Friday, October 26, 2007


I often discuss writing journals with other writers and am surprised by the resistance I find. Here are some common objections:

"I don't want to write in something everyday, it's too confining. It makes me feel like I'm back in school." "I forget to write entries and then I feel 'what's the use?'" "If I have something to write, then I would prefer it be a story."

Writers' journals are fine for some. Not fine for others. I love them.

My wife bought me a journal of crisp white paper with an attractive, sturdy leather binding. I take it with me most everywhere I go and write in it on a daily basis. In it are passages which will sometimes end up in short stories, or sometimes I'll write detailed outlines for stories I am considering. Occasionally I will set down three or four story concepts, often no longer than a few sentences, hoping this will spur me to write. It's not for everybody, but it works for me.

Here is an example from my writers' journals of ideas which may or may not become something. I'll write them down exactly as they were in my journal just to show the process I go through. Who knows if any of the ideas will become anything:

The Statues- a man moves onto a block with curious and imaginative children. They are in awe when he puts on his lawn two or three grotesque statues. The children start to notice that the statues poses seem to change slightly from day to day.

When The Weathervane Lied- 1930's. A poor farming family in Oklahoma is about to lose its farm. Grandmother: "Fortunes change --weathervane says so." The family faces a murderous dust storm. Someone comes to the door, a thin man with a bandana over his nose and mouth. The grandmother sees him and says: "Don't let him in!" The father gives the stranger charity.

Stranger: "Funny thing about doin' good. People reach out and give a man a hand up. Sometimes they do it and it's automatic. They just do good without thinking about it. They just do." Father: "It's Christian to be charitable." Stranger: "Is it Christian when charitability becomes a habit." Father: "I don't get your meaning." Stranger: "The old lady didn't want me in here. The old lady was right." Father: "Ma don't mean nothin'." Stranger: "But she was right. You should have listened to her. When I leave here in the next couple minutes, I'm takin' your children with me."

Finding The Road: A Nazi concentration camp officer is shown to be a normal individual. Whatever his conflict is, the concentration camp must be nothing but a background, all violence and gore portrayed in a mundane manner. The story is theme driven, showing that the Nazis are not monsters, but humans doing monsterous things. As such, the terror should be found in the potential for all of us to play the role of monster.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Zombie Freak Out

"Zombie freak out," I said.

My wife, who is used to such unprovoked outbursts, stared at the road ahead, ignoring me. The silence sat between us until she couldn't stand it any longer. "Okay," she asked. "So what's a zombie freak out?"

"I have this idea. We need to get about ten to twelve people together and dress them up as zombies."

She waited. She waited a bit longer. "And?"

"And we turn them loose in different places. Maybe one night let them wander through a car lot on a busy road; another night we could all go to the airport, maybe they can hang out in the bathroom there like Sen. Larry Craig; another night we could all go to a local McDonalds, maybe all of us just order the Apple Pie. Who knows, maybe it could get popular. We could put an ad in the local paper advertising future zombie freakouts."

She nodded. "Zombie freak out," she said. "Cool."


Another ten miles of silence. "Vampire Wilding."

She didn't ask.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Burning Times

"No more burning times," shouted the man on the stage. Dressed in a buckskin suit with a long braid running down his back, the man raised a militant fist. The pagans around me raised their fists and returned the chant.

"What burning times are we talking about?" I asked the person next to me.

"You know, in Europe."

As a person who considers himself well-schooled in history, I scratched my head. "The Inquisition?"

"It's called by many names. We were persecuted. My people have been persecuted for centuries."

"Your people?"

"The Wiccans. Witches. The Christians tried to exterminate us."

"Wicca hasn't exactly been a codified religion," I protested. "And the Inquisition wasn't just a religious event, it was also political. The church was using its power to solidify its control. They were burning anyone who got in their way."

"They were burning witches."

"And a bunch of other people. Besides, most of the people burned as witches weren't witches."

