Category Archives: Writing

A Close Call, Boskone, Samhain, and The VVitch

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A Close Call, Boskone, Samhain, and The VVitch

My day job as an academic librarian provides plenty of access to resources in the humanities and sciences. I come from more of an arts and literature background than a scientific one, which I often lament because so many of the speculative fiction writers I admire (H.G. Wells, Caitlín R. Kiernan) apply their knowledge of the sciences to their work, and to great effect.

I see the sciences as a form of alchemy, an application of precepts and formulae that can, if used properly and carefully (no accidental explosions), enrich imaginative literature. I apply my background in library science towards cataloging, preservation, and providing public access. There are templates to work from, and I like having such standards to help guide me on my way.

I also often write a librarian into my stories at least as a secondary character. For example, Meredith Magnuson, the former child slave-turned general in Terror Lizard, holds eons of the world’s archives through a device grafted into her right hand.

There is, of course, no formula for success in writing and publishing. Full disclosure = I’ve been writing for decades but have only begun submitting work fairly recently. I value my days and nights playing in punk and metal bands throughout the 1990s and 2000s–sure, I was doing what I wanted to do creatively at the time. However, I also feel wistful for some of the lost time that might have been spent working, crafting, honing, improving. Recently I heard a reasonable estimate: it takes a million words of bad writing before we one can even get close to proficiency. Blogging doesn’t count towards that.

And part of this process is in dealing with rejection.

I need to admit something: I almost hung it all up a few weeks ago. I totally decided to give up writing. We work, we send, we watch, we fall short of expectations.

Submitting out invariably means the rejections pile in with just as much frequency, and there’s a reason for this—the writer’s skin thickens, the technical points of why a piece may have been rejected become less opaque, and it galvanizes you to roll out the next duck for the soup. I keep calling these rejections ‘fun coupons’** because each one might redeem towards a better grasp on the process, and hopefully we break through to the other side, covered in sweat, blood, and chalk. Persistence matters, as does learning from mistakes (with a degree of wariness–one person’s mistake is another person’s breakthrough).

But yeah, when it happens, rejection just sucks the life out you. You spent hours, days, weeks, years on that story–but you did it all wrong. Luckily, my defeat-fugue state only lasted a day or so until—

My first Boskone! Since I retired from playing the metal (as far as live sets go, anyway) I’ve been to Anthocon, Readercon, Necon (all of which are amazing, and RIP Anthocon 2016). Writing is a solitary activity, but these gatherings are a tactile experience for us to connect with people who love the process, the literature, the films, the art as much as we do on our own. You never know whom you will meet by chance. My friends list in social media increased by at least a third over the past year, just by putting myself out there and networking. Anyone who knows me can see that I’m a total introvert, but there’s a good trick to meeting people: just smile, for crissakes! Mind your body language, as well, and respect space.

Boskone was so awesome, I was surprised I hadn’t known of it before. Here was a chance to reconnect with friends and make new ones. I shouldn’t go into a super amount of detail (because I can only convey so much awesome) but suffice it say that the experience infused me with a new sense of belonging and purpose. I decided to not give up just yet.

I will tell one quick story, though. On the last day, I participated in my first Rapid-Fire-Reading (RFR) with Broad Universe, an organization I belong to that helps promote and advance women writers of speculative fiction. I had rehearsed my excerpt at home to try and make sure I ran under the requisite four-minute limit (that’s why they’re rapid, and you can have about ten readers). I got up there, and after a wonderful introduction by L.J. Cohen I took my glasses off (I’m nearsighted, so with glasses on I cannot see text close to my head) and began reading an excerpt from the tail end of The Night Faith.

So people were filtering in and out, as is normal at any con with multiple tracks. This excerpt of mine in particular has some potty language. It’s urban-horror-noir. When I reached the end of the excerpt I put my glasses back on and was horrified to find a young child had entered the room! I don’t know how many F-bombs this kid heard me speak unwarily in front of her, but I was also surprised by my reaction–I am a Gen-Xer, child of the 1970s/1980s. Now as I reach middle age, am I becoming so proper and prim? I’d written the F-bombs and horror content to begin with. But as I get older, am I becoming old-fashioned? I’ll answer my question with another question–is it so wrong?

