Because I Didn’t Go to Scares That Care, These Two Things Happened:

I had every intention of going to Scares That Care this past weekend and finally meet up with colleagues I hadn’t seen in two years or had only ever exchanged emails/contracts with, but things did not work out and I’m partly jealous to have missed out–particularly at Jonathan Janz, who apparently photographed every inch of that convention and has been posting them in social media (he’s a right bastard).  Anyhoo…

So, first thing:

As of now, I’m fully in Maybe and This-Is-Interesting-Maybe mode when it comes to the Lamplight submissions.  This means that, if you subbed between July 1st and July 15th, when the cut-off for the September issue was, you are in my This-Is-Interesting-Maybe pile.  You got past the first page with me, so I downloaded and will peruse more closely.

If you subbed before July 1st and haven’t heard from me–congrats!  You’re in the Maybe pile.  It’s kinda like the semi-finals.

What this means: I’ll be making decisions in the next week and a half.  The first will be the TIIM submissions.  I’ll winnow those down, then move on to the Maybes.

I’ll be honest, this is hard.  As hard as any other anthology.  The amount of submissions for this one issue–and only for four spots!–and the quality of the submissions is making this ridiculous.  Most editors–even us lowly guest editors–say this, but that doesn’t take away the truth.  Here are some quick numbers.  Based on the number of submissions, and the number of spots, my acceptance percentage is going to be less than half a percent.

So, submitters…

As for the second thing:

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This is Lucy Batgirl Anderson.  She’s a shelter dog, dumped six days ago and adopted by my family two days.  Going to the Humane Society–to check out another dog that, it turned out, really hates cats (and, well, we have two of those)–my daughter, the bug, started singing to Lucy through the kennel.  So, there’s that.

She’s already stolen my pillow and my side of the bed.

Cheers.

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Hey! Let’s Review Another Anthology (Michael Bailey & LIBRARY OF THE DEAD)

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Because I hate images without captions: This shot always makes me feel vaguely claustrophobic.

So, let’s get this right out front.  Actually, two things right out front:

  1. I’ve worked with Michael Bailey and Written Backwards twice before; the first time was when he published a story of mine called “In the Nothing-Space, I Am What You Made Me” (that sounds familiar) in Qualia Nous…a story that got me some attention from an agent.  So, hey, there’s that.  (Even if you’re not an agent, pick that book up; it’s fairly decent.)  He’s publishing another story of mine called “The Agonizing Guilt of Relief (Last Days of a Ready-Made Victim)” in Chiral Mad 3, which I think is coming in 2016.  He seems to like my long-titled ones.  I’m working on a new piece entitled “The Title of Your Life Will Resolve into Your Destiny When You Least Want It To”.  You figure out if I’m joking or not.
  2. I read this book, Library of the Dead (the book we’re talking about today; stay with me, here), in manuscript format, as a beta-reader.  Mike never asked me for a review.  I just felt like chiming in because being loud and having an opinion on things is, um, kinda my thing.

So, anyhoo,I read a lot of short fiction.  Like, dozens of dozens’ dozens.  To date, I’ve edited two magazines and two anthologies.  Writers are hungry.  And compulsive.  So…lots of submissions.

That means, when I’m not actually editing, I flit between books and magazines; read a story here, check a bio there, peruse an introduction.  That sort of thing.  In my To Be Read pile are no less than eight collections (Harlan Ellison, Dennis Etchison, etc) and anthologies (Truth or Dare, edited by Max Booth III, for example), all at varying amounts of completion.  This isn’t anything against those people or books, but when I metaphorically clock out of editing for the day, I tend to want novels.  Enough sucker-punches–as good and hard as they may be; gimme a brawl so I can appreciate those sucker-punches again.

Hmmm.  That was a little violent.  Whatever.

(Yes, those books will get read and books that are sent to me to review get read from beginning to end without jumping.  Anyway.)

However, when Michael Bailey was looking around for a beta-reader for the (then) upcoming Library of the Dead, I jumped at it without a thought.  Why?  Why give myself extra-work (beta-reading is work, anyway–if you’re good at it)?

