I’m feeling a little guilty about inflicting the clowns on you. So as a corrective — and keeping in line with the theme of miracles — here’s Roger Waters singing “It’s a Miracle,” from the album Amused to Death.
This is my favorite song on the record. It’s sad and angry and beautiful.
We cower in our shelters With our hands over our ears Lloyd-Webber’s awful stuff Runs for years and years and years An earthquake hits the theater But the operetta lingers Then the piano lid comes down And breaks his fucking fingers. It’s a miracle.
The update to the Cannibal Priests will be delayed a little bit longer, as I have a deadline in three days and all else must wait. In the meantime, because I love you, I’m going to leave you with some heavy shit to meditate on.
“We don’t have to be high to look in the sky And know that’s a miracle opened wide Look at the mountains, trees, the seven seas And everything chilling underwater, please Hot lava, snow, rain and fog Long neck giraffes, and pet cats and dogs And I’ve seen eighty-five thousand people All in one room, together as equals Pure magic is the birth of my kids I’ve seen shit that’ll shock your eyelids The sun and the moon, and even Mars The Milky Way and fucking shooting stars!”
And my favorite:
“Fuckin rainbows, after it rains, there’s enough miracles here to blow ya brains!”
1. We’re going through a mild cold snap here in North Carolina, one of the last before Spring settles in for good. I’m going to miss winter, though I know I’m alone in that.
2. Mia rewrote Rihanna’s “Only Girl in the World” last night. It’s new title is, “Only Girl in the World (spoofed into a milkshake).” These are the lyrics:
Ma ma ma malt ma ma ma malt
ma ma ma malt yeah ma ma ma malt
I need to give my tummy something chocolately
I want to drink something smooth and sweet
Forget the veggietables cuz I need to have a treat
I don’t want to eat
I don’t care about the calories.
I want to have something besides a bottle of Coke
Stuff like smoothies they’re a joke
I don’t care about my diet right now besides a bottle of Coke
I have I have the money don’t worry I’ll brush my teeth
I’m hungry but not enough to eat
No I’m not gonna get sick please Dad I don’t want to fight
Smooth creamy goodness with whip and a cherry to make it nice
Large medium small I don’t care about the size …
She performed it and it was kick-ass. I immediately introduced her to Weird Al Yankovic, so she could see the proud tradition she is working in.
3. I started reading Ninety-Two in the Shade, by Thomas McGuane. I’ve never read him before and the jury is still out on this one. The prose is cooked over a high heat, which produces mixed results. On the one hand, there are infuriating sentences like this one:
“That’s right,” Skelton said positively to this basilisk drunk.
I like “basilisk drunk,” but the word “positively” is just the kind of thing that gets produced in the fury of the moment and ought to be caught in editing. Because now it’s a stupid sentence. On the other hand, you have amazing paragraphs like this one:
“Then, a fifty-seven-day bad marriage to a Catholic from Chokoloskee that ended in the court reconciling everything he had acquired but a skiff and it all went off in a Bekins moving van with the wife up front by the driver, headed for the Everglades. And drinking of the kind that is a throwing of yourself against the threshold of suicide though lacking that final will to your own ceasing, without which all the hemlock and Colt’s patented revolvers are of no more avail than ringside tickets, photostats of lost deeds, or snapshots of Granddad’s five-bottom plow.”
4. It is past time to update “The Cannibal Priests of New England.” This weekend.
“And the answer, said the judge. If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons.”
— Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Yesterday Mia came home with an assignment. She had to Google the phrase “the most shocking plastic pollution you’ve ever seen” and watch the video it lead to.
When she saw the part where the seagull gulps down an enormous plastic bag — literally swallowing its own death — she looked at me. Not with accusation, or confusion, or fear; just with this kind of wounded awareness. It’s as though she wanted to share an acknowledgement that we had seen something awful, something that couldn’t be changed or undone. The scale of the damage is beyond belief.
I don’t believe that we’re going to fix what we’ve done to ourselves. I don’t believe we have the means or the will. The relationship we have with the world is entirely parasitic. We’re going to eat it until we all die.
But it’s hard to reconcile our collective guilt with my daughter’s glance. She is not guilty. Not for the world she was born into, nor the habits and behaviors she was trained to repeat. If we as a species are a cancer then I have to wonder if the individual cancer cell can be innocent.
I say yes.
