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The Princess of Many Half-Completed Movements

“She eased closer to him, studying his face. As if he might be someone she knew but didn’t fully recognize. She shifted to one side and checked his profile, reached out like she might ruffle his hair. He was hoping, but she didn’t. She was a girl of many half-completed movements.”
–Tom Piccirilli, November Mourns

Pic & Lee, MoCon IVNovember Mourns was the first thing of Tom Picirilli’s I ever read. The publisher had given me an advance reading copy, which I’d had him sign when we met at Hypericon in Nashville in the summer of 2005. “Met” in the sense of “bonded like relatives from a past life.” I read the book as soon as I got back that weekend, deep in the throes of missing all my new friends…friends that, ten years down the line, have changed my life in so many ways that I’m not sure who I’d be without them.

I rolled my eyes several times while reading, but that last line from the above quote is when I had to shut the book and walk away for a while. My newest bestest friend, whom I’d begun to refer to as “Unca Pic” in all our emails, was a goddamned poet. I had to put the book down because I was actually pissed that he was such a good writer. All poets—even we lapsed ones—have the ability to recognize brilliance in a single line of text.

Unca Pic was fucking brilliant.

After November Mourns, I read my first novel written by the other Guest of Honor at Hypericon that year. I had to put that one down too, because I couldn’t see from crying. The author was Brian Keene. The book was Terminal. And I had just been diagnosed with a tumor.

My tumor turned out to be a congenital birth defect. When Pic was diagnosed with a tumor, it was a tennis ball-sized gob of brain cancer. Pic never did anything small.

Hypericon 2005, well before anyone referred to me as “Princess,” was also the first convention where I got to sit on panels. Sherrilyn Kenyon and I were roommates. When she was struck down with a migraine halfway through the con, I took care of her before stealing her magic platform corset boots and stomping about the place like the confident superstar I was pretending to be.

I was under strict orders not to become friends with Brian Keene—the sworn enemy of my boyfriend at the time. (Pic was okay, though.) Unfortunately for everyone involved, we all fell in love with each other that weekend. “In love” in the sense of “friendships that would span more than a decade.” The boyfriend—who was already cheating on me at the time—didn’t last half that long.

When the boyfriend discovered my new association—a friendship I boldly defended—he punished me with silence. I shattered. Pic was there, on the other end of every email, to pick up the pieces. And when the depression got bad enough, Pic hunted down my phone number and called my house.

I never answered my phone back in those days (things haven’t changed much—I barely answer it now) and no caller ID meant that I screened every call. So imagine my surprise when the machine beeped and a thick New York accent said, “Are you off bein’ stoopid? You don’t return the emails, you don’t answer the phone…who da hell knows what kind of crisis of faith—” At which point, laughing, I picked up the phone.

I never erased that message. I listened to it for years, because it always seemed to apply. I was always having one crisis of faith or another, and Pic was always there for me. When I finally ran away from home in 2009 (in the sense of “quit my abusive job with no notice and skipped town”), the answering machine was packed up with everything else. I became caught up in the drama of moving my life and settling for another dream I thought I wanted, and the emails to Pic stopped. I mean, we kept in touch on Facebook and whatnot, but the therapy sessions had ended.

With Love, Unca PicThat dream burst like a firework, and then took almost four years to sizzle and fade. I sent Pic another email last November (hello, irony, my old friend), catching him up on my latest bit of craziness. He emailed me back as if it had been five days instead of five years—even remembering to call me “Mimou” (my Dad’s nickname for me as a kid—it’s Greek for “monkey”).

He’d been in remission for two years at that point—he was about to go on vacation to San Diego with Michelle, and he was looking forward to being Guest of Honor at World Horror in 2015. I, too, had been invited to be on panels at World Horror, and I had said yes because I’d seen Pic’s name on the postcards. I couldn’t wait to see him again.

Pic didn’t make it to World Horror. By then, his health was back in a steady decline. Michelle was posting for him on Facebook all the time now, updating us on his progress. I sent him another email, but he didn’t respond. I think I knew then that he never would.

Which sort of sucks because I could really use Pic right now. I’ve been in a horrible slump all summer—ever since I got back from the Atlanta/Nashville trip. I’m in my new place here in Florida, and I know it’s where I’m supposed to be because I feel at home here. But I still have a living room and garage full of boxes. I’m still trying to get myself untangled from this most recent ex. I pared everything down so that I could work on two projects this summer and I suddenly find myself in the middle of five. One of those projects is recording and editing the audiobook for Beauty & Dynamite. The only voice I have 100% down—other than my own, of course—is Pic’s.

