Just got back from my first real vacation in 24 years

All images courtesy of Del Stone Jr.

It was my first real vacation in 24 years.

I’d sneaked in weekends here and there – three days in backwoods Louisiana, where the kudzu is thicker than the Cajun accents, or a weekend of schmoozing at a writers’ convention in Central Florida – but for the first time since my father passed away in 1998 I was leaving the homestead for a week to relax with friends.

The location was a small town called Blue Ridge in northern Georgia, just a white lightning run from the Tennessee border. My friends Richard, Joy and Sarah retired there after a work journey took them from Fort Walton Beach to Virginia, Alabama, and Colorado. I had visited them in Virginia and Alabama – Virginia was my favorite; sorry, Alabama – and now the attraction of mountains, and a home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner, was too much to resist.

I was surprised by the amount of crap I felt I had to take with me – my pill organizer with my vitamins and prescriptions; the waist band I wear when I exercise; my pricey enamel-restoring toothpaste. When packing for the trip I promised myself I’d bring only the essentials. Funny how so much stuff has become “essential.”

I worried I’d become drowsy during the hours of monotonous driving on the interstate, but the opposite proved to be true. It had been so long since I’d dealt with finicky cruise controls, near suicidal drivers, inexplicable interstate backups, believing I could make it to the next rest stop before my bladder erupted like Mount St. Helen, and the terror of surviving traffic in a major, and I mean major, metropolitan area like Atlanta, that I remained in a constant state of high alert.

Atlanta taught me that indeed, I am growing older, because in the past I considered the hair-raising driving practices of many Atlantans to be merely irritating. Now, they scared the hell out of me. Bumper-to-bumper at 80 mph? Had I wandered into the Daytona 500? Was I winning?

Also, I managed to get lost and instead of taking the I-575 bypass around the innards of that crazed town I ended up in something called an “express lane,” which means I will now be receiving a ticket in the mail from the Georgia Department of Transportation because I don’t have the special Peachy Keen Pass required to drive on that road. So thank you, Atlanta, for further eroding my meager checking account.

Another driving terror awaited when I reached Richard and Joy’s neighborhood. I shouldn’t call it a “neighborhood” – it’s actually a beautifully laid-out development on the side of a mountain. Gorgeous houses are spaced about 300 yards apart on very steep inclines. Trees and underbrush have been preserved, unlike developments in Florida, where the land is graded down to the earth’s mantel and then trees from Mars are planted to replace the native trees felled by the bulldozer’s blade. Life in Blue Ridge is like living in a treehouse.

The problem lies in reaching those gorgeous houses. The road was a narrow two-lane with very steep inclines and stomach-wrenching declines, with practically no road shoulder and near cliffs approaching the edge of the asphalt – at least that’s what it looked like to this Florida flatlander who lives an average of 12 feet above sea level.

Oh, and another thing. It was cold. Of course it was cold. I was 400 miles farther north than my usual stomping grounds.

And because you’re in the mountains, you’re also in the low layers of clouds, which meant it was often drippy and wet. It rained the first two days I was there and remained cloudy and damp the rest of the time. But then, when I came back home it rained like hell down here, too, so maybe it’s just me. Maybe I attract rain, like PigPen in the Peanuts comic strip attracted dirt.

Blue Ridge appears to be a favored vacation spot for Floridians. I’d say a quarter of the license plates “hailed” from the Sunshine State, if a license plate can hail. That explains the crazed drivers, at least the ones not displaying Cobb County plates.

The Cliff Notes version?

1. Packed too much crap.

2. Big city drivers – scary.

3. Cold – bad.

4. Mountains – also scary.

I hope to get back there in the spring, when I won’t look like such a freak wearing shorts. Spring should be gorgeous. Summer, too. And because you’re in the mountains, it’s cooler. And fall, with all the leaf colors.

Now that I think about it, I chose the one season of the year when maybe it wasn’t so great to visit. I need to get back up there and see what the place really looks like.

