Sorcerer-historians and hunted boats

No joke: author Erik Larson could write a book about paint drying and I would read it.

Little-to-no hyperbole, Larson is an honest-to-God time traveler, a sorcerer-historian hybrid that probably secretly knows more about wormholes and space-time than Einstein, Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. His historical narrative books read more like eyewitness accounts than simple history. He seems to have some kind of magic microscope or magnifying glass, some absurd relic you’d see on “Dr. Who” that can be placed over photos and documents from the world’s archives and historical societies and transport the user to the moment in question.

He’s also seemingly fascinated with a very specific period in history, namely a 50-year span between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I. “The Devil in the White City” is about the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 (and the serial killer H.H. Holmes who worked in a self-made house of horrors nearby).

“Thunderstruck” is about how the invention of wireless telegraphy played a role in the apprehension of a London murder suspect fleeing for the U.S. across the Atlantic, a tale that runs from the late 1800s up through 1910 or so.

“Isaac’s Storm,” set in September 1900, tells of the deadliest hurricane in history, how it rocked Galveston, Texas, left thousands dead, and changed the way we think about weather’s humbling assaults and preparation.

“In the Garden of Beasts,” a chilling view into Nazi Germany set at the dawn of World War II, is obviously a departure from his usual time period of choice, but close enough.

Larson’s latest and greatest, “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania,” is another feather in his already-loaded time traveler’s cap. It tells of the infamous sinking of a famed commercial ocean liner by Germany’s Unterseeboot-20 and how it rocked the world.

Here’s part of the book’s intro, the line that double-sold me:

“I thought I knew everything there was to know about the incident, but, as so often happens when I do deep research on a subject, I quickly realized how wrong I was. Above all, I discovered that burned in the muddled details of the affair – deliberately muddled, in certain aspects – was something simple and satisfying: a very good story.”

Sold. Take my money.

I’ve only just begun, started the account of the fabled journey just this week, and am in the midst of learning about the ship’s captain, the esteemed William Turner. (Fun fact: he also served as commander of the Carpathia, the ship that would, under a different captain in 1912, come to the rescue of many who’d just suffered through another infamous maritime disaster on a ship called Titanic.)

Then came today, the 100th anniversary of the Lusitania sinking.

Totally unintentional. My timing is awesome, basically. The history teaching stars aligned, probably at sorcerer-historian Larson’s own hand.

But he didn’t stop there. In true sorcerer-historian form, Larson “live Tweeted” the ship’s departure and sinking this week. Chronologically.

You know, like any modern-day Internet addict would if the ship had sunk a century later than it did. Here’s one of his many Tweets:

Crazy how a single Tweet can send actual goosebumps up my back.

It’s an interesting contrast, really; this sorcerer-historian who lashed together a maritime suspense story using historic documents, logs, journals, archive photos, newspapers and other sources, then utilized a method of contemporary, digital record-keeping to retell the nightmarish account in 140-character installments.

Almost like he’s saying, “See, it doesn’t matter how you tell this story, it’s haunting and horrifying and unbelievable any way you slice it.”


One more quick thing.

To make the Lusitania sinking even closer to home, I give you Miss Dorothy Connors, of Medford, a passenger on the boat the day U-20 slithered through the Atlantic’s black waters and attacked like a robot shark.

From the Mail Tribune, May 7, 1915:

“Miss Dorothy Connors of this city sailed on the Lusitania for England to act in a unit of the English Red Cross as a nurse. Miss Connors left Medford three weeks ago, and is well known among the younger set. A message from her to her relatives in this valley as to her safety is expected. A mother in delicate health and a brother, Boudinot, live near Jacksonville.”

Here’s a headline from the following day, one that must have been a relief to family and friends:

Connors was one of 764 passengers who escaped with their life. Close to 1,200 would die.

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The prodigal Watterson

Here’s how some of the first few lines of my new book go:

“I grew up in Chagrin Falls, which is a small town, an outer suburb of Cleveland. It was originally a mill town in the 1800s, and a paper-bag factory was still going when I was growing up. They used to dump their dyes right in the river, so as a kid I remember seeing the river turn red and so on, if you can believe it.”

Then, a few paragraphs down:

“Our house was on a one-acre lot, at the outskirts of the village, with a big woods behind us. We didn’t own the woods, but it extended all the way to the river, and you couldn’t see an end to it. Our yard dropped continuously from the back door to the woods, so it was a truly fabulous sledding hill.”

And finally:

“Sometimes in the [comic] strip I tried to illustrate those big empty summer days spent messing around. It seems very anachronistic now that kids’ lives are organized to the minute.” 

Pop quiz: Who do these recollections belong to?

If you said “Calvin and Hobbes” creator Bill Watterson, you’re brilliant. That or you’ve recently purchased “Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue,” just released this month.

It isn’t the same kind of book I purchased as a precocious tween, the collections of newspaper strips that told the story of an imaginative 6-year-old and his stuffed tiger. This one’s more of a melange, a hybrid of biography, art and nostalgia. It’s the privacy-valuing Mr. Watterson opening up in a way die hard fans didn’t think was possible without hypnosis or a truth serum.