My house stalled in the midst of renovation. I feel like there’s a missing piece in the puzzle of my career but I can’t put my finger on it. I realized this morning, when I slid to the floor and cried for two hours after hearing the news, that I had become the girl of many half-completed movements. And as much as I wanted to send an email that said, “Help me, Unca Pic, you’re my only hope,” I knew it would be a futile gesture.

He’s still with me, though, out there in a box in the garage, a faded recording on the twenty-first century equivalent of an outdated R2 unit. I don’t need to play it to hear his voice, loud and clear, asking me if I’m being stoopid. Asking me if I’m having another crisis of faith. The answer is yes. The answer is always yes.

But my Obi-Wan has left the building and now I have to face the dark forces of this universe all on my own. Fortunately, his faith in me is the one thing I don’t have doubts about.

Thanks, Unca Pic.
Dear gods, I miss you.

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Genre Chick Interview: Tom Piccirilli

“She was a girl of many half-completed movements.” –the line that made me throw November Mourns across the room because nobody should be able to write that beautifully.

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Alethea Kontis: Tell me a little about how your latest novel November Mourns came about.
Tom Piccirilli:
In terms of setting and themes, it’s something of a carryover from my previous novel A Choir of Ill Children, which also deals with an isolated, southern backwoods area where superstition and the supernatural seem to meet up. The word “haunted” is applicable in so many ways to so many people, who are haunted by guilt, by fear, by the past, by familial or sexual or religious matters. Choir was very much a fantastical book, with outlandish, freakish characters, and ghosts and swamp witches. When I finished the novel though, I realized I wanted to deal with some of the same themes but play it much closer to the vest, keeping the fantasy and supernatural elements much more ambiguous. Are these things actually happening, are they in the mind of the protagonist, or is everybody just going mad from bad moonshine?

AK: There is an amazing amount of information in November Mourns about moonshine, snake handlers, and prison life. How did you approach your research?
TP: It’s easy for a writer to over-research a subject and then feel the urge to do an info-dump in the middle of a book. Knowing that’s a possibility, I prefer to only do a minimum amount, to answer the questions I have and provide the details I need to make the story work to the best of my ability. This isn’t hard science fiction here—this is phantasm. I’ll either visit the library or hop around on the Net to get whatever I need for the story to make it sound credible.

AK: November Mourns could almost be considered a mystery or suspense novel instead of horror. You have a background in writing mysteries (The Dead Past, Sorrow’s Crown) but what made you use it here to catapult your story?
TP:
It’s a backwoods story where an ex-con returns to his moonshine-running mountain town to investigate the death of his sister, who was found in an area of the hills long-thought to be haunted. Superstition and ignorance caused the townsfolk to abandon plague-stricken citizens deep in the backwoods, and now it appears those diseases are having some kind of a rippling effect across the decades. Even their churches seem corrupted by poisons of one kind or another, as snakes take precedence in the snake-handling rituals.

Since my protagonist Shad has been away from the Hollow, in prison for two years, he now has the clarity of distance. He’s been elsewhere, he’s learned new things, and he’s lived through a wealth of new experiences. I specifically wanted prison to have a positive effect on him. It has a large library, he learns about the rest of the world, he meets men from all walks of life. That in this world, going to jail is actually a move up on the ladder of life. When he returns to his hometown, he sees everyone with a different point of reference. A good deal of the basic crime novel set-up here is actually reversed. It’s not about a man who’s been in hell returning to the comfort of his beloved hometown. It winds up becoming the complete opposite as Shad leaves the comfort of prison to return to a doomed and dying town that threatens to take him with it.

AK: Many of the characters consider themselves to be the product, as well as victims, of Moon Run Hollow, yet they are greatly conflicted about their love/hate relationship with the town. What caused you to focus on such a premise?
TP: All of drama is based on conflict, and the more a writer can balance out the reasons for that conflict, the more he can show both sides of a potentially insoluble problem. We are as much the product of our evils, fears, and character flaws as we are our strengths and decency. It’s on that lynchpin that I set the basic premise of the book. What do you do when everyone around you is going a little mad, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it? How resolved would you be in the nature of your own beliefs if you awoke one day and realized everything you knew up to that point might be wrong? Emotional turmoil is always the impetus that gets the action of my work to move forward. I hate the easy out of some crime novels, like the killer leaves a button behind and all the hero has to do is match the button to a coat and voila, the brilliant murderer who’s escaped Interpol is caught. Too many authors rely on forced facts like that, things that don’t occur naturally in the unfolding of the story.

