Speculative San Antonio: Kij Johnson reading and signing at The Twig

Next weekend, The Twig Book Shop will host a reading and signing by one of contemporary sf and fantasy’s most respected authors.

Multi-award winning writer Kij Johnson will read from her short story collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees on Friday, Jan. 15, at 6 p.m. The Twig is located at 306 Pearl Parkway, Ste. 106, San Antonio TX 78215.

Kij Johnson is a winner of the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. In addition to her World Fantasy Award-nominated At the Mouth of the River of Bees, her books include the novels Fudoki and Fox Woman. Each summer, she teaches the prestigious Intensive Novel Workshop for the Center for the Study of Science Fiction; she has also taught at the summer science-fiction workshops Clarion, Clarion West and Odyssey. In the past, she has worked at Tor Books, Dark Horse Comics, Wizards of the Coast and TSR; currently she is an assistant professor of creative writing  at the University of Kansas.

In advance of her San Antonio appearance, I asked Kij to discuss her twin careers of writing and teaching writing.

You’ve spent quite some time teaching writing both in workshops and in university settings. What advice can you give emerging genre writers, and what are the most common mistakes you see them make?

There are lots, but here are a couple!

* Retreading other peoples’ work. Often we try to recreate a work we love understanding that what we should be doing is trying, not to reproduce the work but the way that work made us feel. Instead of trying to reproduce Peter Beagle’s Last Unicorn, or George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, we would be better off analyzing what the original did for us — broke our hearts, made us yearn, made us feel vicariously wise or dangerous or full potential — and then write a different story that does the same thing emotionally, instead of the same thing as far as the plot or genre goes.

* Writing as though movies, TV, and comics are the same as books. In fact, everything about the experience is different: the tools, the process, the degree of autonomy, the scale, the strengths….

Can you pinpoint specific books or stories that were pivotal in you choosing to write fiction yourself? What were they?

Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin books opened my eyes to just how much is possible in fiction, a sweeping narrative saga about complex characters behaving imperfectly in a gorgeous global setting.

John Myers Myers wrote a book that changed everything for me: Silverlock. It was written a lot of decades ago, and the general conceit is that there is a Commonwealth (of letters), where a shallow, embittered person can discover worlds of possibility. This doesn’t even touch the book’s charm and strength; but after reading it twenty years ago, I started to engage with works I loved as a writer — what would I do differently? How would I insert myself into the story?

Stylistically, your short stories range from the elegant to the disturbing. Do you decide to adopt a different narrative approach before you start a story, or is that more likely to evolve as you begin drafting the piece?

I often know from the very beginning that a work will have a specific stylistic aim: cool and elegant; classic and emotionally detached; angry and sexy; over-the-top lavish. However, that often changes as I go. The novella I just handed in to tor.com, The Dream-quest of Vellitt Boe, started out intending to be a Lovecraft pastiche as far as voice went and changed to something much more American-letters-y.

Your novels The Fox Woman and Fudoki take place in Medieval Japan. How difficult is it to research such a complex setting, and do you plan to return to that time and era in future work?

It was hard! I read everything — and I do mean everything — that was available in translation, in all available translations. I read a lot of scholarly papers, as well. I’m not sure whether I will return to the place and time: I have another book I could tell that takes place a couple of hundred years sooner, but it depends on some business-type stuff.

You’ve said you spend a lot of time working and reworking your stories. Why is that and how many incarnations is each story likely to see?

I seldom get everything right off the bat. Even if I am close, there is almost always something very delicate I can do to tweak it — basically, the equivalent of using not just the 220-grit sandpaper, but the 600. Rewrites can range from five or six to scores of rewrites of different levels of intensity.

What else are you working on right now? Any new books or stories you can tell us about?

I just turned in a novella for tor.com, The Dream-quest of Vellitt Boe, which will be out as part of their new novella line sometimes in 2016. I also have a novel coming out in 2017 from Small Beer Press. Thanks for asking!

