Diversity in Publishing: Good Ethics, Good Business

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Don’t mind me. I’m nobody.

I have no experience as a publisher, editor, or anthologist. Hell, I’ve only been an active member of the genre writing community for a couple years, and I have barely a handful of published credits to my name. As such, my opinion carries little to no weight.

That’s okay. I don’t think I’m smarter than people who have been doing this for decades. I don’t think I have all the answers. I don’t think I know better. All I know is what I believe, and if you don’t agree with me, well, feel free to chalk it up to me talking out of my ass.

Recently, the issue of diversity in publishing has reignited as a hot topic in the horror, bizarro, and weird fiction communities. It’s not a new issue. Nor is it one that necessarily impacts me, a (mostly) hetero-leaning white cis male, all that directly. I’m fortunate in that way. I’m privileged enough to not have to look very hard or very far to find my own perspective reflected back at me. A vast majority of the art and entertainment I consume is dominated by characters I can easily relate to, produced by creators who come from a similar background.

That doesn’t mean the issue of diversity in publishing doesn’t impact me whatsoever, though. It impacts every last one of us, in fact, and we should all view it as a matter of utmost importance. After all, isn’t the value of reading widely one of the great truisms which both readers and writers hold dear? That doesn’t just mean reading a wide variety of styles or genres; it also means reading a wide variety of authors, voices, and perspectives. Being open to a multitude of different worldviews, lifestyles, experiences, and identities is not just the hallmark of a good reader, but of a good person. In turn, our own life experience becomes all the richer for it, exposing us to possibilities we might have otherwise never dreamed of.

Which is why it disappoints me so much when I look at the table of contents of some new anthology and see not even one woman, person of color, or LGBTQ author listed as a contributor. It’s the kind of thing that makes me double-check the copyright page just to make sure that, yes, I am indeed holding a product of the current century.

Even when unintentional, this kind of oversight is especially damning when it comes to anthologies, wherein part of the whole point of the thing is to offer up a veritable witches’ brew of diverse voices. For all the variety that differing writing styles, plots, themes, and characters can provide, even if some contributors are specifically trying to represent perspectives different from the ones they personally identify with, the fact remains that you can line up a hundred hetero white guys and not one of them will be able to reproduce the unique viewpoints of just one woman, person of color, or LGBTQ author.

Of course, we are, all of us, different and unique and we all have our own singular life experiences, blah blah blah. That’s a given. But there are nevertheless some experiences which more or less all individuals of a certain background are more likely to be able to relate to. One hetero white guy may overall have very different life experiences from another hetero white guy, but chances are there remains a common baseline of experience uniting them simply because they are both hetero white guys. It might seem like a small thing, but that’s the kind of fundamental difference that stacks up over time. It affects the way you think and what you expect from life. It affects the very way you understand reality.

In a very real, meaningful way, women experience the world differently than men, people of color experience the world differently than whites, and LGBTQ individuals experience the world differently than straight folks. This does nothing to diminish the value of any individuals’ experiences, nor does it validate or invalidate any of those experiences above or below the others. None of this should be seen as excuse to hold biases against those who are different. Quite the opposite, it should motivate us to reexamine what biases we may already hold because of our individual privileges (or the lack thereof).

Therefore, an anthology which deprives readers of a truly diverse lineup of contributors in turn deprives readers of entire swaths of possibility and experience. Such an anthology inevitably falls far short of its full potential. And, frankly, in a market overflowing with competition, why should any reader be expected to waste their time and money on something that isn’t the very best it can be?

A few days ago, I said as much in a thread on Facebook, only to have my opinion completely dismissed by a writer and editor far more experienced and respected than myself. I don’t disagree with this person being held in high regard (in truth, I count myself as a fan). Nor do I dispute the validity of said person’s own experiences.

And yet…

Here’s the thing. In the simplest terms, this person’s argument boiled down to a rehash of the idea that it is not an editor or publisher’s responsibility to seek out and cultivate diversity, and that an editor or publisher shouldn’t be expected to do anything beyond simply rifle through whatever submissions they receive and select the very best stories they can, regardless of who wrote them.

Seems like pretty sound logic, right?

Eh, not so much.

I’m not even going to go in-depth into the disingenuousness of claiming editors/publishers always accept only the best stories regardless of author (admit it, if Stephen King submitted a pile of barely readable crap, most of us would probably accept it sight unseen, if only to guarantee the book healthy sales numbers and a shot at attention from mainstream media). Nor am I going to spend much time tackling the ugly underlying implication that women, POC, and LGBTQ authors would be published more if only they were good enough writers (independent from the fact that many of the very best writers working in genre fiction today are women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals, this notion blithely ignores years upon years of marginalization and homogenization through which minority voices have often, at best, been treated as novelty items and, at worst, been told in no uncertain terms that they are not welcome here).

