Tales from the Editor’s Skull – Interview with Howard Jones

Goodman Games is about to unleash a brand-new sword-and-sorcery magazine on the world called Tales from the Magician’s Skull. The first issue is filled with old-school pulpy goodness written by authors who know the genre well (including yours truly). I recently spoke with Howard Jones, the editor-in-chief of Goodman Games’ latest venture, and he was kind enough to answer some questions about the magazine and the current Kickstarter campaign to support it.

1) Okay, give us the skinny on Tales from the Magician’s Skull. The elevator pitch if you will.

It’s a magazine dedicated to old-school sword-and-sorcery. Not pastiche, not homage, but new fiction about new characters in new worlds, inspired by the great old ground-breaking stuff. That means there’s forward momentum and inventive world building and dark sorcery and darker deeds and heroes wandering where brave men fear to tread.

2) Tells us a bit about your background as a writer and editor. How did you get involved with the project?

I’ve written a historical fantasy series set in ancient Arabia for St. Martin’s, four Pathfinder novels, and a slew of short stories. A new fantasy series from me will be dropping (again from St. Martin’s) next summer. I grew up reading and loving the kind of fiction this magazine emulates, fantasizing and dreaming what it would have been like to edit for one of the great old pulp magazines, so this is a dream come true.

Long before I was a published author I was an in-house editor for Macmillan Computer Publishing, breaking into fiction editing when I assembled eight volumes of swashbuckling historicals by Harold Lamb. And I was the Managing Editor for a sword-and-sorcery e-zine, Flashing Swords, and then, near the end of its run, Black Gate Magazine. I met Joseph Goodman when I was reviewing role-playing supplements he’d published for Goodman Games, and one year at GenCon I dropped by his booth to hand him my first published novel.

In short, over the course of a few years, we came to admire and appreciate the work the other was doing.

3) How did you and Goodman land on sword and sorcery for Tales from the Magician’s Skull? What about that genre interests you?

We’re both drawn by the sense of the adventure and the pacing. There’s little to no navel gazing. It’s all about the story. And while there IS darkness and dread, most of the time the tales aren’t drowning in it. These are typically tales with heroics and death-defying action. In earlier fiction there are fewer conventions about what magic looks like or what elves are or other issues that have become so codified some have a hard time breaking out of the mold. We love that.

There are tombs and treasure and strange enchantments, bizarre and curious locations, and protagonists desperate to get in or out of such places, sometimes in pursuit of lofty goals but more often simply to live another day.

4) Who are the writers in the first issue? And, uh, how did they get so damn lucky?

Here’s a funny thing. It started out as Joseph Goodman asking me if I wanted to contribute a story to the Goodman Games 2017 GenCon magazine. He’d asked me for one for the 2016 mag, and I said yes both times. Shortly after receiving the one for 2017, though, he wondered if maybe I knew some other sword-and-sorcery writers. Well, most of my writer friends are sword-and-sorcery writers, so that was easy.

He kept asking for a few more, and before we knew it, there were more than enough for an entire magazine. When Joseph proposed that, I lobbied to become its editor.

Because the whole thing grew organically, we tapped people we knew well who could exactly get the sword-and-sorcery vibe we were after. For issue two we’re reaching a little further afield but  still working for the same feel.

As for who’s within, there’s you and me! Then there’s Chris Willrich, best known for his Gaunt and Bone sword-and-sorcery tales and books, which are a well-known secret amongst modern sword-and-sorcery fans. He penned a new one about his characters. And James Enge, perhaps the breakout writer from Black Gate, who’s drafted a new adventure starring Morlock the Maker. There’s Bill Ward, who wrote a tale of dark conspiracy in an Asian-inspired fantasy coastal setting. And Clint Werner, well-known Warhammer author, who gave us a creepy Hammer-horror infused sword-and-sorcery tale, and John C. Hocking, probably best known as the author of Conan and the Emerald Lotus, but more recently known for his tales of the archivist, writing a dark, punchy adventure set in that character’s world.

If you want to know more, the Kickstarter gives you thumbnail synopses of each story!

5) So besides awesome tales of sword and sorcery, what else can we expect from Tales from the Magician’s Skull?

Well, there’s horror and suspense as well, which are important components of the genre, and I think you’ll see an occasional tale with those features more primary than secondary. But within the magazine you’ll find some great artwork, and maps to lost places within the stories, and then an appendix that presents the monsters and challenges in Dungeon Crawl Classics game statistics, in case you want to bring any of the events to life at your own game table.

