Enjoy reading urban fantasy with snarky humor? Or horror that just isn’t quite the norm? Then check out the many books and anthologies by John Hartness.
The short story horror anthology The Big Bad II has an unique concept. Instead of stories told from the good guy’s POV or with the good guy defeating the bad guy, the baddies are the ones telling the story. And not just any kind of baddie, but the ones who dominate nightmares, the bad guys who show up in fairy tales, children’s movies, and bad horror movies.
The challenge of The Big Bad II is to take well-known, and some not-so-well-known, villains and make their stories somehow compelling, perhaps even sympathetic. Overall the stories in the anthology do that. Another challenge is how to balance tone. While this is probably considered a horror anthology, it’s simply not just blood and guts. Like any good, well-balanced anthology, there are funny stories, scary and gruesome stories, and even some sad stories.
While I enjoyed almost all of the stories in the anthology, some of my favorite stories were:
Voodooesque - A much more subtle take on voodoo. Instead of focusing on dolls or other charms one normally associates with this dark art, scents and smell are the key ingredients. Set in Charleston, SC in the 1800s, our two main characters are a black woman with her own shop and a formerly rich white man comes to her in search of help to woo a wealthy widow. Each engages in voodoo although Lillian has her own shop, not everything she sells is voodoo related, and quite the reputation.
What I enjoyed about this story was the cat and mouse game between the two main characters and loved the ending. It’s a subtle twist but not anything unexpected. Having visited Charleston once it was easy for me to imagine the time of year, the sights, and the sounds that very cool city has to offer.
A Family Affair – The first of several vampire stories in the anthology, this one is set during the 1950s. Our main character is the matriarch of a family whose main goal is to keep her family together and away from negative influences. So what’s a control freak supposed to do? Become a vampire, of course.
What I really liked about this story is I felt it was a humorous commentary on just how messed up the idea of the perfect family is especially in post-WWII America. The stress of the ideal family with the perfect wife, perfect husband, and perfect children rears its ugly head in a unique way.
Old Nonna – Old Nonna is rumored to be witch. People have a way of disappearing whenever they get near Old Nonna’s house which is naturally in the woods only adding further to her legend. The story really takes off when a young teenager, the daughter of illegal immigrants, flees into the woods. The woman takes her in and introduces her to her “family” which I won’t spoil for you.
What I liked about this story was the twist on the creepy witch in the forest since Old Nonna does have a soft spot for those outside of society. I also appreciate the shift in tone from the beginning which was more ominous but by the time the story is done the tone is more hopeful. A cool example of a baddie-centric story can elicit sympathy from the reader.
Letters to Logroth – This story reminds me of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in that the whole story is told through letters. Specifically one-sided letters written to Logroth’s nemesis. In those letters, Logroth is complaining about a group of people trying to locate him which it was hard to tell if he wanted or not. At first it seemed like he wanted to be rescued but then he became annoyed by their mere presence.
What I appreciated about the story is how funny it was. Logroth bitches about the looks and intelligence level of the group coming for him. In addition to being hilarious, the reader doesn’t know what type of creature or monster is until the end which is just fine with me.
A Day in the Life – Two words: Nazi Satan. Seems redundant and it is, however, the spin is once a year Satan inhabits the body of a person. In this case, a Nazi. Throughout Satan’s day in this particular Nazi’s body, he holds a conversation with one of the inmates in the concentration camp. She intrigues him because earlier in the day she watches as her brother is shot. During the conversation Satan Nazi tries to shake the faith of the inmate but is naturally unsuccessful.
What I appreciated about the story was it could have been over the top but it wasn’t. With Satan spending the day in someone else’s body each year, it shows him how humanity is at that particular point in history. Satan already has a vague idea of the life of the Nazi he is inhabiting yet any actions he does while in the person’s body can change the outcome. In the case of the Nazi, he’d never signed a death warrant, a fact that plays a huge role at the end of the story.
Portrait of the Artist as a Psychopathic Man – The title pretty much says it all. Think Dexter but with a more pretentious killer with a much bigger ego and no code. The main character wants to create art with murder. A sentiment literally beaten into him by his father who believed only pain and suffering can create great art so murder is our main character’s canvas.
As a reader I liked the idea of the wannabe killer planning how he would create his masterpiece. I’m not necessarily rooting for the killer to be successful but the thought process is interesting to follow along with in this story since it is his first attempt at his calling.
