Roland Allnach

multi-award winning author of the strange and surreal
www.rolandallnach.com
 

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Oddities & Entities 2:  Vessels

From the back cover:

  Sometimes you need to be broken to be made whole.

  With 'Oddiities & Entities 2: Vessels,' multi-award winning author Roland Allnach returns to the strange and surreal path forged by his critically acclaimed 'Oddities & Entities'. Consisting of nine new tales spiced with elements of horror and speculative fiction, 'Vessels' explores the communion of spirit, substance, and the eccentricities of flesh between those conjoined realms.

O&E 2: Vessels is available at Amazon. Signed copies are available at this site at the Bookstore.
Kindle version is now available! Click here to order.
O&E 2: Vessels is also available direct from All Things That Matter Press. Click here to order.

  Oddities & Entities 2: Vessels is my sixth book to reach publication. Although it is a follow-up to the volume of stories I presented in Oddities & Entities, with Vessels I offer a new set of stories, as indicated from the back cover blurb.

  What do the critics say? As reviews come in, they will be posted here as on my other book pages.

In the meantime, enjoy these discussions:

...Vessels Realized: Putting together my fourth anthology
...A few words about the cover art
...The Outsider as a character archetype
...Story discussions

 

Vessels Reailzed: Putting together my fourth anthology (and my sixth book)

  With Vessels I've returned to familiar territory: a collection of stories following a theme. It's something I've enjoyed doing with my three previous anthologies - Remnant, Oddities & Entities, and Prism - and a welcome return after venturing into my first published full length novel (The Digital Now) and nonfiction (The Writer's Primer).  And though I'm very proud of my departures from the anthology format, my first love as an author is piecing together mosaics of diverse shorter works to depict a broader literary arc.

  So where do I go with this book? Whereas the original Oddities & Entities explored the ways in which characters tried to make sense of their lives when thrust into strange situations that transcend the world they once understood, with Vessels I wanted to take that one step closer to home and violate one of the basic tenets of existence, that is, how we understand our lives in relation to the bodies we inhabit. I certainly got into some of this with the first O&E, but I wanted to go much deeper down that rabbit hole.

   One of the guiding themes in Vessels is the notion of identity. In the process of putting the book together, I found myself sinking deeper into the notion of how we as individuals identify ourselves through our bodies. Not in the obvious contexts of age or gender, but more so in the ways in which we figure our place in the world through the way we experience the world around us, as sensed by our bodies. Our physical manifestation is perhaps one of the most fundamental aspects of our relation to the world; it creates impressions upon those who see us, it provides a framework for the mental image of our own presence, and its senses translate the world and life from outside our body inward to our minds and memories.

  I decided that, like all things, something so intrinsic to life would also be overlooked by many people - my characters included. Upsetting that equilibrium, that fine-tuned and apparently seamless relationship between body and mind, is perhaps the most defining aspect of the stories in Vessels. It also helped shape the narrative structure of the stories. I always invest effort in my writing to convey the sensual aspects of a character's experience, thereby inviting a reader into the story through the character's five senses of sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. The stories in Vessels offered opportunities to explore this in a different - or perhaps disturbing - way.

  The second most significant theme in the book is the notion of relationships. While many of the characters in the book feel isolated and even disdained from the common world, they are nevertheless shaped and driven by people in their past and present situations. As the saying goes, we are social animals, and it allowed me a great deal of narrative opportunity to bend a set of characters around their simultaneous attraction and repulsion to human interaction.  

  With Vessels I also wanted to push myself a little further past the comfort boundaries of my narrative voice. For those who have read my other books this next statement might sound comical, but I actually practice a rather sizable degree of restraint in my stories. That is, a fair amount of what I see in my head never makes it to the page. Most of that is an editorial judgment based on writing mechanics, combined with my firm and foundational belief as an author that if something does not serve to further a story then it does not belong in the story. It's not that I discarded that belief for Vessels, but rather that I set my imagination free to see what other doorways some even stranger stories might open. Once those doors were opened, there was no turning back. This creative process was a particular driving force behind "Overlay", the central story of Vessels. 

   Back in 2012 when I finished Oddities & Entities I had a few more stories cooking in my head to continue on that weird path. At the time, though, I wanted to go in a different creative direction, so I kept a file on my netbook to record rough story ideas when they hit me. As time went by some of these were written. In the meantime I went to my trusty backlog of unpublished stories to see what I had available. After I saw The Digital Now and The Writer's Primer enter their publication production I started to outline the book that would become Vessels. At that point I had a little less than half of the content I felt was needed. I was happy with what I had in hand, but I felt the book required two longer pieces to anchor its themes, much in the way the original Oddities & Entities was anchored with "Elmer Phelps" and "Appendage."

