The Hollow: A Podcast

I wrote a podcast and you can listen to it right now!  It’s called The Hollow and it’s an anthological horror fiction podcast following a different story and characters every season.  Season One is airing now!  Check it out!  I promise it’s not bad.

Season One follows the plight of a lonely, self-important (and self-flagellating) author as he flees his real life and personal responsibilities to stay at a nearly empty inn and Work On His Book(TM).  Of course, things aren’t quite what they seem in this little hamlet, and both the inn and the author have quite a history to unravel…

You can find the podcast on The Hollow official site and on iTunes.  You can also follow the podcast on Facebook and Twitter for updates.  Please give it a listen!  And, if you like it, please leave a review on iTunes.

Seriously, please leave an iTunes review!  It would help us enormously!

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A Test : Oceanrest Flash Fiction

The woman across from me wears a plague mask.  Except she’s not really wearing a plague mask, she’s making me think she’s wearing a plague mask.  She thinks I’m one of them–someone like her.  But I’m not one of them.  I’m not one of anybody.  If I was somebody, I’d have a real job, a real life.  I’d have a home.

“Are you paying attention?” she asks.

“Sure.” I lie.

She shows me a card.  The back is absence-white, color of nothing and everything at once.  “I need you to focus on the card,” she says.  “I’ll know if you don’t.”

She’s not lying.  I’ve danced these steps a dozen times.  I haven’t had a choice.  Legally speaking, I signed up for this.  Technically.  There’s a contract somewhere, my name’s on it.

I focus on the card.  Blank white.  Nothing white.

“What do you think is on my side of the card?” she asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Guess,” she says.

“The number seven.”

She nods curtly, sets the card aside.  From the stack of exact-same cards, she plucks a new one.  Holds it up between her fingers, nothing side facing me.  “Is this one also a number?”

“Sure.”

“Good job.  What number do you think it is?”

“Fucking thirteen for all I care.”

Another short nod.  “Interesting,” she says.

“What’s interesting?”

She sets the card aside, replaces it.  Blank back.  Everything is so white in this place.  Her coat: white.  Her mask: white.  The back of every card: white.  The floor tiles, the walls, everything.  Except the meds I’m allegedly ‘testing.’  Those come in all colors, shimmering like oil, glowing like a rainbow or the scales of a dead fish.

“This one is a picture.”

“Okay.”

“What is it a picture of?”

“The moon?”

“Right.”  She sets the card aside, shuffles the stack a couple times, cuts the deck, re-cuts it, re-shuffles, and fans them out in front of me like a row of too many teeth.  “Could you pick out the number twelve?”

“Probably not?”

“Give it a guess.  Go with your gut.”

I roll my eyes.  Pick a random card.

She turns it over.  Twelve.

“You have an eighty-percent success rate across two hundred guesses, in the time you’ve been here.  Are you sure you’re guessing?”

“Yes!” I slam my hand on the table.  She tilts her head.  I’d stand up, but my feet are chained to chair legs.  I slouch, instead, curled in.  “Of course I’m fucking guessing, they’re a bunch of blank cards.”

“Right.  On one side.”

I show her my middle finger but she doesn’t react to it.  Not that I can tell, at least.  But maybe she’s done that to me, too.  I can feel her in my head, tinkering around with my retinas, my eardrums.  Picking at the folds of my brains like a groping pervert.

“Do you know how long you’ve been here?” she asks.

“I signed a contract for ninety days.”

“And how many days has it been?”

I open my mouth.  Balk.  Close it.  How many days?  “Fifteen?  Twenty?”

She nods.  “Interesting.”

“How many fucking days has it been?” I yell.

An enormous figure shifts against the wall behind her, a blur against white paint.  She holds her hand up and the blur vanishes, melting back into nothing.  But I know something’s there, now.  If I blur my eyes I can make it out.  Man-shaped, but huge.

“Please don’t yell,” she says.  “I assure you, we will release you.”

“How many days?”

“Nine.”

“Out of ninety?”

“Yes.”

A cold pain rolls through my veins, rooting itself in the fabric of my lungs.  My jaw slacks, my eyes burn.  I clutch the edge of the table like a drowning man clutches the side of a lifeboat.  “No.  You’re lying.”

She sets a small amber pill down in front of me.  I know this one–tastes of honey and campfire, gives me tatters of dreams I can never quite remember the day after.  What kind of drug company is this?

She sets down a glass of water (where did it come from?) and pushes it toward me.  “Exit of the study is considered forfeiture of pay and all other signed gains.  The NDA, inclusive of all fine print, will still apply to you, however.”

“What are you doing to me?”

“We’re studying you.”

“Who is ‘we?'”

“Unfortunately, due to my own NDA, and my personal interest, I can’t answer that.”

“Who are you people?”

“Please, take the pill.  We will give you a break from memory and guessing tests for the next four days.”

“I can’t do this…” I half-collapse forward, losing all balance, suddenly nauseous and wet-faced, tears streaking my cheeks.  “I can’t–I can’t–I can’t…”

“You can, actually.  And you’ll be better for it.”  She puts a gentle hand on my shoulder, consolation for her own victim.  Squeezes.  “There is a power sleeping inside of you.  We’re just trying to help wake it up.”

“Don’t touch me.”

But I like it.  It feels good to have human contact.  Has it really only been nine days?

She withdraws her hand from my shoulder and pushes the water closer to me.  I take the pill.  When I look back at the room, she’s gone.  Or she’s making me think she’s gone.  She can do these things.  My ankles are uncuffed, unchained from the chair legs.

I wonder if the manacles were ever really there at all.

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Things Not To Say In a Horror Movie – A Clickbait Listicle by Me

THIS IS HOW I SCREAM INTO THE VOID.

Hey, readers, it’s me, again.  If you haven’t noticed, I don’t make very frequent use of my blog, and am always working on habits to change this.  So, today, I’m writing a brief listicle about something I have a fair knowledge of: stupid shit characters say in horror movies and books.  It’s almost like the characters aren’t even genre savvy!

Although I generally write contemporary supernatural fantasy, I usually include horror elements and use a lot of traditional horror tropes and plot devices.  This is because I love horror.  I read significant volumes of horror literature.  I watch significant amounts of horror film.  Through these vehicles, I’ve managed to gain a knowledge of what NOT to say during tense/terrifying moments.

(You’ll notice a large volume of capitalized words in this listicle– they’re capitalized to indicate that they refer to tropes/cliches and literary/movie shortcuts.  If you don’t know what I mean, already, you’ll figure it out.)

“Let’s Split Up!”

The most grievous sin in the world of horror: splitting up.  It might’ve turned out okay for Scooby & The Gang, but in most horror/supernatural situations, it ends with grotesque, anguished death.

PROTIP: if you’re ever in an allegedly-haunted mansion, creeping through dusty hallways and ducking around strained, limp cobwebs…stick together!  If you’re exploring the dark, overgrown woods surrounding the way-too-cheap cabin you and your friends rented for your weekend vacation…stick together!

When to say it: literally never.

How to survive: use the buddy system!

“I’ll Be Right Back.”