The person looked at me with a hurt expression. "I expected you to be more understanding about genocide. Look what the Germans did to your people. The Jews."

I didn't trust myself to respond.

Someone came by selling candies shaped as something called "The Green Man". The man on the stage had stepped aside for entertainment: a man with a bare torso who was spinning in circles while banging a tambourine and singing elongated vowels.

I nodded and bought myself a "Green Man."

Monday, October 22, 2007

Not Feeling The Love

I thought to myself: why don't I join the Horror Writers Association? You know, the people who give out the much politicized Bram Stokers Award. I thought, hey, why not. You can communicate with other writers, have other writers communicate with you, and join that big happy much politicized group.

I sent them the application fee and waited. Nothing. Not even an acknowledgment. I waited an appropriate period of time and sent a gentle prod to see if there might be something awry. Nothing.

At least magazines send out rejection letters.

Maybe some of you who are members of this esteemed group can send emails to your organization and tell them to maybe give me a buzz and let me know what the deal is. Just a thought.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Since we're still revving up for Halloween, allow me to turn my attention from the exploitation of vampires to another form of undead, the Zombie.

Prior to seeing George Romero's unintentional iconic rip off of "Last Man On Earth", starring Vincent Price, I associated the zombie with such films as Val Lewton's "I Walked With A Zombie", Hammers' "Plague of the Zombies" and "White Zombie" starring Bela Lugosi. In these films, the zombie is a product of a dark Voodoo rite. Magic.

In the late sixties, Romero added a new twist.

No Voodoo rites in "Night of the Living Dead", but rather some strange radiation animated corpses, turning them into unthinking flesh eating machines. So successful was this manifestation of the zombie that Romero's vision now permeates most fiction and film dealing with the undead.

I've been tackling the topic myself. It's difficult. In writing stories featuring the more modern version of the zombie, I am foreced to grapple with an apocalyptic image where the protagonist is doomed to failure; where the defeat of mankind at the hands of nature is inevitable. Such a restrictive and depressive setting isn't easy fodder. I mean, how many different ways can you set up a protagonist to deal with the zombie threat in a crumbling infrastructure that resembles Baghdad at high noon.

What complicates such a story for me is the inevitability of the protagonist's demise. Sure, they may defeat the immediate zombie threat, but ultimately the undead are going to get them.

Brian Keene (one of several authors who have tackled this sub genre approach) in "The Rising" and "City of the Dead" shows exactly what the problem is. He creates engaging drama and likeable characters, but they of course end up as most protagonists in these tales end up, serving as a main course for the undead. Still, Keene's books are worth reading. He is entertaining and his novels are page turners.

Personally, I hate writing a story where the protagonist dies. I want my characters to triumph, or at least not fall under the wheel of a steamroller. I believe readers deserve more than to be shot down after investing in a character's development. Readers want a catharsis. The reader, who has given emotional time to the writer, wants to experience some sense of purging.

When writing about things Lovecraftian, I take care to carry this belief forward. In the world of Lovecraft, it's easy to kill off protagonists as they are overwhelmed by a reality that is nihilistic and beyond any mortal understanding. I won't spill the beans about what happens to my characters in "The Others", my contribution to "High Seas Cthulhu", but I'll just say that my character lives through the end of the story. Maybe changed, but he lives. The reader is allowed a catharsis.

Poe wrote that without hope there cannot be terror. Without hope there is only a tale of the fatalistic. The doomed man who knows his fate with a certainty that does little to spark horror. The doomed man who thinks that perhaps there is a chance, even only a sliver, engages the reader and creates the dramatic tension and suspense.

I will finish my novel "Food For The Flies", which features good old-fashioned Voodoo zombism, but I'll also attempt to chew my way through a Romeroesque zombie story. I think maybe that I have something to offer readers.

I hope.

