[Sometimes, I write a story in an hour based on an image.]
They met, as they did every morning, at the ridge overlooking the train tracks in the far corner of Nat Henderson’s farm. Nat rested his hands on the fence while Dwight glanced over his shoulder to check once more on the cattle. As always, they were perfect.
“How’s the morning treating you, Dwight?” Nat squinted up at the sky. “Looks like another beautiful one.”
“Yeah, it does, don’t it?” Dwight nudged his horse Charlene and she turned them both toward town. “Another perfect day.”
“Mmm hmm,” said Nat.
“You ever wonder why there’s never been a murder over there in Piddleton?”
“What’s that again, Dwight?”
“There’s never been a murder in Piddleton. Did you know that? Nobody’s ever caught his wife with another man and strangled them both, nobody’s ever shot a teenaged couple in the backs of their heads at the lover’s lane, nobody’s ever snapped a pool cue off in someone’s skull at Victor’s Tavern.”
“I ain’t aheard of none, anyways,” Nat said. “From where I’m standing, that’s a good thing.”
“Well, yeah. But it’s a little too MUCH of a good thing, isn’t it? The only troubles we get around here are the occasional train derailment and that fire at Old Man Jenkins’s place they’ve been trying to put out since, well, since I can remember.”
“They’ll get it one of these days. They’ve kept it from spreading, at least.”
“Yeah, spreading,” said Dwight, adjusting his hat. “Spreading to a town with exactly one perfect white church with a steeple, one general store, one school with a bell, one firehouse, one police station, two train depots, and a half dozen houses.”
“I’m sure there’s more than that.”
“There aren’t. I’ve counted.”
Nat chewed that over in the side of his cheek. “Well, if you say so.”
“And these cattle I’ve been tending. They’re all perfectly brown and white, not a one of them with fleas or flies or mange or nothing. They’re perfect. You could eat them off the hoof if you wanted.”
“Now, Dwight, you don’t want to go gnawing at your livelihood!” said Nat.
“And another thing–”
A train whistle rolled up from the tracks below like a warm wind.
“Oh, look, here’s the 8:13.”
“Yes, again,” Dwight said. “8:13. And there’s the spotless passenger train and the spotless freight and that one over there with the old-fashioned engine. What’s that about?”
“No need to hang up a tool just because it’s old,” Nat said.
“You know what I think?” Dwight sidled the horse a little closer to be heard over the gentle clack-clack of the wheels below. “I think that if I rode ol’ Charlene here as far as I could along those tracks, they’d come right back around in a loop.”
Nat smiled. “That’s silly. What would be the point?”
“You tell me. What would be the point? We wake up, we do the same thing every day, we see the same things every day — the same kids kicking that ball in the field, the same old ladies with their green frock coats and black pocketbooks downtown, the same Studebakers parked across from Jim’s Hardware. What is the point?”
Nat shook his head. “You been sitting out on that horse in the sun a little too long, Dwight. That’s the kind of stuff that Commies think.”
“I feel like I’ve been sitting on this horse forever, to tell you the truth. Sometimes late at night, I swear I hear footsteps across the stars. Right up there. You ever hear that? I don’t figure so. But sometimes I hear footsteps and other times I hear voices and laughter. Because somewhere, I tell you, there are tracks that don’t go around in a circle.”
“These don’t go around in a circle, Dwight,” Nat said patiently. “I know it can get lonely out here–”
“I think I’m going to ride to town and kill somebody, just to see if it can be done. I’ll bet it can’t.”
“I hope not,” Nat said. “‘Cause I sure like talkin’ to you.”
“I’ll leave the herd here because, hey, where the hell are they going? Nowhere. I’ll just ride into town and hitch Charlene to a mailbox, and then I’ll go into one of those houses and cut up a family with my Bowie knife.”
Nat nodded. “Well, it’s a pretty day for it, anyway.”
“I’ll bet you I’ll be right back here tomorrow,” Dwight said.
“I know I will,” Nat said.
“Yeah,” Dwight said.
“Yeah,” Nat replied.
“Well, I suppose I’ll see you tomorrow again, if nothing changes.”
“It won’t,” Nat said.
Dwight nudged Charlene into her usual grudging town-ward motion, and as always they got as far as the edge of the grazing fields before stopping. Nat watched Dwight looking over the town as he always did.
