Sunday, August 3, 2014

A golden age for writers, so why all the literary disdain?

Writers are a funny lot.

Most of you who know me know I've been writing in one form or another virtually my entire life. As a second grader I tried to write a story following the adventures of Billy the Fish, who was accidentally dropped from an aquarium into a creek and eventually made his way through rivers all the way to the ocean, and I've been putting together stories – fiction and otherwise – on paper and on computer screens ever since.

As I grew into early adulthood, and had fallen head-over-heels in love with creepy and dark fiction, I got it in my head I might one day turn into the next Stephen King. Of course, I was clueless as to how much work, talent, raw drive, work, determination, discipline, did I mention hard work, and yes even some luck, was needed to get anything into publication, much less reach the lofty perch shared by King and others of his stature.

Unlike others I've known over the years who have pursued their writing goals while holding day jobs in construction, teaching, retail, customer service, the law, or any number of other employment fields, I've written for a living. I've spent most of my adult life in the newspaper field, reporting, editing, managing. For a couple of years I left newspapering but kept writing nonfiction, penning articles for business magazines, education publications, and a few other specialty markets.

Along the way I have quit writing fiction, given it up for good, swearing never to go back. I've done that numerous times, sometimes out of frustration with the impossibly slow pace of magazines who purported to be professional but might take months to get back to you on a submission (if they ever did). Other times I felt I was wasting time, that even with publication the pay was pathetically low – the most I ever made from a piece of fiction someone else published was a couple of $150 pieces. Sometimes I had to quit because there simply wasn't enough of me to go around – as the sole bread winner in the house, with a big family (5 kids), my first priority was keeping us housed, clothed and fed, even if that meant working two jobs while freelancing for non-fiction publications on the side (kinda like holding a third job).

Still, I'd always come back, drawn to writing.

I've hooked up with a few writer groups over the years, and I've had the great fortune to be around those who were serious about the craft, who pursued writing doggedly, as if their lives depended on it. Some of those folks are now editors and publishers, mostly with small or specialty presses, others have gone on to see some success as writers, one or two who even now support themselves fully with significant contracts writing novels for one of the Big Five publishing houses.

There were days many of us would commiserate together, bemoaning the state of writing – particularly in the horror field – where it seemed unless you were related to a magazine owner or book publishing official, seeing your own work in publication was as likely as a trip to the moon. A number experienced what appeared to be near-misses, when an agent or Big Five publisher would show interest, string you along, then back away. I had my own experience along these lines a few years back when a couple of agents showed quite a bit of interest in a series of middle-grade books. Alas, it came to naught.

So it's puzzling to me to see some of those very same people, or others like them, be so openly critical of writers now making decent to good money through their own publishing efforts, assailing those indie writers as if they were some sort of affront to Western civilization.

Most of you probably have a Kindle or some similar e-reading device. Amazon is the big kahuna in this field, and definitely the pace setter, introducing technology that allows writers to easily upload and publish their works in e-format, and making it just as easy for readers to access that work, giving readers novels and other works at a fraction of the cost the Big Five boys charge while allowing writers to make significantly more on each purchase than one of the old Big Five publishers would have paid.

In the old days, most novelists with contracts through one of the Big Five publishers (then Big Six) were lucky if they made $5,000 in a year. More often than not the quality of a given submission to an agent or publisher had little to do with whether it saw publication. The marketing folks weighed in on whether a piece was easily marketable according to their guidelines. That was the chief, overriding concern for the so-called gatekeepers of the literary world.

In this new e-reader world a bit of democracy enters the equation. Anyone can write a novel and sell it through Amazon.

I know quite a few who have been doing this for a few years now, some making a few hundred dollars a month, some a few thousand, and I know a handful who are making six-figure annual incomes from their writing. I happen to know one fella who's annual income has inched higher than that.

Here's the part I don't get. Some of my old writer friends, and a few other writers I've come across, seem to really have a problem with those making a good living at independent writing/publishing. They spend their time pooh-poohing that success, saying these people aren't "real writers" (whatever the heck that means). When confronted with the success stories of those who are making good money at their craft, the response is often accusing those indie writers of somehow exploiting the system, discovering a publishing formula that generates money, but isn't real writing.

Sorry folks, but the writers I know making a nice living at this are exploiting one simple formula: They work damn hard (if you'll pardon my French). While some old-school legacy writers sit around, gazing at their navals, wasting time telling everyone how excruciating it is to produce a thousand words a day in a couple of hours of anguished writing, these folks spend their time working – sitting in front of a computer four, eight, even twelve hours a day, producing reams of copy. I know one individual who produces a novel every five to six weeks because he parks his butt in the chair and writes for hours upon hours upon hours every week.

