Poetry: The Barghest’s Revenge

I.

The Barghest rose from stirring gloom
Through creeping shadows of my room
The dangling keys about his wrists
Like tiny bells foretelling doom.

O’er to my bed he slithered, black
His skin mottled like mordant wax
All tufts of hair in ancient cysts
Sprouting from nose, toes, ears, and back.

With a voice smooth as mercury
Thus he whispered, musically
“Find you the door that matches this,”
And in his hand offered a key.

The toothed, black spindle in his palm
Was twisted, sharp, nine inches long.
Heavy as ages in my grip,
It filled my ears with eldritch song.

“Go you to Edinburgh, my dear,”
The monster said into my ear
“In Robert’s Close, when moonlight-kiss’d
By his name, you must dig near.”

“There you will find a secret trove
Buried ‘neath the roots and bones
With this key I to you inflict
The chance to see your sweet love, Rose.”

I did not ask him what he meant
I did not call him when he went
Drifting like some poisonous mist
To dissipate into the vent.

A year had passed since Rose’s death
Nights I spent whoring, whiskey-vexed
Her shape was still equally missed
On unwashed sheets only half dressed.

For every love has its goodbye
All bright flowers wither and die
Time and death, we cannot resist
And sirens stir in the decline.

 

II.

I left my silver weapons home
‘Twas ten good years since they had shone
Our land dreaming and safe adrift
At last its final devils gone.

We cleansed the highlands and the low
Purged clear loch to Roman stone
Bags of copper spilled through our fists
With not a monster left to roam.

The last ones fled, or hid, or died
I can still hear every black cry
Those loathing hexes, gravely hissed
The Barghests’ were no milder kind.

And now I traveled those same roads
Until that Royal Mile I strode
Robert’s Close, could such place exist?
The cobbles cursed under my brogues.

In Grassmarket, at last I found
An alleyway, all spectral-bound
A name was written in dark script
Of a prince who’d never been crowned.

I scored a shovel for my work
In rusted iron, solace lurked
Imagining my future tryst
I staked it in the hardened earth.

Three feet deep, lay a small casket
A crude, wicker, coffin-basket
Its hard shell made my shovel slip
I kneeled down and unlatched it.

Inside the box, a woman’s skull
But no, not human, not at all
The fangs, the hair, those silver wisps
All bound within a crown of awls.

 

III.

The Barghest rasped into my ear
“How could they bury my love here?
Give her a grave as poor as this?
Monster hunter, it was but fear.”

“During your righteous purge for men
You toxified my family’s den
Never will my wife part her lips
To sing our babes asleep again.”

“See you why I had to infect her?
Why your Rose never got better?
The great trouble with fairness is
Blood for blood just makes us wetter.”

Oh how I raged, debased, and howled
I slashed them, punched them, kicked, and scowled
But my foe had returned to mist
I lay amidst a leering crowd.

I was street-side, covered in filth
A madman preaching madmen’s ilk
I closed my eyes and reminisced
As watchmen drove me up the hill.

Now in my cell, dank, black, and bare
I can taste the old, piss-sour air
I dream of secret doors promised
And retch at demons hidden there.

‘Lurk’ BookBub Post-Mortem: How I Quadrupled My Sales and Doubled My Reviews in 30 Days

Hey friends. This is a breakdown (for educational purposes) about the outcomes of my recent free book promotion with BookBub for Lurk. It will probably not be of interest to you unless you’re a self-published or small press author, thinking about becoming a self-published or small press author, or are just really really into the process of marketing books (if the last one is you, you’re sick).

After about 30 days, the steady flow of reviews, KENP page reads, ebook and paperback sales is finally starting to peter off back down to my normal, pre-promotion levels, so I thought I would do a quick post-mortem to show how exposure really is everything, and that even giving away your ebook to thousands of people can be a huge boon to sales and visibility.

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Thankfully, not this.

The Promotion

Back in August, I was accepted to BookBub’s promotion newsletter for my first novel, Lurk. At the time, Lurk had seen some moderate success, but was still mostly unknown. I’d sold about 1,000 copies across all media, long since made back my initial $1500 investment in cover art + editing + promotion, and was taking in about $250-350 a month in combined royalties (ebook, paperback, audiobook, and KENP). Some authors may not wish to discuss sales and income but since my sales are pretty pathetic, and the purpose of this post is transparency, I don’t mind. When I was accepted for BookBub, the book had 26 reviews on Amazon, around 40 text reviews on Goodreads, and 100~ish ratings on Audible (my main source of sales).