Haunting Question: What’s the Scariest Short Story You’ve Ever Read?

Short stories may be the ultimate way to experience horror fiction.

Think about it. You typically consume a short story in one sitting, no breaks, no relief from the mounting tension and dread. If the tale’s a gripper, you don’t dare come up for air. But with a novel — even one you really like — the experience is spread out, sometimes over a couple of weeks. And each time you put down the book, the tension dissipates.

Not surprisingly, virtually every major horror writer, from Edgar Allan Poe to Laird Barron, has written in short form. Pieces such as Ray Bradbury’s “The Next in Line,” Stephen King’s “I am the Doorway” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” all come to mind as my own early sources of chills — and writing inspiration.

With Halloween right around the corner, I asked other authors and editors to talk about the short stories that terrified them the most. The resulting selections make a great late-October reading list.


Lisa Tuttle: Lisa Tuttle is an American-born science fiction, fantasy and horror author who currently resides in the United Kingdom. She has published more than a dozen novels, seven short story collections and several non-fiction titles. She won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the BSFA Award for Short Fiction and the Nebula Award for Best Short Story (which she refused).

The first thing I thought of when asked for the scariest short story I’d ever read was “The Fog Horn” by Gertrude Atherton. But then I realized no one under the age of 50 would truly appreciate just why it is so terrifying. So, to balance that out, I must add another. This one scared the socks off me when I first read it, aged about twelve, and it holds up very well today. I love ghost stories, but really, when you think about it, ghosts are not that scary, being unable to do very much. But there are exceptions, like “The Gentleman from Down Under” by L.P. Hartley.


Joe McKinney: Joe McKinney, a two-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award, is an author in many genres, including horror, zombie apocalypse tales, ghost stories, virus thrillers, crime and science fiction. He has written 17 novels, developed two collections of short stories, created a tale for a comic book, and been both published in and edited numerous anthologies.

Horror, if we’re being honest with ourselves, lives in the short story. That’s where the genre truly excels, and that’s why EVERY SINGLE MASTER OF HORROR has written in the short story genre. Yes, there are masterpieces in the novel genre. I grant you that. But the truly defining moments of horror’s graduation from fringe hack work to beloved cultural groupspeak come from the short story. So, if I had to pick just one, I’d give the nod to “Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner. I first encountered that story in an anthology I picked up in a used bookstore. At this point, I don’t have any chance of remembering the name of the anthology, but I absolutely remember the terror that went through me as I read that story for the first time. It was not only a brilliant character study, but a master class in developing the slow, creeping dread that makes horror so effective. It was only later, after I’d begun my own journey through professional publishing, that I realized that the story was also a thorough commentary — indeed, almost a satire — of the horror genre as it came of age in the ’70s and ’80s.


Nate Southard: Nate Southard is the author of Down, Pale Horses, Just Like Hell and several others. His latest collection, Will the Sun Ever Come Out Again?, is available now from Broken River Books. His work has appeared in such venues as Cemetery Dance, Black Static and Thuglit.  A finalist for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction, Nate lives in Austin, Texas.

The story that sticks with me the most is Paul Tremblay’s “The Teacher.” A new teacher accepts eight kids into a special class, one that involves a horrible video and an even worse lesson. While not what most might consider a “scary” story, “The Teacher” is the kind of tale that worms its way deep and infects you. Once I finished it, I couldn’t read again for a few days. The entire world felt wrong.


Jeffrey Ford: Jeffrey Ford is an American writer whose works span genres including fantasy, sf and mystery. His stories and novels have been nominated multiple times for the World Fantasy Award, the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Award, the International Horror Guild Award, the Fountain Award, Shirley Jackson Award and the Edgar Allan Poe Award. He’s a graduate of Binghamton University, where he studied with the novelist John Gardner.

