Out with the Old, In with the New

I’ve been sporadic (to put it mildly) about blogging. It’s a new year, but I’m going to skip the good intentions and promises to do better this year. However, it’s traditional to look back and look ahead when the calendar turns over, so in an effort to prove I can do traditional, here goes.

Night view outside the Adam and Eve, reputed to be the oldest pub in Norwich, England.

In 2018, I wrote some new short stories and submitted stories both new and old. Rejection occurred (of course), but two were accepted (more on that later). Definitely one for the win column.

I left one job and found another. Big win. In between, I worked three days at a Dairy Queen, but that’s a story for another time. A time with alcohol. Lots and lots of alcohol.

I went to Europe twice. Norwich remains a favorite city, and I’ve added Düsseldorf to the list. How can this be anything but a win?

The publisher of my two novels, The Ceiling Man and Ghosts in Glass Houses (by my much nicer alter ego, Kay Charles) stopped accepting and publishing new books. However, they didn’t completely close-up shop, and both books are still available. This makes me much luckier than the many authors whose books lost their homes in the shuttering of too many publishers last year. (Note: The Kindle version of Ghosts is on sale in the US for 99¢ through Wednesday, January 9th.) Not a win, but not a total loss either.

In Düsseldorf bin ich als die Katzenfrau von Maya bekannt.

Tantor Media offered me a contract for the audio rights to The Ceiling Man, and I gladly took it. A win.

I remembered to get my flu shot. Another win.

There were a few more ups and downs but overall, despite horrible happenings in the world, my little corner of the universe wasn’t so bad. I’ll take it. And I am grateful to all who helped make it a good year.

Looking forward to this year, I’m excited.

Tantor’s audio edition of The Ceiling Man is scheduled for release on January 29th. (As I write this, the cover image at that link is a placeholder.) It should be available through Audible, Amazon, iTunes, and all the other usual audiobook outlets. It may even show up in Overdrive or Hoopla—check your local library.

A restaurant window in Cologne. Yes, we ate there.

On February 22nd, C.M. Muller’s new anthology Twice-Told: A Collection of Doubles will be released. It includes my story, “Zwillingslied.” I’ve read the proofs on this one folks, and it’s not to be missed. Twenty-two original takes on the doppelgänger theme and all of them wonderful. (Well, at least 21 are. Not so sure about that “Zwillingslied.”)

Sometime in 2019, date to be announced, “That’s What Friends Are For” will appear in David Longhorn’s Supernatural Tales. This weird little haunted house story has netted me the best rejection letters ever. The kind you read to make yourself feel better when the writing isn’t going well. (Yes, that sort of rejection letter does exist!) I am so glad it’s found a home and a wonderful home at that.

The first thing I did in 2019 was pull out a piece of knitting I started on June 8, 2015 and put away a month later in frustration over what turned out to be an error in the pattern.

You could point out all the errors (mine—the pattern’s been corrected) and half-assed fixes, but please don’t.

I intended to unravel it and use the wool for something else. Instead, I decided to finish it. It was complicated enough that I couldn’t listen to an audiobook or watch a movie or otherwise multitask while working. Which made it a contemplative experience. Which is not necessarily good thing for a pathological over-thinker. (Okay, I will make a New Year’s resolution: No more introspection for the next 365 days.)

Somewhere along the line, with all the unknitting, ripping out, and reknitting, the mistakes I tried to fix and those I decided to ignore, and the hole that appeared while I was neglecting and avoiding it, the thing became a metaphor for my entire life.

After three and a half years, I finished it.

And I’m going to wear the hell out of it, badly applied patch and all.

Happy New Year all.

Why Do You Write That Stuff?

Scary Stuff, That Is.

Cover, 1st edition. 1959.

I grew up in a haunted house on the corner of—I kid you not—Erie and Elm Streets. This was well before Freddy entered our collective consciousness (and our dreams.) We weren’t afraid of our ghosts. They were eerie but just there, part of the house and part the family, even if we didn’t know who they were. Years after my parents sold the house, my sister met the then current owners. They had a few questions for her. All of the things that went on during our time? Still happening. The new residents didn’t take it for granted. They were terrified. Although my sister tried to reassure them, “Oh, yeah. That’s normal in that house,” for some reason they found the confirmation the haunting wasn’t just in their imagination even more frightening. I’m not sure how much longer they stayed. Go figure.

When I was about ten years old, my cousin spent the night. We were allowed to camp downstairs in front of the only television set. (Yes. It was a long time ago.) The midnight movie was the 1963 version of The Haunting, based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It scared the crap out of both of us, and the worst part was that we never saw the monster or ghost or whatever it was. In my memory, we are two little girls huddled together on the living room floor, unable to look away. Even at that age, I knew that if they would just show us the Big Bad, the fear would lessen. I loved it. My cousin still refuses to watch or read horror and sleeps with a baseball bat under the bed. Sometimes I remind her of all the things that bat won’t protect her from. Someday, she’ll have it with her and hit me with it.

