Saturday, April 27, 2013

Thoughts on Pennyweight, my current work in progress

As I mentioned on a social network a while back, I’ve been a harbinger of the apocalypse countless times. In Cry Havoc, we witnessed society beginning to collapse due to a drastic paradigm shift in morality.  In Sex in the Time of Zombies, The Dead & Dying, and The Seven Habits, mankind was under siege by hordes of the walking dead.  In Apocalyptic Organ Grinder our undoing was a doomsday virus released by a religious cult. And that’s not even counting the other ways I’ve wiped out our species in my short stories.

After destroying so many worlds, I find it gratifying to create an entirely new one from the ground up. If all the parallel universes and alternate dimensions which have ever existed can be thought of as a sea, the world of Pennyweight would be the breakers against which its waves crash. As such, flotsam and jetsam often become wedged in the rocky crags; bits and pieces several eras from our own world blend with technologies we have never known, creating a familiar yet alien mosaic of Space-Time.

The world is predominantly Victorian in styles of dress, architecture, and conventions; but there’s also a bit of art deco flair mixed with hints of 1950s America.   It would be common in this universe to hear boogie-woogie renditions of popular songs from our reality scratching and popping through the bell of an electric phonograph. Though the lyrics would be the same, these wouldn’t be cover versions. In the Pennyweight world, for example, Tainted Love would never have been recorded by Soft Cell because they simply don’t exist, falling instead into the capable hands of a husky-voiced chanteuse with a horn section.  The works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christy do exist, however.  The same stories, written by doppelgangers living in an alternate version of our reality.

But then there are other things which wouldn’t quite fit in with our world.  One is a character called The Shadow Wrangler, a creature who pulls himself into existence by pooling the shadows of surrounding objects to mold his form.  Another is a surgically enhanced rat who can speak, thanks to crude speakers implanted in his sides and the tangle of wires sprouting from his brain.

The society these characters live in has electric, but it isn’t generated from fossil fuels or any other method known to us. In this reality, the spirits of the deceased can be trapped in a container known as a Soul Chamber. The soul then produces energy , which is fed through flesh-like cabling. The more dead bodies you have access to, the more energy you can produce.  And the more energy you can produce, the more rich and powerful you become.  The wealthiest families of this world are the ones with the oldest bloodlines  They possess sprawling, subterranean crypts and have access to generations who traded in the promise of an afterlife for the prestige of the family name. Author Michael S Gardner once suggested the phrase “soulpunk” to describe this aspect of the world and I that term works just as well as any other.

I really do think this is my most imaginative work to date and it feels good to return to it after being away so long. I tend to think of the book as a dark, psychosexual fairytale for adults. There are hints of horror, specifically in the delusions of a heroine who suffers from psychotic breaks (which she refers to as The Dream of Blood).  However there’s also a touch of dark fantasy and science fiction, making this a difficult work to pin down into one particular genre. But that is perfectly fine by me and is probably why it’s so much fun to play around with.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Finding My Voice

In my early twenties, I got serious about finding my own voice as an author. Until this point, I’d been a fairly decent writer for my age, consistently representing my schools in various writing competitions and poems published in a couple of anthologies; but my work, I soon realized, was derivative. The vast majority of my short stories were set in the fictional town of Holly Meadow (much like Stephen King did with Castle Rock) and one of the novels I’d written in my teens was basically a Dean R. Koontz clone. I was most pleased with Children of the Damned, a novel I’d written at seventeen which was basically a love story about two kids mixed up with a cult that prohibited any type of true affection, eschewing love and tenderness for wild orgies led by their high priestess. At the time, I felt Children of the Damned was the most original thing I’d written and wanted to continue exploring worlds that were entirely mine.

