Feeling a bit nostalgic for the end of summer, I find myself full of strangely clear memories tonight. Call it the end of summer, the only end of summer 2017 there will ever be. My kids are of a certain age, coming up on the end of childhood and the beginning of teen years (well for the older one, at least). I tend to be precise in my measurements of time. I call the last day of summer August 31st for those in the northeast and I call the last day of childhood the day before you turn thirteen. So I find myself reflecting on how it’s been the best of the times, worst of times, the year my collection was published, and the year I am realizing how much things have changed in the last decade (cue Led Zeppelin’s “Ten Years Gone”). One of the items welling up in the waning of summer is reflection on the passing of one of my favorite novelists, a writer who I consider one of the finest novelists America has ever produced—Tom Piccirilli. Though he passed away in the summer of 2015, his works endure. I had hoped that he would reach a popularity level similar to George R. R. Martin and J. K. Rowling someday so that I might see some of his works become movies or a television series. I was particularly fond of works where he combined horror and crime-noir (though he eventually appeared to focus more on straight-ahead crime noir in his later works), and can’t say enough what an inspiration his writing has been to me. I once wrote a review of his work which he kindly responded to. The review is pasted below. I never expect an author to respond to a book review. In truth, book reviewing is an obscure art. It makes my day when a reader says they found a review I wrote helpful. This happens fairly often. It’s just an amazing feeling when an author responds. I don’t think this is something that really should be expected or happen often. Authors are few and readers are many and I am, in fact, fond of some traditional structures when it comes to art. I guess I’d compare it to getting a buy-back at a bar—fantastic when you’re poured a free beer, but you never ask. I did not know Tom Piccirilli personally, but from folks I’ve met at conventions who knew him, I’ve gathered he was a generous personality. His note was not long, but he had good things to say about the below review. And so, let’s remember this amazing author and his work tonight. I hope my words from way back in 2009 concerning his writing and his books below will be enjoyed and maybe offer some insight into why I continue to consider him to be one of our finest. Continue reading
Spoiler warning—this review discusses themes from the novel and TV show American Gods in a manner best enjoyed by those who’ve already read the book and/or seen the series.
I first read Neil Gaiman sometime in the early aughts, I think it might have been 2002. The novel was titled Neverwhere, and I didn’t know it had been a TV series. I had just picked it up as a random fantasy novel as I often did back then and started reading away. I found it so-so—I couldn’t relate at all to the main character, but sort of liked the villains, and was pleasantly surprised at not being able to guess the traitor. So it was all right.
I was travelling on a Greyhound bus, coming down from Maine to New York City, and having run out of reading material, decided I might as well try to take in the chapter stuffed in the back that came from another of his novels, something called American Gods. I read about Shadow, a man about to be released from prison and full of all the excitement and apprehension that goes with it. I, too, felt like I was about to embark on a journey into the unknown. Along with that feeling I also noticed that the prose itself in this novel had a grittier texture, like those styles called ‘realism’ and ‘surrealism’ had been mixed together. I decided I was going to give this author another try, and picked up a copy of American Gods when I arrived in New York.
On one level, we can describe this novel’s story arc in very simple terms. A mysterious con-man hires an ex-convict to travel the United States to help him in his quest to become the king of all the con-artists… But no, says a reader, it’s that they are gods, Mr. Wednesday is Odin, Mr. Nancy is Anansi. Yes, they are gods, but they are gods involved in, for better or for worse, type of popularity contest which feeds their very existence. And so I place emphasis first on the themes of cons and games of deception because the story’s arc (as well as America’s) can be said to be about travelling and the necessarily tricks required to survive on the road.
As the story unfolds, it slips into a kind of Kerouac’s-On-The-Road-meets-grown-up-Wizard-of-Oz feel. Shadow’s and Mr. Wednesday’s travels meander, and in this way, the narrative does not overtly move in the five-act script style from inciting incident to climax. The two characters move from state to state, pulling small swindles and meeting a smorgasbord of gods new and old. They are pursued by characters like Technology Boy and shadowy government power-hounds known as the Black Hats. All the while, much of the tension focuses on Shadow’s relationship with Wednesday, his reluctant admiration for him and curiosity about his identity. At the same time, he deals with the still lit flame for his deceased and adulterous wife, Laura. Due to a misplaced gift of a magic coin from Shadow himself, Laura returns from the dead to both haunt and help Shadow on his quest, and becomes a kind of parallel companion who contrasts Wednesday in her ironic sort of loyalty and visceral love.
