Posts Tagged ‘the hornbeam door’

I was considering posting another Completely Random Crap Teaser today, but then Cindy Pon brought up the movie Bright Star, which she saw recently.  That got me thinking of John Keats, dead so young, and that in turn made me think about the very idea of my Random Crap folder, from which spring all these Random Crap Teasers.

Negative Capability

Negative Capability

Keats was the one who put forth the idea of Negative Capability, which entails people being able to accept and embrace the fact that not everything can be resolved.  The ability to exist comfortably in the presence of uncertainty and the unknowable.

That is at the heart of my Random Crap folder.  It is a collection of ideas that bows before  pragmatic reality: they cannot all be written.  When I put a story file into the Random Crap folder, I acknowledge that in all likelihood I will never finish it.  For every idea plucked out of the folder and written to some form of completion, another dozen have crawled into that dark cavern to languish, perhaps never to see the light of day again.

I am okay with that.  It’s the nature of writing.  If I dropped dead today, killed by boredom at a departmental meeting, I would never get to work on those ideas.  I would never do final revisions on THIRTEEN.  I would never finish a first draft of HORNBEAM.  I would never find out why Axyl Witt has a daughter named Ninja.

Are you okay with that?  When you read my Random Crap Teasers, does it trouble you to know that they’re scraps of some larger work that only exists in my brain?  Do you lie awake at night worrying about the stories in your Random Crap folder?  Do you try to imagine what would happen if you died before finishing your magnum opus?

Keats opined that a person who possessed Negative Capability was a “Man of Achievement,” but I suspect it’s just a matter of type.  There are people who require resolution and people who don’t.  Some people are okay with books that end uncertainly.  Others prefer that all the questions be tied up in the last chapter.  Different genres even cater to that dichotomy.  Those who like all the ends tied up perhaps prefer murder mysteries and romances.  Those of us who don’t perhaps prefer literary or oddball books not easily classified.

As for the writers who die before they complete the next book in a series, you can find a glaring absence of Negative Capability in the people they leave behind.  Robert Jordan, JRR Tolkien, and Douglas Adams have all been raised from the dead to assuage the readers who don’t hold with Negative Capability. (And more likely to satisfy the publishers who own the rights.)

As for me, I would have to decline.  Even if offered a posthumous sequel to such beloved and ambiguously-ended books as Invisible Man and Maurice, I would prefer to embrace my Negative Capability.

How about you?

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I can’t help myself sometimes.  Even when I think I’m in the middle of writing a “normal” story, the weird has a way of creeping in.  Most of the time, however, I invite it.

The challenge is to hit upon the right degree of creepy, the right disturbing element without going over the edge into cliché.  Modern readers are jaded.  You can’t creep them out with the sorts of horrors that worked for Poe.

Working on The Hornbeam Door, I knew all along that some of the action would take place in a small Kansas town an hour or so away from my invented/hybrid New Boston, Kansas.  I had assumed, however, that I’d just make up a town.  This town would be the site of a series of unnatural events that would disrupt everybody’s received notions about death and the afterlife.

I toyed with a number of ideas for why this particular town was the locus for this, as well as some possible early signs that all was not right in this town.  Certainly there are places long associated with the supernatural.  Rooms, houses, palaces, and even meadows deemed haunted or cursed, or otherwise imbued with the presence of some malevolent force.  I planned to create this myth from whole cloth.

Codell Methodist Church May 21, 1918

Codell Methodist Church May 21, 1918

Sometimes, the creepy just falls into your lap.  So it was with Codell, Kansas.

On May 20, 1916, a tornado struck  Codell, Kansas.

On May 20, 1917, a tornado struck Codell, Kansas.

On May 20, 1918, a tornado struck Codell, Kansas, killing ten people and destroying nearly every building in town.

For people who believe in the supernatural, it invites all manner of speculation.  A place marked for destruction?  An intended death that didn’t quite pan out the first two times?

I believe I’ve found my creepy little cursed town.

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He was watching me all along, the whole time I walked down the center aisle looking at the historical displays. It didn’t seem fair. He had all that time to prepare himself and I just got that one moment, when he stepped out from behind the covered wagon.

