One hell of a weird story! Surreal and spellbinding

what immortal hand

Johnny Worthen’s What Immortal Hand (Omnium Gatherum, October 2017) is one hell of a weird story. It’s the darkest horror I’ve read in a long time.

Michael Oswald stares into the Abyss. He’s already lost his wife, his home, his kids, and now he’s about to lose his job. He feels himself on a slippery slope sliding into nothingness. His self-destruction is nearly complete. He feels as if he has no past, no future. It’s as if time itself plays tricks on him. He loses hours, days, weeks, maybe even years.

He can’t remember his early childhood the way other people can. He can’t even remember half of what happened yesterday. To the world, Michael Oswald is a loser because he values none of the trappings of civilized society. Michael has always been different than others. He believes it’s because he was raised within the foster care system, a ward of the state. He’s had many names, a different last name each time he entered a new foster home, and he has no idea at all who he truly is, who his real parents are, or who raised him during those influential years from three to seven.

Who is he? Where is he? When is he?

What is he?

All his life, it seems, Michael has been aware that there is a caste system—a natural order—at work in the world, even in democratic America. There’s always been haves and have-nots. There’s always been thugs who prey on Travelers. Some people deserve to die and need to be killed as a public service. But, in the end, all living things must die.

If God gives you lemons, get another god. Everyone is born of a Mother, isn’t he or she? And isn’t everyone reborn again and again?

Heh heh.

One hell of a weird story! Surreal and spellbinding. Johnny Worthen’s What Immortal Hand is the darkest tale I’ve read in a long time.

 

 

 

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Supernatural Noir

the corpse and the girl

 

John Urbancik’s style is spellbinding. He’s a consummate craftsman. His writing seems like a cross between Raymond Chandler and Stephen King, with maybe a little Richard Thomas thrown in. Maybe some Lewis Carroll, too, to make it even more surreal.

The Corpse and the Girl from Miami (Dark Fluidity, 2017) is a mystery within a mystery. It’s noir and a supernatural thriller all in one.

And, despite everything else, it’s also a love story.

It’s set in Boston, MA, not in Miami. There are some displaced Floridians (Ofelia, Mr. Maker, Armando Luis Salazar) prowling the New England darkness one unusually stormy night, but they have no special love for Bean Town. Neither does The Corpse.

Imagine waking up in a cemetery with three bullet holes in your chest and no pulse. You have no remembrance of who shot you or why. You can’t even remember your name.

Piecing together his identity and solving the mystery of his murder turns into a herculean task for the dead man. There’s another walking dead man and a burgeoning cast of characters, some of whom may be aligned with powerful supernatural forces, to complicate the plot.

No one tells the truth. Ferreting out who killed whom, who is working for whom, and who’s a good person and who’s a bad person keeps the reader turning pages.

If you like a good mystery in an urban fantasy with supernatural elements, you’ll love The Corpse and the Girl from Miami.

Why so many serial killers?

 

“If every age gets the lunatics it deserves, then our age of anxiety deserves those who are in the grip of a compulsion.” Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions by Sharon Begley (Simon & Schuster, February 2017) hypothesizes that “compulsions are a response to anxiety, and modern life is filled with overwhelming anxiety.” Compulsions offer us an illusion of control in a world gone mad. “We cling to compulsions as if to a lifeline, for it is only by engaging in compulsions that we can drain enough of our anxiety to function.”

The idea behind Begley’s book was so compelling that I simply had to buy it. I’m a compulsive bookaholic who needs to know what’s inside every book (which may be an impossible task) or continuous wondering will drive me crazy.

That’s my excuse, anyway, for buying books, and I’m sticking to it. I’ve become a compulsive book hoarder. Books are more than a compulsion with me, they’re an obsession. And, as long as I have a book to read or a book to write, I don’t feel the need to kill anyone.

