Category: Dark fantasy/horror
“Becoming” (Personal Essay)
I’m grateful I was born into a pre-digital society. Give me the wonder-filled Space Age over the Information Era with its rapacious consumerism and surveillance capitalism any day. I am a true analog kid and, like most people of that television-raised generation, I was/am at least partially ADHD (or whatever the hell the correct acronym is these days). My concentration frequently wandering, needing something to focus on, even if it’s only a scatter of shiny dimes.
Luckily for me, I discovered books at a relatively early age and ended up happily addicted to the printed word, which soon became my primary source of entertainment, opening doorways to other realities, while simultaneously educating me on the fine points of being human.
Reading was an escape in more ways than one. My home life could be a trifle tumultuous at times, particularly if money was tight and dad had been drinking. The rows got awfully scary and rather than coming together as siblings and drawing comfort from each other, my sisters and I retreated to our separate corners and went into full self-preservation mode. Every child for themselves.
My identity was set early: dreamy, distant, possibly smart, but since I didn’t talk much, it was hard to tell. All the evidence you’d need to diagnose a troubled home life. Withdrawn or shy, whichever suits you. Those pictures of me at five, seven, nine. Pale skin and sunken, dark-rimmed eyes. I had trouble sleeping, anxious and fearful, bedeviled by nightmares, prone to bed-wetting. Displaying wary, watchful behavior, not just toward strangers but everyone.
A loner by temperament, not choice, existing independently of neighborhood kids, relying on my own resources. A vivid, far-reaching imagination, if I may say so, and that undoubtedly saved me. To all outward appearances I might have been thin and delicate as a sparrow but in my mind I was captain of a spaceship, first man on Mars, steely-eyed and fearless, undaunted by gruesome aliens and lurking danger.
Ray Bradbury is the first author I can recall having an impact on me. Ray was a dreamer too and could convincingly describe the topography of Mars, the peculiar customs of its denizens, while at the same time authentically portraying the hopes and dreams of two thirteen-year-old boys one magical summer when a traveling carnival came to town…
By the time computers and video games began to nibble at my awareness, I was already a devoted bibliophile, poring over whatever I could lay my hands on, even stuff I probably shouldn’t have been exposed to; I’d rather read than play outside with my friends. Libraries and bookstores were holy temples and nothing in the known universe could compete with that special feeling I got when I cracked open a book for the first time.
Thank you, God. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Being born in 1963 meant I was denied the pleasure of spending my formative years surrounded and inundated by social media, wedded to certain platforms, chained to some sort of personal device (laptop or cell phone), obsessed with my status, the way I present myself to far-flung “friends” and a host of complete strangers.
And as a result of my odd upbringing, I found that I had sort of dispensed with the need for affirmation or acceptance from others. That stood me in good stead whenever I interacted with my fellow homo sapiens; I wasn’t seeking their approval and, thus, was largely indifferent to their opinions of me, good or bad.
Upon reaching adolescence my personality developed an extra layer of protection: a wicked sense of humor. It was all those years of watching people, witnessing their many foibles, taking note of their effortless stupidity. When challenged or threatened, I now had a formidable weapon in my arsenal which I learned to use judiciously (otherwise, some troglodytic thug might’ve murdered me).
I had my first intimation of it when I was around eleven years old. It was during a sleepover at a friend’s place with four or five pals, probably a birthday party. It was long past midnight and we were all giddy, unable to sleep. I remembered a joke I heard my father tell, one of those traveling-salesman-stopping-overnight-at-a-farmhouse routines. Either we were all really, really hyper or I absolutely nailed the punchline (I’m guessing it’s the former), because I earned a huge, gratifying laugh and from then on blossomed into a regular smartass; not quite the class clown but definitely someone whose bent humor could provoke a reaction among his peers.
Childhood taught me grownups couldn’t be trusted and authority figures were either despots or dingbats. Is it any wonder that I gravitated toward comedians like Richard Pryor and Cheech & Chong…and, a bit later, with more long-lasting consequences, the genius of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”? For some people a healthy dose of the absurd isn’t something they’re born with but instilled by experience and circumstance.
