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.

 

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.

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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.”

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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.

PLUTO IN FURS Anthology: “Behemoth” Claws Its Way Onto the TOC

I was recently notified that my “rough beast” of a short story, “Behemoth,” has been accepted to Scott Dwyer’s upcoming anthology, Pluto In Furs.  The spectrum of the tale pendulums between 1969 and 1987, as my protag, Dox Ingram, a mechanic, is inadvertently compelled to confront a protean horror inextricably braided to a disturbing encounter during his younger years as a soldier in Vietnam.

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“Some Bears,” Rolf Armstrong (PUCK, March 27, 1915)

 

“The title, Pluto In Furs, is obviously a play on Sacher-Masoch’s Venus In Furs,” writes Dwyer. “But whereas his book postulates that the female and the cruel are his objects of a masochistic worship, Pluto In Furs will explore what it means if darkness and the nonhuman are also worthy of masochistic worship.” That said, the anthology will also include some loosely-themed horror tales compassing the surreal, erotica, weird, as well as “quiet” ghost stories. Some authors have announced, while others are keeping their cards close to their chests; but I’ve had a glimpse at some of the imposing contributors, and readers are in for a sinister treat.

UPDATE:  February 5, 2019:  Official Pluto In Furs table of contents announced at The Plutonian:

“An Abysmal Masochism” (An Introduction) by Scott Dwyer
“The Tangible Universe” by Jeffrey Thomas
“The Wolf at the Door or The Music of Antonio Soler” by Devora Gray
“Other Yseut and Romance Tristan” by Adam Golaski
“Dermatology, Eschatology” by Kurt Fawver
“Headsman’s Trust: A Murder Ballad” by Richard Gavin
“It’s Hard to be Me” by John Claude Smith
“The Gutter at the Bottom of the World” by David Peak
“Tender is the Tether” by Rhys Hughes
“With Shining Gifts That Took All Eyes” by Mike Allen
“Stygian Chambers” by Orrin Grey
“Behemoth” by Clint Smith
“Worm Moon” by Gemma Files
“The Silvering” by Thana Niveau
“Walking in Ash” by Brendan Vidito

Dwyer’s aiming for an August, 2019 publication date.  More in due time…

An Unnerving Announcement: DEAD THINGS Redux

I’m elated to announce a recent collaboration with Unnerving and its helmer, Eddie Generous, who’s picked up my novella, When It’s Time For Dead Things To Die, originally published by Dunham’s Manor Press (2015), and has now been updated, expanded, and slated for re-release mid-March, 2019.

DeadThings

For those of you unfamiliar with this story, here’s a synopsis penned by the estimable C.M. Muller:

Things are in decline…for Joseph Lowe, a rootless young man who falls for the wrong girl; for Gregory Bath, an aristocratic magnate who spares Lowe an almost certain death for his ‘transgression,’ imposing upon him a kind of parasitic servitude. Now working as a line cook at Bath’s legendary Tudor Quoin, as well as catering to the growing needs of a man far older than he seems, Lowe desperately seeks release from a trap which has ensnared him for the past nine months. But who could possibly escape a family as powerful, as influential, or as far-reaching as the Baths? In the end, choices must be made, sides must be drawn, and for Lowe this means discovering an unlikely salvation between himself and his captor, as well as learning the true meaning of ‘family.’

From the scintillating mind of Clint Smith, author of Ghouljaw and Other Stories, comes a haunting, poetic novella, equal parts Dracula and Eastern Promises, set in modern-day Indiana but stretching its talons far back into history.

More news on the way; but in the meantime, check out Mr. Generous’s horror and dark fiction projects, submission guidelines, and other numerous upcoming releases over at Unnerving:

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Darkly Didactic: The Lingering Lessons from C.M. Muller’s HIDDEN FOLK


hidden-folk-cover

The ostensible simplicity of a line like, “Look, Dad, a door!” belies a complicated subtext in the story “Absconsa Laterna,” and acts as an unassuming invocation of irretrievable consequence.

Far from his first publication project, but his first fiction collection, many of the “strange stories” in C.M. Muller’s Hidden Folk possess such unpretentious portents, and those who follow Muller through these thresholds will certainly remain haunted and, likely in some way, fundamentally altered.

