whiskey and other unusual ghosts

whiskey and other unusual ghostsWhiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts, S. L Edwards’s debut short story collection, is a moody, ambitious work and a rewarding read. There is a quiet clarity and depth to Edwards’s writing, an awareness of the ways that history and politics affect every aspect of our lives. In Whiskey, even the deeply familial is inevitably shaped by larger, outside forces. The old saw ‘all politics is personal’ rings true on these pages.

These narratives are populated by addicts and drunkards, martinets, bullies, abusers, and survivors. Everyone is damaged in some way, long before the monsters arrive. There is a lot to think about, here, in the way the characters have been warped by their circumstances, in the way they have adapted. Their reactions seem quite real. The stark and evocative illustrations by Yves Tourigny only emphasize the nightmare situations Edwards’s characters navigate.

Following each story, the author’s commentary gives a glimpse into the inner workings of the man behind the monsters. When he is not exploring the scars of revolution, he comes across as thoughtful and low-key.I found his musings on his inspirations, characters, and creative process engaging, and a welcome respite from the terrors of his fiction.

***

Of the twelve pieces in Whiskey, my particular favorites are:

whiskey and other unusual ghosts
The author, himself

“And the Woman Loved Her Cats” is a gothic, graphic, and grotesque tale of devotion and misplaced affection. It’s monster is a particularly nasty creature, and the lead-up to the ending is just as disturbing as the end itself.

“We Will Take Half” is a fairy tale whose central promise–made on behalf of a child, then corrupted by ambition, politics, and a military coup–in the end cannot be broken.

“The Case of Yuri Zaystev” is a ghost story set in the old Soviet Union, where the unquiet dead are less of a threat than the living. The bleakness, the hopelessness, the dehumanization of Soviet communism is palpable.

“Cabras” is the tale of a man who has outlived two revolutions but, because of his daughter’s choices, will probably not survive the third.

“Volver Al Monte” is, in my opinion, probably the strongest story in the collection. It tells of a ruthless general who is something of a hero to his countrymen, but is forced to answer for his monstrous actions by monsters even more powerful than he is.

***

Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts is an unnerving, mournful, and compelling collection by a talented author. The dozen stories featured all focus, at their heart, on family dynamics–and all the love, hurt, and dysfunction inherent in the system. I recommend it highly.

Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh, edited by Justin A. Burnett, is a well-crafted anthology built on the theme of disturbing simulacra. Dolls, statues, and mechanical men have been a staple of our storytelling since the days of myth. While there are plenty of memorable creations that are generally helpful and good, Mannequin steers clear of those types. There is not a Galatea or Pinnochio in the bunch, here, but there is a surprisingly broad range of other sorts. There are dolls of all different kinds, mannequins in various stages of intactness, wooden figures and mechanical puppets, toys and constructs and scarecrows.

None of them have our best interests in mind.

***

mannequinFollowing Christopher Slatsky’s thoughtful introduction are the sixteen disquieting variations on the theme:

Ramsey Campbell’s  “Cyril” is a disorienting stream-of-consciouness nightmare, with the narrative slipping between thoughts and dialogue. The doll here is an innocent compared to the greed of the main character.

Michael Wehunt’s “Balladyna” turns on a doll made to comfort a woman’s dying daughters. The descriptions of how the characters move through their house are vivid and unnerving.

Christine Morgan’s “Window Dressing” documents a woman’s loss of identity, and sanity, to a department store mannequin.

Richard Gavin’s “Crawlspace Oracle” is a gothically dark tale of possession. The doll, its keeper, and its victim inhabit a filthy space where prophecy is both power and chain.

Kristine Ong Muslim’s “The Incipient Eleanor” compactly chronicles the power struggle within an abusive and co-dependent relationship between a man and his mannequin.

Nicholas Day’s “The Part That Dies” puts a dark spin on life imitating art, with a surviving twin doing what he must to complete his brother’s final sculpture.

Austin James’ “Into the Fugue” follows a man as he reluctantly recovers the memory of his squalid upbringing, and his family’s reason for doll-making.

William Tea’s “Husks” presents a life-changing inheritance and a useful construct that would be a man. Earthy, gritty, and off-beat folk-horror that got under my skin.

