Monday, August 22, 2016

BEHOLD: BLOOD, SWEAT, AND FEARS -- Horror Inspired by the 1970s!

Last November, I woke in the darkness from a dream whose intensity had me grabbing for the small notebook and pen I keep in the top drawer of my nightstand. In it, I was a kid again, growing up in the wilds of then-rural Windham, New Hampshire during the 1970s. In this version, a sort of parallel universe, we were living through the second big energy crisis. Lack of gasoline meant we were on our own, an island from the rest of the world that summer. During one dark, eclipsed night, a Russian fighter jet tore across our small house and exploded over the lake. While all of our neighbors scrambled to find the pilot, I alone, sitting in the dark staring out, heard the approach of footsteps. Two, I was sure. Only then an enormous dog plodded in from the direction of the lake, through the brook in our backyard, walking on four. This beast of a dog fooled everyone around me, but not me -- I knew that it wasn't really a dog, but the Russian pilot, because I'd heard it walking on two legs. The dog was an experiment in genetic manipulation and shape-shifting; and hadn't the Russians sent up a dog in Sputnik II? All of this played out in the dream, along with the title: "The Night Stalker," an intentional nod to one of my favorite TV shows from that long lost time.

The very next morning, I put pen to paper, and had half of my story written down. I read it at writers' group and got great reactions from my fellow scribes, and soon dashed off a finished first draft. I believe I was channeling the whole 70s vibe, because I'd recently read about a call for Blood, Sweat. and Fears: Horror Inspired by the 1970s by the fine folks at Nosetouch Press. I did my edits, liking what I had -- the whole 'devil dog/hound from Hell' motif was rampant during that period (even Carl Kolchak faced off against one, in the guise of Tom Skerritt of Alien fame) -- and sent it in. Publishers and editors David T. Neal and Christine M. Scott accepted "The Night Stalker" on its first foray into the world, and it now appears within the covers of an amazingly groovy anthology unlike any other.

Many of my talented co-authors and the editorial team shared the back-stories behind their stories in Blood, Sweat, and Fears, along with the project's unique genesis and design.

Daniel S. Duvall on "Vivid Vinyl Visions": "My short story would not exist if not for Blood, Sweat, and Fears.  After I read the Nosetouch Press call for submissions for this anthology, I knew I wanted to be a part of what promised to be a hip, groovy book, so I spent a couple of days brainstorming potential concepts.  I kept circling back to the notion of a magic record album that induces visions of the past or future depending on which side one plays.  I visualized the protagonist, who is a much better bassist than I will ever be, receiving this LP from someone who appears to be a homeless fiddler, and then I asked myself who the vagrant really was.  The structure of the plot evolved naturally once I figured out the bum's true nature. I won't go into spoilers except to reveal that ‘Vivid Vinyl Visions’ begins on the 10th of April in 1978, a day which in reality was indeed unseasonably hot in my native Northeast Ohio.  I wrote the story in December of 2015, and I'm eager for this particular tale to find an audience.  I encourage you to read it by the light of a Lava Lamp."

Eric Turowski on "Sacred Death": "CONFIDENTIAL: For use by Northern California Law Enforcement Agencies only. B.O.L.O. for Theodore Irons, AKA Tire Iron, former president, Visigoths OMC. FBI TEN MOST WANTED FUGITIVE: Unlawful flight to avoid prosecution-- multiple ritual homicides, ADW (motorcycle drive chain) on law enforcement officials, conspiracy to transport Class A substances, racketeering, subversion. LAST SEEN: San Francisco, Calif., Haight-Ashbury District Oct. 28, 1973. CAUTION: Irons is sought in connection with occult crimes, consider armed and extremely dangerous.

There isn’t enough energetic low fantasy available these days. So, consider: an urban barbarian, a feud between latter day sorcerers, the saint of death, a plot to disguise and distribute marijuana, brutal brawls with modern monsters, beautiful babes in mini-dresses, demonic possession, drug possession --‘Sacred Death’ could only happen in the ‘70s, man."

David J. Fielding on "The Bar Guest": "I wrote my story after reading the story call and mulling over ideas and ways to tell a spooky story in a 70’s setting. Having grown up as a young teen/teenager in the time period, I have vivid memories of what the time period was like and I tried to incorporate those memories and that 70’s vibe -- leather jackets, the ever present cigarette smoke, brick buildings, etc. -- into the story. I wanted to convey the gritty modern street level version of police detectives I remember from film and TV of the time. I also wanted to try and capture the supernatural tone that permeated the 70’s as well, that feeling that the shadows were filled with dark and devilish things."