Instead, I’m just going to focus on the question of what constitutes an editor or publisher’s “responsibilities.” At first blush, it seems reasonable to suggest that an editor/publisher should be beholden to nothing more and nothing less than the requirement that he or she put out the very best anthology they can, selecting the very best stories from whatever submissions that have found their way to them. Putting aside my earlier assertion that an anthology without a diverse set of contributors is inherently not the best it can be, the flaws with this line of thinking become apparent the moment we start thinking about everything else that we, both writers and readers, contributors and customers, expect from any publisher who wants to be taken seriously.

In general, we expect publishers to not only produce “good” products, but ethical ones as well. Otherwise, why would it cause a scandal when a publisher violates a contract, infringes copyright, fails to pay their writers, exploits rookie authors through predatory “for the love” submission calls, or employs someone with a proven history of sexual assault or who is literally Hitler?

Conducting business in an ethical manner is not just a responsibility of publishers; it’s a responsibility of all people, everywhere, at all times. Arguably, you can be a “good” publisher without being an ethical one, and you can be ethical publisher without being a “good” one. But, as previously noted, the market is awash with competition. When there are publishers out there who are indeed both “good” and ethical, why settle for anything less?

So then, what does it actually mean to be an ethical publisher? Well, aside from avoiding the obvious aforementioned pitfalls of shortchanging authors, employing white supremacist scumbags, etc., being an ethical publisher means, surprise surprise, seeking out and cultivating diversity.

Actively encouraging diversity is important. Not just because it inherently improves the quality of your product and enriches your costumers’ experiences with it, but also because it’s simply the right thing to do.

Why? Because women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals are still drastically underrepresented and often reduced to stereotypes, both on the page and behind the scenes. Because decades of this exact sort of thing has made the overall literary community into a place that is in some ways subtly intolerant and in other ways openly hostile towards voices which do not reflect the already accepted status quo. Because minority voices are already starting from a disadvantaged position which their majority peers can breeze right past, thus making “equality” an impossibility unless steps are taken to correct systemic prejudices.

These days, publishers are too frequently viewed, both by themselves and by writers, as godlike behemoths who exist to pass judgement on that which “good” and that which is “bad,” blessing the “good” with publication and banishing the “bad” to the hell of rejection. Publishers, in this context, become passive beings, monuments which we writers must trek to and grovel before, and if we don’t or can’t make that journey, well, that’s just one less supplicant for the publisher to pass judgement on. No worries; there are still many, many others eager to take our place.

Not all publishers embrace this view, but those that do, those who see no reason to actively search for and court new and different voices, are just plain lazy. Good publishers are not stationary gods. Good publishers are treasure-hunters.

Some publishers may protest, claiming they don’t have the time, energy, or resources to reach out to authors beyond their established pool of reliable contributors. As a reader, though, how am I supposed to trust that such a publisher will indeed put in the work required to make a final product worthy of my hard-earned money if I can’t even trust that publisher to put in the work required to put together a fresh, diverse line-up of contributors?

No one expects the unreasonable. No one expects your average small-press publisher to send out a network of undercover scouts to every community-college workshop and open-mic night on the eastern seaboard in hopes of discovering the next great diamond in the rough. But is it too much to request that a publisher or editor put in a few extra minutes of effort to ensure their latest submissions call explicitly asks for and encourages diversity? Or to ensure that said submissions call is posted in places where diverse authors might actually see it? Like I said at the start, I myself am not an editor or a publisher, so maybe I’m wrong here, but it doesn’t really seem like that taxing a request.

Either way, being that I’m not an editor or a publisher, I don’t really have a whole lot of power to directly correct what I perceive to be a genuine injustice in genre fiction. As a writer, though, I do have the power to say “No thank you, I don’t want to be involved” to any project pretending it’s 1955 and that heteronormative whitebread sausagefests are still acceptable. And, more importantly, as a reader I have the power to say “Fuck you, you will not get my money” to any product whose creators are too lazy to be bothered to put in even the bare minimum of effort to ensure diversity.

I may be nobody and my opinion might not carry much weight, but my cash sure does. Some editors and publishers can’t see past their own privilege, but they sure as shit can see the difference between good business and bad business.

Vote with your dollars, friends. Don’t just ask for better. Demand it.

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Con Report: Things I Did at StokerCon 2018

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Last year featured a major milestone for me, as I attended my first professional writers’ conference, NecronomiCon Providence. So memorable an experience was it that I ended up writing a gargantuan, rambling, two-part blog about the experience (which you can read here and here). This year, I attended my second such event, StokerCon 2018. But because I’m now a jaded veteran of the con scene, I’ll keep my blog about it short.

Actually, it’s just because I have a lot going on in my personal life right now, and I just don’t have the time to write something as exhaustive and, frankly, exhausting as I did for NecronomiCon. Besides, you don’t want to read something that long again, do you?

