Regular visitors to this blog know that these days I rarely submit my work to outside publications (why should I when I can publish anything I want either here or through my imprint Black Dog Press?).
But this year I came up with a tale that was so good, I really wanted to see it featured in a respected magazine, one boasting a literate readership. So, in March, with some trepidation, I submitted “Restitution” to two of Canada’s premiere literary publications, The Malahat Review and Descant.
TMR got back to me last month with a form rejection slip upon which some arsehole editor had scrawled “Cool concept, try us again!”. You wanna know why CanLit sucks, look no further. The vast majority of editors in this country belong in a fucking head injury ward. And then yesterday, after almost nine months, I hear from Descant magazine. It was the proverbial good news/bad news scenario: my story had successfully navigated the vetting process but, unfortunately, Descant is closing its doors after its next issue (Winter, 2014).
Okay, that does it. Rather than wait around another year to see this fine tale in print, I’m posting it here and over on my Scribd page. To hell with it. “Restitution” is the best story from 0-2000 words you’re going to read this year. You don’t believe me? Fine, have a look for yourself. Afterward, I’ll be waiting around for your fulsome apologies:
He pushes through the door of his apartment, then shuts it against the world. Bypassing the kitchen, he goes into the living room where he lowers himself into a chair, sighing as he slips into its warm, pillowy embrace. Slowly, his sluggish movements betraying his exhaustion, he bends down, pops the snaps on his ankles and removes his aching feet. Lies back in the chair, closes his eyes, willing himself into a state of enforced lethargy. His left shoulder twitches spasmodically, a reaction to the day’s rigorous exertions. He reaches up, unlatches the shoulder from its socket, lets the arm drop to the floor. He then divests himself of his legs, checking the hinged knees for signs of wear and tear before settling back in the chair. But then he feels a thrill of pain in his lower back so he reaches behind him, depresses two switches and squirms out of his pelvic cavity. His head is throbbing, so with one practiced tug that goes too. But the respite is short-lived because then the phone rings—so he has to use his remaining arm to stick his head back on and reach for the receiver. Charlotte, it’s always Charlotte, asking to see him, pleading with him, threatening him, wailing at him until finally he gets sick of listening to her and hangs up. In the time it takes her to re-dial, he peels off his ears and plucks out his tongue.
© Copyright, 1990 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
* This story originally appeared in my 1990 short story collection Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination
What can I tell you? This one’s a stunner. I love it to pieces. A marriage of two great loves, history and sky fy.
10,000 words and guaranteed to be one of the best SF tales you read this year. How do I know that? Well, if you’re like me, you read damn few SF stories so, honestly, I don’t think the competition is all that fierce.
Here’s the pitch:
“Eyes in the Sky” features an intriguing “What if…” scenario, a captivating vision of a possible past:
What if the atom bomb hadn’t worked and the Space Age was a bust?
What if Cold War adversaries employed less traditional tactics in their efforts to keep tabs on their intractable enemies?
What if history’s dark, turbulent course had veered off in a different direction?
“Eyes in the Sky” is accompanied by original cover art by John Enright. John is a talented artist I found through the “Epilogue” site but the link I’ve provided will take you directly to his gallery.
The excerpt (about fifteen pages), will give you an excellent preview of the novelette and if you’d like to read more, it will shortly be posted, in its entirety, on Amazon (along with an Afterword I’ve written on the story’s origins and influences). I’ll add a link as soon as it’s available. Or, if you’re willing to wait awhile, “Eyes in the Sky” will be included in my upcoming short story collection, Exceptions & Deceptions (due out December, 2012).
I’m hoping the folks at Amazon will allow me to list the novelette at 99 cents—a bargain price for a terrific read. Cheaper than a lot of dumb, useless apps.
Meanwhile, click on the link below for the excerpt.
Hope you enjoy this sample from “Eyes in the Sky”.
Couldn’t get into serious writing yesterday–still catching up on research on my western novel, The Last Hunt, and I’m not yet at the point where I can begin to tackle necessary revisions.
