W. P. Johnson

Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

A Coming Of Age Tale

In Uncategorized on October 21, 2012 at 12:07 am

     In anticipation of the upcoming release of the Weird Noir anthology put out by Fox Spirit Books and edited by K. A. Laity, it was requested of all the contributors that we write up a “how did you think of this story” kind of thing on our respective blogs. So today I will be showing you some behind the scenes stuff and give you a preview of my own story “Train Tracks”.

“Train Tracks” is a crime noir story spliced together with a coming of age tale about a boy befriending a drug dealer in high school. After losing this friend in the drug trade, he becomes obsessed with finding those who are responsible for the death of his friend while simultaneously becoming addicted to the very drug his friend was made into, a concentrated form of MDMA made from worms that feed on brains. It blends elements of crime noir, weird fiction, and horror. In correspondence with the editor, I later learned that Kate groaned when she read the term “coming of age” as she usually detests such stories (I think I’d get along pretty well with Kate, considering this).

Unlike many of the other writers featured in Weird Noir, I never wrote this story with any intention of submitting it for consideration. In fact, “Train Tracks” was conceived based on a prompt given by Litreactor’s Scare Us competition where we were asked to write a horror story given a set of several parameters.

1-      Three people have to die.

2-      It has to take place in your home town

3-      You have to invent a new monster.

4-      It has to be under 2500 words.

     So without further adieu, let us examine all the blood and guts of “Train Tracks” .

Three people have to die.

     Thankfully, killing people in horror fiction is never an issue. If anything, there’s not enough people to kill and I usually end up painting myself into a corner with corpses and no one left to finish the story. In regards to “Train Tracks”, there was the recurring reference to missing teenagers, hinting at the possibility that these missing teens were kidnapped by drug cartels and fed to these brain eating worm. In the end, killing three people was cake and I probably would’ve killed half my characters anyway, with or without the prompt.

In other words: kill three people, check…

 It has to take place in your home town.

     The “home town” restriction was a tough one for me. I’ve always felt a self-consciousness to writing about specific locations (I’ve only recently become comfortable writing about Philadelphia). Oxford Pennsylvania, where I grew up, is a place that I know all too well but I always worry that I’ll miss something, that it won’t be authentic despite my having grown up there. I worry that I’ll miss the forest through the trees, so to speak, and usually abandon it altogether in favor of just writing up a fictional town. The prompt forced me to tackle my childhood in a weird way, avoiding all the anxiety I felt in approaching something as big and infinite as fifteen odd years of disjointed memories.

Oxford was a small go nowhere town about an hour and a half from Philadelphia. When my family first moved there, the backyard to the house was nothing but cornfields (nowadays its dense with housing developments). A set of train tracks ran through my neighborhood, cutting through miles of dense forest until it entered the town of Oxford itself. I always used to wonder where the tracks went, if they traveled to cities, if they stretched from one side of the country to the other. There was this fantasy I used to entertain of walking them all the way to Philadelphia, or Baltimore, not knowing for sure if they even went that far.

Movie theaters and malls were a good forty minute drive so there wasn’t much to do in Oxford but get into trouble. In my late teens I spent a lot of my weekends getting drunk and smoking pot with my friends, popping my cherry on pretty much all the drugs I’d ever end up doing. During the spring when it was nice out, I usually got stoned with a friend of mine after school and we’d walk the length of train tracks home, airing ourselves out before facing our parents. Since a good stretch of the tracks ran through forest, lots of times we’d come across hunters while walking home. One time a shotgun blast sounded by and moments later an Amish man in an orange jacket came walking out of the trees, surprised to see two stoned teenagers unaware that they had nearly been mistaken for deer.

My house was always out of sight of the tracks, but you could hear the train coming through once or twice a month. There was something about it that was haunting. The tracks themselves were a skeleton of sorts, a ghost of the town’s former prominence in history. There was always this sense that Oxford was once an up and coming place only to fail after the depression, never quite recovering.

To get to the tracks from my house you could either walk a quarter mile on the street to reach an intersection where the train crossed, or you could cut through the cornfields and overgrown fields of grass to reach this steep hillside that was dense with massive trees. The steepness I cannot emphasize enough, as it was to the extent that you could easily slip and fall all the way to the bottom, reaching the middle where the pathway of the tracks was dense with a thousand shadows cast by the surrounding trees. When I was around ten or so, I remember that a kid down the street from me did this very thing, falling down the hill and getting his feet caught under a passing train. His brother ran all the way from where it happened to where we lived, screaming that a train had killed his brother, unable to stop crying. Minutes later a helicopter flew in and the kid survived, albeit without his legs. Strange as though it may sound, it’s the first I’ve thought of that moment in years.

