Some Paths to the October Country…

October has returned!

This seems to be my default time of year to post here, so despite my best intentions to add more entries over the last 12 months, this October post was apparently the best I could do. Well, so it goes.

All is well on most fronts, or as well as anyone could have reason to expect in life. And on the writing front, I’m happy to announce that my new Halloween book, Dark Nights and Candlelight, is just about finished. All of the stories are written, and almost half of them are more or less finalized. My original goal was to have the entire book reader-ready and published by this Halloween, but I decided the overall quality of the stories would suffer if I rushed things too much.

So my new goal (and a reasonable one, I think) is to have Dark Nights… out by March or April. Not exactly the right season for a Halloween book, but at least it will be there, ready and waiting, for next Halloween. And sometimes, even in the earthy, half-warm dampness of early Spring, a book that smells of fallen leaves and burnt pumpkin can hit the spot.

And after saying all this, I should also note that when you finally see it, you may be surprised by what a small book it is. It certainly surprised me, when I printed it off for the first time and examined the slim sheaf of paper. All told, it only weighs in at around 28,000 words (about a hundred pages and change). And, of course, that was partially the point…to write a book that could be enjoyed in bite-sized portions, one a day for every day in October. The challenge, I found, was coming up with 31 ideas. So however brief, the project was still a challenge, which of course is what makes it fun. And it still served as a nice change of pace after spending over three years on Darkness in the Valley.

Speaking of The Uncanny Chronicles, the third book in the series, which I mentioned in my previous entry, now has a focus and direction. One of the reasons I’d like to have Dark Nights… published before summer is so I can turn my full attention back to Uncanny Valley between June and August. The well of ideas has filled up again, and by then, I’ll be ready to plunge the bucket back in and draw it up.

What else? This October I’m adding to one of my long-standing traditions. Every October I read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Have for years. There is no better book to celebrate Halloween than Something Wicked, just as there is no better book to celebrate Summer than Dandelion Wine. So I’m in the middle of it again for perhaps the fifteenth time, and for the fifteenth time, I’m loving it for reasons both great and small.

But this year I also added another book to the mix: Stephen King’s Joyland, not about a traveling carnival, but its close cousin…a haunted amusement park.

I read Joyland for the first time right after it was published in 2013, on a flight to Los Angeles to visit Ray Bradbury’s home for the very last time…his family, and a few of us close friends, were inventorying and tidying up his estate before the house was scheduled to be put on the market (it was sold in 2014, and tragically, infuriatingly, demolished in early-2015). The book was a comfort, because it was so obviously in tune with the feel and magic of Ray’s work, yet was also new – I could immerse myself in it, and, for a little while, forget the fact that I would soon be saying goodbye to Ray for the second time in a year and a half. That house was a part of him.

Four years later, I’ve returned to Joyland again, and I’m grateful for the second visit. The climax of the book takes place in October, yet the whole story has the feel of it…a combination of precious memories, bittersweet change, and welcome horror. I may not end up reading it every October, but I fully plan on going back to it every two or three. King knows how to find the October Country Ray explored so widely a generation before. He has the gift.

A couple, final things, until the next time:

First, a photo of the night carousel taken when we went to “Fright Night” at Kennywood Park a few weekends back. Talk about a connection with both books! Fright Night is Something Wicked and Joyland all wrapped up into one. And I love it.

image1-4 copy

Second, the cover for Dark Nights and Candlelight, part of a much larger painting by the inimitable and always-talented John Randall York. I’m thrilled to have his art on the cover of yet another one of my books.

Screen Shot 2016-09-21 at 8.34.45 AM

And with that, I’ll say farewell until closer to Publication Day, and leave you with a quote that works on any day, but seems particularly fitting for Halloween:

“Unable are the loved to die, for love is immortal.” – Emily Dickinson

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Knock, Knock! A Halloween Update

Well! Just two days before Halloween, and I’m finally back with another entry, or at least an update. I have several essay-type posts I’d like to complete (and begin!) in the near future, but hopefully this will serve as a place-holder until I have time to tweak one, write a few others, and finally begin posting them.