And that, my friends, is the key. Hard work, long-term commitment (it doesn’t happen overnight), combined with a bit of marketing savvy (which is NOT rocket science, anyone can learn and do a little marketing), and a commitment to professionalism in your work. Yes, luck plays into it, and can be the difference between someone pulling down a six-figure income vs. making ten or twelve thousand as a nice little supplemental income.

Yet there are some in the writing field who simply won't accept that, who refuse to believe indie writers are "real writers," and who take every opportunity to bash those in the indie field.

I don't understand it. As I said, writers can be a funny lot. And sometimes a bit petty.

For me, I'd love to get a big-money offer from one of the Big Five publishers. I'd love to walk into a book store and see my work on the shelves there. I don't harbor any ill will toward those who have achieved that. But, I have to say I'm just fine doing indie thing.

My question to other writers is, why aren't you?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

More change -- the kids are coming home!

Since I restarted this blog talking about all the changes that had occurred in my life over the past 18 months, I'll continue that with a new one. My oldest daughter, the one who married and moved away last September, is coming back home!

Well, sort of.

They had to move out of state because her husband, who I'll call Andrew for the purposes of this blog, still had one semester of college to finish. My daughter, who I'll call Erica, has two years of school left, but she put that on hold so he could finish up and then, hopefully, get a job teaching. She had already been accepted at a university about 45 minutes down the road from here (after doing community college for her first two years of college), so they were fairly limited in where they could go.

The teaching thing hasn't worked out yet for Andrew, but yesterday he was offered a position with a media company in the same city where she will be going to college! Better yet, that puts them 45 minutes from us to the west, and 45 minutes from the rest of my family (mom, sisters and their families) to the east. She and Andrew will be smack-dab in the middle of us all!

Good for all of us – though she and Andrew might get tired of us after a while, I don't know.

The challenge of it all is the timeframe. He starts his new job in twelve days. That's right, less than two weeks. They have no apartment, they live three-and-a-half hours' drive away, and they both work, so it's not as if the two of them have nothing but free time between now and then. There's also the issue of furniture, but we'll figure that one out as we go.

Just as soon as I tell you all I'm back, ready to start publishing a few pieces under my own name again, I find I'm going to be a busy little bee over the next few weeks, doing a lot of traveling down there and back, helping them get set up, helping them move – all built around my day job.

It's a good challenge to have, though, and I can't tell you how ecstatic I am they will be moving this close.


And, since I wasn't blogging last year when the two of them were married, and I am talking about them now, I'm going to share a couple of wedding photos. The first is my wife and I escorting the lovely bride toward the ceremony and her waiting husband-to-be. The second pic is my mom with the two of them, and the third one is the happy couple. And yes, the dude is that tall – he's 6'7" (but he still can't take me on the basketball court. Just don't tell him I said that.)



Until next time (I'll post again this weekend), happy trails!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Back in the old ball game...

Hello.

I wasn't sure what to say in the rebirth of my little blog, John's Dark Scribblings, so I thought I'd just say hello.

After all, what does one start a conversation after a nearly 14-month absence?

So, hello, and welcome back.

I have been away from this little corner of the world for quite some time I suppose, and I should explain.

A lot happened in my life last year. I suppose that's always the case for a lot of people, but in my case there were some big, major life changes.

Tragically, my father passed away in February of 2013. I come from a strong family where we've been taught to just keep moving forward, keep working, never let all the bad stuff drag you too far down. So that's what I did, that's what all my family did in the aftermath of our loss – we just kept moving forward.

Between that loss in the late winter and the fall of 2013, there were more changes for our family, more joyous ones to be sure, but change none-the-less. My second oldest daughter went out into the world, going to the University of Virginia, in late August. A couple of weeks later my oldest daughter married a fine young man we've known for years and moved out of state.

Like I said, some major changes.

In the midst of it all I kind of lost my way in my writing, aided by a confusing, on-again, off-again policy by my employer that prohibited any employees from doing any writing or editing outside the company. Even fiction. Except when it didn't. Like I said, terribly confusing.

I never stopped writing – I still write and edit at work on the job as a newspaper editor (though just between you, me and the virtual fence post, my job has become more about compiling and writing reports, meetings, and paperwork than it has been about actual honest-to-goodness journalism -- you know, writing and editing work that is germane to your community). And I didn't call it quits entirely with the fiction work – I do some, let's say specialized type of writing under a pseudonym (and no, I'm not tell you anything else about it, at least not for now).

