Books of 2021


I read 51 books last year, beating my goal of 50 by … that’s right … one. I read a lot of good books, and there were a few stinkers. This is my annual post where I recount the best and worst of the year. If you’d like to see them all, you can click right here.

It was the year of two literary giants for me. The first is Wallace Stegner. I’d read his The Big Rock Candy Mountain several years ago and liked it pretty well. Later, I read The Spectator Bird and it was okay. But Angle of Repose kept coming up when I’d search for books similar to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, so I finally went for it. Wow!! I became a Stegner convert. (I’m aware of the controversy surrounding his use of real letters in this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.) If I had to choose one book as my best read of 2021, this would be it. It ignited a Stegner fire and I went through numerous other titles from him, with my next favorite being Recapitulation, a sequel to The Big Rock Candy Mountain. It’s not as good as Angle of Repose, but it just so happened it’s about a character returning to his hometown upon the death of his mother and I was listening to it as I did the same. Other Stegner titles read this year include All the Little Live Things, Remembering Laughter, and I’m currently reading Crossing to Safety.

The other giant I discovered is Ivan Doig. I didn’t know it until later, but Doig won a Stegner fellowship, connecting my two big author discoveries for the year. I was reading Doig’s The Whistling Season when 2021 began and I loved it’s mix of history, humor, coming of age, and human drama set in very early 20th century Montana. I next read his last novel, Last Bus to Wisdom, and that’s the one that made me a true devotee of Doig. It was everything you could want in a coming of age road trip novel. I absolutely loved it. After that I read the two sequels to The Whistling Season, Work Song and Sweet Thunder. They were very good, but not as good as those first two.

If I had to choose a second best novel of 2021, it would definitely be Robert R. McCammon’s The Wolf’s Hour. I’ve had a copy of this for years and years but hadn’t read it … probably out of jealousy that his werewolf novel came from a major publisher while mine has struggled in the small press. But anyway! This book blew me away. It’s not just a great horror novel. It is a fantastic novel. McCammon does not get the credit he deserves. Imagine if James Bond was a werewolf during World War II. That is what you have here, but without the gadgets. After reading this, I turned to his Hunter in the Woods, which is a collection of shorter stories about the same character and they really filled out some back story and added closure to an aspect of the novel. Then I reread his massive Swan Song and enjoyed it more this time than I did the first time I read it back in the late 1980s.

I read a lot of Western novels again, but nothing that really stood out. There were a few fantasy novels, most notably the third volume of Jonathan French’s Bastards series, The Free Bastards, which I liked a lot, though not as much as the first one. There were several rereads, mostly for school, with The Grapes of Wrath, Beowulf, 1984, Dracula, and Murder on the Orient Express being the main ones.

Other than McCammon, I did read some horror novels. Grady Hendrix is kind of the darling of the genre right now and I read a few of his books. Honestly, they’re pretty forgettable. I also read his Paperbacks from Hell and that one was pretty good, but it’s a non-fiction book about the horror genre. I also read Ray Garton’s Lot Lizards and liked it quite a bit. Bentley Little’s The Haunted didn’t hold my interest at all. And John Steakley’s Vampire$ might be the worst novel I read this year. It certainly made me the maddest.

I mixed in some non-fiction titles. The best was Jimmy Stewart, a biography of the great actor by Michael Munn. But I also really enjoyed Call of the American Wild by Guy Grieve. It’s the story of a British desk jockey who leaves his family for a year to build a cabin and live in the Alaskan wilderness. In that vein, I just gave up on The Way Home by Mark Boyle, which came off as whiney and self-aggrandizing as he left behind all modern technology for a year.

I think that’ll about do it. Click the link above for the full list if you really care. There are a couple of titles showing up twice and I don’t know why, but then I had to listen to Dracula and Beowulf six times this semester and a couple of others four times each in the spring, so … yeah.

Good Riddance 2021


This was a horrible year and I can’t wait to slam the door on it in 32 minutes.

