I recently finished Denis Johnson’s collection of short stories called Jesus’ Son. The book follows a drug-addled character known as “Fuckhead” through several misadventures that are likely to produce a range of emotions from empathy to disgust, humor to anger. I met Denis Johnson back in June at the University of Tampa MFA summer residency where he appeared for a readings, question-and-answer, and had lunch with a small group of us star struck writing students. I seriously doubt he’d remember me, but I remember him as a polite and intense man with no time for bullshit. I liked him.
The overall effect of Jesus’ Son on me, once I got over being reminded that a layer of our society exists in a constant state of hopelessness fueled by a circular cycle of alcoholism, hard drugs, and bad decisions, was to ask myself what it is in human nature that nudges some of us toward self-destruction. I think these stories illustrate, like old-time fairy tales that teach children to obey their elders, what can happen when we value escapism more than establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships. To the question of how people can descend into a state that allows them to commit terrible acts without remorse, the stories in Jesus’ Son may provide some insight.
Denis Johnson may not have intended any sort of instruction when writing these stories, and perhaps they are as pointless as they seem, the ramblings of wasted losers clinging to the underbelly of society. I prefer to assign some sort of purpose to stories like these to counteract the realistic horror I find in them, and if readers are looking for a modern set of cautionary tales, Jesus’ Son fits the bill.
Each of us is the hero of their own story. Write about a person in a position of no great authority or importance, someone with no expectation for heroism or greatness. Toss this person into something that scares the living shit out of them–something well out of their weight class. They must not only fight to survive, but must bide their time and set conditions for success. The situation must be one with no possibility of backing out. They’re compelled to resist wrongs being done with a slim chance of escaping imprisonment, exile, death, or whatever consequence they fear most. Try to get the whole idea down in one sitting.
A writers’ group friend recently brought up the subject of how people die in books. She seemed to be somewhat at a loss for variety. Well, here are a few that come to mind from my own reading:
“Airlock Flush”–standard space opera version of walking the plank
Deconstruction by runaway nano-devices–Crichton’s Prey
Execution by pneumatic bolt driver (livestock-killing device)–McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men
Grief-induced insanity followed by drowning oneself–Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Grief-induced insanity followed by wandering into the desert to die–Fante’s Ask the Dust
Individually-targeted military micromissile–Iain Banks’ Ask Phlebas
Glorious Homeric death in battle: “…then from his tender neck Aias Oiliades, in anger for Amphimakhos, lopped his head and bowled it through the melee till it tumbled in dust at Hektor’s feet.” –from The Iliad
Here’s a writing prompt: Come up with five unusual ways to die, pick one at random, and write a flash piece about someone’s last few minutes of life.
This Friday, December 7th, (a day that lives in infamy) Tales to Terrify will air my narration of Cat Rambo’s story, “Events at Fort Plenitude.” I love Ms. Rambo’s writing, and I hope she’ll approve of my interpretation of her story.
If you’re looking for some creepy fantasy-horror to listen to while your eyes and/or hands are busy, check it out. Let me know what you think. More importantly, leave a comment on the Tales to Terrify site. If you really like what you find there, consider buying their first anthology to help support the ‘cast.
I started listening to Starship Sofa way back in its infancy, and remain a loyal fan of Tony C. Smith’s Hugo Award-winning work there. If you’re a science fiction fan and you’re not listening, you’re seriously missing out. There’s more nerdy goodness there than you can shake a gaffi stick at.
I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to narrate a story for Tony C. Smith’s District of Wonders array of fiction podcasts. The current edition of Protecting Project Pulp features my reading of E. Hoffman Price’s 1934 pulp story “Live Bait.” Reading for the podcast was a lot of fun, and I hope to do more narrating in the future.
What surprised me was how much work narration can be. It seems I can’t get five words from my lips to the microphone without slurring, spitting, or stammering. Aside from my own speaking challenges, noises from the environment constantly intruded. Passing traffic, lawnmowers, and even sweet little tweety-birds caused me to have to re-do many parts of the reading. Getting it right was incredibly time consuming, but worth the effort.
I tried at first to record using my Mac’s internal microphone, but instantly learned that wasn’t going to cut it, so I went shopping for something better. (‘One that’s nice, but not too expensive.’) I eventually settled on a Blue Snowball mic, and I think it worked out fairly well.
If you love genre fiction and haven’t checked out the District of Wonders podcasts, you’re missing out. I’ve been listening to Starship Sofa for years, and I’m ‘chuffed to bits’ to see that ‘cast not only thriving, but spinning off sister podcasts that show a lot of promise.
I realize I should stop screwing around with side projects if I ever expect to have some of my writing published, but I think the narration thing has me hooked. It’s just too much fun. I’ll be looking for more opportunities to narrate fiction.
So give it a listen. I hope you enjoy the story.
If you’re into vintage audio fiction,I’ll be narrating a couple of stories for Protecting Project Pulp in the next two weeks. (So the editor tells me). These stories are the kind of thing you might have heard on the radio in the ’30s and ’40s. Let me know if you think I have a future as a voice actor…or not. (Be kind.) The stories I narrate are “Live Bait” and “The Game of Rat and Dragon.” One is noir. The other is science-fiction. Both are pulpy as can be.