Sunday, December 30, 2012

Random thoughts on The Dead & Dying

I've been thinking a lot about The Dead & Dying lately, so I thought I'd drop a few random notes on the book into the 'ole Six Demon Bag.

Cover of the print edition
(art by +Daniel Galli )

The Title:  I like the book’s title because it works on two levels.  The Dying, in both instances, refers to Carl, the protagonist.  From the very first page of the novel, we learn that Carl has been ravaged by the undead and doesn't have much time left to tell his story.  The Dead, however, can refer to either the horde of corpses who've taken over a fallen world or the two ghosts who share Carl’s final hours with him.  It also matches the tone of the book, I think, which is pretty bleak.  I honestly feel this is the best title I've come up with for any of my works.

Weather:  When I was writing the novel, I wanted weather patterns to play an important role.  A healthy portion of the book takes place in the Midwest during the heart of winter and there’s a cold, lonely, desolation that I was trying to convey because I thought it reflected the characters well.  In other portions, a coming thunderstorm plays an important role.  It’s what keeps Carl clinging to life:  he just wants to live long enough to hear rain on the roof one more time.  One of my favorite scenes in the book finds two of our protagonists standing on the roof of a deserted building, watching a tornado tear across the countryside.  Swirling in all the dust and debris are zombies which have been scooped up by the twister, still flailing and alive (at least as much as a walking corpse can be alive).  I also chose to make one of Carl’s companions, a man called Doc, a meteorologist in his former life because I wanted the weather to almost be a minor character in and of itself with Doc bridging that gap.

Influences:   The biggest influence on The Dead & Dying, I think, was Ironweed by William Kennedy.  That novel perfectly captures the sadness I wanted to convey with my characters and situations.  While both works feature spirits of the dead who have an attachment to the main character, his never really stepped forward into the role of narrators like Josie and Jason did.  William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying had an impact on the novel as well.  The surreal sections of the book owe a lot to my love of Beat authors, particularly William S Burroughs.  Wow… there’s a lot of Williams here.  Never realized that before.

Spirituality:  One of the reoccurring themes in the book deals with spirituality.  On the one hand, we have Josie, who clings to her beliefs in reincarnation, karma, and so on.  On the other, we have Carl, who is somewhat of an existential nihilist.  He sees no universal justice in the world, nothing out there which would balance good and evil, right and wrong.  He states in one part of the book that expecting life to be fair just because you’re a good person is like expecting a zombie not to attack just because you’re a pacifist.  These two views were a reflection of the inner conflicts raging within myself when I wrote the novel.  I was struggling to hold onto spiritual beliefs I’d held for over twenty years while a series of life altering events steadily eroded my convictions.  

Perception:  Another theme I wanted to explore is how two people can experience the same event but perceive it in two entirely different ways.  Whereas Carl and Josie embodied the spiritual conflicts in the novel, Carl and the child tackled the issue of perception.  The fact that they had two opposing viewpoints on the same experience entirely dictated the paths their lives took.

Watchmaker:  One of the minor characters in the book is a blind old man, nicknamed Watchmaker because of his former profession.  His affliction and nickname, however weren't just random choices. In 1802  William Paley wrote Natural Theology and presented an argument for creationism.  He stated that if you happened to find a watch, you would inevitably infer from the complexity and precision of its construction that it must have been the work of a watchmaker.  British biologist Richard Dawkins alluded to Paley’s imagery and described natural selection as "the blind watchmaker" because it blindly fashions complex structures in nature without any foresight.

Box of Rot cover
Tie-Ins:  In one section of The Dead & Dying, our protagonists have formed a makeshift stretcher and are hauling Sadie, who is so fevered she is delirious,  through the snow in search of antibiotics.  Josie comments that she has a feeling of deja-vu, like maybe she’d been through this particular scenario before in a past life.  This comment is a direct reference to my short story, The Palomino and the Draft Horse, which is a zombie tale set in the 1800s.  I included her observation specifically for readers who are familiar with both works, subtly implying that Josie’s beliefs in reincarnation are correct.  The short story originally appeared in the anthology The Zombist: Undead Western Tales, but is also included in my short story collection, Box of Rot.  Box of Rot (and its companion collection, Box of Darkness)  is currently available as a free download on Smashwords in a variety of e-book formats.  Feel free to download a copy if you're curious about how the short story ties in with the novel. 

Sequel:  I've toyed with the idea of a sequel and have even explored a little bit of the first chapter.  However, one of the unique challenges I faced while writing The Dead & Dying is that from the very beginning all of the major characters are either already dead or soon to be so.  A lot of fiction creates tension by making the reader wonder if the characters involved will survive the events of the book, but the way my novel was structured precludes this.  While I definitely have a few ideas in mind of how this would work in a second book, I don’t know if it could really be called a sequel as such.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Life Inside A Suburban Hot Zone

My wife and I live in the midst of a full-blown hot zone.  This may sound a tad dramatic, but it’s true.  When my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he spent quite a bit of time in the hospital and, subsequently, in a skilled nursing facility for rehabilitation.  Somewhere along the way, he picked up Clostridium difficile, or – as we’ve come to know it – c-diff.

C-diff is a nasty little bacteria.  Those most at risk are people who’ve been undergoing antibiotic treatment for some other disease or infection.  The antibiotic treatments wipe out the healthy flora in a person’s digestive tract, thus opening the door for c-diff.  Once the tract has been colonized with this bacteria, it results in severe, uncontrollable diarrhea:  entirely watery with up to eight bowel movements in a day, this makes the fight against dehydration a constant battle.  It also has a distinctive, pervasive odor, caused by toxins released from the bacteria.  One of the nursing forums I visited while researching this bug described it as follows: "…like something that has been dead and laying in the hot sun with just a slight tang of poop smell".  If left untreated, these toxins can cause severe abdominal pain and result in a life-threatening condition known as toxic megacolon.  People can, and have, died from c-diff.  It’s not a germ you want to fuck around with.

The bacteria is most commonly acquired in hospitals and nursing homes.  Someone will touch an object that has the bacteria on it, not wash their hands, and then transfer it to another patient’s room;  that patient, in turn, gets it on his hands and ingests it while eating food.  Once infected, it is extremely hard to fight (difficile is actually Latin for "difficult") .

It’s been nearly six months since my father began his treatment for it.  While he was in the hospital, his doctor told us about the infection and said he was prescribing Vancomyacin, which he described as "The Chuck Norris of Antibiotics".  In pill form, it is insanely expensive and, in liquid form, insanely difficult to find.  But we expected Chuck Norris to wipe out the infection, so my father could go about the business of building his strength back.  Chuck Norris got his ass kicked when a round of treatments proved futile.  So they put my Dad on a stronger dose and increased both the amount of time and frequency with which he took it.  Again with little result.  The Vanco seems to hold the worst of the infection at bay, but never truly gets rid of it.  Within five days of finishing a round, the c-diff was invariably back  When we complained that they simply kept re-prescribing medicine that wasn't working, they began trying different antibiotic cocktails.  He’s had Vanco with Flagyl, Vanco with Cipro, Vanco with Flagyl and Cholestyramine.  We thought we’d made some headway this last round by adding over-the-counter probiotics into the mix.  His stool became solid, lost the c-diff smell, and his strength and spirits skyrocketed.  But after five days of being off the antibiotics, it came back with a vengeance.

The day before he was sitting up in bed, laughing as he watched Family Guy, and had walked ten feet during his physical therapy (these were the first steps he’d taken for over half a year).  The infection came back that night and by the next day he didn't have enough strength to roll over in bed when I was changing him.  We've called in a gastroenterologist and an infectious disease specialist.  Currently, we’re in the process of trying yet another drug called Difficid, this one even rarer than Vanco.  What I’ve read about Difficid sounds promising;  the only thing keeping it from being the frontline treatment against c-diff is the cost.  Because of this, patients must try and fail at least two other antibiotics.  And that’s only if you can find a doctor who has heard of it or takes you seriously when you say there's a treatment option other than Vancomyacin.  If the Difficid also fails, however, our last option will be a fecal transplant (yes, there really is such a thing).

The reason I’m sharing all of this is that people need to know it’s out there.  People need to know how to prevent it from spreading.  According to the CDC, 14,000 Americans die every year from C-diff and 337,000 people are hospitalized because of it.  Unlike other healthcare related infections that have been declining over the past decade, c-diff infection rates and deaths climbed to historic heights and "pose threats across medical facilities."  Despite their outreach programs, my wife and I know more about this bacteria than most medical workers we've come into contact with.  Which is scary.  The only thing that will kill this bug is bleach or washing your hands with warm, soapy water.  Alcohol-based disinfectants do no good.  Yet you wouldn't believe the number of nurses, doctors, and therapists who give us a condescending look when we tell them to wash their hands after dealing with my father.  "It’s okay." They say.  "I used my hand sanitizer."  No, it is not okay.  It is far from okay.  The hand sanitizer that so many healthcare workers depend upon does nothing against this bug.  You could squeeze an entire bottle on your hands and still transfer the bacteria to the next patient.  And they should already know this;  the CDC has aggressively educated healthcare workers and facilities about this problem.