No, you won’t.  This tethers into the “Let’s Split Up!” situations.  Often, the person who will “be right back” (LOL) is going to check on a strange sound, or fix a broken generator, or get a spare tire.  Sometimes there’s a broken down car and our poor victim (I mean “volunteer”) goes off to get his/her own vehicle for a jumpstart.  No matter what the reason is, you can rest assured that this person will most certainly NOT be right back.  Ever.  At all.

PROTIP: if you’re ever trying to escape a horror situation, and your car breaks down…stick together!  Did a masked killer cut the power to your (aforementioned) weekend cabin?  Better turn on those flashlights and, I cannot stress this enough, STICK TOGETHER.  Is the generator out of fuel during a zombie apocalypse?  Maybe that’s the world’s way of telling you to move on.

When to say it: when you really don’t want to be right back.

How to survive: bring another survivor with you, and be prepared to spend a significant amount of time away from the party.  You’ll still probably die, but if you’re not alone and you have a lot of patience, you might last a while.

“Most Cops Never See Action.” / “Most Cops Never Draw Their Guns.”

This only applies to cops.  If you’re not a cop, feel free to say it!  But if you are a cop, using these phrases at any point during the story means you will 100% definitely “see action” and, if you’re lucky, you’ll even get to “draw your gun.”  Unfortunately, most horror story killers/monsters are pretty smart about ambushing police officers, so there’s a decent chance you won’t get your sidearm unholstered before being machete’d in half or eaten alive.  But good news!  If you’re in a haunting scenario (a la Last Shift), your gun wouldn’t have saved you anyway.

PROTIP: don’t be a cop in a horror movie or book, it dramatically reduces your chance of survival.  If you are a cop in a horror movie/book, you’ll want to be a (Wo)Man on the Edge, a Loose Cannon, or a Hothead.  Being quick to draw a weapon might lead you to shoot one of the other survivors during a self-damning Fall From Grace, but it’ll give you a better chance against the masked murderer or supernatural monster coming for your blood.

When to say it: (1) if you’re not a cop, (2) if you Don’t Fear Death, or (3) you’re a Survivor Girl/Guy from a previous entry in the franchise.

How to survive: once you’ve said this, you drastically reduce your options at survival.  You will most certainly see action and need to draw a gun, so just get your gun out now and never holster it again.

BUT ALSO

“Three Weeks From Retirement.”

Sorry, buddy, but the chances that you’ll be seeing a pension don’t look great.  Although this phrase usually issues from the genre-blind mouths of cops and soldiers, anyone close to retirement at the beginning of a story is likely to die by the end.  If you’re a mechanic or other blue collar worker, however, it’s likely you’ll Sacrifice Yourself for the Greater Good, so at least your death might have some meaning.

It gets worse.  If you’re a cop three weeks away from retirement and you’ve Never Drawn Your Gun…I’m really sorry, I really am, but you’re already dead.

PROTIP: be a Millennial– we’ll literally never retire!

When to say it: you might be able to pull it off if you aren’t a cop or soldier…but the odds still don’t look good.  Try to be a blue collar worker, if you can, because then at least you’ll have a chance at Redeeming Your Dark Backstory when you Sacrifice Yourself for the Greater Good.

How to survive: instead of retiring, have a big blow-out with your boss at the beginning of the story and lose your job.  Or: hopefully you recently Lost Your Life Savings paying for a friend, family member, or loved one to undergo medical treatment.

“I Think He’s/She’s/It’s Dead.”

To quote Kevin Spacey from Superman Returns

WRONG.

The masked killer/supernatural monster is never dead.  As soon as you turn around, he/she/it is going to get right back up and kill you.

PROTIP: kill him/her/it harder.  Do you have a gun?  Keep shooting!  Did you somehow swipe the killer’s machete?  Better act like the Red Queen and get enthusiastic about beheadings!  Short of running the thing down with a steamroller, you probably haven’t finished the killer/monster off quite yet.

When to say it: once there are brains and skull fragments all over the floor and/or once the killer/monster has been literally steamrolled.

How to survive: once you’ve sufficiently slaughtered the Bad Guy, remember to Set the Corpse Ablaze.

“It’s Probably Nothing.”

Next to “Let’s Split Up!” this is the dumbest thing to say.  It’s almost never ‘nothing,’ in a horror story.  The scratch at the window, the strange sound outside, the ruffling foliage…none of that is ‘nothing.’  Oh, do you think It’s Just the Wind?  Hahahaha, I hope you like getting murdered!

If you’re in a strange place and think you maybe saw a ghost…assume you saw a ghost.  Did your doorbell ring but then nobody was at the door?  Better get ready for a nightmarish struggle for your very existence!  If you’re hanging out at that creepy cabin with your friends…pay attention to strange twig snaps and unexpected bush ruffling.  Oh, and the generator never just runs out of fuel.

PROTIP: JUST ALWAYS ASSUME IT’S PROBABLY SOMETHING.

When to say it: if you’re in a romance story or a literary tragicomedy.  I mean, you’ll still be wrong, but you (probably) won’t end up dead because of it.

How to survive: assume it’s probably something, retreat from the area, and ALWAYS USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM.

 

So that’s it for my lame clickbait listicle.  I hope you’re all a little smarter, now.  And, if you’ve already said some of these things recently, just remember: death is inevitable, and hopefully it will be over soon.

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Progress Blog: Random Writing Advice

Is it time for another progress blog?  You bet!  Today, I’m going to give everyone some unsolicited random writing advice!  What will we cover?  All the stupid basics!

Writing Advice is Silly

Rule #1 of writing advice: shrug it all off.  Every writer seems to have different and often contradictory ‘rules’ about writing.  People generally agree that every author should have a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style but beyond that, well, it’s just experience and opinion.  Some experience and opinion is valued more highly than others, of course.  For instance, most writers I’ve met (especially genre writers) have a copy of Stephen Kings advice/memoir book On Writing.  I’m personally a huge fan of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing.

But if we’re all being completely honest, if writing were a science, computers would already be doing it.

Thankfully, current AI only seems able to generate acclaim-worthy work with about 80% of the heavy lifting being done by humans.  So the work of the writer remains unmechanized for now.  Though anyone working in print should murder the hope of any sort of retirement, if they haven’t already.

Point being: this isn’t science.  It isn’t math.  And considering the ever-evolving state of slang, colloquialism, and grammar, particularly in the fast-paced American language, maybe we should be careful about marrying any specific rules set, especially early in the game.  But anyway,

Never Ban Words

Almost every writing-advice listicle I read includes a list of words to avoid.  Commonly, “don’t use adverbs” (see what I did there?)  Injunctions against filler words, filter words, and frilly words follow.  Passive voice?  Cut it.  Too many syllables?  Cut it.  Does it end in -ly?  You should be ashamed.

A sentence should be short, no?  Sure.  That makes sense.  But a sentence should also flow, describe, evoke, and build.  It should sound nice.  It should look nice, too.  There should be rhythm!

Arranging words is similar to arranging music.

Don’t limit yourself or box yourself in.  Step 1: write.  Sometimes you’ll use adverbs.  Sometimes there’s an aesthetic pleasure to multi-syllabic verbs and adjectives.  Even passive voice has its place.  There’s an old adage somewhere about moderation but who can ever remember it?

If you bind yourself too tightly with banned words and grammatical restrictions, you’ll shrink your toolbox.  You’ll narrow your knowledge.  Try, instead, to expand your toolbox.  Use fuckin’ everything.

