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STINGY JACK, OL’ SCRATCH, AND A HEAD FULL OF FIRE
Stingy Jack, Ol’ Scratch, and a Head Full of Fire
Jack shuffled into the cottage, his grimy hat gripped in both blackened hands, and stopped just past the door.
His sister Elspeth rose from stoking the fire and huffed at the sight of him, hoisting her skirt to stalk past him and out, slamming the door behind.
Jack lay his hat over the wooden peg on the wall, and took a single, miserly step forward, watching the old woman -who now seemed almost like a stranger to him- for signs of wakefulness. It would be a relief if she didn’t rouse, if she never roused, for she hadn’t offered a single kind or comforting word in many years, not since he was a teenager. Despite circumstances, Jack did not expect a change.
But family and neighbors lingered outside, and none would spare a charitable thought or word for him if he spent any less than a good halved hour tearfully apologizing to the poor old woman, and swearing his renewed, unshakable devotion to the path of The Straight and The Narrow.
Tears were not to be, alas, but the time he could manage, so long as the old woman slept most of it away.
Jack looked at the fireplace, stayed well back from it. Elspeth had almost always taken care of the fires –she’d had to be after all, for Jack hated fire and avoided it like leprosy, even when he inherited the blacksmith business from his uncle. Thanks be to God he had inherited his uncle’s helper, Colm as well.
But hearing the low eerie squeal of steam escaping from the young birch logs, he shook his head vigorously. That sound was why he only allowed Colm to use wood left drying for a season or so. It was bad enough he had to be around fire all day. Screaming fire was insufferable.
His gaze rose to the silver cup on the mantle and he immediately wondered what value it held. Then a hoarse cough from behind had him cringing.
He turned and saw that his mother’s eyes, watery and fogged, were open and focused on him. Her frail hand rose from her side, weakly wriggling fingers of summons.
He hoped for the regretful and forgiving love of the dying, but when he extended his hand, she clutched with such harsh strength and speed it gave him a start.
He leaned toward her, but just a few inches. Dead and dying bodies sent him queasy. Even mere mice in the mouths of the village cats -whose eyes gone wild and distant with some fugue caused by killing, their ears pointed backward to detect would-be thieves- made him feel like a wee lad in a vast dark forest.
His old mum, already interred under a mound of quilts, managed a string of clear and concise words. “Jacky. Ye make my heart hurt.”
“It’s gonna be all right, mum.” Jack whispered. “Just get your rest and ye’ll be back on-“
“Ye’ll never change.” She coughed again, a droplet splatting Jack’s cheek, making him revulse. “An’ I can’t protect ye any longer! I’m bound fer glory…”
“No mum. Ye’re gonna be fine.”
She ignored him, drawing her other hand from under the heavy quilts, a trying labor. In it was her cross, the silver one for which she had saved and saved, to buy from a silversmith the next town over when she was just a lass. She had worn it all these years, hanging it on one bit of string after another as they wore thin.
She held it up in trembling hands, on the opposite side of the bed from where Jack stood; the side pushed against the wall. Jack had to reach across her to take it, holding his breath as he did for fear he would inhale some essence of her ancient illness.
As she released it, thoughts of its value danced in his mind, and of potential buyers.
“Keep it with ye, boy,” his mother rasped. “Once I’m gone, ye won’t have my prayers to scare away the evils of the world.”
“Don’t say that, M-“
She sat up so fast it sent a thin rod of ice through his spine, and had him falling onto his ass as if kicked by a mule. Her eyes reflected the fire, and in so doing, brought Jack’s very worst memory to the fore. “That’s yer only hope, boy!” she bellowed, then fell back to the bed and gave off a hiss like that of the birch logs crumbling to ash in the fireplace.
Jack closed his eyes and shook his head till it hurt, trying to break apart that image against the inside of his head. But the vigil watchers would have heard the cry; they would be crashing in, and it wouldn’t look good for him to be cowering on the floor, so he quickly rose and approached her, looking for the rise of the quilt over her chest.
There was none. He reached out to shake her gently, and realized his calloused hands were shaking.
Then the door burst open, and Elspeth was pushing past him.
