Archive for October, 2009

All Hallows Eve

October 24, 2009

We’ve talked before on this blog about attempts to recapture, as adults, those visceral feelings of excitement and anticipation we had as kids on the night before Christmas, lying in our dark bedrooms . . . or before our birthdays . . . or at the notion of school letting out for the summer or even for the weekend. I remember getting some of that feeling in the darkened movie theater, waiting for the feature to start.

Well, one time I’ve discovered that I experience that shivery, excited, tingly-stomach feeling as a grownup is in the few days before the World Fantasy Convention. I leave for San Jose on Wednesday the 28th, and I get back on November 3rd, so be advised that there won’t be a blog post during the Hallowe’en weekend. That very night, the 31st (Lord willing), I’ll be having dinner with my agents and some other clients of JABberwocky, the agency that represents me. (That wasn’t a typo in the name, by the way: the first three letters are the initials of the agency’s owner.) So this weekend I’m battening down the hatches, preparing lessons, packing, and timing & practicing the public reading I’m scheduled to do at 8:30 Thursday night, California time. Please hold a good thought for me — I’m desperately hoping even a few people will come to my reading. It’s awfully hard to draw a crowd when you’re an unknown writer, at a Con where so much cool stuff is going on. And I know none of my usual friends/loyal reading-supporters will be there this year. . . .

Anyway, I’ll take my camera along, and I hope to have a bunch of pictures to post next time.

If anyone wants to take a look at what the convention is all about, here’s the website:

And here’s a nice grid they made of what’s happening where at what times:

But anyway. . . . here we are in Hallowe’en week, and I hope everyone has been enjoying the season! One thing I did to celebrate was to rewatch the Buffy Season 2 episode “Halloween” — one of the classics. And I’ve been reading a couple things by the old-time horror writer Arthur Machen, who greatly influenced H.P. Lovecraft. More about that in the future. . . .

But for now, we need a Hallowe’en story, and here’s a true one, courtesy of my dad. This actually happened to him. He told and retold this tale throughout his life. There are no ghost stories like old family ghost stories, because you get to grow up with them; you get to hear them over and over, spanning different ages of your life. You internalize them, as the trees swallow the leaning fences.

When he was a child, the family moved from within the city of Taylorville to an old, two-story farmhouse in the country. It stood alone among the fields, isolated and dark against the sky, far removed from the homes of the nearest neighbors. Such houses still stand today; I’ve seen hundreds of them, lonely patches of human habitation amid the endless acres of whispering grain.

We’re talking about the end of the 1930s. This was an era when electricity was still somewhat tenuous in the countryside, and when they moved in, the power had either not yet been hooked up or not yet turned on. The family used oil-burning lamps for the first stretch of nights in the house. During the sunny Illinois day, they hauled in loads of furniture, clothes, and cookware, placing things as best they could in the rooms where it all belonged.

In the kitchen, they discovered a huge, heavy wooden cupboard that had come with the house, left by the previous owners. It towered from floor almost to ceiling in one corner. My grandma was delighted by its charm and solidity, and she gratefully loaded it up with her best plates and cups to get them out of harm’s way. The rest of the dishes would require more careful sorting. For the time being, they were left in some big metal washtubs set on the table . . . and perhaps in some boxes on the counters, on the floor.

Exhausted by the day of hard work, the family retired to the living room, carrying their flickering lamps. The adults sank into chairs and onto the couch, bone-weary. The children played on the floor in the reddish glow. Beyond the little circle of light, the prairie darkness closed in, filling the empty rooms, covering the fields. It was an era such as we can scarce imagine today, in our neon age, when the world is brightly lit 24/7. It was an age of quietness and impenetrable shadow.

Suddenly, to the shock and horror of all, pandemonium erupted in the black kitchen. There came the sound of the tubs sliding from the table, clanging and ringing on the floor — the sound of dishes shattering, silverware bouncing, glass breaking into shards.

The adults sprang to their feet, hearts pounding. Had some animal found its way into the house? Pans crashed; boxes tumbled; the terrible destruction could only be deliberate. Some vandal — a prowler? As the final blow, there came the shuddering impact of the great cupboard toppling onto the table, smashing its own glass doors and the table’s wooden legs, everything collapsing to the floor. Panes and lattices flew apart. Shelves splintered. Grandma’s best dishes — such as they were in that time when the Depression had been deeply felt — were now junk to be swept away. But why? What? Who. . . .?

Summoning their courage, seizing anything that might be wielded as a weapon, the adults raised their lamps and ventured into the kitchen, eyes wide, faces colorless, breath held. I can picture them as they must have approached that kitchen, a row of sheet-white faces peeping around the door frame at various heights.

As the wicks’ flames pushed back the darkness, the kitchen slowly became visible. And there . . . there in the unfamiliar belly of the ancient house . . . nothing was amiss.

