Tag Archives: Albert Berg

Acting in the Theatre of the Mind

Sometime in the past year I changed my radio listening habits. I started tuning out the conservative talk radio I had grown up with (don’t judge me; or do: whatever) and amped up my consumption of NPR. Of course on NPR the tone of discussion is radically different, but on a basic level it’s not much of a switch. Talking is talking no matter which way you slice it up, and they do a lot of talking on NPR. They talk about politics, news, world-culture; and of course, they do interviews.

Sometimes they do interviews with people who actually matter, like politicians or financial experts or whatever. But sometimes they do interviews with other people; the kind of people that a lot of other people think matter, but they don’t really, except for the fact that so many people believe they matter kind of means that they do? That sentence: it got away from me.

I have a sliding scale for how well I tolerate these kinds of interviews. On the bottom of the scale is musicians. Call me crazy, but given the choice of hearing someone talk about music and listening to, you know, actual music, I’m gonna go with the latter.

Slightly higher on the scale, but not by much, are the writers. In theory I should be really interested in what other writers have to say. I mean, those be my people,  amiright? I don’t know, maybe they’re picking the most boring writers possible for these interviews, but I think it’s more likely that out of all the different professions out there, writers just tend not to be that interesting to talk to. Hellooo? That’s why we’re writers! If we could talk we wouldn’t be glued to our keyboards.

Then comes the third group. The group I should probably dislike the most, but somehow end up disliking the least. Actors. Actors tend to be way more interesting to me than writers or musicians. I’m not sure I can justify this. Probably it tickles the same bone in me that makes people buy supermarket celebrity news tabloids.

But there’s more than that too. Because when I listen to writers talk about how they write, most of the time I don’t get much out of it as a writer. They talk about why they chose a specific setting for their novels or what it is about one of their characters that appeals to them and it’s all very…safe.

More often than not though, I feel like I can learn something from actors talking about how they do what they do. The whole point of what an actor does is to create a character. Their job is to step out of who they are and into someone else in such a way that the audience believes in that person.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “Albert, the guy who wrote the script created that character. He’s the one who came up with the guy’s motivations, he’s the one who puts the words in his mouth. The actor is just following the writer’s instructions.”

And you’re wrong.

Yes, the writer does write the lines for the character, he does come up with his backstory, maybe he even has an idea of the character’s mental and spiritual state in the story. But no matter how good the writing is, it’s going to fall flat if someone doesn’t step into that role and become the thing the writer envisioned, mannerisms, ticks, facial expression, and a million other tiny things that the script writer might have never conceived of when he penned the story. The actor is more than just a puppet spouting the lines he’s been giving, going through the actions he’s been assigned. In a very real sense he must become the thing he is portraying as the film cameras roll.

At this point you might be thinking, “Yeah, but I’m writing a novel, not a screenplay you doofus. Why should I care about all this Hollywood mumbo jumbo?”

The reason you should care is this: if you want your story to be believable, if you want your work to make an impact, character matters. As a fiction writer you have more in common with the actor than you think. You’re not just writing dialogue. You’re writing actions and reactions, mannerisms and habits. You can’t rely on someone else to come along and realize the character in your reader’s minds. The whole burden of the process is on you.

The characters aren’t your puppets. Well, they can be. You’re the godlike writer, you can make them do whatever you want them to do. But if you want their story to be believable  if you want people to care about what happens to them, you’re going to have to do more than that.

You have to be able to step into their skin, understand what makes them who they are, and make sure that is reflected in every page that they’re on. This is more than just slapping on a backstory, a goal and a phobia. This is investing each of them with a soul of their own, making them into a living breathing person in your mind, and ultimately, in your moments of creation, becoming them.

Full disclosure? This is something I need improvement on. But sometimes I think I get it right. Sometimes I can feel what my characters are feeling, I can get inside their heads in such a way that their actions become my actions.

This is what writers mean when they talk about characters living inside their heads. We’re not schizophrenic; but maybe we are just a little bit crazy. Maybe we have to be.

Because in the end our insanity is infectious. The more we start to believe our characters are real, the more they start to live in and through us, the more the reader will believe that they’re real. Our characters will act out their story on the stage we’ve built in the theatre of the reader’s mind; and we can count ourselves successful if only for only a moment we can make our vision of the world feel more honest than the truth.

Sons of the Damned, Chapter 20: How Firm a Foundation

[Feeling lonely? The previous chapter has sent you a friend request on Facebook.]

This is the Foundation. This is the place where nightmares live. This is the prison that binds the worlds’ greatest darkness.

Down in subbasement C we’ve got the old standbys. Like the concrete statue that’s only a statue when you look at it, and when you’re not looking at it, it snaps your neck.

Down the row from him you’ll find 682. The undead, unkillable lizard that hates all life. Hear that thumping sound? Think it’s getting louder? Yeah, he’ll get out eventually, hopefully not before we’ve finished his new digs. Right now they’re building a new containment for him down the bottom of a mine-shaft. The walls are going to be solid carbon steel ten feet thick. Once he’s down there they’re filling in the shaft with concrete. We figure that should hold him for a couple of months at least.

On this level we’ve got some of our more “normal” subjects. In this cell is a surgeon who steals the internal organs from living subjects and implants them into himself to perpetuate eternal life. Yes, without anesthetic. No we don’t know how he does it yet. We’re not even sure if he’s human. We’re studying him to see if we can find a better method to prevent transplant rejection.

This is the room where we keep the canvas where Cassy lives.

What? Oh, she’s a sketch of a girl that happens to be alive. No, she’s not dangerous. Not everything we’ve got here wants to kill us.

Down that hallway we’ve got our low security lockers, places where we store the less-complicated items in our little…collection. My personal favorite is the Recorded Man. His DVDs stay there when they’re not out for testing.

What’s that? No, we don’t store supernatural or memetic SCPs at Site 14. I mean technically the illustrated girl might be supernatural, but…well really that’s a difficult line to draw when you’re in this business. Line to draw? Get it?

Speaking of drawing, if you went down that flight of stairs you’d find a room with nothing in it but a leaking fountain pen. Oh, believe me, I know it sounds silly. You’ve got an undead hell-lizard on your hands, what difference does a leaky pen make? Only this pen, it never stops leaking. And the ink…well as far as we can tell it can perpetuate itself through any liquid indefinitely. You let 682 loose, and he maybe goes on a killing spree, wipes out a town, but in the end he’s just the one lizard. But you get one drop of that ink into the earth’s water supply? Imagine the rivers running ink. The ocean black as pitch out to the far horizon. The end of the world doesn’t look like you think it does.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, really it’s because I like to talk. I like to see people’s faces when they find out about all this stuff.

What about security? Well, there’s not much to worry about on that score. The last eighteen D Class personnel they brought down here ended up skinning themselves with this ritual knife we found in some mine down in Brazil, screaming about the need to appease the Flayed Lord. You’d be surprised how long you can survive without your skin. One of them lasted almost fifteen minutes.

