Archive for Literature

Story Fragment: THE SACRED SCARECROW (2)

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

A second fragment from THE SACRED SCARECROW, detailing a town’s devolution into paranoia when a newcomer threatens their history. A bit of autumnal eeriness as we enter the second half of October. 

Frank Hoffer had drifted into a peaceful sleep when a shrill bleat dragged him from bed. His daughter’s voice echoed from the other side of the house. Still half-numb, he stumbled from the room and down the hall, followed close behind by Sally. When they burst through her door they found her pressed against the window, stabbing a finger at the ground. “I saw it down there,” she panted. “It’s so ugly.”

Frank pulled her from the glass and looked at the lawn where she pointed. It was empty, aside from the moonlight on the dead leaves. “You saw what, sweetie?” Sally said, and cradled her daughter a bit too tightly until she squirmed away. She gripped her more firmly and cooed, “Calm down, mommy’s here; what did you see?”

“It was watching me,” the girl said.

Sally managed to persuade her child back to sleep, though she and Frank could not do the same for themselves. They perched on opposite sides of the bed, Sally facing the door and Frank the shuttered window; and, like several of their neighbors, stayed this way until morning. When Frank had managed to prepare himself for work, he paused to search the lawn beneath his daughter’s window for footprints, or pieces of straw. His daughter had been dreaming, he reasoned; or the stalker had covered its tracks.

That afternoon, the diner vibrated with murmurs, so Frank and Ed didn’t need to whisper. They sat close to the window, where they could hear the witch woman Hawkins. They mumbled pleasantries and gave disjointed answers, Ed spinning his coffee cup, Frank tearing his napkin into fragments; but the prophecies drained their attention until they had gone silent. When the waitress took their order with quivering hands, Ed laid his hands on the table and said, “You know, the strangest thing happened. Our boy said he heard someone walking around our house last night.”

He started to laugh, but he saw how Frank’s lips pressed together in a spasm to cut off his instinctual response. “Funny’s right,” he croaked. “Our girl said the same damn thing. Said something was watching her.”

They ate what they could of their meals – the lettuce tasted leathery, the meat dry, too hot in their stomachs – and when they spoke, they went on about the renovations at the farmer’s house, how much longer they would go on, how far they would extend. Would he go out into the field after all? It was a hell of a lot of work, it seemed to them. Maybe he would leave it be.

“Hey,” Ed called when they left the diner, over the witch woman’s straining voice; “you don’t remember… what was the day, in the story, where it was all supposed to happen?”

“It was different every time,” Frank said. “You know how they go. But the good ones always said it was Halloween.”

Ed stared down at his mangled food. He said, “That’s what I thought.” He checked his planner to confirm – it was October 14th. Not, he noted, that it mattered.

For the first SACRED SCARECROW fragment, CLICK HERE

Advertisements

Story Fragment: SOMETHING HAPPENED UPSTAIRS

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , on October 17, 2017 by smuckyproductions

This is the beginning of a short story that I’ve been working on since I moved to Los Angeles – a way of reconciling the weird isolation that can occur in a place like this. The story takes a dark turn when Jean’s neighbors summon something upstairs. 

There were holes all over Jean’s apartment, so that wasn’t the difficult thing to accept when the strange things began. Little empty places opened up and sucked in fairly meaningless objects – a red sock, the brass back to an earring, some unpleasant man’s business card – which she didn’t notice until a random thought or need reminded her to look for them. By then it was too late. These holes sealed themselves before she had a chance to notice. They were clever that way. It was too small of an apartment to explain by other means – barely two rooms, not counting the closet and bathroom, with three doors and one window. No room for hidden corners. The people upstairs must have known something she didn’t.

It wasn’t such a bad place, even though the light didn’t touch it. The single window filtered the warmth from the sun, and the lamps cast upward shadows that made her feel submerged. She took it because it was three hundred less than the other, sunnier places, and jobs were hard to find without a signed lease. “It’ll take time,” her father reminded again and again, never telling her how much time. She resigned herself to the murky walls with an assured “For now.” In this case, she didn’t bother to decorate much or furnish beyond the necessities, a drooping twin bed and formica table that served as her desk. Its barren walls reminded her that she could easily remove everything on short notice, when the good news came. The room she could manage – what kept her sighing and clenching her jaw were the neighbors.

Most of the sounds came from across the hall, echoing and indistinct. A drunken laugh piercing in the early morning, or a dog’s sharp bark during the hottest part of the afternoon. She played music and blasted white noise, turned the air conditioner to the highest setting, at least until the first energy bill came back. Then the couple upstairs would start drumming their bedpost against their floor, her ceiling, often accompanied by uncontained moaning. Their stamina impressed Jean endlessly, and the sounds reached phenomenal pitches, inspiring images of transgressions that she couldn’t understand. Sometimes she woke up to their percussion, mistaken for a knock at her door, pinning her to the bed with waves of panic until she realized what was going on. It sounded strange at night, more forceful, and when it stopped Jean’s apartment hummed from its absence. The vacant air would keep her awake until dawn, sometimes, or tint her dreams with unwelcome shadows. She never slept through the night in this room.

Story Fragment: THE SACRED SCARECROW

Posted in Halloween, Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2017 by smuckyproductions

IMG_1126

Here’s a piece of a story that takes place in October – exploring what happens to an insular community when a man moves into their local haunted house, threatening to set off a curse that may or may not be real. Paranoia, violence and autumnal creepiness ensue; but this is just the beginning. 

