Tag Archives: satire

An Excerpt from Retail Hell

The following is an excerpt from Retail Hell, my new short story (at 8,600 words it’s more of a novelette) now available on Amazon.

The Customers Cometh (an early chapter from Retail Hell)

Jezebeth led Barbara to a cliff side overlooking an endless subterranean shopping center. To Barbara it felt less like a cavern and more like another world with a rocky skyline. Great walls of shelving stretched in all directions, cut from lopsided stones, like catacombs with sale signs. Barbara could just make out the checkout counters on the horizon.

Jezebeth pinched Barbara’s shoulder.

“Do you mind if I give you a bit of fearless feedback?

I couldn’t help but notice that you were lagging behind on the way out. I know it’s your first day and you’re trying to contain your enthusiasm, but don’t worry about it. Just let loose. Run headlong into each new challenge. Alright?”

Barbara half nodded.

Jezebeth slapped her on the back. “Don’t worry. You’ll get another opportunity after the meeting.”

Barbara turned away, preferring the endless hellscape to her micromanager’s wild unblinking eyes.

Greeters, in red and black uniforms, ran out and scattered along the plane below.

Jezebeth clapped her hands. “There they go.”

The greeters scurried behind volcanic craters, like townsfolk fleeing bandits in the old west. Some fought over hiding spots, while others helped each other bury themselves in the dirt. Continue reading An Excerpt from Retail Hell

How to Alienate People By Telling Them You Write Horror

I get around, wheeling and dealing in my hip bohemian community. I’m a man about town, getting recognized in my seasonally inappropriate dark t-shirt and jeans.

“The tall guy with the bulbous nose? Yeah, I know him. Why, what did he do?”

When I go to the grocery store the clerks double bag my eggs because they know I’m walking, at the coffee shop the baristas know that I’m mostly harmless, and at Chipotle they always have a bowl ready because a burrito is just not enough meal for me.

Yeah, I’m kind of a big deal. I shake hands. I make connections. I interject into the conversations when I’m eavesdropping.

I have a talent for reading people. My subconscious Sherlock catches every tell, every raised eyebrow, and bitten lip. No signal is misread. No micro-expression is lost in translation. I see you there giving me the eye by way of the floor. Now you’re rolling those eyes right up into that thought cloud about me. I know what you’re thinking.

You might go so far as to say that I’ve got game… until I make the mistake of telling you I’m a horror writer. Then it’s all down hill from there.

I might as well introduce myself as, “A stranger,” or wear a sash that reads, “Creeper,” or show people a photo of all the mounds in my basement and ask, “Can you guess which ones are mine?”

At least that’s how it feels based on the reactions I get.

In his book On WritingStephen King recalls getting caught selling his first horror story at school. He was a bestseller even then. The principle confiscated as many editions as she could get her talons on. She called young Stephen into her office to review the evidence.

“What I don’t understand, Stevie,” she said, “is why you’d write junk like this in the first place. You’re talented. Why do you want to waste your abilities?”

Young Stephen was speechless. He had no answer apart from his hangdog expression. For decades after this encounter he felt ashamed of his work, as if the subjects he wrote about were manifestations of something wicked within him, something best reserved for abandoned Victorian asylums and horror conventions.

Horror Has a Stigma

I feel like young Stevie King whenever I make the mistake of pitching my fiction to a person of the puritan persuasion. Turns out there are a surprising number of devout individuals on the dance floor.

When you tell someone you’re a writer, they may ask, “What are you working on?” If your answer is, “A story about a woman trapped in a hotel with a demon.” they may follow up their question with, “Why would you write about such things?”

That one always stumps me, because I think the answer is self-evident: I do it because it’s entertaining. Any dangerous situation that activates our fear centers is instantly engaging. If that danger comes from someplace supernatural, in the great unknown where our nightmares thrive, then all the better.

I don’t think that automatically makes my stories bleak or nihilistic. Like any author I still have to strike a balance between hope and dread, I just skew a little further toward dread.

Still, I get it. Horror isn’t known for being the most emotionally engaging genre. It rarely enjoys prominent placement in Oprah’s Book Club. It rarely inspires readers’ life decisions. It doesn’t have the allure of a romance novel to inspire travel. It’s not going to give readers material for dinner party conversations.

Horror is the box wine of literature. Not that classy, but it will get you drunk.

I’ve spent many an evening defending my vocation when I should have been, well, dancing.

