If you like old science fiction television shows, alcoholic writers, and creepy tree stumps in the woods, this story is relevant to your interests.
Sometimes people ask me about my first collection, Cthulhu Fhtagn, Baby! — where they can get it, why it’s out of print, why I never mention it — and I usually respond by strangling them behind a dumpster so no one ever speaks of it again.
There’s an old writer’s curse: “May you sell all your early stories and compile them into a collection,” and the Monkey’s Paw vindictively granted my earliest wish to be published. I’m not sure why the stories in CFB sold to some surprising places like Weird Tales, except perhaps for polite encouragement.
That collection is awful, and I hereby apologize for it.
The only reason to own CFB is for Deena Warner’s fabulous cover art, which can be easily trimmed from the front of the book and framed.
That cover makes my book a jewel-encrusted Yugo driven by a Serbian mobster in a track suit. Her husband Matt Warner’s introduction was also very kind, and I’m eternally grateful he hacked his way through the book and found nice things to say.
What went wrong?
The stories in CFB, including the title one about a review for a Cthulhu-themed Broadway show, are driven almost solely by gimmicks, the things that early writers think are the engines of story. On my honeymoon with my first wife, I attended a terrible theater show on the cruise and imagined the only way it could be worse was in service to cosmic evil, and bam! it became a story. Once while standing near the window of my 12th floor office, I saw a milk truck drive by on the bridge far below and wondered what would happen if you heard something banging around inside, and pow! another story.
Every piece in CFB is a joke stretched too thin, and the whole thing is a reminder of my greatest weakness, going for the easy laugh instead of developing an experience.
I won’t go quite so far as to say I wish it had never been published; it certainly fits into a very specific time of my career. I needed to plant a flag in the sand that yes, I was working earnestly on a career and if readers would just wait a little longer, I’d have something much better for them.
If you are one of the courageous and/or supportive souls who bought it early, I thank you for your confidence in me. If you’re a weirdo buying it off eBay today, I hope you’ll read it as what it is, a time capsule of my early career.
Let us never speak of it again.
As a person whose sociopathic, murderer-inciting father is pretty much the most interesting thing about him, I can’t let Father’s Day go by unremarked, can I? Even though both my bad and good fathers are dead, it’s still a day that evokes some feeling in me.
(Not, interestingly, as a person concerned about not being a father himself. I know that whole scene would be bad news for all involved.)
This year, with the revival of Twin Peaks, it has me thinking of how I’ve grossly underestimated the role of Dale Cooper’s influence on me as a surrogate father in late high school, teaching me that being intuitive and weird and appreciative can be assets, and that cynicism isn’t the only (or even a good) source of inner power.
One of the nice things about having a terrible father who fled our family like the Nazis getting routed from Paris when I was young is that I had the luxury of picking better fathers, and I’ve mentioned them all individually before in various places, including my stories.
Here, for the first time, is the comprehensive map of my fathers all in one place for our mutual reference.
Apropos of nothing going on politically, I’ve been reading All The President’s Men again. It’s a book I’ve always liked, largely because it combines two things I love: writing and cracking mysteries. I wish I’d discovered investigative journalism earlier as a career choice, but then, that career would probably already be over by now.
Reading Woodward’s and Bernstein’s book now, I can’t help but wonder if a campaign of dirty political tricks culminating in a failed attempt to bug the Democratic National Committee would even register on our country’s moral radar anymore. As each chapter goes by and the reporters circle closer to Haldeman and Nixon, I’m stricken by how it wouldn’t even surprise us these days that the President knew about a huge fund of cash for spying on and discrediting opponents.
Here’s a horrifying truth I suspect but cannot prove: Nobody who doesn’t already hate Trump gives a shit about whether the Russians helped him win the election. It’s too esoteric an issue, something hard to prove with the finality of a fingerprint or DNA sample.
Worse, it doesn’t excite moral indignation like a blow job in the Oval Office, simple and emotional and easy to be sure about. I suspect that many people outside of the Twittersphere see Trump as the accidental beneficiary of electoral interference, and even if he was involved, they still see the issue as something like speeding — an arbitrary law we’d all break when The Man wasn’t looking.
