My Short Story Re-Education: Introduction

Coming back online has made me realize I need to stay offline longer. Reading these things called books has made my brain work better.

I’m not just spouting the familiar “How awful this Internet thing is, if ONLY we’d go back to The Page” line. As I’m typing this, I can actually notice a difference in my thinking and writing.

Look, it’s fashionable to bitch and whine about the ‘net. But it’s hard as hell to stay off it when you work at a computer and you have to be online to post, send out stories, correspond, work on your already-available books, etc. It was hard to stay offline at first.

It got easy, and quickly. As I spent days reading and writing (not much, but some) using paper, my brain started to slow down. This may not mean anything to you if you don’t have one of those quasi-ADHD minds.

This is an experience you have to experience to understand. It’s a slow process. It’s all about replacing the ‘net with the printed story.

Someone like me, who wasted so much time online, needed A LOT of stuff to replace all that useless (as well as the useful) online material. In my case, I’ve got a lot of rewriting to do, some crime, mostly horror (and horror-crime).

The idea is to program my brain with horror. Horror isn’t my genre of choice exclusively, it just happens that the stories I’ve sold are horror stories–not the fantasy (with one exception), and the science fiction stories have been horror-sf. Horror seems to be how I’m bent.

This is not an issue for 95% of the writers I know. They love a genre, they write in that genre. It’s not that I’m diverse or ‘not bound by rules’ or whatever self-romanticizing bull indecisive, unfocused writers use to dodge charges of dilettantism. For me, it’s the single biggest obstacle to success. I’m not fighting it (it’s not like I don’t like horror), I’m just going with the flow.

Cut way down on Internet. Cut WAY down on movies. Cut way down on writing.

Real life stuff has been complicating things, but it just might help me get to the real beginning of my reading program. THIS is just the warm-up.

Have you ever taken time off from the electronic battlefield and just read? What’d you read? How’d you feel? Did it impact your writing? I’d love to hear from others who’ve tried this.

My own story college is ongoing. More once it REALLY begins.

Sources for the freshman prep work:

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On the Morality of Horror

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I’ve been deep-reading horror lately, novels and stories. It’s the genre I write in most often.

There’s a lot of bad writing in this genre, but there’s a lot of bad writing, period. One thing writers of horror try to do–must do–is push boundaries.

There are many genres labelled horror that I don’t consider horror. The top-selling titles in ‘horror’ on Amazon are often the ninth book in a series about a hot vampire killer who’s fucking a werewolf and/or a vampire. That’s not horror to me, it’s fantasy. The biggest hits in horror tend to be about people with sharp tools chopping up other people. That’s not horror to me, it’s an offshoot of the action film.

I’m not going to define horror for anyone but myself. For me, supernatural horror is what I mean when I say ‘horror.’

Reading the horror anthologies I’ve accumulated all at once gives a compressed history of the stories that sold and were given awards.

One thing that comes across in many of these stories is the reveling in bloodshed and murder.

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This isn’t going to be a “Horror USED to be…but now it’s…” post.

I just read a story by a well-regarded writer, not a bestselling novelist but someone who’s critically-acclaimed and who wins awards. The writing is quite good, both clear and evocative. The story compelled me to keep turning the pages.

It also revealed the way so many horror writers, intentionally or not, justify violence IF it’s done by 1. cool people, 2. sexy people, and visited on The People We All REALLY Want To Kill.

In the story I read and which I will not name, the writing really comes alive when the victim’s bad points are revealed. He’s a white man and of course that means he hates anyone who isn’t a white man. The story almost seems to stop, to linger over his badness, and then it starts cooking again when he’s being killed. As a contrast to the awfulness, the writer describes the beauty of the moment, the location, the feelings of the murderers.

Now, this isn’t how you’d write about, say, some KKK member killing a black man. It’s not how you’d write about a rapist raping a woman.

It’s how you write about killing someone you would like to kill.

What if the same character were written in the same way EXCEPT he was married to a black woman? Still hates Jews and liberals. Would it be racist to get off writing about killing him?

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I don’t have a grand summing-up about these thoughts. It’s just that so much horror fiction is defended as being moral, as some sideways manner of coming at moral issues, and so much of it is about cool people killing people who it’s cool to hate. Which is as easy, as safe, as not-pushing-the-envelope as any kind of writing I can think of.

Maybe I’m wrong.

Ten Horror Stories You Should Read, 1 of 2

There is no real order here. Whenever someone asks me, “What’s your favorite horror story?” it’s one of these ten.

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“The Ash Tree” by M. R. James

Horror, like comedy, ages rapidly–what was scary not long ago is silly now.

This oldie about a witch’s curse is still creepy.

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“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I read this as an adult, ready to appreciate it as a nice little quaint ‘spooky’ story. It’s actually a deft analysis of innocence plunged into a horror he could not have suspected when he saw his nice neighbors walking the streets of town.