So not much chance for you to go off blabbing what you’ve seen here to anyone else. Then again, you never know. The guys testing this think they’ve made a breakthrough. It’s possible you’ll survive. Think happy thoughts yes? And whatever happens know that we here at the Foundation are eternally grateful for your contribution. No, don’t struggle. This is your atonement. This is something beautiful. You’re helping to make the world a safer place.

Now please, stop screaming, and come along quietly.


“How did this happen?” the Director asks, and there is a tone of darkness in his voice, of judgment, and impending wrath.

Jenkins swallows hard. “He just…guessed it sir.”

“You revealed too much of yourself.”

“You’ve seen the tapes. You’ve seen all the tapes. You know that isn’t true.”

The Director leans over the desk and looks Jenkins in the eye. “You’re right. I have seen the tapes. And I have just one question. How did you pass it to him?”

“I didn’t pass anything sir. Really. You have to believe me.” And there are tears in her eyes. “Please,” she whispers. “I didn’t do it. I know you think I did but…” A sob swallows up the rest of the phrase.

“What then? What am I supposed to think?”

“Maybe…maybe we missed something. Maybe he’s not completely human. Maybe…”

“Doctor we deal with things that aren’t completely human every day. We’re even accustomed to things that aren’t even a little human. But him? This no name, nobody, from a hick town where NASCAR is the biggest sport, and hunting the biggest pastime?”

“It’s possible.”

“You’re right. Half the things we find come from places where no one would ever notice them. They seek that stuff out. But Hyde is right. There’s something going on here that we’re not seeing. How can I be sure you’re not part of it?”

“Because…because it wouldn’t make sense. You think I’m working with him? You think I fed him information?” Jenkins is struggling now, her words coming stronger, a tone of a woman who knows her continued existence could very well hinge on this argument. “You vetted me very thoroughly,” she says. “Your people dug into the deepest corners of my mind and pulled out every possible point of leverage our enemies might have. You dealt with that leverage. I drank from the cup of truth-”

“Is that what they’re calling it now?”

“-I bared my soul to you, to all of the men up at OS-5. All of you signed off on me. And now you’re trying to throw me under the bus because you’ve got a breach you don’t understand?”

“You make a compelling argument, Dr. Jenkins,” the Director says.

“…thank you sir?”

“I have only one further question.”

“Which is?”

When did you change your password?”

“You know when.”

“Yes. But I want to hear it from you.”

“Two months ago sir.”

“Two months ago. And what else happened two months ago Jenkins?”

“That’s when they brought him in,” Jenkins answers.

“Interesting coincidence don’t you think?”

“I would say terrifying.”

“Tomato, tomahto.”

“You…are you going to..?”

“Your employment will continue. For now.”

“Thank you sir. I won’t let you down.”

“Good. Because I’ve got a special assignment for you.”

“And that is?”

“You’re going to debrief Mr. Price on what he saw.”


“Explain it to him. Give him everything he wants to know. Answer all his questions.”

“Are…are you sure that’s wise sir?”

“No. I’m playing a hunch, taking a risk, making a leap of faith.” He sits down in his chair and rests his arms on the desk his hands folded in front of him, looking Jenkins straight in the eye. “Do you believe me?” he asks.

She looks at him, the remnants of her tears still gleaming in the corners of her eyes and shakes her head. “No sir. I think you know exactly what you’re doing.”

“Good. Then off you go.”

“Thank you sir.”

But after she’s gone a strange look crosses the old man’s face. “Such faith,” he mutters under his breath. “I wish I shared it.”


Vinny: So…what happens now?

Jenkins: What do you want to happen?

Vinny: I want to go home. Go back to normal. Turn back the clock.

Jenkins: That’s not how it works. You should be able to figure that out on your own.

Vinny: You people…how can you live with it?

Jenkins: With what?

Vinny: With knowing. With what you do. All the things…the things I saw-”

Jenkins: We’ve got it under control, Vinny. Well, most of it anyway.

Vinny: Last night I heard the klaxons sound down the hall. It’s quiet at night and you can hear better and all I could think was, “Containment Breach.”

Jenkins: Vinny-

Vinny: How many people died?

Jenkins: Is that what you want to know? Really?

Vinny: No. I guess not.

Jenkins: What were you looking for? You guessed my password. I’m still trying to figure that one out. But I’m smart enough to know that was more than idle curiosity at work. What where you looking for?

Vinny: You were at Frog’s trailer.

Jenkins: Not me personally, but the Foundation did send a team there, yes.

Vinny: You cataloged everything right? Like a crime scene? Took it all away for testing or whatever?

Jenkins: Yes.

Vinny: Where are the pictures?

Jenkins: Of the trailer?

Vinny: Yeah. Your guys did take pictures before they started carting everything away right?

Jenkins: I guess. They’re probably still waiting to be properly logged though. There’s a lot of channels that stuff has to go through. Even after two months it might not be up on the mainframe.

Vinny: I want to see. The pictures. I want to see them.


Vinny clicks through the pictures, one after another. “No, no, no,” he mutters to himself. “Where is it?”

“If I knew what you were looking for I could help you find it,” Dr. Jenkins says.

“The bookshelf. The one in the living room. I need that picture. I need to know what it looked like when your guys stormed in.”

“You think your friend left you a message? Some book that was out of place?”

All the books were out of place,” Vinny says, his voice edged with irritation. “Weren’t you listening? When I told you Angie looked at them and said that were out of order? Frog was a big believer in alphabetization. Organization. Reason. That was kind of his thing. I can’t believe I didn’t realize it sooner. The books on the shelf, they weren’t out of order, just not in the order Angie was expecting.”

“Here you go,” Jenkins says, passing the laptop back over to Vinny. “Have at it.”

Vinny takes the laptop and then grabs for a sheet of paper lying on the table and begins writing down letters. “It’s a code, see?” he says. “Frog was all about codes. Little codes, big codes, codes that went twenty layers deep. This one’s pretty simple. Take the first letter of the author’s last name in each of the books on the shelf and you’ve got your message. Devon: D. Owen: O. Nabokov: N. Taylor: T. Et cetera.”

He scribbles for a while longer and then looks up.

“What is it?”

Vincent flips the paper around so that Jenkins can read it. The words on the page spell out. “Don’t follow. Church of the Broken God. Safe. The game is afoot.”

“What,” Vincent asks, “is the Church of the Broken God?”


Author’s Note: Most of the entities mentioned in the opening scene of this chapter have been borrowed from the files of the SCP Foundation. Special Containment Procedures and other information about these entities can be found in the following files:

SCP 505: Ink Stain

SCP 315: The Recorded Man

SCP 085: “Cassy”

SCP 542: The Surgeon

SCP 682: Undead Reptile

Also, I couldn’t figure out a way to work it into the story, but you should also totally check out SCP 426: I Am a Toaster. It is the best.

Sons of the Damned, Chapter 19: The Truth is in Here

[For more information please reference the previous document in this sequence.]

“He’s bluffing,” Dr. Hyde says. He’s sitting in an office that looks far more casual than it has a right too. The furniture doesn’t match. The walls are a soft, warm brown that’s almost covered over with bookshelves stuffed with various bricabrac. The desk he’s sitting in front of is a vast oaken thing that fills much of the room’s available floor space.

