Monday, August 15, 2011

Dead Baby Day

Issue 4 of Shock Totem is now available and includes one of my stories, "Dead Baby Day". There isn't much I can say about the piece here that I don't mention in the afterward. It was an attempt to write a disturbing story in a thousand words or less without resorting to graphic violence, graphic sex or graphic language. I'm rather proud of it and am glad that it found a home. Let me know what you think.

They got quite a line-up for talent in this issue. Rather than reprint the table of contents, you can find out more about the issue here. You can find out how to order print or digital copies here. As always, thanks to everyone who offered advice, everyone who offered encouragement and everyone who just took the time to listen to me read this piece.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Afterlife of Ellen Easterling

Volume Two of One Buck Horror is out this week, an ebook anthology of five short stories, including one of mine: The Afterlife of Ellen Easterling. The best "in a nutshell" description blurb I can give is that it's about a passive-aggressive ghost. But hopefully not in a silly way.

The other four stories (What Swims These Waters by Daniel Ausema, Holes by Sean Logan, Beastie by David Bischoff and 3 Monkeys by Adam Howe) are all excellent with varying degrees of sublety, each of them working on multiple levels. Daniel Ausema does a wonderful job of describing his monsters using senses other than the visual. Sean Logan mixes urban horror with Lovecraftiana better than most who try, while keeping the emotional core of the piece firmly set in love and redemption. David Bischoff manages to piece together a story both mythic and mysterious, suggesting a whole other world without giving the reader the comfort of a full explanation. We are disturbed because even after it's over, we don't know exactly what we've witnessed. Adam Howe's story managed to scare me before even getting to the "scary part" once I figured out the third monkey. Even the cover by Shawn Conn creeped me out. Just look at her eyes!

I'm honored to be included in this collection and hope you'll check it out. The title's a bit misleading in that it's really only ninety-nine cents (Ninety-Nine Cent Nightmares?). You can learn more about the ebook at One Buck Horror or just risk the ninety-nine pennies and buy a copy at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Let me know what you think.

Stories I've finished since last post: Serial and To Make Her Smile Again.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Scarce Resources by Brendan Detzner

Chicago author Brendan Detzner has a collection of short stories coming out in August and I managed to get one of the advanced "zero edition" copies two months early. Right place, right time (specifically, Top Shelf Books, June open mic night). The collection is called Scarce Resources and it's one of the few collections I've read where the term Weird Stories is correctly applied.

Too often, writers seem to feel uncomfortable leaving elements of their work unexplained. Their compulsion to explain every event, opening every door and shining a light on all the nightmares, ruin what could otherwise have been some fine stories. Mr. Detzner shows an admirable resistance to this urge, revealing just enough in these strange fantasies to intrigue without ruining the mood with full disclosure.

It's like driving past a traffic accident. You see enough to realize something bad has happened. You can infer some details from glimpsing the wreckage. But soon you've driven past it. You've learned all you're going to learn about that story. You're compelled to go back and find out more; at the same time knowing it's probably for the best you don't have all the gory details.

Not to say that there are no gory details to be found in this collection. But just as often, there are stories that maintain an extremely brutal tone without needing to offer lengthy descriptions of violence. The actions of violent men are not half as horrifying as the reasons they give for committing them.

Like I said, I got hold of an advanced copy; but it was far from being the only one. If you want to own one of the zero-edition copies for yourself, check out the Kickstarter page that's been set up to provide promotional funds for the project. For ten dollars, you can get a signed copy of the book. If you're not sure these are the stories for you, there's a video of the author reading the first story in the collection, "The Black Plague". You can find links to four more of his short stories on his web-site, Brendan Detzner Online.

I've been truly fortunate to meet a number of excellent writers in Chicago (most of whom will probably find it odd that I refer to them by their last names on my blog posts). If you've seen me reading at an open mic event, chances are that you've also already heard some of Brendan Detzner's work as well. If you haven't, this collection is a wonderful introduction and well worth the money. Check it out.

Things I've written since last post: first draft of Footprints and first draft of The Haircut

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Concrete: Depths by Paul Chadwick

The story begins with a man whose brain has been transplanted into a seven-foot tall, half-ton body of stone. The surgery was performed by aliens who subsequently left the planet, their motives unknown. Beyond being MacGuffin-like instigators who set up the premise, the aliens aren't important to the story. What matters is that this man decides to accept his new life, filled with both horrible limitations and wonderful opportunities. He adopts the name Concrete and becomes a celebrity.

Paul Chadwick has been writing stories about Concrete for over twenty years, publishing them in a number of one-shots, limited series and shorts published in anthologies. Several years ago, Dark Horse Comics began publishing a series of paperbacks that collect all of these stories together into a coherent timeline. Depths is volume one in this series and a fine place to begin.

For those of you who still have pre-conceived notions about what sort of story a comic book can tell, there are no superheroes here. At one point, Concrete appears on the Tonight Show and simply asks the people of the world what they would do if they had his abilities (can hold his breath for an hour, can lift a truck, amazing vision, etc.). Many of the stories that follow begin with Concrete and his companions, writer Larry Munro and Doctor Maureen Vonnegut, reading letters from all over the world. Among his adventures in volume one, Concrete attempts to: rescue a group of miners from a cave-in, entertain at an eight year-old's birthday party, scare some children at a beach, swim across the Atlantic Ocean, wrestle a bear and act as bodyguard to an eccentric pop singer. Some attempts fail and some succeed.

