Back when DEFINING MOMENTS was about to be published, I sat down and wrote an author’s preface to the collection. The preface gives a bit of insight into each story included in the book. At the time, I didn’t know the book would get me another Bram Stoker nomination (two actually) or that one of the stories would actually win me the award for short fiction – which I am very proud of. At the time, it was a collection of words – stories chosen by editor / publisher Robert Morgan. Here’s what I had to say back in 2006…
* * *
I’m happy to have the opportunity to write an introduction to this collection, because it gives me a chance to talk about the stories that were chosen, why they were chosen, and where they fit in the great puzzle that is my life’s work. The process of creating this book was interesting, and I think the selections were very nearly perfect. Having over a hundred and thirty stories in print it isn’t easy to whittle that number down to thirteen, but we attacked them a pile at a time, and with Robert’s help, I think the representative pieces will do very well indeed.
I want to comment briefly on each of the thirteen tales, in no particular order, so that I can lend perspective to each piece and hopefully show how and why I came to write them. I don’t know if this is helpful to the reading experience, but I know that I’m usually fascinated when another author reveals their process. Here’s a bit of mine.
One of the oldest stories in this volume is “Bloody Knife and Morning Star,” a tale I wrote long ago for a themed anthology – Vision Quests. This story came about because, at the same time this anthology opened for submissions and I was asked to contribute, I happened to pick up and read a biography of George Armstrong Custer. I found the situation at Little Bighorn intriguing, and I found some references to a subordinate—the man who should have come to Custer’s aide – that suggested an alternate reason for Custer’s defeat. This piece is probably the roughest and greenest prose in the book. It was written at a time in my life that I can barely recall, creatively, but despite this, I still like the premise, and Robert picked it from a host of others, so it made the cut.
“The Milk of Paradise,” on the other hand, is newer work, and is one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever written. Long ago I read a novel (the title of which I can’t recall) about a poet who was drawn into another dimension to finish Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Kahn in order to save the universe. I’ve long been fascinated with the idea that the poem was unfinished, and when the absinthe anthology (sadly never published) Verte Brum came along, I found a way to tie it all together and bring it to print. Eventually the story was published in City Slab Magazine #7. It is reprinted for the first time here.
The title piece, “Defining Moments,” is a tribute to another long-dead writer, Ambrose Bierce, and his classic tale “Incident at Owl’s Creek Bridge,” which has stuck with me since the first time I read it back in grade school. I wanted something that would walk across the line into a more surreal world – it was written specifically for the web site Gothic.Net – I wanted to impress the editors there. Apparently, I succeeded, but when I sat down to write, even I had no idea of the twists and turns that would lead me through to the conclusion. I’ve always considered it among my best short fiction.
The Death-Sweet Scent of Lilies is the one time I have included Vlad Tepes as a fictional character. It was written for Dark Destinies III, the Children of Dracula, which gave authors a chance to write about Dracula, or someone close to him, and expand on the original myth. What I wanted to do was to make use of some of my own research on the historical Vlad Tepes and give a different possible view of how he came to be undead, and of why he impaled his enemies with such cold, calculating fury. I think I succeeded in this. It’s another older story – written nearly a decade ago. I’d write it differently now, but then it would be a different story, wouldn’t it?
When Deathrealm Magazine was in its glory, I wrote two or three stories that were meant specifically for that market. One of these was “The Lost Wisdom of Instinct.” When I write tales of the Lovecraftian sort, I like to concentrate on that great fear he evoked that there is a protective veil between mankind and some greater, powerful evil that waits patiently to devour the world. I was fascinated at the time of writing this story with the notion that the Tarot cards could be seen as windows. This story has the distinction of being the only one I’ve ever read aloud at a convention and been told afterward that a listener had to go smoke a cigarette after hearing it.
I often use the anthology “Werewolves” as an example of the weakness of the themed anthology. If you already know every story in the book will have a werewolf in it, the challenge to write something unique and surprising is much more difficult. For that book I wrote “The Taste of Blood and Roses.” I wanted to give the world a story of lycanthropy and romance, and I wanted a unique protagonist. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if I succeeded. This story is so old that I can claim it as the first one that I ever transmitted to an editor electronically. That editor was Larry Segriff, who works with Martin H. Greenberg. We connected our “state-of-the-art” machines using software called Q-Modem, across a blistering 2400 baud data path. I was paid the next week. That experience changed everything.