I don’t scare easy when it comes to fiction. The most scared I’ve ever been reading a short story was when I was 10 and up late in my bed after everyone had gone to sleep. I read “The Phantom Rickshaw” by Rudyard Kipling. I’m not sure what it was about the piece that scared the shit out of me, maybe the inevitability of the young soldier’s death after he sees the forbidding form of the woman he jilted glide by in a rickshaw. It had to do with the quiet nature of the story — no outlandish haunting — just a silent exchange of glances between the living and the dead. Creepy. Kipling is one of the best short story writers. Borges considered him better than James Joyce and Henry James. His colonial lineage is hard to defend. I side with Salman Rushdie’s take on him — “Kipling, there is much that is hard to forgive, but more that is hard to forget.”


Jessica Reisman: Jessica Reisman’s stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. Her first novel, The Z Radiant, published by Five-Star Speculative Fiction, is “thinking reader’s sci-fi.” She was a Michener Fellow in Fiction in graduate school.

I wanted to go with a Lisa Tuttle story that I heard her read at a World Fantasy Convention (“Closet Dreams, according to Lisa. — Ed.) , but I can’t for the life of me remember the title. So I’m going with Maureen McHugh’s “The Naturalist.” The reason explaining why is essentially the same, however: I find stories about human monsters — psychopaths and sociopaths — much more terrifying and chilling than stories about supernatural monsters. Beyond being possible, they actually exist and do horrifying, scary, scary things.


Gene O’Neill: Gene O’Neill is a multi-award nominated writer of science fiction, fantasy and horror fiction. More than 100 of his works have been published in venues including Cemetery Dance Magazine, Twilight Zone Magazine and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

I think it’s a tie between George R.R. Martin’s “The Pear-Shaped Man” and Michael Shea’s “The Autopsy.” Martin’s story is great because essentially you become what you hate and fear. Shea’s story is great because of a dying man’s revenge against a seemingly overwhelming force.


Tina Connolly: Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin trilogy from Tor Books, and the Seriously Wicked series, from Tor Teen. Ironskin, her first fantasy novel, was a Nebula finalist. Her stories have appeared in Women Destroy SF, Lightspeed, Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and many more.

I don’t read a lot of horror, but I do remember loving to be scared stiff by the John Bellairs books as a kid. They were so deliciously gothic and atmospheric — and the creepy illustrations by Edward Gorey made them even better. The House with a Clock in the Walls is still my favorite, but the one that scared me the most was the terrifying sorcerer (who controls blizzards from inside his father’s tomb, IIRC) in the Dark Secret of Weatherend.


Lori Michelle: Lori Michelle is the co-owner/CFO/layout guru of Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing and the editor-in-chief of Dark Moon Digest and Dark Eclipse. She is the author of Dual Harvest and the editor of Bleed, an anthology where the proceeds will go to the National Children’s Cancer Society. Several of her stories have appeared in anthologies including the 2012 Bram Stoker finalist Slices of Flesh.

I am not sure if this is the scariest story I have ever read, but it is certainly the most memorable short story I have ever read. It is by the great Stephen King and appeared in Nightmares & Dreamscapes. I am talking about “The Moving Finger.” The images of a strange anomaly coming into your safe haven via the drains has given me shivers over the years. The bathroom is supposed to be the place where you can relax. But SK has shown that nowhere is safe, not even your own sink.


R.L. Ugolini: R.L. Ugolini’s short stories have appeared in literary journals and anthologies, including, most recently, Red Rock Review and Demonic Visions Vol. 3, 4 & 5. The Summerset Review nominated her story “Falllow” for the 2011 Million Writers’ Award. Samhain Publishing released her first novel Quakes in 2015.

It was 1843, and the world had yet to suffer the horrors (culturally, if not exactly psychologically) of sparkly vampires, Twitter or stuffed-crust pizza. An agitated narrator lays out his crime for his readers. He has done the unspeakable — he is a madman, a monster. And yet, as his story unfolds, it becomes clear the terror of the tale lies not with who he is or what he has done, but with how his conscience will bear his guilt. It is a reminder that horror need have no demons save those of our own making. For this reason, I recommend “The Tell-Tale Heart,” by Edgar Allan Poe.