The tubs remained on the table, stacked high with plates. The boxes rested on the counter and on the floor, still intact, still packed. In the shadowy corner, the grandfather of cupboards stood unperturbed, the glass doors secured, the rows of dishes guarded within. No damage at all had been done. There were no TVs, no radios blaring; no other houses nearby, from which a sound might have emerged. Nothing. Just a kitchen in a worn, brooding farmhouse, steeped in silence and memory. If it was a hallucination, then the entire household had the same one at the same time.

It was the first strange incident in the old house, but certainly not the last.

So Happy Hallowe’en to all! If anyone has a ghost story (or any creepy story) to tell us — whether it be true or not — please do so!

And here’s an idea: why doesn’t everyone stop by here on or around Hallowe’en night and tell us how you spent the evening — did you do anything seasonal? I’ll be away that night . . . the blog will be empty, and full of echoes. But that shouldn’t discourage you, on this night of all nights!


October 17, 2009

I must have been very young, because I was sleeping in the small, pale-purple bedroom, the dimmest room of our dark, light-eating house. That was the first room I slept in as a baby, when my bed still had fence railings on the sides. It lies at the heart of the ancient core of our house, one of the original rooms, occupied by generations of people who were not us. (It’s now my storage room, sealed away from the light behind doors with deadbolt locks, piled high with cases of my moldering books, the only room in which no human foot now walks.) When I was little, I remember calling it “the Spook Room” — for no real reason, except that it was so old and dark and quiet. I don’t think it was haunted, but if any room in our house should be, that’s the one I’d pick. The only negative memories I have of that room are nightmares of gorillas coming from the woods and standing over me, their sagittal crests brushing the ceiling.

Anyway, on the evening in question, I must have been taking a nap there. I remember my mom waking me up and saying, “There’s someone here to see you.” I opened my eyes, and standing beside my bed was the devil.

Yes, the devil: all red, with horns and a tail, a pitchfork, and a glittering, sequined red mask (at least that’s the way I remember it). A part of my mind screamed in horror at the notion that my mom was cheerfully handing me over to the devil.

But within a few seconds, I realized that the arch-fiend was my nextdoor neighbor Chris, wearing a Hallowe’en costume. (Chris, do you remember that?) That, I believe, is my earliest Hallowe’en memory.

We humans have always had a thing for disguising ourselves — for wearing clothing, paint, and/or masks that make us seem to be what we’re not — and we do it for all sorts of reasons. Probably the most ancient has to do with religious beliefs and practices. Shamans wore masks and became something more than the mysterious wise ones who lived in the caves up the slope. Dancers wore feathers and grasses and painted masks, and metamorphoses occurred as gods and spirits moved about the fires.

In European werewolf legends, the transformation from man to beast was often accomplished by a person putting on a wolf skin — donning the skin of a wolf and becoming a wolf. Or the strange, beautiful brides of fishermen would one day throw seal skins about their shoulders and return to their parents’ kingdoms under the sea.

We’ve talked before on this blog of Max in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. (It’s recently been made into a movie, I understand.) The book is built upon the fact that Max puts on his wolf suit and acts like a Wild Thing — to the disgruntlement of his mother — and thus begins his adventure into the realm of the Wild Things. It is a costume that launches it all.

I was thinking of the uses of costumes in works of literature and film. . . . The first that comes to mind, of course, is the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, in which Jem and Scout are dressed as agricultural products and begin a harrowing journey through a dark and deadly wood. And I thought of the movie A Perfect World, starring Kevin Costner, in which an armed fugitive (Costner) takes a young boy hostage, and the two develop an unlikely friendship during their few days on the run, when they journey through the borders of “a perfect world” — a fantastic journey enhanced by the boy (Philip)’s stealing of a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume, which he wears constantly. The costume sets him free, in a way: Philip, like Max, becomes something he wants to be; he enters a realm of experience beyond the usual.

When I was very young, I remember coming home with my parents late on a dark, windy night. For some reason, the talk turned to “burglars” who might be hiding in the trees. I couldn’t rest until I’d checked out all our trees with a flashlight. To enable myself to do this, I put on what I called my “Willer-de-Woost” costume. (I think the name came from the Uncle Remus/Br’er Rabbit stories — that was what those characters called a will-o’-the-wisp.) My Willer-de-Woost costume involved a silver hardhat, goggles, and heavy gauntlets, which made manipulating the flashlight very difficult. (The goggles were tinted and made seeing difficult, especially at night. I guess the hardhat didn’t hinder me much.) My dad forever after claimed I said, “If there are burglars, I’ll scare the h*ll out of ’em!” — but I don’t remember saying that. But I do remember that the costume gave me the courage to prowl all through our dark, windy yard, shining my light up into every tree. I was more powerful than my ordinary self: I was the Willer-de-Woost!

