Archive for September, 2017

Fragment from THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT: Dad’s Stories

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2017 by smuckyproductions

 

I’ve finished a major rewrite of this project, so here is a fragment to celebrate. From the novel’s beginning, when the protagonist remembers his father’s campfire stories, which set him on a journey into the darkness of the woods, and his mind. 

Dad’s stories were all the same. The details shifted, depending on my age or his mood, but the format and essence were set in stone from the first. That’s why I loved them and why he could remember how to tell them. He started as early as age five, maybe earlier. We had to wait for the campfire to be raging, dinner charred and devoured, a whiskey to lubricate his throat. By the time he was ready, dusk had settled around us; his head a big shadow against the gold-red sky, and the night wind starting to stir the trees. Dad would take a sip of his drink, inhale deeply – a moment of anticipation, suspense – and then he would begin.

“There are some things, Luke…” He did that a lot, borrowing grand ideas from smarter people and tossing them at minds who must have been too little to understand, or at least couldn’t recognize the source. And following this statement, he would weave his world. All it took was a sweep of his hand. A dark mountain, endless rows of murky pines, sharp smells of water and dirt; in the center of it all, a father and son, huddled around their fire. He had a special way of framing it, not quite literary but remarkable for a suburban father who prided himself on straightforward thinking – no frilly shit. Every time I heard that opening, I could see nothing aside from his fire-crossed face, and I would be transported.

Our hero, the son, was always my age and height – usually shared my name, too. Luke (or Dan or Mike, if Dad was feeling creative) had embarked on a camping trip with his father. They were having a hell of a time, an ideal escapade, with no need for lessons or encouraging words or explanations. The trip started in this ideal manner, told as Dad’s eyes went a little glassy with the fantasy; but night had to fall sometime.

For all his shortcomings, Dad understood better than most the landscape of the woods at night. He might have been a strong rival for Algernon Blackwood, if I do say so, had he given it any real thought. He had the atmosphere on his side, too. It’s incomparable – the darkness is so complete, trapped in the tree branches, and while you know that your surroundings are overwhelmingly huge, you feel entombed in them, unable to run in any direction. Just to stand within it, be a part of its fabric, is an exhilarating enigma. But with exhilaration can come fear. There is nothing lonelier in the world than being lost in the woods after dark. I’m not sure if he was aware, but Dad always infused this terror into his stories. As a kid, it’s even worse, looking up into the dark and knowing that your only protection is your father.

So night would fall on fictional Luke, and he would dutifully go to sleep, or venture into the trees for more firewood – an obedient counterpart. He wouldn’t get far before he felt a weight in his gut, the weight of far away eyes; and then the noises would start. A twig snaps. Footsteps – tiny or huge – echo in the distance, then again, a little closer. They rattle the boy’s bones as they drew forward. My little body would be quivering by this point, thinking of that huge form slinking so effortlessly through the forest – but my counterpart stands his ground. In the early stories, fictional Luke would walk into the firelight as the beast appears, mountainous in its ebony self that blocked out the moon. Dad never gave it a clear shape, but my brain did a fine job; always adding an extra eye or mouth, endless limbs to hug its victims to death. In its gut-shaking voice, the monster howls, “I am hungry! And my favorite food is little boys!” But the boy is no coward. He steps into the firelight and challenges the beast. Usually, his threats work; the monster breaks down and proclaims that he’s just lonely. The boy makes a new friend and Dad gets away with scaring the shit out of me – as long as it’s a happy ending. Though in the silence, when my dad started snoring, I would think of the monster’s approaching steps and wonder – in real life, would I be brave enough?

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Fragment from THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT: Gates to Hell

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by smuckyproductions

Another fragment from THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT – the rewrite is nearing its end, but this page comes from the story’s start. Musings on popular urban legends that, while eerie in their own right, mask the true horror that they imply. 

Junior year of high school I got a little obsessed with Gates to Hell. Our lovely country has its fair share, so the urban legends suggest. Always threatened to go on a road trip and visit each of them, oil lantern and book of psalms in hand. Never found anyone who wanted to go with me.