It should be obvious from what I've written that this infection has life-altering impacts on the patient.  But what people don’t realize is the effects it has on caregivers as well.  Someone must be with my Dad twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  My wife and I used to have regular date nights and would take occasional overnight trips to visit relatives, attend conventions to support my writing, or just explore new areas.  Now we only spend time outside the house together in two hour increments... and only when our son is able to stay with my Dad.  Even when I’m away from the house, I occasionally think I detect whiffs of that c-diff odor.  It’s like the ghost of a smell, haunting the borderlands of detection, and has killed my appetite on more than one occasion.   There’s financial strain involved, too, but I’m not just talking about prescriptions, ER visits, admissions,and office visit copays.  We buy adult diapers, bed pads, disposable gloves, bleach wipes, hand soap, probiotic yogurt, and wet wipes in bulk… and still go through them within a month’s time.  The financial constraints, however, are actually the least of our concerns.

More pressing is the fear of spreading this germ even further.  We don surgical gloves when dealing with my father and immediately wash our hands upon leaving his room.  We bleach everything on a daily basis:  bed rails, bedside table, lunch trays, his wheelchair, portable urinal, trashcan, checkbook, the telephone… anything he comes into contact with gets a thorough rub down. On top of this, we routinely steal the ink pens receptionists give for completing paperwork in waiting rooms;  if we returned them, they would simply be put back into the basket and could potentially spread the infection to other unsuspecting patients simply because my Dad signed his name on a release form.

And then there's also the fear.  We worry about having guests over, we worry about spreading it to friends, family, and co-workers.  We worry that we, ourselves, may already have this bacteria in our tracts, just waiting for our healthy flora to be compromised.  We worry that if they knew what we've been dealing with, friends will avoid us for fear of contamination.  We are not germaphobic, but we are vigilant.  We do not take this lightly and take every precaution to ensure that the bacteria doesn't leave my father's room, much less our home.

Sometimes it all gets a bit overwhelming;  sometimes you feel like a leper.  Sometimes you get tired.  Most people look forward to sleeping in on the weekends, but that's a luxury we rarely have.  We have to take turns to ensure that someone is awake to prepare my father's breakfast, give him his meds, clean him, and so on. But you have no choice.  You do everything within your power to keep the bacteria from spreading, including shaming those who should know better.  I would not wish c-diff on my worst enemy, much less an unwary stranger.  Nobody should have to go through this.  Nobody should have to endure the pain and indignity of this infection.  No one should have to watch someone they love suffer and weaken as the antibiotic-resistant germ grows stronger.

It takes a toll, but you find the strength and push on.  You have to.  You limit your tears and frustration to two minutes, tops;  then you take a deep breath, reach deep into your inner reserves, and muster the strength to do what needs to be done.  You change the diapers, bag the soiled linens, double bag the garbage, and do things you never thought you’d be able to do.  You have to.  Because you love this person and would want someone to treat you with the same dignity and respect.  because you want them to be well again.

That, my friend, is a first hand account of life within a hot zone.  And it only scratches the surface….

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dreaming in Text

When I was younger, my English/Creative Writing teachers talked a lot about symbolism in literature. At the time, I thought it sounded like a load of pretentious crap, to be perfectly honest. I swore to myself that I would always be a down to earth storyteller who stayed away from such ostentatious trappings. To paraphrase an Internet meme passed among authors, my curtains would be blue because that’s what color they were… not to illustrate my character’s underlying depression.

Now that I’m older (and hopefully wiser), I think I understand the role of literary symbolism a little more clearly. No one disputes the subconscious messages conveyed to us through our nightly dreams. It’s a stereotypical staple of psychoanalysis and hundreds of books have been written to help us understand what the hidden parts of our minds are trying to communicate. Think about it: how many times have you shared the details of a particularly odd or disturbing dream only to have the person you’re speaking to immediately ask, “So, what do you think it means?”

The reason I mention this is we, as authors, are basically dreaming in text. When we’re really on a roll, we don’t have to stop and consider what word, phrase, or sentence comes next; it simply flows from our fingertips to the keyboard and appears on our screens as if by magic. In these instances, we’re giving our imaginations and, in turn, subconscious free reign in the waking world. When this is done, it seems only natural the same type of symbolic imagery that peppers our dream worlds would carry over into our written creations.

This was really driven home when I wrote my second novel, Cry Havoc. I decided to challenge myself a bit with that one and see if I could write a 40,000 word rough draft within a consecutive 24 hour period. When I began this formidable task, all I knew about the story was I wanted the book to start with a city embroiled in urban warfare. I had no idea whom the characters were, what the plot would be, or where this scene of street fighting would lead, but trusted these details would reveal themselves as I wrote.

When I was editing the initial draft, things began to pop out at me. I noticed a reoccurrence of the color yellow within the pages and realized that as long as that color was associated with a character they were safe; but the moment yellow was removed from the situation, things rapidly devolved into brutality and violence. In my early 20s I’d worked in a chemical plant and after having my finger crushed by machinery was assigned “light duty”, which involved painting scaffolding and ladder cages; the color of paint I used was called Safety Yellow.

In another scene in the book, one of my main characters, Richard, had just returned to his apartment after a particularly harrowing experience. To be specific, he’d just killed an old man and looted his box of rations and supplies, despite the fact that he’d been a very civilized and sophisticated man for his entire life. An argument ensued with his roommates and Richard ended up slamming the boxes down upon a coffee table shaped like the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol, shattering the table in the process. Yin-Yang is a symbol of balance between dark and light and once that table broke, things were never the same for Richard again.

Even though I hadn’t intentionally added symbolism to my work, it still asserted itself and what my teachers and professors had been talking about finally clicked into place. Symbolism isn’t a show of pretension … it’s simply the way our brains are wired. So keep dreaming in text, authors, and trust that your subconscious will lead the way.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Forest of Waiting Souls: A True Story

When I was very young, too young to really understand the concept of death (much less reincarnation), I had a dream.  In this dream, my sister, my aunt Connie, and I were camping in a damp cave. We'd laid out our sleeping bags near the mouth of the cave and I remember looking out upon the tops of mountains rolling as far as the eye could see.  Since we were pretty much level with all these mountains, I knew the cave we were camping in was high above the earth.  Our fire cracked and popped as shadows danced over the rock formations and somewhere way back in the darkness the plinking of condensation echoed.  The fire turned to glowing embers and my aunt and sister slept soundly while I laid awake, gazing out through the mouth of the cave at a sky brimming with stars.  As I watched, a large shadow passed, momentarily blacking out the entire view and a shiver coursed through my tiny body.  I knew whatever had blocked the entrance of the cave must have been massive and fear squeezed the breath from my body.  I pretended to sleep within this dream and, at some point, must have.

The dream, however, immediately cut to the next night.  Again the fire had all but burnt out. Again my sister and aunt were sleeping while I watched the mouth of the cave, wide awake.  Again the monstrous shadow passed and again I was paralyzed with fear.  But again the dream fast-forwarded to the next night and all of the details were the same.  Only this time my curiosity got the better of me (as it often does) and when the shadow passed I somehow mustered the courage to crawl out of my sleeping bag and approach the mouth of the cave.

My heart raced as I left the safety of our campsite behind and I felt as if I were about to throw up.  But I had to know.  I had to see what it was that had passed the mouth of our cave for three nights running.

Stepping out onto a ledge, I saw the world's largest T-Rex yards away.  As soon as I was exposed, its massive head whipped toward me as its gigantic mouth opened, revealing rows of sharp teeth that were as large as trees.  It roared and its rancid breath blew like a hot, mighty wind.  The force of the wind, coupled with panic, caused me to stumble backward and the next thing I know the edge of the cliff crumbled beneath my feet and I found myself falling, plummeting toward the hard, unforgiving earth below as wind whistled in my ears.

I knew there was no way I could survive. I knew, somehow, that I was going to die.

There was a flash of brilliant light and suddenly I was walking through a lush forest.  Birds twittered and chirped overhead and the air was scented with the most delicate and beautiful fragrance I'd ever smelled. Alabaster statues were scattered among wildflowers and fountains gurgled streams of water so clear it sparkled in the dappled sunlight.

I followed a path of crushed gravel through this forest until I came to a clearing.  In the center of the clearing was a semi-circle of concrete benches and seated upon these benches were people of every imaginable race and age.  I sat in the only open spot and listened as each person told the story of how they had died, patiently awaiting my turn.  After telling my tale, the beautiful brunette sitting beside me took my small hand in hers and smiled.  She told me I could stay in the forest for as long as I wanted, but when I was ready I would have to return to the living as a new baby.  But I would return, she said, I would always return....

True story.

What's in a name?

