Before and Afterlives and The Shirley Jackson Award

In all the hustle and bustle that lead up to the release of “Jamie Marks is Dead” I failed to report a fantastic bit of news that occurred in mid-July. As I’d mentioned in an earlier post back in May, my short story collection Before and Afterlives had been nominated for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award in the category of Best Single-Author Collection. In July it was announced that I had won the award. In fact, there were two winners: my collection and Nathan Ballingrud’s amazing collection, North American Lake Monsters.

I could not be happier to have this collection–something of a retrospective of the best of my short stories from the first decade of my life as a publishing writer–recognized with this award. Shirley Jackson’s work has been an enormous influence on me since I was a teenager assigned to read “The Lottery” in a high school English class, like so many of us from a certain generation were. Her small town spooks and just-on-the-edge-of-surreal thrills spoke to me on so many levels. To have my collection of stories recognized in her name is really, as they say, a dream (or perhaps in Shirley’s case), a nightmare come true.

I’d like to thank Steve Berman, my publisher at Lethe Press, for believing in my stories and for bringing this collection out into the world. I’d also like to thank Alex Jeffers for the gorgeous interior design, and Steven Andrew, who designed the cover, which I still look at from time to time and think, Damn, that cover is unbelievably fantastic.

Thanks, too, to the many editors of the magazines and anthologies that first published the stories individually.

Here’s a photo of the book and the award itself.

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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

Purchase the whole book at Barnes and Noble.com

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.