Everybody Wants to Rule the World

Monday morning. The weekends never really quite seem long enough, do they? Oh, it’s fine…I do like my job ((even if I don’t like waking up in the morning so much) but I’ve been going to bed earlier to make getting up easier. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I do feel considerably more rested than I used to in the mornings. This weekend is the first weekend of parades, but I am off to a weekend of events in Alabama, which I am, oddly enough, looking forward to; lovely people will be there, which is always nice.

I do hate missing the first weekend of parades, though.

Although….it’s not like there won’t be plenty of them the next weekend, right? It’s so weird how greedy  we are when we it comes to parades. There’s probably an entire essay in that, as well.

I didn’t get as much writing done as I would have liked this weekend–I never do, of course, I always think I can get more done than I can–but I am rolling with it. I’m not sure how much–if anything–I can get done while I am in Alabama; as I recall last year, we all hung out together all evening and laughed and laughed, and one of the attendees this year is Carolyn Haines….and if you’ve never met her, she’s good energy and she is pretty damned fun and funny. I suppose I can read.

Speaking of which, I did read two short stories yesterday, and I also read a novel over the course of the weekend (I’ll save the novel for another entry).

The first story was Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” which was published on-line and in print by the New Yorker last month, and rather went viral; it seemed like everyone was reading it and everyone was talking about it, and Roupenian came out of it all with a healthy book contract (GOOD FOR HER! Seriously, I never understand why other writers get so snarky about the success of other writers. I always see it as a win for one is a win for all). I didn’t read the story at the time–discussions and arguments about it were everywhere, and I didn’t want to be influenced in my reading by the social media furor. But yesterday, after my workout (yes, made it to the gym again!) I curled up in my easy chair and read it.

Margot met Robert on a Wednesday night toward the end of h er fall semester. She was working behind the concession stand at the artsy movie theatre downtown when he came in and about a large popcorn and a box of Red Vines.

“That’s an…unusual choice,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually sold a box of Red Vines before.”

Flirting with her customers was a habit she’s picked up back when she worked as a barista, and it helped with tips. She didn’t earn tips at the movie theatre, but the job was boring otherwise, and she did  think that Robert was cute. Not so cute that she would have, say, gone up to him at a party, but cute enough that she could have drummed up an imaginary crush on him if he’d sat across from her during a dull class–though she was pretty sure that he was out of college, in his mid-twenties at least. He was tall, which she liked, and she could see the edge of a tattoo peeking out from beneath the rolled-up sleeve of his shirt. But he was on the heavy side, his beard was a bit too long, and his shoulders slumped forward slightly, as though he was protecting something.

I thought this story was very well done, myself–but I can certainly see why it upset men, and why women embraced it. I don’t think I’ve ever read before such an honest depiction of a bad date and bad sex in my life. God knows I’ve had bad sex before, but I’ve certainly never written about it; usually when I write about sex its erotica so it kind of has to be hot, you know what I mean? Whoever writes about bad sex? There were times, when reading it, when she encapsulates a conversation into a paragraph of prose (then he said this, and she thought well this but said that, and so forth) where I would have much rather read the actual conversation, but other than that complaint I kind of enjoyed it; although given all the discussion I’d seen on line made me know where it was going–but that ending was so incredibly perfect. Perfect.

Then I read Michael Bailey’s “I Will Be The Reflection Until the End”, from Tales from the Lake Volume 4:

My sister used to collect cherry plum pits in her napkin secretly, under the kitchen table. A strainer full of mixed yellow and red and deep-purple fruits would separate us each spring, with a small bowl next to it to collect the pits–although mine were typically the only ones in there–and a plate beneath the strainer to collect any drips from the rinsed fruit. My sister was coy like that. Her lie had become our lie, and every once in a while she’d throw a pit in the bowl to make it look like we were being honest. She knew I wouldn’t bring it up to Mom, because that meant I could have more if I kept my mouth shut. It was one of the few secrets we kept from Mom in our  youth. Call it a sibling bonding moment.

This story is on the longlist for the Bram Stoker Award for Outstanding Achievement in Short Fiction, and it is a beautifully written, moving short story. It reminded me a little of one of my favorite Stephen King short stories, “The Last Rung on the Ladder”–it’s a gorgeously written tale about a younger brother remembering his older sister, loving childhood memories of closeness that went away as she got older, and things went wrong with her. I absolutely loved it. I met Bailey and his wife several years ago at Stokercon in Las Vegas, and they charmed me completely; this is my first time reading his work, and it certainly won’t be the last. The only reason I can’t see this story not making the short list (or winning) is because I’m not entirely certain it’s horror; it may qualify, but not the in-your-face, jump scare or gross out horror–it’s a quiet horror of the Shirley Jackson kind; the horror of the heart from what life can do to someone we love.


I Want to Know What Love Is

It’s been raining pretty much most of the weekend, which is fine. I went to get groceries, pick up a prescription, and get the mail before getting home and starting to work on the mess that is my home; I also finished writing a chapter of one manuscript and started writing another–which was my writing goal for yesterday. Today’s is to do second drafts of two short stories to prepare them for submission. I also have to go to the gym and finish the cleaning of the apartment and organizing my office. I started reading the big y/a best seller One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus yesterday; I can see why it’s a bestseller and I can also see why it’s being developed into a television series a la Thirteen Reasons Why; it’s a deceptively simple yet surprisingly complex story, and likewise–well, I’ll talk some more about it once I’ve finished.

I’m enjoying writing again for the first time in years, which is a good thing, and I am actually putting a lot of thought and planning into what I’m writing, which is a really good thing. What I’ve written over the last six or seven years has been a lot more organic, coming to me as I wrote it from a basic premise and perhaps knowing what the end was; without putting near as much thought into theme and what I am trying to say, what I am trying to explore with the story, than I used to–I mean, it worked, but it also made the work a lot harder than it needed to be. I think this is particularly true of short stories; I think that’s primarily what I’ve been doing wrong in writing them–my entire approach to short stories has been wrong, and I’ve been, as I said, making it a lot harder on myself than it necessarily needs to be.

