Sunday, May 31, 2009

Memory, Halloween & "Silver Needle"

I've been thinking a lot recently about how my Midnight Walk story "Silver Needle" came to be written. Ideas for stories come easily to me, but the actual writing is much harder. I suppose it's because I've always been a bit of a dreamer. Imaginary games/worlds came to me early in life primarily as a means of coping with violent and unpredictable parents. So much easier to forget your fears and play "war" or "monster". I remember I'd be out by myself in the backyard for hours and hours. Only reluctantly would I come in for dinner or to go to bed. And night was always the best time for games because everything became mysterious and shadowy: just the way I liked it in my imaginary worlds.

Of course, Halloween was the most important holiday of the year for me. It far eclipsed even the fun of getting presents at Christmas. Dressing up as a favorite monster (I didn't really need the costume) and going out trick or treating was a wonderful experience. Really just an extension of my play in imaginary worlds, only this time everyone was playing with me.

So, I knew that when I was invited to submit a story for the Midnight Walk anthlogy, it would be about Halloween in some fashion. I haven't written a short story in many years, so I wanted to write about something that was based on my own real experience.

For days I sifted through my Halloween experiences as a young boy. And one particular experience came back to me several times. Even today I can't quite figure out what exactly happened as it is still clouded with fear and strangeness. Here's what happened.

It was during my first year out by myself on Halloween. Always in previous years one of my two sisters would accompany me as I made my way up and down the streets trick or treating or just having fun running around in my costume. My sisters were in their teens and were much more interested in getting out to their Halloween parties than taking care of their nutty brother, so they pushed and pushed me to hurry up. And once I got home, I could still go out in the yard, but I couldn't go out into the neighborhood on my own. I was too young then (10 or 11 years old).

But when I turned 12 (I think it was around 12), my mom started letting me go out on my own. At first I was so thrilled I just ran all over the neighborhood trying to see everything and fill my bag with candy at the same time. On that particular Halloween as I made my way further away from home and towards the elementary school I attended, the neighborhood changed and became more upper class with precisely cut hedges and only very simple Halloween decorations (if any).

I always made it a point to try and stop at every house on the block even if it was dark or had no decorations. But there was one house that my sisters wouldn't let me stop at when I went out with them (they never explained why). It wasn't a very spooky house. Just a simple rectangular home with a small pecan tree in the yard and a hedge out near the side walk. You had to walk through the hedge (which hid you from the street) down a cement path to get to the door.

I remember that night I came to this house I really wanted to see who lived there. I suspect it was also a little bit of a rebellion against my sisters, but I was genuinely curious. So I walked down the path and when I came to the door I tried to ring the bell. It didn't seem to work though. So I used the brass knocker that was on the door.

I stood there for a long time. So long in fact, I remember hearing other trick or treaters pass the house by. I don't remember being afraid, but it was strange to be out of site of anyone on the sidewalk or street.

Eventually, a very old woman opened the door slowly. She had turned on the porch light and it was hard to make out her face until came closer to me. I very clearly remember her face when she saw me in my costume (could it have been one of the Morlocks from "The Time Machine"?)

She was delighted to see me. She had a huge smile on her face, I remember. It gets a little fuzzy here, but I know that after I said "trick or treat" loudly, she opened the door wider, stepped back and said something like, "Yes, do come in" or "Come on in". Something like that. And beyond her, I could see a light at the end of a long hallway.

Of course, I was petrified. "Come in to someone's home to get candy?" Never on your life. My head had been filed with razors in apples and boys abducted from homes and crazed psychos.
I had no idea what to say.

And yet I found myself following this elderly woman (who had that 'old persons' smell along with plastic on all of the front room furniture) down a hallway to... what?....hell or something? She was nice. Her smile was nice and..I liked her in some way.

Eventually, we turned the corner at the end of the hallway (I looked back and the door was still partly open) and into a kitchen where her husband (I assumed) sat behind a small table and smiled and smiled at me. The table had three or four bowls of nuts in them.

I remember the room was very old fashioned, but super clean. The old woman went and stood behind her husband who then wished me a very happy Halloween. And they both smiled at me. Waiting for something...

I was confused and scared a bit as nothing like this had ever happened in my Halloween experience. I wondered if they were for real or not. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, I recall. I don't think I took off my mask or anything.

