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.

The Fishers of Men, Redux

Earlier this summer, 18th Wall released Sockhops & Seances, an anthology of spoopy stories set in the 1950s. Included is a reprint of my story “The Fishers of Men.”

There is no stopping progress. You may buy a plot of land, build a home, raise a family, join a church, and volunteer for the local PTA—but if the authorities determine someone somewhere else is thirstier than you, they will drown your American Dream with no more effort than turning the spigot counterclockwise.

Due to the relatively high population density in Connecticut, over the years the state created a number of reservoirs to supply water to nearby cities; and because this involved damming rivers, sometimes towns in the valleys were lost beneath the waves. This included the churchyards. They’re still there, under the waters, where the past doesn’t always sleep easily.

“Fishers” originally saw light in 2015 in the UK magazine Black Static. BS doesn’t see wide circulation over here (I’ve never seen it outside Barnes & Noble), so I’m glad American audiences have another crack at catching it.

You can read the first third of the story at the 18th Wall website, and you can also pick up a copy while you’re there or at Amazon.

On the Western Front

My story “Llano Estacado” appears in a new anthology, Wild Frontiers, out from UK-publisher Abstruse Press. The story is an alternate-history Western, in which the main characters are American settlers caught behind the new border after the US loses the Mexican-American War.

The new landowner was Capitan Baltasar Batalla Farias.

“I own all this, everything you see,” he told Tucker and his wife as they stood on their porch. Batalla and his men didn’t even bother to dismount. “You think you owned this land but you never did. You can stay in the house. Only now you must pay rent to me.”

“You son of a bitch — we built this house,” said Tucker’s wife. Her name was Clover.

Batalla and his men laughed. “Do not worry, señora. I would be a fool to come from Mexico City and ignore someone like your husband. Doubtless he knows this land better than anyone. Every playa lake, every blade of grass.” He addressed Tucker: “You can work for me. I will make you chief of my vaqueros.”

Tucker considered the arithmetic. If not, they would have to sell their cattle piecemeal to pay rent. And Tucker and his wife, out there alone, barely made enough as it was to buy the things they couldn’t grow or make.

“I’ll take the job,” he told Batalla.

I wrote “Llano Estacado” six or seven years ago but struggled to sell it. Multiple editors praised it but nonetheless hit send on the rejection e-mail because the story lay in a gray limbo, neither speculative enough for sci-fi anthologies and yet too genre for literary mags. It was, as one editor put it, “just a Western,” and Westerns are nearly impossible sales.

Unlike my other trunk stories, I persevered to find a home for “Llano” because every time I read it, I remained convinced it represented my talent at its best. I once read an interview with Clint Eastwood, who said Unforgiven communicated everything he felt about the Western. Well, for me, “Llano Estacado” does the same.

You can find Wild Frontiers for e-readers at Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, and B&N, and in paperback at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

In related news, this morning alternate-history publisher Sea Lion Press posted a glowing review of the 2014 anthology Altered America which included a very nice write-up of my contribution, “Rio Grande:”

Kuhl gives a fascinating and thought-provoking look at what this little city-state might have looked like in the 19th Century, and a rather plausible timeline for its creation. Add in some sharp dialogue, good characterisation and fast-paced action scenes, and it all adds up to a cracker of a counterfactual story.

That’s a nice way to start my Friday! My thanks to reviewer Adam Selby-Martin. You can read more of my thoughts on “Rio Grande” here.

A Different Sunlight

Nightscript, Volume 4C.M. Muller’s fourth volume of Nightscript has hit the streets and it features a contribution of mine, “A Different Sunlight.” The story concerns a boy in northern England whose father attempts to develop a machine that can construct entire homes from scratch.

Randall’s father was proud of a particular innovation he developed. The new concrete ties were not prefabricated but rather poured into place by the machine using rebar and quick-drying cement. The possibilities of these materials soon seized the father’s imagination; he became distant and preoccupied at meals, given to odd remarks about what seemed to Randall as random news events or statements of fact: the Great Fire of Newcastle in ’54, or the lack of housing for the country’s exploding population, or of the cheapness and abundance of concrete itself. Then, after weeks of midnights spent at his drawing table surrounded by reams of tea-ringed paper, he emerged with plans for a machine even greater than the company’s steel snail chugging over the mountains.