Back in March, my 18-year-old dog Bubba had to be put to sleep after being with me for 16 of those years. We’d been dealing with cancer and fluid around his heart and lungs for about a year, and then the poor guy lost control of his bowels. It was a hard decision, but I had to let him go. He was a damn fine dog and a great friend.

Then I lost my job. I was the last teacher hired, literally starting work the day before the kids came back to school in the fall of 2020. At the end of that school year I was told the budget had shrunk and they “needed more bang for the buck” and I was being let go so they could hire a coach. That school wasn’t a perfect fit, but I liked it well enough and had hoped to stay.

With no job, I had to cancel the cross-country trip I had planned for me and my dog Bear. After I got my last paycheck in June, we had to live on that vacation money until mid-September, so my savings is mostly gone and thanks to inflation, I’ve not been able to replenish it.

I got a new job and on the third day of class I thought there was a swarm of gnats in my classroom. I asked a student about it and he thought I was nuts. I’d somehow torn the retina in my right eye. To make it even more fun, it was August and my insurance from the previous job had expired in July and the new insurance wouldn’t begin until September 1. I’m still paying on that bill.

And then September came. My mom died on the 4th after a long battle with COPD. This is still hard to accept and the holiday season was definitely different than ever before with her absence making a gaping hole despite my little sister stepping up to become the family matriarch. I visited Mom’s grave again today, and I still can’t leave it dry-eyed.

Some stuff has happened at work and I feel as burned out as an old nub of candle. I’ll save the details for a possible sequel to You Want to Do What? But, I’m asking myself if I want to continue as a teacher. Right now, the answer is no. I could claim my full teacher retirement in 8 1/2 years, but I don’t know if I can hold out that long.

I suppose I should end on some positive note. I haven’t gotten covid. My oldest daughter had it, but she’s recovered. My youngest kids gave me a kitten named Cleo and she’s (mostly) been a welcome addition to my home with Bear. That’s about as good as I can get right now, 8 minutes before the start of 2022 with my neighbors firing guns off all around me.

The Teacher: A Novel


My first literary novel is available now!

It’s been a busy autumn for me. My most recent horror novel, Mother, was released in October. In November, I participated in National Novel Writing Month and produced a 61,000+ word novel called Yes or No, and then, in early December, came my first mainstream literary novel, The Teacher.

The Teacher is about a middle-aged educator named Andrew Clausing. He teaches at a low-income diverse high school in south Oklahoma City. He’s the department chairman and Student Council sponsor. His dedication to his job has cost him his marriage and the love of his teenage daughter. Andrew is having a secret affair with a co-worker, but otherwise his only love is for teaching his students. The trouble starts when one of his students decides she wants Andrew to be more than a father figure.

Naturally, people will ask me how much of this book is true. The answer is, virtually none of it. Is Andrew based on me? Yeah. Are the other characters based on real people? Hmm, let’s say some of their characteristics are inspired by people I knew or taught at a previous school. Very few of the events that happen in the story happened in real life. I was still married when I wrote the book in 2014-2015. I never had an affair with a co-worker. No student ever set me up like Kelley, the girl in the story, did to Andrew.

A few of the conversations in the novel are real. The attitude of the school administrators toward sex scandals is based on how my former employer handled the several real incidents we had. One of the social media posts is a direct quote from a former student, with Andrew’s name substituted for my own. At one point, Andrew’s mother warns him he shouldn’t be so close to his students because one might turn on him, and that is a conversation I had with my own mother. Sadly, my own daughter did resent my relationship with a set of female students in a class I sponsored and that hurt our relationship. I drew on that for this story.

During the writing of Yes or No an old friend asked if that story is autobiographical. I half-jokingly told him that every novel is autobiographical if you peel back enough layers. The story of Andrew Clausing is fiction, but the emotions he feels are very real. The euphoria, pride, and frustration of teaching and dealing with teenagers and administrators is all real. The despair and loneliness and loss of control in his personal life are all real, too.