But don’t bother showing anyone your first draft, because it’s probably awful.

Instead, after you’ve got it down, focus on

Editing, Editing, Editing…

Did you think writing was about writing?

Oh you poor, sweet summer child…

Writing is rewriting, as the saying goes.  Rewriting and rewriting and rewriting again, and then, once that’s done, revising and revising and revising.  Whether you’re self-published, indie-published, trad-published, or if you’re selling handbound chap books on the subway platform, it doesn’t matter.  If you’re selling your first draft, or even your second draft, you’re probably selling shit.

More than half of your first draft is garbage, I hate to say.  I usually start my second draft from scratch, from a pure-blank page, just to avoid using the same garbage prose of my first draft.  The first draft anyone besides yourself should see is your second draft.  More realistically, your second draft after a couple rounds of polish and revision.

That’s because you probably have a ton of stuff to fix.

A List of Questions, or: Fixing Your Terrible First Draft

Approach your first draft as you would approach a vile, pulsing heap of red-green biomatter squirming on your kitchen floor–that is: with revulsion, disgust, and a weapon.

If a small part of you doesn’t hate your first draft as soon as you’re done with it, I advise shelving it for a while and continuing to hone your craft by reading/writing more and more for a few months.  By the time 4-5 months have passed, you’ll have read/written enough more to be properly revolted by your earlier work.

Now it’s time to pick it up, examine it, and make with the stabbing.

I’ve prepared a list of questions for you to ask yourself as you stab.  It’s a list of questions I mutter to myself while editing and sometimes while I sleep.

  1. Are these words necessary?  (for instance, “he saw the biomass pulse, its veins throbbing with red-black fluid” likely doesn’t require “he saw,” and it can probably be rearranged to excise the redundant ‘pulse’ and ‘throb’ verbiage.)
  2. Does the sentence sound good?  (reading a manuscript aloud will help track down and gut all sorts of hiccups and arrhythmia in the prose.)
  3. What is the sentence doing?  (are we learning about the character, action, setting, plot, etc?  What do these words contribute to the work?  If they don’t contribute, kill them.  Think of editing like a sci-fi dystopian world where non-contributors are casually slaughtered.)
  4.  Is the meaning clear?  (an over-clutter of words, uncertain punctuation, or unclear noun/adjective/verb pairings can all confuse readers and destroy prose quality.)
  5. Is this shit boring?  (as Elmore Leonard put it, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”  As a director friend once put it: “The audience will forgive you almost anything, as long as you’re not boring.” — protip: if it was boring to write, it’ll be doubly boring to read.)
  6. Is this repetitive?  (Does every sentence begin the same way?  Have you used the same word too many times in a page, or, heaven forbid, in a paragraph?)
  7. Is there a volume issue?  (Does the lurid text border on purple?  Does the simplicity threaten austerity?  Are the words too much, too little?  This is the most subjective measurement, but very important.)
  8. Why?  (Admittedly, I mutter this question to myself all the time, usually as a hollow whisper, a mournful murmur.  “Why?” I ask, about everything, about everything all at once, from one horizon to the other.  It’s also an important question about writing, though.  There should be a ‘why’ behind just about every word, sentence, and paragraph on a page.)

I think that’s a fine list to start with–though the more one writes, the longer and more complex the list becomes.  I do believe that covers all the basics, however, and some of the intermediate steps.

Don’t Stop

Write several times a week.  Read at least a little bit every day.  Take classes when available, if affordable.  Show your second and third drafts to people and don’t shout down their criticisms (it’s very important, when asking for criticism, to listen to it.)  Probably truer than any other piece of advice, “practice makes perfect.”

Read great writers.  For quality of prose, I adore Cassandra Khaw, T. E. Grau, and Leni Zumas.  For tight pacing, humor, and pulp craft, Raymond Chandler and Charlie Huston.  Victor LaValle mastered the art of music and aesthetic long ago.  A thousand other authors await your eyes, if you go looking.

Read voraciously and write viciously.  Edit with unparalleled self-loathing.  Brainstorm with fervor and madness, outline with enthusiasm, and write like a toothless speed freak.  Review your work like an IRS auditor.  Study the craft as if there’ll be a test on it any day now and you’ll be killed if you fail it.

That’s my advice.  To hell with banned words and meditation.  To hell with a thousand articles condemning adverbs and POV-filters and purple prose.  To hell with anything that constrains your toolbox.  Those tools are there for a reason, we just have to learn when and how to use them.

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Reading Suggestions: International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day!  And I have some reading suggestions.

I know what you’re thinking: dude, nobody cares about your stupid opinion.  I know!  But I’m going to do it anyway.

Of course, there are certainly obvious books to read for International Women’s Day.  Ain’t I a Woman, by bell hooks.  Girls to the Front, by Sara Marcus.  Cunt, by Inga Muscio.  There are many amazing books on the topics of intersectional feminism.  But I’m not going to write about those books.  Feminism and feminist theory are very important, of course, but I don’t have the breadth of knowledge required to make a list of must-reads in that area.  Instead, I’m going to write about really awesome, amazing books that happen to have awesome, amazing female authors.

For instance,

Anything by C. V. Hunt

C. V. Hunt is, according to her website, “the author of several unpopular books.”

Hunt is also an entertaining, transgressive, hilarious author of dark fantasy and horror.  Some of my favorites include Ritualistic Human Sacrifice and Misery and Death and Everything Depressing, both of which will make you laugh and cringe and wince.

You can pick up Hunt’s books in paperback, kindle, and even audiobook.  If you’re into it, you can also pre-order her upcoming work, Home is Where the Horror Is.

Something in the Potato Room by Heather Cousins

Do you like prose-poetry?  Do you appreciate beautiful language?  A fan of dark subject matter?  Heather Cousins wrote the book for you.

Something in the Potato Room is a beautiful book, brilliantly written, about deeply unsettling subject matter.  The line between fact and fantasy blurs and quivers in this gorgeous, liminal work.  Relatable and harrowing with an exquisite sense of language, Something in the Potato Room reaches into the dark recesses of the human spirit to find the exact spot where decay blooms into life again.  Or…something like that…

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Through the Woods is a collection of short faerie tales bundled up with striking illustrations and gorgeous graphic layout.  Creepy, haunting, and even heart-warming, Through the Woods collects emotionally diverse and fascinating stories.

I can’t get these stories out of my head.  Sometimes, out of nowhere, maybe on a subway platform or just walking down the street, I’ll get the lyrical lines of “Cold Hands” stuck in my head.  They’re so good.  So bloody good.  Of course, this isn’t the only work Emily Carroll has been involved with and her site will give you an idea about the breadth of her other work.

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

Get in Trouble is another collection–this time of short stories.  Kelly Link has been hailed as a bold and brilliant voice in contemporary fantasy and sci-fi–for good reason, too!  These stories are intelligent, charming, and moving.  Her excellent prose and storytelling skills really shine in this award-winning collection, and I personally had a fantastic time reading it.  Link’s ability to examine tropes and genres in fresh and interesting ways is virtually unmatched.  If you haven’t given Link’s works a read, yet, I highly recommend you do…and what better place to start than this cool collection of short stories?