Is compulsion an anxiety disorder? Is it a personality disorder? An addiction? A syndrome? What’s the difference between Impulsive and Compulsive drives? Everyone feels anxious. Everyone is occasionally impulsive or compulsive. Should impulsive and compulsive behaviors be considered pathological only when they become so excessive they interfere with normal life functions?

Can we control our impulsive and compulsive behaviors? When do we know we need to?

Serial killers are addicts who get pleasure from risk-taking. They thrive on anxiety rather than feel a need to alleviate anxiety. They’re addicted to the pleasure they get from causing pain. They know their actions are wrong, but they can’t stop until they get caught. Seeing how long they can get away with doing something dangerous and forbidden is half the fun. They’re more concerned with what happens when they do something than when they don’t do something. They’re thrill addicts who need regular fixes or suffer the pains of withdrawal. Serial killing is addictive behavior, It isn’t compulsive.

Compulsive behavior, on the other hand, results from worries about what will happen if one does not possess something (knowledge, an object, followers on Facebook, love, money, drugs, bullets, soldiers, words in print, etc.) in sufficient quantity or quality to prevent disaster. It is the opposite of risk-taking. In one’s mind, possession is seen as the only thing that can prevent a future catastrophe from occurring.

Addictions can become compulsions only when worry about what may happen if you can’t continue the addictive (pleasurable) behavior takes over. You no longer get pleasure from risk-taking, but must take different risks to avoid pain caused by discontinuing the risky behavior. Like feeling compelled to kill in order to cover your tracks and not for pleasure. Like stockpiling books you’ll never have a chance to read.

When anxiety becomes fear, compulsions can become obsessive. You’re terrorized that unless you get things just right, absolutely perfect, calamity will happen. You, and only you can prevent bad things from happening, especially to ones you love. Only scrupulous adherence to a magical ritual (like buying certain books or writing them a certain way) will prevent disaster.

As a writer of crime-suspense thrillers, I enjoyed this book ‘s insights immensely. It was written in language a layman could understand, covered the gamut of compulsive behaviors, and tried to tie things together in a nice package. More importantly, though, this book taught me that when compulsions serve a useful function and contribute to a successful life rather than destroying it, being compulsive isn’t always bad.

Maybe that means I’m not as crazy as I thought.

Great Story, Competently Told

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Cataclysm by Tim Washburn (Pinnacle Books, November 2016) is the real deal. You know all hell is about to break loose in Yellowstone National Park when underground magma begins to shift in the caldera, causing earthquakes. Yellowstone is home to one of the world’s largest underground volcanoes. As the caldera rises, hydrothermal vents erupt as a precursor to a cataclysmic volcanic eruption that could threaten all life on earth.

What would you do if your own family were staying at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone? Is there any way you can get them, and the tens of thousands of others in or near the park, out of harm’s way before the volcano erupts? Doctor Tucker Mayfield is the staff geologist monitoring on-site activity at Yellowstone. His entire family — brother Matt, sister-in-law Jessica, and a young niece and nephew — are vacationing in Yellowstone when the caldera threatens to erupt. The park is filled with families, and Tucker realizes evacuating them all before the volcano blows will be impossible.

First come the earthquakes, minor tremors that escalate into full-scale quakes. Then the geysers erratically spew boiling water high into the air, scalding hundreds of people and inundating acres of land. Volcanic ash from newly-opened fissures clogs automobile engines and brings down aircraft. If the volcano blows its lid, the entire Midwest and west coast of America could be buried beneath billions of tons of hot ash that will make the soil sterile for generations to come.

Without food, water, electricity, or transportation, how will the country survive?

President Drummond, the first female POTUS, declares a national emergency too late to save millions of lives. None of her learned advisers knew when or even if the volcano would erupt after being dormant for 640,000 years.

Author Washburn adds sexual tension to the mix as Rachel and April vie for Tucker’s attention. I wanted to shake or strangle several of the characters for being so selfish or dense that they put loved ones at risk. When pyroclastic flows containing boiling lava and hot acidic ash incinerate thousands of people, I wanted to shout “I told you so” to those who got their comeuppance.

