Sunday, December 29, 2013

TC Television Review: The Top Five Episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour, by Amber Doll Diaz. Ep. 2 - 'Dear Uncle George'

A Review of “Dear Uncle George”, Alfred Hitchcock Hour
by Amber Doll Diaz

Episode title - “Dear Uncle George
Director – Joseph Newman
Series - The Alfred Hitchcock Hour
Broadcast date - May 10th 1963
Teleplay by - James Bridges, William Link, and Richard Levinson

Good evening.  It is well known to authoritative fans and casual watchers alike, that Alfred Hitchcock was a singularly  identifiable artist, in physique as well as technique and signature archetypes.  In “Dear Uncle George”, episode thirty in season one, we are afforded the treat of multiple Hitchcockian watermarks…but as has always been the case, blood is much thicker than water.

When you’re seeking a hare-footed, basic rendering of something truly Hitchcockian, be it for personal reference or for showing some noir novice a thing or two, do try consulting your “Dear Uncle George”. It may seem more efficient to break out your limited edition collector’s set for North by Northwest or Psycho, but hear me out: you have your unfettered, metallic-tongued platinum-blonde female lead, the innocent man accused of a crime, and in case you’re missing the kitchen sink, there’s even a charming duo of fairly incompetent police officers who can’t be bothered to follow up on fingerprint checking after a particularly suspicious murder has taken place. Astonishingly, all of this is well coordinated into just one finely written hour.

Meet John Chambers, advice columnist known to his many troubled and lovelorn readers under the pseudonym “Uncle George”. He resides in a swanky Art Deco-inspired penthouse on New York City’s famous Park Avenue with his sharp-witted and beautiful, full-bodied wife, Louise. Seems he’s got it made, but that’s not where our writers intended to keep him. Ironically, the man, who from the opening scene is leisurely dictating expert counsel to his secretary for his loyal fans, soon finds himself devoured by his own emotions and commits a heinous crime of passion (Well, he IS cutting up female paper dolls in that scene). Naturally, we then meet our officers of the law: Duncan, a young sergeant vying to further establish himself in the force, and Wolfson, a seasoned veteran who is just about to end his run as lieutenant.

Speaking of seasoned veterans, “Dear Uncle George” was directed by none other than Joseph Newman who produced ten episodes in total throughout Alfred Hitchcock Hour’s run. This is unquestionably an episode that was richly-conceived, having also been borne from a trio of the prolific and masterful: James Bridges, William Link, and Richard Levinson. Link and Levinson were lifelong collaborators, and creators of the well known mystery series’ Murder, She Wrote. I suppose they might have changed the ‘she’ to ‘he’ this time around.

Furthermore, “Dear Uncle George” is simply brimming with interesting nuances such as symbolism achieved mise-en-scène (a technical term meaning ‘the look of the scene’). For example, a lover’s fatal wound is inflicted with nothing less than a small statue of the god Cupid, as well as modernist paintings and abstract art are visible-even emphasized- in most shots of the apartment, featuring distorted faces, symbolizing the fact that a character is not what he or she seems. Not to mention a hot steam room in which a character’s true intentions are revealed, denoting human purification and emotional absolution, making the intimately enclosed room a confessional of sorts.

Due in part to Gene Barry’s (John Chambers) regrettably over-emotive ham acting, this installment is rich in comic relief, even if it does resort to falling back upon racial stereotypes such as a subservient Asian woman, and an Irish repairman who can’t resist a drink. Personally, I wouldn't come down too hard on such setbacks, being that production time was thin and many writers were forced to lean on such trappings. Hopefully “Dear Uncle George” does well to scratch any persistent ‘Hitch’ you might have. Here is where I end my own editorial advisory, but all I ask is that no reader approaches me seeking personal advice, lest I too meet a passionate, mysterious end.

Friday, December 27, 2013

TC Book Review & Interview: Ian Rogers Combines Two of Dark Fiction's Best-Suited Genres in Aptly Named 'SuperNOIRtural Tales'

Some things just go together.  Peanut butter and chocolate.  Lowell and Hardy.  Salt and vinegar.  Noir and the Supernatural.

As for the latter, I mean, why not?  Noir often (mostly?) centers on investigations of something unexplained, something dark and deadly.  These are the exact same concepts that anchor Supernatural Fiction.  As such, "Paranormal Investigators" have proliferated for years in various media, from television and film, to dozens and dozens of books. What sets Ian Rogers' collection SuperNOIRtural Tales (Burning Effigy Press) apart isn't the genre, but it's what he does with it, how deftly he handles it, and most importantly, where he takes it, which is to the Black Lands.

Many writers of dark fiction will entertain, but the writers who become important are the ones who CREATE, carving out that new real estate from the jungle that ends up one the permanent map.  Lovecraft did it with his limitless cosmology of amoral Elder Gods.  Jeffrey Thomas has done it with Punktown.  Ian Rogers does it with the Black Lands, which is a major development in Horror Fiction, ripe with endless possibility as a dimension of werewolves and vampires and creepy children and killer trees (yes, you read that right - and it works).  This dimension that exists parallel to our own, accessible by portals that are opening up with increasing frequency all over the world, is a surface that is just barely scratched at this point in SuperNOIRtural Tales - a title which seems a bit clumsy at first, until you read the stories, and then it starts to grow on you, as it totally fits.

The book is somewhat of a "concept collection" (think concept album, with less four chord harmonies and a lot more blood) made up of  four interconnected, consecutive tales (and a fifth that is related but stand-alone) centering on Felix Renn, a wise-cracking, world weary private investigator who falls backwards into becoming the go-to PI for any and all supernatural occurrences.  And in Rogers' contemporary Toronto, there are many, and none of them are tame.

After a glowing introduction by  Mike Carey (author of the Felix Castor novels and writer for the DC/Vertigo comic book series Lucifer, Hellblazer and The Unwritten), "Temporary Monsters" starts the collection, introducing the reader to Felix, his ex-wife/failed actress/now secretary Sandra, and the monsters that have leaked out of the Black Lands and are running amok in our world, and - in this case - have infiltrated the film and television industry in Toronto.  This is the weakest piece in the book, but also serves as the baseline for each story that comes after it, which incrementally increase in scope - and quality of writing - as if Rogers warmed to the tales as we do.  The overall effect is a raising of all stakes, a gradual elevation of tension and horror through "The Ash Angels" and "Black Eyed Kids" that comes to a head with the arrival of "The Brick," which is a major, meaty piece of writing - a beautiful, tragic, and legitimately scary story that marks the high point of the book, and a major contribution to contemporary Supernatural Fiction.

Rogers' style is a perfect fit for this sort of fiction, as his writing is clean and straight ahead, without a lot of jazz hands, while also dashing the stew with a necessary amount of sarcasm and bone dry, black humor.  But there is also a depth of character, and a firm respect for what makes both good Horror and good Crime Fiction.  Like a mellow scotch, Rogers' writing is the ideal blend of the spooky and the restrained, the shocking and the procedural, striking a balance that serves this sort of mash-up perfectly.

In the end, both Noir and the Supernatural are celebrated in SuperNOIRtural Tales, and will hopefully continue in new Felix Renn stories and novels to come.  As a fanboy of both, who loves his Reeses, I'll be waiting.

And now, please enjoy The Cosmicomicon's in-depth interview with the brainfather of the Black Lands, and the caretaker to those horrifying little Black Eyed Kids wherever they might appear...

To start off, give us a little background, for those sad few who haven’t run across your work.  How did you get into writing fiction, and what – or who - made you delve into the Dark stuff?  

I’d have to blame my mother for that one. I've always loved to read, and as a kid the books that were always lying around the house were horror novels by the likes of Stephen King and Dean Koontz. My dad didn't have much use for horror — he tended more toward Louis L’Amour and National Geographic, but I read those, too.

As someone who writes in many genres, I like to think I was influenced by both of my parents, although my love of all things horror and the supernatural comes from Mom. She didn't live to see me publish even a single short story, but I dedicated my collection Every House Is Haunted to her memory.

What writers do you regularly read?  Which authors do you think influenced you?

I read a bit of everything, which is probably why I write a bit of everything, but the authors on the horror side who influenced me most are probably Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, and Richard Matheson. They embody the type of horror and supernatural fiction that I enjoy the most, and that I write today.

On the noir/detective fiction side of things, my biggest influence would be Ross Macdonald, author of the Lew Archer novels (among others). Macdonald was one of the first writers to really explore the emotional depth of his detective and criminal characters. I’m also a big fan of Elmore Leonard, Thomas Harris, Lawrence Block (especially his Matthew Scudder books), John D. MacDonald, and the late Robert B. Parker. They've all played a part in shaping my own work.

We here at The Cosmicomicon are big Noir fans, especially the work of Lawrence Block.  Did any particular writer, or aspect of Crime and/or Noir fiction, point you in the direction of writing Supernatural Noir stories and characters?  What made you decide to combine Supernatural/Horror with Noir? 

