Ten years ago, on a Sunday night, I found myself walking the darkened streets of downtown Durbin, W.Va, dressed as an 1880’s train conductor, and looking for a bar. (What brought me there into that situation was an experience I decided to write about at the time. What follows is a revised edition of that writing. And if any of it seems familiar already, it’s probably because you read the introduction to A Consternation of Monsters, because this experience informed that introduction.)
The day before that, I received a phone call from Jessica Viers, a friend of mine who worked for the Greenbrier Valley Theatre in Lewisburg. She asked if I was interested in going up to Pocahontas County, to Durbin, to act in a Canadian basic-cable television series that would air on the Outdoor Living Network. The job only paid $50 and would probably be filming late into the night, but it was a paid acting gig and I’d get to ride on a vintage train and hang out with friends from the theatre. Sounded like a fun time to me, so I signed on.
We pulled into town around 3p and stopped at the depot where we were to meet our Canadian film-crew. Durbin, back then, was a little town of about 300 people with an amazingly picturesque main-street, complete with a general store, a little bed & breakfast and a working train depot that runs scenic train tours using classic locomotives of the past. It’s one of only three incorporated townships in Pocahontas County.
The crew we met worked for a company called Creepy Features, based out of Toronto, which produced a show called Creepy Canada. They were in Durbin to film segments of a story called The Ghost of Silver Run Tunnel. (Which we assumed must mean that they’d run out of creepy stuff to cover in Canada so they had to go south.) It was a legend I had never heard, but that might be because Silver Run Tunnel is nowhere near Pocahontas County. It’s 154 miles away from Durbin, in Cairo, W.Va. The reason Durbin and not Cairo was chosen as a film location, though, is because its tourist railroad depot is home to the oldest of two working Climax Model locomotive engines in the world, the very sort of engine that was part of the original legend. It’s a great black, smoke-belching, steam-spitting dinosaur of an engine and is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. This engine was attached to four cars around and within which we would be filming. Bob & Al, the engineer and conductor, were tuning it up as we arrived and we spent a half hour watching it as we waited for the crew.
The legend of the ghost of Silver Run Tunnel is pretty standard ghost story material: a young lady is murdered on a train in the 1880s, her ghost comes back to haunt the Silver Run Tunnel near the site of her murder, and has allegedly appeared to people traveling in the area, often including train engineers and other such folk.
After signing waiver forms granting rights to use my likeness for the show, in any form it might take, etc., I was hustled off for a costume fitting and before long was dressed in an honest-to-God conductor’s uniform, which had been graciously provided by the actual conductor, Al. I had the hat, the vest, the pocket watch and the big flappy gold-buttoned coat.
Now, from the script I’d been given, I didn’t think I would have much to do. The conductor was only mentioned twice in it and wasn’t necessarily the same conductor in both scenes. He certainly didn’t have any lines, nor did any of our parts since most of this action would be overdubbed later with narration. However, the director for the shoot had other ideas and soon I was in costume and being filmed assisting Jessica–our would-be ghost–in some pre-death scenes, the both of us improvising dialogue which was recorded by a boom mic over the roar of the train. I’m sure we looked atmospheric standing beside the enormous train-engine as it spat a steady stream of steam over us. After several different angles and close-ups, the director added the presence of the killer himself, played by my former local play director, Devin. He did look quite menacing coming through the steam and the atmosphere was lent additional creepiness by the overcast and rain-threatening weather.
We moved on for some filming in the caboose of the train, which we had to use for all the train interior shots as there were no passenger cars available. This filming wound up stretching on past sunset as the crew fought to get all their daylight shots done while they still had light, plus some day-for-night shots that would be darkened later in post-production.
As with any kind of project like this, a lot of our job as actors was to hurry up and wait, particularly after dark where every shot had to be lit, which was a complicated process as all the equipment had to be powered by a portable generator. I felt kind of bad for the others in our group who had to wait back at the depot doing nothing while Devin, Jessica and I filmed scenes in the train itself for a couple of hours, but I figured it would eventually be my turn to wait.
One of Devin’s scenes got to be a bit hazardous. Director Bill asked him to move along the side of the tanker car, which meant walking on a seven-inch wide grid of metal runner while holding onto a pipe for a railing, then step across into the caboose while the camera filmed. This was not an easy thing, as there’s a nice sized chasm between the two cars that’s constantly shifting length due to the jostling of the train. One wrong step meant potentially falling between the cars and getting ground up under the train’s wheels. Making matters even trickier was that the camera was set up blocking most of the way across. Devin did it just fine, though, and even looked menacing the whole while. We had several “Do your own stunts” occurrences throughout the evening, another of which was Jessica’s “death” scene at the hands of a knife-wielding Devin. It took a while to film and from my vantage point outside the caboose windows, looked pretty violent.