  Over the next few months I wrote those two stories ("Overlay" and "Equinox"), arranged the story order for the collection, and put it together. After the requisite revision and editing I sent it off to my trusty publisher (All Things That Matter Press). And so, after a few months, in September 2016 Vessels saw publication.

RETURN TO DISCUSSION TOPICS

 

A few words about the cover art

  For those who've read Vessels, you may have noticed a little something on the book's data page: the cover art is from my own hand. I mention it here not out of vanity but more for the fact that I think it serves a good lesson for patience, and the notion that some things have to happen in their own time.

  The artwork for Vessels is from an impressionist water color project I did for a high school art class. Yes, quite a few moons ago. At that time I was yet to write my first short story, and I was still in my 'art' phase. Specifically, I enjoyed creating large scenes, cobbled together from 8 1/2 by 11 blank paper, that I realize now were my attempts to tell a story. My parents encouraged me to take an art class to support my artistic interest.

  I enjoyed creating art, but I did not enjoy being assigned art projects. Art was my creative release, my free time to escape into my head, so the notion of doing something for no other point than a grade did not sit well. As luck would have it I had a very understanding - and very patient - art teacher. We struck a deal: I could alternate between required projects and my own crazy projects.

  One of the assigned projects was to create an impressionist painting with water colors. I wasn't a fan of water colors; I felt I had much better control with acrylics. What turned me on was that half the project was the use of water color, while the other half was to then go back with pen and ink and outline whatever images emerged, much in the way we see shapes when staring at static.

  I chose my color palette and went to work. To set up the background I set the paper on its side, ran different colors along the top edge, and let them bleed down. I then turned the paper ninety degrees and repeated the process. Once it was dried I stared at it for some time before settling on what images I wanted to highlight with ink.

  When it was done I sat back and came to one conclusion: some day, this would be the cover of a book I wrote. I kept the painting in my basement with some of my other 'keepers' from my art phase, and so it waited, just over thirty years, until I was well into putting Vessels together. I had a few ideas for the cover when I decided instead that this was the book for which the painting had waited.

  So there it is, a little story unto itself. It took more years than I could have imagined sitting that day in art class, but the wait has made the fulfillment all the more satisfying. The fact that it's a creepy, ethereal image just adds to the satisfaction. 

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The Outsider as a character archetype

  With Vessels, my sixth book, it may seem a bit odd at this point to discuss a character archetype which makes common appearances in my writing. On the other hand, this seems as good a place as any.

  In literary terms, the outsider is a powerful character model for certain narratives. For the kinds of stories I like to write it's not so much a convenience to depict this type of character, but more a necessity to bring readers into the fold of strange events and plots. From a personal standpoint, I find the outsider also lends a crucial advantage in perspective. By utilizing characters who are removed from everyday society in varying degrees, adding in varying levels of introspection, my characters can then employ explorations and meditations on the morality and meaning of their existence.

  I also find the outsider to be a natural role to fill when creating a character. I've lived my life often feeling as an outsider, and it has taken more years than I care to count to understand that how I perceive things, and the way I contemplate things, are not exactly mainstream. That's not to say better or worse, but a simple acknowledgment of difference. In difference there is separation, and through separation there is perspective. To me it's a very natural progression, and one that supports my creative process of questioning an idea until inquiry leads to a place of sufficient complexity to support a functioning story.

  The role of an outsider also allows for a deeper process of catharsis in the evolution of a story. Given that the outsider is by default living in a construct of its own subjective morality and perceptions, this pre-existing fracture from the everyday magnifies the gulf of understanding characters seek to bridge in adjusting to whatever it is that has intervened in their lives. The means and solutions such characters might entertain are thereby more open, providing more fertile ground for taking a story into places more normal, grounded characters might not consider, much less entertain.

  It's important to note that the outsider can manifest in varying degrees. The outsider is not strictly to be interpreted as a societal dropout; rather, it's much more common for the outsider to exist alongside mainstream society, in mainstream jobs, and in mundane situations. This creates a fascinating paradox rich with narrative possibilities. For all these outsiders might be part of society, they are at the same time alienated from everyone and everything around them. Their proximity to the rest of society only magnifies their sense of isolation. 

