Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Christmas Scale

I know that not all people celebrate the end of the year like I do. HOWEVER, you celebrate it, even if not at all, I sincerely hope that 2015 ends peacefully for you and that you look toward 2016 as full of promise and fulfillment. But speaking only for myself, if I may be so bold, this is how I celebrate the end of December.

Monday, December 21, 2015

True Writing Contains Two Contradictory Elements

Still playing with the final edits of Strange Streets, moving closer to the time when I know it's done as all I am doing is only pushing words around.

I thought I was so smart by changing the gender of one character from male to female, but after letting the story sit for a day or two I reread it to realize I now had so many women in the room, it was confusing to tell them apart.

The character is now a man again.

And I had far too many sections that had to be rewritten where the reader would have simply become confused because I had not stated the obvious either blatantly or through a discrete reference or by giving a clue.

Show, don't tell. Show, don't tell. That staccato phrase has become my mantra.

Also, there are two aspects of the story I refuse to change as they are what make the story mine and, more importantly, also because of my relationship with you, the reader. Allow me to explain.

I have been told I use big words. That is true. In Strange Streets I use words and phrases like "sylvan bric-à-brac," "will-o-the-wisp," "chocolatiers," "minuscule tapers," and, my favorite, "aurulent" (though I did give in and changed "aurulent" to "cinnamon-colored").

Also, I leave the ending somewhat ambiguous though it is very clear how the story ends. I just didn't come out and shove the ending in the reader's face as I thought it would be insulting to the intelligence.

And that's the reason. Though I like to think I write only for myself and "if I build it, the audience will come," the reason I write the way I do is because I have a lot of respect for my readers. They don't need bully pulpit hack stories that speak down to them and assume they have no reading level above 4th grade. That's insulting.

It may be conceit, but I like to think my readers are very intelligent. They do not need to be spoon fed.

I am moving through the various stages of writing with Strange Streets:
  1. Contentment upon completing the first draft.
  2. Horror at the first reading.
  3. Frustration during the first edit.
  4. Hope as the first edit sits for awhile.
  5. Despair at the second reading.
  6. Resentment during the second edit.
  7. Waves of optimism and desperation through the remaining editing cycles.
  8. Fear as I prepare to surrender it to my critique circle.
  9. Terror as I read the story to my critique group.
  10. Flashes of faith as I go through the final edit.
  11. Amazement and gratitude when I find somebody who actually wants to read the thing.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Know What I would LOVE For Christmas?

The Hard Part of Writing Is NOT Writing

Some days ago, I wrote the words, "The End" for Strange Streets, my new dark romantic fantasy and now comes the really hard part.

I have to go over the story for revision and editing and preparing it for critique when it faces a group of writers next month at my monthly writers' group.

Editing and revision is, hands down, the most difficult part of writing regardless of what you may have completed: short story, novel, poem, a work of nonfiction or a movie script or essay.

Editing and revision is much like changing the diaper of a baby ogre. Before you get everything nice and cleaned up, you have to go through a lot of mess and sometimes you might even get chewed on for a little bit.

Let me show you a glimpse of what it took to revise Strange Streets so far.

I had to put the work aside for at least a week before even beginning revision and editing. I have been living with the characters and the plot for weeks and much of my understanding of their motivations and other aspects of their personalities and actions were well known to me. By distancing myself from the work, I gained the ability to see the story from the perspective of a reader. In Strange Streets, James and his cousin, Darby, go window shopping in Carlisle and end up on a street rather off the beaten path. I knew when writing the story that Darby was not all that she seemed and that she was oblivious to that fact herself. In rewriting, I had to stress Darby's background so in a second reading when the reader knows the reveal, they can see the hints that led up to it.

James is a timid introvert and socially awkward. In the story which covers three years of his life I had to show the reasonable and logical manner in which his personality changed through the events where the the timid part of his personality is replaced by one that is more courageous. That meant that some additional storyline had to be included to show that transition.

There is a third character in the story and on revision, I discovered the character would have more of an impact if I changed their gender. The male shopkeeper is now female which gives the story a vital energy it lacked when the character was a man.

When will the story be complete? I leave you with the advice given to me years ago and so long ago I cannot remember the source:

When your editing and revision is finally reduced to nothing more than pushing words around, you're done.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Priceless Writing Advice From A Master

My Strange Relationship With Yeat's The Song of Wandering Aengus

I have the world's lousiest memory. I cannot remember names to save my life and as I age my faulty memory has degraded to such a point that I actually spoke to my doctor about my concerns.

"You do not have dementia," he said.

"And how do you know that?" I asked. His blatant statement after I recited my symptoms left me offended that he could make a prognosis without further discussion.

"Because people with dementia don't know they have dementia. When a patient tells me they suffer from it, I know they don't have it. If they did, they would be oblivious to the matter."

He then prattled on about brain fog and stress and how I needed a dramatic change in my life to lessen the stress.

Right. Sure thing.

So I still have memory problems, but my brain continues to amaze me. Not too long ago, I was reading William Butler Yeat's, The Song of Wandering Aengus.

The closing lines delighted me:
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon, 
The golden apples of the sun.
Enchanted by the sheer power of Yeat's words, I read them again and suddenly something clicked.

Though I can barely remember the day's chores or a simple three item shopping list, those eight lines have become a permanent part of my memory. I can quote them accurately at any time.

I have no idea how I have done that. Ask me the next time you see me.

And now that my short story, Strange Streets, is completed, those same lines form an important part of the story's twist. Personally, I'm just delighted I could use such immortal prose in my own humble offering.

