Graveyard of Ideas

The original idea for this came to me in 2002. At one work one afternoon, I was seized by the ethos of the rock visions of the 70s—specifically, Jefferson Starship’s Blows Against the Empire, although certainly it applies to Rush’s 2112, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, Genesis’s “Watcher of the Skies” and similar—and wrote the first version of this in a rush, sending it only to one friend who might understand. Recently I was reminded of that day, so I polished up UE70SSFRO and am posting it here.

I am not a composer, and have not the tiniest desire to make this work a reality. But I love the idea of it.

UE70SSFRO may be imagined as a double LP album covered in eye-popping art, the sort of art made to be painted on the sides of vans. The following text, a libretto, appears as liner notes in the album’s gatefold. The song titles are in parentheses, although I don’t think they represent a complete list of the opera’s tracks. There must always be songs left in potentia.

Side 1

In the early 22nd century, humanity stands on the brink of its final crisis, social, geopolitical, and ecological.(“Fever”) At the edge of the solar system, two giant alien space fleets, their ships very different in design, appear and head directly for Earth.

The fleets send messages as they approach. One, a flotilla of identical silvery ovoids, is of the Sereneium. The other, composed of junkyard juryrigs, each one different, holds the Zodiac Tribes.
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Iago Didymus knew immediately he was in a dream. This increased, not decreased his fear. Wizards have many more dangers in dreams than in waking life.

He was walking down a country road, through deserted fields. The sky was gray, everything was gray. He could see no one. As he walked, he came to a small, squat church. The steeple keeled over. Holes stared through the stained-glass saints in the windows. Next to the church lay a graveyard, surrounded by a waist-high wall. Inside the graveyard stood himself.

No, not himself, but a thing that looked exactly like him. The thing stared at him with hollow eyes. When he reached the wall, Iago could see its feet were ankle-deep in an open grave.

The thing bore no expression. But Iago knew it was filled with hatred for him. He knew that the wall was the only thing keeping him safe. So why was he moving toward the graveyard gate?

His feet inexorably padded toward the gothic arch of the gate. The thing’s head moved to track him.

Wake up, he told himself. Wake up.

His hand emerged from his pocket and fumbled toward the brass latch of the gate door. A tiny smile appeared on the thing’s face.

Wake up. Wake up.

His hand grasped the latch and began to turn.


Iago found himself face down in his pillow smothering himself. He convulsed backward, gasping for air. He pointed toward the candle on his bedstand and conjured a flame, a light to keep away evil.

There didn’t appear to be anything there. He curled up against the head of his bed and recited the Three Great Spells of Revelation. Nothing appeared.

Trembling, Iago retrieved his pipe and tobacco from the bedstand. There would be no more sleep tonight. He lit his pipe, sat in bed, and wondered why his brother wanted to kill him

The thing in the dream had been his brother. “Didymus,” he took as his nomme arcane, The Twin. For he had been born a twin. His brother had died in the womb, and Iago had only seen him in dreams. Twice before, he had dreamed of his brother. The first time was during the plague that carried off their mother and sisters. The second had been during a dark time that every aspiring wizard must face, a time when he must decide whether to pursue necromancy and worse arts or reject them. On both occasion, the dream had presaged baleful things.

Why did his brother hate him? Had Iago wronged him somehow, even before they were born? Or was it simple jealousy that Iago had lived and he had not? What was dread event was he happily presaging?

Eventually, dawn came. Iago feel back asleep, and did not dream.

I think it was back in college that I was first seized with the idea of a story set to The Doors’ Riders on the Storm.

I remember the story still.

In the hall of a Magyar lord, somewhere and sometime in old Hungary, a stranger came unbidden during a great storm. The lord of the hall would never allow himself to be accused of denying hospitality. Even though the stranger had a sinister air, still he was welcomed, and allowed to sit at the table with the lord and his two sons.