Around 8 p the train pulled back to the depot and we were told supper had been served. The crew had brought in around 8 huge pizzas and there was plenty to go around. It was good stuff too, particularly since it was not pizza from a major chain. After we ate, Bill announced that Devin was through filming as the killer and could change back to civilian clothes. Everyone else would be needed, but I wouldn’t be needed for a while as there were quite-a-few night scenes they wanted to get out of the way that didn’t involve me. Devin asked if there were any bars in the area and the crew mentioned that there was one across the street. He decided to give it at try and I decided to join him since it didn’t appear my services would be needed for hours yet. Downtown Durbin is a ghost town on a Sunday night. Not a single store or business was open including, as we later found out, the bar. But that didn’t stop us from walking its length in search of something open. Other than the sounds of the train and some cool wind breezing through, everything was perfectly quiet. If it weren’t for the sole Coca Cola machine, which looked quite out of place set against its backdrop, we could have convinced ourselves that we’d been hurled back in time to the 1940s.
Eventually, after walking all the way down to the end of town and then back up, Devin and I found the bar. It looked closed from the outside, but one of the two doors on its storefront was unlocked. We entered to find chairs on tables, the lights dim and not a soul to be seen.
“Hello?” Devin called.
“Meow,” a kitty voice answered. But no human voice returned our calls. There were some lights coming from beneath a door that appeared to be an office for the bar, but no noises came from within. We decided that they really were closed and that shotguns might become involved if we disturbed the place further, so we left, shutting the door firmly behind us. Only in a place like small town West Virginia could the bars leave their doors unlocked on a Sunday night.
Back at the depot, there was a family waiting on one of the benches. We’d had a few curious on-lookers throughout the day, but at 9 at night these folks were determined to stick around in case anything interesting happened. I believe they were related to Durbin’s mayor, who had welcomed us earlier and had been very gracious.
“Excuse me, but aren’t you the man who was filming over by the train earlier?” a little boy asked me. “You helped carry that woman’s bags?”
“Yeah, that was me,” I said. The kid beamed up at me as though I was the most famous person he’d ever met. (For all I know, I might very well have been at that point in his life.) His sisters and grandmother were soon talking to me about the filming process and seemed very eager to hear what I had to say.
“Do you know when they’re going to film the ghost on the front of the train?” the grandmother asked. She had heard that there was a scene in which the ghost, i.e. Jessica, was to ride on the front of the engine itself as it rolled down the track. Even then Jessica was getting into her ghost garb and was cinched up eight ways from Tuesday, not only in a corset so she could squeeze her thin frame into that even tinier wedding dress, (she was only able to eat one slice of pizza because she had no room for more in there), but also with a harness with which she was to be affixed to the front of the engine for her upcoming scenes. The harness was woefully uncomfortable, difficult to remove for bathroom-break purposes and her ghost costume was not the warmest either. But she was a trooper
I told the grandmother that from what I heard there were several scenes that had to be filmed elsewhere before they would get to the ghost on the train, so it would likely be a good wait. Then the grandmother surprised me.
“Would you mind, maybe, finding a piece of paper and signing it for us. Like an autograph?” she asked.
“Um, ma’am, none of us here are actually famous, or anything. We’re just from Lewisburg.”
“Well, I know. But you might get to be famous. You’re going to be on TV.”
Only then did it truly hit me how surreal yet oddly cool this situation was. Sure, I might think it was absurd for them to want our autographs, but I was seeing the matter from backstage, where we were just a bunch of community theater players. In front of the curtain, though, life was still glitzy and this little documentary program looked like the big time. I went and told the cast that their autographs had been requested. They thought it was cute too. Devin suggested we sign a copy of the script, so I volunteered mine (hey, I hadn’t used it so far, what were the chances I’d need it?) and we all signed our names and our character names. The family was overjoyed. (Now, it should be noted that Tonri Latham was then and continues to be a much-sought-after lighting designer who works all over the country on major projects, and Max Arnaud is a working actor in New York, who I’ve since worked with in other shows at GVT, so there was some degree of fame present.)
It was around this time that I had a very interesting conversation with a local man on the topic of ghosts and legends. As detailed by fictional radio host “Rik Winston” in the introduction to A Consternation of Monsters, this gentleman, with fear in his eyes, told us about the time he encountered a mysterious figure on his family’s property, when he was young. As “Rik” says in the introduction: “He was hesitant to spell it out at first, but I could tell from his manner that whatever he’d seen had shaken him so badly that the very memory threatened to overcome him right then. I had to know his story. With some encouragement, he explained that, as a teenager, he had once heard some odd noises coming from atop the tin roof of his family’s barn. He crept out into the night, his daddy’s shotgun in hand, only to find that the noises were being made by the boot-clad heels of a figure standing atop the barn. And that figure, he told me in a whisper, was none other than a headless horseman.” When he finished, I don’t recall having much to say, other than “Wow,” cause the notion of someone claiming to have seen a headless horseman in this day and age, outside of a show on FOX, is simply ridiculous. Then again, how much more insane is the concept of a headless horseman than, say, a ghost haunting a tunnel?
Eventually, a flat-bed car was attached to the front of the engine, Jessica was attached to the engine itself and the cameras and lights set up on the flatbed for filming of her first ghostly scenes. The family loved that too, Jessica less-so, as she spent much of the time wearing a very non-ghostly jacket over her ghostly duds.
Around midnight I was starting to get sleepy and my remaining scenes—whatever they might be, as I wasn’t really sure myself—still didn’t look like they were any closer to being shot. I tried napping on one of the depot benches, but didn’t get any sleep. So mostly I just sat up talking to my castmates, Tonri and Max, who had played engineers and were just grinning from ear to ear that they’d actually been allowed to drive the train during their scenes.
