Love, love, LOVE it.
No apologies, no sense of embarrassment and I refuse to hand in or forfeit my curmudgeonly credentials just because I leave a plate of cookies and glass of milk in front of the fireplace on the night of the 24th.
And let me remind you, there are two very good Christmas-related posts on this blog that are absolutely mandatory reading this time of year.
Happy holidays, everyone!
For not the first time (and certainly not the last), I find myself apologizing for the lengthy interval between blog posts.
But, as I’ve pointed out previously, when I’m deeply immersed in a project I don’t have the time or energy to blog—so when these long silences (inevitably) crop up, I think you can safely assume I’m up to something.
In this instance, two short stories have been devouring my waking hours. One, “The Grey Men”, is a mystery/suspense tale clocking in at 1900 words, and “Magic Man”, the one I’m just wrapping up, is 8700 words (33 pages) long.
Upon its completion “The Grey Men” struck me as more accessible and genre specific than my usual efforts, so I did something very out of character and actually submitted it to a magazine for consideration. Longtime readers know I swore off that practice ages ago and only rarely offer my short fiction to publications or writing competitions. Why bother with extended (interminable) response times and form rejections when I can just go ahead and release my work either here or over on Scribd? But, I dunno, “The Grey Men” is a solid, convincing story and maybe just this once a perceptive editor will see its merits and snap it up. I’ll let you know.
I tackled “Magic Man”, in all honesty, because I was feeling quite smug and confident after completing “The Grey Men”. I should have known better.
The first draft of “Magic Man” was written back in 1984. I kid you not. It was one of the tales that signalled a shift from narratives centred around myself, my own life experiences, to venturing out into unexplored waters, creating entirely fictional worlds and characters. For that reason, I’ve always had a rather fond view of “Magic Man”, never completely forgot about it. And so, as an exercise, I pulled the one, typed copy of “Magic Man” out of my archives and set to work.
It was torture. First of all, I had to tap in the story, 4-5000 words of it, and that was an excruciatingly slow process because I couldn’t help correcting and doing adjustments as I went along, which really was incredibly stupid and stretched the process out. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Just type the fucking thing in, Cliff, and then start editing. Nope. Finally, got the entire draft on computer…and that’s when it really got difficult.
Obviously, I’m a much better writer now than I was thirty-one years ago. That guy back in 1984, he was still basically a rookie, a kid learning the ropes. So “Magic Man” needed work, lots and lots and lots of work. At the same time, however, I wanted to show respect to the kid, the one I remembered slaving away on this story, really excited about it because he knew it was a step, more like a lurching, uncertain stumble, in a new and different direction. I wanted to recognize that effort, the courage it took to complete “Magic Man”, and so I was also determined to preserve as much of the spirit of the original as possible.
Finally, two weeks later, it’s almost done. Sherron is downstairs reading the copy of “Magic Man” I printed last night. I didn’t tell her (never do) what I’ve been up to so she’s in for a treat. She’ll remember this story very well: after all, it’s one of the first I ever dedicated to her.
If “The Grey Men” falls into the mystery/suspense category, “Magic Man” is a bit more problematic. There are elements of dark/urban fantasy, I suppose, but for the most part it’s a mainstream effort. Realistic setting and scenario. Which will likely make it next to impossible to sell or market the bloody thing. The extended length will factor against it as well. In the old days, I might have sent it to magazines like Cemetery Dance or Midnight Graffiti, but the latter no longer exists and the former has been closed to submissions for ages. I might release the tale as a Kindle “single”, sell it for 99 cents a download, but I’m not sure what that would achieve. I’m very happy with how “Magic Man” turned out and would like to see it presented to readers in an attractive, respected venue.
So let me throw it out there: anybody know of a decent-sized anthology or magazine willing to look at an 8700-word story featuring a “touch of strange”? If so, drop me a line at email@example.com.
400 blog posts? Can that possibly be right? Even with all the long gaps, the periods of time when I’ve completely ignored and shunned Beautiful Desolation?
Amazing. Inconceivable. I think that averages out to 40-45 blog posts a year or around one a week. Not bad for a full-time workaholic author.
