W. P. Johnson

Archive for January, 2015|Monthly archive page

A Cruise To Remember

In Uncategorized on January 31, 2015 at 12:19 pm

People sometimes wonder where stories come from. There’s a short story collection by Stephen King whose name escapes me, but at the very end of this collection there’s a list of the stories and a small snippet by the author explaining the origins of these strange tales. I’d always enjoyed taking a peek behind that curtain, as it reminds me how ordinary inspiration can be in the face of it’s outcome. What was once a simple observation can, given the time, grow into something truly extraordinary. So, with that in mind, I’d like to write a little bit about where I came up with the idea for “The God of Dead Dreamers”, which is featured in the current issue of Shroud.

I’ve been on two cruises thus far in my life. The first one, a Norwegian Cruise Line, I took about five years ago out of New Orleans. It’s hard to say if who I am now would have enjoyed that cruise, but from what I remember, the whole experience was a lot of fun. Starting off in New Orleans, I took to the French Quarter with my family and later just my brother, going from bar to bar to bar to strip club, which to this day was the best strip club I’d ever been to (despite the basics of strip clubs, there are good ones and bad ones). When I finally left it was four in the morning and I kept thinking I’d open the doors to an empty street and my brother and I would have to rush home to avoid whatever awful things await people when they stumble around the French Quarter by themselves at four in the morning. Instead, I opened the doors to a street just as filled as it was when we started. To quote myself, as my family often did following this vacation, “They just don’t stop!”

At any rate, the cruise itself was an extension of this energy. Great food, drinks, perfect weather, and overall just some of the friendliest waitstaff I’d ever encountered.

Fast forward to my second cruise, also Norwegian Cruise Line.

We left out of New York in December, so right off the bat, it’s cold as hell and since we left that day there was no partying in New York prior to leaving for the cruise. I should probably explain something about myself as far as this detail is concerned: I hate the cold. And when I mean hate, I mean with every fiber of my soul (if a past life exists, I’m sure I lived somewhere very hot). To me, there would be no worse torture than having to live in a cold place or to be cast out in the cold without warm clothes. Every winter I think about moving to Key West or maybe California. When people post on social media that it’s snowing (SNOW!!! they type) I want to spit hot coffee in their faces and throw my laptop out the window to avoid any more positive tweets about an incoming blizzard. Of course, I don’t do any of these things and instead of fuming about something that can’t be changed, I put on however many layers it takes to get the job done and shiver till March.

People always have a favorite season. Spring is mine. You know why? Because it’s when the cold dies what I hope is a brutal death.

With that said, our cruise out of New York was three days at sea both ways, so it took about two days for the weather to become tolerable, and an additional day before we were allowed to leave the ship. The thing about cruises is that you’re kind of trapped on this floating mall for however long you’re at sea. This can be alot of fun depending on the staff and the other people that are trapped with you. However, despite all possible outcomes of fun, we found this particular floating mall to be more like a floating prison. Without going into every detail, compared to my previous cruise experience I found this one to be lacking in all the aforementioned positives: bad food, awkward service, so-so weather, and a choppy sea that left me nauseous pretty much the entire trip (my fiancee was dizzy for a month after we got home). With seven bars, or however many there were, you’d think you’d be able to party your way through the boredom, but it’s kind of hard to find the energy to party when the bars are either empty or filled with wheel chairs and oxygen tanks. There’s only so much drinking a person can do.

For the most part we spent our days at sea doing absolutely nothing, and while that can be a great way to spend a hungover Sunday afternoon, my fiancee and I realized in taking this vacation that we like to actually do things. Case in point, our favorite part of this entire trip (and by favorite I mean the only part we actually enjoyed) was our stop in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where we walked through Old San Juan and wandered around the outskirts of the city, looking down at the shanty town of La Pearla and seeing the Castle San Felipe del Morro in the distance (a tourist trap, sure, but still pretty cool to look at). Late in the day with hours before we were due back on the ship, my family left us to do our own thing and rather than eat for free from the cruise buffet, we took to restaurant hopping in Old San Juan and ate probably some of the best cerviche we’d ever had, walking along the port of San Juan past dusk where it started to rain a little, making small talk with vendors packing their things up for the night and taking advantage of every last second we had off the ship.