With these elements in place, the story builds into an increased yet steady rhythm that lasts for much of the middle part of the narrative. Gaiman weaves anecdotes about Celtic and African gods and embeds them like short stories contained within the broader arc. They appear as colorful distractions, but also serve to build the understanding of how gods, when worshipped sincerely and by many, grow in power. This dynamic is improved when a given god’s attributes are part of the worshipping—a war god thrives on slaying, a love god on erotic acts, a storm god on lightning.
In allowing for this meandering path to build the narrative’s tension, Gaiman takes great risk. Particularly in our time, when the instant is everything, when we are ostensibly supposed to seize audiences before they know they’ve been seized, this kind of spiral-web might come across as possibly swollen. The story’s strands appear to strain under America’s vastness, its specific and exceptional place in time and geography of the history of the world’s cultures (Gaiman himself addresses the difficulty of seeing this vastness all at once in his essay How Dare You? wherein he touches on how to write about topics of such a size). It would seem on a certain level that the narrative’s spiral-path helps handle the apparent paradoxes of American diversity and unity. Such is reflected by the presence of very distinct gods who share common needs. The relativity of time and place, size and significance, moves to center stage, and we begin to glimpse how gods from the old world can take on new attributes, how the large can become small, and vice-versa.
I’ll digress into my own experience, by way of example. I am originally a New Englander, born in Connecticut, whisked to Maine before I was one-year-old, where I then lived until I was 25. Although I’ve been to both Europe and Asia, I have also travelled around a lot just within New England. What? Isn’t that an absurd concept, “travelling around” within that tiny place called New England? But yes, that’s what I mean—I’ve paddled through spartan New Hampshire with its bills-paid-on-time farmsteads and rivers clean as the barrels of well-oiled rifles. I’ve hitchhiked through Vermont where they distill music like moonshine, even if the bills might not get paid on time (whether the cash is kept under a mattress or in several money-market accounts). I’ve rolled along the coast of Maine countless days and nights, where icy horrors-that-must-not-be-named well up from the ocean and can be packed and sold for $21.99 a pound (some in flash frozen filets, others in paperback, hardcover, and e-book). I’ve sped down the highways of Massachusetts, where ale’s an art-form and disrespect for the Sox might still get you hung as a witch. I’ve bussed through Rhode Island where a talent for poetry is almost as good as a talent for tattoos, and of course, I’ve attended grad school in Connecticut, where you can’t buy beer at gas stations and besides, it’s after ten o’clock. New England has its own vastness, its states able to birth their gods, along with the accompanying distinctions and similarities.
But even with this relative nature of culture being recognized, underneath, American Gods knows well America’s very specific position in its history, one that is both idyllic and horrific. If we think the meandering trip is mere sight-seeing, if we find the weaving of the web dazzling but empty, we are watching only the hand that is offering us the feint. Because the story’s other hand has been reaching straight for the jugular…
About halfway through the story, Shadow reaches Lakeside, a quiet town in northern Wisconsin. He meets some friendly locals such as old-timer Hinzelmann and police officer Chad Mulligan who invite him to enjoy the small town life. The town, its pub, its peaceful library, all of its charms function as a kind of ‘eye’ in the novel’s storm. The physical distance these Wisconsin scenes have from where the cons and conflicts take place mirrors the narrative distance this ‘eye’ ostensibly has from the coming plot climax.
We must be careful here, lest we lose sight of the web through the strands. We discover the novel’s true ruse when there is no turning back, that America is a beautiful, but dangerous place. We can see its forest and mountains, taste its food and witness its roadside attractions. But we should keep an awareness of its distinct personality and power, and, among the conflicts of its gods vying for attention and survival, the inevitable blood that will be drawn. The blood will often run where you least expect it—aw look at that clown, he’s so funny, and he’s great with kids! Mr. Gacy, can I get your number? My friend’s got a four-year-old with a birthday coming up… …dude, check out McVeigh’s car, hilarious, dude, a beat-up old Marquis. Have fun on your road trip, man…
So we see how America’s web feeds very real spiders, and how American Gods is a novel which can be quite accurately placed in the horror genre. It does not deny America its paradoxes or sugarcoat its history, but does offer insights into how gods and the futures they occupy can be re-sculpted again and again.