The book begins with a thoughtful interview conducted by Jenny Robb of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum of Ohio State University, followed by additional chapters on the creative process. Mr. Watterson discusses his utility belt of tools and materials, the storytelling process, and the daily grind; other equally fascinating gears in the Grandfather Clock of Creativity.

This is, finally, the Wizard of Calvin deciding to pull back the curtain and reveal himself.

Dec. 31, 1995

“Exploring Calvin and Hobbes” is on my desk right now. It’s marked with a laminated comic strip, the final one, the famous one with that famous line that ends the strip’s 10-year run: “Let’s go exploring!”

I cut that strip out from my hometown paper, the Colorado Springs Gazette, when I was 12. It was New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 1995.

That was actually a sad day, not an ounce of hyperbole. I devoured the newspaper comics as a kid, and “Calvin and Hobbes” was first on the daily regimen. We had two full pages devoted to comics – wait for it – BACK THEN (ugh), and it was in the section’s top left corner, either above or below “Dilbert.” Turn two pages of the “Lifestyle” section and there it was, the next bit of Calvin’s story.

This was comparable to eating dessert before dinner, and I didn’t care. It was the only strip on those two pages I actually loved. Others I just liked. Others I read out of this strange sense of almost habitual obligation, never mind their dull characters or hasty art or flaccid jokes.

Then came Dec. 31, 1995, the day that felt like a funeral to a weird 12-year-old that talked to himself and made up stories in the splash of sunlit forest behind his house and wasn’t very interested in much else.

Old friends, new friends 

I continued to remember the comic strip fondly. It scarred me, really, became the one that got away.

I’d abandon newspaper comics entirely. Eventually, all comics for the most part. They became a back burner hobby, something I’d poke with a stick every once in awhile before hiding it and turning back to newer flashier things like track and cross country, school, girls.

I found a renewed vigor for the medium in college; mostly superheroes at first, then finite stories that burned along at a slower churn. Mr. Watterson and Calvin stayed on my mind, invisible tattoos that never really healed properly and always needed touching up. Some of the strips morphed into weird, minute-or-so church sermons.

I’d find friends affected by the characters in the same way. Our mutual fondness helped open the door. It was weird, discovering there are others who still have a majority of the strip dialogue memorized and can still find the same kind of warmth in the art and stories.

And I think we all, at times, wondered what Mr. Watterson was up to; how he was faring almost 20 years after he’d written the epilogue to something so timeless and beautiful that we never really got over it.

Welcome home

One of these friends tipped me off to “Exploring Calvin and Hobbes.” He told me last week, via a Washington Post story.

I bought it the next day, only just started reading it.

Why I waited is pretty clear. I think I’m wanting to make it last, really. It’s a 20-year reunion, after all, with characters who aren’t real but feel quite the opposite, whom I care for dearly. The book’s going to end, so I want to soak it in; every word, every angle.

There’s wisdom in there, just like before. The once quiet Mr. Watterson is now on record as having said things like this, a statement about the woods surrounding his childhood home – woods that sound kind of like a grander version of the ones I played in when I wasn’t reading “Calvin and Hobbes” – that seems to be more about discovery:

“To be honest, we didn’t tramp around the woods all that much. Because it was low and heading toward the river, it was somewhat marshy and brambly. You’d get stuck full of prickers or tangled in brush, with your feet starting to sink into muck. We’d venture in occasionally, but it’s not like I was Christopher Robin. But I loved having that much nature around us. It mitigated the suburban feel, which I imagine is why my parents chose the property. Having something a bit wild and mysterious and beautiful at the end of the yard was a memorable thing.” 

No, no, it’s fine. I’ve just got something in my eye.

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Artists, unsung

My childhood science fiction education was very rich and thorough, thanks to my father.

His teaching methodology was simple enough. You probably have movie/book enthusiasts in your life who do something similar:

1) Ask me if I’ve seen/read something.

2) If I haven’t, put it in front of me ASAP.

He did this with books by Asimov, Clarke and Larry Niven. It was the same on movie front, mostly 80s to early 90s cyber punk ballads. ‘Blade Runner,’ the first two ‘Terminator’ movies, ‘Alien,’ ‘Aliens.’

So basically anything Ridley Scott or James Cameron.

“You gotta read/watch this, Ry.”

It wasn’t just that he viewed these books films through a wide angle lens of fondness; he asserted their importance in the genre, the marks they made.

There were three films from a certain ‘Star Trek’ franchise – you may have heard of it – on this list, too, specifically the second, third and fourth movies in the original run of films: ‘The Wrath of Khan,’ ‘The Search For Spock,’ ‘The Voyage Home.’

It’s very difficult to discuss these films without dropping spoilers, so if you haven’t seen them, just know this “trilogy” of sorts starts with a major shakeup, that every other plot point revolves, in some way, around it.

My dad passed on his love of these films to me. (The sixth film in the original film series, ‘The Undiscovered Country,’ is also magnificent.)

So imagine my genuine surprise at learning one of the key figures behind the camera of those three ‘Star Trek’ films had been living in the Rogue Valley for several years and passed away two weeks ago.

