The Treeline – Oceanrest Flash Fiction

She dreamt of the tree line.

In the dream, autumn slouched toward winter, and all the leaves had lost color and wilted.  The sky froze, the sun lanced warmth through cold clouds.  The clouds won, filtering the world into graywash dimness.  The trees, pale white and dull brown and mostly naked and leafless, reached out with kinked branches as if desperate to touch each other, and they almost never touched.

In the dream, she sat alone in her room, watching the sprawling wilderness from behind cold glass.  Her breath fogged the window.

The thing in crimson appeared, a slash of violent color against sludgy grayscape.  It wore a deep red robe and had an ivory skull the approximate shape of a deer’s.  Its thin antlers mirrored the tree branches.  They wanted to touch something with their sharpness.

It moved unnaturally, approaching the treeline.  It had an uneven gait, listing slightly to one side, as if unacquainted with bipedal movement.  When it reached the last of the trees before the sprawl of the Estate’s vast yard, it stopped.  It tilted its deerskull face up toward the window, gazing with eyes that were long gone their sockets.

In the dream, Nora couldn’t catch her breath.  She steamed her panic against the glass in short gasps.  Her fingers touched the cross around her neck.  She prayed, under her breath, in short staccato words.

The creature (or was it human) cocked its ivory skull, curious.

When she’d first come to the Estate, Ambrose had told her that the wards were ancient and powerful.  Later, when Ambrose died in Egypt, Victor reiterated this.  The wards of the Estate had protected the Blackwood’s Mansion for generations.  Nothing supernatural could cross.

Almost nothing, at least.  People could still cross over.  Human beings.  Even if they were psychic or if they knew witchcraft or if they knew nothing at all but how to wield a knife and put it to places that would hurt more than words could describe.

Nora prayed that the figure in crimson was not human.

It stood at the wards, head cocked.  The shade of its robe reminded her of the curls of life that swirled in the bathwater when she razored her skin.  It reminded her not just of blood, but of blood shed in a specific way, for a specific reason.  Its robe, the color of precisely reasoned bloodshed, was the only gash of color in the grayscape.  It unnerved her, how important that seemed.

The figure crossed the treeline, shambling, and began its uneven gait across the breadth of grass.  It paused, halfway to her window, and peered up at her with those empty skull eyes.  Lifting a robed arm, it extended a slender, sapient finger, and pointed crookedly at her.

you are chosen, a voice said in her mind.

The figure vanished.

A hand grabbed her shoulder.

She screamed.

“Whoa, there, Miss. Nora,” Victor said, jumping back from her reaction.

Awoken from slumber, she sat slouched in an office chair in the library.  Her eyes darted around, a panic of disorientation.  She leapt from her seat, spinning in circles, searching for a threat.  Her better hand went for the shiv she kept in the front pocket of her hoodie–one of the keepsakes from her homeless days.

“You okay?” Victor asked, brow rucked and gaze uncertain.

“Just a dream,” she said, panting against cold nightmare sweat.

“The bad kind?”

She nodded.  She was no psychic, her dreams contained no visions of possible futures, no premonitions of things to come–but they often arrived as omens, as metaphors, as threats.  Nothing she ever saw in her dreams came to pass literally, but the dreams always seemed so obvious after the fact.

She picked up the book that had fallen from her lap when she awoke.

“We need to prep anything?” Victor asked.

“I don’t know yet,” she answered, turning the book over in her hand.  “I mean…probably, yeah.  But.”  She shrugged, and flipped the book open to where she’d dog-eared the story before dozing off.

…’and the red death held sway over all,’ the bottom of the page told her.

A slash of color in grayscape.  A mask of something dead and age-bleached.  A finger, pointing.  you are chosen, it whispered, its voice coming from that distant place in the mind where dreams are real.

She set the book aside and fidgeted with her necklace.  She thumbed the cross and thought about how the old silver flatly symbolized two wooden boards.  Thought about what it must’ve felt like, being chosen, as people drove nails through a good man’s hands.  What must it have felt like, being chosen, when the hungry birds began circling overhead?

“You want breakfast?  Coffee?” Victor asked, trying vainly to pull her out of her thoughts.

She let go of the necklace.

Being chosen seemed like a raw deal.  Seemed a lot like being condemned.

“Coffee,” she said absently.

Seemed a lot like being damned, actually.

Or sacrificed.

Abraham wasn’t leading Isaac up the mountain to have a picnic, after all.

you, the dream warned her.  you.

chosen.

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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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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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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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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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Good News, Bad News.

