buried

A CONVERSATION WITH L.L. SOARES

Interview by Peter N. Dudar

It is my privilege to welcome my friend and mentor, the Bram Stoker Award-winning author L.L. Soares. Tonight we’ll be discussing his newly released novel BURIED IN BLUE CLAY, produced by Post Mortem Press and available now at Amazon. Welcome, L.L., and congrats on your new book. I freakin’ loved it and can’t wait to talk about it.

L.L. Soares: Thanks, Pete.

Dudar: The novel is told from first-person POV, and the thing that pops out immediately is that the protagonist’s name is Redmond “Reddy” Soames. That’s only one letter off from Soares. Was this intentional and is the character in some way autobiographical?

Soares: Yeah, it was intentional. But I’m definitely not the first person to do that (having a literary alter ego). I’m carrying on a tradition by people like Charles Bukowski who had a character named Henry Chinaski (his first name was Henry and people called him Hank in real life) who narrated just about all of his stuff. William S. Burroughs had Bill Lee. I always liked the name Freddy, and Reddy was close. My father-in-law’s middle name is Redmond, so I took that. And Soames is close enough to Soares to make a reader scratch their heads. Reddy is not me, but there are aspects of him that are from my life. Like most writers and their characters. It also puts my voice right in the middle of the action.

Dudar: His “adventure” seems very Bukowski-esque. He has that “unreliable character” feel about him, and that sense of open frankness about the world around him. The novel begins with him returning to Blue Clay, Massachusetts for a writing assignment. Can you maybe set the stage for what he’s getting into?

Soares: Bukowski is definitely a favorite writer of mine. And the original concept of the book was to write a horror novel from the point of view of a character who was Bukowski-like, that kind of feel. But it turned out a lot different. Reddy really is not that much like Bukowski, except that, when the book begins, he’s a hard drinking guy who feels like his life has stalled.

Dudar: The image of a coastal city with a beach made of blue clay seems very stunning and evocative, at least in my own imagination. It made me think of something Lovecraft might have imagined. How did you come up with that idea?

Soares: The other big hook here is that I set it in Blue Clay, Massachusetts, a setting that has appeared in several of my short stories. The stories have given little bits and pieces, but the novel gives us a bigger canvas, to really explore this fictional city in Massachusetts. I grew up in a place called New Bedford, Mass.,(Michael Arruda grew up in the same city), and it’s roughly the same size, population-wise, and there are a lot of little details about Blue Clay that might ring a bell for people who grew up in or know New Bedford well. So in that way, it’s a little more autobiographical, or at least personal, than my other books.

The idea was to come up with a fictional Massachusetts city that I guess would be sort of an Arkham of my own. Except, writing the stories and now the novel, Lovecraft wasn’t really at the front of my brain. It’s not like I wrote it thinking it would be Lovecraftian, or a pastiche of Lovecraft. I really wrote this trying to forge my own thing—my own city, its own mythology and residents—that would be very different. The city’s name came first, before I wrote the first story, and the image of clay beach came to me. I toyed with Red Clay, a kind of bloody beach image, but that seemed a little bit cliché, so I went with Blue, which was more surreal. And once I had the name, Blue Clay, the rest fell into place from there.

I think the original idea was to write a bunch of stories set there, and maybe Mike Arruda would write some, too, since he also grew up in New Bedford, and it would grow from there. But I have to admit, as the city grew (and got more complicated), I decided to keep it all for myself.

Dudar: Part One of the book delves specifically with Reddy’s return home to Blue Clay to research a writing assignment concerning some strange phenomena that is going on there. When I first began reading, my response was that this was going to be a deep science fiction story, but it morphed very quickly into something darker. Is that fair to say?

Soares: Yeah, it starts out one way, and changes. Reddy does not end up in the same place—or even the same condition—as when it begins. I guess there are science fiction elements, but it’s certainly much more of a horror story.

Dudar: Or a monster story. And this book seems to have several. There are the “blue jellies”, the “manta ray”, the “centipedes”, and “the grub.” Each seems to have a different role in the story.

Soares: The jellies have appeared before in the short stories. I’m not sure if I named them at first. They just kind of appeared on the beach that gives Blue Clay its name. The rays are kind of a competing species that lives parallel to the jellies, but they’re not at war or anything. In fact, it’s doubtful they even interact. They just are, and just happen to coexist in the same area. The beach has a lot of power to it—you could call it a magical or sacred place I guess. The grubs and various bugs are like a third species that acts like protectors or bodyguards. The jellies and rays are kind of barely aware of us—don’t care about us—but the bugs are very aware, and very dangerous. I toyed with some of these things in the short stories, but they were always mysterious and vague. The stories were meant to have a surreal feel to them. The novel is more like cracking open the egg and seeing what’s inside.

Dudar: You definitely succeeded there. Not to give spoilers or jump ahead, but the “special trait” of the mantas seriously blew my mind and made me queasy at the same time. Do you enjoy having that kind of effect on your readers?

Soares: I love doing the unexpected, blowing people’s minds, stuff like that, sure. Ever since I was a kid, my intention has always been to be as original as possible, to do things my own way. To really try to take people places they’ve never been before. And if my writing can take on the feel of what it’s like to be on a hallucinogen, let’s say…I love that.

Dudar: Having said this, how much of the novel was mapped out before you started writing and how flexible is the story as you are working on it?

Soares: I have a basic map of the city in my head. As for the plot, where it was going, I guess I plan it out incrementally. As in, I don’t try to see the whole thing from the start. I just see so far—and I move in that direction—and then I see a little more. If I knew everything beforehand–saw the entire picture from the start—I think I’d lose interest. Even for the writer, there’s got to be a degree of mystery and spontaneity. I’m having a journey, too. It’s not as much fun to know all the answers beforehand.

Dudar: It seems in this book, your map of the city is just as invaluable as the characters, themselves. Even early on, Reddy meets with Frederick Bellows (a “blue jelly” enthusiast who has written his own books on the subject) and goes directly to the beach. But there’s also the Sidelong Glance Motel, the Walecock Manor, and The Fortress (which made me think immediately of The Eagles’ “Hotel California”). It seems like you had a lot of fun with it.

Soares: The Fortress was actually more influenced by the band Love than the Eagles. Love was this great 60s band that made a classic album called Forever Changes. And in real life, the lead singer, Arthur Lee, had a big old house he called The Castle, where all kinds of people would end up and stay there awhile. Love even has a song called “A House is Not A Motel” that refers to this. I was really into Love when I was writing this, listening to a lot of their music early on. I even mention them in passing in the book, but only a music nerd would get it. The Walecock thing is another long story entirely.

Dudar: Do you listen to music while you write?

Soares: Yeah, I listen to a lot of music as I write. All kinds of music. Jazz, rock, hardcore punk, death metal, all kinds of stuff, and it affects my mood, the feel of what I’m writing, I guess. And other times I just write in absolute silence, and I’m sure that creates its own mood or tone, too.

Dudar: There’s another musician later on in the book named Briana Blessed. Is she a loose caricature of someone?

Soares: Yeah, but I’m not sure if I want to give all the secrets away. But there’s a singer I saw once—it was such a spooky experience, it was a small audience and at one point she seemed to look right into my eyes, and it left a big impression on me that night. And it created the seed for the whole Briana storyline. Little touches like that—add to the personal feel of the book for me.

Dudar: I love that aspect of writing, that you have that luxury of secretly admitting things without any repercussions.

Soares: Yeah, and it’s mixed in with stuff that’s not real, and it’s all intertwined, and only you, or maybe a few people who are very close to you, get the references, and can separate the truth from the fiction. And that’s what storytelling is all about, right?

Dudar: Is it nerdy that I’m nodding emphatically right now?

Soares: Not at all. It means we’re on the same frequency, that’s all. I wish I had some MacAuley Bros. right about now.

Dudar: Now I’m grinning ear to ear. It was such a thrill to see you include that.

