The Week That Was...

The last week of May was a pretty darn good one around these parts. I placed a pair of short stories with magazines I'm thrilled to work with. I'll have updates and posts when the tales make it into print (and, in one case, onto a podcast platform), but it was a week of good news in terms of my short fiction.

I also learned that I was awarded continuing contract status at the college (our form of tenure, essentially). Heading into my fifth year at the school, I remain thankful for the opportunities I've been afforded and all of the great students who make heading into work each week a pleasure.

But the biggest deal happened last night. Lyla spent her first night in the nursery by herself. She handled it beautifully; I was a little bit of a wreck. We settled her down shortly after nine and gave her a half swaddle so she could suck her hand to put herself back down if she woke up.

And she slept like a log. I mean, it was amazing. She couldn't have been more quiet.

That, my friends, was the problem.

I lie there in bed, reading until midnight and straining to hear her not ten feet away in the next room. I guess I wanted to hear her fussing a little, just to make sure she was ok. I finally nodded off around 12:30, only to be startled awake at 3:30 by the siren wail of her request for a meal.

Man, we swung into action, happy to see that everything was fine next door. I changed the diaper, Jeanne served up the good stuff and we had her buttoned up and back to bed about thirty minutes later.

Only it was still too quiet. That 4:00 a.m. hour just isn't a nice time to be awake. I started to think about the shady figures of the early morning. I thought about their tools--the ones they use to invade nurseries--and their dark sacks they fill with innocent children. For some reason, these people never have faces when I think of them; the sneak from here to there on jaunty tiptoes, no doubt chuckling a low, rheumy cough beneath their breath.

Needless to say, we purchased a window sensor and a couple more locks today...

Jeanne slept. The cat snored in the corner. I stayed awake for a long time, worrying for no reason about the little lady in the room by herself.

And that little lady? Well, she got a lot of rest and had a great day. She kept us busy, and I think I'll certainly rest easier tonight.

It's a strange threshold to cross, that first night with your baby alone in the next room over. It's an important, necessary threshold, but that doesn't make it any easier...


Writing About Misery

We're nearing the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and, in my estimation, one of the more surprising outcomes since that horrific event is the dearth of creative reflection about what happened that day.

There have been some good stories and novels about 9/11 (Paul Greengrass's United 93 is one of the more emotionally arresting films I've ever looked at; I'll muster the stones to look at it again soon), but not nearly as many as I would expect. Years ago, in a literature class at Mt. Hood Community College, I predicted that 9/11 would be a literary watershed--that some writers would use the event as a catalyst to carve out a career in storytelling. I thought we'd get serious anthologies, horrific anthologies, interstitial anthologies. I thought we'd see a much larger cultural fingerprint.

And I think the only thing I can point to as to why this hasn't transpired is that our culture is still collectively sorting through the healing process. There are political pressures, of course. But the emotional wounds are still fresh, and I'm not sure if that'll be changing soon.

I read and write horror stories because they interest me, but the reason they interest me is that the stakes are often highest in these pieces. Take the recent swine flu scare. We've had a bunch of fatalities in America as a result of the H1N1 virus (but not even an eyelash of a fraction of as many as the media would have you believe).

For the families of those who died, this thing is the apocalypse. It is the rider on the ridge. But for the rest of us it's a segment on the evening news.

That is until our temperature spikes and we have to call into work...

So will magazines see a flood of swine flu stories? I think they will, and that's because of that perfect media-forged handle, but also because we can collectively wring our hands about something as innocuous as the flu bug. It feels a little more...manageable than the scope and enormity of the attacks of 9/11.

The same holds true, though to a lesser extent, with the North Korea nuclear tests. We've accepted the unpredictable nature of the nuclear reality we live in, so of course swapping nucs will worm its way into our stories.

My point is that the horrific, I guess, is just a matter of degree...

That said, what qualifies as horrifying?


How I Spent My Eleven O'Clock Hour...

I competitively priced items with an older gentleman at the gym. I jogged the treadmill and he worked the elliptical and we both struggled to come in just under the manufacturer's suggested retail price.

Alas, though I was ok on a few of the games, his pricing ju-ju was just more powerful than mine.

