This morning, while digging through some old boxes in the basement looking for papers (which I never found), I discovered something quite delightful to me: “A Blossom,” a story I wrote in the eighties which had completely vanished from my mind. Unlike the earlier blasts from the past I’ve posted on this blog, this one was actually written as a school assignment, but it worked out well enough that I believe I actually submitted it to magazines at least a couple of times. It was never published, though.
The odd thing about this story—semi-story, semi-memoir—is that while I’d totally forgotten about it, I did still have a memory of some of the comments the professor, Karen Carlton, wrote about it. But my memory had tricked me: I thought those comments were written for quite another story, one that eventually saw print. But no, here they are, in faded ink on the last page of this story.
The piece was written in the spring of 1987 for my Adolescent Literature class at Humboldt State University. Looking at it today, I’m startled to find echoes of material that would appear in The Unspoken, the novel I began writing slightly later in that period (and which wouldn’t be published until 2015 as The Unspoken: The Lost Novel). The treatment of the material here is closer to autobiographical, though there is still some fiction present. Whatever my reservations about the story now, as a gesture of respect to the 24-year-old who wrote it, I’ve reproduced “A Blossom” exactly as it appears on the crumpled and browning original pages—the only copy in existence, until now.
The main point of memory for me, however, is the final comment written by Dr. Carlton on the last page of the manuscript. It shows me that I must have talked to her about my career path a good deal (which also surprises me, since my actual memory of Dr. Carlton, to be honest, is rather vague). Anyway, it was one of the key validations I ever received for my writing, and I never forgot it:
“Chris, this is a beautiful story. It is incredibly polished—I trust you will send this out for publication soon. I found this a joy to read. Stick with writing. Forget teaching. Hang on. –Karen.”
Well, Dr. Carlton, I never forsook teaching, but I did stick with writing, and your comment was part of what kept me going in that long, grim period nearly thirty years ago. For that I thank you.
Wherever you are, this early story is now dedicated to you.
by Christopher Conlon
copyright © 1987, 2016 by Christopher Conlon
for Dr. Karen Carlton
At that age, at seven, I could hardly have created out of my imagination a wilder or more wonderful companion than my Uncle Tom. He was a very old man—probably the oldest I’d ever seen—and quite stocky, heavily built, with a voice as raspy and cranky as an old tractor motor. He had a huge red scar down his chest and a smaller, coffee-brown one on his throat, both the results of recent surgeries. He made no attempt to hide them; instead he displayed them proudly, like badges of honor. More than once I saw him strike up conversations with strangers which led quickly to the question: “Wanna see my chest?”
When I mother and I came to visit—once every few months, maybe, we lived over a hundred miles away—she and my aunt Billie would steal off to another room to drink and smoke and gossip. As soon as they were out of sight Uncle Tom would give me a an entire box, a big box, of See’s Candies, telling me they would help me grow, and as we sat in his shuttered, semi-dark room he would tell me stories. He had been, so he said, a riverboat captain; a brain surgeon at Harvard; a star of silent movies; an oil billionaire who’d lost everything in the stock market crash; a bank robber, once Public Enemy #2 (#1 at the time was John Dillinger, who learned everything he knew from my uncle); an FBI spy in Moscow; an Arctic explorer; the designer of the Apollo rockets; Ernest Hemingway; and so many other things that it was really quite breathtaking. Even more exotic to my seven-year-old sensibilities was his room—all filled with the most fantastic thingamabobs and doodads. A Japanese samurai sword (“Got it off a Jap I took prisoner in the war,” he said). A Nazi helmet with a real bullet hole right through the side. Kaleidoscope viewers from China. Perfectly preserved labels from the very first Campbell’s soup cans ever produced. Indian herbs and medicines in clay jars. An authentic Confederate flag. And in a box at the top of the closet, a huge stack of Action Comics—the very first Superman stories—that he let me read whenever I wanted. It was only years later that I realized how many thousands of dollars that stack must have been worth.
But best of all were his paperweights. He had twenty-five or so, in all different sizes, delicate glass balls with flat bottoms that contained within them the most beautiful things: an autumn leaf, a tiny snow-covered house, a white rose. My own favorite was the smallest one, just the size of my palm. In it was a small pink and white cherry blossom, like the ones on our own tree back home.
