The Amazing Allison Dickson — Review of STRINGS and Author Interview

I’m very excited to be reviving the Crimes of Heaven and Hell blog. I hope to have some exciting new prospects for the series in 2014, as well as continuing book reviews, interviews, and essays on all things literary and frightening. I have sometimes been pleasantly accused of being an ‘all business’ kind of guy, so in keeping with what I took as a compliment, let’s go straight to our review of Allison Dickson’s Strings and conversation with the author. Heave oars for the starlit abyss!

Review:

With Strings, Allison Dickson’s makes a strong debut in the mixed genres of horror and crime noir. The novel tells the tale of Nina Quick, a beautiful, young Midwestern girl sucked into New York City’s maelstrom of money, drugs, and organized crime. At the outset, Nina finds herself working in the “oldest profession”, as it were, turning tricks to pay off a debt to mafia boss Victor Cassini. And yet from the moment Nina enters the ramshackle gothic mansion of an eccentric billionaire to turn her last trick, the novel transforms into a kinetic combination of genres that offers the reader a smorgasbord of action, tension, and suspense, all painted against a background of the tastefully grotesque.

The tale’s strength lies as much in the subtlety of its character development as its sumptuous excesses of horrific imagery. Written in the third person, from multiple points of view, Dickson’s tale weaves an elaborate knot of identities, emotions and diverse souls, all converging on the tragedy incited by Nina’s fate in the Ballas mansion. She places her characters in environs with a detailed sense of setting—the interior of a Brooklyn brothel, a cavernous country Victorian house, and a high-meets-low-roller version of Atlantic City. Agile use of pathetic fallacy and stream of consciousness devices allow her to delve deeply into each character’s background without slowing the story’s pace.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the story exists in its unity of theme—the strings of obligation that hold families together, the strings that hold people literally and figuratively prisoner to bad contracts and bad decisions, and—with hopes to not edge too near a spoiler—the ropes put to use by a rather original villain.

I recommend Strings to any horror fan who loves classic tropes with original twists, and to the reader of realism open to emotional intensity, over the top imagery a la Hieronymus Bosch, and a taste for the irony that often what holds human beings together can also, as it were, pull them apart.

This installment of the Crimes of Heaven and Hell blog features an interview with Allison Dickson. Keep reading to find out more about Strings, thoughts on the horror genre generally, and the beauty of stilettos and derringers.

Interview:

What first attracted you to the horror genre?

It’s funny, because I had an early attraction to the genre, but I also dreaded it. It was never fun for me, and actually it still isn’t. I remember watching horror movies when I was seven or eight years old, and they traumatized me. A well-made horror movie even to this day will fill me with a lot of anguish, and I will often be glad when it’s over. And yet, still, I’m always poking the things that live in the dark, tempting them to bite me. I don’t know why this is, though I’m wagering a pretty bloodthirsty creature lives in my subconscious. I remember scaring very easily overall as a kid, though, and I was incredibly gullible or at least willing to believe the worst that could happen. I’m not so much that way anymore. Over the years I learned to channel my fears into words, but the monsters and secrets that live in people, behind all the pretense, still fascinate me.

Do you distinguish horror significantly from other dark genres, such as science fiction and dark fantasy?

This is such a hard question for me, because I like inserting feelings of dread into everything I write, regardless of whether it’s sci-fi or mainstream, and I think that lingering dread or mounting terror is really the hallmark of horror. What ultimately sets horror apart from other dark genres, though, is whether that’s the primary aim of the story. You can put darkness into your sci-fi and fantasy, but they are still first and foremost sci-fi and fantasy stories that might be using horror devices here and there to build suspense. A horror story’s main aim is to horrify, and that element is carried throughout the story and it typically will not have a happy ending. At best, it will be bittersweet. The horror will linger with you. I first wanted to market Strings as primarily a psychological thriller, but that just wasn’t going to happen with all the “Junior” business between the pages. It’s a horror story with elements of crime and suspense, and I think it’s important to let people know that upfront so they can be ready for it.

Who do you consider to be your influences?

