“I’m well beyond you now, and traveling very fast.” On Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation

 

Annihilation

I just finished reading Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer, for the second time. Partly an ecological mystery, partly an invasion story, partly a psychological horror story, and partly a meditation on the silent, unknowable gulfs that grow in a marriage, Annihilation is an extraordinary novel, and a new plateau for VanderMeer. It opens as the members of the Twelfth Expedition — four scientists, all women — enter an ecological twilight zone known as Area X, under the aegis of an enigmatic government body called the Southern Reach. While the novel begins with the unusual, the opening chapters are as secure as the reader will ever be. Annihilation continuously unfolds, like some weird bloom from Area X itself, becoming stranger and more beautiful as it goes along, and raising three new questions for every one it answers. By the end of the book, the novel has cracked wide open; it’s geysering wonders. It is the most transcendent of epiphany stories.

Sometimes you read a book that reminds you, as a writer, of what’s possible. It recalls to you a sense of ambition and excitement. It’s the sound of a trumpet calling. That’s what this one is for me. I think you should read it.

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Some time later

road

The blush wears off the excitement of publishing a book fairly quickly, it turns out; which is probably a good thing. I now find myself pressing on, writing new stories, very few of which feel like the ones that came before. As a consequence I feel both liberated and doomed. This new batch seems more playful to me, less weighty. Whereas North American Lake Monsters drew a lot of genetic material from realism and horror, the next one will draw more from my rekindled love affair with weird pulp fiction. We’ll see how that goes.

Mia is a teenager now, and subject to all the high weather that comes with it. While I will be posting here again, I’ll have to be careful in how I choose to write about her. As she gets older, her life becomes more and more her own, and my right to discuss her inner life grows more limited each day. Which is only right and proper.

Meanwhile, the impulse to retreat persists. I’ve let the blog grow dormant while using Facebook more aggressively since the book’s release, which I think was an error in judgement. Facebook is an echo chamber, in which you link the same news over and over to an increasingly wearied audience. The blog will garner fewer eyes, but at least there’s space to be a bit more nuanced.

And maybe there will be room for some humanity to bleed through.

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Lake Monsters and diabolists

They say whatever you put on the internet will stay there forever. While this is true to some extent — at least until the advent of the looming Second Dark Age, when the grid goes down and my 20-volume real-world copy of the Oxford English Dictionary will give me enough power and prestige to become a regional warlord — it’s easy for me to forget that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are mostly ephemeral. They’re like a bad party where everyone you know is there, but they’re all shouting at once.

The point of which is, I have a book coming out soon and I haven’t talked much about it in the only place where it has a chance of sticking for more than half a day.

So: in July of this year, North American Lake Monsters: stories, will see the light of day. Here’s the cover art, which I think is gorgeous:

lakemonsterscoverAdvanced reader copies are circulating through the world, where with luck they’ll garner a few good blurbs for the cover and maybe a few good reviews as well.

Small Beer Press has a preorder page up here, where you can order it in hardcover (which was a pleasant surprise to me), softcover, or as an ebook. If you’re more into supporting evil empires, which I get, then you can go to Amazon and preorder it there.

Preorders make publishers happy, which in turn makes writers happy. Although they’ve said nothing of the sort to me, I feel as though they’ve taken a risk in publishing a collection with such deep roots in horror. Please go forth, if you’re inclined, and reward their faith in me.

In other news, I’ve recently sold a short story called “The Diabolist” to a market I can’t name yet. Here are the opening paragraphs:

For many years, we knew our monster. He was a middle-aged man, prickly of temperament and reclusive of habit, but of such colorful history and exotic disposition that we forgave him these faults, and regarded him with a fond indulgence. He was our upstart boy, our black sheep. He lived in a faded old mansion by the lake and left us to gossip at his scandalous life story. It was a matter of record that he had been drummed out of a prestigious university which had employed him in the southern part of the state, his increasingly eccentric theories and practices costing him his job, his reputation, and — it was whispered, and we believed it because it was too wonderful not to — the life of his own beloved wife. 

Dr. Timothy Benn, metaphysical pathologist. 

Theomancer. 

Sometimes the sky around his house would light up after dark with whatever wicked industry kept him awake, bright reds and greens and yellows igniting the bellies of the clouds like a celestial carnival show, or like an iridescent bruise. Once he seemed to have tipped the axis of gravity, so that loose objects — pebbles in the road, dropped key rings, toddlers tossed into the air by fathers — fell toward his house instead of the ground. This only lasted a few minutes, and we responded with bemused patience. It was one of the quirks of sharing a small town with a known diabolist.

