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Best Books of 2019

For some people, 2019 was a difficult year to get anything read. For others, such as myself, 2019 was a great year for reading. My year, as a reader, was made great by two things:

  • I survived some difficult periods by retreating into books.
  • I planned ahead to make sure I had interesting, well-chosen books to read when I was too upset or depressed or whatever to do anything but read.

Which is not to say that my plans always worked.

The big plan that didn’t work out as anticipated was to read more diverse work, both in the sense of reading authors who weren’t like me, and in the sense of reading more deeply in other genres than horror and mystery.

It was harder than I thought. Like, ridiculously so.

I realize this essay is going to alienate some people—that me, writing down whether or not I met my own reading goals on my own time without preaching about how other people should do the same—is going to alienate some people. Some people will be strongly tempted to contact me to tell me that none of this should matter, or that I’m overthinking things.

Let me state clearly here that it’s important to me, and that if you need to complain about people who think, you may be reading the wrong author.

In 2018, my goals were to get through several best-of lists in horror and crime fiction. It resulted in reading a lot of books that I hated, particularly in the horror genre, where aggressive, offense-intended sexism and racism are often the order of the day, mostly written by Dead White Guys from America and Great Britain. I feel that reading my way through those best-of lists was truly worthwhile (for example, reading 120 Days of Sodom in 2018 made me realize that most people who set out to be offensive are pikers in comparison), but I needed a palate cleanser this year.

My first pass, in early 2019, was to come up with a list of a hundred books that I wanted to read. I divided them into the following quarters:

  • White Men Writing in English
  • White Women Writing in English
  • People of Color Writing in English
  • Books in Translation

And I decided to keep an eye on several best-of lists as well.  Lots of them: a reader-generated list of gothic fiction, NPR’s best-of horror list, the SF Masterworks and Fantasy Masterworks lists, and a list of early crime fiction selected by HRF Keating. Oh, and I was going to magically find time to read a lot of nonfiction somehow. And graphic novels. And new releases.


By June I had read fewer than a third of the books I had on my list, almost no nonfiction, almost no graphic novels, and no books written within, I don’t know, the last decade. I had read a hundred books (one of my superpowers is speed reading). Just not the ones I planned to read.

I tried again, wiping off the list the books I’d read and the books I’d started but couldn’t finish.  Despite my plan, I mostly fell back to my Dead White Guys again, even when I was mostly skimming and hate-reading books to finish them.

(Side note: I decided I can’t read Tananarive Due’s books. She’s excellent, but her stories are about women who are ongoing victims of abusive narcissistic assholes and these women don’t recognize that’s what’s happening, and I finally decided I didn’t need to feel like screaming “Get out you fool” and twitching with PTSD for entire novels at a time. If that’s your sort of thing, I highly recommend them. But they can’t be on my list anymore.)

By November, it was clear that the same pattern was going to emerge: not a lot of nonfiction, graphic novels, or recent work, and a disproportionate amount of Dead White Guys.  This is not to say that the books by the Dead White Guys were objectively—or even subjectively—worse than books by other types of people, just that, after a while, they get me in a rut.

For example, let’s take “Some asshole causes harm to the people around him, mostly written from the perspective of the asshole” as a plot.  It’s a pretty common plot. (One famous example of this is The Shining.)

I read books featuring this plot:

  • White Men/English: 30
  • White Women/English: 9
  • People of Color/English: 9
  • Books in Translation: 9

The assholes didn’t have a specific gender. I didn’t count books where this was a subplot, just the main plot.  It’s not that those books were necessarily good or bad, or that they rewarded or punished the asshole in question; it’s just that I got tired of playing “yes, yes, plot twist, the narrator is the main problem here, I got it.”

There are other ruts. This one in particular got on my nerves.

(Side note: At least one of those white men was a trans man, which made me slap my forehead and realize another area where I was falling down.)

This year, I read:

  • White Men/English: 110
  • White Women/English: 56
  • People of Color/English: 31
  • Books in Translation: 40

Which is lots better than I did in 2018. (There may be errors in counting here, but I’m not dedicated enough to debate them.)

The logic inherent in my categories is that, in the U.S., about two-thirds of us are white and non-Hispanic, and about a third of us aren’t, with about half and half men and women (and half of two-thirds is one third).  I also just like to read books in translation, so I threw that in as another category, to turn my thirds into quarters: the math was easier.

I didn’t track LGBTQIA+ people, Jewish people, handicapped people, or a bunch of other things that I now kinda regret. The main thing I started with in 2018 was going, “I read mostly Dead White Dudes, and I’m getting tired of it.” Then, of course, once I started tracking numbers even after I decided to do something other than read mostly Dead White Dudes, there I was, still reading mostly white dudes, dead or otherwise, and reading too many “written from the perspective of an asshole” books.



I gave myself a budget to-be-read (TBR) pile of 30 books. A book a day is rather ambitious even for me, but I knew there would be a certain number of books that I started and didn’t want to finish or didn’t feel like reading that month after all, and I wanted some wiggle room.

I went through the house, my Kindle, my phone, and the books on my nightstand, and added those to my November list. Then I added the books I thought would come in at the library before December. Then I went, “This is already a disproportionate number of White Dudes.” Because it was.

So I filled out the rest of that list with other types of people.

November went okay.

  • I read more nonfiction than I had been reading, although most of it was writer-related business books rather than the ones I had planned.
  • Graphic novels: on track.
  • Best-of lists: making less progress, but still some on each list.
  • Proportions: 10 White Guys, 8 White Women, 4 People of Color, 3 Books in Translation. Still not great, but better.

December went even better.

  • Nonfiction I fell down on, but did get some read. The books that I have on tap for nonfiction tend to be either in print, or ebooks that I bought. However, what I read first is books that are due back to the library, and books in ebook format (I can read on a Kindle after my spouse is asleep without keeping him up, but the lamp and page-turning sounds of paper bother him).
  • Graphic novels: on track.
  • Best-of lists: on track.
  • Proportions: 6 White Guys, 5 White Women, 6 People of Color, 2 Books in Translation and 8 volumes of a graphic novel in translation.

