The Next Big Thing

Last week Weston Ochse tagged me in the latest installment of The Next Big Thing, a chance for authors to promote their next big release.  Weston sent me these questions and I, in turn, will send them along to the next author of The Next Big Thing, who I will announce very soon.


1)    What is the working title of your next book?




2)    Where did the idea come from for the book?


I was out to dinner with my editor at Kensington and we started talking about the cruise I’d just taken.  I told him how gluttonous people could be on cruises, and the next thing you know we were talking about my next novel…a zombie story set on a cruise ship.


3)    What genre does your book fall under?


Horror, definitely.


4)    What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?


The two main leads are women, one a badass U.S. Secret Service agent and the other a female version of James Bond working for one of the Mexican cartels.  For the agent I’m imagining Dianna Agron or Amy Smart.  For the cartel assassin Naya Rivera.


5)    What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?


A Mexican drug cartel releases a flesh eating virus into a cruise ship’s food supply, turning the passengers into zombies.


6)    Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?


It was written on spec for Kensington.  My agent, Jim Donovan, is my representation.


7)    How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?


About seven months.


8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?


            My own Dead World series books or possibly Deck Z.

8)    Who or what inspired you to write this book?


A recent cruise I took with my family.


9)    What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?


This is my first book to feature a sex scene!

Writer and Musician Sanford Allen on Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha”

A few weeks ago I was watching an episode of Friends and heard an old familiar song playing in the background.  It was Cornershop’s toe tapper “Brimful of Asha.”  I first heard that song in college and I loved it from the very first listen, but of course, like most Westerners, I had only the vaguest idea of what the song is about.

Fortunately, I knew where to turn.  You see, one of my very good friends is Sanford Allen.  Sanford is a gifted writer and a musician, and happens to know just about everything there is to know about Bollywood.  (You can learn more about Sanford Allen here.) So I sent him the following email:

Hey Sanford,

I confess to being out of my depth on this song.  I like it, but I have no idea what it means.  I do get the impression that it’s about modern Indian movie-making, possibly even the whole Bollywood thing, but that’s as far as I can go with it.  Any words of wisdom?


I thought he’d send me a few lines of explanation, maybe even a link or two to some of his favorite Bollywood films.  I had no idea he would go all out and write me a full blown essay on the song.  (Really, it’s not even an essay; more like a loving tribute.) But I’m glad he did.  I was so impressed by his answer that I asked if he’d let me reprint here, on my website, and he agreed.

So with that I’m going to turn the reins over to my good friend and trusted authority on all things dealing with the Indian subcontinent and let him explain it all for you.


Sanford Allen on Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha”

British alt-rock band Cornershop’s song “Brimful of Asha” is an earworm that’s wriggled across continents and decades.

The tune charted both in the U.S. and U.K. in the ‘90s. And, last October, Britain’s NME named a Fatboy Slim remix of “Brimful” one of its “150 Best Tracks of the Past 15 Years.”

It’s easy to see why. With its insistent rhythm guitar and hooky chorus, the song is plenty catchy.

Beyond that, though, “Brimful of Asha” continues to resonate as a powerful testimonial to music’s ability to connect us to our roots.

The song is a loving tribute to the Indian film music that Cornershop singer Tjinder Singh and countless other Brits of South Asian descent grew up hearing. Spinning 45-rpm records of those songs provided an aural connection to their ancestral homeland.

Bollywood films typically feature a half dozen or more song-and-dance numbers, and even today, most popular music played on the radio in India originates from the movies. With a handful of exceptions, actors just lip-sync the songs. The actual singing is supplied by “playback singers,” of whom Asha Bhosle — “Brimful’s” namesake — is the reigning queen.

The legendary Asha’s voice has adorned hundreds of film soundtracks since the early ’60s. By some estimates, she’s recorded more than 12,000 songs, although it’s hard to know the exact count. When Cornershop’s Singh dashes off lines about “dancing behind the movie scenes” and “keeping the dream alive,” he’s doubtless referring to Asha’s significant place in Indian cinema even though she’s seldom physically appeared on the silver screen.

