Excluding To Be Inclusive

Or, a Rather Circuitous Welcome to Etherea Magazine

Ever since the digital revolution transformed the way the world consumes entertainment, book publishers have moaned about their ever-diminishing market. But to my mind they’ve been at the very least co-architects of their own continuing demise.

Several years and a website ago, I wrote a blog post on the modern-day dreariness of paperback cover art. My favourite example of this is Stephen King’s 1985 collection of horror fiction, Skeleton Crew. The early editions featured a skeleton wielding a scythe set against a brooding black background and gold-embossed lettering. The modern edition has a park bench on a boardwalk against a backdrop of afternoon sun. If you enjoyed horror fiction, which one would catch your eye?

I mention this because it symbolises the greater problem with modern publishing: it’s become unbearably self-important. The concept of fiction as entertainment for the masses is fast going extinct and it’s really only the established author-as-industry types such as Dean Koontz and James Patterson who keep it alive. Increasingly, to have a hope of making it to the printing press stage, a story or novel has to be ‘about’ something (i.e. have a political message) or it has to tick various progressive political boxes.

Think I’m making this up or suffering confirmation bias? Fair assumption, so let’s take subjectivity out of the equation. I’m writing this on July 14, 2021. If I log into Duotrope and search for short fiction markets that accept horror and pay at least a token amount, I get 81 matches. Of these, no fewer than 13 are either exclusionary (on the basis of race or sexuality) or call for fiction with woke themes:

1. Submissions are restricted to those who are “queer/two-spirit person of colour/Indigenous/Aboriginal”.

2. The way parenthood turns you into a different person. How toxic masculinity shapes us and robs boys of their childhoods. Suppression of race, culture, or ethnicity to stay safe, get the job, or grab that publishing contract.

3. Submissions are restricted to people of the African Diaspora.

4. Beautiful and useful short stories and poetry in Social-political and Progressive Speculative Fiction, Feminist SF, Queer SF, Eco SF, Multicultural SF and Cyberpunk,

5. Submissions are restricted to those who identify as immigrants or members of a diaspora.

6. a place to publish feminist horror, flip the tropes, and terrify the local villagers.

7. We are committed to diversity of identities, origins, and perspectives on our pages.

8. I would love to see submissions representing not only multiple cultures but subcultures, exploring issues of race, ethnicity, gender, orientation,

9. We especially want to see submissions from writers and artists of all races, sexualities, nationalities, religions, and genders, as well as disabled and neurodivergent creators.

10. Submissions are restricted to those from Utah or writing about Utah.

11. We are looking for the best speculative stories published in the current year that implicitly or explicitly explores queerness and/or transness. We refer to queerness that is inclusive of ace/aro stories, trans and nonbinary stories, and intersex stories.

12. Submissions are restricted to women and femme-identifying individuals.

13. We publish creative expressions of resistance by diverse writers and artists from around the globe, and we’re dedicated to challenging all things that diminish our nation’s quest for equality, freedom, justice and a healthy planet for all

Now, these folks should be allowed to publish whatever they like. I’m an old-fashioned free speech advocate – I think every person should be able say what they think, especially those with whom I disagree. But it’s worth pondering the economic ramifications of the publishing world’s increasing devotion to woke politics. More than 10% of all the short horror fiction markets currently seeking submissions are producing books with severely limited or niche appeal. And horror, don’t forget, is the least pretentious of all genres.

Perhaps the most ridiculous restriction on this list is the one limiting submissions to women and “femme-identifying individuals” (whatever they are). In 2021, women accounted for eight of the world’s top 20 highest paid authors. But even that figure is misleading, because most of the men on the list, such as Stephen King and Dan Brown, rose to fame 20, 30, even 40 years ago. The truth is that the bulk of authors making a living from their fiction today are women writing for other women.

Marketing types in the publishing world will tell you “men don’t read”, as though it’s some sort of genetic predisposition, but I suspect the real truth is no one’s writing *for* men anymore. In a review of Keith Rosson’s short fiction collection Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons, I wrote that his prose was masculine – a word I chose deliberately because so few authors now cater to male readers, or at least have a distinctively male authorial voice. Ironically, an editor urged me to remove it: Eh, I don’t know if this is the right word here. Take gender out of it; replace it with an adjective that conveys the same meaning without insinuating the writing itself is ‘manly’.

