Serialized: A Return to Short-Form

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Everybody wants to talk to me about serials these days.

It’s being discussed blogs and forums, on Twitters and Facebook pages. A lot of authors are changing gears, from the standard novel to the time-tested serial, releasing stories in groups of serialized novellas or just one chapter at a time. Like Charles Dickens used to do it. Just like comic book writers and television shows do it today. We’re all going digital, a little bit every day. Embracing the short-form over the long, and releasing it on our own time-tables, our own schedules online rather than squeezing stories into novels and begging for a three-book contract.

I, for one, think it’s a very good thing.

The return to short-form seems to be a wholly organic movement. It’s the idea popping into the heads of authors all over, from the well-known novelist to the nameless indie author on the street. That’s what I like about it. It’s writers releasing their work in the format that they prefer, by their own bootstraps and without having to go through agents and editors. The work is being put out in a way that gives writers more control and more interaction with their readers, opening up the relationship between the creators of content and the consumers of content. (I think that’s the part I like the most, really.) There’s little market in traditional publishing for serializations anymore, but that’s not stopping anybody. That’s the revolution at work.

For much of the 20th century authors were preoccupied with the novel, the status of the novel and the novelist. You often gained a readership from writing novels rather than short stories or novellas, cultivating a brand for yourself in long works that you had a hard time in doing in short-form. Now it seems that authors today finally learned a lesson from television. That was another thing authors of the 20th century were preoccupied with: The death of books at the hands of television. I won’t argue the merits of television with you, because that’s neither here nor there. What I will say is that, in my own experience, television has always been a source of inspiration.

Growing up I took literature hand-in-hand with television. Some of my favorite writers of all time — Ben Edlund, Bryan Fuller, Alan Ball, Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer — write for television. I always read — Stephen King, Arthur Conan Doyle, Homer, Shakespeare, Frank Herbert, Roald Dohl, William Gibson — but it didn’t mean that I liked television any less. Because television, love it or hate it, is the serial in its most potent form. Every week viewers follow the lives of their favorite characters, from comedies to dramas, horror to science fiction, sitting on the edges of their seats for the next story. The next twist. Sometimes the stories are smart and well-written, and sometimes they’re not. What matters is that the formula works. It keeps people hooked and engaged, and coming back week after week, season after season. It keeps people talking. What writer wouldn’t want to try his or her hand at that?

This doesn’t mean that the traditional novel is dead, or that it has no place in the 21st century. There’s nothing wrong with the medium and it’s not going away. People will always want to write traditional novels, and so people will always want to read them. It just seems that the authors are the ones that are changing, evolving like their stories to fit the times. Readers seem to be responding to that, even if traditional publishing doesn’t have any room for it yet. And it’s going to be interesting to watch these changes unfold, if nothing else.

An Open Letter to Rob Zombie

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You don’t know me and we’ve never met. As I’ve stated before, I like to go out of my way to avoid meeting cool people, for a whole slew of reasons I won’t go into here. I did go to see you at a Dallas show in 2009, which was pretty amazing. (I was in the back, super-blonde at the time in a Total Skull t-shirt, flanked by a rockabilly guy and a post-apoc skater-punk respectively.) Anyway, there’s just something I’ve been meaning to say.

I came up listening to White Zombie, sitting in backseats as a small child with the music coming out of the tinny speakers of my parent’s Volkswagen. I literally grew up on hard rock of all stripes, from Alice in Chains to Alice Cooper, Soundgarden to Metallica, and of course, Ozzy Osbourne. By the time I was thirteen and knee-deep in my pissed-off adolescent rebellion, your solo stuff was providing the soundtrack to the many afternoons I spent in my room with the radio on 11, hating everything. Because your music was fun at a time when I wasn’t really having a lot of it. I had been uprooted from my hometown of many years, taken away from my childhood friends to move to Florida. I never exactly adjusted to Florida, and the childhood friends — well, they all moved on without me. It wasn’t a really great time.