Thank you all for your support of Darkness in the Valley. I’m very pleased to see the positive reader response to so far. It’s starting to take off, slowly but surely, and that’s about what I expected. The Uncanny Valley continues to rake in reviews and solid sales, and Darkness…, as a sequel-prequel, has been slow to qualify for major kindle promotions due to its status as the second book in a series. However, that’s beginning to change, and I’m deeply gratified, based on emails, tweets, Facebook posts, and reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, that readers seem to be finding the book a solid addition to the world of Uncanny Valley. It was by far both the most difficult and most rewarding project I’ve undertaken, so that means a great deal to me. Keep the responses coming, and I hope you’ll continue to let me know what you think.

As far as future projects are concerned, I currently have two in the works. The town of Uncanny Valley is never far from my mind, and there is certainly more to be told about it. So I think it’s safe to say I will be returning to it soon, and that the seeds of the next book have already taken root. Without giving too much away, I can reveal that one thing I’ve learned since the second book was published is that Uncanny, following its destruction, has had a bit of an impact (to put it lightly) on the towns closest to where it used to be. And some of the people in those towns have their own tales to tell…

The second project, which will probably be finished in rough draft form around March, came to mind unexpectedly, took shape quickly, and is developing steadily. It will be a shorty, probably no more than 100 pages. At the moment I’m describing it as a kind of “literary advent calendar” for Halloween. I’m calling it Dark Nights and Candlelight: 31 Tiny October Tales. The cover is already finished, and so are 16 of the stories. None of the stories will be over 1000 words, and some are under 100, so they run the gamut from flash to micro-fiction. I’m having a great time with it, and I will be profoundly disappointed if it isn’t published in time for next Halloween, if not some time before that.

With that, I’ll leave you with a classic micro-story that has always been one of my favorites, and which certainly helped to inspire Dark Nights… It was written by Fredric Brown, and is actually the beginning of a longer story called “Knock.” That said, I can think of nothing that could be added to these two sentences to make it more effective or terrifying. Maybe you’ve read it:

“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…”

Happy Halloween, 2016!

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“Darkness in the Valley” has arrived…

Well! This is finally finished. And published:

Darkness cover

The 450-page paperback, beautifully formatted by Anne Hardin and illustrated by John Randall York, is now available on Amazon here, to be followed by a kindle edition in May.

The journey from conception to completion has been long and challenging, but I honestly enjoyed every moment of “work” I put into it. That’s the true sign you’re doing what you love, I think – when the work is never a burden…or, if it is, the burden is never unwanted.

This summer, like the three previous, I spent six to seven days a week getting to know the mysteries of Uncanny Valley better…and there are many, believe me. During the rest of 2015, just like in 2013 and 2014, I also worked on the book throughout the school year as time, my schedule, and life in general allowed. Sometimes the work left me tired, frustrated, drained, or anxious. I wouldn’t have had it any other way, because beneath all that, no matter what, it also left me excited, energized, determined, and comforted. Writing can do that. All art can. That means it’s worth it…that it matters.

So for those who have wanted a broader—and deeper—look at Uncanny Valley, this new book will hopefully satisfy you for a while. The first volume is 154 pages long. This one, like I mentioned above, weighs in at 450, surprising even me, so there is much to explore. You’ll find familiar faces and brand-new ones. You’ll gain a great deal of context for some of the tales in the first book, but also learn, as I did, that virtually every answer we’re given leads to many more questions—and also that the history of Uncanny Valley…as well as its future…may be much richer and more far-reaching than anyone—myself included—could have guessed.

But more than anything, I  hope Darkness in the Valley entertains you…that you find pleasure in returning to this strange little town on the edge of two worlds. If it succeeds in doing that, I can all but guarantee there will be more to follow regarding Uncanny Valley. In fact, I’ve just acquired a whole sheaf of papers from the late historian Emil Fitzhugh, and it makes—to say the least—very interesting reading…

Enjoy!

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The Name of the Voice

Easter Weekend was a good one. I visited my parents for the first time since Christmas, my boys were thrilled by three different Easter Egg hunts and ridiculously full baskets, and I actually ended up feeling more or less rested for the first time in at least four months. (I have Spring Break to thank for that. One of the great things about being a teacher is that you never have to give up your childhood holidays.)

But the cherry on top was The Great Philadelphia Comic Con, a weekend fandom bash held in Oaks, about a dozen miles from the city. Early on Saturday morning I made the 175-mile drive from my parents’ to the Con, then quite contentedly drove back just three hours later.

