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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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 20

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Ten; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen; Part SeventeenPart Eighteen; Part Nineteen;

Part Twenty:…)

[Day 26]

It begins.  We are a quiet bunch and must be secretive, but we begin.  Let it be put down in the history books that this day the…whatever day it is, now…late summer?  Early autumn?…well, let it be put down, at least, that at some point during this season of growing night, at some point during these dark days, a collection of artists began to hone their craft in secret from within the clutches of the Great Darknesses, themselves.

I am assured, also, that the request for art has been ferried along to every open ear on the east coast.  In the sewer hideouts of the DC rebels and the abandoned subway tunnels inhabited by the terrified survivors of New York’s zombie gentrification apocalypse, people will be making art.  In the overpopulated Employment Camps spread across the northeast, ink and paint and blood will spill from the minds of the dispossessed and indigent and onto canvas and paper.  Those few zed still possessed of enough brainpower to harbor free will…soon their bloodshot eyes will be brought to gaze upon Truth, and if the bare human truth captured in art is not enough to stir them from their corpse-like slumber, then it is already too late.

Their minds have been massaged by rapid-fire images seared through their eyes, projected against them by so many screens that they are uncountable.  They’ve been numbed to questioning.  The afflicted have been comforted and the comfortable have also been comforted.  Sedatives and painkillers have been pumped through their skulls, the sole nourishment for their brains.  Now we will change the picture.  Or so we hope.

It’s a multi-pronged attack, of course.  We still need the guerrillas in DC and the team in New York to stay active, to put pressure on, to make a show of force against the darkness…to prove, really, that there’s another option to take.  We’ll need rebels and revolutionaries fighting tooth and claw every step of the way, bearing the most risk for the least historical reward.  People with backs strong enough to carry the burdensome crosses of this battle.  But while they take the fight to the streets and markets and parks and apartment complexes of this twisted, tormented nation, we will hack our way into the airwaves and distort the images purveyed by the mind-numbing screens until they disturb rather than dissuade, until they question rather than comfort.  We’ll print the posters and post the bills and tag the Cyclopean halls of Wall Street with bright multi-hued graffiti.  We’ll write essays and fictions and manifestos and poetry and multi-genre multi-media works that jerk the veil of comfortable illusion away from the eyes of the zombie class.  We’ll wake them up.

Such is the goal.  We shall see.  I am torn, after what happened last night…I am flush with confidence and filled with terror.  Simultaneously, I believe our victory is possible and impossible.  You will understand when it is done.

For now: as Jim Morrison wrote, we will “[take] pills to stay awake and play for 7 days.”  That’s right.  I’m cranking into my vault of externally-abled courage.  I will rest no more.  Especially after what I’ve seen.  For as long as my drug-induced confidence holds out, I will be unshakable…which I may need to be, considering how quickly these operations are likely to be discovered.  In the battle of propaganda, and also just in literal terms, the Great Darknesses possess many watchful eyes.  The Scanners were only the beginning.

One night ago: Mr. Baldwin approaches me after a 10-hour day of digging graves.  All Employment Camp graves are dug in advance, I should mention, to a depth corresponding to the debt of the person who will one day fill it.  One of my several rotating jobs at the Camp is to dig them.  As you may guess, manual labor is not my favorite thing.  But, hey, when you’re a prisoner in the clutches of Great Darknesses trying to subsist on the questionable leftovers handed down to you by the Cannibal Class, you do what you gotta do, right?

Anyway, Mr. Baldwin approaches me after a 10-hour shift.  (Side note: fairly certain my “lunch” yesterday was a specific kind of morally discomforting veal…not to say all veal isn’t, in some way, morally discomforting, but it’s different when it’s likely your own species) — my apologies for the sidetracking, but there are some details of Camp life I haven’t gone into, as I have been drowning under a sea of existential malaise and general psychological malady.

Anyway, ahem, Mr. Baldwin approaches.  In his hand is a small book, perhaps the size of a stack of 3×5 study cards.  Its binding is stitched out of human skin and bat wings and the title is a symbol my hand can’t reproduce but that has been branded into the flesh with a hot iron.

“What the hell is that?” I ask, rightfully.

“One of the Great Dark Ones’ secrets.  Come on.”

I don’t ask further questions.  Instead, I follow Mr. Baldwin back through our self-dug cemetery to the plot of land reserved for his future corpse.  He leaps inside and I follow.  It seems one of the workers has dug a cramped tunnel leading from the bottom of his future tomb to some tiny earthen cavern.  Once inside this cavern (no larger than, perhaps, two coffins sat next to each other, which makes it still larger than the Employee Lounge we usually meet in), he sets the book between us and opens it up.  Strange designs draw my eyes–impossible geometries and bizarre lines.  Escher animations and hideous Beksinksian landscapes.  My mouth hangs wide.