Duane Pesice’s “Bobble” is short, tight, and delightfully bizarre. His choice of simulacra is sort of funny, right up until it becomes truly horrifying. One of my favorites in the collection.

S.L. Edwards’ “The Sickness of the Town” puts puppet governments and false idols into verse in a grimly political take on the anthology’s theme. The poem’s imagery made me think of Pink Floyd’s “Waiting for the Worms”, with its marching hammers and ugly facism.

Matthew M. Bartlett’s “Kuklalar” envisions a grotesque management culture with artificial supervisors, disgruntled employees, and a healthy dose of black magic. Solidly creepy.

S.E. Casey’s “The Night Shift” is another moody, evocative tale set in the workplace. Its organic corporate creations are needy, disturbing, and innocent. I can only wonder if they will stay that way.

Justin A. Burnett’s “She” unravels the connection between a detective, a serial killer, and the ghost of a doll trying to come back into existence.

Daulton Dickey’s “Allegory of Shadows and Bones” is a surreal, new-wave trek by a skeleton and his mannequin through a world that has ceased to be. 

C.P. Dunphey’s “Dance of the Marionettes” is a dreamlike tale of gigantic hybrid beings and the weakness of the human condition, with a distance and mystery reminiscent of the Strugatskys’ work

Jon Padgett’s grim and mesmerizing closing piece, “To a Puppet, From a Dummy”, walks the fine line between personal memoir and fiction. I’m not sure how much to accept as real and how much as embellishment, but its effect is powerful.

***

The volume as a whole is full of unsettling creatures with wills and minds of their own. The stories, so effective individually, work together to produce a solid chill. There is a reason the uncanny valley exists. We will always be wary of things that are modeled after us or mimic us–whether we made them, or not.

weirdbook

In other news, I had two new stories published in June.

The first, after a long wait with many dramatic turns, is “The Bones”, which appeared in Weirdbook # 41. I get to share a TOC with such talented fellow authors as C.M Muller, S.L. Edwards, Darrell Schweitzer, and the poets Ashley Dioses and K.A. Opperman.

weirdbookThe second is the flash piece “A Winter’s Tale”, in the anthology Itty Bitty Writing Space. There I share the pages with one hundred and three other contributors of very short stories, including Gregg Chamberlain, James, Dorr, Joanna Hoyt, and Russell Smeaton.

Both Weirdbook and Itty Bitty Writing Space make fine additions to a summer reading list–and will help tide us all over until I can report on several autumn releases.

Creep Throat

Creep Throat: Sex Fables for the Horny, Gloomy, and Unhinged, edited by Viorika La Vae, is a surprising, uneven, and entertaining little anthology. Its ten stories and single poem are a roller coaster of style and mood, with the stories ranging from simply goofy, to overwrought, to brilliant. There is a touch of cyberpunk, a hint of the gothic, and even a call-back to the slick pulp horror of the seventies and eighties. Taken together, they make for an unexpectedly engaging read.

***

My favorites here are:                                                                                          

“Lust and Death in 2045” by Melanie Sage Thibodeaux is a moody and evocative piece that firmly binds together sex and death in something that feels like one of the better indie horror movies. It’s gritty and brutal, conveying desperation and decay without being over the top.                               

“Gear Head” by Duane Pesice tells a sharp, hallucinogenic tale of the cybernetic skin trade. The descriptions are tactile and disorienting, the plot a stream of garbled consciousness. It is weird and wonderful, with the extra added uncertainty of what is experiencing who. 

“Lady Luck” by Eve Kerrigan and Ben Keefe reminded me, with its fast pace, glitzy setting, and snarky characterizations, of the cheesy beach books on spinner racks at the drugstore. I mean that with great fondness. The monster is wildly bizarre, while sex is background noise here–part of the set-up but not a big part of the resulting chaos.                                      

“At Lazio’s: A Tale of the Crawling Chaos” by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy is a variation on a classic tale of vampirism, beautifully told. The story ended up more or less where I thought it would, but was a joy to read with its terse, perfect descriptions and the lovely line, “…for me it’s about the kill, not the chase”.   