Which is, sadly, what I always tend to do for myself: make things harder than they need to be.

Heavy heaving sigh.

In addition to cleaning and everything else I did yesterday, I also managed to start watching Season 2 of Black Sails, which continues to enthrall. I am still liking the idea of finally writing my pirate novel (Cutlass), but not as much as before; it remains one of those dreams that I hold on to for when I am making a living as a writer again and able to not have a day job any longer. (There are several of those; they also require not only making a living but making enough money to travel and do research.)

Some day. I never give up on the dream.

The Short Story Project also continues; yesterday I read a story by Ross MacDonald from The Archer Files and one by Karl Edward Wagner from the gorgeous two volume collection The Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner, produced by Centipede Press maybe seven or eight years ago.

MacDonald’s story, “The Bearded Lady,” was quite good, as everything written by MacDonald is.

The unlatched door swung inward when I knocked. I walked into the studio, which was high and dim as a hayloft. The big north window in the opposite wall was hung with monkscloth draperies that shut out the morning light. I found the switch beside the door and snapped it on. Several fluorescent tubes suspended from the naked rafters flickered and burned blue-white.

A strange woman faced me under the cruel light. She was only a  charcoal sketch on an easel, but she gave me a chill. Her nude body, posed casually on a chair, was slim and round and pleasant to look at. Her face wasn’t pleasant at all. Bushy black eyebrows almost hid her eyes. A walrus mustache bracketed her mouth, and a thick beard fanned down over her torso.

The door creaked behind me. The girl who appeared in the doorway wore a starched white uniform. Her face had a little starch in it, too, though not enough to spoil her good looks entirely. Her black hair was drawn back severely from her forehead.

Lew Archer, on his way from Los Angeles to San Francisco, decided to stop in the small town of San Marcos and look up an old army buddy, inadvertently stumbling into a murder case. The story is interesting, the writing whipcrack smart, with MacDonald’s trademark, cynical short paragraphs immediately getting to the essence of a character. Don’t we, as readers, already have a strong impression of who that young woman is as a person after those three sentences? I’ve often wondered how one solves a murder in a short story–or writes a detective short story. I’ve tried and failed often enough. But the great thing about the Short Story Project is I am starting to understand how to write them, how they work, and how to make them work; which is a lovely thing. I have several ideas for Chanse short stories that I’ve never written because I didn’t know how; now I rather do, or at least have an idea, thanks to The Archer Files and Kinsey and Me (Sue Grafton). Both books are great learning tools for people who want to write detective stories, and MacDonald’s influence on Grafton is clear. (Although I’d still love to see someone do an essay, or book of criticism, comparing and contrasting MacDonald’s work with that of his wife: The Murderous Millars would be a great title.) MacDonald’s stories usually have to do with damaged and dysfunctional families; “The Bearded Lady” is another one of those, and is very well done. I highly recommend it.

The Wagner story I read was from the second volume of he Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner, which was titled Walk on the Wild Side, and was titled “The Last Wolf.”

The last writer sat alone in his study.

There was a knock at his door.

But it was only his agent. A tired, weathered old man like himself. It seemed not long ago that he had thought the man quite young.

“I phoned you I was coming,” explained his agent, as if to apologize for the writer’s surprised greeting.

Of course…he had forgotten. He concealed the vague annoyance he felt at being interrupted at his work.

Nervously the agent entered his study. He gripped his attache case firmly before him, thrusting it into the room as if it were a shield against the perilously stacked shelves and shelves of musty books. Clearing a drift of worn volumes from the cracked leather couch, he seated himself amidst a puff of dust from the ancient cushions.

I received both volumes of Wagner when I was judging the Bram Stoker Award for Best Single Author Collection, or whatever it is called; it was so long ago that I don’t even recall who the finalists were or who actually won. My memory is perforated like Swiss cheese nowadays, with holes and gaps; it also works like a sieve as new knowledge, and new books I’ve read, tend to pass through it without catching hold (I used to be able to name every book I’ve read, the plot, the main characters–and even some of the minor; over the years that ability has been sadly lost to time). I don’t, for example, remember the titles or the contents of the Wagner stories I read; but the books are beautiful volumes and I remember being impressed by his writing, so I kept them on my shelves. It was only a week or so ago that I realized, that I remembered, them; and that they might make a good addition to my year-long study of short fiction.

I’ve often said that writing about writers, about the business of writing and publishing, sometimes (often) feels masturbatory to me; only other writers would be interested in such a story. And yet writers pop up in my work all the time; Paige is a journalist and wannabe novelist in the Chanse series (and now that I’ve retired that series she’s migrated, apparently, over to the Scotty); another writer character I’ve created has appeared in several novels of mine–one Scotty, The Orion Mask, and one pseudonymous; he also appears to be the voice I used in several first-person short stories, including “An Arrow for Sebastian.” I have another such short story in process; I’ve not quite worked out how to make the story work, but there you have it. I was tempted to write an entire series about a writer, but as I started to develop my gay male writer character more I soon realized I had turned him into a hybrid of Scotty and Chanse; there was nothing new or original about him other than he was a writer and not a private eye. (I really do want to reread Azimov’s Murder at the ABA, though, and Elizabeth Peter’s brilliant Die for Love and Naked Once More.)

