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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Six Reasons Why "Sleepy Hollow," Episode 7 Was the Show's Best Yet ("Midnight Ride")

I rarely want to watch a TV show twice. Unlike movies, some of which I will watch over and over, TV is largely disposable, unless it's something like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Even rarer still is an episode of TV that is SO good I want to watch it again immediately.

Yet Monday's episode of "Sleepy Hollow" was just such an episode. "The Midnight Ride" highlighted everything that is so enjoyable about the series as a whole and immediately became the best episode of the series' brief history to date. Here's why:

Now I have a shotgun. Ho, Ho, Ho.
1) The Horseman is back!
"The Midnight Ride" featured the triumphant and kick-ass return of the Headless Horseman. In my last blog, I talked about how smart it was to keep the Horseman in reserve, as featuring him every week would quickly prove tiresome. After teasing his return for two episodes, "Sleepy Hollow" showcased just what a fantastic villain the Horseman really is. He used automatic weapons, threw his axe at a main character and -- in addition to taking several heads -- later used them as makeshift Jack O' Lanterns. He was intimidating, violent and scary as hell. I loved every moment he was on screen.

2) The humor was better than ever
Every episode of "Sleepy Hollow" has featured some stand-out touches of humor, most of them based around Ichabod Crane's adjustment to the 21st Century. But this episode, in addition to being both scary and exciting, was also laugh-out-loud funny. Ichabod's confrontation with a museum guide discussing Paul Revere's "Midnight Ride" was the highlight, with the 18th Century former soldier ranting, "He didn't shout 'The British Were Coming.' As we were all subjects  of the Crown, that wouldn't have been very helpful, would it?" Yet there were also terrific exchanges about the relative difficulty of getting to London, "That's a three month journey by sea" and his first accidental encounter with Internet porn. The conversation about Thomas Jefferson was also excellent, as was Ichabod's conclusion: "You never really know people, do you?"

3) John Cho returns
Dead Man Walking and Shining Flashlight
This episode featured two villains. While the Horseman was riding once more, John Cho's dead Officer Brooks was also back. In addition to frightening Detective Morales, "You'll have to choose a side," he also confronted Abbie Mills. What makes Cho's character great is his reluctant nature and the audience's inability to assess his true loyalties. He makes it very clear he doesn't want to work for the bad guys, but feels compelled to do so. He even justifies himself that he's trying to "save Abbie." Figuring out exactly what he's up to and why is an ongoing mystery, and one I hope we don't solve quickly.

Have severed head, will travel.
4) Captain Irving finally clues in
From the show's beginning, the writers have played it coy with Orlando Jones' Captain Irving. One minute he's insisting that none of this is possible and the next he's approving some crazy scheme by Abbie and Ichabod. I've always been secretly convinced Irving knows damn well what's going on, he just didn't want to admit it. But that guess turned out to be wrong. After dismissing the existence of the Headless Horseman, Irving later comes face-to-face with the Hessian cavalry officer -- and in the process becomes a believer. That changes some of the nature of the show, and undoubtedly will make Irving a more integral part of what's going on.

5) The Midnight Ride

Aside from the Headless Horseman and the names, "Sleepy Hollow" has little in common with the short story that inspired it. So it's nice to see an homage to "The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow" included in an episode. Ichabod's final ride against the Horseman was directly drawn from Washington Irving's story and even if it only lasted a couple minutes, it was still awesome.
"It's not my head, but I'll take it anyway."

6) The Ending

The showdown between Ichabod, Abbie and the Headless Horseman was expertly done. How do you defeat Death itself? The show wisely doesn't offer up a solution to the problem, but instead focuses on a way around it. The finale, which involved the Horseman trying to reclaim his head, was tense, funny and dramatic. Exactly like the show itself.

Shameless plug: If you like "Sleepy Hollow," check out my novels, which feature the Headless Horseman in an entirely new mythology.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Guilt and Monsters -- Review of Sleepy Hollow Episode 6 "The Sin Eater"

Half the fun of a show based around a monster is the anticipation of its arrival. Indeed, most horror movies and TV shows go right down hill once the monster actually shows up.

So the writers and producers of "Sleepy Hollow" have played it smart in letting the Headless Horseman -- whose presence is conjured up by the title "Sleepy Hollow" -- keep a relatively low profile. Beyond a feature role in the pilot episode, the Horseman has been seen only in dream sequences and one brief teaser at the end of an episode, which concluded with him strolling out of a river (maybe he needed a bath). This has frustrated a few fans, but overall allowed the series to establish one clear fact: this show is NOT about the Headless Horseman. He's the villain and he's not going to show up every episode.

"I'm just dying to get some new puns."

This is vitally important because familiarity is a poison that kills any sense of tension. Just ask any horror franchise villain, like Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees or Mike Myers. The more you see them, the less scary they get. Keeping the Horseman away has let viewers anxiously anticipate his arrival in a way they never would if he popped up all the time.