Sometimes when I walked home from school I would pass my house and keep going until I reached the trestle. I used to always think of Stand By Me whenever I reached it, feeling anxiety over the prospect of crossing for fear that a train would come by. More often than not I just stood at the beginning of the trestle and stared down at the stretch of unkempt land that lay beneath it. A shallow creek ran under the bridge, another thing whose beginning and end I often wondered about. For as many years as I lived in Oxford, I can only think of a small handful of times where I actually crossed the trestle only to turn around midway. Standing in the middle of it and viewing the valleys that lay beneath is a breath taking sight. There’s something about viewing land from up high, a feeling that can never be achieved while on the ground. It is the closest the average man has to space travel, to viewing earth from another planet.

In the end, “Train Tracks” became loaded with moments from my past, more so than I would’ve originally thought given the task of writing the story. There was this one time when I was at this guy’s house high on ecstasy, uncaring of the fact that this man was an extremely volatile person, high on coke, and that there were bullet holes in his living room walls. He had a farm of emus in his backyard, joking that they fed on his murder victims. For some reason he liked me, but for the life of me I can’t remember why. Thinking back on it now, it’s not hard to imagine him actually having killed people. It was very much like a scene out of Blue Velvet, only I was just one of the guys hanging out while Dennis Hopper tortured some other poor son of a bitch. Is it any wonder then that this scene ended up in “Train Tracks”?

I sometimes wonder what that guy is doing nowadays.

 You have to invent a new monster.

     This was an easy one to start but a tough one to finish. Initially I had about a dozen different versions of the same concept. The original idea was a monster whose blood got you stoned with another person’s thoughts depending on whom they fed upon, prompting for the murder of specific people in order for one character to know another one more intimately. However, stories have a way of shaping things and in the end it’s always about the characters and never really about the ideas. Vampires must service a the needs of a character, not a writer’s desire to write a vampire story, therefore it was not a hard choice to tweak my monster idea accordingly.

In the end, I simplified the overall concept of what these worms did and the effect their drugs had. I made them brain eaters and kept the details somewhat vague for the sake of plausible authenticity, giving only enough details to make the story work and avoid an excess of information suspect to scrutiny. The nameless worms in question remind me a little bit of the slake moths in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, the difference being the effect of the drug in question and the aggressive nature of the slake moths in comparison to the lethargic nature of the unnamed worms. In addition to this is the fact that in my story, these worms are somewhat a controlled substance and there is little danger in releasing one out into the wild. Ultimately, it is the drug cartel and drug addicts themselves that create this horrific atmosphere where human life is so devalued.

It has to be under 2,500 words.

     This is where I hit a wall. Not only did I not manage to keep “Train Tracks” under 2,500 words, I wrote a second story for the same competition that also exceeded the word count by about 2,000 words (it’s entitled “Shelob Headlines the Ox” and is currently being shopped around). Right around this time was also when I found out about the Weird Noir anthology, having literally just finished a draft of “Train Tracks”. I sent a query, feeling little confidence in getting any interest. When I was told to send the full draft over, I similarly felt a lack of confidence that it would be accepted, quickly rewriting it based on notes from several friends of mine.

Fast forward a month later and, ta da, “Train Tracks” is the closing story in Weird Noir. It’s a story that I’m proud of, especially due to its length (the marketplace is not kind to long stories). It also managed to capture a lot of elements in genre that I really love while maintaining a sense of story capable of standing on its own. Realistically, I could probably write this story without any genre elements and still accomplish a lot of the same things as far as characters go.

But to hell with that. Brain eating worms need love too, right?

Until then, here’s to being scary.

And some Rob Zombie because I saw him last night and he fucking killed.


I Am Author

In Uncategorized on October 12, 2012 at 12:00 pm

     Kind of like I Am Legend. Get it?