Should You Hide Your Affinity for Horror?

Is it possible to be a suave socialite when you spend your nights scripting secret ceremonies set in subterranean cellars? I have no clue, but I’ve learned something from all my time requesting songs from before half of the dance floor was born. Being myself is still the best practice. Not because people are more likely to be drawn to me, they won’t be, but because I’ll be rejected for the right reasons. I’d rather be brushed off for the asshole I am than for being a disingenuous creep.

If You Can’t Do Horror How Fun Are You?

I’m done catering to people with delicate sensibilities. From here on out I’m going to let my freak flag fly. I write horror, not socially acceptable thrillers with artisanal serial killers, but horrorhorror with ghosts, devils, and creatures made of tentacles, where villains win and bad things happen to good people.

If you won’t go anywhere near things that could give you nightmares then steer clear of here. If you don’t get the appeal of a ghost story around the campfire then I don’t want to share my S’mores with you. If you can’t stomach a schlocky piece of splatter house cinema, but you have time to keep up with the Kardashians, I doubt you’re that much fun.

In other words: if you ain’t into cool shit, you basic.

Closing Thoughts

Much of the above was “inspired” by actual events, not necessarily based on them. Don’t get me wrong. I get rejected a lot. Not for being a horror writer, just, you know, because.

The pulp bins of the 70s and 80s were clogged with forgotten horror novels. Writers dare not admit to working in the genre today. We’d rather say we write dark fantasy, or psychological thrillers, or bizarro fiction, but in our hearts horror is the genre we pledge allegiance.

It’s up to us to destigmatize it. Class it up. Horror is a great vehicle for gross out gags, but it’s also a great vehicle for morality plays, thought experiments, and reflections on current events.

The torture-porn films of the early aughts (Saw,Hostel, etc) have lowered the intellectual capital of the genre. We brave few who identify as horror authors have to raise it up again, even if that does mean pitching stories on the dance floor.

RETAIL HELL COVER REVEAL

Supernatural Solutions for getting Your Writing Done

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.

If you want to keep at this writing game whilst balancing a day job then you’ll need… Continue reading Supernatural Solutions for getting Your Writing Done

How to Pretend to Be A Writer

I’ve been writing in coffee shops for the last eighteen years. I wish I could say I did it for clever creative reasons, like I was dressing my characters in my surroundings, eavesdropping for dialogue, and reading faces for subtext, but really, writing in public just feels less lonely.

At first I entertained the fantasy that a manic pixie dream girl would pull up a stool beside me, glimpse at the wall of text on my screen, raise her eyebrow, and ask, “What are you writing?” (Which did happen… once.) At this point my goals have more to do with my word count for the day.

But I have been that guy, that guy that pitches his stories to baristas washing dishes at the bar, that guy whose day dreaming eyes lingered in the wrong direction a little too long, that guy whose head is so far up his own ass that he gives out his blog address instead of his phone number. You know, that guy, the writer who wears his identity on his sleeve.

Sure, I might have been a caricature, but at least I did the work. I was writing. I was a writer. I did the noun so I got to call myself the verb. Still I met my share of people who did one but not the other: men adopting the persona of a writer as a pretense to hit on women.

I call them “idea men.” They’re fun, charismatic, and commanding. They’ve honed engaging elevator pitches, but they don’t have the attention span to sit their asses in the chair and do the work. Their bibliography is but a theory. They’re the modern equivalent of the medieval minstrel, carrying on an oral tradition for the sake of flirtation.

I shouldn’t let these idea men get to me, but I do. Writing is hard. Finishing a novel is tough, selling it is tougher, letting an editor kill all your darlings can be even tougher still. If you’ve spent years crafting something that didn’t connect with anyone it’s hard to coax yourself to try it again, but those are the responsibilities that come with calling yourself a writer. It takes talent, training, and tenacity (and you’ve still got to get lucky).

It irks me when I overhear a pickup artist slip on the identity of a writer when it’s clear they haven’t done the work. It irks because I’m afraid that’s what other people assume I’m doing. I feel guilty by proxy.

That having been said I’ve written a how-to guide just for the fakers, the idea men, the pick up artists. I dare you to indulge me as I role-play with misogyny (and if this leaves a bad taste in your mouth, that’s kind of the point). Continue reading How to Pretend to Be A Writer

How to Get Out of Conversations about Trump by Pitching Your Fiction

How many times has this happened to you: your friends invite you to the bar and you arrive to find an interloper sitting in your chair?