You can read the entire poem here. I believe you will enjoy it as much as I do.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Links To All My Christmas Stories

Here are all the links all in one post to my four literary Christmas gifts to you. Enjoy.
  1. A Lord of All Futures Christmas Tale (in a post-apocolyptic city, Brother Theodore brings Christmas to a struggling people.)
  2. The Star (my favorite part of the Christmas story is the coming of the three Magi from the East.)
  3. A Christmas Carol Parody (And may Charles Dickens forgive me.)
  4. Molly's Christmas (A Christmas tale for children of all ages)
My posts will be fewer in the next few weeks, so allow me to say Merry Christmas and that you enjoy the season no matter how you celebrate it.

I leave you with a blessing that I always give to all my friends regardless of what path they may walk:

The Lord bless you, and keep you;
The Lord make His face shine on you,
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance on you,
And give you peace.

Molly's Christmas: A Story For Children

This is a Christmas story written specifically for children. If you are an illustrator and would like to partner with me on a children's book, please contact me at magic.by.alan AT gmail DOT com.

Molly's Christmas
by Craig A. Loewen


Molly sneezed again, making her mother jump in surprise. 

"But I don't want to stay in bed," Molly cried, "I want to come down and decorate the Christmas tree. And Uncle Ted was going to come by with his horses and sleigh!" 

"I'm so sorry, sweetheart," her mother said with a shake of her head, "but you've got a very bad cold and a fever. Most likely it's flu. If you don't rest; it might get worse." She grabbed the blanket and pulled it up over her shivering daughter. "There's still a lot of Christmas to go around. December's a busy month. There's a lot to celebrate and there's always New Year's." 

"Don't care," Molly muttered through chattering teeth. "Silly old fever." 

Her mother rested a cool hand on Molly's forehead. "I know you and horses," she said with a gentle smile. "You'd rather be with horses than eat, but I promise you'll have plenty of time for Christmas and your Uncle Ted's sleigh team." 

She sat by Molly's bedside until her daughter's breathing became soft and rhythmic. Then giving her a quick kiss and a prayer for sweet dreams, Molly's mother left, quietly closing the bedroom door behind her. 

In Molly's room, all was silent except for the little girl's breathing. Through the window in the clear December night, the stars twinkled in a perfectly cloudless sky. 

Molly surrendered to the dreams of a magical Christmas night. 

"Oh, you poor thing," she heard as the mists of sleep started to fade around her. 

"Who?" Molly asked. "Who's a poor thing?" 

"Why you are, you poor child, sick on Christmas Eve. How unfair." 

Molly blinked. She found herself standing in a small room made cozy by a warm glowing fireplace. In front of her, an old woman dressed in red and white rocked back and forth in a small chair. 

"Who are you?" Molly asked. 

"Well," the woman said with a big smile, "some say I'm the Spirit of Christmas, but my friends just call me Mother Yule. Now let's see if we can't make your Christmas a tad more cheery." 

With that, Mother Yule clapped her hands and suddenly Molly found herself out in a cold, stormy winter night. She shut her eyes tight against the bitter sleet. "This isn't what I would call cheery!" she called out to the wind. 

"Now, now," said Mother Yule's voice in Molly's ear. "Be brave. I want to introduce you to a friend of mine." 

Molly blinked in surprise as she realized they were not alone. A huge, jet-black warhorse stood before her on strong, sturdy legs. The sleet hit the stallion's muscular back and instantly melted from sheer body heat. Molly could feel the power resting in the animal. 

Molly heard boots crunching through the snow behind her. 

"Molly," Mother Yule's voice said, "I would like you to meet one of my dearest friends, King Wenceslas, the Duke of Bohemia in the Year of our Lord, 926. I'm sorry I can't give you a proper introduction, but he cannot see you." 

The young man dressed in a thick, heavy cloak could not have been older than nineteen. He dropped a huge bag on the ground and rubbed the horse's ears in greeting. "Pr'tel, my friend," he said. "I know it's cold, but we have good work to do." 

Flinging the heavy sack over Pr'tel's back, he took the bridle and led the way out of the paddock and into the dark streets of a city asleep in the grip of winter. It surprised Molly, clothed only in a nightgown, that the cold did not really bother her. 

Interested, she kept up a steady pace behind the pair, the horse's heavy iron shoes making a clip-clopping echo through the deserted streets. 

They came to a simple home. Wenceslas clutched his cloak tightly around him and pulled the hood low over his face. He rapped on the door, paused, and rapped again. 

A noise came from behind the door. Slowly, it opened a crack to reveal a tired woman holding a single candle burned down to a nubbin. 

"Widow Ludmila?" the good king asked. 

"Yes?" the woman asked trembling. "Who are you? What do you want?" 

"A friend," was all he would say. He went to Pr'tel and took the heavy sack from off his back. "Here is food for you and your four children. Here also is cloth for you to make clothes for your children or maybe to sell. "And," he said, reaching to the small leather bag on his belt, "here are a few coins to help." 

The woman simply stared at the sack at her feet, her mouth open in surprise. "But," she said as tears came to her eyes, "Why? Why would you do this for us?" 

Wenceslas laughed gently. "Is it not the season for giving gifts?" Without another word, he leaped onto his horse's back and turned his head away from the widow's door. 

"Bless you, sir," the woman called to him as he rode away. "God bless you!" 

"He already has," Wenceslas called back. 

Suddenly, Molly found herself back in the warm room where Mother Yule sat in the cheery glow of the fire. "What did you think of that, little one?" she asked. 