We both missed on the Honda Accord LX (standard features package)...

In an unrelated note, I found an interesting blog at the website for Black Static. This post on Robert E. Howard and "The Pigeons From Hell" is strong, and I'm going to grab that big collection mentioned in the introduction...


Heliotrope #5

Heliotrope is a nice speculative magazine. I printed Issue 5 and read it the other night; I was impressed with the finished product. #5 is a Michael Moorcock retrospective. It includes a couple of interesting stories and a number of fine articles that have effectively elevated my interest in reading Moorcock's fiction.

That's right, I haven't looked at anything this esteemed author has written. I'm pretty late to the fantasy genre, folks. Well, actually I read a lot of fantasy in my youth--C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, of course, but also Dahl and Bradbury and a host of others whose names escape me.
But then I got onto the science fiction and horror train and, with brief forays into mystery and suspense, that's where I've stayed.

There are some great fantasists out there, and I'm really intrigued in looking at some of these Moorcock titles. I think one of the things we all do as we age and mature is search for outlets that will help us, even in small ways, recover that sense of child-like awe that seems to dissipate a little more each year.

Yeah, getting older stinks from that perspective. Remember those languorous summer days of your youth, when the world was bright and fresh and a single day stretched on forever?

I think that's what fantasy can do, in some cases. It can take you back there.

Now, of course these genres all overlap, and much of the sci-fi and horror I read has fantastic elements. But I haven't read sword and sorcery since Tolkien, and even that was pretty light on it.

Neil Gaiman's story in Heliotrope #5 is good; it kind of grows on you. It's about resisting that urge to charge into adult life; it's as if Gaiman is warning us--Don't do it! Stay with Elric, stay in the ruined temple! Adult life is filed with sadness and awkward moments!

Indeed, the story is peppered with awkward moments--sexual tension and bullying, to name just two. But for our protagonist, Richard, those things are mediated and mitigated by his strong appreciation for the fantastic.

It's a good tale and, as I said, many of the articles are strong. Heliotrope is closed to submissions, but they pay well and produce a nice product. Print that magazine and tip them a buck or two if you like what you see...

On an unrelated note, what happened to me? I'm starting to enjoy country music, and so is our little girl. When she cries, we put on some Kenny Chesney and she quiets down. I've already documented her love of Conway Twitty...Sheesh.


Florida: We're Up To Our Usual Shenanigans

Ah, the Sunshine State. Our citizens have been known to dial 911 not once, not twice...but THREE TIMES because of fast food-related displeasure.

The latest news out of the state seems to take the cake, though.

Nothing like enjoying a little family time at "Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day."

Really, Florida?



Make a Left at the Dragon...

And so they sailed north, riding the wind from an arid island inhabited only my monstrous sea turtles, in search of a mythic pool of age-reversing water.

"Sir!" Ruiz said when they'd been at it for a few days, skirting the coast of a peninsula known for its fragrant jungles. "I believe we're lost."

He stabbed the chart in front of him with an accusatory index finger.

The captain, more than a little tipsy on rum, stumbled to the bow of the vessel. He pointed at the water, where a creature hued from blue muscle cut the water, leaving a wedge in its wake. "Follow that bullet-headed sea creature, Ruiz! He'll guide the way!"

"But he's not on the chart! There's a serpent down here in the corner, but..."

"Then add him!" the captain roared, and Ruiz slunk away to the cartography chamber where he was finally able to put his aqua pencils to good use...


Nudging Editors

Duotrope, the website no submitting writer can do without, keeps a list of the most slothful magazines (based on author reports, so take it for what it's worth). If you're working to get your stories out there, you also need to be diligent in tracking and organizing your submissions.

A quick review of my tracker (hard copy, kept in a folder--I'm ol' school like that) shows a couple of submissions that have been out for well over a year. I'm writing them off as rejections.

But before you do that, make sure that you craft a short, specific and professional query and submit it to the editor of the magazine to inquire about the status of your story.

Most markets will get back to you within ninety days (that seems to be the industry standard). A couple of the more prestigious journals (Ploughshares, The Yale Review, Zoetrope) are famous for taking a year or more to drop a thin form rejection in the mail. Some get back to you so fast it makes your head spin.