There’s some good ones out there, anyway. The residents of Clifton, New Jersey, for example, believe that a tunnel system below their fine town burrows into the fiery pit itself. The further you go, the closer you get to the Devil – but you might not find your way out. Pennsylvania has several, maybe thanks to those good-hearted Quakers. In Downington, a father murdered his family and opened a door through which supernatural beings descend. Luckily for the locals, they can’t come back up. York has not one, but seven. Step through the first and the other six will appear, but no one has made it past the fifth without losing their minds. Even Kansas has one, not that they’re much else to do out there but talk to demons. Residents of Stull warn against (mostly in vain) staying overnight in their old cemetery. If you’re brave enough to try, you might lose sense of time, and hear the terrible echoes of past ritual sacrifices made on the dead ground. Those who can steel their nerves against these sensory assaults might see the gates open – but local law enforcement is not liable for those who decide to go through.

Our culture conjures these stories almost without effort, it seems, simply by dreaming and hoping. Spooky ones, but nothing beyond that – just a little chill to pass the time, no harm done. Sometimes the veneer doesn’t cover the rotting truth, though. There’s the Devil’s Gate Reservoir in Pasadena, other side of the continent. In 1957, a boy strayed just a few feet ahead of his hiking group, rounded a corner, and vanished. Seconds out of sight, enough to erase him from the world. And the same happened in ’56, ’60, kids plucked from the air without a trace, fates never justified, families deprived of their chance to say goodbye.

It’s sensible that people would create these tales of devil holes and witches, in the wake of something like that. They give intention and reason to these mysteries. Better to blame pure evil than accident, a tumble into a ravine, or some confused soul seeking to transplant their pain onto someone pure, unsoiled, and convince themselves that this is justice. Let the demons take responsibility – we aren’t capable of that cruelty. There’s a story there, no doubt. But the demons can only provide so much distraction before they announce their horrible alibi.

The Art of Rejection (or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Your Work)

Posted in Dark Musings with tags , , , , , , on September 24, 2017 by smuckyproductions

IMG_5773There is one universal truth about living creatively: you have to deal with rejection. A lot of it. And often it never comes with an explanation or reason. You submit something into which you poured your lifeblood, spent endless hours crafting and recrafting; then wait weeks or months for the result. When the email comes, it’s typically two or three sentences long, but only one word matters: “Unfortunately…” Maybe they say the story wasn’t right for them at this time, or they had too many pieces to choose from. The reason hardly matters, anyway – you didn’t make it.

A rejection opens floodgates of self-doubt and existential terror. It throws your individual work into question; and sometimes that translates to your entire purpose. If this story didn’t make the cut, after all that work and love and care, then what will? Why did you spend so much time working on that piece if it wasn’t good enough? Why did you think it would be good at all? When a rejection like this comes in for me, it sparks a physical reaction. My body gets heavy and my thoughts slow down. It’s hard to go about the day with that knowledge oozing through the mind – the knowledge of failure.

But, as I’ve learned while working in the industry for a while, rejection can occur for many different reasons. Magazine and contest readers are individual human beings. I’ve been judging for screenwriting contests for a few months now, and the process has taught me that these decisions are subjective – while most organizations require two readers to analyze each submission, the judgment still originates from someone’s internal reaction. People’s tastes are all diverse, and always change depending on their mood or circumstances. If a reader doesn’t appreciate your work, maybe it just wasn’t meant for them. This is a factor that you can’t control.

Even more arbitrarily, sometimes there just isn’t room for your submission. Lesley Conner, editor of the renowned Apex Magazine, explains his selection process in this essential tweet thread. He notes that, due to the volume of submissions and very limited space in the publication, he constantly has to reject great stories. Why? Because he has to. Sundance Film Festival programmers delivered a similar message in this article several years back – with thousands of submissions and only a few spots, they must choose films that aren’t just good, but unique. Their personal favorites sometimes get left behind because they’re too similar to another selection. They have to fill gaps in the market, provide something for every audience. That’s the truth of programming.

