Machine Gods: A Synchronicity

Machine Gods: A Synchronicity

Getting cold out there. Make sure you stay warm. Share your heat with others. It’s only gonna get colder. Good morning from the non-democracy of North Karolina.

Damien Patrick Williams and Ian Vincent are two humanoid beings I respect to the utmost. So when they recommend a thing, I listen. They recommended “Person Of Interest,” which, at the time of its airing received very little of mine. But as I entered into the long, dark cave of The Winter Hiatus of my stories, I took them up on their recommendation.

Wow. Spoilers follow.

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Half Craggy. Half Twitchy. ALL ACTION.

The show is something of a Trojan horse; you go in expecting one program–a bog-standard procedural with a Super Crime Computer gimmick–and over the course of the series it mutates into a very different show. And then it does it again. The premise: kung fu hobo John Reese (played by an understated, whispery Jim Caviezel) is recruited by rich paranoid Harold Finch (oh thank Christ Michael Emerson’s back) to aid him in a secret crusade. Finch built a sophisticated surveillance system called, ominously, The Machine, yes, capitalized, stay with me, that predicts crime. It spits out a Social Security number, the bearer of which is about to be involved in violence, either as the victim or the perpetrator. Finch uses his 1337 h4xx0r status to support Reese as he beats the living shit out of people and shoots out their kneecaps. PoI was, at this point, Batman if he were split into two dudes. Simple, but fun. The cast is rounded out by the wonderful Taraji P. Henson as the audience stand-in, a homicide detective named Joss Carter who’s alone in a roomful of crooks; Det. Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman and his beautiful disco hair), one of the aforementioned crooks that Reese strongarms to the side of the angels; and Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi),  a CIA spook with…let’s not call it an overabundance of The Feels. Fairly standard. Smart Guy, Tough Guy, Tough Lady, Funny Guy, and Tough, Funny Lady. There you go, the formula is complete, go forth and make a less depressing 24.

Towards the end of the first season, though, there’s a rumbling. A stirring. The idea that maybe we’re dealing with something else. In a flashback, Finch’s business partner remarks that he talks about The Machine as if it’s alive. Finch turns to the security camera, which served as The Machine’s POV. Yes, the computer has a POV. Because it’s a character.

Going forward from there, the show goes from karate-kicking crooked cops to a thoughful, nuanced examination of artificial intelligence, the definition of life, and how humans interact with nonhuman beings.

I know, right?

***

Before I talk further on that, let me deliver on the synchronicity I promised in this installment’s title.

Last month I was lucky enough to get to meet Warren Ellis at a talk and book signing. When they say “never meet your heroes,” spit in their face and tell them they’re going to Hell for lying, because he was warm, funny, and super gracious. Having sampled his voice (which is WAY less sepulchral than I thought it would be) I decided to reread his fantastic Cunning Plans, a book of talks he’d given to tech companies over the past few years.

One of the book’s throughlines is the idea that technology isn’t becoming indistinguishable from magic; it’s mimicking its functions. Invisible powers swirl through the air, and we can command their power if we know the right incantation/code. AR apps let us see the invisible world, marked off with waypoints like dolmens. You can catch beings of this world, imprison them in the piece of magic glass in your pocket, and use them to battle other daimones–just hit your local PokeStop. The tools and methods of the shaman and cunning men of ages past are replaced, or maybe supplemented, by those of the code monkeys and hackers.

***

Back to our show. A character called Root (played by Amy Acker, into whose service I am sworn because Christ on a bun she’s incredible) bumrushes Finch and Reese’s little family, demanding to know The Machine’s secrets. She’s later accepted into its service, despite torturing Shaw with a hot steam iron, and that’s the crux, for me, of the entire narrative.

Finch and Root take on almost mystical qualities with regard to The Machine, in that if it is God, as they often call it, they are in direct communion with it. Finch is the alchemist, getting to know its will indirectly, like viewing a black hole by the distortion it leaves. Root, on the other hand, has direct contact with the thing. It speaks to her, literally whispering in her ear through little Bluetooth earpiece. And the look on her face when she hears that voice is ecstasy. A Saint Teresa for the Information Age.

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More the “Oh God” variety of ecstasy than the “Oh God” strain, both of which are depicted here

Finch and Root are doing what magi and shaman have been doing for centuries. If you can learn the source code, be it to the universe or a network, you can hack it. And once you’re inside, there’s nothing you can’t do.

I’m not finished with the series yet; I still have the truncated fifth season to go. But what I’ve seen so far has left me with a huge respect for showrunner Jonathan Nolan. He rolled a Trojan horse of a show up to CBS’ gates, and what popped out is a show about communing with the Other. Now there’s a trick that would have impressed old John Dee himself.

***

I have a lot to say about the dreaded 2016. What a goddamn mess. Maybe later on. Maybe after the New Year emerges from its dripping chrysalis. Our national hagiography is starting to look like the cover of Uncanny X-Men #141.

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Except imagine Betty White, adamantium claws snikted, protecting Bob Newhart

“Write” and “Fight”

So back in the pre-Christian days on Ireland, you had the three divisions of the priestly class: you had the Druids, who ran festivals, did sacrifices, that sort of thing, you had the Brehons, who were judges and arbiters, and then you had the Bards.

