Archive for the Words Category

The Feast of the Phoenix

Posted in Words with tags , , , , on June 28, 2013 by bradellison

I decided it was time to make a habit of participating in Chuck Wendig’s weekly flash fiction prompts: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/06/21/flash-fiction-challenge-another-roll-of-the-dice/

I rolled the dice, and chance decreed that I must write a sword and sorcery conspiracy thriller containing a mythological bird and a massive feast. One hasty typing session and one hastier rewrite later, I ended up with this:

The Feast of the Phoenix

Brann muttered a curse and sheathed his sword. Two feet of keen steel, currently the only thing he could trust.

He’d thought he could trust Marcus, but his old friend had revealed himself to be one of them, the captain’s oath to his lord superceded by darker oaths to the secretive Brotherhood. Marcus’ blood stained a corner of Brann’s cloak now, and he just hoped no one would notice. Marcus’ body was hidden in a chest, and would not be found until after it was all over, one way or the other. Having failed in his last attempt to find an ally, Brann would finish this alone.

He’d managed to slip into Duke Aggravan’s keep, for despite the guards and the price on his head, the rangy scout still possessed an intimate knowledge of the hidden corridors of his liege’s fortress, and the agility and strong climbing grip earned on the cliffs and tall pines of his homeland. The Brotherhood had falsely branded him a traitor, engineered his downfall exquisitely, made him an outcast hated even by his brothers in the Duke’s service, but Brann still had his own strength and cunning and will, and the Black Dog of the Duke’s Guard was used to relying on himself alone.

In the great hall, the feast had begun. Duke Aggravan’s fiftieth birthday celebration was nearing its climax, and when it did, the Phoenix Brotherhood would strike.

Brann stayed in the shadows, but made a point of not moving furtively. If seen, he intended his stance and posture to send a message that he belonged where he was. He’d found that among civilized men indoors, that approach served better than stealth.

The kitchen. Three massive fireplaces were manned by spitboys and apprentice cooks, and the three roast boars looked almost done. The pies and small fowls were being served now, carried by a seemingly endless stream of servants in the Duke’s formal livery. The hot air here was crammed with the noise of crackling flames and hissing juices, bubbling soup, clattering dishes, shouted orders and furious curses from the head cook, whose nerves were frayed. No one here had time to think about anything other than the task at hand, and Brann slid through the clangor without attracting a second glance.

He had been cast out of this castle, the badges of rank stripped from his armor, the armor itself stripped from his back, his back marked with fifty and five lashes. He’d borne the shame as stoically as he bore the pain, and in the thieves’ quarter of the city he’d visited the old haunts, sought out the cutpurses, fences, pimps and sellswords he’d known of old, the comrades of his younger days when the wild young savage had first come down from the mountains and lived among the civilized as a thief and mercenary.

Brann had risen in the world since then, but the Black Dog’s reputation had not been forgotten by the scum of the city, and those who needed a reminder got one: iron-strong fingers on their mouths and throats, gripping them from behind in dark alleys when they least expected it. He’d followed the trail to Crespus the Turtle.

The Turtle hadn’t wanted to talk, but after his bodyguard fell with a split skull, the bloated old thief-master found himself without an option. Brann had to cut off three fingers before Crespus began to fear him more than he feared the Brotherhood, but in the end the Turtle revealed all he knew.

Brann had been an obstacle to their plans; the incorruptably loyal barbarian who cut off any hand that offered him a bribe and nailed it to the gate of the keep. They knew they couldn’t sway him, so they removed him. The Phoenix Brotherhood had the wealth and secrets to bribe or blackmail almost any other man in the Duchy, and so witnesses materialized swearing by their lives, evidence was planted by trustworthy men, and a Priest of Mihrazar had risked damnation eternal by perjuring himself when asked to scry for Brann’s guilt or innocence.

A neat job, and all just part of the foundation laid for tonight’s work. They meant to see Aggravar die this day, and with his death fuel the final spell that would unleash their god upon the world. Crespus hadn’t been supposed to know that, but he’d been bold enough to spy on his masters, and had learned thattonight’s murder was meant to break the chains that bound the Phoenix. The Fire Bird would rise again, and the cities of the world would burn.

The great hall.

Aggravan sat in his throne at the table’s head, a circlet of silver and opal on his head, bearing around his neck the gold torq that was his badge of rank. The long table was lined on either side with the knights and ladies of his court, their feasting accompanied by the music of a sextet of minstrels in the gallery overlooking the hall. The twenty best and most trusted men of the Duke’s guard stood in full dress armor along the walls. Once Brann would have had a place of honor among them. Now he had the sword at his belt and the fury in his heart.

That was all he’d need.

The fully-feathered roast peacock was served. That was the signal.

The two guards standing directly behind the Duke Had their hands on their sword hilts, loosening the blades in their scabbards.

Brann was in motion. He cast aside his cloak and had his sword in his hand by the time he reached the table, and he shoved the peacock to the floor with a mighty kick.

The traitor guards were moving, coming at him. He leapt at them, dodging their strokes and burying his short blade in one of their necks.

As lifeblood sprayed across Brann’s face, the other was moving to complete his assigned task. Duke Aggravan had turned to watch Brann’s charge, however, and so the attacked didn’t come upon him from behind as planned.

The Duke was surprised, and unarmed, but he was still hale and vigorous, with a fighting man’s ingrained reflexes. What would have been a killing stroke was deflected by the Duke’s table knife and the assassin’s sword cut him across the arm rather than through the throat.

Then Brann was upon the assassin. He thrust his sword into the man’s right elbow, into the joint of the armor, scraping bone. Then as the man screamed Brann tore his helm off, gripped his head in both hands, and twisted. There was a snapping, and a tearing, and still Brann twisted, until the thrashing corpse was still.

