Saturday, February 25, 2017

People Pulls a Bit of a Bait and Switch

Can I be forgiven for initially assuming that Kevin Wignall’s People Die is a crime novel? His debut ticks off all of the appropriate boxes on the genre checklist. A sympathetic hitman under the gun from former allies? A Byzantine plot he has to unravel in order to survive? Gunplay and fisticuffs that suitably swell the double-digit body count? Yes, yes, and yes—but there the similarities end. Rather than focus on high-octane action, Wignall has chosen an entirely different emphasis: internal monologues preoccupied with subjective musings and big existential questions.

JJ has a reputation as a non-partisan contractor, a service provider free of ideological hang ups, a guy who gets the job done in as clean a manner as possible. It just so happens that his chosen profession involves killing people, murdering anyone for money anywhere—but not anyhow. JJ doesn’t go in for torture. He won’t off a target with a baseball bat or brick. “Overkill” isn’t in his dictionary. A couple of pistol shots neat and clean as you please, and JJ’s out of there. That was what happened in Moscow when JJ executed his latest mark, a family man named Bostridge. JJ doesn’t know why the guy has to die. The agency doesn’t pay him enough for that. Nor does the size of his retainer allow him the luxury of wondering why there was a girl in the room. A girl who wasn’t his wife. A girl who took a wrapped package from the room after the hit. JJ doesn’t worry about it until a few days later when his handler shows up dead. Then former colleagues start to drop like the proverbial flies. Someone is killing everyone around JJ, and the Moscow job might very well have something to do with it.

The setup for People Die sounds like something straight out of the thriller writer’s handbook, doesn’t it? That’s why it surprised me so much when Wignall immediately steered the proceedings away from the bang-bang-die stuff and into JJ’s mental machinations. And by immediately, I mean immediately. No sooner is Bostridge bleeding out onto the floor (a scant five paragraphs in) then readers find themselves plunged into his thoughts about the isolating power of sudden tragedy, the cultural cluelessness of Westerners, and the fragile beauty of the young whore. Such shifts shock in more ways than one. Not only are they unexpected for the genre, they’re linked with a substantial stylistic disconnect. The action reads like Hemingway. Short and sharp bursts. Almost business-like action. But everything after that tumbles out in lengthy, unhurried prose, dependent clauses unspooling one after another, some landing, in a development that you might find odd, smack in the middle of others. Interestingly, Wignall seems to prefer the literary stuff to crime content, a valid enough compositional and thematic choice that nonetheless feels off in a book with a big old hollowpoint bullet emblazoned on the cover. So does the main thematic thrust that JJ’s emotionless murders may somehow tilt the cosmic scales for good. I have no problem with crime fiction getting existential or diving deep into another genre’s territory. But it’s hard to feel as though People hasn’t pulled a bit of a bait and switch.

(Picture: CC 2008 by mr.smashy)

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Advent Ghosts 2016: The Stories

Note: This post will be updated regularly throughout the day. Check back early and often to get your fill of spooky stories!

The periodic purges have begun, jackboots tromping through the frosty night. No one knows how they began, what petty bureaucratic infringement sparked the settling of old scores, the creation of new ones. We’ve killed the lights for safety’s sake, because who would think this old hovel with its icy stove and chinked walls and cracked windows was inhabited? A hoarded blanket flung over the scarred table in the dining room serves as our shelter, and we huddle beneath it for warmth, lifting a corner now and then to peer out at the fissured glass, at the roving lights striking white against shifting sheets of snow. But then the howling starts, bellows of fear and pain and something that could almost be called delight. We shiver as one. It has nothing to do with the cold. We let the blanket drop, knowing that no human throat could’ve made some of those sounds, knowing that we won’t dare to raise it again until the sun stands tall in the sky, knowing that there are things worse than the secret police out in the darkness.

We stare at the blanket's patchwork surface. Tough, undyed homespun. A section of chiffon. A swath of powder-blue cloth printed with puppies. A match flares, finds the precious stub of a candle. A trembling hand passes around a flask. A low voice starts to sing about bells wild and sweet, catches on a soft sob, and stops.

