Consternation of Monsters Podcast

EPISODE 08: “The Hocco Makes the Echo” a recorded live reading [REDUX]

Rob Hughes thought his kid was a genius–or, if not a genius, at least a very smart boy. Aaron was only five years old and already he could tie his shoes, count to 120, identify pictures of animals in books and recognize the constellation of Orion. Sure, he referred to it as `Oh-wyan,’ but he knew it when he saw it.

Aaron was possessed of a powerful imagination, one which was sometimes frustrating to Rob, particularly when it clashed with reality as he knew it.  But imagination and belief can be a powerful thing.  Civilizations have risen and fallen due to it.  Rob Hughes is about to learn a few lessons about the power of belief, and of the thing that feeds on it, stalking the woods near his in-laws’ farm.

This recorded live reading was captured on August 21, 2015, during a signing event at the Book Mart & Cafe in downtown Starkville, MS.

DOWNLOAD: Episode 08: “The Hocco Makes the Echo”

 

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EPISODE 07: “Nigh” (a live reading) [REDUX]

The end of the world is an event that has been predicted EPISODE-nigh-live-readingfor millennia.  It is always on the horizon, but so far has not come to pass.  Mr. Daniels, however, has his own prediction and, unless he’s wrong, the danger of the end of the world is very real indeed.

And it just might begin at Starbucks.

This live-reading of “Nigh” was recorded at the 2015 Summer Conference of West Virginia Writers, Inc., on June 12, 2015.

This podcast adapts the short story “Nigh” found in the collection A Consternation of Monsters.

DOWNLOAD:  EPISODE 07: “Nigh” (a live reading) [REDUX]

 

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EPISODE 06: “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk” REDUX

The Mexican Gray wolf is among the rarest of North American wolf species.  Few humans have seen them, fewer still have heard them growl, and far fewer have heard the pangs of hunger from the stomach of one.

One old man, seated on the cliff of an Arizona mesa, could possibly lay claim to all three of these feats if only he could be bothered to pay attention.  He is a puzzle that most of the local wolves have given up on–save for one.  The strange, silent, unmoving, and seemingly invulnerable old man makes for the ultimate unattainable prey, as the wolf’s own teeth (chipped from previous attempts) are a constant reminder.

When more men arrive at the mesa, the wolf’s frustration and hunger give way to hope–if only he can survive against these two-legged predators, intent on harming one of their own.

This podcast adapts the short story “Wolves Among Stones At Dusk” found in the collection A Consternation of Monsters, available in print, ebook, and audiobook formats.

DOWNLOAD:  Episode 06: “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk”

 (Album art for this episode is called “Anakin #100” and is copyright Felipe Zamora, used under creative commons license 2.0)

 

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EPISODE 05: “…to a Flame” the stage play (live from the Pocahontas County Opera House)

"...to a Flame" the stage playThe Mothman of West Virginia is reported to be a winged creature, the size of a man, but with glowing red eyes. There have been a few plays written about this creature. This is one of them.

Presenting the stage adaptation of Eric Fritzius’s short story “…to a Flame” as recorded during its performance during the Opera House PlayFest, at the Pocahontas County Opera House, in Marlinton, W.Va., in 2016.

The adaptation stars John C. Davis as Jeff, Dwayne Kennison as Virgil Hawks, and the author himself as Rik Winston.

DOWNLOAD:  Episode 05: “…to a Flame” the stage play

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EPISODE 04: “Old Country” a Live Radio Adaptation REDUX

Old Country

Episode 04 of the REDUX version of the Consternation of Monsters Podcast features a recording of a live radio adaptation of the short story “Old Country” as found in the collection A Consternation of Monsters.

On a day in 1983, Martin Riscili receives the most important phone call of his life.  His late father’s mobster “associate,” Jimmy Jambalaya, has just phoned to alert Martin to his imminent death by Jimmy’s own hand.  His house is watched.  His phone line is dead.  Jimmy’s on his way.  And the only thing Martin can think of that might yet save his life is his grandmothers’ quilt.

If only he could remember where he put it.

A story of crime and punishment and contractual terms with forces beyond our understanding.

This is a live radio-style adaptation was recorded live on October 12, 2015, at the Greenbrier Valley Theatre in Lewisburg, W Va.   It stars Sarah Elkins as Melissa, Shane Miller as Martin, the author himself as Tino and The Warrior, and a special appearance by Dr. AC as Jimmy Jambalaya.

DOWNLOAD: Episode 04: “Old Country” a live radio adaptation REDUX

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Limited Editions Opened

My most recent Consternation of Monsters podcast features an excerpt from my short story “Limited Edition.”  And by excerpt, I mean about half of it.

Though it is the longest story to be found in A Consternation of Monsters, it is also probably one that was one of the quickest for me to develop because the core idea for it arrived in my head close to fully formed.  Though I hinted at this recently in my interview with J.D. Byrne, there’s a little more to tell about the story.

For a while in the early oughts, I was a part of an email writing and critique group consisting of several writer friends of mine from college.  And because it began in the year 2000, and we all loved David Fincher movies, we were obliged to call ourselves Write Club. (And subsequently make the joke “First rule about Write Club is… well, you know,” let’s say 480 times.)  For a handful of years there, we took turns issuing monthly writing challenges to one another, with solid, umovable deadlines that often became less solid as they approached.  But eventually the deadline would fall and fall solidly and we were honor bound to turn something in for the others to critique.  Early drafts of a few of the stories in Consternation were spawned by this method, including “The Hocco Makes the Echo,” “Nigh,” “Old Country,” and, of course, “Limited Edition.”  In fact, I give credit to the very Write Club member who dreamed up the prompt that brought “Limited Edition” into being as part of the dedication to Consternation.  “…to Joe Evans, my ideal reader, who also gave me the line about the fork.”

The “line about the fork” was a simple one.  It was Joe’s turn to issue a writing prompt to the rest of us and his was this:  we were to write a story that must include the phrase “Something told him that in all the world, there was no other fork quite like this one.”  

As a writer, I’ve had a handful of what I call Blues Brothers moments in which I–much like Jake Blues in the church at the beginning of The Blues Brothers–receive, seemingly from on high, a direct transmission of knowledge propelling me on a mission from God and/or from my subconscious.  These are magical moments in which a mosaic of images and information seem to fall into place in my head and my visualization and imagination centers go into overdrive as they struggle to process the info dump they’ve just received.  In the moment, I feel almost pinned in place by the celestial beam from above.

An instant after I read Joe’s line about the fork, one of those Blues Brothers moments happened to me.  I was pinned in place in my office chair and suddenly knew exactly what the fork in his sentence meant, the implied-yet-still-loose-enough-to-maneuver-in backstory of not only it but similar and related objects, how this fork would come into the story, who would possess it, who would want it, and a the most logical and fun setting in which such a story would occur.  I also knew which pre-existing character of mine would also be appearing in it, due to the fact that her known occupation–as seen in “The Wise Ones”–synced up nicely with the subject-matter.  I even knew why she would be there.  Those were the basic beats that fell into my head and those beats never changed throughout the writing process.  (I take such gifts from my subconscious quite seriously and try not to deviate from their structures, lest I do damage to plot points put into motion of which I may not yet be entirely aware.  I’m a firm believer that my brain is smarter than I am and that it’s often watching out for me when I’m not paying attention.)

Now, it’s one thing to say that a story fell into your head and another thing to write it.  There are all sorts of details about the story that I was not given in my Blues Brother’s Moment download, which I would have to either imagine or, as turned out to be the case, heavily research.  My setting for the story, granted to me by my noggin, was a tour stop for the American version of the Antiques Roadshow–the public television show in which antiques appraisers offer commentary and assign value to items brought in by the general public.  It was a show I liked, though not one I was in the habit of regularly watching at the time being as how I didn’t get PBS.  However, I adored the BBC America broadcasts of the original UK version, so I was familiar with the basic format.  Fortunately, there’s quite a bit of information about the show and its mechanics to be found online.  Quite a bit.   I was able to learn how it was shot, how the tour worked, who the appraisers were, who the hosts have been, who the executive producers are, how the antiques that made it onto camera were chosen, how many items actually made it to camera in a given stop, how the antiques were categorized for review, and, most amusingly, which practically worthless antiques repeatedly turn up in the mitts of folks who hope and fervently believe they are about to become fabulously wealthy.  (At the time of my research, it seemed to be the one that turns up in the opening paragraphs of the story.)  In fact, there was so much information about the show that I decided I didn’t really need all that much, beyond a few key pieces to help establish the tone of the setting, and the sort of locations the show is usually filmed within.