I think it’s pretty funny, because sometimes I’ll just blurt out “FUCKIN’ SLAYER!!!” for no good reason.

At any rate, I apologized to her mother, who told me that her daughter had heard worse from her, and no harm no foul.

So yes, Boskone invigorated me when I most needed it. In retrospect, I think it’s rather funny that I’d wanted to give up. I think perhaps the main frustration for the day worker/early-morning-and-late-night writer is that we are spending so much time creating, planning, agonizing over craft, but when our efforts fall short after weeks of steady toil, the primal human response (for some) is to curl up and doubt. On a side note, Boskone held a “Dealing with rejection” panel that really helped me understand what others can go through. A little perspective goes a long way.

There is a wonderfully simple solution to this: find the writer’s group that is right for you.

The Friday following, I read the surprising report that Samhain Publishing would be shutting down. I had a hunch something may have been amiss when they canned their horror editor Don D’Auria. [For the record, Samhain had started in 2005 as a romance line]. Brian Keene can give a much better overview, but I was still surprised to hear of such a thing happening within a few months. And when the shock wore off, I understood one of the prime causes a little better: Amazon.

~~[although I must say I’m a bit mystified about why Samhain front-burnered social media marketing to such an extent–that seemed to backfire, and I almost never saw them in my feed, anyway]~~

We love the biz! To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson – Buy the ticket, take the ride AND FASTER FASTER until the thrill of speed overcomes the Fear of Death!!!

The story affects me, because it impacts some cool people I’ve met during the course of the year. It also goes to show how tentative the publishing world can be, not so unlike politics. This is the wild west, indeed. Come on into the saloon—we have really awesome dresses, weapons, tons of booze.

Okay, and on to the TEN TON MEAT.

Go see The VVITCH (2015). I’ve not been as affected by a movie since “There Will Be Blood” (2007) or the reboot (by its own director) of “Funny Games” (also 2007). I’ve already blathered on for way too long but I hope to continue to speak about this very important film. And like “The Exorcist” (1973), the film has garnered very mixed reactions. Actually opinion seems evenly divided: plenty of horror fans say it did absolutely nothing for them, others thought it was the most effective work of horror they’ve seen in years. But only you can decide for yourself.

I need to see it again to understand a little better, but the film traces the downfall of exiled family trying to eke out an existence in the cold, stark wilderness of 1630s New England. They have only their faith, their livestock, their crops, and really their familial bond. All hell begins to break loose when their youngest goes missing and we witness a terrifying descent into doubt, religious paranoia, and spiritual possession. There are themes and rich characterizations (warts and all, especially the partriach) that, as Brian Keene again indicates, are likely to be completely lost on the majority of mainstream movie audiences who have been conditioned to torture porn, shaky cam, and jump scares by a tone-deaf film industry.

About a fortnight previous to the screening we saw, there had been a free showing at The Brattle Theater with the director Robert Eggers. I didn’t think that the average moviegoing public would be at all interested in the film, despite the growing buzz. I gave myself about an hour buffer zone. I didn’t get in, because that line snaked all. around. the. block. It would have been nice to hear Eggers’s insights but I really also wonder how this young, relatively hipster audience reacted to the film. Maybe there is hope? My guess is that they may be a reliable sampling of the VVITCH audience: at least half of them likely hated or didn’t get it, and the other half may have thought they’d just had an experience that made “The Exorcist” seem like “Mary Poppins” by comparison.

The VVITCH is also big on atmosphere, and its final beat was so harrowing (and exhilarating) to witness. When the credits rolled, I totally stood up and gave it the fuckin’ APPLAUSE IT DESERVES.

**fun coupon is a term I appropriated from the only truly enjoyable scene, other than the foot scene of course, in Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film “The Wolf of Wall Street.” This is the clip. You’ll have to look elsewhere for the foot scene.

Postscript: Whenever I feel like hanging it up for good, I open to any random page of the green bible, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, by Stephen Koch. After a minute or two of reading I bounce right back from the edge. Thankfully I keep two copies: one at home, one at work. It’s been that helpful for me.

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Let the Bad Guys Win!

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Let the Bad Guys Win!

Finally back!

And just in time for Women in Horror Month!

