Like Lick-Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey, by Glen Hirshberg

Under the heat there’s a coldness, and even the coldness can’t be pinned down… His fleeting pleasures and undeniable pain aren’t so much depthless as unfathomable.”

         — Robert Christgau on George Jones in Growing Up All Wrong

 

“Take the goddamn gun out of your mouth and give me a Juicy Fruit.”

Sophie leans back her head with the barrel on her tongue and the sea wind whipping through the trees, through the car-window into her bobbing blonde hair. The road rolls on before them through the Georgia pines, and the headlights play across it like stones they’re skipping.

“You can still taste that?” she says. “You like that taste?”

“Take the goddamn gun out of your mouth,” says Natalie, and puts a hand to her own windblown hair.

It looks blacker in this light, Sophie thinks. Or it is blacker. She lowers the gun from her lips. “Better?”

“Juicy Fruit,” says Natalie.

Sophie pads her hand around the glove-box until she finds the last stick of gum, shriveled into its foil wrapper like a dead caterpillar. She hands it to Natalie.

“Ugh. Even touching it gives me the wallies. How can you eat that?”

“This from the woman last seen sucking a gun barrel.”

Natalie glances down to unwrap the gum, and the car swerves onto the gravel shoulder before she catches the wheel with her knees and jerks it back toward the road.

“Watch your driving,” Sophie says.

“So can I see the nothing when I hit it?”

“Seriously,” says Sophie. “You’re going to wreck us.”

Wrenching the wheel to the right, Natalie spins the car onto a dirt trail, and they bump along it until the pines clear and they’re idling in front of three sand dunes that have humped up out of the ground, side by side, like whales surfacing. The moonlight burns their sand-skin white. Natalie shuts off the car.

“You know,” Sophie says, “a gun is just like a Lick Em Stick someone stuck a trigger on.”

“What?”

“A gun is just like—”

“And there you have it. The single dumbest thing I have ever heard. And I’ve been driving around with you all night, every night, for almost a month.”

“And sharing Moon Pies and tent-sleepovers and “Gilmore Girls” and at least two boyfriends for a good twenty years before that.”

“I’m trying to block all that out.”

“And yet, a gun is like a Lick Em Stick someone—”

“A gun is nothing like a Lick Em Stick anyone stuck anything on. A gun couldn’t be less like a Lick Em Stick if it were a…Guns aren’t even straight. And even if they were. Saying something’s like something else because they have sort of the same shape—or not at all the same shape, in this case—is just stupid. It’s like saying a brain is just like a sponge-blob someone stuck a thought in.”

“Now, see, that’s just cynical, that’s what that is. It’s worse. It’s nihilistic.”

Nihil. Rhymes with bile.

“Oh. I thought it was nil. Rhymes with kill.”

Natalie’s slap rocks Sophie’s head off the seat-rest into the door. “Shit,” she says, “I’m sorry.”

“Didn’t hurt.” Sophie sits up. Natalie puts her cold hand on her friend’s cold cheek.

“Sorry,” she says.

“For what?”

“Three weeks,” Natalie murmurs.

“As of tonight,” says Sophie. “I know.”

“I’m hungry.”

“Me, too.”

They watch the dunes, waiting for them to sink, but they don’t. Unconsciously, Natalie fishes in the pocket of her denim skirt and draws a cigarette from the crumpled pack. The second the cigarette touches her lips, before she has even thought of lighting it, she gags, spits it out the window into the sand.

“Well, hell,” she says. “I’m cured.”

“One good thing, anyway,” Sophie says. “Hey, maybe we could open a business. Let them pick us, instead of our picking them.”

“Shut up, Sophie.”

“Guaranteed to work. They get their lungs, we get—”

“Shut up.”

Reedy sand-grass nuzzles against the sides of the car, and the stars dangle like a mobile. Somewhere not too far, an alligator bellows.

“Nat?” Sophie half-whispers. “Let’s just go see them. We could just look in the window. Please, let’s–”

“Sophie, I swear to God, don’t—”

“Just to see. Just once more. Those little faces. Little feet.”

Natalie starts the car, grinds into reverse, wrenches the wheel around and sends it bumping back down the trail. When they reach the asphalt, she fishtails onto it, her wheels kicking up a spray of dirt like a Jet-ski throwing wake. They hurtle down the rolling road between the pines.

“You hit some nothing,” Sophie says, lifting the gun off the seat and sticking the barrel back between her teeth.

“Baby,” says Natalie.

****

Sometime just after midnight, Natalie surprises Sophie by pulling into the parking lot of a Waffle House. The building is low and brick. Teenagers crowd around two booths near the front, and a couple of solitary truckers sip coffee in the back. Through the grime and the flittering moths on the windows, all of them look yellow.

“Where are we?” Sophie says, and fabricates a yawn. Yawning, of all things, turns out to be something she genuinely misses.

“Waffle House,” says Natalie.

Sophie smiles. “Thanks, Sparky. Waffle House where?”

“Waffle House is its own where.” Again, Natalie reaches into her pocket for a cigarette. But this time she doesn’t even glance at her hands, just tosses the whole pack out the window. “No,” she says. “Waffle House is nowhere. Always.” And she looks at Sophie.