***

So, while the stories collected in Creep Throat weren’t always to my taste, overall the anthology is a solid read. The authors are a talented bunch, and there is a good balance between the ridiculous, the serious, and the sublime. I’d say it’s definitely worth a look.                                              

lurker in the lobby

Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H.P. Lovecraft is an older but still handy guide to the many attempts made at filming Lovecraft’s cosmically weird tales. Authors Andrew Migliore and John Strysik bring a fan’s enthusiasm to the project, producing an often unpolished but still joyful compendium of Lovecraftian media. They approach their subject from several different angles, and end up giving quite a rich experience to their readers.

***

Since Lurker in the Lobby dates from 2006, it serves primarily as an historical reference. But what a history! The authors cover all the major films to that point, from Quartermass to The Thing to Dagon, with many familiar and lesser-known movies in between.

And when seen through the right lens, Lovecraftian elements show up in many places you wouldn’t normally think to look. Unexpected additions to the movie list include The Trollenberg Terror (1958) with its giant crawling eyes, Uzumaki (2000), based on a horror manga, and The Maze (1953), about the classically subversive threat of hereditary evil.

The television show list is also surprising, with Lovecraftian themes and references showing up not just in the usual horror anthology series but in the Saturday morning cartoons, as well.

***

But while the capsule reviews of the movies and TV shows are great fun, the interviews end up slowing the book down. Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Roger Corman, Jeffrey Coombs, and Bernie Wrightson are among the luminaries the Lurker spoke with, and their interest in Lovecraft and filmmaking is inspiring. But the overall tone of the interviews is uneven. The questions are fairly formulaic and not particularly probing. They end abruptly. And while many of the interviewees have long had an active interest in the source material, others are included only by the chance of having worked on an adaptation.

***

To round out their offerings, the authors include a picture gallery featuring art by Richard Corben, Mike Migliore, and Bernie Wrightson, a pretty thorough list of short Lovecraft adaptations, and an index of feature films listed by year and again by the story that provided the basis for them.

So while it is imperfect and rough around the edges, Lurker in the Lobby is still an essential read. It is an affectionate look at some of the many, many films and filmmakers inspired by Lovecraft, presented in a way that can only inspire more.

Hidden Folk

C.M. Muller’s debut collection, Hidden Folk: Strange Stories, is an enjoyably weird read. The volume  contains twelve small, finely-tuned stories of lives slipping quietly out of control, even when the characters are sure they still have agency. The inhabitants of these stories range from preteen children to desperate mothers, from recent immigrants to young women to lonely old men. The overall mood is dark and subdued as the characters struggle with loneliness, loss, and their own irrelevance. And that mood lingers long after the book is closed.

***

Muller’s writing style in Hidden Folk is deliberate, dreamlike, and formal. He creates a distance between the characters and the reader that enhances the sense of disconnect and unbalance inherent in the tales. Because of this quality, many of the stories remind me fondly of Rod Serling’s measured prose and of Steve Rasnic Tem’s disorienting  shifts in circumstances.

Besides the overall voice and tone, Hidden Folk also contains some lovely, evocative  imagery. “For the past week, the ride home had begun in semidarkness and ended in pitch” and “A dwelling situated at the worst possible angle to the sun” can both stand as examples of the rich and compact descriptions scattered throughout the stories.

***

My personal favorites in the collection are these three:

“Absconsa Laterna”, in which a father inexplicably loses his son at–or to– a mysterious outdoor art installation.

“Resurfacing”, where an unusual construction project in a stagnant neighborhood opens up strange new options to our reclusive narrator.

And “Omzetten”, an epistolary tale of three young women on a European tour who make the ill-advised decision to visit a quaint, isolated old town just a short train ride away.

***

Hidden Folk is a fine reminder that the weird can be internal as easily as it is cosmic, and that fear can be as simple as familiar circumstances. I recommend it.

Twice-told

I’m pleased to announce that my story “One Last Mile” will appear in Cthonic Matter’s new anthology Twice-Told; A Collection of Doubles, alongside twenty-one other tales of doppelgängers, twins, and disturbing duplicates.

Coming face to face with yourself can be comedy gold, but it is just as often an unsettling, unnatural thing. We are used to thinking of ourselves as unique individuals–which makes the idea of encountering our own double both fascinating and deeply creepy. Doppelgängers have long been harbingers of unhappy things. Twins are suspected of having opposite natures, one good and the other pure evil. Imposters steal our very identities for their own ends.