In conclusion:

Writing these numbers out feels surreal.

I’ve been trying to stop reading mostly Dead White Guys for a year now, and have made improvements but haven’t reached my goals yet, because apparently changing my reading habits is harder than it looks. A white woman, determined to change her reading habits and having the access to the books needed to do so, was unable to successfully do so in the course of a year.

Although she did make strides.

In case you missed a newsletter, here were my best books of 2019:

Proportions: 5 White Men, 1 White Woman, 4 People of Color, 2 Books in Translation (with two fudges on the numbers; 4/1/3/2 if you leave out the fudges).

Disproportionately, the books that I liked (compared to the total number of books I read) were written by people of color. And three of them I wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t assigned myself the task of reading more people of color; they weren’t on best-of lists (Mongrels is on the NPR best-of horror list).

In the sense that my tastes have been broadened and my life enriched? This year was obviously a success. In the sense that I still read too many books with the same plot, ehhhh…better than 2018, at any rate.

And finally…

My favorite book of the year? A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar. It was magnificent, and I wish it were being picked up for an HBO series or something. It brutally mocks Hitler, serves as an analysis of why pulp fiction was both good and horrible with a lovely homage, is packed with super-dry humor, and has one of the world’s perfect endings.  Mwah!

Like this post? It, and more like it, can be found in the Wonderland Press Newsletter!

New Release from Blaze Ward Presents: I Like My Science…MAD


I Like My Science…MAD
(Blaze Ward Presents Book 2)

Universal Sales Link | Goodreads

Come with us on a twisted journey of science gone wrong and gods rising to threaten us all. Of private detectives on the moon and dieselpunk ladies saving the day. Academics making dark pacts and taking vengeance into their own hands. Mad.

Includes my story, “The Legends of Castle Frankenstein.”

What is the true story of Castle Frankenstein, the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s famous novel? Was there ever a mad scientist? A monster? A pursuit across the Arctic ice? Because there is a Castle Frankenstein, and you can go there and walk around the ruined stones, poke around in the forest, and eat lunch.

The legends that get told by the people who work at Castle Frankenstein are strange, but the layers leading downward into the truth are stranger.

And stranger…

An alchemist with no soul. A mysterious object falling from the sky. Terrified peasants with pitchforks and torches. An eerie whistling that echoes through the forest. A fallen tower. The elixir of life.

How much is real? How much is just legend?

And just how much of it are the locals covering up?

Let me tell you a story about Castle Frankenstein.

Not the novel written by Mary Shelley but the castle, which actually exists.  Once, years ago, I went to Europe on a Wanderjahr, a year where I toured all over Europe, sketching architecture and seeing parts of the world that weren’t Iowa.  I fell in love that year, had my heart broken, and saw some things that blew my mind.

And, while I was there, visited the actual Frankenstein Castle.

Let me just say, straight off, that the legends you hear about the place are fake.

In case you haven’t heard the fake legend, let me get you caught up on it so I can tell you the real one.  Frankenstein’s Castle is nothing but ruins now, but it was built in the thirteenth century in order to keep an eye on the bandits in the area.  The Baron “von und zu Frankenstein,” was actually a guy named Conrad Reiz; the family eventually died out in the early sixteen hundreds.  The castle was sold to another noble family, the Landgraves of Hesse-Darmstadt, who, having better things to do than take care of the place, started to let it fall into ruin.

The landgraves aren’t the mad scientists in this scenario.

But there was one.

Johann Conrad Dippel was born at the castle in 1673 and was later hired on as a professional alchemist.  Back then there really were such things as professional alchemists.  He created a formula that was supposed to be the Elixir of Life: a nasty, sludgy black liquid that was supposed to extend the life of the user to one hundred and thirty-five years.

In the fake legend, Dippel blew up one of the castle towers while making the elixir of life, then offered to trade the (now ruined) castle in exchange for the recipe.  The landgraves refused. Dippel went elsewhere with his discovery, eventually using his elixir of life to help create a synthetic version of Prussian blue pigment—which was a huge deal at the time, considering that you used to have to make blue pigments by grinding up lapis lazuli stones, literal jewels.  So trading a castle for the recipe to a cheaply manufactured pigment might not have been a bad idea at the time.

However, Dippel was no misunderstood hero.  He was a complete asshole.  He would dig up corpses and perform anatomical experiments on them.  Aha, you’re saying.  Just like in the novel.  Right, but it gets weirder.  One of the things he tried to do was switch souls between bodies using funnels.

Not living bodies, mind you.  Just dead ones.

Dippel was so off-putting that the benchmark of religious oddity at the time, Emanuel Swedenborg, called him “a most vile devil…who attempted wicked things.”  This from a guy who believed that he could freely travel between heaven and hell and speak to angels, demons, and the dead.  He also claimed that Dippel tried to sway people away from Christianity and “take away all their intelligence of truth and good, and leaving them in a kind of delirium.”

Finally, Dippel decided it was time to put his money where his mouth was and drink his elixir of life, after which he promptly died.

Afterwards, this elixir, known as Dippel’s Oil or bone oil, was used as an insect and animal repellant and was even used in World War II as a chemical warfare agent.  Dump some oil in a desert well, and the water would be undrinkably foul, but not actually fatal (Dippel’s death to the contrary).  Which meant that using it wasn’t a violation of the Geneva conventions.

How much of the above is true, I can’t say, other than that Dippel didn’t blow up a tower, because there weren’t any.  They were added during the nineteenth century, long after his death.

There are other cool legends about the castle that have nothing to do with the “Frankenstein” story.  For example, there’s a fountain of youth that only married women could use, and then only one day a year and only if they performed a feat of bravery.  The original St. George versus the dragon story possibly happened in the area.  And Siegfried of the Nibelungenlied might have been murdered nearby, of which the fat ladies of Wagner’s operas doth sing.  A section of the forest, the Odenwald, has magnetic rocks that screw with compasses.  The area is so famously weird that the Ghost Hunter International crew even filmed an early episode at the castle.  Every castle has its ghost, often headless, and sometimes they’re nuns.  The devil has a dozen landmarks named after him.  Witches are everywhere.  Some of them are like, “Black cats?  Pffft.  Hold my beer and watch me turn into a pig.”