You need something. A coping mechanism or self-defense strategy to keep the wolves at bay. A mask or a shield (or both).
As for career aspirations, I had come to realize that my two earliest ambitions—becoming a cowboy or an astronaut—were likely not in the realm of possibility. But…how about acting, directing or even (gulp) writing? Could I ever make a go at something like that?
Well, I guess I have my answer to that particular line of inquiry.
I had already intuited that I was physically and emotionally unsuited for most real world vocations (a summer employed in a huge factory, making and bagging bread and related products confirmed that), which is why I spent, yes, eight years working as a dishwasher in an upscale Regina restaurant. Making like my hero George Orwell, getting down in the trenches, slogging away at a low-wage, part time job with no benefits, surviving if not thriving.
I kept a stack of paper napkins on top of my Hobart (dishwashing machine) so that whenever an idea for a poem or short story struck me, I could snatch one up and scribble some notes as the steam rose around me, the air filled with delicious aromas from whatever was on the menu, a waiter snarking at the cook because an order was late and a customer was complaining…
Some of the best of my early tales originated in that kitchen.
And then, during that same time, after years of hoping and praying, I met someone who was perfect for me. Call it a miraculous confluence of planetary bodies, a rare alignment of stars with “Thus Spake Zarathustra” thundering in the background, two fates colliding.
Before her, I was lost, then I was found.
And, y’know what, that twisted sense of humor came in handy because this gal appreciated a good joke and her laugh could shatter a Pyrex glass. I could be as uncouth and crude as I wanted to be and she’d not only keep up, but do her best to top me.
Let’s give her a name: Sherron.
Sweet, kind, good-natured Sherron. That’s the impression she likes to give but it’s far from accurate. Warning: when you’re around us there are no allowances made for the timid or thin-skinned. There are bouts of jocular barbarity that would make yours ears melt. No, there’s no point asking, I won’t repeat a single word. There are reputations at stake. Discretion must be observed.
She’s the only one who never recoiled from me. Before we hooked up I dated, irregularly, but there was no magic, no great rapport, and sooner or later they got that look on their face: you’re weeeeiiiirrrrd.
Prior to meeting Sherron, I lived and breathed and ate and defecated and got high. And I wrote. I was always writing but it wasn’t good. Bad poetry and meandering, self-referential short stories. Tales of an uneventful life, with secondhand accounts of sordid episodes related to me by friends spliced in. I was always the observer, never an active participant, hiding in the wings, where the perspective was clearer.
But Sherron changed all that. I started writing stuff to entertain her, widening the scope of my work, stretching my meager talent to the breaking point. I became a better writer and a better human being. All because of her. Credit where it’s due.
Decades later, how much has changed?
I’m still bookish, tending toward reclusiveness, but I also share time and space with the finest, funniest human being I’ve ever known.
And we’ve managed to retain our goofiness, still love a good laugh and smart talk and the occasional debate, never missing an opportunity to startle, surprise or disgust our better halfs, reminding them never to take anything too seriously in this chaotic, irrational, messed up world.
Because we both know: it could all change tomorrow.
In our mid-fifties now and very much aware that from here on the path grows shorter, a steady decline that quickly gains momentum, since we’re on an increasingly steep downward slope. We find ourselves being herded toward an inevitable future, fixed and unavoidable. Our legs growing tired, breath short, and, meanwhile, up ahead something huge looms into view, bearing down on us, becoming clearer and more defined with every passing day.
I’d like to tell you what it is, but, frankly, I hate spoilers.
Let’s just say there are no guarantees of happy endings or a better and brighter hereafter, but there will be a cessation of pain and worries.
In that respect, could whatever happens be all that bad?
“Death is not extinguishing the light, it is putting out the lamp because dawn has come.”
“Life is the crummiest book I ever read.”
Bad Religion, “Stranger Than Fiction”
30 Years of Black Dog Press
ELECTRIC CASTLES is in the house!