Unlike the Bollywood actors and actresses, who are mostly youthful, svelte and stylish, playback singers can be any age and physical appearance. Although moviegoers hear Asha’s high, lilting voice emanating from the mouth of the film industry’s sexiest leading ladies, she’s anything but a sultry temptress. In reality, she’s a matronly woman now in her 70s.

It’s likely that “Brimful’s” repeated line that “everybody needs a bosom for a pillow” refers to Asha’s motherly appearance. Most likely, the line also refers to Mother India and the cultural comfort embodied by the spinning 45-rpm record of Asha’s songs.

Later, Singh namedrops two other Bollywood playback singers: Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar (the latter of which is Asha’s sister and quite famous in her own right). He also mentions several Western singers, including T-Rex’s glam rocking Marc Bolan, a reminder that the ears of many Indo-British music fans face both East and West.

“Brimful’s” lines about ignoring government warnings “about the simple life they’re promoting and new dams they are building” may seem out of place among its celebrations of both Eastern and Western music. But I believe Singh throws them in to remind us of music’s ability to help us escape from our hardships.

While some Indian filmmakers use the medium to make important social statements, the majority of moviegoers are looking to escape. Bollywood’s sweeping, colorful musicals are all about giving people a three-hour reprieve from their daily lives — which for a great number are hardscrabble beyond Western comprehension.

“Brimful of Asha” will continue to worm into our ears and psyches as long as South Asia’s far-flung diaspora seeks connections to its roots and Western music fans continue to explore the East for new sounds.

In the twilight of her career, Asha herself recently received her first Grammy nomination, collaborated with the Kronos Quartet and was sampled by the Blackeyed Peas.

One of the songs that best encompasses the singer’s straddling of exotic East and worldly West is “Dum Maro Dum,” a psychedelic rock-inspired ’60s tune which has been remade and remixed numerous times. Check out footage from the movie, where the indescribably gorgeous Zeenat Aman lip-syncs Asha’s song. This second clip is of Asha actually singing it live at a recent movie awards show. (Look for Zeenat in the audience, still a stunner after all these years.)

Brimful of Asha video:

Movie footage:

Asha live:

Okay, Joe McKinney here again.

I should add that Sanford and I will be appearing together again sometime next year as part of the JournalStone Double Down Series. If you’re unfamiliar with that series, you can learn more about it here. In the meantime, you should check out Sanford’s website. This guy is a serious talent. I’m in a writer’s group with him called Drafthouse, and from the get go I knew that Sanford was a talent to watch. Just as my horror often touches upon police procedure, so does his upon music. In fact, he writes about music, and perhaps more importantly, the act of performing music, in such a way that his passion often transports the scene into something far more than horror. I urge you to check this guy out.

In Praise of Spooky Old Buildings

Houston, 1982 – I was thirteen, out trick-or-treating with my friends.  My costume was one of my Mom’s old slips, upon which I’d written Id, Ego and Superego.  You guessed it – I was a Freudian Slip.

The loot gathering was good, because I grew up in a fairly affluent suburb, where the streets grow and spread in crystalline profusion, and where the soul of modern man grows numb in cookie cutter houses.

Fortunately, the little suburb where I grew up was on the edge of a vast cotton farm…or what had once been a cotton farm many years earlier.  By the time I came along, the fields had run to riot and a dense forest of trees grew where once there had been furrows.  My friends and I spent our summers roaming that empty landscape, our dogs by our sides, BB guns gripped by the breach in reasonable imitation of Marines on patrol in the jungle.  We boys were like gods then, carving empires of the imagination from the air on a daily basis.

But those fields weren’t entirely empty.  There was something else in there with us besides tall weeds and swamp trees.  Just a few hundred yards in from the fence that was supposed to keep us out, hidden behind a large copse of trees, was what I guess was an old cotton processing facility.  It was little more than three large, interconnected metal silos, nearly every inch of which was covered with graffiti.  But in its moldering, rusting decay it was resplendent.  I was drawn to it in much the same way as water finds its own level.  There was an irresistible gravity around that abandoned structure that both held me hostage and set my mind free.  It was like a flint for my imagination, for with the smallest of effort I found I could turn those silos into cities, the loose machine parts around them into a cemetery of dead cars.  That lonely collection of silos took me to dark and apocalyptic places.  And I loved every minute of it.

