Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Publishing Update: Reviews of THE MISSION

Cover design by Ives Hovanessian

Upon abandoning a long, mediocre stretch as a screenwriter and officially entering the ring of dark fiction in 2010, I've had many stories published in various anthologies, publications and other mediums.  But it wasn't until 2014 that the very first stand-alone book of my work came out with The Mission, which was released as a limited edition chapbook by Dunhams Manor Press/Dynatox Ministries, founded and run by the gifted writer and publisher Jordan Krall, one of the hardest working fellows in indie press.

The book shipped throughout August and September, and the feedback so far has been wonderfully positive.  The Arkham Digest published a review in early October, while Daring Defenders put up a piece on The Mission several weeks back.  Recently, several authors I admire, respect, and count as inspirations in the Speculative Fiction omniverse have chimed in with their thoughts on The Mission, including Laird Barron, Nathan Ballingrud, and Jeffrey Thomas - three greats spinning their craft at the very top of the field.  I'm so very appreciative for all of these reviews and blurbs, and although they cannot lift sales with the book being out-of-print, it is still a lovely thing to know that your work connected with a reader.

As The Mission is not listed on Amazon or Goodreads or any of the usual review sites, I've decided to wrangle reviews into one electronic corral, for personal posterity if nothing else.  This will be - and has been - updated as necessary:

Award-winning author of the Weird, the Noir, and the cosmically horrific Laird Barron wrote:
"The Mission--an unholy union of Cormac McCarthy's annihilating moral vistas and filmmaker JT Petty's dark vision of the West."

Shirley Jackson Award-winning dark fiction author Nathan Ballingrud wrote:
"'Goddamn a thief that salutes you first.' 
THE MISSION, by Ted E. Grau, reads like a classic weird tale. It has echoes of Howard, Lovecraft, and even a hint of Clark Ashton Smith's 'Tsathoggua,' but written with greater worldliness and sharper, cleaner prose. A band of unlikely soldiers set off to track down two Lakota warriors in Nebraska, and stumble across something fantastically strange and terrifying. Creepy, bizarre, and fast-paced, this novella satisfied on all fronts.
'Ebke snorted. He had no dog in this fight. Didn't care for a damn thing in the whole wide world, including his own hide. The kind of man who was just born hollow, who just went where he was supposed to. Didn't matter, though. When the chips were down and the dander up, it was always light against dark. To hell with this New World.'
'Farm boys ain't exactly expert trackers. Good to have at your side in a saloon dust up, as those coffee can fists always found purchase, but rosy-cheeked plowboys weren't born bloodhounds like those with a more suspicious nature.' 
Coffee-can fists. I love that. This is the first in what will be a series of stories about Salt Creek, according to the back-cover copy of this sadly out-of-print novella. I'm on board for the full ride."

Acclaimed Horror, Lovecraftian, and Weird Fiction author Jeffrey Thomas wrote:
"Last night I finished THE MISSION. I can’t express how much I enjoyed it – it’s a knockout. Just one of the most engrossing, riveting, creepiest stories I've read in a long time. Truly, this is the most muscular, gritty, thrilling approach to horror I've experienced since I read Laird’s latest collection (and I include the entire contents of CHILDREN OF OLD LEECH in that assessment...). I was out there WITH those guys, in that hard landscape… experiencing one mind-boggling mystery after another. 
Grau packed an incredible amount of strange revelations and dangerous encounters into one novella, without it ever feeling crowded or overdone. He just pulled that Wild Bunch of cowboys in deeper and deeper, took them further and further, and me as a reader along with them. I hope to see a return to this location and these thoroughly intriguing mysteries in future work, as the back cover hints. 
So very impressed. He just consistently impresses…but this one is especially noteworthy. I don’t know if it quite tops THE SCREAMER, which I have a special fondness for and consider a modern masterpiece, but I’d say it’s pretty damn close. 
Again, I’m proud to possess #1 of this chapbook, which somewhere in the near future could become quite the collector’s item!"

Rodney Turner of Daring Defenders said:
"I recently acquired The Mission, a weird western by T. E. Grau published by Dunhams Manor Press. I’m sad that it was a limited run because this is a fucking excellent little book. If you didn't get your hands on it, light a candle and mourn your loss.
OK, that is quite enough mourning. Let’s get to it! 
The Mission is the tale of a rag-tag group of soldiers on the trail of a pair of Native-American fugitives. A chance encounter in a town that shouldn't exist sets in motion a chain of events that shatters the sanity of our protagonists. 
This not the West of 1950’s cinema with its bright blue skies and crimson mesas. From the first paragraph, Grau drags the reader into an ugly world. A world in which humanity’s self-inflicted horrors walk hand in hand with the ancient secrets lurking in the frontier. 
Grau’s pacing is frenetic, evoking the sense of urgency felt by the narrator and his companions. Like any good story, The Mission made me feel less like a reader and more like a powerless observer carried along inside the narrator’s head. It is not until the characters arrive at the titular mission that we really catch our breath. Grau gives us a brief moment of wonder and discovery, but it is a moment colored by the fact that the light at the end of the tunnel is just the reflection of the Reaper’s scythe. 
I’m going to give this one a 5 of 5."

Reviewer and editor and all-around voracious Horrorhound Justin Steele of The Arkham Digest wrote:
"I've always been partial to the Weird Western... T.E. Grau’s The Mission serves as prime example of what can be done when these two genres collide. The novella starts off with a typical Western plot; a group of Army men are on the hunt for a couple of Native Americans. Grau shows what can be accomplished when combining the West with the horrors of Lovecraft, as the men make some strange discoveries. 
The tension of the group is already thick when the novel begins, with some members clashing over racial differences and just skimming the boiling point. Once the stage is set, the already palpable tension ratchets into overdrive for the remainder of the novella. As the group is beset by strange occurrences, such as finding an out of place town where a town shouldn't be, the Captain does his best to stay cool and keep his group from tearing each other apart. 
Some of The Mission brought to mind The Men From Porlock or Blackwood’s Baby by Laird Barron. All three stories are period pieces featuring groups of tough guys coming face to face with horrors beyond their comprehension. Grau nails the rough tone required to portray these types of characters, making for a story that has already moved high up on my list of favorite Weird Westerns."

Bizarro author David Anderson wrote:
"A few months back, in the thick of summer, I was given a copy of T.E. Grau’s THE MISSION and happily accepted it. Limited to 50 hard copies (I got a digital review copy) I was excited to be able to dig into this tasty gem from Dynatox Ministries’ Dunhams Manor Press...
Grau, who’s work I've read before, not only continues to amaze me with this story but sets a new precedent. The ending is terrifying, and stuck with me for long after the story. I can look back on that feeling of hopelessness and cosmic doom and smile because it was invoked so well. Anchored by a really well done Western Story motif, THE MISSION has a cast of characters that immediately launched off the page and held my interest throughout. The pace is amazing, and given the smaller format here we are just HANDED the goods right away and they keep coming. Fans of Lovecraftian fiction will love, love, LOVE this, as it invokes the dread of the Mythos in a very classic way. There have been a lot of experimental Lovecraftian releases like Jordan Krall’s NIGHTMARES OF A LOVECRAFTIAN MIND that explore different ways to tackle the Mythos, but here Grau delivers what fans of classic Lovecraftian Fiction crave most – cosmic monsters! And scary stuff! There’s still enough to tickle your cranium, mysteries to explore, but we still get some hair raising chills. 
THE MISSION is a valuable edition to your collection."

Editor David Binks wrote:
"I highly recommend it.  Well written, good pace and it seemed to have a hint of Clive Barker which is always a good thing.  Everville comes to mind.  The characters were believable and flawed like most of us.  Grau takes the reader into the flat lands of Western Nebraska, a part of the world he knows and describes very well,  building up the suspense as he adds more ingredients to the mix. And if that weren't enough, we realize that we are reading a Lovecraftian work. My only hope is that this becomes a full length novel one day."

While The Mission is no longer available as a chapbook, it will be included in my debut collection of short fiction, which should be completed quite soon.  More updates as they are made available.

Monday, July 21, 2014

TC Review & Interview: Nathan Ballingrud Roars from the Gates with NORTH AMERICAN LAKE MONSTERS, His Powerful Debut Collection of the Weird and the Brutal from Small Beer Press

In writing stories that are firmly entrenched in the horror genre, the temptation is always to dance around the human element for a bit before rushing headlong into the supernatural.  Glancing at the homo sapiens just long enough to fulfill some literary obligation before full-on ogling the monsters.  It's easy to get caught up in such obvious Big H Horror signposts, as those fantastical elements are what drew most of us to the genre to begin with.  But that sort of "too much of a good thing" is what can often ruin a great story, much like too much sugar can ruin a coffee, too much salt can render a stew inedible.  A master chef doesn't go overboard with the spices in their gastric preparation, but elects to show restraint, and in doing so, introduces and opens up every ingredient in the meal, instead of clubbing one over the head with something that should be subtle and not overpowering.  THIS IS GARLIC!  THIS IS CHILI POWDER!  OMG HOW YUMMY IS ALL THIS EXTREME FLAVOR!

Subtlety - in appreciation and also in practice - is learned for those in which it does not innately manifest, and the older I get, and the more weird/horror fiction I read (and write), the more I appreciate such elements of subtlety as context, allegory, metaphor, and the interplay of the human condition.  That the very same tales also deal with werewolves and vampires and sea monsters and alien gods is just icing on the cake.  In these sorts of piece, taking the focus off of the obvious monster allows the reader to discover beasts so much more terrifying and infinitely more brutal.  They weren't necessarily born monsters, so have few if any excuses when they decide to don monstrous trappings.

Nathan Ballingrud weaves just this sort of dark literary tapestry, employing a subtle yet powerful hand in his stories filled with broken people and sometimes monsters, and in doing so, balls up a knotty fist that hits you so hard the bruise will never fully heal.  This perfectly balanced style is on full and glorious display in North American Lake Monsters, Ballingrud's debut collection of brutal, fiction in the short form from Small Beer Press, which was recently awarded a 2013 Shirley Jackson Award in the category of Single Author Collection (sharing the honor with Before and Afterlives by Christopher Barzak), and is currently nominated for a 2014 World Fantasy Award.

These are startling tales that root down to the meat and bones of who we are as humans, in worlds both familiar and those that are intertwined with the fantastical. Cleanly rendered reality plays set amid backdrops of the weird, where the horror can just as easily come from your garden variety mother or father, son or daughter, showing us that anyone, anywhere is capable of very bad things, depending on the vagaries of their day-to-day situation, and the choices they willingly make.

Guilt and frustration cut a grievous through line down the center of many of Ballingrud's tales in this collection, fully realized to the nth degree in "The Good Husband," which is not only my favorite story in North American Lake Monsters, but one of the best short stories I've ever read, in any literary genre, or no genre at all. From the first page, the life-altering decision of a self-centered man struggling with a marriage to a clinically depressed woman is so unexpected that it stole my legs out from under me. Just like with most of the stories in this collection, every action has a reaction, and ultimately a consequence, and this is fleshed out with devastating effect in the narrative.  Just when you think every story has been been told...

Coming in just behind "The Good Husband" in the quality category is "You Go Where It Takes You," which dips us into the life of a waitress and single mother living on the edge of Gulf in Louisiana, possessed of few joys and even fewer options for anything better in life, making her decision to spend time with a seemingly very Average Joe who asks her out almost an afterthought.  Told in Ballingrud's strong, often poetic yet unencumbered style, we are hit with a surprise jab about 2/3 of the way through to stun us just enough to set us up for the decapitation that waits at the end.  The final image of the story stayed on my mind for weeks, and still pops to the front of my brain on occasion.

It's often what Ballingrud doesn't write instead of what he does that distinguishes him from his peers.  For example, in "Wild Acre," he doesn't focus on the events of what are very clearly a werewolf attack that befall a group of friends at a construction site in a new housing development.  Instead, he explores the much more interesting angle of survivor's guilt for the guy who got away, documenting the survivor's guilt in excruciating detail.  It's an extraordinary way to handle the often played out circumstances of supernatural monsters killing poor, hapless humans, and yet another example of Ballingrud viewing horror fiction with a new, innovative eye that sees things different than the rest of us.

The fetid splendor of New Orleans, where Ballingrud lived for several years, features prominently in many of the stories here, including the surrealist "The Way Station," as well as the page turning "S.S." which veers away from the weird to stomp its muddy boots on the carpet of reality, following a wannabe skinhead as he attempts to make his bones with the local legit hardcores. This is a haunting, thought provoking piece, mining true horror from areas not normally associated with it.

One of these more classic horror tales is "Sunbleached," which is a vampire story worthy of Matheson, sinuous, heartbreaking, and refreshingly creepy, which is a rarity in vamp fiction these days. "The Monsters of Heaven" combines Ballingrud's skilled handling of failed relationships with an otherworldly discovery in an alleyway, that changes the dynamic between two people in unexpected ways. "Crevasse" appeals to my inner (and outer) cosmic horror fanboy by screwing down the classic combination of wonder and dread with the uncomfortable whimper of an injured sled dog, bleeding out on the ice deep inside a fissure.  Both sad and creepy, this is great example of alien horror that doesn't take its marching order from Lovecraft, but does tip the hat to the old maladjusted gent from Providence.

The title tale is just as much an examination of fractured family dynamics and the difficulty in putting the pieces back together after blowing up the nuclear unit as it is about a strange creature that washes up dead on the beach of a secluded mountain lake.  Ballingrud once again balances the familiar with the unknown, allowing them both to feed of of each other, strengthening both host and parasite at the same time.  It's a deft balancing act, and undercuts most of his work in this collection, with extraordinary results.  In doing this, the writer creates stories that are as relatable as they are fantastical, teaching us about ourselves as he exposes new ways of telling a horror story.