Good news and bad news.  An update from the cave.  The hermit shambles forth from the dark mouth, a decree on his chapped lips.

(That’s me, by the way.)

Let’s start with the bad news: it seems unlikely that my work with The New American Apocalypse will continue, at least not for a long time (by which point it will be no longer topical and probably forgotten by its readers).  I know, I know–we were all looking forward to the final battle between our brainburnt narrator and the squirming tentacles of fascist, greed-driven evil, but I’ve fallen several entries behind and have taken on too many projects to spend much time catching up…and certainly not before voting day.

Perhaps I’ll resurrect the story and finish it soon, maybe 2 years from now, maybe in the form of a smaller, less-improvised, and even more grotesque little chap-book.  Who knows?  I don’t.  And even if I did, I would carry the idea in secret, hidden beneath the tattered folds of my yellow cloak.

On to the good news!

The good news: the reason The New American Apocalypse has been on the back-burner for so long, and the forces behind my decision to suspend all work on it (at least for some time) is because I’m juggling too many other, larger projects.  I am plodding along, slowly but surely, on a sequel to No Grave.  It’s unlikely to see release before mid-2017, but it’s getting done.  The Brownstone crew and the sundry other characters wrapped up in this world of shadows, secrets, and scares will visit upon you again!  Fear not…or, yeah, probably fear a little.

The second piece of news: I am also plodding forth in my dealings with the large (and largely-abandoned) town of Oceanrest, Maine.  By now, some of you might’ve noticed a story about a black house in the woods, or about a strange CD linked to hallucinatory effects, or about a man who wakes up every morning haunted by the ghosts of the future.  Or maybe you’ve just heard about Oceanrest from a mysterious diary page found in a rotting pile of debris.  In any case, the setting is going places.  I’ve hinted at something for a while and, to excuse my seeming abandonment of my improvisational blog project, perhaps it is time I came clean and told you: there are talks of a novel.  I’ve written it, three full from-scratch drafts and months in revisions and rewrites, working happily with editorial staff from various interested parties.  I don’t want to give away too much, in case we get caught in development/contractual hell, but there may be copies available in bookstores in the foreseeable future (assuming we do not all drown in hellfire or nuclear radiation first).  Expect to see more Oceanrest short stories in e-zines, magazines, and on my blog, and (hopefully) you’ll be able to get a larger look at the town and its denizens in the not-too-distant future.

The third piece of news: I am writing a podcast.  As these things often are, the podcast is being created on a tightwire budget above a vast crevasse of darkness, but the people in charge are people I’ve worked with on other projects and who have a history of creating quality goods despite (or because of) budgetary limitations.  They have a strong track record and I trust them.  These words will reach your ears, sooner or later, through the lips of talented voice actors.  Of course, I’ve never written a podcast before–and this is why, in the past four months, I have gone from 1 podcast subscription with 40 “heard” episodes, to 15 podcast subscriptions with 266 “heard” episodes.  I’ve been learning the ropes, writing and revising episodes, etc… and this has, in addition to the above-mentioned news, taken time.

So, between an upcoming Furies book, a possible Oceanrest book (and more Oceanrest stories in general), and a podcast…my plate is a bit full.  And so we bid (hopefully brief) adieu to our New American Apocalypse and its tentacular evils in order to march more steadily forward.

With great love and hope and utter sky-rending terror,

Spencer

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Out of the Dark: An Update.

Some of you have recently messaged me to ask “where the hell is the American Apocalypse?”

It’s still lurking in the darkness, worry not.  Its destiny will manifest, soon.  Due to its improvisational nature, a call-and-response to the madness of our national climate, its become somewhat run-away and I’ve had to resort to a degree of planning, a method of crafting its future to ensure it drives the deepest possible knife.  This has required a small break, but it will be back in action very soon, limping and squirming its way forward.

I also have other news that I hope will buy me pardon for my silence.

Piece of news #1: that Oceanrest project I mentioned so long ago has gained its landlegs.  Several of them.  I consider it still fairly Top Secret, and so won’t go too much into detail, but I’ve found myself in a position where the world and stories of Oceanrest need my focus.  Expect to see some more Oceanrest flash fiction and Oceanrest news in the near future.  I don’t want to jinx myself so I won’t say more.  If you happen to have an old chicken on its last legs, its eyes half-blind with cataracts, well, feel free to sacrifice it in my name.  If your chicken is healthy, however, consider giving it a name.  “Henry,” for instance.