Tiffany Morris on "Day of Ascension": "My story was drawn from numerous sources of inspiration and areas of personal morbid fascination. These include the spine-chilling recording of the Jonestown massacre (which I’ve consequently listened to more often than is recommendable), old episodes of Coast to Coast AM, and an off-putting religious program my husband regularly picks up on his shortwave radio (we’ve nicknamed the host ‘Crazy Uncle Police State’). Some aspects of the story also adhere more closely to reality than others; pilot Jeffrey Collis’ experience in “Day of Ascension” is directly inspired by UFO sightings that have been reported by pilots. These elements factored into my desire to play with form and to experiment with writing a horror story in radio transcript format. As for the 1970s: I’d heard a lot about life growing up in the ‘70s from my mother, but came to know that behind her own nostalgic stories were things like the prevalence of cults and serial killers, oil shortages, and a renaissance in horror cinema. The twin forces of hope and dread are prevalent in any era of human history, but a setting like the 1970s allows for a lot of room to explore how it can all go awry."

Trent Roman on "Decrepitude": "I missed the 70s by a few years. The media from the 70s I was exposed to growing up, the music and the movies, had given me the impression that it was a carefree, party-on decade; imagine my surprise when, a little older now, I read the actual history of this turbulent time: the crime and the corruption, the gas lines and the economy grinding down. So it seemed like a perfect fit for a story like ‘Decrepitude.’ Years of the daily commute started me thinking about the concept of a cursed subway station -- an unusually modern and public location for a haunting. In turn, the setting seemed to demand a story about the decay that lies underneath the surface-- of our cities, of a decade, of ourselves. The 70s, with its sense of things running out, running down, the entropic decline of civilization, was the ideal context for the story."

John Linwood Grant on "A Stranger Passing Through": "I had the dubious pleasure of being there in the seventies, and also have two series of tales which pass through that period -- The Last Edwardian and Revenant. It struck me that the measured disquiet of my Last Edwardian supernatural tales would be less fun than the Revenant, so I went with the latter. It could have been a much longer story -- the city of New York back then was bright and dark at the same time, with hard-edged politics and massive corruption. It seemed only natural that as my contemplative hero (or anti-hero) wandered America, avoiding what he had left behind him in the UK, he would pass through the Big Apple. But I wanted an extra twist, and so for once he forgets himself and does something a little different. I only regret that I couldn't have made more of the music and fashions of the period, which I still remember as having a horror all of their own. The Returned Man does himself return in other tales, before and after A Stranger Passing Through, but in the meantime my Last Edwardian beckons, with a very different set of protagonists."

John McCallum Swain on "The Sweet Dark": "'The Sweet Dark’ is set in a fictional town inspired by my years growing up in Petawawa, 100 miles north of Ottawa, Canada. My Kitchissippi Tales are what I like to think of as homespun darkness, stories that invoke the wonders and horrors that life presented to a kid in a small town, before the world was connected by the internet. The 70s was a magical time, a time of change and wonder, a time of suspicion and fear, a time that fostered paranoia and hope. As I said in another Kitchissippi Tale set in that time, ‘We didn’t have the entire world at our fingertips. What we had was reruns, the public library and endless woods; the truths and the lies our parents told us to enlighten and protect us; the utter bullshit our older siblings fed us just to screw with our heads; and the grapevine of communal childhood information that was part mythology and part hearsay, all of it distorted by the lenses of wonder, inexperience, fantasy and fear.’ Stories like ‘The Sweet Dark’ come from that time and place, and I have many more tales to tell."

Christine M. Scott on Blood, Sweat, and Fears' design: "There were many directions I could have gone while designing the 70s-inspired cover for Blood, Sweat, and Fears. I wanted to project the feelings of dread and menace, without using cliché and sensationalized imagery. The best design route led me ‘home.’ The quiet aftermath of a murderous home intrusion taps into most everyone’s psyche. 70s interiors were dreadful to begin with, and with the addition of the intruder’s shadow, I achieved the sense of lurking fear that I was going for. The rest of the book, as well as the marketing materials, were designed to closely replicate 70s advertising. Graphic design was a different animal back then. Everything was typesetting machines, Rubylith, stat cameras, and paste-up. I studied design at the dawn of the Mac age, but I was still taught the traditional methods. I used that knowledge combined with modern methods to capture the vibe of the 70s in tangible form. It sets the mood for the reader, and subtly reinforces the impact of the stories Blood, Sweat, and Fears contains. As a lover of history and culture, I had a groovy time designing this book. I hope readers dig it -- the stories, the style -- the whole far-out package!"

David T. Neal on why the 1970s: "The anthology idea came to me out of my memories of growing up in the 1970s, just how creepy everything seemed, that 70s vibe. There was always a prevailing sense of dread that hung like smog over that decade, and I wanted to capture that spirit in this anthology, while resisting the temptation of overt hack-and-slash. We chose very carefully among a ton of great contributions, wanting to harness various aspects of 70s-style horror themes in stories that were strong on their own merits. We went with 10 stories as an informal nod to the decade, itself (although these stories aren’t tied to a particular year, conceptually, we ran with that). For so many born after the 1970s, that decade boils down to a few ideas-- terrorism, environmental issues, serial killers, cults, disco, funk, feminism, Watergate, punk, paranoia, polyester -- and we wanted to distill that down to a pure, powerful essence. We couldn’t cover all of the bases in only ten stories, but we were very particular about what we wanted to include: it wasn’t going to be chainsaws and ice picks, but a subtler, groovier, more dreadful horror lurking in the corner of one’s eye, which always feels scarier, anyway."