Soares: Yeah, for people who don’t know, you wrote this great novel called A REQUIEM FOR DEAD FLIES, about two brothers who are trying to make their own bourbon, the MacAuley brothers. In your book, the bourbon doesn’t really happen, but in a couple of my books it’s very real. Our editor Bob Wilson put it in my book LIFE RAGE as kind of an in-joke (both books were published by Nightscape Press). We needed the name of a brand of bourbon that a character is drinking. And it pops up briefly in BURIED IN BLUE CLAY. I’m trying to keep the whole thing alive. Don’t be surprised if the brand pops up again sometime.

Dudar: Getting back to the book, you started out with a science fiction premise but the book diverges rapidly into a conspiracy-theory type mystery. As Reddy finds himself on the seedy side of the city, he begins noticing strange graffiti on billboards and brick walls. It seems as if he’s stumbling into a kind of a cult.

Soares: Yeah, the whole HEK thing.

Dudar: I found it interesting that you truncated Killian’s name like that.

Soares: Yeah, it was the whole JFK, LBJ thing. I always thought that was cool, people known by three letters, instead of their name. I can’t tell you why I liked it, but there’s a character who goes by his initials, HEK, in BURIED IN BLUE CLAY.

Dudar: Do cult figures fascinate you?

Soares: Yeah, sure. There’s definitely something of the cult leader in HEK. He’s definitely cut from that cloth. But unlike someone like Charles Manson, let’s say, who used his hold over people for evil, for killing, HEK is fairly benevolent in comparison. He’s a pretty benign cult leader.

Dudar: Yeah, I’d be hard pressed to consider HEK an antagonist.

Soares: And he’s Reddy’s guide into a part of the city few people have seen. HEK was kind of inspired by cult leaders, gurus, that type of stuff, and then there’s definitely some of (occult figure) Aleister Crowley in him, too. And at times you even wonder if he’s kind of a con-man. He definitely has access to real things that can blow your mind, but he’s also playing around with it, showing you just as much as he wants you to see.

Dudar: And THAT is what gives BURIED IN BLUE CLAY such a deliciously creepy feel to it. It seems like there are no real “safe” locations, and that there are risks and uncertainties abound. Early on, Reddy goes to visit an old childhood friend named Luke, and winds up staying a spell in that location. But you use that location to unmask some really dark shit…

Soares: Luke’s story is steeped in dark stuff. But you’re right–there’s no “safe place”–and that’s because Reddy gets exposed to this stuff he never knew about, and suddenly it’s not so clear what the rules are, why these things are happening, and he can never be sure who to trust.

Dudar: It sure kept me on my toes.

Soares: Early on, it’s the alcohol that keeps him confused and in a haze. He second-guesses himself, and isn’t always sure what’s real. Then he comes out of that and into a big outside world that is just as intoxicating.

Dudar: Plus he’s ducking and weaving the stream of phone calls from Zach, his editor, which is compounding his stress.

Soares: Reddy is a writer, but he’s never been a success at it. He wrote a few books years ago that went out of print right away, and he only gets the urban legend book gig because an old friend is throwing him a bone. And there’s always that question—will he even write the book? Will he ever finish it? The book answers that, but it’s a question mark for most of the book. And if he does write it, will anyone even read it?

Dudar: I love that that element is present, that as a writer I can fully appreciate that aspect of his character.

Soares: Yeah, in a lot of stories, if there’s a writer character, he’s usually like a bestselling writer or something. Reddy’s writing gig is only the way in—the reason to come back to Blue Clay—but it’s definitely not something he’s had any success at, or gotten any kind of respect for.

Dudar: Nor does he really seem to WANT to be there…

Soares: He definitely doesn’t. He got away a long time ago and only came back because he was desperate for the job. But he drinks way too much from the first day he gets there, to block it out. He does not want to be there at all. When HEK shows up, it piques his curiosity, and he sort of forgets how much being there makes him miserable. For a little while, anyway. But you notice, he keeps trying to leave, and things always pop up to get in his way.

Dudar: You really CAN’T go home again. But it’s a deeply disturbing notion that everything you thought you knew and understood about the world you grew up in had something deeply sinister below the surface.

Soares: Yeah, if you grow up somewhere you think you really know the place. To have that surety taken away from you, it puts you in a very interesting situation. You never really knew the place at all.

Dudar: Plus it makes you question yourself.

Soares: Exactly. But can we really know a place? Can we really know another person? Really know them? There’s always going to be some part of them you’ll never see.

Dudar: So, we’ve met HEK and Bellows, but for me the most sinister character in the book is an old lady named Edna Caldwell.

Soares: Little old Edna? What’s so sinister about her?

Dudar: Seriously? Part Four of this novel is excruciating because of her.

Soares: You thought so? I kind of felt sorry for her.

Dudar: Really? Why?

Soares: She’s trying to control the world around her, trying to complete something, and it’s so difficult.

Dudar: Yes, but where HEK seems to be the head of the hierarchy and Bellows is the begrudging servant, she seems the most steeped in dark magic.

Soares: Agreed. She is definitely as steeped in it as HEK is. There are times when you could wonder who’s really the boss.

Dudar: That was exactly my thought. Between these three in the hierarchy, they feed Reddy just enough information to keep him strung out, with no intention of letting him go.

Soares: Oh yeah, he never knows the full story–he’s only seeing part of it–what they want him to see.

Dudar: It feels like we’re still only scratching the surface of the twists and turns of this book, so I’ll maybe ask two more questions. First, almost ALL of your writing contains a fair amount of graphic violence and sexuality, and this one sure doesn’t disappoint. You’re very good at using it to move the story forward. Is that fair to say?

Soares: Yeah, it’s definitely part of what makes up my style—sex and violence are just part of day to day life in my stories, I guess. It’s like there’s nothing shocking about (these elements), something matter-of-fact. They’re just there.

Dudar: I’m inclined to disagree…I think a large portion of readers might be shocked. But I would say that’s a comment on our puritanical society. Do you feel like you’re writing the kind of stories you’d want to read or are you more conscious about the reader’s response to it?

Soares: Oh, I definitely feel like my writing is my voice, and I’m writing what I want to read. If it doesn’t please me, then how’s it going to please anyone else? I have to “feel” it. It has to feel genuine to me. And, to return to your previous question, I think the graphic sex and violence is not as shocking as it would be in the “real world,” for lack of a better word. It’s more taken for granted in what I write. It’s just part of who these characters are.

Dudar: It works because it feels realistic. And like I said, Part Four of the book left me reading with my jaw wide open.

Soares: I’m really glad to hear it. It’s always fulfilling when your writing elicits a strong response from someone. That’s what it’s all about. Affecting the reader in some way.

Dudar: Again, huge congratulations for BURIED IN BLUE CLAY. This really is my favorite book of yours, toppling HARD to the number 2 spot. It’s a great book.

Soares: Thanks a lot, Pete. I appreciate the kind words. And I’m really happy you liked the book.

Dudar: What do you have in the works now?

Soares: I’ve been working on a kind of vampire/voodoo book for the longest time. It’s the slowest thing I’ve ever written, just seeping out a tiny bit at a time, but it’s coming out well. Just very slow. And, of course, these “vampires” are nothing like the traditional kind. I always like to put my own personal spin on things.

Dudar: I can’t wait to read it. And I’ll be seeing you down in Providence later this summer for NecronomiCon. You’ll of course have copies of the book for sale there?

Soares: Yes, I will. Looking forward to it.

Dudar: Thanks again, my friend, and much success.

Soares: You, too.

© Interview copyright 2017 by Peter N. Dudar

 

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Let’s talk about childhood terrors, shall we?

Let’s talk about deep-seated, scarring trauma in the form of bedtime stories. You know the ones that have been passed down from generation to generation, originally penned by people with frightening names like The Brothers Grimm or with pleasant, sanctified names like Hans Christian Anderson. They’re the bedtime stories with subversive messages about morality and judgment upon wicked children who didn’t listen to their mommies and daddies and do as they were told. It sure made an impression to hear the tale of Hansel and Gretel, the brother and sister whose daddy married an awful woman that convinced him to lead his children deep into the woods and leave them there when food became scarce. The siblings, of course, nearly met their fate at the hands of a witch who wanted to fatten them both up and eat them for dinner. Fortunately for the two, that tale managed to scrape up a happy ending, but Holy Moly, why would we tell that story to our sons and daughters?