Drawing Flame – To me this story was the most unique one in the anthology. Our main character is a genie recalled by a former client to grant one more wish. The client is a dying mobster who has searched high and low for this genie before tracking him down to grant him one more wish having messed up his previous wish.
What I found so neat about the story was not just a genie as the main character, but that instead of granting three wishes, a person only gets one so it better count. I also liked that the wish has to be very detailed and well-thought or else the genie would find a loophole.
The Witch Hunter – A twist on the Snow White tale told from the POV of her nemesis now inhabiting the body at an old woman living in a nursing home. The story is funny yet bittersweet as Helena, not her real name, races against the clock to figure out what she’s supposed to do. She knows there’s some connection between a box, a mirror, an axe, and red apples but hasn’t figured out why.
I liked the humor in it especially Helena’s nicknames for the staff and some of the residents. The nicknames for the staff members in particular are telling to the reader as they hint at their significance to Helena. I also really liked how well the author knew the characters because everyone felt realistic.
Overall this anthology is a very strong compilation of stories. I found more pros than cons with it. Pros included the variety not only of types of characters but genres as well from traditional horror to sci-fi and time periods from the past to the future. Another strength to me is that many of these protagonists are not the typical villains we are all probably so used to reading and seeing. I also appreciated all of the stories really went for more in depth into the psychology of the characters rather than just straight up hack and slash. After all, even bad people are just as complex as good people are.
But for all its strengths, there was one big nuisance to me and that was a vast majority of the stories were told in first person. Granted, they were well-written and interesting but after a while it gets a bit annoying.
So, on a scale of one to five pencils, I give The Big Bad II a very solid four pencils.
Apparently I have a dwindling supply of stories in my arsenal. In response to this surprising shortage, I’ve been working on new material. This is good as it gives my brain a break from my novel as I let it stew but also because it allows me to explore new ideas. One plan I had was to take a look at some unfinished stories, see what might be worth is saving, and finishing them. Another plan, one that I’ve embraced, was to take a look at markets with some kind of theme.
It was this week I realized what the appeal of themed magazine issues or anthologies is to me. They’re an opportunity to test and stretch my creativity but in a way it feels like some of the work has partially been done for me. For whatever reason, it’s difficult for me to come up with short story ideas on my own. Ideas for novels are really easy. Perhaps they gum up my head so much that there isn’t any room left to dream up short stories.
Having a theme or prompt for short stories seems to activate something in my brain. Somehow, some way, I get inspired. It’s as if the creativity light bulb pops on. Maybe this harkens to my school days when I enjoyed writing essays and papers. The teacher was giving us direction and I responded well to that. So I guess it makes sense that train of thought would transfer over to creative writing. The challenge of it is far harder, though. Unlike school, I don’t have anything already studied or known.
Something I think is important for a writer is to stretch their limits and write in a different genre. For me, following genre-specific theme helps narrow down to me what to focus on. Even if the theme isn’t genre specific, for example the theme of Nature, that is still something to help get my brain thinking. I enjoy the challenge of it because I force myself to go away from what I’m comfortable with but also to see if I can come up with a twist.
Since I’m not a genius nor am I a Renaissance woman, the other appeal of themed short stories is I usually have to do some kind of research. I don’t have to go into anything hugely in depth; mostly I stick to a quick Wikipedia search and a few other places. Too much research overwhelms me and unless I’m doing a novel, there isn’t too much of a need to go into any kind of depth. For example, a recent story I wrote was for an anthology with the theme of the 1939’s World’s Fair. They were specifically looking for stories that developed the idea of what the future would look like. Although the story was (nicely) rejected, it was fun gathering research since I didn’t know anything about the World’s Fair. The great thing about the internet is the ease of access to information including images. I’m thankful for whoever digitized images from the 1939’s World’s Fair because it was those images which inspired me.
While on the subject of research for these short stories, I love seeing that marriage of various avenues come together to help me write a short story. The research leads to image searches which then allow me to brainstorm ideas. While I’m brainstorming and writing, I try to find an appropriate music playlist or two to help put me in the right frame of mind.
Another benefit of writing to a theme is if the story gets rejected for its original target, the story is now available to submit elsewhere. Instant problem solve. Plus it also means that more markets are open to me which means I have more chances of having a story picked up for publication.
I love the fun and unique challenges themed short story writing brings to me. Even if my attempt isn’t successfully executed, it’s worth the risk. Not only does it stave off boredom and complacency (ha, like that could ever happen to me but I digress), it helps flex my creative muscles in areas I normally wouldn’t think of. In a way it is a ‘safe’ risk, a way to dip one’s toes into a different pool which could possibly lead to a different artistic path. And sometimes a theme can give me an excuse to explore an emotion or different side of me I normally might be too tentative to try.