“You speak their language, right?” Mr. Baldwin asks.

“I–no, I’m just a…a…” but I freeze.  Because he’s right.  I recognize some of these nonsense symbols–entire phrases, even!  Entire paragraphs!  I can’t make sense of every page, or even form a cohesive understanding of what I’m reading, but I speak the language, I know the tongue…how?

“Must have got to you young,” Mr. Baldwin’s voice is comforting, though I know it is an artificial comfort.  It has the practiced execution of someone used to easing people into harsh truths.  “I think that’s likely how it happened so quickly.  The Great Dark Ones had half of America brainwashed before they even rose up out of the sea.”  He shakes his head.  “Goddamn.”

“But…but I’m a writer!” I scramble back into the hard dirt, shocked.

“A path you chose…but think back.  How many messages were burned into your brain before you had a chance to fight back against them?  How much propaganda did the Great Darknesses spoon-feed you before you were even off of Gerber?  How often does your conscious mind have to fight back programmed thoughts?”

I stammer senselessly.

“Maybe that’s how they were able to use you,” Mr. Baldwin continues.  “Playing on sleeping instincts programmed into your brain.  Or maybe they just whispered to you at just the right moment…a moment when you had truly given up.”

I open my mouth to answer, but he cuts me off.

“You don’t have to trust me with the answer.  I don’t know if I’d trust you gave the honest one, anyway.  But just as they used you, so can we.”

He taps the top of a page.

He says: “I need you to read this.  I need you to cast this spell.”

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 19

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Ten; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen; Part SeventeenPart Eighteen;

Part Nineteen:…)

[Day 14]

I wake up furious and by the end of the day I am too exhausted to do anything about it.  I am beginning to think this is how the place is designed.  It is easier just to wait and die than it is to fight.  On the plus side: I have found drugs.  If I corral enough of them, potent pills in particular, I might be able to draw something similar to courage out of them.  I may need it.

Imagine me, courageous.  What a change of pace that would be.

For now, though, I bide time.  Wake up hateful and fiery, full of the passion that revolutions are sparked from, work until the passion is drained out of me, and return to my bunk to collapse in defeat and forfeiture.

It seems there are few here who have the inner spirit to rise to Mr. Baldwin’s level.  I was surprised, at first, to see so few men and women in the spirit and soul of protest, so few angry faces screaming out for more.  After my first weak I felt beaten, yes, certainly, but it has been this second week that has taught me the meaning of defeat: to give up.  How easy it would be just to subsist, here, to let the banks wear me to my bones and brainwash me with the mindless TV images constantly berating my fellow workers, to let them pump me full of numbing, thoughtless bliss and let it carry me into a sleep as dark as the bottomless guts of the eldritch abominations who run the place.  How easy it would be to sag my tired bones into the dimple of a couch and let the flickering re-runs stretch my time into oblivion…

But Mr. Baldwin is there to remind me.  He and his small crew of secret rebels meeting in the quiet corners of this damnable place…they keep me awake and thinking.  They remind me that I am not…that we are not cattle.  We were not bred to work and slaughter.  And, yes, the fight is grim, and we are not winning, but there is still a fight.  To listen to him speak, even at a bare whisper, is to listen to the voice of revolution.  Of suffering given hope.

He brings in news from the front.  How it travels all the way here, I don’t ask.  He wouldn’t tell me anyway and considering my weakness against fear and interrogation…it’s better if I don’t know.  The news is as follows: it seems Mr. Swift and Mr. Conrad have joined a group in DC.  They’re limited to guerrilla tactics and have thus far been unsuccessful in dismantling the abyssal hold the Dark Ones have over the Capitol.  Ms. Bradbury and Mr. Ballard were last seen only days ago, alive, in retreat from a horde of rampaging zombies that have invaded the western coast of Queens.  One of them snapped a photograph, uploaded to Instagram with the tags #nofilter, #undeadgentry, and #TheEndIsExtremelyFuckingNigh.  It shows dozens of shuffling creatures flooding the streets, each wearing an off-the-rack suit and many holding bottles of craft beer, as they batter down apartment doors to claim their new residences.

I deflate at the news.  My old apartment is likely reclaimed, now.  I think of my roommates torn asunder, devoured by the zed onslaught, their bones bleaching in the New York sun.  Or worse: perhaps they joined the Cannibal Class.  Perhaps in the fight between the human spirit and the Great Darknesses, they elected to join the Great Darknesses…to exchange their threadbare lives for a wealth of status symbols and mindless servitude to gibbering, unknowable Gods.  In either case, I doubt my keys will still work.

Making the blind and foolish assumption, of course, that I ever get out of the particular hell I’m living in, now.