I eventually got over hating everything (well, for the most part) and I eventually hit a weird indie phase where I gave up listening to metal entirely. Gross, I know. Even for it, I never threw your albums out. I never stopped listening, and following tour dates, and salivating over posters in the mall after I’d already boxed my collection of metal wall posters. (It sounds so silly, I know.) My life went to Hell and back during this time. I moved back to Texas and to my friends, who were really kind of over our friendship without doing me the favor of letting me know about it, but that’s neither here nor there.

A lot of other things happened then, too. I got into writing pretty heavily between fourteen and sixteen, publishing stuff on little mailing lists and fiction archives run by online acquaintances.  I was making my first hesitant plans to go into writing comics and short fiction, and trying to explain to my father that there was no money in it but I wanted to do it anyway. (He still doesn’t get it, but I think that’s true of most dads.) Even for it, I still hung on to your music, and listened to it all the time, especially when I was writing. Living Dead Girl was the name of my original blog, back in the early days of Deadjournal and Livejournal, and isn’t that an embarrassing blast-from-the-past. It’s still one of my favorite songs.

Anyway, what I really want to say is that when you got into making films, I was there. I was all about that. Granted, it took a few viewings of House of a Thousand Corpses to really get it. (Like I said before, I was in a stupid phase.) Once I did get it, I loved it. I loved everything about it, from the characters to the sets to the score. I love the costumes and the props and the bat-shit insanity of the Firefly clan. Then The Devil’s Rejects came out, and I found myself completely speechless on the couch after the movie was over. I had my first inkling that horror can be elevated to new levels when filmmakers give a damn. That you can tell a western in the same breath that you can tell a gritty horror film. That a movie can be uncomfortable and hard to watch, but still fun and engaging. I was learning that your heroes can be villains and your villains can be heroes, and everyone can destroy each other in such terrible ways that you don’t know who to root for anymore. Most of all, as a young writer, it helped me see that this was often a good thing. You helped me really get back into horror.

Naturally, when I heard you were remaking John Carpenter’s Halloween, I was thrilled. Now, for a lot of people the jury’s still out on that one. That the movie went too far in some ways, and was too much a conservative remake in others. That it was too Zombie, or not Zombie enough. I have my own thoughts on that topic, but I won’t go into that now. However, when you did Halloween II, I think you kind of changed my life. People still argue over the psychology of the film, over the White Horse references, the threads of psychosis running through the Myers family. They can hate it all the want, I really don’t care. Everything in the imagery of that film, the tone, the cinematography, the scars on Laurie’s face and her rage towards every reminder of Michael Myers and Halloween — it’s why I write horror the way I do today.

If I’m being 100% honest here, it’s probably one of the reasons I wrote my novel at all. I won’t lie: I thought of Sheri Moon in her flowing gowns the entire time I was crafting Casey’s relationship with his mother. I held that image in mind, that eerie sadness and cold determination, in the dream sequences that constitute Casey and Christine’s only tethers today. I thought back to the glass casket and the white horse, and the emptiness of a child trying to pull his family back together. I wanted to tell a story about a victim of a horror story in his own right, the rage he must feel and how it still scarred him. I’m so attracted to that self-loathing and fear lesser writers often skip over in the happy “One Year Later” montage, showing survivors who are only vaguely bothered by the violence and terror they’ve so recently suffered. In Flesh Trap, I wanted to tell a story about how one horror can affect the lives of everyone in its way. How it can engulf and destroy decades later, sucking in everybody that gets close enough to that original, terrible, pain. Because, hey, you can’t get through life without scars.

Halloween II helped crystallize these images in mind, and made me think harder and faster on my feet on ways to make these themes my own. Obviously your films and my stories are miles away from each other in terms of content and execution, tone and style. I’m not patting myself on the back here for following cues. I just wanted to say that these things have been very important to me over the years, and have helped shaped me into the writer and the person I am today. I enjoy your smart and thoughtful horror, Rob Zombie, as well as your gore and exploitation. You’ve taught me that you can have the best of both worlds, and you can still have something fun and engaging at the end of the day.

So, there you go.

Halloween 2011

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How did I spend Halloween? Oh, you know, the usual. Covered in blood, having a tea party with some close friends, and scaring the crap out of small neighborhood children. (Everybody thought I was a mannequin, until I turned my head to do the Long Creepy Stare. How the hilarity ensued.)

What were you up to?