The only question that really matters, though, is this: Is it a good story? I think it is. The first couple of reviews on Amazon are both 5 stars. But I’ll leave it up to you to decide. You can find the book here.

Shift in Perspective


When I was a younger man I couldn’t imagine writing in any genre other than horror. Now I think I had to make up boogey-men back then because I hadn’t experienced the real monsters of loneliness, depression, and loss. There’s nothing scarier than the human condition.

Steven E. Wedel

The above is a post I just made on social media. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. This year I finished my second literary novel, revised the first one I wrote, and am 34,868 words into my third novel without werewolves or ghosts or fallen angels. Not even a frisky demon.

I still love horror. I enjoyed returning to the genre and writing Mother last year. I’m sure it won’t be the last one I write. But I hope that even it contained something more than just kids having sex to feed babies to a blog of slime. I hope it carried real human emotion. I’ve always tried for that, but there was definitely a time I was more about the sex and violence and trying to create a clever take on the monster.

I’m not sure where the shift came. Maybe with Amara’s Prayer. It was gradual. I know I surprised myself with the idea of Inheritance because there was no supernatural element at all. That book is more thriller than horror. And then A Light Beyond came and I think it’s the better story and I played with structure and liked telling the story in three distinct pieces.

And then I was writing a Western and erotica and romance and children’s books … Okay, Shim and Shay’s Wish and Songbird both have monsters in them, but they don’t win.

Yeah, that’s another thing. The good guys seldom won in my early work. And they really don’t win now. The literary novel I completed earlier this year, The Lost Pages Bookstore, has the most upbeat ending of anything under my real name with the exception of the children’s and young adult books. Because there are still monsters. Maybe not as hairy, but still there and still scary.

Mother Wants You


Last November I participated in my first National Novel Writing Month. This novel Mother is the result of that. It’s my first horror novel in quite a long time and I’m pretty proud of it.

The idea for this story has been with me for at least 30 years, but I never felt ready to tackle it. The details were always sketchy, though I knew the main idea and stuck to that when I finally set down to write the book.

Mother is about a dozen high schoolers and their teacher who go looking for a missing girl in the Ozark foothills. They find themselves trapped in a cave with a sentient gelatinous blob that possesses the mind of one of the girls. The thing calls itself Mother and insists the humans procreate for her benefit.

Cassie killed Mr. Ackerman … There was so much lbood, and when we tried to help him his intestines were spilling out. It was the grossest thing ever. I saw the light go out in his eyes. I guess that was his soul getting out. Out of his body and out of this cave. Mr. Ackerman might be the lucky one.

From MOTHER

The book is available in paperback from any retailer. In electronic form, it is currently only available for the Kindle and Kindle app. I hope to have an audio version available in the near future.

Remember, like all writers, I could use your honest reviews on Amazon, GoodReads, Barnes & Noble, etc.

For Halloween weekend only, the Kindle ebook edition is available for a free download.

The Cardinal’s Visit


It’s been a week since Mom passed away. It’s been a difficult week. Planning a funeral is hard and attending it is even harder. But there has been one incident that is a positive and has been on my mind for a week now.

Mom passed on Saturday evening. I drove home on Sunday afternoon. When I got home, I went through the house to the back yard where my dogs were. I fed them and was sitting on the porch petting Bear and telling him what happened and why I had been gone so long, when something out of the ordinary happened.

There’s an old rotting stump in my back yard near the patio. It’s about 10 feet tall. As I was sitting there petting my dog, a cardinal flew to the top of the stump and perched there. I knew the belief that a cardinal represented the spirit of someone recently passed. I thought that as I looked at the bird.

As I considered that it was just a coincidence — that I’ve seen cardinals in my yard before, though not this one with mottled plumage — the bird turned itself, cocked its head, and fixed me with one eye. We stared at each other for a minute, then the cardinal flew into some bushes and sang for a few seconds before flying away.

