Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire)

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll  be posting previews from the 17 stories in my new short story collection, Before and Afterlives. If you like what you read, take a hop over to your favorite online bookseller and purchase either the print book or the e-book, and leave a review when you’re finished reading. It helps other people figure out if they’d like to read the book (and strokes my ego, at least when they’re good reviews). ;-)

Today’s preview is the opening to a short story called “The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire” which originally appeared in The Journal of Mythic Arts, edited by Terri Windling and Midori Snyder. This story is what I think of as a Midwestern fairy tale. I wrote it in 2004, after waking from a dream of being tangled up in a barbed wire fence in the woods on my family’s farm here in Ohio. It was a couple of months later that I’d move to Japan, so this was the last story I wrote prior to that experience.

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The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire

 

There was once a boy who was born wrapped in barbed wire.  The defect was noticed immediately after his birth, when the doctor had to snip the boy’s umbilical cord with wire cutters.  But elsewhere, too, the wire curled out of the boy’s flesh, circling his arms and legs, his tiny torso.  They didn’t cause him pain, these metal spikes that grew out of the round hills of his body, although due to the dangerous nature of his birth, his mother had lost a great amount of blood during labor.  After delivery, the nurse laid the boy in his mother’s arms, careful to show her the safe places to hold him.  And before her last breath left her, she managed to tell her son these words:  “Bumblebees fly anyway, my love.”

They followed him, those words, for the rest of his life, skimming the rim of his ear, buzzing loud as the bees farmed by his father the beekeeper.  He did not remember his mother saying those words, but he often imagined the scene as his father described it.  “Your mother loved you very much,” he told the boy, blinking, pursing his lips.  The beekeeper wanted to pat his son’s head, but was unable to touch him just there–on his crown–where a cowlick of barbs jutted out of the boy’s brown curls.

The beekeeper and his son lived in a cabin in the middle of the woods.  They only came out to go into town for supplies and groceries.  The beekeeper took the boy with him whenever he trekked through the woods to his hives.  He showed the boy how to collect honey, how to not disturb the bees, how to avoid an unnecessary stinging.  Sometimes the beekeeper wore a baggy white suit with a helmet and visor, which the bees clung to, crawling over the surface of his body.  The boy envied the bees that landscape.  He imagined himself a bee in those moments.  As a bee, his sting would never slip through his father’s suit to strike the soft flesh hidden beneath it.  His barbs, though, would find their way through nearly any barrier.

One day the beekeeper gave the boy a small honeycomb and told him to eat it.  The comb dripped a sticky gold, and the boy wrinkled his nose.  “It looks like wax,” he told his father.  But the beekeeper only said, “Eat,” so the boy did.

The honeycomb filled his mouth with a sweetness that tasted of sunlight on water.  Never before had something so beautiful sat on the tip of his tongue.  Swallowing, he closed his eyes and thought of his mother.  The way she held him in her arms before dying, the way she spoke before going away forever.  The memory of his mother tasted like honey too, and he asked the beekeeper, “What did she mean?  Bumblebees fly anyway?”

“Bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly,” said the beekeeper, closing the lid on a hive.  Honeybees crawled on the inside of the lid like a living carpet.  “Their bodies are so large and their wings so small, they shouldn’t be able to lift themselves into the air, but somehow they do.  They fly.”

Purchase the whole book at Amazon.com

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Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (A Resurrection Artist)

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll occasionally be posting previews from the 17 stories in my new short story collection, Before and Afterlives. If you like what you read, take a hop over to your favorite online bookseller and purchase either the print book or the e-book, and leave a review when you’re finished reading. It helps other people figure out if they’d like to read the book (and strokes my ego, at least when they’re good reviews). 😉

Today’s excerpt comes from “A Resurrection Artist” which was published in 2004, in the UK magazine, The Third Alternative, which was rebranded a year or so after the story came out as the magazine now called Black Static. It’s a story I was thinking about while my reading took me across both Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” and Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus”. I’ve always been interested in writing about characters whose talents (often magical gifts and/or curses) are somehow used or abused by others for personal gain, and I’ve always been interested in cultures of spectacle (like our own here in the U.S.). This is one of my stories where those interests converged.

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A Resurrection Artist

Lying here in this abandoned hotel, I have done it once again. Once every year or so, depending on my finances, I allow myself to die. It’s a way of life, a means to an end, or an end to life as a way of surviving. Any way you look at it, my body is a miracle.

Now comes the burning sensation of re-entry, a tingling that grows to feel like fire.  As I find myself returning to my body, every cell expands, flooding with electricity. Then my eyes blink over and over, making adjustments to reality and to the grade of light. I gasp for a first breath, then howl like a newborn. After this I can begin to see the people who killed me hovering over my body, their oval faces peering down, curious, amazed.