Producer Harve Bennett, of Ashland and Jacksonville, was 84 years old when he died Feb. 25 at Providence Medford Medical Center. Bennett is credited as one in a handful of people who saved ‘Star Trek’ from fading away after the first film hit the silver screen. It did well financially, but didn’t wow a lot of the fans. Bennett changed the game up with ‘Wrath of Khan,’ and the series soldiered on, popular and acclaimed as ever.

This is the second time I wrote about a sci-fi film’s unsung hero passing away in Jackson County. Previously, I wrote such a story about Morgan Paull of ‘Blade Runner.’

Paull played Holden, a character tasked with zeroing in on artificial humans — or “replicants,” who were created and used for slave labor out in space but outlawed on Earth — and using oral tests before “retiring” them. (See also: ‘Kill.’)

Paull delivers a famous line from the movie – “You know what a turtle is?” – during such a test.

There’s something that’s made me a bit more pensive about the passings of Bennett and Paull, more than, say, the recent death of ‘Star Trek’s’ Leonard Nimoy or the recent near-death of ‘Blade Runner’s’ Harrison Ford. Maybe it’s because I think all four men deserve the same sort of recognition.

The masses remember Leonard Nimoy, send good thoughts to an injured Harrison Ford. The geeks and fanboys remember people like Bennett and Paull, and our appreciation runs much deeper, I think.

So rest in peace, Harve Bennett. My dad will never be at a loss of things to say about the art you helped create.

Me either, really.

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Happiest birthday to the dearest of Seusses

This can’t be coincidence, the books I’ve been reading.

The words my kid’s hearing, the art she’s been seeing.

For the past three nights straight, I have introduced

My daughter to a man pseudonym’d Dr. Seuss.

See, a relative’s moving, limiting what he took.

And he happened, by chance, to find this old book.

A tome with six stories Dr. Seuss drew and penned.

“This is for Bethany,” he quite plainly said.

He handed it over, and we took it with glee.

Some new books to read kiddo, and guess what? They’re free.

We started immediately, dipped in our feet.

Now my daughter’s visited ‘Mulberry Street.’

‘The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins’

Was next on the list. Simply put, kiddo loved it.

‘Horton Hatches the Egg,’ was book number three.

Then ‘Yertle the Turtle.’ Then the Lorax’s trees.

The latter’s my favorite; it’s a dark, heavy read.

I’m totally #TeamTree. Thumbs down to #TeamThneed.

Lastly came Who-ville’s kleptomaniac Grinch.

Yes, Christmas was months ago, but it did in a pinch.

Then we come to today, when a scan of the news

Informed me that it is a day for Doc Seuss.

You see, it’s his birthday, his hundred-eleventh.

I couldn’t have planned this. It felt like a present.

A reminder of sorts on the art he imparted,

How it’s not just for kids, to be read and discarded.

Whether you’re six months, or 31 years.

His work stands the test of time. That much is clear.

So happiest birthday to the dearest of docs.

You’ve a new fan to deal with, and she can’t even talk.

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Dark house

It’s been more than nine years since the dark house in the woods burned down. Still, it haunts me.

This is one of those stories where you have to have faith that I’m not messing with you. I can’t offer exhibits or evidence beyond the few photos that I took of the house in Colorado’s Black Forest, the one that looked like a last stand set in a zombie movie.

This is a campfire story, and all campfire stories – the ones you swear are true – have that “trust me” component. And that trust gets taken advantage of a bit at times, let’s be honest. Stories evolve. Hearing footsteps in a dark basement can easily turn into hearing a dusty chuckle and being almost certain you saw the dull lamplight of ghost eyes winking there. They’re stretched truths, legends, but they’re not intentional.

Because memory is ice cream at room temperature. It melts down. Details go murky. Frozen, sturdy certainty eventually becomes a soupy puddle; basic structure intact, but with details pooling.

I don’t like to do that when I talk about the house. It’s a story with details I don’t want to try and re-freeze.

Enough people had done that to the house already. Even before it burned down, whatever really happened there had distorted into something that cast some pretty horrific shadows.

My interactions with this fabled monument in the woods are no dramatic yarn. There’s no structured plot, no formulaic beginning-middle-end, no slasher-movie scares. The structure’s eeriness was in its quiet, the way it always seemed to be staring at me with dark eyes whenever I ventured there, how it plagued my dreams.

How, silently and with a vicious smile, I always felt it beckoning me to come back and stay forever.

“Have you ever heard about Hell House?”

It started with last-minute shopping. It was the summer of 2005, the night before Fathers Day. I was home for the summer, a few months away from starting my senior year at Southern Oregon University.

My brother Blake and I, being the slackers that we were – are? – had yet to snag some presents for my father, including the regular gift of pistachios he loves so much. We traveled from our dad’s house in northern Colorado Springs to the nearby suburb of Monument. It’s a charming little town that abuts up against the Black Forest. It reminds me of Talent, that sort of “Ashland Lite” coziness.

We swiped the necessary supplies and climbed back into the 1991 Toyota Camry that used to be mine but had changed hands the year before when I bought my truck, the 2004 Ford Ranger I’m still driving. I drove.

Blake turned to me and asked the question: “Have you ever heard of Hell House?”

No. I hadn’t. I think I’d remember a moniker like that. My brother, who occasionally looks an awful lot like me, filled me in.

