Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Month: October 2020

Covers for G. S. Norwood's novellas, "Deep Ellum Pawn" and "Deep Ellum Blues."

Horror? Oh, Horrors!

By G. S. Norwood.

Jan S. Gephardt’s sister G. S. Norwood is a frequent guest blogger on “Artdog Adventures.”

I was a surprised when I learned my novelettes, Deep Ellum Pawn, and Deep Ellum Blues fall into Amazon’s “Occult Horror” category.  Sure they deal with the supernatural, but Horror?  I don’t think so.

This category ranking list from early October 2020 shows that at the moment Ms. Norwood made the screen capture, her novelette “Deep Ellum Pawn” was ranked #61 in 90-Minute Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Reads, #236 in 90-Minute Literature & Fiction Short Reads, and #645 in Occult Horror.
Screen-capture from Amazon by G. S. Norwood.

I am not a horror fan. While I deeply respect Stephen King, and am happy to recommend his memoir/advice book, On Writing, I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t read many of his other works.  I don’t enjoy being scared.  It’s not a recreational pursuit for me. Film franchises like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street do not tempt me. I’m not tuning in to Lovecraft Country, although I hear it’s terrific. 

Funny horror stuff is okay for me—films like The Addams Family and BeetlejuiceTim Burton’s Corpse Bride knocked me out with its stop-motion animation.  But I’m too chicken for the super scary stuff.  In fact, when I was three, I was too chicken to watch The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.

The movie poster for the 1966 horror comedy movie “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” shows a picture of the film’s star, Don Knotts, and other cast members.
Movie poster for The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.

Imagination Makes it Scary

Still, I wonder sometimes if the horror is more horrible in my imagination than it is in reality.  I remember a childhood friend describing James Whale’s Frankenstein to me after he’d seen the 1931 horror classic on TV.  It sounded really scary. I avoided watching it until 2014, when the Dallas Winds did a live concert performance playing Michael Shapiro’s brooding orchestral score under the film.

Boris Karloff was the best part, of course.  I felt tremendous sympathy for his misunderstood monster.  But the rest of the story? After decades of avoiding it because it was “too scary,” I walked away thinking, “C’mon, buddy. You want to create new life? There are time-tested methods for that. You’ve already got the girl. It could be fun.”

A movie lobby card from the 1931 movie “Frankenstein, The Man Who Made a Monster,” shows the classic monster image, along with portraits of the cast.
Movie Theater Lobby Card for Frankenstein.

Horror?  In a Time of Virus?

In this Time of Virus, I have found myself turning more and more to books that soothe and reassure me. I’ve re-read mysteries where I already know the ending. I’ve chain-read a series of romantic comedies by British author Jules Wake, set in the London theatrical scene, or in cozy country villages.

I put off reading Elly Griffiths’ The Stranger Diaries for months because the cover blurb sounded too creepy.  As it turned out, it was just a slightly stalkerish murder mystery, and I enjoyed it immensely.

This header image from Simone St. James’s website shows a short cover quote from Riley Sager, “Deliciously creepy. A chilling blend of mystery and ghost story that will thrill fans of both.” The words run alongside the cover of her book The Sun Down Motel.
Header for The Sun Down Motel courtesy of Simone St. James’s website.

Two other recent reads stepped out of my usual comfort zone into the realm of horror.  One was a terrific ghost story/mystery called The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James.  It skirted pretty close to my limits in the beginning, but I’m glad I stuck with it.

The other was a real-life horror story. Jerry Mitchell was an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger.  His book, Race Against Time recounts four horrific crimes committed by members of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1960s Civil Rights era. Through work by Mitchell and others, these criminals were finally brought to justice. 

Author Jerry Mitchell’s portrait is next to the cover of his book, “Race Against Time.”
Author Jerry Mitchell, with his book Race Against Time.

Horror? I was certainly horrified by the violence Mitchell depicted.  But I was also uplifted by the understanding that evil can be defeated whenever good people—real or fictional—have the courage to stand up and fight back.