Before I start rattling off some of my favorite memories from my trip, I will say this much about StokerCon: It’s very different from NecromiCon. It is somehow both bigger and smaller, with a much more limited array of panels and events, but also a decidedly broader range, which comes from encompassing horror in all forms and formats (as opposed to focusing specifically on, say, Lovecraftian and weird fiction). One thing I noticed (and, as a novice author, appreciated) was that StokerCon seemed to offer more content for attendees interested in the craft and business side of writing, while NecronomiCon put a greater emphasis on the themes, philosophy, and history of genre literature.

Personally, I enjoyed both events about equally, and I feel I got a lot out of each. I would definitely recommend either one in a heartbeat. In fact, I hope to attend both cons again regularly in the future. I assure you, I have not been paid by either StokerCon or NecronomiCon to say these things.

Yet.

Anyway, here are some of the more memorable things I did at StokerCon 2018:

I…

…stayed at the Providence Biltmore, purportedly one of the most haunted hotels in America.

…paid my respects to the dearly departed Jack Ketchum at a special memorial panel.

…talked to editor Don D’Auria about how instrumental the Leisure Books imprint was in inspiring me to write horror.

…scored a signed copy of Amber Fallon‘s TV Dinners From Hell straight from the author herself.

…geeked out over Borkchito with Matthew M. Bartlett.

…compared neuroses with Sean M. Thompson.

…ran into fellow Wilkes University Creative Writing Program survivor John Koloski.

…gushed to Eraserhead Press founder Rose O’Keefe about how bizarro fiction changed my life.

….did my best impression of a wallflower at a get-together in Kenneth Vaughan‘s suite.

…was almost blinded by the light reflected off of Bracken MacLeod‘s smooth, shiny noggin.

…talked Nathan Carson‘s ear off and got signed copies of his new comic, The Willows.

…caught readings by the legendary Ramsey Campbell and Caitlin R. Kiernan.

…had the likewise legendary F. Paul Wilson and Tom Monteleone ask me for directions and miraculously managed not to turn into a stammering fanboy.

…ate my body weight in cheese.

…pushed this button:

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Remembering Ron

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Who is Ron Gelsleichter?

For those of you who’ve picked up a copy of the new anthology Test Patterns and read “I Am Become Death,” the story he and I share credit on, you may or may not have wondered this. Of the book’s 30+ contributors, Ron Gelsleichter is the only one with no other publications to his name. While my own credits are admittedly few (and of debatable noteworthiness) they still exist. You can look me up on Goodreads or on Amazon any time you want and find my bibliography. You can track down a copy of one of my books and find my name immortalized there on the table of contents. Slight as it might be, there remains a record of my contributions to the world of fiction, one which will persist even after I’m gone.

Who, then, is Ron Gelsleichter? Well, he was one of my very best friends, for starters. In fact, he was one of only two that I can honestly say have ever completely and utterly known the real me, one of the very few I truly felt comfortable sharing anything and everything with. For more than ten years, since I first met him in 2006, hardly a week went by where we didn’t spend at least a day together. I often joked that my weekly visits with Ron were the only thing keeping me sane. There’s truth to that; no matter how stressful or depressing things in my life got, a night hanging out with Ron, eating greasy takeout and riffing on bad movies, always helped me recalibrate. Ron’s house was like a decompression chamber where I could go and have my mood instantly lifted, so as to return to the “real world” refreshed and renewed.

No one shared my sense of humor like Ron did. No one had tastes in art and entertainment so similar to mine.  No one reflected my own past and present back at me so totally, in such a way as to forge a bond of unshakeable camaraderie. Ron was undoubtedly the closest thing I’ve ever come to having a brother. That last sentence reveals something I only just now realize in the very moment that I write those words. You ask me who Ron Gelsleichter was and the truest answer I can give you is that he was my brother.

Last year, Ron died very unexpectedly. He was only 32.

Today is my birthday. Today I turn 31.

Ron remains 32. He will never be older than 32.

Though Ron and I had much in common, there is one way in which we were still very different.  Something we occasionally laughed about was the idea that he and I were actually the same person from alternate universes, the one major difference being that, as introverted as I might be, I had learned at least some social skills. Indeed, Ron was an extremely private person with very few friends and almost no real family. Aside from his warehouse job, he had little interest in leaving his house or interacting with the vast majority of humanity. And despite having one of the keenest minds for storytelling I’ve ever seen a person display, he was reluctant to put any of his own work out into the world.

Though Ron’s brain was always whirring away with all kinds of crazy, wonderful ideas, he rarely finished any of the myriad projects he started. Hell, he didn’t even start that many, despite the seemingly infinite reservoir he’d been blessed with. In the end, I think, his storytelling instincts may have been too keen. Whenever we discussed a story or a movie or a TV show, Ron’s critiques generally proved the most insightful and on-the-nose. He always knew exactly what was wrong with something and he could rattle off a dozen ways to make it better. That ability to recognize flaws, however, could be damning; it’s not hard to see how it could mutate into a kind of self-defeating perfectionism that disinclined him from seeing any endeavor through to the end since he knew all along how flawed it would inevitably be.