Do you remember the excitement of Hallowe’en costumes? I remember having that electric, jittery thrill in my stomach when I contemplated how cool it was going to be to wear my costume. (The actual experience of wearing the costume was almost always sweaty, confining, awkward, and uncomfortable; but that was all forgotten well before the next year rolled around.) Mom laughed in later years regarding how, at my insistence, we always had to start on Hallowe’en in the middle of the summer — thinking of ideas, planning just how we were going to engineer the costume, and visiting junk shops and second-hand clothing stores, scouting for materials.

I won’t bore you with the details, but here’s a list of all my costumes that I can remember (I’m probably leaving some out):

ape soldier (from The Planet of the Apes)

Cornelius (ditto)

Sinbad (the sailor, not. . . .)

a dragon (My mom was a knight, fighting me — a giant knight and a little green dragon.)

the shark from Jaws (My neighbor Randy was Brody, wearing a sandwich-board Orca boat.)


a gorilla

a Skull-Bearer (from The Sword of Shannara)


(and as an adult, after coming to Japan) Eliot Ness, a native American, a scarecrow, a silver man, a hideous bird-creature, the Terminator, Mr. Spock, and Loft [a character of mine from a work in progress]

But I think my very best costume when I was a kid was an amazing Three-Legged Man. We had an odd, jointed stick lying around our house. I suppose it was originally something a tailor would use, because it was the length of a (smallish) human leg, with a rectangular “foot” board attached at the bottom. This stick had a perfect, functional knee-joint in the middle. I got two identical pairs of pants and put one on normally. Then I put my right leg into the left leg of the other pair, so that I had a spare, empty pants-leg dangling at my right side. Into this leg we inserted the stick and padded it, so that the pants were filled out, and I found three ambiguous shoes to put on my three feet. I kept my right arm inside my shirt and down along my side to hold onto the top end of the fake leg. Then we padded out the right arm of my shirt, and I had gloves on my real hand and the fake hand. I wore a rain poncho that hung down to just above my knees, so no one could see what was happening with the waists of the pants. Then I learned to walk convincingly, putting my middle leg forward, then bringing my two outer legs forward for the next step, and so on. The effect was quite unsettling. People stared long and hard, trying to figure out which leg was the fake.

So . . . I guess there are two possible springboards for discussion:

1.) Are there other uses of costumes in books, movies, or stories that we should talk about? Why are those uses memorable and effective?

2.) Do you have any costume stories? Something you wore, perhaps, or something you helped design for your kids? Did it work? Was it a disaster?

Or anything else on the topic of costumes is quite welcome. Ooh, here’s one: what’s the scariest mask you’ve ever seen?

Meanwhile, let’s not yet abandon last week’s post! It’s still wide open — let’s keep using those great lines in scary paragraphs or scenes! And thank you to everyone who has written in!

Let’s close out with a few lines from my story “The Bone Man” (Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 2007):

“Black bushes, spreading trees — there seemed more of them at night, with glowing plastic lanterns strung among the last brittle leaves: lanterns in the shapes of jack-o’-lanterns, white ghosts, green-faced witches. (Whoever came up with the idea that a witch should have a green face?) It was dark ahead of him, though fire still hung in the vanished sun’s wake. Slowly the sky’s lavender changed to a deep blue, and stars glittered.

All around him, it was as if veils dropped away, and Conlin was walking back into the streets of his childhood. Here, under the breeze-shivery maples and oaks slouching toward cold, it was no longer the age of the Internet and little phones in your pocket that took pictures and movies; it seemed more the era when cars had lock-levers like golf tees, phones had round dials, and TVs were controlled by big, stubborn knobs on the front. Conlin passed over sidewalks that veered to accommodate trees, some concrete sections pushed up into humps by the roots. Trees owned these prairie towns, he mused: trees’ crowns were crossbeams above; their roots shot far into the earth and spread beyond the last houses; their trunks were spikes that held the community to the land.

. . .

Then, with a sound like an approaching stampede, costumed children exploded onto the scene.”

October Stories

October 10, 2009

000_0597BThis entry will, I hope, be more comment than posting. First, just to set the mood, here’s an excerpt from my story “Uther.” This “Fred” character isn’t me: he just happens to have the same name.

Fred checked his jeans pocket for his key, then quietly exited by the back door and locked it. He threaded among the leaning rakes, mower belts, oily rags, and generator parts. The sagging porch groaned under his added weight. Someday soon, all this junk was going to crash into the crawlspace below.

The leaves were mostly down now. Fred’s high-topped sneakers sank ankle-deep in their crackly carpet. The moon rode high and round through the limbs, but the night wasn’t as clear as he’d thought. Piles of cloud slithered like dirty snow in a stream, and a clammy breeze rustled the cornstalks his father had lashed to the porch posts for Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving. There was no art to the decoration: just a pickup load of dead stalks bound thickly to every support, like phase one of building a pyre.

[In this story, Fred is an inventor. He remembers a night from the previous August, and goosebumps break out on his arms.]