Please, dear friend, come here. Warm your hands, recall the old songs, pass the night with us. And while you're here, don’t forget to tell us a story ...
• "Into the Void" and "A Condo Christmas" by William Gregory (see below)
• "I-Bowndyn" by David Llewellyn Dodds (see below)
"The Trampoline" by Kel Mansfield on Kel Mansfield: Write Stuff
"It's Only ..." by Loren Eaton on I Saw Lightning Fall
"Under the Mistletoe" and "Tree" by Craig Scott on CS Fantasy Reviews
"Christmas Eve at the Tree Farm, Candler, North Carolina" by Joseph D'Agnese on Joseph D'Agnese
"What's Under the Tree?" by Phil Wade on Brandywine Books
"Nose" by Lester D. Crawford on Lester D. Crawford Blog
"Mother and Child, West of the World" by R.S. Naifeh on Advent Ghosts: Short Theological Fictions for the Dead of Winter
"Bethlehem‘s Star" by Rhonda Parrish on Rhonda Parrish
"Fresh Paint" by David Higgins on Davetopia: Fragments of a Curious Mind
"The Elves Are Busy" by Michael Morse on Rescuing Providence
"Ever Here" by Paula Gail Benson on Little Sources of Joy
"Birth of a God" and "Data Breach Expected to Have Consequences" by Eric Douglas on Books by Eric Douglas
"This Old House" by Patrick Newman on Lefty Writes
"It's Not Mama" by Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher on Esse Diem
"Scrawled on Memo Line of Giant Novelty Check Presented by Blackgall Creamery to Diluvian Street Firehouse Rebuilding Fund Dated 12/25/1985" by Manuel Royal on Donnetown Today or Recently (or a Long Time Ago)
"Finally Alone" by Simon Cantan on Simon Cantan: Science Fiction and Fantasy That Moves
"Cold Comfort" by Katherine Tomlinson on Kattomic Energy
* * *

"Into The Void"
By William Gregory

The blank white space is overwhelming. Intimidating. I take a deep breath. Settle myself. My mind.

Standing before me a void. Nothingness. Thoughts of failure. A palpable fear and dread.

Why? Why do I keep coming back?

A small blinking light in the corner. Beckoning.

Another deep breath. Go forward. You’ve done it before. You can do it again.

I press the keys and the first word appears. I begin down a path unknown. A sense of where it may lead, but never knowing where or how it will end. This is the adventure I seek. I am a writer.

("Into The Void" copyright 2016 by William Gregory; used by permission)

* * *

"A Condo Christmas"
By William Gregory

Apartment 5A: “I feel so honored to have my children here tonight. Nothing makes a father or I should say, new grandfather, happier than having all his children with him for the holidays.”

Apartment 6B: “More wine honey? It’s so nice to spend our first Christmas together.” “To new beginnings!” “To dreams come true!”

Apartment 8C: “Mommy, when will Santa be here? Can we stay up? Can we put the cookies out now? Please??? Oh Please????”

Apartment 1D: Too cold on the roof. Razor is too messy. (And you’ve tried that before dumbass.) Xannies and Popov? (Yeah) “Merry Fucking Christmas!”

("Into The Void" copyright 2016 by William Gregory; used by permission)

* * *

"I-Bowndyn"
By David Llewellyn Dodds

Darkness, confusion, buried alive, like a well, a building-collapse. Light, sound, voice, crashing into head, heart, so fine, clear, certain – all suddenly gone, what long years ago? Borne, patiently, hope carbonized to diamond in the dark. Now, what rumor (how?) stirring, of excavation – of more than restoration? What glint, in the depths, sheltered roundabout? What surge from root to branch to bud? “Yirmiyahu, – ” “O, Yeshayahu, what a city of grey desolation is this, we’ve not escaped the making of: how the sorrow weighs against hope…” “No!: hear that submerged ghostly breath of joy in the womb, ‘Eloi!’ – He nears!”

("I-Bowndyn" copyright 2016 by David Llewellyn Dodds; used by permission)

"It's Only ..."

“... 100 words.” The voice seems to float to me across a great gulf. “Then freedom.”

I look at the flames ringing my desk. The sores on my skin. The squamous squirming within them.

I start to write, only occasionally diverted by the seething hellscape.

At 25 words, I notice my title is a consonantal garble. I fix it. At 57 words, I see that my protagonist is speaking in Yiddish. I fix it. At 99 words, I sigh, close my eyes—

—and open them to a blank page.

But that’s fine, right? I can fix it. It’s only ...



