something has to give. Someone has to blink. To change. It can’t go on this way. It just can’t.”
“It’s done a fine job of going on this way for awhile now, Duncan,” I reminded him. I took a sip. It was warm, almost hot, but the bite of it still tasted good.
“Maybe I mean I can’t go on this way,” he said.
“You mean, being paid in eggs, cauliflower, and milk?” I said.
He laughed, but I knew he was thinking about Mary, always Mary. She had come free of her Academy obligations a couple of months before, finished her extra coursework, and graduated with honors. Bonmot had no hold over her anymore, except for the hold created by her gratitude. She and Duncan had moved into an apartment off of Albumuth Boulevard, in an area under Hoegbotton’s control. A nice little domestic arrangement. I think they were happy at that time. Certainly, nothing in Duncan’s journal from the time denies it. A typical entry read:

I wake up to the sunshine and to her. I’m not sure which I’m more enamored of. This freedom after much heartache seems almost unreal. She’s here, in front of me, sleeping. I can watch her as long as I like—catalogue the elements of her beauty, from her rose-colored mouth to the fine down above her upper lip to the soft line of her nose to the long dark lashes that frame her closed eyes to the neck with its delicate glide to the lightly freckled shoulder and the golden-hued arm that has slid out from beneath the sheets during the night. I should wake her. I should. But I can’t. She’s so peaceful right now, and the world outside is not. I gain strength from watching her like this, and I hope I give it back to her as well when she is awake. I must cut this short—the mortars are going off again, and she is beginning to stir.

(That’s a nice entry, Janice, if atypical for more than a short while. I almost feel as if I am trying to convince myself with that entry...I went home to her every night after hours of hard, dangerous work. Under even the best of circumstances, I would hardly have made what you would call a stable lover. But with bombs exploding everywhere, screaming shells digging into the street only blocks away, and the random violence of the militias, I was very unstable. There were times when the danger brought us close together, when we didn’t need words or other constraints, like it was with her back at Blythe. And then it was good. But the rest of the time, I loved her despite the tense, closet-like atmosphere. I admit it—there was no way to preserve the allure of the forbidden, of having to sneak into her room at night. Now I was the man who snored at night and sometimes, choking on the spores in my throat, woke gagging. I think I began to scare her almost from the beginning. This was everything she hadn’t seen yet. She wasn’t ready for me. She was brave in many ways, but not that way. I can’t blame her. My reality must have seemed very strange.)
We sat there in the café and watched as across the street six Hoegbotton irregulars took up positions behind a stand of trees and began firing into the buildings, from which came spiraling down the distinctive crimson bullets that had become known as “Lewden Specials.” Two of Hoegbotton’s men went down writhing and clutching their chests. An F&L supporter fell from the third story of one of the buildings and landed with a wet thud on the pavement below in a confusing welter of blood and bone.
And we just sat there, watching and drinking our ale. Really, it was tame next to what we had already seen. Really, it was expected. We had to concentrate on the important things; anything else, we had no time for. So we sat there for another half hour and talked while men killed each other across the street.

Monday, March 22, 2004


The novel continues apace. I hope to have almost a complete, good draft done before I leave for England April 7th. That would mean less than 2-3 months separate me from completion of a draft good enough to send to my agent.

Watch this space for the following:
- A short feature on Myrtle Vondamitz III, Scott Eagle, and other artists I love.
- An entry on the painful publication history of City of Saints & Madmen
- More Odd Jobs

And, just for kicks, I'll post a couple of paragraphs from the novel that I just completed at lunch today.