I did know that you’re a fan of noir, which is probably why I am such a fan of The Cosmicomicon!

I've always felt that noir and horror go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Maybe it’s the element of mystery and the unknown that lies at the center of both types of fiction that makes them such a good pairing. I’ll let the scholars figure that one out. For me, I just love a good story, I don’t care what the genre is, and when I decided to start combining them, noir and horror seemed like a no-brainer.

Mike Carey
Of course, many other authors did this long before I came along, and with some truly incredible results. Blackwood’s John Silence stories are must-read material for anyone writing in this sub-genre. Same goes for Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg, and Clive Barker and his Harry D’Amour tales (although I wish he’d write more of them). I’m also a big fan of Mike Carey’s Felix Castor series.

I was already writing my own Felix Renn stories when I became aware of Mike Carey’s work. I had the chance to meet him and his wife (also an excellent author) when they were in Canada a couple of years ago. I built up the courage to ask Mike to read some of my work, and he ended up writing the introduction to my Felix Renn collection SuperNOIRtural Tales.

In terms of actual influences, I’d also cite David Goodis, who wrote some of the darkest, bleakest — which is to say best — noir fiction. He never included any supernatural elements, that I know of, but the sense of dread and miasmic doom within his body of work certainly played a part when I crafted the world of the Black Lands.

Writers tend to put a little (or sometimes quite a bit) of themselves into their protagonists, especially those who recur in several stories or books.  Where did Felix Renn come from, and how much of him is you, and what you’d like (or not like) to be?

I was actually just out for dinner with a book club who had read SuperNOIRtural Tales, and they asked me the same question. I told them they’d probably find out the answer for themselves by the end of the meal.

Strangely enough, I think they saw more of my wife (who was also at the dinner) in the character of Felix’s no-nonsense ex-wife/assistant Sandra than they saw of me in Felix.

Having said that, I think it’s safe to say that Felix’s smart-ass attitude comes from me. Speaking those kind of sharp remarks in polite society is usually a good way of getting your ass kicked, but I like to think that putting them in my Felix Renn stories keeps them from going to waste.

There are three women named Sandra in the office where I work, and they've all asked if I named Felix’s ex-wife after them. Unfortunately, I had to let them down and tell them I called her Sandra because I’m a big fan of Sandra Dee, which is why Felix calls Sandra by the nickname “Dee.” (I think if he called her Gidget she’d probably rip his lungs out.) The name Felix Renn is a nod to my favourite David Cronenberg film, Videodrome, which stars James Woods as a guy named Max Renn.

In terms of characterization, I've tried to make Felix, Sandra, and the rest as real as possible. They have flaws and quirks, all those things that make us human. I’m a firm believer that the more real you make your story, the easier it is to sell the horror and fantasy elements. It’s like lulling the reader into a state of calm and then frightening them with something that they know doesn't exist… and yet they’re scared of it anyway.

From a storytelling point of view, I’m much more interested in exploring how ordinary people are trying to live in a world where the supernatural is real. Felix is just a guy trying to make a living. He’s not a superhero. He’d strongly prefer if the supernatural didn't insinuate itself into his work, but that’s life in the world of the Black Lands.

How did you come up with the Black Lands?  As such a rich and potential-filled setting, what are your plans for this other world moving forward?  I could see it entering the wider Horror canon, and anthologies written by other writers set in this locale. 

The Black Lands is simply the darkest, scariest place I could think of, filled with every monster and every nightmare imaginable.

When I created the Black Lands, I wanted to do two things above all else. I wanted to make the supernatural as real as possible, and I wanted to make it a global threat. By which I mean, I wanted the reality of the supernatural to be an issue that everyone on the planet is forced to deal with on a daily basis.

The way I managed this was to say, Well, the Black Lands is this dimension that lies next to ours, but the only way creatures from that side can cross over is via these portals. Then I said, Okay, the portals allow the creatures from the Black Lands to dribble over instead of flooding into our world outright, but the portals can’t be closed, they’re here to stay. So even though the world governments are quick to say, Oh yes, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to ever encounter a supernatural entity, that threat is still looming over everyone’s head. Parents can’t tell their kids anymore that monsters don’t exist. Hell, they’re taught about the Black Lands in school!

These stories adhere to Arthur C. Clarke’s idea that magic is just science we don’t understand yet. I’m trying to come at ghosts and monsters from a scientific point of view, without sucking all the freaky fun out of them.

Do you have any more stories percolating that take place in or around the Black Lands?

My first non-Felix Black Lands story was recently published in the anthology Chilling Tales 2, edited by Michael Kelly. It’s called “Day Pass,” and it deals with a kind of halfway house for shapeshifters. People who have been infected by a Black Lands virus that’s basically the supernatural equivalent of rabies.

I've got a new Felix Renn story called “Eyes Like Poisoned Wells” that’s currently making the rounds.

And I’m currently working on a short story featuring Jerry Baldwin, the haunted house realtor from “The Brick.” It’s a tale of demons and exorcism called “Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Law.” Jerry’s stories tend to be a bit lighter. Not outright comedies, but less dark than the rest of my Black Lands stories. I like them because they let me explore not just another character, but another view of the world. Jerry’s outlook is very different from Felix’s. He doesn't like the way the Black Lands is intruding on our world, but he’s trying to make the most of it. Even more, he’s trying to make money out of it.

I’m not usually frightened of “spooky children,” on the page or in movies, as they just seem so… easy to drop kick.  But I have to admit that the Black Eyed Kids gave me certified chills a few times.  How did you stumble upon the BEK, and how does your take of this urban legend different from the traditional depictions?  

Of all the Black Lands stories published to date, the one I get the most feedback on is “Black-Eyed Kids.” I even managed to freak myself out writing a few of those scenes, which was how I knew I was doing something right.

I first heard about the BEKs from a friend at work. He knew I was into all things supernatural, and I believe we were talking about the TV show A Haunting, that my wife and I both enjoy (although it’s still a wonder to me why people think visits from priests or burning sage are ever going to do anything to fix their haunted house — it never works!). He had read about the Black-Eyed Kids on the Internet, which in turn prompted me to see what I could dig up online.

At that point I had published two novellas featuring Felix Renn. In the first one, “Temporary Monsters,” I established the characters and the world of the Black Lands, but I also wanted to get the traditional monsters (i.e., vampires and werewolves) out of my system. I wanted to say Yeah, those kinds of monsters are over there, but there’s all kinds of other things we’ve never seen before, that we don’t even have names for. I explored that a bit in “The Ash Angels,” with the titular entities themselves, which are kind of like ghosts, but really something else entirely. “Black-Eyed Kids” was my chance to continue that theme of introducing lesser known monsters.

One of the things I like most about the Black-Eyed Kids is that they demonstrate the evolution of the modern-day myth. The BEKs are really nothing more than an update of the old Men In Black myth (the black eyes, the sense of fear they instill) with a dash of vampires (their need to be invited into homes) thrown in for good measure. From a story-telling perspective this excited me because a number of the Black Lands stories explore how government and law enforcement agencies are attempting to deal with our world existing kitty-corner to a dimension filled supernatural nasties. When Felix ends up drawing the attention of the BEKs, it’s only natural that he seek help from a scientist at the Paranormal Intelligence Agency. I liked having the everyman perspective in Felix, as well as the bigger picture from the point view of the PIA. Probably because they’re both equally scared and lost. Not such a good deal for them, but it makes for some great fiction!

“The Brick” is a large, substantial work, and could stand alone as a novel.  Did you have any page length in mind when you began writing it?  Will Felix and the brick ever re-team in what has – to my mind – become one of the most bizarre yet effective (and even affectionate) “buddy stories” going today?  

When I first started writing “The Brick,” I thought it would be about as long as “Black-Eyed Kids,” around 25,000 words, and it ended up being twice that amount.  No complaints here. “The Brick” is my favourite Black Lands story to date (with BEKs a very close second), and I think it functions both as an entertaining story as well as a bridge to the Felix Renn novel series that I’m working on right now.

“The Brick” was the story that told me it was finally time to start the novels. If you look at the three previous novellas, you’ll see that they get bigger as you go. I guess it makes sense, but even though I’ve always known I would write Felix Renn novels, I still needed to tie things off with the shorter works. Which is why I was so glad to see them collected in SuperNOIRtural Tales.

In terms of the origin of “The Brick,” anyone who’s done any reading on parapsychology probably knows the story of Rosedale Cottage is my nod to Borley Rectory, “the most haunted house in England.” Right down to the photo of the burnt-out ruins and the floating brick. One day I just started to wonder what ever happened to that brick, and what would happen if someone put it into the foundation of their house. Happy thoughts like that.

“The Brick” also introduces Jerry Baldwin, which I enjoyed for two reasons. One, it provided Felix with a bit of a sidekick/foil. Two, it allowed me to show how someone else, in another field of business (i.e. real estate), was trying to find his place in this strange world. After all, if haunted houses exist, then someone had to sell them, right?