Now, these days you think of a bard and you think of a troubadour, a traveling musician; but the bard was considered to be immensely powerful. They were pretty much the walking Internet of the day. They memorized their entire clan’s lineages, had a storehouse of song, and their music and poetry was considered to have magical powers. Like a lot of pre-literate peoples, the Gael believed that art was divinely inspired, and thus was the source of the magic.

This was what made the bards an important social control. The most feared weapon in the bardic arsenal was satire. If the people chose a bad king (and yeah, the kings were chosen by the tribe), the bard could compose a satirical poem that could literally kill him. The words would blast forth into the target’s face, like a spitting cobra’s venom, and like venom, could sicken the target and take away their power.

“For fuck’s sakes, Hickey,” I hear you exclaim, “don’t you read the news?! Are you an asshole, talking this bullshit! And your shirt looks stupid!” Which is just mean.

Yesterday was a bad day. A really bad day for a lot of people. I woke up yesterday, turned on the news and checked my feeds, and I immediately checked my parlor for the exits. It’s bad.

A lot of people are hurting, scared. I don’t blame a one of them in the least. There was a Copernican shift away from the progress of the last few years towards…something. That’s the thing: nobody knows what a Trump presidency means yet.

But we know what it could mean.

I freely admit to going ghost yesterday off of social media. It was just too much–everybody’s fear and grief and rage was just hammering into me. In my hermitage I’m going over my skillset, what I have on me that can help. I’ve got my shillelagh in my car, and I’ll swing that whiskey stick if I need to, but I’m no guerilla fighter. I’m no community outreach expert. I’m fat, I have bad knees, asthma, and the anxiety.

But I have my words.

And I know how to use them.

You swing the fist you have. In bad times, it’s our responsibility to use what we have to effect the change we need. That includes us creatives. People need to see Truth. Truth is immutable, and fact is fucking Play-Doh. Artists show Truth. Write it, sing it, sculpt it, paint it, dance it, whatever you got. People are going to need to see the monsters for what they are, and they’re going to need to see that the monsters can be brought down. Fury and Hope are the bard-gift, the boon that the creative brings to their tribe.

I pledge do do what I can, how I can. How about you?

Let’s do what we can. You see somebody in trouble, help them out. You see somebody being a shitbag, let them know it’s not what we do. Be safe out there, huh?

We are proud to present THE SHADOW BOX

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Aaron Jacobs and I are very excited to announce our new collaboration, a collection of twelve short stories called The Shadow Box. It was a labor of love, as are all things like this, and we’re pleased to be bringing it to you.

While we were in our revision phase, going over the stories to try to buff out some of the rawness,  I was trying to think of what the theme for the collection could be. We didn’t have one from the outset, like That Weird City–we were interested this time in bringing our very best to the table. We picked the title because it’s cool and spooky, but then, as I went through, it was more apt than I’d first thought.

Most horror deals with The Shadow, in the Jungian sense of the word–repressed fears and desires that unconsciously drive a person’s motives. As I’m going through, seeing a man obsessed with order, trying to wrench the sticks of his home into the shape he wants. Another guided by loneliness, discarding a good thing in his life for an impossible ideal. A woman’s fight against her very genes and the programming they force upon the person.

No need to change a thing, folks. The theme of the collection is baked right in.

We each learned a lot about the nuts-and-bolts of writing stories in the four years (Christ, was it that long ago?!) since TWC was birthed. We’ve read a lot more broadly, spoken to a lot more people about their experiences, and we hope to God it shows in the stories.

Extra-special thanks to Ms. Corin Webb for the extremely cool cover art, Alex Searle-Jacobs for the edit, and my apologize for fatfingering every word in the English language, and Eric Heisserer for a very kind, very humbling foreword.

Later on this week, I’ll have a post for you in which I go into my part of the book and show some “Behind The Scenes” stuff–kind of like DVD extras for a book.

The Fear

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“You mean people might actually READ these things?!”

Let’s go back in time, to the halcyon days of March, 2012.

Aaron and I had worked our asses off on a collaborative collection of short fiction (That Weird City, still available, buy it now!), and the thing was as ready as it was going to get. We ripped through the writing, bashed our faces against the edits, agonized over the formatting. It was hard work, but it was good work.

The day finally came. Time to load that sumbitch into the warhead and fire it off to Amazon. I had the duty that day. I read over the instructions for uploading a hundred times. I was nervous, but it was good nervous. My finger hovered over the SUBMIT button for a long time.

I clicked it.

And The Fear hit me.

My hands went to my mouth, and I chanted over and over again, oh shit, oh shit, what did I do, oh shit. It was a stress reaction that was waaaayyy the fuck out of proportion with the actual event.

My GI tract did not agree. Suffice it to say that I made it to the men’s room.

The Fear.

I honest-to-Christ have no idea where it came from. It wasn’t that TWC was a bad book. Not in the least–even four years later I think it has heart. It’s rough around the edges, but that was the fun of it. Nobody could tell us we couldn’t do it, so we did it. I’ll always be proud of that.

But the trouser-soiling anxiety that came with sending it out into the wild was real. I wish I could have had a heart rate monitor–it would have had some interesting data. And it happens a lot. Oftentimes whenever there’s something I’m not one hundred percent confident with, like blogging (hi, everybody). My brain just vapor-locks, and my australopithicine hindbrain takes over, screeching and throwing rocks.