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“In the Hills, the Cities” by Clive Barker

Many of Barker’s ‘transgressive’ stories are about various forms of bodily mutilation and bent sexuality. He feints in this direction with this story of two gay men on vacation, then takes ‘body horror’ in a startling direction. The concept of the cities is cool enough, but he’s able to describe it so you actually FEEL what it must be like to be part of one of these horrible creations.

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“The Distributor” by Richard Matheson

A man comes to a peaceful neighborhood, and the neighborhood changes.

I have to go with F. Paul Wilson, who said he loved many stories as a young writer, but this one made him think he could never write something this good. It’s a great introduction to Matheson, because it shows how his careful writing pays off by getting some crazy ideas into your head.

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“The Rats in the Walls” by H.P. Lovecraft

I came to Lovecraft late, long after my teen horror-reading years. It had a lot to live up to; it did. Lovecraft gets a touch of awe into a story of what’s underneath an ancestral home.

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BONUS:
“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner, because he was awesome

“The Dead Line” by Dennis Etchison, because it has the single most horrifying first line I’ve ever read

“The Events at Poroth Farm” by T.E.D. Klein

Part 2, Saturday

 

I Am Sick of Having the Flu

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MR. M  is free today and tomorrow. I think, I haven’t checked, and I have a headache. When will this horrible sickness be done having its way with me????

I would appreciate it if you would do three things for me. I promise they won’t hurt, and you’ll feel good because you’ve helped a sick person. I just coughed while typing this.

  1. Go to the link and download a copy of MR. M. It’s free!
  2. Read, enjoy, and then post a review. It’s a huge, huge help.
  3. Send the link to 2-3 friends who might enjoy this surreal story of horror and weirdness, and ask if they’d read and review, too. Thank you!

From MR. MAC to MR. M

 

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I like the “stained 70’s horror anthology found in a used book store” look. No one else did.

“Mr. Mac” appeared in my first collection, currently reformatted and re-covered as BLOODSTREAMS, should you want to read the original. I liked it enough that I put it out as a single.

The covers were primitive and didn’t get across the tone of this small-town nightmare.

Like a serial killer with too many bodies for that little sewing room, I decided to expand. At first I didn’t see HOW I could add to the story. We see glimpses of Mr. Mac over the years, and that elusiveness is what makes him creepy.

I wrote and abandoned a short story about a boy who finds an unmarked grave in the woods and tries digging it up. I liked it, but it I didn’t have an ending because I didn’t have a story, just a situation.

What if…?

I operated on Mr. Mac. First, I changed the title, first to “Mr. Montgomery” and finally to ?Mr. M.” More mysterious, and a wink at the movie M. I made the hero less of a loser, because I’d fallen into a rut of making my heroes be unlikable nobodies. Now he isn’t a superhero but he’s not a complete geek loner. I added a girlfriend, because people have those, and that was the spark that lit ‘er up. Having a girlfriend gave him someone to respond to; we see him happy, we see him engaged with someone smart and artistic, so we have some way to compare his behavior with Mr. M.

Finally, I grafted that short story about the boy digging onto the end, and I was done. Except I’m never done when I reach the end. This is why the one piece of advice I feel comfortable in giving is “Write until you finish a draft.” When it’s done, when you can see the whole, you can see what works and what doesn’t. Before that, it’s all just this mist in your head–“OK, I know the end, so I don’t have to write it, I know he goes to the castle and gets the lollipop, so…”

No. You THINK that’s how it’ll be, but it isn’t, so “I think that’s how it’ll be” is of no value. Finish.

I finished, but all I had was a finished draft. It didn’t take long to see that I had to tighten up the girlfriend’s role–she vanishes for a big chunk of the story. In doing that I saw how I could use her to build up the supernatural aspect, by having her disappear. When she shows up again, it alters the reader’s idea of what’s been going on.

I couldn’t have known any of that if I didn’t first finish a draft and then THINK about why the girlfriend was just kind of there. Now she was someone who had her own path.

Then came the major change. That story scrap had energized the story, gave me something to build on, but it was too much. Added to the existing (and good) climax, it just tired you out. I knew I needed those weird scenes, though. So I pulled them out of the climax, dropped them in the middle, and boom–the hero has a major scene in which he encounters horror and weirdness in the middle. Once he gets out of it, the reader is now eager to see what happens when he gets to the (original) climax. And now that climax is built on what came before. It’s just as weird, but it has more heft because it connects to the boy-girl thread.

I like this story a lot, and it’s 15,000 words, where the original was 5,000. If you go buy it, read it, love it and POST A REVIEW I’ll be your friend. OK, you’re special friend. Thanks!

On Expanding a Short Story You Already Like

Years ago I wrote a short story called “Mr. Mac,”  about a strange guy who lives down the street. A boy sees him doing an odd dance, and it goes from there.

