Autumn Is Coming

Just got word from Mike Davis that my story "Cul Du-Sac Virus" is going to be included in his Autumn Cthulhu anthology. As an avowed lover of Autumn (there really is no better season) I'm both honored and excited to have one of my stories among the leaves.






Wherein I (And John Goodman) Face My Fear of Spiders

I was in fourth grade, so probably around nine years old, when I watched Arachnophobia for the first and (until now) last time. I remember because I was sleeping over at David Miller's house and were being watched by his uncle Brian, a Vietnam War vet with a terrible fear of cucumbers. Apparently this uncle, while on jungle patrol, had fallen into a nest of snakes and been bitten pretty badly. The snakes, Uncle Brian told us, smelled just like cucumbers, so even the merest whiff was enough to set him into a nervous, stammering sweat. I saw it happen once at the park when we walked by a concession stand. I don't remember making fun of him (even in private), but apparently David's crazy uncle never liked me, or maybe he just got it into his head that kids couldn't be kids without a healthy fear of something, so he rented Arachnophobia to scare the shit out of us.

It worked.

Prior to this movie I remember cultivating, if not fear, than a healthy respect for spiders. Afterwards, I spent months poking at piles of clothes, or bedding, or books, expecting some eight-legged nightmare to come skittering out. It got to the point where I carried a little stick around--which ended up getting me in quite a bit of trouble, but that's not really part of this story. Between then and now I've gotten a better handle on my relationship with spiders to the point where I'm capable of carefully collecting the monstrously huge wolf spiders in my basement and transporting them safely outside.

But Arachnophobia, well…THAT is my Everest. 

Go on, I dare you to look at this and not feel at least a LITTLE squeamish. And yes, they're ABOVE your head.

The movie is nothing special, a horror-comedy (thanks to John Goodman) with a few jump scares and plenty of spider wrangling, and yet I still can't watch the initial scene--a long helicopter shot of a South American Rainforest--without clenching my teeth.

So, in the spirit of the season, and fortified with the thought that, based on my size and age, I am, most likely, an adult, I resolved to face the (frankly ridiculous) movie that be-webbed my childhood.


And here we go…


So, after the aforementioned establishing shot and a list of credits that are, in a word: confounding (Stephen Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Jeff Daniels, Julian Sands, John Goodman, and Harley Jane Kozak (now the successful author of a half-dozen crime and paranormal romance novels), we are treated to some expository dialogue wherein Dr. Atherton, an entomologist played by Julian Sands (who I best remember as the eponymous "Warlock" from the film Warlock), explains he is traveling to some bizarre sinkhole in the middle of the rainforest to try and discover new species of arachnids.

Also, there is a disposable photographer who tags along to serve as a sounding board for explanations as well as a vehicle for introducing our main antagonist--King Spider. So, it's never really clear if King Spider is intelligent or not. Throughout the film, numerous characters refer to it as: "a general, sending his soldiers out to conquer territory," which, together with the care it shows in sneaking its way back to the States in the coffin of a dead idiot makes a pretty compelling case for something beyond animal cunning. Once it gets to the Pacific Northwest though, King Spider acts like pretty much any other run-of-the-mill arachnid with an instantly lethal bite--so dumb.

Dr. Atherton makes a big deal about the occupants of the sinkhole being undisturbed for millions of years, a veritable time-capsule or some such nonsense. But, instead of weird insects and incredibly specialized birds, they find the deadliest spider in the world. Leaving aside that's not really how evolution works, King Spider doesn't really ever seem to eat anything it kills, at least anything big. I mean, it waits, presumably days, next to the decomposing body of its first victim without even a nibble. The sinkhole doesn't really show any indication of large prey either. So basically, the most venemous arachnid on Earth developed in an ecological vacuum.

Yes, these could easily kill us all. Take precautions? No, I don't really think that's necessary.

So, okay, Jeff Daniels shows up as the new doctor to a small town in the Pacific Northwest. He's got a wife who just gave up a high-paying exec job, and two kids who are basically cardboard cutouts--honestly, I don't think they say more than two lines without Daniels or Kozak present.