The Listeners by Leni Zumas

If you’re looking for something a little more ‘literary,’ The Listeners is for you.  Leni Zumas’ use of language shows an expert command of English and a willingness to commit to heightened and experimental styles.  Zumas’ sentences are razor-edged and cunning.  Though it uses references and metaphor from the genre world, The Listeners takes place very much in an unmagical reality.  Dripping with meaty imagery, cut wide with sharp and razored prose, and bleeding with emotional turmoil, the book is a brutal crime scene of real-life.  The plot is a bit weak, but the characters are deep deep deep and the language is to die for.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

It’s a thriller.  A supernatural thriller?  Who knows!  Night Film plays with concepts of belief and faith, and makes extensive use of the subjective nature of ‘reality’ and ‘fact.’  The beauty of Marisha Pessl’s work is in the storytelling, her ability to play games with what is known and what is unknown, and how thin the line between.  The charming, enrapturing characters help, too.  A spiral of madness and a thriller well worth reading, I recommend picking up Night Film in any of its various forms immediately.

Gonzo Girl by Cheryl Della Pietra

If you’re a fan of close-to-life fictionalized accounts, Gonzo Girl is fantastic.  Pietra was an assistant to Hunter S. Thompson for, well, long enough, and her time in this role serves as the prime inspiration behind this wild, crazy ride.  It follows a newbie editor out of NYC as she’s pulled into the orbit of a madman writer out in the middle of chaotic, drug-fueled nowhere.

Cheryl Della Pietra has also been a magazine editor and short story writer.

Gutshot by Amelia Gray

Amelia Gray is a lovely writer.  Her stories are hilarious, personal, deep, cutting, jarring, and dark.  Is that too many adjectives?  Too bad!  They’re all accurate.  And Gutshot is an amazing collection of her work.  More than once, I winced.  Many times, I cackled.  I didn’t cry at any point, but there were definitely very poignant moments.  I highly recommend checking out her work, and particularly picking up this gem of a collection.  Hey, if the New York Times says it’s “bizarre and darkly funny,” who am I to disagree?

Did You Get All That?  Good.

This is just a short list, of course.  I didn’t have anything by Octavia Butler!  And Octavia Butler is a brilliant author.  Kindred is a famous, amazing work!  And it has a graphic novel adaptation.

I also left off several amazing female-oriented collections, such as Sisters of the Revolution (a collection of female-authored spec-fiction works) or She Walks in Shadows (a collection of female-authored Lovecraftian works).  These collections showcase an incredible range and breadth of talented authors, and I don’t think I can finish this blog entry without mentioning them.

And I shouldn’t exeunt stage left without giving a shout out to my favorite guilty pleasure series… My Life as a White Trash Zombie, by Diana Rowland, is perfect beach-reading in my opinion.

The Library Is Endless

I suppose that’s a good enough start.  I still feel as if I’ve left out a virtual library of brilliant work, but that’s bound to happen with a list like this.  Anyway, this has been a list of works by some of my favorite female authors, in no particular order, with no particular organization.  Just off the top of my head.

I didn’t even get to do shout-outs to my favorite short story writers whose longer works I haven’t read yet.  But maybe we’ll save that for another list.

In the meantime, I think I’ve put together a really nice starter-list for anyone seeking a good book.

Go forth and read!

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Video Games for Writers

Hello, imaginary friends, and welcome to my process blog.  Today, I’m going to write, believe it or not, about some good video games for writers to play.  Besides reading, obviously, video games are my primary source of entertainment.  This isn’t to speak ill of television or film, but to speak well of the VG media.  Video games are involving, challenging, entertaining, increasingly mature, and more daring than ever.  The better ones involve fully realized characters, involved (if sometimes needlessly complicated) plots, and an amazing sense of pace.  The best of them can even teach us something about the creative process–structure, story, and keeping the attention of the generally inattentive.

(As usual, I will throw in a writing prompt at the end.)

Without further ado, I will present my admittedly biased list of games that writers should play.

Alan Wake

Alan Wake makes the list in part because the main character is a writer, and because writing (and the creative process in general) is a key element of the plot.  Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything.

Alan Wake also makes the list because it shows how media can be flexible, experimental, and still engaging and fun.  Alan Wake is a video game presented as a TV-esque episodic, the plot of which centers around a novel (and the creative process that produced said novel).  The game contains elements of all three media…and it doesn’t stop there!  It also plays with mixing and melding different genres. Mystery, horror, thriller, and action genres are all twined together throughout the gameplay and story.  The game is a wonderful example of story over structure.  It doesn’t care to adhere to any specific genre, any specific medium, any specific tropes or expectations–it mixes and matches with reckless abandon, and it’s a game that’s all the stronger for it.

A writer can take a lot away from that.  Alan Wake may primarily be an action/horror game, but it uses motifs and tropes from action/comedies, mystery thrillers, even buddy-cop movies.  It doesn’t force its story (or gameplay) into a media- or genre-specific toolbox, it just keeps opening more toolboxes.  You can do the same thing!  Write a Lovecraftian action-western!  If you run into a dead-end, open the pulp-noir toolbox and fish something out.  Another dead-end?  Open the buddy-cop toolbox.

Alan Wake also makes another important point: you can only pull all of this off if it’s still fun, if it’s still internally-consistent, and if you can keep your audience’s attention.  It does all of that, by the way.  It’s fun as hell.  I recommend playing it not only for its willingness to open all the toolboxes, but also because it’s a roaring good time.

The Stanley Parable

Sometimes, your characters will surprise you.  So it goes in The Stanley Parable, a fun little playable-essay on video game design, narrative structure, and the wild unpredictability of characters.

In The Stanley Parable, you play the role of Stanley.  Your time in the game is narrated by an exacting, well, narrator.  The narrator is trying to tell a story.  Unfortunately, you’re just as likely to work against the story as you are to work with it.  Since you’re the player, after all, you get to make the choices.

I think this is a remarkable game for several reasons.  First: it’s funny as hell.  Second: it’s a real hoot to play through.  Third: it captures, very well, the struggle a narrator can have with their characters.

As writers, we develop characters to be people.  We want them to be complex, to have depth and consciousness, to have contradictions and flaws.  We want them to be as human as possible.  And if we’ve done our job well, they will occasionally surprise us.  I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve written up an outline only to realize, halfway through, that one (or more) characters would never ever follow through with it.  They go ahead and do what makes sense for them and I’m left to scrap the outline and start again.  It’s very frustrating.

A very similar relationship evolves between Stanley and The Narrator.  As Stanley, you are the character.  Yes, you could do everything the narrator tells you to do.  It’s quite easy that way, actually.  But, ultimately, it feels sparse, boring, uninvolved.  You go through the motions without real meaning, rolling your eyes half the way, and the ending becomes a kind of mockery.

I won’t give away more.  It’s a playable and replayable game and I hope you give it a spin.

The lesson is this: well-designed characters will surprise you.  Don’t try to hammer them back into shape.  The more you try to force characters to fit your outline, the less human they will seem.  If you deprive your characters of agency, they become boring.  Readers want human characters.  Characters who make their own decisions (or seem to, at least).  Realistic characters with agency and contradictions and a sense of self!  So don’t fight them too much, or the whole thing will break down…

Spec Ops: The Line

In an action game, you expect to kill people.  You expect firefights and explosions and huge set pieces.  Fierce enemies, intense action sequences, and high-octane plot lines.  What you don’t expect?  Moral consequence.  Judgment.  Guilt.  Intellectual and emotional confusion.