G. S. Norwood provided the screen capture from an early-October Amazon listing for her Deep Ellum Pawn novelette, showing one of its consistent categories is “Occult Horror.”

The Movie poster for The Ghost and Mr. Chicken The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, Universal Pictures, the publisher of the film or the graphic artist. Image via Wikipedia. The movie theater lobby card for Frankenstein is by Employee(s) of Universal Pictures. Now in the Public Domain, this image is from Wikimedia Commons.

The header for The Sun Down Motel is courtesy of Simone St. James’s website. Quote by Riley Sager. Book cover photograph by Tom Hogan/Plain Picture; Jacket design by Sarah Oberrender/Berkley books. The photo of author Jerry Mitchell is by James Patterson, Mississippi Clarion Ledger. Cover for Race Against Time is courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

A group of armed young men at a gas station in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during protests in August 2020.

How can this be legal?

By G. S. Norwood

“How can this be legal?” is a re-blog from The Weird Blog.

We live in crazy times. At a time when most of us are just trying to stay safe from the coronavirus pandemic and stay afloat in an unstable economy, we have seen armed counter-protesters turn out to threaten peaceful protesters in a quiet town like Weatherford, Texas. How can this be legal?

Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse, at left, and his fellow militia member Ryan Balch, walk along Sheridan Road in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on the fatal night.
Photo courtesy of Channel 3000 (no photographer credited).

Protesters and militiamen have died in places like Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon, due to the presence of heavily armed militias.

The President of the United States called on a private militia group to stand back and stand by.”

We have heard rumors of armed militiamen making plans to guard polling places on Election Day.

The FBI and state authorities have arrested more than a dozen men for plotting to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia.

How can it be legal to create a private army? Send heavily armed civilians to public places to “protect property” like gas stations and statues without consent or coordination with local law enforcement?

Legal Scholars to the Rescue

Turns out I’m not the only one asking that question.

The Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection has been studying the rise of illegal militia organizations in all fifty states. They have challenged militia groups in court on constitutional grounds. Filed amicus briefs in other court cases. Advised communities on how to meet the challenge of active militia groups. They even sent a letter to the chief of police in Weatherford, Texas, advising him on applicable law.

Go to their website, and search for yourself. You’ll find fact sheets on the laws governing militias in your state. These sheets include advice on what you can do to defend yourself if heavily armed civilians show up at your polling site on November 3.

The Bottom Line in Texas

A group of armed young men at a gas station in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during protests in August 2020.
Photo courtesy of Spectrum News/Sabra Ayres, via Bay News 9.

It all boils down to this: You and your buddies can meet up, take target practice, drill, and participate in private tactical exercises all you want. Wear camo like it’s high fashion, and buy body armor wherever it’s legally sold.

But if you take action—step into a public situation claiming law enforcement authority without being called up by the governor—you’re an unauthorized private militia and you’re breaking the law.

Simply put, your private army cannot self-activate. Only the duly recognized law enforcement authorities can deputize you to “lend a hand” when needed. You can’t just jump in because you think it would be a good idea.

How can this be legal?

Just to make it all clear, I’m going to contrast militia activity on the Weatherford square with the activities of a group I once belonged to: The Weatherford Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association.

The members of the Weatherford Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association, as the name implies, are all graduates of a six-week training course taught by the Weatherford Police Department. In the course you learn the basic duties of a Weatherford Police officer, undergo a background check and, if you’re interested, earn the right to volunteer for the Weatherford Police Department.

I did a lot of filing and shredding as a WPD volunteer. Other Citizen Police Academy volunteers ride on patrol with officers. They are frequently asked to help with crowd and traffic control during such large public events as the annual Parker County Peach Festival.

In a pre-Covid era, women at the Parker County Peach Festival sell locally-grown peaches from an outdoor booth with a table filled with small baskets of peaches.
Parker County Peach Festival photo courtesy of Megan Parks Photography and Durham Video and Photography.

It’s All in the Authorization

That’s the key. The Police Department asked for help. CPA volunteers are directed by, and answerable to, the Police Department. They don’t just show up in a reflective vest and start bossing drivers and pedestrians around.