For those of you that don’t know me through social media, I made my first professional sale to One Buck Horror for my short story “Little Man”. It’ll be featured in their Halloween issue, a drop date that all horror writers can love and appreciate. Last week I also learned that I’ll be featured in the Weird Noir anthology edited by K. A. Laity and put out by Fox Spirit Books. My short story “Train Tracks” is the closing story and if there’s anything I’ve learned since I’ve been submitting work it’s that anthologies are like albums. The first story is what people read first and the last story is something that lingers in a reader’s mind. It’s a good place to be for a new writer.

I also started a monthly column at Manarchy Magazine called “Standing Up To Die” about my experiences doing stand up. So far I’ve performed four times and would’ve done a fifth time if not for the fact that they had their four year anniversary last night. It’s gotten a lot of good feedback and it’s something that I think will develop and grow.

     I have business cards now. The picture above is an early rendition of what eventually became what is posted below.

     It’s a weird time for me. I wrote my first story when I was sixteen in 1997. Since then I’ve written a shitty novel, a hundred awful stories, started and stalled on two other novels, taken half a dozen writers workshops, gone to college, worked a bunch of horrendous jobs, moved ten times within the same city, read a hundred craft books, and have received close to a thousand rejections (I stopped counting a long time ago). I’ve also seen the state of the publishing industry change quite a bit. When I first started, I was physically mailing my manuscripts with a SASE and a paper clip, checking the mailbox daily. Now I won’t even send something to a magazine unless they accept manuscripts electronically and it’s become something of the standard.

I used to have a library of books. Now I have about twenty books and the rest is on my kindle. When you move a lot you realize how much crap you have.

But I digress (it’s early and I haven’t even finished my first cup of coffee). It’s a weird time for me because I feel like I can finally tell people I’m an author without this sense of fear that I’ll be exposed for what I really am, which is an unpublished hack (all of you newbies know that feeling, I’m sure). I’ve spent more than a decade trying to be an author and now that I am one I don’t know what to do exactly. You feel like all the hard work was supposed to get you to a place where you don’t have to sweat it as much, where you don’t have to make all those sacrifices. There’s this sense of having completed a ten year journey only to arrive at the endpoint with the realization that I have another ten years of work before I really “get there”. Another ten years before I can really tell people with zero doubt that being an author is what I do for a living.

Many of you would assume that the sale of “Little Man” would prompt a day of celebration, an era of good feelings. It did for a time, but then I started to feel like I was crashing, that the sale of “Little Man” would be the only thing I’d ever be able to list as a professional accomplishment. All that positivity left me an empty husk whose only recourse of filling this void was to get another story published, to sell more work. It made me want to push harder when I was already pushing as hard as I could.

If I had written this blog post a week earlier, I would’ve ended the entry right here on that miserable note. Thankfully, the sale of “Train Tracks” has changed my attitude. For whatever reason, the sale of that story tempered some of the anxiety I was feeling. Used to be when I sat down to write, I felt like I was just throwing pennies down a wishing well whose bottom I couldn’t see. Now when I sit down to work, I feel a sense of purpose that things will be okay, that I’m not just chasing another high of acceptance, but writing something that will be read someday.

Today, I feel really good. Not great, just good. I used to wonder what would happen to me. Now I know what will happen. I know it in my bones. Someday I’m going to be a writer and nothing else. All those pennies in the wishing well are starting to catch a gleam of sunlight. I just have to keep throwing more money down, more time, more words. Someday, it’s gonna overflow and I’ll be able to take a break and enjoy the fact that I’ve finally filled this hole in myself that makes me want to write for whatever reason.

Chances are though, I’ll probably keep typing.

In other news, I’ll be writing a piece on my story “Train Tracks”, sort of a “how did you come up with this story” kinda thing. Since it’s a blend of crime noir, weird fiction, and a coming of age tale, I think it’s something that will be of interest, especially if you read the story. In other random news about my writing career I’m currently waiting to hear back on six stories and I have about five that I’m close to sending out once I get a chance to edit them. I’ll also be participating in Literactor’s War challenge, a competition wherein I’m given a prompt and have only one week to write a story. If I manage to hang through even half of this thing I’ll end up writing half a dozen stories in just a month or two.

Oh, and if you like the business cards, check out the website for the people that helped me put it together. Not only did JJo take my headshots, she also started a small business that specializes in zombie portraits called Dead World Photos. If you live in Philadelphia or are visiting, contact her for a session.

Until then, here’s to being scary.