I try to make it a habit to read as many of the short fiction collections that come out each year. Some stand out. Some do not. A few rise above, and feel as if they are pushing genre fiction forward, giving strength to horror fiction's (rightful) claim to literary legitimacy, and keeping strong the long tradition of excellence for stories rendered in the short form. North American Lake Monsters is one of those collections, which should be part of the landing party when horror fic sends its ambassadors down to the surface of Planet Literature to draw up the cosmic map of written word ownership.  He's one of our best, our brightest, our most unique, who is tilling up new ground in an over-farmed back 40.  North American Lake Monsters is an important work of speculative fiction, that will stand up to the weathering of the ages.  I cannot wait to see what Nathan Ballingrud does next, and where he takes us, as readers, and as members of the dark fiction community.
If you could write like he does, you'd be smiling, too

Thank you, Nathan, for taking the time to sit down with The Cosmicomicon.

I think it’s only good manners to properly set the table before one starts serving the food, so – if you could – please give us a bit of background on your career.  When did you first start writing, and was becoming an author always a goal?  What and who are some of your influences, in terms of what you like to read, and what you think has bled into your work?

I started writing stories when I was still in grade school. Being a writer was always part of the plan. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was, “An astronaut and a writer,” or some variation of that. I didn't really know how to go about the business of it until I went to Clarion, back in the early 90s. I made my first professional sale within a few months of that experience, but then I stopped for quite some time. I just didn't feel ready. I had a lot of reading to do, and a lot of living. It was roughly 10 years later that I started writing with what I consider to be my natural voice.

There are so many influences, and they’re constantly changing. The big horror writers of the 70s and 80s were very influential - King, Straub, Barker, McCammon - and later I discovered the realists, and fell under their spell for many years. Writers like Richard Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver. When I started to drift back into fantasy and horror, it was after being caught by the work of writers like Lucius Shepard and Maureen F. McHugh. Of course there’s also the inspiration of place - New Orleans, the Appalachians, the more abstract idea of the South; and of music - Pink Floyd, Ani DiFranco, Nine Inch Nails, Glen Hansard; and comic books - the work of Mike Mignola, Rick Remender, the EC Horror pulps … I could go on forever about influence. I think a writer should remain in active conversation with the culture, which will provide a constantly shifting range of influences.

You've moved around a bit, geographically-speaking, writing while you did, which shows up in your work.  Do you think some stories were specifically born in places like, say, New Orleans, that never would have been written had you never lived there?

I think so, yes. Or, more specifically, they would have looked a lot different. “The Way Station” is specifically about New Orleans, and saying good-bye to a place you love, and that you felt defined you in some way. It was cathartic to me, and I doubt it would have existed without my having lived there. “S.S.” feels like a very New Orleans story to me, even though its central conflict could have been set in any number of places. “Sunbleached” is a Gulf Coast story, and couldn't work in the way it does anywhere else. I don’t know if I can say the same thing about the stories set in the Appalachians. New Orleans affected me so deeply. I’m still writing about that place, and I suspect I always will.

North American Lake Monsters is such a fantastic title, as it’s evocative, strange, and instantly intriguing.  How did you settle on this name for your book?  With this your debut collection of short fiction, how did you hook up with Small Beer Press?

I stole that title from Mike Mignola. In one of his comics, one of the characters is described as being away cataloging North American lake monsters, and I loved the phrase so much I knew I had to write a story around it. When it came time to title the collection, we considered it along with “You Go Where It Takes You” and “Monsters of Heaven”. This one seemed to please the most people. I like it because it suggests a kind of naturalist’s handbook. It appeals to the cryptozoologist in me.

I was lucky with Small Beer Press, in that they approached me at just the time I had a collection ready to shop around. I never would have thought to go to them myself; I believed my stories were too dark, the horror too overt, for their tastes. It just goes to show that you should never make assumptions about what an editor does or does not want to see. Small Beer has been a dream to work with, and precisely because they’re not known for horror, the book has gotten into the hands of a lot of readers it might otherwise not have. That’s been a significant boon.

You write about vampires and werewolves, cosmic creatures and the undead, yet somehow the underlying focus of your stories seem to be about everything BUT the supernatural parts.  What fostered your interest in marrying the intensely human with things that dwell in the realms of the fantastical?

I think it was all those years spent reading everything but fantasy and horror, reading Carver and Annie Proulx and James Salter. I really thought, for many years, that I was done with genre forever. I was just planting different seeds. This wasn't intentional or strategic at all; I was just reading what I loved. And that stuff all gets tossed around in the mixer. By the time I started writing again, I had rediscovered my love for the fantastic, and the idea of writing strict realism seemed limiting and dull. Like throwing a tarp over the most exciting part of your imagination. But I didn't want to abandon what I loved about realism either, and the way my emotions were so deeply engaged by those stories. I wanted to include everything I loved.

Staying with the thematic, guilt and regret are two major elements I picked up on in your stories, which are – for my money - what make some of your tales so incredibly gut wrenching.  That relatable human element.  Has it been a conscious choice to explore such things?  Have you ever been surprised by what you have said in a story, when you may had not meant to explore that when you first started the piece?

That’s a good question. It’s my belief that one of the best ways to write a strong story is to write about what shames you. God knows my life is heavily freighted with guilt and regret. I just decided to hit those areas hard. To try my best not to blink. I did sometimes, but other times I know I didn't, and I sent some of those stories into the world with a twinge of fear. I don’t know if I’ve ever surprised myself, but I have noticed themes that were not apparent to me until later on, sometimes pointed out to me by others. All my stories deal with parents and children, in some way; relationships between lovers are often doomed; and a reader recently asked me why I keep referencing teeth. I hadn't realized I did that until he said it. I still don’t know what that’s about.

In addition to the dynamics of adult and romantic relationships, parenting looms large in several of your stories, as well, including “You Go Where It Takes You,” “The Way Station,” and the title piece “North American Lake Monsters.”  Not to get too personal, but do you think being a single parent has brought this part of your life into your fiction?

There’s no question. Being a single parent has informed my fiction profoundly. Even when I consciously try not to write about parents and children, I find that it keeps creeping back in. The fear of failing in that responsibility is almost impossible to overstate, as I’m sure any parent knows. And of course you can’t help but fail, in a hundred minor ways, no matter how much you strive not to, and despite all your successes. That’s the heartache of it. You’re going to do damage, no matter what. It almost makes me afraid of what I’m going to find to write about when my daughter grows up and moves out on her own. Maybe cats.

I count “The Good Husband” as one of the darkest, and most startling short stories I have ever read, as well as one of the best.  How did you come upon the concept for this work?  To your knowledge, have other readers reacted the way I have?

That one gets some pretty strong reactions. I've had people cry at readings, which was somewhat alarming. It wasn't easy to write, in a couple of ways. The title provokes the natural expectation that it’s ironic, that the husband in the story isn't good at all. And while that’s part of the truth, it’s not the whole truth. I wanted to write about a man who is trying very hard to be good, but is going about it an a destructive way, whose love is actually making things worse. It was hard to achieve that balance. It was harder, personally, because it’s a subject I have some experience with, and writing about the very selfish feeling the husband has - maybe she can’t be fixed, maybe it really would be better for her if she killed herself - is one of those points of shame I was talking about. There’s nothing noble about that thought. It’s a gross, base thought. But I think it’s one a lot of people have. And the guilt that follows that thought can be destructive in its own right. I wanted to write about how love can distort you. The feedback has been generally pretty good on that one; it’s my favorite one in the book.

What do you want to impart with your work, and what do you want readers to take away after they've finished reading one of your stories/books?

I don’t sit down with the intention of imparting anything, really. I want to not waste the reader’s time. That’s my primary objective. There’s so much being thrown at us these days; we’re bombarded constantly with short story collections and with novels and ebooks and the promotion for all of it, there’s such a rattling clamor, that when someone actually sits down to read one of my own, my goal is for them to think that it was worth their time. For it to stand out somehow, and to linger in the memory. A reader deserves more than static.

What is your take on the current climate of Weird/Horror Fiction?  Do you think the emergence of many new small press outfits has helped or harmed the genre(s) overall?  To dig deeper into the corpse of a dead horse – and to rudely put you on the spot - what is your opinion on self-publishing?  Good or bad for the future of fiction?

I think weird/horror fiction is in the midst of a real renaissance, perhaps the most significant since the age of the pulps, which is nothing but good news. Small press has played a defining role. Not only does small press allow for more esoteric work to see print, it also provides a place for short fiction and novella-length fiction to thrive, which is the real life blood of this genre. Furthermore, it allows for some of the less well-known practitioners of the genre to return to print and be discovered all over again: Manly Wade Wellman, Clark Ashton Smith, Lucy Boston, Arthur Machen, Leigh Brackett, Karl Edward Wagner … all writers I’m able to read now thanks to the efforts of the small press. Weird fiction and horror fiction would be in a sorry state without it.

Self-publishing is not intrinsically good or bad. It’s just a tool, and can be put to use well or poorly. Most of what’s being done is wretched stuff, but that’s true of just about anything. Many fine writers, like Jeff VanderMeer and Rhys Hughes, have self-published at one point or another in their careers, too, to good effect. I think it’s good that the tool is there to be used; it’s just unfortunate that it’s so often used badly.

You have admitted in the past to being a “slow” (I hate to use that word), deliberate writer (although your pace seems to have picked up recently).  What is your daily/weekly writing schedule?  When do you prefer to write, and why?

I used to be very slow. I would average about a story a year. And it’s not as if I was laboring over every sentence for that length of time; I just wouldn't write for a good nine or ten months out of each year. Within the past couple of years, the pace has picked up considerably. That said, I don’t keep to a rigorous schedule. I’ll try to get in 500 words a day, which is a modest goal, and one I don’t always meet. But the words accumulate surprisingly quickly even so. I prefer to write in the mornings, with coffee at hand. My mind feels fresh, and I like the feeling of an open day ahead of me. It lets me feel unhurried, unpressured, which in turn helps me think. At night I’m usually very tired and I don’t often have the patience to write. I bring a notebook with me to work, and I’ll jot down some sentences or wrestle with a story’s problems when I get some downtime. Like most people, I guess, I just squeeze it in when I can.

What does winning your first Shirley Jackson Award mean to you?  You're also nominated for a World Fantasy Award, with some pretty stiff competition.

This is my actually my second one. My first came in the award's inaugural year, in the short story category for "The Monsters of Heaven". I lost a bunch between then and now, though, so it definitely feels good! Especially in this category, in a year when there was such an abundance of great collections of dark fiction. Aside from the ones on this ballot -- Michael Marshall Smith, Will Ludwigsen, Kit Reed, and Christopher Barzak (with whom I tied, and I was lucky to do so) -- there were outstanding books from John Langan, Caitlin R. Kiernen, Laird Barron, Lynda E. Rucker, Reggie Oliver, Mark Valentine, Karen Russell, Stephen Volk, Ramsey Campbell ... and that's just off the top of my head. It was truly an amazing year for short story collections in our field, and that Lake Monsters won is just a bit of luck.

Yeah, being up for the World Fantasy Award is kind of mind-blowing. My fingers are crossed, but that ballot is a killer: Caitlin R. Kiernan, Laird Barron, Reggie Oliver, and Rachel Swirsky. I can see anybody walking home with it. it's also up for the British Fantasy Award, which I'm really excited about. The British horror and dark fantasy scene is so exciting right now; I feel like somebody accidentally invited me to the cool kids' party. I'm happy to just sit in the corner and watch everybody circulate, and hope nobody notices that I don't belong!

Frankly, I'm just happy NALM is part of the conversation. It's already far exceeded my expectations. Anything from this point on is gravy.

What is next for you in terms of projects either on your plate or on the horizon?

Most of the stories I’m writing now are quite different from the ones in North American Lake Monsters. I want to stretch my boundaries a bit, try some new things. A lot of what’s coming is more influenced by pulp fiction and by comic books than by realism. I might lose some of my readership, but I hope most of them will come with me. I’m writing a novel set on Mars in 1930, which I hope to finish fairly soon. I've been working on a novella called “The Cannibal Priests of New England”, about which I hope to be able to announce some good news in the near future. There are two stories in Ellen Datlow anthologies which will act as lynchpins for larger works: “The Atlas of Hell” (Fearful Symmetries) and “Skullpocket” (Nightmare Carnival). Although both are pretty dark, they’re written to be fun more than anything else. I’m especially looking forward to expanding the universe of “Skullpocket”. I have a novella called “The Visible Filth” coming soon from This is Horror, and another one, as yet unwritten, due to the REMAINS imprint at Salt Publishing. And more ideas lined up, waiting their turn. There are days when it’s hard to think, because I want to write them all right now, at the same time. I’m really looking forward to it.

Thanks again for your time, Nathan, and best of luck in all of your future endeavors.  We will be watching closely.

Thanks so much, Ted!

Hands that crack walnuts, mind that cracks skulls

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

TC Review & Interview: Acclaimed Horror Author and Punktown Creator Jeffrey Thomas Scores Big with Collection WORSHIP THE NIGHT, Now Available from Dark Renaissance Books

Cover by Erin Wells

It only took me one page to fall for Jeffrey Thomas.

It was several years back, and I had just received Unholy Dimensions - which is one of the best "concept collections" that I've ever read, Lovecraftian or otherwise - via the post as a gift from the author, and after choosing to remain undeterred by the rather uninspiring cover (as an admitted art/design snob, I always judge books, in whatever small way, by their covers), I dove in excitedly, based entirely on Thomas' reputation amongst fellow writers of the dark and Mythosy.  The opening story in the collection was titled "Bones of the Old Ones," and by the time I'd finished that first page, I knew that I very much liked the way this Thomas fella put together a sentence, how he etched out a scene and drew up his characters.  How he melded crime fiction with science fiction in one story, and how he paid homage to classic Weird lit in another.  How he built his worlds and all the new and dark things that exist there.  Punktown.  Lords of the seven moons, how I swooned hard for Punktown.

