Saturday, September 22, 2018

You Never Forget Your First

 This March will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of my first professional fiction sale. My story “Mr. Punch” appeared in the anthology Young Blood, edited by Mike Baker, and published by Zebra Books in 1994. Before that, I’d placed a half dozen stories in small-press magazines, but this sale was the biggie, the one that by the standards of both the Horror Writers Association and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America counted as my first pro sale. I’ve published over 40 novels and 150 stories since then – with more to come, the dark lords willing – but whenever I’m asked in an interview which of the stories I’ve written is my favorite, I always say “Mr. Punch,” and while there are many reasons why that tale is so near and dear to my shriveled black heart, the fact that it was my first pro sale is a big one.

I was twenty-nine when I wrote “Mr. Punch.” I’d first started writing seriously with an aim toward professional publication when I was eighteen, and the fact that ten years passed before I wrote “Mr. Punch” should tell you something about a writer’s learning curve (or at least mine). I’d written a ton of stories and maybe a half dozen novels, and only a few of the stories had seen print at that point, and those in small-press markets. During this time, I didn’t write horror exclusively. I wrote fantasy primarily, and humorous fantasy at that. I wanted to be the next Piers Anthony, author of the long-running Xanth series. But horror was my first love – I’d been a horror fan since I was a child – and I explored the genre in my short fiction now and then. I’d begun to think that maybe I should focus on my horror more, but it wasn’t until I read Ramsey Campbell’s excellent collection Alone With the Horrors that I felt I was beginning to get an understanding of how to write a really good horror story.

I’d been trying to develop a style of fiction that was mine and no one else’s – trying to find my voice, in other words – for several years by that point. Now I was ready to let go and follow my artistic instincts wherever they might lead me. My future ex-wife and I had recently gone to a small renaissance fair held on the Ohio State University campus, and we’d watched a Punch and Judy show, the first one I’d ever seen in real life. An idea popped into my head: what if there was a serial killer who thought he was Punch? I liked the idea, so I did some research into the history of Punch and Judy shows and read various scripts for them. One of the versions of Punch and Judy ended with the Devil coming for Punch, but Punch kills the Devil and then says, “Now we can all do what we please!” I was fascinated with the idea of Punch being pursued by the Devil, and so I began writing.

The writing went well at first. Better than well – it was the best I’d ever done. I could feel it. And that’s when I choked. I became afraid that I wouldn’t be able to pull off this story, that if I kept writing, I’d ruin it. So I stopped about three quarters of the way through. I didn’t stop for long, though. I told myself to suck it up and get back in there and finish the goddamned story. (Quick aside: I’ve since discovered that other writers have had the same experience when they wrote their first professionally published stories. It makes me wonder how common this experience is for writers, and how many of them never find the courage to return to their stories.)  

I was in a writers’ group at the time with professional writers Dennis L. McKiernan and Lois McMaster Bujold, and I also regularly exchanged stories for critique with a friend from college. I mailed a copy of my story to my friend (email wasn’t a standard thing in those days), and I read my story to my critique group. Lois had moved to Minneapolis by then, but Dennis was still there, as well as a number of would-be writers, of whom I was one. The story ended with a strangely surreal twist that felt right when I originally wrote it, but which I’d since come to doubt. When I finished reading the story, I immediately said, “Okay, what’s wrong with it?” And everyone said, “The ending.” They weren’t sure what to make of it and suggested I try rewriting. I went home and did just that, writing a new, more realistic ending that sucked bigtime. I knew how bad it was, so I said to hell with it. I was going to trust my instincts and go with my original ending, even if no one else understood it. Hell, I didn’t understand it. I just knew it was right.