6) I know a lot of my readers are dying to know the answer to this next question. Will the magazine be opened up to unsolicited submissions at some point? If so, tell us a little about what Editor-in-chief Howard Jones looks for in a story.

To know what I look for in a story, check out the first two issues, and read yourself some great old sword-and-sorcery, like the Conan stories, or the early Fafrhd and Gray Mouser stuff (particularly from the Swords Against Death collection) or practically anything from Leigh Brackett. We don’t plan on publishing space opera, as she often wrote, but her sense of color and pacing is definitely something to model off of.

We do plan on opening to submissions, eventually. But it’s likely to be a few issues yet. First we want to establish the magazine and build up a reader base, which is challenging enough without adding slush reading on top of it!

7) How and where can folks support this awesome project?

Not only can you drop by the Kickstarter campaign and pledge for an e-copy or physical copy of the magazine (or maybe even join our secret society) you can help spread the word. I’m tremendously pleased that we met our funding goal in the first day. But I’m also certain  there are many more sword-and-sorcery fans out there. Surely they must number in the thousands. Help us reach them! Spread the word. We love this fiction and want to share it!


Howard lives in a lonely tower in Indiana with a wicked and beautiful enchantress. When not running his small farm or spending time with his gifted children, he can be found hunched over a laptop, mumbling about flashing swords and doom-haunted moors. His books have been acclaimed by well-known mortal critics. Sometimes he edits short stories for magazines and he once anthologized the work of historical writer Harold Lamb. He knows karate. Yah!

Ranks of the Rejected: Mitch Malloy

In the past, I’ve interviewed writers and editors for Ranks of the Rejected, but as it turns out, they aren’t the only creative folks who get rejected. I’ve worked with a fair number of freelance illustrators in my professional career, so I thought I’d get the skinny on the trials and tribulations of that line of work straight from the horse’s mouth. I turned to the very talented Mitch Malloy, an illustrator I’ve worked with recently. Mitch was kind enough to answer questions about his work (and provide me with some awesome samples) and tell me about rejection for the freelance illustrator.

Be sure to check out Mitch’s website and gallery right here: www.mitchmalloyart.com


1) Tell us a about your work. Who are your typical clients?

My work is all over the place. Generally, my style is contemporary realism, but I do a lot of stylized work too and some hybrids of those two. I prefer realism most, though. The lion’s share of my work is science fiction and fantasy. I mostly do work for clients in traditional gaming and video games, but I occasionally do book or publishing work. I’d like to do more book work for sure.

I do most of my work digitally since that was what I learned on, but increasingly I’ve been working toward incorporating more oils, gouache, watercolor, and graphite pieces into my professional assignments.

2) How do you typically get contracts as a freelance artist? Do you send your portfolio out to potential publishers, like writers do with submissions? Or does the work come to you at this point?

I’m lucky that most of my work finds me at this point. But every other season work dries up, and I’m back to slinging my portfolio at art directors and hoping something sticks. A lot of work gets lost to cold calls, so I go out of my way to try and figure out a specific email address for an art director to be sure somebody at least sees my work before throwing it out. It’s worked, but I’m not sure they don’t hate it.

3) You and I worked closely on a project recently, the cover of Red Sun Magazine #3, where you illustrated my story “Caroline.” It’s not typical for an illustrator to work directly with an author (as cool as it was), so what is the usual process?

Normally, once I’m on somebody’s roster for work, it takes a while for the right project to roll around. When it does (whatever that project is), an art director or outsource manager reaches out, asks about my availability, and negotiates a rate. Then I receive a brief, which has specs and a written description of the assignment. Usually things like the focus and mood of the piece are called out, which helps me nail a specific idea earlier. Sometimes it’s nebulous, and I have to shoot a bit broader in my ideation. My absolute least favorite is when a client calls to deliver this information instead of writing it out in an email. I like things clear and concise so I can dive right in, but most conversations of this nature tend to be unfocused, and it immediately gets me out of my groove.

Anyway, once I get a brief, I do thumbnails for myself, pick my best ideas, and refine them for presentation. The client narrows it down to one option, then I gather my reference and work up that comp with color, a drawing, etc., working toward a final and reviewing along the way.

4) I assume that anyone working in any creative field will get rejected in some fashion. What does rejection look like for the freelance illustrator?

For me, rejection has often been silence. So many unreturned emails, ghost clients, or cold call emails lost to the void. I get rejected by going unanswered. Otherwise, I might get a form letter or (rarely) a handcrafted bit of rejection. I’ve also been subject to a lot of rejection once clients find out my rates. I work some great-paying gigs at this point. I don’t usually want to work the cheaper ones (with rare exception). A lot of potential clients flee when they find out I want a fair wage for my work, which I’m okay with. Makes it easier to focus on jobs that will pay fairly (though they’re rarer).

