Category Archives: Writing
The Smooth Level, and Beyond
Thoughts on The Throat, by Peter Straub
Author’s note: I wrote this a long time ago. I will always regret not having read the trilogy in order the first time through. I have subsequently read Koko and Mystery in order, and then The Throat again, and it only strengthened the sensation that these are books running parallel paths on different levels. A casual reader will get a great adventure from the trilogy. A careful reader will get so much more. It works equally either way it’s approached.
Something that has itched at the back of my thoughts for a long time is the concept of different levels. You find these levels in everything you do, and writing is no exception. I studied the cello when I was younger, play the guitar now, and the levels are never more evident than when viewed through artistic accomplishment.
This in mind, I always believed that the level to shoot for in writing was what I called the smooth level. This is the level where you have developed a smooth, professional writing voice, the point where the words flow easily, where the technical becomes automatic. At this point, I once believed, only the plots separated different authors. If you subscribe to the theory that writers are only conduits of creativity, reaching the smooth level is like fine-tuning a receiver. Once you have a clear signal, you can switch channels, but the signal is the same.
Now I see that what I saw as an end in itself is, in fact, only another beginning. The smooth level is as far as many successful writers will ever get. Commercially speaking, it is not necessary to go beyond this level. Artistically speaking, if you want to be a great writer, you have to expand. Creativity is never stagnant. Complacency is the great killer of brilliance.
Recently I read The Throat, by Peter Straub. As I read, I began to realize that when you write like Peter Straub, the plot is secondary. I don’t mean that his plot was bad, quite the opposite. I thought the story had ended in KOKO, and at that point had not even read Mystery (the second book in the trilogy). I mean that the quality of the writing, the insights he offers into himself and his characters, are enough to carry it, plot be damned.
When I finished the book I had that familiar sensation of wishing there was more to read, and satisfaction that the story had resolved itself well. Not only did it end as I expected it to, but it managed to do so and still surprise me several times in the process. This brings me back to the subject of new levels.
The protagonist of this novel, Tim Underhill, is a novelist. He writes him self into his characters, in this case that of a molested child. Of course, in his own real world, Underhill is facing that same character in a sort of parallel time-flux relationship that causes him to question his own sanity and that of al most everyone around him. All of Underhill‘s novels have been about aspects of his childhood, taken on tangents or magnified, but built solidly on the minds, words, and deeds of characters that might have been himself.
This is the significant point, I believe. You can read this novel on the surface level, enjoying the hunt for an elusive Green Beret gone serial killer and be thoroughly entertained. On a completely different level, the story is not about serial killers at all. It is about Underhill himself, his search for meaning in life through his characters, his development of those characters through personal insight and the unlocking of sealed images from his past. It is about relationships between people and places, and the subtle differences between their reactions to shared events. There are stories within stories here. It reminded me of a picture I saw once in a tattoo parlor. In the foreground was a large, detailed hand, wielding the same tattoo gun, only smaller, and inking the same design onto a smaller back, on and on ad infinitum. On different levels, the details of The Throat strike different chords.
The true beauty of this book, from a writer’s point of view, is that it is the miracle novel. It doesn’t so much cross the genres as it spans them. It is satisfying on each level, more so as you delve deeper, and it will stick with you.
How much of all this comes from Straub’s own past is questionable, as such things always are. No one will ever know, probably. Someday I may be lucky enough to be able to ask. If the answer is not much, then I’ll have to believe that the brilliance of his character Underhill is only another step upon which he could launch his skills to an even higher level.
There are other points to be made, of course. While all this talk of art and levels is a nice diversion, a look at how the consciousness of an author can be raised over a period of time and a body of work, it is still questionable if it matters. While writers might make these leaps from level to level, it is likely that the readers will make no such jump. Fortunately, just as there are writers at every level, there are readers to be satisfied on each as well. The Throat reaches out and grips you by its name sake—and this is what writing is all about.
Category Archives: Writing
Horror is such an odd genre that it’s sometimes difficult to explain to someone what it means to be a horror writer. Many horror writers, in fact, live in denial, making up new words to describe their work and backing away from any community that wears too much black and mentions the word zombie more than once a week.
There are some signposts, however, that can differentiate the horror writer from the rest of humanity. You can apply these to yourself, your work, or to that odd neighbor or co-worker you haven’t quite figured out. While this list is in no way all-inclusive, you may find it useful in day-to-day life.
Ten indicators that you might be, or know, a horror writer.
- You / he / she can’t watch a happy or sappy movie without grinning and wondering out loud if it wouldn’t be better if the fluffy bunny was eaten at the last second by a ravenous zombie, or if it wouldn’t be cool to have the girl in a love scene sprout horns and cackle maniacally.
- You have considered owning a hearse, or, barring that, putting dark curtains in the back windows of your Gremlin and painting it black. This symptom may be exacerbated by a desire to dangle fake dead body parts from windows, gas tanks, and trunks.
- You have on your person or in your vehicle, any sticker, paper, or other article with the name Cthulhu on it. Particularly in election years, when exhortations to not accept the lesser evil are prevalent.
- You collect news clippings and Internet bookmarks that, if you were NOT a horror writer, would appear to be outlining a horrible life of crime.
- You can name more than four serial killers and know the movies their lives inspired.
- You have heard of The Miskatonic Institute.
- You hear your aunt or mother-in-law talk about how they love to craft and you burst into laughter and look over your shoulder to see if any Great Old Ones were observing, or if Fairuza Balk is floating by.
- You can quote from any of the Child’s Play movies, and would do so in public.
- You know who Michael Myers, Norman Bates, Freddy Krueger, Hannibal Lector and Carrie are, how many numbers there are beside the names of each in the annals of film history, who played them, and have ever owned any item shaped like one of them, or a part of their body.
- You consider a room or house that is supposed to be haunted as a plus when planning your vacation.
Category Archives: Writing
2021 did not turn out to the the full turnaround from 2020 – big surprise – but things are happening. My newest novel, Jurassic Ark, will be out in December in eBook, trade paperback, trade hardcover and audio (narrated by Mr. Joshua Saxon). I am currently editing the stories for a follow-on anthology to Voices in the Darkness (which you should all read) titled “The Canterbury Nightmares,” bringing some diverse voices together with fiction reacting to the end of the last administration, and the semi-opening of the world after the pandemic. More info on that downstream.
I have been taking bits and pieces of my life, one at a time, and revising how I address them. This blog will be one of those. I know it’s not necessary to write in a blog every day, but I’m committing to at least once a week. Without that, it hardly seems to serve a purpose.
The new novel is Jurassic Ark, a book I expected to simply be a satire, like Remember Bowling Green: The Adventures of Frederick Douglass was a few years back. As it turns out, the book had other ideas. As I researched that old story, adding in some tidbits from Jewish folklore, everything shifted. The original intent was a jab at creationists and that guy Ham who opened the Noah’s Ark theme park (with pictures of dinosaurs). 6000 years ago. Men and dinosaurs walking the earth… and that’s where I started. The cover art is provided by Bob Eggleton, and the design by David Dodd. The book is up for preorder at Amazon in eBook and Paperback, and will follow on all sites soon.
Then I discovered that there are a lot of deep issues in a story where one family is going to survive, if you believe them, and everyone else will drown. Also, faith is one thing, but when that faith starts turning into reality all around you, how do you react to that? And in the original biblical tale you hear almost nothing about the women.
I’m not going to put any spoilers here. There is magic, sorcery, romance, and adventure in this book. There are dinosaurs and giants. There is a crazy man in a forest at the base of a mountain building a very big boat. I hope you will all love it. If you are very quick you can download it for free from NetGalley (through the 30th of September) for review. If you would like a review copy but miss that deadline, contact me.
The anthology, probably much like the last one, is not going to make me rich. However, it is calming me, and giving me a sense of achievment. It is doing something in the face of a still crazy world that might reach people and make a difference. The Canterbury Nightmares is a title I’d had in the back of my mind for a very long time. I finally found it’s purpose. I’m not really at a point where I have a detailed update, but it’s coming in 2022.
Short stories – I am currently writing a cross-over story featuring Donovan DeChance and the kids from my young adult superhero novel HOODS. It involves missing children, ritual magic, and hopscotch. I have started what might be an Old Mill short story, or might be the next Cletus J. Diggs novel – “Dismal Gothic,” and I still hope to finish the novel Tattered Remnants in the near future.
Crossroad Press has been very, very busy this summer, with a full spread of new, original releases, some reprints, and our first starred review upcoming in Publishers Weekly for Michael DiMercurio’s Submarine thriller (and it’s a monster of a book) Dark Transit.
Until next week… send people to the newsletter link here. Share the books. Talk to me.