When Monica (my publisher at Burning Effigy Press) and I started putting together SuperNOIRtural Tales, I told her I wanted to make the book like a special-edition DVD, loaded with lots of cool extras and Easter eggs. We included author notes after each story (the book equivalent of an audio commentary track), a few teases about the Felix Renn novels, and a history of the Black Lands.

We stopped short of including deleted scenes, which I would have really liked to have seen in the book. There were some good ones in “The Brick,” including one where Felix goes to the airport, and the brick, getting up to dickens, ends up setting off the metal detector. Felix is taken aside for further screening, and the brick ends up setting off the radiation detector. Felix is arrested and strip-searched. Hilarity ensues.

I save everything I end up cutting, so maybe those scenes will pop up in some massive Black Lands omnibus someday.

What do you want to impart on your readers in your fiction?  Similarly, what are your personal goals when you sit down to write a story?

First and foremost, I hope the reader has a good time. I hope they’re entertained. It’s nice to make the reader think, to impart something deep and meaningful, but there’s no way you’re going to do that if the story sucks. You don’t see a lot of readers saying, “Oh the story was absolute crap, but the symbolism, man! The subtext!”

One of my favourite authors, Charles L. Grant, once said: “Now I have things to say in my books – but it's all below the surface, and I don't set out with a conscious theme. I just set out to tell a story. If there's anything else in there, that's cool. If the reader gets it, that's great. If the reader sees something I didn't intend, that's wonderful. But the important thing is that they get to the end of it, and they don't feel that I've cheated them.”

Louis L’Amour put it even simpler — he said he didn't care if he was remembered as a good writer, he’d rather be remembered as a good storyteller. I can get behind that, because even though opinions on prose styles may vary, people can usually agree on what makes a good story. I don’t think I’m a half bad writer — my prose is nothing too fancy, nothing to write home about (ha-ha) — but telling a story is definitely something I feel I can do.

What do you enjoy writing more, short stories or novels/long works?

Novels, definitely. I started out writing short stories, and I still write the occasional short piece, but these days my stories want to run long. Having said that, I admire the precision of the short story, where every word has to count. There are authors who are more comfortable in the short form, and I’m definitely not one of those people who feels that all short story authors must eventually go on to write novels, but for me it was definitely a process of building up the skill and the confidence to tackle longer stories.

Do you think the short story is on the wane, holding serve, or becoming more valued?  The sentiment that “the novel is king” seems to be a constant refrain in contemporary publishing.

I don’t think short stories are any more on the wane than they've ever been. Short story collections have never been big sellers. Readers seem to prefer novels. There are exceptions, writers like Clive Barker, who established their careers based on their short fiction, but they seem to be the exception that proves the rule.

I don’t know why that is. Personally, I love short stories. Maybe people simple prefer longer works, something they can really sink into, like a warm bath. Maybe it’s a holdover from school, when we had to dissect and analyze short fiction for every little piece of meaning. My wife, no fan of short fiction, has told me this is the reason she prefers novels. She took English at university and it pretty destroyed her interest in the form. She loves novels, but she’ll only read short stories that I recommend to her, and then grudgingly.

Having said that, even if short stories and collections are no bigger sellers than they were 10, 20, or 30 years ago, I do feel that the form is more valued today. There seems to be more discussion on the subject, on blogs (like this one), on message boards, on social media, etc. Maybe it’s because there are so many great collections being published today. Or because there are some really excellent magazines and e-zines putting out quality work.

I see it as Marshall McLuhan’s global village on a literary scale. A worldwide awareness and appreciation of the short story. There’s something incredibly cool about going online and reading blogs or Facebook posts about Laird Barron’s latest collection, or someone discovering Robert Aickman for the first time, or that a popular Japanese horror story has finally been translated into English. Maybe it’s because of the inherent length of the medium, but short stories seem to have thrived on the Internet.

I always like to ask successful and respected contemporary writers of Horror/Weird Fiction to give their take on the current state of Speculative Fiction.  Do you feel it is in a good place?  Why or why not?  What do you think the future of Spec Fic holds?

I don’t know about successful and respected, but as a humble reader I can say this is a very exciting time for speculative fiction. I think the Internet and e-Books and all that technological jazz have done a great job of showcasing authors whom I may never have discovered otherwise. These days I’m reading a constant flow of great stories by authors from around the globe. I also think Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s massive anthology The Weird will be the dark bible for our generation.

As for the future, I just hope that we continue to see authors bucking the trends and twisting the tropes, if not tearing them down completely. All fiction is fantasy, but authors of horror/sci-fi/fantasy are the ones doing the most interesting work, writing the most thought-provoking (and sometimes fear-inducing) stories. More of that, please!

How important of a role do you think social media plays in the fortunes of a fiction writer these days?  Do you think it is the same for writers of Dark/Supernatural Fiction as it is for those who write in more mainstream genres for bigger publishing houses?

I think social media can be a valuable tool for any writer, regardless of genre. One doesn't need to be Tweeting every five minutes or posting on their Facebook page multiple times a day to create an effective online presence. Do whatever feels natural but still allows you to get your writing done.

Author, Anti-Hero, Keene
Even though all writers can benefit from using social media, I think genre writers can probably make the most of it. Simply put: the Internet is geared toward geeks — and I mean that in the kindest way possible. I’m a geek. I love books, movies, comics, pop culture, all of it, and the best place to get a daily dose of these goodies is online. I followed the Tweets of authors like Joe Hill and William Gibson, I read blogs by John Scalzi and Brian Keene, and I chat with numerous writers on Facebook.

It can be hard to use social media to promote your work, because there’s nothing more annoying than a spamming writer. On Facebook I have to “unfriend” one every other week. But that’s the double-edged sword of the Internet, social media, and self-publishing. These things have made it that much easier for people to get their stories out, but since there’s no filter, no vetting process, a lot of garbage makes it way through, as well.

I think the key is to put yourself out there on social media on whatever personal level you’re comfortable with, and then use that platform to talk to readers and other writers, not just about your work but about everything. If you’re only out there to sell, sell, sell, no one is going to listen. Trust me on that. Writers need to use social media for more than just pimping their books. They have to see it as a way of connecting with people. Do I talk about my books on Twitter and Facebook? Of course. But I also talk about movies, music, food, and my cats.

Writers now have many non-traditional avenues to get their work out into the wider world.  In your opinion, is self publishing as legitimate as placing one’s work with a third-party publisher?

Self-publishing has come a long way, but there’s still a stigma attached to it that I feel is mostly well-deserved. The vast majority of self-published books simply aren't very good. But then what do you expect when so many of them haven’t been proofed or edited.

I’m not against self-publishing, but for me it’s a means of last resort. The reason why so many self-published books are crap is because most of the authors who choose to self-publish do so because they can’t deal with rejection, or they’re too lazy to do it the traditional way, or they see it as a get-rich-quick scheme. They’re not prepared to invest the time and energy to produce something decent. They just want to see their name in print, they want to make lots of money, and they view self-publishing as a shortcut to success.

I just read a blog that was sent to me the other day with a familiar title. It was called “Why I Self-Publish.” These are usually good for a laugh, because the author’s reasons rarely have anything do with a business plan. In this case, the author was choosing to self-publish because he was a former punk rocker, and as such he was against getting a major record deal (like all punk rockers, he said). Therefore, why should he have to deal with major publishing companies and all kinds of potential rejection when he already knew his book was great? The solution: self-publish!

I’m a firm believer that if something is easy then everyone would be doing it, and just because self-publishing is easy, it doesn't mean everyone should be doing it. Most of these people are simply looking for the quick thrill. They don’t want to have to work to get their book published. They want it to be easy and they want it now. They are instant-gratification writers pumping out the types of books that, for the most part, would never normally see the light of day, usually with good reason.

Sure, there’s the occasional self-published book that’s decent, the rare success story of someone who actually made some money from such a venture, but they are very few and far between.

Ultimately a writer should do whatever they feel is best for their career. If they feel self-publishing is their best option, then they should go for it. I may even read their book one day… but probably not. I’m sure there are good self-published books out there, but really, who has the time to dig through all the crap to find them?

Sometimes letting EVERYONE into the party means that eventually guests will arrive who have no business being there. 

Precisely. It’s a free-for-all designed for amateurs who tend to have little to no regard for any sense of standards. Self-publishing is like the reality TV of literature.

When I see one of these self-publishing pundits talking about how to boost your Amazon rating or the best way to spam people with a Facebook fan page, I can’t help but think of used-car salesmen or guys going door-to-door selling steak knives. These writers are like the Ron Popeils of publishing. And the sad part is, some of them, the ones only interested in the bottom line, probably think that’s a compliment.

My final word on the subject is, the best thing about self-publishing is that anyone can put out a book. The worst thing about self-publishing is that anyone can put out a book.