It is in this spirit of re-sculpting and reinventing that Shadow thwarts the disguised horrors with his own version of a disguised strength. When it becomes clear that the battle of the gods is a trick, a con put in motion by Odin and Loki to make a blood sacrifice of gods for gods, Shadow gains respect not through overt battle but by making his own very specific sort of blood sacrifice to Odin (i.e., by offering himself). And when we learn that Lakeside has been sacrificing children to Hinzelmann the kobold all along, that small town America sups handsomely on blood, Shadow does not confront the devourer alone, but together with the town native Chad Mulligan. We see in Shadow a unique ability to handle oversight and deception, an original way to confront masks and disguises. For we learn through him that the antonym of strength is not gentleness, and that patience is not a synonym for weak. He shows instead that, when confronting the many faces of the monstrous, if you weave a mask of your own, you have some say in how the eyes see.
TODAY IS THE DAY: SLASH OF CRIMSON AND OTHER TALES AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK AND E-BOOK! Thank you to everyone who has shown interest in this book. I think the most exciting thing about publishing this collection is the amazing people who I have worked with, the editors, publishers, artists, and fellow writers who have gotten involved and invested their time and believed in it. In truth, I think we’ve put together a really fun read—if you’re engaged in summer travels, or looking for something new to read or replace the TV for a change, I invite you to try these stories out. The title piece makes a great beach-read as it’s set in a city by the sea. The second novella, the all new TORN FROM THE DEVIL’S CHEST, is my first story that takes place in upstate New York and would be excellent for adding a dash of thrill and creepiness to a camping trip. Together with the six short stories, the collection is a full 80,000 words, and is set in the CRIMES OF HEAVEN AND HELL world, a setting in which I hope to be publishing more works in the future.
I want to offer particular thanks once more my editor Margie Colton, as her work on the text itself has really helped the stories come alive and distill the style to what it’s truly meant to be. There are many other folks to whom I owe gratitude and whose names are listed in the acknowledgements, but most of all I thank readers who pick up a copy and enjoy the stories themselves. Like any craftsperson, the true spark and satisfaction lies in that first taste of the product and the pleasure it imbues.
The link to the Amazon page is below. For those of you who like to crack the spine of a fresh paperback and take in the printed page, the collection is available in trade paperback. For those with e-readers, the Kindle version is also now available for immediate download.
Thanks again to all who have taken an interest—and for those who do pick up a copy, enjoy the wild ride! –Carl R. Moore
Click linked images below to purchase:
In follow up to my post on the SLASH OF CRIMSON AND OTHER TALES cover, I wanted to respond more specifically to those who asked when the book will be on sale, and in what form. I also wanted to give a little background on the content of this new release.
First, for those of you with Kindles and Kindle apps, the collection can currently be pre-ordered on Amazon by clicking the link attached to this post:
Pre-orders are extra-appreciated because they will all register the first day the book is officially available, July 21st, so the more there are that day, the more exposure the book’s launch will receive. July 21st is also when paperback editions will be available for online order. I do not yet have details on bookstore distribution, but will certainly follow up again when I do. For those who were aware of an earlier published incarnation of the title novella, I would like to add that the version within this collection is an expanded version, a “director’s cut”, if you will, edited by the amazing Margaret L. Colton. I think those who give it a fresh read will enjoy the new details.
Also, there is a whole new, never before released novella, TORN FROM THE DEVIL’S CHEST, which is one of my first pieces set predominantly in upstate New York. Together with the six short stories, the collection is a full 80,000 words, enough to provide hours of beach, woods, poolside reading over the summer. All the stories are set in the CRIMES OF HEAVEN AND HELL world and make a great prologue for a series I hope will have more installments, including full-length novels, following soon. A heartfelt thanks to all who have taken an interest, and for those who pick up a copy, enjoy the wild ride! –Carl R. Moore
Great news for the release of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales with Seventh Star Press—the time has come to offer a sneak peek at the cover! Rendered by the skilled and insightful Aaron Drown Design, it’s a great honor to see the project come alive with an image that is haunting yet energized, a perfect fit for the mood of the stories. How can you go wrong with a claw-marked S.G.? Also check out the back-cover copy, where we get a few hints about the title story, as well as the six never released short stories and brand new novella, Torn from the Devil’s Chest. The collection will be available for purchase in July, so get ready for some intensely fun summer reading! Thanks!
