Today we’re joined by Stephen Vessel, who’ll share a snippet from his story No Pattern but the Sea, included in ShadowSpinners: A Collection of Dark Tales, and answer a few questions about the story and dark fiction in general.
First, the snippet:
No Pattern but the Sea
Stephen T. Vessels
Rain hammered down so hard Neal could barely see the road, even with the wipers on high. He peered through the darkness at a pale, wavering rectangle he was pretty sure was the Shepherd’s Point Community Hall. The lights were off. He pulled in front of the building and ran for the door, hoping Miriam had left him a note. The aluminum awning over the entrance amplified the din of downpour. He found a flyer about the meeting she’d invited him to attend, taped inside the door’s window facing out, but no note.
A familiar disappointment sank through Neal. That was Miriam, consistent in her changeable ways, what his shrink called her pattern of behavior. Phone after months of silence, arrange a meeting connected to something impersonal, in this case an environmental matter about which he was wholly ignorant, and then turn non-responsive again. “SAVE OUR COAST,” the flyer beseeched, “COASTAL EROSION CAN BE RETARDED.” Neal frowned at the wording, turned to scan his surroundings. He didn’t know if Miriam had gotten his message that his flight had been delayed. If he phoned more than once to find out he’d be accused of crowding her, and he’d used up his quota.
Which was irrelevant because his cell phone didn’t have a signal, anyway. He needed a place to stay, now, and he was tired. It was after midnight. The drive from Portland had been an interminable crawl, especially through the hills. Shepherd’s Point was a tiny, seaside hamlet. Evidently they didn’t keep street lights on past bedtime. The zone illuminated by the rental car’s headlights met darkness in all directions.
He rubbed the knobby scar on the side of his face. The old wound ached when it rained. Rubbing didn’t help; pain lived at an elusive depth beneath numb skin. He cursed and ran back to the car, reversed into the intersection and turned on the high beams to illuminate the street signs. Hemlock and Crow—it was the Community Hall, all right. He sighed. He was a fool. His shrink was right: He’d made chasing after women who didn’t want him his life’s work. None had ever run him through his paces like Miriam. Right when he was about to let go, deep inside where it counted, she would show up or call and say or do something that gave him hope. He would believe, again, that he had a chance, and fall over himself trying to please her. He was a fool, casting about to fill a void in his life dimensionless as the night. He was too old. It would be filled with shovel-fulls of dirt.
He studied his map. ‘Main Street,’ a couple of blocks away, seemed the most likely place to find accommodations. He found the street, drove its five-block stretch of shops, restaurants, small motels and one gas station. Everything was closed up tight, not a candle burning anywhere. He pulled under the port cochère of the Seaside Lodge, found a doorbell labeled ‘After Hours,’ rang and rang to no avail. He tried the other places with the same result. It occurred to him that the power might be out, and he made the circuit again, pounding on doors. Still no answer. People in this town must be deaf or deep sleepers. He’d have to spend the night in the car.
He drove toward the ocean. He wanted to park where he could hear the surf. That small comfort at least he would have. The thought made him conscious of deeper fatigue. He was ready to let go of wanting and wishing. One of these times would be his last, and his feelings for Miriam would fail in earnest. It saddened him to think she might come to him one day, warm, open, yielding in her attitude, and it might not matter, that it could be too late. He’d been too late himself, before, and knew he was close to his own threshold of disaffection. He didn’t want to think about it, just wanted to sleep.
He saw something in the road, hit the brakes and leaned forward, squinting. It looked like a body. Neal stared a moment, pulled ahead slowly and got out. A man—it seemed a man—in a seaman’s jacket and jeans, sprawled, face down, near the curb. Neal toed him gently in the thigh and stepped back. “Hey, you all right?” No movement. He squatted and felt for a pulse, found one, groaned with relief. He eased the man onto his back. Boy, rather, brown-haired and dough-faced, maybe fifteen years old. His eyes fluttered open.