“My lord,” he said at last. “I am glad to see you well.”

END

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They Linger Still

Posted in Words with tags , , on February 19, 2013 by bradellison

“Another homicide coming in.”

Ann Stilson poured herself a cup of coffee from the big 30-cup urn next to the sink, and stirred in a packet of the depressingly bad non-dairy creamer. Another homicide to handle tonight and all she wanted to do was go home. Go home, kick her shoes off, watch the Daily Show and sleep in till eleven. That sounded fantastic, but instead she was now officially 15 minutes past the end of her shift with one more dead man to deal with before she could start her weekend.

She was in her department’s part of the morgue, a bleakly antiseptic low-ceilinged room that was all white tile and fluorescent light, although it was homier here than it was down the hall in the part of the morgue where they stored and cut the meat. A coffee maker, two sofas, wobbly coffee table, one derelict armchair, a refrigerator; not much, but better than stainless steel autopsy tables. Then there were the half-dozen Bottle Trees lining the wall. Tall racks holding the sleek Klein Bottles that contained the patients. She didn’t really understand how the Bottles worked, although she knew their properties as single-sided edgeless containers played a role in containing ectoplasm. She didn’t know many details about what the pathologists did with the bodies either, or what the cops did with the crime scenes, and didn’t worry too much about it.

Her job was all about dealing with the patients after they came out of the bottle.

A paramedic she didn’t know brought the patient in and got her signature for him.

“How was he?” she asked as she initialed his receipt.

“Not great. Freaking out, screaming at the ambulance, rattling the windows, usual stuff. Kept trying to follow the body while we loaded it up. I don’t think he was a really together guy even when he was alive. His medical records say we had him in the emergency room once for a heroin overdose.” The paramedic shrugged as he handed her the carbon sheet of her copy.

“How’d he go?”

“Shotgun, looks like. Someone kicked in the door of his apartment and just blew him away.”

“Ugh.”

“Yeah. He was pretty traumatized about it. All we could do to get him into the Bottle. Can I get that pen back from you? Thanks. Detective Meyer’s going to be coming by to check him in an hour or two, or whenever he finishes with the scene. You have fun with him.”

“Thanks,” Ann said, picking up the bottle. The paramedic took his clipboard and left.

Most people, at least the ones living in well-off first-world countries, don’t get to see many Shades in bad conditions. Polite society keeps death at a distance, uses hospices and funeral parlors and kind-eyed clergymen to keep an arm’s length away from inevitable. They see spectral grandmothers quietly watching christenings and graduations, peaceful ghosts pacing their familiar halls, maybe the occasional merry soul dancing at their own wake.

It’s left to society’s cleaning crew, the cops and ambulance jockeys and hospital staff, to deal with the real ugliness of passing. Dying tranquilly in a nursing home bed is one thing, but dying with a shotgun load of metal pellets in your chest, that brings out the worst in people.

That’s what Ann was thinking to herself as she finished her coffee, delaying the inevitable for a minute before opening the Bottle and introducing herself to her patient. Arnold Roberts was his name, according to the tag on the Bottle.

He poured out like smoke when she unstoppered it, colorless and rippling as he took form. Medium height, slight build with pipe cleaner limbs and a face too big for his head framed by long stringy hair.

“Mr. Roberts? Arnold? My name’s Ann, and it’s nice to meet you. I’m here to help y–”

He started screaming. It went on for a while.

Ann poured herself another cup of coffee. This was pretty routine, and usually the best thing to do was wait for them to tire themselves out. A few minutes went by and she was feeling the beginnings of a headache around her temples, but at last he stopped.

“Hello, Arnold. I’m Ann, Ann Stilson. You’re in a safe place and I’m here to help you. Would you like to sit down?” She herself sat down on the old couch opposite the Shade. The edges of his shape were less distinct, his form paler. He didn’t seem to be a very strong Shade and his fit had taken it out of him. She gently smiled at him, and after a minute or so he drifted over and sat down on the other couch.

“Do you understand where you are, Arnold? Or what’s happened to you?”

No answer. His eyes were wide, and he wasn’t quite aligned with the couch, resting about an inch above the cushion. She knew this meant he was still very nervous.

“You’re in the hospital, Arnold. There’s not really a gentle way to say this, but you’ve passed on.” immediately he shimmered, shaping momentarily losing definition. It was an act of will to maintain his shape, no matter how minor. “We’re in the morgue now, and I’m a counselor, the person who’s here to help you with your transition. I understand how hard this is for you to deal with, so we’ll take our time, all right?”

“Oh god, I’m dead. I’m really dead.”

Like all Shades, his voice sounded flat, hollow, mechanical. They vibrated the air through force of will, the same way they reflected light, and the result sounded utterly unnatural to anyone used to the sound of speech produced by biological machines. Words formed without lungs, lips, tongues or teeth, the speech of the dead sounded like an imitation of text-to-speech software relayed through a cheap speaker. Most people found it unsettling, but Ann was used to it.

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“Really dead. Jesus, I’m dead.”

“It’s OK, Arnold. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed by it, believe me, but you’re still here, and we can help you move on, get past this, to–”

“Get past this? I’m dead!”

“Yes, you are. But death isn’t the end, Arnold, and you have me to help you with what comes next.”

“What is that? What does come next? I have no body, no pulse, I’m…I’m not even sitting on this couch!”

“It’s all right, Arnold. It’ll come in time. As for what comes next, a lot of that will be up to you. But for right now, we want to help you find your feet, so to speak. You’ve just been through a seriously traumatic event–

“Yeah, no kidding! I saw them put me in a body bag!”

