Joyce Carol Oates and Man… this is Crazy

Joyce Carol Oates has a way of sneaking up on me. 

I was maybe fourteen or fifteen when I checked ‘Man Crazy’ out of my high school library, not knowing anything about the author, her subject matter, her style, her fame, anything. I wish I remember why I checked it out in the first place. My habit in libraries and bookstores, when picking up something that looks interesting by an author I know nothing about, is to read the blurb and then open to a random page somewhere towards the middle. If the writing style looks good to me (I’m not looking at the content necessarily), I’ll take the plunge regardless. I’ve found some fantastic authors this way. Not knowing the first thing about Oates, I guess something similar must’ve happened. That said, I have no idea what lead me to that particular shelf, that particular book, on that particular day. It can’t have been the title that grabbed me—I still think it’s a pretty misleading title, and it’s not one that would’ve appealed to me even then. But there was some mad, magic fate at work that day. Because that book changed everything for me in a way that remains largely unchallenged even now. I’d started reading King and Straub and Koontz, with the understanding that this was what horror/dark fiction for adults is all about. I was so young I’d only recently moved on from Goosebumps, Stine and other YA horror which still hold a special place in my heart. But at that point I didn’t know dark fiction as psych horror was even a thing. If you’re familiar with JCO or with ‘Man Crazy’ in particular, you’ll know what I’m talking about. No ghosts, no ghouls. Instead, the monsters in our heads and the monsters we shake hands with, the ones we let into our homes and into our hearts and into our beds, where they suck the lifeblood out of our souls instead of our throats. Preying on innate vulnerabilities, childhood memories, prejudices. Exploiting psychological cracks. All the places where the damage is so much worse, if for no other reason than because it will not kill you. Instead it murders you in pieces, and then leaves what’s left of you to live. I didn’t know back then that any of this could be accurately and/or emotively captured in books.

So I was fourteen and I was reading about a girl who mauls her own face because she’s so insecure. I was fourteen and I was reading about a girl having underage sex with a man she adores, who literally (if I remember right) describes himself to her as Satan. I had no idea fiction could get this heavy. Or this real. Because again, none of it is about the monster under the bed. It’s all about the monsters we carry with us in our heads, opening the doors to destruction without us even knowing we’re allowing it. I say all this from memory, but I’m pretty sure it stands because even if I have the facts and plot points a little skewed, I definitely remember the effect. It’s written with heartbreaking emotive power. Deep description. Utter agony. True beauty. How such a piece of literature found its way into a humble little high school library, I have no idea. Then again, that particular library was founded by Alan Paton himself. So, you know, maybe it figures. (And for the record, to hell with censorship anyway.) 

I read it about three times I think. I (reluctantly) returned it. I was already writing myself—because I always have, even as a little kid messing around with crayons, trying to describe the images I found in my head. I started writing more, and without realising it I began my first crude attempts at psych horror. I didn’t know I was doing it really. I just knew that I wanted to write something genuine, something true. Something like ‘Man Crazy’. Horror (call it Dark Fiction if you really must) to me has always felt like a genre of true sincerity, because it doesn’t feel the need to sugar-coat anything. It can go as deep and as dark as it wants, and that kind of raw honesty about the human (and inhuman) condition can be incredibly beautiful BECAUSE it doesn’t try to hide anything away. It’s free to Be, right there in black and white and all its multi-shaded plethoras of grey. ‘Man Crazy’ showed me that this kind of depth, this kind of raw truth and stunning soul-speak brutality, was in fact possible. I was hooked on psychological horror as a genre before I even knew it had a definition. All because of that book.

Fast forward about ten years. Reading and writing and making my first serious attempts at becoming a published author myself. I remembered that novel, or certain scenes from it at least, but the title and the name of the author were long lost. 

Fast forward another five or so years. I’m back in the KwaZulu Natal Midlands, my home ground, a place packed with ghosts, visiting my mother for a few days. Screaming inside, because being there has that effect on me. Feeling the way being back in any place that raised you and damaged you and maybe kinda healed you can make you feel. Doing what I always do when the monsters in my own head are threatening to eat me alive: reading, writing. I took a trip into town by myself, ambled into the local bookstore. Scanned the shelves. I had a small amount of cash on me. Enough to buy a reasonably-priced book and a cup of coffee. (Which, you could argue, is about as much money as you ever really need.) I was specifically looking for something cool that would fit the price I could pay. 

I pick up something called ‘Daddy Love’. 

‘Odd title,’ I think. 

Author: Joyce Carol Oates. 

‘Never heard of her,’ I think. 

I do my usual blurb-scan, random-page read. The style is something all on its own. It fits the price. 

‘Yeah screw it why not,’ I think. 