So, what it comes down to is luck. You do have to reach a pinnacle of creation, of course – your work has to be good. And when you don’t know whether you’re being rejected because your work isn’t good enough, or simply because it didn’t catch on, it’s hard to know where to improve. Magazine editors and contest judges don’t have time to give detailed notes. Educational spaces – creative writing workshops, grad school, close friends – can provide that feedback, but these are often expensive; and even these spaces can be discouraging, if your peers don’t understand or acknowledge your vision.

Without that core group of support, the rejections can often create a vacuum in the writer’s mind. Trying to solve your work’s problems on your own causes disconnect, echoes, confusion; there may be gaping holes that you just can’t see because you’re looking too close. Some pieces may become mangled beyond repair. The sense of purpose and self degenerates as the echoes knock around your mind until you’re a wreck. But all of this is part of the creative process, isn’t it? Does it have to be?

Instead of agonizing over continued rejection, I’ve tried to ask myself why I am writing, and why I am telling stories. Is it for publication and success, or is it for personal satisfaction? Is it both? For me, the latter reason is more appealing, because it’s something that I can control. If I know that my work accomplishes that I need it to, that has to be enough – and if someone else enjoys it as well, that’s a bonus. In the end, you’re the only person who can judge your work.

This mantra is much simpler to state; implementing it in actual life is a challenge in and of itself. I certainly haven’t found a way to keep it in mind when it counts most. But, there is an art to receiving rejection. Part of creative life is constantly bettering your work without compromising your vision. It’s essential to create that balance – otherwise there won’t be any work to reject. Writing doesn’t have to be such a painful, existential nightmare. Accepting that there’s no clear path to success, and redefining what success means, can help the writer maintain sanity. I hope.

Autumn Fragment: CROSSROADS

Posted in Halloween, Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2017 by smuckyproductions

Autumn comes upon us tomorrow – here is a piece of a story called CROSSROADS, about a group of bored kids who occupy themselves with a dangerous, demonic game. It’s the time of year when we hear whispers in the air, bone-dry leaves tapping out code that something waits for us beyond the sky.

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Andy didn’t tell us all the rules at once – probably came up with them on the fly. He never wrote them down, and we never forgot them. “It only comes at dusk,” he said. “It needs those shadows to make itself real. Where it comes from, everything is shadow, beyond shadow. In the daytime or the moonlight, it’s just air. It can watch but it can’t do anything. So we have to bring it things right at sunset – so it can grab them up.” But also, “We can’t look right at it. In its real body – it’s too gnarly. Our brains would – BAM!” Fishface jumped at that one, and Andy cackled at him. Jenny hit his arm to make him stop – that laugh was ugly.

This went on for a few weeks, until the rules started to sound the same, and we were wondering what kind of game this was after all. We didn’t do anything different – still snuck into the movies, stole cigarettes, kicked trash around the newly-filled river – except we stopped going to the barn. No one brought it up, either, so we didn’t miss it. But we were still bored. Jenny started demanding answers. What was the point of the game? How did we play? Andy told us in pieces, but after a while we got the basics: we had to steal an offering, and take it out to the barn at sunset, and leave it there. If the offering was good, we’d get to live. But if it was bad, the thing in the dark would take us to its crypt and keep us there forever. Andy repeated this last part all the time. He never smiled when he said it. “Okay, sure, offerings – but when do we take them? Whenever we feel like it?” Jenny snapped one day. Andy glowered at her when she said it. “Don’t joke,” he said. “It’ll tell us when. We’ll know.”

When he said this, the game got interesting again. We all waited. Sometimes we didn’t talk at all, in case we missed the call. The wind – turning cold, brittle – might carry a slithery voice any day. Our teachers stopped yelling at us to pay attention, because we were listening, just not to them. Nighttime became something holy for us. In our bedrooms we stayed awake and tilted our ears at the empty windows. Of course, nothing happened, nothing came to us; though Jenny and Fishface sometimes talked about funny dreams, where they walked into the barn and fell down into a hole, but the hole was really a mouth that was about to clamp shut. Sometimes they woke up and their sheets were pulled off their bodies, they said. Andy chuckled, “That’s part of the game.”