“And that’s got to be hard to deal with. But my job is helping people deal with things like that, and I’ve been doing my job for a long time and am pretty good at it. For right now, let’s not worry about what happened. Let’s start with who you are, learning about your identity as a person.”

“What, are you kidding? Is this some Dr. Phil crap?”

“I’m going to be working with you for a while, Arnold, and I’ll need to get to know you. But more than that, your existence after death is defined by your self-image, by who you believe and know yourself to be. You’ll be stronger, more clearly defined, if you have a more conscious awareness of who you are to yourself. Does that make sense?”

“Uh. Sure.”

“So tell me about yourself, Arnold. Introduce yourself to me.”

“Man this is like a meeting. ‘Hi, I’m Arnold, and I’m dead.’ Do I get a chip after I’ve been dead a month? Never mind. OK, so you know my name, I guess if we’re in the hospital you’ve got my medical records so you know I’ve had trouble with drugs, I guess. I’ve been clean for a month though, was turning it around. Guess that turned out to be a waste of time, huh?”

“Time spent improving your life’s never wasted, even now. If you’ve been successfully fighting your addiction, your mind and will are going to be better prepared for this stage of your existence.”

“Healthier afterlife, huh? Awesome. I get to be a better ghost, hooray me.”

Privately, Ann was glad he hadn’t been in a drugged state when he died. Chemically altered minds tended to be even worse at handling the transition than usual. She had a long scar on her left arm from a Shade who’d died from too much meth. He’d about torn the whole room apart, a screaming twitching poltergeist. That was when they’d bolted the furniture to the floor.

“You get to be a better you. Don’t worry right now about being a Shade, just think about being Arnold Roberts. Can you tell me about your history?”

It was Ann’s preferred practice with homicides, to start them off with open-ended questions and let them explore their own sense of self some at the outset. They’d talk about what they were comfortable with, she’d get a picture of who they were, and then they’d be ready to move into the more specific targeted questions of the standard assessment. She’d found that most violently transitioned Shades didn’t do well if you started asking them about specifics immediately, and they didn’t like feeling like they were working from a scripted questionnaire. It made some of them angry, some of them just panicked or froze up, some came apart entirely under the stress of having to think too concretely too soon.

So Arnold talked, he rambled, and she interjected now and then to keep him from derailing onto overly negative tracks but mostly gave him his head and let him talk about himself, making notes occasionally but primarily just focusing on general impressions. He was smart, not very introspective, avoided talking much about what she guessed was a traumatic childhood, and was probably not being honest with her or with himself about how recovered from his addictions he’d been.

After about 40 minutes he was calmer, more focused, more physically concrete in appearance, and better aligned with his surroundings, which meant he appeared to actually be sitting on the couch now instead of floating a little above it. There even began to be a slight olfactory component in his manifestation, a combination of cigarette smoke and cheap incense that wasn’t pleasant, but was a good sign that he was starting to feel much more together. As with the way Shades looked and sounded, their smells were inhuman and artificial, but for counselors they were almost always welcome, since a Shade who manifested a scent was in pretty stable condition.

That was good, because that was when the door buzzed. The detective.

“That’s a police officer, Arnold. They’re investigating your death. Do you feel ready to discuss it with them?”

“Um. Wow. Question I never thought I’d be hearing. Pretty weird, right? Nah, I mean I guess you have to say that all the time, this is normal for you.”

“I totally understand your being nervous. You’re doing really well, though, I mean that, and we want to make sure your passing is resolved.”

“You mean you want to catch my murderer. OK.”

Ann opened the door. The detective was a heavyset man, broad-shouldered, medium height, hair blond turned gray and receding from his wide forehead. He wore a cheap suit with no tie, and had his shield hanging from a chain around his neck.

“Ms. Stilson? I’m Detective Meyer, homicide. If your patient’s up to it, I’d like to get his statement, anything he remembers about it.”

“Come in, Detective. Coffee?”

“Sure.” He sat down on the couch opposite the Shade while Ann went to the coffee machine.

“Mr. Roberts, I’m Detective Meyer, and I’ve been working on your case. I’m going to ask you a few questions. If you can’t remember, don’t worry about it; I’m sure Ms. Stilson’s told you that with a traumatic, er, passing, your memory’s likely to be a little scrambled. Totally fine, we work with what we’ve got. Ah, thanks,” he said, taking the Styrofoam cup Ann handed to him. She sat down on the couch next to Arnold.

“So, Mr. Roberts, do you remember anything about today?”

“Um. It’s kind of…I think I remember things but it’s like something painted on glass and then shattered, you know? A lot of pieces and I don’t know how they fit. Does that make sense?”

“Absolutely. I hear that a lot, totally normal. So, do you remember getting up this morning?”

Do you remember around what time you got up? Do you remember what you had for breakfast? Are there any faces you remember? What about last night? Do you remember talking to anyone? Shades’ memories of their passing tended to be kaleidoscopic, and the more abrupt or traumatic the death, the worse the fragmentation, so it was no good asking things like “who kicked open your door at approximately 11:30 AM and blasted you in the chest with a shotgun?” The police had learned to approach these things laterally, getting the stained-glass shards of dead men’s memories and adding them to the other puzzle pieces they had to work with. Ann had heard it all before, of course, more times than she could count and then some, and she didn’t listen anymore to the content of the questions or the answers. Instead she watched her patient, listening intently to his intonation, observing the coherence of his outline and integrity of his features. Arnold was apparently doing well, but murder victims could be like Mt. St. Helen’s, and it was vital to catch the warning signs before they blew their tops. The furniture was bolted down and the detective would have checked his gun at the morgue door as per policy, but she could easily see him getting strangled with that badge chain if Arnold were to go poltergeist. It had only happened a few times in this morgue, and none of those had been fatal, but worldwide there had been eleven investigators or mortuary workers killed by homicide victims in the past year. That was the kind of statistic that encouraged attention to detail.

