Illness? Loss? A burning desire to transform your enemies into insects? The answer is blood magic.
This story was originally published in Brutarian Quarterly 48/49.
WE KNEW the old green house on the northeast corner of the intersection as the Gooly House, because in the dim recesses of our young minds we all knew that Mrs. Gooly, whom we had feared and hated, had lived there for some years, keeping our errant tennis balls, frisbees, and gliders, a reign of tyranny over our childhoods. We’d hated Mrs. Gooly, because she insisted we stay outside her low, crumbling stone fence, because she wouldn’t let us reclaim our lost toys, because she snitched to our parents whenever we did anything in her sight, because she smelled slightly of dust at all times. We called her Mrs. Ghouly, not very original, but appropriate enough, and fought the urge to run past her house, forcing ourselves to walk sedately, untroubled by an obvious witch in our midst.
The house was mysterious. Three floors, with wickedly peaked roofs, and a dark, mulchy green. The windows were always shuttered, giving it a blind, moon-faced appearance. The yard surrounded it like a moat, a continuous band of green, overgrown to the extreme with odd plants we didn’t see in any other yard, a narrow path of slate leading from the slumped gate to the front door. The stone fence was only about three feet high, and was of a chalky substance we weren’t sure was really stone. It could be vaulted with one well-timed jump, unless you were Clarence from four doors down who was fat and always split his pants. We were terrified of the Gooly House, and of Mrs. Gooly, and we were shocked, and distrustful, when informed that she had passed away.
For weeks we feared ghosts. The house looked exactly the same; shuttered, moldy, brooding. Mrs. Gooly, being the undead, had no family that anyone knew of, so her spirit was free, we were convinced, to roam the house as she had in life, except, certainly, with new untold powers of evil. We crept past it, an eye out for black magic, and didn’t find out that someone had bought the house until the daring daylight raid we planned, almost a year after Mrs. Gooly’s demise.
A year is a long time in childhood. A whole slate of holidays had come and gone, a whole school year. Mrs. Gooly faded into the past, and if we still moved quicker when passing her looming green house, we didn’t do it consciously anymore. As she faded from fearsome witch to crabby old lady who used to live there, the neighborhood kids began more and more to look longingly towards the uncharted reaches of the Gooly House, where years’ worth of sporting goods lay waiting in the dim recesses of the tall grass, on the slightly slanted roof, in the gutters. Even after a year it took some weeks for us to come up with the combined courage to plan and execute a raid on the Gooly house.
There were five of us in charge. Myself, so pale I was almost invisible, and thin and known as the fastest runner on the block, a boy who fought back challengers every week, defeating kids from whole other neighborhoods in races; there was Rapheal, Rafe, who was my polar opposite: deeply tan, with dark hair and a muscular build, even at that age, that I envied; Marcia, who would, three years later, be my first kiss, but who was then just a freckled, red-haired, skinny girl who sometimes punched us in the shoulders for no reason; Lewis, deceptively nerdy in his thick, taped-up glasses; and Tanya, bossy, always bruised, who stole from us whenever we accidentally let her into our houses. Over grape sodas and Flav-or-Ice, we began by idly discussing how many balls we had lost at the Gooly house, and slowly devised a plan which we figured would net thousands of dollars in rubber and plastic – what we planned to do with all those toys, I couldn’t say. It was just a challenge.
The details of the plan were as follows:
The raid would be conducted during daylight, because even if we were bigger kids than ever, there was no way we were going into the Gooly house in the dark – I would challenge you today to do so, and you’d make some excuse up. We would enter the Gooly house perimeter from Webster Street through the King’s yard – the Kings were tolerant of us using their yard as a shortcut through the neighborhood, and this would allow us to enter the Gooly house perimeter without being observed by any stray parents who might have wandered from the house. Our parents never left the house during the day on a weekend, we knew that, although we couldn’t figure out why. Dads stayed in their easy chairs watching sports, Moms did whatever Moms did, mysterious things we didn’t want any part of. While unlikely that any of them would be seen on the streets, we didn’t want to take chances. Finally, we would start on the roof, beginning with the most dangerous and vulnerable area and working our way downward into the concealing safety of the tall grass, the myserious, lush jungle of the untended yard.
We crashed over the Kings’ fence boldly, trying to impress whatever ghosts there might be with our lack of fear. The house loomed before us as it always had – forbidding, not so much dark as a lack of light in the shape of a house- only closer. The siding was water-damaged, and we discovered to our mild surprise that part of the deep green color of the house was a thriving ivy plant that was consuming it, slowly. I remember we stood there, staring at it, for a few seconds, and then Marcia snorted in derision at men in general and began hoisting her slim frame up the side of the house, which was actually pretty easy; the small shed outside the back door gave easy purchase for the porch window sill, which was a quick lunge away from the porch roof, which was in turn just a few seconds of huffing and puffing from the second story roof, which, we theorized, was the pot of gold. And then, unexpected, an adult voice.
“What the hell are you kids doing back here?”
We didn’t know his name then, but Mr. Benders was standing in the dark rectangle of the porch door. He was Our Parents’ Age, which was the only other age we knew aside from Our Age and Younger Than Us. he was balding and paunchy, wearing ridiculously baggy shorts and a bright shirt with a floral pattern. Holding a beer in one hand, he was dirty, with dark smudges on his face.
We froze, stupefied by the one variable we hadn’t considered: someone was actually living in the Gooly House. It stunned us. Who would live here? It was inconceivable!
Marcia slipped and grunted, and Mr. Benders glanced up sharply. “Is someone on the roof, for crying out loud?”
Regaining her feminine grace, Marcia dropped lightly to the ground directly in front of Mr. Benders, and they faced each other through the screen door for a few moments, Benders with beer in hand, Marcia with one hand on a cocked hip, like she owned the place.
Benders looked over her shoulder. “You kids got parents?”
