Slanting My Shadow Into Nico Bell’s Spotlight

Of late, I’ve been sobered by an exceeding sense of privilege:  an abundance of at-home technology which has allowed me, and my children, to remain productive over the course of this uncanny stretch — safety and security are not lost on me, residing in a neighborhood where my family doesn’t have to watch our backs, whether on a walk, or a two-mile jog.  I’m grateful, and should shut up about it.

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In my nascent slouches of attempting to become a published writer, I recall repeating the platitude that I was just happy to be part of the literary conversation.  I’m devoutly aware (whether due to my granted rhythms and windows of fiction manufacturing, or owing to the quality of my product) that there are coteric circles in which I’ll never be included.  I don’t mind, really — I enjoy the writing game too much, and have had too many brushes with luck thus far, to make a nebulous need a priority.

Yet, one of the principles which has not changed, and which I’ll continue to repeat:  that the complicated craft of both pursuing publication and attempting to carve-out a name for oneself in this field yields conversations with colleagues which would remain non-existent if for not the arduous nature of this process.

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nicobellfiction.com

One of the conversations in which I was privileged to recently partake was with horror author Nico Bell, whose debut novel, Food Fright, was released by Unnerving this past March, 2020.  Back in February, I participated in her monthly Spotlight Author Interview.  

We had a brief exchange back in February, and I felt as though I’d made another kindred acquaintance in this creatively crowded field — appreciative for establishing another connection in this complicated network.

Again:  I’m grateful.  I’ll shut up about it.

APOSTLES OF THE WEIRD Premiering at StokerCon, 2020: Update from PS Publishing (03/23/2020)

AOTW, hardcover

Cover Art by John Coulthart, Cover Design by Michael Smith

The following is an update from PS Publishing (announced yesterday, Monday March 23, 2020):

As some of you know, we had planned to launch a dozen or more exciting new titles from a very special bunch of authors to showcase at various events at StokerCon.

Since that is no longer an option, in spite of the sterling efforts of Marie O’Regan, Paul Kane and the rest of the StokerCon organising team, we are still going ahead and releasing the titles we planned to launch.

Furthermore, in the lead up to StokerCon, we had planned to announce the new titles in our weekly newsletters. We have decided to carry on doing so. Thus, every Friday, we will be announcing the pre-order pages for the following titles (including previous newsletters):

Friday 6th March
THE MYSTERIES OF THE FACELESS KING: THE BEST SHORT FICTION BY DARRELL SCHWEITZER VOLUME 1
THE LAST HERETIC: THE BEST SHORT FICTION OF DARRELL SCHWEITZER VOLUME 2
APOSTLES OF THE WEIRD edited by S.T. Joshi
HIS OWN MOST FANTASTIC CREATION edited by S.T. Joshi

Read this newsletter, here: http://ow.ly/AquK50yPMst

Friday 13th March
BEST OF BEST NEW HORROR VOLUME 1 edited by Stephen Jones
BEST OF BEST NEW HORROR VOUME 2 edited by Stephen Jones-Editor
DEAD TROUBLE AND OTHER GHOST STORIES by Aidan Chambers
THE CURSE OF THE FLEERS by Basil Copper

Read this newsletter, here: http://ow.ly/tec150yPMBJ

Friday 20th March
WARTS AND ALL by Mark Morris
THE STORM by Paul Kane
FOREVER KONRAD by Martin Goodman

Read this newsletter, here: http://ow.ly/7DQV50yT3Gh

Friday 27th March
THE COMPANION AND OTHER PHANTASMAGORICAL STORIES VOLUME 1 by Ramsey Campbell
THE RETROSPECTIVE AND OTHER PHANTASMAGORICAL STORIES VOLUME 2 by Ramsey Campbell
RAMSEY CAMPBELL, PROBABLY

Friday 3rd April
STUDIO OF SCREAMS by Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon,
Stephen Volk, Mark Morris and Stephen R. Bissette
ENGLAND’S SCREAMING by Sean Hogan (Electric Dreamhouse Press)

Friday 10th April
WE ALL HEAR STORIES IN THE DARK by Robert Shearman

So, there we have it. We are very disappointed to say the least, but for now we can only remain hopeful. So, please, signup to our free newsletter and spread the word. You can subscribe, here: http://ow.ly/A6sO50yPMDf.