Arnold was continuing to do well as Meyer picked at the minutiae of his life. He was composed, free and forthcoming with the details he could remember, not stressing out about the things he couldn’t. It was going smoothly.

Then the detective asked about romantic or sexual partners, and things changed fast.

For just a minute Arnold seemed to be thinking about it deeply, a thoughtful frown on his face. Then for a second his expression changed to one of epiphany, then one of anger, then it blurred out altogether as he started losing control.

“MONICAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!” the Shade wailed suddenly, rising up from the couch as a vaguely man-shaped pillar of roiling smoke.

“Shit!” Ann hissed between her teeth.

The detective stood rapidly, dropping his notebook and reaching for the holster he’d apparently forgotten was empty.

There was a WHUMP! of compressed air and the detective was thrown up and backwards to bounce off the tiled wall.

Ann was already moving, as calmly and smoothly as she could towards the Bottle.

“THAT BITCH!” screamed the Shade. “THAT BITCH AND CHARLIE!”

There was another rush of air and the cop was thrown again, this time forward into the couch, which was a mercy.

“THEY SET ME UP!”

Ann had the Bottle, and was moving to the Shade, doing her best to maintain a stillness, to avoid drawing his attention.

She activated the Bottle just as he began to marshal another telekinetic blow, siphoning him into the container.

She tried to do it gently, tried to keep from tearing him apart, but he wasn’t making it easy. He was screaming again, magazines from the coffee table where rising in a whirlwind behind him, and the bolted furniture was rattling. Then, screaming still, he was drawn into edgeless mouth of the Bottle, and she sealed it shut.

“Well, that’s back to square one. If I were you, I’d start looking for this Charlie guy.”

Meyer picked himself up off the floor, wincing as he rubbed the back of his head. “I think I know where to start looking. Think his murderer getting caught will help him move on?”

“You never know. I’ll worry about it tomorrow. I’m going home, and you should go upstairs and get that looked at.”

The detective picked up his notebook and stuck into his pocket, and Ann took the sealed Bottle and hung it on the tree.

The smoky ectoplasm swirled inside the bottle as she turned out the lights and closed the door.

Memory Lane

Posted in Words with tags , , , , on February 1, 2013 by bradellison

Reading my old drafts is like stepping back in time.  Specifically, back to around 2006-2007, when I was a lazy college kid just figuring out that his life plan needed to be drastically reworked and not having any idea of how to do that.  I had left high school planning to become a well-educated cop, and I was three and a half years into getting my BS in Criminal Justice before I realized how bad an idea that would be for me personally (if I had become a cop, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that I would have become a completely intolerable asshole by this point, and possibly an Objectivist).  I had delivered pizzas, written movie reviews for the school paper for Taco Bell money, and done some amateur theater.  At this point I was in no way prepared for life, and while I knew I liked writing and seemed to be good at it, my portfolio consisted of two mediocre short stories, a couple of well-received pieces of Batman fan fiction, and a Dirty Harry / Highlander crossover story that was frankly awesome.  The fan fiction is still be on the web somewhere, but I’m sure not going to tell you where to look for it.

Somewhere in the intervening six years I guess I became a man, and I’ve definitely grown as a writer, though not as much as I should have if I’d been more diligent this whole time, and it’s fascinating to open up what amounts to a message in a bottle from myself.  The really satisfying thing, though, is looking at this old stuff and realizing that it’s actually good.  Rough, unpolished, sometimes embarrassingly amateurish, but there’s some decent stuff to be polished up and fixed here.

I am looking now at a hardboiled slacker narrative I started writing about ten minutes after the first time I watched Brick.  At the time I was heavily into Kevin Smith as well, so that seeped in along with the first- and second-hand Hammett and Chandler, and there was a fair amount of semi-autobiographical detail there too, stuff like my delivery job, favorite video store, and the tobacco shop I hung out in at the time, and the end result was half of a story about a video store clerk whose murdered roommate and best friend has accidentally dragged him into a Maltese Falconesque MacGuffin hunt that somehow reads like a Big Lebowski pastiche even though it would be at least a year before I watched The Big Lebowski for the first time.  But it’s got some good stuff.  The narration is kind of ridiculous, but it’s snappy, and there are some clever lines scattered throughout, and it’s pretty well paced.  I’m going to finish it now, and when I do I think it’ll be something I can take pride in.

Then next on the docket is what I think has to hold the record as the oldest coherent story idea I haven’t discarded for being embarrassingly stupid (such as my adventure series about a gunslinging badass waging war against the Ku Klux Klan after they take over the country, or the one that was basically Stephen King’s Dark Tower series without coherence or a plot).  I took my first crack at this idea when I was about twelve or thirteen, and then I took  couple of additional swings at it over the years until finally I sat down at the age of twenty-two or twenty-three and began to write the thing out in longhand during my lunch breaks at Wal-Mart (I worked there before their marketing trolls decided they should drop the hyphen).  I had a crisis of faith around that time that kind of mirrored what the protagonist was going through in the story, and hit a point where I could either write a dishonest ending, or a depressing one, and so I left it at that for six years.

I’m ready to finish it now, and finish it optimistically and honestly at the same time, which I guess took a six-year journey from where I was to where I am.  I started it as a middle school kid obsessed with Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, continued it as a directionless college grad dealing with existential angst, and now I’m ready to finish it.  The story of Father MRK-17691, robot missionary.  Fired from orbit onto the surface of a colony world separated from human society and regressed to an iron age culture, he’s a mechanical monk programmed to administer the gospel in hostile environments, and I’ve left him and his questions of faith and personhood hanging unresolved for too long.