Much like NaNoWriMo, this celebration of womens’ contributions to the SF/H field provides me with bonus incentive to get as much reading and writing done in relatively short time period (erm–and WiHM celebrations take place during the shortest month of year). But 2016 is a leap year, so that gives me an extra fucking 24-hours to finish the  Rabies draft! I know–whoosh! Stadium lighters in the air, right?

Haha, no seriously, it’s nice to have the month of commemoration, but we can all uphold the same visibility and appreciation during the entire year. Mary Shelley lays a wholly legitimate claim to the most auspicious origins of our genre, after all. And don’t forget that Gamergate tripe from last year–it seems to have accelerated–the same flaccid, sexist bullshit still wheezes right along, egregiously in some SF/H circles like some New [Old] Right Warrior principle-crusade. Pfffffft lame.

So keep the legends alive, discover and share new ones, contribute reviews of authenticity, and kick ass moving forward. Women destroy, men destroy, queers destroy, trans destroys, metal destroys, ALL DESTROY.

I spent part of January 2016 enrolled in my first LitReactor class “The Choreography of Violence” with John Skipp, an auspicious workshop experience that provided some clear-cut, indispensable tech pointers I was able to apply towards the next installments of Imperator–Terror Lizard along with the new Rabies project. I don’t know long the latter will be–with the scope of WTF I’ve been plotting for her ladyship, she’ll likely exceed 10K. We’ll see–there’s the Cut 10% [MINIMUM] rule, all told.

So while I was away (sort of), I was hardly idle in late 2015. I was grinding edits and heavy macro-development into my novel, submitted it around a bit. I’ve decided moving forward I’m changing the title to The Night Faith, because that fits in much better with the newly-accelerated cult violence and mortal trauma I put my narrator through. I’m hoping to put him through even worse for the next two books. Be careful what you wish for.

Writing a narrator of the opposite gender is always a fun voice to summon. I like to throw chainsaws at his flailing arms. It’s nice character building–after all, we are what we do in reaction to fucked-up things.

I also think Night Faith sounds much appropriate for the evil forces in the story–I kept thinking of perfect soundtrack accompaniment and that Melvins classic “Night Goat” kept coming back at me. That bass riff just oozes atonal filth, evokes wide vistas of corrupt and diseased flesh/spirit, and somehow just makes me keep thinking of the lengths kids might go to stave off their boredom in suburbia. I was a suburban kid who got into my share of River’s Edge mischief, but never to the extent of ritual sacrifice (not even in my nightmares, trust me folks). But looking back at that time, I kept thinking about how things could have gone differently, had I fallen in with a hypothetical group of kids who actually wanted to act out some of those Slayer lyrics –“hey why not just kill that whole family next door and hold their souls captive? Spark up a fatty behind the K-Mart afterwards?”

That’s the level of crassness, viciousness, recklessness I was going for with these kids. Oh, and speaking of which, they do of course have their Pied Piper — multiple edit passes also made me see I had to really also crank up the Iago-maliciousness of the book’s main antagonist, and when I realized that anger and envy motivated many of the enemy actions against my main character, that evil became much more fun to pin down. Anger and fear makes people do shitty (and stupid) things, then the cycle of victimhood revolves as the main character seeks retribution. Icelandic sagas are stacked with this revolving moral ambiguity.

But even as any neatly-wrapped story of good vs. evil will come out with one on top, I’m so tempted to let evil win. Like I said, The Night Faith is first book of a trilogy, and I’ve got the series plot nailed pretty tight, but I’m also harboring a lingering doubt as to who will (or should) really win this fight in the end.

So okay then, let’s say I decide to give evil the day—why would I even be tempted to let the bad guys win? Perhaps because there’s a part of me that finds an evil victory oddly satisfying, and wanting more to come back for more and eventually achieve the goodness of true justice (perhaps in the hopes of eventually arriving at a Purple Wedding moment, a less morally ambiguous conclusion?).

I admit my favorite part of The Lord of the Rings is when Sauron ultimately topples, and he realizes he fucked up BAAAADLY because it hadn’t even occurred to him that by investing all of his power, greed, and hunger into The One, he effectively murdered himself. But another part of what makes the buildup to that so awesome is that he almost wins several times over! Part of me wants evil to prevail even in my most extravagant fantasy, because in real life, we don’t live in a reliable meritocracy. The vicarious satisfaction through fiction is such a relief, because we observe from a fairly safe distance.

