Double Bar

Faraway Ranch, Arizona, circa 1920s

When I was putting The Dead Ride Fast together, I noticed that for a book of ghost stories it oddly didn’t feature a single haunted-house story. There are haunted places a-plenty but nary a haunted house.

“Double Bar,” being the sole nonreprint in the collection, aims to remedy that. It’s an episodic short with various brief chapters told out of chronological order, plus some commentary on the nature of stories themselves and how we often construct narratives from random snippets we collect. Often we can never know the truth of a thing, we only cobble together an interpretation pieced from different sources.

Or something.

There’s also a couple of levels of storytelling within storytelling in “Double Bar,” which is always fun in a ghost story.

Quivira

Home of the Cliff Dwellers postcard
Home of the Cliff Dwellers, Mesa Verde, Colorado, 1898

“Quivira” was written in the fall of 2011 in that initial burst of fiction writing I had after Smedley was released. I spent much of that summer and autumn giving presentations and doing signings around Connecticut. During my off moments I still wanted to write but I didn’t have the time to focus on a new long-form project, which is why I had begun writing short fiction. It was a way to keep my knives sharp without the commitment.

Prior to “Quivira” I had been writing alternate histories and likewise it was intended to be an alt-hist until it somehow went sideways into a land of doppelgängers and American Indian mythology. Being so busy meant time was a recurring issue in my head; and, more specifically, how often there aren’t enough hours in a given day to get things done. To succeed at one ambition often means sacrificing another due to lack of time — it is the compromise of the clock.

What if those squashed ambitions returned to haunt you in a literal sense?

Eric Guignard accepted the story for his first anthology Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, which went on to be nominated for a Stoker. Better still, we struck up a friendship and years later would work together on another project.

Mourning Dove

Printing pressWhen I was a kid my dad had a playback typewriter. As you typed a document the typewriter would perforate a tape of green paper. When you were done, you flipped a switch and fed the perforated tape back into the machine, whereupon it would automatically type a copy of the document — useful, I guess, in an era when copiers were reserved for big businesses and copy shops were far between. Of course you had to type that initial document perfectly otherwise the tape would repeat a mistake in every copy, which to my mind restricted the machine’s utility to professional typists.

This strange artifact, so specific in time, sat large in my mind as I wrote “Mourning Dove,” which features a mechanical mashup of a printing press and a player piano. The story is a tight 3K, written late last year for Third Flatiron’s weird West anthology Principia Ponderosa.

A recurring thought at the time (you can maybe guess why) was whether knowing the hour and manner of your own death would be beneficial — you could live as if every day was literally among your last — or if the anticipation of death’s approach would be too anxiety inducing and therefore you would actively avoid knowing. Thing is, even in the absence of a prophetic machine we usually make one of these choices.

Story order is important to any collection, and I think as an opener for The Dead Ride Fast, “Mourning Dove”‘s fast pace and relative brevity make for a solid tone setter.

The Dead Ride Fast

Remember back in 2014 when I said I would publish a reprint collection of my short fiction the following year? Well, better late than never — The Dead Ride Fast will be available as an e-book next Tuesday.

The Dead Ride Fast collects six of my weird Westerns, all of them stories of existential dread on the 19th-century frontier.

I cannot express how much fun it’s been to put this book together.

There are many reasons why I wanted to publish under my own imprint. I try to live by P.J. O’Rourke’s maxim that a writer should always be paid at least twice for a piece of writing; and like the T-shirt says, What part of 70 percent royalties don’t you understand?

Yet what I enjoyed most was the absolute control over the entire product, from the cover to the typography to the interior layout. Writing can turn a little stale over time: you write something, it’s published, you receive a check. That two-beer buzz, so sharp when you’re in your early 20s, dulls as the years pass. The excitement I still feel when I write derives from the actual creation itself — that alchemy of writing and revision — but dwindles as soon as I send it off to the editor. That thrill of creating, that alpha-to-omega electrification, was something I felt the entire time while assembling Dead.

If you want to know the technical nitty gritty of how I did it, Daddy Jack will tell you after the jump! jump!

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If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be New Colonia

The hubbub over Confederate has spurred Amazon to reveal that they’ve been developing a new alternate-history series of their own which likewise has its point of divergence in the 19th century:

In the back story of “Black America,” the Confederacy was defeated. But instead of enduring the painful eras of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, African-Americans received reparations. The former slaves and freedmen claimed Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, a nation known as New Colonia.

That nation has a “tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship” with the United States, which is described as both an ally and a foe.

Black utopianism? Now that’s what I’m talking about!

I have to wonder if Black America is a replacement for The Man in the High Castle, which is entering its third (and final?) season. Regardless, the possibility of independent nations occupying the geography of the real-life Lower 48 is an alt-hist concept I adore — I’ve used it more than once in my short fiction. Amazon, you had my curiosity but now you have my attention.