So I Lately Finished Reading Savage Season

Posted in Words with tags , , on April 25, 2012 by bradellison

Joe R. Lansdale keeps getting described as Texas’ answer to Stephen King, and both men seem to pull from some of the same wells of influence, chiefly old comic books and monster movies and such.  But fact of the matter is, Joe Lansdale outstrips King by a couple of country miles when it comes to outright no-fooling weirdness.  And King fans will know that’s saying something, because the man from Maine once wrote a book where a bunch of thirteen-year-olds manage to beat a Lovecraftian clown demon by having a gang-bang in a sewer.  But hell, Lansdale wrote a story about Godzilla trying to get clean of his city-wrecking addiction through a twelve-step program, and another about an old man who believes he’s Elvis Presley teaming up with an old man who believes he’s JFK to stop a mummy who’s been eating the souls of their fellow nursing home residents, and another about Huck Finn and Jim venturing out to a magic island where Brer Fox had taken to worshipping Cthulhu, and only a well-timed atomic bomb managed to prevent that anthropomorphic fox from unleashing unholy hell by opening the way for the Outer Gods to come back into this world.  I’ve heard it from the man’s own lips that for a chunk of his career his writing was fueled by the apparently hallucinogenic effects of eating popcorn cooked with lard while watching B movies, which apparently causes strange and unwholesome dreams.  Doesn’t take much reading of his work to believe it’s true.

Hard to help getting weird when you’re rooted in that East Texas soil where Lansdale hails from, though.  I’ve been through that country, and it’s got all those thick woods and marshy bottoms and far, far too many water snakes for me to tolerate.  I tend to regard East Texas as the buffer zone that creates a comfortable distance between me and the festering swamps of Louisiana.  Lansdale calls it home, though, and it’s the setting for much of his work, and I can’t argue any with success.

I wanted to lead off with talk of Lansdale’s weirdness in order to set up the proposition that his Hap and Leonard series of crime novels is, from my reading of his oeuvre, probably the most mainstream stuff he’s got on the market.  It’s all in East Texas, and reflects Lansdale’s passion for martial arts and drive-in theaters and dogs, and his inimitable sense of humor, but it’s grounded and wrapped round a thrilling yarn about guns and stolen money and women you ought not trust, in fine hardboiled style, and done in a straightforward enough manner that I can imagine my grandmother reading it, which sets it well apart from much of the man’s output.  Reading it, it struck me first off that it was an outrage that this hadn’t been turned into a TV series, especially with Justified doing so well.

There’s a few things you absolutely need for a good crime novel, especially one that you’d like to have sell well and bring forth sequels.  First and foremost, I reckon, is the possession of an eye for detail and an ear for language.  Dashiell Hammett, for instance, honed both to razors in his time as a private detective, so that any one of his books you happen to read aloud to a police sketch artist will produce some first-rate wanted posters.  Raymond Chandler maybe was a hair less precise, but he painted in some more vibrant colors and made sure you could feel the truth of every place and person he wrote, feel it deep inside your gut.  Most crime authors don’t have it quite so much, which is why I find a lot of the time reading a paperback thriller seems a lot like chewing cardboard, and you’re better off just waiting for the movie starring Ashley Judd to show up on cable.

Lansdale has it.  He’s got an ear for dialect, in both dialogue and narration, that puts me in mind of old Mister Twain as much as anyone else.  Of course, making that comparison came easy when I reflected on the fact that this here was a story of a couple of friends, one white and one black, entering a river and getting into a whole heap of trouble.

Our heroes don’t really have that much in common with Huck and Jim, though, aside from them being a seemingly mismatched pair of outsiders.  They’re a study in opposites right down the line.  Hap’s white, Leonard’s black.  Leonard’s gay, Hap’s a fool for women.  Hap spent eighteen months in Leavenworth for refusing to go to Vietnam, while Leonard went and picked up some medals and memories he doesn’t talk about.  Leonard is level-headed, and Hap goes and gets them both balls-deep in trouble when he really, really should have known better.  The odd couple routine is, of course, a classic of the genre going back to when E. A. Poe invented it, or when Doyle reworked Poe’s characters into more iconic shapes and sort of invented the modern franchise.  Jonathan Kellerman’s gotten a lot of mileage out of the gay guy/straight guy crimefighting duo over the years, in particular.  But while it’s an old tune, it’s particularly well-played here.  Partly because these guys aren’t a crime-fighting team of any sort, they’re just a couple of middle-aged blue collar Texans getting by in life, but mainly because of how lived-in their friendship feels.  Lansdale pulls off the neat sleight-of-hand trick of selling on the idea that these are just two real people who happen to get caught up in a bad mess, rather than a duo created specifically to star in this adventure and several more to follow.

Then there’s the way the plot roots itself deep into the nature of time and the place the characters are living in, it being a tale of faded middle-aged radicals trying to resurrect their glories days from the sixties with a lost cache of heisted money on a river-bottom.  It’s also deep-rooted into the characters themselves, principally Hap, who’s the one telling this tale.  Stolen cash and double crosses aside, this here is mostly a story about a man getting dragged back to confront his own history, both metaphorically (Hap’s a cynical ex-activist who finds himself stuck in a small house with a bunch of guys who haven’t let go of the ideological fervor they maintained during the Vietnam years) and literally (he’s brought into this business, and brings Leonard into it against the latter’s better judgement, because the maguffin is located somewhere around the places he knew as a boy).

With all this talk of character and theme and whatnot, let’s not lose sight of the red meat that a good hardboiled crime yarn needs.  Guns get pointed every which way, Chekhov’s Dog is guaranteed to bite, there’s some brutal shovel work, and at least one fierce kick to the head.  It’s served up lean, and served up mean, and does not disappoint.