This man, with his half goatee and camouflage cap, sticks out amongst the artistic misfits you usually hang out with. He slams the table, drawing the attention of the wait staff. He enunciates the words ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, like an alien who’s read about laugher and mistaken the onomatopoeia for the real thing.

Your friends look to you with pleading eyes, hostages too scared to signal for help.

The interloper flashes you a nasty sneer, a wolf signaling that this is his deer carcass. When it’s clear you’re joining the table he stands for introductions.

“I should warn you I come with a trigger-warning.”

He doesn’t shake your hand so much as he yanks it by the wrist. He says his name is Tanner.

You have to ask, “So how do you know everyone?”

Tanner doesn’t. He was eavesdropping, interjected himself into the conversation, and played musical chairs until he sandwiched himself between the women. Your friends were just too Minnesota nice to get rid of him.

He’s your problem now. Continue reading How to Get Out of Conversations about Trump by Pitching Your Fiction

How to Be an Anti-Muse

ARTIST’S NOTE: So it looks like I still have some venom I need to squeeze out of system before I can get back to our regularly scheduled program. I like giving writing advice, but sometimes when I look at the state of things in online artistic arenas I want to burn it all down. I realize I owe my readers a debt of sincerity, but if you allow me one more sarcastic tantrum I promise I’ll make it up to you soon.

The Subtle Art of Extinguishing Creative Sparks

Don’t you hate how some people hold onto their artistic ambitions long after they’ve gotten laid for the first time? I mean, come on. They should’ve set that guitar down the moment their backs hit the mattress. You put a sock on the doorknob, strum out a little Wonder Wall, and cast that shit aside. Mission accomplished. Am I right? If someone is still plucking that thing into his thirties there’s something wrong with him.

The same goes for people staggering into coffee houses calling themselves writers, sitting there scribbling into leather bound journals, looking as pensive as possible, hoping some college girl will ask, “What are you writing?” I mean talk about a long con, and the thing I don’t get is why these dumbs schmucks go back to scribbling once they’ve gotten a girl’s attention. It’s like they’re backtracking the wrong way across the finish line.

The worst is when you’re friends with one of these rhyme-scheming stanza stacking wordsmiths, walking around wielding a notepad like a weapon that could go off at the first recitation. You’re a captive audience to their cry for help, forced to give an impromptu theory session under the guise of feedback. The indulgence is exhausting.

You float the idea: What if you channeled all that creative energy into writing a cover letter or technical copy?

Despite all your interventions your friend doesn’t know when to put away childish things. Everyone’s got paintbrushes in their attic, film equipment in their closet, and drum kits in their basement, but he’s still clinging to his hobby like it defines him.

He’s still dreaming about inspiring people with his creations, despite all the grey coming into his hairline. It’s really starting to bum you out.

Well, don’t fret. I’ve developed some tactics to neg your artistic associate into submission. Continue reading How to Be an Anti-Muse

What if Depression Was a Guest Star?

Depression kicks the door in, struts onto the set in his popped collar leather jacket, and faces the studio audience. He spreads his legs like he’s mounting a horse, gives the air a one two punch and shouts, “Hee-yaw!” He punctuates that with a high kick, puts one leg over the other and spins 360 degrees.

Depression runs a comb through his hair, moonwalks back and forth, until the audience’s applause dies down. He snaps, points at me in the booth, and delivers his signature catchphrase, “Shouldn’t you be at home contemplating the meaninglessness of existence?”

Like Steve Urkel saying, “Did I do that?” or Bart Simpson saying, “Eat my shorts” or Arthur Fonzarelli saying “Ayyyyy!” the crowd can’t help but lap this line up. They know it’s coming, but they love the repetition, even if it’s bad for them.

Depression follows his catchphrase with this episodes subtle variance. “Those personal failures aren’t going to remember themselves.” That’s his way of clueing the audience into this week’s theme (in this instance it’s past failures).

“It’s cool Big D I’ve got a photographic memory.” This is where I’m supposed to make a space for his leather chaps in the booth.

“The psychiatric community seems pretty quick to dismiss photographic memory as a myth.” Depression slides a chair over and sits on it backward, ignoring the stage directions completely. “I’d say if you really want to recount your failures you need to do a deep dive. Try to find the moment when it all went wrong and Quantum Leap that shit. Your last string of bad luck didn’t happen in a vacuum. You’ve got to find out what set you on that path.” Continue reading What if Depression Was a Guest Star?