5) What have you learned from rejection? How has it helped you grow as an artist?

Rejection usually pisses me off so much it sends me into a self-improvement spiral. One of the ways I handle rejection is to just grind until I prove to whoever that I am capable of the work. It’s not like I can get better on a timeline that would make them notice. It’s irrational. But rejection fuels a lot of my study. Thankfully, more and more, I just do studying because I’ve found the love for it. Every once in a while that letter comes in and I get swept up in the fury again.

(It probably isn’t healthy)

6) Got a favorite rejection? Memorable, funny, mean, just straight-up weird?

I once was told in a client meeting that I couldn’t offer feedback on their product until I was capable of doing the work myself. The work wasn’t very good. I could have done it myself. It freaked me out so much I went and worked my ass off to show them up. They later told me they were impressed by my growth, so I guess it worked?

On a more lighthearted note, I was once rejected because somebody thought I was the singer/songwriter Mitch Malloy. When they found out I wasn’t, they were no longer interested in commissioning me to do a painting for them. For reasons I’m not sure I’ll ever understand.

7) Okay, plug away. Tells us about your latest project and where we can run out and see/buy it.

Most of my latest projects are for clients I can’t talk about for another few months or even years. This is my life! But if you want to see a really wonderful fantasy setting with great fiction and RPG supplements, go check out Aetaltis. I’m the art director for the project, and it’s a huge passion for me. Check out what we’re doing here: www.aetaltis.com


Mitch is an artist with a deep passion for craftsmanship and storytelling. He has over 5 years of experience working as an artist in games. He is currently at Riot Games where he works as an illustrator. Outside the office, Mitch is a freelance artist for novels and traditional games. Mitch lives in the greater Los Angeles area with his lovely wife, his adorable son, two cats, and a dog.

Mitch’s clients include Wizards of the Coast, Riot Games, S2 Games, Privateer Press, Modiphius Entertainment, Onyx Path Publishing, Mechanical Muse, Posthuman Studios, Conceptopolis, Fantasy Flight Games, Present Creative, Super Genius Games, Wyrd Miniatures, and Broken Egg Games.

Ranks of the Rejected – Josh Hrala (The Arcanist)

Time for another installment of Ranks of the Rejected. This time I interviewed Josh Hrala, the editor at The Arcanist, a new flash fiction market that focuses on fantasy and science fiction. I’m always excited when a new flash fiction market appears on the scene, especially a paying one, and Josh and The Arcanist are off to a great start. Josh has an extensive background as a professional writer, so he’s no stranger to rejection, and now that he’s working the other side of the literary fence, he has some great advice for writers looking to publish their fiction with The Arcanist or anywhere for that matter. Check it out.


1) Give us the short and sweet on The Arcanist. The description on the label if you will.

The Arcanist is a flash fiction publication that focuses on SFF stories that are 1,000 words or shorter. Our goal is to provide a place where people can get new SFF stories every week and devour them wherever they are. Alongside these stories we pepper in non-fiction pieces about SFF authors, news, and other things related to the genres.

2) You have an impressive writing background, so what made you decide to jump the fence and try your hand at the editorial side of things?

It’s really hard to nail down an exact moment. I’d say that I’ve always wanted to be an editor, and I’ve always loved the tasks I had to do in editorial at my various staff writer positions. Even while writing 2-3 articles per day, I enjoyed working on stories written by others, developing them into working pieces, and making them the best they could be. I even enjoyed the scheduling and formatting of the pieces. There’s just something to it, you get to put everything in place and give it a final polish.

As these thoughts started to sharpen in my mind, Andie, Patrick, and I started to write together and talk about stories. All three of us love SFF in all of its forms and originally started writing short films and mini-bibles for TV shows when we could. It turned out that almost everything we made worked better as fiction than it did for film, and we’re still developing stories right now. Eventually, The Arcanist was born out of the idea that we loved doing this, and we could use our collective fiction knowledge and my editorial background to make something new.

What really excites me about being on this side of the fence is giving SFF writers a new place to publish their work, a place where they get paid, a place that looks modern, isn’t behind a paywall, and presents their work in ways that other sites don’t. What we’re trying to do with The Arcanist is bring new readers and writers into the SFF fold by publishing solid stories in a new, easy-to-access way.

