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(For those who long to be home this Christmastime. A poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, 18501894)

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seamen scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor’wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But ‘twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops’l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:
So’s we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every ‘long-shore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it’s just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard’s was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother’s silver spectacles, my father’s silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china-plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
“All hands to loose topgallant sails,” I heard the captain call.
“By the Lord, she’ll never stand it,” our first mate Jackson, cried.
…”It’s the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson,” he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter’s day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

Abandoned-Village-merl1ncz

A bright new star appeared in the sky on December 1st. It didn’t hover above a chosen town. It just wheeled alongside the other stars. But then the other stars went out and something in our collective psyche snapped. Panic lit the riots. Riots ignited mass hysteria. Mass hysteria burned into mayhem. There’s no media or Internet anymore but people say half of America died in a week. I believe it. Our guards in the entrance tunnel hear gunfire every night.

And they hear drums. A cult took over the factory in the valley. Some members of our camp escaped the cult. We don’t repeat their stories. We have nightmares of our own. But the cult believes there are “Elder Gods” in the sky. They say that Christmas never belonged to Christ and those with false beliefs will be consumed on Christmas Day.

Tonight we decorated the tree. We hung the stockings. We read stories to the children and tucked them in bed. We have modest gifts to give and a wild turkey to cook.

But I can’t sleep. So I put the tiny, cracked porcelain Jesus in the manger and went to the entrance tunnel. The rifle is cold in my lap as I stare at the leaden curtain of the opening and listen to the drums. I’ll be here all night, waiting to see what Christmas brings.

 

keep-calm-and-sing-christmas-songs-3( Here’s a seasonal flash fiction piece I’m posting here as a gift. Well, it’s either that or a letter from the near future. You decide. )

Invasions come in two speeds: fast and slow. Fast invasions rely on surprise and a massive use of force. Think Normandy or presidential campaigns. Slow invasions rely on stealth and subversion. The opponent doesn’t notice until it’s too late. The Kringles, as I call them, chose the latter approach.

In the halcyon age of my parents’ youth, you didn’t hear “Jingle Bells” or see so much as a strand of tinsel until December 1st. Then it was the day after Thanksgiving, a day ominously dubbed Black Friday. Then it was mid-October while the Halloween rush was still in full swing. Then September right alongside the start of the Halloween season and two decisive fronts emerged. First, national department store chains added dedicated, year-round Christmas sections. Second, dedicated Christmas stores (or, more cleverly, ’boutiques’) popped up both as brick and mortar locations and online. Soon after that, Christmas in July parties became commonplace.

Even those who did notice the expansion of Christmas thought nothing of it. Capitalism had invaded first. Steadily growing revenues and entrepreneurial efforts were to be applauded, not feared. Nobody cared that the popular hues of paint and clothing colors all came from the Christmas palette. Nobody cared that people were humming “Here Comes Santa Claus” in May, in April, in March. Easter fell with little resistance because Christianity had run its course and fruit cake still seemed fresh that early in the year. Valentine’s Day was an even easier conquest because it shared the themes of love and over spending and sweets. It even dressed in red.

The Kringles were patient and devious. It was many years before Santa Claus served as Grand Marshall in the 4th of July parades and longer still before elves wearing red and white camo marched alongside his reindeer driven sleigh on Memorial Day. Thanksgiving, of course, had belonged to them for as long as anyone could remember.

I think the worst of it all, the most terrible thing, is that nobody seems to care. We just change the ornaments on our plastic trees, swap the strings of lights on the shrubs for a different color, and wrap the next round of gifts we can’t afford. We like not having quite so many colors to choose from. (Who has time for dozens of shades of white? Snow is beautiful.) We don’t care that our delivery people all wear pointed hats and shoes. We don’t worry that the most common boys name for years has been Chris and the most common name for girls is Kristine. People say it’s just a trend. But trends don’t last decades.

How did this happen? I think the answer is right there in the lyrics and the stories. We sing our conviction that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year” and Scrooge inspires us to “try to keep it all the year.” The lights, the parties, the joy, the smiles, the gifts, the food…we adore it all. The Kringles, whoever they really are, planned their campaign well. They found a weakness and exploited it. We handed our lives over without a shot.

image_by_projectowl-d8b4evk

In writing, as in any other field, it’s fun to tally up “firsts.” First published story. First published poem. First story in an anthology, in a magazine, in a webzine. First international sale. Etc. I’ve been at this long enough and fortunate enough to have all of those happen. Now comes a new one. Aghast-Cover-small

I’m pleased to announce that my story, “Appearances”, is included in the premiere issue of Aghast: A Journal of the Darkly Fantastic. The magazine is edited and illustrated by George Cotronis and published by Kraken Press. It’s the first time I’ve been part of the launch of a new publication.

George’s tastes in horror are, not surprisingly, similar to mine. When launching the Kickstarter campaign that provided the funding for this project, he wrote:

Somewhere along the way, my tastes had changed. I’m not really into violent media any more, serial killers don’t work for me as boogeymen and graphic descriptions of murder might just make me ditch a book.  On the other hand, my dislike for fantasy fiction has abated once I discovered things other than Tolkien pastiches.

