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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Long-time readers know that I’m scornful of the notion that greatly-extended human lifespans would be a boon, and every year on this day – the Day of the Dead – I write about the goodness and inevitability of death.  But this year I thought to myself: what would a society of near-immortals look like?  And how would creatures who were essentially immortal (unless killed by mischance) face the prospect of impending death?

When both I and the world were much younger, I believed I would know when I had become old; I thought there would be some clear line of demarcation, at least as obvious as rooting, and that when I crossed it I would be able to say, “Now I am no longer young”.  But though the differences between unrooted youth and rooted adult are obvious, the difference between relatively young adults and old adults are not so at all.  We slowly grow larger, and wiser, and less active, and communicate more slowly and deliberately.  But at every point in my long, long life when I have considered the issue, there were some adults in the community who were younger than I, and others older; and though I can now definitively state “I am very old” without fear of contradiction, I cannot tell you at which point in my many millions of years I crossed over into that territory.

If I were pressed to choose such a line, I reckon it would have to be when I awoke from my first hibernation.  The young are far too busy and energetic for such pastimes; they have so much to see and do and learn and think about, so many worlds to explore, so many mysteries to solve and wonders to marvel at, that the notion of spending a few thousand years asleep is quite beyond their comprehension.  Moreover, it isn’t even possible to enter such a state without putting down roots, and few who do that ever get around to pulling them up again without mighty provocation.  And yet there is no set age at which one must root, nor any determinate length before hibernation; I’ve awoken to find individuals who were not yet sprouted when I fell asleep securely rooted within sensory range when I again became conscious, and heard news of others from my own season who were still flitting about the cosmos long after I had settled down to spawn.  And while I took my first hibernation some fifty thousand years after rooting, I’ve known others to go for hundreds of thousands before seeking the peace of slumber.  But when one awakens from that first deep, long sleep, one soon finds oneself the center of attention, pressed on all sides by eager, yet reverent queries from young ones enthralled by the miracle of actually being able to converse with a time-traveler just arrived from an epoch before they even existed.  Sometimes they actually want to touch, reaching out their tendrils in awe as if they could absorb the knowledge of a bygone era by osmosis.  And that experience of being a stranger in one’s own community, of being treated like a living oracle, like a weird visitor back from the underworld with divine wisdom to share…that, I think, is the experience which defines the old.

I remember the first time I as a green youth conversed with such an individual, one of the very first settlers on this world, who arrived so long ago the gentle hills to the south of that land had then been a jagged range of mighty crags, appealing to the romantic sense of a youngster who had journeyed across vast gulfs of space and visited hundreds of worlds in search of just such a wild, beautiful place to settle.  I listened almost in disbelief as we were told that at that time there was a clear demarcation of night and day, and the myriad stars were clearly visible in the sky when the world had turned so that the then-younger sun no longer was.  I was frightened by the depth of the abysses this most ancient of elders had crossed; I myself had always been a homebody, content with the occasional short foray out into space, never going far enough that my native sun was not clearly larger and brighter than the other stars.  And so, perhaps foolishly, I used the narrative as justification for my decision to remain on this world, to root and spawn here and never face the dangers of the vast unknown which swallows up so many wanderers before they find a place to call home.  If this world was so beautiful and clement that it had won the loyalty of so courageous an explorer, so perfect that it stood out among multitudes, what were the chances I would find its like before being lost forever or destroyed by one of the countless dangers of deep space?  Very low, I thought, and so I lingered there, learning all I could from that elder and many others, conversing with visitors and reaching outward with my mind to hear the faint songs of other spheres echoing against our shores from across the fathomless void.  Eventually my teacher passed again into hibernation, and I set out to find the perfect spot in which to spend the rest of my years.