And so it was that we enjoyed the company of our resident monster and the particular glamor he afforded us, until the day he died, and you found him there.

Dearest Allison. 

We didn’t know you like we knew him. Like him you were sullen and withdrawn, but you lacked any of the outlandish characteristics that made him so charming to us. You did not puncture holes in time and space. You did not draw angels from the ether and bind them with whores’ hair. You only lived, like any awkward girl, attending ninth grade in a cloud of resentment and distrust, hiding your eyes behind your bangs and your ungainly body beneath baggy clothes and a shield of textbooks clutched to your chest. We saw you in class, sitting in the back row with your head down; we saw you weaving like an eel through hallways choked with strangers; we saw you when you came down from the mansion on pilgrimages to the grocery store, where you were as disappointingly mundane in your selections as you were in every other aspect of your life. 

After school, after shopping, we’d watch you climb into your father’s car with the tinted windows, engine growling at the curb, and disappear up the hill into the mansion.

For all the attention you paid to us, you might have been moving through a world erased of people.

We loved your father but we did not love you.

And so on.

In the meantime, I’m continuing to write my novel set on Mars, I have a few more short stories in the works, an opportunity for personal essays (which have long been a secret and neglected love), and I have some plans for “The Cannibal Priests of New England” which I’ll address in a separate post.

And I grow older, and stranger, and more indifferent to the pull of the world. All is as it should be.

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A letter to read at night

Mia’s with her seventh grade class on a trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It’s a big deal, and she’s been looking forward to it all school year. We spent a good portion of Sunday getting ready for it; she pulled out a checklist and studiously checked each box with a big pink marker as we assembled all the necessary items. Sheets, pillow, several changes of clothes (some of which, we’re warned, we must be ready to consign to their demise in the mud pits), two pairs of shoes. More and more.

I watched her carefully pack her big duffel bag, and it was one of those moments when it was clear how much older she’s getting. She’s twelve now, nearly halfway down the road to thirteen. Her body is developing, and so is her mind. I see wisdom taking root: she makes difficult decisions, and she accepts responsibility for things it would be easier not to. I’m fiercely proud of her, as are all of us whose children are crossing the border into adulthood. And watching her that night, preparing to leave me for a few days as she engages in her own adventures, I was reminded that it’ll only be a few more years before she’s packing a similar bag to go to college, or to her own new home, or where ever it is she decides to go when it’s time.

It’s bittersweet, of course. You feel pride for her, but if you’re honest you indulge in a little pride in yourself, too: despite every catastrophic mistake and every wrong turn you’ve made as a parent, she’s doing it. She’s getting smarter and wiser and funnier, and now she’s making these little trial runs into the world without you.  Look at her go.

It’s sad, but it’s right. It’s your job to teach her to leave you.

And then she puts her stuffed animal in the suitcase. Not her favorite — her favorite is also her cat’s favorite, and she leaves that here so the cat won’t get lonely. She takes another instead. She fits it snugly in there. She tells me other girls bring them too. And I see at that moment all these girls, shortly to be riding the bus together and bunking in the cabins together, each standing at the cusp of the world. Every fundamental thing changing around them and inside them at once in huge earthquakes of identity. And they pack their stuffed animals because, after all, they are little girls yet.

Later, when I’m tucking her in and she’s worried about whether or not she’ll be able to sleep through the anticipation, she asks me for a favor.

“Will you write me a letter?”

“A letter? By the time it gets there, you’ll be home again,” I say. Not getting it.

“No Dad, a letter I can take with me. So I can read it at night when I get homesick.”

“Of course I will,” I say.

And I do. I go out into the living room, where Mia will shortly make another appearance for a glass of water because the anticipation does make it hard to sleep, and I get a pen and paper and write her a letter, telling her the things I think she might like to hear when it’s dark and she’s the only one awake, lonely for home.

The next morning as she checks her list again I hand it to her. She doesn’t look at it, folds it in half and slips it safely into the bag.

“Thanks, Dad,” she says.

Then we’re out the door, on the way to the car. It’s early enough to still be dark. She moves ahead of me, eager to be on the move, dragging her huge wheeled duffel along.

I’m right behind her.

