this ain’t your mother’s “A Christmas Carol”: a flash review

“… If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”

Thus says the famous miser in Dickens’ 1843 novella. And it is in the gloom embodied by this statement that the creators of the recent BBC production must have taken their inspiration. The paces that Scrooge is put through have the clear intention of boiling him in all the consequences of his own exploitive and inhumane practices.

For the first time in my life, I have read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Throughout my childhood, I experienced this story mostly through watching my uncle play Marley or Scrooge or Bob Cratchit in a variety of on-stage productions. I was also well-acquainted with Dickens’ famous ghost story through the 1984 production with George C. Scott as Scrooge.

Reading the story in its original form was rewarding in its own way—e.g. the vivid descriptions of the sights and sounds of Scrooge’s little pocket of London in the 1840s were a gift to the numerous stage and screen directors who have treated the story over the years. But what was truly rewarding upon finishing the novella yesterday evening was watching the 2019 production of the tale, starring Guy Pearce as Scrooge. The show was originally presented as a 3-part miniseries. But since my Christmas shopping and wrapping was done, I watched the entire 2 hours 53 minutes in one sitting. And it immediately occurred to me that this ain’t your mother’s A Christmas Carol.

Suffice it to say that this version leans all the way into the ghost story and goes even further to depict the absolute horrors of human misery at the hands of imperialism, a legacy the British and American audiences still grapple with—hopefully in meaningful ways. In a stroke of genius, Steven Knight (writer) takes great liberty at filling in the novella’s ambiguity about Scrooge’s past and present business exploits; the result is a stunning frankness about the depravity of humanity.

The themes starkly depicted in the 2019 rendition—exploitation, unsafe labor practices, unethical business practices, the consequences of unfettered capitalism, slavery, and sexual coercion—would have made Dickens both proud and appalled: Dickens would have applauded the 2019 production’s way of speaking truth to power; paradoxically, Dickens would have loathed to see that the themes he treated throughout his literary career are just as relevant today.

the three days of Christmas: a new tradition?

Could you survive on just three days of Christmas?

This year, putting up the tree and a few lights kept getting bumped down the list of priorities. Professional concerns and artistic pursuits have taken precedence. And now, three days before the big day, there will be no lights, no tree.

And, dare I say, no stress, no FOMO.

It helps that there’s snow on the ground and a -30 wind chill; these things serve as a reminder to slow down, to hibernate, and reflect on the things that I have. I can, in fact, do that without the glow of Christmas lights. But today I will probably watch the first 30 minutes of Empire Strikes Back and the first two installments of the Die Hard franchise to get me in the spirit. And perhaps I’ll re-read the passage in The Emergent that fairly well sums up the expectation and disappointment of the season…the melancholy satisfaction, if you will.

“…I could relate to Alma’s desire to flee the sinking feeling she always had throughout most of December. We somehow became infused with the same sense that something fantastic was supposed to happen. But the alternately high-spirited and depressing tunes of the season led us to conclude that the hope in the season was all an illusion.” –Kat Campos, The Emergent

spoiler alert: the news is bad

Masochism is a writer’s catechism. You voluntarily subject yourself to likely devastation that is not unlike that of your first middle school heartbreak.

Receiving rejection notices from literary agents or literary journals never gets easier. It’s all part of the process, but the stories your mind tells you after each form letter are truly dark and try to convince you to stop writing, to stop fooling yourself. Those thoughts are summed up like this (click image below for more of these poems):

But after all the years and dozens of rejections, I still find a way to use the ruins of each hope to kindle the fire that powers me onward.

The Emergent – a synopsis

“Unknowns can be handled in two ways. You can stay on the beach and watch, imagining what
might—but probably won’t—happen. Or you can offer up your mere physical existence for the
chance to be a part of something bigger than yourself.”

These are among the last words that Kat hears from her lifelong friend, Alma. The Emergent opens at the dawn of the internet era, and nineteen-year-old Silicon Valley native Kat is alone.

Haunted, she wonders if her actions drove Alma-and the rest of her family-away. Soon after
Alma’s disappearance, Kat finds herself in New York City with a new companion. In an apparent attempt to understand why she ended up across the continent, Kat relates her family’s story. Set in places like the shores of Oakland after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Depression-era farming communities of California’s Central Valley, and cold-war Santa Clara Valley, the family history and its ghosts also seem to shroud who Kat really is. But a series of mysterious injuries compel Kat to reveal more about herself. Will these revelations save Kat from her past? Or will they forever define her future?

Contact the author for a full tip sheet and to discuss speaking engagements.

in honor of election day: Variations on a Sickness – a dark satire

Variant: a dystopian prelude (a very short chapter from my dark satire-in-progress)

Julius’s niece is dead after following the advice of Our Dear Leader (ODL).

The armies in the north are gearing up, their leaders salivating at our weakened defenses and superior, unused medical resources. A whole division of our troops in that region ingested a cocktail of over-the-counter cleaning supplies a couple days ago. And radio silence from ODL, the man who said such an injection could be a good idea. “Whaddya have to lose?”