Spec Ops: The Line is an action game that hates action games.  It’s a game that changed the way I thought about war.  And it’s a done-and-done-again adaptation of Heart of Darkness.

My experience with Spec Ops: The Line is lengthy and complicated.  It shocked me into doing research on veterans’ affairs, moral injury, PTSD, and the alarming ways in which we, as a nation, discard our returning soldiers.  It sounds shallow and awful and trite, but this game drove me to interview veterans, to read essays and forum posts, and to pore through articles and books.

It started when I shot a civilian in the middle of a heated, three-way firefight.  She was running through a maze of alleys and Walker (the POV character the player controls) had been harried from all sides by assailants.  I turned a corner, saw a figure charging at me, and reacted.  Then I watched as a woman screamed in pain, dropped to the ground, and died while clutching the wound in her stomach.  Before I had time to come to terms with what I’d done, someone else was already shooting at me.  I had to keep moving.

Things got worse from there.

But I won’t make this article about my The Line experience.  That could be an article in and of itself.  The point I want to make is this: this game changed my emotional response to the world around me.  I’d read Heart of Darkness and seen Apocalypse Now, but it was Spec Ops: The Line that dug its claws into my heart and tore it up.

Are you worried that you’re writing a story that’s been done before?  Don’t be.  Heart of Darkness has been adapted into at least two different films.  Its plot has been mirrored and paralleled in countless novels and novella.  There are callbacks to Heart of Darkness littered all through our media.  I’ve experienced plenty of them.  But this one hit me like a Mack truck.  So if you’re working on a project, and you’re worried it’s been done before…stop worrying.  You never know.  Yours might just be the one that changes someone’s life.

Metro 2033/Metro Last Light

Setting.  Setting is very important.  We’ll have a process blog entry on that point, soon enough.  But setting is also very difficult in storied sci-fi/fantasy settings–it has to be delivered without too much exposition.  Readers don’t want history lessons.  They don’t want long explanations.  They want more story.

The games (based on the Metro 2033 series of novels, which I own but have not read yet) do an incredible job with setting.  At one point in Last Light, an old, gray-haired man is doing shadow-puppets for a group of children.  As the show went on, the children stopped recognizing the animals.  Many of them were extinct.  The old man became exasperated, trying to explain beauty to people who had never seen it.  Eventually, he gives up and tells them to go home and come back the next day.

Most of the setting and world-detail of these games is provided by such events.  A slew of graffiti on a subway wall, a group of children chasing rats with sharp sticks.  A corpse found in the sewer with a hole in its head, an old gun clutched in its rotting hands.  A family who tries to kill you…and when you kill them, first, you find a chopped up corpse in their fridge.

You don’t really need to know the ‘how’ or ‘why’ of these things.  The ‘what’ is enough.  Nobody moans a history at you, nobody drunkenly recounts the long tale of the apocalypse.  Nobody needs to.  The tale is there to be seen.  And if there are strange creatures, unholy mutants, and desperate ghosts in the subway tunnels?  Of course there are.  The world has made it clear that this is not mankind’s kingdom any more.

Play this game because it does the best job of expressing setting and history of any game I’ve ever played.

Life is Strange

Life is Strange is one of the most heart-wrenching, emotional games I have ever played, and I have played a lot of games.

The main character of Life is Strange gets a special power: she can reverse time.  But while most games outfit you with an ability to go tangle with great forces and perform amazing feats, Life is Strange just puts you in the shoes of a teenage girl trying to navigate life.  The reverse-time ability doesn’t let you fight monsters, it just lets you make different decisions.  When you see a police officer harassing a young woman, what do you do?  (1) take a photo as evidence?, (2) intervene directly?, (3) ignore it?, (4) do any of the above, but then backtrack and investigate what really happened?  Each choice leads to a very different set of consequences, and reverse-time powers or not, you’ll have to choose one of them sooner or later.

There’s a lot to learn and unpack from Life is Strange.  There’s the fashion in which the player can rough-draft and brainstorm their decisions.  Or the way it uses magic realism and supernatural sci-fi to tell a deeply intimate story.  It does an excellent job of making small things seem huge and of creating a real, living world that these things happen in.  Life is Strange is, in my biased opinion, the most necessary game on this list.

But the most powerful lessons it has to offer are about character and consequence.  The entire game is character driven, a mess of people with tangled motivations and relationships, each of them complex and flawed and hurting and a little bit beautiful.  It’s a great lesson in giving depth and humanity to even the seemingly background characters.

It’s a greater lesson in the nature and gravity of consequence.  Super powered or not, Maxine Caulfield is still just a semi-normal person trying to navigate a semi-normal life.  And that’s what gives the game its emotional power.  Despite the seemingly magical abilities, we can’t foresee or prevent our actions from having consequence, sometimes to extreme effect.  We can’t be heroes, we can only do our best.  So it goes with a character in a story: their actions should have consequence.  Great consequence, unforeseen consequence, heartbreaking or affirming consequence.  Their actions, however small, make ripples in the world.

If you want to know more, play the game.

Writing Prompt

Write a story outline framed entirely as character choices.  Try a flow chart!  Open with a situation (“Zumi runs down a hallway until she reaches an intersection,” for instance) and then branch through the outline by following the protagonist’s choices.  (If she turns left, what happens?  If she turns right?  When the thing chasing her catches up, what if she fights?  What if she runs?  Etc.)  What happens to the story/outline when protagonist choice is the most important factor?

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Resident Evil 7 : Review

Why would an author write a Resident Evil 7 review?  It’s a video game, after all.

Because this author plays a lot of video games.  More on that in the near future.

(Also because I have access to a blog platform and the absurdist millennial belief that anyone cares a spit about my banal thoughts.)

The TL;DR version of this review is as follows: purchase this game.  If you’re a fan of the franchise (which I’m not, really) or a fan of survival horror (which I am), you’ll love it.  I might recommend waiting for a sale (I didn’t), since it comes in a bit short for its price point.

Alright, now for the long version.

Selling Point 1 : You’re Not Helpless.

I’m pretty sick of helplessness as a game mechanic.  If a game is only scary because the player is helpless, it’s secretly not a very scary game.  Anything can be scary if it’s done in low light with tense music and ALSO YOU’RE HELPLESS.  This entire trend is even more absurd because, very often, the player character is walking around an environment often littered with weapons.  Look, Outlast scared the shit out of me, despite having some of the most eye-rollingly ‘shock’ moments in gaming history, but at a certain point I started rooting for the monsters.  The player character may be a journalist, but he’s a journalist walking through halls full of possible improvisational tools!  Pick something up!

People and, by extension, fictional characters, have a tendency to create tools and even weaponry with pretty much whatever is at hand.  They don’t call it ‘The Stone Age’ for fun, they call it that because the tools and weapons were made from stone.  Human beings are so desperate for tools and weapons that we literally made them out of stone.  But apparently our frightened avatars in modern horror games are too busy panting from terror to stop for a second and gather tools.

