Author’s note for “Hole for a Heart”

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Those of you who have followed this blog for more than half a year will already know at least a bit about the origins of my story Hole for a Heart, but there’s still more that can be said, so don’t fear too much in the way of redundancy.

The seed of this story was planted on a bus trip from southern Florida to Ohio, where I was going to visit my parents.  As I’ve described before, while passing through a relatively hilly area of central Florida, I saw, through the west-facing bus window, a tall tree near a highway exit.  Underneath it stood what appeared to be a scarecrow.  The Greyhound moved far too quickly for me to make out any details, and unlike Jon in the story, I did not have the option to stop.  But it was an interesting sight, partly because, like Jon, I couldn’t really see the point of putting up a scarecrow under a tree on a hill near a highway exit.  Neither was it anywhere near Halloween.  I wondered what the story behind it might be.  So, I quickly pulled out my smartphone and jotted down the sight as a possible story trigger.

The actual tale itself didn’t really form until several months later, more or less all at once.  This happened at the beginning of October, just in time for me to finish it and publish a draft on my blog for Halloween.  This happy coincidence helped inspire me to crank away at the tale, though it led me to first publish it in less than ideally polished form.

The protagonist of the story, Jonathan Lama, is named after two people I’ve known.  The first name was given in memory of a friend of mine from work, who died of what I believe was a semi-deliberate drug overdose, and it is his form I see when I think of the character.  The last name is that of someone still living, and who appears to be doing much better, rebuilding a life that had almost been destroyed in a similar fashion.  Quite apart from being a way to give an homage to these two people, I think the combination of one dead and one living person somehow suits the character of Jon (the one in the story), who is in some ways—as his former girlfriend would no doubt say—not actually living his life.  This could, of course, be confabulation on my part; I don’t honestly recall exactly what my thought process was in deciding on the name, except that it certainly was chosen after the two people I just mentioned.

The title of this story is a fairly obvious reference to the state and fate of the “scarecrow” on the hill.  That dead (?) remnant of Joshua Caesar, that scourge of western central Pennsylvania in the late forties and early fifties, is missing its heart, having had it cut out by his vengeful neighbors when they had finally decided to take justice into their own hands.  But that’s not the only reference to which it applies, nor was it the original meaning for the story’s title.  In fact, it’s Jon himself who bears the titular empty cavity in his torso.  Despite being truly gifted and brilliant at his chosen field, Jon has a near-nihilistic ambivalence toward life, toward attempting anything that involves real commitment and stress.  He sees no point in struggling in a world where all lives end, and everyone leaves with exactly that with which they arrived.  This ambivalence had cost Jon the love of his life (who shared a name with the ill-fated former object of Joshua Caesar’s affections), a loss that had further hollowed out his own metaphorical chest.

I like the supernatural elements of this story, and I like the juxtaposition of Jon’s and Joshua Caesar’s two very different personal philosophies.  The latter is a Nietzschean, “the strong and the superior do what they like and are responsible for the greatness of humanity,” point of view, while the former is, as I said, practically nihilistic.  But I think my very favorite elements of this story are the gas station clerk, Matty, and his employer, Mr. McGlynn.  I just find them both quite likeable; I enjoy their conversations with each other and with Jon.  Clearly, Matty is not the very brightest of sparks, but he’s smarter than he seems at first glance, and is earnest and well-meaning in his way.  McGlynn, quite sharp indeed, is in superficial ways like Jon.  He’s content to live a simple life running a gas station next to the interstate, despite probably being capable of more.  But on closer inspection, his attitude is worlds apart from Jon’s.  There’s no despair or sense of meaninglessness in McGlynn’s philosophy of life; he seems to enjoy himself very much, in his way, and he clearly has affection and respect for his young employee, and for his customer.  He does take a mischievous and slightly sadistic satisfaction in telling a story that might horrify both Jon and Matty, but I think he can be forgiven for this.

I would think that, though, wouldn’t I?