Fred was playing then with a gadget he’d impishly called “night vision goggles” — not because they helped you see at night, but because their prisms warped ambient light, helping you see night visions. The effects were wild and disturbing: objects had colored auras, tree branches seemed to reach toward you, and shadowy figures hovered everywhere, the mirages and residues of things beyond the lenses’ peripheries.

The goggles were downright creepy. It hadn’t been too smart to wear them into the hilltop cemetery. As Fred had scanned the tombstones, watching the marble angels breathe, their robes seem to flutter — watching the ground ripple, as if the dead were trying to claw their way up — he’d glimpsed two figures.

[Later in the story, Fred visits one of his favorite haunts, where he often gathers parts for his inventions: the town junkyard.]

Still, the illumination of the distant town brought comfort: the winking red light on the radio spire, the water tower like a Wellsian Martian war machine, the glowing windows of the five-story St. Francis Hospital. Human habitation, he mused. A little circle of warmth around the campfire, and beyond our cave, the bottomless night.

He followed the road toward the grain elevator, but turned off on the gravel lane leading toward Huggins’ Salvage. This track, which angled through an apple orchard on the town’s outskirts, was deeply rutted from the passage of heavy trucks, the caravans of exotic plunder — dead freezers, discarded furnaces, the obsolete and unwanted.

A chain-link fence and gate barred the main approach, but they were only a facade. The original Huggins had been dead for a decade, and his sons had done away with the fences on the sides and back of the salvage yard. Trucks could drive freely among the corrugated buildings now, and off to where the compound dissolved into mounds and canyons of trash brought with no expectation of payment.

The apple harvest had just ended, the ground still littered with the bird-pecked, the worm-eaten, the withered rejects. Fred trudged beneath the low, tangled limbs that drooped over the fence on his left, branches groping down toward the wrecked cars. The pulpy, overripe smell was strong here, the shadows deep; even leafless, the trees formed an interwoven roof.

At the snap of a twig, he spun.

[And later. . . .]

His heart leaped. Someone stood watching him, utterly motionless, a bald head and shoulders outlined between two cars.

Fred backed up, ready to run, hunching for a clearer view. The person made no move and seemed not even to breathe, as calm as. . . .

A mannequin. Fred slumped against a burned-out Chevy, knees going weak in his relief. He’d seen the dummy before, a thing with no arms, no face, and only a stick for a lower body. He was just too jumpy tonight.

Nor did it help that he was within sight of a feature he called the Gallows. It loomed to his right, a locust tree that had pushed up through a stack of chemical drums, a plastic-sheathed clothesline wire ingrown into one outstretched limb, swinging in the wind. He always looked to see if anyone had looped the wire into a noose.

Okay, let’s leave Fred there, because the situation is about to get very grim indeed.

And let’s go to the wonderful first lines that the readers of this blog have suggested so far! These come from comments to the posting two back from this one, called “Boo.” Here they are:

1.) The tree was weird.

2.) There shouldn’t have been a crack in the sidewalk. It hadn’t been there yesterday. The odd squishing sounds I had heard during the night came back to me as I leaned in for a closer look.

3.) It was a night when the white moon sucked all color from the world; a haunting melody was riding the breeze, but nobody in the car seemed to hear it but me.

[Those first three were submitted by SwordLily.]

4.) At the first exhibit at the grade school haunted house, Billy knew his hand was dunked into a plate of cold spaghetti, and not “body parts,” as his cousin claimed, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that it seemed as though some of the strands were warmer than others, and had tightened slightly around his fingers.

[That was from Marquee Movies.]

5.) It was a dark and stormy night.

[From Jedibabe and Daylily.]

6.) No one walked past this particular house even in daylight but I knew someone lived there, though I’d never seen them.

7.) It wasn’t dark yet; the sky was gray and looked like static as the wind screamed past us, rattling the old boards at the end of the street.

[Those two are from Shieldmaiden.]

8.) I watched, frozen in silence, as a deformed black shadow inched its way up the street . . . but where, pray tell, was its body?

9.) Two large red eyes, missing their pupils, stared at the boy, a mouth with multitudes of reddish teeth slowly materializing in the darkness.

10.) The moon twisted and moved, forming impossible shapes in the cold night; something black, with small beady eyes, sat atop it.

11.) She screamed as something rose out of the black water, making as if to grab her with its white bony hands.

[These latest four are from Kyran.]

Thank you to all contributors so far! (You can still contribute entries; I’d suggest leaving them as comments on this post, so we can find them easily.)

The next step: anyone who wants to can choose one of these eleven beginnings and use it to start a paragraph (or a few paragraphs). Write the paragraph(s) as a comment on this entry. You don’t have to tell the entire story of what’s going on or bring it to any kind of conclusion: just add to the scene, perhaps deepen the mystery, increase the weirdness — and above all, have fun! Let’s not any of us feel that we “can’t write” well enough to try this — remember, the bumblebee “can’t fly,” either!

It’s okay to reuse certain ones if someone takes the one you wanted. That’s the great thing about electronic text: there’s enough of it to go around. But ideally, let’s try to use them all before we’re done!