It wasn’t an easy process. I’d bang out a short story on my trusty typewriter and, still riding high on the euphoria that accompanies a good writing jag, feel that I’d truly nailed it. The manuscript would be placed in a drawer for a week or two to mellow and when I came back to it with a little objective distance my heart sank. I’d see Lovecraft peering through the veil of words or find Ramsey Campbell hiding within the pages. Clive Barker, Graham Masterson, Edgar Allen Poe: all of my favorite authors at the time met me again and again as my frustration levels grew.

By the time I was old enough to legally drink, I knew I’d have to try something drastic. I’d sold my first published short story to a monthly magazine called Twisted Nipples, but the excitement this should have brought was tarnished. It was a standard vampire tale, hints of Poppy Z. Brite blending with Brahm Stoker and Anne Rice. While I liked the story, I wasn’t in love with it.  It had netted me a ten dollar check, sure… but I secretly felt more like a gigolo than an artist.

My solution came to me in a rather roundabout way. I’d spent the day drinking Wild Turkey and staggering through the streets of Charleston with Timmy, a long-haired delinquent and brother of a girl I’d dated in high school for a while. Somehow we’d ended up in the cool shade beneath the Washington Street bridge. Not content with the rock-lined banks, we’d climbed a ladder leading up to a catwalk that maintenance workers used to inspect the underside of the bridge. Half way across we dangled our legs over the edge, sixty feet or so above the murky, emerald waters, and passed the bottle back and forth while traffic rumbled overhead.

“I gotta take a piss.” Timmy announced as he fumbled to his feet. As he unzipped his fly, we heard a boat trolling up the river. I suspect it was a no wake zone because the yellow speedboat was creeping along, just fast enough to keep the current from stealing its forward momentum. Timmy started giggling and had the twinkle in his eyes which usually preceded a bad idea as he glanced at me and said, “Hey man, check this out.”

His sense of timing was impeccable considering how drunk we were at this point. He held his flow until the boat was close enough that we could see the sunglasses of the man behind the wheel; then he voided his bladder in a long ribbon of yellow liquid which rained down upon the unsuspecting boater. I immediately leapt to my feet and started hightailing it out of there, knowing that as soon as the man figured out what had happened the cops would be on their way. Shimmying down the ladder, I called Timmy every dirty name I knew as I berated him for being such a childish ass.

This, of course, didn’t settle well with him. He’d always had an anger management issue and all merriment vanished from his face as he snarled and took off after me. We ended up scuffling on the riverbank, rolling through the dirt and banging off rocks amid mutual curses and grunts. Timmy was far better in a fight than me, but alcohol numbed the force of his punches as I took his blows and landed a few of my own. A wailing siren on Pennsylvania Avenue brought the tussle to an end and we ran along the riverbank, splitting off in separate directions to maximize the chances of getting away.

The next evening I was sore and bruised but ready to write. My old typewriter had been retired in favor of a word processor I’d picked up from a pawn shop. It was the same dimensions as a medium-sized gift box with a slot on the side to accept 3.5 inch floppies. The black screen was protected behind a pane of glass and glowing, green letters appeared as I typed on a keyboard that was tethered to the contraption by what looked suspiciously like the coiled cord of a telephone handset. After several false starts, I pushed the keyboard away and leaned forward on my desk. My left elbow had a particularly nasty scrape that flared with pain as I put weight on it, leading me to wonder exactly why I still associated with Timmy in the first place.

Because he’s an interesting character, was my immediate response to what I’d assumed to be a rhetorical question.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized he really was an interesting character. The events which had played out beneath the bridge would make an excellent scene in a larger work, I thought. There was only one problem: it wasn’t horror.

Something inside me clicked. I’d been struggling for years to find my own distinctive style in a genre I hungrily devoured. I owned more books than furniture; my collection had outgrown my shelves and now climbed the walls in precariously balanced stacks. About ninety percent of these volumes were in the horror genre. A lot were forgettable novels with stock characters and predictable plots.  But there were also some real gems in my collection, works which left me in awe of the men and women who’d created them. I knew I wasn’t purposefully trying to copy their styles, yet I saw it creep into my writing over and over which lead me to suspect it was happening on a subconscious level. These authors represented who I wanted to be and what I wanted to accomplish… it stood to reason that my mind might attempt to emulate them. They were, after all, my heroes.

