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Stephen King Regrets Writing Himself into This Story

This Friday, officers Libby and Davis investigated a disturbance at Gerald Winters & Son Book Store in Bangor Maine. They found a disheveled man hurling rocks at the door, screaming “Let me in! Please let me in.”

When confronted the man screamed. “You don’t understand. They have the unpublished manuscript that I need to get home!”

It wasn’t until the officers put the man into the back of their vehicle that they realized he was Stephen King.

Officer Libby recounted the incident. “The plan was to drive King home and break the news to Tabby that he’d fallen off the wagon. On the way we tried to assess his sobriety and gage his frame of mind.”

Officer Libby kept her body camera recording the entire time.

“Hey Steve, isn’t that the restaurant where they found the eyeball in the fortune cookie?”

King grunted in the affirmative.

“Want us to turn on the radio? Which station do you own WKIT-FM or WZON?”

“Both of them.” King muttered out the window. Then he pressed his palm to the glass. “UPS is still delivering? That means we’re still in chapter 1. Shit doesn’t hit the fan until the murder hornets show up.”

Officer Libby chuckled. “Murder hornets?”

“Harbingers of the Crimson King. The third of seven.”

Officer Davis chimed in. “I thought seven was a good number.”

King grew irritable. “Who told you that? Odd numbers are always bad, especially prime ones, and especially seven.”

Officer Libby tried changing the subject. “So these harbingers are all insects?”

“No. The first takes the form of an pandemic. The second appears as armed protests. The third is hornets. The fourth is shootings over masks. The fifth is giant rats. The sixth is children murdering their parents.”

“Yikes.” Officer Davis squeezed the wheel. “What’s number seven?”

“When a crystal ball, known as Black 13, is unearthed from One World Trade Center.”

“Then what happens?” The officers asked in unison.

“The beams supporting the dark tower will break and the Crimson King will be set free. He’ll use the deadlights to find the Key World and begin unlocking things. Phantom doors will appear on every street corner and the Warriors of the Scarlet Eye will spill forth from the Outer Dark.”

“Sounds like a hell of a story.”

“That’s all it was supposed to be. I wrote it in a cocaine fueled stupor around the same time as The Tommy Knockers. I shelved it and the world moved on. That was until I found a door on my front lawn.”

“When was that?” Officer Libby couldn’t help but ask.

“Last night.”

Officer Davis later admitted to taking the long way to King’s estate. He wanted to buy the author time to finish his story. In hindsight, Officer Davis admits this was a mistake.

“There was a creaking out front, like the gate was hanging open. I peeked through the drapes and saw something on the path. At first I thought it was a person, a tall man with square shoulders, hunched over in a long black coat.”

Officer Libby spoke over her seat. “I figured you’d have a top of line security. Especially after reading Misery.”

King shrugged. “The system wasn’t making a sound. I thought it was a trick of the light. Something phantasmagorical, like in the stories of Edgar Allen Poe.”

“Do you…see things often?” Officer Libby asked hesitantly.

“The opposite, actually. I’m losing my vision. I have a condition that blurs the center of my sightline. I have to look out the corner of my eyes. That’s why I went outside.”

Officer Davis spoke through the mirror. “When did you realize it wasn’t a person?”

“When I had my hand on the doorframe. It was sturdy, like someone had driven it into the cobblestones. It was a deep rosewood. The color of blood. I looked to where I thought I’d seen a face and my heart skipped a beat.”

“What did it say 1408?”

“No, it was a knocker in the shape of the Great God Pan. It had rams horns, curly locks, and a nasty scowl. Its teeth were jagged, its brow furled, and its nostrils flared. A knocker hung from its septum.”

“Did you knock?”

“I didn’t have to. The door yawned open. I tried to push it shut. I reached for the knob and got a handful of wind for my efforts. My depth perception is horse shit, but something else was throwing it off.

The door moved closer as the path grew distant. I strained to catch my breath. The air felt thin. Reality felt thinner. Then came a light beneath door. It swung open and that light was blinding.

When I opened my eyes it was broad daylight and I was standing in the center of the road. There was a cyclist in a surgical mask. He shot me a dirty look as he passed. That’s when I realized I was in my own Macroverse.”

Officer Libby interrupted. “Stephen, do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

King balled his fists. “I’m not having a senior moment if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Officer Davis let out a long patient sigh. “Yeah, but why would we know you’re a writer if this was happening in one of your stories?”

Dejected, King craned his neck all the way back into the headrest. “My stories exist within my stories. I hold the Guinness world record for most film adaptations. It’d be hard for readers to believe a story where people haven’t heard of me. Christ, I’m appear in three of The Dark Tower entries.”

Officer Davis gave that a considered nod. “But if you write all this meta fiction, isn’t it possible this is all in your imagination?”

King waved that notion away. “Who’s the president right now?”

The officers exchanged a knowing look. “Donald Trump.”

“It’s Clinton where I come from. Donald Trump was my invention. He’s a modern spin on Greg Stillson, the politician, from The Dead Zone. Stillson was a charlatan folk hero. With Trump I wanted to see what would happen if a reality star became president.”

“And this pandemic is also your doing?” Officer Libby humored him.

“I came up with The Stand after I read about a chemical spill in Utah. I came up with The Coronavirus after I read we’re no closer to a cure for the common cold.”

Officer Davis smirked. “What inspired Dream Catcher?”

“OxyContin.”

Officer Libby put her palm to her forehead to hide her grin. “So where are we in this coronavirus story?”

“Has Trump gone on TV to prescribe a malaria drug to the general public?”

“Uh-huh.” The officers said in unison.

“Has he told everybody to drink bleach?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Has he postponed the elections until 2021?”

“Uh-what?”

King nodded self-assuredly. “Then there’s still time.”

At this point Officer Davis felt certain King was putting them on. He couldn’t help but chide the author over his body of work. “Hopefully this one has a more satisfying ending than Under the Dome.”

“Or Secret Window.” Officer Libby added.

“Or The Mist.”

“Or Cell.”

“Or It: Chapter 2. They killed the clown by calling it names?” Officer Davis scoffed. “That was so lame.”

King raised his eyebrow. “That’s not how the book ends.”

Officer Libby rolled her eyes at her partner. “How does this one go again?”

“Or better yet,” Officer Davis let go of the wheel to look back. “How were you planning to get home?”

“Through a breach in reality.” King looked out the window. “I just don’t know where it is.”

Officer Davis seized on that apparent plot hole. “You ought to know you wrote it.”

King gave that a maniacal laugh. At this point the officers reported feeling uncertain that King was putting them on.

“Have you seen my bibliography? Do you think I know those stories by heart? There’s one copy of the manuscript and you are driving away from it.”

Officer Davis turned the patrol car in the direction of the Gerald Winters & Son Book Store. Later he’d admit to doing this to call the author’s bluff.

“Hmmm.” Officer Davis pondered.

“What?” King crossed his arms.

Officer Davis let the wheel go again. “How could a manuscript exist within the story itself?”

Officer Libby turned back as well. “You’d have to have written it in, but then you’d have to write one into that one and another into that one and on and on and on.”

“Like Russian dolls.” Officer Davis nodded.

King’s eyes widened.

“What is it? Did you forget to write the manuscript into the manuscript?”

King pointed ahead. “Door!”

Officer Davis jerked the wheel. The squad card hit an obstruction and flipped end over end. Footage captured by the on-board camera system show the road was clear. Clear right up until the moment a rose red door materialized out of nowhere. A close examination of a freeze frame reveals a knocker that’s dead ringer for the Greek god Pan.

Officer Davis and Officer Libby came out of the crash, with a few broken bones, more or less unharmed. Both were cleared of any wrongdoing and are aiding with the investigation.

As for Stephen King? He hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

•••

Continue reading Stephen King Regrets Writing Himself into This Story

Why People are Still Going Out Despite the Giant Spiders

Remember last April when the news was filled with stories of murder hornets? These two-inch insects were annihilating bee colonies, tearing heads off drones and collecting thoraxes to feed to their young. Beekeepers treated violated hives like crime scenes and agricultural biologists were on the hunt for the culprits.

After all the hardships 2020 had thrown at us we thought killer hornets was as bad as things could get. How wrong we were. The hornets were but harbingers for that which lay deeper within the earth.

Six Months Later

Winter is coming. Ducks are flying south only to be ensnared. Building frames are teeming with drooping white sacs and skylines are filling with webbing. A curtain of silk stretches from the Eiffel Tower to the hotels below. The roman Colosseum has been fashioned into a nest and the Leaning Tower of Pisa is hanging by a thread.

