AMA on r/Fantasy

On Friday, April 9, several Aurelia Leo authors and I will be available for an AMA on the Fantasy subreddit. You can find me on Reddit as KoolMoDaddy-O (don’t laugh! it’s my gamer handle for Minecrafting with my kids!).

Feel free to ask me anything writing related — about A Season of Whispers, Emerson and the transcendentalists, the last book I read, or my favorite coffee (Café du Monde). And if you don’t want to talk to me, you can quiz my fellow Aurelia Leo authors, including publisher Zelda Knight, instead.

An Incident on Mulberry Street

I ended 2020 with a thump like a human heart under the floorboards with a piece of Poe-inspired flash at Love Letters to Poe.

In low tones he explained his process did not involve nerves at all. Years ago, while working with saw and tourniquet in a blood-soaked Union tent, Coffman formed a notion that amputation only removed the physical extremity. What remained, he believed, was an ethereal limb that couldn’t be sliced away with steel.

“An Incident on Mulberry Street” is set in New Haven but you won’t find the address on any modern map. When North Frontage Street was built (the westbound side of Route 34) over what was Fayette Street, Mulberry Street was truncated into a dead end and, somewhat inexplicably, renamed Scranton Street. Meanwhile the streets around it kept their original names. You can see Mulberry Street on this 1893 map of the city, located just above the words “2nd Ward.”

After the story, editor Sara Crocoll Smith posted a short interview with me, which IIRC is my first published interview as a fiction author. There’s also an audio version of the story.

You can read the whole thing here.

Reading the On-the-Nose Apocalypse

It may not come as a surprise that I didn’t read a whole lot of post-apocalyptic fiction in 2020.

Or did I? The endless doomscroll of my Twitter and news feeds, of spiking graphs and preposterous statements by politicians at every level, has been ten months (and counting) of life imitating art.

We’ve struck every cliché: the ominous foreshadowing over Wuhan; Chinese journalists, scientists, and medical professionals pleading for help, then suddenly vanishing; lockdowns and morgue trucks and mass graves on Hart Island; leaders lying or obfuscating when they’re not actively blocking relief efforts; civil unrest; denialists and ignorant contrarians of every ideological bent; opportunistic wingnuts derailing trains or concocting outlandish kidnap schemes; and all-around confusion “increased by a spate of new and conflicting regulations, and by the arbitrary way controls were imposed or lifted,” to lift a quote straight from Anna Kavan’s Ice.

And of course the deaths. 2020 was a year in which 3.2 million Americans died, the most in US history. In the past 12 months, one out of every 100 Americans dropped dead — 1 percent of the population — and of those deaths, 10 percent were from covid. Clearly none of us needed a V8 Interceptor to become Mad Max. To live the apocalypse we just had to wake up in the morning.

This year, rather than sticking to a theme, the books I read were randomly pulled off the shelf or my Kindle. I wasn’t actively seeking plague stories. I was just looking for distraction.

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The Night of the Long Knives by Fritz Leiber

My initial excitement at discovering a little-known 1960 post-apocalyptic novella called The Night of the Long Knives (free for Kindle) by Fritz Leiber, author of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, was blunted by its banal premise.

Set in a post-nuclear irradiated American Midwest, the Deathlands are the haunt of solitary marauders and psychopaths exiled from the vestiges of civilization that still exist beyond its dust-bowl borders. The kill-or-be-killed ethos of these wastelanders prohibits them from forming lengthy bonds, so each aimlessly wanders the desert in a never-ending death stagger, briefly uniting for some common purpose before turning on each other.

Amazon is littered with self-published ebooks with this very same concept: survivalist porn written and consumed by white gun nuts who imagine themselves self-sufficient murder machines but who, in a true endtimes scenario, would keel over as soon as the insulin and Narcan ran out. Suspecting Long Knives was similar, I nearly DNFed early on.

But it’s a testament to Leiber’s plotting and fast pacing that I kept reading what turned out to be a decent story. Protagonist Ray is high-plains drifting when he encounters Alice in a very 2020 meeting —

She looked slim, dark topped, and on guard. Small like me and like me wearing a scarf loosely around the lower half of her face in the style of the old buckaroos.

— but before they go too stabby-stabby on each other, an oldtimer named Pop and a crashed pilot sweeps them into a conflict between the remaining civilized city-states. Pop is himself a reformed murderer who roams the Deathlands as an evangelist for nonviolence. He finds much opportunity for conversion in Ray and Alice, so the book’s action is spliced with long dialogues about killing, justified and otherwise, both martial and personal.

One intuits that the author, like others from the World War II generation (Leiber was a pacifist who worked for Douglas Aircraft on their troop and supply transports), was trying to reconcile his actions with his beliefs to develop a kind of Cold War ethos. This probably resonated with readers of Amazing Stories, where the novella first appeared. While it never blooms larger than those midcentury roots, Long Knives is nevertheless a quick and fun read.

Jack McDevitt’s Eternity Road (1997) epitomizes 1980s and 90s science fiction: a fat mass-market paperback 400 pages long, where nothing happens for the first 100.

