Friday, October 21, 2016

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Nightmare Surrealism We All Needed: An Interview With "First Day" Creator Person 918

I take internet art seriously. I keep several desktop folders full of memes and glitch art pieces. I group the works by different themes and topics. I try to revisit the ones that I've found most interesting. Really, though, I have too many to count or keep track of. Also, I'm a disorganized mess. Much more a hoarder than a collector, I guess. The sheer volume of quality art out there can be overwhelming.

Every so often, however, some truly 
striking and memorable creative content emerges from the sea of weirdness that is the internet. I saw something like that a few days ago. It blew my world open and actually made me rethink the potential of short-form storytelling.

Maybe you saw it too?

Forty-nine frames of captioned images posted to Facebook. CGI renderings of a woman starting a new job.

The title: "First Day."

A comic? An illustrated short story?

The narrative begins unassumingly enough but quickly unravels into a surreal nightmare that, for many, seems to hit too close to home.

If you haven't experienced "First Day" yet, check it out immediately.

If you're already familiar with it, here's an interview with the author, Person 918. I reached out to Person 918 because I had to know more about this amazing work of short fiction and, ultimately, if we could expect more Earth-shattering genius along the lines of "First Day."

So, what was the inspiration for “First Day”? Any particular experiences or events? 

One main inspiration was browsing CGI porn on DeviantArt. There is something deeply unsettling about CGI porn. As you scroll through it there's always a sense that at any moment you're going to see something that you don't want to see. So I wanted to capture that feeling without anything overtly pornographic.

Nice. Mission accomplished, I'd say. You posted “First Day” on the 918 Facebook page on October 5th. Was that the first time you’d shared this story? Also, what exactly is 918? 

I shared "First Day" simultaneously on the 918 Facebook page, my Tumblr page, Imgur, and r/comics on October 5th. That is the first time the story saw the light of day. 918 is just my artist page, a place for me to share the stuff I create on Facebook. I am the sole admin.

Have you received much feedback on “First Day”? What has the response been like?

I have received a decent amount of feedback.  Most has been very positive.  A number of people have praised the story as "dreamlike," which makes me very happy because that is exactly what I was going for. A few people have complained that they don't "get it", which I feel is kind of missing the point.  But like I said, the vast majority of feedback has been positive. "First Day" has received far more attention than any other artistic project of mine.

So “First Day” invites readers in with these comically-mundane, yet very real and relatable concerns about starting new jobs. From there, you slowly—and pretty seamlessly—send readers down a rabbit hole of bizarre imagery and surreal situations. To me, what's striking is that the story never stops feeling relatable or relevant in regard to work/life, even as things get really weird. Like you’ve tapped into these subliminally traumatizing aspects of work that most people seem to recognize in the story and its images. The responses that I’ve seen are almost all the same: The story hits a nerve. And I was surprised to see such comments coming from certain people who I know aren't normally into surreal and weird art or storytelling.

I think that's accurate. I think that the majority of us have to work for a living and most of us have a very uneasy relationship with that set-up. Sacrificing a large portion of your life to a project that you don't particularly care about is very anxiety inducing. 

Right, right. It's obvious that even though "First Day" is ultimately very surreal, there's really something solid at the core of the whole thing, like a life allegory or a commentary (I’m still processing my own take). It's so short and strange, but it also feels so packed with substance and meaning in this beautiful almost accessible way. 

Our society frames work as a voluntary decision, but for most of us the alternative is homelessness and starvation. It also raises some questions about who's running the system? What are their goals?  Is the whole thing a runaway machine beyond human control? When these issues are addressed in popular media, it's often to defuse them with humor (as in "Dilbert," "Office Space," "The Office," etc.) but I think there is always a truly disturbing existential anxiety just under the surface.

What’s your process like when creating works like this?

Once I come up with the initial idea, I will create a vague story arc, break out the key scenes in my head, and start staging and rendering the scenes in the order in which they occur. I will periodically come across pacing or clarity issues during the process that will force me to reevaluate the scenes, perhaps adding or changing a panel here or there.  The story faces certain constraints throughout based on what I can manage to do with my limited technology.

What about the art in particular? The specific images? How intentionally were they created or selected?

I usually pick a few specific images that I think will be particularly potent and then craft the story around those images. As for where the ideas originate, I can't really say, other than I know what I have technologically available to me.  For example, I know what models I can find online, I know how they can be retextured, I know that I can make glass versions of objects, etc. I'm trying to get the most I can out of the medium that I'm using.