We began making our retreat, mumbling vague apologies and making our way through the messy yard. Mr. Benders watched us go, and then disappeared inside the house. He was the topic of hot conversation for the rest of the day, and we actually pumped our parents for information, slyly, in roundabout ways they wouldn’t be able to decipher. All we learned was that Mr. Benders had nothing to do with Mrs. Gooly, that he had simply bought the house and moved into the neighborhood. Instantly, our feelings for Mr. Benders turned sympathetic, because he obviously didn’t know that the house was haunted. On the phone that evening, Marcia and I solemnly decided that it was too late to save him; Mrs. Gooly would likely murder him in his sleep that very night. This also meant we could return for the lost Super Pinkies shortly.
Summer back then was a real Time, an actual period in our lives. We recalled, dimly, Summers past. We looked forward to, brightly, Summers to come. There was School, and there were Holidays. And there was Summer. Today, of course, things have been diced much finer as we’ve aged: we don’t even have Days any more, we have Hours. Rush Hour. Lunch Hour. Happy Hour. But during the Benders Incident, as we always called it, we still had Summers, endless tracts of fertile time in which to explore, and make up games, eat junk food, and nap.
The day after our bold but failed daylight raid, we all woke up, as usual, watched cartoons, as usual, ate cereal, as usual, and emerged into the hot street to being wasting the day, as usual. There we all stopped, because up the hill, outside the Gooly House, something unexpected had happened at some point. While we’d been sleeping, or eating, or watching, Mr. Benders had begun cleaning out the house, and there was a large collection of stuff out on the sidewalk for the garbage, beckoning us with subtle glints in the sunlight and mysterious shadows.
Rafe and Lewis were standing on the opposite corner, drinking Cokes.
“Hey, Ramis,” Rafe said with his light accent, “Can you believe all that crap?”
“That guy’s gonna be doing this for weeks, man.” Lewis confirmed.
We crossed the street and arrived at the growing collection of stuff just as Mr. Benders appeared, hauling a lagre black trunk down the front stairs.
We watched him, amazed. The Gooly House’s secrets were being spilled out onto the street. Who knew what kind of arcana Mrs. Gooly had collected in her hundreds of years living there, hunting the children of the neighborhood, poisoning our drinking water, flying through the night on her broom, stealing our prized possessions. Mr. Benders was struggling with the trunk as if it weighed a lot, and Rafe nudged me out of my fantasies.
“How much you wanna bet the old bat’s in that trunk?”
A chill ran through me. We watched Mr. Benders huff and puff the trunk down onto the sidewalk, then pause to pull a rag from his back pocket and wipe sweat from his brow. With a slight start, he noticed us.
“Great, it’s the goddamn Little Rascals again. Your parents just let you run wild around here?”
“Sure,” Rafe said, always an instigator, “why not?”
Mr. Benders shook his head, and bent down to grsp the trunk by its cracked leather handle.
“Hey, Mister,” I said, “you mind if we look through all this stuff?”
Mr. Benders paused, breathing hard, bent at the waist. “Knock yourself out, kid. But don’t make a mess. Whoever lived here before left three houses worth of stuff the goddamn Realtor couldn’t be bothered to clean out, and I don’t want to have to clean it up twice, got it?”
I nodded. It would be some time before we realized that Mr. Benders’ favorite word was ‘goddamn’.
We regarded the epic pile of trash professionally, although most of it wasn’t immediately familiar to us. There were boxes, moldy and unlabelled. There were two huge, beaten leather chairs that had backs like wings arching out over you, which we all probably considered sitting in but were too scared – they didn’t look like chairs made for humans, but rather like chairs made for vampires, or demons. While Mr. Benders loudly grunted and panted behind us, struggling with the trunk, we gingerly picked over the junk, looking for anything we could make sense of.
“Hey, Mister,” Lewis suddenly said, making us turn, “what’s in the trunk?”
Mr. Benders, standing beside the trunk like a winded Great White Hunter, shrugged. “Who cares? The old bat who lived here kept everything. Wouldn’t be surprised if it was full of goddamned bottlecaps.”
Bottlecaps piqued mild interest, as we played Bottlecaps now and again on chalked boards in the street. While we wouldn’t use that many bottlecaps in our whole lives, there might, we all suspected, be some real humdingers in there, unusual caps that would prove to be the secret ingredient to a championship season.
“Can we open it?”
Mr. Benders glanced down at the trunk and toed it with his sneaker. “Kid, if you can get it open, be my guest.”
With that he wiped sweat from his face and walked back into the Gooly House. We waited until the door had shut behind him, swallowing him back into the Gooly universe that was humming inside it like greased, blackened machinary whose use had been forgotten, and then we swarmed over the junk.
We left the trunk for last, for when the girls showed up, because we figured it would be the big discovery of the day and knew we’d be in trouble if we tried to hoard it for ourselves. The pile offered plenty of junk, anyway; aside from old lady clothes and a collection of strange, heavy records that seemed to be made of stone, there were three objects that captured the rest of our day’s attention, and solidified Mrs. Gooly’s legacy as a witch of some sort.
First, there was the Box with the crank. It was black, cracked everywhere like old skin, and had no lid or hinges we could detect. It did, however, have a worn wooden crank that reached out of it like a twisted arm. Lewis cranked it once or twice, and it produced an ominous ticking noise from within -whether this meant it was broken or if this meant it was winding up for something, we didn’t know, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know; the ticking made my back tighten up in anxiety. We shook it, but nothing rattled inside. We turned it over and over in our hands and could see no possible way inside.
Underneath a pile of chemically-smelling dresses – nothing we had ever seen Mrs. Gooly wearing – we found a jewelry box full of photographs. We were at first not interested, expecting just the usual photos – pictures of Mrs. Gooly in happier times, looking much like our own grandmothers in their own stiff, fading pictures. A closer look, however, revealed that the photos were neither of Mrs. Gooly, or very ordinary. They appeared to have all been taken at the same time, in the same place, but we couldn’t be sure – they were all confused, blurred images, with shapes that might have been people, or furniture. In some of the photos there was a perceived violence, a horror of motion that we couldn’t seem to look away from. In others, there didn’t seem to be anything – just blurry shots of an empty room, beaten wood floors, pale plaster walls.