Piece of news #2: I’ve started work on No Peace.  Oh, yes, I should clarify– No Peace is the third book of The Furies series, a sequel to No Grave.  I’ve only just now started scrawling the project in earnest, so release isn’t on the horizon, but between opening No Peace and my work on the Oceanrest project, my writing time isn’t as vast as it used to be.

Piece of news #3: I’ve taken to writing more non-fiction.  This isn’t of any particular note, really, although I now have some biased political screeds on http://perspectyve.com — but my sudden interest in essays and op-eds has proven distracting.  Does anyone really care about my thoughts on horror and dark fiction?  I doubt it.  Yet, I am compelled to write them down.  Maybe one day I’ll throw them on the blog, here, but for now I think it’s best if I keep my damned opinions to myself.

Piece of news #4: website re-design.  Several of the plugins and the previous theme I’d been using on this site have caused problems and site downages, preventing my precious words from finding their homes in your eager skulls.  Because I’m a narcissistic writer-type, I find this to be unacceptable.  So the site is undergoing the slow process of revision and “rewrite.”  As I hobble forth on this endeavor, there may be issues, though hopefully no site downages anymore.  This also takes time away from American Apocalypse.

But worry not, squidlings.  With the beginnings of a plan in hand, I’ve already started drafting the next segment and will have it online as soon as all these other horrors allow.

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My “Best Books of 2015” List

I know, I know, I’ve been a very bad/inactive blogger recently.  I promise this is just a temporary setback while I do background work for The New American Apocalypse and a top-secret Oceanrest project.

Since I don’t have a new American Apocalypse post, and not much in the way of public news for a No Grave sequel or Oceanrest progress, today’s post will deal with something non-fictional.  That is: the wonderful world of words!

I read a lot.  Not as much as, say, an acquisitions editor for a publishing house, but quite a bit compared to a normal human.  I think I put down 50-60 books in 2015 and I had some very clear favorites.  I’d like to take this time to recommend some of them to all of you.

NOTE: not all of these books were published/released in 2015; few of them were, in fact, but 2015 is the year I read them and, dammit, I’m not going to let something as silly as linear chronology deter me from recommending that everyone in the world read them.

Something in the Potato Room, by Heather Cousins.
Prose/Poetry, Experimental, Creepy in an Immediately Personal Way.  69 pages.
Those of you who have run into me in the real world (AKA “the outernet”) have undoubtedly already heard me suggest this book.  Because it’s amazing.  Heather Cousins’ work gets under your skin and grows there like a fungus.  Much like the titular thing in the potato room, the book is something one happens upon in a dark, dusty moment, something that becomes morbidly fascinating, something inexplicably beautiful even in its ugliness.  Rooted in the rich internal life of a depressed woman with a love of antique medical devices, Something in the Potato Room uses exquisite language, surreal prose, and strange illustrations to lure us down a dark basement staircase, where we find beauty and horror both sprouting from the cracked, unfinished floor.
Pick it up at Amazon.com.

The Visible Filth, by Nathan Ballingrud.
Prose, Novella, Full of Inescapable Cosmic Dread.  64 pages.
Another example of an author who just understands how to use language.  Darkness drips from these words.  Black mold grows across them.  Something awful lurks beneath.  The story, itself, feels neo-Lovecraftian–it deals with something that feels bigger than us, and darker, something simultaneously beyond us and within us.  Every step the narrator takes into the filthy world he uncovers oozes with dread.  One almost wants to yell “run away!” but, then, it doesn’t seem possible that the poor bastard would get very far, if he did…
Pick it up at Amazon.com.

The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero.
Prose, Novel, Creepy in a Haunted House Way.  353 pages.
Edgar Cantero is a goddamned brilliant wordsmith.  From the moment I opened the book, I was envious of his command of language.  Every single word feels purposeful.  Every sentence is the way it is because it couldn’t be any other way.  The characters are wonderful–easy to get attached to.  The Supernatural Enhancements strikes an amazing balance between the morbid and the mundane, between fear and fun.  Between hope and haunting.  The world mythos was excellently crafted, the characters well fleshed-out, and the plot delightfully tangled.  And right from the start, one gets the feeling that this inherited property is something just a little more complicated than a normal haunted house…as is the narration style.  Find out for yourself.
Pick it up at Amazon.com.  Seriously.