Much like a woman knowing within the first five seconds of a blind date if they're ever going to disrobe with that person wiping their brow across from them, a reader often knows after that first page if they're on board with an author, or looking for the exit.  For me, with Unholy Dimensions, it was love at first sight, and that affection has only grown with each new Jeffrey Thomas story, novella, and novel I've read since then, and there have been many.

In addition to being a precise stylist who weaves in enough poetry without turning purple, Thomas is one of those Big Creators, who has carved out vast swathes of newly tamed real estate from the jungle of the abyss, with the most famous of these being the above-mentioned Punktown, the fictional frontier planet that serves as a crossroads for a menagerie of races and entities all struggling to thrive and survive in a bleak, proto-Lovecraftian universe.  And while Punktown put him on the map, and is his most recognizable brand, he's written so much more than that, including a series of stories and novels set in his version of an urbanized Hades, and dozens of other stories and books situated in more general Speculative Fiction arenas, that have been translated into numerous languages around the globe.

Thomas is an important writer of Horror Fiction, and based on his output, range, and immense talent, he deserves to be a household name in the genre, mentioned in concert with the elite writers of dark literature over the past two decades.  Maybe he already is (I don't get out to conventions much), and if so, there is some justice in the cold creative world.  I just know that writers like Thomas should be writing for a living.  Full time.  Cashing checks from Big Apple book deals that allow him a comfortable existence without the need for a distracting "day job," where each hour spent away from the keyboard is another hour ripped from the dark canon.  Thomas was put here to write books of scary stories and Cosmic Horror.  Black, unsettling stuff, and lots of it.  He can surely shoulder the burden, based on his bibliography, as well as his recent and upcoming slate of projects.  Hopefully, someday very soon, The Bigs will come calling, and Jeffrey Thomas' emergence in the shopping mall book store (do they even have those anymore) will finally come to pass.  It has to work out that way.  How can it not?  I mean, Front Shelf writers belong on that Front Shelf, in the mall or otherwise.

With that preachy preamble behind us, I can put away the soap box and move on to the topic at hand, which is Jeffrey Thomas' recent collection Worship The Night (Dark Renaissance Books, 2013).  I say "recent" and not "latest," as I requested a review of the book not too long ago, when it was Thomas' newest release, coming out on the heels of Encounters With Enoch Coffin (written in collaboration with famed Lovecraftian scribe W.H. Pugmire).  Today, as of press time, it is now his second most recent collection, as Ghosts of Punktown was released just last week.  So, you see what I mean about the whole "prolific" thing.

In Worship The Night, Thomas gives us eight substantial tales that run the dark gamut while showing his range, in terms of tone, location, and POV.  Starting with the cover image, many of the stories here seem intensely personal, revealing a candor that is refreshing in Horror Fiction, which can sometimes drape itself in a detached, Kubrickian facade while bloodlessly describing scenes of profound violence.  For what I count as the strongest stories in this collection, Thomas digs deep into his own meat and bones to reveal fresh terrors told in that clean, elegant way that marks all of Jeffrey Thomas' work

"The Lost Family" opens the assembly, and features the seraphic protagonist from his novel Fall of Hades, picking up her trail somewhere midway through that book, giving it a feel of a unearthed chapter.  Thomas' construction of the landscape (cityscape?) of Hell is incredibly interesting, and made somehow simultaneously more hopeful as well as hopeless than your usual portrayals of the Underworld.   An eternal realm of endless terrain is compressed into a claustrophobic crawl through the machinery of damnation, in a realm that is more dangerous than I thought possible.

"Counterclockwise" is the collection's sole Punktown story, and it's a dandy, centering on the bizarre mechanics of one of the many alien cults that have taken up residence on this rough and tumble planet, in this case the mysterious Groi (hmm).  A massive clock tower - "a nightmarish wedding cake of black metal, tiered layers that tapered to the huge clock face that surmounted it" - built across the street from an apartment building drives a tenant to distraction, and then to a whole lot more.  Uninitiated readers also get an introduction to the Choom, the wide-mouthed species indigenous to Oasis (nicknamed "Punktown" - a local epithet that stuck) who collaborate with the human settlers now running the megalopolis, from shipping to shopping to the police force.  Thomas' deft handling of alien races, and the unwholesome monuments they erect, is on full display in that yellowish green clock face of "Counterclockwise."  gur... gur... gur..

"The Holy Bowl" flies in the face of its often comical ruling deity, and possesses a tone that reminds me of the works of Mark Samuels or Thomas Ligotti.  Grim, mean, and hopelessly cold.  I've never read a Jeffrey Thomas story like this, and was pleasantly surprised by the vague familiarity of the setting, and the brutality that waits therein.

"In Limbo," written specifically for this collection, is the first of the outwardly personal stories in Worship The Night, which lends the work a resonant weight that is as heart rending as it is chilling.  Written during the confluence of Hurricane Sandy, Halloween, and what Thomas terms "Life itself" in 2012, "In Limbo" sets a story to which we can all relate in a setting we all recognize, and then drops that cozy, tattered quilt over the cliff into a ravine of nightmares, where the End of Everything might be just outside your door, and seeping into your home.

In "About the Author" and "The Strange Case of Crazy Joe Gallo," you can see Thomas having fun, spoofing trope-chasing while celebrating truth being stranger than fiction in the former, and playing fast and Lovecraftian loose with gangland history in the latter.  Oddly enough, I picked up The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the End of the Underworld from the library the same week as I received Worship The Night.  I haven't yet read the Gallo book, but I'm certain - much to my chagrin - that I won't find any Mythos undertones, nor homages to S. T. Joshi in the official biography of this charismatic Mafioso.

With these light interludes concluded, the plate is cleared for the two remaining stories, both of which are sizable slabs of spitting darkness that seem to build off of each other. "Children of the Dragon" takes our male American protagonist (probably not-so-coincidentally named "French") to Vietnam, a country with which Thomas is intimately acquainted.  In looking for strange, possibly mythical creatures in the haunted jungles and lakes of Southeast Asia, our cryptozoologist first falls for a local bar girl, who becomes his key to discovering hidden-in-plain-sight secrets he never dared imagine.  "Children of the Dragon" is essentially a Lovecraftian piece, set in real world locations visited by Thomas himself, doused in a patina of cosmic dread.  This, of course, grounds a darkly fantastical tale in the minutia of reality, giving it a vibe of being not only wholly possible, but most likely true.

In "The Sea of Flesh," we see the United States - specifically, Salem, Massachusetts - through the eyes of an American-born child of Vietnamese immigrants, and her struggles with identity in two worlds that don't fully embrace her.  This is a 40 page novelette, which could have been expanded out into a full-on novel with just a tad bit of padding, but thankful stays mean and lean and included as the final story in Worship The Night.  "The Sea of Flesh" is a big, layered story populated by complex, multidimensional characters that struggle with job and family, secret desires and the dangers of shared dreaming.  Especially in Salem, around Halloween, days after a rotting hulk of fleshy matter washes up into the harbor.  It's an award-worthy work of Horror Fiction, and I found myself hoping that the story would never end, partly out of a desire to stay in that bluish world of sporadic joy and crushing sadness, but also because I could see the clouds of doom building on the horizon, and wanted to keep them at bay before they could overtake the land and flatten the souls living there.  Some people deserve happiness, and never get it.  Some find it, and then have it taken from them.  Both are cruel, but the latter is the cruelest.

TC:  First of all, thank you for taking the time to sit down with The Cosmicomicon and share with all of us.  It’s a true honor to have someone of your stature and talent gracing the electronic pages of TC.

JT:  You’re too kind, Ted. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to speak about my work – you’ve been very supportive of it.

If you could, and for anyone living under a very heavy and stubborn rock the past few decades, give us a little background on your writing career.  When did you sell your first story, and how did that feel?  Has the “thrill of the sale” gone away over the years?  

Without digging through my records, I’m going to say it was a story called “The White Bat,” accepted by a small press zine called Dead of Night, in 1990. I was over the moon, because I was thirty-three at that time, and had wanted to be a published writer since I was a young boy. In a very humble way, that dream had been realized. That was the start of a long string of sales to small press zines, though that same year I also sold a story to Fangoria’s sister magazine, Gorezone. Ten years later, after having placed stories in a number of anthologies along the way, my first two books came out in rapid succession: the collections Terror Incognita (Delirium Books) and Punktown (Ministry of Whimsy Press). It’s been book after book since then, with most years seeing several published. I feel it was the critical success of Punktown that got that snowball rolling, so I have Jeff VandeerMeer to thank for publishing that book. As for the continued thrill of the sale…well, there are times when I feel a little jaded, which I think is natural, as is the fact that I’m more excited by some sales than others. Naturally, a “best of” or higher profile anthology sale is going to be greater cause for celebration. Sometimes I have to turn down requests to contribute to certain anthologies or publications, because of time constraints (I have a day job, don’t ya know). If I catch myself thinking, “Oh man, I just don’t have the time for that,” as if impatient or overwhelmed, then I need to mentally slap myself and remember the days when being published in anything was still just a dream. For an analogy, I’m reminded of when I was married to my first wife and one night she was feeling romantic, but I was playing "The Legend of Zelda," and I was like, “Come on, I’m in Level 8!” I had to stop and go, oh my God, what happened to me? You know, when you’re younger and going to bed with someone is all you aspire to. So, we need to reevaluate our perspective sometimes! Still, the years have also brought more realistic expectations about being published, and whatever it is that constitutes “fame.” I know I’ll never be famous, so that subdues the fires to a steady low burn, but knowing I have readers who come back to my work keeps those fires from going out altogether.

I think influences are fascinating, and am convinced that childhood interests follow a person for the rest of their lives. With that so clumsily proclaimed, what authors (or genres) did you read during your childhood?  What was your first brush with dark fiction and the fantastical?

I agree about those childhood influences. When I was a kid, "Planet of the Apes" was my favorite movie, and I think it sticks with me to this day…mainly, using science fiction or the fantastic as a vehicle for satire or social commentary, as I do in my far-future Punktown stories. When I was about ten, my favorite novel was Oliver Twist, and likewise I think that book inspired something that recurs in my work: the notion of a person trying to hold onto some kind of goodness at their core, to maintain their dignity, in an environment of oppressive darkness, as Oliver did as an impoverished orphan and later in the company of criminals. That theme of endeavoring to walk upright in a crushing universe is not only important to my Punktown stories, but my series of stories set in Hades, as well. As for my other childhood fiction reading, it was much more geared toward science fiction than horror, until I got into my teens and read novels like I am Legend and The Exorcist, though of course I’d always loved horror movies.

Even from a young age, did you always see yourself as someday becoming a writer?  Was this vocation preordained, or did it become unavoidable later in life?

I've wanted to be a writer since I could write at all, though it mostly started out with my own little comic books. At ten I was trying to write novels, at fourteen completed my first novel, and at fifteen submitted my first novel to a publisher. (It was rejected; as I say, it wasn’t until I was forty-three that I sold my first book.) That novel was a weird combination of "Planet of the Apes" and "A Clockwork Orange." It takes place on a planet colonized by humans, where the indigenous beings are simians. Strife exists between the humans and simians, and youth gangs comprised of either or both races are getting into all kinds of mischief. I think anyone familiar with my Punktown stories can see something larval there. But yes, maybe it was preordained that I become a writer, because the gene is strong in my family. My father was a locally published poet, my mother wrote poetry and a newspaper column, as a teen my sister wrote a newspaper column, and of course my younger brother Scott Thomas is a respected author of horror and fantasy. It was my destiny!

Unlike some contemporary writers of cosmic horror and fiction termed “Lovecraftian,” you use actual names, locations, and other bits of HPL’s work in your own, instead of dancing around it.  Was it a conscious choice to write straight-ahead Lovecraftian fiction, or did the ideas just come out that way on the page?

When I first started writing Lovecraft-inspired work, my inclination was usually to link it directly to his universe, and most of those earlier works were collected in my 2005 book Unholy Dimensions. These days I’m less inclined to name names, preferring a Lovecraftian vibe or approach in the broader sense of that term. Though it depends on the project. For the collection Encounters With Enoch Coffin, which I coauthored with W. H. Pugmire, we both made direct use of Lovecraft’s world and creations.

It might sound crass, or possibly inappropriate, but I feel compelled to mention this:  For as many years as you have been writing, the output you have shown, the creation of a brand new world of limitless possibility (Punktown), and with the quality of your work and the accolades it has received, I just can’t figure out why “Jeffrey Thomas” isn’t a household name in the more gentrified parts of Horror/Weird Fiction Town.  All that said, are you ever confused as to why it is harder for some writers to break through to that next level (a relative term) than others?  I know it’s not about skill, as Big Publishers have come calling for lesser talents.  Is it timing?  Genre?  Expertise in dark arts of convention politicking?

These things aren’t always about level of skill, you’re right. It may sound cynical or like sour grapes, but I’m certain schmoozing and politics can play a part in one’s level of success. You see it, it’s plain. Also, bombastic self-promotion has taken some writers farther than their skill level might merit. And yup, luck and timing. And then I have to squarely blame myself for not trying harder to crack the larger publishers, after suffering disappointments in the early days of my career. But I think you really hit on something when you said genre, and here is where I might really prove to be my own worst enemy. A large percentage of my output has been set in Punktown, and those stories blend the genres of science fiction and horror, not to mention crime fiction and, well, everything else but the kitchen sink. I think most of us who love science fiction movies also love horror movies, and you see horror and SF mixed freely in movies all the time (come on: "Alien"). But when it comes to reading, I don’t know, I think for most people it’s still either/or. SF purists might not care for the strong horror elements of much (though not all) of my Punktown work, while many horror readers may not feel comfortable with a futuristic, extraterrestrial setting. To me, it’s chocolate meets peanut butter, so I don’t get it. But let’s get back to the part about me not being proactive enough; that’s been a big problem for me. I’ve had three mass market novels, and for all three of them, the publisher approached me, asked me to write them something for them. Had they not done that, to this day I might not have had any books that were released by a larger publisher. I don’t know, maybe I just don’t like those long waits for the big houses to reply one way or the other. Maybe I became too comfortable on the level where I stand, and move laterally rather than reach higher. But I’m still pleased with my career, still very grateful. Again, you have to stop and remember being that guy who completed stories only to file them away in the closet, unread and unknown. I count my blessings that I have a bunch of gorgeous indie press books with my name on the cover…and yeah, those three mass market books (A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Dealers, Deadstock, and Blue War) will always be feathers in my cap.