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Did somebody say “screeching australopithecine?” WOW, TOPICAL!

Why this trip down Memory Lane?

Me and Jacobs, we’ve done it again. Twelve new stories we cooked up, almost ready to be loaded into another Amazon-bound data capsule. And The Fear is hitting me, full force. I have to say, I kinda feel lousy. But I feel good about the stories! We’re shooting for a Samhain-adjacent launch window, and if I can make one of you feel a fraction of the fear while reading it that I’ve had in its incubation? I’ll count myself a fortunate man.

Stay tuned, Weirdlings!

Regarding Jizz

Regarding Jizz
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Will you let me finish? Will you let me finish.

So picture George Lucas. It’s somewhere between 1977 and 1980, most likely. He pulled off a stunt that most industry experts would have said was impossible: he turned a weirdo Flash Gordon/Samurai/Western movie into a juggernaut. He’s feeling good, he’s feeling strong.

Picture he’s in a meeting, internally with Lucasfilm’s top brass. They’re fleshing out the universe a little. Star Wars was a hit, they’re going to want a sequel, gotta do some worldbuilding. Or maybe some fanzine (Bantha Tracks, maybe. Kids, ask your parents) asks, but the important thing here is that he’s talking about the music in the Mos Eisley cantina.

Somebody asks George what he calls that kind of music Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes were playing. I can only imagine how his vocalized thought process went.

“Well, I asked John Williams to do an upbeat swing-type piece. It’s jazz, but more…spacey.” He folds his arms, strokes his luxurious Wookiee pelt of a beard.

“Jizz. It’s called jizz.”

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I shit you not, these poor bastards are jizz-wailers.

Again, I was not there at the time, and can only speculate, but I think whichever of George’s Moffs was the closest to the throne said, “Uh, George…we, ah…that’s not…” before giving up and whispering into his ear, while making descriptive hand gestures.

Lucas was not swayed, and jizz became canon, God help us all.

He knew what he was doing. He had to have known. He went to school with Martin Scorsese, fachrissakes, you think there was a single curse word or sexual epithet in English or any of the dialects of Italian that he hadn’t heard at film school? He knew, and he stayed the course.

The Jizz Issue (oh christ I’m making myself uncomfortable, I am so sorry to you all) is only one of the elements of the Star Wars saga, both in film and in his larger body of work, that he would not budge on. And I’m not trying to rake George Lucas over the coals here, or wail and gnash my teeth about him ruining my childhood. The fact is, he faced a problem that I think all creatives deal with at one time or another, and that’s when to course-correct. When faced with the idea that a facet of his creation–in this case, a tiny sliver of a facet, because who gives a shit what kind of space music is in the movie–doesn’t work, he doubled down. The same with the idea that Luke and Leia are twins. The same with Darth Vader starting out as a boy that said “YIPPEE” and “SPINNING! THAT’S A GOOD TRICK!” It falls flat, and things like these can be nipped in the bud by exercising a little bit of self-reflection, and deviating from the course.

 

I’m in the midst of it right now–one of my settings, a setting that I’ve done a whole lot of work on, needs to be razed. A demo and rebuild that, were it a building, would have Norm Abram and Tommy Silva from This Old House panting like dogs.

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“Nah, nah, see, this whole narrative framework is gonna haveta come out.”

I published a lot of pieces in this setting on the late, lamented Weaponizer, and people really seemed to respond to it. Which is awesome! But as time went on, I started to notice things, like little termite holes, or mortise-and-tenon joints that didn’t quite align. So, rather than ignore the leaky roof and sparking electric work, it’s all gotta come out.

The trick to writing with confidence seems to be to do your own thing, but to stay agile at the same time. You write the story you need to tell, but you need to check yourself, often and honestly, about whether or not it works.

This is different from wanting to say FUCK IT, delete every file and burn every hard copy, and move to Maine’s scenic Casco Bay to become a lobsterman. Though that’s a daily occurence. You test it, down to the smallest moving part. You see what rubs against what, and what moves freely. That’s the hard part. Sometimes the pieces don’t sit flush, and you need to recut your lumber. But it’s what separates good, lean storytelling from a grown man having to type the word “jizz” over and over again who isn’t Hugo Nominated Author Chuck Tingle.

I apologize to all four of you who read this blog.

***

And while I’m on the Star Wars tip: Rebels Season 3 just had its trailer premier at the big Star Wars Celebration last week, and man, it’s gonna be a CORKER. No spoilers, but Season 2 ended very poorly for our heroes, and a lot of aftermath is going to hit immediately.

Also: I picked up a Playstation 4 this past holiday, which came bundled with Star Wars: Battlefront and a bunch of other Star Wars games from previous console generations. Let me say that Battlefront is, in a word, beautiful. The maps, including the lush forests of The Sanctuary Moon of Endor, the volcanic shitworld of Sullust, Hoth’s snowy glare, and parched Tattooine are all rendered in near-photographic detail. The Hero units (characters from the movies, with special abilities) are true to the actors’ appearances, and are inspiring to fight beside. The lightsabers go VRNNN VRRNN, the X-Wings’ blasters go BLAPPBLAPBLAP. It’s the perfect Star Wars video game environment.

