Recommended Reading: ‘Horns’ by Joe Hill

I’ve decided to begin a series of blog posts discussing books that I’ve found particularly powerful. These are not just titles I liked — I have hundreds of those. The books I’ll discuss here are those that I didn’t want to end, the ones with characters for whom I felt genuine emotion. First up is one I just finished a few weeks ago — Horns by Joe Hill.

Horns follows a few days in the life of one Ignatius William Perrish (what could possibly go wrong with a name like that?), who awakes one morning to find devil’s horns growing out of his forehead. The obvious fashion problems aside, the horns cause him another problem: They cause people he meets to speak aloud their deepest, darkest thoughts. Unfortunately for Ig, many of those dark thoughts are about him. You see, the only woman he has ever loved was raped and murdered in the woods a year before; while Ig wasn’t charged with the crime for lack of evidence, most people have absolutely no doubt that he did it.

The truth is that Ig is innocent. Because of his new-found ability to get people to ‘fess up, he discovers the identity of the killer, and the news devastates him. We see Ig slowly transform from wronged grieving boyfriend to a demon bent on getting revenge. In between, in a series of flashbacks, we learn the full story about Ig, his late girlfriend Merrin, their friend Lee, and the secrets they all kept from each other. The news Merrin kept from Ig is particularly shattering; the way she chose to handle it leads to the brutal circumstances of her death.

I absolutely love the characters in this novel. Merrin is an absolute sweetheart, the kind of girl any guy with an appreciation for brains and beauty would fall for. Lee is horrifying; if I thought anyone would understand, I’d dress up as Lee for Halloween. Ig’s brother Terry is intriguing — a talented musician, loyal to his brother and his family, but cowardly when character counted most. And then there’s Ig, who is both hero and villain, horribly wronged and obsessed with exacting heartless revenge. Even at his darkest moments, it’s hard to not sympathize with Ig. Hard as it must be to deal with the awful way he lost someone he loved, the pain of being wrongly convicted of the crime in the minds of so many must be exponentially worse.

Two weeks later, I still think about these characters and the places in the book. I highly recommend this title. Go to your favorite bookstore or library and check it out. Visit the author’s Web site to learn more about him and his work. I’m looking forward to reading more of it.

I learned of this book from a review in the late, lamented Realms of Fantasy magazine, which has just announced that it is folding again, probably for good this time. It’s sad but not wholly unexpected. I’ll miss the site of a new issue showing up in my mail and the thrill of discovering all those great new writers and stories. I hope another publication, either print or online, will step up to take its place.

I’m currently reading another novel that I learned about in Realms, Bloodroot by Amy Greene. If this one hits me the same way, look for a blog post about it in a few weeks.

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Things That Go Bump in the Night

Good blog post from the Dystel & Goderich agency blog. I have always loved scary stories — I remember getting spooked by the stories my dad would tell around the campfire when I was a kid. Ghost stories always gave me the biggest scares. Vampires, mummies, witches — they were scary enough, but ghosts really freaked me out. When I was in 6th grade, there was a very short-lived TV series called Ghost Story. I was an avid fan, even though it scared me to death. I also remember watching Dark Shadows when I was 6 or 7 until I started getting nightmares and my parents pulled the plug.

So now I’m writing a ghost story of my own. The novel I’ve been writing for the last year is about a ghost hunter, a single mom, and an uninvited house guest who just won’t leave. It’s been an interesting experience, pushing myself to write something that would scare me. It’s been both challenging and fun. I’m trying to recapture that sense of the unknown that gripped me when I was a kid. I don’t rely on gore (not that there’s anything wrong with that, FDO). If I can unsettle the reader with the suggestion of weird things going on, I’ll be happy.

I’ll end this with the same question that Jim asked in his blog post: What are your favorite horror stories/books/movies? What will you be reading or watching on Halloween? The Exorcist? Halloween? Salem’s Lot? Start the debate in the comments!

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‘Geist’ Haunts Bookstores on Oct. 26

Tomorrow marks another milestone for authors who release their work via podcast. Philippa Ballantine, the author of Chasing the Bard, Digital Magic, and Weather Child, and the force behind the Parsec-nominated Erotica a la Carte, hits bookstore shelves with Geist, her first release from a major publisher. I’ll let the book’s description on speak for it:

Between the living and the dead is the Order of the Deacons, protectors of the Empire, guardians against possession, sentinels enlisted to ward off the malevolent haunting of the geists…

Among the most powerful of the Order is Sorcha, now thrust into partnership with the novice Deacon, Merrick Chambers. They have been dispatched to the isolated village of Ulrich to aide the Priory with a surge of violent geist activity. With them is Raed Rossin, Pretender to the throne that Sorcha is sworn to protect, and bearer of a terrible curse.