We are introduced to an early industrial society rebuilding after a global pandemic centuries ago; we learn of a failed expedition to locate a repository of ancient Roadmaker knowledge in which everyone but a single survivor perished; we meet a cast of characters mumbling about embarking on a second attempt.

It’s right there in the title and on the cover: this book is about a journey. And yet readers must first slog through 25,000 words of watching the protagonists make sandwiches and fill their Thermoses. Much like the relics they search for, Eternity Road is in some sense an artifact from another era when books were sold by the pound.

The story entertains once the characters get off their asses and set out, and as I read, I kept checking Google Maps to follow the group’s progress based on the landmarks noted in the text. The America that collapsed was a more advanced version than our own, and many of the obstacles the party faces involve AIs and automation still purring among the ruined cities and towns. This, combined with the RPG collection of characters — a wizardly scholar, a woodsman tracker, a healer, etc. — strongly reminded me of the 80s game Gamma World minus all of the mutants and monsters, doubling down on the book’s nostalgia factor.

Eternity Road is a throwback on another level, too: it’s optimistic sci-fi. Commonly post-apoc ends with the protagonists adapted to their new world but rarely is the world itself changed. McDevitt instead returns to a rosier view of America and mankind in general, believing in science and rationality and technocracy — in his future, rediscovered technology will be accepted by people and put to beneficial use. While the past few years give me reason to doubt that’s always the case, such idealism is a cozy campfire in the long dark wilderness of 2020.

Ice by Anna Kavan

It’s hard not to read Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967) as a parable of addiction and obsession, although who is the addict and who is the anthropomorphized drug is difficult to suss. One pursues and the other is pursued, begging the question of whether it’s the junkie who chases or is chased. At the very least, the two may be interchangeable.

The slipstream plot, reminiscent of JG Ballard at his most New Wavey, features no proper nouns, no clear actors, and very indistinct geography. An anonymous narrator, recently returned to his homeland, goes to visit a young woman who rejected him for another man; when he arrives at the house he discovers the husband alone and abandoned. By chance the narrator discovers she is the prisoner of a petty foreign dictator known as the warden, whereupon the narrator schemes to liberate her, following the couple from place to place. Yet his goal is nothing more than to imprison her himself.

All of this is set against a backdrop of world war and impending glaciation: harbors freeze, snowstorms blanket roads and ruins, food and warmth becomes increasingly scarce. Whether the war precipitated the climate change — it’s suggested some kind of nuclear attack or accident has affected the poles — or vice versa is never clarified. Further complicating things is the narrator’s seamless launching into dreamlike fantasies of the girl’s death or abuse, with him taking a savior’s role, before returning to the point of divergence and continuing.

While not the most enjoyable book I’ve ever read, Kavan does a laudable job of fixing mental illness down on paper. Throughout, it’s clear the story nothing to do with love. Kavan’s fever-dream chronicle is a tale of possession: the narrator only wants to her so that no other man does; and the woman, who understands this, resents him for it. This in turn confounds him, too lacking in self-awareness to grasp his own blundering. Like a contemporary incel, he never realizes his problems are of his own manufacture or that his goals would be more accessible if only he shed a drop of his narcissism and self-importance.

As with all my post-apocalyptic reads, it’s easy to draw parallels with current events, and with Ice, especially current leadership.

When the Tripods Came

Bonus Track: I included this book last year when I read a bunch of UK post-apoc, but if one novel could summarize 2020, it’s John Christopher’s When the Tripods Came (1988).

Though ostensibly about an alien invasion, the otherworldly bad guys remain largely offstage for most of the book. Tripods is more precisely a novel about social contagion and civilization’s dissolution from within. Employing a divide-and-conquer method, the aliens prefer to let humanity overthrow itself by inflating xenophobia and regional and national prejudices. People who come in contact with the pro-alien Trippies soon become Trippies themselves, and while not necessarily violent, their growing numbers make it increasingly more difficult to avoid or resist them. As borders are sealed and paranoia skyrockets among the noninfected, the protagonists find themselves clinched in ever-tightening bear traps.

With one fell swoop of a story Christopher managed to consolidate both the concepts of viral contamination with ideological estrangement. No issue is so small or simple that it can’t be polarized into extremes, and it’s precisely this splintering that prevents organized resistance to the Tripods or, for that matter, covid-19. If only everyone could meet in the middle — hey, let’s all wear masks but agree that draconian regulations are counterproductive — then the enemy could be easily beaten.

But nope. It would take the humans of Christopher’s Tripods series three more books to defeat their alien overlords. Meanwhile here I am ten months later, getting my brain swabbed just so I can drop my son at college, delivering meals-on-wheels to retirees because the senior center is shuttered indefinitely.

Often the problem isn’t so much the problem. It’s the people.

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That’s it for 2020. If you want more apocalyptic suggestions, I read a bunch of Brit books in 2019, some rando novels in 2018, and end-times fiction about the US in 2017. Until next year, stay safe, be kind to others, and wear a fucking mask.

