A dubious honor.

Apparently, I’m a finalist in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for 2015. Not sure which entry of mine the judges picked out, (I submitted several) but stay tuned to their official website (www.bulwer-lytton.com) for full disclosure.

Just for fun, I will probably post the ‘wasn’t quite funny enough’ non-winning entries here after they put up the complete winners list.

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In praise of cooperative editors.

(I shouldn’t mention any names.)

Just a brief note to post that I have been very blessed of late to encounter some truly great editors, who are awesome because of their desire to work with, not against, aspiring authors. In a field that could charitably be described as a cutthroat snake’s pit, (on a good day) it’s easy to get discouraged. I’m happy (and relieved) to know there are still editors who want to provide more encouragement than discouragement, especially when we pesky writers can all too easily succumb to the self-esteem (and motivation) ravages of a world with fewer and fewer opportunities for and increasing barriers to our hard work. (In other words, even talented, ambitious writers can become whiny, nail-shredding crazypants from time to time, and working with us is as difficult for editors as they can seem to the writers editors facilitate.)

A supportive editor is worth his or her weight in gold.

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Stephen King.

(Yes, I’m a fan. In case you hadn’t noticed.)

1. In fact, you can’t go home again. Or you shouldn’t. (‘Salem’s Lot.)

2. Keep that damn pre-owned Pinto you just had to buy in good condition. (Cujo.)

3. Don’t drive alone on a dangerous mountain road in a snowstorm. Better yet, don’t drive in a snowstorm. (Misery.)

4. When someone tells you to quit smoking, just freaking quit already. (“Quitters, Inc.”)

5. When someone expects you to give your story an ending that actually makes them happy, you should make them happy. Especially if she has an axe. (Misery.)

6. Don’t buy the house next to the big road. Seriously. (Pet Sematary.)

7. If everyone in your small town starts to change bizarrely and inexplicably, it’s really okay to pick up, move and start over somewhere else. (The Tommyknockers.)

8. Know that local curiosity shop everyone is totally obsessed with? Try Ikea instead. (Needful Things.)

9. About that bondage game your husband wants to play while the two of you are in the remotest possible location alone together…skip it. (Gerald’s Game.)

10. Are you a blocked writer? For god’s sake, stay out of Maine.

Grey Harlowe Sampler: “Afraid of the Road.”

First, a sad note: my beloved Microhorror.com has closed. Microhorror gave me and my fiction a chance in 2014, and for this, I will always be thankful.

The story below is the last thing I sent out, to Microhorror, actually, and since the website is closed to submissions, I thought I’d share it here.

(And here’s to Microhorror.com, which published some of the best of the horror/flash fiction scene.)

*

“Afraid of the Road”

She awoke on the couch.  Asleep on the couch again?  If her mother were here, she would remind Melody she was no longer sixteen years old.  Too old to forget to put on pajamas, brush her teeth, and crawl into bed like a normal adult.  And why couldn’t she remember falling asleep?  It was dark out and now she definitely wouldn’t be able to check the mailbox.  She would have to hope Derrick did so on his way into the house, which he rarely remembered to do.

Maybe if they didn’t live on a rural backwoods road.  Maybe if traffic out here didn’t move so goddamn fast.  Like the speed of light.  Like everyone had something more important to do.

She was waiting on a response from that magazine in San Francisco.  The one she’d sent her play to this past Spring.  They didn’t take e-mailed submissions and always sent acceptance or rejection letters by snail mail.  She should be hearing from them any day.  And getting out to the mailbox to check, especially in the dark, was too hard.

Derrick used to tell her she was getting a phobia, or perhaps she already had a phobia.  How else could she explain, as a grown woman, being afraid to simply walk out the front door, down the walk, and cross the street to get to the mailbox?  It was a common enough activity.  Millions of people scooped up their mail every day, and no one had a panic attack.  When had she become so damn weird about it?

You’ll never publish another collection this way, he chided her once, thinking a little egotistical temptation might motivate her.  Don’t Real Authors have to read their correspondence?

I am a real author, she said.  Nobody has ever cared about my mail getting skills before now.

Well, if you want to be famous, he’d said, smiling.

Why can’t you just remember to bring in the mail? was her reply.

It became 7:30.  Then 8:30.  Then 8:45.  Where was Derrick?  She was tired again.  Perhaps she should go back to bed, wait for the mail to show up on the hallway table in the morning like it usually did, although by that point he would be off at work again.

At long last, she took her first tentative steps out of the house.  Then two more.  Then she was all the way in the driveway.  Now she had to make it across the street.  It was so cold out.  Was it still January, or had they drifted into February and she hadn’t noticed?  She considered stopping right there.  The magazine should have gotten back to her by now.  They hadn’t taken her play.  Was there any point in checking the mail tonight?

But she was sick of not being able to do this, this simple act of crossing a road.  With tiny steps, like walking across hot coals, she made it to the black, metal box and its cheerfully upright flag.

Then couldn’t get it open.  Melody banged and banged on the cold aluminum sides, but either the frigid air or some other mysterious obstacle had thwarted her attempts to extract her ‘correspondence’ for now.