There’s a dark house in the woods, he told me. Bad things happened there.

Like…like what?

His campfire story already had its hooks in. I was ready to believe.

The yarn he spun was awful. It concerned a family who lived there and the child they abused, how their beatings accidentally killed the child and how they took their own lives afterward in a fit of ill-timed guilt. The house in the woods – their house – stayed up. No bulldozers or dynamite took it out.

Oh, and some of the things – I think he used the word devices –  they used to hurt the kid are still there.

I’ve been there before, he told me, several times. It’s messed up.

Wanna go?

I didn’t believe him at first. Sure, let’s go to your “haunted house,” dude. Let’s visit this cliche in the middle of the woods.

“You’re not going to want to go in.”

We drove from Monument into the Black Forest, toward the residence of myth, headlights cutting through the night as the pine trees blurred together in an eerie stutter of green. The dark made the sprawl of woods seem lonely, not even a place ghosts would care to meander through.

“When you see this house, you’re not going to want to go in,” my brother told me.

I nodded, didn’t say the “Whatever,” that sounded in my mind. Because of course he was still full of it at this point. This was still some prank or joke. There was no house. He’d end this charade by having me drive around in circles, promising, “It’s around here somewhere” or something until we gave up and went home.

Then he told me the driveway was going to jump out at me, that it was buried and hard to see. I needed to be ready. I slowed a bit, my headlights still stabbing through the darkness.

“Here,” he eventually said, pointing. “Here. Here.

I slowed almost to a stop and turned left. He wasn’t wrong. The “driveway” was hidden, a gap in the trees that was almost invisible by any standard. The Camry left the pavement and crunched on gravel.

The house was at the end.

It was a sprawling two-story in the middle of a bare patch of wildland. Either trees had been pulled up at one time or they just were giving the dark house a wide berth. Neither would have surprised me. A small guest house lurked nearby. Pine needles and dirt carpeted the surrounding space. The electric lights of neighboring houses were far-off, little punctures of light that barely twinkled – the way stars look in big cities.

Blake was right. I didn’t want to go in. The house looked out of place in the way roadkill does, misplaced and sad to look at, flat-out horrifying if you stare long enough.

Of course we didn’t have any flashlights in the car. There were two lighters, though, the Bic kind. In my days of youthful indiscretion, I liked to tug the metal components off the top, light the exposed vapor nozzle and make tire-sized fireballs in nightswept empty parking lots with pals. Years later, I’d be reporting on arsons in the city of Medford, Ore., with a vicious regularity

We each took an un-detonated lighter and walked toward the house, the gravel crunching under our feet.

Blake said, “Don’t touch anything.”

I said, “OK.”

We pushed through the front door, tiny flames swaying.

“Let’s get out of here.” 

The front hallway was impossibly narrow, almost maze-like, how I imagine Claustrophobia Hell is laid out. The room at the end was covered in curling wallpaper peppered with yellowing balloons. My lighter’s small flame danced across it. I looked at the closet, at the metal bars that eclipsed where the sliding doors should have been.

I felt sick to my stomach at the sight. Was the story my brother told me true? Did a child live in here, confined to a cell? The contrast of a prison with so many withering balloons felt like a nightmare, a room in a Resident Evil video game level. Blake and I moved on.

The house felt like the end result of seven different architects who’d reached a compromise: each of you design a section and we’ll connect them in disproportionate, awkward splendor. Legos for drunks.

Squatters had been here. Filthy, saturated mattresses and piles of soiled clothing had been left behind. The walls screamed profanity, written in streaks that could have been, well, anything. Yeah, even that.

We saw the garage and the piles of clothing, bicycles, books, furniture and garbage that had stacked up. We thought we heard something – a breath, a gasp maybe, nothing maybe – and ran back outside.

Blake showed me the shed.

It felt slapped on, too. I saw an old generator, dead for years, and the wires that ran from it out the back of the structure. I saw the basement, the broken steps that surely led down to a horrid room with swinging meat hooks and bloody walls. There was also a door, the brick wall seven or eight inches back and the dance of nails that had been plunged through the wood.

Solitary, maybe? The timeout corner? Misbehave and you get locked in? Move and you get scratched by an opus of tetanusy spikes?

My stomach lurched again. We walked back outside. Blake had one more thing to show me. Of course he did. Bad news comes in threes.

We walked into the forest behind the house. Hibernating scenes from ‘The Blair Witch Project’ awoke and slammed down a few Americanos. Beasts were suddenly everywhere, hiding in the trees and tall grasses and clicking their sharper parts together.

A worn chair shimmered out of the dark. Its place among so much overgrown vegetation was odd and uncomfortable, just like the house. The wires from a nearby electric fence running into it, the wrist and ankle straps, made it worse. Blake started to explain. He didn’t need to. I knew an attempt at a makeshift electric chair when I saw one.

I’d had it. The whole scene seemed like it was starting to close in on me. Like we’d walked into a drawing and the artist had started to crumple it up before chucking it in the garbage. Voices demanded answers in my head. Did something this awful actually happen here? Was a person tortured and killed? Was this all at the hands of some elaborate jokester with too much time on their hands? Where were they? Why would they do all this?