AK: Communication plays an intriguing role in November Mourns. How conscious were you about creating this atmosphere where communication is a challenge? Where verbal and writing skills are at a minimum?
TP: It was very conscious on my part because it added so much atmosphere to the tale. If we could get a direct answer to every question we ever asked, nobody would have high blood pressure. It’s when you’re getting conflicting answers, riddles, grunts, barks, and nonsensical responses that your frustrations grow. And that’s what most of us have to deal with on a daily basis. I just distilled it and worked it into the tapestry of the novel.

In the book, Shad’s father calls him in prison to tell him that his sister has died. And that’s all the man says. No details, no commiserating, no words of grief or advice. In a way, it’s a thrown gauntlet. Here’s the barest minimum you need to know, now let’s see if you can rise to the challenge.

AK: The concept of family is an extremely important one in the novel, as well as the search for family and identity. Was it your intention to explore these issues? Or was the familial element something that developed during the writing process?
TP: Family matters are the crux of much of my fiction. My own father died when I was quite young, and so in a manner of speaking, he’s always been more of a myth to me than a man. An invisible force that exists in pictures and in vague memories, but without any direct hand in my life. I think most people feel this to a lesser extent, in one manner or another. The weight of their family’s experiences and situations somehow molds us through our entire lives, even after those family members are gone. It’s a theme I’ve returned to time and again, one of the wells from which I draw my material.

In November Mourns, Shad is actually investigating the death of his half-sister. Her mother remarried and now has a brood of freakish children; some have no bones in their legs, one has a head the size and shape of a pumpkin. When Shad meets up with them later on he’s terrified by just how narrow the channels of blood are. How these ill children are very close to being his own brothers and sisters, and how close he was to becoming one of them.

AK: You deal in the gray areas between good and evil, humor and horror. Do you make a conscious effort to upset notions of the clearly defined lines between these opposing concepts?
TP: To me, ambiguity is more interesting and more realistic than clearly drawn lines between the heroic and the malicious. My brand of fantasy/supernatural/horror fiction puts an emphasis on unsettling and displacing the reader rather than actually “terrifying” them. Horrifying someone can be relatively easy in some respects—you can write about babies being dropped in boiling water or give graphic details of evisceration or rape. But without some emotional context, without really caring for the characters, then those might merely be exercises in sadism.

AK: You recently won the Bram Stoker award for editing the poetry anthology The Devil’s Wine, and you are a poet yourself. How do you think writing poetry affects your prose?
TP: Poetry is a form that celebrates compression. It allows me to use ambiance with an even greater focus. It’s a distillation of narrative. You have to keep squeezing and squeezing the piece of coal until you compress it into a diamond. Novels on the other hand offer plenty of room to move. You can toy with dialogue, mood, the pace of the action, but in learning how to self-edit down to the raw material, my novels hopefully move with a great emotional context—with less fat, less of the ordinary in them.

AK: At the rear of November Mourns there’s a chapter-long sneak preview of your next novel Headstone City, which doesn’t seem to be a southern gothic crime novel at all. Tell us about it. And what else do you have coming up?
TP: Headstone City returns to my urban stomping grounds, taking place in New York. It’s the story of two former friends, one now a mob boss and the other an ex-con limo driver, who went through a windshield together when they were kids and got caught stealing a car. Now each has a particular psychic/supernatural gift. The mob boss blames the other guy for the death of a family member, and right from the get-go you know they’re headed for a showdown.

I’m currently finishing up my latest novel The Repentance of Killjoy, which is about a child murderer who, after a cycle of butchery, goes quiet for several years. When he returns, he’s apparently had a change of heart and steals children from abusive surroundings to return to the families of the children he originally murdered. The novel follows one father as he tracks Killjoy through a series of ever-stranger circumstances.

AK: Any really fabulous library anecdotes you’d like to share?
TP: When I was researching comparative religions and occult history for my A Lower Deep,  which is about a modern-day warlock and his demonic companion heading off to Jerusalem to try to stop Armageddon, I would walk up and ask the information staff, “Hi, do you have The Satanic Bible on hand? How about a translated copy of the Malleus Malefacarum?” Back when I lived in NY, that probably wouldn’t have raised even an eyebrow from the staff, but the nice ladies in my local library in Colorado definitely had me marked as being in league with Satan.

You can learn more about Tom Piccirilli at his official website: www.tompiccirilli.com

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