A Season of Whispers Bonus Content

A Season of Whispers on an ereader.

Over at Goodreads I’ve posted some free bonus content for A Season of Whispers.

I did an extensive amount of historical research for the book, and while writing it I left a trail of breadcrumbs for myself in the margins. If you’re curious about the context of a certain passage or phrase, now you can read those breadcrumbs for yourself.

Goodreads has a feature in which you can share the notes and highlights made on your Kindle with others. You need to link your Kindle and Goodreads accounts to create the notes but once they’re made public, anyone can read them.

I’ve made a bunch of annotations to A Season of Whispers that explain many of the historical and literary references in the story, which you can read here. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book yet — spoilers are hidden unless you want to see them.

The notes can also be accessed by scrolling down on the book’s Goodreads page to the section labeled Featured Notes & Highlights.

I don’t believe the notes pop up unannounced on your Kindle. You can only read them through Goodreads. They’re free to access and you don’t need a Goodreads account.

And if you have a question that isn’t answered by the current notes, feel free to reach out. I’ll be adding more notes over time.

A Season of Dinosaur State Park

Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

Connecticut is a geologic hodgepodge. Only the northwestern corner, shown in blue and brown and yellow on the map above, is original to North America. The pink zone on the eastern border and southeastern coast was once part of Africa, while most of the state — the green and ocher areas — was the mud and sediment on the ocean floor between the two continents that was thrown to the surface as the tectonic plates pulled apart. The yellow zone down the middle was a failed rift in Pangaea.

To complicate things, the glaciers of the last ice age stretched from Canada all the way to Long Island Sound, completely blanketing Connecticut and terminating in the berm of rocks we now call Long Island. As they receded, the glaciers left the boulders and stones they had pushed before them, which makes Connecticut soil so notoriously difficult to farm.

The yellow division on the map, called the Newark terrane, is chock full of fossils and dinosaur tracks. At the Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, you can see hundreds of three-toed footprints left by Dilophosaurus, pictured here, or at least a theropod dinosaur very similar to her.

Dilophosaurus wetherilli, CC Heather Kyoht Luterman

The tracks — which crisscross each other, running hither and yon — were discovered on the site in 1968 during construction of a building. Those plans were scrapped and a geodesic dome was built over the spot, where visitors today can admire the tracks from raised walkways. Amazingly, what’s visible is a fraction of the total as scientists left several thousand more tracks buried for preservation’s sake.

A Season of Whispers

I’ve always associated dinosaurs and fossils with the southwest and the northern plains, so I was surprised when I discovered Dinosaur State Park less than an hour from our house. I haven’t been there in years but once upon a time it was a perfect day trip for our pair of dinosaur-obsessed boys, and our visits left, well, an impression on me.

This geologic history is a gold mine for a writer of Gothic fiction. After all, the overriding conceit of the genre is that the past haunts the present — and who’s to say if something from antediluvian epochs, thought long dead and gone, might not whisper in our ears tonight?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s tour through some of the settings and places that influenced my novel A Season of Whispers, which is now available in various ebook formats and as a trade paperback. Thanks for reading!

A Season of Whispers Is Now Available

A Season of Whispers is now available from Aurelio Leo.

You can order it on Kindle, Nook, or in print from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or direct from the publisher Aurelia Leo with a choice of file formats, including trade paperback.

Still unsure whether it’s your cup of tea? Check out some of the nice reviews on Goodreads.

Or you can consider the appraisals of these upstanding writers and editors:

“With a heart of mystery, a temperament of horror, and a persuasion of literary splendor, Jackson Kuhl’s A Season of Whispers will lead you though slowly darkening twists until you’ve sunk inescapably into the sinister depths of Bonaventure Farm.”

Eric J. Guignard, award-winning author and editor, including That Which Grows Wild and Doorways to the Deadeye

“Channeling past masters of the Gothic — namely Hawthorne, Lovecraft, and Poe — Jackson Kuhl has fashioned a pitch-perfect narrative for which those scriveners would be proud.”

C.M. Muller, editor and publisher of Nightscript

“The monstrous forces that manipulate the Bonaventure commune are surpassed only by the evil that lingers at the heart of humanity: greed, power, and madness. By reaching into America’s transcendentalist history, Kuhl has authored a novel that is strangely reflective of our modern world.”

Marc E. Fitch, author of Boy in the Box and Paradise Burns

A Season of Whispers is as much a fascinating tour of an obscure Emersonian outpost in New England as it is a chilling tale of the darkness of a man’s soul.”

Daniel Altiere, screenwriter of Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins and Scooby-Doo! Curse of the Lake Monster

“This rich look at man, Nature, and man’s nature reveals the dark side of those who buy and sell utopia.”

Baylen Linnekin, author of Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable

Though Emerson may have preached self-reliance, he was both a good friend and neighbor; and while Thoreau is often mischaracterized as a hermit, he likewise credited friends and family for his successes. A Season of Whispers wouldn’t be here without the support of the blurbers above, my publisher Olivia Raymond at Aurelia Leo, editor Lesley Sabga, and my family, especially Kristie. Thank you.