Saturday, April 5, 2014

TALES FROM THE ROBOT GRAVEYARD

(The Robinson Robot in miniature)
The images were indelibly imprinted upon my brain at an early age. There was Underdog, fighting a hoard of giant robots with raccoon eyes in "March of the Monsters." And both Astro Boy and Gigantor, in glorious black and white. Robot John slogged across a lake of molten lava to save his human companions in Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, a bizarre Frankenstein of a movie cobbled together from spare parts -- about space sirens dressed in scallop shell bikinis that crunch down on raw alien eels come feeding time, the second most memorable element of the film. The first was Robot John's sacrifice, which left me a blubbering mess sitting cross-legged before our big, ugly box of a TV set connected to rabbit ears.  Ditto to Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot, a frequent visitor via Saturday afternoon Creature Double-Features.  The final scene in which the giant Egyptian-looking servo-mechanism flies off to save the Earth became the equivalent of a tearjerker for untold scores of boys my age. I'm sure I'm not the only one who wanted a best friend like Giant Robo. And I'll admit it -- I still get a little bleary- eyed, even at forty-eight, when he and the devious Guillotine collide with that smoking meteor.


I never trusted or even liked Robby the Robot, who I first encountered on the brilliant "War of the Robots" episode of Lost in Space, when he battled -- and lost to -- the Robinson's beloved cybernetic pal, Robot B9.  In 1995, when my writing was first starting to reach a national (and international) readership, I got to stand beside and shake pincers with the original Robinson Robot, an iconic friend from childhood, at a science fiction convention in Boston.  Five years later, while writing a big retrospective on LIS for Cinescape Magazine, I interviewed the great, late Dick Tufeld, voice of B9.  He was kind enough to go into character with his classic, "Danger, Will Robinson!" shtick, and mention me by name.  I have the entire interview on tape.  In fact, that particular soundbite got played last summer during the documentary segment on my writing career and broadcast on TV's New Hampshire Chronicle.  Talk about time travel!

In my teens, there was 7-Zark-7 from Battle of the Planets, IQ-9 from Star Blazers, Doctor Who's faithful companion K-9, and a host of giant robot heroes in Force Five, which brought different adventures from Japan to the shores of New England Monday through Friday.  First up, there was Danguard Ace; Tuesdays, the fantastic Starvengers. Wednesdays was the throw-away Spaceketeers.  On Thursdays, Grandizer battled alien horrors.  Fridays was Gaiking, my favorite, about a powerful robot who launched from a flying fortress-carrier in the shape of a space dragon and defended Earth from invaders from the Zela Star Empire. I got so into the Force Five mythos that I began to have dreams about the giant robots and their sinister foes.  Those dreams made their way through fountain pen and onto paper, and the resulting fan fic stories remain, to this day, archived among my files of first-draft manuscripts.  There's still one from that time in my life remaining to be written.  And write it, I will.

(The 'cover', left, to one of my Gaiking fan fics; a sketch
of a Cylon from 1981; the longhand draft of my newest
robot novella)
And oh, how I hated the Cylons, those robotic baddies in the original Battlestar Galactica that made it their mission to hunt down humanity from one end of the universe to the next.  So much so, in the summer of 1982, between story projects, I opened a blank notebook and began to pen '1001 Ways to Insult a Cylon'. Looking back, I was bored, I think. But to my credit, I made it to Number Fifty.  In my twenties, I was mad about Optimus Prime and The Transformers.

Robots have been a significant part of my life from the beginning.  And they're about to become even more so in the weeks and months ahead. Last Saturday, two friends of mine who own the small press Great Old Ones Publishing paid a visit to our new home North of the Notches.  They took us out to a fantastic lunch at the local Chinese eatery downtown, and then, over coffee and cupcakes. asked me to pitch them on a novel idea as part of their upcoming front list.  I did, and the idea was contracted for.  My Tales From the Robot Graveyard (due out in Third Quarter 2014) is, in actuality, three novellas that will total novel size.  I intend to dedicate it to Mr. Tufeld, and to all those robots I loved from childhood.  And here's a nifty bit of news regarding the book's cover: it is being drawn by the talented Eric Chu, who did all the robotic and spaceship conceptual art on the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.  Yes, the man who re-designed the Cylons will create the cover of my book about giant robots.  More details to follow!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

North Meets South

(At the Common Man Restaurant in Ashland, New Hampshire)
Up here in the frozen hills and valleys of New Hampshire's North Country, there aren't nearly as many choices as in the southern parts of our fair state. Grocery stores don't offer the same variety, the Chinese restaurants don't deliver, and, for the most part, everything's a drive.  But where we excel is in the creative brilliance of our local writers and artists. I was and continue to be blown away by the quality of friends we've made since landing in Xanadu little over a year ago. Many of the fine folks who share in our life here feel like they've been part of the storyline for far longer.  We're blessed, truly.  And more than a little humbled.