But the work that moved me – the horror that I once wrote, the mystery and historical novels I outlined - just kind of drifted away from me. Or maybe I drifted away from them. I arrived at a point where I couldn't just put my head down and keep working. I still had to do my day job, because I have a family that depends on me for income and a staff that depends on my to lead it and a company that's paying me to do that job. Beyond that I just wasn't sure what I wanted in my writing, or my life for that matter. So I stopped blogging about my work, even took this blog down from public view for quite a while.

Now I'm back, and I'll be returning to some of my writing roots over the coming months and years. I won't be terribly prolific – I have a burgeoning pseudonym career to keep going (well, okay, a pseudonym CAREER may be overstating it, but it's something I'll keep up for a while). I also still have the full-time job to keep working at, and I need to spend at least a little time with the family.

But I will be publishing a few horror and mystery tales here over the coming months – short stories, a novella or two, I'll be releasing a novel in August and another one in November. Beyond that? We'll just see how it goes.

For now I'll just say hello, and glad you're back with me.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Excerpt 8 -- A town with a dark secret

Today is an excerpt from one of my favorite stories, The Dark Secret of Warren House. This story was originally published in Dark Recesses in 2007. I also released it as a single on Amazon last autumn, and it briefly made it as high as #2 on the promotional list for horror. Now, it's part of my collection, THE ALCHEMIST & OTHER DARK TALES -- and that entire collection is on sale now for just 99 cents.

And now, from The Dark Secret of Warren House.

*****

“This doesn’t feel right,” Marcia said.

“Oh, come on Marcia. It must be some sort of initiation. Let’s play along.”

She didn’t move, so Kevin squeezed by and continued, pulling Marcia along.

The air grew cooler and damp. Somewhere ahead water dripped.

“Kevin, let’s go back.”

“No, look,” he said. Marcia peered around him. The light was brighter, much brighter. “Come on, that’s where everyone must be.”

Kevin walked faster. Marcia struggled to keep up. They reached the end of the corridor. Kevin entered a massive round room, its walls arching into a doom-shaped ceiling. The room seemed as big as the entire first floor of the house. Marcia stepped in behind him, then gasped.

Along the wall, ringing the entire room, were a series of alcoves, a torch mounted above each.

“Damn,” he whispered.

Marcia tried to pull him from the room, but Kevin held firm, then moved to the first alcove. Inside was what appeared to have been a body, sunken in on itself, as if the insides had dried up. Its hair was shoulder length, held in place by a rotting headband. A thick mustache hid most of its mouth.

“This is one of the guys I saw upstairs, dressed like a sixties reject. I thought it was a costume.”

Marcia stepped beside him. “I saw him, too,” she said, voice trembling. “Come on Kevin, we have to get out of here.”

The man’s skin, what was visible, was laced with cracks, the body enveloped by gray tentacle-like growths protruding from the alcove’s walls. Some of the growths wrapped around the body, holding it in place. Other clear tentacles had grown right through the skin. Kevin leaned into the alcove. A dark, thick fluid moved, slowly, through the clear tentacles, from the body toward the walls.

Kevin stepped back, grasped Marcia’s hand. She shivered. They moved to the next alcove. Another body, this one in worse shape. Kevin recognized a tattered frock coat. A top hat rested in the alcove, next to the man. This body was nearly flat, its skin as dry as the parchment on which Kevin’s Yuletide invitation had been written.

In the next alcove he recognized the long coat of the Revolutionary War era man, though no color remained. The body was papery thin, the tentacles brown and dry. Kevin reached into the alcove, touched the body. It crumbled.

“Dear god,” Marcia cried.

Kevin looked at her. She was pointing to the next alcove.

There, Kevin saw, sat Lucy Adams. Her face was drawn and pale, eyes staring vacantly. Blood dripped from a dozen different entry wounds where tentacles invaded her body. Kevin reached into the alcove, fingers brushing Lucy’s face, when a tentacle stabbed from the shadows, slicing into his forearm.

Kevin yanked his hand away. The tentacle stretched and then snapped, a sliver still in his arm.

“Get it out,” he screamed, clawing at this skin. “My knife,” he gasped.

“What?” Marcia asked.

“Knife … in my right pocket,” he said through clenched teeth. He continued scratching, peeling the skin away from the wound. Marcia slipped her hand in his pocket, withdrew a small pocketknife, then opened it.

“Now what?”

“Cut it out!” he screamed.

“Wha… I can’t do that.”

