Thursday, May 9, 2019

An Excerpt of "Nutritional Value" in Hurricanes & Swan Songs: A Strange Anthology

by Lisa Lamb

"Shoes" by Grace Rachow

Alice was nervous. Pulling into a parking space outside the restaurant where she’d agreed to meet him, she saw on the glowing dashboard clock that she was a full fifteen minutes early. Should she go in and get herself a steadying drink? Should she drive around listening to NPR until the appointed time? Or should she just go home and pretend that she had forgotten the meeting altogether?

If she did that, she could heat up some soup, drink a glass of Sauvignon blanc, and watch an episode of Masterpiece Theatre with her pants unbuttoned instead of making polite chitchat with a relative stranger. Doubtless he’d be affronted and wouldn’t bother trying to reschedule, a notion so appealing that Alice very nearly put the car into reverse there and then. But she didn’t. She was not the sort to stand a person up; she’d been raised with better manners. Also she was more than a little afraid of what her daughter would say.

She could already hear Clara’s exasperated voice castigating her for her cowardice and lack of gumption. Clara was very keen on self-improvement, particularly as it pertained to her mother, and rarely tired of suggesting the myriad ways in which it might be achieved. Alice suspected that Clara’s motives were more about restoring her mother to a state where she could be comfortably ignored than any real understanding of what might increase her overall happiness. Nonetheless, Alice was grateful for the attention. Tiresome though it was to listen to her only child’s earnest badgering, she preferred it to the sound of the telephone not ringing at all.

Clara’s latest obsession for her mother was Internet dating. At first Alice had flatly refused even to countenance the idea, but after several months of being cajoled and harangued by Clara, it had just seemed easier to let herself be signed up for “Senior Mingle” than to continue her resistance. The name alone filled Alice with a sort of scornful despair, conjuring up as it did images of bewildered pensioners playing festively inappropriate parlour games. Oh well, she reasoned; she didn’t actually have to use the site. Surely she would gain some respite merely as a result of her capitulation?

This proved a miscalculation, however, as Clara immediately turned her attention to pestering her mother with suggestions for specific potential matches. It hadn’t occurred to Alice that Clara might also be able to search the profiles of available men, and while Alice was absolutely certain that none of them could possibly be of any interest, Clara was equally assured that almost any of them would do.

“What about this guy?” she’d say, pointing to the profile of some beaming, bald-headed hopeful. “Or this one?”

If Alice demurred, and she always did, Clara would castigate her for being preemptively judgmental.

“Really, Mom! Don’t be so picky! At this rate you’ll never find a new love!”

But Alice didn’t want a new love. She had been perfectly content with the old one until he’d selfishly expired of cancer at the ridiculous age of fifty-eight. It had been two years since Jim had died, and Alice was still exhausted from nursing him through a long and brutal decline. She’d been in her late forties when he’d received the diagnosis, and she’d still had her youthful figure and a glossy dark bob. By the time he’d finally slipped away, his body shriveled and his mind ravaged by morphine and disease, Alice had put on all the weight he’d lost and her hair was as steely as her heart. She no longer felt a part of the functioning, emotional world and honestly didn’t think she could manage a relationship any more intimate or demanding than the one she had with the cat. Even that was a little tiring, with its litter box and fussy, changeable palate. But Clara was adamant and eventually Alice agreed to contact the least offensive looking of the prospective candidates.

Alice had not been on many dates in her life, and certainly none in the current century. She’d married Jim straight out of college in 1980; a trajectory more in keeping with her parents’ generation than her own. But young Alice had not been interested in going to discos, backpacking around Europe, or hooking up with gel-haired Lotharios. An unpleasant, if hazy, experience at a frat party her freshman year complete with copious vomiting and a shameful stain on her underwear had cemented her desire for lifelong security and stability. All Alice had wanted after that was for everything to be normal. Safe.

She’d switched majors from pre-med to English lit., giving up her girlhood dream to be a flying doctor with Doctors Without Borders, and accepted first an invitation to dinner, and subsequently one for marriage from kind, plodding, unassuming, reliable Jim. Not a small part of her affection for her husband was the implied promise that she’d never have to get “out there” again. Alice was fully prepared to swap excitement and imagination for steadfast affection and the knowledge that he’d never let her down.

Yet he had. Here she was, all alone with nobody to clean the gutters, take out the trash, or warm her feet against on chilly nights. There was no one to nod and not really listen while she told him she was thinking of getting her hair cut short, or about that nice young man who’d held the door for her at the library which was so rare in this day and age, didn’t he think? Jim had never been much of a talker, but since he was gone, the silence in the house had a solemn, almost hostile quality that was notably different from the comfortable, receptive quiet of his presence. Not that this made Alice any keener to meet someone new. She managed her loneliness by keeping the radio on at all times and talking to the cat who, truth be told, was just as disinterested in her day as Jim had been but had less compunction about walking out on her mid-sentence. Slightly less, anyway.

