Archive for December, 2011

Friday, already?  As you count down to the weekend, please enjoy a special 1200 word flash fiction piece, Dark Cargo.  My vampires never sparkle, but they are always very, very hungry.  Enjoy!

DATE: 12/27/11

MEMO: Investigation Summary Incident #269-2011

TO: Director, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration/Department of Transportation

FROM: Frank J. Straker, Straker Investigations

The Freightliner tractor-trailer pulled into the parking lot of the Flying J truck stop at mile marker 22 at 9 p.m. on December 26, 2011, but no images of the driver were caught on film.  Meteorological reports indicate that it had been snowing steadily since noon, with over two feet of snow and ice accumulated in central Indiana.  Playback of the footage recorded by the security cameras showed several staff members leaving at 5pm, with the last vestiges of daylight lingering in the sky.  It can be extrapolated that management opted for a reduced staffing pattern based on weather conditions.  Timesheets indicate that at 6 p.m. five employees were working onsite.  It is unknown how many customers were present at the time of the incident, but it is estimated that the number could be as high as fifteen.  Three individuals, whose vehicles remain parked on the premises, are unaccounted for. 

 Twelve customers – predominantly long-haul truckers – purchased fuel at the Flying J between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., although none were able to provide any additional detail about the Freightliner when interviewed the day following the event.  Only two individuals recalled noticing the truck in the parking lot.  The cab was a high-gloss black, with no distinguishing markings. 

 Shortly before midnight, the video reveals the appearance of footprints leading away from the driver’s side door of the cab, trailing to the back of the truck.  Both doors of the trailer are seen swinging open.  A line of tracks belonging to at least four pairs of feet – three adult-sized, one child-sized – appear.  These footprints lead away from the truck, cross beneath the canopy over the fuel pumps, and are on a trajectory for the building’s entrance.  Based on analysis of the available footage, these tracks cannot be attributed to other patrons inside the Flying J at the time. 

 The last transaction completed at the cash register in the convenience store took place at 11:05 p.m.  Vera A. Martin, of Batesville, purchased a large cup of coffee, a package of Combos, and paid for 14 gallons of gas with her debit card.  Investigators documented these purchases as present on the floor beside the front counter.  Next to these items was a woman’s white Nike tennis shoe, size 9.  Blood was encrusted in the treads and on the left side of the shoe.  A diaper bag was found next to her purse.  Ms. Martin’s corpse was found behind the building, partially devoured.  Her husband and infant son have not yet been located. 

 The transaction appears to have been completed by Wade Crawford, who had been employed as a clerk at the Flying J for six months.  Mr. Crawford’s remains are in storage at the Johnson County medical examiner’s office.  Identification was confirmed by tattoos on his arms, back, and upper chest.  Although dental records were available to assist with the confirmation of his identity, they were unable to be utilized.  His death certificate notes a crushed skull with avulsion of cranium and brain, as well as forcible separation of the head from neck.  The bottom half of Mr. Crawford’s head was not located.  However, the top portion of his skull and scalp was found beside the cash register. 

 Crime scene reconstruction suggests that at least nine individuals were in the restaurant section of the truck stop at 11 p.m.  Laney Jacobs, 22, was working as a server.  Her body was found draped across the rear portion of the buffet.  The ME reports that rigor mortis was slowed due to the ice and refrigeration components of the buffet for salad, fruits, and other perishable items.  A head belonging to an unidentified man with brown hair and brown eyes, approximately thirty-five years of age, was found approximately four feet from her body on the opposite end of the buffet in a soup tureen.  A ticket book for the patrons present was found in Ms. Jacobs’s apron.  Although saturated with blood, it was possible to determine that she was working five tables in the restaurant.  This is considered consistent with the relative positioning of the other cadavers.