I made my book free for five days. The BookBub promotion was on the first free day. For a free book promotion in the horror category, BookBub charged me $160 dollars. I opted for the free promotion rather than a $.99 or $1.99 promotion both because it was much cheaper, and because my main goal was not sales but exposure. I just wanted to get my book on as many people’s Kindles as possible, as I was confident that once most started reading it, they would be hooked and want to finish.

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26,000???!

The Initial Results

More than 26,000 people downloaded the book in the first three days of the free promotion. Reviews began flooding in almost instantly, most of them positive, some glowing – one lady said she thought I was Stephen King writing under a new pseudonym (she was being super nice, but that felt pretty good). Lurk reached the number one spot in all of its categories, and the number 4 overall (free) book on the Kindle store. For a brief moment, I got a taste of the pie that the very very very most successful of you self-pubs are eating, and it was awesome. Seeing my book hit those ranks alone was worth the $160 bucks I paid for the promo.

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The Aftermath

However, the real benefit came later, from Kindle Unlimited. Lurk is in Kindle Unlimited, something I never paid much thought to before this promotion, as I was only hitting about 10k KENP pages read every month (around $40). But at the height of the promotion, and for about two weeks after, I was getting 10k pages read or close to that every day. As of writing, I am still getting around 4k per day.

Because of this massive boost, my combined royalties for the past month are going to be over $1k. That is a milestone I honestly thought I would never reach in my writing career, much less with this book. In a way it feels like winning the lottery. There are many of you out there who probably see $1k as a bad month, but I write weird books about weird shit, my audience is niche, and I’m admittedly terrible at finding it, even worse at the whole marketing thing.

The first two weeks after the sale also saw my normal ebook and paperback sales get a massive spike. At one point I was moving 10 ebooks and 3-5 paperbacks a day. Again, shit numbers for some of you, but for me, this was huge. Audiobook sales hit a snag, though, which is interesting. A bunch of people who got the book for free during the promotion downloaded the audiobook through Whispersync, and maybe that particular well has gone dry, because the past month has been the worst for my audiobook sales since I released Lurk on Audible. Not complaining, but it is interesting.

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You knew this post would contain at least one Bryce Dallas Howard…

How Did This Promo Affect My Reviews?

As for reader reviews, that magic, ever-elusive phenomenon we all know is worth more to us than all the BookBub promotions under the sun – Lurk * currently has 65 reviews on Amazon, most of them verified. I’m a little bit peeved the top review is a 3-star review that talks about plot holes/character inconsistencies that are resolved in the first chapter … but I digress.

The vast majority of the new reviews on Amazon have been four and five stars. Lurk is currently sitting at around 300 ratings and 70 reviews on Goodreads. Goodreads in general is a bit of a tougher crowd, and the spread of positive to negative reviews is a little wider there. Still mostly positive, although I have seen some interesting trends on there that I haven’t seen on Amazon (like a few people one or two-starring several different editions of the book at once to lower its score).

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Beep beep, Ritchie

Conclusion

My conclusion is that the BookBub promo, if you can get it, is a massive boon to helping your book find its audience. I made back my $160 investment for the free promotion more than six-fold, got a ton of new reviews, and am extremely happy with the outcome of this promotion. It’s a myth to say that nothing good can come from giving away your book for free. I wonder how my results would’ve differed if I’d asked for a buck instead of nothing during the promotion, but I’m content enough with the results to not really care.

LURK is on sale for 99 cents

LURK is a Countdown Deal on Amazon right now, down from the regular price of $3.99 (Kindle edition) to a meager $0.99. That’s less than the price of a beer in Bavaria! Please note that Countdown Deals are flash sales that go by incremental pricing; it will only be 99 cents today (5/23), then will go up to $1.99 tomorrow, and to $2.99 the day after that.

Get some.

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Nothing in life is free… except short stories

I’ve posted a few pieces of previously-published short fiction here lately, and here’s why. It’s my goal to eventually make all of the short stories I publish in magazines or anthologies free to read online, once the rights revert back to me. I’ve never published original short fiction on here, but that might be in the cards someday, too. I know it’s fashionable these days for some bigger-name authors to post shorts as Patreon rewards to their donors, which is annoying, and would hurt my image as a grumpy old curmudgeon, so I’m not gonna do it.