The office belongs to the Director. The Director is the highest authority at site 14, reporting directly to OS-5. No one knows his name.

The director looks at Hyde through narrow eyes and says, “Bluffing.”

“Yeah,” Hyde says. It’s obvious he’s edgy, nervous, a wayward student in the thrall of a stern teacher. “Bluffing.”

“He’s not bluffing,” Jenkins argues. She’s more comfortable here, more relaxed. Either she’s not afraid of the Director or she’s doing a better job of keeping it hidden. “We tested the stuff we gave him on a number of Class 4 personnel and none of them held anything back. Some of the stuff, frankly I wouldn’t have minded if they skipped.”

“It doesn’t make sense,” Hyde argues. “The way he described the aftermath of that meeting his friend had with the demon-thing at City Hall? That’s clearly the result of some kind of psychic energy. Our thaumeters went crazy when we visited the site. Brain bombs. Gotta be.”

The Director raises an eyebrow. “Your argument being that these demon entities could not possibly have used brain bombs in this instance?”

“My argument is, why would they? You’re going mano e mano with a guy who you know you can overpower? You don’t toss a psychic grenade at him. It’s overkill. Worse, it’s plain stupid.” He charges ahead, more confident now that he’s getting to his point. “We know who uses that kind of tech,” he says. “If it’s got brass and glass and a hint of magic they’re all over it. Demon things from wherever? Not so much.”

“The Church has no reason that we know of to be interested in this guy,” Jenkins argues. “Now maybe they were there. Maybe. But my money says it was just a coincidence.”

“Coincidence? Can you HEAR yourself? The amount of sense that doesn’t make is staggering. He’s a PLANT. I’m telling you. Or something. He gave us what he thought was the truth but his memories were altered.”

“Equally implausible,” the Director says.

Hyde begins to object. “With all due respect-”

“Jenkins,” the Director says. “Explain to your colleague why it’s implausible.”

“Because…” Jenkins squeezes her eyes shut for a moment, thinking. “Because if you’re going to give someone a cover story it needs to fit the facts? The very fact that this one raises so many warning flags argues against it being a red herring.”

The Director nods almost imperceptibly. “Very good. Has there been any change in his behavior pattern?”

“If by ‘change’ you mean, has he stopped acting weird for no apparent reason then no,” Hyde replies. “We’re holding steady there. I’m telling you-”

“Then thank you for you time,” the Director says rising from his chair. “I believe both of you know the way out.”


Vincent sits at the computer terminal and stares at the blinking cursor on the screen. He’s got the computer’s word processing program open. He’s typed, “All that you love will be carried away,” on the screen 586 times. “All That You Love Will be Carried Away” is Vincent’s favorite Stephen King short story. It’s his belief that short King’s short fiction is the best work he’s ever done.

Back when he was working at the gas station he would read fat Stephen King books during the times when he wasn’t mopping the floor or helping customers. He’s read Everything’s Eventual eleven times and Nightmares and Dreamscapes seven times.

On the next line he types “All that you live will be carried away,” and smiles a little to himself. Once upon a time he found small religious comic book called “This Was Your Life” wherein the main character of the comic dies and is shown a film of all the things he’s done in his life. The point of the comic is that the man has done more bad things than he realizes and is deserving of hell, but all Vincent can think is that if he is ever shown the events of his life played out on a screen in real time he’ll know he’s in hell already.

“Maybe this is hell,” he thinks. “Maybe I died back there in the river and everything since then has been an elaborate hallucination; a bizarre after-life or…something.” He laughs. And then frowns. This isn’t hell. At least he’s relatively sure it isn’t. Hell doesn’t come with helpful staff and doctors trying to tell you you should really take something to eat. But he can’t help but wonder what kind of place would have those kinds of amenities. Not a prison.

In a sense of course he is a prisoner, but it’s clear that this isn’t anyone’s idea of detention. This place…he can’t be sure, but it seems like it’s big. He’s only seen glimpses of the outside hallway, but occasionally there are people walking past. The CCTV camera in the corner makes him think he’s probably not the only one being watched. Sure, old Norman might be looking his way from time to time, but Vincent can’t quite bring himself to believe that he’s sitting alone in a room with a single television watching him. In his mind there are other screens, other rooms. Other people.

How many? In his mind it’s a lot. But why?

These people, whoever they are, seem like they’ve got some purpose, some reason for doing all of this. They didn’t laugh when he told them about the demon things, or the Something that bonded with Frog’s finger, or the black circle in the clearing in the woods. They didn’t ask if he’d been using drugs or if he had a history of mental illness. They asked for more details.

They believed him. And that made him think that they had seen this kind of thing before. “A regular X-files kind of operation,” he thinks. Only in the X-files, it was just the two agents working on digging up the weirdness right? Not a whole facility devoted to it. How much weirdness in the world is there? How many people like him are being mined for information. How many monsters and ghosts and…who knows what are being tracked by these people?

“Frog would flip his lid if he could see this place,” Vinny thinks.

Frog. Remembering his friend sends a bitter twinge through his gut. And then the voice of conscience says, “Frog wouldn’t just sit here wondering would he. He’d have a plan. He’d find out.”

A plan.

Vinny has never been good with plans. He supposes he could just ask Dr. Jenkins. Maybe he’d even get a response. “But,” he thinks, “Could I trust her to tell the truth.” And then another thought: “Frog wouldn’t.”

So WWFD? Get the lay of the land for starters. Vinny closes out the word processor and starts digging around on the computer terminal. He’s got fairly limited access here. Can’t even open up any kind of file explorer. He tries accessing the hard drive through the internet browser and hits a wall there too.

Stymied he looks for something else, anything else. After all, the terminal has to connect with some bigger network, so there’s got to be a portal to that functionality somewhere. For a moment he feels a twinge of fear at the prospect of getting caught, but then he thinks, “And what can they do to me if they DO catch me? In for a penny, in for a pound.”

After a bit of digging he finds what he’s looking for. A dialogue box pops up asking for a password. “Well what did you think dummy?” he asks himself. “They were going to roll out the red carpet for you?”

And then the question comes again: “What would Frog do?”

Frog would try to figure out what the password was. Frog would try to deduce what each of the researchers would choose based on what he knew about them. But then, Frog believed he was a genius.

“What could it hurt? You’re already sitting here.”

So Vinny pretends he’s a genius. The only two people he knows anything at all about here are Dr. Jenkins and Dr. Hyde and what he knows about them isn’t much. Mostly they want to know about him. Want to know about Frog. But sometimes they’ll let things slip. Vinny knows that Jenkins has kids. At least two. Knows that at least one is a girl. What was her name?

Hyde? Well Hyde’s a bachelor. The kind of guy who tells himself he’s staying away from commitment to hide from the truth that no woman would want to spend the rest of her life with him anyway. “I feel ya buddy,” Vinny thinks. Still, not much to go on there. So back to Jenkins.

You’re a woman like that, you have a daughter what do you name her? Vinny tries to imagine himself as a woman picking out baby names. It is the hardest thing he’s ever done. But after a while something comes into his brain. “Celia.”

He laughs a little. Yeah. Right.

