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.






Childhood's End Part I: 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 poisonous 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 with 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, 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. 

We have learned LITERALLY nothing.

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

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.




Stupefying Satisfaction

Well, check another one off the old bucket list--I just landed a cover story at the inestimable Stupefying Stories, a market for which I have very, very much love. Bruce Bethke, the editor, was the first person to take a chance on my fiction--not the first to publish one of my stories, but certainly the first to actually pay for it.

The sale came at a time when I was very much considering backing away from writing altogether. I'd been scrawling out stories for, well, decades, and trying to publish for several years with very little response. It got to the point where I'd started numbering my rejections, deciding that, after 200, I would finally acknowledge the obvious and turn my energies to something else. I'd reached 142 when Mr. Bethke's acceptance letter came rattling into my inbox.

 I don't think I've ever felt so….relieved. Even more so when the first issue of Stupefying Stories popped up on my Kindle and I saw that the other stories in were actually good, better than good, actually. Mine was certainly the worst of the bunch.

 It's a feeling I've become much acquainted with over the years. But still, I couldn't argue with a solid publication. More, it was like something in me had unwound, like a cable around my chest that had been drawing tighter and tighter with each rejection. It was…well…absolutely wonderful.

For that, Stupefying Stories will always have a special place in my heart. There aren't many publications that I buy and read every issue, but SS is on the short list.

 So, check out the cover, check out my story (once again, the rest of the offerings are better), and if you like what you read, pick up a couple back issues. They'll keep you entertained, perhaps even stupefied, I promise.     


Ode to an Ungrateful Author

It's strange how we people get used to anything.

In all regards 2016 has been a banner year for me: I've made a solid fistful of professional sales (more to come on that); stretched my literary fingers into fantasy, and horror, military sci-fi, and even magical realism; and learned I'm going to be a father.

I remember, just a few years ago (2012 or thereabouts), feeling sick to my stomach over the prospect of not having one of my flash pieces published in the, now sadly defunct, 10Flash Quarterly--a fine semi-pro ezine. They put out a themed issue every month, and every month I would write a flash story and collect my rejection. This went on for almost a year until, at last, I wore down the editors' resolve and they deigned to publish one of my stories.

I literally jumped up and down with joy, dancing through the house (and scaring the shit out of my poor dog)--that's it, I've made it.

A year or two later, I'm publishing flash and short stories in semi-pro markets with reasonable success, but instead of feeling confident, I'm looking to the SFWA requirements. Three pro sales.


It became a mantra to me. I bought issues of Analog, F&SF, Apex, BCS, and a host of other markets on SFWA's pro list, the read them cover-to-cover in the hopes of mapping the geographies of editorial taste. I wrote and submitted dozens of stories, and eventually, three of them found homes.

I joined SFWA.

I thought I would feel different.

I didn't.

I wondered what was wrong with me. 

Yes, I recognize how ungrateful I am. Yes, I am embarrassed. There are authors out there who would figuratively KILL for even the small measure of publishing success I've achieved. If it makes you feel any better, all the money I make writing goes back into the community--buying books directly from small-press publishers, helping to fund authors' kickstarters, donating to eZines or the SFWA medical fund. It's not much, but I like to think it helps.

Yes, I recognize that too smacks of tremendous privilege. I'm lucky enough to have a job that pays my bills so I can give all my writing money away instead of using it to make rent.

My point is, things that would've blown off the top of my head just a few years ago seem almost normal, now. Writing and publishing has become an addiction of sorts, I have published professionally, now I must publish professionally to prove I haven't lost what little talent I have.

It's a trap, and one I've walked into gladly. Talking to other authors at conventions and panels, I get a sense we're all chasing that high, but we've got publish more and more in better and better markets to recapture it. The older I get, the more I realize  that's the way with pretty much everything. There is no amount of fame, success, money, happiness, etc. that we can't become used to. Still, it's this same ungrateful impulse that keeps us striving to be bigger, better, smarter, and--at least insofar as writing is concerned--that's a good thing.


Once More With Feeling: J.R.R Tolkein's Lord of the Rings and My Fifth Trip to Mount Doom.

Alright, so I love fantasy fiction more than is right or proper; and you can't even dip a toe into western cannon without at least a grudging nod to Tolkien--whatever you think of his work. Many times in my life (five, to be exact) I've tried to digest his penultimate opus, Lord of the Rings, and found its legendemain too rich for my thin, mannish blood. I'm sure the fault lies within me, and so, with the determination of a fifty-year old hobbit I've packed my mental bags, saddled my proverbial Bill the Pony, and set myself a quest to return the ring, king, the pieces of a sword, a couple hobbits, and whatever else needs put back.