It had been a strange, strange war—two years of watching Ambergris, like some sun-drenched, meat-gorged reptile, make one of its random attempts to molt, to shed its skin, to become something new. All across the city, from the narrow alleys of the ruined Bureaucratic Quarter to the wide bustle of Albumuth Boulevard, we could sense it coming. Odd alliances formed under stark orange skies. The vertical invasion of telephone poles, for example, once a random dotting, become a concerted march from the docks into the city's scaly white underbelly. Guns poured in with the telephones, both originating from the Kalif's empire (although often by way of F&L's agents, already gathering in the city, fly-thick and just as black-swarming). The guns came in every size and description, most of them oddly bulky and gleaming with the kaleidoscopic reflection of unknown new metals. They smelled both new and old at the same time, and they smelled of far-off places, as if the metal had soaked up the essence of the foundries and factories that had produced them. The guns frightened me. They seemed like an emanation from some future Ambergris, some place that did not yet exist, but soon would.
The outdoor café life became charged with danger and interruptions. Shootings and stabbings became all too frequent. (The novelty of guns was too much temptation for the average Ambergrisian, I think. They were too new for us to assimilate.) Motored vehicles began to reemerge in the city—dark, dank metallic beetles long dormant—as new Hoegbotton resources brought barrels of sticky black fuel into the city.
The very air smelled different—it had a charged quality, as if we were all breathing tiny particles of gunpowder; our lungs burned even without the impetus of pollen in the spring, and in the fall, even on days where the air wasn’t cold and dry. (This was not your imagination—the spore content of the city began to change, to be transformed. The gray caps had begun their slow but inexorable translation/transformation.)
At the time, I don’t believe any of us thought much about these changes. Ambergris, for all of its history, its secrets, its allure, had always been dirty, sickly, on the verge of crumbling back into itself—battered, babbling, incoherent in its design and intent. Inevitably, we all thought, the molt wouldn’t take, and the reptile that was the city would sink back into the mud a little, its skin ever more mottled from the experience.

Monday, March 15, 2004


The South Carolina Book Festival (Feb. 27-29) is, alas, now a blur. There have been too many events in too short a period of time for me. Instead, a few shiny shards of reflected light continue to cycle through my brain--a brain now frantic to return to the novel and also start planning for the England trip planned for April 7 - April 19. Still, I think I'll take a stab at a report on the festival. What the hell...

I do recall the pleasant shuttle ride to the hotel in Columbia, South Carolina--Ann and I shared it with Stella Suberman (The Jew Store), Sara Lewis (multiple mainstream literary novels, laced with humor and featuring female protagonists), and Ibrahim Fawal (both a novel and a history of the piss-poor situation in the Middle East from the Palestinian point of view). Ibrahim liked to entertain, and interspersed stories about the great energy and intellect of John Barth and John Gardner with the tale of his one moment of true and certain fame: a small role in Arnold Schwarzenegger's first movie (in which he played a college professor and for which he continued to get $20 residuals to this day).

Once at the festival, we hurried down to the literary meet-the-authors gala, where Jeff and Lynn Ford and Michael and Jeri Bishop were already waiting--along with the truly spectacular Felice Picano, who we had previously met in Minneapolis. An open bar at a writers' gala is about as wise as a buffet at an Overeater's Anonymous meeting, and soon everyone was pleasantly or unpleasantly buzzed. One of the great ironies of the Atkins diet for me is how it has driven me from mixed drinks to hard liquor. Still, the scotch was excellent, although it drove me to larger and larger tips, the bartender's grin growing wider as the evening progressed.

Afterwards, we went out with Vicki and Kevin Parsons and a friend of theirs, Tripp Reade, who is working on a novel. Vicki Parsons is the organizer of the festival, and Kevin had been helping her out. A long time ago, in a distant galaxy, Kevin and I had worked together at the software company that still employs me to this day. It was a lot of fun seeing them again, and spending time downstairs in a bar with live music--covers from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that all sounded exactly the same: like grunge--blaring above us as we ate one of the only things they had left on the menu--spiced meatballs. By this time, I was extremely drunk, but very happy. With any luck, all Ann, Vicki, Kevin, and Tripp picked up on was the "happy" part.

We got back after 1am and went our separate ways, me to a half-delirious sleep in which I had one of my recurring dreams: that I'm driving a supermodel to the corner grocery store in a pickup truck to get some milk and eggs. Then I drive her back and she gets out. End of dream. A relatively useless dream, really.

But unable to sleep for more than five hours, I got up at 6:30 and in a state of wretched guilt and some discomfort sought out the gym, where I proceeded to lift weight and ride a stationary bike for a good hour. There, I thought, that will help. And maybe it did--since I managed to last through the day, although at one point Ann, and possibly Mike Bishop, became alarmed when my face and neck turned bright red half-way through the afternoon.