But then it’s there again, insistent, nagging, almost a whisper in his mind. “Celia.”

“It’s not Celia,” he thinks. “And even if that is her daughter’s name you think they’d let her use it as a password? Probably it’s a string of completely random letters and numbers. Place like this, security up to here, yeah, it’s not gonna be that easy.”


So Vinny thinks, “Fine. Just so you’ll shut up,” and types in C-E-L-I-A. The computer blinks for a moment.

Incorrect Password. 2 Attempts Remaining.

See? It couldn’t be that simple. Place like this, they’re going to require uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, probably a special character or two in their passwords.

Special characters. The idea sticks in his head. You’ve got to come up with a weird password, doesn’t mean it’s got to be complete nonsense right? He tries: Celi@.

Incorrect Password. 1 Attempt Remaining.

But now he’s on a roll, because he remembers Dr. Jenkins saying something about her daughter being seven years old. Vinny does the math, figures that means she must have been born in either 2004 or 2005. And assuming the system requires that passwords be at least eight characters long…

He types, Celi@2005. Takes a deep breath. Closes his eyes. Hits “Enter”.

And when he opens his eyes again, he’s through.

For a moment he just sits there staring at the computer screen his mouth hanging open, his eyes wide, unbelieving. “No,” he thinks. “That did not just happen. That did not just work. No WAY was it that easy.”

But then another thought comes. “Time to think about how improbable it is later. Right now you need to get to work. You know what you’re looking for.”

And he does know. But he doesn’t know how to find it. Not at first.

And instead he finds the rest of it. The rest of them.

All those monitors he figures Norman is watching. Only it’s not just Norman. Can’t be. There are hundreds, thousands of entries here. Instructions for containment. Descriptions of things drawn straight from the pit of a monster’s nightmare. The end of the world, now available in a wide array of terrifying flavors.

He doesn’t know how long he reads. He skips from one file to another, his eyes flickering over the screen. Not everything is here. Dr. Jenkin’s security clearance must be limited because there are sections that are blacked out, the spoilers of the damned, [REDACTED] and [DATA EXPUNGED] popping up over and over leaving him to imagine the horrors beyond the void of his knowledge.

At some point he thinks, “No. This is all a joke. It’s made up. It has to be. Something like this…All of this…it can’t be real.

But he doesn’t believe it. He keeps reading. And maybe it’s hours or days later, but at some point he leans back, rubs his eyes…

And realizes he’s not alone in the room.

Author Interview: G. Wells Taylor

[G. Wells Taylor was the guy who got me started with self-published books. Years ago I knew such things existed, but I’d never had the incentive to try them out. All that changed when I stumbled across the site manybooks.net and downloaded a copy of Mr. Taylor’s book When Graveyards Yawn. In the pages of that book I met “PI in zombietown” character Wildclown; it blew my mind. Since then I’ve been addicted to the amazing and unfiltered weird that the channel of self-publishing opens up. Today’s it’s my great joy and pleasure to present to you my interview with the man who started it all…]

All of your books seem to feature the undead in one way or another. What is it that fascinates you about zombies and vampires? Is it simply the horror of imperfect immortality, or is there something more?

Zombies and vampires are fitting tools for exploring the horror of imperfect immortality, as you say; but I also see them as dire warnings against imperfect mortality, since they inhabit negative aspects of our own collective identity. Zombies fly in the face of the democratic ideal of safety in numbers and instead invoke the image of mob rule and soulless conformity. Vampires suggest the hypocrisy of individual superiority mocked by an utter dependence upon and envy for their inferior prey. These uncomfortable contradictions make these monsters so human and therefore, captivating to both readers and writers.

In my experience the journey to becoming a seasoned writer is more tangled and complicated than most readers will ever know, so what’s your story? When was the moment you realized, “I want to tell stories,” and how long did it take your dream to come to fruition?

In the early days, I used to illustrate and write stories for my own entertainment. I did well in art class, and thought painting and illustrating would be my way of figuring out my personal puzzles. However, during my first year of art college, I realized that I had many more than a thousand words to say about each picture I generated; so I began to suspect that I would find commercial or fine art to be lacking for me as a sole means of self-expression.

I dropped out of college to work for a few years before eventually returning to study journalism and English literature in university. In the meantime, I had been writing stories and banking manuscripts.

I did annual submissions to publishing houses with little success, but was not discouraged. I knew my stories did not fit the mold. Imagine pitching Wildclown to a publishing industry that was shifting to a more conservative and risk-averse business model.

I thought of myself as a writer despite the fact that people pointed out I wasn’t making any money at it. I didn’t get the point and kept writing anyway.

I mentioned before that you write fiction that primarily focuses on the undead —a topic which has gotten more than its share of attention in the past few years— and yet your stories put a fresh spin on the established tropes: the World of Change posits the question: what if every living thing became effectively unkillable? In Bent Steeple your villain is a pedophilic vampire. In the Variant Effect a wonder-drug makes certain people begin to crave human flesh. And my question is, what is it that drives you to take these tropes that everyone thinks they know backward and forward and say, “Fellas, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet”?

I yearn for something original when I read books. I want to be surprised and entertained by the experience, so I am obsessed with putting something new into the over-worked and overpopulated genres in which I write. I have to be passionate about a book before I can write it, so discovering something unique is essential to lighting that fire.

If you were given the power to imprint a unique monster of your own creation into the cultural consciousness what would it be?

I think my “skin eaters” from the Variant Effect are leaving a mark on readers. I sure have a lot of fun writing them, and I suspect their back story might be sufficiently believable and unsettling to leave a lasting impression. They give me the creeps.

[Albert here: ya’ll can meet the skin eaters for yourselves in Mr. Taylor’s books The Variant Effect and The Variant Effect: GreenMourning. They are super creepy. But don’t take my word for it. Go. Read.]

Conversely, if you were given the power to completely remove one single work of fiction from the pages of history and the minds of men, what would it be?

That’s a hard one. I’ve got too many favorites to focus on a single work of fiction that doesn’t turn my crank. It is a rare book that I will put down once I’ve started reading it. There is usually something of value in every piece of fiction.

From what I can tell, you’ve started self-publishing your books digitally before it was “cool”. What led you down that path? Were you rejected by the mainstream publishing world, or did you always know you wanted to be a solo act?

Historically, the Canadian government has subsidized Canadian publishers in an effort to mitigate the cultural impact of the much larger American publishing industry. Those subsidies went to Canadian publishers and fiction writers that focused on Canadian stories: culture, immigration and history.

So Canadian genre fiction writers were “solo acts” whether we liked it or not.

That left me sending manuscripts to American publishing slush piles. As you know, just prior to the eBook Revolution there were few traditional publishers who accepted unsolicited manuscripts. So the search was on for an agent. When I read that few literary agents were accepting unsolicited manuscripts, I began to think that my books would end up in an attic to be discovered by a relative long after I was dead. While an imperfect outcome, it would have to do.

However, a friend in IT and now business partner, Richard Van Dyk had assured me over the years that developments in technology would eventually push the old publishing industry model to the wayside, and opportunity would come for independent writers through digital content, electronic reading devices and the Internet. He used the rapidly changing music industry model of the time as an example.