Talk to you soon!

October 5th Adventure

October 5, 2009

Here’s a story for you.

Last night, as I was winding things up at my desk and getting ready for bed, I heard the unsettling sound of footsteps outside my window. This wasn’t the window facing the parking lot; it was the one overlooking the narrow space between my building and the house next door — a space where there’s nothing but a concrete sluiceway for rainwater. This isn’t part of a walkway of any kind. There’s no path in back of my apartment. Once in a great while kids will clamber through that ditch — kids will explore any nook or cranny of a city — and now and then a utility employee or maintenance man will be there. But no one should have been out there at 12:30 a.m. on a Sunday night.

I cocked my head, listening. It sounded for all the world like the footsteps of someone trudging along in the shallow water of that concrete trough. The splashing started at the back of my building, passed my locked, curtained window, and stopped at the front corner, no more than ten feet from my chair, at a point where there’s access from the ditch to my narrow verandah, outside my front window, also locked and curtained. I imagined a prowler lurking just beyond the window at my left elbow. In Japan, that would be highly unlikely; and whoever it was had made no effort to be quiet when splashing through the water.  But still, it was baffling.

After a few minutes, there were no further sounds, and I didn’t have the sense of anyone skulking about, so I finished what I was doing and went to bed.

At about 6:10 a.m., my alarm clock rang for the first day of my second semester — yes, today was back to school for me. I took my shower, got ready, and as I was munching on a bread roll, I remembered the nightly noises and wondered if there was any evidence of anything I could find outside. So I went out there, and. . . .

You’re thinking of summer camp stories, aren’t you? Dorm room stories? As the police lead the girl away from the car in which she’s been stranded all night after her boyfriend went for help and didn’t return, she looks back at the car, and sees. . . .

No, it wasn’t horrifying, but I solved the mystery. At the end of the flooded part of the sluiceway, on a dry patch in the concrete ditch just behind the trash cage, there was a wild duck.

I knew at once that I’d heard the duck splashing through the water. I also knew, since it was still here and wasn’t swooping away from me as I peered down at it, that the duck had some kind of problem. It must be either sick or injured. It was just sitting there, wings folded, and looking quite alert. When I approached, it took a deep breath and shifted as if it wanted to fly away but couldn’t. I had to catch my bus for the university, so all I could do for the moment was break off some pieces of my bread roll and toss them down within easy reach. I broke off a dozen little bite-sized pieces, wished the duck well, and went to work. (It was making no move to eat the bread.)

I had 11 students in the pre-med English class: 9 boys, 2 girls.

When I got home, the duck was still there — still alert, but didn’t seem to have touched any of the bread. Although there was water in the ditch behind the duck, I thought it might be too shallow for the duck to drink (I was thinking of that Aesop fable about how the fox serves soup in the flat, shallow bowls, and the poor crane or stork can’t drink any of it with his long bill.) So I filled a paper bowl with tap water (single guys usually have paper dishes on hand) and put that down in front of the duck. It made no attempt to drink.

I worried about the duck through the afternoon as I was preparing lessons, wishing I had some better way to help it. It was in a sheltered place, but if it wasn’t flying away and wasn’t eating or drinking, things weren’t looking good. At one point I heard some schoolkids talking about the duck, but they moved along and didn’t bother it.

Finally, toward dusk, it occurred to me to go down the street and talk to a veterinarian I know. At the worst, I figured, he would just shake his head and tell me there wasn’t much we could do for a wild animal. But when I explained the situation to him, he said there is an agency in Niigata that helps injured birds. He said if I could manage to bring the duck in, he would call the Yachyou Kyoukai (Wild Bird Organization), and we could turn the duck over to them.

So I hurried home (it was now pitch-black again in the sluice ditch). Just as I came up my street, I saw my neighbor walking his two bulldogs. [I’ve actually written about him once before on this blog, long ago. Remember?] I prayed they wouldn’t devour the poor bird just as help was on the way. They sniffed and grunted around the trash cage; I think they had some inkling that a juicy bird was there, but they never figured out quite where. I exchanged good evenings with my neighbor, and he was probably wondering why I was out killing time beside my trash cage. When they’d all moved up the street, the two dogs huffing and grunting, I raced inside and hunted through my boxes.

The four or five little ones I have from were all a bit too small; they would have put a crick in the duck’s neck. Fortunately, I’d just bought a box of typing paper. Paper is one thing I use a lot of (conservatively, mind you — I print on both sides whenever humanly possible), so I buy it in bulk: a box of five bundles, each with 500 sheets. A box that holds 2,500 sheets of typing paper is quite adequately duck-sized.

I squinted through the darkness until I relocated the duck. He was still sitting up and seemed aware, but he was no longer squirming when I got close — he seemed a lot weaker. I was able to set the box over him upside down, slide the lid underneath him, and gently roll it until he was inside with the lid on top. The duck moved around a little in the box as I was carrying it back to the vet’s, which seemed hopeful. (But I was wishing I’d thought of the vet hours earlier.)