ODL is a man whose power is derived from his association with and intimidation of scientists who found the “sociopath” gene. A decade ago, he won office on the idea that he—and he alone—could rid the country of sociopathy.

Were it not for Bliss, Julius might have voted for ODL all those years ago. But his wife’s constant raging brought on sweat, chills, fever, headache, dry mouth, and shallow breathing. Anxiety like this overwhelmed any vague fear Julius had about The Sickness.

“You cannot vote for him, Jules,” she had said ten years ago, her dinner getting cold. “Don’t be fooled by all the free coverage the media is giving him. I mean, listen to this fucking idiot prattle on incessantly. It’s the same thing every single time! It’s not news. It’s indoctrination.”

Bliss brought up a video on her phone of ODL at one of his recent election rallies. The future dictator screamed, “The illness—people call it The Sickness—of socioplathy [sic] inflicts one in every 25 people. And it’s a terrible terrible terrible disease that is coming for you and your kids. It’s Lizzie, a great doctor of medical, who determined all this. A great person; we have a very great friendship; Lizzie always tells me what I want to hear. I really like her. I know…we know, right Lizzie?…we know some great people, great great great wonderful people, who say they’re able to detect socioplarthy [sic].”

“Did you know?” Bliss shouted as she scrolled through social media for another example. “Did you know ODL’s followers think he is a brilliant clairvoyant? What the actual fuck is going on?! The goddamned lunatic says he is able to use his ‘immense intuition’—whatever the hell that means—to determine who has The Sickness.”

According to ODL, alarmingly high rates of The Sickness supposedly existed in people who wear glasses, read books, or write newspaper articles. Of course, this idea got massive pushback in the media, playing into ODL’s trap; the dissenting thinker-writer types (and those who wore glasses) were the first to be attacked, abducted, and disappeared after the election.

“These campaign rallies,” Bliss continued as she swiped up again and again on her screen. “These rallies are recruiting tools for CC squads. Christ & Country squads! Can you believe that shit?! I’m telling you, they’re going to start rounding up people like me…and you; guilt by association. And what if we have a baby? Who knows what those animals would do to our baby. Just listen to this.”

Again, she shoved the screen in Julius’ face. ODL said, “Once we know who’s socioplarthic [sic], we can do something about it. And it’s gonna be so great you’re not even gonna believe it. We’re gonna get rid of these dangerous dangerous dangerous people, the sylviaplathics [sic]. Lots of smart people are saying this is what we should do, some of the smartest people with the biggest you-know-whats.”

After his election, ODL and his cold-blooded devotees hunted down “the infected,” employing the very same extreme ruthlessness known in the most extreme cases of sociopathy. Without a trace of irony, CC squads crisscrossed the country gleefully chanting “89% of slaughter is laughter” while efficiently taking the supposed sociopaths out of the population. Through the success of re-education camps, conversion therapy, and deportation—but mostly through wholesale butchery —ODL triumphantly, and with little physical resistance, attained total and lifetime rule of the country.

The plucky band of late night hosts, saved by celebrity, soon were the only voices of opposition. So long as they didn’t fade from memory like a movie star with a dreadful agent, the hosts were protected by their popularity. And the kettles of civil unrest that they had kept simmering for years were now at a low steady boil. Now, the late night hosts’ millions of fans have come to believe that the spread of highly contagious, air-borne sociopathic variant to be a hoax, that the resulting national quarantine is part of an ODL power grab.

“This damned hypocrite!” Bliss yells at the screen, diverting her thoughts from much more local and personal tragedies. “He’s shameless, as usual. It doesn’t matter to his followers if he’s breaking his own quarantine decrees. He’s touring these huge indoor stadiums, spouting this new theory. Didn’t I say he would come for the babies? Ten years ago, I said this would happen. Have you heard this shit, Jules?”

Her screen thrust in his face, Julius has no choice but to watch.

ODL shouts, screams, slavers to the adoring fans, “They say the novel sickness is a disease that infects little babies in the womb; and until now nobody had a way of knowing until much much much later, who had socio…socioplithy [sic]. They still say one in every 25 people is a socioplith [sic]. But some great people—people I know, great people, people who love me—great great great people are saying there’s a way to detect socioplicthy [sic] in the womb. Orange you glad you know that now?”

It is this kind of rhetoric that distracts even me, the demi-god: a semi-omnipresent, semi-omniscient, semi-omnipotent, or however it is you want to semi-classify me. I find myself distracted from this demi-epic about Julius.

His niece, Frenchie, died just the other day after a lethal cocktail of Tide Pods dissolved in bleach and a deep huff of aerosol disinfectant. She didn’t even get tasty Kool-Aid or shiny Nikes out of it.

inspiration in the fall

I’ve just finished writing two new short stories. They’re called, “The Pain of Returning” and “…with Dame Judi Dench as Gertrude”.