Soon Devin came back to the depot and told us we’d missed out on all the fireworks. While the crew were filming near a small building just down the tracks from us, the wind whipped up and tipped over one of their $35,000 (Canadian dollars, mind you—probably about $10,000-$15,000 American) arc-lamps. It struck ground, went out and seemed a lost cause. Then, while rushing over to check on the lamp, the director caught his foot in the camera cable and down their expensive hi-def camera went too. If not for the barn-door shutters on the front of the camera, its lens would have likely smashed when it struck one of the rails. Instead it was mostly fine and so was the light.
Our next technical difficulty came when Bob, the Real Engineer, announced that his steam-powered locomotive was nearly empty of water and thus out of steam. It would take an hour to fill it back up. This put the the director, Bill, into fits, as there were still several shots of the train moving in the darkness that he needed. He moved on, though, and wound up filming some locomotive perspective shots using a tiny gas-powered service car. I can’t say enough good things about Bob and Al. They were fantastic and really seemed to enjoy the process.
Around 2 a.m. it was my turn before the cameras again. We set up several scenes on a boardwalk beside the stationary train, only to have Bob back the train out of our shot several times. By then the trains tanks were mostly full again and he was busy switching out the train cars we’d used onto side tracks in preparation for bringing on the more modern-looking cars and even a new engine which would be used for tours next weekend. So every time the Climax Engine backed up or came toward us, Bill would interrupt our shots to quickly get footage of the train passing. This helped him secure the shots he needed. Pretty smooth. We finished up our shots and Bill announced we were at a wrap.
Months passed before I heard anything more about the episode itself. By then it had already aired in Canada, but there was no word on a U.S. airing. Eventually, I received a DVD of the appearance. And when I watched it, I was shocked. Not at the quality of it, which was fine, but at the fact that my character, the innocent 1880s conductor, got pinned by a modern day Silver Run Tunnel Ghost theorist/psychic as the killer of the girl who became the ghost of Silver Run Tunnel. I know!
Turns out, I actually know that Silver Run Tunnel Ghost theorist/psychic. Her name is Susan Sheppard and she’s a writer and paranormal investigator who lives in the Parkersburg area. I know her and her daughter through West Virginia Writers, Inc. Susan was actually the whole reason Creepy Canada came down to film in our state at all. She’d worked with the director and producer on a previous project and had pitched some legends in our state to them at the time. They bit. So Susan, who I was unaware was involved at all, got to be the on-camera talking head to speak about the case of the ghost and propose a few theories about it. She, unaware of who was playing the conductor, supposed that he may have been the guy to kill the girl who became the ghost and not the guy Devin was playing at all. The funny thing is, the producers took footage from the scene where I was leading Jessica to her seat in the train and were able to zoom in and freeze on a micro expression on my face that looked a little bit sinister in order to have visual record to help shore up Susan’s theory. I never made the expression intentionally, but for a second my face registered something dark all the same.
About a year ago, my friend Courtney at the theatre sent a note to me, Devin, Max and Tonri to say she’d seen us on Destination America. Evidently her mother had recorded a bunch of DA’s ghost shows for use as background in the Halloween season and Courtney had tucked into the second episode of their show Hauntings and Horrors, only to be shocked to find herself staring at me, Jessica, Max, Devin, and Tonri in our various roles. The Creepy Canada footage had been repurposed for a new show in 2014, which has now been replayed any number of times. That $50 they paid me has gone pretty far for them.
Well, it wouldn’t be October without the annual airing of my episode of “Hauntings and Horrors” on Destination America. (Shhh! It’s actually my episode of “Creepy Canada” recorded way back in 2005, then repurposed in 2014 for American audiences who apparently need a destination.)
So if you happen to have super deep cable or Dish Network, set your DVRs to record episode 2 on 10-7-15, at 6 a.m. eastern, and you can see me play a train conductor who may or may not have a big shocking secret (depending on the version of the story they used).
In addition to me, you’ll get a glimpse or two of other acting luminaries such as Jessica Viers, Tonry Lathroum, Devin McCann Preston, and Max Arnaud.
And not to plug my book, or anything, but the story “Rik Winston” tells in its introduction–the one involving a trip to Durbin, W.Va, and a local guy who told him about the time he saw a headless horseman on the roof of his barn–was actually a tale that I was told first hand by said local guy during my trip to Durbin to film for Creepy Canada.
In other words, a Headless Horseman lives near Durbin, W. Va. Fun fact.
In fact, I think I’ll just tell that whole story here on the blog, next week. Stay tuned…
In honor of this week’s Consternation of Monsters Podcast, I thought I’d take a look at the origins of the first story in the Consternation collection, “The Hocco Makes the Echo.”
Before I go on, however, you should probably read the story I’m about to talk about. If you’re already equipped with a Kindle account, you can download a free sample of the book which contains the entire story. If you don’t have a Kindle account, it’s easy as pie to sign up for, as Kindle offers a free app for a number of reading devices. If you have a smart phone or a tablet or simply a computer, you can use Kindle and get great deals on digital books. Check it all out HERE. Or, you can listen to me read it to you as part of the latest podcast HERE.
Okay, so you’ve gone and read or heard the story, and enjoyed the dickens out of it, I’m sure.