Twice-Told; A Collection of Doubles taps into this deep well of unease. And as you can see from the table of contents, my story and I are in some very fine company.

“The Last Salvador” — Tim Jeffreys
“Details That Would Otherwise Be Lost to Shadow” — Clint Smith
“Zwillingslied” — Patricia Lillie
“Static” — Chris Shearer
“Stuck With Me” — Shannon Lawrence
“The Fifth Set” — Charles Wilkinson
“Murder Song” — Craig Wallwork
“The Final Diagnosis of Doctor Lazare” — David Peak
“Endangered” — Jason A. Wyckoff
“The Half-Life of Plastic” — Esther Rose
“Eidetic” — Steve Rasnic Tem
“They Are Us (1964) : An Oral History” — Jack Lothian
“Birds of Passage” — Gordon B. White
“The Half-Souled Woman” — Nina Shepardson
“Released” — Timothy B. Dodd
“As With Alem” — Farah Rose Smith
“The Fall Guy” — Tom Johnstone
“Scordatura” — Jess Landry
“Stringless Puppetry” — C.C. Adams
“The Bath House” — Tim Major
“Picky Yunn” — J.C. Raye
“One Last Mile” — Erica Ruppert

Twice-Told; A Collection of Doubles will be released on February 22. You can pre-order your hard copy of the book here, or pre-order the kindle edition here.

Here’s something to start the year off right: A pair of charity anthologies from Planet X Publications to benefit author Christopher Ropes.

Edited by Duane Pesice, 32 White Horses on a Vermilion Hill: Volume One and Volume Two are full of a wondrous assortment of sixty-four stories and poems contributed to the cause.

My story, “Triumph of the Skies”, appears in Volume Two.

If  you wish to donate directly, here is Christopher’s GoFundMe.

32 White Horses on a Vermilion Hill 32 White Horses on a Vermilion Hill


art & arcana

art & arcana
Just getting started

Art & Arcana: A Visual History is a huge, gorgeous compendium of what helps make Dungeons &Dragons so wonderful. Leafing through it brings up so many memories that I can’t gush adequately about it. The art is all so familiar, evoking the glorious campaigns our DM ran, the several editions I played, and the characters I created. I recognized the covers of the paperbacks my friends and I read, and the box art for the coveted miniature sets which I still have, and still use.

***

“It all started with one thousand curious boxes marked with unfamiliar symbols and verbiage.”

***

This is not merely a coffee-table art book.  Art & Arcana fully lives up to its subtitle as a rich and thorough history of Dungeons & Dragons. Interspersed with and guided by the lavish artwork is the narrative of the rise and fall of Gary Gygax and TSR and the game’s renewal under Wizards of the Coast.

art & arcana
All you need to know

Art & Arcana incorporates the several attempts to portray D&D as some sort of Satanic cult into its history, and the changes made to the game’s art and advertising in order to counter those smears. This leads into the many attempts TSR made to branch out into the mainstream.

D&D was adapted into handheld electronics in the early 1980s, with all the wonders of that era’s graphics. Somewhat more sophisticated computer versions followed in the late 80’s. Along the way, Dungeons & Dragons ventured into records, candy, coloring books, Viewmaster slides, Colorforms, a Saturday morning cartoon that spawned a board game, and even a pinball machine.

***

Of course Art & Arcana is thick with profiles of the artists, from the early, often teen-aged illustrators to the professional artists TSR and later companies eventually hired as D&D grew. Some examples of my favorites include Erol Otus and his classic cover of the original Dieties & Demigods; Clyde Caldwell’s iconic original art for 1983’s Ravenloft; and Darlene’s epic map of Greyhawk. In addition to the instantly-recognized classic art, the beautifully realized D&D variations found in Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Pathfinder, and Spelljammer are all included here as well.

art & arcana
Tiamat through the years

The development of the classic sets and modules, and how the maps and character sheets became refined over time, are explained as well. Two-page spreads detail the changes in how orcs, dragons, beholders, mindflayers, and other terrible beasts were drawn over the years, from the amateurish early versions to the vivid, polished monsters of today.