Please enjoy this review of The Complex, by Brian Keene. It is part of my Is That an Old Book? review series. There are a few spoilers, so if you’re like me and prefer to read reviews after reading the book, please be advised.
There are moments when we want to give disclaimers about expectations, when we want to say, “you may assume, it’s like this, but really it’s like this.” We hear lines like, “Oh, sure he’s a heavyweight champion who smashed a guy’s skull to splinters, but really he’s a teddy bear, no really…” I’ve heard Stephen King’s writing described this way when folks say things like, “Did you know he wrote The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me? It’s not all about blood and gore.”
To be fair, it shouldn’t be—most virtuosic artists possess depth and range. For example, besides A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin has also written the children’s book The Ice Dragon. Old school black metal vocalist Gaahl of Gorgoroth is also a vocalist for Wardruna, a group that plays traditional Scandinavian music. High quality artists tend to branch out. Brian Keene is no exception. Besides his seminal horror work The Rising, Keene has written stories with a wide variety of themes, along with non-fiction and essays. Many of his short stories that are dubbed ‘horror’ could arguably be considered thrillers (I’m thinking of I Sing a New Psalm from the Dark Faith anthology) or even magic realism (I’m thinking of The Last Things To Go, co-written with Mary San Giovanni, from anthology The Library of the Dead).
Here we are discussing his recent novella The Complex (Deadite Press, 2016), a visceral tale that combines brutal murder with social irony. It’s a novella that lets loose with heavy doses of flesh, blood, and the pure Cro-Magnon beauty of crude weapons, while at the same time offering subtly complex symbols and a touch of tasteful social commentary.
The story kicks-off by introducing an eclectic mix of residents living in a somewhat run-down, pre-fab apartment complex. When an attack of naked homicidal lunatics ensues, these neighbors must band together to thwart the onslaught. Among them are a writer teetering on the brink of suicide, an aged Vietnam vet wrestling demons of his past, a widowed cat lady mournful for her husband yet handy with his revolver, a young man who is becoming a young woman, a single mom and son, a pair of slightly dorky yet fairly skilled and ruthless young thugs, and a serial killer who may or may not be a hero.
As ever with Keene’s fast-paced horror novels, the reader can enjoy his dexterity in character development intertwined with the violent action. I’ve always considered this dynamic to be one of his most effective stylistic traits. Somehow he can believably weave a character’s history—such as memories of time suppressing a riot, or moments grieving for a relationship—into scenes where crazies are scratching through walls and reaching for their victims’ throats. While all quality novelists put this technique to use to some degree, I would say few can evoke as much depth in such a short narrative. Keene neither slows the pace down with info-dumping, nor does he make the prose sound hurried by using phrasing that is too condensed.
The story’s arc proceeds to detail what amounts to a running firefight (indeed, what a good number of these neighbors do have in common is pistol ownership). The leader of the lunatics is a gigantic naked fat man with a Hello Kitty tattoo on his torso dubbed “Tick-Tock” because of the way his skull snaps back and forth on his neck. The character recalls Urban Gothic’s Noigel in his sheer size and mercilessness.
I encourage anyone who feels like they need a break from slow-tempo stories and miss hard-rocking horror to pick up The Complex and enjoy the ride. For though I am touting its speed and its violence, let it not be said that Keene achieves this by sacrificing subtlety. Rather, the story uses symbolism to great effect. The well-woven interplay of violence and vulnerability, of weaponry and nakedness, serves to create an tension that crescendos in how a group of very disparate individuals attempt to overcome their differences and work together. In its tightly rendered conclusion, the physical imagery mirrors the climactic action in a manner that offers an ironic statement about mob mentalities and what it really means to see someone’s true identity.