Afternoon was slinking across the grass when the truck rolled away. The children stopped to watch on their way home. Speculation ran like a live wire across the block and into the network of streets, cul du sacs, from the low-rent ranch houses to the Tudors looming on the hill, all the way through Main Street where the shops had just started to close. Still, there was no sign of the new occupant. One brave girl even cried out, “Who’s in there!” to the dark windows; when no one responded, most of the children filtered out to go finish their homework. It was getting dark, after all, and that part of the neighborhood was undesirable after sunset. Only the most curious children stayed – and a quiet ripple of shock went through them when the front door opened to reveal a man’s silhouette, thin and unfamiliar, standing on the porch.

“Well!” he said in a bright voice that made them all flinch. “Are you the welcoming committee?”

He waited for a reply, and laughed when they just watched. “Oh, come on, I don’t bite,” he said. “I’m happy to be here after waiting so long, with the renovation and all. Such a pretty town. You all must like it here very much.”

His smile drooped when the children continued to stare, and he turned as if to go back inside. Then, from the back of the crowd, a reedy voice called: “What about the scarecrow?”

The other children stepped aside to reveal a pinkish boy in suspenders, wrinkling his nose at the new occupant. His stare was matter-of-fact, without a hint of apprehension, and it caused the man to step back. “The…” he started, then the grin returned to his face. “Oh, that old guy back there?” He pointed to the field, where the scarecrow stood, and had done since anyone in town could remember. Its cracked leather face, whose features were inexplicably accurate, tilted toward the children; gazing with deep sockets that didn’t accept light any longer. Even as the man gestured, the children made sure they didn’t look. They knew it well enough.

After a long moment, the pinkish boy said, “What are you going to do if it moves?”

Fragment from SERPENT SOULS: Smile

Posted in Halloween, Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , on October 3, 2017 by smuckyproductions

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 10.51.01 AMIn honor of a Halloween season surrounded by the evils of capitalist pigs, here is a fragment from an older novel. SERPENT SOULS follows a naive young man who gets a job at his beloved brother’s exclusive country club, but he must fight for his life when its violent curse begins haunting him. It’s a supernatural mystery, violent satire, and nightmare of cosmic cruelty born from the American dream. This is a prophetic dream that the main character experiences before his first day of work.

A hallway – dark and thin. No sound but the quiet hum, electric or otherwise. Small line of light in the distance. Sneaking under a door. To find its source is the only option.

A door, impossibly tall, with no threshold. The handle is dented. It turns and the door creaks open – the apartment. Light is fluorescent, flickers on a constant rhythm. Corpses of a hundred bugs litter the casings. More victims flutter around the glow. Unknowing. Approaching.

A second door across from this one. The only thing illuminated; the rest of the apartment is shadowed. Something sighs and the door swings open. Vicious darkness. A small figure limps forward. A child, familiar but dirt-covered face, blue eyes that glisten and threaten to fall out, they are so wide. Viscous tears dribble down his face and leave clean lines in the dirt. The tuxedo around his body overpowers him. The slashed sleeves ooze lining and the shirt crackles with a brown stain. Only the bow tie still holds its color, vivid red.

The child opens his mouth. Wet gash in the dark. The words splash from his tongue.

“Don’t. Don’t. Don’t go there. Please, don’t go there…”

His plea falls to tatters, sobbing. He stiffens. Another figure, twice his size, emerges from the miasma. The new figure wears a tailored tuxedo, perfect condition, red bow tie gleaming. A wide salesman smile covers his chin, long teeth flash. The dark conceals the upper portion of his face. Hint of wicked eyes hiding in shadow. The smile is enough to give him familiarity, fresher than the child’s. But a familiar fear as well.

Two figures, miniature and full model. The large one places a hand on the small’s shoulder. Hulking gold rings shimmer, bleed with colors from fire-laden jewels, shoot prisms toward the invisible ceiling. The other hand unseen. Rustling in his jacket pocket. A hard, metallic sound, widening the smile, and the hand slips out, holding an intricate silver knife. Rubies wink from the handle. The knife rests against the child’s head and waits there. Curve of the blade smiles with its owner.

“Don’t don’t don’t,” the child blubbers. “Oh don’t don’t’ don’t…”

The large figure chuckles. “Don’t mind him.” Voice like a winter breeze. “He is not himself today. We apologize for any inconvenience.”

With a swipe of his golden hand, the child stops blubbering. Knife finds its mark and peels open the child’s throat. Skin yawns, thick spurt of blood over the carpet. The child tries to close the wound, begging in liquid grunts. It spreads wide as the killer’s smile. Veins empty. He falls to his knees. The head leans, nearly tears off. The killer stops it, holds it in place, plunges a hand into the stump. Digs for a moment until he finds his prize – the surfacing hand shines, glows, in spite of the blood. And something new as well, glimmering powerful things. The killer laughs in triumph. A wealth of gold coins in his hand, chime and clink as he displays them. More ooze from the stump as the child at last crumples to the ground. Dull thump, clink of metal.

The killer holds out his treasure as if offering to share. Temptation rises. He knows this and smiles until his cheeks split, revealing darkness beneath. The knife, still glinting, still hungry. It grins too. And swings forward as the killer says, calm and tender, “Smile.”

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?

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.