Because Michael Bailey has consistently had the goods and I like seeing what he’s put together, whether I’m in the book or not.

Over the past few years, Bailey and his Written Backwards house has made a name with anthologies.  It’s actually been interesting to watch. The dude started out small, hitting the radar–small-y, at the time–with Chiral Mad and each thing afterward snowballed from there, growing bigger and bigger.

It was Chiral Mad that drove me to write something for Chiral Mad 2 (the story was well-liked, didn’t fit the straight horror of the antho, so Bailey slotted it into Qualia Nous and I’m so sure you wanted to know that).  With each anthology, both the book and Bailey received more attention, giving him the ability to do more and more things.  Case in point: each anthology keeps being nominated for more and more awards.  Gary Braunbeck won a Bram Stoker for his story in Chiral Mad 2, and two authors from Qualia Nous–awesome people Rena Mason and Usman T Malik–tied for the Stoker with their pieces (oh, and QN was nominated, too).

Now we have Library of the Dead.  Through the frame-story–written by Bailey–an unnamed narrator walks through the Chapel of the Chimes, a real place in Oakland, California.  Each story, then, are the “remains” the narrator plucks from the shelves (oh, yeah–the remains are held in book-shaped urns, which, if true, is delightful).  Death is on full-display in this anthology, but whether it occurs in the story, or if the story is a reaction to a death is left to the individual pieces.

With a theme like this, it can either go off the rails or work triumphantly, depending on the steel of the editor.  In this case, both the writers and Bailey work and, when a story doesn’t hold up, it’s within that piece.  That’s the nice thing about anthologies and magazines; unlike a novel, a single dud story doesn’t sink the ship, whereas if you hate a major character in a book, the book becomes a lesser thing.

When it works, you have pieces like Brian Keene and Mary SanGiovanni’s “The Last Things to Go” which has almost zero violence in it–in fact, the one death occurs long before the action of the story begins–but leaves you shaken nonetheless.  Actually, in all fairness, this was my favorite story–one I was telling my wife about that night.  Other pieces mix technology and urban legends–the late J.F. Gonzalez’s “I’m Getting Closer”–or extrapolate all the ways and results of seeking a better high–Weston Ochse’s “Reliving Through Better Chemistry.”  Lucy A. Snyder straight-up messes with Lovecraft in the delicious “Cthylla” and it’s awesome.

Not all the pieces land without some damage (and, as I said when I reviewed The Best of the Horror Library: Vol 1-5, I’m not saying which because what didn’t work for me might work for you; I will say that of the 15 stories, only 2 didn’t take off for me), but. again, that’s the beauty of anthologies.  Everyone’s tastes are different so if one works for me, but not for you, there are many others.

In other news, beyond what Bailey is doing for me, his Written Backwards outfit is setting up an ambitious little gig for fellow QN‘er and Library of the Dead contributor Gene O’Neill. You can check out the info here and, if moved (you should be), take part here.

Hunting John Skipp, Craig Spector, and Other Things

“Fetish properties are not unlike porn.  I’d feel guilty taking their money, if I wasn’t…well, kinda one of them.” – John Cusack, High Fidelity [possibly in the book, too, but I haven’t read it in close to eight years, so there you go.]

So last week, Evans Light, a fellow writer, sent me a paperback copy of John Skipp & Craig Spector’s second novel (third one, technically, since they also wrote the novelization for the movie Fright Night, but whatever), The Cleanup.  Evans a bit of a collector–if you’re friends with him on social media, he frequently posts his UBS (Used Book Stores) hauls of paperbacks, or gives himself five dollars/minutes in some random thrift store to see what he can uncover, or posts #cheesyhorrorcovers.

The man’s a bloodhound, sniffing out multiple copies of books you think are rare.  You think that, until he posts a picture displaying three copies he found in the back of some random St. Vincent de Paul store.  When I expressed absolute shock at seeing a copy of The Cleanup in one of his hauls, he offered one to me (he had two other copies–of course he goddam did), and then sent it to me.  In fact, it was waiting for me when I arrived home from a wedding I officiated (that’s another story).

