Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Winter of 2012-13. We still lived in our old apartment (and were awaiting a closing date on this house). For a few frigid weeks, my little sister, who worked the third shift, found herself without a car and in need of a lift to her job. And so, during that time, we drove her to the outer limits of our then-town, to a factory located at the distant top of a winding drive. At that hour, nobody was on the road. Still, the traffic light standing guard at the base of the hill seemed to taunt us, staying red no matter what side we approached from. While waiting for it to change, my imagination translated the red light into a giant, unblinking Cyclops eye. The kernel of a short story idea germinated on one of those late nights. It was cemented on another when, after turning up the drive, we very nearly collided with the biggest buck I've ever seen, who casually tromped across the road after Bruce slammed on the brakes. The buck regarded us with contempt, I swear, before continuing on his way into the dense pine woods. A snow storm thickened around us. The traffic light watched. The story idea was fully formed by the time we returned home, mercifully in one piece.

The following day, I began to pen "1-2-3 Red Light", a story about a notorious traffic light in a remote part of town with a tragic history -- and a thirst for blood. The story's longhand draft dashed itself off fairly quickly, only to soon go into a cardboard box with the rest of my files for our big move north to Xanadu. When I read the guidelines for Blurring the Line, a forthcoming anthology by the fine folks at Cohesion Press, I pulled the longhand draft from my file cabinet for editing on the computer. Blurring the Line would feature a unique take on the horror genre by offering up stories that straddled the boundaries of the fantastic, making the reader question fiction from fact. The whole 'ghost in the machine' approach seemed to make "1-2-3 Red Light" a decent fit for the call. It was. Soon after submitting, Editor Marty Young wrote back to say he dug the story. Today, it appears in the new release alongside a stellar list of authors, many of whom shared the back stories behind their stories in Blurring the Line.

Alan Baxter on "How Father Bryant Saw the Light": "For a long time I've been wanting to write a story that was in some way paying homage to that great horror novel, The Exorcist. But I also wanted to interrupt, to subvert, the strong Judeo-Christian framework of that book, and so much other western horror. I love the cosmic horror of people like Ligotti and Lovecraft, and the non-western horror from Asia and elsewhere, so I tried to meld all those styles a little. 'How Father Bryant Saw The Light' is the product of that desire. Hopefully I at least partly achieved what I set out to do."

Annie Neugebauer on "Honey": "In the nonfiction book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach mentions human mummy confection, a purportedly true practice in ancient Arabia. Elderly people sacrificed themselves by consuming only honey until death so their bodies could be turned into a medicinal concoction.The claim was bizarre enough to catch my fancy, and off I ran. I ended up with a short, strange, epistolary story in a voice reminiscent of Poe and one of the more outrageous concepts I’ve ever played with. So in short: just another Thursday. I took it to my critique group without giving it another thought. Their response was not what I expected. People made noises during silent reading, and when the timer went off there was an outburst. Loud, excited voices. Arguments, jokes, ideas, praise. It was crazy. Honestly, I was embarrassed by their extreme responses. I decided I would only ever publish this story if it got accepted by a bomb-proof market (i.e., You haven’t jumped ship validation). Well, Cohesion picked it up for Blurring the Line. I’m so excited to be a part of this bomb-proof anthology, even if that does mean my crazy-ass story is out. I hope you’ll read it."

Lia Swope Mitchell on "Empty Cars": "My dad and his wife spend a good bit of time in New York, and they’ve told me about this thing that apparently everyone learns if they ride the subway a lot: if it’s rush hour and every car on the train is packed except for one… don’t get on the empty car. There’s a reason it’s empty. And the reason is probably someone who’s having one of the worse days of their life. ‘We can pray for him,’ one woman said about an especially pungent man who was peeling the skin off his feet, ‘but we don’t have to smell him.’ That phrase -- don’t get on the empty car -- got me thinking about how people often try to close off and isolate things that disturb us. Maybe because they smell bad, but also because they’re sad and difficult and we don’t know what, if anything, we can do about them. So the story ‘Empty Cars’ is about someone who’s trying to close off one particular thing, something difficult and sad that she wants very much to ignore, and the result is that it ends up invading her daily life in all these comically grotesque ways."

Lisa Morton on "Woolen Shirts and Gum Boots": "My story for Blurring the Line, ‘Woolen Shirts and Gum Boots’, was taken from a nineteenth-century newspaper article found in a creepy scrapbook my bookstore once acquired. The scrapbook, entitled ‘Sweet Death,’ was a collection of nineteenth-century articles about strange happenings and horrible deaths. Although many of the stories in the book seemed to be more ideally suited to serving as the basis of a horror story -- for example, I almost considered doing one based on a piece about a new preacher who inexplicably went mad during his first sermon before a large crowd -- this story of two teenage girls dressed as men trying to flee abusive families really captured my imagination. I thought about how different things were then, about how the girls must have been both very courageous and maybe a little crazy to think they could do this. I ended up using as many details from the original article in my story as I could, and I hope I’ve captured some of what those two girls likely endured."