Category Archives: Writing
I’ll start by pointing out that I have added a new excerpt, short story for your reading pleasure. Considering all that is going on currently, it seemed appropriate to post my story “The Masquerade,” written as E. A. Poe in the pages of the novel A Midnight Dreary, my most recent addition to The DeChance Chronicles. You will find it on the Short Stories and Excerpts page (linked above) or can simply click HERE to go to the story.
Works in progress are many and varied. I am outlining the second book in the HOODS young adult superhero series. We will introduce a new hero in this one, and another currently relevant sort of villain for the group to tangle with. These books are fun. The first one has not taken off as I’d hoped, but I will continue because I think they are great stories – and the reviews actually garnered have agreed.
I am also a good ways into two longer projects – Jurassic Ark – the story of Noah and his family, building an Ark in a time when men and dinosaurs roamed the earth together… it started as a sort of sarcastic jab at Creationism, and turned into a deeper, more interesting story. I am also working on a Thriller titled “Tattered Remnants” that is one of my all-time favorite projects. The first chapter of it appeared (alongside Stephen King) in the most recent installment of Cemetery Dance’s SHIVERS anthology series. It has hints of Thomas Harris (back when he was good) and of Dexter (both the novels and the series)… and is set (of course) in San Valencez California, home of Tommy Doyle, the Psychos ‘r’ Us detective, the band from Deep Blue, Donovan DeChance, the heroes in Hoods, and many other stories. It’s a city with more than it’s share of darkness.
My first novel – This is My Blood – will re-release any day in unabridged audio, voiced by the talented Skye Stafford. I’m hoping this relaunch will bring new readers and listeners to the story that has brought me the most recognition… if not, I’ll enjoy listening to it again and visiting with Mary Magdalene and the crew.
The current obessive project is titled Into Nothing … it’s a complex beast. It’s going to be a novel in ten parts (Ten or so) … each part will also have a TV drama style screenplay written as I go, and will contain the lyrics for at least one song by the band Into Nothing – formed in the novel. It’s based around a vision that a young dishwasher, would-be song-writer named Jesse experiences when he blacks out in his apartment. Part two will be based on my Absinthe story “The Milk of Paradise,” but told from the perspective of one of the characters in the story, and not the main story itself. I have finished part one – song one – and am about 16 pages into the screenplay. I will keep you posted.
I also have as story in the next upcoming SHIVERS anthology – “Hickory Nuts and Bones,” that I love… and that Richard Chizmar sort of poked me into writing. Keeping busy. If you are an audiobook lover, keep this link handy. This is a link to free downloads of my Audiobooks from Audible.com – there are limited quantities – you can select to show those with available US or UK codes. These get reloaded from time to time, so if the one you want has no codes, don’t get discouraged, and the site has a LOT of titles with available codes, so if you can’t get one of mine you may find something else you like: FREE AUDIOBOOK CODES.
Category Archives: Writing
Immediately after completing my boot camp experience in the California sunshine, I was sent off to Groton, Connecticut- about as different a place as one could imagine from the likes of San Diego – and of course, since I went to San Diego in the hottest part of the summer, they sent me to Connecticut as fall started…I would say ‘story of my life,’ but that would be redundant, yes?
In Groton I was on my own again. I had my seabag full of cool new uniform items, my blue-jackets manual, my guitar, and not much else. I was assigned to the Polaris Electronics Program – meaning I would have been an electronics technician working on missiles. I was still a bit irritated that I’d been given this particular school, instead of just being an Electronics Tech (ET) like I had originally asked, but remember, I had that by-the-skin-of-the-teeth nuclear power-worthy score on my ASVAB test going in, so they put me where it earned them the most points at the recruiting station. Submarines. Movie Stars…
One of the first things you usually do when you start the curriculum at Submarine School is report to the “pressure chamber” where they ascertain that you can withstand a certain amount of pressure on your ears. If you fail this, you are dropped from the submarine program. That is why they put this test up front, before you discover how badly you would like to be dropped from that program. Turns out, though, that on my designated day, the chamber was broken, so they sent us on our way to class and we started learning to drive submarine simulators, tell a potable water pipe from a saltwater pipe, and the history of the submarine service. Yay.
At this point, I was still telling people I was a writer, and writing nothing. I was also still going to church every Sunday morning (and in the evenings on Wednesday) and meeting new people. One thing church is good for – if you are a young man – is meeting young women. You can also do this at clubs, and bars, but the problems associated with alcohol and life decisions are myriad. As it turns out, I did meet someone at the church in Groton, and that is probably why I made it through that school (as far as I went, anyway) without parting ways with organized religion. I was not about to let flagging faith separate me fromm a particular young lady, and despite the very strict boundaries set, she managed to keep me mostly distracted from other things (and other people) while I was there.
Not that there was not fun. There was. We saw Star Wars – the first one – in the theater together for the first time. We survived an accidental 360 in a car, ending in a slide right up to the side of a gas-pump, where our driver managed not to panic, but instead leaned out, winked at the attendant (they still had them then) and asked him to “Fill ‘er up” as if nothing had happened.
In those days, the drinking age was 19 in Connecticut, and as it turns out, I turned 19 that fall. While I mostly kept myself to the straight and narrow, I was not immune to the call of the wild, as understood by young, naïve sailors. I spent my share of nights slipping out with the “boys” – mostly starting around the time that they finally fixed that pressure chamber.
When I had finished school I was transferred to my first boat… a very old boat called The USS Skate. I was not on there a week before I was hauled out of line at quarters and sent off to the pressure chamber (then operational at last. They figured it was a formality at that point). I had other ideas. I am tall – 6’ 3″ in stocking feet, and not particularly graceful. I had dings all over my forehead and that was only in a few days. Also, I’d begun hearing stories about Nuclear Power school, how most people dropped out, how it drove people insane, and how I did not want to go there. I agreed.
When we went into that chamber, and they turned it on, I waited only a couple of seconds before I started fiddling with my ears. Then I raised my hand, my face contorted in (mostly) faked pain. They took me out. They gave me Sudafed and had me wait. They tried again. Again, before long, my hand was in the air. I did feel some pressure, but I probably could have toughed it out. I just couldn’t see being locked in a submarine, an ocean on top of my head. I was immediately transferred back to the school and into “holding” company for re-assignment.
I could spend a good bit of time describing that time (again, I was not writing, but I was soaking up life). I played briefly in a country band we named “Lemon Zeringue and Pie (I was Pie)” with a guy from Louisiana who played and sang very, very well. He’d had some problems with alcohol, and so had opted for the military rather than going on the road as a musician. He’d actually been on tour with Kenny Rogers (a much bigger deal back then than it is now, of course). I remember a Disco called “The Dial Tone,” and a rock club named “The Bach Door” – neither of which, I suspect, exists any longer. Both were in New London, the “big city” near Groton. I still attended church, but found another large chunk knocked out of my belief when I learned that one of the elders of the church was also a DJ part time at “The Dial Tone,” where I found him sipping “Zombies” and hanging out with the very sort of women we were warned about each Sunday. Life is full of accidental lessons.
Anyway, to make what could have been a very long story more succinct… I was taken to an office and asked to fill in some forms. I was asked what I would like to do in the Navy, now that Polaris Electronics was denied me. I told them, again, that I’d like to be an ET, thinking that they’d say (as they had before) that it was full. To my surprise, they smiled brightly and told me they needed a lot of people in that rate. I stared at the guy who told me this, started to say something, and then just let it drop. I no longer felt the slightest guilt over the questionable result of my pressure chamber visit.
So, leaving my girl (hard) and Groton Submarine Base (easy) behind, I again mounted the proverbial “Big ol’ jet airliner” and headed for Great Lakes Illinois for Electronics Technician class “A” school, bringing me full circle back to Illinois, and, of course, with autumn looming, and the very Midwestern winter I’d left behind looming. Yay. The good news? Though it was mostly poetry and song lyrics, at least during this period, I did some writing. There will also be tales of Dungeons and Dragons, a form of “excommunication,” and more.
Category Archives: Writing
So there I was. I graduated high school with good grades. I could have gone to any number of colleges as part of the ROTC program, but was told by my recruiter (I’d already signed up as an enlisted man) that I couldn’t go because I’d agreed to their Advanced Electronics plan, and Nuclear Power program. It was, of course, not true. I was part of a quota they had to reach, and had I opted out for the life of an officer, I would have left them with a hole to fill. A particularly hard hole, actually, since I qualified so high on the exams, and made it (by the skin of my teeth) into the Nuclear Power program. They got extra points for that. The joke was on them, in the end, as I found a way out of that particular program, but that’s far in the future.
I could have gone to school in Charleston, Illinois. My mom ran one of the big food services on campus at Eastern Illinois University. I could have gotten into classes for free, or close to it. To do that, though, I would have had to live with those I hated. Many of the kids at the high school would just become young adults with the same attitude they’d always had. My step-father would have been ever-present, and I couldn’t stomach the idea of living even another day under the same roof with him. The only thing remotely good for me at the time was that I’d been attending The Church of Christ, and I’d met a lot of very cool college students. I knew, however, that they would graduate, and leave. I thought, at the time, that I might go into the ministry myself, but not there – not in that town, or that place.
