Shivers V

Shivers V is not a themed anthology, and that's a good thing. Themed anthologies, for a couple of different reasons, often present uneven reads. I think that pigeonholing a writer into a story doesn't always lead to the best piece, for one. I also think that reading different takes on the same general idea, over and over, wears thin over time.

Shivers V doesn't offer anything other than a batch of fine stories (and two poems, incongruously collected here). Seriously, I liked them all, and that's been a pretty rare occurrence these days.

In terms of the stories that struck the strongest chord with me, I'll begin with Norman Prentiss's collection opening "The Albright Sextuplets." This one was unsettling and stylish. Prentiss knows his way around the tricks of the trade when it comes to doctoring photographs, and his creepy tale about parents capitalizing on their freakish progeny is disturbing (take note, Jon and Kate Whatever). Prentiss has a compelling voice, and I liked the narration in this one. The first-person narrator, driven by his suspicions, unravels a mystery that will put a chill into parents and fertility doctors alike...

Sarah Langan's "The Burn Victim" is a vicious little tale--not for its sideline conflict with the hitchhiker, but for her sharp depiction of a couple in free-fall. Seriously, the horror here is what adults do to one another in the battlefield of life...

Scott Nicholson's "Good Fences" is a pitch-perfect neighbor battle. Pitting an old-school conservative against a homicidal hippie leads to a delightful and, as we progress through the second act, anxious climax...

Graham Masterton's "Dog Days" is just a great yarn. You'll need to suspend disbelief for this one (that means all of you "that could never happen" types can skip this one), but it's well worth it. I just can't get into the plot, but I'll say that the betrayal is heart-breaking, the plot twist is sick, and the story is great. This is one of those stories that will compel me to buy a Masterton novel because of the accessible narrative tone and clean prose.

Steve Vernon's "The Forever Long Snake of Olan Walker" takes home coolest title award. It's a chilling tale of punishment and evil--we're talking Old Testament stuff here. Olan Walker is a walking thundercloud, and the narrator and Southern setting are delightful. One of the highlights of the bunch.

Nick Mamatas can write. If you need proof, take a look at his story "The Pitch." Mamatas's protagonist, foul-mouthed Hollywood producer Hiram "Call Me Manny" Bursky is a hoot--profane and vulgar and vile in a way that keeps you paging forward. His two o'clock appointment has a movie to sell--only this film might be the biggest in the history of humanity.

The anthology concludes with Kealan Patrick Burke's "The Acquaintance." A brutal story of revenge, imprudent homecomings and unchecked rage, this is a very fluid short story. Burke's characters leap off the page, and the depiction of the bar-room chat is really well drawn.

This is a fine collection, filled with excellent tales--many more than I recounted here. Do yourself a favor and take a look at Shivers V. It kept me up past bedtime a couple of nights in a row...


Doing The Work

Can I ask you something? he said.
Yes. Of Course.
Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.
And we're still going south.
So we'll be warm.
Okay what?
Nothing. Just okay.
Go to sleep.
I'm going to blow out the lamp. Is that okay?
Yes. That's okay.
And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?
Yes. Of course you can.
What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die too.
So you could be with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.

~The Road, Cormac McCarthy, page 9
Once or twice each night, my daughter cries out in her crib. Sometimes her mother goes to her, and sometimes I go. We try to share the load. Last night, Lyla began to cry and I went to her and gathered her up and we sat in the rocking chair for twenty minutes. She put her head against my chest and I rocked us gently and her breathing, ragged and fussy at first, leveled out and she fell asleep.
It's The Work, you see, and it's the best work we can do.
The beauty of The Road is its message that the light of humanity rests in the next generation. It's our charge--as parents, teachers, citizens, as people--to bring these young ones into the world well equipped, so they might do the same for their own children.
Today, we bundled up (cool weather finally arrived!) and took a walk around the neighborhood. As we passed the school at the end of the street, I stopped and we looked at it together.
"There are good things happening inside that place," I said to her. "You'll enjoy your days in school, I think, and your mom and I promise to help you whenever we can. We'll celebrate your achievements and we'll work hard on the challenges. We'll get there together, heart of my heart."
She made a few sounds and smiled wide--this one is filled with smiles--and we continued on our way. When I got home, I thought about all the work ahead, and how committed we need to be to the things that matter the most.
Whether it's the writing, the teaching, the grading, the committee work, the miles on the treadmill, the yard, the house cleaning, the book keeping--it's all secondary to The Work. That's the task of passing on the light of humanity to the next generation...


Anti-Intellectualism in Horror?

The Internet Review of Science Fiction has a new column called Dead Air. In the first two installments of what I hope will remain a fixture at IROSF, Nicholas Kaufman tackles the notion that an air of anti-intellectualism pervades the horror field. His article is based, in part, on an interview with Jack Haringa.

The discussion treads into both the scope of horror production (scant, since its publishing high tide in the '80s) and the tropes that have marked the field in recent years (namely, paranormal romance and the zombie craze).