It was toward the middle of September, when the leaves just started changing, that Andy told us the game had started. We were a little jealous – how come he got to hear the call and we didn’t? “Because it’s my game, turd faces,” he said.

Last time we’d seen the barn, it had been all lightning and rain, big blasts of thunder like drum beats. It set the right mood. This time it was a nice evening, a little cool, no stormclouds waiting on the skyline. A school night, too, to make it worse. The weather didn’t matter, Andy assured us – when it called, it meant business, gloom or sunshine. The problem was the offering, of course. Jenny suggested jewels from her mother’s vanity drawer. Fishface thought of hamburgers – “It’s hungry, anyway, you said.”

“None of that,” Andy snapped. “It told me what it wants.”

Fragment from THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT: Ghosts in the Dark

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2017 by smuckyproductions

The air is turning cold in the forests and mountains; autumn is staking its claim. In honor of the darker weather, here is another fragment from THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT – this one relating to the character’s search for answers in a nebulous, eerie world. 

The mountain looks down on this room every night, just an outline against the stars. I stare at it from the window, listen to the wind slipping through the pines and the shaky hoot of an owl; but the mountain is all I can see. I intend to initiate a staring contest between us. It hasn’t accepted the challenge.

When it’s this late at night, with the bloodstream clogged and the air cold, inky – no need for ghouls or winged beasts or God up there. The town has its own ghosts roaming the dark. The ghosts of the miners, for example, trekking through the trees from that final place of rest that no one has bothered to uncover yet. The ghost of that suicidal woman, Janet, a rather new shade. Ghosts who lost their jobs, rich families who abandoned their legacy and patronage; fathers trying to start a fire with wet matches in the dark. And the missing girl, Stephanie. Her ghost is the most intangible. I still don’t know where she’s been or where she’s gone. I can feel all of them at the window if I try hard enough – maybe the regulars can, too, and that’s why they drink, to convince themselves it’s just the wind. And it is just that, just a lonely breath in the other room, gone cold by the time you hear it. That’s one thing about the city. Nights are just brown or grey gloom, depending on pollution, and you know someone, somewhere is still awake; the night and silence are never complete. Here, they’re sovereign. Anyone who wanders out there at this time of night might as well be a ghost, because no one will be there to see them, and with just the moonlight cast upon their doomed steps – there! There he is, at the window. Going to tell me one more story. This time the beast’s already breathing down my neck. My own breath, and it hardly stirs a hair.

Mom hated that I got drunk. But she never understood the medicinal effects. It’s fair, isn’t it, to get drunk? Breath no longer cold; vision unreliable enough to blame these shapes on the poison, a side effect. Graham and Roselyn and Stan get it. They’ve learned the secret of living with this empty air. But not with the ghosts. No, I suspect there’s no secret to that; the shadows will continue to creep, creep closer to the window and tap – polite until they lose patience.

But even ghosts need to sleep, and dream. My vigil on the mountain ends. It’s already against the window. I won’t invite it in.

Sterile Fairy Tales: the Atmosphere of Beaver Creek

Posted in Dark Musings, Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2017 by smuckyproductions

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For a few years now, due to my mother’s rather unique event-planning job, I’ve been able to make brief visits to the Colorado village of Beaver Creek. This mountain resort does not qualify as a town in the traditional sense. Just west of Vail, its activities and infrastructure are limited to hiking, skiing when there’s snow, and indulging in decadent sustenance. Its main feature is the quiet, a well-protected amenity. Wealthy families make up the bulk of the population here, and they come to seek privacy, peace. They build or purchase massive houses in the woods, most designed to mirror Swiss chalets or copper-plated Viking halls, but without real texture or age to cause functional problems. On average, these houses are occupied two or three months out of the year – some, a bus driver noted while discussing the issue, for all but a week or two. The houses spend most of their time in silence.

