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My Crazy Adventure: Post Con Report!

This past weekend, I did something utterly insane. Well, more insane than my usual, anyway. I attended both Necon and Scares That Care despite the fact that they were on the same weekend several states away from one another.

There were many reasons why I choose to do something so… crazy. For one thing, I’m horribly indecisive and both events would be full of friends I don’t get to see often enough and trying to decide between them was making my brain hurt. For another, The Terminal is available in paperback and I am trying really, really hard to get more readers, more reviews, and (hopefully) more fans, and pulling a crazy stunt like attending two conventions many hundreds of miles away from each other in the same weekend seemed like a good way to draw some attention. Yet another reason is that I wanted to test the waters a bit to see which convention I want to attend in 2017, as Necon and Scares That Care will fall on the same weekend once more then.

I had a wonderful time at both events. I saw some amazing, awesome people, had some terrific conversations, got some great new reading material, and sold some books. There were far, far, FAR too many great things for me to recall, let alone recount in a single blog post, so don’t feel sad or left out if you don’t get mentioned. There was simply too much awesome.

First up was Friday at Necon in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. I’ve attended Necon for the past few years and it has always been an excellent time. Necon is less of a convention and more of a great big family reunion where everyone just happens to be a horror enthusiast and a creator of one type or another. It’s a great event, run by amazing people, and attended by some of the most talented authors, editors, and artists in the business. It’s also about 90 minutes away from my house, so getting there was a bit less crazy than you might think.

Necon isn’t the type of event you’d want to attend as a fan. It’s geared more towards writers, publishers, editors, illustrators, etc. It’s a close knit group of people who are always welcoming, kind, and full of advice and enthusiasm. There are some awesome Necon events (which I missed this year, sadly) like the annual Necon Roast and Saugies! (If you don’t know what that is… go to Necon and attend the Newbie group event the first night!), industry focused panels, informative kaffeeklatsches (which are like panels, but more open and conversational), a Hawaiian shirt competition, signing party, and of course a Dealers’ Room.

My day at Necon was far too short, but it was full of great moments, like these highlights:

I attended a Kaffeeklatsch called A Thousand thousand Paper Cuts: The Year in Print where my good friends Cat(herine Grant) and Barry (Lee Dejasu) talked about their favorite books of the year, along with my new friend, Frank Michaels Errington, and pal Charles Rutledge and others. Amazon thanks all of them for the box of books that was delivered to me today.

Me and Linda

I took a selfie (left) with the utterly amazing Linda Addison. I met Linda a few years ago at some convention or another, and I’ve been envious of her killer sense of style ever since. Linda is an incredibly talented poet. If you’re friends on Facebook or you follow her on Twitter, you’ve seen her life poems. You know.

Jeff Strand (If you aren’t reading Jeff’s stuff, GET TO WORK! Oh, and sign up for his newsletter!) bought a copy of The Terminal and signed the very first personalized copy of his new novel, Blister, to me. (I haven’t finished it yet, but so far I think it might be his best!)

I heard a great, funny ‘ghost’ story from Sephera Giron.

Scott gets all yarned up.

I chatted up many fantastic people, friends old and new, whom I hadn’t seen in far too long.

I watched Scott Goudsward of the NEHW get yarn bombed for charity while catching Pokemon (Pictured right).

I met my dear friend, Mercedes Yardley, in person for the first time and she gave me the soft blue Gamut blanket she made for me (Pictured below).

Me & Mercedes & Blanky

All in all, it was a great, though short, day!

Next up, Saturday, was my ONE DAY ONLY! appearance at Scares That Care in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was my very first Scares and I was really excited to go, as I’ve heard just about everyone saying that it’s the best convention they’ve been to as a reader or a fan since the first one back in 2014. Scares That Care is a more ‘traditional’ sort of convention, but only in the sense that it’s fan oriented. In every other sense, it’s a cut above.

The event is run by a really awesome charity of the same name that does so much good for people suffering from awful diseases or were victims of tragic events like fires. The fact that the proceeds go to help people who truly need it is wonderful and definitely makes attending an even more positive experience. Joe Ripple is a truly inspiring person and a generous guy indeed.

