Archive for October, 2011

Halloween has been my favorite holiday since I was a kid.  It is the one day of the year that is fraught with a spooky kind of transformative magic.  It’s the day when we’re allowed to tug on costumes and become someone, or something, else.  It’s a time for capering about in the darkness, a time for tricks and treats, a time for hayrack rides, apple cider, and spooky tales around the bonfire, a time for monster movies and a waltz with ghosts and ghouls, a time when the line between what is – and what could be – becomes just a little thin. 

Halloween also marks the time of year when we are caught between seasons; not quite within the fell grasp of winter, but a night breeze runs its bony, chill fingers through our hair and pulls at our costumes as we walk the darkened streets.   

I’ve long believed, and Stephen King has often suggested in his stories (such as It), that the mundane and rote responsibilities of adulthood drive away the innate capacity to recognize magic we have as children.  Robert McCammon explored this idea as well in the opening of Boy’s Life.  Halloween is the one day of year that gives us the latitude to let our imaginations run amok, to revel in tales of things that lurk in the darkness and go bump in the night, to sample again – however briefly – the exotic flavor of magic under the orange glow of an autumn moon. 

I write because words possess their own kind of magic.  Words have their own special rhythm and resonance, and when combined in the right order and proportion by those of us who practice literary alchemy with a pen, or a typewriter, or by the glow of a monitor, they transform into a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.  When I was a kid, I loved Halloween.  I loved dressing up and becoming someone else, if only for a short while.  As a writer, I am gifted daily with the opportunity to create and explore other realities and other lives, and to share this magic and these worlds with others.  So enjoy some magic this Halloween night, be it at a costume party, a trip through a haunted house, a stroll past the cemetery gates, a scary movie flickering in the darkness, or a creepy tale read by the pale glow of a bedside light.  Whatever you do, savor the magic, and have a happy Halloween!

What better way to celebrate the Flash Fiction Friday before Halloween than with a line from the Grateful Dead: “what a long strange trip it’s been.”  I took a brief leave of absence for a recent week-long trip for a training (mad props for Dialogue Education, an exemplary model for trainers and facilitators) in Chicago and have since had trouble finding the on switch for my writing.  It seems that the horror reactor powered itself down.  During this trip, my cell phone died and the motherboard on my laptop went out.  This theme, of technology turning on us, was in my mind as I wrote this story, Caller ID, in my battered writer’s journal on the train home from Chicago to Indy, gazing out into the depths of the inky Midwest darkness.  Enjoy!

His cell phone rang.  Ray McNamara glanced down at the phone number displayed on the screen, grimaced, and muted the ringer as he had done every time she’d called for the last six months.  He considered trying to turn the phone off, but stuffed it in his pocket instead without breaking stride.  Dry leaves crackled beneath his boots, and a reverent autumn hush had settled over the Appalachian Trail.  He relished the solitude and silence.

He’d tried, unsuccessfully, to block the calls.

He’d changed his number.  Twice. 

He’d cancelled his cell phone service, but the calls had simply been forwarded to his landline at home and at work, or to the phones of his family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors if he was not carrying one. 

At first he’d tried to manage the situation by turning the phone off, but it powered itself on again with each incoming call from her, charged or uncharged.  He’d flung his phone out of the window of his car during rush hour on the New Jersey Turnpike.  It had returned to him in the mail, fully functional, one day later.  The calls had become so disruptive professionally that his supervisor had asked for his resignation a week ago.  His number was private, unlisted, and yet the calls continued to ring through, every 17 minutes.  At night, the frequency of calls increased between midnight and 3:00 a.m.  Ray had maxed out his dosage of over-the-counter sleep aids and melatonin until he was able to get a prescription for Ambien.  He could still hear the phone ring in his dreams, although REM sleep for him had become a rarity.

The first time the phone rang and displayed her number, Ray had answered, thinking it was nothing more than a prank call or a sick joke.  He’d been assaulted with a blast of static and the sound of her voice, assailing him with her usual nasal litany of complaints and accusations.  He’d hung up the phone in a panic, white knuckles clenched around the cheap plastic case, stomach knotted, his breakfast mixed with thick bile in his throat.  The next call had come 17 minutes later.  The third time she’d called, he had expected it.