Maybe we could just stay, I thought. But then what? Money was tight and my family would be furious if we bailed on the trip. Realistically, I don’t think even if we could afford to just stay there and fly home we’d actually do it. After all, we had three more stops to make and maybe San Juan was just the beginning.

To make a long story short, the remaining stops were a bit of a bust. The same wishy washy tropical beaches, locals haggling/hassling you, prepaid excursions through whatever tourist friendly stretch of land they were able to carve out, and awful food that you eat because you don’t know where the good places are tucked away. It isn’t long before you feel like you’re less on vacation and more like you’re on a field trip that serves booze. Everything is scheduled and mapped out for you and going off the beaten trail often entails risk that you’ll be mugged, lost, or be left behind by the cruise ship (this happened to a few people that didn’t make it back in time). Worse still, the looming three days at sea to New York made every second off the ship go by far too fast and it wasn’t long before our last stop came and went. If memory serves me right we were in the Dominican Republic, drinking mojitos on the beach. When the clock wound down to the final minutes we both sighed, packed our things, and trudged back to the ship like petulant children embarking on a three day stretch of detention. It’s over, we both thought. And now we have to spend three days on that fucking floating mall only to be dumped back into a frozen New York City.

More bad food, more “activities”, more mediocre shows, more drinking for the sake of doing something. Often times we’d walk the edges of the ship and watch the ocean, and despite everything, there was something picturesque about that, especially when the sun set. But all I could think was that we were sailing towards the cold again and before long we’d be huddled in our room wearing sweaters and long johns to keep out the sting of the cold ocean.

What if we kept sailing south instead?

That, more or less, was the seed for “The God of Dead Dreamers”.

There were, of course, other tidbits of inspiration. Notably, I had decided to write a story for Lovecraft Ezine. The editor had rejected three of my submissions with the note that while the stories were very good and well written, they weren’t “lovecraftian” and that I should keep submitting. “The God of Dead Dreamers” was my more earnest attempt at trying to write a Lovecraft tale, though midway through I found my instincts wrestling all the intent out of my hands in favor of just writing a story I wanted to write. Truth be told, I kind of don’t care much for Lovecraft and am a little tired of people gushing over his influence. Aside from Cthulhu and a few of his other mythos, I don’t really see his contribution as being any more significant than Poe or other Gothic writers, and his prose is overwrought dog shit. To boot, he was a text book racist and for all the liberal leanings of genre writers, I’m often surprised how easily they overlook or defend this.

Though I did love the film adaptation of From Beyond.

But I digress. The third bit of inspiration came out of my general fear of spiders. I don’t necessarily hate spiders, as they’re fairly harmless and serve a purpose. If one is hanging out in the corner of my shower, I’m likely to leave it be or if it’s warm outside, I’ll transfer him to the tiny garden in our backyard. Conversely, spiders freak me out a little with their black eyes and fanged mouths, and the way they quietly crawl about is creepy.

There is a memory in particular I have of spiders that I think of now as I write this. When I was a teenager I occasionally helped my father work on junk cars, and by that I mean I watched him do all the work and begrudgingly turned a screw or handed him the wrong tool. To me the inner workings of a car engine are incomprehensible, looking like something out of dystopian sci fi movie. To put it bluntly, I was terrible when it came to working on cars and did the bare minimum. Conversely, the Volvo station wagon I was helping him fix was my Volvo station wagon when it was finished, so there was a bit of a personal investment in all of this and despite how awful I was at working on cars, I tried to do something.

Anyway, I don’t remember what the specific task was, but I was instructed to get underneath the car and unscrew some bolts. The thing about old cars, especially during the summer, is that they become the homes of all manner of insect. Wasps love a junk car, and spiders will nest in all the nooks and crannies available to them, building their nests in the husk of flat tires. Since the car wasn’t moving and the job in question didn’t require a lift, I had to slid underneath the car, giving myself inches of space to work. Reaching the set of bolts in question, I clicked a flashlight up into the belly of the car, my nose a mere six inches away.

Within the housing of these bolts was a spider in it’s nest. It had tiny legs that looked like bitten off fingernails covered in dirt, a cluster of eyes that resembled caviar, and a bulging belly of what I could only assume was blood. Under the flash light’s glow, it twitched a little and shifted about in it’s tiny web.