I buy the book. I get a cup of coffee. I sit out by the lake, cross-legged on the deck with the water underneath me and that low, grey Midlands sky overhead. And I start to read. 

Now we’re talking child abduction. Now we’re talking paedophiles. Now we’re talking about all kinds of soul-smashing things, written with heartbreaking emotive power. Deep description. Utter agony. True beauty. We’re talking psych horror on a whole new level. New? Wait… have we been here before…?

‘Daddy Love’ lead me straight back to ‘Man Crazy’, straight back to the raw power of Joyce Carol Oates, and her manner of handling even the most vicious of her human monsters with gorgeous, complex layers of insight and empathy. I’d been looking for ‘Man Crazy’ for over a decade (bear in mind again please that at that time I didn’t remember the title), with no clues to help me beyond a few isolated scenes not even carefully phrased Google searches could make sense of. By the end of ‘Daddy Love’ I was pretty sure this book would sit somewhere in the same circle as the one I’d checked out from the high school library so long ago. A book I’d never been able to forget. One that had taken on a surreal essence in my memory, like something mythological only briefly glimpsed. If anyone had told me I’d dreamed it up, that it had in fact never existed, I might even have been convinced. I looked up a list of other works by this author, Joyce Carol Oates. No titles rang the right bell. I read, painstakingly, each blurb from each work that fit the approximate publication date. And then finally, after all that time and so many hours of lost-needle combing, there it was. ‘Man Crazy’. 

It’s hard to describe how I felt, realising that THIS WAS THE BOOK. Even as someone who has invested all of her adult life and much of her childhood into trying to describe complex emotional states, I get a little lost here. It meant that much. It was like light exploding in my head. It was a very calm, very personal, very total form of elation. Like finding a long-lost version of myself, taking her hands, looking into her eyes. Crossing the bridge back to that fourteen-year-old girl who knew what she wanted to do, but had no idea how to do it. And that stretching, twisted path that lies between the Then and the Now.

That makes TWO TIMES that I’ve stumbled across Joyce Carol Oates with no clue about who she is or what she might mean to me, and had my inner world busted wide open by her works. To me this looks a lot like proof of fate. She’s not exactly an unknown, but for some reason she’d never directly crossed my radar as ‘The Great Joyce Carol Oates’ so many know her as. I don’t know why that is. It’s not like I don’t read avidly, and widely. The truly stunning benefit from this though is that my discoveries of her—both times—were completely independent, natural, organic, without any pre-conceived ideas about her or her art. There was nothing ‘groomed’ about my reaction to her in either instance. I found her and appreciated her all on my own. 

Now my bookshelves are packed with her many novels and short story collections. Now I know exactly who she is. Now my copy of ‘Daddy Love’ in particular has been read so many times that there are coffee stains and lipstick smears on almost every page. But what about ‘Man Crazy’? ‘Man Crazy’ was originally published somewhere in the mid-90s. It’s been out of print for so long that when you ask for it at bookstores, they are guaranteed to tell you they don’t have any copies, of course not, but you’re welcome to buy this other one or that other one by her. It’s not an easy book to find. I ordered a secondhand copy the instant I first rediscovered it, and the post office lost it. We won’t talk about the battle that ensued, because I lost. And that was enough to keep me from trying via that route for a good while to come. I’m okay with believing that maybe at that time, it just wasn’t meant to be.

So it’s with ENORMOUS EXCITEMENT that I now say I recently found a secondhand copy, and paid top freaking dollar (call it three times the price of the book itself) to make sure it gets couriered DIRECTLY TO MY DOOR. I’m not exactly rolling in money, but this one is not allowed to get lost. This one will make its way back to me, and I don’t care how much I have to pay to make sure that happens. Understand that it’s been more than twenty years now since that fated day in the library, as an insecure school-girl hiding in books, looking for something meaningful to get lost in. Understand that the protagonist in that story had a lot in common with me at that time. Understand that since then, much has changed. Understand that the way I feel about finally re-reading it isn’t too far off the way you might feel about meeting up with a childhood best friend you still cherish with all your heart, even though you may barely know each other now. In short: beyond my love, I have no idea what to expect.

‘Man Crazy’ is finally on its way back to me. I’m shivering inside. It feels like a full circle, finally closing. I remember so little of this book. I only remember how it guided me, how it changed me. How it held my hand and showed me things I didn’t know I was allowed to see.

Joyce Carol Oates has a way of sneaking up on me. And it means the world to me, every time.

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Books Everywhere!

With so much going on and such incredibly slack admin skills at work lately, allow me please to take a big, deep breath.

NOVEL: SEEING DOUBLE

Barged out the gate with Grey Matter Press and is doing much better than my darkest fears promised. (As an artist, anything I produce is swiftly followed by a legion of demons screaming doom in my ear. And yet, here I still am. And more importantly, here it is.)