Kevin grabbed the knife and sliced around the wound. The tentacle was longer now, growing from his arm. Kevin slashed deep into the skin, cutting under the tentacle, like a surgeon removing a tumor. A chunk of flesh, tentacle imbedded in it, fell to the floor.

Kevin stumbled away, the room spinning, gray clouding his vision. He fell to one knee. Marcia knelt next to him, eased him to lying position. Blood trickled from his arm, pooling on the cold stone beneath him.

“We gotta get out of here,” Kevin said. “Help me up.”

Marcia helped him to his feet. Kevin stumbled, dizzy. He looked down, his senses snapping awake when he did. Two tentacles sprouted from the floor where his blood pooled.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Marcia draped Kevin’s uninjured arm over her shoulders to lend support. They staggered from the room, made their way down the long hallway. Each time they stepped in the flickering light of another torch Kevin glanced down, watched blood drip from his arm. Tiny tentacles sprouted from the stone where each drop splashed.

They reached the steps.

“Go,” Kevin said, pulling his arm down, pushing Marcia ahead.

“You need help.”

“Stairway’s too narrow.” Marcia started to protest. He pushed her. “Go. I’m right behind you.”
*****
To read the rest of The Dark Secret of Warren House, and the entire collection THE ALCHEMIST & OTHER DARK TALES, click here for Kindle or here for Nook.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Excerpt 7 -- This hearse is looking for a body...

An excerpt from The Hearse...

Rylan was fantasizing about sleep when he glanced in his rearview mirror. His gaze locked on what he saw there. Two headlights, roughly fifty yards away, he guessed. Behind the headlights was the outline of a hearse. From this distance, in the dead of the night, Rylan knew he shouldn’t be able to make out anything behind the headlights. But the hearse was clearly visible. It was black. All hearses are black. An odd bluish glow enveloped the vehicle, bringing out details that should not have been visible.

At the sight of the hearse Trish’s first words, what she told when he arrived at her house, came flooding back. She said she was convinced someone killed Randy, even though he was found lying in the kitchen floor, felled by a heart attack in the middle of the night. Trish said she thought someone had been stalking Randy – that for two days before he died Randy said he kept seeing a hearse following him around town.

She said Randy only glimpsed it at first – catching a reflection in the mirror, then it would be gone. Later that day every time he went out he saw it, following him, or parked in the same garage. He had told her the same thing happened the day he died.

Trish said Randy was convinced he was going to die, that the hearse was some sort of harbinger. She thought it was something more easily explained, though just as sinister – a stalker. She didn’t know why, or have any idea by whom, but to her that explanation made more sense than her thirty-seven-year-old husband dropping dead in the kitchen floor.

She had shared this with the police, but they treated her like a hysterical wife, too distraught over her husband’s death to think clearly. Rylan didn’t respond to her suspicions. Truth was, he thought the same as the police. The medical examiner had pronounced the cause of death most likely a heart attack, with no reason to investigate further. Case closed. Now Rylan wished he had paid more attention to her, asked her more about the hearse, about what happened leading up to Randy’s death.

Rylan glared nervously at the mirror, the sleep that had been dancing at the edges of his mind now gone. Rylan glanced at the speedometer – sixty-five. He nudged the cruise control a bit until the speedometer read seventy, then looked back at the mirror.

The hearse matched his speed, staying the same distance behind.

He tapped the cruise control button twice more, pushing the speed to seventy-five. He kept his eyes on the road ahead, too scared to look in the mirror. Finally, after several minutes he did glance at the mirror. The hearse was still there, keeping pace.

Rylan mashed the accelerator. The speedometer shot up, past eighty, past ninety. Rylan knew there was a good chance he would trip some state trooper’s radar, end up with a ticket, feeling silly that he had let a simple hearse spook him. He didn’t care.
Feeling silly explaining all this to a cop would be a relief. The speedometer passed ninety-five, inched close to one hundred.

Rylan kept his eyes on the road ahead of him, as nervous about driving at this speed as he was about the hearse tailing him. He glanced at the dashboard clock – one forty-five. He kept driving, his focus on the road ahead, not wanting to look in the mirror until he’d left the hearse behind. He drove and glanced at the clock, repeating the process as the clock ticked off one minute, then two, three, four, five. Another minute later Rylan could stand it no longer. He looked in the mirror.

Still roughly fifty yards behind the hearse followed.

“Damn,” Rylan whispered.

He lifted his foot from the accelerator and gently pressed the brake. The speedometer dropped – eighty, seventy, sixty, fifty.