Thursday, August 11, 2016

FORCE FIVE: A Return to Boyhood -- Complete with Giant Robots!

On a Monday afternoon in the autumn of 1980, my best friend Tina and I were huddled in front of her living room TV set, watching the 3:00 showing of our beloved anime series, Star Blazers. Tina and I had bonded not only over a love of that exceptional show (starring my dear friend, THE Amy Howard Wilson), but also our shared revelations that we were both writers. Tina wrote poetry, and remains one of my two favorite poets of all time, sharing top billing with Edgar Allen Poe. While supposed to be doing homework, we wrote and watched Star Blazers after school. At 3:30, a second episode was scheduled to follow. But, to our shock, a different show had usurped its spot. What we saw unfold was the first episode of something called Danguard Ace, the opening salvo of a series referred to as Force Five. Force Five brought together five separate Japanese animated adventures, most involving giant robots -- a different adventure each weekday. Mondays featured the aforementioned Danguard Ace, Tuesdays was Starvengers, Thursday was Grandizer, Friday the magnificent Gaiking. On Wednesdays, the focus shifted from giant robots to The Spaceketeers, about three cyborg warriors defending a princess on her quest to save the galaxy from a mysterious and deadly force.

Our initial reaction to Force Five was one of resentment -- as much as I'd always loved giant robots, the show cost us that second half-hour of Star Blazers. It also seemed somewhat lowbrow, even to my fifteen-year-old mentality, with robot pilots shouting out whatever action they were about to initiate -- "Dizer kick!" for instance, whenever Grandizer's Orion Quest planned to, you guessed it, kick at one of Vega the Strong's Saucer Animal enemy super robots. But as the weeks transitioned from autumn to winter, we got hooked. In April, I wrote a Gaiking fan fiction. Soon after, following a terrifying dream, I penned another. In October of 1981, I wrote "Promete Achieved", a Danguard Ace tale about the Danguard team long-last making its objective: reaching the Planet Promete, a satisfying conclusion denied us by the TV show. Over the course of my lifetime, I would pen six Force Five fan fics in all -- three Gaiking, two Danguard Ace, and one Starvengers. In the summer of 1982, at the age of seventeen, while bored and sweltering in the merciless heat, I moseyed into the garage and dreamed up a massive Force Five storyline that would unite all five universes. Its note card went into my catalog of unwritten ideas under the title "Endangered Mankind", and there it remained until May 9th of 2016.

Armed with a fresh pad of lined paper, a fountain pen with a full cartridge of ink, and a massive binder from the late 1990s, when I printed up all the technical specs and character write-ups on the show from a fan site no longer in existence, I started with Chapter One: "Monday" -- in which the Danguard Ace team faces their enemy, the malevolent Krell Corps, who are determined to reach Promete first. Then, I transitioned to Chapter Two: "Tuesday", giving the Starvengers their due against sworn enemies, the Pandemonium Empire. At the conclusion of both chapters, the super robots have mysteriously vanished, along with an equal number of their robotic foes. "Wednesday" shifted focus to the universe of Princess Aurora and her Spaceketeers, who have been dispatched to locate and stop emanations from the mysterious Dekos System that are causing mutations to animal and vegetable lifeforms. As they near, the energy waves prove too strong even for Aurora's cyborg defenders, hence the need to bring in allies able to survive Dekos. The four giant robots, each endowed with a temporary intelligence made possible by interactions with their human pilots, champion the cause, taking the fight to Dekos, where the sinister mastermind behind the mutations has been collecting a giant robot army of his own.


There was something supremely satisfying about returning to that wacky universe -- a story from so long ago, long last given its time to be written. But it was also beyond fun. I found myself eager to return to that world to play, and remembered as the heroes approached Dekos and the dark forces waiting for them there why I'd fallen so in love with the franchise back in the day. For the very first time, I wrote about Grandizer and The Spaceketeers -- the latter my least favorite of the five, though in this tale Aurora and company became the central crux behind the other four's mission. Writing "Endangered Mankind" in the background while working to other deadlines for paying and professional markets was a return to my youth. The story swelled to something epic, as I'd always known it would, even back in my seventeenth summer. By early July and the start of summer NaNoWriMo, I saw its long-dreamed conclusion, finally within sight as the robots stopped the broadcast of the mutation energy and returned from Dekos victorious.

On the first Sunday NaNo write-in, when members of our writers' group gathered in our living room to work on their July projects, I began the final chapter: "Saturday", which seemed an appropriate sendoff, and a fitting nod to all those Friday Gaiking cliffhangers from the day. I completed "Endangered Mankind" in a blur as my pen raced toward the ending, and fresh sheets flew off the notepad. Ninety-two pages long, my return to the Force Five universe for one final adventure was like a trip through time to the best days of my boyhood, and a great deal of fun to experience as I write on through my fifty-first year!

Friday, July 22, 2016

BEHOLD: BEHIND THE UNIFORM!