While I had my doubts, I soldiered on and started publishing my work online, then after a few missteps with the under-utilized print-on-demand technology, the eBook came into being. That eBook publishing technology validated independent writers, and allowed me to connect directly to the reader.

Compared to many of the people I know in self-publishing you’re substantially…more mature. Do you feel that your age and experience gives a leg up on your younger competition? Or does the generational gap cause more problems than good?

I think Indie publishing is moving onto a relatively even playing field where talent is free to trump all other factors. Age and experience have just made me more disciplined. I’m better at committing my time and doing the work.

I’m gonna geek out for a minute here and say, that I absolutely LOVE your “P.I. in Zombietown” character Wildclown. Where did the idea for a hardboiled private investigator who happens to dress in full clown regalia come from?

Years ago I was working at a psychiatric hospital in a northern Canadian city that was also home to a doomsday cult. Its members dressed up as zombies and the Grim Reaper. They seemed to do this randomly, appearing Monday morning, Wednesday afternoon or Friday night, at any time of year.

Needless to say, after the initial amusement wore off, they became a little depressing. Imagine strolling down the street on a sunny day and passing a gang of fake zombies chanting about the end of the world. I had at that time developed a voracious appetite for hard-boiled detective fiction, a genre I wanted to try my hand at writing. So one day as I passed the zombie horde, I heard a wisecracking voice inside my head that I soon recognized as Wildclown. Mix in a few late nights, a typewriter and Canadian Club whiskey and you’ve got a P.I. in Zombietown.

The doomsday cult’s costumes may have inspired Wildclown’s need to disguise his true identity. The fact that he chose a gothic clown might have had something to do with my interest in Shakespearean tragedies in which insightful “fools” are always popping up at the worst of times.

Speaking of hard-boiled private investigators, a lot of your leading men tend to be hard-drinking, fast-living, loners. What is it about that kind of character that speaks to you?

I find the hard-boiled perspective an excellent way of viewing our world where the gray area has bled into the black and white. It is a practical mindset soaked in defiance, humor and skepticism. The first-person narrative of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op was an echo of the inner monologue I was already hearing on the long nights I spent writing.

Shoot us some sage words of writing wisdom. What can the rest of us struggling writers do to up our fiction game?

Just do the work and add something to it every day. Take lots of notes and organize them. Be prepared and trust the process. Get someone to edit, and someone to read. If you feel anxious, depressed or grumpy, you should probably be writing.

Beginnings for Beginners

I am a literary hobo. I panhandle my way through the library, I paw through the dumpsters of remaindered books at Barnes and Noble, I shop the discarded treasures at the local Goodwill.

And, of course, because I can often pick them up for cheap or free I read self-published stories.

There’s a lot of good out there in the self-publishing world. It’s true that there’s more bad stuff than good stuff, but on the whole I haven’t had difficulty finding compelling books that were competently edited and reasonably well-written.


When reading self-published books I’m aware that what I’m seeing many times is the work of someone new to the writing scene. Someone who is still polishing their craft, who hasn’t had access to the professional feedback the “real” writers get. (This is another blog post all on it’s own, but make sure you’re getting someone who knows what they’re talking about and isn’t afraid of hurting your feelings to read your stuff and give feedback before you hit “publish”. Listen to what they say. It will make a world of difference.)

And in reading these stories there’s one thing that I’ve noticed many new writers have a hard time getting right. The beginning.

See, beginnings are important and difficult things. Actually stories are important and difficult things, but I’ve only got a few hundred words here so lets focus our attention shall we?

Beginnings have to do a lot of work. They have to introduce the main characters, they have to set up the story world, they have to set the tone of the story.

And most people get that stuff right. Even the beginning writers I’ve seen faltering at this, usually understand the basics of setting up the story. But the problem is that beginnings have to do more than just set things up. They have to set the hook.


A good opening scene makes the reader ask a question. It doesn’t really matter that the question is. It could be, “Why does a fifteen-year-old girl have a unicorn in her room?” or “Why is a cyborg fighting through a horde of aliens with a paper heart stapled to his chest?”

That advice you’ve heard about opening your story in the middle of the action? It’s fine to do that —though I would argue not completely necessary— but the action can’t just be there to look pretty; it has to plant a question in the reader’s mind.

Note however that the opening scene shouldn’t do the asking directly. You drop a line like, “So, have you noticed that John disappears every month around the time of the full moon? Wonder what that’s about.” and you’ve just lost about half of your readers.

Instead, the opening scene insinuates the question into the reader’s mind. It makes him believe that he came up with the question all on his own. And that makes him care about the answer. That’s why this moment is so important. Because that question is what is going to pull your reader further into the story looking for answers.

Of course the question and answer cycle doesn’t end at the opening scene. The beginning is just…well the beginning. Making your readers keep turning the pages looking for answers is what drives good fiction forward. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: in the end, all good stories are mysteries.

So take a look at your opening scene. Be sure it’s going to make the reader ask the question you want him to ask.

Because the reader will ask a question. Your job is to make sure that question isn’t, “Why am I reading this?”

Sons of the Damned, Chapter 18: Of Clockwork and Chaos

[In the dark? Let the light of the previous chapter illumine your path.]

Vinny lies in his bed and stares at the ceiling. He breathes slowly, measuring out the air flowing through his nostrils, in and out, in and out.

In the corner of the room a light blinks on a CCTV camera. Vinny thinks about the guy on the other end of the camera. “Are you as bored as I am?” he thinks. “Are you wishing you were looking at anything else right now? Maybe you should pick up that novel you’ve got lying there. No, of course you’re not supposed to bring reading material in to work, but you and me we know how the rules are don’t we? Even in a place like this people get away with a lot they technically shouldn’t. Or maybe you’d like to lay back and take a long nap. Dream. Dream for me. Mine haven’t been so nice lately.”

In his mind, the guy watching the camera is a dumpy middle-aged guy with thinning hair and a couple of kids at home. His marriage has lost some of its spark, but he’s trying to work it out. Today he’s planning on buying his wife a bouquet of flowers, nothing too expensive, maybe some daisies or something. And that night when the kids have been put to bed he’ll try to get something started, but his wife will have a headache so they’ll watch reruns of The West Wing instead.

Vinny has a lot of time to think these things.

Dr. Hyde is worried about him. Vinny has seen it in his eyes. For that matter the doctor came right out and said as much. “I’m worried about you Vinny. You need to eat.”

“I don’t need to eat,” Vinny had replied. “Have you seen me? The last thing in the world I need to do is EAT.”

“It’s not healthy,” Dr. Hyde had said.

And Vinny replied, “Ketosis can keep me going for a good while longer, doc. When that runs out…well we’ll worry about that when it gets here.”

Vinny knows about ketosis because he looked it up on the computer terminal in his room. It’s got very limited access of course, no chance of sending out an email for help or anything like that. Not that it would matter much if he did. “Help, I’m being held in an underground base by a paramilitary organization,” might get 4chan’s attention for a day or two, but with no other evidence, and no clue what his actual location was, it would pan out like every other crackpot story on the internet.

