2012 - A Cautionary Tale (with a happy ending)

Lots of my writer friends are doing year-end wrap-ups of their 2012 accomplishments. I enjoy reading them. I'm happy to see sales made and books published. We have a good community.

I'm going to ask for a different indulgence, however. I want to write about the most amazing person in my life and how we almost lost her this year; unlike my fiction style, though, I'm not out to provoke dread throughout this piece, so let me assure you now that this has a happy ending.

Some of you know my mother, Sheila. You may know she's essentially my role model, my best friend, my biggest fan. If you've seen my Facebook posts, you have some idea of what I've been through with her this year, and why it's been the hardest year of my life.

The back story goes like this: Although I've come to appreciate my dad more as I've aged, and to recognize how much like him I am (fortunately he gave me more than this damnable Morton jawline - I also got his engineering genes), there's no question that my mom was the primary parent in our household. She was the one who taught me to read at the age of three, who stayed up late watching horror movies with me, and who instilled in me the values of compassion and hard work. My parents quietly and amicably divorced when I was a teenager and there was no question which one of them I would live with. She refused to take alimony and instead went back to work (managing a bookstore - surprise!). This was at a time when women were just starting to enter the work force and it was still difficult for a single woman to get things we take for granted now, like credit cards. Although we were never truly poor, I remember a few times when Mom worried about the next meal.

Things got rougher when my invalid great-grandmother moved in with us. Mom's parents died (from pneumonia) when she was three, and her grandmother had taken her in (during the Depression, which tells you something grand about grandmother). Although my Nana was a kind and generous person when I was a child, a series of strokes had left her confused, bitter, temperamental and hard to deal with. She sent seasoned caregivers fleeing in tears. My Mom and I took care of her, and unfortunately it meant I was unable to have friends, at least the kind who came to my house. I once made the colossal error of bringing home a new best friend who happened to be African American, and paid for that mistake for months. It often felt like it was me and Mom against the world.

I won't lie and say it was tragic when we lost Nana; it was, in fact, a tremendous relief. I was 19, and Mom took us out to the best restaurant in town, then ordered champagne for both of us and all but dared the waiter not to serve underaged me.

Not long after, Mom met the love of her life, Hjalmer (another bookstore manager - this is looking strangely familiar, eh?). I adored him as well. They retired early and moved to Portland, Oregon, to be near Hjalmer's wonderful family. I visited whenever I could.

Unfortunately Hjalmer died unexpectedly after they'd been together only five years. He was 66, in perfect shape, had recently had a physical, and it should have been impossible...but one night he went to bed and didn't wake up. No autopsy was performed; Mom was understandably so shaken that she didn't ask for one. We have no idea what killed him. He died three days before the start of principal photography on my first movie, Meet the Hollowheads. This was, of course, my life's work and my dream realized, but it didn't matter. I flew to Portland to be with Mom.

She was soon enough back to work (do I have to mention managing a bookstore?), but retired a few years later and moved to the Los Angeles area to be near me. I was thrilled to have her back. By the time she hit 70, she was still in amazing shape and looked 50. She met a new man, Ed, and they moved in together.

But then things started to go wrong. She fell and broke a hip. She recovered with her usual grace and cheerfulness, but it was the beginning of a long, black time. She broke a wrist not long after (she and I share a mutual klutziness), and the medications began to pile on. Soon she was taking so many I couldn't remember them all.

And...she changed. My eternally optimistic, upbeat, sociable Mom who loved life and was surrounded by friends became agoraphobic and perpetually anxious. More medications were prescribed. I began to put in phone calls to her various doctors. Most were never returned. At one point she had a heart surgery that I'm still not convinced she actually needed. More medications.

In April of this year she had a hip replacement surgery. It was supposed to be routine, with a short recovery.

Yeah, right.

She spent a month after the surgery in a nursing home suffering from severe delirium. Sometimes she thought they were trying to kill her. On good days, she thought Ed was buying the nursing home and that I would be running it. She wouldn't eat, and trying to talk to anyone about her condition was nearly impossible. My strategy consisted of visiting her as often as possible; I was convinced that maybe my presence would help center her somehow.

One morning she was spectacularly delirious, talking about people who had been dead for years wandering the hallways outside her room; she had a hyperactive form of delirium, and never stopped jittering. An hour later, she was lucid and calm. The delirium had passed that quickly. Apparently it does that, without warning and virtually instantaneously.

It was June when she came home, weak and still slightly confused, but determined to recover. She responded well to physical therapy. I began to focus on my own work again - I'd taken on too many assignments, frankly, and was working late into most nights to meet all my deadlines.

But then in October - my busiest month - something happened. None of us are quite sure what, but I'm 99% convinced it was a medication issue. On October 1st, she passed out twice. On the 5th, she was admitted to the hospital; they found a slight heart flutter, which they used medication to control. During visits, she seemed slightly unfocused but basically okay. By the 8th she was completely unresponsive. No one knew why. An MRI, a lumbar tap, and blood work all came up negative. She shouldn't have been like this.

She spent the rest of October in a convalescent facility almost completely unresponsive. Her eyes were often open, but there was no recognition when she looked at anyone. When they fed her, she opened her mouth, chewed and swallowed...but otherwise nobody was home.

On October 28th, she was rushed from the convalescent facility to the hospital with a diagnosis of pneumonia. By the 29th, we were told she'd likely pass soon. This was the same day I was supposed to attend an awards ceremony in Hollywood to accept a prize that my book, Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, had just received. My publisher was excited about me attending; I warned them that I might not be able to. When the phone hadn't rung by the time I was to leave, I took a chance and went to accept the award.