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The Cannibal Priests of New England, part six: Tea and Blood

Martin had only just achieved a precarious sleep when he was awakened by the harsh voice of a bent, pinch-faced man in his nightclothes. He stood in the narrow door and held a lantern at his side, casting his own face into garish shadow. “The captain wants you,” he said. “Sharp-like.”

He pulled himself unhappily out of bed and fetched his trousers from the floor, noting the slow, easy roll of the ship over the waves. He must have fallen asleep during the storm. Perhaps he would make a seaman of himself yet. Still, an unbroken sleep would have done him good.

“Who are you?” he asked brusquely, reaching for his jacket.

“I cook your meals for you, mister, so mind your tone. I also see to the captain’s whims. Which is you now, so be smart about it. Look at you fussing over your clothes like a proper lady. Leave off and do as you’re bid, before his mood turns.”

Captain Beverly’s mood was generous. His quarters were at the aft of the ship, and the windows were open, affording him a salty breeze and a king’s view. The clouds had dispersed, and although there was no moon to light the waves, the stars burned in great, glittering folds. Beverly sat with his back to it, a shadow against the sky. With his thick hair and his unkempt beard he looked like a figure from the Old Testament. The table had been set up between them, with a kettle of hot water and two mugs.

“Did I interrupt your sleep, Pretty?” said the captain.

Martin took the seat opposite. He heard the steward shut the door behind him. “I know this is your ship, and you’re lord of the high seas and all that, but I will thank you to call me by my proper name.”

“Ah. I see your sensibilities are as delicate as your tender little hands.” He leaned forward and pushed the mug closer to him. “Well perhaps some tea will soothe your English heart.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Martin poured the tea into the mug and held it under his nose, breathing it in. He sipped, and found it surprisingly good.

Captain Beverly smiled. “Privileges of the wicked life,” he said.

“I suspect the privileges are many. Including summoning gentlemen from sleep to sit at your table upon a whim. What need do you have of me, Captain?”

“I have need of your context, Mr. Dunwood. I would like to know your business with the Cannibal Priests.”

All the warmth generated by the hot tea was dissipated by the utterance of that phrase. He put the mug back on the table and concentrated carefully on maintaining composure. The captain, damn him, watched him as carefully as he would an opponent in a duel; if that’s what this was, the revelation of his knowledge of Martin’s business had already defeated him. The captain smiled; light glinted from his teeth.

“Mr. Gully has been indiscrete, I see,” Martin managed to say.

“Mr. Gully has the eager tongue of a dockside whore, but I don’t need him to tell me what’s already plain. I told you at port that your business could stay your own, but I’ve had something of an eventful night since that time, and I’m afraid I must now become a trifle more insistent.”

“How do you know of them?” said Martin.

“I do a bit of work for them, Mr. Dunwood. On the side, as it were. I am about their business even now.”

“But … I thought you said you weren’t going to New England.”

“I’m not. Now Mr. Dunwood, I’ll ask you again. And if you avoid my question one more time I shall summon Mr. Thierry into the room, and he will do the asking on my behalf. Do you understand me?”

Martin’s sense of control had evaporated. He was afraid; it was a new and unwelcome emotion. “Yes, Captain, I think I do,” he said quietly.

“What is your business with the Cannibal Priests?”

Martin took a breath to steady himself. “I’m going to barter for a seat at the table.”

Captain Beverly gave a slight shake of the head, scrutinizing him carefully. “This isn’t how it’s done, though. Sneaking north on a renegade ship, for God’s sake, like some plague-addled wharf rat. No. One is invited. One arrives in a gilded carriage. One is provided with servants to open doors and proffer chairs, and to wipe one’s powdered arse. Not like this. Not like you’re doing it.”

“Obviously, I have not been invited.”

“Obviously.” The captain smiled at him. They crested a wave and through the window Martin saw the sea fall away behind the captain’s head to be replaced by the long, open dark of the sky. The cups on the table slid a few inches before settling to a stop. “You’re crashing the party, aren’t you, you scamp. They don’t know you’re coming.”

Martin said nothing. Despite the cool air blowing in through the open window, the room felt close and hot. The pitching of the ship made a tumult in his gut; that, along with the new and very real possibility that this brute might interfere with his plan to see Alice again, made it a struggle not to spew his last meal all over the table between them.

“I can pay you,” he said. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his jacket.

“‘Pay me.’ You’re paying me already. Will you do it twice? What is this new service you wish to compensate me for?”