What are your artisitic and literary influences? Are you normally a fan of short fiction? Do you have any thoughts on how “First Day” fits into formats like short story or flash fiction? 

I am a bit of a fan of short-form literature, but I think I have probably been more influenced by film, television, and comics. David Lynch and Luis Buñuel were definitely influences, as well as comic artists like Charles Burns and Jim Woodring. People have noted a vaporwave influence as well, and I am a fan of that music genre, so that has likely played a factor. I can see a thematic connection between "First Day" and something like "Redefining theWorkplace" by Internet Club, for example. I think that the format of "First Day" is probably close to comics, though it is also sort of a digital picture book. I've also been influenced by a number of contemporary web artists like Pure Honey and online art magazines like Felt Zine.   

Do you have plans for more stories like “First Day”?

I do hope to continue to make these things, time and inspiration permitting.

Awesome. I can’t wait. Are there are any other projects you’d like to discuss? The 918 page? The novel you’d mentioned to me? 

I do have a short novel sitting around entitled Ocean of Milk. It is somewhat similar in tone to "First Day," though of course the absence of images will make a difference in how it's perceived by the reader. The goal with "Ocean of Milk" was also to create a dreamlike state, though I would say it's not quite as narratively disjointed as the visual stories. I would like to release that to the public but I'm not sure what the best way to do that is.  

I also have an experimental electronic pop music project called Timmy Sells His Soul that can be found on Soundcloud and Bandcamp.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"And He Will Not Wait Much Longer" and "La Jolla" in Robbed of Sleep, Volume 5

Hey hey, my flash fiction stories "And He Will Not Wait Much Longer" and "La Jolla" are now available in Robbed of Sleep, Volume 5, which can be purchased in Kindle format here. A mutant sea lion, a deranged electrical worker, a withering paranoiac—you're gonna love these stories.

And just look at that cover art.

This anthology series has featured the work of the amazing Mercedes M. Yardley, by the way, in case you're still skeptical.

Oh, and the paperback version should be out sometime next week. Many hanks to Troy Blackford and the other authors of this issue—I'm stoked to be a part of it!

Now go buy it and get deeply unsettled.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Long Road to Writing Crime: An Interview With Charlie Stella

Back in June, we posted a review of the book Tommy Red by Charlie Stella. The review's author, Stanton McCaffery, later caught up with Stella at his home in New Jersey for a conversation about Stella's work and the crime genre. Below is a transcript of their meeting, courtesy of Stanton McCaffery.

The Long Road to Writing Crime: An Interview With Charlie Stella
by Stanton McCaffery

Stanton McCaffery: What made you want to write?

Charlie Stella: 
I was a kid, I was a big day dreamer. I was a fuck up, pretty much. I would just sit and look at the clock and dream about anything but what I was supposed to be doing. At one point, I guess, I was in catholic school, and we had to write an essay on something for a contest about Jesus. I was one of three of the finalists for the thing and no one could believe I wrote the freakin’ thing because I was one of the fuck-ups in school. But I knew I wrote it and I thought "Okay, even though this is a bullshit story..." I knew I had a little bit of an inclination.

Then, in high school, one of my English teachers did a review of Camus’s The Stranger and the opening line to that—which was “Mother died today”—just stung me, and I thought "Holy shit, what a great opening line." And I didn’t know anything about books. The only books I read up until that time were Mickey Mantle books, Babe Ruth books, Willie Mays—bios on sports people. But that particular book kind of writing rung something in me that made me want to at least read.

Then I went to college to play football in North Dakota and ran in to the guy who really changed my life. I was still a fuck-up. I was playing football. My delusions of grandeur were gone. I knew I wasn’t going to the NFL. It was a small college. I wasn’t taking school seriously at all. I had almost failed out of school and I was sitting in this English class–you know one of those required English classes—and this guy Dave Gresham (one of his son’s just got published, an amazing family) reads the opening line to The Friends of EddieCoyle: “Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.”