What the lord could not know was his guest’s frame of mind. The stranger struggled under horrible compulsions, like a toad squatting on his mind. In the midst of the meal he became agitated, picked up a knife, and stabbed his host to death, the blood pouring out to mingle with the Tokaj. Before anyone could react, the murderous guest ran from the hall and out over the Pannonian plain.

The brothers called for pistol, sword and cloak, leapt on their horses, and gave chase. With the rain and thunder, it took all their years of experience as huntsmen just to pursue their father’s killer, but pursue they did, becoming inexorably closer.

The elder brother was fearless, thinking of nothing save avenging his father. He did not know his danger. Not danger from the murderer–danger from his younger brother.

For the younger brother had a toad of his own. For years he had nursed a jealous rage against his older brother, who would inherit all their family’s vast estates while he received nothing. Even as they rode out, the men of the hall hailed the elder as their lord. But now was the perfect opportunity. All he had to do, as they closed with the killer, was put the first bullet in his brother and the second in the stranger. Then he would be lord.

Could he pull the trigger? Would the elder brother realize the younger’s plan? Would the killer escape in the fratricidal chaos?

Riders on the storm…

I spent my youth in an Apocalyptic milieu. Apocalypses abounded, both secular (The Day After, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow), and religious, specifically the evangelical model of The Late Great Planet Earth and A Thief in the Night. Though my family was Mainstream Protestant, not Evangelical, I was still surrounded by this in the culture and took it into my heart. As a teenager, I thought long on the Apocalypse, and gave much thought to a movie on the subject.

But, being not evangelical, the movie I had in mind would have had little in common with Left Behind. For one thing, I wanted to make extensive use of the Doors song “The End.” I have always considered it one of the best invocations of the Book of Revelation I have ever heard, an opinion that would probably not have found favor with either Jim Morrison or Francis Schaeffer. For another, there was a extrabiblical element: The Weeper.

It’s hard to describe how I saw The Weeper fitting into this movie. Less a character, more of a symbol. The Weeper was one of the younger siblings of Cain and Abel. They saw Cain murder his brother; they wept over Abel’s corpse. From that moment, they were cursed to see every sin ever committed, trapped in perpetual sorrow, their wailing echoing to the ends of the cosmos. They were the unwitnessed witness to every horror ever performed by one human being against another: every blow, every swindle, every theft, every lie. They could do nothing, only watch and sob.

The sorrows of the Weeper would be interwoven into the film. As humanity descended into ultimate degradation, there would be odd quiet moments when the main characters could hear the Weepers’s sorrow, though they did not recognize what it was they heard. As the corruption reached its climax, the sound could not be denied, would be heard throughout the world, maddeningly.

So it would continue until the very end. The final action of Unveiling, the very last, after the Last Trump had sounded, after the dead had been raised, after Universal Judgment and Redemption , after the Remaking of Heaven and Earth, would be for Jesus to come to the Weeper and comfort them. For the first time, they would cease crying.

That would be the end of the movie.

There is no movie, of course, and never will be. I can’t say I seriously envisioned making it. But it still seems that, in a just universe, there should be a Weeper. There should be something to sorrow perpetually. The World deserves it. May the time come when the Weeper shall be comforted, and the Weeping end.

I want to see a Youtube video consisting of footage from A Man For All Seasons in which Sir Thomas More faces down his prosecutors, set to the tune of Harper Valley PTA.

We only get so much time in this world, and I’ve got other projects to use it on. But I would love to see it.

In the same vein, I want to see a fanvid for REM’s “Driver 8,” consisting of clip after clip of horrific rail accidents from Thomas the Tank Engine.

(Followup: Oh wow, somebody (sort of) did that one! But not with the rail accidents. I don’t know why they left that out. It’s the best part of Thomas the Tank Engine)


Yes, another Thin Man idea from years ago. This one’s a lot shorter, though. It’s a crossover.


“I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. I really got to know it in–why, as I live and breathe: Nick and Nora Charles!”