I also had to research my basic subject: the fork.  We take forks for granted because in the U.S. we’ve never experienced a time when they were not in our lives on a daily basis.  And it was the ubiquitous nature of the fork that suggested further plot avenues to take, given the nature of the fork in question.  (Which, I’m a little embarrassed to say, does not actually make an appearance in the podcast excerpt.  You’ll have to buy the book to learn what’s up with it.)  I had to know how and when the fork actually came into common use as an eating utensil–because it struck me as logical that human beings basically just used their hands to feed themselves for most of our existence.  Still, the fork is such a universally useful tool that it also had to be a very very old one.  And it is.  So much so that I could find no origin point for it, though the historical record gave me a date range in which they came into more common use at the dinner table–which was around the same time that the dinner table also came into popular use.  The research also yielded some fun little factoids, such as the amount of suspicion heaped upon the table fork for many years after its introduction, due to its very existence being an afront to God himself by daring to improve upon the hands he had already given us.

My main character of the story, antiques appraiser C. Phillips Hovelan, walked into it mostly formed.  He wasn’t a direct part of the Blues Brothers Moment, but his presence was suggested and his personality felt right.  He isn’t based on anyone in particular, though he does remind me of a particularly acerbic college professor I once had.  I’ve certainly never seen any appraisers on Antiques Roadshow who were such outright assholes as Phil in the story.  He just seemed like the sort of character archetype who would fit the situation, and one who would be a nice foil to the other main character, my old friend Miss Zeddie.

Until I wrote “Limited Edition,” Miss Zeddie was exclusively known as either Madam Z or Omega–names revealed in other stories found in Consternation and elsewhere.  The trouble is, my fellow Write Clubbers were all also co-creators in a collective fictional universe we developed over a period of years during college to serve as the setting for various role-playing game adventures.  A core of three of us, Joe Evans, Sujay Shaunak, and Marcus Hammack, actually ran the RPG adventures as game-masters and each of them were in charge of their own corner of the universe.  I was not a game-master, but I love to world-build and set about creating extensive databases and timelines for the characters and concepts we encountered during our games.  Eventually, Sujay and I spun things off into prose stories to help fill in some gaps in our storytelling that weren’t so easy to accomplish in the games themselves.

Madam Z had first appears as a non-player character in a couple of our games.  She was a wise and mysterious old woman who served to guide us during an adventure or two.  And she’d been created (as I detail in my recent interview) by Marcus Hammack–who I also thank in the dedication.  I was enchanted with her from the start, thinking Marcus had these grand plans for her, and imagining what her backstory might be.  Only later did I learn that he had basically come up with her on the spot, had no grand plans for her at all, nor any notion of what her backstory might be.  As disappointing as this was, it was to my gain, because after Marcus graduated and left town I kind of inherited her for use in my prose stories.

Because my fellow Write Clubbers would recognize her immediately, though, if I called her Madam Z, I decided she needed a secret identity for the story–one which would definitely hint at her true identity for them, but maybe not on first appearance.  I called her Miss Zeddie.  They could figure out it was her, of course, but maybe not at first, just as readers of Consternation might not know at first that she’s the same old woman from another story.

Z’s true backstory will be revealed at another time and in another story.  (I only gave Joe Evans a glimpse at her earliest origins this past summer when I slipped him a 100 word short story the very title of which is a spoiler.  It had been a secret I’ve held for over two decades now.  I figured I owed him.)  Knowing Z’s backstory, knowing her major goals in her apparently very long life, I knew exactly what she would do if placed into this new story, given the other factors.  In fact, I saw her having a much deeper role in the mechanics of the story itself.  And, given the personality quirks of my main character, Hovelan, I knew how poorly the two of them would get on, which suggested other side stories to the main one, most of which is what the podcast excerpt covers.

As I researched and began writing, I found I had two stories that intertwined–the story of Hovelan and Zeddie, their bitter rivalry, their seeming ultimate showdown, and then the rematch over much higher stakes than either is entirely aware of; and the story of the fork.

And while there are three other important characters who appear in the story, two of which appear in the podcast excerpt, one of whom also makes an appearance elsewhere in Consternation.  But I will leave the matter there for now.  Everything you need to know is in the story itself and to write about any of them will run into spoiler territory.  Just know that there are other stories featuring most of these characters, some of which have actually been written.

As for Write Club, that was something that just kind of stopped.  I think we may have all collectively missed a deadline and were too embarrassed to acknowledge it.  And, after all, there’s that whole first rule of Writer Club thing.  (#481)  We’ve actually talked about re-starting it over the years and occasionally one of us will tell another that it’s their turn to give a prompt.  I expect we will sooner or later.  It’s not a bad idea.  I managed to get a handful of stories I’m proud of from the process, not to mention the sage advice on ways to improve them.  With my upcoming collections in various stages of completion, perhaps it’s time to head back down into the warehouse basement with the boys and chalk up our hands for more bare-knuckle writing.  (Maybe we’ll pick a better name next time.)

Interview

Author J.D. Byrne was kind enough to invite me to conduct an email interview with me for his blog.

We cover many subjects, including audiobooks, mechanics of genre stories versus non-genre (or mundane) stories, and the as yet unchronicled subject of the origin of the story in this week’s podcast, “Limited Edition,” as hinted at in the dedication of A Consternation of Monsters.

You can find it at his website, JDByrne.net and at the link below.

https://jdbyrne.net/2017/04/25/author-interview-eric-fritzius/

EPISODE 03: “Limited Edition”

The Consternation of Monsters Podcast returns with a story of bitter rivalries, stolen opportunities, forgery, and the angel of death, set in the cut throat world of public television antiques appraisal–a world in which one of the most powerful objects is a fork.

This podcast is an excerpt of the audiobook adaptation of the short story “Limited Edition” found in the collection A Consternation of Monsters as well as the unabridged audiobook.

DOWNLOAD:  Episode 03: “Limited Edition”

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EPISODE 02 REDUX: “The Ones that Aren’t Crows”

The Seward Whale Strike Tragedy, they called icrowst. Twenty-five people dead. The worst accident in Alaska’s tourism history since Will Rogers’ plane went down in ‘35.  Only one man left alive knows the truth of what really happened — the man everyone agrees caused the tragedy to start with.  And if there’s one thing he’s sure of, the thing they hit that day was no whale.

Presented here is his testimony, as transcribed for an interview with Paranorm Violations Magazine.

This podcast adapts the short story “The Ones that Aren’t Crows” found in the collection A Consternation of Monsters as well as the unabridged audiobook of the collection.

DOWNLOAD:  Episode 02: “The Ones that Aren’t Crows”

 

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EPISODE 01 redux: “…to a Flame”

The Mothman of West Virginia is reported to be a winged creature, the size of a man, but wEPISODE 1: "...to a Flame"ith glowing red eyes.  It was reportedly witnessed on multiple occasions around the area of Point Pleasant, W.Va., during the 1960s and has been reported around the world since.  An ominous creature, its presence often seems to portend doom for those who see it.

When Virgil Hawks shoots one behind his tool shed, he knows the portents for his own future aren’t good.  He seeks help from the one man he can trust… his good buddy Jeff.

This podcast adapts the short story “…to a Flame” found in the collection A Consternation of Monsters as well as the unabridged audiobook of the collection.

DOWNLOAD:  Episode 01 redux: “…to a Flame”

 

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EPISODE 00: Foreword

The Consternation of Monsters Podcast is an ongoing project, adapting and excerpting a few of the stories found in the short story collection A Consternation of Monsters as well as the unabridged audiobook of the collection.

While many of these stories have been featured in the previous iteration of this podcast from 2015, this redux edition will feature new stories, new live readings and stage play adaptations, as well as excerpts from the official unabridged audiobook of the collection now available through Amazon.com, iTunes, and Audible.com.

This EPISODE 00 features the foreword to the book by noted paranormal radio host Rik Winston.

DOWNLOAD:  Episode 00: Foreword

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New audio projects for… the future

consternation-audiobook-cover-12-30-16I just finished recording the audio version of my short story “The Wise Ones,” from A Consternation of Monsters.  Unlike most of my audio efforts, this was a particularly annoying recording session because my stomach refused to stop gurgling throughout it.

I’m certain a gurgle or two will try to sneak through into the final version, but hopefully most will be excised in the upcoming editing process.

This audio version of “The Wise Ones” is not, however, for the Consternation of Monsters Podcast, though an excerpt from it may be used there yet.  Instead, I’m recording and in many cases re-recording straight up, big boy, audio book versions of all of the stories from Consternation for a forthcoming audio book project.

Thus far, I’ve recorded “The Hocco Makes the Echo,” “Nigh,” “Old Country,” “…to a Flame,” “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk,” “The Ones That Aren’t Crows,” “The Wise Ones,” and “Limited Edition.”  The two that remain are the longer stories “The King’s Last Nacho” and “Puppet Legacy.” After they’re in the can, I can start in on the editing and mastering of the whole project.

These are not the radio drama/audio book hybrid adaptations I’ve done with the podcast.  (Love them, though I do.)  Instead, they’re standard audio-book narration for the forthcoming, first quarter 2016 (um, er… 2017) audio book version of A Consternation of Monsters, to appear on Audible.com and iTunes.  I figured with my recent toe-dip into the realm of audio book narration, why the heck should I not do my own audio book?  And, gurgles be damned, I’m having a blast doing it.