 It appears that one cook was also present in the restaurant.  His head, like that of Wade Crawford, is missing.  The results of DNA testing are pending, and no fingerprints were on file to assist with identification, but based on time cards at the location, the body is presumed to belong to Roger McPeak.  Two feet, believed to be Mr. McPeak’s, were found browning on the grill.  While a substantial amount of blood was present at the scene, it cannot be rectified with the amount of blood remaining in the corpses, which have an oddly desiccated appearance.  Of the ten autopsies that have been completed to date, all ten victims were determined to have been exsanguinated. 

 The night shift manager, Charles Benoit, was found in an office in the back of the building.  The office door was locked and barricaded on the inside, impeding the entrance of investigators.  Mr. Benoit’s throat incurred significant injury.  His wallet was found under the desk.  Over $75 in cash and several credit cards were present in it upon discovery, which suggests that robbery was not a factor in this incident, although photos of his two small children have bloody fingerprints on the edges.  These prints do not match with those of Mr. Benoit, and did not have a match on file.  The prints were curiously smooth, according to forensics team members.

 Miranda Stevens, of Indianapolis, Indiana, was apparently assisting in the convenience store with stocking responsibilities.  Her upper torso was discovered in the refrigerated storage area of the store.  One of her legs, a section encompassing approximately two inches above the knee extending to the ankle, was recovered from a trash barrel on fuel island number three.  Sizeable bite marks were noted in the calf region.  Type AB blood – matching that of Ms. Stevens, was found in both the storage area and in the trash bin, although the amount is not commensurate with the extent of gross trauma evidenced by her wounds.  A Ziploc bag containing a six inch section of her intestines was discovered in a snow bank in the approximate vicinity of the location where the Freightliner had been parked. 

 Security camera footage reveals a series of bloodstained footprints appearing outside the building at 11:28 p.m.  These tracks led back to the Freightliner.  It is possible to see the back doors of the trailer slamming shut 42 seconds before the cab door opens and the truck’s headlights are switched on.  The Freightliner was navigated across the Flying J’s parking lot at 11:35 p.m., turning left onto Whiteland Road in the direction of interstate 65.  One report received within the last 48 hours indicates that a tractor-trailer matching the description of the Freightliner was spotted in St. Charles, Missouri.  That vehicle appeared to have Utah plates.  It was parked at an Iron Skillet restaurant and truck stop; no description of the driver is available.  This is the extent of information concerning incident #269-2011 available at this time.  Investigation will continue.

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On really good days, writing doesn’t feel like work, it feels like a slot machine paying off – the right words come tumbling out and fill the pages so rapidly that I am no longer certain who is in control of the story – me or it.  On really bad days, I feel like I am on a literary snipe hunt with a flashlight and gunnysack with a hole in the bottom.  I’m starting to discover that there is a vast range of variables and contributing factors to writer’s block, but in the end, the only way to fight through it is to write.  I’ve also discovered that naming my fear – referring to myself as having writer’s block – can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, or at least reinforce and exacerbate my fear that the words have dried up like the blood spatter from a zombie headshot in the Mojave.

Writing, particularly fiction writing, is a labor of love – a commitment to breathe life into a story from a flash of an idea, or a skeletal outline.  Sometimes we’ve got to rob some graves and piece together the exquisite corpse, and then jumpstart the monster’s heart with a surge of electricity.  I’ve recently been feeling a whole lot like I’ve been robbing the wrong graves, prying the words out of my skull and examining them in the harsh light of day – and finding them inadequate.  But writer’s write, and so I persevere.  I don’t wish writer’s block on anyone who has a love affair with words, but in case you ever find yourself wrestling with this brain-sucking, inertia-inducing hydra, here are some of the strategies that keep me sane enough to pass in society and producing creepy crap.

Write something, every day.  Even if it is 250 words, or just a sentence – move your story forward.  It may require revision or editing later, but advance the story with what you know of it, and don’t wait for the perfect words to manifest if it feels like they are holing up drinking tequila, trying to outwait you.

Jump to a new scene or POV.  Sometimes approaching the story from a different angle can loosen the block.  Jump ahead to a different scene, try a flashback, or relay events from another character’s perspective. 

Watch the movie.  That is, play it out on the big screen in your mind.  Imagine what the characters are saying, what they are thinking or doing, just as if you are watching a blockbuster film of your story after optioning rights to it for mega-millions.  Then write what you saw.

