It’s the early nineteen-nineties, and Jerry, a successful advertising executive, is having a breakdown. He’s done too much shading of the truth, and he’s watched too much Headline News, and he can no longer make sense of the world. Now, sitting at the breakfast table, he contemplates the possible future for himself and his family while dealing out a hand of solitaire…
Good morning, all! It’s the first day of November, and the day after Halloween (funny how often it seems to work out like that). I hope those of you who celebrated had an enjoyable time yesterday making light of the dark things by pretending to be them, and laughing, and having some candy and other treats. Halloween is my favorite holiday, and I dressed up for work (as a dark cowboy…sort of an amalgam of the Man in Black and the Gunslinger from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower), but I really didn’t do anything else to celebrate. I got home too late—and was too darn tired—to participate in giving out candy to trick-or-treaters, so I basically just laid around in the evening, trying and failing to get a good night’s sleep.
My writing goes well, though more slowly than I would prefer. Unanimity approaches one of its most terrible moments, after which events will come truly to a head, and the conclusion will be rendered. It won’t be a happy ending, I’m afraid, but the “bad guy” will be defeated, and the surviving good people will do their best to get on with their lives. This is often the best for which we can hope, whether in real life or in stories. Very few characters—real or imaginary—have the option of sailing into the West, into the Undying Lands, to find healing.
I’ve thrown a little reference, or whatever one might call it, to my story Hole for a Heart into Unanimity, since some of the characters in the novel happen to pass by the site where that short story took place. It seems that these tales take place in the same world, or at least very similar ones, and the presence of the malefactor from the short story is felt by, and may even have a slight influence on, those characters in Unanimity who come near it.
Penal Colony is now very nearly finished. Once it is, I’ll complete In the Shade before going back to rewrite and edit either short story. And of course, most importantly, Unanimity will continue to its conclusion. All this is, of course, assuming nothing bad happens to me in the meantime. We do live, in some senses, in a horror story—potentially, at least—and though for the most part we exist in the times of respite, the shadow still always takes on new forms and grows again. The trouble with real life is that the horrors are often less easily spotted and recognized for what they are than in books, plays, movies, and the like. They are often within us more than they are outside, and we become our own Great Old Ones, our own Crawling Chaos.
Maybe that’s part of why we enjoy dressing up on Halloween so much.
While we’re on the subject of darkness and horror, next week is the second Thursday of the new month, and I’m overdue to write a new episode of “My heroes have always been villains.” I look forward to it, really, and I think I know which villain I’m going to choose, though I may change my mind. In any case, those of you who are interested—if such people exist—can also look forward to it. This is, again, all and always assuming that some dark force or entity hasn’t swallowed me up whole between now and then. We can only wait and see.
With that, short though it’s been, the time is gone, and the song is over…though in my case, today, I didn’t honestly think I had more to say. I offer you all my condolences in facing the inevitable and abrupt onslaught of Christmas carols, decorations, shopping, and the like which will begin to rear their heads by today, if they haven’t so reared already. Don’t get me wrong, Christmas, Hanukkah, Saturnalia, the Winter Solstice…these things are fine and fun, but the concept creep, and the time creep, of the promotional lead-in has gotten slightly out of hand. I hope you find joy in it, no matter how overpowering or overdone it gets.
I started this morning with no idea what I was going to write. There isn’t much new to report with respect to my stories. Progress on Unanimity and on Penal Colony goes on at a steady pace. I haven’t started any new projects, and I don’t mean to do so until at least Penal Colony and In the Shade are both finished.
On the other hand, today is the last Thursday before Halloween, which is my favorite holiday. Last October, as a celebration of the season, I wrote the first draft of Hole for a Heart, a quite Halloween-ey tale. The story actually takes place in late spring, but its atmosphere is decidedly redolent of Halloween, and I pay lip-service to that fact during the story.
I’m not entirely sure why Halloween has always appealed to me so much. Part of it probably has to do with its arrival shortly after my birthday, but that annual milestone hasn’t pleased me for quite some time, and I still like Halloween just as much. Similarly, when I was younger, there’s little doubt that the acquisition of candy had no small influence on my holiday joy, but I’m not that big a candy person anymore, yet I’m still very much a Halloween person.*
Part of the attraction is that this is the most quintessentially autumnal of the holidays, and autumn has always been my favorite season, entirely unrelated to candy, to birthdays, and to any other more parochial concerns. I simply love the feel of this time of year, especially as it is up north. The changing of the colors of the leaves in southeastern Michigan, where I grew up, remains one of the most magical spectacles of nature. Also, I was one of those supposedly rare kids who really liked going back to school after summer vacation (I think there are more of us than we’ve been led to believe).