Patricia J. Esposito on "Distorted and Holy Desire": "It was my idea to go see the local band. A winter night of soft snowfall. He stood outside the venue, under the spray of streetlight. Black curls warmed his face, snow flakes drawing down his eyes. A small smile lifted. No one could imagine what was in store. A man, a body. Voice and guitar. I thought about slipping on the icy walkway. Instead, we slipped inside, unprepared. “That was him,” I whispered to my husband, and there he was skirting through the crowd, removing his scarf, winding in with his unwinding. None of us, propped on barstools and benches, could really be prepared for the splendor that was to come. But he began to strum, he began to reach; the room evaporated, and our bodies became the fallout of his nuclear emotion. Shattered and yet transcending. I wondered then if death could be this good. And I wrote the story of my fallout."-- On seeing Adrian Perez of Beautiful Collision at Kiss the Sky, Batavia, IL

Rena Mason on "Nita Kula": "I’d always wanted to do a version of a zombie story that had a scientific, fact-based, historical origin, and I’d always loved the premise behind The Serpent and the Rainbow and knew that if the opportunity arose I’d use something similar for what would probably be the closest thing I’d ever write to an actual zombie story. Being an R.N, I often found myself working side by side with traveling nurses from abroad. It takes a strong personality type to come from another country and be able to provide a vast range of care in a foreign land. Growing up somewhat sheltered, I envied this kind of adventurous personality, so I decided to use a traveler I’d met from New Zealand who had a very take-charge, shut up-and-just-get-the-job-done, no-bullshit attitude as my main character. She also probably pissed me off at some point, so in my story I made her vulnerable by using cultural differences in a densely populated, diverse city that’s an external visual paradise in order to push her over the edge into discovering the horrific possibilities that might lie within."

James Dorr on "The Good Work": "Let’s do it then,” Wendy said.  She led Coz and me out of the alley, around to the front door, where we started singing -- Coz just pretending, because of his froggy voice.  We started out with “God rest ye merry,” and then did some “Greensleeves,” and Wendy was real good like she’d practiced singing, or else had a real knack.   
(from “The Good Work”)
But how accurate is the Dickensian image of jolly underage carolers spreading Christmas joy from house to house in Victorian London?  I have read that in actuality it could be more like a shake down operation; the picturesque urchins would deliberately sing out of key, continuing until they were given bribes to go away.  Except that some children may have had a bigger, more serious game in mind -- one in which they must sing well enough to be asked inside."

Steven Lloyd Wilson on "Misktatonic Schrödinger": "I've had stirring down in the depths of my mind this idea of a Lovecraftian story set at the South Pole during a whiteout ever since, well, I read several of Lovecraft's novels on a trip to Alaska. I know, Lovecraft himself has several such stories, there's The Thing, and a dozen others. So, real original, but I had this feeling about it. And then there was that XKCD strip ( pointing out that sightings of UFOs and other such phenomena have plummeted since the ubiquity of cell phone cameras. But what if shining the light into the darkness doesn't show that nothing was ever there, but simply that the room is empty when you're looking."

Peter Hagelslag on "Fearful Asymmetries": "‘Fearful Asymmetries’ basically began—I wrote this two years ago—from a typical ‘what if’ premise, but then threefold: What if current trends of random killing sprees and terrorist attacks not only continue, but increase, and we decide to tackle this by extremely increased surveillance? What if we decide to guard the guardians through electronic and biometric means? What if that very system then gets hacked(*)? I personally do not believe we should use an army of genetically engineered, bio-modified, highly paranoid cyborg cops on every spot where we can expect danger (which actually means all public spaces). ‘Fearful Asymmetries’ tries to show why that’s probably a very bad idea. However, I am dismayed at how certain parts of this made-up story hold up. It seems things are indeed moving in that direction, which scares the shit out of me. To wit, a recent article in the Verge (Who controls the cop cam?): . This story is indeed meant as a dystopia that should not come to pass, not as an accurate prediction of the future. So I do certainly hope it is wrong in its extrapolations. (*) = spoiler alert..."