So far, of the roughly ten pieces of short fiction I’ve sold, almost all of them meet the “free” criteria, and are free to read for anyone with an Internet connection right here on this website (or several others). Many are also available as Kindle ebooks. I’m still trying to master the art of making Kindle books perma-free on Amazon, so for now the ebook versions are set at $.99.

Everyone pirates everything these days anyway.

Now back to writing and delicious burgers.

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My 10 Favorite Dark Fantasy Books (That Aren’t by George R.R. Martin)

As a budding author who just released the first book in my own dark fantasy series, it seems, looking back, that however much I’ve tried to give books of every genre equal opportunity to be read, it has always been this one that affected me the deepest. I define dark fantasy somewhat loosely, as any work of massive imagination that says something about us, humanity, that may be difficult to hear. Don’t get me wrong. The words “bastard,” “sword,” or both of those together will never lose their crunch. Still, a book is never about its skin, but its soul. To me, “dark fantasy” concerns the dreams we dream when we look inward and find the soul is stained. Of course, it should go without saying that this list is incomplete. No doubt some of your own favorites will be missing. If so, be sure to sound off in the comments.

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10. The Witcher Series

If you pick up The Witcher books expecting another Lord of the Rings, you might be in for a bad time. The games have done a decent job of capturing the essence of these books, but – call me old fashioned – it’s the opinion of this Internet nobody that the books are just better. However, they are also quite divisive. That’s because Sapkowski’s writing does not represent a Western point of view. The Witcher is Polish, through and through: in its mentality, in its humor, in its worldview; as well as in its treatment of subjects like racism, oppression, and war. First published in the nineties, this series remains a bold statement on what is possible when we give in to the tempting voices of our worst selves. The Witcher saga is vibrant, original, and riveting.

Pros: Unforgettable characters, sympathetic monsters of the non-human variety, deliciously brutal ones of the human kind.

Cons: May leave unfamiliar readers scratching their heads. Do your homework and read up on Poland before starting.

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9. The Vagrant (The Vagrant, #1)

I purchased this book on a whim before a longish flight from San Francisco to New Orleans. I thought I was in for another somewhat forgettable high fantasy romp, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself falling headfirst into a wicked, simultaneously lyrical and blood-soaked science fantasy reminiscent in the best way of Gene Wolfe and China Mieville. The prose is beautifully jagged, littered with diamonds in the rough. The characters, including the protagonist (who doesn’t speak), and his best friends, a baby and a goat, are instantly endearing. The threats are real, and every blood splatter felt. The Vagrant is the most fun I’ve had reading a new author in years, and I am hoping for many many more books from Peter Newman to come.

Pros: Dank prose, graceful treatement of clichés, a sono-sword that can wreck your shit.

Cons: Present tense narration pulled me out of the story at times.

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8. Blood Meridian

To me, this book is the essence of dark fantasy. There are no swords in Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant, horrifying epic about a gang of scalp-hunters riding the highway to Hell during the Mexican-American War (maybe sabres or bayonets). There are no dragons or damsels in distress. If there were, make no mistake, Glanton, Judge Holden, Toadvine, and the Kid would shoot and scalp them.

But despite lacking the traditional genre trappings, every word of this book deals in the fantastical, the awful, and the awe-inspiring; from the oneiric quality of the prose, to the story’s villain, the enigmatic, seven foot-tall albino known as the Judge, who is the embodiment of war itself. Blood Meridian isn’t a work that plots a clear path between moral or intellectual points. It is the reading of a nightmare that is wholly American, wholly historical, and yet somehow also mythical and timeless. It is one of the few books I have read that I reread with ritualistic engagement every few years. There is a tree of dead babies. And that scene where they make gunpowder… look, just read it.

Pros: The Judge. Peeing to make gunpowder. Something about floating blue islands.

Cons: One of the bloodiest books in print. No punctuation.

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7. Inferno (Dante, not Dan Brown)

The Divine Comedy was one of the first works written in a language common people could read (Italian, rather than Latin). Its author, Dante Alighieri, was a man who experienced life’s highest highs and lowest lows. He met his true love, lost her, was exiled from his hometown of medieval Florence, and then spent most of his life searching for redemption.

That quest is mirrored here, in his often crude, more often clever narrative poem about a man who, while wandering lost “midway through life’s journey” finds that the only way for him to see his lost love again in Heaven is to literally go through Hell; to journey through the deepest pits of despair and bear witness to the souls of the damned being punished there for their sins. It is gross, it is long, it is tedious, and it is life-changing. And, of all the works of dark fantasy on this list, it is probably the only one that people will still be reading a thousand years from now.

