Author Archives: wordswithem

Finishing Things

I haven’t updated in a very long while. My perpetually-almost-done novel is largely to blame.

Finishing things is such an important struggle artists face, especially when self-assessment is the primary driver behind your completion criteria. Others have spoken more eloquently about perfectionism and art than I could in this limited space, but I will simply share something that I wrote in my journal today:

My rational brain knows that I can’t please everyone, and that whatever I do will absolutely, 100% certainly invoke someone’s rage or ridicule. Probably both. Probably multiple someones’. But while I know this to be inevitable, I can’t let go of the childish notion that I can fix it. That just a little more time and effort and experience and elbow grease will counteract the laws of the universe and send me and my untouchable future novel catapulting through some wormhole to a reality wherein it is possible to do work that is loved and admired by everyone, always; and where those glories are even (magically) deserved, earned. This is obviously some next level bullshit. But it says a lot about the sheer ridiculousness of the human psyche that a person can both understand and willfully ignore such realities. [My partner] Jeff’s grandfather had a saying about fools that I find completely hilarious: that they “can’t tell shit from good apple butter.” Well, I’ve blown right past that threshold. The apple butter jar’s sitting right at the corner of my sightline, but I’m still spreading shit thick on my bread with the peanut butter and gobbling that fucker down.

So…that’s the view from my desk, lately.

First

It’s been a little over a month since Foxglove Hymnal’s Winter 2015 issue went live, and it’s only just occurred to me that I never shared my new fiction here. Bad writer! So if you missed it back in February or you’re craving some deeper chills to compliment your late winter nights, you’re in luck.

First is a horror story. It’s also a love story — a tale about first love, the expectations we place on milestones, and the lengths to which we are willing to go to cling to those gleaming idols of happiness and fulfillment. Of course, there is also a monster. Maybe more than one, though I’ll leave that to readers to decide.

Please continue HERE to read the full story on Foxglove Hymnal’s page, where you can also find complete issues of the indie horror/fantasy journal available for free download.

 

Book Review: Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes—4/5 stars

A serial killer with a nightmarish artistic vision stalks the streets of Detroit in this cross-genre thriller that flirts with ideas on urban decay, the dangers of technology, art, social justice, and the supernatural.

The point of view rotates between a diverse cast of characters whose lives each intersect with the killer’s. Chances are you already know whether this is a narrative device that works for you. I often found myself rushing through the sections featuring jaded journalist Jonno—a character who felt more like a plot device—anxious to return to detective and single mom Gabi Versado, whose interactions with her daughter Layla were both compelling and realistically nuanced. Other characters, like homeless do-gooder TK, were richly drawn in their own right but felt like they deserved a story of their own rather than just having wandered into this one.

Ultimately, the plot and themes outshine the characters. Beukes has a definite interest in art and life as they intersect with modern technology, and there are moments when she illustrates the ramifications of these collisions beautifully. The idea of social-media-as-stage isn’t exactly a new one, but it’s germane both to the questions raised in the novel and to the reality of many of our lives. You’ll find entire chapters that are composed as Reddit threads, sections of texting, and references to everything from Tumblr to Chatroulette. Where Beukes sometimes falls short of the mark is in her tendency to illustrate “The Dangers of Technology” with a tone that feels a bit too after-school-special for a book published in 2014—especially one intended for an adult audience. The level of finesse falls somewhere between the sharp-toothed Black Mirror and that Buffy episode where Willow’s online boyfriend turns out to be a techno-demon.

The most memorable segments are those that pull back on the commentary and unleash some honest-to-goodness, adrenaline-pounding thrills. This book would have been a 3/5 for me, but the final act is so creeptastic that I couldn’t help but stay up late to finish—and then promptly fell prey to some serious nightmares. The climax is a dark spectacle you’ll carry with you for some time.

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of these “is it real or is it fantasy?” sort of plotlines (think Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! or even HBO’s True Detective) that blur the line between the ordinary and the mystical. The first half of Broken Monsters flirts with this trope. Is Clayton Broom an off-his-rocker maniac, or is he, as his POV sections imply, tapped into something otherworldly? To Beukes’s credit, there’s a fairly definitive answer given by the end—but (no spoilers!) whether you prefer one resolution to the other will likely affect your ultimate enjoyment of the book.

Now, about this chalk door drawn on my wall…

Book Review: Tom’s Midnight Garden

Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce–4/5 stars

I’m all for edgy YA and dark, boundary-pushing middle-grade fiction. But there are times when I yearn for a sweetly simple childhood adventure with a touch of magic—the kind of book you curl up with on the couch, wrapped in a cozy throw with a warm cup of tea in hand, feeling like the kid you were when you first ventured to Narnia and Middle Earth. In such moments, only a book like Tom’s Midnight Garden will do.

Tom is bummed to be spending the summer quarantined at his childless relatives’ dull, gardenless flat while his brother is ill. The sole point of interest is the landlady’s ancient grandfather clock, which chimes to a time of its own (much to Tom’s uncle’s chagrin). But soon the restless Tom discovers a secret: that he can slip out the door in the middle of the night and into another time, when the house had a vast, beautiful garden full of trees to climb and games to play. The only person who can see Tom during these excursions is a lonely little girl named Hatty. Despite the fact that each of them suspects the other to be a ghost, the two become fast friends.