SD has already racked up a few solid reviews on Amazon, and for those who’d like a bit more insight into what went into it, please do take a listen to my podcast interview on this work with the amazing Eddie Generous of Unnerving Magazine.

CHAPBOOK: DOUBLE-BARREL HORROR: SHELLFISH / EXILE

My offering for this awesome little project, fronted by Matt Weber of Pint Bottle Press, is also out now. It’s garnered a smattering of reviews, and I’ve also been thrilled to get some fantastic direct feedback from friends and fellow writers. You can grab it on Amazon.

I highly recommend that anyone in love with short horror fiction take a look at all the offerings from the Double-Barrel project. There are some exceptional authors in there with some top class stories. I wish there were more projects like this, because they truly and utterly rock.

COMING SOON: SUSPENDED IN DUSK II

Edited by Simon Dewar and with an Intro from the formidable Angela Slatter, this awesome anthology will be out soon with Grey Matter Press. The final TOC was announced by Simon on his blog a little while back. Eat your heart out. Let it GUSH.

IN THE WORKS:

Expect some news at some point down the line re a forthcoming novella from me, while I juggle several other art and art-related projects… ellipses are allowed here, because this being the quirky unpredictable world it is, anything can happen at any time.

And I say cheers to that.

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Double Barrel Horror: Out Now

My chapbook from Pint Bottle Press is now out, featuring two of my previously unpublished short stories, ‘Shellfish’ and ‘Exile’.

SHELLFISH: A couple who are at a crossroads in their fledgling relationship head to a beachside boutique hotel for a romantic long weekend away. Memories and realities blur, bringing out the worst in one of them.

EXILE: If all you want is a little solitude and space to yourself, be careful where you go, and what you do with that time. Above all: be careful of your own mind.

I’ve been asked this a lot, so let me say it here quick. A ‘chapbook’ gets its name because while they are relatively short (chapter length, if you will), they are nevertheless stand-alone publications. Slim little volumes where the authors feature complete tales, albeit not particularly long ones. Consider chapbooks the hors d’oeuvres version of literature.

Matt Weber, editor and owner of Pint Bottle Press, had the idea to release a whole bunch of these, each featuring two short stories by a dark fiction author, and all gathered together under the banner ‘Double Barrel Horror’. Other authors included in the project are Simon Dewar, J.C. Michael, John Boden, Chad Lutzke, Patrick Freivald, Vic Kerry, Amanda Hard and K. Trap Jones, M.B. Vujacic, Melissa Lason and Michelle Garza, and of course Matthew Weber himself.

This is a fantastic project, and I truly wish more publishers would do stuff like this. While chapbooks aren’t necessarily the ‘hit single’ equivalent of an author’s work, they are like a nicely put together mix tape. If a reader wants to familiarise themselves with an author without committing to a longer work just yet, this is definitely the way to go.

To see the whole lineup check out this page, or get mine direct here on Amazon.

My sincere thanks to Matt Weber and everyone else involved in this super cool project!

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Novels, Chapbooks, Insanity & Wine

The genesis of a story is always fascinating to observe. Personally I write by the seat of my pants (plotting?? wazzat??), and it’s only as I near the close of a tale that the elements and themes start to come together to form the ending. Sometimes it all seems a little psychic — something mentioned on page 10 gets echoed on page 60 and before you know it, that ‘throwaway’ detail has become a lynchpin to the whole thing. Who woulda known. Editing in itself can be a bit of a whacky process. I’ve written a few stories before that fell out of me so completely that very little (in one or two cases, nothing — ‘Sweet Old Men’, for example) was needed to neaten it all up. I’ve also written stories I believed in, but that were so damn messy I needed to shred the thing several times before I could finally put it down and call it Done (‘Going Home’ — that one was a freaking nightmare to wrap up). All of this, by the way, can take a few days, a few weeks, months… whatever. Never mind the follow-on submission process, all those politely worded little rejections from various editors, the nights you catch yourself gulping back wine on your balcony mooning about how you KNOW it’s a decent story, you KNOW it is, so why won’t anyone buy it, dammit??

Next month my novel SEEING DOUBLE will be out with Grey Matter Press. (Actually, it’s already available for pre-order!) SEEING DOUBLE took me about a year to write, something close to a year to edit, and was welcomed in by the first editors to lay eyes on it — the awesome folks at GMP, Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson. Who deserve medals for their patience, just by the way. I finished the first draft in 2015. That means it’s been a big part of my life for something like three years now, and will continue to be for a while yet. When I first started penning it, I had no idea we were in it for the long haul. Because writers pretty much never do. But here we are.