The Navy offered me a good way out. There are many ways to describe the military, but for me it was escape. They paid me. They trained me. They gave me a place to sleep, and had enough discipline in place to keep me from making any truly stupid moves too early in life. I honestly believe that a few years in the military is a good idea for the majority of kids. It gives you some time after school to align your priorities, save for school, learn about the world beyond your parent’s home and control, and figure yourself out.
I left home without so much as a glance over my shoulder. I was just ready to be gone. They flew me to Chicago, where I was processed in – an experience that included meeting a young black man named… David Wilson. Born exactly the same day that I was born. We had a lot of fun telling everyone we were twins, and explaining how it was possible. He is now my long-lost twin, as I never saw him again.
Transience is a constant in the military. You have to work hard if you want to forge friendships that last because every two to four years, you move, and those around you are also in constant flux. You have to build those relationships in that short time period, or lose them as you split up and move on. I have always been a person who either developed very strong friendships or none at all. I’m odd, always have been, and though I try never to allow it to show on the surface, I’m pretty full of myself. I think most people are. You could put the t-shirt my wife loves – it says “C.S.I. – Can’t stand idiots” – in a room full of 20 random people and all of them would chuckle, glance around at some of the others, and think that the shirt was meant for them to wear, but never that it might be directed their way. It’s the way humans work. We all live in tiny, separate worlds where we rule. Those worlds blend, and interact, but really – it’s never quite the same in any moment for you as it is for someone else. It goes back to those influences. All of us have had different influences, all of us believe and know and think at least a little bit differently.
Transience is a familiar sensation to a seasoned writer, as well. You meet your characters for a short period of time. You interact with them, live and love with them, and if you do them justice – come to care about them. You shift into their world, and then, when the story has been told, you move on and leave them behind, hopefully with enough mojo that they can pass on the experience to your readers.
The military swallowed me up in Chicago and spit me toward San Diego, where I went to boot camp. I went in the summer. A very dry, hot summer. I ended up dumped into Company 927. We were commanded by an ex-Seal who was about to retire. He had a good attitude, but he was tough. They chose a guy named Fort to be our RCPO (Recruit Chief Petty Officer) and another guy I only remember as Catfish as the ARCPO (Assistant). Catfish spent all of his time with his mouth wide open, and he sort of worked it – like a fish trying to gulp air out of water.
A more diverse group would have been very difficult to find. One big scary guy who ended up getting dropped for being too crazy to serve, a tiny little guy named Blankenship we called the Admiral who talked too much, an older guy named Buckholtz who was overweight, and constantly confused, a pair of Mormons, myself (wanting in equal parts to be a minister and a writer) and a ton of others.
My experience there was different than most. We were a “drill” company, meaning that our members served in the Drill Team, with the rifles, the Flag team, and in the Bluejackets Choir (where I ended up). We had it a bit easier than most of the companies, and every Sunday we got to go and perform during church services. It was there that I became more aware of the workings of other faiths than my own (at the time) fundamental Christian views.
Currently, I believe in science, and the wonder of the real world that surrounds us. I think something big and powerful created everything, but can’t imagine it had a thing to do with ancient mythology, Hebrew or otherwise, and am happy to believe that being the best person I can be for no other reason than that I know it’s right is the way to go. I have come to detest most of the organized religions of the world for their narrow-minded attitudes, and the fact that the majority of the wars in history can be tracked back to them. Again – I digress. Believe me, though, I will return to this.
The most important thing I learned in boot camp was how to re-imagine myself. I had been a particular person in high school, but the minute I left home, and all the people I knew, I had a choice. I could be whoever I could pull off. Sure, I ended up with people who liked me, respected me, laughed at me, etc… but it was all new, and all different, and that was an experience the Navy gave me again, and again.
This is where the boot camp experience begins to relate directly to writing. First, I met a lot of diverse characters. I am a born mimic, and I spent a lot of time figuring out their accents, and listening to their stories. At the same time, I learned – as noted – to make myself over into something new. Living as different versions of myself allowed me to experience the world through slightly different perspectives. For a writer, this is the kind of insight that can make the difference between real and plastic. Even in genre fiction, fantasy, science fiction, or horror, the thing that makes all of the unbelievable elements work is the core reality you create to surround those unbelievable elements. The reactions of your characters, and the world you surround them with, need to seem believable to the reader in the context of your plot, or you will lose them very early on. Give them someone, and something, to relate to.
In boot camp, I played the young kid from southern Illinois who could run, and write, prayed every night, and argued with the Mormons. I was there for my friends, smart enough to keep my head down and my mind mostly focused on doing what would get me through with the least trouble. I sang on Sunday, shined my shoes, and worked very hard at creating a suit of armor around myself to hide what was already some fairly serious doubt in my chosen life of faith. I didn’t write – not then. I told everyone I was a writer. I believed I was going to be a writer. How in the world I missed that first, fundamental truth – that a writer writes – is still beyond me.
What I didn’t realize then, but understood later, was that a writer is always working. Sure, once you get going, it’s important to write all the time, but if you plan on having anything relevant or important to say, you first have to live, experience, and grow. For me, boot camp was a period of serious growth – one that I have good and bad memories of, and that has found its way into more than one story, character, and plot.
I’m not going to dwell on that time. There are periods of my naval career that deserve serious consideration, and I’ll get to them in due course. The important take-away is the ability to redesign your thought processes into those of a different person, and the idea that every moment of your life is a learning experience directly applicable to writing. If you are reading this, and you are young –just beginning life and work – this is vital. Pay attention. Keep your mind open. Even if you can’t share the beliefs or ideas of others, try to understand why they believe them, and how those beliefs define their world. If you can’t think like a particular character, you can’t write them believably.
Next stop? US Naval Submarine School, Groton Connecticut, where, again, I did not write…
Category Archives: Writing
(Author’s Note): Just to say… I have not posted any part of this long-in-the-works book on writing in a very, very long time. You’ll find the link to the parts (and a couple of side posts) on the front page of my website at the top. I am working on re-activating my creativity after a long period of too much time building Crossroad Press and ignoring it. I have to find a way to schedule both… Here is the next installment in this book on writing that I may, or may not ever finish…
I mentioned in the previous short chapter that when I started writing, I chose the short story as my format. There were a lot of reasons for this, but the one I’m going to stick with is – I wasn’t ready to write a novel. What is true for me is not necessarily true for anyone else. A lot of people start out the gate writing novels and never really do much in the short form. Some of my favorite authors are very skimpy on stories, and long on novels, or even novellas. Peter Straub and T. E. D. Klein come to mind as authors who chose their length and pretty much stuck to it. While Peter has written a number of short stories over the years, I don’t believe they are his chosen form… That said, he did beat me for the Bram Stoker award the year my collection Defining Moments was on the final ballot.
For me things have always been a progression. In fact, when it comes to the books that have mattered the most to me, it goes deeper. The first novel I wrote that really mattered to me was This is My Blood. Anyone who is a fan of mine will know that the novel was born as a novelette – first published in Starshore magazine long ago, then reprinted in Karl Edward Wagner’s Year’s Best Horror XIX and a number of other publications over the years. That novelette, “A Candle Lit in Sunlight,” or sometimes mis-titled as “A Candle in the Sun,” was – as it turns out – only the germ of the idea.
It took someone else’s perspective to make me see my error. I was very proud of the novelette. I’d never gotten the kind of notice it brought, and I was even starting to feel a little cocky – the first sense that I had chosen a profession where I had the skill to make a name for myself. Then came my first World Horror Convention. In those days, there were rock-stars of horror. John Skipp, Craig Spector, Poppy Z. Brite, Kathe Koja, David Schow – wandering the halls like the Pied Piper with troops of acolytes and poseurs dangling off them like lichen on a swamp tree. I was a bit in awe of them, but they proved friendly enough, and accessible.
At the time, I was not only starting my writing career, but was in the midst of publishing my magazine, The Tome. I had a table in the dealer’s room, covered in the books and magazines I’d cobbled together to sell and help pay for the adventure. Among those books and magazines were several copies of Starshore with my story. Sales were anything but brisk – there was a lot of competition. Still, I met people. I passed my story on, and on that very first day, it happened.
A short, slender man with a slightly odd accent stepped up to the table. We started talking about vampires. His name, he told me, was Robert Eighteen Bisang. I kind of nodded, thinking it was odd enough to either be true, or an affectation, and that it didn’t matter. He told me he had the largest collection of vampire fiction in the world, first editions of Dracula. I told him that he did not have all of the vampire stories yet. I sold him a copy of Starshore. He promised to read it and let me know what he thought.