Lone Star Stories, an excellent venue for quality speculative fiction and poetry, is in this camp. Editor Eric Marin has shot me a courteous "no" a few hours after I've sent in a piece.

Alas, I will find my way into those virtual pages in due time!

So the spectrum is wide and varied in terms of return times. When should you tap an editor and ask about a tale? I'd say thirty days after their posted response times.

Recipe for Submissions:

  • Revise, polish, buff and shine that story until they can't say no;
  • Compose a short, professional submission letter that can be easily adapted for both postal and digital submissions;
  • Research the magazine and its staff--try to direct your piece to the appropriate editor. If it's a little ambiguous, To Whom It May Concern is always your best bet;
  • Observe the guidelines on simultaneous submissions! I think this is an aspect of your goodwill and professionalism as a writer;
  • Wait and hope, then wait and hope some more;
  • Nudge the editor--politely, of course.

I've got a friend who edits a fairly prominent journal out in Oregon. He tells me he often receives queries that follow this general format:

hi did u read the storie i sent u thanx for checking

No author name, no story title. Now, if that's the competition in the slush pile, we should all feel bad when they say no, am I right?

At any rate, don't write a story off until you at least try a query. There are a few magazines that I've queried who haven't bothered to get back to me at all, but most editors are happy to drop you a short note on the status of your piece.

Those magazines whose response is, well, nothing at all?

Screw 'em. Life's too short to deal with folks who don't give a shit...


The Midnight Meat Train

The horror movie is a dying species. Sure, there's a very steady stream of slick, sincerely rendered re-hashings of popular folk culture or Japanese re-makes trundling dutifully through your local cineplex.

Very few of these films ever bother to elevate themselves above the fray of their brethren, even playfully. They have little incentive to, as their primary audiences (I'm looking at you, shrieking teen girls in the back row) never ask for more--they merely digest the gore as an appetizer before walking out of the cinema and into the nearest Gap. For every film like The Descent or Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead re-make or 28 Days Later, there are ten films like The Haunting of Molly Hartley and Pulse.

And I wish I could say that The Midnight Meat Train did rise significantly above the latter films in the previous paragraph. Based on a Clive Barker short story, this one had potential.

Unfortunately, a lack of character exposition (and the empathy that inspires) and a disjointed plot make this another exercise in gore immersion. And that's a shame, because in places there's a palpable quality of the surreal (what Al Sarrantonio calls "irrealism" in 999) as our antagonist (one bad meat man, played by Vinnie Jones) culls and collects these nasty little polyps from all over his body.

A little cancer allegory would have been welcome. What we get, though, is far less menacing.

Jones plays the butcher here with ruthless efficiency. Bradley Cooper ain't half bad as Leon, our tortured protagonist, and Leslie Bibb (you'll recognize her) probably gives the best turn of all of them. We at least feel sorry for her in a couple of scenes.

But the train itself and why it runs every night, coupled with all of the disappearances in this extremely crowded portion of the city, is the story here, and that's where it all falls apart. There's a bit of the ol' ghost in the machine that fouls up a subterranean climax that has serious hints of Lovecraft. Had it better developed this plot vein, it might have transcended the clutter out there in the horror field.

The final verdict here is good, not great. It's worth a watch: B-.

So...where are they? Where are this year's Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth? Where's the next generation of quiet horror--our Rosemary's Baby and Watcher in the Woods?


Explorations: Félix Morisseau-Leroy

We discussed the notion of the eso/exoteric this week in ENC 1102 at the college; our discussion was productive, and I recalled this poem.