I was not in a hurry; I flew slowly from pole to pole, lazily taking in the terrain below, until at long last I had returned to the place where the ancient one slept.  And then I carefully considered my observations, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each memorable locale, until I at last decided upon the one in which I still reside all these long ages later.  At that time I was alone here, and the nearest other was at the outer limit of comfortable communication; all who reside in the area now are my descendants, except for a few who settled from elsewhere.  I have hibernated so many times I long ago lost count; after one of those, perhaps thirty or forty million years ago, I awoke to the news that my ancient teacher was gone, drowned mercifully in sleep when that land had been swallowed up by the sea in a mighty earthquake.  Some say that I am now the eldest resident of this world, and I can well believe that is so; it has been a very long time since I conversed with anyone who can recall the time before I rooted, nor even received word of any others of my season who still reside elsewhere.  Even beings as long-lived as ourselves must eventually succumb to misfortune as my teacher did; given long enough, even the most unlikely event becomes a certainty.  And though my aversion to risk has kept me alive far longer than most, my time also must come at last.

I do not believe it will be a great deal longer; though worlds and suns are considerably longer-lived than we, they too must eventually perish in the fullness of time.  The conditions on this once-perfect world are no longer what they were; it has grown distinctly hotter and drier, and my raiment, matching the sun, is far redder than the images in my oldest recollections.  The population has aged remarkably, and no young have sprouted here in a very long time; the only mobile individuals are the occasional visitors from elsewhere, and even many of the younger adults have undertaken the monumental task of de-rooting and shedding enough mass to undertake the migration to some younger orb.  But I shall not be joining them; I am far too tired, far too massive, and far too feeble to even contemplate such a tremendous effort, and my roots are so inextricably intertwined with the soil not even I can guess how far they go.  I sprouted on this world, and came of age here, and spawned here, and grew old along with it, and I am content to perish with it as well; as the songs and stories and teachings of the ancient one have lived in me far beyond the physical existence of their source, so will mine live on in countless students long after I myself am gone.  At long last I will explore the great unknown I have shunned since my youth; after ages of daylight and an eon of twilight, I am no longer afraid to face the dark.

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It’s been three years since I stopped publishing “fictional interludes” on a monthly basis, and more than six years since I stopped doing “My Favorite __________” columns.  And yet last week I started deeply missing that feature, and wishing that I could produce them as often as I used to.  That mood inspired me to pull out my own copies of Ladies of the Night and The Forms of Things Unknown, browse through them, and reread a few of them, and that in turn inspired me to make a list of my own favorites from both collections (and a couple which will be included in my next collection, Lost Angels, which I’ll probably compile in another year or so).  So without further ado (except to encourage you to support my work by buying them if you don’t already own them, and reviewing them if you like them), I hereby present my own personal top 10, in order of publication, with a short comment on each.

1) Pearls Before Swine

Perceptive readers have certainly noticed my love of mythology in general and Greek mythology in particular; a number of my stories have themes, titles, settings or characters borrowed from it.  This one has only the last, and yet its title is scriptural and its themes eternal.  And its Southern Gothic setting is, in many ways, one that fits the character almost as well as the one she’s usually associated with.

2) Bad News

While it’s not uncommon for my stories to feature dry humor, I have difficulty performing this one at book readings without giggling.  Even if I were restricted to five selections, I think this one would still make the cut.

3) Visions of Sugarplums

As befits a Christmas story, this is certainly the lightest, most sentimental, and most optimistic tale on this list.  And the protagonist is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever (literally) dreamed up, partly because rather than being a goddess, witch, villainess or femme fatale, she’s just an escort of rather nervous temperament who finds herself in well over her head.

4) Rose

This isn’t my only story which treats seriously a topic I usually make fun of in my non-fiction, nor my only story based on a poem, nor the only one featuring very dark humor.  And did I ever tell you that the unreliable narrator is one of my favorite literary devices?  Because it is.  Read this one and maybe you’ll understand why.

5) Millennium

A tale of First Contact seen through an extremely cynical lens.  You’ve probably never seen aliens portrayed quite like this before, and the fact that you probably haven’t may tell you just how cynical.

6) The Sum of Its Parts

I’m not really very good with pastiche; the only author whose style I can reasonably approximate is Maggie McNeill.  And that’s probably why I like this one so much; it reads very much like a pulp tale from the 1930s, and the characters and dialogue are, in my own admittedly-biased opinion, some of the best I ever wrote.