Sometimes the worst evil is rewarded, encouraged. Tolkien’s saga is often criticized, rightly so, for having an ingenuously binary view of good vs. evil.

We are all capable of good or evil, degrees of both, intentionally or not. Simultaneous attraction and revulsion. Horror at its deepest, roiling, wonderful core.

So in lieu of anymore pedantic reflection on why evil in literature and film is, in its own devious way, very appealing even to the best angels of our nature–here is a list of my Top Five Bad Guy Wins in film.

I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. Still–if you haven’t seen any of these, look away, close this window, watch them and then please come back, comment, contribute your own lists also. Life is a motherfucker so I don’t like to flinch from the realities (and appeal) of letting the bad guys win. Often, these victories border on the heroic, and that is pretty fucking disgusting. Nom nom.

1.) The Vanishing a.k.a. Spoorloos (1988)
This story is glorious in its portrayal of obsession and the psychology of a murderer. Most people who have seen “The Vanishing” tend to agree it’s one of the most messed up, glorious endings in the history of horror. Based on Tim Krabbé’s 1984 novella The Golden Egg, the story centers on a man who, after years of public campaigning to find out what happened to his girlfriend (she’d gone missing during a petrol stop), finally meets and confronts her kidnapper. The man only wants to know what happened to her. The suspect agrees to show him what she experienced.

2.) Arlington Road (1999)
At first, “Arlington Road” follows a somewhat pat, milky “Rear Window” scenario. A widowed history professor, played by Jeff Bridges, greets new neighbors (played wonderfully against type by Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack) and comes to suspect by degrees that they are planning to bomb the FBI headquarters in Washington. The story becomes increasingly more compelling, however, as false threads are unraveled, re-strung, tightened wherein Bridges’s girlfriend and son are drawn into the domestic terror web. As the story becomes more frenetic, and drenched with even more distrust and paranoia, Bridges falls victim to a ploy of “Wicker Man”-like proportions and the final beat made me sit back and exclaim “Holy Shit!” And then history is written by the victors, and that freaked me out even more. It’s worth seeing at least once. Evil walks!

3.) The Collector (1965)
William Wyler directed two overwrought, mewling melodramas that I love dearly–“Ben Hur” (1959) and “The Children’s Hour” (1962). He also directed one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. “The Collector” is so beautiful, and so infuriating.

The main character Frederick (Terence Stamp) is the real deal–sociopathic, self-absorbed, cold, and so unpredictable he makes the pathology of that boring cisgender dingleberry Buffalo Bill from “The Silence of the Lambs” seem like a feminist icon.

After coming into a sudden, fateful torrent of fortune, Frederick buys a fortified estate and kidnaps a young art student Miranda (Samantha Eggar, who you MUST also see in “The Brood”) whom he’s obsessed over for years. A duel of wills, propriety, manipulation, and abject cruelty ensues. It is very uncomfortable to watch.

“The Collector” is gendered horror is its most profane and malignant form–“I’m going to make you do want I want, because that’s what I want, and you have no say in the matter. I know I promised to let you go. I changed my mind. That’s my right, and not yours.”

4.) Chinatown (1974)
Noah Cross = Father of the Year?
Vomit–the horror of that final girl Katherine Cross’s fate after the police “deal with” her mother, the very person they should have been protecting, sets this story apart from the rest. Polanski has his personal baggage, of course, but that soul-sucking ending belongs to Robert Towne. I should add, in fairness, that “Chinatown” also offers some of the funniest moments in 1970s cinema, carried brilliantly by Jack Nicholson. These interspersed clown-penis jabs at the expectations of the audience are another caustic element of Polanski’s work that, despite his obvious character flaws and the disturbing nature of his subject matter, makes his accomplishments in eliciting horror difficult to deny.

5.) A Clockwork Orange
Alex doesn’t just get away with it all–he becomes a scion of the state. No ill deed goes unrewarded. Alex’s journey grinds him through the gears, to be sure, but his ultimate triumph is a modern dystopian fairytale, and of course Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) also gives me the shudders, but IMHO he is a lightweight by comparison.

I welcome information on anything you know of–any character trajectory that’s more fucked-up than that of Alex. Because I think I would like to get away from him, even if that means falling out of the frying pan and into the fire. Comment away.

Pleasant dreams.