And speaking of my inaugural sojourn into audio book narration, The Black Star of Kingston is now on sale at Audible.com, iTunes, and at the publisher’s website, StoryWarren.net.  If you have young folks in your life, or just a two-hour car ride ahead of you, it’s a good `un, if I do say so, thanks to the story and characters provided by Sam Smith.  The characters and story were already there, I just tried to do vocal justice to them.

Short Straws and Merry Churtmints

The short story adapted for this week’s podcast, “Short Straw,” is not one that appears in A Consternation of Monsters.  Primarily this is because the story does not feature any actual monsters, unless you count the concept of Santa Claus or the slow march of death.  (Technically, the concept of Santa Claus does appear in A Consternation of Monsters already, mentioned in “Puppet Legacy,” but it is not within the confines of a Christmas story.  So there.)  No, it’s one of my mundane stories, meaning stories that seem to be set entirely in the real world, with no magical realism.  That said, I still wanted to do a Christmas podcast this year, so I chose my one Christmas story that I had at hand to adapt instead.

The events of “Short Straw,” as I mention this at the end of the podcast, come about as close to nonfiction as my stories tend to get.  I still classify it as fiction, because while the events depicted did indeed happen, I have no idea of the real identities of any of the people involved outside the analog characters of me and my father (Aaron and Rob) and I had to make up all the dialogue, or at the very best paraphrase it.  Plus, a minor part of the story, while still true, did not occur at that prison, or even in that state.  This is what writers do, though: weaving together strands of truth to tell a stronger tale.  Most of it was gleaned from my memory, or my memories that have been altered by the telling and retelling of this particular story by my father over the years.  I’d say, though, that the only lines of dialogue that I know for certain are verbatim from reality are probably the last two lines of dialogue in the story.

So, if you’ve not yet heard the story, go and listen to the podcast adaptation and come back to read the behind the scenes report below.

BTS:

When I was a wee lad I became infatuated with detectives. Probably my first exposure to the concept of them was Sherlock Hemlock, the little green deerstalker-clad puppet from Sesame Street, who was based on Sherlock Holmes.  Not much later, my father bought me a collection called Gateway to Mystery which featured an abridged version of Conan-Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” which was my favorite story from that book.  I decided that I would one day be a detective myself.  I began cultivating this by carrying around a red-plastic magnifying glass, which I used to examine every clue I could find.

In December, 1976, though, life changed in the Fritzius household.  A few days following the birth of my baby sister in San Antonio, TX, my mother passed away.  Her body went into toxemia poisoning, which led to the formation of a blood clot which went to her brain.  She went into a coma and never came out.  It was a very sad time for the whole family, but my dad tried to keep my spirits up as best he could.  For almost the entire month of December, following her death, my dad would give me a new present every morning.  It was his way of trying to take my mind off things.  And those presents continued arriving each day all the way to Christmas.  One of the ones I received closest to Christmas was a noisy and obnoxious Fisher Price toy train.  (The very kind you can hear in the podcast.)  I loved it dearly and carried it with me wherever I went, showing it off at every opportunity. We were inseparable.

On Christmas Eve, my father decided to up the ante on the presents.  We had traveled from Texas to Wayne County, Mississippi, to the home of my Mamaw and Papaw.  Dad had taken me into town for some last minute Christmas shopping and it was on our way out that we passed by the Wayne County Court House, where the police department was based.  He had the idea that it would be a great present if I could meet an actual detective, so we went in to see if any were still there, accompanied, of course, by my new train.  The man at the desk, whose name I do not know, told us that the detectives had gone home for the day, but would be back on Monday, as Christmas fell on a Saturday that year.  As we were leaving, the man asked my dad if I might like to see the jail.  What followed in my memory pretty much matches the events depicted in the story.  I was asked if I wanted to try out a jail cell, and I declined.  I then met a prisoner in a single unit cell, who asked about my train and how come Santa Claus had brought it to me early.  “You be sure to tell Santa Claus to come see me,” was his departing line.  Then there was a group cell filled with probably three or four men, one of whom was indeed sitting on the toilet.  They too inquired as to my special relationship with Santa, that I might get a present early.  I proudly showed them how my train worked.  They then also told me to be sure to tell Santa Claus to come see them, to which I again did not respond.  It seemed to me that if they were in jail then they had clearly been bad, so Santa would not be paying them any visits unless it was to drop off some coal.  They didn’t even have any stockings, though.

And then, there was another man in a single cell toward the end of the row who had heard my name spoken and asked me what it was again.  He was, as my father recalls, waiting there until he could be transferred elsewhere.  I remember sensing his sadness as he told me that he had a little boy named Eric back home.  I recall sensing the weight of the moment and not knowing what to do about any of it, so I just kept quiet.  Meanwhile, my dad was practically in tears.

As we left the jail and were headed back into the hall, the prisoners, in unison the prisoners all cried out “You be sure to tell Santa Claus to come see us!”

“Okay,” I said.  “Be good.”

And to this day, despite all my comedic roles over the years, that line might have elicited the biggest laugh I’ve ever received.  It just destroyed everyone.  Probably helped set me on the path of comedic performer.

The following Christmas, a friend of my dad’s named Lucy wrote up this story as a short piece that was published in a Louisiana newspaper.  I have the clipping now, though I did not when I penned my own version.  Lucy mentions the death of the boy’s mother at the beginning, hooking the reader with some sentiment from the start.  She also fictionalized her version of the story a bit, adding the detail that my character had never seen snow and really wanted to for Christmas, but was stymied by the fact that it happens so rarely in Mississippi.  At the end of her version, as the father and son leave the jailhouse, it begins to snow.  It’s a nice bow to tie around the story.

And it was because of Lucy’s version that I resisted writing my own for many years.  I felt like Lucy had already written it and I didn’t want to appear to be trying to tell the same sentimental story twice.  Eventually, though, I decided that the story belonged to me and my dad and I was free and clear to write about my own life if I wanted to.  So, in the mid-oughts, for my writing group’s Christmas party, I wrote the first draft of the story in a couple of hours.  I stuck closer to the truth of the original events, so no snow was mentioned.  I also left out the part about my mother’s recent death prior to the story because I felt like it tread too close to playing on emotions.  The one event I included that did not take place that night was the part where Vardy spells out “A-R-M-E-D- R-O-B-B-E-R-Y” and Aaron responds “A-A-R-O-N can spell too.”  (I actually said that, but to a lady in Texas, as she was trying to spell something to my dad that she didn’t want me to understand.  I didn’t understand it then, either, but had decided to do some spelling of my own since that seemed to be what folks were doing.  She didn’t know this, though, so she was a bit shocked.)  The story was a hit.

In subsequent drafts, I added back the suggestion that the father in the story looked sad, much like Perry Pittman had following the death of his wife.  I figured that since the story was told from Vardy’s viewpoint, I couldn’t exactly reveal the details of the death without it feeling forced.  So it’s suggested.

This brings me to the matter of the names of all these characters.  Like I said, I don’t know any of them.  So I took a page from the TV show Quantum Leap.  The story goes that show creator Donald Bellissario, knowing that the 5th season’s finale would likely be the series finale, set out to write an autobiographical episode including details and characters from his childhood.  All of the characters in the show were named after people he knew.  So since I needed local names, I wove in those of folks I knew.  Vardy is the name of my Papaw’s brother, who died long before my birth.  Ezell is the name of the owner of Ezell’s Fish Camp, in Chunky, MS, (a town name I found delightfully funny as a child).  Brewer is a common name for the area, and I knew a number of them from my Mamaw’s church.  Perry Pittman is a combination of two names, as Mr. Perry was the owner of Perry’s Fishcamp, a regular after-church haunt of my grandparents’, and Pittman is the last name of my Papaw’s friend Bilbo Pittman (Velma, also mentioned, was Bilbo’s wife).  The Masons were another family from church.  Zack was named after Zackey Manning, my grandparents’ nearest neighbor.  And Bo was a man who married my mother’s cousin, who later ran a country store in the tiny town of Peov, Mississippi.

This story will likely be collected one day, as I have a number of other “mundane” stories that need a home.  It will likely also appear in an eventual collection of my Aaron stories, when I have enough of those.  In the meantime, it’s a podcast, given out for Christmas.

As my dad is fond of saying, Merry Churtmint.  And a Merry Churtmint to you and yours.

EPISODE 08: “Short Straw”

OnEPISODE-short-straw December 24, 1976, Sgt. Vardeman “Vardy” Odom drew the short straw from Old Ezell’s broom and landed himself Christmas Eve desk duty at the Wayne County Police Department.  He expected nothing more exciting than a drunk to pass by his desk that evening.  What actually came through his door, though, quite nearly changed his mind about Christmas Eve desk duty.