A goal of mine this year was to submit more of my work. That means finding markets for stories already in my arsenal and finding themes which spark a story. So far this approach has produced positive results as a couple of my stories have been accepted for publication. Neither are a paying markets and in fact, out of the 7 stories total I’ve had accepted, only 2 have offered compensation. This got me thinking not so much about the enormous difficulty in being compensated for your work but about some of the hoops I was unaware a writer sometimes has to jump through. If you are a writer who desires to become published there are an overwhelming amount of options. From online and print literary magazines to anthologies to contests to posting stories and chapter excerpts on your own website, one question each author should ask himself is: To fee or not to fee?
The biggest challenge, in my opinion, is whether or not it is worth submitting to an outfit which charges a fee. Some magazines and many contests change what is usually referred to as a reading fee although sometimes it’ll be listed as an entry fee. What reading fee means is you, the writer, pays a fee to the literary magazine or whoever is running the contest. The fee is supposed to help cover the cost of the time spent reading and evaluating entries. A lot of magazines are run by one person. Same with contests which usually have a guest judge deciding the winners. Most fees are in the fairly affordable and modest range of $5 to $10 although some can be up to $20 or more; a price which causes some of us to heavily consider if entering is worth it.
With hundreds, if not thousands, of publishing opportunities out in the world, even shelling out money for a fee reading fees here and there adds up. That being said, there are loads of opportunities to get published which don’t cost anything. Anthologies provide a great, free opportunity to get paid for your work. Not generally a huge sum and the amounts vary based on the publisher and the type of contract they offer. A publisher can either pay a flat fee for the story or offer royalties. Royalties are where whatever profits are leftover from the publisher deducting their costs, whatever money is leftover is split between the authors. In other words, you get a set percentage based on sales of the anthology. When this money is paid out and for how long depends on the publisher.
To be clear, reading or entry fees apply mostly to literary magazines and contests. If you are submitting a story to an anthology, there shouldn’t be a fee charged for anything and you should be getting compensated for your work unless the anthology is for charity. By default, a reputable publisher should already have the funding in place to produce the anthology. This means paying for the cover design, staff time to review entries, and printing costs. Under no circumstances should an author be asked to contribute money in order to be published in an anthology.
Another free option is to submit work to literary magazines and contests which don’t charge any kind of reading fee. In these cases, especially with literary magazines, if you aren’t paying a fee, chances are you won’t be compensated other than a contributor’s copy (applies to print outfits) if selected. Contests are tricky because many well-known competitions like Writer’s Digest’s, offer prizes which far exceed the cost of the entry fee. That being said, many contests don’t charge any kind of fee and still offer prizes.
So is charging a reading fee fair and ethical? After all the person running a literary magazine or contest do it because want to support writers by publishing their work. Oftentimes it is one person, perhaps a small group, which read and review stories, maintains the website, and physically put together the magazine. A lot of work and I’m sure they would like to be paid for their efforts. However, is it fair to ask writers, who spend hours, days, weeks, and years to pay a reading fee? After all, for many of us it would be great to start getting paid for that work rather than shelling out money. Is it ethical to charge a reading fee and tell writers that in exchange for their fee, they now get a year subscription to said outfit regardless if they get published or not.
I don’t know what the answer is. This is something I waffle back and forth on when I’m searching for markets for my stories. One rule I have is if a reading fee is requested, then the compensation should be at least a contributor copy, preferably some monetary payment which exceeds the amount of the reading fee. Another rule I have is if entering a contest then the cash prizes should be significantly more than the entry fee.
I think the biggest challenge facing writers is where to find low cost opportunities which allow a writer to gain not only exposure, but to be fairly compensated. There are several sites a writer can search for opportunities: Ralan.com (great for sci-fi and fantasy writers), Duotrope (there is a monthly fee to access the site), Submission Grinder, and other sites can help point you in the direction. Only you can decide if you want to fee or not to fee in your writing career.
Since last November 1st I’ve been consumed by writing the rough draft of a novel I’ve had in my head for years. More than once I’ve attempted to write it but with disastrous results. A lot of what I considered to be past failures was due to not having enough confidence in my abilities as well as being intimidated by the story itself.
