Monday, March 23, 2015

Scarlet Galleon's Beautiful Monster, DEAD HARVEST

(Bigger than a T-Rex!  Bigger than a Rocket Ship of the XM Variety!)
What's bigger than a breadbasket, as that old saying goes?  Well, okay, Dead Harvest, the gargantuan first-born spawn of Scarlet Galleon Publications, isn't big enough to house a family of four or drive to the supermarket in, but I'd wager you could use it to conk one of the living dead over the head -- though that would require having enough muscle mass to heft it up that high. Dead Harvest weighs in at a quite-monstrous and lovely near-700 pages, and its covers are crammed full of enough amazing stories by many of today's most exciting voices in the Horror genre to last a voracious reader until the next harvest.  My gothic short story, "Uncle Sharlevoix's Epidermis", is one of 50 tales in all, by such horrific household names as James A. Moore, Richard Chizmar, Lori R. Lopez, and Tim Lebbon. Up-and-comers like the brilliant Aaron GudmunsonE. G. Smith, and Patrick Lacey -- writers and friends alike, and some of the most exciting new voices out there -- round out this Who's-who beast of a read.

It was my pleasure to speak with Scarlet Galleon head honcho Mark Parker, the man behind the monster.

Mark, Dead Harvest is a colossus!  Why did you decide to super-size?
A lot of folks have commented on the size of DH, suggesting it could double as a doorstop, free weight, or lethal weapon. In truth, it was never my intention to do such a large anthology. I had the idea for a collection of about two-dozen stories or so. But what came as a surprise to me, was the sheer number of submissions Scarlet Galleon Publications received when the open call went out. I received nearly two hundred stories! Which, of course, made the process of reading them all quite arduous -- but very fulfilling. There was only one story in the bunch I simply would not consider, due to the subject matter. Culling through the stories was somewhat difficult, because I left the anthology un-themed, which is to say, when I titled the book, I was thinking more a harvest of stories, rather than stories with a harvest theme. That being said, it was challenging to put together a nice compliment of stories that would have a true kind of darkness to each of them. But in the end I think we achieved that balance. Readers have embraced the book and have loved the diversity of the stories. In terms of the large number, I found it nearly unbearable to pass on really cool stories simply for the sake of economy. I have learned my lesson, though. I doubt I would ever do such a large anthology in the future. I’m still not rested up from the first one. It was an audaciously daunting task for a first time publisher, to be sure.  

The book contains 50 stories by some pretty big heavy hitters in the modern horror scene.  When you were reading, what were you seeking, and what were some of the pleasant surprises that were accepted from the slush pile?
As a reader, I tend to enjoy stories that are atmospheric in nature. So I suppose that’s what I was looking for when I read through the submissions for DH. Because the book was subtitled, A Collection of Dark Tales, it left the un-themed theme almost too broad. I tend to prefer stories that haunt rather than shock. I’m of the school of Shirley Jackson, who Stephen King himself spoke of as a “woman who never felt the need to raise her voice.” For me that’s what I love in a well-written story. A story-line that sneaks up on you and leaves you with a kind of chill you simply can’t shake. In the stories that were finally selected for the book, I think each one imbues a kind of lingering chill, which was what I was looking for. In terms of what some of the ‘pleasant surprises’ were along the way, what surprised me most I suppose, was the affinity folks felt for the project from the start. The fact that DH attracted some of the biggest names in horror, still causes me to stop and pinch myself from time to time. That the book was graciously featured in the pages of Cemetery Dance magazine -- and is still selling in a limited number of signed copies by Richard Chizmar (Cemetery Dance’s founder) and his son, Billy, who both have stories in the book -- continues to make my head swim with disbelief. I’ve been reading the pages of Cemetery Dance since I was teen. To think that some of the industry’s largest, most well-respected writers are involved in SGP’s inaugural publication, is one of the greatest joys of my life, both personally and professionally. 

(Publisher Mark Parker)
In addition to running Scarlet Galleon Publications, which debuted with an amazing first book in DH, you’re also a writer with a pretty decent resume.  What are you presently writing?
Regarding my own writing, I currently have seven short stories to my credit. Biology of Blood, Lucky You, Way of the Witch, Halloween Night, and Banshee’s Cry. My first professional sale was a story titled The Scarlet Galleon, included in the anthology Wrapped in Red -- Thirteen Tales of Vampiric Horror by Sekhmet Press. And this year I wrote a longish story Killing Christmas that was published in the anthology for charity Return to Deathlehem through Grinning Skull Press. At present I’m finishing up a ‘50’s inspired B-Movie-style alien encounter story titled Eye in the Sky. Then I will dive into writing my full-length horror novel The Glowing. And then perhaps a collection of stories titled Dining with the Devil. I’m also planning to expand and republish some of the earlier stories that readers have all stated they’d wished were longer.  

What’s next for Scarlet Galleon Publications?
The next project planned for SGP will be Fearful Fathoms – Collected Tales of Aquatic Terror. Then the second volume in the Dead Harvest series.  

Friday, March 20, 2015

North Meets South Part II

(With, from left to right, writers Esther M. Leiper-Estabrooks, Karen Dent,
and Dan Szczesny)
Last March, members of my brilliant Berlin Writers' Group, which gathers every Tuesday night in this frozen, remote corner of the planet, traveled down state to meet with members of my equally-brilliant Southern New Hampshire writers' group, which I left when we bought our house 150-plus miles away. The event known as North Meets South was a smashing success, held at a restaurant located at the halfway point between both groups, whose members started to interact and form friendships through the Sunday salons and parties held up here following our big move.  This time around, BWG agreed that it was only fair to honor the effort routinely put forth by the southern gang, who always travel up here to hang out, write, dine, and celebrate the literary life, so we traveled to Milford, New Hampshire, where my small family used to live and where so many gatherings were held in our former apartment. And I knew the exact, perfect place where twenty or more scribes could spend an afternoon dining and sharing pages for the read-aloud portion of the fun.