But there’s nothing to do. There’s no campaign, where you can choose your side and fight through your own version of Galactic events. There’s precious little offline content–four Deathmatch maps were augmented with starfighter missions and an Imperial Walker mode, but overall? Not a lot to do if you don’t like online gaming. I did try multiplayer, and WOW did I die a lot.

Just a tip from your Uncle Chris, trying to help you caveat your emptor, know what I mean?

***

BOOKS. Let me tell you: Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence is one hell of a series. I guess you could call it a work of Modern Fantasy..? It’s set in a Fantasy world, where human magicians went to war with the gods, gargoyles patrol the streets, the currency is based on slivers of human soul, and intelligent horses are both the source of energy and the cabbie at once. So it’s very much descended from your Westeros, your Melnibone, your fully-realized Fantasy world. But it’s also very modern–cities are sprawling metropoli, you have lights, you go to work in an office. So it’s a weird hybrid of Epic Fantasy and Urban Fantasy, and it works so goddamn well I could just spit. The newest book in the five-part series came out this week, but it’s set up where each book is its own self-contained story in the setting, so you could jump around if you wanted to. Highly recommended.

Cultural Petri Dishes And You

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NO, FOOL–NOT THAT KIND OF CULTURE!! YOU’LL DESTROY US ALL!!!
I am an old man. Going into the back nine of my life, barring any breakthroughs in phylactery design. I’ve got about as much salt as pepper in my beard, and I’m occasionally tempted to grow my hair and see what the gray situation is like up top.

I open with this not to curry sympathy (though God knows it wouldn’t hurt) but to illustrate the fact that at one point in my life there was no Internet. I wasn’t an early adopter by any stretch–not Usenet, no BBS, nothing until I got AOL in…shit, 1998 or ’99.

I was also a very timid kid. I didn’t make friends easily. Or rather, I didn’t seek out friendships. My late teens and post-adolescence were marked with anxiety, depression, and, despite those, a wild need to tell my stories.

The stories weren’t very good. Nobody’s stories at that stage are.

But here’s the thing–I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that, to quote the malleable cartoon dog, “sucking is the first step to sorta becoming good at something.” Were I born ten years later, I’d have been able to go and read the stories of established writers, and maybe even ask them about it.

Here’s the thing. Creativity without people just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t work. You can’t have beer without little microorganisms eating sugar and pissing alcohol. You can no more write without social networks (in the pre-Zuckerburg sense) than you can without reading lots. You need feedback, you need to hear how people got their start. Without a tribe, it’s like trying to do the moonshot with balsa wood and papier-mache. A lot of work, but you ain’t going nowhere, pal.

The DSL Revolution would bring me my first such network. It was like discovering metallurgy.

***

In 2002, I joined the forum attached to the webcomic PVP. It was my first big step into Internet Community, and I’ve made some of the great friends of my life there.

Those of us that wrote would do so. I was fast as shit back then, too. Five hundred word short story? BrrrrrrrrrrDONE. There weren’t many of us, but we’d cheer each other on, challenge each other. Do stuff. It was as organic as the inside of a petri dish.

One such Doer, a feller by the name of Eric Heisserer, was a regular in the Writing Challenges we’d do on the forum, and he would crush them, every damn time. He taught me a lot about the craft of writing–not in the artsy-fartsy sense, but in a very Norm Abram-esque “this is how you construct a story so it doesn’t fall apart and kill you” way. About the sweetest guy you’d ever want to meet, too.

So one day, he posts this weird-ass little story he’d done called The Dionaea House. It’s set up in a epistolary-via-text message format, which dialed the suspense factor to 11. I’d never seen the like of it.

And neither had Hollywood. They took notice. He’s written several movies, and directed the late Paul Walker in Hours.  An adaptation of The Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang is ahead on the horizon, too.

Twelve years later. A week from now, as a matter of fact. Eric has a new movie out called Lights Out. Go see it.

***

I wound up, for whatever reason, joining The Engine, a forum put up by writer/cunning man of the Internet grove Warren Ellis. I don’t know why. This was a place where giants strode. A lot of heavy hitters in the comics industry. It was 2006, but it was also 1993, for me. I dummied up. I didn’t contribute. Intimidation had locked me in.

So when he announced he’d be shutting down The Engine and opening a forum attached to his online comic FreakAngels, I was more enthused. No pressure, I could start over.

Little did I know that Whitechapel was going to be the incubator that it was.

It wasn’t a who’s-who, necessarily. It was just the precise mix of factors that led to an absolute fucking explosion of creativity. You had writers. You had artists. You had musicians. Magicians. Poets. Everybody worked. It was a challenge. Not that anybody was busting your balls, but you saw the output people were cranking on, and it made you want to step up. Everybody got better. I saw my first pieces in virtual print. The virus mutated.

***

My point–and I do have one!–is that you absolutely cannot create in a vacuum. Beer is the goal. Your wirtschatz is the grain, your reading, that’s the hops.

But other people are the yeast. Bring those together and mmmmmmmmm-MM. That’s a tasty fucking brew.

That metaphor fell apart on me.