We are giant craft nerds, too. We all met at Point Park University where we were a part of the creative writing program. This formal writing education made us love well-crafted literary stories. So we want to use that know-how to elevate both SFF and flash fiction because both genres take a lot of heat. SFF often gets critiqued because it involves more world-building than plot, character development, and structure while flash fiction can be viewed as too short of a medium to be taken seriously. While those can obviously be true depending on the work itself, we want to show what can happen when craft is valued more than settings and ideas while also showing that great fiction – regardless of genre – can be accomplished in very few words.

3) Why flash fiction? How did you and The Arcanist land on that story length over more traditional short stories?

When we were coming up with what we wanted The Arcanist to be, we had a few goals in mind. The first was to find a way to spread our love for well-crafted SFF content to people who may not read it otherwise. While many hardcore SFF fans love a long, epic narrative, I know a lot of people in my life who would never sit down with something that big. However, they are the same people who don’t blink an eye when it comes to reading a bunch of long articles on Facebook. This gave way to the idea that flash fiction is a great ice breaker and – if presented in on the right platform – could inspire new readers and writers to give the genres a shot.

Of course, traditional short fiction was an option – one we might revisit later alongside flash – but we wanted something smaller, something that can be read on the bus ride home. A bite-sized bit of magic that people can read anywhere.

Secondly, as I mentioned above, we love craft and believe that short form content is a great way for writers to hone – or show off – those skills. When a SFF writer is forced to stay under a certain word count, especially when it’s as tiny as 1,000 words, things get interesting fast. Characters have to be active and making choices right from the start or even the best ideas can fall flat.

In short, it makes writers question what they need to tell a story, and that can lead to some really cool things that readers will love.

4) What advice can you give writers submitting to The Arcanist? Which stories have the best chance at publication? Which stories are absolute nonstarters?

The first rule of submitting your work to us is to please, please, please read the submission guidelines. They aren’t even that hard to nail down: a SFF story that is 1,000 words or less. It’s surprising how many people just scroll down until they see the submit link and send things off without actually knowing if it’s what we want.

If your story meets these requirements, you’re already in a good place. However, there are some tips that will really put your story over the top.

The biggest problem we see on a craft level is that the characters in the story are often more boring than the world they inhabit. You can have a great world, but your story will be ruined by a passive character who merely walks through it and doesn’t make a choice or have any agency.

Also, make sure that you aren’t starting your story at the wrong place. This happens with monster stories quite a bit. What’s more interesting: how the monster got out or what happens when the monster is already out and the character has to deal with it? It’s the latter 99 percent of the time. If you need to write the buildup to the monster getting loose to make sure you know how it happened, that’s fine, but then the submitted story should probably take place afterwards. We get many stories that end where they actually should have started.

So, as tips go, you want your story to start at the right place, to make sure your characters are active, and make sure you aren’t relying on a witty idea to push your narrative. Ideas are cheap, execution is hard. We are all about the execution here.

5) How about a glimpse behind the scenes at The Arcanist. What does the evaluation process for a story look like?

We have two ways to submit stories. You can either email them to us or use our form, which requires you to submit a Google Doc version of your story. We HIGHLY recommend using the form, it makes it way easier on our end and we end up getting to those ones first and the inbox second.

The stories are then divided up and assigned to either me, Andie, or Patrick. We do not use slush readers, so everything that is submitted goes straight to an editor. The assigned editor reads the story and makes sure it follows the rules. If the story flat-out doesn’t work for us, it is rejected. If the first editor reads it and is on the fence, we all talk about it. If an editor really likes it, we do the same.

The on-the-fence stories and the ones individual editors want to greenlight are talked about in person, and we break them down and see if they truly work. Personally, these discussions are my favorite part because we really dig in and make a decision.

After that, it’s all about either breaking the bad news or sending acceptance letters, setting up payments and publication dates, and finally unleashing the story into the world.

6) This blog is called Rejectomancy for a reason, so let’s get to the good stuff. What are the top three reasons The Arcanist rejects a story. Be blunt, even savage if you must.

The number one reason is that you didn’t follow the rules. They are there for a reason. They are meant to challenge writers and be a bit difficult. When you write “approx. 1,000 words” we know that typically means “I went a bit over, sorry.”

The second is not knowing what your story is about. This goes back to what I said earlier about ideas and narrative. A lot of the time, we love the ideas presented in a story. We often scratch our heads and wonder how someone came up with this, which is fantastic. It’s a great feeling to have. The worst feeling to have, though, is realizing that the story is merely that concept with no narrative, action, or anything to back it up. It’s hollow, and doesn’t work on a craft level because narrative took a backseat to a clever idea, making the story more about the idea than anything else.