“Mother!?” She frantically patted the corpse’s pale cheeks, shook the scrawny, purple-veined hands, put her ear to the old woman’s ears. More watchers came in to crowd past him, and Jack suddenly realized he was in the presence of a dead body. He dashed out of the cottage, roughly pushing past the vigil keepers as he went to the big Ash tree behind the chicken coop and vomited his gorge of beef, turnip hearts and very much beer.
we are giving away five signed copies of PROGENY!
“A rip-roaring quick read told so vividly, you’ll feel like you’re watching a movie.Bigger than the battle between man and Bigfoot is the battle between man and son. Three father/son relationships, each one has their own complexities, dramas and heartaches. Although different, they also share a painful similarity: loss. Loss of respect. Loss of innocence. Loss of control. A horror story that goes beyond monsters lurking in a forest..a story of monsters lurking within living beings..of broken relationships and misunderstandings that wreak more havoc than Bigfoot himself.”(Edited) Jen’s Pen Den
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The world ended not with a bang, but with a grain of pollen on a puff of wind. People called them serpent weeds, and they consumed all the crops and eventually entire cities and civilization itself. A power rose from the ashes calling itself the Divine Rite, and they asserted a deadly new order in this ravaged world. Putting survivors to the test in a most literal way, they devised a yearly test called Justification. Pass and you can live. Fail, and you receive your Last Supper. This is the only life John Welland ever knew. But after his wife receives her final feast, he gradually immerses himself in a new rebellion, with a group of underground revolutionaries fighting to escape the Divine Rite’s reach. But the farther they travel across America’s haunted landscape, the more surreal and alien everything becomes. Not just the weeds, or the creatures with extraordinary powers, but John himself.
Publishers weekly says of THE LAST SUPPER in a starred review: “Marrying speculative, realistic, and fabulist traditions to dystopian formula, Dickson’s paean to individualism both breaks and strengthens the heart. Welland’s character receives “no comfort as he comes face to face with his own tragedy.” The Kafkaesque world of warped normalcy and cruel politics brings intimacy to the classic theme of self-definition in the face of oppression.”
Today I have the honor and pleasure of interviewing the incredibly talented Allison M. Dickson.
PCG: Well, you’ve gone and written yourself a post-apocalypse. What are we to do with you? What brought you to this vision of dystopia? Are you a prophet?
PCG: We all know it’s coming, but there are a good trillion or so ideas of just what it will be. Which fictional -or sincerely predicted- endorama stuck in your skull during your formative years? How much of that influences this here shit-hitting-the-fan-tasy?
AMD: I had the good fortune of being a teenager in the 90s, when things were relatively peaceful and people were far less afraid of the world. Then 9/11 happened, and we all know the rest. Though we do a good job of rattling our sabers at one another, I imagine if humanity were really to face extinction, it would be at the behest of forces well beyond our control. Asteroids, viruses, climate-driven catastrophes, supervolcanoes or some other Permian-esque event. I cut my teeth on The Stand. I ate up books like The Dark Tower series, where reality is coming apart at the seams. I guess if any of that stuff influenced THE LAST SUPPER, it’s those things, only with a bit of a helping hand from people. Nature will have its way one way or another, but I think a human hand will tip the first domino. Or perhaps already has.
PCG: Ever seen that 50s sci fi flick The Beginning of The End? Reason I ask is because its Big Bad is an army of enormous locusts. There’s an enormous locust on your cover, so for me, there’s a bit of a retro vibe. Would you keep a giant locust as a pet, if it was reasonably manageable? Or are bugs too grody for ya?
AMD: I haven’t seen that movie, but now I feel driven to watch it, because I’m fascinated by locusts. You know, I’m not the biggest fan of bugs, but it’s weird how some drive my phobias and others don’t. I actually love grasshoppers and the like! Cicadas are pretty cool too, and praying mantises. They have the most fascinating exoskeletons, and they seem very intelligent to me. Keep one as a pet, though? Nah. I’m happy to admire them from afar.
PCG: Okay, down to brass tacks. You wrote a short story in 2008 that eventually expanded into this novel. King did much the same with his story Captain Tripps, which sparked The Stand, as well as Jerusalem’s Lot. Do you feel that starting with the short format is a good measure of a story’s viability as a novel?
