I posted several days ago about the comic strip Roland Napoli and I created back in the 80s, Lunapurd—he as artist and me as writer. I only had a few strips to show, but it turns out Roland has all of them, and was gracious enough to scan them and send them my way.
So, over the next couple of months I’m going to occasionally post some more strips. Even if the pop culture references are dated (the 80s, remember), I’m extremely proud of what we accomplished. As always, Roland’s artwork is perfect.
A professional hitman has one last job to do, and then he’s getting out, but it doesn’t quite go according to plan. You’ve heard this story before, right? For a lot of authors, that would be good enough. They’d write it as a high octane thriller with a formidable body count and leave it at that.
Luckily, Stephen King isn’t just any author, and Billy Summers is so much more than a cookie cutter hitman thriller. This is probably going to be my shortest review ever, because seeing what King does with this basic setup is such a pleasure, I don’t want to give, well, anything away really. Suffice to say that Billy Summers, the character, is a wholly original creation—an Iraq war veteran and decorated sniper with a moral code every bit as strong as his talent for killing. He also just might be a writer, and we get to read some of what turns out to be his own autobiography.
The other main protagonist, a young woman of extraordinary strength and resilience, is one of the most complex and fully realized female characters King has ever written. She’s joined by a rogue’s gallery of underworld bosses,underlings, and hangers-on. King has written a lot of crime fiction in recent years, and he seems at home in the shadowy world these characters move through. There’s an authenticity to all of this that feels just right.
If I’ve made it sound like Billy Summers isn’t a crime thriller, that’s on me. King ratchets up the tension, and there are plenty of bodies piled up. So yes, Billy Summers is a crime thriller, but it’s also a road novel, and a war novel, and finally a love story. King pulls off a bit of sleight of hand towards the end that’s ultimately satisfying. There’s soul searching, and hard-nosed decisions are made, and there is, at the end of it all, well-earned redemption.
I’ve tried to give you at least an idea of the novel—hopefully enough to whet your appetite. Listen, just read Billy Summers. I think this King fella is gonna be big.
I met my friend Roland Napoli in high school. He was then, and continues to be to this day, one of the best cartoonists and illustrators I have ever met.
Sometime in the 80s we decided to take a couple of characters he had been drawing for years and build a comic strip around them. The result was Lunapurd, the adventures of two cute aliens who crash land on earth, landing in the well of a mountain woman named Eunice. I wrote the strip and Roland drew it. We put together six weeks of strips, including Sunday strips and dailies.
It was a huge amount of fun. Unfortunately, we were young, inexperienced, and had no concept of how to actually pitch the strip to a syndicate, and the idea eventually died. I recently came across a few of the strips in my files. The pop culture references are out of date, as they’re more that 30 years old, but I remain extremely proud of what we came up with, particularly Roland’s artwork. Nice job, Roland!
This has been one helluva year for horror. Maybe there’s something in the air, something in the water. Maybe the flaming dumpster fire that is the past couple of years has somehow concentrated all that consuming rage out there and distilled it into pure, undiluted creative excellence. Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart Is a Chainsaw, Chuck Wendig’s The Book of Accidents, Joe Lansdales’s Moon Lake, Hailey Piper’s Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy—that’s just off the top of my head, the list goes on and on.
Which brings me to The Last House On Needless Street by Catriona Ward. Ward has written a book so audacious, so original, so unnerving, that I want to shout about it to the world, or at least to the folks who read this blog. My problem is that due to the nature of the novel, I don’t really want to share anything about the plot at all. The Last House On Needless Street works best when you go in cold and let it worm its way under your skin and sink the claws in.
What am I willing to I tell you? This is a horror novel, make no mistake. Ward ratchets up the tension right from the beginning and plays your nerves like a virtuoso. The Last House On Needless Street begins with a young girl going missing, and it is stressful, particularly reading it as a parent.
I said it’s audacious a couple paragraphs back. Here’s what I meant. The novel has four, no five, main characters telling the story in alternating chapters, and every one of them is an unreliable narrator. That’s crazy, it should be impossible, and Ward pulls it off without breaking a sweat. Each character is distinct, with their own world view, their own language, their own (damaged) past. Oh, and one of them is a cat. This is a highwire act without a net, and every word of it works.
I said it’s a horror novel, and it is, but it’s more than that. Ward explores heartbreaking issues of abuse, mistreatment, family dynamics, and mental instability (I’m treading carefully here, to not give anything away), with compassion and understanding. All while never not keeping you on the edge of your seat.
The Last House On Needless Street drops on September 28th. This one is well worth a pre-order. I can’t wait to read what she writes next.
Yes, Twitter can be a dumpster fire. But I’ve found a supportive community there for my writing and artwork, I’ve made some fine friends from around the globe, and increasingly, I’ve discovered amazing authors new to me. Case in point, Hailey Piper. A little while back I noticed that writers I love, and members of the writing community whose opinions I trust, were all recommending her as a horror writer to watch. So I picked up The Worm and His Kings, and holy hell, they were so right. This was cosmic horror with both the cosmic and the horror on equal footing. More than that, it explored gender, love and loss with a sensitivity and compassion that never lessened the terror, but only deepened it. (You can read my review here: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2021/02/20/book-review-the-worm-and-his-kings-by-hailey-piper/).
If The Worm and His Kings convinced me that Piper was a real talent, then her short story collection Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy puts her on the same level as the very best horror writers working today. 18 stories, and not a weak one in the bunch. They are varied as can be, but they share some common themes—each one is a dark meditation on life, death, and all the spaces in between. Piper’s stated goal on her Twitter profile is to make horror gay as fuck. She does that in many of the stories here, exploring gender and sexuality with her trademark sympathetic yet hard-nosed approach.
There is a deep sadness, a current of melancholy, that runs through this collection. Piper doesn’t hold back. She is perfectly happy to drag your heart through the wringer and leave it shredded. She has a real knack for writing damaged characters, characters who don’t belong in their worlds, or even in their own skins. She also doesn’t hold back on the more horrific elements. These stories are unnerving, disquieting, and at times truly unsettling. I felt hints of writers like Kelly Link and (the short stories of) Paul Tremblay, but Piper is her own writer, a true original.
As I said, there’s not a weak story in the bunch, but a couple of standouts for me: “Candyland”, “Seven Signs He Doesn’t Love You”, “Crones In Their Larval State”, and “Jormungandr’s Dance”. Special mention must be made of “Recitation of the First Feeding”, the longer, final story in the collection. Quite simply, it’s a tour de force—somber, aching, beautifully told, and utterly devastating. The fitting end to such a superb collection.
If you haven’t yet discovered Hailey Piper, this might be a good place to start. I guarantee you’ll come back for more.
Why am I posting this in the writing category? Well, I don’t have a general category, so there’s that. But also, I’ve been a movie fan for as long as I remember, and the visual storytelling that is cinema’s stock in trade has no doubt informed my writing. Even so, I’m not writing about movies here, except tangentially; instead, here are three small stories about things that happened inside movie theaters, all from decades ago, that I have never forgotten.