I was like holy shit. I knew people that talked like that. I could not believe that this was being taught in English class—that this was even available, because I was a moron—and that did it. He was the best teacher I ever had because we had to write a point-counterpoint for whatever editorial was in the Newsweek. I had absolutely no grammatical skill and I think he would always give me a B. I saw the next semester he was teaching creative writing, so now I’m making stories up. And he said to me, "You have raw talent." I think he was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He’s got the most incredible resume I’ve ever seen. And he told me, you got this thing, but you gotta learn how to spell and you gotta learn grammar, and he got me a little grammar book. But the key was to keep reading, and all of a sudden I was a reader. He taught Kurt Vonnegut. He was actually taught by Vonnegut. He went to the University of Iowa, the writers’ workshop. The two people that signed his thesis—this floors me now— were Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Yates. Richard Yates is my favorite novelist, but I didn’t know that until a few years ago. Back then I didn’t know who the fuck Richard Yates was. Richard Yates wrote Revolutionary Road.

That got me started. And he took a short story of mine and he entered it into some writing award thing that I got nominated for. That was probably bullshit. He probably just had to press a button or something. But when I left North Dakota and got married we stayed in touch. I would send him things that I was writing. And he encouraged me to try the Scott Merrideth Literary Agency, which was the biggest scam in the world, but he said, "You’ve got nothing to lose. They’re making money." It was one of those readers’ fees things. "Give it a shot," he said. So I sent them something, and they told me it sucked. They told me what was wrong with it. A few years later I sent them something again and they take it and shop it for me. I actually read a newspaper article that said they took one out of every ten-thousand books and actually represented them. And I thought, "Who the fuck was I?" I thought I’d be a millionaire writer. And the name of the book was Running With Cover. My wife loves that book. Anyway, it got rejected ten times, but two of the rejections asked for more work and that, at the time, I couldn’t handle because here I am thinking "I’m gonna be the next John Grisham," and instead I’m Charlie the jerkoff. At that time I was a half-assed gangster. So that was the end of that. I didn’t write for like seven years.

Then I met my wife—and I’ve married four times—when we first met I tried to impress her and I wrote Eddie's World. I went to one of the two guys who asked for more work. This is, however, many years later. I’m lucky they were still alive. And one of them bought it, Carol and Graff. And that was it. Everything took off from there—took off in the sense that I keep getting published, not that I’m making money.     

Stanton McCaffery:
 You said the professor had read the line and you said you knew people that talked like that. Is that why you chose crime?

Charlie Stella: 
Yeah, absolutely. I could write a crime novel in my sleep right now. That’s not saying that it’ll be good, but it just comes naturally for me. The thing that I left out in there was that I took a few play-writing courses and wrote a few plays. I found that I had a natural ability for dialogue. I had three plays produced off off broadway. That was my first love, theatre. What I found was—the last thing I did was at the 45th Street Theater—I had to depend on six or seven actors, and some of them couldn’t remember their lines. And there’s no money in play-writing either. I thought, "This is fucking crazy." Then I went back and discovered that with a novel I could be in total control, and that’s what really got me back into writing novels.

Stanton McCaffery:
 The most recent book, Tommy Red, what was your process for writing that novel?

Charlie Stella: Tommy Red is character that was born out of a short story that I wrote for Baltimore Noir. It was thing I did in 2006. Laura Lippman contacted me and asked if there was something I could put together, and I put it together pretty quick. And I just loved the pattern of his speaking—"She say’s to me, she says." I knew I was going to write a novel with Tommy "Red" Dalton as the central character, as the protagonist. I worked on it from 2006 to 2016—took me ten years because I would start and stop. I probably have twenty other novels completed, maybe garbage. I got serious before the MFA program and wrote it, overwrote it and then I did the Dogfella book and had to do my thesis. So I went back to it in the last six months before I sold it. My friend told me it was too long. So I cleaned it up and got it published.

Stanton McCaffery: What were the influences behind the book?

Charlie Stella:
 The first influence was, like I said, that he was a character in a short story and I liked the way he spoke.

The second influence, he wasn’t a wise guy. I generally write about the lower echelons of the mob or the guys who are fighting the mob, people that wind up under the gun for some reason, like Charlie Opera.

And I wanted to keep it current. The Eric Garner thing really pissed me off. I was getting in fights with people on Facebook. I thought, "No, this is bullshit." And I thought it was the time for me to get political in my life because I’ve got something I want to express. There’s gonna be some shit from now on that I want to express. I also used Mo’ne Davis—the black girl that was pitching in the little league world series—that kind of stuff. I wanted to bring it to a current day situation and express some things and that just made it easier. The whole idea of all that crap going on and dealing with dirty cops.