I understand Haringa's angst and I agree with a lot of Kaufman's analysis. I mean, as a fan of the genre I can only communicate the impact that quality reads like Peter Straub's Ghost Story and Stephen King's Salem's Lot had on me. Here were novels of literary merit--novels that stood among the best of the work done by the world's best wordsmiths--that tackled larger issues than things that go bump in the night. I didn't get into them for their popularity (these are two of the best sellers of an era), but for their quality and subtlety.

I like mundane horror. I like quiet horror. I'm more interested in the shuttered house at the end of the street than the drooling madmen that exist all too realistically in this, the age of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. I'd much prefer a story like C.P. Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" to the schlock you can find posted up on the latest Friday the 13th fanzine. That said, I do think that the attitude about horror that exists right now in mainstream publishing (I base this on talks with my agent, reading industry news online, chatting with other writers in the genre) is one geared toward either creature features or paranormal romance.

Yeah, the Twilight thing has had a bit of a shift on what the larger presses have been doing in terms of how they purchase and market "horror," I think. Is that anti-intellectualism? I'm just a horror writer, so I'm too stoopid to answer that right now, but maybe...just maybe, Haringa and Kaufman have a point there.


Writing Weather, Where Are You?

It's funny, because in most parts of America right now, the fall is happening. Some places are even getting a little winter. Kids are bundling up for the walk to school. That little area near the front door with all the hooks and the shoe caddy is laden with galoshes and honest-to-goodness coats and scarves. Outside the trees are losing their foliage.

People are eating soup.

Ah, but here our air conditioner is running. Here, it's summer. And not even Indian Summer--not that fleeting little bit of bonus summer that hits the north like an unbidden note in the mail or a package of cookies from Mom. No, here it's hot and sweaty--warm enough to make a person reach for a cold one and a dozen oysters when the internal CPU is screaming for a hot chocolate and a bowl of potato soup.

And this does affect the writing. Admittedly, I'm a little off track for hitting my goal of getting draft one knocked out by Thanksgiving. I'm working on three application packets for graduate school, as well as juggling a pretty demanding teaching schedule at the college. Plus, I'm a bit of a father now, so (thankfully) my mornings are occupied by time spent with Lyla.

She makes that pretty easy, by the way. What a kid...

But when I do have that spare moment to peck away at the word processor, it's awfully tough to get into that Oregon state of mind when the beach is calling and I get that hankering for a grouper sandwich from Slyder's. I've got some grading to do this week, but I really hope to get six hours of uninterrupted time on the piece toward the end of the week.

In the meantime, here's to Ol' Man Winter heading south for a little while. Seriously, buddy, come freeze my citrus...


Link Roundup and General News

Michael Connolly's The Lincoln Lawyer is the best of his books I've read. Intricately plotted and compellingly narrated, it's interesting to see how an author's stories differ in the first and third person. Connolly's Harry Bosch series is told in third-person limited; it's good, but it's not nearly as engaging as his creation of Mickey Haller in the first person. Connolly, a former journalist, knows his legal procedure and, in the form of Haller, he's created a conflicted anti-hero (the dude's a defense attorney) whose bleak outlook on the world is both depressing and spot on. Hate to say that, as I'm a glass-half-filled kind of person, but I think Connolly's backlog of zany crime stories that he reported have since come alive in the passages of his fiction.

The book on the right side of the screen there has been a joy to get into. Kenneth Cameron's turn-of-the-century London is fascinating to explore with Denton, our American literary lion blundering through the city in his pursuit of a Ripper-style murderer. So far so good on The Frightened Man--review forthcoming.

Escapism is good when the storytelling is strong enough to suspend disbelief. I had the pleasure of experiencing a pair of narrative excursions this weekend when I watched Transformers II (2009) and The Last House on the Left (2009). The former squandered much of the goodwill it had established in the original with its hugely exaggerated fight scenes and stilted dialogue. It doesn't help that Bernie Mac passed on and couldn't lighten the mood as he did in the first. The CGI was clunky and the whole thing fell apart by the third act, I think. I don't know, because I didn't finish it. The animations stripped it of any worthwhile human emotion, and I couldn't get behind it enough to believe that things were really that bleak for the human race.

The latter, on the other hand, was too hard to take in spots. It's a simple premise. What would you do to the savages that hurt someone you loved? When a couple of Samaritans find that they've harbored their daughter's rapists, they answer the question with hammers, a handgun and, to gruesome effect, a microwave. Escaping into this film awakens some pretty grim emotions and, while the film isn't top shelf, it's effective. It doesn't pull any punches, and the cast pulls off a brutal story with appropriate gravity. I'd recommend watching it, if you enter into the experience knowing it'll be a hard watch.

The Oregon Ducks did a great job on Saturday against USC. I haven't seen an effort like that since last year's Civil War, and I couldn't be prouder of my team and my state. Stay humble and hungry, fellas, and let's get another win on the road this weekend in Palo Alto.

Lyla cut her first tooth on Saturday, just in time for her first Halloween. That kid is amazing, and a joy to be around. She's learning a lot, and is growing up so fast...

I'm revising my recent long project and had the good news that I placed a story with a journal I've been hoping to break into. I don't want to jinx anything until I sign a contract, but I hope to have some good specific news soon. I hope things are well where you are.

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...