Looking back over the years it’s interesting to note the changes in tone and content. I confess I was a very, very angry man when I first started posting on Beautiful Desolation eight-and-a-half years ago—check out a few of those early blog posts and you’ll see what I mean. I was fed up with money-hungry, corporate publishers and their idiotic editors, and the greedy literary agents colluding with them to destroy any chance of interesting, innovative authors getting into print. The publishing biz, especially after the big, multi-national takeovers in the 1980s (something else to thank Ronnie Raygun for), has systemically dummied down the marketplace to the extent that sub-literate, amateur purveyors of fan fiction have a better chance getting their work in book stores and sales racks than the next Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace. Disgusting, innit? My fury with that situation finally boiled over when a draft of my first novel, So Dark the Night, was rejected by an editor who kept me waiting over a year before delivering the bad news. I penned a very public “fuck off” letter to the industry, a portion of which which was reprinted in “GalleyCat“, an on-line site devoted (mainly) to the New York publishing scene. Folks who responded to my expletive-filled tirade warned me that I’d burned all my bridges and “would never work in this town again”.
But by that point I was beyond caring. I had recently discovered print-on-demand (POD) publishing and immediately recognized that printing had finally caught up with the times and authors now had a relatively inexpensive and efficient way of releasing their own work without involving editors and agents or gate-keepers of any kind. I had self-published my first book, Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination in 1990, but those were the bad, old days of offset printing and all the horrors associated with that. Print-on-demand simplified and streamlined the process…and it also didn’t encumber you with 500 or 1,000 copies of your book to store and inventory (with POD there are no minimum print runs).
Thanks to print-on-demand, my wee imprint, Black Dog Press, was reborn, rejuvenated…and I was a much happier camper.
And so the rants here came a lot less frequently—though topics like the amateurization of the arts and National Novel Writing Month always seem to spark more vitriol—and I settled down, embracing the independent (indie) writing world, feeling empowered and artistically fulfilled, knowing that my work was available to the reading public exactly the way I envisioned it. No middlemen, no interference.
Coming up on ten (10) books later, and I keep doing my thing, making no apologies, kickin’ against the pricks. Older, greyer, a little wiser, a “grand old man” (at 52) of self-publishing/indie writing. Still refusing to pay obeisance to fashions and trends, still refusing to whore my talent, writing what I want to write. Power to the people, motherfuckers!
I’ve got a catalog of excellent books and every single one of them is unique and original and highly literate.
After thirty years as a professional author, I’ve seen ’em come and go but, hey, here I am, still standing, still creating and publishing intelligent, highly crafted prose while many one-hit wonders and flashes-in-the-pan have slipped into obscurity or disappeared altogether. Where are they now?
I’m a “neglected” author, I’m a “cult” author, operating on the fringe, below the radar, working without the slightest desire for fame or monetary reward.
But the main thing is I’m working, staying relevant, productive, thematically and stylistically daring. Consumed by the act of creation.
It will be interesting to read blog post #500 in a couple years’ time.
I wonder how much will have changed, with my writing, the state of the world.
In either case, I can only hope (and pray) it’s for the better.
- Sherron finished “Magic Man” a few minutes after I completed this post and loved it. Just for the record…
Yesterday I was feeling completely listless and dull-witted. Couldn’t work up the energy to do much of anything.
Then I remembered a couple of photos Sherron sent me. Sometimes, in the morning light, our kitchen walls get these really cool shadows and patterns projected onto them; my visually-oriented wife noticed this pair and took some shots with her cell phone.
I called up the photos, placed them side-by-side on my computer screen, stared at them for about thirty seconds.
Then I grabbed my blue Hilroy exercise book…and started scribbling. No thought, no pre-planning, just went for it.
It’s an old trick…worked for the surrealists and, by God, it worked for me.
Here’s the story, accompanied by the images that inspired it:
* * * *
The Test Subject
ALL RIGHT, TERRY, YOU KNOW THE ROUTINE. WE NEED YOU TO TAKE US THROUGH WHAT YOU’RE EXPERIENCING AND DESCRIBE—
It’s hard…I don’t…there aren’t any…
COME ON, YOU HAVE TO DO BETTER THAN THAT. WE NEED SENSATIONS, COLORS. PAINT US A PICTURE.
(Laughter) You don’t…it isn’t like that. God, I wish I could explain, show you…but there’s no (indecipherable), no, ahhhh, common reference points.