“It’s like a goddamn Roland Emmerich movie out there.” Said General Duke Granger, head of the Arachnid Warfare branch of the U.S. Military. “There’s netting stretching from the Washington monument to the national mall. And the whole thing is dotted with the kibbles and bits of tourists.”

170 ton spiders, as long blue whales, tower over cities. With redwood length legs, concrete piercing claws, and truck sized fangs. The spiders are proving disruptive.

The first appearance was in the financial district of San Francisco. A giant spider stomped down California Street, stepped into a sinkhole and caused a gas main explosion. The shockwave rippled through the 555 California St Tower. Senior members of Goldman Sachs halted their meeting to check on the commotion.

Marshall Kirkland, an investment banker, was on the other side of the building. He said it was hard to hear what was happening. “First came the car alarms, then the sirens, then the emergency tone, and just underneath there was this terrible slurping sound.”

It turns out the slurping was the spider sucking a victim’s brain from his cranium.

No End in Sight

In a frank press conference General Granger expressed pessimism about our chances. “The spiders don’t bleed. It’s like their pelts are made out of cast iron wool. We’re pumping them full of rounds faster than Northrop Grumman can make them. We have RPGs cross firing all over the city, and our heavy artillery cannons aren’t making a dent. We’ve crashed drones into their eyes. We’ve tried everything from napalm to citrus. They keep right on webbing soldiers up.”

President Trump has ordered General Granger to stay the course. “We’re winning bigly against the spiders. I think we’d win faster if we someone found a way to make spray bottles bigger. Spiders hate those things.”

There are still no concrete answers where the spiders came from. General Granger has heard all of the theories. “Those Berkley climatologists think we did this. Like the spiders were lying in wait until it got too hot. The eggheads at Mount Weather think it’s a spontaneous mutation. Like the spiders took a dip in a nuclear waste repository. Me? I think someone boasted she could weave better than the gods and they punished her by turning her into a spider. I think these things we’re facing are her children.”

The Threat is Getting Worse

The spiders have venom so acidic it burns through tanks in seconds. One spider destroyed a troop of British Challengers with a single burst. The medical personal who approached the ruins were exposed to neurotoxins. They died before they could administer the antivenom.

Spiders have discarded hollow husks in every city, draping kills over powerlines, bus stops, and playgrounds. They’ve turned bridges into hanging traps, shattered skyscrapers, and rendered entire residential districts uninhabitable.

Worse still is how widespread the spiders have gotten. They’ve trounced through suburban streets, leaving tornado-like destruction in their wake. They’ve worked their way to the heartland, picking fights with irrigation equipment. And satellites have just spotted a blanket of webs covering the Appalachian Mountains.

At the time of this writing America lacks the infostructure to calculate the damage much less tally the dead, but there are estimates that put it in the billions.

People Are Still Going About their Business

The National Guard has ordered everyone to remain inside, but in our travels for this article we spotted large groups of young people. They were tending gardens, stacking woodpiles, and hanging out in garages. All places spiders like to go.

We asked why these twenty-somethings weren’t that concerned and this is what they told us.

“The spiders are big, but they’re slow. They’re mainly webbing up old people. I’m young and spry. Why shouldn’t I be able to play volley ball?”

“Yeah yeah yeah. I know. Their silk slices through flesh like razor wire, but I have twenty-twenty vision. I should be able to go for a run.”

“So there’s a few egg sacs in my evergreens. That’s not going to prevent me from barbequing. Look those things are barely moving.”

“I didn’t have arachnophobia before. Why should I start now?”

“The news makes it sound like there’s a Stephen King story on every street, but I don’t know anyone who’s been cocooned. Do you?”
“Quite a few people, yes.”
“Anyone famous?”
“Bill Pullman.”
“See, I have no idea who that is.”

“We all have to die sometime whether it’s from a meteor or a giant spider. There’s nothing we can really do about it.”

General Granger disagreed with this line of reasoning. “If you see a huge ass invertebrate on the horizon you can drive in the other direction.” He ran a hand down his forehead. “Unless you’re so bereft you’ve resolved yourself to a slow painful death.”

This was General Granger’s final interview before he was stung and killed by a murder hornet. We thank him for his service.

•••

Continue reading Why People are Still Going Out Despite the Giant Spiders

My Best Short Fiction for Self-Isolation

Slush Pile
A con artist creates a scheme to defraud aspiring authors, until one day he’s haunted by the manuscripts he’s cast off into the slush pile.

Shop Dropping
A bookstore owner notices an alarming trend. People he suspects of shoplifting are actually leaving strange books behind. His real problem begins when he makes the mistake of reading one of them.

Tunnel Vision
When an infinite hallway appears in a young loner’s dining room he must venture into the void to rescue his cat.

How to Exorcise a Demon So You can Get Your Damage Deposit Back
Sound advice for tenants who are either trapped with a demon or are just trying to avoid a blotch on their rental history.

Surviving Valentine’s Day
A peek into an alternate reality where Valentine’s Day is a time when the vengeful spirit of St. Valentine stalks the earth forcing everyone to invest in purge shelters.

The Pigeon King Excerpt
A story about a self-isolating podcaster with either a pigeon or a poltergeist problem.

Continue reading My Best Short Fiction for Self-Isolation

How to Avoid Writing a Novel During a Pandemic

Congratulations! You made it into adulthood without writing a book. You came close a couple of times, brainstormed some pitches when you between jobs. Even outlined a treatment after a particularly devastating breakup, but you joined a gym before you had time to flesh it out.

Some of your peers weren’t so lucky. They went all in on a novel until it became part of their identity. You’d at the bar meeting women and your friend with a book would walk in. He’d shoehorn his pitch into the conversation and all those fresh faces would start retreating. There’s only so much tragedy people can take before they’re drained.

These walking tragedies that corner you on dance floors, attempting to chew your ear off over the speakers, they’re not even authors. They’ve yet to receive a blessing from the Archbishop of the Faith of the Six Publishers. They have to identify as “writers.” Tragic verbs struggling to transition into nouns, like a subspecies of werewolf getting flareups of hypertrichosis, but never changing over, mummifying themselves in Nair.

Thank Romulus you never got so low and lonely to turn yourself into that.

But Now there’s a Pandemic On

Now you’re quarantined. Social distancing. All furloughed up with nowhere to go. You’ve been sentenced to the solitary refinement of your apartment. Now you’re pacing your parlor looking for purpose, burdened with a deficit of toilet paper and a surplus of free time. You bring your laptop to the other side of the living room just for a change of scenery and that’s when it happens.

Intrusive inspiration taps you on your shoulder again. “Want to write a novel?”

You close your eyes, but it digs its claws into your collar.

“What if there was a castle where rich people reenacted the witch trials as a BDSM power fantasy? We could call it The Kinkquisition.”

You put your fingers in your ears. “I’m not listening.”

You trunked your best ideas in the back of your mind, but now the imp of inspiration is laying them all out again.

It’s easy to resist writing when society is functioning. Open a Word document. Type a sentence. Start wondering what your friends are doing. Look longingly out the window and your fear of missing out will tell you when it’s time to go. Find a happening venue and your novel will fade behind all the other tabs you left open.

But what do you do when all the haberdasheries, fripperies, and back alley speakeasies are shuttered for the season?

Bring Your Fear of Missing Out Back

So the discotheques are gathering dust? That doesn’t mean people stopped partying.

Your favorite DJ has a Twitch stream where he plays music videos and subscribers comment on the fashion choices of the background performers. Shouldn’t your dancing emoji make an appearance?

Instagram isn’t giving you vacation envy like it used to, but you can still covet everyone’s high fashion face masks. Shouldn’t you be carving up your favorite concert t-shirt so everyone can know how cool you are?

Despite the stay-at-home orders all those ravishing runners are still out doing their rounds. Shouldn’t you be down by the lake in case one of them finds themselves stricken with a sudden need to engage you in conversation, a thing that is absolutely overdue to happen?

Give in to Gaming Addiction

Modern videogames are like a placebo for your sense of purpose, especially the ones that let you earn skill points. The more you play the more skill points you can spend to unlock the best features. It’s like working a real job, never mind that none of the loot will go towards rent and that none of the skill trees will branch out into fulfilling careers. They make you feel like you’re progressing in an endeavor. So what if that sense of validation is virtual? At least you’re not skull deep in writing a novel.

Treat Your Cat like the Child You Never Had

Feline companionship increases oxytocin levels in humans. That hug hormone has the power to inflate your sense of well-being. So go get you some. Chase your cat up into the cupboards, scoop him up, and swaddle that motherfucker. Call him a baby. Rock him back and forth. Bathe him your codependency because he’s incapable of understanding its complexities.

If your fingers still feel like typing let your feline friend lay across the keyboard. He knows what he’s doing.