Guess what? Probably 95 percent of it is true. Maybe 94. Granted, a lot of difference goes down in that remaining, largely supernatural, 6 percent, but that doesn’t discount that the rest of it has a lot of basis in truth.
“The Hocco Makes the Echo” is a tale I wrote nearly 15 years ago, way back in October of ought ought. I did it as a writing challenge laid down by a group of writer friends, which was for each of us to write a horror story for Halloween. I think we had to have a deadline extension at one point, but we got our horror stories written before the holiday itself. Mine was probably an easier one to write because I didn’t have to make up much of the details at all. It was based on an incident that happened to me which had become one of the standard family stories that get trotted out every-so-often. The story itself had its origins nearly a quarter century before then.
When I was about 4-years-old, my father tried to teach me about the science of echoes in the driveway of my Papaw’s Wayne County Mississippi farm. Dad was all about science, and had indeed earlier taught me how to recognize Orion, both in the sky and on his home-brewed star maps, (which he originally created when I was in utero). So he would clap his hands to hear the echo of the sound from the trees. And he would shout various phrases into the trees as well. (I believe Hamburglar may have actually been one of the words he used.) Little me wasn’t buying into it, though. I can’t exactly recall my thought processes at the time, but the idea of sound bouncing off of trees making the echo just didn’t make logical sense to me. Instead, according to Dad, I proclaimed “The Taco makes the echo.” And stuck to my guns for the first couple of his attempts to prove otherwise. “The taco makes the echo.” Then some part of me realized that the word taco was already taken. We were, after all, living in San Antonio at the time, so I knew from tacos. I switched the name of the echo culprit to hocco after that, (pronounced “hocko”). “The Hocco makes the echo, Daddy.” And here’s the thing: I even knew what the Hocco looked like because I was staring right at it the entire time. The Hocco was, in fact, a the stump of a cypress tree, down in the boggy area between Papaw’s yard and the thick woods of the state forest beyond. The stump itself was probably three feet high and blackened with rot and moisture. Due to the way it was broken, the Hocco stump had two tall ear-like protrusions at its top, making it appear to my young mind like a tall black cat seated on its haunches, its back straight, listening. (My parents owned a couple of tall black cat wooden sculptures at the time, so I had a point of reference for tall skinny cats sitting like that.)
“The Hocco makes the echo, Daddy.”
Dad, for his part, was none too pleased that I wasn’t buying his science. And he did indeed walk closer to the woods (closer to the Hocco) and I, in turn, tried to climb on top of his head to get as far from the ground as I could get. He has since said that at the time he assumed I must have thought the Hocco was something very small, or many very small things, close to the ground, but it was only decades later that I let him in on the stump Hocco reality. (I wish I had a picture of that stump today, but it has long since returned to the earth. The illustration on the cover, however, gives you kind of an idea of how I saw it in my child’s mind.)
Of course the remaining events of the story, the last six percent, were largely fiction, though they were fictional elements within a nonfiction setting. The geography of Papaw and Mamaw’s farm house, for instance, is true to reality; including the bathroom in the center of the house, inconveniently just off the dining room. I also did own a book called Gateway to Mystery, which was a collection of abridged versions of classic stories. We also did tend to sleep in Mamaw’s back bedroom, in the brown-painted metal bed (a bedroom that appears prominently in Puppet Legacy, though that story flips the 94/6 nonfiction/fiction ratio in favor of fiction).
Write what you know–that’s the standard advice. So that’s what I did. Incorporating not only the base story of the father/son science lesson, but also elements from my Papaw’s farm which have always struck me as odd, if not especially horrific. For instance, I already discussed the various cement-block face etchings in the buildings of Papaw’s farm in my blog entry Album Cover. But the other major farm landmark I have not discussed here is the Creepy Tree. This structure existed then and still exists today, albeit in a new location.
The creepy tree, in reality, is exactly as described in the story: just two gnarled branches of wood, grown together, bolted to a post, around which Mamaw grew roses. It’s odd-looking to be sure, but isn’t truly all that creepy in real life (as can be seen in the photo). However, the fact that a nearly identical one existed on the property of Old Man Manning down the road (an actual neighbor, who was a fascinating character worthy of chronicle in his own right) was certainly a notable one. My dad noted it and also has said he could never get a straight answer out of Papaw as to the reason such structures existed on both farms. (Though, if you think about it, it could have been as simple as Mamaw noticing the Mannings’ homemade rose trellis during a visit, wanting one for her own yard, then putting Papaw to the task.) The fantasist in me, though, saw the two creepy trees as possible folkloric totems. And if such totems were present in both places, it must be for a reason. I had just the reason to plug in.
Now, I suppose a reader might ponder why the totem of the Creepy Tree, if assumed to be powerful, doesn’t seem to do much to stop the Hocco once it builds up a head of steam and decides to enter the house? It’s a good question. And there is an answer to it. Perhaps you don’t want to know it, though, so I’ll offer only a hint. It ties into one of the general themes of the stories of A Consternation of Monsters: belief is a powerful thing. There are also some fundamental questions that could be asked about the Hocco itself. I offer further hints below in green text (highlight it, if you dare): Is the Hocco an actual, physical creature, or is it an idea brought to life? Perhaps better still, which is scarier: dark, cat-like creatures in the woods who hunt using echo-location in the truest sense of the word, or entities that exist across the globe who feed on belief and can use its power to take on whatever form may be necessary to achieve the response they need in a victim (including those who may not initially believe)? Sound like any implausible monsters you’ve heard of?