But that Halloween, as we wandered the neighborhood, collecting our loot, we happened by the new construction that would, within the coming year, spread our neighborhood into the empty fields we loved so much.  Cookie cutter houses would take the place of my beloved cotton processing silos, and another empty place on the map would get filled in with names like Spring Forest Lane and Oak Terrace and Verbena Drive.

But for that night, that magical last night of October, 1982, the palace of my imagination was still intact, sitting like a sentinel at the outskirts of my own October Country.

May that land forever live.

Why I Write the Dark Stuff

In my day job I’m a patrol supervisor for the San Antonio Police Department, working the west side of town.  The police officers who make the calls, who make the arrests, who keep the peace in the busiest part of the city, they work for me.  I’m the one they call when they have crime scenes that need managing, or when something just doesn’t look right.

What that means is that I get to see a lot of dead bodies.  And I mean a lot of them.

Like last week.  One of my officers called because he had a decomp (police parlance for a body that’s been rotting in place for a good long while) and he wasn’t sure if it was suicide or homicide.  So I showed up to the apartment and there was the dead guy, seated on the floor (or almost on the floor; his butt was about two inches off the carpet).  He had a noose around his neck, though you could barely see it because his skin was so bloated and gummy with rot that it had sort of oozed over the rope.

“So, what do you think?” the officer asked.

“Suicide,” I told him.

“But he’s sitting down.  Wouldn’t he have rolled over or something when he started to choke?  That’s like an instinct or something, isn’t it?”

“No,” I said.  “What you’re looking at is an act of will power.  If you want to do something bad enough, you’ll see it through.”

He looked from me to the body and shook his head.

“Besides,” I added, “look at all that medication in there in his bathroom.  Those drugs are for hepatitis and cancer.  He did this because he was hurting pretty bad.  And look up there.”  I pointed to the ceiling where our dead guy had nailed the rope to the rafter.  “He did that because he didn’t want the rope to slip off.  And look at where he chose to do this, here in the bedroom, so his relatives coming in the front door wouldn’t have to see him.  I bet if you look around here you’ll find a note.  Probably in the other room, out of sight of the bedroom.”

The officer nodded.

We both stood there, staring at the body.  The apartment didn’t have air conditioning, and it felt like standing inside an oven, even though it was the middle of the night.  The smell was really bad.

The officer kind of chuckled and said, “So Sarge, I guess this is one for your next book, huh?”

I offered him a bland smile.  Cops develop their gallows humor long before they learn that it’s actually a defense mechanism against the horror of confronting your own mortality, and this officer was one of the young ones.  He still had a lot to learn.

“Go look for the note,” I said.

“Yes, sir.”

When he was gone I found myself looking into that suicide’s face and sighing.  The suicides always get to me. Something about standing in the presence of someone so desperate to take control of their pain and their emotional devastation that they would resort to this makes me feel numb.

In the other room, the young officer was clumsily knocking around.  Something fell over and broke.  I almost called out to him to be careful, but held my tongue.  You see, my mind had drifted from my day job to my night job.  I was thinking about what he’d said about my next book.  So many people seem to have that opinion about horror, and about zombie fiction in particular.  To them, a book about shambling dead things eating the living must be nothing but gratuitous violence and gore.  What else could it be?

Well, I take exception to that.

I started writing because I was scared of the future.  My wife and I had just gotten married.  Then we had a daughter, and the world suddenly seemed so much more complex.  In the wink of an eye, I went from a carefree young cop – a lot like the one in the other room knocking stuff over – to a man with more responsibilities than he could count.  I had obligations and commitments coming at me from every angle.

I’d been writing stories for a good long while at that point, starting sometime in my early teens, but never with the intention of doing anything about them.  I would write them out on a yellow legal pad, staple the finished pages together, and leave them on the corner of my desk until the next idea came to me.

Never once did it occur to me to do something with what I’d written.  I just threw those stories away and forgot them.  But then came adulthood, and parenthood, and I found myself groping to put the world in order, to regain some of the control I felt I had lost.  I realized that writing could help me with that.  I realized that I could focus my anxieties and make something useful of them.