Now that I got you in trouble, let’s change gears at bit, and get to Worship The Night.  This seems like one of your most personal collections, with stories like “In Limbo,” “Children of the Dragon,” and “The Sea of Flesh” seeming to hew very close to the reality bone.  Was this intentional, to dig so close to home?  Or was it just a matter of timing, with the stories reflecting what was going on around you at the time?

I didn’t set out to make Worship the Night a more personal kind of collection than others; it just developed that way via the law of averages, since a lot of my stories – sometimes even the most fantastical stuff, like some of the pieces in my latest, Ghosts of Punktown – draw on my personal experiences, or at least my emotional/psychological state. But however it came together, yes, Worship the Night did turn out that way as a whole. It’s a cathartic process, writing that type of story; but more importantly, it can make the work connect with the reader on a deeper level. Maybe the reader has been through the same kind of experience, or something analogous, and certainly the reader has felt those profound emotions before, experienced those fears or desires. That stuff tastes different on the page when it comes from some level of reality. You aren’t faking it. (You know how a CGI person, no matter how highly detailed, just never looks truly alive?) It’s potent raw material, but it can be tricky to make it work in a fictional presentation, where entertainment always has to be your foremost concern.

Based on its characters, plotting, themes, and execution, I find the novella “The Sea of Flesh” to be an achievement in contemporary horror fiction, and see it as a story that could have easily stretched into a novel.  Did you have any size constraints on it when you began writing it?

Only roughly was there a constraint to keep it on the shorter size as a novel. The story came about when Sea Wallace of Prime Books asked me and my brother Scott to each write a short novel inspired by a piece of artwork created by Travis Anthony Soumis, which became the cover for the finished book, The Sea of Flesh and Ash. But publication was delayed for some years, so eventually we moved the book to an emerging publisher, Terradan Press. The book hasn’t received much exposure, though, hence my decision to reprint “The Sea of Flesh” in Worship the Night. (And Scott’s short novel, The Sea of Ash, is thankfully going to be released as an ebook by Mike Davis of The Lovecraft eZine, who loved Scott’s story to death.) I’m satisfied with the length of the story, though I suppose I could have opened it up further. I think most any short story could be made larger, and a lot of novels could be much more condensed. Some novels feel bloated to me and overstay their welcome, so my own don’t typically get too bulky. My feeling is that the horror story is usually best served by the short form. In the end, unless I’m writing for an anthology with a set word limit, I like to let a story be the length it wants to be, organically.

As you have included “Counterclockwise” in Worship The Night, I want to talk Punktown a little bit, as I find it to be a very rich, varied, and often terrifying world that is an important landmark in the map of cosmic horror fiction.  How and why did you create Punktown, and what did you originally want to do with this place?  Has it lived up to its promise, and has it surprised you while constructing it, block by block, story by story?  How many more Punktown stories do you think are out there?

I came up with the whole fundamental concept of Punktown while riding with my dad somewhere, maybe home from my job, back in 1980. It just sort of burst up from wherever it was brewing in my subconscious, or my muse lagoon, or what have you. I wanted to write of this weird city – more phantasmagorical than strictly science fictional – where any kind of surreal craziness could go down, sort of like a literary Bosch painting. I think the setting has exceeded my initial expectations; it’s grown outwards and upwards over the years, like the city itself. Because all Punktown stories function independently of each other, and rarely carry over the same characters, there’s so much yet to be experienced there that I could no more tire of writing about it than another writer might tire of writing about this world.

“Children of the Dragon” first appeared in the book Geschichten aus dem Cthulhu-Mythos from Festa Verlag as a German translation.  You seem to have a healthy following in Germany (as well as Russia, Poland, and Greece) for your books, both in print and audio.  How did Punktown spread to the Old Country?

The same way I sold those three mass market books: they approached me! Thank God my publishers are more aggressive than I am. Germany’s Festa Verlag was the first publisher to do a translated edition of one of my books: a German language hardcover of Punktown, which featured artwork by H. R. Giger on the cover. Giger signed all the signature sheets, as well. Other translations came later, including a Taiwanese edition of my novel Letters From Hades. I continue to work with Festa, a great publisher, and these days my sales in Germany are stronger than my English language sales. And yes, there was even a three volume set of Punktown stories done as wonderful audio readings, by professional actors, from the company Lausch.

Is the project to turn Punktown into an RPG still in the works?

It is, though it’s unfortunately been moving more slowly than everyone had hoped. It was funded by the publisher’s Kickstarter program, which went over $4,500 beyond its $9,000 goal, but I think the delay has mainly come from transitioning the game from Miskatonic River Press to Chronicle City, who came into the picture late in the game (pardon the pun). All the text is finished, but there’s the matter of getting the interior artwork and maps created.

Tell us a little about your newest book, Ghosts of Punktown.  How has it been working with Dark Regions Press?

I actually turned Ghosts of Punktown in to Dark Regions a few years ago, but I think the delay there was again one of transition: from previous owner Joe Morey to his son Chris Morey. (I’m fond of both guys, Joe being the publisher of Worship the Night via his new imprint, Dark Renaissance Books.) Chris has been awesome to work with; he really wants to make this book something special. Ghosts of Punktown is my darkest Punktown collection, and I guess that’s saying something. It apparently left its Publishers Weekly reviewer in need of smelling salts. The violence in some of the stories all but blinded the reviewer to any other of the book’s qualities or merits. It was a case of a book ending up in the wrong reviewer’s hands. Conversely, Rue Morgue was highly favorable and didn’t mention the violence at all. That being said, it is an intense bunch of stories, and it isn’t inappropriate to feel disturbed by them.

As a huge Kris Kuksi fan, how did you score one of his works to use as the cover of Ghosts of Punktown?

I can’t recall where I found the first examples of his remarkable artwork, but when I did I went straight to check out his web site. I was so blown away that I entered something like a desperate panic – I needed this guy’s work to be on the cover of Ghosts of Punktown! I approached Joe Morey and asked him if we could request using one of Kuksi’s preexisting sculptures as our cover image. Joe said go for it, and so I approached Kuksi himself and found him to be very cool to work with. Later on, Chris Morey went back to Kuksi and asked if we could use a second image on the back cover of the deluxe lettered edition of the book. Kuksi consented, and not only that, agreed to sign all the lettered edition’s signature sheets, as well. I’m blessed to have had some of my favorite artists represented on the covers of my books: not only Giger and Kuksi, but people like Stephan Martiniere and Alan M. Clark.

I usually ask this of writers, especially ones who have been writing for more than just a few years, and who have made an impact on speculative fiction:  How has the nature, makeup, and tone of the weird/horror fiction scene changed during your tenure in the trenches?

I’ve seen a major change, from work that was influenced mainly by bestsellers like Stephen King to work inspired by more weirdly imaginative and daring authors (ironically, from further back in the literary annals) like Lovecraft, Chambers, Blackwood, and so on. I think all the talk and controversy surrounding New Weird and what it is, and if it is, was beneficial in that it stimulated more thought about weird fiction in general. And the massive anthology The Weird, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, not only furthered that conversation but helped expose current writers to a richer legacy of fantastical fiction than they were perhaps exposed to before. We’re in a new golden age of the weird tale (oops, I used “new” and “weird” in the same sentence; sue me), with people like Livia Llewellyn, Michael Cisco, and so many others delivering artistic, exhilarating, unpredictable work. Within just a couple of months I read new collections by Laird Barron, John Langan, and Nathan Ballingrud that just blew my mind. Unfortunately, the work of these brilliant authors will never reach the level of sales of King’s work, but the horror connoisseur who seeks them out will be richly rewarded.

What do you hope to see out of weird fiction going forward?  

More of what I’m seeing now…more and more of it!

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers of horror fiction, or fiction in general?

Read me to learn how it’s done. Sorry, I’m trying to be more concise as the interview draws to its close. And I need to sell books, bottom line.

Any last words, before I replace the blindfold and light up the cigarette?

Cigarette? What are you trying to do, kill me?

Thank you very much, Jeffrey, for sharing your time, energy, insights and stories with us.  We wish you only the very best, both on and off the page, and look forward to reading your work for a long, long time.

Friday, April 25, 2014

TC Publisher Interview: Neil Baker launches April Moon Books with anthology THE DARK RITES OF CTHULHU, edited by Brian Sammons, featuring 'The Half Made Thing,' now available for order


I'm pleased to announce the publication of my tale "The Half Made Thing" in the anthology The Dark Rites of Cthulhu, overseen by red-hot editorial force Brian M. Sammons, which is notable as the launch project of April Moon Books, a new speculative fiction indie press founded by writer and freshly minted publisher Neil Baker, whom I interviewed below.

In addition to the honor of joining the launch of April Moon, this is a special occasion for me personally, as not only will this be my first time working with Neil, who has been so lovely throughout and is sure to have a long career in this business, but "The Half Made Thing" also marks my first bit of published poetry as a fully functioning, semi-clearheaded adult (I don't count the snarky twaddle I published in Omaha's own groundbreaking indie mag Sound New & Arts back in college).  The story actually began as a poem/chanty, with the prose growing out of the verse.  As such, upon completion of the tale, I submitted both, as they tie together, and Brian was kind enough to accept them as a package, which now serves as the closing chapter in The Dark Rites of Cthulhu, finishing off an anthology of Lovecraftian tales dealing with themes of magic, sorcery, and dark conjuring, written by some of the premiere names working in Mythos fiction today.

So, give the interview below a read, pick up The Dark Rites of Cthulhu via either Amazon (Kindle edition going for only $2.99) or straight from the April Moon source, and hunker down with a bit of necromancy this spring.  As the days get longer, the nights become more meaningful, as all the best things happen under the cloak of darkness, or even just under the cloak.

Neil Baker, Galactic Overlord of April Moon Books

TC:  Give us a little bit of background on yourself, and on April Moon Books.  As a Writer, Editor, and now Publisher, what moved you to found your own small press?

NB:  Here’s the thing. I've always been a writer, but I've never allowed myself to write. As a modern-day Renaissance Man (i.e. work-shy fop), I've flitted from job to job; among other things I've been a prop maker, a dinosaur builder, a graphic designer, a teacher, a filmmaker and animator. I've chased a thousand mad dreams, and caught one or two, and at the core of all of my career choices has been the story. A few years ago, when I was coming down from a frenetic 4-yr production (a stop-motion short that is still on the festival circuit), I found some old stories that I had written many years ago. They were crude, but fun, and they prompted me to explore possible outlets. By chance, I saw an open call on Facebook for ‘steampunk infused Mythos fiction’, and so I wrote a tale which was influenced by Mark Gatiss’ Lucifer Box series of novels.

The Devil’s Mudpack was a romp and a half, but it didn’t make the cut. However, the editors, a couple of ne’er-do-wells named Sammons and Barrass, liked it enough to invite me to write for ‘Atomic Age Cthulhu’ – and Little Curly was accepted. In fact, one of them remarked that my story had moved him to tears. This was the kind of thing my dwindling ego needed to hear, and so I threw myself into story-writing with gusto. I got another couple of short horrors into two more books and then shortly after that my next story, The Turtle, was accepted into World War Cthulhu, and I realized that I could hold my own with the big kids. At the same time, I knew that selling a short story here or there wasn't going to keep my own kids in diapers, and so I decided to take the plunge, to invest some time and money into starting my own publishing house in order to create the kinds of books that I would love to read, while possibly making a bit of dough on the side.

How hard could it be?

I’m sure you've recently found the answer to that question.  In this vein, what are some the challenges you have faced in building your own publishing company?  Did anything surprise you?

The biggest hurdle I am facing while building my empire is me. This is a one-man show, with the occasional bit of reading done for me by good friends and a supportive wife, all of whom know a thing or two about story. Unfortunately I’m having to assume all the roles normally delegated in any given company, and you can bet your bottom dollar that ‘creative’ Neil trumps ‘business’ Neil Every Single Time.

I am never happier than when I am editing a great story, designing a book cover or sculpting a promotional gift. However, there is a sadly neglected XL spreadsheet that is crying to be updated, forms to fill in, Important Things to do, that force me to grit my teeth and get them done. This will get better as time goes on, but I still feel I have yet to hit my stride.

How did you hook up with editor Brian Sammons for The Dark Rites of Cthulhu?  Did he approach you with the project, or was it the other way around?

Ever since working with him on ‘Atomic Age’ and ‘World War’, I have enjoyed a great rapport with Brian as we gelled over movies and other shared passions. One day, I happened to remark in passing that I was thinking of starting up a publishing company. My words were like catnip to the feline Sammons, who pounced on my message board, lighting it up with an idea he had been bouncing around in his head. As the concept tumbled out via emails I made the decision to go for it, knowing full well this was a huge risk. To launch my company with a high profile anthology like this threw up many pros and cons. I knew I wanted to do this book, to create something that could sit on the shelf next to a Chaosium title or DRP novel, and I also knew that Brian had the connections to the talent required to make it happen. I knew the stories were going to be the best I could possibly hope for if I wanted to make an impact, but I was also acutely aware that I wasn't going to get all this for free. I had to make a commitment and so, after discussing it with my long-suffering better half, said yes.

What can readers expect when they crack open The Dark Rites of Cthulhu?

