The Lifetime Stonecoast Experience

A little over two years ago, I was accepted into the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. I will graduate from that program in about three months. My MFA experience has passed so quickly I have had little opportunity to contemplate it, too consumed with deadlines and residencies and making up stories to ponder what any of it really means.


That’s changed recently. I sent my thesis to my mentor last week for one final copy-edit. I have few responsibilities before my final residency. No one expects me to send them a story or a reading response, or anydamnthing. Consequently, I’ve carved out a little free time. A little time to think.


And I’ve decided: I’m not graduating.


Yes, I’m going to cross that stage in January, and yes, I’m going to get that degree. But I’m determined to take Stonecoast with me after I leave Maine, to keep doing the same things I was assigned to do when I was in the program.


The biggest problem with getting an MFA is pretending you’re getting a normal degree, as a means to an end. A MFA may open a few doors, career-wise, but it’s more an opportunity to practice a craft, to make writing and learning about writing a priority. If you look at graduating with your MFA as a terminal event, you run the risk that you’ll put down that pen or turn off that laptop, let your creative gifts go fallow.


I can’t let that happen. I know that the only way I can have a writing career is to keep writing, keep reading, keep learning. I have to keep sending out my work, getting my semester grades from the markets instead of my mentors. I have been blessed to be in a program which has transformed me as a writer, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let my creative life wither away because I “graduated.”


So. I’m going to keep doing “packets,” twenty-pages of creative work and two reading responses, due on a specified day each month. The reading responses I’ll probably post here. The creative work I’ll be marketing, so I hope you’ll see that too, in a magazine or anthology on the newstand.


I better get going. I have to finish reading Brian Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses, a dynamite collection I’m excited to tell you about. And I’ve started a new story, which, while still a jumble in my head, could be a doozy.


Oh yeah…note to my muse, my invisible mentor–my monthly due date is the 6th of each month. Just so you know.

Thoughts on Steve and Melanie Tem’s The Man on the Ceiling

If writer stories play with the boundaries of reality/fantasy and truth/invention, stories with autobiographical narrators destroy those boundaries entirely.  When a writer makes herself a character in her own stories it forces readers to question whether what they are reading is fiction at all.  This is further complicated when the author is writing horror or dark fantasy, because the subject implies what we’re reading could never happen, even if the explicit presence of the author suggests otherwise.  Of course, horror/dark fantasy writers know that truth is about more than what is real.  Fantasy bleeds into our waking lives, shapes us, defines us.  Our autobiographies, then, need the language of fantasy in order to tell the truth.

Steve and Melanie Tem know this.  On an extension to the dedication page of their novel The Man on the Ceiling, they tell us, “Everything we’re about to tell you here is true.” Considering one of the main characters in The Man on the Ceiling is the titular boogeyman who lives in the Tems’ house, their opening statement is a bold one, and speaks to the importance of story in a storyteller’s life, the value of fantasy in dealing with painful realities.

The tragic reality that drives the Tems’ novel is the suicide death of their nine year old son, Anthony.  However, Ceiling is much more than a vehicle for the release of their collective grief.  As Steve Tem discusses in a 2009 interview:

I think it was my strong opposition to that notion that fiction was inadequate to “real” life as well as my own belief that there are layers to real life which can only be accessed via the powers of the imagination that made me want to tackle this project…our attempt, at least as far as we were able to take it, was to raise the content of our imaginations to the level of everyday experience and to make it all one continuous narrative.  

And that is exactly what the Tems do: mix imagination and memoir until one can’t be separated from the other. Together the two genres tell the truth about both their daily lives and their creative ones.  

Steve and Melanie take turns narrating sections of Ceiling, their first-person voices meshing seamlessly.  The plot of the novel is amorphous, a collection of stories about the Tems’ childhoods, marriage, and children.  Interspersed with these are scenes where Steve Tem imagines his son as a bird and has a conversation with him on the roof of the house, Melanie Tem sends her father on a deathbed vision quest with his granddaughter, and an odd child lives in an alternate version of the Tems’ house, beckoning to Steve to find him.  Over it all hangs the spectre of the man on the ceiling, mentioned over sixty times, the personification of death, or the inevitability of death, haunting the Tem family:

The man on the ceiling laughs at me as he remains always just out of the reach of my understanding, floating above me on his layered wings, telling me about how, someday, Melanie and my children and everyone I love is going to die and how, after I die, no one is going to remember me no matter how much I write, how much I shamelessly reveal, brushing his sharp fingers against the wallpaper and leaving deep gouges in the walls.  