Busy Your Imagination with Worst Case Scenarios

Why waste time imaging characters with hardships to overcome when you could get overwhelmed with your own?

There’s a roadblock in your unemployment benefits and you can’t get through to an operator on the phone. You have no job to go back to and the market is about to be flooded with a wave of overqualified applicants. In this economy, your goal of getting married and starting a family feels more and more like a pipedream on par with winning the lottery. Aren’t those problems much more compelling than any of your fiction?

Be mindful of your headspace. Get those pesky book concepts out of there by giving into despair.

Continue reading How to Avoid Writing a Novel During a Pandemic

A Halloween Carol

It was the Saturday before Halloween and Nathan was walking the edge of his apartment switching on all of the white noise machines. This was his bedtime ritual, but tonight he was tuning the dials early, listening for a tone lower than static and higher than thunder, something in the same range as human speech. The moment he found the right waveform he heard a series of loud percussive booms. Someone was trouncing across the ceiling with stiletto heels on. Nathan had muzzled the party banter, but the floorboards might as well have been made of balsawood.

Nathan threw open the cupboards, the liquor cabinet, and the bathroom mirror. He set a handful of bottles, a cocktail shaker, and an eyedropper on the kitchen counter. His cat, Pazuzu, watched from the refrigerator, a grey gargoyle tallying his master’s sins.

Nathan fixed himself a cocktail of ginger beer, dark rum, Nyquil, and dextromethorphan. He’d dubbed this concoction: a Stephen King-Colada. The blend of depressants and bargain-basement PCP had become a staple of his writing routine. It hadn’t inflated his wordcount so much as it numbed him for keeping count.

Pazuzu backed into the cupboard as Nathan drank the deadly concoction from his skull-shaped mug. The cat knew to keep to the high ground whenever that ceramic cranium was out. Nathan plunked down at the kitchen table, pried his laptop open, and pecked at the keyboard. He typed:

It was a dark and stormy night and a hack horror writer was thinking about giving up on the genre forward, maybe to advance his career, maybe to make first dates a little less awkward. The horror community had met him with cold indifference and now the feeling was mutual.

Nathan sighed. “Bah humbug.”

Then he melted down the chair and into the carpet.

 T.M. COBB

There was a bump in the night, followed by several more. Each one was closer than the rager on the upper floor. Large heavy feet fell across the kitchen table.

Nathan’s torso shot awake while his legs stayed dead asleep. His knees were bent, his feet were at his sides, and his back was flat on the floor. It looked like he’d fallen asleep in the middle of a power slide. The kitchen table creaked as hunched back shadows skulked across the walls. Nathan followed the silhouette certain he’d spot Pazuzu, but then he caught the glint of the cat eyes behind the couch. Pazuzu was retreating, yielding his territory to whatever was huddled atop the table.

Nathan scanned the rim for movement. He saw what seemed like a long sturdy chain, but when it grazed the brim of the table the sound was hallow and plastic. Behind it was a length of jack-o-lantern lights, and a knotted stretch of cobweb.

Nathan couldn’t help but chuckle.

The intruder leapt from the dining room to the coffee table, spun around, and crouched, a prehistoric bird eyeing an early mammal wondering if it were edible. The intruder wore a witch’s hat with horns jutting through the brim. His face was enshrouded in a veil cheesecloth. His cloak was a patchwork of webbing, chains, and rubber limbs. His hands clutched the corner of the table. One featured a Freddy Krueger claw, the other was covered in rubber finger monsters.

Nathan scurried up the chair to find the intruder looming over him from the kitchen table. Beyond the intruder’s veil was a bejeweled masquerade mask and a face dripping with clown makeup.

The intruder lifted Nathan by the collar and raised his veil.

“Boo!”

Nathan squinted, bewildered, but ultimately unphased.

The intruder raised his mask. “You know they say people who don’t react to loud jarring noises are probably psychopaths?”

Now Nathan recognized the intruder. “Thomas Marshall Cobb.”

Cobb raised a corrective finger. “T.M. Cobb, remember. Initials make sales. So sayeth mine publisher of yore.”

Nathan swatted Cobb’s hand away from his collar.

“You’re dead. I know people who went to your funeral.”

“You know them? You couldn’t afford the $160 air fair?”

“I have issues with suicide.”

“Suicide?” Cobb chortled. “Christ, I’m not a poet. I had a heart attack. Is that how they spun it? Did my sales go up?”

Nathan shrugged. “A little. Why do you look like you rolled around in a tub of Hot Topic?”

“Oh this?” Cobb stretched his webbing. “It’s my penance.”

“That doesn’t look so bad.”

“You try taking a dump in this thing.”

“Ghosts have bowel movements?”

T.M. Cobb gave that a long certain nod. “Runny, prickly ones.”

“What’s your diet?”
“Wax syrup sticks, raisins, and rock candy.”

Nathan nodded. That would do it. “So, why are you dressed like a Party City Jacob Marley?”

“Because I betrayed my passions. I gave up on horror and wrote soulless procedural thrillers.”

“And that landed you in Hell?”

T.M. Cobb nodded. “Halloween hell, where all the best parts of the holiday are absent. Where the succubi dress like Horny Helen Keller, Mistress Mother Teresa, and filthy Anna Frank. Where they make you bob for apples in a public urinal and every night we go trick or treating, but the tricks are on us. Have you ever been pelted with a hardboiled egg fired from a potato gun?”

“Can’t say that I have.”

Cobb dropped his trousers, revealing a network of purple welts across his butt cheeks. “These ain’t hemorrhoids.”

Nathan covered his eyes, then his nose.

Cobb buckled back up. “There are no haunted houses, just religious Hell houses where they lecture us on the dangers of vaping grass and premarital petting. There are no scary stories, just Christian comics on the Satanic subtext of the season. Everyone texts via Ouija boards. Everyone travels via hayrides. There’s a drive-in, but the only movie that ever plays is The Exorcist 2. Oh, and I hope you like the Monster Mash, because that shit is running twenty-four seven.”

Nathan shook the opening notes of the tune from his head. “All because you sold out?”

Cobb tilted his head back forth. “I bludgeoned a couple of hitchhikers with a tire iron. I suppose that’s also frowned upon.”

“Why did you do that?”

Cobb threw his hands up. “Why does a writer do anything? For research! I’d lived such nice vanilla life I figured the good lord could toss me a couple freebies. Anyway, I’m here to help you sort your shit out.”

“I’m not too worried about killing hitchhikers. I Uber everywhere.”

“You say that now, but people are fragile. It wouldn’t hurt to score some Karma points while you can.”

Nathan muttered. “I’m pretty sure those dogmas are incompatible.”

Cobb cupped a hand to his ear. “What was that?”

“I said you look like a stay at home dad’s cry for help.”

Cobb swatted Nathan with his claws. Nathan felt his cheek surprised to find blood dripping down on his fingers.

Cobb recoiled at his own handy work. “Whoa! These are plastic. I didn’t think they’d actually cut you. I’ll go get a towel.”

“My cat got me earlier. You just opened the scab again.”

“Why don’t you have paper towels?”

“Why are you here?”

Cobb unspooled a length of toilet paper from his arm and dabbed Nathan’s cheek.

“I had a vision, the last time I was in the toxic trough, bobbing for apples. I saw you turning your back on the horror genre and writing Cozy Mysteries.”

“Cozy Mysteries?”

“They’re like thrillers, but with the stakes way lower. All the violence happens off stage and all the sex is replaced with quant community functions.”

“Like Murder, She Wrote?”

“Exactly like Murder, She Wrote.”

“I knew Angela Lansbury was a bad influence on me.”

“Well, I’ve contracted some entities in the horror community to help steer you back in the right direction. It will be like A Christmas Carol, but not quite as preachy. They’ll show you that there’s still millage in the genre, or you’ll end up like me, or worse.”

“Or worse?”

Cobb nodded, shaken by the thought. “I’ve seen writers in Halloween Hell forced spend eternity dressed as Where’s Waldo.”

“With the red striped shirt and the poof ball hat? But that’s so tacky.”

“I know. That’s why you need to drink the rest of this.” Cobb handed Nathan his half-finished cocktail.

Nathan guzzled it down and went down with it.

THE GHOST OF HORROR PAST

Nathan came to in the middle of a Barnes and Noble as a fleet of sneakers touched down around him. Foot traffic was so congested it phased clean through him. Mothers held their children’s hands as they came around corners. Father’s sucked their guts in as they waited for one another to pass. Children tried to muster the strength to walk with boxsets in their grip.

Nathan teetered to his feet as a train of strollers phased through his torso one by one. Dizzy, Nathan struggled to take in his surroundings. Rolling ladders screeched along their tracks. Book carts creaked through the aisles. Stools scrapped along the carpeting. Everywhere he looked people were reading, riffling through shelves, filling baskets with books.