My science fiction story needs one final polish/run through before I send it off. I’ll likely get that done today.
Decided to create a little something with Garageband. The first effort wasn’t very good but the second tune had promise (as soundtrack music for the creepiest film ever made maybe) and then came the third number…
Well. I didn’t really set out to create a spoken word bit, but that’s how it came out. I was poking around my notebook and came across a series of phrases that, if you put them together, would almost make a kind of narrative…
I plugged in the microphone and gave it a shot. The very first vocal track was perfect and then I started building and shaping music around it.
The end result is “The Midnight Detective”, a 2 1/2 minute effort that plays around with noirish conceits and comes together for a rather tasty finale.
This piece should work on whatever audio player your computer employs (if it’s fairly new) and, of course, you’re free to download it and share it with pals and like-minded folks who might get a charge out of my whacked out, postmodern detective.
You’ll find more of my musical noodling and spoken word efforts on my Audio page.
Click here to listen to Midnight Detective
* This post is dedicated to Caroline Ames–Happy Birthday, kid.
Some gals we met through a local “Open Mike” event invited my family and I to pop out to their high school and participate in a public reading.
We love to show our support for stuff like that and were delighted to accept. The only problem is, I needed something new to read. And over the course of a couple of days, a notion for a short tale presented itself to me, pretty much full-blown. A few touch-ups here and there but nothing serious. It’s wondrous when that happens. All the proof I need that the universe is conscious, sentient and permanently beyond human ken.
The story’s short, vivid, to the point. Read on…
“Bagshaw,” my father says suddenly. He’s been silent nearly an hour and his voice gives me a start.
“What was that, Dad?”
“Who I was talking about.” Shooting me a stern look. “The little queer.” I don’t remember any reference to Bagshaw but, never mind; clearly he’s been off on some kind of mental ramble. “Worked at head office with me. A swish, and not ashamed to flaunt it either.” He pauses to get his breath. His lips are dry and grey. Everything in the process of shutting down. Propped up to help him breathe, Demerol to handle the pain. He’s making a sound, wheezing, could it be…laughter? “Lord, how I tormented that man.”
“What did you do?”
His face is still drawn but animated by something that looks suspiciously like a smirk. “I’d put thumbtacks and pins on his chair. Not every day, spacing it out so he’d always be caught off guard. I was down the hall but I could hear him squeal. Served him right.” I’m leaning forward, fists clenched. Make myself ease back in the chair, force open my furious hands. He angles his head toward me. His eyes sunken, lusterless. Dark holes in his face. “Other things too. I’d send him flowers, have them delivered right to his office. With a card, Love, Charlie or whatever.”
“You’re kidding.” I can’t help it, blurting it out.
“Sure.” His thin smile confirming it.
I haven’t seen this side of him before; I’ve often found him thoughtless but never believed him capable of out-and-out malice. “You hated him that much?”
“He made me sick. And I wasn’t the only one. But I was the sneakiest.” A sly wink. “I’d call him, late at night.”
“Never from home. Sometimes from other cities. He’d change his number, get an unlisted one…” His face crinkling with mirth. “Didn’t matter. I worked with the guy. In Human Resources, no less. Jesus. I knew where the bodies were buried and how to find them. That’s why I lasted so long.” He gestures for the water glass and I automatically move to comply. Holding it for him while he sips through a straw. One final indignity he must endure.
“What would you say,” I ask, once he’s done. “When you called him.”
“Sometimes nothing. Just letting him know I was still out there. Other times I’d be all…uh…y’know…you queer, you dirty, little faggot…you’ll get what’s coming to you. Just spooking him.” I back away, fumbling behind me for the chair. Then I realize I still have the glass and must rise once more, replacing it on the nightstand beside the bed. Finding it difficult to approach him again, this stranger I’ve known all my life.
“What was his first name?”
“What? I don’t recall. He only lasted a year.”
“Couldn’t take it, I guess.” There’s no remorse, that’s the thing. He’s talking about running over a dog in the street, thirty years after the fact.