Or the tale of Thumbelina, who was nearly forced to marry against her will? Or the Poor Little Match Girl, who froze to death after using up the matchsticks she was supposed to sell to keep warm? Or Little Snow White, whose stepmother wanted her murdered over vainglorious beauty? Or The Girl Without Hands? Or The Sandman?

The crucial element to nearly every one of these stories is that life’s dangers are very real and profoundly unjust in their severity. And in their own way, they are our introduction to mortality. After all, we’re not meant to live forever and perhaps the sooner we learn this valuable lesson, the more prepared we are for this callous, unforgiving world. Moreover, like I’ve suggested above, they are the hammer and chisel in our parental toolbox for shaping our children to be obedient and grateful. Our own mommies and daddies seem like saints compared to the often wicked matrons and feeble, spineless fathers in fairytales and nursery rhymes.

But hey, at least they’re honest. After all, a quick look through the local section of the newspaper is all the proof you need. Pinocchio rescuing Geppetto from the belly of the whale isn’t really that far off from a five-year-old dialing 911 when his mom accidentally overdoses on heroin. We see the archetype of parental redemption in all corners of literature, from The Odyssey to Star Wars. But when the archetype applies to life as we live it and understand it, it becomes abundantly clear which life lessons prepared us for what we’re dealing with.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the whole thing about “Happy Endings”. They do happen, from time to time, when the downtrodden damsel defies a wretched fate and marries the prince. Or when Pinocchio becomes a real little boy. Or when the peasant is rewarded for his kindness and falls into the realm of the “Happily-Ever-After”.

Enter H.P. Lovecraft.

Nearly two centuries after the passing of the Brothers Grimm, Howard Phillips Lovecraft made his own contribution to literature by creating a mythos of eldritch gods whose powers and sovereignty transcended the scope of time and space. Originally penned for early 20th century pulp magazines like Weird Tales, Lovecraft’s works sought to penetrate inexplicable horrors within the realm of the human psyche. Lovecraft’s world seems to also be defined by subversive moral lessons, pushing more towards obedience and reverence to science and rationalism rather than God and parents. In Lovecraft’s mythos, very rarely do we find happy endings. There are only unspeakable horrors that await us, and make us wish for death.

Which brings us here to the 21st Century.

Crystal Lake Publishing is about to release a new anthology in May of 2017 titled TWICE UPON AN APOCOLYPSE. The book is a collection of tales in a universe where bedtime story Fairytales are married with the Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. It seems like a very logical union, if one were to stop and ponder it…after all, the moral lessons have not changed over all the generations since mankind first started inventing fiction. There’s a painfully true proverb about mankind repeating history, and again, all the proof you need is right inside your newspaper. And as an author, it was a delight for me to dabble in a form of storytelling I’d never tried before. My tale for the book is titled “The Three Billy Goats Sotheth”, and it concerns an ancient troll who lives under a bridge in a world where horses and carts were replaced with cars and trucks; metal beasts that cared not if he tried to stop them from crossing. Of course, with the dawn of a Lovecraftian Armageddon sounding and the approach of the reawakened ancient ones, the troll seeks to reclaim his long-past sentry over humanity.

There are a lot of familiar fairytales in this collection. You’ll come across giants and beanstalks and mermaids and pipers and, most assuredly, Cthulhu,Yog, and all the other eldritch gods who’ve been slumbering since Lovecraft shook loose his mortal coil. You’ll also find very familiar writers within the horror genre: Armand Rosamilia, Bracken MacLeod, Don D’Ammassa, and Scott Goudsward, to name a few. These are today’s storytellers, who have not given in to genre-bending or “mash-up” hackwork but have used their craft to redefine the Fairytale in an homage to one of the founding fathers of horror fiction. It’s been an honor to be associated with this book, and even bigger honor to pass down a fairytale to my daughters. And perhaps one day they will pass it down to their children, so that I might embrace a moment of immortality in a “Happily-Ever-After” of my own.

I hope you will check out TWICE UPON AN APOCOLYPSE from Crystal Lake Publishing. I will post links as its release approaches.

PND

Sometimes I have to pinch myself.

When I look back to the beginning of my writing career, it always felt like I was a fish out of water; that I was an isolated vessel on a sea of authors also trying to get published.  This business is everything you’ve heard it to be.  It’s turbulent.  It’s frustrating.  It’s at times excruciating.  It can wreak havoc on your self-esteem and leave you broken and humbled.  A lot of writers give up and move on, never to be heard from again.  Others keep going.  And eventually, success finds them.

It was the thrill of a lifetime the day my first acceptance letter arrived.  It arrived like a gift from the gods, and felt like vindication after the scores of rejection letters that had cluttered up the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet after so many years.  I remember reading the letter over and over again and feeling as if I’d finally gotten my foot in the door, and that my craft had finally reached a level where I would be taken seriously as a writer.  That first acceptance is a giant milestone in any writer’s career.  In spite of all the words you may have written and all the stories you’ve completed up to that point, it’s that first sale that marks the beginning of your publishing career.

And then you mature.  You make your next sale, and the one after that, and then the next, and suddenly you have a bibliography.  And suddenly you become aware of the caliber of writers that you are now appearing beside in the Table of Contents.  It feels like you’re living in a dream when your own work is sitting in an anthology along with some of your literary heroes.  I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming that I’ve appeared in books with authors like Rick Hautala and William F. Nolan and Tim Waggoner.  I find myself wondering how I got this far and whether or not I belong here.  There are a lot of A-list authors in the horror genre, and to read their work and see how much better it is than your own will either inspire you to work harder and do better or it will send you packing.  For me, the answer is to try harder and prove my worth.  Quitting is not an option.

But finally, you reach a point where you come full circle.  I’m at a place now where the names in the TOC aren’t as important to me as the quality of the stories being presented.  Stephen King once wrote, “It is the tale, not he who tells it”, and that line has become a credo for me.  Where I’m at now is a place where I take greater pleasure in seeing the names of my friends and colleagues in the genre appearing beside me in not just one but numerous anthologies.  We call ourselves “Antho-buddies”; an endearing term I picked up from my good friend Tony Tremblay.  It gives me so much satisfaction and pleasure not only to watch my own career grow, but to watch the trajectories of some of my closest friends as their careers grow.  The milestone isn’t that I was published in a book, but that we shared the experience together and got to revel together as each new review appears on Amazon.  That is an amazing feeling.

Where I am right now is on the proverbial eve of publication for NORTHERN FRIGHTS, An Anthology of the Horror Writers of Maine.  This book is a collection of very dark tales by authors from my home state.  It is me with members of my writers group The Tuesday Mayhem Society.  It is me with fellow authors who do group readings like the Midcoast Halloween Reading Series.  It is me with new friends from the HWOM and old alums from the New England Horror Writers.  It’s US.  And this is OUR beast.  For some, it will mark their first acceptance, and that is a really big deal.  I congratulate you sincerely and am happy to tell you that if your work was selected, it means your work is good and you belong.  It is my privilege to call you my Antho-buddy, and I hope that continues in the future.  Where I’m at right now is overflowing with pride.  I am blessed to work with some very talented people and NORTHERN FRIGHTS is a testament to that.

I have to pinch myself because where I’m at is pretty damn exciting.  And if I AM sleeping, please don’t wake me.

Wishing success to Duane Coffill and David Price of the Horror Writers of Maine for conceiving and making this book a reality, and to Michael Evans of Grinning Skull Press for taking a chance on us.  And to each and every author involved, my undying love and respect.  Congratulations one and all.

The Ghost of John Lennon

By

Peter N. Dudar

            Kasim knew a thing or two about time, having spent most of his adult life running the clock repair shop his father opened on Ventura Boulevard.  He took over the shop in ’68, during the Summer of Love, back when the hippy movement blossomed to the north in San Francisco.  It was subsequently the same summer that his father Mohmod al Abdul was diagnosed with lung cancer from chain smoking Marlboros ever since he and his wife Zainab immigrated into America.  Kasim had discovered The Beatles years before the doctors discovered the black spots riddling his father’s lungs, but he’d suspected something was wrong when his papa’s breathing became raspy, and then congested, leaving him doubled over his workbench as he coughed and heaved.  Kasim would fold over the white cloth that nestled the cogs and springs of whatever was being fixed to keep them clean of his father’s germs, all the while patting Mohmod’s back and asking in a terrified voice, “Are you okay?”