On a lonely railway platform in postwar Vienna, novelist Holly Martins encounters his old pals, the Charleses.

“What are you doing here?”

Nora: “We’re in town to see Herr Von Castorp, the famous dog trainer. He’s teaching Asta to play the zither.”

Holly: “Is that so?”

(Cut to Asta with zither. The dog plays the “Theme from ‘The Third Man‘”)

Holly asks Nick to find a missing friend of his, Harry Lime. Nick tries to beg off, but soon finds himself running through the bombed-out streets of the city and making lone, late-night visits to the sewers. Along with British policeman Major Calloway (who is not the grimly competent figure from the original picture, but a bumbling foil as cops tend to be in the Thin Man movies), Nick & Nora unravel a bizarre black market scheme and a feigned death, with Harry at the center of it.

Eventually Nick tracks Lime down to a compartment in the immense Ferris wheel that hangs over Vienna.

“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace,–”

Nick silences Harry with a right to the jaw, knocking him out of the compartment.

“Sorry about that,” Nick says as he rubs his knuckles, “but you can only expect a man to listen to that tripe for so long.”

The last scene is a long, long shot of Nick, Nora & Asta jauntily walking down the street towards home.

(Idea behind Graveyard of Ideas is here)

The other day something reminded me of an idea which spontaneously
rose to mind many years ago, and has never really gone away. It’s a generational sequel to The Thin Man, both the novel by Dashiell Hammett and the subsequent film franchise starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. I would never actually write this because: it would be a great deal of work towards an uncertain goal (Who would ever publish this? How many people read Thin Man fanfic?) and a heavy load of research (I don’t particularly want to know how to write an accurate Joey Bishop voice). But I did think it was a neat idea, so here is the gravestone to:


Summer 1964. The Sixties are still a Playboy Age, not a Hippie Age, and tonight there is a black-tie party at the fabulous Playboy Mansion in swingin’ Chicago. A deluxe Cadillac pulls into the driveway and disgorges Nicholas Charalambides, heir & head of the Charles industrial conglomerate, and his elderly mother, Nora Charles, widow of the late Nick Sr (who died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1959).

Hef greets them in his bathrobe, pipe & Pepsi in his hands, and points them to the dining room. There they find themselves at a table with other nationally known figures: Young financier Robert Vesco, promising young auto exec John De Lorean, champion boxer Cassius Clay, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Kennedy brother-in-law Peter Lawford, and up-and-coming young comedian & actor Bill Cosby.

Nick is not intimidated by the company. He is a hip, hip swinger. He reads Evergreen Review, he’s seen 8 ½, he knows Miles personally. His voice in the conversation is an authority, his wit a scalpel–

“Oh, Nicky, you say the funniest things,” says Nora.

“Nicholas, Mother. We agreed you would call me Nicholas,” he says out of the corner of his mouth.

“Nicky’s father used to say all sorts of clever things. But he’s gone now, gone, gone forever.”

There’s an awkward moment in the face of the widow’s grief. Cosby breaks it:

“So, Mr Charalambides, are you keeping up with the detectivising and the private-eyzivising, like your old man used to do?”

“No! My father was dogged to the end of his life by people who expected him to still be a detective, and I’ll be damned if I get roped into it. I’ve never solved a crime in my life, and I want to keep it that way.”

A silver-skinned, auburn-haired bunny brings the entrees. Nick notes the ease with which she carries dinner for eight, despite her slender and toned frame.

“What’s your name, baby?” Lawford asks.

“Trixie, Mr Lawford.”

Lawford slips a hand into the back end of her Bunny uniform and squeezes her butt. “Soft as a cushion,” he says.

She glances significantly at his crotch and says “Looks like we have something in common.”

Nick stifles a guffaw. Lawford yanks his hand back and gulps his whiskey. Trixie completes her delivery of the coq au vin and goes back for more drinks.

“I should complain to Hef about her,” Cosby says. “I don’t like it when the girls get smart mouths like that. They should be easygoing and adaptable, like my wife, Camille.”