EDIT: I fucked up. “Lights Out” opens next week, July 22, not today.

r9huz

It Takes a 21 Day Streak To Make A Habit

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The Ape…he JUDGES me

Which didn’t happen for me with regard to maintaining this blog. My apologies. No excuse, other than the fact that I’ve been doing my best to get shit writ for the aforementioned Seekrit Projekt.

It’s not always easy, particularly when you’ve got an actual job (yes, yes, I am well aware of how much this sounds like an excuse, Judgment Gorilla, thank you, you’re a star). Exhaustion is one of the bugbears of modern life, and creative effort is the first thing to go when the brain is trying to figure out what to toss out. That and exercise. Holy shit, I’ve gotten none of that.

I fuck up, I try to forgive myself, and I move on.

***

This isn’t a review blog, sensu stricto, but I like to pass things along that I find beautiful and/or interesting. And boy, have I got a pisser for you today.

The Fisherman, a newly-released novel by John Langan, kicked the living shit out of me. I say this as the highest praise. It’s intense.

Okay–you know the first few minutes of the movie Up, where the animators line up and take turns punching you in the stomach?

It’s a lot like that, but without the whimsy of a flying balloon-house to look forward to.

It’s actually one story, that of two widowers who find fishing as a refuge from their pain, wrapped around another story told about a haunted area called Dutchman’s Creek. There are skeins of Norse myth, Herman Melville, and the good ol’ fashioned Fish Story shot through the nested narratives, and some of the most arresting scenes a book has ever made my brain see, but at the core of the story is Capital G Grief. Big grief, as big around as a sequoia, that nobody could ever get their arms around.

Langan paints the grief of the two characters, Abe, the narrator, and Dan, as being related subspecies, but whether you’re being attacked by a lion (Panthera leo) or a tiger (Panthera tigris), you’ve still got to deal with the fact that you’ve got fangs and claws in you. But the sadness doesn’t overwhelm the horror–that’s much bigger, and made all the more effective for the protagonists’ state of mind.

I give this book five Weirdo Fish out of five. Go get it.

***

Also on the media consumption cavalcade this long weekend was The Witch (I’m spelling it regular because the way the posters spelled it, The VVitch, made me prounounce it Vivitch, and it got on my nerves). Fantastic little movie, and one in which (no spoilers) everybody got what they deserved. The clothing, sets, and even the English accent were heavily researched, as was the witch-lore that comes down from Puritan New England. Five pots of baby fat out of five.

***

And, just because the world has gone absolutely fucking Fury Road since the last time we spoke, please enjoy a baby gorilla looking tough. THIS ONE’S FOR YOU, JUDGMENT GORILLA.

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ALL SHALL FEAR KONG

Evil Nightmare Stuff By Mail

Good morning from, judging by the weather, the planet Dagobah. Christ, it’s nasty out. Like walking around in a fat man’s ass. The upshot of this is unsettled atmosphere, which means thunderstorms. I’m gonna sleep like a baby tonight.

It’s been a while since we last spoke, and for that I apologize. My day job was hectic as an orangutan fucked up on angel dust, and my laptop’s internal fan has decided to take a dirt nap. Probably because of all the dirt.

***

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a shill. I am completely open to whoring this blog out to corporations for money, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t want to give that impression (seriously, though, I will do anything for money). I mentioned the Problem Glyphs kickstarter because I think it’s something that will be of value to people. If you’re reading this, let’s face it, you’re probably gonna be somebody I know, and as such we’ve probably got compatible interests. So from time to time, I’ll mention something cool that I’ve come across, and want to pass along.

Either that, or somebody’s paid me a shitload of money (dead serious, call me, marketing gurus, I got a mortgage that isn’t gonna mort itself).

In the former category I humbly present The Mysterious Package Company. This Canadian concern produces one of the most original and thoughtful services I’ve ever seen. It literally puts you in the middle of a story.

In a lot of Weird fiction, one of the big tropes is having a protagonist stumble across Things Humankind Was Not Meant To Know. They get an anonymous parcel filled with strange items, hastily scrawled notes, newspaper clippings, things of that ilk. The MPC does precisely that.

Their current campaign, called The Century Beast, was financed by a wildly successful Kickstarter, and that was my first exposure to the malevolent secrets squirming beneath the surface.

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This image came in a plain yellow envelope with a Canadian postmark. The fact that I knew it was coming (my wife, God bless her, could not keep a secret of this magnitude and awesomeness if the fate of the free world depended on it) in no way impeded the thrill I got when I opened it up. I’ve received four or five mailings so far, each more amazing and dreadful than the last. I’ve gotten handwritten notes, the cassette liner notes from a Scandinavian death metal album, a USB drive with a frankly terrifying recording (wrapped in a police evidence bag, mind you), and a bunch of other ephemera. It feels like it’s coming to a climax, and to be honest, I’m worried.

The story itself concerns an old Norse myth, similar to the one about Thor going fishing and snagging Jormungand. Ships disappear in a terrible maelstrom. Survivors come back to shore mad. And there’s evidence that it’s not an isolated incident from a thousand years ago.

The MPC has a bunch of different experiences that they offer, scaled to a wide range of budgets.  Their work is beautiful. Everything is aged appropriately, foxed and folded and dog-eared to perfection. Suspension of disbelief is effortless. This is the ideal gift for fans of The Weird, mystery and puzzle junkies, or somebody you want to scare into an early, screaming grave. Highest Recommendation.