Ask the characters.  Discretion here is important unless you want to end up experiencing the world of psychotropic medication, but ask your characters wassup.  Ask them why they did or didn’t do something.  Ask them what they are going to do next.  Let them tell you.  Jot down their dreams, desires, and motivations.  The more real they are to you, the easier it might be to get in their head as the action unfolds.

Up the ante.  Ratchet up the tension, introduce some horrible, unanticipated barrier, kill somebody, raise the stakes, put your character through the wringer and see what they do under pressure.  It’s cathartic.  It’s fun.  When you’ve painted yourself into a corner plotwise, or need to get out of the mire, Raymond Chandler advises “when in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”  Modify as needed for horror fiction:  “when in doubt, have a zombie stagger through the door and nosh on someone.”

Moonlight with another project.  Spend some time on another story, and give yourself a break.  It can also be fun to try your hand at story prompts or writing exercises – anything to spark your creativity and get the words moving.

Location, location, location.  Change up your writing space.  Try writing somewhere new or unusual.  Or try writing differently, not harder.  If you usually type on a laptop, switch to pen and paper, try dictation, or tell your small child or family pet the story and stop worrying about using the right words, just articulate the essence of the tale. 

These are just a few of my favorite strategies for getting unstuck; what are some of your favorite tricks, tips, or techniques for battling the block?

Friday has rolled around again, so it’s time for a little flash fiction to celebrate the weekend!  This week I am going to begin a small experiment.  Recently I’ve read about a resurgence in popularity of serialized fiction, and how eBooks are making that increasingly possible.  As a kid, I loved serials, especially that old television show Cliffhangers from the late 1970’s (which featured, incidentally, Dracula in one of the stories, and aliens in the other).  With the ever-increasing demands on our time and attention, it can be difficult to carve out a half hour or more to settle in with a lengthy short story or novel (although eReaders are vastly increasing the portability and accessibility of stories for readers). 

 Serialized fiction such as that featured in pulp magazines, dime novels, and the penny dreadfuls was once extremely popular.  The concept of serials is enticing; it allows for stories to be told in manageable portions while retaining continuity, sets the stage for cliffhangers, and perhaps most importantly, leaves the reader wanting more, leaves them hungering to find out what happens next.  Forcing that delay of gratification  leads to an eager anticipation of the next episode.  In that spirit, I would like to share my first serialized short story, The 50 Minute Hour.  Please let me know your thoughts as readers and writers about serialized fiction, and in the meantime, enjoy!

Part One: The Hollow Men

Greg Farrier swung from his heels; the Ping graphite and steel driver he was gripping connected solidly with the side of the thing’s head.  It exploded in a macabre confetti of brackish blood, brain matter, decaying skin, and thin fragments of skull.  The thing collapsed at his feet.  He had only seconds to survey his handiwork before another one shambled around the corner of the Walgreens they’d taken refuge in the day before.  Greg allowed it to approach, listening to it hiss and moan as it stumbled forward, and dispatched it with a single swing of the golf club. 

Until now, the closest to golf he’d ever come was playing putt-putt with his twin sons.  All that had changed two weeks ago.  Greg was still trying to figure out how to manage the mess his world had become.  He was a therapist, a clinical psychologist, not a killer and certainly not a gun-toting survivalist.  His sons had been students at Franklin College, one with a dual major in journalism and theater, the other in political science. 

Purgatory, he thought, this is a trip through purgatory, and we’ve all been invited along for the ride.  He wondered if his ex-wife was still alive.  Things could only be more hellish if she was, he decided, and swung the club at a corpse that had clawed its way across the parking lot, missing its legs, intestines trailing behind it in filthy grey streamers. 