The kernel that started the story was a series of photos of a person dancing. You couldn’t see the dancer, just the shadows. That got the wheels turning. I didn’t know what any of that dancing meant, so I wrote the story from the point of view of someone who didn’t know, either. The story is written as excerpts from the journal of a boy, then later the boy grown to manhood.

I like the story. I wrote it by instinct, with no idea where it was going. That can be disastrous, leading to a mess that never coheres. In this case, with such dreamlike subject matter, it worked out.

I recommend this sort of experiment to any writer, but not all the time. Use it for something you want to come off as a dream or nightmare. There is an extended sequence in which the hero enters a house and explores. I had no idea what he would find. I just put on the headphones and described what he experienced. It led to a long, surreal sequence I did not plan on, but which is still one of the best things I’ve ever written.

Years later–2018–I decided to revisit the story, but I was afraid I would mess it up by trying to open it up. You can dilute a good thing by piling on needles Stuff. I approached the expansion with a goal: Keep all the good stuff, but make it scarier.

To Be Continued…

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Lovecraft Comics: FALL OF CTHULU: THE FUGUE

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I miss out on every Latest Thing. It’s a habit I’m happy to nurture, as it helps me keep my wits when the hype and the balloons and the dancing girls and the free crock pot give-aways destroy all reason in fans and they end up actually claiming to like crap like TWILIGHT, BATTLEGROUND EARTH and EVENT HORIZON. No, it wasn’t, it SUCKED.

According to the back cover, this collects the opening arc in the comic book sensation that took the comic book world by storm in 2007-2008. And I missed it! This isn’t a comic book adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft stories, but a series influenced by and using some of H.P.L.’s concepts, such as the squid-faced dude and the ancient city under the waves. I ain’t looking up the spelling for every word I type, I’ve got a book I’m trying to finish. I’ll be commenting on some other Lovecraft comic material later in the month, but I’m starting with this interesting little appetizer.

It opens with a little mood-setting, with talk of primordial stone and the world being plunged into despair by R’yleh, the conniving, oozing schemer.

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Despair, west of Java.

We then see a few happy moments in the life of the writer of the Necronomicon, a scribe we shall call “Al” because I’m not checking the spelling repeatedly. After a shaky opening I found this part interesting. Any reader of HPL knows the name but Al doesn’t end up in many adventures. This promises good things, this section.

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The bulk of the narrative isn’t what it could be. Cy and his girlfriend Jordan are a couple, and Cy’s uncle has been poking around into Ye Olde Ones. He shows up while the happy couple are being happy, the uncle, and promptly blows his brains out. Cy’s investigation into his uncle’s work drives the plot…which takes a long time getting underway. Uncle was involved in the coming of Thou Crusty Crustaceaonous Slithery Gods, which is inevitable. Cy’s girlfriend stands around being annoyed because keeps leaving the Evil Jewel-Encrusted Blade on the kitchen table and the dishes piled up in the sink. I was kind of surprised that the lead woman was such a dull cliche.

Once Cy checks out Uncle’s digs, things start to pick up.

My anti-comic book prejudice fell away when I realized what a good intro to Lovecraft for contemporary readers. Lovecraft is hard to take full-strength. Of course some of us are entranced right away, but his style was baroque and purple when it was new, so almost a century’s reading habits later, it’s tough to take for newbies.

Kids today do not watch black and white movies, so reading something from decades ago is a challenge. If the comic form can help a reader dip yon toe into the primordial ooze, that’s a good thing.

The art is sometimes dull, sometimes inspired. The Al sequences are dust-clogged and dark.

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The contemporary parts of the story are less impressive, but have their moments.

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Jean Dzialowski is responsible for most of the art, which is okay in the main but inspired in the Al sequences. The creepiest work comes from Andrew Ritchie, who did the dream sequences. As was the case with the art direction of ALIEN, bringing in a different artist for the more ‘out-there’ material creates a collision of styles we’d expect when leaping from one world to the next.

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If you’re a Lovecraft fan, it’s safe to skip THE FUGUE. All Lovecraft sequels or tributes are rooted in our contemporary world, and the introduction of Lovecraftian elements bang into that ‘normal’ world. But Lovecraft was twisted, and his stories were twisted–the ‘normal world’ is nodded at, but HPL’s Lovecraftiness pervades every putrid, rotting sentence. He wasn’t normal, and those who try to jump on his bandwagon are. (Or their abnormality isn’t his; Thomas Ligotti, for example).

If you or someone you know is curious about Lovecraft, this is a good place to start, maybe even better than a hit of the real stuff right off (though that’s preferable). I’m thinking of those danged young ‘uns again, and their color T.V. and disco music–Lovecraft and the other Weird Tales folks might just be too tough for them. So give ’em this. It’s a little too much like Neil Gaiman for me, but that might just be because I’ve read almost nothing in comic book form but a little Neil Gaiman in decades.

And the dream sequences are good.

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Blech!