Thus far, I've reached the Council at Rivendell. Still going strong, and yet, I can't help but think the Fellowship would've gone smoother if Elrond had any HR training...

ELROND: "The Company of the Ring shall be nine; and the Nine Walkers shall be set against the Nine Riders, who are evil." 

FRODO: "Who's coming with me?"


ELROND: "Alright, alright, you've got a pretty good CV, not to mention adventure experience. My only concern, and I'm sorry for not bringing this up in private, is your ability to pass a drug test."

GANDALF: "Ah, man, I KNEW you'd say that. You White Council suits are all alike. Loosen up, half-elven, have a toke of old Toby."

ELROND: "Sorry, this is SUPER important. I can't have you wandering off for months or years at a time, only to reappear whenever you feel like turning some trolls to stone or whatever. So, I'm afraid that's a HARD pass. Anyone else?"

SAM: "Oh mister Frodo, you'll not be leaving old Sam behind!"

ELROND: "Okay, so wait, TWO hobbits? I really feel like we're doubling up on skill-sets, here. Sam, what do you bring to the table?"

SAM: "I'm a gardener and I have a pony."

ELROND: "Wonderful, the pony might be useful, especially if you give him a name. But I've got, like, a-hundred elf ponies--which are basically like regular ponies only they live forever and have magic powers."

SAM {mutters}: "The power to condescend."

ELROND: "I'm sorry, what?"

SAM: "Nothing, mister Elrond."

ELROND: "It's LORD Elrond, and I'm afraid this isn't going to work out."

SAM: "Half-elven, more like half-ass...en."

ELROND: "Okay, we're going there? Hey, Sam, I was wondering about something: Why DID you come all this way--are you Frodo's slave, his lover...?"

SAM: "Fuck off."

ELROND: "Okay then, NEXT!"

ARAGORN: "I, Aragorn son of Arathorn, will accompany the hobbit!"

ELROND: "So, is that BEFORE or AFTER you marry my daughter? You've been stringing Arwin along for what, a century? I mean, up until now you've just basically been hanging around Rivende
ll, eating my food, touching my stuff, sleeping with--"

ARAGORN: "I am Isildur's heir. The sword has been reforged!"

ELROND: "So, shouldn't you be popping off straight to Gondor, then? I mean, it would be SUPER useful if you could shore up Minas Tirith and Osgiliath, you know, keep Sauron occupied while the fellowship sneaks into Mordor."

ARAGORN: "That's sort of what I was planning on doing, anyway."

ELROND: "Good, then. It's settled."

LEGOLAS: "Methinks a Prince of Mirkwood shall be of use in this fellowship."

ELROND: "Yeah, about that. Isn't your dad the guy who got all butt-hurt about Dwarves 'stealing his treasure' and tried to kill everyone?"

LEGOLAS: "That was decades ago!"

ELROND: "We're elves, mate. It was, like, yesterday."

LEGOLAS: "I am not my father."

ELROND: "Fair enough. There are a couple other candidates from the race of elves, I'll put your resume in the mix."

LEGOLAS: "Really, who else applied?"

ELROND: "No one much, just Elrohir, Elladan, Glorfindel--"

LEGOLAS: "So, your twin sons and the guy who killed a balrog."

ELROND: "Very strong candidates."

LEGOLAS: "Nepotism much?"

ELROND: "I'm sorry, did the son of the King of Mirkwood just call me out for playing favorites? Do you really think you got your position as Captain of the Forest Wardens on merit?"

LEGOLAS: "I'm a hero, they call me Greenleaf."

ELROND: "Seriously, what does it even mean? Might as well call a dwarf Graystone, or a human Browndirt."

LEGOLAS: "It's a STRONG name...strong, yet supple, like a--"

ELROND: "We'll be in touch."

GIMLI: "I, Gimli son of Gloin shall lend my axe to this endeavor."

ELROND: "Excellent, I was hoping a dwarf would apply--didn't want this to be a total tall-fest, right?"

GIMLI: "I don't think I like what you're implying."

ELROND: "Sorry, all I meant was it's good to see candidates from all the free races of Middle-Earth."

GIMLI: "Okayyyy, so why are you making that face?"

ELROND: "Sorry, it's says here on your resume that you're a 'Grand Dragon' in the Longbeards."

GIMLI: "Indeed, the Longbeards are a doughty order of Khazad, famed for--"

ELROND: "You know they're on the White Council's list of designated hate groups, right?"

GIMLI: "Not our fault men keep trying to steal our gold. Killing them has been perfectly legal since King Dain passed that Stand Your Ground law."

ELROND: "It's just..."

GIMLI: "Everyone pats you on the back when you behead a goblin or warg, but chop up an elf? No, they're OBJECTIVELY good. Let me tell you about Thranduil, let me tell you what he did to my dad."

