Last chance to get a hold of my first collection Seven Deadly Pleasures. This came out in 2009 through Hippocampus Press, and is going out of print. There are still used copies on Amazon for cheap, and some new ones there for the taking.
I always look at this particular work with fondness, because the stories chronicled so much of my life, at least in terms of where I was in my own timeline when I wrote them.
“The Clever Mask” and “Quest For Sadness” came straight from my first adult creative writing workshop back in 1992 and 1993, at Temple University. “Mask” was the first piece I gave to the class for scrutiny, and I was forever known as the guy that wrote the gruesome “thumb scene,” that which I called a doctor I knew to take me through the splatter so I could depict it with medical accuracy. “Quest” was written in March, 1993, in one sitting, while I was alone at home, snowed in from work. It was my first “Devil” piece, and it hit such a nerve with some lightweights that to this day I have relatives that refuse to have it in their house!!
“The Legend of the Slither Shifter” and “Passive Passenger” also came from said class, but were initially written in far shorter form. “Shifter” was a short monster story ten pages long. I eventually expanded it to short novella size. “Passive P” had elements of two or three shorter tales that I had turned in to the class originally, all falling short on their own for one reason or another. One of them was too “hillbilly” and the other too “ethereal.” The mixture of “tastes” like hot sauce and holy water, made for a nifty pint sized novella with a ton of surprises.
In 1993, I broke from the workshop to write my first novel. I had an idea of a couple of middle school kids back in the 70’s, playing a prank and accidentally killing a woman in a car on an abandoned construction site. The writing project that expanded this concept took three years to complete, most of it written long hand, then transferred to one of those old 90’s computers that froze every time you back spaced. In the end, I got an agent but failed to sell the work to a big house. I always felt it had potential, but I knew that past the first hundred pages or so…when we got off the job site…the tale got a bit forced and contrived. It sat as it was for years.
After writing “The Clever Mask,” then completing the unsuccessful campaign for the job site disaster novel (originally titled Mischief), I went back to school and got a masters in education. I got out of power tool sales and became a teacher. My wife and I had a kid. We moved out of the city to a small twin in the burbs. Then I got another masters, this time in literature. I became a college professor, and one day I found myself looking at the original four stories (not the novel). I thought they were pretty good. I sat with them (Mask, Quest, Shifter, and Passenger), and with a teacher’s eye, did some editing, shaping, revamping, and polishing. There. I had four stories that I thought were okay, better than I had remembered at least. But where to send them?
It just so happened that I had a book I had recently bought with a Borders gift card (remember them?). Of course I had gone to the horror section, and I found a book with a cool cover, written about 17th century ghosts. The editor was “S.T. Joshi.” I thought, “He must know people,” so I sent him eight stories…the four horror tales mentioned, and four more “sensitive” realistic fiction stories I had written in my free time in graduate school.
He actually got back to me! He basically said the sensitive stories were crap, but the horror stuff was rather interesting. He said my issue was that I tended to overwrite, and he wished me the best of luck. I thought that he was very kind (and by the way…the over writing is something I still have to make myself correct in final edits).
He emailed me a few days later, claiming he couldn’t get “Passive Passenger” out of his head! He gave some story-specific advice, and said he would publish my first collection through Hippocampus!!!
Thing is…I only had four stories and 40,000 words. I needed 80,000! I had no idea how to create all that in a timely manner. Or did I?
Mischief, the novel came to mind. I had always thought the first hundred pages or so were “the novel,” so why couldn’t I expand them just a bit…to maybe 150 pages (or 40,000 words) for a hard hitting, compact novella that never left the jobsite??
Problem was…I had tried rewriting the thing a few times, and always gave up…feeling like I was picking at the dead so to speak. In a “cleansing process,” I had thrown out the computer it was on!! I called everyone I remembered sending a hard copy to, but no one had it. Except my cousin Jonah, from New York City (a cool guy…forgive him for the Yankees and Giants). He had it in its mailing box in a closet.