Much like my Necon visit, my single day at Scares That Care was far, far too short. Again, if I didn’t mention you or our conversation, I’m sorry! There was simply too much awesome for one post to contain! Here are a few highlights:

Ignore my sweaty red faced-ness. I do not tolerate heat well.

First… not chronologically but because I am still reeling… Joe R. Lansdale, (yes THAT Joe R. Lansdale!) bought a copy of The Terminal and asked me to personalize it to him and his lovely and (also very talented) wife, Karen. I have been a fan of Mr. Lansdale since I read his short, Mad Dog Summer, in the same anthology that introduced me to Rick Hautala. Photographic evidence to the left!

I attended a reading by Yvonne Navarro ( aka The Vampire Queen) and Kelli Owen (Buttercup of Doom) that was really excellent. Kelli read from my favorite of her stories, Wilted Lilies and it was great to watch her read such a deep, interesting, tragic character’s tale. Yvonne read a very unsettling story about a blood sucking tax collector. Ewe!

Brian Keene gave me a copy of one of his books that I didn’t even know existed, which is pretty impressive, as he’s my favorite author and I collect his work. That was pretty amazing!

I attended a reading by Robert Ford (and he didn’t make my cry this time!) and Tom Monteleone, whom I’ve written about before. Bob read from his new release, The Last Firefly of Summer and Tom read one of his nonfiction pieces from The Mothers and Fathers Italian Association. Both readings were great, as both readers are among the best in the business.

Jacob Haddon, of Apokrupha, was kind enough to share some table space with me, enabling me to sell a whole bunch of copies of The Terminal, which is excellent! His lovely wife, Leah, was a fun table companion. I also got to chat with my friend, John Boden, and buy a copy of his new release, Jedi Summer.

Tom Monteleone, whom I referenced above, signed a copy of the newest Borderlands anthology to me with the following inscription:

8 year old me would be speechless!

Not one, but two separate people, on two completely separate occasions, referred to me as “Progeny of Jesus (JF) Gonzalez”. Which… I can’t put into words the feeling that evoked. I adore JF’s work. His writing is extremely influential on my own. Not to mention the fact that he helped me out tremendously when I was just getting started, with advice, friendship, and even an interview on this very blog.

I watched the trailer for Mike Lombardo’s I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday, which looks like it’s going to be fantastic. I absolutely love the source material: a deeply dark, depressing short story written by the director himself. I can’t wait to see the movie in its entirety!

I chatted with the lovely Mary SanGiovanni. Mary is such a great person and a dear friend. I bought a copy of her con only chapbook, Shadow Puppets, which I’ll be reading soon.

I discovered new favorite stories by two of my favorite authors: Kelli Owen’s Childhood Ghosts, featured in the Scares That Care ‘Zine, is a creepy tale with tons of Halloween flavor. Joe Lansdale’s On A Dark October is just… it’s pure Lansdale. It defies description. Sufficed to say, it’s damned good.

There was pizza, good conversation, fun, and merriment enough to last me (MAYBE!) until the next con.

Haters Gonna Hate

I got my very first computer around the same age most kids get their first bicycle (I imagine… I never actually had a bicycle). I used that computer to explore and indulge in hobbies that interested me, many of which were deemed “boyish”. In other words, I’m not exactly new to this whole “internet” thing, or the unfortunate amount of hate, vitriol, harassment, and abuse that seems to be everywhere today. It’s not a new thing. It’s not even new to me. I suffered a lot of torment before I wised up and started hiding the fact that I was a girl: I played StarCraft with the most masculine ID I could come up with to avoid harassment I’d receive if I played as my own gender. I used manly sounding tags in chat rooms and on message boards. I even got a “manly” email address. While that may have spared me SOME of the abuse I might have otherwise taken, it didn’t shield me entirely. Hell, I was once responsible for a band having to take down their entire message board due to the overwhelming amount of threats and insults lobbed at me by someone I apparently pissed off somehow. But all of that was different, all of that pales in comparison to directing hate towards something I’ve created rather than me personally.

