New Story Transmitting from Planet X!

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Greeting mortals! Today I’m happy to announce that a new story of mine, “I Am Become Death,” will be featured in the upcoming anthology Test Patterns, the premiere release of the newly formed Planet X Publications. I’m fortunate to share the pages of this exciting anthology with some truly amazing writers, many of whom I would consider among the very best voices in genre fiction today. Check out the table of contents for yourself below. This is going to be one hefty tome!

Inspired by such classic TV shows as The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and Night Gallery, Test Patterns is a collection of richly varied tales, told in unique ways, employing provocative twists and surprises, and exploring the universal themes of humanity and self-discovery through the lenses of horror, fantasy, and science fiction.

Test Patterns is due out this Halloween. In the meantime, click here to reserve a copy of the anthology in either ebook format ($5), trade paperback ($20), or limited edition hardcover ($40), and help support an upstart independent publisher with a vested interest in high-quality strange and supernatural fiction.

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
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Con Report: My First NecronomiCon (Part 1)

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Just days before the first complete solar eclipse in almost 30 years, it emerged from out of the heart of that generations-old seaside metropolis, a many-headed monolith waking from hibernation to bask in the adulation of its black-clad worshipers, filling me with equal parts existential dread and perverse glee as it threatened to swallow me whole.

No, I’m not talking about some eldritch alien god from beyond the veil of corporeal reality. I’m talking about NecronomiCon Providence 2017. A celebration of weird fiction, literary horror, and all things Lovecraftian, NecronomiCon is a biennial event in ol’ HPL’s Rhode Island hometown. Half fan convention, half professional conference; all awesome.

Also, all terrifying. At least for me. As a lifelong Lovecraft fan who still considers the man one of the most personally relevant and influential writers of all time (even if he was, writing aside, pretty much a dick; see my blog post about the WFA’s), I’ve wanted to check out NecronomiCon for a while. And, of course, as a lifelong wanna-be storyteller finally making a go at this whole writing thing after too many years letting fear and self-loathing keep me from pursuing my passion, I’ve been eager to attend any event that might help me immerse myself better in the genre community, get to know some like-minded readers and writers, and hopefully get my own work out there a bit more.

Naturally, I was eminently excited for my first NecronomiCon. Doesn’t mean I wasn’t also nervous as all get out. Social anxiety and low self-esteem are absolute bitches at the best of times, but they only get bitchier when you feel lost at sea in a roiling tide of strangers, and even bitchier still when the whole damn lot of those strangers just so happen to be authors you yourself are a fan of and whom you feel pressure to make a good impression on. Surely, I thought, once I’m face to face with someone whose name is already known and respected throughout the community, and there’s little old me, an unknown nobody with hardly a handful of published works, surely they’ll be left wondering why the hell I’m bothering them, all while an agonizingly awkward silence envelops us in jet-black wings of mortification.

As it turns out, nope! First off, every single person I met at NecronomiCon could not have been kinder, humbler, or more inclusive. Maybe I thought of myself as an outsider among giants, but no one else seemed to share that perception. I’d say they went out of their way to make me feel like a genuine peer, but the fact that it all felt so casual and decidedly not like something they had to go out of their way to do, that alone speaks volumes about the positivity of my experience.

Second, there simply wasn’t any time for awkwardness. Going into the event, I was worried I would be given too much rope to hang myself with, but in truth there was so much to do at the convention and so many people to meet, I barely found enough time to rest, let alone put my foot in my mouth.

That said, I thought I’d share a recap of my experiences. Starting with…

WEDNESDAY (8/16/17)

nec1Though the con proper didn’t technically start until Friday, there were plenty of preparatory events scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. I arrived in Providence Wednesday afternoon and checked into my room at the Omni Hotel (one of the con’s two main venues, along with the nearby Biltmore Hotel). After some much-needed rest from being on the road for several hours, as well as an equally much-needed shower, I enjoyed a short private rendezvous with a personal friend from the area, then made my way to the downtown Aurora nightclub for the NecronomiCon pre-party. On the way there, I came across a cat dragging a fake severed arm down the street and thought to myself, “Yes, this must be the place.”

Now, see, one of the things that made me so nervous about going to NecronomiCon was that I was essentially going alone. There were a few (actually more than a few) other attendees that I knew would be there, folks I’d interacted with somewhat via social media, but none whom I’d ever met in the flesh before. I’m an odd guy; my close friends would probably describe me as loud, outgoing, and talkative (if not outright obnoxious), but that’s only how I am when I get to know you. On my own, or with someone I haven’t yet developed a rapport with, I’m painfully shy. I don’t even know how to start a conversation, frankly, having never really mastered the beguiling art of simple self-introduction.

So it was that I found myself standing in a darkened corner at Aurora, nervously sipping a soda while a pair of already inebriated Call of Cthulhu players repeatedly explained to me how I needed to take charge and establish a RPG group in my own hometown, all despite the fact that, as I informed them again and again, I am not nor ever have been a tabletop gamer.

Ah, good times.