Sometimes I’ll go outside at night and look into the stars. I think all the usual thoughts: how vast it all is, how much might be out there. How insignificant our place. And it’s that last thought that gives me the greatest sense of peace. It makes me happy that no matter what we do to ourselves here, there might yet be clean places in the universe; whole worlds free of the human infection.
Sometimes you only know a ghost by what you don’t see.
“You remember that house on Lincoln Avenue?”
This was pretty soon after I moved back to Asheville from New Orleans. I had come back here as a matter of necessity, not of choice. The city felt small and cramped to me after so many years away. Moving back here was like trying to wear a coat I’d grown out of: sleeves too high on the wrist, shoulders too tight. It made me feel awkward and ridiculous.
But on that afternoon I was having coffee with my brother. We’d become estranged over the preceding years, and I found in him a surprising familiarity. It amazed me how many of my own strange quirks were reflected in him. Hanging out with him was like spending time with a less wrecked version of myself, and it was both comforting and encouraging.
“Sure,” I said. The house he was referring to was the one we’d lived in during most of my teenage years; it was where I was living when I went to Asheville High and found my heart attached to Karen but somehow ended up dating Barbara. When I played trumpet all the time and wrote a lot of really bad comedy stories. (There was a time I thought I was destined to be a funny writer.) Most of my memories from that time centered on my time outside of the house, in my high school life. I guess that’s true for most teenagers.
“Do you remember that it was haunted?”
I smiled. “No,” I said. “Not at all.”
“You know I don’t believe in ghosts.”
He was incredulous. “You don’t remember how Mom never slept up there? She always slept on the couch. And the dogs refused to go up there. If you tried to lead Seneca up the stairs she would drag you back down. How can you not remember that?”
It was late afternoon at this point. We were sitting in a booth and the sun was coming through a plate glass window, hard and bright. I was on my second cup of coffee and my blood was jangling. It was maybe the least conducive atmosphere for a discussion of ghosts I have ever found myself in. Which made what he had just told me seem all the more ridiculous. Especially when you considered one crucial fact:
“Jess, there was no second floor in that house.”
He just stared at me for a second. He went on to describe the second floor. One large room, with decorative molding running near the floor and small blue flowers painted there. Hardwood floors, windows which filled the room with light. It gave every appearance of being a cheery place. But something in there rejected human presence.
I thought about the layout of the house: retraced steps, remembered sitting in my room talking on the phone with the window open and cool air coming through. I remembered the unfinished basement, which actually did seem sinister to me, and a logical place for a haunting if there was to be one. But I could not remember an upper room at all. I could not remember a door which would open onto a stairwell. I did not believe it.
I needed proof, so we got into the car and drove by the old place. I slowed down as we passed it and looked. It was painted yellow, and the front porch had been screened in since we’d lived there. And there was a window near the top, covered by curtains, though the sun had not yet set. A second floor. I let the car idle and stared.
Nothing came back. Nothing at all. It seemed impossible to me. And yet there was that window, incontrovertible, and behind it a hole in my memory as absolute as if nothing had ever been there at all.
We toyed briefly with the idea of knocking on the door and telling the story to whoever lived there now, hoping they would let me see it, but for some reason we decided against it. We drove away.
My brother and I have become estranged again, since that time. It amazes me that we can be so alike in some ways — sharing personality traits and perspectives that I’ve not found in anyone else in the world — and yet have differences so vast that they sometimes seem uncrossable.
We make narratives of our lives. We cast the people around us in roles, and learn to see them that way, even if it means distorting who they really are. We remember events or forget them in a way that will make our chosen narrative true. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves can kill us if we’re not careful.
My brother’s role has shifted several times over the years, and may do so again.
I don’t know why I felt the need to forget the upstairs room. Why, even now, the image I have of it is the one described to me, and nothing I can draw from memory.
It doesn’t matter. Because there are no ghosts in my story.
The sea was high and gray and spat foam. The boat pitched and yawed over the waves. The small crew stayed indoors as much as possible; the weather was turning cruel and the temperature was falling. For days now the nets had brought sparse hauls, and the prospect of going home light hovered over them all like an evil fog.
“We need to head back home,” one of them finally said.
A few glances came his way; some of the men wanted to protest but the spirit was leaving them. Each man got a cut of what they brought back, and with so little to show, they would be making a lot less than they’d counted on. Still, they were pushing their luck out here, and they’d been gone a week longer than they had planned. Nobody had the taste for it anymore.