[/rant]

Resident Evil 7 assumes your character wants to make and use tools and weapons.  That assumption changes everything.  The environment is littered with resources, from big fuck-you-up guns to various chemicals and herbs to garden tools.  It creates a more interesting dynamic than helplessness.  Holding an ax gives you a sense of possibility, of strength.  Swinging it gives you a sense of power.  Whacking it into someone’s neck in a moment of desperate terror gives you an inch of control.  Turning around to find the corpse mysteriously missing…

One of my favorite horror games ever was FEAR (and its sequel, FEAR 2.)  It armed me from the start.  The game handed its player a series of awesome, fuck-you-up guns.  And then it peeled away the frail veneer of your confidence and dropped you into a situation far beyond your depth.  Resident Evil 7 does something quite similar.

Selling Point 2 : A Dreadful Sense of Intimacy

The primary setting of RE7 is a sprawling plantation estate in rural Louisiana.  It’s a family’s property.  A fucked up family, but a family nonetheless.  And the banality of that fact, the familiarity of a house’s interior, serves to create an unsettling intimacy.  Family photographs, sports paraphernalia, book shelves, kids’ trophies, etc… the details of a family history are all there.  There are even receipts and passive-aggressive sticky notes.  And the player is pressured by game mechanics and curiosity to check everything, to look into every corner, to experience as thoroughly as possible this maddening juxtaposition of the familiar and the grotesque.

Perhaps this is what I like most about the game: the minimal scope.  You are a lone human maneuvering through a minuscule slice of the globe.  The massive, overarching lore of the franchise is missing.  The vast scale of backstory is unimportant.  This is a game about the protagonist and the antagonists and very little else.

Franchises tend to bloat.  Scale expands and exposition piles up.  This game, ‘reboot’ or not, solves that problem with a sharp, indifferent knife.  It delivers what it needs: a tightly-focused story.

Selling Point 3 : Something For Everyone

Horror is lush with sub-genres.  RE7 does its best to tap as many as possible.

Supernatural horror is immediately dangled in front of our faces.  Body horror is omnipresent.  Sci-fi horror is the franchise staple.  RE7 even incorporates moments of splatterpunk and, of course, general action-horror.  Oh, I almost forgot, there’s a whole SAW-inspired puzzle-solving section, too.  Not to mention shades of Chainsaw Massacre throughout…chainsaw very much included.  Which also reminds me that southern gothic archetypes and references are everywhere in RE7.  There are also cosmic horror references, though that particular sub-genre doesn’t make any real appearances in the game proper.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s something for everyone.  And though the run-and-hide mode of helplessness horror isn’t an expressed requirement of the game, running and hiding is often the wisest course of action.  So they’ve got that, too, if you like it.

One might worry that the ‘dash of everything’ approach might overclutter the game, but it doesn’t.  It provides different levels to the gameplay and, what’s more, always seems in service to the story.

Selling Point 4 : Sadistic Antagonists

I saw an article online lamenting the ugly gameplay necessity of key gathering, narratively lampshaded with the idea that the antagonists want to make it hard for you to escape.  The article pointed out that the antagonists didn’t bother reinforcing the walls, blocking the doors, or bricking up the windows.  I imagined that such measures would take away some of the ‘fun’ for the antagonists.  As much as they claim they don’t want to chase anyone down anymore, they seem to get a wicked joy out of doing just that.  If they made it too hard to escape, they’d lose the ecstasy of chasing down the desperately hopeful escapees and butchering them!

Such is the rabid sadism of our front-and-center antagonists.  Quite early in the game, during my second playthrough, I discovered myself gravely wounded by my pursuer.  Instead of finishing the job, he set a healing kit down on the floor and cooed at me to use it.  Once I’d patched myself up, he even gave me a headstart before coming after me again.  So, in my mind, the key hunting has nothing to do with making it difficult for me to leave; it has everything to do with providing the antagonists with entertainment.

These batshit crazy sadists provide the main antagonism.  Hordes of faceless monsters provide secondary, supporting antagonism (the ‘nameless goon’ variety, mostly.)  And then, behind it all, there lurks a vast, faintly-inhuman force (oh, wait, I guess those cosmic horror references make some sense after all).  Each layer of antagonism serves a purpose both to story and to gameplay.  The front-and-center villains are charmingly psychotic and extremely terrifying.  The nameless goons provide tense, strategic combat.  And the terrible intelligence behind the whole show creates a layer of moral and intellectual questions the game would otherwise lack.  It’s quite an exquisite array of enemies.

The Downside : It’s a Bit Pricey.

Currently, the game goes for $59.99, not including DLCs or soundtrack.  My first playthrough took 10 hours, my second took 7.  There’s an in-game achievement for managing it down to 4.  Though it’s a bit replayable, if only for the sheer moodiness and the awesome realization of its setting, replayability isn’t its prime directive.  I’ll certainly be prancing through it a third time, but I’m a particular sort of person.  In the main, I doubt most people will go through it more than twice.  So what that settles down to is that the base game provides, say, 10-20 hours of gameplay for a ~$60 price tag.  No thanks.

It was worth it, for me, because I love the genre and I’m utterly sick of helplessness horror.  I’ve played through twice and will be playing a third time at least.  I enjoy the game from a gameplay perspective and from a horror theory perspective.  I also sprang for the DLCs, not yet available for PC, which I hear add significant replayability–but we’re not discussing the DLCs, are we?  No.  We’re discussing the cost of the base game.  And the cost of the base game, unless you’re a weirdo  like me, is simply too high.

But I guarantee it’ll be on sale in the near future.  So if you’re the patient sort, you’re in luck.

Final Thoughts

RE7 provides an excellent experience.  It’s nerve-wracking, unsettling, frightening, and fun.  In my original 10-hour playthrough, I sweated and panicked through the first 2 hours like a man on the edge.  For the few hours after that, my mood shifted between anxiety and joy.  Anxiety at every door, every corridor, and every corner; joy at my increasing competence at solving my dilemmas.  Most of the last hour was spent in full action mode, all sound and fury and laughter.  It was an incredible emotional journey.

In my second playthrough, I was more confident.  My relatively eased anxiety allowed me to appreciate the setting and the art of the game more deeply.  The narrative flow, the peaks and valleys of fear throughout the story, etc.  It was during my second playthrough that I really fell in love with the game.

So, yes, it’s an exquisite game, an excellent bit of interactive horror media, and a decently written (if also unevenly written) story.  My only dismay is at the price tag, a number I think is a bit high for people less fanatical about their devotion to horror media and video games than I am.  But I suppose that’s for them to decide.

 

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Why Dark Fiction?

Hello, imaginary public, and welcome to today’s process blog entry: “Why Dark Fiction?”

Some time ago, on the internet, while discussing writing with a bunch of fellow writers (whom I’ll likely never meet in person), I was posed a question by someone who had actually read some of my work.  At first, I was stunned, because who reads my work?  But, then, I decided to answer the question.  The question, in essence, asked why I so rarely included ‘redemptive’ endings in my stories.

I assumed (s)he was asking about the ending of No Grave, because it seemed like a safe assumption to make.  My short stories don’t allow for a wide variety of endings, to be honest.  A story entitled “A Black House Rots North of Town” does not seem to promise a happy ending.

But it’s a fair question.  It taps into a kind of debate that I’ve seen people get involved with, before.  Especially in genre fiction–fantasy and sci-fi and such–where part of the allure is escapism: what ending do we provide an audience?  Are authors obligated to leave the audience at-ease?  Are we obligated to try to improve their real-life suffering by providing fictional easement?