Mary Shelley was known to have come within ten miles of the castle two years before she wrote her book, but never saw the castle itself.  But the coincidences between the legend and her novel seem too much to ignore completely.

As in, the book’s called Frankenstein.


But, as I said, that’s not the real legend, just the fake one.

Want to read more? Click here.

New Release from the Uncollected Anthology: Crossroads Hotel

Uncollected Anthology: Crossroads Hotel

Universal Sales Link | Goodreads

Negotiate a convention of funeral directors and order a grilled cheese sandwich. Discover how walking upstairs can change your life or a watch can end it. Park your car out of the rain and unpack your suitcase. Just don’t piss off the kitchen staff. 8 stories where fate controls the front desk!

Includes my story, “Memento Temporis.”

It’s thirty years to the day that Jim lost the love of his life, Laina Jarvy, back in 1929. Now a colleague’s wife has a gift for him: a watch that will take him back in time to save Laina, and instructions on how to use it.

Jim’s willing to pay whatever price is necessary to save her–but the offer that he’s given in the past, at the mysterious Crossroads Hotel, smells more than a little like yesterday’s fish.

Is he about to save Laina?

Or get stiffed?

I drove carefully on my way to the hotel. The last thing I wanted to do get in a car accident.

In my pocket was a yellowed piece of paper. The thing had to be decades old. It had some instructions on it, and an address to a place called “The Crossroads Hotel.” I had hired a car, a 1927 Moon Sedan manufactured in St. Louis, Missouri. It was a brand-new car, but I had some trouble adjusting to the old-timey controls.

In my pocket beside the yellowed piece of paper was a pocket watch. It looked like a Lalique piece, and about as delicate as a perfume bottle. The front was studded with moonstones and enameled with a design of bats and witches. The bats and the witches sort of faded into each other, so it took some investigation to tell where one started and the other ended. On top of the winding-stem, for the chain-loop, was a snake eating its own tail.

Inside, the watch face was more unusual than I care to explain. The watch had nothing to do with telling the time, and everything to do with telling time what to do.

I had come from 1959, all the way back to 1929. Thirty years.

Science hadn’t brought me here. Aliens hadn’t crash-landed in the Nevada desert, bringing time-traveling technology down to mankind. A nuclear explosion hadn’t knocked me for a time loop.

Instead, I had borrowed a pocket watch from a woman in 1959. Nancy Mattson was the wife of a junior colleague at Concordia University, in Portland. She had a wide brow and a cleft chin. You could just as easily imagine her in a suit and tie as a cocktail dress. She had that kind of mannish face. She was a good hostess—kept the vodka in the freezer box and was never afraid of putting out the sardines or Tabasco sauce.

I don’t know how she knew to give me the watch, but she did.

It was that time of year again, July 16th. I wasn’t teaching summer classes and I didn’t have anything to get me out of bed in the mornings other than running out of cigarettes on my nightstand. It was the anniversary of her death—the woman who should have been my wife. I had lost Laina in Portland thirty years ago, to the day. Now instead of being a young writer with promise, I was a middle-aged professor with leather patches on his elbows to cover up the fabric getting worn through.

I had been invited to a faculty dinner-and-drinks party at Mike Mattson’s house, and I had accepted on the grounds that being bored to death by faculty summer gossip would be less fatal than being home alone that night.

About eight o’clock, Nancy pulled me aside by the drinks table. “Jim, you look like death warmed over. Whatever is the matter? You didn’t get fired, did you?”

“It’s that date again,” I said, swaying a little. I hadn’t gone easy on the ice-cold vodka. Or the sardines. I must have been a real jewel. “Thirty years now. Christ, I shouldn’t have come tonight.”

“That date?” she asked. “What date?”

And, there and then, I was drunk enough to tell her what had happened…

Click here to read more!

New Release: Crime du Jour!

Crime du Jour: 31 Tales of Malfeasance, Misconduct, and Immorality

Kindle | Goodreads

A crime a day keeps the injustice away.

31 very short tales of crime and criminals, from Aggravated Assault to White-Collar Crime, for those days when you need to escape from law and order…

…and through the loopholes to the dark side of justice.

These are the same stories as in the October 2019 series below, but now with an introduction, more editing, and a convenient ebook format.  The ebook is currently exclusively on Kindle as I do some sales testing, but probably won’t stay. Please contact me if you need a non-Kindle verion and are willing to leave me a review on Goodreads or Library Thing 🙂

The major change is to the Homicide story, which is now renamed “The Little Old Ladies’ Club” and has the ending reworked, because I hated it. C’est la guerre.

Crime du Jour, Day 31: White-Collar Crime

Crime du Jour: 31 Days of Malfeasance, Misconduct, and Immorality

One crime story per day, all the way through October. Ebook to be published Nov 1. This will be under my mystery/crime pen name, Diane R. Thompson!


Crime du Jour #31: White-Collar Crime



Once a year—Halloween—the six of them gather at a tasteful mansion in Castle Pines, Colorado. It’s a $2.7-million house, at last guesstimate. The walls are stucco and the walk-out basement is big panes of glass.  There’s a glass walkway indoors, running from one side of the mezzanine to the other, and glass tile walls between rooms.  The dining-room table is made of glass, the fronts of the cabinets are made of glass.  Hearing the description of the house, you might be tempted to make a joke about how people in glass houses should not throw stones.  But the house feels warm and luminous, the kind of house where you can view the worst weather out of the windows with equanimity, because you cannot avoid feeling warm and safe within them. There’s a screening room with theater-style seating in the basement, if that tells you anything.

Within the house are a number of skylights. There are skylights on the roof, of course, but there are also skylights built into the floor inside the house, not extremely large ones, but extremely difficult to walk on. Your every instinct is to avoid them, even though they are perfectly safe. During a party, you might look upward through one of these skylights, and look up a woman’s dress.  Or look downward and see into a room you haven’t glimpsed before, and spend the rest of the night attempting to find it.