I was upfront with Ron about how much this bothered me. It was frustrating knowing how many lesser talents, myself included, were able to make at least some kind of name for themselves as storytellers while this quiet prodigy would continue to remain largely invisible. It was just a month or so before Ron’s passing that I convinced him to collaborate on a story with me. We both agreed to brainstorm ideas separately before meeting up sometime in the near future to see what we’d each come up with. But that meeting never came. That story will never be written.

Ron’s funeral was sparsely attended.

There’s no shame in that. Like I said, he was a very private person who was highly selective about who he wanted to be friends with. If any more people came to pay respects to him than he himself would have preferred to bother with, that would be insulting. Nevertheless, my heart ached (and continues to ache) thinking about how few people out there will ever truly fathom the wonderful personality, the wild sense of humor, the brilliant mind, and the gifted storyteller the world lost with his passing. Ron deserves to be remembered. He deserves to be on the record. He deserved to be immortalized, in some small way.

That’s why Ron Gelsleichter is my co-author for “I Am Become Death.” In truth, he could rightfully be credited as co-author for everything I’ve ever written and everything I ever will write. Of all my close friends, it was his opinion I trusted the most, his approval I sought the most, and his criticism I both valued and dreaded the most.  The first time I had a story published, he was the first person to get a copy. In fact, he was the only person I consistently made sure got a copy every single time I had a story published, because his thoughts on the final product mattered so much to me.

“I Am Become Death” is influenced heavily by Rod Serling’s classic TV series The Twilight Zone. The anthology it appears in, Test Patterns, is specifically meant as a tribute to shows like The Twilight Zone. Ron and I were both big fans of The Twilight Zone. More than a few of those days we spent cooped up in his house were days spent marathoning episodes, debating our favorites, and perversely hunting for what could be definitively called the worst Twilight Zones ever (we both had a strange fascination with seeing the things we loved most at their absolute worst).

“I Am Become Death” was the first story of mine accepted for publication after Ron’s passing. It seemed a decent way of paying tribute to him. Just writing “In Memory Of” didn’t feel like enough. So instead, anytime someone ever comes across a copy of Test Patterns in the wild, they will find his name there right alongside mine. Right alongside Joe Pulver’s and Cody Goodfellow’s and Matthew Bartlett’s and Philip Fracassi’s and a dozen other of the best and brightest names in contemporary weird fiction. Right where it belongs.

I have to confess, I wrestled with myself a long time over whether or not I should write this blog at all. I didn’t want it to come across a self-congratulatory, like I’m patting myself on the back and saying “Look at what a swell guy I am for being willing to share credit with my dear departed pal.” I never wanted to make this about me. But then I realized that if I didn’t say something I’d be robbing you of any information about who Ron actually was. All because… what? Because I’m afraid how that might reflect on me? No, if say I want Ron to be remembered only to play coy about who it is I’m sharing credit with on this story (and why), then the whole effort is self-defeating, isn’t it?

For many, “Ron Gelsleichter” will just be a name, one readers may or may not notice as they turn the page and continue on to the next tale. But for me he was a lot more. Certainly more than I could ever hope to summarize even if I wrote a thousand more paragraphs, though I hope this tiny fragment I’ve offered here communicates at least some idea of who Ron Gelsleichter actually was, of how much he meant to me, and of how much the world has been deprived by not seeing his name on more stories.

R.I.P. Jack Ketchum

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“The worst is missing them, you know? And knowing they won’t be back again. Just knowing that. Sometimes you forget and it’s as though they’re on vacation or something and you think, gee, I wish they’d call. You miss them. You forget they’re really gone. You forget the past six months even happened. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t that crazy? Then you catch yourself… and it’s real again.”

~ from The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

I’m sad to say I never really knew Jack Ketchum except in the sense that I was an avid reader of his work. In the days since his recent passing, I’ve heard a lot of my fellow horror writers who did know him share fond memories using his real name, Dallas Mayr, but I don’t feel I’ve earned the right to talk about him like that. For better or worse, he’ll always be Jack Ketchum to me.

When I was a freshman in high school, I read my first Ketchum book. It came in the mail, a random selection from the Leisure Horror Book Club, of which I was a member. The book’s title? The Girl Next Door. I had no idea what I was in for.

Inspired by the true-life murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens, The Girl Next Door is a heartbreaking, stomach-churning, limit-testing story of pitiless monstrosity hiding not beyond any veil of the supernatural, but in the hearts and minds of everyday people who are all too willing to act on their darkest impulses when given permission. Far from an exploitation of the Likens case, Ketchum’s fictional remix is more an exploration of the tragedy’s most damning philosophical and psychological implications. As Alan Moore once famously wrote, great artists uses lies to tell the truth. Sure enough, Ketchum was indeed a great artist.

