Friday, June 28, 2019

Quoth the Raven Interview

Note: Tiffany Michelle Brown, who's also a contributor to Quoth the Raven, a contemporary reimagining of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Lyn Worthen, conducted this interview with me a while back. It had a lot of fun questions and brought back memories of my dad, so I thought I'd share it here.   

The Quoth the Raven anthology by Camden Park Press celebrates the eerie and influential legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. What is it about Edgar Allan Poe’s work that speaks to you (perhaps from the grave)? 

I think Poe strikes me on two levels. The full scope of his work conveys a mood. It captures the essence of shadow, the dark, grim recesses of the world and the psyche. I was telling someone else that when I was very young, four or five, my dad read me “The Raven.” I didn’t fully understand it, but I picked up enough to be terrified by the pervasive presence plaguing the narrator. That dark tone reverberates through all of Poe’s work in a remarkable way. I guess that’s the visceral impact. Knowing of Poe’s life and challenges, I think, strikes the rational mind. It’s fascinating to see the torments and trials filtered through his artist’s thinking. It’s a glimpse of literary alchemy, and it generates appreciation and sympathy at the same time. What a brilliant and tormented artist.

Pick three adjectives to describe the story/poem you wrote for the Quoth the Raven anthology.

Human. Dark. Infinite. I know those aren’t all labeled adjectives in the dictionary, but if you use them like this, they modify: A human story. A dark story. An infinite story.

Imagine you’re in an old-timey elevator, a rickety one that boasts a well-worn, rusty cage. There’s a man in all black in the elevator with you, and he asks what your story/poem is about. What do you tell him? 

It’s the story of a man who think’s he’s average and ordinary, but actions are swirling around him that will drive him to extraordinary measures using the tools he has at hand, the tools of which he's a master. Choices reveal an almost calm and unexpected cunning and suggest he may be tapping into the very darkest part of his own soul and some collective soul as well. Whew, how’s that? I think that’s something a man all in black in an elevator might relate to.

Okay, I’m continuing with this scenario thing. It’s 1849, and you’re at a gathering of literature lovers, a salon, if you will. Across the room, you spy Edgar Allan Poe, and you simply must go over to him to compliment his work. What is the story or poem of his that you laud to excess? And why? 

I have a second to think, right? I’d be very prone to babble, because I can imagine the look I’d get back from Poe as I touch his shoulder and interrupt his thoughts. I think I’d babble also because there are so many stories and poems that come to mind and possibly I might say something goofy like: Do you know your name is also the first three letters of poem? Oh, you’ve heard that? With a moment to compose myself, I’d settle on mentioning “The Cask of Amontillado,” which is the antecedent for my Quoth the Raven story “A Cooler of Craft Brew.” I encountered it first in high school, and it’s the first Poe story I approached on that visceral and intellectal level at once, and having approached it again, I see the depth of its horror even more in its concise length and the brilliance of its execution as well. There are elegant, grim choices that really set its hook deep, perhaps more so a few seconds after the last words are read.

As a writer, what do you think are the most important elements of dark fiction?

Stephen King writes of what he calls “The Terror” in Danse Macabre, kind of the ultimate level of horror fiction and impact. We feel a breath, turn but there’s nothing there, as he puts it. I think that level really involves suggestion and providing a reader’s imagination just enough to work with. It’s about dropping a hint that invites visualization and contemplation. H.P. Lovecraft was an afficianado of Poe. I think he saw and distilled some of that dark essence from Poe’s work. Shocks are good. Shocks are punctuation points that throw us off balance, but ultimately, forcing the mind and imagination to work and keep working are where dark fiction is at its most powerful.

Ray Bradbury does it in “The October Game.” He doesn’t focus directly on gore. He provides building blocks so that we have an impression of something happening in the dark, then literally he leaves us to look on the horrible scene in the light with the story’s very last line. In a bit of rare restraint, because it stems from Bradbury’s pen, I suppose, the EC Comics adaptation of that story from the fifties gets it right. We’re left with a final panel of shocked faces instead of a typical EC final panel, and that gives us something we can’t escape by closing our eyes. We know what they’re seeing. We’re imagining it. It’s like Bradbury’s channeled the old Zen maneuver: “Whatever you do, don’t think of a pink elephant.”

As a reader, why are you attracted to dark fiction? Why do you think we like to read about the things that terrify us?

I think it’s because my father scarred me by reading me Edgar Alan Poe when I was four. But seriously folks, Kafka said we should read stories that wound and stab us and that if the story doesn’t break through the ice within us or deliver a blow to the head that wakes us up, why are we bothering? Many meditations about conflict and catharsis have been written as well. Deep down, I think there’s a logic to dark fiction and that resonates and satisfies us. It kind of offers a capsule of a bigger, messy, complicated world, a snapshot of a dark moment we can contemplate and from which we stand to glean some understanding.