At the bottom of the stairs in the basement is a sort of shrine, two half-columns on either side of a glass sculpture, almost like a Chihuly or underwater coral. Visitors have called it a “sort of jellyfish” or “a monster.” Variously, the sculpture is said to symbolize greed, lust, the beauty of the underwater realms, or “an elder thing, something like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu,” according to one of the most spectacularly brilliant financial analysts ever to consult for a member of the six.

She was an odd one, that Nora de Zaldo.

She looked continuously on the edge of tears, or anger. She had dark circles under her eyes, and hollows under her cheeks. She had thin lips, downturned, and curly black hair that she kept pulled back in a severe bun.

Even stranger, she noticed things. She looked downward into the skylight—the one in at the bottom of the back stairs to the second floor; the basement couldn’t be reached from there—and turned to one of the other guests, a promising movie director who hadn’t quite made Hollywood, and said, “I don’t think I belong here.”

The director, also a woman, tried to reassure her.  “If you’ve been invited to one of the six’s summer parties, then you must belong here!” said the woman, still optimistic despite being in her thirties. De Zaldo shuddered, and looked upwards. Above the triangle-shaped skylight set in the floor were two large wood supports, crossed over each other in an X.  (The light on the landing came not from above, but from floor-to-ceiling windows set in a semi-circle along the outer wall.)

So when de Zaldo found herself, at the end of October, in a small room with cement walls, and the only light coming from a skylight above her, she saw the X on the ceiling of the room above her, and understood where she was, if not why. A steel door, hinge-less and without a handle on the inside, blocked her egress. There was a bed, a sink, a toilet, a drain in the floor, a heavy hook on the ceiling, and a small, muffled air vent that did not echo when she banged on its steel mesh. There was no food.

She was wearing a jogging suit, warm but moisture-wicking, clean cotton underwear and an undershirt, but no bra. Her hair was loose, but an elastic hair tie had been left on the back of the sink for her. She pulled her hair up, noting her irrational gratitude for the thoughtfulness it signified.

Why me? she asked herself. Why here?

De Zaldo ran through possibilities, reaching a tentative conclusion that she was being withheld. Not being held prisoner, but being kept out of reach. She waited.

Hours later, the owner of the house appeared, bringing a garlicky pumpkin-tomato soup and a panini, which she set down on the bed. “I hope you don’t mind, dear,” she said, “but Carlos—” One of the other guests at the party, de Zaldo recalled, and a friend of the owner’s— “was getting decidedly fussy about having you killed.”

“Why?” de Zaldo asked.

The woman laughed and named a certain company.  “Because your predictions about their stocks went contrary to his insider information, darling. How dare your math be more accurate than his informants, I think the thinking went. I made millions off your advice.”

“And?” de Zaldo asked.

“Poor Carlos,” the owner said, shaking her head.

A few days later, on Halloween, the owner held an intimate dinner party, entirely unlike the party de Zaldo had attended in July, and much more to her taste. By then, matters had sorted themselves out, and de Zaldo had been released from her bolt-hole, or oubliette, or whatever it was, and was wearing a low-cut velvet top with a lace choker, and a translucent, embroidered pink skirt over black tights. They were coming downstairs from de Zaldo’s guest room, where she had changed.

“And Molly?” de Zaldo asked.

The owner of the house said, “Of course your lady friend is welcome on Thanksgiving, ma chère, but not tonight. Tonight is for the six of us.”

At the landing, de Zaldo hesitated.

Below the glass of the skylight was a pale face, looking up at her. It raised one hand in supplication.

De Zaldo looked up at the owner, who had come to a stop, and wore a half-smile on an already crooked face.

“I thought—”

The owner winked. “Just before midnight,” she said. “And then we hang him for six weeks. A good sacrificial feast never happens on Halloween.”

Crime du Jour, Day 30: Vandalism

Crime du Jour: 31 Days of Malfeasance, Misconduct, and Immorality

One crime story per day, all the way through October. Ebook to be published Nov 1. This will be under my mystery/crime pen name, Diane R. Thompson!


Crime du Jour #30: Vandalism


Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans is a necropolis, a city of the dead.  Although the homes of the dead are smaller, they are better built than the homes of the living, and less likely to succumb to flooding.  The Pontchartrain Expressway runs through the necropolis, dividing it into Greenwood Cemetery to the east, and Metairie Cemetery to the west.  In front of Greenwood along City Park Avenue, there are a few monuments, with the Confederate Tomb visible just as you get off the nearest bus stop. During Katrina, many of the gravestones had toppled, and you could still see the high-water marks stained onto the stone. But there was less damage there than in many of the neighborhoods.

I carried with me one black, hard-sided, 29-inch rolling suitcase, the kind that’s taller than it is wide.  It was dingy and had a scannable airport tag around the handle, as if I’d been flying. I was wearing a business suit and carried a briefcase-slash-laptop bag. I reeked of Wild Turkey, which I sneaked sips from as I rode.

At the corner stop, the bus driver offered to help me with the suitcase. I laughed off the offer, saying that I might be drunk but I wasn’t that drunk. An old woman with a squat oxygen tank got off the bus alongside me, totally ignored by the driver. The driver was white, as was I. The old woman was black.

It had just rained and smelled fresh and invigorating, but with an underlying smell of rot and damp. The bus had left behind the perfume of diesel fuel. All that was missing from the nostalgic, nightmarish scents of Katrina was the smell of rotten flesh, bloated and floating, to take me back to 2005.

I left the old woman behind, passed the front gates, and kept rolling, the wheels thumping heavily and wetly on the ridges of the sidewalk. I turned at Canal Boulevard and kept rolling. The city had not gone to sleep, not quite yet. I soon reached the Greenwood Funeral Home, where the fence was only thigh-high. I boosted the suitcase over it, then worked my way into the cemetery. The wet, rolling wheels echoed on the old cement road, loud to my ears but undoubtedly lost in the echo of cars running along the expressway.  I had long since marked out the particular tomb I wanted, which had been erected in 1890 and featured a fully mortised lock plate behind the antique marble door. Weeks ago, I had tested the lock with a discreet little skeleton key and some WD-40, and was able to turn the lock silently, in full daylight.  That night, the lock opened smoothly. I unzipped the suitcase, disgorged it of my victim, and locked the tomb up again, nice and tight. Then I returned the way I had come, wheels rolling more lightly through the puddles this time. The security cameras would not be checked unless there was a disturbance reported later, which there wouldn’t be. The security guard at the funeral home was higher than a kite.