No Bad Ideas

Last week Variety reported that HBO is developing a replacement for Game of Thrones: a counterfactual drama wherein the Confederacy successfully seceded. Suddenly everybody has strong opinions about alternate history!

“Confederate” chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone – freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.

My Twitter TL was awash in negative reactions, many of them authored by GoT fans. The sexy-time adventures of Dumblesticks the diddling dwarf? A-OK! But grays exiting the USA? NO WAY!

Wait a minute, you say. Isn’t there a popular what-if miniseries on Amazon Prime that posits an Axis victory over the US, based on an award-winning novel by Philip K. Dick that even has its own amazing album produced by Danger Mouse? Maybe HBO is trying to make a couple of Reichsmarks on the same sort of idea?

Nope! But don’t take my word for it — here’s TeenVogue, of all outlets, to piss on your Land O’Smiles:

To some, the existence of The Man in the High Castle effectively voids any initial criticisms people have regarding Confederate because they believe both shows are essentially the same. But to adopt that stance is to be woefully uneducated about the reality of how both events have been handled historically, in their nations and throughout the globe.

You see, the Germans are totally sorry for the Holocaust whereas Americans are like totally not sorry for slavery! That’s why a show such as Confederate is nicht gut! What are you, woefully uneducated? God!

To be fair, the reason why Man in the High Castle is well received and the mere suggestion of Confederate isn’t may be because the latter hits a little too close to home. After all, I’m unaware of any Nazis-win-the-war shows coming out of Germany. On the other hand, the fact that High Castle‘s point of divergence occurred more recently — there are still people alive who experienced the 1930s and 40s — suggests that familiarity isn’t the whole explanation either.

Now if you’ve just slid from the timeline where this blog is a one long string of poop emojis and you’ve never read my writing before, let me be glacially clear: the Civil War was initiated by bellicose and arrogant slave-owners for horrible, selfish, and stupid reasons. Outmanned and outindustrialized from the get-go, the Confederacy never had a chance of winning, and the fact the war lasted as long as it did is due less to any effort by the rebels than to confusion and Federal mismanagement early in the conflict.

That said, it’s certainly symptomatic of social-media’s outrage culture that the simple idea of a fictionalized southern secession drove folks to stuff the Internet’s complaint box.

Many of those instant-coffee Turtledoves seem unaware of the deep library of Civil War-based alt-hist literature already out there. How Few Remain alone spawned ten sequels. There’s Robert Conroy’s 1862. I can recommend Terry Bisson’s odd little novel, Fire on the Mountain. The most well-known is undoubtedly The Guns of the South. And most recently there’s Ben Winters’s 2016 novel Underground Airlines, nominated for several prizes. So many trees have been killed on the subject you need an entire page on Wikipedia to keep them straight, and I have to wonder if HBO, like Amazon, would be better off adapting and expanding an existing book rather than generating an IP whole cloth.

Among alt-hist writers, in fact, the what-if-the-South-seceded trope is so common it’s cliche. The first two alt-hist stories I ever wrote involved the Civil War. “Galveston” has Johnny Reb trying to enlist an independent Texas to the Lost Cause, while “Glorieta Pass” posits an underground abolitionist resistance in the post-secession territories. If those concepts sound familiar it’s because they are — I look back on those stories now and cringe at their banality. That recognition pushed me to write better stories.

But here’s the thing, a lesson that any true creative can tell you: It’s not the idea, it’s the execution. A monster terrorizing a group of people is the plot of countless schlocky horror movies but only one of those films is Jaws. For every million landscapes painted there’s The Starry Night. Every book or movie or artistic endeavor is, at it’s core, conceptually the same as something else, some other work.

Confederate hardly has a monopoly on iffiness. Hey! Wanna hear my pitch for a show about a bunch of inmates in a WW2 POW camp? It’s like The Great Escape only it’s a sitcom where the Nazis are a bunch of buffoons and the one guy goes, “I know nothing!” a lot! It’s funny because he’s fat and has a mustache! Ha ha!

And yet if you turn on TV Land or dig deep enough into your television’s channel guide, you can watch the execution of that concept right now, still in syndication years later.

The point is, it’s not so much the elevator pitch that matters, it’s how an individual work is rendered that distinguishes it. It wasn’t the ideas for my stories that stunk. It was my execution of them.

Personally I’m a hundred times more excited to watch Jordan Peele’s production of Lovecraft Country (which I reviewed here, BTW) than I am Confederate. Maybe Confederate will be terrible, in which case viewers will be sure to let HBO know. Maybe, like High Castle, it will be brilliant.

But it’s a little rich for dorks who nerd out over E.L. James-scribed Dungeon & Dragons fanfic to shut down an idea before it even steps across the drawbridge. It’s even more ignorant for some of those same people to be writers and artists. They ought to know better.