I confess, that first night I never did manage to loosen up, although I did greatly enjoy hearing Catherine Grant, J.T. Glover, Barry Lee Dejasu, Madeira Darling, and Farah Rose Smith read select pieces of work as part of the event’s open-mic component. Smith in particular blew me away with an excerpt from a current work-in-progress, so much so that I rue the fact that it’s still “in-progress” and not yet in my grubby little mitts. Shamefully, I lacked the self-confidence to go up to any of the readers and tell them face-to-face how much I enjoyed their cuttings. It took me a couple days to warm up to that.

As the night wore on, clips from old Night Gallery episodes and Paul Naschy movies played out on a screen above the club stage, and I made small talk with a few thankfully less inebriated con-goers before calling it an early night and shuffling back to the Omni in search of slumber.  Not a terrible first outing, but not great either.

THURSDAY (8/17/17)

Knowing that the next few days would be a blur, I let myself sleep in on Thursday. When I finally got up, I took a quick shower, found a nice sushi place nearby for lunch, registered for the con, then swung by the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Council store in the Providence Arcade before heading to the opening ceremonies.

Having friends in Rhode Island, I’ve been to Providence before, and I always make it a point to stop by the Lovecraft store. Though not much bigger than my hotel room, the place is nirvana for any weird fiction fanatic. It’s wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling books, from the requisite Lovecraft collections and biographies, to fiction that runs the gamut from Robert W. Chambers and Arthur Machen to Clive Barker and Brian Keene, to nonfiction on such varied subjects as serial killers, world mythology, circus sideshows, fringe science, and new age spirituality. There’s also a buttload of art prints, shirts, and other tentacled tchotchkes, more than enough to clear out your bank account.

Considering the convention itself offered not one but two vendors’ rooms stuffed to the Innsmouth gills with similar offerings, I told myself I would only be browsing for now. Aaaaand that plan fell apart in about five minutes. I came out of the store with four issues of Fred Lubnow’s Journal of Lovecraftian Science, including two I already own but which are in pretty rough shape, and two others I haven’t yet read. If you’re not familiar already, Lubnow is a genuine smarty-pants with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, a Master’s in Environmental Sciences, and a Ph.D in Limnology, who in his spare time runs a blog which explores the actual science in (or absent from) H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. He dissects the ideas Lovecraft puts forth and speculates on how they might be feasible according to modern scientific knowledge. Often I find Lubnow’s work not just a fun source of learning, but also a great way of getting my own imagination firing on all cylinders. I can’t recommend this stuff enough, people!

Of course, Lubnow was also at the convention, and in fact was scheduled to present several academic talks that I was interested in attending, including one on Lovecraft’s conception of the planets in our solar system and one examining both the accurate and inaccurate ways Lovecraft utilized evolution in his work. Sadly, I ended up missing these events, and in fact never managed to run into Lubnow the entire time I was there. Perhaps next time. Oh yes, there will certainly be a next time.

nec2Anyway, after forking over my hard-earned money to read essays about non- Euclidean geometry even though I flunked high school math, I made my way to the First Baptist Church in America for the NecronomiCon opening ceremonies. The irony of holding an event honoring an unabashed mechanistic materialist in a centuries-old house of worship was lost on no one, I’m sure. Lovecraft himself was vocally fond of the building despite his atheism, and it wasn’t hard to see why: It’s a remarkably preserved example of early English Georgian and traditional New England architecture, complete with a towering 185 foot-high steeple, an immaculate Waterford crystal chandelier, and a booming pipe organ from the 1800s.

Lovecraft himself reportedly attended Sunday school at the very building as a child. Needless to say, it didn’t take.

Arriving a bit early, I took a seat near the front of the church and looked around to see if anyone I recognized was around yet. No… no… no… n- OH MY GOD IS THAT ELLEN FUCKING DATLOW?!?

Yes, Ellen Datlow, the mastermind behind the annual Best Horror of the Year series, the woman who has edited more A-list horror, sci-fi, and fantasy anthologies than I could even read in a lifetime without sacrificing every other damn book on my shelves, who has won more awards for her contributions to genre fiction than I have reasons to live, THAT ELLEN FUCKING DATLOW… was seated two pews ahead of me!!!

Shamefully, I once again said nothing. I don’t know, groveling just seems sooo last season. Besides, what could I say? “Hi, nice to meet you, ELLEN FUCKING DATLOW, I’m someone you’ve never heard of and will likely never read anything by, and even if you do you’ll probably hate it. How are you enjoying Providence? Have you tried the clam chowder?”

Gah.

I managed to avoid fainting, which was worth the effort good. The opening ceremonies were definitely worth being conscious for. “Interesting” doesn’t quite describe the performance stylings of organist Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, who garnered as much attention from her baroque gothic wardrobe and eccentric theatrical mannerisms as from her beautiful renditions of classic Wagner tunes.

Additionally, Lovecraft scholar Steve Mariconda and NecronomiCon’s own poet laureate Donald Sidney-Fryer both spoke, among others, and it was encouraging that many did not shy away from addressing either the recent tragedy in Charlottesville or the controversy surrounding preeminent HPL researcher S.T. Joshi’s decision to “boycott” the convention (quote-marks there because, well, he still showed up to hustle his wares; such a gleaming beacon of integrity is he). As I’ve said before, Lovecraft’s contributions to literature do not forgive the ugliness of his bigotry, and being able to apply a nuanced, critical eye to the man and his work is vital in moving his legacy and the whole of weird fiction forward so as to keep it vibrant for future generations. This is especially true now, as regressive strains of ignorance and hate begin to reassert themselves violently in the current political climate. While some may not appreciate the real world intruding on their escapist reveries into the fantastic, the truth is that the fantastic is nothing without the real world to define it.