To date, I still consider The Girl Next Door to be one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read. I’m not going to lie, the first time I got through it I cried. See, one of the things that made Ketchum so special as a writer was not just the way he directed your eyes towards the harshest real-world atrocities imaginable, all while daring you not to blink, but the way he was able to do so without sacrificing genuine emotion to one-dimensional shock or sadism. The point of Ketchum’s horror was not merely to dwell on human cruelty, but to cut through to the sorrow beneath it. For Ketchum, no character was merely a disposable victim; they were all living, breathing, suffering people. Violence was not something to revel in; it was something to fear and loathe, an expression of one broken soul’s own trauma, which only served to spread that trauma to others.

Jack Ketchum broke my heart with The Girl Next Door, and he did it again later with his novels The Lost, Red, and The Woman, and with his Bram Stoker Award-winning short story “The Box.” Again and again and again, Ketchum challenged me to face true horror and, in doing so, tasked me with not just being a better reader and writer, but being a better person. Ketchum didn’t just want his too-real terrors to scare us, he wanted them to hurt and anger us; he was encouraging us to do better, to not tolerate injustice, to always have empathy for those who have fallen victim to it.

That’s what the name Jack Ketchum means to me: A brilliant storyteller who didn’t just write entertaining stories, but powerful ones. His fiction was, as I interpret it, specifically designed to make the world a better place even if, to do that, he had to shine a light on just how awful it can so often be.

With all that he gave to me and to millions of readers the world over, it’s a great regret of mine that I never had a chance to to meet Jack Ketchum, to say “thank you” to him, and to maybe get to know Dallas Mayr a little, too.

My Top 10 Favorite Twilight Zone Episodes (+1)

Today is officially the first day of 2018. If you’re a normal person that means you probably spent last night partying with family and friends and you’re now nursing a wicked hangover. If you’re a geek like me, however, you spent last night the same way you did the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that: watching the annual New Year’s Eve Twilight Zone marathon on TV.

Just in time for this decidedly antisocial tradition is the release of a new anthology, Test Patterns, packed to the gills with original weird fiction inspired by classic horror/sci-fi/fantasy shows like The Outer Limits, Night Gallery, and, of course, The Twilight Zone.

Now available in both paperback and ebook from Amazon.com (hint, hint), Test Patterns features my new story “I Am Become Death.” It’s about a WWII army photographer haunted by the destruction he documented at Hiroshima… as well as by the shadowy thing he unknowingly brought home with him. This story is my attempt to filter some of TZ creator Rod Serling’s themes of paranoia, nuclear devastation, and the horrors of war through the lens of my own imagination.

Writing this story and then watching last night’s marathon got me thinking about how much Serling’s work has influenced me and about how much I love the original Twilight Zone. In that spirit I thought I’d share some of my favorite episodes. These aren’t necessarily the “best” Zones ever made, just my own personal favorites, the ones I could watch over and over again and never get tired of.

Hoping to shine a light on some of the less frequently touted episodes, I specifically tried to avoid including too many of the really famous ones. Listen, I love “Time Enough at Last,” “To Serve Man,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Ft.,” “It’s a Good Life,” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” as much as the next Zone junkie (and if you’re thinking that I’m rattling these titles off now as a cheap way of including them in my list without technically including them in my list, well, yeah, you’re totally right) but do we really need to sing their praises yet again?

Even still, I had a hard time narrowing this list down to 10, so I decided to do the same thing I did with my previous ranking of favorite vampire movies and add just one more. Going forward, I think I’m going to make this my default. In this case, at least, it’s fitting; nothing is as it seems in The Twilight Zone, not even the number 10.

Oh, one last thing: there are definitely going to be spoilers here. Sorry, but this show is almost 60 years old. If you haven’t seen these episodes yet, that’s on you.

Submitted for your approval, these are, in no particular order, My Top 10 Favorite Twilight Zone Episodes (+1)…

obsoletemanThe Obsolete Man

Aside from Rod Serling himself, arguably no person is more popularly associated with The Twilight Zone than Burgess Meredith. The inimitable actor starred in four episodes throughout the series’ original run, including the iconic “Time Enough at Last,” and even took Serling’s place as narrator in the TZ movie. It is this Zone, however, which may well be his finest hour. In a dystopian future Meredith plays a librarian and a Christian, two things decreed “obsolete” by the authoritarian state, which has long since banned all books and outlawed all religion. The punishment for the crime of obsolescence is death, and in this cold, callous society, the only mercy left is in allowing the condemned a choice in their method of execution.

Not one to be underestimated, the librarian uses his sole remaining right to turn the tables on his oppressors, exposing the entire system as, itself, obsolete. Meredith’s performance is utterly captivating and the jagged expressionist shadows throughout give this Zone a stark Orwellian style. Despite all the talk of god and faith, “The Obsolete Man” should not be misinterpreted as proselytizing for any one particular faith. Instead, it’s a passionate endorsement of religious liberty in general, as well as a confrontational rebuke against government and conformity.

littlegirlLittle Girl Lost

If this Zone wasn’t an influence on the movie Poltergeist, man, I’ll eat my hat. See if this rings a bell: A suburban couple wakes one night to the sound of their young daughter’s voice, but the child is nowhere to be found. It’s as if she’s simply vanished, except they can still hear her, calling to them as if from far away. After seeking help from a friend, they realize a section of wall in the house seems strangely immaterial; their hands pass right through its surface as if it were an open window. But a window to where?