Something interrupted the frantic questions.

This is the part where I tell you I can’t remember what exactly.

I want to tell you we saw a light on in the house, but that’s impossible. A lightbulb burning in a house the world had given up on – where power has been cut – is impossible.

Flashlight? Had we walked right past someone who’d been hiding in the dark before? Is this sudden presence of light in the house an attempt to fill in the blank for this part of the story? I already told you I wouldn’t do that.

Safe to say my brother and I saw something, heard something that finally made us afraid enough to leave. I wish I could remember and tell you with certainty, something more concrete than: “Maybe we saw a light in the house.”

Whatever it was, we were spooked.

“Let’s get out of here,” Blake said.


We shuffled to car and rocketed down the driveway. I was fighting actual tears. We left the forest and dark house behind. I saw the dancing lights of Colorado Springs as we hopped back onto I-25. It felt like looking at 1,000 night lights. It was warm and safe and the opposite of everything we’d seen.


I went back. A lot.

I took friends, acted as the tour guide my brother had been on our first outing. He lost interest, I think. See the scene of where something awful happened enough times, its eerie luster eventually fades, I guess.

It didn’t for me. I took friends, co-workers. I went at night, during the day.

Have you ever felt like you’re being watched? Gotten that prickle down your back that feels like a fresh slick of ice cocooning your spine? I did at this house. Every time.

I invented stories of what happened, started from scratch and completely erased the tales I’d been told. It wasn’t fun and games, some kooky, spooky Halloween fun. This was need, craving, necessity. I’d feel incomplete if I couldn’t figure out what happened inside Hell House. Why was there a cage in the kid’s room closet? Why was there a door with bricks and nails? Why was there a chair with straps hooked into a flaccid electric fence?

I called a local historical society and left a message. Local police, too. No one called me back. My tinfoil hat came out.

Something horrible did happen there. And they want to bury it. That had to be it. Never a thought that they might be busy with other things and that I sounded like a bumbling conspiracy theorist who’d had a few shots before he called.

Fine. I didn’t need them. I’d figure this out on my own. My delusional obsession became my drug of choice, and I shot up almost daily.

I dreamed about the house. Details of the nightmares escape me nine years later, but I do remember I was in it, that it was dark and I heard someone saying something to me in all that dark, that I couldn’t find them.

I awoke in actual darkness at 3 a.m. during one of these reveries. I watched movies until the sun came up and turned lots of lights on.

“It’s gone.”

This was also the summer I went to Germany.

It was a two-week jaunt of amazing beer and food, beautiful countrysides and charming mountain towns. I ran along the Rhine River, in the hills above a township called Königswinter where I saw a graveyard with a field of markers that were tilted and cracked and smothered in moss. Some of the birth and death dates were more than 400 years old.

I all but forgot about dark houses and the dreams they sewed in my head.

When I arrived home, Blake and my mom picked me up at the airport. We were driving home when Blake told me the news.

“Did you hear about Hell House?” he asked.


“It burned down. It’s gone.”



He didn’t know how. We didn’t say anything else about it the rest of the ride home.


I made my final drive to Hell House a couple nights later. I took two friends with me. We’re all married now, and two of us have kids. We were single thrill seekers that night, eager to see the carnage I’d been promised.

We ducked under new strands of “No Trespassing” tape stretched across the long driveway and walked up to nothing. The dark house had been picked clean. Only a few bones remained, twists of metal and ugly gashes of burned wood. I could still smell the carbon charring.

I stood on the rubble in the house’s old center, glanced about. The feeling I’d had of being watched so many times was gone.

I don’t remember what the three of us said. The word “Crazy” was probably used. We likely asked each other how we thought it happened and offered theoretical responses. You know, like I’d done when it was still standing.

I gave a quick glance in the rear view mirror as we left. The twisting road embroidered with trees gave way to the lights of Monument and Colorado Springs.

We drove into the city and never went back into the woods. To this day, I don’t know how the fire started.

The house that time built

Hell House became the story I’d tell. I’d embellish a bit, certainly, polish it and make it sparkle. I don’t know why. The story of the dark house that gave me nightmares and eventually burned down stands on its own.

It’s been nine years, and it’s still in my thoughts. I wrote a full-length horror screenplay called ‘Cry Amy’ based on what I experienced. It’s based around the idea that some mysteries – the unsettling, unsolvable kind – are impossible to leave alone. So much so that sometimes we fill in the blanks with fiction, with guesses. We may even believe that conjecture if we say it often enough.

I won’t do that with the house. Not anymore. There’s no end to it. Sometimes you have to choose sanity over knowledge and set phantom theories free.

Sometimes houses just go empty and burn down in the night and can’t be rebuilt.

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‘Gotham’: Pace thyself

I tuned into the pilot episode of “Gotham” with zero apprehension last night.

Why would I? Conceptually, the Batman origin story TV series had me at hello.

“Let’s not just go back to the beginning,” the storytellers seemed to say in the ads. “We need to loiter awhile.

“But this origin story needs to be different in its focus. It needs to be on James Gordon. Tormented, torn hero cop whose relationship with Batman in his later years is as complicated as it gets, perhaps the way an agnostic views God. Let’s break his youth open like a pinata and see what falls out. The baddies, too. Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman. (Joker?) Documenting their respective descents into madness/whatever onscreen seems overdue.”