What’s next for Felix, and what’s next for Ian?

I actually just put the finishing touches on my first novel, which is not the Felix Renn novel (sorry!). It’s a very weird sci-fi comedy that I've been describing as “The X-Files” meets “Arrested Development.” It’s a story about UFOs, conspiracies, and family. I like it a lot, but I know comedy genre novels are sometimes a hard sell, so I don’t know what’s going to happen with it. I guess I’ll wait and see what my agent thinks of it first.

With that novel in the can, I’m finally ready to begin work on the Felix Renn novel (yay!). I've actually had the first three Felix books outlined and ready to go for some time. The first one is called Sycamore. My biggest challenge will be introducing Felix and the Black Lands to new readers without having to whitewash over the stories in SuperNOIRtural Tales. This is not a reboot, but since I’m hoping to do these books with a bigger publisher, and thereby reach a wider audience, I can’t assume that all of the readers will be familiar with the previous stories.

I look at the entire Black Lands series as a supernatural version of “The Wire.” Where each season of the show focused on a different aspect of life in Baltimore — from the illegal drug trade, to the docks, to city hall, etc. — each of my books will explore how different people around the globe are trying to live in the world of the Black Lands. To date we've only seen one perspective, that of a Toronto-based private investigator, but I have plans for another series, following an agent of the Paranormal Intelligence Agency, as well as other novels featuring characters from other walks of life as they try to find their way in this dark world. I've also got a few stories featuring Jerry Baldwin, my huckster of haunted houses.

Dropping a reference to “The Wire” will get you EVERYWHERE with The Cosmicomicon…

Would you ever turn in lesser work (say, in a cheesy genre that doesn't really speak to you) if it meant a big paycheck?  No one is really getting paid in Speculative Fiction, so I often wonder if the art vs. commerce debate is rarely broached in Supernatural/Weird Fiction because there really isn't much commerce available to taint the art in the first place.  

I guess it would depend on the job. I’m not such an artiste that I wouldn't consider a job offer, especially if the money allowed me the time and the opportunity to pursue work that’s closer to my heart.

Take, for example, tie-in novels. Books based on movies and TV shows and other existing properties. Some authors look down their nose at such things, but the fact is, plenty of great writers have written tie-in books, and done some pretty good ones, too.

I don’t put down any particular genre. I was on a panel a few months back at Fan Expo/Festival of Fear, and the subject of the Twilight books came up. I had the perfect opportunity to trash those books, make some clever barbs, but I didn't. I was on the panel as an author guest, and while I certainly have my own opinions regarding those books, the last thing I want to do as an author is alienate prospective readers by saying certain books — books other people may enjoy — are total crap. It’s just not my style. I don’t get off on making fun of what people read. If you enjoy it, you shouldn't be made to feel bad about it just because someone else doesn't like it. People should read what they want.

Case in point, the Twilight series. I’m a 37-year-old man. Those books weren't written for me. So by saying that I don’t like them, or to go further and make fun of them to an audience who’s come to listen to me talk, to listen to my advice on writing, and let’s face it, to advertise my work to a certain degree. Well, among those who do enjoy the Twilight books, I’m probably not going to be getting any new readers for my Felix Renn stories.

So while I would rather write Black Lands novels, if a job came along to write something that wasn't really my bag, I might do it. But if I did, I would try to do my best. Just because I may not like the genre, I don’t see that as an excuse to produce lesser work. Even if it didn't work out, at least it would be a new experience, and I may end up learning something new in the process.

Much like all the amazing music created in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990’s, do you think Canadians would write less Dark Fiction if the weather was better?

Hard to say. The weather doesn't figure much in my writing. Although my office is in the basement, which is as cold as a meat locker, even in August, and in the winter I have to work with a space heater on. I write when I’m happy, and I’m happy when I’m warm. I can see the appeal of wintering in warmer climes. John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard seemed to do all right in Florida. Maybe I’ll get a place down there one of these days.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

TC Television Review: The Top Five Episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Reviewed by Amber Diaz. Ep. 1 - 'The Paragon'

The Cosmicomicon is very proud and excited to bring you a new feature that will be unspooling right here over the next several weeks, as each Sunday night we will be publishing a new review of the five favorite episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour as selected by Dark Fiction writer and editor Ives Hovanessian, through weekly pieces written by Amber Doll Diaz.  Special thanks to both of these wonderful women for gracing The Cosmicomicon with their taste and talents.

Now then, cozy up in a dimly lit room and please enjoy the following review and full episode, and be sure to click on by each and every Sunday night (or blurry-eyed Monday morn) for another review of what is - for my money - perhaps the greatest television series devoted to Noir fiction ever broadcast.

A Review of “The Paragon”, Alfred Hitchcock Hour, by Amber Doll Diaz

Episode title - "The Paragon"
Director – Jack Smight
Series - The Alfred Hitchcock Hour
Broadcast date - February 9th, 1963
Teleplay by – Alfred Hayes
Based on - "The Salt of the Earth" by Rebecca West
First print appearance – The Harsh Voice: Four Short Novels (1935)

“Ye are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become insipid, with what shall it be salted again? It is no longer fit for anything but to be cast out and to be trodden underfoot by men.” – Matthew 5:13

Good evening. One of the most rudimentary (but relatively newfound) findings within the field of psychoanalysis is that when people or persons attempt to help the less fortunate in even the highest of altruistic senses, they are found by researchers to have been doing so with subconsciously selfish motives. Volunteer humanitarian workers studied in 2006 were found to be ultimately aiming to satisfy individual moral values, to develop their understanding of the world around them, and to increase their self-esteem as well as their sense of control. A shining example of all these scientific findings is truly the lead character in “The Paragon”, Alice Pemberton.

Portrayed by, well, the paragon of Hitchockian female stars, Joan Fontaine, Alice is a wealthy high-nosed housewife possessing all that her heart desires: beauty, a loving husband, servants tending to her home, and plenty of family members well within her toxic reach. These opportunities have afforded Alice a sense of false philanthropy with which she makes her constant rounds, advising virtually everyone around her on what they should be doing with their lives, if of course they’d like to be as fortunate as she. Unbeknownst to Alice, her deluded busy-body ways are driving her family and friends to hate and resent her, leaving her husband John (Gary Merrill) the only person with an ounce of patience left. But even her good fortune in that regard is about to run out.

“The Paragon” is based upon a short story originally titled “The Salt of the Earth” and written by a novelist considered to be one of the most excellent and refined prose authors of twentieth-century England: Rebecca West. With Alfred Hitchcock being known for his plethora of femme fatales and unwavering leading ladies, it is no surprise that the famous feminist’s work should be included in his anthology series. Ironically, Joan Fontaine, star of “The Paragon” had originally appeared in Hitchcock’s first American film entitled Rebecca. Plenty of cause for Suspicion, if you ask me.

Fontaine’s lilting charm deserves an hour all its own, as her flawlessly fluid acting in this installment is almost enough for one to overlook the predictability of it all…almost. Within this “mystery”, as I will loosely describe it, there is an overabundance of clues stridently thrown in, as well as too few moments of tension, thanks to an overly-forgiving husband whose wits’ end is stretched to the moon, and an almost comically-inclined script. Although the episode begins with a fairly foreboding premonition, not much builds upon the sequence, and ultimately, this hour-long segment would have profited from being chopped down to an Alfred Hitchcock Presents piece. The aforementioned premonition scene was certainly meant to be the zenith of the episode in terms of suspense, but it turned out to be the biggest flop of all, as I can’t imagine anyone being frightened by the silhouette of the substance from Flubber (1997) looming closer and closer in a dark room, 1960’s audience or not.

Perhaps this is the sole Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode I would only re-watch out of insomnia-desperation at the witching hour. Despite the episode’s manifest failures, a tremendous positive within was teleplay writer Alfred Hayes’ meticulously crafted dialogue. I was dazzled and fully engrossed, staying glued throughout the hour without the suspense I craved, as most characters owned a sense of eloquence and tact, despite often being exorbitantly frustrated with Alice’s incessant meddling. Heavy on filler and low on tension, dedicated fans of Hitchcock might be interested in skipping this one, but it is without a doubt a treasure for members of the Joan Fontaine fan-club, which I will be joining post-haste.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

TC Book Review: J David Osborne Carves Deep and Dark into Rural Noir with Arresting Second Novel 'Low Down Death Right Easy'

Good Noir can come from anywhere, and from anyone. I’m talking GOOD Noir, now, not some half slung hash, over-spiced with reheated Chandler cliches and goopy private eyes.

Good Noir comes from J David Osborne, possibly without even him knowing it. Because he’s such a natural, unaffected writer, he probably has no idea that his not just hard boiled, but hard scrabble stories are imbued with the essence of Noir – that life altering darkness which creeps up from the interchangeable ground to squelch even the most optimistic character or sub-plot. Some writers just write dark, married to it on a cellular level and unable to escape that particular minor key. A singer can’t change the voice that bubbles up the esophagus when the vocal chords start to hum. Writers are like that. J David Osborne is like that.