He had taken care to make his ex-wife’s death look like an accident.  It had been easier than he had anticipated.  A visit to her home with two bottles of wine, promises of increased child support, extended alimony, and an enthusiastic shove down her staircase had rid him of the shrew more completely than their divorce.  Ray didn’t regret killing her; he regretted allowing her to be buried with her cell phone. 

A white oak tree had fallen over the path.  Ray climbed over it, a thin branch tangling and tugging in the lace of his left boot.  He yanked his foot free and continued to hike, savoring the weight of the pack and the feel of sunlight on his face as he trudged further outside the service area of his phone.  His path wound along a deep, dry gorge.  He kicked a rock over the edge, and watched it bounce and tumble sixty feet to the bottom.  As his phone rang, Ray tugged it out of his pocket and hurled it into the gorge.  The black plastic casing shattered on the sharp rocks below. 

He decided to step off the trail and make camp.  It was as good a place as any.  The key would be to stay out of range of the transmitters.

I’m shut of her, he thought, a grin stretching across his pale and drawn face.  I’m finally free of that woman. 

Ray leaned back against a pine tree, his too-thin body sinking into a soft loam of leaves as he searched through his pack for his water bottle and something to eat.  He’d provisioned himself well for this trip, unsure of when – or if – he’d return home.  He half listened to sporadic birdsong, closed his eyes, and enjoyed the first sense of freedom he’d had in half a year.

Some distance back on the trail, he could hear the soft murmur of voices and footfalls making their way in his direction. 

Hikers, he thought.  Wanderers like me. 

“Not all those who wander are lost,” Ray quoted, and chuckled.  Behind him, a phone rang.  The laughter caught in his throat. 

“Really,” said a voice, incredulous.  “Raymond, huh?  Okay, I’ll find him.”

Ray moaned low in his throat, and clambered to his feet.  He crossed the trail and gazed into the gorge.  He thought about the phone he’d thrown into it, 17 minutes before.  He wondered what it would feel like to step into the abyss.  He thought he might find out.

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It’s Flash Fiction Friday, and to wind down a long week, I’d like to share Waiting for Sunrise, a flash fiction offering of 55 words.  This bit of micro fiction was written in response to a challenge I came across to write a story of 100 words or less on any topic, with one stipulation: no word can be repeated.  If you like writing flash and want to give this challenge a try, I’d love to see your own dark works!  Feel free to share your stories in the comments, or post a link to your blog or other website, and in the meantime, enjoy!

A purplish cast lightened the night sky.  Sunrise was perhaps thirty minutes away, although time had become meaningless centuries ago.  His grave beckoned, promising cool, dark security.  Millennia stretched out endlessly, offering nothing beyond weariness and insatiable hunger.  He glanced once toward home, then settled down beside an ancient, dying elm to await dawn’s arrival. 

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Some days the best I can say for myself as a writer is that I am consistent. 

At least stylistically and in terms of narrative voice, I am consistently me, regardless of if I am penning a bit of flash, a short story, or even plugging away at the ground war that on good days I like to refer to as a novel.  Part of what I love about my favorite authors are their unique voices; often immediately recognizable, comfortable, and familiar.  Take Stephen King, for example.  I suspect that he could write a technical manual for assembling a swingset, or for wiring a do-it-yourself death ray using common household objects for under $50, and I would know it was him.  I want to continue honing and refining my own narrative voice, but I am pleased to have developed some degree of consistency in that area over the years. 

On the other hand, sometimes I am frustrated by how my writing always wants to gravitate toward zombies.  It is as if the ravenous undead have some sort of bizarre tractor beam aimed at my temporal lobe, forcing me to helplessly spew out page after page of horror that tastes like braaiinssss.  I appreciate zombies for their metaphorical power, and also for their capacity to horrify.  What could be worse than an existence predicated on a continuous, base hunger for human flesh while you slowly decay into a puddle of putrefaction and tattered clothing, retaining nothing of your former self or of our collective humanity?  But I do sometimes wonder if it is also a bit of cognitive laziness on my part, a way of writing about what I already know (so to speak) and not stretching myself in terms of subject matter.  I have little doubt that I will remain firmly entrenched in the world of genre horror – it’s what I love and I certainly do not have a romance or sordid mystery in me – but I wonder what would happen if I tangoed with some new partners?