 

[Day 20]

I’ve accrued a solid collection of drugs.  Enough to keep me unafraid of death and debt for a week or so, should I delve into heavy use.  Which may be necessary, considering that my latest paycheck has come in with the ‘Owed’ line in big bold font, alerting me that not only have I failed to make a dent in my debt, but I’ve somehow grown it.  An attached letter from the bank CEO (a form letter, naturally, and the copy likely written up by some zed assistant who was happy to take on the work in exchange for an extra sliver of gray matter offered him by his masters) — it accuses me of not working hard enough, of failing to produce the numbers required to make good on the gracious loan they’ve made to keep me out of prison, of being a leech on the body of their goodwill.

This letter, combined with the general sense of anguish aching in my bones, has driven me to meet with Mr. Baldwin in discussion of certain ideas I’ve been toying with, ideas that his own inspiring voice has planted in the previously fallow trenches of my brain.

He has a network of informants and messengers, of course, though I stay clear of the details — which means he is able not only to bring news in, but to get messages out.  What he’s been using these means to do, thus far, is not on my mind.  I assume he’s acted as an intermediary between groups, the middle man of a small, quiet rebellion… but there are other methods.

“You know what I’m talking about,” I whisper.  We stand inches away from each other in an ‘Employee Lounge’ the approximate dimensions of a coffin.

“You would risk the lives of dozens of men and women.”

“But you know!  You must know the sway such things can have!”

He looks over his shoulder–an unnecessary and paranoiac reaction considering the claustrophobic confines we meet in–and purses his lips.  “You’re talking about making art.”

“It may be the only weapon we have left.”

“It will not work, alone.”

“You think I don’t know that?  I’m not proposing a solution, here, dear sir, I am proposing a step.”

“A dangerous step.”

“The good ones always are.”

He considers this for some time, his serious eyes boring into me somehow even further than the Scanners’.  What does he see?  What does he see that the monsters do not?  What does he see, at long last, that makes him nod?  And when he nods, he says: “I thought you might have it in you.  And you’d better not squander it.”

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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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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 12

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Ten; Part ElevenPart Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen;

Part Twelve:…)

Mr. Swift drops us off by the bridge crossing Roosevelt Island into Manhattan.  I watch as the Blue Whale passes under streetlights, vanishing in the distance.  Now it is only Anna, myself, and Mr. Ballard…at least for the time.  For a while, we listen to the ululations of the East River, the mumble of its waves.  It sounds hungry.

“Well, then,” Mr. Ballard says.  “Let’s get moving.  Mr. Hughes, if you will…” he gestures for me to begin along the bridge.

“Excuse me?” I scoff.

An uncomfortable beat.

“As our resident Straight White Male, you’ll be in the least danger taking point.”

Son of a bitch, he’s right.

I take a deep breath and plaster a smile on my face that is nowhere near believable.  “Great,” I lie.  “This is wonderful.  Sure.  Why not?  Ms. Bradbury, would you be so kind?”  I offer my arm.  “A woman oughtn’t to be walking around alone, at this time of night, after all.”

She wrinkles her nose at my arm.  “I’ll walk next to you, then.”

“Fine by me.”

The bridge is dead quiet.  There is no traffic, there are no cars.  I head toward Roosevelt Island.

Even from here I can see Times Square.  It glows at any distance, a sun in miniature, a constant burning engine of advertisement and blind, Azathoth consumerism.  It is the only light visible along the Isle of Manhattan.  All else is darkness, or something even darker still.  All along the edges of Times Square’s glow I can see absence, a great vacuum, darker than dark, impossible, a photo-negative reality.  I shiver to look at it.  I avert my eyes, bringing my gaze back to the bridge ahead.  So far, I see no danger.  Well, no immediate danger, at least.

“Do you know how many are left?” I ask.

Behind me, Mr. Ballard’s voice answers: “In Manhattan?  Not many.”

“How fast did it all happen?”

“Very,” Anna chimes in.  “Over days.  The details are still unclear…but something rose up from the sea, something dark and only half-real.  Millions heard its call.  Everything went to hell pretty quick, after that.”

“It devoured the Statue of Liberty immediately,” Mr. Ballard explains.  “The whole of it, gone overnight.”

“Jesus…” I turn my gaze southward but it’s too dark to be sure.  Still, I believe him.  “And we have no allies left in Manhattan?”

“Anyone with half a brain fled.  Brooklyn, Queens, Jersey…and then who knows where else.  The monsters fell on them so quickly they didn’t have time to pack.  The ones that did got on as many boats as possible and fled to the Atlantic…”

“But no one will take them in.” Anna interrupted.

“Right.”  Mr. Ballard cleared his throat.  “Assuming the things beneath the waves haven’t devoured them, already, it’s only a matter of time before they have to come back.”

