January 17, 2021

Dispatch #20: Meet Jason Novak

 

     In Dispatch #11, I introduced you to Lizzie Stanton, the heroine of my forthcoming novel, while in Dispatch #19, I profiled her best friend, Althea Robinson. Now it's time to showcase the third member in the trio of young friends from Aldeburgh in my story: Jason Novak

     Jason is based partly on my memories of a real friend I had while attending Fort Wayne's Riverside Elementary in the early 1970s. I envied many things about this boy—he had a much cooler bike (a green Schwinn Stingray with a banana seat), a bigger house and (most importantly back then) a downstairs playroom full of what seemed like every toy imaginable.

     Many years later, I found out this friend had struggled with serious issues as an adult, including multiple brushes with the law. It helped me realize that even those who seem to have everything can be hiding some secret pain.

     Well, since I was writing a light bit of escapist fare and not America's Most Wanted, I steered clear of any entanglements with the law when creating the background for Jason Novak.

     Instead, I gave him all of the cool things my real-life friend had, along with two very busy parents who have some issues. Given the nature of the story, I don't lean too hard on those darker elements, but their existence helps to show how the life of Jason, a well-to-do boy who seems to have it all, isn't as perfect as it might appear from the outside.

     On the lighter side, Jason has a silly sense of humor and is fond of making his friends laugh. An automobile aficionado, he enjoys assembling plastic model kits of any kind of car. 

     While he, Lizzie, and Althea are all avid readers, Jason leans more toward comic books than novels, so it's no surprise his favorite authors are Gerber, Moench and Englehart rather than Dickens, Cooper, or Twain. He's also a devoted film buff, even to the point of collecting his favorite film scores on vinyl. 

     Note: I collected them, too—in fact, the first two LPs I ever bought were the soundtracks to a pair of James Bond films, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Live and Let Die. This was either in fifth or sixth grade, so yeah, my taste in music as a kid was a little unusual.

     As I mentioned back in Dispatch #11, Lizzie and Althea are front and center in the story while Jason plays more of a supporting role. He's not nearly as brave as Althea or as bold as Lizzie, but still a good kid—a cheerful, steadfast friend—and I can tell you that things work out a lot better for him later than they did for his real life counterpart. That, folks, is the magic of fiction.

    

     ©  2021 Summit City Scribe

January 13, 2021

Dispatch #19: Meet Althea Robinson

      

     Okay, faithful readers, now that we know a little about Lizzie Stanton, my novel's bookish, overly-imaginative and impulsive heroine, let's meet her best friend, Althea Robinson.

      In order to provide a sharp contrast to Lizzie, I made Althea far more level-headed and practical. Born to an electrical engineer father and an E.R. nurse mother, Althea possesses a natural aptitude for math and science. She's also quick-witted with a dry sense of humor and a blunt way of speaking.

     The Robinsons hail originally from New Jersey, and when the story begins, have only lived in Aldeburgh for about two years, after Althea's father accepted a teaching position at Aldeburgh Tech (or Al-Tec, as it's known locally). 

     Althea struggles at first with the humdrum atmosphere of her new home (compared to the energy of the east coast she remembers). In addition, Aldeburgh's population is predominantly white, which provides another challenge for a smart young African-American girl who's used to a little more diversity in her surroundings. Fortunately, her close friendship with Lizzie Stanton helps with the difficult transition.

     During the summer of 1975, both girls are twelve years old. But while Althea reached that age in April of '75, Lizzie will turn thirteen later that fall. Lizzie's October 31st birthday means she started kindergarten at age six, rather than at five. As a result, she's a few months older than most of her classmates, including Althea (and their friend Jason, too).

     Even though this means Althea is six months younger than her best friend, when the story begins, she's already three inches taller. Outgoing and athletic, Althea enjoys swimming in the pool at the YMCA and playing first base for the neighborhood baseball team (like her father, she's a devoted fan of the New York Yankees). Lizzie, on the other hand, never much of a sports fan, prefers simpler activities like riding her bike and climbing trees.

     One thing both girls do have in common is a love for all things weird and spooky, whether in books, movies or TV shows. Where they differ is that while Lizzie desperately wants to believe the fantastic creatures in those stories—vampires, outer space aliens, and Bigfoot—might exist somewhere in the real world, Althea regards them all strictly as entertainment, pure and simple.

