“Local Hero”

I’m thrilled to announce that my (tad longer than) flash story “Local Hero” is now live in Dream of Shadows Issue 2! The big Epic Fantasy war against the Dark Lord is over, and in the Black Land, the Orcs are living under occupation by their conquerors. But even a beaten people have their heroes and legends.

Read: “Local Hero” in Dream of Shadows, Issue 2

Author’s Notes

“Anthropologists will tell you that oral cultures understand the past differently; for them, their histories don’t need to be accurate so much as they need to validate the community’s understanding of itself.”

— Ted Chiang, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”

When I was re-reading The Lord of the Rings with my daughter, I noticed an unexpectedly poignant scene in The Two Towers between two Orcs, Gorbag and Shagrat, sharing their dreams for once the war is over.

“I’d like to try somewhere where there’s none of ’em [Nazgûl, Shelob]. But the war’s on now, and when that’s over things may be easier. … But anyway, if it does go well, there should be a lot more room What d’you say? — if we get a chance, you and me’ll slip off and set up somewhere on our own with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there’s good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses.”

“Ah!” said Shagrat. “Like old times.”

… “But don’t forget: the enemies don’t love us any more than they love Him, and if they get topsides on Him, we’re done too.”

Orcs with hopes and dreams? Imagine that! And I did.

The victors aren’t the only ones to write history. When the defeated survive, so do their stories, and where pride of identity is strong, those stories combine to form a counter-history, heretical to the dominant culture, cherished by the subordinated one.

“Local Hero” is about the myths that a defeated people tell about themselves, to themselves, to justify their own existence in the new world order. It’s about coping with one’s identity, when that identity has been vilified by history. It’s about the legend of the Orcish Captain America, and how even a mythological figure can inspire real action.

For better or worse.

EDIT: I wrote this story as I was reading news about monuments and symbols of the American Confederacy–about efforts of some to pull them down, and the efforts of others to preserve them. I have no sympathies with the desire to revise and romanticize the rebellion to preserve slavery. But I am struck by a culture’s impulse to rewrite its history to be a source of pride instead of shame. Then, this story was published right as the U.S. rose up to protest systemic racism after a policeman killed George Floyd. That put a different contextual focus: police brutality and righteous uprising. “Local Hero” is emphatically not meant as a metaphor for either situation. It imagines the future of Gorbag and Shagrat’s people after the War of the Ring is lost (from their perspective), and echoes of our history and current events are the vibrations of the real world that influence how we look at all stories.

Last Christmas by Doctor Manhattan

“Last Christmas” by Doctor Manhattan, who does not perceive time linearly, but all at once.

 

“Where are you, Jon? When are you?”

 

It is December 15, 1984. I hear George Michael on the radio.

 

It is December 26, 2018. You are giving my heart away.

 

It is December 26, 1983. I am trying to console George Michael, whose heart I have given away. I tell him I understand. This is as yet a lie.

 

It is December 25, 2018. I am giving you my heart.

 

It is December 24, 2019. I am listening to a song George Michael wrote, understanding.

 

It is December 25, 2019. I am giving my heart to someone special.

 

It is June 14, 1983. I tell George Michael to stop calling me and write a song.

GOP Talking Points For President Trump’s Fifth Avenue Massacre

I’ve lost count of the number of times I read an article on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and thought, “that’s amazing, I wish I’d written that!” Dare to dream. Friends and gentlefolk, I HAVE A BYLINE IN McSWEENEY’S!

“GOP Talking Points For President Trump’s Fifth Avenue Massacre” comes on the heels of the leaked GOP talking points on President Trump’s call with Ukraine’s President Zelensky. There’s certainly a pattern to this Administration’s response to accusation of corruption and crime. At this point, I’m not sure if it’s satire or prophecy.

Time will tell.

“The Old Ones, Great and Small”

UPDATE: “The Old Ones, Great and Small” can now be read, for free, at Diabolical Plots!

With great pride and pleasure, I can now announce that my story “The Old Ones, Great and Small” is now available in the Diabolical Plots Year Five collection! It will also be available to read for free on the Diabolical Plots website in March 2020.

Charles Payseur wrote a lovely QuickSip Review in his long-running short fiction review column!

Tara Grimravn also wrote a lovely review for Tangent!

Jeff Xilon had kind things to say in his Short Fiction Roundup!