Firstly, I think it’s going to come as a bit of a shock to anyone unfamiliar with the authors just how exceptionally good the stories are. The contributors are all writers at the top of their game, well respected, award-winning, and best-selling. I have nothing but respect for small presses and anyone who self-publishes, but it is no secret that the quality of fiction is quite alarmingly varied. The decision to go with the sixteen authors in my book has meant that the reader will be dipping into top notch writing. It’s a benchmark I hope to maintain.

As for the content, I believe that Brian’s original concept, that of the intimate meddling of humans in the dark arts of the Mythos (as opposed to full-scale battles between mortals and Old Ones), sheds new light on Lovecraft’s creations. The acts depicted in this book are born from obsession, a dangerous thirst for knowledge and the craving of power, and it is no surprise that the people who immerse themselves in this insidious sorcery soon come undone, both mentally and physically. Not only that, but one of the stipulations for the story submissions was that the authors should steep their ideas in the lurid stylings of old Hammer films, something they have all embraced.

You just returned from the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, and by all reports, sold out your complete stock of The Dark Rites of Cthulhu.  How was attending your first festival/con as a publisher, and what was the reaction like to the anthology?

It was a tremendous experience, and I am grateful that I finally decided to go. When it was suggested to me (by DRoC author Tom Lynch) I’ll admit I balked at the potential cost of travelling to Portland from Toronto. What with the flight, accommodation and other expenses, I would tip my original marketing budget well over the edge. However, a brief email correspondence with Gwen Callahan, one of the festival organizers, convinced me that this was too good an opportunity to miss, and so I made all the necessary arrangements and hoped I hadn't dug myself a deep hole.

As it turned out, my fears were unfounded, as I sold enough books on the first day to pay for my flight, and was actually able to pack up early on the final day having sold every copy, plus promotional sculptures and t-shirts I had made. The very public launch of The Dark Rites had been a huge success and, through chatting with customers, I learned that there was indeed a thirst for Lovecraftian tales steeped in magic and sorcery. I went all out on the promotional materials, ensuring that every visitor went home with at least a postcard or magnet whether they bought a book or not. I also printed new promotional posters every morning to keep my table fresh and informative, not least being the extraordinary testimonials from Cody Goodfellow, Wilum H. Pugmire and David Conyers, all procured by Brian. Then he produced the coup-de-grace, a new testimonial from Laird Barron, which I hastily printed up and which was responsible for a clutch of sales by folks who muttered, “Well, if Laird likes it…”.

On the last day of the festival, I was delighted to announce that sales of the physical book had hit 100, likewise for the Kindle edition, all in the first week of sales. This is a fantastic start for my company and, although I am acutely aware that I have a long way to go, I am cautiously optimistic about April Moon’s chances.

As a Publisher, what advice can you give to writers seeking to place their work in anthologies such as yours, or in selling their longer works (novellas, novels)?  What is April Moon Books specifically looking for from writers/artists?

As I have previously mentioned, I want to publish books that I would enjoy. By that reasoning, it is safe to assume that my influences growing up shape my desires, and so it would be a good idea to take a good hard look at the following entities, for these are the ingredients that I like to play with: Hammer films, Dr. Who (old stuff), Star Wars and other space operas, Amicus films, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Quatermass, Fredric Brown, Pan books, 2000 AD, monsters (of any shape or size), crimson blood and heaving bosoms.

What’s next for April Moon Books?  What are the long-term plans for your company?

The promotion for The Dark Rites of Cthulhu will continue throughout the month of April, with several major stages in the works including magazine campaigns, review campaigns and paid social media advertising. Then, at the end of the month, I will resume editing duties on my second book; a new anthology under my ‘Short Sharp Shocks’ banner, AMOK! This book will be a pulpy heap of psychotic, mostly contemporary horror dealing with persons or things that go on mental and physical rampages. Such is the nature of the beast that I have a pair of ‘office worker’ stories bookending the anthology, with a few (original) zombie tales in the mix, vampires, serial killers, giant alligators and monstrous pigs. It will be shocking, amusing and, ultimately, a lot of fun. A typical April Moon book. If that title does well, then I am looking further ahead to Short Sharp Shocks Volume 2: Stomping Grounds. You can guess the theme for that one.

Then I also have a children’s book in the works that I have written, and I have just secured the talents of an illustrator who I greatly admire and who will be working remotely with me from her home in Japan. I’m very excited for this book, not least because I've forced my children into it in a fit of self-serving madness. It’s based on At the Earth’s Core, and I have a follow-up planned that is based on At the Mountains of Madness…

Lastly, I have an author in mind that I hope to tempt into writing for my company. She writes adult fantasy fiction, and I’m intrigued to see what she can conjure up for me. That will be in the form of novellas, with an option to put out a collection.

So, horror anthologies, childrens’ books and eroticism. I think I've covered the bases.

Any closing thoughts?  Sartorial advice?  Folksy homilies from the Old Country?  

I think I've waffled on enough. If anyone has had the gumption to stick with my responses, then I thank you wholeheartedly for your support and interest. No matter what the outcome, this has been a glorious adventure so far, and I am delighted to have seen my social circle evolve in the past few years. If anyone reading this hasn't written before, or for a while, I urge you to go ahead and do it. If it turns out to be rubbish, that’s fine, do it again. At the end of the day you are creating – and that’s what’s important.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


There are certain things for which you are thankful that you were around when they happened in real time.  You witnessed it firsthand.  Reached out and touched it, feeling the magic of that moment, be it brief or extended over what can be seen in hindsight as a mini era.  Jazz Age New York.  V-J Day.  The Moon Landing.  The British Invasion. Selma to Montgomery. Woodstock.  CBGB's.   Hair Metal.  British Steel.  The Fall of the Wall.  The Seattle Invasion.  POTUS #44.  These are the Big Moments that certainly felt that way to those who were there, as though one's spirit could sense the heavy blows to the back of the chisel, and hear the grinding stone chip away from the slab, leaving a permanent mark in the annals of history.

While I have lived through a few of the above, I have also missed so many, and thus I certainly thank my lucky stars that I was still kicking around this beautiful marble during the writing career of Mr. Lawrence Block.  I'll never know what it's like to get a brand new story just written from Poe or Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith, Flannery O'Connor or Ambrose Bierce, but I do know what it's like to wait for new books from the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas Ligotti, and Lawrence Block   Mr. Block, much like HST and Ligotti, is a writer apart, a Grand Master at Doing What He Does - a true icon and living legend, venerated during their time, rather than tragically afterwards.  And I've been here to see it in real time.  Lucky stars, indeed.

To call him a giant in contemporary Noir and crime literature doesn't seem up to snuff.  In the last 55 years that Mr. Block has been professionally published, he has written under a litany of pen names, producing a nearly impossible to comprehend OVER ONE HUNDRED BOOKS (novels and short story collections), which have earned him a boatload of awards with such names as Edger, Shamus, Anthony, Maltese Falcon, Nero Wolfe, and  Philip Marlowe.  Add to this the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, the Diamond Dagger for Life Achievement from the Crime Writers Association (UK), the Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award from Mystery Ink magazine, and the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer for Lifetime Achievement in the short story.  Oh, and it probably bears mentioning that he was named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers Association, and was proclaimed a Grand Maitre du Roman Noir in France, where he was twice awarded the Societe 813 trophy.  And hell, he owns a key to a city (Muncie, Indiana), which isn't something you see on the keychain of just every scribbler.

His stories and novels have been adapted for television (including on the TC favorite Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and fueled over a dozen short and feature films stretching back to the 60's.  His most recent motion picture project is "A Walk Among the Tombstones," which is a collaboration with Oscar nominated writer/director Scott Frank ("Out of Sight," "Get Shorty," "Minority Report"), who wrote the screenplay based on Block's story of the same name, which stars Liam Neeson as the famed private detective Matthew Scudder.  The original novel is #10 of Block's seventeen Scudder novels, and the second appearance of the beloved New York City PI, with the first screen appearance portrayed by Jeff Bridges in 80's potboiler "8 Million Ways To Die" (directed by 60's film trailblazer and Oscar winner Hal Ashby, with the screenplay written by some guy named Oliver Stone), a movie I saw long before I knew who Lawrence Block was, and what sort of life Matthew Scudder was having on the pages of crime fiction books. Thank heavens for living and learning.

On a personal level, ever since my wife Ives Hovanessian introduced me to Lawrence Block's writing (coincidentally through the story you have the good fortune of reading below), I have been hooked on the genre, and especially on Mr. Block's work.  For every fan of crime, detective, and mystery fiction, there was that first story, and that first writer, who dropped that dark seed of Noir into the back of one's brain, where it can grow and blossom and attach to the bricks but never wiggle free.  For me, it was Lawrence Block, after Ives read me "Like a Bone in the Throat" aloud in our living room late one Friday night.  I wasn't personally reading the words, but instead listening to the cadence of the prose, literally staring out into the corner of the room and allowing my brain to wander into the story itself, becoming a fly on the wall for what unfolded.  It was a jarring, transformative experience, as - while I have always been a dedicated reader - I had never read much, if any, Noir or crime fiction prior to that night.  Block was my first, and will most certainly be my last, as I find him to be not just my favorite writer of crime and detective fiction, but one of the greatest writers in history, and most definitely a major contributor to that distinctive, visceral brand of authorship known as American Literature.  His easy play with the language, his clean expression of character, his effortless creation of tension and atmosphere, and his extraordinary plotting (and plot twisting) make him one of the elites - not just in his genre(s), but in all fiction.  Since then, I have read any Block story I could get my hands around, including but certainly not limited to Hit and RunA Drop of the Hard Stuff, and his must-have collection of Matthew Scudder stories, The Night and the Music.

That is why I am so incredibly excited, humbled, proud, and a dozen other related adjectives to bring you a double dose of Lawrence Block here at your dear old The Cosmicomicon, through an interview conducted by Ives, and via the first ever blog  publication of Mr. Block's masterful short story "Like a Bone in the Throat" (publishing rights secured by Ives), which was initially written after Otto Penzler invited Block to pen a tale for the anthology Murder For Revenge, and which was read to me for the first time in The Best American Noir of the Century, edited by both Penzler and James Ellroy, two fellas who know a bit from Noir fiction.

I wish I could tease this story with some pithy overview, providing context while celebrating its impact as an expertly crafted piece of dark/suspense fiction, but I'm not deft enough to do so without giving away the farm.  So, I'll leave you to enjoy this substantial offering to this blog provided by one Mr. Lawrence Block, through his fiction and non.  May you have someone close by to read it to you aloud, or if reading alone, throw on some jazz and open the window to let in the sounds of street, the city, or the unquiet night, happy that you're alive to see another Big Moment as a Grand Master practices his craft in real time, conjuring new and fresh things from the darkness right before your disbelieving eyes.  Enjoy.

The Cosmicomicon Featured Interview with Lawrence Block
By Ives Hovanessian

TC:  Nurture vs. Nature is an ongoing debate in the dissection of a writer’s formative years.  Did you grow up in a home that encouraged reading and writing? Where did your love for the written word come from?

My parents were educated people and there were always books and magazines around the house.

TC:  You were nineteen when “You Can't Lose” was first published. Had you always written stories throughout your childhood, or was “You Can't Lose” one of your first attempts?

I decided when I was 15 that I would become a writer, and wrote a handful of youthful sketches and poems over the next several years.

TC:  What inspired you to first pick up the pen and enter the uncertain, murky world of fiction writing?

I had the sense that writing was something I would be able to do, and that I would find it fulfilling.

TC:  Would you say your style is an amalgam of different writers you've looked up to over the years, or do you feel you've crafted your own distinctive voice independent of your peers, either dead or alive?

Not for me to determine, is it?

TC:  Boasting over 50 novels and 100 short stories to your published credit, you are clearly one of the most prolific writers of our time. This level of output is simply astounding to me.  How do you manage to maintain a family, travel the globe and still write at the rate that you do? What's the secret?

Laziness. When I do something, I try to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible, so as to be done with it.

TC:  Your style seems so effortless and natural. I must ask if you edit your work as you're writing, or put everything down on the page first as a zero draft and then get back to it?

Most of what you see is essentially first draft.

TC: Every writer has their benchmark story; the one they feel is their best work up to date and has taken them to the next level in their career. Which of your stories or novels do you feel took you from novice to professional? More specifically, at which point in your career did you consider yourself a writer as opposed to just someone who writes?

I think I always considered myself a writer. But the first Evan Tanner book, The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep, was the first book that struck me as uniquely mine in voice and concept.

TC:  If you had to make the decision to only write for one of your famous characters, and abandon the others, who would it be? Rhodenbarr, Ehrengraf, Keller, Harrison, Tanner or Scudder?

You know, I’d hate to leave anyone out. Best to abandon them all.

TC:  Do you ever read back through your own work for pleasure? Can you get lost in them the way one would reading another author's work or are you always cognizant of the process as you're reading it?

I remember once when the late Robert B. Parker was taking questions at a conference. Someone asked which of his books was his favorite, and he said he never read them once they came out. He had seen me in the rear of rthe room, and called out, “Larry, do you ever reread your own work?” “I read nothing else,” I said.

It got a satisfying laugh. But in point of fact I don’t often look at older work.

TC:  Do you have a personal favorite of the works you have written?


TC: If you knew you’d be spending the rest of your days on a desert island, which book would you pack?

Final Exit, by Derek Humphry.

TC:  How much of your characters are based on you or people you know, and how much is culled from your imagination?

It’s almost all imagination.

TC:  Do you ever base the crimes in your prose on real crimes? If so, which ones?

Hardly ever.

TC:  You are a life-long New Yorker.  In reading “Small Town” and knowing that you were writing it when the horror of 9/11 occurred, how did the completion of this story help you deal with the enduring tragedy of that day?

I don’t know that it did. It’s just a book.

TC:  Keeping on the theme of geography, how has the city of New York influenced your writing?  Additionally, do you think New York Noir differs from that written in and about other cities, including my hometown of Los Angeles?