We will also be posting content to our social media pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

But, most importantly, stay safe and look after each other during these uncertain times.

update from PS

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I’m keyed to announce that my short story, “Lisa’s Pieces,” is included in the upcoming Apostles of the Weird anthology.  From PS Publishing:  “The eighteen stories making up Apostles of the Weird demonstrate that weird fiction is a multifaceted genre whose emphasis on fear does not preclude pathos, poignancy, and a brooding rumination on our place in this fragile world.”

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The anthology is edited by S.T. Joshi and will premiere at StokerCon (April 16 – 19, 2020) in Sacrborough, UK.  Here’s the impressive TOC:

Introduction, S.T. Joshi
Sebillia, John Shirley
Come Closer, Gemma Files
Widow’s Walk, Jonathan Thomas
The Walls Are Trembling, Steve Rasnic Tem
Trogs, Nancy Kilpatrick
The Zanies of Sorrow, W. H. Pugmire
This Hollow Thing, Lynda E. Rucker
The Outer Boundary, Michael Washburn
Black Museums, Jason V Brock
The Legend of the One-Armed Brakeman, Michael Aronovitz
Lisa’s Pieces, Clint Smith
Everything Is Good in the Forest, George Edwards Murray
Three Knocks On a Buried Door, Richard Gavin
The Thief of Dreams, Darrell Schweitzer
Axolotl House, Cody Goodfellow
Night Time In the Karoo, Lynne Jamneck
Porson’s Piece, Reggie Oliver
Cave Canem, Stephen Woodworth

Enduring the Indelible: A Review of David Surface’s Collection, TERRIBLE THINGS

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It is quite possible that David Surface has experienced terrible things, but it is just as likely that he has helped, or offered comfort to, those who’ve not only witnessed terrible things, but learned to endure.  “The things we do to each other that seem so big and terrible at the time don’t really matter that much in the end” — this coming from Surface’s unsettling, “Writings Found In a Red Notebook,” a story where names and mere memories are talismans against an inevitable humanitarian deterioration.  “Not sure if that’s supposed to be a comforting thought or something else.”

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While Surface’s work contains an incisive warmth, there is a soberly scientific calculation in his execution (it’s enjoyable observing how he provides predictive codes throughout his pieces).

NightscriptI first confronted one of Surface’s stories five years ago, “The Sound That the World Makes” having appeared in the inaugural installment of C.M. Muller’s annual, autumnal exhibition, Nightscript.  Two years later in 2017, Surface provided “Something You Leave Behind” to the anthology’s third volume.  (Both stories appear in Surface’s collection.) In addition to demonstrating a deft handling of how details are meted out within a narrative, I now notice that the two stories contain thematic double-helices which twine much of Surface’s work — namely, how time affects the fickle nexus of friendship, and the vacillating reciprocity in our more intimate relationships; and while these ordinary topics might certainly be dismissed as too mundane for readers seeking the glee of gore, Surface’s goal, as a craftsman, eclipses gore.  In Surface’s stories, he trades sloppy shock value for an almost Hippocratic ethos to ease the pain incurred by indelible damage.  

n3As for the altering phases of relationships, we can examine a passage from that latter-referenced tale, “Something You Leave Behind,” the action centering on the unsteady union of spouses Janet and Jack.  “[Janet had] noticed it before, but tonight it seemed worse, like he’d aged overnight. For a moment she believed that if she passed him on the street, she wouldn’t recognize him” — this coming as Jack divulges an unexpected confession.  “‘You remember what you said, when I left? You’re not the same man I married.’ He paused and swallowed. ‘Those things I did, when I left. I used to wonder … how could I do that? How could I do those things to you? I tried to think, but there’s nothing there … like it was someone else who did those things.’”  When Janet attempts to alter tack, Jack’s agitation increases. “‘No,’ he said, his voice becoming more urgent. ‘I mean … what if it was?  What if it was someone else?’”  The story reveals then an uneasy revelation.