“You say you work for them. I can pay you not to warn them of my approach.”

The captain sipped from his tea and seemed to consider for a moment. “You’re making certain assumptions. Let me ask you. What are your intentions, once you arrive? I do business with these men. Do you mean to disrupt it?”

“No. I do not threaten that relationship in any way. I’m only looking for someone. I want to bring her back to England with me.”

“I see. It’s a love story, then.”

“If you like.”

“All proper men of the sea enjoy a good love story, Mr. Dunwood. Despite the fact that ours always end in tears.” He leaned back in his chair again, the wood of the chair creaking beneath him. The stars heaved in the sky. Finally, he said, “All right then, Mr. Dunwood. Your story does not entirely set me at ease, but it does rouse my interest. We’ll go on as planned. You may return to your bunk.”

Martin made no move to rise. “And your work for them, Captain? What is its nature?”

Captain Beverly looked at him flatly. “I’ve shown you all the forbearance I intend to for the evening. Remember where you are.”

Martin nodded, and rose to his feet. His hand was on the door when Captain Beverly stopped him.

“A word of caution: it’s not my tongue you need worry about. That little villain you’ve hired to do your dirty work will sell you for a tuppence. You know that, surely?”

Martin stopped. “Fat Gully.”

“That’s the one. Off to bed now, my lovestruck friend. Lets see what tomorrow brings us, shall we?”

Martin retreated to his cramped quarters. He slept fitfully, and he was plagued by dreams of the Farm. He watched a cleaver rise and fall, over and over again, lifting bright red arcs into the air. He saw a stunned human face pressed against the bars of a metal cage. He heard a shriek so piercing that it launched him from sleep, upright in his swinging cot at some unknowable black hour of the night, panting and listening. He listened, but there was only the sound of the waves against the hull, the groan of wood straining against the deep. He closed his eyes again, and if he dreamed further, it was only of the abyss.

(A note on the absence of art: Jeremy Duncan recently took on new employment and as a result his schedule has changed considerably. In the future he’ll provide art when he can. I love what he’s done and I’ll be happy to include more as his time permits. In the meantime, rather than wait, the story will forge ahead.)

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The Cannibal Priests of New England, part five: The Carrion Angels

There were four of them. They emerged from the lantern-smoked alleyways of the nameless port town, building themselves from shadows and burnt rags. Seven feet tall, their thin bodies wrapped in fluttering black cloth, they listed back and forth as they walked, their bones creaking like the rigging of ships. Their faces were open mouths drifting among the tattered ribbons and the gloom. Teeth glinted in the firelight like hard flint.

They stalked the narrow avenues of the town with measured deliberation, going unseen by most of the population, and sending those few that did see them shrieking and scattering like frightened gulls. Some of the more foolhardy among them turned and fired a few wild shots before running. The carrion angels were oblivious to all of it, their bodies accepting the violence they way a corpse accepts the worm. They swung their great heads toward each juncture of road and alley, lifting their snouts and huffing deep breaths as they tracked the scent.

They followed it to a darkened warehouse where they found the corpse of Thomas Thickett, the back of his head cratered and his brains splashed across the stacked crates and the packed earth. The stink of it made them drunk and they lost focus for a moment, hunched around this glorious fountain of scent, this unexpected confection. But they remembered their duty. Turning aside for the moment, they creaked slowly through the warehouse.

They knew almost immediately that the heads had been taken.

The trail resumed at the bay door, wending down toward the docks. But before they pursued it, they returned to the feast that had been left them. They surrounded the body of Thomas the Bloody and stooped to feed, lowering their heads into the bowl of his corpse. They ate with a grateful reverence, the sound of wet meat and cracking bone giving measure to an almost absolute darkness.

Outside, the town had erupted in a panic. Word of the carrion angels’ presence had spread fast and the narrow roads were choked with men fleeing for their ships. Pirates and sailors careened drunkenly, lurching, stumbling, trampling the fallen. Throughout the town panicked men shot and stabbed at shadows, and the road to the sea was marked by the bodies of the dead and the dying. Most of the women stayed inside, shuttering the windows and locking the doors; others, often the youngest and least experienced, followed the pirates to the docks, forgetting in the terror of the moment the temperament of these men, and remembering only when they were beaten back or shot as they tried to climb the gangplanks to safety.