On the 31st, she was moved to a small board-and-care facility and assigned hospice care. Ed and I began to go through her papers, in preparation for settling her estate.

The next day I walked in to see her at the board-and-care, and she looked at me and said, "There's my baby!" I just froze in shock. I was literally completely stunned. She'd been unresponsive for weeks. She was supposed to be dying from pneumonia. Instead, she was sitting up in bed, breathing freely, and happy to see me. She'd obviously once again snapped out of delirium.

It wasn't an instantaneous recovery this time - for several weeks she wavered in and out of awareness. But by the end of the month she was completely lucid and clearly no longer in need of hospice care.

I began the process of wading through the morass of health care, trying to get her switched from hospice to home health; she was lucid again, but had been bed-ridden for so long that she'd lost the use of her legs. She would need physical therapy to regain her ability to walk.

It's taken us a month to work through the maze, but today she started physical therapy. Not only do I expect her to make a full recovery, but she will return home more lucid and clearer than she's been in years.

I blame the American medical industry for what she's been through. She's been on a merry-go-round of doctors who are only too happy to prescribe yet more medications, and who don't ever seem to bother to check either medication conflicts or long-term side effects. I've researched some of the drugs she was on, and learned things about them that have made me want to seek out a few doctors for good thrashings. There is no question that she was over-medicated and badly treated by doctors. I think at least one hospital literally lied about her care and another misdiagnosed her. I think hospitals and facilities have made a fortune off billing her insurance company for treatments she didn't need or just plain didn't even receive.

The good news is that she is now almost free of medications, has a new doctor who is leery of pills, and is in better mental shape than she's been in years. She's reading again, talking to friends, and we had a splendid Christmas lunch at a great restaurant. She's looking forward to the future, and so am I.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank those who offered me legal and medical advice when I most needed it, and to offer up my own words of wisdom: Don't place your trust in doctors, don't believe anyone who tells you America has a great health care system, and be very wary of any medications.

Here's to a happier, healthier, calmer 2013 for everyone.


Ben Ethridge and Me

A few years back, a young guy named Benjamin Kane Ethridge started e-mailing me; he had a new novel out called Black and Orange, and since it was about Halloween and since I was a Halloween expert, would I read it? I did...and it was wild. In the beginning, I wasn't even sure about it, but Ben kept working on it and revising it and polishing, and it either got better or grew on me, take your pick.

Well, it turned out that Ben was also a local SoCal guy, and we started to meet at various events and signings. He's a really cool fellow, with a sweet "Aw, shucks" kind of manner that belies his obvious gifts and work ethic.

You may know what's coming next: In 2010, Ben and I were both nominated in the First Novel category of the Bram Stoker Awards. The Castle of Los Angeles and Black and Orange were up against Gemma Files' amazing western dark fantasy A Book of Tongues and Lucy Snyder's gorgeous urban fantasy Spellbent. Wow, talk about competition.

I won't be disingenuous here and say I expected to lose. Although I personally am not a big campaigner and I didn't do anything to push it beyond making it available to voters, Castle had already received lots of wonderful press and a Black Quill Award nomination. But here's the thing: I wouldn't have minded losing to any of those three other books, but I secretly was rooting for Ben. I knew he'd be so thrilled and his book was quite fine indeed.

As it turned out, we got the second best of possible outcomes - Black and Orange and The Castle of Los Angeles tied (the best outcome would have been a four-way tie, but the rules are set up to make sure that doesn't happen). We got handed our trophies by a couple of nobodies named Gillian Flynn and Joe Hill:

Ben has gone on to prove that Black and Orange wasn't a flash in the pan. This year he's already released Bottled Abyss and Dungeon Brain, and I know he's got more fantastic stuff in the pipeline. In the meantime, he was kind enough to provide me with his take on our First Novel tie.

Take it away, Ben!

My Stoker Experience
by Benjamin Kane Ethridge

I’ve written about this subject before, so for the sake of those who might have read an earlier account, I hope I don’t repeat myself. With regard to the Bram Stoker Award, winning it, at the time I had a complex cocktail of emotions, rational and irrational about the concept. I’d seen some wonderful, jaw-dropping big press books fall to the wayside against lesser (in my opinion) small press books, and then I’d also seen some nominated small press works be soundly beaten by lesser, yet more commercial fiction products. In other words, I’d seen both small and large presses unfairly lose out. So where would my book fall? How would it be perceived? Would it be considered a small press book that squeezed past a more worthy New York published, money making endeavor? Or would it be praised, yet overshadowed?

                I’m negative, so I believed some kind of failure was bound to happen. I’d done my best to get folks to read the book, while at the same time trying not to come off too cheerleader about it. I didn’t want to be “one of those guys.” All I could do was make sure people knew the book was available to review. After that, the rest was up to the readers. I could see some books gathering recommendations like crazy and yet nobody outside the Horror Writers Association knew anything about them. That’s not a slight on the books or the association, just an observation and a motivator for me to see my work expand to other audiences.

                This effort might have been what really got more eyes on my novel and perhaps got more people in the association to give my book their vote (for I was up against amazing competition). I felt that Lisa Morton, who also won the award that day in Long Island, would safely take the prize. She’s an accomplished writer and well known in the community. Possibly the only reason I tied her, was some voters, perhaps unjustly, felt she’d already won the award before and wanted to give someone else the opportunity. Had she never claimed the castle prior to that night, I’m certain it would not have been a tie. I’d have been sitting at the table, clapping, with a knowing smile on my face while my wife patted my arm reassuringly. Thankfully, Lisa was able to continue her well deserved streak of garnering award after award, and I was able to take one home as well!

