Unlikely Stories

Way back when I was first getting started as a writer, before my first professionally-qualifying sales, I worked with editor Ben Thomas on a magazine that was his brainchild. It was called The Willows, and its purview was weird tales in the classic vein. In fact, more than just the vein, they had to actually be set not long after the turn of the century or before.

That’s actually how Ben and I met; I sent him a missive arguing about the necessity (or, indeed, the utility) of that requirement. I believed that weird tales could capture the magic of those classic stories without needing to mimic the time in which those tales were set. What could have been the kind of petty bickering that the internet is all-too-well known for instead became a long-time friendship, even though I never actually met Ben in person until shortly before the beginning of the pandemic, when we finally encountered one-another at the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird.

By then, Ben and I had … lost touch is perhaps too strong a term, but communications had become considerably more sporadic in the years that had passed, as our lives had carried us to very different places, both metaphorically and, in his case, literally, as he had spent several years traveling the world.

When I saw him in Atlanta for the Outer Dark Symposium, I had in the trunk of our rental car a set of pretty much every print copy of The Willows, which I had brought along because he needed to scan them for a project he was putting together – a hardcover reissue of the entire run of The Willows, including some unfortunate juvenalia from yours truly and also plenty of other, more respectable works.

For the occasion, he had also asked me (along with several other authors of the unknown and the eerie, including Jesse Bullington, Gemma Files, and Brian Evenson) to craft a few new tales for the hardcover. I contributed “Manifest Destiny,” perhaps the most overtly political story I’ve ever written, and one that had a lot to do with American politics of the moment, even while it was set during and shortly after the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

It was an oddity for me, and I guess it’s only fair that it graces a book that contains some of my earliest published pieces, since those now look like oddities, too. Not long after, Ben invited me to contribute to another project he was putting together. This time it was an all-original anthology of tales concerning a fictional (or is it?) theme park that was open from 1977 until 2003. Surely I wouldn’t hand him another tonal oddity for this one, but of course I did.

“The Robot Apeman Waits for the Nightmare Blood to Stop” is a story that I could only have written for Ben, and not just because it was from a story he told me (relating to OmniPark, actually) that I got the title, paraphrased, as it is, from my misremembered quotation of an essay that Ray Bradbury wrote in 1965 about Disneyland, of all things.

The story itself concerns everything from rocket science and Jack Parsons to Cameron and Thelema and thaumatropes and animatronic monsters and the nature of time – but what it doesn’t have is an overtly speculative element. Oh, there’s still some weird tales stuff lurking at the edges, mostly about the limits of knowledge and, again, the nature of time, but this is my most naturalistic story to date. So, again, another oddity.

The impetus for this (essay, as it turns out) is that I received my contributor copy of Tales from OmniPark in the mail today. It’s a nice-looking book, filled with ephemera related to the park, and accompanied by a reproduction of a 1986 guide map and brochure. And I’m glad that Ben found a home for my odd duck story, with maybe the weirdest title I’ve ever used.

It’s been a weird year, so I guess it only makes sense that it should have weird stories, even if they’re not weird in the same capital-W way that my stories usually are. In fact, the only other story of mine that has been published so far in 2021 is my flash piece, “The Last Day of Doctor Tillinghast,” which showed up in Curtains, a book edited by another friend of mine, this time as a charity antho to benefit #SaveOurStages.

It may seem like an odd fit for me – and it’s an odd, jokey little story, for sure – seeing as I never really went to concerts, but I believe in helping out artists and venues in need, and there’s not that much difference between concert venues and movie theatres, after all, and when the charity antho to save our screens instead hits, put me down twice.

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