Under a big sheepskin jacket, he wore jeans, a black t-shirt and hiking boots. He had brown hair that stuck up all over in different directions.  Caveman hair, like the comb hadn’t been invented yet. I waited for him to say something or do something, but he didn’t. I took another step toward him and said, “I’m Oona. I was told to come here.”

He fainted. Folded up and went face down on the marble floor and whacked his head.

He was already trying to get up when I got to him. Once he made it to his hands and knees, I grabbed the collar of his jacket and pulled until he was standing, sort of leaning on me. I looked around for somewhere to take him, but the only places to sit down were in the museum displays. At the back wall was an emergency exit and bathroom signs, so I turned him that way.

Ladies Room

Ladies Room

I figured I wanted to be on my own territory, so I picked the women’s bathroom. It was big and drafty, with black and white tiles on the floor. There were four wood toilet stalls on one side and four sinks on the other. At the back, under a glass block window was a wicker couch. I steered him over there and practically dropped him on it. I thought he was going to puke the way he was sucking air in and choking it out, but he didn’t. Finally, he looked up at me and said, “You’re real? You’re real?”

“Yes,” I said and nodded really hard. I knew how it was to feel that way. He grabbed me then, around the waist, and held on. His head was in my stomach and one of his hands was on my butt and he stank. Homeless-haven’t-bathed-in-a-long-time stank. I don’t know if it was supposed to be a hug, but it freaked me out.

Maybe it wasn’t very nice, but I shoved him away, right as he started crying. I knew how that felt, too. I wanted to say, “It’s okay,” but it probably wasn’t.

I got him some toilet paper out of a stall and after a few minutes, he stopped crying and blew his nose.

He said, “I’m Lee. What’s your name?”

“Oona.” He squinted at me, so I spelled it.

“Louder. You have to talk a lot louder. I blew out my eardrums.”

I said it louder, so loud I worried the old lady would think I was in the bathroom talking to myself.

“Oona? They sent you? You hear it, too?” He had stopped crying, but he was back to breathing hard.

“Yes. I hear it. That’s how I knew to come here.”

I have–.”

He fumbled in his jacket pocket and pulled out something I recognized. Oh, how I recognized it. A pile of note cards, two inches thick, bound with a rubber band. The top note card, like all of them I was sure, had a drawing of a tree and a leaf on it. I didn’t even have to read what was written on the back. It was a white ash tree. Death by fire falling from the sky. I had a card just like it, only his tree was hand drawn and perfect.

“You drew that?” He nodded. “That’s beautiful.” I was careful to say it loud enough, but he didn’t seem to care.

“Which door, which one were you called through?”

“Hornbeam,” I said. I only whispered it, but I knew he understood. He’d known what I was going to say. “Look, I’m supposed to be in school right now.”


“I skipped school to come here. I can’t stay long.”

He laughed. The big, deaf crybaby laughed at me. “You skipped school? You’re worried you’ll get caught skipping school?”

“Why is that so funny?” Honestly, he was starting to make me mad. I wished I could walk away. I wished that was one of the things I could do, but I knew the voice wouldn’t leave me alone.

Lee ran his palms over his face, rubbed at his eyes, and then went to one of the sinks and washed his face and hands. When he finished he looked around at the bathroom.

“Is this the girls bathroom?”

I shrugged.

“You wanna know what’s so funny?” he said. “I ran away from home two weeks ago and hitchhiked here.”

“Where did you hitchhike from?” Really, I was wondering if it had been two weeks since he took a bath, but that was too rude.

“San Jose.”

“Is that in Texas?”


I sat down on the couch, because that scared me a lot. I’d been scared to skip school and the voice had managed to drag him halfway across the country.

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Another excerpt from a work in progress, The Hornbeam Door.  School hasn’t gotten any better for Oona.  She’s still an outcast and she’s still hearing the voice.  Only now it’s giving her directions: a set of coordinates located in Codell, a little town about an hour away.  In class, she struggles to ignore the voice, but it keeps repeating the coordinate numbers.