Stephen King is probably my main master, but I have to say his son Joe Hill is really up there for me as well. Just finished his short collection, 20th Century Ghosts, and I haven’t been in such admiration of a collection since King’s Everything’s Eventual. But a lot of other authors have lent me a boatload of inspiration over the years. Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Gillian Flynn, Robert Heinlein, and Neil Gaiman very big favorites.

Were there any ‘real life’ inspirations for the characters in Strings?

All of the characters are amalgamations of people I have known over the years. With Nina I wanted to explore this thing I’ve noticed with a lot of women my age who never really grasped their true identities, thanks to being raised by overpowering parental figures who never let them have a voice. They kind of grow into these hollow cores roaming around in search of something, taking on the hue and temperature of whatever is influencing them most at the moment. Maybe it’s because they’re afraid to really look at what’s living inside them. In Nina’s case, there is a darkness living in her that I think she will eventually start to confront, for better or worse. With Madam and Ramon, it’s more an exploration of the other side of the coin, how people who do know themselves, perhaps too well, wind up embedding in these deep ruts. Once you reach a certain age, especially after you’ve done so many horrible things, can you release yourself form the bonds of your past?

What went into choosing the settings and locales for this story?

The New York setting was born namely out of a desire to have a country girl run away from home to the most glamorous place she could think of, and that had to be NYC. It’s just a beacon for a lot of desperate people looking for escape, and I think such beacons are often mirages. Atlantic City wasn’t originally part of my plan, but I have a fascination with places that are built specifically around human avarice and Las Vegas was too far away to be practical for this story, so AC it was.

The story features some classic weapons with an original flair. You don’t happen to collect vintage derringers or stilettos that double as jewelry?

I wish! I love the idea of a tiny, concealable weapon, because they add an element of unpredictability to a person, which feels necessary in a story like this for some reason. The Madam’s hairpins are probably my favorite thing ever, and one day I would love to have a set of them custom made to look how I envision them in the book. Not that I would plan to use them, of course . . .

With one novel published, what’s next for you?

The next big release is a complete 180 from this one. It’s a dystopian sci-fi about an agricultural-based apocalypse, complete with little psychic kids and shape-shifting locust swarms. It’s called The Last Supper, and Hobbes End Publishing is releasing it later this summer. But I actually do have a sequel to Strings in the works and hope to finish that one very soon.

Allie-Author2

 

In Memory of Patricia Lissey Moore

I recently received the final royalty payment for my currently out of print novella, Slash of Crimson. I donated this to a fund supporting author Tom Piccirilli’s cancer treatment. He is one of our finest living authors of dark fiction, crime noir, and what I personally would dub literary fiction. Those interested in donating to Tom’s fund can Paypal his fundraiser at PicSelf1@aol.com. I’ve always thought that humans are at their best when there is something they can do about a problem, and they follow through and do it.

Below, however, is an essay about a different kind of situation I recently experienced. While my blog is generally an adults-only environment, there may be a little more reader discretion advised on this entry, so please read on with that in mind.

When my mother had the stroke I was off in the woods with a friend, helping groom his land for an upcoming hunting trip. By the time I got back to Albany Medical Center, she was on life support in the ICU, right side of her face, along with most of the rest of her body, paralyzed. Her left eye was red, and offered a tear in place of the words her brain would not let her mouth form.

“A pontine haemorrhage has a slim chance for recovery.” A paraphrase of many sentences from many neurologists. Due diligence took a little over a week. I think it was just after the spinal tap he first showed up—

“Looks pretty bad,” he said.

“I agree,” I said, not yet seeing who had spoken. I was still looking at the current of drool dripping down my mother’s chin. The ventilator tube had chafed her mouth, a red sore smeared with ointment to accent the futility. She lay surrounded by screens and tubes. Liquids clear, pink, and yellow, some flowing in, some flowing out.

That’s when I remembered that I was supposed to be the only visitor in the room. I turned to my left, and there among the shadows and netted curtains, stood a slim figure in a black robe. The peaked hood stood crisp above his skull of a face.