Author’s Notes

Writing this story started, as is so common with a fledgling SFF writer, with being inspired by H.P. Lovecraft. Maybe it’s a burning desire to use “squamous,” “cyclopean,” or “non-Euclidean geometry” in a sentence. Maybe it’s a desire to describe the indescribable. Maybe it’s a need to respond to the xenophobia and gynophobia underpinning Lovecraft’s stories. Or maybe it’s curiosity about why and how those stories endure and continue to spawn a thousand young.

I’m not immune. To me, the horror of H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones is the Fear of the Other to the ultimate degree. Not only are his horrors shadowy and inscrutable, they are so alien as to defy understanding; the sane human mind is incapable of comprehending them. Merely knowing of them, of their scale and cosmic indifference, moves us far from the center and threatens our sense of significance. How existentially angsty!

So, what if we beat them? What if humanity did what it always does in the face of an imminent, adversarial threat: girded ourselves, developed weapons and defenses, and subdued or annihilated our foe? “The Old Ones, Great and Small” takes place in the after-times. Humanity has gone into the shadows and dragged what lurked there out into the light. We’ve caged them, studied them, and even forced them to perform for us. Now, once we’ve gotten past our fear, how do we see the Ultimate Other? Is it much different from how we’ve evolved on all the other Others we feared?

I read that the original concept pitch for the movie Jurassic World described a scene where a bored teenager takes a selfie with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I love that notion. I’ll never forget the sense of wonder from the original movie, when they first see the Brachiosaurus stand on it’s hind legs to reach a treetop. But years later… Ho hum. Kids these days, right?

Of course the protagonist of my story would be an old man. Not the sort to take selfies. A brooder, a park bench philosopher. And in a short story, I didn’t have to make a Lovecraftian Jurassic Park in three acts, complete with escaping, rampaging monsters (as fun as that could be) and a cautionary message. The story could focus on a smaller, quieter concern. Like where the sense of terror (and wonder) had gone–and whether it could ever be rediscovered.

“L’Appel du Vide”

L’Appel du Vide,” French for “the call of the void,” is a psychological phenomenon where a person standing at a precipice has a sudden notion of stepping out into the abyss. It’s not a suicidal urge. It’s a reflex of the imagination in the face of a thin line between possibilities. To be free is to be able to choose, even between life and death. There’s the rational choice–the sane choice, and… the other one. But what if?

Sometimes we don’t make a choice because we don’t see the choice. We’re stuck in a rut, and tethered down by the rational justifications for staying in that rut. But sometimes, circumstances force us to the brink of other possibilities. There’s a terror in that. And a thrill. It’s the feeling of being truly alive.

This is a story about hovering at the edge of possibilities. Please enjoy “L’Appel du Vide” at Metaphorosis, either with the other stories in issue 39 as a $3 ebook, or free on the site, on March 22 2019.

Floating above the earth

I wrote this story after leaving a rut that had become unbearable, without having a “next thing” in hand. It was a scary, frustrating, and guilt-ridden time. But it was also an astounding experience of personal agency, having blocks of time that I could devote to things that I chose, for no other reason than I was interested. It couldn’t last, of course. And it didn’t. But… what if?

(Side note: This is the second of my published stories, after “Matchstick Reveries,” which features someone rising up into the air. The third, after “Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?“, if you count people gazing up into the sky. Not sure what that’s about.)

I’d like to thank editor B. Morris Allen for his patient persistence helping me get this story up to par for his wonderful magazine.

“Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?”

Every time I looked at Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” I noticed something new. The detail is incredible. The imagery is gleefully bizarre. It’s utterly bonkers, and I love it. So I couldn’t pass up writing a story in that world when I saw the call for submissions for the Honey & Sulfur anthology.

This one’s a love story. (Then again, aren’t they all?) But it’s a love story set in Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell, which has its own set of unique challenges. Most importantly, you have to watch out for those Birds.

Please enjoy “Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?” in the Honey & Sulfur anthology, available at Amazon.

