Tag Archive for horror

CRAZY TIME and Flannery O’Connor

Horror, surreal distortions, absurdity, and religion: these are fundamental building blocks of my novel Crazy Time, and even though I don’t stand on any clear moral ground, since Flannery O’Connor was a master of using these building blocks in her fiction, I think I can safely claim her work in my book’s ancestry. However, I want to point out a closer connection with O’Connor, a tie of direct inspiration between her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and Crazy Time’s first chapter.

You can read Crazy Time’s first chapter in the Amazon Kindle preview: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09QCVHRBJ/

In O’Connor’s first paragraph, the grandmother, who doesn’t want to go on the family trip to Florida but will go anyway, reads in the newspaper about an escaped convict, The Misfit, also headed toward Florida. She argues that the coincidence is a reason not to go. As she and the family travel, the grandmother thinks about how trips make her son “nervous,” and she brings up The Misfit again when they stop for lunch. The family and the restaurant’s proprietors generally discuss the world’s lack of trustworthy people and the fact that a good man is indeed hard to find.

Back on the road, the family soon gets into an accident and lands in a ditch. Toting guns, The Misfit and his two cronies find them. Conversation that is a delicate battle for the family’s lives ensues. As the criminals shoot members of the family, The Misfit, cold and detached, shares with the grandmother how he came to the conclusions that “‘crime don’t matter’” and that there is “‘no pleasure but meanness.’” By the end of the story, all the family members are dead, and the criminals move on.

One spark of inspiration for Crazy Time was a news article (unkept) about thieves deliberately sideswiping cars on the road so they would pull over. The thieves could then pull over with them and rob the cars’ passengers (or do worse) in isolation. The article struck me as good fodder for an urban legend, and the idea of criminals isolating victims on the roadside for terrible acts reminded me of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” I’d loved the story since my teens, and I wanted to craft something with the same kind of tension and brutality. Crazy Time’s first chapter began to take shape.

The first thing I realized was that O’Connor’s story recalls (or perhaps predicts) more than one urban legend. Like many a legend’s late-night travelers who hear about an escaped criminal or lunatic on the car radio and later have a (typically deadly) encounter with the escapee, O’Connor’s characters reading about The Misfit in her story’s opening seems to seal their fate. Thus, when Crazy Time’s characters in the opening chapter—Lily, Eric, Kris, and Mia—notice that a pickup truck on the highway seems to be toying with them in their car, they think of urban legends and deadly outcomes with a kind of prescience.

Tension escalates as Lily and friends continue to imagine the worst, similar to the way O’Connor builds tension by having characters continue to discuss The Misfit and reflect on nervousness and the bad state of humanity. In both tales, the promise of the urban legend’s warning phase gets fulfilled when the protagonists’ cars end up on the roadside. In Crazy Time, the pickup truck sideswipes Lily and the others, and they end up trapped on the roadside with the men from the pickup, sadistic murderers who tease with conversation and certainly seem to believe that “crime don’t matter” and that there’s “no pleasure but meanness.”

The killers in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and Crazy Time’s first chapter all display a sociopathic indifference to the pleas and suffering of their prey, but they behave differently (Crazy Time’s killers are much more enthusiastic), and the situations take different turns and have different outcomes. If my chapter is successful, though, it shares with O’Connor not only a vicious brutality but also a feeling of emptiness, a senselessness that might carry more global significance. I leave that determination to you.

Again, read Crazy Time’s first chapter in the Amazon e-book preview: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09QCVHRBJ/

A highway predator from Crazy Time… or an urban legend

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: The Library of America, 1988. 137 – 153.

Countdown to CRAZY TIME

Crazy Time: A Bizarre Battle with Darkness and the Divine is a strange beast, a literary horror novel, a dark, surreal, contemporary supernatural fantasy that offers scares and suspense but seeks to terrify more on the level of concept, filling your head with thoughts and images that don’t fit right and perhaps shouldn’t even be.

