I’m pleased to announce that issue #34 of the respected UK-based horror magazine Black Static includes Peter Tennant’s extremely positive review of Children of No One.
Mr. Tennant writes:
The review goes on for several paragraphs, and is part of a series of reviews of several recent DarkFuse novellas. Black Static is available as both a glossy paper periodical and a digital version (available for download in the Kindle store).
I’m pleased to announce that Dynatox Ministries will be releasing my limited edition chapbook The Choir of Beasts (with a tentative July publication date). The Choir of Beasts is a collection of three previously-unpublished, linked short stories: “The Choir of Beasts”, “The Temple of the Fly”, and “The Sermon in the Pit”. Dark, surreal, and inspired by the work of Thomas Ligotti.
I’ll be posting more details here at Laughing at the Abyss as they become available.
I don’t talk about this a lot, but I spent the first part of my life immersed in trauma. (And by “trauma”, I don’t mean the angsty, emo, “the world doesn’t understand me” sense of the word. I mean the sense of the word that entails police cars and funerals, among other things.)
The good news is that I’ve survived all that. I have a happy marriage and a day job that’s not so bad (though, of course, I am working toward writing full-time). I have friends and a house. I have peace of mind. Most of all, I actually feel (in an odd way) grateful for the traumas because they taught me a lot about just how the world works. I mean, I wouldn’t want to re-live them. But, increasingly, I accept them as a part of my history. In a way, a part of me. And, most certainly, I couldn’t write my particular style of horror without them.
My gut feeling tells me that horror fiction, at its best, is written by traumatized people, for traumatized people.
I think this explains why science fiction and fantasy people sometimes just don’t get horror, and vice-versa. They just don’t get the need to pick up the world’s rocks and look at the slugs underneath. To me, horror people seem less in love with the world than SF and fantasy people. (Horror fans don’t “squee”. You ever notice that? When’s the last time you heard “Clive Barker…SQUEE!”? You know why horror fans don’t squee? Because the last time we let ourselves “squee”, five people died the next day.)
That’s a joke.
Anyway, Gary Braunbeck’s To Each Their Darkness is the go-to resource on this topic, and I’ll refer you to that book for a more detailed discussion of how you can tap into your own darkness to create quality horror fiction.
What I’m interested in doing today is exploring two ways that horror writers miss the mark when depicting traumatic events. For the record, I’m pretty sure I’ve made these mistakes myself, particularly in my early work. But now that I feel I’ve started to grow past them, I think it’s important to share the lesson.
The first error, as I see it, is trivializing the traumatic events. As far as I can tell from secondhand accounts, this is the problem that led to the end of the “horror boom” in the late ’80s and early ’90s. When violence is inflicted over and over without any realistic emotional consequence or — especially — when the violence becomes cartoonish in a work that’s not specifically intended as a work of humor, it’s been trivialized. To use an example from pop culture, Freddy Krueger was truly frightening in the first Nightmare on Elm Street film. But by the later installments we were half-rooting for him as he wisecracked his way through teenage intestines. Freddy actually became less powerful, as a monster. Even though his claws gushed more and more blood with each sequel, he was essentially de-clawed as a villain because he wasn’t really scary any more. That’s the irony. I think violence is a powerful tool in horror fiction, but it’s the most powerful when used sparingly and in an emotional context. To paraphrase Joe Hill, spilling guts is fine…but the story works best if we know and care about the person whose guts are being spilled.
The second error, as I see it, is the aversion to depicting extreme emotion (even when the story merits such emotion). I suspect that this error is a reaction to the first error. The field grew wary of the extreme violence of the ’80s, and — in my opinion — has over-corrected, favoring subtlety in all its manifestations. The problem is that it’s impossible to scream a subtle scream or weep subtle tears, or, yes, bleed subtle blood. And trauma will often lead characters to scream, or weep, or bleed. Trauma is pretty much the least subtle thing there is.We thus end up with beautifully written, but seemingly passionless stories. Perhaps technically brilliant, but depicting the horrific in a manner akin to filming through two or three layers of gauze. The end result is that the reader (or, at least, this reader) feels detached from the horrific rather than in contract with it or (better still) engulfed by it.
Mind you, I’m all for engaging the tools of literary fiction. I dig John Cheever and Raymond Carver and Junot Diaz. In the horror field, I enjoy the work of quiet horror authors like Ligotti and Glen Hirshberg and Algernon Blackwood. I dig subtext. A lot. But all subtext and no…well…text makes for an unsatisfying read.