I, of course, had heard that a lot since opening the table and seldom seen return traffic. What there was mostly consisted of my fellow small-press editors and authors, and a few people who hoped that, if they stayed close by, I’d remember their names and buy the next story they submitted. Yes – even at the lower levels, we had acolytes. I was pretty new, though, and my “posse” was pretty sad.
Anyway, to make a long story short, Robert came back to my table later that day. He had an odd look on his face, and I’ll never forget what he said. “You know, David, this is really brilliant – but it has to be a novel.”
It took me a bit to get over the “brilliant” part, but I did. His words stuck with me, and so did Robert. In fact, one night out in the middle of the Mediterranean on board the USS Bainbridge, I sat down in the transmitter room I’d claimed as my own (too cold and noisy for most others) and I set to work. I had one of those tiny green Gideon Society bibles that they give you when you go to boot camp. I had my old IBM 386 PC and a Deskjet 500 printer. I had from 4:30 in the afternoon until midnight, day in, and day out.
I went through all the gospels. I wrote down the holes in them, and then I compared those holes to the other three gospels to make sure they weren’t covered somewhere else. I found places where – without changing the original story much – I could insert my characters. I had no idea how long it would end up, but I had a really good idea of where it was all going. This was an important work for me on many, many levels.
Prior to being a writer and publisher, there was a time in my life when, lured to church by good looking high school girls and fun college ministers, I thought my life would go in a different direction. I thought that maybe I’d become one of those fun campus ministers, preach to college kids and high school students, make the church my life. I’m going to stop talking about This is My Blood for a while now, and I’m going to move on to a more memoirish (new word – take note) segment of my tale. I’m going to tell you how a young, naïve man with dreams left small town Illinois, joined the US Navy, outgrew organized religion, and got to the point we just left – the point where this book – this first, important book, was something that had to be written. In no small way, my books are my life. I think that must be true for most creative people – the ones who would create without fame or fortune or fans – the ones that can’t help themselves. We are a sad lot – though the sadness could be dulled by a healthy dose of sales…
In 1977, I graduated from Charleston High School, in Charleston Illinois. Soon after that – things started to get interesting.
Category Archives: Writing
A chance encounter with persimmons on Facebook inspired me to post the entire third chapter of AMERICAN PIES – Baking With Dave the Pie Guy – here on my blog. This chapter tells you WHY I wrote the book, how to make a persimmon pie… and more. If you like what you read, you can buy the entire book at the Crossroad Press store in time for Christmas or on AMAZON BY CLICKING HERE.
Fresh Persimmon Pie
You may have guessed by now that this is not just a book of pie recipes. There are stories behind each of the choices I made for my ‘baker’s dozen’. (The final pie was the American Pie – we’ll get to that, but you saw it on the cover of the book). As is the case so often in my life, my past met up with my present one night, and I started remembering, and thinking.
I grew up in southern Illinois. My grandparents lived in a very small town that had already started to die out by the time I first visited. The highway moved to the side and bypassed them. They had lived there for a very long time, having built several homes, and even a log cabin. My Aunt Lucile (We called her Aunt ‘Toole’ – though I don’t really know why) lived in the house next door, which my grandfather also built.
I spent a lot of time in Flora – that was the town. Some of the strongest memories and impressions of my life date back to those few small streets, the park outside of town, Johnsonville Lake where my grandpa took us fishing, and the railroad tracks we walked up and down that led out of town.
In those days, there were still a lot of trains. Sometimes you had to hurry to get off the tracks and out of the way as hundreds of cars rushed past, looking tall as large buildings and making so much noise conversation was impossible. In later years, my brother and I explored those tracks on our own, but when I was younger I went there with my grandfather, Merle Cornelius Smith, who I remember as the finest man I ever met – and who I wish I’d been older while knowing so I could have heard, and understood, his stories. I’ve heard a lot of them second hand, and I’ve got pictures, records and the memories my mom has shared. I just wish I’d been a little more aware of just how amazing his life had been, so I could have soaked more in while I had time to spend.
He took my brother and I back along those railroad tracks because there were nut trees in small groves that he knew where to find – and in one small hollow down off the track, there were persimmon trees. My grandfather introduced me to a lot of things in life. He taught me to fish, to tie my own flies, to wrap a fishing rod and build it from scratch, and he taught me about a lot of food that I likely would not have known, or enjoyed.
He showed me how to make dandelion greens into something very much like spinach. He introduced me to fresh, home-made canned yogurt, gardening, raising earthworms, polishing stones and making jewelry. Out along the railroad tracks, he introduced me to persimmons.
They were different back then than what you’ll find in the grocery store these days. They were sort of like a game – you could win a treat, but you couldn’t win if you didn’t play. About a third of all the persimmons we picked left a bitter aftertaste…finding them just ripe enough was an art form and a shaky one at best. Still, when they were good, they were among the best flavors in the world, and I never forgot them.
One day we were in our local grocery, here in North Carolina, and there, in a carton, were persimmons. I got excited. I probably babbled about them. I know everyone reached the smile and nod point with me pretty quickly but it didn’t matter. They were there, and I bought some. As I ate them, day after day, I waited for that bad one – that bitter taste that had plagued the persimmon bliss of my youth. It never came. They were sweet, soft, and consistently good. Finally, I looked them up on the Internet.
As mankind has done so many times in the past, someone got tired of the ‘problem’ of bitter persimmons. They not only engineered new ones that were almost never bitter (I did find one bitter one late one night and almost laughed until I cried trying to explain why a bad taste in my mouth brought a good memory). They also managed to create persimmons without seeds. I learned, as I read, that they are also called Sharon fruit, named for the Sharon Plain in Israel, where some of the finest of this particular fruit has been grown. It does look a bit like a star inside when sliced (as you’ll see in the pictures). They are orange-yellow to dark orange in color and very sweet.
Anyway, after eating these newly rediscovered treats for a couple of weeks, I was sitting in bed thinking (almost always a mistake). What came to mind was …why have I never seen a persimmon pie? This led to the question of whether you could make a persimmon pie, and the inevitable Internet journey that led to the answer.
Of course you can. You can make a pie out of almost anything. I found several recipes for fresh persimmon pie, and I copied a bunch of them. Then I did what I usually do. I poked them, prodded them, talked about them, and generally procrastinated without doing anything. I, of course, did not regularly bake pies. I’ve probably baked a couple earlier in my life, but it was so far back I don’t remember. The question changed from ‘can you make a persimmon pie?’ to ‘Can I make a persimmon pie.”
As it turns out, again, the answer was – of course I can. Pie is like anything else … you can psyche yourself out and make it into some weird voodoo that only chefs, bakers, and grandmas can pull off with any skill, but the truth is; if you pay attention, take your time, and prepare properly, you can bake a pie. It’s not rocket science (though I have it on good authority that rocket scientists like pie.).
Once I got over the hurdle of deciding to actually bake the pie, things shifted into a higher gear. I was all business. I had my recipe. I was sure we had everything we needed in the kitchen, I mean, it’s full of baking stuff. I checked my list, and found that we did, indeed, have most of the ingredients for this particular pie right in our pantry. Of course, I had to buy persimmons.
The recipe calls for 2 ½ cups of fresh persimmons. Stumbling block number one. How many persimmons, exactly, in a cup? And also – looking at the recipe, I realized I had a bigger problem. You see, there was a picture of the pie they envisioned. It was flat across the top, maybe even a little sunken. It looked a lot like the pies in the supermarket, and that was not what I wanted to bake.
I pulled out the biggest measuring cup we have – it’s an Anchor Hocking Fire-King piece we bought at an auction when we spent our nights buying and selling antiques and collectibles on eBay. Another lifetime, it seems, after all this time. Anyway, the top line on the measuring scale said that it held four cups. It didn’t seem like much to me, and even with that measurement to sort of eyeball, it quickly became obvious that, depending on how they were sliced, the number of persimmons it would take to fill that cup was going to vary wildly. I bought a whole bag of them. I err on the side of too much fruit every time, and if there are leftover persimmons, believe me, you won’t be sorry when you taste one.
I gathered the ingredients, but not efficiently. My method was to put each of the things that I had to have in a different container (why? I have no idea) so I dirtied quite a few cups and bowls in the process. The recipe called for:
2 ½ Cups of ripe persimmons. (We used 5-6 cups in the end)
1/3 of a Cup of granulated sugar.
1/3 Cup firmly packed brown sugar.
2 ½ Tablespoons of quick cooking tapioca…
What? Here we break down again. Cooking tapioca? I’ve had tapioca pudding often enough. What was it doing in a pie, though? I had to stop – mid-pie – and go back to the Internet. I also had to figure out why, exactly, I’d missed this during my quick inventory. I mean, the pie was half made, and I was missing something – maybe something important.