The old woman gestured at the bowls on the table and said something like "have some nuts" or "take some nuts". And I went over to look and found that most of the nuts in the bowls were pecans. So they had to be from the tree in their front yard. I really wanted candy, but nuts were good, too. And I grabbed a handful of nuts and dumped them in my bag.

By this time, the my nerves and imagination had gotten the best of me and I turned and ran out of the house and back on to the street. I don't remember hearing anything from the old folks. I just ran and ran until I got to the school and could sit down, have some candy and think about what just happened.

That memory has stayed with me for years. I've had dreams about the house. I've used the memory in acting excercise. I've daydreamed about it. There's always a feeling behind the memory. And, you know, I never went back to the house again. Although I always looked and wonders what ever became of those two lonely old people.

Because that's what they really were. Over the years I've discovered that the meaning I make of this memory is that they were old, lonely people who loved Halloween, but never had anyone come calling. That's why they were so thrilled to have me there. And since they were from another age and time than me, their way of sharing Halloween was very different than my own.

So, this memory became the kernal of "Silver Needle". After reading Lisa's Halloween Encyclopedia, I was also fascinated with the Faeries and how they figured into Halloween night. Eventually, while searching for a good story idea, it just hit me that perhaps that experience I had with the old people could be re-imagined as night where a special young boy was tempted by the Faeries, but manages to outsmart them in the end.

Since I had recently been reading several of the Last Apprentice series young adult novels by Joseph Delany, I hit upon the idea of using his simple prose style. I also wanted to emphasize the environment the story would take place in (like Delany) since it would allow me to spend time remembering details like how the air smelled and how the trees looked. I especially wanted to describe the light in each scene as I loved that twilight time where everything became mysterious to the imagination of a young, 12 year old boy. And to a 50 year old man looking back at moments of great feeling and wonder.

I'm very grateful to the members of the writing group and Lisa Morton in particular for help in getting this memory re-imagined into a short story. Many, many versions later I'm proud that "Silver Needle" is included in the Midnight Walk anthology along with so many good stories (and writers).

I plan on completing a trilogy of "Silver Needle" stories in the future where I'll follow the young boy and his encounter with Faerie as he grows older.

Why Won't Daddy Stop?

Here are a few ramblings about Eddie G. and his stop at the Gates of Hell.

In about 1957 or ‘58, my family traveled Route 66 from Kansas City, somehow skirting Los Angeles, and ending up in San Francisco. I have a solitary memory from that trip, after all, I must have been four or five years old. That memory is this: late at night, long after dark,  my father woke me from a sound sleep to see the turn-off sign to the Grand Canyon. I can distinctly remember his words – “Look. It’s the Grand Canyon.”

Which it wasn’t.

It was a wooden sign. He must have slowed, but he would have never stopped. In subsequent years, we would shoot by giant teepees, meteor craters, and  concrete dinosaurs at sixty or seventy miles an hour. Never slowing, never stopping, unless we needed gas.

When I conceived of “Eddie G. at the Gates of Hell,” the story idea was rooted in my childhood frustrations. Just once, I’d like to stop at one of those roadside attractions. Then it hit me: there had to  be a reason why my father never stopped.

My best guess: he must have been on the run. On the lam, like in those black and white movies. I know (now) that he was a womanizer, he didn’t love my mother, and was unconnected to his children. Still, he was a charming guy that everyone liked.

Of course, none of this is really covered in the story. Other than the fact that Eddie G. is somehow a version of my Dad.

A child’s angry version twisted by time.

And then I touched my own fear. Even as a child I sensed something was not right with our family. There was always an edge, a razor-wire waiting to be yanked, to slice, to cut, to hurt. Now that I’m older, and supposedly more reflective, I wish I knew why my father never stopped.

To his dying day, my father insisted that we had stopped at the Grand Canyon.

Which we hadn’t. I should know. I didn’t see the Grand Canyon for another twenty-nine years. I drove to the same spot, slowed, and made the turn. I thought a lot about my father that day. He must have had a really, really good reason for speeding by.

“Eddie G. at the Gates of Hell” is my best guess why he always kept his foot on the gas pedal.

Let's Take a Midnight Walk...

So, Midnight Walk was the title I came up with a few years ago for my first & only short story collection. I fancy myself a novelist, and writing short stories just takes up too much time for what I consider way too little reward. So, I figured someday I would package up all the short stories I'm way too uncaring about to shop around in between decent selling novels.