In early 2012, the Saki House Restaurant opened in Milford.  We received a menu in the mail that winter, right before my adventure to New York City.  I moseyed over the following Tuesday afternoon for the buffet, which is unique in that it's different from your typical set up of steam tables, where you help yourself.  At Saki, you order off the menu -- four selections from an extensive list of offerings, plus soup -- and the food is brought out fresh from the kitchen.  After the first pass, you can order two more selections from the menu, and two more after that, and two more ad infinitum.  My kid sister and I, who made Fridays at Saki House a weekly highlight, never got higher than the 4th Round.

(Writers from North, South, and all points on the map)
I have great memories of Tuesdays at the restaurant, on my own and armed with pen and whatever latest story was presently getting its time front and center, and Fridays with my awesome sister.  I have also commented extensively about the hostile stares cast my way whenever the pen got uncapped and the pages put down -- the food was amazing and ridiculously reasonable, but the waiter always wanted me gone the moment I finished, not lingering around and writing down fresh pages of stories, novellas, and novels.  In my defense, always before I left a very generous tip.  And I never forgot how wonderful it was to have General Tso chicken, dumplings (fried, not steamed), boneless spare ribs, egg rolls, lo mein, hot and sour soup, and other menu choices come out sizzling hot and made to order.

When the notion of repeating last year's fun surfaced in January, I called around to various restaurants.  One famous New Hampshire diner's manager rushed me rudely off the phone, telling me to call back (I didn't).  Another didn't understand what I was inquiring about -- space enough to host a meeting of writers.  One call to Saki House, and the big table at the back of the restaurant was ours.

(With the talented, gorgeous Sisters Dent, Roxanne, l, and Karen, r)
Of course, it had been over two years since I'd set foot in the place, and I only hoped the food was as wonderful as my last visit (it was). Early on Saturday, March 14, a gloomy gray day that threatened to have rotten wintery-mix weather, I rode with three other BWG members down to Milford, through a steady rain.  We drove past our old apartment, source of so many adventures, the real and the imaginary. Curiously, I felt little of the nostalgia I expected -- life at Xanadu is my reality now, and it has been a rich time filled with creativity and joy. From there, it was on to the restaurant where, as soon as we entered, half an hour early, we were joined by Danny Sheehan, one of our poets from up north, and Karen and Roxanne Dent, the brilliant sisters who both write and are widely published (Karen also holds the distinction of appearing on my late, beloved soap, One Life to Live during her acting years in New York City).  Soon, writers began to arrive -- twenty-three party goers total when you add in my friend Doug's daughters.  We ordered meals, and food came out of the kitchen, as luscious and fresh as I recalled.  The hostility from the waitstaff was still there, though meted out in short doses.  And then, one at a time, writers stood up and read from their latest works.  More than once, other diners at tables waved us over, asking who we were and complimenting us on the quality of the unexpected lunchtime entertainment.

North Meets South Part II was another smashing success.  Seventeen of us read. I shared the opening pages of a new short story, "Winterization", which I am writing for consideration in Dan Szczesny's anthology of newsroom noir crime stories, Murder in the Newsroom, and got to enjoy poetry, mysteries, science fiction, gothic horror, a narrative, and work from some of my favorite writers and people.  After saying farewells-for-now, we packed back into the car and drove north, through the rain and into that promised mix of ice and snow.  On the return trip, the going got hairy halfway up the state, near the exit to New Hampshire's lakes region. But once we were in the state's chimney again, the roads were clear, and the adventure concluded. There's been some discussion about doing this again in six months -- up here this time, and down there six months later. And one member was so impressed with the concept and turn out that he's thinking about organizing a statewide day salon for several writing groups, which would be an amazing and fun event, I think. North Meets South II was a delight, and I can't wait for the next opportunity to break bread with members of my two writers' groups:  May 17, at the big birthday bash here at Xanadu to celebrate my 50th year on Spaceship Earth.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Meet the Luminous and Talented Laura J. Bear

2012 was an amazing year, filled with literary adventures and trips to far-flung destinations -- coast to coast, and even beyond the coast to a wonderful writing retreat on the Isles of Shoals. Upon my return from Star Island, I learned that I'd won a free stay at the lux retreat center in Vermont, When Words Count, and had barely landed from one glimpse of heaven before I was packed and headed out the door again to another. The year ended as it began, filled with an up-surge of creativity and promise, and one last adventure: an invitation to return to the retreat center in Vermont for New Year's Eve festivities.  It was there that I met a talented new writer named Laura J. Bear.  I was impressed with Laura's verve from the moment we shook hands at the big breakfast table on the snowy Saturday morning of my arrival (later the very same afternoon, our real estate agent called to inform me that our offer on Xanadu had been accepted, leading to the next of my life's great adventures).  Even more so, after she read the opening pages of her first novel while we gathered that night in the center's cozy Gertrude Stein salon to share from our work. I knew Laura's spark was genuine -- it was only a short matter of time before we'd see her story of love and loss published for others to enjoy, I was convinced.  And I was correct.  The fabulous Ms. Bear's debut novel bows to the world on March 14, and tells the story of a woman at the end of her marriage who finds a magical new beginning at a house in rural Minnesota.  Equal doses heartbreaking and hilarious, Where the Heart Lands is masterfully told by a literary voice whose star is on the rise, and by a woman who is as beautiful as the prose she writes.

It was my pleasure to speak with Laura about her novel, and her plans for what promises to be a very bright future for this talented scribe.

This novel is brilliant -- and it’s your first!  Share with us some of its history.  How long did it take you to write the novel?  Where did the idea originate?
Thank you for the kind words, Gregory. I am honored to receive such praise from a master like you! This novel took me two years to write while working a full-time job, and another year to edit and ready it for publication.