The Complex also gives a unique perspective when it comes to world-building. Late Twenteith-Century critic Rosemary Jackson, in her book Fantasy, the Literature of Subversion, offered categories for fantasy stories that drew a difference between stories of the “marvellous” that take place in far-away magical lands (think Star Wars and Lord of the Rings), and the “fantastic”, where fantasy elements are stitched though realistic descriptions of everyday life (such as, to use Jackson’s example, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis). While Keene’s work certainly fits into the latter, I would say that even among such writers there are categories of difference that flavor the styles. For example, while H.P. Lovecraft’s works contain overlapping characters and mythological figures, I would place him higher on the “reveal” scale—a story like The Thing on the Doorstep reveals, by the end, what’s really going on and why, with old Ephraim Waite’s motive of immortality lying at the root. In The Complex, as well as other works such as the aforementioned Urban Gothic, Keene steps back from this level of “reveal”—the motives remain blurrier, with hints and speculation adding to the tension. I would say this kind of world building is like the difference between an overtly sweet liquor like Jack Fire with its cinnamon assault, and a whiskey like Knob Creek, that has subtle, maple notes in its finish. While it is true that a work like The Rising does have what I would call a higher “reveal” factor when it comes to the origins of the zombies, overall I would say that works like The Complex, with plentiful action offset by symbolic subtlety and a delicate use of the “reveal”, can keep Keene’s work exciting and insightful for what I hope are many great books to come.
Carl R. Moore is the author of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, forthcoming in July, 2017, with Seventh Star Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve always been a writer who emphasizes that it is a mix of experience and imagination that makes a good story. One the one hand, Herman Melville shows us what experience as a sailor can do for making a whale story realistic. One the other, George R.R. Martin, having never been in a real sword-fight in his life (I assume), writes amazing and exciting longsword duels out of shear passion for the subject. I think both types of inspiration play an important role in informing the creation of horror stories. My collection Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, being published by Seventh Star press in the summer of 2017 employs this mixed sort of inspiration. And yet, while most of the stories possess both elements, one of the stories, The Red Path, draws heavily on an image witnessed in real-life at my father’s cabin in the north Maine woods. The picture here, taken on the shores of Junior Lake, shows a pair of rather striking water spiders engaged in a duel to the death. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, nature ain’t always cuddly. In fact, just before this picture was taken, a snake living in the nearby rocks poked his head out hoping for a meal, only to find the dominant spider pause the combat long enough to square off like, “You talkin’ to me?” The snake decided to find its meal elsewhere, and the dominant spider finished off its fellow and made what appeared to be a liquid meal of its carcass. Such wrath left an impression on the cameraman, and when writing The Red Path, ended up being an inspiration. Here’s to hoping the story’s as thrilling to read when the book comes out as it was to write.
For the last ten years, since my first daughter was born, my wife and I settled in a house, and I undertook my long-distance commute to Manhattan, I have engaged in a ritual when I return on Thursday mornings. It is a rather traditional ritual in many ways, consisting of stopping at a pub on my way home from the Greyhound station to enjoy a whiskey and a pint with a few friends who also have unusual schedules. One of these friends is a retired doctor, who due loss of eyesight, has retired early from his profession. Another is also retired, an environmental scientist who formerly worked for the DEC and now spends most days hiking with his dog. The third is a barback/musician who knocks off around 11:00 a.m. from his early shift prepping the restaurant for the lunch rush, and the fourth is a property manager who happens to have Thursday afternoons free.
For nearly a decade, due to our unusual schedules (I am returning from a night shift making Thursday morning my Friday night), we would hangout, play darts, and (in the earlier days) carouse like young rakes not so young anymore. It was a moment in all of our schedules when it fit to do that before everyone returned to their responsibilities.
Occasionally we would pause our regular meetings, usually in the summer and around the holidays, then reconvene on our little island of time, picking up where we left off.
Now, however, there occurs a sea-change in this routine. I could feel it coming at the end of last year. Rather than become intimidated and let the foreboding overtake me completely, I decided I would ride with the waves. The first sign of the impending change came when at long last I received the official word from Charon Coin Press that they would not be publishing my book. I announced that in my last blog entry some months ago. When that happened, I hustled to look for a new publisher. In truth, it was a stroke of ill-luck that came at the end of a string of such blows, and I had to reduce time spent on many other aspects of my life (not just the Thursday hangouts—folks were telling me in all my usual haunts, trips to the woods, playing music, everything, hey Carl, where ya been?).