When I wrote The Seven Habits of Highly Infective People, I thought I'd come up with a pretty good title. My wife, however, never cared much forit. Don't get me wrong; she loves that book and it is by far her favorite thing I've written to date. But she's never cared for the title. In retrospect, I think I should have listened to her. It never occurred to me that people might get the wrong impression. It's. Not a parody of a self help book; it's not a mash up of zombies and the book from which its title was inspired. It's a dark and gritty tale with themes ranging from matricide to unspeakable acts committed in the name of survival. There's drug addiction, premeditated stalking and homicide, and a lot of moral ambiguity going down within those pages. If I had it all to do over again, I think I would name it something else. I've been told the title is clever and maybe it is. But it's not really a good indication of what lays in store once you begin reading it. What would I change the title to? That's a good question. Perhaps The Tides of Time since that's what I plan on calling the series. Perhaps something different. So here's a question: if you were to rename this book, what would. You call it?


On Sunday, October 7th from 9:00 to 11:00 PM, Jackie Chin will be hosting Zombiepalooza over on The show will feature a live roundtable discussion with Permuted Press authors Scot Thomas, R. Thomas Riley, Scott M Baker, myself, and others. Tune in, call in, and join the party! More information can be found at the following link:

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Character Studies

It’s no secret how fond I am of Ocean and Bosley, my protagonists in The Seven Habits of Highly Infective People;  however, there are lesser known characters I’ve written about who also tend to provoke a strong emotional reaction in me.  So I thought I’d just take a moment to recognize these imaginary friends of mine … though some of them I would be hard pressed to actually call friends.

Owen from “Tiffany Shepis and the Fanboy of the Apocalypse”:  I’m intrigued with Owen simply because he’s bat-shit crazy.  What’s not really told in the story is that before the undead apocalypse went down, he was a pretty normal guy.  He went to work, paid his bills, had meaningful relationships, and really loved horror movies.  The stress of witnessing this shock-and-awe campaign of the living dead, however, caused him to snap.  He’d seen so many atrocities and felt such desolate pain that he grabbed onto one thing like a drowning man struggling for a life preserver.  That thing was his autographed picture of Tiffany Shepis.  It was the last link to a normal world and simpler time.  He just happened to turn to that defense mechanism more and more until his desperation grew into psychotic obsession.  His issues ran so deep that he even peppered his conversations with her movie titles without realizing he was doing so.  Not just throwing the names out there, but subconsciously working them into the context of what he was saying.  The sentence still made sense.  But here was this movie title that had worked its way in.  One more little connecting line to the way life had been.  Which is why I really see him as a somewhat tragic character.

xxxBuTcHeRxxx from “Cooking with Grace”:  I find this guy genuinely creepy.  People sometimes ask dark fiction authors if they’ve ever written anything that’s scared even them; for me, the answer to that question is xxxBuTcHeRxxx.  I’ve thought a lot about this guy as, for a while there, I’d considered expanding this short story into a novel.  But even without that additional information, the last two lines of the story really disturb me.  There’s nothing tragic about this son of a bitch.

Chase McGowan from an untitled novel idea I haven’t entirely given up on:  In his youth, Chase thought he was a serial killer.  The dude would see attractive women on the street and would think of them as good victims instead of sexy or pretty.  He had some pretty serious anger issues going on inside him and spontaneously had some pretty fucked up fantasies.  After picking up a hitchhiker one night, he made that leap from fantasy to reality.  Once the woman was dead, however, he was torn apart by guilt and remorse and realized that he couldn’t just callously take a life.  But he’s still a bit of a sociopath, so turning himself in was not an option.  Instead, he takes her into the woods and buries her in a clearing, near a small stream.  Twenty years later, he still visits that spot in the woods.  He lays on the ground with his ear pressed to the gravesite and talks with her.  He hears her replies, but I’m not really sure if it’s actually her spirit or simply Chase’s own guilt trying to convince his apathetic side to do the right thing after all these years.

Memory Wilkes from a novel entitled Nowhere Fast that I haven’t entirely given up on:  Memory grew up in a poor, backwoods town in West Virginia.  Her father is the town drunkard and spends more time at the local bar, The Smoke Shop, than he does at home.  Her mother suffers from schizophrenia but has never been treated or institutionalized for it.  She stays at home and her disability checks are the only real income the family has.  However, this also means that 17 year old Memory is stuck with caring for her little brother and sister and running the household.  In a town where pretty much everyone is poor, her family is considered trash.  Parents warn their kids not to befriend the Wilkes children and any time a petty crime is committed, the suspicion automatically falls on them.  Though she’s still a virgin, she has the reputation of being a little whore who will put out to anyone, anytime.  All Memory wants is to fix the old pickup truck her uncle left for her in his will and leave all of it behind.  She longs to move to Charlotte, NC where she can be just another face in a teeming crowd, anonymous and nondescript. In an attempt to earn the money needed to make her fantasy a reality, Memory makes a very bad decision, leading to a chain of events that only get worse with every turn.

Agent Meat:  Named after on online buddy from the early nineties, Agent Meat is an interdimensional creature who is part of the ruling elite on a conquered Earth.  He’s humanoid, but his lipless mouth is lined with needle like teeth and he has a bifurcated tongue.  His ears lay flat against his head and his nose resembles a head of cauliflower.  He favors dark, expensive suits which contrast with his ashy-gray skin and felt fedoras.  He comes from a caste-driven society, with the true upper echelon being those in the Guru class. He was born into the Agent class and is a couple rungs lower on the social ladder than a Guru.  But, as an Agent, he is as feared as he is ruthless.  When an Agent dies, their “soul” must spend an indeterminate amount of time in a type of limbo as they prepare themselves for the transition. During this period, they continue to work for the agency in various forms.  Agent Meat’s partner, for example, is Agent Brass, who only appears in reflective surfaces.  Together, these two agents root out dissidence among the enslaved, human drones who are forced to manufacture a drug the overlords’ society depends upon.  A drug in which humans are also the main ingredient.  While definitely a hard ass, Meat considers himself to be more liberal than Brass in that he has no quandaries about members of his species, called The Party, using humans to satisfy their sexual desires, even though it is forbidden.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Hey, you got your sci-fi in my horror...

This probably won’t interest anyone other than me, but I’ve been thinking lately about how much of my work blends my two most-beloved genres:  science fiction and horror.  There is, of course, the time travel element in The Seven Habits of Highly Infective People, and that’s probably the most obvious example.  But below are some of my shorter works that readers may not be familiar with:

Our Last Hope - Published in Zombonauts: Zombies in Space from Library of the Living Dead Press.  A very short tale told from the POV of a maintenance worker aboard a starship  whose sole purpose is to scour the universe for a cure to the zombie pandemic sweeping the world.

The Winter Experiment -  Originally appeared in Macabre Cadaver Magazine and reprinted in Ghosts and Demons from Static Movement.  In this story, an obsessed researcher kidnaps and tortures young women in a desolate, mountaintop cabin as part of an experiment in scientifically documenting the manifestation of the mythical, Japanese snow woman, Yuki-onna.

I Eat The Dead -  Published in The Book of Horror 2 from Living Dead Press.  This tale centers around a machine called a Richter Cone, which captures an expelled soul at the moment of death and extrudes it into a physical form.  This device results in a subculture of the feeder/gainer fetish whose food of choice is the human soul.  The story follows a couple who begin with a tender, if not unique, relationship and follows its deterioration as their fame within this particular community skyrockets.  I really like the concept a lot but, to be perfectly honest, I’ve felt for quite some time that I could have given it a stronger ending.

Mental Man - Published in Corrupts Absolutely? from Damnation Books.  This story follows a PTSD afflicted detective imbued with super powers as he tries to get into the head of the Suburb Slayer, a serial killer who slaughters entire families and leaves taunting messages scrawled in blood.

Losing Control - to be published in Bloody Ghost Stories from Static Movement.  I really like the universe I’ve created in this one.  It’s about a man who works for a covert organization as a metaphysical janitor, of sorts.  The premise is that there are dead spots between dimensions called Cut Scenes where passing souls can sometimes become entangled.  Utilizing a person who’s in a medically induced, persistent vegetative state as an eavesdropping device into the afterlife, our protagonist uses astral projection to help move them along.  When sadistic serial killer Albert Lewis is executed, his soul latches onto one of these Cut Scenes and constructs his own hellish reality.  Passing souls are captured  like flies in a spider web and their belief in their own perceptions integrates them into Lewis’ deranged fantasies.  It’s our narrator’s job to journey into this nightmare world and set things right.  I can almost see myself expanding this one into novel length at some point in the future.