ELECTRIC CASTLES (promo flier)
“Electric Castles”—Cover Art
A peek at the cover of my next release through Black Dog Press, ELECTRIC CASTLES: A BOOK OF URBAN LEGENDS.
Chris Kent performed his usual design magic and special thanks to Gabriele Marras, who supplied the original photo.
My odd little imprint has always focussed on releasing the best and most beautiful books, but this cover surpasses anything we’ve come up with before. As you can probably tell, we’re mighty pleased with it.
The proof has been printed and is already winging its way toward my mailbox and the ePub and Kindle versions should be available later today.
Place your order with me if you’d like an autographed copy, otherwise buy ELECTRIC CASTLES at your favorite independent bookstore.
Support indie publishers and booksellers!
ELECTRIC CASTLES: The Road to Publication
Final edits and proofing completed, my short story collection Electric Castles: A Book of Urban Legends is currently being prepped for publication.
Once the manuscript was corrected and perfected to my satisfaction—three months overdue but that’s par for the course—I immediately logged in to my Upwork account and posted a job listing for someone to handle the interior design and formatting for the book.
It’s always a tricky process working with someone outside my creative bubble but because of the complexities associated with using Lightning Source as a printing service, interior/text layout is not a job for amateurs and bumblers. The Lightning Source templates are very unforgiving and inflexible and the slightest glitch will get your formatted file tossed from the system. And there you are, back at the drawing board.
I’ve always had good fortune with Upwork: you post a job description and graphic designers from around the world bid on it. I tend to use people who have a lot of experience, especially with Lightning Source/Ingram Sparks. Communication is essential so folks must be very fluent in English (not too mention tolerant of my perfectionism).
Electric Castles is the 14th book to be released through my Black Dog Press imprint and other than my first book (So Dark the Night), I’ve always had someone else handle the formatting of the interior text. We tried it ourselves with So Dark and the experience was so miserable and difficult, I swore I’d never do it again.
Once again our old pal Chris Kent will be handling the cover design. I found the perfect image purely by accident and secured the rights from the artist in question, a London-based chap, Gabriele Marras.
I’ll be “leaking” a sneak peek at the cover in a couple of weeks and you’ll understand why I’m so pleased to have stumbled across Gabriele’s work.
I know I can count on Chris to deliver another beautiful looking book—he hasn’t failed us yet.
As I made my last pass through the manuscript, scrupulously checking every last comma, I couldn’t help thinking it’s a good thing I publish my own work and therefore not beholden to anyone else or subject to their taste.
The stories in this collection are amazingly diverse, veering from crime fiction to dark fantasy to mainstream literary. How that would go over with an outside editor/publisher, I don’t know. The only thing these tales have in common is that each features an urban setting of one kind or another. That’s it.
There’s always a dialogue between my inner publisher and inner author and sometimes the exchanges can get mighty ugly. I mean, Jesus, my last three books were: a volume of poetry (The Algebra of Inequality), a non-fiction book of satirical tirades against the minions of political correctness (Mouth: Rants & Routines) and, now, a collection of short stories.
All pretty much guaranteed to sell poorly, none of them featuring the kind of crowd-pleasing tripe the vast majority of readers seem to prefer.
My inner publisher wonders why I don’t come up with something more commercial and the author inside me tartly insists that the point is to release good work, not popular fluff. The publisher’s response to that point of view is too vitriolic to reproduce here.
I don’t tend to write cheery tales with happy endings. I don’t utilize common tropes or adhere to accepted formulas. Not my bag. There are plenty of other writers out there who are only too delighted to play that game and I leave you to them.
I feel more at home in the dark…a familiarity I assure you I’ve earned.
I get a bit, ah, strange when I’ve reached this phase in the publishing process: a book in the pipeline, a few weeks from publication. I exhibit symptoms of agoraphobia, part of me believing if I venture too far from home something untoward might happen to me and I’ll never live to see the book in question published. It’s a hard feeling to shake; I fully recognize this mindset is not rational or defensible, but it is, nonetheless, persuasive and insidious.
So you’ll pardon me if I reluctantly decline your dinner invitation, offering a rain check with no date filled in.