“You look like a ninety-nine cent Halloween decoration,” I said.

“And yet it’s not the cost,” he said, “but whether you pay full price, that matters.”

Death opened his robe, pulled a flask out of his ribcage and handed it over. I took a swallow, and he snatched it back.

“Not too much,” he said. “All things in moderation.”

“From the guy who just said it’s all about full price.”

“That’ll be ninety-nine cents,” he said.

“You’re a jerk,” I said.

“Afraid not,” he said. “I’m the best friend you got.”

I turned back to my mother. While I had been talking to the Reaper, the nurse had arrived and vacuumed up the drool. Mom looked worse, mouth contorting with discomfort. It was as much as I could take for a night, so I went home for a rest.

But I did not rest because there was the matter of the living will. Clichés jostled around in my mind about our culture being kinder to animals than to humans. Thoughts of how we give them the gift of death instead of allowing them to lie around suffering sounded off like sirens. The best the law would allow me would be to find her living will and have her taken off life support. She had always been a bit disorganized, but I vaguely remembered her handing one to me a few years back, calling it something it wasn’t, as had become her habit. If I didn’t find it, and she couldn’t talk, I might not be able to do anything for her. She might lie that way for a year or more. At the risk of sounding like a callous brute, in my panic I knew I could do more for her with my hunting knife, involving less money and more love, if our culture had a saner outlook on…

I felt a shove from a bony elbow. “Snap out of it. Here, look what I found.” The Reaper was kneeling next to me, papers from the filing cabinet strewn across his black silk pajamas. He handed me a document with the words LIVING WILL printed across the top. A downloaded legal template signed by herself and a witness that clearly stated she did not want to be kept alive in a vegetative state.

“Well I suppose I should say thanks,” I said. “By the way, where’s the scythe?”

“Honestly, do I look like a farmer to you?”

“I was thinking more hunter-gatherer.”

“Really I’m a fall guy.”

“A-hole.”

“Heh. Best friend you got.”

My mother was born in the 1940’s—though I have always thought of her family as a bit fifties fabulous—lower middle class Italians with a restaurant near Long Island Sound. She went to Catholic School where she did well academically. She married a marine home from the early-Vietnam War era Pacific. In her adult life she swapped fifties-fabulous for seventies fabulous. I’m Okay-You’re-Okay astrology meets Wicca. A rainbow of pop-psychology books and magazines decorated our house as she sailed through her first divorce. Her education was taking her in the direction of social work but she never seemed to nail down a quality career path.

I had come along a few years before, and she cared for her kid, mind and body, best she could despite the impending economic and marital issues. I’ll spare the general audience the details of this and just say it fell somewhere between The Brady Bunch and Orange is the New Black. Somewhere between idealistic ranch house America and exquisite metaphors about what it’s like to have few choices and be blamed for having few choices.

I will offer two anecdotes about her life:

When she and her sister were teenagers, they enjoyed hanging out with their friends on a boardwalk along a beach on the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound. The sisters were two years apart. My mother was older, bright kid in the upper grades of high school, sister also a bright kid who had chosen to go to a public high school. Both girls liked hanging out with their groups of friends, but apparently the Rockwell painting of a teenage scene was less than ideal for the younger sister who wore prescription glasses and was being tortured à la an after-school-special on bullying. My mother advised her sister to get prescription sunglasses. She gave her sister money earned from her part time job to pay for the doctor’s appointment and the glasses he prescribed. Whether or not it’s beside the point with regard to our culture’s ethics, her sister rocked the prescription shades up and down the boardwalk, enjoying her improved social life, and tells the story with fondness to this day.