This editor, I hasten to add, had not read a single word of the book. He just saw the word ‘masculine’ and suffered intellectual anaphylaxis. Oh, and Rosson’s no conservative, by the way, far from it. He just writes, on the whole, from a white male perspective. But this gives you some insight into the ideological mindset driving every decision in the modern publishing world.

Interestingly, the one exception I found during my search was Sirius Science Fiction. Its mission statement runs thusly: In a time when mainstream speculative fiction has been overrun by political correctness and identity politics, we offer a venue free of pretension and ideological litmus tests. Science fiction has always been ‘the mirror that flatters not’ and a broad scope for political allegory is part of the reason books like The Body Snatchers and 1984 continue to be read today. It’s perhaps not surprising that the one journal to expressly defy mainstream publishing’s woke directives concerns itself with science fiction.

Allegorical speculative fiction continues to be an indispensable tool for expressing views that are unpopular or out of vogue. If you happen to be an Australian speculative fiction author, however, your opportunities to do so in a publication produced in your homeland are scarce. I’ve published more than 40 stories now and only the tiniest fraction appeared in Australian fiction markets – two in Andromeda Spaceways, two in AntipodeanSF, one in Aurealis and one in Midnight Echo. That means only about 15 per cent of everything I’ve written has appeared in an Australian forum.

The reason is simple: the Australian fiction market is vanishingly small. In fact, as a speculative fiction writer I’m relatively spoiled. Any Australian author looking to publish a non-genre story in a local market is limited to a tiny handful of literary journals, most of which have a (progressive) political bent. Today, someone like D’Arcy Niland, who wrote entertaining fiction about regular joes, would probably just give up and paint fences for a living.

So it’s an exciting time whenever someone decides to take a crack at starting a new publication. Even though the first edition would have been improved with some more editing and proofreading, I nevertheless commend to you Etherea Magazine, produced out of Queensland, Australia.

We have set out to create a new space for speculative fiction of any kind. We want to create opportunities for writers to display their talents. Whilst we would love for an Etherea alum to become the next big author, we are more than happy giving skilled everyday writers a place for their stories. We want every one of our accepted authors to be proud that their piece appeared in our magazine.

Not an ideology in sight and committed to a mix of Australian and international authors. That’s my kind of speculative fiction magazine.

Review – Billy Summers by Stephen King

Stephen King’s greatest strength as an author, today and always, has been in rendering small-town America with affection and attention to detail. His perfunctory effort at doing so in Billy Summers is emblematic of the novel as a whole – promising concept, mediocre execution.

The titular Billy Summers is a former marine turned hitman with a difference: he only accepts jobs where he deems the target to be a ‘bad man’. In spite of this self-imposed moral code, he comes to believe he is little better than those he kills and decides to retire following one final high-paying job: $500,000 beforehand, another $1.5 million once the deed is done.

It requires that he set up not just one but three false identities. To his employers he is ‘dumb’ Billy Summers; he talks more slowly and reads comic books. In Gerard Tower (from which he will eventually take the shot) and at the suburban home in Midwood where he bides his time waiting for his target to be extradited, he is writer David Lockridge. And in a rundown part of town where he hides out incognito to let things blow over after he makes the hit, he is computer geek Dalton Smith.

It’s during Billy’s time in Midwood that the reader gets an inkling this novel isn’t pedigree King. Days after Billy moves in, his neighbours take a shine to him because… well, who knows, really; the relationships feel rushed and unconvincing. The neighbours themselves are little more than sketches and stereotypes. For reasons King also declines to elucidate, Billy abandons his tenet of never getting close to people and even has a one-night stand with a woman who works in Gerard Tower. Worst of all, this section – where Billy makes preparations for the hit while hosting backyard barbecues and playing Monopoly with next door’s kids – somehow manages to stretch credulity and be tedious. It’s long on description and internal monologue but short on anything resembling plot.