The Creepy Tree, by the way, has another wrinkle in its tale. Not only did similar trees exist on my Papaw’s property and Old Man Mannings, but some time after my Papaw and Mamaw had both passed away, the Creepy Tree moved. Or, rather, it was relocated from its place on Papaw’s farm to my aunt and uncle’s home next door. It is now bolted to a new post in their front yard. Now quite likely my aunt just wanted the object, so associated with her mother and her mother’s roses, to be closer to her home by a hundred yards. But the fantasist in me finds it curious from a potentially folkloric totem standpoint all the same.
The Hocco Makes the Echo was the very first of my Aaron stories (also known as the Southern Parallels, to use their official title). While I didn’t intend it initially, Aaron Hughes (or whatever his surname happens to be from story to story) has become my literary alter ego. He’s now a character through which I can tell both fictionalized versions of events I experienced as well as events which I might have experienced had things gone a bit differently (much as the Hocco doing in Rob Hughes might suggest). In turn, Rob Hughes, being an analog of my dad, doesn’t stay dead for long. He’s turned up or has been referred to in most of the other Aaron stories, including one which was recently published in the Diner Stories: Off the Menu anthology.
Is there a master plan to the Southern Parallel Aaron stories? Sure thing. I’ll probably even wind up adapting some of them into podcast form in the coming months, being as how I only have 10 stories in A Consternation of Monsters itself. Publication plans are afoot as well, though.
Here is a short flash fiction sequel to “The Hocco Makes the Echo.” It’s a small section from a much larger piece.
Professor Riggs pointed at one of the layered blackboards of the lecture hall. On it was a barbell-shaped diagram he had drawn with chalk. There were arrows pointing into the spiraling mouth of the uppermost barbell and more arrows pointing from the mouth of the mouth of the lower one.
“Parallel universes,” he continued, “are also a factor in the Einstein-Rosen bridge.” He stabbed a fat finger in the direction of diagram. “Mathematically, the theory of black holes simply doesn’t work consistently without the existence of a universe beyond the black hole into which the matter and light that are pulled in from our universe must pass. Though science fiction would have you believe otherwise, these other universes are inconsequential to our reality because it’s not possible for us to have any interaction with them. One theory states that these universes exist all around us at different vibrational attunements. However, our most powerful supercollider could only muster up one millionth of the amount of energy necessary to open a gateway between them and allow us to see these realms. In other words, it can’t be done, so stop thinking about it.” There were chuckles from the students. Aaron only smiled.
“And beyond the impossible notion of communicating with or seeing into a parallel world,” Professor Riggs continued, “the idea that these parallel worlds would be mirror images of our own, with duplicate copies of each of us, is preposterous. Consider the genetic factor alone. We each came from an ovum fertilized by a sperm. It may have only taken one to do the fertilizing, but there were 280 million others attempting the same feat any one of which might have won the race had things gone a little differently. Factor in that this math would have been the same for your father, your grandfather and on back through the generations—each coupling a 1 in 280 million shot at producing your next ancestor in the family line. In other words, it took thousands of people and billions of chance fertilizations to make you who you are today. So to consider that there would even be one other parallel world where all the zygotes lined up and everything fell into place exactly as it did here, is truly, astonishingly, retarded.”
Back in March of this year I was invited to be a player and writer in the live Floyd Radio Show which was to and in fact did take place on the stage of Carnegie Hall in Lewisburg, WV.
The radio show itself originated in Floyd, Virginia, at the historic Floyd Country Store. The store itself was already a haven for live folk music on the weekends. The way I heard the story, musicians Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle were already regulars there when the owners approached them with the idea of them hosting a live show there in the style of an old time country radio program, bringing the music and traditions of Appalachia to a much wider audience. This would be streamed live during the show itself and recorded for posterity and podcastability down the line. They had never done anything like that before but said “sure” all the same. In addition to music, though, the ladies and a rotating number of co-writers began crafting fake commercials and comedy sketches that would pop up throughout the show, acted by members of the bands featured on the show and themselves.
Eventually the ladies took the show on a tour to other towns in other states, which is how it came to Lewisburg. Since they weren’t able to travel with bands, the show invited regional performers to come and be a part of the show in its new locations, and sought out local folks to help brainstorm and help write sketches for the show itself. From what I understand, they were given the name of Josh Baldwin, editor and publisher of the Greenbrier Valley Quarterly, a publication for which I occasionally write. He in turn sent them my name as a writer/performer. And so on the evening of March 25, I was invited to what turned out to be an Algonquin Roundtable of local Greenbrier County types, whose brains the ladies wanted to pick for local history and stories that might be fuel for the show.
