Archive for writing

Halloween Dreams

Posted in Dark Musings, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2017 by smuckyproductions

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For the past few years, I’ve made it a tradition to reread “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” on October 1st. It’s standard to the point of being tedious, in some ways, but Irving’s prose is iconic for a reason: it perfectly captures the silent, ephemeral exhilaration of an autumn morning for me. As he states in the story’s opening, the enchantment of Sleepy Hollow calms and lulls the mind, so much so that it allows dreams to take on the sheen of reality. While this is an extreme example of the harvest season’s charm, it rings true. The blue-sky air is so clear on these mornings, almost fragile. It seems possible that anything might materialize within it, because it’s so empty – there’s an expectation that something has to happen.

Waking up on a calm autumn morning, when the mind has a moment to reflect on the uncanny stillness, is an unparalleled sensation. The air is so quiet that it demands reverence – this is a time for ritual and transgression, for crossing the boundaries into the unreal. It fuels the imagination, but sometimes in a morbid sense; mythology and religion have embedded themselves in our subconscious workings deeply enough to make us apprehensive. We are taught that these spiritual states of calm, of reverence, are something to fear; because they can’t stay quiet for long.

That’s what makes the October season so perfect for horror film viewings – there is extremely slim possibility that those stories hold truth, but the chance is still there, enough to make fairy tales and ghost stories more viscerally effective. Horror films require a suspension of disbelief, as they’re all built on superstitions or paranoia, unlikely worst-case scenarios becoming reality. The danger is thrilling – especially because we know that those forces don’t really exist, it’s just fun to imagine the what-ifs. Until suddenly they are real, and they aren’t so much fun.

The stillness of the October season allows for dreams, pretending, to lose incredulity – it isn’t so strange to consider that reality is bent, that spirits are waiting just beyond the veil, where metaphysical impossibilities are commonplace, rather than simple imagination. It drapes a shroud over logic and replaces it with wonder. But concealing the truth does lead to danger. That’s why we indulge in safeguarded fear, to tread with the possibilities and see the horrors that they lead to. You can always back out and return to calm reality, grateful that it was all a dream.

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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.

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.

Poem: LEGACY

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2017 by smuckyproductions

I wrote a version of this poem a long time ago, and it felt like the time to put it out there. Not all history, not all legacies, are something to be proud of. 

LEGACY

Dimming, grandfather requests
“Have kids while I can still
speak their name.”
I tell him I’ll try.

My constitution does not permit
ruining his notion with my prophecy
That our name dies in my loins
made to seek peace in
things he would wither to think of

For some grandfather, exponential greats
took arms to smear his seed in this soil
sprinkled on the bones of children
snapped to pieces by invader teeth that
gnash in ecstasy at their righteous carnage
drag their white worms to claim this
stolen ground as they have committed
an act worth celebrating –

This is my legacy.
This is what dies with me.

And what if it withers?
What is pride when boiled in that blood
of children who never got to choose
between silence and gloating?
This scaffold of corpses around a rotting cross
who refuse to really die –
whisper from dirt at beating hearts
grandfather’s, father’s, and mine
but my ears are stopped, jaw soldered
against harmonizing with them
but against rebellion, too.

In my way I lie in the plot beside him
and sew my silence in kind.

Story Fragment: PAYMENT

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2017 by smuckyproductions

The first page or so to a short story that is more or less complete. Please share thoughts in the comments – perhaps the full version will follow. 

PAYMENT

He had expected, when the knock came, for the grip on his throat to tighten at last into a fatal clench that would finish him off before he could get to the door. Instead, the grip released. The fear of a decade fizzled into a low-grinding acceptance. He preferred the choking.

The knock came once, and Stephen knew not to make him wait. He stumbled to the door on traitor feet and pulled the knob, which put up no resistance, no sympathy. Then the night gushed in and unfolded and the man with the briefcase stepped forward. Rendered in motel fluorescent, the image disappointed Stephen. The lips had deflated. Their kiss, the sealing embrace, wouldn’t do much for him this time. But the amber eyes were more truthful, showed more of the hellfire behind them.

“Hello,” said the salesman.

Stephen moved to the side and allowed the salesman to float into the room. His presence brought the shroud of night with it and dimmed the already-weak lights inside. As he passed, Stephen noticed subtle, peeling burn marks along his skin. Ten years ago it had been perfect, enough to make anyone jealous, addicted.

“All that hounding and hunting will do that to a guy,” the salesman said, unprompted. He sounded like he’d swallowed too much gravel. “The vessels are only supposed to last five years. You, however, you made yourself hard to find.”

The remnants of Stephen’s charms – pentagrams drawn in sheep’s blood, holy dust sprinkled at each window, packets of forbidden herbs that had long gone impotent – dangled or dripped around the room. “Well, I gave it the ol’ college try,” he muttered. “But I still heard you coming.”

“Be grateful I’m just an associate,” the salesman said. “An executive would have started flaying you in dime-sized pieces by now. You’re my first case. We’ll just pretend those extra years never happened.”

“Yeah, sure, lucky me,” Stephen said, and sat heavily on the couch. The rusted springs groaned at him. He looked down at the cushion to make sure he could reach beneath it when the time came. The salesman sunk down next to him. Stephen forced himself to stay still when a bony but gentle hand settled on his knee. He looked at the salesman, an inch from his face, and for a miserable second Stephen remembered the first time he had looked. It had stirred his soul to meet those eyes, promising lots of golden things. Out of all the smeared glasses and buzzing neon of the bar, those eyes, the only things that shone.