On the night before I departed Camp Necon in July of 2012, I experienced a gritty, intensely romantic dream that left me reaching for a blank note card about a sex worker in a near futuristic war who learns he holds the key to stopping a ruthless alien invasion. That knowledge is delivered by a handsome colonel, who visits the camp where he works. As the dream played out, the colonel took on the face of my beloved muse, and I became Milo Hanover, the seemingly average, unremarkable older man who discovers he's anything but. I even dreamed the opening few lines, along with the title of the tale -- "The Head Shed", which was the nickname for Milo's place of employment and the service both he and it provided to humanity's war-weary defenders. I showered, hastened downstairs to the cafeteria for iced coffee before it was open to serve the wonderful writing conference's attendees, and began work on the story. I gutted out the first thousand or so words longhand, shocked at how formed the world Milo and the colonel inhabited was, and would have continued but then breakfast service started, and soon after I departed Rhode Island for my home in New Hampshire. "The Head Shed" went into a file folder, which then went into my works-in-progress filing cabinet drawer, and its note card found its way into my catalog of unwritten ideas. We bought a house and moved. Other projects and deadlines took front and center -- until this past March when I read about Mischief Corner Books' new submission call for Behind the Uniform, a M/M romance anthology. "The Head Shed" again jumped to the head of the line, and I soon dashed the remainder of what I thought would be a long short story as novella, loving every moment of my time together with Milo, Colonel Joe Dunnegin, their unconventional love, and their desperate plan to drive out the Grunk menace. Following my usual stringent edits, I sent "The Head Shed" off to MCB, who accepted it a few weeks later as one of three novellas for Behind the Uniform. This July, BTU has been published to some incredible kudos -- even before its launch, it became an All-Romance e-Book best seller, and continues to sell mightily post-release (print is due to be available shortly). It was my pleasure to speak to my two BTU co-authors regarding their contributions to this wonderful anthology.

Jon Keys on "It's the Hat": "The anthology subject grabbed my attention and didn't relent. Since I was young I've had a fascination with men in uniforms and their behind the scenes lives. But I already wrote a short story several years ago focused on two married police officers, so I wanted to go beyond the expected and find another field that met my needs. In my research I discovered forest rangers have the highest mortality rate of any of my guys in uniform. So I found my hero. Add to that a recent art school graduate working as a waiter who has a weakness for bad boys, and I was happy with the mix of characters. From there the setting flowed. I've visited Michigan's west coast on numerous occasions, and several items caught my eye. The area's beauty struck me first: Lovely blue waters and wide sandy beaches. The scenery is breathtaking. More notable traits, most of the towns survive from the tourist trade and a lot of those visitors eventually buy a cabin. This was more striking to me because it's so different from the southwest where I lived most of my life. Between all of these, I had the components from which the story grew."

Toni Griffin on "A Wolf in Cop's Clothing": "My short story is actually Book 7 in one of my most popular series. I'm constantly being asked by my readers for more from the Holland Brothers. After I finished book 4, the last in the main series, I said that was it, there wasn't going to be any more. However, the boys just never stop talking to me. As soon as I give them even the start of an idea in my head they take it and run. This is exactly what happened this time. I was sitting at my desk at work one day, checking messages from my author friends in the US. When the subject of the Behind the Uniform anthology was brought up. Men in uniform got my brain thinking about one of the Holland brothers, Marcus, who's a cop. It had been about 14 months since I'd allowed the boys to visit me and as soon as my mind even thought about them they took over. I had a furious messaging session with my friend, and within a half hour the entire story line had come to me and was just begging to be written. I was then stuck at work with this story busting to get out. When I got home that night the laptop was opened and the story flowed. It was written in less than 3 days. I hope you enjoy!"




Saturday, July 16, 2016

BEHOLD: PENTAGONAL SEXTET!

At the end of March, as I readied to depart for a four-day stay at the luxury retreat center When Words Count, I received one of those rare and wonderful invitations asking me to submit not one but five short stories for a project by the fine folks at Great Old Ones Publishing. GOOP have been wonderful to write and edit for -- I've been involved with numerous of their quality publications, including their Mummy anthologyBugs: Tales That Creep, Slither, and Crawl, and my beloved Tales From the Robot Graveyard. And what writer would say no to such a fabulous invitation -- to be part of a release meant to showcase some of the publisher's most celebrated writers? I wouldn't have long to be part of Pentagonal Sextet, about one month to gather up and submit my five tales. On my way out the door to Vermont and WWC, I stuffed two additional note cards with new story ideas jotted on them in with fresh folders and blank lined paper, and figured I'd heap them onto the pile of what I already planned to write while camped out in the Gertrude Stein Salon and my accommodations up in the Hemingway Suite.