I left an amazing writers' group when we bought our home and packed up our lives for this new adventure -- somewhere in time, I'm still sitting at that table in the coffee-and-donut hut, hours before the meeting, headphones on, writing away and euphoric in anticipation of the arrival of my fellow comrades-in-pen. I had no idea what to expect when I began to interact with the scribes in my new community.  Those in the Berlin Writers' Group who have become a second family are, quite simply, among the best.

When we held our first writers' party in our new home last May, members of both groups got to meet and read and break bread.  Turns out, many of the gang from up here knew, through others, writers from down there, and fast friendships began to form.  So quickly that, within months, North and South were attending one another's group meetings, retreats, and two more parties here.  I always felt my new group was a sibling and offshoot to my southern community anyway, based upon the quite solid format laid out by founder and scribe, James Keough.  Two fantastic groups.  A wealth of riches.

(With writer Karen Dent -- Karen is a former actress and once performed on
my favorite soap, the late, great lamented One Life to Live)
So when Jonathan Dubey suggested a meet-and-greet between North and South at a halfway point, not even snow, slush, or slick roads kept eighteen of us from gathering to read fresh pages and enjoying a fine dinner together. Jonathan orchestrated reserving an entire dining room at the Common Man Restaurant in the town of Ashland, and all were invited to share up to 1,200 words of writing for the reading portion of the event.  I read the opening to my new mystery short story, "The Debonairs," about aging Hollywood TV detectives who take up the case after one of their own dies under dubious circumstances.  Others treated us to poetry, novel excerpts, and entire completed stories.  The variety was, as usual, inspiring.  The company was quality of the finest.  Our waitress remarked how much she wanted to hang out in the room and listen to the readings.  But then the readings ended too soon, and suddenly it was time for coffee and dessert.

(Writers' groups -- plural)
The meet-and-greet between groups was an amazing and joyous event, one that will resonate long after the happy hours spent in the restaurant with some of my favorite people and writers in the universe. After goodbyes, I departed with two of my friends and overnighted down in Massachusetts, where I got to enjoy their company and two days of writing and reading stories aloud in front of the wood stove, and also spent needed time with my grandmother, sister, and nieces. Then it was back north where everything was still white and frigid.  But inside, a warm home greeted, and the very next night, I was once more around the big table in the conference room, surrounded by members of the Berlin Writers' Group.  That meeting, in fact, celebrated our one-year anniversary.  Here's to another hundred -- and the next chance to hang with our friends from the south!

Friday, March 21, 2014

BEHOLD: D.O.A. II!

I'm the least violent person on the planet.  I'm a Taurus -- meaning that by all astrological indicators, I should have a fiery and miserable temper.  I don't, however; I think that whole writing-as-catharsis thing rings true, at least for me. Doesn't mean that when I'm pushed against my will into a corner, the Taurus won't emerge.  And once that bull is out...be warned, for it takes more to get it back under wraps than to release it from the pit. I try to live an upbeat literary life, to be both the writer and the person who is generally sunny and all-smiles, with a harm-none mentality.

Violence in my stories is a whole different matter. I don't write gratuitously, simply for shock value. But I've never been much of a referee when my characters decide to take swings at one another -- if the tale requires it, let the rivers run red. I've often said I'd rather squirm in my chair reading or hearing a story read to me when things get bloody and intense than be bored, which is the worst reaction to a writer's fiction possible.  So with this in mind, one humid Saturday afternoon in May of 2012, I put the nib of my pen to page and began an usually gory tale called "Game of Golf."

Earlier in the day, we meandered the back roads of our former town, headed to the cinema to take in Marvel's blockbuster popcorn flick, The Avengers.  We enjoyed a lot of movies until our move north (now, we watch them in the living room, on our flat-screen TV -- there are no movie theaters within easy driving distance of our new home digs in New Hampshire's north country). The roads wandered through countryside and sparse neighborhoods, before coming upon one of those elite golf courses, where the well-to-do parade about in wingtips and jaunty colorful outfits.  While crossing through the country club grounds and continuing toward the rear entrance of the movie theater, some five miles down the road, I jokingly remarked how someone needed to take a golf club and start bashing in heads there upon the pristine green -- and an entire story-line instantly materialized, including the hows, the whos, and the whys.

I wrote "Game of Golf" to completion later that afternoon and into the early May night, and was thrilled when it was accepted on its first time out at the follow-up to Blood Bound BooksD.O.A.  I'd placed stories in two BBB releases previously, the brilliant Steamy Screams and last year's Blood Rites. The press is renown for bringing together top talent between the covers of beautiful books, and D.O.A. II continues the tradition, with twenty-eight of the ugliest-beautiful tales a reader of extreme and unapologetic horror fiction could hope to devour.

Many of my fellow D.O.A. II authors shared the back-stories behind their stories.

Ken MacGregor on "The Proud Mother":  "I had originally written the story for a Lovecraft erotica anthology. I wanted to see if I could pull off that sort of thing. My female protagonist is a mortician in the 1920s . She falls in love and marries, but she is already pregnant with the child of a corpse. The anthology for which I wrote the story rejected it, so I removed the flowery romance language, amped up the horror and subbed it to D.O.A. II. It's your basic 'what if'' story -- what if a living woman had sex with a dead man and he got her pregnant? The answer, as I interpreted it ain't pretty."

