Sunday, March 22, 2015

Stories Told Around the Campfire

Beneath Strange Stars, a collection of tales from
40+ years of writing, presenting stories in
various genres, in both print & e-book editions
Click the highlighted text for links
Recently I gathered together more than two dozen (out of 300) short stories into a collection titled Beneath Strange Stars: A Collection of Tales. A couple of the stories had their start in the late Sixties and early Seventies, a few of much more recent vintage, but most hailed from the Eighties, Nineties and Naughts, when I went through a creative period where I was finishing a short story, many in various series, every few days. Here is my introduction to that collection:

Concerning Stories Told Around the Campfire

It’s all about the stories.
And the characters who live in them.
And the readers who live through them.
Regardless of cultural conventions and popular sayings, the job of Storyteller has to be at least the third oldest profession. First came the Hunter who tracked and slew Dinner, then the Cook who made Dinner palatable and something to look forward to; then, as the tribe sat around the campfire digesting Dinner, the Storyteller rose and told of spirit animals, great heroes, and beings who danced upon the mountaintops with footfalls of thunder.
On the other hand, it may have been the Hunters would not go out until the story of the Great Hunt had been painted upon the cave walls, which would make Storyteller the oldest profession, the Hunter second. And the third oldest profession? That would be the unsuccessful hunter who returned to the cave and chucked a spear into the Storyteller’s chest – the first Critic.
Telling stories is somewhat less dangerous these days as we sit around the campfire that is our sun, though, of course, one must still be wary of Critics, dodging the slings and arrows of outrageous reviews. Most writers seek fame and/or fortune but find neither, and almost all fall by the wayside, disappointed or burnt-out. Only two kinds of writers continue to write year after year – those who prosper and achieve a kind of fame, even if only as a frog in a small pond, and those who persevere simply because they cannot stop writing.
I am not the first kind of writer.
And I’ve not been the first kind of writer for a long time,
Some kids played baseball or basketball; I told stories, much to the chagrin of parents and consternation of teachers. Even before I learned to read, which I did at an early age (Uncle Bob was well-intentioned but his reading aloud of comic books left much to be desired), I told stories, which meant convincing other kids that a monster lived under the woodpile, or that a dinosaur had wandered down Seventeenth Street in National City at midnight, or that the Victorian house we all passed twice daily to and from Highland Elementary was haunted.
The first story I remember writing, where I made a conscious effort to employ such literary devices as plot, characterization and dialogue was “The Mouse in the Haunted House,” written in first  grade, a standard haunted house tale with all the usual weird goings on, but told from the viewpoint of the mouse who dwelt therein.
I thought it was a pretty good story. Mrs Hamilton, my teacher, was not so sure, and thus began trips to the school psychologist (all the rage in the Fifties for the misunderstood youth of America). Well, I did call her “Horrible Hamilton,” so, looking back, maybe I would have ended up in that office anyway.

Valiant Defenders Fighting Horrible Hamilton
AKA me in First Grade
       My next foray into fiction, a much more serious attempt, was a couple of years later, as part of a class assignment. Mrs Decker (we had no pejorative terms for her because she was a wonderful teacher) showed a series of photographs and asked us to choose one and write a short story.
The photo that impressed me was of a pure white bird with bright red eyes. As soon as I saw it, the plot for a story flashed into my mind, and the result was “The White Raven.” Yes, ravens are black, I know it now just as I did then, but the story was about a white raven, and the plot not only revealed why he was white and had red eyes, but also explained that shadowy building seen in the background – yes, another haunted house.
Mrs Hamilton would have sent me to the school shrink, or sent a note home to my mother, or both, but Mrs Decker was a much more perspicacious person. She entered the short story into a district writing contest and it won first prize.
Using photos and art as sources of inspiration is a technique I’ve turned to many times in the six decades since I saw “The White Raven,” either photographs and paintings by others, or drawings of my own. I often sketch characters and scenes and keep them near me while I write. In high school, this visual technique was adopted by Mr Phil Ligon, my journalism, photography and creative writing teacher, and we used Pictures for Writing by David A. Sohn as an unofficial textbook.