Here is one of the lessons I learned about pies. Fruit is juicy. (wow, what a revelation). If you just bake it in a pie, it bubbles out over the edges. It won’t hold together when you slice it. It’s more like soup, in fact, than it is like filling. Cooking tapioca is something bakers use to thicken the filling. Thankfully for my first pie, it’s not the only thing that will do the job. The more commonly used ingredient is cornstarch, and according to the cooking experts I found online, you could use about the same amount of cornstarch as you would tapioca and it would work just fine. That’s what I did. As luck would have it, we had cornstarch in abundance. This thickening process is one of the tricky things to learn, and may not work for you perfectly until you experiment with it. The recipes I found varied wildly on the amount necessary for several of the pies we made. Our results varied just as wildly, and while we didn’t come out with any bad pies, some were runnier than I’d have liked. This is where grandmothers have the upper hand with their pinch of this and handful of that. They just knew…and the reason they knew was they’d done it and done it and done it again.
1 Teaspoon ground cinnamon.
1/2 Teaspoon of grated orange peel.
1/2 Teaspoon of grated lemon peel.
Again…time for another break. Various recipes call for grated orange and lemon peels, or “zested” peels. What they don’t tell you is how in the world you’re supposed to get said grated peel, or why it’s there. I can’t tell you that I know why it’s there – other than flavor – but I can tell you how to get it.
First, wash the lemon, or the orange. You’d think that goes without saying, but I mention it because it’s something I think about. I once wrote a story that was published in an anthology about Holidays. My story? “For These Things I am Truly Thankful.” In that story, the protagonist becomes obsessed with the history of things. The water in his sink, coming through pipes that ran beneath the ground, had been put together by plumbers with God knows what on their hands, had picked up silt and other things from the processing plant, the people there – etc.
I want to point out that the orange and / or lemon in question came from a grocery store, where it was groped by consumers, placed by a stock person, possibly coughed and sneezed on. Before that they were in a box, shipped from another country, and suffered all of those same things – along with bug spray and BUGS (which is why they spray). So…since you are using the outside of the fruit, wash it thoroughly.
If you have a potato peeler or a cheese grater, either of these will work fine – and even if the recipe in hand says “zest” – it’s all the same when it hits the pie. I happen to have a zester by lucky coincidence. I bought a fancy vegetable carving kit so I could have the tools to carve Halloween pumpkins, and, as it turns out, one of the things they sent (though I had no idea what it was until Trish told me) was a zester.
3 Tablespoons of lemon juice.
I know, I know. Get on with it, right? I promise that I will, but I have to tell you, the lemon juice confused me too. Now I know it’s important, and if it’s missing from a fruit recipe, I usually add it in for good measure. Lemon juice is a natural preservative. I’m sure you’ve bitten into an apple, or left one sliced and laying around longer than you should have. They get brown very quickly. The same is true of a number of fruits, and if the first thing you do is to slice your fruit, you chance the quick advance of decay while you are busy mixing and whisking and doing pie-baking things. You sprinkle the aforementioned lemon juice onto the fruit to keep it fresh – and it works. I can say that after 13 pies, it worked for me every time. You also get a slight citrus flavor from it, but not distracting. You actually – oddly – get more flavor from the zested / grated peels.
2 9″ Pastry pie crusts.
I use the boxed crusts you can find at the supermarket. I do not use the store brand, or any generic. If I get permission from the company (still waiting) I’ll let you know the brand name before I’m done, but suffice it to say the mascot giggles a lot. They are (hands down) the best. I will eventually branch into making my own crusts, I suppose, but my suspicion is that, though I might make one as good as the ones I use, probably I will not make one that is better.
The last ingredient is butter or margarine. You’ll see anything from one to three tablespoons in pie recipes, but here’s the deal. This is a pinch of this and handful of that thing, again. When all the filling is in the pie, you’ll spot the top of it with small dabs of butter or margarine. It melts down in and blends with the juice, cornstarch, and filling and it’s important so make sure you remember – right before that second crust goes over the top of the pie (I’ll mention this again when I reach that point, but I want to be sure you don’t forget. I did – once – and had to peel back the top crust and slide it in. A delicate job that could have ruined a perfectly good pie.)
Now it’s time to make this pie. Rinse the persimmons (see my note about washing fruit above). These have a weird leaf/stem that has to be cut out. It’s easiest to cut in a circle around it and pop it off the top. The recipes all called for the persimmons to then be cut into thin slices. Here is where I’ll make another comment. We did as they instructed, and the pie was actually very good. Persimmons, though, unless incredibly ripe, are kind of crunchy. If you slice the persimmons into, basically, circular slices, you’ll find them a little hard to cut with a fork when eating them, though they look really good in the bowl, and in the pie. I didn’t mind this – but I love persimmons. For better results, I think, I’d suggest almost dicing the fruit. Some recipes call for pulping the persimmons (boiling them to mush) but I don’t like doing this to any fruit – dicing will give you smaller, more manageable chunks.
Once your persimmons are cut, or sliced, and ready –put them in a medium to large sized bowl and sprinkle the lemon juice over them. Set this aside and find yourself another medium sized bowl. In this bowl, combine the two types of sugar, tapioca (or cornstarch), cinnamon, orange and lemon peels and stir them thoroughly. You need to mix up all the powders until you have them spread evenly so you don’t end up with pockets of cornstarch, or sugar on one side, and all the orange peels on the other. I use either a whisk, or a large spoon for this mixing. The spoon is good because you can use it to sprinkle the resultant mixture over the fruit.
Now, set aside your second bowl and get your pie plate ready. I recommend as deep a 9″ pie plate as you can find. I only use glass or Pyrex plates. Set the plate on a surface where you have some working room, and then get out your pie crusts. Unroll the first crust and place it over the top of the pie plate, then carefully press it down into the plate so that it shapes to the glass. The crust will extend out past the edge of the plate. At this point, take a knife and cut around the edge of the plate, trimming off the excess crust.
You can do what you want with this excess. They say it’s bad to eat it raw, though I’ve done that. The “Pie Bloke” over in the UK tells me it’s because there is raw egg in it. Trish suggests rolling it into balls, sprinkling it with cinnamon and sugar, and baking it to make pie-crust cookies. We did that once, and they were okay, but nothing to write home about. The important thing is that you trim even with the flat top edge of your pie-plate.
When this is done you have a couple of choices. As you will see in the photos of my own persimmon pie, I chose to mix all of the ingredients in with the persimmons thoroughly, and then place them in the pie. The other method is layering, sprinkling in some of the ingredients, then layering persimmons on top of that, sprinkling more, etc. If you choose this latter method, don’t skimp. You need all the ingredients in the pie if you can manage it. The key is that the fruit should be coated in the sugar and cornstarch and cinnamon, and that it should filter down and fill the cracks between the fruit. As the pie bakes, the fruit will sort of melt into the rest of it, and combine. It’s a beautiful thing.
From here on out, it’s pretty easy. Don’t forget to dab in the bits of butter or margarine. Spread them out across the pie filling, but it doesn’t REALLY matter where you put them. Next you need to take that second pie crust, unroll it, and very carefully place it over the top of the pie. You have to get it centered so that there is excess sticking out over the edges of the plate.
There are tools for what I’m about to describe. I don’t own one. I have an old can opener with the pointed, triangular end on it. Not much good for cans these days, but you can use it here. Hold it with the top down. Press it firmly into the top crust directly above the flat glass edge of the pie plate. This presses the two crusts together and leaves a cool indentation. Right beside this, do it again, and continue this carefully all the way around the perimeter of the pie, until you’ve come full circle and the edges of the impressions touch. The cool technical term for this is crimping When this is done, once again, trim off all the excess crust and set it aside for whatever you’ve decided to use it for.
At this point, I usually stop and turn on the oven. It takes a while to preheat. This also brings me to another wide variance in the recipes of others. Baking time, and temperature. This recipe calls for setting the oven at 375° – and I have to say, on this first pie I probably got lucky. I’m convinced that the perfect baking time on most pies hovers on or around one hour. The best results I’ve had have involved starting with a really high temperature, and dropping it down after twenty minutes or so…but for this pie, set the oven to 375° and wait for it to preheat.
Next you need to cut vents in your top crust. This is another thing that you don’t want to forget, because, as I keep saying, step after step, it’s important. The vents let the pressure and heat from the fruit cooking inside release any built up pressure and gives the filling a place to bubble up and out if it gets too hot. I cut slits from near the center down in a star pattern. Some people cut sort of tear-drop shaped slits, and others try to get artistic and cut designs. The star was quick and easy, and it’s what I went with. Later in the book I’ll show you what happened when we tried to get more creative. In the end – I’m going to eat the pie…so I don’t need anything fancy.