The conclusion I came to was that to find my own personal style, maybe I should work for a while outside the genre I was most comfortable in. Free from the influence of my idols, I would be forcing myself to stand on my own two feet. I initially thought I’d dabble in science fiction, but then realized I’d be running into the same problem. I’d been introduced to William Gibson in my senior year of high school and the pedestal I placed him upon was even higher than most of the horror authors I admired. I had zero interest in reading fantasy and even less in penning it. And there was no way I was going to write bodice-bursting romances. So what I ended up writing were stories that were genre-free.

One of them involved a dirt poor couple in backwoods West Virginia whose young daughter desperately needed a medical procedure they weren’t able to afford. They’d sold everything of value they possessed and set up collection jars in stores and restaurants but still were nowhere near the amount they needed. With the girl’s health failing rapidly, the couple made the most difficult decision of their lives. They agreed that the wife would voluntarily be sold into white slavery. She traded in her freedom and dignity and her husband traded the only woman he’d ever loved so that their daughter might live.

Another story from this period was Hiram’s Moose and was one of my personal favorites at the time. I’d heard a news story on NPR about moose who (through a freak accident of genetics) had their antlers grow into their skulls instead of out.  It was rare, but it did happen. The part which intrigued me the most was what this did to the animals. The pressure applied upon their brains made them pick a direction and simply start walking. They didn’t sleep, they didn’t stop to eat or drink… they just kept going in a beeline regardless of what got in the way.

Hiram’s Moose was about an old man who’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after his wife of fifty years had passed away. All of his friends were dead, his children never bothered to call or come around, and he spent his days staring blankly at the walls in a silent house, awaiting death.  One day he read an article in the local paper about a moose like the ones I described which had wandered through town and caused an uproar.  His imagination was captured by this massive beast who’d simply walk in a straight line until it dropped over dead. He pulled out a map and ruler and traced the animal’s trajectory with a pencil. Using the paper’s estimate of how quickly the moose walked, he then calculated how many miles the animal would travel and had a ballpark figure of when he would be able to intercept it.

Though the weather was freezing and his arthritis flared painfully, he dusted off his old camping gear and set up the tent on the shore of a lake. There he waited, realizing there would be a margin of error in his calculations. Snow began to fall and he stoked his campfire, forcing himself to stay awake until the moose finally emerged from the dark forest. As it passed, he held his hand out, trailing his fingers over the coarse fur and feeling a ribcage defined by malnutrition. The moose walked into the icy waters of the lake and kept walking until it disappeared beneath the depths with the old man trailing close behind.

My experiment seemed to have worked. The stories I was writing were undeniably mine and for the first time in ages I felt like a real writer. I fully expected to take what I’d learned from this experience and apply it to the horror genre. What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that I was about to enter a period where I wouldn’t write a single line of fiction. And that period would last for nearly fifteen years.

But that’s a story for another time.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Drugs Give You Superpowers? WTF???

A common complaint I hear concerning The Seven Habits is that Bosley’s ability to travel through time implies that drugs give you superpowers.   The first time I heard this, I was a little shocked. It never occurred to me that Bosley’s portion of the story would be interpreted that way.  Mainly due to that fact that I never saw his travels as a superpower, or even any type of “gift” for that matter.   Being pulled through the Eye of Aeons, as I saw it, was a curse if anything.

To begin with, the process is extremely painful. Chills race through Bosley’s body despite the sheen of sweat glistening on his skin and he’s wracked with waves of nausea while simultaneously feeling as though he’s starving. Within seconds, the true pain hits. Bosley describes it as feeling like millions of tiny fangs ripping and shredding nerve endings that have been exposed after the skin has been peeled away with a paring knife. So it’s not exactly a pleasant experience.