Take my money, take my time, “Gotham.” You have my undivided attention. I sat and held my sleeping month-old daughter as the pilot episode began.

Then it was over. Then I did get apprehensive. This show, this slick, demented concept about a dark city and its denizens seemed to finish with a dull puff when I’d been anticipating fireworks. Dark, shadowy fireworks. There were here-and-there moments, to be sure. Glimmers of hope. Enough to keep me in my chair.

But that was it. I’d sat down expecting to be chewed up by this city and the things that lurked in it. Instead, watching felt like more of an obligation, a line item to be checked on a Batman fan’s to-do list.

In the words of every parent: “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.” “Gotham” wasn’t an F. More of a C, but a C when you were positive an A was in your future. I think the latter may be more discouraging.

I’ve had a few hours to digest why I feel the way I do, and think I have it pinned down. One word keeps popping up.

“Pacing.” The finesse component of storytelling. The balance of too much and too little. In my demanding, Batman-elitist opinion, it is “Gotham’s” major flaw.

Most know Batman’s origin story already, so the following isn’t exactly a spoiler: Parents gunned down in an alley while a young Bruce Wayne watches; the event is an anecdote of Gotham’s general horribleness; Bruce decides to take matters into his own hands, to become one with the darkness to fight it.

But, and this is key, to show the devastation of a killing that would put one on a path like that, the relationship between the murder victims and their young son would need to be seen much more clearly. “Gotham” doesn’t do that. A couple scant minutes in, the murder happens. Thomas and Martha Wayne are there, and then they’re not. It’s awful, awful, awful, but because I knew nothing about their relationship with their son, the gut-wrenching sympathy I’d expect to have wasn’t there. It felt more like a necessary hurdle to get to the next chapter than a tear-your-heart-out moment of sadness and despair.

Then it just keeps happening. Some characters felt dropped into the spotlight, not offered. Here’s - *clunk* – Oswald Cobblepot. Here’s  - *shove* – Edward Nygma. Alfred Pennyworth. Selina Kyle. Remember these guys?

Rapid fire. This marathon story felt very much like a sprint. I felt dragged, not led.

A few points, just to be fair.

1) I am, apparently, in the minority. A quick glance at the Rotten Tomatoes website shows that, thus far, a majority of critics and audiences are sold. About 95 percent of its reviews from professional critics are positive, while 88 percent of viewers gave it a thumbs-up.

2) My high expectations may have clouded reality. This is the nerd in me talking; the near-perfection demanding, takes-it-too-seriously weirdo who gets upset over things like this. Batman is in a different class when it comes to comic book heroes; he’s the standard when it comes to heroism, the elite; and I so, so want other people to understand why. Christopher Nolan’s recent Dark Knight Trilogy did that for a lot of non-comic readers, especially the first two installments.

3) The show is not without its charms. The landscape of “Gotham” is wonderful, a sprawling tapestry of shadowy buildings, lonely alleys and dim streetlights, primed perfectly for a bad guy uprising. Robin Lord Taylor, who plays Oswald Cobblepot – The Penguin before he was The Penguin – was a great choice for the role. Cory Michael Smith, Edward Nygma’s portrayer, was also very interesting to watch in his brief moment on screen. Looking forward to seeing more of them both.

So while I was somewhat underwhelmed by the first page turn in this origin story’s origin story, we are just getting started. Of course I’ll be back next week, maybe checking a few heightened expectations at the door this time.

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I may own the Batcave, but that doesn’t mean I built it

Here’s a basic story premise for you, one I’m sure you could tie to a number of books or movies: “A family moves into a new house and begins to discover things about it.”

You’ve already thought of one or two I’m sure. “Poltergeist” is probably in there. “The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe,” maybe.

The reason for that oft-used plot is clear to me now. Stories about previous home owners are almost impossible not to stumble upon.

My wife and I began to move into our first house this weekend. I spent most of that time on the floor, ripping up carpet and pulling up hundreds of staples. My father-in-law joined me, cracking a hammer against pry bars to remove sub-flooring in the front entry and kitchen, all an effort to prep the now-bare boards for new flooring and carpet.

A pile of stuff sat quietly while we worked. We first found the arrangement in the garage. It revealed itself in dramatic slow motion after I compressed the button on our garage door opener and we stood in the driveway and watched it slide back.

The motley of items looked prepped for transport, all pushed into a corner and stacked with Tetris precision. We saw a few key ones at first glance: a small TV, a nice oak entertainment center, a couch, some odd framed maps that looked like they belonged on the walls of a downtown antique shop.

Ours now, we guessed, yard sale highlights we could use to help pay for a washer and dryer.

And then they were forgotten. We had work to do, after all, floors to murder.

Well, some of us forgot anyway. My mother-in-law drifted back out at some point. She started going through the piles, pulled open the attic’s step-down ladder and climbed up to peer into the semi-dark blizzard of insulation. She started making discoveries.

Here’s a khaki-colored Smith-Corona typewriter. Still in its hard plastic case. Still works. Dibs.

And over here, a slide projector. You know, ancient Microsoft Power Point, complete with slides. Still in good condition.