I slowly slid out from underneath the car and told my father point blank, “I can’t do it.”

To this day I kind of wonder if he knew why, or if maybe he himself had an aversion to spiders and was hoping I would do the job with that fearless attitude some boys have when it comes to bugs. Little did he know I fell more in line with the stereotype of young girls, thinking bugs were “icky” even at the tender age of seventeen. Though I don’t think the term “icky” really did my emotions justice. I remember feeling pale, like the color had drained from my face. If I had to guess, I would say that my father probably let it go with the assumption that I was having another one of my nervous spells of anxiety (I was, generally speaking, an anxious kid growing up). In the end he did the job himself and I took my previous position of handing him the wrong tools again and again.

That, in a nutshell, is where “The God of Dead Dreamers” came from. To date it’s my longest story and certainly one of my most ambitious ones. I hope you give it a chance and read it.

Until then, here’s to being scary.

2015, Hannibal, and a Year Long Peak

In Uncategorized on January 1, 2015 at 9:25 pm

2015, you came pretty fast, or maybe I wast just too busy to notice 2014 crawl past.

There isn’t a whole lot I can say about 2014. So much of it was spent working on the novel, which I am pretty confident I can finish a draft of by the end of January (then again, previous blog posts were idealist about earlier deadlines). Who can say, only that I know what happens next and then after that and all there is to do is to actually write it.

The holidays were a surprising distraction. Despite having produced so much during my busiest work hours, I found the holidays to be a complete road block to any work. At least when I was working overtime I could crawl a few pages forward in the early mornings and in between shifts, but there’s something about the holidays that is just completely draining. Visiting family and friends, working those brutal winter shifts in the service industry where everyone gets it in one last time before the end of the year, colds, flus, and sometimes both, coupled with sinuses that came and went as easily as the weather dipped and rose about 50 degrees. On x-mas day it was nearly 60 and my nose was very confused.

But I digress. Sometimes it’s good to let go of things and just give in to the chaos of having one too many balls to juggle. It’s good to see family, to have that extra drink with a friend you’ve blown off for the past year in favor of typing one more hour. It’s good to spend the day watching a show on Netflix because you have a cold that has no cure, save for time itself, NyQuil, and stuffing tissues into your nose.

Which brings me to my newest guilty pleasure, that of the NBC show Hannibal.

It started with my amazon prime kicking in for free on account of ordering something for Christmas. So I decided to check it out while my fiance was sick (and this was about a week following my own cold). Initially I found the show kind of boring, an over the top version of CSI sprinkled with all matter of Hannibal references to keep your readers interested. Every week there seemed to be another genius leaving corpses behind posed in some grandiose way that represented their inner psyche or whatever. Will Graham and Hannibal Lector seemed less adversary and more a duo akin to the True Detective pairing of Rust and Marty (though the former seemed to get along better than the latter). Despite this boredom, I decided to hold out and give it a chance, mostly because I had heard such great things about the show. By episode four, I was hooked.

There’s something beautifully surreal about Hannibal, and it’s a quality I’ve started to notice in my own work when it hits the mark. Fiction is meant to show us the truth, but sometimes it’s also meant to show us how strange the world can be given the chance to flourish. Breaking Bad suspends our disbelief only because we are given a limited scope of perception; we see just enough to believe that Walter White is capable of getting away with his crimes. Hannibal does this even more so, though even with this limited scope, I found myself unbelieving that a character such as Hannibal Lector could ever in a thousand years get away with so much murder. Any writer worth his salt in realism would find himself somehow crippled by this problem of plausibility.

On the other hand, genre is a playground filled with many possibilities. As dreamers, we can go where we please and as long as the characters are strong and the story can hold them, a reader will go along for the ride, they will forget for just a moment that what they are reading is… kind of bullshit. The major plot points of my novel are nothing short but one long terrible peak on some fantastic drug with elements of surrealism, transcendence, music, punk, glam, and all matter of psychotropic drugs. For better or for worse, I have fully embraced the impossible in a work I tried so very hard to have real characters with depth to them. I hope to stand by this work when it is finished.

And then I hope to write something completely absent of these elements.

Until then, I will enjoy Hannibal, a nice glass of wine, and maybe try cooking liver for once.

Or maybe just boxed wine with fritos.

Until then, here’s to be scary.