Since the finale of Episode 5, the writers have been teasing us, however, with the Horseman's return. In Episode 6, "The Sin Eater," we are told again and again that the Horseman will return "tonight," but aside from a brief appearance in Abbie Mills' dream, we never actually see him. Yet his presence hovers over the entire episode, letting it build an extremely satisfying narrative tension.

Perhaps just as important, "The Sin Eater" breaks with the rest of the series by forgoing the usual monster-of-the-week in favor of a more internal struggle. Technically, there's a new monster in the form of Ichabod Crane's British commander, but he's not the point of the episode. Instead, it focuses on Ichabod's guilt over the death of a freed slave when he still lived in the 18th Century. Ordered to torture Arthur Bernard until he reveals the name of the treasonous "Cicero," who is writing tracts calling for the Colonies to rebel, Crane reluctantly obeys before finally setting him free. What he doesn't count on, however, are the forces that are hunting both Ichabod and Bernard.

For a show normally about evil in an external form, like a witch or a Native American demon, it was an interesting twist for it to instead delve into the evil that lies in a man's heart. Ichabod's fate turned not on whether he could defeat an external force, but rather forgive himself for the choices he made.

This is Ichabod's really hot wife.
"The Sin Eater" was also notable, in addition to the appearance of Fringe's John Noble as a recurring character, for its spectacular acting. Simply put, this episode couldn't have worked without some forceful performances from Tom Mison (Ichabod) and Nicole Beharie as Abbie Mills. Abbie's efforts to save Ichabod, as well as convince him not to sacrifice himself to stop the Horseman, were incredibly moving. Technically, the characters have only known each other for a few weeks, so a scene like this could have been less than credible, but its due to the strength of Beharie and Mison that it works. Katia Winter also turns in a terrific performance as Katrina Van Tassel. My only wish is that the writers give her more scenes to appear in as when she does, she is electrifying.

Overall, despite the fact that the Horseman didn't show up yet, this was an excellent episode that ably showed off the writers and cast's ability to make us care about the characters even when they aren't fighting the Headless Horseman or other monsters. Or, more precisely, the show makes us care when they are fighting the demons inside us all.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Preview of the A Soul to Steal Audiobook (Letter from Lord Halloween)

It's still in production, but since it IS Halloween, I thought I would drop a quick sample from A Soul To Steal (The Sanheim Chronicles, Book One)'s audiobook version. The following is Lord Halloween's first letter to Tim Anderson, the Loudoun Chronicle's crime reporter. It is performed by Brian Gill, who -- in addition to being a close friend of mine -- is a professional actor and theater professor. I cannot say enough wonderful things about his reading -- it gave me chills. I'm really looking forward to releasing the full audiobook, which will hopefully be out by yearend.

But enough talk. Take a listen. And I hope you have a wonderfully scary Halloween!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Ten Best Songs for Halloween

It should be obvious by now that I’m obsessed with Halloween. I’ve written three books centered around the holiday, glory in all the traditions associated with it (ghost stories, costumes, candy) and even go so far as taking the day off work to ensure I never miss a moment of it. One way that I get into the spirit is by playing my substantial Halloween-themed playlist, filled with songs about ghosts, vampires, and anything else that goes bump in the night.
Following are ten of my favorite songs from that playlist, and while there are undoubtedly many that you know, my hope is that you find a few that are unfamiliar. In the comment section, be sure to tell me what your favorite Halloween songs are.

No. 10 — Dead Man’s Party by Oingo Boingo

These days, Danny Elfman is better known as a film score composer (Batman, Spider-Man, The Nightmare Before Christmas) than as the lead singer for the new wave band Oingo Boingo. But Elfman’s knack for dark themes was already apparent in 1986 when this song premiered. As befitting a party, the song’s tune is upbeat, featuring a blistering and catchy horn part, but the lyrics are what make this song especially perfect for Halloween. “It’s a dead man’s party, who could ask for more? It’s a dead man’s party, leave your body (and soul) at the door.” Later in the song, Elfman repeatedly sings, “Don’t run away; it’s only me.” But I have the distinct impression this is one party you don’t want to attend.

Hear it on Spotify here. Buy it on Amazon MP3 here: Dead Man's Party

No. 9 — Cry Little Sister by Gerard McMann 

It's not even fair to call this a one-hit wonder, as it never actually charted on Billboard or elsewhere. Still, "Cry Little Sister," the single off The Lost Boys soundtrack, has been covered by multiple artists and even sampled by Eminem since its debut in 1987. Part of that is undoubtedly because of the movie it's attached to, which remains a cult favorite. But the song itself has a menacing back beat that's spooky and hard to forget. Its brilliance, however, is in the chorus. As the male lead singer sings to be released, a choir of children's voices intone faux-Biblical commandments like "Thou shalt not fall" and "Thou shalt not fly." Their final statement, in which they emphasize the last word, is an actual commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." The song never talks about vampires directly, yet the reference to flying and killing makes it clear that is what they are talking about. 