We got to the festival before 10am so we could see Felice on his panel, The Art of Memoir. It was a memorable panel--in part because I managed to stay conscious during it despite the fact that a Hangover was clearly beginning to have its way with me. I was at this point not in any particular pain, more of a fog, with a kind of itchiness permeating my body, a kind of twitchy scotch-induced distance. I began to feel somewhat guilty--after all, I was supposed to moderate a panel from 2:30 to 3:30--A Fantastic Voyage: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing, fellow panelists being Jeffrey Ford, Karen Joy Fowler, and Michael Bishop.

By this time Ann had already discharged her duties, doing a very nice interview with John Saul on one of the main stages. Several times Saul's head had whipped around to stare at Ann due to the very precise and researched nature of her questions. Perhaps somewhat disturbing, however, was a revelation from the crowd: one couple claimed to read nothing but John Saul, and when they finished reading his entire oeuvre, they would go back and re-read it until his next book came out. I don't think any writer could live up to such constant, monotonous, pile-driver-type reading, and yet this couple seemed perfectly happy. I was happy for them. What a state of bliss to live in. What a state of certainty and stasis. I was almost certain their house must be the center of some nexus of Time Interrupted, some place that Proust would eventually have gotten around to investigating, had he lived long enough.

Also during the afternoon came the revelation that one of the famous authors had a stalker. This stalker, in a chiffon dress, had actually bumped into me the other day and kind of backed up weirdly and done a half curtsey, while mumbling about "pardon me sir." I hadn't thought of her as being insane, but it had seemed odd. In any event, this was someone who, while on her meds, was perfectly nice, but not on meds would accuse the Famous Author of stealing her words. The Famous Author therefore had this bizarre relationship with the stalker, whereby he would get off stage after doing his shtick and she'd be waiting there, and he'd say calmly, "Hi. How're you? I guess I'll be seeing you on that cruise I'm doing next week." Apparently, her rich husband gave her the freedom to follow the object of her fixation everywhere he went. It was an odd situation, half funny and half rather disturbing. The Famous Author had a half-sympathetic shadow. Ann or someone teased me about the possible transference of the stalker to moi. I pointed out that authors who make less than $30k a year rarely are able to generate any passion in the heart of a stalker...

Then came the fantasy panel, which went very well--except for the point at which the panel revolted. This point came when I relayed a quote M. John Harrison had made about how the best fantasies don't come with maps, after which Jeff Ford more or less leapt in with "Bullshit!", as did Michael, and, perhaps less adamantly, Karen. This amused me no end, although my hangover-influenced face may not have conveyed much more than shock, since I had given Mike, Jeff, and Karen the questions ahead of time and asked them to let me know if there were any they didn't want to answer or which were stupid. But, in the end, it opened up the panel and made it much more organic, and that was a good thing. Still, I thought it was pretty funny. So much for prepping ahead of time!

We had great attendance for the panel--I think on Saturday over 4,000 people visited the festival and we had a large room with most of the seats taken; possibly the crowd was between 100 and 200, very hard to say, especially since I was still being managed by my hangover. The questions from the audience were great, although we finally had to disburse when one gentleman said, "Given that we're all going to be cyborgs soon, how will that affect how you do characterization?"

Afterwards, we went and signed, with respectable lines for all of us. I'd read the erotic font note as part of our introductions and City of Saints sold out in the dealer's room as soon as the panel was over. I felt somewhat guilty. After all, the rest of the book was nothing like the font note. Still, I didn't feel that guilty.

Then, after perusing the dealer's room a bit more, it was time to return to the hotel and have some down time before the author shindig for dinner: delicious barbecue in a building that had once been a synagogue. Throughout the entire event, I have to say that Vicki Parsons and her staff took good care of us. The event was well-organized, well-run, well-attended, and just a success in every way.

The barbecue building being a little too loud to hear ourselves talk, Karen, Jeff, Lynn, Ann, and I retired to the hotel lounge to talk about bad movies and late fees and some of the Oscar nominees. A discussion of New Weird and the Interstitial was mercifully short.