My first afternoon at WWC, one of my proposed stories, "The Right to Drive" (about a near-future society where motorists no longer drive alone within the confines of their vehicles) got dashed off in longhand draft almost to completion before our chef appeared in the salon with appetizers. The story seemed perfect for what I was hoping to accomplish -- a sort of mini-collection, a kind of greatest hits, in which none of the stories were remotely like their siblings in terms of theme, sub-genre, or characters. By the end of the retreat (in addition to completing a murder mystery geared toward the annual Al Blanchard contest -- I didn't win, but placed in the top five on two of the judges' finalist's lists!), I had my second story drafted. Pentagonal Sextet contains the aforementioned techno-horror tale, one about giant monsters straight out of a nightmare, one about ancient evils and the monster hunters who pursue them, one about a haunted house, and, finally, 'Fiddleheads', about malevolent horrors from the deep woods. Pentagonal, featuring five stories each by six Great Old Ones writers, boasts one of the sharpest, most unforgettable covers ever. Many of my talented fellow authors shared the back-story behind their contributions to the project.

Sara Fowles: "I spend my days, as most writers do, taking ordinary moments and asking myself 'what if?' in order to transform them into something more fitting to an alternate reality. All of my narratives come directly from imagining these alternative scenarios. What if, for instance, demons were interested in stealing faces, not souls, and what if they shopped for them in the grocery store? What if I took a nap at work and when I woke up, the office had been transformed into a giant, bizarre corn maze from which I couldn’t escape? These are the two specific thoughts that ultimately became the stories 'Banana Man' and 'Corn Maze,' respectively. They occurred to me within the most banal of settings, yet the posited fictional realities presented provided me with endless entertainment and a few bouts of insomnia, as I found myself caught somewhere between the realms of dreams and reality. I have tried my best to replicate this effect via the stories I penned."

Eric S. Brown: "It was an honor to be asked to be a part of this anthology. I had been longing for a chance to write some short fiction again and this was the perfect chance to do so. My time had been being spent mostly with giant monster fiction (aka- my newer books: Kraken, Kraken Island, and Kraken vs. Megalodon). The tales in the book from me are all wildly random horror scenarios that came to me after I got invited to be in the book. They range from an end of the world Kaiju story to straight up ‘military horror’. I had a great deal of fun writing them."

Philip C. Perron: "Pentagonal Sextet is just a splendid book.  For my part, I love writing about the brooding and the melancholy and so, not too oddly, four of my five tales are like that. But also I noticed something else, that two of them became something different.  The story ‘The Fields of Salvation’ is about an Asian woman who has the genetic difference of albinism.  I thought about what would make someone stand out and therefore attract unnecessary attention.  As Asian folk go, hair and eye diversity is completely different than Caucasians.  So being an individual with albinism would most certainly look exotic, and in some cases would bring unwanted attention.  For the tale ‘Dolly, Do I Have a Soul?’, I chose to base the tale in the not so distant future where the lead woman is actually a clone of her own mother.  But more interestingly, its a world where cloning, at least in the states, is frowned upon.  So unfortunately for her, she has become a target of both progressives and conservatives since one side is against science gone amuck while the other may hold more traditional religious beliefs.  Honestly, there was no intention, but both tales when I re-read them for inclusion in this collection, surprised me in how they were both in ways an allegory for the LGBT community and how being a bit different can sometimes bring unwanted attention.  And both tales show two sides of a coin: the struggle of not hiding one’s identity while in the other, hiding one’s identity.  ‘The Fields of Salvation’ is about a young recently married woman who just happens to have the condition of albinism that she can't hide from, while in ‘Dolly, Do I Have a Soul?’, the woman is intentionally hiding from her own identity (that of a clone) so she can just live a normal life away from being judged.  I hope folks who read my stories take something with them after they put the book down, even if my intentions were only to just write five fabulous little tales of the weird."

E.G. Smith: "With ‘The Stick Devils’, I set out to write a story both longer and more action-packed than my previous work, with multiple frantic action scenes separated by reflective lulls . The Pacific Northwest setting is common in my writing, as is the man-against-nature theme and the eager toady versus know-it-all leader character conflict. The greatest challenge of this story was researching illicit pot growing to ensure that the dialog was accurate and the plot plausible. (And like any horror writer, I hope that the FBI, DEA or any other three letters don't look into my browser history. ‘I was just doing research for a story, officer.’)  It turns out that marijuana plants are oily and highly flammable, which helped drive the story's fiery climax. While I must give a nod to Joe Lansdale's Bubba Ho-Tep for the improvised flame thrower idea, I think that my story might be the first one with a hero running around with a stick through his neck while high on smoke from a burning pot farm."

Friday, July 8, 2016

Writing From Nature

(Early Sunday morning, writing at dawn)
For the first thirteen years of my life, nature and the natural world were constant companions. Apart from Saturday afternoon creature double-features, I spent most of my days outside, exploring and dreaming among the acres of dark pine forest and overgrown fields that surrounded the enchanted cottage where I grew up. I remember the panic when dump trucks and earth movers entered the woods the summer I turned five -- horrified and thinking they were there to bulldoze down the woods, I frantically raced about, digging up pine saplings and transplanting them into our backyard so they would be safe. Once, I watched through a back window in both terror and amazement as a bobcat streaked up one of our trees (it was a sabertooth in my young imagination). The brook that ran through our yard, the lake, and eldritch corners of those woods still haunt my dreams and manifest in my stories.It was this writer's beginning point, and a good one to claim, I think.