And that's really the key to horror, isn't it? Hope.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Vampire Preservation Society

With Halloween around the corner, I want to return to a particular complaint that I'm sure I've mentioned before, but it needs repeating. What prompted this forthcoming rant was a book by Brandon Massey called "Dark Corner". I read the first chapter, having no prior knowledge of what the book might be about. It began promisingly enough. An African American goes south to live in the home of his now dead famous father. The characters were engaging and whet my appetite. But then...then Massey began Chapter Two with a tall man in black sitting in first class on an airplane, a metrosexual vampire drinking blood through a straw from a juice pack. I threw the book aside and began this rant.

An open letter to would-be horror writers and urban fantasists.

Dear Sir or Madame,

Leave the vampires alone.

I understand that they are alluring and that these manifestations of repressed Victorian sexuality are irrestistable as you attempt to draw in readers by playing upon their own power and repressed sexuality issues. However, in writing about these dark creatures and in giving them all the neurosis of metrosexuals in heat, you rob them of their primal energy. You take away that which has made them fearful, that which has haunted our subconscious and thrilled us and instead left behind a pale, ineffectual doppleganger.

I remember the thrill I had watching "Nightstalker" for the first time. The made for TV film followed a vampire as he hunted prey in Las Vegas. No charming foreigner there, with smoldering good looks and a seductive smile. No. Kolchak's prey was the vampire revealed. The cruel animalistic bloodsuck, drinking our fear along with our blood, chewing through our psyche, devouring it as though chewing through popcorn at a midnight show.

Dan Curtis' Barnabus Collins. I know some will think that he was a fop, a pathetic troll trapped in a daytime drama. However, every so often, Jonathan Frey showed what lay beneath the romanticized version of evil, and it wasn't pretty. Not one bit. Love him all you want, you lovers of "Buffy" (one of the greatest offenders) but when given rein, Barnabus was evil without bottom. He was darkness come solid.

Shall we talk about Simon Clark's creations? What about Dracula as drawn by Bram Stoker, without the baggage given him by Hollywood? Shall we discuss Robert R. McCammon's "They Thirst"? What about F. Paul Wilson's "Midnight Mass"? Or King's "Salem's Lot"?

I won't throw blame though. I won't wail about Anne Rice, nor shall I stake poor Laurell K. Hamilton. I won't even turn a critical eye toward the likes of Mary Janice Davidson and her Queen Betsy series (you really don't want to know). Let me instead just extend my arms in supplication and beg that these writers stop. Go pick on someone else. Leave the vampires alone. Write stories about uncertified car mechanics. That can be terrifying. Write about professional soccer players transplanted to the U.S.. Egads!!!!! Just turn away from the nightstalkers. Stop. Now.

Given time, these creatures of shadow can reclaim their mystique. The word VAMPIRE can regain some of its iconic horror. The mind heals. The culture forgives.

So turn back to the light where you really belong, and leave the darkness to us who know it and love it.

Stewart Sternberg

Monday, October 15, 2007

Markets of the Dead

Madness. Madness, I tell you.

This was a quiet convention, as conventions go. I went last year to Conclave in Romulus and I would wager there was a sizable drop in attendance this year. I'm not sure why, although I can tell you it took them forever to get the programming together, and once together, the number of panels and presentations from last year were down considerably, with no focus or thread seeming to hold the convention together.

Still, it was fun to drag people in for refreshments while hawking the official release of "High Seas Cthulhu." And magically, I even got to sign a few books. I liked doing that so much, I might just start hanging out in libraries and scribbling in the flyleafs, maybe even forging names as I go along, leaving behind a trail of signatures from Sinclair Lewis to John Steinbeck. Of course, no one seems to take these books out any longer, so my wit may go unappreciated for years.

What's next? I am still pounding away at a novel revision and working on short stories to hawk to an ever shrinking market. Little by little the number of anthologies and magazines are vanishing, stepping off into the dismal clouds of yesteryear.