Today I received a piece of hate mail regarding my new novella, The Terminal. Well, technically I guess it was sent last night, but I read it today. I have to admit, it hurt. I was tempted to post it here. If I’m being completely honest with you, I was tempted to post it here in it’s entirety, email address and all… and then criticize the grammar. But what would that really solve, honestly? It would draw attention to hurtful, ugly words. It would spread – maybe even condone – the vicious contents of that email. It might even help other people of a similar mindset find me. I don’t want that. I don’t want others to read, or be hurt by, the words that someone typed to me in anger.

Not everyone will like my work, be it this book or the next. Not everyone will respond to my characters, appreciate my style, or enjoy the way I construct a story. I can accept that. I do wish that maybe someone wouldn’t say awful things to me because of that. But this is a world full of freedoms, the freedom to express your opinions, even if they are cruel, hateful, and/or downright mean, and I have to accept that, too, and move on. I have to suck it up, shrug it off, and get to work on the next one. And maybe, just maybe, the sender of that email will read that one. Maybe even enjoy it.

Have you gotten hate mail? What did you do?

Gotham-more Girls! Overdue flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig

So back in February, Chuck Wendig had a pop culture flash fiction challenge on his blog. Apparently, I completed an entry and it somehow wound up in my slush folder, ignored until I was cleaning out said folder. I found the entry and, rather than letting it go to waste, I decided to post it here for all of you to enjoy!

I proudly present a mashup between Batman and Gilmore Girls as created by a hilariously lucky random dice roll: Gotham-more Girls!

“Did you get enchiladas?” Lorelei asked, digging into the bag Rory brought home from Al’s Pancake World, a Star’s Hollow staple.

“Nope.” Rory replied, dumping some Kraft marshmallows into a mixing bowl that already contained honey roasted peanuts, M&Ms, Twizzlers and Oreo cookies, “It was Indian night at Al’s. You want the Saag Paneer or the Butter Chicken?” Lorelei frowned, flopping onto the couch and leaving the greasy, odd smelling take out bag where it was.

“Why don’t we ever order pizza on movie night anymore?” she asked, “Do we never learn from our past mistakes?”

“Sadly, we are doomed to repeat them.” Rory sat down next to her mother, grabbed the remote, and stuck a Twizzler capped with marshmallows into her mouth.

The screen flickered to life, an image of a pretty blonde newscaster spoke mutely for a second before the sound kicked in,

“…the Caped Crusader managed to thwart the attempted robbery.”

“Boring!” Lorelei grabbed for the remote, but Rory held it out of her reach.

“Hey, I want to watch this!” she chirped.

“Ok, Jimmy Olsen. Since when do you care about the Batman?”

“Since he’s news! And anyway, Jimmy Olsen is Superman.”

Rory turned up the volume as an image of Batman overtook the screen. His cape swept back from his shoulders as he pursued a masked criminal over rooftops, finally apprehending him beneath the spotlights of police helicopters. The perpetrator dangled from Batman’s outstretched arm, attired in an incredibly cliched outfit: A black ski mask, black sweater, and black pants.

“Geez, who does that guy’s wardrobe, Fairuza Balk?”

“Nothing wrong with a classic ensemble.” Rory retorted, “Black does go with everything.”

“Even that set of fancy bracelets, apparently.” Lorelei quipped as the police arrived on the scene to make the arrest, cuffing their prisoner and leading him away.

The newscaster reappeared on screen and began discussing Batman’s latest capers.

“Seriously,” Lorelei made a face as she chewed a handful of slightly stale marshmallows, “David Bowie is waiting, and that man does NOT seem like the patient type.”

Rory rolled her eyes. “We can watch Labyrinth any time! This is news!”

“This is movie night. Hit the record button on the DVR and watch it on your own time!” Lorelei argued, folding her arms and pouting.

“If I do that, it will, by definition, no longer be news by the time I watch it.” Rory dug into a somewhat questionable looking pile of Saag Paneer in a styrofoam takeout container, grimaced, and closed the lid.

“Is it too late to order pizza?” she asked, reaching for the phone.

“It’s never too late for pizza!”

Growing Pains

I haven’t been doing this whole writer thing for very long. While I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a small degree of success (including my first major sale last year), I have also unfortunately learned a few things the hard way.

In a sort of round about way, this post is a tale solidifying my stance on working for free/working for “exposure.”