A group crosses the legal line anytime they take on a law-enforcement role without being asked. Unless they coordinate their activities with the good people in real law enforcement agencies, they are breaking the law.

Go to the Georgetown website. Learn about the law. More importantly, know who to contact and how to document your experience, if you feel some guy with a gun is crossing the line on Election Day.

If you find yourself wondering “How can this be legal?” you may find out that it’s not.


Many thanks to Channel 3000, for the photo of Kyle Rittenhouse and his fellow militia-member Ryan Balch in Kenosha. We also thank Spectrum News, Sabra Ayres, and Bay News 9, for the photo of the civilians in camo and ballistic armor, also in Kenosha. And we appreciate Megan Parks Photography and Durham Video and Photography for the photo from the Parker County Peach Festival.

A high viewpoint looks down on the formidable gates of a stronghold, where a small, armored figure has pushed the gates partway open.

“We can’t market this”

“We can’t market this” is a reason for rejection that I’ve heard for decades. It says “your book/story doesn’t fit into our pre-made boxes.”

Innovation is sometimes the stuff of new bestsellers, although I’d argue that a book’s worth isn’t always or only revealed by its sales figures. But it admittedly is much harder to sell square pegs when your marketing is solely designed to appeal to round holes.


An image, reminiscent of the gated entrance to a millionaire’s estate, forms the words, “The Gate Keepers.”
Image from “Cold Call Coach” website.

The literary world is famously full of multiply-rejected books that later became bestsellers considered classics. But you also might note that their authors, once they finally were published, overwhelmingly tended to be White, and predominantly (though not exclusively) male. This begs the question of who, outside of this privileged subset, can write risky things that eventually are allowed to succeed to their potential.

Whenever we talk about access to markets (and to marketing dollars), we must talk about gatekeepers. In the US today, we’re still having that conversation, because our gatekeepers remain overwhelmingly white, and predominantly male.

It shows up in the bestseller lists. It shows up in the ethnic makeup of mainline publishers, and famously in the Oscars, and the projects that get the largest budgets.

Family stories

The idea for this post began during a recent conversation I had with G. S. Norwood. She wrote a collection of novels during the 1990s that racked up persistent rejections. The editors to whom she submitted them generally thought they were great stories, well written, and with wonderful characters—“but we can’t market this.”

This was a period when the hottest (and by far the biggest) market was in romances. G.’s novels tried to be romances, but in one way or another they didn’t conform to the expectations of the market. She’s now reviewing them, and revising as she sees the need. We’re preparing to offer them as contemporary women’s fiction, the niche where I’ve always thought they belonged.

We have another family story related to this topic of gatekeepers and markets. One of Warren C. Norwood’s last novels, a story deeply rooted in Chaos Theory, apparently confused the editors to whom he pitched it. They might be science fiction editors by title, but they also were recent graduates of Vassar and Brown. Their intellectual roots sank deeper into English literature than into the mathematical modeling of dynamical systems.

This is a photo of the author Warren C. Norwood.
Photo of Warren C. Norwood courtesy of G. S. Norwood.

A couple of decades later, another nerdy novel, The Martian, started out as a blog, then became a self-published ebook, and eventually went on to far more fame and movie rights than it might have had, if there’d been more gatekeepers in play.

Contrast the story of American Dirt, which still persists on Amazon Top-100 lists, despite its inauthenticity.

Self-serving excuses

“We can’t market this” is the classic excuse of the misogynist, the racist, the classist, the formula-slave, the gatekeeper who has outlived his/her usefulness.

It’s the excuse that has dictated decades—no, centuries—of whitewashing. I remember back when the complaint was that “female protagonists don’t sell.” “Black/Latin/Asian/LGBTQAI+ protagonists won’t sell.” “You can’t put a black/Latin/Asian in a central position on the cover because it won’t sell.” This, of course, is all hogwash.

But it banishes women, and all persons of color, from leading roles, cover imagery, and headliner status. Oh, and purely coincidentally of course, it preserves male, White, dominant-culture privilege. I mean, really. Can white dudes help it, if they wrote all the truly great literature, and painted all the great art, while everybody else just couldn’t measure up?