Alice looked at the clock again. She’d been dithering for ten minutes and was now only five minutes early. Deciding it was too late to back out now, she resolved to pretend a stomachache after the first drink and that way she could truthfully tell Clara she’d met the prospective suitor, and still spend most of the evening at home. Clara was bound to phone twenty minutes in to check up on her anyway. It was getting hard to tell who was the parent these days.

Pushing open the door of the restaurant, Alice was greeted by the hostess, a heavily made-up, mature woman in jeweled, plastic spectacles, black slacks, and a white shirt.

“Can I help you, hon?”

Suppressing irritation at the diminutive term of familiarity, Alice gave her a frosty smile and said she was meeting someone.

“Do you have a reservation, hon?”

Alice didn’t know. She certainly had not made a reservation—wasn’t that the man’s job? She realized she’d forgotten to ask her date whether they’d be at a table or at the bar. Or even how she’d recognize him. All she could remember from his profile was that his hair was grey and he’d been smiling. Which, as she scanned the room, was a description that fit almost every male present. In fact everyone in the entire establishment, staff included, appeared to be well over sixty, which put Alice at the very youngest end of the demographic. Could it be that dating in the second half of life was actually just like eating at a retirement home? Unbearable. Alice decided instantly to leave.

Turning quickly toward the door, she yanked it open as hard as she could and immediately bumped into a gentleman who had been trying to open it from the other side.

“I’m so sorry!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t see you there.”

“No, no, it’s my fault. I was in a rush,” she apologized, eyes on the door as she attempted to sidle around him. It was imperative to make as swift and unobtrusive an exit as possible before her date spotted her.

“Say, you’re not Alice, are you?”

Too late. Alice’s heart sank, then lifted for a wild second as she considered simply lying and running away. But her upbringing pipped her impulse to the post.

“Oh. Yes. Hello,” she said, stupidly.

“Well, hello there!” he enthused. “John Elliot. Good to meet you in the flesh. You know,” he chuckled, “for a moment there I thought you were trying to stand me up!”

....How do John Elliot and Alice fare on their date? You'll have to read for yourself! Hurricanes & Swan Songs is available on Amazon:

And on May 12, 2019, at 3-4 p.m., Lisa will be reading from her story, along with Ted Chiles, Chella Courington, Shelly Lowenkopf, and Stephen T. Vessels.

Lisa Lamb was born and raised in the UK, where she had her first career as a pop star. She has written multiple global hit songs (published by Warner Chappell) and worked as a copywriter for a big branding agency. She has also owned her own audio branding business, published a nonfiction book on stellar nucleosynthesis, and is currently teaching K-6 music in a Santa Barbara public elementary school.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

An Excerpt of "Closing Credits" from Hurricanes & Swan Songs

by Dennis Russell

"Steel Guitar" byViolet Sayre

“Under blue El Rancho skies
The morning air is fine
We’ll head out on that trail
Friend by friend, side by side

New adventures we will find
Open pastures we will ride
where the streams and rivers wind
under blue El Rancho skies”

—First Verse of “Blue El Rancho Skies,” 
opening theme from El Rancho film and television series

Carlos Garcia pulled open the door of Gary’s Steakhouse and Grill and stepped inside. He took off his sunglasses and put them in his jacket pocket, and paused for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dim barroom light. He grimaced and waved off the hostess at the front desk and took a quick scan around the front dining room and bar. Every booth and barstool was red diamond-tufted Naugahyde, and the floor was covered in green short-pile carpet. “Gary’s” was spelled in blue stained glass in the lamps above every table. Carlos flashed a smile and waved hello to Darla, who had been working at Gary’s since the place was established in 1959.

She must be the oldest waitress in any diner in any town, Carlos thought. Darla didn’t wave back. She never waved back. He quickly walked through the archway to the second, larger dining room, decorated with historic photographs of the city of St. Hervé and some of its famous residents, and kept on to his final destination. He pushed open the stained-glass doors of El Rancho Sky Room and shut the door that separated the monthly meeting of Los Hermanos Benéficos from the regular patrons of the restaurant.