“The Last Wolf” is also about a writer, a writer who firmly believes in himself and his work, and that his work is art, and art should never be compromised for commerce. The world in which he lives is one where he is the last (apparently) person attempting to still write fiction; novels have fallen by the wayside and short stories are no longer published; the world has completely changed and his agent wants him to try to write for television shows–which, as described, sound horrifically awful. The writer refuses, the agent leaves, and he goes back to his typewriter. This story could easily be seen as angry, or even whiny; in the hands of a lesser author, the story would be precisely that. But Wagner paints a picture with his words, and maybe it resonated with me more because I am an author myself, but the sympathy rests entirely with the author. (Although I am one of those whose eyes roll so hard that  they almost unscrew when I hear another author speak of their ‘art’; but that’s a topic for another day.) I am looking forward to digging back into Wagner’s work again this year.

And now, I need to file and organize, perhaps vacuum, before I head to the gum. I want to get some things written today, and I need to revise those stories.

Hello, spice mines.



Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go

I overslept this morning, which is really fine; I feel very rested, which means I needed the sleep and my muscles, which have felt tired all week, don’t this morning; so there you have it. I have some errands to run in the early afternoon, and I also have some writing to do today; I need to finish a chapter in the WIP and finish one in the Scotty. I should probably do so organizing and of course, the Lost Apartment is a mess. I also need to revise two short stories, whose due dates are rapidly approaching. Next weekend I will be in Alabama for the Murder in the Magic City/Murder on the Menu events, and the next weekend is the final parade weekend of Carnival (yes I am missing the first weekend for the first time in years). I do hate missing the King Arthur parade; I have lots of friends and acquaintances in that one, so I generally get buried in beads. I can’t believe I agreed to miss that weekend, but I also was so busy making sure it wasn’t the final weekend of Carnival that I didn’t notice.

Stupid, stupid, stupid Gregalicious.

Heavy sigh. I finished watching the first season of Black Sails last night, both at the gym and then when I got home after; I am, as I have said, really enjoying the show. I can’t quite figure out why I didn’t like this show when I tried to watch it several years ago, but I am really enjoying it now and glad I gave it another chance. I suspect I didn’t pay enough attention to it as I watched, and you kind of need to pay attention. There’s a lot going on, there are a lot of cross-plots, and lots of scheming. I don’t think I much cared for the way the women were treated in the first episode or two, either; it appeared that the women were all whores or mistreated terribly by men. But that’s not the case; the women are stronger and smarter than the men, and Eleanor Guthrie, who runs Nassau, is developing into quite the cold-blooded manipulative she-devil, which I am also rather loving. And of course, you can never go wrong with a hot, sweaty men in tight leather pants. My favorite, of course, is Tom Hopper, but Zach MacGowan, who plays Captain Charles Vane (and also played Roan on The 100; I thought he looked familiar) isn’t a slouch either.


I also read two short stories last night, both horror, to keep the Short Story Project going.

The first, “Minuke,” by Nigel Keale, is from a very thick book edited by Marvin Kaye called Ghosts:

The estate agent kept an uncomfortable silence until we reached his car. “Frankly, I wish you hadn’t gotten wind of that,” he said. “Don’t know how you did: I thought I had the whole thing carefully disposed of. Oh, please get in.”

He pulled his car forward and frowned. “It puts me in a rather awkward spot. I suppose I;d better tell you all I know about the case, or you’d be suspecting me of heaven-knows-what kinds of chicanery in your own.”

As we set off to see the property I was interested in, he shifted the cigarette to the side of his mouth,

“It’s quite a distance, so I can tell you on the way there,” he said. “We’ll pass the very spot, as a matter of fact, and you can see it for yourself. Such as there is to see.”

This is a ghost story, or more properly, the story of a haunting;  it was originally written and published in 1950–which makes the story sixty-eight! It’s also told in a classic horror trope that is hardly used anymore, because it’s become cliche–someone is telling the story of what happened to someone else, a disinterested party. Stephen King has used this method a time or two; most notably in his novella “The Breathing Method” from Different Seasons, and sometimes in short stories. It’s a very classic trope–Dracula is an epistolary novel, after all, told in diary entries and letters. But at the time “Minuke” was originally published, horror wasn’t considered a form of literature and as such tropes hadn’t evolved into cliches quite yet, and it’s a well-told tale. The house of the title is merely a bungalow, built in the housing boom of the post-war era, and therefore its tenants are the first to live there; it is too young of a house to have a haunting, and yet it does. It turns out, you see, when the foundations were being dug, they came across some ancient Norse grave markers…(of course, at the time the story was written Poltergeist was many years away in the future, and the ‘never build on an Indian burial ground’ theme hadn’t become deeply engrained in the culture).

(Aside: the collection Ghosts is a gorgeous, leather bound edition with gold inlay and a ribbon page marker that I purchased for a few bucks off a sale table at Borders many years ago; I don’t know why I’ve never dipped into it before, but it’s going to definitely play a role in this year’s Short Story Project.)

The second story I read was “Fallen Boys” by Mark Morris, from Best Horror of the Year Volume Three, compiled and selected by Ellen Datlow, and originally published in Jonathon Oliver anthology The End of the Line:

When the child screamed, Tess Morton felt guilty for having to repress the urge to snap at it. She was aware that it wasn’t Matthew Bellings who should be punished, but his tormentors, and yet the boy’s cry of pain or distress was so whiny that it grated on her nerves.

The reason she felt little compassion for the child was because she knew it took almost nothing to provoke a wail of complaint from him. Matthew would cry out whenever someone barged into him in the school corridor; whenever a football was kicked towards him in the playground; whenever a classmate flicked a paper pellet at him, or snatched a text book out of his hand, or pushed in front of him in the lunch queue. Indeed, the merest slight would cause Matthew’s red-cheeked, strangely wizened face to crumple, his mouth to twist open and that familiar, toe-curling bleat to emerge.

This story, about a class field trip to an abandoned tin mine (now open as a tourist attraction and advertised as an education experience for children), is predicated on a horrific truth about bullying that we don’t like to acknowledge or understand; one that Stephen King exposed and explored powerfully in his own debut novel, Carrie. 

