Rolling Darkness Revue 2009


The Dark rolls once more as your favorite (we hope) ghost story reading/live music/theatrical performance/whatever returns for a sixth consecutive year to southern California, with new tales by Peter Atkins, Glen Hirshberg, and Thomas St. John Bartlett, plus music by Jonas Yip.

TWO SHOWS ONLY, at the Alliance Repertory Company (Andrew Benne Studio), 4930 Lankershim Blvd., No. Hollywood, Ca. 91601

October 22nd at 8 pm
October 29th at 9 pm

FOR TICKETS (yes, tickets, $10, and space is limited!), pick one of the following options:

1. Visit the theater website at

Click on the DONATE button to pay via PAYPAL. $10 per person–you get a free chapbook along with your performance–and PLEASE SPECIFY, when ordering, which night you will be attending. You can do this by adding a comment in the Additional Instructions for Seller box.

2. As of Monday, 10/12/09 at 9 a.m., reserve seats at the dedicated Rolling Darkness Revue ticket hotline at 323-215-8966. We will create a list, and you can pay (cash, please) at the door. If you are going to do this, we ask a favor: if you later decide not to come (we understand–we’re very scary), let us know so that we can release your seats to some other lucky hauntee.

I’ll be reading a brand new story called “The Nimble Men,” which will be published shortly in both the 2009 Rolling Darkness Revue chapbook and in The Milan Review.

After Dark in Playing Fields, #1

Or, what Glen’s been up to when the writing on the new novel and the new stories is done and the kids are abed.

This is the first in what will, I hope, become a regular feature on this irregular blog. It’s also a chance to unpack and retool ye olde critic chops, which I haven’t made proper use of since I stopped contributing regularly to L.A. Weekly to concentrate on fiction and parenting.

Mostly, it’s me at play, talking about things I like talking about, and actually do talk about much more than the tedium of surviving the writing life. Feel free to talk back.

More news soon. I do have a bit. But for now, the first shortie. Many more to come. For real. Soon. Tomorrow.

#1, then:

Summer Movie Smackdown, Indie Romantic Comedy Division: (500 Days) of Summer vs. Adam:

Round One: Performances

(500 Days)
1. Two tremendously appealing leads, both sharp.


Two tremendously appealing leads, both sharp.

Round Two: Tone

(500 Days):

Pretends to bitterness, fakes sweetness.


Mark Twain funny. That is, full of pain.

3. Use of Setting

(500 Days)

Pretty, showy shots of downtown L.A., accompanied with architectural commentary from Gordon-Levitt character meant to establish his knowledge of the discipline. Featured insights include (I’m paraphrasing, but not much) “That one’s old.”


Utterly un-flashy, eerily luminous New York. A bench in the dark in Central Park, light through grime on city windows, Grand Central (the grungy, magnificent exterior, not the stars in the ceiling), a suburban Queens street in the snow.

4. Respect for Audience

(500 Days)

Surface-clever, but includes gratuitous anti-contemporary art sequence just to make sure our would-be lovers aren’t, like, smarter than us or anything. Cuts purported bitterness with tacked-on ending.


Makes sure you know that at least one of these characters is much smarter than us, and at least one is more empathetic, and also more courageous, and maybe more clear-eyed. And no matter how it turns out, the movie never lets you forget that both of them are going to hurt.

5. Soundtrack

500 Days

Simon and Garfunkel for the key wistful bit? Really? Swear I’ve seen that done somewhere before…


Hello, the Weepies. Who are you? Welcome to the Playing Fields. You’ll find your score-mate Maria Taylor over there in the corner, where’s she’s been for a while, now. Along with most of the artists on the 500 Days soundtrack, who’ve been here a whole lot longer.

6. The Payoff

(500 Days)

spoiler alert:
I’m being harder on this movie than it deserves. Partially because it disappointed me; I was really looking forward to it. It’s pleasant enough. And the leads have both graced and will grace better films. But any movie that names our hero’s true Soulmate–the one he meets post-Summer– Autumn deserves all it gets.


In a summer of surprisingly sweet movie surprises, maybe the sweetest surprise of all. Heartfelt, hurtful, and sad, true not only to the challenges faced by people with aspergers but the people who love them.

The Book of Bunk– Excerpt #2

So this one goes out to Kay Murphy. And to Michael Kelly. And to all of you who’ve gone through the laborious (and only mildly effective) I’m-no-spambot test in order to comment here or send me messages through my website or Facebook page.

Most especially, though, this round is for Nathan Ballingrud, a very fine writer hisownself (if you want to get well and truly upset, check out his almost unbearable–in a good way–short story, “The Monsters of Heaven”). Nathan was generous enough to link to my previous Bunk excerpt on his own blog (, and well worth a visit), and lured a lot of new brave and curious readers to the site. Nice one, Nathan.

Here, then, is a little more novel I’m putting where my mouth is. As I’ve noted in other posts, this book is full of stories. This is just one. It’s from the middle of the book, and to try to sum up everything would be pointless. And besides, I want you curious. Hungry for more. Annoyed enough that you don’t have more that you’ll make some noise, steer other readers here, post the link on webboards and your blogs and in e-mails, and thereby generate enough insect hum to convince the publishing houses still neither rejecting nor buying, just gnashing teeth and waffling, that maybe they really better get on this…

All you need to know, then, is that your narrator is Paul Dent. He’s young, inexperienced, a talented (and, in some ways, fraudulent) recruit to the Federal Writers’ Project during the Depression. His assigned task is to capture the essence of the North Carolina mountain town of Trampleton for the series of motor-tour travel books the Project has put its writers to work in creating.

It’s the fourth of July. And almost too late, Paul has remembered that months before, on the train into town, he met Bryant Cutter, a crippled veteran of the First World War, who told him that if he really wanted a story, he should come to somewhere called the Screwpine Mill at midnight on Independence Day…

July 1936

Fourth of July. You want a real story?

It had to be close to midnight already. As I raced up the hill into the larger, darker woods, the hum of cicadas swelled. My lungs heaved. Vomit catapulted into the back of my throat but didn’t spill out. I kept running. Despite months of inquiring, I still only had the vaguest notion of where I was going. My best advice had come from a guy who’d literally dragged me by the sleeve into the shadows outside Riley’s General Store.

