The Santa Claus Killer

North of border, a grisly story of mass murder is unfolding.  In Toronto, police and shaken residents are dealing with an apparent serial killer who roamed in their midst, an apparently pleasant gardener, landscaper, and flower arranger by day and a violent, allegedly homicidal sadist by night.

15267796_10154189330693528_3900810531768579684_n-e1516319633635The accused, Bruce McArthur, has been charged with the murders of five men.  Police are investigating properties where McArthur evidently buried the dismembered remains of his victims in the planters, lawns, and gardens he tended for unsuspecting clients — a story line that is similar to the plot of Stephen King’s short story The Lawnmower Man.  Police believe that McArthur roamed the gay district in Toronto, looking for submissive men who would help him act out violent sexual fantasies — fantasies that apparently sometimes ended in grisly death.  There is growing concern, too, that the investigation will uncover many more victims.

And by the way, McArthur also once served as the Santa Claus at a Toronto-area mall.  I wonder if the parents who learn of that creepy fact will ever put their kids on the lap of a mall Santa again?

As seems to so often be the case, his neighbors and his clients describe McArthur as a jovial, helpful person who liked to bake and design flower arrangements.  They didn’t suspect his apparent double life or dark side.  It really makes you wonder how many murderous people are out there in the world, acting out their disturbed impulses — and also makes you feel lucky that you haven’t encountered them at the wrong time on a darkened street.


All Alone With Stephen

Lately I’ve been reading through the Stephen King body of work.  It’s been a long and enjoyable process — the man is talented and prodigious — but I’ve also come to realize that when you’re on the road alone and staying in strange hotels, his books might not be the best traveling companion.


One of King’s great talents is his ability to see the possibility of horror in everyday objects and settings.  His development of the unfolding evil is worth relishing in the comforting normalcy of your own home, with your lovely wife at your side and a snoring dog on the couch — but it’s quite another experience when you’re alone in a strange hotel.  Then, King’s talents have a chillingly different, unsettling reality-warping impact.

Suddenly you realize that those complete strangers that you got on hotel elevator with, alone, are in fact rather strange — especially the guy with the oddly shaped bandage on one cheek that seems to pulsate with its own out-of-kilter rhythm  You wonder if the friendly waitress at the restaurant isn’t being a bit too friendly, and consider whether she might be slipping something into your food in furtherance of some wicked plan.  As you walk an unusually long, unusually dark hotel corridor, you keep an eye out for blood slowly seeping from under a guest room doorway, and that adjustable reading light on the bed in your room suddenly has a decidedly alien, somewhat reptilian cast to it.  And when you finally bed down for the night you listen intently for slithering and creeping sounds from within the walls behind your head.

No, I’d say Stephen King books probably aren’t ideal for the solo traveler — not if you want to get a restful night’s sleep.

First Cigar In A Blue Moon

IMG_4952It was a fine day — one that needed to be capped off with a fine cigar, an H. Upmann, courtesy of Burning Leaf Cigar Shop on South High, and a few Blue Moon Wheat Ales, as I finish the last few pages of Stephen King’s It.

Blue Moon.  An interesting name.  The title of a great rock and roll song from my childhood (bop-a-bop-bop-a-dang-a-dang-dang-Blue Moon), and the name of a diner that Kish and the boys and I used to frequent when we visited Mom and Dad’s condo in Stuart, Florida, years ago.  An odd coincidence, perhaps.  But then, life often seems like a circle.  Perhaps it’s not so odd that I like an adult beverage called Blue Moon, too.

It’s a memorable occasion when you enjoy your first cigar in your new place, on a bright, crisp spring day when your dogs are lolling in the grass.

Stephen King

Recently Richard got me Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep as a present.  It’s the sequel to The Shining, which I had never read.  I’d seen the Stanley Kubrick/Jack Nicholson movie, but had heard the book is different (and it definitely is) so I decided to read the book first.

The Shining was an enjoyable, page-turning airplane read that I finished on the return leg of our recent trip to Phoenix, and I was looking forward to starting the sequel that seemingly just came out.  As we were walking through the airport on our way to our car, however, we passed the bookstore and I noticed that Stephen King had another new book out, called Revival.  My God, I thought:  how many books has Stephen King written?

The answer is . . . a lot.  According to King’s website, if you just count novels, there are more than 50.  50!  Indeed, in between Doctor Sleep and Revival there was at least one other book, Mr. Mercedes — and perhaps two, because I can’t tell whether Doctor Sleep was published before or after Joyland.  And that is just novels; there are countless essays, short stories, and other pieces in a listing of written works that seems impossibly long.

By anyone’s definition, Stephen King has been astonishingly prolific.  Those of us who aren’t creative can only marvel at where he could come up with so many ideas for books — but what really impresses me is King’s obvious dedication to his work and his craft.  You can only publish that many books, short stories, and writings if you are willing to sit down at your writing desk, day after day, and work.  And Stephen King is still doing it, at age 67.

Critics will probably never look upon Stephen King with the same affection they have for, say, Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace.  I don’t pretend to know precisely what separates fiction from “fine literature,” but I do know this:  Stephen King has stayed atop the bestseller lists for decades now, producing book after book that people want to read, and he has done it by working hard, grinding away at new stories when he presumably could kick back, live off his royalties and speaking fees, and become a man of leisure.