Yeah, right.

This is the mindset that left Artemesia Gentileschi “undiscovered” by the wider public until recently. It’s the kind of erasure that goaded Mary Ann Evans, AKA George Elliot, to use a male pen name. And it’s the mindset that inspired Borders Books (remember them?) to put the African-American romance books way back at the back of the store, far removed from the White romances. Those got more central display.

Myths and prejudices

The myth persists (despite plenty of examples to the contrary) that Black, Asian, or Latin main characters, starring actors, and even book cover characters, don’t sell as well as those featuring White people (Just don’t try to convince Black Panther of that).

The 1971 mass market paperback of Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” was released in 6 different colors of cover. This photo shows them. They were white, green, pink, orange, blue, and yellow.
Photo courtesy of “Fonts in Use” blog, via Goodreads and Amazon.

It reminds me of the “green book covers don’t sell” myth, purportedly based on sales of Future Shock, a pop-psychology phenomenon of the early 1970s (yes, I really am older than dirt). The publishers billed it as “a study of mass bewilderment in the face of accelerating change.” I remember people talking about it more as “that book about how we have too many choices.”

It was published in covers of six different colors in 1971 (woah, man, so meta). According to some study somewhere, the green cover sold less well, so it became a “thing” for a while that green covers don’t sell. But then life moved on. Eventually people figured out that beautiful and dynamic green covers actually sell just fine. Who could have seen that coming?

Gatekeepers and Awards

We already mentioned #OscarsSoWhite. An Academy Award has long been considered a pinnacle of achievement (and bankability) within the movie industry. Any theatrical professional locked out of the chance to receive one is automatically barred from the top echelon on the profession.

The Edgar Awards

Literary awards have followed a similar trajectory, because they also purport to be about quality. Prejudices persist, and sometimes that doubles up on the gatekeepers. One case in point: the Edgar Awards. These are the most prestigious awards in mystery writing, but the gatekeeping is notably strict. According to the rules:

“All works submitted for consideration must meet the requirements for Active Status membership as described in the membership guidelines. At this time, self-published work is not eligible for Edgar Award consideration.”

The requirements for Active Status membership in Mystery Writers of America reinforce a narrow list of publishers considered “good enough” to warrant membership. It also places would-be MWA members (and potential Edgar nominees) at the mercy of whatever the gatekeepers think is appropriate.

Does that guarantee higher quality? Maybe. Does it enforce a certain homogeneity? That’s much more likely.

The RITA Awards

The Romance Writers of America have far more inclusive membership requirements, but that hasn’t kept them out of trouble. Controversy over the non-inclusivity of their RITA Awards nearly tore the organization apart last year. (The RITAs are no longer being awarded).

The illustration shows a RITA Award statuette on its side with its head broken off at the shoulders.
Image courtesy of Vox. No illustrator credited.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Recognitions

The Nebula Awards of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (and SFWA membership requirements) are much more open to a variety of backgrounds.

But science fiction’s even-more-famous Hugo Awards fended off a different kind of gatekeeping attempt. a few years ago. The self-styled “Sad Puppies” tried to hijack the Hugos, and thereby stifle more diverse voices. They presented themselves as a threat in 2015 and 2016, but ultimately failed. Turned out the Force—not to mention SF & F fandom—just wasn’t with them.

Nor was it with the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, after Jeanette Ng had her say about Campbell’s racism, misogyny, and imperialist sympathies. It’s now the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, embracing an inclusiveness Campbell himself would never have imagined or countenanced.

Beyond Gatekeepers

Traditional publishing and prestigious awards will always, by their nature, have gatekeepers. People whose inclinations and imaginations are limited by “we can’t market this” remain a fact of life. There also are only so many projects any publisher can fund.

I think Indie publishing (independent publishing) is today’s best answer for silenced voices and authors with smaller (but no less vibrant) niches. Other avenues may open in the future. But for now, here’s a venue where new niches can open and new voices seek out an audience.

A high viewpoint looks down on the formidable gates of a stronghold, where a small, armored figure has pushed the gates partway open.
Image by “WiseWizard” via Steam.