“Get ’em from all over the world,” he told me. “Little shops here and there. Junk shops, mostly. Ain’t worth nothin’.”
“What do you do with them?” I asked, the first time he showed them to me. I looked closely at the cherry blossom, like a little, peaceful world of its own in my hand.
“Do with ’em?” he said gruffly. “Don’t do nothin’ with ’em. Don’t always gotta do somethin’ with somethin’. Jus’ junk, anyway.”
There was a river behind my uncle’s house and on good days we would swim there, stark naked. We were surrounded by mountains and when we shouted it would echo back to us. I used to imagine there being little gremlins hidden up there, shouting back at us—making us think it was an echo. Uncle Tom would play along; when I turned my back he would suddenly say, “There’s one! Look!...Aw, you missed it!”
It got so that I would tell him anything. I had no secrets: I hated school; I missed my dad; my mother was becoming stranger and stranger. I would tell him these things not because he had any answers, he didn’t, but he would listen, he would try to understand. I would sit in the shallow water by the bank and he would float there, a few feet from me, on his back, his big red chest scar shining in the afternoon light. He would ask questions; he would tell jokes to cheer me up. Mostly, though, he would be silent as I talked on and on.
Slowly, though, something began to happen. Over the course of perhaps a year’s visits, he told me progressively fewer stories and fewer jokes and spent less time with me and began to seem more interested in staying inside to drink with the women. And drink they did. In light of my mother’s later history, it all seems rather ghoulish; but at the time I chalked it up to the vagaries of grown-ups, their unknowable motives….
One visit we stayed quite late, into the night, and the three of them became very happily drunk, hooting and hollering and carrying on. I wasn’t enjoying myself. Especially not when my mother, shortly before passing out on the sofa, said: “Oh yes, I forgot to tell you—my little boy’s in love!”
I blushed all the way down to the ends of my toes.
It was true, though. I was head-over-heels, madly, obsessively, all-encompassingly in love. Sonya! Even today the name conjures up a vision of white and gold, a brilliant sun, an Angel of Light: blonde hair that reached to her waist, deep lavender eyes, soft peach-blushed skin…No doubt the reality was rather more terrestrial than these memory-images; still, there was a sort of mystery about her. She had only just come to our school from some never-heard-of place; she said little to anyone (except—O Lord!—a little bit, to me); inevitably wore full white dresses rather than the usual skirts or blue jeans; and she got higher grades than anyone in the class, including me.
In short, she was a goddess on earth.
Uncle Tom found this terrifically amusing. “Ha-ha! So our little Junior G-Man’s got himself somethin’ on the side! Boy, how old are you? You sure don’t waste time!”
I giggled nervously, my face hot with embarrassment. I felt like boring myself a hold in the ground, a nice deep one. Maybe all the way to China.
“Don’t make fun of the boy, Tom,” my Aunt Billie said. She was a black-haired lady with an emphysemic voice.
“Fun? I’m proud,” he laughed, pouring some whiskey into his glass. “Shit, he’d make his daddy right proud, wouldn’t he?”
I looked at my mother. She was out like a light.
“Gettin’ some pussy, are you?” he said, stepping close to me.
I didn’t look at him. I didn’t know what he meant. I shrugged.
“Well, you know what pussy is, don’t you?”
I shook my head.
“Well,” he said loudly, announcing it, “you go ask your girlfriend, that’s what you do!” He drained his glass quickly. “Yep, you go ask your girlfriend ’bout that. She’ll tell you!”
Aunt Billie laughed in a sort of embarrassed way. “Tom, you rascal!” she said.
“C’mere, baby!” he shouted, holding out his arms. She staggered into them and they disappeared down the hall to their bedroom.
I looked at my mother, there on the sofa like a collapsed mannequin. After a while I shut off the lights.
But one bad night wasn’t enough to shake my faith in Uncle Tom, not really, and after a couple of days I found myself nearly forgetting the evening entirely, remembering instead the chocolates, the gremlins in the mountains, the cherry blossom.