The varying dynamics along friendships’ timeline also factors heavily into Surface’s fiction — think of more ominous, atmospheric interactions in the vein of The Big Chill.  “Plans change — that was how Jerry put it,” comes a line in “The Sound the World Makes.”  “The important thing, he said, was not to be so attached to your plans for the future that you can’t handle it when a whole different future arrives.”

In “Last Ride of the Night,” Surface captures both the ramifications of shared wounds as he animates his characters quite literally down memory lane, fog-filled as it may be.  “I wanted the shock of contradiction,” his protagonist admits, “to have the flaws and falsehoods in my memory confirmed and held up to my face. I knew what I remembered and I wanted to be wrong.”

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The collection’s title story calls to mind moments from T.E.D. Klein’s, “Petey,” while framing the tale with both an “altered perspective” and an anthropological detachment in the analytical mode of more contemporary writers like Matt Cardin.

Yet it is in the story “Intruders” that distills not only Surface’s skill, but partially telegraphs his literary agenda.  In it, we have a teacher whose young charges are just beginning to confront the unpredictable realities of school-targeted violence.  Surface’s protagonist-teacher (I’ll avoid using the term “educator,” as it both limits and misses the point of what real teachers actually do) demonstrates the growing the claustrophobia of our increasingly violent climate, while delineating the tension of this occupation’s obligations:  the daily responsibility to maintain the safety of the vulnerable; the gravity of potential; and the ramifications of lost opportunity.  What is vigilance?, asks Surface.  What is overreaction? 

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It’s a compliment that the story calls to mind moments from Stephen King’s “Sometimes They Come Back,” though progresses beyond it in its all-embracing sympathies.  “Don’t lie to them,” comes a particularly haunting line from the story. “They’ll know.” It’s an instruction directed at both the students in his narrative and his audience facing the page.  David Surface is, even in his half-truths, being authentic.

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Knowing very little of the man aside from the warmth and intellect reflected in his fiction — and how his aesthetic has affected me — I’ve come to gain a sense that Mr. Surface, as a writer, operates like a war-torn combat medic.  As the thirteen stories in his collection, Terrible Things deftly demonstrates, in the trauma unit of tale-telling, David Surface is unable to supply too many precious answers, rather he provides verbal sutures to the damaged and heart-sick, patching us up the best he can.

terrible things, layout

Intoning Malone:  My Tribute to Jim Powell

As I intend to record my sentiments with a genuine sense of heart-sick accuracy, the following thoughts will likely resonate with haste and, in a damning turn, I’m uncertain I’ll manage to edit these paragraphs in the way they deserve.  Though, to honor my mentor, Jim, I’ll do my best to apply requisite revisions. I’ll do my best to make the time.

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Jim Powell died on Monday January 27, 2020.  He was sixty-nine years old.  (You should read more here.)

One of the most formative discussions I had with Jim took place around 2011, not too long after the birth of my daughter.  I was explaining a clumsy strategy for “making time” time to write, and that some of my tactics had downright devolved into schemes.  Not necessarily lies for the obtainment of creative seclusion, but close enough. Whether political or artistic, Jim had a lot to say about liars and the varying shades of their taxonomic ranking.

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I wrote about Jim Powell last year, just after the release of Only Witness, his collection of short stories which coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Indiana Writers Center— an organization Powell founded in 1979.  That said, I’m not aiming for redundancy. Rather, I’m focusing on celebrating the lessons he’s left me with. Because make no mistake: He’s still teaching.

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I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as a “daydream” (probably more of a delusion at this point in my career), but harbor an optimistic reverie related to a scene in Brian De Palma’s 1987 film, The Untouchables.  (For the record, I’m not particularly enamored with the film.  I’d chalk it up to an overall tonal strangeness—a mishmash dissonance between gangster severity and David Mamet’s commentary on camp.)  

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Despite a few memorable moments, my favorite scene finds Costner’s Eliot Ness in the midst of collecting his crew; he and warhorse Jim Malone (Sean Connery) pursue a “rotten apple” crack-shot at the police academy.  They discover George Stone, the unassuming alias of Giuseppe Petri (Andy Garcia). After Malone intentionally provokes Stone into admitting his identity—“Oh please don’t waste my time with that bullshit,” says Malone—the veteran shoves a clipboard into the rookie’s chest.  Weapons are drawn in an impulsive face-off, and with the silver barrel of a revolver touching his throat, Malone reveals a wry grin.  “Oh I like him.” Jim Malone extends a hand to George Stone. “You just joined the treasury department, son.”