Let’s start at the beginning. A few years ago, not long after the whole Tony G debacle I linked to at the start of this blog post, I was contacted by an editor. This editor, who shall remain nameless, treated me well and asked me to write a story for an anthology of hers, a pet project that she was hoping desperately to fill, but struggling. She’d read and liked my work and approached me about submitting. Payment for participation in the anthology would be… well, there would be no payment. Not even a contributor’s copy. But at that point in time, I was OK with that. After all, I reasoned, her anthos did well and got noticed. If I were to contribute to one, I’d be noticed, too. Getting my name out there and having another book to add to my bibliography would be a good thing, even if I didn’t make any money off the story. So I wrote.

Or, better put, I tried to write. You see, the topic of the anthology wasn’t something I was used to writing about. In fact, it would be my first ever published work that had nothing at all to do with zombies. But the editor had approached me. She believed I could do this, so I took some strength from her faith in me and my abilities (though I was probably giving that faith a bit more credit than what was truly due) and I resolved that I WOULD WRITE SOMETHING to contribute to this anthology.

At first, it was slow going. I kept wanting to write about the undead, and in fact, I took several breaks to complete zombie stories while working on the antho project. Eventually, inspiration struck and I finally managed to come up with an angle, and from there, the story evolved. Like happens so rarely to us writers, it just flowed out of me, a near perfect first draft in a single sitting.

Now, let me just say that I absolutely love the story that resulted. While I do love the fact that I stretched myself beyond my previous limits and got out of my comfort zone to write something entirely new, I do really love the story itself. It might even be my favorite short story I’ve written (although I have received a lot of criticism, including that it’s too “quiet” or too confusing) and I’ve read it at a few conventions I’ve attended.

I sent off the completed story to the editor and was pleased (though not surprised) when it was accepted. But the anthology was still struggling. Too few stories. It might not happen became it probably won’t happen. This made me very sad, as I dearly loved that story and wanted it to see the light of day. With the editor’s permission, I shopped it around to any and every market that it might fit. That story earned me more rejections (in large part because it was submitted more) than anything else I’ve written… But I didn’t want to give up on it, so I kept my chin up and kept submitting.

During this arduous process, my mentality began to shift on the whole subject of payment and “exposure”.

Kelli Owen (who you should most definitely be reading) penned a fabulous blog post on the topic of what aspiring writers need to know. I’ve linked the post in its entirety above, but this is the piece most relevant to the situation:

“1. RULE NUMBER ONE. This one is NOT a guideline. This is, without a doubt, and with Sister Hank’s ruler to back it up, a rule: Money flows to the writer. aka, Get Paid. aka, Real Money. I don’t care if you want to forgo guideline #3 and only get $5.00, get something. Anything. Seriously. Because if they have to pay you, they tend to give a crap about where their money is going. I have tried to beat this into the thick skulls of several newer writers who refuse to listen in the light of the vile word “exposure” and in the miasma of excitement that comes with the idea of being published. After the recent whirlwind, a couple are suddenly listening. Mandy took an “ouch” to learn and another received a very nasty phone call where Bob and I channeled everyone above us on the ladder who had yelled at us about the exact same thing once upon a time. Get Paid. Non-negotiable.
If you’re not willing to go to your dayjob and tell them at the end of the day, “no no, don’t pay me. knowing you appreciate me (read as “exposure”) is enough” don’t do it with your writing. It took time and effort, skill, thought, sweat and, if you did it right, blood to do… why the HELL would you just hand that away for nothing? WHY?! So don’t. And here’s your one warning… If I know you saw this blog entry and I ever, and I do mean ever, hear you bitching about a publication or even excited about one that didn’t pay you, I will come down on your head like the wrath of gods that have been dead for so long their pent up anger makes Coop look like the Dalai Lama. Kapeesh? Paid. Period. The End.” 

The contributors to this (and other) anthologies were giving their stories – completely free – to these editors and publishers, who were turning around and selling the books they produced for money. Suddenly that seemed, well, really unfair. Someone was profiting from my hard work and creativity. Someone, who was not me, was making money off of my words. For lack of a better term, that was bullshit. I stopped submitting to nonpaying markets. I have contributed to a few charity anthologies since then, but donating your work to a good cause is a LOT different than donating your work so someone else gets paid. At least in my opinion.