My novel-writing journey began in an unusual way. I had always considered myself a writer, but never really knew which direction to take with it. After giving up on a writing career early on because of a lack of confidence, I embarked on two college degrees and two careers over a span of twenty years or so. I worked as a registered nurse for a decade before going back to school for speech pathology. While working as a speech language pathologist, a co-worker of mine asked me to sit in with a client of hers who had suffered a stroke. This person was a young woman with aphasia. Aphasia is a disorder caused by injury to the language center of the brain that makes it difficult to express and understand language in any form to varying degrees. This woman made her living using her psychic abilities to do card readings, so her livelihood required good communication. It’s fairly typical, as part of speech language therapy, to help a client with aphasia perform learned techniques to improve their verbal expression by providing an “unfamiliar listener” situation to help them bridge from the therapy setting to the real world.

During my session with her, I asked a vague question: “What will happen for me in the next five years?” then I drew my cards and she interpreted them: I had been a writer in my past, I should be writing right now, and in the future I would write a book and have lots of help from editors and others and I would be happy and successful as a writer! This was the second very direct “message” I’d had about circling back to writing, and this time, I paid better attention. I am rather down-to-earth and pessimistic at my core, so I never took much stock in psychic abilities before. Once I entered my fourth decade, though, I decided to be more open about such things. The moment I received the message, I decided to pursue my writing dream, no matter what. No more excuses. I sat down that night and began the kernel of my novel. The rest is history, or rather…present and future!

It was such a pleasure meeting you in Vermont in late 2012 into early 2013, and hearing you read from the novel's first chapters in their earliest drafts.  Tell us about the fabulous author, Laura Bear!
The pleasure was all mine, believe me. I have never met a more evolved soul before I met you. The whole retreat experience was like a dream. I met a wonderful group of writers who continue to be my friends. About me, well, I am neurotic and deeply flawed, but I feel things with passion. I love nature and outdoor activities like bicycling and hiking and paddling (kayak or canoe). I love all animals, but especially cats. I have a little crazy dog who does somersaults of glee every time I come in the door. Every cat member of my family began as a stray who found us. My spouse is also an animal lover. Treman is seventeen-years-old and terminally ill,  but as long as she keeps purring and eating, we’ll nurse her along. She still helps me write by walking across my computer keyboard.

Your novel's Addie and Lucy are unforgettable characters.  I felt like I knew them as real people.  Tell us about your writing process, how you make the magic happen, in other words.
I’m thrilled you think so! I really love Lucy and Addie. I got to know them quite well during the writing of the book. My process is a little haphazard. For this book, I began with a character: Lucy. I didn’t really have a story for her, just ideas of a story. After I started to write about her background, the story began to unfold. Addie was a minor character at first, written to interact with Lucy. Steve Eisner at When Words Count Writer’s Retreat read my notes and really liked the sentence that is now the first sentence of the novel and he wanted to know more about Addie. He was quite intrigued by her, so I wrote Addie’s background and suddenly, there was this strong character with her own story. I just had to figure out how to put the two stories together in one book: a much more laborious task. I’d love to say the writing just flowed from there, but that didn’t happen for me. I had to scrape and peel every word from my brain like ancient dried up wallpaper off the wall. That said, parts of it did almost write themselves: the hobo Horatio; the parts with the caretaker of the inherited house, Tom Anderson; and the story of Lucy’s eccentric great aunt, Jean-Marie. I had great fun with those characters!

I hate sitting for long periods and I love to be outside with my camera or riding my bicycle or walking or paddling my kayak, so I had to learn how to stay still for writing. The writing gets done when I sit on my bum, but I am inspired by nature and movement.

I think your writing is marvelous, and that you’re an exciting new voice.  What other writing projects are you working on at present -- short stories, another novel?
Thank you so much, Gregory. I am quite excited about my second book. This time, the story came to me first and I am developing the characters. I have a sketchy outline. All I will say at this point is that it looks like it wants to be a thriller! I have several short stories started, but have been working on polishing the debut novel and fleshing out the next novel, so I still haven’t finished my short stories. I am in awe of your prolific genius, Greg! Working in a helping field, I do get a little depleted after working my day job, so I have to work in short bursts. I try to write at least something every day, even if it’s a short poem on Twitter!

Describe your writing space.
The third bedroom in our house is small, but duly suited for a writing room. I have a Mission-style oak desk in the middle of the wall, surrounded by two similar desks built by a carpenter friend. This creates a row of writing space with computer and printer along one wall with bookshelves and shelving lining the opposite wall. Double windows look out on the backyard with bird feeders, flower and vegetable gardens, and the stacked wood we use for the wood stove on the covered patio. Inside, the shelves are full of books I love books about writing, plus pottery and photos of family and wildlife. I have a small filing cabinet on the remaining wall and posters of musicians and instruments on the walls. A laptop computer lives on the middle desk. I keep several notebooks on the shelf or stacked on the left-side desk.  I tend to do my “real” writing on the computer. I used to write only in longhand when I was young and then transfer to a typewriter, but I find the computer freeing. My fingers just go and I don’t have time to analyze as much, which for me, is a good thing. I have a love/hate relationship with technology!

What’s Laura Bear’s version of the perfect writing day?
A perfect writing day is sitting in my writing room with a hot cup of tea or some red wine at my computer with the kitty cat lying against the keyboard. There’s a fire in the wood stove and a steady rain on the back porch roof and windowpanes, setting the mood and decreasing the temptation to go outside. All of this seems like a dream to me. I’m so glad I finally dove in. Thank you so much for hosting me on your blog site, Greg. You are a true gem of a person and a fantastic writer. I am truly blessed to be on this journey with such fine company.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

2015: My Literary Vinter Vonderland

This is our family's second full winter here at Xanadu, in a town located in the shadow of Mount Washington. A few days ago, the only place on the entire planet colder than the mountain's summit (some twenty-two miles from my front door) was recorded at the South Pole, in Antarctica. Winters here are beyond brutal.  We've hovered below zero dating back to the last day of last year. Snow has fallen in heaps and buckets.  As clearly visible in the photo at left, icicles have given our house a dragon's mouth expression full of jagged teeth.  Said photograph was taken in early February; today, weeks later, those teeth have grown longer and sharper, and the snow has continued to pile.  On Monday, February 16 the thermometer read - 20 below.  By tomorrow, the 20th, we're expecting to dip even lower.