AMD: Actually, it’s interesting how novels start out, because I know you have developed a lot of your novels from screenplays you’ve written. I have developed quite a few longer projects from short stories, though it isn’t a strategy I actually set out to use. STRINGS evolved from a short story as well. When I write a short, my intention is always to just let it be that, but sometimes you get to the end, and a few weeks or even months or years later, you find there’s still plenty of thread left to spool out. I do think using the short format is a great way to map characters and get a basic trajectory started, but a decent expansion depends on what kind of story you have written. Starting with something more open-ended is vital, I think. I tried to turn “Dust” into the novel, but there was too much finality in the original story. I did stretch it out and add an additional 6000 words for a special edition recently, but that’s as far as I ever got. STRINGS was very easy to develop, because it basically picked up right where the short story left off.
PCG: Without becoming too political, this idea of food changing in some way so that it becomes uncontrollable or deadly may not be too far off the mark in the near future. Are you trying to warn us? You’re a cooking hobbyist, so would it feel like loss for you to have the luxury of cooking and experimenting with recipes disappear?
AMD: As I was putting together the final incarnation of the story, I was in the middle of reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which spoke a lot about how our food supply has changed so much over the decades, and I think a good bit of that seeped in. Be that as it may, though, I’m not sure if my intention was to warn people about that with this story. If I write too much with a message in my head, it has a way of stilting things. THE LAST SUPPER is more about self-discovery than anything external. The oddities of the world in which John Welland finds himself are more of the vehicle for him learning the great and terrible things he’s capable of. As for losing the ability to cook if some of the events of this story came to pass, I think I can adapt. Being of limited means most times, I thrive on finding solutions and alternatives when options are few. And the good news is in the Supperverse, the fermenting of various fruits and grains lives on. As long as that remains possible, I know I can survive.
PCG: Which character in The Last Supper has the most you in it? Do you intentionally choose a character to represent your feelings and opinions going in, or does that happen organically –or at all?
AMD: I think it’s so impossible separate yourself or your personal knowledge completely from your characters, at least if you’re writing honestly. Even if those characters are terrible people, they aren’t truly three-dimensional until you put that spark of humanity in them and let them be complex, and that usually happens when you imprint something of yourself onto them, even if it’s something subtle that only you can see. I try to refrain from letting characters be my mouthpieces for my views – that’s Heinlein territory, and it was cute when he did it, but it can be tiresome when authors do it to excess. But John represents the part of myself that is on a constant journey of self-discovery, and all the pain and fear and guilt that goes with it. Genevieve represents my more feminine sensibilities, but also the no-bullshit side. Turpin, the old man, represents the part of me that knows the score deep down, even if I’m not ready to face it.
PCG: There’s a pretty elaborate world built here that delves into different versions of bio-domes, banned literature, as well as hardcore social upheaval. Was the idea to keep it as close as possible to the direction our society could very well go, given recent events, or did you want to delve a bit more into fantasy? Of course, this question assumes that those are a matter of relative perspective.
AMD: In the earliest version I wrote of this story, it had none of the fantastical elements, and I think I had intended to keep it more about a reality-based upheaval. But eventually I started weaving in the fantasy and mystical elements and it just took on a life of its own. I have often felt that sci-fi is a genre of possibilities, which is why I don’t like to strictly define SUPPER as sci-fi, but more of a mixed bag of sci-fi and fantasy. A bit in the same way Star Wars is, I guess.
PCG: As a personal aside, I’m divided between looking at your blog entries about TLS and just letting it surprise me. STRINGS was page after page of surprises, and I really liked that. I don’t expect that TLS will be as intense, at least not as relentlessly so. Are there any nightmare moments for us hardcore horror sickos?
AMD: Good question! While there are more harrowing and sad moments in the book than downright frightening, there is one good nightmarish scene that takes place in a basement. Aren’t basements pretty much the scariest of human inventions? I think so. They’re basically like graves beneath our houses that we put our junk in.
PCG: So The Mystic Oracle tells me there has been some interest in bringing some AMD to the film world. How much can you tell us about that?
