Shiny Shorts: Halloween Reads

We are deep in spooky season folks, and tomorrow is the spookiest day of them all. Just in time for Halloween, I have some recent haunting short fiction to recommend.

The Midnight Host by Gregory Neil Harris published in Fiyah #12: Chains finds brothers Donnie and Koda headed to the middle-of-nowhere North Virginia with their grandmother to visit their Aunt Pearl. One of the first things they notice on arriving at Pearl’s is a line of brick dust surrounding her property, which they mishear as being to keep away ants. The line is actually meant to repel haints, and Pearl sends the boys to the neighboring property to gather more. Next door, they meet Harlowe, who works for Mr. Hammond. He agrees to give them the brick dust, but seems very eager to get them off the property. As Donnie gathers dust, Koda wanders off and accidentally cuts himself on a piece of farm equipment. Harlowe tries to shoo them away again, despite the fact Koda is bleeding, and at that moment Mr. Hammond appears, seemingly solicitous of the boys’ health, offering bandages and cold drinks. That night, the boys return to Mr. Hammond’s property, intending to cut through his field on the way to town. They discover the fields watched over by an unsettling group of scarecrows, and the tobacco being worked by trapped black souls, bound to the land and forced to endlessly work the fields until they pay off an un-payable debt. Because Koda bled on the land, and because they accepted Mr. Hammond’s hospitality, now they are in danger of being bound too.

He scrambled over the fence and hurried to catch up to his brother, studying the nearest scarecrow with distaste. Even in the thin moonlight, there was something wrong with it. It looked too real. This one was a middle-aged white man with an unforgiving expression and pale grey eyes that practically glowed in the dark. A frown was evident above the thick, chest-length beard, and deep lines etched his sunburned face.

Harris effectively creates an atmosphere of tension and a sense of mounting dread. The first appearance of Mr. Hammond positively oozes menace even as he seems to express concern over the boys’ well being. While overtly supernatural and frightening things do occur, the true horror comes from the all-too-real system of “debt” keeping black workers enslaved on the plantation, pushed to the extreme of binding them to the land even after death, making for an unsettling supernatural tale rooted in real-world horror.

Luna Station QuarterlyThe Pet Owner’s Guide to Reptilian Hauntings by Jerica Taylor in Luna Station Quarterly is a bittersweet story with touches of humor. Maggie finds herself haunted by the ghost of her son Jason’s lizard, Howard. Meanwhile her wife, Kiersten, is deployed far away, and Maggie is trying to cope with solo parenting – getting Jason to the bus, and various after-school activities, while keeping herself going and helping her son come to terms with the concept of death.

Maggie immediately blames herself for forgetting something important in Howard’s care and feeding. His heat lamp is still on, but had she forgotten some supplement? It had been a terrible idea to get a new pet right before Kiersten left; animals were her wheelhouse. Maggie hugs her son, wipes his nose and encourages him to head downstairs and eat his cereal while she figures out what to do.

Howard’s ghost turns up in odd places, lurking by the coffeemaker and on top of the refrigerator. The desires of dead lizards, Maggie discovers, are largely unknowable, if Howard wants anything at all. She does her best to do right by the lizard, and even develops a strange fondness for his ghost, despite the inconvenience he adds to her life. Through Howard’s ghost and Maggie’s shifting relationship to him, Taylor explores loneliness, and the stress, guilt, and resentment that can come with solo parenting, parenting in general, or being separated from a loved one no matter how good the reason for their absence. It’s a lovely story that manages to make the idea of a lizard-based haunting sound almost soothing and therapeutic.

The Sloppy Mathematics of Half-Ghosts by Charles Payseur in Strange Horizons is another bittersweet story, but in a wholly different way.

Aboard the ghost ship Nine Lives there are the living, the dead, and a great many cats. And Jourdain, who likes to sleep in the observation nest, body caught somewhere between ship and stars—between everything. He half-sleeps, and half-dreams of a city he can almost taste, smog and sweat and endless endless streets alive with celebration. Then, with a shiver he’s not felt since he was beaten to death behind a theater ten years ago, knowledge crawls up his spine and into his half-conscious mind. “Napoleon is dead,” he whispers.

After that killer opening, Payseur treats readers to a weird (in the best sense of the word) journey that revels in beautiful language, and is suffused with longing. Even the dead, and the half-dead, can dream and desire things, and Napoleon has the power to grant wishes. The Nine Lives sets sail for Heart of the Universe to ferry the Emperor of All Things to his final rest, and perhaps get some of their own wishes seen to along the way. There are swashbuckling fights, and disdainful cats tasked with holding the ship together, and sex that manages to be intimate and tender and passionate despite, or perhaps because, of the lack of fully corporeal bodies involved. Payseur delivers a story that is queer and wistful with prose to leave the reader breathless and feeling like they do have been on an epic journey to the center of the universe and returned changed.

The Skin of a Teenage Boy is Not Alive by Senaa Ahmad from the August issue of Nightmare Magazine makes possession into a game played by bored, rich teenagers. The right kind of kids go to the right kinds of party, where the high school’s demon cult full of beautiful boys and girls invoke demons to possess their classmates.