Now, my title is being used for this great new antho, though it only includes one of my stories, "Late Check-in", instead of the gazillion stories I had planned to unload on the horror reading public.

*Heavy Sigh*

By the way, "Late Check-in" is a haunted motel story I'd actually written a while back for a themed anthology about -you guessed it! - a scary motel. I would have definitely included it in my own Nightshift-esque collection. It's a fun story, though there isn't nearly enough sex in it for my tastes.

I should have thrown in some heaving bosoms or something.

But now it's too late. See, if "Late Check-in" was a novel, I could just throw in some sex and nudity like an old grindhouse drive-in flick, and Shazam! the problem would be fixed.

Anyhoo, I gotta go think up another cool title for my future short story collection. Maybe something subtle like Heaving Bloody Bosoms. But in the meantime, groove on the other 13 kick ass stories in Midnight Walk that aren't mine.


Friday, May 29, 2009

Laying it all out

When my pals decided to start up this Darkhouse outfit, I immediately threw my figurative hat in for the job of book layout...even though I'd never done it before. And what a great learning experience it's been.

Do you ever hold a book and stop to think how it was put together? You might admire the illustrations, but what about the text, how it reads on a page, how the chapter headings look and the title page? I've always been interested in the physical object of the book, and had always had a yen to try my hand at designing one. I've been involved with a lot of other areas of graphic design - I've even done book illustrations and layout for convention booklets and theater programs - and it was time to try a book.

As the text was being completed, I started with both the cover design and the basic layout template. Suddenly I was faced with some interesting facts about books I'd never considered - like the fact that you don't leave the same margins on every page (because that doesn't take the binding process into account). I found a template for Microsoft Word that took into account "mirror margins", and I tweaked the headers and footers on the template until I had something I liked.

Once the cover art was approved, I started looking at fonts. I like the idea of the same font being used for the title and for interior chapter headings, so we looked at fonts that were expressive of dark fiction but still classy and readable, and we ended up with Ameretto.

I'm a big fan of the book design work of Chip Kidd, and I love his juxtaposition of big blocks of color and graphics, so I borrowed some of that idea of MIDNIGHT WALK's cover. For the rear cover, I created a track of footprints that I laid under the text (that same graphic appears in a slightly altered form on the title page).

Next, came designing chapter headings, and again - I confess I stole, this time from the interior design of the DARK DELICACIES anthologies (although I'd prefer to think of it as "homage"!). A large black bar would hold the Ameretto text title of each story.

I wanted a unique section break device, and so again, I created a track of footprints.

For the main font, there really wasn't much choice but Garamond 12 point. I compared a number of fonts the major publishers use to Garamond, but Garamond won out.

Several of the stories ("The Guixi Sisters", "The Svancara Supper Society") included special little graphics as part of the story. The authors and I worked carefully to place the graphics properly and to choose an ideal font for the engraved invitations in "Svancara" (we opted for Shell).

I also had to learn how to place a bar code. It sounds simple...until you realize there are some very specific rules regarding placement. We were working with a one-piece cover - meaning front cover, spine, and rear cover were one big file - and it took a fair amount of jiggering back and forth to get everything placed properly.

I know Word is not the ideal for book layout, but it ended up serving this project quite well. We did have a file so big it frequently threatened to crash the computer (!), but I was actually quite happy with the end result - I think the book is attractive, easy to read, and has a distinctive character. I hope you'll agree.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Bear Who Swallowed the Sky

I live in Oklahoma, where it sometimes seems it’s more important to know everything about the starting quarterback than it is to know everything about the English language.  Consequently, I’m often asked where I get my ideals.  I used to respond with a correction:  Ideas!  Ideassssss!  But then I just started answering honestly.  I’d say that I get my ideals from my parents.  If they gave me that strange look, which was every time, I’d say that I get my ideas from dreams, or from being inspired by something I read in the paper or saw on the news, or even something I read in someone else’s book or story.  Sometimes, as in the case of my story in Midnight Walk, an idea literally just falls from the sky.

