Here are four short-short stories, my version of “flash fiction”. Ethereal, odd, evocative. Literary and auditory Rorschach tests. Give them a listen…and then tell me what you see.
Submitted for your approval, as my old pal Rod Serling would say:
An idea will occur to me and all at once I’ll see the story with such perfect clarity that writing it down is a mere formality, almost a matter of taking dictation. “Daughter” was like that. “Also Starring”. “RSVP”. A couple of others. Not many. It doesn’t happen nearly often enough for my liking but when it does, I’m almost sickeningly grateful. Practically grovelling.
Because usually it’s the opposite. A tale like “In Dreams. Awake” for instance, was a monster. You can read it by clicking on the Stories tab (above) and if you do, it’s almost certain you’ll ask yourself: “What’s he going on about?” The story in question is not some post-modernist mind-bender, the kind of dense, inscrutable, erudite text beloved by college professors and potheads; nope, it’s a relatively straightforward narrative, with few bells and whistles. My problem was that I hated the tone of the story, the narrator seemed so cold and remote. I did draft after draft of that sonofabitch, trying to make the protagonist more sympathetic and likable. But the story resisted me, my Muse digging in her heels, insisting I put aside my misgivings and follow orders. Finally, I had to give in and the story is what it is. A fine tale but I have a hard time even looking at it because that rotten bastard was so difficult, each word, each syllable a struggle.
But that was nothing compared to what happened this summer.
I’ve told you a little about it. I spotted the Esquire fiction contest–they provide the titles, participants write the stories–and, as a writing exercise, I wrote on each of the themes they posted. And I described my astonishment when the stories turned out to be linked, sharing the same central character. Believe me when I assure you that I had no intention of writing four stories based around this Conrad Dahl fella.
And I certainly had no idea this quartet would take up my entire summer. That wasn’t the plan. I was supposed to be working on revisions of my next novel. But something happened on the way to that place, my Muse making it clear that these stories were to be given top priority and finished at all costs.
They cost me a lot all right.
None of them was easy. Not one. And writing these pieces seemed to awaken something in me–or perhaps unleash it is a better word. The process of writing left me emotionally, physically and spiritually exhausted, like nothing I’ve experienced since completing my novel So Dark the Night.
I’ve talked about emotional truths re: my radio play “The First Room”. All the facts are made up but the mood, the feeling of the piece is accurate.
I think that’s what happened here. Conrad Dahl is not me. Not in any way, shape or form. None of the events depicted in the stories involving the Dahl character have any relation to real life incidents and my family is/was nothing like this. But…the feeling…the atmosphere…
Something put the whammy into me.
And now I’m passing it on to you. How kind of me, hmm?
I think you’ll quickly discover what I’m talking about.
The four stories below are decidedly mainstream, no vestiges of genre fiction…yet there are aspects here that are as horrifying and intense as anything springing from the pens of the thriller writers who love to keep us all on edge. Sometimes you might be tempted to avert your eyes, cluck your tongue in disapproval. Don’t.
Read on. Explore and discover this character as he grows and develops, follow him from the ages of 9-20 and see how the closing pages of the last story are almost inevitable, directly attributable to the events that have preceded it.
I present the tales in chronological order for those who prefer the linear approach but, really, they can be read independently of each other and should be viewed as stand alone stories.
Feel free to drop a comment below once you’ve read them and had a chance to think about Conrad and his decidedly dysfunctional family.
I welcome your feedback and thoughtful responses…
I know, it seems like I’ve had the moon on my mind since the beginning of the year. The whole 40th anniversary thingee really got to me for some reason. Made me ponder how much time has passed and (perhaps) how little time remains.
A busy, creative, exhausting summer and those 4 linked short stories grow ever nearer to completion. Stay tuned, I think this quartet of tales is going to make a definite impression on you.
But I decided to take this past weekend off, rest up, read a couple of books (both on Orson Welles, as it turned out) and build another plastic model.
And, sticking with the moon theme, the model I chose was the Heller Apollo 11 lunar lander. This is a none-too-detailed, cheapish reproduction of the fragile craft that took Neil and Buzz down to the surface of the moon…and back up again (to rendezvous with Michael Collins). Found it on eBay for a small stipend but it took me forever to set aside some time to put the bloody thing together. And I’ve got eight or ten other model kits in the basement, waiting their turn. Everything from an X-Wing fighter to a German zeppelin. Sheesh…
I set up on a table on our back deck–the weather for the past week has been perfect, clear and hot and not much in terms of a breeze. I got myself settled, arranged my parts and glue and paints and commenced work.
