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 “The Death Sentence”

Welcome to Paradox City Icon

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.

A blog post told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Okay, well, today I’m going to take a brief break from my “Author’s Notes” series, to give you some updates and reflections upon what’s happening in my current writing.  I plan to return to the Author’s Notes next week, with a reflection on “The Chasm and the Collision.”  This one of my most emotion-laden works, and is, perhaps, the closest one to my heart.  At least, it’s the one that bears the greatest personal hope and motivation, though my darker stories are probably more reflective of some aspects of my personality.

Those of you who follow this blog will have noted that, earlier this week, I published “Prometheus and Chiron,” as an e-book for Kindle.  As with “I for one welcome our new computer overlords,” I think it benefited greatly from my decision to re-edit it de novo.  This fact has convinced me more than ever of the wisdom of a suggestion Stephen King gives in his wonderful book “On Writing.”  He recommends that, once you have finished a story, you put it away for a while before beginning the editing/rewriting process.  That way, when you come back to it, you do so with a fresh point of view, and a more objective eye.

Both “Ifowonco” and “Prometheus and Chiron” were subjected to rewriting and editing before I ever posted them here on the blog, and yet when I returned to them, I found that they needed quite a bit of fine-tuning.  This was not specific to the narrative—I was well satisfied with the arcs of both stories, and didn’t change any of those substantial facts.  But the language use, the choice of words—stylistic matters, as well as grammatical ones—bore significant improvement.  This is probably at least partly a result of the fact that, in putting the stories on my blog, I was publishing them informally.  I was happy and eager to receive any feedback, including the pointing out of glaring stylistic problems, grammatical errors, and so on, by blog readers.  This didn’t happen—unfortunately—but I would have welcomed it, and so perhaps I was a bit lazy.  Beyond that, though, it’s simply a fact that I first edited the stories immediately after writing them, and so I was still in the mindset of that initial creative process, not in that of a critic.  The story in both cases was so fresh in my head that it flowed right through the awkward phrasings and poor word choices that I had used, because I knew only too well what I meant to say.  Coming back after a while helped me realize that, while my intention might have been clear to me, the true measure of success is how well that intention is communicated, not how strongly it was felt by the author.

So, I’m pleased with the outcomes of my more recent editing, though I’m sure that both stories—like every other one ever written, probably—could be improved still.  Stories, I think, are never really finished from the author’s point of view; they’re just allowed to go free.

My happiness at putting those two short stories out as e-books has led me to take a short break from “Unanimity” and focus entirely on rewriting “Hole for a Heart” to release it as an e-book.  Then, I shall return to “Unanimity,” and complete it while not working on any other simultaneous fiction projects.  Thankfully—and I am indeed quite thankful for this—I am blessed with the ability easily to return to the state of mind I was last in when writing a story, and am able quickly to jump back into the stream of its creation, without losing the earlier threads.  This is why I was able to write “Son of Man” more than twenty years after I had first started it, with an opening that is almost identical, even in specific phrases, to how I had written it decades in the past.  The story then proceeded, more or less, just I had thought it would back in the nineties.

Of course, even in a story conceived and written in one continuous, unbroken chain of creation, there are always surprises.  That’s one of the great joys of writing fiction.  Characters and events are simulations, of a sort, and they follow the rules you program into them.  Sometimes the interplay of these rules produces outcomes the writer didn’t explicitly imagine or expect when beginning the story, but which are inescapable products of the nature of those characters and events.  This is really quite a wonderful thing, when it happens, and feels nearly miraculous.

Given my plan to focus on it exclusively, I expect that “Hole for a Heart” will be released more quickly on the heels of “Prometheus and Chiron” than the latter was following “Ifowonco.”  I could be wrong.  “Hole for a Heart” is even slightly longer than “Ifowonco,” and is quite a bit longer than “Prometheus and Chiron.”  It may take a lot of work to tighten it up optimally and to shape it into a form for which I’m willing to charge people actual money.

And now, to quote Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”  At least, that’s all I have to say for the moment.  I’m a bit long-winded, in writing if not in person, so I don’t doubt that more will be forthcoming on these topics in the future.  In the meantime, please do consider buying and reading my stories, and if you do, please review them.  In fact, if you write to me and ask, I’d be happy to buy you a copy of any of my short stories—and probably my novels—in return for the promise that you will review them.  I don’t need you to promise to give them good reviews.  You can be brutal and needlessly sadistic, if that’s your preference.  In this, I am fearless, for I suspect that—once one stops weeping—it’s possible to learn more from the feedback of a malicious reviewer than from one who merely sings one’s praises, though the latter is no doubt more pleasant.  This doesn’t mean I want you to say you don’t like the stories if you really do like them, just that you don’t have to butter me up; I’m fat enough already.

I hope you all have a wonderful week.  Try not let politics get you down too much—everything’s ephemeral, after all.


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.