“Oh, shit,” says Sophie, and her tongue sneaks onto her lips. “Here? Now? It’s time?”

Natalie puts a hand to her own chin. The hand doesn’t shake, but she wants it to. Wishes it would. “I don’t know. How do we know? The bastard didn’t say. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.”

“I’m going to call them,” Sophie says, catching Natalie off-guard, and before she can grab an arm and stop her, she’s out of the car, walking fast into the shadows of the pines.

Natalie considers giving chase, opens the door to do just that. Then she just sits with her legs swung onto the pavement, feeling the sticky night air rush up her skirt. So warm. How did they stand it all those years? From this distance, all she can see is her friend’s silhouette. The stocky, bouncy frame—like a gym-bag full of volleyballs, Sophie’s fiance Willie used to say happily, stroking her thigh–the blond head bobbing. Phone against her ear.

Against her ear. With her baby boy’s voice filling it.

Unless she’s talking to Natalie’s baby boy.

At the last second, Sophie senses her coming, whirls around as her friend swoops out of the light and rips at the phone. “They’re not home,” she squeals, but Natalie’s long nails are raking the inside of her wrist and the phone has flown from her hands. “Ow,” she says.

“What do you mean they’re not home?” Natalie drops to her knees, padding around in the shadows for the phone. “It’s after midnight, where would they be?”

“Maybe your mom did what you said. Maybe she took them. Maybe they’re gone, and we won’t ever—”

Silencing her with a growl, Natalie stands with the phone in her hand, staring like it’s a heart she’s ripped out. Then she slams it to the pavement and stomps it to pieces.

When she looks up a few seconds later, meaning to apologize, wanting to clutch her oldest friend to her and scream, Sophie is gazing over her shoulder. Natalie turns slowly and sees the trucker.

Just a boy, really. Long, lanky southern boy, skin like a slicked summer peach and an alligator smile he hasn’t mastered and doesn’t mean.

“Well, damn,” he says, and then his smile goes slack, and Natalie feels a twinge, a real one. You’re not so far over your head, she wants to tell him. Don’t stop now.

Or else, Stop right now. Turn around. Run.

“Thelma and Louise,” Sophie whispers, and Natalie jerks back to herself.

“What?”

“Thelma and Louise. Taking back the night. Look at him. He’s perfect.”

“Sophie…”

“Who’d miss him?”

I would, Natalie thinks, knows that makes no sense and probably isn’t true, and steps into the light. Even from ten feet away, she can feel him vibrate like a string she’s struck.

“Well, damn,” the boy says again, swaying in place. He takes a woozy step forward.

“Don’t,” Natalie murmurs, and he takes another step. Still five feet between them, but she can already taste his breath, bubble-gummed and maple syrupped and hot with him. It’s as though she’s developed a new shark-sensitivity to every twitching, fumbling, ridiculous movement living things make.

“Don’t,” she says again, and he steps closer still.

“But I really want to,” he murmurs. So close, now. His mouth so near. His cheeks no longer yellow but sweetly tan and red.

“So do I,” she says.

“Thelma and Louise,” chants Sophie. “Thelma and Louise.”

Grabbing her wrist, Natalie yanks her past the kid toward the Waffle House. She really has to pull because Sophie is jamming her feet down like anchors, and from her mouth comes a brand-new, mewing sound. The kid shudders, desire unfurling from him like a sail. They weren’t home, Natalie thinks. They’re gone. Oh, Mom. Thank you. She practically has to hurl Sophie into the restaurant while holding the door with her hip.

For a second, she thinks Sophie’s going to turn on her, that they’re going to have it out once and for all. But there’s something instantly soothing in here, familiar in a way almost nothing else has been these past few weeks. The fluorescents are bright, the music on the radio is Buck Owens, and the dead-eyed, red-haired counterwoman halfway smiles as she nods them toward a booth. All they have to do is…act naturally.

But there’s a mother and daughter at the counter. The mother is wrapped in bright-colored scarves, and the daughter, who can’t be more than twelve, is feeding her French fries. Maps lay spread in front of them between the ketchup bottles. The woman tucks a stray strand of hair behind her daughter’s ear and laughs. Natalie’s mouth has formed an O. Her heart isn’t really hammering, she knows.

“Well, hi, y’all,” Sophie says to the teens in the front booth.

They’re staring, of course. The girls, too, though the too-thin redhead in the back is forcing her eyes down to the table, playing pitifully with her napkin. She looks like a French fry dipped in ketchup, barely noticeable even when she’s right in front of you, and she knows it. God, Natalie remembers that sensation. Remembers whole Saturdays traipsing around the Goodwills with her mother, trying to find clothes to bring out the blue in her eyes. The only feature she was sure she could do anything with. Once, not more than a year ago, when they were sitting half-drunk on the lawn chairs in the dirt, Natalie’s mother had told her, “It’s so sad, really. One more proof of just how much God hates women. You only really start to radiate sexuality—the confident kind, the kind that’s you and that you really intend—long after you have any use for it. Also long after it’s probably healthy for you to have it.”

A wise woman, Natalie’s mother. Wise today, anyway, now that she’s a grandmother at 37 with a double-wide and two new babies to look after, only one of them blood-related, neither of them hers. Is she that wise, though? Has she really gone? Natalie doesn’t think so. And even if she has gone, she’s left a trail. In the hopes that Natalie will come one day and find her.