By the end of the book, Ceiling feels like both a confession and a eulogy, a way to discuss the loss of their son and expose the fears that loss ignited.  Because the Tems have spent most of their adult lives writing fantasy stories, it makes sense they would use the language of fantasy to manage their grief.  Steve Tem admits he has written about his son’s death in other stories , but there is no attempt here to hide behind the guise of another character in another setting; this is Steve Tem talking about the dark at the bottom of the steps in his own home, the dark where “it stinks of cruel impulse and foul inattention and everything you eat bears that faint aroma of despair”.  You can call it extended metaphor, if you want.  You can call it magic realism.  But that’s not what Steve and Melanie Tem call it.  They call it the truth.

Thoughts on House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

Note: The following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote this semester on metafiction and dark fantasy. I’ll probably publish other chunks of it over the next month.

 Horror fiction is supposed to be strange.  It’s also supposed to make you feel strange; after all, it’s named after the emotion it is attempting to incite.  Sigmund Freud referred to a particular strain of this feeling as “the uncanny” in his seminal 1919 essay of the same name, and admits, “the uncanny as it is depicted in literature, in stories and imaginative productions…is a much more fertile province than the uncanny in real life”.  Jeff VanderMeer once wrote that “The Weird is as much a sensation as it is a mode of writing”, and this sensation is often created by juxtaposing the real with the fantastic, the familiar with the unknown.  Part of the reason for Stephen King’s immense success was his willingness to reject the Gothic traditions of the past. Unlike the crumbling castles and arctic wastes of Stoker’s Dracula and Shelley’s Frankenstein, King placed his supernatural creations in more contemporary feeling hometowns and backyards, mingling with friends and neighbors.  The emphasis on realism makes the weird weirder, the unknown more inscrutable.

Horror writers and weird writers have found ways to evoke the “real world” beyond using familiar settings or characters.  One recent trend of interest is making novels more interactive.  By emphasizing the role of the reader and making her a more active participant, interactive stories gain a sense of immediacy, a presence that seems to extend beyond the printed page.  Most of these novels also incorporate multimedia elements–fake magazine articles, blog posts, screenshots from imaginary web pages– further connecting the work to the world of the reader.  At the same time, this interactive approach amplifies the oddness of any supernatural or fantastic events in the story.  The “realness” of the text makes the “unreal” aspects of the story appear more ambiguous or mysterious, and a more interactive text tends to increase possible interpretations, not limit them.

A good example of this intersection of ambiguity and reader participation is Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves.  Originally available in parts and later in whole on Danielewski’s personal website prior to its print publication, Leaves tells the story of the Navidson family’s encounter with a strange house.  Upon returning from a family vacation, the Navidsons discover a corridor has suddenly materialized between their living room and the children’s room, and the interior dimensions of the house keep shifting.  Will Navidson, a renowned filmmaker, ropes his brother and a trio of explorers into investigating the corridor, with disastrous results.

Danielewski’s basic plot, while intriguing, is not entirely new–Kathe Koja’s award-winning novel The Cipher (about a hole that suddenly appears in an apartment building storage closet) covers similar ground.  The real appeal of House of Leaves is its structure, as Danielewski surrounds the Navidson’s story with layers of commentary, criticism and associated narratives.  The tale of the Navidsons is presented as a critical nonfiction work, The Navidson Record (with footnotes), by a blind author named Zampano, whose mysterious death brings the work into the hands of Johnny Truant, who reads The Navidson Record, comments on it, and is changed by it.  Many of the footnoted comments are scholarly analyses of The Navidson Record from theorists of many disciplines, providing yet another layer of interpretation to Danielewski’s main story.

The manipulation of the narrative in House of Leaves extends to the text itself.   Some pages are clotted with columns of text and blue-lined text boxes, while others have only one or two words on a page.  A footnote denying any comparison between the Navidson house and specific styles or examples of architecture stretches for eight pages.  Some of the novel’s text is written upside down or in a spiral shape.  Danielewski, whose father was a filmmaker, admits he was inspired by film to shape the typography of his book: “That had been the design from the very beginning: to use the image of text itself in a way that had been studied very carefully for a hundred years by exquisite film-makers and to increase the reader’s experience as they progress through the book”.