June, 1975. I’m 15, seeing Jaws for the first time. The theater is packed of course, because it’s Jaws, the movie that invented the summer blockbuster. Like always, I’m sitting where I always sat before my body betrayed me and made it too uncomfortable, third row center. Next to me is a young kid, maybe 7 or 8—way too young to see Jaws, but Mapletown Theater, my decrepit local theater of choice in Maple Heights, Ohio will sell tickets to anyone with a pulse—and he’s by himself. He’s got a jumbo pop (it’s Ohio, that’s what we call it)) in one hand and a popcorn in the other, because Mapletown, like many movie theaters back then, does not have cup holders. The kid looks scared, but he’s holding his own. Until the scene. You know the scene. An empty rowboat, and then a head rolls out of a hole in the bottom. In a movie with few jump scares, it’s the biggest. The kid next to me screams and throws both hands up in the air, drenching several rows behind him in a tsunami of pop and popcorn. Not only did it break the tension in a way that Steven Spielberg would not approve of, it brought the house down.
November, 1976. I’m 16, seeing Carrie for the first time. I’m back at Mapletown, because to them an “R” rating is just a suggestion. It’s the very last scene of the movie. Sue is bending down to place flowers beneath the cross that read Carrie White Rots in Hell, and…and…the film breaks. The sound continues, so I can hear Sue screaming, but no visual. I had read that there was a shocker of an ending. Could this be it? I had to go back the next night and watch it again, just to see that hand thrust up out of the ground.
December, 1986. I’m 26, seeing Platoon for the first time with my then girlfriend, now wife Carrie. We’ve got tickets for a special early screening, which, as it turns out, is filled with Vietnam veterans. And for the next couple of hours, we watch the movie, absolutely, but we also watch the crowd. It’s both sobering and exhilarating. The vets, many in wheelchairs, are totally involved. They laugh knowingly, and sob uncontrollably, and I think to myself, I have never felt as much of a connection to a movie as they do, then or to this day. It put Oliver Stone’s storytelling on a whole different level for me.
Grady Hendrix had been on my radar for awhile—I loved his Paperbacks from Hell posts—but I hadn’t read any of his novels until my son brought home Horrorstor. That novel, an all-out horror romp set in an IKEA type store (and set about 20 minutes away from my house, which was also cool) impressed the hell out of me. The horror was suitably horrific, there were moments of real humor, and Hendrix’s attention to detail when it came to spoofing IKEA was nothing short of amazing. This was an author in complete control of his material.
I love discovering an author I like who has a robust back catalog, and Hendrix does. My next read by him, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, proves I was right about him—Hendrix is in complete control, and I’m just glad to be along for the ride.
Set in genteel Charleston, South Carolina, TSBCGTSV is centered around a group of middle-aged women, neighbors who are comfortable in their lives, even if a bit bored. Their husbands work too much, their kids are off doing kid things, they volunteer…same old, same old. Their only excitement, if you can call it that, is their book club, where they’ve begun to read true crime books—think In Cold Blood and The Stranger Beside Me. Then Patricia, one of the members, is violently attacked by her elderly neighbor, which brings that neighbor’s young nephew to town. James is exciting, and a little bit mysterious, and he quickly insinuates himself into their close-knit neighborhood.
Meanwhile, kids on the poor black side of town start to go missing. Patricia things James is not what he appears and may be responsible, but convincing her book club friends won’t be easy. At least until the evil comes to their part of town.
This novel was everything I was hoping for based on the title. Once again, Hendrix’s attention to detail is just right. He gets the rhythms of life in Charleston perfectly, both the affluent side with their big homes and cleaning women, and the poor side of town, which seems a world away. The book club women are all distinct characters with families that feel real and lived in. Mrs. Green, a black cleaning woman who teams up with Patricia to protect her family, is tough as nails and has a flinty dignity. Hendrix doesn’t shy away from exploring the differences between Charleston’s haves and have-nots, and it gives CGTSV a deeper, welcome subtext.
The horror, when it comes, is brutal and unnerving. Hendrix has a real knack for blood-drenched action set pieces. He makes you see the pain inflicted, and feel the tension. Watching these women, sometimes grudgingly, come together to battle an evil force that is faster, stronger, and far more experienced, is satisfying to the soul. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough as I cheered them on.
My TBR pile is in danger of falling over and crushing me, but I’ll definitely be adding more from Grady Hendrix to the mix. I’ve heard great things about his newest, The Final Girl Support Group. In the meantime, give The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires a read. Hendrix is the real deal.
Brian Eno famously said, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
What’s that got to do with When Things Get Dark: Stories Inspired by Shirley Jackson? Glad you asked! Much like the Velvet Underground inspired a group of musicians who would go on to have lasting musical influence, Jackson has clearly influenced the very best horror, horror adjacent, and dark fiction authors working today.
Ellen Datlow has long been one of our finest editors, with impeccable taste, and this table of contents is shockingly good. Check out the list of authors featured in the anthology: Joyce Carol Oates, Josh Malerman, Carmen Maria Machado, Paul Tremblay, Richard Kadrey, Stephen Graham Jones, Elizabeth Hand, Kelly Link, Cassandra Khaw, Karen Heuler, Benjamin Percy, John Langan, Laird Barron, Jeffrey Ford, M. Rickert, Seanan McGuire, Gemma Files, and Genevieve Valentine.
Many of them are personal favorites of mine, authors whose books I immediately read upon publication. All of them are working at the top of their game here. Some of the writers featured seem like natural fits—when I first read Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link and Growing Things by Paul Tremblay, Shirley Jackson came to mind in the best way possible. Kindred spirits. It’s not surprising to me that they turn in two of the standout stories in this collection, which is saying something considering the uniformly high quality. Joyce Carol Oates, Carmen Maria Machado and Seanan McGuire also seem like good fits on paper, and they are.
Then there are the surprises. The genius of Ellen Datlow is that she looked at amazing writers like Stephen Graham Jones, Richard Kadrey, and Cassandra Khaw, who I don’t think of as working in quite the same fictional space as Jackson, and thought, hell yes. They knock it out of the park. In fact, everyone does.
While none of the stories are direct homages to Jackson, they are all clearly inspired by her work. The stories are set in the suburbs, in small towns, in remote spaces. They are uniformly character driven, not plot driven. They are open ended, often without a concrete resolution, but always compelling. There’s no outright horror here. The stories are unsettling, disquieting, even disorienting. I found myself replaying stories in my head long after reading them.
This collection is special. Somewhere, Shirley Jackson is peering over those glasses of her, one eyebrow raised, a sly smile on her lips.
I don’t read enough graphic novels. There, I said it. I swore at the end of 2020 that I would add more graphic novels to my TBR pile, and here it is July and I’ve just now read my first of the year.
Luckily, it’s Sensor, by the amazing Junji Ito.
Sensor is horror on a cosmic scale. It may start in a small Japanese village, but it grows and expands to encompass the entire universe, a cold, chaotic place where entire planets are destroyed, and entire civilizations die in agony. That small village is nestled in the shadow of Mount Sengoku, a volcano that erupted 60 years ago, destroying the town. The volcano buried the town, leaving few survivors, and in doing so buried dark secrets.
When a young woman wanders into the village, she notices something strange—golden, hair-like volcanic glass fibers rain down on the streets, the buildings, the people of the city, and the people welcome it. They also welcome the girl, and say they’ve been expecting her.
Then things get really weird.
Sensor is a feast for the eyes and the mind, with a story that twists and turns as it pulls various characters into the orbit of the mysterious young woman. You may find yourself, as I did, flipping back through the pages, looking for connections, putting pieces of the puzzle together.