I'll admit it -- I'm sick of all the cold, the white. I have very fond memories of New Hampshire winters when I was a kid, particularly of playing in the Big Woods that surrounded our tiny cottage home. During a blizzard in the winter of 1975, I reenacted an episode of Space:1999 set on the ice planet Ultima Thule.  A few years later, I drove around with my mother in search of the day's newspaper during the Blizzard of '78 -- while most of New England was paralyzed, we toodled about in her old red Vega, circling Cobbett's Pond for an open mom and pop.  We snagged one snowy copy at a self-serve newspaper vending machine outside our post office.  In my late 20s while working on a novel set during a blizzard, I again developed a love for short, cold New England days. Not so much any more as I enjoy the last two and a half months of my 40s; I've started dreaming again of warm days spent writing on my sun porch, icy iced coffee and snoozing cats at my side.

(XIII from publisher Resurrection House, containing
my short story, "Occupy Maple Street")
Going into this winter, I decided as I always do to accentuate the positive.  With our mortgage ticking down to single digits in terms of payments, numerous releases on the horizon, and fresh hope for the potential contained in this new year, I planned to bundle up, hunker down, nest, and write.  So far, so good on that count. Over January and into early February, I worked on several old projects (one of my mandates for this year was to give THE ENDs to various stories, long and short, that have howled for completed first drafts, some dating back to the years immediately following high school!).  I also planned to write several stories out of season -- ones set in the balmy summer.  When getting lost in Writer's World, we're able to manipulate the laws of time and space enough so that we believe we're living the story, so I planned to cast myself in the roles of characters soaking up sunshine.  As of today, I've completed nine short stories and one novella; have worked on a novel and two other novellas. However, none of them have yet transported me to the toasty realms I set out to explore. One, "Visibility", is set in Iceland and has, at its core, an encounter between a man and a crypid -- Iceland's celebrated Ice Worm Monster, which is purported to inhabit a deep glacial lake. Brrrrrrr!  On the day I finished the manuscript's first draft, I bundled up to help shovel the latest storm's accumulation, eight fluffy inches, while sub-zero wind roared across our neighborhood.

Late last winter, which wasn't any more merciful, I sold a short story to the anthology XIII by the fine folks at Resurrection House.  The projected publication date was Spring 2015, but to my delight a trio of contributor copies showed up last week, a hopeful taste of spring weeks early.  Two days later, airmail from Australia arrived -- my copy of the anthology From Out of the Dark.  Dark contains my gothic short story set in deep space, "The Rats in the Bulkheads".  The story was written during last
September's delightful stay at the Waterfall House, one of several completed during our writers' group's four-day retreat.  On the brisk Saturday previous, I placed a short story in the Cohesion Press anthology, Blurring the Line -- no small feat, as the editor was swamped with submissions.  My short story "1-2-3 Red Light" made it into what promises to be an exclusive club in terms of the Table of Contents.  And, despite my focus on older ideas needing their completion, a plethora of new ones have erupted from my psyche, demanding to be written down on note cards, some jumping to the front of the line.  All this while snow falls and icy winds blow around the walls of the house.  While a major water main in town burst, leaving us without water for two days -- the repair and restoration of water wound up jostling our pipes and causing several plumbing issues that didn't previously exist.  While our small family nests at Xanadu, never traveling too far, sustained by dreams of warm spring days and the return of the lush greenery that wreaths our home from May to September.

And until the weather shifts, I plan to immerse myself in writing adventures, new and old -- some hopefully set in sunnier climes!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


Here in New Hampshire's North Country, we have entered the gray time of the year.  Days are already short in January, and nearby Mount Washington tends to draw cloud cover toward its summit and refuses to let go.  For three weeks in December 2014, the sun shone through twice. Adding to the usual overcast, there's another mountain spreading long shadows in my very own backyard. Summers are green and beautiful, but too short. Winters here are long and gray, and best spent snuggled down in a bright warm house.  Outside, all might as well be gothic Victorian moor, according to the gloom.

Last winter was our first gray season, a time I spent working like a dervish in what was then my new home office.  I'm not a writer who needs to cast his net far for ideas -- my problem is that I have too many, and until I find a way to clone myself, there are always multiple projects howling at me to complete them.  So when a friend presented me with a newspaper article about a man who'd survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 only to drown years later, I balked.  "This will make a good basis for a story," she urged.  Still, I resisted.  Until I read the article and realized how correct she was.  And when the submission call for Death's Realm was announced by the fine folks at Grey Matter Press (who'd previously published two of my short stories in the anthologies Splatterlands and Ominous Realities), my pen flew across the page, recording the terrifying experiences of a Swedish immigrant named Edgard Palmveist, haunted by the events of that longest night.  Out of the scores of submissions made to the anthology, "Drowning" was one of a handful selected, and it appears alongside an impressive roster of authors, who shared the back-stories behind their Death's Realm stories with me.

Jay Caselberg on "Penumbra":  "I guess, starting off, that for me, 'ghost' is a good label, something that we can use to quantify and give a meaningful presence in our minds to something that is not so easy. Do I believe?—oh yes. First hand, I can recount several experiences that, to me, have no other rational explanation. I have lived in ‘haunted’ houses, I have experienced things going bump in the night and there are two choices: either let them scare the crap out of you or allow them as a part of your reality. They have been such a part of folklore and storytelling for so long, that even if you don’t believe, they are so embedded in our collective race memory that it’s easy to understand why people do believe. So, let me leave you with one question to get you thinking: what was the earliest age that you saw or heard something that you believed should not be there?"