Hear it on Spotify here. Buy it on Amazon MP3 here: Cry Little Sister [Theme From Lost Boys]

No. 8 — Nature Trail to Hell by "Weird Al" Yankovic

If you've only heard Weird Al's parody songs, you are missing out on the man's unmistakable genius. When he isn't constrained by someone else's tune, Yankovic can knock out a helluva good song. Case in point is "Nature Trail to Hell in 3D," an ode to slasher films. As you would expect, it's damn funny with a title like that and lyrics like this: "See severed heads that almost fall right in your lap, see that bloody hatchet coming right at you. Know you'll never see hideous effects like these again, until we bring you Nature Trail to Hell, Part II. So bring the kids along, it's good, clean family fun. What have you got to lose? If you like the Six O'Clock News, then you'll love...Nature Trail to Hell." But the best part is that the song is actually really good. The synthesizer part is the best I've heard in a rock song, second only to A-Ha's "Take on Me." Seriously, I wish I could play it on Rock Band 3. The accompanying sound effects, including an ominous bell tolling, storm effects, and a backward subliminal message ("Satan Eats Cheese Whiz,") help make the song the perfect mix of terrifying, catchy and hilarious.

Don't believe me? Listen to it on Spotify here. Buy it on Amazon MP3 here: Nature Trail To Hell

No. 7 — Headless Horseman by Bing Crosby

Given my obsession with "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," it's only natural I would love this 1949 Bing Crosby chestnut first shown in the Disney cartoon adaptation of Washington Irving's classic tale.  It's not modern by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a lot of fun. The lyrics include some bad puns —  "He'll show them that he can get ahead" —  but the lyrical interpretation of Brom Bones meeting the Headless Horseman one Halloween night is impossible to resist.

It's not on Spotify, but you can buy it on Amazon MP3 here: The Headless Horseman  

No. 6 — Bloodletting by Concrete Blonde

This is arguably the best song about vampires ever written, and I don't say that lightly. Like Sting's "Moon Over Bourbon Street," the lyrics appear directly inspired by Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles, including references to New Orleans in the chorus. But whereas Sting's song is quiet and introspective, "Bloodletting" rocks. The guitar riff is jagged and hypnotic, and the lyrics are hardcore horror: "There's a crack in the mirror and a bloodstain on the bed... You were a vampire and baby I'm the walking dead." Add in some bat sound effects and some eerie laughing at the end, and this song makes me want to pull the covers over my head. (For what it's worth, buy the extended edition, which adds a little extra horror to the song.)

Hear it on Spotify here: Buy it on Amazon MP3 here: Bloodletting (The Vampire Song) (Extended Version)

No. 5 — This is Halloween by Danny Elfman

The first track from "The Nightmare Before Christmas" soundtrack is also its best, a thrilling tribute to all the monsters that lurk on Halloween night. There's a shout-out here to almost every thriller out there, from vampires to witches to the "clown with the tear-away face." The childish sing-song is also creepy and catchy at the same time: "In this town, we call home, everyone hail to the Pumpkin song." The best part about the song: it uniquely captures the spirit of All Hallow's Eve. Yes, it's all about the scares, but as the creatures sing, "That's our job, but we're not mean, in our town of Halloween." These are innocent scares, the kind that are designed to spook but not terrify. Just like the holiday.

Hear it on Spotify here. Buy it on Amazon MP3 here: This Is Halloween

No. 4 — Boadicea by Enya

I know what you're thinking. Enya? Don't you use her music to relax in a bubble bath? Why, no, of course I don't. That would be unmanly. I take only cold showers in the open air. But hang on with me a second. Go listen to the song on Spotify here. Take your time, I'll wait. You see what I'm talking about? There are no lyrics, but the melody is downright haunting. There's an air of menace to this song. In my mind's eye, it's the music that plays at the beginning of my first novel, "A Soul to Steal."

Buy it on Amazon MP3 here: Boadicea (Remastered 2009)

No. 3 — Haunted by Poe

Fittingly, this song (and the album it comes from) was released on Oct. 31, 2000. It's easy to see why. As the title would suggest, the song is about a woman haunted by a ghost — one that she seems reluctant to see depart: "One more look at the ghost before I'm gonna make it leave." And yet the song suggests the singer may also be a spirit, beginning by saying "Can you tell me where I am?" and later "You and me and these shadows keep on changing." Overall, it's a song about love, loss and grief. "I'm haunted by the hallways in this tiny room, the echoes there of me and you." The final coda, in which a young child says, "My heart won't break before I cry... I will go mad," ends it on a deliciously creepy note. During October, I have this song on repeat.

Listen to it on Spotify here. Buy it on Amazon MP3 here: Haunted

No. 2 — The Devil Went Down to Georgia by The Charlie Daniels Band

This song is so fantastic that I took all three titles from The Sanheim Chronicles from its lyrics: A Soul To Steal, Band of Demons, and Give the Devil His Due.
 Everything about the song works, from its lyrics, which tell the story of how a boy named Johnny has a fiddle competition with the Devil, to its tune, which transitions between country, rock n' roll and bluegrass. The actual fiddling here is drop-your-jaw amazing and if you want to see how difficult it is, ask the next fiddle player you meet to play it live. Ultimately, the song is all the sweeter because Johnny prevails, taunting the Devil: "I done told you once, you son of a bitch, I'm the best that's ever been." It's both a song and a short story. I would put it as my favorite song for Halloween, but for the existence of this next hit...