This audience has been the eighth group to kill me. It was a thrill for them, I’m sure, even though some have already seen me do this. I’m developing a following. Times are rough, Jan constantly tells me. People need something to believe in. Jan is my manager. She’s my sister, too. Improvisation, spins on old ideas, variations on a theme, she advises, is what’s needed to keep this act alive.

This act can’t die, though, even if I tried. Like the cat, I have nine lives. More than nine most likely, but in matters like this there’s always the unpredictable to take into account. So far, though, Jan and I haven’t figured out how to mess up death.

A young man wearing a dark suit says, “This can’t be happening.” I cough and spit up blood in my hands. There’s a golden ring on one of my fingers that wasn’t there when I died. This must be what I brought back this time. I try to recall how they killed me, but can only remember in pieces: a burn under my ribs where a knife slid in, the jolt of a gunshot splitting my chest open, my eyes flooding with blood after the blow of a hammer.

“Believe,” says Jan. I follow her voice to find her standing beside me. She waves her hand over my body, from head to toe. “You did it yourselves,” she tells them. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is his body, his arms, his legs, his head and torso. You’ve kept vigil beside him since the moment of death. I hope the experience has been satisfying.”

There’s an old lady whose eyes have slowly narrowed to slits. “I’m not so sure,” she says. “I mean, I know he died.  We saw the heart monitor, the flat line. But now that he’s alive again, it just doesn’t seem fair.”

A typical reaction, really. Some people are confused about what they truly want. She didn’t pay for a resurrection; she only wanted the death.

But we have their money, ten thousand dollars a head, and there are eight of them. We kept this group small since outings like this–a killing instead of a suicide–are illegal. Hence the abandoned hotel, once known as The Flamingo. The carpet, the striped wallpaper, the floor of the drained pool, everything here is pink.

“Mrs. Bertrand,” Jan says, “you’ve just witnessed a miracle. My little brother, barely twenty-three years old, allowed you to kill him so he could return to us from death. How can you possibly be disappointed?”

Mrs. Bertrand sniffles. “Oh yes,” she says. “I know. I wasn’t really complaining. Don’t mind me.”

Jan smiles. Mrs. Bertrand smiles.  The rest of the killers smile. I try, but only manage a weak sneer.

Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (Dead Letters)

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll occasionally be posting previews from the 17 stories in my new short story collection, Before and Afterlives. If you like what you read, take a hop over to your favorite online bookseller and purchase either the print book or the e-book, and leave a review when you’re finished reading. It helps other people figure out if they’d like to read the book (and strokes my ego, at least when they’re good reviews). 😉

The first preview is from a short story called “Dead Letters” that was originally published in Realms of Fantasy in 2006. I can’t say much about the story without spoiling the “reveal” it hinges upon, but I’ll say it’s the sort of story where the real and the imagined, the earthly and the supernatural, are difficult to tell apart. At least at first.

Dead Letters

Dear Sarah,

I have heard of your great misfortune to have gone and died so suddenly.  Now I find myself writing after so many years have passed between us in the hopes that perhaps this news is not true.  For a long time I believed I was dead too.  Then one day someone called my name (“Alice.  Do you remember her?  Alice Likely.  How she loved that girl.”) and I opened my eyes in a dark place, like a fairy tale princess trapped in a coffin.  Light appeared suddenly, a flash so sharp and blinding, it pricked my eyes and made them water.  Anyone passing by might have thought I was crying.  I must have looked so sad.

And someone did stop beside me.  I was still trapped in that dark place, my body bagged in a sack of unbeing, but the flash of light had ripped a hole in the darkness.  Through that opening, two hands reached in and gripped both sides of the fissure.  The hands pulled the gap wider and wider until daylight surrounded me, and trees sprang up, row after row of them.  Birds called out.  Their notes pierced my eardrums like needles.  I heard water, and then there it was too–a stone fountain next to the bench I lay upon, and the birds perched upon the fountain’s ledge staring at me, their eyes black and serious.

Whoever freed me disappeared before I could pull myself together.  A newspaper lay open across my chest, and another on my legs.  I sat up and the paper on my legs slid to the ground, rattling.  I held on to the section covering my chest and looked at it for a moment, only to see your name glaring up at me, as if your name had a life of its own, had your eyes and the looks  you could give with them, and so your name glared at me in such a way that I could not help but notice it.  It said you were dead.  Twenty-eight years old.  A promising local artist.  Survived by her mother and father.  Their names were listed as well, but it hurt to look at them.  Particularly your mother’s.  She never liked me and I still don’t know why.  What did I ever do to her?