I have not seen a cardinal in my yard, neighborhood, city, or anywhere else since that one flew away.

Was it a message from Mom? A coincidence? A bird looking to steal some dog food? Who can say for sure? But I know what I want to believe.

There would be a great deal of irony in my mom sending me a message through a bird. She let me watch Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” when I was way too young and I’ve had a phobia since then. I’m sure she got a giggle knowing my first thought was that the cardinal was coming for my eyes.

This is a Google search I did after the cardinal’s visit.

Tribute to Mom


At about 5:45 p.m. on Saturday, September 4, 2021, my mother’s long battle with COPD came to a sad and inevitable end. With it came the end of an era for our family. There will be a tectonic shift in the structure of our world with the passing of our matriarch. Today, as we balance on the edge of what was and what will be, between memories that bring tears and those that bring smiles, I’m looking back at 55 years with the woman who made me what I am.

Beverly Ann (Anderson) Wedel was one of the last of her kind, a housewife. Her career was providing a home for her husband and three kids. There was no clutter in her house. No dust. For years, she had a Kirby vacuum cleaner that was like a Mack truck compared to other vacuums my friends’ mothers had. The 1970s rust-and-brown shag carpet never had a chance to hoard its dirt and grime because the headlight on that vacuum would seek it out and it would be sucked into a bag sturdy enough to be among the gear of any adventurer.

Lunch was at noon, when Dad got his break at the grain elevator, and dinner was at five, when Dad got home from work. The food was incredible. This was a time when there weren’t many fast food places in Enid, Oklahoma, and going to a restaurant was a luxury reserved for very special occasions. Mom cooked, and with the exception of meat loaf, which I think is just unsavable regardless of anyone’s culinary prowess, the food was always excellent. My favorites were the Thanksgiving turkey and pinto beans with ham, fried potatoes, and cornbread. And cake. Or chocolate chip cookies. Nobody makes cookies like my mom did, and it was a hard thing to realize a couple of years ago, as her health declined, that I would never again taste those cookies.

One of the things I have always been most grateful for is my mom’s dedication to my reading when I was very young. I was the firstborn, and so for a couple of years I got to dominate her attention. During that time, she read to me a lot during the days when Dad was at work. The Teddy Bear Twins and A Pickle for a Nickel were a couple of favorites that I still have. Later, when I was in elementary school, she would let me choose books to buy from the Weekly Reader and we would read treasures like Be Nice to Spiders, Sammy the Seal, Danny and the Dinosaur, and so many others. There is no doubt that today I’m an avid reader, an English teacher, and an author because of her influence over 50 years ago.

Speaking of books, Enid didn’t have a bookstore until Oakwood Mall opened in about 1983. But books were always on my Christmas and birthday lists. Mom would go to the office supply store in town and have them special order books for me. Where the Red Fern Grows and the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings are big ones I remember. She took us kids to the library often, too, and, although she always denied it was intentional, it seems an afternoon at the library almost always meant spaghetti for dinner.

She was the first disciplinarian at home. I gave her ample opportunity to work in that role. I was always a roamer and seldom felt burdened by the need to let Mom know where I was going. I often didn’t know, myself. Remember, this is way before cell phones. I remember one time I went to watch some fool jump his bike over a huge drainage ditch between Birch St. and the railroad tracks. The guy kept delaying and delaying, but the gathered crowd waited in misplaced anticipation. When I finally gave up and started for home after dark, I knew things were bad when a neighbor stopped me in their car to say my mom was looking for me. That lots of people were looking for me. When mom came back from her own search for me, she was a volcano of motherly fury. She threw my bicycle into the storm cellar and grounded me for life … or something. I spent a good deal of time standing on our curb after that, watching my friends pass by, unable to leave our yard. Another time, I said something stupid and she gave me her glare. Being in my teens and unable to use my brain correctly, I mocked that look and glared back at her. It was the only time she ever slapped me, and I knew even then I had it coming to me.