But most of the dead are ordinary people who simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The true horror is that this could actually happen to you or me tomorrow, and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it. The only thing we can do is be aware it could possibly happen and be prepared to run for our lives if it does.

Great story, competently told, with believable characters. Highly recommended.

The Dragon Devours

In Barry Eisler’s eye-opening novel Livia Lone (Thomas & Mercer, October 26, 2016), there are 3 kinds of people in the world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Livia Lone is a sheepdog. She protects the sheep from being devoured by hungry wolves.

But this sheepdog has a dragon hidden inside of her. When the sleeping dragon wakes, the dog displays its fangs.

Livia has been a victim, and now she has become a predator herself, preying on those who prey on helpless women and children. Labee, Livia’s real name, was sold into sexual slavery by her parents in Thailand, and then Labee and her sister Nason were shipped to the US by unscrupulous human traffickers. Labee and Nason are separated aboard ship, and Labee (Livia) swears to someday find Nason and rescue her.

Livia studies hard and grows up to be a black-belt martial artist and a Seattle police officer investigating sexual crimes. Most of the time, she helps people. But, sometimes, she helps victims, and herself, by killing men who take advantage of the weaker sex.

All the while, Livia Lone continues to search for her abducted sister.

This is a well-crafted psychological thriller filled with violence, sexual content, and lots of really bad people with only a few good ones to make a difference. Ripped from the reality of today’s headlines, Livia Lone is a masterful expose of the underground world decent people deny exists.

Eisler alternates chapters between then and now, relating Livia’s backstory while holding the reader in suspense over what will happen next. Set in the hill country of Thailand, Bangkok, Seattle, and Llewellyn, Idaho, this gritty tale is an emotional roller coaster as well as an exciting thrill ride.

Highly recommended for adults who can handle terror, betrayal, and exploitation of children graphically portrayed.livia-lone

Discovery and Discoverability

Discovery and Discoverability

This year has been, for me, one of both discovery and discoverability. Columbus had his 1492. I had 2016, and the year isn’t even over yet!

Interesting that I should write this the morning after returning from Columbus, Ohio, where I read, autographed and participated in a R. A. Lafferty panel at World Fantasy Convention 2016. The trip odometer on my ten-year-old Toyota turned over another thousand miles as I arrived back home in Rockford, Illinois. During the past five years since Gretta’s tragic untimely death, I have traveled more than a hundred thousand miles promoting myself, my new writing, meeting new people, and renewing old friendships. Is it any wonder I feel a little like Brian Keene on his current farewell tour or Richard Collier in Richard Matheson’s Bid Time Return?

Life has often been likened to a journey, and I suppose there is a passing resemblance. We, in the fiction business, send our heroes on impossible quests that involve actual or metaphorical journeys of discovery. Writers, like readers and protagonists, must journey from here to there in order to discover who and what they really are.

Here are some the important things I discovered about myself this year: I kill people for a living, I can never remember a pitch or an elevator speech when an agent or editor asks me what I’m excited about now, and I have lots of wonderful friends and acquaintances who actually do remember me despite all of my faults and foibles (or perhaps because of them).

Every writer needs a label (as, according to publishers and librarians, does every published book), and mine is “I kill people for a living.” I forgot to mention that I kill people for a living when Darrell Schweitzer asked me to introduce myself to the large audience at the Ray Lafferty panel during WFC. I mumbled something about being first and foremost a reader (as was Lafferty), a shy guy who doesn’t know how to promote himself at an SFF convention. I should have, instead, captured the audience’s attention by mentioning that I kill people for a living. I didn’t, and I regret it.

We live and learn. Don’t we?

Likewise, when an editor asked me in an elevator what I was working on now, I should not have mumbled “I never talk about works in progress because talking depletes the energy I reserve for my writing.” What a missed opportunity! I should have had a pitch prepared so the editor, before leaving the elevator, would have asked to see the completed manuscript. Does it do any good to kick myself after the fact?