My parents were really strict about bedtimes (probably just to get a break from us.) Made for television movies were big while I was growing up, and Tuesday night was one network’s Scary Movie Night. It was also the night my mother was out at a class, and my father let me stay up to watch the movie with him. Mom got home just after eleven. I was always safely, if barely, upstairs in bed, and she was none the wiser. The night Crowhaven Farm aired, Dad and I were so engrossed in the final scene that we never heard her pull in the driveway—early. The backdoor opened, the credits rolled, and he looked at me and said, “Run.” The backdoor closed and I took off. I still don’t know if we got busted—Mom never said anything to me, and Dad and I never spoke of it—but the night Scary Movie met Fear of Mom left a mark on me.

My seventh grade English teacher kept her own paperback lending library on the classroom windowsill, a sneaky ploy to trick snotty adolescents into picking up books they might otherwise never read. On that windowsill I found The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Before reading Shirley Jackson’s work, I had a crush on the creepy. Jackson—and Mrs. Peake—turned that crush into a full-blown love affair.

Then I heard an adult talking about how William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist was awful and dangerous and should be banned. Of course I read it immediately, followed by Thomas Tryon’s The Other and Harvest Home, and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and—

Really. Parents. Teachers. Haunted houses. Shirley Jackson. Wonderful books. Of course I write that stuff. What choice do I have?

Michael Rowe’s Wild Fell

Cover by
Wild Fell by Michael Rowe. Cover art by Eric Rohr. Cover design by Samantha Beiko.

Quiet Horror is a misnomer. Quiet Horror is quiet in the same way the whisper in the night—while you’re lying alone and awake—is quiet. Rather than relying on jump-scares, shock, or visceral imagery, Quiet Horror seeps under your skin and into your mind and doesn’t let go. Michael Rowe’s Wild Fell, a 2013 nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic, is Quiet Horror of the best sort.

The long prologue tells a tale of teenage summer romance, circa 1960. Teenage courtship is a popular horror trope, not only in movies and books but also urban legend. The experienced horror reader knows teenage passion never ends well, but Rowe’s atmospheric telling compels the reader forward to the inevitable end. The prologue both works as a stand-alone story and lays the base for the following story.

Jameson Browning, the protagonist, tells us, “I want to teach you about fear.” He begins with his childhood. In 1971, nine-year-old Jamie lives in an unhappy home, caught between his bitter mother and peacekeeper father. He has two friends, Lucinda, who insists on being called Hank despite her mother’s efforts to girl-ify her, and Amanda, who lives in his mirror, a little girl with Jamie’s face and voice, she is possibly a reflection of his own dark side. Amanda, at first a sympathetic and protective friend, goes too far, and the terrified Jamie banishes her from his mirror, his life, and his memory.

Jamie grows up and leads the life expected of him—college, a career as a teacher, marriage, divorce. His mother is long gone, and his father is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. Hank remains his only friend and source of unconditional love. After a devastating accident, Jamie is left unable to work but with a large financial settlement. He sees an ad for an island in northern Ontario, complete with early nineteenth-century mansion, and with vague intentions of turning it into a bed and breakfast purchases Blackmore Island and Wild Fell sight unseen. Fell, he tells Hank, as an adjective, means “of terrible or evil ferocity,” but he believes the house’s name comes from the meaning of the noun, “a hill or a stretch of high moorland.” At Wild Fell, Jamie discovers bridges between past and present, the supernatural and the natural, and the real and the unreal.

Like the Victorians, Rowe blends the uncanny with the everyday, and the disquieting effect of the supernatural is magnified. The image of Wild Fell and the cliffs of Blackmore Island soaring above Devil’s Lake is pure Gothic goodness, and once Jaime takes up residence in the mansion, the gothic-flavor of the story grows. As we meet the house—and it is a character in its own right—Rowe’s language takes on the voice of his predecessors. It’s easy to imagine a Brontë or Poe protagonist exploring the surprisingly preserved mansion. Jamie takes the Yellow Room as his bedroom. Painted rather than wallpapered, a sunny buttercup yellow deepened by age to saffron, Jamie’s presence there nonetheless calls to mind Charlotte Gilman Perkins and her heroine’s descent into madness.

In 1929, M.R. James, a master of the late Victorian ghost story, wrote, “Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view, I am sure it is a sound one.” Reticence in horror literature is rarer today than in James’s time, but Rowe masters it and, as James suggested, it produces great effect. Violence and sexual imagery take place off stage or in dreams (for the most part,) and even the graphic—in context of the novel—is mild by current standards. Wild Fell’s power lies in suggestion. Rich imagery and dark atmosphere plant the seeds; anticipation and imagination nurture the growing terror.

Rowe explores contemporary themes—memory, both persistence and loss; gender roles, identity, and fluidity; and abuse, broken families, and damaged adults—and does so with a deft hand, weaving the subjects into the story rather than making them the story. Those who prefer non-stop action, monster battles, or buckets of blood in their horror may find Wild Fell slow going, but those who appreciate atmosphere, the slow burn of creeping dread, and the deeply disturbing rather than the shocking (and those who love a ghost story in the vein of The Turn of the Screw) will find much to love.

Wild Fell, by Michael Rowe.
ChiZine Publications, 2013.
Available in paperback and eBook from Chizine, and the usual sources.