New York has been my home for most of my life, and I’m sure it has influenced me as a writer even as it has influenced me in other areas. I don’t know that writing set in the city are essentially different from writing set anywhere else.

TC: "When This Man Dies" is one of the most incredible stories I have ever read. I've shared it with several friends and paid close attention to the hair on their arms as I read the final sentence, and the trick never fails as it always elicits a physical reaction. You've said in the past that short stories should speak for themselves; writers, on the other hand, probably shouldn't, but if you would oblige me, what was the inspiration for this particular story?

Beats me. The idea just came to me, and I sat down and wrote it.

TC:  Pseudonyms are rather prevalent in writing. Women especially have either written under male monikers or used only their initials to hide their gender. You have also used many pseudonyms throughout your career. Can you tell us what your reasons were for doing so?

I think I must have been trying to avoid building up a following.

TC:  In your short story, "Looking For David," Horton Pollard tells Scudder, “That’s quite the nicest thing about age, perhaps the only good thing to be said for. Increasingly, one ceases to care about more and more things, particularly the opinions of others.” Does Pollard’s sentiment mirror your thoughts on writing? With each new novel or story, do you care less and less about the reception, be it from critics or readers, or is that something that never really goes away for a writer?

Via Horton Pollard, I was quoting an observation of my mother’s. And it’s true about writing, and indeed about everything else.

TC:  As an innovator, standard-bearer, and icon of the genre, how has the Noir/Crime/Suspense Fiction scene changed during your lifetime?  Is it in better shape today than it was, say, 20, 30, even 40 years ago?  If not, and if so, what has changed?

In the wake of the previous question, I’d have to say that this is one more thing I've ceased to care about.

TC:  You seem to be a writer who has done it all.  What is left out there for you?  Do you still have unresolved goals in your writing career? DI:  What projects do you have on your plate right now, and what is on deck?

The plate is clean, the deck empty.

TC:  This might sound sophomoric, but what advice do you have for the Noir writer – both beginning and pro – to keep them writing the good stuff, the kinds of stories that matter, and might make a dent in the canon?

The same advice I have for everyone. Write to please yourself.

Thank you ever so much for you time, Mr. Block.  The readers of The Cosmicomicon, and I personally, do truly appreciate your participation in this interview for the debut of our magazine.  We all wish you the very best in the coming year.



by Lawrence Block

Throughout the trial, Paul Dandridge did the same thing every day.  He wore a suit and tie, he occupied a seat toward the front of the courtroom, and his eyes, time and time again, returned to the man who had killed his sister.

He was never called upon to testify.  The facts were virtually undisputed, the evidence overwhelming.  The defendant, William Charles Croydon, had abducted Dandridge’s sister at knifepoint as she walked from the college library to her off-campus apartment.  He had taken her to an isolated and rather primitive cabin in the woods, where he had subjected her to repeated sexual assaults over a period of three days, at the conclusion of which he had caused her death  by manual strangulation.

Croydon took the stand in his own defense.  He was a handsome young man who’d spent his thirtieth birthday in a jail cell awaiting trial, and his preppy good looks had already brought him letters and photographs and even a few marriage proposals from women of all ages.  (Paul Dandridge was twenty-seven at the time.  His sister, Karen, had been twenty when she died.  The trial ended just weeks before her twenty-first birthday.)

On the stand, William Croydon claimed that he had no recollection of choking the life out of Karen Dandridge, but allowed as how he had no choice but to believe he’d done it.  According to his testimony, the young woman had willingly accompanied him to the remote cabin, and had been an enthusiastic sexual partner with a penchant for rough sex.  She had also supplied some particularly strong marijuana with hallucinogenic properties and had insisted that he smoke it with her.  At one point, after indulging heavily in the unfamiliar drug, he had lost consciousness and awakened later to find his partner beside him, dead.

His first thought, he’d told the court, was that someone had broken into the cabin while he was sleeping, had killed Karen and might return to kill him.  Accordingly he’d panicked and rushed out of there, abandoning Karen’s corpse.  Now, faced with all the evidence arrayed against him, he was compelled to believe he had somehow committed this awful crime, although he had no recollection of it whatsoever, and although it was utterly foreign to his nature.

The district attorney, prosecuting this case himself, tore Croydon apart on cross-examination.  He cited the bite marks on the victim’s breasts, the rope burns indicating prolonged restraint, the steps Croydon had taken in an attempt to conceal his presence in the cabin.  “You must be right,” Croydon would admit, with a shrug and a sad smile.  “All I can say is that I don’t remember any of it.”

The jury was eleven-to-one for conviction right from the jump, but it took six hours to make it unanimous.  Mr. Foreman, have you reached a verdict?  We have, Your Honor.  On the sole count of the indictment, murder in the first degree, how do you find?  We find the defendant, William Charles Croydon, guilty.

One woman cried out.  A couple of others sobbed.  The DA accepted congratulations.  The defense attorney put an arm around his client.  Paul Dandridge, his jaw set, looked at Croydon.

Their eyes met, and Paul Dandridge tried to read the expression in the killer’s eyes.  But he couldn't make it out.

Two weeks later, at the sentencing hearing, Paul Dandridge got to testify.

He talked about his sister, and what a wonderful person she had been.  He spoke of the brilliance of her intellect, the gentleness of her spirit, the promise of her young life.  He spoke of the effect of her death upon him.  They had lost both parents, he told the court, and Karen was all the family he’d had in the world.  And now she was gone.  In order for his sister to rest in peace, and in order for him to get on with his own life, he urged that her murderer be sentenced to death.

Croydon’s attorney argued that the case did not meet the criteria for the death penalty, that while his client possessed a criminal record he had never been charged with a crime remotely of this nature, and that the rough-sex-and-drugs defense carried a strong implication of mitigating circumstances.  Even if the jury had rejected the defense, surely the defendant ought to be spared the ultimate penalty, and justice would be best served if he were sentenced to life in prison.

The DA pushed hard for the death penalty, contending that the rough-sex defense was the cynical last-ditch stand of a remorseless killer, and that the jury had rightly seen that it was wholly without merit.  Although her killer might well have taken drugs, there was no forensic evidence to indicate that Karen Dandridge herself had been under the influence of anything other than a powerful and ruthless murderer.  Karen Dandridge needed to be avenged, he maintained, and society needed to be assured that her killer would never, ever, be able to do it again.

Paul Dandridge was looking at Croydon when the judge pronounced the sentence, hoping to see something in those cold blue eyes.  But as the words were spoken   death by lethal injection    there was nothing for Paul to see.  Croydon closed his eyes. When he opened them a moment later, there was no expression to be seen in them.

They made you fairly comfortable on Death Row.  Which was just as well, because in this state you could sit there for a long time.  A guy serving a life sentence could make parole and be out on the street in a lot less time than a guy on Death Row could run out of appeals.  In that joint alone, there were four men with more than ten years apiece on Death Row, and one who was closing in on twenty.

One of the things they’d let Billy Croydon have was a typewriter.  He’d never learned to type properly, the way they taught you in typing class, but he was writing enough these days so that he was getting  pretty good at it, just using two fingers on each hand.  He wrote letters to his lawyer, and he wrote letters to the women who wrote to him.  It wasn't too hard to keep them writing, but the trick lay in getting them to do what he wanted.  They wrote plenty of letters, but he wanted them to write really hot letters, describing in detail what they’d done with other guys in the past, and what they’d do if by some miracle they could be in his cell with him now.

They sent pictures, too, and some of them were good-looking and some of them were not.  

“That’s a great picture,” he would write back, “but I wish I had one that showed more of your physical beauty.”  It turned out to be surprisingly easy to get most of them to send increasingly revealing pictures.  Before long he had them buying Polaroid cameras with timers and posing in obedience to his elaborate instructions.  They’d do anything, the bitches, and he was sure they got off on it, too.

Today, though, he didn't feel like writing to any of them.  He rolled a sheet of paper into the typewriter and looked at it, and the image that came to him was the grim face of that hardass brother of Karen Dandridge’s.

What was his name, anyway?  Paul, wasn't it?

“Dear Paul,” he typed, and frowned for a moment in concentration.  Then he started typing again.

“Sitting here in this cell waiting for the day to come when they put a needle in my arm and flush me down God’s own toilet, I found myself thinking about your testimony in court.  I remember how you said your sister was a goodhearted girl who spent her short life bringing pleasure to everyone who knew her.

According to your testimony, knowing this helped you rejoice in her life at the same time that it made her death so hard to take.

“Well, Paul, in the interest of helping you rejoice some more, I thought I’d tell you just how much pleasure your little sister brought to me.  I've got to tell you that in all my life I never got more pleasure from anybody.

My first look at Karen brought me pleasure, just watching her walk across campus, just looking at those jiggling tits and that tight little ass and imagining the fun I was going to have with them.

“Then when I had her tied up in the back seat of the car with her mouth taped shut, I have to say she went on being a real source of pleasure.  Just looking at her in the rear-view mirror was enjoyable, and from time to time I would stop the car and lean into the back to run my hands over her body.  I don’t think she liked it much, but I enjoyed it enough for the both of us.

“Tell me something, Paul.  Did you ever fool around with Karen yourself?  I bet you did.  I can picture her when she was maybe eleven, twelve years old, with her little titties just beginning to bud out, and you’d have been seventeen or eighteen yourself, so how could you stay away from her?  She’s sleeping and you walk into her room and sit on the edge of her bed. . .”

He went on, describing the scene he imagined, and it excited him more than the pictures or letters from the women.  He stopped and thought about relieving his excitement but decided to wait.  He finished the scene as he imagined it and went on:

“Paul, old buddy, if you didn't get any of that you were missing a good thing.  I can’t tell you the pleasure I got out of your sweet little sister.  Maybe I can give you some idea by describing our first time together.”

And he did, recalling it all to mind, savoring it in his memory, reliving it as he typed it out on the page.

“I suppose you know she was no virgin,” he wrote, “but she was pretty new at it all the same.  And then when I turned her face down, well, I can tell you she’d never done that before. 

She didn't like it much, either.  I had the tape off her mouth and I swear I thought she’d wake the neighbors, even though there weren't any.  I guess it hurt her some, Paul, but that was just an example of your darling sister sacrificing everything to give pleasure to others, just like you said.  And it worked, because I had a hell of a good time.”

God, this was great.  It really brought it all back.

“Here’s the thing,” he wrote.  “The more we did it, the better it got.  You’d think I would have grown tired of her, but I didn't.  I wanted to keep on having her over and over again forever, but at the same time I felt this urgent need to finish it, because I knew that would be the best part.

“And I wasn't disappointed, Paul, because the most pleasure your sister ever gave anybody was right at the very end.  I was on top of her, buried in her to the hilt, and I had my hands wrapped around her neck.  And the ultimate pleasure came with me squeezing and looking into her eyes and squeezing harder and harder and going on looking into those eyes all the while and watching the life go right out of them.”

He was too excited now.  He had to stop and relieve himself.  Afterward he read the letter and got excited all over again.  A great letter, better than anything he could get any of his bitches to write to him, but he couldn't send it, not in a million years.

Not that it wouldn't be a pleasure to rub the brother’s nose in it.  Without the bastard’s testimony, he might have stood a good chance to beat the death sentence.  With it, he was sunk.

Still, you never knew.  Appeals would take a long time.  Maybe he could do himself a little good here.

He rolled a fresh sheet of paper in the typewriter.  Dear Mr. Dandridge, he wrote.  I’m well aware that the last thing on earth you want to read is a letter from me.  I know that in your place I would feel no different myself.  But I cannot seem to stop myself from reaching out to you.  Soon I’ll be strapped down onto a gurney and given a lethal injection.  That frightens me horribly, but I’d gladly die a thousand times over if only it would bring your sister back to life.  I may not remember killing her, but I know I must have done it, and I would give anything to undo it.  With all my heart, I wish she were alive today.

Well, that last part was true, he thought.  He wished to God she were alive, and right there in that cell with him, so that he could do her all over again, start to finish.

He went on and finished the letter, making it nothing but an apology, accepting responsibility, expressing remorse.  It wasn't a letter that sought anything, not even forgiveness, and it struck him as a good opening shot.  Probably nothing would ever come of it, but you never knew.

After he’d sent it off, he took out the first letter he’d written and read it through, relishing the feelings that coursed through him and strengthened him.  He’d keep this, maybe even add to it from time to time.  It was really great the way it brought it all back.

Paul destroyed the first letter.

He’d opened it, unaware of its source, and was a sentence or two into it before he realized what he was reading.  It was, incredibly, a letter from the man who had killed his sister.

He felt a chill. He wanted to stop reading but he couldn't stop reading.  He forced himself to stay with it all the way to the end.

The nerve of the man.  The unadulterated gall.

Expressing remorse.  Saying how sorry he was.  Not asking for anything, not trying to justify himself, not attempting to disavow responsibility.

But there had been no remorse in the blue eyes, and Paul didn't believe there was a particle of genuine remorse in the letter, either.  And what difference did it make if there was?

Karen was dead.  Remorse wouldn't bring her back.

His lawyer had told him they had nothing to worry about, they were sure to get a stay of execution.  The appeal process, always drawn out in capital cases, was in its early days. 

They’d get the stay in plenty of time, and the clock would start ticking all over again.

And it wasn't as though it got to the point where they were asking him what he wanted for a last meal.  That happened sometimes, there was a guy three cells down who’d had his last meal twice already, but it didn't get that close for Billy Croydon.  Two and a half weeks to go and the stay came through.

That was a relief, but at the same time he almost wished it had run out a little closer to the wire.  Not for his benefit, but just to keep a couple of his correspondents on the edges of their chairs.