Ito is a master artist, carrying the story along on the strength of his exquisite pen work. He fills each panel with dense texture and detail. When the horror comes, and believe me it comes, it is truly horrific. Ito has an unflinching eye for nightmarish imagery, for transforming the human body into something squirming, pulsing, oozing, unrecognizable. He can also render scenes of astonishing beauty. He’s not a one trick pony by any means.
Sensor releases on August 17, 2021. Dive in, and let yourself be transported into other worlds by Ito’s golden hairs. You may not be the same when you return.
There are a lot of great writers out there. Writers who can stir your soul with the elegance of their descriptions, dazzle you with wordplay and imagination, quicken your pulse and heart in equal measure, blindside you with sudden laughter or even more sudden tears, make you shake your head in wonder at their perfect dialogue, write a fight or battle scene so vivid that you feel every punch and explosion, scare you so bad that you sleep with the lights on.
Joe Lansdale can and does do all those things. But he has something that rare even among the very best writers—he’s a natural born storyteller. A couple pages into a Lansdale novel, and you’re sitting around a campfire on a dark summer night somewhere in East Texas, listening to magic being conjured from the smoke, or parked on a barstool in Nagadoches, throwing back a beer while a master spins a yarn.
When I tell you the Moon Lake is Lansdale operating at the height of his considerable powers, that’s really saying something. This one is special.
Moon Lake has all the hallmarks of classic Lansdale. A small East Texas town lost, along with its secrets, beneath the dark surface of Moon Lake—at least until a drought once again brings those secrets to light. a stubborn man who comes back to that Lake looking for answers to a question that’s been plaguing him for years…why did his dad try to kill them both by driving into the lake when he was thirteen years old? There’s a hard-nosed, in-your-face meditation on class and race, on haves and have nots, on the corrupting, amoral influence of power. There’s small town politics and small town life, and Lansdale writes both with a knowing eye for detail.
Because this is Lansdale, the characters, both the good guys and the bad, are complex, thoughtful creations. They have back stories. There’s a real sense of history here, which makes sense, as Moon Lake spans years. Also because this is Lansdale, we’re treated to a breakneck plot, action that will indeed quicken your pulse, and scenes to veer hard towards straight-up horror.
Some of the dialogue and descriptive passages are laugh out loud funny. Lansdale has a gift for down-home, yet creative language that hums and gallops. He even throws a little forbidden love into the mix, and makes it sweet and tender.
The Hap and Leonard books will always be my favorite of Lansdale’s works, ever since I found a used copy of Mucho Mojo at Half Price Books. (On that same trip I discovered Shella, my first Andrew Vachss novel. That was a first-class shopping trip.) But Moon Lake is right up there for me, on the same shelf with The Bottoms, The Thicket, Edge of Dark Water, and Jane Goes North.
I’m happy to see that Moon Lake is getting a lot of much-deserved positive press. Joe Lansdale his ownself is a national treasure. If he ever makes his way to Cleveland, I owe him a whole keg of beer for the years of reading pleasure he’s given me.
There’s a strange (to me at least) current that runs through the Twitter #WritingCommunity every once in a while, and that’s writers who proclaim that they don’t read, and further that they don’t need to be readers to write. This is an alien concept to me. I began to write, way back in junior high, because the books I was reading made me want to tell my own stories. I can’t imagine doing one without the other.
So yes, the best writing advice I know is to read. But, it’s more than that. It’s to read with an open and curious mind, and also with a critical eye, to try to see behind the curtain and understand how the magic happens. That’s not to say that reading should be homework. I frequently find myself lost in a good book, coming up for air hours later, a little dizzy, my heart full, my head in a different place than it was when I began reading. I’m saying, let yourself be carried away by excellent writing, but take notice, if you can, of what makes the writing excellent.
Further, in my experience at least, you can learn different things from different authors. Some examples: Seanan McGuire, Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter taught me that there is power in the deceptively simple language of fairy tales, beauty and terror as well. Speaking of terror, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Paul Tremblay, Gabino Iglesias, Chuck Wendig, and countless others taught me that words can be deployed like a scalpel or a bludgeon, and that both will keep you up at night. Joe Lansdale, and Elmore Leonard before him, taught me that in the right hands, dialogue can sing or sting or make you erupt in laughter. In fact, it can carry a story all on its own. From Joe Abercrombie, and Joe Lansdale again, I learned that violence in general, and fight scenes in particular, whether hand to hand combat or clashing armies, can have a visceral, kinetic energy that carries the reader along. From authors as diverse as R.A. Lafferty, Ray Bradbury, Alix E. Harrow, V.E. Schwab, and Tamsyn Muir, I learned that language can be transfixing, breathtaking, even transformative.
I could go on and on. Great writers not only teach me, but give me something to aspire to. I’m not there yet, not even close, but I know in my heart that reading will make me a better writer. That’s the best advice I can give.
I joined Twitter for several reasons—to build an online presence should a potential agent be looking for that, to follow and network with other writers and artists, and to chat about the things I love, mostly books, with like-minded folks. It’s this last part that I’ve really enjoyed, as I’ve made some genuine online friends. And it’s thanks to one of them, @SheenaLouiseF, that I added The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker to my TRB pile. Thanks, Sheena, this is a good one!
The Bone Ships is a grand, swashbuckling adventure, high fantasy with a bit of grimdark mixed in for enriching texture. Also dragons. Did I mention there are dragons?
The novel is set within the seagoing civilization of the Hundred Isles, a place where ships are built not from wood, but from the bones of long-extinct dragons. The citizens of the Hundred Isles have also been involved in an ongoing war with another kingdom across the water, and unfortunately, those bones have become more and more scarce, hampering the war effort.
That is, until rumors of a living dragon reach the ears of those in power… This sets off an exciting and dangerous quest filled with heart-stopping action. Barker writes sea battles the way Joe Abercrombie writes land battles, and I consider that absurdly high praise. Better yet, the colorful characters that fill The Bone Ships, particularly Lucky Meas and Joron, are flesh and blood creations who grow and change, who have real character arcs.
As good as the plotting, action, and characters are in The Bone Ships, however, where Barker really excels is in world building. This is a complex, thoroughly well thought out world. Barker has worked out the social structures and politics of the Hundred Isles in stunning detail, both on land and sea. The technology at play, especially the weaponry, is well explained and believable.
Barker’s language use is playful and intriguing—he invents new words for things that not only make sense, but are identifiable by context clues, so it’s never confusing. He also flips gender bias with abandon. Rather than captains, there are shipwives, and women are integral parts of every ship’s crew. Ships are called he, not she. There’s a lot of sly, witty commentary here. There’s also magic, of a sort, and Barker again makes it believable within the world he’s created.
The Bone Ships is the first in The Tide Child Trilogy, and book two, Call of the Bone Ships, is also available. Do yourself a favor, and dive into the world of the Hundred Isles.
Heads and Tales: The Other Side of the Story is a new anthology of reimagined myths, legends, and fairytales, that I’m lucky enough to have a short story in. The stories in the anthology are presented in pairs, with each pair telling their tale from opposite sides—Theseus and the Minotaur, Hansel & Gretel and the witch, you get the idea—with sometimes wildly reimagined settings.
In my case, Canadian author Renée Gendron and I took the myth of the Wild Hunt—berserker warriors and their hounds from hell—and transposed it to the battle for Fort Detroit on the U.S./Canadian border during the War of 1812. Mine is a supernatural war story, Renée’s is a supernatural romance, and they work together in what turned out to be very cool ways. I’ve never collaborated like this before, but besides being an excellent writer, Renée was great fun to work with. All in all, an awesome project to be involved with.