It happens at one of their houses, a place built like a modern-day cathedral. The kind of hovel that has a saltwater pool with a vanishing edge and a wine cellar with someone’s entire life savings down there and red-glazed tiles cutting swoops into the Los Pueblos skyline. Six-day-old moon, a wide goblin grin from above. The hot strobe of synth-pop booming everywhere. The hazy, electrostatic currents of teenage bodies thrilling with vodka and happiness hormones.

Or rather ,one particular demon is summoned in a seemingly endless cycle to possess the young and stupid, causing them to harm themselves in its attempts to escape. The story moves fluidly through time, giving it a kind of timelessness quality, and Ahmad’s prose creates an almost dream-like feeling, with everything happening at a remove and no real consequences on the line. The style suits the story, underscoring the cyclical nature of demon possession, and also being young and feeling invulnerable. The demon cult kids and their classmates treat possession casually, like a demon is a trendy accessory, or a rite of passage, but they don’t appear to believe in their own mortality, or their ability to hurt those around them. Amhmad perfectly captures a sense of ennui that is frightening in its own right. Against this backdrop, best friends Aisha and Parveen search for a way to fit in, with Parveen acting the part of the perpetual outsider who will never be exactly the right kind of kid, trapped by a set of arbitrary rules that define popularity, just as the demon is trapped. The prose feels like a living thing, flowing and vibrant, carrying the story along and perfectly conveying the party atmosphere as well as the sense of alienation and being adrift, even among supposed friends.

Echoes CoverDeep, Fast, Green by Carole Johnstone from Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories is a standout story in an anthology full of incredible stories. In fact, I highly recommend checking out the whole anthology for nearly 800 pages of Halloween reads. Among so many incredible stories, Johnstone’s is one that keeps coming back to me, haunting me, if you’ll pardon the pun. Pinky lives with her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, and a great uncle who she thinks of as Gramps. Gramps is haunted, and as a result, the rambling old estate they live in is haunted as well, manifesting Gramps’ decades old trauma from his time on the crew of a submarine that sank with most of the crew still on board.

When it’s bad, the lights flicker, dim. Go black. Nothing to do but suffer it. Nothing to see but dark and the red small glows ae fags. Stink squatting over your head. Diesel and smoke and bad hydraulics, old cackleberries and jock roast, shit and sweat. The heat like a morass, sucking you down, drowning you dry.

Pinky is the only one who can calm Gramps when his PTSD manifests, but even she can only do so much. Some traumas are too deeply ingrained, and the only way to dig them out is to relive them by sharing the pain, something both she and Gramps are both reluctant to have him do. Meanwhile, Pinky’s mother and her boyfriend are largely useless, leaving Gramps’ care to Pinky, only interested in inheriting the house when he finally dies. Johnstone takes the idea of a character haunted by his past, and dials it all the way up. The prose is claustrophobic, the sense of the submarine closing in, the feeling of being trapped and drowning palpable. The idea of submarine-as-ghost, and a traumatized character acting as a conduit letting a haunting out into the larger world is a wonderful and terrifying one, and Johnstone handles it perfectly, creating a narrative that is wrenching, heartbreaking, and deeply unsettling all at once.

What are your favorite haunting Halloween reads, recent or otherwise?

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Baltimore Book Festival 2019

I’ll be at the Baltimore Book Festival next weekend. This will be my first year participating on programming, and I’m really looking forward to it. Here’s where I’ll be when. If you’re in the area, stop by and say hi!

Saturday, November 2 at 1 p.m.  Books That Renew My Love of Reading – SFWA Stage – UMS Columbus Center

Lara Elena Donnelly, Andy Duncan, Elektra Hammond, LH Moore, AC Wise

Saturday, November 2 at 5 p.m.  All Fiction in a Day: The Beauty and Brilliance of Commute-Length Reads – SFWA Stage – UMS Columbus Center

Nino Cipri, AT Greenblatt, Barbara Krasnoff, LH Moore, Karlo Yeager Rodriguez, Nibedita Sen, AC Wise

Saturday, November 2 at 7 p.m. With the Lights on It’s Less Dangerous – SFWA Stage – UMS Columbus Center

Nino Cipri, Scott Edelman, Craig Laurence Gidney, Micah Dean Hicks, AC Wise

This year the Book Festival is being combined with Baltimore’s week-long Light City Festival, which sounds really cool. Tons of books, and beautiful lights to read them by. What more could you want? More information about the festival can be found here. Hope to see you there!

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Capclave 2019

October 18-20, I’ll be at Capclave in Rockville, MD. It’s a wonderful book/reading focused con, and while other things do get discussed, the main focus is on literature. I’ll be doing a reading and participating on panels throughout the con. If you’re attending, here’s where you can find me. Stop by and say hi!

Friday – 9 p.m. – Wilson

Author reading. I haven’t 100% decided what I’ll read yet. Maybe two shorter excerpts, or one whole story, depending on my mood. I do know, since it’s 9 p.m. on the first night of the con, I’ll be armed with baked goods and chocolates to lure/bribe folks into hanging out!