At the vet’s, the duck was still sitting up and looking around, but unable to fly or walk. The vet stretched out his wings one by one, and they didn’t seem to be broken. His legs seemed okay. There was a small, bloody patch on his chest or stomach. The vet thinks he may have been attacked by a crow or a cat — or possibly ran into something in flight. Anyway, the vet was going to try feeding him and giving him water, using an eyedropper if necessary. The Yachyou Kyoukai apparently is active only on Wednesdays and Fridays, so the vet will be taking care of the duck tomorrow. I had to fill out a form with my name, address, and telephone number, explaining where I’d found the duck and what its condition was. And I received a pin from the Wild Bird Organization for being a “friend of wild birds.”

I don’t know if the duck will survive or not. I wish I’d acted more quickly. But at least he’s out of the sluice ditch and away from the cats, dogs, and curious kids.

And that’s the adventure of October 5th (which, by the way, is the anniversary of the day I first came to Japan back in 1988).

[Addition on October 8th: Today I stopped by the vet’s to ask about the duck. I went with considerable trepidation, but I could tell by his face the instant he saw me that he had good news. He reported that the duck was safely turned over to the Wild Bird Organization on Tuesday. His own opinion is that the duck will make a full recovery and will soon be back in the wild. I was surprised and quite relieved — the way the duck had been declining so quickly on Monday, I was afraid it would expire that night, before the vet could turn it over to the bird people. The vet told me when he handed it over, the duck was beating its wings and full of energy — behavior it wasn’t exhibiting at all the first day! I guess a night indoors did the bird a world of good.

So the prognosis sounds excellent! Thank you to all who have been following this little drama with concern and good wishes.

The duck is doing so well that I’ll probably be hearing from its lawyer for ab-duck-ting his client, who was simply relaxing in the gutter . . . and the vet will be mentioned in the lawsuit, that the duck has pronounced him a quack. . . .] {Yes, I just rang up about a dollar in the Pun Fund.}

The invitation for those scary opening lines is still open (see previous post)!


October 2, 2009

“It was getting very late when we came to a certain house that was not at all like the others on its block.”

–from “Boo,” by Richard Laymon


October is in the chair, as Neil Gaiman might say — and has said! — check out his story “October Is In the Chair” in his collection Fragile Things. But seriously, it’s October now. Much as I love the summer, much as I believe the hot months are the real incubator of the imagination, and that they are the closest months we get to Paradise in this life . . . I have to admit that October is the single most focused imaginative month. After we’ve charged far afield and frolicked and absorbed as much sun as we could through the warm months, it’s sober October that sits us down before the fire and makes us gaze into the darkness of things. We catch our breath, and we shiver. We remember how good it is to be scared by a scary tale — so much better than being scared in real life! In stories, we just can’t resist seeking what’s out there — what’s down there. What might be coming, even now.

I have fond memories of growing up with tales of weirdness and fear. First, Andersen’s fairy tales: whenever I was sick as a kid, lying on the blue velvet sofa, shivering and sweating and unable to hold liquids down, Mom would get out the little blue hardback collection of Andersen and read to me. Strange and scary things happened in those stories. There were witches and magic, dogs with eyes as big as saucers, and my experience of them came with the mingling of physical discomfort, delirium, and the wonderful glow of love, care, security, and relief. My mom was there, taking my temperature and bringing me Seven-Up. And that, I believe, is fundamental to my perspective on horror. If I didn’t have a core belief that things will be all right, I’d have no reason to enjoy horror.

Bloodcurdling LovecraftThen there’s H.P. Lovecraft. I think I’ve mentioned before how I used to see the covers of his books on the racks at our family bookstore, and they looked like the perfect books to me as a nine- or ten-year-old boy: hideous monsters, tentacles, crumbling stonework, etc. Oh, how I wish I had an image here of the very first cover that drew me to Lovecraft! I’m pretty sure it was a collection called The Dunwich Horror and Others. At any rate, the edition you read doesn’t matter too much, as long as it’s Lovecraft, and as long as you read enough stories to get a feel for him. I particularly recommend The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited and with an introduction by S.T. Joshi. There’s also a More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, annotated by S.T. Joshi and Peter Cannon. Although I’m talking October books here, my childhood recollections of Lovecraft are of the dusty back room of our bookstore, reading and drinking Pepsi with my knees propped up against the edge of the battered desk . . . and of reading him outdoors at Annotated H.P. Lovecrafthome on hot, hot summer days — heat and light all around me, heat waves shimmering in the fields, leaves whispering in the breeze — and in the pages, coldness and subterranean darkness, moldering crypts, secret rooms, sagging gambrel roofs in ancient New England towns. . . .