A 1920 mixer. A vintage meat grinder. A record collection, neatly arranged.

Our garage is an antique store start-up cache, it seems. My mother-in-law took to it like an archaeologist to the just-discovered ruins of a city. She looked like a pro while studying them, too, peering through a magnifying glass to identify the tiny writing on some pieces at some points, calling up values on her smartphone during others.

“This fascinates me,” she told me at one point. No joke: her eyes twinkled. Kid in a candy shop. Me at a comic con.

The contrast of that moment strikes me. I spent my weekend erasing a structure’s history while she waded through a pond of its artifacts.

I’ve never been much of a “stuff” guy. My back prickles watching TV shows like ‘Hoarders.’ Having even what feels like an iota of too many things – well, comics excluded, of course – feels suffocating. Sit-and-collect-dust items are not welcome, only the useful inanimate.

Sometimes that philosophy gets a tad out of control, though. This weekend revealed that. My focus was on a new chapter, on putting my mark on this home. And never mind the stories it already had to tell.

Sitting here now, it makes me think of comic book writers, how they’re oft-tasked with telling stories using a character they didn’t invent. They can manipulate, distort, and twist, but ultimately the same foundation stays, history and all. Batman celebrates his 75th anniversary as a character this year, and new stories are still being crafted. And those responsible for the newest chapters, the ones who do it the best anyway, are cognizant of everything that came before. You can reboot all you want in comics, but the previous yarns don’t disappear.

Maybe that’s the takeaway, if there is such a thing to this little prologue on my first house. What happened there before the Pfeils moved in will always lurk in the hallways, rooms and yard, ghosts of a sort.

When it comes to our story, we’re not starting from scratch. We’re a page turn, a sequel.

Not building over, but upon.

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Origin Story: Noticeable vacancy

This is the eighth installment in a series of entries about the arrival of my first child. 

Dear Bethany,

Running clears my head, especially when I can do it close to the ocean. Especially when it’s morning.

The lazy hiss of the saltwater flushes out the usual clogs of to-do lists and what-if treatises. The smears of fog that roll off the gray-blue palette help align my focus. No joke: Those lazy waves that stumble ashore and drift back out take the worst pieces of me with them.

That environment beckoned during a recent trip to Seaside. A close friend — he’ll be a dad two months after me — came along.

We tromped over the sand and watched the gray morning go brighter and listened to the gulls. The sleep left our eyes with each foot thud.

He blurted an idea: “We need to make this trip an annual thing.”

“Oh, absolutely,” I said.

Then we talked about that trip, how you and his child will be present. Right there, likely on our shoulders or in our arms, perhaps even stumbling along at our side.


This isn’t a revelation. Of course I’ve known you’re en route. You’ll be here in less than six weeks. I’ve been counting down, my own slow-motion spaceship launch. You’ve inspired plenty of writing while I wait. I’ve typed up my thoughts on your heartbeat, your kicks, your mom, etc.

But something strange has been happening as we approach the final stretch; life is starting to feel incomplete without you. Spaces once perfectly suited to being vacant are starting to feel emptier, vaster.

Quiet is eerie. Uninterrupted sleep is fascinating. I am more and more aware of luxuries. I can come home from work, throw on a pair of running shoes and hit the Bear Creek Greenway. Just … go. No schedule to keep for a couple hours, no grandma or day care from which to pick you up. No diapers or shot-glass jars of creamed bananas.

Your uncle recently told me to savor this. Other parents have said the same. Cherish these “just-you” moments, they say.

Well, OK. That’s sweet on some level, well-intentioned. It also makes me a tad uneasy, because there’s a hint of dead-man-walkin’ in what they say; happy and proud I’ve come this far, but I’m apparently also shuffling toward the edge of a plank, the toothy maw of the Sarlacc pit from “Return of the Jedi” yawning below me.

Yes, they adore their own children but, man, they helped them break ground on new levels of patience and love.

A co-worker told me he can’t remember life before his son was born. It’s a dream, nothing more, details and angles forgotten when he awoke. I guess that makes me a lucid dreamer, aware this waiting period is a reverie, ready to open my eyes.

To you, the hungry, helpless rooster in my house that doesn’t need the dawn for an excuse to crow. Someone who is counting on others completely.

There’s a Captain America story where he ends up in an apocalyptic alternate dimension, saves a young boy named Ian and basically adopts him. They stumble through the wastes together, survival is a daily ordeal.

“Can’t afford fear. Not now. Ian is counting on me to get him out of this,” Cap thinks as he lies in front of a dying campfire, Ian slumbering nearby. Until he gets hungry or afraid, perhaps, and awakens in the dark, demanding conciliation.

You’ll be that way for a bit, Bethany. It’s nothing you can change. Getting to know you, learning how you function the first few months of your life will be nonstop and include a series of night classes.

But I’m looking forward to those times, kid. Really. A friend told me some of his fondest memories are of being awakened at 3 a.m. and holding his daughter against him while her cries turned to whimpers and then went as silent as the rest of the dark house.

He cherishes those days of sleeplessness, of realizing first-time fatherhood is unyielding and really just a series of best guesses.