“Short Straw” does not appear in A Consternation of Monsters.  In fact, it does not feature a monster at all (unless you count the slow march of death in his plaid sport coat). However, the story does feature two characters who appear in multiple stories in A Consternation of Monsters in a based-on-a-true-story Christmas tale intended not to chill hearts, but to warm them.

DOWNLOAD: Episode 08: “Short Straw”

 

EPISODE 07: “Old Country” a live radio adaptation

On a day in 1983, MOld Countryartin Riscili receives the most important phone call of his life.  His late father’s mobster “associate,” Jimmy Jambalaya, has just phoned to alert Martin to his imminent death by Jimmy’s own hand.  His house is watched.  His phone line is dead.  Jimmy’s on his way.  And the only thing Martin can think of that might yet save his life is his grandmothers’ quilt.

If only he could remember where he put it.

A story of crime and punishment and contractual terms with forces beyond our understanding.

This is a live radio-style adaptation of the short story “Old Country” from the collection A Consternation of Monsters.  This was recorded live on October 12, 2015, at the Greenbrier Valley Theatre in Lewisburg, W Va.   It stars Sarah Elkins as Melissa, Shane Miller as Martin, the author himself as Tino and The Warrior, and a special appearance by Dr. AC as Jimmy Jambalaya.

Please visit Dr. AC’s horror movie review blog, Horror 101 with Dr. AC, for information about how you can pledge to support his charity efforts in the Scare-a-Thon October Horror Challenge.

DOWNLOAD: Episode 07: “Old Country” a live radio adaptation

 

Literary Festivities

Had a blast at the Lewisburg Literary Festival this weekend!  Sold a goodly number of books and the “cemetery” performance of the play adaptation of my story “…to a Flame”  had a fantastic turnout and, despite some initial sound problems, went nigh on perfectly.  A big thanks to Devin Preston for co-starring with me.  You were a great Virgil Hawks.  And thanks to Dr. Larry Davis (the original Virgil Hawks in the Greenbrier Valley Theatre production from a few years back) for introducing us.  As I told Larry, I’d planned for Devin and I to do a reading of “The Ones that Aren’t Crows” for the cemetery reading up until two weeks ago when I realized that the already in-existence “…to a Flame” stage play would be a more satisfying fit for a performance.  If I’d thought of doing it sooner, I would have had Larry and another local actor, Curtis Pauley, step in and star.  But I thought it was too much to ask on too soon a notice.  Since Devin and I were already supposed to be involved, and since he can memorize lines like a super human, it seemed the way to go.

Apologies should be issued to the handful of folks who waited at the Old Stone Cemetery, the original location for the play, rather than the revised location of the green space in downtown Lewisburg.  The story of why the location had to be changed the day before the event is long and wrought with controversy.  It is also one I do not plan to tell here (though it miiiiiiiiiiight get told in a podcast in the very near future… just sayin’).   Needless to say, we at the LLF dropped the ball in not sending someone to stand in the cemetery and redirect traffic.  And Devin got chewed out for it good by the folks who stood there for half an hour waiting.  Again, this is entirely our bad.  In what little defense we have, though, my acting partner and I were simultaneously trying rehearse for the first time in over a week, test our wireless microphones, load sound equipment, and paranoidly checking weather apps on our phones to see if it was about to pour rain on said equipment.  (Nary a drop.)  It slipped our minds that some folks might not have gotten the memo about the venue change, and for that we are sorry.

Thanks also go to Eliot Parker, who held down the fort for Publisher’s Place’s table in our Literary Town Square and shared proximity to the Mr. Herman table.  Thanks also to S.D. “Sam” Smith, author of the fabulous young person’s book The Green Ember  and his publisher at the Story Warren, Andrew, who both kept us all entertained (and fed, cause Sam bought us lunch on Saturday).

Thanks to Cat Pleska, Fran Simone and Ed Davis for leading great workshops and traveling a distance to be a part of the event.  I got to interview Ed for the West Virginia Writers podcast, but I’ll repost that here as well when it’s edited and ready to go.

Thanks to all the folks behind the scenes at the LLF (Greg Johnson, Josh Baldwin, Cindy Lavender-Bowe, Mary Cole Deitz, Erin Hurst, Laura Lee Haddad, Sarah Elkins, and so many more) for all the time and effort they volunteer throughout the year and throughout the event to keep things running smoothly.   Very few fires had to be put out.  Thanks also to Aaron and Monica Maxwell, co-founders of the event, who stepped down from the LLF board this year, but who still did quite a bit to make it happen and are missed dearly.  (We never knew exactly how much work you guys did for the LLF until we had to do it in your absence.  It took six of us to pull it off and we still got things wrong.  Hats off to your three years of making it happen and for what you did to assist this year.  Come baaaaaack!)

And thanks to my lovely wife for womaning my table while I had to go do introductions for speakers, rehearse plays in alleys, and haul sound equipment.  She sold more books in two hours than I did before she got there.

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Ed Davis, S.D. Smith, and some guy in corduroy author armor.

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Sherrell Wigal, Eliot Parker and the author.

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Devin Preston and me in the dramatization of “…to a Flame.”

 

The One that Almost Wasn’t “The Ones that Aren’t Crows”

The latest episode of the Consternation of Monsters Podcast adapts my story “The Ones that Aren’t Crows.”  It is is one of three award-winning stories in the collection, the others being “Nigh” and “…to a Flame.”  However, when this particular story won 2nd place in the Animals Category of the 2011 West Virginia Writers Annual Writing Contest, it did so under the title “Native Arts.”

I never liked that title.  I often don’t like my first choice of title and tend to use them as placeholders until I can find something that feels like a better fit.  It was not until a later draft of the story, a revision I made prior to a live-reading of it, though, that the new title suggested itself and felt perfect.

As to the origin of the story itself, it is a quad-fold affair.

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Home sweet home.

The first fold:  Back in 2007, the wife and I took a two-week trip to her home state of Alaska.  It was a three week trip for her, as she had gone up to present a poster at a medical conference, in her capacity as chief resident at the local hospital.  (She likes to downplay the significance of the chief resident part, as she was the only person in her program for that year, so she was the only available candidate to be chief resident.  I maintain she would have been chief regardless of other candidate availability, but that’s a question for an alternate universe.)  I flew up after that first week and we rented a Winnebago in which to vacation, touring around Alaska to see the various places where she’d lived and grown up.  Our first leg of the journey took us down to Seward, where we spent a couple of days on the shores of Resurrection Bay–occasionally venturing out onto the water for chilly June tours of the Kenai Fjords and the glaciers that could be seen there.  Oh, and the whales.  We saw a goodly number of whales, though due to the slowness of our camera we mainly took pictures of their tails as they disappeared again beneath the surface.  The ranger on the tour was sure to point out the rDSCN3243estricted speeds for the tour boats in the bay, done to give whales plenty of time to get out of the way.  We had a great time.

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Tour boat

One of the things I noticed during our trip, though–which brings us to the second fold–was the amount of native Alaskan art on display, everywhere you went.  There were brightly-painted totem poles in most of the places we visited, as well as other totemic art that depicted whales and bears and birds and fish, all with bright red, teal, black and white coloration.  Curious, I began reading up on the traditional stories of the native peoples.  They offer some very interesting tales of how the world came to be, and the interesting gods and figures who helped shape it.  The standard fantasy trope of “what if these aren’t just myths” began to ring in my head.  Or, more importantly to a common theme in the stories I write (and those of many other writers) what if belief in the myth is the power necessary to make it real?

DSCN3779Another source of inspiration, perhaps the third fold, came during one of a number of, perhaps, ill-advised solo hikes I took during our time in Alaska.  I like to explore, especially when there is the promise of a cool view, or a waterfall to be seen, and I’m willing to go above and beyond to reach that goal.  I always invited the wife to come along, but she’s rarely interested, especially if the journey will require strenuous physical effort.  One of my hikes, in Valdez, was to try and climb up the lower section of a mountain, to try and reach a step where the lower part of the mountain jutted out, creating a natural incline that continued on up to a much higher elevation.  It looked like the sort of thing a person could reach and then walk up to get a great view.  The wife thought the plan was foolhardy and a lot more work than I knew, but I insisted on trying it.  Because neither of our cell phones worked well there, I said if I didn’t come back in an hour and a half she was to assume I’d been lost or eaten by a bear and call the authorities.  It was, as she predicted, more difficult than I’d thought, because to simply get to the foot of the mountain meant having to walk pathways through the thick brush leading up to it.  While in those paths, I came upon the remnants of a lunch interrupted.  There was a plastic grocery sack which had been torn open and its contents shredded.  My memory of this is that it was a grocery store pre-made sandwich and some chips, but all food items were gone, leaving behind shredded remnants of their packaging.  The most curious item from the mess, though, was a 16 oz plastic soda bottle, its cap still in place, but empty due to a VERY large tooth hole in the side of the bottle.  (I thought I had a picture of this, but evidently not.)  The tooth hole, to my eye, could only have been made by something the size of a bear.  I was then on my guard, as this meant bears were in the area, or had been in the area.  I still continued on my trek, though, eventually making it to the foot of the mountain, and then, slowly, step by step, handhold by handhold, clawed my way up the steep slope of the foot of the mountain.  It was tough going.  But while I did it, the image occurred to me that it would be super creepy if, suddenly, I were to discover the claw marks of a bear on the side of that slope, except the claw marks in my image were of a bear being dragged UP the slope by something much larger.  And I instantly knew what that something would be.  It’s the same creature that went on to inspire “The Ones that Aren’t Crows”  and is a short story that may yet appear in next year’s volume of tales.  (I did manage to make it to the top of the step, but it took way more work and way  more time than I’d planned for it to.  By the time I got up there, it was time to head back or risk the wife calling out the authorities.)