But what greets them in the strange settlement is something far more predatory and more horrifying than any mere haunting. And as she uncovers a tradition of twisted rituals passed down through the dark reaches of history, Sorcha will be forced to reconsider everything she thinks she knows.

And if she makes it out of Ulrich alive, what in Hell is she returning to?

“Between the living and the dead…”; hauntings; “twisted rituals” — what better way to prepare for Halloween? I strongly encourage you all to pick this up tomorrow from your local bookstore or order it from your favorite online retailer. Through a lot of hard work, Pip has achieved success that the rest of us podcast authors aspire to. Your support will be further proof to the publishing world that the podcast model of building an audience is a valid one. On top of that, Pip is one of the most generous people you will ever meet, as evidenced by her tireless work last winter on The Boom Effect.

I know I blogged about this book a few weeks ago, and I appreciate your indulgence. I have no financial interest in its success other than as a podcast author who wants to be in bookstores himself someday. So, treat yourself to a good story and support podcast fiction at the same time. And leave the light on when you read about those twisted rituals…

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The Joy of Performing

So I took a little trip this weekend up to my brother Rick’s place in rustic Jay, New York. Jay is a tiny burgh on the edge of the Adirondack Park, about two hours’ drive south of Montreal. He and my sister-in-law Sue live in a comfortable house on a dirt road with a group of cats and a dog named Julius Erving (Rick’s devotion to the Philadelphia 76ers is widely known if not widely understood.) Their next-door neighbors (they live a quarter mile down the road), Dave and Jean, have a sizable back yard with a pavilion, a fish pond, and a small stage. They frequently have mini-music festivals on weekends, including one every August devoted to the music of Neil Young. I was invited to the one they had last night.

It was a gorgeous drive through the turning foliage, and the lakes were an icy blue. I even pulled over once to shoot a couple of pictures. The air was quite a bit cooler when I got to Jay than it was in Syracuse, and adding a couple of layers over my T-shirt quickly became a necessity. However, the crowd gathered at Rick and Sue’s house was a friendly one, and there was plentiful beer, lasagna and chili, even before we set off for the bash down the road. My brother Pat, his wife Sonia and my niece were there, along with a bunch of their friends. Around 5:30, we made the trek down to Dave and Jean’s, and shortly thereafter the music started.

Several local musicians took turns on the stage before Pat and his group climbed up for their set. They graciously invited me to sit in with them, which was really pretty nice since they had rehearsed all the songs and I…hadn’t. The stage could comfortably accommodate two people; including me, the musicians numbered five. I stood in the back and watched Pat’s hands so I would know what chords to play. Fortunately, the set consisted of some old Grateful Dead songs like “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” that were fairly easy to pick up. Not knowing any of the lyrics, I didn’t sing but played rhythm guitar. There were three of us on guitar, one on banjo, and one on bass. Pat sang lead and played a lot of sweet guitar solos. The rehearsals have clearly paid off for these guys — their harmonies and solos were tight. I had a blast playing with them.

Around 45 minutes later, I went on stage for a solo set. I hadn’t played in front of an audience like this in years, and I was more than a little nervous. An extra bottle of Saranac Black & Tan helped calm the nerves a bit, but I didn’t settle on the song list until right before I went on. I considered The Beatles “If I Needed Someone,” Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” and Harry Nillson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” but didn’t feel confident that I would get the chords right. Instead, I went with the following songs:

What was especially cool was that, at some point in the second verse of “American Pie,” I heard the sound of conga drums being played behind me, then I noticed various members of the crowd banging tambourines, bells, and other various percussion instruments. I had invited everyone to sing along, but everyone played along, too. It was great.

I can see where performing live like that could be like a drug. Before the first set with Pat and his group, I was feeling a little sleepy. By the time I finished my solo set, I was wide awake and pumped.

All in all, it was a great time and something I should do more often. I will never be a rock star, which is just as well, but even with the big five-oh looming closely over the horizon, I can still make someone smile with a good song and a nice turn of phrase on my guitar, at least once in a while. And that’s a nice feeling.

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Check Out This Book Trailer

It’s officially October, folks, and that means things are cooling off here in the northeast U.S. For those in the southern hemisphere, however, they’re just starting to warm up. That goes double for the dark goddess of New Zealand Philippa Ballantine, author of print and podcast novels such as Chasing The Bard, Digital Magic, and Weather Child. She is also the creator and host of the rather, ahem, stimulating short story podcast Erotica a la Carte. Her latest novel (and first for Ace Books,) Geist, hits bookstores later this month. Her co-conspirator on the forthcoming Books and Braun (to be published next summer by Harper Collins,) Tee Morris, created this trailer for Geist to help get the word out.