In what will someday make one hell of an NPR interview, Osborne hails from the flatlands of Norman, Oklahoma, performs hip hop, hangs with Bizarros, and pens some of the most refreshingly original and fully mature stories that I've recently read, all without yet crossing over into his third decade. I say “mature” not in that school marmish, ratings board sort of way, but as a vehicle to describe his well-formed, lived-in prose, stripped away of showy trappings of a young writer eager to show off all that dime store plumage. “Full grown,” as John Spencer once sang.

Osborne writes older than he is, meaner than he is, maybe even leaner. His style is post-Weird and rural Beat, influenced by Dirty South dubs instead of Harlem jazz, set in septic backwaters rather than humming capitals of culture. Patient minimalism is dotted by blooms of true poetry, with acres of arable subtext filling in the blanks. He brings home along with him, as the grit of Oklahoma clay country courses through his ink, tinging all that black with a measure of red. And just when you think everything more or less makes sense, here comes the slider, cutting sharp and inside, to back you off of the plate.

With his second novel, Low Down Death Right Easy (Swallowdown Press, 2013), Osborne once again reaches out into the scabrous hinterlands of landlocked nowhere to unveil an intertwined collection of reluctant dreamers and three time losers, all trying to get by while navigating the rusted out refuse of the American Dream gone rancid. His sidewalks aren't cutting through Manhattan, but just as gritty and choked with weeds, leading past convenience store ice heads and rundown bars on out to the end of town, where “suburban” means greasy double wides and ATV tracks. Strange, brutal, yet disturbingly familiar, this is the sort of story you can taste on the back of your tongue like a hangover that stretches into nightfall, and makes you appreciate every last clean and hopeful thing you have in your life.

The familiarity stems from his diverse cast of characters of varying races tight-roping that narrow rung between working class and barely working poor, and those who work all of them over. The kind of New Heartland Americans who fish for their dinner, in between trips to KFC, after shopping at the newly erected Big Box monstrosity that grew up like a sowthistle over the last bones of Local Color left in a thousand small cities doting the less cluttered parts of the map. Hovering over all this meat and posturing is a fragility that lends a sadness to the day-to-day routine, the explosive howls of violence, the slow ride in the mud caked pickup truck after another failed job interview. The right thing is right in front of you, but the wrong thing is even closer, and doesn't demand that you bend down to get it.

That spine of Low Down Death Right Easy is the vertebra of brotherhood, as we follow the sometimes interconnected lives of two sets of brothers. Everyone crosses paths in a small town, and in an Osborne story, that doesn't usually end well. In a series of short, punchy chapters that structure the book, we are introduced to the lead character Danny Ames, who is looking for his missing brother, when not dealing with his mother’s worry and the local knuckleheads at the flypaper raver club where he works muscle, which gives the IRS a distraction away from his similarly heavy fisted after-hours gig. I've told Osborne that I think Danny deserves his own line of books, a la Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder, and I meant it. Ames is that fascinating a figure - the sort of person who changes the air of a room when he walks into it, no matter how low key they are attempting to be. He’s just one of Those Guys. You can’t take your eyes off of Danny Ames, even when you can’t actually see him. The other pair of siblings are Sepp and Arlo Clancy, the latter married and the former adrift in that transitional haze of youth abutting the bleak reality of limited options and the immovable criminal justice system, who give readers a more domesticated side of this world, yet both struggle with keeping their heads screwed on straight. It’s not as easy as it sounds, as the distractions of the low road pop up everywhere. And the catfish pond is never too far away.

When I read Osborne’s writing, first introduced to me through his award winning debut novel - the gulag nightmare By The Time We Leave Here, We’ll Be Friends - I have the sneaking suspicion deep in my marrow that we’re witnessing the foundational bricks of an Important Career. Osborne would probably snicker at this, then take of sip of his warming can of beer, look off into the flat horizon, and see something that none of the rest of us ever will. Those with that sort of sight, shaded by the darkness, by that Noir that is waiting for us in even the most brightly lit corners of life, are the writers I want to read. And so I will.

J David Osborne lives in Norman, Oklahoma with his wife and dog. He is the author of the Wonderland Award-winning BY THE TIME WE LEAVE HERE, WE'LL BE FRIENDS and LOW DOWN DEATH RIGHT EASY. He is currently writing the free, online pulp serial GOD$ FARE NO BETTER, which can be found at He is also the editor of the brand-new crime fiction imprint Broken River Books, and would love to see your best stuff at

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

TC Select Publishing: "Oil of Dog," by Ambrose Bierce

In preparation for publishing something truly spectacular in the coming days (you'll definitely want to stay tuned for this), and because Weird fiction writer Edward M. Erdelac recently suggested that I read this story after a brief discussion of the greatness of dark fiction founding father Ambrose Bierce, I'm publishing "Oil of Dog" (originally published in 1911) at The Cosmicomicon.

This is a public domain story, of course, so why not?  There are SO MANY amazing tales in the public domain - including all of the works of Lovecraft, REH, CAS, Blackwood, Machen, Poe, Hodgson, Chambers, and yes, Bierce - and others have published these works for decades, so why not me?  Why not here?  WHY NOT THE COSMICOMICON?

So, I give you....

"Oil of Dog"
by Ambrose Bierce

My name is Boffer Bings. I was born of honest parents in one of the humbler walks of life, my father being a manufacturer of dog-oil and my mother having a small studio in the shadow of the village church, where she disposed of unwelcome babes. In my boyhood I was trained to habits of industry; I not only assisted my father in procuring dogs for his vats, but was frequently employed by my mother to carry away the debris of her work in the studio. In performance of this duty I sometimes had need of all my natural intelligence for all the law officers of the vicinity were opposed to my mother's business. They were not elected on an opposition ticket, and the matter had never been made a political issue; it just happened so. My father's business of making dog-oil was, naturally, less unpopular, though the owners of missing dogs sometimes regarded him with suspicion, which was reflected, to some extent, upon me. My father had, as silent partners, all the physicians of the town, who seldom wrote a prescription which did not contain what they were pleased to designate as Ol. can. It is really the most valuable medicine ever discovered. But most persons are unwilling to make personal sacrifices for the afflicted, and it was evident that many of the fattest dogs in town had been forbidden to play with me — a fact which pained my young sensibilities, and at one time came near driving me to become a pirate.

Looking back upon those days, I cannot but regret, at times, that by indirectly bringing my beloved parents to their death I was the author of misfortunes profoundly affecting my future.

One evening while passing my father's oil factory with the body of a foundling from my mother's studio I saw a constable who seemed to be closely watching my movements. Young as I was, I had learned that a constable's acts, of whatever apparent character, are prompted by the most reprehensible motives, and I avoided him by dodging into the oilery by a side door which happened to stand ajar. I locked it at once and was alone with my dead. My father had retired for the night. The only light in the place came from the furnace, which glowed a deep, rich crimson under one of the vats, casting ruddy reflections on the walls. Within the cauldron the oil still rolled in indolent ebullition, occasionally pushing to the surface a piece of dog. Seating myself to wait for the constable to go away, I held the naked body of the foundling in my lap and tenderly stroked its short, silken hair. Ah, how beautiful it was! Even at that early age I was passionately fond of children, and as I looked upon this cherub I could almost find it in my heart to wish that the small, red wound upon its breast—the work of my dear mother—had not been mortal.

It had been my custom to throw the babes into the river which nature had thoughtfully provided for the purpose, but that night I did not dare to leave the oilery for fear of the constable. "After all," I said to myself, "it cannot greatly matter if I put it into this cauldron. My father will never know the bones from those of a puppy, and the few deaths which may result from administering another kind of oil for the incomparable ol. can. are not important in a population which increases so rapidly." In short, I took the first step in crime and brought myself untold sorrow by casting the babe into the cauldron.

The next day, somewhat to my surprise, my father, rubbing his hands with satisfaction, informed me and my mother that he had obtained the finest quality of oil that was ever seen; that the physicians to whom he had shown samples had so pronounced it. He added that he had no knowledge as to how the result was obtained; the dogs had been treated in all respects as usual, and were of an ordinary breed. I deemed it my duty to explain—which I did, though palsied would have been my tongue if I could have foreseen the consequences. Bewailing their previous ignorance of the advantages of combining their industries, my parents at once took measures to repair the error. My mother removed her studio to a wing of the factory building and my duties in connection with the business ceased; I was no longer required to dispose of the bodies of the small superfluous, and there was no need of alluring dogs to their doom, for my father discarded them altogether, though they still had an honorable place in the name of the oil. So suddenly thrown into idleness, I might naturally have been expected to become vicious and dissolute, but I did not. The holy influence of my dear mother was ever about me to protect me from the temptations which beset youth, and my father was a deacon in a church. Alas, that through my fault these estimable persons should have come to so bad an end!