“You’re the guy who wants to find Screwpine?” he said. He was wearing brown, checked knickerboxers, a bow-tie, and a beanie. In my notes, I named him Orville.

If I paid close enough attention, according to Orville, halfway up the Back I’d find an old wagon road branching off into the spruce woods. Follow the wagon road into the pines, and eventually I’d come to a fork. Bear left and stay on the trail, and I’d find Screwpine.

“You’ll know it when you see it,” he assured me.

I found the wagon road, alright, and I followed it deep into the gloom beneath the tightly bunched pines. Long, prickly vines and weeds had overrun the entire forest floor. I came to several places that might have been forks, bore left at each of them, but I never knew what I was looking for until I suddenly came across Cutter himself, waiting in an ankle-deep tangle of weeds, peg-leg planted in the dirt like the rooted stem of some petal-less flower. His eyes looked even redder than they had during the train trip we’d shared. Despite the heat, he was wearing the same scruffy suit coat. He still looked like a hobo.

“There you are, Dent. I thought you weren’t going to show,” he said. “Thought maybe I was wrong about you.”

As soon as I stopped moving, my lungs seized. I doubled over, unable to suck down any air. The sensation lasted long enough to send firefly-sparks shooting across my vision and panic coiling up my throat.

“You…” I started, breathing heavily. “You could have given me a little more to go on.”

“You’re here, aren’t you? I gave you more than most around these parts, I bet.”

He kicked his peg-leg high to avoid entangling it in the ground cover and left the path. I marveled at his agility, then remembered that he wasn’t an old man. By the time we’d gone fifty feet, I could no longer distinguish where the trail had been when I looked behind me. The pines closed around us, their needles royal blue in the absence of moonlight. Their sweet-sharp smell pricked my nostrils.

“Is there really such a thing as a screwpine?” I asked.

“Depends who you ask,” he grunted while gliding over roots and weeds. Not once did he so much as stumble.

Finally, we came to the top of a steep hill, and I realized it was true: I would have known the place as soon as I saw it. Assuming I’d found it, that is. But nothing Cutter or Orville or anyone else had said would have brought me anywhere near this spot.

Right on the summit sat a single, sawed-through tree stump so thick that my arms wouldn’t have reached halfway around it. Hunched on the stump was an exquisitely carved owl roughly two feet tall, its head neatly tucked into folded wings. In the near-dark, I couldn’t tell whether the thing was painted, but it was darker even than the pine shadows. Maybe that’s what gave it its idol-like aura.

“Who did this?” I asked after a long time.

They did. I mean, I assume they did. I never asked, and I never heard anyone say.”

“Who’s they?”

“The coloreds, of course. What do you think we’re doing here?” Then he
shivered, or maybe just shook himself.

I couldn’t decide whether it was the sculpture itself or Cutter’s attitude that was making me so uneasy.

“Okay. What does it mean?”

“I don’t know, Dent. National symbol? Screwpine mascot? This here’s just the beginning of the story.”

Pushing through the pine branches to the right of the stump, Cutter dropped out of sight down the other side of the hill. I moved to the edge of the slope. The gully was deep, its treelessness disconcerting given the density of the woods around it. If there’d been starlight, it would have blazed unobstructed all the way to the ground, which glowed an almost welcoming, grassy green. Instead, only a fingernail moon had scratched through the cloud-cover, offering a single ray of light like a lantern shone down a well. The slope was covered in vines and pine needles, so that my feet slipped and scrabbled with each new step. Cutter waited at the bottom, looking up only when I dislodged a particularly audible stream of dirt. At the far end of the clearing I saw some kind of building with a peaked roof and a tall, square door-space that made it resemble a barn. A smaller, flat-roofed structure had been hitched to the back of it like a caboose.

I took my first step across the flat grass, and my shoes struck metal. Glinting dully out of the spectral green like a half-exposed fossil was a railroad track.

“Hey,” I said. “What line was this?”

Looking up, I was startled to find Cutter with his head in his hands. I moved toward him, and he lifted his gaze. “You bring a notebook?”

“I…I usually just listen. And write later.” I faltered under his glare. The woods remained silent.

“Then listen carefully.” Scowling, he hopped away down the track toward the giant, looming shadows.

Ten steps away, I realized that it wasn’t a barn. Through the gaping space where tall doors must have been, I could discern the skeletal shapes of sawhorses, giant metal bins, columns of black iron, and the dulled face of a circular saw-blade propped on a pile of dust and ash like a tousled head on a pillow. The walls had flaked to virtually nothing. Not a single structure or workbench remained intact. Some sort of rusted-through tractor was connected by filthy industrial cables to a pulley somewhere inside the smaller building. All the walls I could see were blistered and blackened; the one nearest me had tilted away from the sagging roof without completely collapsing.

“Must have been some fire,” I said.

“The wind ought to have scattered the whole works by now. Don’t you think?”

He was right. If I leaned on the doorframe, I could probably knock over the entire place.

“You’d think tramps might have found it after all these years. The scrap alone is worth more than a tinker’s penny. But even the tramps won’t touch it.”

“Pretty remote,” I said.

“Yeah, but everyone knows it’s here.”

Cutter stepped into the gloom. His shadow drifted among the bins and broken benches, burnt shingles and wood-shavings. I edged inside, staying close to the doorway.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people they could tuck in here,” Cutter said. “When this place was running full-bore, you couldn’t see anything but bodies all over the place. Like bats packed on top of each other, flapping and yawing.”

A shudder raced up my shoulders and along my arms. My breath still wouldn’t go down right.

“See, they used to work the slave shift in town. All of them, together, all night. They had their own foremen, their own regulations, and no one messed with them. They got paid pretty fair, too. That phrase, ‘slave shift,’ it’s just a name, you understand? It doesn’t mean anything. They came up with it themselves.”

“When was this?”

“Oh, 1919, I suppose. ’20, for certain. ’21. ’22. I can’t tell you how it got here, or exactly when, or who built it. It’s like it grew here while we were gone, fighting the war. We came back, and there was this whole new world everyone knew about. Screwpine.”