We sat on the curb and went through the photos one at a time, carefully, passing them down the line and staring at them. I felt as if there was something in those photos, a puzzle, and if I had enough time to stare at them, I might piece them together. In one, a man wearing baggy dress pants, a short, thick tie from black and white movies, and a towering pile of curly dark hair seems to float above a group of seated people. Their blurred faces appear to be raised in awe, or panic, arms half raised as well in a desperate attempt to fend something off, or block their sight, or maybe in hysteria.
The girls, fresh from mysterious girl business somewhere, arrived in time for the third discovery: an ominous book written entirely in runes. The dark green leather of the book was cracked but somehow velvety, and gave me goosebumps to touch. The paper bound within was smooth and felt wet to my fingers, as if it were leaving some oily residue behind. We all stood around wiping our hands on our pants and shirts after touching it. The runes were inscrutable, darkly printed, stark against the yellowed white of the paper. Each page was a solid block of symbols, with no paragraphs, punctuation, or illustration. They began neatly on the first page, and ended abruptly on the last unnumbered sheet. The smell of the book was one of neglect and time and something that scratched our throats and made us cough.
The girls were excited by the book. Declaring it a witch’s spellbook, they claimed only girls could handle it and clutched it between them possessively. Honestly, I recall being very glad to let them have it, but Rafe had to make a stand and threatened them with the usual if they kept it for themselves: torment, vandalism, exclusion from the next thousand days of Running Bases and stickball. Tanya and Marcia paid him no mind, and Rafe was forced to admit that he was not going to hit a girl any time soon. The girls cackled over their grimoire and threatened to turn us into rodents if we bothered them.
The rest of the stuff was equally inexplicable, and equally useless to us, but didn’t seem very dark or magical: old clothes, pieces of sagging and empty furniture, boxes and boxes of shoes we didn’t think anyone had ever worn. After a few hours a truck came and three large men who spoke a foreign language began collecting everything. When we claimed our three prizes, they shrugged and muttered and didn’t cause us any trouble.
I spent the night staring at the photos, seeking clues. In one, the one where a group of people seemed to be running for their lives from a sparsely furnished room, and among the people there was a tall, bony woman tht could certainly have been Mrs. Gooly. I dug my plastic microscope from under the bed, dusted it off, and ran the photo beneath it, searchin for clues. Up close the photo was just a grayscale jumble, darks and greys, dots. I did discover, on the edge of the print, what could only be a cat’s tail, puffed and the tail bit of a fleeing animal, one paw still barely visible as it fled.
The next day the five of us gathered across from the Gooly house and discussed our treasures. The girls had not been able to pry any secrets from the spell book, and were seriously considering bring Marcia’s older sister Maryanne into the discovery process, Maryanne being seventeen and well read, an untapped resource of knowledge we had never found a use for.
Rafe had nervously cranked the mysterious box for a full five minutes, listening to its dry clickings, and came out to us on the corner convinced it was merely broken, and not mysterious at all.
Lewis had claimed the trunk, and had enlisted his older brother in dragging it to his house. He had not been able to pick the lock or otherwise break into the trunk, but felt confident that he would be able to, because his brother had learned how to pick the locks on the lockers at his high school
As would become the daily ritual of the summer, Mr. Benders emerged a few minutes later lugging a new load of stuff out onto the street, huffing and puffing. Pausing to catch his breath, he noticed us across the street and shook his head a little.
“You kids got no ambition, huh? Watching me clean this house out the best you can do? What happened to vandalism, or juvenile delinquency.”
Rafe sneered at him. “Hey man, we’re watching you have a heart attack – who’s dumb?”
Mr. Benders surprised us by laughing, which turned into a bad coughing fit. Finally, he waved at us dismissively, and continued hauling three overstuffed cardboard boxes out to the curb. We waited until he turned his back on them, and then swarmed over to them. They revealed nothing more than a collection of faded tablecloths, musty and uninteresting. We settled down to wait for more treasures anyway.
Over the next few months, we watched Mr. Benders clear out the Gooly house with growing excitement, seeing mysteries heretofore unsuspected revealed daily, and our collections of oddities grew with each batch. Everything seemed to confirm our suspicions about Mrs. Gooly’s nature: her possesions, once exposed to the harsh summer sun and our sharp inspection, were arcane and obviously heavy with black magic. We found a soft velvety bag filled with smooth, black stones, seized upon as magical stones. We claimed what Lewis identified as a camera, a black box with a lens protruding from one end. We could find no way to load film into it, and Marcia immediately began referring to it as the Soul Camera, a term which made us all shiver with expectation. Who knew what you might do with a Soul Camera once you learned how to use it? There was a long, smooth black rod, inexplicable but vibrating with implied violence. A glass cube. A small jewelry box filled with sand. Gold coins from some distant land none of us had heard of.
Every day Mr. Benders hauled a quantity of stuff from within the Gooly House, and every day we found new, arcane items to add to our collection. But no matter how hard we studied it all, nothing fell into place. The Gooly House made no more sense than it had before. I stared at the photos until my eyes ached, under my blankets with flashlights, but no inspiration came to me. They remained fuzzy, indistinct photos that may have been about amazing happenings, or simply badly photographed. We all fell into private and separate contemplations of the meaning of our treasures, and stopped talking about the Gooly House, and shared none of it.