     Even so, Althea isn't bothered by Lizzie's vivid imagination—she even encourages her friend to write down the wild stories she often comes up with. But when Lizzie finally has a truly otherworldly experience and tries to tell Althea about it, the other girl is convinced she's just spinning another of her outlandish tales. Very quickly, Lizzie realizes that if she can't get her best friend to believe her, she could be in very big trouble!

     As a one time resident of the lovely Garden State, I enjoyed endowing Althea with some patented east coast moxie. Her forthright manner and sarcastic humor make her a good foil for the Midwestern Lizzie, who's usually more reserved in her speech, if not always in action. 

     By the way, those who read my novel may wonder why Lizzie refers to soft drinks as soda, rather than pop, the more common term for them in the Midwest. Well, in the story, it's thanks to her best friend, former east-coaster Althea. 

     In real life, I made the same change after leaving the Midwest to live out east—first in New Jersey, and then in New York City. Out there, would you like a pop can sound like you're threatening somebody with a punch to the face rather than offering them a refreshing drink. I've said soda ever since, even after moving 2,000 miles west to live in Arizona, and so that's why Lizzie really says it.

     Finally, as I'm sure any sports fans out there have already guessed, I named Althea after two legends in their respective fields: Tennis great Althea Gibson and Baseball Trailblazer Jackie Robinson. Like them, Althea meets any challenge with both courage and character.

There's more to come in my next dispatch.

     ©  2021 SummitCityScribe

January 8, 2021

Dispatch #18: Vintage Vinyl


The sign above the door of Shamballa Records in Aldeburgh.

      We're now a week into 2021, and as the time when I finally get to share my novel with the reading public draws ever nearer, let's take a look at one of the many locations in the book: Aldeburgh's own Shamballa Records.

     No matter which format you use—a streaming service, MP3 player, CD, cassette tape, 8-track, or vinyl—we all enjoy listening to music, the soundtrack to our lives.

      Lizzie Stanton, the twelve-year-old heroine of my novel, is no different. Like many young girls in 1975, she has a fondness for both The Carpenters and The Captain and Tennille, and, most recently, singer Linda Ronstadt.

     Just as I did at that age, Lizzie listens to music primarily on the radio, although she often buys her favorite songs on vinyl. A weekly allowance of five dollars limits those purchases to the cheaper 45s, rather than the more expensive LPs (as she's already collecting comic books and paperbacks at this time, she's had to economize), and Lizzie keeps those 45s stacked neatly in a pink plastic Disk-Go-Case in her bedroom. 

A pink Disk-Go-Case, just like the one in Lizzie's bedroom.

     Her best friend, Althea (whose musical taste leans more toward Earth, Wind, & Fire than The Carpenters) has her own stack of 45s at home, and the girls listen to selections from both collections during their weekly slumber parties.

A 7" 45 rpm record from 1975.

     While both Lizzie and Althea have been known to browse the bins at the big chain store, MusicTown, over in Aldeburgh's Valleybrook Mall, they usually purchase their 45s at a local neighborhood shop, Shamballa Records. 

     Note: at the top of this post you'll find my crude, home-made sign for Shamballa Records (hey, who needs Photoshop?), just like the one described as hanging over the store's front door in my novel. While writing Lizzie's adventures, I often had images like this pinned up on a bulletin board above the computer to help get me in the proper mindset.

     Shamballa is reminiscent of the independent record shops (Slatewood Records/Wooden Nickel/Karma Records) I remember from my youth in Fort Wayne. Inside, the store is long and narrow, smelling vaguely of incense, with album artwork plastered on the walls over waist-high wooden bins that are filled with vinyl records, mostly LPs, but also some 45s. 

A big wooden bin of 12" Vinyl LPs.

     The weekly pilgrimage to such stores in search of new music was an indelible part of my youth, just as it is for the kids in my novel. Of course, these days you can access new music without ever leaving home, simply by the click of a mouse. That's why I thought a trip to an old school vinyl record shop might be an interesting historical novelty for my younger readers.