The second scene occurs forty something years later, when I was visiting my mother in San Francisco. She had moved there after her own father died to work as a nanny for a well-to-do West Coast family. She had always been a great driver, and zoomed around the Bay area in her employer’s Lexus. She also had a moped of her own. She could drive a stick and liked to speed, explaining it cleaned out the engine…

So when I arrived I was struck by how aged she looked. Three marriages, three divorces, a slew of not so great jobs in New England because she didn’t want to take me away from my friends when I was growing up, and a continuing struggle with a yet to be identified mental illness had taken its toll. The woman who had done everything she possibly could for an asthmatic kid on a short budget was now the one in need of protection. I had a decent job back in New York, but in my small apartment, without real equity of my own, there was little I could do for her economically. Still, I could visit when possible and look out for her however I could… …much to the chagrin of a shabby man in the BART station who approached her while I was buying us a train ticket. Keep in mind I am used to the New York City subway system which will challenge you on your post-apocalyptic survival skills at the drop of a dime (literally). So when I saw Shabby standing with his broad, beer-stained shoulders over my mother’s diminutive frame, her handing him cash, I reacted swiftly. I leapt between them, shove shove, and “What the fuck? What the fuck is this? You wanna fuckin’ die?” He outweighed me by fifty pounds easy, so I wasn’t holding back, he’d better let go of that… dollar?

My mother was tugging at me, whacking me with the proverbial purse. “Stop it! Stop it! That’s Victor!”

“Who the fuck’s Victor?”

“Victor carries my groceries. He does it every week, for a dollar.”

“I don’t see any groceries.”

Mom kinda looks away. “I didn’t have any cash last week.”

I turned to apologize to Victor, but Victor had decided to leave.

I felt a poke-poke from Old Bonyfinger. “Are you having violent fantasies?”

Glaring back at him: “You have a problem with violence?”

“Mais non, a vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire.”

“What’s that, The Talking Heads?”

“Pierre Corneille—to win without risk is to triumph without glory.”

The next day I signed the pink form that allowed the doctors to take my mother off life support. I attached a copy of the living will. They transferred her to a quiet hospice at St. Peter’s in Albany. It’s the same hospital where her grandchildren were born, in the small city where my wife and I have made a home. My gig has improved somewhat in recent years and in combination with my wife’s efforts, we’ve managed to build a decent life for our two daughters. My mother moved to a senior’s apartment down the street to be closer to her grandkids, and enjoyed those five years with two little kids who adored her.

And yet even that small gift I was able to give back to her took everything I had—in the years leading up to my current situation, I watched her struggle, living with her sister for a while in New Haven until she’d become so unnaturally argumentative that I had to take a turn doing what I could to help her along. Her sister and I tried an intervention with her at one point—we brought her to a psychiatrist affiliated with Yale University who gave an initial diagnosis of hypomania, pending her agreement to more visits and treatment.

Fiercely independent, she did not agree to treatment. She continued to make her way working part-time until her social security kicked in. To give an example of the difficulty of the brain dysfunction that held her prisoner, let’s say she might be sitting quietly with the kids, giggling and playing a game:

“Would you like a cup of tea Mom?”

“What Earl Grey? Oh I can’t take this, you’re so Anglo-Teutonic. Oh my son, just because the pervs down in Washington won’t let the Connecticut Ice Queens out of the closet, doesn’t mean I can serve that empire. It’s all part of your condition. I’m going to call my attorney about this. They know what Wicca’s really about and I’m not just some Catholic casualty…”

“So should I get you some tea or not?”

I sat by her bed at the hospice as often as I could. For a while she opened her eyes, then they stayed closed. Her body looked contorted. A week of no food left one arm swollen, the other with skin tight against the bone. Her gums looked loosened where her mouth hung open, teeth crooked, monstrously devouring air like they were aware of their uselessness. The tracheotomy tube was still stuck in her neck, the minimal ration of oxygen underscoring the absence of the ventilator, feeding PEG, and blood pressure medication. Minimal oxygen and morphine were all she had left.

Knock knock.

Somebody was in the bathroom attached to her room. But how? I saw anyone who came in or out of the hospice room. Kind old folks who volunteered to read or bring you coffee. Kind nurses who ensured there was no interruption in her pain medication. Social workers who wanted to make sure everyone was okay. Commendable volunteers and staff, all of them.

But there was someone else in the bathroom.

Knock knock.