Veering away from the booth, she tugs Sophie to the counter and orders a double patty melt to go.

“Hey,” Sophie says. “That sounds so good.” She orders one, too. Behind them, the teenagers return uneasily to themselves.

“Be just a minute,” the counterwoman says.

Natalie fumbles in her pockets for the cigarette pack. Patsy comes on the radio, “Walking After Midnight,” and Sophie makes clip-clops to the beat with the salt and pepper shakers.

“You know,” she says, in the chirping-bird voice Natalie has loved since they were kindergarteners. “A patty melt’s just like a dead thing someone slapped cheese and onions on.”

Smiling, grateful, Natalie turns. “That doesn’t work at all.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not a metaphor. It’s not even a comparison. It’s just what it is.”

“Well, that there’s the difference between you and me, Nat. I call things what they are.”

“I think I’ll go throw up, now.”

“Got to eat something first,” Sophie says, grinning, and Natalie feels sick but starts to smile back anyway, and then the woman in the scarves touches her hand.

“Oh, honey,” says the woman. “You’re just like me.”

Stunned, Natalie almost collapses right there. She turns shakily, but all she can see is black and gray hair sneaking from under the scarves on top of the woman’s head.

“What do you mean?” Natalie whispers.

“Cold all the time,” the woman says. “Bad circulation. I can’t ever get warm. Want your fortune read?”

“What?”

“Come on, she needs the practice,” says the woman’s daughter. “No paying customers for a week. I’m going to the bathroom, Mom.” Hopping off the stool, the girl wanders away.

The counterwoman returns with the burgers in a bag, and Natalie turns to go, but Sophie pushes her down onto the stool.

“Give her good news,” Sophie says to the woman. “She could use some.” She keeps her hands on Natalie’s shoulders while the woman produces a deck of cards and shuffles them. Natalie’s mother was better at shuffling. Bad at winning, though.

Humming a melody Natalie assumes is meant to be gypsy but sounds like Patsy out of tune, the woman shuffles again, then fans the cards on top of the map.

“Touch two,” she says, and Natalie does.

The woman sets aside Natalie’s choices, reshuffles the deck, fans it open again.

“And two more.”

Natalie touches two more. The woman smiles. Her teeth are grainy and brown, but her black eyes are bright.

“Good. Let’s see what we can know.” The woman turns over a card. A black ace, Natalie thinks, from the brief glimpse she gets, then a second one. The woman’s hands slow, and her smile twitches.

“That’s not funny,” says Natalie, her voice a bobcat-murmur, her whole body tensing. “You have no idea how not funny—”

“I’m sorry,” the woman says. “I did this wrong. Out of practice, as my daughter told you. I’ll just reshuffle, and we’ll…” Suddenly, her smile vanishes completely, and she looks up. “Oh,” she says. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Goddamn it.”

From the direction of the bathroom comes a giggle which explodes abruptly into full-blown laughter. The daughter is still laughing as she hurtles past the stools, past the teenagers in the front booths, and out of the restaurant.

Staring after her, the woman in the scarves stands and begins to collect her things and fold the maps. She flips over the deck so Natalie and Sophie can see it. Every single card is a black ace.

“She thinks she’s hilarious,” the woman says. “Thinks she’s Tina fucking Fey. I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t scare you.” On impulse, she reaches into her purse and lays down an extra ten dollars on top of her check. “For your patty melts.” She leaves.

A few moments later, after Sophie has slathered her burger in ketchup, she and Natalie follow. Back in the car, Natalie switches on the radio and dials through the stations until she finds the one from the Waffle House. It’s Loretta, this time, sending ‘em all to Fist City.

“This is the best DJ on earth,” she says, tears streaming down her face. Real tears. How did those get there?

“Wow,” Sophie says.

“Shut up,” says Natalie, and pulls them out of the lot into the dark.

****

“You know,” Sophie says, after they’ve driven another long while, the pines far behind them and in their place peach trees squatting in rows on their stubby trunks like old women under hair-dryers at the beauty salon, “she’s got it all wrong.”

George Jones on the radio this time, the static sewn into his voice like a smoker’s rasp. Singing flat and sad, no drama at all. “Just a Girl I Used to Know.”

“Who?” Natalie murmurs.

“Tina Fey.”

“Has got it wrong?”

Sophie swats her on the arm. But carefully. Or at least softly. Not like Natalie swats, these days.

“Tina Fey wouldn’t be the daughter loading the deck. She’d be the customer getting mistakenly told she was going to die.”

“You think so?”

“Complications would ensue.”

“Complications.”

“Hello? Ground control to Natalie Robot? Switch brain back to on position. Over.”

“We have to get rid of these burgers,” Natalie says, and Sophie looses an explosive sigh.

“My God, yes, even the smell is giving me the wallies.”

“The willies, goddamnit.”

“I know.”
“Well, what’s wrong with the willies?”

“I liked my Willy,” Sophie says.

Natalie almost rockets them off the road. One good kick to the pedal, a quick swerve, and they’d be launched through the peach trees. Maybe if they got going fast enough, they’d just fizz away into the dark like an Alka Seltzer tablet. Which is a Sophie comparison if ever there was one.