We met on the top floor of what used to be a Masonic Temple on Court Street in Lewisburg, but which is now a private bar/performance space. (For about five minutes, it was a public bar/performance space until some fire code issues nixed it.) I’d only heard of there being such a space on the third floor of the former lodge. I’d never actually seen how cool it is. It has a bar with pool tables, comfy seating and a stage area for performances. We all sat around the bar and gnoshed on pizza and beer and shot the shit for three hours or so, regaling the ladies with tales of local legends and Lewisburg luminaries. There were probably a core group of 12 of us at first, but maybe 25 people filtered through during the evening to share stories and their take on stories. I only knew a handful of the people assembled. It was fascinating to be a part of, though, because I also only knew about a quarter of the stories and history being discussed, so it was a real education for me, too. The ladies took great notes.
I was invited to help write the script for the show and chose a couple of topics from their brainstorming notes to tackle. The ladies gave me access to their Google Doc for the script and I was given free reign to punch up or edit any material there, just as I invited them to alter my material however they saw fit. Most of my writing was done during rehearsals for The Skin of Our Teeth at the Greenbrier Valley Theatre, which occasionally caused issues when I was late for my cues because I was in the lobby writing. The ladies were great in their edits of the stuff I wrote. They knew what would work for their audience and what would not. They also altered the script somewhat to take advantage of some classic radio Foley equipment they had borrowed from the Greenbrier Valley Theatre, finding ways to incorporate it into the show. After several more drafts of the script, we finally assembled on the afternoon of the show itself to do a full cast readthrough. Many of the performers of the night were readers in the sketches, which were assigned as we read. I got to do a number of voices as well. A schedule of music was posted with sketches layered in between.
What truly astounded me about the program, though, was how calm Elizabeth and Anna were in the face of a show that was kind of assembled and edited on the fly. They did not appear nervous in the slightest even though they were working with a number of people who were not performers for an evening of entertainment that could go any number of directions. And while most of the rest of us had the scripts in hand, providing a net for our high wire act, they did a good bit of unscripted material during the show. They were also great at making adjustments to the intended script both before and during the show itself, as they jettisoned two or three written bits along the way for time consideration.
The stage was set up with eight mics on stands, as well as a number of sofas and chairs in which performers could sit and watch the show from the stage itself. The show’s producer and stage manager was on top of things, too, as far as alerting the players in the sketches as to when they were supposed to step out. When it came time, we just went to the most convenient mic and did our thing. It was all very relaxed and the ladies kept the show always moving forward at a nice pace.
What was really fun to experience was the green room, where the musicians who played throughout the show tuned up via impromptu jam sessions. They really seemed to enjoy it and it was a pleasure to watch. The other thing that you’ll not be able to enjoy as a podcast listener, but for which I got a front row seat for, was Elizabeth LaPrelle’s dancing. She does a traditional Appalachian step dance which is impressive. I just happened to be hanging out in the wings of the far side of the Carnegie stage when she stepped within four feet of me and began dancing in time to the music. You can likely hear it in the recording, but it was really cool to see. It was a window on a traditional part of Appalachian culture that your average West Virginian just doesn’t get to witness very often these days. The whole evening was a terrific night’s entertainment. My wife says it was among her favorite things to have seen me perform in.
My one regret is that I did not have A Consternation of Monsters finalized as a title at that point. The collection itself was already assembled and undergoing last minute editing, but the title I had chosen for it at that point, Ten Monsters Walking, just didn’t feel like the final title to me and I was hesitant to promote it by anything other than its final name.
That was all back on March 27. Why, you might ask, has it taken so long for the show to be released as a podcast? Well, I don’t know the particulars, but I expect it’s because the Floyd Radio Show is a monthly event and is typically released as a podcast on a monthly schedule. Doing a few road shows in a row, as they did, allowed them to bank a few shows that can be slotted in between the podcasts of their Floyd-based shows.
You can find Part 1 of the two part podcast, at the Floyd Radio Show site. And you can find Part 2 HERE.
I think for the time being I’ll keep it a secret as to which bits of the show I had a hand in writing. I got to perform in quite a bit of the show, but my performances are not limited to the things I wrote, nor did I perform in all of the things I had a hand in scripting. So far people who saw the show live who’ve made guesses as to what I helped write have mostly gotten it wrong, though. which I guess attests to how close to the show’s sense of humor mine may be. Elizabeth and Anna were delights to work with. I’d do it again in a second.
It’s the question of the ages, at least around this website. Who is Mister Herman?
In short, Mister Herman’s Home Page has been the name of my website since I coded my very first one back in 1995. It’s been around in one form or another, from one ISP or another, for over two decades. The actual origin of Mister Herman, however, extends well before that–technically even before my very birth…
At some point during his 20 year career in the Navy, my father acquired the head of a mannequin. It was not the sort of head that once sat upon a mannequin body, but more of the sort of fiber-glass, life-sized head used to display hats or sunglasses. As a kid, I named it Eddie and it took up residence in my bedroom, usually as the support of whatever hat I happened to like at the time. It used to have painted eyes and uniformly painted reddish brown hair, but over the years of my youth I used the head as a base for sculpting faces in modeling clay. The many times I scraped it off with a kitchen knife have scared and chipped away at the paint, until I eventually just filled it in with liquid paper. At some point, I gave Eddie a touch of gray at the temples, due to his resemblance to the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards. These days he sports a set of welder’s goggles, which hide his seemingly cataract-coated eyes from the world.
