Thursday, December 22, 2011

Oooh! It's Christmooohs!

If you don't know what Christmooohs* is about, you will. YOU WILL. It's taking over, and you can help. Post your own OOOOH! face all over the place, and let's put the "OH" back in "ChristmooOHs."

Now snap that shizz and share it on my facebook!

*For continuity purposes, it should be noted "Christmooohs" has three O's, unless it is being lengthened for pure OOOOH! purposes. Christmooohs is pronounced like "krist-most" minus the last T. Krist-mohs. Now say it like an excited bro, the way you would say "Rock Chalk!" or maybe "To the windooow, to the WALL!" Variations may include "kriss-moss" and "kriss-moos," but "krist-mohs" is standard. Don't be that guy. Get it right. Or Santooohs will give you a lump of coal.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Quick Update

A lot has been going on with me. I've sold a story to Red Penny Papers. I've completed my novel. I attended the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego and had my mind proper-blown. More on all this later when things calm down. For now, here's an interview on Annie Bellet's blog with yours truly: Neo-Pro Interviews: Steven R. Stewart

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Great God Pan

It has been too long since I posted. I'm hard at work on my book, so some of the peripheral things (like this blog, sorry to say) have gone on the back burner. A few interesting things have happened since my last post, though, and I wanted to share those with you:

First, my "Labadie Mansion" post was featured by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, something that caught me completely by surprise and pleased me immensely. (I'm not even eligible to join SFWA, yet! You can see the entry on their website here.) It's probably one of the reasons I didn't update for a while--I didn't want to have to top my previous post. Eventually, I just decided I could either sit on my hands and enjoy the Labadie post forever (my sense of satisfaction growing more distant with every day that passed), or I could get on with my life and my blog, which is what I am doing now.

Second, my story "Fool" appeared in Brain Harvest in late April, and I was super excited to share it with people. (Its theme is strikingly similar to the song I'll be talking about later in this post) Read it if you haven't already; it's short and free.

Third, I'll be headed to World Fantasy Convention on October 26th, so if you're attending, shoot me an email. Maybe we can get a beer or something. Also, I'll be doing a little bit of agent hunting--my book will be complete by then--so if anyone knows somebody good ("good" being an important word), I would love to meet them.

Lastly, I had the opportunity to visit Joplin, Missouri a week after the tornado there. I took along my brother Paul to take photographs, and we spent the better part of a day walking around and talking to people. I had planned to write a blog entry on it the evening we got back, but the scope of the events were too huge, too immediate for me to feel like I had anything worth saying. That entry is still percolating in the back of my mind, and I think I will write and post it sometime soon.

The rest of this entry is a repost of a note I wrote on Facebook when my brothers and I release our album last year. Here is the song itself. I've always believed that a song with a story behind it is doubly powerful, and the effect of knowing the intent behind a work trumps any downside. So here they are, with complete transparency, my thoughts on "Great God Pan":


First of all, let's just get this out of the way. The title of this song is not "Great God Plan," as some people have mistakenly thought. While I'm not opposed to God having plan (I do wish he would share it with me), this song is definitely not about that. The title is actually inspired by the 1890's horror classic "The Great God Pan." In the story, two men perform brain surgery on a woman in hopes of opening her eyes to the spiritual realm, with the following result:

Suddenly, as they watched, they heard a long-drawn sigh, and suddenly did the colour that had vanished return to the girl's cheeks, and suddenly her eyes opened. ... They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded, and gave place to the most awful terror. The muscles of her face were hideously convulsed, she shook from head to foot; the soul seemed struggling and shuddering within the house of flesh. It was a horrible sight ... as she fell shrieking to the floor.

Three days later Raymond took Clarke to Mary's bedside. She was lying wide-awake, rolling her head from side to side, and grinning vacantly.

"Yes," said the doctor, still quite cool, "it is a great pity; ... However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan."

--Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan" 1890

When the woman's eyes were opened, she came to face to face with what lurked behind the curtain. In the world of the story, what poor Mary found behind our visible reality was, well, nothing good. Similar to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, the spiritual realm (and in fact, the whole universe) of Machen's story is a hostile place full of nightmarish pagan beings. The universe is not the work of a loving creator, but rather a place of deep, unknowable evil.