Most patrons of Gary’s never saw the inside of El Rancho Sky Room, but it was a quite familiar place to Carlos. To his left was the restroom for the exclusive use of El Rancho Sky Room patrons. The next third of the wall was lined with La Cantina, the oak bar that served the banquet room guests. For Los Hermanos Benéficos meetings, the top-shelf liquor was moved to the bottom shelf, as most of the members displayed their financial status through upscale alcohol. Carlos winked and shot his index finger gun-like at the bartender and went straight to the end of the bar, where five chafing dishes held today’s Benéfico buffet. One dish was filled with cheese enchiladas (for the vegetarians), another dish was filled with buffalo chicken wings, the third held slices of tri-tip, the fourth held miniature versions of Gary’s “world renowned” ham and cheese sandwiches, and the fifth contained Gary’s “famous” Hot Tots potatoes (tater tots with bacon and jalapenos). Neither of the world famous dishes were really very well known outside the doors of Gary’s.

There are varying degrees of fame, Carlos thought, as he used the stainless steel tongs to transfer some of the famous wings and Hot Tots onto his tiny plate. A few feet past the end of the bar was a round table where Carlos grabbed a slice of sourdough bread, a pat of butter, and a small paper ramekin with Gary’s special salsa. For those, like Carlos, who didn’t imbibe expensive liquor, there were glasses of water and iced tea. For the sloppy, there were extra napkins. Carlos grabbed a few.

Buffalo wings are pretty sloppy eating, thought Carlos. Before stepping away from the table, he reached down and took a few more. The drunken members of Los Hermanos Benéficos were always bumping into somebody, and with the tiny plates and strong drinks, there was a good chance of getting sauce on your shirt.

Besides the restroom, the bar, the round bread table, the carefully arranged dining tables with red and white tablecloths, and chairs to seat Los Hermanos Benéficos, the rest of the décor was a shrine to Los Hermanos Benéficos founder, Cal Evans. Everyone in the world knew the first verse of the theme song to the western series El Rancho. Between the years of 1952 and 1959, Cal Evans’ voice yodeled it over the opening credits of 125 Sunday night television episodes and five feature films. Cal was the last and the biggest of the Singin’ Cowboys. He was a true icon: a nostalgic symbol of the American West, representing the mythological chivalrous code of the courageous, courteous cowpoke.

A glass shadowbox displayed a pair of fringed tan leather gloves that Cal wore in one season of the TV show, alongside a pearl-handled Colt 45 revolver in a tooled leather holster, a Cal Evans lunchbox, a deck of Cal Evans playing cards, and three different Cal Evans collector badges that had only been available in select boxes of El Rancho Rings breakfast cereal. Next to the case was a beautifully seasoned brown leather saddle, the actual one that Cal swung on to the back of his horse Mercury at the beginning of every ride. Intricate hand-tooled roses and vines offset silver and turquoise inlay.

Carlos had been a huge fan of Cal Evans and El Rancho when he was a kid. He and his father watched reruns every Saturday morning. He thought it was worth donating his time to be the accountant for Los Hermanos Benéficos just to be able to marvel at the saddle once a month. Even better, hovering like a halo above the saddle and the case was one of Cal’s grey felt ten-gallon cowboy hats, with a beaded band that also contained a fair amount of turquoise and silver. Carlos glanced over to a modest corner that displayed the poncho, sombrero, and fake oversized moustache of Cal’s comedic sidekick, Pedro “Pappy” Sanchez.

The other walls of El Rancho Sky Room were lined with enormous photographs, mostly group photos, taken during the yearly Los Hermanos Benéficos charity horse rides and parades. Cal Evans and Pappy Sanchez were central figures in most of them. Carlos had never been on one of the rides. He was more of a desk jockey than any kind of vaquero. Looking at the photos, though, he could imagine the ride: the smells of leather, horse shit, beer, whiskey, and barbecue.

Carlos stood, studying the photographs one-by-one while eating his wings and tots. By looking at them sequentially, he felt he was looking at a time lapse photo of these men’s lives. A single moment stood out to Carlos, blown up, poster-sized, glass-covered, and wood -framed. A small plaque below that particular picture bore the etched words “Music on the Trail.” Though he had seen it many times, today for some reason, this photo particularly intrigued him. It made him think of the bridge to the song “Blue El Rancho Skies.”

“Out on the breeze, there’s a pretty melody
If you hear it, come on, sing along
We’ve got no cares, just some stories to share
And a place where we all belong.”

Carlos looked deeper and deeper into the photograph, trying to join with the black-and-white images behind the glass. There were several men in it. Cal was there with his guitar, singing. An unknown, hatless cowboy plucked a banjo. A plate of fried chicken and a few beer bottles sat on a barrel head. Carlos settled his eyes on a man in the foreground, in profile, squeezing an accordion. Carlos studied the face of “Pappy” Sanchez. He mimicked the beaming smile Cal’s co-star always had when he was playing accordion and singing. Carlos shuffled closer to the glass of the photo, his own face superimposed its reflection on the glass. It was as if he was there among them. Carlos also saw in the reflection the one remaining buffalo wing on his plate; it looked as if was stacked with the fried chicken in the photo. Feeling like a cowboy on the trail, he heartily took an enormous bite out of it.