Following the opening ceremonies, I hoofed it up the biggest, steepest, most oh-my-god-why-did-I-eat-that-much-sushi hill in all of Providence to attending the opening reception for Ars Necronomica, the official art exhibit of NecronomiCon, which featured original pieces of Lovecraft-inspired art from almost 80 different creators, including guest of honor John Jude Palencar. This was definitely something I was looking forward to, as, much like reading Fred Lubnow’s science essays, drooling over dark and surreal artworks is one of my favorite ways of getting the ol’ creative juices flowing. Alas, I only got to see some of the pieces on display during my visit (though I did return a few days later to take the rest in), because I had the good fortune of running into David B. Busboom.

I knew David a little from social media, so it was a treat to finally meet in person. Like me, David is a relatively new writer still working on developing a published bibliography; in fact, we both had stories in the same anthology, Walk Hand in Hand Into Extinction: Stories Inspired by True Detective from CLASH Books. We talked about working on that project and on our individual experiences trying to improve as writers and get our work out there. We ended up hitting it off so well that we hardly moved from the spot, even as the reception began to wind down and the gallery had to close up for the night. So much for drooling over all that art.

We continued our conversation as we walked to the official NecronomiCon kick-off party, which transformed a parking lot near the Providence Arcade into a writhing mass of bodies bouncing along to the psychedelic glam-goth punk of The ViennaGram and the hilarious costumed spectacle and freaky-deaky funk rock of the decidedly Gwar-like Big Nazo Intergalactic Band. I’m especially bummed that my phone died before I could get more pics or vids of the Big Nazo performance, as it really does have to be seen to be believed: It included such sights as a triclops metamorphosing into a cyclops, a surprisingly limber mumu-clad housewife with rollers in her hair emerging from the guts of a giant dancing polyp, anthropomorphic cucumbers, and an octopus-man versus lobster-man showdown for the ages.

nec5The party also featured a beer garden (from local brewery Narragansett Beer) whose pleasures were lost on a no-fun teetotaler like myself, and a straight-up satanic goat sacrifice (okay, not really, but Great Northern BBQ was on hand serving goat-and-squid ink curry, and they weren’t at all shy about showing off where their butcher’s handiwork). All in all, Thursday was a much better experience than Wednesday and, happily, it set the tone for the rest of the weekend.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Now Available: Terror in 16-Bits & Weirdbook #36

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It’s time! Two new stories by yours truly are now available!

In “Insect Song,” a young woman returning home to make peace with her estranged mother runs afoul of local bigotry, her own haunted past, and something not quite human whose every movement is accompanied by the sound of dry, crackling leaves. This story appears in Weirdbook #36, and can be purchased in ebook and paperback from Wildside Press and Amazon.com.

In “Reset,” a tortured soul condemned to live and die and live and die and over and over again looks beyond the veil of reality in search of answers to the questions that plague his every waking moment: “Who am I?” “Why is this happening to me?” and “How can I get revenge?” This story appears in Terror in 16-Bits, and can be purchased in paperback from Muzzleland Press, and in paperback and ebook from Amazon.com.

Another New Story in August: “Insect Song” in Weirdbook #36

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Though I’m currently hard at work on the first draft of my first novel (which I hope to have done by the end of the year), that doesn’t mean I haven’t still had time to work on a few short stories here and there. Some of them I’ve even managed to trick people into believing are good enough for publication!

A few weeks ago, I revealed that my story “Reset” is set to be a part of the Terror in 16-Bits anthology being released in August by Muzzleland Press. Today, I’m happy to officially announce another story of mine, titled “Insect Song,” is also due out in August, in issue #36 of Weirdbook Magazine.

First debuting in 1969, Weirdbook has a rich, long-running legacy that I am overjoyed to become a part of, even if it’s only a small part. A fan myself, over the years I’ve collected almost every issue from both the mag’s original run and its recent revival from Wildside Press. More than a few authors I look up to have contributed to Weirdbook’s history, from Brian Lumley and William Scott Home to Gary A. Braunbeck and Garrett Cook. Having the chance to contribute to that history myself is a gift.

That the story I get to contribute to said history is the aforementioned “Insect Song” makes the whole thing all the more special. I’m not shy about admitting that this story means a lot to me. In lieu of spoiling anything, I’ll simply say that “Insect Song” deals with themes and issues that are very close to my heart. I worked very hard to get it right, and while I still fear I’ve come up short, I hope I managed to do the subject matter at least some justice.

On that note, I owe a special debt to my beta readers for helping me stumble through several early drafts before settling on the one that will soon see print. In particular, a good friend of mine, Dee Culp, provided extremely thoughtful feedback that helped to mold the narrative in drastic but very important ways. I could not have done it without her.

Anyway, be sure to pick this one up when it comes out next month.

Don’t worry, I’ll remind you.

Achievement Unlocked: New Story “Reset” to be Published in August!