I am writing in the hopes that there may still be a chance for us to reconcile, to come together, to answer some of the questions that have burned inside me since you said goodbye.  Why did you betray me?  Whatever happened to our promise?  And where have I been for so long, asleep and waiting for someone to wake me?  Why didn’t you do that?  I don’t even recognize my own body.  My legs are long and my feet are large.  When I peered into the fountain water, a face looked back that belonged to a stranger.  Then the fountain turned on again, displacing the water, and the face broke apart into ripples.

Now I am writing this to you.  Will you please talk to me?  Can we forgive one another?

Love,

Alice

*

     I am writing in a notebook stolen from Rexall’s drugstore, the sort of book Sarah and I used in school years ago, for doodling and note-taking.  The cover of it looks like the black and white static on a dead television channel.  “Snow,” Sarah’s father used to call that.  “Nothing but snow here,” he’d say, flipping the channel until something lively and entertaining appeared.  He favored shows about policemen and vigilantes who saved the lives of people who could not save themselves from danger.  He instructed the vigilantes and policemen on how to go about all of this saving-of-lives business, spouting advice from his reclining chair, waving the remote control like a scepter.   Sometimes the vigilantes listened to him, sometimes they didn’t.  But they always saved the helpless victims in the end.

The pharmacist and his wife didn’t recognize me.  But I didn’t recognize them at first either.  They are old and gray now.  Mrs. Hopkinsey’s face sags.  Her teeth are not her teeth any longer.  I know this because I remember they were yellow and crooked and now they are white and bright and not so narrow; they line up in her mouth like good soldiers.  She smiled at me.  “Can I help you, dear?”

Such a nice woman, just as I remember.  I told her I was browsing, and she nodded and turned back to shuffling cigarette packs into the storage bin over the checkout counter.

I walked the aisles slowly, touching candy bars, tubes of lipstick, barrettes in the shape of butterflies.  I spun the comic book rack and paged through magazines, but the women inside were strange and alien, their faces harsh, skin like plastic or velvet.  Too smooth.  Their outlines blurred into the backgrounds.  I found that a familiar feeling, though, and felt a stab of pity for the cover girl’s blurry faces.

The greeting cards stood on the same shelves that they always had; I picked through them.  One said, “I feel so lonely with you not here.”  On the cover was a picture of a little girl looking up at the moon, holding a doll at her side.  Inside it read, “But we’ll always be friends, no matter what the distance.”  I found myself crying, and stuffed the card under the waistband of my pants, covering it up with my sweater.  I looked to see if anyone had seen me take it, but Mrs. Hopkinsey still restocked cigarettes and Mr. Hopkinsey stood behind the medicine counter, measuring out pills for a customer.

If Sarah had been there, she would have been the one to take the card.  I would have been the lookout.  Those had been our positions when we were children.  I felt a little guilty changing places with her, like borrowing a friend’s sweater and not returning it, even though you know how they love it so.

I found the notebook in the next aisle over.  I hadn’t known I was going to take it either.  I needed things without knowing what I needed, so I let my hands think for me.  They reached out and took things:  the greeting card, several envelopes, the notebook, pens, a bar of chocolate, a ten dollar bill crumpled up on the black and white checkered floor.  I used the money to buy a soda and a bag of potato chips, so as not to be suspicious.  Mrs. Hopkinsey rang me up with her new smile still flashing, and when she handed me my change, I thought, I am home.

Click here to purchase the book and read the entire story (among 16 others!)

Before and Afterlives Arrives

My first full length short story collection, Before and Afterlivesreleased this week! I’m sort of over the top excited by that, because since I was a teenager, I imagined my first book being a collection of short stories, something in the vein of Ray Bradbury or Shirley Jackson, but contemporary in style and setting. They were two of my favorite authors for the longest time, and I still feel their influences on me all these years later, after publishing a novel and a novel-in-stories prior to my adolescent-imagined short story collection.

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Before and Afterlives collects the majority of what I think of as my best and better stories from the last decade, the first decade of my life as a publishing writer. They are mainly stories of the supernatural, or contemporary fantasies (the word fantasy writers and publishers used to use for what is often now called urban fantasy, which is a term I think is too limiting in terms of setting). But there are several speculative fiction/scifi-ish stories included in the collection as well. In many ways, it’s the kind of mixed genre collection I used to enjoy as a young reader: in one story you’ll encounter a beached mermaid who is taken in by a woman whose daughter has disappeared, in another you’ll witness a haunted house destroy the lives of several different families over a century, and in yet another you’ll come across a young man whose lover has been stolen away from him someone who just might be an alien. There’s a girl who can call ghosts to her, and a man trying to survive the end of the world. There’s a contagion that causes people to vanish, little by little, and there’s a young man who makes his living by allowing other people to kill him for a fee, and to let them witness his remarkable ability to resurrect.