When we read accounts about bullying, and how teachers and other adults look the other way, we are horrified by it; when we read short stories and novels about bullying  our hearts naturally go out to the victims and we loathe the bullies and their enablers; long for their comeuppance, and are infinitely satisfied when it does come. But that bears no resemblance to the reality. That comes from the emotional distance, and the pleasant lies we so often tell ourselves, the lies about who we are as people, and how we would behave in certain circumstances–we identify with heroes and see ourselves as heroes; part of the brilliance of Stephen King’s work is he so often lays bare that horrific truth that we aren’t all heroes.

Take Tess Morton, the teacher taking her kids on this field trip. The story is completely told from her point of view. She knows that kids are bullying Matthew, and she also knows that as the voice of authority she has to try to put a stop to it. She does try, but it’s not taking because Matthew himself irritates her and sometimes she herself wants nothing more than to give him a good slap. This is the same way Miss Desjardin, the gym teacher who stops the shower assault on Carrie White in the opening scene of Carrie, feels about the victim; she has to punish the girls who did it, but Carrie irritates her, she wants to smack her a good one, and she understands why Carrie is bullied.

This is also why school–the hallways, the playground, the cafeteria, the gym–is so scarring for so many people, because they are so evocative of Lord of the Flies or The Hunger Games.

This is a great story; Morris builds his suspense beautifully, and the denouement is rather sudden when it happens–more than a little reminiscent of EC Comics, but it’s also rather satisfying.

And now. back to the spice mines.

Dancing in the Sheets

The sun is shining, and the temperature has climbed to 49 degrees. The boil-water advisory ended finally last evening–it’s just not a crisis in New Orleans unless we have a boil-water advisory!–and here I sit this morning, ensconced at my desk with a cup of coffee, a load of laundry tumbling in the dryer, with great expectations of the day. I went to the gym last evening after work, and my muscles, while a bit tired, still feel stretched and worked and supple, if that makes sense. Probably the best thing about rededicating myself to physical exercise again is how much better I feel; I don’t ache or feel tired the way I did just last week, and the stretching and the treadmill are also making me feel ever so much better. Today, I am going to clean (if it’s Saturday I must be cleaning) but I am also going to write, edit and read today. Paul is going into the office to work (it’s that time of year again) and so I have the day to myself. I want to finish the first draft of “The Trouble with Autofill” and I want to edit “Cold Beer No Flies.”

Among many other things; my to-do list is ridiculous, quite frankly. But the only way to make progress is not to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the list but rather to keep plugging away at it.

I finished reading Miami by Joan Didion earlier this week, and it was quite good. Didion’s writing style is quite amazing, actually, and while the story of the book might seem, at first glance, to be rather dated; the truth is it is still very much appropriate to our modern times. Miami is a look at the Cuban exiles in the city, how they relate to each other, and how they impact south Florida politically; and to a lesser extent, the relationship between the US government with them as well as with Castro’s Cuba. During the Cold War Cuba was a much more terrifying apparition, close as it was to Florida, and it’s amazing how people do not realize the political clout, as a result of their sheer numbers, that the Cuban immigrants weld in that part of the state, and in the entire state as well. The importance of Florida as a swing state cannot be discounted; and therefore the Cuban-American community’s influence on national politics is something that has to always be considered. (A present day comparison would be the Puerto Ricans moving to Florida today in great numbers as a result of the hurricane destruction of their island; the difference being those Puerto Ricans are already American citizens who can register to vote and can impact 2018 already.) Didion’s look at Miami in the 1980’s, as a Caribbean city on the mainland, is also reminiscent of descriptions of New Orleans as the northernmost Caribbean city; the thing I love the most about Didion’s work is how she makes you think. Reading Miami made me want to write about Miami; I’ve been wanting to write about Florida for a long time, as Constant Reader already knows. Something to ponder.


I also started reading Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution, which is a look at the film industry through the lens of the five films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1967, and how they were made. Harris’ thesis is that was the year that bridged the gap between old and new Hollywood; and the five Best Picture nominees illustrated that perfectly: an expensive musical flop (Doctor Dolittle); two old style Hollywood pictures about race (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night), and two films that illustrated new Hollywood and its influence by European filmmakers like Truffaut and Fellini and Antonioni (Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate). I, of course, have always been fascinated by Hollywood history and have been ever since I read Garson Kanin’s Tracy and Hepburn and Bob Thomas’ Selznick as a kid; this book is right up my alley, and since it’s been awhile since I’ve read any Hollywood history, I am looking forward to reading this (and his Five Came Back–I’ve already watched the documentary based on it).

The Short Story Project also moves apace; I am frequently surprised as I look through my shelves for something to read how many single author collections and anthologies dot them. My Ipad also has quite a few loaded onto the Kindle app; I often buy them when they are either free or reduced in price, and so my Kindle app is filled with books I’ve not yet read, primarily because I don’t like to read on it (which I realize is nothing more than stubbornness; if I can watch movies or television programs on it, why resist reading books there?) Yesterday I found my battered old Dell paperback of Agatha Christie’s The Golden Ball and Other Stories, which I remember loving as a child. I was looking for my copy of Lawrence Block’s first anthology inspired by paintings–those of Edward Hopper– In Sunlight or in Shadow, which I would have sworn I’d purchased in hardcover; yet it wasn’t anywhere on the shelves or in any of the TBR piles, before remembering I’d bought it as an ebook when the Macavity nominations come out; Block’s story “Autumn at the Automat” was a finalist, along with mine (I still can’t believe it) and I wanted to read all the other nominated stories for an entry, so the immediacy of the need required buying the ebook. It is a handsome volume, though, so I’ll need to buy a hard copy to pair with the new one. (New bucket list item: write a story for one of these anthologies by Lawrence Block)

Once I’d located it on the iPad, I scoured the table of contents and landed on a Joyce Carol Oates story, “The Woman in the Window.” I have to confess I’ve not read much of Ms. Oates; I am not even remotely familiar with what she writes. But she, too, was a Macavity finalist last year, for her story “The Crawl Space” (which also won the Stoker Award), and that story creeped me the fuck out. I know she’s been a Stoker finalist before, but I also think she tends to write across genre a lot and therefore isn’t pigeon-holed in one way or the other.