It’s all about balance.
So…what do you think?
I think a writing career has to be just about one of the hardest things to get off the ground. I should know. In the late-90s I discovered the horror small press after stumbling onto an issue of Cemetery Dance in a book store. Having just graduated college (and armed with the monstrosity that was the Brother Word Processor) I tried my hand at writing a few stories. I even remember being part of a public reading at the local library near my home town. The story I read was hideously-written, of course. A revenge story in the spirit of horror anthology television shows like Tales from the Crypt. I think I called it “Getting Ahead”.
And, yes, it was a decapitation story.
I wasn’t exactly a fan of subtlety, in those days. 22 going on 12.
I think, at some point not that far into my writing journey, the Brother Word Processor gave up the ghost. I was forging my way ahead as a young adult and had long-ago learned not to ask Mom and Dad for money. I was fairly poor in those days. I lacked emotional maturity and, frankly had other priorities besides writing.
Like partying. (Remember, I was 22 going on 12. I’d grown up in a dysfunctional quasi-fundamentalist family and was pulling the kind of stunts in my early twenties that most kids get out of their systems in their teens).
Fast forward to the year 2000 and 2001. I was a bit more stable, financially. I decided to give writing another try. This time, I got involved with a group — the now-long-defunct Baltimore-Washington Chapter of HWA. In some ways, this was a magical time. I had a chance to get to know Brian Keene at a point in his career shortly before he made it big. I met folks like Matt and Deena Warner. Meghan Euringer back when she was Megan Fatras. I attended group meetings and went to my first horror convention (one of the first HorrorFind cons). I rediscovered my love of television horror hosts.
But I didn’t do a lot of writing. And even when I did, I never ran my work by other folks for critique. My mind was constantly distracted by personal demons I’d yet to slay and my self-care was abysmal. Somewhat amazingly, I managed to sell a short story to Cemetery Dance for its Richard Laymon tribute anthology In Laymon’s Terms. (Again, lacking in subtlety…entitled “Scabby Nipples and Sharp Teeth”…at least that made sense, given it was for a Laymon tribute).
And then my self-care got worse. And then I made poor choices about relationships. And then…and then…and then…my life crash landed in the Midwest. Or the South. (The confluence of the Midwest and the South, actually).
Thus started the great shut-down. The great rebuilding process. The slaying of demons. The time of simply learning how to live again. Giving the soul a chance to heal from all the adventures and misadventures I’d inflicted upon it. The time of building healthier relationships.
Fast forward to 2008. I started to write again. This time, armed with some maturity, I realized I needed help to achieve my writing goals. If there was any benefit to my previous two aborted attempts at writing, it’s that they forced me into finally admitting I couldn’t learn this craft all on my own. They’d made me teachable.
I attended Gary Braunbeck’s short story critique workshop at the Context convention in 2008. I became a writing class junkie. I took classes at Context, classes at the Indiana Horror Writers’ annual winter retreat. (I’d once again hooked up with a local HWA chapter). And then I started writing every night. I started reading every night. I started submitting short fiction regularly.
I consider 2008 to be the “real” start of my writing career. It was the year I was finally able to dedicate my full attention to writing, instead of personal-demon-slaying. My progress has been steady. I’ve grown and changed since that time. I had an early interest in the Bizarro scene (and am grateful I spent time there…it taught me to write fearlessly) but I found over time that my tastes simply changed. I fell in love with the quiet surrealism of Ligottiesque horror, in love with dead guys like Algernon Blackwood, and fell a bit out of love with the pop weirdness of Bizarro. Honestly, I wanted to add more colors to my palate, too. I’d read a lot of Braunbeck and Ketchum and John Cheever and Alan Moore and Caitlin Kiernan and Glen Hirshberg and a fair bit of Lovecraftian and neo-Lovecraftian stuff and wanted to be able to achieve something along the lines of what all those other writers achieved (not out of envy, exactly, so much as I wanted to do more as a writer; I was excited about new possibilities). Just an honest process of growing and changing.
Instead of fighting the change, I went with it. I dated Bizarro, but I didn’t marry it. (And I don’t mean to criticize anyone who has “married” Bizarro. I still have friends in that scene, and appreciate that they’re writing what they love. If it’s the right fit for you, great. It just wasn’t for me. For me to write what I love, I had to move on.)