It snowed over night, but not enough to close school, so I went through my day trying to pretend to be normal. Since nobody spoke to me, it wasn’t that hard, except for the urge I had to yell, “Shut up!” I was fighting that during Language Arts, where I was supposed to be writing an essay about “some issue that’s important to you.” Really, that was the assignment. In the AP English class, they were probably already doing the literature essay. I tried to start my assignment, but the heat was on too high, so the classroom was hot, and behind me, Justin Troost smelled like pot and peppermint. Good and bad.

Fifteen minutes in, I still hadn’t started my “essay.” I was writing the numbers over and over.

I got caught.

“Are you having trouble getting started, Oona?” said Mr. Hildenbrand. I’d never seen him until the day I got moved to his class. I didn’t dislike him, but I didn’t want to make friends either. He was a symbol of everything that was screwed up in my life. I wasn’t supposed to be in his class. I was supposed to be in Mrs. deMaars’ AP English class with Katelyn.

“I don’t know what to write about,” I mumbled and moved my arm to cover up the numbers.

“How about the rule against freshmen leaving campus for lunch?”

“I don’t care. I’m not a freshman.” It was a Justin Troost answer and after a month in that class I was starting to understand why Justin was the way he was.

“What about the presidential election?”

“I can’t vote.”

“How about the issue of evolution vs. creationism?”

“That’s a false controversy.” Not a Justin Troost answer. Mr. Hildenbrand frowned at me. I wanted him to leave me alone, so I picked a topic: “I’ll write about how they should legalize marijuana.”

“Yeah!” Justin said.

Mr. Hildenbrand raised his eyebrows. “I expected something more…”

I think he was going to say “something more original from you,” but he didn’t, because he looked down at my notebook and went a little pale. While I was talking to him, my hand kept writing the numbers until it filled the space on the page and spilled onto the desk.

He blinked a couple times and said, “If that’s what you want to write about.” After looking at the numbers for another minute, he turned and walked back to the front of the room.

“Hey, Justin, why should they legalize marijuana?” I said.

peppermint breath

peppermint breath

Justin leaned forward, breathing his peppermint candy breath on my neck and told me this whole long random list of reasons. I wrote it down. I’d never done anything like that. It felt like cheating, which was a laugh. The Language Arts class was so lame we didn’t even have to do research. It’s not like I was plagiarizing. I just took what Justin told me and wrote it down in my own words.

When the bell rang, I scribbled my conclusion: “So that’s why, in my opinion, marijuana should be legalized.” Then I got up and handed in my paper. Mr. Hildenbrand shook his head, but I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything, except making the voice stop. Even if I had to skip class and go to  Codell to make that happen.

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This little excerpt is from a bit further into The Hornbeam Door, after Oona has a nervous breakdown, courtesy of the voices in her head.  Rumor has it that she really had a bad acid trip, and on her first day back at school, she discovers that none of her friends are talking to her.  In this scene, she’s sitting down to lunch by herself, aware of the other kids staring at her.


Goth how-to

Goth how-to

When I was almost finished with my sandwich, Jessica Walker sat down across from me. She was in my Spanish class freshman year, but I didn’t know her enough to say hello if I saw her on the street. Since then I’d changed from a nerd to a half-way normal person to a crazy person. Jessica had changed from a half-way normal person to a Goth sophomore year. She had her hair dyed black and her fingernails painted black, and all her clothes were black.

“Hi!” she said.

“Hi, Jessica.”

“Actually, I go by Raven now. So how are you doing? You know, the first day back and all?”

“I’m fine.”

“So, what was it like?”

I guess that’s what it feels like to be in a car wreck and have people drive by staring, while you sit on the curb and bleed. I opened my bag of chips and didn’t answer her.

“I heard that you were, like hearing voices. Was that pretty freaky, hearing voices?”

She wouldn’t give up. She sat there with her elbows on the table, leaning toward me, staring at me. Like she thought I was honestly going to tell her.

“Did you really try to kill yourself? I think about it sometimes, like what it would be like to cut my wrists or something.” She pushed her black sleeve up and showed me these little red scratches on her wrist. The kind of scratches you’d get from a kitten.