Listen to it on Spotify here. Buy it on Amazon MP3 here: The Devil Went Down To Georgia

No. 1 — Thriller by Michael Jackson

Catchy pop song? Check. Dancing zombies in music video? Check. Creepy lyrics about ghouls and demons? Check. Vincent Price rapping and saying "Y'alls'"? Hell yeah. "Thriller" by Michael Jackson is the essential song of Halloween. Why? Because it has everything you could possibly want. And though the late King of Pop is at his finest here, Price really does steal the show. His final "rap" is so well delivered it still gives me chills no matter how many times I listen to it: "Grizzly ghouls from every tomb and closing in to seal your doom. And though you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver. No mere mortal can resist, the evil of... The Thriller." Cue horrific laughter. There will never be a Halloween song to top this. Ever.

Screw listening to it on Spotify, if you don't own it, you need to buy it RIGHT NOW: Thriller

That's my list. What about you? What's your favorite Halloween song? 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Brilliant Insanity of "Sleepy Hollow": A Review of Episode 5, "John Doe"

If there's one consistent criticism of my first novel, it's that I tried to do too much. The book has the Headless Horseman, a Celtic myth and a serial killer all wrapped up into one big package. I think it works (obviously), but there's a certain kind of reader that disagrees, sometimes vigorously.

What's "Middle English" for Crazy Town?
The only thing I can assume is that if those readers came across Fox's "Sleepy Hollow," their heads would explode. The writers of this show clearly aren't worried about tossing too much at the viewer. In just five episodes, we've had: a time-traveling Ichabod Crane, his witchy wife (who is trapped in another dimension), a gun-toting Headless Horseman, an undead zombie cop, a resurrected 18th century witch, a dream-traveling Native American spirit, a ghost cop, a demon named Moloch, a band of still-thriving Hessians anxious to raise the dead and – wait for it – the lost colony of Roanoke.

Here’s the strangest thing of all: somehow the show still manages to work. “Sleepy Hollow” is consistently entertaining with a great mix of humor and horror. It’s unpredictability and sheer willingness to throw anything at the wall to see what sticks is part of its charm. One criticism you can’t level at the show is that it’s either boring or unwilling to take risks. In fact, it’s easily my favorite show on TV right now, in part because I never know what the hell will happen next.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of head-scratching moments. The ending to Episode 5, “John Doe,” is rather bizarre. Ichabod and Abbie spend the episode’s final moments trying to save a boy who – without giving anything away – doesn’t actually need saving. And the colony of Roanoke, around which the episode is based, disappears again. Or was never there at all. Or something. Indeed, the show never really bothered to explain why the lost colony had relocated to the back woods of New York. Because it could, I guess.

But no matter. We could spend a lot of time poking holes in the plot of various episodes. For example, why does Captain Irving, Abbie’s boss, refuse to listen to her about how to stop a plague and then – five minutes later – willingly go along with her insane plan, which involves taking Patient Zero to the backwoods for no discernable reason? How did the Headless Horseman learn to use automatic weapons so quickly? Why is Ichabod still wearing 18th century clothing when he’s been living in the 21st century for at least three weeks? Did his wife leave some extra clothes in the cave where she buried him? Also, why is there Spanish moss growing in the local graveyard, given that Spanish moss grows in the south and this show takes place in New York?

But if such questions worry you, you’re missing the point. The show is just so damn fun.

Much of the credit for this goes to Ichabod, who is both smartly written and well-acted. Most of my favorite moments from any show center around his take on the modern world. In Episode 4, it was his conversation with the OnStar representative, who wept when he told his story of lost love over the centuries. In Episode 2, it was his reaction to the tax on baked goods. In “John Doe,” it was his frustration with the plastic packaging his razor blade came in. (“What is this impenetrable barrier?”) His comments are funny, but Ichabod himself is not played for laughs. Most of the jokes seem on us and our modern world, not him.   

I keep washing the same outfit over and over.
Ichabod follows the first rule of any good story: he’s just interesting to watch. He’s smart, charismatic and while I have no idea why the police force is using an ostensibly crazy person as a consultant, I also don’t really care.

Abbie Mills, his partner, has a bit of a thankless job, given that she’s the straight man to Ichabod. Still, I find her character intriguing and the backstory they’ve built for her is both mysterious and interesting.

Perhaps most impressive is that the show’s writers have managed to take us to crazy-town without also descending into camp. The problem with any supernatural show is the need to take itself seriously, but at the same time give a wink and a nod to viewers who know the plots are preposterous. Sleepy Hollow manages that with aplomb.