Even the influence of the indispensable miniature is covered, from the first cheap plastic monsters to the original MiniFigs and Grenadier figures, and on to TSR’s own official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons figures. There is nothing about how hard it is to paint the eyes, though.

***

“This game lets all your fantasies come true. This is a world where monsters, dragons, good and evil high priests, fierce demons, and even the gods themselves may enter your character’s life. Enjoy, for this game is what dreams are made of!”

***

art & arcana
Behold! The Beholder

Authors Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer have done a spectacular job of showing the history of Dungeons & Dragons in all its colorful glory. Anyone who has played any of the editions or variations will find something in Art & Arcana to reminisce over. It is a beautiful book that I will be going back to, over and over again.

 

fledgling

fledglingFledgling, Octavia E. Butler’s final novel, is a disconcerting read that takes on vampires, racism, and cultural creation myths in one long gulp. Told entirely from the viewpoint of an amnesiac child of a symbiotic species, Fledgling challenges the reader to accept an alien physiology and culture and its unusual intersections with human lives. While imperfect and at times jarring, it still has vital points to make.

***

Butler’s version of the familiar vampire is faithful to the folklore without embracing the supernatural. Her blood-drinkers are the Ina, an ancient, separate species that are not simply predators. The Ina are nocturnal, photosensitive, and long-lived, and do require human blood to survive. But the Ina need their humans alive and healthy, for more than just food.

The connection between Ina and humans is complex and symbiotic, with the depths of it only partially revealed over the course of the narrative. To ensure a steady food supply, Ina bind chosen humans to them using the venom in their bites. After several such bites, a human becomes physically dependent on its Ina and will die if separated. The Ina’s bite also confers exceptional health and extended life on the human recipient. In return, the Ina requires an intimately physical, as well as nutritional, relationship.

***

Part of what makes Fledgling so intriguing to me is its in medias res quality. It begins with a mystery, and ends with potential about to be tapped.

The novel is the story of Shori, a genetically altered Ina whose very existence is considered an abomination by certain other Ina families. Shori’s mothers, skilled scientists, inserted human DNA into the genetic code of Shori and her siblings with the hope of giving them the ability to withstand the sun and to function during the day–and to be able to pass those traits on to their own offspring.

Fledgling begins with Shori awakening without her memory, a result of an attack that wiped out her entire maternal family–mothers, grandmothers, and sisters, as well as all their symbiots. When she finds her paternal family, they are assassinated as well. The rest of the novel is Shori’s ongoing recovery and relearning of Ina culture–and how her existence threatens to change it– in order to bring her family’s murderers to justice.

***

shoriA great deal of information is funneled to the reader through Shori’s inquiries and explorations. We learn along with her that Ina culture is an intricate thing, with social, sexual, and symbiotic norms that predate humanity’s by millenia. Her amnesia is a fine tool for all the exposition, and is balanced with enough recovered knowledge to keep her from being simply a babe in the woods and her relearning merely an info dump. Shori knows things. She doesn’t always remember that she knows them.

Shori is revealed as an ethical, caring keeper of her human symbiots, with no memory of having learned ethics. But even though she tells her own story, Shori remains at a distance. She is, after all, not a human, as much as she may resemble one.

Which brings me to my visceral discomfort with the novel.

Shori appears to be a prepubescent child, but that doesn’t matter to our Ina heroine or the twenty-something man she first feeds from. He wants to have sex with her, and she is happy to have him. She and her human symbiots engage freely in mutually consensual sex throughout the novel, with varying levels of euphemism to explain it. But the frequent descriptions of Shori as “a lovely little thing”, and the desire of multiple adult males to pull her onto their laps is far too reminiscent of Lolita for me.

While objectively it shouldn’t be an issue for a 53 year old child of an unrelated species to have sex with an adult human, from this adult human’s perspective it feels very wrong.

***

Ocatvia E. Butler died too soon, and Fledgling strikes me as a beginning to something that would have been larger if she had enough time. The novel is transgressive and open-ended, with the poisons of racial purity and prejudice laid out in clear and unsentimental language. In the end Fledgling left me unexpectedly and deeply uncomfortable. But I still wish there were more of the story.