Rather than being a portal into Stephen Spielberg’s computer-generated afterlife, this one turns out to lead somewhere far more astounding: fourth-dimensional space. The idea of higher spatial dimensions beyond the paltry three we humans can perceive—i.e. height, width, and depth—makes for mind-bending material to this day. Putting something this high-concept on mainstream television in 1962, the same time as such programs as The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Beverly Hillbillies, is ample evidence of how far ahead of its time TZ really was. Brainy as this Zone is, however, it also has heart. When the girl’s father finally enters the fourth dimension (complete with trippy alien geometry) the terror any parent would feel at the thought of losing a child proves just as moving as the fortitude said parent displays in risking everything to save that child.

comewanderwithmeCome Wander with Me

There’s a long tradition in folk and blues music of “murder ballads,” stories in song form which unspool lurid yarns of love, death, and vengeance. Usually mournful in tone, many  are based on true crimes or long-held pieces of regional folklore, and I personally count them among my favorite genres of music. It should be no surprise, then, that the criminally overlooked “Come Wander with Me” would strike a chord with me. Pun intended.

In this exceptionally eerie and dreamlike Zone, a fast-talking rockabilly musician encounters a young woman (played by future counterculture mama-bear Bonnie Beecher) singing to herself in the middle of backwoods nowhere. The song—about a woman who falls in love with a wanderer even though she is betrothed to another—is hauntingly beautiful. Recognizing a surefire radio hit, the rockabilly kid offers to buy the rights but the woman resists his advances. This song, she says, was meant for someone else. Pressuring her to teach it to him anyway, he discovers the rest of the lyrics are about the aforementioned wanderer killing his lover’s fiancé, only to be hunted down and killed in kind by the man’s brothers. When the rockabilly kid subsequently finds himself pursued by a pair of gun-toting hillbillies, it becomes clear that by trying to make the song “his,” the story behind it has become his as well.

livingdollLiving Doll

Long before Chucky and Annabelle, there was Talky Tina. One of the earliest examples of the “killer toy” trope in television and film, “Living Doll” is a fairly straightforward episode, wherein a sweet little girl receives an expensive new doll as a gift from her mother, only for her brutish stepfather to rage that it’s a waste of money. The doll doesn’t take too kindly to the man’s verbal abuse of his family and, when no one else is around, taunts him with threats of murder.

At first the man thinks his wife or stepdaughter is somehow playing a kind of twisted prank on him. So he tries to throw the doll away. But it comes back. So he tries to destroy it. But he can’t even make a dent. Then one night, as he’s drifting off to sleep, he hears faint sounds in the dark, something like the whirring of tiny gears… or maybe the soft steps of tiny feet. While this all feels fairly formulaic now, “Living Doll” is still damned effective thanks to its ominous atmosphere, methodic pacing, and creeptastic imagery, not to mention June Foray’s chilling line readings as the voice of Talky Tina. Besides, I’m a sucker for evil doll stories, so this Zone was never not going to make my list.

iamthenightI Am the Night—Color Me Black

Killer toys, dimensional portals, and ethereal sirens are all well and good, but one of the things that always made The Twilight Zone special, and which still sets it apart from its many imitators and successors, was its social conscience. Rod Serling  believed deeply in the power of stories to explore real-world issues and to inspire audiences to think in new ways. TZ got a lot of hard-hitting material past fidgety network censors by dressing it up in the fanciful clothes of science fiction and fantasy, but rarely did it attack any subject with such unapologetic head-on aggression as it did in this episode.

Here, a white man known for helping the local black community is set to be executed for murdering a cross-burning bigot. There’s evidence that the murder may have been done in self-defense, but the white townspeople want blood and the sheriff just wants peace and quiet. On the day the man is to hang the sky turns black over town. To some, this is confirmation that the man deserves to die. To others, it’s a sign that it was the bigot who deserved to die and that his killer should go free. Who is right? Who is wrong? Serling lets us squirm beneath the weight of sobering silences and ambiguous non-answers. By episode’s end the sky is still black… and the darkness is spreading. The only thing made clear is the fact that nothing is clear. No one is right. We’re all wrong.

willtherealmartianWill the Real Martian Please Stand Up?

This one is probably right up there with “Living Doll” in terms of being among the more popular Zones on this list, although it’s nowhere near as fondly remembered as equally classic episodes like “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” or “To Serve Man.” And yet it is cut from very similar cloth as those two. Set almost entirely in a single location, “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” sees a pair of UFO-investigating police officers holed up in a small snowed-in greasy-spoon, along with the diner’s proprietor and his customers, i.e. the six occupants of a broken-down bus, as well as its driver.