Now, at sixty-nine years old, Kasim was once again walking in his father’s footsteps now that he’d been diagnosed.  And trips like this one, what healthy senior citizens might have referred to as a vacation or a sabbatical, he considered a pilgrimage.  With the repair shop sold off to some young Latino couple (who planned on turning the old store into a tanning salon), and his own wife, Noora, predeceasing him by nearly ten years, the trip was now or never.  After all, how many chances did you get in life to travel to Manhattan and follow the final footsteps of John Lennon?  He knew a thing or two about time, and time was now growing short.

He hadn’t counted on the TSA hassling him as he made his check-in at LAX; saying something about him purchasing a one-way ticket and wanting to know what his plans were in New York City.  They claimed up and down that it had nothing to do with racial profiling or the fact that he moved funny when he walked (he could have explained that radiation and chemo had kicked the living shit out of him, but what did it matter?  It was none of their goddamn business, anyway.).  In the words of the young man in the starched and pressed blue uniform, “It’s all random, and I’m just doing my job.  We have to keep everybody safe.”

It hadn’t bothered him (well it had, but not enough to get angry over) that they dragged him over to a cordoned off area beside the gate and went through his suitcase as the other passengers rubbernecked.  It was that they’d taken his portable CD player and the few albums he’d brought with him and scattered them carelessly across the floor.  The disk on top actually made him smile.  It was an album titled REVOLVER, and how funny was it that, had they been paying attention, they could have held the disk up and shouted, “See?  Toldja he had a weapon!” Because that’s how America worked now.  Any asshole could legally obtain and carry a gun, and way too many of them did.  But if a person of color tries to go through the airport…

Kasim hated guns.  In fact, he loathed them with a passion.  And so did John Lennon.  The one Beatle who preached that “All You Need is Love” and “Give Peace a Chance” was also the one that was shot dead outside his home in the Dakota Building on West 72nd Street.  Kasim had been repairing an old Ingersoll grandfather clock when the news came on the black-and-white television his papa had mounted above the work bench, and it felt like the wind had been knocked out of him.  This had been December, 1980, long after Mohmod and Zainab were laid to rest in a dreary, overcrowded cemetery in Los Angeles.    Kasim sat down on the floor and wept until Noora had to leave the front show room and see if he was okay.

When they finally let him board the Boeing 787 and take his seat, he retrieved a book from his carryon and leafed to the part about the Dakota building.  That was going to be his first destination, once he got checked into his hotel and caught up on some sleep.  The Dakota is the first and most historic of the upscale apartment buildings in Manhattan.  Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono owned several apartments in that building, and that was where his favorite Beatle had retreated to so that he could try and sober up and be a father to his second son, Sean.  In the book, Yoko mentioned seeing the ghost of John Lennon on several occasions.  She claimed he would sit behind that white piano he used to record his Double Fantasy album on, and when she entered the room, he would look up at her and tell her not to worry, that he would always be there with her.

Wouldn’t that be something? Kasim thought as the other passengers boarded and took their seats.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to see Lennon’s ghost…even for a second or two?

He was replacing his book and digging out his CD player and MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR when the young, portly fellow in the muscle shirt and denim shorts waddled down the aisle, stopped at his row, and frowned.  Kasim could feel the suspicion radiating off this stranger, who was obviously going to be occupying the window seat beside him.  Kasim offered a polite smile and stood up so that the guy could stuff himself into his seat and get situated so that the plane could taxi over to the runway and take off on time.  The stranger watched him with vigilant eyes through most of the flight, particularly those moments when Kasim would pull his carryon bag out from under the seat in front of him to swap out his Beatles disks.

Give peace a chance, my ass! he found himself thinking after the umpteenth time of catching the stranger’s hateful eyes gazing on him.  What the fuck happened to America once the Summer of Love ended?

 

*****

 

Kasim al Abdul checked into the Hilton Hotel on the Avenue of the Americas and found his room on the sixth floor.  The hotel was pricey and a bit more upscale than he’d have normally booked, but what the hell?  This was his pilgrimage, and there was nobody back home to inherit any of the small fortune he’d amassed for himself after nearly fifty years of clock repairs.  There had also been a tidy life insurance check after Noora passed away (she died in a car accident driving to an In-and-Out Burger to pick up their lunch one unseasonably hot April afternoon.  Kasim cried as the police officer in the starched blue uniform told him the news, but it hadn’t been the inconsolable sobbing he’d wept when he heard the news of Mark David Chapman killing his favorite Beatle).  Kasim was never one for fancy possessions or high living.  He’d had friends and he’d had customers that came and went, but in the end, he discovered that the Muslim religion his parents worshipped never really measured up to the preaching of John Lennon.  “Imagine no possessions,” Lennon crooned in his most popular solo song.  “Yes, I think I can,” Kasim believed, and it was liberating.  While the world around him fought to keep their rights and their material objects, they became slaves to them.  Western culture was chock full of futile irony.

Kasim paid a visit to his bag of pharmaceuticals and doped himself up good and proper on Ambien before falling asleep that night.  Lo and behold, it was one of the most peaceful slumbers he’d ever drifted into.  SERGEANT PEPPER had barely reached “Fixing a Hole” when the last vestiges of consciousness floated away into a sweeping polychromatic picture show of dreams.

 

*****

 

This is going to be the best day of my life, he thought as he passed through the Hilton’s lobby and turned toward West 72nd Street.  I haven’t felt this alive in so, so long.  Not since…

Not since he said farewell to Noora.  It had rained on the day of her funeral, and he could remember standing beneath the little tent the cemetery had set up over her plot.  There had only been a handful of people in attendance, her friends mostly, and he could still remember them all holding him up so that he wouldn’t collapse as her casket was lowered into the dirt.  At her memorial service the evening before, he’d arranged for the song “In My Life” to be played.  It had been their wedding song, much to the chagrin of Noora’s parents, who wanted traditional Iraqi music rather than anything Western sounding.  This had been just after Paul McCartney officially announced that the Beatles were through and that he’d formed a new solo act with Wings.  The announcement had been a bitter blow to him, even though he knew the Beatles weren’t getting along at all anymore.  The animosity between John, Paul, George, and Ringo had been legendary.  John was accusing Paul of writing “grandmother songs”.  The other Beatles were tired of Yoko showing up and interfering with the dynamics of the group.  George was already over the hippy movement the band was spiraling into. Ringo was refusing to play.  They were no longer a band.  They were now strangers moving in different directions.

Of course there was animosity, Kasim thought.  The Summer of Love came and went.  America was still in Vietnam and the world was in chaos.  By the time the Summer of ’69 came around, The Beatles were pretty much done.  There would be no appearance at Woodstock or farewell tour.  Only a short-lived stint on a rooftop in London in January of 1969 that would become the basis for LET IT BE.  John and Yoko would have their famous bed-in in March of 69, and then he’d fall into his “lost weekends” with Harry Nilsson and Keith Moon and Alice Cooper.

Kasim stopped along the way for a bagel with lox and some coffee.  His hunger had returned, and he found himself savoring every bite.  It stunned him to realize how many meals he’d eaten over the course of a lifetime where he never even bothered to notice how delicious something tasted.  It seemed like he spent his meals just stuffing his face without thought as the music swirled around him.  Now the flavors came bursting through; the smoky flavor of salmon and the salt and crushed onions of the bagel.  There was a television dangling from a gantry in the far corner of the bagel shop, and on it came the report of another suicide bombing in Iraq, with ISIS claiming responsibility for the dozen or so lives taken.  And from the tables around him came the bluster of white American citizens denouncing those heathen Muslims and their extremist religion.  Hearing their comments reminded Kasim of the man back on his flight, who refused to lower his gaze of suspicion the whole time they were in the air.  He could sense fear and hatred radiating off the people around him, and decided to take the rest of his breakfast to go.  Kasim exited the shop quietly and made his way toward Broadway, which he would follow right up the west side until he reached West 72nd.