Overall, “John Doe” was probably the weakest entry into the series to date, partly because it tried to do too much, even by its own standards. Finding the lost colony of Roanoke is epic; tying it to a virus, however, just felt forced. And the ending, as I mentioned, was confusing and odd. But even on its off days, Sleepy Hollow is damn good TV.

It’s fitting, I suppose, that it now goes on a three-week hiatus due to baseball playoffs before coming back with a show that promises the return of the Headless Horseman (who has not been seen since the pilot episode). After all, this is one TV series that – whatever its faults – is always swinging for the fence.

For a limited time, The Sanheim Chronicles, a trilogy of novels that feature the Headless Horseman in an entirely new mythology, are on sale. Book One, A Soul to Steal, and Book Two, Band of Demons, can be purchased for just 99 cents! Book Three, Give the Devil His Due, was just published on Oct. 1.

Find out why the books have been called the “perfect” novels for Halloween.  

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Sanheim Chronicles Sale! Featuring A Soul to Steal and Band of Demons

The Sanheim Chronicles trilogy is on sale for a limited time!

Book One: A Soul to Steal is FREE on Oct. 7-8. Find out why it's been called "the perfect read for Halloween." 

Two reporters rush to stop a serial killer before a promised bloodbath on Halloween night. But to unmask and defeat the murderer, they may unleash a far darker threat--and pay an unimaginable price. 

A Soul to Steal has been featured on USA Today and praised by book bloggers and readers alike as an addictive page-turner with an ending that will blow you away. 

Download it for Kindle here!

Book Two: Band of Demons is just 99 cents for a limited time

"Not only are the intricacies of Blackwell's tale well-planned and flawlessly executed, there is a consistent element of surprise. While A Soul to Steal was undoubtedly an adventure worth taking, its sequel is the journey of a lifetime... Band of Demons promises plot twists that will have you gasping for air."
-- Indie Reader

Quinn O'Brion and Kate Tassel, two community journalists, tapped into a dark power last Halloween in order to stop a vicious serial killer. But they are still grappling with their new abilities--and wondering if what they unleashed may soon consume them.

While they confront what they have become, a new threat is hunting them--a force that could destroy their whole town.

Buy it for Kindle here

Buy it for Nook here

Book Three: Give the Devil His Due was just published on Oct. 1. 

Reader review: "I'm still reeling from the ending, which was fabulous & satisfying."

In Give the Devil His Due, Kate's only hope to save Quinn is to trust the man who took him from her. Don't miss the epic finale to the trilogy that has readers raving about its great characters, plot twists and deft combination of urban fantasy, mystery and suspense.

Buy it for Kindle here

Buy it for Nook here 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Give the Devil His Due: The Sanheim Chronicles Book Three is Out!

I'm very excited to announce that Give the Devil His Due has finally been published! Find out how the story of Kate and Quinn ends in this heart-stopping finale!

Here's the official description:

The stunning conclusion to The Sanheim Chronicles trilogy… 

A Soul to Steal revealed an ancient Celtic myth in which a man and woman could gain tremendous power around Halloween, provided they faced and conquered their fears. Quinn O’Brion and Kate Tassel, two small-town journalists, became the Prince of Sanheim and used that power to defeat a serial killer. 

In Band of Demons, they battled a new threat, two legendary creatures that destroyed a small town. But Kate and Quinn’s victory came at a heavy price. 

In Give the Devil His Due, Kate’s only hope to save Quinn is to trust the man who took him from her. Don’t miss the epic finale to the trilogy that has readers raving about its great characters, plot twists and deft combination of urban fantasy, mystery and humor. 

The Lord Sanheim rules forever… 

Buy Give the Devil His Due for Kindle here.

Buy Give the Devil His Due for Nook here.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Sleepy Hollow "Blood Moon" and "Sandman" Review

On paper, at least, "Sleepy Hollow" purports to borrow from Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." But other than the names Ichabod Crane, Katrina, Sleepy Hollow and the Headless Horseman, the Fox TV series has turned to very different sources of inspiration.

In fact, it's more like a mix of "The X-Files" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." It has borrowed the dynamic of Mulder and Scully, right down to the fact that Ichabod is a believer while Abbie is a skeptic. This mostly works, largely due to the chemistry between actors Tom Mison and Nichole Beharie. The only hesitation I have is that Abbie appears a little too willing to dismiss obviously supernatural events, not the least of which is the existence of a headless villain. Even Scully would have had a hard time finding a logical explanation for that one.

He likes my novels. Really.
But "Buffy" is obviously very present here too. It's probably not a coincidence that "Sleepy Hollow"'s second episode concerns witches, the same subject that Buffy tackled after her initial two-part series premiere. It's a way to signal to the audience, "Look, we're not just going to focus on one supernatural creature here. Anything goes." For Buffy, the witch episode was a sign the show wouldn't be about just vampires every week. In "Blood Moon," Sleepy Hollow drops the Headless Horseman (presumably only temporarily) and features other things that go bump in the night.