There is no wind, tonight.  The very air has died.  I’ve never heard the city so quiet…so (and I cringe to use this word to describe my fair city, I cringe to use it to describe any of the five boroughs–cringe, I say!)…so tame.

We pass over Roosevelt Island.  I gaze down at the sprawl of it, dozens of buildings all looking alike…a glimpse of the future?  Good lord.  Imagine it: the same building, cloned, for as far as your eyes can see, each as quiet as the grave.  The tombstones of humanity.  The death of fun.  Zombie eyes watch behind picture windows, dreamless, hypnotized by TV, moving from the rectangles of their offices to the rectangles of their homes.

The bridge slopes down to Manhattan.  There is no graffiti, anymore.  Murals have been pasted over with advertisements.  Street tags have been replaced by brand names.  The three of us descend to 3rd Ave with no traffic fighting us.  White Jesus smiles down on us from a billboard.  The billboard next to him reads: “Could the terrorists be YOUR neighbors?  If you see something, say something.”

No birdsong.  No rolling tires.  No car horns.  No pedestrians, no cabbies, no car services, no tourist SUVs.  No drunk twenty-somethings stumbling down the boulevard.  No bar signs flickering neon.

And a thought that puts my teeth on edge, like I just bit into a hollow copper pipe: …with the exception of my earlier play-acting, my hobo-theatre performances…no homeless people.

None.

Where the hell did they go?

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 10

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen;

Part Ten:…)

Mr. Ballard breaks the silence: “We need to unite with whoever remains alive, outside.  Whoever is keeping The Feed running, whoever’s shooting the footage…whoever is still awake and unzombified.”

“We need to rile up the proles,” Mr. Swift adds, “we have to cut off the mind-numbing drugs being pumped through everyone’s eyes and ears.  We have to wake them up.”

“We have to stop the forces of darkness from advancing,” Ms. Bradbury finishes her scotch and punctuates her sentence by placing the empty glass on the tabletop.  “We have to meet them in the field before they swarm us all.”

I nodded.  “Good.  All of that sounds like a very good plan.  I’m glad it’s settled.”

“Just one second,” Mr. Conrad holds up a slender finger and turns his head toward me.  “We also need to destroy the Poems of the Apocalypse.”

“Hmm?  What?  Oh, right.  That.” I clear my throat, my feigned innocence unbought.

“And that,” Conrad continues, “is on your head.”

What did I hope for?  That they forgot?  That I could worm my way out of the action at the last second, that I could retreat to my apartment and barricade the doors and live on canned food until they either won or lost the day?  No.  The conversation was destined to play out this way.  I have to own up to my mistakes.  I have to fix them…a process I’d never been very good at, to be honest.

“Well.  So.  I think we’ll start in the morning?”

They all exchange a long look.  Finally, Mr. Swift nods.  “They’ll all be at work in the morning…that will be our best time to strike out.  We’ll have safe lines of travel and communication in all directions.”

“Except during lunch,” Conrad says.

“Right.  Except during lunch.”

“What if they take an early lunch?” I ask.  “Or a late one?”

“Well…we’ll have safe-er lines of travel and communication, then.”

“Safety’s an illusion I don’t think we can afford to have,” Anna pours herself another scotch and leans back.  “Remember, not every member of the M’Ra cult or every armchair neophyte of the Church of the New American Jesus has a job.”

“I still vote we wait until morning,” I say, “because I, for one, am drunk.”

Which is true.  You try splitting a twenty-ounce bottle of whiskey and another half-liter of scotch and see if you feel like fighting a revolution.  The fact of the matter is neither Anna nor myself are in any position to take up arms against a sea of–sorry, that’s Hamlet–but we’re not in any position to take up arms, I’m sure of that.  And by morning we’ll have at least sobered up enough to understand exactly how grim our situation really is…

“Actually, I’m changing my vote,” I say, “because I, for one, am drunk.”

“Excuse me?” Conrad asks.

“If we wait until we’re all sober, we’ll never do it.  We’ll be too scared.  We’ll turn on The Feed and see the masses of the zombified public praying to enormous, veiny masculinity and we’ll chicken out.  We’ll lock ourselves up and turn off the Feed and turn out all the lights and hide.  Our only chance is to strike while the iron is hot!  To get our rum up and move like we’ve got a purpose!”

“Do you remember what you did the last time you acted on your drunken thoughts?” Mr. Swift plucks the scotch from the table and drinks straight from the bottle.  “Or do we have to remind you?”

“But this is different!  I was by myself, then, depressed, sitting in a dark room with nothing but liquor and a keyboard for company.  Now I’ve got you!  Heroes!  Frontline soldiers in the war against the Great Darknesses!”

“That’s a bit dramatic, isn’t it?” Anna quaffs her drink after the question, eyebrows furrowed at me.