In our darkest moments, life can feel like this.

On October of 2006, my wife woke me in the middle of the night with a strangled scream. She was having a seizure, her first, and in the darkness of the room, it looked like she was fighting an invisible being. Like the character in the Machen story, "The muscles of her face were hideously convulsed, she shook from head to foot." I was terrified, but somehow managed to switch on the light and keep her from choking on her tongue. I watched as she stopped breathing, and didn't breathe again for ten seconds. They felt like ten years. I cried and said the kind of movie lines you would expect: "No, no, no, Lynna. Lynna, please God, stay with me."

She survived that night; so did I. Then, 24 hours later to the minute (I kid you not--hearing this would trip my bullcrap reflex too if I hadn't witnessed it myself), she had another one, identical to the first. In the moments during the seizures, I understood why they are often mistaken for demonic possession. It is the most horrible thing to witness, and I hope none of you reading this ever have to go through it. It took me weeks to recover. I didn't even want to sleep in the same room with her, so I would sit up at night and watch over her, jumping every time her breathing changed. (And all this only months after going through a miscarriage.) During those days and weeks, it felt like something evil and hateful inhabited every shadow, every corner. It felt like we were living in a hostile universe.

Sometime later, Lynna almost drowned in the Atlantic Ocean. We were swimming in the Outer Banks in North Carolina, and coolly (stupidly) ignored the wooden warning signs posted every hundred yards or so on the beach. The waves were huge, dark, and rough, but it wasn't every day we got the opportunity to visit the ocean, and we really wanted to swim. Lynna wanted to swim out past where the waves were breaking. She told me she was fine, that she could manage on her own, but being the worrier that I am, I stayed close.

I remember how the mood changed. One moment I was asking her if she was okay, to which she nodded and said, "I'm fine." It seemed like only seconds later, the waves were smashing us both in the face, and Lynna's eyes were as big as saucers. We tried to swim back, but the undertow was carrying us further and further out. I remember when Lynna got enough air once to gasp, "Steve!" I told her not to panic, but I'm not even sure she heard me. I'm not sure I heard myself. I told her to grab onto my shirt (fat guys swim in a shirt; it's in the code), and somehow I got us back to shore. I knelt in the sand, shaking, and thought, "She's pregnant with our baby. I almost lost them both." To this day, Lynna gets very uncomfortable watching rough waves in TV shows and movies. (That's How to Develop a Phobia 101, people.) Again, the universe had felt like a murderous, indifferent place.

Fast-forward and Lynna is lying on a hospital bed, 13 hours into labor. She is in an enormous amount of pain in spite of the epidural, straining, looking at the ceiling with eyes that are not really seeing anything. Every time she has a contraction, the baby's heartbeat slows to a crawl. More than once, the nurse runs into the room when the "beep, beep, beep" all but disappears. I'm standing by the bedside, holding Lynna's hand, not able to do anything. I might lose my unborn daughter. I might lose them both. And all I can do is hold her hand.

That's all we can do, sometimes, when the world looks its darkest. Thick and thin, hostile or benevolent universe, everything aside, I was not letting go of Lynna's hand.

Then a miracle happened: my daughter came into the world. Our two became three. And although Lynna was still in pain, I realized I was seeing something beautiful. If what I had witnessed during the seizures was "The Great God Pan," the dark, hostile face of the universe, then now I was seeing nothing short of "The Great God" himself, the benevolent, merciful, generous being that had given me life, given me Lynna, and given me a brand new daughter. I was seeing things as they were meant to be. And I realized the "Great God Pan" I had feared was actually something quite simple: difficulty.

There is no escaping difficulty. One day, each of us will die. We will lose our parents and our siblings (or watch our siblings lose us). Dreams will go unfulfilled. Pain will wash over us in a way that will threaten to drown us. All we can do in those moments is hold on and be brave. Love without reason, without context. Love because you love, and hold hands, and when it is finally time, let go. Let go and be grateful. In the words of the Avett Brothers, give your body back to the earth and not complain.