One of the most striking elements to this series is the level of realism in all of the above situations. Once the fantastic elements of Concrete's origin are established, those elements are quickly removed so that we're simply left with a man trying to make the most out of his life. This is a man sometimes motivated by pettiness and greed, but more often by curiosity and a simple desire to be useful. He has adventures which we are reminded time and again do not necessarily require superhuman strength. Anyone can go exploring or volunteer to help those less fortunate; but so few of us do. Concrete is perhaps a man who was so wrapped up in self-pity that, when something truly terrible finally did happen to him, he found there was no pity left to feel.

You can order a copy of this book online, of course; but I'd encourage you to find a local comic shop or independent book store instead. Quirky stories like Concrete survive in part because of the efforts of these retailers. You can find a preview of it online here. The cover image is taken from the Grand Comics Database (GCD), an online index of comic books and a fantastic reference tool.

Stuff I've worked on this past week: second draft of Pink Bruises on Pink Skin, first draft of The Weeping Parrot

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Jack O' The Hills by C.S.E. Cooney

There are certain authors that, after you've heard them read, you'll forever after hear their voices in your head whenever you read their work. It was impossible for me to read C.S.E. Cooney's chapbook, Jack o' the Hills, without adding those sly little inflections and feeling the undercurrent of manic energy that accompany all of her performances. So I can recommend the book to anyone ... but only with the caveat that it still doesn't compare to hearing it read by the author herself.

The book collects two short stories, Stone Shoes and Oubliette's Egg, concerning a trickster named Jack Yap, his giant brother Pudding and the contents of a most unusual egg. It's high dark fantasy in which even the most grotesque and sinister of elements are rendered through words into something beautiful.

You can order the book in print or as an e-publication here. And if you need convincing, check out her story, Pale, and from a Sea-Wave Rising, at Apex Magazine. Or her poem, Dogstar Men, at the same site. And as far as live performances go, try Ride of the Robber Bride in the Spring 2011 issue of Goblin Fruit.

She's currently working on a novel and once it's published, this chapbook is going to be one of those rare collector's items that goes for big money on E-bay. Honestly, if you're looking for fresh voices in dark fantasy, you'll want a copy of this one.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Doom Patrol 22 - Final Issue

This week saw the end of Keith Giffen's run on Doom Patrol. While the series had its flaws, it was one of the few comics I still bothered to pick up regularly. Since the 1960s, there have been something like seven or eight writers doing his or her version of the Doom Patrol every few years. My favorite run on the series (and, in fact, one of my favorite comic series of all time) was the Grant Morrison version in the early nineties.

I've noticed that the best versions of this team are those that present them as heroes who wish they were dead. Maybe not every minute of every day, but there is a death-wish undercurrent even in the kid-friendly 1960s versions of these characters. These were people whose powers separated them from the rest of the world, left them unable to maintain secret identities (much less normal jobs). They were people with nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. In the best versions (Arnold Drake's, Grant Morrison's and Keith Giffen's), the Doom Patrol comes off more like a support group than a crime-fighting team.

Of course, given the nearly fifty years of history enjoyed by these characters, it's certain that a new book will be launched in a few years. Until then, there's always the back issue bins. Farewell to a fine book done by a fine writer.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Unholy Sacrifices

Thanks to everyone who showed up for Cult Fiction's Unholy Sacrifices event. These performances get better with every show and it's always fun to see how different writers interpret the same theme.

Brendan Detzner's Figure 8 started off the show, illustrating the terrible power that can come from true faith (whether or not the object of one's faith is actually worthy). A largely psychological horror story that also managed some truly bloody moments.

Frank Stascik's Threads was next up. A story of honor among horrors where the reader doesn't quite know who is sacrificing whom until the bitter climax. This one also pulls off the clever trick of horrifying in its description of how the monster does not manifest.

Eric Cherry's Infidel's Revenge began with a tale of rescuing a damsel in distress, only to descend to those horrors that no bullet or knife can stop. Once again, the true horror comes from the depths of human depravity rather than any supernatural entity.

My own story, Just A Little Head, followed. It was read by C.S.E. Cooney, who did a much better job of conveying both the absurd humor and hallucinatory horror than I could have managed had I read it myself. Tina Jens reminded me that humor and horror are often opposite sides of the same storytelling coin and it was nice to see Ms. Cooney balance the sides so well.

Finally, show organizer Jude W. Mire did a performance art piece titled This Melting Flesh. The silent transformations of one face to another to another, the meaning of it all left for each viewer to interpret. A wonderful finish to the fourth Cult Fiction show.

If you want to learn more about Cult Fiction (both the quarterly show and the weekly writing workshop) visit their blog. Or just stop by The Lucky Number Grille (1931 N. Milwaukee) any Tuesday night between 6:30 PM and 9:00 PM to join in with the workshop.

Thanks again to everyone involved with this performance.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Halfway to Shore

Friday, January 28, Cult Fiction is presenting a live reading event called The Dark Hunt. It's five stories detailing all manner of hunts, both by and of things dark. This will be the group's third show and, in addition to stories, there will be s'mores, burlesque and music. It's at the Lucky Number Grill (1931 N. Milwaukee, corner of Western and Milwaukee, next to the Blue Line Western stop) and starts at 8:00 PM.

One of my stories, Halfway to Shore, will be in the line-up. Our hero pursues a fugitive to South America, only to find that he isn't the only one hunting for him. Some history, some math theory and the question of what truly could be a fate worse than death follow.

Hope to see you there.

-Michael Penkas