He had the book about the Dakota Building in his back pocket, and he fished it out and skimmed on, reading about the famous celebrities who lived in the building at one time or another; Leonard Bernstein, Boris Karloff, Gilda Radner, Jack Palance, Judy Garland.  Hollywood stars, musicians, artists, showmen.  All a dying breed of opulence and fortune as life in America was still changing.  The middle class was shrinking.  The number of impoverished was rising.  People were angry and fearful, all the time.  Lennon could have had all the money in the world but that didn’t stop the bullet that took his life as his Japanese spouse watched in terror.  Wasn’t that a line from the end of ABBEY ROAD?  The one about the love you take with you in the end?  Mohmod and Zainab al Abdul were loved when Kasim saw them buried.  The same with Noora.  He’d loved her deeply, and missed her every day she was gone.

Who would love him once the cancer finished spreading through his body and claimed him?  Ever since his beloved wife passed, he’d remained alone.

Kasim pushed the book back into his rear pocked and moved along.  He was so close to his destination.  This pilgrimage he embarked on was moving him both physically and emotionally.  It felt like everything he knew about life was wrong, misinterpreted, and after nearly seventy years on the planet, it was all finally making sense.

 

*****

 

Kasim veered off Broadway onto Central Park West.  The traffic was much crazier than anything he’d seen in Los Angeles, but that was okay.  It seemed like there were crowds at every intersection, collecting together in clusters just to help him cross safely.  He tried to make eye contact with the people around him, but it seemed as if they avoided it.  It felt taboo, and in those moments he did try to establish some kind of connection with any of them, they dropped their head down to the heels of the people in front of them and soldiered on.  He wondered if they’d have done the same if John and Yoko were passing by.  Would they smile in delight and try to make his acquaintance?  Would they even recognize his presence?  Would they…

The man with the Bushmaster AR-15 hustled out of the copse of trees along Terrace Drive, by the intersection of Park Street and West 72nd.  There was a collective gasp as the group of New Yorkers Kasim was crossing the street with suddenly parted, allowing the man in the green army jacket and faded jeans to push forward, his hands slinging the weapon from his back and into the crook of his right shoulder.  His eyes narrowed into slits as if the sun was burning them, and his mouth was pulled into a ferocious triumphant grin.  Before Kasim could even fathom what was happening, the man drew a bead on his torso and squeezed the trigger.  Kasim was still standing as the first three bullets ripped through his belly.  He was toppling backward into a hot dog vendor’s cart as the next few rounds ripped through his lungs and shoulders.  People were screaming all around him as the gunman moved closer, yelled “Fuck you and fuck Allah!” and pulled the trigger again.

As Kasim’s body toppled to the ground and his final breath hissed from his ruined lungs and out his mouth, he saw the silhouette of the Dakota Building resting peacefully across the street.  The light above him grew brighter, and he felt his spirit beginning to rise out of his corpse.

Another figure approached, floating swiftly across the street as the frightened citizens fled off in every direction.  The gunman sat down quietly on the curb with his weapon cradled in his arms.  The man was slowly rocking back and forth, laughing and crying at the same time as the line of police cars pushed past the traffic up and down Park Street.

The ghost of John Lennon stopped abruptly at the dead man’s side, held out his hands, and lifted Kasim up to his feet again.

“You have nothing to worry about, my friend,” the ghost whispered to him, its eyes sparkled with calm and eternal acceptance.  “We will always be here.”

The two phantoms floated off past the screaming onlookers and the gunman who was being cuffed and tossed unceremoniously into the back of one of the police cars.  They passed quietly through the gates to Central Park and into Strawberry Fields forever.

It was just another day in America.

My friend Tony Tremblay just released his first story collection, THE SEEDS OF NIGHTMARES, and I want to tell you why that is important to me.

 

If you’re a horror writer, and have attended either AnthoCon or Necon up here in the great northeast, you’ve probably seen him.  He’s the guy with the graying beard, reading glasses, and baseball cap, who spends his time at conferences divided between shooting a gazillion photographs of his peers during the afternoon, and then drinking scotch and puffing cigars in the evening.  His ear is always bent  toward any conversation about the craft of writing or the state of horror, and he always has that satisfied grin and twinkle in his eye when those conversations include authors he admires and respects.

 

You see, Tony is an erudite fan of genre fiction.  So much so that you’ve perhaps read some of his myriad review columns, penned under the pseudonym T.T. Zuma.  He now also cohosts a cable network program called The Taco Society Presents, which focuses on genre authors reading their work and being interviewed about the craft of writing.  Tony has worked to promote the careers of LOTS of us horror writers, and that includes myself.  When my debut novel was released in 2012, Tony wrote a very positive, very flattering review for me.  He’s continued to review my new releases ever since, always offering praise and words of encouragement.  And again, I’m not alone.  There’s a running joke that Tony Tremblay is the nicest guy in horror, but there’s so much truth to it that the comedy is lost on me.  He’s just a lovely fellow who happens to love reading horror.

 

And writing it.

 

Tony and I have had the privilege of being “antho-buddies” in several different anthologies now, and I have to confess that I take a great deal of satisfaction in that.  The man can write.  You see, this guy has probably been reading horror for longer than I’ve been alive, and he’s had plenty of opportunity to hone his craft into something quite sensational.  Let me elaborate; many of us that pen horror tend to fall into the pretentious trap of thinking we’re the gatekeepers of fear.  We act as if it’s OUR job to plumb the darkness and expose those demons and bogeys, and then lead our readers by the hand so they can safely peek into the darkness as well.  While we’re all doing that, Tony Tremblay has quietly been picking apart the strata of humanity, learning about our fears from the inside-out, and exposing the networks of anxiety and loss and desperation and chaos.  His stories aren’t just visceral, but often profoundly unnerving and tend to resonate long after reading them.

THE SEEDS OF NIGHTMARES is a very satisfying collection.  The opening novella, “The Strange Saga of Mattie Dyer” is a Lovecraftian western concerning an unearthly hole in the ground and how it plays out when a gold prospector gets doublecrossed.  “Something New” (possibly my favorite from the collection), is a tragic existentialist nightmare in a purgatory that crosses Ray Bradbury with Albert Camus.  “Tsunami” is an almost scathing treatise on Christianity, with ramifications that left me replaying the story in my head long after I’d read it.  “Chiyoung and Dongsun’s Song” is a Korean fable that really captures the oral tradition of storytelling…one I’d have liked to hear Tony reading aloud.  “An Alabama Christmas” digs deep into those old TALES FROM THE CRYPT magazines, where the story’s dreadfully ironic conclusion would be sending that old Crypt Keeper into gales of laughter.

There are other stories as well, all of them very satisfying in their own right, which brings me to why this book is important to me.  For all the kind words and encouragement Tony has given me in helping my own career, I’m thrilled to be able to pay him back.  Not with feigned praise or disingenuous words, but with the confession that Tony is a far better author than myself.  I admire and respect his writing and enjoyed THE SEEDS OF NIGHTMARES  a great deal.  Congratulations, my friend.

The process of adoption and the issues it can carry can be difficult to the point of becoming emotionally scarring. After all, those who have been adopted had to have been given up by their birth parents in the point of life where a child would need them the most. Abandonment issues can fester and increase during the course of a lifetime, enough so that they can become consuming and lead to self-destructive behavior. These are the issues Dan Foley wrestles with in his new novel, ABANDONED.

For James Sutton, his whole childhood was a series of family and friends discarding him; from the shady legal transition from his biological parents to his adoptive folks to his best friend moving away and severing all ties with him to his first real love dumping him and moving on. With the death of his adoptive mom and the subsequent suicide of his adoptive dad, James loses his grip with sanity and builds a wall between himself and the rest of the world. And with an abandoned pair of eyeglasses appearing one day, he transitions into a chaotic world of empathizing with inanimate objects and drawing revenge on the living souls who would so carelessly discard them.

And in the process, James becomes a collector of the most macabre prizes.