We suck at parsing ethics in America. We’re awesome with morals — man, we’re drooling on our Puritan smocks about morals — but I worry we’re too much of a “get-it-while-the-gettin’s-good” culture to see collusion with a foreign power or lying as much worse than taking a pen home from the office. We’re terrifying rationalizers, and nothing short of egregious and obvious harm gets our attention anymore (or maybe ever).
I hope I’m wrong. I hope the narrative reaches a critical mass from the core of “it’s against the law” to “it’s an affront to everyone in the country.” I hope regular people start to get angry.
But I doubt they will unless we better connect intellectual indignation with the good old fashioned pitchforks-and-torches kind.
My story “Night Fever” is appearing in the May/June 2017 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, and along with the usual comments that it’s not science fiction (hello, alternate history!), I’m guessing I’ll get a few questions about where the fuck the idea of placing Charles Manson in the disco era came from.
A couple of years ago, I posted a tweet that said something like, “If Charles Manson was active in the 70s instead of the 60s, it’d be Night Fever coming down fast instead of Helter Skelter.” My friend Robert Levy replied that he’d read a story about that, so I quickly deleted the tweet to keep the idea to myself.
Though the combination was natural for me — the Manson case and New York of the 70s — it took a long time to get around to writing it for several reasons:
These are the issues that beset me with most stories, and the only way I’ve found to fix them is to sit down and tinker with a beginning until I find a voice to tell it in. I open a plain text editor and type out various sentences and paragraphs until I feel a twinge of recognition or excitement.
In the case of “Night Fever,” it was this sentence:
Sometimes I wonder what would be different if Charlie got out when he was supposed to. But then, he’d probably be as big an asshole in the 60s as he was in the 70s.
Then I hit upon the idea of writing the story in true crime fragments, quotations from articles and books and court transcripts. I’ve done this before, largely because I’m neurotically skeptical about third-person narratives. I always want to know who is telling the story and why, and the magical authorial voice out of nowhere just creeps me out. Plus I enjoy performing other voices (about half a dozen in “Night Fever,” including a gone-to-seed Truman Capote).
I wrote the story with my patented “tinkering” technique, which is hard to distinguish from fucking around:
The great thing about the story was that the structure was essentially dictated by the subject matter. I had to explain why Manson was released in the 70s instead of the 60s, I had to describe New York and the kind of people he’d recruit (focusing on one who’d be sufficiently self-aware like Linda Kasabian), and I had to introduce the prosecutor who would bring him down.
(Originally, the prosecutor was to be an alternate history Rudy Giuliani, but my editor was afraid we’d get sued.)
Then with the pieces in place, they had to commit a crime, get arrested, and go to trial. Most of that part was fun, finding echoes from the original murders in the 60s and play them out in the 70s. I made a playlist to get me in the mood for 1978 and researched what the clubs were like in the era. I absorbed a lot as a kid living there then, but my older sister was going to Shaun Cassidy concerts, not Studio 54.
I didn’t really have a point or purpose to the story as I wrote it except perhaps to refute the idea that any of the original Manson crimes were somehow inevitable results of the hedonistic 60s. Manson’s a chameleon, and I think he’d have done just fine in any era finding people better than him to fall for his shit.
(Modern day Manson followers, please don’t find and kill me!)
Starting Wednesday the 22nd, I’ll be at the 38th International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts down at the Orlando Airport Marriott.
My reading on Thursday the 23rd is at the bracing hour of 8:30am, so if you like to wake up to weirdness as much as Aimee does, come on by!
I’ll also be lurking in panels and readings until Saturday evening.
I am not a thin man. I like soda and doughnuts too much.
But in 2015, I decided to start running (as exercise, not from the law or the Sandmen or anything) because it is the only workout I’ve found that is boring enough to listen to music but not TOO boring to lose my interest. It is, oddly, the only kind of exercise I’ve ever liked.
I run a few times a week (or more) on a treadmill, but I also participate in 5K runs (3.1 miles for those of us not caving in to Jimmy Carter’s world government measurement coup). They’re actually fun, and I enjoy running in places I wouldn’t normally go. I have a weird relationship to crowds, though, and I tend to enjoy observing than interacting with them. I do my own running time, thank you very much.