Wait, did I say six? Because there seem to be seven people here, not counting the cook, the driver, and the cops. With no one else around for miles, could that mean one among them is the pilot of that UFO? Repeating many of the same beats as the more po-faced “Maple Street,” this episode is a coy study in how paranoia can drive people to turn on one other. But then it throws into the mix the same campy humor that made “To Serve Man” such a blast. From bug-eyed Jack Elam’s cackling, wisecracking performance as a man loathe to take any of this flying-saucer business seriously, to a final twist which is more zany punchline than shocking revelation—yes, one of the bus riders is a Martian scout, but it turns out Earth has already being colonized by Venusians!—it’s hard to find a Zone that’s as just plain fun as this one.

owlcreekbridgeAn Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is an extraordinary episode of The Twilight Zone for a number of reasons. For one, it is almost completely devoid of dialogue; the story is told primarily through its visuals. For another, this is the one and only Zone that’s not actually a Zone. It is, in fact, an award-winning French short film which received honors from both the Cannes Film Festival and the Oscars. It so impressed one of the TZ producers that he purchased the film for inclusion in the show’s final season (a move which also saved a boatload of money, natch), and it’s not hard to see why. It had much the same effect on me when my teacher screened it during English class in high school.

Based on a story by legendary author Ambrose Bierce, the film is about a Civil War prisoner facing execution by a group of soldiers. When the rope around his neck snaps, he escapes and begins a long journey home, evading his would-be executioners while suddenly finding new appreciation for the myriad wonders of life all around him. Like all the best Zones, of course, there’s a twist at the end, and this one really punches you in the gut. I know I said I wouldn’t shy away from spoilers, but if you don’t already know how “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” ends, I’m not saying a word. You need to experience this story yourself.

agameofpoolA Game of Pool

Now here’s a Zone I was initially hesitant to spotlight because I figured it’s such a classic that surely it’s on most folks’ top 10 lists already, right? Then I Googled some other people’s top 10 lists and you know what? I think I saw it pop up maybe once. Once! How is that even possible?!? This brilliant gem of an episode takes something as minor and (if you ask me) boring as billiards and creates a riveting life-or-death conflict from of it, one where you’re constantly unsure which side to root for.

TZ regular Jack Klugman plays a pool shark who’s dedicated his life to the game. He can beat anyone, but the only player worth the effort died years ago. Because this is The Twilight Zone, the legend obligingly returns from the grave (played by the great Jonathan Winters) and agrees to the titular game, but only if his opponent is willing to bet his life. What follows is a tense back-and-forth contest accompanied by a thoughtful discussion of what it truly means to be “the greatest.” When the final ball is pocketed a new king is crowned; our up-and-comer’s life is safe for now. Alas, he’s unknowingly condemned himself in a different way, because once he does die, he must spend the rest of eternity just like his idol. That is, constantly being summoned to play other wanna-bes looking to prove themselves by beating a legend.

theskywasopenedAnd When the Sky Was Opened

Have you ever put an item down for a second, then come back for it only to find it’s not there anymore? You know you put it there, but now it’s gone. Wouldn’t it be worse if everyone around you said you were wrong and that the thing in question was never there to begin with it? And wouldn’t it be even worse still if that thing wasn’t a thing at all, but one of your closest friends? That’s the situation faced by three recently returned astronauts in “And When the Sky was Opened.” Or is it two astronauts? Or maybe just one? Or… wait… what astronauts?

Someone or something is erasing these men from existence. The world is forgetting them. A newspaper headline about the three of them is about only two the next day, then one. Their own parents are forgetting them. When one of them calls his mother, she claims to have never had a son. Worst yet, the astronauts are forgetting each other. When the first one vanishes completely, the second pleads with the third to remember their missing companion, only to be told time and again that no such person ever existed. What begins as an exercise in psychological dissolution—are these astronauts just going crazy, remembering people who were never there?—quickly spirals into existential panic. As each astronaut gradually disappears from reality, those left behind are stuck with the awful certainty that the same fate awaits them as well.

thedummyThe Dummy

Earlier I mentioned my weakness for “evil doll” stories. That weakness carries over to “evil ventriloquist dummy” stories too. The inherent horror in both these tropes, I think, stems from the Uncanny Valley, from the discomfort that arises when one encounters something that superficially resembles a human being, but which is nonetheless patently inhuman. Part of that is probably rooted in a fear of being replaced, as well as in a sense of being mocked. These horrors are especially palpable when you’re dealing with dummies because there’s so much in ventriloquism that is akin to madness. It’s the act of fabricating an alternate personality for yourself and pretending that it is separate from the rest of you, exacerbated even more by the fact that you’re giving it part of your voice and, by extension, your soul.