The next day, I was feeling much, much better--just in time for the flight home. We'd had a great time, had a chance to meet some very different kinds of writers and also pick up their books, while taking advantage of Vicki and Kevin's splendid hospitality.

Later, I asked Kevin what some of the highlights were for him, and this was his reply:

"My personal highlights for the weekend include:

"Jeff Ford's description of grabbing and throwing his son's Snickers bar away to avoid a potential bear attack.

"Aaron Gwyn's, a short story writer, answer to the audience question: 'Who is your favorite short story writer and where is your career headed?' His response: 'Flannery O'Connor and down.'

"Karen Joy Fowler's publishing advice to Tripp Reade: She pointed out that the Science Fiction magazines and journals not only publish a lot of stories but they pay pretty well. Tripp replied that his stories weren't really science fiction. Karen replied: 'Well, Tripp, you told me that you had one story with a talking weasel in it. That would make it a science fiction story. So all you have to do is put a talking weasel in all your other stories and start sending them out as science fiction.' "

And on that note, even my artificially extended memory of the festival again becomes murky, although I cannot think of one non-pleasant moment that was due to anything other than my inability to properly metabolize scotch...

Sunday, March 07, 2004


A True Tale of Innocence from Before 9-11

Sometimes an event occurs that seems as if it could only have happened to someone else. The surreal aspect of the event softens the impact during the experience, but only adds to the bewilderment afterwards. For me, that event occurred in December 1998, about 13 weeks into my stint at an editing job for a Tallahassee, Florida, computer consulting company…

It begins with the arrival at my workplace, one cold day, of two detectives. They are both over six feet tall and wear dark suits, guns strapped demurely to their belts. The receptionist calls me up to the front of the building. The detectives introduce themselves and ask if they can speak to me in private. I have yet to realize that the surreal event has begun to occur.

I guide them into a conference room, we sit down, and they immediately begin to ask what I think of as very odd questions.

“Mr. VanderMeer, have you ever been to California?”

“Mr. VanderMeer, have you ever sent any packages to California?”

Have I ever sent packages to California? It may be statistically anomalous and yet still true that almost every writer who lives in the United States has at one time or another sent some kind of package to California. I tell them, yes, I have mailed packages to California.

By this time I am beginning to sweat and to stutter a little, because by my nature I tend to feel guilty even if I am accused of something I didn’t do, or even if accused of something harmless I did do, like sending packages to California.

At this point the detectives turn up the heat.

“Have you ever sent a package to XYZ,” one of them asks, naming my former place of employment.

I think back to my lovely time at XYZ. Working at XYZ had been like having a bit part in a theatrical production of Lord of the Flies recast to include business managers. While there I had ducked flying projectiles and hastily thrown verbal assaults. An employee once stole the football pool money and fled to Kansas City. Another employee had tried to rob a bank using nunchucks, and, failing, went to jail, but was not immediately fired. Once, someone had been so angry at someone else that, while using the urinal, they had punched a big hole in the cardboard walls of the men’s bathroom. The hole was never fixed, but remained there, month after month, as a reminder (to the male employees, at least) of the bottled up rage that might someday consume the place. An ex-Admiral had been brought in as a manager to restore order and dignity to XYZ, but even by the time I had resigned, nothing much had come of it.

But have I ever sent a package to XYZ? I concentrate all of my rapidly evaporating memory on the question. Finally, I say no, I don’t recall sending anything to XYZ. I want nothing more than to forget I had ever encountered XYZ.

That’s when they ask me if I am in the habit of sending bombs to my former employers.

Suddenly, I remember, a coldness rising in my stomach. Suddenly, I know, with obscene clarity, what they are talking about. They are talking about the damned pellet. I had picked up a number of novelty “message pellets”—basically, a metal capsule with a curled up piece of paper inside—at a store in Atlanta. Friends said it looked like the kind of thing a carrier pigeon might use. I had sent one to my ex-Admiral ex-boss on a lark several weeks before. Why had it just arrived now? I would never know.

So I ask the two detectives, “Is it a little metal pellet you’re talking about?”