Before 1974, some people erroneously believed that the town of Emporia, Kansas was protected from tornadoes because it was situated between the Cottonwood and Neosho rivers, and tornadoes did not cross water.  Emporia was struck again in 1991.  In March of 2000, an F-3 twister hit the downtown area of Fort Worth, also believed to be “immune” from a tornado strike.  Several high-rise buildings were heavily damaged, with large panes of glass raining down from the sky for days afterwards.  It was shortly after this incident when I first heard The Bear Who Swallowed the Sky roaring in the distance.  I knew then that I had to tell its story.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Destination Unknown: "The Mysterious Name"

There are plenty of paths to choose as you begin your Midnight Walk. Sometimes you'll walk alone. But now and then you'll realize that someone else, sunk in shadow, is matching your stride. As you go on, a few more strangers join in on the journey. Nobody speaks, but all of you sense you're traveling to the same place. At first the mood is one of great anticipation. Yet the dread increases as each step brings you all closer to your destination. The time comes when you would give anything to turn back. You want nothing more than to scream at the others to run away while they are still able. But you can no longer speak.

And then, finally, you understand. You thought this trip would decide your destiny. But it isn't just about you anymore. You look around and suddenly recognize the faces of those walking with you. And you know that, without meaning to, you've dragged along your family, your dearest friends, and passing acquaintances. Even the bystanders whom you wished no harm are with you and must share to some extent in your doom. Examining your companions more closely, you now see the reason why.

You are all connected with a link stronger than any chain. It is a fetter forged with words spoken, glances given, deceits encouraged and love withheld. All of your actions, minor and major, have rippled outward and ensnared the guilty and the innocent alike.

Sometimes, a Midnight Walk begins with one person, with just a single step down. But sometimes, the step that begins with one can send an entire society into an abyss.

That's the concept I explore in my story, "The Mysterious Name."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Living In The Past: "The Measure of a Man"

When I was young my mother was friends with a woman who was about to celebrate her 104th birthday. As the beautician in the retirement home, my mother did the woman's hair up when a photographer came to take her picture for the paper. That night over dinner our family discussed the sheer magnitude of living for over a century. We marveled at what this little old woman had seen in her lifetime. She came to California in a covered wagon from South Dakota. At the ripe old age of 12 she was a school teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. She lived through every war from the Spanish-American War to Vietnam. During the 100+ years of her life, the Wright brothers first took flight at Kitty Hawk and Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon.

Since then, technology has advanced in leaps and bounds. We have at our fingertips incredible amounts of information. You can look up almost anything and find some sort of info on it. Maybe even a video clip. The internet has become a vast global repository of knowledge. If you were to wake up at 3am with a sharp pain in your back, you could go online and find out what it is or isn't. You no longer have to wait until the doctor's office opens at 8am to find out that it was nothing. You can learn how to build a working replica of the Apollo Guidance Computer from scratch, pay your bills, buy concert tickets, book trips, and so much more, all without having to leave the comfort of your home.

We are so used to all this technology, it seems natural, like an extension of ourselves. Devices like iPods and laptop computers are commonplace. But what if you didn't have all these modern conveniences? What if you were put in a situation where you had to rely solely on your wits to survive? Could you? That is the starting point for several of my stories. I enjoy writing historical fiction and putting myself in the skin of my characters. I try to figure out how I would cope with the situations they face. With no modern technology, weapons or tools, how would I survive?

The hardest part of writing these sorts of stories is putting aside everything you know and seeing the world through the eyes of someone like the main character in "The Measure of A Man". In it we meet Lindani, a young Zulu training to be a warrior. He lives in a time when men take to the seas in masted sailing ships to travel great distances. At twelve years of age, Lindani is about to come face-to-face with some gruesome, relentless creatures. The only things he has to protect himself are a sharp stick and his wits. Put in that situation, how long would you last?

In Search Of Monsters

By John Palisano

When I set out to transcribe the many fleeting images from within my mind’s eye it’s more often than not a difficult task. My usual method involves a pad, a pen, and rather blunt usage of my primitive drawing skills. These images, so often captured from dreams, fade quickly. For years I tried to transcribe them into writing. Problem was by the time I thought of the proper descriptive words details were lost and my time wasted. Using a quick sketch method remains the closest to taking a snapshot of the subconscious.

Just such a daydream brought the Tennatrick to life. I’d been reading about a rather terrible fire season in Southern California. Which made me curious: how could there be so many fires? It felt unnatural, as though someone or some-thing quite diabolical were purposely starting the hillside infernos.

I fell asleep in my childhood bedroom; I was visiting my parent’s house on the East Coast. My dreams filled with a strange monster combing the California mountains after having pushed its way through the earth. Its hibernation over, the creature broke free from its shell. Preservative oils within spilled to the ground and caught fire.