Except for one thing. That word he’d used, the one he and Aunt Billie had laughed over. I’d heard it before. It was an adult word. As such it seemed emblematic of an entire array of frustrating myself there seemed to be more and more of every day: veiled things, secret inferences, shadowy suggestions of things I would know “someday.” The dictionary was no help. I certainly couldn’t ask my mother; adult subjects were strictly off-limits between us.
Well, after a week of wondering, becoming nearly obsessed with the subject, I decided to follow my uncle’s advice and ask Sonya about it.
My judgment in matters concerning women, by the way, has hardly improved since.
It was without a doubt the biggest catastrophe of my seven-year-old life. Sonya, alas, knew what the word meant, and took it that I was making a rude joke—which she abhorred, which offended her, which she finally burst into tears over.
It may sound funny now. It wasn’t then. Her reaction terrified me. I ran home right in the middle of the school day and exploded through our front door, screaming and crying and carrying on. It must have taken my mother, who was still sober at this time of day, a good ten minutes to calm me down to the point that she could get a coherent sentence out of me.
“What, honey? Who told you to ask her that?”
“Uncle Tom!” I cried.
Well, after she had me calmed down, she got on the phone and gave my uncle a going-over that probably still has the telephone lines quaking. He was a monster! A beast! A bastard! How dare he say something like that to her son! Didn’t he know anything? Was he a complete idiot? He should see the state I was in. He should see….
At this point there is a long blank in my memory. A couple of months must have gone by; no, even more, for summer came and went and I was in school again; finally, on an unseasonably warm day in early fall, we again made the long trek to Uncle Tom’s house. I hadn’t forgotten the whole thing. Sonya still, after all this time, treated me with a cool distance; and I had resigned myself to having lost her and being alone—probably forever, maybe even longer. But the anger had long since dissipated, and it was with a bored resignation that I re-entered the house.
For a long while all four of us stayed in the kitchen talking together. Or rather, my mother and Aunt Billie talked. I sat there with my hands in my lap and Uncle Tom stared out the window blankly. He looked much older than I remembered him: he had lost weight, his eyes were milky and dull, the skin seemed to hang like old burlap off his face and arms. He’d had another heart operation, and another throat one, too. As a result he could hardly talk—his voice was a harsh whisper.
Finally, though, the women went off somewhere and Uncle Tom and I sat there listening to their laughter in another room. He didn’t look at me for a long time. Finally he stood, slowly and wearily.
“C’mere,” he whispered.
He led me back to his room, walking unsteadily, pressing his hand against the wall for support. I stood in the doorway as he rummaged around for something. Finally he found it and, holding up the cherry blossom, he tossed it to me.
“Give that to your girlfriend,” he whispered.
I had nearly forgotten about it. But as I looked closely I knew that I liked it as much, even more than I ever had: staring into that tiny ball of glass was like looking into a whole new world, a perfect, crystalline world, one without troubles or scary things. No strange shadows, no feelings of rushing headlong into something dark and unknown. Just silence.
I looked up at him again, finally. A moment passed.
“Jus’ junk,” he muttered.
He was standing at his shuttered window, his back to me. I could hear his shallow, uneven breathing. The rest of the house was oddly quiet.
Later we went down to the river. He wasn’t really able to swim anymore but he stripped down and got in anyway, sitting on the bank in the shallow water. I paddled around and floated on my back for a time—I’d become a much better swimmer over the summer, since I’d last been here. We didn’t say much. We didn’t need to, I guess. Once I let out a shout and listened for the echo; but it never came. I looked at my uncle, pale and sickly in the failing afternoon light. The magnificent liar! Not entirely a liar—there was some shred of truth in many of his stories, I now think—but something had happened over the summer. I somehow knew him better. Understood him. Or thought I did. It seemed funny, all of a sudden. I started to laugh. He looked at me, momentarily puzzled, then emitted a hoarse, whispered chuckle.
“Jesus!” he finally rasped, in a tone of wonder, “one day you’ll know everything. Don’t you doubt it. Everything in the world.”
I watched him.
“Hell,” he added, “one day I’ll know everything, too!”