Somewhere around the 36th rejection, the original editor contacted me again. Surprise! The anthology was a go! Had I found a different home for my story yet? I replied that I had not and received a contract the next day, with the same (non payment) terms as the original. As I had previously agreed, and actually written the story for this very anthology, I signed it.

There was a lot of weirdness involved, both with the editor and the publisher, but eventually it went to print and I bought a few copies of the book (which now appears to be out of print and available as an ebook only). This was about 2 ½ years ago or so. There wasn’t a lot of fanfare around this particular anthology and I would be shocked if it has sold more than a dozen copies/downloads in all that time.

Yesterday, I happened upon a new market listing… Not only were the guidelines FAR more in line with my story than the original anthology it was published in, but this market actually paid. I was really excited until I got to the last sentence:


My heart sunk. This market would have been SO perfect for the story I so dearly love, the story I wasn’t paid for that was probably not seen by more than a handful of people, and yet I could do nothing about it because I had given it away for free. Ouch.

 There’s a lesson here somewhere, but rather than trying to wax poetic, I’ll just say this: Know your worth. Even if you’re just starting out, your time and effort are worth money. Exposure usually isn’t worth anything, with very rare exceptions. In other words, if you want to make money off of my writing, pay me for it.

World Horror Con 2016 Schedule

World Horror Con is just days away! I’m incredibly excited to be attending my very first one! Although I won’t be able to stay for the entire time due to prior and unavoidable commitments elsewhere, I aim to get the most out of the two days I will be in attendance.

For anyone interested in my schedule, I’ll be participating in 3 panels on Thursday, April 28th.

If you’ll be at #WHC2016 and want to see me talk about stuff with some other cool people, check me out at the below panels:

3:15-4:15 PM: Writing Action Scenes

5:45-6:45 PM: Gun Use in Fiction

9:30-10:30 PM: Women in Horror

Otherwise, I’ll be hanging around all day Thursday and most of the day Friday. Please feel free to say hi! I’m also happy to personalize your copy of Daughters of Inanna or sign anything else you’d like.

See you there!

Women in Horror Month

It’s February! Which means Valentine’s Day, Black History Month, and Women in Horror Month. While some question whether or not #WIHM is still needed in this day and age… my opinion remains divided.

On the one hand, things like last year’s #HagGate situation and the amount of cringe-inducing comments I’ve received at conventions and signings (Things like “You don’t write horror, sweetheart. It’s called “paranormal romance”.” and “Women can’t really be scary, they’re too nurturing.”) make me feel like a month celebrating some of the truly amazing women in this genre is still very important and very necessary… on the other hand, outside of a few sexist jerks, acceptance of women in the horror genre is almost universal. We’re celebrated, lauded for our achievements, and even the most jaded of us can name at least a dozen women authors they’ve read and enjoyed.

What I think is really valuable about Women in Horror Month is the amount of people who share their favorite female authors (and directors, actresses, and artists, etc) and/or their work in February. I mean, sure, we should ALWAYS crow about the things we love, the books we’ve enjoyed, the movies we’ve watched again and again… but let’s be honest here: People are far more likely to talk about the things they DON’T like. I, for one, relish the opportunity to discover new authors, film makers, singers, and other talented people, so to have a month where people go out of their way to call out their favorites? Sign me up!

On top of that, it DOES feel nice to be recognized, so opportunities to recognize others (as well as, you know, being recognized) should be cherished and taken advantage of.

In that spirit, I’d like to call attention to one of my favorite, though lesser known, female authors: Ruby Jean (R.J.) Jensen.

I discovered Ruby Jean during the height of my adolescent horror fandom, when I was gobbling up anything with a skeleton, zombie, werewolf, or vampire on the cover. During this period, I ogled the cases on the horror movies at the grocery store, watched Halloween specials all year round, and spent my meager allowance money (when I got it) on books from thrift stores and library book sales. I picked up Home Sweet Home based solely on the awesome skeleton on the cover:

Who wouldn’t buy that?

It was the first thing I read when I got home, and I absolutely loved it, which lead me to some of Ruby Jean’s other work, such as The Death Stone (which is my favorite of her books) and Best Friends which is SO FREAKIN’ CREEPY!