ELROND: "Didn't he imprison Gloin for like, a day?"

GIMLI: "More elven propaganda, it's in their nature to lie--"

ELROND: "Dude, my grandfather was human, but you know I totally identify as elven."

GIMLI: "FINE. I don't want to go on your stupid quest anyway."

BOROMIR: "I am the son of the Steward of Gondor, and have much experience in the lands through which we must travel, not to mention I have battled the Great Enemy since I could hold a sword. You will find none as brave or as dedicated to this quest as--"

ELROND: "Let me stop you right there. Aren't you the same guy who, just five minutes ago, talked about taking the ring for himself?"

BOROMIR: "Um, no?"

ELROND: "Yeah, YEAH, you are the guy. I'd recognize that horn anywhere."

BOROMIR: "Oh, I get it, humans all look alike to you elves, lucky I'm dressed different."

ELROND: "That's not what this is about. Didn't you LITERALLY just say you wanted to claim the power of the ring for yourself?"

BOROMIR: "I don't remember."

ELROND: "And won't the Fellowship's path take it conveniently through Gondor--where your dad just HAPPENS to have an army. You've got to admit, if someone wanted to steal the ring, that would be a pretty good opportunity."

BOROMIR: "Okay, but you HAVE to at least acknowledge the possibility that the ring could be--"

ELROND: "I already DID, the LAST time Sauron tried to take over the world. You know, when Isildur and I were literally inside Mount Doom, ready to toss the ring into the fire? Oh wait, you don't, because that was, like, three-milennia ago. I let that greasy bastard talk me into letting the ring endure, now look, Arnor is ruins, Gondor is on the brink of destruction, and the last heir to the throne of men is basically a murder-hobo. Nope, won't make that mistake again."

BOROMIR: "But, the race of men--"

ELROND: "I try not to generalize, but you men's rights activists are just ridiculous. I'm not going to have this argument, again. Goodbye."

MERRY AND PIPPIN: "We're coming, too!"

ELROND: "Seriously? Seriously."

MERRY AND PIPPIN: "We won't be left behind!"

ELROND: "I mean, I was going to send Glorfindel, but whatever, he's only been fighting against Sauron longer than your species has existed. But okay, sure."


ELROND: "Oh, abso-lutely! Instead of dispatching a half-dozen indescribably powerful and experienced Sindarin lords to shepherd your mouth-breathing friend to Mordor I'm going to send not one, but TWO hobbits who literally just pitched a fit because they couldn't eat seven meals a day. C'mon, you're not trackers, you're not scouts, you're not even fighters--"

PIPPIN: "Not true. My great-great-greatilly-greedle-grandfather once killed a goblin. You see, there was a field with a lot of rabbit holes, and he had this axe, and--"

ELROND: "I just don't think a trip to Mount Doom is the right venue for two more child--"

MERRY: "Watch it, half-elf."

ELROND: "Child-SIZED people. I can't help but feel you're going to spend most of the time captured by something…or being carried by the rest of the party."

MERRY: "How else are you supposed to get places if someone's not carrying you?"

PIPPIN: "Same principle as riding a horse, right?"

ELROND: {looking around} "See what I mean? Anyone? Anyone?"

MERRY AND PIPPIN: "If you don't let us go, we'll follow anyway."

ELROND: "THAT, I'd like to see."

GANDALF: "Don't underestimate the strength of shire-folk, when roused they are--"

ELROND: "A bunch of tiny, racist hillbillies. Listen, I subcontracted this shit last time around, and we all know how THAT turned out. Ellodan, Elrohir, pack up some lembas and make sure Frodo doesn't get eaten by a balrog."

MERRY AND PIPPIN: "But what about--?"

ELROND: "I'm sorry, did I fucking stutter?"

….and so the One Ring was delivered into the flames of Mount Doom with the absolute minimum of fuss.


Cross Another One off the Bucket List…

…and I'm one step closer to death, my friends. Just got this in the mail today--a contributor's copy of Esli ("If"), one of Russia's oldest science fiction magazines featuring a translation of my story "Citizen of the Galaxy," and some really great art. Unfortunately, I don't read or write Russian, so you're going to have to settle for some cell phone pics of the issue.

Which gets me off-topic a little. Now, I love getting paid for my work, seeing it posted on a website or printed in a magazine or anthology, but there's really nothing like the thrill I get when I see some incredibly talented artist create a work based on something I wrote.

It just makes me feel so damn lucky.

So I'd like to sincerely thank: Dominic Black, Christoph Shulz, Anthony Pearce, Leslie Herzfeld, and all the other illustrators who've shared their talents. They deserve your praise, your attention, and any/all art commissions you have.