Rylan looked in the mirror. The hearse slowed, keeping the same distance between them.
*****
For just 99 cents you can read the rest of The Hearse, as well as all the stories in my collection THE ALCHEMIST & OTHER DARK TALES (sale ends, soon, though!). Download here for your Kindle, or here for your Nook.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Day 6 of 10 Days of Excerpts -- Youth in a Bottle

Okay, I know I said something last week about 10 excerpts in 10 days, but you and I both know I meant 10 excerpts in 12 days, right? I mean, that is what I meant to say...really...

And today's excerpt is from my short story, Youth in a Bottle, which for those of us with a few years on us is an intriguing idea. It was for the main character of this story, aging burned-out rock star Grace Smith, until she found out what it was the bottle contained.

You can still get Youth in a Bottle (the story, not the youth), and the rest of my collection THE ALCHEMIST & OTHER DARK TALES, for just 99 cents, for download to your Kindle here or for download to your Nook here.

And now, for today's excerpt:

*****

...Tonight none of that mattered. Grace felt more alive, more like a singer, more like a rock star than she had in nearly a decade. The announcer quieted the crowd, called her name and Grace sprinted onto the stage.

She dove in to her opening set, deep voice bellowing the lyrics at a fevered pitch. Diehard Grace Smith fans made up the audience. They had come despite the vitriolic reviews of recent shows, and soon were screaming for more, their fists pumping in time with the music. After ninety minutes, the appointed time for the concert to end, Grace was nowhere near finished. She turned to her band.

“All right boys, that's enough of a warm-up, now let's rock the house,” she called into the mic. The band members glanced at one another, surprise on their faces. So far the daily script for the tour had been play hard for ninety minutes, sometimes less, then get off the stage and the rest of the night belonged to them.

“I said, let’s ROCK THE HOUSE,” Grace screamed. The audience joined in, their cries for more echoing off the walls, the roof. The band members kicked in on their respective instruments. For another ninety minutes they played, the audience cheered, and Grace was in heaven. She forgot about being old, about being tired, about the small but now-rabid audience. For those ninety minutes it was just her and the music, melding together. Finally Grace’s agent, who doubled as her road manager, got her attention from the wings. He was pointing at his watch – if the band and crew didn’t clear the building by midnight he’d have to cough up another day’s rent.

She sang two more songs, then exited the stage.

“Damn, that felt incredible,” she screamed as her bandmates followed into the wings. Grace hugged each one of them – another surprise, since she had barely acknowledged their existence during the tour. “Great show guys.” She jogged to her dressing room, shut the door behind her and leaned against the wall, eyes closed, listening to cheers filtering from the concert hall.

“Quite a show.”

Her eyes snapped open.

“How did you ... you weren’t here a second ago,” she said.

“I was, I chose not to be seen. I must compliment you, Ms. Smith, on a stirring performance.” He bowed slightly. “I see you tried the elixir.”

“Yeah, I tried it, so what?” She walked across the room, brushing roughly against the man.

“Come, come, Ms. Smith, I would think you’d be ecstatic with the results.”

“Results? I drank it, nothing happened. I suppose you’ll get a good laugh out of that, making me believe I could find youth again in that damn little bottle.”

“That’s exactly what you found, Ms. Smith. Youth. At least a few hours of that most precious commodity.”

“Like hell. That stuff is about as worthless as—”

“You sang tonight like you were thirty. You even look younger."

Despite her cynicism Grace twirled to the mirror. She leaned close. Sweat glistened on her skin, but even through the perspiration she could see the lines on her face where a tad shallower, the circles under her eyes a bit faded. She faced the stranger.

“What did you give me?”

“Oh, I’m not sure you really want to know just yet. Later, once you begin to truly understand what it means to grow young.”

“What did you give me?”

The man smiled, but remained silent.

Grace maintained a hard stare. As a young rock singer she had been naturally defiant whenever a manger or bar owner tried to bully her. She felt the same emotion tonight, another feeling she had not known in years.

“I said tell me.”

More silence.

“I got all night,” Grace said.

“As you wish. The vial was filled with blood. Human blood.”

The defiance left her body like helium escaping a popped balloon. Grace grabbed her belly, turned to the dressing table and leaned against it for support. Her stomach heaved. Vomit filled her mouth before spilling onto the tabletop. ...

*****
Read the rest of Youth in a Bottle (the story, not the youth), and my collection THE ALCHEMIST & OTHER DARK TALES, for just 99 cents, for download to your Kindle here or for download to your Nook here.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Vampires come in all shapes and sizes...