I’ve also got a couple of new ideas kicking around an am thinking once I’m clear of all contractual obligations that I might release a short collection of my scifi/horror creations.  I figure why the hell not?  You see a lot of crossovers in film (think Alien, The Thing, etc);  but in the realm of the printed word there’s a distinct lack of these tales, I think

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tales from The House of Hot Beverage

At The House of Hot Beverage, my roommate Larry and I had a room in the back wherewe'd entirely covered the walls with butcher paper.  There were two small, mismatched couches sitting in the shape of an L and by the legs of one of them was a basket. In this basket were an assortment of chalks, crayons, colored pencils, and every type of marker conceivable:  standard office supply black markers, highlighters, a rainbow of Sharpies, black light markers… we even had 3D markers and the glasses with which to view them.  I stood against one wall with my arms spread wide and had Larry trace around my body.  Then I used the outline to create a lifesize self portrait of me crucified upon a cross.  Above the door I’d done a landscape with gently rolling hills rising above a forest;  a mushroom cloud billowed in the background with it’s fireball streaked with 3D oranges, yellows, and reds.  Toy soldiers were lined atop the door frame and with the 3D glasses and strobe light on, it actually looked as though the entire scene was flickering with distant fires.  The rest of the room was covered with jotted bits of prose, scraps of poetry, drawings, scientific formulas, spiritual symbols, and just about anything else you can think of.  If it was your first time visiting what we referred to as The Drawing Room, you were expected and encouraged  to add something to these walls.

It was in this room that Larry, his girlfriend Erin, and I dropped acid.  We added to the wall for a bit, but after awhile it all became a bit too much.  My crucified self seemed to accuse with his unblinking stare and I could have sworn some snippets of rogue poetry were shifting positions when I wasn’t looking.  So we took the chalk and went elsewhere.  Of the nine couches within The House of Hot Beverage, two of them were positioned on the front porch.  Sometimes we’d sit there and watch speeding cars approach a curve that was as deceiving as it was dangerously sharp.  We’d then rate them on scorecards like a pair of Olympic judges as condensation beaded on our beers.  On this night however, we began drawing on the porch with the aforementioned chalk.  The screen door suddenly had a decorative border and the banisters were coiled with two dimensional serpents which bled over onto the sidewalk,  Drawing out way up the walkway, we hit the main road and scribbled all the way to Sean and Mary’s house.  They’d already settled down for the evening and declined the offer of joining our chalk festival, so we sketched our way back to our place.

At some point, Larry and Erin went inside, leaving me to my own devices.   Finding an unmolested patch of floor, I sat down on the porch and began drawing a Tibetan mandala.  I took my time with it, ensuring that every line was as precise as it could be when drawn with chunky, colored chalk;  concentric circles and squares, interlocking geometric patterns which seemed to grow ever smaller, eventually disappearing in the corridors of infinity.   It felt like I spent hours pouring my soul into this ridiculously complex drawing and during that time, thunderstorms had rolled across the valley.  As I stood, admiring my handiwork, the first fat drops of rain began splattering on the roof and ground.  Within minutes the tentative rain grew confident and gathered muster while booming thunder echoed back and forth between the hills like a battle roar.  The darkened sky flickered electric blue and sheets of rain cut through the night with diagonal slashes.  Water quickly pooled on the porch floor and I saw this drawing I’d worked so hard on washed away by forces of nature.

"There’s gotta be a lesson there somewhere."  I thought.  Then I went back inside The House of Hot Beverage, nodded at the Dead Kennedys poster in our living room, and sat down at my word processor to write.  That’s kind of the way it was there.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Undead Press & Anthony G: My take

A few years back, I released a collection of short stories called Sex in the Time of Zombies as a free download to help promote my other work.  Overall, the collection was a success:  it drove people to my website, garnered favorable reviews, increased sales, and introduced me to thousands of readers around the globe.  Around the time when downloads of the collection had died down a bit, I was contacted by Anthony Giagregorio who wanted to publish a print version through Living Dead Press.  Yes, that Anthony Giagregorio.  If you don’t understand what I mean by that statement, then you’ve obviously been sequestered from the firestorm burning through the indie author community over the last couple days.  It’s not my intent to rehash everything that’s transpired, so if you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google Tony’s name and/or Undead Press to get brought up to speed.

Like the other authors coming forward, I also never received galleys for the finished product.  There were changes made to the stories in the collection that I would have argued against until I was blue in the face, but they weren’t nearly as dramatic as the incidents being reported by other authors.  Most of the changes may have seemed inconsequential to most:  changing a whispered bit of dialogue to something that was shouted, replacing the word courage with strength … that sort of thing.  But to me, those words were important.  They were stylistic decisions I’d made when drafting the stories, specifically chosen to add a little something to the atmosphere and character development.  While I was less than thrilled with the revisions, I chalked it up as a learning experience.  After all, I had signed a contract giving them the right to edit the collection. (In the spirit of fairness, however, I should mention that there were a few changes that I actually did agree with and which we’d discussed over the phone.  Tony, for example, was the first person to point out I overused the word that.    Now, every time I write I reread the sentence to see if it still makes sense with that taken out.  If it does, I strike it and move on.)

That being said, I want to go on record as stating that Mandy DeGeit and the other authors have my full support in this controversy.  Regardless of whether Tony was within his legal rights to do what he did to their stories, there is no excuse for the way he treated them in the resulting fallout.  If he truly believed he did no wrong, he could have made the exact same points in a tactful manner instead of belittling and mocking someone who was simply trying to get her story published.  

While I deeply love the stories and characters contained within Sex in the Time of Zombies, I am just as deeply embarrassed to have them represented by a press which has so little regard for professionalism and common decency.   What Tony needs to remember is that authors are just as important to the success of a press as readers;  regardless of whether that author is submitting a novel or a short story for inclusion in an anthology, they thought enough of that imprint to want their work placed there.  To degrade and humiliate them when concerns are expressed is not only unconscionable, but also the height of arrogance.  Show a little appreciation.  Show a little modesty.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dance of the Rattlesnake: A True Story

It was Memorial Day, I think. Definitely somewhere toward the end of summer because I distinctly remembering the sound of cicadas: miles of forest in all directions, God knows how many of those little buggers in each tree. Individually, the tymbals on their bellies make a rapid buzzing sound. The series of staccato bursts rise in pitch and volume before going back down through the spectrum like a wave. When you’ve got hundreds of thousands of these little bugs all cycling through their song, it almost creates a single sound. Sounding strange and alien, it’s all too easy to imagine some primordial creature lumbering just over the next ridge and bellowing out its call. But I digress.

I think it was Memorial Day because we’d come to tend a graveyard. This was one of those old, family cemeteries nestled way back in the hollows. Remembered only by people who had kin buried there, trips usually involved a pickup rattling and bouncing over dirt roads so rutted that even at a snail’s pace you still ran the risk of being tossed from the bed. This particular graveyard was bordered by rusted barbed wire stretched between wooden posts, most of which were askew. Three strands, one gate. Inside the fence, the grass had grown so tall that the rounded tips of the weathered markers looked like lion ears poking up from a savanna. Outside the fence, it was just as bad, the only real path being where the grass had been parted, barbershop quartet style" a thin strip of trampled earth surrounded by walls of bent grass.

We’d come here to make it presentable again and my uncles were armed with scythes, sickles, and the like. My mom made me stay very close to her side because rattlesnakes were a real danger in these type of conditions and I clutched a forked stick in my little fist in case I stumbled across one.

At some point, my Uncle Bobby did. It was coiled in the graveyard, its tail shaking furiously as its head reared back and exposed those two, curved fangs. As I watched, Bobby lopped off its head with a machete. I don’t really remember any blood. The image which stuck with me most was this headless body, twisting and turning on the ground as if possessed. My uncle took the forked stick from me and slid one of the prongs under the snake’s belly. Holding it at arms length, he walked to the edge of the cemetery with my close by his side and tossed the carcass as if he were throwing an underhand pitch.

He went back to work but I stayed behind, watching through the dappled sunlight as this headless body thrashed on strands of barbed wire.

Bad day for the snake. Good day for me.

True story.

Monday, February 13, 2012


This evening a character of mine dropped by Six Demon Bag for a little chat. Please welcome to this page Bosley Coughlin, protagonist from my soon-to-be-released Permuted Press novel The 7 Habits of Highly Infective People

Hi, Bosley. Welcome back to my head. We’ll start off with the usual Six Demon Bag opening question, which you can interpret and answer however you please: if you were in possession of a Six Demon Bag, what would yours contain?

Now that’s a good question, man. What the hell is in this bag? Hmmmm, let me see. Rollin’ papers…. Dime bag… red crayon, half a tab of blotter, some Vitamin C drops, a pen-style mini-microscope. Library card. One coupon good for a free order of fries at Meat World, expired. Some fuzzy little crunchy thing that may have once been a Cheeto, and a single Tarot card: The Queen of Cups.

Now Bosley, you and I know each other pretty damn well but some of my readers might not be that familiar with you. What can you tell my readers about the man behind the myth?