So, if you’re looking for something new (or old…) to read this February, check out some of Ruby Jean Jensen’s books. Most of them are available pretty cheap on Amazon or eBay and are WELL worth the investment.

Amber’s Top Five Books of 2015!

Hello, Dear Readers! New year, new start! But let’s not forget all of the good that came before, and 2015 was indeed a banner year for horror fiction.

I’m doing this post in lieu of my usual year-in-review. While 2015 was full of many awesome things, it was also a difficult year in other ways that I think are best left to lie. So instead of reviewing my accomplishments and whatnot, I’ve decided to review some of my favorite reads of 2015.

And yes, I know that this is a bit late, especially compared to everyone else’s lists… but since you’ve already read theirs, now you have time for mine! And just in case there are any publishers reading this, I promise I’m great with deadlines! Really!

I’d also like to note that James A. Moore‘s City of Wonders was a STRONG contender for this list. I absolutely adored the book and the ONLY reason it’s here as an honorable mention is because it’s the third part in his Seven Forges series and I worry that asking for a 3 book commitment on my recommendations might be a bit much for some of my readers… Although, if you haven’t read Seven Forges and The Blasted Lands yet, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!

And now, on to the fun!

#5 Wilted Lilies by Kelli Owen

Kelli Owen, host of the Buttercup of Doom podcast, knocked it out of the park with Wilted Lilies. It’s the tale of Lily May Holloway, a troubled teenager with a gift/curse that allows her to speak with the dead. It’s been done before in the horror genre, but Kelli’s take is refreshingly new and different and Lily herself is the kind of character that sticks with you for a while after the last page. She’s tragic and haunted, that’s for sure, but she’s also sweet and vulnerable, despite her best friend’s death and her own kidnapping. The other characters that round out the story are equally as complex and just as fascinating. All in all, this is a terrific tale with a few twists, great characters, and an ending that won’t let you go.

#4 Zero Lives Remaining by Adam Cesare

Number four on my list, Adam Cesare’s Zero Lives Remaining is cheesy, gory, camp filled fun. It hearkens back to the classic 80s horror romp cinema I grew up with in the very best way. It’s the story of Robby Asaro, a ghost who keeps watch over his old stomping grounds, an arcade populated by the kind of kid I was way back when. But when Robby tries to use his ghostly powers for good to protect one of the arcade’s regulars, things go very, very wrong. It’s a classic tale of the best intentions ending up causing the worst outcomes, filled with horror, thrills, supernatural slayings and even some tongue-in-cheek cheese. Despite the delays (and delays… and delays…) that occurred during production of the collector’s edition (none of which were Adam’s fault, just to be clear) the finished product was well worth the wait. Even without the cool VHSstyle case and trading cards, Zero Lives Remaining would keep it’s place on this list. It’s that good.

#3 Paradise Sky by Joe R. Lansdale

While not quite horror, Paradise Sky is Joe Lansdale at his very best, telling great stories with passion and drama, full of Texas heart (even though this one is set mostly outside of Texas, Lansdale’s trademark style and Texan charm shine through like a bright dime in a mud puddle) and rich characters, the most significant of which is Willie Jackson (soon to become Nat Love) a young black man who had the gall to ogle a white woman and ended up paying a hefty price as a result. This is a great old western tale, peppered with familiar names (like Wild Bill Hickock himself) and Lansdale’s trademark knack for engrossing dialogue and likable characters. I read this book on a long flight and was actually kind of sad when the plane landed before I could finish the last chapter.

#2 Dead Ringers by Christopher Golden

What if you had an evil twin you didn’t know about? What if that twin was the best possible version of you? Younger? Smarter? More stylish? Thinner? What if they wanted to take over? That’s the premise behind this creepy-as-hell novel by Christopher Golden. There are several main characters (and their doubles) but Tess and Lili are the ones that stood out most to me, as strong, brave, capable women dealing with an utterly horrific situation. This story is full of gut punch moments, but none moreso than the ending, that one will leave you breathlessly cursing the author long after you’ve closed and shelved the book (and maybe taped it shut… just in case…)