I’m this close to releasing a brand, new book.
It’s a heady time for me and nothing will distract me from getting it into my readers’ hands.
Back to work…
Coming soon from Black Dog Press
A post that is looooonng overdue.
But, as I’ve said before, if I’m not blogging I’m undoubtedly at work on some project that is utterly consuming me.
In this case, it’s actually three projects.
I should explain.
Last year I was supposed to release a collection of short stories with urban settings called Electric Castles. But that one sort of got over-taken and set aside when I wrote and released an e-book of topical and controversial non-fiction material titled Mouth: Rants and Routines.
I’ve gone back to work on editing the stories in Electric Castles...but I’ve also been assembling a collection of new poetry as well as making additions to Notebook, a compilation of thoughts, reflections and meditations I’ve been gathering for nearly ten years.
The order of publication is: Electric Castles in June-July, 2020, Notebook in 2021 and the poetry collection in 2022 (I have a tentative title for that one, just not willing to share it yet).
Putting the finishing touches on Electric Castles has been time consuming and intense (my approach to editing obsessive and exhausting), especially the last tale in the book, a 50-page, 12,000+ word novelette. Still pondering a cover and hoping to nail that down soon. A couple of possibilities, including some of my own visual efforts.
* * * *
I realized recently that it’s now been a decade since I rebooted my Black Dog Press imprint. It sort of went into hiatus after the release of The Reality Machine in 1997. PS Publishing (U.K.) published my book Righteous Blood in 2002 and I retained some hope that finally I would be able to find presses out there that would provide a venue for my writing.
That turned out to be wishful thinking and by 2008, I’d had enough. I wrote up a venomous press release and sent it out to a couple of writing forums, announcing I was tired of playing the game, submitting work and waiting sometimes YEARS for editors/publishers to grace me with a response. Fuck that and fuck them. Basta!
Shortly thereafter, I started this blog and began posting big chunks of material, short stories and novel excerpts that thousands of people read and downloaded.
But I still wanted print versions of my books and that meant familiarizing myself with POD (print on demand) technology (and terminology) and in 2010, I published my first Black Dog Press offering in 13 years, my occult thriller So Dark the Night.
I was back, with a vengeance. Since then, I’ve produced a dozen titles, doing my best to satisfy my small but vocal cadre of readers.
The indie world is the place for me and I have permanently (I think) set aside any notion of commercial success or mainstream acceptance.
I hope those of you who are familiar with my oeuvre will continue to support this eccentric venture of mine and that new readers will drop in and discover an author who defies expectations and subverts preconceptions, creating wholly original and provocative titles for those who love challenging, literate books, short stories or poetry.
Welcome to Black Dog Press.
Pull up a chair, make yourself at home.
There’s a lot to see here and we’ve got all the time in the world.
Tribute to a Classic Monster
Skull Island wasn’t the same without him. The indigenous inhabitants, denied their traditional object of veneration and sacrifice, disintegrated into sects and internecine squabbling, nearly eradicating themselves. Survivors fell victim to the missionaries who inevitably follow in the wake of white explorers, displacing pagan idols, substituting ones more to their liking.
Robbed of its apex predator, the jungle lost coherence and structure, descending into chaos. And then came invasive species, animals and plants foreign to the closed ecosystem, devastating the pristine wilderness.
It wasn’t long before a consortium of Far Eastern financiers and venture capitalists bought the beachfront and lagoon for the equivalent of some beads and hand mirrors, evicting the natives, erecting exclusive vacation resorts catering to jet-setting millionaires and trust fund slackers.
Gift shops featuring statuettes, t-shirts and keepsakes commemorating the Island’s most famous denizen did brisk business, affluent tourists sporting colorful gear celebrating a fearsome creature once dubbed “the Eighth Wonder of the World”.
Descendants of the original islanders toiled in service industry roles, existing precariously, pining for the days when their god still lived and breathed, uprooting trees, bellowing his defiance, exacting regular tribute for the privilege of viewing divinity in the flesh.