“No,” Mr. Ballard says, “it isn’t.  Mr. Hughes has an excellent point.  Right now we are feeling courageous.  Mr. Swift rammed a cop car with his van not four hours ago.  Mr. Hughes, you mentioned you stared down a Scanner to buy time for Ms. Bradbury to escape?”

“I did,” I say, a little proud of myself.

“Then maybe this is the time!” Mr. Ballard continues, “And what better time than now?  Tomorrow?  The next day?  Next year, next decade, next century?  If we don’t act now, we act never.”

Silence hovers in the air, again.  I can feel something change.  Yes.  Now we’re ready to be heroes.  Now we’re ready to get back out there and defeat the Great American Nightmare, to battle the Darknesses and push them back, to fight off this invasion of all that is just and right in the world.  Now we’re bloody ready!  Hell yes!  We can still change the future!  We can still change the world!

“But first!” I declare, “Another drink.  And, if we’re really serious about this, we’ll need something to keep us lively and awake.  Something to get our nerves steeled and our bodies able.  Something to put us on the very Edge, to keep us sharp and hard even through the blurry courage of liquid heroism…” I gesture to Mr. Swift, “in my handbag there is a bag of pills.  We’ll need one each.”

And this may be one similarity between the mad artists and strident activists of the 50’s and 60’s and those who live today: we really believe we can fix things, we really believe we can make the world a better place, or at least the country, we really believe we can save the day…but we also recognize that we have to be half-crazy and at least slightly high to get away with believing something so obviously insane.  We know the Vegas odds and we’re choosing to blind ourselves against them, to pursue Truth and Justice and Righteousness despite the overwhelming evidence that the whole game is rigged, anyway, because, dammit, we just refuse to give up.

So we each take one of my potent little pills and we finish the first bottle of stolen scotch and we wait for the Need to come upon us, the itching, undeniable desire to get to action and, while we wait, I pick up my phone and announce: “I’m going to call the girl, make sure she survived.”

If you know me, or any other crazed, whiskey-soaked writer type hammering away madly at a keyboard, you know there’s always a girl.  Or a guy, I don’t know, choose your poison.  In my case, girl.

And you might also know, if you’ve read any amount of pulp, hardboiled, noir, or any of the classic genre works, that the girl is usually where things go wrong.

Well…for once on this mad journey, I won’t disappoint you.

Because I pick up my phone and punch in the girl’s number and guess what happens.  Take a wild guess, a shot in the dark.  Throw your bet in on the roulette table and see what comes up.  I’ll give you a second to consider it, but I think we all know way down in our bones way down in the pit of our souls the only way this phone call can go in such a story as this…and that’s with the Bad Guys picking up on the other end, their voices carrying their ugly smirks all the way through the phone line and into my ear.

“Why, hello there, Mr. Hughes,” the Beast says, sounding like money and expensive cigars and thousand-dollar bottles of scotch.  “How nice to hear from you, again.”

And for a second, I think my heart might explode out of my chest.

And I’m a little disappointed when it doesn’t.

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Short Story Release; No Grave Available!

“He woke up, again, to the same alarm as always: static hiss of radio underscoring the accentless newsman as he said, ‘…he went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.’ He slapped the radio off before he heard the rest of the story and pushed himself up out of bed. Sarah shifted on the mattress next to him, an airy sigh slipping from her lips as she curled up in the covers. She never heard the newsman, no matter how many times he said the exact same thing. They’d had a fight about it, once. She always heard a rock song, from Oceanrest Rock & Blues Radio. The same song, every time…something by Nine Inch Nails, but he couldn’t remember the title. He only ever heard the news report, the same news report, over and over again.”

So begins “A Man Wakes Up Any Morning,” a short story I wrote published in Sanitarium Magazine, Issue #38.  Sanitarium is a great horror mag–I’ve been a subscriber for quite some time and I am thrilled to be part of it, now.  I highly recommend picking up a copy, if you can.

The ebook is available on Amazon.com US, Amazon UK,  Apple News Stand, and Google Play Store, with PDF, EPUB, and other digital editions available through the Issue Release Page.

It’s also available in the flesh (or paper, as it were) on Amazon.com.

And while we’re here, I’d like to bump No Grave for the millionth time.  It’s the sequel to my first release, No Reflection, and a far superior book in my utterly biased and completely un-humble opinion.

No Grave is available in digital format at Smashwords.com, Amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble.

No Grave is also available in the gruesome, gruesome flesh at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

Thanks for the continued support.  Enjoy the grim, terrible experience and we’ll talk again very, very soon.

Sooner than you think, dear readers.

Sooner, maybe even, than you would like…

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 9

(Have you stopped the check out No Reflection and No Grave, yet?  Please do!  You already read them?  Oh, I see.  Well, then…maybe you wanted to write a review?  Please?)