King Spider mates with a regular house spider (somehow), has a billion super-deadly kids (somehow), who proceed to start killing people (somehow), and Daniels (somehow) gets blamed. The thing about it is, there are REAL GODDAM SPIDERS crawling every which way, dropping out of trees, jumping out of cereal boxes, skulking along the corners of rooms, and straight-up murdering people.

Welcome to my nightmares.

I fell on it as I died.

As a hardened horror fan, I can sit through jump scares without batting an eye (just look for the cues) or (although I find it distasteful) watch a pleading victim dismembered by an oversized guy in a mask, but honestly, those freakin' spiders had me hiding my face behind a pillow like I was nine again. I couldn't even begin to fathom why the protagonists, when faced with a spider that can kill in seconds, decide to go searching for it BARE-HANDED instead of running the hell away or demanding a hazmat suit like any reasonable person. They don't tell the town, they don't try to evacuate people even after they learn only the King Spider can reproduce. They just continue to double-down on the unprotected spider search.

Enter John Goodman. 

I'm here to do two things: chew gum and kill spiders--and I'm all out of...oh, wait, no I'm not.

Meant as comic relief, Goodman's character is strangely against-tone for a movie full of characters and scenes that take themselves reasonably seriously. He's an exterminator and a rambling buffoon played in typical tongue-in-cheek Goodman fashion. More than that, he's a hero.

On one hand, we've got Jeff Daniels, a highly-educated, self-righteous asshole with a childhood fear or spiders--yes, yes, I get the irony. In the climax, he faces his fear, smashes his wine collection, and kills King Spider, but before that he spends most of the movie alternately flailing around in khakis and a ridiculous white sweatshirt, running from spiders, whining about how things never go his way, or pressed up against the wall in a cold sweat.

Goodman, on the other hand, faces a billion of the most deadly arachnids the world has ever seen and kills them all. He never breaks stride, gamboling from corpse to corpse while delivering one-liners with all the deadpan affect of a practiced sociopath. The man is clearly insane, but sometimes a little crazy is just what you need when you're up against the Spider Reich.

Daniels' character earns nothing. He may have killed King Spider and "saved" his carboard family, but I find it hard to believe that being almost murdered by something a dozen times would make anyone LESS afraid of it. More than that, he and his family end the movie by moving back to San Diego and reclaiming their old apartment, their old jobs, and their old lives...which, might I add, is exactly where they started. 

But this isn't about them, it's about me.

We have learned LITERALLY nothing.

I came into Arachnophobia as Jeff Daniels--a whiney, self-pitying coward with an exaggerated childhood fear; I like to think I left as John Goodman--a burgeoning sociopath with a slew of one-liners. Am I still afraid of spiders? No. Am I still afraid of Arachnophobia? Also, no. Although I will admit, just yesterday, I screamed like a nine-year-old when one of those enormous wolf spiders my basement so expertly cultivates went skittering between my feet as I emptied the clothes dryer.

And so, I will leave you as Arachnophobia leaves you: with an original Jimmy Buffet Song composed for the movie--because nothing says HORDES OF MURDEROUS SPIDERS like the man behind "Cheeseburger in Paradise."

I never knew "wasting away in Margaritaville" was a reference to slow-acting spider venom.


Closing the Circle

I can still clearly remember the cove of Inferno #1, a Khornate space marine standing cruel and defiant against a misty background. It (and William King's Felix and Gotrek novels) was my entry point into darker fantasy fiction. Sure, I'd devoured the works of Tolkien, Feist, McCaffery, Llywelyn, and a score of other genre luminaries, but I'd never come across a vision so gritty, so hopeless.

One issue and I was hooked.

I picked up every Inferno until the end of its run in 2004, and loved every word of it. As evidence, I submit my first (and only) car accident, which resulted from me running a stop sign because I was arguing with my brothers about who would win in a fight: an elf or an ork? (I argued elf, of course). I won the argument, but totaled my 1996 Ford Taurus station wagon.

Ten years ago, when I started trying to actually publish the stuff I wrote, I never could have dreamed I'd be sitting here holding an issue of Inferno with my name on the cover. Well, I just received my contributor's copy--and here it is.