It’s very far from an easy path to success. Those gates are darned heavy. When you move away from having others market (or not market) your work, there’s suddenly a lot to learn. You may not hear “we can’t market this” from others, but not everything finds a market. Not everyone (in fact, not most “Indies”) can learn to thrive as entrepreneurs-of-necessity in the independent publishing world.

Can you market this?

Taken overall, self-published writers release a fair amount of dreck each year. Many haven’t done their due diligence, or haven’t learned their craft. Maybe they grew impatient with apprenticeship. Took critiques too personally, and stopped seeking them. Maybe they wearied of rejection after rejection, or couldn’t wait through the long turnaround-times of traditional publishing. Perhaps they published something simply to say they’re an author.

But a lot of writers do have great stories to tell, and strong writing skills. Some have previously been published traditionally. But all, for any of a range of reasons, found the experience unsatisfactory.

It’s possible the gatekeepers didn’t value their visions and their voices. Maybe they were pigeonholed as “just a midlist writer,” and therefore not worth promoting much. Perhaps they heard, “too niche,” or “too far off-genre” just a few too many times.

Or perhaps they heard, “We can’t market this” too often, as my sister did. These days, that doesn’t have to be the final verdict. Independent publishing enables writers to test that “can’t market” analysis for themselves. Maybe it’ll turn out they can market “this,” after all.


Many thanks to the “Cold Call Coach” website, for the visualization of gatekeeping, and to the “Fonts in Use” blog, via Goodreads and Amazon, for the image of all the 1971 Future Shock covers. G.S. Norwood provided the “Pensive Warren C. Norwood” photo (thanks!). We’re grateful to Vox for the illustration of the broken RITA Award, and the informative article that came with it. And finally, many thanks to the artist “WiseWizard” via Steam, for that evocative image of opening formidable gates.

This sign, in black and yellow like a traffic warning sign, reads, “WARNING: No Easy Answers Ahead.”

Easy answers

Does it seem to you that all the easy answers have gone away? We live in a complicated time, a complicated world.

Covid-19 upends our lives with its invisible, omnipresent death-threat. The American West is burning. Women’s progress in the workplace has turned into eroding sand beneath our feet. Relentless inequities, laid bare by the Covid-19 recession, have thrown our social order into chaos.

It is terrifying. Infuriating. And exhausting.

If only things were easier

Remember the ad campaign with the “Easy” Button™ you supposedly could press to solve all your office supply needs? I wasn’t the only person who really wanted an Easy Button™ in 2005 (for me, that also was a rough year).

The iconic Staples® “Easy Button™” is a round, red-and-silver button marked “easy” in white.
A 2005 ad campaign featured the “Easy Button™” and the motto “That was easy,” to promote the Staples® office store’s services. The company now sells them as novelty gifts. Image courtesy of Staples.

I plan to dig mine out and display it prominently, after we finish renovating the Library and my new home office there (Yes, I have a library room in my house, yes, it’s normally full of books, and yes, it’s awesome when it’s in good shape). But the joke only amuses for a little while.

We can make cracks about easy solutions, but the truth remains stubbornly complicated. Very few easy answers stand up to an objective, critical interrogation.

This hasn’t been the year for “Easy”

Seems like this year we just can’t catch a break. Many of our most popular slogans turn out to easier said than done.

Defund the Police

Remember “Defund the Police”? Yeah, we knew that one wasn’t going to be a quickie, and it sure hasn’t been. Several cities actually are trying. Some look as if they might make real changes.

But the movement isn’t (yet?) popular. Polling tells us the proponents of “defund and reallocate” have a long way to go before a majority of Americans agree enough to act.

Donald Trump’s “Law and Order” message seeks the exact opposite of defunding. His opponent Joe Biden went on the record against defunding, too, although he agrees Federal funding should be tied to “basic standards of decency.” Whatever those turn out to be in practice.

When you consider the history of policing, however, and the baked-in practices and attitudes that have persisted for decades, it’s clear that reforms of existing agencies pose a challenge.