                The one thing I never did was take anything for granted. People would nudge me when they saw the recommendations stacking up for Black and Orange and they would say, “Hey, looks like you have a shot.” I refused to agree with them. It’s not that I thought the novel substandard or undeserving, but as I said before, so many great works have not made it to the final tribal council (Survivor reference, ahem). The stars have to align. Luck and hard work, in the end, was how it happened for me.

                Now maybe if I win another Bram Stoker Award one day, I won’t feel my fate is only controlled by good fortune. But that’s another tale to be told.


For more about Ben or to find out where to purchase his books, visit http://www.bkethridge.com

Chain interview

My comrade Gary Fry recently tagged me with these interview questions, so here goes:

1) What is the working title of your next book?

Summer's End - it's a Halloween-themed novella.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

The research I did on my last non-fiction Halloween book, Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. I pinned down the source of one of the biggest misconceptions about the holiday - that it was based on a Celtic celebration of "Samhain, Lord of Death" - and then thought, Now, what if that was the truth and we've really been wrong all along?

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Insane postmodernist horror pseudo-autobiography.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Well, considering that the protagonist is a middle-aged Halloween expert named Lisa Morton...I would sound incredibly vain if I suggested anyone.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A Halloween expert discovers that our understanding of the holiday is completely wrong, that magic is real, and that the world is about to change...

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Neither. It will be published by JournalStone, but my agent didn't set up the deal.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I'm not sure yet, since it's not finished! Also, it's been written in fits and starts over the last six months, as I've wrestled with dozens of other deadlines.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Ummm....I can't think of anything. That's probably not good.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

An 18th-century British surveyor named Charles Vallancey.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

It's an odd mix of Halloween fact and fiction, and I hope readers will begin to wonder, as they read it, where one ends and the other begins.

Shooting zombies

I figure if this whole zombie apocalypse thing is about to be on us, then I want to be ready...and what better way than to dive headfirst into the coming and very lucrative market of zombie photography? Zombie family portraits...zombie photography monographs...and of course zombie photography. Here's a look at my growing portfolio of zombie portraits; my camera and I look forward to servicing all your zombie photography needs in the future. Our motto: "We aim for the head - and get a winning photo every time!"

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In the meantime, you can pick up your own tips on the new undead world in this fine tome, now available everywhere:

The most haunted place in L.A.

Today I took a trip to visit a location that has obsessed me for years, but that I'd never found before. It was this place:

This is the Park Ranger Headquarters and Visitor Center for Griffith Park, located at the intersection of Griffith Park Drive and Crystal Springs, near the south entrance to the great Los Angeles park. Looks innocent enough - just a quaint little adobe building with a spreading oak out front and a few banana trees. The only giveaway that this building has a history is the plaque located near the door (oddly, there's no walk to the plaque - you just have to tread across the grass to get close enough to read it):

Here's the full text of the plaque:


Granted on March 22, 1843 to Maria Ygnacia Verdugo in confirmation of an earlier Spanish concession made to Vicente Feliz in 1795.

Later owned by famous California pioneers Antonio Coronel and James Lick.

Colonel Griffith Jenkins Griffith, in 1882, purchased 4,071 acres of the Rancho. In 1898 he deeded to the city of Los Angeles 3,018 acres of natural mountains and slope land, one of the finest gifts ever presented to a city - Griffith Park.

Presented to the Los Angeles City Department of Recreation and Parks by Los Angeles Parlor No. 124 Native Daughters of the Golden West.

June 30, 1949

So, now we know we have a historic building at least (and yes, I get that this is not the original building, but it's probably fairly similar in construction, design and size to the original). But what makes this lovely little adobe so haunted?

For that, I will direct you first to a 1930 book called On the Old West Coast: Further Reminiscences of a Ranger, by Horace Bell. Bell was an interesting character - he'd once run a satirical paper in L.A. called The Porcupine - and he'd collected some of the oddest tales of old L.A. Chapter Nine of On the Old West Coast is titled "The Feliz Curse", and details the haunted history of this very spot. It centers around an event in 1863, when - according to Bell - the 17-year-old girl, Petranilla de Feliz, who was set to inherit the land from the recently-diseased Don Antonio Feliz, discovers the Don has left a will giving the large family estate to two lawyers. Imagine the adobe then, possibly looking more like this, as the furious young Petranilla arrives there:
Petranilla delivers this curse:

"Señor, do not dare to speak until I have finished! This is what I hurl upon your head: Your falsity shall be your ruin! The substance of the Feliz family shall be your curse! The lawyer that assisted you in your infamy, and the judge, shall fall beneath the same curse! The one shall die an untimely death, the other in blood and violence! You, señor, shall know misery in your age and though you die rich your substance shall go to vile persons! A blight shall fall upon the face of this terrestrial paradise, the cattle shall no longer fatten but sicken on its pastures, the fields shall not longer respond to the toil of the tiller, the grand oaks shall wither and die! The wrath of heaven and the vengeance of hell shall fall upon this place and the floods - !"

Here the inspired Petranilla swung round and stepped to the end of the veranda until she could see the sun sinking in the west beyond the Tejungas.

"See!" she cried with a far-flung gesture. "Behold! Cast your glance toward the dark entrance of the great Cañon of the Tejunga, and what do you see? Ha! ha! a myriad demons floating in air like so many vultures! They ride the storm clouds, and ay! they are lashing the clouds as the vaqueros lash the cattle to bring them together! Now the air darkens, the thunder rolls, the lightning flashes, the rain falls - ha! ha! the rain falls in torrents! Bowlders grind and crash, the demons ride the crest of the storm, they lash it into fury, it is coming - coming - coming! Ay, see! It has struck our willow dale, my old playground - it crumbles away into the great seething torrent! Now the royal oak is gone! See what the lightning flashes reveal at the base of the mountains - they reveal the oaks withering in the tongues of flame - their bright green leaves are scorched to cinders - because they were above the reach of the waters it is the fire from the clouds that has destroyed them. Woe, woe, woe to you and yours, señor! The meadows are gone, only the hills remain the mere bones of the rancho, and no man shall ever enjoy peace or profit from what is left of this once beautiful spot! Misfortune, crime and death shall follow those who covet these remains!"