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Remember the first time you walked down that hall in Resident Evil and, SMASH, a pair of rabid hellhounds came flying through the window howling for your blood?

Or maybe you recall the first time you thought you’d scored an easy armor pick-up in Doom, only to unleash a monster-closet full of fireball-chucking imps and slobbering Pinky demons?

Or, hell, how about the first time you simply looked up in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and saw that awful skull-face grinning madly at you as it hurtled down from the sky?

If you do indeed remember, and remember fondly, then boy-oh-boy have I got something cool in store for you.

Today, I’m excited to share with you the official cover art and release details for Terror in 16-Bits, an upcoming anthology of all-new original fiction inspired by the classic horror video games we grew up with. From Splatterhouse to Silent Hill, Terror in 16-Bits pays tribute to all manner of pixelated ghosts ‘n’ goblins, and I’m very happy to report that a short story of mine, “Reset,” will be a part of it.

A Muzzleland Press publication, Terror in 16-Bits will debut at this year’s NecronomiCon Providence in August, before going on sale to the general public in both paperback and ebook form via the usual online marketplaces shortly thereafter. Until then, feel free to salivate over the table of contents below. It’s like a character select screen bringing together all the best fighters from a dozen different 2-D brawlers for one ultimate next-level deathmatch.

Time to dust off your Power Gloves and blow on your cartridge ports, boils and ghouls. We’re playing on hard mode now!

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Free Speech and the “Death” of Genre Fiction (Part 2)

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A couple weeks ago, I acknowledged some of the debate that had been going on in the horror, bizarro, and weird fiction community about allegations of social justice-imposed censorship (my findings: it largely doesn’t exist) and the notion that transgressive genre fiction is either dead or dying (my findings: read on and find out, I’m not going to spoil it for you so soon!). Since I already tackled the whole “boo hoo, SJW’s don’t like me” bullshit last time, now I think we’re about due to take down that “R.I.P. genre fiction” crap too. And considering it’s the start of a brand new year, I can think of no better time to look back at all that 2016 gave us, and to look ahead at all that 2017 promises.

Full disclosure: I originally planned to write this follow-up within a week after the first post. I don’t know what madness compelled me to try that right before the holidays. Suffice to say, between making plans, seeing old friends, avoiding Trump-supporting family members, buying gifts, wrapping gifts, giving gifts, and, best of all, getting gifts, while simultaneously trying to finish drafts of a couple short stories I needed to have finished before the end of the year, it’s hardly surprising that I’m only now getting the chance. Sorry for the wait.

“He said, as if anyone actually cared.”

Moving on!

Anyway, we currently live in an era where such writers as Laird Barron, Paul Tremblay, John Langan, Joe Pulver, Simon Strantzas, Nick Mamatas, Grady Hendrix, Matthew Bartlett, C.V. Hunt, Tiffany Scandal, Garrett Cook, and M.P. Johnson have all more or less blossomed into their prime at roughly the same time. And that’s to say nothing of publishing houses like Deadite Press, ChiZine Publications, Eraserhead Press, Raw Dog Screaming Press, Necro Publications, Lazy Fascist Press, Bizarro Pulp Press, DynaTox Ministries, Muzzleland Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Sinister Grin Press, and Hippocampus Press, all of whom are pumping out a constant and consistent conga-line of books that are alternately breathtaking, brutal, beautiful, and bizarre.

On top of all that, we also live in an era where self-publishing and self-promotion are easier and more accessible than ever before. Thus, there are virtually no limits for anyone to be able to read or write something that exactly matches their tastes, no matter how out-of-left-field those tastes may be.

Things aren’t on the wane. If anything, we’re in a goddamn golden age!

I know, I know. For some, it’s not enough that contemporary genre fiction is incredibly dark, thoughtful, and well-crafted. Some of us need our horror to be hardcore, dirty, and gruesome, full of excessive violence, graphic sex, and creative uses of bodily fluids. Well, if that’s you, fret not; we got you covered. The last year or so has seen such releases as The Train Derails in Boston by Jessica McHugh, Reincarnage by Jason Taverner and Ryan Harding, A God of Hungry Walls by Garrett Cook, The Complex by Brian Keene, Season of the Witch by Charlee Jacob, Ritualistic Human Sacrifice by C.V. Hunt, The Con Season by Adam Cesare, and Mayan Blue by the self-proclaimed “sisters of slaughter” Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason.

And these are just the standouts!

Likewise, Splatterpunk Zine, Comet Press, and the aforementioned Necro Publications have all put out anthologies specifically focused on envelope-pushing extreme horror: Comet makes no bones about where their bread is buttered with such releases as Stiff Things: The Splatterporn Anthology and the debut of their annual Year’s Best Hardcore Horror series. The rich mythos of Gerard Houarner’s landmark 1996 erotic-horror collection Painfreak was revisited in Necro Publications’ exhaustive Into Painfreak anthology, edited by Houarner himself, which saw everyone from Wrath James White to Monica O’Rourke to Jordan Krall to Edward Lee, the reigning king of literary gore, delving into the most wretched red depths of flesh and blood. And, hell, no one spelled it out more clearly than Splatterpunk, who released the perfectly titled Splatterpunk’s Not Dead, featuring stellar stories by the likes of Shane McKenzie, Paul Essig, and Jeff Strand.