About the author:

Del Stone Jr. is a professional fiction writer. He is known primarily for his work in the contemporary dark fiction field, but has also published science fiction and contemporary fantasy. Stone’s stories, poetry and scripts have appeared in publications such as Amazing Stories, Eldritch Tales, and Bantam-Spectra’s Full Spectrum. His short fiction has been published in The Year’s Best Horror Stories XXII; Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine; the Pocket Books anthology More Phobias; the Barnes & Noble anthologies 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories, Horrors! 365 Scary Stories, and 100 Astounding Little Alien Stories; the HWA anthology Psychos; and other short fiction venues, like Blood Muse, Live Without a Net, Zombiesque and Sex Macabre. Stone’s comic book debut was in the Clive Barker series of books, Hellraiser, published by Marvel/Epic and reprinted in The Best of Hellraiser anthology. He has also published stories in Penthouse Comix, and worked with artist Dave Dorman on many projects, including the illustrated novella “Roadkill,” a short story for the Andrew Vachss anthology Underground from Dark Horse, an ashcan titled “December” for Hero Illustrated, and several of Dorman’s Wasted Lands novellas and comics, such as Rail from Image and “The Uninvited.” Stone’s novel, Dead Heat, won the 1996 International Horror Guild’s award for best first novel and was a runner-up for the Bram Stoker Award. Stone has also been a finalist for the IHG award for short fiction, the British Fantasy Award for best novella, and a semifinalist for the Nebula and Writers of the Future awards. His stories have appeared in anthologies that have won the Bram Stoker Award and the World Fantasy Award. Two of his works were optioned for film, the novella “Black Tide” and short story “Crisis Line.”

Stone recently retired after a 41-year career in journalism. He won numerous awards for his work, and in 1986 was named Florida’s best columnist in his circulation division by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. In 2001 he received an honorable mention from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association for his essay “When Freedom of Speech Ends” and in 2003 he was voted Best of the Best in the category of columnists by Emerald Coast Magazine. He participated in book signings and awareness campaigns, and was a guest on local television and radio programs.

As an addendum, Stone is single, kills tomatoes and morning glories with ruthless efficiency, once tied the stem of a cocktail cherry in a knot with his tongue, and carries a permanent scar on his chest after having been shot with a paintball gun. He’s in his 60s as of this writing but doesn’t look a day over 94.

Contact Del at [email protected]. He is also on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, tumblr, TikTok, Ello and Instagram. Visit his website at delstonejr.com .

Image courtesy of Netflix.

“Leave the World Behind” Starring Julia Roberts as Amanda Sandford, Mahershala Ali as G.H. Scott, Ethan Hawke as Clay Sandford and Myha’la as Ruth Scott. Directed by Sam Esmail. Two hours, 18 minutes. Rated R. Streaming on Netflix.

Del’s take

Early on in “Leave the World Behind,” Amanda Sandford (Julia Roberts) mutters, “I fucking hate people.” Well congratulations, Amanda. The people haven’t let you down.

On this side of the silver screen MAGAdiots are flocking to Google and trashing “Leave the World Behind” with one-star reviews. Their outrage is so dim they can’t even write their own reviews – they’ve copied a template over and over again, rearranging a sentence here, deleting a sentence there, it’s all the same review – which means 99 percent of them haven’t even seen the movie.

Why are they doing this?

Because “Leave the World Behind” was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, and God forbid the Obamas do anything (not including stripping for a men’s magazine or trying to overthrow the government) without the MAGAdiots going on the attack.

Sounds like a movie I could get behind, right? Well, no, not exactly. It isn’t worthy of one star but “Leave the World Behind” is a strangely unsatisfying condemnation of the witless tragedy overtaking America today.

First, the required plot summary … or I could be a sadistic ass and leave it for Mladen. Nah. It’s Christmas, Theo. It’s the time for miracles. I’ll do it myself.

Amanda, Clay Sandford (played by Ethan Hawke) and their two annoying teenaged children, the perpetually horny Archie (Charlie Evans) and the shrill, selfish Rose (Farrah Mackenzie), escape from New York for a weekend away from the dispiriting press of those fucking people Amanda hates. They flee to an ultra modern, high-tech Airbnb in the woods, which mysteriously becomes Ground Zero for a herd of noble-but-angry-looking deer.

While luxing at this secluded mansion the Sandfords slowly become aware of an “event” that has taken place in the outside world. An oil tanker runs aground at their private beach. The TV produces nothing but snow, and the internet has stopped working, much to the annoyance of young Rose, who’s been binging on “Friends” and lacks only the final episode to complete this chapter in the decomposition of her young brain.

