Category Archives: Magical Realism

Flash Fiction: Meet The Thunder

This is, uh, a thing. A thing I wrote. A thing that’s not really a story, thought there’s plenty of story suggested before it and around it and after it. And something, after all, happens in it. So it’s story-ish.

It felt pretty good to write it. It’s got a hefty dose of autobiography in it. S.A. Ophelia Barton, the Mad Scene (Sorry, Shakespeare. I don’t mean to imply I’m as interesting as one of The Immortal Bard’s characters. That’d be something like hubris).
It was originally posted on my Patreon page on August 10th, where it was exclusive to patrons until now.
 
Meet The Thunder
S.A. Barton
Copyright 2017
 
I came to the beach looking for Death. Not to confront it. Not to make demands. No, I hoped to be surpised. I wanted to schmooze up to Death like a fan buzzing around a minor celebrity at a party. I wanted to annoy death with my proximity until it snapped and swatted me.
In my last second on Earth, I wanted to protest that it was totally unfair that I was dying soooo unexpectedly and it wasn’t, really, my fault at all. I wanted it to be just one more indignity life had heaped upon me. Maybe I’d pass into the mysterious beyond and demand to speak to a manager. If I could screw my courage up to the sticking point as a ghost – a problematic proposition, as I had enough trouble doing that sort of thing with the benefit of a fleshly body.
It was the peak of summer on a long beach closed to tourists by main force of lack of parking and an irregular defensive picket composed of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of sun-bleached towing company signs.
It was scorching hot, the shadows driven to their cowering minimums and only just beginning to creep longer into afternoon. In the distance to the west there was a different sort of shadow on the horizon: a black and blue bruise of thunderstorms rolled down the flat waters of the Chesapeake Bay, roiling them in its wake. Flicking white snake tongues of lightning shot out one after another from the boiling edge. Some of it was over water already, but the end nearest me was still over land to the west, land separated from the sand I lived on by a strip of bay. Soon it would cross.
Hearing the approaching thunder over the laboring of my overwhelmed window air conditioner unit (the fan had developed a metallic whine after a hurricane the previous year, but it still ran), I peered out the front window of my lonely efficiency apartment to catch a glimpse of that black horizon between the three story condos across the street – giants of the spit; there was virtually nothing taller anywhere near that beach.
Already a few herald raindrops spattered the window, squeezed out of the isolated puffy white clouds the storm drove ahead of it like frightened sprinting sheep.
The clouds were speeding; the front itself would arrive in minutes; the steady drumbeat of distant thunder and the gray smudge it dragged along under it like a density of jellyfish tentacles promised a wild downpour.
Suddenly an urgency came upon me and pushed my normal morbid lassitude out. I would meet the storm and see what it brought with it, like I said above. But I wouldn’t meet it at the convenient, tiny sheltered beach out back of the aging brick block I lived it, buildings that had perhaps once given young officers on their way to Korea a place to rest their heads while they waited for their ships and planes. No. I’d head across the spit, not a long walk, across its long doubled road that looped at the end where the sand finally gave way to sea and the bridge-tunnel that reached across from the end to the land to the west, walk though the spit’s lines of little houses and cabins and weather-bleached apartment buildings.
And then I’d walk down a block to the elevated steps of the beach access that arced over the long stiff grasses and wandering vines of the single line of dune that separated beach and street. On to the beach that faced the rushing storm, into the mouth of the oncoming winds, to the place where the main force of the black steamroller in the sky would  break on this single finger of sand thrust into the bay.
I did not dress for my meeting. I undressed. Off shirt and shorts and underwear. On tiny swim trunks and flipflops. And out the door into the freshening wind.
Outside the heat still lingered, but it was leavened with less-hot, not yet cool, heavy shoves of great invisible hands of wind. The few little trees scattered about the spit, already sculpted with heavy leans away from the beaches by years of weather, danced in spurts as the invisible hands slicked them back again and again.