She glances toward her friend. Sophie’s the one crying, now. The sight makes Natalie furious, but she has no idea at what.

“Nat, I’m so hungry,” Sophie says. “We have to choose.”

“I know,” says Natalie.

“Anyone you want, Nat. Any way you want to do it. Anything you think is fair. We can’t shirk it. We can’t pretend we can avoid it. It’s just—”

“What do you suggest, Sophie?” Natalie doesn’t mean to start shouting, barely notices that she is. “Next breakdown victim? Next guy in bad pants? Oh, I know, how about next black dude, you always had a thing for black dudes.”

“That’s just mean.”

“Damn right.”

“Natalie, I’m serious. It’s killing me.”

“Maybe we should let it kill us.”

“You know it won’t work. You know what he said. It’ll be like trying to kill yourself holding your breath. In the end, instinct will take over. Then we’ll just act. We won’t have any choice. That’s what he said. Is that what you want?”

“He said a lot of things. Maybe we’re stronger than he is.”

“Maybe you are, Nat.”

Natalie can’t even remember his face. Can’t remember whether it hurt. Can’t even remember how she and Sophie wound up with him that night. But she can see him straightening over her, mouth already dripping with her. The pull of him overwhelming, sucking up every little passing ball of magically cohering, animated dust like a black hole. She’d wanted him to kiss her some more.

No. She’d wanted to feed herself to him.

What will it be like? she’d asked, not really caring.

And he’d actually paused for a second, as though between courses, or maybe he was thinking about it for the first time. Eventually, he shrugged.

Like coming loose. Like letting go of all those stupid, prickling, hurtful sensations you were always told are what matters. Like a slow slipping away. Same thing that happens to everyone before they die. Only it won’t be slow. And you won’t die.

As he’d finished her, Natalie had thought of her mother. And now, she thought of her mother’s resigned, almost dispassionate reaction later that same night when Natalie banged on the door, handed her her grandson and also Sophie’s son, and told her she should disappear. Leave no trace. And never come back.

He’d been right, of course. What’s happening isn’t slow. Just not quite fast enough.

“Natalie,” Sophie whimpers.

“Shush.” Natalie leans her head back, closes her eyes, feels them roaring into the blankness. Watch out, nothing. Bad moon rising.

“Natalie, what if we went home?”

“Shut the fuck up.”

She opens her eyes just in time to see the deer’s flank as they slam into it. The animal’s head snaps sideways and the antlers bang down on the hood so hard that the back wheels come off the asphalt momentarily, and when Natalie jams on the break, the thing doesn’t fly off, it stays stuck a second and then just slides down the grille, the bones booming as they splinter underneath like

4th of July firecrackers. Even as they skid to a stop, Natalie knows there’s part of it still trapped in the rear tires, its weight like a trailer pull dragging them back.

“Oh my God,” Sophie whines. “Oh my God.”

Natalie is gripping the wheel so hard, her knuckles are threatening to explode through her skin. With a grunt, she makes herself let go, draws her hands into her lap.

“You hit it,” Sophie says.

“You think?”

“Is it dead?”

Opening her mouth to give that the response it deserves, Natalie freezes. Then she turns. Sophie shrinks back. It takes an absurdly, almost endearingly long time before understanding dawns.

Neither of them has any idea whose throat is making that sound as they spin to their doors, wrench them open, and leap from the car. The animal is a splayed, shredded ruin locked to the bumper, its head bent up under the rear axle and its antlers shattered all over the road. Natalie and Sophie dive together into the pumping gore in its crumpled ribs like little kids diving for candy in a burst piñata. Blood saturates Natalie’s skirt, pools around her thighs when she kneels atop a rib and snaps it as she plunges her face down, almost banging her forehead against Sophie’s. The sound Sophie is making might be laughter. Natalie reaches out as she buries her lips in the foam, spitting aside the hairy skin, and strokes her friend’s hair.

Sophie is the first to straighten, moments later. Natalie follows, settling back on her haunches, her fingers still twisted in Sophie’s hair. Gently, she disentangles them and lets go. Sophie’s face has twisted up, and she’s spitting over and over, trying to clear the taste from her teeth and her lips. Natalie just wipes a disgusted hand repeatedly across her own mouth. Still kneeling in the mangled deer, they stare at one another.

“So…” Sophie finally murmurs, glancing down one more time at the animal, then back at Natalie. “We’re vegetarians?”

Natalie closes her eyes, shudders just once, opens her eyes.

“Humanitarians?” Sophie says.

They stand together, their arms around each other, bits of cartilage clinging to their skin, their legs and skirts dripping. Natalie is about to return to the car when Sophie’s hands tighten on her arms.

“Nat,” she says. “I’m going home.”

“What?”

“Just listen, okay? Stop looking at me like that and pretending you’re better and be my friend and listen.”

“Okay,” Natalie whispers. Merle on the radio, sweeping gently out the open driver’s side door. “Mama Tried.”

“I’ve been thinking about this. A lot. And what I’ve been thinking is–seriously, now, just wait, just hear me out–what better gift could a mother give her children?”