Finding a double profit in her business, my mother now devoted herself to it with a new assiduity. She removed not only superfluous and unwelcome babes to order, but went out into the highways and byways, gathering in children of a larger growth, and even such adults as she could entice to the oilery. My father, too, enamored of the superior quality of oil produced, purveyed for his vats with diligence and zeal. The conversion of their neighbors into dog-oil became, in short, the one passion of their lives—an absorbing and overwhelming greed took possession of their souls and served them in place of a hope in Heaven—by which, also, they were inspired.

So enterprising had they now become that a public meeting was held and resolutions passed severely censuring them. It was intimated by the chairman that any further raids upon the population would be met in a spirit of hostility. My poor parents left the meeting broken-hearted, desperate and, I believe, not altogether sane. Anyhow, I deemed it prudent not to enter the oilery with them that night, but slept outside in a stable.

At about midnight some mysterious impulse caused me to rise and peer through a window into the furnace-room, where I knew my father now slept. The fires were burning as brightly as if the following day's harvest had been expected to be abundant. One of the large cauldrons was slowly "walloping" with a mysterious appearance of self-restraint, as if it bided its time to put forth its full energy. My father was not in bed; he had risen in his night clothes and was preparing a noose in a strong cord. From the looks which he cast at the door of my mother's bedroom I knew too well the purpose that he had in mind. Speechless and motionless with terror, I could do nothing in prevention or warning. Suddenly the door of my mother's apartment was opened, noiselessly, and the two confronted each other, both apparently surprised. The lady, also, was in her night clothes, and she held in her right hand the tool of her trade, a long, narrow-bladed dagger.

She, too, had been unable to deny herself the last profit which the unfriendly action of the citizens and my absence had left her. For one instant they looked into each other's blazing eyes and then sprang together with indescribable fury. Round and round, the room they struggled, the man cursing, the woman shrieking, both fighting like demons—she to strike him with the dagger, he to strangle her with his great bare hands. I know not how long I had the unhappiness to observe this disagreeable instance of domestic infelicity, but at last, after a more than usually vigorous struggle, the combatants suddenly moved apart.

My father's breast and my mother's weapon showed evidences of contact. For another instant they glared at each other in the most unamiable way; then my poor, wounded father, feeling the hand of death upon him, leaped forward, unmindful of resistance, grasped my dear mother in his arms, dragged her to the side of the boiling cauldron, collected all his failing energies, and sprang in with her! In a moment, both had disappeared and were adding their oil to that of the committee of citizens who had called the day before with an invitation to the public meeting.

Convinced that these unhappy events closed to me every avenue to an honorable career in that town, I removed to the famous city of Otumwee, where these memoirs are written with a heart full of remorse for a heedless act entailing so dismal a commercial disaster.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Publishing News: Short Story 'Beer & Worms' Selected for Best of The Horror Society 2013 Anthology, Now Available For Order Worldwide

Happy Tuesday to you, Weirdos, as we are now under tens days to go until the greatness of All Hallows Eve.  While I have you here, I'd like to take a moment to announce that my story "Beer & Worms" is now available in The Best of the Horror Society 2013 anthology, which went on sale October 15th, as unveiled by anthology editor Carson Buckingham and The Horror Society founder Scott Goriscak.

"Beer & Worms" is notable to probably no one else but me in that a) the title has been in my head since my early 20's (so, approximately 87 years ago), when I passed a hand painted bait shop sign out on the southwest Omaha hinterlands advertising this tantalizing combo nearly every night for several years; and b) it's my first piece completed for publication that moves away from the supernatural, sniffs nothing resembling the cosmic, and embraces a bit o' Noir (albeit in a very non-traditional Noir setting).  I call it "Cornfield Noir," and look forward to exploring similar stories in the coming days.  I hope this isn't giving too much away about the story.  It certainly might be, but regardless, I really enjoyed telling a dark tale that didn't rely on the crutch of the fantastical, which can always be conveniently utilized to get a writer out of a jam, or to artificially sweeten a plot that has more holes in it than the periwinkle mesh shirt my brother wore to the Motley Crue concert back in '86 (Theatre of Pain Tour, natch).

Here is the book description taken from the official CreateSpace (an offshoot of Amazon) ordering website:

A central coast trip that leads to devastating consequences for wine collectors. An adjoining hotel room that isn't what it seems. A long bus trip with a stopover in an eerie little town. You'll visit these places and more in this volume. Or how about the old woman with the strange plant? Or the odd little boy selling lemonade? Perhaps the sideshow lady who just smells so good? You'll meet them all at the turn of a page and they will remain with you long after the book is closed. The Best of the Horror Society 2013 is an anthology of the weird, the wonderful, and the downright wicked. Within you will discover not only the best of emerging horror writers but seasoned pros whose names you will no doubt recognize as well. So turn out the lights, pull up a chair beside the nearest roaring fireplace and enjoy the ride.

Please note the complete ToC below:

FORWORD - Scott M. Goriscak
INTRODUCTION - Carson Buckingham
CEREMONY - William F. Nolan
THE MASK - Lisamarie Lamb
LEMMINAID - Carson Buckingham
VICTIMIZED - Richard Thomas
THE PROCEDURE - Doug Lamoreux
MADELEINE - Julianne Snow
IT HAS TEETH - Christian A. Larsen
MASQUERADE - Dave Jeffery
BLACK BIRD - Rose Blackthorn
ADJOINING ROOMS - Scott M. Goriscak
THE CLOWN - Henry Snider
MOVING DAY - Mark Onspaugh
ELLEN - Lee Pletzers
DADDY - Aaron Warwick Dries
SOFT LIKE HER - Charles Colyott
VENUS - L.L. Soares
BEER & WORMS - T.E. Grau
BLACK MARY - Mercedes M. Yardley
WEIRD - Dean M. Drinkel
HOTTIES - Mort Castle

As you can see, this is a vast and varied line-up (28 STORIES!), and I'm pleased as pickled beets to be included in this anthology, sponsored by the nascent The Horror Society, which is a rapidly expanding collective of individuals who work in and support the Horror industry, from fiction to film to comics to fine art.

(my Horror Society profile featuring a seemingly cornball "pondering writer" pic - taken at a very non-cornball moment while Ivy and I were dining in Pike Place Market in Seattle - can be found here)

Please click on THIS LINK to order up 380 pages of the best Horror fiction written by some of the finest authors working in the genre today, and swing by The Horror Society on Facebook to join up.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

TC Book Review & Interview: Bestselling Crime and Horror Fiction Author Michael Marshall Smith Returns to Speculative Roots with New Collection 'Everything You Need' from Earthling Publications

Cover Art by Vincent Chong

Not every author pounding the keys these days regularly receives accolades from the likes of Neil Gaiman and Graham Joyce, and fewer still have experienced major market success in dark fiction under two pen names that are remarkably similar, dropped surname or not.  But Horror writer Michael Marshall Smith (who writes as Michael Marshall for his Crime novels) isn't just any author.  He’s that rare breed of Bestseller who can hopscotch back and forth over often stubborn dividing lines in contemporary genre literature with the ease of playground children, collecting accolades every time his soles touch the ground.

After experiencing global success with his most recent crime novel, Killer Move (with his next, We Are Here, currently available in the UK, arriving stateside in 2014), Michael Marshall throws on the careworn Smith rucksack and burrows down into his Horror roots with the collection Everything You Need, published just last week by Paul Miller’s award-winning specialty press Earthling Publications.  Smith, who got his early start in radio comedy writing and performing for the BBC, moved into penning Horror in the early 1990’s, selling the first short piece he ever wrote, "The Man Who Drew Cats," which earned him a 1991 British Fantasy Award for Short Fiction in his debut outing.  Not a bad way to start a career, which only ascended from there, taking in numerous other honors (including four more British Fantasy Awards, an August Derleth Award, and a Phillip K. Dick Award) and critical accolades until the present day.

Which brings us to Everything You Need

This is a rich and varied collection, not just spanning genres, but breaking them in twos and threes, and sometimes committing the cardinal sin of not adhering to any at all.   The stories on the whole are dark and fantastical, often subtle, intensely thoughtful, even playful, with one piece embracing an interesting exercise in meta fiction.  In these eighteen well-crafted tales, Smith seems to work out all the demons that have been collecting in the basement, bringing to bear a muscled arm steeled by decades of writing acclaimed Speculative and Crime Fiction, further seasoned by fatherhood, marriage, and a move from the Old World to the New.  A knowing yet still refreshingly curious wisdom infuses these stories, making them at once relateable while simultaneously intensely innovative, drawing on themes and unsettling situations not easily mined by those who haven’t lived the way Smith has, done what he has done, seen what he has seen, either with his eyes open or closed.