Nathan examined the endcaps to find a gallery of hand painted horror covers: a procession of black robes, curvy daggers, and tentacles. Reptilian talons rose through the graveyard soil. Porcelain dolls stood at the edge of cribs. Sultry Satanists leaned over cauldrons. Nathan had never seen such a showroom of serpents, skeletons, and flaming pentagrams. He’d gotten used to riffling through Sci Fi/Fantasy shelves for obscure horror titles, but when he rounded the corner he found a horror section that was two isles long.

Nathan reached for a title at random. It read: Confessions of Satanic Cheerleader by Thomas Marshall Cobb. The titular cheerleader had a skull for face, a Red Devils sweater and a pom-pom dripping with blood.

Nathan flipped the book over to find a portrait of Cobb done up like Grandpa Munster: a widow’s peak, caked on makeup, and high collared cape.

“Bet you’ve never seen so many red and black paperbacks in all your life.”

Nathan spun around, but none of the patrons were looking in his direction let alone addressing him.

“Down here. Hep cat.”

Nathan shifted his gaze to a stout little demon with a black beret, red flip shades, and a soul patch.

“You’re not a ghost.”

The demon flipped its shades up. “No day passes for the dead daddy-o. I’m Zazimsberg,  keeper of the infernal archives.”

Nathan was hit with a sudden wave of vertigo. He dropped the paperback in his hand and found himself leaning against the bookshelf.

Zazimsberg scanned Nathan’s eyes. “You still riding the Tussin dragon, son?”

Nathan nodded. “When are we?”

Zazimsberg raised his stubby fingers to the black and red volumes all around him. “This is that glorious era between Rosemary’s Baby and Silence of the Lambs, when gloom-riddled grimoires ruled the nation’s nightmares, when poltergeists and possession kept pages turning, and the supernatural cast a long shadow on the bestsellers list.”

Nathan struggled to maintain his balance as he paced the aisle, scanning the shelves.  “No way.” The horror section was broken into subgenres: Gothic, Cosmic, Supernatural, Psychological, and Slashers. “I can’t believe there was ever this much horror literature.”

“Believe it, syrup head. Back before Netflix, people had either this or the passion pit to get their horror fix.”

“Passion Pit, like the band?”

Zazimsberg snapped his fingers. “Passion pit, pucker palace, pound pagoda…Whatever you call drive-ins these days?”

Nathan scanned his brow. “Cineplex and chill?”

“Well horror was here and there, if you didn’t have anyone to play back seat bingo with this is where you ended up.”

Nathan shook his head as rainbow trails streaked through his vision. “I can’t believe horror was never this popular. I think you’re seeing things through ruby colored glasses?”

“They’re prescription.” Zazimsberg scurried up a rolling ladder and straddled the bookshelf. “Besides this hootenanny is temporary. The horror market is headed for crashville. Once the FBI coins the term: serial killer, a generation of armchair psychologists get hung up on psychopaths. Everyone hip to the supernatural gets seduced by the likes of Hannibal Lecter.”

“Except for Stephen King.”

Zazimsberg rubbed his hands together. “Except for Stephen King. There’s a man who knows his groceries. If you weren’t too Dixie fried on the Dextro, you might noddle this one out for me: why did King survive the horror crash while so many of his peers put an egg in their shoes and beat it?”

Nathan wasn’t sure what decade he was in, but looking at the shelf, Stephen King had already amassed a bewildering bibliography. “King was prolific. He never took a break. His titles were in a perpetual promotion cycle and his brand never went stale.”

Zazimsberg cackled at the ceiling. “Spoken like the mayor of Squaresville. No, King knew people. He gave regular folks something to relate to. Sure, he checked all the genre boxes, wrote his share of dark cellars, but he always made you care about the people who went down there.”

Nathan rubbed his temples. “So characters first, situation second, but what if I’m not much of a people person?”

“You’re going to have to learn to mingle baby, because if people don’t see themselves in your fiction, how are they supposed to get lost in it?”

Nathan nodded, not so much in agreement, but to give himself time to think. “That’s all well and good for you, Bohemian Blasphemy, but what if people don’t feel like talking to me?”

Zazimsberg clasped his sausage fingers together. “Dig this. You ever seen a high class chick with some dumb dopey ape?”

“All the time.”

“Ever wonder how that happened?”

Nathan nodded.

“The ape introduced himself.”

“So what? I should ask a bunch of randos for insights into human condition?”

Zazimsberg pried a book from the top shelf, flung it, and tipped its neighboring titles over. “If you can’t be bothered to care about people, why should they care about your characters?”

“Because they’re in interesting predicaments?” Nathan sidestepped the falling books.

“Like a bug getting its legs pulled off?”

“Sure.”

“Or a cow being tipped off a cliff?” Zazimsberg tipped another row of paperbacks.

“I guess.” The books crashed at Nathan’s feet.

“Or a writer getting belted with hardcovers?”

Nathan looked up right as a big fat art book caught him between the eyes.

THE GHOST OF HALLOWEEN PRESENT

Nathan awoke on the floor of a moonlit corridor. Something tickled the back of his throat. He coughed and watched the particles swirl toward the rafters. Moon beams shone through windows that lined the ceiling. Nathan was in a basement. The dust covers that wrapped the furnishing caught the light, as did the cobwebs stretching from the candelabras, and the suits of armor beneath the tapestries.

“So is this like an Inception thing? Every time I get knocked out I go into a deeper dream layer?”

Nathan’s words echoed off the indifferent checkered tiles.

He wiped the dust from his arms and thighs and pressed on into the dark. “Does this count as R.E.M. sleep or am I going to wake up cranky?”

There were no answers from the corridor.

Nathan hastened his pace as he passed beneath a taxidermy gallery mounted on the wall. He tried to ignore the shadows the antlers cast, but they seemed to stretch.

A breeze wafted through the corridor setting all the furniture skirts aflutter. Goosebumps rose up Nathan’s biceps, his shoulders, and settle upon his neck. A long sheet arose to reveal the source of the cold spot: an open fireplace. The sheet pointed to the Nathan, detached from the wall, and glided over him. In the sheet’s place was a tall elliptical mirror. It had a big baroque frame that was all lion’s paws and golden laurels, like a family crest.

“Alas, a looking glass. I wonder what will happen if I gaze into it?”

Nathan neared the mirror. “So, should I start saying ‘Bloody Marry’ and see where that takes me?”

The mirror already had an answer. There was a silhouette standing beneath a dustsheet. Either it was a trick of the light or of the wind, but the silhouette appeared to be breathing. The goosebumps on Nathan’s neck ran down his arm and settled on his wrist.

He counted on his fingers. “3-2-1,” then spun on his heel.

A figure charged at him with a mallet. “Jump scare!” The figure shouted as she struck a brass gong.

For his part, Nathan didn’t flinch. He nodded, like a disappointed parent.

The Ghost of Horror Present looked to Nathan like a hipster Elvira: straight black bangs, lots of mascara, boots up to her knees, tight jeans, black halter top, and a black denim vest covered in enamel pins.

“They say people who don’t react to loud jarring noises might be psychopaths.”

“I’ve been getting that a lot.”

The Ghost of Horror Present dropped the mallet and gong into a pocket dimension beneath her vest and offered her hand. “Hello Nathan, I’m Leonora, the ghost of Christmas present.”

“You mean Halloween?”
Leonora shrugged. “I’m a millennial. I’ve got a lot side gigs.”

Nathan tried not to stare at Leonora’s chest, but she had more pins than a five-star general. She had the stickman from The Blair Witch Project, Pyramid head from Silent Hill, the killer sphere from Phantasm, and the puzzle box from Hellraiser. She even had the Necronomicon from Evil Deadwith a banner that read: READ BANNED BOOKS.

Curious Nathan turned around and tore the sheet off the figure he’d spotted in the mirror. Sure enough, it was a toned Greek sculpture with a leaf for a loincloth.

“Isn’t this all a little old school for the ghost of Halloween present? I’m surprised I’m not hearing the beat of a telltale heart through the floorboards.”

Leonora spun around appraising their surroundings. “Haven’t you heard? Everything old is new again.”

The back of her vest was a patchwork of portraits of the Universal monsters: the creature from the black lagoon, the phantom of the opera, the bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, the mummy, Dracula. There was even a blank one for the invisible man.

Leonora raised her fingerless gloves to the ceiling. “Doesn’t all this Hammer Horror shit give you a nostalgia boner for the supernatural cinema of yore?”

She made a beeline for a buckling strip of wallpaper, got a good grip, and pried it free. Then she skipped over a row of shattered tiles, kicked one loose, and claimed it from the floor. She curled her hand back, spun, and hurled it like a discuss. It shattered a window.