Raymond Little on "Scream and I'll Come to You":  "There was a big debate in the British media at the time of writing this tale, and I've found that Horror is the most flexible of genres -- a useful framework to explore many social and political themes.  The seed grew from there, but I needed a suitable horrific apocalyptic  catalyst, and came upon the idea of a virus whose symptom is fear -- an unaccountable, overwhelming sense of terror that causes the victims to simply scream themselves to death.  Once I had that world established, I was able to explore the relationship between Beth and her daughter, and what they were capable of through their mutual love.  The title is a nod of respect to the classic M.R. James ghost story, 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad.'"

K. Trap Jones on "Burn the Witches":  "The inspiration came from a lyric within the Rob Zombie song, Dragula. The lyric reads, 'Dig through the ditches  and burn through the witches.' For some strange reason, I immediately envisioned a truck barreling through a muddy ditch and steamrolling over a bunch of witches without concern. From there I went with a southern narrative tone and wanted to break away from the common witch stereotype by creating a demon type personality for them.  As the story unfolded, a comedic and sarcastic undertone revealed itself based on the old 80s horror movies. To have a small southern Georgia town be overrun by demonic witches and the Mayor creating a Witch Hunting Season was extremely enjoyable to write about because I actually pictured this scenario happening.  It’s a horrific situation for any town to have to endure, but when the townsfolk actually enjoy it, it makes for one hell of a demented, wild ride."

Daniel I. Russell on "Linger":  "I was unsure on sending this story in as I worried that it wasn't extreme enough to compete with some of the names in the Table of Contents. 'Lingers' is pretty much a dark humor story, with our protagonist stuck in an awful job and a little older and out of touch with his workmates, struggling to keep up with life. To make matters worse, he started a relationship with one of the ladies there that didn't turn out so well, and he just can't shake the smell of her perfume... Based on a true story (to a point). I used to work in a law firm and one of the female workers overpowered a room with her perfume when she walked in, so much so that you could still smell it when you arrived home. As for the gore...well, rather than have the page drip, I went for a more subtle, squeamish approach, inspired by the great Graham Masterton. It's the little details that count!"

Robert Essig on "Dr. Scabs and the Hags of El Cajon":  "Growing up in El Cajon you get used to seeing tweekers riding bikes everywhere. For years I would see them and wonder how it was they didn't keel over and die. They just looked so burnt-out and sickly. I ended up moving into a house that had been a tweeker pad. I had to remove all of the junk they left behind and I found it interesting to see how they lived looking from the inside out. "Dr. Scabs and the Hags of El Cajon" is a sneaky peek into a fictionalized drug underground here in my hometown, an idea that I had been harvesting over a long period of time."

Kristopher Triana on "The Devouring": "I wrote this short story after reading about the Armin Meiwes case in Germany, where a man took out an online add for a volunteer for him to cannibalize. All the more shocking was that Meiwes eventually received a willing victim in Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes. The two even videotaped the slaughter, which is said to include footage of Meiwes and Brandes eating Brandes' penis, as well as Brandes being willingly stabbed to death and then stripped like a deer carcass in Meiwes's 'slaughter room'.  I found myself thinking about how this footage must be the most vile thing ever recorded on film. A story began to form in my head wherein a couple desired to make the world's nastiest video, and this got me thinking about an article I had read about UK's age of the video nasties when certain horror movies where made illegal and even prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act.  I began to envision a sickening romance that was dedicated to creating the ultimate in snuff art. For a long time 'The Devouring' was my own little nasty that I kept locked up. After having it rejected by a horror publisher who deemed it 'twisted and misogynistic', I thought perhaps it was taking the genre too far. But it just kept gnawing at the back of my file cabinet. I'm glad it finally found an extreme horror home with D.O.A. II. I can't think of a more fitting way to unchain this rabid beast of a tale."

Thomas Pluck on "Slice of Life":  "Slice of Life began as an attempt to describe crippling depression and what would snap you out of it, and the ‘sleeping beauty’ aspect took hold. Paralysis has always been one of my greatest terrors, and I made the most awful thing I could think of come through that window once the depression took hold. The swan made of razor blades is because I know plenty who've overcome brutal childhoods and I wanted it to symbolize that, the beautiful thing that it hurts both you and her to touch, because of how she was made."

John McNee on "Skunk Jr.":  "I have a friend I speak to sometimes when I want to kick around story ideas (or, more often, when a deadline's looming and I have NO ideas). It was this friend I turned to when I was trying to come up with something for D.O.A II. All I had was an opening scene -- a guy waking up to the aftermath of a brutal car crash. We talked things out over the course of a half hour, various ideas were voiced and I eventually suggested that the guy wakes up and looks around to see his pregnant wife being ripped open by someone or something that snatches the baby out of her womb and takes off into the forest. It's then up to a ragtag posse to head into the trees and try to get the kid back. My friend didn't seem all that enthused when I proposed it, then qualified himself by saying, ‘But now I've got this image in my head of these guys getting a mile or so into the woods, looking around, and seeing a shitload of baby skulls nailed to trees.’ So yeah. That's how that happened."