When James’s biological mother hires a private detective to track her estranged son after a thirty year absence in his life, the die is cast in one of the strangest criminal cases Connecticut has ever seen, and James will have to decide if he can live a life of reconciliation with his mother and biological sisters, or whether he remains loyal to the body parts he keeps in jars…his family of abandoned misfits.

I found Dan Foley’s Abandoned to be a deliciously macabre dark comedy that serves as a reminder of just how close we all can be to the brink of insanity. There’s always that point where one can just snap, and once that happens it isn’t likely we’re ever coming back. Foley’s masterful wit and morbid imagination make this book feel like a forbidden peek behind the curtain of insanity…tickling your funny bone and giving you goose bumps at the same time.

Karma came full circle last night, and all I got was this lousy moment of Schadenfreude.

I’m not feeling too good about myself right now. I had a bit of a discovery that I can be a severe asshole; both in my shortsightedness and my sanctimonious smugness, and that puts me on the Wheel of Karma as much as it did to the person I happened to come across, whom I’d blamed for something that I’d felt wronged me.

This is going back to June of 2012. With my debut novel a few short weeks away, I was scurrying through Portland trying to find a bookstore willing to host a release party and perhaps carry my novel, with the understanding that I would be publishing more books in the future and wanted an ersatz home front for future publications. I picked a particular book store in the heart of downtown Portland, with a reputation for promoting local authors, and paid them a visit.

The store owner wasn’t there, so when I went inside I was forced to deal with one of the counter jockeys. I explained who I was and dropped off a packet of information, including my bio, a list of previous publishing credentials, contact information for my publisher, and a letter explaining what I’d hoped to accomplish with their store. The clerk assured me that my information would be passed on to the right people, and I thought everything was in place where I’d wanted it to be.

Only, nothing happened. My book reached its release date with zero party or fanfare. My books never graced their shelves. And a part of me felt completely worthless, wondering if it was ME or if it was because I write HORROR, or because (as I’d been told only a few short weeks before by a curator of the New York State Writers Institute), “We reserve THAT for more established writers”. It did a number on my self confidence, and left me feeling that little bookstores like the one I’d been dealing with was totally fucking elitist, pretentious bluster that literary wannabes jack off to when not waxing poetic in their marbleized notebooks. And that bookstore hadn’t been the only one, either. I got the runaround from quiet a few places. Which led me to build a mental list of those folks who supported me way back at my beginning, and those who wanted nothing to do with me.

Only, I gave this particular store the benefit of the doubt, and two months after my book was released I sent them an email, reminding them that I’d dropped off my little packet of information and was still hoping they would carry my book. This store failed to reply to my email as well.

So, fuck ’em.

Three years later…

A coworker of mine pulled me aside and pointed out one of the new temp workers. An older fellow with reading glasses that he often lifted up over his scalp when he wasn’t trying to read the addresses on the packages we sort on our automated machinery. She told me that this man may be of interest to me, as he used to run a bookstore out in Portland. Only, it seems that this man and his business partner have had to close their store (for unmentionable reasons), and now this fellow is an underling to me, wanting to learn the ropes and perhaps make this his new steady-paying gig.

Holy Fuck!

Imagine that…The guy who ran the store that wanted nothing to do with me is now without a store. Gee whiz, break out the sad trombone and play that motherfucker a fanfare. That’s gotta be the worst thing I’ve ever heard. NOT!

Yes, I was that big of an asshole.

I really, really delighted in this poor dude’s hard times, as if Karma really DOES exist and that it was playing out strictly for my satisfaction. I gloated. I reveled. I replayed in my brain the anguish of just how crappy that store made me feel by simply choosing to ignore my existence. In my mind I was ready to treat this human being like garbage; to ignore requests for help and direction and possibly find a way to screw him right out of a job. Because you don’t fuck with ME. I paid my dues, buddy. Now you can pay yours.

That’s not me. That’s not the human being I want to be. I didn’t burn bridges the first time around, when my book failed to make it into his store. I didn’t drop notes to all my friends saying, “Fuck this guy and his business. He doesn’t want to help us unknown authors.” I didn’t harass his employees or mistreat anyone because I was hurt. I simply went on with my life and tried to learn what lessons I could from it. And even now, after my little round of butt-sore gloating, I don’t want to be that guy. I didn’t tell him who I was or rub it in his face for not helping me, or try to sabotage his chances for employment. And I’m not going to. Because now that my little moment of Schadenfreude has worn off, I see a bigger picture. I see ME on that wheel, wanting to stay humble and polite and not giving into the temptation of being a colossal prick. I’m sad they chose not to cooperate and support me, but that was their choice. And for all I know, this guy probably never even saw the packet I left with the clerk at the register. For all I know, she tossed it into the trash and forgot all about it. And for all I know, the email I sent could have went to his spam folder, never to be given a second thought. Whatever the circumstances, I don’t care. My book did just fine without appearing in his store. And even if it had, the remaindered copies would have been sent back to the publisher anyway.

I’m ashamed that I let it get to me, even briefly, that I should delight in what this guy is going through. It contradicts everything I try to preach in social media as well as my personal philosophies. It sucks that we lost another bookstore; one that was very popular and vital to the arts community of our great state. It hurts other local authors, who are trying to gain success and, like myself, have their works read and enjoyed. And on a human level, I hate for anyone to struggle and fail. The world would be a better place if we stopped rejoicing in others’ failures and acting as if life was one big contest.

I behaved badly, but at least I saw the light and am trying to do better. I won’t burn bridges, especially the ones that might lead to new friendships.

I won’t vie for a worse spot on the Wheel of Karma.

I’ll just keep spinning for now, and wait for something more meaningful.

P-

20 Years ago this week I wrote a letter to Stephen King.

I remember it as if it was only yesterday; a 23-year-old version of me sitting in a studio apartment in Portland, Maine, writing a letter out on my then-fiancé’s Sony word processor on my kitchen/dining room table to the King of Horror.  Back then I had no computer, and correspondence was still through snail-mail.  That was how the world still worked in 1995; manuscripts were printed out and sent to the world of publishing, where they would fall into a slush-pile until they could be read by some poor dope in an editorial gig who would either deem the work worthy enough to be short-listed or sent back to the author outright in a manila self-addressed envelope with a form rejection letter.  I used to keep a file for all my rejection letters, as did a lot of other writers I knew back then, but after crossing into the world of publishing success that all became an archaic ritual that lost any meaning…a kind of totem or milestone or talisman for self-loathing or indignant motivation, depending on one’s point of view.  For most of us in the horror genre, rejection letters are the epitome of documenting our progress.  In retrospect, I’ve been turned down by some of the best in the business; Gordon Van Gelder (alas), Darrel Schwietzer, Richard Chizmar (who actually took the time to send a personalized note reading “Almost…Send us more stuff!”), and on and on.  These were the guys who were on the cutting edge of speculative fiction, and to get any kind of feedback from them was a phenomenal blast of motivation.

As for the King of Horror…

When I moved to Maine, I was already a life-long fan of Stephen King.  I discovered his work though his novel THE STAND back in eighth grade, and upon moving to Maine I felt a part of me wanted to be like the King of Horror and see if I could be a writer, myself.  In high school I’d always been in Advance Placement English classes (since junior-high, to be specific), and had always shown an aptitude for disseminating grammar and syntax and picking apart stories to discover themes and tropes and plotlines and character arcs.  I’d always loved reading books.  It came as natural to me as breathing air and tying my shoelaces.  The problem was that I never considered for even a moment (even all through college), that I had any talent or worthwhile ambition to become a writer.  It never occurred to me that writing was something that I could do as a hobby or as an integral part of expressing my own inner mantra within the arts.  I’ve always loved horror, but expressed it through my love of the cinema in the hope that I might one day work in Hollywood as a special-effects artist or something toward that capacity.  And Stephen King had by then made his mark on the film industry, giving us celluloid nightmares in the forms of CARRIE, THE SHINING, CHILDREN OF THE CORN, and plenty of other films.