This all came about because editor Chapel Orahamm had an idea back around the beginning of the year, and the Twitter #WritingCommunity coalesced around it. Working with the other talented writers, communicating with them, and learning from them, has been a uniquely worthwhile experience, one that’s made me eager to participate in other projects of this kind.
One other thing—I was also given the opportunity to design and illustrate the book cover as well, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I created the art using an Apple pencil and Procreate. The more I work with digital tools, the more I’m excited by the possibilities.
If you have an interest in folklore, mythology, fairytales, or just plain good fiction, give this one a try.
To top it all off, all proceeds from sales will go to support The Trevor Project.
Heads and Tales: The Other Side of the Story will be available in both paperback and e-book beginning July 1st, but is available for pre-order now on both Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.
Moreno-Garcia’s novel Mexican Gothic was a revelation to me, a dark, strange brew of Lovecraftian cosmic horror set in a rotting mansion deep in the Mexican jungle. That novel, filled with deadly family secrets, sentient mold, and dread, introduced me to a writer of rare skill, with an amazing gift for thrilling storytelling and vibrant language.
While most of Mexican Gothic was set in that house of horrors, the beginning took place in glittering Mexico City. Moreno-Garcia’s descriptions made me want to read more set in that place, which happily brings me to Certain Dark Things. It is, indeed, set completely within the walls of Mexico City.
Yes, I said walls. In the alternative history of Certain Dark Things, Mexico City is a walled city-state, and perhaps more importantly to the story, a supposed vampire-free zone. Vampires have existed throughout history, and have been known to humans for years. They are shunned and feared in some places, and have formed an uneasy alliance in others. Moreno-Garcia has done some complex world-building here, with ten different, distinct species of vampires, each with their own history, strengths, and weaknesses.
If that last sentence makes this novel sound dry, CertainDark Things is anything but. Moreno-Garcia calls it neon noire, and that description is apt. This is a gritty no-holds-barred crime novel ripe with cops, gangsters, and drug lords, but many of the players happen to be vampires. Atl, a young female vampire of Aztec descent is hiding out in Mexico City, on the run from ruthless narco vampires and trying to get to South America. She’s tough and formidable, beholden only to her dog, a genetically enhanced doberman. That is, until she develops uneasy, unwanted feelings for Domingo, a street kid who falls under her sway.
Certain Dark Things is violent, bloody, relentless, and completely satisfying. Atl is a wonderful protagonist. I found myself rooting for her, even when things seemed hopeless. I love the passion and inventiveness Moreno-Garcia brings to her writing. She’s undoubtably having a great time writing this world to life, and it shows. This is a novel with real bite.
This is a reissue of a novel first published in 2016, and this new edition will be released September 7th, 2021. Certain Dark Things is very much worthy of pre-order.
A local propane company asked me to create a logo character for them, and this was the result. The little scenes were for a series of holiday posters. Supertankman has ended up as a 3D printed model, a plush toy, embroidered on jackets and hats—a surprising number of things.
I’m lucky enough to be participating in Heads and Tales, an anthology of reimagined myths, legends, and fairy tales told from both sides of the story. I have a short story here about the Wild Hunt, set during the War of 1812–my story told from the American side, and my co-writer, Renée Gendron, from the Canadian side. The book will debut in July, and I’ll write more about it then. For now, though, I wanted to share the cover art I created for the book. This was done using an Apple pencil and Procreate on an I-Pad. I’m very pleased with the results.
I love horror movies. I was in my teens for the grindhouse movies of the 70s, in my twenties for the slashers of the 80s. My friends and I worked our way methodically through the horror section of our local indy video rental store (and a special shoutout to the late, lamented B-Ware Video in Lakewood, Ohio, an entire store devoted to horror, horror adjacent, and just plain weird videos). All of this is to say that I feel like I know at least a little bit about slasher films—at least I thought I did, before reading My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones. I was wrong.
Jade Daniels is the town outcast of the tiny mountain lake town of Proofrock. She exists on the margins—the margins of her abusive family, the margins of her high school, the margins of life. The only thing keeping her from disappearing completely, and it’s touch and go, is her love, no, her obsession, with slasher films. Jade looks at life, at everything, through the prism of her beloved slashers. She believes fervently in the hard and fast rules they are guided by, in the life lessons they teach. She clings to them like a lifeline. The trope of The Final Girl is real to her.
Proofrock, and the lake it’s built around, Indian Lake, has seen more than its share of tragedy and murder, both depressingly human and supernatural. So it’s not a far stretch for Jade to see a new slasher cycle playing out in real time, and to seek a final girl (it can’t be her, she’s not worthy) she can impart her wisdom to, in the hopes of stopping the mayhem to come. Jones makes Proofrock, Indian Lake, and the people who live there feel achingly real. It feels lived in. We get to know them all, so that when bad things start to happen, it hits hard.
Where Jones truly excels, however, is in Jade’s voice. She narrates the story in a breathless, compulsively readable stream of description, snark, and above all slasher history. Everything that happens, every scene, has an antecedent in the slashers, and Jade is happy to expound at length. Her knowledge (Jone’s knowledge) is encyclopedic and endlessly entertaining. With Jade, Jones has created one of my favorite characters of all time. She uses slasher films as a way to keep the world at arm’s length, as armor against being hurt. The thing is, she’s also using it to hide. Behind the slashers, behind the dyed hair, combat boots, petty crime, and universal fuck you to the world, is, I think, a girl yearning for love and acceptance. She wants to belong, just on her terms. Jade is so achingly real, and so heartbreaking, that My Heart Is a Chainsaw is sometimes painful to read, but the story is so compelling that you won’t be able to put it down. The final quarter of the novel moves with unrelenting fury toward an ending so surprising, yet so perfectly right, that I can’t imagine it ending any other way.
One other thing. For the one teacher Jade seems to actually like, her history teacher, she has written a series of papers the define and explain slasher films, a real history of the genre as seen through her eyes. Those treatises are sprinkled throughout My Heart Is a Chainsaw, and I found myself looking forward to each one. Through them, we get a crash course in slashers, but perhaps more importantly, we get to know Jade better.
I only discovered Jones a couple of years ago, but he’s quickly become one of my favorite horror writers. Hell, one of my favorite writers, period. After Mongrels, The Only Good Indians, and now My Heart Is a Chainsaw, he has confirmed his position as one of the very best in the field. Jones writes with heart, passion, and a brutal lyricality of language and voice that is always distinct, and always just right for the story he’s telling. My Heart Is a Chainsaw debuts on August 31, 2021. Pre-order it today, and be prepared to fall in love with Jade.
Mark Watney, the hero of Andy Weir’s first novel, The Martian, famously said that the only way he could save himself from being marooned on Mars was too, “science the shit out of the problem.” The Martian, a vastly entertaining novel, was in many ways a throwback to classic, golden age science fiction, when SF was often written by actual scientists, and the heroes wore lab coats. Weir never glossed over the science Watney used—he showed his work, in detail, without it ever being boring. He made the science exciting.
Mark Watney has nothing on Ryland Grace, the hero of Weir’s new novel, Project Hail Mary.