Stanton McCaffery:
 Something that I got from the book was that it really depends on who has the authority–that there really are no good guys or bad guys. Was that intentional?

Charlie Stella:
 Everything that I write has that kind of thing going in it. There’s good guys that do bad things, bad guys that do good things. And bad guys that do bad things and good guys that do good things. That sort of thing is always intentional. When people are up against it they do what they’ve got to do.

Stanton McCaffery: With the Eric Garner case, it kind of forms a backdrop. The characters have to deal with the traffic because of the protests. Was there a message that you were trying to get across with that or did you want to just tie it into the world?

Charlie Stella:
I think he spews about it a couple of times with his daughter, Tommy, about what the police can get away with when they say resisting arrest. When they grabbed him and put him down—if you watch the whole video—the kid that did it grabs his crotch, and he’s looking at the camera, and they know he’s dead. Maybe the people don’t, but the cops do because they already had the EMS there, and he’s laughing. And the thought that this is the kind of shit that they’re getting away with when the DA is working with them and you know there isn’t going to be an indictment. So when he spews about that, those were the messages that I was trying to get across. That’s how some people can come to thinking in terms of revolution or that crime can be justified because here is a government that has absolutely no problem being criminals—and not just enforcing it, they reinforce it.

Stanton McCaffery: 
Readers are likely to be reminded of certain movies, and you even mention them—Casino, Goodfellas. Are movies an influence on your writing?

Charlie Stella: Movies do influence me—they influence me more than a book would. I think I mentioned the movie The Drop in another interviewIt’s terrific. It’s just a well done movie. It’s Gandolfini’s last with Tom Hardy. What I like the most is just the give-and-take in the dialogue, the breaking balls. And there’s a real life person that I based Doc on in Tommy Red who happens to be Irish, and I’m Italian, and when we sit here we just trade insults. And that line where Tommy Dalton says, “Fucking geniuses, they were aiming for India and wound up here,” that was from our conversation that he said to me. And I said back to him, “Potato famine? They lived on a fucking island. Nobody could put a line in the water and catch a fish?” So when I saw that in The Drop, at the bar, not the crime scenes, that’s how I start any book—just two guys talking. That’s how I started Tommy Red, just the two guys sitting on the Staten Island Ferry. It’s that conversation and it builds from there. I don’t outline. I just start a conversation and it builds from there. The book I’m working on now, somebody asked me how it ends, and I don’t know. I’ll get there and it may suck and I may have to rewrite it, but that’s what’s fun.

Stanton McCaffery: Working on your dialogue, do you listen to people’s conversations, to the way they speak?

Charlie Stella: Sometimes. It’s what they’re talking about that will catch my ear. I’m the most oblivious writer on earth. You could ask me what the house across the street looks like, and I won’t know—and I’ve been living here six years. Certain things just go right by me. I’ll listen to someone’s conversation, and it’s what they’re talking about that I’m interested in. What are the current topics of the day? Like now I’m sure it’ll be the shooting in Orlando, the Brexit, the Democrats doing there sit-in. The average guy on the street don’t give a fuck about any of that. He’s worried about his boss that fired him.

The other thing about Tommy Red, about character development, in the short story in Baltimore Noir, he’s in training and he witnesses a hit. He’s with a wise guy from Philly who happens to live in Baltimore, and he’s part of a hit team, and the other guy does the hit and that’s kind of Tommy’s birth into the business. Afterward, something not in the short story but talked about in Tommy Red is that, after the hit, he went away for six years.

Stanton McCaffery: Do you want to talk at all about what you have planned next?

Charlie Stella: This next novel is a personal novel so I’m kind of keeping a lid on it. But I am working on another piece—a nonfiction piece, which is the most fascinating thing in the world. A friend of mine that I met through writing, Richard Marinick, was with the state police in Massachusetts for two years and left—didn’t like it—and got involved in organized crime, the Irish mob. He wasn’t under Whitey Bulger, but he knew who Whitey Bulger was. Rick then started doing bank jobs and he became a coke addict, you know the whole bit. He ended up doing ten years for an armored car robbery in what was then, I think, Walpole. I’m not positive. A fucking nightmare though. While he was in there, Boston University did a prison program and he got a BA and a MFA. He gets out and he’s working on the Big Dig, the tunnel thing, and he writes one of the best books I’ve ever read, BoyosIt’s about the Irish Mob. He also wrote another book called In For a Pound, that kind of got splashed because the publisher was a piece-of-shit degenerate gambler that left in the middle of the project and kind of left him hanging. But Boyos was on the Boston Globe best seller list for a number of months and they had to do three prints. Now Rick is one of the toughest guys you’ll ever meet in your life. I wouldn’t fight Rick with a gun to my head. He studied martial arts when he was younger. He does a like a thousand sit-ups a day. If you go to YouTube and watch Paddy Whacked, he’s in there.