“And then you left him alone? Or—”
“Hell, no.” Frowning at his foolish son. “That might look suspicious, give him ideas. I kept at it six more months. Just to be safe…” He’s fading again, ebbing away. “Old Bagshaw.” Almost a whisper. “You know, the bastard actually lisped?”
My father is sixty-four years old and staunchly conservative. A self-made man. In our house, he was the one who held the reins and cracked the whip. Stern but fair, I guess you could say. My sister sees it differently; she believes mom worked and worried herself to death, trying to please him.
I should tell him. Right now. Go over and spit it right into his face. Just to see his reaction. God. Wouldn’t that be something? I’m dying to tell him, I’m about to tell him…but at that moment his mouth sort of sags open and my dying father begins to snore.
© Copyright, 2011 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
Each episode was six or eight minutes long—it was really just filler so you never knew what time it would run. Anywhere from 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning until the “Star Trek” theme music cut in at 10:00 sharp. It’s possible the show was produced out of the nearest TV station, which was in Yorkton, about seventy miles away (the only channel that came in clear). “Robot Boy” had that really home made look, the production values pretty shabby. But I didn’t care. I was an avid fan. Hated it when I missed an episode, just about inconsolable for the rest of the weekend. Yeah, even then I was a bit of a diva.
The premise was stupefyingly simple: Robot Boy (really just a cheap, windup toy) is insatiably curious and one day wanders away from the safety of the toy box to seek adventure in the great, wide world. But unfortunately he soon gets lost and embroiled in various unfamiliar situations, trying to logically decipher what’s happening with his tiny robot brain. Some of the conclusions he reaches are hilarious, way off the mark. He’s totally naive when it comes to things that go on in real life.
There are shots of Robot Boy shuffling slowly down the sidewalk, going about 50 feet an hour, gigantic human shoes stepping over him, nearly knocking him into the gutter, legs moving past in the background, everyone oblivious to the lost little robot creeping through their midst.
My favorite episodes, the two I have the clearest memories of: Robot Boy is menaced by a ferocious dog…but interprets its behavior as a warning and thanks it profusely while the dog strains to reach the tin figure, just an inch or two out of reach. And there’s the episode where Robot Boy gets accidentally locked in a supermarket overnight and wanders up and down the aisles, admiring all the “exhibits” in the “museum”.
I Googled “Robot Boy” and found a few bloggers who reference the show. There’s even a loose association of people who post on forums, swapping old news and rumors. The main problem is there were only ten or twelve episodes of “Robot Boy” that were ever aired and no copies in any form seem to exist. Which gives even more weight to my conjecture that the show was locally produced. Maybe at one time it was even shot on videotape. But those tapes are long gone or erased and reused. There are still photos, grainy, not entirely convincing, their provenance unclear. Forum members are divided, the rhetoric sometimes heated. People are touchy when it comes to nostalgia. Some have gone to all the effort of building scale models of Robot Boy, their attention to detail bordering on the obsessive.
I made mine out of cardboard boxes I found in the garage. I was seven years old and the ugly duckling of the family…but when I slipped inside my cardboard costume I became Robot Boy. My other life forgotten, my human existence shed like an itchy, constricting skin suit, too tight in the crotch. The boxes smelled of apples and old newspapers. I hung my arms out holes I cut in the sides. Hands instead of pincers and an aluminum pie plate taped to the front, the dial sketched in with black marker.
I kept it in the basement, away from prying eyes. In a cubbyhole by the furnace, where my sisters would never look. My alter ego and guardian angel. Big and blocky and comforting. Made of indestructible metal. Powered by atomic cells. An obedient, loyal friend, willing to endure anything for me, even long hours in the dark. I loved him and he loved me. We understood each other. And when “Robot Boy” was canceled, I grieved and felt a genuine sense of loss and betrayal. I went down and I kicked the hell out out those boxes, kicked them to pieces. They never showed re-runs and I wouldn’t have watched them anyway. Robot Boy was dead to me. That part of my life was over…
This is blog posting #150 and, well, I wanted to make it something special.