  All this is not to say that my characters always follow this archetype. As both an author and a reader such a thing wouldn't be all that creative, and the last thing I want is for my characters and stories to become derivative, even it's derivative of their own nature. Several characters I've put to use in my writing are everyday people in appearance, which is a facet of their personality that can be put to use in a different way than those who are blatantly outside the norm. Taking a seemingly normal person and putting them into a strange situation opens the door to a story that can have even greater impact, welcoming a reader in through the initial familiarity of the character's mundane life only to twist things into something much different than normal.

  As with anything else in literature, there is a matter of preference, in this case from both the writing and reading perspective. While it's important for all authors to stretch themselves in depicting characters who differ from the authors, it remains the responsibility of authors to invest their characters with sufficient emotional resonance so that their characters live on the page rather than existing as mechanistic exercises. There is a big difference between a character and a caricature,  and readers can sniff it out in a hurry. Characters engage readers, whereas caricatures do not.

  For all the effort I put into my stories, I consider the most compelling aspect of my writing to be my characters. One of the things I often say during interviews or writing presentations is the simple guide that if a story does not feel real to a character, it won't feel real to a reader. The corresponding emotional impact of a situation on a character will translate to a reader only as much as the reader becomes invested in the character. Through the use of the outsider as a character construct both these processes are magnified: the separation of the character can pull the reader into a deeper sense of empathy, and this deeper sense of empathy can then amplify the translation of the character's experience to the reader.

  Well now, isn't that a fancy, long winded explanation? Here's the short and sweet explanation. I guess I'm at least a little weird, so I like to write weird characters. As the old wisdom goes, write what you know.

RETURN TO DISCUSSION TOPICS

 

Story Discussions (all spoiler free, unless otherwise noted): 

"Defaeco"
"Impact"
"Parts with Hearts"
"Soulmates"
"Unspoken, Undying"
"Johnny's Egg"
"Overlay"
"Equinox"
"The Eulogist"

 

"Defaeco"

  Vessels opens with a somewhat brutal tale. I knew from the beginning of this book project that I wanted the book to have a somewhat harder edge to it than the first Oddities & Entities. At the same time, I wanted to have an opening story that made it quite clear where some of the thematic elements of Vessels would be directed over the course of the book.

  "Defaeco" is one of those stories that came to me in one form and wound up being something quite different in its execution. Yes, it is a rough story with its physical brutality, and yes, it does embody some rather repulsive elements, yet the crafting of these narrative qualities are all intrinsic to the portrayal of the story's overall meaning. For that reason I did not judge any one of the story's more graphic moments as something that could be considered as gratuitous or excessive. Rather, they all serve their purposes.

  It's a grim tale of redemption. I wanted the story to exist in the underbelly of the world around us, right under our noses, so to speak, and for that reason I chose the initial setting of an upper class restaurant. The choice wasn't entirely pointed to the moral hypocrisy of some wealthy people, but it is most certainly meant to point a finger at the rotten core that can exist under fanciful facades.

  For the story to have an impact beyond a mere tired derivation of torture-horror (a genre that, I must admit, I find to be of little value), there of course had to be a character construct driving the story. The search for redemption was not just enough; no, I wanted to create an interplay of characters that blurred the line between victim and victimizer. I touched on this idea in the story "My Other Me" in Oddities & Entities; I brought it back in this story not just as a nod to the first book but to explore as an actual narrative construct rather than a descriptive element.

  And so the story ensues. We have John, the wayward and damaged soul looking for the climax of his existence, and Eve, the mysterious woman employed to summon that moment into being. I won't get into specifics here because I don't want to spoil the story, but it's safe to say that their interaction becomes much more than what it first appears, and the perception of who is bound, who is suffering, and who is fulfilled shift to and fro like water in a wave tank.

  In the meantime, the story's harpist plays on. She's a character without name or dialog, yet I feel she's one of the more disturbing creatures I've concocted for a story. At the same time, the role she plays (and the tune she plays on her harp) serve to solidify the interaction between John and Eve while providing contrast. She plays a gentle tune, while something far from gentle occurs just outside her reach.

  In the end, I feel it's still a very 'human' story. For that reason I felt it served well as the opener for the book, as it showed both the dark and light sides of what follows in the succeeding stories.

  "Defaeco"... the word comes from Latin, and means to clean, purify, or purge. I'm not a fan of changing titles for a story once I'm finished writing, but the original title of "Purity" never sat well with me. It was simplistic and just didn't seem to evoke some of the story's mysterious character. While I'm also not a fan of using obscure words - particularly obscure Latin words - for story titles, I stepped over that rule of mine for this story to give readers the feeling from the outset that they were going to follow John to a place they could not anticipate. For the same reason I do not define defaeco within the narrative. Instead, I let the story do the talking.