I turned onto City Park Avenue and walked back to the bus stop. As I walked, I heard a low hissing sound.  A light glowed at the front of the Confederate Monument on the corner. In the distance a police siren made a soft “whoop-whoop,” almost of surprise, and my ears pricked up.

I kept walking with an unhurried pace, letting myself stumble from time to time: making noise.

The light snapped off, the hissing stopped, and someone grunted out a curse, then, “Almost!”

Almost what? I wondered.

The streetlight caught several dark shapes moving at the base of the tomb.

The soldier atop the monument had been defaced, or rather beheaded.  The rest of him had been painted neon green, with an additional application of what appeared to be pink feathers. Paint fumes bit at my nose. On the base of the statue were letters, which I could not read then but later proved to be “HEADLESS MOTHERFU.”

The old woman waited there at the head-high, wrought-iron fence opposite the bus stop, sans oxygen tank.

A shadowed form scampered away from the tomb, hissing, “They’re coming!” then boosted itself halfway up the fence, improbably hefting the heavy oxygen tank, along with enough tubes and attachments to turn it into something else entirely, at the woman, who caught it but struggled to lower it to the sidewalk.

“The bag too!” she hissed, but the dark shape had disappeared across the lawn, into the rows of tombs.

I jogged over to help the old woman untangle herself. The oxygen tank appeared to be rigged up as a sandblaster, all the better to etch marble and granite with. It was dusted with dark grit.

I bent over, unscrewed the various tubes, shoved them into my suitcase, and wiped the tank down with a clean towel just as the bright lights of the bus pulled up alongside us: the last bus of the night. Wordlessly, the old woman attached a clear tube from tank to nostrils. I helped ther onto the bus, then struggled after her with my bags in tow, again refusing help. It was the same driver.

He ignored the old woman, asking me, “She kick you out of the house?”

“She called me a–a motherfucker,” I said, with the dignified tones of a longtime drunk. The bus driver laughed, waited until I’d sat down, then pulled away from the curb.

The old woman was still on her feet, and I heard the oxygen tank clank against one of the seats as we sped up under the streetlights. He must have had selective vision.

He hadn’t even noticed a green-and-pink feathered statue.

I got off along Metairie Road, stole a Honda sedan out of someone’s driveway, and went home to Colorado, keeping the key and the sandblaster gun as souvenirs.



Geeky gothics and other strange & wonderful fiction: sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter here. Includes two tales of Doctor Rudolpho, a teenaged fortune-teller who has the Sight.  If you enjoyed today’s story, please consider signing up!

You can find 2018’s story-a-day project, Tales of the Normal, here, and 2017’s story-a-day project, October Nights, here.

Crime du Jour, Day 29: Telemarketing Fraud

Crime du Jour: 31 Days of Malfeasance, Misconduct, and Immorality

One crime story per day, all the way through October. Ebook to be published Nov 1. This will be under my mystery/crime pen name, Diane R. Thompson!


Crime du Jour #29: Telemarketing Fraud



So our son, Charles.

Every man wants to think that his son will replace him in the world, and carry on a sort of immortality for him. Every man is disappointed to discover that his son can’t do that.

As Charles became a grown man, I began to lose touch with him.

I can’t blame it on “kids these days” or video games or even porn. Lynette thinks I’m just missing the fact that Charles is a genius, and he has so far exceeded me that I simply can’t follow. Lynette, although she has always been the sweetness in my life, has a blind spot when it comes to that boy. She always coddled him, saying that the way we were raised wasn’t good enough. I’ll grant her that. Nothing is ever good enough for your kids, if you have the ability to love them. You tear yourself open, thinking, What can I do to make his life better? It’s never enough.


This is different.

Charles is a grown man. Lynette says he’s not quite a grown man, but he is. He’s reached his full growth. When he was sixteen he was already six feet, looked like a damned scarecrow. He’s twenty-two now, never had a job. No plans to move out. He can drive but he won’t. He’s on the computer all day in the basement. Boxes arrive at the front door for him. I ask Lynette if she’s paying for what comes in, and she says she isn’t. I haven’t quite stooped to checking her credit card bills, but it may come to that.

He doesn’t speak to us. I can hear him talking to himself downstairs. Lynette brings him food. The only time he comes upstairs is to pick up his boxes. He’s a stranger.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think he has a cache of guns in the basement. I don’t think I’m going to be on the news one day as “parents found dead in home after killer goes on a murderous rampage.” I don’t think we’re going to find out that Charles is a serial killer, or a rapist, or some kind of weird digital pedophile. I don’t think that.

The sound in the house carries. From the air vents I can hear him talk. He started out saying things like, “This confidential message is to inform you that a legal matter will be filed against you within the next twenty-four hours.” And “We are contacting you in regards to a complaint being filed against you.” And “I’m calling today to offer you the opportunity of a lifetime.”

At first I thought he had a job working for an online call center. Even a telemarketing fraud company. But I quickly disabused myself of the notion. It’s the way he repeats the same phrase over and over again, with a different tone each time: “I understand and I appreciate your concern. I understand, and I appreciate your concern. I understand, and I appreciate your concern.

That went on for months.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, it got stranger.

“Hello, is this Mrs. Johnson? My name is Charles Adair, and I’m calling about a confidential manner,” he’d say. Then, “Confidential matter.” There’d be a pause, and he’d say, “Confidential matter, confidential matter. Hello, is this Mrs. Johnson? My name is Charles Adair, and I’m calling about a confidential matter. Yes, that’s right.”

He talked to himself—corrected himself—for hours. All day and all night.