Just at that moment, Justin Clay passed by on his way from the restroom back to his seat. He slapped Carlos’s back and said “You hear music out of that, dude? Isn’t that the best kind of accordion? The silent kind?” Justin laughed at his own joke all the way to back to the table where all the car-dealing Los Hermanos Benéficos sat.

With Justin’s slap, the bite of buffalo wing shifted from Carlos’s mouth to the back of his throat and wedged there. He tried a quick cough to dislodge it, but no luck. The sauce was dripping into his trachea and started to burn. He gave a couple of coughs with no better luck. He hurried to grab a glass of water from the banquet table. He downed it. Still stuck. He downed another. Still no luck and the water caused more sauce to dilute and drip further down his windpipe, causing it to burn even more. He grabbed a napkin and coughed into it. Nothing came up.

Does Carlos ever make it out of El Rancho Room? Dennis will be reading and *singing* May 7th at Chaucer's Books in Santa Barbara, 7-8 p.m., along with Max Talley and Nicholas Deitch. We promise we're not serving chicken wings! Join us for strange tales, refreshements, and oh yes, cake!

Hurricanes & Swan Songs also available at Amazon here.

Santa Barbara-based singer-songwriter Dennis Russell has released 5 albums: My Little World, Primitive-Acoustic-Sensitive-Singer-Songwriter-Type-Guy, Golden, 7 of Townes, and Plain: Primitive-Acoustic-Sensitive-Singer-Songwriter-Type-Guy, Too. He has also self-published a book of short stories, That Fourth of July, and a book of poetry, Surfer Songs. For concert dates and recordings, visit

Thursday, May 2, 2019

An excerpt of "Ghost Moose of Clary’s Cafe"

by Nicholas Deitch

"Moose" by Grace Rachow

His father would not approve. But then, his father had been dead for forty years, and the killer looked down on William Jeffers from a place of dubious honor. Thin spider trails laced the antlers, and someone had managed to land a bowler hat on the great beast’s head, and at a rakish tilt. From beneath the bowler, Moose glared at him with familiar disdain.

Jeffers looked away. “I’m not in the mood for your bullshit, Moose. Let me enjoy my beer in peace.”

The bartender wiped the counter with a slight shake of his head.

“Don’t judge me, kid. A man oughta be able to enjoy his beer without some scornful Moose looking down on him with that damn judgmental smirk.” He swallowed the last gulp and set the glass down hard. He glanced up, and the beast winked at him.

“I didn’t say anything, Mr. Jeffers. But there’s plenty of seats in this place, and you always sit in that one and complain about that moose staring at you.” The bartender grabbed the glass and pulled the tap, amber bubbles rising to a foamy head. “And aren’t you the one who gave that thing to old man Clary in the first place?”

Jeffers sighed. “You’re new here, kid, but you oughta know. That’s not just some rustic bit of bar decor molting on the wall.” He looked up at Moose and tipped his glass. “Some would tell you he was a great Mohican Chief. A spirit warrior, with a slight chip on his shoulder.” Jeffers took a long gulp and finished his third beer. “But Chief or not, this is my stool, and I’m not about to move my sorry ass on account of this goddammed Moose. He had it coming, and he knows it. I was there.”


Forty years. Well, forty-two to be precise. He’d been to Vermont for a family visit, and he’d found himself traipsing the backwoods with his cantankerous old man. They were going to bag a real trophy, an elusive old bull that had become his father’s obsession. Jeffers had heard the stories. Tales of the sightings, the near misses. The startling size of the animal, which seemed to grow with every telling. And don’t forget the taunting.

“Really, Pop? A taunting moose?” Maybe. Or maybe the old man was just losing it. Whatever the truth, this wasn’t just another hunting trek. This was personal.

It took them a full day to make their way in, well past the last of the cabins and lodges in the outer reaches of the Long Trail Forest. Woods that had been home to the Algonquian people for thousands of years. Woods that, despite the intrusion of the white man, still lay mostly undisturbed.

When they finally stopped to make their camp, the sun had already slipped beyond the trees. Jeffers built a fire, and the old man opened a couple of cans of Hunstworth’s Stew. About as close to dog food as a body could fear to come, but the old guy loved the stuff. And Jeffers had to admit, when the can sat on a fire for more than a few minutes, the aroma could be oddly alluring.

They ate in quiet, listening to the crackle of the fire and the sounds of the nocturnal woods awakening around them. In the light of the flames, the old man’s grizzled face seemed near to mythic, creased with years lived through many winters and a whole lot of mostly unnecessary tribulation.