On top of this, these travels have done a real number on his mind. Since time no longer exists as something linear, the man is never entirely sure what has already happened and what is yet to come. Past, present, and future are one, big, messy blob. He says he thinks this is because the human mind wasn’t made to simultaneously exist in multiple planes of existence, which sounds about right.

But it’s not just how the Eye of Aeons affects his memory; he’s also been thrown into a world of moral quandaries.  One of the reoccurring themes is the ambiguous nature of morality and in Bosley’s tale he struggles with concepts of right and wrong constantly.  He’s forced to reassess every notion he’s ever held about right and wrong, to find justifications for things he never would have done before that Eye opened.  And it drains him. He even states a time or two that he’s wished it never would have happened to him, that he could be just an ordinary guy doing ordinary things. Since he can’t control these travels, however, that choice is no longer his to make.

The true superpower in the book, I think, is the transformative power of love. Bosley is a very self-centered person. He’s politically incorrect, vulgar, abrasive, and arrogant.  Nothing else is as important as his own inner world. Even his search for enlightenment is fueled by self-serving interests; as he says in one scene, he is trying to rebuild his ego from the ground up so he can have everything he’s always wanted, but was too afraid to ask for.

This changes when he’s set down in Ocean’s consciousness and literally walks in her shoes. For perhaps the first time in his life, he’s really able to understand and share the feelings of another.  Unfettered by sexual attraction or thoughts of romance, his love for this young girl is simple and pure. He only wants what’s best for her, to protect her from a lifetime of suffering, fear, and heartbreak.  There’s absolutely nothing in it for him, no ulterior motives or personal rewards. And yet he completely alters the course of his life in an attempt to help her.  He becomes selfless.

Do drugs give you superpowers? I think not. Compassion and empathy, on the other hand….

Friday, April 19, 2013

Welcome To Hell

I am pleased to announce the launch of a new project, a post-apocalyptic web serial entitled Welcome To Hell.  The plot is unfolding as I write each chapter, so it's still a little early to say exactly where the story is going; however, I can promise that it will be a dark and gritty tale of survival set in a world gone to hell.   They'll be no zombies in this one as I don't feel the story needs them... the human species can be monstrous enough when their backs are against the wall.

Chapter One has already been posted and the second chapter will be up soon.

Follow the link below, check out the page, and make sure to follow it so you'll be the first to know when a new installment has been uploaded.  While you're at it, also feel free to share the page on Facebook, Google+, StumbleUpon.... whatever social media site you prefer.  Any and all help with getting the word out is appreciated.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Brief Memories of The Roxy & What's Wrong With Hollywood Today

I used to love going to the movies. The small town closest to the even smaller town I grew up in had an old, one-screen theater called The Roxy. Tickets to the shows were around a buck and for a couple dollars more you could load up on hot, buttered popcorn, cold cola, and gooey Milk Duds. The seats were ancient and barely had any stuffing left. You could feel each and every spring hidden within the vinyl; they pressed into your spine and ass like some medieval torture device and your knees were practically pinned to the row in front of you, ensuring you couldn’t escape. The floors were always sticky, the draped walls with their art deco sconces smelled musty, and sometimes rats scurried through the aisles, scavenging popcorn. But none of that mattered once the lights dimmed and the screen turned that particular shade of blue, letting you know the previews were about to roll.

If there was a movie I really wanted to see – Poltergeist or The Last Starfighter, for example –the week passed excruciatingly slowly. But it was always worth it. I went to the Friday evening showing of Fright Night and loved it so much I was back in line Saturday. And again on Sunday. When E.T hit town, the lines stretched down the block, rounded the corner, and made it almost to the public library. When I was very young, my aunt Connie, my sister, and I all went to see a mummy movie called The Awakening; after the show, while my sister was brushing her teeth before bed, I crept into her room and scurried beneath her bed. I waited just long enough to know that she hadn’t went to sleep yet and slowly raised my hand up over the mattress. Lorrie screamed so loudly my parents probably thought she was being murdered. They came thundering through the house and even though I knew I was in big trouble for scaring my sister, I laughed so hard that I was doubled over and rolling on her floor. Good memories (at least, for me… Lorrie might claim otherwise).

