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


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 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.