Hell is an ever-changing landscape, a neighborhood every would-be master of the macabre wants to build real estate on. The bible says Hell is a lake of burning sulfur, a blazing furnace filled with much weeping and gnashing of teeth yada-yada-yada. It’s actually a bit fuzzy on the details. There was a lot left for the likes of Dante and Milton to fill in. It’s from their foundations the blueprint got passed down for generations.
The Hell Loop
While hell has enjoyed many renovations since its inception several storytellers have settled on the one design. Let’s call it the hell loop. In a hell loop a sinner is forced to relive their worst memory for all eternity. It’s like Groundhog Day if Bill Murray’s character couldn’t change the events he relived, learned nothing from them, and had less time before the loop came back around.
You’ll see examples of this in movies like Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey andConstantineand in TV shows like The Twilight Zone,American Horror Story, Preacher, and Lucifer.
I think the hell loop cheats the audience. Hell is one of those colorful settings where writers have license to go big, get weird, and revel in the absurd. Looping a real world event feels like a copout. It’s an easy scenario to film on a budget and it doesn’t require much imagination. The scenario provides a safe default when hell’s architect doesn’t feel like drawing up a plan.
As a working professional you know how hard it is to make time for your writing. You clock into your 9 to 5 and 9 takes its sweet time getting to 5. Then you clock out and 5 runs right back to 9, and frankly 9 isn’t all that interested in 5. It’s a one-sided relationship.
It’s hard for those of you trapped in this numerical cycle to meet your word count goals, let alone your career aspirations. You need supernatural solutions to get the job done. You need a tower full of lightning rods, a kaleidoscope of beakers, and a chemical bath in the cellar. You need a meadow filled with pillars, conjuring circles, and gathering of shadows worth talking to. You need ideas way outside the box.
Well you’ve stumbled into the right high-altitude secret crystalline observatory. Leave your coat on the pillar of antlers and take a seat upon the altar. The wizard of forbidden knowledge will see you now.
A few years back I wrote an article called Horror Clichés in Need of an Exorcism . My premise was that superstitions erode over time. Horror authors can’t just conjure up the same old scares as their forbearers and expect them to work. The things that haunted older generations turn into clichés in the light of reason. Fears like razor blades in Halloween candy, the Satanic panic, and alien abductions all came with expirations.
Among the clichés my article targeted were Ouija boards. I thought it was common knowledge that Ouija boards depended on the subconscious movements of their participants, something known as the ideomotor effect, a phenomenon that’s been proven in lab conditions. I thought I spoke for the horror community when I asserted that spirit boards had no more scares left in them (of course I was wrong).
At the time I went to great lengths to design covers for my articles. That one featured me made up like the demon Pazuzu from The Exorcist. I couldn’t think of a great backdrop so I settled on a giant Ouija board.
Not long after I published the piece I got a DM from a Twitter user warning me to steer clear of those fabled Ouija boards. I told him to read the article to find out why he needn’t worry about me.
He DMed me back, “That’s funny and all, but seriously, don’t fuck around with those things.”
I didn’t know how to break it to him that I wasn’t playing the same role-playing game he was. The one he was playing required him to treat an alphabet on cardboard as a tool of the devil. Mine didn’t.
Here was a full-grown man who considered Ouija boards contraband. Part of me pitied him. Another more insidious part of me envied the hell out of him. Why? This man had retained a kind of childlike wonder that I’d never get back again. Maybe it wasn’t wonder but more of fear of some esoteric unknown. I wasn’t afraid of Ouija boards because I knew how the ideomotor effect worked. I’d seen it demonstrated and I’ve never been possessed. Continue reading How to Breathe New Life Into Old Scares→
So you published something brilliant, filmed a book trailer, did the podcast circuit, the blog tour, local readings, and a slew of conventions. You’ve hand sold at outlet stores at a table fit for a three-card Monte hustler. You ran out onto a football field wearing nothing but a book banner. You did everything to promote your writing.
Now you’re out on parole, slouched on the couch, utterly spent. You never want to go through that process again.
Yet the shadow of Stephen King looms over you, a modern day Moses commanding, “Thou shalt write every day.”
So you dab your worn arthritic fingers upon the keyboard until autocorrect spits out some sentences and you find yourself questioning your own literacy. The spark of inspiration has fizzled to ash. What you once did for relief now feels like a chore. What should you do? Continue reading So You’ve Burned Yourself Out. Now What?→
Writers are always told to boost our presence online, to engage fans on social media and stake a claim on our respective genres, but these boosting bombardments eat into our writing regiments. Our manuscripts sit on the back burner while we argue with Reddit moderators. Our word counts diminish with every tweet we finish.
Writers only have so much creative energy. If we are always trying to lure readers to our blogs our energy drains fast. Our labor of love starts to feel laborious.
We’d rather use that stamina we spend on social media telling stories. So we ration our online interactions. We compose compelling questions so we can smuggle our spam onto public forums. We target influencers to reach new readers. We hijack hashtags.
The problem with rationing our involvement is that we tend to come across as inauthentic, intrusive, and inorganic.
“You say you’re struggling with depression, that it feels like no one will listen, and the walls are closing in? Sounds similar to a character I’ve written. I prescribe a double dose of my fiction. One copy for yourself and another for a friend.”
Not every writer on social media is stealth marketing to the unsteady, but thinking algorithmically does do something to your personality. Once the phrase “cultivate relationships” enters your vocabulary you lose some of your emotional intimacy. Your ability to empathize is diminished when you start seeing people as clicks. Continue reading Are You A Social Media Sociopath?→
Whenever I post a short story, a video, or even a blog entry I feel a like a director at a red carpet premier. Not a celebrated director like Christopher Nolan or J.J. Abrams. More like a bottom tear auteur like Tommy Wiseau or Ed Wood, the kind of director who’s footing the bill for every exuberant extravagance out of his own pocket.
I couldn’t imagine feeling like a studio darling with a promotional juggernaut behind me. I always feel like the sad dad with a dream of being the next Steven Segal and enough free time to write, direct, and star in my own vanity project.
In this opening night allegory I spend almost all I have getting my movie made. I’m hoping to entice distributors, but I failed to ration for a long run. Instead I sunk my entire promotional budget into one weekend.
Now the only poster I could afford has the light on my forehead glaring in the opposite direction as the sun in the background. The only billboard I could afford was a fire-damaged frame leaning sideways atop the theater. The only news outlets I could get to cover the event are videographers working off college credit.
From conception to inception here is the cover art for my latest work of deranged fiction The Pigeon King, soon to be available on Amazon.
The Pigeon King is the story of a podcaster who goes to war with the ultimate noise polluters: pigeons.
Daniel J. Cameron is trying to record an audio essay on the Hikikomori (Japanese shut-ins who substitute their social needs with fantasy and entertainment). The problem is an avian infestation won’t let Daniel get a word in before ruining his recordings. It turns out there’s something supernatural about their presence and it has everything to do with the subject of the Daniel’s recording.
In a Twilight Zone-style trailer (I’ll show you later) I say the story is, “One part Alfred Hitchcock and another part Wile E. Coyote.”
With this cover I wanted to capture the cartoonish nature of the Daniel’s predicament. Charles Burns’s covers for Carl Hiaasen’s fantastic mysteries inspired this layout.
I thought it would be fun to give you a peek behind the curtain of my artistic process, from the first pigeon photos I took to the first illustrations and finally the cover itself.
Expect a lot more Pigeon King content on the blog in the not too distant future.