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Jim Powell was the Jim Malone that saved my literary life.  And although I sense that there will never be a grizzled, old-pro to extract me from my vocational low points—that help, essentially, is never coming—the daydream elicits a momentary mental smirk on bad days.  And like many dreams it does, in many ways, sustain me.

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Annual NUVO Arts Guide (2006)

As my understanding of what Jim Powell actually did on IUPUI’s campus (and across the state and insulative Midwest, for that matter) matured as did my sobriety for what the device of writing was actually meant.

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Annual NUVO Arts Guide (2006)

To be clear, I was no crack-shot, and in those early days of trying to understand what it meant to be a student worth his time and attention, Jim adhered to not only a high standard of production, but demonstrated a high standard of reciprocity:  If you worked hard, he’d work just as hard for you—but, damn it, you had to put in the earnest energy.  Don’t waste my time with that bullshit.  As I began to demonstrate more discipline (not just academically and creatively, but personally — the three were, for a short time, parallels), Jim rewarded these bouts of growth with providing not necessarily flimsy encouragements, but something more valuable:  A sense of identity. For me, in those nascent days, Jim Powell’s presence was akin to Jim Malone’s, though with a slight variation: You just joined the English department, son.

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I won’t invest too many lines dwelling on grief (these things often have an unpredictable lag time).  Besides, I can picture Jim bristling at any undue baroqueness, wincing, shaking his head, parted bangs wagging at his temples.  I mean, we’ve been talking about this part of life, in one way or another, for years, no?

During the individualized guided-writing course (a class which occupied over twelve months under the sole guidance of Jim), 

Though a separate essay could be born of memories orbiting the stories Jim assigned for deep reading over the years, one of my fondest is an examination of Kevin Moffett’s “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events.”  Originally appearing in McSweeney’s (2010), the story stages a narrator assessing not only his shortsightedness as both a writer and a son, but how the two might be simultaneously reconciled.  In an orchestrated flex of desperation, the narrator—under the guise of a casual visit—pays his former English professor a visit with the hopes of validating his unproductive state as a writer, using the office as a confessional, of sorts; but the professor isn’t falling for it.  “So what are you pretending to be today?” he says, nonchalantly dissecting the self-serving scheme. “I’m paid to teach students like you how to spoil paper,” the professor says; and when the narrator—unaware of his smug, intellectual preciousness—admits his writing’s hit a dead end, the elder says, “Well, I guess that’s how it goes.  Talent realizes its limitations and gives up while incompetence keeps plugging away until it has a book. I’d take incompetence over talent in a street fight any day of the week.”

I’ve been guilty of this sort of simpering perfection and the desire for artistic verification, but Jim had seen too much, heard too many excuses, dismissed too many half-hearted confessions.  Jim simply wouldn’t allow real writers to take the easy way out.  

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Release party, genesis, 2011

As Jim did with most all aspiring writers under his charge, he helped us break habits that would—both in the moment and, if they committed to the journey—result as artistic hindrances.  Though we are, as fictioneers, liars by creative trade, he would also alert us to untenable bullshit: What was acceptable as art, what was lazy and insolent. 

In 1977, Jim and a band of literary comrades opened a bookstore in Santa Monica, California, called Intellectuals and Liars.  Jim is quoted as saying that they’re “two people you can’t trust”—an apropos description of both writers and poets.

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Photo Courtesy of Karen Kovacik

Chekov comes to mind—more specifically, an excerpt from his story, “The Lady With the Pet Dog”:

He had two lives:  an open one, seen and known by all who needed to know it, full of conventional truth and conventional falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life that on in secret.  And through some strange, perhaps accidental, combination of circumstances, everything that was of interest and importance to him, everything that was essential to him, everything about which he felt sincerely and did not deceive himself, everything that constituted the core of his life was going on concealed from others; while all that was false, the shell in which he hid to cover the truth … went on in the open.  Judging others by himself, he did not believe what he saw, and always fancied that every man led his real, most interesting life under cover of secrecy as under cover of night.