As my reading time has been so limited lately, I worked through this collection slowly, taking it with me to various locations, reading in the morning, at lunch, and in the wee hours.  I can remember specific weeks, even months, based on certain stories read during those times.  We lived together for a bit, this collection and I, and when I was finished, it felt as if I had been through Something, emerging out the other end somehow altered, containing new, often unwholesome truths.  I had circumnavigated a queer but vaguely recognizable globe, taking in a vast array of heady sights, sounds, and disquieting sensations not commonly found in my own backyard… unless I did a little vigorous digging.  That’s a special kind of writing, able to replicate the familiar tinged with the profoundly alien and infinitely ominous.  This is the stuff of Michael Marshall Smith.

It is difficult to find a weak link in this group of three times six, and many of the stories are quite exceptional, stacking up against anything written today.  The book opens with "This Is Now," one of the best pieces in the collection in terms of creating pure dread based on weaving something unexplainable into the worn cloth of the commonplace.  Based on the interesting (and wonderfully illuminating) story notes included at the end of the book, my mind drew jittery conclusions about what was happening that didn't quite match up with what the author intended, which I'm sure would please him greatly.  "Unbelief" dips into Smith's reservoir of Crime, while "Walking Wounded" deals with a recurring theme of relationship issues, wrung through the author's unforgiving meat grinder.  "The Seventeenth Kind" shows Smith's humorous (spelled "humourous," I reckon) side with a creative, madcap satire of QVC, followed by a glimpse into another three letter world (OCD) via "A Place For Everything."

The next three stories - "The Last Barbecue," "The Stuff That Goes On In Their Heads," and "Unnoticed" - represent an incredibly powerful trio that gets to the meat of the collection, with the latter story vying for best of show.  "The Last Barbecue," paired together with "The Things He Said," share a similar foundational Horror subgenre that I (and pretty much everyone else these days) really enjoy, but which I won't spoil here.  Needless to say, they are two pieces bringing a refreshing melancholy to a trope easily buried under mounds of moldering flesh.  "The Stuff That Goes On In Their Heads" intensely resonated with me as a father, with a concluding stanza that is as devastating as it was unexpected.  "Unnoticed" just hums with Big W Weird, reading like a slow burn Ligottian headtrip, set in Smith's new home of Santa Cruz, California.  Creating unsettling situations without relying upon immediate threats, instead trusting the atmosphere and mood, is a very difficult thing to pull off successfully, but MMS knocks it out of the park.

The pace of textured storytelling continues unabated with "The Good Listener," which busts out of any confining genre, and stands proud as an ode to that peculiar distance that grows between most fathers and their ever-questing sons, who are so often forced to find out who their dad really was only after the old man is gone.  "Different Now" treads familiar Smithian ground of choices made and the looming specter of regret, becoming horrifyingly tangible in the form of labyrinthine London topography.  A very powerful piece that made me physically uncomfortable.  Set in a similar postal code is "Substitutions," which brings a "what if?" element to something as superficially mundane as home grocery delivery.

"Author of the Death" shows that the creation undertaken by writers doesn't necessarily stop when the computer is shut off or the manuscript goes to print, and playing God on the page isn't without residual consequence.  "Sad, Dark Thing" - the three word phrase suggested by noted editor and Smith's long time friend Stephen Jones - was the first story written by MMS about his new home in northern California, and it reads like he's been living there his whole life, exploring those dusty, forgotten roads between towering trees, unfortunately finding out where they eventually lead.  An honestly spooky story, which deftly gets to the marrow of good and classic Horror.

"What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night" garnered the British Fantasy Award in 2011, and it's easy to see why.  This is a bleak, terrifying tale, arresting in its originality (and simplicity), which once again draws from primal terrors born of a) a fear of the dark, and b) keeping safe one's family.  This story stayed with me long after I read it, and pops up often when waking up during the darkest, quietest times of the night.

The penultimate tale, "The Woodcutter," reads like an instant classic (or modern fairy tale?), and could anchor a much larger piece, set in the universe that this story creates.  It is interesting that the protagonist is a street magician working his trade in London, while the story itself was the very first started and completed from Smith's new home in the United States.  Sometimes it is easier to see a place half a world away, when the wider canopy fades into the ether, and the details never before noticed begin to emerge in the mind's eye.  The collection closes with the title piece, that again mines the subtle Weird, and leaves the reader walking away a bit dazed, totally impressed, and also a bit hopeful.  Again, another rarity in speculative fiction.

Overall, Everything You Need is aptly (knowingly?) titled, as the collection does indeed have it all for any fan of cerebral dark fiction.  Michael Marshall Smith proves that you certainly can go home again, and do so as a conquering hero returned, as long as that home contains a healthy amount of unnatural shadows and things that just... don't... quite... fit..

I sent smoke signals up the great Pacific Coast Etherway, and Michael was lovely enough to check the skies and make a return fire of his own.  Please enjoy my conversation with this veteran writer, global traveler, and cross-genre celebrant who shows us all that tunnel vision in one's writing career can cut off so many unexpected vistas that are howling to be seen.

When writers write about writers (meaning, themselves), they all look like MMS in their heads.

First of all, thank you, Michael, for taking time to sit down across from this virtual, yet no less chipped Formica table to chat with The Cosmicomicon.  With the recent release of your anticipated collection Everything You Need, I know your time is in precious supply.

Let’s start off with a bit of background for the woefully uninitiated.  How and why did you begin your writing career?  Did you always know that you’d become a writer?

No. Actually, I thought I’d become an academic. My father had a distinguished career in that sphere, and my mother spent time there too — so I knew it could be a route to an interesting, engaged life, with plenty of time for family and possibly the opportunity to travel the world. I scribbled a few things when I was a kid, mainly because I was an enthusiastic reader, but it was writing comedy for Footlights shows at Cambridge university and then BBC Radio that started to open it up... along with the realization that in my chosen field, philosophy, I was always going to be riding with stabilizers on. Finally it was reading a Stephen King novel on a three-month theatrical tour that flipped the switch and told me that’s what I wanted to do. I wound up spending the rest of the tour reading everything of his I could lay my hands on, and by the end of it had the idea for my first story – THE MAN WHO DREW CATS. I saw a man doing a chalk drawing on the sidewalk in Edinburgh, where we were playing The Fringe, heard a child crying nearby, and the two collided into a story right there and then. It’s the hope of that kind of occasional gift from the gods that keeps you hooked...

Why Dark Fiction?  What is it about the dark stuff that shaped and/or directed your Muse?

I don’t know — it’s simply always been that way. I've tried to write material with nothing of darkness in it, but it doesn't compel me enough to keep going. I need the doors of reality to be pulled open a little wider — not for the sake of it, but because that’s how I believe the world is. Some people are that way, too. It’s possible it’s even genetic... my mother (already working a heavy job as head of social work in a London hospital) once took a year’s sabbatical to study for an MA in Death Ritual... and my sister has expressed consistent interest in becoming an undertaker. We’re a remarkably cheerful family in person, though...

You made your bones first in comedy writing and performing for BBC Radio, and then as an author of Horror/Genre Fiction, but have arguably achieved your greatest commercial successes in Crime Fiction with your more recent novels.  Was the expansion or shift from Horror to Crime intentional - or indeed, calculated - or more organic?  Asking the obvious, but is there a greater readership in Noir/Crime than Horror?  Why or why not?

There’s definitely a bigger crime/thriller readership than for horror, but that played no part in my thinking. There was no thinking: I lack whatever part of the brain you need for sensible career decisions, as my record proudly shows. I inadvertently made the switch when I wrote THE STRAW MEN. I’d wanted to write something about serial killers and conspiracies for a long time, and knew it wouldn't be as strong or credible if it was set in the future, as it might distance readers from the reality — so I set it in the present day instead. I also toned down the humour a lot, as it wasn't inappropriate to the subject.

Aside from that, I didn't see any real difference to what I’d been doing before... but publishers and (some) readers sure as heck did, hence the name change and an apparent swerve of genre. I've been trying to get back to more general dark fiction ever since... The thing about writing for a living is that there aren't many roads across the terrain, and you can have to drive a looooong way around to get back to where you started. In the meantime I've simply tried to write stuff I care about, and books I feel I can stand by.

Your first published short story, “The Man Who Drew Cats,” garnered a British Fantasy Award in 1991.   Quite an auspicious debut.  Did that put pressure on you to deliver right away on your next published tale?  Was the “sophomore slump” a concern?

To be honest, I was so surprised and so gung-ho that any pressure washed over me — and of course I’d already written a few more stories in the meantime. Those early years were very exciting: I didn't know what I was doing, and tried to place no limitations on what I wrote, or to care about what was going to happen. I wrote whatever popped into my head, and then moved on — often not even bothering to try to place the stories for months or even years afterwards. I've still got a couple of pieces from back then that I've never tried to sell.

Second Novel Syndrome, on the other hand.... yi yi yi. That was tough. Writing SPARES nearly finished me off. Sadly, I've learned since about Fourth Novel Syndrome, and Seventh, and Eighth...