There were a few minor annoyances. First of all, none of the instructions were in English. Second, this model is quite small and that means small parts that resist and defy my clumsy, shaky fingers. I had…difficulties. Mainly with the struts. Oooo, those bleepin’ struts. I still break into a sweat when I think of them.
Sherron found me some terrific copper-tinted paint that went on thick, allowing me to apply a bit of texture, a convincing impression of the gold foil we see in pictures of the lander, a blaze of colour on the otherwise monotonously grey moon.
Finished the model and thought it needed a little diorama so I made one of some papier mache stuff Sherron had lying around. Spray-painted it while it was still wet, hoping to give a better illusion of the fine lunar regolith.
It’s not perfect but it ain’t half bad.
Have a look…and then sit down and tell me story about a model you built as a kid, a memory you treasure (or rue) to this day.
C’mon, don’t be shy…
Well, it seemed unsporting to allude to my short story “Also Starring” (see my last post) and then not add what is, arguably, one of my best known and most popular stories to the blog. This one leads off my Reality Machine collection and sets the tone for what comes next.
“Also Starring” made it into a number of very decent anthologies, including The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror (tip of the hat to editor Ellen Datlow for choosing a story that, like so much of my stuff, defies easy classification).
I love movies and especially love movies that feature an outstanding supporting cast. Over the years I’ve become something of a cinema buff and I’ve come to really appreciate the work of character actors like Strother Martin, Ronny Cox, Peter Lorre, Joseph Cotten, Victor McLaglen, John C. Reilly, Harry Carey and thespians of that ilk. Familiar faces you can never quite put a name to, actors whose consummate skill and professionalism render them all but invisible.
This is my homage to them.
Click here for your free PDF download of “AlsoStarring“
What? More free reading for you? Why not? It’s summertime, kick back, take it easy. And here’s a mind-blowing little gem, a short story from my Reality Machine collection that I think, in all honesty, is one of the ten best I’ve ever written.
“New World Man” owes its origins to some time I spent with…I guess you’d call him a street kid. I met him at a record store/head shop after we moved back to Saskatchewan (from Baffin Island) in the mid-90’s. Hung out with “Kyle” (not his name), met his extended family, seven or eight young people sharing a grotty one-room apartment, sleeping bags spread out on the floor like nests, music constantly playing. Kyle was a Rancid freak and tried to convert me–didn’t take, pal, sorry. He introduced me to someone who morphed into the “Marvin” character and gave me a peek at a sub-culture, a way of viewing the world that was invaluable to the writing of the story.
But “New World Man” also reflects my growing misgivings as I watch the increasing prevalence and attraction of video games; we’re on the cusp of functional virtual reality, full immersion in an invented, interactive environment. What will that do to relationships, the role of family and friends, regular social intercourse with strangers on the street, at the market? More on this subject in a future post…
A German editor selected “New World Man” for an anthology of the 20 All Time Best Science Fiction Stories (Goldmann Publishing); he told me with some glee that my tale bumped one by Ike Asimov from the book. My name even made the cover, along with Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. Wow. The story also appeared, I should add, in the Canadian science fiction magazine On Spec.
If you really love this tale, you’ll find it in my book The Reality Machine, which is available through my virtual “Book Store” (above)–you can also pick it up from Mark Ziesing Books, Amazon, abebooks.com, etc. Originally published in 1997, it contains some of my favorite short pieces, including “Also Starring”, “While You Were Away” and “RSVP”.
Now get reading:
Click here for a free download of my short story “NewWorldMan“
My Muse has taken charge of my summer and is refusing to relinquish it. Writing a couple of stories for the Esquire fiction contest was supposed to be a warm-up, something to limber up the ol’ wrists and get the synapses firing. I wrote the first story and the second one occurred to me and a third…and all of them featured a recurring character, this Conrad Dahl fella, at various ages, from 13-19. I’ve pondered and batted around the idea of writing (at some point) a linked series of stories but had made no specific plans, didn’t even have an outline committed to paper. Now here I am with three stories–“Twenty-Ten”, “An Insurrection” and “Never, Ever Say That To Me Again”–written for that fucking contest. One (“Twenty-Ten”) is complete and was submitted with about four hours to spare before the deadline and the other two need at least a week of polishing and I’m bouncing around the notion for a fourth Conrad Dahl story that would (he hopes) complete the cycle. Which means at least another 2 or three weeks and pretty much the rest of my summer devoted to short fiction.
What about that novel I was supposed to be revising? What about the filming and recording I had planned, to sample and explore some of the features of this amazing, stunning, paradigm-shifting new iMac (I’m still enamored, can you tell)?