The Riddle of the Work Beyond the Work Part Two: The Rest of the Iceberg

Posted in Words on April 21, 2012 by bradellison

In a perfect world, I’d be left alone in my office in the tower of a lofty gothic mansion in the Pacific Northwest to write all day, taking breaks now and then to gaze out upon the majestic forests to the east or the mighty ocean to the west, or just to play Red Dead Redemption some.  Turns out this is not a perfect world, and the proof is that I do not have a gothic mansion in the Pacific Northwest.  I don’t have my own office, either, and I’m not playing Red Dead Redemption right now.  Additionally, it turns out I can’t get away with writing and nothing else.

It’s hard sometimes, putting words on the page again and again and again, but I can do it.  I feel satisfied doing it.  As I burn it into permanent habit, it’ll continue to become more and more a part of my being, I suppose.  The same goes for the re-writing, the editing, the research, and all of that business of refining the crude ore into readable matter.

Where it gets harder, of course, is keeping at that while working a real job, because bills need to be paid.  With the commute and the lunch hour I spend watching the Daily Show at my desk, that’s about nine hours and a half lost to drudgery.  Home from work, putting in more hours on a second job is a hard sell.

But that’s just the curse of the wannabe trying to break into the game.  Rocky Balboa had to keep up his boxing while spending all day muscling guys with overdue payments, and eventually he was able to buy his kid a pet robot.  That’s the dream we’re all working towards, right?  To one day be able to provide our children with real robots?  I can do this, I can make that happen.

Except there’s no guarantee that the day job is ever going to go away.  It’s hard to make a living in this business.  Glen Cook stuck with his job on a GM assembly line throughout a writing career that saw him putting out 2-3 books a year at times.

Then there’s the fact that, inexplicably, putting together a polished manuscript isn’t immediately rewarded with a parade or an angelic choir or a paycheck or anything.  Someone has to want the thing you’ve written, they have to know they want it, and they need to pay for it.

That means selling yourself.  Selling your work,at least, but isn’t the dream to be in a position where editors are calling you up instead of the other way around?  The job is to sell the work, and do it well enough that the customer keeps your name in mind for next time.  Time was, Stephen King was a teacher mailing manuscripts off to a wide assortment of porno mag publishers, but now publishers can feel honored and blessed if he deigns to write a novel for them.  The transition from one state to another is clearly a lot of work, and as near as I’ve been able to tell so far it’s weird work, unpredictable, partially dependent on luck, entirely dependent on being able to hook people on yourself.

That’s really the part that’s freaking me out at this point.  My current plan is to skip the middleman and self-publish, but that just means that instead of selling myself to one editor, I’m selling to a lot of readers.

And that is the riddle of the work beyond the work.  The job you have to be good at in order to work at your desired job.  It’s some weird stuff.

The Riddle of the Work Beyond the Work Part One: In Which I Bore Everyone To Pieces By Talking About Myself

Posted in Words on April 20, 2012 by bradellison

I’ve been playing at this writing business for a while now, going back as near as I can figure about twenty years.  As a wee boy I tried writing stories in the vein of Howard Pyle and Ray Bradbury, with results questionable at best.  I at one point conceptualized a Batman theatrical production I would write, direct and star in, but that fell through.  As I recall, I was about seven.  At approximately the age of nine, I tried my hand at comic books, crudely drawn with a ballpoint pen and featuring such heroes as the Spider Boy (who spat webbing), Anonymous Man (could fly and had guns) and my personal favorite Bandit (who was able to open interdimensional portals and rifts of any size and shape, including one that was a vast roiling ocean of raw burning energy that he could unleash).  In my teenage years I got into fan fiction, mainly focused on Batman, Highlander, and the Crow.  I wrote a Batman/Nightwing story that won an award on a Nightwing fansite, once.  Still feel kind of proud of that, honestly.  I also tried laying down some poetry around this time, pretty much all of which was absolutely terrible.  I can at least take solace in the fact that the Matrix fan fiction one of my peers had me review for feedback made my stuff look like Hemingway’s Batman fanfic, and that the brief play I wrote for Drama II was conceptually interesting, if nothing else.

I kept of the fan fiction in college, and accumulated several aborted story attempts, fragments and ideas for original stuff that never came together because I couldn’t finish anything, it seemed like.  No discipline, no patience, no understanding of how to structure, no drive to get to the end.  But I was getting better.  My work was getting some polish to it, and I was getting closer to closing the deal.

The summer after my first year of college, I was living with my grandparents, working in a cement plant (mainly jackhammering and shoveling calcified drifts of dust), and I finished my first story.  Wrote it out long-hand in a little notebook, nifty little Twilight Zone yarn about a man who can’t get dead people to stop calling him.  The oldest finished piece of fiction in my portfolio, and I think with some dusting off it’ll be fit for publication later this year.

I managed to finish a couple of other stories around this time.  A couple more supernatural yarns that I can stand to read without too much shame.  I also turned my hand to writing for the stage, since Theater was my minor.  I wrote a few comedy sketches, and I also threw together a couple of short one-act Mystery plays, only one of which was ever performed.  I did Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, a recounting of the Passion from the perspective of the Centurion, and a bit about the Apostles in the time before they hear about hte Resurrection.  It was all-right stuff.

After college I spent a year or two watching movies, reading books, and trying to get my shit together.  A friend got me to write a couple of comic book scripts, then move down to Austin to see about getting them drawn.  I’ve written a few more, knocked out a few more stories, and here we are.