My answer is unsurprisingly non-committal.  Mostly, my answer is an awkward, uncomfortable face and a series of tense, shrug-like gestures.  A few sounds akin to words like “eh?” and “maybe?” and “kinda?” and “iunno?”  Luckily, I mostly see this debate on the internet, where I’m able to scroll past without comment.  When asked about it on a forum, I provided a neat, clean paragraph that hardly covered my actual opinion.

But today, I’m throwing in my 2-cents.  And a writing prompt at the end.

Stop Reading Now If You Don’t Want No Grave Spoilers.

Seriously.  I’m not going to get too specific, but you’ll know the approximate ending if you keep reading.

Assuming you care.

Which, if you don’t, that’s okay, too.

Alright: last chance to stop reading.

Seriously, you can scroll down to the writing prompt and skip all this.

Still here?

Great.

So, several people I’ve spoken to regarding No Grave have some issues with the ending.  It’s a bit dreary.  The ‘good guys’ (to the extent any of them can be called ‘good’) sort of lose.  Or, at least, they certainly don’t ‘win.’  Whatever that means.  And the main character makes a choice that is deeply selfish in the face of great evil.  (For the record, I would probably make the same choice).  Perhaps worse: once the selfish choice is made, she’s not particularly effective at carrying it out.  It all seems pretty unpleasant.

Well, sure, but that’s the point.

I find it therapeutic actually.  Because, in real life, we lose all the time.  Or we make choices that don’t pan out.  Or we try to save people and they die anyway.  Et cetera.  Mostly, we’re very small and weak and human.  We fail probably more often than we succeed.

And this is the important part: that’s okay.

Tristan makes a terrible mistake and tries to salvage it and it doesn’t work.  Nicole commits to a losing proposition after essentially being pressured into it and she gets scared and doesn’t do it.  Cyrus pursues his own interests selfishly until he sees how far people will go for each other and then those people get fucked because of him.  Even though he tries his hardest to turn over a new leaf and save them, it’s just too-little-too-late.

So what happens, then?  Everyone packs it in, tail between their legs, goes home, and eats a bullet.  No, wait, that’s not what happens at all.  They take their moment, they mourn, they cry about it, they feel guilt and pain and suffering and then they pick themselves up and get ready to try again.  They’re getting licked out there and they huddle up, count off, and prepare to hit the field.  Once more into the breach and all that.

As far as I’m concerned, their failure is a message of hope.

Let me explain.

Escapism vs. Hope

‘Escapism’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘complete fantasy.’  I don’t need to tell a story where the good guys win.  I don’t think the ‘good guys win’ formula is terribly hopeful.  Optimistic, sure, but not hopeful.  Hope isn’t hard to do when you’re winning.  Hope is hard to do when you’re losing.  And that’s the narrative I’m building.  Losing isn’t the end of a thing and neither is failure.  Loss and failure are just things that happen.  People make bad decisions, selfish decisions, wrong decisions.  People fuck up.  Then they try again.  Most of us will probably die with works unfinished and we hope others pick up where we left off.  The world spends a few months raining shit down on us and we hope we do better next time.  Hope isn’t in a victory, it’s in the attempt.

I have no desire to sell the ‘good guys win’ narrative, or any narrative of false optimism.  Or any narrative that feels false to me at all.  Sure, sometimes the good guys will win, I’ve definitely written and outlined stories where that’s what happens–because that’s what makes sense.  But in the main, that’s not the product I peddle.  My type of escapism doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, or a ‘redemptive’ ending as it was put to me.  But I don’t think people need those.  I don’t think they’re particularly helpful.  I don’t think they’re necessarily useful in easing real-life suffering or imbuing an audience with a sense of hope or wellness.  Instead, I aim to say: “hey, so, things suck right now, shit happens, whatever, but you shouldn’t give up.  Pick yourself up, brush it off, and try again.  Hold out for next time.  And the time after that.  And the time after that.”

Or, perhaps, in this trying era, Maya Angelou put it best: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.”

There’s a common saying that things are always darkest before the dawn–so maybe my stories aren’t about the dawn.  Maybe my stories are about the darkness getting darker and the characters having the strength to hope that the dawn breaks soon.  To have the strength to use gas-station bics and old, beaten matchbooks to make their own dawn because they don’t want to wait anymore.

And sometimes the darkness takes one of them, and all the others go out and gather sticks and build a pyre and set it ablaze and that inferno is its own dawn, for a while.

Good guys don’t always win, but they always keep trying.

That’s the narrative I’m selling.

Writing Prompt!

If you feel like doing some writing today, try this one out: write at least one (1) page where the story begins with the character failing.  Bonus points if the character fails because of their own stupid mistakes.  After the failure is complete, what happens next?

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Ghost Towns, Economics, and Horror

Hey there fellow humans *nudge-nudge, wink-wink* — as I’m no longer writing weekly-ish fiction to post on the blog, I’m transitioning into writing about process, theory, etc., as I work on non-blog projects.  Today I’m writing about ghost towns, economics, and horror, as the post title suggests.  Also, there will be a writing prompt at the end, for anyone who wants one.

Witness: The Ghost Towns All Around Us

The United States is littered with gutted towns and ex-cities and places of complete, desolate abandonment.  This relates intimately with, surprise surprise, economic opportunity and geographical marketshares.  That is to say: when Detroit was rich with middle-class jobs, Detroit was a metropolis, and when those jobs fell apart and vanished, well…what is Detroit famous for, today?

A personal anecdote: once upon a mid-day dreary, I found myself on the outskirts of what looked to be a vast stretch of empty and derelict buildings.  I urged the man in the driver’s seat of the car to pull into the emptiness so I could take photos of the buildings in decline.  As we drove down cracked, uneven streets and ogled block after block of ruined architecture, we slowly came to realize that the place was not, in fact, abandoned.  In the center of the far-reaching desolation, we found an actual population.  A white-haired man, shirtless, smoked a cigar in a lawn chair.  A gas station had its hours painted in white on its front door; it was open three days a week.  There was something that looked like a convenience store, where a handful of graying residents spent money primarily on canned goods.  We discovered, just on the outskirts of this population center, a building with four brick walls, no floor, no ceiling, and no doors or windows.  A bog had settled across its bottom.  The fellow who came with me discovered that it was full of fire ants.  He’d worn sandles that day.  We fled after this discovery, leaving this haunted place in our rearview mirror.

The vacated properties suggested that thousands of people had once lived there.  Now, it seemed, the population hovered somewhere in the low triple-digits at best.

Or, in 1986, in an introduction to Studs Terkel’s Hard Times:

Smokeless chimneys. No orange flashes in the sky. Empty parking lots. Not a Chevy or a Ford to be seen, not even for those with 20-20 vision. An occasional abandoned jalopy, yes, evoking another image of the thirties. Ours was the only moving vehicle for miles around. A stray dog; no humans. And it wasn’t that cold a day. In fact, the weather was unseasonably mild, accentuating the landscape’s bleakness.

Written about South Chicago, of course.

And places like these?  They’re everywhere.  I think the one I mentioned above was on the road between Pittsburgh, PA and Cincinnati, OH.  But there were similar places en route to Louisville, KY, too.  And I’ve seen smaller examples clustered around the Amtrak line between NYC and Rochester, NY.  Everywhere.