This past winter, I read about Writing From Nature, a workshop held at a country house in the wilds near Mount Monadnock, facilitated by editor and powerhouse writer Chris Woodside. 2016 has been a year of wonderful literary adventures -- big book launches, writing awards, and retreats to familiar destinations. It's been a long while since I've hung out in the woods, despite a hilly backyard whose wilderness is home to black bear, raccoon, and silver foxes, who occasionally make visitations. Perhaps it was nostalgia and a nod to those long lost years in Windham, New Hampshire, and equal parts joie de vivre for the Here and Now. I signed up and, on a balmy June Friday, departed for the southern reaches of our fair state.

(Standing outside the retreat house)
I arrived at 3 p.m. -- a bit early, and our wonderful hostess was still in the process of getting ready for the rest of the weekend retreaters. I busied myself reading a copy of Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write, which was given to us as part of our welcome packet, and absorbing my amazing surroundings. The country retreat house was a wonderland of bookcases crammed to capacity, artwork, and comfortable furniture, presided over by a towering field stone fireplace. Wild tangles of fresh herbs (which found their way into the exquisite cuisine served up by Chef Mac) surrounded the front patio. My imagination prospered as my fellow scribes arrived alone and in twos. Among them, a romance novelist, an airline/former fighter jet pilot, an environmental sciences student, and a passionate writer working on her second novel, all of them quite wonderful and gifted. We enjoyed a welcome meal of cranberry and fresh sage risotto served inside baked acorn squash (unbelievably delicious!), homemade pesto, sauteed Swiss chard, and heritage tomato salad. It was the finest of dining!

On Friday night, forest ecologist Peter A. Palmiotto treated us to a presentation about nearby Mount Monadnock, and why the summit is 2/3rds bare rock. Chris hosted a night hike down to Stone Pond, but I opted out and instead hunkered down in my private room with the Muse and my short story, "The Shut-in". Slept beautifully, and, at sunrise on Saturday morning, I moved into the great room, uncapped my fountain pen, and began work on my second project for that weekend, "The Tree Surgeon." The sun rose higher, and fresh pages flew from my fingertips. Then Chris sent us out on timed hikes, sans notebooks and pens (the horror!). I moseyed down to the little chapel on the lake and dreamed more about my story, "The Shut-In". Upon return, we began a series of timed writing exercises which coincided perfectly with the direction of "The Shut-in".

Saturday afternoon was devoted to another presentation and exercises by famed nature writer Elizabeth Rush, who inspired with tales of her journeys. As Chef Mac worked on an amazing dinner (swordfish, cauliflower crusted in espresso, decadence had in every bite), I wrote some more on my stories, read from the book, and soaked up the creativity. That night, as a homemade apple pie baked, Chris gave a keynote speech on her journey as a writer (she edits Appalachia Journal, which has published since 1876).

(Listening to Elizabeth Rush)
After another fantastic night's sleep, I woke and resumed writing "The Tree Surgeon," opting out of a morning hike up the mountain. Breakfast was bountiful, as was our departure lunch, which included homemade Caprese pizza and rhubarb mint iced tea. The mostly vegetarian-friendly menu was beyond exquisite, and the company first rate. Chris put on a wonderful event, which invigorated body and soul. Throughout, I kept thinking back to my boyhood days, reminded of my many blessings now that I'm navigating my fifty-first year on Spaceship Earth. Chris's weekend retreat and workshop ranks among the best of the many I've attended, and I can't wait to return next year. So much so, in fact, that I've added one more adventure to 2016's calendar: in September, I'm returning to Star Island in the Isles of Shoals for a five-day retreat and workshop, which I attended four years ago. Excelsior!


Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Roswell Awards

(Me with Fringe star Jasika Nicole at the Roswell
Awards)
Last September, during a rare afternoon nap, I dreamed about a planet in the late stages of terraformation. Most of Hawthorne's Planet belonged to its human colonists -- all save a lush area, the Valley of the Falls, where indigenous giants drowsed. These gentle salamander-like behemoths, seven in all, had been sedentary for so long that forests had grown upon their spines, and the courses of certain waterfalls diverted around them. In the dream, school children in a nearby colony had named the giants after the dwarfs in a classic cartoon.

At center stage in this odd dream was a military man tasked with carrying out the destruction of the giants, so that human interests in the valley could attend to claiming that last vestige of territory. I sensed the war being waged within this man -- what he and his forces were about to carry out was wrong. Just how wrong soon revealed itself as soon as the first shot was fired, with devastating results. Then I roused from sleep, the story but not the ending clear. I ambled down to my writing room and jotted down the bones of the idea, along with its title -- "Mandered", which had also come to me in the dream. I wasn't even sure 'mandered' was a word (turns out, it is -- an old world term meaning to command or summon). As 2015 ran into the fall and then late fall and I went on an end-of-the-year tear, writing twelve short stories over the course of fourteen days, I pulled out the note card for "Mandered" and wrote it fairly as the dream played out, hitting what seemed the perfect note for the ending -- after destroying the world, the military man would have to dream and help fix it. Once done, I judged this story as good, put the next draft onto the computer, edited it through three more drafts, and happily submitted it to the Roswell Awards in Short SF Writing. On April 7, five days after returning from my writing retreat to When Words Count in Vermont, I woke to learn that "Mandered" had won Honorable Mention in the prestigious award for excellence in short Science Fiction writing.