Thus, another level of apprenticeship — taking a few years to learn how to write the quiet stuff — using the short story form as my primary tool for experimentation. For years, I assumed I would just be a short story writer. (I’d tried to write a novel in early 2011. I wrote it for all the wrong reasons — primarily, because I thought that’s what all the cool kids were doing. I finished it, only to realize it wasn’t very good at all. Four months and 110,000 words down the tube.)
I wasn’t ready. So I went back to writing short stories.
Fast forward to 2012. My short stories started to get longer and longer and longer. Just naturally. Without trying to make them longer. Six thousand words. Seven thousand words. Eleven thousand words (woah, my first novelette). Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Children of No One — weighing in at just over 18,000 words. A short novella, but a novella nonetheless (the “official” cut-off for a novella is 17,500 or larger). I hadn’t set out to write a novella. I’d just wanted to write a short story. But the story — quite of its own accord — started growin’.
The new novella I just finished (tentatively titled The New God) is about twice as long…35,000 words. Again, I wasn’t trying to write something longer. It just happened.
Think about that. It’s only now (after years of apprenticeship) that I’m able to really stretch my writing into the novella range. We’ll see how things progress. It could be that I stay at this novella plateau for awhile, or it could be that I’ll start writing novel-length fiction soon. I’m going to just follow my natural progression as a writer. Not try to force things (like I did with the failed novel attempt in 2011; I wrote that novel for all the wrong reasons…I didn’t love the story or the characters…I loved the daydream of landing an agent and having my name on a mass market paperback…which is ironic when you consider that the mass market paperback is going the way of the dodo).
So, yeah, anyway, this is the part where I sigh and say “what a long, strange trip it’s been”. The part where I take stock and tell you what I’ve learned along the way.
I’ve learned that there are lots of different ways to build a writing career. I’ve learned that all advice needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I’ve learned that some people in this field teach you how to act and some people in this field teach you how not to act. I’ve learned that the small press is populated with a disproportionate number of loveable flakes, but also some folks who aren’t so flaky and are, in fact, quite, quite serious and businesslike. Sometimes, they’re even loveable, too.
I’ve learned that, at least for the time being, I’m not a good fit for local writers’ groups.
I’ve learned that I need to take ownership over my own dreams. I define what success means for me, and I find that harder to do if I’m surrounded by people who often share what success means for them. I don’t find it beneficial (for me) to put anyone on pedestals or elevate anyone to hero status. There are folks who have obtained admirable success, and I can learn from them as long as I realize I’m not them and they’re not me and I will probably have to tinker with the advice they give so that it fits me and my career path.
Probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that there are no gurus. I’ve learned to distrust our species’ instinct for erecting hierarchies (even in the arts). I’ve learned if I get too obsessive about publishing pecking-orders (including “what level” of publishing I’m at), I lose a little piece of my soul.
I’ve learned I have what it takes to get published and get published well and get praised by folks whose praise matters to me. I’ve learned how to get the word out about my book and how to engage with bloggers and internet radio folks and the like so that the book will sell. I’ve learned that I’ll have to do that over and over (twenty, thirty, fifty times) before I start to really make the impact I want to make in this field.
I’ve learned this is a marathon, not a sprint. At the same time, I’ve learned that the Grim Reaper can tap me on the shoulder at any time.
I’ve learned life is too short . I’ve learned that life is unfair. I’ve learned that life is a nightmare.
I’ve learned to enjoy nightmares.
I’ve learned that there’s a time for taking stock and learning lessons, and then time to get off one’s ass and do shit. I’ve learned that if I gaze into my belly-button, just focusing on the lessons I’ve learned, I won’t build any sort of momentum in my writing career.
I’ve learned the building momentum is probably one of the most important things in a writing career.
I’ve learned I desperately
want need a writing career.
I’ve learned it’s time to stopping blogging and go write.
I’m a big ol’ podcast junkie. Ever since I bought an iPhone, I’ve been listening pretty much exclusively to podcasts. My public radio listening has plummeted.
Writing Excuses is one of my faves. I don’t always agree with the opinions offered on the show. But even when I disagree with the advice, I find it valuable to tune in. If nothing else, this weekly, fifteen minute podcast provides me with insights into how mainstream (make that Establishment) science fiction and fantasy authors think.
One of the recent episodes (“Fake it Till You Make It”), discussed the whole notion of conveying a professional appearance and “acting like a pro”, even before one has become an established pro. Honestly, I found it a mixed bag. The authors discussed the importance of dressing professionally…which I found a bit tedious. Nick Mamatas openly mocks the idea of dressing business casual for conventions. Alan Moore looks like Gandalf in a punk rock musical version of The Lord of the Rings. Caitlin Kiernan rocks an avant-garde look reminiscent of Laurie Anderson. There seem to be so many counter-examples to offer against the “dress like a pro” advice that it doesn’t seem to be very strong advice at all. I mean, I get the whole “don’t cosplay” thing…but it’s been years since I’ve done anything like cosplay. So…no big revelation there.