One of them looks at the other, as if they’ve just broken the case, which, in a way, they have. “Yes,” they say, and suddenly everything comes into focus. They tell me that my ex-boss, the ex-Admiral, used to be in a Middle East bomb unit. When he got my friendly little pellet package, he called the bomb squad. Since I had scrawled my shorter post office box address on the outside, rather than my street address, and neglected to write my name, he had no idea who had sent the package to him.

Presumably adorned in bomb-resistant gear, a bomb squad unit had quietly stormed XYZ’s premises, reverently placed the package in a secure metal box, and then carried it out to the bomb unit vehicles, before whisking it away to the county sheriff’s department. Three bomb squad units had then spent the whole afternoon tracking me down.

Whereupon the detectives, tipped off by my post office box address, swooped down on my office and found me...and started asking me questions about California. (Someone had been sending letter bombs to addresses in California.)
The detectives do not tell me all of this at once, so for several minutes I think that the ex-Admiral did know who it had come from, and that was why he had called the bomb squad. By this time, I am suffering from an onslaught of anger, coupled by profuse sweating, all of which I know makes me look guilty as hell.

The best news is that they haven’t opened the message pellet. It’s still at the sheriff’s office, waiting to be “defused.”
Trying not to panic, I desperately attempt to convey the impression that I’m innocent of any wrong-doing, but some reptilian part of my brain equates the presence of the two detectives with guilt. Somehow, some way, I must be guilty of something, or they wouldn’t be sitting here talking to me. After some rather incoherent explanations, I think I am able to convince them I’m innocent. But I’ve still got to follow the detectives down to the sheriff’s department to give a statement.

First, though, I have to explain to my supervisor what’s going on. I step into his office while the detectives politely wait by the front door, and I deliver a speech that ends something like this: “So they think I bombed my former employer, and I’ve got to go down there to answer some questions.” My boss, who just conducted my three-month review two days earlier, gives me a look as if he’s unsure he made the right decision when he hired me. (I had already, unbeknownst to him, lied during the job interview. When I said I was a writer, he looked up from his notepad and said with a grin, “I hope you’re not one of those writers whose books have black-and-white covers and at the end someone’s head winds up on a shelf.” No, I said, I was not that kind of writer, even though he had just perfectly summarized my latest novel.)

“Well, try not to be too long,” my supervisor says, before returning to his work.

As I walk out into the lobby with the detectives, a crowd of co-workers gathers, all curious, to whom I only have time to say, "it’s just a misunderstanding—not even that, much more comical than that..." while the owner of the company leans against the door of his office trying to figure out why the cops are taking away one of his employees. As I pass the receptionist, she says something cheery, like, “This is so cool.”

Twenty minutes of driving across town through the beginning of rush hour traffic and the real fun begins: we reach the sheriff’s department. They take me up to the third floor and sit me down just outside of the room with the table, the little chairs, and the big two-way glass mirror. The implication seems to be, give us any trouble and you’ll soon be in there…

The detective asks me more questions.

"How many capsules have you sent out, sir?"
"About 20. Maybe 25."

"Which is it? 20 or 25?"

In the background, another detective, identifiable by his grizzled chops, mutters audibly, "Christ! 23 pellets! We’re gonna have 23 bomb threats on our hands.

"In Tallahassee?"
"No. Not in Tallahassee. All over the country. In fact, a writer I correspond with just showed a pellet of mine to a couple of editors in New York. Which is kind of funny, since they had kind of the opposite reaction to what you…"

Here I trail off because no one else seems to think it is funny ha ha or even funny ironic...

"Where did you get the capsules?"
"In Atlanta, Georgia. In a novelty store."

"What kind of novelty store? Do they sell firearms?"
"No. It’s a coffee shop. It sells some neat novelty items—they advertised these pellets as message capsules."

The grizzled detective says, loudly, "I thought for sure it was a carrier pigeon capsule."

"Do you know the name of the store?"
"No. But I think my girlfriend might remember it."

"Can you call her?"
"Yes. She’s home sick, but I can call her."

"Call her."
"Okay. I’ll call her."

I call my girlfriend (now my long-suffering wife...)

"Ann, hi. Do you remember the name of that store where I bought the pellets? Some people here need to know."

Ann: "No, I don’t remember. But I know it’s here somewhere—can you get it when you come home?"

Me: "Um, well, it’s kind of important to get it now."