“Is this some kind of joke?” I asked. Night had fallen, I sat by her bed with the TV off. Her eyes which had gone from open to closed were now very slightly open. Slits of white lined with bloody vessels. Her arms getting bluer, her breaths distressed. What the hell was this?

I stepped to the bathroom door. “Who’s there?”

“You know who it is.”

“What, you’ve come to perform Extreme Unction?”

“I’m no priest.”

“What, you don’t have a religion?”

“I’m eclectic.”

“More like a flake, one with your supposed stature, saying people shouldn’t have a religion.”

“Sure they should. Maybe some things are truer than others, who knows. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s all TMI.”

At this I felt something push against the door. I pushed back.

“So you’re just some nasty-ass functionary? A foul-breathed bureaucrat?”

I felt a harder push, accompanied by a wretched odor that made me dizzy.

“Far too impersonal,” he said. “I’m telling you, I’m a friend.”

The door burst open, knocking me back. The figure stepped out, a darkness bleeding against darkness. His bones burned like glowing yellow bile, his head hung to the side, jaw hammering against itself. His form nauseated as it moved forward. He had fangs that ripped strips of meat from his bones, dropped them down his throatless gullet only to tear them off again.

“What happened to the Halloween decoration?”

“Shut the fuck up,” he said.

Death smacked me with his reeking forearm. I went down with the wind knocked out of me and he picked me up again. He held me by my collar and slammed my back against the wall. He had horns on his skull and a tongue like a laughing snake that hissed as it stung me again and again. I retched on the floor, and he slammed me against the wall again. Behind him I could see my mother, face turned toward me but seeing nothing with her dehydrated slits of eyes. I had to do something, I pulled my leg back and kicked the rotted ribs, because that’s what you did, no matter what, you fought—

Because hard as she had it, my mother never stopped fighting. Sometimes she was right, when she was trying to get medicine for her kid—sometimes she might not have been, when my stepdad was trying to get us a better but more expensive apartment—but she never shied away from a battle when she thought there was even a shred of a chance she was being mistreated. Her brain had an illness that deceived her, but in her own coded way, she fought this, too. When I cleaned out her apartment, my aunt found a life insurance policy that was within days of being cancelled. There were a number of registered mail receipts indicating she had come close to losing it before. But each time she had eluded her brain’s prison warden and kept the account active. Though a small amount of money, it would be enough to cover her final expenses and maybe a little leftover to contribute something useful to the family left behind. As my aunt was sorting through this, inside a kitchen cupboard, among the kids’ plastic cups, I found (and almost threw away), a small, scribbled on cardboard box containing four wedding rings (wait, Ma, who was number four?).

Come to a poker game and win the jackpot with three royal flushes and a full house, and I might call you competent. Come to a poker game, play all night with a pair of deuces as your highest hand, walk away from the table ahead five bucks, and I will call you a winner. A vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire.

I peered over Death’s shoulder at the hospital bed, but my mother was not there. I kicked harder, again and again, but though the ribs shattered, there remained an endless cage of rot.

“Cease! Cease you little bastard, you would make this worse.”

His claws dug into my neck, blood and suffocation, my strength ebbed.

“What the hell did you do with her? Where did she go?”

“You little fool. You still don’t know what this is. You want to act, but it is not time to fight, but rather, to pick the right ally, the right friend.”

“The hell with you,” I cried. But my muscles slackened. The kicking stopped, and I felt my body slump on the windowsill.

“Finally,” said Death. He let go of my neck and stepped over to the bed. He slid his maggot-strewn bones beneath the sheet, took hold of the tracheotomy tube and slipped it under his jaw. He lay there, bleeding, broken, smoldering with pain, the wheeze between his ribs a millions souls wailing on a distant wind.

“But where is she?” I asked again.

Death raised his bony hand and pointed—

In the doorway stood a woman in a wedding gown. She had hair combed to the side, accented with flowers, and the veil pulled back. Her grin was full of wistfulness and curiosity. The hands clutching her bouquet held it loosely, and yet were full of strength. She looked young, beautiful, and intelligent. She didn’t speak, but her eyes conveyed love, excitement, and courage, delivered like a streak of glittering lightning in a gaze at once forever distant, forever close.

