Author’s note for “Hole for a Heart”

holeforaheartredgreywith frame

 

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”

pandccover

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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 “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.

Prometheus and Chiron

 

pandccover

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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

Now is the summer of our discontent made glorious winter by this blog post

Hello, good Thursday to you.  A very Happy Winter Solstice to all, and to all the longest night of the year.  At first glance that may not seem like something one ought to celebrate, yet cultures all around the northern hemisphere have celebrated it for time out of mind.  Mainly, I think, we revel in the fact that “this is as bad as it’s going to get.”  It’s actually one of the most festive times of the year, and that festive spirit is both an act of defiance of the darkness and a celebration of the imminent return of greater light.

Of course, as someone who writes mainly dark fiction (even my sci fi and my attempts at humor are quite shadowy), it might seem odd that I should celebrate the return of longer days.  But even most of the darkest stories tend to be about the struggle against the (metaphorical) nighttime, and the triumph of the light.

In long stories, at least, it’s generally necessary to come to a conclusion wherein the light triumphs and/or holds back the darkness.  There are exceptions, of course, many of them found in more “realistic” fiction, but the vast majority of novels end with the good guys winning, or at least with the bad guys losing.  This is understandable.  It’s a hell of a thing to journey through a story that’s 120,000 words long (and often quite a bit longer, as my novels tend to be), only to find that in the end everything goes to shit.  It’s even more terrible if the story is a series of novels.

Just imagine, for instance, that you finish reading “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” only to find that in the end Harry dies, and Voldemort wins.  Not only would it be a bummer—even if you’re a fan of good bad guys, as I am—but it would also make you unlikely to read the books again, or to recommend them to a friend.  It’s just too hard to undertake a seven-book odyssey knowing that your beloved heroes lose.  Of course, you always consider the possibility that they might lose as you read the books for the first time, and J.K. Rowling pulls no punches in having terrible things happen to characters we have grown to love.  But you nevertheless read her books, and others, with the optimism born of experience, that in the end, even if things aren’t exactly “happily ever after,” at least the immediate evil will have been contained or destroyed.  Our heroes sometimes come to a peaceful, productive life at the far end of their trials, à la Harry Potter; sometimes, they pay what seems an unendurable price for the benefit of defeating evil (poor Roland Deschain!).  But we can be reasonably safe in the assumption that, though all may not be well, the immediate threat will have been overcome.

This is just one of the advantages fiction has over reality.

On the other hand, one of the great, fun things about short stories is that the good guys don’t necessarily win in the end.  Short stories don’t even have to end with the bad guys losing.  In fact, they may end with everything just about as bad as it can possibly be.  In this, short stories really are Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, and sometimes it’s a box of chocolates made by Monty Python’s Whizzo Chocolate Company, where the best you can hope for is a Cherry Fondue that’s extremely nasty (but we can’t prosecute you for that), and you might just get a Crunchy Frog, a Cockroach Cluster, a Ram’s Bladder Cup, an Anthrax Ripple, or even a Spring Surprise (“covered in dark, velvety chocolate, the moment you pop it into your mouth, stainless steel bolts spring out and plunge straight through both cheeks”).

“Where’s the pleasure in that?” as Inspector Praline understandably exclaims, and you may well share his sentiments.  But…there is pleasure in that, at least in the metaphorical version of it that is the dark short story with no happy ending.  And I’m not quite sure why, but I really enjoy writing (short) stories that summon the shade of Jim Morrison, taunting, “No one here gets out alive.”

(Yes, we are mixing not merely metaphors and genres, but entire art forms here.  Don’t worry.  We can handle it.  We are large, we contain multitudes.)

Speaking of short stories:  I am almost ready to release “I for one welcome our new computer overlords,” on Kindle, in a newer, better version than the one I posted here.  I know it’s taking a long time, but as I’ve said before, this would go a lot faster if enough people bought my books that I could survive by writing full time (hint, hint).

For those who didn’t get the chance to read “Ifowonco” here on this blog, I’m going to make you wait and find out on your own whether the story is a lovely English Toffee or a Spring Surprise.  Either one can we wonderful.  Like Mr. Milton (the owner of the Whizzo Chocolate Company), I’m very proud of my creations, and like him I use no artificial additives or preservatives of any kind.  I will warn you, though, that even at my most sugary, I don’t tend to create purely light and sweet things; even my brightest creations use dark chocolate.

All right, enough with the frikking candy metaphors.  Jesus!

In closing, I want to once again put out a request for feedback on the possibility of creating “Author’s Notes” for my published works, and posting them—with clear identification—as “reviews” on Amazon, hopefully for the benefit of those considering buying the books.  As far as I can tell, this is allowable within Amazon’s guidelines.

Of course, an alternative to this would be posting my author’s notes here, on this very blog.  In a way, that’s what the blog is, after all:  A sort of weekly author’s note.  I’m fine with that idea, and I think it might be fun to write the notes and post them here, but they would really only be useful for those who already read the blog; they wouldn’t provide any benefit for someone shopping through Amazon.  So, I do think the idea of doing such a note/review might be good, but I’m leery of undertaking such a thing if people would consider it to be in very bad taste.  I’m willing to do things in bad taste, but very bad taste is worth avoiding, I think.  Which is why I recommend the Crunchy Frog over the Cherry Fondue.

Please take care when buying your sweeties, please do enjoy the advent of longer days to come, and please give me your opinion, if you have one, on the author’s note idea.

TTFN

This is the blog post that I have given you.

To any who’ve been paying attention, it’s no doubt obvious that I have not yet edited my reading of “Prometheus and Chiron.”  For anyone who has been awaiting that release with bated breath, I do apologize (and encourage you to breathe normally).

Similarly, it’s obvious that I haven’t yet made any new videos to post since my introductory effort.

One reason for the latter fact is that I simply don’t like how I look right now.  I’m not exactly hideous, perhaps (though opinions surely vary), but I am heavier than I like to be, and I would really like to lose a little weight before making any more videos; there are also other cosmetic issues that I find unsatisfying.  This reticence is despite the fact that there are specific matters on which I would love to make commentary (such as my irritation about people failing to signal when turning or changing lanes), and which I’d like to address videographically because, as I think I’ve said before, video lends itself particularly well to rants.  Tone of voice, as well as facial expression, can help convey certain passionate arguments in a much more potent way than can words alone—though I am a devotee of the written word, and likely always will be.  Video also tends to reach more people, for better or for worse, than the written word often does. Continue reading