Kelly M. Hudson on "Fat Boy":  "This story came about from a lifetime of being made fun of for being fat.  It started when I was a kid, of course, and how I'd cope with it then was to mock myself before others could.  It was humiliating, but it worked.  Now, I'm too mean-looking for most people to ever try, but they still do from time to time.  Fat people seem to be the only segment of the population that is acceptable to laugh at, and I consider it cruel.  Sure, some people are fat because they're lazy, worthless slobs, but the majority of us are fighting genetics and other factors.  I've worked my ass off dieting and exercising, and I can only get down to a certain weight.  I am who I am, and I'm fine with it, but I feel for others.  Look at Marlon Brando, the greatest film actor this country has maybe ever seen, and the first thing anyone says about him is some jab about his massive girth.  All that genius and talent is belittled because he was fat.  So I wrote this story out of frustration for those of my kind as a bit of vicarious revenge on those who won the genetic lottery.  And I also wanted to remind you skinny, pretty freaks of nature: there's more of us than you.  Get it?"

David Bernstein on "STD":  "The idea came from wanting to write something gross, cringe-worthy, and nasty, yet have a bit of mystery to keep the reader turning the pages. What better way than having a guy wake up after a one-night stand and discovering a huge, and I mean huge, pimple on the end of his penis -- and it only gets larger as the story unfolds. Minor spoiler ahead: Then I asked myself, what about a spin on the usual… Do monsters have STDs? And if they do, can they pass them on to humans?" 

D. Lynn Smith on "Anointed":  "When I was eight-years-old, my family moved from one part of my hometown to another.  This meant changing churches as well.  The new church didn’t believe in infant baptism, so I was no longer saved.  It also didn’t believe in sprinkling or pouring -- you had to be totally immersed in order for your sins to be washed away.  This was rather confusing to an eight-year-old and it made me wonder if sin stuck to all of our skin like some kind of rash.  A while later I ran into a fundamental Christian who believed everything in the Bible was literally true -- Adam and Eve, The sacrament turning into Jesus’ blood and body, the sins being washed away by baptism.  Combine the two and you have a girl wondering what happens to all the sin that washes off in the baptismal pool.  I wanted to try a second person story, but didn’t relish the idea of writing from one person’s point of view.  The trinity was a logical choice.  And there you have it."


Friday, March 14, 2014

How I Spent My Winter Stay-cation

(reading from "The Moths")
What a difference a year and 150 miles make!  Winter in our new home realm North of the Notches redefined the season in late 2013, early '14.  Nights got cool late last August.  By early October, we had the house buttoned up and were running the heat.  By Thanksgiving, temperatures dipped well below zero, and pretty much that's where they have stayed.  On this very morning, we woke and glanced out the kitchen window at the thermometer bolted to the sill -- a frequent routine -- to see that, one week before the official start of spring, the day began at minus ten degrees below zero. It's been a long, cold six months.

And, I must say, a productive six months, too!

A friend in my amazing weekly writers' group (which will soon celebrate it's one-year anniversary) told me that up here, certain people have a tendency to spend the winter staying warm on idle gossip. Given some of the behavior I witnessed soon after landing in town last March, I don't refute the claim.  In fact, I was determined to do the opposite -- and to enjoy my winter producing copy, completing projects, and getting that all-important cleansing breath as a new year welcomed me and Muse to the potential contained within twelve whole fresh months of creativity.

(An early December snowstorm, through the sun porch windows)
The first significant snow fell here in November, signalling, in my mind, the start of winter. White blanketed distant Goose Eye Mountain, visible from several of our upstairs windows, covering up the big stone pattern from which it was named. In early November, I edited and formatted a collection of short fiction devoted to one of my favorite tropes -- Canopic Jars: Tales of Mummies and Mummification.  Soon after, the book debuted to wonderful reviews and reader reception, and was the star of the party at 2013's Anthocon. A week following the release, I put pen to page and began work on a hardboiled detective novel.  By December 22, it was done, edited, and submitted to my German publisher.  I've been told it's in 'serious consideration for publication' as of the last update.

On the first day of the new year, following a wonderful writers' group dinner soiree and reading at the home of one of our good new friends, Irene, I penned a little flash fiction story called "Terrarium" that has yet to go out the door, but soon will.  Another ten short stories and one novella have since gotten their first draft endings. I've had an equal number of stories bring home publishing contracts, including "Every Seven Years, Give or Take", a tale based upon a terrifying dream about several survivors in the Pacific Northwest locked inside a house, hiding from dangers outside.  The story is set to appear in May in the print anthology Enter at Your Own Risk: The End is the Beginning, which will also contain (in addition to a stellar lineup of contemporary talents) reprints by Poe, Lovecraft, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Mary Shelley.  Talk about being in great company!