Saturday – 11 a.m. – Truman

Genre Elements in Mainstream Work

Beth Brenner, Kelly E. Dwyer (M), Craig L. Gidney, Victoria Janssen, A.C. Wise
We are continually seeing sf/fantasy elements in books not published/labeled as sf/fantasy. Why? How much from a genre is needed before a book moves from mainstream to genre? Or does it depend on the author? Why are mainstream authors stealing from sf/fantasy? Are ghosts (Beloved, Lincoln in the Bardo) no longer considered genre?

Saturday – 1:00 p.m. – Washington Theater

A Matter of Style
T. Eric Bakutis, Sunny Moraine, James Morrow (M), Lawrence M. Schoen, A.C. Wise
Some writers have a poetic flow to their writing, others do not, both work. They can include it from the first word on paper or insert it later. How flashy should your prose be? How can writers prevent the language from hurting the story? Which writers in the field have the most interesting styles?

Saturday – 3:00 p.m. – Washington Theater

Are Novellas Just Very Short Novels?
Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Day Al-Mohamed, Meriah Lysistrata Crawford, Carolyn Ives Gilman, A.C. Wise (M)
Novellas are often defined by what they are not. They are not a short story but not a novel. The Hugo Awards define Novellas as between 17000 and 40,000 words. What, aside from length, make novellas different from novels? Or are they short stories that got out of hand? What happens when a writer expands a novella into a novel? Why has the number of novellas published expanded recently?

Saturday – 7:00 p.m. – Truman

Writing Nonhumans
Panelists:LH Moore, Sunny Moraine, Jamie Todd Rubin, A.C. Wise (M), Karlo Yeager Rodriguez
TBA

Sunday – 2:00 p.m. – Eisenhower

Female Villainy in fiction and Media
Beth Brenner (M), J. L. Gribble, Shahid Mahmud, A.C. Wise
How can SF/Fantasy move beyond hypersexualization, Fem Fatale clichés, and abuse-related motivations and write better binary and non-binary villains. What can readers do to encourage this?

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Homesick: Stories

Homesick CoverThere are certain stories that stick with you long after you finish reading them. Nino Cipri is a master at crafting such stories, and that mastery is on display in their debut collection, Homesick, recently released from Dzanc Books. Last week I posted an interview with Nino, where they discussed the collection and the theme of home that echoes through the stories. Home isn’t always a comforting place, and Cipri captures that perfectly in. In “A Silly Love Story” Jeremy’s closet is haunted, forcing him to share the space that should be a refuge with an entity he doesn’t understand. In “Which Super Little Dead Girl TM Are You?” home is certainly not a safe place. It is the place where one of the girls died, betrayed by those who were supposed to love and protect her; for another, it is a place she is no longer welcome, as evidenced by her parents’ horrified faces when she came back from the dead. In “Dead Air”, Maddie tries to avoid talking about her home completely, until she finally agrees to bring her girlfriend with her for Thanksgiving to meet her mother and the truly unsettling nature of her hometown is revealed. In “She Hides Sometimes”, the protagonist finds pieces of her parents’ house vanishing and shrinking, mirroring her mother’s decaying mind.

Even when home is frightening or unwelcoming, there is still a pull, a compulsion to return, and Cipri captures that perfectly as well. In “The Shape of My Name”, my absolute favorite of their stories (though it’s hard to pick just one), the lure of home and the treachery of it are inextricably bound. Heron, a trans man, returns to his home over and over as he loops through time. Born in the 50s, he jumps forward with his mother to visit their house in the 1980s, then later, travels back to visit his great uncle in the 1920s. As a very young child, Heron remembers a strange visitor arriving at their door one night in the midst of a storm. As a young man, his
mother jumped forward to the furthest point in the future the time machine would allow her to go, abandoning the family. For Heron, home is fraught. It’s where he fished with his dad, talking about his favorite TV shows; it’s where his father later committed suicide. It’s where his mother refused to acknowledge him, and his identity, but where his mother’s distant cousin from the future first encouraged him to introduce himself by whatever name he chose, allowing him to see for the first that gender was something he could choose for himself too. Home is where he goes to recover from his gender affirmation surgery, and the place he goes to confront his mother with his true self, closing the circle by returning as the stranger he remembers coming to the door when he was four years old.

Home is many things, and Cipri explores its facets and complications, its comforts and terrors throughout the collection. The stories range from horror to science fiction, fantasy to surreal slipstream. The majority of the stories are also beautifully queer, some suffused with hope, others touched with sadness, and many blending the two. While the majority of the stories in the collection are reprints, the collection closes out with an original novella (or perhaps a novelette?), centered on three scientists who uncover the remains of an ancient, intelligent, non-human species, who must contend with their troubled relationships with each other, as they sort out their duty to the past.

Overall, it’s a wonderful collection, bringing together many of my favorite of Cipri’s stories. If you’ve never read their work, Homesick is the perfect place to start. If you have read their work, the collection is the perfect opportunity to revisit their stories and immerse yourself in the comforts, and terrors, of home.