Feeling slightly more comfortable in my abilities and with the idea that the rough draft is going to be a mess, I took the plunge. I knew the novel would not be done in 50,000 words nor would it be it completed in November. That was okay. At first I thought it would be done by the end of December but well, December being what it is, I missed that deadline. So then I pushed my deadline out to the end of January. But January 31st came and I was still nowhere near being done. Finally, I set an absolute deadline of February 28th. No matter where I was at I would call it good for now and set it aside to marinate.
Writing is hard work both mentally and physically. It may seem like easy work. After all it’s just pen to paper or fingers on a keyboard, but when I say it is physically demanding it’s the sore wrists and fingertips. It’s the sore back and shoulders from sitting in a chair, no matter how comfortable it is, for hours at a time. It’s the blurry vision from staring at paper or a screen.
Mentally, and yes, emotionally, writing, especially a rough draft of a novel is trying. I prepared as best I could before November but even that wasn’t good enough. What seemed to be like a simple scene, something I thought I could write in a day or two, often snowballed into several days. It felt like there was no end in sight. Emotionally it’s taxing to do justice to the characters. To try to put myself in their shoes and see life as they do is exhausting and frustrating. In a good way.
The biggest thing that slowed me down was about midway through January I had a plot epiphany. It was a biggie, too. So big that it essentially rendered worthless most of the middle section I’d already written. However, in terms of the overall story, it worked a lot better. It was great but also disheartening to think of countless hours, numerous days, and thousands of words already written as useless. It also meant there would now be hours, days, and thousands of words needed to redo the new middle section. It took me a few days to be okay with the idea that no, those weren’t wasted days and words. If I hadn’t done those I wouldn’t have been able to get to a better plot.
It was at this time, too, fatigue started becoming an issue. My mind was becoming saturated. I also began doubting if it was all worth it. I knew all the glaring errors with the story as it stood. I knew there would be a lot of additional research which will likely change the story further. With all of this floating in my head, motivation to just finish the damn thing got more difficult. To help with story fatigue I started taking some days off and tried to work on a short story. That seemed to help some but when I came back to my WIP, I simply didn’t have much left in the gas tank.
Even though February 28th came and I hadn’t completely finished the rough draft (it has a beginning, middle, and end at least), I was okay with that. At this point, it is over 155,000 words. Bloated but a fair amount of that will be excised due to it not working with the new middle. There are also a lot of redundancies due to how I approached writing it.
Now I let it sit for a few months while I work on other things before beginning the even slower revision process. I also learned that no matter how well prepared you are before tackling that rough draft the unexpected will pop up to mess with your plans. It’s not a quick or easy road in writing.
This week’s musing is not about Edgar Allen Poe or ravens. Instead I thought it might be interesting to find a random quote related to writing and use it to discuss my reactions to it.
Ink and paper are sometimes passionate lovers, oftentimes brother and sister, and occasionally mortal enemies.
– Terri Guillemets
Well, yeah. That’s an accurate description of the daily struggle many writers face. When I say struggle I don’t mean it as a bad thing just that there are those days where the words come easier than others are.
When Guillemets uses the phrase “passionate lovers” I think she is referring to those glorious days when the ideas and words strike at a feverish, unrelenting pace. Those days when writing feels like the most wonderful thing in the world. When as a writer you feel like a badass and your prose is so awesome the giants of the writing world will weep from jealousy. But like passionate lovers, that zealousness can’t last forever. Those moments are far too few and sometimes after those moments of passion you realize it wasn’t as great as you thought it was.
I think that’s what the author means by brother and sister is that complimentary relationship when both brain and pen are in synch with each other. Of course this would have to be a brother and sister who get along. Or the brother and sister analogy can be accurate even if the siblings don’t get along since some days are more frustrating than others are. Or perhaps the brother and sister analogy could be a reference to the difference in right and left brain thinking. The yin and the yang if you will. Personally I think most of my writing days are like a brother and sister who get along with some give and take.
Ahh, and the last part of the quote about ink and paper can be “mortal enemies.” Oh yes that describe those days where you feel like the world’s worst writer. Like maybe the crap job you do to earn a living should be your life. Maybe you aren’t the Word God the days of passionate writing led you to believe. I hate those days. I hate it when what you have floating around in your head doesn’t make it on the page. Sometimes it’s best to just put the pen down, walk away for a bit, and do something else. Clear the cobwebs out then try again.