Muller’s aesthetic is one of calm, sharply-defined surfaces; and though the illustration of a quiet, dawn-dim pond—the scene of an early-morning fishing episode, say—may be a mundane metaphor, it’s serviceable for this assessment.  We read Muller, in part, because of his subdued execution:  beneath the superficiality of that peaceful, reflective epidermis is a dark district inhabited by shadowy entities.  Focusing on the surface yet coaxed by curiosity, we narrow our focus, shift the lenses of our eyeline toward a furtive movement below:  the languid sway of infected kelp…the peek-a-boo retreat of something sinuous…the serpentine flash of scales.

A sense of Muller’s aesthetic is gained after reading the collection’s opener, “Vranger,” but it’s with the conclusion of “The Dust Child” that readers begin to better understand not only Muller’s tonal wheelhouse but his artistic intentions.

d79aa5f091228bf7d492b0dfb04fd936--night-gallery-tv-landMuller comes from a line of writers (I count myself among their motley ranks) influenced and affected by a particular era of the late-1980s and early-90s horror and science fiction; and though not directly affected by it, the 80s produced a variety of fiction which reflected predecessors directly “shaped” by the time-bound structures of, sure, radio shows, but more specifically televised serials—especially Serling’s instructive segments on the Twilight Zone and, later, his morose portraits on The Night Gallery.

prayersSome fantastic commercial short fiction was borne out of that 80s-90s span.  It’s a subjective submission, but I’d point to the work of my personal North Star writers of Charles Grant, Norman Partridge, Ed Gorman; and to tighten my scope and intent here, I’d direct one to, notably, Robert McCammon’s wonderful Blue World and Dan Simmons’s indelible Prayers to Broken Stones.  It’s evident there’s quite a bit of DNA from imparted from these periods (I can’t help but think Muller is sharing a sly wink to Simmons’s “Metastasis”—which was, suitably, converted into a teleplay titled “The Offering” for the early-90s anthology series Monsters—in his presentation of the aforementioned “The Dust Child”).  The result, in Hidden Folk, is a collection showcasing a pleasing circularity.

In “Absconsa Laterna,” Muller constructs a scenario which is a suitable creative-process metaphor for, perhaps, the often aimless and meandering routes we take in order to gain genuine momentum, and as Muller submits, “[W]e were able to witness the slow and often painstaking process by which many artists constructed their fantasies.”  Here, Muller relies on a central topic that I, as a writer, often have trouble navigating:  the “loss” of a child.  And I mean it when I say that I’m still haunted by the nonchalant words of a child, “Look, Dad, a door!”

twice-told-3d-cover (1)“Resurfacing” and “Diary of an Illness” are essentially fraternal twins with dissimilar voices; but something realized in the scenarios is a glimpse at the author behind the barrier of glass; although “Resurfacing” is more potent and reflects some of that signature circularity.  Something else that occurs to me with this story is the reprisal of the doppelgänger device.  Muller is adept at portraying the dimensions of “the shadowed self” (“Krogh’s Remains”)—a motif which certainly telegraphs his forthcoming anthology, Twice-Told:  A Collection of Doubles (set to be released, quite appropriately, on February 2, 2019— 02/02, in case I was too subtle).

“The Church in the Field” captures many of the writer’s eruditic strengths and fiction-rhythmic tendencies, and is perhaps his most artistically didactic.  The story contains a line which might very well sum up this unsettling collection, as Muller’s effectively created “brooding sketches of darkness and hunger.”

My central, critical observations come in the form of my need for more interactive dialogue.  There are too few instances of Folks engaging in spoken interplay; and I find that the exhalation of conversation might dispel the murky mist of ambiguity.  But there is a knowing liberality in Muller’s vagueness, as if gifting his audience with a participatory reciprocity.  You have to want to see what he see; and I think he wants some questions to linger.  “There was nothing more pleasurable,” says one of his narrators, “than patience.”

As a writer, yes, but more so as an editor and scrivner, C.M. Muller is a commendable custodian of the horror medium and its continually forking branches.  Of course, writers are aware (in some cases to a debilitating degree) the nuances of dramaturgical interactions in which we all engage; but it’s a writer’s obligation to infuse their products with abundant gravity so as to, ideally, sufficiently drag the readers beneath the exhibited surface.  In Hidden Folk, Muller has succeeded at both.