Max Booth III: Max Booth III is the author of three novels: Toxicity, The Mind is a Razorblade and How to Successfully Kidnap Strangers. He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. He’s currently a columnist for LitReactor and Slush Pile Heroes. He has studied under Craig Clevenger and award-winning editor Jennifer Brozek.

“I’m On My” by Shane McKenzie published in Splatterpunk Zine #4. A thousand stories popped in my head when Sanford asked me to pick the story that has scared me the most. Many classics, which I’m sure you already know about. However, there’s one short story that has really stuck with me since I first read it back in 2013. And that is Shane McKenzie’s “I’m On My.” It’s a short little tale about a man driving home to his family, only to encounter a slight detour. Look, when you’re driving, all it takes is for your attention to be distracted for a single second, and not only is your whole life ruined, but so are others’. “I’m On My” is a story about an innocent man accidentally running over a small child. There is nobody around that witnesses this crime. It’s just the man and the boy he’s hit. If you were in the same situation, how would you react? I think we all would like to say, “I’d call the police and wait with the boy!” But that’s just what we like to say. The truth is, there’s no way of knowing how we would react to such a situation unless it actually happens. It’s a heat-of-the-moment type of situation, and the implicated consequences of such an accident are absolutely terrifying. Every morning, I drive home from work and see various kids waiting for the school bus, and I swear, every morning I am reminded of “I’m On My.” This little story has fucked with me so much.


Jamie Lackey: Jamie Lackey write science fiction, fantasy and horror short stories. She read submissions for Clarkesworld Magazine from 2008 through 2013. She also worked as an assistant editor for the Triangulation Annual Anthology Series from 2008-2010, and she was one of the magazine’s two coeditors in 2011. She was an assistant editor at Electric Velocipede from 2012-2013 and is the editor of Triangulation: Lost Voices.

I have to go with “Ponies” by Kij Johnson. It’s just so delightfully dark wrapped in shininess. And the ending is tragic and inevitable.


Eric J. Guignard: Eric J. Guignard writes dark and speculative fiction from the outskirts of Los Angeles. His stories and articles have appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shock Totem, Buzzy Mag, Bewildering Stories and Stupefying Stories. He’s also an anthology editor, having published Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations and After Death…, the latter of which won the 2013 Bram Stoker Award.

Being an indecisive writer, I considered equally two of the scariest stories I’ve ever read, though each for a different reason. “Other People” by Neil Gaiman (published first in Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders, 2006) is one of the bleakest visions of Hell I’ve ever encountered. This scared me remarkably, because there’s a belief that Hell is different for all, and it is designed individually based upon your worst fears… I wouldn’t have feared this prior, but after reading the story, suddenly Gaiman’s tale embodied what I imagined the worst type of Hell to be, in which you relive out all the pain you’ve caused other people, whether directly or indirectly, over and over again… and now I can’t “unknow it.” My second is “Crouch End” by Stephen King (published first in New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, 1980; collected in Nightmares & Dreamscapes, 1993) I was probably about 18 or 19 years old when I read this story, and it freaked me out so much I swore I’d never read it again. And I haven’t… I don’t know if this story would still affect me so terribly now, but there were some passages that just haunted me at the time. I wasn’t familiar with the Cthulhu universe back then — which this story is homage to — so the descriptions of subtly-changing things around us and slithering shapes seen only from the corner of your eye were really quite seminal to me.

An obligatory capper to a year for the crapper

Modeling Vincent Villafranca's "Shellmet" at the World Fantasy Awards in San Jose.

Modeling Vincent Villafranca's "Shellmet" at the World Fantasy Awards in San Jose.

2009 sucked. I had to abandon a job I once enjoyed, I saw friends lose theirs as a result of an economic meltdown spurred by corporate greed, and the world situation became increasingly dire, in no small part because of our country’s ill-advised overseas adventures.

But I’m going to keep things on a positive note and list some of the things that made the year bearable. Yes, there were some.