Grace wakes up on a spaceship next to two long-dead crew mates, his only companions the robotic arms that have been caring for him. He doesn’t know who he is, doesn’t even know his own name, but he does know science. As he explores the ship, his memories begin to slowly trickle in as flashbacks that show him, and the reader, how he got to where he is—on a desperate, hail mary mission to save humanity, to save the planet Earth itself.
Weir intercuts between what’s happening on the ship and the flashback scenes, until the two eventually come together. Even more than with The Martian, Project Hail Mary is packed wall to wall with science and math, but if that sounds boring to you, then you don’t know Weir. This novel is a rollicking thrill ride, and the science only adds to the excitement. It never feels as if Weir is showing off. Everything is integral to the plot and moves the story forward at a propulsive rate.
Okay, here’s the thing. What I’ve described to you so far is basically the first third of the novel, because at about that point Weir throws us a planet-sized curveball. Project Hail Mary becomes a very different, and even better, story. Nope, I’m not going to give it away—that would be a disservice to you as a reader. Suffice to say that while the path it takes is surely unexpected, the novel becomes deeper, more meaningful. Weir hits surprisingly emotional notes, and nice touches of humor as well, while still ratcheting up the tension. He’s a natural storyteller.
Project Hail Mary was released on May 4th, and this is one you should not miss. Much like The Martian, it’s going to make a helluva movie.
It’s been 12 years, and as many books, and now we’ve come to this—King Bullet, the final novel in Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim saga. I approached this with excitement, because hey, it’s a new Sandman Slim novel, but also trepidation and a tinge of sadness, because hey, it’s the last Sandman Slim novel. Bittersweet mixed emotions, I guess I’m saying.
If like me you’ve been along for the ride from the very beginning, and a lot of you have, then you’ll be happy to know that the whole gang’s here for this one. Stark of course, but also Candy, Alessa, Janet, Fuck Hollywood, Kasabian, Allegra, Carlos, Brigitte, Samael and Mr. Muninn. Even Mustang Sally and Flicker are there to lend a helping hand. Old friends who are no longer alive, particularly Alice and Vidocq, are very much missed. Kadrey excels at creating characters who feel real, whether human or not.
Like every novel in the series, the plot of King Bullet moves like a freight train. L.A. is on fire, on the verge of collapsing, consumed by an epidemic turning the locals to raving maniacs and worse (I now know what the word autophagia means. Kinda wish I didn’t.). People are afraid to go out, and masked up when they do. Sound familiar? On top of that, there’s a new gang in town reeking havoc, the Shoggots, and their leader, the mysterious King Bullet, may be more than Stark can handle. Naturally, though, the odds don’t matter when Stark’s friends, and his city, are threatened, so he dives head first into the chaos, na’at and black blade in hand. Kadrey’s villains are always over the top, and King Bullet is one of his best, a nihilistic, supernatural killer with a score to settle with Stark.
There’s wall to wall action here, but Kadrey also gives the novel room to breathe, allowing Stark moments of much needed introspection. Caught between his new love for Janet and his still smoldering love for Candy, Stark is at a crossroads. He spends much of the novel surrounded by his friends, but in many ways he’s never been more alone. King Bullet and the epidemic would almost be a welcome distraction if only they weren’t threatening everything he cares about in the world.
After reading the last Sandman Slim novel, Ballistic Kiss, my son and I made a bet about where Stark and another character would be at the end of the series. I’m not saying what the two of us thought, but I am saying that I now owe him $20.
King Bullet releases on August 17, 2021. If you’re already a fan, you know the drill…pre-order it now. If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, time to get reading. You have some catching up to do.
If Cassandra Khaw’s novel The All-Consuming World was a straightforward science fiction novel, that would be exciting enough. The plot—the ragtag, damaged remnants of a group or women mercenaries, once feared throughout the universe, reunite to save one of their members who may still be alive after their last, failed mission decades before—has all the hallmarks of a classic space opera, and is as satisfying as can be.
As it turns out, however, Khaw has so much more up her immensely talented sleeve, because this is one of the most challenging, exhilarating, and downright breathtaking works of science fiction I’ve read in a long time. She uses language like no one else. I’ve been trying to think of apt comparisons, and the closest I’ve come is Tamsyn Muir, author of the Locked Tomb Trilogy, and maybe Felix C. Gotschalk, a science fiction writer from the 1970s, but Khaw is very much doing her own thing. She wields words like some kind of mad wizard—dense, spiralling across paragraphs, always surprising. Khaw writes violence and action set pieces with an anarchic, joyful abandon, and bruising emotional scenes with a devastating tenderness.
If Khaw’s language elevates The All-Consuming World, her ideas send it into the stratosphere. Immortality through cloning. Extreme, extravagant body modification, both hardware and software. Ruthless, highly evolved AI. Sentient spaceships, even a sentient planet. Human consciousness running roughshod through computer networks. Khaw takes ideas that other authors may build entire novels around, and sprays them across every page, like shot from a shotgun.
Khaw asks profound questions about what, exactly, is a human being, and when is one no longer truly human. She explores complex webs of gender and sexual orientation with a deft hand and an unflinching eye. And at the center of it all, woven into the fabric of memory, trauma, heroics and betrayal, The All-Consuming World is a love story. Actually, because love is complicated and painful, make that several love stories.
The All-Consuming World will be released on August 17, 2021. Pre-order it now, and prepare yourself for one hell of a ride.
Like a lot of readers, I’m sure, I have a list of go-to authors. These are writers whose new books always zoom to the top of my TBR pile, and whose backlists I’m continually exploring. For me, that means I know for a fact that I will, at a bare minimum, be entertained by what they write, and more likely I will treasure that book and my friends won’t be able to shut me up about it. These are writers who consistently hit triples, and usually hit home runs. Most importantly, writers who have somehow managed to burrow into my brainmeat and figure out exactly what it takes to make my reading pleasure center light up like a Christmas tree.
Chuck Wendig is one of those authors. The guy can write science fiction, dark supernatural thrillers, and post-apocalyptic fiction, all of it breathtakingly good.
With The Book of Accidents, Wendig takes his first stab at straight-up horror, and not surprisingly, he knocks it clean out of the park and into the parking lot.
The Book of Accidents is set in Pennsylvania coal country. Nate and Maddie Graves and their teenage son, Oliver, have moved into the old house where Nate grew up with his abusive father. They’re looking for a fresh start, but instead they find themselves sucked into an ancient battle between good and evil, one with consequences for not only their family, but maybe for the entire world. There’s a monstrous serial killer involved, one who planned to kill 99 little girls, and even more monstrous entities. There are other versions of earth in play, the walls between those realities grown porous. There are other versions of Nate and Maddie and Oliver, as well.
Wendig is keeping a lot of balls in the air here, with a dozen major characters—in fact, multiple versions of some of those characters. And one of the things that makes this novel so special, that makes Wendig such a special writer, is that each of those characters feel real, with lived-in, authentic lives. The Graves family, in particular, is beautifully written. Each of them has something special about them, something supernatural, but those things make them more human, not less. They’ve all experienced devastating trauma, even before the events of the novel, and that trauma also rings with authenticity. Despite everything they’ve been through, and everything they’re going through, this is a family united by love, against all considerable odds.
That realness extends to all the other characters. Most are flawed to greater or lesser extent, and some manage to be heroic despite those flaws. The villains, and make no mistake there is some true, harrowing evil in this book, are never cardboard cutouts. They have backstories, and past trauma of their own. I think that’s one of the themes of The Book of Accidents—that evil creates more evil, and trauma creates more trauma, and it takes effort and heart and love to break that cycle. Love, particularly the familial kind, can be every bit as powerful as evil.
