I'm keeping an eye on the news today. It doesn't matter to me where you stand on political issues, but we will likely agree that history will recall this period of time as a time of enormous upheaval. We are in a state of relative chaos. Donald Trump has engaged in a very public argument with some Congressional Leaders, while Robert Mueller investigates his lawyers, whilst Ms. Theresa May has been locked in her own vehicle while her Brexit deal begins to crumble. Whatever comes of these events, next year does not promise any of us the return of peaceful good order. But maybe that's ok.
It is the way of human minds to seek certainty. If a stimulus is ambiguous, our brains tend to make something meaningful of it, so we don't have to wonder, and can react. I like to think this allows us to make good decisions with minimal information, but sometimes it just causes us to see a threat in the movements of the shadow of a tree branch, or a face in the gleam of light on a window.
The false threats put us on alert, though, and with complacency rampant, that could prove to be a good thing. Regardless of the outcome for Mr. Trump, he has brought some of the flaws in our system to light, things that need our attention. Whether you believe him to be a criminal or a saint, or somewhere between, he has pressed the lines between what is a 'norm' and what is 'required', and we would do well to make sure that we, the American People, know where we want those lines drawn, and draw them firmly, so that they cannot be tested again.
In the UK, the Brexit deal, or the lack of it, has raised questions of what it means to be a sovereign nation in a world that is deeply connected financially while remaining divided on social issues. We all rely on international trade to keep our costs down and raise the standard of living for everyone involved. But breaking ties with the EU is complex, and has far reaching consequences, many of which we will not know until the deal is finished, in whatever way it is finished.
All we can do is step into the abyss, and hope the face that has been looking back at us is fairly friendly.
I love flash fiction. I love reading it, and I love writing it. The shortest piece I have ever written for publication was 16 words long, entitled 'Bernice". Most of my bits and bobs of flash fiction hover under or around 1000 words, and first drafts take an afternoon to write. But what I love best about them is the crafting that comes after the first draft. I love the minute importance of each word. Nothing can be wasted, and everything has to do more than one job in a sentence to carve the word count down. Constructing plot, character arc, and an entire fictional world is a spectacular challenge. And there are some amazing tales available in online publications. I thought I'd mention a few of them here, to open my readers to a world of writers who share a sense of the uncanny.
'The Molotov Cocktail' is one of my favorites. I won't ignore that part of the reason for that is that they published my favorite of my own stories, 'Moist', available here and here. But there is so much here that isn't mine that I really love. Phillip Webb Gregg's 'This Thing Of Darkness, I' is brilliantly disturbing. 'The Arms', by Jennifer Lynn Krohn has some of the best imagery I've had the good fortune to read in a while. Because I am oddly obsessed with fungus in general, 'Rainbow, Fungus, Rainbow', by Liam Johnson is a delight, in a darkly psychedelic way. And though it isn't technically flash fiction, Erin Kirsch's 'Ten Years Later' is brief, and heartbreaking, and beautiful.
Flash Fiction Online is another great source. They don't have a specific genre, so if creeping horror is not for you, this is a good one to explore. You can sort through them by genre, so if you're in the mood for something in particular, you can find it there. I read, and loved 'Five Times I Have Slept At Your Bedside', by Jared Oliver Adams, a lovely tale of the heartbreak of parenting. Rebecca Birch's 'Eyes of Wood, Heart of Stone', is also short and sweet and rich in fantasy imagery. And 'Excerpt From The Diagnostic and Necromantic Manual, 5th Edition Regarding the Departed', by Stewart C Baker, is funny in the way I find funny. Just read it. No, seriously. Read it.
Finally, I'll add Ad Hoc Fiction. It's not set up to link individual pieces, but to a week's collection of 300 word shorts that you can read and vote on. Winners gain a free entry to their Bath Flash Fiction Awards. These tales are all like tiny fruit tarts at a cocktail party. You intend to have just one, but they're so delicious, you just keep eating. The winners of the Bath Flash Fiction awards are exquisite little perfections. The brevity makes them even lovelier.
There are more. There are so many, and there are new ones popping up. Whatever your tastes in tiny fiction artifacts, there is a field that you can excavate to find something that suits you. Just a quick online search for flash fiction will lead you to all manner of stories to suit your taste and mood. I hope you'll have a look at my recommendations, and find your own.
I try not to be that guy. But I probably am. You know, the one who corrects some miniscule point of grammar while you're having a satisfying rant on Twitter. You care about the plight of Australian Water Buffalo, not that some jerk noticed that your much needed semicolon was in absentia. But I care. I care a lot. I love the intricacies of the English language; the way words play together like siblings: sometimes a united front for clarity, sometimes at war, with sounds that rumble and clash against each other. I love words that imply other words. Subtle double entendre makes my day. When I named this blog "Subjunctive Mood", I knew I might leave a few of you out of the joke, so let me now invite you in.
The subjunctive mood is something we have in English, but tend to avoid, with awkward structure, until we are required to learn it through the study of foreign languages. I recognize that English is a foreign language to most of the world. I also realize that if it is foreign to you, you may be alone among your friends in using the subjunctive mood properly. The short explanation is that it is used in case of expressing things that may not be the case. For example: "If I were you, I would reconsider playing chess with that lion. He looks sketchy." In the indicative mood, "I" and "were" don't go together. Most people will never say, "I were eating Australian Water Buffalo testicles when the meteor hit." So there's your grammar lesson for the day.
But the real reason I used it is that I like the sound of it rattling against what it is. "Subjunctive" sounds like "subversive", "subluxation", and "submit". These are words for something below or outside where it seems they should be. A disturbance in the usual order of things. When it comes to words, I like disturbance. The job of all art is to reach past the parts of our brains that understand subjunctive mood into the gooey subversive center and scoop out a chunk we didn't see before -- and make us look at it. And mood? We tend to scoff at moodiness as a weakness, and so it sometimes is. But we are social creatures, altered by the capricious responses of other, equally moody creatures, so that they'll share their mammoth if you happen to run out. So embrace your subversive, submarine, subjunctive mood if you like. And I'll try not to correct your grammar on Twitter. Probably.
In defense of marketing...what do I know? I've never been comfortable with salesmanship. I was once a miserable failure at selling pre-need funeral services, (exactly what it sounds like, for those out of the loop) but even at simple retail or restaurant jobs, I found it difficult to upsell the extra drink or accessory. If you were ever the victim of my early attempts at fashion accessory upselling, I apologize -- you probably don't match. I'm sorry. I'm still not great at it. My difficulty comes from a good place. I think that adults generally know what they want, what they can afford, and how much alcohol they should drink, and I'm not much inclined to interfere with their decisions.
But now, with my writing in place, I find I need to advertise, or people just won't know about my work. It may be for you, maybe not, but most people haven't seen enough of it to make a decision either way. Titles and keywords aside, fairy tales are everywhere, and a random search is unlikely to lead you, Dear Reader, to me, unless it's me you're looking for. But I think it's worth reading, and so I find myself learning about SEO search keywords and watching YouTube videos about people who have written wholly different books about entirely different things, and how they have sold them.
I have discovered, though, that a lot of these popular books with great sales numbers are books about writing, not books of writing. Which is fine; I've read a lot of these books and learned things from them, and appreciated what they have to offer. But it isn't what I love. I don't want to tell you how to write your own book, I want to show you mine, so I can take you out of your life for a few moments, and let you travel to the monastery with a restless monk, or the cemetery with a heartbroken zombie lover. Now that I read that, it is a little clearer why it might be an odd choice. But you know who you are, fellow lovers of the slimy things crawling through the moss, just beneath your feet, and the flowers that bloom only beneath a full moon.
It is in this spirit that I ask you to have a look at my work. I hope you love it. If you do, share it with other people who are like us. I've made it available for free, because I want to share it more than I want to be a bazillionaire. Please leave reviews. You can email me on this site, let me know what you love and hate. I'm open to criticism. I look forward to hearing from you.
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.
History reveals itself to us with names and dates, major events and people that altered the path on which humanity has unfolded. We study these things, memorize the dates, and learn why these people made these choices, hoping not to repeat the mistakes of history. As writers, research leads us down these same roads, through the long hallways of history, and the people who made it. But there's a problem, and one that I imagine troubles historians as well.
Events, art, literature come down to us throughout history, information passed between generations. But those same people woke up in the morning, dressed themselves, did or did not brush their teeth. They fought with spouses and children and complained about their knees and the weather. The things of day to day routine must have gone on, but there is so little record of them. I have made great efforts to discovered what Ancient Egyptian queens did all day, but I can't find it. Anywhere. Specific acts, decisions, dates and birth and death, those things are everywhere. But how they filled their days between history-altering decisions remains a mystery.
It is very difficult to find sources, even in personal journals, of the details of regular life, because they were unremarkable. Only the unusual days are noted, I imagine this is because these details were considered uninteresting, but for the most part, they are what makes up a life. Getting up, making the bed, brushing our teeth, kissing our loved ones good night. These details, so universal and so intimate, were never recorded, and they are what make our characters real. What did a lady in waiting do in her down time? What did the mob boss's wife do after lunch? What color was Shakespeare's underwear? (Most likely, he didn't wear any, but that's not the point.)
This is where our creativity shines, a place for artistic leeway. Maybe the lady in waiting had a taste for birdwatching, and the mob boss's wife crocheted baby hats. I like to think Shakespeare liked purple. Though research is critical, there is a place where fact ends, and at that place, art can flourish. The details that truly make up a person's life are so often left in shadow, and we tend to see this as a handicap, but it is actually freedom. Plots grow in these strange shadows, and the grey mist of the past can be lifted, even in pure speculation. What if the lady in waiting said she liked to watch the larks in the morning, but what she really liked was to watch the Lord of the Manor in his morning exercise, and that is why she poisoned his wife, a solution to the mystery of her death. Such speculation is the foundation of historical fiction, and one of its great joys.
So many of us grew up on the fairy tales of our families' cultures. No matter where you are from, there are stories that are native to your history, and you probably know them by heart. But at some time in our personal history, we discard these tales as childish. We tuck them away to share with the next generation, and see them again through a child's eyes. In doing so, we lose the pleasure of a lifetime with these tales, and fail to get the full enjoyment of them.
When children hear old stories, they hear them at the level of the plot: A princess was born, her parents failed to invite a fairy, and that fairy got angry and set a curse on the child. Though the curse could not be cancelled, it was softened, and the princess was ultimately saved and lived happily ever after. An older child or adult, however, capable of thinking more symbolically, can see a whole different world in this tale. An adult may find that the king and queen are more empathetic than the princess, as they struggle desperately to protect their much wanted, and now doomed only child. The frustration and fear of the parents who destroy every spinning wheel in the kingdom, only to have a single wheel slip past them, and their precious daughter harmed. They too, ultimately sleep away their deep grief, a metaphor for profound depression after loss. Rapunzel's captor seeks to keep her a child forever, locked literally in a tower, never cutting her hair, and yet, she matures, and escapes the confining parent to find her partner, and build her own family, independent of her parents.
The innocence of the princess also carries a deeper meaning. The unwitting curiosity of the princess is what leads to her downfall. She cannot help but be tempted by the wheel. In some stories, she has been warned about the dangers of the wheel, and in some, she's kept ignorant. In both variations, she falls victim to the inevitable temptation, as she must. Themes of taking advantage of the innocent, and easy temptation are ongoing throughout the most classic tales. We see Hansel and Gretel tempted by a candy house, though the adults recognize that a pleasure so out of place might be a danger. Snow White is tempted by the shine on an apple, delivered by hand to her little hidden cottage in the forest, and takes it, and is poisoned. Red Riding Hood ignores her mother's instruction to stay on the path, and is nearly devoured by a wolf. Both parents and children share in the understanding of parental love and protection, and its consequences.
Sexual themes are generally approached gently, so that small children who are ignorant of sex may enjoy the story, yet remain ignorant until further in their development, but adults perceive those details immediately. In some retellings of Sleeping Beauty, the young woman is awakened through the act of sex, (though modern productions reduce it to a kiss) or even later, when the children are born of the act, and crawl up their mother's body to nurse. Such a tale may be the catalyst for children's questions about their bodies, and the reproductive process, and it can be, though it was probably not so in history, an opening for discussions about respect and consent, and sexual responsibility for children who are approaching maturity.
These plots are classic, often taken from oral histories, but the themes remain. As humanity grows and changes, some things remain eternal: the passionate intensity of new love, the watchful adoration of parents for their children, moving from the protection of the home into a world fraught with danger and deception. Some ideas fade into the history of a story, but new ones are born as ideas about who we are as human beings changes with time. The hearts of these tales still beat, and that is why we still tell them. That timelessness is their truest value.
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.