Jump ahead to my sophomore year of high school. I made what was perhaps an error in applying to receive information about educational opportunities from a major religious college in Virginia. I was then and remain a religious fellow, so I’m not knocking the institution itself. However, in this particular institution’s zeal to secure my place as a student with them, they sent me approximately one metric shit-ton of mail. For the better part of at least three years, I received on a fortnightly basis at least one thick envelope stuffed with brochures, followup notes, encouraging form letters, and earnest pleas to come visit the campus. Again, this began when I was a sophomore in high school and was entirely my fault, but it became annoying to me quickly all the same. For the first year I simply dropped their letters into my sister’s gerbil cage, where they were happily shredded into bedding. By the time I was a senior, I had pretty much had an assful of these letters. (When you’re young, you take seriously the small amount of mail you receive and are prone to take offense at any you feel are wasting your time. Did I mention the fact I was receiving all of this resented mail entirely due at my original request? Oh, it was all my fault.)
In what can only be described as a wildly passive aggressive and immature move, I began a new tactic: whenever one of their thick envelopes would arrive, I would remove from it the postage-paid envelope that was always within, then I would shred every other piece of paper within the original envelope into tiny confetti bits, then stuff those bits into the postage paid envelope, write “Mister Herman’s Mental Home” as the return address, in crayon, and then pop them back in the mail. It only took about a year of doing this before the mail from them stopped entirely. Again, I’m not claiming I had any kind of moral high ground in this battle, nor was I acting maturely; I was 17.
Mister Herman’s Mental Home was born from this and is what I began to call my bedroom. I even had a sign. And the symbol of all things Mister Herman became a drawing of a partially deflated smiley balloon, which I also used to draw on the return envelopes. To me it represented warped optimism, which is about the best I can claim on any given day.
During college, Mister Herman took on a new life. I began working on the writing staff of a summer theatre camp called Summer Scholars Onstage. As a lark, I started writing top ten lists, inspired by those of David Letterman. Wanting to join in the fun, a number of other staffers became co-authors of the lists. Not wanting to take credit for their work, I decided to use the collective name of Mister Herman’s Top Ten List in order to have a neutral party at the helm. Those began in 1991. I’m proud to say that the top ten list tradition of that camp continues to this day, though they have had several other names over the years, including Uncle J.J.’s Top Ten List and Rick & Bill’s Top Ten List.
As I mentioned earlier, in 1995, as a project for a college introduction to computer concepts class I was taking, I created the first version of Mister Herman’s Home Page. It was pretty bare bones then, but soon grew to house such things as the archive of Top Ten lists from camp, my then ongoing series of college-themed recipes, my series of Mister Herman’s Cat Games, my Horribly True Tales stories, my short fiction stories (some of which now appear in A Consternation of Monsters), and, of course, the Rules of Joe–a lengthy and inside-joke-choked guide to the dos and don’ts of interacting with my friend Joe Evans. Before MySpace, Facebook and Twitter essentially gave everyone their own home page, this one was mine and remains so to this day. Only now I use it to hock my wares in addition to blogging and fun stuff.
A bit further down the line, I started operating under the heading of Mister Herman’s Production Company, Ltd., an umbrella entity I use for webdesign, graphic design, and my podcasting and voiceover work. It seemed only natural when I began looking into publishing some of my work that Mister Herman take over that as well. Ed’s a good guy to have around.
As for Mister Herman himself, he still remains a fixture in my office. He’s had a number of other hats over the years, but is currently wearing only three. He occasionally even comes back to Mississippi with me for the Summer Scholars camp.
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.
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.
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 restricted 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.
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?
Another 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.)
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.
Another review has appeared before me!
Ed Davis (author of The Psalms of Israel Jones: A Novel) has written a lovely review of A Consternation of Monsters that appears at Zoetic Press’s blog Our Rizomatic Ideas. Check it out, there.
Also check out The Psalms of Israel Jones, which is the book I coincidentally am finishing up this week. At it’s heart, it’s a father-and-son relationship struggle story, but in which the father is a hard-drinkin, hard-loving, hard-living folk/rock legend with dozens of albums to his name, and the son is a recovering alcoholic preacher, pursued by a moral quandary or two of his own. It’s a very good read with some truly beautiful turns of phrase and quite a bit of insight into the human condition.
Playwright, director, teacher, and all around good soul Jonathan Joy has posted a very kind review of A Consternation of Monsters to his blog, The Joy of…. Please head over that way and read it for your own bad selves.
I’m proud to report that the Book Mart & Cafe in my home town of Starkville, MS, is now carrying A Consternation of Monsters. So if you’re in the Starkville area and are hankering for some modern fantasy/horror reading material, that’s where you can go to find it. At some point in the Autumn, I will return for a signing. Keep watching this space for details on that.
The book has received two glowing reviews in the past couple of weeks.
A brand new review, posted just today, is from the Unlimited Book Reviews blog. I’m frankly lucky to have had my book reviewed by Ingeious Cat at all, for she does not dig on the horror. Fortunately, my characters and funny won out in the end. She does a lot of reviews of ebooks and beyond and offers a free update service to let you know when new reviews are posted, which is how I saw my review when it arrived. Thanks much I.C.!