Jay O'Shea on "Pirate's Ransom":  "Somalia has been torn apart by decades of war, its waters have been plundered by foreign fishing vessels, and other nations have treated its coastline as a dumping ground. Piracy is one of the few ways of earning a living in this impoverished land. But piracy, always dangerous, becomes more risky for those who have little to start with: Somali pirates embark on missions without enough fuel or water to get back to land; once they’re out on the ocean, they take a ship or they die. Somali pirates are also addicted to khat, a plant containing a short-lasting stimulant that decays as the leaves dry. A Somali pirate is desperate, hungry, fully committed to his mission, and in the throws of amphetamine psychosis. What if these desperate men boarded a ship only to be met by people -- and things -- more desperate and more ruthless than they?"

Jane Brooks on "The Weight":  "In the prelude to Song of Kali, Dan Simmons writes, ‘Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist.’ He could have been referring to my hometown in south Alabama. So small that it was served by only one caution light, two gas stations, and a single K-12 school, it was nevertheless home to two hunchbacks, a vicious pack of wild dogs, a dozen child molesters, tribes of banal and ruthless bullies, gutless authority figures who punished the weak and rewarded the mean, sharpened rulers disguised as typing teachers, and every other monster a child could ever have to face -- including mothers twisted and corrupted by generations of abuse. ‘The Weight’ draws from the private world one mother created for her and her daughter in that terrible town, an awful, headachey place to which the protagonist must return one last time."

John C. Foster on "Burial Suit":  "This was an odd one. The title and first line of the story came to me years ago, and I remember sitting down to write the first page and then…nothing. I had no idea what the story was supposed to be, but as often happens, I knew something was there. I’ve walked this road before, however. The same thing happened with my first novel, a few pages and then a great expanse of nada, so I hung onto the page I’d written and would periodically pull it out to read, putting my ear to the ground to see if a story was galloping towards me. It wasn’t until our cat Lucy passed away -- a.k.a. The Loose -- that the character came into focus: dangerous, clumsy and somehow helpless, but with a horrifying means to address the death of a loved one. The key for me was not that he was a murderer and possibly a few eggs short of a dozen in the sanity department, the key was that as horrible as he was, he cared deeply and was prepared to do anything he could for his father."

Simon Dewar and Karen Runge on "High Art":

Simon -- "The germ of 'High Art' leapt into my mind pretty quickly after the submission call went out. I knew I wanted a story about a bodily possession and revenge. I also wanted the character Ray to be an embodiment of the worst traits some men possess, amplified and put to paper. I threw the idea to Karen Runge, and she liked it and jumped on board. Her talents helped make it truly creepy and extra confronting. We worked well together because I write in a very flat, in-your-face style and she writes in an emotive, alluring and descriptive style, so we balanced each other well. Karen also helped breathe some life into the female characters in a way I’m not sure I could have. I’m particularly proud of this piece, especially because it’s a collaborative work. It’s repugnant, confronting, sometimes sexy, and ends in a sick crescendo of violence. Horror fans out there will love it."

Karen -- "My Suspended in Dusk editor and fellow writer pal, Simon Dewar, sent me an email that ran something like: Grey Matter Press is awesome, they’re doing this anthology, how about we collaborate? I said yes, and he sent me a smutty sex scene. Well, what are friends for? And so begins ‘High Art.’ Usually when I write -- which I’d only ever done alone up until then -- I focus on a sensation or an image set to a basic concept and run with it. I almost never plot. I very rarely know how a story will end. ‘High Art’ had a direction from ‘go’: the premise (Simon’s), the gore method (mine), and the rest couldn’t have been easier -- we just took turns writing until we got it there. It was a blast! Given the subject matter, the fact that we’re a male-female duo I think helped balance it as a piece. Looking at it now, to me, our gory little story reads part noir thriller, part torture porn, part cautionary tale. Weaving breadth, I guess, is the happy accident of collaborations. As far as making art goes, we certainly had an easier time than our characters!"

Matthew Pegg on "March Hays":  "Stories come from random ideas colliding in the mind, like stray comets. Sometimes it’s hard to track their trajectories. So what was I thinking when I wrote ‘March Hays’? Manderley, Wildfell Hall, Aswarby, Motley Hall: disquieting things happen in big houses. They offer an enclosed environment with potential for a murky history and something nasty lurking in the east wing. The house in ‘March Hays’ owes its appearance to Staunton Harold Hall in Leicestershire, which has the lawns, the stable block, the chapel and the previous owner executed for murdering a servant. Its interior shares features with Wightwick Manor, in Wolverhampton, where a secret door in the drawing room leads to a hidden stair, and a panelled alcove with a built-in seat offers a handy spot for an unseen observer. So March Hays also has its mysterious door and cosy alcove, though not at the same time, of course… But the story’s a romance: what if the girl you played with as a child is your soul mate? What do you do when she’s unattainable? And it’s a war story. And there’s something unspeakable in the east wing. And there’s a garden party. And gruesome mutilation. And a horse-ride in the snow. And alcohol abuse by a minor… What was I thinking when I wrote ‘March Hays’?"

Aaron Polson on "Nine": "My stories usually come to life as fragments, and ‘Nine’ was no different. A random bit will pop into my brain and, after some time, I've massaged the seed into something like a story. ‘Nine’ started like this: I nearly severed my left little finger in a car door. There’s more, of course. The boys in the story are mirrors of my own, little imagination machines who turn everything into something else. One summer, a few years ago, they conjured muddy water into magic potions to turn both of them into gorillas in order to hide from passing cars. No one would notice the gorillas in our driveway, of course, because they are so common in northeast Kansas. Boys can be weird. So we have the boys, their vivid imaginations, the missing fingers…and loss. My first wife took her own life three years ago -- not the same circumstance as Charlie, but a loss. Death, especially that of a parent, can strain relationships between parents and children. It raises big questions and stirs identity crisis for the surviving spouse.  All this went into the pot. I let it simmer, worked a few drafts, and ‘Nine’ bubbled from the other side."