  It's what any story should do, after all. With "Defaeco" in place, I felt it was time to take the book in a more eccentric direction. For that purpose, I knew I had an old gem in my story archive that was anxious to see the light of day, a little tale of mayhem known as "Impact".

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"Impact"

  Of all the stories I've written over the years, I don't think there are too many that compare to the raw madness of "Impact". As I often like to do, I decided to challenge myself when I wrote this story to include a toxic brew of extreme elements or, rather, some extreme expressions of human behavior. The challenge, of course, would be to keep the elements in narrative check so that when it was done it was a story and not a mish-mash of scenes.

  I'd like to take a moment here to recite two guidelines I employ during my writing. One, to be conscious of the fact that scenes are in service to the story, and not the other way around. What this means is that individual scenes, no matter how odd or extreme, should always serve to propel the overall story. A failure of narrative structure is when the story serves no visible purpose other than to string together a series of scenes. Such a construct is problematic in that it robs the story of character involvement, and thereby robs the reader of emotional involvement.

  The second guideline I employ is to remember a lesson from Edgar Allen Poe. Although there's a common misunderstanding that Poe wrote his most memorable macabre stories as a morose, drug-addled madman, the truth is that Poe himself described how he employed the greatest amount of narrative discipline in constructing his most memorable scenes. The discipline of literary craft is evident in the impact and immortality of those scenes, rather than their being dismissed as cheap, shallow and therefore forgettable thrills. 

  Now, getting back to "Impact," as I said the challenge I posed to myself was to write a story of rather extreme human behavior while retaining a functional narrative construct. The first consideration was what elements to include in this cooking pot. Amateur wrestling? Why not? Some sado-masochistic indulgence? Toss it in. Vicious violence? Sure, and for good measure, throw in a little Shakespearean flair. An old school muscle car, sexual deviance, and urban thrash music? Indeed. Mix well, cook at 350 degrees, see what happens 8,000 words later.

  It's probably not surprising (at least it wasn't to me) that the first version of the story was, for lack of a better word, a mess. I realized it was in fact a violation of my first guideline - a story in service to its scenes - and the indulgent eccentricities of the characters were excessive. The story felt more of a shock piece than an exploration of unstable personas, which was what I really wanted the story to embody.

  The story went on the back burner. On several occasions I took it out, revised it, shelved it out of disappointment, only to take it out yet again. Part of the problem was that it seemed too much for its length, the proverbial ten pounds in a five pound bag. Without some kind of external focus, though, I really couldn't decide in which way to focus the story to make it work. Once I started putting together Vessels, however, the focus came in, and I knew what I had to do with "Impact." The final revision was not too extensive, it was more a matter of tweaking and trimming to excise what didn't work and accentuate what did work. The fact that it would sit second in Vessels, after "Defaeco" and following the overall theme of human behavior and experience in relation to the living body, provided the proper discipline.

  "Impact", in its final form, stands fine on its own as an independent story. As the second offering in Vessels, it found a happy home for its madness. With a set of bizarre characters entwined in a single infamous night, the story lends a surreal atmosphere after the other-worldly tone of "Defaeco".

  With "Impact" in place, it was time to take Vessels down a darker, but less flashy road. It was time for a shift to speculative fiction, and a little tale called "Parts with Hearts". 

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"Parts with Hearts"

  I've said in several places on my 'Behind the Stories' page that some of my short stories come straight from my sleep. One of the reasons I worked midnights shifts for so many years was that I did not remember my dreams. Very few made their way out of my subconscious mind to leave conscious memories upon waking. Of those few, some were pleasant, some were composed of surreal humor, and the rest were nightmares.

  "Parts with Hearts" came straight out of a nightmare.

  So as not to betray the suspense of the story, I won't describe its pivotal moment here. Suffice it to say that this moment of the story was the center piece of my nightmare, and its fulfillment was one of sufficient terror to kick me straight from sleep to a startled waking state. The fact that the nightmare did not consist of characters but instead consisted of my younger son and I only intensified its hold.

  As I often do, I employed the surest remedy I know of to break free from the images lingering in my head. I took them, broke them down into a narrative construct, and used them as fuel for a story. The first step in this process was to remove myself and my son and substitute in a fictional father and son. This wasn't so much to bleed out personal intrusions from the story, but rather to allow some literary distance so that I could then move on to develop context and setting so that the story's pivotal moment was a moment of meaning and impact rather than a simple shock moment. In that process much of the graphic content of my nightmare went out the window (good riddance) and story elements came in its stead.