The book plods sleepily along for the first two thirds. It’s not until the final act, when Tom begins to realize that time is moving much faster for Hatty than it is for him, that the story’s true magic begins to bloom.

Like many of its ilk, Tom’s Midnight Garden features a portal to a special world and has a mystery at its center (adults and astute children will spot the “twist” from a mile away, though this won’t make the ending less enjoyable), but the heart of the story at last lies more in what it has to say about childhood and friendship, memory and time.

Top Ten Essential Ghost Movies

It’s no secret that I love a good ghost story. Among the ranks of demons, vampires, werewolves, psychopaths, and all the other nasties that haunt our media and our collective nightmares, ghosts have always held a special place in my heart. They’re timeless and atmospheric, figures as embedded in our own psyches as they are in our folklore. They are intrinsically tied to our very real anxieties (and, perhaps, our hopes) about what waits beyond the veil; our fear of letting go of what we’ve lost; our preoccupation with the mingling of past and present. There’s a sort of romanticism to ghost stories, whether it originates from the existential questions and subliminal fears and desires they evoke or the Gothic tropes in which they’re so frequently mired.

In honor of the incipient Halloween season, I’ve compiled a list of my top ten essential ghost movies. They span from modern to classic, frightening to romantic. You might be surprised at some of my inclusions—and, for that matter, exclusions—but I can promise that each of these films beautifully captures the spirit of the quintessential ghost story (pun intended) and is well worth repeated viewings.

Presented in ascending order, here are my top ten. Enjoy!

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A Letter

My dearest Magnus,

Last night she came to me again. I knew it even before I properly awoke, could feel her little fingers stroke my cheeks and hair so gently. And Magnus, her hands are so cool and sweet, oh you wouldn’t believe how tender. Like the first breath of Spring. Always I feel that I am burning, the heat licking at me slow and inevitable, except when she soothes it away. Such a comfort to me, the sweet gentle thing.

Do you remember the day we ate blackberries, Magnus? How hot it was? Berries so hot and fat they burst, and the juice spilled everywhere, black and blue all over my hands and my dress—the pale green dress with the dusty pink flowers, surely you remember it—and how you sucked my fingers clean one by one?

When she took my hand I tried to pull her to my breast, but she would not go. You’re burning, Mama, she said. She was so worried. I could see it in her eyes, or the places where her eyes would be. Such a sweet, good girl to worry for her mother. Sometimes I ache to think how undeserving we are of such a child.

I followed her out to take the air. And Magnus darling before you berate me, I told her twice to find her shoes, but you must understand that she was so anxious and insistent. It seemed callous to scold the poor dear thing, and her little pink toes looked so beautiful against the snow, like seashells glimmering in sand.

So I let her small cold hand pull me over the lawn, past the kitchen house and the blackberry bushes. We walked together through the woods, though we did not cross on the dirt trail. Instead we followed the path the deer have trampled through the underbrush, and when we reached the river she pulled off her white nightgown and draped it over a boulder.

(Did you ever swim in a silver river, Magnus? I can’t remember if you have. There are so many things we have yet to speak of. Sometimes I wonder how we filled so many days and hours with so few words when every moment now seems to brim with urgent sentences.)

The really remarkable thing was how she slipped into the water without a ripple, her naked skin swallowed soundlessly beneath the mirrored surface. The moon was so bright and full that I could see every detail clear as day. And oh how I gasped in surprise and delight when she bobbed up again without warning, her face splitting and her black hair coiling around her like ink spilled over glass, and she called to me—Mama, Mama!—and beckoned for me to join her. The river never stills for me, but then I am unremarkable.

Can you recall the hypnotist we saw in the city? The one with the false eye and the three gold teeth? You told me to stay away unless I wanted my secrets laid bare. But Magnus, I wonder all the time what you really meant by that. Was it my secrets you were trying protect? Or were you afraid that if he pulled every last whisper from my mouth and unlocked every box hidden in my memory, that he would find no treasure there worth stealing?

But none of that matters anymore. She is the treasure, Magnus. I see that now. Our daughter with her twin rows of baby teeth and soft, reaching hands and your ears that stick out just a tiny bit too far from the perfect oval of her face, who floats lightly and crouches in the corner like a good, patient girl until the stars rise and the owls stir in the pines.

There are days when I suspect that she is the only thing real in this world. That you and the house and the blackberries are nothing more than dreams I invented while I was dozing in the kitchen house on a late summer’s afternoon. Even now as I write she is watching from the empty chair, the one where you liked to sit when you read from the Bible in the evening. Such a good girl. If you could only see her, darling, and the way the frost rests like baby’s breath in her hair. Soon it will be night, and I know that she will come again.

When will you return to me?

We wait here for you, my cherished husband.

With faithful love,
Agatha

Welcome!

I’m hoping to use this space to catalog and share some of my writing. Expect a hodgepodge of short fiction, reviews, and assorted bookish musings. Enjoy your stay!