"Oh, that was fun," Molly said excitedly. "Do you have other friends like that?" 

Mother Yule laughed in sheer delight. "Oh, yes. Look! All that we behold is full of blessings!" 

With a wave of her hand, she sent Molly to the horses and ponies of history as they participated in the spirit of Christmas. 

Molly watched Saint Nicholas of Myra astride his faithful mare as he went to give a poor man gold for his daughters' dowries. She stood on board a ship bound for a new land listening to the immigrants sing Christmas carols to calm their stabled horses on the undulating sea. She watched ponies and draft horses drag Christmas trees from the woods and pull sleds of Christmas revelers. Up and down the corridor of time, Molly had the privilege of seeing Christmas through countless equine eyes. 

Back home, Molly's mother looked in on her daughter only to hear Molly laugh contentedly in her sleep. 

"One more, dear child." Mother Yule whispered in her ear. "One more." 

Molly found herself staring at a strange face of a lumpy, dirty creature standing next to a wooden water trough. 

"A donkey!" she said in exasperation. "Oh, Mother Yule, that's not a horse!" 

"Hush," said the voice in her ear. 

The donkey stood in a strange, dusty place filled with animals. The walls were simple clay and mud. The floor was covered with a thick bedding of straw. A ramshackle door creaked open. 

"Best I can do," came a tired man's voice. "The inn is full, but you can stay here in the stable. At least it will be warm." 

"It will have to do," said another male voice. A man appeared in the door silhouetted by the bright sunlight. He led a young woman by the arm. The woman was obviously with child and in pain. 

That night, Molly watched as the drama of the first Christmas unfolded before her eyes. Even later, sitting by the donkey as it lay on the hay floor keeping the stable warm with heat from its own body, Molly watched with wonder as shepherds knelt before the couple and their newborn child. From where she sat in the straw, Molly could see the smooth unmarked hands of the cooing baby reach out to a brilliant star in the heavens glittering through an open window. 

The next morning Molly awoke and shook her head at the memory of her fantastic dream. She still felt a little shaky, but her fever had broken in the night. The door opened and her mother entered with a breakfast tray. 

"Good morning, Molly!" she said. "Merry Christmas! Are you feeling up to going downstairs and ..." Her mother stopped in mid-sentence and looked at her with a puzzled expression."Why, Molly," she said in surprised exasperation. "How did you come to be covered in straw?"

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Christmas Carol Parody

Last year I attended a Christmas party for my local writers' group and we were asked to prepare something to read to share the Christmas spirit with all who were there.

I immediately came up with a wonderful idea and wrote a rather shaggy dog story with my background antagonist being Elizabeth McKnight, the lovely and talented lady who runs the meetings.

I think she forgave me.

I hope.

A Christmas Carol
(With sincere apologies to Charles Dickens),
by Alan Loewen

I had just settled my brain for a long winter’s nap when the bed shook as somebody sat at its foot. Jarred awake, in a flurry of fear and wonder I stared at a little girl dressed in white and glowing with a delicate aura. With an angry glare, she pointed a finger at me directly at me.

“Elizabeth McKnight,” she intoned, “I am the Ghost of Christmas Past!”

With a trembling hand, I flicked on the lamp on my bed stand. “‘Scuse me,” I said, “but I think you have the wrong address. And the wrong gender as well.”

The ghost’s eyes grew wide. “It’s that stupid GPS again! I have no idea why Upstairs insists we use one.” Her eyes got larger and she pointed at my bed stand. “Are those rum balls?” she said with obvious excitement.

I confess I am very protective over my favorite Christmas candy. “Well …you know you’re rather young for a candy made with an adult beverage,” I said nervously.

“I’ll have you know,” she said with a pretty, little pout, “I’m almost two thousand years old.” With that she swooped up the box.

A knock came from the door. It opened and a massive man dressed in green and red and holly and evergreen boughs and flaming candles worked his bulk into my bedroom. “Elizabeth McKnight,” he intoned. Suddenly he stopped, looked at me and then at the little ghost girl.

“GPS snafu?” he asked her. She nodded, unable to speak as her cheeks were stuffed with rum-flavored confections.

“Are those rum balls?” he asked.

I attempted a mad grab for the box but the massive Ghost of Christmas Present snatched them up first.

Moments later, a spectral shade clothed in a grave shroud materialized in my bedroom and pointed a bony finger at me.

“GPS error!” the two other ghosts shouted.

“Recalculating!” the Ghost of Christmas Past yelled and then giggled.

The specter pointed a hand trembling with excitement at my box of diminishing rum balls.

I’ve gotten up and dressed and now I’m driving my unexpected guests over to Liz McKnight’s house  where I plan on presenting her with three ghosts who are unusually giddy over the last of my favorite Christmas candy. However, I still have the last laugh.

Being a teetotaler, my beloved rum balls are definitely non-alcoholic.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Rejoice With Me!

The first draft of Strange Streets is completed, all 4,900+ words of it.

Now I shall let it sit and age like a mellow wine and in a week or so I will revisit it and begin the harder work of revision and editing.

I have published some excerpts from the work and you can read them here, here, and here in that order.

And stay tuned. On Thursday, January 7th I am going to be doing a public reading of Strange Streets  for some fellow authors and if you live in south-central Pennsylvania, I would like to invite you to the event.

So stay tuned. It's going to be fun.

13 Horrors: A Book Review

13 Horrors, edited by Brian A. Hopkins, has the subtitle, A Devil’s Dozen Stories Celebrating 13 Years of the World Horror Convention and let me assure you that the majority of the writing is top notch. If you enjoy literary prowess, you have found a wonderful foray into the art right here by some genuine masters of the craft.