I’d read a submission call – probably on the old computer network GEnie, an early precursor to social media sites like Facebook, but I don’t remember for sure – for a horror anthology called Young Blood. The premise of the anthology was that all the stories in it had to have been written by the authors before their thirtieth birthday. The name authors who would appear in the book – Poe, Howard, Block, Campbell and King – had been under thirty when they’d written their tales, but the rest of the anthology would feature new young writers. I’d figured this was a great market to try. I was under thirty, and the age limit would cut down on the competition, right? I’d already written and submitted a piece of shit called “Yggradsil,” about a murderous tree, which the editor Mike Baker had rightly rejected. I decided to try “Mr. Punch” on the editor, printed out a fresh copy, popped it in an envelope, and headed to the post office. Baker accepted this story, and as you might imagine, I was thrilled. And I felt more than a little smug that my story had succeeded with its original ending. I felt smug again – and more than a bit sad – when not long after this my friend from college sent my manuscript back to me with red ink on every page and told me my ending was terrible and that I had to change it. That was the last time I sent him a story to critique, and when Dennis moved to Tucson soon after, our writers group fell apart, and I’ve never used one since.

When Young Blood came out, I didn’t want to wait for my contributor’s copies to arrive, so my wife and I went to a Little Professor bookshop to buy a copy. I still remember seeing the book on the stand, remember what it felt like to touch it, what the damn thing smelled like. I opened the book and looked at the table of contents to see the title of my story and my name listed alongside legends like Poe, Howard, Block, Campbell and King, and alongside names I recognized from small-press magazines or from the message boards on GEnie. There were a lot of names I didn’t recognize, though, and that was cool, too. I couldn’t stop grinning as we walked up to the counter and paid for the book. I still remember the little brown paper bag the clerk slipped the book into, and I remember the feel of that bag, with the weight of the book in it, as I carried it outside to the car. I’d done it. I could now legitimately call myself a professional writer.

“Young Blood” got mentioned in several reviews of the book, and I was pleasantly shocked when Ellen Datlow chose it as one of her Honorable Mentions in the next edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Ellen has chosen a number of my stories for honorable mention in the years since, but none was as special as that first time.

My first pro sale wasn’t an entirely positive experience. Mike Baker never paid any of the contributors, a fact I kept to myself when I listed “Mr. Punch” as one of my three qualifying sales to apply for full membership in both HWA and SFWA. I decided to forget about the money and move on, but years later I met another contributor at a World Fantasy Convention who was still upset at never having been paid for his story. There was supposed to be a Young Blood 2, but for whatever reasons it never happened. Mike Baker died before I could meet him. I have a vague memory that some disease took him young, but I’m not sure that’s how it happened.

When I look at the table of contents now, it’s a bittersweet feeling. Young Blood was supposed to make a statement: Here’s the future of horror! But it didn’t really have that kind of impact. It came and went without making much of a splash, as I recall. Some of the authors are still writing a quarter of a century later. Pamela Briggs writes the extremely popular Mercy Thompson urban fantasies. Barb Hendee (who with her husband J.C. published some of my first stories in their small-press magazine Figment) has published a number of fantasy novels, some in collaboration with J.C., some solo. J.F. Gonzalez went on to publish many horror novels – including the classic Survivor – but tragically, he died in 2014, a victim of cancer. Killercon has recently established the Splatterpunk Awards for extreme horror, including the J.F. Gonzalez Lifetime Achievement Award, and author Brian Keene is working hard to keep his legacy alive. Gordon Van Gelder went on to edit The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and is now its owner and publisher. Brian Everson has gone on to write many well-regarded literary novels of dark and speculative fiction. Christa Faust went on to write crime and media tie-in novels, and while Poppy Z. Brite doesn’t write much these days, her work is still considered vital in the genre and continues to be reprinted and read to this day. And then, of course, there’s me.

As for the rest of the authors . . . I don’t know. I haven’t seen most of their names recently, and some I’ve never seen except in Young Blood’s TOC. Are they still writing? Are they creating in other literary genres? Did their lives take them in different directions? Have any others passed away in the last twenty-five years? I could Google them, and maybe someday I will. But maybe I won’t. Maybe I’m afraid of what I’ll discover. Or maybe I’m afraid I won’t discover anything about them at all.

I’ve continued to write the kind of bizarre, surreal horror that I first explored in “Mr. Punch,” and although I’ve written urban fantasies and media tie-ins, it’s this kind of horror that I think of as Tim Waggoner Stories. “Mr. Punch” allowed me to find my voice and its publication confirmed that I had what it takes to be a professional writer. And for that, I owe a great debt to Mike Baker.