“Sorry I doubted you John Titor,” Vinny thinks.

So he lies on the bed, stiff as a board, arms straight be his sides and focuses on his breathing.

This is all part of the plan. Or rather, it’s part of the plan to make them think he has a plan, make them think he’s got something he’s not giving them. He’s seen it in the one doctor’s eyes. Hyde, he says his name is, thought Vinny’s not sure if he believes it. He’s not sure he believes much of anything anymore. You work for a super-secret paramilitary outfit you don’t give the prisoners your real name do you? No of course not. Unless…

It’s the “unless” that’s got Vinny worried. Because there’s that little nagging voice the back of his head telling him, “If you’re not any good to these people they won’t waste their time with you. They’ll kill you if they think you’ve given them all you know. They don’t care about you. No one is looking for you. You’re only chance is to make them think you’re something more than what you are.”

So Vinny lays there and breathes. He tries to keep his eyes from flicking over to the clock on the wall too often.

The clock ticks. He remembers that once upon a time his mother had a pocket watch and he could hold it up to his ear and hear the ticking, a light fast clicking sound like the heartbeat of a mechanical mouse. It was beautiful. But the clock on the wall doesn’t sound like that. It ticks loud and slow, one second at a time, and there is a grating quality to each tick as if the second hand were a skeletal finger being dragged bit by bit across the pitted surface of an old record.

But sometimes the clock doesn’t tick. No warning, no reason, no pattern. He’ll be laying there listening to it tick tacking away and out of the blue there will be silence. He’s tried counting the space between the silences. Sometimes the clock will go for hours without missing a tick, Vinny counting in his head up past 3600 seconds. Passing an hour by counting the seconds between missed ticks is the worst torture imaginable and he’s inflicting it on himself.

He lets himself look over at the clock. It’s almost time. The second hand rounds the face, once twice, three times…

And then at exactly 11:23 AM he sits bolt upright in bed.

Vinny imagines the balding guy in the control room nearly spitting out his coffee with surprise. He doesn’t let himself smile though, not yet. Instead he turns and stands, mechanically, zombie-like, and walks over toward the corner.

“How long do you think you can keep this up Vincent?” Dr. Hyde had asked him during their last session.

“What is it that’s happening inside of you?” Dr. Jenkins asked the day before that. “We want to help you.”

Vinny stands with his nose pressed into the corner away from the camera, hands clasped behind his back. Jenkins is the nicer one. She acts like she cares. Maybe it’s just an act. Maybe it’s true. He can’t tell. Either way he likes her better because she’s pretty in that reserved unpretentious way some middle-aged women affect. He knows this is shallow, but he’s beyond caring at this point.

How long do you think you can keep this up, the little voice of conscience asks. Not thinking of quitting now are you?

No. No he’s not thinking of quitting. He can keep this up forever. Or at least until he dies. By his calculations he’s got a good couple of months left before his body runs out of fat to burn. Maybe more. He hasn’t eaten a thing since his breakfast with Angie. He knows how these stories go. When the elves take you to their magical otherworld the one thing you should never NEVER do is eat the food. It was hard at first. But not as hard as he thought it might be.

It occurs to him that he’s spent his whole life leading up to this moment, eating and eating until he was an engorged mass of fat. He’d always thought he was trying to fill some void. Now he knows the truth. He was prepping, like a bear gorging itself before the hibernation.

Is he crazy? He thinks he might be. Just a little.

But if he is, crazy feels better than sane. Having a plan that isn’t a plan is what he’s best at. Going through the motions of action without purpose…that’s been his whole life. And at least now he knows it’s not just him. It’s everyone. Everywhere. The world is made of madness.

He measures his breath in and out, in and out. And somewhere out of nowhere in the back of his mind he remembers something Angie said, what seems like a lifetime ago. “The books on these shelves, they’re out of order,” and somewhere inside of him something clicks into place. He smiles a smiles a wide, toothy smile.

Maybe madness is sanity from a different perspective. Maybe order can hide in the folds of chaos. Maybe he has a plan after all.

And somewhere behind him the clock misses a tick.

The Journey

A few days ago I engaged in a discussion with a writer friend about how it seems that so many beginning writers are trying to write fast, get something out there quick, perhaps without taking the time to really perfect their art or get their story in quite the right place. And this friend —Tony Southcotte by name— suggested that perhaps the reason there is so much focus on getting a first work out so quickly is because of the potential writers see for financial gain.

Because, lets face it, most of us want to get paid to do this. I’m sure I do. I won’t quit if I don’t, but getting to leave behind my dead-end no-importance job for the opportunity to be able to be paid to write would be basically the best thing ever. And every beginning writer thinks that they’re going to be the one who breaks out early with the instant best-seller, adored by millions around the world, their talent spoken of in hushed tones by popular figures and intellectuals alike.

I know this because that’s what I thought when I started. And I’m not sure anyone could have convinced me otherwise. So I’m not going to waste my time trying to tell you that you’re writer’s journey won’t be a magical and perfect rocket trip to financial and social prosperity. No doubt you’re going to be the one to break the rules and redefine the industry as we know it.

But to everyone else I have something to say.

You’re thinking about this wrong. You’re thinking about the writing as a means to an end. You think that it’s at least possible that if you write a novel that everyone loves, you’ll become rich and famous soon thereafter. So you work hard to get the novel out there as fast as you can, so the money can start rolling in.

And maybe it doesn’t happen the way you expected. No, sorry, I forgot. You were the one who was the exception right? I was talking to the guy at the other internet connection. You carry on.

Where was I? Right. The means to an end.

See, I can’t honestly offer very much deep and meaningful writing advice with any kind of authority because I haven’t had that success we all dream of. But one thing I do know. The writing isn’t the journey. It’s the destination.

You’ve got to fall in love with what it is we do as writers. And what we do is not primarily to make money. That’s a side effect. A bonus. A party favor.

What we do is write.

It’s sounds trite, and maybe it is. But this is my fear. You’re going to go through the “I’m going to be rich and famous one day” stage, and that’s fine, but assuming you’re dreams don’t turn out the way you want you’re going to need to have something press on toward. You’re going to get that fourth or fifth rejection letter and it’s going to sting hard, and because your dream didn’t come true quite the way you’re hoped you’re going to face a serious temptation to give up. I know I did.

And when that time comes, assuming it hasn’t already, you’re going to need to rethink your assumptions about why you’re doing this. You’re going to have to look yourself in the mirror and think, “Is this really worth it? Going after this dream that seems to far away every day with no promise that I’ll ever be successful?” And when that moment comes I hope you remember this post.

Because that is the moment I believe you truly become a writer. That moment of doubt and fear can be the end of you as a writer or it can be the beginning of a new era. When you’ve come through that fire you can start to see writing for what it is. Only then can you understand that the act of creation is the thing and the whole of the thing.

That’s when you can turn away from the fear of rejection truly begin to write for yourself. That when it becomes less about how quickly you’re writing and more about how well you’re writing.

And that is the moment when you can begin to create something that can truly be called art.