Beneath the cushion of the plush blue chair she has hidden it.

Almost shyly her fingers grope for it, then recoil as if it were burning-hot.

No! None of this will happen, don’t be ridiculous!

It is eleven A.M. He has promised to meet her in this room in which it is always eleven A.M.

This story, frankly, isn’t as strong as “The Crawl Space,” but it’s an interesting exercise in how thin the line between lust and loathing is; the woman of the title is a secretary having an affair with a much wealthier man, and as she gets older and older she is feeling more and more trapped in the relationship; he is married and he often has to break plans with her for his wife. There is also a shift occasionally to his point of view, and he’s not so fond of her anymore, either. Passion has cooled but habit has set in; and the way those lines can get crossed is chilling–and how destructive such a relationship can be to both parties, emotionally and mentally, is explored in great detail yet sparse language by Ms. Oates. The story’s not as creepy, as I said, as the other; but the end–which she leaves kind of hanging–you do feel that something awful is going to happen; maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually.

I’ve not read Joe Hill before, and there are several reasons for that; none of which would make any sense to anyone who is not me; I am nothing if not aware of my own eccentricities, which is why I generally don’t share them with people; I don’t need someone else to point out that something doesn’t make sense. But I do have a copy of his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, which I spied on the shelves as I looked for my copy of the Block anthology. Aha, I thought, perfect. I can read a Joe Hill story for the Short Story Project. So, I curled up under a blanket in my easy chair, waited for Scooter to get settled in my lap, and started reading “Best New Horror.”

A month before his deadline, Eddie Carroll ripped open a manila envelope, and a magazine called The True North Literary Review slipped out into his hands. Carroll was used to getting magazines in the mail, although most of them had titles like Cemetery Dance and specialized in horror fiction. People sent him their books, too. Piles of them cluttered his Brookline townhouse, a heap on the couch in his office, a stack by the coffee maker. Books of horror stories, all of them.

No one had time to read them all, although once–when he was in his early thirties and just starting out as the editor of America’s Best New Horror–he had made a conscientious effort to try. Carroll had guided sixteen volumes of Best New Horror to press, had been working on the series for over a third of his life now. It added up to thousands of hours of reading and proofing and letter-writing, thousands of hours he could never have back.

He had come to hate the magazines especially. So many of them used the cheapest ink, and he had learned to loathe the way it came off on his fingers, the harsh stink of it.

I did not mention the elephant in the room; said elephant, of course, being that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. (The Kings are a very literary family; Mr. King’s wife Tabitha is a poet and a novelist; their other son Owen also writes, as does Owen’s wife, Kelly Braffet; I read a novel by Ms. Braffet sometime in the last couple of years–not aware of the King connection–and greatly enjoyed it.)

But simply based on a reading of “Best New Horror,” I have to say Joe Hill is also a terrific writer. And while it, like some of his father’s work, bears a strong resemblance to something I would have read in an Tales from the Crypt or House of Mystery comic book–that is not a criticism. I loved those comics, and the stories I read in them; they had a deep influence on me not only as a writer but as a reader. “Best New Horror”, as you can tell by the opening, tells the tale of Eddie Carroll, a writing teacher and a long-time editor of the Best New Horror series, a chore he has learned to loathe and, basically, phone in every year for the money. This resonated with me; as an anthology editor myself, one of the reasons I stepped away from editing them–or took a break from doing it–was because it was becoming rote; a chore rather than something I found joy in doing. Eddie is an example of why I stopped–I didn’t want to become like him; embittered by the experience and tired of not finding anything fresh or new (unlike Eddie, I was able to keep the experience fresh because each anthology I did was a new topic; if I had done twenty anthologies with the same theme I would have gone on a killing spree). But in the mail comes a story from a new writer that is simply brilliant; original and fresh and resonant and horrifying in its reality; the story reinvigorates Eddie and makes the editing job no longer a chore; he has to have this story, and will do whatever he has to in order to track the writer down…but as with any horror  tale of obsession, it’s not going to end well. But Hill brilliantly keeps stringing the reader along, and the ending is just absolutely brilliant and clever. I am really looking forward to reading more of these stories.

And now, I must get back to the spice mines. There are clothes to fold, dishes to wash, floors to clean, stories to write and edit; I am probably coming back here for another entry later as I am trying to get caught up on posting the stories I’ve read–but I make no promises. I have another story to write as a call for submissions crossed my computer screen on Thursday; I have an unfinished story that I can repurpose, but I also need to get a first draft done so I can work the story out.

Until later, Constant Reader.

Got a Hold on Me

Friday morning, and a short day at the office. I am very pleased to report that looking out my windows this morning I see no snow and ice, so I think perhaps this cold snap has finally come to its bitter end. We’re now having water pressure problems in the city, a boil water advisory, etc. etc. etc. Heavy heaving sigh. But other than that, things are going well. Like I said, I have a short day today; I am going to go to the gym this afternoon when I get home from the office, and I am going to spend the weekend writing and editing and reading. I started writing another short story yesterday, “The Trouble with Autofill,” which I think is kind of clever, and have lots of other editing and writing to do. Woo-hoo! Exciting weekend, no? I also want to get some reading and cleaning done. But I think as long as I keep going–sticking to my goal of positivity and focus, things will go well.

Maybe today’s blog should be titled When You Believe.

So, my agenda this morning is to get my kitchen cleaned up, get better organized, clean out my email, and do some writing. I’m going to get the mail before heading to the office, and I also need to pack my gym clothes so I can just ran in, grab the bag, and head back out the door. I also have lost three more pounds this week, finally breaking through that pesky 214 pound plateau I was at–I haven’t weighed 211 in years, so huzzah for working out! Now to keep going.