Rest in peace, Patricia.

PLM

Patricia Lissey Moore

1944-2013

SLASH OF CRIMSON FIRE SALE! Buck a book!

Hey folks… I’m adding an impromptu blog post on my novella SLASH OF CRIMSON due to its going on a temporary hiatus as of next week. How long that will be and whether it will change publishers is to be determined. I’ll go into more details in another blog post later in the week. For now, all of you who were putting off the purchase for whatever reason, well, now it’s merely a buck so there is every reason to check it out.

It has been a great pleasure working with Armand Rosamilia on this project. I’ve published in several anthologies he’s edited, and he always does a fantastic job offering a great deal on good fiction. I invite anyone to read and evaluate the quality of the stories in RYMFIRE EROTICA, for example, and see whether they are not a rocking, sexy, horrific, fun time!

There’s a lot more to be said on doings with upcoming publications I’ve got on the table, as well as REIGNS THE WICKED, Book I of The Crimes of Heaven and Hell, and I will be posting on these things over the weekend.

For now, pick up a 99 cent copy of SLASH OF CRIMSON and enjoy.

You have my infernal… ahem… I mean eternal thanks!

C.R.M.

Review of William Peter Blatty’s LEGION

legion

With The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty made himself well-known. With the movie sequel The Heretic, the producers made a travesty of the series begun by the first well-written work and nearly relegated it to the wrong-end of the B-Movie world’s hydra of a genre. In a strange twist, The Exorcist III came along as a third installment that is in fact the true sequel to the first movie and overall not a bad horror flick for its time.

Less well known is the fact that the film bases itself on Blatty’s novel Legion, the literary sequel to his hit novel. In this book, protagonist Lieutenant Kinderman investigates a series of murders made strange by varying sets of fingerprints all seeming to imitate the methods of a deceased serial killer. The novel reads like a murder mystery mixed with possession novel, with a slight air of 80’s serial killer novel a-la The Silence of the Lambs. The killer is loosely based on the real-life Zodiac Killer, and the demon a return of the cruel spirit of the original Exorcist novel, this time in the body of a priest instead of a young girl.

When one reads this horror novel, particularly if it is an early edition with the yellow book jacket and seventies/early-eighties fabulous photo of Blatty on the back cover, one might at first feel like it is a softening of the first installment’s tone. With references to popular novels such as Scruples and computers as a ‘new’ technology of the time, one feels tempted to emit pixilated chuckles in the shape of tiny green Space Invaders.

But this never quite gets fully in the way of Blatty’s talent to disturb the consciousness. For the pages of this novel, though perhaps less frequently than its predecessor’s, still offer a disturbing analysis of the fragility of the human consciousness. Perhaps no one else has a more uncanny ability to show mental illness and demonic possession in revolving parallel that makes the spine shiver. The novel shows a sardonic underbelly of pessimism toward science, and in the character of Doctor Amfortas, it underscores the possibility of mental weakness of those in our society who are thought to be mentally the strongest. These fears combined with the sequence of murders lay out a narrative arc that in several key moments causes the reader’s mind to fracture with fear.

Although the novel ends on a slightly proto-new age upbeat note, Blatty’s work cannot quite fool one into thinking its primary impact is one of catharsis. His enduring motif, that it is possible that God is not there, but the Devil still is, still carries the day. It results in a late Twentieth Century tale that functions to undermine all concepts of what is safe, and through the metaphor of demonic possession, points toward a future that threatens to dismantle all the faithful soul took for granted and thought comfortable about identity and salvation.

 

C.R.M.

 

 

 

A Pint of Splatter, Hold the Punk…

Even guidelines have guidelines, and chief among these is for every author to read and follow a publication’s submission guidelines. If you’re a horror author, you’ll often find specifics on what type of ‘scary’ a given publication is asking for. Quite often I find the caveat ‘no splatterpunk.’