All of this manipulation of narrative and text presents a dilemma for the reader: how does one read this book? Do you read the main story about the Navidsons, then go back and read Johnny Truant’s story embedded in the footnotes? Do you skip the extensive (and tedious) footnotes, and only read the shorter ones? Do you use the index at the back of the book, or pay much attention to the three appendices? Danielewski has cleverly designed his novel as a puzzle, from plot (Johnny Truant finds late in the book that a rock band is using House of Leaves–Johnny’s unpublished annotation of The Navidson Record–as an inspiration), to interpretation (almost every page contains footnoted critical analysis by somebody) to the reading experience itself.  Leaves manages to mimic reality and obscure it, like a science textbook torn apart and haphazardly reassembled.  It confuses and delights, and does so almost wholly due to the metafictional elements Danielewski uses.

Thoughts on The End of the End of Everything by Dale Bailey

I love writing, and consequently, writers. I love their brazen faith as they stare at the blank page, certain that the words will come. I love their sense of play, their willingness to live in their imaginations. Most of all, I love their eloquence, their ability to explain the world with just the right words. My love of writers (and my understanding of their struggle) makes it easy to say nice things about their work. Sometimes, however, a writer comes along whose work speaks to you in a more profound way– who tells stories that remind you of your own, or the stories you want to be writing. These aren’t writers that you admire, these are the writers you want to be.  

For me, Dale Bailey is one of those writers, and The End of the End of Everything is my favorite collection published this year.

Every story in this collections works. Every story. That includes “Lightning Jack’s Last Ride,” which is about a former NASCAR driver in an oil-depleted future. There are few things in this world that I hate more than NASCAR, but I still enjoyed this story. That’s how good Bailey is.

What makes Bailey’s stories so special is how much attention he pays to his characters. Some writers let the fantasy or science fiction element in their stories take precedence over everything else, but Bailey does the opposite. In his work, the speculative elements illuminates the lives of the characters, enhancing our understanding of them. Bailey’s stories may contain dinosaurs (Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous”) or feral girl scouts (“Troop 9,” with its heart-stopping last line) or lake monsters (“The Bluehole”), but they’re really about the important things: relationships, the nature of love, what it truly means to be human. His characters struggle to make moral choices–every one of these nine stories involves at least one character making a momentous choice–and live with the consequences of their actions. Bailey’s stories aren’t clever, or bristle with incident; that’s not what they’re about. They’re about heart, about rejecting or accepting the darkness in ourselves.

The title story in The End of the End of Everything makes good use of Bailey’s pervasive themes. Here we have an artist’s colony waiting for the world to end, as an amorphous apocalyptic event (dubbed “the ruin”) is heading their way. It has already reduced most of the world to ash, and cannot be avoided. The artists have taken to throwing nightly suicide parties, where the host of each party kills themselves at dawn. Everyone else drinks and drugs and swaps sex partners, waiting for the inevitable. Bailey follows a quartet of artists as they get caught up in these parties, then have a crisis of conscience. Bailey takes us down a dark path here–so many of these stories do–but he asks all the right questions: how are you going to act when it all falls apart? What really matters to you? What’s truly in your heart, and is it going to save you or destroy you? It’s funny that my deepest connection to Bailey’s work is on a thematic level, but I guess these are also the things I care passionately about, the things I want to write about.

Bailey isn’t as recognized in either the science fiction or horror community as he should be. I hope this collection (and his recently published novel, which I can assure you I will be reading soon) change this. Either way, I am so very glad I have found another role model (like Nathan Ballingrud and Steve Tem) for my writing career, a writer I can aspire to emulate as I take my next steps forward. Thanks, Dale.  

Thoughts on The Nameless Dark by T.E. Grau

We are in the middle of a horror fiction renaissance, of sorts. The evidence is everywhere: professional paying markets for horror stories keep increasing. New horror anthologies pop up almost weekly. Even mass-market publishers are taking more chances on horror, even if the word isn’t usually seen on the spines of their paperbacks. And T. E. Grau published a great short-story collection.

What? Never heard of him? I hadn’t either. I subscribe to Nightmare and Fantasy and Science Fiction (and am a lifetime Cemetery Dance subscriber), read Datlow and Guran’s anthologies regularly, and peruse several horror blogs a week; nonetheless, I didn’t have any idea who Grau was. I came across his collection while browsing on Amazon, and was impressed by the blurbs for it–Paul Tremblay and Laird Barron both loved his work, and I definitely knew who they were. I decided to give it a try, convinced by the accolades that Grau was at least a serviceable writer.

Grau ably exceeded my expectations with the first story in Dark, “Tubby’s Big Swim.” Tubby is a miniature octopus in a pet aquarium who can make things disappear. Alden is a boy with bully problems and mom problems and mom’s dipshit boyfriend problems. Eventually these two characters come together in a perfectly realized 1970’s urban jungle, but Grau takes his time about it, really letting us get inside Alden’s head (a very close third person POV), seeing the world from his perspective. Grau does pre-teen boy as well as he does the ‘70’s, so when things finally get weird near the end of the story we accept it without question. Grau melds an interesting premise, a vivid setting and an irresistible character, penning one of my favorite stories published this year. Which again raises the question: where has this guy Grau been hiding?