At this point I slapped my pie in on the bottom shelf, as the recipe called for, and set my timer for one hour. It was a mistake, and I’ll explain that in a moment. While it’s baking you should look in on it now and then. Make sure the edges get a little brown before you pull it out, and make sure they don’t get too brown. Again, it’s something you learn to get just right over time.
But let’s get back to that mistake. Remember I said you had the vents in case the filling needs to bubble up and out? It does. It always does, at least a little. If you put your pie in on the oven rack, that fruit filling is going to sizzle and drip all over the bottom of your oven. This is not going to make people happy. It’s hard to get out, it bakes onto the inner surface of the oven like cement, and it’s easily avoidable. What you need to do is either to put a foil covered cookie or pizza pan underneath your pie pan, or to make something. That’s what I do, now. After Trish quit cursing at me, and showed me how, I started using a drip pan created by taking a couple of sheets of tinfoil and folding them. You fold one in half, just a bit wider than the pie pan. Then you take the other, fold it over and around the first forming a sort of cross. Crimp up the edges so that anything trying to run over the edge of your pie – won’t. Again…this is important.
Now, place your pie into the heated oven, set yourself a timer (I use the one on the microwave above the stove) and sit back to wait out the hour for your finished pie. When it’s baked, remove it carefully and place it on the stop top to cool. I think about an hour is perfect for cooling. Your finished product should look something like this:
If you did it right…shortly after this, it will look more like this:
And there you have it. I will include the full recipes for each of these pies at the back of the book (minus the commentary). They will also be available (for those who buy the book) as a printable recipe cards. These chapters are longer, but I hope not boring – and I know likely to improve your outcome. Learn from my mistakes…that’s why I’m here. Now, on to our next adventure, Fresh Pear Pie.
Category Archives: Writing
Bloody Knife & Morning Star
By David Niall Wilson
Bloody Knife watched from his pony as the Calvary trooped by. Their uniforms glistened in the sunlight, and their weapons gleamed with the promise of glory and death. They were confident, and you could feel that confidence in the air, an aura that reached out from the golden haired demon that led them to permeate the entire column.
As guide, it was the Indian’s place to lead the way, but for the moment he only sat and brooded, watching as the spirits spoke to his soul. Custer turned once, nodding in his direction, an almost imperceptible acknowledgement of his presence, his part in the grand scheme of what was to come. Bloody Knife did not even twitch in response.
They called this golden-haired one “The son of the morning star.” It was appropriate. This was the dawning of great moments, new beginnings. The twilight and the birth of dreams. As the last of them glided by, a gaudy painting of arrogance and naiveté against a backwash of blue sky and the rising sun, Bloody knife dug his knees into his mount and slid off along the side of them like a shadow, leaving them in a small cloud of dust and making his way into the ravine ahead. His mind was focused, his concentration centered on what was to come.
It had been a chance meeting, a meeting destined by stars and dreams. Bloody Knife had been leaning against the railing beside a tavern called “The Smoking Gun,” idly sipping at his private bottle of whiskey and letting his mind wander. The bottle was as much for show as anything. Although he never drank to excess, it was a good idea to let those around him believe it to be his custom. There were reasons for everything he did, patterns shifting about him that only he could grasp.
It was such a pattern that had placed him there, just so, when his destiny had marched by. Golden hair flying in the stiff breeze, shoes shined and blue uniform so brilliant in the sun that it seemed to glow with its own, inner light, General George Armstrong Custer moved with the confidence of arrogance. He barely shifted his gaze toward Bloody Knife, but the sudden narrowing of his eyes, the slight hitch in the perfection of his stride, gave him away.
In a voice calculated for the proper volume, he spoke to one of his two companions. “I have come here for a purpose, gentlemen,” he announced. “The heathen Sioux are rampant, and it seems a strong hand is in order. Of course, they shall present no real threat to a well-trained regiment, but still, they seem to be proving difficult.”
Bloody Knife turned his own face away, still listening, but not wanting them to know it.
“You don’t know them red devils, sir,” the sergeant trotting along at his side puffed. “They’re slicker than shadows in them woods.”
“Rubbish,” Custer dismissed him. “Fighting men, trained properly, are the match for any situation, especially one involving uncouth savages. I expect to have this matter resolved soon, and to be called back to more important duties in the east. Let’s get some food, then we’ll talk about those guides…I’ll be needing to get through the ‘Black Hills,’ as you call them, as swiftly as possible.”
“Yes sir,” the man replied. He said no more, but in the tone of his voice, and the stiffening of his shoulders as he moved through the tavern door in his commander’s wake, Bloody Knife read worlds of doubt. This man knew. This man had met the peoples of forest and plain, had seen the light of his own death burning in their eyes. The other was a fool, but there was something more.
Letting his senses stretch, feeling the voices of the ground beneath him and the birds that floated in the skies above blending with his consciousness, he searched. There was an aura nearby, an aura of strength and purpose, an aura of power. It emanated from the interior of the tavern, and it brought a darkness, a dulling of the sight, such as he’d never experienced.
Calling out within the great mother’s spirit, he reached for her children, the spirits gone beyond, reached for their thoughts, for their aid. He could hear them speaking, just beyond the questing tendrils of his own mind, but he could not make out their warnings. All that would surface was an image, a glowing nimbus — a face — obscured by a green fire. It was surrounded by a mane of bright, golden hair, and from within it echoed the loneliness of a shattered spirit.
Shivering, Bloody Knife brought himself back to the present. He looked about himself, re-orienting his senses. Nobody had seen him in his trance-state, but it would not have mattered. He still held the whiskey bottle tightly in one hand, and they would have assumed what they believed to be the obvious.
That had been the beginning — the trail that wound back to the mother spirit, the path to inner light. It had been the moment he’d dedicated his life to reach, suffering the abuse of his own people, the contempt of the whites, and the scarring of his soul to achieve. It had been a moment of rebirth.
Slipping around the corner of the doorway, he’d stolen a last glance at the man, Custer. He’d scanned the handsome features, the arrogant tilt of the man’s head and the polished dignity of his demeanor. He was the one, there was no doubt. Never had he felt the spirit of those who would desecrate the land so intensely.
Within “The smoking Gun,” General George Armstrong Custer felt the weight of intruding eyes on his shoulders and spun his head quickly to the door. It was empty, but he would have sworn, had he not feared being considered insane, that the lingering image of a man’s form shimmered in that space. A dark man, an Indian. A heathen. The notion that such a man might pose a threat to an officer and a gentleman was ridiculous, and yet he felt a sudden chill. Shaking it off, he returned to his drink, and his plans.
As he rode out of the town and made his way toward the outskirts of the surrounding forest, where he would meet with the soldiers and secure his position as guide, Bloody Knife let his mind slide backward, leaving the mechanics of riding to the instincts of both body and horse, freeing his senses.
As a young man, life had treated him poorly. Half Sioux, half Ree, raised in a Sioux village, the taunts and challenges had been twice those imposed on the other boys. He had been beaten, whipped, stoned, chased and mocked, all with little time for respite. If it hadn’t been for certain events in his twelfth year, he might never have survived.
The tribe he’d been a part of was guided by the wisdom of a ancient, wrinkled shaman named Speaks With Spirits. It was to this man that his mother had taken him when, cut by a hail of stones from the other young men of the village, his head had bled profusely. The man had treated him without comment. At the time, Bloody Knife had been known as Running Dog, a name neither he, nor his mother, were pleased with, but which his father had insisted upon. Bloody Knife had known that the others of the village were behind this, that his father was secretly ashamed to name his son in this way, but there had been nothing he could do.
“Leave him with me,” Speaks With Spirits had said, and his mother had left immediately. The old man’s words were the law, and his powers were feared by all.
Bloody Knife had been in too much pain to give his fear much thought, and he’d followed meekly behind as Speaks With Spirits led him into his lodge. He’d known that others watched, and that tongues would already be wagging, but he’d been beyond caring. No one would think to harm him as long as he was in the presence of the shaman. He only hoped that the old man himself was not planning anything horrible.
Turning to him solemnly, Speaks With Spirits had gestured that he should be seated. He did so, looking about himself carefully, trying not to stare at the odd array of charms, potions, and animal parts. It was impolite to be curious, but impossible not to be.
Speaks With Spirits returned a moment later with a skin filled with some sort of liquid.
“Drink,” he said simply. “Drink, then sleep. Tomorrow, we will talk.”
That was all. Bloody Knife, then known as Running Dog, turned up the skin and took a long swallow of something syrupy, sweet, and then suddenly bitter. It had taken every ounce of control he could muster not to spit the foul stuff back up, but he had managed it, handing the bag quickly back to the old man, whose eyes were crinkled in sudden mirth.
And he had. Not a normal sleep. Long, deep, but filled with dreams — a journey such as he’d never known. Animals spoke to him first, blue-black ravens and otters with sleek fur, rabbits and bears — eagles. He listened as they spoke, and they flitted about him, surreal and insubstantial, whispering things he only half-heard, messages and instructions that would not stick with him, but that had re-emerged at various moments later in his life.