Of course, every editor has a right to ask for the kind of writing they like the most. And so if splatterpunk is not what they like, so be it. But I’ve never personally been entirely clear what the suffix ‘punk’ means when added to a genre name. I associate the term mostly with ‘cyberpunk’ and William Gibson. I think of 80’s and 90’s music and movies, black jackets and black jeans with short fashionable haircuts that couldn’t quite decide if they wanted to go hardcore or emo. A whole separate essay could address the differences between punk and metal in the realm of music. And yet when it moves over to contemporary horror fiction, I feel like the term has taken on different connotations.

In a time rife with cartoon-culture, and in a time when I feel like horror movies and horror fiction are markedly different in their aesthetics and audiences, it strikes me that the term ‘splatterpunk’ comes across as something of a caricature, a diminution of the moods, purposes, and themes of violent fiction. Now, I’m aware there is a history to the term among convention goers as a specific movement within horror fiction that features what is dubbed to be ‘extremism’. Personally, however, I don’t feel moved to be pro or con with regard to splatterpunk, because I believe ‘level of violence’ is not a good marker for genre categorization.

Take a novel like Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, with its trees full of dead babies and volcanoside massacres. Its level of violence certainly meets the qualifications of splatterpunk. Indeed, I find it more visceral and satisfying to my tastes in dark fiction than a lot of novels that purport to be horror. But nobody would call McCarthy’s work ‘punk’, because as someone who’s considered a ‘literary writer’, ‘punk’ would sound too frivolous.

Punk as a suffix has a ‘kitschifying’ effect. It seems to calm things down and brush them off by cartoonifying them. “Oh, that’s just gore for gore’s sake,” it seems to say.

Now, I say all this with the understanding that there are a lot of violence-heavy stories out there that are very, very bad stories. I would never fault an editor for not being interested in a bad story. But the term ‘punk’ for me carries with it cultural baggage that precludes assessment of a story’s true nature.

A better system of categorization would be something more along the lines of the way heavy metal subgenres work. Death metal and speed metal are different subgenres of heavy metal, and yet it is the heaviness and aggression that they have in common. The tempo, melody, and lyrical themes are relevant factors in their differences. I think emphasis on elements of theme would also be more useful in categorizing subgenres in horror fiction—say, zombies, vampires, and werewolves could each be genres unto themselves, with all also possibly fitting into a ‘traditional monsters’ category. And while there are times when extreme violence could be considered a subject matter unto itself, I think the common practice of categorizing work on differing levels of violence, as in say, a pair of quality zombies stories, is of lesser importance.

Of course, I fully understand that there is a practical side to asking for stories not to contain extreme violence. If an editor is weary of getting the same types of stories over and over, and such statements help prevent that, then it’s useful. But I might aim to emphasize a preference for ‘subtle supernatural horror’ if such is what one wants, rather than to emphasize not submitting splatterpunk.

Because in the end, when I go to a metal show or pick up a horror novel, whether its lead guitar or suffering humanity, the sounds of screams are a big part of the thrill.

On Time when You’re Not on Time

Clock

Here I sit in a state of aftershock from completing one of the toughest and most intense projects I’ve ever worked on. I have slowly fallen off the planet since it started, which is a weird thing to do when you have plenty of family and friends and are still trying to be active and act normal with them. And yet just by looking at my Facebook page, Google account, and blog it’s obvious that my interactions with all people have descended steadily to a minimum over the past year. Although physically present, I have felt a psychological absence. My heart and mind have become more and more a part of this absence, taken away, halfway to always in the clouds.

But let’s back up—a year and a month ago, I published a novella called Slash of Crimson with the small press Rymfire Books. Editor Armand Rosamilia gave me a shot, and though the splash may have been small, the swim felt good. The novella got generally good reviews and folks who read it seemed to enjoy it. I donated my first royalty payment to the Tom Piccirilli get-well fund. The reading I had scheduled fell through, but it at least got me back in touch with some writers, editors, and friends from years back and hey, I had a great interview with Dan O’Brien on Friday the Thirteenth last year where I got to hang around my creepy attic and talk about ‘urban’ New England and H.P. Lovecraft.