Please take a minute and a half to watch the trailer. If you like it and would like to help Pip publicize Geist, please consider embedding it on your Web site, blogging about it, tweeting about it, or just e-mailing a few friends. Pip is a shining example of what authors who give their fiction away as free podcasts can accomplish through determination and hard work. Not incidentally, she also happens to be a terrific person who was the driving force behind last winter’s Boom Effect, which she conceived and produced from the other side of the globe after the tragic death of Tee’s wife in January. I had the pleasure of spending time with her at Balticon last May, and she’s just as delightful in person as she is behind the microphone.

So, please support Pip and all podcast authors by watching the video, and consider buying the book on October 26.

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Words of Comfort: I’m Not As Bad As I Could Be

This post (Inside Voice and the Internet) on Gabrielle Harbowy’s Gabrielle Edits blog is actually one of the most heartening pieces of writing advice I’ve read in some time. I’ve received a lot of rejection letters and e-mails since I began submitting my fiction for publication, and I’ve saved almost all of them. Somewhere around 99 percent of them are form letters (“Not for me, thanks” or “Doesn’t meet our needs” or “Not the right project for me.”) These letters, by their nature, tell me nothing about what might have swayed the agent or editor to make the opposite decision.

I understand the numbers. Literary agents receive somewhere around 200 queries a week, roughly 10,000 a year. Of those 10,000, the agent may end up taking on fewer than five. Them’s ain’t good odds. Obviously, agents cannot physically provide personal responses to all of the queries they receive. I get that. This knowledge does not reduce my frustration; every time I get another rejection, one word inevitably pops in my head: “Why?” Followed by a few other words: “Why didn’t he/she love it? I’ve written a good book — what do I have to do make someone in a position of influence see that?”

Of course, once I wonder “Why?”, I then start wondering, “Did he/she think it sucked? Was my query all wrong? Did I sound like an idiot? Did my sample pages inspire physical reactions such as laughing, gagging, or intense hiccups?” Gabrielle’s blog post is reassuring because it reminds me that I probably did the query properly, that my sample pages were no worse than the average submission, and that I didn’t come off as a fool. When agents receive 200 queries a week, they have to narrow down the pool to the cream of the cream of the cream.

Armed with this knowledge, my job is to soldier on. In my quest to get Acts of Desperation and Purgatory published, there are two possible outcomes: One, they get published. Two, I give up trying. Given that real writers submit their work (see my post of Sept. 11), I must eliminate outcome number two as a possibility.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I just heard the beep of an incoming e-mail.

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Real Writers Submit and Promote Their Work

I’ve written three novels, am working on a fourth, and have written a handful of short stories. I’m diligent about re-writes, polishing, editing, and tying up loose ends, and so on. While I still have a lot to learn about the craft of writing, I think I’m getting more skillful in the production of my work.

At promoting and selling my work, not so much.

Unlike a lot of people, I actually remember one of my New Year’s resolutions for this year. It was to send out two submissions a week, either to literary agents, publishers, or magazines (both print and Web-based.) My inspiration for this resolution was my friend Jenna Povey, who hasn’t sold a short story since…yesterday. I’m not sure how many short stories she has in print now, but just in the last couple of months, her work has appeared in the anthologies The Zombist: Undead Western Tales and Warrior Wisewoman 3 (she’s also in last year’s Warrior Wisewoman 2.)

Jenna understands something that I profess to understand but don’t really live by: Real writers submit their work. If you don’t eventually send your work out to markets, writing is really just a very time-consuming hobby. For some people, that’s fine; they’re not interested in anything more. For Jenna and for me, however, the line in John Anealio’s terrific song I Should Be Writing sums it all up:

I want to see my name up on that shelf
on the spine of a paperback.

Unlike Jenna, I’ve submitted next to nothing so far in 2010. I haven’t been idle; I’ve worked on my current novel, I’ve gotten some very helpful feedback from listeners to the Purgatory podcast and even more from a friend who’s read it, worked with the same friend on her novel, and made some very preliminary plans for her and I to collaborate on another novel. So I’ve had my hands in the creative end of the pool, but I haven’t been submitting, and since I uploaded the last episode of Purgatory to, I haven’t done much promoting either.