If I hadn’t written all of these stories, I would totally be wishing that someone else would have. I think that’s the writer’s impulse really. They’re readers who have become so obsessed by story that they are eventually moved to create their own stories, the ones they can’t find written by someone else.

It’s an odd thing. When I was growing up, short story collections were read as much as novels were, but times have changed. The poor short story has lost ardent fans the same way poetry has over the decades, and while I personally can’t understand why this would be–short stories are, to me, the perfect size to contain a narrative in its most distilled form, like strong whiskey–that’s how things are, regardless.

And on top of that, a lot of story collections are now published by smaller, independent presses, which have taken up the slack of larger, corporate publishing houses who specialize in producing novels. This also means it’s harder for those presses and authors to make people aware of their collections. My publisher, Lethe Press, went out on a limb to publish this collection, and I appreciate the efforts of the publisher, Steve Berman, and the beautiful interior design work done by Alex Jeffers, along with the awesome cover art made by Steven Andrew, in the production of this book.

So, dear reader, if you’re interested in helping me spread the word about mine, you can help in a variety of ways:

1.) Buy the book, and then review it somewhere. Like Amazon.com, or Barnes and Noble.com, or on Goodreads.com, etc. 

2.) Buy the book as a gift for someone you think might like it.

3.) Buy the book for someone  who is your frenemy and that you’re sure they won’t like it.

4.) Tell other people about it.

5.) Ask your local library to purchase a copy for the shelves.

6.) Ask your local brick and mortar bookseller to order it for their shelves.

7.) Have someone drive you down the street while you lean out the window with a bullhorn, announcing the title of the book and throwing candy at the youngsters lining the sidewalk.

8.) Blog about the book.

9.) Tweet or facebook about the book. Take photos of yourself reading it.

10.) Run for political office with the book as your main platform. Be sure to reference it in all of your speeches.

I’m sure there are other ways you can help, and I welcome any additional modes of promotion that I haven’t thought up yet to be listed in the comments of this post!

But in essence: new book is out! Thank you for buying, reading, reviewing (buying even if you don’t read or review it), and for being there, reader, both the ones who know who they are and the ones who don’t know just yet, but soon will be. 😉

Kindle edition also available here.

Being on Set for Jamie Marks is Dead

At the end of this past week, I took a spontaneous trip to upstate New York to visit the film set for the movie “Jamie Marks is Dead” which is based on my first novel, One for Sorrow. The director and script writer, Carter Smith, had sent me an email earlier in the week inviting me to come see things in action if I had the chance, and since it was Spring Break week at my university, I hurried to finish up some other tasks I had on my desk, then got in the car to head across the great sea of hills and endless highway of Pennsylvania.

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It’s an interesting thing, visiting a film set. They’re another world entirely, in a couple of different ways. For one, it was a foreign thing to me, a writer, who is used to spending the majority of his life behind the screen of a computer in a room with his door closed. But beyond that, film sets are a created world, where personal assistants pick you up at the hotel to drive you to that day’s location, a double wide trailer in a rural area that has seen better days, much like my own hometown, and when you get to that location, there is a dead deer’s carcass hanging from a basketball hoop. Which, honestly, wasn’t really surprising, and seemed the perfect detail. The novel I wrote was set in a rural town like the one I grew up in, and though my dad, an avid hunter, never hung his deer from a basketball hoop, they did hang to drain out in our garage.

But there were no personal assistants back then like I had taking me to the set, where we had to wait outside on the front porch because they were filming at that very moment inside. When they were finished, a chain of command that originated somewhere deep in the house circulated the word “cut” through a variety of channels, mostly through audio receivers attached to various crew members’ belt loops, and the door was opened for me to enter into the living room of the doublewide, which was were I was given a headset and placed in front of a monitor to watch as they began immediately to film again.

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In front of me, I saw two teenage boys, one standing up from his unmade bed to go over and discover that the ghost of a former almost-friend who had recently been found dead was half-naked and hiding in his closet. I knew those boys immediately, and the lines they were saying in that moment. They were words I’d written nearly ten years ago, as I worked on the first draft of One for Sorrow as a 27 year old, and hearing those words performed in front of me on the monitor, all I could do was stand there and feel my jaw drop open in shock.