  Although the core of the story is the interplay between the father and son, their relationship is a vehicle working hand in hand with the surrounding environment in which they live. Namely, this is a speculative future, a time of devolved nation states and one possible extension of an exhaustive period of disseminated warfare, terrorism, and economic downturns.

  I've read a fair amount of military history and strategic analyses of various conflicts, and I employed the idea of asymmetric warfare to construct the speculative society depicted in "Parts with Hearts". Asymmetric warfare is the condition that exists when two opposing forces attack each other in very different ways: if side A has overwhelming military might, side B avoids conventional battle by resorting to terror tactics. In "Parts with Hearts", the economic exhaustion of a prolonged period of asymmetric warfare overwhelms the lives of the father and son depicted in the narrative.

  When I put together one of my anthologies I'm always working with a set of themes, yet I also want to explore the limits of each individual story to broaden the thematic unity of the total experience. "Parts with Hearts" was the next step in that process, as it took a genre expanding step into speculative fiction while bringing the thematic elements of the book into a very personal space. The progression of the book moves forward, from the supernatural expression of "Defaeco" to the brutal expression of "Impact" and onward to the personal expression of "Parts of Hearts".

  Where to next? Well, the only thing more personal than the immediacy of flesh is what's inside the flesh. Welcome to the weird world of "Soulmates".

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"Soulmates"

  I have a discussion of "Soulmates" on my 'Behind the Stories' page, as it was originally published as a Kindle Short from All Things That Matter Press (also the publisher of Vessels). I have that discussion copied here, followed by some extra notes as to how the story pertains to the whole of Vessels.   

  "Soulmates" came about by an odd set of circumstances and mechanical considerations I don't usually entertain when crafting a short story.  Nevertheless, opportunity and challenge combined to fuel what I've been told is one of my stranger pieces of short fiction - and that's just fine by me.

  My book publisher, All Things That Matter Press, allows its authors to publish short stories as Kindle shorts on Amazon.  It was an option I hadn't explored but, in the summer of 2013, they put out a call to its fellow authors for horror related stories to be released for the creep season of the year, October and Halloween.  This sparked my interest, because I thought horror and the bizarre are areas right up my alley and genres with which I've had some success.  I wasn't yet given a publication date for "Wayward", so I also thought this would be a great way to add a 2013 publication credit to my writer's resume.  The only problem, though, is that the submissions had a maximum 5,000 word count.

  As I've explained in various places on this site, I don't write my fiction with solid concepts of word count.  I might have a vague idea as to length, but I prefer to let stories develop with their own pace and thereby their own length.  The final word count is an organic extension of that process, and one I give little thought or consideration.  However, dealing with this reality seemed to me an excellent opportunity to explore this kind of narrative discipline.

  The only thing that remained, though, was an actual idea for a story.

  I entertained several notions, and discarded all of them.  Most of them were simply too short; they were scenes rather than actual stories.  One idea, a tale entitled "Providentiary License", I went so far as to start putting words to paper  (so to speak), but I immediately came to two realizations.  For one, I wasn't happy with the narrative perspective I chose; two, to explore the concept of the story to its full maturation was going to take far more than 5,000 words.  So, as much as I loved the idea of the story, I decided to put it on the mental back burner.  (Stay tuned - this story will be presented as it's own novel.) With that plan gone bust, I found myself nearing the end of August without a viable concept toward the goal of the story.

  As luck would have it, I woke up before dawn one morning with another bout of intestinal displeasure brewing within me.  I get these bouts every now and then, usually when I'm not so careful about what I ate the night before.  I don't remember what I ate that prior night, but I do remember sitting in bed in the dark as my intestines squirmed inside me.  Alone in the quiet, I let my thoughts wander, and I soon found myself thinking of two realities of my existence - the thoughts in my head, and this strange cramping and discomfort in my abdomen.  The idea of another 'me' living inside of me as an entity in revolt against the community of my body set my thoughts churning.  Some quick brainstorming assembled a set of elements around that idea, and then I was ready.

  I went downstairs and typed out the story, in whole, in one pass.  My younger son woke up as I was finishing the first draft.  He asked me what I was typing, and I just gave him the 'do not disturb' hand.  I love when a creative surge hits me and I'm able to bang out a story in one sitting.  It's very satisfying, but it does dovetail to a more demanding proof and revision process because small details can be lost in the heat of the moment.  Once all that was done and the narrative in proper focus, I sent it off, and my publisher elected to add it as a Kindle short.