I need to spend more time on both if I’m going to be successful at this. For a good example on the promotion side, look no further than Christiana Ellis, who I’m convinced gets at least a minor role in every podcast drama produced in this country (and probably New Zealand.) It’s occurred to me that my peers in the podcasting community don’t e-mail me and ask me to play roles in their audio dramas. Nor do they ask me to write stories for their anthologies. The reason for that is that I haven’t told them that I want to act in their audio dramas or write for their anthologies. No one’s asking me to do an interview on their shows because I haven’t put the word out that I would like to do interviews. I would love to do all those things (well, maybe not as many audio dramas as Christiana does, but some.) But here’s the thing about my podcasting peers: They’re not very good at reading minds, especially from across the country. If I’m not getting roles in podcasts or spaces in anthologies or interviews, I can find the reason in the nearest mirror.

That changes today. I spent this afternoon doing some polishing on a short story I wrote two years ago, and this evening, as I was watching my Syracuse Orange take a beating at the hands of the Washington Huskies, I submitted it to a magazine that focuses on dark speculative fiction. The careful reader of this blog will also note that this is the third blog post I’ve written this week. I’m told that producing fresh content will often draw people to revisit your blog (you heard it here first, folks.) I want to do one more re-write of Purgatory based on the suggestions I received, then start re-marketing it to agents and small presses. And I’m going to start putting the word out on Twitter and Facebook that I’m available for voice work and interviews. I understand that I may have to invest a little money in some better recording equipment in order to do the voice work, but I can deal with that.

In the end, if I want to sell my stories and novels, I have to write good stories and novels, and I have to market myself. Scott Sigler didn’t get to where he is simply because he can scare the hell out of you with his stories (though he does that rather well.) He did it by working his tush off promoting his work, doing what was necessary to get an agent, land his first contract with Dragon Moon Press, and his current deal with Crown Publishing. If I want to be a real writer, that’s what I have to do.

Because real writers submit and promote their work.

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Top 10 Things I Love About Dragon*Con

Continuing my re-cap of Dragon*Con, here are the top 10 things I like about it:

#10. The costumes (see my Sept. 6 post). The creativity and attention to detail (not to mention the money) that goes into some of these outfits is simply amazing.

#9. The celebrities. Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee stayed in the hotel room across the hall from me. I attended a Q&A with two of the stars of Firefly. On any given night at a hotel bar, you could find yourself rubbing elbows with a cast member from Battlestar Galactica. The coolness goes without saying.

#8. Getting to meet some great people who you’ve previously known only by listening to their podcasts.

#7. Getting exposed to new things you’ve never considered before. I’ve never been much of a gamer, but I’ve learned a lot about the hobby at Dragon*Con.

#6. The music. As I mentioned in my last post, on Sunday alone I was introduced to the music of Tom Smith (filk singer and humorist) and Pandora Celtica (an a capella five-part vocal group.) The awesome Marian Call sang Saturday at the Parsec Awards ceremony. In other years, I’ve heard Marc Gunn, Divo Spice, and other indy musicians. I would never have discovered this great music without attending Dragon*Con.

#5. The Parsec Awards. The annual awards ceremony celebrating excellence in speculative fiction podcasting is always a joy to attend. I feel excited for the winners while also dreaming of someday seeing my name on one of those trophies.

#4. Shopping. Between the dealers room and the two exhibit halls, there are a ton of vendors selling books, shirts, toys, videos, games, weaponry (seriously), and everything in between. The number of women trying on corsets never ceases to amaze me. Isn’t a corset just a stylish way to crack a rib?

#3. The energy. From Thursday night, when I spent three hours in line waiting to pick up my registration badge, through Monday morning when I left for the airport, Dragon*Con literally buzzed with the energy of thousands of people. It’s kind of like DisneyWorld with vastly different costumes.

#2. The writing workshops and panel discussions. Aaron Allston and Michael Stackpole presented some outstanding workshops; the panels I attended, which featured five or six panelists each, were similarly valuable. I scanned my notes as PDF files yesterday. They totaled 11 pages.

#1. The people I get to hang out with and meet every year. Without such cool people to spend my time with, Dragon*Con wouldn’t be remotely as good as it is. I love my other roles as professional insurance geek, husband, dad, baseball/basketball parent, and Red Sox devotee, but for a few days every summer, I can hang out with some incredibly creative, talented and generous people. And those days go way too fast.

There you have it, peeps. What did I leave off the list?

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Dragon*Con 2010: Costumes

I’ve just returned from Dragon*Con 2010 (I still prefer the name “Geekstock” for this event, but no one’s listening to me on this.) This was my third one, and they seem to get better every year. I have a lot of thoughts on the convention that I’ll address in coming posts, but for today, operating as I am on extremely little sleep, I’ll talk about the two broad categories of people who attend.