Leonora pointed to her handywork. “Look at that matte painted moon and tell me you don’t want to write some shit about an ancient acropolis.”

Nathan looked toward the impossibly large lunar surface filling the window frame then back to Leonora to find she’d disappeared. “Alright Bat Woman.” He sighed, checked his watch, and counted on his fingers. “3-2-1…”

When he turned Leonora hit him with an airhorn. “Jump scare!”

Nathan didn’t jump so much as wince. A pendulum of hair fell into his brow and he took a moment to slick it back up. “I’m not going to lie. I’m digging on this atmosphere, but how’s a horror write supposed to carve out his niche when he’s stealing from the past?”

Leonora laid on her airhorn. “Re-re-remix!” Lightning flashed, confetti shot out in all directions, and plumes of smoke spewed into the room.

When Nathan looked back Leonora was at a turntable. She held a pair of headphones with one hand and worked the knobs with the other.

A dubstep drop, blew the dustcovers off a pair of monolithic speakers.

Leonora shouted. “You take the classics, play with people’s expectations, and put your own spin on them.”

Nathan could just make out the melody for Toccata and Fugue in D minorburied beneath a flurry of distorted bass tones. He plugged his ears. A flurry of shadows sped across the windows. Cracks spread throughout the ceiling. The chandelier shook, plunged toward the floor, and snagged on its chain.

Leonora pumped her fists to the beat. Lasers converged upon a mirror ball Nathan hadn’t noticed until then. Bats flew through the window, swarmed the speakers, and formed a pair of big brown tornados.

Nathan cupped his hands around his mouth. “It seems like we could do better than just adding a bunch of…”

Silence.

“…Jump scares”

Leonora had disappeared. So too had the commotion.

Nathan scanned the corridor for movement, then the furniture and the shadows beneath it. The support beams creaked. The house settled. An eerie wind blew through the window. Nathan cocked his ear toward the sound and raised a finger until he heard a wolf howling in the distance. “There it is.” He took the opportunity to roll his shoulders and stretch his forearms across his chest.

Nathan creaked his neck, cracked his knuckles, and counted down. “3…2…1…”

Nothing.

He shut his eyes, counted on his fingers, and braced himself, but still nothing.

“Alright Leonora. This is not my first rodeo.” He scanned his surroundings. “We already did the mirror thing, and the silhouettes beneath the dust covers. That just leaves…No. You wouldn’t be that tacky.”

Nathan turned to the suits of armor. One suit was not like the others. It was wielding its great sword high above its head, frozen in the middle of a killing stroke. Nathan neared the suit until he was standing beneath the blade’s trajectory.

“I’m going to assume this is like velociraptors. If one of you is in front of me then another is—”

“Jump scare!”

Leonora struck Nathan with a taser. His muscles seized around the white hot surge in his side. Leonora hit him again and again and again. When she finally let up Nathan had collapsed into a ragdoll on the tile. The armor fell forward and the great sword came down upon his cranium.

THE GHOST OF HALLOWEEN YET TO COME

Nathan came to in an open grave. It was teaming with rainwater, knotted roots, and muck. It wreaked of worms and formaldehyde. He leaned forward and felt something hard and slick beneath his palms. He was floating atop a casket. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

Nathan dug into the dirt wall, grabbed a long rope of root, and pulled himself up with all the grace of Adam West’s Batman. Moments later he was back on the coffin. He tried to claw his way up the steep incline. He managed to get a foothold, felt the grass at the borders of the plot, and then he was back on the coffin with an avalanche of mud coming down on him.

The mudslide had exposed a second root system. This one weaved in and out of the dirt like stitching. Nathan climbed the handholds, pulled himself back up, and grabbed at fistfuls of grass until he was able to roll onto solid ground.

Thunder clapped and a fleeting glimpse of daylight shone through the surroundings. The landscape was dotted with statues: angels whose wingspan wrapped around their shoulders like overcoats, generals who watched over the cemetery from atop their monuments, and cherubs.

“Fuck all you all motherfuckers.” Nathan said with what the little indignation he could muster.

He then turned his attention to the headstone. “Alright, let’s peep on this epitaph.”

He crawled around the rim of the open grave, careful not to slide back in. As for the headstone, it was tasteful, not too garish, not too small. The base was carpeted with red roses and for a moment Nathan felt appreciated, until he read was etched into the rock:

HERE LIES STEPHEN KING: THE LAST GREAT HORROR AUTHOR.

Nathan stared at the text perplexed. “Shouldn’t there be a birthdate and death date? Maybe something about his wife?”

Lightning struck a redwood not far from the headstone. Cinders shot through the air like fireworks. The blast had cleaved the trunk down the center and set the standing side aflame. As the blaze spread it outlined a towering figure. Its hooded face regarded Nathan with cold indifference. Its tattered robes fluttered against the breeze. Nathan scanned the frayed edges and spotted, not legs, but bunches of squirming appendages: snakes, centipedes, and other vermin. Nathan panned down the figure’s skirt and saw tentacles writhing in the grass.

Nathan ran for it. Monuments, mausoleums, and markers passed in a blur, and as he ran those granite shapes grew taller until they rose above the tree line. The headstones became standing stones and the fire that had consumed the redwood had found its way back into the sky. The storm clouds turned volcanic and the rain turned to ash.

Overwhelmed Nathan lost sight of his footing, snagged his toe and hit the prairie face first, then he just kept hitting it as he rolled downhill. He was still sliding when he’d settled onto his belly. That’s when he saw the gapping maw of the open grave ready to swallow him up again. He dug into the grass, but didn’t stop until he was teetering on the edge of the pit.

That’s when Nathan felt the tentacle wrap around his ankle, slice through his pantleg, and latch onto his calf. Nathan burrowed into prairie down to his elbows, but the dirt did him no favors. “Fuck you, Lovecraft. You racist piece of—”

One good tug from the tentacle and all the dirt Nathan was hanging onto came right down with him.

When Nathan landed he did not feel the smooth lid of coffin, but a writhing mass of angry limbs, poking and prodding at all his tender bits until they got a good grip. A tentacle slid around Nathan’s brow. Its suckers pulsed with hunger. The long grey appendage looped around Nathan’s eyes, ears, and nose, before tunneling into his mouth.

Despite the pressure on his eardrums Nathan could still hear the precise moment his skull cracked open.

SUNDAY MORNING

Nathan awoke on his side kissing a puddle of his own sick. He’d thrown up in the middle of the night. Had he slept on his back he’d have asphyxiated and died. Now little Pazuzu was rubbing his whiskers in the mess. Nathan mustered the strength to crawl out from under the table, scoop the cat up, and sequester him in the bedroom.

Nathan was relieved to be alive, but he had no plan to throw the windows open and ask some young man what day it was. He knew damn well it was October 27thand he needed to shampoo the carpet and wash away the stench of his poor life decisions.

When Nathan was finally refreshed he elected to go out. Now he didn’t gift any turkeys to any needy families, nor did he donate to any charities. He was too broke to play benefactor and there were no Tiny Tims anywhere in his life. Instead, he took a notepad down to the local bakery and let his train of thought careen down the tracks.

Nathan listed the qualities someone had to possess for him care about them. He thought long and hard about what qualities made people sympathetic, fascinating, or praiseworthy. He thought about his friends, family, and coworkers. He dreamt up crazy situations that might reveal the full measure of their character.

Then he listed the horror topes he’d always hated and imagined some fresh spins on them. He analyzed the dream about Stephen King’s headstone and came up with a concept worth riffing on:

What if a horror legend had the ability to navigate the collective unconscious and syphon inspiration from his competition? What if one of those authors found out and tried to retaliate? What would happen if the horror legend summoned demons to stop him?

Nathan gripped the page as if to rip it out. “That is such batshit stupid concept… It’d be a shame to let it go to waste.”

He turned the page, wrote the title: NOVELMANCER, and then he wrote some more.

Continue reading A Halloween Carol

Strange Love: Dating Profiles of the Damned

Submitted for your approval: Strange Love aka Monster Mingle,a dating service for the inhuman, a place where urban legends find romance, where full moons lead to fuller hearts, and all the thirsty singles have fangs.

This is how it works: illustrator Bryan Politte comes up with the creatures and author Drew Chial gives them their backstories.This is a place where you can catch up on the monsters you may have missed so far.

Scryzon Wixelvox Gleep by Bryan Politte

Meet Scryzon Wixelvox Gleep, a serial monogamist from the planet Monogome Prime. He’s had a crush on the human race ever since the Voyager probe entered deep space. Some say he’s clingy others say he’s a parasite… with a gestation as long as the relationship.