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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Shared Storytelling: Advent Ghosts 2016

Winter, summer, autumn, spring—the season hardly matters here. The only significant difference between them are the smells. Cold dampens the reek of cabbage, of unwashed flesh, of the acrid stench of polyamides from the government-run factories that stipple the blocks. But days always run to gray across the obdurate cityscape, the concrete tenements uniform only in their ugliness. Even an arrival only five minutes fresh from the train could chart the rise and fall of a dozen administrations in the architecture itself. The squat bunkers from the war years. The crowded clusters of multifamily high rises sprouting brown lines of laundry like fungus. The trapezium arcology that the central planners failed to foresee, a desperate amalgamation of old offices and older scrap that started to accrete once the administrative cordon appeared. No one dares cross the cordon. It isn’t just the acrid stench of ozone shed by the buzzing perimeter of pylons. There’s something about the guards themselves, about the shape of their helmets, those irregular, bulbous shells without any obvious ports for sight or sound. But even the guards are preferable to the things that skulk around the city’s outer walls. Only the old roaming trader will ever hint about their unholy forms. There he is in the corner, the one with the patch on his eye, the man who goes where he will and sells luxuries like soap and tissues and socks without the sanction of any officially sanctioned price sheet.

Go on. Buy him a drink. See what he has to say—if you dare.

Welcome to Advent Ghosts 2016, the eighth annual shared storytelling event at ISLF. In the spirit of Charles Dickens, M.R. James, Neil Gaiman, and countless other writers down the years, a group of us gathers each year to swap eerie tales immediately prior to Christmas. We aren’t so doctrinaire as to insist that stories go up on Christmas Eve itself. Neither are we elitist in the least. Everyone is welcome, and our only rules for participating are ...
1) Email me at ISawLightningFall [at] gmail [dot] com.
2) Pen an eerie tale that’s exactly 100-words long—no more, no less.
3) Post the story to your blog on Saturday, December 17 and email the link to me. Hosting on ISLF is available for those without blogs or anyone who wants to write under a pseudonym. (Don’t worry, you’ll maintain copyright.)
4) Understand that while you have the freedom to pen as extreme content as you’d like, I reserve the right to place a content warning on any work that I think necessitates it. Just being upfront about it.
So get thee to your pen or word processor and share a story with us. Don’t worry about the genre. While it can be a ghost story à la the title, we love every genre. Go for SF or crime fiction. Write a bizarre romance or a weird western. Try traditional poetry or experimental prose if you’d like. Write what you like just so long as its slightly scary. Want more info? Check out our 2015, 2014, and 2013 events, and discover what horrors wait for you in those ancient, long-buried vaults.

(Picture: CC 2016 by Adam Jones)

Monday, October 31, 2016

"The Everlasting Arms"

Note: The following was written as part of ISLF friend Eric Douglas’ Halloween-themed 100-word-story challenge. Please visit Books By Eric for more spooky tales.

Jeffrey’s mother chucked up the covers and groaned, “What the hell?”

“Monster,” Jeffrey said. “In my room.”

“You’re too old for this.”

“The monster—”

“Damn it, go to bed, you little bastard.” Her breath smelled of juniper.

Jeffrey went. He lay weeping as the room filled with the odor of rotting violets and a sickly light welled from beneath his bed and an encircling score of squelching tentacles slowly squeezed him to his mattress.

“I WILL ALWAYS BE HERE,” The Voice said from everywhere and nowhere.

“I know,” Jeffrey said. And he hugged the pseudopod’s squamous surface in return.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

NOS4A2 Would Make Chekov Proud

Genre tropes get long in the tooth so quickly, turning into hoary monstrosities that still shamble onto bookstore shelves long after they ought to have been buried. Sometimes they owe their demise to oversaturation, the same old staggering off to market again and again. For example, consider zombies and their cranium-crunching cornucopia of gory stories, movies, and comics that have infected pop culture. (An aside: Would any of you be forlorn if an international diktat forbade the creation of new zombie yarns for a few years? I doubt it.) Other times, though, conventions die an iterative death, one slightly altered work following another until the concept gets so far afield that it jumps the proverbial shark. I think this is where the good, old vampire stands. Forget Stoker’s suave Count. In recent years, creatives have transitioned to prepubescent horrors, rock-and-roll revenants, and those notoriously sparkly denizens of the night. No wonder people got tired of Anne Rice’s old standbys. They hardly resemble vampires anymore. So when I saw that Joe Hill planned to visit the idea with his novel NOS4A2, I wanted to see what twist he’d work into the old legend—and I can honestly say that his take was the last thing I expected.