My second car was a 1976 Chevy Monte Carlo. It was a good car when I got it in 1983, but again, being a teenage boy, I was always on the lookout for something better. She told me I’d regret selling that car. At the same time, I was very much into heavy metal music and teased her all the time for listening to country. She told me someday I’d appreciate singers like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Listen to your mamas, folks, because they are always right.

The memories … 55 years worth of them. Learning to drive despite Mom always grabbing the steering wheel … Mom having the audacity to come home from the hospital with another baby sister instead of a brother … riding my pedal-powered fire engine around and around a carport while Mom watched … the airplane plants, ferns, tulips, roses, and myriad other houseplants and flowers Mom always loved … the “cowboy shirt” she embroidered for me with cacti, a stagecoach, and western sunset … watching John Wayne movies … Mom bringing the big bowl of popcorn while the family sat and watched All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show … the times I disappointed her … the times I thought I had gotten something by her but she knew the whole time.

And then the oxygen, the ventilator, nebulizer, hospital stays, and times she couldn’t get enough breath to come to the phone. The last phone call, when she complained that her throat had just started to hurt and she didn’t know why and it turned out it was because her body was shutting down. Sitting beside a hospital bed set up in her living room, holding her hand while her unconscious body struggled to keep breathing, watching my sister put medicine in Mom’s mouth to keep her comfortable until the end. And finally the sight of her lying there, no longer struggling for breath, no longer suffering. Gone from us.

Gone.

My mom, sisters Rachel and Lisa, me, and my dad five or six years ago.

Adventures in Online Dating, Part 3


It’s time to talk about the biggest issue I’ve had in the world of online dating. This is the one that makes me wonder if there’s something wrong with me, or with everyone else. Invariably, women say they want a man who can and will communicate. If you’ve ever received an e-mail or text message from me, you know I’m a little on the wordy side. (Short story markets pay by the word, ya know.) Communicating in writing is my medium. I’m not an introvert there at all.

Without fail, every woman from a dating site with whom I’ve passed messages are either terribly communicators, or they just don’t want to talk to me and are too kind to tell me. The second is totally possible, but seems improbable that not a one would say, “Hey, this isn’t working for me.” Instead, I’ll message, say something about myself, and ask her a question. She responds to the question. That’s it. No follow-up, no elaborating. So I’ll continue the conversation either with that topic or another, always ending with a question. Same thing. Simple response, no follow-up. Eventually, with nothing being asked of me, I’ll let the conversation stop, thinking if a little time goes by, she’ll either ask something or that’ll be the end of it.

It’s always been the end of it. Whether or not we’ve met in person, when I stop pushing the conversation, the deal is done.

If anyone is reading this, I would sincerely like to know what’s up. Am I doing something wrong? Are the women really just too nice to tell me they’ve lost interest? Or do women want a magpie that’ll just blather on about himself endlessly whether she acts engaged in the conversation or not?

Plugging Into the Divine


I have always had a fascination with the sea and the stars. As a child, I remember studying the stars from our backyard on the east side of Enid, Oklahoma, watching them twinkle, trying to decide which were stars and which were planets, looking for the constellations … the things kids do. I didn’t know at the time I was only seeing a tiny fraction of what was there.

I wanted to see the ocean for years, but there are no oceans in Oklahoma. In 1990, my then-wife and I drove to the Oregon coast and there it was, gray and restless and huge, the mighty Pacific Ocean. It was everything I wanted it to be, and so much more. I’ve been back to the Pacific twice since then, once to Oregon and once to California. I will never get enough of watching those waves or the sun sinking like a drop of burning blood into the water, leaving bands of orange and purple and yellow between the horizon and the night sky.