This November, as I take on National Novel Writing Month, I am going to challenge myself to engage in a little monstrous diversification.  That is, I will be giving up the oh-so-hungry, cannibalistic reanimates for Thanksgiving.  Part of me wants to take a crack at putting the ferocity and evil back into vampire literature, although I would be equally excited to toy with a few shapeshifters or spirits.  Vengeful, angry spirits.  It may even be fun to poke around and find out what unknown and unnamed horrors lurk in the recesses of my mind.  I’d guess that something is already hiding in a dark corner, scuttling away when I creep around in there with a flashlight and a clipboard.  Throughout October, I am going to be thinking a lot about monsters old and new, and this year, when I trot out a tale for NaNoWriMo, something other than a horde of ravenous zombies will be shambling around beside me.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!  What are your favorite traditional monsters?  How do you keep them fresh (in your writing, not in your refrigerator)?  What elements are you looking for in a truly terrifying denizen of the darkness?

It’s Flash Fiction Friday, my favorite day of the week!  To celebrate, I’d like to share Prey, a micro fiction tale of 55 words.  Writing micro fiction can be a real challenge.  I’d be interested in hearing your strategies for writing effective flash fiction of 100 words or less.  For me, it is usually a matter of first telling the tale, and then paring the words down, draft by draft.  Dumping in the high test and shearing off the excess with a Stryker saw…then with a set of dissection tools…then with the #11 blades and a body block.  Enjoy!

He’d lurked in the culvert for hours in the desert heat.  Monitoring traffic.  Waiting. 

Finally, a lone sedan trundled up the road, hugging the center line.

He crawled up the embankment, fixing a look of vulnerable desperation on his face. 

The motorist would stop.

There would be blood.

He licked his lips in hungry anticipation.

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So here I am, ensnared between two competing priorities and passions at opposite ends of the literary continuum.  As much as I love novel-length works of fiction, I have also been enamored with short stories since I was a kid.  In his introduction to Just After Sunset, Stephen King discusses the art of the short story and describes the process of writing short fiction as a “fragile craft,” a skill that can atrophy or be forgotten with disuse.  I think he’s on to something.  My short fiction, at times, has seemed to suffer from a bizarre version of a literary eating disorder: skeletally anorexic, or feasting upon itself in bloated splendor.  This has resulted in too many of my short stories blissfully blimping their way into novella territory, or worse (perhaps) being truncated to the point that the richness of the potential tale is lost. 

I started exploring flash fiction this year in an effort to fight the battle of the bulge and to improve and hone my writing skills.  It is a challenging and demanding medium to work within.  Flash fiction can be broadly defined, but often it is described as fiction of less than 1000 words, or stories within a range of 250-500 words.  In other instances, it borders on micro fiction: tales of 100 words or less, or is dictated by a wide range of more prescriptive guidelines (often for challenges, contests, or writing prompts) such as fiction of exactly 50 words.  Writing effective flash fiction can be daunting, but it also offers huge payoffs.  Writers really have to bring their A game when trying to weave an evocative tale with word count limitations while paying attention to such elements as story arc, plot, character development, and resolution.  It is a great cure for bloat.  I’ve found that writing flash fiction has tightened up and improved my writing considerably.  Writing flash is not without its frustrations, but when you pen a story that works, it works.

In the midst of my current obsession with writing flash fiction, I’ve also been working on a novel-length work preliminarily titled Scorch.  While Scorch is not, er, blazing along at warp speed, I am making reasonable progress.  It has been an interesting daily juxtaposition, working with one foot in the world of flash fiction and the other planted firmly in a novel length piece.

Complicating matters further – a bit of a plot twist, if you will – is National Novel Writing Month (sometimes referred to as NaNoWriMo, or just NaNo), which launches in November.  Essentially, the goal of nanowrimo is to write a complete novel of at least 50,000 words between November 1 and 11:59 p.m. on November 30.  For me, that means cranking out words at roughly Mach 3.  During November, that explosion you hear in the distance is probably someone’s keyboard breaking the sound barrier.