The Peripheral, by William Gibson.
Prose, Novel, a Deeply Intelligent Sci-Fi Conspiracy Thriller.  496 pages.
I was sold on this novel as soon as I heard “by William Gibs–” (I assumed there could only be one person with the approximate name, thus didn’t require the last syllable).  What can I say about Mr. Gibson that I haven’t already said?  As always, there’s the incredible trick of showing us that what we think of as normal is incredibly bizarre, while simultaneously showing that what we think of as bizarre will eventually seem incredibly normal.  The narrative characters are complex (thus, in typical Gibsonian fashion, deeply troubled), interesting, and, of course, caught up in machinations they can’t completely comprehend.  A wonderful sci-fi tale and also a rather harrowing commentary on the state of the modern world.  And, of course, a stage for bizarre technologies and screwed-up characters to play around on.
Pick it up at Amazon.com.

Gonzo Girl, by Cheryl Della Pietra.
Prose, Novel, Gonzo Fiction, A Wild Ride.  272 pages.
Cheryl Della Pietra was Hunter S. Thompson’s assistant.  Gonzo Girl is a fictionalized account of the madness involved with that job.  Pietra does incredible work, here: fast-paced prose, hilarious observations, incisive writing, and enough literary edge to cut yourself open on.  Of course, then there’s Thompson, and the issue of all Art Celebs–the mythologizing, the love-them-or-hate-them black-and-white perspective people look at them through, the constant deification or demonization…which Pietra destroys entirely, instead painting a nakedly human portrait of someone who is, by turns, amazing, disappointing, hilarious, frightening, genius, and fool.  Problematic.  Honest.  The man being eaten by the myth, gnashing his teeth in turn at those who crowd around him.  Gonzo Girl is a ride, an adventure, an examination, a warning given with a wink, and a hell of a book.
Pick it up on Amazon.com.

Misery and Death and Everything Depressing, by C. V. Hunt.
Prose, Short Story Collection, Horrifying and Hilarious.  134 pages.
C. V. Hunt is the Devil.  Dark, clever, and hilarious; able to show someone terrible things and leave them laughing about it, afterwards.  I loved this book so much I’ve already written a full-length review about it.  Baby Hater alone is worth the cover cost.  This is a book for people who laugh at shock.  A book for the twisted humors among us who think a well-executed joke about necrophilia should be considered art.  And, considering how hard it is to come up with a well-executed necrophilia joke, I’m prone to agree.  Behold: art.
Pick it up on Amazon.com.  Thank me later.

She Walks in Shadows, Edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles
Prose, Short Story Anthology Collection, Dark Prose, Lovecraftian Horror.  312 pages.
I was extremely excited when the Kickstarter campaign launched for this book.  I was also, as usual, extremely broke.  But by the time it came out, I’d scraped together enough money to get a copy, and it proved to be one of my best decisions of the year.  She Walks in Shadows collects Lovecraftian horror from a series of authors who have absolutely excelled at their task.  Rich language, eldritch beings, strange events…they scavenged the best parts of Lovecraft like hungry ghouls.  Their words are amazing.  They drip with alchemy.  They pulse with darkness.  A black undertow surges beneath these tales, dragging the reader to a sinkhole littered with human bones.  A pure, bleak delight.
Pick it up on Amazon.com.  Do it!

Gutshot, by Amelia Gray.
Prose, Short Story Collection, Literary Aberration, Incisive, Hilarious, Creepy.  224 pages.
A selection of words that come to mind when I think about Gutshot: visceral, flensing, uncoiling, intense, kinked, growing, coupling, uncoupling, thrumming, shut away, locked up, gagged, freed.  Like C. V. Hunt, Gray has an ability to adorn grotesquery with humor.  The content is certainly not for the weak of stomach.  Still, there were many moments of laughter I stumbled upon amidst the squishy warmth of Gutshot‘s cultural autopsy, and that kept my mood afloat.  Gutshot plays fast and loose with tone and genre, as well.  Some stories stuck to horrifying realism, while others ventured into the patently absurd.  Somehow, when stitched together, they all make a strange kind of sense…a Frankenstein monster of literary genres.
Pick it up on Amazon.com.

Through the Woods, by Emily Carroll.
Graphic Short Story Collection, Fun and Creepy.  208 pages.
Fairy tales.  Forests.  Unexpected twists.  Haunting writing, stylish animation.  There’s very little to dislike about Through the Woods…unless you’re someone who’s overly concerned with happy endings.  These are the stories one might tell a child if one wanted to scar the poor thing.  Or turn it into a future horror author.  Same thing, really.  In any case, the Carroll collection is an exquisite one–both visually and in terms of the text.  After reading through it, myself, I can no longer shake the momentary shudder that comes upon me whenever I hear someone complain about “cold hands.”  And, of course, I’ll never forget that “the Wolf only needs enough luck to find you once.”
Pick it up on Amazon.com.  Immediately.