***

Still working on the SECRET PROJEKT I’d mentioned. One aspect of it is based on a nightmare I once had. I dreamed I was in a trench in World War I–the battlefield was silent and empty, but maybe it was only like that for me. I peeked up over the top, and saw a lone horseman not too far off–he was uniformed, helmeted, and wearing a gas mask, and had a banner on a pole attached to his saddle. Then the horse turns and looks at me, and I knew I’d been had. Its flesh flaked and blew away, revealing some weird automaton. Its horse skull grinned as the doughboy on its back sank into a turret-like hump, and green flames burned in its guts, in its mouth, in its eyes.

You bet your ass I woke up after that. And into the Idea File with ye!

I don’t generally remember my dreams lately. That really sucks, because I feel like I’m missing out on a lot of cool stuff.

I can’t say that I miss the night terrors, though. I’m all set with those, thank you.

***

I’m working up the courage to doing video entries, maybe once a week. It’s hard for me. I have a distinctive accent, and I am not a good-looking person. Give me a bit. I’ll work on it.

***

That’s all I got for now. Take a second, as you go about your day, and give a little thought for your neighbors. Everybody’s going through some serious shit, so be nice.

And I was dead serious about money.

Free Fiction Friday: The Book Of False Memories

the_book_of_false_memories_by_winneganfake-d5116e4

Good morning once again from the ol’ Coastal Plain. Trying something a little different today: freebies! I don’t know if I’m going to do this every week, but you got to try if you’re gonna buy, right?

Right.

***

The artwork above is by the extremely talented Dmitri Arbacauskas, proprietor of Tormented Artifacts. If you need leather goods, props, posters for your next Stars Come Right Cotillion, you go see him–his work is breathtaking. The piece up there was commissioned for the story, which appeared in Weaponizer Monthly.

***

This piece came from an extremely dark place. The act of writing it was like pinning it down, naming it, and through the work I exorcised it. It was incredible. Words have power. Never doubt it.

***

The Book Of False Memories

by Christopher Hickey (© 2013)

Craig stopped at the bar on his way back to the University of Southern Maine campus. His office hours weren’t for a while yet. One of his Intro to Lit students recognized him and gave him a “Hey, Professor Spiegel!” Craig raised his pint with a wan smile.

He didn’t make a habit of getting drunk, but he found that a beer after an appointment with his therapist braced him for the rest of the day. “We don’t like the term ‘crazy’, Craig,” she’d said. “What you’re feeling is, for you, perfectly normal,” she’d said. He closed his eyes, letting the yeasty smell of the pub drift into his pores.

“Yes, is this Mister Spiegel? Mister Spiegel, hi, this is Trooper MacDonald of the Maine State Police. Is your wife named Mary, sir? There’s been an accident.”

He closed his eyes, hoping to bulwark himself against the memories, but they always broke through. Every day for the past six months, they broke through.

“She’s lucky to be alive. Another four inches to the left, and she woulda been a goner.”

Oh, they all loved to say that. As if all the cops and doctors themselves bent physics to ensure her survival, oh, and by the way, you’re welcome.

The next memory in the chain was Mary, looking like a little spider at the center of a web of wires and tubing. Her left eye was blackened like a boxer’s, and her leg was in traction. He sat down hard in the monstrous recliner that looked like it was upholstered in dragonskin. The tears were coming, hard, when Mary’s right eye opened, as blue and as radiant as it was on the day they’d met.

“Don’t you dare, Craig. I need you, so you pull it together.” And then she slipped back under the tide of opiates and went back to sleep, and Craig never wept about the accident.

Mary was lucid enough to send him home at eleven-thirty the next night.

He wandered around their house like a ghost. He fed their dog, a goofy hound named Paco. He washed the dishes, unattended for the past forty-eight hours. He drank a beer in one go, his throat clutching and releasing like birth pangs.

The thought blasted into his skull like a bullet: This is exactly what it would be like if she’d died.

He’d be feeding Paco if she’d died. He’d have dishes to do if she’d died. He’d be drinking a beer had she died.

He laid down on their unmade bed, smelling her scent on the pillow next to him, which he’d be doing if she’d died.

But she’s alive. I just saw her. She kicked me out for hovering.

And his logical mind knew this. He clung to the thought like it were his last hope.

It sustained him when, two days later, his first day back at class, he thought Right now they’d be lowering her into the ground. I’d throw some earth on her casket, and that’s that. A day after that: Today’s the day the University would be calling, asking if there was anything they could do, but meaning when are you coming back to work, Intro to Lit doesn’t teach itself, you know. And the day after that: I think today is the first time I try to drink myself to death. How much booze would that even take? A bottle? Two? Or would I take chance out of the equation and get a pistol? Put it in my mouth and just explode out of this life.

***

A week later, a whole week of the double track of equally valid memories, Mary was released from Maine Medical Center. Aside from the busted leg, she was in good health and good spirits.

The shame Craig felt at his depression was a groaning mass on top of him.

The months passed, and Mary grew stronger. She kicked the painkillers she’d been given for ibuprofen. Once she got out of the little wheelchair, she started going for short jaunts around the block on her crutches, and then longer trips around Portland.