“It was excellent service, Bill,” says Nora. “Peter wanted to feel an ass, and she obliged.”

It seems to Nick that his mother’s statement could be taken several ways, but he doesn’t say anything.

Nora dominates the conversation as they eat. “I miss Asta, too. You never saw a more loyal dog, and so protective! Why, once he thought Nicky was threatening me with his prize air rifle, and he went and chewed the thing to bits!”

“I hated that dog,” Nick snarls under his breath.

“But we never quite got him housebroken, and the cost of replacing those rugs–”

A scream erupts nearby. Nick is on his feet in an instant, running towards the trouble. By Hef’s table, a body sprawls. Hef, frantic, calls for one of the many doctors in the house, who confirms the worst: Rat Pack funnyman Joey Bishop has rattled off his last one-liner.

Nick grabs Bishop’s drained martini glass and sniffs. Behind the pungent smell of gin, he can detect hints of bitter almonds, the odor his dad taught him meant…

“Cyanide,” Nick says. “Somebody dosed the drink.”

Hef seizes the situation. “Folks, I’m going to have to ask everyone not to leave until we get this sorted out.” He pulls Nick aside. “Nick, I need your help. I can’t call the police yet.”

“Why not?”

“Many of the guests have…uh…” Hef mimes someone taking a long drag off a thin cigarette.

Ah, the dread weed marihuana. “Well, what do you want me to do about it?”

“You’ve got some experience with this kind of thing. Can’t you figure out who did it? If we can present the police with a murderer, they won’t have to search everybody.”

“That was my father, not me. I’ve never–”

“Please, Nick.”

Nick surveys the room. Were the cops let loose on the star power present, no gossip columnist in the country would have to do real work for the next year. Friends of his, many of them.

“All right. Let me ask around.”

“Thank you, Nick! Is there anything you need?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.” Nick turns around to find Trixie, the Bunny waitress, standing behind him.

“Hey, Trixie. Can you do me a favor?”

She leans forward, pressing her the front of her bunny costume firmly against his shoulder. “What did you have in mind, Mr Charlambides?”

“I have to ask some people a few questions. Can you watch my mother? Keep her out of my hair?”

Trixie straightens back up and readjusts her bunny costume. “The dame with the pearls? Sure, it’ll be a hoot.”

Nick starts asking people quite a few questions, except Trixie can’t keep Nora away at all, and pretty soon she isn’t even trying, so both of them are tagging along while he tries to figure out what the hell happened. Which turns out to be a real plus, because Trixie knows an awful lot about the Mansion’s regulars. They treat the Bunnys like furniture, she says, and don’t seem to notice a few in the room—so they don’t censor themselves when they talk.

Nick & Trixie find themselves in some dark corners of the place, following some unsavory people. On one occasion, they’re about to be caught—until Trixie grabs Nick and crams his mouth against hers. Seeing what seems like just a couple in a normal Playboy-style tete-a-tete, the person they’re following moves on. They break the embrace, stare at each other for a moment.

“Nicky! Nelson Rockefeller told me the most amazing—am I interrupting something?”

“Um, no, Mother. What did you find?”

After sifting through rumor, accusation, and hearsay, the murder seems to be the work of Governor Rockefeller, Hef himself, or Frank Sinatra. None of the possibilities quite fit. Some turn out to be red herrings. Finally Nick gets a lead that something might be down in the Grotto (thus requiring a macabre, dangerous trip into a dark area, a standard of these movies). He tells the women to stay behind, but they refuse.

Down into the grotto Nick descends, a flashlight in one hand, a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild held by the neck in the other. Nora & Trixie are right behind him. Eerie shadows play around the vault.

A figure rises up from the dark, coming at them, brandishing above his head…

…a guitar?

It’s Shel Silverstein.

“What are you doing here?” Nick demands.