In my mind’s eye I crouched behind a tree. Was it in vain to hope the creature wouldn’t find me? Unfortunately the creatures had many eyes, each much more advanced than my own. It spotted my hiding pace and charged toward me. The burrs on the end of its arms swung threateningly. It screeched and clicked, producing a sound similar to its name.

The monster towered over me and I realized then there were bodies near the foot of the beast, torn in two, oozing gut and gore. I was toast.

Staring into the monster’s face and getting a whiff of its oily breath, I knew I’d soon be another pile on the ground. I shut my eyes, because in dreams, it seems impossible to move or run.

A greater noise, deafening in volume, made me bend lower. It continued and I waited for the killing blow. It did not come, but the noise continued. I looked up to discover a second creature fighting the first. A classic monster movie distraction played out right in front of me. A cliché, sure, but who was I to complain?

Waking with that scene in my head, I sketched the creature, the environment, and the fire behind. I also wrote some key words that would help me remember details. Oily breath. Flesh colored guts. White ash like snow.

From there I was able to assemble the story now published in MIDNIGHT WALK. It went through several draft. My strange dream crossed over from the mysterious world of imagination to a printed page.

Picturing myself as a kind of explorer, I’m constantly searching for strange monsters among dark frontier borders. There are many new uncharted species out there, but it’s likely they’d choose to remain hidden.

I’m just starting to explore, so if you’d like to get a backpack, I’d be grateful for company. Just do yourself a favor and bring along a reliable pen and a good notepad. You never know what you may stumble upon.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Diana and the Goong-si"

Hopping vampires - goong-si. Yeah, I love 'em.

Of course I'd like to think there's more to my story "Diana and the Goong-si" than just hopping vampires (like, say, a little comment on the injustices of colonialism, maybe even a bit about feminine empowerment in the 19th century), but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that the idea of a westerner fighting a quintessentially Chinese monster wasn't the chief genesis behind the story.

Although my Chinese friends tell me that these critters have been around eastern culture for a long time, they - like their western counterparts - have been largely defined by their movies. The hopping vampire has probably made almost as many appearances in Hong Kong cinema of the last thirty years as European-style bloodsuckers have in Hollywood movies. It was 1985's superhit Mr. Vampire that really put 'em on the map; although Mr. Vampire is a spectacularly loony film with plenty of laughs (largely provided by Hong Kong comedy superstar Ricky Hui), it's also got some genuinely spooky moments, like when our heroes hold their breath to keep a goong-si from finding them. Mr. Vampire set up most of the basic points of the hopping vampire: That they're dead and can only move by hopping; that they seek out the living to extract their blood; that certain kinds of rice can affect them; and that a knowledgeable priest can control them by placing a written sutra, a sort of prayer, on their foreheads.

Mr. Vampire spawned dozens of sequels, ripoffs and homages (funny how often those two are confused, isn't it?). But one of the most interesting additions to the whole hopping vampire movie cycle came nearly 20 years later, when Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters introduced a new spin to the legend: That a powerful master goong-si could suck your blood without even touching you. This particular film largely dispensed with the humor that's traditionally lightened Hong Kong's hopping vampire movies, and proved that the goong-si could still invoke plenty of fear.

For some reason a couple of years ago I was briefly obsessed with writing fiction about hopping vampires. It hasn't been done much in western fiction; the only appearance that's garnered any real attention, I think, was a guest star bit in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula. I wondered if it was possible to take something that began life as a comic monster from another culture and use it effectively in western genre fiction. I actually wrote two hopping vampire pieces (the other, a story entitled "Mr. Hop in WongTown", should be making its appearance next year). "Diana and the Goong-si" started life as a story in which Dracula's antagonist Van Helsing fought the nasty hoppers, but I eventually realized I was far more interested in a western woman taking the things on. Travel to Canton (now Guangzhou) in Van Helsing's era (the 19th century, in other words) was difficult (even after the Suez canal finally opened and steamships replaced sailing vessels), and it would have taken a woman of rare determination and courage to even make the trip alone. Now take that woman and pit her against hopping vampires, and...

Well, you'll have to read "Diana and the Goong-si" to find out the rest.
MIDNIGHT WALK is hitting the streets in one month. Stay tuned for more...