Probably I was supposed to be shocked or concerned. Maybe I was supposed to be impressed. I wanted to say, “You need to use a sharper knife,” but I went on eating my potato chips. It wasn’t that I hated her or wanted her to kill herself. I just didn’t care. No matter how much she wanted to be in a car wreck, I didn’t want to be the car wreck she was staring at.

“So, what kinds of things were the voices saying to you? Like were they telling you to do stuff?”

I didn’t say what I wanted to say: “They were telling me to kill girls with black fingernail polish.” I didn’t say it, but I should have.  That would have been better than what I did say. Just like with my parents, I opened my mouth and started repeating what the voice was saying right then.

“And when the Interloper rent them from their souls, they were as toys in his hands. Dumb as beasts in the field and docile. They no longer looked back to the Doors with longing, but neither did they look to the river. He ate up their souls, as tender as the flesh of children, and turned them away from the easing waters. He had no need for whip or halter then, for the hooks in their spiritual bodies bound them to him fast.”

That was all new stuff, stuff I’d been trying to ignore, but it came out of me just as easily as any of the Doors would have. Like I already knew it, because the voice was inside me. It was part of me, whether I understood it or not. Whether I liked it or not.

“Any more questions, Raven?”

Jessica blinked and after a minute, she closed her mouth and sat back in her chair. I crumpled up my chip bag, picked up my tray, and walked away.

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Today’s teaser is from a young adult book I’m working on called The Hornbeam Door.  It feels a little weird to write something intended for teenagers, but I’m clearly tapping into the desolate weirdness of my own adolescence.


As soon as Mom got home from work, I said, “Reese asked me to the movie tonight.”

I thought she’d be excited. That she’d want to be there when Katelyn came over to help me get ready. I thought maybe she’d loan me some of her jewelry. She always did that when Lola had a special date. Ironed stuff for her, bought her new lipstick or nail polish.

“It’s awfully short notice,” Mom said.



That wasn’t like the third or fourth thing she said after: “That’s great!” or “Congratulations!” Because she didn’t say any of those things. The first thing she said was, “It’s awfully short notice.” She didn’t even look at me when she said it. She was fishing the tea bag out of her mug.

“The movie doesn’t start until 9:00. I know curfew is midnight, but I can be home by then.”

“That doesn’t seem a little rude to you?”

“What?” I said.

“That he only asked you today to go to the movie tonight?”

“Katelyn and I make last minute plans all the time.”

“She’s your best friend. I think if a boy wants to ask you out, he should give you more notice.”


“More importantly, I think you should consider what kind of message it sends that you’re willing to let him ask you out like that. Do you want to be the kind of girl he can treat very casually?”

“It’s not like that anymore.”

“It’s not like what? Men don’t need to respect women? Has that all changed?” Mom said. I hated it when she got like that. Like every little thing in life was part of some big picture. Some universal injustice or nationwide discrimination.

“Mom, it’s not like it was when you were dating. People don’t plan that far ahead. He only asked today because that’s when he decided to go.”

“It was like that last year when Lola was dating. She expected to be treated with more consideration.” Mom didn’t move. Didn’t do anything except blow on her tea and look at her recipe book.

“Well, how nice for Lola that she’s so wonderful she can plan her social calendar months in advance.”

“You know that’s not what I mean,” Mom said.

“What do you mean?”

“Are you content to be an after-thought? To be something he just decided to do at the last minute?”


I hated playing that game, but sometimes it was the only way to get through to Mom. The worst part was I knew it was over. By getting Dad involved, Mom was never going to be part of my dating life. She was never going to care about it the way she did about Lola dating. Maybe she wouldn’t have anyway, but it was over once I yelled for Dad.

When he came in, I said, “Can I go to the movies with Reese tonight?”

“Is this the boy you like? From your chemistry class?”


“That’s great, honey. I hope you have fun. Do you need some money?”

Mom closed her recipe book and left the room while Dad was getting out his wallet. It wasn’t that she didn’t mean well. She did. She just always meant well in the shittiest way possible.

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