Suddenly, a door opened on the porch to her left.  Apparently, she had made such a racket she had disturbed one of their few and far between neighbors.  Two women edged reluctantly out their front door.

“What was that?” the one in back asked the woman who had come out in front of her.

“Probably the ghost again.  A girl got killed out here last winter, hit by a truck.  Threw her two hundred feet thataway and she wound up in the Freeman’s yard.  Sometimes people see her by the mailbox.”

“Trying to get one last letter?”

“Well, trying to get the mail.  That’s what she was doing before she died.”

Melody froze.  That couldn’t be right, could it?

She watched the two women go back inside.

Do you think they know me?

Yes, I know, more than a few online advertising services have Ways of Making Us Read. They’ve gotten so good (and stealthy) at data-mining all our digital property, I’m never surprised when the crap that shows up in my inbox is actually tailor-made to my activities of late, even the ones I’ve kept out of my internet searches.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the airline discount program I signed up for not too long ago just sent me a list of the ‘three most haunted’ cities in America. They claim these are San Francisco, Boston and Charleston, by the way. (I’m not so sure.)

The part that feels most curious is that I have been thinking (offline) of doing some kind of review of haunted house tours I have taken recently…as soon as I work up the nerve to start touring haunted houses again. Could be a bit before that happens.

Also, if I were going to travel to do this, I think the best picks for ‘most haunted’ cities in the U.S. are obviously Philadelphia, New Orleans, and good ole Sleepy Hollow. Everywhere else would kinda be like shooting fish in a barrel.

Bad doggie: Animals in horror fiction.

We had a little scare with my cat, Sophie, today, (she disappeared for several hours and I was already planning the wake) and it got me thinking about the role animals can play in horror writing.

Considering how many people are (sadly) afraid of animals to begin with, I’ve been surprised at how few pieces of horror fiction I’ve read that feature animals or pets. Since three of the five listings below are by Stephen King and almost all were written in the last century, I’m thinking ‘scary animals’ is a bit on the outs right now, as far as fiction is concerned. So, um, get on that, writers? (Oh, wait…am I supposed to go whip up a piece about our four legged friends now? Oops. Be careful what you ask for, I guess.)

Without further adieu, my top five horror pieces of horror writing featuring animals.

1. Cujo, by Stephen King.

Yeah, this one still has the power to totally terrify me, oddball fiction techniques not withstanding. (There are sections of this novel written from the perspective of the rabid dog himself.) Although I maintain the parts of this book about corruption in the advertising industry are actually scarier than the stranded-mom-in-the-Pinto chapters, this  opus about confrontation with a ferocious and demented St. Bernard is why I keep my dogs’ rabies shots up to date religiously.

2. “Cat from Hell,” by Stephen King.

This story, included in the collection Just Past Sunset, is definitely one of King’s best. A piece about a cat so evil and unkillable that his owner hires a professional hitman to take him out, this is fiction I still think about whenever I can’t get a cat to do what I need it to (like go to the vet’s office.)

3. “Rainy Season,” by Stephen King (again.)

This one’s from Nightmares and Dreamscapes, and has to do with the horror show antics of, well, deadly frogs. Yes, frogs. They sound quaint and earthy, don’t they? Unless they have fangs. (Apparently, there’s a not entirely awful movie out there about this same villain, but King’s story elevates scary frogs to the stuff of myth.)

4. “Dapplegrim,” by Brian Evenson.

This story can be found in Kate Bernheimer’s My Mother, She Killed Me, My Father, He Ate Me, a collection of new fairy tales. While I don’t want to give the plot away, the gist of it is about a possessed horse. The kind of horse you wouldn’t necessarily think could be unsettling, namely a pretty dappled specimen out of an ’80s Tom Cruise fantasy film. Not scary at all…until the glowing red eyes come out.

5. Jaws, by Peter Benchley.

People forget that before this story was immortalized in the 1975 blockbuster, it was a hit novel. Know the opening scene with the woman that made it infamously hard to “go back in the water”? It’s actually even gorier, more nauseating and more my-God-why-did-I-decide-to-read-this stomach churning in the book. Really.

That one horror story…

You know what I’m talking about (I hope.)

It’s the one story you can’t forget, even if it’s not your favorite. The one with the character who was just utterly chilling, the one with the villain who could not have been more evil, and, for most of us, the one with the ending that still keeps you up at night, even though you’ve probably read better since.

I think of That Story as the Most Unsettling One You’ve Read. It could be a really creepy ghost story that echoes through the years, or a monster story that doesn’t have the greatest prose but does have the spookiest beast. Mine is Roald Dahl’s “Royal Jelly,” a story about a man (and his daughter) who are just a bit too interested in bees. (For those lucky fiends who have yet to read that piece, I’ll leave it at that.) I think about this story not infrequently in putting together my own works, even though I haven’t actually looked at it in twenty years. There truly is something both fascinating and frightening about bees; I’m surprised more writers haven’t incorporated them as horror elements.

I know I’ve been eschewing comments, but for those of you actually reading, feel free to share your own Most Unsettling mentions here.