The ships were alight with lanterns, riggings acrawl with sailors making ready for the sea. Boats were dropped from the sides and men were set to towing the vessels from the port. Gunsmoke hazed the air and the bloom of violence was a grace upon the town. They walked in their slow, swaying gait through it all, like four tall priests proceeding sedately through hell, confident in their faith.

The scent ended at the docks. The crate of heads had gone to sea.

It was a small thing to sneak passage aboard a ship. The carrion angels dissolved into rags and dust, blowing like so much garbage in the wind, carrying over the water and into the rat-thronged hold of one of the several pirate ships, settling amongst the refuse and lying as still as the dead.

The captain of this very ship, a hard old man called Bonny Andrew, who harbored a longstanding terror of these creatures yet misjudged their physical nature, waited until they had reached some distance from land and ordered his ship to turn about, offering its broadside to the town. At his command the ship fired its complement of guns in a poorly orchestrated yet devastating volley, sending cannonballs smashing through weak wooden walls and bringing whole buildings to the ground. Another ship took inspiration from this and fired as well.

Within moments the nameless port town and its luckless residents were reduced to broken wood, and smoke, and blood. The pirates, satisfied at their own efficiency, rounded out to sea, dark under a moonless night.

The carrion angels slept in the hold. The scent’s trail was a road, even over the sea. They were sure of their step.

(Art by Jeremy Duncan)

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The Cannibal Priests of New England, part four: The Darling of the Abattoir

Alone in the first mate’s quarters, which had been surrendered to him without a twitch of protest by the one-eyed Mr. Johns at his captain’s order, Martin Dunwood lay in the cot suspended crossways across the tiny room and tried to acclimate himself to the deep pitch and tumble of The Lady Celeste as it pushed its way across the cresting waves, on its way to the open sea. Somewhere above him rain drummed over the ship, and its crew worked the lines and the sails with the precision — or lack of it — one might expect from a congress of pirates. Martin did not care to speculate on their abilities; he felt sick enough already. Instead he entrusted his fate to God and focused his attentions on better things.

Alice.

The promise of Alice pulled him across the sea, from his meager home in St. Giles to the polluted stink of London, and then to Tortuga and this wicked man’s vessel; he resolved that he would let it pull him across the whole of the world before he would ever give up his search.

The light in the lantern guttered as the ship plummeted down a steep trough. Martin snuffed it out before it could spill and light the room on fire. The darkness which fell over him was oppressive, as though someone had thrown a weight over him. The sounds of the water smashing into the hull, and of the raw voices outside shouting to be heard over the storm, became impossible to ignore. It seemed as though the whole ship’s complement had suddenly crowded into his cabin and begun knocking things about.

So he thought of Alice.

He remembered the first time he ever laid eyes on her: she had been standing on a corner outside a grocer’s shop. Her fine clothes and her red hair were disheveled and there was a horror in her expression, her face as pale as a daylight moon. Blood matted the expensive materials of her dress, caked heavily near the lower hem and arrayed in a pattern of sprays and constellations further up her body, as though she had just waded through some dreadful carnage.

Martin, who had been sent to London on his father’s errand the previous day, stood transfixed. He didn’t know what catastrophe had befallen her but it seemed she needed immediate help. He waited for a carriage to pass before he stepped out into the muddy thoroughfare, but immediately came up short — an older gentleman stepped out of the grocer and joined her at the corner. He too was well-dressed, though his clothes were free of blood. He threw an overcoat around her shoulders and hailed a carriage. Within moments he bundled her into it, and with a flick of the driver’s wrist she was whisked away, leaving behind her an ordinary corner on an ordinary street. The drabness of the image seemed to reject the possibility that she had ever been there.

It was not until years later that he saw her again. By that time his father had accrued some money through real estate, and had graduated into more elevated social planes. They had been invited to a party thrown by a local banker, and as Martin lurked unhappily in a corner of the room, resenting the pomp and self-satisfaction of the people around him, he saw her again.

She was standing amidst a crowd of men, young and eager for her attention. She smiled at one of them as he gestured to illustrate some point, and Martin knew at once that none of the fools had a chance with her, that she was wearing them like jewelry. He pressed his way through the crowd until he joined her little retinue.

If she noticed him as he approached she did not show it. He stationed himself in her outer orbit and just watched her. She stood stone still, and although she was properly demure and maintained the comportment of a young lady of her station, she was set apart from everyone around her. She seemed carved from stone. She was acting.