Book Club Discussion Guide

DON’T THINK OF A CRIMSON ELEPHANT

By Flavius Octavius Davis

BLACK HOUSE PRESS READERS GROUP GUIDE

This reading group guide contains questions for discussion, suggestions to deepen your appreciation of the book, and instructions for dealing with the knowledge that this text has made you vulnerable to psychic incursions from the blood red trunk reaching out from the nethermost regions of the astral plane. The questions are intended to enhance your experience, empower group members to share personal insights, and help you cope with the fatal error in judgment you’ve made by selecting such a reading.

INTRODUCTION

The nameless narrator of Don’t Think of a Crimson Elephant warns against empathizing with his plight. He pleads with you not to follow his nightmares through the skyscraper bone yards, shifting mountains on the horizon, or game trails in the storm clouds. He spoils the dramatic tension, telling you outright that his journey ends in damnation. He warns you of the consequences of letting the seeds of forbidden truths take root in your mind. He tells you that daydreams are like farmland and that fear is their fertilizer. He goes so far as to give you cause to cower from an herbivore.

Breaking the fourth wall the narrator states his fate and yours are intertwined. He tells you that you have the power to save him, and therefore yourself, by simply putting the book down, but did you listen? Nope. You interpreted the narrator’s earnest disclaimer as some kind of dare.

After all, forbidden texts are usually bound in human flesh, hidden away in the moldy old libraries of eastern European counts. Who has ever heard of one coming with its own international standard book number on the back?

You weren’t going to fall for the narrator’s fear tactics. What a tired gimmick, right?

Your hubris made you a speed-reader. Each chapter was a stride toward your allegorical gallows, each sentence a thread in the rope around your neck, each period a nail in your coffin. Still you pressed on to the ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. Now here you are.

These questions should give your book club food for thought, before that which reaches out from beyond the veil of perception consumes their minds.

  1. Everyone knows that Flavius Octavius Davis (the famed mustachioed maestro of the macabre) had gone off the grid to live in quiet isolation as Henry David Thoreau had before him. The account of the fire that spread from his cabin throughout Sequoia National Park has been widely debated. As has the condition in which Davis was found, pacing the interstate wearing a papier-mâché outfit that was later revealed to be the pages from his manuscript. Before Davis succumbed to the effects of smoke inhalation he told the EMTs, “Your brains are peanuts. Sweet delicious peanuts. Don’t think of the Crimson Elephant or he will snatch them up.” What was it about Flavius Octavius Davis’s final moments that compelled you to read his final work?
  2. You shouldn’t think of the Crimson Elephant, as the nameless narrator thoroughly warned you against, but if you had, did you picture a red skinned circus animal spraying its ears with its own nostrils or did you picture a mammoth with tusks as thick as palm trees, gushing gallons of gore from its every orifice? Did you imagine blood trickling off its trunk, perhaps from the pool of viscera the creature had emerged from? Take a moment to let everyone in your group describe what they saw.
  3. The nameless narrator is a traveling salesman. He emphasizes how every sales rep worth their salt knows to reflect their client’s self image back to them, to make themselves relatable by echoing the same values, and to develop simpatico by mirroring their client’s mannerisms. Sales reps do this because they know that after a little while the client will start to imitate their gestures as well. When the sales rep scratches their wrist their client feels a sharp tickling sensation upon their soft delicate flesh and can’t help but dig their nails into. When the sales rep yawns their client’s eyes feel heavy as a wave of fatigue rolls through them, and their mouth opens wide to draw breath. When the sales rep expresses a personal benefit of their product the client considers how the purchase could better their own life. When the narrator said this did you find yourself itching your wrist? Did you yawn as well? Did you find his madness contagious?
  4. At what point in the story did you realize that this was what the narrator was doing to you? Is it when he tries making himself relatable by recounting his humble upbringing? Is it when his parents syphon fuel from their neighbors’ gas tank so they have enough to rush their son to the hospital? Is it when the meteorite strikes and kills the narrator’s wife and the insurance company refuses to cover it, because it’s considered an act of God? Or is it when the bibliophiles, that turn out to be cultists, decide that the narrator, a traveling salesman, will make the ideal sacrifice to their Mastodon master?
  5. Once it’s revealed that the trumpeting trunk heralds terrible misfortune did you find yourself getting shaken at the sound of car horns? Were you relieved to learn the source of the sound was not the Crimson Elephant? Did terrible misfortune befall you anyway? If so, please share.
  6. The nameless narrator escapes the cultists’ blades and manages to find a trail in the woods, but no matter which way he goes giant footprints lead him back to the raging bonfire that he’s running from. At what point in your reading did you start seeing giant footprints in your day-to-day life? And where? On the highway? In your front lawn? On the carpet? Please be specific.
  7. Did you find yourself relating to the narrator when he realizes the command don’t think of a crimson elephant made him think of one more? When the narrator researched the power of negative suggestion did you find your own intrusive thoughts intensify? Did you, like the narrator, find it impossible to sleep under the shadow of the four-legged beast, with its swollen gut hanging down like a canopy? Did you dream of cosmic thunder, bone buildings, and meteor showers?
  8. Did you believe in thought viruses before you read Don’t Think of a Crimson Elephant? How could you have been so naive? Do you feel betrayed by modern psychology for not warning you of the coming contagion? Do you feel like generations of mystics and monks failed to prepare you for this plague upon your mind?
  9. Humanity is doomed. Every cranium is but a shell under the great weight. The pressure will come slow enough for all to feel themselves cracking at once. When you think about it, doesn’t humanity deserve its fate?
  10. Did it occur to you read these questions before you brought them to your group discussion? If so, you’re the lucky one. You know that the only way to keep your mind from getting devoured is to offer the Crimson Elephant others to satiate its appetite. You’ve volunteered to host the book club, volunteered to buy the wine, and when one of your guests mentioned how strangely sweet it tasted, you dismissed their query with, “It’s imported.”