We laughed again. It was the last time I saw him. Two months later he died.
And the rest of them?
My mother died many years ago. My Aunt Billie has married and divorced and remarried; I’ve lost track of her whereabouts. And Sonya? I had a letter from her recently. She now lives in West Virginia with her husband, an architect, and she has just given birth to a healthy daughter. She mentions that, just out of curiosity, she recently had the cherry blossom appraised. Its value, so she was told, is just under two thousand dollars.
Today I'm happy to announce my ongoing collaboration with painter Joe Bucciano! The Bucciano/Conlon Project
features my brand-new stories that respond to Joe's wonderful art as well as his brand-new paintings responding to my writing. It's all available absolutely free on Joe's website, right here: http://joebucciano.com/bucciano-conlon-project.htm
If you like what you see at the Project, please check back from time to time--we'll be putting up new stories and new paintings just as soon as they're ready!
"Balconies" by Joe Bucciano. My story based on this painting is available at the Bucciano/Conlon Project!
George Clayton Johnson, who died on Christmas Day, was my friend.If his name doesn’t register, most likely you’re not particularly a fan of science fiction or vintage television. If you were, you’d know that George was the co-author of the novel Logan’s Run (with William F. Nolan), that he wrote the first broadcast episode of the original Star Trek, and that he created several of the most memorable segments of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. He also co-wrote the original story for Ocean’s 11, which became a Sinatra Rat Pack classic that has since been remade by Brad Pitt and Co.—with two sequels to boot.George, who I first met through correspondence in the late ’90s and then in person in Los Angeles in 2002, was unlike any writer I’ve ever encountered. But then, he was unlike any person I’ve ever encountered. Warm, witty, and completely without the kind of ego one might expect of someone so celebrated, he was utterly down-to-earth—even as his high-flown philosophical musings could seem at times to have been beamed in from some other galaxy. Part sage and part crackpot—sometimes both in the same sentence!—he never failed to beguile me, whether in multi-hour telephone conversations or on the single unforgettable afternoon I spent interviewing him in his little house in Pacoima, where he had bright Christmas lights blinking everywhere inside in the middle of August. I was proud to be chosen to introduce him as the keynote speaker at the Twilight Zone Convention in 2002, prouder still to have been given the opportunity to write the introduction to his wonderful collection All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories, and perhaps proudest of all to have gotten this marvelously talented man—who wrote little in his last years—to pen an original short story for my anthology Poe’s Lighthouse. George was never prolific, which partly accounts for his not being as famous as some of his contemporaries such as Ray Bradbury or Richard Matheson. But make no mistake: at his best he was fully their equal. If you doubt me, look up his classic Twilight Zone episodes “Nothing in the Dark,” starring a very young Robert Redford as Mr. Death, or “Kick the Can,” a beautifully evocative story of old age written when George was in his early thirties. When Steven Spielberg decided to remake one episode of the series for the ’80s Twilight Zone: The Movie, he had 156 to choose from. The one he chose was George’s “Kick the Can.” That’s how good George Clayton Johnson was.In later years, regrettably, George and I mostly fell out of touch. The last time I heard from him was a telephone call around 2008 in which he told me he wouldn’t be able to contribute to my Richard Matheson tribute anthology He Is Legend. I didn’t ask him about it; he was nearly eighty by then, and I didn’t want to pry. We chatted for a while, just everyday things, and that was it. Over the next few years I thought of picking up the phone to call him now and then, or dropping him a letter, but I didn’t. I heard through mutual friends that his health was failing, which made me sad—but also that at conventions he attended he had been praising my collection Thundershowers at Dusk: Gothic Stories, which made me feel roughly ten feet tall.