Anyway, here it is:

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Also pictured: my uncut grass.  Not pictured: a single fuck given.

Receiving this book completes my little collection: the complete run of Skipp & Spector novels: from The Light at the End to Animals.  Published only as paperbacks in the mid-1980s through the early-1990s, the books disappeared right around the time the partnership between Spector and Skipp did, with each man going their own way and the novels disappearing into the nethers of…wherever.

I first encountered S&S the way a fair number of thirty-something horror fans/writers did: via Stephen King.  He published the zombie story “Home Delivery” in their anthology Book of the Dead in 1989, reprinting it for his Nightmares & Dreamscapes collection in 1993.  During their short Beatles-like tenure (“Beatles-like” because how they burst onto the scene, became–for better or worse–the vanguard for the nascent “splatterpunk” movement, and how they self-destructed together and built strong solo careers), they wrote screenplays, racked up blurbs, were vilified, discussed, and imitated.  Nowadays, they’re like divorced parents at a family reunion, godfathers in their own corners, with a lot of mutual friends.

Anyway, I first found a Skipp & Spector book in 2009–The Bridge–in a UBS, and that began my own little collecting.  I don’t collect the way I did when I was a kid, when it was comics and music and I was compulsive.  Age, time, having a child to raise…they all keep things in check.  Now its certain hardcover books, or rare titles (I’m forever looking, for example, for Jack Finney’s I Love Galesburg in the Springtime).  But, for others–Evans, of course, pops immediately to mind–it continues.  Books, films, art, toys, comics, music, instruments.  Jay Leno collects cars.  I also hate Jay Leno, but never mind.

Besides, although I’m passionate for collecting, still, there’s something to finding.  It isn’t the acquisition, but the hunt itself.  It’s seeing a pile of whatever fetish gets your fancy–I’m channeling Robert Bloch, there–and sifting through it, your heart racing just the tiniest bit at the possibility of maybe–maybe!–finding that one piece you’ve been looking for.  It’s savoring that search, the way you slowly chew a delicious bite of food before swallowing.

There’s a bookstore near where I live here in Northern Virginia–McKay’s Used Books–that, the first time I went in there, I froze.  It was just aisles and aisles of books, taller than my 6’2″, seemingly as long a small county airport.  It took me an hour just to go through the horror section.  Oh, the beauty.

So, getting back to Skipp & Spector, from The Bridge, I found The Light at the End (and then found those two books everywhere; a paperback version of Blue Car Syndrome), then Animals.  Then, at McKay’s, I found The Scream and Dead Lines.  And, each time, with that mental list in my head, the rush of the hunt, the short spurt of joy at finding one of your coveted wants…and then, almost, a sad musing.  The hunt is over.  Completed.  It’s actually kinda depressing.

But, hey, you found your thing!

Anyway, with Evans help, my current hunt for Skipp & Spector is over, as seen below:

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Also pictured…oh, hey, lookit that, a copy of Jamais Vu Issue 3, which features a loooong interview I did with Craig Spector in September of 2014 (and some cracking good fiction, like Damien Angelica Walters’s Bram Stoker-nominated “Floating Girls: A Documentary”).  I honestly don’t know how that got into the shot; the damned thing photobombed the books.

And, honestly, it’s a little sad that the hunt’s over…but I have the book!  I can read it now!

And I can’t be that sad, really; I mean, I still have Jack Finney to hunt for.

So I read THE HORROR LIBRARY: THE BEST OF VOLUMES 1-5…

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Whenever something says “The Best of…” or “The Greatest Hits of…” it’s a bit of a crapshoot as to the…balance of quality, I guess you could say?  For example, you might be a casual fan of Aerosmith and know “Cryin'” and–although you kinda throw up in your mouth a little to even think of it–“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”, but Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits disc probably wouldn’t be a smart purchase for you, since it only covered their hits in the 1970s.

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What–no “Love in an Elevator”? Fuck that.