During high school, also, I wrote a story called “On the Moor,” about a publisher motoring through the misty wilds of Scotland who comes to a bad end. The story is not important (and it’s probably a good thing that it is mostly lost) except in that it started a chain of events that affects me even now. I had typed it on my Remington Quietwriter and was reading it in homeroom class one day. Mr Robert Vigil noticed I was not frantically trying to finish homework assignments from the day before (yes, I was one of those students) and he asked to read what I had written.
I was hesitant. I am at heart very shy, a trait most writers seek to overcome. A few years ago, I attended a social gathering at the San Diego Public Library for local authors. It was very crowded and you could not go anywhere without bumping into either an author or his ego. A few were my age or older, but most were younger, adept at networking and socializing, both on- and off-line. The way they aggressively worked the room, trying to hustle copies of their own books and forge relationships, you would have thought the room was filled with editors and publishers rather than desperate writers.
My experience is that most writers are extroverts, and those who are not Big Names are often driven by a kind of desperation that will make them buttonhole and glad-hand any possibly useful stranger not fast enough to get away. When I attended the World Fantasy Convention in Tucson (1991), I had the great pleasure of seeing the room worked by a master of the art, my friend, the late t. Winter-Damon, with whom I worked on a few projects. No editor, publisher or writer could escape him. When I remarked on his outgoing nature to his wife, Diane, she laughed and said: “Yeah, Tim can work a room like a two-dollar hooker at a Shriner’s convention. You can bet he’s going to end up with at least a half-dozen contracts.” It’s an enviable skill.
But I digress. At the time Mr Vigil asked to see the story, my private writing was still a private matter. But he was a pleasant person and asked nicely, and I did not feel he would ridicule me, which is every young teen’s second greatest fear. So I let him read it. When he saw me the next day, he handed the story back, said he had liked it very much, and asked me, “Have you ever heard of a writer named H.P. Lovecraft?”
I had not, but I soon would, and that long-dead fantasy writer would eventually loom large in my life and writing. Through high school and college, and on into adulthood, I read and re-read Lovecraft’s stories, eventually branching out to the other writers of his era, as well as modern writers also under his spell.
About that time Mr Vigil asked to see “On the Moor,” I was encouraged to apply to the local paper, the Chula Vista Star-News, as a book reviewer. Publisher Lowell Blankfort was looking for a hip student’s point of view at a time when the counter-culture was in full swing, but what he got instead was me. I sent him some sample reviews, he liked what he read, and I was hired. Well, “hired” is a relative term since there was no pay, but I did get to keep the books.
Publication in the Star-News brought a kind of notoriety, and people who had overlooked me started to notice I was alive. But I kept writing the reviews anyway. Back in those days, newspapers were still very big, especially community newspapers like the Star-News. Everyone in Chula Vista subscribed, if only to keep up to date with high school sports.  The Star-News (founded 1882) is still around, but, sadly, time has not been kinder to it than any other local paper, though it manages to maintain a kind of faded glory. Because of my book reviews, I was asked to work on the Trojan Trumpet, the school newspaper, which led to formal journalism training, photography and creative writing.
All those activities taught me about writing, but even more about publishing.  I started submitting stories to science fiction and mystery magazines I had been reading for years, but not with much success, though I was able to place articles and poems with smaller journals. There were more than four dozen major digest magazines publishing science fiction, fantasy, mystery, horror and detective stories, and many dozens more little and literary magazines. Of course, that was then, for now there are three science fiction magazines and two mystery magazines, and even they are not what they once were.
Even in the waning years of fiction (I didn’t know it then, but I do now) I published regularly, even though mostly in magazines familiar to just a handful of people. While publications like The Writer, Writers’ Digest and Writers’ Marketplace played a big role in submissions, smaller publications like File 550, the Gila Queen’s Guide to Markets, and, most especially, Scavenger’s Newsletter played an even bigger role.