The hit goes off without a hitch; Billy is a crack shot and expert at disappearing afterwards. But two flies land in the ointment of his carefully crafted retirement plan. First, he suspects those bankrolling the hit are out to double-cross him and he ends up ignoring their getaway strategy, which saves his life but gives him enemies in high places. The second is more of a quandary: while Billy’s in his basement apartment, a van pulls up outside and three men dump an unconscious girl in the freezing rain before driving away. Rather than leave the girl, Alice, to die on the pavement, Billy risks blowing his cover and takes her inside his safe house to look after her.

It’s here that Billy Summers, already floundering for plausibility, really goes under. Alice has been drugged and gang-raped, yet the emotional fallout from this trauma amounts to a few panic attacks and the odd angsty expression. Within days she is enamoured of Billy – yes, in that way – even though he’s a hired killer and old enough to be her father. King tries to justify this absurd development in any number of ways, none of which is convincing.

Eventually Billy decides it’s safe to break cover and go after the men who stiffed him out of his retirement nest egg. Alice, naturally, insists on joining him. From here the plot becomes straight-up outlandish, with Billy and Alice effecting some Clouseau-esque disguises and infiltrating not one but two bad-guy compounds with ridiculous ease.

The desire to see whether Billy gets his payday and revenge on those who betrayed him keeps the reader chugging through the pages, but in the end it’s not enough. In the course of Billy Summers’ 400-odd pages it accumulates all the worst flaws typical of King’s latter-day fiction – irritating and pointless political references, working-class characters who are either right-wing caricatures or think in literary analogies, superfluous allusions to the supernatural, and not one but two characters who decide writing is their salvation. Most disappointing, though, is Billy’s life in Midwood. It has none of the richness that has been a King hallmark throughout his career (even in a hit-and-miss book like The Institute) and ultimately his time there has little bearing on the greater plot.

Told in the present tense for no discernible reason, Billy Summers can’t decide whether it’s a crime drama, a character study, a rumination on the horrors of war, a weird love story, or a paean to the redemptive qualities of writing. Due to its story-within-a story structure, it reminds me of ‘The Body’ from Different Seasons, which is ironic because the lasting impression is of a 100-page novella forced against its will to become a novel. Remove the protracted Midwood section and the clumsy Alice subplot and what remains is a lean and mean story about a hitman with a code questioning the validity of his morals. Instead, Billy Summers is an intricately plotted but contrived and oftentimes preposterous melodrama with grandiose literary pretensions.

Space Bound available now!

The latest anthology from Dragon Soul Press, <i>Space Bound</i>, is on sale now. It contains my long psychological sci-fi horror story, ‘Bigger’.

It is about Cynthia and Aurealia, two young women who become friends while studying at a university on a corporate mining planet. When Cynthia begins exhibiting a voracious and pathological sexual appetite for males that are increasingly well-endowed, Aurealia becomes concerned but isn’t sure how to broach the subject without offending her friend. It leads to a bizarre scenario neither could ever have imagined.

Grab your copy here!

Clip the wings that get you high

I deleted my Twitter account this week.

I’d been threatening to do it for years, but with publishers so adamant an author should have a ‘platform’ these days, I could never find the courage. Since joining Twitter in 2012, on a colleague’s recommendation, I’d managed to attain 300 followers – minuscule in the context of the Twittersphere (most celebrities have millions), but they were honest follows. I never participated in ‘writer lifts’ or any other method of artificially inflating my follower count. Those on the list followed me because they wanted to.

Trouble was, I couldn’t use Twitter responsibly, no matter how hard I tried.

I’ve been a political junkie all my adult life. I use that term advisedly. Back in my late teens, I got a big high from arguing politics both in person and online. But as legacy media became more narrative-driven and social media dragged political discourse into the sewer, I came to believe such discussions were futile at best. I stopped watching political TV programs in my early twenties because they were all one-sided and infuriating. I exercised my political hankerings on Facebook for many years until realising that doing so makes you look like a drunk uncle ranting at the dinner table – it’s sort of embarrassing, and no one’s listening anyway.

By 2018, I’d all but kicked the political habit. Except on Twitter, that is.