Lovecraft is one writer I enjoyed as a kid and kept right on reading as I grew up. Back in about 1995, I lived and taught in the town of Shirone, but I also had a couple classes once a week in Sanjo. To get there, I took a bus to a tiny train station in the middle of nowhere (a town/station called Yashiroda), where sometimes I had to wait well over an hour for a train to come along. I would sit there at the station reading H.P. Lovecraft — outdoors in the summer; in the winter, cozied up to the kerosene stove inside.

In gradeschool we used to have Book Fairs in the “All-Purpose Room” — a big gray chamber at the heart of the building where lunch tables and seats folded down out of the walls, then retracted again when it was time for an all-school assembly, band practice, a play, a film, or p.e. class. Such Fairs were a delight: there were tables stacked with books, and you could browse among them and buy them for ridiculously low prices like five cents or ten cents. (At least that’s how I remember it now — any North School kids out there want to correct me?) It was at one such Book Fair that I bought a morbidly grim volume called The Creature Reader. And one of the stories in it was “Wendigo’s Child,” by Thomas Monteleone. It was about a boy in Arizona who rides his bicycle to a nearby archaeological dig, hoping to find cool artifacts, and he finds a little, leathery, wizened mummy that seems half human baby and half bird. Ill-advisedly, he takes the thing home and hides it in his basement, finding out along the way from a native American friend (to whom he doesn’t show the mummy) that such creatures were guardians of the burial grounds. Yes — what you’re imagining — that’s what happens in the story. The book gave me nightmares for months afterward. I loved it!

There was also a story in that book called “Godosh” [the author escapes me], about a sleeping giant inside a mountain who wakes up and wreaks a terrible vengeance when heartless land developers come to bulldoze the forest. Very satisfying to a pre-teen nature lover’s sensibilities!

I don’t know what ever happened to my copy of that book. I’m one who takes very good care of books, and I rarely lose track of ones I like. But the fate of that one is a true mystery. It vanished without a trace at some point.

There was a book called Shudders on the shelf in my bedroom for years and years. (When I visited my Cousin Phil’s parents back in 2006, I noticed a copy also shelved with his old books, which didn’t surprise me. We tend to gravitate toward many of the same books, even if they’re really obscure.) I honestly don’t know whether it’s a good collection or not, because I never got past the first story: “Sweets to the Sweet,” by a young Robert Bloch. That story scared me so badly as a kid that I stopped reading, put the book back into the bookcase, and didn’t touch it for what I think was a couple years. When I opened it again and read the Bloch story, it scared me again and I put it back on the shelf. I’d say there’s a fairly good chance that if I found the book again today, I still wouldn’t make it past the Bloch story.

As a teenager, I got into much of the earlier work of Stephen King. I devoured The Shining, I loved his short stories in Night Shift, and ‘Salem’s Lot is still one of my favorites of his — and one of the best vampire books around. But my favorite Stephen King is the novel It. (The novel, I stress: don’t even bring up the visual dramatization of it!) I read It at a major transition time in my life: I started it in the early summer of 1988, my final year in the States; I finished it in Tokyo in the winter of 1988-9. So my memories of it are bound up with both Illinois and Japan, and that time of moving to a new phase of life. It — to my thinking, this is the very best of Stephen King. All the pulse-racing, skin-crawling horror is there, but it’s tempered by an achingly beautiful nostalgia for childhood in a vanished era and a portrait of lifelong friendships — friends who will stick with each other though their lives hang in the balance. It’s a wonderful book.

Best Ghost Stories of Algernon BlackwoodDuring one of my first few summers in Japan, I found my way to the stories of Algernon Blackwood. In those years of my early twenties — a searching, angry, passionate, lonely, joyous, discovering time — I used to sit astride the seat of my parked bicycle on some forest trail near the sea, and in the green glow of filtered light, I’d read books. That’s where I read Blackwood’s “The Willows,” one of the scariest stories of all time. It was at around this time — 1990 or 1991 — that I had a very close brush with publication. A now-defunct small-press magazine titled Midnight Zoo expressed strong interest in my story “Iowa Mud,” but asked for revisions. I immediately subscribed to the magazine, revised the story, and sent it back. As I recall, they liked it still more, but wanted more revisions. So I obliged them. I loved reading the magazine — it was well put together, and the stories were right up my alley. They accepted the story, but before it saw print, they got into financial problems, as small-press magazines almost inevitably do. They asked if they could pay me in contributor copies instead of money, and I said sure. Then they ceased publication and disappeared altogether, and I never heard from them again. The story never made it into print. (Which may be a good thing.) [Oh — the point of telling about this near-publication experience {NPE} is that I sat around in that same pine forest revising “Iowa Mud,” so my memories of that time are all interwoven — my story, Blackwood, and Ambrose Bierce.]

About Blackwood: in the same collection, he has a story called “The Other Wing” which I always thought completely surpasses any notion of “genre.” It ought to be anthologized in college freshman literature survey textbooks, along with Lovecraft’s “The Strange High House in the Mist.”