In short (brevity doesn't come easy to me, you might have noticed), "Great God Pan" is a song about standing strong in the face of loss, or in moments where loss seems inevitable. There will be beautiful, "good" moments that vastly outweigh the horror you feel in the difficult times. Be strong. Survive, together. I guess that's what I wanted to say with this song.

You can read Arthur Machen's story, "The Great God Pan" in its entirety here.


Thanks for bearing with this very long post. After giving it a second read, I would have to say it is preachier than I had remembered, but it's still a good snapshot of that period in my life. I've been wanting to share it for a while, and I'm glad I finally have.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Labadie Mansion

At a stoplight on our way out of town, my brother Paul says, "I hope we don't get mauled by a beaver." He hesitates in the middle of the word, uncertain whether he wants to say "bear" or "beaver." Beaver it is, and his stilted pronunciation gets us both laughing. The light turns green. I take my foot off the brake and allow the last of Bartlesville --Arby's, a furniture store, mom and pop cafes--to roll past us and disappear.

Our destination is Labadie Mansion, a derelict house that neither of us have ever seen, and the site of numerous accounts of ghostly activity. According to "sources," the house is hidden by trees, with no visible road going to or from the grounds. It's notoriously difficult to find, unless you know where to look, and even then you can miss it. We have a set of coordinates that will get us to a nearby graveyard, a few stolen notes from Google Maps scribbled in sharpie on a piece of graph paper, and a photo that will point us in the right direction, if we can first find the spot where the photo was taken. I've been to the graveyard once before, but neither I nor my friend Rusty could track down the mansion on that first trip. Hopefully, this photo--just a bridge, a tree-covered hill, and the words "Labadie Mansion" with an arrow pointing into the dense woods--will be the key that unlocks the way.

As we drive through Oklahoma's back roads, past lakes and fields and skeleton trees, I give Paul a quick overview of the legends surrounding Labadie Mansion. "It's a whole thing. Multiple murder. Slaves. Infidelity. Curses. It all changes depending on who you ask." "Any of it true?" he asks. I tell him I doubt it. A few of the names match up, but that's all. The stories that ring most true to me involve the family dying of disease, one member at a time, sometimes only days apart--a tragedy, but not a ghost story.

When we get to the graveyard, I find myself strangely disappointed. On my previous visit, the graveyard felt ominous and exciting, but in the light of day, it feels bare, easy to find, and completely without atmosphere. I walk among the gravestones, looking at the names and dates, thinking how easy it would be to take down these few hard facts and concoct a new legend to add to the Labadie mythos. Many people cling to accounts of paranormal activity, often saying something like, "I've known Carl for twenty-five years, and if he says he saw something, I believe him." But as a writer, I completely understand the compulsive need to occasionally (it's time to be honest, ironically) make shit up, and when you look at things that way, it's not hard to understand why people tell stories of ghosts and abductions and the jersey devil. When you look for something hard enough and really believe you'll find it, you tend to find it (or something that affirms your belief in it). And when you're not comfortable saying "Hey, I just thought something up! Ain't it cool?" it's easy to let creative ideas drift over into reality in hopes of finding a home. That's mostly why I'm disappointed. If I feel something on this trip (honestly, down-in-my-bones feel something) then maybe it's all real. Maybe it's okay to believe the way I used to.

We decide to head for the mansion, hoping to have more luck there. We find the bridge in the picture and spot the hill more easily than I expected. The photo makes all the difference. Rusty and I walked in a completely different direction on our previous visit. I park the car, and we cross a barbed wire fence--"Touch it to see if it's electric." "You touch it." "No, you touch it."--into a field full of horses. When I say "full of horses," I mean this is the most horses I've ever seen in one place. There must be a couple hundred of them, ribs showing, coats every shade of earth, square-faced, long-maned, and skittish. As we pass along the edge of the field, dozens stop dead in their tracks and watch us. Forget being mauled by beavers, the horses become my real concern. A few turn and run away, manes flowing, their hoof beats out of sync with their steps, the sound like gunshots and hammer strikes, dulled and delayed by distance. We watch in awe. "I never see horses run anymore," Paul says. "They're all too tame. They just stand there." I rarely see horses at all anymore, I think to myself. It seems like a shame. (The weather and the call to adventure have me in a damn-the-indoors mood.)