At the first break in the conversation, he said, “Didn’t I see you once outside a small grocer’s in the East End? It would have been a long time ago.”

Her eyes settled on him. They were a pale blue. “I rather doubt it.”

“You would remember this,” he said. “You were covered in blood.”

She betrayed no reaction, but even in that she revealed herself. No shock, no disgust, no laughing dismay. Just a cool appraisal, and silence.

One of the young men turned on him, his blond hair pulled back harshly from his forehead in a bow. “I say, are you mad?”

“Possibly,” said Martin.

“It’s all right, Francis,” she said. “He’s right. I do remember that day. It was quite dreadful. A horse had come up lame and had to be shot. It was done right in front of me and I think it’s the worst thing I ever saw.”

“I don’t remember a dead horse,” Martin said.

“Perhaps you weren’t paying attention,” she said. “So much goes on right under our noses.”

Within minutes she had dismissed her pretty men and Martin found himself sitting some distance from the party, talking to this remarkable woman who seemed to fit amongst these people the same way a shark fits amongst a school of mackerel.

“Why did you say that to me?” she said. “What did you think would happen?”

“I had no idea. I wanted to find out.”

“Hardly the right environment for radical social experiments, wouldn’t you say?”

“I would say it’s precisely the right environment.”

She offered a half smile. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Martin Dunwood. My father owns the–“

“Are you some sort of anarchist, Martin Dunwood?”

“Would it make me more interesting if I said yes?”

In minutes they were in the banker’s bedroom, fucking with a furious, urgent silence. Thereafter they met often, and always clandestinely. She was even more contemptuous of the world than he, prone to stormy rages, and he got drunk off of that rage. It was wild and different and echoed his own sense of alienation from the world. Their illicit sex was as much an act of defiance as it was a hunger for each other. After a month of this she took him to his first Farm, and he saw what she did there.

It was when he watched the blood drip from the ends of her long red hair that he knew he was in love with her, and that he would break the world to keep her.

(Art by Jeremy Duncan)

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Motorcycle

When I lived in New Orleans I rode a motorcycle for about five years. It was a dark red Honda Shadow, VT600C, paid for with money I made as a bartender. I must have paced New Orleans and its surrounding areas several hundred times on that thing. My friend Sara taught me how to ride, and once I started it was hard to ever get off.

I remember very well getting out of the UNO newspaper’s office, where I was editor, at two in the morning on layout night, and driving across town through the empty night on my way home. I would come down Elysian Fields, with its pocked, rough roads, skirt the French Quarter where the music still played and you could smell the beer and the river and the cooking food, drive through the Central Business District and all the lights, through the Lower Garden District and smell the baking bread, and then up Prytania Street, where night blooming jasmine flooded the air with its scent. It was a direct engagement with the city at night, something that’s impossible to replicate in the shell of a car. Even in the heat of August, the wind cooled you as you rode.

I remember riding south into bayou country, the small ribbon of road carving a modest path through green crops of soybean or sugarcane,  huge and venerable oaks, the roadside seasoned with old, stormbeaten homes. I remember smelling the Gulf’s salty air and feeling the sting of blown sand on my face. Riding in the rain, the fear galvanizing, every nerve extended, every dip and chunk in the road a possible end, each finished trip a celebration of will, ability, and luck.

I sold it when I got divorced and moved to Asheville with Mia. I couldn’t justify the risk involved while I was a single parent. Sometimes it was hard to justify even when I wasn’t single. But I think about it a lot. Especially lately, as I close in on seven years here, and I find myself still working a job I thought would only be transitional, still single, still trapped in amber. And also as there are signs of forward progress at last, as my first book moves closer to reality and the first novel is underway, with a strong momentum. It’s a road novel, in some ways, and so naturally my mind returns to my favored experience of the road.

I won’t be getting one again any time soon. At least not while Mia still lives at home. But someday I will. I’ve always wanted to take a month-long motorcycle trip through Alaska. By myself, or in the company of someone else … it doesn’t matter. I can feel that day coming closer.

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The evolution of a title

At Readercon this past weekend, I had breakfast with Kelly Link and Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press and we talked about the collection. First, we settled on a target date for the book’s debut: Readercon of 2013. That’s a year to play with, but — since they will be putting out several other books before then — the ball is already rolling. I’m told we have to get the cover art locked down in a month’s time, so we’ll be poring over possibilities in the coming weeks. This part, I must admit, is a lot of fun.