As with many of my short stories, this one leaves us all hanging at the end, me included.  I wonder at times just what the new driver of the restored ’97 Mustang will do after he pulls onto the interstate at the end of the tale, and whether this path will take him to Chicago, to seek out a young woman who had, in her own way, stolen Jon’s heart before the story ever began.  More than that, though, I think it would be fun, if we had world enough and time, to follow Matty and McGlynn.  I’d like to visit that gas station, to stop and share conversations with the two of them—perhaps while drinking a cup of gas station coffee—to listen to McGlynn’s tales of local history and legend, while Matty hangs raptly and unabashedly on his words.

I think I’d listen just as enthusiastically.

Author’s note for “Prometheus and Chiron”

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Prometheus and Chiron is a more or less straightforward horror story, and its trigger was also straightforward—so straightforward that you might be able to guess it without me telling you, once you’ve read the story.  But I’ll tell you anyway.

One morning, in the waning months of the year, I was nearly alone on the train station platform, waiting for my usual train.  The sun had not yet risen, so it was still quite dark.  As I dithered about (most likely doing some writing or editing), I glanced across the track, and saw a woman standing very still beneath one of the electric lights on the other side.  I looked away for what seemed only a moment, though it could have been quite a bit longer, and when I looked back up, the woman was gone, as though she’d vanished into thin air.

A look down the platform soon revealed that she had simply walked to the other end, for undisclosed reasons of her own.  But her initial silent presence and subsequent seeming vanishment made me think about the possibility of a ghost haunting a railroad platform.  What might have led someone to die in, and then to haunt, such a place?  Under what conditions would such a ghost be visible?  What if it were a ghost that only a certain type of person could see?  This wouldn’t necessarily be a person with psychic abilities (as in my story If the Spirit Moves You, from Welcome to Paradox City) but a person who has certain characteristics, perhaps similar in some special way to the person whose ghost remains.

The story took shape pretty quickly from there.  I don’t recall how long it was before I started writing it, but by the time I did, all the elements were present.  I wanted to deal, of course, with the hellish experience of a spirit being trapped in one place, right where she had died, and the frightening fact of a living person finding himself able to see such a ghost.  But I also wanted to deal with the much realer hell that both of the characters in the story exemplify, one with which I’m familiar on many levels:  as a physician who has treated those with chronic pain and with addiction problems, as a sufferer of chronic pain due to back injury, and as someone who has seen friends and family die as a consequence of addiction.

The ghost-woman trapped at the station represents the classic, purely self-destructive individual that most people probably imagine when they think of drug addicts:  someone who, for whatever reasons, started taking drugs and got hooked on them.  I dealt with this tangentially in Ifowonco, but it’s central to Prometheus and Chiron.  This ghost is a woman whose life was ruined—and ended—by her abuse of narcotics.  Unfortunately for her, at the place she died, a supernatural force was present, one not merely destructive but actively malevolent.

Tommy, on the other hand—the protagonist—is a different breed of addiction victim.  He’s a former Marine, a hard worker, a basically upright citizen and good person, who worked in the construction industry.  Because of an accident on the job, he’s been left with chronic pain from low back and knee injuries.  He’s qualified for disability benefits, but as many people know, these can be woefully limited in the relief they provide.  To cover his cost of living, Tommy has to do at least some paying work now and then, but he has to hide that work from the authorities, so he doesn’t lose his benefits, and he has to treat his pain to be able to function at all.  Unfortunately, the only available medicines capable of dealing with significant chronic pain are opiates…and they come with a series of liabilities, including increasing levels of physical dependence—and the risk of psychological dependence—and consequent, agonizing withdrawal symptoms if one is suddenly deprived of them.  This is a terrible, no-win situation in which all too many well-intentioned people find themselves.

It’s this dependence on opiates, which he shares with the ghost-woman, that allows Tommy to see her, and that, combined with his good heart, makes him vulnerable to the danger he encounters.

The title of this story arrived after I’d almost completed the first draft, but it must have been percolating through my subconscious for some time.  It is, in a way, somewhat pretentious, but I couldn’t help myself; it seemed so appropriate.  It also risks, for those familiar with mythology, giving away the end of the story.  I recognized that possibility but decided that the risk was worth it.

Prometheus and Chiron is shorter than many of my short stories, and it’s fairly concentrated and direct.  Writing it was enjoyable—it almost always is—and more than a little bit cathartic.  It allowed me to express some of the personal horror I experienced while taking prescription pain medications for many years while at the same time suffering through the pain that made them necessary.  (It wouldn’t be too over-simplistic to say that those experiences were a large part of what led to the crashing and burning of my previous life.)