Pros: Lots of mofuggas getting their goddamned comeuppance. Poop demons. The line, “Through me you go to the grief-wracked city.”

Cons: Hundreds of pages long. Read the Ciardi translation. Others read like the Bible.

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6. The Heroes

A standalone, grimdark war story set in the same world as Joe Abercombie’s First Law trilogy. I love the word “grimdark.” It makes me feel smart when I say it, like I could almost add a little Richard Attenborough to the finish and nobody would call it out. And it perfectly captures what this story is about, bleakness, cold steel, and rivers of spilled blood over of all things… a hill. That’s right. This is the story of a bunch of guys killing each other over who gets to be King of the Hill. Like that one part of that Metallica song.

And it works. The conflict itself becomes the main character of this story, and it unfolds through the clearest lens of battle I’ve yet read in fantasy fiction. I really value that Abercrombie took the time to write this book, which seems like a weird thing to say, and maybe it is, but if The Heroes didn’t exist, I probably never would have given a second thought to one of our species’ favorite and most destructive pastimes, which is pointlessly slaughtering each other over who gets the best view.

Pros: Red meat and redder steel. Looooooong. My copy came from Armchair Books in Edinburgh (the one in the header image).

Cons: Heavy enough to use as a weapon if you ever find yourself storming a hill.

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5.  The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, #2)

No fat pink masts or Myrish swamps to be found here. This is a YA novel. But it is also a monumentally deep and important one. I battled with myself about whether or not to list the whole series, like I did with a few other spots on this list, but I think The Subtle Knife is a much stronger novel than the other two, however much I enjoyed them twenty years ago, when I first… holy f***, I’m old.

This isn’t just a story about a knife that can cut doorways to other worlds; it is a book about the idea of what a world is. It isn’t just about two kids from different parallel universes who are thrown together by a series of exploding events and also an airship, a broken family, a gaggle of witches, and don’t forget the giant armored polar bears, who then end up forming a deep friendship and experiencing first love together; it is about the idea of what our loved ones give us. It isn’t just about the infinite possibilities out there in the multiverse, including worlds where children wear their souls outside their bodies as shape-shifting animals who only take a fixed form after puberty, and other worlds where creepy shadow people eat those fixed forms, leaving cities where there are no grownups and only gangs of punk-ass children; it is about the nature of infinity, and how truly small humanity is in the face of it.

Pros: Cittagazze, Pantalemon, The Guild of Philosophers.

Cons: Can’t think of any, although this series is not well-loved by highly religious folks.

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4. The Sandman

A benchmark work in the development of “mature” comics, The Sandman was now-fantasy superstar author Neil Gaiman’s breakout work, and it ran long enough to fill ten trade paperbacks (not to mention all the spin-offs, sequels, and prequels). There were a few other comic series that I considered putting in the graphic novel slot on this list – Transmetropolitan, Northlanders, and Moore’s Swamp Thing to name a few. But this story, about a family of immortals known as the Endless who represent personifications of the human psyche (as well as plenty of others borrowed from various mythologies, including the DC/Vertigo universe), supersedes not just its peers in the comic world, but the medium itself.

The Sandman is a love ballad to storytelling, more specifically fantasy. Its cast includes Dream, Destiny, Despair, Desire, Destruction, Death, and Delirium – could any group of words better summarize why we read this genre? Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, takes center stage for most of the main Sandman run, and his explorations of our dreams, our hopes, and our fears, are all masterfully written and drawn. My favorite arc is A Game of You, but I can’t remember a single issue of The Sandman that I didn’t like, and most, I absolutely loved. It takes a certain level of genius to maintain that level of interest over 100-something issues. This is Gaiman at his youngest, most raw, and purest.

Pros: Perfectly plotted. Snappy dialog. Old school art and coloring still pops.

Cons: Some kids these days might need to step out of the box to really get into a comic printed on newspaper.

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3. The Black Company (Chronicles of the Black Company, #1)

The granddaddy of books about knights who say f—. Well, not knights, exactly. Just normal soldiers. This is a grim, realistic, and often hilarious examination of men at war through the fantasist’s lens. The fact the fantasist in question is a veteran of the U.S. military adds the necessary authenticity. Glen Cook’s flagship series pulls no punches, both in terms of how men “in the shit” talk and how they behave. A diverse cast of characters with a broad range of personalities, who constantly subvert expectations. The dark lord, for example, is a smokin’ hot woman.