(the backyard blanketed in December white)
On January 12, I was asked to read from my combat science fiction short story, "The Moths", which appeared in the beautiful Live Free or Sci Fi, the third in a series of pulp fiction anthologies all set or centered around my home state. The reading, held in Littleton, New Hampshire at the lovely The Village Bookstore on a brisk, gray Sunday, was well- attended, and culminated with several members of my writers' group and I having dinner with the book's editor, Rick Broussard.  Rick also edits New Hampshire Magazine in addition to this series of beautiful books.

In late February, I attended a wonderful writers' retreat.  A week earlier, I was approached by a filmmaker who had seen the segment on my career last summer on TV's New Hampshire Chronicle. He then hired me to write a screenplay based upon his original idea and, in very short time, I'd completed a full draft of the script. Casting for this very creepy feature commenced earlier this very week, and filming is scheduled to begin in early May.  Given our excellent working relationship, there's talk of another script -- perhaps even a creature-feature-style anthology based upon a handful of my short stories, including "Mummy Chips", my tale from Canopic Jars, which has been discussed.

The days ahead will tell on that proposed idea, and others presently in the works.  I just hope there's considerably more warmth in the forecast.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ride the TWISTED BOULEVARD

I grew up in the country, in a tiny cottage surrounded by cool green woods, one thin dirt road up from the shore of Cobbett's Pond in Southern New Hampshire.  The paternal side of my family hailed from the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts roughly twenty miles south.  Some of my favorite memories involve summer day visits to the city to see my grandmother, the late, great Lovey Norris (a talented writer and surely one of the finest human beings ever to grace the Earth) -- the smells of backyards and back alleys, hot pavement, even the light, spilling down without a tree line to hold back the heat.  When the dog days hit, however, I also remember how blessed I felt returning to those tall pines, that cool lake, the shade.  I loved our country home, but I'm always nostalgic when I think upon the city and the roll it occupied in my boyhood.

When the luminous Angela Craig, my editor and publisher at Elektrik Milkbath Press, announced a call for an urban-spec anthology of short fiction, I was intrigued and also inspired.  I wanted in.  So much so, I submitted three tales to the call. The story accepted into Twisted Boulevard: Tales of Urban Fantasy, my sinister "Malediction on a Gray Summer Morning", came to me on a hot August day in 2012, a Monday directly following an all-day literary party held at a friend's house.  I'd wandered into my then-kitchen in the apartment we rented before buying our own home a few months later, pulled out the coffee pot, filled it with water, and then set the empty carafe on the stretch of formica counter top while I spooned coffee into the fresh filter. Still super-inspired from the previous day's gathering, I suppose, my mind fixated on the carafe -- whether I'd set it too close to the edge of the counter.  If it fell and shattered, I'd be out of luck.  And likely quite cranky after being denied my morning brew.  That scenario set the stage for the opening of a story: coffee pot well away from the drop to death, only it slides over the edge of the counter anyway and spills to the floor.  Clearly, the gravity must be off!  A normal start to a normal morning, only the world we've woken to is askew, and once you walk outside your front door, just how wonky things have become quickly sets in.  That was the start to the story, a first draft of which dashed itself off that day and the next.  It is an honor to be included among the twenty-seven stories that inhabit the Boulevard.