All of last school year, I planned to take my dog Bear and go back to the Pacific this summer, taking our time and stopping wherever we wanted. We would find places, maybe in Wyoming, where we could see the Milky Way and the millions of stars that are hidden from us in the city. We would sit on the cool sand near Florence, Oregon, and contemplate life as foam-topped waves rolled up the beach. Don’t laugh. Bear is the kind of dog that would do that with me. But alas, I lost my job and there was a month of panic as I searched for another one, and then the realization that I would not get a paycheck from June 15 until September 20. Vacation was cancelled.

Depression set in. That’s a dragon I fight often. I don’t have many friends, but the few I have get to hear me whining and complaining, so they knew about my financial jam and cancelled plans. Today I got to sit and talk to Annie while she worked, and, because she is who she is and she knows how to ask questions that find the pearl in a pile of bull excrement, she asked me why I’m drawn to the water and the stars. I gave her some vague answer, but her question stuck with me as I drove home and, once here, I was able to give her a better answer.

I’m drawn to these things because I let my personal problems overwhelm me too often. Not having money, not getting to go on my trip, being lonely, feeling old, overworked, sad my books aren’t selling, etc., all weigh me down and became like a black hole sucking away my happiness. The ocean or a sky filled with glittering stars is so big, so eternal, so powerful that it reminds me how small I am and how miniscule my life, and therefore my problems, really are. As Annie put it in defining her own feelings, “[T]he sky and the ocean both plug me back into the Divine.”

I’m not a religious person, but I absolutely believe in a Divine presence, and I think it manifests in many forms and is understood in many different ways and by different names. And I fully believe that there are times in a person’s life when it is necessary to get plugged into that Divine nature. For me, the best place for my soul to connect to the Divine is where the land meets the sea under a canopy of stars. Hopefully I’ll get back to that church soon. In the meantime, you can often find me on the banks of local lakes.

Stopped Watches


With the start of school and the return of the necessity of wearing long pants, I wanted to strap on a wristwatch again. But alas, all three of my wristwatches have dead batteries, as do both of my pocket watches. This made me think back into the last century when I got my first adult watch*.

Back in those days, watches had to be wound every morning. I wanted a watch for a long time and finally got a silver one. I think it was a birthday gift. I know I was in elementary school and from the snippet of memory I have of showing the watch to someone on a certain section of the playground at Coolidge Elementary School, I must have been in about the second grade. I wanted a watch like my dad’s, and this one was pretty similar. I was really proud of it and, being a creature of habit, I didn’t have any problem remembering to wind it up every morning when I put it on.

I wore that watch for several years, until moisture got inside it and damaged the crystal and I could no longer read the face. I’m shocked I don’t seem to have it in my possession anymore, as that is exactly the kind of thing I would typically keep no matter how useless it is now. With all the moves and things lost in the divorce, I guess maybe it isn’t so surprising.

My point to this post is about how we’ve traded reliability for convenience. That watch worked for years and I never had to spend a penny on it. The watches I have now? For just a little more than the cost of the battery one needs, I could buy a whole new watch. Two of them were gifts and are a little more expensive than your typical Wal-Mart watch, but the fact remains they are useless without a new battery every year or two. All because we, as a society, became too lazy to wind our watches in the morning.

How much damage are we doing to the earth to create hundreds of thousands of those little lithium batteries? And what happens to them when we toss them in the trash?

And why have wristwatches gone out of style? Yeah, yeah, because of the cell phone, and because so many people can’t read an analogue clock, anyway.

I guess this is a post about an old guy longing for the good ol’ days when he had to wind his watch before walking uphill to school, barefoot in the snow.

*My first watch was a TeeterTotter Watch. I remember it was blue and instead of a second hand it had a boy and a girl on a teetertotter rocking back and forth. It was obviously a kid’s watch. I don’t know what happened to it, either, but I suspect I finally threw it away because years after I quit wearing it the thing would randomly start ticking from the depths of my dresser’s junk drawer. Of course, it’s probably worth a fortune now …