As writers, we reveal ourselves in layers—yes, to our often limited audience, but this is also a mayday of sorts to the larger world.  “The greatest benefit we owe the artist,” George Eliot suggested, “whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies … Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”  When we receive a response to theses cryptic signals, the world’s toothy machinations dull by a few degrees … contract a touch to become, if only for a time, more manageable.  “The secret cannot be kept,” writes poet Jorie Graham, “It wants to cross over, it wants to be a lie.”

At Tintern Abbey right after I made him read the poem with me

Tintern Abbey, Photo Courtesy of Karen Kovacik

And while the lies we tell ourselves are insidious, the lies we tell each other possess the potential for salvation.  

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“Anything worth saying is unsayable,” says the curmudgeonly mentor in Moffett’s story.  “That’s why we tell stories.” In the beginning, I simply wanted to (graceless as it may have been) elbow my way for a place at Jim’s workshop table.  In the middle, I wanted to be a good, literary soldier. And in the end, I somehow arrived at the undeserving luxury of calling him my friend.

Owing to its erratic architecture, the field of artistic creativity is one in which actual mentors are difficult to maintain.  Some of this has to do with the nature of perpetual (and sometimes divergent) growth, which makes kindred alignment difficult to maintain.  Some artists are just selfish assholes who are resistant to investing time to another person’s craft. But I think it’s the notion of emulation (particularly in the formative phases) which is both necessary and deceptive.  

We all require scaffolding to initial mimicry, but we’re often impersonating an aesthetic from a distant proximity.  This becomes, ultimately, limiting. 

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Indians game, 2013

After completing my degree, Jim and I stayed in touch; and while I could cite a number of humorous missives, Jim was less interested in discussing craft than he was in assessing life.  In 2013, shortly before he and his wife, Karen Kovacik (who I’m indebted for introducing me to Isaac Babel thirteen years) trekked to Saugatuck, Michigan for their fifth anniversary. We’d just attended an Indians baseball game with my stepson, Jack.  “And it was great to just hang out with you, and not worry about ‘schooling’ … And I am delighted to think your personal life is quite on track—the most important thing.  I’m sure we’ll come up with some future activities.”

The last message I received from Jim was on January 24, and it was, of course, a note of guidance, directing my attention to Catherine Lucille (C.L.) Moore, a science fiction writer who attended Indiana University in 1929 (she went on to sell her first story to Weird Tales in 1933). 

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Ahead of making plans for his return to Indy, which would have been in close proximity to his birthday on February 19, I asked for Jim’s address down in Fort Myers.  (He’d annually spent the winter months in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and was even working on a novel set in PV around 1916. “And, hey,” he wrote a few years ago, “it’s fine to drink margaritas en la manana here.”)  He’d planned on being back in town around February 28.  “Can’t receive mail here except through rental agent,” he wrote, “and that’s too difficult, so it will have to wait.”

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“Big chill heading down from the north…”

Don’t second guess getting together for that Scotch with an old friend or snag a burger with a buddy.  Resist the urge to assemble an excuse—because you’re too busy—to avoid playing an inane game with a child.  Though the two are braided they are often exclusive, so while there exists the scattered workbench of art, there remains the craft of life.  “I’m happy to think I’ve become my ‘best person’ in the last few years,” Jim said a few months ago. “I take great joy in seeing your happy family.”

No more excuses.  You have to make the time.

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The world, in macro sense, is replete with bad men.  On a smaller, day-to-day scale, our world is filled with feckless men.  Being a writer helps you calibrate your judge of character.  

On my part, I’ll never be able to write like Jim, never be able to imitate his intellectual perception or his knack for subtext; but more importantly, there are other traits I’ll never be able to emulate.  His patience, for instance. His compassion.

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Only Witness Release Party, 2019

Great men die twice, wrote Paul Valéry—once as men and once as great.  And even though he repeatedly warned against the solitary vagaries inevitable to a life dedicated to this craft, Jim—Jim’s guidance—made this existence as a writer, and made the world itself, a little less lonely.