The third is a simple question: does anything actually happen in the story? With our 1,000-word limit, you don’t have a lot of time to flesh out a world or describe tons of scenery, you have to get to the point. There’s not enough space to have a character walk around and take things in for longer than maybe a sentence before something has to push them to action. Just because it is short doesn’t mean the story doesn’t need to have a beginning, middle, and end. The best stories we see have active characters and twists that make us look at the whole thing differently. The “turn” is one of our favorite moments, but even these can fall flat without active characters.

Also, just as note, please don’t submit your story with weird colored fonts, large sections underlined, or any other strange formatting. We read a lot, and these attempts to get our attention only hurt our eyes. I don’t know why people do this, and we won’t outright reject stories for this, but it makes us sad and gives us a headache, which doesn’t help your chances.

7) You’re a writer too, so you understand that rejection comes with the gig. Any pro tips for dealing with it? 

I’m not sure there is way to actually prepare yourself for a rejection. You have to learn early on that you can’t get your hopes up even if you think your story is gold because, let’s face it, we all think all of our own stories are gold.

If you want to get your work published, you need to wrestle with the fact that rejection is likely in your future far more often than acceptance, but you have to also understand that just because one place rejects a piece doesn’t mean it won’t work elsewhere. Make a plan, send out your story, follow all of the rules the publication asked for, and see what happens because it’s always worth it in the end. Remember that rejections are nothing personal and that every rejection is a chance to make the story better.


Josh is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Arcanist. His work has appeared on Cracked, PopSci, ScienceAlert, Geek & Sundry, ModernNotion, and others. You can get The Arcanist’s stories delivered straight to your inbox every Friday by subscribing for free here.

One-Hour Flash – Madcap

Here’s another flash piece I wrote as part of a one-hour flash challenge/exercise. This time, I actually have the prompt the story was written for (I was the one who posted it in this case).

(Exciting, huh?)

This story, “Madcap,” is part of a loosely connected series of stories about an organization called the Bureau of Fae Affairs or BFA for short. The idea came to me in one of these one-hour challenges, and I occasionally return to it in that scenario. Anyway, it’s an urban fantasy concept in which a very public government agency has to deal with an influx of fairytale creatures into our reality. The BFA both polices and eliminates dangerous fae while helping those that wish to live here peacefully integrate into our reality. There’s no denying the “Men in Black” feel of it, the differences being a focus on mythological creatures rather than aliens (obviously) and more emphasis on the work the agency does to integrate the newcomers into human life. (This story is not a great example of the latter.)

I’ve got like five or six of these stories floating around as flash pieces (one published), which all originated during one-hour flash challenges. I’ve also completed one longer tale, but I haven’t done much with any of it. “Madcap” is pretty typical of where I end up with this idea when I try and fit it into flash.


Madcap

 

“You the guy from the Jotun division?” The big guy leaning against the trunk of an aging Ford Crown Victoria asked as Simmons walked out of the woods. He looked to be in his mid-forties, and his thick brown hair was graying at the temples. He was built like an NFL linebacker, though, an easy two-fifty, and most of it muscle. He wore a black tactical rig over a Kevlar vest, faded jeans, and black work boots. A pair of cheap sunglasses perched on his crooked nose. His tactical harness bore the letters BFA in white reflective paint.

Simmons nodded. “Yep. That’s me,” he said and shrugged to settle his own tactical gear on his shoulders. His vest, too, had BFA written across it. “How’d you get way up here in that?” Simmons pointed to the faded blue Crown Vic. They were at least ten miles into the woods, and he’d had to park his Wrangler on the toll road a mile back. How this guy had managed to get his Ford POS this deep into the woods was a mystery.

“I’m Fitzgerald,” the big guy said, ignoring Simmons’ question. He pushed away from the trunk of his car and extended his hand. Simmons shook it and tried not to wince as his hand was swallowed and squeezed by Fitzgerald’s oversized mitt. “I’m surprised the bureau could spare one of you guys,” he said with a chuckle. “I hear Sigrid is teething.”

Simmons shook his head and sighed. “That she is.” His current position in the BFA—the good ol’ Bureau of Fae Affairs—was part of a team whose entire duty was to care for a twelve-ton Jotun baby. Jotun, or frost giants, were just one of the many fairytale creatures that had come spilling into the world when trans-dimensional portals had quite unexpectedly opened up around the globe a decade ago. The BFA had formed shortly thereafter, a government agency tasked with ensuring that peaceful giants, ogres, goblins, elves, and other fantastical creatures were dealt with and integrated into the human world if they so chose. Unfortunately, not all were peaceful. In fact, a lot weren’t.