(With Dee Wallace)
Please understand that this was, to me, like winning the Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe all wrapped up in one, and I had to reread the wonderful email from award organizer Rosalind Helfand numerous times. In fact, as I recall, I spent that entire Thursday levitating above the floor! I'd been saying since hitting the 'send' button last December that if one of the four stories I submitted placed, I would recant my stand on flying and travel back to Tinseltown to attend the awards. The universe listened, and some six weeks later, I was on my way west. I booked a flight from Manchester, New Hampshire to LAX, via a long layover in Charlotte, North Carolina. How long wouldn't manifest until a pop-up thunderstorm with spectacular lightning shut down flights, and backed everything up by hours. After eleven p.m. EST, I finally boarded my flight to Los Angeles. I'd packed ridiculously light -- my Italian leather valise with stories to work on (which got me through the bulk of my layover), a tote with clothes and my toiletry bag, which made boarding and deplaning far easier. Almost six hours later, I stepped off the plane and into the first taxi waiting in line outside the famous airport. My driver, a delightful Russian chap named Yuri, asked me which route I wanted to take to my hotel in Hollywood. Following my long day of travel, I answered, "Whichever's fastest." At one point, my bleary eyes glanced at the speedometer to see we were traveling at 92 miles-per-hour down the freeway.

I arrived in Hollywood super early and checked into the same hotel where I stayed during an eleven-day visit to the set covering the finale of Star Trek: Voyager for numerous national publications. The place was as decent as I recalled, the room beyond clean and inviting (if a tad outdated -- I thought I'd stepped into the funkadelic 1970s, given all the burnt orange and somber brown). Despite my exhaustion, I woke at six, L.A. time, showered, and spent a few hours writing on the oddly fabulous desk and bench in a corner of my room. Brunch with a writer friend at a Grub Restaurant, a visit to Xanadu, and then I returned to get ready for the event.

(On stage at the awards ceremony, with a shining constellation of stars)
The Roswells, an extension of Sci-Fest L.A., in which plays by such greats as Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker, and Neil Gaiman are staged, is doubly amazing in that classic SF actors perform the winning entries. I was beyond blown away by this year's luminaries, which included Dee Wallace who, in addition to her celebrated film career, had performed last summer as "Pat Spencer" -- Luke's sister -- on my beloved, sole remaining soap, General Hospital. At the pre-ceremony mixer held at Amalfi's Restaurant next door to the Acme Theater, venue of the awards, we were introduced. "It's Pat Spencer!" I exclaimed. A fan boy? Guilty. And speaking of which, my husband-to-be and I were huge fans of Fringe and never missed an episode, so when I met the lovely Jasika Nichole, "Astrid" on the series, I forgot that I no longer get star struck after having interviewed, met, and interacted with so many of my favorite actors. On stage, we hugged and kissed -- and after telling her about Bruce's and my fondness for the show, she sent me home with a hug and a kiss for him as well. The ceremony was incredible, with brilliant performances (Dee Wallace, the epitome of class, nearly pushed me to tears). After, the winner was announced and all of the recipients present were welcomed onto the stage for photographs and to mingle with the stars.

When I began making my plans for a West Coast trip, I invited my dear friend (and celebrity!), Marianna Cooper to join me as my plus-one at the ceremony. I met Mari in 2013 at When Words Count and wanted to see her following her move to the land of sunshine. Bumper to bumper traffic made our reunion before the show brief, but we caught up on the cab ride to Amalfi's, and it is to my dear friend that I owe all of these wonderful photographs. We enjoyed the ceremony, and then Mari joined me on stage with the actors, and I remember thinking, exhausted and excited as I was, that every writer should know this level of recognition for their work. One of the judges told me that they were inundated with submissions, and that it truly was a job of separating wheat from chafe. "Thank you for being wheat," she said. I loved that.

I bid Mari goodnight, returned to my room, and crawled into bed. A few hours later, worried over missing my early flight home, I tore back the covers and gathered my few things.

(The odd bench and desk in my hotel room -- I loved it!)
LAX before sunrise. Chicago in the afternoon. By dinner time, EST, I was back in New Hampshire, and traveling the three hours north by car toward home. I returned exhausted -- while traveling to Hollywood and back, I managed some six hours of sleep in my hotel, spread over two nights. Somewhere over the contiguous United States, my tailbone evaporated, and it took me the better part of a week's worth of naps to catch up so that I no longer felt like a zombie. But I reminded myself what that nap in September of 2015 earned me, and any time I found myself feeling depleted, I only needed to mosey into my Writing Room to see the beautiful new writing award in its silver frame to re-energize. I am so proud of what my little cautionary short story has accomplished! This was an adventure of a lifetime!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Xanadu...Xanadu...Now We Are Here!