    Shamballa Records, it should also be pointed out, is where the reader first meets Althea, as well as Terry, the store's youthful manager, who has a history with Lizzie's older sister, Debra (you'll learn more about those last two in a future post).

     These glimpses of of everyday life in Aldeburgh—the visits to the record store and local library, the weekly slumber parties and Shock Theater viewings—are included in the narrative to provide a contrast with the far more fantastic realms in which Lizzie later finds herself.

     More to come in the next dispatch.

© 2021 SummitCityScribe

    

January 1, 2021

Dispatch #17: The Mysterious Miss Webster

Actress Barbara Shelley (1932 - 2021)

     I thought I'd begin this new year of 2021 with a look at a key character from my forthcoming novel—the mysterious Miss Webster—and the star of Britain's Hammer Films who inspired her creation.

     I think the first time I ever saw Barbara Shelley was at a drive-in showing of Five Million Years to Earth (aka Quatermass and the Pit). As I was very young, I'll admit the film's creepy insect-like Martians made more of an impression on me at the time than the performance by this fine English actress.

     Upon seeing it again a bit later, I was impressed by her turn as Miss Judd, particularly during the dramatic sequence where she comes under the psychic influence of the Martian spacecraft (the film also marked my first exposure to the work of writer Nigel Kneale, whose unique takes on science-fiction and horror never failed to intrigue me).

Shelley in Quatermass and the Pit.

     A few years after that drive-in feature, I caught one of Shelley's earlier films, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, on our local Dialing For Dollars afternoon movie. Her shocking onscreen transformation from the timid hausfrau Helen into a snarling vampire made quite an impression on me, even while watching it in the middle of the day.

Shelley as Helen in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Watch out for those pointy teeth!

      Although I enjoyed Shelley's performances in the films I saw her in subsequently—Village of the Dammed,The Gorgon, Rasputin: the Mad Monk—and in her TV appearances—Danger Man, The Saint, The Avengers, Dr. Who, Blake's 7— it was her portrayal of Helen in Dracula: Prince of Darkness that always stuck with me. 

     Later, when audio commentaries became available on the DVD releases of her films, I found myself just as impressed by the real person behind all those roles, as in them, the actress showed herself to be both charming and witty, intelligent and insightful. And so it was that when I needed an elegant but enigmatic character in my novel, I looked to Barbara Shelley for inspiration. 

     The woman in question, the sophisticated and mysterious Emmaline Webster, is the seldom-seen owner of Webster House, the spooky Victorian mansion in Aldeburgh that so intrigues my young heroine, Lizzie Stanton. It's Lizzie's decision to investigate Webster House that first brings her in contact with Miss Webster, and soon after that meeting, she embarks on a path that is destined to change her life forever.

     While bringing Miss Webster to life on the page, I imagined her possessing not only Shelley's outward appearance, but her charm, intelligence, and poise as well, if not her mellifluous Received Pronunciation (Emmaline is an American citizen, after all)—although I must admit, I always heard it inside my head while typing her dialogue!

     Ah, but does she also have those pointy teeth from Dracula: Prince of Darkness? I'm afraid that's something you'll have to read my book to find out. As you do, you may find yourself wondering—just as Lizzie does— is this mystery woman friend or foe, and is she truly human or perhaps something supernatural?

     Update:  According to the BBC, Barbara Shelley died on Monday, 4 January, 2021, another victim of the Covid-19 pandemic that has claimed far too many already. 

     Although it was pure coincidence that this wonderful English actress was the subject of my blog at the time of her death, I'm very glad this post was up when she left us. As her nation's most celebrated dramatist once wrote: "praising what is lost makes the remembrance dear".

     R.I.P  Barbara Shelley (1932 - 2010)

  

    My heartfelt condolences to her family and friends. 

     

     There's more to come in the next dispatch.


      © 2021 SummitCityScribe

December 28, 2020

Dispatch #16: So Long, 2020 (And Good Riddance)

      The year 2020 is not one that I (or many others) will be sorry to see come to an end. I experienced it, survived it, and will gladly let it pass into the history books as I look forward to 2021.

     Even the worst times have occasional glimmers of light, however. So before I turn the page from this year to the next, I wanted to note some things that I did
enjoy about 2020:

1)  Surviving 2020 in good health.