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An Interview with Nino Cipri

Nino Cipri was kind enough to drop by today to talk about their debut short fiction collection, Homesick. To start things off, as I usually do, I will make introductions by shamelessly stealing from Nino’s author bio…

Nino Cipri is a queer and trans/nonbinary writer, editor, and educator. They are a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop, and earned their MFA in fiction from the University of Kansas in 2019. A multidisciplinary artist, Nino has written plays, screenplays, and radio features; performed as a dancer, actor, and puppeteer; and worked as a stagehand, bookseller, bike mechanic, and labor organizer. Nino’s 2019 story collection Homesick won the Dzanc Short Fiction Collection Prize, and their novella, Finna – about queer heartbreak, working retail, and wormholes – will be published by Tor.com in 2020.

Homesick CoverWelcome, Nino, and congratulations on your debut collection, and your upcoming novella! Without giving too much away, could you give folks a taste of what kind of stories they’ll find in your collection, and talk a bit about what your novella is about?

Thanks for having me! Homesick contains eight reprints that span the entirety of my writing career, along with a new novella about a group of dysfunctional scientists and activists that discovered an extinct species of weasels with its own writing system. Finna is forthcoming from Tor.com in 2020, and is about two coworkers and recent exes that have to team up to rescue a grandmother who wandered into a wormhole in their homegoods store.

Those both sound amazing! I’m always interested in how authors go about assembling short story collections. How did you approach Homesick in terms of what stories to include, and how you ordered them? Is there a certain overarching theme to the collection, or a way you see certain stories of yours being in dialogue with each other throughout the book?

A lot of my work looks at characters who are searching for connection. That searching and yearning is probably the strongest thread throughout these stories, as well as its opposite idea: that what is most familiar to you is driving you away, towards the unknown. “Home” manifests in different ways throughout the collection, and a lot of these characters are estranged from theirs, or become so over the course of the story.

That said, there’s a lot of variety in the stories in terms of aesthetic, tone, and genre. I used different approaches in the stories, or blended them together in a single story. I guess the dialogue you’re asking about is contained in that variety; “home” can mean a thousand things, and its pull can take all kinds of shapes.

I wanted to ask about one of your stories in particular. Dead Air, published at Nightmare Magazine, is one of my favorites of yours, and one of my favorite stories from last year in general. I love found footage narratives, and I’m impressed with the way you created such an effective atmosphere in your piece using found audio footage. Much of the story is implied through silence and the things the characters don’t say. Did you encounter any challenges with this format, working almost entirely with dialog and being unable to use the usual author tricks of visual and other sensory description to immerse the reader? Did your background in radio and theater play at all into the writing of this story?

That story gave me so much trouble. I originally wrote it to be a radio script, but couldn’t figure out an ending and then sat on it for a couple years. I rewrote it as prose for a workshop, but liked the audio transcript format too much to give it up. There’s something about strict and experimental formats, about the careful construction and trickery of it, that excites my writing brain. I like building my own architecture and then bending it.

But none of that is easy, and it necessitates a really long revision process. I wanted some of the horror to come from what went unsaid and unheard between Maddie and Nita — most of my favorite horror refuses to deliver answers or that a neat resolution in which balance/the status quo is reformed. On the other hand, you can’t scare people if they don’t know what the hell is going on. I ended up re-drafting “Dead Air” three or four times before it was hit the right balance.

On a related note, you had another story in Nightmare in 2017, Which Super Little Dead GirlTM are You? Take Our Quiz and Find Out! that uses a quiz format to tell the story. Do you like to periodically set yourself the challenge of telling stories in non-traditional format, or is it a simply a matter of certain formats being the best way to tell certain stories? Are there other formats you’d like to try out for upcoming projects?

Finna CoverI absolutely love stories told in non-traditional formats. Sometimes it’s because those formats do fit better with the pieces of the story I have; with Super Little Dead Girls, I had characters but no plot, which made a personality quiz format perfect. The genre mashup felt like a good way to comment on some of my least favorite tropes in horror, around the way it treats dead women and children. With “Dead Air,” the format adds layers of meaning and complexity onto the story. Sometimes, though, I just like the challenge. I’ve always written in different kinds of genres and media. I’ve been working for a couple of years on a longer experimental, interactive narrative that’s told through a wiki, and includes maps, multimedia, and talk pages. I’ve had to put it on the backburner while I finish other projects, though.

Your partner, Nibedita Sen, is also an amazing author. Would you, or have you, ever collaborate(d) on a writing project together?

We’ve talked about it, for sure, but have both been too busy to try as of yet. (Unless you count writing fanfic that caters to each other?) One of our pipe dreams is to co-edit an anthology (or multiple anthologies!), particularly of queer and trans horror.

Ooh. I bet you’d put together a fantastic anthology! Switching gears a bit, has your role as an educator teaching fiction and seeing the way students engage with stories changed your own approach to writing at all? Has it changed the way you read stories?