Hello Stephen! Welcome to ShadowSpinners Press.
What was your inspiration for No Pattern but the Sea?
I went to a conference in Oregon – my trip there parallels the beginning of the story. The plane was late into Portland, and it poured rain the whole drive down to the coast, which made slow going. I arrived at my destination late, after dark, found the place where the reception had been held closed and vacant, and then had a devil of a time finding a room. (I had not planned well.) Finally I found one that was much more than I wanted to spend, and by the time I’d checked in and unpacked I was in a mood not wonderful. Sometimes, when I’m fatigued and in low spirits, I fall to reflecting on the disappointing aspects of my life. That night it was failed relationships. I know better than to brood on sour history – it cannibalizes the soul – so I got out some paper and did a drawing to get my mind on something else. Later the experience became my starting point. That’s the alchemy of storytelling.
What was the first piece of dark fiction that really resonated with you? Or alternatively, what story or book do you feel has had the most influence on your career as a writer?
Growing up I loved the old horror-themed comics Creepy and Tales from the Crypt. Gobbled them up as soon as they hit the stands. Somewhere along the line I read everything Edgar Allan Poe ever wrote. But I think the book that had the greatest influence on me was the legendary Modern Library anthology, Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. It was given to me by my Aunt Margaret, who was a Catholic nun, a school teacher, and an aspiring writer who never managed to write a single story but kept card files full of ideas. (The latter, sadly, long lost.) The copy she gave me was in a weary state, the spine loose, the cover threadbare, many pages damaged and repaired with yellowing tape. I loved it more for being well-used. I think it had an indelible effect on my attitude towards conventional distinctions between Literature (upper-case “L” intact) and genre fiction. In it I found, all living comfortably together, stories by Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Guy de Maupassant, Edith Wharton, Rudyard Kipling, Isak Dinesen and H. P. Lovecraft. Among many others. Evidently Modern Library’s editors did not, back then, hold inviolate the divisions maintained now.
Who is your favorite dark fiction writer and why? Favorite book or movie?
Favorites are hard. I suppose for writer I would have to say Lovecraft, his horrors are so silken and cosmic. I have a greater affection for Ray Bradbury. He was not defined as a writer by dark fiction but many of his stories are very dark, and yet somehow retain an elusive warmth. It’s in his voice. Favorite book? Oh, good grief. Maybe Dune, or Great Expectations. Or Middlemarch, by George Eliot. Movie? Blade Runner, or The Razor’s Edge, with Bill Murray. Those are crowded by countless others.
Of your own work, what is your favorite?
The thing I’m working on now.
What’s next up for you? Any books or stories coming out?
This month Muse Harbor Publishing is releasing a collection of my stories entitled, The Mountain & the Vortex and Other Tales. My SF novel, Fall of the Messengers, is doing the rounds, and I’m working on a dark fantasy novel I promised Elizabeth Engstrom I’d have completed a year ago. (My relationship with deadlines remains dysfunctional.) I’m always working my way through a backlog of short stories that need revision, and writing new ones. I have an idea for a detective series with a supernatural element. When I go to Thrillerfest in July I plan to stay a few extra days in New York to see if I can scare up a gallery to represent my drawings. The owners of Turkey Press, old friends of mine who make extraordinary handmade books, got me back into writing poetry, recently, by offering to publish one of my poems in a chapbook printed with handset type. I thanked them for complicating my life – I think I meant it. I need someone to keep me organized.
Stephen Vessels writes all of his drafts longhand and has produced hundreds of drawings using the same pen he writes with. His stories have appeared in, among other publications, the recent Shadowspinners anthology, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and Grey Matter Press’s Equillibrium Overturned. He has received the Best Fiction Award from the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and in 2014 was nominated for an International Thriller Writers award. His collection, The Mountain & the Vortex and Other Tales is being released this year by Muse Harbor Publishing. He lives in southern California and continues to pray for rain.