I have concluded that there are two types of people who attend: Those who seize those four days every Labor Day weekend to cast their inhibitions to the wind, put on the costume of their choice, and become someone else; and people who don’t, people whose idea of dressing up is a T-shirt with a funny logo on it.

Certainly, the costuming is a major part of the Dragon*Con experience, whether you are the costume wearer or an observer. Some of the costumes left me shaking my head at the time, expense, and creativity that went into their creation. I saw characters from Halo, blue people from Avatar, Green Lanterns, robots from Futurama, Batmen, Batgirls, storm troopers, more Star Trek uniforms than I could count, and dozens of Hogwarts students. The makeup on some of these costumes (particular the characters from Avatar) must take forever to apply.

Many people merely dress in wild colors or outfits that are, ahem, attention-grabbing. This event by itself keeps the fishnet stocking industry in business; some of the skirts were short enough to be illusory. Then there was the woman I saw outside the Hyatt on Sunday. She was topless, with two strategically placed stickers containing slogans about starting a revolution. I don’t exactly remember the slogans; in this case, the old adage about the medium being the message was never more true.

I think it would be interesting to ask a few dozen of the costumers about what motivates them. Certainly many of them must just love dressing as someone else for a time; they probably love Halloween for the same reason. It’s undeniably fun to dress up as a character. The ones I wonder about are the ones who push the limits of propriety, however defined, beyond extremes, such as the aforementioned revolutionary. I’m not speaking here as a prude or as some moral guardian; as someone said on Twitter during the con, “If you’re easily offended, why are you at Dragon*Con?” No, speaking as someone who is introverted by nature, I’m genuinely curious as to why someone would appear in front of thousands of people (I’m not exaggerating here) essentially naked. I know, in practice it’s not different than what actors often do in movies and on HBO, but this is live and in-person. I can’t fathom doing that myself; that others can feel comfortable doing it is a mystery to me.

Maybe this says something about my level of comfort with my own body; maybe it has to do with values instilled in me when I was young, as opposed to the values others grew up with (I’m not saying my values are correct and theirs are not; just saying they may be different.) Or maybe, just maybe, men and women who dress this way at Dragon*Con are saying nothing more than, “Hey, check me out!”

There are of course thousands of people at Dragon*Con like me who are there for attractions other than the chance to wear a cool costume. For me, it’s a chance to hang out with other writers, some of whom have titles in print, and to meet lots of cool people. I come armed with business cards and a resolve to shake off my innate shyness and introduce myself to people. I met Paul Cooley, Meg from the Brilliant Gameologists, Sam Chupp, Gail Z. Martin, and others whose names I never got but with whom I struck up conversations at writing workshops. I saw Tom Smith perform a filk concert, discovered an excellent a capella Celtic music group named Pandora Celtica (I bought one of their CD’s and loved it on first listen as I drove home from the airport today), talked writing and podcasting with my roomies Christiana Ellis and P.G. Holyfield, and played guitar as backup to the sweet voices of Starla Huchton and Kim the Comic Book Goddess.

It’s the opportunity to learn and spend time with creative people that brings me back to Atlanta on Labor Day weekend each year. Every year, as the time approaches, I agonize about whether I should spend the money (it’s not an inexpensive excursion) or stuff happening with life (last year, an illness in the family; this year, a dog who suffered an injury a few weeks ago that caused lameness.) I’ll probably play Hamlet again next summer, and I’ll probably decide to go at the last minute again, thus preventing me from getting the lowest airfare. I’m at the point now where I would feel a definite void if I didn’t go.

But you won’t see me there dressed in a loincloth or a kilt.

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Scott Sigler’s ANCESTOR In Stores Tomorrow

He’s ba-a-a-a-ck…and he wants to scare you. Badly. Yes folks, Scott Sigler, AKA the FDO, AKA General Siglerisimo, AKA Pope Siglericus XXX, hits bookstores again on June 22 with the hard cover release of ANCESTOR. Some of you may have listened to the podcast version of ANCESTOR or bought the paperback version published by Dragon Moon Press in 2007. I’m not one of them, and I’ve purposely avoided even glancing at the PDF of the DMP version so as to avoid spoilers, though I understand that Scott has rewritten the book.

For a hint of what you’ll find between the book covers, give a listen to the trailer and/or watch the video, then get to your favorite bookstore or online bookseller tomorrow and pick up a copy. In addition to being a greatly disturbed individual who has assured all his listeners on multiple occasions that he plans to kill them, Scott has given away some terrific fiction over the last several years. This is our chance to say thanks and give him a little support. I have a gift card that I’ve been reserving for just this occasion.

And remember, if it doesn’t sell, he may do for your hometown what he did to Detroit at the end of CONTAGIOUS. No pressure.

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