We're forced to cross rivers three times, and each time it is a beaver dam that makes it possible. They look all brittle sticks and rotten logs, but Paul and I discover the main component in a beaver dam is mud, packed down tight like clay. We walk across three separate times--two men, 300 lbs. each--and scarcely get the soles of our feet wet. Suddenly, I feel bad for talking bad about beavers. The rest of the walk is pure work, up-hill through thorns that grab at our pants, over rocks that threaten to trip us up. We come over a rise to find another dip in the terrain. "We have to cross another river," Paul says. "Are you kidding me?" I say. "Yeah, I am," he says. "Look. It's a road." Sure enough, it is a road, overgrown with grass until not a single stone or patch of dirt is visible. It is smooth, flat (preferable to thorns and rocks) and circles gently around the hill. We follow it.

The mansion rises out of the reaching fingers of the trees, looming like a giant in our path. At first, it is just a black shape with sky-colored holes for windows, but as we round the corner, the beginnings of sunset bathe the walls orange and we get our first glimpse into Labadie Mansion's former glory. We walk forward, aware of each step crunching in the dry grass. Beside me, Paul begins snapping pictures. The stillness of the place is heavy, and the stark sterility of the house surprises and disappoints me. No wood remains. The roof and floors are gone, and only the sturdy shell of rough bricks and mortar still stands. No wandering from room-to-room if there are no rooms left.

As we move closer, I see lichen growing on the walls that is so vivid in color I at first mistake it for paint. I have never seen anything like it, and I desperately wish I had a black light. Around back, we discover the semi-collapsed stables that presumably once held horses. Someone has spray-painted "Turn Back or Die" on one of the walls. We don't turn back, and we don't die. Later, in the yard, we find a dead cat (at least I think it's a cat; it could be anything) floating in an open well of some kind. The smell doesn't reach far, but as I approach, it almost doubles me over. Paul snaps a picture, and I turn the corner. Not what I came to see.

With our sweep of the area complete, we walk back to the mansion and lean in the windows, hands resting on the cool stone. I still don't feel anything remotely spooky. "All the accounts say the hauntings start when you step inside," I tell Paul. "Makes sense," he says. We enter through a door, stepping into the ruined parlor, the floor and fireplace overgrown with saplings. To my surprise, I feel something. I don't feel cold or get the sense that I am being watched; I don't hear voices or footsteps; I don't smell food from the kitchen, or soap, or blood. What I feel is wonder and--this more than anything--sadness.

I imagine what the house looked like new: three fireplaces, a kitchen, a stove, hot water for the bath, three or four quaint little upstairs bedrooms. I imagine the family crossing the threshold for the first time, feeling proud, feeling excited about the life they are about to begin beneath it's now missing roof. I stare at the large fireplace in the parlor, and I can clearly picture a family coming in from the cold, pulling off their wet socks and putting their feet up to get warm. I stand in the back door to the kitchen and wonder how many times a mother stood in this same spot, calling her family in for supper hot off the stove. I wonder how many baths were drawn in the now cracked, rusted-out tub. I stare in awe at a thirty foot tree growing in the middle of where the parlor had once been. Around the base of the tree, half-grown into the wood, is the metal remains of a piano, the pegs that held the strings clearly visible. I imagine the house filled with music as little girls and boys clinked and clunked their way through their mother's piano books. I picture life inside this old house, and suddenly I feel something else: I feel angry.

You can scarcely step inside Labadie Mansion without stepping on beer cans and broken bottles. Trash litters the fireplaces and spray paint streaks the walls. "Why would people do this?" I ask. Paul just shakes his head. It's not just the disregard for the remains of the house that bother me, but the whole legacy of the family that once lived here and what that legacy has become. They lost their lives, each other, then decades of blizzards and fires and spring storms took the remains of their home, and now, thoughtlessly, gossip has taken their story away from them as well. As I stand in the shell of the house, the sun setting behind the trees, I find myself wishing I could somehow give these people back their story. I think what you are reading is my attempt to do that.