And so, my encouragement to curious parities is this:  while I’m loath to surrender my own copy, I’d like you to imagine the rectangle of a dark bookcase, its shelves packed shoulder-to-shoulder with varying, somber volumes of traded tales…I would then gesture toward the slatey spine of Hidden Folk.  “Look,” I’d say to you, removing the object wrapped in overcast, “a door…”

“He who has begun is half done…”

And while Mike and Lawrence and Kevin and Harlen and Cordie watched the satellite pass over, their faces raised in wonder at the bright new age now beginning, Dale watched them, thinking of his friend Duane and seeing things through the words that Duane might have used to describe them…

—Dan Simmons, Summer of Night (1991)

As I’m wont to do on Thanksgiving evening, as dusk draws up on a day dedicated to frantic culinary endeavors, a spectrum of logistics, and general familial demands (I’m grateful for the chaos and chores in all their variegated forms), I also nurture a memory, a narrow moment which had a profound consequences.

DS

That day and date back in November, 2000, represent coordinates of a tectonic shift along what was, at the time, a rather ambitiously listless landscape.  As I, along with many of you, express sentiments of, I also grow preoccupied by a sense of melancholy at closing that crease-covered paperback—a daunting melancholy (The amount of time and attention it must take to be a writer…) which was not wholly unpleasant, as it compelled the dissective questions:  How is it done?…How does this work?…How do you get them to see?

I began studying.  I began dissecting.  I began.  Sapere Aude—Incipe!

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(November, 2017)

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Seventeen years ago this evening, I stole away from an acidic / insipid Thanksgiving-dinner-table conversation, retreating to an isolated, second-story bedroom to read the last eight pages of the Warner Books paperback-version of SUMMER OF NIGHT. I scrutinized / savored the novel’s last lines with the understanding that I’d inadvertently navigated myself toward a craft-creative crossroads…

I’m still trying to figure out what kind of writer I’m supposed to be…

 

An Eloquent Undulation: C.M. Muller’s NIGHTSCRIPT, Vol. 4

N.4

Now in its fourth permutation, C.M. Muller’s Nightscript anthology continues to house — within its slate-scrubbed clapboard, concealed behind murky panes — a series of stories which, due to their strangeness and peculiarity, may have never otherwise discovered a proper home.
A shrewd student of a number of creative mediums, Muller is neither clumsy nor casual in his execution of these annual projects; and it really is a demonstrative exercise in voice and vision — his conjuring, capturing, and making incarnate (from font, to paper, in artwork, in tonality) a singular aesthetic.

Nightscript, IV expectedly contains a number of top-notch stories penned by (as Muller is wont to do) many “unknown” scribblers — this is one of the fantastic aspects of the series, as Muller places emerging names in close proximity with established writers, as is the case in N.IV with appearances by V.H. Leslie (“Sugar Daddy”) and Steve Rasnic Tem (“By the Sea”). I was personally taken with L.S. Johnson’s “A Harvest Fit For Monsters” (a grim and ambiguous tale of war-torn grief); Farah Rose Smith’s “Of Marble and Mud” (a crisply written narrative focusing on the frightening and fragile bond between two sisters); and Mike Weitz’s “Rainheads” (bearing bleak shades of apocalyptic horror).  Joanna Parypinski’s “The Thing In the Trees” is a personal highlight for me—one of the most haunting and deftly-handled tales I’ve encountered for quite some time.

Nightscript alumnus Charles Wilkison (“The Dandelion Disorder”) makes a welcome appearance, as well as Christi Nogle (“Cinnamon to Taste”) and Daniel Braum (“The Monkey Coat”). Resonating, still, for me are the stories “There Has Never Been Anyone Here” by J.T. Glover; “By The Sea” by the aforementioned Mr. Rasnic Tem; and Kirsty Logan’s “My House Is Out Where the Lights End,” which serves as the publication’s breathtaking, closing punctuation.

Another part of Muller’s magic is his sapient strategy in weaving an ambiguous melody in the sequencing of the tales, yielding a unique resonance and eloquent undulation to each installment.
hidden-folk-cover

Nightscript is, of course, an annual celebration of the pleasant melancholies of autumn; but its contents are suitable for any timeframe in which a reader can carve out some solitudinal space, as the well-crafted tales call for your attention and close-reading consideration. More than this, Nightscript is — in Muller’s mental landscape — a vital venue for voices often lost beneath the wind-swept blanket of brittle, burnt-orange leaves — an otherwise unnoticed sibilance existing in the shadowed, foreboding fringes of a rickety-limbed forest.

Recently, Muller announced the forthcoming release of his first collection of tales, Hidden Folk. And if you’d like to get to know a bit more about this writer, editor, and self-described scrivener, check out an interview with Muller conducted by Scott Dwyer over the The Plutonian.