  By the way, final word count?  5,000.  Yes, I used every last word.

  "Soulmates" was a pivotal part of Vessels in its earliest conceptual stages. Due to the bizarre nature of the story it held my interest after it was done, and some of its aspects lingered in my imagination and begged for further exploration. Instead of contemplating extensions of this singular story, I decided on the thematic lead for Vessels and went forward with the project. So, in a way, without "Soulmates", Vessels would not exist as it does.

  As a singular story, "Soulmates" is almost whimsical, but also more heartfelt - in its own very strange way. In terms of the progression of Vessels, it opens the door to the next story, taking the emotional intimacy into a different, deeper place...the realm of "Unspoken, Undying". 

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"Unspoken, Undying"

  Of the many stories I've written, and among the ones I consider some of my favorites, "Unspoken, Undying" holds a special place. It's a strange piece - a big plus for me - but for all its strangeness, it's still a very human, intimate story, even with some of its philosophical considerations.

  It's those considerations that provided the impetus to place it where it is in Vessels. As I said in closing in the previous discussion on "Soulmates", the focus of the book was moving more from outside the characters to deeper inside their emotional centers. Not only is "Soulmates" the next step in that progression, but it also serves as the transition into the centerpiece of the book, "Overlay".

  In "Unspoken, Undying", the reader is met with some characters who seem very ordinary on the surface, in a very ordinary - if not ornate - setting of an old city library. It's clear from the opening section, however, that something else is going on, something strange and mysterious that is far from ordinary or everyday. One character seems to be able to fly, while another is nothing but a cluster of disembodied eyes floating in black water. Far, it would appear, from reality.

  The charm of the story, I believe, is in this duality and its acceptance by the characters. Amber and Peter, the central personalities, inhabit the library, even as the library seems like a place adrift in time and space on a rainy day. As they converse, their setting follows a simultaneous transition to the more physically surreal and yet the more emotionally real. The central point in this transition is the philosophical discussion of how the mind perceives reality, or perhaps fools itself into both creating and subscribing to a false reality. From inside this illusion, can the mind which created it perceive that it is in fact an illusion?

  It's not just a philosophical exercise but a situation that I think effects all of us in our lives to varying degrees. We choose to see reality and our place in it in a certain way, and this subjective interpretation of reality in turn shapes our interpretations of the world around us. For the purpose of this story, it sets up the narrative structure to bring it to conclusion. For the purpose of Vessels as a whole, it sets the stage for a more subjective and interpretive outlook on the interactions of characters within their stories.

  All that aside, I like to think the real charm of the story is the interplay between Amber and Peter. A little insecure in their connection, restrained by the trepidation inherit with changing the level of their connection from friendship to a possible relationship, the budding intensity of their emotional bond is the glue that holds them, the story, and its conclusion together in a cohesive, functional whole.

  I really can't say more for concern it will spoil the story. One of the things I like about "Unspoken, Undying" is how different it is when reading it for a second time. There was a determined effort to layer the story with little details and seeming innocuous lines of dialog that are present to subconsciously build the foundation for the story's progression, but are then laid bare on a subsequent reading. The story is akin to a little nugget existing within itself, a characteristic from which I draw a great deal of pride and enjoyment.

  Of more importance, however, is that it once again evolves the thematic exploration of the book as a whole. The last thing to really throw the door open is a little piece called "Johnny's Egg."

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"Johnny's Egg"

   Like many authors, I've dabbled with poetry. For me, in hindsight, it was more of a learning process in working with different ways to assemble passages, work with word rhythm, experiment with metered phrases, and an overall challenge to lift the level of my narrative voice. I also believe that different forms of writing form a universal body of tools for an author. The more things you try, the more things you work with - even if they don't work out - all help you to understand what you can do with your written word and also where you might need to work on particular skills.

  Almost all the poetry I wrote in the verse phase of my writing experience now sits shelved. The most obvious exceptions are what I consider the pinnacle of my work with verse, the long form verse pieces "Of Typhon and Aerina" and "Tumbleweed", both of which appear in my third book, Prism. As to the rest of my poetry, well, it's safe to say it's not ready for prime time. Together those poems were an invaluable lesson and growth opportunity for shaping my narrative voice but, in themselves, they are best left as exercises.