And so I started writing a science fiction novel.  It was a big space opera epic, and it was pure trash.  Every word of it was awful.

The reason?  Well, it wasn’t authentic.  It wasn’t me.

The real me, the kid who sat at his desk filling up yellow legal pads rather than going out bike riding with his friends, was a horror junkie.  I was crazy for the stuff.  Horror was my first literary love, and I figured seeing as love was what drove me to return to writing that I should write what I love. I was feeling like the world was rushing at me from every side, so I wrote a zombie story about characters who had the living dead rushing in at them from every side.  That’s when things started to click.  That’s when it all made sense.

But it wasn’t just that simple.  You see, I sincerely believe that fear is the most authentic, and the most useful, emotion available to the storyteller.  It is as vital as love, and indeed, gives love its profundity, for what makes love, and family, and everything we treasure so valuable but the fear that it could all be taken away in the blink of an eye.  For me, fear goes far beyond monsters.  It is the catalyst for my creative process, and without that creative process, I’m afraid I would wither up inside.  I’m not saying I’d end up like that suicide I just told you about if I couldn’t write anymore, nothing that melodramatic, but absence of that creative outlet would be a hole that nothing else could fill.

So that’s why I write the dark stuff.

It Could Have Been a Masterpiece: The Dead by the Ford Brothers

I wanted to love this movie.  I remember watching the trailer and practically salivating over the gorgeous West African scenery, the magnificent makeup and special effects and the potential for substantive commentary on modern Africa and its many woes.  Unfortunately, a weak script put this film in the awkward position of exploiting the very issues on which it is trying to comment.  (You can see the official trailer here.)

Written and directed by brothers Howard J. Ford and Jon Ford, The Dead was filmed on location in Burkina Faso and Ghana, two regions that have, over the last few decades, seen plague and famine and countless acts of racial atrocity under the guise of civil war.  The setup feels perfect for a zombie film.  Plague makes for a logical cause for the outbreak.  Famine and starvation are mirrored in the population eating itself.  And death, as the great leveler, obfuscates the divisions of tribal and racial differences.  The Dead tries to address all of these points, but sabotages itself with a lackluster storyline.

Lt. Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) has just survived a plane crash and sets out across the sunbaked, unforgiving landscape of the Ivory Coast in the hopes of reaching safety and reuniting with his family back home.  At the same time, Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei) has broken away from his regiment to find his son.  These two very different men are forced to team up and help one another on their quests.

And therein lies the problem, I think.  In order to properly carry through on its promise of addressing West Africa’s many problems, the story needed more than a few token glimpses into village culture.  There were a few humanizing moments, especially between Sgt. Dembele and his grandmother, and between Murphy and the mother hoisting her newborn on him, but not even those scenes dug deep enough.  If a zombie is going to be effective as a metaphor it has to have established corollaries in the story.  Shawn of the Dead did this beautifully through a mirrored plot.  The first half of the film established the sense of aimless frustration and disenfranchisement of Britain’s youth, and then the second half of the film mirrored the events of the first half, but with zombies.  The point that we are all basically zombies already lands with perfect clarity.  The Dead could have been such a powerful statement on man’s cruelty to his fellow man, or a brilliant indictment of colonialism, or a call to arms against a continent starving to death, but it just didn’t reach that level of sophistication.

What we get instead is a rather pedestrian buddy/road trip story.  Perhaps that would have been enough of a frame to bring out the issues the film seems to want to tackle, but the script wasn’t even up to telling much of buddy movie.  Murphy and Dembele hardly speak at all during their time together, and when they do, the setups are obvious and clearly forced.

But the film, despite its weak storytelling, does have its positives.  The scenery, filmed in grainy 35 mm, seems to be on fire through most of the movie.  It’s stunningly beautiful, and goes further toward establishing Murphy’s exhaustion than Freeman’s acting.

Also, the zombies are truly frightening.  The faintly glowing eyes and legion of broken and mangled bodies make for some excellent scenes, and there are enough exploding heads and severed limbs and zombie feasting scenes to make most zombie fans feel right at home.

My score: 6 out of 10.

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