The opening chapters of The Book of Accidents introduce several different story threads, and in lesser hands those threads could have easily tangled. Luckily, Wendig is a master weaver. By the closing moments of the novel, all those threads have been woven together into a tight, cohesive whole. This novel is terrifying and heartbreaking in equal measure, but there is also reason for hope.
One last thing I’d like to talk about here is pacing. Now go with me here—did you ever notice how as the movie Goodfellas hurtles towards the ending, Scorsese changes the pacing. The scenes are shorter, faster, relentless, never allowing the viewer to catch their breath. Wendig does something similar here. Toward the end of the novel, the chapters are shorter. The pacing, always clipping along nicely, speeds up like a runaway mine car, moving at breakneck speed, inexorable. Wendig torques the tension up to an unimaginable degree.
Okay, one last, last thing. Wendig sprinkles Easter eggs, little callouts to various movies, books, and authors, throughout the novel. Paul Tremblay, another go-to author of mine, gets a couple.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones was my favorite horror novel of 2020. My guess is that, when I’m doing this year’s best-of list, The Book of Accidents will occupy that perch for 2021.
The Book of Accidents is available for preorder now, and releases July 20, 2021. Do not miss this one.
I came to Trail of Lightning (Book 1 of The Sixth World) totally blind. By that I mean I knew virtually nothing about it, except that several folks whose opinion I respect kept telling me to read it. I can take a hint, and they were right, of course. This novel kept surprising me, over and over, page after page.
Here’s what I mean about surprises. It feels like gritty contemporary fantasy at first, set in the American southwest, but then Roanhorse throws a curveball. It turns out Trail of Lightning is set in the future after cataclysmic flooding has changed the world, and life, forever. So, this is first-rate dystopian fiction, the direct result of climate change. But Roanhorse is never didactic, never burdens the reader with pages of info dump and unneeded historical background. She’s too good for that. Instead, she drops the reader headlong into the story and tells us to hang on tight, trusting us to understand what led to this point from context, and it works brilliantly.
Trail of Lightning is set in Dinétah, the former Navajo reservation, a place now walled off from the flooded zones and the rest of civilization that still clings to life. The gods, monsters, and heroes of Native American myth and legend now walk the earth, interacting with the people, causing havoc. Dinétah is a hard, lawless place, and not all the monsters have supernatural origins—some of the worst are of the human variety. Roanhorse’s world-building is exceptional, because it feels organic. She expertly blends the myths and legends into her post apocalyptic world, and makes it all work together. There is fierce imagination at work here.
If Roanhorse excels at anything even more than world-building, it’s her characters. Maggie Hoskie, the monster hunting main character, is a marvel, a hard-ass killer with supernatural powers, flawed but heroic in spite of herself. Setting off on the trail of a missing girl, Maggie finds herself in over her head, confronted by evil both human and monstrous. There are good people who help her along the way, and gods and monsters who want her dead. Roanhorse makes them all, humans and gods in particular, achingly real. The action is non-stop, the violence balletic, the stakes high, and the consequences all too real.
I loved Trail of Lightning, and have already recommended it to several friends. Book 2 of The Sixth World, Storm of Locusts, is available now, and already added to my TBR stack.
Have you ever read a book and thought, “I think (insert name here) would really like this, but then again, there’s that one scene…” Yep, me too. There are a handful of novels that I truly love, that I have read more than once, but that I think twice before recommending for one reason or another. I’m not talking about your run of the mill, pulpy sex and violence extravaganzas you can find on the paperback spinner racks in used bookstores. I’ve read and enjoyed plenty of those, believe me. The novels I’m talking about are a much rarer breed—these are books I treasure, and love to give as gifts or as heartfelt recommendations, but always carefully consider the recipient first.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
BLOOD SPORT by Robert F. Jones No, this has nothing to do with the Van Damme movie. Don’t be silly. Blood Sport, most days if I’m asked, is my favorite novel of all time. It concerns a father and son canoe trip down a mythical river that starts in upstate New York and ends in China, a river where Tarpon swim and Mastodons still forage along the shores. There’s lots of hunting and fishing, and because Jones spent decades as an outdoor writer for Field and Stream, he gets all that exactly right. Don’t think, however, that this is a straightforward outdoor novel. Blood Sport is a hallucinogenic fever dream, with moments of magic realism that wouldn’t be out of place in a South American novel. So Dave, you may be asking yourself, why would you hesitate to suggest this to another reader? Glad you asked! Blood Sport is awash in relentless violence, graphic sex, and some straight up repellant misogyny and racism that isn’t surprising given the characters and setting, but is ugly nonetheless. If you can stomach all that, this is a novel as grand and mythic as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or James Dickey’s Deliverance, with a wonderful cast of amoral characters. Ratnose, the leader of a group of bandits that the father and son tangle with, is, to my mind, one of the finest fictional villain creations in all of American literature. I first read this novel as a teenager, and then read it again the same week. The only other book I’ve done that with was The Martian Chronicles. When my son was a young teen he found it on our bookshelf, and badly wanted to read it, but I kept putting him off, for the above reasons. Finally, when he was 15, he and I went on a father/son canoe trip on the French River in Canada, and I brought it along for him to read. It was the perfect time. Also, as an aside, this would make one hell of a movie. Also also, Robert Carlisle should play Ratnose.
EXQUISITE CORPSE by Poppy Z. Brite (Billy Martin) I can count on, maybe, one hand the number of people I’ve recommended Exquisite Corpse to, for easily justifiable reasons. This story of dueling cannibalistic serial killers murdering their way through the gay underground in New Orleans is filled, even overfilled, with lovingly described scenes of utter depravity, gut-wrenching violence, and disturbing sex. It’s also one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever read. Brite’s language is rapturous, even when what he’s describing is far, far beyond the pale. I hope I’m being clear here. Brite leaves nothing to the imagination. His gaze is unflinching, and you will be disturbed. Exquisite Corpse is horrific, and often hard to read, but it’s one of the singular achievements in horror fiction.
SANTA STEPS OUT by Robert Devereaux If I tell you that the main characters in Santa Steps Out are Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, will you question my sanity for including this novel here? Read it, and then let’s talk. In Devereaux’s phantasmagoria of off the wall, blood-soaked violence and startlingly explicit sex, Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny are the modern incarnations of horny gods. Santa is Pan, Tooth Fairy eats teeth and defecates coins, and the Easter Bunny, most disturbing of all, is a sad and creepy voyeur. Devereaux’s imagination is unmatched, and he goes places no sane author has ever had the nerve to travel. Not only that, he does it gleefully, with an unfettered joy that’s infectious, even when writing about the most appalling things. Santa Steps Out has two sequels, Santa Claus Conquers the Homophobes and Santa Clause Saves the World, but the first novel is unparalleled in its truly insane literary magic.
