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.

tta40cvr

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.

Advertisements

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.

barzak-before-and-afterlives_200x300

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.

viewer-1

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.

viewer-3

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.

viewer-4

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.

viewer

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.

viewer-6

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.

viewer

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.

Q&A

I’ve been spending the past week doing Q&A at the Endicott Mythic Reader’s Group on Goodreads, and there have been some really thoughtful questions.  One came in today, to which I just responded.  And I’ve decided to post the question and my response here, too.

Q: Ghosts and eldritch kids in and of themselves aren’t that unusual in dark fantasy/horror. Working class backgrounds like that of Adam and his family aren’t often handled in books within the genre or outside it. Decaying cities are a commonplace but not the economic devestation of the city in your novel. In some ways the family and the city are more unsettling than death and the ghosts. Could you talk about how and why you came to make those as important elements in ONE FOR SORROW as you did? 

A: Thank you for your question. How and why did I come to choose the rural small town and dying steel city important aspects of One for Sorrow? There are a couple of reasons for this.

One is that setting is a very important element of fictional narrative for me in general. I think it’s an especially overlooked element of narrative in the recent past. It seems we have a lot of narratives these days that could take place in Anywhere, America. Suburban communities without a lot of distinguishing characteristics, or else in the very large mega-cities, like NY and LA. Occasionally you come across books set in marginal communities, but in my experience, finding these settings in books has become an infrequent event for me as a reader over the past ten years or so. When I began writing One for Sorrow, which is my first novel, I decided I would set it in my own home region, where I grew up, because I had never encountered a novel or short story which took that place as its setting, and told a story that derived and was specific to that place. 

The dying steel city of Youngstown, Ohio and the small rural communities that surround it are in many ways forgotten places in the American landscape. There are many forgotten places that the rest of America has no context to understand them. If you asked someone who was an adult and paying attention to the news back in the late 70s and early 80s, you might encounter someone who knows these places and without very much need for prompting will be recall the devastating economic disaster that occurred in Youngstown, Ohio at that time. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about it for his Ghost of Tom Joad album, which explored these forgotten and ignored aspects of American community. They are forgotten and ignored because communities such as Youngstown are working class, the underclass, and had no one of any articulate ability to speak for them, and to speak loud enough. In recent days, due to it being an electoral year, Youngstown pops up on cue in the political world, presidential candidates come here in those years to take pictures in front of decaying steel mills and factories that have been abandoned for the past thirty or forty years, and pretend as if they’re going to do something to help the people who live in these jobless, poverty-stricken communities. But if we count the years that have passed between the time Youngstown lost its steel economy to the attractive, exploitable third world, we know that they really don’t intend to do anything but use the place as a backdrop of the narrative they’re creating for themselves as politicians. 

Ghost stories are about people who have something left to say, so much so that they remain alive somehow, supernaturally, beyond the grave. So along with the death of Jamie Marks, who has several things left undone in his life–friendships left unforged and unexplored with Adam and Gracie, relationships unresolved with his mother and father–there is also the character of the small town the characters come from, and the dead/dying steel city to which their rural community is a satellite, the nearest thing to urbanity. Settings are characters, too, really. A community itself has character, based off of the people who live in them and the values and beliefs they’ve chosen to live by. Youngstown is a community that, despite having died an incredible death of its former self, after having lost its identity, has clung to life despite all of that. At one time it had a population of around 175,000 people. Today it’s about 75,000 people. That’s an enormous loss. There are whole sections of the city that have fallen into ruin, houses abandoned, workplaces abandoned, blight is a common view. In the 80s it was evaluated as the Murder Capital of America. It no longer has that place, thankfully, but crimes of this sort are a natural occurrence in communities that have lost their basic foundation for survival. People begin to fight for resources; they’ll steal and plot and sometimes kill when they are desperate. The community now is small enough that the crime that occurred after that initial blow in the 70s and 80s has waned and enough people have left, realizing there are not enough resources for living here and that they must leave if they intend to have a better life for their families. And yet the city still lives on, and has in the past four or five years attracted national and international attention with a new plan to shrink itself in order to provide a higher quality of life for its citizens, rather than following the typical American city idea that you must grow, get bigger, take on more and more. So the city has begun demolishing whole neighborhoods, to get rid of blight, and old workplaces which we have finally accepted no work will come back to inhabit. Or at least not the sort of work that once inhabited them. There is a large group of young thirty and twenty somethings, a new generation, that have taken on an amazingly energetic community activist approach, and have tried to create bonds between various communities within the larger community, something that did not occur in the past, to make the place stronger. Revitalization is occurring, step by step, and though it is slow progress, it is the first progress we have seen in four decades, and people are taking some comfort and allowing themselves to perhaps hope a little harder than they once did. 