(Me, at 7600 Beverly Boulevard, before the famous
art deco spire)
In the summer of 1980, perhaps when I needed some sort of divine intervention most, my life turned in the best direction possible thanks to a song, a soundtrack, and a movie that not only opened a door on a far vaster universe than the one I knew, but emboldened me to enter it. Because of Xanadu, I have gotten to live my fondest dreams, and continue to.

My name is Gregory L. Norris, and I am a writer. I take that sobriquet quite seriously, and with the perfect balance of pride and humility, I hope. I grew up without a lot on the surface. I didn't have many friends and wore my father's ill-fitting hand-me-downs until I was eighteen. I was likely the least popular kid in school. I didn't have the looks or, at first, much in terms of savvy. But I had an imagination that didn't understand it was supposed to have limitations and so, in a way, I had everything. You see, I grew up on a healthy diet of creature double features and classic Science Fiction TV, in a small, enchanted cottage on Cobbett's Pond in the then-mystical town of Windham, New Hampshire, surrounded by deep, dark pine woods that still haunt my dreams and inspire my pen. By the summer I was fifteen, we had moved out of Windham for one town over, to a house that haunts my dreams for other reasons. I was bullied at school (who wasn't in those days?), not making the smartest choices, tortured over the truth about my sexuality, and feeling lost, truly lost. What I remember most about those days was the vibrancy in which my imagination flourished. I'd dabbled in writing short stories, had even started a novel. But the Eureka! moment in which lightning flashed, unable to be ignored, didn't happen until a humid July night on a sleepover at a friend's house, in which I took a first nervous step into that breathtaking universe.

(me, below the spire)
That summer, I began writing a short novel that featured my small circle of friends as the main characters. As the summer progressed, said friends grew anxious to read the pages as I put them down, and even began work on their own stories. Most abandoned their efforts after a couple of paragraphs, while my tale surged past Page 100 (it would conclude somewhere in the neighborhood of 200). On that July night, as my cramping fingers wrote toward THE END, my entire body filled with a sensation that still strikes me as resembling eight-pointed tiny stars. It was a surge of sunlight, like every cell inside me was smiling. Inspiration, yes. And more. The cosmic light of creation. At the sleepover, I pulled out a fresh stack of lined paper and began to work on another story, not an hour later. I had tasted a kind of euphoria and was addicted. My good friend slept with the radio playing, and as I pondered what I had experienced and its farther-reaching possibilities, the anthem Xanadu by Olivia Newton-John and ELO came on. The emotion surged back as I listened to the words about destiny and a place where dreams come true.

Earlier that spring, I'd been smitten with ONJ's dreamy release, "Magic", also from the same movie, though I didn't know that at the time -- this was 1980, long before the Information Superhighway. So I kept writing, and waiting on the radio to play both songs.

In August, the weekend the movie premiered at our town's local cinema, I hosted a back-to-school/end of summer party for my friends at my family's house. We cooked out on the grill, swam in the pool, and then packed up for the movie in numerous parental-driven cars. From the instant the movie started, with failed artist Michael Beck tearing up his dreams and tossing the pieces out the window, only to awaken the Nine Muses of Greek Mythology, my body crackled with energy, and my spirit seemed to glow. Xanadu, with its roller disco vibe and dance routines, is often criticized, but I've never been one to pay much heed to critics and like to form my own opinions about people, life, and pop culture. I fell madly in love with the message -- that we should pursue our dreams despite the world's many challenges -- and in the film's climax, when Olivia and the other muses soar up from the stage in an effulgence of light, I had an image to attach to that feeling of divine euphoria and inspiration I experienced on the sleepover. Every day of my life since, I've equated writing and completing projects and reading acceptance letters and winning awards to that moment -- extending my arms and soaring aloft into the heavens on a surge of light and cosmic energy. I walked out of that cinema with my friends into a glorious summer night set beneath a massive full moon and, on our mosey around the building and toward the parking lot, said aloud that I would be a published writer. Some 4,000 credits in short fiction, nonfiction articles, novellas, novels, a smattering of TV episodes, and one feature film later...

In April, I learned that my short story "Mandered" won Honorable Mention in the prestigious Roswell Awards in Short Science Fiction Writing. The Roswells are doubly fabulous in that winners get to enjoy their stories read aloud by classic SF TV and Film actors on stage at the award ceremony, held in Hollywood. I planned to take in the ceremony, pick up my HM certificate -- me, a writer from a small town in New Hampshire, headed to TinselTown to collect my writing award! While there, I decided to visit 7600 Beverly Boulevard, where Xanadu's exteriors were filmed. The original venue burned down in a spectacular fire in 1989 but was rebuilt in 2002 to feature one of those beautiful art deco spires so identifiable with the film. Six hours before the award ceremony commenced, I walked onto Xanadu, where Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, and the rest of the cast once stood, once upon a time.

I love my muse. Writing has made all of my dreams come true, and that movie not only saved my life, but gave me the best life possible. May you embrace your dreams and never allow them to die.