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Me snoozing on the tour boat, dreaming of gods and monsters

The fourth fold of this tale’s origin happened over a year after we returned from our trip.  We had left Lewisburg and moved to Princeton, WV, in 2008.  I had been looking for a job there, but things were pretty scarce.  So I began seeking other possible employment opportunities.  I saw an ad online for a job as a transcriptionist.  I thought this might be something for me, since I type superhumanly fast.  The application process involved learning the formatting, in which the transcriptionist types all the words being heard, down to the ums and uhs, and any incidental sounds or other business that can be heard–doors opening in the background, coughing, sneezing, etc.–is included in bracketed statements. I learned the format, took the transcriptionist test and thought I did pretty well.  Never heard anything back from them, which led me to believe that what they were really trying to do was sell me the expensive transcriptionist foot-peddle-pause button, which seemed to be mentioned a lot in their materials as being something serious transcriptionists used.  I didn’t bite.  But I did think that the idea of a short story formatted as a transcription was something I’d not seen before.  I even thought of a way for the format itself to become part of the storytelling.   After that, it was just a matter of plugging in a story and I knew just the one that would fit.

As I said before, this story has been read live on a couple of occasions and turns out pretty well.  It does require a second reader to provide the transcription notations.  I’ve always read the captain’s part, with someone else doing the transcription voice.  The first time I read this live, back in 2011, my wife did the voice and was excellent at capturing the cold, flatness I heard in my head.  Unfortunately, when I recorded that reading, only I had a microphone, so her voice could not be heard in the recording.  The second time, she was unavailable for a reprise, so I recruited my friend and fellow actor Joe Lehman.  We performed it for the Greenbrier Valley Theatre’s Literary Tea series in 2013.  I had a much better recorder by then and we were both miked.  It was a great performance, too.  Joe was great at keeping the exact same tone on each of his repeated words and I felt especially in good bronchial form as the captain.  Unfortunately, when I stopped the recorder after the show, something went amiss and the recording vanished into the ether never to be seen again.  It was a tragic loss, as that would have been a recording for the archive and probably would have been podcasted in some form long before now.

I’m still pleased with how Episode 04 turned out, though.  The text-to-speech program I used for the transcriptions is not without his charms.  I may have to hold on to it for future use.

 

Quentin Tarantino Vs. Jack London (Part 3)

As promised, here is the original draft of the story that became “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk,” cussin’ and all.  Certain names have been redacted to protect certain contests that are ongoing.

“Wolves and Stones”

 

Atop the low mesa, in the scorched-orange glow of the setting Arizona sun, a Mexican Gray Wolf paced in frustration.  Few humans have ever seen a member of this rarest of North American species of wolves, fewer still have ever heard one growl, and fewer than that could claim to have heard the gurgle of hunger pangs coming from the stomach of such a creature.  The man seated on the edge of the mesa’s cliff, a few feet away from the wolf, might have been able to accomplish all three of these rare feats, had he only been paying attention.

The wolf eyed the old man silhouetted against the sun.  Even squinting against the light, the wolf could see the long and stringy gray fur of his quarry as it fluttered behind his head in the breeze of dusk.  Similarly caught in the breeze were the strings and ribbons of the torn fabric that still adorned the man’s body.  Dozens of growing shadows also stretched out from the many paw prints the wolf and his pack brothers had left in the dust of the rock shelf over the past months.

The senses of wolves are fine-tuned receptors of many levels of information broadcast by their prey.  They can tell, for instance, when an animal is wounded by the rhythm of its breathing.  They can savor the delicious smell of fear and know from it precisely when their prey is about to bolt.  The old man, however, gave off little information, which was frustrating, for the wolf.  He may as well have been concentrating his senses on a blank patch of air for all the good it did to turn them on the old man’s body.  The man’s smoky blue eyes—which were on some days closed, but more often, as they were now, merely narrowed—remained focused on some place in the far distance, motionless and with no indication of internal activity.  The only emotion any of his pack brothers had ever been able to sense from the old man was an occasional flicker of deepest regret.  And, as this was an emotion alien to wolves of any species, neither he nor his brothers we able to recognize it as significant.  The man appeared much as other gray-furred humans did when they neared the end of their lives.  However, there was something about him that made the wolf certain this human was far older than he appeared.  The wolf could smell the old man’s blood—even beneath the layers of grit that coated his pale skin, but its flow was almost imperceptible.  The wolf listened.  After nearly a minute, he heard the beat of the man’s heart, the stir of his blood, and then silence once more.  Instinctively, the wolf knew this was wrong, for animals and humans were creatures of blood, even those foolish enough to stray into this place of heat and dust.  Blood was their essence and their life—both of which were the wolves’ right to take as they pleased, or as they dared.  A creature whose life did not flow even as fast as that of the hated greenshells was not a natural creature.  However, as the wolf had long ago reasoned, it was still blood.  This old man—whose blood refused to flow properly, whose skin refused to rend beneath fang, whose bones refused to break when, in impotent rage, he and his pack brothers had toppled the man’s body from the edge of the cliff—was a continuing puzzle in the wolf’s mind.  His pack brothers had all but given up, but the puzzle was what brought the wolf back to this mesa nearly every day.  His own chipped teeth served as an ever-present reminder that this stone-like man had not yet been caught, despite the fact that he had also never fled.

Padding two steps closer across the still scorching surface of the dusty mesa, the wolf allowed himself a whine of irritation.  His impulse was to rush at the man, to bound off of the muscles of his back and send his body over the edge again.  At barely seven cactuses in height it was not a long fall to the desert floor.  To investigate the fallen form, though, would have required a journey back along the mesa, to where the treacherously steep and rocky terrain gave way to a more easily traversable slope down to the desert floor.  Despite making that same journey many times, he knew that it would be a fruitless waste of previous energy.  And, as always, he would only find the old man at the foot of the mesa, his body still bent in its seated position, unharmed save for fresh rips in the fabric covering his body.  And there the old man might remain undisturbed for days, or even weeks until it would one day be found seated again on the edge of the mesa’s cliff, eyes staring into the distance, face timeworn like that of the mesa itself.  None of the wolf’s pack brothers had ever observed the man making the return journey to his perch, nor had any of them ever seen an indication of movement from him.  But clearly he did move when it suited him to do so.  Fungus, one of his pack brothers, claimed to have once seen an old woman on the mesa as well.  He claimed she had emerged from a wooden cave in the air and had carried a shiny stick.  She had screamed noises at the old man for some time, but even then he did not move and the old woman returned to her wooden cave in the air and closed its door.  None of the other pack brothers had witnessed this, none of them had seen the wooden cave, and none of them would admit that they did not know what a wooden cave looked like let alone how it came to be in the air.  Fungus was crazy.

The wolf remained seated a few tail lengths distance from the old man and waited as the evening slowly grew darker.  Prey of a more animated nature would be stirring before long and the wolf knew that his hunger would soon be sated.

In the distance, across the dry lake bed overlooked by the mesa, there came a humming, growling sound.  Within a short time, two lights appeared to accompany the sound and the wolf knew that this signaled the approach of one of the long, armored, round-legged beasts that had been tamed by the humans.  The wolf had seen such beasts before, but their territory was usually limited to the long gray stretches of flat rock the humans had arranged on the far side of the lakebed.  On occasion, however, the humans and their beasts had strayed into his pack’s territory.  The wolf knew that he must be on his guard for moving humans were less predictable than the still old man.

As the long beast came closer, the wolf could see that it was black and with two fins at its rear, much like the creatures he had seen rushing through the distant rivers in the rainy season.  It stopped moving some distance from the foot of the mesa, perhaps not wishing to venture close to some of the larger rocks that had fallen from its face.  The beast stopped growling, but light continued to pour from its eyes.  Presently the black armored sides of the beast opened, causing a low buzzing sound that only ceased when the humans had emerged from the beast and again closed its sides.  The wolf could at once smell their sweat and then their blood.  It was pumping just fine.  Then the humans began to make their usual noises.

“You have got to get a new ride, man!” one of them said, striking the side of the beast with his foot.  The wolf observed that the man’s lanky form might lend itself to swiftness.