Lynette says everything is fine, that he’s working on a programming project. I ask her what it is, and she says it’s a secret.

Yesterday, Lynette came down with the flu. I got my shot at work, but she kept putting off getting hers, and now it’s too late. Charles, of course, won’t leave the house to get his. It’ll just “slow him down.” I’m making everyone’s meals today, both because Lynette is bedridden and because she doesn’t dare touch anything he might eat.

I make him tomato soup and a couple of cheese sandwiches, then go downstairs and tap on the door of his room.

“Just leave it outside,” Charles calls.

“We need to talk,” I say.

“Not now, Dad,” Charles says.

I open the door. He’s sitting in the dark with the computer screen turning his face into a blank silhouette. He sighs and says, “What do you want, Dad?”

“I’m worried about you,” I say.

“I realize that I live like a slug down here,” he says, “but it’s a big project.”

“What is it?”

“I’m working on an artificial intelligence program that can run scripts in a natural-sounding voice for first-tier technical support, charity phone banks, things like that.”

“Telemarketers,” I say. “I’ve heard you speaking. The sound just kind of carries.”

He sighs again. “Okay, I am testing it out as a telemarketing scam,” he admits.

“Why?” I ask. “Some kind of get-rich-quick scheme?”

“There’s no such thing as a get rich-slow-scheme anymore, Dad,” he says, which is true. It’s get rich quick or inherit, these days.

I say, “I understand how that is, but all the money in the world won’t do you any good, Charles, if you don’t take care of your health. And your relationships.”

He says, “You’re probably right about my health. But…if this works, I can write a program that talks to girls and lets the AI weed out the ones who will never like me. I’ll save years that way.”

I give him a chuckle. “I suppose you will, at that. Just remember to move your lips when you’re talking to someone in person. Otherwise it gives the whole show away.”

His jaw dropped.

“Your mom sends you her love,” I said. “Be sure to have your computer call her. She’ll like that.”



Geeky gothics and other strange & wonderful fiction: sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter here. Includes two tales of Doctor Rudolpho, a teenaged fortune-teller who has the Sight.  If you enjoyed today’s story, please consider signing up!

You can find 2018’s story-a-day project, Tales of the Normal, here, and 2017’s story-a-day project, October Nights, here.


Crime du Jour, Day 28: Tax Evasion

Crime du Jour: 31 Days of Malfeasance, Misconduct, and Immorality

One crime story per day, all the way through October. Ebook to be published Nov 1. This will be under my mystery/crime pen name, Diane R. Thompson!


Crime du Jour #28: Tax Evasion



I long since discovered that I cannot live the life of an innocent man. Instead I have tried to live the life of an honest one.  After high school, I went to work as an errand-boy for a life insurance company, National Life & Trust. They liked me well enough, and promoted me to sales agent, a career at which I was moderately, but not extravagantly, successful.

My first fraud case was that of Anthony Lombardi.

When a kid starts out as an errand boy at National Life & Trust, he’s tested. For example, two agents will both claim they’ve sold a policy to the same client. It’s clear that there’s something wrong with the situation. One of the agents is the boy’s “special” mentor. The way the boy handles the situation marks him.

Conspiracy and dishonesty are complications that all life-insurance agents should avoid.  That’s what Mr. Roberts, the president of the company always said, and I agree with him.

Anthony Lombardi was a self-employed accountant, age 63, married to Veronica Lombardi, age 58, living in Rhode Island. One of Lombardi’s clients was Louis Andreozzi, the owner of a profitable groundskeeping company with possible ties to the mob. We had a saying at National Life & Trust: it’s not the crime that gets you, it’s the cleanup.  Mr. Lombardi was one of the first people I ever sold a policy to.  The other agents complimented me on my success, but conversation would fall suspiciously short whenever his name came up.

Several years passed.

Mr. Andreozzi was arrested and charged with tax evasion and racketeering.

One day, Mr. Roberts called me into his office to chat. “So, Mr. O’Neil.  Tell me about your cases.” Naturally, the subject of Mr. Andreozzi came up.

I told Mr. Roberts about the hush that fell whenever the case was mentioned. “I’m not sure what will come of it, Mr. Roberts, but I will do my best to handle the situation with integrity and good judgment.”

Mr. Roberts shook my hand when he dismissed me, but I wasn’t sure that I’d deserved it—yet.

When the other shoe dropped, it fell so strangely I almost missed it.

Mr. Lombardi, as expected, was arrested for aiding and abetting his client, Mr. Andreozzi, in evading the payment of his taxes. In case of such an eventuality, I had looked up the details of his policy.  The policy would be paid to Mrs. Lombardi if Mr. Lombardi died in prison, as long as he didn’t commit suicide or benefit financially from his crime.

Mr. Lombardi was released on bail.  (A high amount was set for Mr. Andreozzi’s bail, and he remained in prison.)  The night before Mr. Lombardi was to return to court, he drove off an embankment into the Scituate Reservoir and drowned.

The question was: was it an accident, murder, or had he killed himself? Was National Life & Trust required to pay out the policy, or wasn’t it?

The coroner seemed to be of the opinion that Lombardi’s death was suicide.

National Life & Trust had several investigators especially trained to look into such matters, but, as a rule, the agent who had sold the policy accompanied the investigator on his investigations.

The investigator’s name was John Madeiros. He had been my mentor when I had been but an errand boy, and had been promoted to investigator the same time I’d made agent. We went to the morgue in Providence where Mr. Lombardi’s body was being held pending identification.  The widow, Mrs. Lombardi, had fainted when she had been given the news, and had hit her head. Most of Mr. Lombardi’s family did not live in the United States, and his employer, Mr. Andreozzi, was obviously not available.

As we were waiting for someone who could perform the official identification, in walked Mr. Lombardi.

He was greeted with surprise, as you might imagine.  He was shown into the room where “his” body was being kept.  He took one look at it, shook his head, and said, “Nope, that ain’t me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I got a trial to go to.”

He never arrived.