Laird pushed himself away from the table and stowed his mug. “I need some air,” he said.
The fishing boat cast fountains of spray as it pushed through the sea; it’s seine nets were spooled in the drum at the ship’s aft, and Laird maneuvered around them, until he stood watching the vessel’s foamy wake. A boil of grey clouds covered the sky and seemed to fall all the way to the water.
The mood inside was bad, and it would be worse when they got home. Poverty bred fear, which bred anger. Blood rode so close to the surface of the skin. There would be drinking and violence and pain. Some of the men would not be back next season.
The spray gathered on his coat and in his beard and became little crystals of ice. He did not know how long he stayed out there, nor was he much concerned. The night fell regardless. The clouds broke apart and the stars were deep and hot.
Eventually he noticed the thing following them beneath the waves. He couldn’t make out its shape but the shadow of it was unmistakable, coasting maybe half a dozen feet down. It was big enough to be a whale but it moved too capriciously, whipping and diving, falling back and then jetting forward with a burst of speed, almost as if it were teasing the boat.
He stood transfixed, ice rinding his beard and his eyebrows, until after a while it turned over and he saw its vast, yellow eye, nearly as big as the boat itself. He had dramatically underestimated the thing’s size. The eye swiveled and fixed on him, and they regarded each other for a long moment. He recognized something in it: some old urge, some nihilistic impulse. Some ecstatic horror.
Around the fishing vessel long, ropey arms breached the surface, shedding water over him like rain. Arms continued to uncoil and writhe seemingly a mile in every direction, until it seemed the sea itself bristled with them. They extended far above him, occluding the sky, weaving like glistening threads between the stars.
The compulsion to jump overboard was almost overwhelming.
But after another moment the thing withdrew into the sea, as quickly and quietly as a retracting anemone. Laird sat where he was, staring into the muscular heave of the water. The clouds began to pile overhead again, and soon spat an unseasonable snow.
At some point somebody brought him inside. They brushed the snow and ice from his clothes and his face and asked him what the hell he was doing out there, staring at the snow and the grey sea. They called him an idiot but it was plain they admired him for it. For providing this flash of oddness, this bright moment, in this long unhappy voyage.
The next morning they turned for home, and whatever awaited them there, their hull nowhere near full.
This is Pam Noles. And this is a piece called, “All I Wanted For Christmas Was a Millennium Falcon,” recorded live last year at the Hollywood Fringe Festival recorded at Rant ‘n Rave in February of this year (whoops!). Take a moment to check it out.
This year she’s trying to stage a bigger piece, called “! Death 40-Feet Tall !”, about two best friends and their quest to get cast as extras in Michael Bay’s Transformers (don’t let that dissuade you; this is not about Transformers!). She’s looking for backing through Kickstarter.
I don’t usually put links like this on the blog because, well, one: they’re kind of like commercials; and two: they’re not what this blog is about. But sometimes — as with Jeff VanderMeer’s Leviathan project — the cause is really worth it.
Why is this worth it?
A number of reasons. One, Pam is wildly talented. Her work is often both funny and heartbreaking, and it’s invested with a fierce ethical drive. This is something that will be a joy to see. Of that I have absolutely no doubt. Two, Pam is one of the hardest workers I know, and that deserves to be rewarded. Sometimes hard work needs that extra little push, though. I want to see this bear fruit because she busts her ass and she deserves it. And third, Pam is what people mean when they say “one of the good guys.” She went from being a crime reporter in Tampa to working at the ACLU in Los Angeles, putting a great deal of time and energy into fighting for the rights of people who don’t often get an advocate. She runs the blog And We Shall March, which anybody would do well to add to their blogroll. This woman walks the walk.
There are only a few more days left, and she’s not the far from her goal. If you already know her, or know of her, then you know this is worth a few dollars. If you don’t, then trust me. This is the right thing. I wouldn’t post this here if I didn’t truly believe in it.
Here are a few paragraphs from the story I’m working on now, which will probably be about novella length when it’s finished. The story is called “I Know You.” I’m not sure how I feel about it yet. The paragraph listing the items she finds in the basement is still pretty generic; I’ll have to touch that up. Also, this is a pretty subdued beginning. I might want to punch it up a bit later. Usually I like my openings to be a bit more dramatic. I’ll know how well it fits as more of the story unspools.
