Life is as tedious as twice-told tale, vexing the dull ear of a drowsy blog.*

Good day, all.  It’s Thursday again, and time for another incarnation of my weekly blog post.  Rejoice!

It’s been a relatively eventful few weeks with respect to my writing.  As stated before, I’ve put the production of the audio chapters of CatC on indefinite hiatus.**  This is partly due to an apparent lack of public interest (if you are a counterexample to that, please let me know).  Mainly, however, it’s due to a combination of factors within me and my life.  Specifically, the production of the audio takes a lot of my spare time and mental energy, and without any obvious feedback, I’d rather put those resources into doing what I love most:  writing new things. Continue reading

Hole for a Heart – the audio

Well, here it is at last, the audio version of Hole for a Heart.  As always, feel free to listen at your leisure, to download, and even to share the story.  If you like it, I hope you’ll consider buying a copy of the e-book, here.  But, also as always, you are not authorized to make any money in the process.

Enjoy!

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.

Prometheus and Chiron – The Audio!

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Here it is, now, the audio version (read by me) of Prometheus and Chiron.  Feel free to listen, to download, etc., but don’t charge anyone for the privilege.  I think I’m getting steadily better at doing the audio, though I welcome your feedback.

Enjoy!  And if you do enjoy, please do consider buying the e-book on Amazon, here.  It’s only 99 cents.

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 “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.

Prometheus and Chiron

 

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Tommy—a former Marine, a part-time construction worker, dependent on opiates for the treatment of chronic pain—is waiting for the train home one evening, when he sees a strange, shivering, ill-appearing woman seated on a bench across the track from him. Her presence fills him with dread and revulsion, for no reason he can understand. Even after a month passes, she remains, seated in the same place, always visibly suffering. No one else at the station ever seems to see her at all. But Tommy sees her, and even dreams about her.

And she sees him.