He wrote a memoir about his life and he asked me to look at it and read it. He sent it off, and it got rejected, so I said "Let me work with this. I think we can do something with this." So I’m not exactly rewriting it—just doing some minor edits and restructuring it because he did it in chronological order. He starts when he’s a kid and you have to bite the reader. That’s all interesting, but he was involved in an armored car robbery where somebody got killed. They want to hear that. Then when they find out you were a cop, well, holy shit. And then they say, "What was his childhood like?" And it’s a great story, and he deserves it.

Charlie Stella was born in Manhattan and brought up in Canarsie in Brooklyn. He attended public and catholic schools in Canarsie until going to Minot, North Dakota on a football scholarship. He was hooked as a reader/writer of modern crime fiction after Dave Gresham (his mentor and English teacher) read the opening lines from the George V. Higgins classic, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. He has worked as a paperboy, watermelon loader, soda-jerk, dishwasher, McDonalds cook, hallway buffer, porter, security guard, UPS laborer, sheetrock carrier, hallway buffer, porter and bouncer, as well as a union window cleaner on 50-story scaffolds. He was also a word processing operator/supervisor/manager, and a knockaround guy.

Stanton McCaffery was born and raised in central New Jersey, where he resides with his wife and son. He has degrees in history and political science and manages communications for a United Nations agency. He is currently working on his first novel. Find him on Twitter here.

Friday, July 1, 2016

"Out of Body Vacation" by Stanton McCaffery at Between Worlds Zine

Well well well, looks like Between Worlds has published a story by Neon Grisly contributor Stanton McCaffery.

Well played, Between Worlds.

Obviously, I'm a big fan of McCaffery. I'm also a fan of Between Worlds now.

Read McCaffery's "Out of body Vacation" here.

Übercreepy stuff.

You won't be sorry.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Great Feels and Sexual Astral Projections: A Review of Witch Hunt

I’m always reluctant to pay for poetry. When I do, I usually go for authors I already know from narrative fiction.

I had never read anything from Juliet Escoria though.

I bought her new poetry collection Witch Hunt because I’m a fan of the book’s publisher Lazy Fascist. I bought it because I liked the title.

Admittedly, I don’t know much about poetry, but I really enjoyed Witch Hunt. Juliet Escoria’s writing is many things in this book: dark, humorous, bleak, sarcastic, lewd, satirical.

The poems—divided into chapters—are a mix of free-verse and narrative style. Some are more like stories (yes, complete with paragraphs and punctuation!), others defy all conventions of structure and form. Escoria even fucks around with font-sizes and poetic images (e.g. a scan of a gas station receipt), which is all really unusual and fun.

And the titles of the poems are generally a good time in their own right. They include: “CASUAL MISANDRY,” “TOP 10 GREATEST FEELS,” “HAIKUS FOR HORSE HATERS,” and “ASTRAL PROJECT MY PUSSY” among many other notables.

I found myself moving between moments of depressive introspection and laughter while reading Witch Hunt. Escoria’s poems come off as deeply personal for the most part, but she touches on many universal topics and themes: life regrets (or lack thereof); awkward sex; strained relationships; meth; etc.

Real People should have no problem connecting with Escoria’s writing on some level.

So yeah, I definitely recommend Witch Hunt
The book is a fantastic balance of dreadful angst and irreverent, biting humor. 

I especially recommend it to fans of Melissa Broder and Sam Pink. I recommend it to people who don't normally buy poetry.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A Tour of the Northeast With Bullets: A Review of Tommy Red

A Guest Review by Stanton McCaffery

Tommy Red by Charlie Stella is an intense and gritty tale of aging mob bosses, crooked cops and federal agents, and one hitman who's too good at his own job. It’s a lean book and a lightning fast read with a plot that touches just about every zip code between New Hampshire and Baltimore.