“I was scared,” Shel whimpers. “I came here down here to write a little song about being scared, for kids to sing.”

Under close interrogation, Shel remembers a crucial fact, something no one else noticed at dinner. Nick tells Hef to gather all the guests and staff together in the dining room.

In front of the crowd, Nick pieces together the crime, step-by-step, eliminating the other suspects until the only possible murderer is: BILL COSBY! Yes! In the Thin Man movies, it’s always the most innocent, harmless-seeming character who turns out be THE EVILEST GUY IN THE ROOM. (As exemplified in Jimmy Stewart’s memorable freakout in “After the Thin Man”)

Cosby whips out a hidden pistol. “Yeah, he had to die! He knew too much! About me, and the ladies and the girlies and the oh-so-sweeties! He was gonna talk, and ruin my career, and my marriage to my wife, Camille!”

A horrified silence reigns as Cosby whips the pistol back and forth in a rage.

Nora says “Oh, Nicky! You solved the mystery. Your father would be so proud!” She begins to weep copiously. “But he’s not here! He’s GONE! GONE FOREVER! HE’LL NEVER BE BACK! NEVER! NEVER! NEVER!”

“Shut up! Somebody shut her up!” shouts Cosby.

Nora swoons into the crowd. In all the mishegos, Cosby never sees Trixie emerging from a bank of potted palms behind him.

BAM! A empty magnum of Chateau Lafite Rothschild shatters over Cosby’s head. He slumps to the floor.

“Neat work, Trixie,” says Nora, recovering from her fake swoon.

“Thanks, Mrs Charles,” says Trixie.

Cosby is hauled away shouting that he did nothing wrong. Hef thanks Nick for his help. Nora kisses her son’s cheek and whispers that his father really would be proud, then leaves with Governor Rockefeller.

Nick and Trixie end up on a veranda, watching the sun come up over Lake Michigan in the distance.

“Can I ask a question?” she says.

“Sure, baby.”

“What was with that big production in the dining room? Why didn’t you just get Hef’s security to tackle Cosby when he was alone?”

Nick smiles. “That was my father’s advice. ‘Junior, always leave ’em with a big finish,’ he used to say.” He leans over the rail toward the rising sun. “My dad taught me that. He taught me to always look very closely at things. He taught me to keep my eye on the mousey guy.”

Suddenly it’s like he’s not there anymore, like he’s seeing something beyond the horizon.

“He taught me how to die. We were at the hospital. He was asleep. It was only Mother and I in the room. All of a sudden, he sat bolt upright and looked at her and said ‘Goodbye, sugar.’ Then he was gone.”

He shakes his head a bit, comes back to the place and time.

“That wasn’t very hip, was it?”

“No,” Trixie says, a note of amused sympathy in her voice.

He thinks for a moment, finally says:

“Say, why don’t we go get hitched? The JP in the next county owes me a favor. We could wake him up.”

“That isn’t every hip either. There’s easier ways to get a girl into bed around here than that, you know.”

“I’m serious. I think we could have some laughs.”

She searches his face, trying to see if it’s a joke. Then:

“All right.”

He fetches the big red Cadillac, opens the passenger door for her.

“In you go, sugar.”

“Why, thank you, Nicky.”


Her laugh follows the car down the long driveway, into the new Chicago day.

People think too much of ideas. The archetypal question to an author is “Where do you get your ideas?”, but writers learn early on that ideas are easy, it’s execution that’s hard. Truth is, most writers I know get constant streams of ideas, so many that the real trick is, while trying to make something of Idea A, getting Ideas B-Z to shut the hell up.

So, like most writers, I have mental filing cabinets full of old, never-used ideas, stuffed so full that drawers won’t close, mouldering manila folders springing out in all directions. I’d like to use this blog as an opportunity to get out some of those ideas, in order to make peace with the fact that they’re never going to be used, and to be a memorial of sorts to those poor story hooks whose time never came and now never will.

“The Graveyard of Ideas” shall be the header.