“I said I was sorry,” the other one bellowed.  He was taller and stouter than the lanky man.  The wolf didn’t understand him either, but thought the big man could prove to be a powerful, but slow opponent.

“No A/C, broken window crank… It’s like an oven in there!  Probably cooler in the damn trunk.”

“If I’d known we were coming all the way out here, I would’ve borrowed a different car,” the bigger man said.  “Maybe Donny’s new one.”

“That hatchback piece of shit?  What an asshole!”

“Hey, he got a great deal on it.”

“I don’t care if he got it for free,” the lanky man said.  “It’s still a hatchback piece of Japanese shit and Donny’s an asshole for buying it.”

The wolf felt a flash of anger from the big man, but it quickly subsided.  “Don’t worry about it,” he said.  “It’ll get plenty cool here once it’s all the way night.  We could probably just leave him and go.  He’d be froze by morning.”

“We’ll leave him, all right,” the lanky man said.  The man then reached into his clothing and produced a small white stick.  His paw then seemed to catch fire and he touched the tip of the stick into the flames until smoke began to puff from his mouth.

“Let’s do this,” the lanky man said.

From his perch on the mesa, the wolf watched as the two men walked to the rear of their beast to open what must have been its armored, flat tail.

“Oh, look.  He’s awake,” the lanky man said.  “Get him out of there.”

The bigger man reached into the rear of the beast and, with some effort, withdrew from it another human.  For a moment, the wolf entertained the notion that the humans were born from their armored beasts.  But then he became distracted by the new sensory combination of sweat, blood and, most deliciously, fear, as the newly born man was dropped to the ground.  It took a moment to see the new man clearly, but his top legs appeared to be bound behind his back and his lower legs bound at the ankle.  The bound man smelled younger than the first two men, scarcely older than a pup, but he wasn’t a small man either.  Another growl of hunger escaped from the stomach of the wolf and he padded closer to the edge of the cliff, watching as the big man looped his paws into the pits of the bound man’s top legs and pulled him along the desert floor and into the light of the beast’s eyes.  The lanky man followed and propped one of his leather-covered lower paws onto the beast’s lip.

“Hiya, (NAME REDACTED),” the lanky man said, puffing out his smoke.  “Welcome to the desert.”

The bound man made noises, but his jaws were covered by something.

“What’s that?  You don’t like it out here?” the lanky man said.  He laughed.  “Aww.  Ain’t that sad, Mike? (NAME REDACTED) comes out all the way out from the East Coast and he doesn’t want to see the sights.”

The big man gave a chuckle.  “Yeah, it’s a… it’s a real shame.”

The lanky man leaned down over the prone, bound man and began making louder sounds.  “It is a shame.  Cause if (NAME REDACTED) didn’t want to see the desert, all he had to do was stay home in the first place.  Right, (NAME REDACTED)?”

The bound man made an aggressive sound from beneath his mouth covering.  The lanky man flashed with anger and struck out with one of his lower paws, connecting with the bound man’s midsection.  This elicited a muffled groan of pain.

“No, if he’d just stayed home and played in his own sandbox, we wouldn’t have had any reason to give him a ride to ours.”

The bound man made more muffled noises.

“Oh, look there, Mike!  I think (NAME REDACTED)’s starting to see the light.”

The big man laughed, but he smelled nervous.

“What is it they say about hindsight, Mike?”

“Um,” the big man said.  There was a long pause.  “It’s good to have?”

“That’s right,” the lanky man said.  “It’s good to have.”  He then reached one of his paws into the back of his leg-coverings and returned with something heavy and black.  “Trouble is, it’s only useful to have it if you’re still around to learn a lesson from it afterward.”

The bound man instantly began making louder, more frantic sounds.  His heart was racing.  Fear was pouring out of him, causing the wolf’s mouth to water.  He wished his pack brothers were near.  Together, they might have a chance of catching at least two of these men before any of them could hide in the guts of their armored beast.  After frustrated months of wondering what an easy human meal might taste like, this opportunity was tantalizing.

“Sorry, (NAME REDACTED),” the lanky man said over the cries of the bound man.  “Some mistakes you only get to make once.  If it’s worth anything to you, though, we’ll be sure to send (OTHER NAME REDACTED) a condolence card for you.”

The bound man’s body thrashed, striking out with one of his back legs, which had apparently come free of its binding.  The lanky man dodged out of the way, scarcely avoiding the strike and the bound man’s foot connected with the lip of the beast instead with a thunk.  The armored beast did not cry out.

“I told you to tie him good!” the lanky man screamed, his fire stick falling from his mouth.

“I did!” the big man shouted.  Anger.  Nerves.  Fear.

The wolf now stood at the very edge of the cliff.  He could see the bound man still thrashing on the ground, rolling partially out of the beast’s eye lights.  If it were half an hour later, he would have rolled into pitch blackness, but in the twilight he could still be seen even by the humans.  The wolf could smell the sweat and dirt that now caked the man’s face, could practically see the blood roiling beneath the thin skin of his neck.  He longed to sink his teeth into that neck.  Without his pack, though, he did not dare move.  For now, he would simply stay upon the mesa, next to the stone-like old man, and watch.

The lanky man shouted below and waved his heavy black thing some more until the big man seemed to find his motion.  He stepped around the edge of the armored beast, leaned over and struck out with a clenched paw.  The motion wasn’t precisely quick, but it was powerful enough to still the movements of the bound man.  The wolf could smell urine almost immediately, but the bound man’s heart was still beating strong.

“Where’s the rope?” the big man said.

“Fuck the rope.  Just do him.”

The big man looked down at the bound man.  “W-what?” he said.

The lanky man bore his teeth.  The wolf could smell firestick smoke and onions on his breath—pathetic plant-eaters.  “We didn’t drag him out here to play dress up, Mike.  Do him.”

“But I… I don’t want—” the big man said.  The wolf could feel the pulsing of his nerves.

“You’re doing this,” the lanky man said.  “If you want to keep working for Lance, you’re going to have to prove yourself useful.  He knows you’re good for fist work, but he says you ain’t got the stones for nothing else.  I’m the one that set him straight about that.  Got it?”  The lanky man turned the heavy black thing over in his paw and held it out to the big man.  “Do it.”

That was when a rock fell from the upper face of the mesa.  It fell five cactus heights before impacting noisily against the slight slope of the otherwise almost vertical face of the mesa.  The wolf didn’t know if his own weight had caused it to fall, but he could see that it had drawn the attention of the men on the desert floor.  They had turned toward the sound and were holding their paws up to block the glare from the armored beast.  While the sun had already set, the wolf knew there was possibly still enough light for even the humans to make out his shape and that of the old man.  The wolf stood his ground.

“Something’s up there,” the lanky man said after a time.

The lanky man moved to the rear of the armored beast and reached inside its still open rectum.  He brought out another stick, the end of which burst into light, and turned its beam in the direction of the mesa until it found its target, shining directly onto the old man’s glass-eyed staring face.

“It’s a dude,” the big man said.

The wolf drew away from the beam, but his movement must have been noticed, for the light quickly flicked into his eyes.

“It’s a dude and his dog,” the lanky man said. “Probably some Indian off the reservation, or something.  Probably drunk.”

“But he might have seen us,” the big man said.

“Yeah.  No shit.”

The light flicked back onto the old man’s face and remained there as the lanky man walked forward toward the cliff face.

“Hey!  Hey, mister?  Nice night for a walk, huh?” the lanky man said, bringing the heavy black thing up just behind his light stick.  “We’re just out here, playing a trick on this friend of ours.  You want to come down and see?”  The lanky man paused for a moment, watching.

“He ain’t moving, Tito,” the big man said.  “You sure he ain’t dead?”

“He’s got a dog,” the lanky man said, moving again toward the face of the mesa.  Then he tripped over one of the many loose stones in plentiful supply near the foot of the mesa and stumbled forward, flailing his top legs to keep his balance.  His light flickered down for a moment to check his footing, but returned quickly to the wolf’s face and then the old man’s.

“Got some primo whiskey in the car, man.  Firewater?”

“What are you doing?” the big man said from where he remained near their beast.  The lanky man stopped moving and seethed, but didn’t shift the light from the old man’s face.

“I’m just coming over to invite our new buddy up there to play a little game with us.”

“A game?”

“Yeah,” the lanky man said.  “That’s right, Buddy.  Play a game with us.  Your doggie can play, too.”  The lanky man again raised the heavy black thing behind his light.  “I like to call this game, `Target Practice,’” he said.

The black thing spat out three bursts of fire that were louder than thunderclaps.  The wolf dropped into a startled crouch, but had already felt the vibrations as two of the fire bursts struck the face of the mesa below, sending more rock raining down.  The third struck the old man’s knee, rocking him on his perch, but doing no damage.  Even the cloth covering of the man’s legs was untouched, for it had been torn away during the old man’s many tumbles from the rock at the hands of his pack brothers.