“Maybe one of these days,” Nat muttered to his friend’s long-distant back. “Maybe one.”
2015 was a year in which I cared less about goals and more about habits, trusting that if I did certain things every day, they’d eventually coalesce into achievements of some kind. That more or less worked, at least more so than just staring pie-eyed at the goals ever did.
Here’s what the year came down to for me:
[From time to time, I write a story based on an image in an hour or your next one’s free.]
Paul swept his arm against my chest suddenly in the darkness and cried, “Stop!”
It was the middle of nowhere. Once, it had been somewhere – the site of one of those old-school shopping malls that had a roof over the whole place unlike the town centers of today. It had gone out of business about ten years ago when I was little and now it had been torn down. All that was left was a huge concrete puzzle piece with weeds growing through the cracks, not that we could see it that clearly.
“This is the spot,” Paul said. “Right here.”
“What spot?” I asked.
Paul scanned the old asphalt with his flashlight, not really looking up to talk to me. “Where Hatchet Harry learned how to hunt.”
“Hatchet Harry? That was the guy’s name? Was that supposed to be scary? Because a hatchet is like two feet long.”
“That’s what’s scary about it. You can swing it real fast because it’s small and light. When a killer swings an axe, he gets maybe one shot before it gets stuck in the victim’s skull.”
“That sounds like enough.”
“Yeah, if all you want is one victim. But Hatchet Harry could split one head and then go on to the next. You know why?”
“Because a hatchet didn’t get stuck, fine.” I pulled the sleeves of my hoodie over my hands and hugged my arms close in the chill.
“So the year is 1957. Billy Joe Hargett and Norma Bea Valentine were parking out here in his – “
“Why do victims always have two names? Nobody with one name ever gets killed by a psychopathic killer.”
“You mean like Cher?”
“No, I mean like…Dave. Or Harriet. It’s always Billy Joe and Norma Bea.”
“I can’t help their names, okay?” Paul motioned back to the pavement. “Now help me out here. Imagine a 1955 Buick Century parked right about here, the windows steamed—“
“Is that a car? Because I was, like, negative forty years old when it was built. Was it pulled by horses?”
“No,” he sighed. “The windows are steamed because, well, Billie Joe has his hand under Norma Bea’s blouse and she has her hand in—“
“And Hatchet Harry comes and chops them up, the end. I get it. Creepy. Now let’s go back to the car, okay?”
“You don’t know anything. First, she sees something in the distance, a shape moving out of the trees. He tells her it’s probably a deer. Then it comes closer, but now it’s waddling close to the ground and she knows it isn’t a damned deer. It keeps coming closer, kind of duck-walking, which would be silly if it wasn’t for how determined the thing seemed to be. Straight line, right from the trees to the car, a weird shape because silhouetted in the faint light, she can see—“
“A hatchet,” I said. Goddamn, the Goth boys could be boring even if they had the cool leather dusters.
“No, it’s a fucking claw. And she sees that the thing has two of them, like a crab. A land crab. Like one of those creatures from the Pleistocene.”
“Wait. She was a paleontologist?”
Paul wasn’t stopping. In fact, he was getting excited by the story, which could actually be cute because that’s when he dropped the fake British accent and his speech impediment came out. Some of the other kids made fun of him for it, the way his vowels all sounded like they took his whole mouth to say, but you know…it made him different. Good different.
“So she’s awwll pounding on Billie Joe’s showwlder, telling him to look, but by then it’s too late: the creature is right by the backseat of the car on the passenger side, peeling it open like a can of sardines.” He held up his hands and pinched the fingers together like claws. “There was this screeching noise and that thing ripped it right open. Then it clicked two chitinous blades on the back of Norma Bea’s neck and pulled her screaming from the–”
“Wait. What happened to Hatchet Harry?”
“Well, that’s the thing. Hatchet Harry, he’s this escaped mentaw patient living in a shanty in the woods, sleeping on a cot under a blanket of sewn together human pelts. And he knows what that clicking means: it means the crab-thing from the swamp is gypping him two perfectly good human victims.”
“He can say ‘gypping’ because he’s a mentaw patient and it’s 1957.” Paul finally took a breath. “So he goes running toward the crab-thing because, fuck, there are only so many people who come out to the lover’s lane. But when he gets there, the crab-thing has already torn them awwsunder and all Hatchet Harry can do is sputter and stamp his feet as it drags them back into the swamp.”