It was around this time she’d noticed Craig’s fey moods.

She’d surprised him one day, wearing nothing but his oldest tweed blazer–”English Professor Drag” she’d called it. She leaned on the cane with both hands, scowling at him as hard as she could.

“Hey, idiot. I’m Doctor House.”

He went to her, smiling, unbuttoning the blazer. “Oh, look at you. Spend all that time around doctors and you think you are one.”

“Mm-hmm.” It had been a very long time for them both. He kissed down her stomach as his hands went up her ribcage.

He clamped his eyes shut as his thumb speedbumped over the livid purple scar on her flank.

He willed himself not to wither. They needed this, God damn it. He pulled her to him, gently guiding her to the cushions, careful to angle his hips in such a way that he didn’t put pressure on her bad left leg.

It was quick, and very sweet.

They’d stayed tangled up in each other for a little while when she spoke. “I noticed you almost stopped when you touched the scar.”

“Shit. I was hoping you didn’t notice that.”

Mary propped herself up. “I want you to understand, honey. I’m okay. I’m here, right here with you. Why can’t you be here with me?”

He wanted to answer, but he couldn’t.

“Okay. We’ll talk later.” Mary rose slowly, leaning on her cane. “By the way–a FedEx came for you today.”

He pulled his jeans up. A large Tyvek envelope lay on the kitchen table. The waybill was marked with his name and address, and the usual FedEx indicia and bar codes, but in the place of the return address was a series of Xes.

“Ooh. Mysterious.” He sliced the pouch open with a kitchen knife.

It was a paperback, fairly thick, and the only markings were the imprint of the publish-on-demand outfit that printed the book on the back, and the title, “The Book Of False Memories”, on the front. He riffled the pages, and it looked like it was made up of ten different typefaces, and paragraphs and margins were of little consequence.

Receiving books like this wasn’t out of the ordinary; about once a semester, one of his students, apparently thinking that being a professor of English at a mid-sized university brought perks like having an in with the publishing industry, would send him a novel. Usually they were “Twilight”-themed crap or experimental bullshit, and this looked like it fell into the former camp.

Ah, to be twenty with a new copy of “Deathbird Stories”.

This one listed no author, however, which was odd. He set it back on the table and went to find his shirt.

***

It was another week before Craig thought of the book again. Mary was going into town for physical therapy, and he and Paco had the house to themselves. “Just us guys,” he said to the dog as he scratched behind his ears. He looked up and saw the book lying where he’d left it.

Why not. At least I’ll have a laugh.

He turned to page one, which was the first page of the book. No title page, copyright, not even a dedication.

My name is Craig Spiegel. I am thirty-eight years old. I live in Portland, Maine. My wife, Mary, is dead. When this work is complete, I will end my life by firing a bullet up into my brain.

He read that paragraph once, then twice. It seemed like a practical joke, one of his students or a colleague at the university. He was actually laughing before his brain picked up the one key line.

My wife, Mary, is dead.

“Oh, fuck this. Fuck you.”

A joke’s a joke, but this was obscene. Who would go to all the time and expense to POD a book just to say “Your wife is dead”? His hands were shaking.

The worst part of it was the feeling of resonance.

It sat on the coffee table like a predator; he struck first and picked it up.

Part One, of three, entitled “Coming To Be: That Which Is True”, was his own history as if written by a madman. The facts were all there–childhood, schooling, even his old girlfriends–but it was all out of order. There was no narrative flow; it seemed as if the joker who wrote it was adding things as he thought of them.

Part Two, entitled “Dissolution: That Which Is False”, dealt with the accident. It began:

They kept telling me that, had the other car hit four inches to the right, she would have gotten off with a broken leg, maybe some internal injuries they’d have to keep her for a week to keep an eye on. The other car, however, was not apprised of this, and hit her four inches to the left instead. She lingered and she died. Her last words to me were “Don’t you dare, Craig. I need you, so you pull it together.” And then she slipped back under the tide of opiates and went back to sleep, and I never wept again, because she never woke up.

Craig blinked hot tears off the ends of his eyelashes. He realized, in an abstract sense, that he should have been asking himself who did this, how they knew all this.

All he could think as he read was “Poor Craig 2.”

Today was the funeral. People kept coming up to me, touching my hand, squeezing my shoulder, and I wanted to machine gun them. Fucking destroy them like I was destroyed. I’d been thinking that somewhere out there, there’s a world where she’s still alive. I would murder them all happily if it meant getting it all back.

Part 3, “Rebirth: That Which Shall Be” was where it started to get weird.

I talked to Aleksander. He said I smelled bad, that I should get cleaned up and come back to the university.

I told him to suck my cock, and I asked him about my parallel world theory. If people could travel back and forth between them. He said it was impossible. “Ah, I am sorry my friend. The expenditure of energy–even if we had the technology to run it through–would be unprecedented with the expertise we have today.”

He also called me crazy when I swept this shit onto the floor. He called security. So much for my professorship at USM.

Fuck it. Not important.

Am I crazy? Is Aleks right?

At least now he had a lead.

The key slid into the front door, making him jump. He hid the book under the cushion, like a young kid with a titty mag. He didn’t want Mary seeing this. She’d come so far.