On the other hand, this episode included a fascinating discussion of something I’ve never heard talked about before: the logical fallacy of “affirming the consequent”. Now, I actually did take a class in formal logic in college. So, I’m sure I ran into this fallacy at some point. But I hadn’t remembered it.
Anyway, the fallacy goes something like this:
Neil Gaiman has a gazillion Twitter followers and sells really well.
Therefore if I obtain a gazillion Twitter followers, I too will sell really well.
When one points out the fallacy it looks patently absurd, and yet so many authors seem driven by this (literally) irrational belief. They mistake a consequence of success for a cause of success.
One of the authors on the show went on to discuss another permutation of this fallacy, “collecting famous friends”.
Neil Gaiman is friends with authors X, Y, and Z and they all have stellar careers.
Therefore, if I become friends with Neil Gaiman then I, too, will have a stellar career.
(If Gaiman doesn’t work for you, insert Brian Keene or Charlaine Harris or any other writer who symbolizes Ultimate Success in your field).
Ay, ay, ay, I’ve seen this particular logical error happen over and over (often under the guise of “networking”). I mean, sure, there’s something to be said for networking. But I think it’s important to have realistic expectations of what networking can achieve. All the networking in the world isn’t going to put a good story on the page. When readers open a book, they don’t care how many famous friends I have (or don’t have). They only care if I make them turn pages to see what happens next.
And to do that, one needs to put his or her hiney in the chair and write.
I apologize for not updating the blog very often lately (or, you know, updating with posts of a mostly-promotional nature). I was extremely busy doing promotion for the release of Children of No One, and I was — at the same time — in the process of finishing the first draft of a new, 37,000 word novella tentatively titled The New God.
I wanted to take a moment to share a little bit about where I am on this journey through the writing life, and — in particular — to celebrate a certain emotional goal I’ve achieved in the past few months. For the first time ever, I feel very comfortable with the path my writing career is taking. I’m not talking about the success I’ve earned (although there has been some of that, lately). I’m talking more about the fact that I’m more comfortable owning the reality that I’m primarily an author of horror fiction (or “dark fiction”, or “weird fiction”, or whatever happens to be the euphemism du jour). I know who I am, and who I am not. I know what I am, and what I am not.
For the foreseeable future, I’m not someone who will be penning an urban fantasy trilogy.
I’m not someone who will be writing a SF YA dystopia.
I could perform some variety of creative contortion and try to bend and twist my creative side to churn out something along those lines. I might even land a book deal; I might be able to snag some of that Big
Six Five -level success.
But I probably wouldn’t be able to hold on to that success. It wouldn’t be sustainable. Readers are shrewd. They can tell when the author just isn’t into it, or if the author is a square peg that a publisher is trying to ram through a round hole.
I’m a horror/dark fiction/weird fiction author, and…here’s the kicker… proud to consider myself such.
It hasn’t always been that way, for me.
Honestly, for years I looked at the horror field with trepidation. All the money/success/meaningful accolades seemed to be focused on the science fiction and fantasy fields. Most observers would probably agree that a Hugo is considered more prestigious than a Stoker. Big
Six Five publishers have dedicated imprints for science fiction and fantasy. The last dedicated Big Five imprint for horror died…what…about twenty years ago? And, yeah, the horror field in pop culture has been pretty much decimated by a descent into schlock and self-parody. I don’t know about you, but the last truly frightening American horror film I saw was Session 9. Christ, that came out over ten years ago.
So, yeah, I had this sort of self-loathing for my field. (“Take my genre…please!”)
I imagined all the cool kids were hanging out in science fiction and fantasy, and I wanted to be one of the cool kids. (Actually, that might not be quite accurate — it might be less that I wanted to be a cool kid, and more that I was very anxious in pursuing my goals, and not all that sure that I wanted the “right” things. It could just be that I had zero self-confidence, and looked around me to see what other people valued, and decided to value those things).
But ay, here’s the rub…
I have very little interest in SF and fantasy. I have a teensy bit of interest in SF, actually (dark SF, of course). But I’ve absolutely no interest in fantasy, in any of its various permutations.
My work is very dark, and is often (but not always) weird.