Ann: "It can’t wait?"

Me: "No, actually. Because I’m standing here in the sheriff’s office and they would like to know where I got the pellet because someone thought it was a bomb and so they’ve brought me in to make a statement about the pellet, so I kind of need to know soon where I got the pellets!"

Ann: "Oh. You’re in the sheriff’s office? What are you doing in the sheriff’s office? A bomb? Are you kidding?"

Me: "No. No joke. They think the pellet is a bomb."

The first detective gives me a look like, No, we never thought it was a bomb—why are you telling her that?

But she can’t find the name, so I agree to call them later with that information.

At this point, another detective comes over. This joker is slowly putting on surgical gloves as he approaches, with a great thwacking of latex. He’s got an enormous oiled mustache like Salvador Dali and he has more wrinkles than the actor Lance Hendrickson. I’m just a little bit worried that this guy thinks I’ve hidden more capsules in and around my person and wants to take a look...but no: he’s getting ready to defuse my pellet and he wants some reassurance from me.

Him: "Listen, son, is there anything you need to tell me about that capsule before I open it."

Me: "No. It’s just a message capsule. It has a piece of paper inside of it. With a message written on it."

Him: "What’s in the capsule?"

Me: "A message to my former boss. Saying hello, kind of."

Him: "You’re sure it’s not a bomb, son. I’m about to go in there and open it up. I don’t want any surprises."

Me: "No, really. It’s just a message capsule. It’s not a bomb…Of course..." (this was a stupid thing to say in this context—“Of course…” followed by a thoughtful pause—and I’ve made a mental note of that for future reference)

Him: "Of course what?"

Me: "Well, you haven’t let me see the package, so I couldn’t tell you for sure that it’s what I sent to my former boss."

Him: "It has your address on it."

Me: "Okay, then I guess it’s what I sent to my former boss. "

He leaves, along with three other detectives. I’m wondering what the hell he thinks the surgical gloves are going to protect him from if it is a bomb. Later, I realize they wanted to preserve fingerprints. Luckily, I keep my mouth shut.
Out of my field of vision, the detectives enter the room that contains the pellet. There is, literally, an amazing silence. Even the detectives who are not in the room kind of hold their breath.

Then, about a minute later, I hear what sounds like a faint roar of laughter, possibly hysteria-based, which then abruptly cuts off. A minute after that, the first detective is back, holding my pellet with the message. He reads the message aloud for the benefit of the second detective: "Hello, [my former boss]—I hope the holidays are treating you well. Isn’t this a neat capsule? Keep in touch."

The suspense drains right out of the room and into the chilly afternoon outside the huge windows. It’s funny that the suspense drained then, but I guess they were still thinking something was not quite right, that I was some disgruntled employee, and they expected the message to read: "Hello, Dick—I hope your pets are all dead. Kick yourself in the ass for me. Isn’t this a neat capsule? Stay the hell out of my life."

So after that I talk to the first detective for awhile about how all the cop shows are laughable in terms of accuracy. The first detective says he’s getting out of the homicide unit because it’s making him lose most of his hair. I don’t point out that he’s completely bald. Another detective admires the workmanship of the pellet, saying, "This has gotta be mass produced. Machine-driven. Nice piece of work." A third detective pokes his head in and says, "Hey, so I guess there was no anthrax inside, right?"

By now, I’m completely exhausted. It’s not so much that it has been a horrifying experience—I’m still too shocked to be horrified—but it has been a surprising experience, and the adrenaline rush has wiped me out. So I’m escorted down to the outer rooms and sent on my way, the detective’s business card in my pocket so I can call him with the name of where I bought the @#$%!! pellets. (Later, when I get home, I sit in a chair and laugh for about half an hour, but it’s not a pleasant laughter.)

Shaky and looking at the world through rather more cynical eyes than before, I go back to the office, even though it’s after work hours, if for no other reason than to do damage control. I figure a lot of damage control will be needed if I’m to salvage my current job.

But I soon realize everything is going to be okay. I walk into my office to find that my co-workers have fashioned tin foil handcuffs for every single piece in my decorative collection of ceramic, metal, and wooden frogs. Further, a business card from a mental health recovery institute is taped to my computer monitor. Oddly, for the first time all afternoon everything feels normal.

