Tuesday, December 24, 2019

And the dead are but for a moment motionless

“Shadows of Shadows passing... It is now 1831... and as always, I am absorbed with a delicate thought. It is how poetry has indefinite sensations to which end, music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry. Music without the idea is simply music. Without music or an intriguing idea, color becomes pallour, man becomes carcass, home becomes catacomb, and the dead are but for a moment motionless.”  --Edgar Allan Poe
...and the dead are but for a moment motionless.

I love that line. I first heard it spoke aloud by  Orson Wells, in the introduction to THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER found on The Alan Parson's Project debut album, TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION.

There is much to be gleaned from the above quote. Poe has always been a source of inspiration for me as a writer in that he does what most writers do. He identifies, sometimes dissects, and then draws an idea or thought from the source. He talks of poetry of which music is an essential.

And without the idea? Music is simply music.

The art of writing is drawn from all the senses, sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. As tellers of stories, be it fiction or non-fiction, the writer must have the ability to translate those senses and present them on a page where they will hopefully be read and consumed by hungry readers.

The senses we use to write can be enhanced as well. Hunter S. Thompson used drugs to enhance his writing experience, not recommended, but many use music to set the stage. Music, whether it's Classical, Rock n Roll or even Death Metal, can bring forth creativity,  deep concentration, and illumination.

I've written four novels to date. My first, a horror novel called. THE EQUINOX, the second, a science fiction horror called ACADIA EVENT, the last two are about the evolution of a serial killer and the law enforcement tracking him, HIGHWAYMAN, and FOUR.

All of these novels are quite different, except for the evolving style of the storyteller. I liken the writing style of most writers to the Charles M. Schulz comic strip PEANUTS.

What do Snoopy and Charlie Brown have to do with writing?

Well, first of all, Mr. Schulz was a genius, he managed to draw these characters in which a sad-sack kid, Charlie Brown, bumbles through his adolescence in a perpetual state of angst, while his dog is off fighting the Red Baron, being Joe Cool, and is readily accepted by Charlie's peers.

If you look beyond the brilliance of delivering a pleasurable story with a minimum of words coupled to a storyboard of cartoon characters, there is something more to learn. Look at the art, you can Google it, and what you'll see the constant improvement of an artist's talent.

The same goes for writers. The more we write, the more we review our own work and learn from it, the better it gets. That is until fame and fortune taint us, we become drug or alcohol addicted, rest on our laurels and become another tragic genius.

My first novel, THE EQUINOX, which I still hold a deep affection for, was the first time I made love with words on such a grand scale. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. While I enjoyed writing the story, there would be critics, and once I released it, there would be no going back. I learned an awful lot of things writing that book. While working 70-hour work weeks in a day job that took me from home, I somehow found time to bring a story to life that was more than 100,000 words. Like most aspiring writers, I had to carve out time and in that frame, I had to find my muse and get down to it.

Part of that was getting into a frame of mind, a "writer's zone" and running headlong into the abyss. One of the essential tools for that is music, or what I now refer to as "My soundtrack for writing."

Music with the idea. That first novel had a soundtrack that ranged from Progressive Rock, Heavy Metal, Folk, Instrumental and even alternative Country. The music awakened senses, casting shadows upon blank pages,  and then... Click click click.

All of my books have a soundtrack. I can recall Ozzy Osbourne's, "No More Tears, cadence beat, in ACADIA EVENT, to the terror my protagonists abducted wife, Maggie, tied up in the back of a car being driven to the hideout of a murderous Irish Gangster named Jude Shamus. Also found on the ACADIA soundtrack are THE DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS, THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND, and ACDC's, "Thunderstruck."

In HIGHWAYMAN, I found myself drawn to harder rock with sometimes dark lyrics. I would actively search out music that seemed to fit the crazy stuff swirling around in my head. I could hear the band CLUTCH singing, "You should have closed your windows and got another dog. You should have chained up all the doors and switched up all the locks." in "The Regulator."

In Highwayman's sequel, FOUR, I listened to, "There's a bullet in my pocket burning a hole. You're so far from your weapon and you wanna go home." in THE DEAD WEATHER'S, "So Far from Your Weapon." For one character, this set a tone of reckless abandon while making a run for the river.

And what am I giving you? Snippets of my writing and the music that played on. The soundtrack to the ethereal musings of author M.J. Preston. As the journey continues, the music changes along with a landscape and it's demographic of characters.

But a constant remains.

Without music or an intriguing idea, color becomes pallour, man becomes carcass, home becomes catacomb, and the dead are but for a moment motionless.

See you in 2020.