What’s there to tell? Like Zaphod, I’m just this guy, ya know? I like gettin’ a little mellow in the evenings, if ya get my drift. And mornings. Afternoons, too. I flushed my system out just long enough to land a cushy little job doing data conversion for the post office. I keep to myself, for the most part. Me, my books, and my telescope. I guess the biggest thing that makes me who I am though is that I’m dimensionally unstable. I was fuckin’ around with some mystical-type shit while riding out a killer acid buzz, see. And that’s when I accidentally opened the Eye of Aeons. Now I just kind of drift like metaphysical pollen through the dimensions. Every now and then, I’ll get all tangled up in someone else’s consciousness and be able to see the world through their eyes for a while.

What’s the hardest thing about being dimensionally unstable?

Definitely lack of control, dude. I mean, I’m a naturally curious person, ya know? Things catch my eye and I want to investigate. To take a closer look. But if I ain’t in my own body, man, there’s nothin’ I can do. Shit, I can’t even cast a sideways glance unless my host does. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a conscious puppet? Imagine if Pinnochio turned into a real boy, but Geppetto never cut the fuckin’ strings. He just wants to go outside and run and play; but that old cat’s havin’ none of it. Dance, little puppet, dance.

Here’s the next in our series of Six Demon standard questions: there’s a train rocketing through the night with nearly a hundred people looking out the windows. The only person actually sitting in a seat is a small child who gazes unwaveringly at the floor. What is going on with these people?

Okay, the little girl? She knows that outside of that train is nothin’ but a vast expanse of nothingness, man. No stars. Nor horizon, no up or down. It’s like someone turned out all the lights in the corridors of infinity. And she can feel that shit squeezing in on the little coffin she’s zippin’ along in. Not quite enough to make the ceiling buckle and sides crunch. Not enough to shatter the windows. But she can still feel that pressure bearin’ down, threatening to squeeze the air from her lungs like the coils of a python. The other folks on the train have the option of helping her, ya know? They could sing soft songs to her, pet her hair, and tell her every little thing is gonna be all right. But instead, one by one they’ve turned away and shown her their backs. If you stand at the very end of the car and tilt your head just so, you can even see the progression of these sorry bastards’ soul. The sin of inhospitality personified by their corporeal flesh. Their reflections in the glass, staring back at the people they’d once been. And then nothing but darkness, man. That’s what’s goin’ down on that train.

If I were to look on your bookshelf, what books would I find there?

Let’s see, there would be Theories for Everything: An Illustrated History of Science. A bunch of shit by Jack Kerouac. The Encyclopedia of Symbolism. Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law. I dig on some Lovecraft too, man. Oh and there’s what looks like a book, but when you open it up there’s actually a planisphere and some star charts inside.

If I could bridge the gap between present and future and transport a gift from you to Ocean, what would it be and why?

It’d be a big fuckin’ box, man. Some automatic weapons inside and plenty of ammo. She’s smart. She’d figure out how to use it. A bunch of rugged clothes for all seasons. Good pair of combat boots. Topographical maps of the area. Basically anything I could think of that would make her life a little bit easier.

This isn’t really the first time we’ve talked, but is there anything you’ve never told me that you’d like to get off your chest?

Damn right there is. You’re an asshole, man. I couldn’t give a flyin’ fuck what you choose to do to me, dig? Send me back in time and let the Mayans play soccer with me head. Let the Romans tack me to a giant T. Shit, send the most ravenous organ fiend you can find from that horde of undead fucks and let ‘em tear into me like a pig rootin’ up a truffle. But leave Ocean alone, man. I mean, come on. She’s just a little girl, ya know? Yet you plop her right down in the middle of that shit hole and continually mess with her world? Fuck you, man … fuck … you. Maybe I was goin’ after the wrong damn person all along. Maybe I shoulda set my sights on you.

Well, Bosley, thanks for stopping in. I wish we could talk longer, but I have some other imaginary people demanding my attention. So it’s up to you to wrap this interview up. Anything at all you want to talk about or promote is fair game; the forum is yours. Ready … GO!

If people are sleeping’ you’ve gotta be an alarm clock. You need to make a stand when it’d be so much easier and more convenient to simply look away. You’ve gotta be willin’ to love somebody you’ve never met so damn much that their tears are your tears. And don’t go dismissing all this as a bunch of hippie bullshit, either. Fuck hippies, man. Sometimes peace and love just don’t cut it. Fuckin’ sit-ins don’t mean shit to Fate. A body in motion tends to stay in motion and a body at rest dies. Plain and simple. Don’t let yourself die, people. Not without a fight. Learn the seven fuckin’ symptoms and for God’s sake don’t let humanity have been in vain. Show ‘em what you’ve got….

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Corruption and Balance

Recently, a short story I wrote was accepted into an anthology which will be published by Damnation Books in March. Entitled Corrupts Absolutely? and edited by Lincoln Crisler , the concept was just too awesome to pass up. Based on the famous quote from Lord Acton concerning absolute power corrupting absolutely, the stories in this book explore what would happen if every day people found themselves in possession of superhuman abilities. The characters in these stories aren’t necessarily altruistic souls inspired by an unswerving belief in write and wrong; these characters are haunted and damaged, beautiful losers who struggle with the same dilemmas many of us do in our daily lives. It was meant to show a more realistic view, in my opinion, of metahumans and exactly what they might do with their powers.

It was also the perfect avenue for an idea that had been rolling around in my head since six months or so prior to the call for submissions. Life in comics is usually pretty balanced with things coming in pairs: you have your hero and their secret identity, a power offset by a weakness… and, of course, you have your supervillains. In the real world, there’s really no such thing as a supervillain. People rob gas stations, they rape and mug, and some really do see crime as a viable way to make a living. Yet even with organized crime, the mastermind at the top of the food chain is just some guy trying to turn a buck. He doesn’t give a damn about world domination and is content with the power associated with his position.

This is one of the themes I explored in my short story, Mental Man. In a lot of ways, media dictates how people live their lives. A celebrity wears a dress from a previously unheard of designer and suddenly that line is all the rage; advertisements tell us what’s "cool", what we can’t possibly live without, and the public responds accordingly. Book, film, and restaurant reviews influence what people read, watch, and even eat. In light of this, I thought, someone would superhuman powers might look for guidance in the only place they really could: comic books. And comic books dictate the world follows Newton’s third law of motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every superhero, there is a supervillain.

So what exactly would happen if that variable were removed? If there was no yin to the hero’s yang, so to speak. In our daily lives, many of us already feel as though our talents are being wasted or that we’re not living up to our full potential. To someone with metahuman powers, solving common crimes would be like completing a search-a-word puzzle in Highlights for Children when what was really craved was the New York Time’s crossword puzzle.

Corrupts Absolutely? will be available in March and I, for one, cannot wait. With contributing authors consisting of Joe McKinney, Cat Rambo, Weston Ochse, and Tim Marquitz (among others), I am in really good company with this book and am excited to see what dark avenues these other writers take their stories down.

Watch for this one, people. You won’t be disappointed.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Season of the Witch: A True Story.

This is not my oldest memory. That honor belongs to an extremely young Todd in front of the small stream cutting across our front yard and needing to pee very badly. I knew I wasn’t supposed to pee in my diapers anymore, but the toilet was so far away and I had to go so badly I cupped my groin in my hand as I bounced from foot to foot. I remember being torn by indecision, of wanting to be a good boy and not soak my diaper but also knowing I would never make it to the bathroom in time. So I did what any good country boy would do. I pulled down the front of my diaper, whipped it out, and relieved myself in the stream. But that is neither here nor there; for what I’ve actually set out to tell you about is my second oldest memory.

Every summer for as long as I can remember, the carnival came to town. I remember watching the trucks drive along 119 with disassembled equipment and shuttered concession stands in tow, knowing that overnight the parking lot of the nearby high school would be transformed into a wonderland of sights and smells. Caramel apples, corn dogs hot and golden and still sizzling from the fryers, the sweet allure of cotton candy, and barbecue wafting from the converted kitchen the Band Boosters had set up in the band room. Buffeted by winds from passing rides that clacked and whooshed while a myriad of bells and whistles rang out from booths along the midway: it was a young boy’s Shangri-La wrapped up in flashing, colored lights and the bustle of people.

But this memory stems from a time before I’d developed a true appreciation of the spectacle. With kindergarten an unthought of inevitability, I was young enough to still hold my mother’s hand. Young enough that everything seemed to tower above me and every stray dog rooting for dropped popcorn had to be friendly. It also means I was young enough not to remember anything before or after, only the event itself.

In those days, you didn’t ride through the haunted house. You walked. I remember clutching my mom’s hand in complete and utter darkness. They let you through in small groups and I could hear the people around us, giggling and cracking jokes. Sometimes they’d bump up against me, but even that close they remained cloaked by the dark.

I don’t remember how it happened, but somehow I slipped away from my mother’s hand. I slipped away from the reassuring sounds of other people and stood, alone in the dark. I was scared, but determined, positive that I could catch up and find my mom. With my hands feeling the way before me, I pressed on.