The blurb on the back cover about the story is brief:

Lily Henshaw, an agnostic, suffers from increasingly bizarre traumatic events that convince her she’s in a crossfire between God and Satan reminiscent of the Book of Job. She doesn’t take sides: preparing to confront even the Almighty, she follows psychics, Satanists, preachers, and corporate executives toward an apocalyptic showdown.

Don’t get the wrong idea from the God and Satan stuff. Although the novel deals with some of the Bible’s most disturbing material–extensively with Job, also with the Book of Revelations–its perspective would likely offend (or, put another way, be way too horrifying for) a supremely devout Judeo-Christian reader. Lily goes through so much trauma that, by the time swarms of locusts and prophesying ghosts/hallucinations bring her around to a religious way of thinking, she’s so pissed off at the universe that her stance toward divine involvement is perhaps irreversibly hostile. Her quest for relief from her suffering and for answers to the question “Why me?” does little to improve her opinion. Satan isn’t the hero of her story, but God certainly isn’t either. She is.

Crazy Time will be coming from Outskirts Press in the next two to three weeks. Outskirts is a company that helps people with self-publishing, so Crazy Time, my eleventh book to be published, will be my first (kinda) self-published book. I suspect I will write again about this publishing experience, so I’ll only make a few comments here.

Why Outskirts? There’s an entire book on Amazon dedicated to bashing them, and other bad reviews aren’t hard to find, many resurrecting the term “vanity press” to focus the (hopefully fading) stigma against self-publishing in general. However, the actual criticism of the company seems to come from people who didn’t know what they were buying… so far I’ve gotten exactly what I’ve wanted from people who have been friendly and professional, but I’ve had experience and research to guide me through choices that might make others whine. Yes, they do upcharge significantly for things that one can do on one’s own. One pays them to avoid the hassle of doing things on one’s own. That’s why I hired them. Otherwise I… would do everything on my own.

Why (mostly) self-publish Crazy Time? No, the book hasn’t been rejected by a long list of publishers. In fact, since I first drafted it in mid-2016, I haven’t sent it to any publishers at all. Although I’m not as avid a reader as I used to be, I haven’t read or read about anything in the horror genre coming from traditional presses in recent years that didn’t seem formulaic and/or familiar (and keep in mind that I specialized in horror for my Ph.D.). Story-wise, but also structurally and stylistically, Crazy Time is the kind of horror that I think many smart readers will enjoy but that traditional presses would poo-poo for being bad product. As for small and indie presses, though I did use one for my 2018 quasi-novella-in-verse The Great Sonnet Plot of Anton Tick, my experiences with them have not generally been the best, and they end up requiring financial investments, too. Ergo, the moment seemed right to try the “self” route. Who knows? It could work.

Why Crazy Time now? Since 2016, I’ve written two other novels I haven’t tried to publish as well as more than 30 award-winning screenplays (one of which is an adaptation of Crazy Time, my only adaptation so far of a novel-length work). Quite simply, Crazy Time is one of my favorites, if not my favorite, on the list of my writings. I was not well when I wrote it, dealing with a host of problems, notably depression and PTSD, the latter of which the novel is in some ways “about.” As a result, the book is an emotional and intellectual maelstrom, still a layered experience when I visit it, even when double-checking galley proofs (which is almost pure drudgery, for those unfamiliar with such processes). Also, I adore Lily Henshaw, certainly one of my best characters, even though she told me when I finished writing the book that she’d never speak to me again (and after what I put her through, no one could blame her). Crazy Time is as relevant to potential readers now as it was five and a half years ago, and I’m sharing it now because I’m ready and because I believe it deserves to be shared.

I expect to write more about the Crazy Time‘s genesis, the screenplay, and other issues I’ve mentioned here in passing. The book has yet to be born. It’s coming soon, in print and on the Amazon Kindle. I hope you’ll join in the fun.