Ah, but back in 1995…just one quick year after I’d graduated from the University at Albany and had abandoned life as I knew it back in Albany, New York for a new one in the creepy heart of New England…In the world of authors like Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, and of course, Stephen King.  New England holds the heart and the soul of the New World, where children were accused of witchcraft and hanged back in Salem and where the Puritanical heart of our nation was offered up as sacrifice to a new and better way of life in the name of science and progress.  Could there have been a more conflicted region of our ancestry?  I look back at those early years with both pride and repulsion.   In my lonely studio flat in Portland I taught myself how to be a writer.  I learned through a vicious curve of trial and rejection that writing as an art form was the equivalent of baring your soul to strangers so that they could piss all over it at leisure.  Nobody owed you anything, and your form of art was to do at your own risk.  For every writer like myself, I’m sure there are countless others that gave up and moved on to less-fulfilling prospects in terms of careers and life in general.  This shit ain’t easy.  Period.

But back then I was ambitious.  And stubborn.  And in love with the notion that I had an inkling of talent and had something worthwhile to say through my fiction and I stuck with it.  Back then, upon entering my new world in Maine, I began working on my first full-length novel called TOUR ONE; a book featuring a vampire that worked in MY job at the POSTAL SERVICE, where the antagonist had access to the public at large through knowing what mail people were receiving.  It’s easy to trace where people are in their lives based on what mail they receive.  For instance, a citizen getting letters from the AARP, hospital bills, legal documents, etc…you know either they or their loved one is an old person waiting to die.  How easy would it be for a vampire to segregate those people, murder them, and make their death look like an accident?  That was the basis of my first book; a novel that is poorly written and executed and will most likely never see the light of day.

At the time, though, I was really into writing it, really enjoying what I was doing, and decided to write my mentor, the Master of Horror Stephen King a letter, thanking him for his influence and letting him know I was trying to carry on the tradition.

I wrote a seven-page letter to Mr. King.  In it I introduced myself and told him my whole biography and thanked him for his books, his undying inspiration, and for giving me hope in a world of publishing that would eventually kick me in the nuts at every opportunity.  What I remember most from that letter was telling Mr. King that I had just killed off my very first character and how that almost felt empowering to me, considering that the notion of violence to me was something detestable and inhumane.  In that letter I gushed like an idiot fan-boy and told Mr. King what thousands of other authors like myself had already told him; that he was the reason I was doing what I was doing, and THANK YOU FOR IT!

I even mailed my letter in a certified envelope, thinking that King would have to sign for it, so at least I would get his autograph in recompense for my effort.  It never occurred to me that he would have a courier service get his mail, or that his assistant, Marsha DeFillipo, would be the person replying to my letter.

I got a form letter, telling me that Mr. King no longer answers his mail, as that through sheer volume it would leave him virtually no time to write his fiction.  Fucking imagine that!  As for the certified return-receipt card?  Some strange dude who probably has moved on from fetching the mail for the great Stephen King (or died of old age, for all I know).  I threw that one away as soon as it hit my mailbox.

In the past twenty years, I’ve met dozens of authors like myself, wanting to be the next Stephen King.  They’ve all come and gone with little or no fanfare whatsoever.  Many just gave up on the dream, or gave up on themselves and the prospect of fame and fortune.  I can’t blame any of them.  This gig is a fucking heartbreaker to say the least.  For every ten people I know who gave up outright, I’ve encountered one or two who are in it for the long-haul and have managed to build a career in an industry where big-press publishing is going the way of the dinosaur.  And even now, the men and women who are dominating the horror scene still get neither the recognition nor the success of Stephen King. In the tumultuous world of horror writing, the world responds by saying things like, “I don’t read HORROR because it upsets me!”  And yet, they still buy and read Stephen King.

Why?

To answer that one, all you need to do is pick up his latest book, FINDERS KEEPERS, and start reading.  King’s writing is fucking brilliant.  Period.  Within the first chapter, I was hooked.  Just like every other book the man has written.

And that’s the joy and despair of reading King’s work.  It’s loving what he wrote and knowing, “my writing will never be THIS good.”  It’s the same way I felt about REVIVAL. And DUMA KEY.  And BAG OF BONES. And so on and so on.

There’s a reason people call him the KING OF HORROR.  He just fucking IS.

In terms of my own career…I never gave up.  I’m currently writing my sixth book, titled THE GOAT PARADE, and I still enjoy what I do, whether people read it or not.  And whether Mr. King reads it or not.  I’ve found that I’ve given up on King ever discovering my work and giving it high praise, and that’s okay.  I’ve been lucky as hell that through the five books I’ve already put out, I’ve received mostly high praise and congratulations.  People seem to enjoy what I write, and that is all the motivation I need anymore.  I’m not chasing the prospect of having my writing be my primary source of income, but I’ve made a name for myself, and that’s a start.  I don’t have it in me to be as prolific and successful as King, and that’s fine.  I don’t have to worry about losing my anonymity or being inundated by unwanted fan mail to the point that it disrupts my life.  I don’t have to answer for an entire genre or put myself in the way of unwanted criticism, and I find myself thankful for that.  I’ve learned a hell of a lot since I wrote that letter back in 1995, and life is good.

And yet…

And yet I would still be thrilled with approval from the Master of Horror that my work has merit.  That I wrote something that impressed him or scared him or made him change his thinking about the world around him.  I’d want him to know that I’m grateful for all that I’ve learned from him, and for all those hours of reading he provided that entertained me and shaped my life.  I’d still want him to know that I’ve benefitted from his work, and that I’m indebted to him for it, and that he’s been my biggest influence.  That’s how humanity is supposed to work; that it has the grace to acknowledge those who paved the way before us so that we can continue the journey and persevere.  If my fiction is ever revered and remembered in the course of literature, it’s because of Stephen King’s indelible fingerprints and inspiration.

I just thought that the King of Horror should know that.  And I think he does, as he just received the Medal of Arts from the President of the United States.

Even if you never read this…Thank you, Mr. King.  Thank you.  The world is a better place from your being in it.

PND

I want to tell you about Mrs. H.

From my earliest recollection, my parents were very close friends with George and Sylvia Hoyer, the couple that lived down the street from us back in the house where I grew up.  When I was very young (probably around four years old), I can remember the Hoyers coming up to our house to play cards with Mom and Dad, while the youngest of their daughters Carrie and Cindy (fraternal twins) played toys with my older brother Joe and I.  I can recall hearing the grownups laughing as they played cards down in the kitchen, which was kind of a big deal since my dad was very antisocial and rarely invited people into our home.  But Mr. and Mrs. H were cool people; he was the first person that I can remember that owned a motorcycle (and we’re tip-toeing here, the memory of a four-year-old don’t amount to a hill of beans in this big, crazy world…or something like that. For all I know, that memory is totally bogus), and she was the hilarious mom that all the kids on the block seemed to gravitate toward.

The Hoyer household was always an open-invitation thing.  If you showed up, you were invited in.  If you were hungry, you were probably fed.  It was always a special occasion when Mrs. H made her homemade chili.  She’d even go so far as to call our house and invite us down to get some.  Joe loved her chili, and would hightail it out the door as soon as he hung up the phone.  I was still too young to appreciate spicy foods, but I can remember the smile on his face when he’d walk back through our kitchen door carrying a Tupperware container of her finest cooking, his smile still coated with grease stains from the bowl he’d already eaten down in their kitchen before returning to our house.

The eldest Hoyer daughter, Tracy, was our first babysitter.  I was too young to remember it, other than from stories I’ve heard from my mom, but I do remember that she once dated a guy that was a magician, and on one stormy evening we were invited down to the Hoyer house for a magic show.  To a little kid, magic is about the coolest thing ever, and it was a huge deal to me to be a part of that day.  We sat in the dining room and watched as coins disappeared and connected rings were impossibly pulled apart and cards were miraculously placed into the deck and then appeared in our pockets.  Mrs. H watched all of this contentedly from the doorway, chuckling at how naïve we children could be.

