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

BEHOLD: DEATH'S REALM!

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…

Friday, December 19, 2014

BEHOLD: DEAD HARVEST!

In late 2012, while giving my then-Writing Room a dusting in readiness for our annual writers' group Christmas party, the idea for a new story hit in one of those very cool Eureka! moments.  I saw, quite clearly, a dusty room...only the dust, of which dead human skin is a major component, wasn't entirely lifeless.  Flesh had formed on the walls.  Something within that old house was growing in patches, trying to join together, to be resurrected.  "Uncle Sharlevoix's Epidermis" was born. A few weeks later, I landed for a second visit to When Words Count Writing Retreat Center in Vermont, where I taught a day-long workshop on living a literary life and, as blizzards socked us in for the new year, I completed the first draft of the story. During that wonderful time at the retreat center (where another short story and a novella were completed and much gourmet food was enjoyed), I received the phone call that confirmed our offer on the house we sought to purchase had been accepted -- a joyous but also distracting blessing.  When I returned home, the longhand draft went into a packing carton, and there it stayed until after we landed at our new/old New Englander in New Hampshire's North Country, Xanadu. Flash forward to this past August when, on a Friday night following a long day of writing on Xanadu's sun porch, I received notification that Mark Parker of Scarlet Galleon Publications had happily accepted the story for Dead Harvest.  The collection contains stories by some of the biggest names in horror -- fifty tales in all, with the book weighing in at a hefty/gargantuan 690 pages!

Many of my fellow contributors in the Dead Harvest Table of Contents shared the back-stories behind their stories.

E. G. Smith on "Autumn Lamb":  "The story was inspired by living in rural, Southwestern Idaho, where the friendly residents are easily outnumbered by both livestock and guns.  Millard is the stubborn first-cousin of many of the old farmers I've met around here.  He was originally going to be modeled closely on a good old boy neighbor who calls me up now and then to offer free bales of straw and tell semi-lewd jokes, but that quirk didn't fit the tone of the story and was left on the cutting room floor. I've raised goats (not sheep) and know what it's like to deal with a fox in the middle of a wintery night. Unlike gun-happy Millard, I adopted a gigantic Pyrenees-Bernard mix livestock guard dog, Hoss, who scares the predators away without any bloodshed, red or yellow."

Brian Kirk on "Seeds of Change":  "While I don't buy into the idea that the world is run by some secret Illuminati-like cult, I often wonder about the direction our society is heading in, how it's being guided, and by whom.  It seems like major decisions are being made that impact the masses without any concern over whether or not citizens agree with them, or attempt to get a consensus vote.  Placing nuclear reactors on fault lines is such an example.  As is genetically modifying our food.  We don't know the long-term effects of ingesting genetically-altered food, but Vice magazine recently published an article suggesting that GMO corn was causing farmers to become suicidal.  That worries me, and helped inspire my tragic story."

Jordan Phelps on "Beyond the Trees":  "This story began with a sharp contrast that just wouldn’t leave my head until I put it on paper. I saw a bustling festival in a large field -- there were bright lights, cheap rides, and wonderful smells. But most of all, there was joy. In the back corner of the festival, there was a stereotypical haunted house in which things jumped out at you, but nothing scary ever really happened. Behind all of this, there was the forest: a giant wall of shadows and claw-like branches that watched and waited behind the scenes. It began with this image, and with a young girl named Jane who had to see. From there, it explored the unknown: the differences between adults and children in dealing with it, the deep, primal fear it can bring forth without an ounce of shock value, and the horror of having no one to turn to when it chooses to present itself."

C. M. Saunders on "Harberry Close":  "Until quite recently, I lived in East London and worked in the south-west. That meant a near two-hour journey through one of the busiest cities in the world, during rush hour, twice a day. That journey used to drive me mad, with all the pushing, shoving, and elevated stress levels. It wasn't an easy route, either. A typical commute consisted of a fifteen-minute walk, two subway trains, an overground train, and a bus. If the weather was bad, or if there was some kind of strike or other disruption, it could easily add half an hour or more to my journey, which meant I would arrive at work late, then have to stay late to make the time back. I'm sure you get the picture. Anyway, the mid-way point in the journey was Waterloo station. I actually quite like Waterloo. It's one of London's nicer transport hubs. As I waited on the platform for my train every morning, I often found myself wondering what would happen if I somehow got on the wrong train. And where that wrong train may take me. Maybe somewhere like Harberry Close?"