2)  The development of Covid-19 vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna.

3)  The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

4)  The peaceful protests against racism and police brutality around the world.

5)  The first successful launch of astronauts from U.S. soil since 2011.

6)  The amazing writing being done by Michael Harriot over at TheRoot.com. He can make me laugh, get me righteously angry about an injustice or break my heart, sometimes all in the same piece.

7)  On TV: The Mandalorian, Star Trek: Picard and The Queen’s Gambit.

8)   Finishing the final draft of my novel.

     Yeah, I couldn't even come up with ten good things. That should tell you how lousy 2020 was.

     Your list may be be far different, dear reader, but I think we can all agree that #1 is a very good thing, given the tragic deaths of so many around the world.

     With that, I'll happily bid adieu to 2020.

     Look for my next dispatch sometime in 2021. 

    © 2020 SummitCityScribe

December 23, 2020

Dispatch #15: The Mystery of Dracula's Castle

 

The Indiana School for Feeble-Minded Youth, aka The Fort Wayne State School

     Back in Dispatch #7, I noted how many neighborhoods have a house that's believed to be haunted or, at the very least, has a questionable or mysterious past. I further revealed that there was just such a house up the street from my childhood home in Fort Wayne, near the top of a hill.

     Even so, as a kid on the city's north side, nothing topped the campus of the Fort Wayne State School for spookiness as far as I was concerned. The facility opened its doors in 1890 as the Indiana School for Feeble-Minded Youth on a 60-acre property at what was then the northern outskirts of Fort Wayne. 

     With the entire perimeter surrounded by a tall black wrought-iron fence, it had State Street as its southern boundary, Charlotte Avenue on the north, Parnell Avenue to the west, and Kentucky Avenue to the east.

  The school's Richardson Romanesque-style architecture included a tall central tower capped by a sharply pointed roof. This detail helped transform the place— in my overly active grade school-age imagination—into Dracula's castle. Trust me, Bela Lugosi would have looked right at home on the front steps of that spooky old place.

The school's central tower and front steps.

     Of course, as a child I knew nothing about the State School's mission or the daily lives of its residents. However, when riding my bike near the facility (most often along Charlotte Avenue, two blocks south of my home), I would often see the inhabitants walking around the campus grounds or sitting on the grass in the sun.

     Occasionally, an individual would appear by the fence at the edge of the campus and try to communicate. As I'd been warned by my mother never to approach the wrought-iron barrier, I usually pedaled away as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the resident would call out unintelligibly behind me or poke their hands through the fence to silently gesticulate. A frightening experience back then but only a melancholy memory today.

    Although my irrational fears about the intellectually disabled then seem woefully ignorant now, I blame my childhood unfamiliarity with their condition, combined with those dire parental warnings and the school's spooky architecture. As a result, just passing by the perimeter fence back then never failed to unsettle me, even if I saw no one on the grounds.

     Well, as they say, it's all grist for the mill. And so it was many years later, while outlining my novel, that I ended up combining those childhood stories about a haunted house up the hill with the Dracula's Castle-like State School property.

    This mash-up resulted in Aldeburgh's mysterious Webster House, a spooky Victorian mansion sitting on a vast estate behind a wrought-iron fence, on a hill just up the street from the home of Lizzie Stanton, the young heroine of my story. The mansion even has a massive three-story tower over on it's right side, capped with a pointed witch's-hat roof (just like the one at the old State School).

    In my novel, Lizzie's decision to investigate Webster House—a place long shrouded in rumor and mystery— will change her life in ways she cannot expect.

     There's more about the mansion and its mysterious owner in the dispatches to come.

     Note: The vast State School property (much changed today) is now known as Northside Park.

     ©  2020 SummitCityScribe


December 18, 2020

Dispatch #14: Hey Buddy, Can You Spare Some Empathy?

 

Fort Wayne's namesake, General "Mad" Anthony Wayne

      Warning: This is a long post.

     There was a debate in my hometown recently about whether to rename a north-south thoroughfare for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., replacing the current eponym, John C. Calhoun, a vocal supporter of slavery.