I’ve never minded driving (or flying) long distances for short events. For years, I’ve done my best to take advantage of rare and special opportunities when they present themselves. In terms of my cultural interests, that includes going to concerts, attending lectures and readings, visiting traveling museum exhibits…you name it. I’m a bit dense in some ways, but I’m also fortunate that I realized, very early on, that you shouldn’t put off or ignore certain things – you simply have to do them, or risk losing the opportunities forever. This is applicable to every aspect of life, both great and small, but here, I’ll focus on things that fall under the categories I listed above.

A few examples:

In 2005, the remaining members of my favorite band, Queen, went on tour for the first time in almost 20 years…but only dates in Europe and the UK had been announced. “Go,” a small but insistent voice in the back of my mind demanded. So I renewed my passport, flew from Pittsburgh to New York, and then from New York to Birmingham, England. Once there, I took a taxi to my hotel, dropped off my stuff, walked over to the arena, waited in line for 11 hours, and ended up in the front row, nine feet away from my musical heroes Brian May and Roger Taylor. It was worth every cent, every mile, and every jetlagged moment.

In 2006, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and John Irving announced a benefit reading at Radio City Music Hall for Doctors Without Borders. “Go,” the voice told me. So I bought a ticket and drove with a friend to New York City. That night, Stephen King read the great pie eating contest scene from Stand by Me (“The Body”), Rowling read from the newly-published Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Irving killed it with a scene from A Prayer for Owen Meany. To the best of my knowledge, Rowling hasn’t given a reading in the States since, and most of Stephen King’s few public appearances are now limited to signings that draw overnight lines—speeches and public readings are as rare as hen’s teeth. But that particular night, there they both were…and there I was, rapt in my plush seat, applauding each of them along with the rest of the crowd.

Then there’s a far more profound example, which involves a small poetry reading in Venice Beach, California, that took place in March 2003. After I learned of it, that same voice in the back of my mind kept saying, first quietly, then louder and with more authority, “Go.” I listened. I went. The poetry reading was by Ray Bradbury, then 82 years old, and the not-quite 24 hours I spent in Los Angeles that first time led to one of the closest and most profound relationships of my life. Because I listened to that voice, not knowing exactly what to expect but hoping for the best, my sporadic correspondence with Ray had a chance to become something deeper – and developed into an instant, constant, resilient friendship that would eventually see him become my mentor, teacher, and “Honorary Papa.” It lasted the rest of his life, and during the next nine years I visited him in Los Angeles 31 more times.

Thinking back, there are so many other examples I could give. Seeing Fred Rogers lecture on the 50th anniversary of PBS. Attending one of David Bowie’s final concerts. Sitting entranced while Seamus Heaney read from his translation of Beowulf. Cheering when the first notes of “Comfortably Numb” kicked in during a Roger Waters performance of The Wall. Witnessing Al Green belt out a one-off, live rendition of “A Change is Gonna Come” that would have made Sam Cooke himself stand up and applaud.

I could go on and on.

No, you should never put things off. You should never say, “That might be nice, but I have to…” You should never say, “They’ll be back next year.” You should never do something you can do any day when you have the choice between that, and something special that might never happen again.

Which leads me back to Easter Weekend and the Great Philadelphia Comic Con, now just a few days in the past.

The reason I wanted to attend is a simple one: I grew up loving the original Star Trek, but over the years forgot how much I loved it. Then, five weeks ago, Leonard Nimoy died, and I remembered. It was that simple. As so often happens, it took a loss to regain something, and I was surprised by just how much his passing—the passing of someone I’d never met, but who had been a part of my life for as long as I could remember—hurt.

Less than a week later, I learned that three of the four surviving members of Star Trek’s “Big Seven”—Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, and George Takei—were going to be at that convention in Philly. The insistent little voice spoke up again, so I went.

Conventions are odd. These days, they’re almost always categorically and undeniably about making money – for the coordinators, the media guests, the vendors… just about everyone but the fans who are paying. If you’re a fan (and when it comes to Star Wars and the original Star Trek, for example, I proudly admit to being one), you’re meeting strangers you know only from their work in oddly artificial and contrived circumstances.

And yet these circumstances can still sometimes be special. I don’t go to many conventions, but when I do, the value comes down to a few seconds to shake hands with and say “thank you” to people whose work inspired my imagination when I was young.

So on Saturday, April 4, I drove to Philadelphia, my original novelization of The Wrath of Khan beside me, and met Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, and George Takei. Seeing them at booths all in a row, together, was somewhat surreal…there they all were. Everyone seemed relaxed and happy. George Takei and his husband, despite the line, took extra time to chat with me about how much they love Pittsburgh. Nichelle Nichols, at 82, was still elegant and beautiful. Walter Koenig, always quiet, smiled, looked over my book carefully, and chose the perfect spot to inscribe it.