And then came the news, on Christmas Day. George Clayton Johnson was one of my heroes. He always will be.#
Dweller in a Different Darkness:Reconsidering August DerlethOriginally published at RA for All: Horrorhttp://raforallhorror.blogspot.com/Oct. 14, 2015Copyright © 2015 by Christopher ConlonOnce upon a time August Derleth wasn’t particularly controversial. Growing up in the 1970s, I remember getting his paperback genre anthologies from the library—Beyond Time and Space, The Other Side of the Moon, Dark Things—and at some point my mind made the connection between the editor of those books and the name that occasionally popped up in the “Based on a Story by” credits of the horror-show reruns I liked. I vaguely realized that Derleth was the author of the “Solar Pons” Sherlock Holmes pastiches that appeared in mystery magazines here and there, and that he was somehow associated with H.P. Lovecraft as well. That was about all—just a lesser light in my mental collection of People Whose Names Appeared on the Covers of Books. Prolific and protean, Derleth—who died in 1971—was quite a significant figure in the American literary scene of his time. Author of something like 150 titles, Derleth wrote everything from mainstream fiction set in his native Wisconsin to nature journals to well-regarded poetry to biographies of Emerson and Thoreau to horror stories set in Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos” (a term he coined, by the way). Today, however, Derleth’s name is mud, at least in terms of the horror fiction by which he is best remembered. All aspects of his association with Lovecraft (commonly called “HPL”), for whom he served as a de facto literary executor after the latter’s death in 1937, have been thrown into question—his handling of Lovecraft’s manuscripts, his copyrights, his very literary legacy. Though Derleth founded Arkham House with Donald Wandrei in 1939 for the specific purpose of keeping Lovecraft’s work in print, Derleth’s editions of Lovecraft’s stories were discovered to have been riddled with all kinds of errors. A fervent band of Lovecraft aficionados has spent the last couple of decades setting things right and publishing new, corrected editions of the Master’s works. That’s certainly a good thing.What has not been so good, however, is the trashing August Derleth’s reputation has undergone as a result. Although it’s indisputable that he had more to do with Lovecraft’s remaining in print and available to the reading public than anyone else in the first several decades after the author’s death, many of today’s Lovecraftians actively despise Derleth, referring to him in their books and monographs (to say nothing of Internet postings) in the most savagely splenetic terms. To be sure, some of Derleth’s behavior surrounding HPL’s estate was ethically dubious. Perhaps the main bone of contention has been Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft, stories ostensibly based on HPL’s notes and outlines and published with a collaborative byline but discovered long afterward to have been mostly—often solely—the work of August Derleth. This is unfortunate, and impossible to defend. But the truth is that Lovecraft was never more than a minor part of August Derleth’s extraordinary publishing career. Despite his regard for Lovecraft the man, whom he knew through correspondence, he never took the Cthulhu Mythos very seriously, claiming that HPL wrote the stories only “as pure entertainment, no more” and seemingly taking the same attitude when writing his own tales set within the Lovecraft universe (some published as collaborations, others under Derleth’s solo byline). He was far busier writing huge numbers of important novels in his Sac Prairie Saga along with deep meditations on nature and community in his small corner of Wisconsin—books he considered his major work. Despite the importance of Arkham House to him (he sometimes kept it afloat with his own money), writing Lovecraftian fiction was never more than a lucrative sideline for August Derleth.Yet today, more than four decades after his death, the attacks on Derleth from within the Lovecraft community are constant and unending. He resides in a kind of Index Expurgatorius at least as fearsome and forbidden as the Necronomicon—one reads that Derleth was “a hack,” “talentless,” “a very bad writer,” “incompetent,” and many much less temperately expressed things. In truth, a number of his Lovecraftian tales are excellent—the novella “The Dweller in Darkness” comes immediately to mind. But the unsuspecting reader would never know it when one of the best-known and most respected of Lovecraft scholars dismisses all of these widely-read, much-reprinted stories with magisterial disdain as “a mass of sub-literary rubbish.”It’s time for the unique and important writer who was August Derleth to be rediscovered. Much of his work is now commercially out of print, but a lot of it is available exclusively through the August Derleth Society, which publishes its own handsome editions obtainable directly through their website (derleth.org). Here then are three titles that an enterprising librarian might choose to begin building