Teaching built on the skills that I learned from workshopping and reviewing fiction; learning to analyze the thematic elements of a story, as well as the skill and craft it took to write it. The main questions I was trying to teach my lit and creative writing students was “what was the author attempting here? did they succeed? how and why?” Teaching did show me that people connect to stories (or don’t) for all kinds of reasons. I knew that intellectually before, but it was reinforced over and over again while teaching. (Hearing a bunch of twenty-year-olds ragging on my favorite stories is very humbling!)

It also gave me an excuse to read outside my usual haunts. One of the stories I assigned to my creative writing class was Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair, which is an amazing historical romance, but not like any of the fiction I usually read. Milan is a master at structuring a relationship-driven story through intertwined character arcs.

Your bio might partially answer this question, but one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?

I’ve been working on and off since I was eleven, so I’ve had a lot of jobs. I’ve worked at pet boarders, a state fair, cafes and restaurants, gas stations, plant nurseries, theaters, mail rooms, bookstores. One of my favorite gigs was as a food columnist for a Chicago culture website; it didn’t pay much, but it comped my meals, and it taught me to write on deadline. Plus, I had leeway to write about pretty much anything related to food.

Probably my weirdest job was as a housecleaner? There was something strangely intimate about being up close and personal with someone’s dirty house, though it wasn’t an intimacy I wanted or enjoyed. I learned that most upper-middle class people have terrible taste in decor, and also how to properly dust a room, which are both very important lessons. (A story in Homesick, “Not an Ocean, but the Sea” is partly based on those experiences, and includes a cameo by my least favorite clients’ vacuum.)

With your collection out, and your novella on the horizon, what else are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?

Those two things are taking up most of my brainspace, along with job-searching. I’m revising a novel that’s based loosely on “Which Super Little Dead Girl Are You?” and trying to figure out what I want my next big writing project to be. In the meantime, I’m writing flash fiction on my patreon and starting up a newsletter, so if you like my writing, those are the best places to consistently find it.

Thanks for stopping by!

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Lost Transmissions

Lost Transmissions CoverI was lucky enough to snag a review copy of Desirina Boskovich’s recently-released Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy and let me tell you what, as soon as I get a coffee table (yes, I swear I’m an adult) this book will be going on it. Physically, it is a beautiful book, with glossy pages full of gorgeous art and striking photographs, and it’s the kind of book that lends itself to browsing, again perfect for a coffee table. One can dip in and out, finding essays of interest, or as I did, read cover to cover and find something fascinating on each page. The wide range of topics  means there’s bound to be something for everyone, even folks who don’t think they like science fiction and fantasy. (I may need to test this theory on my father.)

Lost Transmissions divides itself into broad sections: Literature, Film and Television, Architecture, Art and Design, Music, Fashion, and Fandom and Pop Culture. As the title suggests, the essays delve into some of the lesser-known, infrequently explored, and hidden histories of SFF, for instance touching on films that never made it to the screen, or examining the cross-pollination between seemingly disparate fields like literature, fashion, and architecture. In addition to Boskovich, authors contributing essays to the collection include Christie Yant, Grady Hendrix, Paul Tremblay, Charlie Jane Anders, John Chu, LaShawn M. Wankak, Jeanette Ng, Genevieve Valentine, K.M. Szpara, and many more.

The essays are accessible and engaging. None felt as though they were tossing up barriers of entry, require extensive knowledge of entire canons of SFF for the subject matter to be meaningful. Again, because of the sheer breadth of subjects covered, and because of each author’s particular area of focus within the larger categories, the book offers a pleasing mix of new discoveries and deeper dives into familiar subjects. Or at very least, that was my experience. With the subjects I knew something about, the essays felt like revisiting an old friend. With those I had no knowledge of, it did indeed feel like finding a lost transmission, and uncovering a secret history.

Whether your interest lies in cosmic horror, pulp illustration, Warhammer role playing, the fashion of Alexander McQueen, the architecture of Syd Mead, or the music of Janelle Monae, there is something here for you. By the same token, if none of those appeal to you, or you are venturing a toe into speculative waters for the first time, there’s still a veritable treasure trove to be found. Dive deep, or skim the surface, skipping to points of interest – either way, I highly recommend picking up a copy of this gorgeous book. Hidden history awaits you!

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An Interview with Paul Jessup

Paul Jessup was kind enough to drop by my blog as part of the Apex Blog Tour to chat about his novel Close Your Eyes, among other things. All month long, you can snag Paul’s book, and a myriad of other wonderful Apex titles for 25% off with the discount code SEPTEMBER.

Now, to get things started, I will shamelessly steal from Paul’s author bio in order to make introductions.

Paul Jessup is a critically-acclaimed/award-winning author of strange and slippery fiction. With a career spanning over ten years in the field, he’s had works published in so many magazines he’s lost count and three or four books published in the small press.

Close Your Eyes CoverWelcome, Paul! Since this interview is part of the grand Apex Blog Tour, let’s start with your recent Apex novel Close Your Eyes. I’d describe the book as genre-crossing, or perhaps genre-smashing, combining elements of horror and science fiction, while also being lovely and poetic. How would you describe the work to intrigue those who may not be familiar with it yet?