Everything Broken, by Edward Bryant: a psychological tale of a young woman coming to terms with angst and loss. It is very well written, but though there is a fantastic element to the story, I am hard pressed to call it horror. In fact, if the tale did not start with the theme of suicide, I would be hard pressed to even call it dark fantasy.

Wandering Child, by the late Melanie Tem features an unreliable narrator who is foster mother to a gathering of some very strange children.

Anti-Claus, by Graham Masterton is a retelling of the story of Santa Claus and though I had to suspend quite a bit of disbelief as to the motives of the narrator, the retelling of the legend was certainly interesting.

Pritty-Pritty, by Jessica Amanda Salmonson is about a mentally ill woman driven even more mentally ill by her neighbor’s little yappy dog, a sentiment and experience I can understand.

The Place of Revelation, by Ramsey Cambell with a young boy visiting relatives was reminiscent of the best of Welsh writer Arthur Machen.

The Sacerdotal Owl, by Michael Bishop was more of a dark fantasy romance than horror, but different readers may disagree about this tale of a young woman traveling to a war-torn Central American country to marry her archeologist-fiancé.

The Ice Prince, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is certainly not a horror tale and though very well written by a proven master, it would have been more at home between the covers of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

Conner Versus Puppet Head on Killmaster 3, by John Shirley deals ith a young boy who is addicted to video games and what happens when his friend brings a modification to his gaming console that brings the playing up to another level.

Cookies for Mr. Carson, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman is a subtle horror story that I had to reread twice to fully grasp what had happened to the young narrator with his creepy neighbor.

Gross Out Contest, by Michael Slade (the pen name of Canadian author Jay Clarke) is exactly that. A segment of a novel, it opens with an introduction to the World Horror Convention’s annual Gross Out Contest and the story is just that: repugnant to the extreme.

Black Shoes, by Gene Wolfe is a portal story and a meandering one. It touches on so many subjects as a reader I was hard-pressed to sum up the short story simply and succinctly.

The Bereavement Photographer, by Steve Rasnic Tem is an odd little offering more into the realm of fantasy than horror with its subject of an amateur photographer who takes pictures of grieving families with their deceased loved ones. Certainly creepy, but I am reluctant to call it horror.

For My Birthday, Another Candle, by the late Charles L. Grant tells the story of a man enduring the horror of his fortieth birthday with its reminder of encroaching mortality.

Like all anthologies, 13 Horrors is a mishmash of tales, wildly deviating in quality and emphasis. Not all comfortably fit into the horror genre, but as I said, there is no denying the literary prowess of the majority of contributors.

I'm a Magi!

Me Being A Christmas Wiseman...I Suspect It's Typecasting

For the last 15 years, I have participated in a Christmas hayride where people are taken by tractor-driven hay wagons to various scenes that reenact the Christmas story. Here I am as one of the Magi belting out We Three Kings, but unfortunately, the other more talented actors are not included in the shot so let me give a shout out to Bill Phillips and Scott Dentler who make the Magi display such an incredible hit.

And that is a bottle of myrrh I am holding, not Jack Daniels.

And, yes, the Magi did not wear glasses, but I am legally blind and was in charge of the pyrotechnics. We had balls of green and blue flame shooting out of the fire pit because ... well, hey... Magi!

Photo courtesy of the Hanover Evening Sun and you can see more pictures of the event here.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Star: A Super Short Christmas Story

 Of all the elements of the Christmas story, the addition of the three Magi from Persia is what delights me most. Here, in the midst of what is basically a Jewish story with its shepherds and stable, come three pagan astrologers to bring homage to the Christ Child.

I have one more Christmas tale to share next week, one specifically written for children. In the meantime, allow me to entertain you with a visit to Babylon, about 1 B.C.

The Star

by Alan Loewen

Askar stood on the ziggurat observing the star-strewn sky above him. Goose bumps covered his exposed arms due to the chill night air, but he had learned over years of studying the night sky to ignore the discomfort of the body.

Below him, the dark streets of Babylon stretched away in all directions, with only the occasional lantern of a night watchman breaking through the stygian darkness.

The other mages had either ignored him or outright laughed when he showed them the ancient scroll. Crumbling with great age, it was truly a miracle that it had survived the centuries.

Askar had spent months painfully interpreting the ancient tongue, his imagination afire with stories of dreams, visions, fiery furnaces, lions’ dens, and disembodied hands writing curses on a palace wall.

The ancient work also referred to a coming king that would be born to the Hebrews and, by the gods! the work actually had a formula to determine the year of the coming king’s birth.

Yet, the secret of the formula lay outside of his knowledge until one day he met a scribe from Jerusalem who remembered how the ancient Hebrews determined time.

With great eagerness, he made the calculations, working on the ancient Hebrew calendar starting from when King Artaxerxes allowed the temple and the walls of far-off Jerusalem to be rebuilt.

When the answer lay before him as ink on papyrus, his hand shook, but he put his excitement aside and redid the calculations a second time.

The calculation proved true even after a third attempt and the halls of the temple rang with his shouts of triumph. The gods had blessed him. The advent of the coming king of the Hebrews was so near, it may have already happened.

Hastily, he consulted oracles, read the entrails of slaughtered goats, and searched the smoke arising from a burning ass’s head in vain, but there was no further revelation.

In frustration, he turned to the stars.

After weeks of searching the scroll of night, the Star came to him, and he fell to his knees weeping in joy and gratitude.