At some point I entered a room bathed in electric blue. Directly across from me sat a bevy of equipment. Sprouting from the top of one box was something that looked like the rabbit ears we used for our television and a spark traveled between the rods. Starting at the bottom, it raced upwards in a jittery arc, just like in cartoons. It was accompanied by a sound like my neighbor’s bug zapper and a long table was set beside it. Draped by a white sheet, I could see the contours of a bulky man hidden below. Seeming more angular than rounded, this shape called forth images of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein, heavily lidded and plodding forward with outstretched hands.

As I watched, the figure beneath the sheet started to slowly raise, bending at the waist as the legs swung around. The sheet never shifted or slipped, never revealed even the smallest detail of what was hidden under it. And I didn't stick around to find out.

I ran through the darkness with no regard for personal safety, bumping off obscured walls and tripping over my own clumsy feet. Literally and figuratively running blind, dreading the cold touch I expected to grip the back of my neck at any moment.

I ended up in another room, this one pulsing in an orange glow as if from fire. Thick fog crept over the ground and a gnarled tree stood like a leafless skeleton behind a large, black cauldron. The cauldron seemed to glow from within and wisps of steam curled from its top amid the sounds of crackling wood and bubbling goo. A witch hunched over the pot, churning its contents with an inverted broom. Draped in black, her hook-like nose was as bumpy as a pickle and wild tufts of white hair spilled out from beneath her conical hat. She cackled as she stirred, her menacing laugh seeming to slightly echo as one crooked finger pointed at me.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I just gave up. Vaguely aware of a warm stain spreading across my pants, I stood frozen to the spot and cried. There was no shame. There was nothing but the fear and it reigned supreme. Snot bubbled from my nose and my lips quivered as I sobbed; I remember my cheeks feeling warm and wet and the taste of saline dropping into my mouth with bursts of saltiness. The smell of my own urine, hot and acrid. I…just…cried.

The witch ran across the room with her arms reaching toward me and I pressed my hands over my face as I screamed and wailed and yet was still unable to run. Her fingers tried to pry my hands away but I fought with savage shakes of the head, still crying and blubbering and knowing I was going to end up in the bottom of that pot.

At some point the witch somehow managed to calm me down enough to see that the white hair was attached to the hat. I remember her tossing it to the side as she squatted by me and how lustrous, brown hair seemed to appear as if from nowhere. Her black, talon-like fingernails were pulled off one by one. I remember her constantly talking, her monologue generously peppered with repetitions of oh, honey; but I can’t remember exactly what she said. Just the general idea that it was all a costume, make believe and pretend. To drive the point home, she allowed me to rip off her twisted nose.

Once I was calmer the witch stood and took my little hand in hers. She led me through tight corridors of plywood and two-by-fours, dimly lit by strands of bare hanging bulbs. We came to a metal wall and she opened a door and helped me down a series of iron steps. We came out behind the haunted hose, with cables, hoses, and extension cords fanning out like the tentacles of some great beast.

She walked me around to the front and stood with me, holding my hand, as we watched for my mom to step through the exit. When I finally saw her I ran through the lines of departing people, pinging off the aluminum queue barriers like a pinball. I ran into her embrace was never so happy to be held in my mother’s arms as I was that day.

True story.


Robert R. Best, author of All Kinds of Things Kill and the zombie-themed Memorial trilogy, sat down with Six Demon Bag to discuss writing, characters, and why Demon Duct Tape is the best.

Hi Robert and thanks for stopping by 6 Demon Bag. We’ll be kicking off the festivities with our standard opening question, which you can interpret and answer however you please: if you were in possession of a 6 Demon Bag, what would yours contain?

Five demons and a big roll of Demon Duct Tape (tm) to keep them secure. It's pricey, but worth it because of all the sigils etched into the glue.

With that question out of the way, why don’t you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and your work?

Well let's see. Hi. My name is Robert R Best and I write books where horrible things happen to people. My current big project is the Memorial Trilogy, which is a zombie series. The focus is on Angie Land and her two kids. Her tough single-mom-ness and relationship with her kids is at the heart of the three books. But there's also lots of gore and zombie action. The first two books, titled Lakewood Memorial and Ashton Memorial, are available now. Book three, World Memorial ,should be out later this year.

You and I were on an author panel together at a convention back in 2010, which was an awesome experience. In this question, you’ve been invited to sit on a panel at the 6 Demon Bag World Horror Convention and Cupcake Drive. However, it is up to you to hand-pick the authors whom you’d like to share the panel with. Who would your selections be and why? (Also it should be noted that an author doesn’t necessarily have to be alive; a 6 Demon Bag is a powerful and useful tool, after all).

Hmmm. My first pick would be Jack Ketchum. He's a genius of tight,visceral horror that also develops the characters. Second I would like Edward Lee. He is great at describing violence. I always feel unworthy when I read his violent scenes. Third, and here we're going off the reservation a little, would be Kurt Vonnegut. An absolute genius and the single biggest influence on my prose style. Quick and direct. I'm nowhere near as good at it as he was, not even in the same continent, but he's who I'm emulating. Last, and here we're going way off the reservation, is Mary Gaitskill. She's probably most well known for the short story the movie"Secretary" was based on. She's a master a writing people in horrible, sometimes depraved situations but with a real sense of warmth and empathy for her characters. Look for her short story collection"Because They Wanted To" and a novel called "Two Girls Fat and Thin." Both are really good.

And one more I should mention. David Dunwoody. He's the nicest and most clever writer I know. I envy every idea he ever has.

We interrupt this interview with another standard 6 Demon question: There’s a train rocketing through the night with nearly a hundredpeople looking out the windows. The only person actually sitting in their seat is a small child who gazes unwaveringly at the floor. What is going on with these people?

The child has been possessed by a malevolent something-or-other. All the people on the train are thralls to this force and are standing guard. All over the world people have stopped mid-whatever and are staring at nothing. These are thralls also. When the train reaches its destination the destruction will begin. Can they be stopped?

What is the single, most valuable thing you’ve learned about writing and was there a particular experience which really drove this lesson home?

That you can say a lot with very little. A simple detail can say as much about a character as a whole paragraph describing their feelings. And not only that, the simple detail will often be more powerful because it's purer and more concentrated. The more words you use to describe something, the more you're watering it down.

And there was an experience that drove this home. Years ago I was writing a story for a class I was in. And I'd read some advice in abook on non-fiction writing but it’s very valuable. It ran something like this: if there's a word you can cut from a sentence and the sentence still makes sense, cut it. I tried this out on my story before I submitted it and it got a much stronger response than anything I'd written up to that point. So I always keep that idea in mind, even if I don't always live up to it.

Have you ever created a character that you utterly despised? Or do you have a soft spot for all of your characters, regardless of their flaws?

I think I have a soft spot for all of them. Or at least the ones in the novels, because I have more space to develop them. I try to think out why a person has come to this state, and then write from there. And when you do that it's hard not to empathize with them. And I like to share this information with the reader right before a character dies.

If you had to pick one piece that you’ve written to serve as a reader’s "gateway drug" to Robert R. Best, what would it be and why?

I would say Lakewood Memorial. It's the start of my zombie trilogy butit's short, fast and to the point. I tried to focus on the characters and keep the action as lean and fast as possible.

You’re the Dungeon Master and a party of adventurers entering a dimly lit room that flickers in the glow of torch light. Mounds of bones are piled upon the floor and the stench of rotting meat is so thick that it’s even seeped into the stone walls. What would you have the adventurers discover in this room?

A fair maiden who is in peril and needs help. She would beg to come into the party and I would have an elaborate and convincing backstory. And the party takes her in and thinks they've discovered the impetus for the next part of the campaign. Then several rooms later she's revealed to be a monster and attacks the party when their guard is down. She goes for the Mage first.

Okay, I’ve got to ask and tell me the truth. How many times do you introduce yourself only to have some smart-ass reply, "No, that’s wrong … the correct conjugation would be Robert Is Best"?

At least twice but less than a thousand.

Just about done now. However, are there any questions you wish Iwould’ve asked but didn’t? And feel free to provide the answer.

Six. The answer is six.

Okay, I have to go downstairs and yell at the postman for continually putting our mail in the wrong box, despite the fact that it’s clearly numbered. There’s a good chance I’ll receive a healthy dose of pepper spray and may not be back. So it’s up to you to wrap this interview up. Anything at all you want to talk about or promote is fair game;the forum is yours. Ready … GO!

Well, first off let me just say that tacos are awesome. Even a really crappy taco is still tasty, you know? Also, did you know that the wombat was the first animal to travel to space? Probably not, becauseit's not true. But you know what is true? That you can find links toall my stuff on the intertubes at!

Thanks, Mr Rose, for the opportunity to speak to your readers and I hope the postman avoids the eyes.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Place Not So Unkind

Sometimes it scares me how much emotion I have tied up in Bosley and Ocean. Here are these two people who have never existed outside of my own head and yet I feel so connected to them. It’s like this strange friendship where my loyalties are so strongly aligned with them that I hate putting them through the shit I do. I want them to be happy. I want them to have their day in the sun without fear of sudden death. But that’s not really the way their world works. And I can see that world so clearly: the crumbling towers against the horizon, cracked pavement, and the skeletons of burnt out cars left to rust. The piles of rubble and dusty, broken glass. Their world was not designed for the weak or feeble. To survive, you have to be as hard as the chunks of granite lining the sidewalks of dilapidated banks. So I have to basically have to torture these people that I love so fucking dearly.