7) Knock, Knock, Knock

I’ve written scarier things than this, and more personal things than this, but none both scarier and more personal.  And I still don’t like thinking about it when I’m alone late at night.

8) Lost Angel

This is not a tale of horror, at least not the usual kind of horror; it is, in fact, pretty squarely in the genre generally known as “science fiction”.  Nobody dies violently or suffers some other awful fate…so why do I always experience a pronounced frisson when thinking about the ending?

9) Trust Exercise

Many of the stories in The Forms of Things Unknown are, in a way, autobiographical, but none more so than this one.  It’s about love, trust and other scary things, but it can’t possibly scare you as much as it scares me because I know what it all means.  I still think you’ll enjoy it.

10) Wheels

While “Trust Exercise” is a scary story about love, it’s not the love that’s scary; that is definitely not true in “Wheels”, the distillation of some themes that have haunted me for almost four decades and finally demanded I explore them in a more traditional narrative form.

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Once in a while I write something while under the influence that reveals some murky river flowing through caverns measureless to Man, down to the sunless sea deep in my brain.  A couple of weeks ago I replied (while sober) to some moralistic prattle about how the “sin” of homosexuality is still a choice even if it’s an innate predilection, with the following:  “Most humans are born with the inclination toward mindless submission to authority; they not only let it rule them and ruin their lives, but also foist that violent authority upon the virtuous others who are not inclined to that sin, ruining their lives as well.”  But then later in the evening, when I was already well on my way to my secret Garden of The Unknown, one of my regular readers replied with a comment on the concept of sin, and my inebriated brain responded with the following, which you may find interesting (or not):

That depends entirely on how one defines “sin”; it’s not as cut-and-dried as most people think.  Did you ever read this?  It’s one the 10 scariest short stories I’ve ever read.  Now, a lot of people don’t think it’s frightening at all, and maybe even boring; this is because it’s all suggestion and nuance and shadows and no “the house is haunted because slave children were tortured there” modern pat origin BS.  If you don’t have the kind of dark, shuttered rooms and bottomless abysses in your skull that I do, this tale may not take your imagination to the kind of utterly horrifying place that it takes mine.  But if you’re a fan of Poe, Lovecraft, Benson, Blackwood, et al, you might find it at least creepy and worth your time, if not in your personal top ten.  And if you do like it, here are my other nine; PDFs of 13 more tales are included.

No, we aren’t to Halloween season yet, but IMHO it’s never a bad time for tales of the macabre.

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This story is an exploration of some ideas that have haunted me since the year in which the story takes place, and have occupied an important place in my consciousness for most of this year.  As with “Bird of Prey”, I’m just going to tease you with a selection; if you want a copy, you can either buy it on Kindle or get a PDF copy by becoming a patron of my blog.  If you’re already a patron, you should’ve received a copy over the weekend; if you didn’t, please let me know.

The windows in the mural room faced west and south, and the reddish hue of the sunlight accentuated the predominant crimson, amber and bronze hues of the painting, making it look almost as though it were on fire.  He saw many more faces than he had on the first visit, and the feathers of the multiplicity of wings seemed to rustle and shimmer; he also saw hands where he hadn’t before, peeking out from the wings and juxtaposed with legs and horns and teeth.  In this light the eyes – hundreds of them of every shape and size, peering or glaring or watching from every part of the mural – seemed to all be looking back at him, glinting in various colors like gemstones.  But of all the odd features of the design, the most horrifying were the wheels.  Every other recognizable part of the painting was part of some living creature or another, whether bird or beast or human, but except for the eyes all around their rims, the wheels were most definitely not.  And while the way in which the various biological features related to each other made little anatomical sense, the way the wheels were depicted made no sense at all.  They were like things from an Escher woodcut, objects which could not have existed in three-dimensional reality, with spokes and rims that turned at crazy angles to one another and sometimes seemed to project outward from the wall.  Their perspective was maddening; from some angles they seemed close to the living figures, while from others they seemed far away, and when viewed obliquely they were both at the same time.  And somehow, at least in this hazy light shining through dingy windowpanes across dusty air, the ones in his peripheral vision seemed to be turning on themselves, rotating out of the plane of the design entirely.