A FEAST UNKNOWN, IMAGE OF THE BEAST, and BLOWN, by Philip José Farmer Farmer is one of the true grandmasters of science fiction, justly celebrated for his Riverworld series, and the many other works that would eventually win him three Hugo Awards. These three novels, however, published in the late sixties and often grouped together, are something else again. All three are drenched, literally drenched, in explicit violence and even more explicit sex. They are also a whole lot of fun to read. A Feast Unknown is a pop culture adventure fantasy, accent on adventure, with Tarzan and Doc Savage as the main characters (by the way, they’re brothers, and their father is Jack the Ripper). There’s plenty of bloodshed and the ripping of body parts, and plenty of acrobatic sex that defies both logic and gravity. Image of the Beast and Blown, its sequel, are mashups of detective fiction and horror, centered on a group of brutal, supernatural killers. There’s a gut churning snuff film, violent creature sex, and, for some reason, Forrest J. Ackerman, the real life editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland, as a character. Farmer is quite knowingly pushing all the buttons with these three novels, and having a whale of a time doing it.
There you have it, six great novels for you to read…if you dare.
For the past several months, most of my art time has been devoted to new designs for my RedBubble shop. I’m really working on using my I-Pad, Apple Pencil and Procreate software to their full potential, and trying some new styles. Here are my most recent designs, artwork inspired by movies, books, and authors, and a couple of wild cards.
Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is a stand-alone urban fantasy by Seanan McGuire, which, honestly, should be all you need to know to pick it up immediately. It’s a ghost story, with witches as well, and that, too, should get you interested. It’s set on the streets of New York City that tourists never visit, and in the corn fields of Kentucky, places McGuire clearly has an affinity for.
All that is reason enough to read this slim, somber novella, but there is so much more here. Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is a meditation on grief and loss, on the reasons people, alive and otherwise, choose to keep on going even when those reasons seem inadequate. McGuire examines what makes a family, a community—the feeling of belonging that comes from love and the emotional devastation that comes from betrayal.
Jenna blames herself for her sister’s death in New York City, and when she too dies before her time, her ghost leaves small town Kentucky and takes up residence in the city, working at the suicide hotline, trying to atone, trying to give purpose to her continued quasi existence. It’s a life, of a sort. She has friends, mostly among the other ghosts who haunt Manhattan.
But then those ghosts begin disappearing without a trace, and it’s up to Jenna, with the help of a couple of those friends, to find out why.
McGuire does some intricate world-building here. Ghosts, whether alive or not, have a certain amount of time here on earth, and they can both give and take that time to and from living people. Witches, on the other hand, or able to imprison ghosts in mirrors, and then use them to extend their own lives, or the lives of others.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here. McGuire has always had a true gift for giving fantasy settings and situations internally consistent underpinnings that make her stories sing, as much as her gorgeous language and evocative storytelling. Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is a poignant, beautiful story very much worth reading.
During the 1970s, I was navigating my teen years and immersing myself in the world of science fiction. I was learning as I went, both reading new fiction as it was released and working my way backwards through the classics. And I remember being delighted to discover that two of my favorite authors had secret identities of a sort.
In 1967, James Tiptree, Jr. burst onto the science fiction scene, and for the next ten or so years wrote short stories of such imagination and fierce intelligence, psychological complexity and a rare humanity, that few authors have managed to equal that output. The stories—Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death, The Screwfly Solution, Houston, Houston, Do You Read, The Women Men Don’t See, The Girl Who Was Plugged In, The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats, and many others—were shockingly original. Hard science fiction that was also humanistic and emotionally astute, and forthrightly dealt with gender and sexuality. Tiptree, Jr. wrote a couple of novels as well, but it’s the short stories that won awards, and are true classics of science fiction.
I mentioned a secret identity, but in this case it’s more of a double life, because in 1977 it was revealed that James Tiptree, Jr. was actually a 61 year old woman named Alice Sheldon. Sheldon had a fascinating life, traveling the world with her parents as a child, reaching the rank of Major in the United States Army Air Forces where she worked in intelligence, and eventually achieving a doctorate in experimental psychology. She also attended art school, and had careers in art and graphic design.
Partly to protect her academic reputation, Sheldon used the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. when her science fiction began to be published. Although she never appeared in public at conventions, she was a prolific letter writer, and corresponded with fans and other SF authors, always as Tiptree. She fooled them all. In fact, when rumors circulated that Tiptree may in fact be a woman, the science fiction writer Robert Silverberg (who’s had his own issues lately with misogyny and sexism) wrote that, “It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing”.
Sheldon continued writing after her identity was revealed, sometimes as Raccoona Sheldon, but was never quite as successful. She suffered from debilitating depression, and in 1987 shot her husband and herself in a murder/suicide. Sheldon’s legacy continues to this day, as the James Tiptree, Jr. award is annually given to works of science fiction or fantasy that expand or explore our understanding of gender.
Paul Linebarger was a US Army officer, a noted East Asian scholar, and an expert, an expert in psychological warfare, advisor to President John F. Kennedy, and godson to Sun Yat-sen. He wrote the definitive textbook, Psychological Warfare.
Meanwhile, under the name Cordwainer Smith, he wrote a series of loosely interconnected short stories and one novel concerning The Instrumentality of Mankind. The stories—Scanners Live In Vain, The Game of Rat and Dragon, A Planet Named Shayol, The Ballad of Lost C’Mell, and many, many others—are so strange and wondrous, so overflowing with unique characters and imaginative settings, that no one, before or since, has written quite like Smith.
Smith died in 1966 at the age of just 53. He left behind an amazing body of work that sadly, I think, doesn’t get read as much today. That’s partly why I’m writing this post. I hope, if you’re reading this, you might be inspired to pick up one of Smith’s story collections and take a deep dive into his world. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
What pulls me into a book, keeps me up late into the night, turning pages? Glad you asked, but it’s not a simple answer. Plot, characters, setting, language, style, they absolutely all play a part. But more and more, the thing I find myself most drawn to, is voice. The sometimes shy, sometimes in your face, sometimes poetic and sometimes plain-spoken way an author chooses to narrate a story.
Some writers have a voice so idiosyncratic, so stylistically singular, that you can recognize them within just a few sentences. I’m thinking of writers as varied as Cormac McCarthy, R.A. Lafferty, Andrew Vachss, and Joe Lansdale. Then there are the chameleons. Writers who vary their voice to suit each book, who disappear into their characters.
For me, Stephen King is one of the very best at this, and Later, his newest novel, is a masterclass in voice.
Later is written in first person, as an adult looks back on events from his childhood that would forever transform his life. King is attempting a highwire act here, writing as an adult telling a story through the eyes of a child, and he pulls it off flawlessly. In lesser hands this could be a disaster, the voice bouncing back and forth and never settling into that perfect groove. King nails it. Jamie, the narrator of the story, is likable, smart, and engaging. He just feels right.
Jamie tells us more than once that this is a horror story, and he’s right, at least in part. Jamie has a special talent, a dark ability, that puts him in harm’s way and forces him into making decisions no child should have to make. He comes face to face with with death in ways that would be harrowing even for adults, let along a young kid. His innocence hangs in the balance. And because Later comes to us from the Hard Case Crime imprint, much like King’s earlier novel Joyland, there are morally compromised characters, law enforcement, and violent crime involved. There’s also a twisted family secret that caught me by surprise, and rocks the final quarter of the novel.
If that was all I had gotten from Later, I would have been satisfied, but King, as he often does, adds multiple layers to his story. Jamie’s mom is a literary agent, and King takes us into that world like the insider he is, and shows us how the sausage gets made. Later is set during the economic downturn, and King details the challenges it brought to the publishing world. I enjoyed those parts of the novel as much as the scary stuff. King has always been good at showing professionals being professional, doing the work. Jamie’s mom is a great character—tough, flinty, and damn good at her job. She’s no saint, in fact she’s one of those morally compromised characters I mentioned earlier, but her love for Jamie is unquestionable.