I employed various methods to try to ensure I used it responsibly. I deleted the app off my phone so I couldn’t browse my Twitter feed while waiting in line or whatever. I stopped following dozens of politically-charged accounts to reduce my temptation to comment. I endeavoured to keep my posts only about writing-related topics. I’d go okay for a while, sometimes weeks or even months at a time, and then I’d get bored in an online meeting, log onto Twitter via my laptop… and lapse.

If you’re not much into social media, understand that Twitter is the black tar heroin of political forums. It’s incredibly addictive and outrageously toxic for one’s psyche. If you happen to be of a conservative bent (and in 2021 ‘conservative’ has become almost interchangeable with ‘realist’), it’s also incredibly dangerous. Particularly for an author. The publishing industry picked up the woke agenda with a religious fervour and the greater share of journals and anthologies now either have a progressive theme or exclude on the basis of race and gender in their submission guidelines. Imagine, then, an editor in this environment trawling through an author’s Twitter account and finding a post questioning the wisdom of allowing transgender men to compete in women’s sport or suggesting the recent rewriting of indigenous history doesn’t always jibe with archaeological evidence. It’s a one-way trip to Blacklist City.

In the end, two separate incidents convinced me to put down the dirty needle that was Twitter.

First, I returned from a self-imposed two-week break from Twitter to find that an indie horror publisher, whom I respected greatly, was begging for forgiveness. The Twitter mob had taken exception to a tweet he made (pointing out the infantile and narcissistic folly of adding trigger warnings to horror novels) and piled on. Something about that poor bastard’s situation garrotted me in a way nothing had before – I realised tolerance of non-woke opinions, especially among the publishing community on Twitter, had reached near-zero.

Second, I got embroiled in an argument about IQ tests. It’s a subject I know a great deal about because my wife is a child psychologist. A Twitter troll continued to contradict everything I said, even in the face of irrefutable proof. Ultimately I muted him and wondered to myself for about the fiftieth time, “Why the hell am I even on Twitter?”

In the past, I had always circled back to the claim that publishers wanted potential clients to have a platform. But this time I saw the parallels between using Twitter and my short dalliance with designer drugs in the late 1990s. Both were enticing and sort of fun in the moment, but afterward led only to regret and self-loathing.

I’ve noticed over the years that song lyrics seem to rise up in my conscious when they are most pertinent, and in this case it was three lines from ‘Remedy’ by Seether that I appreciated anew:

Clip the wings that get you high

Just leave them where they lie

And tell yourself, “You’ll be the death of me.”

The wing metaphor seemed especially apt given Twitter’s logo. Later that night I requested my Twitter archive, in case I needed it for reference or legal reasons, and the following day – after one final moment’s hesitation – I parted ways with Twitter for good.

The situation also puts me in mind of something Stephen King wrote about drug addiction. He was terrified that if he gave up coke and booze he would lose his ability to write. After some deliberation, he decided he would give up writing if it meant he could save his marriage and watch his kids grow up. But of course that was a lot of horseshit, and he went on to write dozens more books.

Same goes here. If giving up my dream to become a full-time author is the price I have to pay for avoiding the Twitter cesspit, so be it. But I’m pretty sure that’s horseshit, too.

Two new stories in the wings

Finding a publisher that appreciates your fiction is a godsend for a writer, because it really ups your chances of acceptance. In the coming month I have short stories appearing via two publishers with whom I’ve worked in the past: Scare Street and Dragon Soul Press.

On April 26, I’m making my third contribution to Scare Street’s bestselling Night Terrors series, with ‘The Bowels of Hell’ to appear in Night Terrors #13. A horror-comedy in the vein of 1980s flicks such as House II and Evil Dead 2, it was one of those stories that almost got published a number of times, but editors always wanted it to either be scarier or funnier and I just didn’t see it as a straight comedy or straight horror piece. (Fellow 1980s VHS nerds will know what I mean – horror-comedy is a delicate balance.)

The other story, ‘Bigger’, is a coming-of-age sci-fi piece that draws on elements of erotica and horror (“interesting and crazy” as one editor described it in a personal rejection). It’s going into the Dragon Soul Press anthology Space Bound, due out in May. The publisher previously ran another long story of mine, ‘Blood and Light’, in the apocalypse-themed Lethal Impact anthology.