And, of course, I told them all “Thank you.” That was the heart of the matter, as far as I’m concerned. Brief moments, but moments of importance, because they happened, because they meant something to me, and because they may not come again.

One of the last times I visited Ray, just months before he passed away, he told me, “Love brought you into my life. That first time you came out, it spoke, you listened. We’re together today because of love…your love for me, and my love for you. It’s all love.” He was right, of course. And, of course, that’s what the voice in the back of my mind is. What it’s always been and always will be. Every single time.

Love.

And what does love beget?

Enthusiasm.

Listen to the one, react with the other.

You’ll never regret it.

“Go.”

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Some “Uncanny” Glimpses from John…

In case you were wondering what John York and I have been up to these last few months, the answer is quite a bit…and some of it even involves the new Uncanny Valley book! In spite of a very busy summer and fall for both me here in Pittsburgh, and John down in Texas, we are still working slowly but steadily on, and Darkness in the Valley remains on track. I’ve finished a second draft, which has gone through the editing ringer of the excellent Tracy Fabre, and John, in addition to working on the cover, has also completed a series of sketches that, when finished, will become some of the interior art.

So, as a little teaser/taste of what’s to come, here are a few of John’s illustrations for the new book, some sketches still in progress, some polished and completed, all reprinted with his permission. I’m not going to add any commentary for them right now…I honestly think it’s more fun to look at them without it, at least for the moment. Enjoy!

Talking Night sketchEmmett FieldingPART 2 - Account 1, Potts second version
Bainbridge carriage example

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“In the Water I Am Beautiful.”

This winter was a tough one. It was cold, dark, and went on longer than any I can remember. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Talk to anyone in Pittsburgh (or much of the rest of the East Coast), and the general consensus is the same: this one was “a piece of work.”

During winter I tend to hibernate. It’s a defense mechanism, I guess, or maybe a simple response to a terrifically uninviting climate. I teach, of course, and do things with my friends and family, but I find it much harder to take the initiative to go out, to exercise, to explore and do the little things that often make life richer and more fulfilling. I also tend to see a drastic lull in my creative productivity.

Oddly enough, though, this winter, which basically lasted from late-October until mid-April, did find me productive, at least when it came to writing.

I’m not sure exactly why this was, although I think it may have been an almost intrinsic, almost subconscious need to shelter myself from the combined storm of seasonal affective disorder, personal illnesses, family illnesses, and other stressors that made life a mirror of the weather for the last six months or so. Everyone needs to have a creative outlet, be it cooking, painting, gardening, photography, carpentry, music, etc. The act of creating is celebratory: a celebration of potential, a celebration of self, a celebration of life. It is also purgation, an outlet in times of trouble. Simply put, it is often a way forward.

We see this again and again, played out through Time, both in the lives of the historically famous, and in the lives of those around us. Creativity protects us from the elements of the world that might break us, and in times of crisis, it is often the one thing we hold on to when all else threatens to fade.

There are many examples of this that come to mind. Perhaps the most moving involve people in extremis, who haven’t long to live. Take Warren Zevon, who, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, recorded what was perhaps his greatest album, The Wind. He gathered together a bunch of friends, went into a studio, and knocked out a masterpiece. His rendition of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which came from those sessions, is better than Dylan’s. Then, after those recording sessions ended and his condition worsened, he went back into the studio, all by himself this time, and recorded his own swan-song, “Keep Me in Your Heart.”

Then there’s Freddie Mercury, one of my heroes, who, in 1991, during the final stage of his struggle with AIDS, called the rest of Queen back into the recording studio, and told them to write whatever they could so he could sing it, leaving them with as much material to use after his death as possible. They did, and he did, and the very last song he ever recorded, “Mother Love,” contains one of the most awe-inspiring vocals I have ever heard. Music was his solace, music was his passion, and in the end, it seemed to bring out his remaining vigor and wellspring of strength the way nothing else in his life could. Only when he became too weak to record did he stop taking the medication that was prolonging his life, and allow himself to slip away.