There had been men and women, as well. Their features, at first blending and shifting in and out with those of the animals, were insubstantial. They would coalesce, then disperse, then return in different patterns, confusing his mind and rendering it impossible for him to place them, one voice with one face. They were all voices, all faces, joining with him and teaching, communing with his own spirit and welcoming him in.
Speaks With Spirits was there, and yet he was not. His voice came first, chanting, rhythmic and powerful. As the sound went on, a warm glow flowed in and through him, and there was a subtle shift. The faces drifted away, flitted less often over one another’s features. It was Speaks With Spirits, one face, one voice, and his message was the only one that made it through, the only one not lost in the barrage of vision and confusion.
“You are chosen,” the voice had filled him, owned him. “You have the ears that spirits can reach, the eyes that can see beyond the veil. The great mother spirit of the earth rushes strong through your veins. What is mine, is yours. My gift now joins with your own, my life and destiny and yours are bound.
“There were powers before the Sioux, powers before the peoples of plains and mountains, before the whites and their fire-sticks, before even elk and deer. Our mother is the first, the greatest. The journey must be made back into her arms, the ascension to her realms. Your feet will take that path, your spirit will share the way with mine.”
There had been more. Much more. He had learned of spirits and the wisdom they could bring. He had learned of the earth, and of those who would desecrate her, removing the visions — silencing the voices of the spirits. All of this and more, and all in one, long vision.
Then he’d awakened to madness. He was wet — cold and sticky, and rising he found that he was coated in blood. Looking wildly about himself, it had registered that he was still in the lodge of Speaks With Spirits. The old one sat, legs crossed, above the position where he had lain. His head lolled at an odd angle, and the blood had run from the jagged cut at his throat down to pool on the ground where the boy, then Running Dog, had lain.
He rose numbly. There was a knife on the ground . . . dropped from Speaks With Spirits’ hands. The blood was pooled around the knife as well, and he reached out slowly, picking it up and staring at it in disbelief. He had slept. All he had done was to drink that foul potion, whatever it might have been, and …it was the manlan.
The voice, not exactly a voice, but a thought that was not wholly his own, had snapped out to fill in the gap in his knowledge, the name of the potion. He trembled. The manlan, vision drink. His mind filled slowly with a list of ingredients, a procedure he’d never known, a knowledge beyond his years and mind.
There were voices outside the tent as well. White Elk and Bear In Woods were calling to Speaks with Spirits, and they were impatient not to be answered. They prepared for a raid, and they needed strong medicine to guide and protect them.
Without thinking, or without thinking “himself,” the boy who was then Running Dog passed through the door of the lodge into the village beyond and stood, staring at the men. He held the bloody knife in his hand, still, and he stared at them with eyes that were different than those he’d worn before. Strong eyes. Pure and old. Wise.
“It is a bad day for a raid,” he said softly. His voice carried, despite the lack of force behind the words, and his eyes did not waver. Though the questions, the anger, and the disbelief warred within their eyes, White Elk and Bear in Woods turned on their heels and walked away. Others saw him, and they saw the knife. They whispered among themselves, but they did not come forward.
Speaks With Spirits had been powerful, old and wise in the ways of spirits and demons. If he was now dead, and this boy had killed him, then there was a power in him, as well. He was Running Dog no more — his identity branded into his soul as surely as the blood stained his hands.
He had walked slowly to the tent of his family, and he had taken up his weapons and his belongings without speech. His mother only stared, but his father — unwilling to face what was to come, turned and walked from the lodge without a backward glance, refusing to acknowledge his son further. It did not matter. There were new teachers within him, voices that came and went with the winds, energies and powers that beckoned from far lands and long roads.
He’d mounted his pony and turned to leave. There had been a tug on his leg, and he’d turned, almost, but not quite, swinging the knife. It was his mother, and her eyes were clear and proud.
“You must go to the Ree. I will follow soon. You must go to the lodge of my father and tell him who you are and what has happened. You must not return here.”
He nodded. It had been a beginning. He had never belonged with the Sioux, not truly, and now he knew that Speaks With Spirits had not, either. The old man had been of ancient stock, holder of secrets that made the eldest memory of the tribe seem the prattle of children. Now he was the guardian. The spirits spoke to him, Speaks With Spirits among them, and he had a destiny.
As the line of soldiers disappeared behind him, Bloody Knife swerved his mount and headed it off at a gallop along the valley, not leading them into the battle ground, as expected. Custer had other scouts — they would assume his death, which was in any case inevitable. He had one last trial — one last part to play.
He let his finger stray to his belt and the tiny silver horseshoe pendant he wore there. It was the only ornamentation he allowed himself. He would not dress as a Sioux — there was too much hatred, too much pain. He would never truly be Ree, despite his mother’s admonitions that me must stay with her, and with that tribe. Neither was he white. Nevertheless, he knew the power of talismans, and in the work to come, he’d invested greatly in the power of this one — one truly believed in by those he would stand against.
He was of the spirit. Symbols meant little to him, except in the powers they could contain. This horseshoe was the mirror of that worn around the neck of Custer’s subordinate, Major Reno. It would form the link — it would be his bridge. Custer would never believe in anything but himself, and in that power he believed all too much. Reno was different. He had seen defeat, had stared death in the eyes and lived with the haunting echo of that image for years. The spirits knew him by sight.
There were no trumpets to fill the air this day, despite Custer’s bravado. It was a bold plan, large and far-sighted in implication and implementation. He knew the odds, even as he disclaimed that there was any possibility of defeat. He believed that he had the answers, and that belief was a strong weapon, in and of itself.
He believed in Bloody Knife, as well. That was the fatal flaw. Every great plan has its weakness, every leader his Achilles heel. Bloody Knife had led him through the fabled holy black hills of the Sioux nation untouched. He had been there, breathing secrets and twisting dreams, since that day outside “The Smoking Gun.”
The Sioux hated Bloody Knife. Custer had no idea how deeply that hatred might run, but he felt it. His mind did not allow for the chance that the hatred was not reciprocated. The world was a steady procession of straight lines and set angles for the general. A man hated, a man loved, there was no middle ground, no gray area.
It was not Custer that Bloody Knife fought. It was not the Sioux. It was what each stood for in this senseless war. Change. Desecration of the land. Ignorance of the spirit of the land that provided all they needed, and ignorance of the mutual respect that could preserve this. Custer would not stop at the Sioux. He would not be happy until he had proven himself superior in intellect and battle to every “heathen savage” in the west.
The Sioux would not bend, but they might break. There was pride in them running deeper than sanity, in many cases, honor that shamed the whites they fought at every turn, but to no avail. They did not listen to the old ones any longer, though they venerated them. They did not seek to raid, or to count coup on their enemies, then to return to home and hearth for bragging rights. They sought destruction, annihilation. They were no different in this than the whites, and that was what Bloody Knife hated.
He slipped into a small copse of trees, and he pulled his mount to a halt, sliding off and kneeling quickly. There was not much time to work. He drew a small circle in the dirt, seating himself in it and pulling free the bag he wore at his side. From this he drew several herbs, which he sprinkled onto a pile of leaves and small twigs. After lighting them with flint and stone, he took free the small silver horseshoe from his belt and held it before him, closing his eyes and waiting for the sweet smoke to waft up and about him.
He could feel them gathering, the spirits of those who had gone before, the animals who had led him to an understanding of the land, wise men and warriors, mothers, daughters, and behind them all the whispered breath of the mother herself, the ultimate dream calling to his soul.
He concentrated, breathing deeply, pulling his essence within and redirecting it. His focus was the glinting silver horseshoe, the memory of golden hair and glistening steel, the whooping, rage-filled cries of the warriors as they mounted.
He had come to Sitting Bull in his dreams. While wrapped in the warm embrace of his three current wives, the Chief had seen victory. He had ridden as a demon through the lines of his enemy, counting their dead like the flies on a buffalo carcass and screaming his name to the skies. Victory and battle were the only visions the Sioux would respect in those days of horror and hatred, and Bloody Knife had provided them. The Sioux would ride.
Custer had been different. Bloody Knife had never feigned good will toward his employer, often being openly disrespectful. It was a ploy to gain respect, one that had worked. His prophecies had helped Custer on innumerable occasions, but never had they been offered directly. Always, he had made comments from the side, suggestions to the wind that were overheard and implemented. The battle to come was based on such comments.
“I had a dream,” he’d told another scout, aware that Custer listened nearby. “In my dream, there was a hill — a hill I know. It was the Little Bighorn, you know this place?” The guide had nodded solemnly. “I saw that hill run red, and from it, many spirits rose. They wore the colors and paint of the Sioux, and above them, burning bright, was a star — the star of the Morning…”
There had been more, and he had seen the effect of his words in the other’s eyes. Custer never said a word, but it was that very evening that he gathered his subordinates and planned to take off, with his own regiment, to the hill of the Little Bighorn. He outlined his plan carefully, and his eyes were nearly fevered with thoughts of victory and glory.