What strikes you first about this book is the dialogue. There’s really nothing quite like it. Aspiring writers should read this book with a pen and a pad at hand and follow along closely. Accolades on the book’s cover say reading the dialogue is like listening to a conversation. They’re not lying. And as a native New Jerseyan and someone who commutes every day into Manhattan I can tell you that yes, people do indeed talk like this.

The book kicks off when Tommy, who does in fact have red hair, is contracted to gun down a gangster turned tattle-tail discovered in New Hampshire. Through an old friend, Tommy’s paid to go to New Hampshire and make the guy disappear. Unbeknownst to Tommy, the crime family who initially organized the hit wants to tie up any loose ends linking them to the crime, Tommy included. But remember when I said that the hitman’s too good at his own job? Well here's where that comes into play. You’ll have to pick up the book to find out where it goes from there. It’s worth it.

While the dialogue and the plot reel you in, the characters are what make this a gem. Tommy in particular is well executed. He’s not the kind of guy to give excuses for who he is, but woven throughout the book is a backstory starting with the death of his father that makes us empathize with him.

And here’s a warning about all the characters in this book: With the exception of Tommy’s daughter and one FBI agent who's still wet behind the ears, these are not decent people. But, man, are they fun to watch.

Tommy Red
is likely to remind readers of some great movies. I’m thinking maybe The Godfather, maybe Casino, which is actually mentioned, but really Goodfellas. The first time I saw that movie it scared the living shit out of me, how ruthless those guys were. And just like Scorsese with that film, Stella doesn’t hold back on the brutality. You can feel the punches, smell the vomit, and hear the gunshots, except of course when the silencers are used.

My verdict on this one: get it and read it twice.

Stanton McCaffery was born and raised in central New Jersey, where he resides with his wife and son. He has degrees in history and political science and manages communications for a United Nations agency. He is currently working on his first novel. Find him on Twitter here.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Hooray for the 80s: A Review of My Best Friend's Exorcism

A Guest Review by Stanton McCaffery

My Best Friend’s Exorcism
 by Grady Hendrix is a fun and kind of campy ride through 1980s insanity, touching on everything from mullets and hair crimpers to Phil Collins and E.T. to the War on Drugs and religious paranoia. Hendrix pulls us in with nostalgia and girlhood drama to tell us a story about the horrors of growing up and the strength of friendship.  

Like Hendrix’s previous novel, Horrorstör, which was set up to appear like an Ikea catalogue, Exorcism’s cover and design are similarly grabbing—they look like someone’s high school yearbook, filled with cryptic messages, autographs, and inside jokes.

The book tells the story of Abby Rivers and her friendship with Gretchen Lang, the friend referenced in the title that Abby does indeed exorcize. Abby's from a working-class family, but is attending the snooty Albemarle Academy on a scholarship. There’s a class divide throughout the books that makes us empathize with and ultimately root for Abby.

Of one of the many things this book does well, it captures adolescent loneliness perfectly through Abby’s struggles and reminds readers that for a kid nothing feels quite as bad as thinking you don’t have any friends. Similarly, it reminds us of the power of young friendship. The first chapter tells how Abby, an adult looking back on her adolescence, now has people she casually refers to as friends, but that “she remembers when the word ‘friend’ could draw blood.”

In Amazon reviews Hendrix has won many deserving comparisons to Stephen King for his use of the mundane to get at the horrific and paranormal. It’s also worth mentioning how Hendrix, like King, disarms readers and lures us in with likable characters, goofy nostalgia (though in the case of King it’s for the 60s, not the 80s) and tight prose. Though Exorcism never quite goes for the jugular in shattering the world of Albemarle Academy the way King has shattered his worlds in, say, Carrie, we still see lives ruined and costs exacted on the protagonist and her friends.

And there’s nastiness here too. My favorite scene deals with a near-lethal dose of tapeworm eggs.

, while certainly enjoyable for older readers, can also serve as an entry point into horror for younger people growing out of the YA genre. The nostalgia and the obscure 80s references are laid on a little thick at times (there’s even mention of a shirtless Patrick Swayze in Skatetown USA early on), and some are surely to go over younger readers' heads, but the true strength of this book is in the characters and the relationships they have with one another. The book’s ending is particularly powerful in that regard.

My conclusion: Pick up this book and read it, whether you remember the 80s or not.