Author’s note for “Paradox City”

Paradox City Cover2

“Paradox City” is the next story I wrote—or completed, anyway—after I finished the first draft of “Mark Red.”  I say “completed,” because I actually began writing “The Chasm and the Collision” months before I started “Mark Red,” in apparent contradiction to what I wrote in my previous author’s note.  But I had only written what were then the first and second chapters of “CatC,” which were eventually consolidated into one chapter, and had then put them aside.  I also didn’t have them with me while I was a guest of the Florida State Department of Corrections.  My mother, thankfully, had a printout of the chapters, and my intention was to complete that book once I had finished “Mark Red,” when I had worked enough of the rust from my writing gears.  However, the chapters hadn’t arrived yet by the time I finished “Mark Red.”  While I waited, I wanted to be productive and to maintain my daily early-morning writing habits, so I decided to write a short story. Continue reading

I for one welcome our new computer overlords

ifowonco final

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Peter Lunsford, a lonely, book-loving, self-educated and self-destructive salesman, has an abrupt and radical change of fortune. His subsequent actions lead a genius named Darrell White, enabled and inspired by Peter’s choices, to create the world’s first artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, this happens at a time when humanity has devastated itself with global war, and is unprepared to accept the existence of these new and superior minds. These facts will combine to create a future that Peter would not have had the courage to expect, and the implications of which are impossible to foresee.

Give to a gracious message an host of posts

ifowonco final

Hello and good day to you all.  I’m pleased to announce, as the picture above might lead you to believe, that “I for one welcome our new computer overlords” is now available for purchase on Amazon—for the price of a mere 99 cents.  If you wish to go to the Amazon page on which it is available, you need only click the picture above and you will be taken there.  It’s almost like magic, but it’s even better; it’s technology.

This story isn’t going to be available as a paperback in its current form (though it may in future appear as part of a collection).  It is rather long for a “short story,” being just shy of 23,000 words in length (about forty single-spaced pages), but it still just isn’t economically viable to sell as a physical book.  The costs of production would make the necessary asking price prohibitive for almost any sensible purchaser.  So, currently, if you want to read it (and I think that’s a reasonable wish), you’ll have to buy it for Kindle.  In case you didn’t know already, you can download the Kindle app for free, here, to read from any computer, tablet, or smartphone, so there’s nothing to prevent you from enjoying it.  The fact that you’re reading this online suggests that you are amenable to reading works that are presented in electronic format, so presumably you won’t be deterred from reading it by its e-book nature.  Although, interestingly, the main character of the story itself prefers to read books in hard copy format, though he happily reads articles and blogs online.

Oh, the irony.

I have withdrawn “Ifowonco” from its previous proud place here on the blog; I have also unpublished my two other short stories here, “Prometheus and Chiron” and “Hole for a Heart.”  They will both shortly become available on Kindle as well, but there may be a bit of a delay, as I don’t want to slow down the writing of “Unanimity” too much.  I’ve toyed with the idea of assigning two days a week just to the editing of these stories until they are ready for publication, and reserving the rest of the week for the writing of “Unanimity.”  I think I’ll try this out as a possible paradigm for balancing the writing of new material with the editing of completed projects in the future.  Both tasks are essential, but I have learned—from the long process of editing previous books, during which time I held off writing new ones—that I get a bit blue if I’m not writing new fiction.

Those of you who have been following this blog might have noticed that I recently put up four posts that are essentially the same as the descriptions in the “My Books” page about my books that are published and available on Amazon.  I’ll probably do the same for “Ifowonco,” and for subsequent stories as well, and the reason for this is simple:  When I share the location of these books to Twitter directly from Amazon, the tweets occur without any attached imagery, and that makes for a less interesting promotional tweet.  The same problem doesn’t occur on Facebook, but it has its own issues with how links are promoted, so using it requires its own specific strategies and tactics.

I’m still conflicted about posting author’s notes on Amazon in the reviews section, mainly because it would entail giving a “star rating” to the books, and I worry that that might be a bit misleading.  Still, maybe it would be useful as a way of just priming the pump for reviews.

I would like here officially and earnestly to request that any of you who have bought and/or read my books please give your feedback on Amazon.  It’s terribly useful, both for the author and for other potential buyers, to have that feedback on the site, so browsers can decide if the book sounds like the sort of thing they might like to read.  I know it can be a minor pain, and I don’t do it myself for absolutely every book that I buy, but I do try at least to rate the ones that I’ve bought once I have read them, even if I don’t leave a detailed review.  Even a single sentence could be terribly helpful to me, and to your fellow readers.

No matter what, I think I will write an author’s note for each of my published works—including “Ifowonco”—and post them here, for loyal readers to get feedback that might be interesting.  Of course, I’ve written about many of the stories here already, in various places, but to have a specific, dedicated author’s note might be useful, or interesting, or at least entertaining.

Speaking of being entertaining, I’m sorry if this post isn’t as fun or as funny as some of my others—though perhaps no one ever finds my posts funny, I don’t know—but as you are all aware, it’s the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and I, like so many, am mentally fatigued.  It’s something of an irony that, even at a purportedly joyous time of the year, so many people are heavily stressed.  This is true even for those who have nearby family and friends, and an emotional support system, to share the joys and the burdens of the season with them.  It can be more poignant and difficult still for those of us who do not have those things, especially overlying the dark time of the year as it does, when people prone to mood disorders are more likely to have trouble with them.  Still, the days are now beginning to lengthen, and even if there is no tangible change yet in the duration of the light (we are near the minimum of the sine curve, and the rate of change of the function is almost as low as it gets), we at least have the benefit of being able to anticipate with hope the increasing sunshine to come.

Of course, we would never want there to be no darkness at all.  Darkness can be beautiful, even when it is frightening, even when it is terrible.  Too much of it, though, tends to wither the heart.

Again, please do give me feedback on the author’s note/review notion, if you have any feedback at all to give.  And even more, please do review or at least rate those works of mine which you might have purchased and/or read.  I would be truly grateful…for whatever that’s worth.