Simmons smiled. “I’m not gonna lie. I was glad for the temporary assignment. Our little darlin’ has wrecked three cranes and two fire trucks since those teeth started coming in. It’s a goddamned emergency every day.”

Fitzgerald grinned. “I wish I could say this’ll be easier,” he said and pointed to the object of their mission—a hole bordered by rotting boards in the side of a small hill.

“Is that a mine?” Simmons asked.

“It was. Probably gold prospectors. It’s full of gnomes now.”

Simmons ran through all the fairy creatures he’d encountered in his five years with the BFA and came up blank. When he thought of gnomes, he saw cheap statuettes in quaint city gardens. He was in good hands, though. He’d been told Fitzgerald was a hitter, a BFA agent that dealt specifically with the nastier fairy folk in the most extreme and abrupt fashion. “You’re the hitter. I assume you can tell me all I need to know.”

Fitzgerald nodded, returned to his car, and popped the trunk. From within he withdrew two mammoth shotguns—they looked like the very deadly mating of firearm and Mac truck. “Ithaca Mag-10s,” Fitzgerald announced and tossed one of the huge shotguns to Simmons. He caught it with both hands—it was as heavy as he had suspected.

“We need these for fucking gnomes?” Simmons asked. “You could drop a rhino with these things.”

“I’d rather be hunting rhinos with BB-guns than the little bastards in that hole with these,” Fitzgerald said and grimaced. “What we have here is a particularly awful variety of gnome called a red cap. They’re called that because they like to dip their hair in the blood and entrails of their victims. They also have skin as hard as granite, claws that would give Freddy Krueger a hard-on, and, oh yeah, they can see in the dark.”

“Jesus,” Simmons said. He could actually feel the blood draining out of his face.

“Don’t worry,” Fitzgerald said and slapped Simmons on the shoulder. “They’re dumber than a box of rocks. We’re gonna bring ‘em to us.”

“How?”

Fitzgerald pulled what looked very much like a grenade from his tactical harness and smiled. “Smoker,” he said. “My own special concoction. It’s loaded with cold iron shavings. Makes their skin burn. They’ll come piling out of that hole, and then we just light ‘em up.”

“You’ve done this before, then?” Simmons said and pointed his shotgun toward the hole.

“Nope,” Fitzgerald said, pulled the pin on his grenade, wound up like a baseball pitcher, and fired the grenade at the hole. It disappeared into the dark, and the BFA hitter took a step back and put his own shotgun to his shoulder. Fiveseconds later, a muffled but still extraordinarily loud thud rolled up out of the hole followed by a cloud of greasy black smoke.

The first red cap burst from the smoke cloud at full tilt. It was small, about four feet tall, gangly limbed and gray skinned. Its face was a mashed lump from which two glittering black eyes stared hatefully outward. Its hair, brick red and dripping, streamed behind it, and it reached for both of them with long-fingered hands, each bearing six-inch talons.

Simmons squeezed the trigger, and his shotgun punched his shoulder like a kicking mule. The charging red cap’s head disappeared in a geyser of brown ichor and what looked a lot like rock dust. Its twitching body fell at his feet.

“Nice shot, Simmons!” Fitzgerald exclaimed beside him and kicked the red cap corpse away.

“Fuck me,” Simmons breathed, adrenaline still buzzing through his veins. “That’s may be the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen.”

Fitzgerald nodded. “Unfortunately, you’re gonna get to see them in their natural habitat.”

“What?!” Simmons said, eyes wide.

“Yup. The smoke is clearing, and it only drew one of the little fuckers out. There’s always at least six in a red cap nest. We gotta got down and root ‘em out.”

Simmons shook his head. “No. No. No,” he said. “That’s madness.”

Fitzgerald shrugged. “Maybe. But it’s the job.” He slapped Simmons on the shoulder again. “Cheer up. It beats changing the diapers on a twelve-ton baby, don’t it?”


This was fun to write and it gives some info on the setting, but it doesn’t really go anywhere, and it isn’t a successful flash piece. Like many failed flash attempts, this likely works better as the beginning to a longer piece. Maybe I’ll go back and do something more substantial with the BFA or maybe I’ll just continue to produce these little 1,000-word scribbles for one-hour writing challenges when I should be writing something I can actually publish. 🙂

One-Hour Flash – Killing the Dead

Here’s another flash fiction story I wrote as part of a one-hour contest. This dark urban fantasy tale is called “Killing the Dead,” and like the story from last week, “The Writing on the Wall,” it has lingered on my hard drive for quite a while. I’ve dusted it off and given it a quick polish, but it’s essentially the story I scribbled out in an hour three or four years ago. If you’d like to read the first story or learn more about these one-hour contests I’m so fond of, check out the link above.