Overall, the episode continues to demonstrate all the qualities that made the pilot so enjoyable. There are strong action pieces, including a fiery battle in an underground tunnel, and some devilishly fun humor. The highlight of the show is easily Ichabod, whose rant about excessive taxation on donuts is just as enjoyable as his penchant for throwing away the gun after only one shot ("There were more?" he asks Abbie when she calls him on it). We only get glimpses of Ichabod's adjustment to modern society (a brief scene in the shower is priceless), but what we do get is consistently amusing. The writing for the character is also strong, as he uses old-fashioned language, like calling the "tax" a "levy" and generally using slightly outdated words like "Leftenant."

But it's clear the show doesn't want to leave Abbie behind either. Her scene with the late sheriff gives us a nice window into why she's sticking around Sleepy Hollow -- so that she can finally confront a traumatic childhood incident.

My new favorite Yoga posture
As for the evil witch herself, she's... fine. I have nothing against burnt witches who return from the grave, but it's hard to follow the Headless Horseman, who is a bad-ass among villains and, I'll say it again, the best figure in American Gothic fiction. The witch is serviceable enough, but she suffers in comparison. That's not to say that I'm complaining about old Headless' absence in episode two. If this show is going to work, he needs to be a powerful presence, and nothing detracts from that like over familiarity. "Sleepy Hollow" is right to keep him reserved for just the right moment.
I look awesome in this shawl. 

Fortunately, the next episode, "Sandman," brings us a more creative, and definitely more interesting, villain than just a crispy critter witch.  Faceless with hollow eye sockets, the Sandman visits those that have "turned their backs on their neighbors." The villain forces Abbie to come to grips with her tragic past while trying to atone for her sins against her sister.
This episode loses some of its humor and replaces it with horror. The Sandman is an echo of Freddie Krueger without the taste for sweaters, but he's still frightening as hell. Watching him flit around a farmer's house had me squirming in my chair. 
This brings me to another similarity to "Buffy" and "X-Files" -- dead characters don't stay dead. Two of the major characters offed in the pilot -- Sheriff August Corbin and John Cho's Andy Dunn -- show back up again in episode two. Cho's Dunn is particularly interesting because it's clear he's a reluctant villain. His resurrection, complete with snapped neck, is also deliciously creepy. 

But it's the final sequence, in which Abbie and Ichabod travel to a dreamworld to confront the Sandman, where the show kicks things up a notch. The first two episodes were all about action, but how they defeat the Sandman is decidedly more satisfying. It brings the show to a holistic conclusion in which it serves for a metaphor about fear. Indeed, the finale is definitively more "Buffy-esque" than any episode yet, relating a real-world monster to a more internal struggle.

And that's a good thing. So far, Sleepy Hollow has proven to be my favorite new show of the season, striking the right balance between horror, humor and great characters. I'm excited to see what happens next.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Headless Horseman Finally Done Right? A Review of “Sleepy Hollow,” Episode 1: Pilot

Let’s get this out of the way: I am a huge fan of the Headless Horseman and the original story that created him, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” (You can download a free ebook version here.) I view him as the greatest figure in American gothic literature and re-read Washington Irving’s classic every year around Halloween.
Hell, I love him so much I wrote three novels featuring the Horseman, incorporating him into a brand-new mythology. Some people would even say I’m obsessed.  

Yet I am anxious whenever a new TV or film adaptation of Sleepy Hollow is announced. With the exception of the Disney cartoon, very few efforts to translate the story to screen work out. I know people love Tim Burton’s version, but I felt it neutered the Headless Horseman. The character was relegated to doing the bidding of a two-bit witch.  That said, Tim Burton was light years ahead of other versions, including one that starred former footballer Dick Butkus as Brom Bones. The less said about that, the better.

When I learned that Fox was making a new TV series, I was both excited and nervous. It had a great pedigree, authored by the writers of the rebooted Star Trek series, and directed by Len Wisemen (Underworld). The trailers for it also looked great. Yet it’s hard to pull off a Headless Horseman story, much less a TV series, without descending into camp. And as much as I love the concept — Ichabod Crane is pulled through time to square off against a resurrected Headless Horseman — there’s no denying the fact that it’s a ridiculous premise.

Still, TV is littered with ridiculous premises that work well — Once Upon a Time, for example. The question is whether they can make it entertaining enough to pull it off anyway.

So, after finally watching the pilot episode of Sleepy Hollow, did they do it? Do we finally have an adaptation of the Headless Horseman that truly works? In short: is the show any good?

My answer? It’s friggin awesome!

In every way, this show gets it right. The writing is tight, the lead characters are strong and sympathetic, and the action is top-notch.

The basic plot boils down to this—the Headless Horseman is really one of the four horseman of the Apocalypse, returned to Sleepy Hollow in order to start the end days. The time-traveling Ichabod is the only one who can stop him.