O, Old Screwpine,” I suddenly sang, the tune springing to my lips. “Got what’s mine.” It was the longest and saddest Teddy Anklebones song I’d heard that night under the pear tree, outside the blue house.

“See?” said Cutter. “It even has its own songs, its own stories. That’s the part I don’t get. How’d they even find each other? How’d they figure out how or where the hell to go? Most of ‘em can’t read, let alone read a map.”

He knelt in the dirt near the circular saw and touched the teeth.

“Still sharp. It’s a damn good blade. Better than any they’ve got at the mill in Trampleton. So you tell me. Where’d it come from?”

“Mr. Cutter,” I said. “Could you start from the beginning?”

“I don’t know the beginning. My family’s been in these hills a hundred years, Dent. My grandfather helped build half of Trampleton, back when it was called Greentree, and my father lost all three of his older brothers fighting the Yankees.”

“Greentree,” I interrupted. “That was its original name?”

“Well, I think the Indians had a name for it. But that name meant something-tree, too. Point is, we’ve been here a long time. We know pretty much everything there is to know about this little region. And even after the War Between the States, not much changed. I went off to fight the Germans when I was twenty-four, and spent almost all of 1919 at a sanitarium in Cornwall, England. By the time I got home, there were two big differences: my father had died, and there wasn’t a single colored still working at the Trampleton mill. Not a one.”

My eyes kept flying around the space where we were standing. There were no birds or bats in those eaves, no spiders scuttling up the walls or lurking in the corners. The Screwpine mill was like a cargo container that had dropped off a train and tumbled into this clearing, scratched and beat to hell, but also right-side up and sealed.

“As far as I could tell,” Cutter said, “no one really minded when they stopped working at the mill in town. It just meant more jobs for the soldiers coming home. There were plenty of orders to fill in those days. Lots of people building things. Plenty of men wanting to earn their keep. Anyway, the coloreds didn’t leave all at once. They kind of trickled off one by one.

“And I’ll tell you a funny thing about that war. You see people doing things you just can’t believe–sawing out each other’s Adam’s apples with bayonets, cutting each other in half with machine guns—and it makes you not care so much about what the coloreds are up to one way or the other, you know? Unless it makes you care more, I guess.

“The point is, no one even checked, see? We knew they were out here, alright. We saw the houses going up in their part of town. Fancier houses than they’d had before. And all we thought, if we thought anything, was…why not? We didn’t realize…” He stroked his palm back and forth on the teeth of the sawblade. “The lumber boys were the ones who finally tipped us off. Like I said, there was so much business pouring in, even those guys began working night shifts. And that’s when they started coming back to town all spooked, babbling about ghost trains in the forest, dark shapes in the trees, midnight dances at somewhere called Screwpine.

“It was only a matter of time before some of us came out here to get a good look at what was what. God knows, I’d seen enough dead people by then to believe a few of them might have set up camp in our woods, even built themselves a ghost railroad. But what we actually found…what those people made…” He was stirring the sawdust with his peg-leg as if revealing–or else erasing–some half-obscured message. I slumped to my haunches and put my hands in the dirt, which felt surprisingly soft, like down.

“The first thing we found was this mill. Better equipped than any within a hundred miles or more. Then we realized just how many people were working it. They were running day shifts, night shifts, weekends, every kind of shift. And these were workers who were peachy-happy to take home whatever the mill wanted to pay. They never made a fuss, and always showed up the next day whether they were sick or sad or what. Because it was theirs, see?

“And then we found the railroad. Miles and miles and miles of it. Tracks we’d never seen, had never even known were out here, stretching to Greenville, Abbeville, Mitchellville, Orangeburg, all the way to Savannah, then south to the Panhandle. Rosewood.”

I’d heard of almost none of those places. But Cutter hardly seemed to be talking to me.

“It was like discovering a whole new country. A shadow-country operating right inside ours, but invisible. One with its own laws, its own by-ways and places of interest, hell, whole cities we knew nothing about. It was kind of thrilling, really. Kind of terrifying. A real Reconstruction. Only the places they made weren’t recreations of what was there before. They were building brand new places.”

Abruptly, his voice flattened. “For a while, the shock of it kept it safe. The sheer scope of what they’d done. Then, in ’23, the news started filtering up the line. Whole towns burned to the ground in Florida. Lynchings like we’ve never had here, ever, no matter what you’ve heard, all through Georgia and South Carolina. Up here in the North State, we like to think of ourselves as more than a little different. Comfortable with our coloreds. Comfortable with ourselves. Civilized. Everyone knowing their place, working together to make a good life for everyone. So nothing happened here until well into ’24. By then, what was left of these railroad tracks didn’t run anywhere anymore. We could have just left it alone. It was already dying.”

For a long time, then, he stopped talking. I half-thought he’d gone to sleep. “What happened here, Mr. Cutter?” I finally asked.

For the first time since we’d arrived here, he looked right at me. “July 4th, 1924. A hot, horrible night just like this one. We gathered with our rifles under the Sherman Street elms at dusk, same as always, and shot our way through town. But when we hit the edge of town, we reloaded our guns. And then we just kept going. I don’t remember anyone suggesting it. There wasn’t any big discussion. We just kept going straight through the woods. No one pointed a gun at anything but the ground.”

For a moment, Cutter’s voice went silent, but his mouth was still moving, as though the tale he was telling had slipped into a tunnel. Then it became audible again.

“We came upon a big group of them standing at the bottom of the path up the Back, out for an Independence Day picnic or something. Not a one said anything. It was like they’d been waiting for us. Like they were watching a parade. We marched straight up the mountain, down the same wagon trail you followed, through those trees, past the owl up there, and right down this hill.

Cutter rubbed his chin and squeezed his jaw a few times. “This part is almost funny. I mean, there we were, a good old-fashioned hating mob, the kind we’d heard about from our grandfathers but had never experienced or even seen. Carrying guns, no less. And for a good five minutes…maybe even longer…we couldn’t even get the coloreds to notice we were there.