Bell has Petranilla then collapse and die shortly thereafter. We know that in fact Petra was real, and lived far past 1863...but amazingly, the cursing itself may have been an actual event (Bell's florid recreation notwithstanding), since it's been described by others as well as Bell, including at least one person who claimed to be an eyewitness. For the next forty years this plot of land did indeed fall victim to floods and fires, while the owners were murdered and debt-ridden (contrary to the rosy picture painted on the plaque, Griffith probably gave the land to the city because it wasn't worth the property taxes he was paying on it - no one wanted to rent or buy the land, possibly thanks to the belief that the curse was real).

Bell goes on to describe workers encountering the ghost of Don Antonio, and he also describes at length a scene (probably nothing more than a satirical fantasy) in which Griffith hands the land over to the city officials during a party that, at midnight, is beset by demons and devils.

Is it any wonder, then, that this story and this seemingly benign little building have obsessed me for years?

I only recently stumbled across the fact that the building still stood, commemorated by the plaque, and it was only today that I located it. It's a lovely area, and one can imagine a young woman's rage on discovering that this land - which she'd believed would always be in her family, thanks to their status as guards of the original settlers in Los Angeles - has been taken from her. I've always thought the ghost stories were wrong; it wouldn't be Don Antonio's vengeful spirit wandering the park, but Petranilla's, her fury keeping her rooted in place for eternity.

Yes, I've written about this. No, the novel - Malediction - hasn't been published yet. But if it ever is, and if you read it, I hope you'll remember this and maybe even visit the Feliz adobe. And if you encounter any ghosts, please let me know.

John Little, Fatima Monteiro and I talk SCAVENGER HUNT

John R. Little is not only one of my favorite people, he's also one of my favorite authors. From the time I read his Bram Stoker Award-winning novella Miranda, his work has left me moved, shaken, and thinking about it long after the covers have been closed. His critically acclaimed novel The Memory Tree, his novellas Placeholders, Miranda, The Gray Zone, Dreams in Black and White, and Ursa Major, and his short story collection Little Things often show a preoccupation with time, but more importantly John is interested in richly observed and very human characters, and themes of love and regret.

At first glance, his new novel Scavenger Hunt might seem like a step away from his usual preoccupations - not only is it his first collaborative effort (with Fatima Monteiro), but it's also a thriller about a deadly reality television show - but John's usual attention to pacing and human interactions are still very much on display. Scavenger Hunt is a terrific novel, with enough suspenseful (and gruesome!) deaths to keep horror fans happy, and a page-turning plot that is impossibly compelling.

I thought it would be interesting to hear from John and Fatima about how Scavenger Hunt came about, so here's my interview with them.

John: After The Memory Tree, Miranda, Placeholders, and The Gray Zone, you were kind of known as the horror guy who wrote about time, but your last two long works - Ursa Major and now Scavenger Hunt - seem to have stepped back from temporal displacement into more down-to-earth concerns (a rampaging grizzly and a lethal reality television show, respectively). Are you done with time travel, or just taking a breather?

That’s tough to answer.  Whenever I’m ready to write, I always seem to have one story that grabs me more than any other, and that’s the one I write.  For a while it was all those stories about time, but now it seems other things are holding my attention more.  Who knows what might be there down the road?

John: Prior to Scavenger Hunt, you'd never collaborated before. Can you talk a little about how and why you ended up writing Scavenger Hunt with Fatima?

Working with Fatima was an accidental collaboration.  She was my best friend at the time I wanted to start the book and we talked about the plot a lot.  I knew she was very creative, so I asked her if she’d like to help by creating background sketches for the characters.  I expected to have her write 100-200 words about each character, so I had something to work with.  Instead, she wrote these amazing short stories, one per character, that really showcased their backgrounds (and presents).  She ended up with more than 30,000 words, and I loved it.  They really captured an amazing variety of characters and situations, which in turn changed the whole focus of the novel.  As I worked through the book, I ended up using all of those character studies.  The book ended up being a collaboration, even though that wasn’t originally planned.  Knowing that Fatima did half the work meant she deserved half the credit. 

Fatima: What had you written prior to Scavenger Hunt? And what was it like to collaborate with John Little?

When I was in my teens I’d attempted to write a novel about a girl that was being stalked by a secret admirer. I didn’t get far though, as I lost confidence. I didn’t try again until John asked me to help him with the character sketches for Scavenger Hunt. Having admired him so much over the years, it was a huge honour that he wanted my help. I jumped at the chance! Working with him was amazing. He gave me the confidence to write. At first I didn’t include too much detail, but I soon found I couldn’t help myself. The words just came pouring out, and when John read what I’d wrote, I was pleasantly surprised that he was actually enjoying what I was writing. He gave me the confidence to open up more and really get into these characters’ lives. I’d never written anything before and he was a wonderful teacher.

For both of you: Scavenger Hunt extends the notion of the reality television show to the ultimate extreme - the real possibility of death, and the ratings boost it would bring. Did you intend the book to play as a savage skewering of reality television shows? Are they dangerous to our society as a whole?