Two of them, actually.  One was a fat girl who lived at home with her mother in Burns, Oregon, the other a sharp-jawed old maid employed as a corporate librarian in Philadelphia.  Both had displayed a remarkable willingness to pose as he specified for their Polaroid cameras, doing interesting things and showing themselves in interesting ways.  And, as the countdown had continued toward his date with death, both had proclaimed their willingness to join him in heaven.

No joy in that.  In order for them to follow him to the grave, he’d have to be in it himself, wouldn't he?  They could cop out and he’d never even know it.

Still, there was great power in knowing they’d even made the promise.  And maybe there was something here he could work with.

He went to the typewriter.  “My darling,” he wrote.  “The only thing that makes these last days bearable is the love we have for each other.  Your pictures and letters sustain me, and the knowledge that we will be together in the next world draws much of the fear out of the abyss that yawns before me.

“Soon they will strap me down and fill my veins with poison, and I will awaken in the void.  If only I could make that final journey knowing you would be waiting there for me!  My angel, do you have the courage to make the trip ahead of me?  Do you love me that much?  I can’t ask so great a sacrifice of you, and yet I am driven to ask it, because how dare I withhold from you something that is so important to me?”

He read it over, crossed out “sacrifice” and penciled in “proof of love”.  It wasn't quite right, and he’d have to work on it some more.  Could either of the bitches possibly go for it?  Could he possibly get them to do themselves for love?

And, even if they did, how would he know about it?  Some hatchet faced dame in Philly slashes her wrists in the bathtub, some fat girl hangs herself in Oregon, who’s going to know to tell him so he can get off on it?  Darling, do it in front of a video cam, and have them send me the tape.  Be a kick, but it’d never happen.

Didn't Manson get his girls to cut X’s on their foreheads?  Maybe he could get his to cut themselves a little, where it wouldn't show except in the Polaroids.  Would they do it? 

Maybe, if he worded it right.

Meanwhile, he had other fish to fry.

“Dear Paul,” he typed.  “I've never called you anything but 'Mr. Dandrige,' but I've written you so many letters, some of them just in the privacy of my mind, that I’ll permit myself this liberty.  And for all I know you throw my letters away unread.  If so, well, I’m still not sorry I've spent the time writing them.  It’s a great help to me to get my thoughts on paper in this manner.

“I suppose you already know that I got another stay of execution.  I can imagine your exasperation at the news.  Would it surprise you to know that my own reaction was much the same?  I don’t want to die, Paul, but I don’t want to live like this either, while lawyers scurry around just trying to postpone the inevitable.  Better for both of us if they’d just killed me right away.

“Though I suppose I should be grateful for this chance to make my peace, with you and with myself.  I can’t bring myself to ask for your forgiveness, and I certainly can’t summon up whatever is required for me to forgive myself, but perhaps that will come with time.  They seem to be giving me plenty of time, even if they do persist in doling it out to me bit by bit. . .”

When he found the letter, Paul Dandridge followed what had become standard practice for him.  He set it aside while he opened and tended to the rest of his mail.  Then he went into the kitchen and brewed himself a pot of coffee.  He poured a cup and sat down with it and opened the letter from Croydon.

When the second letter came he’d read it through to the end, then crumpled it in his fist.  He hadn't known whether to throw it in the garbage or burn it in the fireplace, and in the end he’d done neither.  Instead he’d carefully unfolded it and smoothed out its creases and read it again before putting it away.

Since then he’d saved all the letters.  It had been almost three years since sentence was pronounced on William Croydon, and longer than that since Karen had died at his hands.  (Literally at his hands, he thought; the hands that typed the letter and folded it into its envelope had encircled Karen’s neck and strangled her.  The very hands.)

Now Croydon was thirty-three and Paul was thirty himself, and he had been receiving letters at the approximate rate of one every two months.  This was the fifteenth, and it seemed to mark a new stage in their one-sided correspondence.  Croydon had addressed him by his first name.

“Better for both of us if they’d just killed me right away.”  Ah. but they hadn't, had they?  And they wouldn't, either.  It would drag on and on and on.  A lawyer he’d consulted had told him it would not be unrealistic to expect another ten years of delay.  For God’s sake, he’d be forty years old by the time the state got around to doing the job.

It occurred to him, not for the first time, that he and Croydon were fellow prisoners.  He was not confined to a cell and not under a sentence of death, but it struck him that his life held only the illusion of freedom.  He wouldn't really be free until Croydon’s ordeal was over. 

Until then he was confined in a prison without walls, unable to get on with his life, unable to have a life, just marking time.

He went over to his desk, took out a sheet of letterhead, uncapped a pen.  For a long moment he hesitated.  Then he sighed gently and touched pen to paper.

“Dear Croydon,” he wrote.  “I don’t know what to call you.  I can’t bear to address you by your first name or to call you ‘Mr. Croydon.’  Not that I ever expected to call you anything at all.  I guess I thought you’d be dead by now.  God knows I wished it. . .”

Once he got started, it was surprisingly easy to find the words.

An answer from Dandridge.


If he had a shot, Paul Dandridge was it.  The stays and the appeals would only carry you so far.  The chance that any court along the way would grant him a reversal and a new trial was remote at best.  His only real hope was a commutation of his death sentence to life imprisonment.

Not that he wanted to spend the rest of his life in prison.  IN a sense, you lived better on Death Row than if you were doing life in general prison population.  But in another sense the difference between a life sentence and a death sentence was, well, the difference between life and death.  If he got his sentence commuted to life, that meant the day would come when he made parole and hit the street.  They might not come right out and say that, but that was what it would amount to, especially if he worked the system right.

And Paul Dandridge was the key to getting his sentence commuted.

He remembered how the prick had testified at the presentencing hearing.  If any single thing had ensured the death sentence, it was Dandridge’s testimony.  And, if anything could swing a commutation of sentence for him, it was a change of heart on the part of Karen Dandridge’s brother.

Worth a shot.

“Dear Paul,” he typed.  “I can’t possibly tell you the sense of peace that came over me when I realized the letter I was holding was from you. . .”

Paul Dandridge, seated at his desk, uncapped his pen and wrote the day’s date at the top of a sheet of letterhead.  He paused and looked at what he had written.  It was, he realized, the fifth anniversary of his sister’s death, and he hadn't been aware of that fact until he’d inscribed the date at the top of a letter to the man who’d killed her.

Another irony, he thought.  They seemed to be infinite.

“Dear Billy,” he wrote.  “You’ll appreciate this.  It wasn't until I’d written the date on this letter that I realized its significance.  It’s been exactly five years since the day that changed both our lives forever.”

He took a breath, considered his words.  He wrote, “And I guess it’s time to acknowledge formally something I've acknowledged in my heart some time ago.  While I may never get over Karen’s death, the bitter hatred that has burned in me for so long has finally cooled. 

And so I’d like to say that you have my forgiveness in full measure.  And now I think it’s time for you to forgive yourself. . .”

It was hard to sit still.

That was something he’d had no real trouble doing since the first day the cell door closed with him inside.  You had to be able to sit still to do time, and it was never hard for him. 

Even during the several occasions when he’d been a few weeks away from an execution date, he’d never been one to pace the floor or climb the walls.

But today was the hearing.  Today the board was hearing testimony from three individuals.  One was a psychiatrist who would supply some professional arguments for commuting his sentence from death to life.  Another was his fourth-grade teacher, who would tell the board how rough he’d had it in childhood and what a good little boy he was underneath it all.  He wondered where they’d dug her up, and how she could possibly remember him.  He didn't remember her at all.

The third witness, and the only really important one, was Paul Dandridge.  Not only was her supplying the only testimony likely to carry much weight, but it was he who had spent money to locate Croydon’s fourth-grade teacher, he who had enlisted the services of the shrink.

His buddy, Paul.  A crusader, moving heaven and earth to save Billy Croydon’s life.
Just the way he’d planned it.

He paced, back and forth, back and forth, and then he stopped and retrieved from his locker the letter that had started it all.  The first letter to Paul Dandridge, the one he’d had the sense not to send.  How many times had he re-read it over the years, bringing the whole thing back into focus?

“When I turned her face down, well, I can tell you she’d never done that before.”  Jesus, no, she hadn't like it at all.  He read and remembered, warmed by the memory.

What did he have these days but his memories?  The women who’d been writing him had long since given it up.  Even the ones who’d sworn to follow him to death had lost interest during the endless round of stays and appeals.  He still had the letters and pictures they’d sent, but the pictures were unappealing, only serving to remind him what a bunch of pigs they all were, and the letters were sheer fantasy with no underpinning of reality.  They described, and none too vividly, events that had never happened and events that would never happen.  The sense of power to compel them to write those letters and pose for their pictures had faded over time.  Now they only bored him and left him faintly disgusted.

Of his own memories, only that of Karen Dandridge held any real flavor.  The other two girls, the ones he’d done before Karen, were almost impossible to recall.  They were brief encounters, impulsive, unplanned, and over almost before they’d begun.  He’d surprised one in a lonely part of the park, just pulled her skirt up and her panties down and went at her, hauling off and smacking her with a rock a couple of times when she wouldn't keep quiet.  

That shut her up, and when he finished he found out why.  She was dead.  He’d evidently cracked her skull and killed her, and he’d been thrusting away at dead meat.

Hardly a memory to stir the blood ten years later.  The second one wasn't much better, either.  He’d been about half drunk, and that had the effect of blurring the memory.  He’d snapped her neck afterward, the little bitch, and he remembered that part, but he couldn't remember what it had felt like.

One good thing.  Nobody ever found out about either of those two.  If they had, he wouldn't have a prayer at today’s hearing.

After the hearing, Paul managed to slip out before the press could catch up with him.  Two days later, however, when the governor acted on the board’s recommendation and commuted William Croydon’s sentence to life imprisonment, one persistent reporter managed to get Paul in front of a video camera.

“For a long time I wanted vengeance,” he admitted.  “I honestly believed that I could only come to terms with the loss of my sister by seeing her killer put to death.”
What changed that, the reporter wanted to know.

He stopped to consider his answer.  “The dawning realization,” he said, “that I could really only recover from Karen’s death not by seeing Billy Croydon punished but by letting go of the need to punish.  In the simplest terms, I had to forgive him.”

And could he do that?  Could he forgive the man who had brutally murdered his sister?
“Not overnight,” he said.  “It took time.  I can’t even swear I've forgiven him completely.  But I’ve come far enough in the process to realize capital punishment is not only inhumane but pointless.  Karen’s death was wrong, but Billy Croydon’s death would be another wrong, and two wrongs don’t make a right.  Now that his sentence has been lifted, I can get on with the process of complete forgiveness.”

The reporter commented that it sounded as though Paul Dandridge had gone through some sort of religious conversion experience.

“I don’t know about religion,” Paul said, looking right at the camera.  “I don’t really consider myself a religious person.  But something’s happened, something transformational in nature, and I suppose you could call it spiritual.”

With his sentence commuted, Billy Croydon drew a transfer to another penitentiary, where he was assigned a cell in general population.  After years of waiting to die he was being given a chance to create a life for himself within the prison’s walls.  He had a job in the prison laundry, he had access to the library and exercise yard.  He didn't have his freedom, but he had life.

On the sixteenth day of his new life, three hard-eyed lifers cornered him in the room where they stored the bed linen.  He’d noticed one of the men earlier, had several times caught him staring at him a few times, looking at Croydon the way you’d look at a woman.  He hadn't spotted the other two before, but they had the same look in their eyes as the one he recognized.

There wasn't a thing he could do.

They raped him, all three of them, and they weren't gentle about it, either.  He fought at first but their response to that was savage and prompt, and he gasped at the pain and quit his struggling.  He tried to disassociate himself from what was being done to him, tried to take his mind away to some private place.  That was a way old cons had of doing time, getting through the hours on end of vacant boredom.  This time it didn't really work.

They left him doubled up on the floor, warned him against saying anything to the hacks, and drove the point home with a boot to the ribs.

He managed to get back to his cell, and the following day he put in a request for a transfer to B Block, where you were locked down twenty-three hours a day.  He was used to that on Death Row, so he knew he could live with it.

So much for making a life inside the walls.  What he had to do was get out.

He still had his typewriter.  He sat down, flexed his fingers.  One of the rapists had bent his little finger back the day before, and it still hurt, but it wasn't one that he used for typing.  He took a breath and started in.

“Dear Paul. . .”

“Dear Billy,

“As always, it was good to hear from you.  I write not with news but just in the hope that I can lighten your spirits and build your resolve for the long road ahead.  Winning your freedom won’t be an easy task, but it’s my conviction that working together we can make it happen. . .

“Yours. Paul.”

“Dear Paul,

“Thanks for the books.  I missed a lot, all those years when I never opened a book.  It’s funny---my life seems so much more spacious now, even though I’m spending all but one hour a day in a dreary little cell.  But it’s like that poem that starts, ‘Stone walls do not a prison make / Nor iron bars a cage.’  (I’d have to say, though, that the stone walls and iron bars around this place make a pretty solid prison.)

“I don’t expect much from the parole board next month, but it’s a start. . .

“Dear Billy,

“I was deeply saddened by the parole board’s decision, although everything I’d heard had led me to expect nothing else.  Even though you've been locked up more than enough time to be eligible, the thinking evidently holds that Death Row time somehow counts less than regular prison time, and that the board wants to see how you do as a prisoner serving a life sentence before letting you return to the outside world.  I’m not sure I understand the logic there. . .

“I’m glad you’re taking it so well.

“Your friend, Paul.”

“Dear Paul,

“Once again, thanks for the books.  They’re a healthy cut above what’s available here.  This joint prides itself in its library, but when you say ‘Kierkegaard’ to the prison librarian he looks at you funny, and you don’t dare try him on Martin Buber.

“I shouldn't talk, because I’m having troubles of my own with both of those guys.  I haven’t got anybody else to bounce this off, so do you mind if I press you into service?  Here’s my take on Kierkegaard. . .

"Well, that’s the latest from the Jailhouse Philosopher, who is pleased to be

"Your friend, Billy.”