Mrs. H was a teaser.  I remember that she used to refer to me as “Neat Pete from up the Street”.  I was a painfully shy kid, and I remember feeling hurt and angry whenever she called me that.  But even that was better than the nickname “Willy Lump Lump”, which she called my kid brother, William, who always had lumps and bruises from over-activity.  Will was a bit of a mischievous kid, and for some reason I seem to recall that he dropped a camera into a fish tank down at the Hoyer house.  Even Mr. H would have fun at Will’s expense.  He’d  tell my brother to pull on his ear, and then with the first remote control I can remember seeing, he’d change the station behind Will’s back, making my brother think he had some crazy super power. Mrs. H would watch and laugh to hysterics every time.

As I’ve mentioned, we spent a lot of time down at the Hoyer house.  I remember listening to records up in the twins’ bedroom (the song “Right Back Where We Started From” jumps immediately to mind), and swimming in their pool on hot summer days, even though we owned our own pool.  Carrie and Cindy were the same age as my older brother, and they tended to bond and hang out together.  I was the dorky younger brother, and was often told that I wasn’t allowed to hang out with them.  I can still remember the frustration of Joe calling me “The Tag-Along Kid”, and telling me to go find something else to do.  In those times, the second Hoyer daughter, Julie, took pity on me and played games with me so that I wasn’t lonely.  Julie later on became a hair-stylist for awhile, and often cut my dad’s hair for him.  It’s crazy to even think about it now, but of all the times I’ve looked at my father and thought he was handsome, it was after Julie styled his hair for him.  Julie came to my dad’s memorial service, had in fact brought Sylvia with her to the wake, and seeing the two of them brought back memories, love, and gratitude.  Mr. H had passed away years before, and I’d been aware of it, but never really had the chance to process it all and express my sympathy.  Mrs. H was  brought in with an oxygen line running fresh air in a tube to her sinuses, but she was as lively and funny as I’d ever known her.  She managed to joke with my mom about some of the guests that came to dad’s wake, which made me laugh in spite of all the sadness.  She also complimented me on my own family, which she’d gotten to know through Facebook.  She’d taken the time to read my blog posts concerning both of my daughters and made it a point to compliment me on my writing.

As I’ve mentioned, we spent a lot of time down in the Hoyer house.  On one occasion, there was a tornado watch in the Albany area.  I seem to recall my mother telling us that Mrs. H was afraid of tornadoes as she rounded my brothers and I up and hurried us down the block to join the Hoyer girls down in the basement, where we spent the afternoon waiting for a rogue storm that never did more than thunder a bit and drop tiny hailstones.   I have no idea if she was really nervous or not, but she kept our spirits up and kept us laughing all afternoon.  It strikes me that every now and then I can hear a weather report and my mind can jump so clearly back to that day.  Even now, at the sound of a tornado watch, I find myself wondering if Mrs. H is down in her basement.

I could tell you about the Halloween she showed up at our house dressed like a plumber with a 70s porn mustache, or how she’d roll her eyes whenever she caught us ogling her daughters as we grew older and their swimsuits grew smaller.  I could tell you that we loved her like a second mother, as did every other child on our block.  I could tell you that childhood is a reflection in the mirror of the soul, and Mrs. H was a burning star that shined bright enough to keep those reflections alive for me, even after all these years. She will be missed, and forever be remembered fondly.

Thank you, Sylvia.  Rest in Peace.

Neat Pete From Up The Street.

I fell in love with Harper Lee back in 8th grade. Well, not exactly the author, herself, but with her 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Her novel may very well be my favorite book of all time, and that is an enormous feat considering all the genres and styles of literature I’ve read over the years. To this day I can still recall how I fell in love with Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, her brother Jem, and her stoic, impossibly upright father Atticus (perhaps the greatest father archetype ever in literature). Lee’s tale was perfectly layered in the pathos of coming-of-age awkwardness, social injustice, parental mythology, racial prejudices, and razor-sharp southern acerbic wit, and it has become a mainstay in English literature classes throughout America, in spite of those who would ban it from course curriculum.

After Lee published the book and it became a success, she became a bit of a recluse, and never published another book afterward. Until this year, when the news was broken that a new manuscript had been uncovered…one Lee had written BEFORE “Mockingbird”. With this revelation, a whirlwind of speculation and insinuations followed, as to whether Lee was coerced into publishing this new manuscript by the custodians of her estate or if she was even interested in publishing. Others claimed that this was just a moment of opportunism, as America has once again fallen into a quagmire of racial strife and discord, and the book’s release coincided a bit too perfectly. Many people suggested that Lee had already raised the bar too high for herself with the success of her first novel, and this was perhaps the worst kind of exploitation of an elderly literary master. Regardless, when it was announced that GO SET A WATCHMAN would be published in July, I found myself among the ranks of those burning to read it, to find out whatever became of Jean Louise and the Finch family.

When I began reading, I was shocked and disheartened to discover that the POV had jumped from the beautifully elaborate first-person narrative of “Mockingbird” to third-person omniscient, thus removing a great deal of the intimacy that made Lee’s first book so relatable and captivating. With a 26-year-old Jean Louise leaving her new home and cosmopolitan lifestyle in New York City to visit her aging and arthritic father Atticus back home in Maycomb, Alabama, we find ourselves reentering familiar ground of southern living and caste system society that she escaped upon adulthood. We learn that her older brother Jeremey “Jem” Finch died a few years earlier, and that her childhood friend/first crush Henry “Hank” Clinton has found a mentor and father-figure in Atticus. And as the train rolls into Maycomb Junction, an unsettling darkness in the form of deepening racist tensions has spread like a blanket over the land she calls “home” and where her roots are permanently sewn.

When Jean Louise discovers that Atticus and Hank are playing an active role countering the activities of the NAACP and working to protect Maycomb against the progress of desegregation, everything she knows and understands about her family and the father she has grown to idolize falls into an uncomfortable demystification process; one that leaves her recounting her childhood and events in her formative years that had led to establish her uncompromising understanding of equality and “color-blindness”.

Having written this work before “Mockingbird”, it’s very easy to pick out where the continuity issues fail to hold up. For starters, the case against Tom Robinson (in this book), led to an acquittal…due to the fact that Tom was not only disfigured but had in fact lost his good arm completely while working in a sawmill. There were several other flaws, but these were trifles that did not hinder my reading of the book, and once the story really kicked into gear, I forgot all about the fact that it wasn’t a first-person narrative. In fact, this book really could not have succeeded in that POV, as we (the readers) are on a learning curve that happens simultaneously with Jean Louise. This is crucial by the time we get to the climax of the story. Where “Mockingbird” is concerned with a courtroom trial drama, “Watchman” is concerned with a personal trial Jean Louise is holding against her father, and the torment it brings to her internally.

Where Lee’s writing shines most of all is in the vignettes that reference events of Scout’s earlier (post-Boo Radley/Bob Ewell) years. Fans like myself who were hoping for more glimpses of Scout’s childhood friends like Dill and Boo, and even the Ewell family will be disappointed. Dill is mentioned in passing, but plays no part in the evolving tale of Scout’s return to Maycomb. At least Jem is mentioned, and the capers that Jean Louise shared with her brother and the younger version of Henry Clinton, and those moments (just like the first book) are filled with the hilarious awkwardness that made Scout such an endearing character in “Mockingbird”.

In terms of prose and syntax, there are moments when Lee tediously presents too much information about the history of the Finch family and goes into tangents in her characterizations, but even that is a forgivable crime. It shows her unfailing desire to represent her literary family completely, and if this manuscript did in fact precede her masterpiece in “Mockingbird”, then this book serves her well in establishing the growth she made in perfecting her craft.

Most of all, Lee’s piercing wit shines through in her writing. There are moments that I found myself laughing out loud in how the book’s scandalous southern events unfold, in the biting sarcasm and sardonic put-downs hurled between characters, and how marvelously playful Lee gets in bringing her characters to life. She is a writer of extraordinary and enviable talent, and to hear people putting this book down reconfirms for me that the literary cognoscenti are a petty, quacking lot concerned more for their learnedness and stature than they are about giving a book a fair chance. Had Lee not written perhaps the greatest book of the 20th Century, I suspect their reviews would be kinder and more embracing. Perhaps “Watchman” isn’t a masterpiece in its own right but it’s still a damn good read and a satisfying glimpse into the later years of Scout and Atticus Finch.

I found myself in love with literature once again, and the 8th grader in me reveled in it.