Hank Schwaeble on "Haunted": "Years ago, a Houston woman committed a horrible crime in a fit of psychosis. The case made national headlines and was the subject of frenzied cable news talk until the next sensational story popped up. Aside from the general shocking nature of what happened, two things in the aftermath stuck out in my mind. First was a comment by a male anchor regarding how sorry one had to feel for the husband, a remark that seemed rather uncontroversial. The second thing was an opinion piece I read a few days or so later where a woman excoriated the husband and placed most, if not all, the blame at his feet for putting his wife in a position where she was under more pressure than she could bear and not getting her the help she needed. Both of those points lingered in my mind for some time, germinating. I remember thinking, he's either partly to blame, or he isn't, but either way, the guy is going to be haunted for the rest of his life. That's when the idea for this story started to take shape."

Paul Michael Anderson on "To Touch the Dead":  "Stories -- even the most deathly serious ones -- are goofy, roundabout things. For me, one thing connects with another thing, which decides to party down with a third thing, until I'm lying in my bed one night and I realize I won't be sleeping any time soon. As far as I can tell, Richard Matheson is largely responsible for ‘To Touch the Dead’. When he died in mid-2013, I thought of his legacy, what he left behind -- which was his work, of course. If he was remembered at all, it would be for the artifacts. And then that merged with the Allegheny County Cemetery in Pittsburgh, where I grew up -- a large necropolis that you could wander for a full day and never see every grave, every memorial, and you quickly realized that no one saw them, not really. Who's visiting the grave of an early-19th century family?  At the same time, I was doing the edit on a book where a terrorist attack figured prominently, and thinking that I'd never written about the victims, just the aftermath. That merged with the idea of how we think about death and the aftermath itself and, suddenly, I had an emotional gradient to a story I didn't know was forming in the first place. I wanted to talk about death and how each of us approached it, not as people who will eventually die, but as people left behind when others die. The two main characters, across nearly a millennia in time, each approach death from two different extremes, and I wanted to talk about how each reconciles that within their environments."

Rhoads Brazos on "Omniscopic":  "With this piece, I wanted a quaint, 19th Century voice, one that would allow outdated phrases at a whim and descriptions that would feel florid, yet somehow still ring true to each character. In this, shades of Lovecraft’s ‘From Beyond’ shouldn’t be hard to spot, not only in the voice but also in the characters themselves. We have professor-scholars contacting other planes, after all. As to plot, I found it interesting that whenever an otherworld door is opened, a human spirit steps through. If you do the math, you’ll find it’s very poor odds. Imagine that each person who ever lived -- that’s 100-billion talking monkeys -- had one spin at the contact-a-spirit wheel. Statistically, no one should have yet succeeded. We’d keep getting an ant or a sand flea or a beetle, lots of beetles actually, a revolting number. Perhaps the reason spirits are so subtle is that while we’re waiting for them to come floating down a darkened hallway, they’re already crawling over our toes. Pleasant dreams!"

Martin Rose on "Mirrorworld":  "‘Mirrorworld’ was inspired by a real life mirror. I forgot about it until now. I'm broke-poor, so my furniture is usually stolen out of other people's trash or bought from thrift shops. There was this dresser with an old mirror screwed on the back. When I put it together, it still had the date stamped on it -- October 31, 1939. Halloween. This struck me on the weird side, which seems to be a knock-on effect of acquiring all your possessions second hand -- your ability to stumble onto coincidences both hair-raising and mundane increases a thousand fold. And then you do that thing writers always do, usually when they're bored doing menial jobs -- your mind starts turning sideways into the what-if phase. Voila. At least, that's the simplified version. Whether or not that mirror has been used in esoteric occult rituals, I'll leave that for your imagination, but it passed out of my hands and over to a Satanist. So yeah, the cursed thing is still out there, making the rounds. Moral of the story, check your mirrors. You might have my Halloween mirror."

Brian Fatah Steele on "Harder You Fall":  "If we’re afraid of ghosts, then what are ghosts afraid of? I find there’s something about that question that makes me smile. Perhaps because all we can do is merely speculate. There’s so much we don’t know, although we claim to. I wanted to explore that, see how it could come back to bite someone. A bit of knowledge and a handful of power is nothing more than parlor tricks when you come to realize there’s far more out there. I kept thinking about characters who abused what they thought was absolute power, and what real power would look like. Mind you, this was all confined to Death’s Realm, as it would be. Everything ended up having a slight Lovecraftian vibe to it in the end, but it helped get the point across. Sure, the ghosts of humanity’s dead might be preyed upon by a questionable few, those driven by greed and influence. But what else could be dead?"

Stephen Graham Jones on "You Only Die Once":  "I've had that opening in my head for a long time, about the ‘scabhead,’ but had never tried it out until Sharon Lawson said she needed something for 'post-death,' and that cued up an Etgar Keret story for me, and I realized kind of all at once that the reason I'd only ever had the first line for this was that I also needed a world, or, in this case, an afterworld, another place, one where a word like that could be completely normal. After that it was just putting flies in bottles and the like. You know, writing a story. But that's true what happens in the story, with the right kind of shadows. I've always known that without really having to think about it."