Day five of my Ten Excerpts in Ten Days brings us to my story, Interview With The Barber. A mainstay of the dark fantasy and horror tales through the centuries has been the legend of the vampire -- immortals who feed on human blood to maintain their own lives.

We've seen evil vampires, funny vampires, even sparkly vampires, but I daresay you've not seen one like Robert Presley. And you can read the full tale Interview With The Barber in my collection THE ALCHEMIST & OTHER DARK TALES, on sale now for just 99 cents.

And now, from Interview With The Barber...
*****

I decided the only way to figure out what was going on was to do a little spying. I drove by the shop Friday night long after Presley had closed and gone home. I checked around the building in the dark with my cheap key chain flashlight and found two small windows in the back, completely hidden by two overgrown bushes.

The next night – Presley keeps his shop open late on Saturdays – I parked at an abandoned grocery store a mile down the road and walked to his shop as dusk fell. It was dark by the time I reached his place, so I snuck between a few cars parked in the lot then slipped around the building. I ducked in between the bushes and peered through the windows.

For the next hour I watched Presley cutting away, a seemingly permanent half-smile on his face, his mouth moving with his idle barbershop conversation. I couldn't hear him, but I was sure he was telling more of his jokes and stories, relating the town gossip some of his customers from earlier in the day had told him.

Another half-hour passed and there were just two people left with Presley – an old gruff of a man with a bushy gray beard, dressed in dirty overalls, was climbing into the barber's chair and a younger man, probably my age, was sitting in the waiting section flipping through a magazine.

The old guy sat in the chair, Presley decked him out in the barber's apron and started cutting away at his hair, his mouth moving in what was no doubt a monotonous litany of meaningless chit-chat. I prepared to leave, disgusted with myself for having wasted the evening. Then it happened.

Presley stepped away from the old guy, put his clippers and comb on the shelf and then stepped back to the chair. The old man never moved. The young guy sat still, the magazine slipping from his hands to the floor. He made no move to retrieve it.

Presley stood with his arms by his sides. His mouth twitched, his whole face convulsed. His mouth stretched wider than humanly possible, his lower lip peeled back, and two giant insect-like mandibles protruded through his gums, growing upward over his top lip, giving his lower face a bug-like appearance.

Presley leaned over the old man, moved the beard aside and slid the two mandibles through the man's skin, into his neck. I lost track of time, watching as Presley drank the man’s blood. He stood, pulled a tissue from his pocket, dabbed a little blood from the man's neck and let the man's beard fall back into place. He stepped toward the young man in the waiting chair. I wanted to scream, to smash through the windows and warn the man, but I watched. Somehow, I had the presence of mind to glance at my watch this time, just as Presley began draining the blood from his second victim. When he finished I looked at the watch again – it seemed as if he had been there long enough to drain the man dry, but he had been drinking the victim's blood for less than ten minutes.

Presley again pulled the tissue from his pocket, dabbed at the man's neck, then bent over, picked up the magazine and placed it in the man's hands. Presley walked back to his shelf, picked up his hair-cutting utensils and turned back to the room. When he did his face had returned to normal – the round, full, flushed face of a man who had just fed. He walked to the bearded man, began snipping at his hair, his mouth moving again, no doubt with more gossip. A minute later the bearded man was talking, the young man flipping the magazine pages.

I sat on the cool, barren patch of dirt under the bush, not sure what to do.

What could I do? No one would believe me if I tried to tell what I'd seen. I had to confront Presley. Tell him I knew what he was. I would do it Monday.

I slept little that night and the next. I was nervous about confronting him, afraid to fall asleep, some little fear deep inside me said he already knew what I had seen, that he'd burst through the door to my apartment any moment. He never did, but by Monday I was exhausted from thinking, and worrying, about it all weekend. It took all the concentration I could muster to get through the day.

After work I drove to Presley's barbershop. Standing outside the door I checked through my coat pockets for what must have been the fiftieth time to make sure I had everything. I took a deep breath, opened the door and stepped in. He was sitting in his own barber’s chair, alone, looking as if he expected my visit.

“Back so soon? I must not be cuttin’ your hair short enough.” He chuckled as he spoke, a laugh that once seemed a simple country chortle. Now my skin crawled at the sound.

“I’m not here for a haircut,” I said, my mouth dry, my voice quivering.

Presley stood, stepped to the side of the chair and patted the brown vinyl cover.

“Climb on up and–”

“No!” I screamed, cutting him off in mid-sentence.

He grew quiet. I paused, not sure what to do next. Presley stepped back in front of his chair, slowly sat down and smiled broadly.