The smoke carried Bloody Knife up through the trees, up to where the fields beyond were visible, up to where the touch of the sun was a caress on his soul. He could see the hill in the distance, and he could hear the sounds from where the main force of the troops, led by Major Reno, were engaged, held in position, by huge numbers of the Sioux.
He could sense those forces pulling back, and he knew it was about to come, the battle was on. Custer would soon mount the hill, and Reno would begin to close in from the flank with his cavalry. It might be enough to turn the tide. It might change the vision. It could not be so.
The image of the horseshoe grew until it was a giant, panoramic view that super-imposed itself on the sky. He looked within the silver, looked beyond it, and he saw Reno, saw the man give the order to move and saw the lines begin to form behind him.
The spirits answered Bloody Knife’s call. They slid from tree to tree around the Major and his forces, rising from the earth, dropping from the trees. Always they were just out of sight, but they caught at the peripheral of each soldier’s vision, snatched at the sensitive ears and eyes of their mounts, grabbed at the strings that bound their hearts to their courage and plucked, bringing a trembling to the very air itself. Danger. Death.
Reno’s eyes were taking on a far-away, empty glaze. He saw the land before him, and yet he saw a different place. He saw his men, but they were not the men of that moment, but the men of another place, another time. Ahead his men saw the Unkpapa village and the line of Sioux warriors descending on them. Reno saw a road. Ahead was the fleeing form of a single man, “The Grey Ghost,” John Singleton Mosby, and he felt himself drawn into the vortex of that moment, reliving the madness.
He’d confronted the fugitive in a small town, chased him out onto the road, and victory was at hand. Then the bullets had begun to fly, from the trees, the bushes, raining down upon the road like hail. All around him his men were dropping, dying, screaming, and ahead the “Grey Ghost” laughed, flying into the face of time, dragging him through the blood and bodies of the fallen.
This wavered in and out of his vision along with the village, the advancing braves, his men. There were other Indians there as well, rising from the ground to stare at him in hatred, to stare through him, then to disappear. He raised his hand, screamed for a halt, for a dismount. He could feel the charge of the enemy as they approached, and yet he halted.
Skirmish lines were quickly formed as his men, staring stupidly at him as if he were a mad man, did as he ordered. They set themselves in a defensive posture, and they waited, leaving the plan, the General, and history to sort it out.
Reno leaped from his own horse, running madly about the lines, giving orders, some that made sense, others that were gibberish. He lost his helmet in the madness and picked up a stray straw hat, wrapping a cloth about his head as though to emulate the very savages they fought. Foam flew from his lips, and still he stumbled about. They could not die. He would not let them. His men would not die at his hand again.
Bloody Knife called to him, then, seeing that they would not advance, and he stopped still, listening to the air. Without further thought, he spun and ran to his horse, leaping back to the saddle.
“If you would save yourselves,” he cried, raising his arms high above his head as his horse pranced nervously, “follow me.”
The major turned and fled, and his men, one after another, slowly at first, then in force, followed. They were in a confusion, and the Sioux warriors falling upon them like an avenging tide took full advantage. They dragged the soldiers from their mounts, impaled them one after another in the constant barrage of arrows that blurred the air with shafts and feathers, death and screaming pain.
There was no chance. There was no hope, and with that black tide at his heels, the major fled to the trees, where Bloody Knife awaited him. The scout had risen. About his neck, he’d tied a starred bandanna that Custer himself had given him. He’d donned the bear-claw and clam-shell necklace of the Sioux shaman, carried at his side all these years, carried with secret pride and open pain. He stood alone in a clearing, sending his mind out to Reno and calling him forth.
The spirits whispered of the blood. The Little Bighorn ran red, and the blood was not of the Sioux. Men died, screaming and tortured, Indian children played with the wounded, stabbing and cutting, cat-calling and hounding. To a man they would die, their blood returning to replenish the land. The battle would make no difference in the end, but for that moment, that glorious moment, the last that Bloody Knife would know on earth, there would be a cleansing. There would be a return to what was animal in man, what was natural in nature.
As he stood, Reno roared into the clearing, eyes crazed and spittle flying from his lips. Seeing Bloody Knife and recognizing him, somehow, he leaped from his saddle and ran forward, dropping the reins of his mount and nearly stumbling to his knees.
“What has happened?” he cried. “Why are you not with the General? The attack, it is over — lost. We cannot break through. Why . . .”
There were a million questions swirling in the madness of the man’s eyes. Bloody Knife would have liked the time to explain himself, to teach what he had been taught, to pass on this legacy of responsibility, but it was not possible. It was time.
Even as the echo of the gunshot rang through the forest, he felt the hand of the mother’s spirit reaching out to draw him home. He saw the earth swirling away beneath him, felt the release as he broke free — broke into the realm of those he’d shared with so often, felt their embrace as they accepted him into the one whole, the spirit of the earth mother, Gaia, the purity of essence without form.
Major Reno staggered into the trees and somehow found his mount. He’d seen the eyes behind that gun — Sioux. They had followed him, even here, and they had shot Bloody Knife before he could answer. The major reached up slowly, running a gloved hand across his face. The Indian guide’s blood had spattered his features, his uniform, imbedded itself in his hair.
One moment the man had stood before him, the next his head had just exploded. Nothing. Where there had been eyes, eyes awash in wisdom and answers lost, there was a mist of red and pain. No screams. No staggering, bloody corpse. The body had dropped, headless, and Reno had run. Again.
In the distance he could still hear guns, screams. A momentary vision blotted the sight of the forest and he saw a hill, running deepest red, overrun with feathered hair and screaming, savage faces. There were no blue-shirted warriors on that hill, no cries of victory or glory. Only the red.
Mounting up, he headed back out of the trees and back toward safety at a full gallop, already planning his explanations. There would be no mention of ghosts, there would be no mention of Bloody Knife or visions of blood-soaked hills. There would be no glory. He had made history — history and glory are not synonymous. His head hung low, he rode to destiny.
Category Archives: Writing
I’ve posted this before, but my novel DEEP BLUE will be on sale at all outlets for .99 from now until at least the 5th of October. This is the book (don’t take my word for it, read the reviews) that was compared to King and Koontz… the big book that should have been my breakout (and still could be with your help) that came out from a small publisher… didn’t do well despite wonderful trade reviews… and still needs a wider audience.
The novel Deep Blue finds its origin in the novelette by the same name published in an anthology titled Strange Attraction. In Strange Attraction, all the stories were inspired by the “Kinetic” Art of Lisa Snelling, each author choosing one of the characters on an intricately detailed Ferris wheel sculpture. I was honored to be among authors such as Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe in presenting our separate visions of what lay buried behind her art. From the images presented, I chose a harlequin, hanging by a noose from the bottom of one of the Ferris wheels seats. I took the image, made it the wallpaper on my computer, printed it out and carried it around with me, and let it sink in. I could have written any number of stories that would have sufficed, but somehow I knew there would be more to this work, and so I waited.
The publishers of the anthology, Vince and Leslie Harper, invited me to have dinner with them one night when my mundane job took me to Washington DC. We met for Mexican food and went together to see the movie PI which, at the time, was newly released. On the way to meet the Harpers, I walked down into a shadowed subway, and I was assaulted by some of the most haunting saxophone music I’ve ever heard. It bordered the blues, walked down old jazz roads, and I never saw the musician. That set the mood for what was to come.
I reached the restaurant without further incident, and we spent a pleasant hour scalding mouths and stomachs with jalapenos and washing them down with beer. Then came the movie. I won’t go into detail about PI, but I’ll say it’s a black and white film, very surreal, filled with symbolism, and it left me visually and emotionally stunned. I parted company with Vince and his wife, found my way back to the subway and my hotel, and called it a night.
The next day, a friend of mine and I set out to visit The Holocaust Museum. I have always wanted to see it, but I was not prepared for the intensity of the images, the displays, and the words I would find in that short hour visit. I purchased a book of poetry written by the victims, and left with so much bottled up inside from those two days that I thought it would be the end of my sanity.
That night, I started to write. I started to write about The Blues, and how deep they might really get. I wrote about pain, not my pain, but the pain bottled up inside the world, as the pain had been bottled up inside me, and I wrote a way out. That was Brandt, his guitar, and his blues. The story, like the pain, refused to be bottled up in just the few lines of that novelette, and so I released it into the novel you now hold.
Everyone comes to their crossroads eventually – the defining moment of life. As Old Wally, one of the novel’s main characters tells us – “Crossroads, or the crosshairs.” Forward or back, but you can’t stay stagnant – that way lies madness. I give you . . . Deep Blue.