ARE YOU DISORIENTED, DO YOU—
What? Did you say ‘distortion’? Everything’s distorted. It’s like…like…
…this kaleidoscope…constant movement…twisting and spiraling…
ARE YOU FEELING NAUSEOUS?
I feel—oh, Jesus! Jesus! Did you see that? It just…wow…this bolt of pure blue light…zipped right past me and it—I swear it smelled like cinnamon.
THAT’S WHAT WE WANT TO HEAR! YOU NEED TO DESCRIBE THE EFFECTS, HOW THIS THING MANIFESTS ITSELF. TERRY? TERRY, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?
I know. I see what you’re…but it’s really got on top of me and…and…it’s just too…and then everything just changes, like that! Did you see it? Like the whole universe suddenly switched polarities and—and flowed in the opposite direction. Whoa, trippy. And there’s something…I see something…
I dunno…a shape…presence…now it’s up there, by the ceiling, sort of floating…
POINT. SHOW US WHERE YOU MEAN.
There. It keeps shifting, flowing, like I said. I can’t quite…it blends in with these other blob things…they kind of swirl and mesh…yeah…swirl and mesh…mesh into a mess…
WHAT ELSE? DO YOU GET A SENSE OF ANY—
–someone turn up the heat? It’s freezing in here.
THE TEMPERATURE IS KEPT AT A CONSTANT 24 DEGREES CELSIUS.
I’m telling you—fuck! That time it zoomed right past me. This bright-colored blur…I could’ve reached out and—
TELL US WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE. GODDAMNIT, TERRY—
It’s made of light and…uhhh…wow! Oh, wow…there it is. Hovering, just in front of me. Holy shit, I think it’s looking at me—
EASY, TERRY, COME ON NOW. YOU’RE TRIPPING, REMEMBER? IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD. SO GET A GRIP—
It’s staring at me, man. Studying me. I’ve never…I’ve seen little green men before but…this thing knows…
KNOWS? WHAT DO YOU—
–knows I’m here and it’s curious too. Wondering who I am, what I’m doing. This is its backyard and I’m trespassing on…
–ONLY AN HALLUCINATION—
Bullshit! Bullshit! There’s something in here and it isn’t just the fucking drug. It sees me. It sees me and I want out. Get me out of this! Somebody! I need to–
Gimme the fucking antidote! I want to (indecipherable). This is fucked, this is totally—
AT THE REQUEST OF THE TEST SUBJECT WE ARE DISCONTINUING THE SESSION AND—
What the fuck are you? What do you want from me? Keep away from me—
IT’S OKAY, TERRY, WE’RE COMING IN. BOB AND ANGELA ARE RIGHT OUTSIDE AND THEY’LL—
Oh, Jesus, oh, Jesus– (Heavy breathing, panting)
It’s coming, it’s—ahhhhh…Christ, it’s got me…help me…it’s–(indecipherable).
(Shouts of alarm, a woman screams)
BOB? ANGIE? SECURITY! SECURITY! WE HAVE AN EMERGENCY SITUATION UP HERE AND WE NEED A COMPLETE LOCKDOWN, REPEAT—WHAT? WHO’S THAT? WHO’S THERE? IS SOMEONE OUT THERE? HELLO? HELLO?
An intimacy only death allows.
Forced into close alignment to conserve space.
A press of upturned faces.
Rows and rows, near a field of spring wheat.
Bright sunlight, a perfect cloudless day.
In defiance of this latest atrocity.
* * *
The Last Room
Is someone there?
Why don’t you come nearer?
Step into the light…
I can barely see you.
There’s so little time.
Please, show yourself.
I don’t want to be alone.
Take pity on my penitent soul.
* * *
—careening down a narrow path, bucking and weaving through the forest, in headlong flight.
“Hurry! It’s catching up with us!”
Realizing my mistake when the trees around us begin to glow, giving off a vivid, blue light.
The ground vibrating, feeling it through the floorboard beneath my feet.
“Oh, Christ! Oh, Jesus, help me—”
The light coruscating, fierce, accompanied by a blaze of heat, the exterior of our vehicle starting to blister and smoke…
* * *
Reporting as ordered, funneled in with the rest.
Hemmed and jostled, barely able to move.
Exhausted and compliant.
A clipped, officious voice from the loudspeaker, appealing for calm.
Distant shouting, the news spreading in visible ripples through our midst.
