Journalist. Palindrome. Writer.

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James Renner is an award-winning journalist, and author of True Crime Addict, the definitive book on the Maura Murray disappearance. He also hosts the podcast, The Philosophy of Crime. In 2019, he founded The Porchlight Project which raises money for new DNA testing and genetic genealogy for Ohio cold cases. In May, 2020, James Zastawnik was arrested for the murder of Barbara Blatnik, thanks to the work of genealogists funded by the Porchlight Project.

Read This: Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

So someone went and wrote a literary novel about the zombie apocalypse. Kind of the Ulysses of flesh-eating fiction.

The plot is sparse. Such as it is, the narrative follows a young man called Mark Spitz and the two other members of his survivalist unit as they comb through lower Manhattan killing straggler zombies in an effort to reclaim the city, or at least safeguard Zone One. But we see much of the world through flashbacks which take us from First Night to the present day. The longer we stay with Spitz and his company, the more we learn about their past.

I guess the chief complaint from bloggers about this book is how it constantly jumps from this present to flashback, sometimes mid-paragraph–and it can be jarring at times. My wife is a serious fan of post-apocalyptic novels and she gave up after twenty pages. Partly because of the non-linear structure, but also because this story is DENSE. Colson is a word fetishist and does not make it easy for the reader. The dude would be no fun to play Scrabble with.

I LOVED the book, though. LOVED it. It’s dreamy. It’s stream-of-consciousness almost. A fever dream of a vision of our nightmares. Mark and his friends are fully formed and we learn a lot about the human condition (and the message, here, is strangely hopeful) in the little scenes when death approaches in the form of the endless undead army.

Take your time with this one. It’s worth it.

Read This: My Friend Dahmer, by Derf

My Friend Dahmer

The artist mostly known as “Derf” was a bit of a mystery during my tenure at the Cleveland Scene and Free Times. He was the guy behind the coolest comic strip in the paper, The City, which ripped on Cleveland every week but also seemed to celebrate its crazy residents at the same time. I would occasionally see him at company parties, quietly watching from the back, this tall dude with a long face who usually seemed pissed at something.

There was this rumor he’d been friends with the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in high school. I’d never doubted it. But I was a little surprised when he dared to turn his artist’s eye to that part of his life. It would be tempting for any storyteller, sure, but in order to go there you have to show Dahmer as a sympathetic character. Because he was, after all, human. And a friend to some people. And would readers really want to go there?

Earlier this year, Derf finally got around to telling his story in My Friend Dahmer, a thick, gorgeous graphic novel that presents the cannibal killer as a tragic character, someone who might been saved even, if only one fucking adult had bothered to wonder why Jeffrey was acting so strangely and had cared enough to get him some help. Dahmer did not go quietly into full-on sociopathic insanity. The signs were there — animal mutilations, binge drinking at 15, a shocking lack of empathy for fellow human beings — and they were hard to miss. It’s like watching Anakin turn into Darth Vader, only slowly and with no definable event to motivate the fall.

The book covers Dahmer and Derf’s last years of high school in bucolic Bath, Ohio, one of the safest neighborhoods in the state. And by the end of the summer following their senior year, both have discovered their passion — Derf has become a fledgling artist, Dahmer a practicing psychopath and murderer. Drawn in high-def contrast, with his slightly-grotesque portrayal of the human form, this book serves as the universal countering force of Dahmer’s own dark obsession. The art’s creation only made possible as a result of the acts it chronicles and the effect it had on the artist.

In summation: way cool.

Listen to this: The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James

Drove out to Manhattan last week to speak with my editor about a new novel (more on that soon). The trip is a rough seven hours East on I-80 and there was a lot of time to burn. I made some use of it by downloading a couple audio books over at Audible, the company that did a sweet job on The Man from Primrose Lane.

I brought two books along with me. The first was Defending Jacob, which was a murder mystery that came highly recommended. It was well written and well told. But in the end, little more than grief porn and parental paranoia. Not my thing. The other story, though, was a classic: The Turn of the Screw, published in 1898. And its mood and tone fit perfectly well with the New England autumn backdrop.

The yarn begins the way so many good old stories do, with a character coming forth to explain why this story he’s about to tell you is the most depraved, most frightening thing you’ve ever heard. Lovecraft does this a lot, this circus barking to ramp up suspense. We’ve somehow lost this over the last hundred years, with most editors and writers preferring to just get us right into the story as if they’re embarrassed to sell it too much. Which is a shame, because it really does add a keen sense of suspicion.

Simple story, well done. A young woman applies to become the governess of two children who live on a country estate. The last governess died under mysterious circumstances and may be haunting the place. That’s about it. But the execution is lyrical, wonderful. James slowly turns the screw until the sense of dread about Bly manor is palpable. And he’s daring enough to leave any real explanation to the reader. Is the woman going crazy? Or are the ghosts real? Oh, and it packs a hell of a wallop in one last sentence.

If you pick up a copy, put in on the shelf between Jane Eyre and Rebecca. But I recommend going the Audible route and heading out for a long road trip. Somewhere desolate and cold.

Help us make a film about the search for Amy’s killer.


Since I was 11, I’ve been searching for the man who abducted and murdered Amy Mihaljevic. I’ve written a book about it. And I maintain a blog where I keep updated info on clues and suspects.

But there are some things I would like to say about this mystery which really only work in a visual medium. I’ve thought for awhile about making a feature film and with the renewed interest in her case, now seems like the best time to get started.

Two days ago, I launched a fundraising effort through Indiegogo, where you can help produce this project for as little as $10.

Check it out.

Hot off the presses!

