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on writing

So, here’s a story: Back when I was putting together my very first collection, it was originally going to include a story called “The Tooth.” Around the same time, however, Cullen Bunn was putting out a comic called The Tooth. To make matters worse, his comic was about a monster hero in the ’70s Marvel style that grew from a dragon’s tooth, while my story was about a ghost/monster that grew from a dead wizard’s tooth. What’s more, the publisher of my first collection happened to also be publishing some of Cullen’s stuff.

In other words, Cullen Bunn and I were engaged in a Swamp Thing/Man-Thing scenario, while we were both writing for the same publisher. “The Tooth” got retitled and, ultimately, pulled from my first collection, to eventually find its way into print (under its new and, frankly, better title, “Remains”) first in Strange Aeons and then in my second collection, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts.

Cullen Bunn and I aren’t friends, per se, but we’ve remained on friendly terms over the years. He lives in Missouri, I live in Kansas right by the Missouri line, which means that we find ourselves at the same conventions and whatnot a lot of the time. In the years since my first collection came out, his career as a comic book writer has skyrocketed, and he has written, well, just all sorts of things, including lots of stuff for Marvel and DC, not to mention the really great Harrow County and The Sixth Gun.

What reminded me of all this was that last night, I finally got around to watching a movie that came out last year called The Empty Man. It’s adapted from one of Cullen’s comics. The movie seems to be divisive, but most of the weird fic folks I know who have seen it like it, and I totally get why. It’s a big swing at cosmic horror, fronted by a cold open that’s basically an M. R. James ghost story with a Zdzislaw Beksinski creature, and told in the form of a detective flick. Think True Detective only, honestly, this does it better.

It’s long as hell, which I actually dug, because I hate when movies are long except when they’re also long and boring. No, wait, what I mean is, I’m a sucker for overlong procedural stuff. People looking at photographs, digging through papers, going to places and putting pieces together. I can watch that all goddamn day, if it’s done even remotely well, and especially if there’s a supernatural component at the heart of it all.

Add to this that the film is set (though mostly not shot) in and around St. Louis, and I was completely onboard for the whole ride. If you haven’t seen it and you dig cosmic horror, weird fiction, and detective narratives, give it a shot. If you have, or if you’re not into it, at least it prompted me to tell an odd little anecdote about one of my stories…

I’ve been using Goodreads for… many years now. I’d be too lazy to figure out how many, but fortunately my profile over there just handily tells me that it’s a little over 12 – I apparently started in March of 2009.

March of 2009 is like another world. At that time, I was still three years out from the publication of my first collection, and I had only sold the tiniest handful of short stories. In fact, 2009 would have been the year that I published my first chapbook novella, The Mysterious Flame, and the year that I attended my very first writing convention, ReaderCon.

In that time, again according to the site’s own stats because otherwise I would certainly have no way of knowing, I have read and reviewed more than 600 books. I won’t be doing that anymore. Reviewing, I mean, at least not on Goodreads.

I’ll probably still be reading books and occasionally writing reviews for places like Signal Horizon that don’t have the problems I’m here to talk about. But, let’s be honest, if you look back over my Goodreads activity for the last year or two, you won’t see anything all that much different from “nothing.” So I doubt anyone would even notice, if I didn’t make the announcement here.

If, like me, you are active at all in writing and book blogging circles, you have probably seen an article making the rounds from Time focused on the site’s problems with “review bombing” and extortion scams. And they’re part of what’s informing this decision, to be sure, but those topics are really only symptoms made possible by Goodreads’ larger problem.

It’s tempting to lay the blame at the feet of the site’s 2013 acquisition by Amazon, but I honestly don’t know when the problem started. What I do know – what I have heard time and time again, from authors both more and less “successful” than me, whatever that word even means – is that Goodreads has a disproportionate power to make or break a writer’s career.

For those dozen years that I’ve been reading and reviewing books on Goodreads, I’ve treated the site much as I treat Letterboxd now: a place where I leave a review and a star rating (even though I’m not terribly fond of using numerical rankings to describe experiences) that reflects my feelings about the book I just read.

This means that a book may get a rating of anywhere from one star to five, based on how much the thing spoke to me, personally. It also means that some things get judged by different criteria than others – I have to have some way of telling all the Mike Mignola comics apart without just giving them all five stars, after all.