The first step in putting order to the detritus of a finished life is to take stock of what remains. To this end, Amanda took the key found in her husband’s pocket by the forensics team and used it to unlock the door to the basement, which was the only room in this two-story lakeside mansion she had not entered in close to fifteen years. That she had stayed out of it all this time was due to an amicable accord with her late husband: he was afforded his underground laboratory, in which he conducted the experiments for which he had been fired from the university and which served to gain him notoriety among certain fringe communities on the internet, not to mention the occasional lucrative speaking engagements for privately funded astronomical or alchemical societies; and she had her upstairs writing den, where once upon a time she had written a book of personal essays which had garnered the favor of critics and readers alike.
That he had devoted himself entirely to his work in recent years while she had long ago abandoned hers was, she thought, just the way life worked. If human beings had their life cycles, so did love, and so did passion. She rarely thought about her early, promising days as an essayist, and when she did it was without regret. Writing, finally, is a narcissistic endeavor, and she had found much beyond herself to love, and to fill her mind.
William had always been a fastidious man, in manner as well as habit, so it surprised her to discover that his laboratory was a calamitous sprawl of half-finished projects and stranded equipment. A pungent chemical stink filled the room, mixed with the rancid-butter undertones of microwaved popcorn. A low, staticy hiss rose ghostlike from some unidentified source; it sounded like air escaping into space, and filled her with an inexplicable sense of unease. Boxes and spilled packing materials were stacked in a small mountain against the east wall; one lonely spark would turn the whole basement into a bonfire. A system of work benches divided the rest of the room into sectors, though if there was an organizing principle to this division, Amanda could not detect it.
In fact, she could make very little sense out of anything she saw down here, and it made her heart quail to think of the work ahead of her.
There were bunsen burners, a Tesla coil, beakers and test tubes and solvents and solutions, jars of formaldehyde with mysterious fleshy masses resting inside them. A monstrous telescope was set up in the corner, as big around as a tree trunk; it stared upwards through a window they had specially installed years before, so that William could chart the courses of the stars from his underground hideaway. Banks of machinery covered two of the walls; she remembered the two weeks it had taken for them to be installed by the work crew; he had been flush with grant money from one of his nameless foreign benefactors.
In the back of the room was something that surprised her: a large, clear vat, big enough to hold a child or a small dog. It was filled with a green, viscous liquid. A cheap radio had been affixed to the side with large quantities of electrical tape, and a spaghetti tangle of wires unspooled from the bottom and disappeared beneath the workbench.
The low hiss came from the radio, like an unending exhalation. As she approached it sputtered, and barked a harsh burst of static; her heart spiked, and she stopped. The hiss resumed.
Tentatively, she stepped closer again. When nothing happened, she pressed her hand against the side of the vat. It was warm — a fact she found surprisingly unsettling. She pulled her hand away.
The radio coughed again, and a voice, genderless and faint, swam up through the noise and the interference, as though it had come from the deeps of chaos and noise.
“Amanda,” it said. “Woman of petals. Steeped in blood. I have wanted to meet you for a long, long time.”
Last weekend I had to drop Mia off at a friend’s house so she could work on a project for school. She was making a coral reef out of disposable items around the house, as part of a diorama representing key scenes in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I was in the living room puttering around while she was getting ready. When she came around the corner, she was wearing lipstick.
I could tell she was a little self-conscious, a little proud, a little unsure. She very studiously said nothing about it, and I didn’t either. She just started gathering her things, talking about the scene in the book they were focusing on that day. The lipstick was a little dark, and I think there was a little too much. I noticed she had applied a little glitter around her eyes, too.
It’s not like this was the first time I’d encountered this. She’s ten, she’s been curious about makeup and the various accoutrements of girlhood for quite some time. Sometimes she would disappear in the bathroom for twenty minutes or more and come out in garish colors. It’s fine, because it’s experimentation, and it’s at home. The rules are no makeup at school, and that has always worked out well.
But this felt different. I think it was just her shy demeanor, the eyes that wouldn’t meet mine, the pride and fear and hope that I could see flowing across her face. At some point it had stopped being about pretending to be a big girl. It had become about actually being one.
I’m a single dad; I guess you already know that. Common wisdom tells me I should be worried about the big things coming down the pike with a preadolescent daughter. Periods, hormones, the inevitable anxieties about sex and drinking and drugs. But you know, that stuff doesn’t worry me too much. That’s biology and that’s parenting. I can do that. I have no qualms about that stuff (he said, naively).