Maybe you’re more a fan of bizarro fiction, though. Maybe you’re more interested in the so-called literary equivalent of the cult section of your local video store. Is that what you want? Truly outlandish stories that combine the absurdity and reality-warping rules of Saturday Morning cartoons and unrepentant strangeness of Salvador Dali with the scatological, satirical, intentionally offensive humor of John Waters and Lloyd Kaufman and the out-of-control violence of splatterpunk?

Well, guess what; this last year was a damn good year for bizarro too. We got Puppetskin by Danger Slater, Shit Luck by Tiffany Scandal, Bacon Fried Bastard by David W. Barbee, Governor of the Homeless by G. Arthur Brown, Berzerkoids by M.P. Johnson, and Very True Stories Starring Jeff O’Brien by, uh, Jeff O’Brien. Genre workhorses like Carlton Mellick III and D. Harlan Wilson continued to release new works even after nearly two decades of exemplifying the best the movement has to offer, still at the top of their games. And Eraserhead Press’ New Bizarro Author Series turned another year older, still furthering its altruistic goal of seeking out and exposing the world to fresh, young authors who will go on to be the Mellicks and Wilsons of tomorrow.

Tell me, do you know what the most important thing that all these horror and bizarro books I just mentioned have in common is? Sure, they’re all as gleefully confrontational as they are controversial, chock full of murder, dismemberment, self-mutilation, rape, necrophilia, beastiality, cannibalism, abortion, puke, piss, cum, and gore. But, even better, so so many of them are also witty and intelligent and richly thematic on a level that those looking at genre fiction from outside it would likely never imagine, a level that probably too few readers within the genre fully appreciate.

The truth is, today’s hardcore horror and bizarro are as twisted and gratuitous as they’ve ever been. But they’re also a whole lot smarter than they’ve been in years. The widespread and progressive aspect of that intellectual element is a hundred times more meaningful than all the chainsaw gutsfucks in the history of literature; the brains actually enhance the blood and guts. The substance is just as shocking as the superficial. That’s punk as fuck!

I ask you, how much more “alive” could these genres be?

Saying that hardcore horror is dying is like saying that horror in general is dying, and saying that horror is dying is like saying that fear is dying. Fear is a fundamental part of the human experience, one that, no matter how civilized and sophisticated we become, we will always have a need to indulge and thereby purge. And hardcore horror? Well, that’s nothing more than a logical extension of general horror, one that delights especially in the related realms of shock, decadence, and revulsion. All equally fundamental parts of the human experience. Suffice to say, if horror isn’t dying, then hardcore horror isn’t either. As long as there are people who like being scared, there will be people who like being grossed out and disturbed.

Bizarro, meanwhile, is a relatively new genre. So maybe it is just a fad, a flash in the pan doomed to be snuffed out as its 15 minutes of fame comes to an end. Me? I reject that notion, and I do it by rejecting that bizarro is new at all. As a named, codified thing separate from other strains of surrealistic and experimental literature, yes, it’s still just a baby. But bizarro did not just emerge out of a vacuum. It has a long line of precursors that fulfilled our ancestors’ own inherent appetite for the strange and unusual. I’m talking not just about the classical outrageous fiction of William S. Burroughs and Franz Kafka, but also the do-it-yourself middle-finger of punk rock and no-wave, the ero-guro madness of artists Toshio Saeki and Junji Ito, the “you won’t believe your eyes” showmanship and deformity of P.T. Barnum’s circus sideshows, and the brain-melting comic-book psychedelia of Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis.

In my view, while these things may not all be classifiable as pure bizarro, they are absolutely a part of the long-standing tradition that we are now only just beginning to give the name “bizarro.” Therefore, bizarro has always been here. And if it’s always been here, well, I have a hard time imagining it going anywhere.

Still, what about the argument being made that, since so few authors are able to make a steady living creating this kind of stuff, then that alone is proof of genre fiction’s decline? Well the truth is, that has nothing to do with genres, nor quality, nor content. It’s no secret that traditional publishing across the board has struggled to evolve in a way that is sustainable in the 21st century. Without getting too deep into things, I can’t ignore that a perfect storm of rising production costs, falling digital sales prices, oversaturated markets, audience distractions, online piracy, and the popularity of ebooks has shaken the publishing world to its core. There’s a riotous mix of good and bad going on here, and sometimes the two are hard to distinguish from one another. Hell, sometimes they’re actually both simultaneously.

Outside of the “big five” mainstream publishing juggernauts, outside your New York Times Bestseller shoe-ins, your Stephen Kings and your J.K. Rowlings, the reality is that authors who are able to make a comfortable living off of writing and only writing are few and far between, and those that do exist can never rest on their laurels. It’s all about the hustle, y’know? But this goes for every genre, not just the niche worlds of horror and bizarro, or even fantasy and sci-fi for that matter.

Do me a favor. Next time you pick up a book by an author you admire, one who is maybe frequently critically lauded, one who you probably think “Yeah, he or she definitely has it made,” let me suggest you turn to the bio at the back of the book. Notice how many author bios make mention of the writers being teachers or editors themselves? The reason for that isn’t just because they’re so passionate about the English language (or another subject, perhaps) that they take on side-careers out of the goodness of their hearts. No. Passion is part of it, but a bigger part of it is that they need to make money. The vast majority of fiction authors have day jobs. Fact.