That night, an African American couple knocks on the door, G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la). As it happens Mr. Scott is the owner of their rented uber-tech nest and, incredibly, wants to impose on their weekend to take shelter from a blackout that has affected the city. What ensues, then, is an ugly revealing of the nasty qualities that afflict 21st century America.

“Leave the World Behind” is an examination of the claustrophobia and xenophobia of nesting gone wrong. Amanda’s distrust of the Scotts, and her disbelief that they could even own the Airbnb, illustrates white America’s innate and, dare I say, racist perception of black people. In another scene, Clay Sandford leaves a Latino woman – who is clearly in distress – by the side of the road because he can’t understand what she’s saying and doesn’t want to get involved – refrains of “Build a wall!” Ruth’s inherent hostility toward white people guarantee tense relations between her and Amanda, and all four of the adults flirt with at least the fringes of infidelity. Oh, and then there’s the deer thing: Apparently the deer are pissed off about how mankind has treated nature.

In other words, all kinds of shit is going down the proverbial crapper, all of it at the same time. “Leave the World Behind” is a who’s who and what’s what about the wrongness of America, which left me feeling empty because it never provides a clear description of what exactly is happening – beyond vague references to a cyberattack – and never gives a hint of a solution, or at least a resolution. At times I felt like I was watching an extended episode of “Lost.” Call it the Damon Lindelof School of Ambiguous Storytelling.

The acting is fine – Julia Roberts is a bitch like I’ve never seen – and Ethan Hawke captures an almost George-like zeitgeist (Richard Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”) as the ever accommodating, ever-apologizing Clay. Mahershala Ali’s G.H. Scott is deferential to the point of caricature, while Ruth, she of the withering fury, is cynical in a way most Gen-Zers would decry (but in fact is true of that disaffected generation).

Sound effects are spot on. Distant gunshots, explosions, ships running aground and plane crashes – wow! But the musical soundtrack was way too loud and way too intrusive. Or maybe I’m showing my age – never forget I’m a gassy old fart.

“Leave the World Behind” is controversial and I guess if it’s your ox being gored, you’ll hate it (which means lots of one-star reviews from MAGAdiots). It’s got peccadilloes I could crab about all day, but it’s major flaw is that it tries to do too many things at once and, as a result, does none of them well.

I won’t give it a one-star review because we don’t use stars; we use grades. My grade would be a C+. If nothing else it’s a good barometer of your MAGA sympathies.

For God’s sake, don’t be one of those fucking people.

Mladen’s take

But for Del, I would be unaware that MAGAaniacs have inundated “Leave the World Behind” with template reviews. I’m amazed that ERID sycophants can read well enough to know how to use a prefabricated takedown of any movie. ERID, incidentally, is my nickname for Trump. ERID stands for Emotionally Retarded, Intellectually Disabled. An accurate description of the one-term loser poser president. No?

Del is correct and I’ll leave that statement as is without, for example, adding a disclaimer such as “for the first time ever.” “Leave the World Behind,” despite the star power, is vague, unfulfilling, and ennui laden. I hate people, too, but does that sentiment warrant a movie?

Pretty much from the beginning to the end of the film I was asking myself what’s the point. If you have 138 minutes to make the sweeping argument that Mankind, as a whole, is a heap of shit, though some of its individual components are OK, and that democracy is fragile, do it clearly. An example? Another Netflix original film, “Don’t Look Up.” Good god, what’s up with the swarming, judgmental deer or the flamingoes landing in a pool thousands of miles from their habitat? Come on, flamingoes are wading birds. They can’t swim in deep water like freaking ducks. That fact wouldn’t change no matter how their migration patterns are disrupted by inexplicable, hyper-noise that periodically filled the outdoors in “Leave the World Behind.”

I don’t know. Maybe the problem with “Leave the World Behind” is that it’s too realistic. When civilization, I use the term loosely, starts to collapse, it’s reasonable to assume many of us will fail to notice the onset of End Time. And, by the time it occurs to us that what we’ve built we’re now destroying, it’ll be too late to act. Survival will be a simple dichotomy – either you’re at the wrong place at the wrong time or you’re at the right place at the wrong time.