I walked fast. I had a rendezvous to keep. I looked up every dozen steps or so, not pausing, just glancing to see the enormous black-robes I hurried to meet, spreading its cloak wider, wider, the gray rain spilling out of its hem behind the rows of houses and surely into the bay water now, drumming the waves and pressing the fish down deep with healthy fear.
The thunder rumbled louder now; I was beginning to feel it as well as merely hear it. The lightning had grown close enough to throw faint stroboscopic shadows. Ozone gusted thick like brash cologne in a young nightclub.
I didn’t run. It didn’t seem fitting or dignified. This meeting demanded a certain gravitas, one that apparently, somehow, was not offended by showing up wearing bathing trunks too short to hang all the way down to mid-thigh.
I crossed the road, two lanes each way, clover on the median making tiny respectful bows away from the storm. There were big empty spaces between the cars; most people had sense enough to be somewhere already when a big storm met land. At least, they did when it wasn’t rush hour, and it wasn’t. The few cars that passed seemed to hunch down low over their wheels, feeling the pressure in the air.
And then up the steep stairs and along the boardwalk of the arcing beach access. The bushes and grasses beat the wooden handrails as the gusts came faster and harder, and the wind still blew strong where there had been lulls only a few minutes before. The spike tips of a yucca whistled faintly in a hard gust that pushed me sideways despite the aerodynamic nature a small body and near-total lack of clothing gave me.
Halfway across. The storm hove in close, filling the left half of the sky as I speedwalked, flipflops ThwackThwackThwacking over the boards. Ahead, shrinking shafts of sun mottled a scrum of whitecaps the front pushed ahead of it, showing them down the bay toward open ocean.
plat
An enormously obese drop of rain made a big dark star on the wooden railing worn silvery-gray by years of sun and salt.
plat platplat plat platplatplat platplat
Constellations began to draw themselves all over the wood, the parched boards drinking in cool water after their long bake in the searing sun. A faint steam struggled to rise from them, curling back down upon itself as the meteoric raindrops penetrated it.
The cool splashed on my chest, my shoulders, my bald-shaved head, runneling down through my eyebrows and beard and the waistband of my shorts.
Waking me.
Thunder growled close, and now I could feel it deep in my chest, shaking my ribs from the inside.
Lighting pealed and now the bolts were glaring bright, leaving dark lines and blots in my vision, taking my photo again and again, flash flash flash, driving thought and fear and sense and guile from my head.
I wasn’t here to meet Death after all.
I was there to be. There to see. There for what happened. Whatever that was.
Down the steps fast, slowing into the sand, I walked halfway to the water that rolled and crashed harder than bay water crashed any day except a full-on hurricane before the quiet eye rolled over.
I spread my arms to the storm that filled the sky horizon to horizon now. Behind me the very last of the white cloud and sunlight shafts fled into the distance, but I did not turn to see them. I left it behind.
And the front of the storm rolled over me with a fusillade of thunder booms like I’d been caught in God’s wild bass drum. Great ribbons of electricity stabbed the water of the bay, some so close my scalp tingled and the thunder boxed my ears like a thug. Lightning struck the beach itself and I flinched. But my feet stayed put, and I did not turn away. I stood, arms still spread, the warm water scouring my face like the battering tongue of a lion so large it might plant its feet on either side of the spit with its trees and cars and not disturb the three-story condos that rose under its belly.
Rain poured into my eyes. The world blurred, a watercolor scrubbed with a sponge. The lightning blazed all around until the watercolor was more black afterimage than gray rain and tan beach and white water.
The lightning burned jagged skeins all around. I self the hairs on my arms and legs rise despite them being slicked down with gushing rainwater. The thunder was all the sound; the broken seconds of no-thunder were deafening.
And then, suddenly, it was past. The black rolled on by behind me, still growling and booming and hissing its wrath.
And in front of me was sand. All sand, and around it curling white-topped waves. The trees still leaned and the grass and yucca and vines were thick.
There was not a house or a road or a beach access bridge over the dune. No bridge spanned the water. No cars murmured.
Tears cut through the rain on my face and I did not know if I was weeping because I was dead, or because I was alive.