When I was contacted about an anthology of stories taking place on holidays, I was just making notes for a story based on a co-workers journal. He’d kept the journal while working as a stock-boy at a grocery store, and the tales he told were very nearly enough to put me off my feed. I chose Thanksgiving, and from the combination of that holiday, and the aforementioned journal, I created “For These Things I Am Truly Thankful,” which may be one of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever written. It was published in the anthology “Haunted Holidays,” and even now, if I think about it too much, it can send my heart and mind racing in directions not conducive to good digestion.
History plays a great part in my fiction. I have always had a love of Egyptology. Cleopatra fascinates me – Caesar’s Cleopatra, there were many queens by that name—and after reading a long biography on her life, I found myself remembering an incident from my own past. When in the US Navy, stationed in San Diego, California, I attended a “fair” held by a local spiritualist church. One lady there claimed to be able to read your past lives by dropping molten wax into liquid. When she read mine – she said I’d been a scribe in ancient Egypt, responsible for one of the great libraries near Alexandria. She saw fire, and pain. Since that day, ghost images of a fire I never saw, and a land I’ve never visited, have haunted me. I wrote the story “More than Words” with that past life “reading” in mind, and so much of the story seemed to write itself that I have to wonder where it came from – and if there is more.
“The Call of Farther Shores” is one of many tribute pieces I’ve written in my life – inspired in part by William Hope Hodgson. It was written for an anthology that never happened, but eventually published by the same editor who originally loved it in the anthology “Lost on the Darkside.” It was later reprinted in “Horror: Best of 2005” – an accomplishment I’m proud of. This story is filled with rich visions of my childhood. My step-father was a barber, and he cut hair in an ancient barber shop filled with mysterious secrets I wasn’t privy to. The bedroom in the story resembles my parent’s bedroom – the first one I remember, anyway. There is a lot of myself written in between the lines – and the sea. I always end up back at the sea.
The last of the reprints in the collection is a vampire story – something I’ve been known for throughout my career, though less recently than early on. This story, “To Dream of Scheherazade,” is one of my all-time favorites. It involves tattoos, and vampires, and to go any further than that would be to give away too much. It was first published in the anthology Terminal Frights – by an editor whose guidelines specifically stated no vampires. That same editor went on to publish my vampire novel “This is My Blood,” but that is another story.
The first of the stories that have not been previously published is titled “The Gentle Brush of Wings.” I honestly have no idea how this slipped through the cracks. When I went to put together the copyright and publication history for each story, I searched and searched and could find no indication it had ever been published. It’s an odd, melancholy story. When Robert first read it he said it “started out slow…but then it got so good…” I feel the same about it, after reading and revising it. It’s another old story – from an author I remember, but no longer really connect with fully. That’s what makes a collection like this special, I think, the links from one period of an author’s life to the next.
The two new pieces have a similar history and a similar locale. Both are located in my fictional town of Old Mill, North Carolina, which is loosely based on the town I live in, Hertford, North Carolina, mixed with some legend, some fantasy, and a lot of imagination.
“Cockroach Suckers” was going to be my contribution to an anthology by that same name. I was the editor, and I wanted to show the rest of the authors what I meant when I said you could take a theme – any theme – even a really BAD theme – and do something unique with it. The theme was vampires and cockroaches. There are no vampires in my story, but there ARE Cockroach Suckers. If you like rednecks and roadside attractions you’re going to love this one.
“’Scuse Me, While I Kiss the Sky,” involves old abandoned US Government experiments, crop-dusting, drugs, sex, and a young man’s desire to escape the dead end life he’s living and break out into the world. It has characters based on some folks I’ve known, and is one of the oddest pieces of fiction I’ve ever penned. This is a novella, nearly fifteen thousand words, and I’m happy to see it printed here, alongside “Cockroach Suckers,” because it began as my original inspiration for that anthology, and grew too large, long, and off-center to fit. Without this novella, the novelette “Cockroach Suckers” might never have been written.
That covers the stories in this book. I’ve written ten times the number that has made the cut to appear here, and I hope to see many of the others in later volumes. I hope I’ll find some new readers, particularly in the UK, who haven’t experienced my work – I hope I’ll inspire a few of you to search out my novels. Most of all I hope you’ll be entertained.