“Sophie…”

“Think about it, Nat. I am. I can’t stop. He’s all I think about. His little feet. God, his little feet. We could be back there in three hours. We could be with our children three hours from now, and never have to leave them again.”

“Sophie, please, you’ve got to–”

“What did you hope for when Eddie was born, Nat? What did you think you could do for him? What did you want for him? How about no worries, ever? How about no pain? Ever.”

“Sophie, you need to—”

“How about living forever?”

It was like a cobra strike, Natalie thinks seconds later, her teeth still buried in the softness under her best friend’s chin, Sophie’s dead, twitchless body flat beneath her. Like a goddamn bolt of lightning, Natalie thinks as she gulps and drinks. The only concern she’d had at the instant she’d acted was that it wouldn’t taste good. Would make her retch and gag like the deer had.

And it was cold, alright. A little sour, not quite right. But it tastes fine. She’s still lapping away, burying her face deeper in Sophie’s throat, hips rocking side to side to Merle’s rhythm. It tastes fine.

*

© 2008 by Glen Hirshberg. All rights reserved. “Like Lick ‘Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey” first appeared in KRDR: Welcome to the Ether, The Rolling Darkness Revue‘s 2008 chapbook, and is reproduced with permission.

Glen Hirshberg is an award-winning author of spectral fiction. 

Sebyth (artwork) is old and usually unseen. Sebyth draws stuff and plays video games and doesn’t get out much. There are whispers of elves and strange games.

Interview with Glen Hirshberg

 

Glen Hirshberg is the Shirley Jackson Award-winning author of the novel Motherless Child and its forthcoming sequel Good Girls.

Glen Hirshberg is the Shirley Jackson Award-winning author of the novel Motherless Child and its forthcoming sequel Good Girls.

 

 

It is likely no secret to PstD’s readers that we are admirers of Glen Hirshberg’s fiction. After all, our project’s title itself is a nod to the Rolling Darkness Revue, the theatrical terror-tale troupe that he co-founded with Peter Atkins and Dennis Etchison, and Hirshberg was among the authors interviewed in our inaugural issue following the RDR’s one and only (so far…) stint in Canada.

Hirshberg ranks among the most accomplished living writers of psychologically incisive dark fiction. His work coils, quiet and insistent, in the interstice between the strange stories of Robert Aickman and the humane grotesques of Flannery O’Connor.

So, given the high esteem in which I hold Hirshberg’s fiction, August 2014 was a singularly fortuitous month for me, largely because it brought me two, count them, opportunities to hear him read (first at ReaderCon in Boston, then during his ChiSeries Toronto engagement), and to benefit from some of the loping, capacious, deeply sympathetic and startlingly insightful conversations that I have come to expect from him.

His readings included excerpts from Good Girls, the forthcoming sequel to his penetrating second novel, Motherless Child. These excerpts in part answered the question I’ve been gnawing at since absorbing the stark and potent conclusion to that novel: how the hell is Hirshberg going to bring forth a sequel from an ending like that?

This interview was conducted via email in late October 2014. It is included here alongside a reprint of Hirshberg’s short story “Like Lick Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey,” first published in the Rolling Darkness Revue’s 2008 chapbook. This story is the germ from which Motherless Child grew, and appears in an altered form as the eleventh chapter in that novel.

As you’ll see, while in this brief exchange Glen does offer a number of those startling insights I mentioned earlier, he doesn’t give much away as far as what readers can expect from Good Girls.

Still, I’ve no doubt they can expect to be swept up, unsettled, and surprised.

SM: Thanks for agreeing to answer some questions for us, Glen. While I’m sure most of our readers will be familiar with you and your work, I’m nonetheless going to ask you to start by telling us a little about yourself, your life, your writing and how the two interact…?

GH: It’s hard to know where to start. I’m pretty sure I’ve been writing since I was two (or maybe before that; I just started having enough language to get the stories out around two). Part of the trick with being a writer is always finding a way to have some sort of life while you’re at it, and I’ve been lucky. I have a solid marriage, great kids, and after a few years as an arts and rock music critic, I stumbled into teaching, found I love that, and have had a pretty satisfying second professional life while hammering away at my first.

SM: You’ve had a lot of interesting things to say in earlier interviews and conversations about the label “horror,” especially where your fiction is concerned. What are your thoughts on this now that you’ve got a three-book deal with Tor, and are becoming more popularly visible? Are you more, or less, concerned about being pigeonholed as a “horror writer?”

GH: I’ve pretty much decided that whatever concerns I might have had, they’re irrelevant. Let me be read by enough people and become enough a part of the conversation that pigeonholing becomes a problem. Because I genuinely enjoy my teaching life and have made a passable living that way, I do not have to write anything I don’t want to. So I try not to do that, and I try to put out nothing that isn’t up to my own standards for my own work. Everything else feels like something I can’t—and am increasingly uninterested in trying to—control.

SM: As you might recall, it was your, and Peter Atkin’s, visit to Ottawa way back in 2010 as the Rolling Darkness Revue, and a short story competition we organized as part of that, that was the impetus for PstD’s creation. Can you talk a little about how the RDR has changed and developed in recent years? Is there a 2014 iteration? Can you tell us a little about it? Any writers you have plans to, or a strong desire to, tour with in the near future?