It’s a place that is no longer the city it once was, but has decided to live somehow, anyway it can, the same way Jamie tries to live beyond his unjust and early death. And if there is a reason why I chose to feature working class characters in an economically devastated rural community and city, it’s because I come from this place and decided a long time ago, when I knew I would write, that I would attempt to become good enough at writing to say something about the lives we live here that a lot of fiction does not ask us to think about, or at least does not ask us to think about as often as I wish it would.

Evidence of Love in the new F&SF

If you haven’t got around to reading the October/November issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction yet, you should go out and get a copy, or subscribe or at least order the issue (it’s the best issue of almost any genre magazine each year, if you ask me, something about the season maybe?). M. Rickert’s short story, “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account” steals the show (and it is quite a show, featuring stories by Stephen King, Geoff Ryman, Carol Emshwiller, Michael Swanwick, Terry Bisson, and other excellent writers). I don’t think I have come across another story in recent months (years?) that seems so utterly to be perfect for both the James Tiptree Jr. Award (for fiction that expands our understanding of gender) and the new Shirley Jackson Award (because this story is a near future version of “The Lottery” if you ask me).

That one story is worth the price of the issue alone. But you do indeed get all those other stories by the authors I mentioned, and more, so do yourself a favor and get this issue, even if you don’t normally read this magazine. I highly recommend it.

Datlow’s issue of Subterranean

pic_subterranean007_b.jpgI’m reading the Ellen Datlow edited issue of Subterranean lately, and am having a really good time. The magazine could easily be the core of an awesome horror anthology, which is of course one of Ellen Datlow’s specialities, so it’s no surprise to find exciting, well-written and disturbing stories in this issue. Here’s the lowdown on the stories I’ve read so far.

 

“Vacancy” by Lucius Shepard

Shepard’s specialty is the novella, a form mainly found these days in speculative fiction. And he does deliver the horror – a Lovecraftian style with, in this story, Filipino variations. But his real strength, and this is especially true in “Vacancy”, is his naturalistic detail, his grasp in his stories set in this country of current American customs and dreams.

Cliff Coria, the central character, is a used car salesman on the Florida coast. The sunbaked world of motels, car lots and oceanside bars is as nicely evoked as in any realistic detective novel. Then as an added bonus of reading about Coria’s prior life as a Hollywood actor B movie division (well, really C or D movie before he’s through) and his fateful time in the Philippines working on a series of remarkably skuzzy horror films. It’s all interesting but in some ways the curse Coria finds himself under is less terrible than Shepard’s account of the American Dream on the rocks. It’s handled quite nicely.

“Holiday” by M. Rickert and “Pirates of the Somali Coast” by Terry Bisson

These two stories, in some ways, have the same theme, the same mix of innocence intertwined with depravity. M. Rickert works variations on themes of scandal and child abuse. The son of a man imprisoned for crimes against minors finds himself haunted and seduced by the ghosts of small girls when he should be writing a book about his father. Disturbingly enough this begins to make sense. Which is even more disturbing. One thing Rickert will always do in her stories is turn the screw until you think it can’t screw any tighter, and then she’ll screw it once more for good measure.

Bisson reminds us that childhood innocence is a legal concept – his pirate obsessed pre-adolescent male is capable of crime but not capable of understanding its reality, what it means. I thought of Treasure Island and Jim Hawkins and how at the end of that story we’re really not sure the pirate life is not the one for him.

“King of the Big Night Hours” by Richard Bowes

Rick Bowes has been writing stories from this central narrator’s point of view for the past year or so, a writer telling horrific stories set in New York City post 9/11 mostly. In this story he explores the rash of suicides that occurred at NYU’s library, and the effects it has on students, faculty and staff, as well as recalling the tale of a security guard known as the King of the Big Night Hours among university employees, a mysterious man from Jamaica who the narrator recalls in relationship to the dark events occurring recently. As usual, Bowes gives us a portrait of New York that few writers of place can match.

I’ll say little about Jeffrey Ford’s “At the Bottom of the Lake” except it’s a real writer’s writer’s nightmare.  I thoroughly enjoyed this tale, a meditation on the imagination and its horrors.

This is as far as I’ve gotten, but I’m looking forward to reading Anna Tambour’s, Lisa Tuttle’s, and the cowritten story by Joel Lane and John Pelan. The price of the magazine, though, has already been satisfied by the stories I’ve read thus far. Check it out.