JG Faherty on "Foxhole":  "My inspiration for ‘Foxhole’ came to me, as many do, from a ‘what if?’ thought that I had, sort of out of nowhere. Basically, it was, what if a voodoo houngon got drafted into the Army? I was sitting in the mall, waiting for my wife to buy something, and just kind of daydreaming, when POW, it came to me. I had my phone with me, so I sent myself a quick email: voodoo priest is a soldier. The next morning, I opened the email and started thinking about it. What would make a voodoo priest special as a soldier? That led quickly to zombies, but zombie soldier stories are a dime a dozen. Then I thought, forget the voodoo priest part, focus on the zombie. A zombie who is a soldier, among regular soldiers. From there I just kept modifying the story until I got the feel I wanted: sort of a Tales from the Crypt-type story about this son of a voodoo priestess. I gave him a friend to protect and set the scene in a future war. In the end, the story is about the relationship between two friends who are closer than brothers. A far cry from where it started."

John F.D. Taff on "Some Other Day":  "‘Some Other Day’ began life long, long ago, practically at the beginning of my twenty-five-year writing career. I remember getting the idea, writing the story -- which was much shorter and a bit less ghostly -- and then promptly losing it. I switched computers a few times, first with Apple products, then to Windows. Somewhere along the way it vanished, but the idea stuck with me. A few months ago, the idea dusted itself off and reasserted itself with a vengeance. As I must, when ideas rear their ugly heads and demand a sacrifice, I stopped what I was doing to write the story, mainly to shut it up. I couldn't remember the original's title, but the new title was really the only one that would work. The new story works better than I remember the original working. It's longer, with a better foundation, and, of course, since I'm Grey Matter's resident King of Pain, more poignant. The lesson here? Sometimes it's okay to lose stories because it's possible they'll be better in the end."

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Caterpillar and the Butterfly

It's that odd, magical time of the year when this writer undergoes a sort of reverse chrysalis.  For years now, as the end of December approaches and the First of January looms, I've imagined myself transforming from a very tired, old butterfly exhausted from the demands of twelve months of constant creativity back to a young caterpillar, excited by the prospect of all the adventures that await. Today is the first day of the new year, January 1, 2015.  Last night, our wonderful writers' group here in the frigid North Country enjoyed our second annual New Year's Eve soiree, complete with a sit-down dinner and reading (the theme was 'Homicidal Holiday' -- I shared the opening to my culinary-themed murder mystery, 'Slice and Dice'.). It was more fun, the food even more delicious, than anticipated.  It also ran late into the evening and past the stroke of midnight, which left this old butterfly feeling very old by the time his head hit the pillow. Wonderful guests who overnighted with us, friends from this writers' group and ones from my group to the south, departed after a big breakfast, and I moseyed into my Writing Room to start the first of 2015's adventures.  Exhausted yes, but then I put the nib of my fountain pen to paper, and realized I was the caterpillar again, feeling captivated as I belted out fresh pages and the first of this new year's thousand words.

(paper, designer folders, envelopes, and other office supplies
evicted from storage in one of my file cabinet drawers)
Over the previous days as the old year counted down, I gave the Writing Room a polish, organized, and pondered my plans for 2015. Part of that effort involved doing my end-of-year paperwork, when I print up fresh, updated copies of my 'As-Yet Unwritten' and 'Completed Works' lists, update my big 'Manifest' notebook with newest titles and ideas, and make sure every fresh story idea gets jotted on a note card for filing in my catalog. Another huge undertaking was to shift the order of my archives of first-draft manuscripts -- 1089 completed short stories, novellas, scripts, and novels as of this writing; enough that my life's work has filled one of my two lateral-drawer filing cabinets to capacity. The second, which contains works-in-progress, notebooks, writing journals, and the business files of my career, provided much-needed room to grow.  While reorganizing that w-i-p drawer, I did a headcount -- 80 projects started, stalled, and stored for future completion.  One of my main 2015 goals is to knock that number down considerably.  There are 80 started from a list of unwritten ideas that total 142.

Even so, 2015 was a productive year for my muse and me.  I wrote 55 stories, short and long, to completion, along with a novel and two screenplays -- one of which, Brutal Colors, is presently in post-production and nearing a release date within the first half of the year.  My word count, all tallied, was 266,650 according to my records, with another 60,000 on some of those infamous works-in-progress, which howl at me in the night for their THE ENDs.

(our neighbor's pumpkin patch -- and what I saw staring in at me through the
living room windows in November 2014, recorded for future inspiration)
And so this young caterpillar, who will turn 50 in May, uncapped one of his Shaeffer fountain pens, a relic from his teen years, and began work on the oldest of his unwritten story ideas, deciding this year to start at the very top of the heap.  As part of my commitment to living a literary life in 2015, my goal is to hack that list of unwritten ideas down by half, and to fill up all that free space in the filing cabinets with first drafts. Some will be written for regular editors, others with thoughts of submitting to calls that come up, yet more simply for my enjoyment and no one else's.  I want this to be a banner year. Given the numerous releases I have upcoming just in the month of January alone, 2015 seems geared toward a fantastic start.  Another thousand words went down on that very old story idea, written with a very old fountain pen before I shifted gears to write this post.  And they left me feeling supremely young again.  Such is the power of dreams and writing.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Meet the Talented and Luminous Chris Kelso

Not long ago, I received a message inviting me to contribute a short story to another author's shared world universe, the sinister Slave States, as dreamed up by the brilliantly twisted mind of Chris Kelso. Kelso hails from the U.K. and is amassing quite the following both on home soil and elsewhere across the globe. After the gracious invite, I read up on all matters Moosejaw, Spittle, and Shell County -- his outstanding The Black Dog Eats the City sucked me into the Slave States franchise from the first page and refused to let me go until the last -- and quickly understood the reason why Kelso's become an author whose star is on the rise.  His psyche is as fertile as Lovecraft's and Philip K. Dick's, with a dash of Beat Generation tossed in for good measure. In short time, I finished my 3,300-word short story set in his other-dimensional realm where humans are forced to work hard time in alien-controlled mines, "The Coin-Operated Man" (a nickname of sorts for a hired gun), and found my time in Kelso's playground delightful.