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My Patreon Patrons Are Getting A Serial…

…but you can, too! The first installment will be posted here as well as there. Subsequent installments of Broken Rice will be patron-exclusive on Patreon first, but will also appear in ebook form after a short delay! I explain it all over on my Patreon page — but before you click the link, please enjoy the cover art for Broken Rice below. I really enjoyed making it (even if some moments were kind of a pain in the butt) and I’m really pleased with how it came out. 🙂

Broken Rice cover

 

Tell me what you think — here’s a chunk of a work in progress

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I know what I’m trying to do here — but I’d rather have your unbiased comments, if you’d be so kind as to give them. I’m interested in your thoughts as a reader. This excerpt is just short of 400 words out of around 12,500 so far and maybe 20,000 or more by the time I finish.

 

(Before I post the excerpt, this is simulposted on my Patreon page for maximum reactions — though if you were to head over and become a patron, even for a buck a month, you’d get free ebooks, see new ebooks a month before they come out, and see most of my posts here three days early. Plus you’d get the satisfaction of helping a self-published science fiction author write his, his wife’s, and his 3 sons’ way out of the trailer park. But who am I to be pushy? :-D)

 

So, the excerpt from Broken Rice:

 

     And thunder boomed into the room and Caleb jerked in panic the needle falling from his fingers and a burst of shards of fine imported Brazilian rosewood (how do I know that?) hit the blinds and the window behind them like the first driving hail out of a Texas thunderhead, the kind of hail blown out of a cloud when there’s a tornado hot on its heels. Caleb saw splinters as long as his forearm, frozen in a moment of timestop clarity, protruding from where they’d impaled slats of the blinds, from where they’d driven their spikes into the thick bulletproof plastic of the window. Sawdust swam like a galaxy of fireflies flying far, far away through the shaft of light that speared the ragged hole one of the bodyguards – Caleb guessed – had blown through the doors of the office with some ungodly powerful weapon. The hole was too small and the light falling the wrong way for Caleb to see who and what and he didn’t try to see but threw himself sideways out of the chair and landed on Jewel who was scrabbling across the carpet on all fours crazy like a crab thrown onto a hot flattop grill (something hit the door again, not the weapon but still like thunder, this time farther away maybe, and the sound of splintering wood and a curse and someone shouted “AGAIN!”) and they tumbled apart Jewel scuttling under the desk and Caleb speedcrawling on hands and knees and he thought he might be screaming but it was hard to tell and where am I going Caleb’s head slammed into the base of the big old clock making the crystal inset of the door shiver and behind it the heavy gold pendulum swung back and forth unhurried like it had no worries in the world and another clap of thunder blew more splinter hail into the blinds and spearing into the back of the chair Caleb had been sitting in moments before and the white hulk of a huge bodyguard shouldered through the wreck of the rosewood doors that cost more than Caleb’s daddy had made in his whole life racking the slide on a shotgun which Caleb knew and didn’t know how he knew is this a dream was custom made to drop a rhinoceros in mid-charge.

So, there it is. Reactions? I’m looking forward to seeing any and all comments! Thank you.

A Year Ago: “It Could Be Anyone”

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A little over a year ago I cooked up this little free short (you can read it here, complete and no download needed) in connection with a creative writing class in the MA program I’m finishing up now.

The protagonist is Ms. Gaither, an eighty-five year old woman, and she came out of more than just the proverbial sugar and spice and whatever we associate with little girls who grow up to become elder women. Wisdom and medication, I suppose?

As a character, she was born from something I have plenty of. Worry. My worry shaped a big chunk of her, and worry is something that, if I’m not careful, can dominate my mood and thoughts and pretty much everything in my life. I’m a bit less consumed by worry than I was a year ago. It’s still there, and some of it is still justified, but I’ve managed to let it become less of a distraction and more of a constructive caution. But I have always worried too much and I probably always will.