(Also, check out Issue #38 of Sanitarium Magazine, featuring one of my short stories: “A Man Wakes Up Any Morning.”)

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part EightPart Ten; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen;

Part Nine:…)

 

And this is the truth: we’ve always been heading in this direction, since the inception of the nation, a delicate curve of roadway getting tighter and tighter up until now, until it became a spiral, a corkscrew turn downhill into madness, abomination, destruction…death.  And I threw caltrops and oil over the asphalt in front of the car, in front of the half-blind American public squinting through the windshield, and the car lost control.  It spun out, careening in squealing 360s right up until it crashed through the guardrail and plummeted into darkness…and as if all that knowledge isn’t enough, as if knowing now what I know isn’t enough…I also have to accept the knowledge that the public at large, the great mass of the American Republic…don’t care.  That they, for some reason, imagine the car tumbling through darkness into endless cleavage and some aberrant mutations of Truth and Justice nobody in their right minds would recognize.  The truth is, Mr. Swift is right.  I only ever added the straw.  The rest of it, well, we did it to ourselves.  Staring into my scotch, the Feed playing on low volume in the background, I know nothing so well as I know this.  We did this to ourselves.

So now what?  Is there some emergency parachute in the trunk of this Great American Car, a Ford of some metaphysical, archetypal variety–or are we truly lost?  Can we be saved?  And if so, what are we being saved from?  Is this what we really are?  Is it all we’ve ever been?

I imagine the future, as directed by the Great Darknesses:

In this future, the streets are patrolled by mutant cops, Cthulhu from the waist down with big badges and giant, blocky guns clutched in their six-fingered hands.  They scan into our souls with their camera lenses, they read our minds with their sensors, they stand at the ready with truncheon and tentacle to act on the merest hint of sedition.  They fall upon protesters and under-privileged youth with ravenous bloodthirst, fanatical in their devotion to the ‘Greater Good.’   Remember: your enemies walk among you.  They could even be your neighbors.  They could even be yourself.  Remember: you are only safe if everyone else is dead.  Remember: you can trust us.

In this future, the great priests of the Church of the New American Jesus lead us in Megachurch Prayers for a small pittance, a tax-exempt tithe taken from our corporate-controlled bank accounts.  They have bombed out all the abortion clinics and banned sex for any purpose except for reproduction.  Gays and other sinners are lynched by the dozen in the name of the new American Christ, whose blond-haired blue-eyed John Doe visage gazes smilingly down on us from towers of opalescent wealth.  Muslims and Atheists soon join the queer fruit hanging from the trees, but eventually other sacrifices will be necessary, too.  The Jews, again?  Or the Buddhists?  Or will the New American Jesus soon demand the blood of a different Christian sect?  One whose teachings are less in-line with the Corporate-Approved Scriptures?  The Quakers, maybe.  Unitarians.  Anyone who strikes out against the booming declarations of the morally Right American Jesus and his Hobby Lobby Apostles.

In this future, the Eldritch Abominations strut through board rooms in crisp suits, their unreal faces ignored by the numb, mindless population.  They smoke cigars and drink $5000 cognac and carry suitcases made from leathered human skin.  Their bank accounts are padded by selling children into sex slavery after the poor kids lose too many fingers trying to put sneakers together.  Exploitation after exploitation, not unnoticed but simply unpunished.  Because nobody cares, mesmerized by reality TV and celebrity gossip.  They don’t even glance up from the screen as the Cannibal Class and its Dark Masters devour their neighbors, more meat for the market, more food for the horde.  The middle-management types, the zeds with a little extra brain in their skulls, tell the toiling workers that if they try hard enough, they, too, might one day earn a comfortable living.  In the meantime, it’s toil, toil, toil, and pray to New American Jesus that you keep your job until your debt is paid off (and it never will be, the Abominations have seen to that–at your current interest rate, it will take the rest of your natural life plus twenty years paying from the grave.)  The homeless and other inferior economic specimens will be shuttled to work camps, yes, like Gypsies in the old days.  They’ll be housed, of course, and given cots on which to rest their weary heads, so that should be an improvement over a park bench, shouldn’t it?  Never mind the fact that the showers aren’t connected to running water…

Never mind that, at all.

In this future, the Cult of M’Ra persists through allotment.  It has found a brother organization in the Church of the New American Jesus and so its teachings are allowed to filter through to the docile public.  Women will be ushered out of the workplace.  It will be taught across the nation that their brain power is diminished by the blood requirement of menstruation.  And with all the calculations going on in their tiny, adorable heads in search of an appropriate mate, how can there be room for extra maths?  These things can’t be helped–it’s just the way we’re built, biologically.  It’s not sexist, remember, it’s science.  And they will teach these things instead of Evolution, a silly theory if ever there was one.  Remember: men have challenges, too, and they shouldn’t be ignored.  The Cult of M’Ra has several pamphlets regarding prostrate cancer.  They haven’t put any money into research for a cure, and they haven’t exactly assembled an awareness council or even staged a march or a marathon…they just want you to know that it sucks, that they have to deal with it and you don’t, that their problems are very pressing, more pressing than your own concern over safety or privacy or rape culture or the breast cancer eating you alive from inside.