Franz Kafka vs. The Tomatometer

Last week, I read through Franz Kafka’s classic story, The Metamorphosis for the first time. I feel a little weird for having waited so long, but there it is: twenty-seven years old, and I’ve finally experienced one of the touchstones of literature.

Though I should point out that this isn’t the first time I’ve attempted to read Kafka’s master work. Somewhere about a year ago I saw a book of his stories for sale in a thrift store, and I thought to myself, “I have heard of this Kafka fellow, and upon reviewing my mental table of value judgments it would appear that I would rather have this book of his stories than the dollar in my wallet.” Thusly does the engine of our economy run.

When I got the book home I tried to read it. Only there was a problem. See, I had heard of The Metamorphosis. Likely you be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t. It’s the story about a guy who wakes up one morning turned into a cockroach. (And don’t give me that B.S. about how the proper translation is “vermin” because what Kafka describes is clearly a cockroach, mkay?) Which, and maybe this is just me, I always kind of assumed was horror. I mean, really, how do you write a story about a guy turning into a cockroach and not have it be horror?

Except when I went to read it that first time, it fell pretty flat as a horror story. All things considered our newly-insectified protagonist takes the whole thing pretty well. He doesn’t look down on his tiny legs and segmented body and scream out in primal terror at what he has become. Instead, he worries that he’s going to be late for work, because his cockroach arms aren’t well-suited to working the doorknob in his room. And at this point I’m thinking, “Come on, dude. There’s dedication to your job, and then there’s ‘Please forgive my lateness sir I appear to have turned into a giant cockroach.'”

And the story that follows? It’s all very literal. Kafka doesn’t dwell directly on the horror of being turned into a cockroach, but he goes to great lengths to examine the consequences of such a transformation. The fact that Gregor can no longer communicate with his family, his changing habits, his growing isolation from the world he loved.

And it really works. So why didn’t I get into it the first time? Because it wasn’t what I was expecting. I had this image in my head of some Stephen King flavoured foray into insectile horror and what I got was completely different. What I expected the story to be managed to get in the way of the wonder of the truth.

Which is why I’ve decided to stop using Rotten Tomatoes.

Um…okay, bit of a jump there, but stay with me. For a long time when I was considering watching a movie, I would go to Rotten Tomatoes and check out the movies “Tomatometer” score. And if the score was high enough —generally I’d look for something over seventy percent— then I’d consider watching the movie. Otherwise it was obviously not worth my time.

Now a long time back I wrote a bit about how reviews were a kind of virus that infected our minds with someone else’s opinion. But the power of one review is different: because if you disagree with one guy, so what? Your opinion against his opinion. But if there are lots of people sharing their opinion, it becomes easier and easier to assume that the majority opinion must be more fundamentally correct. You begin to believe that there are Good Movies and Bad Movies.

But the truth is there are really only Movies You Liked and Movies You Didn’t Like.

And for my part, I know that my opinion doesn’t always line up with the consensus. Right now, one of my favourite movies ever, Revolver, has a Tomatometer rating of sixteen percent. In contrast, I watched The Bourne Ultimatum the other night, a movie with a rating of ninety-four percent, and when it was over I was left with a distinct feeling of meh. And the worst part about that last one? I had watched it once before and remembered not particularly caring for it. But I looked at its approval rating and thought, “Well it couldn’t have been all that bad.”

And here’s what this has to do with Kafka. For one reason or another I had formed an opinion of his work before I ever experienced it. I knew what I was expecting going in, and when I didn’t get it, my response wasn’t to push on thinking, “Well this is interesting, my preconceptions were wrong,” but rather to turn away from it entirely for a time.

And with Rotten Tomatoes it’s possible to form an opinion of something based on nothing more than how close a number is to one hundred. I’m not here to bash Rotten Tomatoes or the people who choose to use it. It is a useful tool, I’d say. But I had come to the point where I was looking down on people who said they liked movies that I had never seen because of those movies’ low scores on the Tomatometer. It was getting out of hand.

I know we can’t ever eliminate preconceptions from our lives entirely, and I’m not sure that we should. But I am sure that I can figure out whether or not I like a movie, a book, whatever, on my own. I shouldn’t need to check my opinions against the consensus.

Will I still listen to other people’s opinions and recommendations? Sure. But in the end I want to be able to make up my own mind. I want to free myself from the idea than an opinion can be right or wrong.

Is it possible that because of this self-imposed restriction I’ll end up watching more movies that really aren’t for me? Yes. But I’ll also have the chance to watch and enjoy things I might otherwise have passed over in disdain.

And that, I believe, is worth the risk.

Bizzaro Book Review: The Abyss Above Us by Ryan Notch

Many times when I set out to write one of these reviews I worry about how it’s going to impact you guys at the other end. I’m a critical kind of reader, someone who obsesses with stories and how they could be made better. So naturally, its exceedingly rare that I’m going to gush about a story without saying something negative.

That said, I want you all to understand that these days I almost never write a review for a book that I wouldn’t recommend to someone else.

And there are times when the part of me that wants you to read the books I recommend really worries that the analytical part of me making its critiques and criticisms will convince you that they really aren’t worth your time or money. This is one of those times.

The Abyss Above Us has its flaws; and you should read it anyway.

I suppose I should say right from the get go that this is a nerd’s book. That is neither criticism nor praise, by the way. It just is. There is jargon in this book, abstract concepts, references to computer programming and black hat hackers, and — to top it all off — a throwaway reference to the idea that beautiful women only want to date jerks. And yet somehow very little of that gets in the way of the actual story. If you get the computer programming and networking references, great; if not, there’s plenty here to keep your interest. I like to think that I’m a reasonably intelligent individual and even I wasn’t able to follow some of the jargon and technical talk.

That said, it never came across as talking down to the reader. Much like the unbelievably convoluted time travel film Primer you don’t actually have to be able to understand what the characters are talking about, to understand what’s happening. And rather than take away from the story, the use of jargon adds a gripping air of authenticity to the tale.

The tale is this: a young IT professional named Shaw is called in to solve a problem with the local university’s radio telescope. As it turns out the ancient computer network that runs the telescope overrides the whatever the equipment is supposed to be doing every night at one in the morning and points it at the same seemingly random patch of sky. Only it turns out there’s something special about this particular patch of sky: it is dark, utterly devoid of stars or anything else.

Our intrepid IT hero traces the problem through the network until he discovers something amazing. A room with a single computer inside, walled up for years, a thick matt of black hairy mold growing over every surface in the room. And every night at one in the morning, the computer receives a signal from that dark point in space.

The signal becomes the focus of interest among the astronomers and scientists at the college, all of them enthralled by its strange sound, a sound that resonates just on the edge of understanding. And then…

Well I don’t want to spoil too much for you. But suffice it to say that what I just described was only the opening of this story. It gets weirder. Lots weirder.

The greatest strength of The Abyss Above Us is the way it maintains a sense of mystery. There is almost never a moment in which the reader is not compelled to ask himself, “Yes, but what happens next?” I’ve come to believe that mystery is the greatest driving force of fiction — weirdly enough the stories that get this wrong most often are actual mysteries — and it’s clear that Ryan Notch gets it.