“Dad!  Up here!” his son Aiden called.  Greg looked up to see Aiden and his brother Andrew on the roof of the Shell service station across the street.  The walking dead milled about below them, circling the fuel pumps ceaselessly.  Andrew carried a Mossberg pump-action shotgun.  Andy held a muddy aluminum softball bat in his left hand and a scoped rifle in his right.  Both wore identical expressions of exhaustion and concern.  The time for fear had passed; now Greg and his sons were concerned only with the most pragmatic aspects of survival.  They had left the drug store in search of a more defensible location, but had not gotten far before the undead had converged on the gas station across the street, forcing them to take shelter on the roof.  As far as Greg could tell, the dead had only gross motor skills and basic locomotion.  They staggered around with an insatiable determination, but it appeared that more complex physical tasks such as climbing ladders or trees was beyond their ability. 

“There’s a ladder around back.  Follow the alley.  We’ll cover you Dad,” Andrew shouted.  Greg watched Aiden cross the roof and reconnoiter the area behind the store.

“Clear,” Aiden shouted.  Greg didn’t hesitate.  He sprinted across the parking lot toward the gas station on a diagonal, dodging a pair of dead women sitting in the middle of Jefferson Street who were consuming, with a ferocious intensity, the remains of an older man in a Vietnam-era army jacket, hair tied back in a graying ponytail with a piece of leather.  Greg tried not to look too closely; he knew the man.  He knew most of the dead who now walked the town, and he knew many of the corpses who littered the streets, bones stripped clean of flesh, unable to rise, unable to walk, unable to join the army of the living dead that now populated the city. 

Attracted to his movement, a large group of dead detached themselves from the mass stalking the fuel area and stumbled toward him.  Greg ran harder, heart pounding in his chest.  His backpack shifted awkwardly on his shoulders with every stride, throwing him off balance, slowing him down.  He considered ditching it, but it held a bounty of supplies from the drug store, and he was reluctant to give it up so easily.  Rounding the corner, he lunged down the alley and spotted a pair of dumpsters and a ladder extending halfway to the ground from the roof of the store.  Greg was so focused on the ladder that he only half heard the crack of a rifle, but he sensed something thud to the ground several feet behind him.  Another shot rang out as he watched Andrew lean over the roof with one hand extended.

“Throw me your pack,” he shouted.  Greg didn’t hesitate.  He slipped the backpack from his shoulders and heaved it up toward his son with all his strength, feeling something give in his right upper shoulder and lower back in the process.  That can’t be good.  Something brushed the back of his head and tangled in his hair as he scrambled on top of one of the dumpsters.  He balanced on the rim like a tightrope walker, putting as little weight as possible on the plastic cover.  A snarl emanated from inside the dumpster.  Greg Farrier lunged for the ladder and closed his fingers around it in a sweaty but death tight grip.  He felt a tug on his boot.  Dead fingers sought purchase around his ankle.  The reek of decay from something unspeakable filled his lungs and he choked back bile as shook free of the thing’s grasp and frantically pulled himself up the ladder. 

“Dammit,” he heard Andrew shout.  “Ade, shoot that fucker!”  Greg heaved himself over the edge of the roof and stared up at the cloudless blue sky, feeling the warm sunshine on his face as his son put a bullet through the head of what had once been a person, but was now nothing more than a reanimated hollow shell.

#

Or more properly, do the undead dream?  What horrors lurk in the quiescent minds of the walking dead, or of the writers who breathe life into those decaying corpses shambling about, stinking of the grave and hungering for the taste of human flesh? 

Just in time for the holidays, Dark Moon Books has released Frightmares: A Fistful of Flash Fiction Horror, an anthology of “delightfully squeamish short fiction” which offers a glimpse into a nightmare world of the undead and other denizens of the dark. 

I am especially excited about the release of Frightmares, as it includes Dead Reckoning, my first published flash fiction piece.  Now I can cross that off my bucket list.  Or maybe it should have been on my undead bucket list?

I’ve nearly finished reading my copy of Frightmares, and if you are hungry for a grim and glorious collection of bite-sized and easily digestible (mmmmm, braaaaiiinnnssss) tales of the macabre and horrific, this is the book for you.  It weighs in at a hefty 258 pages – all of which makes you shudder – then eagerly turn to the next one.