Sorry for the blurriness, my hands are shaking from excitement.

I can't really convey what this means to me. I can only say how grateful I am, both to Black Library, and the many, many people who took a chance on me--Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells, Kate Hamer, Nick Kyme, and all the copy editors who spent long hours whetting my prose to razor sharpness. If I ever manage to cross the pond, I owe you all a drink (at the very least).


Of Self-Promotion and Podcasts

I don’t like promoting my work. Period. Full Stop. End of sentence.

But, like my clumsy attempt at humor above, that’s not really the way things are done in this particular day-and-age. Not that I’m complaining. Decades ago, before the advent of the internet and social media and the subsequent blossoming of genre publications I probably wouldn’t have had enough of a career to even gripe about having to blab about my stories.

So, honestly, I much prefer this to the alternative.

First of all, thank you. Seriously. From the bottom of my heart. You’re a rare and beautiful treasure, maybe a bejeweled sword, or a magical ring that grants its wearer the power to eat ghosts, or some sort of crown…I don’t know, you pick.

Now, well, I suppose if I’m going to self-promote, it’ll have to be here. So let’s get this over with.

I love podcasts. With a full-time job, young son, and all my free time being devoured by writing, I find I have absolutely no time for actually reading. Someday, when my boy is grown and my responsibilities lessened, I may be able to crack a book again and really dig into some prose. But, until that time, I cling to the spoken word.

GOD, I love podcasts. I’ve waxed prosaic before about various casts you should be listening to, but I’m not here to do that, I’m here to self-promote.

(Takes a few deep breaths)

I’m proud of all my stories. I can’t tell you how many pieces are sitting on my hard-drive because they didn’t hit me just right. But you’re a busy person, you don’t have time to read all my stuff. So, I got to thinking about which of my stories best exemplify me as a writer, which ones do exactly what I want them to do.

So, here are three podcasts, one for each genre I write in, that still make me happy as hell. I don’t want to give too much away (in the hopes you’ll actually give them a listen). They may not be the best stories out there, but they're certainly the best I can do:

Science Fiction: How I Killed Your Mother” My (odd) take on military science fiction, although not really. When bodies are replaceable and war loses all meaning, what’s left? The first portion of the podcast is an introduction by a delightfully exciteable Scotsman talking about Patreon--the story starts at roughly: 19:50. 

Horror: Saturday” Everything comes around, until it doesn’t. This is my (slightly) pre-apocalyptic meditation on madness and entropy.

Fantasy: The Uncarved Heart” Even in the worst of times under the worst of despots we can be better than our history. At least I hope so.

So that's it. Consider me thoroughly promoted. Now I can go back into hiding. Thank you again for reading (or listening, as the case may be). I can't tell you how much it means to me to know that people are entertained by the stuff I scribble.


The Plague Reader

Opened up my mailbox most recent issue of Analog, cracked it open, and did a total double-take.

“Hey, that’s me in the table of contents!”

Granted, I knew my story was going to be in this issue, but there’s always that little (okay, let’s be honest…BIG) part of me that can’t quite believe my work is appearing in a publication that I have read and loved since, well, forever.

I inherited my subscription to Analog from my dad (and F&SF as well), and have kept them going for some time--partly as a remembrance, partly to stay somewhat current in the SF genre, but mostly because I enjoy the hell out of them.

How fortunate, then, that my son has just embarked upon his first months of preschool and come home dripping with the effluvium of a dozen other children. Not a single week has gone by without him infecting my partner and I with some form of infantile plague. Those among my friends who have already braved parenthood have informed me that this will be, and I quote: "A year from hell."

Ah, my little vector. I love him so much.

That being said. One of my complaints about becoming a father is that it has seriously cut into my reading time (well, unless you count board books about farm animals and anthropomorphic dinosaurs). The silver lining to this lingering ague is that I can now curl up (between bouts of uncontrollable shivering) with the small stack of Analog and F&SF issues that have been piling next to my reading chair.

This may be a year from hell, but it'll be an entertaining one, at least.