What’s more, this isn’t even anything new. As much as the publishing world has taken hits from the mutating landscape of modern media, in all the centuries of its history, writing fiction has only intermittently been a widely profitable profession. Simply put, if you’re looking for a steady job, you’re sniffing up the wrong tree. Only the most cynical among us get into writing with the intention of defining their success or failure solely by their profitability. That’s certainly not why I’m here. After all, I’m broke as fuck.

Then again, I’m pretty much nobody, so take that with a grain of salt.

Joking aside, art is not an ATM. It’s a vehicle for self-expression. The fact that so many of us have conned our way into getting people to pay us for it whatsoever is a goddamn gift. So, okay, if you’re still pining for the lightning-in-a-bottle days of the ’80s paperback horror boom, maybe then you have a small point when you say that genre fiction isn’the doing so hot, but only in that specific context. And if you’re doing that, then, damn, you are seriously out of touch with reality and just plain deluding yourself. Worse yet, you’re valuing the wrong things. The truth is that there is more high-quality weird fiction, horror fiction, and bizarro fiction out on the market right now than there has been at any other single period in my entire lifetime. If anything, there’s too much awesome stuff out there!

Sometimes I look at my ever-lengthening to-read and to-buy lists and feel anxiety grip me, worrying how in the hell I’m going to find the time to buy and read all this stuff and still have any kind of life of my own. As far as problems go, though, as a lover of genre fiction, it’s a very good dilemma to have. And that’s the only perspective we should be coming to the table here with: that of lovers, readers, fans.

Anyone who says that horror sucks these days, that the current sociopolitical zeitgeist has had a chilling effect on genre fiction, or that dark, extreme, or transgressive literature is on the wane in any meaningful way whatsoever is clearly not paying attention. With how robust and diverse the current offerings on the market are these days, the only motivations I can imagine a fellow writer having to grumble come from a place of selfishness, a fear of getting overshadowed or lost in the shuffle. Because it’s easier to be a big fish when the waters run shallow, right? When they’re deeper, when there’s a lot more room for other fish, that’s better for everyone. Except for the little minnows who don’t get to act like sharks anymore.

In the end, if you’re looking at a horror or bizarro bookseller’s catalog right now, at the dawn of 2017, and you don’t find anything that you think qualifies as legitimately great and/or boundary-pushing, then, simply put, you need to get your eyes checked.

Free Speech and the “Death” of Genre Fiction (Part 1)

censor

Recently, in the horror and bizarro writing community, there’s been a bit of a ruckus kicked up by a certain author going on a tear, accusing his contemporaries of censorship, claiming that genre fiction is on the wane, and opining that the reason for said decline is this supposedly rampant censorship.

I won’t mention the author by name (let’s just call him the Odd Man Out), nor will I level any attacks at him directly. Partially, that’s because the man in question was one of the first members of the fiction community to see anything of worth in my own writing. He gave me a chance, encouraged me when I felt like giving up, and even went on to be the first person to publish some of my fiction. So I owe him. But another part of my desire to not smear him here is that, to a degree, I somewhat respect him for standing up for something he believes in with such uncompromising staunchness. I don’t actually agree with the things he believes, and I don’t agree with many of his tactics either (much of it admittedly reeks of self-promotion disguised as activism). I think he’s wrong. I think he’s behaved immaturely. And I think the cold shoulder he’s received from former friends and colleagues can be attributed directly to his own self-righteous, antagonistic approach. But, deep down, there’s a teeny tiny scrap of integrity in there that, yes, I do respect.

In any case, however you feel about the Odd Man Out, the question remains: Does he have a point? Are the spheres of horror fiction, bizarro fiction, weird fiction, and transgressive fiction dying? Is there really an “epidemic” of forced censorship in the genre fiction community, perhaps perpetuated by some foaming-at-the-mouth mob of hysterical, ideological, left-wing bigots who can’t accept any beliefs divergent from their own?

There’s a lot to unwrap here. So let’s get the bigger, more complex issue out of the way first. That would be the latter one, the issue of free speech versus censorship.

Before we get too deep into this, let me say a few things.

First, I should acknowledge that I consider myself a progressive liberal, as well as a sex-positive feminist and a secular humanist, and I have very little tolerance for racism, misogyny, misandry, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and the like. Second, despite that, I do in fact think that people in general need to lighten up and not be so damn sensitive, and I not only am entertained by but also believe there is legitimate social value in art that is deliberately, unapologetically shocking and offensive. Third, despite that, I recognize that, as a white hetero-leaning cis male, I can say all this from a place of privilege, having not had to deal with anything even resembling the kind of prejudice and stereotyping that might lead, say, a woman or a gay person or a person of color to respond more sensitively to things that I might ignorantly perceive as innocuous. Thus, I strive to be as empathetic as possible without sacrificing my own personal identity and values. It’s a delicate balance, one that I am still very, very far from mastering. But I hope it’s worth something that I recognize this fact.