Now for the bad. I haven’t mentioned up until this point that this is a self-published book. And I’m only mentioning it now because the problems The Abyss Above Us has aren’t problems that most traditionally published books have to deal with.

For one thing: typos. Now let me moderate that. There aren’t misspelled words on every page, okay? I will not put up with that kind of laziness. It’s clear the author worked hard to make his work look professional. Unfortunately it’s also clear that he didn’t know the difference between the spelling of “dying” and “dyeing”. He gets that one wrong literally every time, and in a story where characters dye left and right it got to the point where I was joking with myself about how this story should have been set in a textile processing plant. That’s not the only mistake, just the most prevalent, and it’s a great example of why authors need competent beta-readers. We all make mistakes. An extra set of eyes never hurts.

The second issue I had with The Abyss Above Us is more fundamental. The first half of the book is phenomenal, but later, particularly the latter part of the second act, the story starts to feel repetitive. More than that, I almost got the feeling that the author was beginning to get tired of the story at that point. The prose grows weaker, “be” verbs water down sentences, the whole thing has this sense of sagging. That’s the best way I know how to put it.

And again, a another pair of eyes could have helped. A decent editor could have helped the author tighten up those sagging sentences, and break up the monotony the plot falls into near the end of the second act.

I want to reiterate: you should read this book. It’s not perfect, no, but it’s fresh and compelling, in spite of any faults it may have. It blends science fiction and horror beautifully, pulling the best traits of both genres together in a way that I’ve seen very few stories pull off.

In the off-chance that Ryan Notch should happen to read this review let me just say, “Dude, “dying” =/= “dyeing”. Do a find/replace and you’re golden on, like, 90% of your typo issues.

The rest of you, go buy The Abyss Above Us. Seriously. It’s awesome.

Sons of the Damned, Chapter 16: Box Cutter

[Feeling a little lost? Let the map of the previous chapter guide your way.]

We hadn’t known each other so well back then — this wasn’t far after I’d met him for the first time — and I was going about my shift with the rain pouring down outside, blattering against the windows, the thunder crashing like artillery. I had a book out in front of me, I don’t quite remember which one, and anyway I wasn’t really reading it. My eyes glazed past the words as if they were trying to focus on something just behind the surface of the page.

And then, from somewhere outside I heard a car door slam. I looked up and saw it was Angelique’s car and for a second my heart soared with the prospect of seeing her. But when I saw who was with her it fell long and hard shattering against the cold ground of reality.

It was a guy. Not a guy I knew, but with a face familiar nonetheless because it was movie-star perfect. Perfection is always familiar isn’t it? He and Angie sprinted in through the rain and burst into the shop, both of them soaking wet and laughing as if they had just been told the world’s funniest joke — you know…the one about the time Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went camping?

They didn’t even acknowledge me; instead they meandered toward the coffee machine still giggling and cavorting. They weren’t just friends. I could tell by the ways his hand rested casually on her shoulder, nothing too overt, but utterly casual. He was used to touching her like this. I watched as his fingers rubbed at the nape of her neck under her coal-black hair and I burned with the rage of jealousy.

Of course it made sense. I’d be a fool to think that a woman as beautiful as this could be unattached, but up until now such an attachment had always been theoretical. I could imagine that perhaps if she did have a boyfriend, things weren’t going so well for them. Maybe he was crazy or possessive. Maybe he was cheating on her. Maybe one night she’d break down and tell me the whole sad story, just the two of us alone in the station, and I’d put my arms around her, and she’d cry on my shoulder.

But now reality was staring me straight in the face, and it was laughing. They both checked out and Angie flashed me one of her shining smiles, that smile that lit up my life, the sweet look I practically lived for, and it was in that moment that I realized that smile was nothing special. She smiled that way at everybody. At the old lady who rang up her groceries as the supermarket, at the bland bank teller, at the fat pathetic slob that worked overnight at the gas station.

The smile was nothing special. I was nothing special. Never would be.

Just after they left my cell buzzed in my pocket. I looked down, recognized Frog’s number and didn’t answer.

And outside the rain came down.


When my shift was over I went home and I ate. I stuffed my face with breakfast burritos until I was sick. But today it didn’t help. Today, filling my stomach did nothing to dull the ache of the void in my soul that I knew I could never fill.

I sat on the edge of my bed for a long time, just staring at the wall. I wish I could tell you I kept thinking about what a sham my life was, but the truth was I couldn’t think about anything. My brain seemed like sludge. I just kept playing the scene of Angelique and her magazine-cover-perfect boyfriend over and over in my mind, each time digging my pit of self loathing a little deeper. After a while more memories started to pile on, bullies at school, the hatred of my father, the complete contempt of my half-sisters and their mother. I sank lower and deeper into my self than I had ever thought possible. And finally I realized the truth:

Things would never get better. I would never start that diet or exercise regimen I had always told myself would help. I would sit here in this tiny apartment for the rest of my life, alone with my video games and my self-pity. I would never make an impact on the world. When I died there would be no evidence that I had ever lived. I was nothing more than a meatbag, destined to live and die and rot, utterly without purpose.

So why wait?

And then there was a box cutter in my hands, and I was sitting on the edge of my bathtub turning the thing over and over looking into the dull gleam of the blade. I couldn’t quite fit the whole of my bulk into the bathtub, but I figured if I positioned myself right I could still keep the blood from getting on the floor.

That was the second-strangest thing I remember about that night: I didn’t want to leave a mess. I didn’t want anyone to be inconvenienced.

But the strangest thing though was this: I didn’t want to die. Not really. I simply couldn’t bear to go on living.

I brought the blade up to my wrist, remembering that someone had told me that you have to cut with the length of the arm rather than across. Why do you suppose someone would share that kind of information? How did the correct methods of committing suicide become harmless trivia?


I grasped the knife and started to push down.

What? Why are you looking at me like that? You think you know what happens next don’t you? Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on in your head.

“Well he’s sitting here telling me this story, so I know he survives. And he told me that Frog saved his life so his phone is going to ring or maybe there’ll be a knock at the door.”

Well you know what? You’re wrong.

What happened was the blade was so dull from opening boxes that I barely managed to scratch myself. So I had to get up and find a screwdriver so I could open up the box cutter and get to the fresh blade inside. Only there weren’t any screwdrivers because, as I’ve mention before, I’m not really much of a handy-man, so I had to make do with a butter knife instead.

I sat back down at the edge of the bathtub feeling even worse because I couldn’t even get offing myself right. Then there was a knock at the door.

Yes, congratulations; it was Frog.

I almost didn’t answer. But of course you know I did. I left the box cutter on the sink and went to the door. I opened it to find Frog on the other side, standing in the pouring rain and grinning like an idiot.

He looked at me, and I looked back at him, and both of us knew exactly why he was there. But he didn’t say anything. Didn’t mention Angie or her boyfriend or the bleeding scratch on my arm. Instead he just said, “Well I figured it was about time to try out those world-famous made-from-scratch pancakes you’ve told me so much about.”

That’s the kind of friend Frog was. He didn’t judge. He just did what needed to be done. I didn’t fully understand it at the time. But I sure do now.