Finally, the days bled into Fall, and school began firming up into a reality. We were dragged into clothing stores and department stores, we were measured and groomed, largely against our wills. Shoes were purchased. September came and we all began eyeing the calendar with dread, knowing that one Sunday evening we would be shuffled off to bed earlier than we’d become used to, and we’d be woken up earlier than we wished, pushed into good clothes, and pushed out the door with bookbags and bag lunches in hand, stunned, amazed, and regretful of a million things. Another summer gone.
Mr. Benders was finally done cleaning out the Gooly House by this time, and we didn’t see him much that final week as he resumed the normal interior lifestyle of an adult. Our parents hinted that he was gutting the place and having it all redone in a more modern style, which seemed like grown-up parlance for driving out the haunting Spirit of Mrs. Gooly, which we all expected to see rise up from the chimney someday, hovering over the neighborhood angrily for a moment, and then fly off to possess a familiar, like a squirrel or cat. We’d fallen out of the habit of waiting for him outside his house anyway, and had finished the last two weeks of our vacation playing stickball a block away, Rafe bossing everyone but Marcia around. Marcia would just cross her arms and stick out her butt and tell Rafe to soak his head, and he would just give a sly latin smile and shrug, as if it was all a big joke he’d cooked up. I hit a grand slam, and was a minor celeb for a day, something I still remember, since I don’t hit very many grand slams.
The last Saturday of vacation we played basketball in the park, Rafe humiliating me and Lewis with various trick shots and in-your-face stuffs. We took it in stride, used to it. Walking home in sweaty, drooping clothes, Lewis suddenly looked up.
“Hey, y’know what? I never did get that goddamn trunk open.”
For a moment we didn’t remember what he was talking about. Then it hit us. The trunk! The Gooly Trunk! All the terrible secrets we’d imagined hidden in that house came flooding back, and I was sure that the key to it all, the last piece of the puzzle that had eluded us, was locked inside that trunk. All we had to do was get it open.
On the way to Lewis’ house, he explained what steps had already been taken, and it became clear that Lewis and his older brother had exhausted subtlety. Picking the locks would not do. Brute force was called for. We located a hammer and chisel in the garage, where Lewis’ mother had banished the musty old trunk, and dragged the trunk to the top of their sloped driveway, a cool late-summer breeeze making us shiver in our sweaty clothes. Rafe took the tools up confidently, in charge, and we all stood around it as he knelt, pushed the chisel into the small gap of the latch, and raised the hammer up for a final blow at Mrs. Gooly.
I’ll never forget what happened. I’ll never forget the five of us, as we were. Lewis, pudgy but thinning with age, sheened with sweat, his eyes bright and wide, expectant. Marcia radiant, skinny, just beginning to hint at curves, her hair up, mouth open nervously, skin pink. Rafe, strong back bunched with muscle, curly hair matted from exertion. And Tanya, on the edge, already fading from our thoughts even when she’d still been there, just out of my peripheral vision. Saying something I never heard as Rafe raised the hammer, because when he brought it down, there was an explosion.
Or so it seemed to me at the time. Certainly, the trunk exploded, splitting open with such force that the lid banged loudly on the pavement. And we all dived instinctively away from a sudden cloud of green, yellow, and tan: hundreds of tennis balls, Spaldings, Super Pinkies, compressed impossibly into a steamer trunk for years, freed with a startling expulsion of suppressed kinetic energy. Rafe was hit in the face by the lid flying upward, and landed hard on his back in the driveway. The rest of us were pummeled for three seconds by hundreds of hard rubber balls, and then found cover as the explosion turned into a steady rain of balls falling back to earth, where they then rolled down the driveway and into the street.
Writing is a curious thing, sometimes. On the one hand it’s art and you have to respect the mysterious and largely amoral idea machine that lurks somewhere inside your head – mysterious and somewhat disturbing, most times. On the other hand, there’s artifice and artificiality to it as well – you take those ideas and you think about manipulating a plot, and the market you might sell it to, and how readers will react.
So, you sometimes develop crutches or tools – like, say, a character who exists mainly to star in a certain kind of story that you often return to. I’m a fan of detective novels, and I’m a fan of the old Kolchak: The Night Stalker series, and for some reason I keep coming up with gonzo supernatural stories that are presented and structured as mysteries. And so I’ve created a character named Philip K. Marks who often stars in these stories as an alcoholic former writer who investigates weird, strange situations.
In fact, he’s not that different in some ways from Lem Vonnegan, the main character in We Are Not Good People. He’s a bit run-down, has made bold, moral choices in his life that have cost him, and he’s oppressed by forces often – regularly – beyond his control or sometimes even his comprehension. Whereas in the earlier stories I wrote about him he was well-known and somewhat prosperous, over time he’s had adventures that went horrifyingly wrong, and there’s continuity in the stories themselves, so in the more recent ones he’s lost his memory and some of his focus and energy, and he’s fallen pretty far in social and economic turns, too. Although he’s not a mage or a gunner, he’d get along well with Lem and Avery Cates, I think, and his adventures always involve magic, horror, and science fiction elements.
I like almost all of the stories I’ve written about Marks, and I’ve actually sold a few. “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the MWA Anthology Crimes by Moonlight, edited by Charlaine Harris, in 2010, and “A Meek and Thankful Heart” appeared in Buzzy Mag in 2013. And I recently sold a third story, titled “Howling on for More” which should be appearing over at Black Denim Lit in April (or so I’m told).
Three stories ain’t exactly an anthology, but I have a bunch of others, and it’s been surprisingly successful for me to sell three stories with the same character, especially one so different from Avery Cates and Lem Vonnegan (or perhaps not so different). And since I have several other stories starring the amnesic and world-weary Mr. Marks, I guess I have a long-term project now to start sending out more of those stories so I can someday collect them into one anthology that no one will publish.
At my current apparent rate of selling one story every 2-3 years, I’ll manage this by the time I’m 157. Which is fine. I plan to live that long anyway through a careful application of booze, lack of exercise, and positive thinking.
