Tag Archive for horror

Turning the Screw in CRAZY TIME

Crazy Time is a literary horror novel about a woman, Lily Henshaw, who goes through so much trauma that she begins to think that her experiences are supernatural, the results of a curse comparable to the suffering in the Book of Job. That she merely thinks the experiences are supernatural—she doubts her sanity, finds her senses unreliable, and therefore can’t be sure—is crucial for the way the novel unfolds. At least after the first couple of chapters (and possibly sooner), the novel starts “turning the screw,” a term I use to describe any narrative that places what is actually happening in the world of the story into unresolvable uncertainty, a kind of perpetual hermeneutic ambiguity.

The term, of course, refers to Henry James’s famous little horror novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), in which the (inset) narrator’s ghostly experiences may or may not be products of her mind. James uses first person to lock readers in his governess-narrator’s unreliable perceptions, whereas Crazy Time uses third person to lock readers in Lily’s point of view, and James turns his screw with poise and tidiness, whereas Crazy Time is… messy. With our ambiguous turns through compromised consciousness, however, we both exploit a kind of phenomenological weakness for dramatic effect. For both of us, supposedly supernatural phenomena become tests for the limits of conscious processing, gauges for the distance between that which is and that which is experienced, and revelations of the stability of the mind that is processing experience. Reading James, we must consider whether the governess’s sensory experiences of the supernatural reveal objective realities or a damaged mind. Crazy Time poses a less evenly divided question, preferring a spectrum approach. How much of what Lily experiences “actually” happens, and when what she perceives stems from hallucination and isn’t happening, what “actually” is? If Lily is insane, in her world, what might sanity look like?

Although Lily doesn’t have unlimited patience for doubting herself (eventually accepting that “crazy flows forward”), she has far more good sense than James’s governess. As an English and Philosophy double major in college, Lily asks and seeks answers for the sorts of phenomenological questions that interest James. Her book (I almost subtitled Crazy Time “The Book of Lily Henshaw”) offers an array of experiences that might play as un- or super-natural, and Lily stands in different relations of skepticism to them with regard to their “reality.” These different relations are softer and harder turns of the screw. By the novel’s second half, which is perhaps less horrific but permeated by the fantastic, nothing might be real, or everything might be real, or there’s a mix. If decisions are needed, only readers can make them, likely based on how much disbelief they suspend when faced with unnatural, extreme, absurd, and unsettling phenomena.

Trying to grapple with “What is real?,” a question asked often enough in postmodern texts (though hopefully not quite in my novel’s curious ways), Crazy Time’s readers might trip once or twice on the book’s other big phenomenological interest—the experience of time. If phenomenological instability of the “real,” primarily the reality of the spatial environment and what happens within it, points toward craziness (what else is psychosis?), then phenomenological instability of the temporal, experiences of time that disobey the even and predictable ticks of a clock, points toward crazy time.  Crazy Time doesn’t move like most novels. Split into two parts that are almost even halves, Part One covers an unspecified number of months, while Part Two covers a matter of (busy) hours. Some major events take pages and pages to play out, while others slip by in a sentence or two. Some sentences’ tortured syntax, if successful, will slow down reading, while others’ simplicity will speed reading up. Time’s instability is another screw turning, as it throws the scale of experience into uncertainty, deepening the interpretive quagmire.

This temporal instability comes at least partially from Lily’s struggle with PTSD—more on that in another post. For now, I’ll conclude by saying that crazy time, and Crazy Time, make the experiences of both space and time unreliable for both characters and readers. The book leaves no one standing on terra firma. Reading it shouldn’t provide an experience on par with Lily’s—that would be too horrifying—but having the screws turned on you should provide a glimpse of what such an experience might be like. And that, brave reader, is just the sort of phenomenon you’re seeking, right?

For Crazy Time on the Amazon Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09QCVHRBJ/  

For the print version: https://www.amazon.com/Crazy-Time-Bizarre-Battle-Darkness/dp/1977250432/

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!

DLSmokeysLaunch