GH: The biggest change in RDR over the years has been the evolution of the framing story. In the first few years, that was pretty minimal, a sketch of a situation intended solely to create an atmosphere for the readings. But in the last five years or so, the framing play has become a full-on play, absolutely central to the experience. Key in the development of that has been Pete’s and my creation of our alter-egos, Algy and Arty, a sort of cheerfully and obliviously damned Laurel and Hardy pair, who die at the end of the show pretty much every year and then come back for more the next year. Pete and I have come to enjoy imagining their deaths and creating their banter almost as much as we do writing our own pieces every year.

 The other key change involves our ongoing negotiations with the estate of Thomas St. John Bartlett, the lost Edwardian near-genius, which have allowed us to reintroduce (or, in some cases, debut) one story per year by this exceptionally gifted and all but forgotten artist as part of the show. The new Bartlett story is usually performed by our longtime partner, the fine actor Kevin Gregg. As a result, we have featured less guest stars in the past few years.

In 2014, we decided to take a one-year hiatus, mostly because I am working feverishly trying to hit a deadline for Good Girls, the sequel to Motherless Child, which will be published by Tor in 2015. But we fully expect (and already have plans in motion for) the 10th anniversary show next fall.

As for touring, we love to do that, and will be happy to explore possibilities with any group or organization willing to help us explore ways to fund the trip.

SM: We are thrilled to be able to reprint “Like Lick Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey” here on the site for our readers, many of whom may not have previously read it. Can you tell us a little about the origins and history of the story?

GH: The editor Ellen Datlow asked me if I could write a vampire story for an anthology she was compiling. I responded with a snooty e-mail saying, “I don’t write vampire stories.” A week later, I woke up with Natalie and Sophie—the two young women at the heart of this story and of the Motherless Children trilogy—chattering in my head. They haven’t shut up since.

SM:  Can you tell us a little about the process whereby “Like Lick Em Sticks…” grew into the novel? When did you start getting the sense that this short piece wanted to become something longer? What was it that drew you back to Natalie and Sophie’s fictional world? Did you find your sense of, or relationship to, the characters had changed in the intervening period?

GH: After I finished “Lick-Em Sticks,” I wrote Ellen and told her apparently I did write vampire stories. She wrote back to say that was great, but the anthology wasn’t happening anymore, so good luck with that. Eventually, I used the piece as a Rolling Darkness Revue story. About a year later, I stirred from a daydream realizing I knew what happened five minutes after the end of the story, and also five minutes before the story started. Really, there was just something about these women and their relationship to each other and the world—and to monsters—that really compelled me. I started writing about them again. Motherless Child poured out pretty quickly from there. Once again, I thought I’d finished with Natalie and Sophie after that. When Tor bought the reprint rights, they asked if I wanted to do a trilogy. I told them I didn’t do vampire trilogies. This time, it took Natalie and Sophie all of 24 hours to inform me otherwise.

SM: When I heard you read “Like Lick Em Sticks….” for the first time during a Dusty Owl Reading Series engagement in Ottawa in (I believe it was) the spring of 2009, you wryly commented that this is the vampire story “you never expected to write.” Can you tell us about your initial reticence to dip your pen into the ink of literary vampirism? What it was that changed your mind?

GH: They just frankly never interested me much. The only archetypal monster that interests me less is zombies (and I’m fairly sure that I really don’t do zombie stories). My reticence had mostly to do with my own sense that I had nothing to add to the canon, rather than any market reasoning. The truth is, all stories are overdone, until someone comes up with a way of telling them that feels new or fresh or just emotionally and intellectually compelling and necessary, at which point they’re rendered new again. Natalie and Sophie changed my mind about vampires. I loved their voices, felt their world fall into place around me. After that, I wasn’t reticent anymore.

SM: Whistler, Mother and their kind are compelling, and quite original, vampires. Can you tell us about how your conception of vampirism in this fictional world evolved? Some of the fictions and ideas that most influenced it?

GH: If I was going to write a vampire story, I wanted to make the vampires monstrous, threatening, nothing you could fight. I tried actively not to be influenced by or respond to any previous conceptions. Instead, I tried to focus on what meeting—and also being—one of these things might actually be like. In the end, that led me to my monsters, who I certainly hope are original, but hope even more are terrifying, alluring, and occasionally weirdly sympathetic even in their monstrousness.

SM: What are your favourite literary and cinematic fictions of vampirism? What is it about them that most impressed you?

GH: Well, as I said, it really isn’t my favorite archetype. But I love good storytelling and art-making wherever I find it. In film, I love some of the Hammers—Brides of Dracula, especially, with its rampant atmosphere and sensuality—and Near Dark for its grit and Nosferatu for its flickery menace and Vampyr for its relentless, suffocating ambiance and astonishing visuals and Let the Right One In for pretty much all of the above.

On the page, Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” remains the gold standard for me, at once mesmerizing and sensualized and weirdly touching. Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot is one of his most perfect marriages of that nostalgia/childhood thing he does so well and vicious, monstrous menace (and I thought both tv versions were pretty good, too, for different reasons). Most recently, Nathan Ballingrud has a fantastically nasty, bleak little story called “Sunbleached” that boasts the most irredeemably rotten vampire in recent memory.