“See, they were all inside. In here. Dozens of them, humming, cussing, heads-down busy. Right to the end, holiday or not, they kept that sawdust flying and those shingles stacking, even though there couldn’t have been many orders trickling in. Not a whole lot of the places they’d built were even standing anymore, from what we’d heard.”

Peering through the burned out holes where the windows must have been, I watched the grass turn even greener as the moon shouldered through the clouds. And all at once—as though I’d been here myself and witnessed it all—I could see Robert, limned in the moonlight, with his hands in his work-apron and that look in his eyes, more pride than defiance. He’d worked here, he must have. Probably, he’d been a foreman or something. For the first time since I’d joined the Writers’ Project, I was fairly certain I had found an honest-to-God story, one that hadn’t been told.

“Mr. Cutter,” I said, my words tumbling out in a rush. “Could you please just tell me how many people died?”

Surprise flashed across his face. “I told you, Dent. This here’s North Carolina.” He stirred the dirt in front of him again with his wooden leg. “For the longest time, we just stood around. Eventually, someone got the bright idea of chucking woodchips at the building. We didn’t even throw them at the windows, ‘cause we didn’t want to break any glass, see? It was almost like we were calling sweethearts out to dance.

“There was a lot of racket in there, obviously. So it took quite a while before they heard us. But when they finally saw us, it got real quiet in this clearing, man and boy. Quieter than now, if you can imagine, even with all those people packed down here. I never heard a woods so quiet. Not before a battle, anyway.

“The coloreds were all watching. Most of us were kind of shifting around, like we didn’t want to see each other there. And still, not a single one of us raised the weapon he was carrying. You know, I think if they’d had guns and come out shooting, we would have gone down meek as mowed hay.

“But whatever it was that had brought us here, Dent, it had them, too. I can’t explain it. It was like being part of one of them mechanical clocks. You know what I mean? Where you just wind around your track, and at the right moment, you do the movement you’ve been made for, and the hour sounds, and you’ve marked it the only way you ever could.”

I was nodding so fast that it felt as though my head might roll off my neck. Somehow, I really did think I understood. I’d spent the last few months advancing along my own track, oblivious to its existence, all the way to this moment. And now I was here. And my task was to record it.

“They didn’t have guns,” Cutter said. “So instead of shooting, or yelling, or fighting…they came out singing. I’ll never forget that song. Ever. When my blood runs chilly and cold…”

The second he started chanting the tune, I cried out. The melody buffeted against me like the wind that had battered Grace as she’d clung to the side of the boxcar the last time I’d heard it. I may have been oblivious to my own track, I realized, but Grace wasn’t. God, had she conceived of this even then? It was why she’d sent me to Robert’s. She wanted me—an outsider, with no foreknowledge or conceivable connection to any of these events—to make my way to these woods, discover this story, and bring it back.

I started singing right along. “Do Lord. Do remember me.”

That stopped Cutter. He looked alarmed. “You know it?”

“My friend does. I mean, I’ve heard it.”

“Yeah, well not like this you haven’t. All of ‘em singing together. There was no harmony, understand, none of that fancy church singing. But they were all doing it, real slow. Out they came. They didn’t look at us, either. Most of them didn’t. The ones whose faces I saw looked a little scared, a little sad. And tired. But there was this one big fella. Beady black eyes and forearms like clubs.”

A violent shiver shot all the way down into my feet. Of course he meant Robert. It explained so much about the way people talked about him. The way everyone, not just the coloreds, knew him, or knew of him. What had he done?

“Dent, are you listening? The whole…evacuation, I guess you’d call it…couldn’t have lasted more than two minutes. Then they were gone, and it got even quieter. Like they’d never been here at all.”

Gliding past me, Cutter left the building. I followed on unsteady legs with that song still echoing in my ears. Outside, he looked at me, then up the hill, as though watching the ghost-parade of colored men all over again.

“I could be wrong. You never really know. But I think we’d maybe decided, somehow, that we weren’t going to do anything else. It just seemed silly. We’d rousted them, proven we still could, and I guess that was pretty much the point. And the sight of this place, with all of them in there…well, I can’t speak for the others. But it affected me different than I thought it would. I didn’t like the look of it without them in it.

“I really thought we were just going to turn around. As a matter of fact, we’d already done it. We must have, because we were all looking up that way when the big, beady-eyed fella reappeared. Well, he just stared at us for a little while. Then he stepped over the ridge, like he was easing into a lake, and strolled right down. Alone.”

With a last glance at the mill, Cutter started up the rise. Whether because of his leg or because he was tired, he kept slipping this time, though he never quite fell. I scrambled up behind him and put a steadying hand on the small of his back. We climbed the rest of the way together.

At the ridge, Cutter sighed and mopped his forehead. “As soon as we saw the big guy, every single one of us stopped. In those days, remember—hell, it’s not so different now—most of us weren’t used to coloreds coming unless we called them. And this one just kept coming. Still humming that damn fool song.”

“Was his name Robert?”

Cutter’s head swung around as if I’d shaken him. “Well, I didn’t ask him, then.”

“But you know it now.”

“Same as you.”

Dizzy with my own months-long obliviousness, I nodded.

“He reached the bottom of the hill and ambled into the clearing. He wasn’t looking at any of us directly. But he wasn’t looking away, either. He was muttering, too, like maybe he’d forgotten something. When he passed, we all stepped back, every one of us, as if he was some general come to inspect the troops.
“And then he stopped. Right beside us. And he kind of half-turned. He said to Old Man Riley, ‘Mind if I borrow this?’ And he put his big, black hand right on the petrol can that Riley had lugged out here. I was thinking maybe the man was plumb crazy. But not suicidal. If he’d touched a gun, someone would have shot him. Maybe even me. But the petrol can?

“Old Man Riley was too flummoxed to respond one way or the other. And the colored, he just took the can from him, easy as you please, uncapped it, and went back to muttering. Then he strolled right up to the mill and started dousing it, with these big sweeping tosses. He was kind of shouting as he did it, like he was throwing a child up in the air instead of splashing gasoline all over everything. He walked all the way around the building. When he came back, he dropped the empty can at Riley’s feet, put his hands in his overalls and pulled out a match.