“The story ends with Hatchet Harry jumping up and down like Yosemite Sam?”
“No,” Paul said calmly, regaining his accent. “It never ends. Because Hatchet Harry learned a valuable lesson that night: to work in total silence and speed.”
I heard a click seemingly echo from the woods. It made me roll my eyes. I couldn’t help it.
“Apparently not total,” I said.
The clicking noise came again and Paul turned quickly.
“Quit it,” I said.
“It was the beginning of an unholy symbiosis. Now all Harry has to do is wait for the crab-thing to come from the swamp and then he can come in and finish the job. They’ve been in competition ever since, and nobody to this day knows who has more victims.”
A branch snapped and so did something else. No, it didn’t snap. It clacked together hollowly.
“They work together,” Paul said quietly. “The hunter and his faithful dog. But which—“
I shoved him to the pavement and ran headlong to the car.
Before we go any further, let’s all acknowledge that GOLIATH FLORES is an awesome name. Giant flowers!
Goliath, who happens to be my neighbor, hosts a great podcast about the arts here in Jacksonville called Elucidate. I came onto the show the other day to chat about politics, creativity, politics, and mass societal delusion. You know, the usual.
[From time to time, I write a story in an hour based on a stock photo or other image.]
Detective Beeler leaped atop one of the mail conveyors and held up his hands to get our attention. It was cold on the floor so late at night and the heaters hadn’t yet kicked on so I could see his breath.
“Men, we appreciate you taking time from your families to help the NYPD so close to Christmas, but when we explain why, we think you’ll more than understand.”
I understood. My supervisor Eugene, who actually had children of his own, didn’t seem to; he stood off to the side with his sleeves rolled up and his arms folded, frowning at the cosmic inconvenience of it all. Some of the other guys didn’t look too happy either.
But for me, hey, what was I doing? Sitting around in my boarding house listening to the radio? Leaning out on the fire escape to watch the snow gather on the heaps of garbage below? When the police called us back to the distribution center, that was fine with me.
“If you’ve been following the papers the last few months, you know all about the Brooklyn Butcher. If you haven’t, well, maybe you’re better off not knowing that some sicko has been killing women and children and mailing their body parts to newspapers and the police. We don’t know who he is, only that the packages are postmarked 11256.”
I knew something about it, sure. I’d been reading the papers just like everybody else, wondering what the Butcher would send next. One week it had been a woman’s pale, lithe arm still with the silver bracelet on the wrist. Another, it was a child’s foot in a Buster Brown shoe. Then there were the ten days in a row when fingers arrived one after the other, boom boom boom. They weren’t all from the same person.
“This time, though, we’ve got a problem. When a cop or a newspaper man gets an ear in the mail, it sure isn’t fun, but at least he can handle it. I mean, we’ve all been in the War. But kids…shit.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “This year, the fucker is sending Christmas presents to kids. That’s what he calls them, ‘presents.’”
I remembered that letter now, the scary one sent to the Post with the untraceable typewriter letters. ON THIS MERRY YULE, I SHAL SEND THE CHURLDREN OF THE CITY SOME NISE FLESHY TOISE TO PLAY WIT. THE BEST TOISE ARE PEEPLE.
Beeler nodded. “Yeah, presents. So somewhere in this heap of Christmas packages there are some scary fucking things and we have to find them.”
I raised my hand. “How will we know which are the scary things?”
Beeler pointed to me. “I’m glad you asked. I’m guessing you guys aren’t too used to listening to the packages you deliver, but that’s the key here. You’re going to have to shake each one gently and listen for how it thumps.”
“How it thumps?” Eugene was always slow.
“Yeah. So you pick up each package and shake it gently. Most things, your toys and your candy, they’ll make something like a rattle, a little hollow. But something like, say, a hand makes this rasping sound as the flesh rubs against the cardboard. It’s a lot more solid-sounding, too. Kind of a ‘ssss-thump.’”
I made the sound with my tongue against my teeth and lips. Ssss-thump. Ssssssss-thuuumppp.
“Don’t be surprised if you come across any Leakers, either. That’s what we call the packages that have a little bit of blood pooling in one of the corners. Try not to handle the blood directly of course, and just put it in this bin. This is the Leaker bin.”
I raised my hand again.