AMD: Well, I had the good fortune of having a gentleman name Jim Terr take heavy interest in my Consumption Trilogy for film development, and I got to sign my very first film option earlier this year. So far he’s done a staged reading of a script he developed, but he’s also hoping to pitch it to some big wigs in the film industry. As you probably know, getting things like this to catch on in Hollywood is like trying to light a campfire with wet matches, but it’s just been fascinating (and a little scary?) watching people act out my work, and I remain hopeful something will spark. People can watch the reading if they want to here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DognYowCidI
PCG: 2014 has been a good year for you! Celebrate with us a bit, your accomplishments and coming soons, that we might worship.
AMD: Well, in addition to seeing TLS enter the world, Strings had a great run in its first year. I also completed my suspense novel KUDZU back in June, and that earned me representation by my agent, Stephanie Rostan. Hoping we see big things happen with that one in 2015. I also sold a story to Apex Magazine (my first pro-rate sale), which will be appearing in the January 2015 issue, and I had the great fortune of having two of my stories appear in anthologies (Wrapped in White and Wrapped in Black) by the lovely Sekhmet Press! I also hit the comic con circuit in my area this year with my good friend and Colt Coltrane artist, Justin Wasson, and it’s been great meeting local people and watching them take interest in my books – Justin is hard at work on the cover for the next Coltrane book releasing in March 2015! Finally, I was just offered a position to teach a writing workshop in January of 2015 at a local arts center. Hoping it goes well enough that I can get more workshop gigs, either at the center or at writing conventions. So it’s been a fantastic year, and a lot of seeds have been planted that are set to bloom next year, and that’s always the most exciting part. It keeps me going.
PCG: Other than Yerz Trooly, which author could call you tomorrow, ask to collaborate, and send you into an absolute giddy headspace of uncertainty and terror and anguished joy?
AMD: Actually it’s funny you say that, because I would totally love to collaborate with you on something one day. Other authors would be Chuck Wendig or Joe Hill. I don’t consider my style identical to theirs, but I think we could complement, challenge, and energize each other, and it would be a pretty awesome product at the end.
PCG: What kind of music or other ambiance, do you employ during the brutal rapture of creating?
AMD: Brutal rapture is a great choice of words. It really depends on the project. When I’m working on Colt Coltrane, it absolutely has to be jazz. But I have a selection of movie scores I like to choose from with varying moods. The Red Violin is a big favorite, as is the score for The Fountain. A recent favorite has been the Hans Zimmer score for Interstellar, which is just so awe-inspiring. When I was writing Kudzu, I listened to Carolina Drama by The Raconteurs almost religiously. I also listened to a lot of forlorn sounding bluegrass, like You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive by Ruby Friedman.
PCG: So, back to the apocalypse: how long do we as a race have? What can we do to stave off the screaming and the suffering and the zombies and the seas of blood?
AMD: Honestly, I think we have longer than we think we do. That’s usually the case. Human, being cursed with knowledge of their own mortality, love to meditate heavily on death and mass extinction. Of course that doesn’t mean millions of us won’t die in the rising seas and wars perpetuated ugly fights over greed and dwindling resources, but that has been the story of human existence since its inception. I guess if we don’t find a way off this rock or learn to adapt harmoniously, we probably have another 5000 years or so before we either die out or the earth opens up its maw and swallows us. But who knows how human we’ll actually be in even 500 years? I imagine we might be some plasticized hive mind by then.
PCG: Far as you know, are there more sojourns to Dystopia in your future?
AMD: The Last Supper is actually a planned trilogy. Hopefully the first book is successful enough to warrant the second book. If it isn’t, I’m actually satisfied with where this story ends. Either way, I always have hellish futures swirling around in my brain. And equally hellish present days. Anyone looking for a case of the shiny happies within my pages, regardless of genre, will be sorely disappointed.
Allison M. Dickson writes dark contemporary fiction, covering both speculative and realistic realms. Her debut psychological horror novel, STRINGS, released to rave reviews in 2013 and has topped Amazon’s bestseller lists several times. She is also the author of an abundance of short stories as well as the 1940s sci-fi noir Colt Coltrane series. Readers can look forward to her upcoming dystopian epic, THE LAST SUPPER, later in 2014. When she isn’t writing, she can usually be found wandering the urban sprawl of Dayton, OH with her husband and two rapidly growing children, or crawling some dungeon in search of good loot. For more information on how to reach Allison or to read her blog, visit http://www.allisonmdicksonbooks.com.