In the mean time, Marks will remain a sponge character for all the ideas I have that need a bit of structure to hold them up. Even though Marks started off as a catch-all tool of sorts, he’s developed quite the backstory and personality. In fact, it might be time to write a Marks novel one of these days, if I can think of the right idea for it. All writers have tools they use to hide the gears from y’all, and sometimes it’s nice when those tools ascend a bit and become characters.
So, as noted in this great review from Matt Handle, many people are assuming/hoping that the new Avery Cates story The Shattered Gears is a teaser for a new Cates novel. I’ve had a lot of emails along those lines, asking if this is leading to something and if I have a clear storyline for a new Cates book, and whether The Shattered Gears is part of that.
The answer is yes and no. Yes, I have a very clear idea of what Cates gets up to and a lot of notes for a new novel. And yes, The Shattered Gears is directly connected, so it’s canon, baby. In fact, Gears started off as a way of organizing some thoughts for a new Cates book. But no, I have no plans to write that book right now. It will remain just a collection of ideas for now.
The same goes for We Are Not Good People and the Ustari universe. Do I have ideas for another novel or fifteen with Lem and Mags? Sure! Am I working on them right now? No! Reasons include:
- It’s the holidays and I am incapacitated by drink more or less continuously
- No one has paid me an enormous amount of money to write those novels (yet)
- My work writing and composing the world’s worst rock songs in my home office takes too much of my time
- I’m far too busy perfecting my Irish accent
- I’m actually in the middle of writing a novel now that not only has nothing to do with Cates or Lem Vonnegan, it has nothing to do with cyborgs or magic at all.
Anyways, I’m delighted people seem to enjoy The Shattered Gears so much. If it sells well I might make releasing Cates stories a more or less regular event, though not all of those potential stories would be directly related to a new storyline, some might be flashbacks. Who knows? It might be fun.
Anyways, you know the best way to guarantee sequels? Buy the existing books and then emotionally manipulate everyone you know to follow suit.
Believe me, if there was a digital version of a sandwich board that read PAY ATTENTION TO ME OR I WILL FOLLOW YOU HOME AND TAKE A DUMP ON YOUR LAWN I would wear that sumbitch. Lacking that, I must lower myself to doing self-promotion like a commoner, begging people to put eyeballs on me. It’s humiliating. It’s why I drink. Damn you all, just buy my books without me having to do anything! Including write the books, as that is a LOT of effort.
Still, promotion must be done. Here’s a round up of all the freebies out there currently to inspire you to read my mighty works:
- Fixer, the prequel Novella to We Are Not Good People, is available as a free eBook at Amazon, B&N, and other places.
- Fixer is also available as a FREE audiobook.
- We Are Not Good People is itself being given away in print form over at Goodreads.
If the idea of meeting me and shaking my sweaty hand as I mutter and twitch appeals to you, you will have your opportunities, my friends:
- I’ll be at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, September 21st, at the Mystery Writer’s of America table from 4:30 to 5:30pm. I’ll be signing and giving away books and other stuff and accepting dares.
- I’ll be at New York Comic Con this year, floating about and on a panel on Friday, October 10 at 1:15PM called “Playing with Magic” along with A.M. Dellamonica, Ilona & Gordon Andrews, Kim Harrison, George Hagen, and Jaclyn Dolamore. Moderated by Lev Grossman.
I’ve been writing a lot of things in service of self-promotion. Some of them are even good!
- The Story Behind We Are Not Good People over at Upcoming4me.com
- An essay about magic systems in novels originally at Off the Shelf, then picked up (and retitled disastrously) by The Huffington Post.
That does it for now. More things in the works, of course, but self promotion is exhausting and makes me feel dirty, so I need to drink now.
In which I learn the explosive force of love.
About year ago this Thursday my old friend Emil got married and asked me to be his best man. Emil’s a good friend of The Inner Swine Inner Circle (TISIC) in general, and there was some resentment, jealousy, and harsh words concerning my elevation to Best Man status. There were also isolated incidents of violence. Eventually, Emil managed to cool tempers and remind the rest of TISIC that they were, above all else, contractually obligated to me in perpetuity. After that impassioned speech the members of TISIC retreated to their various abodes to scan the fine print of their contracts, only to return in much more manageable moods.
The Best Man has a lot of duties in the modern wedding. Whereas in the good old days he was merely a responsible member of the groom’s clan who vouched for the groom’s sanity, financial solvency, and lack of venereal diseases, these days the Best Man has lots to do: organize a bachelor party (I’m told it was a humdinger; personally I don’t remember much after that fifth body shot off of Lola the Stripper’s washboard stomach), deliver the viciously hungover groom to the actual wedding the next day (Emil still had his Emergency Room ID bracelet on), manage not to vomit during the ceremony, and then, finally, and most importantly, make a speech at the reception.
The Best Man’s Speech is supposed to accomplish a few minor but cherished conventions: it’s supposed to compliment the groom, his choice of bride, and form a verbal bridge between the carefree days of the groom’s prior friendships and the more complex but equally rewarding years of mature friendship to come. In other words, the Best Man’s job is to reassure the groom’s buddies that they will indeed see him from time to time despite the nag he’s chaining himself to, and to reassure the groom that his buddies will always be there to say mean things about his wife in private if he needs them to.
I worked very hard on my speech in the ambulance, riding with Emil to the ER after the bachelor party had taken a dramatic turn. The transcript which follows is taken from the wedding video, and more accurately reflects what was actually said than the scrawled speech written on cocktail napkins in the ambulance. I think I accomplished the goals of the Best Man’s Speech admirably:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, friends and family, I’ve known Emil for sixteen years. When we met back in prison we didn’t like each other very much; he always wanted to pitch and I never let him. Being cellmates gave us time to get to know each other and by the time our parole hearing came up I was proud to stand next to him, hold his hand, and testify that we had each found Jesus and would dedicate our lives to upholding the laws of the land if we were released.