In literature, it gets even stickier, I think; while most anthologies, anymore, cover all new material, anthologies prior to the late-1960s were strictly reprints, pulling the subjective “best” material from previous anthologies (which themselves culled the old pulps; a ouroboros you’ve never dreamed of).  The idea of packaging these reprints as “the best of” is fairly recent, usually sticking to smaller presses and pulling from their own projects (Post Mortem Press, my former publisher, has done it, and I know Grey Matter Press is asking its readers to choose the so-called setlist)  Still, even with a new trend–or a new packaging of an old trick–the old problem still remains: how well-balanced is the quality?

For those not in the know, Horror Library, published by Cutting Block Press and edited by RJ Cavender, began publishing in 2006 and, as the title suggests, has put out five volumes, each chock full of stories, either picked through the incredibly-tight submissions window (Cavender has said previously that every single author ever published in HL had been previously rejected at least once, including well-known authors), or by, I would assume, invitation (Bentley Little comes to mind, if only because the man is known to absolutely hate the Internet with a vehemence that not even Harlan Ellison can muster; Ellison at least has a website he occasionally visits).

While the editorial team and the guidelines have remained consistent, there is a variation in material, if only because I would doubt that interests can stay so uniform for almost ten years; hell, my own editorial interests have changed since I edited Jamais Vu, and the last issue only came out a year ago.

Because of this, there is a smorgasbord when it comes to the types of stories; there are psychological pieces, grue pieces (Shane MacKenzie’s “Open Mind Night at the Ritz” comes immediately to mind), ghost stories.  There are stories of trauma and adaptation and giving up. There are sex toys.  There’s mountain climbing.

But, the people ask, is it any good?

Anymore, I love stories of people dealing with trauma, of the horror passing and the survivors coming to grips with it.  For that reason, Kealan Patrick Burkes’ “After” and Kurt Dinan’s “Into the After” are where my heart goes; ignore the fact that the titles are similar–one deals with the trauma of bullying and school shootings, the other discusses the survivors of 9/11.

There’s weird here, too–Cameron Pierce’s “I Am Meat, I Am in Daycare” is so weird, but it comes off as a trifle.  However, in spite of that–or because it’s delivered in such a ho-hum tone–it lingers.  Ray Garton’s “The Happiness Toy” is just bizarre, feeling like the result of a round-robin joke: “What if magical vibrators could change you?”  In spite of the hysterical premise, the punchline, and the matter-of-fact delivery of sex (too often, horror fiction deals with sex the way teenager boys do–with a lot of greasy fingers and labored breathing),  keeps you turning.

Because the Cutting Block team pulled from so many pieces, and present so many different types of stories, not every story is going to pull in every reader.  I skipped three, personally, because the openings didn’t grab me (and, no, I’m not going to tell you which; what bored me might prove riveting to you).  Still, for aspiring writers hoping to crack a Cavender project, or readers looking for those short quick bites while waiting somewhere, there’s plenty here to hold your attention.

You can purchase the anthology here.

What I Want to See in My Last Two Weeks as Guest Editor of LampLight

(Yes, I was supposed to post this last Tuesday.  Stop living in the past.)

So, after running out of space on Submittable last week (the second time since taking over in April; which, to me, is impressive), I had some downtime to sift through the slush pile, review things in my “Maybe” pile, and, in general, ruminate on what I was being given.

First, let me go over, quickly, how I go through submissions:

A. I review submissions only on the weekends (Saturday and Sunday); all other time is devoted to writing and my personal life (family, teaching, Satanic worship–the usual).  Meaning, Person A may submit on Monday morning, and Person B may submit on Friday evening, but I’ll be seeing both submissions at the same time on Saturday afternoon. (I only mention this because it’s been commented on a few times on social media.)

B. Reviewing submissions means this: I read the first bit of text visible on the page (if the submitter follows Standard Manuscript Format, anyway; if you put a cover page on your short story submission or get real fancy with your text size, fuckin’ stop it–you’re just annoying slush readers and editors, i.e. the people you want to like your work).  90% of my rejections don’t get beyond this stage.  Why?