Both of us are huge reality TV show fans, so it was a huge kick for us to try to imagine the most extreme example of that type of show.  We wanted something that reality fans would love but that also would appeal to those people who’d never bothered with them.  So, the book wasn’t trying in particular to say that these shows are dangerous, but satirizing them was great fun.

For both: One of the things that made Scavenger Hunt work so well for me was the detailed background given to each character, and how that background determines their fates. How did you two split up the duties in creating the characters and the story?

All the characters were developed in great detail by Fatima.  John wrote the “present day” sections and stitched in Fatima’s work as flashbacks.  We wanted the book to have a structure similar to the television show Lost, and that seems to have worked well for readers.

For both: Scavenger Hunt straddles an interesting line between thriller and horror - even though it's non-supernatural, there was no question in my mind that the intent of many scenes in the book was to horrify. Were you aware of the genre-crossing as you were writing the book?

Absolutely. Although the book is a thriller, we wanted it to appeal to horror fans as well. The initial planning included quite a few gruesome scenes, and some of those were the most fun to write.

Fatima: Did collaborating on Scavenger Hunt and then seeing it released (to glowing reviews) leave you wanting to try writing something on your own?

It’s been amazing seeing the glowing reviews. I’m so happy everyone seems to be enjoying the book! As far as writing something on my own, I’m not sure I’m there yet. I still lack the confidence and experience to try something on my own. Maybe one day. Who knows? But right now I’m quite happy under John’s wing!  I still have so much to learn!

For John: Your first collection, Little Things, was released in 2010 by Bad Moon Books, and I see you now have a second collection, Little By Little, scheduled for a 2013 release. What will we find in the new collection?

Little Things was a collection of my shorter work, about 20 or so short stories.  In contrast, Little By Little will contain longer works, including most of the novellas that I’m best known for.  Some of them will be lesser known works though, published in smaller markets, so hopefully my fans will find some interesting works that may have slipped by earlier.

For both: Would you collaborate with anyone else?


For both: Can we look forward to more from you as a writing team in the future? Can you give us any sneak peeks?

We’re currently about 150 pages into the sequel to Scavenger Hunt.  This will be much longer than the first book, and the collaboration is much more organized this time.  After that, we have two more books planned.  One is a collection of new, linked short stories called The Miracle Man.  The other is another thriller called Soul Mate, about a stage magician who may or may not have murdered his wife on stage when one of his magic acts goes wrong.  After that, who knows?

Thanks to John and Fatima for jabbering with me!

You can order your copy of Scavenger Hunt from http://www.badmoonbooks.com/product.php?productid=3085&cat=0&page=1

For more about John and his works, visit http://www.johnrlittle.com

Mondo Fiction-o

July so far has seen me embroiled in two different short fiction enterprises which seem to curiously mesh: I'm trying to write four short stories and (most of) a novella to meet my goals at the Clarion Write-a-Thon; and I'm working my way through reading nearly a hundred short story submissions for a month-long gig as a Wily Writers guest editor. (And as you'll see from the photo to the left, I have my own private editor who is the TOUGHEST EVER!)

I recently read a blog post by editor David Farland on "Ten Reasons Why I'll Quickly Reject Your Story" that nailed a lot of what I would say, so I'm just going to link to that excellent piece and offer only minimal discussion about some of Farland's points. Among the points he's mentioned, I'd say far and away #4 - "Nothing's happening" - is why I'm turning down most stories. I'm reading pieces that are 7 pages long but don't really start until page 4; I'm reading endless descriptions of what mundane things characters are doing or thinking (really, do I need to know how they brushed their teeth or made their lunch?) before I get to any real meat. I don't need your protagonist's life story on page 1. A good writer knows that they need to grab the reader up front, and then fill in that info as they go along (preferably subtly, not all in one big "there, I'm done with that now" chunk). 

One thing I'm surprised Farland didn't mention was the reliance on cliches. I'd say probably a full quarter of the stories I've read and rejected were positively bulging with cliches, whether in individual phrases or in the central idea of the story. Cliches puzzle me. I don't understand how anyone could write yet another story about a protagonist who drifts through a tale and turns out to be dead at the end. Do they think I won't be familiar with that trope? Or is ego so abundant that they believe they've put a fresh spin on things? And some of these phrases...my God, I've read stories that were simply cancerous with cliched phrases. I don't want to mention specific examples here because I'm not out to embarrass anyone, but let me see if I can offer something up that's similar: let's say you've described a quiet male as "the strong, silent type." Now, unless you're using that in a postmodern, ironic way, I'm going to stop right there and think, You're kidding, right? You didn't really just write that, did you? Oh dear, you did...and chances are if you did it once, you're going to do it again. Over and over and over. And over. And I'm going to say, "No, thanks," pretty damn fast. 

What's great about doing a big editorial gig like this and seeing all the mistakes and mediocre writing that make you turn down stories is that it makes you hyper-aware of the potential for these problems in your own work. I'm in the middle of trying to turn out four short stories that I owe various projects, meaning I need to not only write somewhat quickly, but change gears abruptly when I finish one piece and move onto the next. Here are the four stories:
  • "The True Worth of Orthography" - a magician who uses the physical act of writing to craft spells allies with a writer in his quest to reach the realm of the divine.
  • "Contagion" - a psychiatrist at an isolated institution falls victim to a strange disease rampaging through the inmates, and finds herself taking on all of their psychoses, including paranoid schizophrenia and sexual rage disorder.
  • "Zolamin and the Mad God" - a woman warrior in the ancient realm of Hyperborea is hired by a priest to retrieve his clan's stolen god, an entity that drives those near it to insanity.
  • As yet untitled - in the near future, the very wealthy have almost achieved immortality by recording their consciousness onto chips...but when one billionaire loses his money, he finds himself stranded in a strange, computer-controlled version of reality.
  • Summer's End - a novella about a Halloween expert named Lisa Morton who is brought in to consult on a newly-discovered scroll that changes our understanding of Celtic history, and ends up finding out that all of her notions of history, fact, magic, and of course Halloween are horribly wrong. 
So, we have a contemporary dark fantasy, a more traditional contemporary horror story with heavy sexual overtones, a Clark Ashton Smith-style heroic fantasy crossed with horror and religious commentary, a science fiction/horror hybrid, and a contemporary horror work that explores the notion of modern meta-fiction and some of my (ahem) substantial knowledge of the history of Halloween. 