“Now I don’t know why. You’re the writer, maybe you can explain it. But here’s the thing that’s stuck in my mind, all these years. The colored just couldn’t get the match lit. He’d put on all that show, but I could see that his hands were shaking, and he just couldn’t get it lit.

“He was trying so hard, he finally snapped the match. That was the first time he actually looked up. And I couldn’t believe it. The damn fool had this cockeyed grin on his face. The next match caught, and he flipped it. There was a little pop, and the place was ablaze. After that, we were all so busy watching the flames, none of us saw where the colored went. He didn’t come back through us, so he must have crossed the railroad tracks and gone into the trees.”

With that, Cutter lurched away toward the path.

“That’s pretty much all,” he said when I caught up to him. “We didn’t stay long. We hurried back here, then split up. Nobody said anything. We just went home. It must have been months before the lumber boys started their damn fool whispering again. Spooks in the trees. Lights. One night, I couldn’t stand it, I marched right out of the tavern and came all the way up here by myself. I didn’t see spooks or lights or anything else, just that empty shell of a building down there. Nothing remarkable about it at all, except that it was still standing. And there was no way it should have been.

“That was enough for me. I packed up my house and started building my cabin out here the very next day. Why? I don’t even know, so don’t go thinking you do. The only time I go back to Trampleton is to catch the train. And I’ve come to this clearing almost every night now for more than ten years. No matter what anyone else tells you, I’ve never seen lights or spooks or any other goddamn thing other than what we saw tonight.

“But this is the point, Dent, and the reason I brought you here. I think about it all the time. That night, and what happened. So I just decided you might ought to put this place in your tourbook. Even if it’s not really a place anymore. Just in case one day…I don’t know. In case one of them takes a motor tour and wants to see their country.

The Architecture of Charm and the Incommunicable Thrill

So whenever I need a joy fix, a little reminder of why it’s still worth it to sit down every damn day and tap away, I go back to the wellspring. For me, that generally means rooting around in one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s gardens. In this case, I thumbed through some of his letters from Valima, in Samoa, during the last few years of his life.

Mostly, during this time, he was sick. So he only wrote, I don’t know, eight or nine books in those four years, only hacked through a few hundred square miles of unexplored jungle, engaged in local politics only enough to become beloved of a gigantic swath of the population that called him “Storyteller” and built a road for him up a mountain in 24 hours on the day he died, so he could indeed lie where he longed to be.

Why Stevenson? Because more than any writer I’ve ever encountered, he committed his life to “communicating the incommunicable thrill of things.” His words. They just feel like I said them. Only more gracefully than I would have managed. And with less words (that’s for you, you Pete Atkinses, you word-misers, you).

Why else? ‘Cause he was one charming bugger. Because more than perhaps any other writer– ever– seriously– Stevenson communicated the thrill of trying to communicate the incommunicable thrill.


This from one of his less sick days, when he was up trolling the (he believes) completely untrammeled jungle by himself. It’s just a nothing moment in a casual letter. But all the joy there is to be had in discovering a story, anticipating it, dreaming its possibilities, letting it take you over, are right here:

All at once… a strange thing happened. I saw a lianna stretch across the bed of the brook about breast-high, swung up my knife to sever it, and– behold, it was a wire! On either hand it plunged into thick bush; to-morrow I shall see where it goes and get a guess perhaps of what it means. To-day I know no more than– there it is.”

Or this deft, devastating, deceptively artless masterpiece of prose architecture, a short-hand characterization of one of his well-loved staff:

Paul– a German– cook and steward– a glutton of work– a splendid fellow; drawbacks, three: (1) no cook…”

It’s all in the not withholding, see? In the timing. In not saving the payoff for third in the list, because putting it first gets you both laughing at and somehow completely enamored of poor, splendid Paul before you even see his face.

Generosity of spirit. Charm. The thrill of telling and learning stories. Simple, really.

So, um… let’s all go do that. Okay?

Blessed and Hopeless– The Next Generation

This past weekend, with the shade trees of the San Bernardino mountains barely breaking the first scorching heat of summer, I attended a barbecue at which the creative writing faculty at CSUSB welcomed its very first class of MFA students.

There was K, who knows his Krautrock. V of the delicately devastating characters, who brought her man. She thinks he’s a writer, too, but he doesn’t. S, who left her longboard in the Jeep. E, buffeted and strengthened by decades in music (the other worst profession that provides a potentially happy life).

N. couldn’t come. She was at her desk in the property management office, trading away the first of the thousand hours she’s offered up in exchange for the chance to stay here.

I sat amongst them, watching them already joggling against and crossing wits with and learning from each other. Inevitably, story and poem ideas started spilling from their mouths. They are pitchers filled to overflowing. Tip them, and the words just come. It was inspiring and a privilege just to be there.

I think I got through twenty minutes before the paroxysm I knew was coming hit.

What are we doing to these people?

Handing them a meaningless degree that signifies nothing except that they were here for two years, writing and talking.

Launching a new boat full of refugees toward a promised land that is virtually unpopulated, may never really have existed, and isn’t likely to welcome them.

Stoking the insane belief that their (very real) talents will surely earn them a book someday, or even guarantee the survival of books.

Sometimes, I feel like one of the high priests from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu cult, babbling words even I don’t understand in the hopes of raising a dead dream that existed eons before I was born and therefore can’t really be mine.

Only problem is, my dreaming THING has no cuttlefish head, no tentacles, not even any impossible geometry with which to wow an awe-less world. All it has is a voice. Sometimes, it’s my mother’s. Or my father’s. Sometimes, it’s the narrator on my old Alfred Hitchcock record (“Hello, Cecil, wait ’til Charlie comes…). Sometimes, it’s my students’. Very occasionally, it’s mine.

And all it does is tell stories. To anyone who’ll listen.

What are we doing to these people?

I, for one, am going to listen to them.

(Speaking of which– If you haven’t, yet, you should definitely check out Kay Murphy’s comments on my last post. She’s got stories about her stories to tell. They are well worth your hearing.)

(I’m in a summer daze, writing furiously, hence the sudden flights of fancy here. I promise something concrete next time.)

Where Have I Been?

Committing the cardinal sin, that’s where: I let it get to me.

And the worst thing? The most inane? It was the robot that did it.