It works, but only because the writers have made Ichabod significantly different than he was in Irving’s original story. In that tale, he was a foppish and greedy school teacher who spooked easily. But Sleepy Hollow’s Ichabod, played with finesse by Tom Mison, kicks ass. A former British history professor — at Oxford, no less — he defected to the American side during the Revolutionary War and served as a spy for General George Washington. In the show’s opening moments, he shoots the would-be Horseman in the chest and then decapitates him when he gets up again. When Ichabod awakens in the future, he is confused but determined.

Overall, Ichabod is fantastic any time he’s on screen. Some denizens of the Internet are strangely attached to Johnny Depp’s Ichabod, but Mison beats him by miles. For a guy that’s out of time, he’s both cool and surprisingly funny, even if some of the humor comes from his fish-out-of-water perspective. I particularly enjoyed his asides about the Emancipation and the ubiquity of Starbucks (“Is there a law?”).

The show’s other lead, Abbie Mills, played by Nichole Beharie, is also engaging. It could have played like a bad buddy-cop movie to pair an 18th Century soldier with an African-American female cop, but the show’s writers do a good job of making it flow well. By providing Mills with a mysterious past, they also help deal with doubts as to why she would be sticking her neck out (so to speak) for Ichabod.

Best of all, however, is the portrayal of the Horseman. He’s everything you want and need him to be. He’s menacing, mysterious and wields a flaming axe. By the end of the episode, he’s even packing heat, using both a shotgun and a machine gun. He’s used sparingly in the first episode, but every scene he’s in really shines. He may be my favorite on-screen version of the Horseman ever made, and that’s high praise from me.

In fact, my only concern at this stage is the network the show appears on. Fox is the home of some groundbreaking sci-fi shows, including The X-Files and Fringe, both of which I loved. But those are exceptions from Fox’s habit of yanking TV shows before they have time to develop an audience. There’s Firefly or Dollhouse, just to name two recent examples. I’m already invested in the world of Sleepy Hollow, but I worry Fox will kill it before others can become equally attached.

I can only hope I’m not alone. The makers of Sleepy Hollow have created a terrific show filled with interesting characters, humor, horror and mystery. You’d have to be headless to miss it.

Note: I’m going to review every episode of Sleepy Hollow, but I will be unable to watch Ep. 2 until Sept. 26 due to work commitments. Please check back here then for my take on whether Episode 2 lives up to the promise of the pilot.

Shameless plug: If you love the Headless Horseman, be sure to check out my first novel, A Soul to Steal, which features the character like you’ve never seen him before—guaranteed. It’s just $2.99 for Kindle. (If you want a Nook version, just leave a comment on this blog and I’ll get you one.) 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Contest and Cover Reveal for Give the Devil His Due: The Sanheim Chronicles Book Three

It’s hard to believe, but it’s almost Halloween again. And that means only one thing: the release of the third book for The Sanheim Chronicles. I’m pleased to show off the cover for the book, which is once again the work of the very talented Travis Pennington. After you’ve checked out the cover, stick around for a brief non-spoiler FAQ on what you can expect from the book, as well as details on a contest to win an early copy of the book plus a $15 Amazon gift card.

Q: So what’s the new book called?
A: Give the Devil His Due.

Q: Wait, doesn’t that violate your legal agreement with the Charlie Daniels Band?
A: Yeah, about that… I posted a blog on April 1, 2013, in which I claimed I had settled with the Charlie Daniels Band after it had sued me. But it was an April Fool’s Day joke. Some people got it, but many did not, I suspect because they read it well after the date on which it was posted. So, to be clear, the Charlie Daniels Band has never sued me, nor do I expect it to. I do appreciate the folks who wrote to tell me they were angry with Charlie Daniels on my behalf. It’s nice to know people support me and I feel like a bit of a jerk for tricking anyone.

Q: When will Give the Devil His Due be published?
A: On Oct. 1, 2013, for Amazon and Nook. Typically Nook is a day or so behind Amazon so it might be more like Oct. 2. I will post updates on when the different versions are released.

Q: When will the print edition be out?
A: I’m hoping to put that out in October as well, but please view that as a best-case scenario. The print edition requires reformatting the book, which can be time-consuming.

Q: Can I buy a signed edition?
A: Yes! Just contact me on my Facebook page and I can send you one. It costs $15 (including shipping and tax), which is the same price as buying the print edition from Amazon. But this one is signed!

Q: What’s this book about?
A: It picks up several months after the end of Band of Demons. If you haven’t read that book, you really should do so before picking up Give the Devil His Due.

Q: Wait, that’s it? That’s all you’ll say?
A: I hate spoilers and ruining the experience for a reader, so I’m reluctant to say much. All I will add is that the ending events of Band of Demons have dramatically changed some characters’ lives – and at least one of them is not handling the situation particularly well.

Q: Is this book the last in The Sanheim Chronicles?
A: Give the Devil His Due is the conclusion to the trilogy I initially set out to write. It ties up most of the plot-lines people will want resolved. That said, I’ve created a mythology that I really enjoy. If there is reader interest, it’s possible I might write more books in the series. I can opine on this more once the third book is out, because I’m afraid of saying too much.