This year I will again seek to complete National Novel Writing Month, most likely letting loose my zombie hordes to sate themselves on the flesh of the living.  But I’ll also keep pushing myself to crank out some flash.  November will be a heck of a ride!

What about you?  Eagerly anticipating NaNoWriMo?  Working on a large scale project or exploring a little flash fiction?  What formats are you currently working within, or enjoying reading?  I’d love to hear from you.  If you’d like to post a link to some of your own flash fiction, please feel free to include it in your comments – I always love a good tale!

I can recall two very distinct moments in my childhood that completely changed the course of my life – at least in terms of my reading preferences and my proclivities as a writer.

The first took place sometime in 1980, when I was about nine.  I’d always been a voracious reader, with a propensity for the creepier stories or the scifi tales in the children’s section of the library.  But truth be told, I have never been genre-monogamous and I read anything I could get my hands on if the first sentence was strong enough to capture my attention.  If I’d been asked on the first day of fourth grade, I would have said that my favorite author was Madeleine L’Engle.  If I’d been asked on the final day of fourth grade who my favorite author was, I would have replied Stephen King. 

At some point in 1980, I discovered my father’s stash of horror paperbacks stacked and wedged against the back wall of a clutter-filled closet in our house.  Books with names on them that included Peter Straub, Richard Matheson, and F. Paul Wilson.  I don’t remember why I was looking in the closet in the first place.  Certainly not because I was seeking reading material.  But I do remember picking the first book off the top of the stack.  The cover art terrified me and I refused to touch the image when I tentatively opened the book.  It was a dark face embossed on a black background.  Blood dripped from its lips.  The book was ‘Salem’s Lot.  The first sentence captured my attention; I wasn’t pulled into the story, I was jerked forward into it headfirst.  With a vague feeling that I was doing something illicit, I grabbed three of the books from the pile and hid them in my room.  I’d taken that book with the horrifying cover art, along with The Stand and The Shining.  My life was forever altered.  I snuck back to that closet many times until we moved, treating it like it was my personal library. 

Of the Stephen King books I devoured that year, my favorite was The Stand.  It was my first exposure to post-apocalyptic fiction.  The very idea that the world’s population could be decimated by a virus that didn’t seem too different from the common cold (at least at first), and that a battle of will and courage could play out in that barren landscape was chilling to me.  As a nine year old, that seemed entirely too real and too probable.  I was, after all, a child of the Cold War and no stranger to paranoia.  I fell in love with King’s use of words, his decriptive artistry, and his ability to develop his characters so quickly and effectively that they may as well have been my best friends.  When I delved into that literary treasure trove, I had no idea that every story I would write over the next thirty years (and hopefully many decades beyond) would be graced by the influence of Stephen King.

The second event that changed the course of my life as an aficionado of horror came two years later, while visiting a friend’s house.  I’ll never know if it was on cable or a video rental (in those halcyon days where Beta and VHS were still battling it out), but I glimpsed George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead on the television and that solidified my calling as a writer.  I collapsed in a heap in front of the TV, mesmerized.  This was another empty world, a post-apocalyptic world like the one I had first encountered in The Stand, but this one was populated by zombies.  Gruesome, shambling, hungry zombies.  I was hooked.  Zombies were now a permanent part of my world.

A few years later I started writing.  When I was nine and ten, I told stories.  When I was somewhere between the ages of thirteen or fourteen, I started trying to capture those stories on paper.  All of those stories were awkward, predictable, and hopelessly juvenile.  But most of those stories, and all my stories since, strove to be character-driven, evocative, and inclusive of an element of the  horrorific intruding upon the everyday world, or of zombies lurching their way into day-to-day living, of characters that the reader (hopefully) cares about and with whom they have established a sense of rapport. 

When I no longer walk this mortal coil, I may leave little else, but at least I will leave my words behind.  And I hope that my stories reflect my profound gratitude and deep appreciation for all that my literary and cinematic heroes have given me.

What movies, books, authors, or events shaped your life as a reader or as a writer?  I’d love to hear your stories!