Nólatha Torhorn by Bryan Politte

Meet Nólatha Torhorn, former elven maiden, former sacrifice to the Gods of Winter, and current custodian to a handful of artifacts that bestow her divine power. She’s looking for a warmhearted individual to help set fire to the ice cold idols that spurned her.

Roddy Dirge by Bryan Politte

Meet Roddy Dirge, a punk zombie who needs vitamin B12 in order to stay cognizant or risk breaking his vegan commitment. He’s looking for a bodacious botanist who synthesizes nutrients from algae and has an affinity for the Dead Kennedys.

Matilda MacDonald by Bryan Politte

Meet Matilda MacDonald, aka the devil. She wants you to know everything you’ve heard about her is just bad PR. She’s here to enable your artistic temperament, and all she wants in return is one easy payment.

Follow Matilda’s adventures in my book HE HAS MANY NAMES.

Read the prequel short story DRAGON’S BREATH.

Check out the original MONSTER MINGLE profile.

Daisy Diode by Bryan Politte

Meet Daisy Diode, a self-made woman on a mission to find the perfect connection. She’s searching for love in the clouds, or the cloud to be more precise. She’s got the tools to brute force her way into your heart, just look out for malware while she’s in there.

Kadilia Caine by Bryan Politte

Meet Kadilia Caine. She’s been out of the dating pool for a while, but she’s looking to get her feet wet again. If you’re searching for someone to watch over you at night then look no further. All you have to do to win her affection is invite her in.

Continue reading Strange Love: Dating Profiles of the Damned

Book Promotion Win! Savvy Teens Recreate Occult Ritual from their Favorite Novel

A man was found skinned alive in what police are calling a “Brutal ritualistic killing.”

In the Tanglewood neighborhood around midnight, a 9-1-1 caller reported hearing screams and seeing candles through the windows of the abandoned Chrome Works factory. When officers arrived they found a crime scene “straight out of a horror novel.”

The victim was chained up between the boilers in a prone position with their spine exposed and lungs stretched back into a pair of wings. “At first we took it to be a Viking Blood Eagle, but then we shined out lights on it and it lit up the room like a mirror ball.”

Both the victim’s skin and organs had been removed “with the pression of a skilled surgeon.” The victim’s musculature was coated in a silver lacquer. Both of the victim’s hands had been amputated and replaced with candelabras. A circle of spoons lined their hips, jewels hung from their ribcage, and mirror shards twinkled from their eye sockets. “It was as if the killers wanted us to burst in and shine our lights on it.”

Six high school-age suspects were found with masks, blood stained robes, daggers, and copies of Drew Chial’s controversial novel Reflective Surfaces. While the author could not be reached for comment the publisher released this statement:

Neither Elephant Publishing nor the author have ever claimed the ritualistic aspects of Reflective Surfaces were based in reality. None of the occult ceremonies were taken from known practices. None of the deities are rooted in a mythology and none of the supernatural elements can be linked to genuine belief systems. They were inventions of the author nothing more.

In promoting Reflective Surfaces, Elephant Publishing did not run an alternate reality campaign. We never built dummy websites for our characters, never toyed with readers on Reddit forums, and never doctored Wikipedia entries to reflect the universe of the story. While Reflective Surfaces had several book trailers none of them contained supposed “found” footage. We explicated marketed the title as a work of fiction.

 The suspects were not known to us, our street team, or the author. They acted alone and of their own volition. We were just as shocked as everyone by their painstaking recreation of the chapter titled: The Chrome Plated Angel. From the handmade comedy masks to the snakeskin robes, they got everything right. From the twinkling crime scene to the raven hilted daggers they were holding when the S.W.A.T. team stormed in. These kids thought of everything.

And yet they brought the text to life entirely on their own. It just goes to show the power of fandom.

We join together with the community in applauding this ritualistic reenactment from the sidelines. They say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery and everyone in the office here is positively blushing. Chial and everyone at Elephant Publishing tips their hats to these self-motivated suspects. In an era where book marketing proves more and more elusive this has been an absolute breakthrough.

Continue reading Book Promotion Win! Savvy Teens Recreate Occult Ritual from their Favorite Novel

Slush Pile: A Scary Story about Unread Stories

Back when I was a bright-eyed English major, wearing but a plus one prescription, I scored an internship at a literary agency. While my peers were happy to earn their credits carting mail and fetching coffee I wanted to get my hands dirty. I convinced Keith, the head of the acquisitions, to let me take a peek at the unsolicited manuscripts. I was a budding writer and I wanted to get a sense of what the competition was doing.

Keith was a far cry from the tweed cardigan, leather patch wearing, literary figure you might imagine. He dressed like a janitor in V-necks and grease stained overalls.

There was dirt in his five o’clock shadow and his brow was always dripping with sweat. He seemed more comfortable with his satchel full of tools than he did behind a novel.

Keith led me into a darkroom filled with bulk storage racks, rolling ladders, and boxes. The kind of place you’d expect to find religious relics and alien artifacts. He tapped a cabinet. It creaked under the weight of its manila envelopes. They were stacked so high they pressed into the ceiling tiles. Dust clouds twinkled through the dim light of the exit sign.

Keith waved his arms over this wee warehouse. “This is our slush pile.”

“This is a fire hazard.”

“That it is, but it’s been a while since we’ve had need of a first reader. Seeing as most of our agents are already up to their eyeballs in clients.”

“I could do it.”

Keith stroked his stubble. “That would be outside the scope of your internship. You’re here to learn. You’re not supposed to do the work any actual employees.”

“But you just said you didn’t have a first reader. Who would I be replacing?”

Keith tongued his cheek. “Well, it’s hard to argue with logic like that.”

Keith gave me a key to the janitor’s closet and I pulled up a chair beneath the eyewash station and got to reading.

I’d made myself a job. Now all I had to do was convince the agency to pay me for it. I wrote copious notes, summarized the stories and gave them letter grades. As an English major I had to read between 12-30 classics a semester. Now I was putting away a clunker a day. The highest grade I ever gave was a B- and that was when I was being generous. Still I was panning for gold, hoping to make a discovery that would elevate me within the agency. Sadly all I discovered was the reason those manuscripts were gathering dust.

I read all the tepid tragedies, lukewarm victories, and shallow life lessons homemakers had to offer. I read every account of heaven from children who’d suffered near death experiences. I sample every flavor of thinly veiled autobiography: divorce diaries from armchair psychologists struggling to diagnose their exes, recovery journals with relapsewritten between the lines, and all manner of reptilian illuminati conspiracy theories.

This was before any schmuck with a premise could self-publish from the toilet. Before vanity presses started offering half assed editing services. Before Amazon made the entire industry bend the knee. Back then the only path to literary success was through gatekeepers like me. It was a lot of responsibility.

I imagined authors reading over my shoulder with their fingers tented in silent prayers. I could feel them breathing down my neck. It was an eerie. I found myself turning from the aluminum ladders, chrome containers,  and other reflective surfaces for fear I might spot a phantom silhouette.

I thought about sending words of encouragement to some of the authors, notes for future edits that might elevate their manuscripts, but the post dates were ancient and there were always more envelopes piling up.

I’d marvel at how many manuscripts I’d made it through until I returned to the room to find the ceiling tiles cracking and the cabinets leaning. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these writers had died waiting to be discovered.

The semester was almost over and I had yet to strike gold. Still I convinced myself I was getting an education. The carrot I was chasing wasn’t rotten, it was rich with nutrients. All of this bad fiction was teaching me how to be a better writer. I learned which trends had been driven into the ground: the brooding vampires whose redemption only came with the help of a virginal infatuation, the artisan serial killers whose crimes recreated renaissance paintings, the blank teenagers who turned out to be sci-fi saviors. These tropes were refining my tastes, challenging me to dig deeper. My own writing was going to be oh so well informed.

Serial liars save the best lies for themselves.

After the Internship

I was the only one to stay on. The cream that had risen to the topor so I told myself. No one had asked me to keep reading, but I was hoping someone would see the coverages I’d written and offer me a position. One day Keith came into the janitors closet. He needed supplies from the cart I was using as a desk.

“Don’t you think you’ve read enough. I mean the semester is over.”

I lowered my readers and rubbed my eyes. By then I was wearing a plus two prescription. I told him I wasn’t there for the credit I was there for the sense of purpose. “My summaries are going to save the agency a whole lot of time.”

Keith wrapped his big calloused fingers around my shoulder. “Son. No one is going to read those summaries.”

“Then why take unsolicited manuscripts in the first place?”

Keith sighed. He tilted his head back to search for the words. “They’re lucrative.”

“How are they lucrative when they’re just sitting there?”

Keith swished his words around before just spitting them out. “Every one of those writes paid us a hundred dollar reading fee.”