“Well, then, what can I do for you?” he asked.

I waited, still not sure what to say. I jerked my hand from my coat pocket, a small crucifix held clenched in my fist.

“I know what you are,” I said, my voice little more than a whisper. I stretched my arm in front of me and stepped toward Presley. “I know what you are,” I repeated, my voice stronger.

The smile faded from Presley’s face. He stared at me, a blank stare like that of a corpse with its eyes still open. The shop grew quieter. Even the traffic from the highway outside faded, the only sound that of my breathing.

Presley burst out laughing. Not the country-boy chuckle I’d come to know over the past several weeks, but a hard-edged soulless laugh.

The sound startled me. I flinched, then stiffened in a show of false bravado.

Presley laughed harder, tears welling in his eyes. He reached out and brought his hand down over top of the crucifix, pulling it from my hand. “And just what do you think I am?”

*****
To read the rest of Interview with the Barber, and to get the entire collection THE ALCHEMIST & OTHER DARK TALES, for just 99 cents, for your Kindle go here. To download to your Nook go here.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Hearse, AND a special offer for National Short Story Month

Day three of Ten Days of Horror, excerpts from my dark fantasy and horror collection THE ALCHEMIST & OTHER DARK TALES. Today's excerpt is from my short story, The Hearse.

As a BONUS for the final three days of May, to mark the end of National Short Story Month, I'm offering my collection for just 99 cents! That's only one-third of the normal price for a collection that has twice ranked in the Amazon Top 100 Dark Fantasy best seller list -- yours for just 99 cents.

And now, an excerpt from The Hearse.
*****
The story is part of Rylan was fantasizing about sleep when he glanced in his rearview mirror. His gaze locked on what he saw there. Two headlights, roughly fifty yards away, he guessed. Behind the headlights was the outline of a hearse. From this distance, in the dead of the night, Rylan knew he shouldn’t be able to make out anything behind the headlights. But the hearse was clearly visible. It was black. All hearses are black. An odd bluish glow enveloped the vehicle, bringing out details that should not have been visible....

...Rylan glared nervously at the mirror, the sleep that had been dancing at the edges of his mind now gone. Rylan glanced at the speedometer – sixty-five. He nudged the cruise control a bit until the speedometer read seventy, then looked back at the mirror. The hearse matched his speed, staying the same distance behind.

He tapped the cruise control button twice more, pushing the speed to seventy-five. He kept his eyes on the road ahead, too scared to look in the mirror. Finally, after several minutes he did glance at the mirror. The hearse was still there, keeping pace.

Rylan mashed the accelerator. The speedometer shot up, past eighty, past ninety. Rylan knew there was a good chance he would trip some state trooper’s radar, end up with a ticket, feeling silly that he had let a simple hearse spook him. He didn’t care. Feeling silly explaining all this to a cop would be a relief. The speedometer passed ninety-five, inched close to one hundred.

Rylan kept his eyes on the road ahead of him, as nervous about driving at this speed as he was about the hearse tailing him. He glanced at the dashboard clock – one forty-five. He kept driving, his focus on the road ahead, not wanting to look in the mirror until he’d left the hearse behind. He drove and glanced at the clock, repeating the process as the clock ticked off one minute, then two, three, four, five. Another minute later Rylan could stand it no longer. He looked in the mirror.

Still roughly fifty yards behind the hearse followed.

“Damn,” Rylan whispered.

He lifted his foot from the accelerator and gently pressed the brake. The speedometer dropped – eighty, seventy, sixty, fifty. Rylan looked in the mirror. The hearse slowed, keeping the same distance between them.

Rylan mashed the accelerator again, quickly reaching eighty. He saw an exit sign ahead. At the last second he turned onto the off ramp, too fast for the curvy exit. Rylan slammed on his brakes. The rear of the car slid to the left; Rylan turned into the slide. The car fishtailed the other way; Rylan turned the steering wheel furiously the opposite direction. The car began to swing back, but by now had slowed enough for Rylan to straighten it up. Back in control, he glanced in the mirror.

Driving along the exit ramp, minus all the highway contortions Rylan and his car had just exhibited, was the hearse. ...

*****
To read the rest of The Hearse, along with my novella The Alchemist and nine other dark tales, download THE ALCHEMIST & OTHER DARK TALES -- for just 99 cents today through May 31. To download to your Kindle, click here. To download to your Nook, click here.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Mother's Last Wish...

Day two of Ten Days of Excerpts from my collection, THE ALCHEMIST & OTHER DARK TALES.