I still love movies, but the theater experience has changed. It’s not the same anymore. And I don’t think it’s simply because I’m older now. For that was the real power of movies: reawakening the child-like wonder and amazement in all of us, no matter what our age. This is a topic I’ve put quite a bit of thought into and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are at least three basic things wrong with the film industry today.

The Bar Has Been Raised Too High

A lot of money is funneled into film production these days, which means movies need a strong showing at the box office to simply break even. No one likes going into the red, investors doubly so. So the pressure is high for every big budget release to be a blockbuster. As a result of this, studios have become skittish. Wary of taking a chance on anything fresh or original, they stick with formulas in an attempt to cash in on an existing fan base or lure people to the theaters with nostalgia. So we’re bombarded with prequels, sequels, remakes, reboots, re-imaginings , and silver screen treatments of boob tube classics. To add even more pressure, people have to be selective with what they see. For a family, a night at the movies, including snacks, can run close to a hundred dollars. If I’m shelling out as much as they charge for a ticket and popcorn, it has to be something I really want to see on the big screen. It has to be worthy of being larger than life. And there’s very few films lately which fit that bill.

The Stars Have Lost Their Twinkle

Don’t get me wrong: I know we live in a celebrity obsessed society. How could I not? But it’s different now. Actors were originally called “stars” because they were elevated so high above everyone else. They had a distant, unobtainable quality to them, like American royalty, and people would flock to a film for nothing more than the names on the poster. The obsession with fame, however, has changed. Now, we can tune in every week to watch a so-called reality show about the ins and outs of a celebrity’s daily life. We get tweets, status updates, and paparazzi reports covering the most inane details. If Brad Pitt farts as he’s leaving a restaurant in Greece, the entire world knows about it within minutes. Movie stars are stripped bare for all to see, relegating their once lofty heights and showing them for what they truly are… ordinary people, just like you and me.

The Magic Is Gone

We’ve all heard the phrase “the magic of Hollywood” and know exactly what it means… but is it truly still there? With the advent of DVDs, the film-loving public has been inundated with bonus content and special features. We are told in great detail how stunts and effects are accomplished. We learn all the little tricks of the trade, incorporating industry jargon such as green screen into our everyday language. This is akin to a magician sawing a woman in half and then inviting the audience to stick around after the show so he can explain how the illusion was accomplished.. Which also violates the first rule of the magician’s code: never real your secrets. Even worse, sometimes this “bonus content” is released before the film even hits theaters, being shown as television specials in an attempt to create marketing buzz. In this situation, we’re being told how the trick works before we’ve even had a chance to scratch our heads and try to figure it out for ourselves. Which, in my humble opinion, diminishes that child-like wonder and amazement even more.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Thoughts on Apocalyptic Organ Grinder

With the release of the Hydra edition of Apocalyptic Organ Grinder coming up, I've had my head in that world quite a bit lately. For me, it’s an intriguing place to be. I like the way the crumbling skylines of Old World cities rise above the forests, the abandoned buildings overtaken by unchecked growth. I like the history this world has, the traditions and customs that have sprung up over a century and a half.  I’m fascinated by the burgeoning settlements and tribal villages hidden within the wilderness.  The new edition allows me to explore this world in a little more detail and it's also got me thinking about another book. Not so much a sequel as an exploration of characters who were referenced in Organ Grinder but whom we never actually met. But, as usual, I digress. This post wasn't meant to be about a planned future book, but the one which already exists.  So without further ado, here are a few random thoughts concerning the novella. 