Lori R. Lopez on “Cornstalker”:  “My stories and novels can originate from an image, a scrap of an idea, a full-blown plot unrolling in my head faster than I can scribble it down, or -- as in the case with ‘Cornstalker’ -- a single title, phrase, or word.  I came up with this pretty neat title, as I like to play with words, then immediately began to envision a creature stalking the corn, very large and imposing.  A back-story took shape involving a fictitious Native-American tribe.  This was some years ago, possibly ten or fifteen.  I’m not sure how many.  I have a number of ideas like that stuffed in a figurative closet, waiting for me to get back to them.  When I was kindly asked by Mark Parker to contribute something to Dead Harvest, it clicked that the time had come for this tale to be written.  While doing so, I had to pause and conduct research, including how to drive a semi-truck.  I don’t even drive a car.  I learned once.  That was years ago, too.  I’ve forgotten.  Well, semis are more complicated.  I didn’t actually go physically drive one, although that would have been cool.  It was all in my head, and boy, it was quite an adventure!”

Patrick Lacey on "Mrs. Alto's Garden":  "A few years back, I moved out of my childhood home of twenty-five years. As I left the backyard for the last time, I thought about how many animals had been buried there. There were countless goldfish, several cats, a hamster, and even a few lizards. Seemingly from nowhere, the location of most great ideas, I thought of oddly shaped flowers and vegetables growing from the spots where my pets now rested. It was a troubling thought, one that stuck with me for a long time. I knew I wanted to use it for a story one day but I couldn’t think of any characters or plots. Eventually, the idea blossomed (pun most definitely intended) and what resulted was 'Mrs. Alto’s Garden.' Happy Harvesting!"

Andrew Bell on "Extreme Times, Extreme Measures":  "My story isn't about scarecrows, cornfields, or farmers with funny accents.  Autumn for me is the ending of an era, the death of a character to make room for a better, stronger more confident person.  Someone who isn't going to be the butt of all jokes any longer.  I used to know kids at school who would do almost anything to fit in, to be accepted no matter what; even push some poor, unsuspecting fellow pupil into the incoming traffic on a busy road -- I knew such kids.  We all did.  And sadly, I think this overwhelming desire drifts on into adulthood.  So I thought: how far would someone be willing to go to prove themselves?  I come from a small town on the northeast coast of England called Hartlepool.  It is a town heavily reliant upon industry; steelworks, factories, power plants...a very bleak place which never seems to shake off the dark cloud hanging over it.  And although the story is not set here, it is based upon it.  It is a story based upon coldness, paranoia, and confrontation.  Finality."

Jeremy Peterson on "The Truth":  "In 2011, a friend of mine asked me to submit a story for a horror anthology based on the civil war. I’m no history buff, but it sounded like fun so I decided to give it a shot. In my mind’s eye, I saw a cowardly soldier abandoning his unit during a battle and hiding in a cornfield. A decent start perhaps, but where was the horror? At a loss, I asked my fourteen-year-old son what kind of terror you might find in a cornfield. How about the devil, he said. Of course my son would suggest the devil, I thought, we did name him Damian after all! So I gave him a big hug and gently shoved him out of the room, ‘cause daddy had a story to write. That is how my story, ‘The Truth’, came to be. That first publishing house accepted the story but they folded before the anthology went to press. So I tucked it away, wondering what I would ever do with a civil war story. Then one morning I spotted a call for Scarlet Galleon Publications’ Dead Harvest and the rest is history. It’s no, ‘The Devil and Tom Walker’, or ‘The Man in the Black Suit’, but I enjoyed writing it and I hope you all enjoy reading it."