“In short, I’ve known Emil long and well. And in many ways, most of which I don’t wish to discuss here.
Over the years Emil and I have gone through a great many things and we’ve always supported each other: when my dog Skippy died, Emil was there to help me through it, tenderly digging a grave for poor Skippy and getting me drunk later that night before we traced the plate number of the car that hit Skippy and set it on fire, in revenge.
“When I became addicted to Internet Porn a few years ago, alienating my friends and family, losing my job, ending up at one point getting busted for public lewdness in The @ Café in New York City, Emil was the one who came to my apartment one July evening, knocked me cold and kidnapped me. Emil kept me in a cold, dark basement for six months, deprogramming me. To this day whenever I see a computer keyboard I shake and vomit helplessly. While this has caused me difficulty and unpopularity at work, it saved me: if not for Emil and the vicious torture he put me through in that basement, I would be in some asylum somewhere, trying to log onto from a pay phone.
“Emil has always been there for me, and I am pleased to be here for him today, the day he marries Petra.
“In the four and a half days I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Petra, I’ve realized that Emil’s life was but an empty and meaningless melange of sex, drugs, and progressive jazz music. In less than a week, she has become not only a dear friend of mine, but a dear friend of all the members of The Inner Swine Inner Circle, The Inner Swine being the magazine I publish which I really think you all ought to read and purchase subscriptions, because you see that large black guy in the back standing with several dozen men in fatigues? That’s Ken [REDACTED] and he’s going to be waiting for you after the reception, and all I can say is that he’s much nicer to people who have subscriptions than to anyone else, and I can also say that I have less and less influence over him every day.
“What? All right, all right, Emil, Jesus, calm the fuck down, okay?
“Anyway, as I was saying, Petra has not only redeemed Emil from his obvious descent into damnation and syphilitic degeneration, but she has entered and improved the lives of all of us. She’s a rare and delicate flower of womanhood, she’s a compassionate and beautiful creature who’s….energy and….emotion….and….and….ladies and gentlemen, I love her. Petra, I love you.
“I cannot stand here and pretend that everything is okay, while I am dying inside! Petra, I’ve been dying inside all these past few days! Ever since Tuesday night I’ve been tortured by my love for you, while you marry this troll, this monster, this syphilitic mistake masquerading as a man! Oh, the stories I could tell you! Emil, the whoremonger! Emil the petty thief! The man he killed in Mexico! The drugs he dealt to little kids while on work release! The Kiddie Porn! Oh, Petra, you’re making a mistake!
“Ladies and gentlemen, keep that madman away from me! Excuse me….pardon me….Ken! Help! Ladies and gentlemen, I beseech you! Petra! Petra!”
(At this point the audio becomes garbled as many voices intrude and the action on-screen gets a little hectic. Occasionally you can here me shouting “Not the face!” but I don’t think technically that’s part of the speech. At this point I felt the explosive power of love, and it certainly beat the shit out of me)
I often wonder what became of Emil and Petra. I suspect he still communicates with other members of TISIC, but none of the bastards will admit it, and the court order prevents me from finding out for myself. If anyone has heard of Emil and Petra’s whereabouts, please contact me. There’s money in it for you.
- I can momentarily pretend I am hugely successful when Fixer is ranked #1 despite earning me zero dollars.
- If you don’t, this blog will quickly descend into weepy paeans to the Good Old Days when people loved me.
- You will really enjoy it, and it will inspire you to purchase We Are Not Good People when it comes out in October. Or possibly to found a new religion based on my teachings. Either way, all good.
- It’s free. Exactly how cheap do you have to be to not download a free book? Followup question: Are you not cheap at all and simply like seeing me cry? Because I’ll happily send you fetish videos of me weeping, if you want.
- It’s just 10,000 words, so you can read it on the bus into work and be approximately 1% smarter upon your arrival. That 1% might be the difference between life and death, depending on the nature of your job.
If all that doesn’t convince you, here are the first few paragraphs to read. That’s right, this is a free preview of a free novella. The gods have gone crazy.
It should have worked. It did work, right up until it didn’t.
“You got your trained bear on a leash, Vonnegan?”
I looked up and stared at Heller, his shaved head flaking into drifts of off-white skin that settled on the shoulders of his black fur coat. The big oversized sunglasses were studded with rhinestones, some of which had fallen off. He looked like he probably smelled, but I wasn’t going to test the theory. He didn’t appear to be wearing a shirt under the coat, though I was fucking relieved to see pants emerging from under its hem. Two kids, Asian and skinny and smoking cigarettes, stood on either side of him. Heller didn’t go for muscle. Heller went for speed.
Next to me, I heard Mags literally growling. I reached up and put a hand on his shoulder. I was slowly starting to realize that Mags had somehow bonded to me in unholy matrimony, and I was beginning to make long-term life plans that involved him.
I took a deep breath. “Listen—”
Heller held up a hand. “Save the bullshit, Vonnegan. You owe me thirty thousand fucking dollars, and you told me you’d have it tonight.”
I leaned back in my chair and let my hand slip off of Mags’s shoulder. I decided that if the big guy went nuts and killed Heller by accident, I would allow it. Around us, Rue’s Morgue flowed and buzzed, populated by a big group of slummers from uptown who’d somehow found the bar. The extra humidity and noise was straining the environment beyond its capabilities, and everything had become smoky and dense, the air getting thicker as more drinks were poured.
I’d never had much energy for bullshit. When I started a lie, it got heavier and heavier until I couldn’t hold it up anymore. So I just went for brutal honesty.
“I don’t have it,” I said, spreading my hands. “I had a line on something, but it . . . didn’t work out.”
I pictured the ustari who brought me to this state, her and her lone Bleeder. She was a bottom dweller, going after her own kind. And that meant I wasn’t even a bottom dweller. I was fucking underground.