But I was heartened by good friends who remembered my name and my characters from my stories which were published alongside theirs in anthologies or magazines or from panels we had been on together at Worldcons or Windycons or previous World Fantasy Cons. I got to spend some quality time discussing the business of writing with well-known authors I respect. What more can one ask for?

And a few friends even showed up to hear me read from Winds and Light, two of my supernatural fantasies in the Winds-Cycle.

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Just as valuable an experience, however, was the road from here to there and back again. I wrote in my mind an entire short story due next January for an anthology, worked out the next two chapters in my current WIP, and saw locations and scenery I want to describe in future novels. I drove the same I-70 Jack Maguire and Amanda Miller drove in my novel Executive Function to get from St. Louis to Washington, DC.

Now I am back at my keyboard and putting those experiences into words.

During the past five years since Gretta died, I have seen much of the country I never had the chance to see before. Oh, sure, I traveled a lot when I was a soldier. Even then I was a writer at heart and noted people and places for future fictionalizing. But looking at everything through the eyes of a working writer is different. You are on the hero’s journey of discovery.

Noting how tired and exhausted—yet exhilarated—I looked and we both felt, Stephen Vessels asked me in the smoking room at WFC as I prepared to depart for home: “So, was it worth it?” Stephen and I attended Thrillerfest in NYC, MidAmericon2 in Kansas City, and World Fantasy Convention in Columbus this year on book promotion tours and kept bumping into each other. We took time out of our busy writing schedules to promote ourselves and our books, spent our own hard-earned money, and traveled thousands of miles. Was it worth it? Was it necessary? Did it sell books?

The answer, of course, is still blowing in the wind. Was it worth it to meet fellow authors and readers in person? Yes. With so many titles being published these days, promotion is essential to discoverability. The more people who know your name and can place a face with the name, the more books you are likely to sell. That’s the theory anyway. But the reality is that the more books you write, the better you write, and the more people will want to read what you write. There is a direct relationship between quantity and quality, although it’s almost as easy to write lots of bad books as it is to write just one. What matters most, though, is what you’ve learned about the human condition that readers recognize as true in their own lives. If you are able to share your discoveries with others in a way that resonates with them, they will want to read more of what you write. It is really as simple as that. In the final analysis, it’s the writing that matters.

So next year I will stay home and write more. I was gratified when a Nebula and Hugo nominated writer I admire told people at his reading at Worldcon that Paul Dale Anderson is a fantastic writer and everyone should read Paul Dale Anderson’s books. I was thrilled when so many people showed up at my own readings at Stokercon and WFC. I was honored when readers asked me to sign copies of my novels for them.

But now it’s time to write. I have deadlines looming. I am happy to be home with my cats and my books and my computers where new works beg to be written.

I discovered a lot during my many travels and in my life’s journey from here to there and back again.

I invite you to discover me through my writings.

 

You Can Go Home Again

This weekend was like returning home for me. I attended Arcana in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Arcana Con, for those in the know, is the Midwest equivalent of NECon. Currently located at the Bandana Square Best Western Plus in St. Paul, MN, Arcana 46 was held October 21-23, 2016. It’s a fantasy convention that appeals to collectors and lovers of dark fantasy and horror.

Bandana Square once housed the Northern Pacific Railroad’s Steam Locomotive repair shops. The hotel abuts where the locomotives were painted. The building has rails embedded in the floor and the doors look big enough to admit a steam locomotive.  Freight trains still pass by within a half-block of the hotel.