“You’re full of questions, aren’t you?” Beeler said.
Eugene folded his arms. “He usually is.”
“What do we get for each thing we find?”
Beeler hunched his shoulders a little to peer down at me. “What do you get? You get the satisfaction of keeping a child from finding a severed penis on Christmas morning, that’s what you get.”
I nodded. “Okay, sure. I completely understand. Absolutely. I just thought we might make it…fun. You know, because it’s Christmas.”
“I’m not sure this should be fun,” Beeler said, “but whatever you need to do to find these things…well, we’d greatly appreciate it.”
Eugene pulled the big green button and the conveyors creaked to life. Beeler jumped down, made sure his revolver was secure, and then reached into the boxes like an old pro.
I began to whistle “Sleigh Ride.” Then I picked up the first box from my favorite pile and listened for the ssss-thump of a lucky child’s best present ever.
With four whole days until Christmas, let me tell you the good books I read this year that you SHOULD have bought for yourself or others.
(As always, my recommended books of the year are the ones I read in that year, not the ones published in that time. I read books to get AWAY from the cultural zeitgeist, not to fall into it!)
There are in no particular order, except perhaps subconsciously.
A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay
I have mostly a handshake-and-Facebook acquaintance with Paul, which is too bad because I suspect we probably get the same kinds of complaints about our work from a certain subset of cretinous readers: that it doesn’t go “far enough.”
I used to wish that there was a better word than “horror” for stories like ours (and Laird Barron’s and John Langan’s and Livia Llewellyn’s etc.) because it comes with a lot of clumsy expectations. Now, I just hope more books like A Head Full of Ghosts keep stretching that frontier into more subtle psychological territory.
It goes plenty “far enough.”
The blithe description of the book is that it is about a teenaged girl whose apparent demonic possession becomes the subject of a documentary TV show, but like the show itself, that’s a gross misunderstanding of what’s really happening to Marjorie Barrett and her family. This is a book as much about the stories we tell ourselves about our own fears as about the fears themselves, and every character is wrong about the possession in ways that are far more scary than a demon.
Tremblay does an amazing job with the tiny accumulating details of real fear, and the effect reminds of me all the best parts of Steven Spielberg’s (nominally Tobe Hooper’s) Poltergeist: the horrors come knocking on our middle class doors, chased away by the worse things already within.
The Martian, by Andy Weir
If there was room between all the shit about Jesus in the Inspiration section of the bookstore, I’d shelve The Martian there.
Why? Because no matter how bad your life is, no matter who has dumped you or betrayed you or fired you or cut off your leg or called you a failure or denied you a small business loan, it will never be as bad as being marooned on Mars.
And no matter what you think can fix your life — self-help books, prayer, AA meetings, cults, shooting up a movie theater, traveling to Bali, coloring in books with markers — nothing will work quite as well as screaming briefly and then solving the current goddamn problem right in front of you before going on to the next.
Mark Watney starts this book well and surely fucked as many of us have been. We usually have water and oxygen when we’re fucked, but hey, bad is bad. Watching Watney rationally (and with humor) face his problems one by one with every resource he has (brain included) could certainly be a lesson to almost everyone trying to fix the world from debate stages and Facebook.
You look at what’s actually in front of you — not what you want to be in front of you, not what you hope to be in front of you — and you use 100% of it to make the next ten seconds 1% better than the last ten seconds.
Sometimes all you can do is survive to solve the next problem, but somehow, that’s always enough.
Working Days, by John Steinbeck
When John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, he wrote a journal at the same time, a place where he could grumble about what he was working on that day and what was coming next, and the result — Working Days — is one of the most useful books you will ever read about writing.
Why? Because it tells you that doubt and chaos and distraction is normal. And that it’s possible to work through them.
Now that I’m thinking about it, Working Days is The Martian but for writing a book. Steinbeck is stranded on Planet Joad and he has to make the best decisions each day to survive to make more tomorrow.
And the result — SPOILER ALERT — is The Grapes of Fucking Wrath.
One word and one sentence and one chapter at a time, folks.
As this semester comes to a close, I think I’ve come to a decision about my teaching career, and I think that decision is that it’s basically over.