Okay, here’s “Killing the Dead.”


Killing the Dead

Johns watched the sun dip low on the horizon, thankful for the warmth radiating though his legs from the hood of his pickup. He drew in a deep breath and ran a hand over the badge on his shirt. The stylized skull and hammer said he was a graver, an agent of the church, and one of the few people dumb enough to be outside after dark since the event of ‘18. It was crazy, dangerous work, but somebody had to deal with the dead, and it sure beat flipping burgers or working construction.

Nightfall was near and he hopped off the hood of the truck, stretched, and took stock of his surroundings. The graveyard was an old one, the headstones weathered and crumbling. The most recent date he could find was 1976, which meant the folks interred here had been dead for a minimum of fifty years. The chances one of the corpses would contain a roamer was thin, but, like usual, he’d claimed this particular graveyard on a hunch. Most gravers liked the newer cemeteries, where roamers were all but guaranteed. The problem there was you got paid the same for cleansing a cemetery of one roamer or fifty. Lot of young gravers didn’t survive their inaugural cleansing.

Johns went around to the bed of his truck and did a quick equipment check. He had a gallon of holy water—blessed by Father Daniels this very morning—some of which he had already poured into his super soaker. He had the axe, the maul, and the sledgehammer, plus the chainsaw if things got really out of hand.

He picked up the super-soaker. As absurd as it seemed, the giant squirt gun was the most important weapon in his arsenal. It could fire a concentrated blast of holy water up to sixty feet, and within that range it was nearly impossible to miss.

He glanced out over the graveyard, looking for a likely spot. There were plenty of headstones, but granite was tough to manipulate, and even an old roamer would have a hell of a time animating one of those. There was the ground, of course, and the newly dead usually went there. He’d faced down more than his share of dirt monsters. This cemetery was old enough that if it had a roamer, it would be experienced. If he were a betting man—and he was—a small stand of oak trees on the edge of graveyard was where he’d lay his wager.

Johns slung the super-soaker over his shoulder, grabbed the wood-axe from the bed of his truck, and started toward the trees. He pulled up just within the maximum range for the soaker and propped the axe on a nearby headstone.

Night fell completely in a few minutes, and Johns flicked on the LED light attached to his vest. He shivered in the sudden cold. Ever since the event, the temperature dropped a good twenty degrees at nightfall. Even in the middle of a Texas summer, the cold came on as soon as the stars came out. He guessed the dead liked it that way, or maybe they needed it that way. Who knew?

Minutes passed and silence settled over the graveyard. That was a good sign. Night critters that put up a racket at night—crickets, frogs, that kind of thing—went quiet when there were roamers around. He listened and was rewarded with a faint whistling that rose from the direction of the trees, a low winding keen that made the hairs on his arms and neck stand up. The telltale moan of a roamer. He’d never understood why they made so much noise, but it sure made them easier to find.

Johns moved toward the trees, soaker held up to his shoulder. The roamer appeared soon after, a faint shadow, slightly luminescent against the dark backdrop of the tree trunks. He could make out a male outline but not much else. Roamers became more indistinct as they aged, losing details until they were little more than shadows. He guessed he was looking at a century-old roamer at the least.

The roamer was lingering around the trunk of a big oak—it had chosen its medium for the night. Johns rushed forward, yelling, letting his target see and hear him. The apparition hissed in anger then disappeared into the tree. The oak shook and trembled, its branches swaying with ominous and unnatural life.

He stopped, aimed the soaker and waited. This was the dangerous part. Until the roamer completely inhabited its medium, it couldn’t be trapped, although it still controlled enough of whatever animate it had chosen to crush, gouge, or smash any unfortunate gravers nearby. Roamers, more than anything, wanted to be real again, to taste some semblance of life, and most didn’t fuck around once they’d found something to animate. This one was no different.

The trunk of the oak suddenly took on horrid life, the bark twisting and bulging as the roamer absorbed organic material and began crafting a body for itself. In this transitive state it was vulnerable, and Johns depressed the trigger on the soaker. A stream of blessed water struck the tree trunk, and the roamer within it loosed an ear-splitting howl. Its partially formed limbs reached out, wooden talons clawing at the air, then froze as the holy water did its work, locking the roamer in its transitive state and rendering it harmless until the next night fall.