     One local citizen stated that he drove down Calhoun Street quite often and never once thought about slavery, nor did he feel most other people in town did, either. That, my friends, is a textbook example of White Privilege.

     For too many of my fellow Caucasians, the existence of a street named for Calhoun, a school named for Robert E. Lee, or even a statue of Jefferson Davis isn’t a painful reminder of our nation’s racist past, but simply dry, dead history, so why bother changing or removing it? Quit trying to erase history, they say. Sorry, folks, history isn’t going anywhere—see, it’s still right there in all those textbooks—but accolades and honors for bigots should get the boot.

     When these kinds of things are pointed out to people who share my pale complexion, their response is often: sorry, I don’t find it racist. Sigh. Look, it’s easy to know how you feel about something, but why not take a minute to imagine how someone else might feel? Try putting yourself in their shoes for a bit. Whatever happened to our sense of empathy?

     Try to imagine how it would be living with the knowledge that your ancestors suffered the horrors and indignities of slavery and then be confronted daily by symbols that either salute slave-owners or military leaders who fought to uphold that bondage. Sadly, for too many of our fellow citizens, that is asking too much

      Another local example is the new annual celebration honoring General “Mad” Anthony Wayne (our city’s namesake). Fort Wayne was named long ago, when the General’s vicious treatment of Native Americans and his unconscionable role as a slave-owner were, sadly, no barrier to that honor. For those who are interested, here's some background: 

https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/07/31/culture-wars-fort-wayne-373011

     While I realize it's unlikely the city’s name will ever change, why create a 21st century celebration for someone that we now know has such a questionable record as a human being? The only reasonable answer: the promotion of White Supremacy.

     That poisonous doctrine was hard-wired into this nation at its inception, so our challenge today is not just to reject it but to expunge it from all levels of our society. A good start would be by no longer celebrating and mythologizing our nation's racist past. In that respect, it's hard to see the creation of Anthony Wayne Day as anything but a victory for White Supremacists and a failure for the rest of us.

     General Wayne’s troubling legacy is one of the reasons I decided to use the name Aldeburgh for the city resembling Fort Wayne in my novel. The feelings I have for my hometown are decidedly mixed. I have many good memories of growing up here, but too often what I found lurking beneath the facade of my wholesome Midwest hometown was not mystery and wonder but ignorance, intolerance, and bigotry instead. I reference that dichotomy a bit in my story.

      Lizzie, the young white heroine of my novel, doesn’t face the same day-to-day issues as her African-American best friend Althea but, through empathy, she learns that life in Aldeburgh can be quite different depending on the color of one's skin.

     Which makes me return to the question I posed earlier: whatever happened to our sense of empathy? You see it today in people’s refusal to wear masks during the Covid-19 pandemic, claiming it’s a matter of personal freedom. Newsflash: wearing a mask to slow a viral outbreak that has killed over 300,000 of your fellow citizens is not about you—it’s about caring for the health and safety of others

     When I leave home now and spot a person without a mask, it’s like getting an instant readout of their Voight-Kampff test results: I don’t care about anybody but myself (that one's for all the Philip K. Dick fans out there). 

    Well, at least it's a quick way to let me know who to avoid: in the pre-pandemic days, you'd have to spend a few minutes with someone before you knew they were a selfish jerk. Now I just give all the mask-less folks I see a wide berth (and anyone wearing one of those red hats, too) and save myself some time.

     Look, I’m aware it was a decided lack of empathy that gave our planet things like bigotry, slavery, and genocide, but it seemed like in the post-World War Two and Civil Rights era, we were at least trying to do something about it. Lately, not so much. We can—and must—do better going forward.

© 2020 SummitCityScribe


December 13, 2020

Dispatch #13: Shock Theater

An ad for our local Shock Theater broadcast from the 1950s

        As a kid in the 1970s, I was obsessed with monsters: I watched classic Universal Horror Movies on TV, assembled Aurora Monster Model Kits and read Famous Monsters Of Filmland Magazine.

      On Saturday mornings, I would even watch the Groovy Ghoulies on CBS while eating a big bowl of the General Mills Monster Cereals (I liked them all, but Count Chocula was my favorite).

      The highlight of my week, though, were the late-night monster movies on WPTA-TV (our local ABC affiliate) which aired them under the name Shock Theater.