Friday, November 13, 2015

Halloween 2015 Retreat to the Coppertoppe Inn

(me, looking loopy after a luxurious one-hour soak in my suite's
gargantuan whirlpool tub)
From Friday, October 30 through the First of November, ten members of my Berlin Writers' Group and its extended family retreated to what must be one of our fair state's best-kept secrets, the Coppertoppe Inn and Retreat Center. I discovered Coppertoppe last March after several in BWG mentioned doing another autumn retreat -- perhaps to one of our local high-end hotels here in New Hampshire's North Country. It turned out that the hotel of choice had closed down, leading me on a web search in between the penning of fresh pages to find other possible venues. And, as was often said and emoted during our weekend stay, we made the correct choice in our commitment to this wonderful literary destination. Hosts Sheila and Bill took great care of us -- me, almost from the moment I landed at the gorgeous B & B located on a rise overlooking Newfound Lake.

The retreat actually started for me several days before heading south from my front door to Coppertoppe. In the spring, I invited my dear friend Tina to join BWG for the retreat. Tina and I were thick as thieves in high school, a difficult but supremely formative era in my life. During that time, as I embraced my individuality, creativity, identity, and, yes, weirdness, Tina was the best friend I could have asked for. At the onset of sophomore year, I confessed to her that I wanted to be a writer. We instantly bonded -- I didn't know until then that she wrote poetry. For the entire year and the next one that followed, we were inseparable, often times riding the bus back to her house where we worked on our creative writing endeavors instead of homework, watched episodes of our beloved Star Blazers, which ran at 3:00 in the afternoon, and Force Five, another Japanese anime import about giant robots defending the Earth, that followed. Flash forward thirty-five years, and the star of Star Blazers, the fabulous Amy Howard Wilson ("Nova") has blurbed my book about giant robots, Tales From the Robot Graveyard, and my great friend traveled far north to stay at our home, where we would write and laugh and travel through time before departing for the retreat together.

(Tina on the famous Coppertoppe glider)
The ride south through Franconia Notch to the town of Hebron was smooth and delightful, the fun enhanced by the addition of mystery writer and fellow group moderator Irene Gallant, whom we collected en route. As soon as we landed to a house filled with writers, most already composing new work, I was inspired by the view and venue. I learned that I would be staying in the Garnet Suite, which boasts a bed that would impress Louis the XIV, complete with a gargantuan bathroom covered in about an acre of serpentine marble tile and boasting one of those showers that makes a person recently turned fifty feel like pampered royalty. I carried up my few bags (I've learned to pack smartly and travel lightly after so many literary adventures) and then headed downstairs to the B & B's vast library to begin writing. It turned out that I hadn't packed as smartly but definitely lighter than I'd thought, when my computer shut itself down in power-saving mode, and I realized I hadn't brought the power cord with me.

No worries, however. Bill, a tech wizard, produced the perfect temporary loan, one of several Coppertoppe keeps on hand for those just-in-case emergencies. Soon, I was up and running, surrounded by books and other respected writers, and I quickly belted out the last 2,500 words of a first draft of "Vampire", a Halloween story moved to the front of a very long line of works in progress thanks to a writing prompt given out by the fabulous Judi Calhoun. The following morning, freshly showered (and feeling a lot younger than my years), I sat at the incredible writing desk in the Garnet Suite and began working on a fantasy short story that has lingered in my idea catalog for twenty-two years. After a struggle to find the groove, I decided to take a nap in my enormous bed. I passed out, unaware of how depleted my creative batteries have been, and slept like a baby.

(Me reading on Halloween Night)
After waking, I decided to indulge in a long, lazy soak in the suite's whirlpool tub. When I emerged, feeling like my body had transformed to the weight of granite, I flopped back in bed under the fan and, an hour later, had all the energy in the world. I powered through the struggle with the fantasy story, wrote almost to the end (some 5,000 words in all), and joined my fellow creatives downstairs in the library for our planned Halloween night reading. Irene had given us a prompt of her own for that night's event -- a Halloween-themed story, told in under 1,000 words. I shared "6 x 3", which weighed in at roughly 800. We went around the room, and I got to hear some amazing drafts, including a completed short story by my dear friend Tina, which inspired applause.  Another brilliant writer, Laura Bear (who traveled from New York State to join us), wrote a fantastic story on the spot, one set at the retreat involving the members of the group facing mortal jeopardy. The readings concluded with bags of candy and an abundance of inspiration.

Fittingly, November 1 dawned overcast and moody, with fog obscuring the lake, a preview of the gray time that starts in this month and dominates our part of the world until March. I packed my bags after another of those luxurious, long showers, ate a spectacular breakfast, and headed down to the library, for the very first of National Novel Writing Month's write-ins. I penned an additional chapter of my novel, bringing my total word count to just shy of the 9,000-k mark. By 1:00, the car was packed, the last of us departed, and the retreat came to its official conclusion. A fantastic and productive time, we're already planning our next visit to Coppertoppe!