It Came from Ohio has arrived, just in time for Halloween! Learn all about Ohio’s creepiest legends: The Loveland Frog monster; the Melon Heads of Kirtland; the flying saucer that attacked a helicopter over Mansfield; an elite secret society run by Bob Serpentini; and more… Copies are being distributed to area bookstores. Be sure to visit the independents.

If you like ebooks, you can pick it up for $3.99 for your Nook or Kindle. You can also order the paperback through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

And if you like free stuff, you can enter to win a copy through Goodreads!

Meet the new book: It Came from Ohio!

So remember that part in The Man from Primrose Lane where the cop encounters a half-man/half-frog with a spark wand on the back roads of Loveland, Ohio? Believe it or not that’s based on a real incident that occurred near Cinci decades ago. The true story of the Loveland Frog appears in my new book, It Came from Ohio! which you can now pre-order by clicking the picture (that’s the Frog on the cover).

It Came from Ohio! is a collection of 13 short investigations I conducted into famous Ohio legends. There’s the story of the Portage County deputies who chased a flying saucer into Pennsylvania, an expose of an elite secret society that owns a private island on Lake Erie which they staff with underage European girls, and other oddities like jealous ghosts and canibalistic mutant children.

The book will be released in October as a paperback and an ebook for all formats. Just in time for Halloween!

Read the Introduction at Barnes & Noble!

Skip This: The Clan of the Cave Bear, By Jean M. Auel

I don’t give up on a book easily. I can count on one hand the times this has happened. But this book and I have come to a parting of the ways. And this is sad, because I really wanted to like this book.

I’ve always been curious about The Clan of the Cave Bear. I love the idea of setting a sweeping epic story during the time of cavemen. And the covers for this series by Jean M. Auel are absolutely beautiful and practically call to readers, promising adventure within. On a recent trip to Manhattan, I found an old paperback copy at The Strand which was autographed and figured it was finally time to dig in.

The writing is fine. Utilitarian in places, but the pacing and flow and economy of words is polished. The story, itself, begins well enough– a Homosapien girl loses her tribe and is adopted by a clan of Cro-Magnons on the great steppes of the Mammoth fields. But as interesting a world as Auel creates, I practically had to force myself to read on. Three hundred pages in, it began to feel like work. Why? This story has no ticking clock. Her protagonist, Ayla, is not given a goal or mission, other than to try to fit in–or not–as a member of the Clan. As a reader, we don’t really know why we’re reading, other than to understand Auel’s theories on Ancient society. There is simply nothing driving the narration.

To me, this book read as an experiment by a great historian to write a novel in order to get other people as excited in the things she studied as she was. And, given the success of the book in the 80’s, it worked. But it didn’t work for me. Unfortunately.

Aussie’s RadioNational Airs In-depth Interview

Check out my in-depth interview about the influences behind The Man from Primrose Lane. (download available).

 

American writer James Renner is a journalist and true crime specialist. So it’s no surprise that a true crime journalist is the hero in his new novel, The Man from Primrose Lane. But that’s pretty much where the novel’s relation to reality and conventional narrative ends.

The Man from Primrose Lane is a novel with a significant plot twist at its centre, one that we can’t possibly reveal without giving the story away.

Watch This: Prometheus

Typically, this space is meant for book reviews but after seeing Prometheus last night I feel compelled to say a few things about the new Alien story, written mostly by Damon Lindelof. This discussion will be SPOILER-rific, so maybe go see the movie first, then come back and read.

LAST WARNING, SPOILERS AHEAD.

First of all, I need to correct some things you may have read in Lisa Schwarzbaum’s review in Entertainment Weekly.  As a writer, myself (though still very green and naive), I get pretty upset when a well-read critic mis-understands the finer points of one of my stories. If you read Lisa’s review, you come away believing that Prometheus doesn’t have the balls to back a specific religion as the protector of humanity. She also weirdly refers to the aliens as “directors” instead of “engineers” but I digress.

Prometheus clearly endorses Christianity. You kind of have to be blind to miss this. The lead, Elizabeth Shaw, carries a cross (literally) through the film. The spaceship lands on Christmas Day. There’s even a scene where robot David washes the feet of his creator. If you went to Sunday school, you couldn’t miss this.

Why is it important? Because Christianity might be the whole point of the bigger story that Lindelof and Ridley Scott have set up, here.

We learn early on in the film that the “Space Jockeys,” the very tall super humans who seeded life on Planet Earth (through *ahem* messianic self-sacrifice) all died out around “2,000 years ago” when there was some discussion about destroying the humans they had created. Anything important supposedly happen on Earth about 2,000 years ago? Oh right, people started worshiping Jesus as the “son of God.” Imagine if the robots we eventually create suddenly began to believe they were created by this superior being who promised them eternal life? We might get mad but more probably, we would think something was wrong with their circuitry. A glitch. And we’d want to fix them. Perhaps by scrapping their model and starting over.

If you miss the Christianity connection, which many reviewers did, you miss the whole subtext of what’s going on between the Space Jockeys and humans. And humans and robots.

Having some time to think about it, here’s what I think happened with the Space Jockeys. Their leader heard about this Jesus thing and freaked the eff out. Decided it was time to wipe humanity out with those weaponized alien vases. But one Space Jockey had second thoughts. Let’s see what becomes of this Jesus thing, it thought. And so it opened up some canisters, releasing aliens on its own kind, before sealing itself in the cryogenic pod. It wanted to wait until humans came for it, to see if they had evolved into the graceful and kind race that Christianity promised.

Except, when it’s finally awaked by the humans, what is the first thing it sees? A fight. The humans have come this far but are still fighting with each other. The experiment was a failure, after all. The right decision all along was to wipe out humanity.

A bummer, sure. But one that makes a lot more sense, in context.

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