 

A Celebration of the Unsettling: Gordon B. White’s Debut Collection: AS SUMMER’S MASK SLIPS AND OTHER DISRUPTIONS

 

I have it on dependable authority that Gordon B. White maintains a daily regimen of long-hand writing exercises (you might glimpse a mention of this practice by way of some of his social-media posts). It’s a presumption, but I can’t help but consider that this pen-to-paper practice (diurnal journaling not being a unique task for many writers, though possibly an exhaustive disciplinary tactic to civilian sensibilities) has been a galvanizing ingredient in the syllable-by-syllable precision of White’s fiction.
“Writing exercises are maps, not the destination,” writes novelist Bret Anthony Johnston. “They are the keys to the castle, not the castle itself.” As such, Gordon B. White reveals himself as both cartographer and locksmith in his debut collection, As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions.
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A coiling of quality and control, White’s collection houses a reverence for language and style, and showcases a devotion to the expansive spectrum of influence — a fictive continuum ranging from an intellectual, arthouse aesthetic to Creepshow escapism. White flexes enough of a scribbler’s muscle to make the collection, in its aggregate, subtlety instructive — pay attention to not only how he’s crafted the tales, but how (and perhaps his editorial collaborators) have elected to structure the collection.

The first half of the collection is threaded with themes of psychological precariousness and the necrotic logic of religious delusions; we abrade here too glimpses of deteriorative mental states and the gloomy aspects of domestic relationships.

The collection’s opener, “Hair Shirt Drag,” is a brief examination of social-sexual norms and a meditation on ritualized expectation — certainly, for our protagonist, but also for us as participants. A tale riddled with telegraphic pinpricks which act as an accretion for a final incantation: the story’s hue also functions as a reflection for White’s collection itself. “Words don’t mean nothing,” says the tale’s narrator. “It’s only intention that makes things happen.” White, however, is all too aware of the potency of words.

White’s initial acts also bear a sequence of shorter, flash-fiction pieces which successfully play like tonal interludes between stories (“But you were right. The Beast is coming”); likewise, further on readers will find “The Hollow,” a brief piece which works more like a well-defined sketch — a fermenting barm with all the characteristics of a fully-formed story eagerly waiting to be fed.

But by the second half, White quietly gives readers over to a series of more sober stories with an analysis of duality and the significance of altruistic paternality (which I’ll get back to in a few seconds).

Of note is “Open Fight Night at the Dirtbag Casino,” a poignant contemplation on the oxidizing qualities of revenge in the face of forfeited salvation. As short story collections are a useful tool for showcasing an array of creative capabilities, White demonstrates a variety of devices — on display here, a penchant for voice (“believe me, babies”) is shrewdly executed.

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I can’t help but subjectively project the possibility that this tale was borne out of White’s laborious ethos when it comes to his craft. “I don’t have a way to keep track of how many times we’ve done this,” admits the narrator, and it’s interesting, in a macro sense, to wonder at White’s back-to-the-drawing-board awareness — which all writers resignedly confront — as he repeatedly slips on the skin of would-be short-story protagonists. “You’re never the same train hitting the same wall, the same straw on the camel’s back … [y]ou just gotta keep spinning, again and again, to see where it lands.” White’s violent piece concludes with a tenebrous and potent punch.

Opening, on the other hand, with a flurry of fistacuffs, is “Eight Affirmations For the Revolting Body, Confiscated From the Prisoners of Bunk 17.” Bound to a prison camp during an Us-versus-Them global war, the story hits satisfying dystopian notes while narratively balancing on razor-wire between horror and science-fiction. It’s scary and bleak, but closes on a bittersweet “note.”
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But it’s “The Buchanan Boys Ride Again” that breaks the thematic fever of the first half of the book. A sort of salute to 80s horror and stitched with action-comedy quips, my main nit is a lack of clarity in the “creature” component’s explanation, the story, in commendable capacity, suffers from the same symptom as “The Hollow”: the skeletal system clearly urges expansion.
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“The Buchanan Boys” is infused with enjoyable humor, but the underpinning preoccupation is clear and quite touching: the (ostensibly mundane) magnitude of fathers.