There’s a reason I call this writing season. Everything is in full color. Sunny days glow. The cool weather and shorter days keep my butt to the chair so I can crank out new pages. If you follow me on Instagram (@nickholmbergwrites), you know I’ve been posting about inspiration for weeks now. See the pictures below for examples.

Where do you find your inspiration?

writing ritual – music

Writing routine. Writing ritual. I like the term writing ritual. Then the term is spiritual. Religious, even.

Over the course of writing The Emergent, I listened to certain albums for their familiar sounds and their contribution to my writing ritual. I wrote about it in this post.

On that note, I wanted to share the only playlist I listened to in the final six months of work on the book. Never listened out of order. The list is publicly available or you can recreate it on a different platform.

I wish I had 3 hours+ to write every session.

dreams, coffee, and the invasion of smart phones

When I was in my early to mid-20s, I would do things in dreams unimaginable to me in waking life: inject heroin, die by gun suicide, die by gun murder, crash-land small jet planes in the San Francisco Bay.

Dreaming sounds dangerous. Yes, but not always. In one dream when I was 24—a couple year after a particularly bad heartbreak—I forgave the young woman who had crushed my soul.

Other than of the occasional dog attack, I don’t dream much anymore. After all the addiction, the dying, the near-death, the confrontation with deep emotional pain, you might say that’s a good thing.

I don’t.

The current dog-attack dreams are stark because they are the only ones that I remember. Since they are connected to real altercations with neighborhood dogs over the past two years, the dreams help make meaning.

The dog attacks of my dreams can represent any and all multitudes of secular fear: pandemic, politics, and their implications on the next generation.

The dog attacks of my dreams can represent a particularly unruly part of my inner Self (an interpretation less potent in my very domesticated mid-40s).

cover art for Tool’s Lateralus: Alex Grey

The dog attacks of my dreams can represent whatever I want them to, follies of possible self-delusion and misinterpretation notwithstanding.

The real trick, at least in the dream, is to vanquish the dog. Or befriend it.

Those dreams from my 20s still carry meaning, are part of my narrative, are the basis for a personal mythology, a personal religion. Those dreams are subconscious artifacts that mark a time of developing self-awareness, a time of great personal growth.

But have I lost my religion? Visions that could inform my life (i.e. sleep cycles that lead to remembered dreams) are interrupted by the biology of the old-ish (i.e. I gotta pee at 2 AM), as well as the physical aches and anxiety pains.

And there’s so much more that occupies waking life than there was in my 20s. Two more decades of personal and world history to process; responsibilities, regret, my relationship with friends and family to concern me. Personal growth continues; I interact with the joys and hardships of life and change. But that’s fairly artificial: the books, articles, television, and cinema that I consume will never fully reflect my own experience.

In a recent episode of Throughline, Abdelfatah points out that “in today’s world, where sleep is being cut short, caffeinated drinks are keeping us awake and screens vie for our attention, it’s become harder and harder to dream.” True. Can I quit coffee in the interest of better sleep? Can I refrain from my anxiety-inducing media addiction to foster more dreaming?

In my 20s—in the early days of my relationship with coffee and before the invasion of smart phones—I was able to take the experience of a dream and consider the metaphors, sometimes for several days. Sure, maybe I was a little interested in the escapism of taking heroin, but perhaps the dream was instructing me: temporarily extract yourself from your worries about school and love and change.

I could lament how much richer my inner life would be now if I were to remember more of my dreams. Or I could develop a practice of taking an extra five minutes before getting out of bed, letting the visions of sleep set in my waking mind so they could walk with me throughout the day.

Lessons from a Tick

I would rather have lyme disease than admit this, but here goes: I have a tick.

After nearly two decades of working on The Emergent, you would think I had cured all the sentence-level “ticks.” Well, I have…now. A real buzzer-beater. Some serious Steph Curry magic. As I made my last pass of the manuscript last week, I discovered the tick. From now until publication, anything other than typo corrections is frowned upon.

What the heck is a “tick” for a writer? Generally, it’s a bad/clumsy habit in a person’s prose. For me, it was starting a sentence or a phrase with “there was” or “there were.” I discovered nearly 40 instances, made improvements to nearly all of them, and straight up deleted others. Here are some examples vs their re-writes:

There were reassuring whispers. When they stopped, I went searching for them.


The reassuring whispers stopped. And I went searching for them.


There was a question in her voice as she trailed off.


A question tinged her voice as she trailed off.


There were other stories that were just downright weird for Oso to be telling me.


Other stories were just downright weird for Oso to tell.


There was something changing in her that was somehow connected to the obligations she assumed.


Something was changing in her that was somehow connected to the obligations she assumed.


But there were two times that she changed the tradition.


She changed the tradition only two times.


When we arrived, the sun was out and there was no wind.


When we arrived, the sun was out and the air was still.


When we arrived, the sun was out and the air was still.


But there is rage and dissatisfaction in their music; it helps give me some idea of where the discontent of men comes from.


But their rage and dissatisfaction helps give me some idea of where the discontent of men comes from.