Even my mentor was puzzled by the case. If Mr. Lombardi wished to fake his own death, why reappear to identify the body?  If it was a simple case of mistaken identity, why not take advantage of the situation to simply disappear? Or was the second man the imposter?  If so, who had sent him, and how had the disguise been made so convincing? I had spoken to Mr. Lombardi during the sale of his policy, and recognized him by appearance as well as by voice.

John offered to let me avoid the autopsy of the dead man—whoever he was—but I stuck it out. Afterward, we went to the widow’s home for an interview. She seemed remarkably well. My mentor did the interviewing, while I wandered the house, searching for something.

I soon found it.

And that’s how Mr. Andreozzi got off charges of tax evasion: Mr. and Mrs. Lombardi had cooked up a scheme to launder money for the Mafia without Mr. Lombardi’s knowledge, stripped the business profits clean when Mr. Andreozzi became suspicious, and arranged to flee to South America. A clever plan.

But they had tried to take it one step too far.

Mrs. Lombardi was arrested at home, Mr. Lombardi was stopped before boarding an international flight out of San Francisco, and both went to prison for first-degree, premeditated murder, as well as multiple other charges. National Life & Trust might have argued that Mr. Lombardi’s policy was invalid, but instead earmarked the money for charity upon the resolution of Mr. Lombardi’s estate, or the cessation of monthly payments—whichever came first.

When the coroner had hinted that Mr. Lombardi’s death might be a suicide, he had put the life-insurance policy at stake, and Mr. Lombardi’s conveniently-invited-to-visit-America twin brother suddenly became an inconvenience.

Mrs. Lombardi had missed taking down a photo of the twin brothers from the old country, you see.



Geeky gothics and other strange & wonderful fiction: sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter here. Includes two tales of Doctor Rudolpho, a teenaged fortune-teller who has the Sight.  If you enjoyed today’s story, please consider signing up!

You can find 2018’s story-a-day project, Tales of the Normal, here, and 2017’s story-a-day project, October Nights, here.










Crime du Jour, Day 27: Shoplifting

Crime du Jour: 31 Days of Malfeasance, Misconduct, and Immorality

One crime story per day, all the way through October. Ebook to be published Nov 1. This will be under my mystery/crime pen name, Diane R. Thompson!


Crime du Jour #27: Shoplifting



Condition: New, handmade
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2+: $35.99 (10% off each)
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Item Specifics:

Condition: New without tags: A brand-new, unused, and unworn item (including handmade items) that is not in the original packaging and/or does not have the original tags attached.

Color: Silver

Metal: Silver Plated

Brand: Unbranded

UPC: Does not apply

Metal purity: German silver

Style: Chain

Length (inches): 8.5”

Theme: Luck

Every charm comes with a FREE gift!

I am a practitioner of the magical arts, and I have performed a ritual over each silver Glücksschwein charm bracelet, imbuing it with positive energy. A Glücksschwein, or “good-luck pig,” is a traditional German symbol of good luck, and many Germans of all ages carry them!

Along with each Glücksschwein bracelet comes an extra charm, a tiny handcuff charm! Just clip the handcuff charm to your Glücksschwein bracelet, and, if you’re ever in trouble with the law, twist the handcuffs to snap the handcuff attaching it to your bracelet, drop it somewhere it won’t be found, and you’ll receive extra good luck! If your handcuff charm falls off, that mean it has already…


You can order other Glücksschwein items at my store, including necklaces, keychains, cell phone charms, and more! I also carry extra handcuff charms for purchase in case yours falls off!


Please send me a message if you would like a CUSTOM RITUAL for your charm!

!!!Please note!!!

All charms have a small LUCK symbol scratched in the back!! Your charm is not damaged!!! Just lucky!!!!!


Silver Pig Charm

Length: 7.5”, extension 1”

Lock: Lobster

***approximate measurement***

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Your Glücksschwein charm will do its best, but some situations are more than even a Glücksschwein can handle! No returns accepted!  It is not fair to use the luck on a Glücksschwein charm, then try to pass off a used charm to someone else!

No luck is guaranteed! Sometimes the stars just have it in for you.  Your Glücksschwein tried…but sometimes even the best spells can’t do what you need them to do!


Feedback is very important. I strive for 5-star service. I will do whatever I can to satisfy my buyers! Please contact me if you need to change your luck spell…I will see what I can do!  Please contact me about any problems before leaving negative feedback!!!

Armstrong Jewelry has been doing business since 2001. I am located in downtown Los Angeles.  You can contact me for lots of different charms, bracelets, palm and tarot readings including SOULMATE readings, PSYCHIC HEALINGS, and more!  If you come to the store in person, you can ALWAYS pick up a free handcuff charm, or recharge the spell on your Glücksschwein!!!

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ratings and Reviews:
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Most Relevant Reviews:

Good luck pig kept the real pigs off my back as I did a walkout with over $500 of electronics stuffed down my sweatpants, lol. Didn’t even have to snap my CUFFS.

Chain broke first day I put it on, attached it back together with both ends of cuff charm, cuff charm broke while I was in changing room. Got a bad feeling, put $$$ yoga pants back on hanger and walked out. Stopped by store dick but I was CLEAN. Listen 2UR CHARM!

Six people, six lucky pig charms, six stores, six hours, SIX THOUSAND DOLLARS merch. Good planning or good luck!?! EXTRA LUCK if you pay for the charm using the buy it once, return it twice trick.

My credit card LOVES my Armstrong lucky pig bracelet!!!

I got arrested in 2012 wearing FIRST lucky pig bracelet, grocery store in my hometown. I was broke and it was my first time, lol. I got off with a warning, cop didn’t even write my name down, on my way home he bought me food at a gas station. I cried and said I would never do it again, only thing I did right. I wasn’t even wearing a jacket, lol. Cuff charm even fell off in cop car, I kicked it under the mat so the cop wouldn’t see it.