Heller smiled. His teeth were little green pebbles in his mouth, and I didn’t like looking at them, but I forced myself to smile back. We were equals, I told myself. I’d had ten years of apprenticeship that had gotten me nowhere, and a lot of the . . . people, the magicians, who hung out in Rue’s were way ahead of me, but I was learning fast. Heller acted like he was some sort of fucking Lord of the Shitheads, and I told myself that was an illegitimate position: No one had elected him.
“I don’t give a fuck what worked out or didn’t work out: You owe me fucking money and you don’t have it.” He nodded, once, as if coming to a sudden decision. “Go touch your fucking gasam for it, right? Enough screwin’ around.”
Thinking of Hiram and his hot, musty apartment and his tendency to believe that verbal abuse was a fine motivator, I shook my head. Gasam had been one of the first Words I’d learned: teacher, Master. The implied bondage in the word hadn’t sat well with me. That should have been a sign it was all going to hell sooner rather than later.
I shot my cuffs and thought. Anything to not have to crawl back to that fat little thief and beg him for help. Anything. In service to the grift I’d even tried to improve my look by investing in a fifteen-dollar suit from St. Mary’s thrift store; it fit like it had been made for show and possibly out of cardboard. But thirty thousand dollars, I’d recently discovered, was a lot more money than I’d thought. It was turning into an impossible amount of money.
Keeping my smile in place, I shook my head and pursed my lips. “Isn’t come to that yet, Heller,” I said. “Give me a couple more days.”
Heller’s smile widened and he gestured, vaguely, in the air, with one hand. Rings glinted on its wiry fingers. I had a second of anxiety, then the weird sense of blood in the air. Then I was being pushed down into my chair by an invisible force, so hard I couldn’t breathe.
“I could Charm ya out of it,” Heller said, stepping over to take hold of an empty chair and dropping it next to me. I could move my eyes but nothing else. Someone behind me, casting spells.
My heart was pounding. Next to me, I could hear Mags, caught the same as me, straining against the spell, trying to launch himself from the chair. I hated Heller, suddenly. He’d seemed vaguely ridiculous before, running his games, dressing like a porn producer from the 1970s. But now I owed him thirty thousand dollars, and I hated him. And I’d come so close to getting out from under him, too.
It should have worked. It did work. Until it didn’t.
Henry stared at the coffin, and thought about killing his wife.
The room, perfumed and stuffy, was filled with the blurry sound of chat, a hundred polite conversations going on simultaneously. Ted the Infinitely Wealthy had passed away suddenly, shockingly, and his death seemed unreal to everyone in the room, one of Ted’s famous pranks, and everyone half-expected Ted to pop out of the coffin with a bottle of champagne and demand that everyone dance. The closed coffing added some weight to this delerium, as everyone secretly wondered if it was maybe filled with sand, or someone elses body entirely. It was a meme that jumped from person to person without being spoken, mysteriously, and the whole room was making idle chatter while thinking, ashamed of even the thought, that maybe Ted the Infinitely Wealthy had not died of a sudden aneurysm after all, that maybe he was hiding somewhere, watching them all on closed-circuit TV, laughing.
Ted had done similar things in the past. Henry put his wife out of his mind for a moment, recalling some of the pranks. He’d never found them very funny, personally; pranks always seemed mean-spirited to him, as if it wasn’t bad enough that Ted the Infinitely Wealthy was so infinitely wealthy, he had to treat everyone around him like they were players in his personal troupe, entertaining him with their antics. To Henry’s thinking, the frequency and complexity of Ted’s pranks had increased in direct proportion to how ruined by money he’d become. Ted had always been rich, born rich, but as a kid his terrible home life—a nasty divorce, a father who’d kept his mother and Ted in near-poverty as they sued and counter-sued each other over support—had made him a moody, melancholy, but grounded individual. When he’d finally come into infinite wealth on his eightteenth birthday, it hadn’t seemed real for some years, and he lived simply, Henry remembered, for some time after that. Slowly, though, the money had crept into his life. The pranks had begun as good clean fun, an acknowledgment that Ted was rich and could do amazing things if he wanted. As time went on, though, Henry had detected a streak of meanness in the pranks, and in Ted.
Faking his own death, Henry thought suddenly, actually wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.
He went back to staring at the coffin and thinking about killing his wife.
The coffin sat on a raised dais, surrounded by flowers. A large picture of Ted the Infinitely Wealthy was displayed on a stand, a smiling, tanned young man with thinning hair and a growing paunch, dressed casually. Henry couldn’t tell where the picture had been taken, but it looked recent, and gave the impression that Ted had been caught by surprise, turning suddenly and smiling reflexively when he saw the camera. The effect of pleasant surprise was so perfect, Henry thought it gave credence to the idea that the whole death and funeral business was faked, that the photo had been taken a week ago in preparation.
Henry glanced down at his hands, which he’d cupped soberly so he wouldn’t have to worry about them.
Behind him, he could hear the soft whispering of his wife and Gina Gerrano, usually referred to as The Tart—another in a long series of silly nicknames acquired during college and never abandoned, Henry thought, despite their advancing middle-age and the sheer ridiculous weight of them. He could still refer to The Tart in the company of old college cronies and be instantly understood, just as he could refer to TIW and everyone knew he was referring to Teddy. The origins of these names were sometimes famous stories, recounted endlessly, and were sometimes lost to memory. Henry himself was known as The Hick. He’d never liked the nickname, though he’d pretended to for many years. He’d launched a campaign to discourage its use, but no one took him seriously about it.
His wife, who’d gone to a different college and didn’t like many of his friends, thought the whole nickname thing was silly and didn’t hesitate to tell him so. Her name was Miranda. All of Henry’s friends called her The Shrew when she wasn’t in the room. Henry had taken to thinking of her as The Shrew, and when he spoke about her to his friends he called her by that nickname.
This story was published by From the Asylum many, many moons ago – in fact, the webzine no longer exists. I got paid $25, which I immediately spent on whiskey and regret.