Black Lives Matter

Remember “Black Lives Matter”? That seemed pretty basic. Black people’s lives should be considered to be as important and valuable as everyone else’s. Easy, right?

Then came the inevitable pushback, as if somehow the movement was intended to shove everybody else aside. The unfortunate truth of how our society devalues Black civil rights blazes through in a drumbeat of daily headlines.

Amber Ruffin’s painfully funny skit, “The White Forgiveness Countdown Clock” dramatizes it all too well.

Climate Change is real

Can we at least agree that the forests in the American West are burning up for the same reason that we’re several letters into the Greek alphabet on named tropical storms this year? That climate change not only drives these forces, but it stems from human recklessness?

Not if you think the “Climate Arsonist”-in-Chief is right. He says “science really doesn’t know” why it’s such a bad year for wildfires. On the tropical storms, it’s not what he said. It’s what he didn’t say.

In this cartoon a signpost stands on a plateau with a cliff to the left and a winding road to the right. The sign says “ANSWERS.” Under it an arrow pointing to the left and the cliff reads, “Simple but wrong.” Next to that, an arrow above a bookcase, pointing to the right and the winding road, reads “Complex but right.” A crowd of people have lined up on the road, headed for the signpost. The vast majority of them go left, with only the occasional person choosing the right-hand road.
We probably know who’d be in which line. Cartoon by Wiley Miller/Go Comics/Non Sequitur, via the “Climate Etc.” blog by Judith Curry.

Covid-19 is dangerous

Another pesky “science thing” is the Covid-19 pandemic. Administration efforts to contain worries about the novel virus started at the beginning of the pandemic, in contrast to actual disease-containment efforts.

Nothing if not consistent in this area, these efforts have continued through the summer. The “denial” response continues even today, despite the President’s own diagnosis.

Yet all year long, people have perversely continued to get sick and die.

This is a screen-grab of a world map showing the spread of Covid-19.
Worldwide Covid-19 spread, by country, as of October 6, 2020. Go to the New York Times for a larger, better, interactive version of this map.

As I’m writing this, deaths in the world have risen past one million, and in the USA we’ve topped 210,000. The only certainty seems to be that these numbers will continue to rise.

Yet mask-wearing in the United States continues to rouse partisan ire. Flouting or following basic health guidelines remains a partisan issue. This video dates to last June, but the flaring tempers and divisions persist.

Controversy over the timing of a vaccine rollout provides another instance of science at odds with politics. So do efforts to end the ACA (“Obamacare”) in the middle of the pandemic. And of course, many want to force schools to open for in-person classes, although transmission rates in many areas remain well above recommended guidelines.

Easy answers remain hard to find

This year, more than ever, the “low-hanging fruit,” the easy answers, elude us. Yet I do think I’ve found a few, pretty basic ones, while on preventive lockdown for seven-months-going-on-eternity.

Seek your guidance and information from scientists, physicians, climatologists, and other experts trained and seasoned in their field.

Don’t share or retweet shocking things until you check the story with a factual source.

Give thanks for the wondrous devices that allow us to connect with each other, even when it’s only virtually.

Listen to others. Grieve with those in mourning. Rejoice with those who’ve found joy, and remind yourself and others that bad times eventually pass.

Wear a mask, socially distance (looks as if 6 feet isn’t enough), and vary your list of 20-second songs, so you don’t get bored and shorten your hand-washing.

Be gentle with yourself, and with others. Everyone has a heavy load, right now. Friends and family should try to nurture one another.

That’s Jan’s list. What’s yours?


Many thanks to SixDay Science for the warning sign image, and to Mykola Lytvynenko via 123RF, for the “warning stripes” background on the header. I appreciate Staples® for the “Easy Button™” image. Many thanks to Peacock and YouTube for the Amber Ruffin “White Forgiveness Countdown Clock” video. I’m grateful to Wiley Miller, Go Comics/Non Sequitur, and Judith Curry’s “Climate Etc.” blog, for the “Answers” cartoon. I appreciate the New York Times for the World Covid-19 map, and I hope you took a moment to look at the interactive one at the link.

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