Dark Delicacies and other pleasures, Dec. 1, 2pm Pacific

Before I started publishing my work, two bookstores captured my imagination and became backdrops for book-signing fantasies. One of them, Oxford Books in Atlanta, no longer exists. The other, Dark Delicacies in Burbank, right outside Los Angeles, is about to make that particular (dark) fantasy come true… DescendingLinesOverLA

Descending Lines Launch Party, Nov. 12!

It’s here in Louisville, and it’s all over the world. Check it out!


Stephen Zimmer’s Hellscapes: Fantasies of Damnation

Hellscapes_1200X800For background on Hellscapes and an interview with Stephen Zimmer, see my author spotlight.

To launch the collection of Stygian narratives in Hellscapes, Volume 1, Stephen Zimmer cites three primary inspirations, maybe even masters: Dante Alighieri, John Milton, and Clive Barker. Zimmer is an accomplished writer with a voice all his own, so these citations are less acknowledgments of imitation than a map for readers who want to place where Hellscapes falls in the geography of literature: in one region, Dante and Milton, acknowledged world masters whom many remember hating in excerpts assigned during school, and in another, Barker, whose Books of Blood will (in this professor’s opinion) eventually get its due of immortality, but Barker ain’t in the mountains of Dante yet.

What does this first of several mapping devices in Hellscapes tell us about what the five interwoven tales have in store? Luckily, a little bit of everything. Zimmer delivers classical visions of punishment and despair ringed with silver-tongued demons, but he wraps them up in fast-moving, 21st-century-accessible prose and adorns them with legions of monsters (giant rats, spider-wolf hybrids, even some rotting ex-people that are particularly popular at present, and more), most of grotesque proportions I can imagine bringing a smile to Master Barker’s lips.

One of the things I like most about Hellscapes might turn off readers who expect short stories to follow the market formulae that still require narrative conflict-resolution arcs of the sort prescribed by Aristotle millennia ago. In other words, if a short story only makes you happy if the central character experiences some life-altering change that leads toward a satisfying conclusion, you might not be happy with this book. After all, most (not all–Zimmer’s got some surprises for you) characters are spiraling toward similar eternal destinies, even though the destinies outwardly take different and creative forms. However, if your happy comes not from rushing to endings but from vivid descriptions–moments that yield opportunities for felicities such as “sepulchral cacophony” and “surreal beast”–as well as thoughtful pepperings of metaphysics to spice up the plentiful eviscerations, then, my friends, Hellscapes is for you.

Perhaps the stories in Hellscapes manage this feat, they break the tried-and-true formula for dynamic characterization and conventionally satisfying closure yet still remain compelling, because they work together more like a Winesburg, Ohio or a Joy Luck Club. They gather meaning and intensity as they accumulate, and while the closure of most individual tales might lack traditional resolutions, “twisty” or otherwise, the closure of the collection feels like a larger canvas (or, perhaps more accurately, a medieval triptych… did they have quintychs?) coming together.

And for that reason, as readers go along, some might encounter a difficulty that I did. The stories mostly focus on the plights of the wealthy and powerful who have abused their positions and life, a fairly non-partisan political point that gives the book cohesion and moral force. However, the first three stories center on (in order) a woman, a man attracted to other men, and a man with a Hispanic name–all minorities in the halls of (American) money and power. Having minorities make up 3/5 of the damned who star in these tales made me… uncomfortable… but the decision makes more sense when the book as a whole comes together, and so does Zimmer’s discussion of those particular choices in our interview.

In my imagination, several types of people might be reading this review. If you’re the type of reader who shares my love of the gruesome imagery in the movie Martyrs (2008) but could fast forward through all the rest of the stuff, Hellscapes might not be for you. But if you like the gruesome imagery and also share my conviction that horror and grotesque imagery stand out among the oldest and most venerable artistic traditions for good reasons–involving philosophy, politics, and all the rest–as well as the coolness of nasty beasties, then give Hellscapes a try.