Later is not one of King’s epics. It’s a lean, propulsive crime novel, like all the Hard Case Crime novels. I absolutely loved it.
Maybe it’s my age (a little shy of 61), or maybe it’s because my youngest kid (hi, McKenna!) will be 21 in a couple of weeks. Maybe it’s the sense of overwhelming dread and mortality we’ve all been marinating in for the past year. Whatever the reason, I’m feeling introspective, and thought I’d take a ramble on back through my sort of, sometimes, writing life.
Before I started writing, I had to start reading, and that happened my first week in junior high, when I found I, Robot and Martian Chronicles on the top shelf of my school library’s small science fiction section. By eighth grade I had read all the books in that section (including, if I remember correctly, about 87 Andre Norton novels) and had graduated to my local public library. I had also decided to try my hand at writing, starting with poetry.
In ninth grade I wrote a 25 page collection of poetry, and starting branching out with short stories. In my senior year, my English teacher (hi, Mr. Belden!), who I’m still friends with on Facebook, created a special class for me, where I could spend one period per day in the library writing stories and receive credit for it. By the end of high school I had won a couple of Scholastic Writing Awards with those short stories, and it was pretty much decided. I was a writer, at least in my own mind, and I was going to keep on writing.
I kept writing through my late teens, both poetry and short stories, but I submitted only sporadically. This has been a running theme throughout my life. I hate the entire process of submitting, and I downright suck at it.
I spent the first couple years of my twenties in the U.S. Army, which you wouldn’t think would be conducive to writing. Luckily, Fort Carson, Colorado, where I was stationed, had a post newspaper with a circulation of 30,000, and when I arrived there they were in need of a cartoonist and journalist. I spent those two years happily drawing cartoons and illustrations, and writing movie reviews and feature stories. The paper’s civilian editors were damn good, and they taught me a lot.
Fast forward a bunch of years, where I was still writing but not submitting much at all. I started working for a small Cleveland ad agency as a graphic designer in 1983, got married in 1989 (hi, Carrie!), and my son Eric was born in 1993. That’s when I began writing for kids, something I love and still do to this day. In 1999 one of my children’s stories was a top ten finisher in Writer’s Digest’s annual writing contest. I felt like I was on to something.
I submitted a picture book manuscript to the 2000 contest and the jury, led by the amazing author Kelly Milner Halls, chose it as the grand prize winner. I won some cash, and more importantly, a trip to NYC to meet with three editors of my choice. Weirdly, by the time the trip happened I had already sold the manuscript, to Smallfellow Books in Los Angeles. That’s when I discovered just how much of a crap shoot publishing is, because through a series of misadventures by little book, titled Up Ned’s Nose, was not, and still hasn’t been, published. I chronicled the story in more detail here: (https://davewritesanddraws.com/2020/01/16/so-close-and-yet-the-two-decade-journey-of-a-single-manuscript/).
I kept writing, mostly for kids but some fantasy and horror for adults as well, submitting off and on. In 2006 everyone’s favorite dentist office magazine, Highlights for Children, published my short story Tough As Daisy. This was, and still is, one of my favorite things that’s ever happened to me. I’ve since sold them another story, but it hasn’t appeared in print yet.
My publication credits during this time are a mixed and varied bag. I sold short stories to several horror anthologies. I wrote a bunch of song lyrics, even though I can’t play or sing a lick, and had several recorded by local musicians. I wrote ASL test passages, and greeting card sentiments.
In 2013 CBAY Books, a small publisher in Texas, held a writing contest, and by coincidence I had just finished my first longer work for kids, a 15,000 word chapter book. My book, Trapped In Lunch Lady Land, won the contest by a comfortable margin, and the prize was a publishing contract. I was beyond excited. Funny thing, though, the editor thought it would work much better as a 30,000 word middle grade novel, and I had roughly two months to double my word count. Turns out she was right. Lunch Lady Land was published in 2014. I had a book signing at my local Barnes & Noble, and I did a bunch of school visits, which might be the most fun I’ve ever had.
Meanwhile, I was now creative director at that same ad agency (38 years next month) and besides doing graphic design, I was taking on more and more of the writing work. I’ve now written hundreds of tv and radio scripts, reams of ad copy, and countless blog posts for a variety of clients. I’m surprised at how much I enjoy this new and different creative outlet.
In the fall of 2019 I started this blog, and that took up a fair amount of my free time. By the time the pandemic reared its ugly head, I had not been writing much fiction, but that all changed. Suddenly, since we couldn’t go anywhere or do anything, I realized that if I didn’t do something to occupy my time, I would make myself, and my wife as well, crazy. I discovered the joys of writing to submission calls, and started writing short stories again. More importantly, I started submitting with a vengeance, not just the new stuff, but older stuff as well. I’m even tracking my submissions, with dates and everything. Yes, I know that’s how you’re supposed to do it. No, I never really did before.
I also started a RedBubble shop, Fan-Tasm, which features artwork inspired by iconic books and authors. A perfect marriage of my favorite things.
I have a story due to appear sometime soon on an extreme horror website. I’m a little worried about people reading that one, it’s a doozy. I’m participating in the Two Sides of the Story anthology, teamed up with a wonderful writer from Canada (hi, Renée!). At last count I had more than two dozen short stories, kid’s stories, picture books, and a chapter book out on submission.
I have no more excuses keeping me from writing it, so the YA novel I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years is finally going to happen. I hope. It terrifies me a little, because I’m going to write it in first person, and my main character is a 17 year old girl. No idea if I can pull that off, but I think it want to try.
My writing life has been sporadic, in fits and starts, with just a few successes along the way. But I figure, as long as I keep writing, I’m a writer. That’s good enough for me.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic has all the hallmarks of classic gothic literature—a beautiful young woman in peril, an ancient, crumbling mansion, a family consumed by sordid, murderous secrets, an imperious, controlling family matriarch, a handsome but coldly calculating villain, and a pallid young man who may or may not step up and do the right thing.
Moreno-Garcia may be playing in the gothic sandbox, but she’s not interested in using the same old toys. Instead of windswept English moors and white cliffs above crashing waves, she sets her novel in the lush, humid Mexico of the 1950s.
Noemi, Mexican Gothic’s heroine, is no shy shrinking violet. She may be young, but she’s smart, inquisitive, well-educated, stylish and confident. After a brief beginning in glittering, cosmopolitan Mexico City, Noemi is dispatched by her father to a small mountain mining town deep in rural Mexico. They’ve received a disturbing letter from Noemi’s cousin, who was swept away to the mining town after marrying a mysterious Englishman.
I won’t spoil for you the delights of what follows, but be prepared—this is a pure gothic horror thrill ride that will keep you awake and reading long past your bedtime.
Moreno-Garcia writes like a dream, or in this case a fever dream. Her powers of description and language use are formidable and her imagination is wildly unfettered. Mexican Gothic veers from traditional gothic to gothic horror to a kind of cosmic horror drenched in decay and rot. No matter how wild the story gets, and believe me when I tell you it gets truly wild, it never goes off the rails. Moreno-Garcia is always firmly in control of her art.
I live in a suburban Cape Cod rather than a creepy jungle mansion, but Mexican Gothic had me searching the dark corners of my home for suspicious signs of possibly sentient mold. I can’t think of higher praise.