Fortunately, I've never had much of a problem with the "Nothing happens" dilemma; if anything, I go too far in the other direction and have everything happen right up front ("Zolamin and the Mad God", for instance, opens in the middle of a huge, frantic chase). But I occasionally find myself taking a train ride through Cliche-Land. That's what rewrites are for, and several naughty little cliches have recently been jettisoned. If I can't find a simple or new way of saying something, I'd prefer to leave it unsaid.

So, how am I doing with my Clarion goals so far? Pretty well, I think. "The True Worth of Orthography" has been completed and accepted (look for it in the forthcoming anthology Blood Rites, published by Blood Bound Books). "Contagion" has been completed and submitted. "Zolamin and the Mad God" is halfway home now, and I hope to finish it over the next few nights, when it will be submitted to a Hyperborean anthology. That'll leave the untitled hybrid (intended for an after-life anthology) and the novella. By the way, I should issue a disclaimer here: I have no intention of trying to finish the novella by August 4th, when the Write-a-Thon ends. Summer's End already has a deal in place - contracts have been signed, deadlines set, and announcements are coming soon - and I'm only aiming for a good start that will take me through the next few months to complete the novella. I have high hopes for this work, and want to take the time to make it glisten. With dark light, that is.

It's not too late to support me in the Clarion Write-a-Thon! Remember, you'll be helping out one of the best genre writing programs in the world, and giving me a kick in the tailbone as well. I like kicks. Most writers do.

Why WILD GIRLS isn't just a lark

Last weekend, I hosted a booth for HWA at an event called The Great American Pitchfest. Over the course of eight hours, my pal and fellow member Brad Hodson and I spoke to hundreds of writers, and certain questions came up over and over. One of those went something like this: "Is horror just all blood and guts?"

How sad that this is the perception of the genre among the wider public. This is, I think, due largely to the immense popularity of certain cinematic franchises like Saw and Hostel, but the literary side is hardly blameless. Pick up any horror title published by the small press, and there's a good chance you'll be subjected to lengthy scenes of rape-mutilation-murder. (And please note, I'm saying "good chance" - I most certainly do NOT think all small press horror books feature extensive scenes of rape.)

These books are now classified as "extreme fiction", but you've probably all heard my own name for the category: "Fuck the stumps fiction", or FTS for short. You know by now that I'm not a fan of FTS fiction. You may think I'm going to bring up the dreaded word "misogynistic", and you'd be right...but it's not the only problem I have with FTS. Here are five reasons I dislike FTS:

  1. It's unimaginative - hey, if I read five books in a row in which people throw cupcakes at ghosts, by about book #3 I'm going to think this ain't as clever as it was in book #1. Now try reading it about 500 times.
  2. It's usually found in bad books - I'm sorry, but it's true. Rape-mutilation-murder is easy to write when you don't have any better ideas.
  3. It's impossible - okay, y'know what? You cut off somebody's legs, and they're gonna bleed out long before you can fuck the stumps. People don't live for hours (or days - yes, I've really read that) after being hacked up. And don't give me ridiculous items for weapons, like corn cobs. I'm going to laugh, and then - now that my suspension of disbelief has been completely shattered - I'm going to stop reading.
  4. It keeps women from writing more horror - yes, really. If you pick up ten books that all deride and humiliate your gender (let's not forget that women are often called derogatory names as they're being raped/mutilated/murdered in these books), it's not exactly a whopping big surprise that you'll be somewhat disinterested in writing to that market.
  5. (Surprise!) It's misogynistic.
A few years ago, I had a particularly unpleasant run of reading that turned out to be FTS on overdrive. I got so disgusted that I promptly started imagining an answer to these books - an answer in the form of a literary tale. Tit for twat, you might say. What would it look like, I began wondering, if I took those five reasons and flipped them all around and turned 'em inside-out? Here were my answers:
  1. I'd make it imaginative - I'd offer up an uncommon scenario of female serial killers, and leaven the whole enterprise heavily with (pitch black) humor.
  2. I'd make the book good - This was a hard one, because I wanted the writing style to parody some of the ridiculous language and situations found in FTS books, but I didn't it want to be badly written. I ended up deliberately making some of the dialogue terrible (especially among the drunken frat boys in the beginning), but trying to keep descriptive passages as well written as possible, and tell a reasonably compelling story.
  3. It's really impossible - what better way to mock impossible violence than make it really impossible (or simply ludicrous)? This is why, in Wild Girls, the "weapons" employed include high heels, cell phones, and pine cones. Yes, that's right - like the pine cone on the cover.
  4. Maybe women might read this and want to write horror - or maybe it's just me. Too early to tell yet.
  5. It's not misogynistic - but I bet some readers will accuse it of reverse sexism. And I will laugh my ass off.
So, that's how I came up with an over-the-top novella about two female serial killers and the cool girl detective who's onto them. I had a little fun with some other tropes, too - I'm fond of reading essays about the "final girl" of slasher movies, so I included a "final boy", a sexual innocent who ends up in the climactic showdown. I also included the big mutant hulk that often appears in bad horror, and a bit of back-story just to give the whole absurd thing a tiny bit of credence. Somehow, a little of my affection for noir also found its way in there.