This future:

Don’t vote.  It doesn’t matter, anyway.  When has one vote changed anything?  Come and sit down.  Read a Bible.  Watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians.  Do you see what’s on Bravo, now?  Aren’t these Housewives hilarious?  Take these pills.  What do they do?  Oh, it’s nothing.  They make you feel good.  Isn’t this a funny show?  Don’t you feel better about life, now?  Oh, those people?  They’re your friends.  They live in your apartment.  Sorry, did I say your apartment?  I misspoke.  It’s their apartment, now.  You’re going to go live in one of the labor, er, Employment Camps with the other welfare recipients.  It pays minimum wage.  No benefits, but you’ll get cable TV.  Voting?  You won’t have time to vote.  No, no, no.  You have to work.  To pay the bills.  You only make minimum wage, after all.  Do you really want to take time off to register a vote that hardly matters?  Of course not.  Don’t stress about it too much.  There’s always Kim Kardashian.  Look at her little baby.  Look at her oiled up ass.  Take these pills.  No, I’m sorry, there’s no running water in the showers, but if you’re tired of feeling dirty all the time if you’re tired of all the sweat clinging to your pores if you’re just tired, tired, tired of the whole filthy world, I can turn one on for you.  There we go.  It’s not so bad, is it?  Shhhh.  Shhhhh.  Just close your eyes and let go.

I finish my scotch.  This is the Great American Dream, huh?  This is where we’ve all been headed.

To hell with that.

“What are we going to do?” I ask.

For a long time: silence.

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 6

(As some of you know, I have a dark, dark, dark supernatural fiction novel out known as No Grave — I would be thrilled if you would take the time to read and review it.  Thank you very much.)

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part FivePart Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Ten; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen;

Part Six:…)

The ravening madman is trying to claw out Anna’s eyes!

“Liberals!” he sputters, “Commies!  Got more red in them than just their blood, you can bet!”

The other zeds don’t appear to hear him, too busy devouring their old brother-in-arms to care about anything else.

To be fair to the poor store manager, I am technically robbing him.  But with prices like those, it doesn’t feel karmically/morally/ethically wrong.  And even if it was, why should I care?  I never claimed to be a shining moral pillar.  If anything, I’m obviously the opposite, a fringe freak and a cad; lecherous, over-amorous, volatile…an extreme-leftist horror author who spends his days reading about human cruelty and pounding tales of darkness out on a keyboard while chugging coffee and whiskey and taking pills.  No, no, I’m certainly not the person to be looking at as a moral paragon…

“Spencer!” Anna yells.  “A little fucking help, here!”

“Oh, right.”

I rear back and bring one of the overpriced bottles of Macallan 12 down on the back of the zombie’s head.  A dull glassy THUNK travels up my arm, but the hungry-eyed shopkeep remains mobile, agile and angry, all teeth and claws and breath so bad I can see Anna tear up from smelling it.  I bring the bottle down a couple more times, each time harder than the last, until finally the creature’s body goes limp and slides to the floor.

His last conscious words: “Fucking…Stalinists…”

Anna leaps up from the floor and grabs me.  Several shotgun shells spilled from her bag during the struggle, but there’s no time to stop and pick them up–the other zeds are just about done eating their fallen comrade, and we’ll be their next target.  We rush for the exit and burst back out onto the dark sidewalk.

Flashing lights announce the approach of the Scanner, the Thing in the Cop Car.  The vehicle screeches around the corner and comes toward us like hell on wheels–no, not like hell on wheels, that’s not quite right, more like the hideous manifestation of a malignant and bleak universe on wheels.  And it’s coming right for us, the Scanner’s one camera eye boring into my chest, filming me, seeing me, knowing me, knowing me in ways I can only guess at, maybe in ways I can’t even imagine.

“What do you see!?” I scream at the cop car.  “What do you see!?”

Anna has my arm, again.  “Run!”

We take off down the street as fast as we can, trying to keep a line of parked cars between our bodies and the humming frame of the cop car.  It’s useless and we both know it.  The car pulls ahead of us, our faces caught in the reflection if its side-mounted mirrors, wherein the objects may be closer than they appear (and we appear pretty close) and turns sharply into the crosswalk at the end of the block.  Anna yanks on me and runs between two parked cars, but the cop car revs its engines, backs up, and turns to face us, again.