Having said that, I must admit that I agree quite a bit (though not completely, not by a long shot) with We Need to Talk About Kevin scribe Lionel Shriver, who, during her opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival earlier this year, argued against certain ideas which suggest that if a writer hasn’t experienced something him or herself, they have little to no right to write about it, and if they do have a right, then that right is conditional upon meeting the standards of… I don’t know… someone. The majority? Whoever shouts the loudest?

This is, of course, ridiculous. Fiction writing is all about asking oneself to imagine the world through the eyes of another. No one, not even someone who has legitimately lived that life, has any standing to decree that an author’s individual perception is somehow invalid, even if it is demonstrably inaccurate. Fiction writing, lest we forget, is not to be confused with news reporting. It’s less important to “get it right” than to fully express oneself, and that can include expressing such things as bias or privilege. Creative writing is a very personal art form, one that should reflect the worldview of its author, however skewed or just plain “incorrect” that worldview may be. It’s about subjective reality, not objective reality. Concerns like “respectful portrayal” and “cultural sensitivity” should barely even enter into it, if at all, and then only at the author’s discretion.

It’s okay if you disagree with me. Please understand, I’m not advocating insensitivity. I’m simply saying that sensitivity should not be dictated by some kind of majority-imposed “community standards.” All standards, both aesthetic and ethical, should be decided individually, from person to person. If you read a book and feel the author in question was not adequately “respectful,” that is your prerogative. It’s also you prerogative to make your opinion known as far and wide as you wish. But suggesting that the author “should” have done something a certain way to better meet your criteria, even if you have the masses behind you, is just plain egotism. And putting pressure on an author to feel ashamed or to recognize your own viewpoint as correct over their own is philosophically fascistic.

I suspect the Odd Man Out would agree with me so far. I suspect he would also agree with me when I say that I think contributing to a culture that would actively ostracize those who don’t meet its collectively decided standards is oppressive and backwards. After all, it’s one thing to openly share your criticisms of a piece of work; it’s quite another to argue that your criticisms are objectively correct and to try and scare up a mob of like-minded critics to browbeat the author.

Wait. Don’t leave yet.

See, where the Odd Man Out and I likely diverge is in our understanding of what constitutes legitimate criticism versus mere browbeating, as well as what constitutes a contribution to the aforementioned oppressive, backwards culture. Despite what you may think, I’m not one of those people who equates “freedom of speech” with “freedom from criticism,” as the Odd Man Out appears to be. Nor do I fail to realize that allowing for criticism inherently allows for criticism based on majority opinion, as well as (and more importantly) criticism that comes with real-world consequences. That’s something the Odd Man Out seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge.

Keep in mind, freedom of speech is very important to me, so much so that I have a framed copy of the Bill of Rights hanging on my wall. The idea of art in general, and writing specifically, being maintained as an outlet for unfettered free speech is also very important to me. But freedom of speech is not a one-way street. Freedom of speech not only protects the speaker, but those who speak in response to what that speaker has said. I have the right to say or write anything I want. You have the right to say or write anything in response. Of course, I also have the right to respond to your response, and you have the right to respond to my response to your response. And so on and so on, ad infinitum. As I said, regardless of what the Odd Man Out seems to want, freedom of speech does not equate to freedom from criticism or consequence.

Example: Let’s say you’re a big-time author, a New York Times bestseller. You have a deal with a successful, world-famous publishing house. They plaster advertisements for your upcoming book in widely circulated newspapers and magazines. They even pay for T.V. air time to run commercials. Then, a reviewer reads the book and posts a scathing critique talking about how they were offended by it. Other folks, similarly offended, speak up as well. Lots of folks, in fact. The cable stations refuse to run the ads. The newspapers and magazines do the same. Stores pull copies of your book off the shelves. Eventually, your publishing house drops you.

It’s not because they’re trying to stifle your freedom of speech. It’s because they don’t want their brand associated with yours. This is all, of course, very extreme and very tragic. But none of it is actually about suppression. Most for-profit businesses try to appeal to the widest possible audience, so as to maximize revenues. If enough people want something, they’ll be happy to sell it. If enough people don’t want it, then they’ll wash their hands of it. That’s all it is. You’re still free to say anything you want. Hell, depending on the terms if you’re contract, you can probably take your manuscript to a different publisher if you want.

This is an example of consequence. It is not an example of censorship. You have a right to free speech. You don’t have a right to a well-funded, corporate-backed, nationally visible platform. Sorry to break it to you. It’s not a “mind crime.” It’s business.

Likewise, let’s say you’re a Facebook user who posts a picture of a famous rock ‘n’ roll album cover. Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy as an example. Yes, the one with the naked butts on it. It’s not porn. It’s not explicit. It’s hardly even offensive to most people’s eyes. It’s Led Zeppelin for fuck’s sake! But, uh oh, someone reported it and now Facebook has taken that image down. Let’s go even further down the hypothetical rabbit hole and say that, unlikely as the scenario might be, your post results in your Facebook account being terminated.