A month or so ago, I finally let just a little bit of Bunk out to play on this website. I was hoping it would make friends with a few of you. Trigger some responses. Up the conversational ante. Lure a few more of you over to play.

Instead, it brought crashing silence, and then a spam-bot, which infested the blog with virus, got it temporarily restricted on google, and ensured ongoing invisibility for the book on which I’ve pretty much staked my career. Or at least the last decade and a half of my life.

Naturally– this being a writer’s website, where even katydids are supposed by some to dream, where silence lays steadily against the pixels and characters of glenblog, and whatever walks here, walks alone– it was the robot, not the commentless post about the novel, that triggered the existential blizzard. The why-bothers (not with writing, can’t help that, but with showing, with selling, with sharing). The poor-mes (because the book deserves to be read, damn it; or, worse, because I’ve somehow convinced myself it does when it doesn’t). The I’ll-just-take-my-blog-and-go-homes.

That didn’t last long. Longer than robot-driven dark nights of soul should have, but just a few days. Then finals happened. Then news about furloughs and the very possible reality of having to reconstruct completely the other, supposedly more stable girders from which I’ve built my family’s life.

And then, of course, the new project. Of which I’m saying nothing at this point. I’ve learned my lesson.

And then the embarrassment. Not about not selling the novel yet, or anything like that. But about my little panic-attack. Because I’m 43 years old, have been at this all my life, and should know better.

Do know better.

And the whole point of this blog was to document this process, partially to keep myself sane (cue laugh track) but at least as much to provide others going through it with some company. No advice. No secret passwords to the promised land, wherever that is and whatever you’re imagining it promises. But stories for the road.

I forgot that, momentarily.

I won’t again.

Glimmer of Hope

Not for me. Not for Bunk. But for the world, maybe.

Sharon Pomerantz, a friend of a friend (I’m pretty sure we met once) and a stellar writer, spent the last eight years wrestling with her first novel. She just sold it to Twelve. It’ll be out later this year. Which means her year just got a lot better, and so did yours. Her writing is funny and wise and sad and smart and sly and worth your time.

An actual work of actual fiction, actually sold and published in 2009.

Of course, the fact that Ms. Pomerantz spent less than a decade slaving over this particular book marks her as a bona fide overnight success here in Bunk Country. A streaking meteor.

But that doesn’t diminish our pleasure in this one little bit.

Putting My Novel Where My Mouth Is

Okay, enough tap-dancing.

Yesterday, in front of the closest thing I’m likely to get anytime soon to a home crowd, I let just a little Bunk out into the world for the first time. My voice shook a little when I started reading. It wasn’t the reading that frightened me, but the material. I was scared that, having been away from it a few months, I would finally see this book for what it is. Finally see that after fourteen years, I’d missed it still. Messed it up for good.

Five sentences in, my voice stopped shaking. If I’m going down, I’m going down singing. Right here. Riding the deck of the good ship Book of Bunk.

So here you go, you loyal and opinionated and patient (or skeptical, or curious) people. Thanks for waiting. Thanks for letting me work my way up to this. Here’s just a taste. A hint of what this book feels like.

This isn’t the section I read. It doesn’t really get at the big themes (whatever they are) or reveal much about the plot. But this, I’m pretty sure, is the flavor of the thing.

All I ask in return is this:

If you like it, tell somebody. Other than me, I mean. You can tell me, I’ll be thrilled to hear it. But tell someone else.

Steer them here. Write about it somewhere.

Part of the point of this blog is to blow off some nervous tension, walk myself through this process. Part of it is to have some direct contact with actual readers. Part of it just might be to write The Book of the Book of Bunk, the story of the sale of an unusual story in a terrifying year.

But also, it’s to try and make just a little noise. So please. If you like this. Help me make some.

And now…

This section comes from the middle of the book. Your narrator is Paul Dent, age 23, a talented but naive and inexperienced drifter from Oklahoma who through a chance meeting has found himself attached to the North Carolina office of the Federal Writers’ Project. His job is to capture whatever might be unique or notable about the mill town of Trampleton for the guide book the Writers’ Project has been assigned to create.

In Trampleton, Paul–like pretty much everyone else in town– has met and become infatuated with Melissa Flynn. Melissa works in Mr. Gene’s Barber Shop. She’s plump, joyful, elusive, carries a black bag she never opens. When she passes, people generally say, “Hey, now, Melissa Flynn.” And she answers, “Well, hey.” You’ll also hear mention of Paul’s brother Lewis. He’s a piece of work. A major player. Maybe you’ll get more of him next time…

My good friend M.Z. Ribalow calls this section “The Night of the Knives.” I suppose that will do for the time being…

(from The Book of Bunk)

May, 1936

One blossom-scented, bee-swarmed evening in late May, Melissa finally agreed to meet me under the lacy shadows of the Sherman Street elms. She arrived in her work clothes: a plain cream skirt and yellow top, a pale blue ribbon tied in her ash-blond hair. She stood maybe a foot away with her arms crossed, pulling the loose-fitting top close against the curves of her body, and I imagined that I could feel her heat-slick skin on my arms, like a banked fire from across a room. Her eyes were brown and quick.

“Hey, now, Melissa Flynn,” a mill-man said, biking past and raising one soot-gloved arm.

“Well, hey,” Melissa said.

“Where’s your bag?” I asked.

She raised an eyebrow. “Want me to get it?”

“I want to know what’s in it.”

“You’re a curious sort, aren’t you?”

“That’s my job.” I grinned. “But that’s not why I’m curious.”

Melissa glanced down the street toward the gas station. I followed her eyes and spotted Danny on the sidewalk in front of the petrol pumps. He was staring back. I started to lift my hand but decided not to.

Melissa blew out her breath. “I think, tonight, let’s just walk. Okay, Paul?”

She took me up the Back, a path that began at the southern edge of town where the sidewalk and gravel road gave way to overgrown grassy fields and foothills. Over the first mile or so, we met half a dozen people, some with dogs, most alone. One couple, colored, aged seventy or more, kept their eyes lowered and edged into the grass as we passed. They were the only ones who didn’t say “Hey, now” to Melissa.