The Gabriel Virus:  In the book, the Gabriel Virus is released upon an unsuspecting world by a cult hell bent on ushering in Armageddon.  One of the symptoms of the virus is that it causes large, pus-filled blisters to form on the skin of the afflicted. If the blister ruptures, new blisters will form anywhere the pus touches (which is another way the disease is transmitted).  This symptom was inspired by a chemical called CET. When I was 19, I worked in a chemical plant which produced the stuff.  It started as a foul-smelling concoction we brewed in reactors until it became a slurry; next we ran it through a centrifuge to extract the liquid and used a scraper to turn the remaining solids into a powder which was then loaded into drums for shipping.  Every part of this process was dangerous.   If the liquids got on you, you got softball-sized blisters filled with noxious pus which would then cause other blisters to form if there was any seepage. During centrifuging, gasses would escape if you opened the sight glass and those gasses would also cause the blisters.  And yes, the final powder form would cause blisters as well.  The shit was hard as hell to contain; even operators who had nothing to do with the production of CET started getting these blisters, causing management to take increasingly drastic control measures. By the time I left the job, a special room housed the centrifuge and we were required to wear what we referred to as "marshmallow suits", which were the exact same things the CDC uses when working with Level IV pathogens.  Before leaving the room, a mixture of water and bleach rained down upon us while another coworker scrubbed our entire bodies with a long handled broom. The suits never left the enclosed production area… and yet other workers continued getting the burns.

Tanner’s Sweeper Uniform:  While patrolling the areas around his settlement for the infectious carriers of the Gabriel Virus (derogatorily known as Spewers), Tanner Kline has to take precautions to make sure he’s not infected.  He wears a Tyvek suit with duct tape sealing the gaps between his gloves and boots. This was also inspired by my chemical plant days.  Before going to the marshmallow suits, this was our standard attire for working with CET.  The only difference is that Tanner wears a particle mask, whereas we were required to don full-face respirators.  Which, of course, means that I could often be found walking around and breathing super heavily while humming The Imperial March from Star Wars.

Lila:  In the novella, Lila is a huntress for The Tribe of Clay (or, as Tanner would say,  a Spewer). She is strong and brave, honors the traditions of her people, and lives as one with nature.  However, her heart simmers with hatred of the Clearskins (a derogatory name for the Settlers), which also makes her extremely volatile.  She was partly inspired by my all-time favorite Doctor Who companion, Leela, and her name is a vague homage to that character.  The spear Lila carries is adorned by a serpent coiled around the shaft.  This came from my days as a practicing pagan. I’d made a ceremonial pipe from a length of bamboo and Fimo and decorated it with a clay snake coiled around the stem.

The Title: I like the title for this book because (like The Dead & Dying), it has dual meanings.  On the one hand, the organ grinder can be thought of as a machine which chews up human organs and spits them out as something entirely unrecognizable from what it started out as. This is shown in Tanner’s surreal nightmare sequence when he sees hearts, lungs, pancreas, and kidneys falling into a meat grinder. However, there’s also the more traditional definition of "organ grinder": someone who plays a barrel organ. The barrel organ has a pre-programmed song which is played when the grinder turns a crank.  In my mind, both Lila and Tanner are barrel organs and the society they live in is, in fact, the grinder. Their actions and reactions are dictated by societal fears and prejudices, which is their "song".  As events symbolically turn the crank faster, the tempo increases until it reaches the final crescendo.  

Oral History:  The novella begins with a fairy tale Settlers tell their children, explaining how the world as we know it came to an end.  Originally, I had no other oral history sections planned.  But as I worked on the tale, I realized it was important to provide some backstory which would further explain why these two societies had such fear and mistrust of one another.  To maintain a balanced perspective, I chose to have half of the history related by the Settlers and the other half from the Spewers’ point of view.  My wife, son, and I used to live way out in the middle of nowhere; it was a twenty minute drive to the nearest paved road and even further to the closest town.  We lived with my mom, stepdad, and younger siblings in an old farmhouse which had been converted into a duplex.  At night we’d sometimes sit around a bonfire, listening to Native American lore from a CD my parents owned.  It was these experiences which led to the cadence and style of the Spewers’ oral tales.

On sale June 17, 2013 or pre-order now