Well, thank you for those kind words! And I think what you said is pretty tantalizing, as well. I guess in a way I would say that it’s a surreal space opera, that has moments that are horrific but it’s not horror, and moments that are pure and beautiful and right. I would say maybe it’s as if Jodorowosky made a Star Wars tie in novel, with maybe Satoshi Kon creating the character designs along with Moebius? And yet that’s still not quite right, is it? It’s a space opera that destroys its own boundaries, and does a lot of things space opera probably shouldn’t do. In a way, it’s a fairy tale, in the old fashioned sense of the word. Full of surrealism, danger, sex, and terror.

That’s a pretty good way to describe it! Your prose in Close Your Eyes borders on poetry, and the images throughout are incredibly striking – from creepy surrogate doll bodies, to a character whose lover is a supernova. Reading the novel almost feels a bit like lucid (or semi-lucid) dreaming. Given how highly visual the novel is, have you ever pictured it being adapted into a visual medium, and if so, what form would that take – animation, graphic novel, some other form? Do you have a dream collaborator you’d want to work with on said adaptation?

Haha, yes! Of course I have. I actually talked about this for a while with my editor, Jason Sizemore, while he was editing the book. Just the usual game of, if this was a movie, who would you cast, etc. And he said something I thought was perfect, that it should be an anime series. And I really feel like it should, the character designs in my head were heavily influenced by Japanese fashion at the time.

I mentioned some dream collaborators above, with Satoshi Kon being one of them. Sadly, Geiger passed, but his designs for the ships he created in Alien and Dune were a huge influence on the ship designs in the book. I loved that organic, cold, and corpselike feel to it all. As if the dead lived on as machinery, and it felt like the perfect expression for how the ships would look and feel.

Switching gears a bit – in addition to novels, you’re also a prolific short fiction writer. Where do you typically start with your writing – an image, a line, a character, or does it vary from story to story? Do you generally have a sense of where you’re going when you begin, or do you let the story take you where it will and discover it along the way?

I usually have an idea, some strange little idea I toy around with for awhile. I do research, I gather images and thoughts, I read tons of books, look at lots of art, trying to get feel for what this idea could be. And then I get a sharp image and a first sentence and I start writing.

From that point on, I just follow the story, I don’t plan anything at all. Most of the research I’d done before gets thrown out completely, and most of the original idea gets tossed aside. But that’s okay, what’s important to me is getting to that start and then letting the story surprise me. I love being surprised. I guess for me the research point is more for gathering images and thoughts and ideas and shoving them into my subconscious mind, to let it sit there and fester and grow.

And then when I write this festering research from before reaches its tendrils into the story, but it’s changed. It’s different, and far more interesting than it could’ve ever been before.

Most of your fiction tends toward the dark and the weird – what draws you in particular to that flavor of speculative fiction? What are some of your favorite works, or recent favorite reads within the speculative fiction genre, dark or otherwise?

I wish I could say why I’m attracted to such things. I’ve thought about it over and over again, and I guess to me there’s a beauty in that dark weirdness, and I love all kinds of beauty. I think it’s terribly narrowminded to not see the beauty in depression, sadness, and death. To only see the beauty in joy, or in reality as a thing of beauty is limiting the human experience.

And at times, I feel like the human experience is all about observing the beauty in the universe. And that includes the beauty of sorrow, of shadows, of the things that run from the light. I was also raised Catholic in a Catholic household, and my whole childhood was haunted by the images of saints being tortured. They were beautiful images, and the faces always seemed beatific, transcendent, not in pain at all. I would say as an adult that they seemed orgasmic, but as a kid I had no idea what that would be. And I think this kind of childhood twisted my experience on what beauty is, what I could be, and how art has conversations with it.

As for modern writers, I know a ton of great ones! It’s so hard to choose. Selena Chambers’ Calls for Submissions is a fantastic collection, as is Georgina Bruce’s This House of Wounds, and Anya Martin’s Sleeping with the Monster, and Laura Mauro’s Sing Your Sadness Deep, Natania Barron’s Wothwood, Michelle Muenzler’s The Hills of Meat, the Forest of Bone. I also know of one fantastic weird horror novel by an amazing writer (and good friend) that’s stuck in agent hell and not getting traction, but I won’t talk about that one here…since no one could read it yet. But I got to read it, because I’m awesome.

Leaving writing aside for the moment, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?

Working trash cleanup at a Renaissance Festival. I did it for about 8 years, through High School and College. It was definitely an experience, and perfect for my teens and early twenties. Lots of people my age, all living a Bohemian life, wandering about making money with acting and music. Made lots of great friends, and it was a highly fertile artistic experience.

And because I worked trash I got to see the nasty side of things, too. Maggot covered turkey legs, dead cats, drowned animals in the water supply. It’s odd how beautiful that could be in a faux medieval wood, with sunlight dappling on the corpse, lying there with eyes open as if to say, hello.

What’s next for you? What are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?

Working on a big fat novel shaped thing, kind of like a similar approach to epic fantasy that I did with space opera and Close Your Eyes. Though that one is probably at least still a year away from being complete, and who knows if anyone will ever bite on such weirdness to publish it. I have a haunted house novel (about a house haunted by the ghosts of a 60’s suicide cult) that I just finished last year and have shopped around for a bit. As always, writing lots of short stories and articles for places like Strange Horizons and SFWA, as well as local newspapers and other places.