"I’m a city girl at heart and I always think of the city as being made of equal parts beauty and grit," says Angela when asked about her inspiration in creating this particular anthology.  "I love the lights… the noise… the constant motion… the raw energy of it all.  People always warn you about the dangers of the city and yes, they are there.  But there is so much magic there, too. Walk downtown at night -- you can feel it surging around you.  Visit a dance club, see if there isn’t something otherworldly happening there.  Watch the people on the streets.  How can you be sure they are what you think they are?  After all, the city, by its very nature, remains in a constant state of flux -- what better place could you think of to hide? That’s why I love urban fantasy. I love to see what’s hidden in the shadows.  I love discovering things aren’t always what they seem.  And, of course, my tastes tend to run to the darker edge so many of these stories -- even those that are maybe not explicitly horror -- tend to have."
Many of my fellow authors in Boulevard shared the back-stories behind their stories.
Paul L. Bates on "Phoenix":  "The concept of regeneration -- physical as well as metaphorical/allegorical -- within the natural order has always fascinated me, and the phoenix legend is one of the most compelling versions of that notion. There are a great many accounts from all over the world, each with its own take on the fabulous bird which perishes in order to be reborn, sometimes from its own ashes, sometimes from an egg it has laid. I had just read Angela Carter’s well-received 1979 collection of dramatically re-imagined folk/fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, on the recommendation of a friend, and was very impressed with both the author’s crisp prose as well as her feminist/romantic vision. So as is my wont, I wrote “Phoenix” as a tribute to her, putting my own quasi-romantic slightly sardonic male spin upon the tale."
M. E. Garber on "Marika's Way":  "For a couple years I lived in Nürnberg, Germany, and visited a coffee shop that became the basis for the one in this story. The stairs twisted unevenly down to the restrooms, the stone block of the walls looked ancient, and a patina of graceful age sat upon the entire building like some kind of magic charm. Oh, how I loved that place then, and how I miss it still!  But the underlying impetus came from something I saw at the 2000 World's Fair in Hannover. Remember all the strife in the former Soviet-bloc eastern European nations during the 90's?  The movie the Czech Republic showed viewers upon entering was visceral: images from warfare, starting slowly and moving faster, and faster, until the attendees were besieged by the images of pain, torment and horror from around the world. And then -- smiling faces, sunshine. The voice-over told how Czechoslovakia dissolved peacefully into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, how they stopped the war raging in their hearts before it waged in their streets. The lights came up, and we were free to enter the physical exhibit.  But that memory of unending war has never left me."
Eric Ian Steele on "Blood of an Englishman":  "My story literally came right out of the blue. I was determined to write a short short story. That's all I remember before sitting down. Then the first line popped into my head: 'The streets into London had been free of the usual herds of unicorns that morning', and the rest of the story just wrote itself. That hasn't happened to me on too many occasions, but when it does the result always seems to be something that winds up in print. Maybe good ideas come from the same dimension as the creatures in this story!"
Doug Goodman on "Ranas":  "'Ranas' is my love story to teachers.  I come from a family full of educators, and then I married one. So when I wrote 'Ranas', I kept thinking of little things I had heard along the way. Things like the teachers' worst nightmare or the defiant 'this is MY class' attitude of educators that in some ways seem more appropriate with King Leonides and his 300. Educators lead some of the most interesting, complicated lives. I think I got a bit of that in this horror comedy. Of further note:  This one is for Mr. Kopf, my journalism teacher in high school. He was the first person outside my family who said, 'you know, you might have something here.'"
Juliet Kemp on "Gonna Crack It All Open":  "Clubs are strange places.  Full of sweaty strangers, who are often not entirely sober.  But the right DJ at the right place and the whole thing changes shape, creating a glorious shared bubble of suspended time, full of music and movement.  Eventually, it ends, and you stumble out into the morning sunshine to discover that the world is (somewhat surprisingly) still there.  But a bit -- different, somehow, around the edges.  You're not quite in the same universe as the people who pass you on their way to work as you head home.  Your universe is just a little bit 'shinier'.  The shine always wears off. But wouldn't it be lovely if it didn't?"
James Hubbard on "¡Ole!": "'¡Ole!' began when my mother-in-law told me of an incident that happened some years ago in Bogota, Colombia. The first versions of the story drew on different aspects of an unusual and unexpected death, however the final content and structure took shape as I experienced Colombian culture and beliefs while I worked and traveled in the country during the six years I lived there. I found the contradiction fascinating between tradition and beliefs, between Catholicism, superstition and magic that are such natural parts of Colombian culture and can be found in all walks of life, from people living on the streets through to those living in exclusive, gated estates, from the folk living in the Andes to the indigenous peoples living in the desert at the northern tip of South America. The final story is constructed using the three stages of a bullfight as the structure for developments between the main character and his fate, and the main character is a bullfighter to represent the strong sense of tradition that is an integral part of Colombian society."

Eric Del Carlo on "Slay the Fey":  "My tale depicts an economically depressed near future where fairies are illegally crossing over from their misty realms to take up residence in our world. A tweenage boy protagonist ends up harboring one of these fugitives. I simply blueprinted the hysteria surrounding the incursion of undocumented humans into this country. There is some very queasy overlap between the gun-happy Fairy Watch in my story and the real life murders of unarmed youths by self-appointed community guardians."
Nevada Lewis on "The Rule":  "The first bits of inspiration for this story came from a textbook required for a sociology class I took my first year of college. I was skimming through it and came across a sentence that read something like, ‘to get an idea of how many people have lived on Earth, you would add fourteen for every person alive today.’ For the rest of the day, I couldn’t get the image of a string of ghosts trailing behind everyone I saw out of my head. I just really liked the idea of everyone carrying around little pieces of the past in the form of people with them, so I filed it away with all of my other hastily-scribbled and half-formed ideas. I knew there was a story lurking in there somewhere.  A year later, I wrote it."

Friday, February 28, 2014

February '14 Writers' Retreat to Maine

(Nine scribes at the scenic overlook in Rangeley, Maine)
I love a writers' retreat. From my very first, Halloween weekend in 1993 when I both courted and confronted the Muse at the start of my professional writing career, the notion of vanishing to some literary oasis for a few or more days to be a writer, only a writer, has become the adult version of what Christmas and birthdays were to me as a kid.  I've probably attended some two dozen retreats over the years -- from grand old island hotels to cozy week-long rentals to luxury resort destinations. A retreat has been a gift I give myself for rarely taking a day off from writing, even though I tend to ramp up the output of fresh pages once I land and savor that first cup of Java. It's a chance to reflect, refine a business plan, and to breathe.  I loved the recent weekend retreat to a friend's house held in Rangeley, Maine from Friday, February 21 through Sunday, the 23rd more than most, I think, because it was also a chance at redemption.