My eyes widened trying to estimate what the agency’s slush pile was worth.  “There must be hundreds of thousands of dollars in there.”

“More. Way more.”

My heart weighed heavy on me as I waddled into the elevator and out the agency’s door.

I had seen writing contests in the back of literary magazines that asked for $25 reading fees. I’d pegged them for scams. Here I’d unknowingly volunteered to help perpetuate one. The agency was a reading mill. It didn’t matter if their clients ever got published. Their product was false hope. I felt like a traitor to the medium.

Nine Years Later

While my classmates went on to get careers as baristas I found myself working out of a penthouse overlooking Manhattan. While they measured milk temperature I altered between an exercise bike and a rower. While they modeled flour coated aprons I had a wardrobe full of Armani jackets, Versace slacks, and Santimon loafers. While they struggled to sell their art I had a gallery of art deco sculptures. Every room of my home had its own golden Olympian, each one looking like it came straight off the cover of an Ayn Rand novel.

So how did I go from laboring in a closet to my own private penthouse? Remember that guilt I felt as I trounced out of the agency’s parking lot. Well, I got over it and set up my own literary agency.

I put out an open call for submissions at fifty dollars a read, spent the profits to poach a handful of high profile clients, and used their status to up my reading rates to one hundred and fifty a manuscript. And by “reading rate” I mean my storage fee. I didn’t even bother to invest in shelving. I kept my slush pile stacked on pallets. The post office shipped them up via the freight elevator. I’d pilfer through the envelopes for checks and send the rest down in the blue bin, because recycling is important.

I’d feel bad about pulping all those manuscripts, but my ad clearly stated: SEND A COPY, NEVER THE ORIGINAL TEXT. Nevertheless the boxes accumulated. Just counting checks was a lot of work.

Now I was a great agent to my high profile clients. I shook all the right hands, greased all the right wheels. I got them the coveted seat on The Late Show, got their titles on the best seller’s list, got the bidding war going over the film rights. I did well by all three of them. So well they could’ve dropped me and I could’ve coasted on the royalties.

It’s just that my side hustle was so much more fruitful. Every hour I spent stacking checks into a pouch at the edge of the pallet earned me $18,000. And it’s not like I never peeped at any of those pages before I put them in the blue bin. I  read author bios when a woman sent a cute photo. I peeked at their titles, skimmed through their loglines. I might’ve even taken a gander the occasional query letter, but whenever I did my suspicions were always confirmed. Writers sent to me because no one else would humor them. If anything I kept them going by not responding.

I met one of those writers at a publishing event. She slapped my back so hard my cocktail shot out the rim of the glass. She held the portrait from her dustjacket to her face and mirrored the contemplative expression.

“Bet you wished you’d signed me when you had the chance?”

“You stole the words right out of my mouth.” I had no idea she’d even queried me. I pointed to her hardcover.“This was so good, but I was neck deep in so much great material I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Let me make it up to you. What are you drinking? The next round’s on me.”

There was an open bar. It was the least I could do. We drank martinis and I convinced her boyfriend to send me something he was working on. I even waved my reading fee, right before I tossed it into the blue bin.

You might be asking how I slept at night. The answer: on a king-sized hydrodynamic waterbed with custom tailored lumbar support. In other words: like a heavily sedated baby.

Then One Morning…

I awoke to find the blue bin tipped over in the kitchen. The sink was drowning in manuscripts, the countertops were spilling over and all the tiles were covered in paper.

The first thing my stupid brain thought to do was check the windows. You know how updrafts have a tendency lift bins from one room to another and then dump out their contents? Yeah, well, me neither. I cycled through more stupid theories as I heaved everything back into the bin.

Had I slept through an earthquake? Skyscrapers have a way of stretching the effects. The recycling bin was on wheels. The aftershocks could’ve rolled it from room to room before ultimately tipping over.

Had I sleepwalked to the freight bay, dreamt I was pushing a stroller, and changed my infant on the kitchenette?

Had vandals sidestepped security, cracked the code for the elevator, just to throw around some papers?

None of my theories held much weight, especially since nothing else was out of place, or so I thought.

That Afternoon…

My workout regimen was built around violence. If there were home invaders I wanted to be ready to go full Batman on them. I circled the punching bag throwing high intensity jabs, crosses, and kicks. All the while it felt like someone was watching me. Smiling eyes snickered at my form, at my halfhearted anger, at my lean little body.

I didn’t bother to stretch my ligaments before I started hurling haymakers. I imagined a pair of vandals prying the freight doors open with a jack, crawling into my studio, and tip toing along with the bin. I threw uppercuts with reckless disregard for my joints. I felt those smiling eyes giggling and I just started wailing, throwing elbows and knees. I hit my funny bone and kept right on cycling through my limbs. My knuckles throbbed beneath the gloves, my kneecaps were raspberry red, but I kept leaping at the bag until I slipped, slid under it, and coasted on the sweat.

My heart was still racing by the time I got back on feet so I limped over to the treadmill for a cooldown. I hit QUICKSTART, but I couldn’t get it moving. I dug my heels in, but the belt wouldn’t budge. I felt those smiling eyes upon my reddening face and pushed harder, grunting as my sneakers slid down the Polyvinyl. I gripped the handrails so tight my palms began to blister. There was a scraping, like that of a grinding wheel, followed by a burning smell. The screen read: INCLINE—

When I finally checked the motor I found someone had stuffed manuscript pages down there.

If I was married my wife would’ve told me to call the police, but it would’ve been like telling someone with road rage to ask for directions. It wasn’t happening. Someone was making a statement and I had to disassemble my penthouse to see the extent of it.

I found pages crumpled in the light fixtures casting shadows on the walls. Pages in the tank of the toilet clogging the flush valve. Pages in the oven threaded through the racks. I found pages in places I’d sworn I’d already checked. Dangling from the ceiling fan. In my pillowcase. Lining my pockets.

I spent the rest of the afternoon going through every box left on the pallet separating the checks from the chaff. Then I took the blue bin down to the incinerator. I imagined those praying eyes watch me fling those pages into the fire they weren’t smiling anymore.

Upon returning to my penthouse I hung a camcorder from the ceiling and focused it on the elevator doors. Then I mounted a sign on the wall that read: SMILE… YOU’RE ON CANDID CAMERA.

I threw a phantom punches at the dark, until I broke a sweat and felt it in my hips. I remember shuffling into bed. I don’t remember falling asleep.

The Next Morning…

I woke up coughing. There were ashes in the air. No heat. No fire. Just ashes wafting through the room. They trailed into the hallway like a cartoon aroma. I followed them to the remains of my recycling bin.

There was an axle, a set of wheels, and a flat blue base. The rest of the 50 gallon container had been shattered and meticulously rearranged into wire sculpture. The subject wasn’t obvious from head on, I could make out a warped T shape, but when I sidestepped the sculpture’s true form took shape.  It was a depiction of man in pillory, his head and hands locked between a pair of stocks.

I followed the sculpture’s sightline to the floor where I found a manuscript. A light breeze caught the corner of the title page daring me to turn it over. Someone had anthropomorphized the bin to punish it for its role in my crimes. This was next level vandalism. The kind of piece a found object sculptor would’ve spent months planning for. As it turned out I hadn’t seen anything yet.

My home gym had been and reimagined as a sculpture garden.

The punching bag had been gutted and Bowflex rods jut through the remains. It was a hanging cage for figure cobbled together from weights and leather. He was holding a manuscript in his snap hook fingers.

The exercise bike beside him had been smelted into a set of iron stocks. The seat had been positioned in place of a head. The fan had been bent into a pair of lungs, and the pedals had been sheared into hands. This figure also had a manuscript to read, as did the one fashioned from the Stairmaster, as did the one made from NordicTrack cords.

I wandered from room to room with my mouth hanging open. Every refrigerator coil, every table leg, every fan blade had been warped into the same loathsome form. Even my art deco Olympians had been forced to gaze upon manuscripts of their own.

My legs wobbled under the weight of the situation. My lungs couldn’t take it all in. The room started spinning. I found myself sitting amongst the sculpted shadows, cursing the day I quit smoking.

I crawled toward the freight bay to find the elevator doors had merged. They’d one solid piece with no visible crease. The camcorder was still hanging from the ceiling, but the sign no longer read: SMILE… YOU’RE ON CANDID CAMERAit read: QUIET PLEASE… THIS IS A READING SPACE.

“To hell with that noise.”

That’s when I felt those smiling eyes upon me again. The hairs on the back of my neck raised as they tracked along my spine and settled on the back of my skull. I took a deep breath, plucked up my courage, and turned around. “Fuck you and fuck your library!”