Johns hefted the axe. All he had to do now was chop up the roamers body and keep a piece big enough to prove what he had. Father Daniels would say the last rights tonight at Saint Michaels, sending the roamer’s spirit on to the afterlife. Then he’d get paid.

He smiled as his first blow with the axe sent wood chips flying. Any night you helped stave off the apocalypse a little longer and put some cash in your pocket was a good one.


I had fun with this one, and if I remember correctly it was well received by the other authors in the contest (my notes say it came in third). I don’t remember the prompt, unfortunately, but it was likely a cemetery or something of that nature. The issue with this one (other than a pretty meh title) is it’s really the beginning of something longer, and I had to spend a fair amount of my 1,000 words telling the reader how this urban fantasy world worked. That didn’t leave much time for anything else, so the action is a bit rushed, and there’s not much to the main character. I do like some of the concepts I came up with, though–the gravers, the roamers, and the pseudo-post-apocalyptic urban fantasy thing–and it may be something I return to in the future for a longer story or even a novelette.

Which Work Do You Read? – A Poll

As some of you know, my current published works reside in two very different camps. First, there’s the work I do for Privateer Press, which includes two novels, a handful of novellas, and a whole bunch of short stories. All that fiction is set in Privateer Press’ Iron Kingdoms setting, a steampunk-esque fantasy world. Then there’s my other work, which is, of course, my own IP, and is primarily horror (with a smattering of sci-fi and fantasy). That’s mostly short stories, though I’m currently working on a novel.

I’m just curious who reads what. Do my IK readers read my stand-alone work, and do my horror, sci-fi, etc. readers read my IK work? If you’ll indulge me, I’ve created a little poll here to get something of an answer to that question. No judgment either way. I completely understand that horror or fantasy may not be someone’s cup of tea. I’m just thrilled anyone reads anything I write. Period. 🙂

 

Okay, now that you’ve answered the poll. Here’s some free stuff to read.

If you’re interested in checking out the Iron Kingdoms writing I do for Privateer Press, there’s a bunch of links to various published works here. There’s also a couple of free stories on the blog published when I was still on staff with Privateer. Links below.

  1. Tomb of the Deathless
  2. Wayward Fortunes

Finally, if you have a Kindle Unlimited membership, you can read one of my IK novellas, On a Black Tide, for free. Otherwise, it’s .99 cents.

If you’d like to check out the other stuff I write, mostly horror, there’s a whole bunch of that free on the internet. There’s a fairly comprehensive list on the blog with links right here, but I’ll list a couple of my favorites below.

  1. “Night Games” – This is a story about vampires and baseball. Yep, you heard that right. Read it from Devilfish Review or listen to Pseudopod’s awesome audio version.
  2. “Scare Tactics” – A parapsychologist and her pet demon get up to some supernatural hijinks in this one.  This is another one you can read at Devilfish Review or check out a fun audio version from Dunesteef.
  3. “Cowtown” – My most recent publication, “Cowtown” is a flash fiction piece (1,000 words) that mixes horror and comedy. You can read that one at The Arcanist

Anyway, please vote in the poll if you’re so inclined, and if you have any questions about any of my work, ask away in the comments.

Acts of War: Aftershock Now Available

If you’ve been following this blog over that last 30 weeks or so, you’ve seen me document the process of writing, revising, and editing my novel Acts of War: Aftershock. Well, today, all that work comes to fruition. Acts of War: Aftershock is now available in eBook and print formats from all the usual suspects.

War Has Come Again to Llael

On the heels of inflicting defeat upon the Khadorans at Riversmet, Lord General Coleman Stryker marches deeper into enemy territory to prepare a major assault. But he is unprepared for the avalanche of a massive Khadoran counterstrike. Empress Ayn Vanar and Supreme Kommandant Irusk send their nation’s most fearsome warcasters to retaliate against the invaders and secure her conquered territories at any cost. Hope comes in the form of Ashlynn d’Elyse, warcaster and leader of the Llaelese Resistance, a woman with no love for Cygnar but who could make for a powerful ally if convinced to help. Along with Asheth Magnus, Stryker’s enemy-turned-ally, this unlikely team must fight to persevere despite being outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and cornered with only their wits and a few warjacks to save their cause from utter annihilation…

Get an eBook – $7.99:

Get it in Print $15.99:

And, of course, if you haven’t read the first book in the series, Acts of War: Flashpoint, you can get that right here.

Get it in Print – $14.99