She also comes from my love of history — I probably spent an hour looking at vintage soda vending machines in connection with a scene in this story, for example. The first three minutes of it were necessary, the rest was just me having fun.There are a few other things in there.
The science fiction (maybe just science — plenty of debate to find, though I’m not well equipped to judge how seriously it’s taken) notion of alternate timelines, or maybe the science fantasy notion of psychic perception of the future — it’s unclear, deliberately. My mild fear of growing old and feeble (one of my hips is already feeble, how soon will the rest of me follow?), and my greater fear of *not* growing old and feeble because, you know, that damn death thing. Ick.
And the whole premise of the story, as well as Ms. Gaither’s role in it and her role in the lives of the father and daughter she meets, come out of something that comes to me as naturally as breathing: considering risk. It goes hand in hand with being, as my grandmother used to say, a “worry-wart.” When we drive farther than the store down the street part of me considers that we might break down, so I don’t dress to drive to the store, I dress to walk back or change a tire. I’m the one who checks batteries in the smoke detector and worries about the lint buildup in the dryer because fire. I’m first to move something away from a space heater or follow the little ones closely at the beach whether the waves are heavy or not. None of this is to say my wife and older stepson are careless. They’re not. Nor is it to say I never take risks, even foolish ones. I have and I do. I’m just the one who thinks of all of the unlikely things that can go wrong (which brings anxiety) and all of the unlikely things that could go right (which brings longing over stuff that’s probably not happening).

Pretty much every time someone writes, they leave a chunk of their psyche on the page. Sometimes writers who write about awful stuff get accused of believing or wishing they could do the awful stuff on that basis, which is very often wrong.But the writer is in there somewhere. Look for them when you read.

(This post first appeared on my Patreon page on May 6th. Patrons get to see most posts three days early and new ebooks THIRTY days early. Plus they get a FREE copy even if I’m charging for it elsewhere. They’re also a hell of a big help to my household, a boon to me as a writer and a human being, and wonderful people. So, you know… *nudge*)

Genre Is Small — inspired by the Star Wars Greeks of Travis Durden

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Some art that made me say, “cool!” and a few tweets led to some bigger thoughts on genre writing – which is a pretty normal thing, small ideas leading to larger ones, if you’ve done some writing or pretty much any art I can think of or serious thinking.

I found Travis Durden’s Star Wars Greek statuary through a tweet I saw a couple of hours ago (on the 27th — this post first appeared on my Patreon page  (would you like to support a not-quite-starving writer? Please do! Because every penny helps tear down the budget worries that often occupy my mind when I’d rather be writing) in the wee hours of the 28th) (tweet posted below). Durden’s art is seriously neat stuff.

 

Which lead to this tweet:

 

And this one:

And finally this one:

 

After I graduated from kiddie books so many years ago, I cut my reading teeth on science fiction. I tried reading the paperbacks my father brought home from used bookstores and quickly learned to look for the short story collections and anthologies — I’d recently learned to read, it was hard enough to work through all the words I didn’t recognize without trying to figure out what was going on in a whole novel. But the shorter short stories, in those early years, I could wrap my mind around those. And remember (well, you might not have known, so I’m telling you) this was in the mid-70s, when certainly many authors in science fiction and elsewhere may have been experimental in their writing, but the mainstream in short science fiction stories was heavy with straightforward plots, traditional story arcs, and mysteries resolved with a single final twist. There’s plenty of that now, to be sure. But either there was more then or those are what I remember because they’re the stories I understood as a child.

 

That’s a long way to go to say that science fiction seemed huge to me, but it did. It seemed huge and very distinct because it was my entire fictional world then. Nursery rhymes and the little stories found in early reader books — if you’ve had or been around small children just learning to read much, you’ll recall them — hardly counted.

 

And science fiction is distinct, or at least distinctive. The definition has been endlessly debated over, but most of us who read much of it recognize it when we see it. The same goes for the other genres I mentioned in that last tweet. Horror is distinct enough that we notice the difference, for example, when we read a Stephen King horror story as opposed to a Stephen King something else. Legends have a pretty distinct definition. Magical realism blurs the lines — sometimes it’s fantasy, sometimes it’s science ficiton, sometimes it’s literary, sometimes, sometimes, sometimes.