The next time I hit the beach for that morning run and listen to the beautiful sighs of those waves, I’ll likely be exhausted, maybe even convince myself I’ll be unable to go. But then you’ll start sleeping through the night. Then you’ll take your first steps.

One morning, you may wake with me and ask if you can come along, if you can trot on the sea-packed sands and watch the water dance. Maybe one day when you aren’t so helpless anymore, you’ll start leaving me in the dust, laugh as I suck wind and try to slow my stuttering heart.

Or maybe not. Maybe you stay behind and sleep, and I continue this apparently yearly ritual solo. Either way, you’ll likely need me less and less with each day that passes.

That day will come when I get back from the run, soaked in sweat and sea mist, and you won’t be there. In college or married or saving the world, living your own life and able to sleep for more than two hours at a time. Beautiful and kind and decent and curious.

And gone, those “just-me-and-your-mom” days returning, the space you filled now empty and cluttered with memories.

I’ll pick sleeplessness over what that must feel like any day of the week.

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Origin Story: Read, kid

This is the seventh installment in a series of entries about the arrival of my first child.

Dear Bethany,

Your great-grandma thought your grandma was crazy.

I was the crux of it — newborn, helpless, unable to escape her grasp as she read me Beatrix Potter stories about a young rabbit who doesn’t do what he’s told and the curmudgeonly gardener he torments.

Obviously I remember none of this. I was like you then. I stared at the pages and drooled as your grandma’s voice sounded in my ears. Your great-grandma was not impressed, said I didn’t understand a word. Your grandma contested that. On some level, she knew I did. A scholar lurked behind all that drool.

Whether that’s true — news flash — it’s going to be the same way with you.

Here’s why: Because for you, I want reading to be the norm.

This isn’t a PSA on the benefits of reading to kids at a young age. I’ll leave the advice columns to the advice columnists, the mass-literacy encouragement to the librarians and English teachers of the world.

All I know is that when it comes to you and how often you have a book open, I want it to be almost like breathing; consistent, frequent, vital. The way Superman needs sunlight.

Forget all the other positive attributes of being a lifelong reader. You make memories along the way. Really. I know this from experience, from the fact I still remember the when and where of some of my favorites.

Your grandpa read me “The Hobbit” when I was 6 or 7 years old. And when I say “read,” I mean “channeled his inner Orson Welles.” His voice caught fire. I took over with “Lord of the Rings” a couple years later because of his delivery. Then I did it again.

“Frankenstein,” the first book I ever loved that I had to read for school, sticks out, too. I reread it coming home from a recent trip. I’m hoping you’ll understand how demented and lovely it is someday.

I could devote another letter entirely to every Dennis Lehane book ever written. His characters have clear distinctions when it comes to who’s good and who’s evil. But he never forgets the shades of gray, those murky characteristics that add dimension and have made me self-examine more than once.

Then there are the stories writers didn’t have to make up. My two factual favorites have the word “devil” in them. “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson introduced me to a world where nonfiction could be interesting. “The Devil’s Highway” by Luis Alberto Urrea opened the door even farther. I read it straight through as I journeyed through three different airports. I’m still jealous of how every word, every sentence is arranged. It’s less a true story and more of a jazz record.

When it comes to you, Bethany, there are a few basic things I’m hopeful for: that you’re happy, that you feel safe, that you’re kind, that at least one thing in life fascinates you to the point where you’ll never stop chasing it. And that you’re always reading and making linguistic memories along the way.

The end.

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Grandfather box

The Rubbermaid tote makes my small home office all the more cramped.

It’s heavy, too, a sturdy block of plastic weighed down by contents that could be a door stop for iron gates.

I’ve scanned through them a few times: worn letters, photographs, a few sketches, a lunch menu, sheets of 6-cent stamps, newspapers.

It’s basically a diary that lacks cohesion, a just-opened 1,000-piece puzzle. It’s my grandpa’s. He fought in the African and Mediterranean theaters during World War II, tasked with cataloging and burying the dead, and writing to their families.

I’d all but forgotten it was there until I heard a familiar bit of information on the radio this morning: World War II veterans are dying, and a lot of them still aren’t talking about what they experienced.

My grandpa, who has been dead for seven years, was just like that. I only knew the basics of what he did because of my mom. His unit was called the Graves Registration Service or Mortuary Affairs. He fought at Anzio, got seasoned with shrapnel during a firefight. That’s all I had to go on.

Then he died. His letters, newspaper clippings, and other WWII-era artifacts got passed on to me. I even have his Bronze Star. It’s magnificent to hold and know the distinction it carries.

But beyond this writing and a few scattered others like it, I’ve done nothing to keep his fading memory alive.

And in thinking about today, what it means in terms of real bravery, real sacrifice, it’s terrible that’s the case. I can’t offer an excuse, not even just outright laziness. Why I haven’t opened the box of my grandfather’s weathered belongings is as unplumbed as it is.

Considering the bravery these people had, memorabilia like that deserves at least an attempt at assembly and being shared.

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    Ryan Pfeil

    This is a blog for southern Oregonians to check in on all things geek. Sci-fi, history, comics, movies, video/photo and anything else that would have gotten you shut in a locker in high school. Have fun. Read Full
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