I'm pleased with how it turned out, and I'm happy that readers seem to be enjoying it, both as an entertaining tale of horror and as a little bit of black satire. I originally released it as a free Kindle download for three days, and during that time it racked up nearly 900 downloads. One of those who grabbed a download was Liz Scott of Bad Moon Books, and as soon as Liz finished reading it she wrote to ask about the possibility of Bad Moon doing a limited hardcover. The book is now no longer available in e-format, and pre-orders are progressing for the signed and limited hardback. At just twenty-five bucks, I think it's a steal.

If you read Wild Girls (as I obviously hope you will), feel free to tell me that I'm a man-hating hack, or that you totally got it. Either way, we're having a conversation about the place of women in horror - both on the page and behind the page - and that ain't a bad thing.


2012 Part I

Today I finished indexing my forthcoming book Trick or Treat?: A History of Halloween. This probably doesn't sound like much of an accomplishment (unless you've ever indexed a non-fiction book, in which case you know the real meaning of the word "drudgery"), but for me this marks a major turning point. 

The last year has been undoubtedly the hardest of my life. With two non-fiction books that were being worked on simultaneously  (the other was the just-released Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times), a number of smaller fiction assignments, a major event to plan (the 2012 Bram Stoker Awards presentation), an increasingly difficult day job (being employed by the Iliad Bookshop now means you run as fast as you can for eight solid hours) and an elderly parent (mom) recuperating from a difficult surgery to be looked after, I've frequently been too tired to sleep. 

The event was finished in April, the parent is recovering (although a second surgery may be needed), and - as of today, and that index - the non-fiction books are done. DONE. D-O-N-E. 

Now I attempt to turn my attention back to fiction. Over the last year, I haven't completely forsaken the art of prose; I've managed a few short stories. But I've also made a lot of promises to deliver short stories, naively believing when I agreed to these deals (many months ago) that I'd have plenty of time. Yeah, right. I know.

I've missed deadlines already, but editors are kindly letting me take a few extra days to deliver. 

To motivate myself and do a little good in the process, I've signed up for the Clarion Write-a-Thon. If you don't know the Clarion Writers Workshop, you should; they are one of the premiere training programs for up-and-coming speculative writers. The Write-a-Thon will help them raise money to continue their magnificent program.

My goal: Four short stories and one novella in the next two months. 

I already know the plots and (in three cases) the titles of the pieces I'll be working on; these things have been sitting on the back burners of my brain's stove top, simmering away and waiting their chance to move up to the front flames. I plan on posting excerpts of these as I work through them, and I hope some of you might enjoy taking this journey with me. Here's a look at the works to-be-in-progress:

"Zolamin and the Mad God" - a dark fantasy (with a side helping of religious commentary) for an anthology of Hyperborea stories. 

"The True Worth of Orthography" - a contemporary horror fantasy about the power of the art of writing (meaning, writing as in the actual process of putting pen to paper to create letters).

Untitled - an after-death science fiction/horror hybrid about the unintended consequences of recording consciousness.

Untitled - a horror tale about a psychiatrist who starts absorbing her patients' psychoses.

And the big one - Summer's End - a Halloween horror novella about a Halloween expert who gets involved with some rather - ahem - uncomfortable new discoveries about the Celtic forerunner of Halloween, Samhain.

And who knows...I may even come up with one or two stories along the way that aren't on this list. I just know these are the ones I have now committed myself to completing. Wish me luck - if the first half of this year is any indication, I'll need it. 

Michael Louis Calvillo - An Appreciation

(This piece was written for the HWA Newsletter, and will appear in the next issue. However, I decided to post it here as well since I'd like all of Michael's family and friends to have a chance at reading it.)

Back in early 2007, a young author e-mailed me to ask if I'd read his debut novel. I'd never heard of him, but he was a Southern California local and I liked the enthusiasm evident even in his e-mail query, so I said yes.

I say "Yes" to a lot of these requests. I will now sheepishly admit that I often don't finish the books. They're usually decent enough, but my time is scarce and I really want to be wowed.

This book - a thing called I Will Rise, by Michael Louis Calvillo - did more than wow me. It left me delirious and frankly envious. It was that brilliant, unique new voice you always hope for when you pick up a book by someone you've never heard of. I immediately agreed to provide Michael with a blurb, and here's what I said: "I Will Rise is like the bastard lovechild of William S. Burroughs and Bentley Little, and is the biggest waiting-to-be-discovered cult novel of the decade. It's hip, witty, scary, strange, apocalyptic, sad, and full of beautifully observed moments. In a perfect world, American readers would already be slavering in anticipation of whatever Michael Louis Calvillo puts out next."

That was an easy blurb to write, because I meant every word.

Not long after, I met Michael for the first time, at a signing at Dark Delicacies in Burbank, California. I don't mind admitting that I was immediately smitten, but in that platonic, "God, I adore this guy's energy and talent and obvious love for what he's doing" kind of way. He had a funny, nervous manner that I found completely endearing. That mad energy got him in a little bit of hot water early on - a few HWA stalwarts got a trifle irritated with his frequent posts about I Will Rise on the organization's message board - and that irritation just left him baffled. He began one response with, "Doth I offend?" He loved his writing so much - and I don't mean that in an egomaniacal way, rather this was a guy who found such obvious great joy in the act - that he seemed unable to understand why others didn't relish every mention of one of his books as much as he did.