#1 The Complex by by Brian Keene

Wow. Yes, that was intentionally bolded, and yes, I meant every damned pixel of it. Wow. That’s my one word review of Brian Keene’s The Complex (previously available as part of the limited edition Maelstrom set from Thunderstorm Books, hopefully to be re-released as a paperback soon). There’s a hint of The Crazies, a breath of 28 Days Later, and a whisper of Keene’s Dark Hollow within those pages, but also a whole lot of something else, something undefined, something horrific and wonderful and heartbreaking and thrilling all at the same time. It’s the tale of the many varied residents of an apartment complex that comes under siege and how they band together to deal with the invasion… and survive. There’s a whole host of characters, but my favorites were a Keene standby named Exit and a widowed crazy cat lady named Mrs. Carlucci. I came to care about the latter far more than I expected and she’s a big part of what really drew me into the book. There were several moments where I was left speechless, shocked, angry, saddened, or even amused. This is a book you do NOT want to miss! If you didn’t get in on the Maelstrom set before it sold out, you’ll have to wait, though. Or borrow it from someone who did.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this (admittedly short) list and the books therein. Have you read them? If so, don’t forget to write a review, share a copy with a friend, and/or tell everyone who will listen how much you enjoyed them or any other books you’ve loved. Feel free to share some of your favorites from last year in the comments!

Christmas 2015: The Visit

It’s Christmastime, so I’m continuing my semi-annual tradition of posting a Christmas related story, my yuletide gift to you all.

This story was inspired, in part, by a drive I took recently through a good part of Texas. The roads can be lonely and dark, with barely another vehicle in sight. The moonlight is different, the skyline is a landscape of its own. I do some of my best thinking on the road (and my best storytelling) but my experience in Texas was especially powerful.


11:22 PM

I hugged Becca goodbye in front of The Tamale Plant, one of our old haunts back when I lived here. The restaurant closed at 10:00, but Becca and I stood out front, her smoking a cigarette, me balancing awkwardly on the curb, long after they locked the doors and turned out all the lights, laughing and chatting and reminiscing about the good old days. Only back then, I would’ve been smoking, too.

It was warm for December, but that’s Texas for you. Maybe I’d just gotten more used to the cold of Michigan winters. It was hard to believe I’d been away for 5 whole years. So much had happened since then. The Tamale Plant was still the same, though. Best fish tacos this side of Mexico and margaritas the size of slop buckets. It was strange to be back, comparing the things that hadn’t changed a bit with everything that had changed way too much. It’s true what they say, you can’t go home… not that Nacogdoches was home anymore. My parents had sold their house and moved to Austin not long after I left for college. Becca was my only remaining tie to the old homeplace, but there was this lingering feeling between us, like maybe she resented me for getting out, but maybe that was all in my head. A manifestation of the guilt I felt for moving on and leaving my lifelong friend behind in the Texas dust.

“You really sure you wanna drive back all that way in the dark?” Becca asked for the twentieth time, the cherry of her lit cigarette bouncing as she spoke, “I got a perfectly good sofa bed you can crash on, you know.”

“I know.” I reply for the twentieth time, “But mom would be pissed if I wasn’t there first thing in the morning when she starts baking. You know how she is…” I trail off, shrugging. Becca knows alright. She’s always hated my mother.

Becca drops her cigarette onto the sidewalk and crushes it out with her boot. “Ok, then.” she says, hugging me. I hug back, even though the smell of tobacco on her clothes and in her hair almost makes me choke. Did I ever really enjoy smoking?

“It was good to see you.” she says, reminding me again how seldom I make the trip, or even the effort to keep in touch with my old friend. “You, too.” I turn and walk towards my car. Becca stops me by grabbing my wrist.

“Be careful, ok?” she says, “I don’t want you hurt, not if you’re going to be president or something someday.”

“Thanks.” I smile, “I will.” And then I’m on the road again.

12:07 AM

I hit the scan button on the radio dial again, cursing myself for going cheap and not getting a rental car equipped with satellite radio. The stations blur by, a preacher yells about hell fire and brimstone, a crooner sings a ballad about a lost love, and a girl band belts out a poppy country tune, all interspersed with static as the car moves from one area of coverage to the next. Finally, I settle on a classical music station that seems to be holding strong just outside of Bryan.