We’ve been beat.  I woke up in this ruined America less than a day ago and I’ve already scotched it up (literally) and got us beaten.  A world record for failure.  Another notch on a belt with little room left for notches.  Spencer Rhys Hughes: crowned king of mistakes, errors of judgment, and general fuckups.

“Go!” I yell, pushing Anna away from me and turning to face the headlights of the cop car.  “Come get me you sonsabitches!  I’m right here and I’m drunk enough not to be afraid!  Come on!”

Anna gets her shotgun back out.

“I said GO!” I scream at her, waving one of my dual scotch bottles to indicate that she needs make haste in such a situation.  “Get out of here while there’s still time!”

“I’ve done enough goddamned running.”

The driver’s side door pops open and the THING gets out, its massive lens taking us in.  Seeing the rest of its body…how can I describe it?  It bears an aura like a cloud of ink passed from an undersea monster.  Its legs are black tentacles, and its arms, though humanoid, have a vile, gelatinous texture to them.  A matte black Glock sits in a six-fingered hand capping its right arm.  “Put your hands up, Citizen Hughes and Citizen Bradbury.  You are both under arrest.”

“For what!?” I demand.

“Citizen Hughes for the theft of goods, for the spread of lunacy, and for general sedition.  Citizen Bradbury for violence against other citizens and suspicion.”

Where does its voice even come from?  It has no mouth, it has no mouth and yet it screams, it emits sound that makes my head hurt, feedback from a microphone.  Some new crime-stopping technology, maybe?  Some damned dark magic granted to it by…by…by the Greater Darknesses commanding it?  And what, exactly, are these Greater Darknesses?

“Put your hands up or I will use lethal force!”

Anna lifts her shotgun.  I rush toward her, hoping to stop her from being shot, to take the bullet myself or at least knock her out of its path (hopefully the second option, as I am in no mood, ever, to take a bullet for another human–not a fitting end for a man as selfish and cowardly as myself).  I can already hear the gunshots, even before they happen.

The Cop Monster Thing, The Scanner Darkly, lifts its own pistol.

Our quest is over before it even began.

And then an enormous blue van, a massive whale of a vehicle, runs through the intersection and crashes into the cop car.  It must be going seventy-something miles per hour because when it hits, everything on the street feels it.  The cop car crumples like rough draft paper (and, sadly, the still-human man in the passenger seat goes the same way) and tumbles belly-up onto the Scanner.

My good friend and occasional lawyer(-slash-voice-of-reason) Johnny Swift (again, no relation, at least insofar as I am aware), pushes open the passenger-side door, facing us.  He sticks out his clean-cut mug (never been handsomer in his life, I swear) and calls out: “Anna, get in!  Quick!”

The two of us start in a lope toward his car, the mighty Leviathan, and he waves a hand, “No, no, you leave that son of a bitch right where he is.”

“What!?” I yelp, not slowing down for an instant and finding him much less handsome than I had five seconds earlier.

“You know what you did!” Mr. Swift calls out.

“I really don’t!” I’m ten feet from the van, Anna a couple steps closer.

“We’re not leaving him!” and when Anna says something like that, it’s case closed.  Even the Lawyer knows that much.  He rolls his eyes and lets me open the back-seat panel door.

The backseat, if it can be called that looking so much, as it does, like a bookshelf, is cluttered with law books and old case files.  I jump in, after loading my man-bag and the two bottles of scotch, sit on a dense book called A Brief History of Constitutional Law (which, judging from its size, is anything but) and slam the door shut next to me.

Anna gets her door closed, too, which I notice she left open for a couple extra seconds to make sure Mr. Swift didn’t hightail it away from there without me.  Kind girl.  Very kind.

Johnny Swift puts his foot on the accelerator right as the Scanner flips the cop car off its back and stands up.  I won’t bother to express surprise at this feat, the image of a monster one-third human, one-third octopus, and one-third security camera lifting and heaving a fully-loaded cop car across the street, because for some reason this seems like it was always a foregone conclusion.  Of course the new Scanner Super Police can flip cop cars.  What would be the point, otherwise?

As we speed down the street, doing 55 in a 30, I find enough of my voice to ask: “Why the hell were you going to leave me out there?”

“Because this is your goddamned fault!” Mr. Swift yells back.

“What!?  I’ve been blackout blotto’d for over two weeks!”

He takes his eyes off the road long enough to give me a deathly glare, the kind only a lawyer with a very good knowledge of contract law and asset allocation can give.  “You…what!?”

“He doesn’t remember,” Anna replies.  “Keep your eyes on the damned road.  We need to head to the Voice and the Sleeper Agent.”

With a heavy, long-suffering sigh, Mr. Johnny Swift turns back to the road.

In the back, I sink down in my seat (as far as A Brief History of Constitutional Law will allow me to do) and gulp.

What the hell did I do, this time?

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