The next day he prepared for his journey, two fellow mages excitedly joining him for the journey, not because they were to meet a King, but because their youthful wanderlust was to be sated in foreign lands.

“Askar?” one of them asked as they loaded the caravan, “I understand bringing the new king gold, but why myrrh and frankincense?”

Askar tested the strap on a camel. “The ancient writing says the King will be cut off. As it will be my gold that greets his birth, it will be my myrrh and frankincense that will cover him in his tomb.”

He gave a final tug on the strap ignoring the camel’s protest. “The sun is setting,” he said impatiently. “Say goodbye to Babylon. We follow the star.”

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Strange Streets: Another Excerpt for Your Enjoyment

As for writing, as I may have mentioned in earlier posts, I have written 2015 off as an opportunity to write as all my emotional and mental strength is spent in dealing with serious urgencies that are vocational and familial, but the last few weeks have allowed me to put hand to keyboard as I spin a tale about James and his cousin, Darcy, as they explore West High Street in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In their wanderings, they find a cobble-stoned alley lined with odd little shops that grow odder as they journey its length.

You can find the first sample here and the second one here and I would encourage you to read them first. They are quite short.

I must confess I am having so much fun I just had to share a third. To write once again is to once again bring joy to a heart overburdened with obligations that though they are freely and lovingly given, have left me somewhat exhausted both in heart and soul. Please enjoy.

“Darcy, please,” I said. I was finding it hard to talk and breathe at the same time as I felt a fist of fear grip my chest and squeeze. “There’s something wrong here. We’re the only people here.”

Darcy turned and looked at me quizzically. “What are you talking about?” she asked. “There’s lots of people.” She swung her open hand down the empty street. “See?” With that, she spun about and crossed the little bridge to the other side.

Panicked, I followed behind, confused and frightened, refusing to understand Darcy’s comment on fellow shoppers only she could see and wanting to keep her close for her protection as well as my own.

On the other side of the bridge, Darcy gazed in a shop window in rapt attention, but before I could join her, I started seeing shadows from the corner of my eyes, shadows casually strolling down the street either singly or in pairs, walking in and out of the shops that lined the wide cobblestone alley. Spinning like a top, I tried to bring them into full focus. Trembling, I rubbed my eyes and opened them to find the bothersome shadows in my peripheral vision still present. I turned to Darcy and caught sight of the merchandise in the store window.

It was filled with dolls, exquisite ball-jointed works of art dressed in silk finery, but I backed away in horror when I recognized the sentience in their eyes, souls speaking through their glass orbs that clearly communicated sorrow and a plea for release.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Lord of All Futures Christmas Tale

A Lord of All Futures Christmas Tale
by Alan Loewen
(Author’s note: This story takes place in my unpublished Lord of All Futures post-apocalyptic novel which describes the adventures of Brother Theodore and his bodyguard, Odell traveling on a mission to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. They are accompanied by two young fugitives they meet along the way: Sarah, a hedge witch in exile, and Frost, a hunter accompanied by Lobo and Lupus, two large wolves. In the ruins of Harrisburg, the four rescue a little girl named Marl from two men who controlled several monstrous, mutated dogs. After her rescue, the adventurers discover that Marl, with her cat-like eyes and other feline features, is certainly something more or something less than human. This story takes place as they winter in Harrisburg waiting for the spring thaw and easier traveling.)

Sarah blew on her chilled fingers to keep them nimble enough to work on the rose hips she had found. The seed pods, though low in true nourishment, contained a mysterious element that kept people from scurvy during the long winter months. She sighed as she remembered her life back in Berkeley Springs before the town was invaded by scavengers, before animals in human form killed her mother and sent Sarah fleeing into a huge, strange world. Her mother had taught her all she needed to know of hedge witchery and though Brother Theodore insisted that Sarah was nothing more than an herbalist, she knew her talent was far more than just knowing the names and purposes of plants. For a man, she mused, who claims to follow a god that once walked among men, his skepticism is quite odd.

A knock on the door brought her back to the present. “Come in,” she called.

Frost entered with a smile. “Good news,” he said.

A smile came to Sarah’s face. “You got us meat? Real meat?”

“Lobo and Lupus got a deer. Odell is stringing it up now with Marl trying to help.”

“Venison,” Sarah sighed. “I’m so tired of rat.”

“Marl seems to like rat,” Frost smirked and ducked from a thrown rose hip. “Sorry! Sorry!” he said quickly in apology. Sarah’s affection for the strange little girl they had rescued made her sensitive to any reference, however indirect, to Marl’s cat-like eyes and the secret kept hidden underneath Marl’s baggy dresses.

“Just for that, Marl gets your share of the brisket,” Sarah said.

Frost bowed. “I repent in dusty ashes,” he said. “Have you seen Brother Theodore?”

“He told me he was going over to the pub. Now help me with these rose hips. We have sick people waiting.”


Brother Theodore made his way through the ruins of Harrisburg toward the Unicorn & Gryphon Pub. Dirty snow and the occasional traveler wending their way back to their own hovels made for a dismal picture for the priest who remembered the cleaner environs of his home in Winchester, Virginia.

And as the year drew to its close—Anno Domini 2068 by the best reckoning they had—the Westminster Baptist Conclave would now be celebrating the end of the Advent vigil and its comforting traditions that survived even in a world gone mad.

Outside the pub, a few guards stomped their feet and blew on their hands before nodding at the priest. The pub master's only desire was to run his establishment in peace and quiet, so the well-fed guards who now knew a limited prosperity were delighted to stand guard with chilled ears, fingers, and toes to keep it that way.