A few minutes in that room was more than enough, and though he was a sophisticated and urbane man Bert decided to head back to the motel and to stay away from this room until he had both human company and the psychological comfort of full morning sun.  He locked the door and returned the key to its hiding place in the woodshed as the caretaker had instructed, then drove back to the motel at a rather higher rate of speed than was strictly prudent on a rutty backroad in a pine barrens.  He then proceeded to drink most of a bottle of cheap bourbon over the next few hours while not really paying attention to the television, and fell into a fitful sleep haunted by nightmares of huge wheels covered in eyes, slowly rotating toward him…

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It’s been over a year since I wrote a new story, but this one has been slowly growing in my head since late autumn of 2014, and it finally came forth week before last.  I’m just going to tease you with the beginning; if you want a copy, you can either buy it on Kindle or get a PDF copy by becoming a patron of my blog.  If you’re already a patron, you should’ve received a copy one week ago today; if you didn’t, please let me know.

Dane retrieved his knife from the body of the dog and began to carve as many choice cuts from the carcass of the wild cow as he thought he could eat before they spoiled; it wasn’t that much, but he figured he’d be in Korneg within a few days anyhow, and then he could buy all the food he wanted with the gold & furs he’d taken from that trader he ambushed last week.  The job was easier than he had expected; he congratulated himself on having had the good sense to let the dog pack do most of the work of butchery before he started picking them off from the top of the ruined tower.  He knew they’d be back soon, once hunger overcame fear of the rifle; still, half a dozen precious rounds were a good trade for an equal number of big, thick steaks.  It had been a long time since he’d had beef, since that excellent roast in Westover; maybe he should’ve stayed there longer.  But Dane was a cautious man, and he figured it probably wasn’t wise to stay in any city after he’d killed, even though she was just a whore; sooner or later the local warlord’s peacekeepers would’ve figured out which of the transients currently in town had done it, and his career would’ve come to an abrupt halt at the end of a rope.  Or something both much worse and much slower, if the harlots’ guild had caught him first.

Still, it had been a good stay while it lasted, and a profitable one; besides the rifle and ammo belt, some fairly-new boots and a little gold, he’d managed to steal a good horse on the way out.  That put Korneg within reach; though he was a strong walker, no human could outrun a hungry wild dog pack.  And since it was high time he left the Valley, that was now a necessity rather than just a preference.  He’d heard talk of Korneg for years…of its wealth, of the succulence of its foods, of the impregnability of its walls…and of the powerful queen who ruled it.  He had always wanted to see it for himself, but though Dane was no coward, he was also no fool; he knew that no matter how soft its beds or its women, he could not stay in Korneg long before his way of life put a price on his head.  Still, it guarded the only known safe pass to the Cities of the East, and that meant he had little choice but to visit it if he wished to remain free and alive.

The next few days were unremarkable except for the rain, but even that was a blessing because it meant plenty of water for both him and the horse in a season when good water was usually a concern.  It also meant he’d be that much harder to follow, in the event some bounty hunter had picked up his trail.  So all in all, he was in an unusually good mood when on the next clear day he spotted the stone pillars marking the edge of Korneg’s territory, despite the fact that they made him vaguely uneasy.  They were unlike anything he’d ever seen in his three decades of life:  five times as tall as a man they were, carved in the likeness of two huge serpents which coiled around and around until they ended in heads whose baleful eyes stared down at him, glinting like purple gems in the early afternoon sun.  It was obvious that they were intended as a show of power, and the display was a successful one; even in the heart of Ghezhel, mightiest city of the Valley, there were no comparable monuments.  There was an engraved tablet at the foot of the one on the right, but that was of no help to Dane since he had never learned to read.  However, the road beyond was well-built and well-maintained; he knew he couldn’t be more than a few days from the city wall, and he might even reach a trading post before nightfall.  So he set aside his disquiet and rode on, steadfastly resisting the gnawing urge to look back to see if the stone guardians were watching him…

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No matter how many times I explain it, police-state defenders keep popping up in my timeline to defend prohibition, cops and state violence.  So I thought that perhaps my language was too complex for them; however, I have trouble with simple language, so I decided to enlist the help of the late, great Theodore Geisel to rephrase my feelings on the matter.