On my computer, I find email from a couple of XYZ employees who had apparently just heard that VanderMeer might have tried to bomb his old company...And at that point, I just start laughing, quite as hysterically as the detectives had a half hour earlier... Meanwhile, somewhere out there in the dark, a somewhat paranoid ex-Admiral is being debriefed by a detective who hates cop shows. And the last of my pellets is winging its way by FedEx, by US mail, by land and by sea, to the last of my friends who might appreciate it.


Luckily, my boss and the owner at my new job both got a big laugh out of the story and my reputation at work seemed oddly enhanced by my encounter with the law. Meanwhile, my former boss emailed me more than once apologizing profusely for the incident, no doubt afraid of a lawsuit. A friend of mine told me the bomb squad detectives had kept the capsule as a souvenir for what had turned out to be a hilarious episode for them—some of their last questions apparently being tongue-in-cheek.

And that was that. This was 1998, not late 2001. In a different context, at a different time, in another country even, I might have been led away to prison rather than let off with a nonchalant warning to refrain from pellet-sending.
That lesson I did learn. When I needed to communicate with my ex-boss one last time a year later, I used a regular letter in a regular envelope. I did not include a message pellet. I drew peace signs and flowers on the outside of the envelope. I wrote “NOTHING BAD” and “HARMONY” and “THINK HAPPY THOUGHTS” on it with a thick pen. The ex-admiral never responded, but neither did he call the bomb squad.

Thursday, March 04, 2004


Brain hurt. Brain hurt bad. I remember The Kingdom as a wonderful, creepy Danish TV pilot that had a pseudo-documentary feel. Now overlaid with images from Stephen King's remake, Kingdom Hospital--WHICH FEATURED A HUGE ANIMATRONIC ANTEATER WITH CARNIVORE-LIKE FANGS AND A FIRST HOUR THAT WAS A NAUSEATING ODE TO THE INTERJECTION OF KING'S OWN LIFE, IN THE FORM OF HIS VAN ACCIDENT, INTO A NARRATIVE THAT NEEDED NO ANTEATER, NOR NO VAN ACCIDENT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Permanently scarred. Probably not. Flinching and eye-blinky for awhile. Yes.

A fucking anteater for chrissakes?!?! Forgive my French, but where I come from the only way you can stick an animal in a perfectly good non-animal plot and not ruin it is if you happen to have a spare squid handy...

Brain hurt bad. Trust me--this is the first and last post about movies on this blog, but...oy! The horror...


Wednesday, March 03, 2004

ODD JOBS #4--XX, 1992-98

Ah, good old XX--Lord of the Flies with middle management (email me and I'll tell you the name of company). I worked there for over five years as a technical editor, putting city ordinances into book form. For a starting salary of less than $6 an hour (I'd been told I'd be making $6 an hour, then at the last minute was quoted a yearly salary I thought equated to $6 but turned out to be $5.75, so imagine my surprise when I got a raise to $6 some months later!), I would perform highly detailed editing work.

Sometimes I even got to field questions from citizens. We were only supposed to get calls from city clerks and city attorneys, but every once in awhile I'd get a call from somebody who lived in a city we did the code of ordinances for.

"Hello, Jeff here, how can I help you?"

"Hey, yeah, um, this is Mike. I need you to change an ordinance for me. There's a mistake in there."

"What city are you calling from?"

"Miami, Florida."

"Okay--so are you with the city attorney's office there?"


"What's wrong with the ordinances?"

"There's one in here about handguns."

"Which one?"

"The one about making handguns in your basement."

"Actually, it says you can't make handguns in your basement."

"Right--that's the problem. I need to be able to make handguns in my basement."


"The ordinance is all wrong. I need it changed. Can you change it so I can make handguns in my basement?"

"Are you really with the city attorney's office, sir?"

"Uh, no, but if you could just make this change..."

And so on and so forth.