Friday, December 6, 2019

The Ballad of Ken Chan

By M.J. Preston

Sometimes you meet someone and work with them, and though that working relationship doesn’t blossom into the intimacy of friendship, it becomes a relationship of mutual respect. That is what I’d say about my relationship with Ken Chan. We weren’t buddies, yacking about home life, but two guys that did the same job for different companies, which at times led to helping each other out. Ken was always helpful and knowledgeable. I never asked Ken Chan a question about fuel that he didn’t have an answer for. As loader-trainers go, Ken knew his stuff, and I would go so far to say that he was an incredible asset to the company he worked for.
I also know that Ken is a veteran. He served in the Canadian Armed Forces for 25 years. I know he served in the Balkans; we talked a bit about that. When he left the service, he started training people on how to handle fuel. He became a loader-trainer and has taught some of the people who taught me how to handle fuel. I think some people get the wrong impression of loaders-trainers in the fuel business.  They think you’re a washed-up driver or lacking the ability to do anything else. Nothing could be further from the truth. You’re teaching people how to load and unload all sorts of fuel, from premium gasoline to jet fuel. Those that pick up and deliver these dangerous goods in a professional manner can usually attribute their success starting with a good loader-trainer.
That was Ken.
Sometimes, I would watch him with his trainees.
Since my own days in the military, it has been my habit to watch procedures of fellow instructors. It is an excellent way learn. What I learned watching Ken was that he was consistent, respectful, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and you couldn’t ask for a better company representative.
About ten days ago, from the time of this writing, I saw Ken at one of the refineries, and we talked briefly. There had been some driver scuttlebutt about his retiring, and I asked him if it was true.
He said it was, and then he said something uncharacteristic, at least to me. He complained that his employer wouldn’t give him a clothing allowance, that he was expected to buy his own Fire-Retardant Gear, while the drivers in his company were afforded a clothing allowance. “I’m expected to stand out in the rain and the snow with just coveralls, no winter or rain gear, just coveralls,” his words have stuck with me. I’d never heard him complain. I felt he was deeply troubled with how things were going. This guy complaining, this wasn’t him at all. Ken was always pretty upbeat; he’d help anyone that needed help. It didn’t matter who? He held no contempt against competing companies. He was good that way.
A week passed, I saw Ken a few times, at one refinery or another, but we didn’t talk again until after the last weekend.
On Monday, I realized I’d mistakenly tossed away a fuel bill and had to return to the refinery to get another copy. When I got there, I saw Ken sitting in his van. I went in, got my bill, and when I came out, he rolled down his window and said, “Hello, Mark.”
I asked him if he was waiting to load someone.
He said he was turning in his badges.
I asked, “So, this is it, you’re done?”
He replied, “Yes, I’m done.”
I asked, “You’re retiring?”
He replied, “Yes, Mark, I am retiring.”
I shook his hand and said, “I wish I was retiring.”
Ken said something that now leaves me saddened and in to wonder.
He said, “You don’t want to be doing what I’m doing.”
I completely missed it. I suppose I was distracted by my task, needing to get back and fix my error.
I didn’t see anything in Ken’s eyes when I shook his hand.
I wished him well, and he did the same for me, and I was on my way.
Those would be our last words.
I can only assume that Ken handed in all his badges. He was a man who believed in keeping his ducks in a row. I would later learn that he would also send two emails, one a mass mailing to employees of the company he worked for. The other presumably CC to both the Provincial and Federal Health Ministers. That done, Ken Chan drove to the Alberta Legislature, and using a handgun, he took his own life.
I heard about it on the CBC news, but I had no idea it was Ken. I wouldn’t get confirmation until the following day from a couple of friends. Immediately those last words, “You don’t want to be doing what I’m doing,” loom, a prophecy unseen.
And what do we learn from Ken Chan’s death?
What did I learn?
To look and listen a little harder.
But it isn’t just that. We need to understand that while the human psyche can be a place of wonder, of triumph, of happiness. It can also become a dark solitary place that breeds misery and helplessness. I am guessing that Ken was suffering from a severe form of depression, and I know a thing or two about it. I don’t purport to be an expert. After all, I didn’t pick up on the message he was sending.
I can’t express how that saddens me.
I was also privy to the emails Ken sent to his company. He wanted those shared. So, that’s what I’ll tell you a bit about. But I won’t name names or the company. If you want to know about that, I’m sure you can ask around, but I am not going to. In his email, Ken complained about a boss, naming that boss directly, even addressing the individual and making some very damning accusations. Those accusations proven or not, aren’t for me to stand in judgment of, I was not there so I can’t say.
What I can say, from what I have read, is that Ken Chan was a man who felt trapped, abandoned, and betrayed after long service to a company. His complaint about the Fire-Retardant Equipment was a fair one; we work outside in winter climate, sometimes for long hours. Last February, I think it was around -40 Celsius, and that didn’t include wind chill.
He also complained that managers were padding their bonuses at the expense of employees. I can’t speak to that, either way. All I can say in comparison, I work for a much smaller family-run company, and they still provide FR Gear, including winter bib overalls and hard hat liners and parkas.
We need our gear.
And still, the question is begged.
What have we learned? What have I learned?
We need to understand that people can be under an extreme amount of pressure. They could be considering that worst-case scenario. It behooves us to listen, to respect them, to give them the equipment to do their job. Of the grievances, Ken listed in his emails to the bosses, the underlying thing that I think Ken Chan was calling for was respect. I hope that his employers will look long and hard at this, correct mistakes, and if there are policy changes, they are swift, setting a tone of respect in his memory.
I think that should be the Ballad of Ken Chan.
Rest Easy, Brother.