One more suggestion, now that I think even more fruitlessly about the film. If you watch “Leave the World Behind,” consider it inside the framework of social satire. The film ain’t no “Brazil” or “Being There,” not even close, but there’s an underlying absurdity or, oh, ridiculousness to it. The U.S. is disappearing, apparently at the misdirection of a global cabal of elites, but the teenaged boy masturbates to cell phone pictures he surreptitiously took of the almost-woman also marooned at the big, fancy house the Sanfords rented for a weekend getaway. Mrs. Sanford and Mr. Scott, the almost-woman’s father, contemplate sex, though both are married and one of the spouses, Mr. Sanford, is on the property. Yes, Big Picture trouble has arrived but people will want to screw anyway. Ain’t that darkly funny?

Should you see “Leave the World Behind?” Sincerely, I don’t care. See it. Don’t see it. As it turned out, my rationalization for seeing the movie formed after I saw it. I watched “Leave the World Behind” to demonstrate solidarity with Del. Like him, I’m troubled by ERID’s MAGAdiots.

Mladen Rudman is a former newspaper reporter and technical manuals writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and writer.

Image courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios.

“Saltburn” starring Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick, Jacob Elrodi as Felix Catton, Rosamund Pike as Elspeth Catton, Alison Oliver as Venetia Catton, and others. Directed by Emerald Fennell. 2 hours, 13 minutes. Rated R. Streaming on Amazon Prime.

Plot summary: College freshman Oliver Quick discovers his working class roots don’t pair well with the monied elite of Oxford. He becomes obsessed with an upperclassman, the aristocratic Felix Catton, whose charm and status are qualities Oliver covets. The two become friends, and when Oliver’s father passes away Felix invites him to spend the summer at Saltburn, the family’s country manor. Once there Oliver meets the other members of Felix’s eccentric family and as the summer unfolds, Oliver is drawn deeper and deeper into their dysfunction, with unexpected and shocking consequences.

Are there spoilers in this review: Yes, numerous spoilers. Beware.

Mladen’s take

Del is on a tear. He’s now forced me to watch two pointless movies in a row, but the pointlessnesses are different.

“Leave the World Behind” is a vague film about the end of civilization. Del’s latest choice, “Saltburn,” is a horrifying, insouciant movie about attraction to hedonistic wealth.

Because I wasted a lot of irretrievable time watching “Saltburn,” I intend to incinerate as little of it as possible to write this review. So, Del, here’s the movie’s plot: “Saltburn” takes more than 2 hours to reveal an impossible grift. Amid those 120 minutes plus is a lot of shock-value-only imagery. The Top 3 are: Ollie slurping draining bathtub water into which Felix ejaculated; Ollie engaging Felix’s sister Venetia while she menstruated, including tasting the blood and making her taste it; and Ollie humping Felix’s newly dug grave. I have zero idea of why any of those were needed to illuminate the fact Ollie is pulling off a squalid hustle.

I should’ve watched “Saltburn” backward starting with the credits. The credits would’ve instructed me to stop watching the film immediately. How? Why? Because the movie had an “intimacy coordinator” as part of the production staff. Holy fuck. An intimacy coordinator. Is humanity getting so stupid, un-self-sufficient, unnatural, and unplugged from reality that we are unable to have sex, even pretend sex, without a coach? Blanket warning, dear reader. Never watch a film that uses an intimacy coordinator.

None of the characters, barring one, are likeable or dislikeable. They’re just gross. Gross frivolous or gross manipulative. Worse, the only person we get to see naked is Ollie. The only interesting character is Elspeth. Her naïve haughtiness often manifests as quips about human behavior. They are amusing. I also like the name. The next pet fish I buy I’m naming “Elspeth.”

“Saltburn” fails as social satire. There’s no moral. None of the soulless shits pitted against each other one way or another in this film are poor with the goal of toppling inherited wealth. This film is about a bourgie boy taking on rentiers. Everyone in the film is evil incarnate, so I never cared what happened to any of them.

“Saltburn” is banal dystopian melodrama. The setting is billionaire land under attack by a middle class college student. Who cares? I know billionaires are dicks. I know people are avaricious. I know inheritance should be outlawed. Worse, the score and soundtrack are unremarkable. Nothing radiated from the movie that I will add to my playlist.