Today's excerpt, from the story Mother's Last Wish, examines what is ultimately the worst horror for us all -- death -- and how the world might be different if we could avoid dying. If everyone could avoid death.

*****

A high-pitched hum, worse than any alarm clock, invaded his sleep. Sonny woke, the fading light of dusk adding a melancholy mood to the room, and remembered he was alone, in his mother’s bed.

The hum grew louder. Sonny sat, glancing around for its source.

Lying on the bed next to him the music box vibrated with the hum, a pulsing pink light surrounding it.

Eyes wide, heart hammering, Sonny scrambled across the bed, away from the light and sound.

The glow drifted up from the box, formed a small globe of light floating next to the bed. It changed from pink to yellow, then red, followed by purple, brightening with each change, the hum growing louder. The light expanded to the size of a basketball, turned white, so brilliant Sonny closed his eyes. He placed his hands over his ears, shielding them from the loud, piercing whine emanating from the light.

He screamed. The whine grew so loud he could not hear his own voice, the light so bright his eyes burned, even while closed.

“No,” he called.

It stopped.

Sonny took his hands from his ears and peeked through partially-open eyelids.

Standing in the bedroom was a woman, dressed in a sheer, billowing emerald green robe, a soft white glow surrounding her.
Sonny’s eyes snapped open, breath caught in his throat.

Gorgeous was the word that popped in his head.

The woman was tall, at least equal to Sonny’s five-foot-nine frame, and slender. Red hair fell in loose curls around a lightly freckled face. Her eyes glowed bright and green. She smiled, lips full and red, teeth brilliant white.

“Who are you?”

“My name is Anu,” she said, her voice musical in quality.

“What do you want?”

“I want nothing, dear boy.” Anu cupped Sonny’s face, her touch warm, intoxicating. “I come to fulfill your mother’s wish.”

“I don’t understand. My mother?” Speaking of his mother sent a wave of fresh, raw grief over Sonny. Tears welled in his eyes.

“Come,” she said, pulling Sonny toward her, resting his head on her chest, stroking slender fingers through his hair. Her touch brought memories of his mother, running her fingers through his hair while he was a boy. He sobbed. Anu put her arms around him, rocked gently until his cries faded.

“Your mother loved you very much. You did not know at the time, but you gave her a very special gift. The music box you presented to her is older than you can know. It holds my spirit, and the family which owns it three wishes I must grant.”

“Three wishes?”

“Yes. Over many centuries I have granted wishes – victory in battles, riches beyond measure, long life. But your mother simply asked for two things.”

Sonny pulled away, looked into Anu’s eyes.

“What?”

“Do you remember buying the music box with your father?”

“Yes?”

“Do you remember where you bought it?”

“At a thrift store, because we couldn’t afford to shop anywhere else.”

“Yes. You were very ill. Your parents put all their money into doctor visits, drugs, hoping desperately to find a cure. You were dying, and there was nothing any healer could do. When I revealed myself to your mother, she wished for your health, and it was given back to you.”

“The second wish?”

“She held onto that until you went away to study. She wished simply for your success.”

Sonny reflected on his life. He had been successful, more than he had dared dream when he left for college. Studies came easily, unnaturally so, and after college more job offers than he could have imagined. He took what he believed to be the best, advanced quickly, soon found himself in the upper management of the firm, enough money to buy anything, to go anywhere.

He lavished his mother with vacations, gifts, cars, but she had never wanted to move from the simple house where he had grown up, so they remained.

Some said he seemed to live a charmed life. Now he understood why.

“The third wish?”

“She saved that for you. She set me free to roam the world, the only condition I return upon her passing, grant you the final wish.”

Sonny rubbed his eyes, leaned and rested his elbows on his knees.

“Anything I want?”

“Yes, my boy, but please do not ask me to bring your mother back?”

He stood, voice tinged with anger.

“You said anything. Any wish.”

“If that is your wish, I can restore life to your mother’s corpse, but it will not be her. She has passed to another world, across a great chasm I cannot cross. Raise her body? That I can do, but her soul will be gone. She will be gone.”

Sonny turned, paced across the room, hands atop his head. He whirled back to face Anu.

“Why do you torment me? You offer me a wish, yet tell me the one thing I desire I cannot have.”

Anu said nothing. Sonny stared, again struck by her simple beauty.

“No more death,” he said.

“Is that truly your wish?”

“Yes. Never again should anyone face grief. No more death. Ever.”

“It is so.”

*****

For more of Mother's Last Wish and the entire collection THE ALCHEMIST & OTHER DARK TALES, click here to download to your Kindle, or here to download to your Nook.