An ad for an NYC's Shock Theater, featuring legendary host Zacherley.

     Most were black & white chillers from the 1930s or 1940s like 1932's The Mummy or 1941’s The Wolfman, although 1950s sci-fi classics like It Came From Outer Space and Them! were sprinkled into the mix, too.

     The Shock film package debuted on American TV in the late 1950s to great success, and before long, there were Shock Theater broadcasts across the country, each with their own local horror-host.

      Fort Wayne's first version aired on WPTA in the late 1950s, hosted by Dr. Meridian. As that was before my time, I have no idea who played the good doctor, what he looked like, or if his hosting style was serious or campy.

     My Shock Theater host on WPTA in the 1970s was Asmodeus, portrayed by Jeff Gibson (who, in real life was an academic by day and only a TV Vampire by night). It was through those broadcasts that I first thrilled to Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster.

     Given my childhood monster obsession, it should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that Shock Theater makes an appearance in my novel. As it turns out, a love of spooky movies is what bonds my heroine, Lizzie, to her best friend, Althea, when they first meet back in the fourth grade.

     Naturally, the highlight of the girls' weekly slumber parties during the summer of 1975 is staying up to watch Count Mortius (their local horror-host) on Shock Theater, as seen on Aldeburgh's WADL-TV.

     Although they don't know it, it's the end of an era. A few months later, on October 11th, 1975, NBC's Saturday Night Live will premiere, causing most of those weekend monster shows to vanish from the airwaves. Back then, John Belushi and the other Not-Ready-For-Primetime-Players were the kiss of death for many local horror hosts.

As a kid, I watched TV on a B&W Motorola like the one pictured here.

      In my forthcoming novel, one can return to those bygone days when millions of Americans had access to only three television channels, and they watched them on boxy analog sets with the aid of rabbit-ear antennas. For some of my younger readers, I'm sure that sounds as bone-chilling as any Shock Theater broadcast.

     P.S.—I should note that Fort Wayne eventually had a third horror host in the 1980s when the Shroud—played by the late Don Paris— hosted WFFT's Nightmare Theater.

     More to come in the next dispatch...

     © 2020 SummitCityScribe


December 10, 2020

Dispatch #12: A Cat Named Fig

Fig, circa 1972
The Real Fig, circa 1972.

      When I was growing up on Fort Wayne’s north side, we had a variety of pets at home, including cats, dogs, goldfish and even a turtle. Looking back, two in particular stand out in my memory: a beagle/boxer mix named Barney, and a sleek black feline named Fig. 

      Barney the dog had the run of our fenced-in back yard, while Fig the cat would come and go from our house as he pleased, with the entire neighborhood as his domain.

      In my novel, I also wanted my young protagonist, Lizzie Stanton, to have a pet. After deciding to give her a cat, I recreated Fig in print. The book is set in 1975, after all, and the cat’s name had always struck me as very 1970s.

      As a child, I'd always believed it was somehow connected to Nabisco’s Fig Newtons (remember that old TV commercial featuring actor James Harder as Big Fig? Watch him sing the Fig Newton jingle on YouTube and it'll be stuck in your head for days). 

      Years later, an older sister revealed the true origin of Fig's unusual moniker: he'd been named after a character in an episode of The Mod Squad. Curiously, although our Fig was male, the Fig in the episode was actually a girl. I guess my sister just liked the name, and hey, it was the 70s.

Ad for the January 20th, 1970 Mod Squad episode featuring Fig.

      Although our Fig was an indoor/outdoor pet, he was always very affectionate when in the house with us, and never aloof. Once, when we’d left the board game Aggravation temporarily unattended on the living room floor, a playful Fig batted several of the marbles around, with some disappearing down heating vents, never to be seen again. 

     In my story, Lizzie mentions a version of this incident to her friend Althea as they prepare to play the same board game during a Saturday-night slumber party.

      The real Fig may be long gone, but his furry twin now appears in the pages of my novel, usually curled up atop the bookcase in Lizzie’s bedroom or at the foot of her bed. He was (and is again) a great cat.

     More in the next dispatch. 

    © 2020 SummitCityScribe