I’m slashing a big-ass F across the screen for this movie. And, it’s not a good F, not the kind that should draw viewers because the movie is so bad it’s good. This is a straight-up shitty movie, a derelict movie, an unneeded movie like “The Human Centipede” or “Hostel.”

Del better dislike “Saltburn” wholeheartedly or I’ll sic Ollie on him.

And, yeah, I’m picking the next film to review.

Del’s take

I had to pause in my viewing of “Saltburn” to suppress a giggle. A mental image came to mind and wouldn’t go away.

When I was a kid I had a parakeet that would sit on my finger and chirp – until I ventured too close with my nose. The parakeet seemed to take this as an act of aggression – its eyes would bulge, the feathers atop its head would stand up like the inflamed strontium 90 scutes along Godzilla’s spine, and suddenly the formerly happy bird would lunge in a fit of psychotic avian rage and tear into my nostril until tears squirted from my eyes. THAT is the image – of a lunatic parakeet punishing my effrontery by surgically altering my nose – that burned into my brain as I pictured Mladen reacting to the greasy slab of undercooked kidney whale-snot pie that is “Saltburn.” It was I, after all, who suggested we review the movie. It will be I who becomes the target of Mladen’s wrath. And after the bathtub scene I expect he’ll be ready to do more harm to my face than all the parakeets in Australia.

“Saltburn” is a spectacle – a decadent, vulgar, rakish, profane, hilarious, outrageous spectacle – with no redeeming qualities or characters. But after a few minutes it is impossible not to watch, and I may end up adding it to my DVD collection, not because it is good but because it is so very, very bad.

“Saltburn” is class decadence at its best, or worst, depending on how you digest these matters. We as Americans can’t appreciate the British concept of aristocracy because we have no class. Class in America is determined by money and any clod can get his hands on money, to thereafter festoon his mansion with golden-clad penises and his book gallery with Korean schoolgirl porn. History means nothing to a country that is constantly tearing itself down and rebuilding itself,

But to a country that cherishes its history and traditions, issues of breeding, manners and class are everything, and therein lies the essential thrust of “Saltburn.” It is not just a visitation to the world of the other half. It’s a condemnation of aristocracy, yes, but more so the desire we commoners feel for those gilded, golden rules.

Young Oliver – a Dickens archetype if there ever was one – becomes whatever he must to achieve his goal of being baked into the upper crust. Along the way he loses whatever he was supposed to be in life, a fact that troubles him not a bit. He has no soul. The object of Oliver’s desire, Oxford school chum Felix, is the anti-aristocrat, an amiable guy without an ounce of self-awareness who breezes through life as the dude who’s cool without trying, the good-looking, sexy, shallow-but-not-evil rich boy who does not buy his shirts at the British equivalent of Target.

The other members of Felix’s family are also shallow, and casually cruel yet well-meaning in that self-serving way peculiar to the very rich – all except the bitchy Farleigh, who himself is trying to buttress his position within Felix’s eccentric family, his “obvious differences” notwithstanding.

Fennell gives each character a moment and the actors shine, particularly Keoghan as the pathetic and simultaneously creepy Oliver, Pike as Felix’s dingbat mother Elspeth, and Archie Madekwe as the arch cousin Farleigh.

“Saltburn” is very similar to the 1999 Matt Damon movie “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and contains several scenes guaranteed to flip the stomach from First Class to Coach. Mladen has already described them so I won’t rub your noses in the grossness. Remember: “Saltburn” is a comedy – a blackly mordant comedy, not as quiet and subtle as “Being There” or as laugh-out-loud as “Doctor Strangelove,” but yes, a comedy, masquerading as a weird, offbeat drama and stinging social commentary.

The ending felt tacked-on and tonally inconsistent with everything that preceded it. Director Fennell could have come up with a more artful way of imparting that infodump.

As I watched young Oliver make his way through the surreal countryside of the Catton family’s dreamlike world, never becoming one of them but finding his place, like a tumor on a PET scan, I wondered how it is that some people renounce the good parts of themselves to obtain a little comfort and prestige. I realized “Saltburn” does bear some relevance to “Being There,” because it proves yet again that life really is a state of mind.

I give it a grade of A-. A decadent, vulgar, rakish, profane, hilarious, outrageous spectacle – with no redeeming qualities or characters, yes. But impossible not to watch.

Mladen’s movie score: F

Del’s movie score: A-

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and writer.