What worries me are these smaller details. Teaching her how to put on makeup. Dressing her properly. Doing her hair so it looks pretty. The small things of girlhood that I have no experience with. When she was smaller it mattered less; now it’s becoming important and I am very conscious of my limitations here.
She is not without women in her life. My best friend A lives across the hall and is always free with her time and her advice. Mia’s mother is a regular and influential presence. My own mother lives close by as well.
But still. When you come down to it — on a practical, daily basis — it’s just me and her.
I need someone to give me lessons. To teach me the mysteries of blush and lip gloss and eyeliner, to teach me how to braid hair. To teach me the small details of girlhood, so that I can at least guide her or offer some helpful advice when she rounds a corner and stands shyly at the threshold of her new life, wearing too much lipstick and too much glitter around the eyes, hoping for my approval, while I just stand there, humbled into silence.
I have four stories appearing this year, three of which are originals.
Teeth, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, is coming in early April. My story is “Sunbleached,”about which I’ve already written, so I won’t go on about it anymore here.
Of the next two, I don’t know which will appear first. But as of today I’m able to announce that “Wild Acre” will be appearing in Visions Fading Fast, the first volume of a two-part anthology of novellas edited by Gary McMahon. It’ll come out sometime this summer.
“Wild Acre” was written a couple of years ago, but I had a devil of a time finding a home for it. I think it might be my best story, but then again writers are often the worst judges of their own work, so who knows. In the barest sense, it’s about a man who survives an attack by a werewolf. (This story and “Sunbleached” are the only times I can think of I used traditional horror tropes in any of my stories, and I have to say I’m pretty pleased with the results. Maybe I should write about a mummy next.) It doesn’t behave the way people usually expect a werewolf story to behave, which may have worked against it when it was on the market. In any case, it’s finally going to see the light of day, and I couldn’t be happier.
I think I can safely say that the people who pick up this book on the basis of the cover alone are going to be mystified by “The Way Station.” It’s about Beltrane, a homeless man who leaves New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and goes to St. Petersburg, looking for his estranged daughter. This search is complicated by the fact that he is physically haunted by New Orleans, which manifests in his body and tends to blur the lines of reality for him. The character is loosely based on Sunbeam, a regular at the Avenue Pub, who would get free drinks and tell stories about how he used to wrestle bears in Mississippi for money when he was a young man. I’ll be writing about him directly in one of these posts, before long. I’m pretty fond of this story.
Finally, the reprint: “The Monsters of Heaven,” which won the Shirley Jackson Award a few years ago, will be appearing in Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters, edited by John Langan and Paul Tremblay.
A few years ago I was invited by my friend Dale Bailey to go to his Oscar party, which was really just an informal gathering at his home. In attendance would be Kelly Link, Gavin Grant, and Karen Joy Fowler. Kelly, I believe, was writer-in-residence at the university where Dale teaches. I wasn’t going to go, because I was pretty sure I’d be nervous and out of place. Another friend, the far-more-pragmatic-than-I Pam Noles, basically told me I was an idiot if I didn’t go. I knew she was right, so I did. Of course I had a great time, because that’s a collection of some of the nicest people on the planet. But a side benefit was Kelly telling me that Ellen Datlow was putting together this anthology of original horror fiction, and perhaps I should contact her. I did the next day, and a year or so later “The Monsters of Heaven” appeared in Inferno, and I got my first award (“first,” he said, optimistically). So thanks, Kelly.
I remember the night I was kicking this one around. It was in the Avenue Pub, and I was talking to Neal. I had a few of the core ideas, but I didn’t know how they would fit together. I told Neal I wanted to close the story with the protagonist having a vision of his son’s dead body, and that this would be presented as a moment of release for him. It would free him. It would be a good thing, though of course the reader would recognize it’s sadness. Neal said he didn’t think it could be done. So then I had to do it, just to prove to him that I could.
(And a bonus for me: the cover art looks like it could have been taken directly from the story. Of course it wasn’t, but allow me my little fantasy.)
I’m glad to see this one still has life. The anthology comes out in November.
And that’s everything I have in the pipeline. I’m finishing two more right now: “I Know You” and “Worms in Love.” I hope to have news of their fates in the near future.