The problem is that Goodreads has become a place where, if you give less than five stars to any book, you are basically putting a bullet in that author’s future sales, especially if they’re an indie author, or a marginalized one, or really anybody but, like, Stephen King or J. K. Rowling.

I don’t like that, but it’s the reality of the situation. Ratings on Goodreads and Amazon have huge impacts on the algorithms that get books in front of people and directly impact sales in significant and meaningful ways. A drop of even a few percentage points has real repercussions for an author’s ability to sell their next book, or the one after that.

I can’t change that. It doesn’t matter that I have my own reasons for a rating I might assign, my own system of determining how many stars I click. The algorithm doesn’t know and, more to the point, it doesn’t care. So, the only really ethical choice is to rate every single book five stars, or stop rating them at all. For the most part, I’ll probably be doing that second one.

I’m not shutting down my Goodreads account just yet, though I’ll admit that I’m on there rarely enough as it is. I’m not even going to swear that I’ll never review another book on the site. I may, and when I do just always hand out five stars each time. But I’ll no longer use it to track what I read, as I have until now. I’ll probably go back to doing that the old-fashioned way, in a paper journal – which I still do for movies, even though I also use Letterboxd until such time as I learn that it is equally ethically compromised.

Nor am I presuming to tell you what you should do with your Goodreads habits, except to say this: Think about them, and think hard. Before you leave your next two or three or even four-star review, do some reading about how this system affects authors, especially those who are the most vulnerable. If you have a favorite author with whom you talk or correspond, ask them for their take on the situation. And let all that inform your decision before you select those stars.

Ever since the pandemic started, just about the first question anyone asks who hasn’t talked to me in a while is, “Have you been keeping busy?” To some extent, that’s a time-honored placeholder question, but in my case, it’s also often a question about my overall stability, since I freelance full time and work tends to happen either in drips or in floods.

Happily for me, pretty much ever since the pandemic started, it’s been the latter, rather than the former. There were a few months in there where clients were tightening their belts and I saw some lean moments, but for the most part it’s been feast, rather than famine, when it honestly could have gone either way. Turns out, when everyone is stuck at home consuming content, it can be a good time for the content creators.

Or “good,” anyway. I haven’t churned out a lot of fiction in this time because, let’s face it, my productivity, indeed my general habits and life cycle, have taken a weird hit from all of this, like they have for everyone. But I’ve kept busy with freelance work, the kind that pays the bills, and that’s not nothing.

Right now, I’m buried under one big project that I can’t really talk about, in addition to the usual stuff, and it’s only going to get heavier as its looming deadline continues to loom ever nearer. It’s good stuff – the kind of work that is both fun to do and will be fun to announce, when that’s possible – but it’s also stressful, as any big project always is.

Add to that a number of other factors – most of them secret identity stuff that I don’t really want to get into here right now – and, well, see the subject line of this post. You can see it on my Letterboxd, where May was the lightest month of the year so far, with only 13 movies clocked in the whole month. Unlucky, for some…

And I can feel it in, well, just about everything – a weight that presses down without surcease, a exhaustion that sleep can only do so much to cure. Insert that panel from Watchmen, about being tired of Earth and of these people, the tangle of their lives, etc. It’s not as bad as all that, though. Some of those external frustrations I was talking about are just putting extra weight on what is already a busy period – not only adding stress on top of stress, but making work harder to focus on, harder to do.

Which is all a long way of saying that I might be a little scarce; not that my being a little scarce looks, honestly, all that much different from my being here a lot. I’m still posting to Twitter every day, continuing my year-long daily aesthetic thread, sure, but also posting daily tweet-length flash pieces about giant monsters for the entire month of June. My usual columns and reviews will be popping up, and I’ll be doing other things. Movies at the movie theatre are becoming a thing again, which means the triumphant return of #AnalogSunday, the thing that I missed most of all the many things I missed during the pandemic.

In short, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll just be under the gun a bit, is all.

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.

This post is not actually about the 1992 Amityville Yard Sale sequel about an evil clock. Just getting ahead of that, to spare you the disappointment. No, this is about kicking 2020 in the ass on its way out the door, and to that end, I just want you to know that there won’t really be a traditional year end retrospective around these parts.

Tonight, at the Horror Pod Class Study Group on Facebook, Tyler Unsell of Signal Horizon and I will be getting together to talk about the (precious few) high points of this trash fire of a year, and over at Unwinnable I contributed a blurb or two to the various best of the year lists, but for the most part, 2020 was garbage and we’re all happier to have it in the rear view.