 “Tubby’s Big Swim” is one of several stories in Dark that was previously unpublished; many of the others were published in relatively obscure anthologies. Most of Grau’s earliest stories were Lovecraftian in nature, with “The Screamer” being perhaps the best of them. Again, Grau’s fine depiction of setting impresses, this time a cold look at office life in Los Angeles. Like most of the stories in Dark, “The Screamer” is a novelette, giving Grau time to set up his characters and their world before piling on the strange. And this time, Grau really does pile it on, as a simple scream builds force until it is a weapon of apocalyptic force, transfiguring Los Angeles into a wasteland: “From Pico onto Century Park East, Boyd dodged debris: discarded clothing, a gutted snack cart. A long, broad streak of scarlet stained the pavement,as if someone hit a deer and dragged it under their drive train until it ground down to nothing.” Grau uses vivid imagery to bring his nightmarish tale to life, much like Laird Barron, one of my favorite writers. Indeed, a later Lovecraftian tale, “The Mission,” feels like Barron-lite, and another was published in a Barron tribute anthology. It makes sense that Grau spent the first few years of his career focusing on cosmic horror; he displayed a knack early on for melding the overheated language of Lovecraft with his own mastery of setting, a must for this kind of story.

Grau mentioned in a recent interview that he has been attempting to move away from cosmic horror, and “Expat” is a good example of that. Here, Grau opens with a man waking up in a strange apartment next to a naked corpse, then provides a nifty twist that I didn’t (entirely) see coming. The strong premise and the immediacy of the first-person narrative are the things that really work here, although Grau’s setting (Prague) is diverting enough. Another recent story, “Mr. Lupus,” is a cross between a Dickensian fairy tale and a werewolf story. Like most everything Grau writes, the backdrop here proves to be as arresting as the narrative.

I could go on. A few of the tales in the collection were ho-hum, but that was more due to my preferences than to anything wrong with the stories. Grau has managed quite a feat here: turning out a stunning collection comprised of the first group of stories he ever published. It is a testament to the breadth of quality work being done in the horror genre today that Grau has flown under the radar until now, but I believe that will change soon. This Is Horror is scheduled to publish two of Grau’s novellas next year, and I would be surprised if he isn’t nominated for some hardware (Shirley Jackson award, maybe?) next year. That’s a good thing; a writer as good as Grau should be benefiting from the current horror boom, not being hidden within it.  

Thoughts on John Langan’s Mr Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters


I enjoy perusing reviews of whatever I’m planning on reading next–not always the wisest choice, as it sometimes ends up spoiling plot surprises–which is how I stumbled on a Strange Horizons review of John Langan’s collection. The review was brutal, including several lines like this one: “…as a work in its own right it isn’t worth a reader’s time and money.” The reviewer felt that Langan was not ready to publish a collection, even if his most recent work gave indications he was a writer to watch. After reading Langan’s collection, I feel like the Strange Horizons reviewer and I read two different books. While the stories in Mr Gaunt may reveal Langan was still growing as a writer, they also showcase his considerable strengths.

The first two stories in Mr Gaunt, “On Skua Island” and “Mr Gaunt,” are fairly traditional horror tales. What makes them stand out is Langan’s use of neglected monsters in these narratives. Instead of giving us yet another zombie or vampire tale (and Langan is more than capable of breathing life into a tired archetype like the vampire, as his “The Wide, Carnivorous Sky” attests), he gives us stories about mummies and skeletons. Langan also manages to make these ho-hum members of the supernatural pantheon more than a little creepy, not an easy task (when you say skeletons and mummies, I think science class and Scooby Doo). Both stories accomplish this by balancing Gothic elements with gory bits, creating an enjoyable mix of the antiquarian and the contemporary. The Strange Horizons reviewer disliked both the “club story” frames Langan used for these tales and the gore he employs in their climaxes, but I thought the combination of the two made the stories more appealing. As a writer, I’m always looking for ways to employ familiar elements in an unfamiliar fashion. Langan does this well. Yes, there are some clunky snatches of dialogue and a little too much showing over telling (which actually makes me feel better, because it’s one of my problems, too), but the stories work for me.