Autumn has also almost always been the time of year when I restart the Tolkien cycle, beginning sometimes with The Silmarillion but often with The Hobbit, and always proceeding to The Lord of the Rings. The fact that Frodo begins his adventure in the autumn surely contributes to my associational joy with the time of year. That happy connection has only been bolstered by the fact that the Harry Potter books begin on Halloween (albeit on a tragic note).
Deeper than this, though, is that I’ve always felt an affinity for dark stories (in case you couldn’t tell) and Halloween is the holiday of the shadowy tale; I don’t think I’m anything like alone in this. It’s not a coincidence that Stephen King is one of the most enduringly successful authors the world has yet seen. Halloween is a time when huge numbers of people, at least in America, indulge their inner King, and embrace stories of the dark, the supernatural, the otherworldly. For some people, it seems to be the only time when they use their imaginations at all.
Oddly enough, I’ve never really found Halloween scary, not even when I was a young child (no, not even the movie). It’s just too much fun, frankly, and that’s true even of most scary movies and stories. Weirdly, although I love most of Stephen King’s work, only two of his novels have ever frightened me (The Shining, and, more prominently, Pet Sematary). It’s odd, but horror stories in general seem to affect me much the way Halloween does: I feel them deeply, when they’re good, and I enjoy them; they resonate powerfully with me; but I don’t usually find them frightening.
The exceptions to this rule are interesting, and probably instructive. Only a rare few books have literally made me feel afraid for any noticeable period of time, including the two listed above, as well as Floating Dragon by Peter Straub, and—the long-reigning champion—The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, which has perhaps the best opening and closing paragraphs of any spooky story ever. A few Lovecraft short stories, and more Stephen King short stories—as well as some Orson Scott Card stories, surprisingly enough—succeed in this area, as do intermittent others (most notably, the bone-chilling story Nadelman’s God by T.E.D. Klein).
In movies, the phenomenon is rarer still, with crowning glory going to the original Alien (Event Horizon was pretty darn spooky, too; also—though lamentably stupid as a science fiction story—as a horror movie, Signs really and majorly creeped me out…possibly because I first watched it in a hotel room, alone, at night, far from home).
Obviously, I like writing stories that might make other people frightened, but I don’t approach the writing with the idea of doing anything calculated to build a scary atmosphere, to make people feel uncomfortable, to surprise them, to worry them, etc. At least, I don’t do it consciously. It’s the darkness, rather than the scariness, that seems pivotal to me, both in my writing and my reading. The same holds for my enjoyment of other literary forms, from plays, to movies, to video games, to TV shows.
And, of course, autumn is that time when darkness is gaining ground, with Halloween its most prominent celebration. After Frodo’s and Bilbo’s birthday, which is roughly at the equinox, the days in the northern hemisphere grow ever shorter, and darkness is ascendant. In the shadows, where there is less blinding, glaring, external input entering the mind, the imagination can be brought more readily into play. The mind’s eye sees most clearly in the dark.
Well, it seems I did have a fair amount to write today, after all. I could probably go on and on about this topic, but that might be truly horrifying, and not in a fun way; the “Chinese water torture” isn’t very dramatic as torments go, but it does sound maddening. I’ll spare you such erosion and hold off further discussions of darkness and stories for later times. In the meanwhile, please enjoy your Halloween (those of you who observe it). If you get a chance, dress up for it. Have some candy. Laugh at and about scary things.
But you might want to avoid going out by yourself too long after night falls. Even the darkest of entities like to give themselves treats from time to time, and a solitary human is a juicy morsel indeed.
*This isn’t quite the same—nor is it as bad—as being one of the Autumn People, à la Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, but it’s not entirely orthogonal, either.
Hello and good day. It’s another Thursday, and time for my weekly blog post.
I honestly have no idea what I’m going to write about today, so as I do with many things—for instance, when I draw pictures—I’m just going to start and see what happens. This is, perhaps, in some distant way akin to “automatic writing,” except that I see what I write as I write it. If I didn’t, it’s hard to know just how many typos there would be, but I’m certain that there would be many. In fact, it would be unreasonable for me to expect anything but gibberish. One might as well seat the proverbial thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters as engage in that particular experiment.
I guess what I’m doing is actually more akin to the classic, Freudian psychotherapeutic “free association,” in which the patient (that would be me…or should it be, “that would be I”?) just starts speaking and spits out any thought that wanders into his or her mind. Freud would then interpret these utterances as all having something to do with sex, at least if you believe the common impression of him.