Why, for instance, were they out here in the first place? Hunting some fabled beast that, if he existed at all, likely didn’t give a fiddler’s cuss about the old man and his obsessive pursuit.

“I almost had him, Willy.” At the last mouthful of stew his father set the can down and nodded to the fire. “Three years ago, I had him in my sights, not sixty feet out.” The old man leaned in. “I raised my gun and the beast looked right at me. He gave me a nod, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t smile.”

Jeffers shrugged and poked at the fire. He’d heard this all before.

“Not a nice, friendly smile. Was more like a sneer.”

“You were about to plug him, Pop, with a Creedmore six and a half. You expect him to wave and say, ‘Howdy’?”

The old man turned to him. “I’ve been hunting these woods all my life, and I never once saw a moose smile. It was a mean smile. The kind that says, ‘You’d better watch out, cause I’m coming for you.’ I had him, I swear it. I pulled the trigger, and the son of a bitch just stood there sneering at me. And then he was gone.”

He gazed up through the trees, at the branches that danced in the firelight. “How the hell does a bull like that just disappear? Unless he’s a ghost.” He reached into his pack and brought out his hunting flask. He took a long swallow and handed it to Jeffers. “I’ve tracked that bastard Moose for years. He remembers me, Willy. I swear it. He knows who I am.”

“So, we’re dealing with an angry, vengeful moose here, eh, Pop?” Jeffers scratched himself and sucked on the flask and handed it back to his father.

“I hear your doubt, son. But I grew up on this land, and my papa before me. He knew these woods as well as any Indian. And he knew their stories. This land has its spirits and its ghosts.” He took another swig. “He’s a trickster, that Moose. And I will not be made a fool. Come first light, I’m gonna find him and take him down, and you’re gonna help me do it.”

They finished the flask between them. Then they readied their rifles, tidied the camp, and unrolled their mats by the fire, waiting for sleep. It wasn’t long before he could hear the old man snoring. Jeffers lay in the fire’s glow, looking up through the branches at the stars that winked in the nighttime sky. And soon he, too, fell asleep.

The crack of wood broke the night, and Jeffers sat up, peering into the darkness. Beside him the fire glowed dim through the whisper of the dying embers. His father lay nearby, snoring softly.

Jeffers reached for his flashlight and swept the beam around the camp. Nothing but the black of night beyond the trees. He set the flashlight down and laid back on his mat, and closed his eyes, and tried to still his breathing.

An owl hooted far away. Something touched his shoulder, and Jeffers sat up. “Pop?” His heart kicked in his chest.

The old man snored on. He reached again for his flashlight, and shone the beam over his shoulder, and back through the trees. A shadow passed, dark and uncertain. And then, stillness. An odd stench in the air.

“Pop, wake up.” Jeffers took hold of his rifle. “Wake up, Pop. There’s something out there.”

“Huh?” The old man sat up, stupid from sleep and whiskey, his eyes wide and hair gone wild. “What is it, boy?” He grabbed at his own flashlight and waved the beam about.

“Might be your friend, the Moose. Might just be a coon.”

The old man was up and at his rifle. “Ain’t no friend of mine, that one.” He took a few short steps and stopped, listening to the woods. The snap of a branch some yards away. “Get up, boy. That ain’t no coon.”

“Maybe a bear.” Jeffers rolled off his mat and trailed his father. The beams of their lights pierced the woods. The shadow crossed ahead, rising up through the trees.

“Damn. That sure as hell weren’t no bear.” The old man pushed forward with his rifle held ready.

Jeffers stepped into his father’s tracks, the air around them rank and wild. Beside the trail, the world seemed to fall away.

Another crack of wood, this one to their left. Jeffers swung around and caught the beast in his light, huge antlers and nostrils flared, standing like a man....

...You know how it ends for the moose...or do you?
Nicholas Deitch's "Ghost Moose of Clary Cafe" is one of thirteen strange tales told in Hurricanes & Swan Songs: A Strange Anthology, a Santa Barbara Literary Journal Production.

Want to hear how it ends? Nick will be reading May 7th at Chaucer's Books in Santa Barbara, 7-8 p.m., along with Max Talley and Dennis Russell. Join us for more of the moose, and oh yes, cake!

Hurricanes & Swan Songs also available at Amazon here.

Nicholas Deitch is a writer, teacher, architect, and activist. Originally from Los Angeles, California, he now lives in Ventura, with his wife, Diana. He is an annual participant at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference. He has been published in the London literary journal, Litro, and is currently writing his first novel, Death and Life in the City of Dreams, a story about a dying city and those who struggle to save it. 