Reviewers use .gif files of cartoon characters staring wide-eyed, traumatized, and rocking in the fetal position to visually describe their response to my work.
I am who I am. I’m not cheery. Many of my characters are unsympathetic. My way of looking at the world doesn’t leave a lot of room for happy bunnies and rainbows.
That’s just who I am.
And it’s okay to pursue who I am…because, as it turns out, I’m not half-bad at writing this sort of fiction. Maybe the market for it is smaller than the market for escapist fare . Maybe that just means I’ll have to be more prolific. Write three or four or five books a year instead of one or two.
But, for the first time ever, I have some confidence that I can “make it” in this business by simply being my best self. I feel that I can write what I want to write and still meet my financial goals, over the long haul. Is it going to be easy? No. Nothing worth doing ever is. Might I fail? Sure. But…for the first time…I’m fueled with enough confidence to give it my best try.
And that, my friends, is sooooo important. I was raised in a blue collar family where artistic aspirations weren’t taken seriously. I went to college during a recession and was encouraged to leave with a degree that would serve as a passport to some sort of stable profession. I was almost embarrassed to consider myself a writer. It seemed like an affectation. A flighty self-indulgence.
Many folks discuss the fact that they have a “Plan B” for what happens if the writing gig doesn’t work out. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. My problem, though, was that I lived Plan B and barely even admitted that I really wanted Plan A. And even my “Plan A” wasn’t my real plan A. It was the Plan A that I thought I should have (pursuing SF &F) rather than the Plan A I really wanted (pursuing a career in horror).
Well, fuck that.
In my case, “Plan B” is just another term for “fear”. And while fear drives my fiction, it no longer drives me. Plan B, line up for the firing squad. You are akin to the despot who has been overthrown. You have been found guilty of crimes against the imagination. Have you nothing to say in your own defense?
Very well then…
During the Children of No One online book release party on March 14th, several folks in attendance didn’t get a chance to ask their question. (There were LOTS of people asking questions and a limited time frame in which to answer them.) So, this group is set up to give a second chance to folks who were unable to ask a question.
Rather than just offering to answer questions during a limited time frame, we’ll be opening this up for ten whole days (from March 21, 2013 to March 30, 2013). Freed from all the time constraints of the live event, many more readers should be able to have their questions answered.
Just click on the linky-link to check out the group…
A couple of weekends ago my hubbie and I traveled to the Harmonist Labyrinth in New Harmony, Indiana and filmed this video introduction to Children of No One. As I walk an actual labyrinth, I talk a bit about what and who inspired Children of No One. I also talk about the role of mazes and labyrinths in history, psychology, and spirituality. With a running time of about eighteen minutes, think of this as being like a brief documentary film along the lines of those extra features you see on DVDs.
Just click on the linky-link to watchy-watch: –>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sb5bAz2ozXA
Well, the release of my first novella is almost upon us. (I’m told that the ebook version of Children of No One will likely be available for purchase sometime on Friday). I’m really proud of my work in Children of No One, proud to be associated with DarkFuse, and am so excited that the book will…very soon…be ready to share with the world.
To celebrate, DarkFuse is hosting an online release party this Thursday night at 9:00 p.m. EST. We’ll be giving away a few free Kindle editions of the book, and one lucky person will win a free one year subscription to the DarkFuse Kindle Book Club (up to 41 DarkFuse books each year). Just click on this linky-link to join in the fun. Some of the rowdies over at the DarkFuse Book Club Community are already talking about attending whilst imbibing their beverage of choice. (Various members have already expressed their preference for margaritas, rum, or beer. As for me, I’ll be drinking tea. Earl Grey. Hot. )
Then, on Friday, I’ll be traveling up the road a bit to Madison, Indiana to take part in the Third Annual Author Fair at a book store called That Book Place. This is billed as an “Author Fair” but if you take a whiff of that schedule it smells suspiciously like a con. A filk concert by C.S. Marks at 4:00 p.m., panels starting at 5:00 p.m.?
Dude! That is so totally
a con! an author fair.
Saturday, I’ll be at the
con author fair again and selling & signing copies of Werewolves and Shapeshifters: Encounters with the Beast Within . I’ll also have some free stuff to give away (including some free audio adaptations of my fiction, on CD so you can play the stories on the ride home, as well as free Halloween cards with one of my stories illustrated by the superb Deena Warner). So, come on by and say “hi!” If you’re a Hoosier, Buckeye, or Kentuckian, this is a good chance to get to meet me face-to-face.