We had some delightful ordinances to codify, too. For example, one town changed their legal definition of buttocks about 10 times in one year, either making illegal another quarter inch or making it legal again. One got the feeling a lot of people wore really tiny shorts in their town. Yet another passed an ordinance establishing an Official Meat Byproduct for the city. Still another proclaimed City-wide Frog Day. And, in an example of a specific nuisance creating a general ordinance, one small southern town passed an ordinance proclaiming that it was a misdemeanor to double-park your pickup truck on mainstreet at midnight while naked.

We had a pretty interesting set of managers, too. Because we had an indexing department and an owner who didn't read much fiction, we once spent quite a bit of time researching the viability of outsourcing our indexing services to fiction publishing companies. It was also rumored that the owner had decided to outsource typesetting and proofreading duties to a small Caribbean island once--he'd seen an advertisement for same in the classified section of the Wall Street Journal, with a phone number listed. According to legend, the owner had then called the number, set things up with the person on the other end, and sent some start-up money (anywhere from $5k to $100k depending on who you spoke to). When we finally sent a representative down to the island, he found out that the address was to an abandoned lot and the phone number was to a pay phone outside of a bar. Another time, a member of the inhouse print shop apparently took all the football pool money and took a bus to Kansas City to see his girlfriend. I do know that once another editor, in anger, punched a hole in the bathroom wall, near the urinals. The hole wasn't fixed for months.

The place had a pretty tense atmosphere--everybody was underpaid and the mix of people ran from the almost literally insane (I once passed an indexer's office only to hear, in two distinctly different voices, "You know you shouldn't do that." "Yes, but you know you always do." "Yes, but you know you shouldn't." "But you always do.", only to peek and find only one person in the office) to the merely eccentric. We also once had a guy walk into our team's office and say to this girl he was infatuated with "Please allow me to introduce myself. I'm a man of..." and continue on with the lyrics of a Rolling Stones song, but in such a way that we thought he was just talking--he then got so flustered that he stumbled by mistake into the women's bathroom, which was right outside of our door. After a pause of about five minutes, the door opened slowly and he scampered away. (Rumors of affairs between team members circulated left and right--at one point, it seemed everybody might be screwing everybody else, but who knew the truth of it?)

The clincher might have been the fact that we had a proprietary publishing system and one guy had the company by the balls in knowing its in's and out's. He was a huge barrel of a guy, bald and gone to fat, whose favorite pastimes were farting and calling women "bitches". Once, it was reported, the company was expecting some foreign dignitaries. They were going to have to meet with this employee. Management supposedly called him in to admonish him against farting in their presence!!

Other lovely stories--the employee who tried to rob a bank with numchucks and, once he was out of jail, apparently was offered his old job back. The first computer expert we had we apparently got because he was serving out a community service sentence for hacking, so we got him for free.

I didn't have a great relationship with some of my fellow employees, I have to admit. The atmosphere was toxic, I was sometimes harassed, and I sometimes got difficult because the place was like some kind of insane asylum. I once so heckled a fellow member of my team over a point of grammar that he came this close to throwing a rather heavy decorative frog tile at me. Another time, my proofreader took off with the pages to a job and ran into the print room, rather than admit to having made a mistake. Yet another time, I was told by the people who archived the hardcopy ordinances that we typeset from NOT to decorate the manila envelope with weird Cheshire Cat illustrations. So, right before I finally quit, I took great delight in using my little green frog stamp pad to stamp frog images over 99.9% of the surface of said envelopes. Was this wise or mature? Absolutely not. But, remember--I was a bit player in a workplace Lord of the Flies. At least I wasn't killing Piggy or eating raw meat.

Probably the worst part was being put on the "X team". This team was supposedly going to implement new ways of doing things, make the job more efficient, and evaluate problem employees. There are few better ways in an atmosphere like the one at that company to make other employees hate you, I think. Not to mention, all the other teams were named after characters or things from the Wizard of Oz, so we stood out like a sore thumb. That was the death knell for my career at that company. I could have stayed on forever, probably. I mean, I could have been an alcoholic with a morphine habit and I could have stayed on forever, but I was so unhappy I had to find another job (And finally did, at Infinity--a place that is as good as this prior place was bad.)

There were certainly people I missed at the company. For every total idiot, there was also someone nice just trying to do their job under impossible conditions. But one thing I know for sure--if I'd stayed on, I would have eventually gone insane.