The years have gone by, and I’ve always been on the lookout for good, scary tales. I know some people just don’t “get” horror, but given the choice between any two stories, I’ll almost always take the frightening one. (Like I said a few posts back: our oldest fully-English piece of literature is the story of a hero battling monsters — it’s in our blood.)

October Dreams coverMy first novel Dragonfly was/is an ode to Hallowe’en. And speaking of that holiday: THE BOOK to read in this season (while you’re taking breaks from Dragonfly) is an anthology entitled October Dreams, edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish. What makes this one so wonderful is that it isn’t just a compilation of great Hallowe’en stories by a whole host of writers, some extremely famous, some virtually unknown — but it also includes, between the stories, mini-essays by many of the writers on actual memories of Hallowe’ens in their lives. If you read it, you may even decide you like the essays best of all. In fact, I’d love to see a whole book dedicated to that. Someone should solicit Hallowe’en memories from about fifty speculative fiction writers, ranging from the bestsellers to those in the small press — wouldn’t that be excellent? Anyway, in that book is my favorite short Hallowe’en story ever: “Boo,” by Richard Laymon. I won’t spoil it by giving away particulars, but I will say that this story captures pretty much everything I love about Hallowe’en. It’s beautiful and nostalgic; in places it makes you laugh out loud — partly at what’s happening, and partly at your own memories it evokes — it makes you ache with longing, not only for the Hallowe’ens of your youth, but for childhood itself — and, like any proper All Hallows tale, it packs a deeply disturbing wallop. “Boo,” by Richard Laymon — I dare you to find better! (And if you find better, please please pleeeease tell us about it here!)

Finally, two movies I’ve seen recently, which represent a tip of the hatDog Soldiers to those two mighty pillars of the horror genre, the vampire and the werewolf. . . . Several friends had been recommending to me the film Dog Soldiers (2001). It is a genuinely creepy and entertaining story, and it’s the sort that I think I may like better on subsequent viewings. (To be 100% honest, after the way so many trusted friends raved about it, I was a tiny bit disappointed on my first watching; it’s a good film, but it had a lot of hype to live up to. But I liked it enough that I’m talking about it here, aren’t I?) A group of soldiers on training maneuvers in the Scottish highlands end up trapped in an isolated farmhouse, desperately trying to hold off the werewolves until dawn. What I found at once surprising — and ultimately unsettling — about this movie was the lack of movement on the part of the werewolves. I believe (don’t quote me on this; I could be wrong) that they were depicted by using people in costumes — people in unnatural postures, on stilts, perhaps; and given all that, the actors actually had very limited mobility. There’s almost no lunging or pouncing. What we have are instantaneous glimpses of nearly motionless werewolves — monsters frozen in terrifying silhouettes, looming in the shadows. And whether intentionally or not, this taps right into our childhood fantasies and nightmares. Think about it: as kids, the imagined images that scared us the most weren’t lunging enemies — they were the things that lurked . . . that watched us from the shadows . . . that towered over our beds. Capitalizing on that fear, Dog Soldiers delivers quite a bite!

Let the Right One InBut far and away the best movie I saw this summer, irrespective of genre, was the vampire film Let the Right One In. It’s a Swedish film, so you have the option of watching it either in Swedish, with English subtitles, or dubbed into English. So far I’ve watched it once each way, and there are things I like better about each version. It’s dark, haunting, beautiful, sad, and it uses the canon of vampire mythos to help us ask some profound questions. Some critics call it a “fairy tale.” Perhaps. Again — without giving too much away — it’s the story of the bonding and love between two lonely children — one living, one a vampire. It’s skillful and subtle, and it’s so thought-provoking that some of us discussed it for weeks after I saw it.

All right: that should give you puh-lenty of scary stories to chew on as we go into October (and it’s only the second day!). My plea for reader participation this week offers you two options. (Heh, heh — I hope this one fares better than my mythology quest, which went over like a lead balloon!) The first is obvious: tell us about great scary stories you’ve run into. What are your favorites? Under what circumstances did you experience them? How can we find them?

The second, if we can get a little creative, is this: we’re just now starting October. . . . If we act now, we can set up next week’s post. Use your imagination and come up with a sentence that suggests a spooky paragraph. Give us the first line. Evoke possibility. You don’t have to tell everything: the challenge is to suggest, to set questions exploding in the reader’s mind. Look back up to the very top of this post: that would be a perfect example. What makes that house different from all the others on the block? Surely you can think of one provocative sentence. If you devote some time to it, you’ll probably come up with five or ten set-up lines. You will probably have a hard time shutting yourself off. One of my own examples (which I’m probably misquoting) is the first sentence of my story “Shadowbender”: “Aunt Estelle wasn’t so bad; it was her house that bothered Shan.”

I’m inviting you to post a line — a sentence — that may yield a good, scary paragraph. Next week I hope to line up all these sentences and let readers choose one and try writing the paragraph it suggests.

As always, please remember that some younger people are reading the blog, too.

Meanwhile, happy October!