Stanton McCaffery was born and raised in central New Jersey, where he resides with his wife and son. He has degrees in history and political science and manages communications for a United Nations agency. He is currently working on his first novel. Find him on Twitter here.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Yes, This: A Review of Ladybox Vol. 2

Okay, this isn’t really a review.

I just want to rave about Ladybox Vol. 2.

Such a brilliant idea.

A collection of seven literary zines and chapbooks. Seven different "badass authors." Fiction. Poetry. Biographical essays. Beautiful art and DIY aesthetics. Yep.

And guess what—“Ladybox is not genre specific.” You’ll find everything from artful fantasy to sleazy realism among the pages of this collection.

Fuck yes.

The writing, across the board, is superb. I particularly enjoyed Constance Ann Fitzgerald’s Creeps and Interstellar Bruja by Rios de la Luz. But it’s all really awesome. Trust me. 

And opening this collection felt like Christmas. The zines and chapbooks were mailed in a small, decorated box filled with stickers and patches. It was magical. 

Sadly, though, you can’t share in the magic anymore. Ladybox Vol. 2 was a limited run. They’re gone now. But hey, let this be a lesson to you. When Ladybox Books announces plans for Ladybox Vol. 3 don’t snooze or you’re gonna lose.

Now, after experiencing the sheer awesomeness of Ladybox Vol. 2, I can't help but wonder: Why isn't this more of a thing in the world of literature? If my favorite authors and publishers put out zine-and-chapbook collections like this on the reg, I'd snatch them up left and right—I swear. I think others would too. Small press authors and publishers wouldn't have to work day jobs anymore. Maybe? Either way, the world needs more of this sort of thing.

Here are the authors of Ladybox Vol. 2. You should check out their work, friendos.

Tiffany Scandal
Rios de la Luz
Meliza Bañales
Emily O’Neill
Jennifer Robin
Isobel O’Hare
Constance Ann Fitzgerald

Monday, May 9, 2016

A Fringe Culture Love Letter: A Review of Locust House

The Locust is my favorite band, and I'm a fan of Adam Gnade’s music. So, yeah, buying Gnade's novella Locust House was a no-brainer for me. 

I didn’t really know what to expect though, as I’d never read any of Gnade’s fiction. 

Well, turns out he's pretty damn good at this literature thing.

Locust House is a novella-length rumination on a time, a place, and a culture. It’s an impressionistic love letter to San Diego’s fringe music scene, circa 2002. It is beautiful, unsettling, and immersive.

Gnade presents readers with a handful of misfit characters who orbit San Diego's gritty noise-punk milieu and frequent the Locust House—a home-turned-concert venue, rented and operated by the members of The Locust during the early 2000s. Some of these characters know each other, some don’t. However, they’re all drawn to The Locust's extreme, envelope-pushing music. They are propelled by feelings of alienation, deep political convictions, existential angst, and shitty relationships. They desire something raw and extraordinary in a society brimming with flatlining culture and post-9/11 paranoia. These characters, I should mention, are all secondary to the sights, sounds, smells, and ephemeral feelings that are lyrically detailed in the novella. 

Gnade deals heavily in fleeting moods, moments, and atmospheres—not so much in conventional story. Don’t start this book anticipating a plot. Don’t go in expecting traditional character development. The characters of Locust House are more the means than the ends

And it's worth noting that Gnade’s focus on setting and rich sensory details flies right in the face of current literary conventions. For that reason, Locust House was a breath of fresh air.

When done right, I love a good savory ramble. And Gnade pulls it off deftly. The world of Locust House is made entirely palpable for the reader—the frenetic music, the drugs, the dingy apartments, the steaming elotes locos. All of it.

Now, as I mentioned above, I love The Locust. For me, it was certainly enjoyable to read Gnade's hard-edged, romantic prose about artists who blew my world open during my younger years—just as they seemingly did for the book’s author.

That said, I'm not sure how most readers would respond to Locust House. Without at least some level of interest in The Locust and early-2000s noise-punk, I don't know that there'd be as much resonance. Locust House is, even for a work of novella-length, a pretty slow and impressionistic burn. 

So, with that in mind, here are a few pre-reading recommendations for those who might not know anything of The Locust or Adam Gnade. Take ‘em  or leave ‘em—I don't care.