What’s a story or poem – by any author – that has truly creeped you out (in the best way possible, of course)? What was it about that particular story that just got to you?

Wow, I guess, top of my head, it’s “The Raven” that I mentioned earlier. It put me in that lonely, isolated room with the narrator, and in that isolation and darkness when the tapping begins so does the terror. It’s so pure and basic, and it’s with me years and years and years later.

Who are some of your literary inspirations?

Poe really is an early one. I guess, at least when I was a young person, he was a staple for parents and educators. We had a collection from Whitman, the publisher that did all the TV tie-ins when I was a kid and offered Trixie Belden and Tarzan and the like. Edgar Rice Burroughs thrilled me when I was a kid, the books and comic book adaptations that my father also read to me. This could be a long list, H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Bloch. Later Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. Lovecraft and Stephen King come a little later still. Ray Bradbury, August Derleth, Seabury Quinn, the Weird Tales writers who were collected in horror paperbacks when I was in junior high. Like everyone who puts pen to paper, I think there are countless influences.

I’ve always loved the dedication page to the novel Logan’s Run that touches on everything from The Green Hornet to Dangerous Dan McGrew. So, that.

What are you currently working on right now?

I’ve been working on a New Orleans noir novel for a while. It’s called Fool’s Run. I’ve finished a draft, done the heavy lifting, so I’m letting it sit a bit. I think if you do that, then you can delve back into a work and see if it really says what you thought you were saying. I picked up the notion of something growing cold to the author’s eye from an online conversation with thriller author Joseph Finder, so I should acknowledge that. I like to say at the moment I’m on a bit of a vacation as well, writing short stories such as “A Cooler of Craft Brew.” Short fiction’s fun and statisfying. I get back to short stories whenever I can.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Biblioholic's Bookshelf - The D.A. Goes to Trial

Erle Stanley Gardner's best known for his defense attorney detective Perry Mason, but he wrote a few books about young district attorney Doug Selby, who deals with murder cases and the politics surrounding his job. 

The late Jim Hutton played Selby in a TV movie, They Call It Murder. Ed Asner and Leslie Nielsen also appeared. I watched it when it aired back in the day when my old man worked late and I hung out in the living room waiting for him to come home. Didn't know the character history nor of the Perry Mason-tie at the time. Hutton played detective Ellery Queen later in an NBC series that lasted a season. His son, Timothy, would later play Archie Goodwin in the wonderful and sadly only two-season A&E series A Nero Wolfe Mystery. 

Monday, June 24, 2019

Favorite Short Stories: The Gentle Passing of a Hand by Charles L. Grant

A friend asked for some recommendations on horror tales the other day, and as I mentioned a few that had had an impact on me, I realized they were almost equally balanced between visceral and quiet horror.

For me, used correctly, a visceral punch can be powerful and affecting. Quiet horror, read in the correct frame of mind, can be perhaps even more potent, evoking, sometimes for just a split second a sense of awe, a push into Stephen King's third level of horror, The Terror.

Charles L. Grant was an advocate for and a practitioner of quiet horror and championed the power of shadow.

When I first attended conventions as a kid before I'd published anything, I went to numerous panels where quiet horror and splatterpunk were debated in "tastes great-less filling" fashion, and Grant always made a good argument for the quieter side.

Oxrun and Other Streets

He's, of course, known for numerous series and novels with his Oxrun Station cycle maybe the most famous. Stephen King calls the Station Grant's "half-magical little town." I ran across the September 1978 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction the other day, which featured an excellent Oxrun story I'd never encountered, "Caesar, Now Be Still."

That's not why we're here, though. That story sent me looking back through anthologies I'd picked up in my earlier years.  I re-discovered Tales From the Nightside, a World Fantasy Award-winning collection, which I bought in the TOR edition from one dealer's table or another. It offers three sections of tales: Tales from Oxrun Station, Tales from Hawthorne Street, and Tales from the Nightside.

Hawthorne Street is another slightly askew area of Grant's universe, perhaps most famous for "Temperature Days on Hawthorne Street," which became the Tales from the Darkside episode "The Milkman Cometh."

It's on Hawthorne that I re-discovered "The Gentle Passing of a Hand."

I also discovered I have, having spent a few years mulling theory for the sake of students, a better understanding now for the points Grant was making on those panels and in the pages of essay where he advocated for "shadow."