Then we were alone, tramping through cicada-buzz so intense that I kept checking the ground, half-expecting to see downed power lines snaking through the dirt. Soon the grass dropped away, and we came into a dense stand of pines that pricked and brushed at us. It was cooler in there, less buggy. Melissa began whistling. I didn’t recognize the tune and asked her the words. She said she didn’t know them.

“They used to sing it back home.”

“Who? Your parents?”

She smiled distantly, and we went on walking. When we cleared the trees, we were higher than I’d expected, way up on the tallest rise rimming Trampleton, in low brush already baked brown and brittle. The last daylight had bled away, and the moon had risen. I saw half a dozen owls perched like gargoyles in the trees.

Melissa sat down, breathing heavily, and I sat beside her, not too near. The skin under my shirt felt viscous, and my lungs kept clutching up, blocking air from getting in or out.

“Thank you for coming,” I said, and looked over. Her cheeks had gone blotchy, and midges clung to her ears.

“I should have come sooner. I’m sorry. I have…people who need me to tend to them.”

“Seems like you do a lot of that.”

That distant smile ghosted over her face again, though this time she looked at me. “That’s my job,” she said.

She slapped at her forearms, and I whacked at something crawling under my knee and squashed it. In the trees, fireflies flickered like train windows passing.

“So, Paul,” she said, after a short, pleasant silence. “About your brother…”

I winced. “What about him?”

“Well, I’ve got to admit, I’m curious.”

“You and everyone else he’s ever met.”

“He just seems so…I don’t know. He’s sure a hot topic at Mr. Gene’s.”

“He’ll get hotter if he stays. You never know what he’s going to do next. I’ll tell you a true story about him this time. My mother left us to go back East when I was barely two. Lewis says he remembers her oatmeal cookies, and that she sometimes hit our father with wooden spoons. But I don’t remember her at all. We were born four years and eighteen hours apart, so we usually celebrated our birthdays on the same day. By celebrated, I mean our father would give us each a dollar and tell us to come home without it, and not before dark. Then he’d push us out the door.

“One year, when I was maybe ten or eleven, he announced he was throwing us a party. But his idea of a party was to put us on a caboose and get one of the drivers he worked with to push us two miles out of town on a hundred-eleven degree, windless day. Lewis and I were supposed to jump out of the car and race back. First one home got cake. All of it. Loser got nothing. Well, my brother, he could have beaten me running backward. I can’t breathe very well, so I’m not much of an athlete.”

“What a bastard.”

“Yeah…well, you’ll see. When the caboose stopped moving, Lewis said he’d give me a head start. He waited until I was at the door of the caboose, then shoved me out onto the grass, jumped on my back, hopped off, and waited for me to roll over so he could make sure I saw him wave. He likes doing that when he’s done something he’s especially proud of. Particularly at me, for some reason. Then he took off.

“I didn’t even bother running. The point is, I wouldn’t have run anyway, and Lewis knew it. My father knew it, too. So I took my sweet time. I was maybe three hours getting back. It was quiet out there except for the biting things. Kind of like here. But here’s the complicated bit about my brother. The first thing I saw when I got home was a plate full of cake squashed on the road and Lewis standing on our stoop, laughing.

“’Saved you some,’ he said. ‘Happy birthday.’

“I started past him into the house. But he put a palm on my chest, reached behind him, and handed me a huge heaping plateful. A corner piece, smothered in icing. Chocolate, and really good, too. My dad actually made great icing. Lewis sat outside and watched me eat it. Then he clapped me on the back and went inside.”

“Weird,” Melissa said.

“Normal for him.”

She was silent a while. The blotchy spots on her cheeks had faded. She still had that odd half-smile on her wide face. The last time I’d spent so long sitting with a girl, just talking like this, had been with Ginny Gunderson on Dust Cow Ridge. Half a decade ago. Eventually, Melissa said, “If he were my brother, I think I’d hate him. You must hate him.”

“I used to think a lot of people must feel that way about Lewis,” I said. “But you can’t hate him.”

“Anyone can hate anyone,” Melissa said softly, and I realized I didn’t understand her smile at all, and wondered if anyone in Trampleton did. “Easiest thing in the world.”

Somewhere in the long silences and occasional chatter that made up the rest of our first evening together, my elbow brushed up against hers and stayed there. Her skin felt cool. She didn’t move away.

“So who are all these people you tend to?” I asked.

“Just one person, mostly. Danny.”

I didn’t want to ask the next question, but I did anyway. “He’s your boyfriend?”

The smile Melissa flashed then was closer to the one she used on Sherman Street. Quick and light. “Danny?” The smile vanished. “Danny is my leatherwing bat. My black-hearted magician. My closest friend. But he will never, ever, be my boyfriend. No matter how much he thinks he wants to be.”

She went quiet again. The breeze drifting out of the pines had a furtiveness to it. By the time we began retracing our steps to the fields at the bottom of the mountain, the moon had filled the sky behind us. I’d been planning to take Melissa’s hand, but didn’t actually try to do it until the Sherman Street elms loomed overhead. Her fingers accepted mine but didn’t squeeze around them. Above us, warblers chirred and trilled.

“Okay, Paul. Time for your personality test. I’ve had a lovely night. So I’ve decided to grant you one of two wishes. You can kiss me, or you can find out what’s in my black bag.”

We were standing in front of Mr. Gene’s. For once, my eyes made no move toward the leafy canopy above.

“Is this a trick question?” I said. “I mean, is there a right answer?”

“Only your answer.”

My mind raced. My strained lungs tickled, which made me want to cough, but I managed not to. “Does what I answer determine whether I get another night?”

Melissa rose onto her tiptoes, then settled back down. “No. But it might determine what kind of night the next one is.”

“Get the bag,” I said.

Melissa burst into a grin. At the shop door, she fished keys from the pocket of her dress, then disappeared inside. She came back holding the bag, which she dropped with a clank at her feet. Kneeling and tugging at the tie-straps, she reached in and withdrew a black leather sheath. From the sheath she pulled out a knife.

The blade alone must have been eight inches long. Melissa tipped the point at me, and I could see the icy, silver curve of the thing, like a scratch in the summer air. Then she turned it, trapping the moonlight in the blade’s flat surface.