Paul and I turn our backs and walk away from Labadie Mansion. Paul stops a few times to snap a picture or two, and I plod forward, thinking about human nature, about our tendency for destruction and disrespect. Regard and understanding, I realize, are much harder things, things that take incredible intention, and as I watch the old house disappear behind the hill, I realize regard can be a heavy thing to carry.

I text Rusty on the way back to the car, telling him that we finally did it, we found Labadie Mansion. A moment later, my phone chimes back. "Was it haunted?" he asks. "I've felt more vibes in my bathroom," I reply. "Of course," he says. I smile and text him back. "I could make something up if you like."

Photos by Paul Stewart

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Two Sales and the Slippery Future

It's been a while, folks. I'm always amazed to look back on my blog entries and see how plans and priorities have changed. Things I put so much stock in have since been denied, angered, bargained, depressed, and finally accepted away. For example:

My carefully-crafted Writers of the Future story didn't get so much as an honorable mention, and I'm still not sure why. I thought the story did some bold things, touched on some very human issues, and had a little action and sexiness as a bonus. But ultimately, it got the cold, impersonal shoulder of rejection. Woe. Granted, there are about a billion people competing in that contest, and sometimes, running with a good crowd isn't enough (many of my Codex buddies either got honorable mentions or ended up as finalists and semi-finalists, which makes me want to high-five them and curl up and die all at the same time). The simple truth is this: my story didn't work for the judge that read it (justification), so what can I do? I just hope I can find a home for the story elsewhere, which, at that length, is kind of unlikely. I'll probably end up cutting it down somewhat drastically before I can look forward to a sale.

Not long after my WotF heartbreak, I sold a story to Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, a huge sale for a beginner like me. I had submitted it a few months before, and news of its acceptance arrived just in time to drag me out of the dumps. There was a long series of changes and edits which were painful and educational by turns. The end result was almost surreal: my story (MINE) appearing in one of my hero's magazine. (I'm referring to Orson Scott Card, of course, but Ed is my hero too, in a more personal, less "I wrote Ender's Game" kind of way.) They hired an artist and everything. I can't tell you how awesome it all felt, so I won't even--wait, yes I can:

It felt like I had been saying I was a writer my whole life, and suddenly, somebody agreed with me. It felt like the beginning of a dream come true.

(Saying something cheery like the above always makes my mind bark at me, "Don't get too comfortable, Fancy Pants. You've got an almost ridiculously long way to go. If you knew how long, you'd probably quit." To which I always reply, "Then I'm glad I don't know.")

You can read the story I sold here, or buy the issue for kindle here. If you read it during edits, you need to read it again. It's a different animal. And here is the essay I did for the IGMS blog, which I have been told is "intimate" and "interesting" and (once) "scientifically suspect." (This last is only kinda true. See this.)

In other news, Brain Harvest bought one of my flash stories this week. I've been a fan of that magazine for years, and when I finally wrote a story for a Codex contest that got first in its round (out of 25ish professional writers, so not too shabby), Brain Harvest was the first magazine to come to mind. A while back, they were forced to drop down to semi-pro rates because of budget stuff, but I still consider this a big sale for me. I can remember two years ago, sending stories to Brain Harvest, and collecting kind, insightful, but firm rejection letters. The fact that I sold a story as-written to that same magazine (my first choice) meant a lot. It was hard proof that I had grown. Sometimes that's hard to see, and when you can see it, it's the thing that keeps you (or ME, if we're avoiding second-person) going.

That story is called "Fool," and it's slotted for April 24th. Be there or be a dead moth.

Lastly (I can't finish a novel, but damned if my blog posts aren't endless), I've been thinking about how to use this blog, and I've decided to post a few essays I've written about songs, dreams, family, etc (not as boring as they sound, people, and I promise not to dig as far back as my regrettable Xanga days). I've also considered doing a week-by-week journal as I work to finish my first novel, in the hopes that somebody going through a similar ordeal might find my account useful. And you guys must (MUST) see what my brother Tim is doing in the art world. All that coming up.

Let's see what tomorrow brings.

[Edited to add:]

My buddy Ken Kao just informed me my story in IGMS got a hot-and-cold review at Locus.