The warmth of the pub’s interior brought a sigh of relief. The pub had just opened for the day and already men and women sat at a ragtag assortment of tables and chairs. They sat over their bowls and cups having already bartered for simple meals. The nourishing beer that was actually little more than boiled wheat, dried hops and wild yeast served as the universal drink of choice.

The pub’s owner stood behind the bar, his bald head reflecting the light in the fireplace. His reddish gray beard rested on his chest, carefully braided to stay out of mischief. He nodded at the priest and reached for a mug of beer and placed it before the priest.

“Still within my tab?” Brother Theodore asked.

“Those knives you traded me are still good for a few more beers,” the pub master replied with a toothy grin. “The missus made some cattail and acorn bread. Would you like some?”

“With rat broth?”

“Nothing easier in this world to run other than a rat farm, but you give me some venison and we’ll talk. Hey, I heard that there are feral pigs running around the woods south of town.”

"I’ll talk to Frost,” the priest said. “Until then, if rat broth is your only offering, bring on your finest.”

The priest ate in silence trying hard not to think of the source of the broth that soaked his bread. The pub master dealt with other customers, sometimes dickering over a trade.

When the barkeep wandered by, Brother Theodore waved him down to get his attention. “Tell me,” he asked, “if it’s not too personal a question, how old are you?”

The barkeep frowned for a moment, not over irritation at the question, but thinking on the answer. “I’m 59," he said after a pause, “a very healthy 59 years old. Still got all my teeth.”

“So you remember Christmas?”

The pub master paused in stunned surprise. “Why, yes,” he said. “I remember Christmas. I haven’t thought of it for years. I was five when the Change hit.”

“Then,” Brother Theodore said in a conspiratorial whisper, “I wonder if you would consider helping me out with a plan?”


The brisk wind cut through the canyons of Harrisburg’s ruined streets, empty except for five people, their heads tucked deep into their ragged coats and hats.

“I’m cold,” Marl complained. Her baggy dress didn’t seem to hold back the winter’s bitter chill.

Sarah scooped the child up and hugged her tight as Marl nestled into her arms. “Just a little further, dear heart.”

Frost blinked his eyes from the stinging wind. “If it wasn’t you promised me good food, Brother, I’d stay back home in bed.”

“It will be worth it,” the priest said. “And those two feral pigs you hunted down will have already been cooked to perfection. The pub master promised. And he claims he also has some dried venison left.”

Odell said nothing, his muscular bulk leading the way as he tried to block the wind’s worst effects from the four people who walked behind him.

As they neared the Unicorn & Gryphon Pub, warm, brilliant light spilled from those unboarded windows that still stood intact. Even out in the street, the smell of roast pork and other tantalizing smells made the five drool with anticipation.

The guards opened the door and Brother Theodore’s party hustled in, pushed by a stiff gust of icy air.

Once inside, as Brother Theodore smiled as the little group stared in open-mouthed surprise.

A huge evergreen tree stood in the middle of the floor. Candles, an incredible luxury in a shattered world, illuminated the scene before them having been carefully positioned in front of fragments of mirrors. Hanging from the tree, shiny round objects shot the reflected candlelight back in a dazzling prism of color.

Marl squirmed out of Sarah’s arms, her little hands reaching out for the tantalizing sight. “Pretty tree!” she squealed. “Pretty tree!”

“What is this?” Sarah asked.

Brother Theodore laughed as Odell smiled at the sight before them. “It’s a Christmas tree,” the priest said. “It used to be a tradition before the Change.”

“Looks like you found a use for those worthless DVD’s and CD’s,” Odell said. “Where did you find them?”

The priest shrugged his shoulders. “In a number of the stores around here. They’re not edible so there are piles of them just lying around for the taking.”

Suddenly, a large vision dressed in red appeared from behind the tree. The owner of the pub shouted "Ho! Ho! Ho!," his belly shaking inside a large red, ragged coat clearly intended for a woman. He had whitened his beard with precious acorn flour procured from his wife's larder.

Frost and Sarah looked at Brother Theodore quizzically while Marl squealed with delight at the apparition. Odell leaned against a wall in a paroxysm of laughter.

“Why, it’s Santa Claus!” Brother Theodore exclaimed in a melodramatic tone. He knelt down beside Marl. “Marl, they say Santa Claus brings gifts for good boys and girls. Why don’t you see if he has something for you?”

Tentatively, holding on to the priest’s hand for dear life, Marl approached the large, grinning man.

“Have you been a good little girl?” the pub master asked as Marl stared up at him with wide eyes. She nodded mutely.

“Well then, I have something for you.” The barkeep reached under the tree and pulled out a bundle wrapped in a rag. “Here you go.”

Carefully, Marl reached out for the bundle and stared at it.

“Open it up,” Brother Theodore said. “Go ahead.”

Marl unwrapped it to find a doll, amazingly clean and whole. Marl, eyes wide open in wonder, turned to look at Sarah.

“Looks like you got a baby doll, Marl,” Sarah said. “Now what do you tell … umm … Santa Claus?”

Marl turned and looked up into the eyes of the pub master. “Thank you,” she whispered. She hugged the plastic figure and looked at it again. “It’s really mine?”

Santa failed to keep the tremor of emotion out of his voice, “Yes, sweetheart. It’s yours.”


Two other packages appeared from under the tree: a mortar and pestle for Sarah and a whistle for Frost.

“It’s amazing what you can find in the rubble if you know where to look,” Theodore whispered to Odell. “Now,” he announced to the group, “let’s see what Santa Claus has prepared for us this Christmas.”