Desolation and Cosmic Horror

Cosmic horror is making horror literature great again (AHEM).  According to many literary critics and essayists, we are currently in the midst of a “horror renaissance,” and the horror genre is once again “good.”  I roll my eyes every time I read this allegation, but I’ll save that reaction for a different blog entry.  The real point is that the people who write book reviews and vote on awards and etc. seem to think that the horror being written today is better than the horror that was written 20 years ago.  Why?

Well, cosmic horror is having a pretty big comeback.  The list of well-respected and even well-known cosmic horror authors seems to be growing yearly, and hints of cosmic horror eddy around the edges of plenty of new urban fantasy and dark fiction, as well.  The fear of the vast unknowable and, even moreso, of forces acting on us beyond our control of comprehension, seems to be scoring big points right now.

Gee, I wonder if these things are related.

Here we have towns and cities gutted and demolished and sundered by vast conceptual forces their denizens can’t control and almost nobody seems to completely understand.  Would I relate globalization to Cthluhu?  Would I relate the complex worldwide politico-economic system to Azathoth?  Well, yes, of course I would.  Huge, unstoppable forces that grind away at entire populations without seeming to care about or even notice them?  Duh.

The anxiety of being destroyed by forces we can’t stop is, well, highly prevalent in today’s world.  Whether it’s government, economics, war, poverty, terrorism–these vast, powerful concepts seem, from ground level, to be tearing us apart as if we were meat fed to a grinder.  And how to combat them?  Our mouths gape for answers, but we are silent.  And all around us, miles of rusted sheet metal and slouching brick buildings shuttered by particle board.

What monsters lurk in the bones of our dead cities?

And So Your Editor Says “Use It”; Or: Fictionalizing Anxiety

Show somebody emptiness, and they will find a way to fill it.  The night sky is mostly void, but we apply it a meaning that fits us.  To some, awe; to others, anxiety.  The same goes for abandoned factories, gutted warehouses, long tracts of empty suburbs, and eternally-unfinished housing developments.

Horror authors have long excelled at creating environments that, themselves, feel hostile.  Whether it’s Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” or literally anything Laird Barron has ever written, hostile settings and landscapes cloaked in dread have been key facets of horror writing since forever.  In olden tymes, when people read stories by candlelight and shifting shadows danced on their peripheries, authors tended to take it a bit too far (looking at you, Poe), but the tradition has always been there.  And as cosmic horror becomes more popular and more acclaimed, it seems it always will be.  At least for a while.  If we survive that long.

Which brings me to the “process” part of today’s blog entry, and a “fun” writing prompt for anyone who cares to partake in it.

In my Oceanrest writings, soon to be expanded, I’ve created a fictional city in Maine that has suffered much the same fate as dozens of other towns and cities in the United States.  Once, it was important; now, it wheezes on an iron lung.  Boom town, bust.  And while I’m not trying to write much cosmic horror in the vein of Lovecraft or Ligotti or Aickman or any other huge name in the genre, I enjoy the concept that my stories take place in a similar setting.  That is: the setting is one of cosmic dread and unknowable forces, but people still have to pay the damned rent and that seems more important.  And so I try to use words to express these inexpressible anxieties.  In Oceanrest, economic depression is a monster eating the town from the outskirts inward.  Its teeth are trees and its tongue is the ground itself breaking the streets into gravel.  Squatters live between its fangs like plaque bacteria.  To the wealthier people in city center, this is unnoticeable.  To the poor people on the fringes, this is terrifying…but there are more pressing concerns.  Like where to beg the next meal.

Of course, in this fictional world, there are also more literal eldritch deities squirming under the skin of reality, but that’s neither here nor there for the most part.  They are a far less immediate issue than the very real poverty that is eroding the town of Oceanrest.

That’s that for this “process blog”-slash-“horror theory” entry.

Enjoy a writing prompt: write a page (at least) in which the setting, itself, is the monster and/or primary antagonist.  Perhaps begin with Studs Terkel’s line, “Ours was the only moving vehicle for miles around.”

 

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My “Best Books of 2016” List

I’ll get this out of the way.  These are just books I read this year: a collection of fiction from various genres as well as a dash of non-fiction.  Were they published in 2016?  Likely not.  But they’re great books and they deserve more attention (and sales).  In any case, this is my list of the best books of 2016…insofar that I read them all in 2016.

 

#5: The Listeners, by Leni Zumas


The Listeners
contains some of my favorite prose from this year.  As I mentioned in my Goodreads review, “Zumas has razored into existence a beautiful grotesquery of the English language.”  It’s a tangled tale, a literary experiment, and a horrorshow of a ride.  It does occasionally veer into over-heightened prose, and the ending leaves something to be desired, but it’s a gorgeous work of sharp and painful art and worth every minute I spent reading it.

You can get it at Amazon.com and I recommend that you do.

 

#4: Ritualistic Human Sacrifice, by C. V. Hunt


C. V. Hunt continues to be one of my favorite authors of dark fiction.  Ritualistic Human Sacrifice is a great example of why: it’s a wild, insane ride that rushes by at a rollercoaster speed and has little regard for what is or isn’t socially acceptable.  It’s grotesque, horrific, and hilariously transgressive.  I was, by turns, laughing, grimacing, and shuddering.  Hunt has perfectly balanced horror with humor…provided you have a particularly dark and transgressive kind of humor.

Pick it up at Amazon.com and buckle up, because it’s a bumpy ride.

 

#3: Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun, by A. J. Somerset


Non-fiction.  A moderate view of gun culture in the United States and Canada.  Arms is a dissection of cultural mores, historical trends, media, and even ballistic science–all in the service of trying to find sanity in a maddening debate.  Deeply informative and incredibly well-researched.

I always post links to buy things on Amazon.com because I assume that’s where the majority of people reading this will do their shopping.

 

#2: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle


Man…this was an amazing novella.  Just amazing.  Victor LaValle is an incredibly talented author.  He’s an amazing linguist, a dazzling player of the English instrument, with punched-up and tight-wound prose that is at once haltingly beautiful and rapid-fire.  If you haven’t read The Devil in Silver, for example, you should do that immediately.  In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle’s talent with prose is heightened and practiced and a perfect homage to Lovecraft’s work.  Where Lovecraft’s paragraphs tended to bloat, however, LaValle trims off all the fat and leaves nothing unnecessary.

I noticed, this past couple years, that there’s been a tremendous wave of cosmic horror authors trying to work to confront and combat Lovecraft’s misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism…of all these efforts, I believe LaValle’s was the most successful.

Purchase it on Amazon.com literally as soon as you can.

 

#1: The Nameless Dark, by T. E. Grau


T. E. Grau’s story collection The Nameless Dark is everything I like about cosmic horror and most things I like about fiction in general.  Grau’s prose is lyrical and rich and extremely readable.  The stories cross genres and time periods and Grau is easily at home in all of them, weaving haunting and sometimes horrifying tales with believable (if not necessarily always likable) characters and doing it all with some of the most gorgeous prose I’ve ever happened upon.  Thrilling, harrowing, and entrancing, these tales are worth a very close read.  Perhaps several.

Pick it up at Amazon.com.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan

Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link

Welcome to Nightvale
, by Joseph Fink

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