Writing Tommy’s character was a revelatory experience.  Knowing that he was going to be going through some very bad things indeed, I named him after someone I knew—not well, but well enough to know that I didn’t like him much.  However, as I wrote, I realized that my fictional Tommy was a far finer person than my impression of his namesake.  This led me to wonder if, just maybe, the real person had aspects to his character that were also quite admirable, if only on some small scale, and which I was being uncharitable in not recognizing.  I can’t give you an answer to that question, because I only knew the real Tommy briefly and haven’t seen or heard from him in a long time.  Maybe, though, if we all knew the inner workings of other people’s minds as well as we experience imaginary characters through the medium of fiction, we would find at least some sympathy for even the most unpleasant of people.  For me, at least, that’s probably a lesson worth considering.

Enough philosophizing.  Ultimately, Prometheus and Chiron was meant to be, and is, a fairly simple supernatural horror story, and I don’t expect or ask for anyone to care much about it on any other level.  I hope you enjoy it.

Author’s note for “I for one welcome our new computer overlords”

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I for one welcome our new computer overlords was the first new short story I wrote after having completed Mark Red, The Chasm and the Collision, and Son of Man.*  Despite what you might think, this was not a story that driven by its title, though that came along shortly after the story began, and I’ll deal with it first.  The title is a direct quote from Ken Jennings, who wrote it as his Final Jeopardy answer when he and his fellow all-time human Jeopardy champion lost to IBM’s Watson computer.  It was a good joke, referring back to an episode of The Simpsons, when news anchor Kent Brockman mistakenly thinks that a space shuttle mission is being attacked by a “master race of giant space ants,” adding, “and I for one welcome our new insect overlords.”  The obvious joke—particularly funny because Brockman’s conclusion is so ridiculous—is about how real people do sometimes, cynically, and in cowardly fashion, try to ingratiate themselves to powerful ruling classes or individuals.

Peter Lunsford, the main character of I for one welcome our new computer overlords, is no coward.  He’s a seemingly simple man—without college education, a widower, a loner, a phone salesman.  But he’s a voracious reader, and even more, he is a deeply thoughtful and intelligent person.  Because of his own experiences with irrationality, even in people he has loved, he pines for the advent of a higher class of mind, which he expects to come from the eventual creation of artificial intelligence.  But he’s by no means a misanthrope.  He laments the senselessness of much human behavior but has an optimistic attitude toward the possibilities inherent in human creativity.  He also has a deep sense of the tragedy of the loss of brilliant people like his wife who, because of the scars of her harsh background, self-sabotaged her future through a fatal drug overdose.  Thus, when Peter wins a nearly billion-dollar lottery jackpot, he uses it to create an educational program and a scholarship fund to help people like his wife avoid the tragic end she met, and to allow at least some of them reach their potential and make great contributions to the world.

The triggers for this story were discussions by neuroscientist, writer, and podcaster Sam Harris, of whom I am a fan.  Harris began to think publicly about dangers that might be posed to humanity by our possible creation of artificial intelligence; he recommended that we think very carefully about such dangers, so we can avoid potentially irreversible errors.  His concerns are shared by such luminaries as Max Tegmark, Elon Musk, and the late, great Stephen Hawking, in contrast to the quasi-Utopian attitudes of such writers and thinkers as Ray Kurtzweil.  Both points of view are worth considering, and it’s an issue I think we should approach with our eyes as wide open as we can possibly get them.  But when contemplating Harris, et al’s concerns, I couldn’t help thinking that, if a truly superior artificial intelligence were to make humans obsolete, would that be such a terrible thing?  Peter Lunsford is my proponent of that perspective.**

I wanted to write a story revolving around those concerns about artificial intelligence, but I didn’t want to write about a cliché takeover of the world by AI—in this, my title is deliberately ironic.  Personally, I suspect that ethics and morality are generally improved by higher intelligence, all other things being equal, so I think that artificial intelligences might be inherently more ethical and reserved than we humans, with all our non-rational evolutionary baggage.  In this, Ifowonco is a story of wish-fulfillment.  It’s my daydream of the possibility that someone winning a truly gargantuan sum of money might use it to deeply positive philanthropic effect, inspiring others to act likewise, then leading, through that beneficial action, to a great leap forward in intelligent life (yes, I would without embarrassment refer to AI as a form of life).