Aaron Gudmunson on "The Guest":  "At some point in grade school, I recall reading a story in which the Queen of England unexpectedly visits a peasant's cottage on the outskirts of a poor village (I can't recall the title of the story, but if anyone knows what I'm talking about I'd love to reread it!). I always wondered how that would translate in America and thus the idea behind ‘The Guest’ formed. The story has been percolating in my brain for years and I finally wrote it one autumn weekend before the last presidential election. Some readers have asked me if there is any hidden political message within the story and I always answer that there is if you want there to be. Really, though, it's simply a speculative story about the anonymity of modern America -- how literally anyone can be mistaken for someone else these days…even the most powerful man in the world."

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Writers' Group Christmas Party 2014

(Early on the morning of the party, before guests arrived)
Saturday, December 13 was the date chosen to hold our annual Christmas party, our second since we bought Xanadu in New Hampshire's arctic North Country. We were lucky last year -- by December 7, the date of 2013's get together, there was only a thin crust of snow on the ground.  This past Tuesday, a whopper of a Nor'easter walloped us with a foot of wet, heavy snow.  It was enough of an event that we cancelled the regular writers' group meeting, a decision that nagged at me all night until 9:30, when I glanced out one of my bedroom windows to see the snowplow pushing a pile as big as the surrounding mountains had gotten stuck on our road.  It had been gray, gloomy, and cold outside since, but nothing was going to stop us from gathering for the party.  Not even the fallback cushion of a snow date or roads plowed poorly (or our driveway shoveled even worse).

The day before, I'd made a homemade beef stew for the gathering that slow-cooked for most of Friday afternoon.  At 6 a.m. on Saturday, I moseyed downstairs and got to work on a croissant bread pudding with raisins and pecans.  By the time the first of many guests (twenty in all) arrived, my big glass drinks decanter was filled with refreshing fruit punch made with seltzer and sliced lemons, coffee was brewed, and the house positively sparkled.

(South meets North -- writers from Nashua Writers' Group and Berlin Writers'
Group hanging before the Yankee Swap and story readings)
Friends from the Nashua Writers' Group, my amazing support system in the southern part of the state, and Berlin Writers' Group, which I helped create way up here, began to arrive. Presents went under the tree for our annual Yankee Swap, and an incredible buffet spread appeared on the table in our kitchen.  Among the food we enjoyed were: homemade turkey pot pie, homemade mac and cheese, roasted red pepper dip and pita crackers, bread and butter, a chopped green salad, and the aforementioned beef stew. Completing a dessert menu unlike anything I've seen was: homemade blueberry pie, homemade apple pie, homemade sweet potato/pumpkin/squash pie, homemade pistachio cake, luscious parfait cups (made with pudding, angel food cake, whipped cream, and sprinkles), angel food cake with orange frosting, amazing brownies--two types, including salted caramel...to die for!, and homemade chocolate/pretzel candies.

At the September party, guests were invited to select a prompt, which was the starting point for the readings.  I got "You're digging in the garden when you find..." (other prompts were: "Death pays a visit", "Moving Day", "The Color Blue", "The Color Green", "A Murder Mystery", and "A Winter Storm").  I was beyond inspired to write one of the oldest stories lingering in my card catalog of ideas, "Legerdemain in the Valley of Flowers", which involves ancient ruins on an alien planet, a dose of M/M romance, and the notion of bringing life back to a dead world.

(Christmas Party Score)
After noshing, we held the Yankee Swap.  I got #6 in the order, middle of the road.  Somehow, I managed to hold onto a gorgeous new copy of Jorge Luis Borges' On Writing (there was, as always, a wealth of presents, all geared toward writing, writers, and inspiration).  Friends also brought gifts for me and the family that were unexpected and quite lovely -- gourmet fudge, new pens for the first of my 2015 adventures, a gorgeous, handcrafted art hanging among them. The readings commenced after the swap, and they ran almost until six that night, when the party officially ended.

It was, as expected, a fun and uplifting time.  I can't wait until the next of our writers' group parties at Xanadu.  May 17, 2015 -- to celebrate, among other things, my fiftieth birthday on Spaceship Earth.