“You…spend a lot of time with that, don’t you?” It wasn’t just the shimmer of the blade, but the way the wooden handle nestled in her palm.

Wordlessly, she withdrew a second sheath, then a third before laying all the sheaths in the street and the blades along her thigh like a half-open fan. I glanced in both directions. The road was empty. We’d been up the Back a long time, I realized. It had to be midnight, maybe later.

“You might want to step back,” Melissa said, untying the ribbon in her hair and then tying it tighter.

Gathering the knives into one palm, Melissa stood, rolled her head around her shoulders a few times, flexed her arms, and motioned me another foot or so away. “Hum something.”


“Something fast. I miss the music.”

Miss it? The only fast thing that came to mind was the half-tune my father used to bray in the morning to get Lewis and me out of bed. I didn’t mean to sing it so loud. I just couldn’t imagine it any other way.

Laying tie, laying tie. In the black October sky. No reason for to cry. There’s stations by and by. We’ll lie here ‘til we die.”

The second time I hit reason for, Melissa flicked her right wrist and launched all three knives into the air. I caught my breath but didn’t dare stop singing for fear of disrupting her rhythm. Her hands flew up to snatch one handle, then another, release, snatch, darting forward and back, left and right while her body stayed ramrod straight like the trunk of a tree whipping its branches in a twister. The knives sailed into the elm canopy, tipped over, somersaulted down between columns formed by the others as though performing a square dance up there, then plunged into some impossible springy place on Melissa’s palms or sometimes her forearms or even her chest, and rebounded upward again. She started to move her feet, twirling and tilting, shredding the air around her into ribbons, and it was only at the end, as my singing edged toward panic and grew even louder and the knives flew higher and dove down harder, that I caught a glimpse of her face. Her smile looked wide enough to swallow the whole damn street.

Somehow, on the final toss, the knives went up together, reached an apex, leaned back in formation, and dove toward the earth in a sort of inverted V that looked like a falcon’s spread talons before alighting lightly along Melissa’s forearm as she dropped into a bow.

“Shit,” she muttered. When she straightened and opened her palm, I could see that she’d closed her fist around the lower blade of the last knife to land. A thin thread of blood, much less than there should have been, was seeping from a tiny nick. But that ravenous smile still dominated her face.

I had my hands in her hair and my mouth against hers before the song had died on my lips. The knives dropped to the ground. I heard her grunt, felt our teeth clink together, and half-expected a knee to the groin or a rake of fingernails down my cheek. Instead, Melissa kissed me back for a short, sweet while.

“Don’t step on the knives,” she said into my breath.

We eased apart, and I looked down at the blades arrayed all around us.

“I said you had a choice.” Her hands tightened in my hair.

“But I wanted both.”


Kneeling again, she swept the blades back into their sheaths and the sheaths into the bag in a practiced sequence of motions, then zipped the bag tight and slung it over her shoulder. She didn’t kiss me again when she stood, but having moved away, she turned. Her nod was different than her Well, hey nod. Then she glided down Sherman Street toward Danny’s gas station.

The Scariest Thing

It’s already happening. How can that be?

The signs are unmistakable. As inexplicable and colorful and eerie and awe-inspiring as the aurora borealis. My own private one. And the truth is, I’ve been waiting for this to happen– wanting it to happen, really, dreaming of ways to make it happen– for at least twelve of the fourteen years I devoted to writing The Book of Bunk. And now it is happening. And all I want to do is scream.

Or dance for joy.

Or scream.

A couple weeks ago, a longtime reader wrote me privately, concerned at what he perceived as a touch of despair creeping into some of these posts. His note was intended to encourage me, and it absolutely did.

But I don’t consider anything on this blog an act of desperation.  It’s more mouse-waving-tiny-mouse-middle-finger-at-descending-eagle. A (possibly ridiculous, but genuinely joyful) act of defiance. A declaration of determination, maybe even independence. A flair shot from a lifeboat (I’m still here…). An X on a treasure map I’m rolling up and setting adrift, in the hopes that I can launch it past the shore-breakers of indifference and economic annihilation into whatever the internet equivalent of the Gulfstream is, so that someone, somewhere, might fish it out one day, unravel it, and come here. And find the treasure– and it really is treasure, this book, I promise– that I’ve buried.

Today, though, when I sat down to post, what I really wanted to tell you about was the new project I finally kicked off on Tuesday. An all-new, wildly different, linked set of stories, light and sweet and funny and odd, very possibly the Thing that eats the next two or three (or, god help me, ten) years of Glen’s life.

And that was the moment I realized it was happening.

See, the X I’m putting on that treasure map isn’t really for you. It’s for me. Because for me, The Book of Bunk really is– was– Calypso’s island (which, uh, makes me Odysseus? Oh, I can hear the next note from aforementioned letter-writing conscience now…). That is, it was somewhere I foundered, and found a kind of love, and got mesmerized, and couldn’t leave. For fourteen years. I need to be able to find the thing I finally made while I was there. It’s too important to me to lose.

But somehow– so long before I was expecting it, and to my surprise, before I was ready to go– I’m suddenly off the island.

There’s no despair in these posts (okay, okay, but really, only a little), because you have to realize: most of what Bunk is going to give me has already been given. From it, I got a quest. An impossible challenge. A piece of writing I really didn’t think I’d be able to pull off, and then did.

I want you to read it. So badly. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be bothering with these posts. But if you never get to, what do I lose?

Validation? Feh.

The chance to see it surviving in the world, discussed and dismissed and maybe even honored or at least welcomed? That’d be nice.

Money? (Cue sitcom laugh track here.)

Today is the day I realized I no longer live in Bunk County. I am adrift once more, on my way somewhere else, the next stop on my way home, wherever that is, to get bewitched by something else new and wondrous and terrible and strange. Today, I’m free, to go where I will, and I’m not looking back. Bye, Bunk County. We’ll be back for that treasure. I promise. I swear, on my life. And soon. Even though it really is time for the creative part of me to be elsewhere.

But I need you to know that I loved it there.

I loved it there.

I really, really did.

I loved it there.