Below is the table of contents for Young Blood. There are still used copies of the book floating around out there somewhere if you’re inclined to read it. If you’d like to read “Mr. Punch,” it appears in my first short fiction collection All Too Surreal, which you can currently purchase in ebook form from Crossroad Press:

You can also find “Mr. Punch” in the collection Cemetery Dance Select: Tim Waggoner, along with story notes for each selection:

Young Blood Mike Baker (Zebra 0-8217-4498-4, Mar ’94 [Feb ’94], $4.50, 349pp, pb)

Introduction · Mike Baker
Ms. Found in a Bottle · Edgar Allan Poe
Pigeons from Hell · Robert E. Howard
The Skull of the Marquis de Sade · Robert Bloch
Cold Print · Ramsey Campbell
The Mangler · Stephen King
Rattle Rumble · Michael Scott Bricker
Little Black Bags · Clark Perry
An Eye for an Eye, A Tooth for a Tooth · Lawrence Schimel
The Weepin’ Tree · Tia Travis
Hysterical · Pamela Briggs
Spooge Monkeys · Wayne Edwards
Bringing Home a Stranger · Barb Hendee
Anything for You · Lorelei Shannon
Fixing Mr. Foucher’s Fence · Todd Mecklem
Mr. Punch · Tim Waggoner
Playing the Game · J. F. Gonzalez
Pieces of Prison · Jak Koke & Jonathan Bond
Paper Animals · Christopher A. Hall
Something More · Gordon Van Gelder
Judas Window · M. Francis Hamill
Storm Warning · James C. Bassett
Hébé Kills Jerry · Brian Evenson
To a Mr. R. J. Guthrie, Edinburgh · Adam Corbin Fusco
Crawlspace · H. Andrew Lynch
Armadillo Village · Terry Campbell
Payday · Sean Doolittle
Momentos of an Only Child · Dominick Cancilla
Depths · Marc Paoletti
Saved · Poppy Z. Brite & Christa Faust


The Mouth of the Dark

My most recent horror novel is The Mouth of the Dark from Flame Tree Press, and it’s been getting some great reviews:

“Waggoner is imaginative and original, and The Mouth of the Dark takes readers to an entirely new world of monstrosities. It’s easily one of the most fantastic books I’ve read this year.” – The Ghastly Grimoire

“An eclectic assembly of everything macabre and terrifying, The Mouth of the Dark is a riveting read you’ll keep reading long after the sun has gone down.” – Splattergeist

Here’s a synopsis:

Jayce's 20-year-old daughter, Emory, is missing, lost in a dark, dangerous realm called Shadow that exists alongside our own reality. An enigmatic woman named Nicola guides Jayce through this bizarre world, and together they search for Emory, facing deadly dog-eaters, crazed killers, homicidal sex toys, and — worst of all — a monstrous being known as the Harvest Man. But no matter what Shadow throws at him, Jayce won’t stop. He'll do whatever it takes to find his daughter, even if it means becoming a worse monster than the things that are trying to stop him.

The Mouth of the Dark is available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats.

Dark and Distant Voices

My latest collection Dark and Distant Voices is available from Nightscape Press.

"Hell is other people," Jean-Paul Sartre tells us. "Especially the one we see in the mirror," implicitly says Tim Waggoner. Both give us the theme of Waggoner's splendid Dark and Distant Voices. Our children we don't quite recognize, colleagues not all that collegial, ghosts who silently speak the Truth ... They're all here and more in Waggoner's brilliant story collection. – Mort Castle, author of Strangers

"This is every card in the horror deck, played by someone who knows the game better than most of us ever will." – Stephen Graham Jones, author of Mongrels

They come to you at night.

The voices.

Spinning tales of blasphemous wonder, terrible wisdom, and unspeakable truth.

You try to shut them out, but you can’t.

For the voices you thought were coming from so far away come from inside you.

And they won’t stop screaming.


Nineteen stories of the bizarre and fantastic from the mind of Bram Stoker Award-winning author Tim Waggoner, “horror fiction’s leading surrealist” (Cemetery Dance Magazine).


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