There are loads of quotes out there that speak to the writer. I liked this one because it was concise and incredibly accurate. Also it is quite thought provoking and I think each person who has ever written a single sentence would interpret the quote differently. Maybe a writer hasn’t experienced the fevered state of writing. Perhaps the brother/sister analogy could be interpreted in a Targaryen-Jaime and Cersei Lannister way. And maybe others don’t have to fight with the words.
The Rum Runner’s Woman by Mia Soul is another recently released debut novel. Set in Prohibition Era North Carolina on Okracoke Island, it is an historical romance centering around May Kaney, a nineteen-years-old a waitress at the local cafe (which is just a front for an illegal bar), and Eric Bolene, captain of the Black Heart and a rum runner (although he runs other kinds at alcohol as well).
May first meets Eric as he rows ashore to meet with her boss at the cafe. She is naturally quite smitten with him because of the way his shirt clings to his physique. Not to be left out, Eric is smitten with May in all her virginal innocence. Despite knowing it would be wrong for so many reasons for them to get together, they do anyway because their lust, and in my opinion it is lust, is too strong to ignore.
First and foremost I must disclose I could not finish this book. I got to about 50% of the way in before I threw in the towel. It just did not hold my interest.
My biggest problem with The Rum Runner’s Woman are the characters. They’re stock romance novel tropes. May is a wide-eyed, insipid, virginal, small-town girl. Her father is an abusive alcoholic but don’t worry, he’s not in the story for very long because he is killed. This of course causes the family financial hardship and threatens May’s dream of studying art in New York. Naturally she begins to view Eric as her way out because somehow she’s convinced herself she’s in love with him despite the fact they’ve barely spoken to each other.
Even though Eric is the same age as May’s mother, has a kid with his still legally wife, Red (a fellow booze smuggler), he doesn’t act like the mature adult he supposedly is. He does nothing to discourage May’s obvious and embarrassing schoolgirl-type crush because dammit, May’s a beauty and he just has to have her. He doesn’t act like a professional in his business dealings and is a cad in his personal life not only for how he treats May but also how he lays on the charm on her widowed mother (still a babe, of course, after 3 kids), and Red. Like May, he is an utterly unlikeable.
It’s not just the main characters which suffer from unlikableness. The secondary characters all seem to be obsessed with sex. It’s really off-putting. May’s boss is a nasty, perverted old man who does nothing but ogle her all day. Her mother openly flirts with Eric shortly after her husband’s death. Red’s a nutty, bisexual who seems to be good at one thing yet can somehow command her crew’s respect on her ship Red Storm.
In addition to problems with the characters, the plot itself took too long to develop and was one of the reasons why I stopped after 50%. May’s boss tries to rape her but thankfully she escapes. Instead of going home, she goes to Eric’s ship where she is discovered. Of course he doesn’t take her back home and allows her to stay on his ship even though he wouldn’t mind having sex with her despite her bruised face. At least he waits a couple at days before having sex with her after her near rape. A gentleman.
And of course May gets pregnant. This upsets her mother who insists she leave for New York right away and live in a home for other unmarried women who are “in the family way.” May lies about the father of her child choosing to name a co-worker who has a crush on her. Apparently the prudent, adult thing to do to inform the real father right away doesn’t cross May’s mind. I skipped to the last chapter just to see what happened and just couldn’t be happy with the fantasy, happily-ever-after ending because nothing up to the half I got through justified it.
Additional concerns for me crept up in the dialogue especially when Eric began calling May “little girl” and “sweet angel” either before, during, or after sex. Considering he’s the same age as her mother, it came across as creepy. May becomes petty and jealous whenever Eric interacts with her mom. The main characters don’t start getting to know one another until after they begin having sex and all their dialogue never came across as sincere or honest.
My final concern was how the romance and subsequent sex scenes are developed. As previously mentioned, these two have nothing in common and barely talk so I’m not sure how they could love each other. I didn’t find the love scenes romantic. One particularly disturbed me because despite May complaining of soreness and plainly states she would like the night off, Eric plies her alcohol to make sure she’ll sleep through the next day while he conducts a big deal. Instead of respecting her wishes, he precedes to soothe her soreness which then leads to sex. Yes, May does give consent however, just the fact Eric works his magic to get her to change her mind because he is unable to control his own desire makes the whole scene border on rape in my opinion. It was after that scene that I quickly did not want to venture further but did just to see if she’d call him out on the incident. She didn’t.
Because I could not finish The Rum Runner’s woman, I cannot give it a rating. The book was not my cup of tea despite its unique time penned a setting.