Most fast-acting poisons show up in toxicology screenings. It’s the all-natural ones, the ones you sow from your own garden that take a little more time to get the job done. No worries. If the rest of your book club is just now reading this far then they haven’t got long.

Sure they can try to gag themselves, to search the cupboards for Ipecac, but by now the poison is already in their bloodstream, blocking their airways, slowing their breathing. Now would be the time to say your goodbyes, to inform your guests that the great belly must be filled, that its better for it to take a few big bites than for it to nibble on the entire world. Tell them that their minds will behold such red wonders, that the finest poets lack the words, that they should follow the light into the gullet. Tell them to think of the Great Crimson Elephant, or not to, it doesn’t matter, both commands will get the job done.

Don’t be alarmed when the ground quakes beneath your feet, when the frames tip over, and the bookshelves explode.

Try not to think about the cracks spreading across the ceiling, the bricks spewing from the chimney, or the tiles bursting into sand. Don’t dwell on the bright red light shinning through the blinds. Don’t dwell on the trumpeting, how it’s louder than any foghorn, or how it makes your eardrums bleed into your palms. Don’t dwell on the trunk breaching your front door, clogging the hall, slithering around corners, and fixing itself to the craniums of your best friends.

Lets not talk about the elephant in the room.

Just remember that you are the one who gets to live on (if you can call what follows living) forever walking in those giant footprints, through cities made of bone, beneath stampedes in the sky, toward the shifting horizon.

Now discuss.

Why Every Writer Needs a Living Will… Before the Singularity

One of the most important things a novelist can do is write a will so their family knows how to manage their intellectual property in the event of their death. Franz Kafka, Thomas Hardy, and Emily Dickinson all wanted their writing burned after they passed, but their wishes weren’t legally binding. Meanwhile Michael Crichton, Stieg Larsson, and Vince Flynn have all published bestsellers posthumously.

To ease the burden off of my friends and loved ones I’m going to settle my estate early. Consider the following my living trust and my living will.

If I am ever in a persistent vegetative state, unable to eat or breathe without the aid of a machine then please, by all means, strap the latest neuroimaging technology to my skull and get to mapping. If the scan is incomplete then go full Walt Disney, scoop my brain out and put it on ice. I consider that entire organ my intellectual property. Copyright every neuron. If you’ve got to refrigerate it in the library of congress then so be it.

I’m counting on a rogue artificial intelligence to upgrade itself to a state of godlike omnipotence, to send massive servers into orbit and create a new plane of existence to house all our neural signatures forever. When this singularity happens I want a front row seat. Upload my consciousness to the cloud. Give me a CGI facsimile, like Max Headroom, and trademark my face. Continue reading Why Every Writer Needs a Living Will… Before the Singularity