For inspiration, I stared at the painting even more, zooming in on the details. There’s a magnificent online tour of the triptych, with a haunting ambient soundtrack as you move from scene to scene. There are hundreds of stories hidden in the three panels. Once you get past the most obvious and famous ones, you start to notice the quieter, less salient parts, and when you’re looking with an eye for narrative, they become full of mystery. In the middle of Hell, for example, amidst the demons and torture, there’s a dark courtyard by a garden wall. There’s an open gateway arch in that wall, and through it pours a golden radiance. The pale figures in the courtyard stand just at the edge of the light, afraid, yet drawn to it. What else could such a light be in Hell, but a promise of salvation? And why would sinners cluster in the shadows if not out of fear that they were perhaps unworthy? Clearly this was a Hell that had emotional drama, not just the dull routine of bizarre torments–for on the scale of eternity, any torment becomes a dull routine. Drama in eternal torment required some kind of hope, and the ability to exercise agency on behalf of that hope. That meant that Hell had rules of its own, even if they were only there to prolong the suffering. What were they?

Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear - Courtyard

When writing this story, I had just quit a job that was a sort of Hell for me, and I didn’t have anything to immediately replace it. The best I could hope for was to find just another flavor of Hell. But in between, I took some time to write, to think, to regain my strength. This liminal space between Hells was wonderful, even joyful. But I knew it couldn’t last. Anxiety circled, ready to swoop. It started eating away at that joy. I needed to find a way to hold on to that joy, to insulate and nurture it from the grind of the obligations to which I needed to return. There must be a way to endure what was demanded, while in my heart of hearts living in my hidden sanctuary of joy. There must be a way.

At that point, the story wrote itself.

 

“Matchstick Reveries”

It is with great pleasure that I can now announce the publication of my third-ever short story sale, “Matchstick Reveries,” in issue 5 of the online magazine Truancy! Please read the story over at Truancy, and the come back here for some behind-the-scenes notes, if you’re curious.

Click here to read “Matchstick Reveries” in Truancy issue 5.

(The story, as originally posted in Truancy, omitted some paragraphs due to a publishing SNAFU. The editor has restored the full text.)

Truancy_5_cover

As with a lot of my stories, it started as a joke. The title I’d given it was “Marvel Comics Presents: The Little Match Girl” and it was a mash-up between X-Men comics and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” It had mutant psychics, a freezing little girl, and a cosmic force of fiery death and resurrection. It got some yuks from my Facebook friends, which is usually as far as these ideas go. But something about it stuck in my craw. There was a reason I took that troubling little H.C.A. tale in a different direction. I kept fiddling with it.

Matchstick Reveries - Phoenix 2

The Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Little Match Girl” horrified me as a child, a horror that only deepened as I revisited it over the years, in its various incarnations. It wasn’t just that a young child, cold, alone, and overlooked, lights match after match on a winter street, has visions of simple comforts she can never have, and then freezes to death on a street corner. It was also that the narration beatifies this senseless result of societal negligence. The dead little girl is better off now, in heaven, because nothing could save or comfort her in the temporal world. Maybe Andersen meant to stir societal shame through pity, but it looked like nihilism in my eyes. Then I heard of an African proverb that brought the theme into focus: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” So yes, I wanted to write a story where the Little Match Girl takes them all down with her, and instead of her world ending in ice, she sets her world on fire. That was the ending I needed to make peace with Hans Christian Andersen.

I entered a version of the story in PodCastle‘s flash fiction competition, but the feedback was that it was too brutal, too unjust. That was, of course, the point, but the 1,000-word limit didn’t allow me to dig deeper into the moral framework I imagined for the story. And in truth, the story still leaned too heavily into the X-Men Dark Phoenix joke to stand on its own and have something to say.

So I did some research, and went off on different tangents. I learned that selling matches was, historically, used as a thin cover for begging in the streets. I read about the different incarnations of safety matches through the years, and how they were called “Lucifers.” I had a “her parents were French Revolutionaries stirring up trouble across the Channel” angle that I soon scrapped. I read about the Great Fire of London (inconveniently 200 years before the setting of this story), and how the original monument was supposed to have–no joke!–a phoenix on the top. And the suicides, from jumping off the monument and getting impaled on the iron fence posts below? That was historical too. And yes, children froze to death in the streets, and were carted away to paupers’ graves, and the Church tried to put it all into a context of divine meaning.

So Jeanne, this version of The Little Match Girl, is the eventual and inevitable reckoning that comes when the village doesn’t take care of its own. When the phoenix immolates, something new will always rise from the ashes. It’s brutal, terrible, but it sets the stage for a second chance. How will we do the next go-round?