My Work Is Not Yet Done, by Thomas Ligotti.
Prose, Novella (and 2 short stories), Creepy, Dark as Hell.  192 pages.
I’m not really a huge fan of Ligotti.  Now that I’ve said that, I’ll have to spend the rest of my life hiding from the horror-genre-literati.  But it’s true.  That being said, I am a huge fan of this specific work.  The prose maintains Ligotti’s beautiful vocabulary, but without being weighed down by it.  It clips along at quite a good pace, actually.  And, being written by Ligotti, you can count on it being about as dark as darkness gets.  Told from the point of view of a depressed, neurotic office worker on the razor’s edge, My Work Is Not Yet Done is a nihilistic cosmic horror story the modern 9-to-5er needs.  Part terror, part dread, and part cubicle revenge fantasy, My Work Is Not Yet Done is a wild ride under grim black stars.
Pick it up on Amazon.com.

The Cipher, by Kathe Koja.
Prose, Novel, Creepy, Sexy, Vile.  356 pages.
Koja’s prose is absolutely electric.  Dark, grimy, steamy, sexy, seedy, horrifying and ecstatic–every paragraph is a trip.  These aren’t your normal pages, dear readers, these are pages pulped from filth excreted from an oozing pit.  Sex, drugs, art, and an infinite darkness eating us all — what more could you ask for?  The book does lag a bit in the middle, where it feels almost like a novella forced to novel proportions, but it’s a sin worth forgiving.
Pick it up on Amazon.com.

Yeah, that’s right, 11 books.  Not 10.  11.  Even my cold, awful heart couldn’t get me to cut one of them loose.  So, there–enjoy the bizarre, the dark, the hilarious.  The best books I read in 2015 without a doubt.  And links for you all to purchase them online.

Of course, no post would be complete with a plug for No Reflection and No Grave!  And, I should mention, “A Man Wakes Up Any Morning,” from Sanitarium Magazine #38.

See you soon.

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Flash Fiction Bedbug Edition

They were everywhere in the darkness, a writhing swarm of them, so many bodies squirming and twitching in the black night, each of them waiting for a feast, a meal, a holdover, each of them hungry, all of them hungry.  She blinked and they vanished, paranoid images retreating to the back of her mind.  Her eyes burned as she sat balled up in the corner, hands clamped around her knees, a hefty mag-light flashlight on the floor next to her spilling a pool of eggshell white across the carpeted floor.  They could be in the carpet, couldn’t they?  They could be anywhere.  That was the worst part.  They could be anywhere and everywhere, covering every surface, creeping towards her, waiting, biding their time, breeding, breeding, breeding…

“Bedbugs,” she whispered.  “Bedbugs everywhere.”

It was, after all, New York City.  Everyone had assumed, when the MTA found them on the trains that they were outliers, random occurrence, (it started with the N, Q, she thought, then the 4, 5, 6, the L, the A…spreading, spreading, spreading), nothing to be overly concerned with, but that was a long time ago.  That was before they found the Hive.  That was before the droves of them had surged through the subway tunnels like a flood, the first victims running across platforms screaming, crashing into other people on the way, their wild hands flailing as they tried to get the monsters off of them.  Yes.  That was a long time ago.

She twitched.  She knew they would come for her, eventually.  They came for everyone, eventually.  Everyone she’d met, at least, everyone she’d talked to, they all had their stories from before.  She’d heard of the monsters crawling through cracks in the walls between apartments, slowly infiltrating, spreading, hitching rides on backpacks and jackets and coats and spreading their influence quietly for years.  Now they ruled.  New York was their city, and their reign was unquestionable.  It was only a matter of time before they came for her, too.  Only a matter of time.

People used to say that if they could burn the Hive, things would go back to normal, but who was going to go in there and burn the hive?  Who wanted to go to that dark place beneath what was once Times Square and try to light it ablaze?  She’d heard rumors that the walls were alive, there, the bedbugs crawling so thick along every surface that the walls and floor seemed to move, to pulse, to shift and shudder as their bodies tumbled over one another.

“Bedbugs,” she whispered, again, itching at a bite on her arm.  Mosquito bite?  Bedbug?  She couldn’t tell.  She had a reaction to all bites of every variety, her skin always blushing bright red and swelling even in response to the smallest attack.  Maybe it was a sign.  Maybe they had a spy living with her, already, a scout searching for prime food, the perfect target, the next subject in their insect kingdom, and maybe they’d found her, already.  Maybe those figments of her imagination weren’t figments, after all, but premonitions… visions of a future impossible to stop.

This was New York, after all.  This was Bedbug City.

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