Mind you, that’s not as crazy as it might sound once you think about it. After all, people do think about sex a lot. How could it be otherwise? Each one of us comes from an unbroken line of ancestors who achieved at least one successful sexual coupling. By “successful”, I mean “leading to offspring which, in turn, achieved sexual maturity and then, themselves, achieved at least one successful sexual coupling…” You get the idea. Repeat indefinitely, down through the eons, eventually producing you and me. None of us comes from ancestors who were virgins or celibates. Apart from breathing, drinking, and eating, surely the most prominent part of our beings is the sex drive…for good, sound, inescapable biological reasons.
Of course, the difficulty of navigating the phase space of our conflicting drives, emotions, social mores, and legal concerns does lead to problems at times, not the least of which is society’s terrible legacy of discrimination, sexual abuse, misogyny, and so on, and the understandable backlash against them, which can occasionally go too far in the other direction.
I don’t want to get too deeply into that right now. Suffice it to say that sex is important—it’s essential—but dealing with it in a modern, moral society can be extremely complicated. That’s just the way the world is, I’m afraid. If you want to live in a universe with simple dynamics which are susceptible to simple-minded solutions, you’ve picked the wrong universe. I suggest you move along and try another.
Writing about sex, though, in fiction, can be tricky. I, at least, am not very good—or at least not very comfortable—with it. However, there are times when at least the fact of sex is essential to some story that I’m writing, and I at least have to work in the subject matter. It’s rarely that important what the mechanics of a particular coupling are, so I tend to bring matters up to the point and then cut to the aftermath,* as in both Son of Man and Paradox City. If you’re reading my works for the dirty parts, you may be slightly disappointed so far.
But don’t lose heart. I can now tease you with the fact that, in my current novel (Unanimity) there are some more explicit, not-skipped-over sex scenes. This is not for prurient or commercial reasons (though I’m happy to titillate you to engage your interest), but because they really are necessary parts of the story. At least, they are necessary in my estimation, and since I’m the author, I’m the one with authority to make such decisions.
Speaking of Unanimity, it’s going well, and I’m excited about it.** As I’ve been saying for some time, it’s getting closer to the end, but that really goes without saying. Every word written is closer to the end, which doesn’t necessarily mean the end is near. Indeed, there is still much more that must happen before the story is finished, and though “journeys end in lovers meeting,” I fear that many of the people in my world will not be meeting lovers at the close of their journey. Many will not reach the end of the story at all, though they will reach the end of their own stories. Those who survive will be sadder, but hopefully wiser.
On other matters, the audio for the second chapter of The Chasm and the Collision is nearly complete and should be released by early next week. I’m having fun making these recordings, and hopefully those of you who listen will have fun listening. Also, as promised, next week I shall release the second installment in “My heroes have always been villains.” I haven’t yet decided which villain to explore, though there are oodles of them bouncing about with whom I could entertain myself. If any of you have requests, by all means—or at least by any available means—let me know. I can’t promise that I’ll go with your suggestion, but I do promise to take it into consideration.
With that, we’ll call it good for the week. Despite the fact that I had no idea what to write about, I’ve spewed out about a thousand words in the space of less than forty-five minutes. Of course, you may think the fact that I had nothing to write about is all too obvious, and that it would have been better had I abstained. You have every right to think that way.
And I have every right gleefully to ignore you.
*“Afterglow” is probably the term most people would tend to use, but since events in my stories rarely stay glowy and idyllic for long, I think “aftermath” is probably a better word.
**Not because of the sex thing.
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.
While driving through central Pennsylvania on a road trip from New Jersey to Chicago, Jonathan Lama spies a peculiar pairing on top of an approaching hill: A huge pecan tree, next to which lurks an out-of-place scarecrow. Intrigued, and craving a break in his long drive, he pulls off the highway and goes into the nearby gas station.
There, he hears the story of a man named Joshua Caesar, a person of possibly supernatural evil, who terrorized the region almost seventy years before, and was finally brought to rough justice by his neighbors in retaliation for his crimes. Local legend holds that the figure of the scarecrow is Joshua Caesar’s body—not changing, not decaying, staked out next to the highway for nearly seventy years.
Jon is entertained but of course does not believe the tale. Then his car suddenly refuses to start, and while he waits for a tow-truck to arrive, stranger things begin to happen…things which lead him to doubt his sanity, and to wonder if, just maybe, the legends of Joshua Caesar’s unchanging scarecrow corpse are actually real.
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.