Author, editor, and sometime illustrator, the twenty-six-year-old works days as a library assistant. His style of writing defies easy labeling, despite attempts to often categorize it as Bizarre Fiction.  It is, I've often said during our short acquaintance, more "Kelsoian" than anything else, because Kelso is a true original.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer -- was there a Eureka! moment where inspiration filled you up, and there would never be anything else so clear or passionate?
I can remember when I was in sixth year at secondary school we had to write one creative piece to go along with our final portfolio. At this point in my life I’d seen myself as something of an artist (and a tortured one at that). Drawing and painting were what I felt passionate about, art was my sanctuary away from all the sums and maps, the name-calling students and the brow beating teachers.  If I was ever going to enter into an adult occupation, in my mind, it would surely be art related. Or so I thought. But, as it happens, after I sat down and wrote the story for my folio I realized I actually enjoyed this process much more than sitting down with pens and pencils, it seemed much more cerebral and spiritually nourishing. The teacher gave us free reign too, so I included loads of swear words and gratuitous depictions of violence (I remember being completely ecstatic that I was being encouraged to write what I wanted, to say what I wanted to say without censorship! It was tremendously liberating). I was just flexing my muscles and enjoying the freedom to roam, the story wasn’t publishable but it served as a sort of acid test. In the end I got a good grade and my teacher offered some heartening feedback, I haven’t looked back since. Becoming a writer has been my dream, nay -- it’s been my fantasy for over almost a decade now. I can’t believe that I’m allowed to write daft stories and have publishers put them out.  It’s surreal actually, but I’m grateful.

I know we’re not supposed to be interested in or even ask where a writer’s ideas originate (which I think is silly -- I LOVE knowing the back-story).  Your imagination is so wonderfully rich and unapologetic, so I hope you won’t mind sharing with us some insight into the Slave Cities and other places you’ve taken readers.
Not at all. My idea for the Slave State came from working as a shelf-stacker in a bargain shop in Kilmarnock after I dropped out of university. I’d been dumped shortly before dropping out and was desperately unhappy doing such unfulfilling and thankless work. So I made a universe born of all that frustration and misery (or my white, middleclass spoiled teenager problem at least). In the Slave zone, human beings are sentenced to work in mining enclaves digging up, what are essentially, surplus minerals for an omnipresent alien autocracy. It was really just another creative outlet for me. If I hadn’t created the Slave State I would have probably been crushed by my own loathing and self-pity. It’s been rather cathartic in a way. I think, now, I’m quite a positive person who is happy in his life. It’s funny, I often write about really depressing things and plumb the depths of human oppression/servility, but focusing all that negative energy out on the books keeps me kind and giving in real life. The different states themselves are modelled on various existing blueprints. Wire City is central Glasgow with its bustling harshness and alienating grandeur. Shell County is based on the naked ergs and dunes of the Deep South in America, etc.

What’s your process -- do you compose longhand, on the computer, at work among the stacks, etc.  Is there coffee or tea present?  Music?  Do you channel the Beat Writers or Splatter punks?  Please offer a view into the Chris Kelso creative experience.
That’s a good question. I’d love to say I have some whacky method of ‘getting in the zone’, but I’m really rather boring in my approach to writing. I write every day, at my desk, on my computer. I write 2000 words every day.  Often I work from notes (these are typically just wee scribbles with metaphors or descriptions I like on post-its). I tend not to work with a framework or from detailed plans, I just write, in total silence, with a cup of Tetley’s -- usually with barely a kernel of an idea in my head. I suppose I have taken something from the Beat writers in that respect. I don’t believe in editing or censoring my unadulterated thoughts, they’re frequently the most interesting ones I have!

(Kelso, left, with fellow Scottish authors Hal Duncan and Neil Williamson)
Please tell us about forthcoming new releases.
Well, there’s a lot to cover here. First up is ‘The Dissolving Zinc Theatre’ coming out through Villipede. It’s my post-modern epic (in size, not necessarily in splendor). Then I have the Slave State anthology coming out through Omnium Gatherum Press, and its quickly turning into my most exciting and rewarding endeavor to date. After that there’s my third Bizarro Pulp Press book ‘Rattled by the Rush’ still to come next Fall. In between those I have a chapbook called ‘The Folger Variation’ and the third issue of the anti-New Yorker journal The Imperial Youth Review. Busy, busy, busy!

Your readers would be surprised to know that you… 
…are a soft-spoken vegetarian, feminist who believes in the goodness of people.

 I loved -- let me stress this again, LOVED -- THE BLACK DOG EATS THE CITY.  Living where I do (in the mountains of Northern New Hampshire) really adds unique layers to the stories I write and how I tell them.  How does living in Glasgow, the U.K.’s third-largest city, do the same to you?
I’m so incredibly glad you enjoyed The Black Dog, thank you. Glasgow is a funny sort of city, it has a menace to it, like all the layers of its big bad history weigh down on its shoulders somehow. It’s basically still a city divided by racial and religious tension. You get the feeling the city WANTS to hurt you too. It can be quite inhospitable, even to its own denizen. I’m actually from Kilmarnock, which is a small town just outside of Glasgow, but it certainly added a layer of familiarity to the sense of oppression prevalent in my fiction. You see, Kilmarnock is a town drained of its spirit. It is full of antiquated drudges, philistines and commuting Glaswegians -- don’t get me wrong, I still love the place! It’s just that the local industry has all but dried up and the town, as well as its people, is deteriorating before our very eyes. People who grow up here also tend to stay here for some reason. It has that sticking power about it, it traps people -- I mean, of course, we’re all autonomous beings in charge of our own destinies, but there is something…unwholesome here as well…I defy any writer to walk down Kilmarnock high-street and NOT go home inspired by its sheer poverty.

What are your plans for 2015?
Apart from all the books, I’ll be doing my usual -- keeping the Black Dog at bay, writing, reading, stacking books, and enjoying the company of all my friends and loved ones. Maybe in between I’ll save up and head for Xanadu…