When choosing cover art, it’s necessary to consider the title. And the title to this collection has just changed for the third and, one hopes, final time.

When I sent Small Beer the manuscript, it was called Monsters of Heaven: stories. (I’ve never liked “… and Other Stories” as a part of a title; I prefer a book to have a single title, with the word “stories” close by, to avoid confusion (and sometimes I wish we could even get rid of that).) I told them I was also considering You Go Where It Takes You as the collection’s title, and that met with a much more enthusiastic response. I poled my friends, and opinions were pretty split between the two. Since I liked them both, I decided to go with the latter.

At Readercon, I was told that when they asked people they knew, reactions were decidedly in favor of Monsters of Heaven. More memorable, they were told. More likely to get picked up. “So we’re going with your original title,” they said.

Just one problem: the novel I’m working on now is called Map of the Lower Heavens. Though there’s no guarantee that will be the title when it’s finally on the stands, I have no reason now to think that it won’t be, and I don’t want each of my first two books to have the word “Heaven” in the title. So I suggested the third title, again drawn from a short story in the collection, which I thought could work for the book as a whole. This one, mercifully, everyone liked right away. (By this time the writer Jedediah Berry had joined us, and offered his approval as well.)

The book is now called North American Lake Monsters: stories. I like it because it sounds like a field guide, or a bestiary, and because lake monsters are necessarily hidden beneath a placid surface, which is a theme that links many of the stories.

This suggests an entirely different sort of cover art than either of the previous titles, and so I’m spending the evening looking for something strange and beautiful.

I love working with a press that cares so much about what the writer wants for the book. I can’t wait to see what we make.

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New Work

First, there will be a minor delay in the next installment of “The Cannibal Priests of New England,” as Jeremy Duncan attends to personal matters. I do not anticipate the delay being longer than a week. The next installment — “The Darling of the Abattoir” — is one of the longer ones, in which we first encounter Alice and pick up a few hints about the Farms. Jeremy’s done an amazing job so far, and if he needs a little more time for this one I’m more than happy to give it to him. He makes me look good.

In the meantime, I’ll take the opportunity to offer some updates about other work.

“Wild Acre” is finally out, in Gary McMahon’s anthology Visions Fading Fast. This is a story I’m pretty proud of. It is, in a sense, a werewolf story, which I know some people find a little passe. I like to think this one is a bit different, though. It doesn’t go in a direction I’ve seen these things go. But I love werewolves. I’ve always found them pretty terrifying, and I was eager to take a crack at them. Here’s a money shot:

“Finally he reaches the top of the hill and looks inside.

Dennis is on his back, his body frosted by moonlight. He’s lifting his head, staring down at himself. Organs are strewn to one side of his body like beached, black jellyfish, dark blood pumping slowly from the gape in his belly and spreading around him in a gory nimbus. His head drops back and he lifts it again. Renaldo is on his back too, arms flailing, trying to hold off the thing bestride him: huge, black-furred, dog-begotten, its man-like fingers wrapped around Renaldo’s face and pushing his head into the floor so hard that the wood cracks beneath it. It lifts its shaggy head, bloody ropes of drool swinging from its snout and arcing into the moonsilvered night. It peels its lips from its teeth. Renaldo’s screams are muffled beneath its hand.”

I’m working on a longer story called “The Atlas of Hell,” sort of a fusion (I like to think) of Richard Stark and Satanism. It’s much more in the tradition of the Cannibal Priests, though: there’s no goal here but to have fun. It’s fast-paced, over the top, and, I hope, a good time. It features Jack Oleander, a walk-on character I used years ago in a small piece called “The Malady of Ghostly Cities,” written for Jeff VanderMeer’s first Lambshead anthology. I’ve considered revisiting that character many times since; it’s a pleasure to do so now, and to really give him room to move around. I’ll be reading from this one at Readercon next week.

Finally, I’m working on the novel, currently called Map of the Lower Heavens. It’s a bewildering experience, writing in this form. I’m excited, scared — all the usual things when writing a novel, I suppose. I’m going to resist the impulse to post an excerpt just yet, but I probably will eventually.

And, coming next year: You Go Where It Takes You: stories, from Small Beer Press.

In real life, Mia just turned twelve, and she’s back in Alabama for three weeks to visit her mom. Once again I find myself feeling unanchored and listless without her here. But there’s suddenly a lot more free time; let’s see if I can’t derive some measure of good from it.

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