 

The Evolution of the Content Engine (Case Study: Cat Pictures)

  1. Cat pictures” returns a list of popular web pages featuring the words “cat” and “pictures.
  2. Cat pictures” returns a list of cat pictures from websites like the ones you frequent.
  3. Cat pictures” returns pictures auto-curated to your taste in cats, including ones you’ve taken.
  4. Cat pictures” generates pictures of customized cats based on others you’ve clicked in the past.
  5. Cat pictures” generates interactive cat simulations tailored to your tastes.
  6. Cat pictures” 3-D prints photorealistic models of your favorite simulated cats.
  7. Cat pictures” 3-D prints interactive models of simulated cats to suit your detected mood.
  8. Cat pictures” 3-D prints biological cats to your specifications, with tutorials for their care.
  9. Cat pictures” grants 3 wishes for cats, excluding wishes for more cat wishes.
  10. Cat pictures” grants unlimited wishes for cats.

We See You When You’re Sleeping

Imagine your family tucked warm in their beds on Christmas Eve. The lights on the tree twinkle, cookies and milk wait on the table, and white snowflakes sparkle in the silent night. No last-minute shopping, no fighting crowds at the mall. Your family awakens to the perfect gifts under the tree. And the cookies and milk? Gone, with a note saying “Thank you!”

Relive the childhood wonder of Christmas with Amazon’s North Pole®. North Pole uses the latest Artificial Intelligence (and a touch of elfin magic) through the Echo® devices already in your home. Enable North Pole on all your devices and start an Amazon Christmas List™. Add items through the web, the app, or by speaking to Alexa®. North Pole scans your email, texts, social media, and conversations to suggest gifts your family will love. Your Echo Look® guarantees a perfect fit and style. The results may surprise you.

Set budgets for each family member, and enable Amazon’s always-on Checking It Twice™ (Beta) AI to compute their “naughty or nice” scores for the year, and adjust budgets accordingly. Keep your family on their best behavior with alerts from Santa. And when Christmas Eve finally arrives, Santa’s reindeer drones wait until you’re sleeping (Fitbit or compatible sleep monitor required), and use Amazon Key® to deliver your gifts right under the tree. This year, believe in Christmas again.

PLEASE NOTE: Amazon Krampus® is discontinued. If the Krampus enters your home, please alert our 24/7 customer service and your local authorities.

“Remember the Ifrit”

I sold my second story, and the thrill is just as strong as the first. The Cast of Wonders podcast called for Young Adult science fiction/fantasy stories that evoke a sense of wonder — in 500 words or less. And since this is a podcast, I got to hear my words read by a professional voice actor (and Hugo award-winning author), which is pretty cool.

This is a short one. I hope you enjoy “Remember the Ifrit.” (If you’re in a hurry, my story starts around the 6:00 mark on the audio.)

http://www.castofwonders.org/2017/04/episode-242-little-wonders-11-flash-fiction-contest-finalists/

Writer’s Endnotes

An image that stuck with me from childhood was from an episode of Cosmos, where Carl Sagan hypothesized what kind of life might exist in the atmosphere of a gas giant planet like Jupiter. (I’m pleased to see that the segment clip is up on YouTube.) It was only after I’d written the first draft of “Ifrit” that I realized I was stealing from Carl Sagan. Let’s call it a tribute, instead.

humpback_whale

When the family went on a whale-watching cruise off Whidbey Island in Washington State, I resolved to experience it with my daughter, directly, with no camera involved. But my resolve faltered when the Humpback we’d been following began speeding just under the water’s surface. I had gotten my phone out of my pocket and started taking a video when she breached out of the water and then fell with a tremendous SPLASH. I never got her in frame — I wanted to see it with my naked eye — but in the audio, one can hear the family shouting and whooping, and mine was the loudest voice on the boat. That cruise, and sharing the experience with my daughter, was the first thing I thought of when I began considering topics of a story with a “sense of wonder.”

My cousin-in-law did manage to take a perfect picture of the whale, so I got the direct experience and a memento. I think it’s interesting that it’s not the photo that best recalls that sense of wonder for me, but the audio. The picture represents what I saw; the audio captures how I felt. For the story, I felt that both the experience and its recollection were important, along with the curious modern impulse to interpose devices between ourselves and a wonder in hopes of being able to re-experience it at will. And, of course, the power of an experience shared was the most important of all.