Was the best movie I saw this year really Underwater? Maybe. Was very nearly the only book I read this year Adam Cesare’s wonderful Clown in a Cornfield? Also maybe. Did I buy a bunch of tabletop games that you mostly can’t play at the best of times (because who has that kind of free time) and definitely can’t play in the midst of a pandemic? Almost certainly. Did I get back into Dungeons and Dragons just in time to go into social isolation and then write about how racist it is? You bet I did!

Does any of that matter, in a world where people are dying and laid off and struggling to get by while the ghouls in their high towers play politics with our lives and balk at even so much as throwing us the scraps from their table? Not one iota.

This is getting a little heavy, though, so let’s pump the breaks. I have some good stuff to talk about. We all learned that octopuses like to punch fish, and Painted Monsters took top honors in a best-of retrospective. And hey, if you’d like to take their advice and pick up either Painted Monsters or Guignol, both are currently on sale (along with the entire rest of the Word Horde catalog) direct from the publisher.

For those who may be genuinely curious about the stuff I normally include in an end-of-the-year wrap-up, I watched fewer movies in 2020 than I have in a while. The lockdown had the opposite effect on my viewing habits than it did for a lot of other people, and I found it hard to watch (or read, or write) much of anything I didn’t have to.

Fewer than usual still means 248 movies over the course of the year, though, 155 of which I watched for the first time, meaning that I, at least, breezed by my goal of watching more new-to-me movies than not each year, even if my overall total was down. Among those, high points that didn’t come out anywhere near this year included Hercules in the Haunted World, The Spiral Staircase, Humanoids from the Deep, Mill of the Stone Women, The Outing, Psychomania, Next of Kin (1982), exploring the films of Shinya Tsukamoto for the first time, Prom Night 2, WitchTrap, The Killing (1956), and watching The Muppet Christmas Carol for the first time on Christmas Eve.

I already wrote about some of the stories I was proud of seeing published this year – and ones that I’m looking forward to in the future – and this year I also started two new regular columns, one in Weird Horror about, well, weird horror, and one at Unwinnable as much about wanting to play board games as about playing them. I got bylines in The Pitch, our local cool-kid newspaper here in Kansas City, and I started writing an occult cyberpunk novella for Broken Eye Books that I’m currently behind on. (Sorry about that.)

All the way back when I made my very first post of the year ten centuries ago, 2020 had already punched us in the mouth not even one week in with the death of our beloved cat, and I said back in that post that “sometimes the only thing you can do then is grin with blood in your teeth.” I was such a sweet summer child in that moment, and I had no idea how much harder 2020 was about to come at us, but those of us who are still standing got out the other side of this entirely arbitrary calendrical delineation, so let’s at least flip it the bird while we’re burning to death.

If you have the stomach for a somewhat more normal end-of-the-year retrospective, join Tyler and I tonight on the Horror Pod Class. Otherwise, I’ll see you in the next year. Stay safe, stay weird.

Now that it’s December, I think I can say with finality that 2020 will mark the first year since 2015 that I haven’t had a new book out with my name on the spine. It would be tempting to chalk this up to, y’know, 2020, and it’s certainly why there may not be one in 2021 either, but publishing is a slow business, and anything that was going to come out in this dark year would have already been in progress before the year began.

In actuality, there is no reason – either sinister or benign – for there not being a book this year, just as there is no real reason for their being a book each of those others. My first collection came out in 2012, the same year that I co-edited Fungi with Silvia Moreno-Garcia. My second, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, was released by Word Horde in 2015. The following year saw the release of Monsters from the Vault, a collection of short essays I had written as part of a column about vintage horror cinema for Innsmouth Free Press.

In 2017, I released both my first and, thus far, only novel – a licensed work for Privateer Press – and a hardcover reprint of my first collection, with a couple of new stories and all-new illustrations by M.S. Corley. 2018 saw the release of my third collection, again from Word Horde, while in 2019 a follow-up to Monsters from the Vault hit shelves.

I have more than enough stories to complete another collection – probably a couple more – but the time is not yet right for any of them. The stories are there, but they do not all fit together. Eventually, those stories will find other stories and together they will form the collections they are meant to inhabit. Until that time, I keep churning.