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Minneapolis/St. Paul was once home to some of the biggest names in pulp fiction. William Fawcett started Fawcett Publications there with Capt. Billy’s Whiz-bang. August Derleth and Donald Wandrei started Arkham House within a stone’s throw of the Twin Cities. Science Fiction greats like Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson came from Minneapolis. Weird Tales cover artist Jon Arfstrom made his life-long home in St. Paul. Fedogan and Bremer was founded in Minneapolis. Literary agent extraordinaire Kirby McCauley got his start in Minneapolis after graduating from the University of Minnesota. John Sandford still lives and works there.

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Jon Arfstrom’s painting on the cover of The Strange Company’s edition of The Devil Made Me Do It, 1985.

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Jon Arfstrom’s portrait of me, 1986.

I began attending gatherings of Lovecraftians in Minneapolis and St. Paul in 1982 after meeting Jack Koblas and Eric Carlson at a World Fantasy Convention. Jack and Eric were editors of Etchings and Odysseys, a professionally printed small press fanzine devoted to Weird Tales-style pulp fiction. I, of course, had read most of HPL and Henry Kuttner by that time, and after Jack, Eric, and I carried on long knowledgeable conversations during the WFC, we became life-long friends (both Jack and Eric passed away much too soon, and I miss them a lot).

Jack and Eric invited me to submit an article for the special Henry Kuttner tribute issue of E&O, and they also invited me to attend MinnCon (the forerunner of ArcanaCon) the following October. I agreed to write the Kuttner article and to appear on panels at MinnCon. I also received an invitation from The Strange Company publisher R. Alain (Randy) Everts to attend MadCon in Madison, Wisconsin the following May when E&O #4 would be released with my Kuttner article in it. Randy invited me to submit original fiction to The Arkham Sampler, and he bought several of my stories (he actually paid me cash money and bought me meals at expensive restaurants). He (The Strange Company) also published The Devil Made Me do It, a collection of 20 of my early stories, and a chapbook of Love Till the End of Time. I also sold him a couple of my early down-and-dirty novels that other packagers didn’t want. Randy supposedly published them under pseudonyms. I cranked out two 65,000 word novels on a manual typewriter every month for four years, and some of them were pretty bad (downright, god-awful bad) but they helped me learn my craft.

Then I married Gretta, took a regular 9 to 5 job with a medical publisher and later with Mutual Fund Sourcebook publisher Morningstar, and my fiction output dwindled.

Gretta and I attended MadCons and MinnCons every year from 1983 until 1990. I appeared on Lovecraft and Horror panels, and Gretta appeared with other small press editors on editing and publishing panels at several of the first ArcanaCons after MadCons and MinnCons ceased and Arcana became a full-fledged annual convention instead of just a gathering of friends and Lovecraft scholars.

We stopped attending sf and fantasy conventions entirely in favor of attending professional psychology educational conferences (APA, APS, Illinois Counseling Society, NGH, and alternative healing and wellness conferences).

This year I returned to Bandana Square for ArcanaCon 46.

 

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Most of the people I knew from MinnCon and earlier AracanaCons have passed away or moved out of state. Koblas and Carlson died. Jon Arfstrom died just last year. Bob Weinberg died just last month. Randy Everts is reputed to be living in Hawaii. R. Dixon Smith is now in California. David Pudelwitz was last seen in New Mexico. Roger Gerberding no longer lives in the twin cities, but he is still alive and still painting. Audrey Parente is busy with PulpAdventureCon in New Jersey and Florida. Roger Dale Trexler was unable to make this con but promises to make next year’s ArcanaCon when the GOH will be William F. Nolan. I did spend quality time in conversation with Scott Wyatt, Eric Heideman, Dwayne Olson, and Greg Ketter of DreamHaven Books. I also got to meet the delightful Kathe Koja, this year’s ArcanaCon GOH.

What I like about ArcanaCon is the attendees are all readers and book collectors. The con is small and intimate enough to get to know everyone and talk with everyone.

Once upon a time, attendance at MinnCon was by invitation only. When it became ArcanaCon, it was opened to the public but never widely advertised. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in fandom.

To me, it’s like home.

Yes, Virginia. You really can go home again.