On the other side, a few months ago my writerly pal Simon Dewar put me in touch with Matt Weber of Pint Bottle Press, who’s latest project is to publish a series of chapbooks by various dark fiction authors. Each chapbook contains two short stories by each given author, published piece-meal in bloody, bite-sized chunks of horror literature. Chapbooks! What fun. I had one story lying around (specifically, the one I’ve spent many nights on my balcony mooning about while gulping back wine… yeah, that one) and one I was slowly chipping away at. Now story #1 (‘Exile’) was another one of those stories that came through fully formed, and didn’t need much help in terms of editing. Story #2 (‘Shellfish’) went through a whole bunch of different drafts, seemingly with the sole aim of driving me batshit insane. But I finished it! And as far as I know, I am still sane. Well, at least a little. I think. Um.

These three works of fiction have had remarkably different beginnings, involved totally different processes, and took various lengths of time to complete. And now they’re all going to be out at more or less the same time. Something I find pretty incredible, if I step back and look at what these stories and I have been through together.

This is the magic of art, really. You never know what you’ve started, or where it’s going to take you.

Now put that wine glass down. We’ve got work to do.

 

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Lucas Pederson’s Scares That Care Campaign

SIMON DEWAR

Hi Everybody!

I’m editing a novel Fall to Rise for Dark Recesses Press, by an author called Lucas Pederson. DRP intends to release the guys book at the Scares That Care Weekend,July 21-23, 2017 DOUBLETREE BY HILTON WILLIAMSBURG, VA . That, in and of itself isnt really unusual, however, for Lucas it’s a bit personal.

Lucas.jpg Lucas Pederson

Lucas’ mother has developed Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis which is this incurable neurological disease which in the end stops your breathing and kills you. So going to Scares That Care Weekend would be a really big deal for him.

Lucas mum Lucas’ mum

Lucas has created a gofundme campaign to raise some money to assist Lucas to attend his own book launch, but also to put some funds towards supporting his mother’s medical bills and, with luck, the Scares that Care charity.  Click the go fund me logo below to go to Lucas’ campaign page and please consider donating…

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Debut Novel: SEEING DOUBLE

In another life, circa 2008-2015, I moved to the Far East and set up home. Over the seven years that I lived in a place that was sometimes beautiful and sometimes downright beastly, I learned Chinese (and on the way, how to swear fluently in Russian), got used to eating (or watching other people eat) some truly terrifying things, accepted gas masks as a part of daily life, grew immune to the sight and sound of people spitting all the live long day, and learned more about myself than any other stage of life so far has shown me. Oh, and I wrote. A lot. Like, really a lot. Some of what I produced back then will never see the light of day, but the rest of it got me to pretty much where I am today. Cramped quarters and smoggy skies make the perfect setting for any artist who wants to stop looking out the window and try losing themselves in something else.

In my final year (I didn’t exactly know I was going to leave, but the idea was pulsing through the air) I was, as we say in South Africa, gatvol with pretty much everything around me. Which means I started writing even more. The main focus of all that I-don’t-want-to-be-here-no-more energy resulted in a crazed little MS I titled ‘Seeing Double’.

Fast forward a few months, and the folks at Grey Matter Press (who have published a few of my short stories in the past) contacted me to ask if I had a novel-length work lying around, and if so, could they take a look at it. Fast forward two years, and here we are folks! It actually happened. SEEING DOUBLE will be out in the world in July this year.

SEEING DOUBLE is a story about three individuals living in the Far East, who find that together they inform each other’s dreams, feed each other’s fears… and enable each other to explore levels of brutality Hell itself may seek to emulate. A quick note that this is extreme horror, and not for those who like their fiction safe and cosy. But if you like your horror full-tilt full of sex, gore (and maybe with the odd dash of speculative fiction), this book may well match your flavour.

My humble thanks to Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson at Grey Matter Press for their support and encouragement, and for everything they’ve done to bring this book to light.

Watch this space (or my Twitter feed) for updates, or keep an eye on the Facebook page.

And… as all writers like to so eloquently say when their work is finally coming out… YAY!!!

 

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An Interview with BLEEDING CRITIC

BleedingCritic-Logo-Center-e1429893496618

Bleeding Critic. That infamous psycho clown who keeps himself firmly anonymous as he reviews and critiques current and underground horror films. Yep. That one. By some miracle of black magic (and, okay, social media stalking), I got him to crawl out from the sewer (I assume he lives in a sewer. He’s got to be at least partway related to good old Pennywise, right?) and allow me to interview him. A rare wonder, since he pretty much never does interviews. Let’s peg that to the black magic part.

I didn’t get him to take the mask off, but here he is in all his terrifying wonder, talking with the balance of brutal honesty and no-bullshit sensibility that makes him the unique and riveting reviewer and horror authority that he is.

Happy Christmas. Enjoy. And….

“Don’t panic if your screen starts to bleed….”

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