At the same time, I know where all of this is going, can see their paths and into the future. I know it’s a good place. Or maybe I should say it’s as good as you can get in their world. Yet even so, my heart grows sad when I think of reaching that point. I realize well in advance that the final scene is not going to be easy to write. In all honesty, it will probably be one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. I will be, in essence, saying goodbye.

They’re not bad people. Bosley is this guy faced with choices that no man or woman should ever have to make. Ocean is just this little girl obeying the oldest law on the books: survival of the fittest. And there’s some fucked up shit out there in the Wastelands that they have to survive. Sometimes the staggering rotters are the least of your worries. Driven mad by starvation and fear, these human animals can be just as brutal, viscous, and cold-hearted as the corpses that stalk them. So basically, no matter where you turn, you’re prey. It’s a callused world that doesn’t give a shit about its inhabitants’ safety or well-being. Kind of a primordial, concrete jungle. While working on these books, I strive for a very dark atmosphere. I want the reader to feel the weight of existence on their shoulders, just as Bosley and Ocean do.

Dark thought it may be, in the end it’s actually a story about hope. Even if that hope is just a single ray of sunlight shining through the storm clouds and onto a patch of pristine sand. Sometimes, you just couldn’t ask for anything more….

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Things in the Sky: A True Story

In my twenties I spent a lot of time traveling from our capital city of Charleston to the sleepy little town of Clendenin. There are two main ways to traverse the forty-some miles between these locations, each having its own merits. Route 119 is a winding two lane which follows the Elk River; in places , the hills press right up against the edge of the road and you never know if a rock slide, frightened deer, or a fallen tree might await around that next curve. Despite cutting through a couple of medium sized towns, most of the trip is spent with scattered houses nestled along the river valley zipping by and at night it’s so dark that the stars look like handfuls of glitter blown from the cupped palm of God. It was along this route that I witnessed one of the most beautiful sights my eyes have ever beheld.

It was October and I was on the way home from my future wife’s 21st birthday party, which would have made the year 1992. I’d stayed late into the night and the roads were desolate with no oncoming traffic to blind me with the glare of headlights. The radio was blaring, most likely either Danzig or Suicidal Tendencies given the time frame, and I watched the road scroll by as I made small talk with my passenger.

We’d hit a straight stretch and as we smoked and laughed a bright light streaked over top of the car. Without streetlights or the glow of businesses, we could see it clearly: a fireball so low that the details were imprinted upon my mind, despite the fact that it was gone within a second. The meteor at its core burned like a giant cigarette ember, pulsing orange and red between coral-like patterns of black as sparks shot away from the body, reminding me of my grandfather sharpening a lawnmower blade against his electric grindstone. Tongues of flame licked the velvet blackness of night, flickering and wagging as strands of spiraling brown smoke were left in its wake. And then it was gone, disappearing behind the hills and curves, leaving me to wonder exactly where it had impacted the earth, how far it had traveled, and if I would ever see anything so breathtakingly amazing again.

The other method of getting to Clendenin is I-79 and it is along this interstate that the second topic of this post was observed. Again, it was night, though not quite as late this time; if forced to pull an exact time from memory, I would have to say it was close to midnight. A string of cars followed behind me and the sky was clear. There were no low hanging clouds, no strange atmospheric conditions to account for what I saw that night. I hadn’t been drinking or anything like that; anyone who knows me realizes how very strongly I feel about driving under the influence. Nor was a sleep deprived or bored. Again, I had a passenger in the car with me and he saw it too.

A hill sits just off the Elkview exit of I-79 and as we approached it we saw the lights. Vaguely triangular, they hovered above that hill like the lights of an inverted city seen from a short distance. I remember a sense of depth, of seeing what looked like illuminated columns and rods, smaller "structures" nestled at their bases like little blocks of light, and the way the light was steady and unfaltering. Nothing flashed or twinkled, there were no pulses of brightness or wavering of intensity … and there were no colors. These lights were as steady as white fiber-optics on a massive scale and it was the impression of enormity which truly imprinted upon my mind. This triangular thing dwarfed the hilltop below it with the lights extending beyond the tree-covered base and I immediately changed lanes.

The majority of the cars behind me did the same thing. Like an exodus, we took Exit 9 and drove until we reached a shoulder wide enough to pull over. One by one, car doors flew open as people sprung from their vehicles, and spun around with necks craned skyward. But other hills now blocked the view. I hopped back into my car and made a U-Turn as the other vehicles did the same, each of us merging back onto I-79, this time heading south toward Charleston… the exact opposite of our original destinations.

Again, a string of cars pulled onto the shoulder and we all looked toward the hill where the lights had been. But now they were gone as completely as if they’d never existed and I thought of the camera in my glove box and how badly I wished I would have thought to tell Jamie to grab it when we first saw this thing in the sky. But sometimes a sense of amazement and wonder overpowers reasoning and you’re left with nothing more than a memory. A memory you know a lot of people would never believe.

True story.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Closed Casket Introspective: A True Story

I’ve shared two things that are very important to where I’m going with this. You see, I open my author interviews with the following question: if you were in possession of a Six Demon Bag, what would yours contain? Not all of these posts are simply random blog entries pulled from my life and experiences. I am, in essence, slowly disclosing what’s in my Six Demon Bag. I’ve just been taking the scenic route and laying some groundwork.

The first important thing I shared stemmed from when I experimented with conjuring the Devil. If you’ve been paying attention and reading along you’ll probably remember it. If you haven’t take a moment to go back and read the post. Or not. I’m going to disclose it here anyway, so if you want the Cliff’s Notes version proceed to the next paragraph in an orderly fashion...

The most important part of that particular story was at the end. In fact, I recounted the experience just to make that point. I was convinced, at a young age, that I had inadvertently left a portal between the worlds open. That, in my panic and haste, I had allowed very dark, very evil things to cross over. That, as my High School creative writing teacher would have said, was the "main idea", the nexus around which the entire tale of young Todd versus the Devil revolved. Keep this in mind.

The second important element may have seemed like something I’d just mentioned in passing. An seemingly offhand bit of history that didn’t actually pertain to our night of terror on the riverbank. But my point in sharing that memory wasn’t actually the fear that night instilled. I wanted to show how close my mom’s side of the family had been back them. How intertwined we were in each other’s lives. How much I loved them (and still do). The piece you’ll want to take away from that entry is near the beginning, when I mention a series of unexpected and tragic deaths rocked our family. Keep this in mind as well.

I’m going to let you know ahead of time that for a while chronological order gets a bit scrambled. I know what happened, I know how I felt. Yet time itself seems like this hazy, abstract idea. It’s like all these memories are puzzle pieces adrift in the sea. I can see each piece distinctly, can tell where the pictures bleed into the edges. But I can never quite get them to all fit together, can never make the image whole again no matter how hard I try. Almost thirty years later, I’m just now starting to accept this.

Flashpoint: slushy rain drizzling from a sky as gray and cold as that rocks jutting from the hillside like the exposed bones of some ancient beast. The rain streams down black umbrellas and the resulting hiss sounds a lot like radio static. The pastor's sermon fades in and out, his broadcast too weak to do anything other than hint at words of comfort to those who huddle around him. A prayer, a eulogy, a list of items to pick up at the store once the service has concluded: it could be any of these things… or none. Words are ideas and ideas no more substantial than the fading memory of a dream. In this world, in this particular little corner of the universe, nothing is more concrete, nothing is more real, than the long, black box which glistens in the rain.

"I'm here." he whispers. "It's dark and it's cold and I'm alone. What's really changed? I'm still inside my own little box while the rest of the world looks on from the other side. Only this time, you're the ones crying."

In the distance, I notice three shriveled veterans standing on the hillside. They cradle rifles in their arms like infants; their uniforms seem loose and baggy but they stare straight ahead, as proud and silent as when their bodies actually filled these clothes perfectly. On the ground, like a faithful dog by its master's feet, is a boom box, its shiny metal seeming out of place in this field of drab colors and granite markers.

"They've been there. They've seen what I have. They know."

Around me, I see only familiar faces: grandparents, my mom and sister, various relatives with forgotten names; my cousin with her head buried into my aunt's shoulder, both of their faces puffy with tears yet somehow drained and shrunken at the same time. Where are the people I don't know? Did he have no friends, no coworkers who could take time from their busy schedules to attend? Was there no one here who hadn't at least been glimpsed at family reunions or seen milling around in the background of yellowing photos in my grandmother's hutch?

"I'm still in my own little box…"

We all huddle together: for warmth, for comfort, for a show of solidarity among those left among the living. We huddle together amongs the wreaths and flowers, beneath the umbrellas and the green tent covering the grave. A single unit, yet each of us alone in our own thoughts, memories, and emotions.