  There remain a few exceptions. One of them, and one that I always believed could find a happy home in the right setting, was "Johnny's Egg." It's a short piece, a bit quirky, but one that I found myself looking at with fondness over the time that passed since its writing. When I was putting together Vessels and setting down the order of the stories, I felt I needed one more piece to move from the front half of the book to the more contemplative second half of the book. Another story would not suit that purpose, so I contemplated something shorter - a piece of verse.

  "Johnny's Egg" was the first thing to come to mind. After looking it over my gut told me it was the right piece and had at last found its happy home. I had to clean up some of the phrases to smooth it over, and the editorial process before publication helped streamline its physical presentation on the page. In its final form it's an interesting piece of verse, taking the momentum of "Unspoken, Undying" to the next progression - and the centerpiece of the Vessels - a story called "Overlay."

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"Overlay"

  Consisting of nearly one third the length of Vessels, "Overlay" is both by intention and happenstance the core of the book.

   This story started from one of the 'story seeds' I keep on my netbook for potential stories. I had the basic idea of the overlay concept fleshed out (no pun intended...and no, I won't discuss what the overlay is, so as not to spoil the story) but there was no real story to go along with the idea. My initial consideration was a short treatment, a weird kind of surprise for an unsuspecting character. The more I thought about the concept, though, it seemed there was much more I could do with it, and in its own way it screamed for me to do more.

  For lack of any better idea the concept sat for some time. Things changed in the few months that passed, namely, I was assembling the title line-up for Vessels and understood I needed a central story to bind the anthology together.

  As for "Overlay", I remember going back and forth as to how this story might take shape when the issue of transgenderism became a common topic in the news. On a personal note, I always wondered how people who are not born with a definitive sense of gender, or who feel misplaced in the gender form of their body, navigate the sensibilities of life while always feeling out of place in their own bodies. It got me thinking, and it didn't take long for the creative light bulb to start glowing. It wasn't that I wanted to write a transgender story. Instead, I wanted to harness that concept of seeking identity when Nature has not provided a definitive identity, that is, how does an individual respond to the world when identity can be changed at whim?

  I wrestled with possible ideas on how to proceed. At the time, with all the work I was doing in preparation for the publication of The Digital Now and The Writer's Primer, in addition to editorial work I was doing to get Vessels going, I hadn't had the chance to just write in more weeks than I cared to count. One night I took my son to soccer practice, sat in my car, opened my netbook, and said to hell with it, I'm just going to start writing. Three months later, "Overlay" was done.

  Aside from "Equinox", "Overlay" was the story written most consciously to fit with Vessels. I was revising the other stories that became part of the book to fit well with the overall thematic arc, but "Overlay" can best be described as custom tailored to suit the book's needs. It stands perfectly well on its own as a novella, but nestled in Vessels among the surrounding cast of supporting stories conditions the reader for the journey the story embodies. I know that might sound a little heady, but I do take great care in the construction of my anthologies to ensure the stories flow well from one to the next, and that they complement each others' emotional and narrative tempo. 

  On occasion when I write a story, whether it be a short, a novella, or a novel, I can always tell when I'm on the right creative path by the ease with which the story comes together and its editorial cleanliness when done. By now in my author's experience I expect the first read of a completed piece to be a welcome exercise in revision. I often make the analogy that revision is like taking the strings of a story and pulling them tighter and tighter. When they're about to snap, revision is done, and the rote process of editing can ensue to completion.

  "Overlay" is the capstone of everything presented prior to its telling in Vessels. It is a bizarre story, it has some moments that leave me scratching my head when I look back at what I created, yet the story works because it is a raw exploration of desperate wants and needs amplified by the incredible situation that wraps around the characters. Perhaps it challenges morality; I like to think it does, or at least the understanding of some basic morality and, in that, I like to think it carries on the introspective depth I employed in the original Oddities & Entities. I hope readers find it thought provoking in the twists and turns of its journey.

   If nothing else, readers can do like the protagonist, Jeremiah, does to settle his head. When nothing makes sense, count to three. And if that doesn't work, count to four...

  Or, turn the page and segue into another strange journey called "Equinox".

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"Equinox"

  After "Overlay", "Equinox" is the second longest piece in Vessels, a tale of speculative fiction to take the very intimate experience of "Overlay" and externalize it to be larger than any one person.

   As with "Overlay", "Equinox" was another story where I had an idea of what I wanted to do but not an indication as to the execution. For the duration of the writing that went into "Overlay", "Equinox" in fact existed as nothing more than a single word note on my handwritten story list for Vessels, under the title "Harvest". When I was done with "Overlay" and ready to tackle this story it was apparent just how poorly I was prepared to start writing.