I’m laying all this out here mostly to make a point to myself.  From the time I knew how to read and write, there’s one thing I’ve always wanted to do.  This is the one ambition I’ve never lost sight of, the one passion I’ve never abandoned.  Remembering that, keeping it at the forefront of my mind, serves to remind me that I need to be serious about it.  I’ve wasted too much time to waste any more, accumulated too many useless tag ends and scraps in my “Works In Progress” folder and not enough in my “Completed” folder.  I’m laying it out here so I’ll remember the progress I’ve made, and the direction I need to be moving in.

This is all stuff I need to remind myself of because, as much as I love the business of putting words on the page, I’ve become increasingly aware of what a large iceberg the writing itself is the tip of.

NaNoWriMo Day 20

Posted in Words with tags on November 21, 2011 by bradellison

Blowin’ On Down The Road

Let’s go back a ways. Way back, before it all really got started, way up north around St. Paul or somewhere in Minnesota, there was an old farmhouse. Kind of way out in the middle of the prairie, miles from any other habitation. The horizon there was broken by the house, the abandoned grain silo, a barn that had fallen in on itself, and two sheds packed with over a century’s worth of farm junk and mathoms. Around that time, the chief resident of this house, he built himself a freestanding garage for housing his Cadillac, which seemed to be the only thing he really loved in this world. This was evident to the other folk that shared his roof; a quiet woman given to nervousness and timidity after years of his company, three kids who learned fast how uncaring the world is, and an aging man he called Pop. Pop had been a hard and uncaring kind of a father himself in his day, and his son followed along the path he’d shown. Pop’s wife was long since in her grave, to which she’d gone early after withering like a flower in stony ground.

The youngest of the three kids was the only boy, and was named for Pop, Richard. The head of the household was in the habit of being addressed as Mr. Stane.

It was a cold place, all told, in all the ways the word could be taken. The boy Richard learned a lot of lessons that he’d apply for the rest of his life.

There wasn’t much said about Mr. Stane in town, and that little was seldom good. His temper and unfriendly disposition were known, and commented on, but he had no visitors up out there.

So, there were secrets in that old house, never even whispered about, nor ever known to those outside the house. Down in the basement was an old root cellar he’d converted into a room for discipline. His idea of discipline was ugly. Uglier still was the turn things took when he began noticing his daughters growing up. Things of that sort always have been known to happen from time to time, in the lonely outside portions of the world. Lots of the slurs about folk from the Appalachians and the Ozarks, from Alabama or Arkansas or the swamps of Louisiana, they come from this plain truth: when there’s enough space between you and your neighbors, there’s no one to stop you from doing whatever the hell you want.

So that’s how things were going right around the time the boy Richard was coming on ten or eleven. As far as the particulars go, that’s a little less well known. Reason for that is the way the whole farm was put to the torch around the time the boy was twelve. The mother was dead from a noose around the neck, and who had put it there was never clear to investigators. Pop, he died from smoke inhalation upstairs, while the girls came out all right. That’s all right as far as the fire went. The younger one was barely thirteen, and rest of her life she never talked much, about what was done to her or about anything else. The oldest ended up stripping, then hooking, and heroin proved to be the death of her before thirty.

The boy, though, young Richard Stane, he was never seen or heard from again anywhere in the state of Minnesota, neither him nor the Cadillac the old man had loved.

One thing, one of the only things really, that was said by the younger daughter while the sheriff’s department was putting the pieces of the thing together, was this: her brother had begun to talk about hearing voices, and the ideas they gave him seem to skew in the direction of ugliness. She didn’t elaborate about how or what kind of ugliness.

The car was swapped as a gift to an old shaman in North Dakota, a man shunned by his neighbors for his drunkenness and vicious nature, and the way he was said to deal with malevolent spirits with ill intent. All this was true, but he was the one the voices had directed young Stane to. In exchange for the car, which ended up being sold in shady fashion and ultimately chopped, the shaman took the boy in and began instructing him. He taught him the rudiments he knew, the foundation of knowledge. The layers of being, the worlds beyond the world, and presence of the things outside. That bargains could be struck with them, and that they could grant much to someone willing to deal.

He also taught the boy a lot of worthless bullshit, meaningless ritual and wrong-headed cosmology miced in with the useful knowledge. Stane was a keen pupil however, and gifted. He had a knack for sorting out the pearls of value from the dross. He even managed to avoid picking up his first teacher’s bad habits. Cheap booze and meth fueled the old man, but even as a boy Stane could see that was a sucker’s road. He was sixteen when he decided he’d learned about everything he could from the shaman, and left in the old man’s pickup one night and never came back. Turns out trying to bind a bear manitou while tweaking hard on your third sleepless night in a row is a bad idea, and so the old man died alone and unmourned, in pieces.

After that he was on his own for a while. He skipped any drugs that wouldn’t help him open doors, managed to avoid jail time, and after a time found another instructor, a Freemason who had committed two unsolved sexually oriented murders and had been working on his third when they crossed paths. That’s where Stane really got to find out about the power that came from death. By the time the Freemason had five unsolved murders and a newspaper nickname (the Pentagram Killer), Stane felt like he’d reached another plateau, and decided to try a more direct avenue of learning. He ate the mason’s eyes, sipped fluids from his brainpan, and took a massive amount of peyote. The results were compelling.

After that he’d taken to the road in earnest. With what he knew and knew how to do, gambling wasn’t really gambling, and that financed him pretty well. He began to get a sort of a reputation in the underground scene, the really underground one where the diggers in darkness can be found. Any place more than three or four people with enough of a spark to light a candle with their bare hands gathered, he and his big black car were known. His name was not, for everyone he’d ever learned from had told him that rule right off the bat. Names are power, names are hooks, and if someone gets you by that hook they’ve got you pretty thoroughly. Most people’s real name, their true essential definition of self, it isn’t what’s printed on their birth certificate. But why take chances? That was the Driver’s view on it.