Think of it, Randall, he said as he stabbed at various lines and shapes on the whiteprints, A machine that can build a house.

As might be expected, events turn out unexpectedly.

What’s funny is that when I wrote the story, I believed I had concocted the idea of one-piece cement houses from my imagination alone — I fancied a giant steampunk 3D printer, maybe scuttling around on mechanical spider legs, printing houses with concrete. Turns out that none other than Thomas Edison was way ahead of me, and while his houses weren’t created by a single machine, his motives were very similar to those of Randall’s father:

During this period, Edison also came up with the idea for building homes out of cast-in-place concrete. … In theory, this would result in a whole new kind of home with various benefits: fireproof, insect-proof, easy to clean, and at a very affordable $1,200 per house. Edison saw this as a potential solution for cities with housing shortages, allowing people to move from slums to cheap new residential areas of poured concrete houses.

Great minds, am i rite?

Nightscript, Volume 4 features stories by 20 other authors as well, including terrific writers like Steve Rasnic Tem and V.H. Leslie (who also appeared with me in issue 31 of Black Static, way back in 2012). It’s available at Amazon in paperback and for Kindle.

The Fishers of Men

Black Static, January/February 2015I have a story in the January/February 2015 issue of Black Static:

There is no stopping progress. You may buy a plot of land, build a home, raise a family, join a church, and volunteer for the local PTA — but if the authorities determine someone somewhere else is thirstier than you, then they will drown your American Dream with no more effort than turning the spigot counterclockwise.

In 1936, when the Norris Dam was completed along Tennessee’s Clinch River, landowners in the century-old trade center of Loyston were relocated and the town submerged beneath the resulting lake. Neversink, New York, population two-thousand, was sacrificed to the waves of the Neversink Reservoir after the residents of New York City grew a little too dry in the mouth. When it was decided the right of a Boston Brahmin to flip his tap handle and fill his glass trumped those of plebeians living in Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott, Massachusetts, the four towns disappeared beneath the Quabbin Reservoir. And upon completion of the Saville Dam along a branch of the Farmington River in 1940, the crossroads village of Barkhamsted Hollow, Connecticut — farmhouses, church, and cemetery — vanished underwater so that the citizens of Hartford might wet their lips.

I was a little shocked when Andy Cox accepted “Fishers;” it is a very American story and when I sent it I wasn’t sure the historical background would translate. But I suppose I don’t have to know the intricacies of lines of royal succession or the industrialization of Greater Manchester to enjoy M.R. James, Robert Aickman, or Susanna Clarke (to name the three most recent authors I’ve read), so perhaps the width of the Atlantic isn’t as great as I sometimes imagine.

On these western shores you can find Black Static at Barnes & Noble — though often a month or two after the magazine’s cover date.

Vaya con Dios

You may be aware that a few years ago, I began writing 19th-century alternate histories as a literary vacation after Smedley. The series soon morphed into a stream of weird Westerns, ghost stories, and even a little steampunk; while simultaneously their creation transformed into a kind of palliative during the Years of Real-Estate Madness. Distracted by garages, painting, buying, selling, and restorations (not to mention paying employment), my attention was too fragmented to think about more books or even short nonfiction with its relevancy demands and expiration dates. The great thing about short fiction is I can write something, walk away for weeks, and then come back to pick up where I left it.

In keeping with a theme of endings and new beginnings, it’s time for Strange Wests to ride off into the sunset as I readjust my focus toward longer projects and nonfiction. Nobody has been more astonished than me by Wests’s reception from editors and readers. A bunch are in various stages of the pipeline, which means there’s more to appear, and never say never: I’m happy to write fresh material as the inspiration or invitation strikes. Plus I’ve come to depend on fiction writing as an analgesic too much to quit it altogether. I will still be writing historical shorts as time allows, only these, for the immediate future, will be set in New England.

My goal is to bundle Strange Wests into an e-book collection to be published in 2015.