The gates are closing…
© Copyright, 2014 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
When I was around twelve years old, there was a program on CBC Television called “Pencil Box”. The show wasn’t very good (even for kids’ fare) but it did feature one interesting wrinkle: young viewers could send in a skit or playlet and, if it passed muster, a cast of “professional” actors would stage and perform it.
I watched an episode or two and, as has happened with many writers since time immemorial, decided I could write just as well as some of the material being selected. At the time, I was obsessed with World War II, immersed in William Shirer’s The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich, religiously watching episodes of “The World at War” (narrated by Laurence Olivier) every Sunday afternoon. I decided my piece was going to be an historical mystery and it didn’t take me long to come up with a concept. I scribbled out a draft in a couple of hours, sealed it in an envelope and sent that handwritten version to the show’s producers.
I wish I’d kept a copy.
And I would’ve loved to have seen the look on some poor, underpaid story editor’s face as he scanned the 3-4 page skit.
The plot involved a series of suspicious deaths that seemed connected in some way to a particular field somewhere in central Europe. The inexplicable and unsettling incidents baffle authorities, so they summon a master detective and this Holmes/Dupin type paces about, scrutinizing the ground until he is struck by a notion, does his research and sure enough—
He calls everyone together and announces his brilliant solution. Years before, after the defeat of the Nazis, the area had been used as a dump for some of the waste of war, including (wait for it), numerous canisters of Zyklon-B gas. The canisters were leaking, seaping up through the topsoil, and, voilá, it was those noxious vapors that were sickening and killing the local populace.
Everyone applauds the detective’s extraordinary powers of deductive reasoning, he takes his bows and…Fade Out.
My dramatized detective story wasn’t accepted.
My first submission and my first rejection.
But the note (typed on official “Pencil Box” stationery) was kind, encouraging to send more ideas and stories and perhaps, some day, one of them would make it on to the show. They also enclosed a free pin, which I’ve kept to this day.
And each time I’ve tried to explain that I after I finished So Dark the Night, I fully expected to write more accounts of my partners in crime…but it just didn’t happen. I could no longer hear Nightstalk’s voice and, after awhile, moved on (with regret) to other things.
But a few weeks ago, my old friend Evgeny Nightstalk dropped in for a visit. Not an extended stay, I could only pry a short story out of him, a case from their first months together, an affair (wouldn’t you know it), set around Christmas time. Maybe Nightstalk was cutting me some slack for his long absence.
Here’s the first part of “Finding Charlotte”…if you’d like to read the rest, click on the link and you’ll find the complete PDF. Free reading, I should add: read it, download it, share it with friends. And if “Finding Charlotte” strikes your fancy, have a look at So Dark the Night. It’s a grand adventure, my two supernatural detectives involved with all manner of Lovecraftian monstrosities and occult-oriented schemes. A fast-paced yarn, I think you’ll love it.
* * * * * * * *
Finding Charlotte (A Zinnea & Nightstalk Mystery)
Cassandra Zinnea called them “C.O.N.C.s”. Cases of no consequence. She could be snooty like that sometimes. I told her once, hey, even Sherlock Holmes realized they can’t all be Studies in Scarlet or whatever. When you get handed a lemon, y’know, make lemonade.
She didn’t buy it. She got bored pretty easily. Very Holmes-like that way. Only she had different diversions than a seven per cent solution of cocaine. It’s debatable if they were any healthier in the long run but, well, that’s a discussion for another time.
The affair involving the disappearance of Charlotte Bednarski didn’t have a promising beginning and you’ll have to decide for yourself if everything worked out for the best in the end. I’m not what you would call big on analysis. That’s my partner’s domain. Smart and gorgeous, the complete package. Miss Marple and a Victoria’s Secrets model all rolled into one. As kind and decent a human being as you’re likely to encounter this side of Heaven. And that’s why it was nearly killing her giving the Turnbulls the bad news.
“—so terribly sorry,” Cassandra said, standing in front of our shared desk, her voice quaking with emotion. “It’s official policy and I’m afraid there are no exceptions. We don’t handle missing persons cases or divorces. We’ve found they both involve too many…complications. You say you’ve already been to the police—”
Dennis Turnbull snorted. “Fat lot of good they were. Wouldn’t give us the time of day, would they, hon? What’s this world coming to?” He was chubby, forty-ish, some kind of nerd. Baby fat and large, soft features. Likely cried during sappy movies and was good about helping with the washing up. A “girly man”, as my buddy Arnold would say.