Of course, you can’t say that Ifowonco is a uniformly happy story.  It entails a (non-nuclear) World War III, the rejection of AI by the human race, and of course, Peter Lunsford’s willful self-destructiveness.  Overall, though, it’s optimistic.  Darrell White is my example of a brilliant, world-changing mind springing from the least promising of seeming circumstances, wanting only the opportunity and nurturing that would allow such a mind to flourish.  He and my imagined AIs represent of my personal conviction that reason and morality and vastly more powerful than their antitheses; I cite as evidence for this the fact that civilization continues to exist and grow, even though it’s so much easier to destroy than to create.

In some senses, Ifowonco is the most personal story that I’ve written hitherto.  Of course, any character in a story must be a reflection of some part of the mind of the author—a person incapable of dark thoughts could hardly write a believable villain, for instance.  But Peter Lunsford is the avatar of a large part of my personality, in both his positive and negative character attributes.  Though I’ve had almost twice as much formal education as Peter, that difference is inconsequential because of Peter’s incessant self-education.  There is, in fact, almost no daylight between Peter Lunsford and me (and what little there is must generally be in Peter’s favor).  I would even like to think that, were I to win a prize such as Peter wins, I would choose to do with it something like what he does; in this, also, the story is a form of wish-fulfillment.

Speaking, in closing, of wish fulfillment:  I deliberately made the reality of the second half of the story ambiguous.  Do Darrell White and his creations, and all that comes with them, even exist in this universe?  Or are he and those subsequent beings and events simply a species of dream that Peter has while his brain succumbs to hypoxia?

I know the answer to this question in the universe of the story—and yes, there is a correct answer—but I’m not going to tell you what it is.  I’d rather have you draw your own conclusions.  I think it’s more fun that way, and it may even be a useful tool for personal reflection, bringing us back to that whole question of consciousness that troubles thinkers like Sam Harris.  I’d be intrigued and delighted to hear any of your thoughts on the subject, so feel free to send them my way, either here, or on Facebook, or on Twitter.  I wish you well.


* Just this week I released the audio of this story, now available to enjoy, for free, here on my blog.

** I don’t have the concerns, which Harris does, about the possibility that AI could be highly intelligent and competent but might nevertheless not be conscious, for two reasons:  First, I strongly suspect that consciousness is a natural epiphenomenon of highly complex information processing involving internal as well as external monitoring and response, though I’m far from sure; and second, I can’t be philosophically certain even that other humans are conscious (I think they are, but this extrapolation is based on my own experience and their apparent similarity to me), but it doesn’t seem to matter much for the purposes of their function in the world.

Author’s note for “If the Spirit Moves You”

This author’s note for If the Spirit Moves You is the last one from Welcome to Paradox City, and though it’s the middle story in that small collection, I think it was the last one that I wrote.  It’s also the lightest-hearted story in the book, though it still qualifies as one of “three dark tales,” because its subject matter is ghosts…or the “unquiet dead” as one of the characters in the story asks us to say.

This was not a title-driven story.  The idea for it was triggered by a comment I heard while staying with my parents and my sister for a few months, after having completed Work Release at the tail end of my sojourn with the Florida DOC.  It was October and, as was their wont, my sister and mother had put up many holiday-related decorations in and around the house, including the front lawn.  One morning my sister came in from raking some leaves and she said to my mother that, while she was out front, a ghost fell out of the tree near her.  I knew she was referring to one of the decorations she had put up earlier, but her statement made me think about what might happen if a person were outside and a real ghost fell out of a nearby tree.

Of course, ghosts, as understood in popular culture, aren’t normally prone to falling, so the idea seemed humorous to me.  I wondered under what circumstances a ghost really might be subject to the usual influence of gravity.  I also wondered under what circumstances a person might actually see such a thing happen.