The next book that’s likely to come out with my name on the cover is probably going to be Neon Reliquary, the short, occult cyberpunk novel that is currently being released in serial form at the Broken Eye Books Patreon. Some delays happened, and they are my fault, but the second installment should be up in the next month or two.

Several stories have already made their way out into the public in various places that are part of a “story cycle” based around Hollow Earths and similar pseudoscience. Once all of those have made their initial bows, the plan is to collect them – along with some original content – into a book, as well. Almost all of them are written and either published or pending publication – one has even made it into the Best Horror of the Year and been reprinted at Nightmare magazine – but various factors have delayed, well, everything, right?

I spent November working on a 40,000 word tabletop gaming-related work-for-hire project that I should be able to announce probably early next year. I had a few new stories published in 2020 that I’m quite proud of. More than in 2019, though not by much. “Prehistoric Animals” in the Weird Fiction Review, “The All-Night Horror Show” at The Dark magazine, “Manifest Destiny” in The Willows Anthology, which also reprinted some of my unfortunate juvenilia from a bygone age, “Screen Haunt” in It Came from the Multiplex, and “The Double-Goer” in Between Twilight and Dawn.

I’ve also sold several stories that have yet to see publication but should be out sometime next year. A Lucio Fulci sword-and-sorcery tribute in Beyond the Book of Eibon, “The Robot Apeman Waits for the Nightmare Blood to Stop” in Tales from OmniPark – both of which were funded via Kickstarter – and new stories in that Hollow Earth “story cycle” I mentioned that will be out in New Maps of Dream from PS Publishing and Tales from Arkham Sanitarium from Dark Regions Press. Plus some others that I can’t name just yet.

2020 has been 2020 for everyone. Someone on one of the Slacks that I’m on said that we are all a decade older than we were this time last year, which sounds about right. But so far I’m hanging in there, and I’m still banging out words on the regular, so expect to see more from me as we end this accursed year and start another, hopefully better one.

I hope you’re all hanging in there, too. Stay safe, stay weird.

I’ve never officially participated in National Novel Writing Month and, most likely, I never shall. This is not because of any grudge against NaNoWriMo so much as because I don’t really write novels and if I do, it will probably be under other circumstances.

In fact, the only novel I’ve ever written was a tie-in novel for Privateer Press penned, as fate would have it, largely over the course of a November and December back in 2016. (Which is, incidentally, also why I say that I haven’t ever officially participated in a NaNoWriMo – I did knock out 50,000 words of Godless in November of that year, because deadlines are a hell of a thing.)

It’s not quite so ambitious as that was, but this November I’m actually engaged in another work-for-hire project that is also game related, also due at the end of the month, and about 40,000 or so words of work.

It’ll be in a different form than Godless was and isn’t a sequel or anything, for those rare few who were hoping for such a thing. But once again I am experiencing some NaNoWriMo solidarity as I knuckle down to try to churn out a whole lot of words on top of my usual freelance work for the month.

Sadly, the nature of the project has to remain a secret for now, but as soon as I can let you know what it is, I certainly shall.

So, if you don’t hear from me much in November, that’s why. And if you hear from me a bunch more than usual? That’s also why.

Look, I don’t understand it myself – and, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t really tried very hard to understand it because most days just doing what I’ve gotta do to get by is enough – but reading has been really tough during the pandemic.

I don’t have any idea why (see above), but my to-be-read pile has basically not budged one micron since lockdown began. Ditto with writing fiction, for the most part.

Oh, I’ve been working, still. I’ve been freelancing at about the same pace I was before. I’ve read for work; done some copyedits that I was contracted to do. I’ve written nonfiction: articles and columns and also been working on some other … let’s call them projects. (Mostly homebrew game stuff no one will ever see.)

But when it comes time to actually put digital quill to page and write a story that I don’t already owe to anyone? It just hasn’t been there. Normally, that’s the horror of the writer, right? That we’ll wake up one day and it’ll just be gone. We won’t be able to do it anymore. There won’t be any stories there.

Yet, for whatever reason, I’m not too scared this time. This doesn’t feel like the end; it doesn’t really even feel like a dry spell. It just feels like the end of a long day of work, when you’re not feeling up to even watching a movie or anything more than staring at whatever happens to be on the TV at the moment.

So far, I’m okay with letting it just be that. With letting what I have to do to keep the lights burning and food on the table be enough. With my recent spate of dungeon crawl board games and D&D reading being what I do to keep out the dark, for the time being.