You want “audible” books, try mine
Audible Books seems to be doing all right these days, adding a few more pennies to the vast coffers of Amazon.
Feeling a bit chagrined for patronizing a site owned by one of the mega-companies that are gradually taking over the world? Reluctant to add to Jeff Bezos’ ballooning net worth?
Well, allow me to offer an alternative.
I have recorded a substantial amount of my body of work and posted it either on here on my blog or over at my Bandcamp page.
I charge absolutely nothing for these recordings, even though I devote a lot of time, energy and creativity putting them together. There’s accompanying music, sound effects…and the short stories and novel excerpts I feature are a good bit more original, entertaining and literate than many, if not most, of the offerings you’ll find with my corporate counterpart. That I guarantee.
A word to the wise, however: my recorded prose may well be a gateway drug to the rest of my oeuvre. Once you get drawn in, you may find it impossible to stop, unable to resist immersing yourself in my dark, demented visions. Allow me to indulge in a maniacal chuckle as I imagine you downloading an MP3 of a tale like “Daughter” or “Walt Disney in Hell”, with no idea of what you’re getting yourself into, the rabbit hole you’ve tumbled down.
My writing will definitely liven up a long car trip, I’ll tell you that.
Try some of it on for size, see if it fits.
What do you have to lose?
Except a few preconceptions and maybe one or two nights of sleep.
August, 2017: Update & Coming Attractions
You knew I had to be up to something and you were right.
A month between posts? C’mon, you know me better than that.
This summer has been my most productive, writing-wise, in several years. It’s like the taps were turned on again and I’ve been writing with all my focus and concentration, feeling the juices flowing again.
Two, count ’em, two long stories since June, quite a few poems, a short prose piece that’s one of the best things I’ve written in quite awhile…
And everything registering strongly on the aesthetic Richter Scale—nothing slight or inconsequential. Intelligent, literate efforts, not pandering to any school or taste.
I haven’t lost a fucking step.
Oh, and I’ve started work on a new novel. Well, not quite a new novel—I’m completely overhauling a 250-page manuscript I originally conceived around 2002. If I had to guess, I’d say I’m looking at 12-15 months worth of revisions, so you shouldn’t expect to see that one in print until, ballparking it, mid-2019. No teasers, except that it references a classic Victorian thriller and will be darker and more horror-related than some of my recent work.
But fear not, impatient readers, I shall be releasing not one but two full-length efforts in 2018: first, The Algebra of Inequality and Other Poems, a selection of verse culled from the past five years. The title is nicked from a line in a Don Barthelme short story that caught my eye. Ol’ Don had some zingers.
I know poetry is a hard sell to some folks but I believe it gives me the opportunity to address profound philosophical and spiritual and existential questions in the most spare, personal, unforgiving literary format. Poetry permits no artistic missteps—it really is like walking a tightrope.
And there will be (drumroll please) a new short story collection next year, Electric Castles: A Book of Urban Legends. Original tales, all centered around everything magical and terrifying about cities, near and far, real and imagined. Killer stories, spanning just about every genre, guaranteed to amaze, disturb and warp your puny perceptions and sensibilities. Consensual reality? What the hell is that?
Both books will feature, as per the custom here at Black Dog Press, gorgeous cover art and will be professionally formatted and bound. There will be an e-book version of Electric Castles, still mulling it over re: the poetry. Poetry is so unique and personal and analog…does it really belong on a tablet or phone screen?
Lots of writing and revisions in the months ahead, some highs and lows, good days and days when, as they say, “the bear gets you”. All part of the creative process: painful and terrifying, but also exhilarating and inspiring. No doubt you’ll be reading something of my triumphs and travails here…and I hope it will serve to remind you that the writing life is not easy and requires a great deal of courage and fortitude. Perseverance and sheer guts get you a lot further in any profession than mere talent. Surely you know that by now.
Some mornings I can’t imagine facing that page again.
And yet I do.
That’s the difference between an author and a poser.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: for real writers, girls and boys, every fucking month is “National Novel Writing Month”.
You heard it here…
Photos by Sherron Burns