The momentary high was exciting enough to encourage me to revisit a project that took place in the Crimes of Heaven and Hell series after which this website is named, and rewrite it as the first full-length novel for the series. And so, Reigns the Wicked is now off to its first reader, an agent who I’ve worked with before who is willing to take a look.

Completing this rewrite was nothing short of brutal. Eureka moments of excitement with regard to the developing story were combined with quaking fears at the sheer magnitude of the task. For I was attempting a true rewrite. I was not just changing names and sentence structure, I was reworking an entire plot, adding and removing characters, changing the book’s beginning and end.

I can remember reading Stephen King’s On Writing, where if I’m remembering correctly, he discusses how a novel ought not to take more than about three months to write. You then leave the manuscript to get ‘cold’ (in his words) and revisit it. For me, it usually takes about six months to write a 75,000 word novel, which I chalk up to having a full-time job and family.

I think there is always an inherent contradiction in the craftsperson’s relationship with time. The re-write took a year and a month. I went past a self-imposed deadline of a year, which I already thought was too indulgent. And yet the entire time I was working, I reminded myself that the rewrite was worthless if it was not complete and the best it could possibly be.

At the same time, I know some folks who work on one novel for years and years. They re-write and re-write and it’s never really done. On top of this sounding like a maddening task, the word on the street from established and those just becoming professional writers is that the ‘perpetual novel’ is a classic pitfall, literary quicksand, and should be anathema to anyone doing real work in the craft. I tend to be open minded to a fault, and never say never, and am sure that there have been a few instances where taking decades to write something has paid off. But generally speaking, you want to keep things moving.

We’ve had a few downed planes in the news lately, and their images in photos across the web haunted my mind as I prepared my manuscript for submission and sent it out. One went down just before I sent it, one went down just after. A friend of mine was on the second, the Southwest flight at LaGuardia where the landing gear failed. She’s okay, which is good for all of us, as she works at a distillery and makes fantastic bourbon. But during a time when the delicate nature of timing itself has been at the forefront of my mind, I can’t help but give respect to pilots and liken the act of writing a novel to the touch it takes to gracefully move burning steel across the sky. The stakes are high, because if you’re taking it seriously and you’re spending the hours of your life on it, taking time away from other ways to make money and quality time with family, you are literally putting your very existence on the line.

And so while there are probably jollier metaphors for the things in life that require you to go ‘not too slow, not too fast, yeah, just right,” I am going to offer a paean of respect to all those who take risks with their craft, who put up their lives for something that may land you with nothing, and specifically to the pilots of the Concorde flight that went down over Paris. For it is their words that have been in my mind for a year and a half: “The air speed! The air speed!”

Writing Update and Free Lesson on How to Handle the Spectre of Antagonism

So I’m feeling a bit these days like I’m on a ship waiting for a strong gale and I’m fearing it at the same time—I have a lot of short stories out I’m waiting to hear back on; I have interviews and book reviews and adventures to relate here on the blog; I have folks with whom I need to get back in touch.

Yet at the same time I’m hoping to get things moving again on the networking/social side, I am glad for the quietude because I am finishing a project which requires concentration. I have the spectre of antagonism standing behind me, gaunt and dirty-nailed. He invites himself into the captain’s cabin nonetheless and tells me the project is behind schedule. Of course I’m even harder on myself than he is, as I despise taking too long on projects, and am known in our house to be obsessed with being on time. And so, while wrapping this up by the end of May is realistic, the spectre still goads me by laughing and flaring his wrinkly yellow eyes and saying the cyber-house is in tatters, the bread’s gone moldy and the oil painting of Armand Rosamilia is making eyes at the mermaid statue like it’ll come to life…

“Join me in sweet oblivion,” the spectre says, smacking his lips.

“Wait, are you saying we should just hangout and finish off this bottle of dessert wine?” I ask.

“What bottle of dessert wine?” he asks.

“Exactly, ya effen woos!” (Gulps espresso, gets back to typing, with the promise of a book and a scotch to toast it in none too long).