Rumor drew him to Missouri’s backwoods. He drifted through there, found himself pulled like filings near a lodestone, and he followed his impulses and the voices that still occasionally whispered to him. Followed them all the way to his final master.

Haverly had been hardly anything then, a breath of dusty air. But he was just together enough to teach Stane how to make him more so. Then he was strong enough to teach Stane how to accumulate power faster, easier. Turns out all you had to do was take it away from someone who already had it. The Driver turned out to be good at that.

In return, the old ghost wanted a few things. Blood, for starters. Stane didn’t need much of it himself, other than what he made inside his own skin, so that worked out fine for him. The other thing was help with some business in Texas.

The Driver was reluctant, but the old ghost promised him a great deal. On top of that, the Driver began to consider the possibility that if he went along with things, he’d get a chance to feed on everything his master was. That, if he could swing it, would make him truly terrible.

For the Driver’s part, whatever other motives or yearnings he’d had in life had been drowned out by that one single need. Power, and plenty of it.

There are nooks and crannies and backroads to hide in in the hill country, if your sole aim is the evade pursuit. At very least, it was a good place to pass through while on the lookout for a new set of license plates. Given the lateness of the hour, Phil eventually located some attached to a car parked in solitude midway out in a supermarket parking lot just outside the brightest arc of the nearest halogen lamp, and with Branson’s help he was able to slip up and quickly unscrew them without attracting direct attention. For the security cameras, he wore a bandanna under his eyes.

The next step was stocking up, and Phil did all he could to make his window of opportunity count. Five days worth of road groceries, the likes of jerky and trail mix and dried fruit, with plenty of gatorade and energy drinks. A couple of boxes of .357 magnum ammunition. A serious four-cell flashlight and some D batteries. A serious shovel, and a pick for good measure. Road maps showing the whole state of Texas, and every city Phil could find a map for between here and El Paso. And a couple of 5-gallon gas cans. After pulling out the maximum cashback amount he could checking out of the Wal-Mart, Phil went straight to the gas station at the end of the lot and pumped the tank and the cans full of all the gasoline they’d hold.

Once he did that, he drove twenty miles, pulled into another gas station, and discreetly threw the credit card away.

And you’re sayin’ they’ve got ways of trackin’ those things?

“Yeah. I’m not exactly an expert, but they can track them. It’ll have to be cash from here on out. We’ve got enough fuel to last us a while, but I’m not sure just how far we’ve got.”

Better make the most of it, then. Let’s ride.

They rode. Weaving through the curving roads of the rippling land south and east of Austin, they moved along a course Phil figured would avoid any pursuit. He maybe wasn’t thinking with perfect clarity, but he was starting to at least enter into the spirit of the thing. It seemed he was an outlaw now, without ever having wanted that to be the case.

“Hey, Harry,” he said, “how’d you end up an outlaw?”

The ghost in his head gave somehow the impression of shrugging unseen. After the war, most of us was either dead, or sick of the whole business. Most everybody surrendered, swore the oath, and gave up their guns.

“But not you. Didn’t I see that in The Outlaw Josey Wales?”

Don’t know anything about that. Anyway, not everybody surrendered, or stayed surrendered. Some rode off and joined up with General Shelby down Mexico way. Others, like me and Woodrell and Ewell and Mackeson, or likes the James boys and the Youngers, we ended up on the outlaw trail. Still doing a lot of the same things we’d been doing previous, but now there wasn’t anybody else fighting the war. By the end of it, my end I mean, most of us had given up caring about what the war was supposed to be about and hell, mostly we’d stopped caring by the time it was over, but we didn’t see any other way to make our way in the world. Ridin’ and shootin’ was our skills, and we made ’em to pay as best we could, as long as we could.

“So how’d you end up getting into the Guerrilla thing to start with? When did that start making sense?”

Older brother got killed by Brown’s boys. Well, I took that personal. Blood for blood’s the way we always took things, same way it’d always been done going back before our great-great-great-granddaddys crossed the ocean.

“Revenge. And now this guy’s trying to get revenge on me, because of what you did to him while you were trying to get revenge on the Kansas guys, and hey, been a while since history class, but weren’t they getting some revenge for stuff guys from Missouri did?” Phil rubbed the bridge of his nose, and when he next came to a stop sign he cracked open a can of Monster and threw back half of it in one swig.

How things start ain’t always what’s important. It’s finishing things that matters.

“Well, these guys are sure as hell trying to finish things for me. Hey, speaking of which, if I gotta dig you up, can I get some more specific directions than ‘West’?”

Near Fort Stockton.

Ok. Gonna pull over at some point, and figure out where that is.”

It was coming up on four AM when Phil had his course charted, and by then there were subtle signs in the sky that night might not last forever. He began keeping his eyes peeled for the cheapest motel he could find, and when he spotted a winner, he pulled in, paid cash, and went straight down into sleep almost as soon as he’d locked and chained the door. His dreams were absolutely terrible, but he didn’t wake up from them for ten straight hours, and the nightmares were interspersed with deep pools of blackness where all trace of consciousness was expunged.

The Driver rolled through midnight streets, getting back into the feel of himself. He’d lost control. The results had been disastrous. He’d wasted more magic than most practitioners would have been able to amass in a century, and gotten nothing for it but bullet holes. The mojo he’d wolfed down, the mana he had eaten, it didn’t come near enough to covering the operating costs on that one.

The problem was not thinking smart. The rush had been too much, and he’d let it go to his head. Went all blunt-instrument. Made a mess. He hadn’t made a mistake like that since he was a boy.

So, thinking smart, being the man with the plan, that was the name of the game now.

Remember, man, you got to outwit Old Man Haverly at the end of the day, too. Can’t be having any more slip-ups. No, that won’t do at all.