The story didn’t develop right then and there but percolated and fermented and sporulated and incubated and underwent all sorts of other metaphorical processes for quite some time.  Finally, it popped out in more or less complete form:  What if people don’t see ghosts anymore, not because we have come to know that they don’t exist, but because the increasing disbelief in them has deprived them of their power?  If that were the case, and if they realized it, how might they seek to change the situation, so that they could regain their influence.  Also, why would they want to do it?  I thought it would be more interesting, and more fun, if they weren’t trying to accomplish anything sinister, but rather to bring themselves to the attention of the modern world, so they could enlist the aid of modern science in helping to free them from their prison as earthbound spirits.

The purpose of writing this story was just to play with the idea.  I suppose that’s ultimately true of any story at some level, but I also wanted to make this one funny, at least a little.  Thus, the almost slapstick nature of the young ghost’s tumble from the tree while trying to practice hanging himself, and the confused subsequent interaction between him and Edgar Lee, the story’s protagonist, in which each only slowly realizes the other’s nature.

Among many influences on the story, one is my love of manga and anime, a taste I acquired only after I was already in my thirties.  The supernatural stories in manga often have a different kind of sensibility than many traditional Western tales.  This is probably partly because of the cultural heritage of Shintoism, which considered spirits to be integral and essential parts of the world.  Many anime and manga have characters who—unlike nearly all of their fellow modern humans—can see and interact with spirits of one kind or another, good and bad.  This would be just the sort of person who might encounter an inept ghost falling out of a tree.  Thus, Edgar Lee, I decided, had at least some Asian heritage…including a great-grandfather who had, in China, used a peach wood sword to exorcise demons.

I enjoyed combining seemingly contradictory attributes into individual characters in this story.  There’s the inept and clumsy young ghost with a bit of a snarky attitude, who is a fan of James Randi—that rock-star of the skeptical debunker community.  There’s the ghost’s friend and fellow spirit, the instigator of the plan to reawaken belief in and awareness of ghosts, who is painfully PC in his sensibilities and tries to raise consciousness about the inappropriate use of stereotypes regarding the “unquiet dead”.  There’s Edgar’s father, a sober and rational retired electrical engineer who is utterly unsurprised when Edgar discovers his own supernatural ability, and who says, “These things happen.”  And of course, there’s Edgar himself, a struggling copywriter for a PR firm who realizes that he is possibly the last person on Earth who can see ghosts.

This obviously isn’t supposed to be a deep story, though I do try to take it and its characters seriously within their own world.  It’s always harder to be funny than it is to be scary—probably for good, sound, biological reasons—so I rarely write to try to make other people laugh.  In this story, mostly, I was writing to make myself laugh, or at least to smile, while still creating interesting characters with a problem that really would be bad if we were faced with it.  How horrible would it be to be trapped on Earth for eternity, unable to have any effect whatsoever on anything that happens?  Pretty horrible, I’m thinking.

The story makes a nice buffer between the other two in Welcome to Paradox City, neither of which has much humor, and both of which have very non-happy endings.  If the Spirit Moves You ends on a rather optimistic note, and I like sometimes to imagine what sort of events might have followed the story’s conclusion.  I hope that some readers think about such things as well, and that at least a few of them share my bizarre sense of humor and get a modest laugh out of the story.

Finally, a brief word about the title.  The first draft of the story was complete before I even started thinking about what to call it, and that task required a few solid days’ pondering.  I considered and rejected several rather stupid and ham-handed plays on words, including one which turned out already to have been used by a Bugs Bunny cartoon.  Finally, I decided just to go with a slight variant on the dry joke Edgar’s father makes at the end of the story.  He is, probably, my favorite character in the tale, and is partly modeled after my own father; giving him (nearly) the last word as well as the honor of naming the story seemed entirely appropriate.

Author’s note for “Son of Man”

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[Spoiler Alert:  Parts of the discussion below reveal aspects of the book that the first-time reader may not want to know…which, I suppose, is the basic definition of “Spoiler Alert”.]