Grace Rachow is an artist, a dog lover, and the director of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. She has worked as an editor, writer, and freight handler. Her photographs grace the cover and the insides of Hurricanes & Swan Songs.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Join us for Festivities! Two readings for Hurricanes & Swan Songs

In celebration of Hurricanes & Swan Songs, an anthology we published on April 1, 2019, please join us for two readings in Santa Barbara in May!

May 7th, 7-8 p.m. reading at Chaucer's Books
May 12, 3-4 p.m. reading at the Book Den

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Scotch and the Queen of Cups: Cartomancy with Stephen T. Vessels

An Interview by Silver Webb

Stephen & Rougette, lest you doubt

They say you can tell a lot about a person by their choice of cocktail, and Stephen is very definite on this topic. 

“I only drink scotch.”

He also wears a fedora, smokes American Spirits, and sports a rakish goatee. I imagine he is actually Ernest Hemingway, somehow spit forward in the time stream and now driven to write lyric, dark stories that are “a mashup of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror.” 

Sitting down to a pub list of 30+ kinds of scotch, I test the beverage prospects. 

“So, will there be mitigating factors?” I ask.

“Such as?” he inquires.

“Water? Bubbles?” Don’t people order scotch and tonic? 

“One does not put impurities in the water of life,” he says with the calm of an emperor about to give a thumbs-down in the Colosseum.

I’m pretty sure that means even ice cubes aren’t a thing for a scotch connoisseur. We settle on a Balvenie that is twenty-one years old. Old enough to know what it’s doing, I suppose, old enough to be legal in a bar. It’s a delight to drink something so smooth and deadly; a good combination to start an interview. To counter, or perhaps augment, the beverage, I pull out my tarot deck. To his credit, Stephen’s eyes only bulge a little as I ask him to pick a card. 

I suppose by now he must realize I don’t believe in boring interviews. But I do have a reason for the tarot. Stephen’s novel, Door of Tireless Pursuit, is based on a tarot game called Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls, designed by Matthew Lowes. A group of writers that Stephen met in Eugene, Oregon, have banded together, each taking a turn writing a novel based on this tarot, novels like Littlest Death, The End of All Things, and Benediction Denied. Stephen’s first contribution to this series came out in October 2017. 

But as Stephen flips a card now, it seems this conversation will be led by the Queen of cups. A regal figure gazing thoughtfully into the waters of the psyche, expressing herself clearly and deeply. The first portent of the evening. The second involves a python, but more on that later. 

I actually saw Stephen speaking, not too long ago, at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, where he acts as a mentor and manuscript consultant to attendees. It’s his manner to encourage other writers as much as possible, and he told the audience, when asked about the value of conferences, “They have been critical for me. I recommend them strongly. They can be terribly expensive, so you have to moderate how much of that you do. I don’t go looking for the big break, the connection I’m going to make that will solve all my problems. I go as a perpetual student. And all the people there (ThrillerFest or Worldcon) who have succeeded don’t have to tell people why they’re there. By and large, writers who write about horrible things are very decent, kind-hearted, generous, open people. I have found that to be almost universally the case. Everything that has happened to me has happened because of the friendships I’ve made in the writing community. So I encourage you to go out and make those friendships as broadly as you can. You’ll want to get published so that everyone else will feel like they can go out and get published.”

Personally, I find the feedback, if not the encouragement and company of other writers to be crucial to writing. And Stephen agrees, “The breaks for me, as I see them, have been the people I’ve connected with. Squirreling myself away with my work for a long time was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. Being out in a community of writers, the writers in my life, those were my big breaks. Without that, this book [The Door of Tireless Pursuit] wouldn’t exist. The first big break I got was getting work published in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Having something like that happen doesn’t mean you’re jumping into wild success immediately. But it’s very important for writers to get published. Not necessarily a Big 5 publisher, but just having a hard copy you can hold onto is the finalization of a very hard, long process.”

The short story he published in Ellery Queen was one of twelve he wrote that were eventually gathered and published in the 2016 anthology The Mountain and the Vortex. He published two books in two years, in fact. My take on the appeal of his prose is that he is playing with symbols and meanings based in myth and the subconscious, but he doesn’t hit you over the head with it. You are somehow left with the subtle feeling that the author designed each story with the intention of guiding you toward a realization or at least leaving you with a meaningful question. I ask him if this is intentional construction or something that flows out without consideration. 

“It’s a little hard to talk about this because it’s amorphous for me. I have done a fair amount of reading of Jung, Campbell, the usual suspects. If I’m applying a symbol, rather than trying to call up a specific reference for a reader, it’s more like I’m diving down into the mulch of symbology and semiotics and following my intuition and my ear. Because I’m not allied with a specific delineation of forces and forms. So I’m sort of getting them to dance with each other.”