Q: Do you have anything else in the works?
A: Yes! I’ve started preliminary work on my next novel, which will be out next year. It is not directly connected to The Sanheim Chronicles, but if you enjoyed that series, I think you will enjoy this as well. It’s a mix of mystery, myth and the supernatural. I also have a couple of other projects I’m working on that may or may not come to fruition sometime soon.

Q: How can I make sure I know when Give the Devil His Due is released?
A: You can sign-up for my newsletter here:
I only send a newsletter when I actually have something to say, which is likely to be just a few times a year. I also plan to give out a free short story to subscribers, though I’m still working on that particular story.

You can also have Amazon notify you when I release a book by going to my Amazon author page and clicking “subscribe” in the upper right hand corner: You can also “like” the page if you are feeling generous (I have no idea what the point of those likes are).

I will also be trumpeting the news on my Facebook page and on Twitter.

To encourage folks to join the newsletter, I’m giving away an early ebook copy of Give the Devil His Due as well as a $15 Amazon gift card. All you need to do to join the contest is to sign up for the newsletter and fill in your details below. Good luck and I can’t wait to publish Give the Devil His Due!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

What I Learned in Two Years as an Indie Author

I abruptly realized the other day that Aug. 29 would mark my two year anniversary as an indie author.

It actually feels much longer. When I launched A Soul to Steal, my outside hope was that it would sell 1,000 copies and maybe garner 40 or 50 reviews on Amazon. It cleared that sales milestone after three months and went on to sell several times that. At last count, it has earned more than 200 reviews, the vast majority of which are four and five stars. On paper, at least, the novel has surpassed my wildest expectations, and I’ve been very touched by the fans who have contacted me during the past two years .

But these have also been two of the most challenging years of my life. Here’s the secret nobody tells you when you publish your own book – this shit will consume your life. It starts as a hobby, something you do on the side, but it ends up as a full-blown second career.

Don’t get me wrong: the ability to publish my own books is fantastic. I sat on A Soul to Steal for 10 bloody years. I didn’t bother trying to write another novel because I couldn’t see the point. If this wasn’t going to be published, why would the next one fare any better? Once I found I could publish my novel – and people actually liked it – it was like a dam opened up. Suddenly I wanted to do this all the time. I plotted not just sequels to the book I had put out, but whole other series of novels. I found that I loved writing novels. Really, truly loved it. It was challenging, yet immensely fulfilling. In short, it felt like something I was meant to do.

And therein lies the problem. As much as I love writing novels, I am not at the point – or even remotely close – where I can do it full-time. But that hasn’t stopped me from constantly trying to figure out a way to change that situation. Instead of being pleased with the success I’ve enjoyed so far, I’m constantly setting the bar higher. The result has been utterly demoralizing.

As a result, I’ve turned my once relatively stable existence into a roller coaster ride. Until recently (like say, two years ago), I did not consider myself a moody person. But after I published my book, my moods were often dominated by daily sales figures. If sales were up, I was on my way to a future career in novel writing. If they were down, I was a miserable failure. Unfortunately for my family, I became more difficult to live with. Instead of listening to my children’s stories about their day, I was internally debating if a new sales tactic would bring me more readers. I obsessed about what I should be doing to promote my novels.

The Internet helped feed this anxiety. I couldn’t stumble across a Web page without finding more advice on how to become a bestselling author. They told me some variation on the following: blog often, Tweet about your books, connect with readers on Facebook, join groups on Goodreads, host free days, do blog tours, talk to fellow authors on the Kindle forum boards and – oh, yeah – write more books. Individually, that’s all sound advice. Taken as a collective, however, it was difficult to see how I could accomplish all of these things and a) continue to hold down my very full-time job as a journalist, and b) be a decent husband and father.

For the first year, I tried doing all this and managed to publish a second novel, Band of Demons, with which I was very pleased. But as I headed into my second year as an indie author and I buckled down to write a third novel, I realized something had to give.

For the most part, that meant dropping most of the advice. I stopped the Facebook ads (they don’t work anymore), ceased reading the daily sales figures (weekly will do just fine), and became an infrequent blogger.  I abandoned my official “author” Twitter handle altogether (although you can find me on Twitter for my job at @abwashbureau.)

I wasn’t giving up, but getting back to basics. I focused on three things: being a good dad and husband; doing a good job at work; and writing more books. I still keep abreast of what’s happening with the industry and read about new strategies that are working (Kickstarter) and old ones that have failed (Free KDP Select days). I try new things, book dates with BookBub, and watch for opportunities.

But I try not to put the same amount of pressure on myself that I did when I first started. If the goal is to become a bestselling author, there’s no guarantee that will ever happen. Indeed, the odds are very much against me. But if the goal is to write novels that thousands of readers buy and enjoy, that’s already happening. And that is an amazing thing, something I didn’t think was even possible two years ago.

The very talented author Hugh Howey recently wrote that the key to success is to enjoy writing and keep your expectations low. It’s taken me two years to come to the same conclusion. After all, if you are really meant to do something, you should just do it, whether or not you are compensated for it.