And do you think I can seize back the initiative, demand that my Muse shitcan this story cycle, at least for now, and get back to the novel? Not bloody likely. It doesn’t work that way, my dears. I can’t program my inspiration, channel it with any degree of success. Not this lad. And I’m very single-minded, I can only focus on one project at a time; I’m not one of those agile bastards who can juggle any number of novels, article ideas, short stories, what have you. After I finish this blog entry it will take me the rest of the morning to regain a fiction-writing mindset. I’ll play lots of music, pace around my office, let every last vestige of this post evaporate away before I’ll be able to return to my regular work. Get my game face on again.
I have no idea why my Muse has determined that these short stories should be given precedence. I’m frustrated by this change of plan; I thought I had my summer all figured out. Matter of fact, this entire year to this point has been taken up with works that weren’t exactly at the top of my list of priorities. My “Innocent Moon” radio play took me wayyy too long to research and complete, eating up the early part of 2009. And then I worked on finishing the long version of “First Room” and a short story that will shortly appear on this blog called “Death Threats”. And now these linked tales.
So what happens if my Muse decides to try to try her hand at writing a ballet or a libretto to a fucking opera? There’s no way of getting around it: I’d have to give it a shot. I throw up my hands in frustration, I curse and shake my fist at the sky but in the end I must accede to the wishes of the one who defines me as an artist and person. I’m a control freak and the act of writing is the only time I let that go. That can be terrifying, enlivening, thrilling, daunting; like walking a high wire naked, with no safety net and only half the world watching, hoping you’ll fall. Addictive and sick-making. Adrenaline-charged and gut-churning. I often quote Robert Penn Warren, the act and process of writing the pain I can’t live without.
I’m guessing some of you out there know what I’m talking about.
We’ve sacrificed our backs, fingers, even our peace of mind. All for the sake of following our Muse wherever she takes us: never without complaint but, in the end, always obedient, wary of offending her fickle, unpredictable sensibilities.
The horrific, unspeakable risk such an attitude might entail…
Speaking of which, I’d better explain what I’m up to:
This year Esquire magazine is promoting a fiction contest where authors are invited to write stories based on three titles they (the editors) provide. You can visit their website for further details. I discovered the contest in May, printed up the info for later reference. Found the stuff again in late June, thought writing a story based on someone else’s title might be an interesting writing exercise. Wrote down the first title, “Twenty-Ten”, and went for it. Not necessarily thinking of submitting the finished work to the contest, just seeking to limber up my wrists before the real work of the summer began.
Well, I wrote one story and it turned out pretty darn good so the next day, suitably encouraged, I wrote a second and almost immediately a concept occurred to me for the third. So in the space of a few days I had three handwritten drafts. Tapped them into the iMac, opened one up, did a bit of fiddling…and now, three weeks later, here I am.
But I have a problem and I’ll bet you spotted it right away, didn’t you? You’re only supposed to submit one story and I’ve got three I’m quite taken with. I read all of them to my family the other night, hoping they’d immediately point out a winner but the verdict was mixed. They loved the stories, the characters, but each seemed to favor a different tale. Even I had changed my mind as to which one I preferred by the time I’d finished reading the last of them. Good grief. Well…I’ve got until the 31st (what is that, Friday?) to choose one story and edit it into tip-top shape. Because I will indeed be submitting something, despite my oft-repeated reluctance to enter writing competitions. For one thing, there’s no entry fee (mandatory). For another, Esquire, like the BBC, is a flagship, one of those names you’d dearly love, as a writer, to have on your resume. And one last consideration: I’ve written three bloody good tales, any of which is worthy for consideration.
My break’s over. Yesterday was fun: I sat around reading Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark (not one of his great ones, unfortunately), straightened up in the office, cleaned my area of the basement (we’ve been painting and installing a new ceiling light/fan in our kitchen so everything is a mess), listened to some alternative radio on the ‘net, trying to ease up and relax…but it’s time to get back at it. Grind, grind grind. Funny how hard you have to work on a story to make it read and flow naturally.
This tales have already taken up more of my summer than I’d intended–this started out as a simple writing exercise, remember? I still want to dive into edits of my next novel and here we are, approaching the end of July. Yike!
Time to finish up these tales and get back on track. It’s been an intriguing interlude but that novel beckons, miles to go before I sleep and all that.
That’s it for the update.
Hope you’re all having a fun summer. We’re finally getting some hot, sunny days, real Saskatchewan scorchers.
And, last but not least, it’s our 19th anniversary tomorrow.
Thanks, Sherron, for everything.
Forever and ever, doll…