How has the genre fiction writing industry and readership changed from the early 1990’s?  By all accounts, the explosion of popularity in Horror Fiction of the 80’s had pretty much withered under the haze of hippy/grunge in the 90’s.  Were you concerned about the changing marketplace once you had arrived as one of the bright new voices in Speculative Fiction?

I have always been a complete numbskull when it comes to commercial awareness, and have never thought about any of those issues clearly. The 1980s were big times for horror, yes — so of course I wrote three kinda-SF novels instead. Horror imploded as a novel format, except for the heavy-hitters... but it will be back. We need horror. We believe in it more than just about anything else. And I mean proper horror, not this teen nonsense currently in vogue. A large part of me still hankers to settle down to the big horror novel I assumed I was getting into the business to write... and which I still somehow haven’t even attempted. In the meantime I’m exploring the boundaries around thriller and suspense and the otherworldly... I tend to wander through the forest to see what’s there, rather than in hopes of getting anywhere in particular. You have to care about the marketplace, of course, but to be honest I’m not hoping for bestsellerdom when I write... I just feel lucky to be published at all.

Who are some of your favorite writers (living, dead, and somewhere in between), and who do you think influenced you most (as fave authors aren't always the most influential)?

Favorite authors would be Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick, James Lee Burke, Jim Thompson, Richard Ford, Jack Finney, and doubtless many more... I’d be hard-pressed to work out which have exerted an actual influence — it’s easier for others to do that — and it’s changed over time. Ramsey Campbell and Nicholas Royle in the early horror years, Bradbury and Douglas Adams with the sf, then Burke/Ellroy/Thompson when I got to mystery... But I also think it works by you picking up the little touches that make sense to a style you’re already working toward, long before you know what it is.

Discuss briefly some of your peers that were around in the beginning of your career, and either are still hammering away, or have faded into the eaves.

The first and most important peer was one of the greatest living dark fiction short story writers, Nicholas Royle. We met by chance when I went to work at a company he was leaving. He’d already published a slew of stories and was a huge help as mentor and inspiration — not to mention becoming a great friend. I met Mark Morris soon afterward, and Conrad Williams, and Kim Newman, Christopher Fowler... and of course Stephen Jones, who has ended up being an extraordinarily important part of my life.

Everybody’s still working. We have good years, and bad years, and you treat both those impostors the same. That’s the job.

I know you’re close with renowned editor Stephen Jones.  How did this relationship start, and how has it grown since the beginning?

Steve and I got on pretty well from the start, though obviously I was kind of in awe of such a legendary figure in the field. We met at the London British Fantasy Convention where I was nominated for THE MAN WHO DREW CATS – a story he’d published for his re-imagining of the Pan Books of Horror, under the name Dark Voices. Since then we've started to work on more and more together — film stuff, design, and lately conventions. When Paula and I were considering moving out family to California, Steve was the one person who I knew I’d be seeing less often, and the thought gave me serious pause: there’s no-one in the world I’d rather hang out in a pub with. Luckily we’re both fluent emailers, so things are ticking over despite the miles...

In Everything You Need, your stories run the gamut, from Science Fiction Horror to quieter personal pieces, Noir and the straight-up Weird, to the darkly comedic.  Did you set out to write under a theme or genre when you started putting these stories together?  Did you intentionally go back to your Horror roots for this book, or are these just the stories that flowed out of your pen--  er, fingers when you sat down to write?

These are just the stories that have come. It’s quite a different collection to my first one, as I write many fewer big narrative pieces these days... the stories tend to be shorter, and far more varied in tone and style. I guess the big ideas often end up in the novels, and what I’m seeking is an outlet for more oblique and experimental ideas, moods and tones.

Your geographic background is quite varied, with a childhood spent in the United Kingdom, United States, South Africa, and then back to the UK, before emigrating to the central California coast a few years back.  Moving from your adult life in London to the U.S., how do you find the New World in the 21st century?  Does settling down in America give you new fodder from which to construct stories?

America has always felt like a second home — and also where I go to dream. Apart from ONLY FORWARD, my first novel, all the books have been set here. In a way, being here makes it harder: instead of relying upon memory and imagination (where I’m often happiest) I’m surrounded by reality which needs reflecting properly, too. That’s a new challenge. I dealt with this by writing a novel set mainly in New York City, while living in Santa Cruz on the other side of the country... You can’t say I’m not perverse.

From a cross-Pond/outsider’s perspective, what is it about the English that seem to embrace and propagate the bizarre and unusual?  More to the topic, do you think there is a difference in British and American writers and their handling of matters of the Dark?

The English certainly do love the shadows, and have a particularly unsettling and insidious way with them. Who knows why that is... maybe the weather. Or the dark Celtic genes. Or indigestion. There’s definitely a difference in how we end up manifesting the bizarre: I’m not sure America could have produced an M. R. James or Ramsey Campbell.... but on the other hand, England couldn't have given the world a Stephen King or Ray Bradbury. There’s great stuff coming from both sides...

You've garnered as many or more awards than most any other Speculative Fiction scribe currently working.  What is left for you to accomplish?  What are you still striving for as a writer?  What fuels you to put ink to paper?

It’s lovely to receive awards, of course, but they’re for things I've already done. You have to keep moving on. I want to write more books, better books, different kinds of books. I want to keep trying to do what I've always attempted — to move people, and explore ideas about what kind of people we are, and to make shit up in a way that transports people for a little while. And to the side of that, but equally importantly, I’m fueled by the need and desire to support my family. Art’s a great thing. So are stories. But feeding and housing the people you love are far more important.

As a professional author who has been successfully writing full time for years, and surely trotted around the block a few times, what advice can you give beginning or part-time writers who seek to make it a career rather than merely an after-hours pursuit?

I wish I knew. The best I can come up with is that if you want to do it, you should do it. Write. Read. Write and read some more. Be open to what the market says it wants, but also be vigilant about making sure you’re true to what you want, too – because in the end you’ll be both more distinctive and happier that way. This approach may stop you having a bestselling career (which we’d all love, of course) but writing should only be a part of your life, even if you’re doing it full time. Being there for your family and friends, and being happy or at least content... that’s going to seem a damned sight more important when you’re lying on your final bed and the darkness starts to seep in around you.

What can you tell us about Ememess Press?  From where did its unusual name originate?

The name is pretty simple — a phonetic way of writing “MMS”, for Michael Marshall Smith. It’s also my Twitter handle. The idea there was to find a way of putting some of the eighty-some short stories I've had published back out into the world, to give them an extra life. The short form is the lifeblood and backbone of horror and dark fiction, and it seemed a shame they were just languishing there on the hard drive... it’s been really nice to get feedback from people who hadn't read them before.

Where do you see Horror going as a genre?  What is the future, as you see it?  The usual tropes have been run into the ground, and then dug up again and again.  How can Horror Fiction widen its appeal, or should it?

I simply don’t know. You’re right, the tropes have been flogged to near-exhaustion, especially vampires and zombies... but there will always be something new to say about them in response to changes in society: one of horror’s great strengths is that it has always been a socially-informed genre, one which reflects and interprets and illuminates what’s going on around us. Blatant commercial over-mining may cause certain ideas to be run into the ground from time to time, but you can’t keep a good trope down... sooner or later they’ll rise from the grave, with new things to say and new ways of scaring us. Horror widens its appeal by writing better and more widely-accessible books, by proving it’s worthy of the attention that ‘literary’ or ‘mainstream’ critics and readers often deny it.

What’s next for Michael Marshall Smith, or even that bastard Michael Marshall?

Well, MM is supposed to be working on the next novel, and kind of is, though I’m deliberately standing aside from it at the moment, as I’m not happy with its core. MMS has been bubbling under for a while, and is getting impatient for more time in the sun. I've written something on the side over this summer which would come out under that name, assuming it ever sees the light of day... it’s not sf, but it is pretty damned zany. We’ll see if I can get anyone interested... I hope so. I’m often asked when I’ll start writing more MMS stuff, but the truth of it is that it’s a lot harder to get that kind of story published now than when ‘he’ was working full-time. The market has rigidified... I was lucky to write the MMS novels when I did.

So, what’s the deal with English food?  Deserved of its reputation, or is that a bunch of bollocks?  And do Brits actually drink room temp beer?

Ha :-) For a long time, English food was indeed pedestrian (though you could say the same of large swathes of the mid-West, too, right?) In the last couple of decades it’s kicked up a lot of levels, however, and now — especially with institutions like gastropubs, which have no real parallel in the US — I believe the country could go toe-to-toe with most (except France, obviously). There are indeed a lot of English beers that are meant to be drunk at room temperature, but I've never been a fan. I’m much happier with the cold-served Ambers and IPAs of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California...of which, thankfully, there are many. In fact, I might have one now.
The word Smith, right where he belongs.
Thank you again, Michael.  The Cosmicomicon wishes you a boatload of success for Everything You Need, and all of your books before and after.

(c) 2013 by Vincent Chong