And a review that I mentioned on the A Consternation of Monsters Facebook page, but somehow neglected to mention here, is Joey Madia’s amazing review of it at his New Mystics Reviews blog. What’s impressive to me is that Joey’s review hits mighty close to the target on a few points I intentionally left vague in the stories. For instance, he nails the setting of a story in which the setting is left veiled at best. And the fact that he picked up on Kindred Spirit’s similarity to Ekhart from the 1989 Batman is nigh on the money. (Kin’s look was definitely an inspiration for that character, when that story was first written, in a year way closer to 1989 than to 2015.) Thanks much, Joey. Glad you liked it.
“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.”
“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.
Copyright 2010-2015 Eric Fritzius, Mister Herman’s Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
So what, you haven’t asked, is the deal with the ellipses in the title “…to a Flame”?
Well, of course, it’s a reference to the phrase “Like moths to a Flame” which you no doubt knew from the start. Beyond that, the ellipses denote the play’s inclusion in a series of plays that I think of as the Ellipses Cycle due to their titles all possessing them. Three of these have already been produced, “…to a Flame,” “…and Tigers and Bears,” and “A Game of Twenty…”
Each of these plays has three things in common beyond the ellipses… they each cover strange and unusual material (monsters, legends, the paranormal), and they each have ties to West Virginia.
“..to a Flame” you already know about. “…and Tigers and Bears” I wrote about last time, as it’s the African Lion loose in West Virginia play, with absurd overtones. “A Game of Twenty…” was produced in 2013 and features a man who finds himself in the waiting room of the afterlife who, because it’s going to be a particularly long wait, is given the chance to ask twenty questions to receive answers to things he’s always wanted to know. Most of the answers he finds disappointing. I plan to adapt “A Game of Twenty…” into a short story at some point in the near future. It’s a play I like and which works very well in the performances I’ve seen of it. Might just appear in a future collection.
The three plays, however, also have in common references to national radio host Rik Winston, who generously penned the introduction to A Consternation of Monsters. Who is Rik Winston, though? And why haven’t you heard of him before? Or have you?
Fun fact: my on-air name, back when I was a radio disc jockey, in both Tupelo and Charlotte, was Erik Winston. I chose that name because the first commercial station I worked at, Sunny 93.3 in Tupelo, used to have a policy that their DJs had to have the name of a county as part of their name. They didn’t have that policy when I worked there, but the notion was suggested when I was on the hunt for something to call myself–other than my college on-air-name of Juice (which didn’t really work for soft hits radio). I chose Erik Winston because there was a Winston County in Mississippi and, more to the point, because my cat’s name was Winston. Later, when I moved to Charlotte, the Winston name had more resonance with North Carolina and auto racing, so I kept it there too. For the fictional version of Rik Winston, though, I just removed the E from Erik, forming Rik in tribute to comedian Rik Mayall (who, sadly, recently became the late Rik Mayall last year). So there you have it. The now not-so-secret origin of Rik Winston. (And while we’re on the topic of Rik Winston’s reality, the story he tells about going to Durbin in the foreword to A Consternation of Monsters is also largely true, right down to the guy who saw a headless horseman. It all happened during a certain trip to Durbin, W.Va., to film my episode of Creepy Canada.)
There are as yet many more legends in West Virginia that I could cover in future Ellipses Cycle plays. I imagine the Flatwoods Monster, more UFOs, Bigfoot, and maybe even Gray Barker will have to turn up some time. Good ol’ Rik Winston himself might show up, too.
The other question you haven’t asked is what I really think about the Mothman legend? My answer is complicated, though not as much as the legend itself. I really REALLY want to believe in the Mothman. I really want to believe there are strange things beyond our kin that occasionally pop up and make life a little more interesting and maybe a little more scary. And I see plenty of evidence toward that point in the world, though I cannot bring myself to commit to believing in a great deal of it. I want there to be creatures in Loch Ness. I want to believe in mysterious hairy primates roaming the wilderness. I want to believe in ghosts, and UFOs, and thunderbirds, and African dinosaurs, and even the men in black. But, as with most thing in life, the evidence for these things, beyond eyewitness testimony, tends to be thin on the ground–perhaps by design.
Do I really believe there was a flying, glowing-eyed creature that terrorized Point Pleasant in 1967? Welllllllll, I wasn’t there and I didn’t see it, so it’s hard to rule it out entirely. I do think it’s just as likely that a very large owl could have accomplished most of what is claimed to have been witnessed. However, there’s just enough of the case that is said to have been accomplished by the Mothman that a very large owl probably couldn’t. Nor does it explain the men in black, nor Indrid Cold, nor the UFO sightings, nor any of a number of other parts of the case. The question then arises, how accurate were all those other elements of the case? We’ll probably never know for sure.
I guess I’m sitting firmly on the fence for the matter. The mothman side of the fence looks good to me. But then again… there are monsters over there.
The reviews are coming in on A Consternation of Monsters. Amazon has a couple of nice ones, one of which is by author Elizabeth Love, who runs the site WriterBee’s Book Reviews. Check out her review there. An excellent and positive gander at the book.
My favorite quote from it so far is about Limited Edition:
“Limited Edition plays upon the franchise of the Antiques Roadshow, bringing to light that out there, among the wealth of rare human collectibles (and the myriad piles of junk we collect), are hidden objects far older and more intrinsically important to human existence and progress than our shallow brains can fathom.”