 

That’s the genre that really makes the point, with its blurryness.

 

They’re all blurry, really. Think of Star Wars: get a SW fan who calls it science fiction and a SW fan who calls it science fantasy in the same room and watch the genre boundary argument fur fly.

 

We love to dicker over what story counts as which genre and who’s that writer whose work is called X but really it’s more Y don’t you think?

 

To say they’re all fiction is too simplistic. But there’s that in pointing out that genres are small things that cannot really contain a story, not the large and well-defined things we’re tempted to think of them as, that we often reflexively think of them as after a scholastic lifetime of being taught the boundaries of genre.

 

They’re all stories. They’re all about human beings and what human beings do and think and feel and wonder. All of them, even the genres where there is debate as to whether or not they’re fiction or nonfiction: mythology, legend, religion.

 

They’re stronger when they wander, stories are. When we get it into our minds that we can’t write in X event because we’re writing science fiction or that Y character doesn’t make sense because we’re reading fantasy, we weaken the stories that we might otherwise love, whether we’re reading them, writing them, or representing them in other forms of art. For centuries fiction and poetry have derived inspiration and imagery from religion and mythology and legend (assuming you divide stories that faith has grown up around into those rather than lumping them together). Star Wars is beloved science fiction in part because it incorporates elements of fantasy and legend and even, at least in the beginning, of the Western movie.

 

Try picking out a few of your favorite stories that have won wide acclaim or are considered enduring classics. Give them a read with this in mind, and look for where the genres blur. You don’t need a story that glaringly throws seventeen genres together; one that’s mostly in one but draws in bits of others is just fine — even better, in fact.

 

Much like the ancient advice that a single stick alone is weak but a bundle of those same sticks is strong together, I think you’ll find that stories that gather together elements of different genres are the strongest.

 

And I also think that it’s more than worth the effort to seek them out as a reader, and to try to create them as a writer.

Ha, Ha… NO.

-2015 Was the Year the Literary Versus Genre War Ended   VICE   United States

So, there’s a utopian little article over at Vice with the headline you see above. I’m not commenting on it because it’s bad. You should read it. It opens in a new tab or window, so after you’re done (it won’t take long, it’s short) you can come right back here.

I’ll wait.

So, what did you think?

Mm-hmm. Me being the opinionated sort, I’ll tell you what I think now.

It’s a nice thought. Science fiction and fantasy (and speculative fiction, for those of you who like that term (it has its uses)) have been long regarded as the goofy cousin of the literary world. Writers of serious fiction and creative nonfiction acknowledge his existence, but wince a bit while admitting it.

SciFi and Fantasy? He’s… special if you know what I mean. But you gotta love him. He has such… enthusiasm. If only he could get his act together. Why don’t we leave him to play with his toy rocketships and go somewhere adult so he’s not horning in on the conversation.

That’s how it has been for several decades now, pretty much since heyday of the pulps and Hugo Gernsback.

It hasn’t always been like that. Frankenstein went over pretty well as a literary work, and it is clearly both science fiction and literary. And somehow it never really got caught up in the Genre Wars. I think because, before science fiction was really seen as a separate thing, it was firmly pigeonholed as literary.

People LOVE pigeonholing things, defining categories and subcategories, putting the things they love and enjoy in those pigeonholes, and guarding them fiercely. Don’t look innocent. You do it. So do I. You may not, and I hope I don’t, rise to vehement levels of assholish gatekeeping in defining what belongs in what category. But many do.