Cops are glam
I’m a fan!

Police-state fans!
Police-state fans!
I do not like police-state fans!

Don’t you like the smell of ham?
I do not like it, Fan-I-am.
I do not like those thugs of ham.

Would you like them here or there?

I would not like them here or there.
I would not like them anywhere.

I do not like police-state fans.
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

Would you like them in a house?
Would you like them with a mouse?

I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like police-state fans!
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

Would you like them in a box?
Would you like them with a fox?

Not in a box.
Not with a fox.
Not in a house.
Not with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like police-state fans.
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

Would you?  Could you?  In their car?
Lick their nice boots!  Here they are.
I would not, could not, in a car.

You may like them.  You will see.
You may like them in a tree!

I would not, could not in a tree.
Not in a car!  You let me be.

I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like police-state fans.
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

A camp-bound train!
A camp-bound train!
Could you, would you, on a train?

Not in a train!  Not in a tree!
Not in a car!  Fan!  Let me be!

I would not, could not, in a box.
I could not, would not, with a fox.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like police-state fans.
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

Say!  In the dark?
In a cell so dark?
Would you, could you, in the dark?

I would not, could not, in the dark.

Would you, could you, in the rain?

I would not, could not, in the rain.
Not in the dark.  Not on a train.
Not in a car.  Not in a tree.
I do not like them, Fan, you see.
Not in a house.  Not in a box.
Not with a mouse.  Not with a fox.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere!

You do not like men made of ham?
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

Could you, would you, with a goat?

I would not, could not, with a goat!

Would you, could you, on a boat?

I could not, would not, on a boat.
I will not, will not, with a goat.

I do not like them in the rain.
I do not like them on a train.
Not in the dark!  Not in a tree!
Not in a car!  You let me be!
I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere!
I do not like police-state fans!
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

You do not like them.  So you say.
But I will hound you anyway.
I will not respect your “nay”.

Fan!  Since you won’t let me be,
I will mute you.  You will see.

I do not like states, threats and ham!
I do not like their spineless fans!
I still avoid them in a boat.
I still avoid them with a goat…

And I still hate them in the rain.
And in the dark.  And on a train.
And in a car.  And in a tree.
They are so bad, so bad, you see!

So I will mute them in a box.
And I will mute them with a fox.
And I will mute them in a house.
And I will mute them with a mouse.
And I will mute them here and there.
Yep, I will mute them anywhere!
I always mute police-state fans!
Fuck you! Fuck you, Fan-I-am!

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Around the Block

It’s been a while since my Muse of Fiction went back to her old sulky self, but I recently came up with a plot for a set of images I’ve been wanting to use in a story for several years now.  I haven’t actually written the story yet, but it’ll probably be in the next few weeks.  I suspect it may end up being a little longer than most of my tales, and I’m going to share it in a different way than usual.  For a while now it has bugged me that I don’t give my subscribers any special privileges as I really should, so once I get that story written I’ll package it as a stand-alone for Kindle for like 99¢, but I’ll send all my subscribers, regular clients and donors a coupon code to get it for free.  Then once I’m ready to put together my next fiction collection, it’ll be in there.  I’m also going to offer my patrons a special deal on The Essential Maggie McNeill when I manage to put that together, which I’m rather hoping to manage before the end of summer (no promises, because those haven’t worked out well for this long-delayed project).  And in the meantime, if you haven’t bought and read The Forms of Things Unknown I’d really, really appreciate it if you did, and reviewed it as well; I’m not sure what the exact threshold is for Amazon’s algorithms to start recommending the book to people who aren’t specifically looking for it, but the only way to find out is to get a LOT more reviews on it than I already have.  And needless to say, more attention to my books will not only result in more money in my purse (always a good thing, especially since I haven’t caught up from paying for the move yet), but will also draw more eyes to this blog and maybe open those eyes to the absolute necessity for freeing consensual adult sexual activity from the list of things our culture allows state thugs to ruin people’s lives over.

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