Scavenger’s Newsletter was founded, published and edited by Janet Fox (1940 – 2009) a wonderful writer of fantasy and horror who also excelled as a teacher and poet. Though we never actually met, I almost feel as if I had known her.
If it had not been for Janet dutifully publishing market lists month after month, many of the stories in this book might never have been published. As with other aspects of the writer’s life, the marketzine has been overtaken by the digital age, and though such lists come at us now with the speed of electrons rather than the pace of a trudging mailman, it’s just not the same.
Because of the influence of Lovecraft, I wrote lots of Cthulhu Mythos stories, some slavishly chained to Lovecraft’s archaic and formal style, others in my own developing voice. The Mythos story that finally made a splash was actually a hybrid tale, “The Adventure of the Ancient Gods,” which appeared in a fanzine called Holmesian Federation. Other tales mixed Sherlock Holmes with Star Trek, but mine brought Holmes into contact with Lovecraft’s alien gods. Since the background of that story has been explained in other venues (Sherlock Holmes: The Coils of Time & Other Stories and Sherlock Holmes: Cthulhu Mythos Adventures), I won’t go into it or its sequels here. One outcome of the story and its sequels was that I was profiled in “Ralph E. Vaughan: Visionary of the Dreamlands,” written for Shoggoth by t. Winter-Damon.
Where HP Lovecraft of Providence
first met Mr Sherlock Holmes of 221b Baker Street, London
My friend t. winter-damon actually made me seem
interesting in his interview of me and review of  "The
Dreaming Detective."

It is often harder to sell a second story to an editor than the first, but usually easier to sell the third, even though in the small press world “sell” does not always equal money, and finding a little magazine that actually makes it to the third issue can be difficult. The profile in Shoggoth was a huge ego-boost, but it also caused some editors to look at my stories a little differently when they sailed over the transom. It was never easy submitting a story, but in some cases it became not as difficult.
Just as my drawings revolve around themes and archetypical characters, so do my short stories. In themes, we have alienation, alternate history, ancient cultures, religion, fear, corruption and the feeling of being lost. For my characters, I created Mitsuko, a young woman running from a warlord in an alternate Japan; Kira, a bronze-clad warrior living at the end of the Bronze Age; Tawa of the Sky Clan, a paleo-Indian maiden taken from her home by raiders; and a bevy of loners dwelling on a dead Earth at the end of time.
Before you head off into the stories, let me tell you a tale about Kira, who was my favorite. I started writing about her back in the early 80’s, a tall, muscular woman clad in black leather and bronze armor, a follower of the Triple Goddess, a holder-on to old ways even as the world changed around her, bronze giving way to the new metal iron. Her world was based solidly in the Bronze Age, but was also touched by magick and the gods. With her, I traveled to the edge of the known world and beyond, to America, Australia, Africa, the Orient, the vast necropolis of Nordhelm, and even to the far future. She was a popular character, and I drew many drawings of her in leather skirt and armor based on Mycenaean designs, with her  boots and her weapons historically accurate. I thought we would be together for a very long time, for I had written a score of stories and had ideas for many more, including several novels.
Then Kira went away.
I had suspected the end was coming, for I had seen signs, but it was still shocking when it finally happened. Editors began rejecting the stories. Finally, I received a note from an editor with whom I had never worked, and I knew the end was at hand: 
Dear Mr Von: Not a bad story but you can
do better than copy Xena: Warrior Princess,
can’t you?

I was annoyed at the way Xena knocked my Kira series for a loop,
but I got over it...and, no, I did not sue. Seriously?

     I did not submit any further Kira stories after that. Kira could prevail against any foe, human or supernatural, but not against the power of  television.


The only thing to add to what's written above is that shortly after I posted a link to the e-book edition on my high school class' Facebook page, one of my former classmates provided me with Mr Vigil's phone number. Shortly afterwards, the Wife and I had a nice, long visit with him. His house is filled with books, as is fitting for a man who has loved literature and reading all his life (it's my excuse too), but I am glad his house had room for one more book, the autographed copy I gave him. I think he was please to see it and very surprised that he had had such a great affect upon my writing life, especially since he only had me for homeroom. I think all teachers hope to have a positive effect on their students' lives, but, quite often, they never know exactly what the effect was or how significant it turned out to be, for time severs us from those we knew in our youth, and seeds planted sometimes require years to bloom. I'm extremely grateful I had the chance to let Mr Vigil know his efforts had not been in vain; I regret, however, that I was not able to tell Mr Ligon the same thing, for he passed away some years ago.