I’m also working on a video game! An old school console style RPG, with big epic plot completely adorned with the usual Jessupian weirdness you’ve come to expect. You play a shadow witch, captured at the start of the game by bone witch who wants to cut your heart out and use it for a spell. You’re in the cage, your desperate to get out, and a voice starts calling out from a box on a table near you…

And then it gets really weird. And yet the gameplay is old school Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy style gameplay, so in that way it’s all very familiar. I’m having fun making the pixel art and writing the weird dialogue and designing the levels.

That sounds like a lot of fun. Thank you for stopping by to chat!

Certainly! Any time. Hope I was half as interesting as my novel.

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Giveaway: Catfish Lullaby

Catfish Lullaby CoverCatfish Lullaby is officially out in the world! I’m very pleased with my weird little story of swamps and monsters, found family, blood family, and fighting back against the darkness. It’s picked up a few nice reviews so far, including Publishers Weekly, where is got a starred review, The Miskatonic Review, which had very kind things to say, and Black Gate Magazine, among other places.

If you haven’t grabbed a copy yet, here’s your chance to win one. All you have to do is tell me a story. Between now and Friday, September 13, 2019, drop a comment below telling me a about your favorite legend. It could be something specific to a certain region, like the Loch Ness Monster, or the Jersey Devil. It could be a new tale from the creepypasta age, like Slender Man. It could be a personal family story, like the time your grandmother saw a ghost, or something that happened to a friend of a friend of a friend, but you swear it’s true. Eerie voices, UFOs, cryptozoolgy, whatever you got, I want to hear it. Give me your odd tales passed around the campfire, your snippets and incidents that grow with retelling into a full-blown legend. (Note – you don’t necessarily have to tell me a full story. You could say your favorite legend is Bigfoot for their fabulous sense of style, and that’s good enough for me!)

At the end of the week, through the magic of random number generation, I’ll pick a winner and send off a signed copy. I can’t wait to hear your stories!

ETA: Thank you to everyone who played along and shared your favorite legends, inexplicable encounters, and creepy stories. The random number generator has declared Hailey the winner. Congratulations!

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An Interview with Alix E. Harrow

Alix E. Harrow was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January, among other things. To get started, I will shamelessly steal from Alix’s author bio in order to make introductions.

Alix E. Harrow is an ex-historian with lots of opinions and excessive library fines, currently living in Kentucky with her husband and their semi-feral children. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards; The Ten Thousand Doors of January is her first novel.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January CoverWelcome, Alix, and congratulations on the publication of The Ten Thousand Doors of January! It’s a wonderful book, and I feel lucky to have gotten a sneak peek at it! For those who haven’t experienced it yet, would you care to give a sense of what it’s about?

Is there any question more terrifying to a writer than “so, what is your book about?” So innocent! So devastating! But the short version is: it’s 1901, and a girl catches a glimpse of another world through a blue door in a field. Ten years later, she and her terrible dog have to find their way back to through the door with nothing but a mysterious book to help them. It’s about family and history, nowheres and somewheres and in-betweens, bad dogs and good friends and the stories we all inherit.

January is a fantastic character, among many fantastic characters (Bad!) in the novel, and her journey through its pages is magical. What came first in terms of inspiration for this story – the character, the setting, the plot, or some combination of all three?

The first two pages have remained more or less unchanged since the very beginning of everything. I wrote them before I had a plot or an outline or anything at all but the image of a young woman watching the sea, writing her own story. Her story started in an overgrown hayfield in western Kentucky and ended somewhere-very-much else. Most of writing this book was just filling in the gap between point A and point B, which I did by jumbling together everything I love most: a book within a book, a father-quest, footnotes, anticolonial sympathies, dogs, true love.

Doors to other worlds are obviously a key part of your novel, and you also wrote about portal fantasies in your beautiful and bittersweet short story “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies.” What draws you to the theme of portal fantasies? Do you have a favorite portal fantasy novel or story? If you a had the opportunity to travel another world, what would your ideal fantasy realm look like, and what means would you use to access it?

So, the thing that attracts me to portal fantasies is that I don’t like them. That’s a lie—I loved Narnia and Wonderland and Peter Pan and Oz as a kid, but I hated each of their endings. Dorothy and Alice waking up; the Pevensies tumbling back through the wardrobe, crown-less; Wendy growing old. They left me with this hollow, haunted feeling—what Neil Gaiman refers to as “a hole in your heart” in The Ocean at the End of the Lane—and I’ve spent more time than I’d really like to think about trying to fill it.

And then in grad school I studied empire through the lens of children’s literature, and realized that portal fantasies were often actually colonial fantasies, imagining chaotic foreign lands that needed civilized white children to take them firmly in hand. And after that I started thinking about turning portal fantasies inside out and backwards—making them about home-going rather than escape, about belonging rather than conquering.