Carefully, the wolf raised his head to see over the cliff.  The lanky man was covering his face with one of his top legs against the shower of rock chips. Then his light shone again across the old man’s unchanged face.

“Did I hit him?”

“I… I dunno,” the big man said.  The wolf could smell the big man’s fear nearly as strongly as that of the bound man before.  And beyond the edge of the armored beast, the wolf could hear a low moaning from where the bound man lay.

The lanky man lifted the heavy black thing and it spat another burst of fire and noise.  This time the thunder burst struck the old man on the chin and flew off into the sky.

“He moved!  I saw him move!” the big man called.  Indeed, the wolf saw that the old man had been rocked back from the force of the burst, balanced momentarily on the pivot of his rear.  Then he fell forward again into his seated position. Other than a small spot where the fire blast had chipped away some of the crust of sand and dust on the old man’s chin, though, there was no sign that he’d been struck at all.

“Goddammit!” the lanky man shouted.  “How am I missing?  He’s only like 50 feet away!”

“I seen him move,” the big man called again.

“He ought to be running,” the lanky man said.  “This old fuck’s either dead drunk or dead stupid.”

The wolf peered over the edge of the cliff, but was hit by the beam of light and jerked his head back.  Another thunder burst sounded, sending up a blast of rocks from the edge of the cliff where the wolf’s head had been moments before.  Then another burst followed, this one bouncing off the old man’s shoulder, spinning his body around slightly until his bent knees caught on the edge of the cliff.

“Son of a bitch!” the lanky man screamed.  The light beam danced frantically across the old man’s front.  There then followed a loud click and an angry cry from the lanky man.  “Shit!”

The light vanished.  The wolf couldn’t see what was happening below, but from the sound of it he didn’t need to see.  He could hear the lanky man’s pawsteps as he moved back down the slope of the foot of the mesa.

“Bring me the bullets from the map box!” the lanky man screamed.  Even as he was making this noise, though, the wolf could hear the sound of rocks sliding beneath the man’s back paws.  The lanky man’s heart rate increased as he flailed his top legs to compensate.  More stones could be heard sliding as the man scrambled through them, and then there came a shout that ended abruptly as the lanky man’s body struck the rocky slope.  Instantly, the wolf could smell the tangy scent of blood in the air, just as he felt the sharp increase of the man’s body systems reacting to pain.  The wolf’s mouth watered anew and he stepped back to the edge of the cliff.  Now he could see the lanky man below, lying awkwardly on his back amid the rocks.  The light stick had tumbled further down the hill, as had the heavy black thunder-spitter.

“Tito?  Are you okay?” the big man called from near the armored beast.

“My leg… my back… my goddamn leg!” the man moaned between gasps for air.  He tried to bend to reach for his shin—which the wolf could smell as the source of the blood—but the lanky man was scarcely able to raise his own head.  The big man ran toward his fallen friend, but he too tripped on a rock and went flailing through the darkness before regaining his balance.  He reached the light stick and used its beam to guide him to where the lanky man lay.  There followed a long time during which the lanky man screamed a number of times in anger as well as a number of times in agony as the big man attempted to help him to his paws.  They were so engaged in this that neither of them noticed that the bound man had risen to stand upright beyond the armored beast.  Just as the big man was at last able to raise the still howling lanky man to a standing position, the now unbound man pulled open the side of the armored beast, causing the buzzing to return as he climbed into its guts.

“What the hell?” the lanky man shouted.

The beast roared to life, causing its eye lights to blaze even brighter.

“Get him!  Stop him!”

The big man stood still, supporting the lanky man’s weight.

“He’s taking the fucking car!” the lanky man screamed.  “Get him!”

“The gun!  Where’s the gun?!” the big man said.

“Go! Get him!  Just fucking get him! Go! Go!”

The big man let go of the lanky man, who crumbled into a screaming pile.  The wolf then saw the light stick beam darting along the ground as the big man ran through the rocks as best he could toward the armored beast.  It was too late, though.  The unbound man had guided the armored beast to move backward and then to turn its round legs toward the lake bed.  It then leapt forward, bounding smoothly back in the direction of the human’s usual territory—where their hard, gray stretches of land extended from horizon to horizon.  The big man ran after it, but, just as the wolf had suspected earlier, he wasn’t very fast at all.  The light still clutched in his paw, swinging as he moved, the big man continued to run after the armored beast long after the red fin lights and the white light of its still open rectum had vanished.  Then the big man tripped and the light stick dropped and went out.

From his perch on the top of the mesa, the wolf threw back his head and howled.  A moment later, he felt glory at the mixture of pain and terror that exploded from the desert floor below.  In the distance, he heard a return cry and he bounded away to greet his pack brothers and lead them to what might only be their first kill of the night.

Seated on the edge of the cliff, his body cocked at a slightly acute angle, the old man remained, his expressionless, stone-like face staring into the cold desert night.

 

THE END

Copyright 2010-2015 Eric Fritzius, Mister Herman’s Publishing Company.  All rights reserved.

Quentin Tarantino Vs. Jack London (Part 2)

So, like I was saying, “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk” began as a paragraph in my ideas file. And I still have that scrap of an idea, from that file, in its original form, punctuation errors and all. It reads:

A mobster/serial killer brings a new victim out into the desert to kill them. He, unfortunately spies Stone sitting on a cliff in the distance and believes him a witness.   Another character is a coyote with broken teeth, who’s been hanging around Stone’s body for quite some time in the hope he’ll finally be able to eat him. Killer is killed while failing to kill Stone. The coyote gets to eat the killer, to which Stone wakes up and says “Satisfied?”

Right away, those of you who’ve read the story or heard the podcast can tell there are some basic differences between the finished product and the original germ of an idea. For instance, the story’s not called “Coyotes Among Stones at Dusk.” I don’t recall the specific reason for trading out one canid for another, but probably it’s just that wolves make for more traditional predators, and if I was going to have metaphorical predators present in the story as well a wolf would be a better fit. I do recall researching just what sort of wolfy creature might inhabit the deserts of Arizona and came upon the Mexican gray wolf.  Their rarity gave me the opening paragraph to the story, which I rather like.

Another difference is the mention of the character of Stone by name.  That is what the old man seated on the cliff of the mesa in the story is known as.  He’s a character who’s been with me for over 20 years now and he began life in a completely different story that is not included in this collection. As you might have noticed, though, at no point in “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk” is this character named or otherwise explained. All the reader is given is that there’s an old man seated on the edge of a mesa who is clearly alive, but who is also clearly not affected by the desert conditions around him, whose blood does not flow like that of most humans, who only moves when it suits him to, and who is so impervious to physical harm that wolves have chipped their teeth trying to eat him.  (The whole mysterious old man seated in the desert thing, I acknowledge, is very reminiscent to me of a similar character from the aforementioned A Canticle for Leibowitz, though I assure you that while there are similarities, the two characters do not share the same origin and are not of the same religion.)

I know who Stone is, why he’s there, what brought him there, why stuff doesn’t hurt him, etc.  Is it important that the reader know any of it for this story to work, though?  Absolutely not. In fact, I think it’s better for it that they don’t because I’m fine with the old man’s presence being left as a mystery. I like it that he just sits there, as still and timeworn as any of the other stones present.  He never physically moves, but remains a vital moving gear in the mechanics of the story. Without him, this would just have been the story of two criminals executing a third in the desert, as witnessed by a wolf.

And that was the other major reason for keeping Stone’s background details thin.  I was trying to limit the story’s perspective to that of the main character, the wolf, so layering anything else becomes difficult to do. If it is difficult and unnecessary to the story, why try to force it in, I say?

Plus I was plenty busy trying to set up the backstory of the mobsters themselves…

In the original draft of what was then called “Wolves and Stones,” the story’s perspective was still the wolf’s, but I also included written dialogue between the human characters to help explain why they were out in the desert, trying to rid themselves of one of their own (the guy in the trunk). There are some criminal politics at play in this, as well, in that the lanky man is attempting to force the big man into pulling the trigger as part of an initiation, to get in good with their boss. They then spot the old man on the cliff and things proceed. Being two-bit hoods, there’s lots of cussin’ involved, too. Which is partly the reason Belinda described the story as Quentin Tarantino Vs. Jack London.

Belinda is not a fan of cussin’ in her writing.  She doesn’t write about two-bit hoods; she writes poignant stories about small town life—where the politics and emotional turmoil can run just as deep, but tend to happen over bingo cards, and any dead bodies found in car trunks tend to be in cremated form, sealed within a well-burped Tupperware container.   F-bombs are not her bag, and among her initial notes about my first draft, (dutifully turned in by Tuesday evening, midnight) was the comment that perhaps I didn’t need quite so many. In my defense, I only had four, but she thought I might not need any. My argument, which still stands, is that capturing natural-sounding speech is the job of the writer and when writing about men who communicate largely via cursing there was some degree of it to be expected in their depiction. She, of course, understood and even grudgingly agreed. Being a proper lady, though, she still felt the need to encourage me to find creative way to maneuver around the matter.  I bristled at this and resolved to remove not one single f-bomb. I might have even added another one, just for spite.