I started watching Black Sails again this week. I tried it several years ago, and just couldn’t get into it, even going so far as to think it kind of boring. I don’t know why; it has everything I love–pirates, beautiful locations, great period costumes, hot sweaty men in buccaneer outfits–but for whatever reason I just didn’t get into it. Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention? Something. Anyway, I am enjoying it a lot more this time around, so I am in for all four seasons. I love pirates–always have–despite having given up on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise after the second movie–and while I am not sure why that is the case, I just have. I’ve always wanted to write a pirate novel; and I still have a Scotty adventure having to do with Jean Lafitte’s treasure still floating around in the back of my  head. I’m making all kinds of notes as I watch this show–reread Treasure Island, do some research on pirates, reread The Deep–so who knows? My creativity is certainly flowering these days; and I do think this go back to your roots thing is really working for me. I am doing that with my workout program–all the way back to how I got started, in 1994/1995; and carrying my little blank book around has certainly kick-started my creativity. How cool is that?

I’ve also added a lot of fun Alfred Hitchcock movies to my watchlist on Amazon Prime, some I haven’t seen and others I already have: Saboteur, The Birds, Shadow of a Doubt, Topaz, Frenzy, Psycho, Family Plot, and Vertigo.

The Short Story Project is also continuing; I read a shitload of short stories on my Snow Day Wednesday, but am still doling them out two at a time here. 😉 First up today: “Lord of Madison County by Jimmy Cajoleas, from Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin:

“Are yall ready to worship?” says Pastor Jerry. He’s got his eyes shut, one arm raised high to Jesus in some weird half-Nazi salute. Frosted hair slicked back, bald spots barely showing. Graphic T-shirt that says, Lord’s Gym, and has Christ bench-pressing a cross on it. Cargo shorts that he still thinks are cool.

I’m a little ways back in the youth room, chewing on a pen cap. The worship band kicks in; it’s all reverbed guitar and concert lights and the bullshit praise lyrics projected onto a screem behind them. You know, the songs that are the kind of crap you say to your girlfriend but it’s supposed to be about God? You are beautiful. You alone are my rock. You alone are my one and only. Oh, Jesus, baby!

Out in the crowd of youth-groupers are my customers. The girl with her hands up in the air giggling, singing louder than anyone? That’s Theresa. Everyone thinks she’s weird, that maybe she’s one of God’s holy fools, but they all agree that she’s on fire with Jesus.

Nah, she just popped a molly.

This is a great opening; I had wondered if anyone was going to address the Southern relationship with religion, and Christianity, in particular. My own psyche has been deeply scarred by a love-hate relationship with the Southern brand of Christianity; the entire nation was recently stunned by the Alabama evangelical embrace of pedophile Roy Moore–which was something that neither surprised nor shocked me. I need to write about religion; I do wish someone with a book called Religion in America: A History of the Turbulent American Relationship with God. Writing is very therapeutic, and I do have such a story that I’ve been working on for going on thirty years; I seriously doubt anyone would publish it. Anyway, I digress. This story, about a young drug dealer who has a fraught relationship with his mother, his father, and his mother’s boyfriend, is very clever and tightly written, with surprise twists and turns that take it in directions I didn’t see coming. Doug, kicked out of his wealthy private school where he was making money dealing to the rich kids, realized the best new market for his merchandise was the youth group at a local church. His dealing increased the youth group’s membership, and he has his own fraught relationship with Pastor Jerry, whom he rather despises, while dating Jerry’s daughter Kayla. Kayla is the big surprise here, a femme fatale right out of the James M. Cain classics, and a true delight. I’d love to read more about Kayla.

After Mississippi Noir, I took down The Best Horror of the Year Volume Four, edited by Ellen Datlow, and the first story there was Stephen King’s The Little Green God of Agony.”

“I was in an accident,” Newsome said.

Katherine MacDonald, sitting beside the bed and attaching one of the four TENS units to his scrawny thigh just below the basketball shorts he now always wore, did not look up. Her face was carefully blank. She was a piece of human furniture in this big house–in this big bedroom where she now spent most of her working life–and that was the way she liked it. Attracting Mr. Newsome’s attention was usually a bad idea, as any of his employees knew. But her thoughts ran on, just the same. Now you tell them that you actually caused the accident. Because you think taking responsibility makes you look like a hero.

“Actually,” Newsome said, “I caused the accident. Not so tight, Kat, please.”

There’s a reason why Stephen King is one of my favorite writers. One of the reasons is his uncanny ability to get into the heads of his characters, turning them into three dimensional beings that sound like someone you know. Kat, the physical therapist for an incredibly wealthy man–“the sixth wealthiest man in the world’–is tired of her job and tired of her patient. He won’t do the work required to get better and she is tired of watching him waste money and time on quick-fix quack cures that don’t do anything. This time, he’s brought in a small-time preacher from Arkansas who is going to exorcise the demon of pain from Newsome; it’s all she can do to keep a straight face and not say anything. Finally, she can’t resist and the preacher, Rideout, calls her out on a lot of things, seeing deep into her soul and telling her truths she doesn’t want to face herself, let alone share with anyone. And then the exorcism begins…in Danse Macabre, his later 1970’s/early 1980’s study of the genre, King talks about how horror comics of the 1950’s influenced his writing; as I was reading this story I could easily see it illustrated in Tales from the Crypt or House of Secrets. It’s terrific, absolutely terrific, and I was reminded again of why I love nothing more than curling up with Stephen King’s writing. It also vaguely reminded me of his novel Revival; I think this story may have triggered his creativity in that direction.

And now, I have spice to mine. Have a great Friday, Constant Reader!