So far, so good.

It’s hard to believe that it’s August 2nd already, as I write this. The pandemic – and with it the rest of the garbage fire that is 2020 – has been … having an effect on my overall life and output, to be sure, and rarely an altogether positive one. (When I told my therapist – via a Zoom call, of course – that I had spent a few days freaking out the prior week, she was like, “Only a few days?! Bravo!”)

As someone who already worked from home, I am far from the hardest hit by this slow-motion apocalypse, but it’s also impossible to be an even remotely empathetic human being and not feel the miasma of strain that currently grips the world.

I am proud and envious of the folks who have turned this time toward productive ends by writing their novel, carving through their to-be-read pile, or even just watching a lot more movies; even while my own TBR pile gathers an ever-deepening layer of dust and the very notion of putting words on the page carries a kind of low-key existential dread.

To my own surprise, I haven’t even watched that many movies during the lockdown. In fact, June was the lightest month since I started keeping score several years ago, with only ten movies watched. Part of that can be chalked up to the (hopefully temporary) death of movie theaters and breakdowns in the supply chain for new review titles, but a part of it is just how I’m coping with [gestures at everything].

July picked up a bit, thanks, in no small part, to Arrow Video’s Shinya Tsukamoto collection, my review of which should be dropping any day now. At ten movies all by itself, it basically guaranteed that I was going to at least eclipse June’s paltry sum.

I’ve still been writing, of course, just not a lot of fiction. My last post was partly about my new gaming column for Unwinnable, and I also wrote about getting into Dungeons & Dragons during the plague times for our local dirtbag/cool kid newspaper The Pitch. (Observant readers may recognize a thinly-veiled version of The Pitch as The Current in my story “The Red Church.”)

This is probably my first byline in an actual print newspaper since college. Like most writers my age, I entertained some fantasies about one day being a journalist, mostly when I was in high school and later a bit in college. Even by the time I was in college, though, the future of print newspapers was already pretty close to utter collapse, so I kinda wrote off the notion of that ever coming to pass. Every once in a while, we get a nice surprise, instead of just a box full of the plague.

As you may be able to gather from that, I’ve been spending a lot of the pandemic getting really into games that I mostly can’t play right now. In addition to D&D, I finally took the plunge on Descent: Journeys in the Dark, a game I’ve been wanting to try for years, just in time for it to probably go out of print, it looks like? (Speaking of, if anyone happens to have the Stewards of the Secret expansion for it, I would love to take that off your hands.)

So far, for a game that I basically haven’t played, I’ve really been enjoying my time looking at and thinking about playing Descent, anyway. I guess there are worse ways of coping…

Apparently, I am a writer of nonfiction these days.

That’s not completely fair. I’ve had new stories in The Weird Fiction Review and The Willows already this year, and It Came from the Multiplex is coming soon, not to mention my story “The All-Night Horror Show,” which went live at The Dark and got a “recommended” from Paula Guran in Locus. I’ve got new stories coming out in Ben Thomas’ OmniPark anthology and some other places I can’t yet name.

But I also can’t deny that I’ve been publishing a lot more nonfiction of late. Besides my usual movie reviews – which, for various reasons, have actually dried up a bit due to the pandemic, but there are more in the wings – I’ve also got a column in Michael Kelly’s forthcoming digest-sized Weird Horror mag, the first installment of which is about those Crestwood House monster books.

And that’s not even my only new column! Those regular readers of this here blog may remember a while back my mentioning a new monthly column that I had coming out over at Unwinnable called “I Played It, Like, Twice,” in which I discussed the joys and sorrows of really wanting to be into board games, but hardly ever playing them.

As it did with most everything else in the entire damn world, the pandemic changed plans for that column somewhat, but I’ve still been writing it, and given that the announcement was a few months ago, I’ve written a few of them!

The first installment discussed playing Horrified during the pandemic, while later installments covered the difficulties I ran into with the rules for the otherwise-admirable Vast: The Mysterious Manor and the pleasures and perils of Rum & Bones, a pirate-themed game of shoving piles of minis around.

Though playing board games is necessarily a different proposition in this brave (?) new world we find ourselves in, I’m still plowing ahead with the column and also I’ve recently gotten really into Descent, in spite of not having yet played it even once, so expect some more about that in the future …