I trust you enjoyed this trip down memory lane.
Feel free to share your thoughts, on “Robot Boy” or other relevant matters. Here’s hoping for a great year ahead in 2011 for one and all.
I’ve been working, what else?
Plowing my way through Of the Night, polishing a bit here, snipping a word or two there, prepping the manuscript to send off to the printer by the first week of October. Which means I’ll have achieved my goal and published two books this year. I thought it was important to do something, well, special to mark my 25th anniversary as a pro writer and getting my two “Ilium” novels out to readers and fans in the same calendar year seemed like just the thing to do. It’s been crazy hectic, frustrating and maddening…but it looks like we’re going to manage it.
Of the Night is a far shorter novel than So Dark the Night—I like to call So Dark my “A” movie and Of the Night my “B” picture. One is a bigger, bolder project, the other smaller and more modest. But I love ’em both and you will too. We’ll be using Adrian Donoghue’s cover art for Of the Night and Chris Kent (as far as I know) will be designing the look of the book once again. We’ll have it out in time for Christmas and the novel will likely retail in the $10-11 region. There will be further progress reports so keep checking in periodically for more details.
Wild summer here in Saskatchewan, the weather verging on freaky. Rain, rain, rain. We have an old house and a basement with a stone foundation so I’ve had a fan running constantly downstairs because of the damp seeping in from outside, the surrounding soil saturated. I have several hundred books down there, my boys have a TV and their XBox set up so they can have their own little space. Must work to keep the area habitable, no killer mould growing in the walls, etc. The lousy weather has made it abundantly clear the roof tiles and eaves need replacing, the trees trimming back (again); yikes, when I think about the pending expense, it makes me wanna cry.
Ah, well, we’ll get by. Somehow. We always do. Just when I think we’re going under, some respite arrives in the nick of time. But there are some periods, nerve-stretching intervals, when things look pretty bleak and occasionally I am brought face-to-face with the very real risks and terrors that accompany life as a full-time independent writer and publisher. I’m 46…is life ever going to get easier, will there be some kind of reward waiting at the end of the rainbow? Or just a tarnished piss pot?
“Theirs not to reason why…” and all that. Thanks, Alfie, but all those guys died, as I recall.
Hasn’t been much time to kick back and indulge in my other passions: films and reading. Watched a few cool flicks like Samuel Fuller’s “Shock Corridor” and “Pickup on South Street”, two Herzog efforts (“Grizzly Man” and “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”) and Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket” but not too many more. And I haven’t yet gotten around to reviewing those few movies I have watched for my film blog. Sigh.
As for reading, I’ve just finished Michael Palin’s Diaries (1969-79) and I’ve completed almost all of Denton Welch’s books, marveling at what a magnificent writer he was (no wonder William Burroughs revered him). Presently absorbed by Charles Simic’s The Monster Loves His Labyrinth, which is composed of entries from his writer’s notebook(s). Wonderful, wonderful stuff. If you haven’t read any Simic, rush out and find some.
Lots of music playing while I work—some ambient stations I found on ITunes, as well as albums like The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s “Who Killed Sergeant Pepper”, the definitive Joy Division compilation, “Heart & Soul”; old favorites like Interpol and Elbow and Black Rebel Motorcycle are always on hand to get me revved up. Soundtracks (“The Thin Red Line” and “The Fountain”) to give me mood music to write to.
That’s enough for now. I have to get back to, y’know, editing. Of the Night awaits my full attention.
In the meantime, why not take a few minutes to browse through this site, check out some of the stories, essays, excerpts, spoken word and music I’ve posted here over the past 3+ years? All of it FREE to read and download. Honest. No strings attached.
C’mon, whaddaya say? You wanna hang out for awhile?
Great, make yourself at home.
If you need me, I’ll be upstairs, first door on the left…
My, my, how time flies.
It seems like only yesterday we were having the book launch but I see that a significant amount of time has passed since then, the summer well in progress…and I’m overdue for an update.