And with that, the pub's doors swung open for business and people looking for food and warmth began to fill the large room. Most looked at the Christmas tree in puzzlement. The older ones who dimly remembered life before the Change stared with obvious emotion.

At a table of their own, the priest’s little group, along with the barkeep and his wife, shared a repast of roasted pork courtesy of the hunting prowess of Frost and his two wolves. Broiled venison from the private larder of the barkeep added to the meal along with bread and the ever present rat stew.

Sometime later, Sarah sat back with a contented sigh. “Brother Theodore, what is this Christmas you talked about?”

The priest sat back in his own chair. “Let me tell you the story,” he said. “Many, many years ago a powerful king named Caesar Augustus decided that all his subjects had to give him some money. He made them all travel back to the places where they were born and two people named Joseph and Mary had to go to a town named Bethlehem …”

Those sitting near their table hushed their own conversations at overhearing the novelty of a story until only Brother Theodore’s voice spoke out clear and bold, telling once again the never-aging story of the world’s first Christmas.

And as the priest told the tale, far above the pub the dark winter clouds parted and one bright shining star illuminated the streets of a shattered city.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Hardboiled Cthulhu: Two-fisted Tales of Tentacled Terror: A Review

Note: Due to subject matter and graphic violence and some sexual situations, I do not recommend this work for children.

Editing an anthology is hard work and I can easily imagine editing one that embraces the cosmos of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos even more so. The editor has to make a decision as to whether s/he will choose tales that are classic Lovecraft that create an atmosphere of growing awe and dread or embrace the more modern definition of horror with its splatterpunk and graphic sexuality. Then there is the matter of theme.

James Ambuel took on the mantle, but unfortunately, with Hardboiled Cthulhu: Two-fisted Tales of Tentacled Terror he did not actually succeed. A collection of uneven stories, the works were to embrace stories that are “hardboiled,” with the impression they are basically pastiches of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

The result is a mishmash of detective noir (Ambuehl’s opening story, The Pisces Club), detective noir satire (Tim Curran’s entertaining Eldritch-Fellas), an Iraqi war story (Jeffrey Thomas’ Pazuzu’s Children), a reporter investigating the Starry Wisdom cult (Robert M. Price’s The Prying Investigations of Edwin M. Lillibridge) and others. Buyer beware, you are getting a book of Cthulhu Mythos stories, but they embrace all sorts of themes and tropes.

All in all, the collection holds its own. Jonathan Sharp’s The White Mountains introduces us to two moonshine runners who fall on the wrong side of an inbred mountain family who just happen to worship one very nasty monstrosity. John Sunseri has a little story about professional thieves stealing the Necronomicon from the heavily guarded library at Miskatonic University. The anthology also has offerings from the late J. F. Gonzalez and the late C.J. Henderson, so collectors of their works may find some value in the book.

All in all, the collection is not a waste of time. Just be aware of what you are buying.

Personal note: On August 5, 2010, I started tracking the books I read.  Hardboiled Cthulhu: Two-fisted Tales of Tentacled Terror is #215.

Ship's Boy (The David Birkenhead Series Book 1): A Review

I was given a copy of Ship's Boy (The David Birkenhead Series Book 1) some years ago at a convention as a giveaway and it sat on my shelf for quite awhile until I picked it up and started reading about a future where worlds are ruled by a strict social order and united in a loose federation that can be tricky and sometimes dangerous. I picked the book up not expecting much and put it down surprisingly delighted and entertained.

There are those who will simply ignore the book because the protagonist is a genetically-engineered rabbit who is born into slavery and begins the journey to hero, but author Phil Geusz demonstrates he is a master at world-building and character development. The military aspects of the story are fascinating and described in such a way that the action is not paused for an info dump. The pace is exhilarating and the story keeps your interest. The political aspects are complex, but do not bog down the story. Bottom line: this is good stuff.

If this novella is a sample of what is to come, Geusz has written a series well worth pursuing.

The first book in the series is free and readers in the United States can download it here. For my readers in other countries, a quick search in your country's Amazon should be able to link you up quickly.

Personal note: On August 5, 2010, I started tracking the books I read. Ship's Boy (The David Birkenhead Series Book 1) is #216.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Diesel-Punk Super Short For Your Amusement

Diesel-Punk Vignette,
by Alan Loewen

For Amanda and Nick

To say the air stank of diesel would be an obvious understatement. Fifteen levels below the surface of the city of Harrisburg, fresh air was a precious and sometimes unattainable luxury.

Amanda and I sat on the oily floor of a narrow service tunnel waiting for Nick to return from his scouting and scavenging run. Many more levels below us, diesel converters created the new life blood of a world far different from the one of my childhood. Even though separated by miles, my body thrummed in resonance with the vibrations of their unceasing labor.

When American scientists found a way to create cheap diesel fuel from elements deep within the Earth, an unholy marriage of mechanical engineering, nanotechnology, and cheap fuel collapsed the government to make way for corporations, the true purveyors of power. The Middle East went bankrupt, the dollar soared, pollution went out of control, and lifespans dropped. The Age of Diesel reigned supreme.

“See Nick yet?” Amanda asked. I looked through the grating into the dimly lit hallway.

“Not yet,” I said.

“Think a Custodian found him?”

“How would we know?” We sat in silence for a few moments. “I’ll tell you what," I said, if only for the comfort of hearing myself speak, "Let’s give him a half hour. If he’s not back by then, we’ll set out on our own.”

“A shower," Amanda said with a sigh. "A shower would be so welcome right now.” .