Believe it or not, your freedom of speech has not been impinged here. Facebook, regardless of how it may feel sometimes, is not real life. It is not the be-all end-all of social media, let alone self-expression. Facebook is a service. When you joined, you ticked a little box that said “I agree with the terms and conditions blah blah blah,” something like that. I didn’t read it. You didn’t read it. Nobody read it. Doesn’t matter, though, because it’s still a legally binding contract. And if you had read it, you’d know that anything you post on Facebook is subject to Facebook’s standards, not yours. This is a right you gave them. You agreed to it when you signed up. No one forced you to join. Their house, their rules.

Again, these things are consequences. Not censorship.

One last example, for the road. Let’s say you have a blog. You go somewhere, to some kind of group event. You see someone there you find attractive and begin following this person around. Some call it stalking. You call it, simply, having a crush. For the purposes of this hypothetical, it’s irrelevant who’s right or wrong. What is relevant, is that when you get back from the event, you post on your blog about your experience, including the part about you following the person of your unrequited affections around the whole damn time. Some of your readers, of course, don’t find this anecdote as charming as you do. They pepper your comments section with insults. They really dress you down. The person you followed makes it clear that they felt harassed by your behavior, and friends of that person publicly suggest that you should take your blog post down. So you do. You just don’t want to deal with it anymore.

The thing is, no one forced you. You made the final decision. You’re the one who made the whole situation public in the first place. When you post something online, you openly invite the Internet to respond to it. You may not like the response you get.

Consequences. Not censorship.

Now, I know some of the things I’ve said in these last few paragraphs may seem, at first glance, inconsistent with things I said earlier. To wit: Before, I said it’s oppressive and backwards to put pressure on an author you don’t agree with. But now all of a sudden I’m saying that if someone does do that, it somehow doesn’t equate to censorship? That’s crazy, right? Except it’s not. Because, that’s accurate; it’s not “censorship.” It’s unfortunate. It’s shitty. I don’t agree with it, approve of it, or advocate for it. But I don’t agree with, approve of, or advocate for sheltering people from that kind of thing either. It’s an accepted risk we all acknowledge by exercising our free speech.

Listen. We live in tense, troubled times, caught between a new generation that is campaigning for massive, positive cultural change and an old guard that is confused and scared and holding onto the past. I don’t believe in political correctness. But calling out bigoted or predatory behavior is not about being politically correct. What some (including, to my chagrin, the aforementioned Shriver) dismissively refer to as “identity politics” I view as a major part of the ongoing battle for civil rights. This is about basic human rights.

I hate to admit that I would ever agree with Odd Man Out and his “anti-SJW” (*cringe*) stance, but I do agree, on a purely general level, that we could all benefit from taking things in stride more often, having a broader sense of humor, being less sensitive, recognizing that we are not arbiters of artistic ethics, dismissing “cultural appropriation” as a largely fallacious concept too often misused to hold back positive multiculturalism, disengaging with kneejerk outrage culture, and empathizing as much with our opponents as we want them to empathize with us. It’s true, sometimes those of us trying to be empathetic and inclusive try too hard. We can, on occasion, get overzealous and paradoxically err on the side of reactivity instead of understanding. But is that not better than erring on the side of passivity? Because sometimes, it’s not just a matter of an insensitive joke or wrong-headed character portrayal. Sometimes, you’re not dealing with someone who is merely oblivious to their own privilege. Sometimes, you’re dealing with a straight-up piece-of-shit human being.

See, hate is not a difference of opinion. Racists, misogynists, homophobes, war-mongers, etc., they’re not just “opinionated” people. They’re bad people. They’re fucking monsters. Their ideas aren’t “controversial.” They’re vile. Unjust. Destructive. As I said, I’m all for taking things in stride and laughing it off, but there are times when letting something go is just as good as condoning it. When it’s something as indefensible as, say, sexual harassment or white supremacy, we can’t afford to let it slide. We need to be active and vigilant and committed in calling these things out, in standing up against them, in fighting back. The problem with the Odd Man Out (one of them, at least) is that he seems to see hollow, preening moralizing where the rest of us see right versus wrong, good versus evil. He’d probably say that sentiment is melodramatic, or that it’s indicative of delusions of grandeur. I would counter by saying that he is, in this instance, lazy and apathetic.

Maybe you’re like the Odd Man Out. Maybe you don’t agree with me. But remember when I said that everyone needs to decide their own aesthetic and ethical standards? Well, these are my standards. I respect that yours may be different than mine. I respect that freedom. But that doesn’t mean I have to respect your standards themselves, and it doesn’t mean I have to respect you. Nor do you have to respect me or mine. Once again, it’s not a one-way street. That’s perfectly fine.

I’m starting to lose my train of thought now (already been wrestling it like hell just to keep it from going off-track this whole time), and at almost 3000 words, I think this post has gone on long enough.

TL;DR version: Criticism and censorship are two different things, no matter how heated or even personal that criticism may get. How you react to it is entirely up to you. There’s no witch hunt here, Mr. Odd Man Out. From where I’m standing, it doesn’t look like it’s other people in the genre fiction community who can’t handle differing viewpoints. From where I’m standing, it looks like it’s just you.

As for all the faithful readers out there with a taste for the outre, fret not. There is no slippery slope here. “Political correctness” (if that’s what you want to call it) has not had a chilling effect on horror and bizarro fiction.

I’ll talk more about that next time, when I post Part 2. But suffice to say, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of genre fiction’s death are greatly exaggerated.