In a small black box, next to my desk, I have printed copies of all my stories. Several have been published, a few have not. But there is one that I have never offered for publication, from a terrible and graphic nightmare I had the night before I wrote it. It came to me whole, like a twisted Apollo leaping, full grown, from my aching skull. It is, I think, well executed, but not necessarily a 'good' story. There is no redemption, only horror and madness and despair. Which is why I don't really want it published.
We do not, I believe, as writers, have moral obligations to make ugliness beautiful, nor evil into goodness, though sometimes we do , and these are bright points of our careers. Those of us who write horror, or dark fantasy, and our readers are hoping to be brought to the precipice and to have our eyes directed into the abyss, and see what, exactly, it is that is staring back at us. Even in literary fiction, we see shadows; past the early phases of adolescence, we can rarely maintain a black and white sense of what is wholly good or wholly bad, and we recognize that we, and others, are a combination of the two.
But there are topics we leave out of fiction, generally. Certain sexual acts are never portrayed, and only in specific genres of horror films are there actual murders graphically portrayed. (Oddly enough, I don't know how graphically. I can't watch those things. They give me nightmares.) I also recently learned that even in the most violent of video games, children are never killed, even in the ones where brutality goes consistently unpunished. In a setting of violence, we still consider some things unacceptable.
I'm ok with this, though I wonder who is making the decisions. I am comfortable censoring my own work, but the idea of censorship troubles me. Looking through my own work, I discover that there are themes of redemption, or revenge for a wrong, but not random and senseless destruction. 'Moist' is one of my favorite of my stories, but it offers only revenge, not salvation. Hardly a shining reflection of human potential. But as I pointed out to a loved one who asked me why I never wrote happy endings, (she got 'Love Spell' -- it's almost happy?) no one wants to read about the guy who got up, had a great day at work, and went to bed. We're glad for him, but we're not going to read about him.
Not everyone is redeemed, not everyone is redeemable, maybe, and I think the morality of horror lies in its deep sense of justice. Bad guys generally meet a bad end. While that position may be morally grey, it appeals to us, for the same reasons that we love superhero movies and even love stories, where the hero saves the city, and the best man wins and gets the girl. We want the world to be this way, even though we know it isn't.
I'd like to introduce my passion project - 'Fireside Tales'. It's a collection of short stories, some of which have been published in some amazing small presses. If you decide to take a look at it, I hope you'll check out the small presses, too. These publications are the heart of fiction, and there are so many talented people whose work doesn't make mainstream fiction, but which it is a shame to miss.
I love this cover. This is the way I'd have these stories told, (though you should enjoy them any way you like) here, gathered around the fire with burgers and dogs sizzling, and a bag of marshmallows at the ready, next to a pile of long sticks for roasting. Please feel free to let me know what you think. Thank you so much for reading.
The murder ballad is a traditional musical form with a dark twist - it tells the story of a violent death, and often the subsequent discovery of the murderer and his or her punishment. Or not, if they flee the scene and are seen no more. Banishment from home and hearth serve as atonement. Stories like these, in little villages that have long since crumbled away are often lost, but the stories told in these songs linger on, made easier to remember by the music that carries them.
The oldest ones in English were brought to America from Europe, and over time, they may be adapted to local traditions and locations. One of the oldest and most famous is 'The Twa Sisters', a story about a pair of sisters, where the elder drowns the younger, usually to steal away her handsome lover. Variations in the story have the young girl's body made into a fiddle, or a harp, and the macabre instrument sings out the guilt of the surviving sister, usually in the presence of her family. The themes of the story are guilt and justice, and the idea that the truth will inevitably out. I've interpreted this old tale into prose for my new book of short fairy tales in the older, darker tradition, which will be out in April.
Another popular story that traveled with the Colonists, and was adapted to their local tales, is "The Knoxville Girl". This one is derived, originally, from a murder in England, in 1683. But as it traveled to the Colonies, the crime and the aftermath were moved to Tennessee. The violence in this tune is particularly explicit. And again, the traditional tune takes on a country western flavor, as many European ballads do when they cross the Atlantic, making them more "American" in tone.
In the shadowy mountains of Appalachia, they lay claim to the "sweetheart murder ballad", in which one lover kills another out of jealousy. Tom Dooley is probably the most famous of these, having been recorded by The Kingston Trio. Local records confirm the truth of this story, from Wilkes county, in which young Tom stabs and kills his pregnant sweetheart, and is ultimately hanged for his crime. It's interesting to note, that in the usual way of these oral traditions, the man referred to as "Greyson", while a figure in Tom's life, was, in fact, unrelated to the crime.
More modern, more American tales exist, written in a modern style. Some of them rose to popularity, particularly in the country/western genre of music. Songs like Marty Robbins's 'El Paso', a story of a man who falls in love with a beautiful girl from the Mexican border, and shoots a rival, then flees the city, stealing a horse to ride into the desert, alone. "Long Black Veil" is a more contemporary ballad, from 1959, in which a man goes to the scaffold rather than admit he spent the night of the murder with his best friend's wife. The woman in the titular long black veil is the lover whom he died to protect. A decision of questionable morality, for certain.
These stories live longer because of their musical background. Though locations and names change with time and location, the hearts of these tales remain, carved into our collective history with timeless themes, and stories that repeat again and again, no matter how far into history they retreat.