“Tutorial” is a writer’s story. It’s about writing, the main character is a writer, it appeals to writers. Langan is catering to my prejudices here–I love stories about writers, music, art, and film, and have written a few myself. “Tutorial” is both smart and funny, and effectively skewers all of those writing teachers who don’t like non-mimetic fiction. I can understand why some people wouldn’t like it (even if it does feature both evil writing tutors and intimations of Lovecraft), but not all stories are supposed to have universal appeal. Niche stories aren’t a bad thing…just a limited thing.

“Episode Seven” is the only story in the collection the Strange Horizons reviewer liked. It’s an audacious story, which makes me happy; I like audacious stories, biting off as much as I can chew. “Episode Seven” is an apocalyptic story, which isn’t new. It’s also one of those stories where you don’t know exactly what the hell is going on, which, while intriguing, also isn’t new. But what is more unique is Langan’s style: “Episode Seven” is essentially one thirty-two page sentence. A story written in this fashion can easily become labored, but Langan manages to use his style almost as a poet would, to add a level of drama and intensity to an already tense narrative (as well as emphasize the disconnectedness the protagonists feel to their strange new world). I feel that fantastic fiction (encompassing all manners of speculative fiction, fantasy, horror, magic realism, what have you) is particularly open to invention, which is one of the reasons I like it so much. I especially like writers who can use invention as well as Langan does.

The last story in the collection, “Laocoon, or The Singularity,” is my favorite story of the bunch. It’s long (82 pages), has lots of back story, and spills a lot of ink on mundane topics (our protagonist’s college lectures, his job at the video store). These were all reasons our naysayer reviewer disliked this story, but are all pluses for me. The attention to mundane events reminded me of Nate Ballingrud, and made the supernatural elements all the more distinctive. The back story touched heavily on Greek myth, aesthetics and the nature of art, which were essential to understanding both the main character and the otherworldly intrusion he experiences. And the length gave us time to get to know the characters and care about them. Langan did a nice job of moving between action and recollection, something I labor over while writing. The horrific imagery Langan uses in this story was particularly queasy, and shared some resemblance to Nate Ballingrud’s excellent novella The Visible Filth, which was published earlier this year. Both stories feature doomed protagonists who acquire items that transform them, a story frame I find of considerable interest.

Since this collection was published seven years ago, John Langan has gone on to better things. “The Wide, Carnivorous Sky” is one of my all-time favorite stories, and other tales of his in recent collections have been almost equally as good. But Mr. Gaunt is not a collection of ugly baby photos. It presents the first work of a new writer, yes, but also a very talented writer, a very entertaining writer. I find nothing lackluster or embarrassing about this collection. And, considering his current web presence is named after this book, I don’t think John Langan does either.     

Thoughts on Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Four things you need to know about Paul Tremblay’s new novel:

  • It moves. There are no subplots in Ghosts. No significant narrative convolution. Yes, there is a frame story (one of the main characters is being interviewed for a book about her experiences years after the main events of the novel), and a few chapters written as blog posts, but the biggest chunk of the book is about one series of events (a possibly possessed girl and her family “star” in a brief reality show) in one setting over a limited time period. There is only one viewpoint character (Meredith, who is eight years old). The adjective I would use to describe Ghosts is sleek, which is definitely a compliment. Too many novels become burdened with unnecessary bloat, diluting the power of the narrative. Ghosts says what it has to say and gets out, much like contemporary mystery novels. I appreciate that.
  • It’s ambiguous. I know I sound like I’m beating a drum, but I really like ambiguous narratives. I think part of the reason is because the supernatural experiences you or I have in real life are probably not “I saw a unicorn in the garden” sort of encounters. It’s much hazier, vague, uncertain. In sum, ambiguous. Tremblay understands this, and does a nice job of presenting Marjorie (the central character of his book, although not his narrator) as possibly mentally ill or possibly possessed, or both. He never really tips his hand either way, which works.
  • It’s twisty. I’m envious of anyone who can do a nifty twist at the end of their stories. The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects rank as favorite movies simply because of how their twist endings recontextualize everything that came before it (same with Dan Chaon’s marvelous novel, Await Your Reply). Ghosts doesn’t aspire to that momentous a twist, but he does have some significant surprises waiting at two crucial points in the novel, both stunners.
  • It’s awesome. I’ve enjoyed Tremblay’s short fiction for quite a while, and have a few of his older novels on my “to read” list, but Ghosts will move anything he writes to the top of the pile. Tremblay has a lot to say about the pervasiveness of pop culture, celebrity, and old-time religion, and he says it well. I love his characters, love how he ably captures the psyches of children, love his pacing. The main thing I learned from reading this novel? I want to write something as good as this.