ProsCharacters and cities that live and breathe. No kid gloves about violence and war.

Cons: Croaker is a little bit nondescript as far as protagonists go.

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2. The Master and Margarita

A satirical novel by Russian playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov about a machine gun-toting cat who works for Satan and performs street magic, this is the book that subverted the entire Soviet Union and its culture of ideological censorship with nothing but humor, despite being published posthumously after the author burned it, rewrote it from memory, and hid it in a box for three decades.

The basic plot is that the Devil, a fabulously fashionable man who wears a pince-nez, arrives in Moscow to make trouble for everyone, including the government, the titular Master (a writer languishing in obscurity), and his sweet love, Margarita. There is also a simultaneous retelling in flashbacks of the trial and execution of Jesus Christ. Dope doesn’t begin to describe this novel. Some people say the classics aren’t sexy, but with the amount of nudity and broomsticks, in this particular instance, those people would be wrong.

Pros: The quote “Manuscripts don’t burn.” Excellent use of a story-within-the-story. Machine gunning demon cat.

Cons: None

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1. The Book of the New Sun

I’ve read “The Book of the New Sun” cover-to-cover four times, and each time it becomes richer, deeper, and more enjoyable. Neil Gaiman wrote an entire article on why you should read Gene Wolfe, who the New York Times called “Science Fiction’s Difficult Genius” and who Ursula K. LeGuin called “Our Melville.” Wolfe is a writer’s writer. His stories are shadowy, labyrinthine puzzles, impossible to fully grasp on the first read-through. Oh, you will think you know what’s going on, and who’s-who, and who that guy’s mother is. The first time. Maybe even the second. But trust me, you have no idea.

The Book of the New Sun tetralogy is set in far-future Argentina, when the sun is dying, and follows the confessions of Severian, a disgraced young journeyman in the Guild of Torturers who is kicked out for falling in love with and subsequently showing mercy to one of his victims. Over the next four books, we travel with Severian and his mercury-weighted executioner’s sword all over the Americas, as he collects heads for a paycheck, battles mad scientists and their giant homunculi, resuscitates his grandmother from the lake of the dead, faces an army that can only speak in short government-approved aphorisms, time-travels, journeys to the stars, and ultimately, becomes leader of the free world. If you are already skeptical of this list of events, that’s great – you’re off to a good start at successfully reading Wolfe.

Pros: Terminus Est, the Alzabo, conversing with the Ascians, the king of unreliable narrators.

Cons: Dense and difficult, but worth the work.

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So, those are my top ten. What are yours?

New Interview about Lurk – A Book and a Latte

How did you come up with the title?

Lurk began as a short novella titled “The Pictures Under Sunny Hill,” about a depressed college student who finds a box of Polaroids buried under his house that change to let him spy on his friends. I realized as I was writing that the story worked better as a novel, so I used the old name for Part One, and started calling my early drafts of the full-length story Lurk. I liked it, so it stuck. At one point an agent tried to get me to change the name to The Lurker… I didn’t end up working with her.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

My fiction tends to be about fringe characters, because they interest me. Lurk is a study of madness told from the point of view of an unreliable (and sometimes unlikable) narrator; you are seeing his psychological downward spiral through his own eyes. I knew when I was writing certain scenes that they would make many readers uncomfortable. That was deliberate. This book is an examination of a type of mentality that I see becoming exceedingly common in the age of internet and social media oversaturation, which can lead to us having unhealthy ideas about the lives of others. My primary goal in this story is to scare and entertain, but I also wanted to say something about one of the more dangerous pitfalls of modern life.

What books have most influenced your life?

My top three are The Shining, Blood Meridian, and Book of the New Sun.

***

Read the rest of the interview here.

My novellette ‘The Lich’ is free this week on Kindle

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This tale about the fall of an undead wizard, told in his own words, was my first foray into fantasy, originally published in last year’s “Ancient Enemies” monster anthology. If you like grimdarks, not-so-sympathetic villains, or fringe characters in general, check it out. Cover art by the incredible Laura Hollingsworth.

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LURK is on Audible

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Quick update to let you all know that LURK is out on audiobook, exclusively for Audible! I’ve been an Audible fanboy for years, probably since within about a month of when they launched, so this is pretty exciting for me personally. The audiobook is read by the incredible Kevin Meyer.

Stay scared, creeps.