“Dear Billy,

"Well, once again it’s time for the annual appearance before parole  board---or the annual circus, as you call it with plenty of justification.  Last year we thought maybe the third time was the charm, and it turned out we were wrong, but maybe it’ll be different this year. . .

“Dear Paul,

“‘Maybe it’ll be different this time.’  Isn't that what Charlie Brown tells himself before he tries to kick the football?  And Lucy always snatches it away.

“Still, some of the deep thinkers I've been reading stress that hope is important even when it’s unwarranted.  And, although I’m a little scared to admit it, I have a good feeling this time.

“And if they never let me out, well, I've reached a point where I honestly don’t mind.  I've found an inner life here that’s far superior to anything I had in my years as a free man.  Between my books, my solitude, and my correspondence with you, I have a life I can live with.  Of course I’m hoping for parole, but if they snatch the football away again, it ain't gonna kill me. . .

“Dear Billy,

“. . . Just a thought, but maybe that’s the line you should take with them.  That you’d welcome parole, but you've made a life for yourself within the walls and you can stay there indefinitely if you have to.

“I don’t know, maybe that’s the wrong strategy altogether, but I think it might impress them. . .”

“Dear Paul,

“Who knows what’s likely to impress them?  On the other hand, what have I got to lose?”

Billy Croydon sat at the end of the long conference table, speaking when spoken to, uttering his replies in a low voice, giving pro forma responses to the same questions they asked him every year.  At the end they asked him, as usual, if there was anything he wanted to say.

Well, what the hell, he thought.  What did he have to lose?

“I‘m sure it won’t surprise you,” he began, “to hear that I've come before you in the hope of being granted early release.  I've had hearings before, and when I was turned down it was devastating.  Well, I may not be doing myself any good by saying this, but this time around it won’t destroy me if you decide to deny me parole.  Almost in spite of myself, I've made a life for myself within prison walls.  I've found an inner life, a life of the spirit, that’s superior to anything I had as a free man. . .”

Were they buying it?  Hard to tell.  On the other hand, since it happened to be the truth, it didn't really matter whether they bought it or not.

He pushed on to the end.  The chairman scanned the room, then looked at him and nodded shortly.

“Thank you, Mr. Croydon,” he said.  “I think that will be all for now.”

“I think I speak for all of us,” the chairman said, “when I say how much weight we attach to your appearance before this board.  We’re used to hearing the please of victims and their survivors, but almost invariably they come here to beseech us to deny parole.  You’re virtually unique, Mr. Dandridge, in appearing as the champion of the very man who. . .”

“Killed my sister,” Paul said levelly.

“Yes.  You've appeared before us on prior occasions, Mr. Dandridge, and while we were greatly impressed by your ability to forgive William Croydon and by the relationship you've forged with him, it seems to me that there’s been a change in your own sentiments.  Last year, I recall, while you pleaded on Mr. Croydon’s behalf, we sensed that you did not wholeheartedly believe he was ready to be returned to society.”

“Perhaps I had some hesitation.”

“But this year. . .”

“Billy Croydon’s a changed man.  The process of change has been completed.  I know that he’s ready to get on with his life.”

“There’s no denying the power of your testimony, especially in light of its source.”  The chairman cleared his throat.  “Thank you, Mr. Dandridge.  I think that will be all for now.”

“Well?” Paul said.  “How do you feel?”

Billy considered the question.  “Hard to say,” he said.  “Everything’s a little unreal.  Even being in a car.  Last time I was in a moving vehicle was when I got my commutation and they transferred me from the other prison.  It’s not like Rip Van Winkle, I know what everything looks like from television, cars included.  Tell the truth, I feel a little shaky.”

“I guess that’s to be expected.”

“I suppose.”  He tugged his seat belt to tighten it.  “You want to know how I feel, I feel vulnerable.  All those years I was locked down twenty-three hours out of twenty-four.  I knew what to expect, I knew I was safe.  Now I’m a free man, and it scares the crap out of me.”

“Look in the glove compartment,” Paul said.

“Jesus, Johnny Walker Black.”

“I figured you might be feeling a little anxious.  That ought to take the edge off.”

“Yeah, Dutch courage,” Billy said.  “Why Dutch, do you happen to know?  I've always wondered.”

“No idea.”

He weighed the bottle in his hand.  “Been a long time,” he said.  “Haven’t had a taste of anything since they locked me up.”

“There was nothing available in prison?”

“Oh, there was stuff.  The jungle juice cons made out of potatoes and raisins, and some good stuff that got smuggled in.  But I wasn't in population, so I didn't have access.  And anyway it seemed like more trouble than it was worth.”

“Well, you’re a free man now.  Why don’t you drink to it?  I’m driving or I’d join you.”

“Well. . .”

“Go ahead.”

“Why not?” he said, and uncapped the bottle and held it to the light.  “Pretty color, huh?  Well, here’s to freedom, huh?”  He took a long drink, shuddered at the burn of the whisky. 

“Kicks like a mule,” he said

“You’re not used to it.”

“I’m not.”  He put the cap on the bottle and had a little trouble screwing it back on.  “Hitting me hard,” he reported.  “Like I was a little kid getting his first taste of it.  Whew.”

“You’ll be all right.”

“Spinning,” Billy said, and slumped in his seat.

Paul glanced over at him, looked at him again a minute later.  Then, after checking the mirror, he pulled the car off the road and braked to a stop.

Billy was conscious for a little while before he opened his eyes.  He tried to get his bearings first.  The last thing he remembered was a wave of dizziness after the slug of Scotch hit bottom.  He was still sitting upright, but it didn't feel like a car seat, and he didn't sense any movement.  No, he was in some sort of chair, and he seemed to be tied to it.

That didn't make any sense.  A dream?  He’d had lucid dreams before and knew how real they were, how you could be in them and wonder if you were dreaming and convince yourself you weren't.  The way you broke the surface and got out of it was by opening your eyes.  You had to force yourself, had to open your real eyes and not just your eyes in the dream, but it could be done. . .There!

He was in a chair, in a room he’d never seen before, looking out a window at a view he’d never seen before.  An open field, woods behind it.

He turned his head to the left and saw a wall paneled in knotty cedar.  He turned to the right and saw Paul Dandridge, wearing boots and jeans and a plaid flannel shirt and sitting in an easy chair with a book.  He said, “Hey!” and Paul lowered the book and looked at him.

“Ah,” Paul said.  “You’re awake.”

“What’s going on?”

“What do you think?”

“There was something in the whisky.”

“There was indeed,” Paul agreed.  “You started to stir just as we made the turn off the state road.  I gave you a booster shot with a hypodermic needle.”

“I don’t remember.”

“You never felt it.  I was afraid for a minute there that I’d given you too much.  That would have been ironic, wouldn't you say?  ‘Death by lethal injection.’  The sentence carried out finally after all these years, and you wouldn't have even known it happened.”

He couldn't take it in.  “Paul,” he said, “for God’s sake, what’s it all about?”

“What’s it about?”  Paul considered his response.  “It’s about time.”


“It’s the last act of the drama.”

“Where are we?”

“A cabin in the woods.  Not the cabin.  That would be ironic, wouldn't it?”

“What do you mean?”

“If I killed you in the same cabin where you killed Karen.  Ironic, but not really feasible.  So this is a different cabin in different woods, but it will have to do.”

“You’re going to kill me?”

“Of course.”

“For God’s sake, why?”

“Because that’s how it ends, Billy.  That’s the point of the whole game.  That’s how I planned it from the beginning.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“Why is it so hard to believe?  We conned each other, Billy.  You pretended to repent and I pretended to believe you.  You pretended to reform and I pretended to be on your side.  Now we can both stop pretending.”

Billy was silent for a moment.  Then he said, “I was trying to con you at the beginning.”

“No kidding.”

“There was a point where it turned into something else, but it started out as a scam.  It was the only way I could think of to stay alive.  You saw through it?”

“Of course.”

“But you pretended to go along with it.  Why?”

“Is it that hard to figure out?”

“It doesn't make any sense.  What do you gain by it?  My death?  If you wanted me dead all you had to do was tear up my letter.  The state was all set to kill me.”

“They’d have taken forever,” Paul said bitterly.  “Delay after delay, and always the possibility of a reversal and a retrial, always the possibility of a commutation of sentence.”

“There wouldn't have been a reversal, and it took you working for me to get my sentence commuted.  There would have been delays, but there’d already been a few of them before I got around to writing to you.  It couldn't have lasted too many years longer, and it would have added up to a lot less than it has now, with all the time I spent serving life and waiting for the parole board to open the doors.  If you’d just let it go, I’d be dead and buried by now.”

“You’ll be dead soon,” Paul told him.  “And buried.  It won’t be much longer.  Your grave’s already dug.  I took care of that before I drove to the prison to pick you up.”

“They’ll come after you, Paul.  When I don’t show up for my initial appointment with my parole officer---”

“They’ll get in touch, and I’ll tell them we had a drink and shook hands and you went off on your own.  It’s not my fault if you decided to skip town and violate the terms of your parole.”
He took a breath.  He said, “Paul, don’t do this.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m begging you.  I don’t want to die.”

“Ah,” Paul said.  “That’s why.”

“What do you mean?”

“If I left it to the state,” he said, “they’d have been killing a dead man.  By the time the last appeal was denied and the last request for a stay of execution turned down, you’d have been resigned to the inevitable.  They’d strap you to a gurney and give you a shot, and it would be just like going to sleep.”

“That’s what they say.”

“But now you want to live.  You adjusted to prison, you made a life for yourself in there, and then you finally made parole, icing on the cake, and now you genuinely want to live.  You've really got a life now, Billy, and I’m going to take it away from you.”

“You’re serious about this.”

“I've never been more serious about anything.”

“You must have been planning this for years.”

“From the very beginning.”

“Jesus, it’s the most thoroughly premeditated crime in the history of the world, isn't it?  Nothing I can do about it, either.  You've got me tied tight and the chair won’t tip over.  Is there anything I can say that’ll make you change your mind?”

“Of course not.”

“That’s what I thought.”  He sighed.  “Get it over with.”

“I don’t think so.”


“This won’t be what the state hands out,” Paul Dandridge said.  “A minute ago you were begging me to let you live.  Before it’s over you’ll be begging me to kill you.”

“You’re going to torture me.”

“That’s the idea.”

“In fact you've already started, haven’t you?  This is the mental part.”

“Very perceptive of you, Billy.”

“For all the good it does me.  This is all because of what I did to your sister, isn’t it?”


“I didn't do it, you know.  It was another Billy Croydon that killed her, and I can barely remember what he was like.”

“That doesn't matter.”

“Not to you, evidently, and you’re the one calling the shots.  I’m sure Kierkegaard had something useful to say about this sort of situation, but I’m damned if I can call it to mind. 
 You knew I was conning you, huh?  Right from the jump?”

“Of course.”

“I thought it was a pretty good letter I wrote you.”

“It was a masterpiece, Billy.  But that didn't mean it wasn't easy to see through.”

“So now you dish it out and I take it,” Billy Croydon said, “until you get bored and end it, and I wind up in the grave you've already dug for me.  And that’s the end of it.  I wonder if there’s a way to turn it around.”

“Not a chance.”

“Oh, I know I’m not getting out of here alive, Paul, but there’s more than one way of turning something around.  Let’s see now.  You know, the letter you got wasn't the first one I wrote to you.”


“The past is always with you, isn't it?  I’m not the same man as the guy who killed your sister, but he’s still there inside somewhere.  Just a question of calling him up.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just talking to myself, I guess.  I was starting to tell you about that first letter.  I never sent it, you know, but I kept it.  For the longest time I held on to it and read it whenever I wanted to relive the experience.  Then it stopped working, or maybe I stopped wanting to call up the past, but whatever it was I quit reading it.  I still held on to it, and then one day I realized I didn't want to own it anymore.  So I tore it up and got rid of it.”

“That’s fascinating.”

“But I read it so many times I bet I can bring it back word for word.”  His eyes locked with Paul Dandridge’s, and his lips turned up in the slightest suggestion of a smile.  He said, “‘Dear Paul,  Sitting here in this cell waiting for the day to come when they put a needle in my arm and flush me down God’s own toilet, I found myself thinking about your testimony in court. 

I remember how you said your sister was a goodhearted girl who spent her short life bringing pleasure to everyone who knew her.  According to your testimony, knowing this helped you rejoice in her life at the same time that it made her death so hard to take.

“‘Well, Paul, in the interest of helping you rejoice some more, I thought I’d tell you just how much pleasure your little sister brought to me.  I've got to tell you that in all my life I never got more pleasure from anybody.  My first look at Karen brought me pleasure, just watching her walk across campus, just looking at those jiggling tits and that tight little ass and imagining the fun I was going to have with them.’”

“Stop it, Croydon!”

“You don’t want to miss this, Paulie.  ‘Then when I had her tied up in the back seat of the car with her mouth taped shut, I have to say she went on being a real source of pleasure.  Just looking at her in the rear-view mirror was enjoyable, and from time to time I would stop the car and lean into the back to run my hands over her body.  I don’t think she liked it much, but I enjoyed it enough for the both of us.’”

“You’re a son of a bitch.”

“And you’re an asshole.  You should have let the state put me out of everybody’s misery.  Failing that, you should have let go of the hate and sent the new William Croydon off to rejoin society.  There’s a lot more to the letter, and I remember it perfectly.”  He tilted his head, resumed quoting from memory. “‘Tell me something, Paul.  Did you ever fool around with Karen yourself?  I bet you did.  I can picture her when she was maybe eleven, twelve years old, with her little titties just beginning to bud out, and you’d have been seventeen or eighteen yourself, so how could you stay away from her?  She’s sleeping and you walk into her room and sit on the edge of her bed.’”  He grinned.  “I always liked that part.  And there’s lots more.  You enjoying your revenge, Paulie?  Is it as sweet as they say it is?”