I’d known, obviously, that my book was being adapted into a film for several years now, but knowing something and realizing something are two different things. One is cerebral knowledge, the other is knowledge incorporated into one’s integral reality. I was just then, seeing all of this manifest in front of me, realizing that my book was really being made into a movie.

When the scene was done a second time, a break was taken, and the director came out to meet me. Carter and I had spoken on the phone five or six times in the past couple of years, and had exchanged emails at various times between phone calls, so we had a passing familiarity with each other’s voices, at least. But it felt good to finally stand in front of him, this other writer and director who had read my book when it first came out in 2007 and loved it so much he became determined to make it into a film. We talked briefly, I smiled a lot, feeling a bit like a kid getting a wish made into reality, and then the filming began again.

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Carter Smith and Madisen Beaty, who plays the ghost of Frances Wilkinson.

I took a dinner break with the cast and crew (which was actually their lunch break). They work 10-12 hours days, and take breaks every six hours like clockwork. Meals are served in what seemed like a horse camp’s mess hall, and I ate with Carter and the two main leads, Cameron Monaghan and Noah Silver, who play Adam McCormick and Jamie Marks respectively. They were all really welcoming, and we talked about the movie, the book, their work as actors. Noah wanted to know what my high school life had been like, because the story they were playing out is a bit, well, I guess intense? I laughed. I’m used to that question. My growing up was not as intense as Adam McCormick’s and Jamie Marks’, but there’s an emotional truth from what being a teenager felt like in the book that I was able to talk about. The ghosts and talking shadows and dead space of the novel are all, for me, metaphorical extensions of my interior adolescent world.

I spent the rest of the evening behind the screen of a monitor, watching another scene acted out over and over, from different camera angles. And no matter how many times I watched them do the same scene over, it was overwhelming for me. A lot to process. The second scene I saw made that night was the first time Adam gives Jamie a word, which in the magical logic of the book can help Jamie live a little longer, find meaning in his afterlife on earth for a little longer.

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But at some point in the evening, Carter’s assistant, Robin, took me over to a side room with a laptop to watch a roughly edited scene they had finished the day before. It was a scene that had the majority of the main cast in it–Adam and Jamie, Judy Greer playing the character Lucy, who has paralyzed Adam’s mother in a drunk driving accident, and Liv Tyler, playing Adam’s mother. It was a scene that was both desperately funny as Judy Greer’s shadow said all of the things Lucy herself wouldn’t say out loud (very cool special effect) and desperately sorrowful, as Liv Tyler’s Linda calls over her son, who seems to have gone off the rails completely, to make sure he knows that he’s the most important thing in her world.

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As I watched, I couldn’t help laughing, and then couldn’t help but tear up a little as Liv Tyler gave a gut-wrenching emotional performance amid Judy Greer’s darkly humorous ranting. Seeing that rough-cut, I knew that this film was going to be stunning, that Carter was making something magical with it.

It’s an adaptation, so there are some differences in the script from the novel itself, but that’s the nature of adaptations. But what I like about this adaptation so much is that even when there’s a scene that isn’t in the book itself (there are a few), Carter has taken dialogue or details from scenes original to the book and transplanted that material into the new contexts. So there’s something old and something new mingling together, the original and the adapted versions tied together. It’s smart and remains faithful to the novel in that way, even as it occasionally diverges from the novel’s sequences. I couldn’t feel like I have a more faithful and thoughtful adaptor.

I spent the night, then had breakfast with Carter the next morning, then headed home, though I could have stayed for longer. I was still a bit stunned by everything I’d seen the day before, and processing all of it, a little starry-eyed. Also, I had convinced myself I could find the set on my own and when it came time to find it on my own, it was trickier than I’d thought. Since I had a long drive home, though, I decided to turn the gps on and head in that direction, with my head still full of images from the night before.

I never thought I’d have a chance to be on a film set, let alone on the set for a book of my own being made into a movie. This life is surprising, even when you think it can’t surprise you any longer.

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I’m home again, and now it’s time to get back to writing. One thing the set visit gave me was a spark of inspiration. I’m working on one of the last revisions of my next novel. And who knows? I can’t say now that someday, I might have the chance to make another visit to a different set for a different book of mine being made into a movie. I’ll say it’s unlikely, but I’ve already had too many unlikely things happen to me in this brief life of mine to say with any certainty that something strange and wonderful won’t happen to me. I’ve learned that it’s really stupid to say the word “never.”

If you’re interested in seeing photos from the film set, go to google and search the term “#jmid”. You’ll find hundreds of photos from cast and crew and the director hash-tagged online, on Instagram mostly, but also attached to twitter etc.