Shadow is basically an ill-defined something sideways in the world, and "Hand" builds to just such a revelation, a revelation that's profound and unsettling as the culmination of the story, the "Oh my, God!" moment.

It's a story told by a young narrator, Jay, orphaned and living with his Aunt Helen and Uncle Steve who are struggling with the burden and responsibility of his care.

Jay's as honest and as reliable as his world view and understanding of the world let him be, but he is a child, and it's through a child's perspective that we experience his world.

It's at a birthday party he discovers backyard magician, the Great And Astounding Albert. And it's from Albert he seeks knowledge for his own slight-of-hand magic act, though it's really too much to expect a magician to be mundane in a horror story.

Albert provides a few pointers, the most important seemingly that there's really nothing up his sleeve, but Jay's destined to learn a bit more as he works his way through his world. He's not unaware of the possibility that he might be passed on to someone else by his aunt and uncle as possible career opportunities develop.

Knowledge and naiveté

Secret knowledge and naiveté can be a dangerous combination, and to say more would spoil the effect as Jay plays with slight-of-hand tricks and toys with the nothing up the sleeve notion as well as the matter of his hand, that's mentioned in the title.

There's definitely a feel of Ray Bradbury in the tone of the chill and in the world of Hawthorne Street. There's a sense of idyllic tinged with dark edges. Albert's a kinsman to Bradbury's sideshow influence Mr. Electrico who fueled his imagination and fiction.

The end effect is actually the same core effect that fuels a major literary horror novel of a few years back, though to name it might spoil both.

It's hard to say if Grant was an influence or if the author arrived at the idea independently, but Grant definitely got there first, and, when the story reaches that point it's a cold hand clutching your gut.
Again, read in the right frame of mind and with the right degree of immersion, "The Gentle Passing of a Hand" is significant and affecting shadow play.

I'm dubbing it a new favorite.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Thirty Devilish Years of Azarius!

I waited with a bit of trepidation the year my novel Azarius was in development. I'd sold it myself with a query followed by a complete manuscript, "over the transom," as they used to say, after an agent failed.

I'd fumbled my way along with Writer's Market and Writer's Digest and observation of what was on the bookstore shelves. Edward Lee's Ghouls alerted me that Pinnacle Books was alive again after Mack Bolan jumped ship for Harlequin, so I addressed my letter To the Editor of Ghouls. I'd read Stephen King had once sent a query To The Editor of The Parallax View. That must have been for the novel Rage and not Carrie, but I'm not sure. 

As a newbie with just a few short stories published in literary and little magazines, I had little say in the cover art, and there'd been a good bit of negative buzz about crass paperback covers with skulls and demonic children.

The Postman Rings

When a packet arrived unexpectedly in the mail one morning with a stack of cover flats, I was relieved and elated. The lettering was foil embossed but in a cool way, and the image of an eye in a broken mirror, mined from the book's pages, seemed perfect and subdued at the same time.

It's hard to believe that was 30 years ago.

Early 2019's been hectic for me with a move to Virginia, so it took a phone conversation the other night with Wayne Allen Sallee, author of The Holy Terror, Rapid Transit and much more, to note the anniversary year had arrived. It's the 27th for Holy Terror. 

It seems long ago and like yesterday. 

It started with a bad dream on the heels of three private eye novels I'd never felt were quite good enough to ship out plus a coming of age novel with crime undertones.

Letting Go of I

I switched over to third person from first and found it freeing, and the words flowed. A hundred thousand or so hammered out on a Commodore 64 in the wee morning hours after working a 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift at the newspaper where I was a reporter. I've always said past midnight was a good time to be writing a horror-mystery.

I had to take vacation time to do the edits requested by Ann LaFarge, who'd found it in the slush pile. A New Orleans-area murder-for-hire trial had been relocated to Central Louisiana, and I drew the straw of covering it. It was interesting but also a distraction.

Azarius Lives!
Crossroad Press re-issued Azarius a couple of years ago as I was rolling up my sleeves and preparing to devote my writing time to literary short stories.

The ebook edition cover was designed by David Dodd who does most of the covers for Crossroad . I was really pleased when it arrived in my inbox, bypassing the postman.

David had found a different but equally intriguing way to represent the novel's central, deceptive presence, leader of a horde of fallen angels all eventually confronted by a young reporter.

It touched off what I've come to think of now as the Aimsley Cycle of novels, all set in the fictional Louisiana city Aimsley and its surroundings where events traditionally supernatural and otherwise abound.

Looking back, that led to an interesting life for me.

I'd have never taught without Azarius, I'd never have made as many friends as I have around the world, never have bounced around as much. It's all a blur of course.

And happily you can order here or via the Crossroad Press website.

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