(My ideal fantasy realm is something like Earthsea, where I would tend goats and work women’s magic and no one would ever know my name. Or maybe it’s Hogwarts, where I teach the History of Magic properly. Or maybe it’s Novik’s Wood in Uprooted? Anyway, I live in a house like Howl’s and have doors leading to every realm on different days of the week).

Your novel, and many of your short stories, make use of historical settings. What appeals to you most about writing about the past? When choosing a setting for a story, do you pick a period you’re already familiar with, or one that gives you an excuse to learn something new, or does it all depend on the story? Is there a particular time period you’re more drawn to than others?

What appeals to me about the past is the illusion that I can fully know it. The present feels too complex and ever-changing and vast to ever accurately represent it, while the past feels comfortably finite. The past can be divided into eras and periods; it can be assembled into sixteen-week syllabi; it can be footnoted in Chicago style and peer-reviewed. That’s why I tend to cling nervously to the end of the nineteenth century—it’s what I studied in grad school, and I feel more confident stomping around in it, tossing fairy dust in the corners.

You’re currently based in Kentucky, and I admit it’s an area I don’t know much about. What are some of your favorite places in the area to visit in order to recharge your creative energy and draw inspiration, or places you like to recommend to those visiting for the first time?

Kentucky is beautiful and terrible and broke as hell. I both love it and hate it, several times a day—I suspect lots of people feel that way about the places they’re from.
Here are the places that make me love it:
• Lake Nolin (a dammed river south of Elizabethtown that smells like catfish and sycamores and my entire childhood)
• Red River Gorge (obviously)
• Farm Market (a tienda/tamale place on New Circle Road in Lexington. Last week the owner had a new grandbaby, got emotional, and ended up giving my kids two free pinatas. 10/10 would recommend)
• Noodle Nirvana in Berea (a donut shop by day and a noodle place by night)
• A certain overgrown hayfield just south of Bowling Green (Door not guaranteed)

Here are the places I strongly do not recommend:
• The Creation Museum (obviously)
• The World’s Only Museum of Ventriloquism (due to the obvious haunting)

One of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?

Blueberry raking in Maine. I learned how to keep my shirt tucked in so I didn’t burn the everloving hell out of my lower back; how to play Dutch Blitz; how to jump an ancient VW van; how to fall in love. Every love story I ever write will be that one, I think.

Now that The Ten Thousand Doors of January is out in the world, what’s next for you? What are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?

My next book was pitched as “suffragettes, but witches,” and follows three sisters working to bring witching back into the world. I just handed its primordial first-draft to my agent. By fall of 2020, maybe it will have evolved into an actual, readable book.

It sounds fabulous! Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you for all the work and service you give the SFF community—and your own lovely stories!

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September Shenanigans (and Beyond!)

This fall is going to be a busy one. Catfish Lullaby officially comes out on September 3, and I’m super excited for it to be out in the world! It’s my first foray into longer fiction, and deals with monsters and family – both found and blood – which are two of my favorite things to write and read about. I’ll be posting more about the novella after the official release, and doing a giveaway at some point. I’ll also be participating in several events this fall, many of which will include readings from, and signings of, Catfish Lullaby.

Sunday, September 8 at 2 p.m. the wonderful Anna Kashina and I will be hosting a joint event at Main Point Books in Wayne, PA. We’ll be reading from our work, interviewing each other, and signing copies of our books. We’ll also be providing tasty treats and alcohol. We’d love for you to join us!

Story FestThe last weekend of September, I’ll be participating in the 2019 Saugatuck StoryFest in Westport, CT.  Saturday, September 28 from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. I’ll be part of the Echoes: A Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories panel, along with Stephen Graham Jones, Ellen Datlow, Seanan McGuire, Paul Tremblay, Bracken McLeod, and Rick Bowes. We’ll be talking about our stories, and discussing ghosts in general and why stories about them have such staying power. Following the panel, we’ll be signing copies of the anthology, along with our own work. I understand there’s also some sort of mixer event that evening, and the line-up for StoryFest in general is wonderful. R.L. Stine is the keynote speaker!

October 18-20, I’ll be attending Capclave in Rockville, MD. I’ll be doing a reading on Friday night, and participating on panels on Saturday and Sunday. I’ll put together a separate post with my schedule, but for now, you can see it here, along with all the other wonderful participants. Capclave is a lovely, laid-back con focused on books and reading. If you’ve never been, I highly recommend it.

A Song for a New Day CoverOctober 30 from 6 – 7:30 p.m., I’ll be at the Penn Book Center with the wonderful Sarah Pinsker as part of the All But True reading series. She’ll be talking about her debut novel, A Song for a New Day, I’ll be talking about Catfish Lullaby, and we’ll both be reading and signing and chatting with the audience.

I’m also attending the Baltimore Book Festival from November 1 – 3. TBD whether I’ll be participating on any programming, but even if not, it’s a wonderful festival to wander around and soak in all the literary goodness. The Festival brings together tons of fantastic authors each year, and of course there are always plenty of books for sale. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area!

I’ll update this post as more links and schedule information becomes available, or if any other events pop up. I hope to see you at one of the above-mentioned theres!

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