I tinkered with the story for a bit more, and even submitted it to the Animals category of the 2011 WV Writers Annual Writing Contest. (I actually won 2nd place in that category, but for a different animal story, one called “Native Arts” which eventually became “The Ones that Aren’t Crows,” as found in A Consternation of Monsters–further illustrating how long it takes me to find a proper title.) That’s where I left it.  For a while, at least.

A few years later, after we’d moved back to Greenbrier County,  I was called upon to do a live reading for a local annual literary event and was casting around for a story I’d not already read in a previous year. I had several candidates that had never been read live, but none of them would fit into the 20 minute time limit I was given. Even “Wolves and Stones,” as it was still called, didn’t fit because at 14 pages it would have taken around 28 minutes to read (using my usual estimate of 2 to 2.5 minutes per page). Plus there was all that cussin’, which would have been a bit uncomfortable to read before the standard literary tea crowd.

That’s when I finally decided to answer a question that had come up in my mind during the original writing of the story: if the story was truly told from the wolf’s perspective, and if I really wanted to show events exclusively from the wolf’s point of understanding (cars shown as metal beasts, cigarettes as burning sticks, etc.) how could I then also include English dialogue that he be unable to understand?  Sure, you can’t convey the same level of detail in the backstory of the criminals without it, but if I was creative there would be ways to suggest a lot of it that would not require dialogue.

As an experiment, I went through the story and removed the dialogue. The actions, as witnessed by the wolf, still told most of the story. Explaining every single thing I knew about the backstory was not necessary provided the characters actions could convey most of that story. Sure, you lose the fine details, but you get what’s happening all the same. Furthermore, it cut out around four pages and all the EFFing cussin’ to boot. Suddenly, I had a story I could read.

That night, I explained to the attendees at the reading that my story was still a little experimental, but I was pretty sure they’d be able to keep up. They were. It seemed to go over well.  More tinkering followed until we have what we have.

One thing that I did not find a way to convey in the story, however—and it’s another plot point that isn’t largely important to the story itself—was a way to reveal the identity of the man inside the trunk. I won’t spoil that here—at least not just yet. I will say, though, that he’s a fairly pivotal figure in the connected world of stories within A Consternation of Monsters. In fact, if things had gone differently for him in this story—if he had not lived, for instance—at least half of the other stories in the collection would not have happened at all, or would have happened very differently. In some ways, he’s the lynch pin of the whole collection.

My inclination is to run a contest of some sort, giving away a copy of the book to whoever can successfully put a name to the guy in the trunk. However, I also suspect that not enough people have read the book, and the character does not appear in any of the podcast adaptations so far, beyond “Wolves…” So it would be one of my friends who would win—and probably one who read the first draft to begin with. I hate to not do a contest, though.

Tell ya what…. Go read the interview I did over at the Inspiration for Writers blog. I’m giving away a free book there and it’s far easier to qualify for than reading a whole book. Go read to the end and you’ll find out how.

But, if someone who has read the book wants to drop me a line with a guess as to whom is in the trunk, I’ll come up with a suitable prize for the first person who gets it right. Might be a free story. Might be something I mail you. Might be that person’s name written into a new story. It’ll be fun.  Send in your guesses to eric.fritzius@gmail.com.

I guess, though, this means I’ll have to redact the actual character’s name when I post the draft of “Wolves & Stones” complete with dialogue in part 3 on Monday.

The other thing that occurred to me about the origins of the story itself is that they owe a great deal to a comic book short story by Paul Chadwick, featuring his character Concrete.  For those who don’t know (and shame on you for not), Concrete is a comic book that first saw publication in 1986, featuring a character named Ronald Lithgow, a former political speech writer for a senator, whose brain is transplanted, by aliens, into a gigantic rock body.  He escapes them they flee the planet with his old body, and he’s basically left to start his life over again in this new and amazing form.  Naturally, you probably assume he becomes a super hero and starts fighting crime.  But he doesn’t.  That’s not Ron.  Instead, he basically becomes a celebrity by default, because in order to live among regular people the government concocts a cover-story that Concrete is a government-created cyborg.  He instantly becomes a celebrity, gets his 15 minutes of fame, then the world moves on to the next big thing in pop culture and Ron is left to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, with his newfound abilities.

During one particular story, Concrete spends the night in a desert, watching the animal life around him using his enhanced vision.  At one point in the story, a car arrives and a man gets out and goes to the trunk of the car.  The man pulls a large bag from the trunk, of the size and weight that might contain a body.  Concrete assumes this man has murdered someone and is about to dump the corpse.  He wonders what he should do.  Only when he investigates, he finds that what the man is truly dumping is not a body but a giant bag of junk food.

I can’t help but think that this story influenced my own back when I wrote the original note in my ideas file.  I doubt I knew it at the time, but the fact that Concrete is stone-like, and Stone is similarly tough to kill, had to be a factor in there, at least subconsciously.  That and the potential killer/actual killers are the only points the story shares otherwise.  However, the original image I saw in my head that inspired the story in the first place was of Stone seated on a very similar desert hillside to the one Concrete sat upon, at night, only with a coyote seated beside him with a mouthful of broken teeth.

(If you’ve not done so already, you should read some Concrete.  The entire run has been collected into a series of nifty paperbacks.  Or you can track down the mini-series collections, some of which are in color.  I prefer Chadwick’s art in black & white, though.)

As for my original ending, Stone didn’t get to wake up and speak, as I’d intended.  He just didn’t want to when I reached that part.  I’m always a firm believer in listening to what the story and its characters are telling you.  They’re not often wrong.

(CONTINUE TO PART 3)

Quentin Tarantino Vs. Jack London (Part 1)

Titles are tricky.  Sometimes they suggest themselves immediately.  In fact, sometimes—though rarely—they can be in place before the story is even written (as was the case for “The Hocco Makes the Echo”).

It took me a very long time to come up with a satisfactory title for my story “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk,” though.  For a long time this story was just called “Wolves and Stones,” which I was not a fan of, but couldn’t think of anything better.  My writing mentor, Belinda Anderson, suggested I call it “Quentin Tarantino Vs. Jack London” because of the whole mobsters vs. canines angle.  I liked this a lot, though I had to amend the suggestion to what I felt was a more accurate title: “Quentin Tarantino Fights Jack London (while Walter M. Miller, Jr. watches).”  If you’ve read some Jack London, and Miller’s grand post-apocolyptic epic A Canticle for Leibowitz, and then watch Reservoir Dogs, and then squint really hard, you might be able to see what I’m talking about.  Or maybe it’s just me.

While the above title might have been accurate, it still didn’t feel like a proper fit.  The final title came when I was assembling this collection.  I just sat down, stared at my screen, and refused to move until I could think of something better.  “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk” popped in a few minutes later and it works for me.   It’s a very Neil Gaimany-sounding title, which is always a good thing in my book.

The origin of the story, though, is a longer journey that also involves Belinda Anderson.  One of the reasons she’s my writing mentor is because for many years she taught a twice-annually, eight-week writing workshop.  The workshops would be one night a week, sometimes weekly, sometimes bi-weekly, and I took every one of them I could.  Even after my wife and I moved an hour and a half away to Princeton, I still made the journey back.  Eventually, though, schedules of the participants no longer meshed and the workshop came to an end.  I was lamenting this to her on the phone one day.  I told her my writing output had suffered because I work best with a deadline.  Her classes guaranteed me at least one story per 8 week workshop.

“Okay,” she said.  “I want 5,000 words by Tuesday.”

“Um, do what?”

“You heard me. Deadline,  Tuesday, 5,000 words.  Get to it.”

“Yeah, um…. Okay.”

This was on a Friday.  I’ve produced more writing in less time, but usually only with a plan already in place.  Coming up with a story from scratch in that time would be a stretch, so I decided to consult my Writer’s Notebook.

Like many writers (the good ones, I’m told) I keep a notebook for ideas, plots, characters, TITLES, and whatall.   Okay, that’s sort of a lie.  These days I keep an Evernote file in my phone.   And rarely have my Writer’s Notebooks actually been physical notebooks.  Usually the ideas would start as notes jotted on napkins, receipts and scratch paper from the library, gathered in a pile on my desk and eventually transferred into an IDEAS file in my computer.  A number of my short stories have started this way, but I believe only two from A Consternation of Monsters qualify: “Nigh” and “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk.”

Once again, it is probably helpful if you’ve read this story before proceeding, as many spoilers will follow.  However, you can hear the whole story for free by checking out the Consternation of Monsters podcast page, which features an audio adaptation of “Wolves…”

Go and listen to it now, then come back here for part 2.  I’ll wait.

(CONTINUE TO PART 2)

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