The Gate River Run is a 15K (9.3ish miles, fellow colonials) race through an odd cross-section of Jacksonville, and it’s a sort of gold-standard for runners around here. 14,000 people ran it this year with me, for varying definitions of “run” including long stretches of walking, which is just fine. For a person like me who sometimes staggers to the end of a 5K, it can be intimidating run a race that’s basically three of those in a row over two bridges.
So I did it anyway.
I prepared, sort of: I did my usual treadmill runs of around 5K with a few longer ones. I fully expected to face some long moment of the soul around mile 8 where I’d hallucinate a dead family member or childhood hero telling me I had to keep going and I had everything I needed inside me all along, but it was just…fun.
Here’s what I learned/noticed:
Here’s the big one:
There’s an amazing moment where you stop thinking about whether you can make it and simply focus on moving one foot in front of the other, when your energy shifts from doubt to action. Running makes it a nice pure thing (what are you going to do, quit at mile 7 and just camp in Arlington the rest of your life?) but the principle applies to things with more abstract results. Trust that moment will come.
Take heed, writers and artists and political activists: the demons of suck that swarm every worthwhile activity are scared away by not giving a shit about them.
I’ve just received word that my latest story “Night Fever” will appear in the May/June issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.
What’s it about? I don’t want to give too much away, so let’s simply call it a tale of alternate crime and disco history and let you fill in the rest.
If it tells you anything about 2016, here are the two highlights:
That’s pretty much it. I also ran about 800 miles and participated in twelve organized races. Everything else was pretty much a shitshow.
I’m not sure you can exactly “buy” my picks for great television this year, but you can subscribe to their services or whatever.
I find I’m enjoying TV much more than movies these days. Who’s with me?
Stranger Things, Netflix
The big surprise was Stranger Things, though it shouldn’t have been. Kids in the 80s discovering terrible secrets in their little town after one of their own goes missing? Filmed with a Spielberg/King sensibility and 80s visual style? Sign me up!
It’s not a perfect show but a very good one, and I find these days I’m more interested in what stories can help me experience than what ideas they introduce. Stranger Things doesn’t deliver earth-shattering, game-changing revelations or advancements in the genre, but it expertly places you back in a specific time and place and — most importantly — feeling of being young in a world of dangerous possibility.
Like Mad Men, it’s a time machine that consistently placed me in a fugue state of imagination, and that’s not something most shows even bother to try.
Big flagship cable dramas these days have to be ambitious and sprawling and full of mystery, and it’s this latter part that most fuck up. A “mystery” isn’t simply the audience asking, “What the fuck is that about?” or, worse, “What the fuck is going on?” or, worst, “Who the fuck are they going to kill off next?”; it’s a matter of meaning.
What do these answers mean?
Smart-ish writers raise questions. Dumb Hollywood execs and writers’ rooms contrive answers. Smarter writers make the answers into better questions.
Westworld does an extraordinary job of cultivating an atmosphere of mystery while also actually, you know, solving some. A question raised in one episode usually gets answered two episodes later, and that’s fine because each answer implies a bigger and more interesting question.
I find I’m less interested in the corporate intrigue and more interested in the rising consciousness of the “hosts,” but it never seems to overwhelm the story.
The risk for the show’s future is overcomplicating the mystery, especially if it experiments with time frames and which people are “real” or not — mystery for mystery’s sake. They’ve done an excellent job so far with imbuing the twists with meaning, and I hope that stays the norm.
The show is also beautifully shot and written, and almost every performer is extraordinary — Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, Jimmi Simpson. Jesus. They’re all good.
You’d think Aquarius would be right up my alley, and you’d be right. We’ve got the 60s and Charles Manson and David Duchovny and crime, and the show scratches all those itches. I’m surprised by how much more I enjoy the non-Manson crimes in the show, but they’re excellent snapshots of the era.
A great crime story often addresses what about its time and place makes a certain action a crime. Aquarius does that well.
I find some of the liberties taken with the Manson story a little jarring (especially the casting of an actor who is WAY more polished than the real Manson), and I hate being the person with his arms folded who says, “That’s not where the bodies were found on Cielo Drive.” But I am.
Still, I enjoy the show immensely and the performances are excellent.