Five years pass, it’s 2017, my time had come. I’m in a porn shop, I get cocky, try to steal some magazines.  TIP: NEVER STEAL FROM A PORN STORE.  Much heavier security than the big box stores, lol.  The clerk who busted me sees the charm and starts laughing so hard he’s crying, tears thru his mascara. He shows me his keychain, he’s got a charm too!  We both laugh.  He let me go after I gave him my handcuff charm. We dated and the handcuff charm broke the day we broke up, and I went to Armstrong’s to get Madame Armstrong to pick up a new charm and get a new spell put on mine. Like she says, some situations are more than even a lucky pig can handle.

2019, same bracelet, about a dozen different cuff charms later. I’m in the hospital for cancer and they say I have six months. No more boosting for me, it’s the end—or is it? Chain breaks, suddenly I’m in remission. Lucky pig boosted me out of the back seat of Death’s cop car, lol.  Got chain replaced on old bracelet, buying new bracelet for nephew. Happy boosting!



Geeky gothics and other strange & wonderful fiction: sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter here. Includes two tales of Doctor Rudolpho, a teenaged fortune-teller who has the Sight.  If you enjoyed today’s story, please consider signing up!

You can find 2018’s story-a-day project, Tales of the Normal, here, and 2017’s story-a-day project, October Nights, here.


Crime du Jour, Day 26: Sexual Assault

Note: This one goes very dark, but not brutally dark. 

Crime du Jour: 31 Days of Malfeasance, Misconduct, and Immorality

One crime story per day, all the way through October. Ebook to be published Nov 1. This will be under my mystery/crime pen name, Diane R. Thompson!


Crime du Jour #26: Sexual Assault



Warren Wade had been exonerated.  Everyone knew who his family was, but no one said that explicitly.  It didn’t have to be said. Before that, he’d been suspended last year for a day for stockpiling guns—basically, his mother had freaked out about his antique Colt collection after an incident where he’d threatened her if she ever came in his room again, and she’d called Superintendent Rideout, a friend of hers, to say that Warren planned to take his guns to school and start shooting. But he hadn’t been planning to do anything like that. He’d broken up with that one girl Rebecca, but it wasn’t about that, either, the way the gossip said. It was literally just about his mom going into his room.

And then that bitch Elizabeth had started stuffing notes inside lockers.

There’s a rapist here and you know who it is.

Rideout had had Elizabeth suspended for three days. Plus the two other girls who had helped pass the notes, but only Elizabeth had stood on the front steps and protested about it.

He’d seen her on the steps that afternoon, turned around, and gone home out the door the teachers used for smoke breaks. First he’d gone to Principal Farris to tell her that Elizabeth was bullying him, making him uncomfortable. And then Farris had taken him to the teachers’ lounge and let him out that way, promising him that she’d send homework home for him.

She had a mean look in her eye, which Warren liked.

So far, he’d received about a dozen expressions of sympathy from the staff, and his grades had gone up. The girl who’d gone whining to Elizabeth had even started smiling him again.

I should do this more often, he thought. It was a nice game of chess.

Warren’s house overlooked a tiny cove leading out onto the Atlantic. Looking out that direction, you could see nothing but ocean. The beach was full of rocks, good for skipping but absolute shit for lying out on, with or without a towel. Plus it was fucking cold.  Warren’s room on the second floor overlooked the back terrace, flagstones, his dad’s lap pool, and a heated jacuzzi built into the hillside.  Warren imagined a serial killer or one of the masked attackers from The Purge breaking into the French doors on the lower floor some night, and him going downstairs with one his Colts—he kept a few of them loaded—and then stalking and killing the attacker.  He hadn’t been planning to shoot up his school.  Some nights, he left the back door “accidentally” unlocked, hoping that some thief would at least check. But none ever did.

Elizabeth’s protest was on the news.  The liberals picked it up and ran with it.  Warren’s friends asked him if he was going to do anything about it, if he was polishing his guns and they should stay home from school.


Not like that.

He waited a week, two weeks. Then he went back to school.

He waited. Two days after he went back—the story was still in the news—he got another note shoved into his locker.

There’s a rapist here and you know who it is.

Nobody was supposed to know about it, but Elizabeth had a girlfriend.  Her name was Max, a boy’s name. Elizabeth didn’t look like a lesbian, either the porn kind or the butch kind. She just looked like a girl, with long blonde hair and chubbo thighs. But her girlfriend was definitely a lesbian. She wore a leather jacket and a biker hat and rode a motorcycle. Warren had had to find out for sure that she wasn’t actually trans, because Max had serious MAN-VIBES. But no, she was just a lesbian. For now. Maybe she’d change her mind later and start peeing in the men’s room. Warren wasn’t disgusted by her. In fact he’d been briefly intrigued, but it turned out actual lesbians were just as boring as everyone else. Except that no one was supposed to know she and Elizabeth were dating. They didn’t hang out at school. But Max lived near him. He’d seen Elizabeth on the back of Max’s bike, her blonde head leaning against Max’s shoulder. Max’s parents weren’t rich. They were barely middle-class. But the town was weird like that: multi-million-dollar houses overlooking the ocean, and three- to five-hundred thousand dollars everywhere else. There weren’t any actual poor people in their town—except for the help, but they drove in from shitty apartments in Portland with their shitty cars and their shitty buckets of cleaning supplies.

He had toyed with the idea of revenge the whole time he was away from school.  How to get back at Elizabeth.

Then Max had come to his house with his homework, looking disgusted, and it had all dropped into place as she handed him a plastic grocery sack with books and papers in it.

“Thanks,” he’d said.

Her nostrils had flared. And that was what had made up his mind.

All he had to do was stuff a note inside Max’s locker, saying what he was going to do to Elizabeth that night, and making fun of Max for not being man enough to stop him.

And then leave the French doors unlocked and the security system off, make sure his mom had plenty of Valium in her system—his dad was out of town, in New York for the week on business—clean a couple of his guns, and wait.

He’d even say that Max had tried to rape him before he shot her.

It would be a nice touch.



Geeky gothics and other strange & wonderful fiction: sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter here. Includes two tales of Doctor Rudolpho, a teenaged fortune-teller who has the Sight.  If you enjoyed today’s story, please consider signing up!

You can find 2018’s story-a-day project, Tales of the Normal, here, and 2017’s story-a-day project, October Nights, here.


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