The Longest Time

I went to bed early on Monday night, around ten, because I was tired, and woke up yesterday around four. I stayed in bed, and managed to drift back to sleep again, but was wide awake around five-thirty, so I decided to get out of bed and get my day started, figuring at the very least I’d be so tired last night I’d have no choice but to go to bed early. It worked; I was in bed just before ten, and am awake, shivering, at my computer this morning. It is twenty degrees outside this morning, and was so cold and windy and wintry last night we left the heat running overnight, which we never do. (Mainly for the outdoor cats; the vents run under the house so we figured they could shelter from the storm under the house and if they huddled near the vents they’d be warm.) I am going to brave the cold for the gym this morning; I can’t get over how much better I feel for one day of weight-lifting, stretching and cardio.

I also wrote a short story yesterday; rather, finished one I started Monday: “Neighborhood Alert.” I’m going to let it sit for a few days before looking at it again; I have some other writing and editing to do, and I find that letting things sit for a while is enormously helpful. I rather like the story, if I do say so myself. I am going to work on another one today as well–the title is “The Trouble with Autofill” (changed from “Sorry Wrong Email”) and of course, I have a lot of other writing to do. Heavy sigh. I do prefer being busy, though.

The Short Story Project continues apace. Last night, after an episode of Broadchurch, and before I went to bed, I read two stories, both from single-author collections from ChiZine Press (another bucket list item: be published in some form by ChiZine–they do wonderful stuff, and they publish my friend Michael Rowe), one by Christopher Golden, the other by Bracken MacLeod.

I read Bracken’s story first, from 13 Views of the Suicide Woods, “Still Day: An Ending”:

The morning breeze passed between the blanched, lifeless trees rising like fractured bones jutting from the forgotten marsh. The only sign of its passing, a light and silent ripple on the surface of the shallow water. The clear sky reflected brightly, blue above and blue below. The facets of the wind on water on water sparkled like diamonds in the light. A lone blue heron sailed from its nest, searching for something to eat, unconcerned with the line of traffic creeping by a hundred yards away. Drivers sat in their cars with the windows up and radios tuned to the recap of last night’s game at Fenway or NPR or empty morning talk, paying no attention to the wetlands beside them, staring ahead, squinting against the rising sun as they ate, shaved, checked e-mail, made calls, and put on make-up. All focused on the toad ahead, the day ahead, the growing anxiety of sitting still with so much to be done. Not a single one looked toward the trees or the water. They were blind to the calm and elegant wood that had once been living trees growing up over a hundred years. Before they were born, before the road was built, there was the fen and the trees and the water and sun above shining on it all.

The heron flew back to its nest unnoticed.

The woman lay in the water, unseen.

Nice, right? Bracken wrote one of my favorite novels of the last few years, Stranded, which was a Stoker Award finalist I believe and seriously, one of the might chilling and terrifying things I’ve read in years. I’m really looking forward to his next novel. I have a previous work of his somewhere in my TBR pile, Mountain Home, which I need to get to as well. ANyway, this story, which is incredibly short, and may not even be a thousand words, opens this collection and it’s beautiful and sad and a lovely contrast between the magic of nature and the artificial construct of human life; the rushing around like busy little bees in our hive and how we ignore what’s around us; also the startling contract between those who are alive in traffic and the peaceful, dead woman floating nearby, unnoticed, in the water. We don’t know anything about the woman, or how she wound up in the water like the Lady of Shallott, but is she any more dead than those stuck in traffic and not noticing the world around them, so focused as they are on what’s to come rather than what’s around them? An excellent start to this collection; I am looking forward to reading more of these stories.

I’ve also been enjoying Christopher Golden’s work; I greatly enjoyed Ararat and Dead Ringers, and Snowblind is in my TBR. I had read one of his stories, the first one, in this collection from ChiZine Tell My Sorrow To The Stones, “All Aboard,” during one of my past years’ Short Story Months, and greatly enjoyed it; last night I read “Under Cover of Night.”

Long past midnight, Carl Weston sat in a ditch in the Sonoran Desert with his finger on the trigger of his M16, waiting for something to happen. Growing up, he’d always played Army, dreamed about traveling around the world and taking on the bad guys–the black hats who ran dictatorships, invaded neighboring countries, or tried exterminating whole subsets of the human race. That was what soldiering was all about. Taking care of business. Carrying the big stick and dishing out justice.

The National Guard may not be the army, but he had a feeling the end result wasn’t much different. Turned out the world wasn’t made up of black hats and white hats, and the only way to tell who was on your side was looking at which way their guns were facing. Weston spent thirteen months in the desert in Iraq, and for the last three he’d been part of a unit deployed to the Mexican border to back up the Border Patrol.

One fucking desert to another. Some of the guys he knew had been stationed in places like El Paso and San Diego. Weston would’ve killed for a little civilization. Instead he got dirt and scrub, scorpions and snakes, land so ugly even the Texas Rangers had never spent that much time worrying about it.

This a well-crafted story about a combined National Guard/Border Patrol/DEA operation about stopping illegal aliens smuggling drugs into the country. Golden captures the voice of Weston perfectly; the grunt with no illusions about who he is or what his job entails, seeing no glory in shooting and killing people but it’s just a job to him. His relationship with the rookie he shares a ditch with at the start of the story, Brooksy, is perfectly rendered–can he trust the trigger happy fool with the crazy eyes who thinks gunfire is beautiful? And the raid begins, but something else even more horrifying is going on than the shootings and arrests and poor souls being forced by a drug cartel to mule cocaine or heroin across the border (they are doomed either way–the cartel herders will kill them or they’ll fall into the hands of the DEA)–there are screams crossing the desert night, and soon Weston becomes aware there is something else out there in the darkness with them, something infinitely more terrifying.

The suspense builds beautifully, and the denouement…well, it’s a lot more horrifying, and says so much that needs to be said, than I was expecting. Brilliantly done.

And now, back to the spice mines.