  1. Most often, the story started slow (I don’t care about weather, clothes, or his thoughts from that morning; I’m also tired of stories that start with people waking up).
  2. Less often but common, the writer creates a decent to killer “Hook line”–the opening line that’s supposed to grab the reader by the metaphorical balls–but has no idea how to follow through on it; the writer immediately backtracks, or info-dumps, or some damn thing.  There IS merit in hook-line theory, but only if the writer knows how to keep the pace going; essentially, EVERY line has to be a hook line.
  3. Less-less often, obvious wish-fulfillment: what? I’m seeing a story, by an unknown writer, where the protagonist is not only devastatingly successful–at writing!–but a Rico Suave Man-of-Action?  Gee, that’s not fucking obvious AT ALL.  Stephen King kinda spoiled it for us schmoes with books like MISERY or BAG OF BONES; even if we have a workable idea involving writers, we’re always going to be treated with some form of suspicion.  The horrible thing is, often that suspicion is warranted.
  4. Least often (thank Christ), painfully easy typos, or immediately-obvious and thinly-veiled revenge fiction.  Revenge is a common trope, particularly in darker fiction, but it’s easy as hell to spot the writer taking after a parent, boss, or ex.

C. If a story does get clear this hurdle, I review the cover letter to see if it’s a reprint–LampLight allows reprints, but it has to be THE BEST STORY I’VE SEEN THAT DAY to merit pushing aside an original–mark it “maybe” on Submittable–this is when it changes to “In Progress” for you submitters–and download it.  I very rarely read on-screen; I download and print everything.  Yes, it makes me painfully 20th Century.  No, I don’t care.

D. I review the stories.  If I like them, the file gets moved to a flash drive.  If not, they’re the first rejected the following week.

So, what have I seen in the past two months?

A lot lost-in-the-woods stories.  A lot of westerns.  A lot of fantasy–not urban fantasy or magic realism (I like those a lot, hint-hint)–but dragons and wizards.  During my tenure, you might want to hold onto those.  I rarely like them.  I like fantasy and westerns and naturalistic stories, but they’re apparently hard to pull off when I’m the editor.

I’ve seen a lot of almost-made-it type stories; stories that have a very workable idea but get bogged down by lack of clarity or info-dumps or the writer focusing on one detail that means dick to the story–essentially the writer focuses on one tree instead of the forest.  These are the most tragic to me; if I’m doing my own thing, I often give a very detailed personal note of why it didn’t work and to send me something else.  If I’m working under another’s system, I’ll stick to the form reject, but with a P.S. to send something else.

So…what do I want to see?

For this gig, there are two types of stories I like–types I bought before, and types that more fit LampLight.

The types I’ve bought before are, for lack of a better term, weird.  Weird structures, weird premises, but all held together by taut writing and a clear narrative flow.  Examples in stuff I’ve bought: Damien Angelica Walters’s “Floating Girls: A Documentary”, which I bought for Jamais Vu Issue 3 (the final issue)…a story that, incidentally, was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award in 2014.  Lacking that, Kelly Link is an excellent example of the weird I like.  (Other good writers include Tim Waggoner, who’s published in Black Static, among others).

Now, LampLight specific…their guidelines state an admiration for The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits and, for that, I want stories I can imagine seeing in black-and-white on a drive-in screen.  Not necessarily monster flicks–although those are always good–but if stuff similar in style of Matheson, Finney, and Ellison (Harlan, that is).  Examples include Nick Mamatas’s “Burning Stones” in Volume 3, Issue 1 (September 2014) or Mercedes Yardley’s “A Love Not Meant to Outlast the Butterflies” in Issue 2 (December 2014).  In my own edited work, Gary Braunbeck’s “Photo Captions” in Jamais Vu, Issue 1.

Overall, though, the stories have to have heart.  I want the reader to ache for the characters, either in vain or not.  Sticking with Issue 1 of JV, Cameron Suey’s “Shiva” and Sandra Odell’s “The Hydra Wife” are aching stories of love, loss, and possible redemption–even without the speculative edges.  Damien’s “Floating Girls” is just achingly beautiful.

So, there you have it.  I’m probably missing things, as I am wont to do, but that leaves me open to see things I wasn’t expecting.

My deadline is July 15th, the cut-off for the September 2015 issue (the month of my birthday, by the by).

Make it good.

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