Son of Man is the oldest of my published works—oldest in the sense that it’s the oldest of my story ideas that has been fully written and published.  It is also oldest in the sense that it is the published book I started writing longest ago.  I began it in the nineties, while I was in med school and was living in White Plains, New York.  I don’t recall the exact amount that I wrote at the time; it may have been only the first five or six pages.  But the book as it now exists begins with a scene almost identical to what I wrote then, reconstructed from memory, including the names of the first three characters introduced.  The character Michael was also present in the original idea.  I might have gotten as far as his introduction into the story at the time; certainly, his entrance, and even his initial words, have been fully present in my head for the last two decades. Continue reading

Author’s note for “The Death Sentence”

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The Death Sentence, physically if not temporally the first story in Welcome to Paradox City, is probably the most obvious of my stories to have been title-triggered.  I don’t recall exactly when I decided to use the phrase as the title for a story, but it surely was at least partly influenced by my having been an involuntary guest of the Florida DOC.  I spent my guesthood mainly in FSP West—the Florida State Prison, west unit.  This was directly adjacent to the big, old-fashioned, main prison building, where Death Row was located.  Roughly once a month while I was there, all activity was shut down and everyone was confined to their quarters for an afternoon—usually a Tuesday, if memory serves—while an execution was carried out*.

The actual origin of the story, however, didn’t take place until I was all but through with the DOC, nearing the end of my time in work release.  I hadn’t completed the first draft of Son of Man at the time, though it was proceeding well.  I don’t recall what led me to take a break to write a short story, but I’d been pleased with Paradox City, and have always enjoyed reading short horror stories, so I decided to write another one, and the notion of The Death Sentence came readily to mind.

The idea arises from a simple play on words, of course:  There is a sentence, in the linguistic sense, obviously not in English, that causes death.  I decided that it would have to be heard to take effect…in other words, if the sentence is spoken aloud, anyone who hears it will die, instantly (except the speaker).

This is, in some ways, a sort of dark wish-fulfillment.  How many of us wouldn’t at least imagine that we’d like to have access to such a potent and untraceable weapon, to remove from the world those who really deserve it, in our own minds at least.  Contrary to the fantasizing, though, I think most people—not everyone, alas—would, if they found such a thing, never willingly use it, except perhaps in self-defense, or in similar circumstances.

There’s strong evidence supporting this conclusion, it’s not just some Pollyanna notion of human benignity.  Many of us occasionally find ourselves in situations in which we could exercise power over our fellow human beings in various malevolent ways, and we almost never do so.  Similarly, though there are at least as many firearms as there are humans in the United States, a truly tiny number of them are ever used against other people.

Of course, as Louis CK has opined, this is partly just because it really sucks getting caught murdering someone, but if the laws against murder were to be repealed, “There would be a lot of murder.”  He was doing a stand-up routine, though, and was probably exaggerating even his own thoughts.  Deliberate, premeditated murder is a rarity, thankfully.  There are people who will do it, though, as we all know.  Some are mentally ill in obvious ways, some are sociopathic in character, some are just supreme assholes.  But what would even a non-psychopath do who had stumbled across a magical sentence that could kill any listener?  It would clearly be untraceable, an impossible crime to solve by any ordinary means.  What sort of person would find the temptation to use it—at least here and there—irresistible?  Again, I think most people would not use it, but maybe someone who was socially awkward, a bit of an outsider, might at least be slightly more inclined…though such a person’s conscience might torment him in the end.

But I didn’t want to write just a simple story of a person who discovers such a power and uses it to get even with those he has perceived to have wronged him, but finally gets his comeuppance, either through the workings of fate or through the dictates of his own guilt.  That could be a good story, but it seemed too obvious to me.  There had to be more to it.

Also, where on Earth would someone find such a sentence?  Probably nowhere that really was on Earth, at least not in the ordinary way.  It certainly wouldn’t be likely to originate anywhere in the human realm.  And it would be unlikely to stand on its own, but would surely be found in some ancient, dreadful tome, full of many such tidbits of terrible, arcane knowledge.  When imagining such a tome, what springs into the mind of any lover of horror literature but the works of H.P. Lovecraft?  I wouldn’t literally want to bring the Necronomicon itself into my story, certainly not in its original version (so to speak), but why not have some related text appear?  And where better for it to appear but in a library, perhaps in some hidden room that isn’t normally accessible by patrons, but which might, at just the right time, be opened for a person of just the right type of mind?