That is why there will always be Genre Wars. Perhaps the lines between literary and SFF have become blurred. But a DMZ doesn’t mean there’s no conflict over what belongs on what side of which line. Just ask the Koreas. If the conflict stops being about whether SFF themes and settings make something innately not literary (and I think, as the article’s writer seems to think, that this is coming to pass), the people invested in the argument will move on to a new point of categorization. They’ll still argue over which side of what border multigenre stories properly lie on. They’ll argue over what defines literary and what defines science fiction and what defines fantasy (people still argue over whether Star Wars should be considered science fiction or fantasy, for example. Yes, they do.). They’ll argue about whether “cli-fi” (climate fiction, dealing with the potential repercussions of climate change — look up Paolo Bacigalupi’s work if you’re curious) is also sci-fi, or if it’s something distinct.

There are always things to argue about, and humans will find them. That’s a big part of what we do with these big primate brains of ours. Or have you not been watching the news?

THE CRAYFISH — Microfiction!

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Here’s a little bit of microfiction for you to enjoy. As happens often in fiction, it’s based on a real place and a real experience. I’ll leave you to decide which parts are fiction and which are not.

The Crayfish

Copyright 2015 S.A. Barton

     The eighteen-wheelers roar by above; the bridge over the creek is shorter than they are long.

     Below, in the creek, cool water parting for thin boy shins, sun beating his back darker, darker, the boy crouches, peering down.

     His hands part the toy cataract above a stone wearing a sleek skirt of algae filaments.

     Backwards, the greeny-brown crayfish flees into the shadow gathered under the stone.

     Another eighteen-wheeler approaches; low diesel thunder.

     Little fingers chase after the crayfish, darting through the dark under the stone. Above, thunder, thunder, thunder, closer.

     The boy grunts, smiles, flips the stone, algae skirt flaring wild.

     The crayfish squirts backwards all in a burst.

     THUNDER the truck mounts the bridge.

     Long, long, bony arms streak out of the dark under the little bridge, faster than crayfish and boys, stretching out of a lank green shadowed crouchy shape.

     Overhead the truck thunder recedes and dissipates into the distance.

     The shallow creek waters fill, then pass over smooth a lost shoe mired fast in the mud.

     The crayfish climbs inside, taking refuge.

END

New Short Story Ebook: TORNADO GIFT

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Available on Smashwords — FREE! No sign-in needed, you can even select “online reader” under “Download:” and read it as a webpage — just as you’re reading this page, with nothing to actually download!

You can also find it on Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Google Play Books, Kobo, and others.

This is a short tale of weirdness after a storm — I’ll let the opening paragraphs speak for themselves:

Eventually, the walls-strumming throb of the tornado passed and the family emerged from their storm nest in the hallway. They had ridden through the storm—the hail and rain hammering on the walls, the gusts rocking the trailer home side to side on its blocks, the thunder shaking the roof, and finally the open-throated steam engine chug of the funnel cloud itself—encapsulated in the mattresses rushed from their beds and stood up against the hallway walls to cushion them in case the trailer rolled over. But it hadn’t.

The storm had been black, choking off the little bit of light that illuminated the hall from the living room on a sunny day. After the hail the electric lights had failed. The lights were still out, but now a weak sun filtered in again, gray.

Paul rushed ahead of his parents and little brother on the energy of thirteen, threw open the door and the screen, and burst out onto the open porch. Twigs, leaves, and small branches torn out of the big maple between them and the next trailer thirty feet over crunched under his sneakers. From the maple, from the woods engulfing their end of the trailer park, branches and leaves covered the grass and the gravel road, a green and brown carpet with only a few worn patches showing what lay underneath. Paul looked up. The clouds trailing the storm were high and thin, ragged, sending down random momentary sprinkles. The air was fresh, washed, green with the sap of bruised leaves and broken trees. Paul sucked in a deep breath, alive in the wake of the storm’s fear.

“We made it!” he shouted as his family crowded onto the porch. He ran down the steps into the yard, and from there he saw it between the back of the trailer and the woods. A refrigerator, tall and white but not square like all the ones he’d seen before. This one was rounded and smooth like an enormous bar of soap. The handle on the front was short, chrome worn dull on one end and attached to the fridge only on the other. The fat and round black power cord disappeared into the undergrowth of the woods’ edge as if it were plugged into the ferns and sticky sundews that grew there…