There was no flesh on the face staring back at me, just exposed muscles glistening like grape jelly. There were no lips to keep the drool from seeping down its chin, but it was clear this face was happy to see me. Its Zygomaticus minor and major pulled the corners of the mouth like bungee cords stretching a tarp.  The Orbicularis oculi, the fiber around the sockets, was crinkled, confirming my suspicions. Its eyes were indeed smiling.

Back at the agency I wondered how many of the authors in our slush pile were dead already. Here in the freight bay I counted nine purple people. They slunk along the concrete, altering between their knees and their elbows. They rolled over one another, dancers performing a choreographed floor routine, and they kept their smiling eyes on me the entire time.

I met the gaze of ghost looming over me.

“Thank you for submitting your manuscript, but unfortunately, at this time, it isn’t quiet what we’re looking for. Best of luck to you.”

The ghost raised a long narrow finger to my lips. “Shhh…”

And Of Course…

I woke up in a pair of restraints with a manuscript laid before me. I read the title page and a set of purple fingers pinched the corner and flipped it over. My day went on like that. When my stomach growled a purple arm lifted a dry bowl of cereal to my muzzle and I kept right on reading. When my bladder was full a hand unzipped my pants and positioned my stream into a pitcher, and when I had to go number two… Well, you get the idea.

The sun rose and fell. I didn’t fall asleep so much as I passed out. When I came to those phantom fingers were right there, tapping the page, knowing right where I left off.

I prayed there were only nine manuscripts, one for each purple person I’d seen on the landing, but after ninth one the pages kept right on coming. The ghosts were making me earn every check I’d ever cashed.

The average person reads four books a year. Books that have been vetted. Books that engage their imaginations and impart them with wisdom. Good books are dear friends. They stick with you, give you a perspective, and a sense of belonging.

Bad books are like toxic friends. They dominated the conversation, leave no room for interpretation, and tell you how to feel. Their appeals to emotion fail to resonate. They trigger your judgement rather than your imagination. They makes you feel disconnected.

Bad books were all that were on the menu as my restraints were slowly realigning my spine.

There were more infidelity fantasies by people who wouldn’t know eroticism if it bit them on the genitals. More self-help books by people who were nowhere near getting their shit together. More endless sword and sorcery journeys to nowhere in particular. More meandering melodrama. More edge lord gore. More goddamn Christ metaphors.

My life was nothing but purple digits, walls of text, and schlock. Until…it wasn’t. Until I’d happened upon an oasis in that endless desert of bullshit. A story that moved me. A story that broke my heart. A story that made the purple fingers rescind while I considered what I had just experienced. A story that I left smeared with tears.

As the years stretched on I prayed to read another like it and every so often I did. Eventually those purple fingers turned their last page and there was nothing left to read.

You Probably Saw This Coming

When Ebenezer Scrooge woke up from his nightmare he flung the window open and asked the first kid he saw what day it was. Easy for Ebenezer. He didn’t live on the 88thfloor. I rolled out of the waterbed and crawled toward the elevator. My exercise equipment was right where I’d left it, as were my art deco Olympians, and all of my furnishings. The only difference was the manuscripts were back on the pallets.

Manilla envelopes were stacked floor to ceiling. I examined one to find my own handwriting. It turned out that I was the sender. I opened it and sure enough I found a check. I was giving the author their money back. I was giving it all back. I wish I could tell you my time in that pocket dimension had softened this blow to my checkbook, but I was going to feel it.

The only consolation was the small stack of white envelopes on the other side of the room. I opened one and found an acceptance letter. I was taking on a new batch of clients. These were the authors whose manuscripts had kept my sanity from slipping. The oases. The ghosts were letting me hold onto them.

I leaned against the freight elevator doors and considered these developments. That’s when I saw the camcorder and thought to move the manila envelopes to see what had become of my sign.

It read: NOW EXITING QUIET ZONE. PLEASE WATCH YOUR STEP.

I took the sign’s advice as I got onto the elevator and hit the button for the lobby.

Continue reading Slush Pile: A Scary Story about Unread Stories

Brevity Win! Frustrated Author Deletes Novel

In what many of his peers are calling “an inspired choice” author Drew Chial has deleted his current manuscript.

A screenwriter watching Chial from a nearby booth said, “Drew was hunched over his keyboard hammering at the home row, an artisan nearing the end of his creation, when the light bulb must’ve gone off. I couldn’t help but admire the elegant solution he found to his problem.”

A barista behind the espresso machine said, “I could tell when Drew felt that sudden surge of inspiration, because his whole body quivered. He gripped the counter, gritted his teeth, and shouted, ‘God damnit!’ Right at the eureka moment hit.”

William Falkner once told young writers to kill their darlings, to take the conventions they lean too heavily on and heave them into a coffin. Onlookers marveled as Chial murdered his darlings with reckless abandon, selecting his entire document, hitting delete, then tearing the pages out of his memo pad one by one.

“I was going to clap, but as an I.T. professional I knew that Drew had given himself plenty of room to backpedal. He could’ve easily gone back within his document and recovered the previous version. Then Drew raised his laptop up over his head and brought it down hard on the linoleum. The logic board tore through the chassis, like a broken bone, sending the keys everywhere. Still, I held back my applause, because I knew data recovery was still a possibility. That’s when Drew went behind the counter, grabbed an urn of scolding hot coffee, and poured it onto the debris.”

“When Drew tipped that crumpled aluminum enclosure to his lips I didn’t think he’d actually drink from it. But when he guzzled that sludge of circuits and transistors down I knew he was writing on another level than I was.”

Shakespeare once wrote that, “Brevity is the soul of wit and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes.”

By Shakespeare’s logic Chial has lopped off his gangrene appendages, cauterized the stumps, and left us with a novel that must be clever as fuck.

Continue reading Brevity Win! Frustrated Author Deletes Novel

Personal Space Win! Local Author Alienates Everyone Around Him

Every writer wishes they had their own soundproof room. A foam fitted chamber where the only distractions are the scuffling of their clothing, blood swishing in their eardrums, and heartbeats reverberating through their bones. Alas most writers find themselves in cramped into honeycomb habitats where audio pollution is a given. Megaphonic metropolises, with their medical motorcades and high decibel helipads, aren’t planned around clear headspaces.

That’s why so many authors abandon their apartments for the apparent sanctuary of coffeehouses, but there they find all manner of new auditory interference: stockbrokers who don’t know how to modulate their voices, coders beating rhythms into keyboards, and serial venters bending the baristas’ ear.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear about a writer who managed to distance himself from all of those distractors. Author Drew Chial has pioneered the perfect technique for establishing his own boundaries and it’s called: being a creep.

“I used to carry a pair of backpacks set one on the stool to my right and one the left, but the staff got wise to what I was doing. That’s when I decided to make myself the reason patrons decided to move on.”

Whether he is letting his gaze linger too long on a young woman, reading over his neighbor’s shoulder, or treating the bar like a standing desk Chial is a master at establishing boundaries.

“When a Tinder date sits down beside me I align my eardrum like an eavesdropping satellite. Then I draw out my expressions like I’m giving their date the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment in my mind. I start typing when they get quiet, but it’s always the same thing over and over again: All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”

It’s this mastery of non-verbal communication that allows Chial to get his work done.

“I’ve got a secret weapon to manage all manner of personal space invaders.”

He has a sack full of airline liquor bottles to pour into his coffee for whenever an alcoholics anonymous one on one sets up beside him.

Chial keeps attractive women away by staring at the door like a lost deer, theatrically double then triple-taking as people walk in.

“I like to slide on a pair of sunglasses like I’m hiding my eyeline, leave them on the tip of my nose, and wait until the moment we make eye contact. Then I push them up and mouth breath heavily. Do this enough times and you’ll have the bar to yourself. Oh, and keep a DSLR camera on the counter.  I don’t know why, but that also works.”

Chial even has a tactic for dealing with other creeps.

“The hardest bubble-burster to deal with is another writer. They’re already in their own little world, only vaguely aware of the lunacy in their periphery. That’s why I bust out my restless legs and play my swivel seat like a percussion instrument. From the footrest to the the counter I am a blur. It took a while to hone this skill. The first few times it felt like I was running a marathon, but now I never skip a leg day. I practice with a double kickdrum peddle at home. Whenever a fellow writer makes the mistake of entering my domain I just cue up my headphones and tap out some Norwegian death metal.”

You may have noticed that Chial’s revolutionary boundary defining methods are catching on. A fleet of creeps have spread throughout the nation’s coffee houses, utilizing Chial’s self-care techniques. So the next to you see someone in shades, panting like a dog in heat as you make your order, give them their space. They’ve got writing to do.

Continue reading Personal Space Win! Local Author Alienates Everyone Around Him