Jump (For My Love)

As Constant Reader is aware, I find short stories to be particularly difficult to write. I’m not sure why that is–and it’s entirely possible it’s post-traumatic stress disorder from college writing classes (kidding)–but it’s a fact. Constant Reader also is aware I am a horror fan, but writing horror short stories is even more difficult than writing crime stories for me–or any other kind of short story, to be honest.

So, several years ago, when Vince Liaguno asked me to submit a story to his Unspeakable Horror 2: Abominations of Desire anthology, I was very enthusiastic about saying yes; but at the same time, more than a little nervous and not certain I’d be able to pull it off…but I decided to do something particularly Louisiana: a rougarou story.


The old woman was babbling excitedly, her toothless gums moving up and down as she gesticulated wildly with her arms. Spittle flew from her wrinkled lips, wisps of her thin gray hair floating around her head as it moved back and forth and side to side. Old is an understatement, Special Agent Tom Washburn thought, unable to understand a word she was saying. She looks ancient, like one of those unwrapped Egyptian mummies on that show I watched last night.

 It was a struggle to keep his revulsion from showing on his face.

Despite the oppressive heat, she had a white shawl wrapped around her bony shoulders as she rocked in her worn, wooden rocking chair. Her feet were bare and dirty, her toenails long and yellowed. Blue veins spider-webbed over the tops of her feet, making them look like complicated road maps. She was wearing a shapeless white cotton dress with yellow stains in the armpits. The brown, wrinkled flesh hung from her bony arms. Her fingernails were long, grown out so far they’d started curving back in on themselves. They were painted a bright red, contrasting with the brown skin and the dark liver spots on her hands. Her face was more wrinkled than he’d thought it possible for any human to be—her entire face seemed to be nothing more than folds of hanging, sun-browned skin. An enormous mole on her pointed chin had a few white hairs sprouting out of it. Her eyes were a startling blue, but seemed filmy and unfocused. A wooden cane with a brass alligator head leaned against her rocking chair, and on the table next to her a glass ashtray was overflowing with gray ash and cigarette butts.

She’s like something out of a really bad nightmare, he thought.

Tom couldn’t understand a word she was saying—she might as well have been speaking a foreign language as far as he was concerned. Every once in a while he caught an identifiable English word in her sing-song Cajun dialect that almost sounded like chanting. He closed his eyes and wished again he was anywhere but this rotting houseboat on the edge of a swamp. This is, he thought angrily, without a doubt the stupidest call I’ve ever gone out on. If I’d known how this day was going to turn out I’d have called in sick this morning.

He wiped sweat from his forehead with his already damp sleeve. It was stiflingly hot in the houseboat, which stank of collard greens, stale sweat and cigarette smoke. The ceiling fan was turning but all it seemed to  do was push the heavy damp air around. The living room—if you could call the tiny space that—was crammed full of strange objects arranged with no apparent rhyme or reason. He picked up a snow globe with the Empire State Building inside and shook it. He set it back down where it had been—next to a shellacked baby alligator head, some polished sea shells, a small rusting Matchbox car, and what appeared to be a copper head of John F. Kennedy. There was a thin coat of dust on everything. Cobwebs danced from the ceiling. He slapped at a mosquito and stepped closer to one of the windows, hoping for a breeze. He glanced back over at his partner.

When I was a kid, I used to love the Movie of the Week on ABC. They did a lot of mysteries and horror–the argument could be made that these television films were the best place to find horror in the 1970’s, and broadened the audience somewhat–but there was one in particular that always stuck out in my mind; it was set in rural Louisiana, and Barbara Rush played the lead female role. It was either called Moon of the Wolf or Cry of the Wolf,and it was the first time I’d heard a werewolf called by it’s French name: loup-garou.

Loup-garou. Doesn’t that sound awesome? I’ve always had that tucked away in the back of my head, and of course, I’ve always been interested in werewolves, who’ve never really gotten their due in the horror genre, particularly if compared to vampires.

Living in Louisiana, you cannot escape Cajun culture, and Louisiana, for whatever reason, is a place where the supernatural is far more easy to believe in than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. There’s something about the air here; the way Spanish moss hangs from ancient trees, the heaviness of the damp air, the way the past is so much a part of the present  here. In Acadiana, the term loup-garou was Cajunized to rougarou, which to me was even cooler sounding than the original. And in Cajun culture, a rougarou didn’t necessarily have to a wolf; the creature could also be, of course, an alligator.

A gatorman? I was all in.

I had also just finished writing my Todd Gregory novel about vampires, Need, which hadn’t quite turned out the way I’d intended it to–it was a set-up novel; the sequel, Desire, was really going to get the story, and the world I was creating, going–so I was in the mindset of writing supernatural tales. I had also, years ago, kind of toyed with an idea of doing a series that would be my own version of Dark Shadows, only set in Acadiana around a small town called Bayou Shadows, loosely based on Breaux Bridge. So, with a rougarou in mind, I started writing my story.

Imagine my thrill to see, not only a great review of the collection, but one that singled out my story, on the Cemetery Dance website this past week!

Here it is, reviewed by Blu Gilliand.

While desire drives the plot of the above stories, other authors manage to embrace the theme without making it the central point. In Greg Herren’s “Rougaroo” (my personal favorite of the anthology), we follow a couple of special agents on a mission deep in bayou country. Rumor has it that a rougaroo—a man who morphs into a gator/human hybrid during the full moon—is stalking a small community. It’s a great little monster story; one in which desire plays a small but integral role.

How lovely! It’s also lovely to be in an anthology with such amazing horror writers as Lisa Morton, Laird Barron, Gemma Files, Stephen Graham Jones, Lee Thomas, and Norman Prentiss, among the other glittering names on the table of contents.

You can order the book here.

And now, back to the spice mines. Must get groceries, hit the gym, clean, write  and edit. Heavy heaving sigh.