The music is strangely calming, almost meditative. I like driving, or at least I don’t mind it, but it’s especially nice on the long backroads highways of rural Texas. No streetlights, few houses except very close to the cities and towns, and a soft half moon throwing glowing light over the peaceful farmland on either side of the road. I’ve only seen one other vehicle, a semi, this lonely Christmas Eve morning. I’ll probably make it to my parents house before the sun rises, which makes me feel a little sad. I’ve always loved the sunrises here, which just aren’t the same in Michigan.

I’m a little tired, after a flight, a layover, and driving down to see Becca, and our visit at the Tamale Place, but that’s alright. I’ve done it before. Becca and I used to take road trips all the time, to see music in Houston or Dallas and sometimes to the beach. I always drove and I always stayed awake. I’ve never even gotten a speeding ticket, not that I believe that would be possible in the little Korean compact I rented. I’m almost tempted to floor it just to see how fast it can go, but I resist the urge and in a moment it passes.

The radio station fades in and out with increasing regularity. I hit the scan button again and begin counting mile markers as they appear alongside the road. Every now and then I see cows sleeping in their fields and oil derricks churning in the darkness, moonlight glinting on their backs.

The road seems to stretch on forever, a ribbon of grey in the darkness. I start to slip into road hypnosis as the white dashes dart by and the monotony of the journey errodes my focus.

I’m almost on auto pilot, when the car is suddenly stopped fast and completely dead. I snap to attention. The lights are out, even the clock/radio. I didn’t hit anything. There was no impact, the car was just moving at one moment, doing almost 80 miles an hour, and the next, it was still.

I feel my heart begin to race, my blood thundering in my ears as my breath starts hitching in my throat. Did I fall asleep? What happened? I turn the key but it does nothing, not even click. I take a deep beath, trying to force myself calm, and reach for my cellphone. My stomach fills with ice when I see that it’s completely dead, just like the car. How can that be? It’s still hooked into the charger. Maybe there was an EMP or something. Could that have happened? Could it be a terrorist attack or something? I hold down the power button, feeling desperation begin to creep in. My mouth goes dry when it doesn’t respond.

I could try to flag someone down, but it would be a long time before anyone came along. I glance up at the road ahead, and that’s when I see them.

Long, pale forms that seem to glow in the moonlight with bottomless empty holes for eyes and mouths emerge from the woods, cloaked in shadow.

Panic. What the fuck are those things? I turn the key in the ignition again, frantic. I twist it so hard it hurts, but nothing. The things are coming closer, reaching too-long fingers towards me, their shapes contorting, stretching, twisting in the moonlight. They move in quick, halting motions, jerky, like someone removed several frames during playback. Tears run down my face. I bite my lip and taste blood.

They come closer. I press the button to lock the doors but it doesn’t do anything. I sob even though I can barely breath.

I gasp as one of them appears on the other side of my window, moving several yards in a split second. I try to scream, but I can’t. I feel like I’m paralyzed. Warm wetness spreads on the seat beneath me as my bladder lets go.

I shut my eyes, it’s all the control I have over my body. I squeeze them so tight it hurts.

I hear the door open and a sound like nothing I’ve ever heard, like harsh wheezing played backwards, fills the void.

Cold fingers, colder than anything I’ve ever felt, wrap around me, my entire head in one hand, my shoulders in another. They drag me from the car.

Instinct kicks in and I open my mouth, biting down hard on a finger that feels too soft to hold me and as smooth as glass.

A scream like sirens and all goes silent.

I fall to the ground, my shoulder and my knee take the impact. My mouth is full of hot, stinging fluid that tastes like batteries and fire. I choke and gasp as I roll to the side and throw up. I can feel my lower lip and my tongue beginning to dissolve.

I open my eyes. They sting, but I can see. I cannot hear. Around me, there is no one. Nothing. Only the cows and the derricks and the darkness.

The car jolts to life suddenly, headlights flashing on, the overhead light illuminating above me. I imagine the music on the radio is playing again, but I can’t hear it.

Coughing and choking, I feel wet chunks of things that should stay inside me coming out. They splatter on my hands and arms and the pavement, looking black in the pale light of the moon. I am covered in something that glows the color of Christmas lights and makes my skin bubble and blister and ooze.

Christmas lights.