Who’s the real dummy, dummy? When TZ introduces us to an alcoholic ventriloquist beleaguered by a failing career and a growing suspicion that his dummy has a mind of its own, we already know the answer. Most “evil dummy” stories play out essentially the same way; what sets one apart from another is the quality of the execution and the strength of the ending. This one’s a doozy on both counts, boasting oodles of heart-stopping suspense, snappy dialogue, skewed camera angles, and one grotesquely surreal final twist that sees our sad-sack protagonist finally achieving career success, just not as the one pulling the strings.

twoTwo

I mentioned all the way back near the tippy-top of this list that my latest published story, “I Am Become Death,” (COUGH read it now in the anthology Test Patterns, available in paperback and ebook from Amazon.com COUGH) was inspired by one of the most frequently revisited of TZ’s pet themes, namely the horrors of war. Rod Serling was a WWII veteran who found a positive use for all the psychological baggage he brought home through dedicating himself to creation rather than destruction. Through the Zone, Serling and his close-knit circle of writers appealed directly to millions of viewers, imploring them to condemn those ugly impulses which turn brother against brother and to beware the apocalyptic perils of nuclear armaments.

Of all the depravities and degradations war is capable of, the worst of all might be the way it dehumanizes those involved, turning soldiers into killing machines, as well as machines to be killed. Enter “Two,” which features a before-they-were-famous double-header, with Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery playing the sole survivors of a war that may or may not have wiped out the rest of society. The problem? They both hail from opposite sides of the conflict. Despite having no reason to continue fighting now, breaking free of the conditioning which war has ingrained in them is no easy task. Like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” this episode is almost completely free of dialogue. Nevertheless, it’s clear as day what what kind of war these characters are fighting, not just against each other but within themselves as well. And while the ending leaves civilization’s future decidedly unclear, it’s apparent that Serling & Co.’s faith in the better angels of human nature may be bent but is never broken.

A Yuletide Miracle: Test Patterns is Here!

testpatterns

Looking for a last minute present for X-Mas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Yule? Trying to decide what to get with all those gift cards you’re sure to get from unimaginative gift-givers? Well, fret no more; Test Patterns is finally available!

The debut anthology from Planet X Publications, Test Patterns features all-new original stories and poetry inspired by such classic horror, sci-fi, and fantasy TV shows as The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and The Outer Limits.

My story, “I Am Become Death,” is about a WWII combat photographer who, after documenting the devastation at Hiroshima, returns to America only to find that some shadowy thing has come home with him.

Check out the full list of contributors below.

Table of Contents:

  1. “The Woman in the Forge of Saturday Night” by Joe Pulver
  2. “Evidence of Absence” by Scott Graves
  3. “I Am Become Death” by William Tea
  4. “The Judge” by Philip Fracassi
  5. “The Snake Beneath My Skin” by Sarah Walker
  6. “The Hands of Chaos” by Ashley Dioses
  7. “The Nomenclature of Unnamable Horrors” by Peter Rawlik
  8. “Golden Girl” by S.L. Edwards
  9. “Scenes From a Forgotten Diorama” by Brian O’Connell
  10. “You Can’t Go Wrong with Grass-Fed Beef” by Jill Hand
  11. “Abettor” by Ruth Asch
  12. “Work Group” by Pete Carter
  13. “The Cliffside Tavern” by Sean M. Thompson
  14. “One Evening in Whitbridge” by Scott Thomas
  15. “The Velveteen Volvo” by Nathan Carson
  16. “Outre Non-Limitations” by Frederick J. Mayer
  17. “The Kumiho Question” by Frederick J. Mayer
  18. “I’ve Lived in This Place a Long Time” by Can Wiggins
  19. “The White Terror” by Frank Coffman
  20. “Symptom of the Universe” by John Claude Smith
  21. “Sustenance of the Stars” by Scott J. Couturier
  22. “Alien Shore” by Rob Martin
  23. “Ye Hermit’s Lay” by Adam Bolivar
  24. “Bridge” by Don Webb
  25. “Balls” by Russell Smeaton
  26. “Call Me Corey” by Matthew M. Bartlett
  27. “Hero Mother” by Cody Goodfellow
  28. “Red-Eye” by Mark Rainey
  29. “Séance” by K.A. Opperman
  30. “Looking for Ghosts” by Duane Pesice

Yes indeed, this anthology is surely the perfect holiday surprise for that special someone you love. Or for the one you just kinda like. Or for the one you hate. Or for yourself. For anybody, really!

Art Inspired by… Me???

reset-art

Well, this is a first! I can’t quite wrap my mind around the idea of someone liking something of mine enough to be a “fan” of it, but I’m nevertheless amazed and humbled to know that a story I wrote (“Reset,” from the video game-themed horror anthology Terror in 16-Bits, which you can get through the Muzzleland Press webstore or Amazon.com) inspired someone else to create something. If you’ve read “Reset,” you know all too well the critical moment this illustration depicts; if you haven’t, then you should probably get yourself a copy so you can find out all about it! Anyway, major props to Mat Fitzsimmons of Feral Teeth Press for making this image, and additional thanks to Terror in 16-Bits editor/publisher Jonathan Raab for bringing it to my attention. I love this so much!