Last April, a similar retreat was held in the same house -- a beautiful New Englander being updated and restored by the family of my dear friend, the talented Melissa Gates (whose story "Jar of Hearts" is a must-read in the anthology Canopic Jars: Tales of Mummies and Mummification).  The month prior, we had just moved north after buying our new-old home, Xanadu, and though I was thrilled to see many of my wonderful friends from my Southern New Hampshire Writers' Group, I also felt something physically wasn't quite right with me. A painful lump had formed on top of my scalp, and agony radiated down both sides of my face, ending in my molars.  I headed to that retreat with a smile on my face -- albeit a painful one -- and tried to go about my business as best I could.  Unable to sleep by night, I passed out during the day and developed a fever.  Four days into the five-day stay, I begged off early and returned home.  Two days later, I was admitted to have a massive infected cyst removed and earned myself a five-day stay after all, in a private room on the fourth floor of Androscoggin Valley Hospital. During that time, at least I wrote.  Quite a bit, in fact.  But for the first and so far only time, the joyous creative experience of a retreat was tainted in a long (and miserable) shadow.

None of which had anything to do with my good friends, our lovely hostess (who went completely above and beyond in terms of hospitality), or that wonderful house.  So when a return there was planned, I welcomed the chance to cast out the last, lingering spiritual residue of my brush with Jurassic Cyst -- the physical had already passed, though the experience has left me with a long divot of a scar running along the top of my head.

(Twelve layers of buttercream Heaven!)
Nearly a year after the fact, I've found myself blessed with a wealth of company -- talented and solid friends from not one but two writing groups.  And, through various parties, readings, conferences, and other gatherings, members of both groups have also formed friendships.  When the retreat was announced, Melissa graciously offered to invite members of my Berlin Writers' Group to round out the fun.  Five of us gathered at Xanadu by noon on a blustery, gray Friday and, once Melissa arrived to meet up with us, we traveled by caravan through the wilds of New Hampshire's north country (through the ominous 'Thirteen-Mile Woods') to Errol, where we planned to gas up and grab a bite.  Melissa and I had done the same thing last year -- a quick sandwich and a cold soda in Errol before the last forty miles to our ending point in Maine.  If that sub and drink this time around weren't the best ever; throughout the weekend, I found myself reliving moments from the previous visit, only this time without the crippling misery latched onto my skull like a modern remake of the Ray Milland/Rosie Grier '70s shocker, The Thing With Two Heads.

Rain lashed the house on Friday afternoon, and a stiff wind blew outside.  But inside, with the heat cranked, I snuggled down and quickly penned a full short story ("Second Chance"), one of two for that day.  I sipped coffee, enjoyed the arrival of the Southern New Hampshire contingent, listened to music on my headphones, and healed.  Jurassic Cyst was not some minor outpatient procedure, there one moment, gone the next; what was diagnosed as beginning with an ingrown hair following a haircut had become serious enough to require constant intravenous antibiotics by the time I landed at the hospital. There were long-reaching consequences in the months that followed (including a reaction to oral antibiotics that turned one of my eyeballs into photo-sensitive ground hamburger).  But as the retreat unfolded, the specter of that darkness broke, and I gave up the ghost.

(Short story workshop in town, with the fabulous Esther M. Leiper-
Estabrooks and Judi Calhoun)
On Saturday morning, I rose early and entered the big standing shower in the upstairs bathroom, which boasts a massive rain forest head that feels like being pelted from every direction.  Last year, showering there was almost too painful to bear.  This time around, the experience was exquisite, like a water massage. Though I was on little sleep (energy and exuberance this time around, not due to monstrous infection), I bounded downstairs and started writing the opening draft of a novella, "American Grotesque", which details the experience of the affliction. Writing the words was difficult, but pages flowed, and the last tendrils of the malaise evaporated.  After a lovely breakfast, we headed into town, where I led a workshop on the basics and business of selling short stories, and we enjoyed lunch. Back to our retreat house, I grabbed a quick afternoon nap, returned to writing, and we were treated to a huge turkey dinner with homemade stuffing, gravy, and potatoes courtesy of the talented Judi Calhoun.  A luscious cake made by a famous New Hampshire cake master -- twelve layers deep -- followed.  The food was amazing, as was the group reading that stretched late into Saturday night. The company, the best.  I wrote and completed the exorcism. Hallelujah!

I can't wait for our next writers' retreat to Rangeley -- August, I'm told!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

And Now For Something Completely Similar!

It's 2014, the New Year! And like many of my contemporaries, I've been inspired to reflect upon the past twelve months.  2013 had some serious highs, and its share of lows -- a hospital stay to remove a cranial cyst that has left a deep divot in my scalp, the loss of our beloved hero cat Chicken in July at the age of sixteen, a vitamin deficiency that resulted in a month-long zombie state among the lowest of the latter.