He lists Graham Joyce, Norman Partridge, Holly Black, and Lucius Shepard as some of his favorite authors and likes Guillermo del Toro for his films, particularly The Devil’s Backbone. He cites Shimmer and the (regrettably departed) Shadows & Tall Trees as publications similar to what he wants Aghast to be. Given all that, I’d be happily signing up for the reading alone. Now I have a story that’s part of the maiden voyage alongside work by Tim Waggoner, Gemma Files, Jeff Strand, and others.

“Appearances” is another of my ghostly tales. It’s about family and grief and love and was inspired by a strange phenomenon in the 200 year old manse I currently live in with my family. Saying more would be saying too much.

Aghast: A Journal of the Darkly Fantastic is currently available on Amazon for Kindle devices and reader apps. It will be available in a glorious print edition very soon. I’ll post details here when I have them. A hearty thank you to George Cotronis for including me in the premiere of his labor of love. May Aghast have a long, wonderful run and always bring more joy than heartache to its creator. Aghast - interiors

Grievous-Angel

Pleased to announce that my flash fiction tale, “Displaced Demons” is now available for your reading entertainment in the UK webzine, Grievous Angel. It’s a quick take on a localized disaster involving oni, a popular form of demon in Japanese folklore. I wrote several flash and short stories last fall while taking a break from revising the novel I’m (still) working on and this is the first to be published.

I first learned about the oni while studying Japanese culture in college. But it was years later when I first read, The Funny Little Woman to my sons that I decided to write something involving them. It’s a picture book about a woman in Japan who loses a dumpling down a crack in her home and pursues it. She winds up on a subterranean adventure, is captured by the oni, taken to their city, and forced to make rice for them using a magic spoon.funnylittlewoman3

My sons and I loved it and I read it to them many times. Blair Lent’s wonderful illustrations are at least half of the appeal. The vistas of the underground lake and the oni city on its shore, in particular, stuck with me. I may need to go back there in a future, longer story. For now, I hope readers enjoy my first oni story.

Thanks very much to Charles Christian for including my work in Grievous Angel, which offers a steady diet of genre flash fiction and poetry.

Anthology Year Three - Distant Dying EmberHappy 2015 to all. I’m poking my head up through the dust and cobwebs that have taken over this blog to spread the word that Anthology: Year Three – Distant Dying Ember (Four Horsemen), including my short story, “Encroachment,” has been published. It’s initially available only on Kindle, but other formats are coming, including at least one that involves paper and ink. But if you have a Kindle or a Kindle reader app on another device, you don’t have to wait for all that. You can cyberscurry over right now and purchase a copy.

While you’re there, you can purchase a paperback copy of Anthology: Year Two – Inner Demons Out (Four Horsemen), which includes my short story, “Unknown Caller,” at a discount. Limited time, limited edition, etc., etc., etc. So go purchase a copy and start off your 2015 with even more wonderful tales to enjoy by a fire on a cold winter night as the wind hurls bits of ice at your windows and you tell yourself that the scratching sound you hear behind you is just that dead branch you meant to trim in November.

Really. It is. But don’t look.

AnthologyYearOne-BookstackI am pleased to announce that my story, “Encroachment” will be published in Anthology: Year Three (Four Horsemen).The book will be released in both electronic and printed editions in 2015. Details TBA. Here’s the Table of Contents, courtesy of editor Tim Deal.

The Road Home – Sheldon Higdon
Ozark – Scott Christian Carr
Dead Thunder – D.B. Poirier
A Chorus of Plastic Songs – Scott T. Goudsward
Three Little Words – Michele Mixell
Knock at the Door – Jacob Haddon
The Sun Struck – Gregory L. Norris
Rush – Andrew Wolter
Tsunami – T.T. Zuma (Tony Tremblay)
Got Your Back – John M. McIlveen
Northern Lights – Rob Smales
Crossback – Barry Lee Dejesu
skin&hair, teeth&bones – Kristi Petersen Schoonover
The Miller’s Task – Jonathan Dubey
The Elevation of Oliver Black – Errick A. Nunnally
A Tale of Chivalry – Ogmios
One Shoe – Laura J. Hickman
Raspberry Summer – Diana Catt
Invidia – Marianne Halpert
Battle of Wills – Tracie Orsi
Dolly, Do I Have A Soul? – Philip C. Perron
Fomorian Horde/A Tale of Chivalry (art) – Ogmios
The Looming Trees – Penny Fey
Dark Highways – Dan Foley
Fund-Raiser – Thom Erb
How You Killed Me – doungjai gam
Redemption – Timothy Flynn
Encroachment – Craig D. B. Patton

Fine company to be keeping, indeed. The fourth (re)incarnation of the convention that spawned this anthology series will take place on June 5-7, 2015 in Portsmouth, NH. You can learn more over at the official site.

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