You know how it is, when this blog goes silent, that means I’m working. So deeply immersed in a project, I’m thinking of nothing else. Including food, water and most of the other basic necessities of life.
I’ve been feeling in a rut, writing-wise, which sometimes inspires me to bend my brain in other directions. I know very little about visual art, theory or practice, but every so often I like to pick up a paintbrush, find an old slab of board and have at it. This time around, my medium of choice was collage. I keep files of visual images and dozens of issues of old magazines lying around just in case I get it into my head to try something like this. Collage is a cumulative process; I moved the images here and there, tried them against different backdrops…but the key for me came when I decided to incorporate small blocks of text, usually relating to economic theory (the most savage form of social Darwinism imaginable).
It struck me as I was going through the literally hundreds of images I’ve collected over the past X amount of years, that I am an astonishingly morbid person. I mean, Jesus, click on the image (above), you should get a larger sized version. Would you trust someone who saves pictures like this to babysit your kids or date your daughter?
This is some sick, sick shit.
But as I was piecing everything together, as it all started to fall into place, I realized that what I was creating was a depiction of humanity run amok, the awful, indescribable damage we, as a species, have inflicted with our ideologies, our stupidity and greed. Depressing, yes; sick-making? Undoubtedly. But is this vision inaccurate, flawed or misleading? Well, like any creative endeavor, it’s up to each individual to decide for themselves.
The end result of that little experiment pleased me to some extent but I didn’t feel like I was quite done with cutting things up. My eyes happened on a pile of books I’ve snagged from various thrift shops and library book sales over the years. I decided I wanted to create an homage to one of my literary heroes, William Burroughs. I’m sure you know all about the “cut-up method” that was developed by Burroughs and his mentor, Brion Gysin. Take any number of literary texts, carve them up, piece them together and marvel at the wonderful word collisions and strange juxtapositions that are created.
My project started out as a noble venture but, as with most activities that involve me creatively, my Muse took over and things quickly got out my control.
I used scissors to pare out sections of a 1960 thriller called Operation Terror! I then snipped out various portions of the other books I had lying around: an anthology of detective fiction that included Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, a forgotten novel by Ngaio Marsh, etc. etc. Found a heavy sheet of black cardboard, set up on our basement workbench and proceeded to play with the various passages I’d selected.
At one point I realized I was probably defeating the purpose of the whole intention of “cut ups”, that my method was too conscious and controlling but by then it was too late. I was caught up in creating an all new narrative, trying to come up with a satisfactory climax–
Once I’d arranged the text into a coherent storyline, I decided I wasn’t done: I would then write a story based on the outline I’d created using the borrowed snippets. A completely original work utilizing pre-existing text. And I’d frame it as a teleplay for a long-forgotten TV series…
I repeat: Good Lord.
But there’s no use trying to talk sense to my Muse: she simply won’t be reasoned with. Once she gets an idea into her head, I am powerless to resist her.
So at the conclusion of this article you’ll find a link to the PDF version of my weird, whacky “mashup”. It’s an homage to Mistah Burroughs in the form of a script from a 1950’s crime drama that never was. Go figger.
I make no apologies for this story and predict it might annoy a significant proportion of readers. But fans of Burroughs and Gysin might be more inclined to give grudging approval to the thought behind this bizarre creation. They would see it, quite rightly, as a labour of love and even if they found fault with its execution, they’d think kindly of me for at least making the attempt.
Click on the link directly below for a free download of my story:
A couple of things to cover this time around:
The proof copy of So Dark the Night arrived and we’ll get pictures up soon. It’s a beautiful book—the folks at Lightning Source have done a brilliant job and we couldn’t be happier with the finished volume. Unfortunately, there were a few minor glitches: for one thing, we forgot to add the cover price (yeesh! what dopes!) and there were a couple of formatting mistakes inside that needed tweaking. So we sent in a revised set of cover and text files and that should be it.
In the meantime, the proof sits on my desk, just as pretty as you please. At least five or six times a day I walk over, pick it up and ogle it, turning it over and over in my hands.