Victoria McQueen—dubbed “The Brat” by her rough-around-the-edges father and mostly shrieked at by her neurotic mother—has a special talent: She can find things. Forget about change between the couch cushions or missing keys, though. Vic can suss out more important stuff, things like beloved heirlooms or lost pets, pretty much anything she wants. Her talent is less impressive than the way in which she implements it. Vic conjures a long-demolished local bridge out of thin air and pedals her bike across it. Viola! Instant transportation to the missing item. But like many gifts, it comes with unanticipated consequences, real downsides that manifest themselves in Vic’s very body. Raging fevers. Debilitating headaches. Mysterious bleeding from one eye. Still, it’s a gift that Vic will need to use very soon. She’s about to come face to face with one Charlie Manx, a hundred-year-old child abductor who says that he isn’t stealing kids at all, oh no. Rather, he claims that he’s ferrying them to a magical paradise called Christmasland.

Even given the brevity of the above description, you can probably guess that Charlie Manx is NOS4A2’s titular vampire. What might surprise you, though, is that he bares no fangs, bites no necks, fails to transmogrify into a single bat. Rather, Manx’s vampirism restricts itself to the realm of the mind. Like Vic (and this is hardly a spoiler), he has a talent, only his gift feeds on the psychic energy of children. An interesting enough idea on its own, but Hill doesn’t develop it further, and that makes for pretty thin genre sauce, especially given the richness of vampiric lore. Wordy passages and crass asides—including a scene where (I kid you not) a pigeon defecates into the mouth of a fervently praying supplicant—only detract further. But where Hill excels, really excels, is in his plotting. He strews narrative firearms left and right throughout the book’s early stages, not a single one of which remains unfired by the end. Chekov would be proud. NOS4A2 may not exactly advance vampire fiction, but it’s an enjoyable read all the same.

(Picture: CC 2014 by Rodolfo Polanco Casasola)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

These Compelling Beasts Aren’t for Kids

I doubt that the 1998 Wesley Snipes vehicle Blade lands high on anyone’s “best of American cinema” list. Broad and bloody, it somehow spawned a franchise with an increasingly steep decline in quality that ended in a TV version dubbed (appropriately enough, I guess) Blade: The Series. Still, one quote from that first film has stuck with me over the years. Early on, the titular vampire hunter has saved a doctor from a supernatural assault and explains that existence isn’t the simple, naturalistic thing everyone believes it to be. “You better wake up,” Blade intones. “The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping! There is another world beneath it—the real world.” Not the most elegant metaphor, but I like it because it encapsulates the fundamentals of urban fantasy. Fiddle with it however they may, authors of the sub-genre keep returning to the world-beneath-the-world idea, and Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s episodic graphic novel Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites is no different. It cleaves to that basic idea like honeymooners to one another on a Caribbean getaway. What distinguishes it, though, is how it replaces typical urban-fantasy protagonists with a cabal of adventuresome house pets.

You see them every day, scampering down the street, scarfing down kibble from their bowls, barking and whining as they beg and bicker. They’re frank Pugsley and brave Ace, kindly Jack and occasionally cowardly Rex—the neighborhood’s dogs. (Oh, yeah, and the Orphan, but he hardly counts since he’s a cat and all.) You hardly take note of them, which is to be expected since you’re only human. But this motley, mostly canine crew does more than simply howl at the moon and chase each other through the woods. Evil forces skulk around the periphery of the community (and sometimes even beneath it), and the only thing standing between you and destruction is often that furry member of the family whom you took for a walk this morning.

Beasts of Burden is a great example of a concept that improves with every iteration. The first tale, “Stray,” clocks in at a mere eight pages and feels more like a plot treatment than a proper narrative, a way to roughly graft classic ghost tropes onto a canine world. (I imagine the pitch going something like, “But what if it was a haunted doghouse?!”) “The Unfamiliar” mars an otherwise serious story with goofy humor and a silly looking main monster. But Dorkin and Thompson started ratcheting up the horror in subsequent issues, and the compilation ends up better for it. Poignant sacrifice turns stale zombie conventions into something compelling (“Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”), grue lends added impact to a werewolf riff with a surprise ending (“A Dog and His Boy”), and a grim beauty inhabits a dog’s search for her missing puppies (“Lost”). That being said, vivid watercolors make the blood really seem to splash, so consider yourself forewarned: As compelling as they may be, these Beasts aren’t for the after-school set.

(Picture: CC 2014 by Isengardt)