I was lucky in that the manuscript’s editor Margie Colton had a good lead in finding a new publisher, so I worked at doing everything I could to help that come to fruition. In the meantime, another factor struck a blow to the Thursday morning club, namely, the presidential election. I want to keep this point brief, because this entry is about a journey of my own and seeks not to digress into politics. Suffice it to say, that while I made my views known whenever the topic came up, on a personal level I remained neutral and determined that the political situation in the U.S. was bad enough without letting it ruin friendships.
This type of neutrality did not work for everyone, however, and some falling-outs occurred based in no small part on political differences. I could not blame people in the end for being pissed-off. Just as I could not bring myself to be anything but neutral when it came to personal relationships and politics, I couldn’t come down those who could be anything but neutral. It had been a hard season for everyone, and some folks just couldn’t bear to put their differences aside. Like irreconcilable differences in a torn marriage, sometimes it’s better to let go. So it came to the point where only certain members of the group could be present at certain times.
Finally came the proverbial “nail-the-coffin” as it were—and it wasn’t actually bad news that drove it in—it had nothing to do with my book, politics, or friends. It was my daughter deciding to take up the piano. It happened that Thursday afternoons was the best time for her to have lessons. Naturally driving your kid to her piano teacher precludes quaffing ale with your pals. This was a no-brainer for me—as contrary to popular belief… (ahem—many have seen photos of the fine beverages I’ve posted on Facebook—I have no regrets and continue to revel in the fact that living in the northeastern U.S. when it comes to beer is like living in southern France when it comes to wine—we have many of the best breweries on the planet, producing the finest ales available to humanity—even better, it’s not hard to acquire Kentucky bourbon on the side, and then of course, the jukebox, if no one’s available to pick live guitar…) …contrary to popular belief I am punctual in the call to the active life. I also believe in writing every day, like Stephen King describes in On Writing, when you are crisp and focused, and I especially am excited to drive Maddy to the music store to begin learning the keys.
So all of this added up to me going to McGeary’s Pub last week for one final Thursday morning to say goodbye to a ten-year tradition. I am sure I will see these folks when I get the occasion to stop in other times, but not on the weekly basis our little club had in the past. Oddly, when I arrived, none of the others were there. One of them had already called to say he was hitting the museum that day instead. Two of the others had been tentative anyway since the falling out. And although a few folks stopped in before I left and got to say so-long-for-now, the bar’s manager joked when I first arrived that I had a moment of peace that day, a little moment of quiet and reflection.
She was right—I did have a moment to think. Even more, I had a moment of revelation. As I walked from the Greyhound station in the no-man’s land that lay beneath Albany’s knotted network of highway ramps, as I passed by downtown’s mix of restored and decaying architecture, I realized that this walk had been essential fuel for me, an environmental inspiration of sorts that fed my concentration and my imagination. The very fact that my life has the odd schedule it does, that I travel long-distance to work, and that I surround myself very deliberately with a mix of urban wildernesses and rural wildernesses, serves chiefly to develop the themes that occur in my fiction, and soon everyone who wishes will get to partake in this long-time coming and finally ready to be published work. I welcome the inspiration the past has given me, but I welcome even more the changes that the future brings, and all of the possibilities that come with them.
So now we arrive at the good news: I have signed contract with Seventh Star Press to publish Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, edited by Margie Colton. It is no accident that the last blog entry announced its cancellation, and this new entry its rejuvenation. I am very excited to be working with Stephen Zimmer, one of Seventh Star’s founding members and a writer with whom I can already see I have many shared interests. For those who have been familiar with the project since the beginning, I am happy it will finally become available to read. Just as I have experienced a sea change in my day-to-day life, I welcome this all important new development with my publishing résumé. Details will be forthcoming on when the book will be released, but suffice it to say, after regular talks with the book’s new publisher, things will be happening in a timely manner and we will have both novellas and the six short stories available for purchase soon. I am extra excited to offer not just the reloaded, “director’s cut” of Slash of Crimson, but my first novella taking place in upstate New York, Torn from the Devil’s Chest. Thank you to everyone who has helped this come together, and to everyone who has taken an interest.