The village, with its European kitsch architecture and Romantic mountain backdrop hovering just beyond, projects the personality of a luxurious fairy tale. Such majestic forests and complete nights, the royal houses, can’t avoid the comparison. But all fairy tales succumb to dangers that disrupt their pristine little worlds and call for an adventure to prevent utter destruction. Here, danger has been scrubbed from the walls, plowed from the earth – it’s a resort, after all, and there’s no room for such things. Up here, even the scenery seems curated; the trees are lush and plentiful, the namesake creek a central, controlled factor in the village’s layout; a spectrum of flowers and eternal fields and quaint ponds dot the landscape beyond each twist of road. At the edge of autumn, where we teeter now, the leaves have begun fading to gold almost on cue. Amidst the concealing trees, the windows and metallic siding of houses reflect the sun, hinting at their hiding places.

But if this is true, why does one feel an omen arising from the trees at dusk? Why do the empty houses wink with sinister enigmas from between the branches? Surrounded by careful sterility and curated sublimity of the village, an overactive imagination will naturally conjure phantoms in the shadows; and the shadows lay thick here in the decadent, abandoned rooms. The windows rarely illuminate from within, and the rooms hardly ever flicker with moving shapes. They aren’t humble houses – some tower three, four stories, occupy an entire acre, brooding in hushed glares as loudly as their owners will fill them when they return, if they ever do. It seems that the air would eventually have to compensate for those prolonged silences. What would the echoes form as they bounce off the walls when there’s nothing to absorb them? What emerges when the people no longer fill their rooms with molecules and breath; what do their private escapes leave behind?

Likely nothing. But in such an alien, sensorily absorbing environment, one imagines things. The controlled paradise is, in the end, rather empty; and I enjoy it more when I fill it with strange muses. It’s my greatest pleasure up here, pretending that the spirits have risen to haunt the hollow spaces, fill the gaps – though it always leaves a hole in my own mind, because it seems that darkness must come to these places, and I hate to think that it is so well-hidden behind those reflective windows. Passing by, one would never know.

Fragment from THE NIGHT SHADOWS REPORT: Last Chance

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , on September 14, 2017 by smuckyproductions

I’ve always struggled, as a writer, with finding specific instances that develop a character’s goal while giving the reader a reason to sympathize. With the current novel revision, that’s something I am trying to overcome. Here is an early introduction to the protagonist and narrator – hopefully it inspires a twinge of empathy. 

July 19th:

A slow and average afternoon at the bookstore, no A.C., sun oozing in yellow strands through the dusty windows. The old paper and shelves gave the air awful, sedating mustiness. Nothing to do but stare and fan oneself, think desperately of something far away. The first customer in an hour relieved me of my boredom and asked if I could recommend a book on writing. She smiled, a little nervous, embarrassed. “You’re a writer?” I said. “I want to be,” she replied, wringing her hands. So I smiled, too, and laughed a little, quoted a favorite teacher who put my doubts to rest a while ago – “Anyone who writes is a writer.” She laughed, too, and asked, “What are you working on?” Like she really wanted to know.

And as I tried to think of a response, the boss strut over, stretched to her full imposing height. She exuded enough ice to cut the heat through her presence alone. The customer glanced warily at the boss – she must have felt the air cool – then hastily made her purchase, and went off to learn what I’m supposed to already know. When the door jangled shut, the boss tapped on the register and glared at me with her teeth slightly bared for a moment until she was certain she had my attention. Then she intoned, “You’re selling books. You’re not writing. Not on my time.” She returned to her full height and the edge of her lip twitched, expressing her triumph, before slinking away. I could have argued the contrary, but she walked away before I could think of anything to back up my case. Still haven’t found evidence in my favor. Any supporting statement would be a lie. But it doesn’t have to be. This is the last chance, buddy. Before I melt to this register forever.

I keep thinking of what Dad would say when he started his stories. “There are some things, Luke, that we were never supposed to mess with.” Or, “that we were never meant to find.” I had no idea what he meant back then, just that he was going to give me all his attention and tell a story. Now I want to know why he chose that phrase. Some things. What things?