But I’m not quite certain I believe him, so I go in for a second pass, “In your short stories, a common theme is that a character goes on a physical journey, either down into a subterranean space, or into the woods. These are classic mythological tropes for entering the subconscious. Was that intentional?”

He only cracks half way. “Yeah, I would say yes. Although again, I’m not a respecter of categories or delineations. I do have a sense that we’re connected in ways that we don’t recognize, whether it’s electrically or etherical or due to how our cultures have evolved out of organic and pre-organic circumstances. I ferret around inside myself and I see something like what I want and then I keep looking at it differently until it becomes something unique in a specific way that gets me in my gut.”

Stephen’s gut is not leading him astray. But American Spirits may well be. He steps out for a smoke, and I look at my notes, wondering how to better lure out the raconteur. I ponder that he is a Wood Goat in the Chinese zodiac and a Cancer in the European. These two things together might suggest that he is intensely loyal and likable, with deep emotions. I pick my own tarot card and up pops Virtue. Virtue, indeed. This means, definitively, it is time for another round of scotch. This time a thirteen-year-old Craigellachie. I do wonder where Stephen has gotten to. It seems he might be smoking three or four cigarettes for the time he’s been gone…perhaps an entire cigar. Just as the scotch arrives in a pretty tulip glass, I look up and see Stephen waving from the door of the patio with what looks like an anaconda over his shoulders. I do my level best not to shriek. There is definitely something hissy and deadly wrapped around his neck. Its little black tongue is flicking at me. Apparently “cigarette break” is a euphemism for cavorting with snakes. I slither into the shadows of the booth and get a head start on the second round. 

“A very friendly snake,” he says on his return, smiling like he’s met Arthur Miller. I resist the urge to spritz him with antibacterial spray. Possibly the fumes from the scotch will have the same effect anyway.

As portents go, snakes range from terror to temptation, and occasionally divination…think of a priestess holding snakes above her in a temple. Snakes are also escape artists and known to slip the skin. To wit, if you learn anything from this interview about Stephen, let it be that he should not be left alone too long, lest he run off to join the circus.  

The Craigellachie is a pleasant little ball of flame in my throat, and I skip straight past all of the interview questions that look rather mundane now. Here’s a good one: “Hungry, wandering ghosts show up in at least two of your stories. Why is that?”

He ponders his glass. “I hadn’t intended to drift off into cosmology, but I do have a sense that there is a non-corporeal aspect to being that extends beyond physical death. That has been supported for me by experiences I’ve had. That doesn’t mean that I have any idea what that reality is like. I have the same reaction to a uniformly blissful or transportive notion of an afterlife as I do to notions that reality isn’t that simple. I like to play with the supernatural. I’ve never been happy or satisfied with depictions of the afterlife that have been given to me by science or religion. I notice holes in reasoning sometimes, and I figure since none of the existing answers seem to gel for me, I may as well make them up myself. I like dealing with the unknown and running smack up against it, because it has this sense of expanding the scope of experience.”

So when I ask him who his literary influences are, I’m expecting an arcane list of philosophy books. I’m betting on the Esperanto Bible, Sergei Bulgakov’s Sorrows, and The Lost Codex of St. Angus. Instead, I hear “Little Women, Nancy Drew, Middlemarch, and Treasure Island.” He amends quickly with a more adult list: Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula K. Le Guin, among others. But he circles around with “I think it’s significant to me that I still remember Little Women. Why? I guess the passion. Jo and the professor. And her sister dying, which still gets me. Who gets to say these things aren’t real? They’re real to me.”

I understand this well. The characters I write are very real to me. They keep me company. Sometimes they are better company than the nonfictional people in my life. I mention this to Stephen, and he replies, “Jun’ichirō Tanazaki said that his characters came to life and he had to write their stories so they would leave him the hell alone. And it does feel like that sometimes. I don’t feel like I’m writing about hypothetical characters, and there comes a point where what I think should happen becomes less important to me than what’s true for them.”

You might think from hearing him speak that Stephen has been writing continuously his whole life. But in fact, although he first wanted to write when he was a young boy, it was not until his mid-fifties that he started to have publication success, and he admits, “I fell fallow for periods. I had some misconceptions. Probably the biggest one was that I had to pass through some kind of membrane of learning and experience in order to write, which is utter nonsense. I was waiting for the planets to align. It took me a long time to disabuse myself of the notion that inspiration had some special moment where the words would come to me. If there’s a break in your writing where you lose your facility, it takes a few weeks to get it back. That should be said to every writer: It takes about two weeks to get back in the groove and thirty days to form a habit. Now it’s true for me that I need to be creating something every day.”