SM: Music is of central importance to much of your fiction, – asked about your favourite music in an earlier interview with GingerNuts of Horror, you replied:

I love writing to the spectral, brooding landscapes of Richard Skelton or the artic vastness of Tomas Koner. I like blissing out to Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground and the Fuck Buttons and the Digable Planets. I like imagining trading stories with Guy Clark and Todd Snider and Eileen Rose and Nathan Bell and Thomas Anderson, or revving up with Wire and Sleater-Kinney. I like vanishing off the edge of the Earth to (or with) Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead.” –

 Can you tell us a little more about the role music plays in your writing (process and product alike) in general?

GH: I’m honestly not sure what else I can add. I have always written to music—usually something hypnotic and emotionally evocative that helps drop me into that half-conscious writing state that is most productive for me. Come to think of it, I pretty much live to music. I’m a pretty ordered thinker. Music shakes the order out of me and transports me to healthier, stranger places.

SM: More specifically, can you speak to the way music informs and shapes Motherless Child and its characters (for example, why the title itself is derived from a Bob Dylan tune, why Natalie’s point of view is suffused with rock and blues references, and how the Pied-Piper-like Whistler’s vampirism is intrinsically tied to his musicality?)

GH: The title isn’t derived from a Bob Dylan tune, but from the old Negro spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” For the vampires, and especially for the Whistler, music is the closest they can get to approximating feelings and relationships they long for, possibly even remember, but can’t quite feel, at least not in the way they did while they were living. I was also gnawing away at something that has always frightened me, frankly, something about the way being an artist detaches you not from feeling but from the immediacy of feeling. There’s a line in a Thomas Mann story about how the artist gives up almost nothing of himself in the pursuit of his career, except the ability to share any experience he his having with other human beings at the moment the experience is happening. That line always scared the shit out of me, and so I guess I wasn’t surprised to find it surfacing here. As for Natalie and Sophie, they just each find different ways to colour and enhance their lives with music, as opposed to living vicariously through it.

SM: Do you have an imagined “soundtrack” to the novel? If so, what would be on it?

GH: At one point not long after the book first came out, I started a blog project through which I was going to write about every song referenced in Motherless Child. I got maybe six or seven posts in, hadn’t even gotten close to the end of chapter 1, realized there are at least 200 songs referenced in the book, and gave up.

I did, however, have a blast writing a Book Notes column for the Largeheartedboy blog about the use of music in the novel and some of the key songs, and anything else I could say on the subject would just be repeating. If anyone’s interested, you can find that piece here.

SM: The sequel to Motherless Child, Good Girls, is to be released from Tor Books shortly. Can you give our readers a sense of what to expect from the novel, and from the subsequent conclusion to the trilogy?

GH: All I’ll say at this point is that I’m not one to write the same book twice, and that I wasn’t going to undermine the ending of Motherless Child. Good Girls continues the story, intertwines it with a few new ones, gives a richer sense of where my vampires might have come from, and does a fair bit of exploring of just what a “good girl” might be and who gets to say. I’m about to turn it in. About a month ago, I started feeling pretty excited about it. That feeling hasn’t left me since. Sometimes—most times—that’s been a good sign, for me…

 

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The Peculiar Salesgirl, by Nicole Cushing

The Peculiar Sales GirlOne way to avoid the peculiar salesgirl is to never shop at the North Vernon Skin-Mart in the first place. Avoid the store proper. Avoid the entire dingy, crumbling outlet mall if you can. Avoid the walls festooned with unimaginative graffiti scrawled by white trash pseudo-gangstas. Avoid the fractured pavement of the parking lot, overgrown with weeds sprouting in-between the cracks and littered with beer cans and condoms. Avoid, even, the Rustbelt town (just a few miles up I-65) itself. You won’t miss much. It’s less a town, really, than the fossil of one. Avoid it, and you’ll be safe.

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Interview with Nicole Cushing

Nicole Cushing's "Children of No One" was nominated for a Hugo Award.

Nicole Cushing’s “Children of No One” was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award.

I got my first taste of Nicole Cushing’s fiction in the summer of 2013 when I picked up a copy of Joe Pulver’s Shirley Jackson Award-winning anthology The Grimscribe’s Puppets. The bleak but deeply sympathetic tone of her contribution was enough to drive me to seek out more of her work immediately, as well as to send out a few feelers to the writer herself; feelers that eventually resulted in this featured-author interview. The interview took place gradually via email in June, July, and early August 2014. During that time, I had the great pleasure of meeting Nicole in the flesh at Readercon 2014, where her novella Children of No One was also a Jackson nominee. In addition, at a late stage of our exchange, Nicole’s novel-in-progress was picked up for publication, and she (and her publisher, Ross Lockhart’s WordHorde) were gracious enough to let me read a late draft of it. On that basis, I recommend our readers seek out Mr. Suicide when it hits print, as it is a vital piece of dark fiction. As styptic as it is Stygian, it creeps across an uneasy borderland between horror, humour, and outright bizarrerie, managing to balance a Selby-esque sense of grim sympathy for life’s ineluctable sufferings with a Ligottian invocation of their obviation.

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Snow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

psd-snow-600x600The decapitated snowman stood by the front of the dorm. Its head lay at its feet. She remembered a random comment a student had yelled the night before, during the party: the end of the world is now.