Monday, November 24, 2014

From the Bookshelf: Losers and Their Friends by Erin Thorne

I first had the joy of meeting Erin Thorne through her submission to an anthology I was asked to edit, Canopic Jars: Tales of Mummies and Mummification.  Her tale, "Jarred Expectations", was one of the first stories accepted.  So when the fine folks at Great Old Ones Publishing approached me to write a forward for Thorne's new collection, Losers and Their Friends, I didn't hesitate despite a work schedule that was and is growing denser by the day. Thorne's book, its meat drawn mostly from a pool of excellent tales that went out into the publishing universe and somehow came back rejected, is difficult to put down once picked up.  Perhaps part of my fondness for the release involves the inclusion of "Jarred Expectations" as one of the collection's reprints; the story is as fresh the second time around as it was the first when it set a very high bar as to the kinds of material that would be accepted in our book of modern day mummy tales.

Stories of alien invasion, holiday horror, an unexpected and antihero superhero novella, and, yes, that marvelous read of canopic jars that contain forbidden secrets are all part of Thorne's vision, each tale presented beautifully with original artwork.  The author was kind enough to share her insight on Losers and Their Friends, as well as news of what's to follow.

I loved Losers and Their Friends—there’s a little of something for everyone, and yet it’s all in Erin Thorne’s unique voice.  What are some of the highlights on the Losers journey that you, yourself are most proud of?
I think getting the chance to work with so many talented artists was one of my favorite elements of the process. They ran the gamut from amateur to professional, and they all did an excellent job. Most of the pictures in the book were commissioned pieces, so I was able to see what someone else’s vision of my story or character would look like. One in particular really grabbed me; it’s the illustration for “South Ridge Superhero,” done by Erik Wilson. He depicted the exact appearance of the man on whom the story was based, after having been given only a rough, one-paragraph description. It was almost uncanny, and highly moving.

Was there a method in choosing the variety of stories for this collection?
Many of them were prior submissions, some of which were rejected and subsequently revamped. One that was accepted had started as flash fiction for a holiday episode of the podcast, “The Wicked Library,” and I expanded upon the story after it had aired. Others were simply tales that I was inspired to write, with plots and characters that wouldn't leave me alone until I’d gotten them out on paper.

What's your process of creating stories?
That can vary, depending upon the impetus for writing the story. If it’s one that was based on dream or a spontaneous idea, I scribble a hurried paragraph or two containing the basic premise while the memory is still fresh, and work it into an outline later. When I’m crafting a story in response to a submission call, one which usually has a specific theme in mind, I brainstorm a little more. I pull from the mundane, often from actual incidents and people, then stretch and embellish the whole thing until it’s a different (and entirely fictional) account. I also do this if I have a story I want to tell that’s based on real life, if there’s an image or a feeling I want to remember.

I happen to believe you’re one of the publishing landscape’s most exciting new writers.  When not writing, what’s Erin Thorne’s world like?
Thank you! I have two children who keep life both busy and fun, and I also work with my significant other at his gallery/studio, Cornerstone Creations, where we hand-pour concrete statuary. I paint several pieces, too; it’s relaxing, and another way to enjoy being creative. We vend at various fairs and events together, at which I sell and sign my books. I love working out as well, although I’m not enough of a fitness nut to give up sweets or fast food.

What are you presently working on, and what’s next for you in terms of releases?
I’m working on a few stories and projects at the moment, some larger than others, and I’ve recently sent two more out as submissions. As far as upcoming releases, I’m excited to be working on a re-issue of my third book, Behind the Wheel, right now. It was picked up by Great Old Ones Publishing, and will feature a custom painting for each tale by the artist Bob Chipman, aka Greywolf Moonsong. Two of his works, “Solace and Sorrow” and “The Lighthouse at the Edge of Forever,” are in Losers and Their Friends, and the new illustrations are amazing. There will also be an introduction, in which I’ll describe what lies behind each of the stories, and a foreword by a special surprise contributor. All in all, it promises to be a beautiful collection when finished!