I was hearing warning bells. The cops in Ilium may not have been top drawer in many respects but they tended to ramp up their game when there were children involved. “How long did you say your kid’s been missing? Two days?” They nodded, tired and discouraged, leaning into each other. The wife seemed older, utilizing a full palette of makeup to disguise her true age. Offhand, I’d say she applied it with a trowel. But they were nice people, just addled, desperate. “You gave us the impression she was quite young…”
“Around nine, I would say,” Cheryl Turnbull confirmed, “but small for her age.”
That sounded funny but at that point Cassandra jumped in. “So this isn’t any ordinary runaway. She’s under-aged, alone out there…” She choked up. Mrs. Turnbull nodded, the two of them close to blubbering.
“That’s what we tried to tell the police,” she croaked, “but they wouldn’t listen.”
I could see my partner wavering and decided enough was enough. “Yeah, that’s, uh, definitely strange and if I were you I’d, uh, definitely go back there and get them to put out an A.P.B. on your daughter and—”
Dennis Turnbull was shaking his head. He tapped his wife’s leg and they rose together. “We’ve been humiliated enough, thank you very much. That Detective-Sergeant or whatever he said he was. Snowden…” I glanced at my partner. “You must know the man. He’s the one who told us to come down here. ‘The court of last resort’, he called you.”
“He’s an idiot,” Cassandra said.
“What she says,” I added.
The Turnbulls helped each other on with their coats. We could only stand there and watch.
“I have to correct you on one point, Mr. Nightstalk.” Dennis Turnbull tugged brown leather gloves over his thick fingers; it was a cold night, a week ’til Christmas, the wind off Lake Erie downright lethal. “Charlotte wasn’t our daughter. My wife and I are childless by choice.” She offered us a thin smile. Not entirely by choice, it seemed to say.
Now I was really confused. “So…she was a niece? A neighbor–”
“Oh, no, she lived with us.”
Cassandra and I exchanged befuddled looks. “Adopted?” she ventured.
“No, she was there when we moved in.” She saw our bafflement. “She came with the house.”
Nope, still didn’t get it. But Cassandra did, I could tell from her spreading smile. Suddenly the case had become much more interesting.
I blundered on. “She was living there? Like…squatting?”
“No, Nightstalk,” my partner corrected me. “She’s always lived there.”
The Turnbulls smiled at each other. “She’s the reason we bought the place,” Cheryl Turnbull confided. “The location is nice but the backyard is far too small for our tastes.”
“We both like to garden,” Dennis chimed in.
“But once Charlotte made herself known to us…we knew we couldn’t let it go.” They were standing by the door. “It’s been ten years now and we’ve never regretted it a moment.” They clasped hands. Forming a common front.
Cassandra’s demeanor had undergone a radical transformation; all at once she was in full hunt mode. “Now that we’re more fully apprised of the situation,” checking with me for confirmation, “I think we might be of service to you after all.”
“Just don’t call her a ghost,” Cheryl Turnbull pleaded, crossing toward us, holding out her hands, a big purse looped over her wrist. “That awful Snowden man kept saying that. I hate it. Ghosts are feeble and sad and pathetic. Charlotte is none of those things. She has a personality, a—a—”
“Easy now, dear,” her husband coaxed her, “we’re among friends here.” He regarded us hopefully as he patted her shoulder. “It’s nice to be with folks who don’t make you feel like you’re, y’know, coo coo.”
“We’ve lost friends, even our families won’t come to visit.” Cheryl Turnbull managed to look hurt and defiant. “Just because we set an extra place at the table or put on her favorite show when it’s time. What’s that to any of them?”
I could only manage a sickly grin so they focused their attention on my lovely colleague. She, in contrast, gave off waves of understanding and empathy.
“Come over here and have a seat. We’ll start again.” Signaling me. “My associate, Mr. Nightstalk, will take down the particulars. Give us a bit of background and talk about the day she went missing. All the details you can think of, no matter how inconsequential they might seem.” I found my steno pad and a pen. “Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of this…”
To read the complete story, click here: Finding Charlotte
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: