Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Thursday Thirteen: 13 Writers Who've Influenced Me (Fiction Edition)


My bookshelves are a mess. They could certainly use a bit of organizing, but what I mean in this case is that I've got Clive Barker books sitting next to Robert E. Howard collections, an Indiana Jones novel squeezed between a science fiction novel and a collection of Lovecraft, and my zombie movie reference books on the same shelf as my Alan Dean Foster novelization of Krull.

I certainly have my preferences when it comes to genre, but the fact is that good writing is good writing, regardless of the trappings of whatever section the bookstore stocks their product. Of course, I have my favorites, and, admittedly, my experience with some genres is rather limited or even non-existent (romance and western, for example; although I am slowly getting more westerns under my belt these days).

While I've focused on horror writing the past few years, I still have some non-horror authors who've inspired me over the years. With that in mind, this installment of The Thursday Thirteen is devoted to the 13 (fiction) writers who've helped shape my writing style, sensibility, focus, drive, direction and tone (presented in nothing-but-alphabetical order although those who know me know who my "top" writers are!).

- Lloyd Alexander. I first read The High King in the fifth grade, and it changed everything for me in terms of what I was reading. Up until this point, I was reading things like The Hardy Boys and Choose Your Own Adventure books (although I preferred the Twistaplot books more!). I had some exposure to fantasy fiction and films before reading The High King (oddly, I saw The Black Cauldron during its theatrical run years before I read The High King for the first time!), but afterward, I was hooked. I read and reread The Chronicles of Prydain throughout the rest of my grade school years, and into junior high school. I have a collected edition of the books now, and have dipped into it every five-or-so years since then.

- Clive Barker. I came to Barker-the-writer after discovering Barker-the-filmmaker. As soon as I was able to rent R-rated movies from the local video store on my own, I devoured Blockbuster's horror section, and one Friday night, one of my high school best friends and I rented the first two Hellraiser films. They left a bloody impression on me, and when I learned that this Clive Barker guy was also a writer, I sought out his fiction and had my mind ripped apart as if by so many of Pinhead's chains. Contemporary horror with no holding back. Bright, epic storytelling with the darkest shadows I'd read up to that point. Modern mythology created in just a few chapters. I reread The Great and Secret Show numerous times (and remember even recommending it to one of my church youth group leaders!), and as much as I would love to see Barker come back to direct another horror film, I think I'd much rather see him come back and write another horror novel.

- Kurt Busiek. I'd read comic books through junior high school, fell off for a little while in high school, and then dove back in a few years afterward just before I started film school. I was a Marvel fan during my school years, but when I came back to comics, I found myself reading across the different companies, but there was always one guy that kept bringing me solidly back to Marvel, and that writer was Kurt Busiek. He reinforced my love for "The Avengers," showed me how to enjoy Spider-Man through his "Untold Tales..." title, and then took me out of Marvel and welcomed me to a little place called Astro City. I followed him to the "Power Company" at DC, and anytime I see his name on the "written by" line of a comic, I still give that comic a serious look. Whether it's working within established continuity or creating his own, Busiek has taught me much when it comes to writing superhero fiction.

- Douglas Clegg. I meant to start reading Clegg before I actually did. A few years ago when I took some time off from work to recover from a quick-medical-thing, Brenda picked up a few of his novels from Powell's City of Books for me, and I realized I had waited too long. Afterlife was my first Clegg novel, and while I really enjoy the Harrow House series of stories, You Come When I Call You is not just my favorite Clegg work, but it's one of my favorite horror stories PERIOD. His characters feel as real to me as some of the people I know, and I've learned a lot about the craft of storytelling from books like Neverland, The Attraction and The Hour Before Dark.

- David Conyers and John Sunseri. These two writers are behind The Spiraling Worm, a collection of related stories released by Chaosium a few years ago. Through seven stories - some written solo by Conyers, some solo by Sunseri and the final story co-written by the both of them - we learn that mankind is doing it's damndest to cope with the Lovecraftian threats everpresent in the world. The stories read like world-spanning spy thrillers . . . with another universe and Shoggoth and the Great Race of Yith all getting in humanity's way, and nearly winning.

- David (and Leigh) Eddings. I was reading fantasy fiction as fast as I could in junior high school, going to the library and borrowing books on a weekly basis. When I first read Pawn of Prophecy, my reading came to a screeching halt . . . because I read and reread and re-reread Eddings' The Belgariad series until The Mallorean series started hitting the shelves. Those books were constant companions of mine throughout high school. The Rivan Codex became a near-how-to writing book for me for a few years as well. I enjoyed his other works as well, but The Belgariad, along with The Chronicles of Prydain and one other author's work formed my personal definition of fantasy fiction for years.

- Mick Farren. The Armageddon Crazy. That title grabbed me in high school for some reason, and the novel itself? A just-slightly-futuristic story in which a big corporation projects skyscraper-sized holograms of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding their horses down the streets of New York. Up until that point, science fiction to me was "Star Wars." This was somehow "broken science fiction" and I loved it. I sought out more Farren, read books like The Feelies (a future story in which the virtual reality machines people were using were malfunctioning and killing them as evidenced by a clergyman having his Passion of the Christ moment interrupted by Groucho Marx as a Roman soldier) and Mars: The Red Planet (the Cold War continued into the future and when America and the Soviet Union settled on Mars, the tensions are high . . . and then the murders start), and eventually settled on The Last Stand of the DNA Cowboys as my favorite Farren novel. When I first found ...DNA Cowboys, I didn't realize it was a return to characters Farren had already written about in the 70s; The Last Stand... was my first introduction to the The Minstrel Boy, Billy Oblivion and Reave Mekonta . . . and after introducing me to these three and their world, Farren managed to end it. The world that is. The Last Stand of the DNA Cowboys is about the end of EVERYTHING and the DNA Cowboys trying to stop it. This was something that could be done in science fiction? I was hooked.

- Robert Freese. Even though I produce a zombie movie/media podcast, before launching Mail Order Zombie, I hadn't read a lot of zombie fiction. I'd read some, but not much. I just never felt a draw to it, for better or worse, but when I read Freese's Bijou of the Dead, my eyelids were peeled back and my eyes were completely opened to what zombie prose had to offer. Freese made zombie fiction approachable, enjoyable and accessible for me.

- Robert E. Howard. The rough-and-tumble adventure style of Howard's writing grabs me by the delicates and refuses to let me go until I've consumed the last lines of whatever Howard story I'm reading at the time. Almost as much as his actual writing, though, Howard-the-writer impresses me so much - he was a prolific man, wrote in several different genres (sometimes at the same time!), and in a time and place when the economy was brutal, he made his living as a writer (granted, he lived at home with his parents, one of which was the local doctor, but the fact that writing was what he chose to do with his life and that was that is inspiring to me).

- Stephen King. Like a lot of other horror fans, Stephen King was my first stop on my road to becoming a horror fiction reader. He was the "go-to guy," and I checked every black-dust-jacketed Viking Press hardcover King book out from the public library. As much as I enjoyed his fiction (It became a favorite of mine), it wasn't until I started reading "The Dark Tower" books and finally saw all the connections within his "universe" coming together that I finally realized that King was doing what I wanted to do in terms of writing multiple stories within the same "universe" but not being a traditional series without the benefit of a comic book page.

- H. P. Lovecraft. He's inspired most modern horror creators, countless film adaptations, a film festival or two, conventions, games . . . so much of horror can be traced back to a handful of short stories written by someone who lived in the town of Providence, Rhode Island, from 1890 to 1937. Evil books that shouldn't be read? Beings and creatures from beyond what we call reality waiting for just the right moment to return? Cultists, weird happenings, the ultimate insignificance of man in the cosmos? Without Lovecraft, I doubt we'd be where we're at now in terms of horror fiction. With Lovecraft, we're all the better for it.

- F. Paul Wilson. Two words: Repairman Jack. He's been called one of the greatest serialized characters in modern fiction by quite a few folks (including Desmond Reddick over at Dread Media who sings Wilson's praises on a regular basis, and rightly so!). The character has sustained several connected novels that also work as standalone works, and Wilson allows his readers to "live" through Jack without resorting to first-person perspective.

- Stephan Zielinski. His first (and to my knowledge, only) book, Bad Magic was published in 2004, and I'd love for there to be a follow-up. Bad Magic is another "there's-monsters-out-there-and-someone's-got-to-stop-them-and-those-lucky-someone's-aren't-always-the-shiny-hero-types" with enough dark humor and wit to make what might have been an awkward prose style enjoyable. Oh, and there's thin dogs, but they didn't scare me away from thinking that, yes, I can write fiction like this, too.

(There are some obvious omissions; it was hard to get this down to just 13 was TOUGH!)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

40 minutes and 400 words

With my "real life" job, all my other projects and everything else that's been going on in the Life of D lately, I sneak in my writing when I can. One of these times is during my lunch break at work.

I get an hour, and it takes me about 20-ish minutes to microwave-my-lunch-and-eat-it, so I spend the remaining 40-ish minutes working on my laptop. I have three short stories in various stages of completion right now, and I'm focusing on one of these so that I can submit it to an anthology (which has a submission deadline of September 1); it's also a work-in-progress that's allowed me to develop two characters that I plan on using in future projects. For better or worse, I've put a lot of pressure on myself with this particular story, but I don't mind because I'm having a great time writing it.

During my lunchtime writing today, I knocked out between 400-500 words. I like the dialogue. The character interactions were good. The inner dialogue of my viewpoint character is solid.

And then as I'm walking back to my desk to go back to work, it occurs to me that what I just wrote in 400-ish words could have been knocked down to around 20-30 words and work just as well, make the story tighter, not fluff up the wordcount and solve a mechanics-issue I was starting to see sweeping toward me if I continued on this path.

40 minutes. 400 words.

I'm trying not to feel robbed of the writing time today, as in the end, I'm sure it's a good thing. I was talking with a friend/fellow writer about "shaking off the rust" and there not being such a thing as "wasted words." Sometimes we just need to ge through some thick patches of extra words to get to the sumptious prose behind it.

(Did I just say "sumptious prose"? I think I need to head to bed . . . after I write for a few minutes.)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Five Days in The Grand Canyon State

I've spent the past five days in Arizona.

I was born in Tucson, and most of my family have either never left Arizona or have left and found their way back. My mother; my brother and his family; my grandparents all live in the state of 100-plus degree temperatures, stone yards and this dust storm we happened to find ourselves driving through for half-an-hour on the interstate Tuesday night. While I can admire the beauty of the desert landscape, the colors of an Arizona sunset daubing the distant mountains, or the Mexican restaurant we discovered driving through that dust storm, I don’t think Brenda and I could live there. We’re more acclimated to the weather, foliage and politics of the Pacific Northwest. We fit in in terms of culture, entertainment and public transit in Portland, and the Arizona heat/dryness/barometric pressure/Native American mysticism/killer bees didn’t agree with Brenda’s rheumatoid arthritis.

We flew to Arizona with little planning. My 91-year-old grandfather’s health has been declining in recent years, and was hospitalized last week. An injury he suffered serving in Europe during World War II left him missing half of a lung, and when pneumonia creeps into the picture, it gets a little scary. He received a pacemaker not too long ago, but he’s still suffering from heart disease, and when he started retaining water and the phrase “six months to live” came across in a text message from my mother, we knew we had to fly from the Pacific Northwest to the Southwest. I worked through the end of my shift on Friday, and by the time I got home, Brenda has already booked a flight. We left early Saturday morning (after an all-night-no-sleep stint of packing and making arrangements for our four cats) and returned early Thursday morning. As I write this, the plan is for us both to return to work that same Thursday morning.

We stayed at my mother’s house while in Arizona. Our days typically consisted of us fighting through the melting heat to get up out of a sweaty bed as early as possible, eating a quick breakfast/brunch, driving to my grandparents’ apartment (they moved into an assisted living facility not too long ago after having lived in the same house for the past forty-plus years), visiting with my grandmother, driving her to see my grandfather, spending time at the hospital or rehab facility (he was moved to rehab on Sunday), having a meal with family, taking my grandmother home, spending time with my mother for a few hours and then slinking into bed. Occasionally there were trips to my grandparents’ old house to help my mother in organizing, boxing up, arranging, making final decisions on, etc., etc., etc., everything that’s built up at that house over the years.

I’ve long had pack-rat tendencies. I thought it came from my mother, but after spending time in my grandparents’ old house, I’m realizing that my mother wasn’t the first pack rat in the family. My grandfather did a lot of things after coming home from the war, and one of them was making plastic key chains, bolo ties, paperweights, etc. for mail order. Growing up, we always had a handful of these around the house, and it seems like we always were given a new one every time we visited my grandparents. I might have been told this before, but I learned that this was a business my grandfather ran with his father (a man I never knew, but I’ve heard him referred to as Gramps by my mother and Pops by my grandfather). Eventually, this business ended, and we discovered a cabinet at my grandparents’ house in which all the supplies, leftover inventory, old business cards and return envelopes were left. It was as if when that part of their life came to an end, they simply closed that cabinet and went on with their life. (I took the leftover business cards and envelopes.)

We found thick layers of dust on old appliances still in their boxes, old tools long neglected and other artifacts from my grandparents’ life, and by extension, my mother’s life. They weren’t Arizona natives, but when they moved there, my mother grew up in that house, and my grandparents saved a lot of her old toys, old homework, yearbooks, letters and cards. My mom left a lot of her college life behind when she married my father, and the remnants of her college career lay in that house as well, but not under nearly as much dust.

When I was growing up, we’d either fly or drive to Arizona to visit my grandparents regularly. To entertain us, they’d break out my mother’s old toys and board games, and I remember putting in several hours of play time with some of those board games. I also remember seeing the yearbooks and pictures, but they never really sank in as something important to me. They were of a time before I was born. (I remember looking at the wedding album, but when my parents divorced, my brain started shutting off a lot of any memory involving my father.) I heard stories about my mother growing up, but nothing really stuck as, for lack of a better term, important.

This time, though, they mattered. As a family, we’re staring at the mortality of my grandfather, and something about seeing these old photos and hearing these old stories felt more important. We found a picture of my mom during her senior year of high school with a group of other students. I asked her about the picture, and she said it was her school’s yearbook staff.

I knew my mom worked on her high school yearbook, but again, I didn’t know more than that. She looked like a teenager in this picture, smiling, joking with her fellow students, being something other than my mother in that moment. I wanted to know more, so I asked more questions and learned that my mother wanted to go to school to be a fashion designer after high school, but it was ultimately deemed too risky of a career.

Growing up, my mother made a lot of our clothes. Not surprisingly, I have very strong memories about her making my Halloween costumes, but she made a lot of other clothes for me and my brother as well. Many childhood afternoons involved waiting in the fabric store looking through the pattern books while Mom shopped. Back then, I just assumed that’s what mothers did.

Since fashion design was out, my mother looked at going to a journalism school in Missouri. This was deemed too costly and too far away, so this was also out, but not completely. In our family photo albums (before the divorce), my mother was always writing captions beneath the pictures. Again, I thought this was just something people did. I didn’t realize it was a holdover from the yearbook class and journalism aspirations.

I’m looking at my mother in a different light now. She’s not just a mother; she’s a, again, for lack of a better term, a real person. She mentioned that she’s considered writing something now, and now I know I can trace some of my creative writing interests back to my mother.

I don’t know how much I can trace back further than that, but after going through a number of old photographs, I’m definitely interested in trying to find out. We hauled a medium-sized moving box’s worth of photos from my grandparents’ old house, and they’re amazing, and even that word doesn’t do what we found justice. Not only did we find pictures from my grandparents’ lifetime, but photo albums (some with captions written beneath the pictures) from my grand-grandmother’s lifetime.

I’d seen some of these as a kid, but they didn’t mean anything to me then. Now, Brenda and I are mesmerized by some of these photos. Through most of my childhood, I only knew Gramps as my Granny’s deceased husband. I only remember seeing one photo of him – it was a picture of him with my Granny. These pictures we found, though, go back to a time before my grandfather was born, and I find myself wishing I met this man. The pictures show what Brenda and I keep referring to as “a character.” My grandmother said he was “ornery.” When asked, everyone talked about his booming laugh that would “fill a room.” Almost every picture, save the one I remember seeing as kid, show him chewing on a cigar, and he almost always looked like he was posing for the camera. (We also found my great-grandparents’ Certificate of Marriage. It’s practically a piece of art.)

We also discovered another relative we wish we had known. Lola, who I believe would have been my great aunt (I could be wrong), had such a twinkle in her eye in every picture we found of her that Bren and I want to know if she has any descendants of her own that might have inherited the spunk she obviously had in these pictures. My mother called Lola a “spitfire,” and my grandparents both said similar things about her.

Another discovery we made at my grandparents’ house were a number of old books from the 40s, 50s and early 60s. As a kid, I didn’t pay much attention to them. I barely paid attention to the old encyclopedia sets stored on the bookshelf in the front room of their house. (When we were talking about them, my mother said she was very popular during finals week at college – she ended up going to school at Arizona State University – because everyone wanted to use her encyclopedias.) During this visit, I paid special attention to the fiction books and found that my grandmother had written her name in most of them, along with her address. She used her maiden name, so they predated my grandparents’ marriage, and, yes (with the blessing of my grandmother who, it turns out, was part of a book club back then), they are now somewhere in the mail system making their way to our home.

In those books, we found one that didn’t have my grandmother’s name in it; instead it was the name of someone who would have been my great uncle. He died from complications of diabetes at the age of sixteen, and when we presented my grandmother with this book at her apartment, she said she didn’t remember even having this book of his. She said she didn’t think she had anything that belonged to him, and while we were happy to give her this, as well as the two photos of him that we found at the house, we were struck by the sadness in her eyes as she told us the tale of how he was stricken with diabetes and the stash of candy wrappers found under his bed after his passing.

This sadness has stuck with me. There are photographs and memories here that are fading. My grandmother came from a big family; she’s the only survivor now. My grandfather was an only child (as was my mother, and we found out that was due to medical issues, not by choice). These photographs and the artifacts we’re finding at their house are all that’s left of some of these people.

We spent our last day in Arizona going over some of these old pictures with my grandparents, and I wish I had brought my recorder with me to record what my grandfather had to say about these photographs. Brenda jotted down as many notes as she could while he looked over the pictures. When prompted, his facilities are still there, but his memory is fading. Whether it’s dementia, a result of the heavy medications he’s taking, the lack of sleep he’s experiencing (on top of everything else, one of the doctors says he has a “different” kind of sleep apnea), or some combination thereof, he gets confused easily. He’s called my grandmother/his wife, “Mom,” more than once, and he insists he was taken out to the desert and left there by the hospital staff more than once. The night some remodeling was taking place at the hospital became a night of lids partying outside his hospital room. It’s difficult to watch this happen, and it’s especially frustrating to know there’s nothing we can do about it.

He has two doctor’s appointments later this week with different specialists (one heart and one sleep), and we’re hoping something can be done for the sleep problems he’s been having as this might slow the memory issues. He’s supposed to be going through physical therapy to get some strength back in his legs so that he can use his walker to get around. Right now, he’s fairly immobile, and he won’t be able to take care of himself back at their apartment. He misses his La-Z-Boy chair quite a bit, but until he can either learn to use that walker or further in-home care arrangements can be made, I don’t think he’ll be leaving rehab.

My grandfather has always been a strong, proud man. He’s done a lot for his family, and I don’t think I really recognized that over the years. Of my two grandparents, I always felt closer to my grandmother, and I think that was because she was the one who would come to visit us. My grandfather didn’t like to travel and be away from his own mother while she was still alive, and my mom mentioned during this recent stay that he didn’t like my father much, so that might have had something to do with him not being around as much.

But I didn’t love my Grampa any less. He’s an amazing man, and spending time in their house, playing some sort of amateur genealogical archaeologist revealed more about the man than I had ever known. None of those overshadows, of course, the fact that for years, whether I acknowledged it or not, he was the patriarch of our family. He took care of us. After my parents’ divorce, he took care of my mother in a way that only a father can. When my first car finally broke down, he bought the second one (and bought my mother a new car at the same time). If we needed something, he made it happen.

I have a lot of memories of my grandfather when I was growing up. The one that comes to mind right now is that whenever we’d come to visit, he’d take us to feed the ducks. He would save popcorn until we showed up, I’d snack on it a little bit while we were there, and then we’d load into the car or van and head over to the park and the duck ponds.

It’s hard to think about him in that bed at the rehab center. I honestly don’t know if I’m going to get to see him again. I hope I will. Brenda and I have already started talking about flying down to Arizona again soon and making arrangements ahead of time to make it happen. Even though everyone else knows otherwise, we told him we were planning on flying down to see everyone anyway and it just happened to be while he was in the hospital (“What lousy timing you have, Grampa!”). We need to make more solid plans to get down there again in the near future.

It’s painful to see him in such declining health, and his interactions with his wife are heart wrenching. Whenever we took her to see him, even though she’s in a walker and can’t stand up straight herself, she made a beeline for his bed, leaned over and gave him a kiss. Every time we left, she did the same thing. They’ve been married for over sixty years, and she knows on some level that she’s losing her husband. It’s terribly sad, and it hurts our hearts to see her so frustrated when my grandfather forgets that he’s talking to his wife and starts calling her, “Mom.” I honestly don’t know how much more time he has. No one said, “six months to live,” while we were there, and as I finish this blog entry from here in Oregon, he’s being transported to a doctor’s appointment right now. I’ll call down there after work to see how things went, and I’ll try to be in better touch with everyone in Arizona moving forward (I’d fallen off a bit over the past couple of months as I let other things take over my schedule/life/waking hours/should-be-sleeping-hours, and I’m cursing myself for that now). I want to be as strong as I know my grandfather would be for the family, but the distance makes it difficult, and honestly, I don’t know who can really fill his shoes.