  • Science fiction/fantasy/horror flicks that didn’t suck: Between District 9, Moon, Drag Me to Hell, Star Trek , Watchmen, Coraline, The Road and a few others, I’m hard pressed to think of a recent year where there have been this many smart and entertaining genre films. And I haven’t even seen Avatar yet.
  • My first World Fantasy Convention:Overpriced bar aside, it was a splendid time. It was great to catch up with some old friends, meet new ones and soak in the craziness of that many SF/F/H pros, fans and freaks collected in one place. And I finally get to explore the wacked out Winchester Mystery House. (Check out the pics, courtesy of new bud and sculptor extraordinaire Vincent Villafranca.)
  • Grad school: Yeah, it’s been a time suck and an occasional pain in the ass, but also it’s been a blast to get back into the classroom. I had forgotten how much fun it was to be immersed in academia. What can I say? I’m a dork.

    Touring the Winchester House with John and Traci Picacio.

    Touring the Winchester House with John and Traci Picacio.

  • Joe Abercrombie making fantasy grim again:I burned through two of the Brit author’s books — The Blade Itself (first book of his The First Law Trilogy) and Best Served Cold — and I must say his gritty, blood-soaked tales of betrayal, revenge and torture are a perfect antidote for the namby-pamby volumes of overwrought commercial high fantasy currently wasting space on bookstore shelves. Good thing I still have the rest of the trilogy to go.
  • Jeffrey Ford for making fantasy fantastic again:I just can’t say enough about Jeffrey Ford. The Drowned Life, his most-recent short story collection, and the novel The Shadow Year — part thriller, part memoir and part magical realism — contained some of the best and most imaginitive prose I laid my eyes on this year.
  • Kij Johnson’s monkeys:Kij Johnson’s “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” is the best short story I’ve read in ages. It’s the tale of a woman who buys a travelling monkey show then tries to figure out the secret behind the primates’ nightly disappearing act. But, as with other great short stories, it’s about more than that. Namely learning to work through grief and loss. Thanks, Kij, I needed that.
  • Staying on track with the writing: Despite a lot of distractions, I still managed to keep cranking out the prose. Not as many sales in the second half of the year as I’d hoped, but I’m sure things will pick up. I just need to stay focused and keep the words flowing.
  • Missions Unknown: As you may know, I’m 1/3 of another blog, Missions Unknown, which tracks SF/F/H in San Antonio. It’s been a pleasant surprise to see just how vibrant the scene here has become and to discover how many other creators of fantastic art there are in the Alamo City. No, we’re not New York, London or Seattle, but I’m happy to see the level of creativity going on here.
  • Audible.com: Audible applies the Netflix model to downloading audio books. And it’s helped keep me sane for my workday commute from downtown San Antonio to my office outside Loop 1604.

Here’s wishing for a better 2010.

A year-end apology

The Candy Skulls blog: Now with zombies!

The Candy Skulls blog: Now with zombies!

I know it’s completely, utterly and unforgivably lame that I haven’t updated my blog since Halloween. Please accept my apology for that. I simply let writing, work, my return to school and myriad projects around the house keep me away.

I’ll try to do better.

Since I’ve been incommunicado, I managed to attend my first World Fantasy Convention. I met a ton of lovely people, caught up with some old friends and saw Jeffrey Ford and Kij Johnson win well-deserved World Fantasy Awards. As it was such a positive experience, I hope to be able to keep attending World Fantasy. Although I pray the hotel next year will have a less pricy bar.

As for actual writing, I couldn’t be more happy that my story “The Circus” is appearing in the January issue of Necrotic Tissue, which has made the jump from an online to print publication. I’ve got my payment in hand, and I received a free t-shirt from the mag (my second now). Just waiting for my comp copy in the mail.

In addition, I have a zombie story — my first zombie story, come to think of it — under consideration for an anthology. Crossing my fingers and hoping for the best on that. Maybe I’ll have more good news to report soon.