I’m also on the hunt for an agent to represent my new horror novel, Demon Drink. So agents, if either of the above-mentioned stories suitably impresses, please get in touch!

New story on The Dread Machine

Nostalgia meets creepy goings-on in my latest short story, ‘The Old Fisherman’s Track’, which is now live on The Dread Machine.

There’s a fair bit of autobiography in this story, although it’s mixed in with a great deal of blue-sky imagination. It was a harder sell than I’d envisioned, perhaps because it’s too fun and misty-eyed to be an outright horror tale and yet doesn’t have much in the way of literary pretensions.

I hope you like it. Don’t forget to check out the ‘story behind the story’ once you’ve read it – and do get in touch and let me know what you thought of it.

Coming soon…

It’s a flying start to 2021 for yours truly.

On February 23, The Dread Machine will feature my haunting tale ‘The Old Fisherman’s Track’ on its website. The idea came to me after seeing a click-bait story about a ‘haunted treehouse’ that proved to be no such thing, but I liked the notion so much I thought I’d take a crack at writing one myself.

Warning: contains semi-autobiographical elements.

Closer to home, Aurealis #137 (due in March I think?) will publish an essay of mine, ‘The Curious Reclassification of Peter Benchley’s Jaws‘. What started out as an analysis of Benchley’s most famed novel transmogrified into a discussion of genre. Why on earth is this grisly book now referred to as a thriller?

Jaws prepares to give this unsuspecting swimmer a ‘thrill’.

An unwelcome sabbatical

About this time last year I made a flying start on a new horror novel and never looked back. It proved to be among the most rewarding creative projects of my life; for the most part it was a daily joy rather than a daily grind. It ran to 104,000 words in its first draft and I finished it in three and a half months, sometimes spooling out 3000 or 4000 words a day – a personal best. Once I’d completed it, I moved on to a new short story that had been pestering me and used my momentum to bash that out in pretty close to record time as well.

Then, all at once, everything ground to a stop. It was as though someone had thrown a handful of sand in my creative gears. New ideas were few. When one did come, I would make a faltering start and then give up. I just didn’t have the necessary drive or desire, a first for me in 30 years of writing fiction. I’m not a neurotic or self-doubting person, so this was as close as I’d ever come to an existential crisis. If I wasn’t writing… who was I?

Rather than put pressure on myself to perform, I chose to let it go. I still had a creative outlet in my day job as a travel writer and motoring journalist. Less time spent at a keyboard meant more time to spend with my kids. I could also channel any residual energy into planning house renovations with my wife. These were all worthwhile substitutes. And yet…

And yet, I didn’t want to give up being a writer. Fearing the creative centre in my brain had short circuited and burnt out forever brought deep sorrow. So I did the only thing I could think of: I began rewriting and editing existing stories instead.

Many I hadn’t revisited in months or even years and, with all new composition purged from my head, I could see how much work they required. It helped, as well, that Scare Street evinced real interest in my stories – editorial validation is an excellent motivator. I went from one of my leanest publishing years in 2019 (one paid essay and one short story sold to a non-paying market) to one of my most prolific in 2020 (three paid short stories, one paid novella, one paid essay, two self-published books).

I’m pleased to report that after six months offline, my brain’s creative centre appears to be up and running again. I’ve made headway on a new short story that shows a lot of promise. I’m shopping around a number of stories that I revised and improved during my sabbatical from fresh copy. And, as traumatic as the past six months have been at times, the experience proved salutary – a reminder that the authorial life isn’t only about moving the words across the screen, but a dozen other equally important components that make up the writing/editing/publishing process.

Night Terrors #7 on sale now

The latest terrifying compilation of short stories from Scare Street, Night Terrors #7, is available to buy now. It features my story ‘Testing Times’, about a young constable who tries to conduct a routine random breath test only to be drawn into an underworld of unimaginable terror.

I’ll post the ‘story behind the story’ once everyone’s had a chance to read it.

Meanwhile, don’t forget my latest novel, Christmas in the Doghouse, is also on sale. It’s the perfect gift for your Kindle-reading friend, or if you want to treat yourself to an old-fashioned Christmas story with an Aussie twist.