Watch the World Die
HE sat on the hood of his car with an unlit cigarette in his mouth, a waxy, unkempt youth in Jeans and flannel, grinning. It was cold and crisp but not windy, a photograph to walk around in. Closer to the wreckage, it was warmer.
The highway had become still as well, a stretch of frozen motion. Behind him cars lined up in quiet rows, in front they were smoldering in quiet, jangled piles. Amongst them, people picked their way carefully, small and tender, some with dazed and jellied expressions, some with cool, detached demeanors. He watched them calmly, the familiar fines of the old Malibu slowly rusting beneath him.
Someone approached from behind and paused to stand next to him, but he didn’t turn to look at the newcomer, a bland young man in loose, easy clothes. His eyes, however, turned slightly, and then flicked back again.
“Did you see it happen?” the young man asked.
“Yep,” he replied.
There was a quick, elastic silence.
“Got a light?”
He smiled around his unlit cigarette and shook his head. After a moment, the bland young man shuffled away.
Abruptly, the end of his cigarette flared and caught fire, a jolly red coal glittering in the night. He took a deep drag and let a great gust of white smoke out into the air. He watched a tall State Trooper approach, his face nothing but vacant disinterest.
The trooper was tall and lean, dark and grim. Be held an open pad in one hand and a pen in the other.
“I’ll need to take a statement.”
The man sitting on the car nodded. “The red car, the Mazda, exploded,” he said with blank enunciation. “Just burst into flames. I’ve seen it before.”
“You have?” the cop asked.
“Many times.” A smile filled his face.
The cop nodded and pretended to write this down on his pad. “Could I have your name, sir?”
“The Mazda,” the man continued, “was driving like an asshole, weaving around, high-beaming everyone. It was really irritating. The asshole refused to see that there was nowhere to go, no one had anywhere to go.”
The cop pursed his lips. “Your name, sir?”
The man turned his bloodshot eyes up to the cop. “Sorry. Daniel. Daniel Eggert.”
Writing this down dutifully, the trooper didn’t glance up. “Did you see what caused the accident, Mr. Eggert?”
Eggert smiled around his cigarette. “I just told you: it burst into flames. The Mazda. The red one.”
This time the cop did look up. “Just like that?”
Eggert nodded cheerfully. “Just like that.” He shrugged. “That’s the way it always happens; once the gas tank catches, it’s too late.”
“I’ll bet.” The trooper had a bad feeling about this guy, but couldn’t put a finger on it. His eyes slid down. “This your car?”
Eggert glanced over the cop’s shoulder. “1973 and it runs like new,” he agreed.
The trooper glanced at his pad as he wrote the tag down. “Thanks for your help, Mr. Eggert.”
Eggert nodded, once. “Not a bit of it,” he said.
Driving home, Daniel Eggert studied himself in the rear-view with an unflinching gaze. The road was empty and dark and he drove by instinct, thumbs nudging the wheel carefully. His pale face shone in the glass, bright and smooth and framed by dark hair that blended into the dark, leaving him a moon in a constantly shifting night.
After a moment, he reached over and shut off the headlights. Dark snapped in, but his face still shone.
So, as mentioned previously, in August I’ll be presenting a seminar on plotting a novel, much to the horror of many, many teachers, scoutmasters, and other authority figures I’ve known throughout my long-departed youth. To say that many people expressed doubt about my abilities to succeed in life would be an understatement. That happens when you discover alcohol at the age of thirteen and immediately take up residence on street corners for lengthy periods of time.
Still, I showed them! I am on the agenda of a major writing conference. Of course, this makes me sweat: As we all know, I take a certain, shall we say, casual approach to life in general. How do you teach something when your process involves getting blackout drunk and then being vaguely surprised at what you find in the morning?
Well, I’ve been looking back on my mighty works and considering how I actually plotted them out. Chum was written (in its original form) in 2003, taken on by my might agent in 2004, re-written a few times along the way, and sold to Tyrus Books in 2013. With a story like that, it can’t be surprising to hear that the plot process on this book was complicated, mainly because I never really considered plot at all.
Chum is, I think, an unusual book: It has a transforming event buried in there, the Big Moment that everything revolves around, but it doesn’t really follow any recognizable model for plot at all. There’s really no rising action, no denouement. It’s told from various points of view and various moments in time, and the points of view vary wildly in states of inebriation and information.
So how did I plot this? I didn’t.
I started off, as usual, with a vision: The opening scene, which is fairly innocuous and humorous, with a slight spice of ominous — and then I saw what the Big Event was. From there, I simply slipped into the heads of my characters and explored what they might have seen, inferred, or eavesdropped, and what would happen to their relationships as a result.
It’s actually an approach to writing that I attempted once before, when I was much younger, in a novella titled “Shadow Born” (let’s not mock me and my titles; I will stipulate that my love for faux-poetic titles is awful and horrible and I am trying to be better about it, promise). The older novella was the story of a rape at a college party and explored how people hear about it, suspect it’s happened, and react to certain knowledge of it. It wasn’t entirely successful, and today feels like Juvenilia, but it felt like there was power in that engine.
Results May Not Be Verifiable
I don’t employ this kind of narrative trick often, because it’s more likely to collapse into a heap of chaos than yield a tight, interesting novel. Chum works because the characters came to life – at least to me, although I now have a few other people, some of whom paid me money, who seem to agree. If the characters had seemed flat or boring, we would have been in a lot of trouble. As a result, this isn’t really an approach I can recommend to newcomers to the novel game – although hey, you never know.
Other novels I’ve plotted differently, including a lot of “Pantsing” and a bit of “Plotting,” though the latter is usually only when I’m forced to. Both have worked for me, but I have to say: Plotting Chum was probably the most fun I’ve ever had plotting a novel out.
These days my plot technique involves alcohol and guesswork. And cats. Cat butts on my keyboard seem to be the secret sauce for my recent novels, actually.