1. I’m skeptical that writing is learned effectively in a typical classroom setting.
Writing is learned by epiphany: you try different things and see which ones feel right. Sometimes that’s accelerated by placing yourself in the path of possible epiphany, writing a lot and reading a lot and also perhaps through classes or writing books. But in my too-large classes with students of vastly different abilities and interest levels, it’s almost impossible to do anything but present the broadest (one size fits none) principles.
2. The only classes I can teach as an adjunct are the very basic ones that serve as general English credit, so 80% of my students have no interest in writing, certainly not getting better at it.
And I have no idea what to do with them. Try to reinforce the basics of grammar and punctuation that they never learned? Encourage them to be more creative, though they don’t give a shit? Focus on the 20% who are interested in writing instead? I never know.
3. I’m not giving my students what they need, which is mostly time.
Adjuncting is my part-time job pursued in the evenings after eight hours at my regular one, and what the students need most is hours of individual mentorship in everything from where commas go to how to send stories off for submission. I do the best I can with manuscript comments, but the best success I’ve had has been during casual one-on-one conversations with individual students: “What’s up with you and semicolons?” I simply don’t have the time to do that with a full time job in addition to teaching.
4. I don’t like reading people’s unfinished manuscripts.
Basically my students need to be told one of two things: “Keep doing this” and “Stop doing that.” The problem is that they hand in work that is way too close to composition so I’m telling them things they’d probably fix themselves in a rewrite. I never feel like I’m saying enough of the right things at the right time.
5. I don’t need the money as much as the other adjuncts.
Adjuncts are paid for shit, and many of the ones at my university work multiple teaching gigs all over town. Every time I teach a class for my credit card money, that’s one less that some poor bastard living off this shit will get.
6. There are standards and rigidity and accountability coming.
To their credit, my English department is trying to establish a baseline of actual repeatable results for the students, but all I want to do is say weird funny things about writing until someone accidentally learns something. It’s only a matter of time before calling myself “the Hannibal Lecter” of the English department or saying Halloween is Satan’s birthday results in a complaint and a long awkward talk.
7. It upsets me that students don’t leave my class cheering or weeping with the inspiration to write.
Hideous confession time: I am far more motivated by entertaining people than teaching them (mostly because the results of the former are way clearer than the latter).
8. Yes, it saps time and energy from writing.
Though I did manage to rewrite a novel this year with some better time management, my day job suffered a little and the writing could have gone better.
One reason I might teach again:
If I get an opportunity to teach/mentor a smaller group of motivated students in the way I want — “Hey, let’s hang out and write and read what we’ve got and talk about it” — I’d jump at it.
You learn writing by doing it a lot, trying new things, being honest with yourself about the results, and getting firm feedback from someone experienced that you trust. If I could help that, it might be worth it…to me and to the students.
We all know that children are annoying. Countless scientific studies have proven they don’t even have souls until they’re about fourteen or fifteen, and maybe not even then. They’re loud, they’re unpredictable, they’re narcissistic – they’re basically tiny drunks we can’t send to detox.
So when a heroic adult breaks free of our deliberate societal delusion about the saintliness of children, there’s cause to stand up and cheer.
This Minnesota woman – I hesitate to use her name because her next job search is going to be complicated enough without Google dragging her down – responded to months of systematic terrorism from her shrieking child neighbors just as you or I would.
By sending little anonymous notes about how she wanted to eat the children. Because you might as well put that degree in Psychology to use.
Threats to eat children have a long and noble tradition all the way from folk and fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel up to noted serial killer Albert Fish. They’re how we keep kids in line. I’m the man I am today because my father wasn’t above shaking a bottle of barbecue sauce in my direction when I got unruly.
Not long ago, we used to believe it took a village to raise a child. And sometimes, when those children are yelling and running around and leaving toys in your yard, you need a village witch to step in with a few minor cackling threats and some subscriptions to magazines under the name “Your Tasty Children.”
What we don’t need is to put honest witches in jail under charges of misdemeanor terroristic threats.
The simplest way to avoid this would have been for those children to have been raised in a far-off Dickensian boarding school. The second simplest way would have been for this woman to have had a better plan than “1. Send threats. 2. Scare family. 3. Family finds it safer to abandon a house with twenty years left on the mortgage than to let children get eaten.”
Rest assured, this will have a chilling effect. Gone are the days when we could dig traps in the park or hose down trick-or-treaters with impunity.
And when the chaos ensues, when a generation grows up without fear of being eaten, we will reap what we have sown.