And that was that.  The story, more or less, was born.  Of course, a tome of Lovecraftian nature would not merely be content to have its bearer haplessly—or even willfully—use the power within to kill random or targeted humans.  (It almost goes without saying that such a dark repository of knowledge would have a mind and purposes of its own.)  Why would it bother to do such a thing?  Humans, after all, from the point of view of the gods and demons of the Cthulhu mythos, are as ephemeral as mayflies; a single human life—or even a thousand—brought up short might momentarily entertain such creatures, but could hardly be a matter of importance, worthy of any effort.  There had to be some greater motive, some other purpose, at hand.

Thus, the protagonist (we can hardly call him “hero”) of the story learns, even as he discovers the effect of the single legible, if unintelligible, sentence in this strange but strangely fascinating book, and uses it, that there are other effects to its use beyond simply bringing death to those who hear it.  Gradually, he becomes aware of a deeper, more terrible secret to the book, and to our flimsy, soap-bubble universe, behind which lies the true reality of the dark, Outer Gods…gods which have no need for any human worship.

Of course, no mortal could encounter such information and remain unscathed.  Insanity is one of the most common findings among Lovecraft’s characters, but even that might be mild compared to other fates.  Needless to say, the protagonist of The Death Sentence is not unaffected by his encounter with the book and the titular sentence.  By the end of the story, it’s difficult to say where his new fate will lead him, but it’s unlikely to be a destination that the rest of us would want him to choose.  Unfortunately, we’re not likely to be given a choice.

Now, a little side-note.  It’s fairly common practice among authors to occasionally indulge ourselves by putting people who have really irritated us into stories and having them suffer, or even die.  This betrays a dark part of human nature, no doubt, but it can surely come as no big surprise.  I can think of two occasions in which I have indulged in this practice (I far more often model good people in my stories roughly after real people I’ve known).  The Death Sentence is where one of those occasions occurs.  I’m not going to reveal which of the several deaths in the story it was (you may freely hazard your guesses), but I exculpate myself by saying that this person is among the most odious that it has been my misfortune to encounter…and, remember, I’ve been to prison!  I feel no guilt over killing this person in my story (though in real life, I even feel guilty about killing cockroaches…and I try never to kill spiders, which are, after all, predators on a great many insect pests for whom I have much less pity**.)

This is probably more than really needed to be said about The Death Sentence.  At heart, it’s just a pure, gonzo horror story, written entirely for the fun of giving the reader a harmless thrill; in this, I suppose it’s a bit like building a roller-coaster, but much less expensive.  Still, even the most light-hearted tale can sometimes have benefits besides pure entertainment, and it may be useful for us to imagine what we might do if we were suddenly to uncover a perfect, untraceable, irresistible weapon.  Putting away indulgence in fantasy, I think most people would do far better, be far more restrained, than they might expect of themselves.

Maybe I’m just a Pollyanna after all.


*Florida is one of the last bastions of the death penalty in America, and under Governor Scott (aka Governor Voldemort…if you want to know why some call him that, just google a few photos), it was carried out with almost unprecedented frequency.

**and though I leave them completely alone when I’m out of doors, I am positively enthusiastic about killing ants when they get in the house, especially in the kitchen.  This is partly for practical reasons:  if one ant finds food, she’s going to bring ten thousand of her sisters to come get more of it.  But it’s also simply a fact that, if I were to invade an ant colony, they would do their level best to kill me, so it only seems fair that I kill them if they come into my home.

Author’s note for “The Chasm and the Collision”

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The Chasm and the Collision is my currently published novel that has the most recent—and what might be thought inauspicious—origins.  I came up with the idea for it while I was an involuntary resident of Gun Club Road, a period lasting eight months.  It was a longer stretch of enforced restriction from most of the sources of intellectual stimulation to which I was used than I think I’ve experienced either before or since.

During that time, thanks to the help of my ex-wife, I was able to keep in contact with my children by calling them two days a week—though the calls were restricted to fifteen minutes at a time, and this was disheartening (though positively luxurious compared to my current interactions).  My children were around eleven and twelve at the time, my son just entering middle school and my daughter in the latter year or so of elementary school. Continue reading