I will also now be reviving the Crimes of Heaven and Hell blog for book reviews, essays, and other writing-related topics. Feels good to be pulling the oars in a strong, forward-current once again.
The time has come to announce a new direction for my writing, and in truth, it is long overdue. My collection Slash of Crimson and Other Stories, will not be published with Charon Coin Press as originally contracted. I wish to emphasize that this is due to circumstances beyond my or the publisher’s control, and also wish to add that I maintain a great relationship with the staff at Charon Coin. Jerry Benns and Margie Colton have become friends, and Margie has done amazing work editing the collection. When the book does get released, its quality will certainly owe much to their efforts. The good news is that there are some excellent prospects for the collection finding a new home. Alas, I regret being cryptic once again about the details, but such is necessary. As soon as I am able (and reasonably soon I hope), I will make a new announcement. I wish to express gratitude to everyone who has taken an interest in this project, to friends and colleagues, to readers and reviewers. Your patience is very much appreciated. I look forward to making good on the promise that what we’ve put together will be worth the wait. In the meantime, as we enter into the final months of 2016, I was thinking it might be fun to create a kind of ‘Best of Crimes of Heaven and Hell’ page, celebrating this arrival at a personal crossroads. Let’s hope the devil shows up to sign ancient curses with fresh blood, and remind us that wherever we might go, the higher the winnings, the more hell there is to pay.
Below find links to the five most popular Crimes of Heaven and Hell posts, based on the number of hits at the time they were posted. Thanks and enjoy!
One: Beauty’s Edge–The True Nature of Jack Ketchum’s OFF SEASON An essay about Jack Ketchum’s early novel that segues into contrasting different aesthetics within New England horror stories. I owe thanks to Adam Millard of thisishorror.co.uk for picking this essay last September for one of their best five horror picks on the web for that week.
Two: Review of Wrath James White’s THE RESURRECTIONIST A review of Wrath James White’s The Resurrectionist. It was a thrill to get a nice note from the author on this one. Author responses to reviews are like buybacks at a bar. You never ask, but it’s pure rock’n’roll when it happens.
Three: In Memory of Patricia Lissey-Moore A bittersweet farewell to my mother when she passed away in 2013. A personal essay with horror elements that honestly some readers thought a peculiar send-off, and yet, in our family, is wholly apropos.
Four: Watching my wife watch THE VIKINGS Let’s face it, my wife watching Vikings is hot.
Five: Vintage Review on a Darkly Dreamy Sunday Afternoon This essay about a partial biography of psychedelic rock singer Nico’s last days was also posted on Amazon, where it got quite a few helpful review marks, as well as many views here. While not ostensibly horror-related, upon pondering, one might glimpse brooding shadows and menacing currents within.
Thanks again to all who’ve taken an interest in The Crimes of Heaven and Hell. Emails can be sent to email@example.com, and I can also be found on Facebook as Carl Moore.
“Dost thou know the difference, my boy, between a bitter fool and a sweet fool?”
–Fool, King Lear, Act I Scene 4, William Shakespeare
So are clowns the new zombies? I don’t mean to draw too much attention to a fad that will likely fade much faster than the undead who have risen and kept stalking through pop-culture for decades now. But I do think the media’s current fondness for “creepy clown” sightings, along with lots of pranksters joining in may be a certain kind of colorful canary in a certain kind of collapsing coal mine that is worth exploring.
Before we go further, though, I’d like to make a distinction between “creepy” clowns and what I’ll call “spooky” clowns. “Spooky” clowns, in my view, are part of an entertainment and arts profession that delights in performance art, imaginatively dark makeup and costuming, and engages in everything from fire juggling to stapling each other’s flesh to the strains of gypsy jazz. I’m very fond of spooky clowns, and when I went to Portland, Oregon, to a horror convention a few years back, an evening of smoking and drinking with spooky and brilliant clowns was by itself worth the trip.