an August Derleth collection.The Watchers Out of Time and Other Stories (Del Rey), credited to H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth, is the main compilation of the so-called posthumous collaborations, and it is surely the place to start. All of these tales are worthwhile, and some are excellent. “The Fisherman at Falcon Point” is surprisingly lyrical, “The Dark Brotherhood” great fun (multiple Edgar Allan Poes invade a small town!), and “The Shuttered Room”—often reprinted, twice filmed—surely qualifies as one of the most famous pieces ever to appear with Lovecraft’s byline attached. Whatever their provenance, these tales are guaranteed to be of interest to the Lovecraft fan who has already read everything published under the Master’s solo byline and is ready to branch out into other aspects of the Cthulhu Mythos.For the reader who enjoys The Watchers Out of Time and is curious to find more horror works by August Derleth, the obvious choice is Who Shall I Say Is Calling? and Other Stories edited by Robert Weinberg and Stefan Dziemianowicz (Batteted Silicon Dispatch Box, available through the Derleth Society). This wonderful collection was put together specifically by the editors in order to provide an easy one-volume “best of” for Derleth’s weird fiction, and many of these stories deserve the name “classic”; they represent great old-fashioned spooky storytelling at its finest. As a bonus, fans of the vintage TV shows Night Gallery and Thriller will enjoy finding the originals of several episodes here, including Gallery’s “The Dark Boy” and “Logoda’s Heads” and Thriller’s “The Return of Andrew Bentley,” “A Wig for Miss Devore,” and the wonderfully pulpy “Colonel Markesan.” Yet to give a proper representation of Derleth, something in addition to the weird tale is needed. To that end, the creative librarian should consider adding one more title, Village Year (Derleth Society), to the collection. Village Year consists of several years’ worth of journal entries (along with the occasional poem) by Derleth, mostly on the subjects of nature and small-town life in his beloved Sac Prairie, Wisconsin. Here is the opening paragraph:“Walking through a gentle fall of snow tonight to grandfather Derleth’s, and knowing grandmother to be dying, I could not help thinking of change, and all the aspects of change eternally taking place, some clearly obvious, and so many secret, but no less eventually plain to the eye and heart: the eternal flux—and I thought: It is more than just birth and death, more than a tree gone, a house risen: the slow, inexorable changing of a way of life, the difference between youth and age, in final analysis always the gulf between generations. Snow came down with a faint whispering, and in the melancholy of my occupation with grandmother’s slow dying, I thought of these flakes as voices all around me in the still, windless air, the voices of those people and things long gone, the remote pulse of life gone by.” Village Year is a beautiful book, one ripe for re-discovery—a journal that deserves to be ranked alongside Walden for its use of evocative detail to conjure a now vanished world, in this case a pre-World War II rural America. Such writing proves that those who dismiss August Derleth as “talentless” and “a hack” have never read much August Derleth. But because of the decades of hostility and abuse aimed at him by overzealous fans of H.P. Lovecraft, Derleth has become, to appropriate the title of one of his best stories, a kind of “dweller in darkness” himself—a different kind of darkness. Too many readers don’t bother to try his work because of what they’ve heard, and since so many people claim it so loudly, it must be true—mustn’t it? It isn’t. The literary worlds of the brilliant August Derleth are well worth exploring, and returning his books to the nation’s library shelves would be a great place to start.
Now available from Richard A. Lupoff's Surinam Turtle Press, an imprint of Ramble House...
TWO REMARKABLE WORLDSIn this pair of brand-new, beautifully written novellas, Christopher Conlon--author of the critically acclaimed 'Savaging the Dark' and editor of the Stoker Award-winning 'He Is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson'--tells two stories of two very different imagined American pasts. First up is the title piece, a vividly inventive play on Edgar Allan Poe in which we learn that 'The Tell-Tale Heart' told only part of the story--perhaps not even the most important part. Then comes 'Beyond the Silver Horizon,' in which Eugene O'Neill's 'Beyond the Horizon' is reimagined as the heart-wrenching story of a rural boy's realization that his beloved brother is something other than what he'd believed--something other than completely human....
This edition features a special introduction by John Pelan, author of 'The Colour Out of Space' and editor of 'The Century's Best Horror Fiction' and 'The Darker Side: Generations of Horror.' http://www.amazon.com/Tell-Tale-Soul-Christopher-Conlon/dp/160543860X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1441390584&sr=1-1&keywords=tell-tale+soulhttp://www.ramblehouse.com/telltalesoul.htm