This much I know. My uncle watched Lonesome Dove on VHS obsessively over the past two weeks; then he announced to my aunt and cousin that he was going out onto the porch to shoot himself. While they both watched from the kitchen door, he placed the barrel of the shotgun in his mouth and coaxed out its load like a cut-rate whore.

His blood had dripped between the slats of the deck and pooled in a rusty coffee can of nuts and bolts below. Bits of brain and bone were plastered to the side of the trailer and, days later, the buzzing of flies was so loud that it almost seemed as if the sound were vibrating somewhere deep within your head. And that unmistakable stench: a smell almost like a steak dumped in the trash and left to go bad in the August sun.

That much I know.

"And there's so much you don't. So much they won't tell you, so much you'll be left to try to figure out on your own. It's the way of the world and you better get used to it now."

I'm faintly aware that the pastor has concluded the ceremony. One of the old soldiers in the distance bends over, presses the play button on the tape deck, and snaps back to attention. The bugle is familiar, the song instantly recognizable to anyone whose seen a military funeral on TV or the movies. Only someone must have forgotten to put fresh batteries in the player for the notes waver and slur, seeming to drag for a few moments before rushing back to normal tempo only to lose steam again seconds later.

"A fitting soundtrack, don't you think?"

Undaunted, the veterans raise their rifles to their shoulders, ready to carry through with the traditional salute to a fallen brother.

The first of the shots echoes off the hills as my aunt screams, the sound of gunfire penetrating the haze of prescribed relaxants and bringing that terrible morning back into a clear and sharp focus. Three veterans, seven volleys, my aunt covering her ears, her voice raw and piercing as she continues screaming; people stand frozen in time, as if we were all just bit players in some low budget art flick: Closed Casket Introspective… fade to black and scene.

Flashpoint: The room crowded and buzzing with the murmur of fifty hushed conversations all blending into a wordless drone. The air is cool and the scent of flowers overpowering and sweet. Soft strains of organ music play from speakers hidden in the baffling overhead and I am trying to hold back my own tears as I hug my mom, my aunt, my grandmother.

"You've got to be strong." I'm told over and over as people file by. "You've got to be strong for them."

But who will be strong for me, I wonder.

I look toward the front of the room at the five coffins lined in a row. They sit on a raised section of floor, almost like a stage, with soft lights reflecting and glistening on the polished wood. The two largest are on the far left, the remaining three laid out in descending size order: first the powder blue, medium-sized box; next, the smaller tan coffin, and finally the tiny pink one looking so much smaller than any casket has the right to.

I close my eyes for a moment but the images still remain, as if the stinging behind my lids were actually from some sort of magic dust blown in from another realm. It provides me with the ability to see through closed lids, to see through the wood of the coffins, through the liners. I see them all: my aunt and uncle, my three cousins. I see their flesh blackened and twisted, hints of bone contrasting against the charred, hairless skin. In unison, they turn to look at me through hollow sockets and try to reach out to one another but meet only the smooth, silk padding that remains hidden from everyone else. Sometimes, a powerful imagination is a curse…

My eyes snap open, but the image remains like an x-ray seared onto my retinas. They should have put a night light in there for little Jennifer. She was always so afraid of the dark, afraid of what monsters might be hiding in the shadows, waiting for their chance to spring to life. And now it was darker than she had ever known, with no way for Mommy or Daddy to come running when the creatures began their advance.

Perhaps she’d known more than all of us. Perhaps she could steal glances into another place, a world to which anyone above the age of five is no longer privy. Over her three short years, Death had come for her as many times. When she was just a baby, cradled in her mother's arms, crossing a bridge, seemingly asleep but then twisting the way only infants and snared animals can. Her body arching upward and away from my aunt's grasp, tumbling toward the handrail and the gravity of the cold, flowing water so far below… only to be snatched back at the last possible second. Fast-forward almost two years, her chubby little legs practically quivering with the pent-up inertia of their newfound skills. Walking was fun, but running… that was where the true joy lay. She slips through the screen door on my grandparents' porch: no one notices. They continue to smoke and laugh and talk with Sunday lunch still warm in their bellies until the screeching of brakes and blaring of horns mix with the smell of burnt rubber. She straddles the double yellow lines, crying now as relatives dash from the porch amid yells and shouts. She emerged unscathed, thanks to the quick reflexes of the man driving the rusty Dodge, and the monsters slithered back into shadows of the surrounding hills, biding their time.

They finally caught her two weeks before Christmas on a lonely stretch of road miles from the nearest town. They took the form of a man with heavy eyelids and the stench of cheap whiskey surrounding him like a cloud. They slid behind the wheel of a truck jacked up by a lift kit and wove through the back roads and ridges before rolling up and over the station wagon my family were in. The massive tires crushed the doors and windows, flattened the top of the vehicle, and then moved on to compress the gas tank. All it took was one tiny spark, one little ember. They were still alive as the first flames licked at the twisted metal. Still alive as the monsters dissipated into the night like dissolving fog, their work finally done.

Images of them had splashed across the front pages of newspapers statewide and when we left the funeral home to the waiting string of cars with the little flags attached to their hoods, news crews clustered together on the railroad tracks across the road. Their cameras followed us as we filed out the doors, zoomed in as we held on to one another in our cheap suits and dark dresses. The anchormen and women morphed in my mind, their carefully sculpted hair growing coarse and shaggy as noses elongated into snouts lined with razor sharp teeth which gnawed gouges into the bones of pain and suffering.

Later, I would see myself on the nightly news: a lanky teenager with long hair and ill-fitting tie whose overweight aunt leaned against him as they took tiny Geisha-like steps toward the parking lot. Very soon, her husband would be dead as well, finally succumbing to the cancer that had withered his body into the dry husk of a man. And the tall guy with the reddish-brown hair and an almost boyish look to his narrow face? That's my uncle Bobby. You met him on the river bank a few posts back and, if you recall, there's an aneurysm hiding somewhere within the vessels of his brain, waiting to rupture and plunge him into a sleep from which he'll never awaken. But, for now, he's staying close to my grandfather who wobbles forward with his cane.

Like many in this state, the old man was a lifelong coal miner, had delved into the lightless bowels of the planet and cut away chunks of its innards to be hauled back the surface in miniature trains. But it would have its revenge: for, even now, the dust that had swirled in those subterranean passages had begun to stain his lungs and would eventually claim his left eye and sinus passages as its own. The last days of his life would be spent without the benefit of sight and smell; my Grandmother would awaken one morning in the near future with his cool, motionless body pressed against her and then he would descend into the darkness of the earth one final time.

And beneath it all the guilt, the secret belief I’ve never previously confessed to anyone but my wife: you, you, you… you're to blame, messing with forces you never understood, calling to the darkness like a toddler lost in the woods. You brought this, it’s all your fault.

I realize now this was a form of survivor’s guilt. I held myself responsible because it was a way of imposing order onto a chaotic system. In shock and grief, my mind clung to any reason it could find. One some level, part of me needed to believe the span of our lives weren’t really that random. So I assigned responsibility to the only thing I could think of: me conjuring the devil and abandoning the burning candle and mirror.

Entirely irrational for someone who puts so much stock in science, I know. But you have to understand that this felt like Fate had launched a shock and awe campaign against our family. We didn’t have time to really begin coming to terms with the death of one family member before being faced with that of another. Boom Boom Boom. Just like that.

We even had a family discussion around my grandmother’s dinner table one afternoon. They’d moved by then. The house and furnishings were much nicer with a cute little gazebo overlooking the pool in the back yard. Hutches were still present but now they were lined with trophies, certificates, and ribbons my grandfather had won from showing his antique car … porcelain dolls from my grandmother’s collection… framed photos of those we’d lost. So we sat there in the dining room and very softly and very seriously discussed the possibility that our family was cursed.

I was around sixteen or so at that the time and my interests in dark and/or esoteric matters were a well established fact.. I’d studied the writings of Aleister Crowley, was familiar with the tenants of ceremonial magick, and had a working knowledge of voodoo. (in fact, I actually met the love of my life – and future wife – by casting her horoscope in the school cafeteria after our typing teacher had called off drunk again). The bookshelf by my bedside contained translated "Books of the Dead" from both the Egyptian and Tibetan cultures, as well as reference guides to astronomy, the tarot, and alchemy. Severed baby doll heads hung from my ceiling on pieces of twine and an old sewing desk sat in the corner of my bedroom. On the desk was my word processor (this was back when a word processor was a machine, not a program) and reams of paper containing stories of monsters, sacrifice, black magic, vampires, and death.

So I was the defacto "expert" when it came to curses and, as such, all of their questions were directed to me. I gave the facts, shared what I knew about the subject matter. But I never told them them everything. I never hinted at how I truly felt. I simply allowed the guilt to fester inside. If only I’d known then that it would end up poisoning me….

Sadly, this is also a true story.