But when I talk about current news articles concerning “creepy” clowns trying to lure kids into the woods for money, that’s an entirely different wad of face-paint. So what’s up with the clown-thing? It’s not like they haven’t been a theme for as long as zombies, vampires and werewolves. Google them and you’ll get the works—American Horror Story, Stephen King, Rob Zombie, John Wayne Gacy, to name a few. And yet the fact that we currently have this phenomena of news items about people seeing them “out of place” in typical yet menacing combinations of baggy clothing, wigs, and makeup, means there has been a new and foreboding incarnation of the threatening fool.
Literary criticism will tell us that fools and clowns represent an inversion of societal structure. Shakespearean fools subvert the roles of the highest and lowest in European history—who is the real clown, the king or the jester, they ask. Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin offers his theory of the carnivalesque—that everyday folks, when participating in “carnival” situations, such as, in contemporary terms, holidays like Halloween and traditions like Spring Break and Homecoming, can break out of traditional roles and commit subversive acts with impunity. Some would say the archetype of the creepy clown comes in part out of this tradition. And yet the point of the aforementioned “subversive” behavior is that it’s condoned—like you can go topless on Spring Break and still grow up to be a lawyer right?
So then, whence comes the menace, and more importantly, the current popularity, of the creepy clown? I think it’s likely a complex story, but I’ll offer what might be one clue here, starting with thoughts on the zombie-craze. This got me thinking about the clown sightings not so much because of what the zombie-craze is wholly about, but what I have frequently overheard people say about it in casual conversation—that the popularity of zombies comes from fearing that the masses are numb dimwits who do what they’re told. The zombies are supposedly symbols of people who work bland jobs and just live to eat and shop and don’t question their existence. They obey without knowing they are obeying. The heroes in zombie stories therefore, are the people trying to “survive”—live “real” lives—without becoming zombies.
Okay, let’s entertain that concept for a moment, that the “zombie” symbol can be tagged to whoever we think these zombie-masses might be. One could be a Trump hero fighting Clinton zombies or a Clinton hero fighting Trump zombies or a prepper-conspiracy-theorist fighting off Oak Grove zombies. However you cut it, it’s a cornucopia of rotten choices. But maybe that’s just where we bring on the clowns—maybe there’s a bit of a consciousness developing that there really is no “other” to deem the zombies. Maybe there’s a sense of trapped-ness that the idea of droves obedient undead consumers doesn’t conveniently sum-up.
Some have offered theories that clowns can be scary because their appearance occupies the “uncanny valley”. Masahiro Mori, a Japanese Engineering professor, coined the term when talking about why life-like robots can seem scary (see interview). Some argue clowns can occupy this “uncanny valley” with their “life-like” appearance with a face that is frozen in some ways like a robot’s. But here’s where I point out an important difference—typically, clowns’ faces are frozen in an happy state. They do not merely possess a life-like appearance—they possess a happiness-like appearance. Except creepy clowns aren’t happy. Creepy clowns, like John Wayne Gacy, would just as soon say “kiss my ass” (his last words before his lethal injection) after killing your kids. They’d just as soon stab you as jingle their bells and giggle. A disturbing notion, but then, think of it in contrast to the folk-theories on the zombie-craze—maybe the people with the bland jobs shopping at the mall who before were going to metaphorically eat your brains, maybe they’re not so obedient after all. Maybe for some of us, there are cracks showing in the smiles painted on our faces. Maybe when we scratch our heads, wondering where all the so-called random violence is coming from, maybe there’s a little bit of orange hair and greasepaint under our nails. I offer the possibility that the popularity of the creepy clown-craze could be a backlash to forced happiness, an anger that forced discord between our outsides and the insides can have dangerous results. Ever have to give service with a smile when inside you are not smiling at all? Ever considered that feeling that way every day is freezing your face into a grotesque state of happiness and anger?
Of course most of the time we can separate stress from leisure, say that’s how the polka-dotted ball bounces and move on. But I do wonder, in a time of increasing automation, a time when concepts of an automated dystopia are coming frighteningly close to reality, if the idea of the vengeful clown, frozen in a smile, has become too appealing for some of us to resist. For these folks, it’s time to stand in the weeds beside the highway with a wig, baggy pajamas and a steak knife—just as a prank, of course—we hope…
Carl R. Moore is the author of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, forthcoming from Charon Coin Press.