I looked at her and smiled. “Oil is supposed to be good for the skin.”

She plucked at her tresses. “Certainly not good for the hair. I can’t remember the last time I had a shower. If we can get out of here …” Amanda was interrupted by the sound of running feet making staccato echoes down the hall.

I peered through the grate, ready to duck back into the shadows. “It’s Nick!” I said.

Opening the grate I held out my hand. Deftly, Nick grabbed it and with a leap, slipped into the access tunnel next to me.

“Close it up!” he hissed at me. “Custodian!”

I managed to close the grate just in time as a Custodian lumbered into view. It walked out of a cloud of its own exhaust, its diesel engine purring inside it. An ambulatory ball of metal and hate, it had its weapons at ready. Instinctively, I pulled back from the grating as Nick and Amanda slid back into deeper shadow.

It lumbered past our hiding place and I noticed that a small spray of fuel jetted out its back where a large knife had penetrated a chink in its armor.

We waited until it was out of hearing and it was only then I noticed how hard I was trembling.

“Nick,” I said, “it was injured. You do that?”

He grinned at me and pulled three protein bars from his pocket. “Yeah, I tried to sever its fuel line, but they’re buried rather deep. Gotta get me another knife now though.” He tossed a bar to Amanda and me and then ripped one open for himself. “Had a little trouble getting these,” he said as he waved the bar in my face. “Store owner didn’t like me taking them without paying so he screamed for a Custodian.” His grin got broader. “And got some even better news. Met a contact. Found a place where you and Amanda can hide for three days. After that, there's sure to be some other group of rebels to keep them busy. They’ll forget all about us.”

Amanda looked up from her protein bar. “You said the hiding place was for Father Bowser and me. What about you?”

Nick spoke through a mouth full of protein bar. “Got a place too. It helps to have a network, but my personal hidey-hole only has room for one.”

I shook my head. “Nick, it's too dangerous. You don’t know how badly they want us.”

Nick waved his hand at me. “You worry too much. You guys will be as safe as if you were back in your sainted mothers’ arms.” He leaned in close. “There’s a guy I know who isn’t very happy with the Corporation Hegemony. He’s got a perfect cover for rebels like us.” He pointed at Amanda and me. “You two are going to become new converts to the Zen Blessed Iron Meditation Sacellum.”

“Are you out of your ever loving mind?” I asked. “If you think …”

Again, he waved his hand in front of my face to silence me. “It’s just a cover, preacher man. You fret too much.” He scooted forward to survey the hallway.” “It’s clear,” he said. “Not a soul, living or metallic.”

Carefully he pushed the grate open. “Don’t close it,” he said to us before he dropped to the floor below. “We might need to come running back here.”

I let Amanda go next and she gracefully jumped down to join Nick. Moving my legs over the edge I took an assessment of the drop. “Stand back,” I instructed. “I’m going to make a racket when I land.”

True to form, my fall was not graceful and the impact of my metal prosthetic legs on the floor created a deep echo that resonated down the hall. We stood still for a moment waiting for sign the echoes had roused a Custodian or something even worse. Delving deep into the earth’s guts to get at the elements that created diesel, we had stirred up things best left alone like rock slugs and slime molds.

After a moment, we took off down the hall, following Nick who stopped at every corner and intersection to scope things out. We met the occasional worker and even surprised a group of drones, unemployed humans who scavenged the underground tunnels for spoil. Dangerous though they might be, they weren’t in the mood to tackle two healthy looking people and an old man with oil-stained metal legs. I might be a cripple, but if I kick you, you’re not getting up right away, if ever.

It was up two levels in the main tunnels we had to be extra careful. Custodians stood on guard and even though we would be hidden by the crowds, our safety would be iffy at best.

Eventually, we made it to the market level. Moving carefully through the mass of humanity, the smell of fried rat and fresh-baked protein bars from the food courts made our mouths water, but we had no credits and it was too risky for a snatch-and-grab. Not when we could see three ambulatory mechanical balls standing still and silent over by the far wall, Custodians that could kill us in a heartbeat.

It was off on a side tunnel that we found an old mechanical shop with a symbol of the Zen Blessed Iron Meditation Sacellum below its name. An old man came out, wiping diesel off his hands with an already deeply-stained rag. He spat on the floor and his saliva was as brown as the fuel he worked with. He looked at Nick. “These the two new converts?” he asked.

Nick grinned. “You got it,” he said. “And they are here for their 72-hours of mandatory meditation to get to the 2nd level"

The mechanic motioned us to follow and deep within the shop, he kicked some garbage away from a stained door. “You’ll be meditating in here,” he said.

The room was just slightly larger than a closet. “You got your 72 hours and then you're gone. Crapper is down the hall. Kitchen is to the left. In the fridge, you get only what’s in the bag. Don’t be touching the rest.” He glared at us for a moment. "And you don't leave this room unless you absolutely have to."

“Appreciate your help,” I said.

“And it would be appreciated if you didn’t talk to me anymore. Now I gotta get back to pounding metal.” Without another word, he turned and walked back toward his workshop.

Amanda hugged Nick and I shook his hand. “You sure you’re gonna be safe?” I asked.

“Probably,” he said. “I’ll pick you up in three days. Try to behave.”

“You too,” I said.

With a grin Nick waved and left us to our temporary shelter.

We never saw him again.

Yet I have my suspicion that Nick made it after all. Last week when the Rebellion swore in the new leadership after winning a two-year long civil war, a man in the background on the vid screen, though looking older and a tad battle weary, bore that same familiar grin.

I can't be certain, but I have that feeling ...