If you want a living testament to the merits of a strong work ethic, consider Stephen King.  We should all be able to find some inspiration in his example.

The (Potential) Wages Of Hubris

Today the Texas Department of State Health Services announced that a preliminary test indicates that an American health care worker has tested positive for Ebola.  The worker was involved in treating Thomas Eric Duncan, the West African man who came to the United States after being infected with the Ebola virus and died of the disease last week.  The preliminary results indicating the health care worker has Ebola will be subject to confirmatory testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This news of transmission of Ebola in America is troubling in and of itself, but it is especially alarming when coupled with the fact that a Spanish nurse who also was involved in treating an Ebola victim contracted the disease.  The Spanish nurse’s infection is attributed to “human error” — her alleged failure to follow strict protocols designed to prevent transmission of the dread disease — but there is no explanation, yet, for why the Texas health care worker may have contracted the disease.

Perhaps the Texas health care worker also made a “human error,” or perhaps the world health care authorities don’t know as much about how to prevent the spread of this strain of Ebola as they think they do.  Could the CDC, the World Health Organization, and other health care entities have experienced a bit of hubris about their ability to deal with this disease, and could we now be learning that they were overconfident about their understanding of Ebola and how it is transmitted?  Even if the new cases are due entirely to “human error,” the fact that treatment protocols are so challenging that trained health care workers can fail to comply with them should give us all pause.

We’ve all heard about epidemic scenarios — read Stephen King’s The Stand if you want a realistic and chilling depiction of what might happen if the genie of a highly contagious disease gets out of the containment bottle — and Ebola seems like exactly the kind of devastating disease that could cause such nightmares to come true.  The fact that health care workers are being infected should cause us to redouble our efforts to prevent people who might be infected from entering the country in the first place, and to dramatically increase the precautions taken when we identify a person stricken with the disease.

No doubt we will be getting assurances from the federal government and the CDC that the situation is well under control.  Given what is happening, I’m not quite ready to credit those assurances just yet.  Let’s see some actual positive results first.

Giving Advice To Your 16-Year-Old Self

Recently I read a letter that author Stephen King had written to his 16-year-old self as part of a collection called Dear Me:  A Letter to My 16-Year-Old Self.  King’s advice to himself was “stay away from recreational drugs” — advice which, if heeded, would have allowed King, a self-described “junkie waiting to happen,” to avoid a ten-year dark period.

-5The letter got me to thinking about what I might say to my 16-year-old self, a callow, insecure, yet arrogant kid now buried deep under countless layers of memory and experience and middle-aged weight.  I decided I wouldn’t try to give any life-altering guidance, because I’m quite happy with how things turned out.  I’m mindful of the theory of the butterfly effect, where even a slight change might drastically alter the course of your life.  So even though I’ve made countless bad decisions and behaved in mean-spirited and embarrassing ways, I don’t think I would change any of that.  In fact, I like to think that making those bad decisions, and suffering the consequences, ended up being a positive thing that helped me to grow and mature as a person.  Perhaps I’m rationalizing a bit, but I believe that although lessons from the school of hard knocks might be painful at the time, they tend to be lessons well learned.

So, my advice to myself would fall into the platitude category, and therefore would likely be utterly ignored by that know-it-all teenager with the bad ’70s haircut.  Things like “don’t worry about being popular in high school, it means nothing after you graduate” and “the world doesn’t revolve around you” and “try to be nice to people.”  The other nugget would be:  “buy fewer things and take more vacations.”  I’ve been as much a participant in our consumer culture as anyone, and now I look at closets and cupboards filled with stuff that we don’t use and don’t need.  I’d much rather have less stuff and more wonderful memories of trips to faraway places with Kish and the boys.

Feral Cat Gangs Causing Havoc In Australia

According to newspaper accounts, residents of Moorooka, a suburb of Brisbane, Australia, are being terrorized by a gang of feral cats “the size of dogs.” Members of the cat gang are attacking pedestrians after darkness falls, clawing small, prissy dogs, hissing at passersby, and generally intimidating the beleaguered Aussies. And they are doing so with shocking impunity.

It sounds like a far-fetched scene from The Stand or some other Stephen King novel, but it isn’t — it is just a return to the natural order of things.  It is not surprising, really, that delinquent cats would form thuggish, bullying gangs.  Everyone knows that, deep down, cats despise humans.  When cats resort to their feral state, and are no longer dependent upon humans for Purina cat chow or canned salmon, they are bound to act out the superiority they clearly feel.  Right now, they are probably treating Moorooka like one vast litter box and scratching post, yowling at the moon, strutting in their leather jackets and riding their cat motorcycles into saloons.

I am sure that other citizens of Australia are deeply concerned that the cat gangs of Moorooka might spread throughout the Land Down Under — and then across the face of the globe.  And before you know it, every haughty, diffident Tabby, Morris and Whiskers is feeling that feral urge, ready to pounce on their human companions as they slumber and scratch their eyes out.  This menace must be stopped before it is too late!