That daily work ethic is coming to fruition. He is writing two novels that will be published in the coming year, one of which will be a second installment in the Labyrinth of Souls. 

The interview seems to be winding down. While there’s time, shall I tell you all his secrets? Very well. Stephen is passionate about classical music (see Arsentiy Kharitonov’s site, to which Stephen contributes) and a talented artist (this volume is generously peppered with his drawings). He also writes his manuscripts by hand and texts by slowly booping at the screen with one finger. A Luddite, he says. Stephen may be gregarious with a booming voice that fills the room, but so too is he ruminative, introspective. I suspect the man at home writing is very different than the man holding court in the pub. But most good writers are this way. To slip the veil, journey to the feral, broken places of the psyche, and bring back stories to the page is not always the task of the happy. Although, if you are a happy and prolific writer, brava to you. Perhaps you’ll come buy us a scotch? There’s a really nice snake here, I’m told.

"Scotch and the Queen of Cups: Cartomancy with Stephen T. Vessels" was first published in Volume 2 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, available on Amazon here. 

Stephen has also recently had a short story published in Hurricanes & Swan Songs: A Strange Anthology, available on Amazon here.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Announcing the Publication of Hurricanes & Swan Songs: A Strange Anthology

Silver Webb is very pleased to present Hurricanes & Swan Songs, 
a 200-page anthology of thirteen strange tales.

Dear Reader,

Hurricanes & Swan Songs was a collection conceived while drunk, laughing, and staring at a moose head nailed to the are many children, I’m told (conceived, not nailed to a wall). I don’t have children. I’m a writer. I can barely take care of myself and the ubiquitous “two cats” that writers list in their bio blurb as a euphemism for depression. Although I argue that writing a good novel is more difficult than raising a kid; otherwise, everyone would have a Pulitzer stashed in their medicine cabinet.

Occasionally other writers, who are willing to forgive my lack of social prowess in exchange for conversations about semi-colons and Hunter Thompson, lure me out to socialize. Invariably it is to the same two or three restaurants. The places with comfy booths and tsunami-strong cocktails.

I believe it was halfway into a Hurricane and long past the point of dignity that I thought, “I should be writing these conversations down.” I tried. You’d be surprised how fussy writers are about having their words stenographed and read back to them. Very fussy. So then I thought, “I should ask other writers to write their own stories about this.”

I believe the first response was something along the lines of “Write a story about a bar? It’s been done.” Yes, well, perhaps it has. But not this bar. Not this Hurricane. Not this plate of burnt ends. Writers with busy publication deadlines stopped just short of suggesting that I should look into pills for my kind of crazy. But eventually my enthusiasm, if not logic, held sway, and stories began to show up in my inbox. Good stories from good writers.  That’s better than a Mai Tai.

And so was born an anthology about that restaurant, where nobody knows your name, and perhaps it’s better they do not. An anthology about love, loss, and mayonnaise. Cockroaches, spliffs, and purgatory. Ghosts, both murderous and helpful, psychokinetic battles, and even a blind date among widowers and a not-so-blind date with Hemingway.

What was the name of the restaurant? Mary’s, Perry’s, Jerry’’s that restaurant in your town, just down the street. And if you can’t find it, look no further. Have a seat next to us, order a cocktail, and let the tall tales roll. 

Where Have All the Good Times Gone?
by Ted Chiles

Sitting Here in Limbo
by Max Talley

For Thee
by Chella Courington

by Tom Layou

How Mad Matt Won the Nobel Prize in Literature
by Matthew J. Pallamary
Nutritional Value
by Lisa Lamb

My Dinner at the Boy Restaurant
by Shelly Lowenkopf

Ghost Moose of Clary’s Cafe
by Nicholas Deitch

The Third Hurricane
by John Reed

East Toward the Sun
by Christine Casey Logsdon

Closing Credits
by Dennis Russell
The Hurricane: Mercury in Retrograde
by Silver Webb

A Turn with Worms
by Stephen T. Vessels

The anthology is available Amazon here, and for those local to Santa Barbara, at Chaucers Books by mid-April.

Silver Webb

Friday, January 25, 2019

Announcing the Flash Cat Award for flash fiction!

The Flash Cat Award
Named after Apollo the lux tux cat, this is a new award for flash fiction, to be awarded in June 2019. How does one go about winning a Flash Cat? Well, the first step is to submit your flash fiction to SBLJ by March 1, 2019. If your piece is published in Volume 3, it will be in the running for a Flash Cat. Rumors abound of a $100 prize, and the rumors are not without reason. Flash should be under 1,000 words. For submission guidelines click here.