I never liked my name growing up, as 'Greg' rhymes with 'egg' and I was routinely referred to as 'Gregory Eggory' or 'Eggy Greggy' among the brats of my grade school years.  But at fifteen, when I discovered the vast universe of possibility and adventure that comes with claiming so powerful a sobriquet as 'Writer', I realized that 'Gregory L. Norris' would one day look fantastic as a byline, and since that Eureka! moment, I've pretty much lived my life by accentuating the positive.  So this post is all about the high highs of 2013, of which there were many.

In January, following decades of anticipation, I completed my 1,000th Work of Fiction.  Like other potent numbers -- 1, 50, 100, 500, 700, and 800 -- the novella "Alibe's Story" was a fan fiction based upon the late, great Gerry Anderson's outer space parable, Space:1999.  To celebrate, we filled our house with friends from my wonderful Southern New Hampshire writers' group and even a few beloved faces from high school, when my mom hosted a party to celebrate my 100th.  It was, not so simply, a divine time.

In March, we purchased a big old house far from the familiar in our state's North Country.  We trucked all we owned and trekked 150 miles to the town of Berlin, to Xanadu.  Following a week-long writing retreat to a venue on the other side of Mount Washington the previous October, I found this house on a real estate website and was smitten with what I saw.  When the price of the house dropped by $10,000.00 overnight, I made contact with the realtor.  We then drove north on a bright Tuesday and were greeted by a flock of wild turkeys, who came gobbling down from the hill in the backyard and were happy to share in the lunch I'd packed for the journey. Since our arrival, we've painted, renovated, and made the house a bright and cozy home where happiness and creativity have prospered.

From the moment we landed, I was inspired by the mountain views beyond every window and the bright nature of the house, and put pen to page.  While renovations to my new Writing Room commenced, I took to writing at our kitchen table, where I collected together twenty flash fiction stories under the working title Shrunken Heads: Twenty Tiny Tales of Mystery and Terror.  The finished book was submitted to Angela Craig, my wonderful editor on various past releases from Elektrik Milk Bath Press, accepted, and published in September. Smaller in size physically than the norm, the book is a charming showcase of my work that any writer would be proud to have graced by their byline.

Numerous of my stories, short and long, were also accepted for publication, in a variety of venues and countries -- a dozen to my publisher in Germany, at least as many to the fine folks at Cleis Press, and many to anthologies like the wonderful Cellar DoorD.O.A. IIEnter At Your Own Risk: Dark Muses (featuring reprints of classic tales by Polidori, Lovecraft, Poe, and Washington Irving!), the brilliant Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam, and the gory and unapologetic Splatter Lands by Grey Matter Press (who then published my story "Third Offense" in their follow up release, Ominous Realities).

In the early summer, I learned that my short story "Bleedthrough" was one of fourteen accepted for the next publication release by the New England Horror Writers, Wicked Seasons.  The story, about evil bleeding through the wall and infecting a young woman's life from the apartment next door, was praised by editor Stacey Longo for its originality and its polish -- apparently, I made her job easy in this one instance.  At the annual conference Anthocon, it was a treat to be handed a copy of the anthology, which contains some impressive names in publishing!  Also at the same yearly event, Canopic Jars: Tales of Mummies and Mummification was launched.  I was asked to edit this anthology by friends who opened a press in 2013 and to select the stories that fill its meaty near-400 pages.  I have always loved this particular trope and was thrilled to dust it off for a fresh new take.  The collection contains my tale "Mummy Chips" about a socialite serving her guests a unique menu, and has garnered more than a few shout-outs as being among the best in the book's many positive reviews.  And at the tail end of 2013, my story "The Moths" was published in the highly anticipated latest volume in the New Hampshire Pulp Fiction series, Live Free or Sci Fi. My combat story of desperate humans seeking to intercept an alien armada using a fleet of heavy cruisers thought long mothballed -- led by the flagship New Hampshire -- concludes the anthology; Pulp Fiction and New Hampshire Magazine Editor Rick Broussard felt mine was, 'the perfect ending' to science fiction stories centered around the Granite State.

My career garnered serious attention in the media, first in a newspaper write-up that quickly led to an appearance on New Hampshire Chronicle, a long-running magazine show that reaches millions of viewers in my home state and past the borders of our closest neighbors.  On perhaps the muggiest and hottest day of the summer, famed host Sean Mcdonald ventured north with his cameraman Chris to tape a segment about me and my writing here at Xanadu -- what fun!  I was also interviewed numerous times for other newspaper articles, was a guest on the radio show Granite State of Mind three times, and was asked to appear in a literary art show at the best of our local eateries, Tea Birds Cafe & Restaurant.  Add to this the creation of a new and exciting writers' group in our adopted home town, and it was beyond the cost of that glaring new scar on the top of my head.

Besides, I've come to look at that reminder of the lows of 2013 as an exit point for the many ideas inside my imagination that couldn't be contained or wait to burst forth into the world.  In fact, I'm writing the first of them now, in early 2014.