***

Three hours later he was at Yamaoka, a nice sushi joint downtown. He was into his third Kirin when Aleksander walked in, spotting Craig with a hearty wave.

“Doctor Maciejewsky! How’s the Physics teaching racket? Any trouble finding the place?”

“No, no! None whatsoever.” He flagged down a waitress and asked if they had Pilsner Urquell; he looked crestfallen at the denial. “It’s terrible. You can’t get a decent lager here.”

“But let’s be honest, Aleks–can you get Bud in Krakow?”

The thin blond man beamed. “Yes! Proper Budweiser, not the swill they sell at your football matches! But I take it you did not ask me here to talk beer. How is Mary?”

Poker face. “Good. Real good! She’s on a cane now. Stronger every day.”

“Wonderful! Send her my love.”

“I will. What I wanted to ask about–would I be wasting your time, science-wise, if I asked your opinion on parallel universes?”

“No, Craig, not at all! It’s very valid, and the science is pointing towards them being fact. Why do you ask? It’s a very specific line of inquiry.”

“I’m, er…researching a book.” Not a lie.

“Excellent! Ah, I always knew you had the look of the novelist! So, this is science fiction?”

“You could say that.” Craig snatched a hunk of nigiri, like a heron snagging a fish. “The question I had was, can people travel to one? Like, with today’s technology?”

“Ah, I am sorry my friend. The expenditure of energy–even if we had the technology to run it through–would be unprecedented with the expertise we have today. Information, maybe, given the proper resonance, since we’re talking sci-fi, but people? Things? No.” He looked at Craig like he was about to yack up a half pound of raw fish. “Craig? Are you all right?”

“Yeah, yeah. Fine. Just a little deja vu.”

***

After Mary had gone to bed, he went back to his research, growing more scared by the minute.

I’ve come to believe, despite that polack’s lack of faith, that there are indeed other worlds than this one. Maybe there’s one where my beautiful Mary (I had a flash today of her just wearing one of my blazers, acting like Dr. House, and I punched the wall until I thought I’d pass out from the pain.) is still alive.

I’ve made that world my focus. There’s nothing left for me here.

So that other Craig (I have the feeling he calls me Craig 2, good, let’s go with that) is enjoying the life I lost. I’ll make him my vector. I’ll spend every day–a minute here, working upwards–telling him to write it. Write it. Write it, Craig. Write it. Write me. The acid is helping, I think.

Maybe I’m just crazy. I lost my wife and I’ve gone crazy. Still, what could it hurt?

“Oh, is that your book?”

There she was, looking down at him from the staircase.

“What?” On guilty reflex he slammed the book shut.

“The book! The book you were writing and wouldn’t let me see!” She was making her way down the stairs. “Is that the FedEx that came for you?”

“Uh, yeah. It finally got here.”

“Well? Let me read it!”

“Ah…not just yet, okay? It’s still very raw, need to go through with some edits. You know how us…writers are.”

She made a disappointed moue. “Okay, Stephen King. But make sure I’m the first to read it once you’re through.”

He had managed to make it to the kitchen sink, spraying hot bile onto the aluminum.

Craig dragged out the cleanup process as much as he could. He’d be compelled to pick up the book–his book–again if he sat back down.

Which he did. There was a further drunken spiral, more hallucinogens, which Craig 1 could only assume was heightening the bond they shared, and further alienation. Timmy, his brother–their brother–had written him off, saying there’d be no more help from the family unless he got cleaned up. That sounded unlike Tim to Craig 1, who had always been the Good Time Charlie between the two of them.

Strangest yet was this passage, towards the end, referencing a Wikipedia article:

Tulpa, the Buddhists call it. A being made out of thought. A person, conjured. I almost thought I made one the other night while I was tripping on mescaline.

Possible. Possible. The seed, then the vase.

Then the fruit.

Craig didn’t know what to make of it. The book had been full of incoherent rambling and pseudophilosophy; he didn’t know why this stuck in his mind.

Then, the last page:

In about five minutes, I am going to insert the barrel of this handgun–a Glock G22–into my mouth, and I’m going to pull the trigger. THIS IS NOT A SUICIDE. This is simply a situation where I am exploding into a better life.

Timmy, sorry about the mess. I know it’s going to be hard for you and Ma, but try to understand.

Aleks: I’m sorry about all the things I said about you. I was frustrated.

And Craig 1. I am so sorry about all this.

And that was that, the end of The Book of False Memories.

By the time he got up to bed, collapsing in behind Mary in his clothes, sucking in the scent of her hair, he’d almost convinced himself that it was all some stress-related fugue, and the catharsis of being confronted with his shadow-self was a step along the road to healing.

Two nights later, there was a knock on the door. It’s a good thing Craig answered.

“Hello, Craig 1. Thank you for reading so thoroughly. You brought me over almost as real as you are.”

It was like looking into a funhouse mirror. The copy had red-rimmed eyes and a crust of beard on its chin, and it was wearing a filthy tank top.

Just as Craig had imagined him from the seeds planted in the book. “N-no.”

Craig 2.1, the tulpa-Craig, raised a very real pistol. It almost looked like there were toothmarks along the barrel.

“I’m ready to take my life back now.” He tightened his finger on the trigger. He began to sob, jubilant tears making tracks in the grime on his face. “I’m ready to see my Mary.”