When I got it, I was sort of surprised. It wasn’t a hundred “good pages” with the characters “on the job site” but a mere fifty pages! And while that was the portion with potential, it didn’t just need polishing. It was actually horribly written and needed total revamping.
It was mid summer 2007, and I promised S.T. I would have his novella and the total for all five stories equaling 80,000 words by the end of August. I used Mischief as a template, and created what is now the anchor piece in said collection, titled Toll Booth. While the tale I will tell you about in a second actually received the most attention in this collection, I will say here that Toll Booth was recognized by Publishers Weekly and other periodicals as the gem of the collection. Personally, I will always consider it one of my favorite works, as it has everything…action, gore, tension, suspense, extremely personal characterization, and what I would think of as striking imagery.
S.T. read it and approved. We had our 80,000 words.
“What do you want to call it, Michael?” he said. I wrote back, “Well, I have five stories. Why not call it Five Deadly Pleasures?” He wrote back (paraphrased of course) “Hmm. Michael…it won’t go to print for a year. Why not make the analogy more accurate and have seven stories? Write me two more.”
Hmm. Of course, we were now in new territory. I had had the ultimate advantage in that all the stories I submitted to S.T. had been prior written. I had literally done all the messy work, even having them sit for years so I could not only think about how to make them better over time, but also grow as a writer. Now he wanted fresh stuff I had to make equal somehow…and relatively quickly! Sure, I had “a year,” but I had found out, of course, that S.T. Joshi was not just “some editor.” He was (and is) the world biographer and number one scholar for H.P. Lovecraft, also a major player as a competitive, respected anthologist for current weird fiction. I didn’t want to keep the man waiting!
I had always wanted to write a scary clown story, and I was waiting for a traffic light at an intersection with a Walgreens across the street, its upper floor darkened because they had recently taken over the building when the book store had closed. For some reason I wondered what a guy would do if he was parked there like me, and he saw a clown up there holding a boy by the scruff of the neck with one hand and holding up a meat hammer with the other. I wrote “The Exterminator” that next week. Though this piece doesn’t command a lot of commentary when compared to the other six, it has always remained one of my personal faves, if only that I never quite wrote one like it. How is it different? The feel. The odd vibe it gives off. Can’t explain it any other way.
Now I had one story to go. What to do? I hadn’t anything “new,” and I was never one that could just sit down and “write.” Though I have blogged before about the philosophy that everything has to be outlined (which I think is bullshit) I have to have a clue before sitting down at the computer.
I did have one thing. As a teacher at a Philadelphia charter school, I had been telling my tenth graders a ghost story about a girl who died mysteriously on campus. It started as a joke, but year after year I had added to the tale, making it personal, claiming I had witnessed Bria Patternson, with her pig tails and jump rope, haunting this very room! Etc. I never had an end to the story however, and had always concluded it at the sighting moment, coming out of story voice, and saying, “Hey, I was just playing.” Sitting at my computer, I thought that maybe I could make a frame story…about a teacher telling a ghost story. I came up with an ending and sent it over to S.T. Joshi.
He told me I “Rung the bell!” He sent it (titled “How Bria Died”) over to Ann Vandermeer at Weird Tales, and she published it in the Uncanny Beauty issue, Summer 2010. Horror author Stephen Graham Jones read it there, contacted me, and asked to use it in a fiction writing class he taught at the University of Colorado. Then Paula Guran picked it up and featured it in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, 2011, Prime Books. The story also got an honorable mention in Ellen Datlow’s Best of, same year, Nightshade Books (they who published my latest novel Phantom Effect, 2016, just saying…)
Interestingly, if you click the book cover on Amazon, they show S.T.’s amazing Foreword that makes me look like the next Bram Stoker, and “How Bria Died” in its entirety. Have a free look!
Anyway…I will always have a personal place of warmth inside for this particular collection. It is a culmination of many things, many years, many experiments, many beginnings. I might offer this to my students in a lit class I am going to teach this spring, as the text to use for the final response paper. But hey…go on Amazon. The Kindle is six bucks, but you might be able to find the paperback used for less.