  I was still full of creative momentum after writing "Overlay" and, considering I sat down with that story and just starting banging away and trusting my writing instincts, I decided to do the same with the next story. Sure enough I got the ball writing one night in the late wee hours. The process, however, was not quite as smooth. I was only a few pages in when I decided to take a pause, collect my thoughts, and then launch back into the writing.

  A few things had to change. First off, the title had to go. The old title wasn't bad, it was just boring, and even though it wasn't bad it certainly wasn't good, at least not in terms of servicing the story itself. The second thing was to adjust some of the character interactions. The story is told in two time phases; a current first person narration and a past third person narrative. Uniting those two into a more fluid whole was essential to make the story work. In the original writing those first person sections weren't very tight, so I went back, drew them taught, and kept them at a minimum. This process also served a fundamental process of writing: the first person sections told the story, while the third person sections showed the story. The difference of telling and showing a story is one of the difficult lessons for authors to learn. The last thing I wanted to do was regress and violate that standard, so in came some revision.

  Of all the stories in Vessels this particular story probably has the most familiar feel as something that might have appeared in the classic TV show The Twilight Zone. While it doesn't recreate or follow any of those episodes, I think in hindsight the influence is apparent, and that's something I don't mind at all. The story contains a sufficient atmosphere of mystery and suspense that something isn't quite as it seems on the story's peaceful farm fields, and at least two characters seem to be walking blind into a budding situation. For one it's fulfillment; for the other, a very different experience.

  Given the fact that the story treads on the border of speculative fiction, I was able to push some other boundaries in the narrative. This wasn't just to add another genre dimension to Vessels, but rather to expand the book's theme. "Overlay" is the summit of the book's emotionally intimate stories; "Equinox" turns that inside out by expanding the ramifications of some of the things explored in the previous stories into ideas and processes that go far beyond the characters themselves. It certainly opens the scope of the book, in effect lifting the lid off a can of possibilities.

  With that done, there was one thing left to do, and that was to address what is perhaps the biggest of possibilities. To explore that realm, the book moves to its final tale, "The Eulogist."

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"The Eulogist"

  Books are curious things. For all the paragraphs and pages they contain, readers make their decision as to whether or not to read a book based on a handful of words. As with the first and last chapters in a regular book, perhaps the only thing more important in an anthology than the opening story is the closing story.

   Given the nature of an anthology and its independent stories, to draw a proper thematic closure the concluding story needs to cap the ideas and themes presented in the volume. After the scope of the journey in Vessels, I knew I needed a story that would draw the various philosophical, speculative, supernatural, and surreal elements together in a way both subtle and yet deeply personal.

   As luck would have it, I had a story in hand that could suit this purpose. Like some of my other stories, it was a tale that was yet to find a publication home because it called out to be part of something even as it stood on its own. "The Eulogist" was an odd little story that came to me at a time when I had to attend several funerals. I have a practice that when I'm around people in troubled emotional states I take a mental step back and start studying everything around me. It might be my author's eye to study people or it might be a simple defense mechanism; which description is more accurate I guess is a matter of debate. I don't think of myself as insensitive, but I know that I can be insular. Feel free to postulate on my psychological status now that I opened that door.

   Mental health discussion aside, "The Eulogist" is in fact a study of loss, dislocation, and the need to overcome loneliness. The story centers around a young man named Conrad - the titular eulogist - and his existence in the funeral home where he works. Both cynical and a bit of a nihilist, his opaque emotional shell covers an inner soul terrified of isolation and yet somewhat arrogant that the relationships he knows will somehow never end. When this very situation crashes into his life the change it forces upon him and in him also force upon him a revelation he has failed to anticipate.

  "The Eulogist" is a quiet, emotional story, and so a fitting end to the different paths delved by the other stories in Vessels. I particularly enjoy the closing of the story. It's an odd experience being an author, because sometimes thousands of words can just pour across the page while at other times to craft a few short passages can seem an almost impossible task. Such was the experience for the ending of "The Eulogist", not only for the knowledge that it had to be done a certain way to make the story work, but that it had to be done a certain way to serve as a fitting closure to the book to which it belongs.

  With those closing lines the story, and the book's thematic elements, fade into the night.

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______________________________________________

 

Sometimes you need to be broken to be made whole.

So, you might ask, will there be an Oddities & Entities 3? Hmm. I'll have to think about that...

 

 
     
All original content copyright by Roland Allnach.  Content may be linked and/or quoted, but not reproduced without permission.
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