So…unless there are any unforeseen problems, we should be going into production in the next ten days and I’ll begin taking orders for So Dark the Night at that time. Or you can buy my book through Lightning Source (and eventually Amazon and wherever else I can get it)
Watch this space.
This one has two main sources of inspiration:
The first was Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant” (terrific creepy film and the perfect evocation of Roland Topor’s short novel) and the second…well. We’ve all seen the stories on the news, an obscene act of violence perpetrated by someone who is clearly delusional. Our initial, knee jerk response to gruesome incidents like the killing on the Greyhound bus is to wash our hands of the assailant, throw away the key, put him out of his misery, etc. etc. But, of course, as a writer my curiosity is piqued when I try to divine the thinking of such an individual: what in God’s name would cause them to act out in such an extreme and horrific manner?
And so I wrote “Bedevilled”.
I have to say, now that the novel’s done and at the printer, I find I have some extra time to do things like journaling and writing short stories and I’m enjoying myself immensely. “Bedevilled” challenged me and I think the end result is a solid short story. I’ve played around with the formatting on this one, tried to make it more readable and eye-friendly (in PDF form). Let me know what you think, dear Readers, especially you folks using devices like the iPad, Kindle, etc. Do you like the fatter margins, find the spacing agreeable?
Let’s kick off the summer reading season with a tale of psychological suspense, shall we?
Click on the link below and…enjoy!
The first one is a kook. Total whack job.
Rings the doorbell and right away starts babbling about ley lines and planetary convergences, everything explained by this crude chart he holds up for perusal. And all the while keeping his eyes cast down because he’s afraid of being “blinded by immanence” or something like that. It’s hard to make out what he’s saying because he’s weeping, practically vibrating from a combination of fear and excitement. The guy won’t be talked down or dissuaded. Eventually, he just wanders off, pausing every once in awhile to shout and point at the house. Weird.
But the word must be out because another one shows up the next day, an old man who won’t approach the door. Content to stand at the end of the walk, bracing himself on a cane when the arthritis in his hip gets too bad. He’s there until dark. And then he’s gone.
More arrive daily, most content to be bystanders, others bolder. There are all kinds of places on the internet. Conspiracy theorists and cultists and people who believe the apocalypse is due a week from Thursday.
A particularly awkward moment when a woman thrusts out an infant, screaming: “Heal him! Don’t let him die!” Closing the door but she won’t stop screaming. Rushing out to calm her, reason with her. And the whole time it’s “my baby, my baby”, the neighbors looking on with frank disapproval.
It gets worse. A steady stream of people arriving, knocking at all hours. The congestion creating a parking and traffic nightmare. It’s a quiet neighborhood and residents start to complain.
The police and authorities are, predictably, completely unhelpful. Initially dubious, suspecting some kind of publicity stunt. They check around, find the sites in question. Someone alerts the media, which means more unwanted attention, phone calls, requests for interviews. The situation only exacerbated when the Pope becomes involved, issuing a statement denouncing superstition and idolatry.
Uniformed officers are stationed around the clock, an attempt to keep the growing throng under control. Weapons have been seized, along with extremist literature and bizarre religious tracts. The situation quickly deteriorating.
Late one night, someone breaks through the cordon. Presses his face to the door, whimpering: “Libera me, Domine” and, as he is being dragged away, howling: “Miserere mei, Deus!”
Living like a prisoner now, never able to venture outside or peer from a window. And day and night, 24/7, serenaded by a continual soundtrack of prayers and hymns. Someone even sets up a loudspeaker and plays amplified recordings of rabbits being slaughtered and children crying—o, pity the suffering children.
Unplug the telephone, turn off the lights, sit in the dark. They’ll weary of this eventually, go back to their homes. Give them nothing to encourage their simple credulity.
Alone and besieged. Resigned and dangerously bored. Reorganizing the cupboards and bookshelves, performing a thousand small chores. Playing endless games of solitaire and, naturally, winning every single time.
© Copyright, 2010 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)