That Weird Blog Entry You Write After Not Sleeping for Days

My family is sick, very sick--my son stricken with his first serious fever/ear infection, my wife suffering from the worst cold I've ever seen. I have been up for three days straight taking care of them both and my thoughts have become strange. 

I was at a family funeral last weekend, the death was both expected and something of a mercy, but still quite sad for all that. All the disparate branches of my clan drove, bussed, and flew to the family farm in southeastern Ohio to see off the matriarch who had held us together.

My brother and I were speaking to a distant great-aunt, a delightful woman we’d never met before who couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful our family was.

She was right, of course, our family is wonderful.

We remarked on how lucky we are in that particular regard, to which she countered: “You’re not lucky, you’re blessed!”

Not wanting to provoke bad feelings, we agreed, but the intentionality implied in her statement really got me thinking. I consider myself a self-interested deist--I sincerely hope there is something divine behind the curtain of our reality, be it a “God” in the religious sense, or just some flavor of universal zeitgeist collecting the unspooled thoughts and dreams of those of us who have shuffled off this mortal coil.

But, in both cases, I don’t think there is any sort of personality behind happenstance. Good things happen to bad people (take the current U.S. President, for example), bad things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people, but, most of the time, normal things happen to normal people. It’s just how the world works, I suppose.

Which leaves me with the understanding that, should there be some manner of unmoving mover behind the skein of our existence, it either: 1) Doesn’t intervene (either on principle or due to some inscrutable goal); 2) Doesn’t care; 3) Doesn’t understand, or; 4) Doesn’t really notice us at all.

Before I rumble off on some Ligottian tangent, I’m not really preaching nihilism, just a flavor of neglect. Still, humans have always been good at finding patterns (recognizing them, not to mention how they shift and interact is the basis of intelligence, after all), so it makes sense that, in the absence of information to the contrary, we can construct just about anything we wish.

And yet, I still worry about what will happen to me after I die. It’s a purely egotistical endeavor, but one I spend quite a bit of mental bandwidth grappling with.

The rest I spend on writing.

By now, I’ve pretty much accepted I have no control over anything apart from the production side of the authorial process. I write, I send stories out, most are rejected, some make it through the gauntlet. I am lucky in that regard, luckier than most, in fact. I DO work hard at writing, but there's also the fact I'm a cis white dude, so the road to publication is a bit easier. 

So, I write stories, I (occasionally) sell them, but I've got NO say in when they are actually comitted to paper (or pixels as the case may be).  

And yet, amidst the crawling chaos of publication schedules there is occasionally the glimmer of kismet, stars aligning as if guided by the brush of some divine hand.

I wrote: “All of Us Told, All of it Real” in mid-2016 as a sort of companion piece to “How Lovely is the Silence of Growing Things.” Both stories inexpertly grapple with death and frangibility of memory, specifically the memory of those who pass on and how it is constantly reconstructed and recapitulated by those who remain.

I wrote: “All that Moves Us” sometime in 2017 for Turn to Ashes: Volume II, a local Columbus anthology whose previous iteration I’d very much enjoyed. I was thinking about emotions and desires, and how they very frequently seem disconnected from intentionality. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been made to feel sad, or angry, or happy, or any of a dozen other rootless sentiments. Emotions shape how we perceive and interact with the world, and yet (as with luck), so much of it seems driven by chance.

Here, I veer once again into Ligottian pessimism. I can make myself write, but I can’t make myself want to write.

Luck. Emotions. Desire. Self-similarity across scale--like a Mandelbrot set, or a Koch Curve, or fern fronds--infinite regression to a non-existent mean. The finer measure we use, the longer the coast becomes. Maybe there’s intentionality in the design, maybe it’s all happenstance.

All I can say is that I wrote two stories, years apart, both set in southern Ohio/northern Kentucky, both about similar subjects. I sent one of them to dozens of markets, had the other picked up by the anthology I wrote it for, then, on a whim I decided to send it out for reprints. Both stories came out this May, both in podcasts, both with performed by consummate readers--one at the NoSleep Podcast and one at Strange Horizons.

Maybe it’s luck. Maybe I’m blessed.

Either way, I’m grateful.