This brings me to one of my favorite quotes by Kurt Vonnegut, who recognized the great power of the creative outlet better than most, and expressed it better than just about any. He wrote,

“I have been a writer since 1949. I am self-taught. I have no theories about writing that might help others. When I write, I simply become what I seemingly must become. I am six feet two and weigh nearly two hundred pounds and am badly coordinated, except when I swim. All that borrowed meat does the writing. 
In the water I am beautiful.”

And then there’s this succinct quote, by my dear and deeply-missed friend Ray Bradbury: “You fail only if you stop writing.”

So, back to my lousy winter, which now hardly seems worth mentioning in the context of such examples. The long and the short is that it got me down, so I forced myself to write.

This is almost always a recipe for disaster, where my own work is concerned. I wait for the mood to strike, and then I’m off and running, first tentatively, then with a bit more self-assurance, and finally full-throttle. I can control the mood somewhat, make allowances for certain events and stick to a general writing schedule, but when too many cards are stacked against it, the writing either comes out wrong, or doesn’t come at all. Invariably, winter stacks too many cards against it, and this one in particular was worse.

But this time the writing came, and what there was, didn’t just work, but worked well. I returned to my novel, Darkness in the Valley, reacquainted myself with what I’d been doing with it the previous summer, and in three weeks finished the rough draft. After three years of work, the 450-page story finally found its way onto paper, from start to finish, the way it needed to.

Encouraged by this, I hired someone to convert all three of my previous books to Kindle, and made them available on Amazon. At the same time, I formatted The Uncanny Valley for a new paperback edition, which means that all my other works are now available in both Kindle and paperback format; I’m completely back in print, and on my own terms.

Following that, I launched two carefully-planned “free” promotions, first for the Kindle edition of On the Edge of Twilight, then for the Kindle edition of The Uncanny Valley. Both hit the Top Ten Bestseller list for free Kindle books during their promotions, and, along with Scaring the Crows, are still being downloaded briskly. Reader response, especially to The Uncanny Valley, has been wonderfully warm, which is deeply gratifying.

I’m now steadily revising Darkness in the Valley, and the way forward with it, though still challenging, finally seems clear. John York has finished half a dozen preliminary sketches to go along with it, so as I move on toward a final draft, he’ll be right there with me. I hope we will cross the finish line with it together, sometime early in 2015.

Now that spring is here, new challenges have already arisen; they never stop, and so it goes. People have unexpectedly disappointed me; places I thought would last forever have ended up in ruins; Time, which holds us all green and dying, has taken away more that I love. Yet the creative outlet remains a warm and steady candle when so much else grows shadowy and dim. Often, that’s when it seems to glow brightest, to give the most warmth, and to lead in the direction that I need to go.

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Announcing “Crows at Twilight: An Omnibus of Tales”

I’m very pleased to announce that Crows at Twilight: An Omnibus of Tales finally reached publication on Monday, and is now available on Amazon here. And here’s the cover:

CROWS AT TWILIGHT FINAL edit6

Just four months after my previous publisher closed up shop, all the stories from Scaring the Crows and On the Edge of Twilight are now back in print in one 300-page volume, and I couldn’t be happier with it. John York and I have published it under our own “West Arcadia Press” label, and as far as I’m concerned, this is the definitive publication of these stories, and the culmination of years of pleasurable work.

There are several aspects about the new book that are different from the original, separate publications, and in a good way. The first is that John York’s illustrations for the stories in Scaring the Crows, originally reproduced on a very small scale, are now given the full-page treatment, so all the little details John included can finally be fully appreciated. John also created three new “crow” illustrations to space out the stories. Yet his greatest new contribution is the cover, which I believe is his finest yet. It’s hard for me to imagine ever publishing a project without his involvement, and the fact that we are still working (playing) together after five years leaves me both very humbled and very grateful.

Beyond that, this one has larger dimensions, a nice heft, and the interior has been beautifully and painstakingly formatted (and edited) by my dear friend Anne Hardin. So this is the book I always hoped to see in print some day – for better or worse, it’s exactly what I wanted. I hope you enjoy it, too.

Now it’s time to return to writing some new short stories. I’m overdue; I spent the last two summers (and much of the time between, when I had it) working on the prequel to The Uncanny Valley. I’ll let that percolate until next summer, when I plan to finally finish it off…the end is in sight. In the meantime, I have a half-dozen new story ideas that I’m eager to flesh out, and just finished my first short story in over a year, “Magic Things.” The title is from a quote by Eden Phillpotts (but often attributed to Yeats): “The universe is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”

Onward, and Happy Halloween!

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