1) Listen to some choice tracks from The Locust and other bands that come up in the novella. Lucky for you, I’ve put a list together so you don’t have to use your precious time scrounging around for this stuff.

Fret not over the size of the list—these songs are incredibly short. Many clock-in under a minute. 

Okay, have at it, Otis. This is the best of the best. Well, a small sampling of it, at least.

“Tower of Mammal” – The Locust

“Circle Jack” – Melt Banana

“Birth Control Blues” – Arab on Radar

2) Listen to some of Adam Gnade’s music. It’s not mandatory, but I think doing so will help you lock into the voice of Locust House. Gnade's got this beautiful spoken-word, neo-Beat delivery on his musical recordings. In Locust House, he seems to write in a way that conveys a similar feel, a similar rhythm. Having his voice in my head—the particular way he speaks—was definitely an asset to my experience with the book. 

Here are a few recommendations... 

Friday, May 6, 2016

You're Gonna Carry That Weight: A Review of Tribulations

Some people are calling this book a collection of horror stories, and I’m not entirely sure why.

Okay, sure, Tribulations certainly serves up a healthy portion of horror fiction. And most all of the stories are horrifying on some level. But there’s just so much going on here that is well beyond the horror genre.

So much.

Like neo-noir, dystopian, post-apocalypse, magic realism, psychological thriller, cyberpunk, and literary fiction.

Let’s be clear about something: Genre-wise, Tribulations by Richard Thomas is one of the most diverse short story collections around. And the stories, well—they’re all really fucking good.

My first exposure to Richard Thomas’s writing was his collection of shorts titled Staring Into the Abyss. I loved it. Naturally, I bought Thomas’s other collection, Herniated Roots. Loved that one too. And now, having now read all of Richard Thomas’s published short fiction, I can say that the man delivers a consistent and unparalleled gift for classic short storytelling decked out in dark, glimmering contemporary themes and aesthetics. And Tribulations is now the reigning champion of that fine tradition.

But what do I mean by classic? I’m referring to the way Richard Thomas’s stories always present a heavy moral or message—and I don’t mean political. I mean universal. I mean human. His stories will have you contemplating missed romantic connections, loves lost, relationships with family and friends. Thomas will have you second-guessing your marriage and then reaffirming your commitment to it within the span of a few pages. He’ll have you questioning your entire life’s trajectory.

Short stories used to do that, I think.

They used to challenge readers and force them to reflect on their lives, on the world and their place in it. Well, now they do again—at least when it comes to Richard Thomas, and especially so among the pages of Tribulations.

Think O. Henry with monsters and wasteland settings. Think Shirley Jackson with strippers and ghosts. Think tasteful twists and several megatons of incendiary emotional payload. Sadness, angst, anxiety, fear, lust, love, sentimentality—Thomas covers all bases with raw authenticity and daring creativity.

Here are some synopses of my favorites from Tribulations:

“Vision Quest” – A man’s desire to reunite with his family revolves around deliberate high-speed freeway wrecks. Yeah. Fans of J.G. Ballard’s Crash will love this one.

 “The Wastelands”
– Life on the fringes of a dystopian police-state sucks, especially if you had to kill your wife and kids to spare them a fate worse than death. So why not team up with a mutant-humanoid giant in a desperate attempt to revive them?

– A man falls in love with a woman he thinks might be a stripper. Hilarity does not ensue.

“The Handyman”
– Hey, it’s a cruel, cyberpunk world and a man with a multi-purpose cybernetic arm has gotta do what he’s gotta do to get by, amirite?

– A hardscrabble, Tarot card-reading construction worker falls headlong into a sordid romance.

– A mythological creature stalks the children of a small town.

“Asking for Forgiveness”
– A humanoid dog-child contemplates the controversial decisions of its human parents.

“The Offering on the Hill”
– A tale of a man’s mystical, desert-wasteland, post-apocalypse, desperate-horror-dread-quest to be reunited with his family.

Richard Thomas’s Tribulations is slick neon city streets and deep primeval wilderness. It’s a loved one’s caress and burning blood in your eyes. It’s blossoming hopes and deteriorating relationships. It is the soft dance of fireflies and the snapping maw of a rabid feral dog.

Yes, time to re-up on the Xanax, friends, because the twenty-five stories of Tribulations all deliver on the titular promise. Big time. You’re gonna feel the weight of the world as you read, and you're gonna love every second of it.