And while readers will glean as much in the closing sequences of stories, the collection’s dedication page is succinctly poignant. “For my father James — a teller of tales and gone too soon.” Gone, yes, but White has ensured that the man’s presence, and influential legacy, reverently resonates on our page.
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Aided by a sluicing first-person execution, and imbued with themes of duality, loss, responsibility, the reflective “Birds of Passage” stands as the collection’s closer.  “As I myself grow older, I often think back to that night on the river. About how there’s a world around us, but beyond us, too. A world that takes things, changes them, but sometimes gives them back. All of it — all of it is ripples.”

The catchy cadences of Gordon B. White’s prose serve as stepping stones for readers crossing the pleasantly deceptive arteries of his disquieting narratives. As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions is an impressive exercise in precision, and a celebration of the unsettling.

To My Chums In This “Wretched Slum”

You’ve likely seen the late-night talk show bit before:  Their “man on the street” (read:  charismatic intern or witty sidekick) conducting random, sidewalk interviews, the topics of which your average, at-home viewer would have some knowledge or awareness—elementary-level history…a geographic softball…pop-culture trivia.  The edition I have in mind is a segment on Jimmy Kimmel Live over the past year or so, wherein participants are asked to simply name a book.  Any book.

Yes, yes:  The video has understandably been edited to highlight the more dopey pedestrians, and as a vox-populi viewer, I too chuckle as the participant struggles against the straightjacket restraints of fleeting recollection; but the composition also accentuates a suspicion (and corresponding, inextricable malaise) I’ve harbored for quite some time:  that our audience is not only dwindling, but writers are either fawning on or searching for an unknown audience that is increasingly indifferent.  As such, I have in mind a piece of a passage from Eudora Welty’s 1965 essay, “Words Into Fiction”:

[W]riting fiction, which comes out of life and has the object of showing it, can’t be learned from copying out of books.  Imitation, or what is in any respect secondhand, is precisely what writing is not.  How it is learned can only remain in general—like all else that is personal—an open question; and if ever it’s called settled, or solved, the day of fiction is already over.  The solution will be the last rites at the funeral.  Only the writing of fiction keeps fiction alive.  Regardless of whether or not it is reading that gives writing birth, a society that no longer writes novels is not very likely to read any novels at all.

Aside from my cooking endeavors in culinary school, my life is notably absent of a dossier for having been an academically stellar student.  Yet (along with heavy metal), books—even when I was not consistent about a readerly accumulation of pages in the later phases of adolescence (I was, for a time, deeply steeped in illustration, music, and the absorption of film)—have been a companionable constant; and although I submit the preceding paragraphs with mild irritation, it’s braided with an underpinning humility.  I am, to be grievously commonplace, grateful to have been provided modest quarters from which to communicate my fiction over these past ten years—the fiction being a manifest repercussion of my objective admiration of stories and their creators.

As I’ve consciously navigated these literary tributaries over the course of my adult life, the arteries and thoroughfares have repeatedly led me, and returned me, to horror.  And so before I continue, I’ll supply a name-a-book assist for those pitiful souls on the street.  I’ve even provided some delineation as to the most tangibly formative phases of my life and the books that compelled and indelible alterations to my creative habits:

Phase One (earliest memories):  Instillation

Instillation

Phase Two (elementary and middle-school years):  Dependence

Dependence

Phase Three (adolescence):  Transience-Insolence

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Phase Four (young adult years):  Independence

Independence

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Recently, while conducting a freelance class for client, someone casually asked what I wrote in my spare time.  Across disparate, overlapping discussions within the room, I said, “Horror.”  Mishearing, they (with no small amount of jocular shock) responded, “Porn?”

A hiccup of hesitation—a feeble, straightjacket clamoring for clarification.  I chuckled, this time projecting the word with precision.  Horror.  There was a moment of, perhaps, evident disappointment—as though the prospect of such a salacious avocation were of higher conversational value than the discipline of a genre category like Horror:  “literature’s,” wrote Straub with a fair amount of irony, “wretched slum.”  As the dialogue began to dissipate, I even admit to desperately term-dropping (with no small amount of capitulating shame, mind you) “literary” and “elevated horror,” with the intent of bringing some validating gravitas to my craft.