In 2009, Michael was ready to spring his second novel, As Fate Would Have It, on an unsuspecting world, and he asked me if I might consider doing the afterword. I read the manuscript and was hooked immediately. The book was quirky and disturbing and funny and insightful and experimental. Michael wasn't afraid to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the reader and have a bit of word play fun. One of my favorite lines comes near the front, as the first victim (the book is about the crossed fates of a cannibalistic gourmet chef and a pathetic young heroin addict) waits for her date to bring her a glass of wine: "She felt a tingle of warmth in her heart (groin)." In ten words, Michael had summed up the way a lot of people mistake sex for love better than books that made that theme their sole subject, and he did it in a way that made me laugh out loud. I told him that although this book deserved an afterword by someone who was much bigger than I was, that I would be honored to provide it.

(Amusing side note on As Fate Would Have It: Some time after the book was released as a signed/limited hardcover, I received a curious paperback in the mail called The Application of Heat: Observations and Recipes for the Discerning Gourmand. I was literally typing an e-mail to the sender suggesting that I'd been sent this in error when I flipped through the book - which looked for all the world like some technical cooking book - and saw a recipe titled "Prime Morton With Potatoes". It was only then that I remembered that the lettered edition of Fate was supposed to come with this "cookbook", which incorporated into recipes the names of those who had received the lettered editions. The joke was definitely on me!)

But reading Michael's work and knowing him through signings and parties was nothing compared to seeing him read his work. First off, he made cool little giveaways (see the "menu" illustration below) and often brought food, which was doled out by his gorgeous wife Michelle. Then the Mad Genius Himself got to work. When he read, Michael was like some walking bomb, winding itself up to a constant detonation. He would pace rapidly back and forth and fire those words out like a human machine-gun. I soon made sure that I saw him read at every possible opportunity and he was always amazing. In Brighton, England, at the 2010 World Horror Convention, he read a story (I'm embarrassed to admit I don't know the name) which struck me as vaguely ridiculous - something about a man who is caught by a cult and turned into a rampaging and very horny beast - but his performance of the story turned it into the most addictive kind of art. Michael always left his audience wanting more.

He was prolific; while he was teaching high school and socializing with his wife and their lovely daughter Deja, he was also churning out stories and books and columns and blog posts at an astonishing pace. Sometimes I worried that he was overdoing it - a couple of the later books feel rushed to me - but I was still flabbergasted that he never found major success. He and I both pursued the same agent at one point; the agent turned me down, but signed Michael. Sadly, the agent was unable to find the bigger home that Michael's work deserved.

In late 2010, I saw Michael at a signing, and was dismayed to see he was having difficulty walking (he was using a cane) and was obviously in great pain. "Sciatica," he told me the doctors had diagnosed. After he left, I told my significant other Ricky Grove (who is also a Calvillo fan) that I'd had stuntman friends who'd suffered from sciatica, and it didn't look like that.

Unfortunately, I was right. In December, Michael was diagnosed with CUP, or cancer undiagnosed primary, an aggressive form of cancer which is difficult to treat and has a high mortality rate.

I was thunderstruck. Michael was 36 years old, with a loving family and a promising career as one of the most unique voices in genre fiction. This was simply unthinkable.

Michael's fight began...and what a fight it was. He saw experts at UCLA and City of Hope. He and Michelle considered alternative healing and nutrition-based therapies. He underwent multiple surgeries and various forms of chemotherapy and radiation. For a while in 2011 he was pronounced "stable", and most of us began to wonder if he'd beaten the Big C (if anyone could do it, it was him). When I saw him in 2011, he was thinner and using crutches to get around, but he was as vibrant and excited as ever.

But by the end of 2011, it was apparent that his condition wasn't as stable as we'd hoped. He and Michelle kept an online journal of Michael's journey ( http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/michaelcalvillo ), and there seemed to be more and more unexpected trips to emergency wards. Tumors continued to develop, and in March of 2012 he developed ascites, a condition in which fluid fills the abdomen. In April he spent ten days in ICU, went home...but soon returned to the ICU. On the morning of Monday, April 30th, 2012, a self-induced coma finally led to Michael's passing. He was 37.

For the 16 months that he lived with his diagnosis, Michael's indomitable spirit and vitality were never brighter. Even though he was often in intense pain and weakness, he continued to teach, to socialize with his family and friends, to attend conventions...and of course to write.

In his 2010 collection Blood & Gristle, the title work turns out to actually be a non-fiction meditation on death. With eerie foresight, he ponders, "...what if I visit a doctor and he tells me I have some devouring, aggressive form of cancer...?" He notes, "...real death is anything but cool and I am extremely sensitive about it and it actually makes me all kinds of ill. Though I am a horror fanatic, I am a big, big baby when it comes to the real thing...And I can't stop the thoughts...that in life we are nothing but rotting biology, we are nothing but hot blood and steaming gristle, and in death, when everything cools and congeals, we are nothing at all."

Michael, I'm still here to tell you: You are far from nothing at all. You showed all of us the face of extraordinary bravery and deternination in your fight, and your zest for writing will remain a source of inspiration to your writer friends. Your books - I Will Rise, As Fate Would Have It, Blood & Gristle, Bleed for You, Death & Desire in the Age of Women, 7 Brains, Lambs, and Birdbox - will live on for years to come, and I'm guessing will be imitated by lesser talents but never equaled, certainly never surpassed. Those of us who knew you in person will carry your memory with us throughout our lives, and be thankful for the opportunity to have known you.

This is where I should say RIP, Michael Louis Calvillo...but I suspect you never had the least interest in resting peacefully, and far be it from me to suggest you should now. Kick some eternal ass, MLC.