Emma tied the scarf around her neck and trudged towards the dining hall. It was almost empty. The majority of students had already left. The remaining ones were busy hauling their dirty laundry off campus for their mothers to wash during the winter break. Emma had planned to spend Christmas break with Colin, in Los Angeles. But they’d broken up before finals.

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An Interview with Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia was a finalist for the 2014 Sunburst Award.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia was a finalist for the 2014 Sunburst Award.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a vital voice in contemporary speculative fiction (especially in the weirder regions we at Postscripts to Darkness gravitate towards) and a pre-eminent figure in the landscape of Canadian small-press publishing. She is co-editor of Innsmouth Free Press, a micro-press specializing in dark fiction, and the editor of a number of influential themed collections of short fiction published by Exile, including Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction and Fractured: Tales of the Canadian Post-Apocalypse. I had the pleasure of reading Silvia’s startling, unsettling and evocative debut collection of short fiction, This Strange Way of Dying, earlier this summer, and recommend it highly. The stories in this collection combine vivid atmosphere, depths of insight, and memorable characters with brevity and focus. Silvia’s new novel Signal to Noise (which hits print in March 2015) can be pre-ordered here. This interview was conducted via email over the course of July and August 2014.

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Volume 5 Launch: Toronto

Artwork by Cherry Valance

Artwork by Cherry Valance

Please join us at the ROUND venue on Sunday, September 21 at 7pm for the Toronto launch of Postscripts to Darkness 5 (152a Augusta). We’ll have a stellar array of readers, including our current Featured Writer Michael Rowe (author of contemporary classics of Canadian horror Enter, Night and Wild Fell), Sandra Kasturi (award-winning author of the poetry collections The Animal Bridegroom and We Come Late to the Love of Birds, co-owner of ChiZine Publications, and the featured poet of our forthcoming Volume 6), Matt Moore (Aurora-nominated author of many unsettling short stories, including “Balance” in PstD 5) and Laura deHaan (author of a number of short strange stories including the unforgettable “Cracks” in PstD 4). Here be readings, some speculative songstering by the incomparable Kari Maaren, weird trivia and weirder prizes, and some delicious drinks in the ROUND’s vibrant atmosphere. (Note that while the kitchen will be closed for this after-dinner event, free snacks will be available, as will, of course, full bar service.)

Ghosts, by Michael Rowe

paintingIn the summer of 2009, I was invited by Jeff Harrison, the editor of Autumnplay!, to write a short Halloween-themed story for them. The kicker was that it had to be around 1000 words. I don’t write many short stories, and I certainly don’t write “short” short stories when I do. Still, I’d done one for them the previous fall, too, and was very pleased with the result, and also with the experience of working with Autumnplay!, so I agreed immediately. I wanted to write a ghost story that explored the dual notion of ghosts as actual supernatural entities, but simultaneously as expressions of loss and regret. Ideally the story can be read both ways. In “Ghosts,”  the reader is invited to decide for himself or herself if Robert, the older brother, is actually seeing the ghost of his gay-bashed younger brother, Scott, or if the presence of Scott’s “ghost” is merely Robert’s guilt about not having been there for his brother. On another level, “Ghosts” is a story about brothers, and the complexity of fraternal relations in general. I’m often asked if I have an opinion on whether or not Robert is really seeing his brother’s ghost. Of course I have an opinion, but I tend to keep it to myself and let the readers make up their own minds. –Michael Rowe

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An Interview with Michael Rowe

Michael Rowe's "Wild Fell" was nominated for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award.

Michael Rowe’s “Wild Fell” was nominated for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award.

Michael Rowe is an award-winning Toronto journalist, essayist, and novelist. He was the first-tier Canadian correspondent for Fangoria for seventeen years. In addition, Rowe created and edited the Queer Fear series, which changed the landscape of horror fiction. The stories (predominantly written by het writers, ironically) spotlighted queer protagonists. Some big names in the horror field took note, notably Clive Barker, who hailed Rowe in 2002 as having “changed forever the shape of horror fiction.” Rowe published his first novel, Enter, Night, with ChiZine Publications in 2011, garnering critical praise and a Sunburst Award nomination. Rowe called Enter, Night his unabashed 1970s vampire novel. He published his second novel, Wild Fell, in 2013, also with ChiZine, to further acclaim. Wild Fell was a finalist for this year’s Shirley Jackson Award as part of a lineup which included Joyce Carol Oates and Andrew Pyper. Contributing Editor James K. Moran, who once interviewed Rowe for Daily Xtra, chatted with him by email earlier this summer. Moran describes Rowe as a “gentleman of the highest order” who “wields a darkly wicked sense of humour and a rapier wit.”

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PstD on CKCU-FM

Artwork by Cherry Valance

Artwork by Cherry Valance

We had the opportunity to talk to CKCU Radio’s Kate Hunt, one of the hosts of Literary Landscapes, about Postscripts to Darkness in general and Volume 5 in particular. Kate asked co-editor Ranylt Richildis about the magazine’s origins, what it is about horror that fascinates the public, the role of editors in diversifying author representation, and the emergent speculative fiction cluster in Ottawa. Click here to listen to the interview.

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