I’m still uncertain what my writing-product is considered.  I can, subjectively, term it whatever I wish, but it’s ultimately a determination of my audience and my critics.  My goal (sometimes engineered, though often jarringly organic) is to create stories that are braided with difficult-to-define helices.  An example would be something in the narrative and aesthetic effectiveness The Reflecting Skin (1990), not only one of my north-star films but a centrally formative creative compositions.

the-reflecting-skin

Nevertheless, while I continue to dwell on what the hell my thing is, the mere ambition and pursuit of writing for publication has been further complicated this coterie-based designation.  The result is a habit of contrarian withdrawal:  The closer I list toward one designation or another, I sense a shift in not only my personal habits, but also the sites of intrinsic excavation.

In all its chimeric characteristics (and no disrespect to Mario Vargas Llosa), one of the more hackneyed adages is that the discipline of writing is a form of exorcism.  It’s true, of course; but frequently, I’ve unearthed things in my own digging—wandered into curious corners in the catacombs of reflection and appraisal.  I have no regrets, but it does elicit the compulsion of more work:  Self-assigned homework which often compels some ugly calculus.

Which demands not only isolation but profound methods of balance in order for “work” to take place; too, within this self-imposed, though necessary isolation, comes the often self-defeating business of an inner voice that is not always coherent.  “Society is all but rude,” wrote Andrew Marvell, “[t]o this delicious solitude.”  But perhaps it’s more helpful to listen to Hermann Hesse’s hyperaware Harry Haller in Steppenwolf—an awareness that emerges in those who accept “no reality except the one contained within us.  That is why so many people live such an unreal life.  They take the images outside them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself.”

It’s lonely work, in other words.  Work and exertion that demands an unceasing scramble as we seek fecund balance.

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I imagine I have saved quite a bit of loot in my private writing endeavors—those early morning examinations that, I say with no small amount of insolence, go nowhere (when we intuit that they not futile).  More than that, I have come to understand, and be grateful for, the benefit of exchanges with other writers, some of whom often fill in as impromptu therapists.  These dialogues, on occasion, reveal infrequent covetousness that, left undiscussed, bears the potential for a distracting variety of corrosiveness.

I like to believe I’ve held up on my part of this unspoken bargain, offering help where I can, camaraderie where it’s perhaps lacking, all while attempting to maintain meaningful correspondences.  Though distance itself could be considered a drawback, I’ve found that, over the past few years, maintaining a correspondence across “place” has fortified a sense of devotion as the habit plays to counter inconvenience.

One of the more rewarding activities to which has proven a network proclivity is the exchange of books—perhaps a rather mundane activity in the estimation of some, but it has provided a dependable pulse in the isolated landscape of this often solitary discipline.

It was a coincidence that I was reading one of those friend-gifted books at the time of Dennis Etchison’s death.  “Only after the failure of consciousness can the dream come,” Etchison writes in his introduction to Cutting Edge.  “It is at this edge that change takes place.”

cutting edge

In this, Etchison mentions one of Kenneth Patchen’s lines in Sleepers Awake:  “It’s a long way to the morning, but there’s no law against talking in the dark.”

Etchison shares a touching anecdote about a series of correspondences he’d had with Kirby McCauley.  “[McCauley] taught me that I could, after all, survive without altering what I wrote, and that I was not alone on the rock.” / “This book, then is my offering of gratitude to those who have made the fever dream of safe harbor a reality.”

As journalist Anneli Rufus wrote in 2003’s collection of essays, Party Of One, “For loners, friends are all the more essential because in many cases they are our sole conduits to the outside world.  They are channels, filters, valves, rivers from the outback to the sea.  When we find good ones, we pour ourselves into them.”

And it’s in these friendships (casual or continual) that I have found most valuable byproduct over these past ten years of publishing stories—as I continue to shakily navigate daily productivity, my desire or dismissal to adhere to genre labels, my vacillating regard for status—and it’s in these kindred companions that provide the most sober galvanism…a little lantern light in those sinuous, subterranean conduits—some oxygen in the catacombs.