Years ago, when magazines seemed aplenty, and I'm talking about the forties, fifties, and sixties many writers were publishing their work in mimeographed anthologies and collections of fan fiction. Of course why mimeograph when we have the internet?

I'm working on a piece of fiction now, which should be done by Thursday, hopefully. When this is finished (it's called 'Dead Memories', a better moniker than its working title of 'Zombie Love'), I'll send it out snail mail to the handful of magazines still printing and paying something close to five cents a word. When they reject it, it's off to the five to fifteen dollar a story internet publications. And if they won't print it, why...then it's the freebies.

Writing may be all about the publishing, but when no one is publishing or buying, what's a writer to do?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Assignment ...Chesterfield Writers

Two people at the writers' group complained they couldn't get anything going. Jon threatened to put a request for ideas on his blog to spur him to write. The other person begged for a writing assignment.

I haven't done much formal writing (well, except for today) but I have been religiously keeping a writers' journal.

I don't believe in writers' block, by the way. I believe that if you can't move forward on one project, you should shift gears and try something else. Leave your short story alone and go write a paragraph of description. Forget the chapter you're working on, go write a character description. Detail it. Make it your own.

Don't use these diversions as an excuse though. Go back to what you were working on and force yourself to continue.

So, people need ideas, hmmm? Let me then propose an assignment for the Thursday group. You are all welcomed to participate, and I'll publish a link to anyone who sends me one for what they produce. Deadline: Tuesday, the sixteenth of October.

Assignment: A relationship has ended, but one person is in total denial. Extreme denial. Absurd denial. Here we have two important elements for fiction, character development and conflict. If you want extra points, try black comedy. Limit...2000 words. Or more. No poetry.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

It's Alive! It's Alive! It's Alive!

Frankenstein looks at his creation, seeing its hands move on their own, its eyelids fluttering open. He looks toward the sky and maniacally proclaims: "It's alive!!!"

I've always loved the Frankenstein legend and its many incarnations. I've loved the original Karloff version, the latter Hammer films, and even Peter Boyle as the misunderstood lug in "Young Frankenstein".

Mary Shelly's horror story, a gothic morality tale, was at once horror and science fiction.

Now, according to an article recently published in the "Guardian", a Nobel laureate named Hamilton Smith has already constructed a synthetic chromosome. Or another way to put it, scientists are now claiming to have achieved Frankenstein's illusory dream, the creation of life. Well, sort of.

According to the article:

"The new life form will depend for its ability to replicate itself and metabolise on the molecular machinery of the cell into which it has been injected, and in that sense it will not be a wholly synthetic life form. However, its DNA will be artificial, and it is the DNA that controls the cell and is credited with being the building block of life."

If you would like to read the whole article, here is the link for the Guardian.

Frankenstein created one monster, and never had to deal with issues regarding bioterrorism, or the political horrors of eugenics. Instead the theme was easily boiled down to the oft repeated line:

"He dabbled in things that were best left alone."

Why is it that when science fiction starts approaching the realm of science fact, it becomes more terrifying than anything presented in fiction. Don't get me wrong. I am all for advances in science. I don't harbor concerns about playing god. Instead, my night terrors involve what should happen when this technology is driven by corporate profit and not by any degree of moral or ethical responsibility.

I'm not stating that the people working on this project aren't ethical, but let's look at contemporary history.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

See Ya At The Conclave

On October 13th, Elder Signs Press will be hosting a coming out party for "High Seas Cthulhu" at the Conclave 32 Convention in Romulus, Michigan. Conclave is the place where I had my first experience with that group of people who call themselves the "furries" because they dress up as cute, fuzzy little animals. I can't explain it past that. The convention is also an great place to immerse oneself in the fantasy fan and gaming subculture. I'm looking forward to it.

One thing which will be a first experience for me is to be present for a book signing. Several writers who contributed to the anthology will be available for a "meet and greet" and to autograph copies of "High Seas Cthulhu".