Poem: Tourist

Tourist, don’t take my picture
Don’t take my picture, tourist
I’m too ugly
Too dirty
Too skinny
Don’t take my picture, white man
Mr. Eastman won’t be happy
I’m too ugly
Your camera will break
I’m too dirty
Too black
Whites like you won’t be content
I’m too ugly
I’m gonna crack your kodak
Don’t take my picture, tourist
Leave me be, white man
Don’t take a picture of my burro
My burro’s load’s too heavy
And he’s too small
And he has no food here
Don’t take a picture of my animal
Tourist, don’t take a picture of the house
My house is of straw
Don’t take a picture of my hut
My hut’s made of earth
The house already smashed up
Go shoot a picture of the Palace
Or the Bicentennial grounds
Don’t take a picture of my garden
I have no plow
No truck
No tractor
Don’t take a picture of my tree
Tourist, I’m barefoot
My clothes are torn as well
Poor people don’t look at whites
But look at my hair, tourist
Your kodak’s not used to my colour
Your barber’s not used to my hair
Tourist, don’t take my picture
You don’t understand my position
You don’t understand anything
About my business, tourist
‘Gimme fie cents’
And then, be on your way, tourist.

By Félix Morisseau-Leroy, translated from Haitan Creole by Jack Hirschman, translated from Haitan Creole by Jack Hirschman


May 6: The End of the Season

Poor Pig-Pen. The young man (happy as he is--get a load of that pleasant smile) travels in a perpetual cloud of his own stink.

I took what probably amounts to my last jog at the Spanish Pond today until October. I set out on the trail at a little after 3:00; it was 87 at the time (we peaked at 91), so I was probably making some stink lines of my own.

I was a little over a mile into my run when the bugs attacked. It was the entomological equivalent of Hitchcock's The Birds, and I suddenly understood how Pig-Pen felt. I was swarmed by horse flies, yellow flies, brown flies, no-see-ums, look-at-mes, carpenter bees, mosquitoes and a pterodactyl that dive-bombed me and lodged itself between my ball cap and my sunglasses.

I ran the last half-mile swatting at the sky like a meth junkie on a four-day bender. There wasn't a heck of a lot of dignity in it, let me tell you.

Life is filled with thresholds, and we step over this one every summer here on the peninsula. When it gets hot in Florida, the wildlife gets moving. State biologists issued a warning last week about gator activity, and we've seen snakes in the yard twice in the last week. The bugs are just another part of this ecosystem, and when they crank into full gear, it can get pretty squirmy (technical entomology term) out there.

I'll maybe hit the Spanish Pond early in the morning. I saw the sun come up today, and it was still in the mid to upper seventies then, so it's not like it's all that much cooler.

It's been a good week in the salt mines: fourteen pages so far, with a couple days left in the week. I hope the promise of this new season fills you all with energy, and that things are well where you are...


Two Great Tales: "The Small Assassin" and "Catfish Gal Blues"

Bradbury on "The Small Assassin"

"...I remember the day and the hour I was born. I remember being circumcised on the second day after my birth...I remember the doctor. I remember the scalpel.
I wrote the story "The Small Assassin" twenty-six years later."

-Ray Bradbury, "Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle" (1980).

Bradbury's "The Small Assassin" is one of the great achievements in short horror fiction. One of these days, I'll post my dream anthology in this space. This little creeper would be a huge candidate for that leadoff spot, by the way. Very few stories are able to get beneath a reader's skin as quickly and thoroughly as Bradbury's tale of a methodical, scheming infant, seemingly enraged at its sudden entry into a cruel and cold world.

The tale works on a number of levels. The gender commentary on the nature of parental perception is keen; there is a heart-breaking scene when our male protagonist comes home to an utterly quiet home--his lovely wife broken at the bottom of the stairs. In that passage, the phrasing is crushing. Bradbury's always been able to do that with that lyrical style of his; he can melt your heart before tearing it from your chest.

I also love the slow awakening of the rational skeptic (both the father and the doctor) as they open themselves up to the possibility of a miracle child who plots murder in the dark shadows of the crib.

I'd also recommend Nancy A Collins's interesting little folk narrative, "Catfish Gal Blues." A tale short and sweet (found in 999--the book on the right of the screen there), Collins nails the cultural texture of the poverty-stricken Southern Low Country, and those catfish gals--well, they're something else. Makes me think twice about dangling my dogs over the muddy Florida waters, let me tell you...


Pollywog in a Bog

There's a new favorite song around these parts. Funny how the little ones know what really sounds good (and that owl? shoot--dude's awesome!)...

You Know When It's Good

If you spend any real time at the word processor, you understand that sometimes the writing flows and you just know in your heart and in you...