Wall of Fire ignites on Nov. 5, 2019

What would you walk through fire for…

Cover design: Aaron Bilawchuk & Emily Pratt

November 5, 2019

Terrace VII: Wall of Fire

By Robert Bose & Sarah L. Johnson

Welcome to the Seventh Terrace of Dante’s tower of Purgatory. Here, in darkness lit only by a wall of flame, we find souls enslaved by the sin of lust. Desire, curdled by madness and desperation. From a pair of crazy-in-love criminals on a scavenger hunt at the outskirts of Hell, to a lonely custodian working in a love doll brothel, to a sinister lingerie boutique hidden behind a red door. Lust is a great and terrible thing, and this collection of dark tales follows a mere handful of the many paths leading to the wall of fire.

Hot or Not?

We review books, music, trail races, deep sea creatures, colours on the visible spectrum, and whatever else we feel like, on a rating scale of one to five sin-purging flames.

Bunny, by Mona Awad

My name is Octoclot, and I read literary fiction. I read more literary fiction than genre fiction. I’m a snob and I’m not sorry. That said, there’s nothing better than sinking my tentacles into the juicy unicorn that is the literary genre novel, and Bunny fits that bill perfectly.

I’d read Awad’s previous novel, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, and didn’t much like it. So I wouldn’t have read Bunny if I hadn’t attended a reading and fallen in love with Awad’s voice. Seriously smooth. I’d also recently read The Secret History (yes, I’m late to most parties), and the parallels intrigued me. I mean, Bunny.

Samantha is a scholarship student enrolled in a creative writing program at an elite liberal arts university (shades of Tartt and Ellis). Desperately poor and lonely, she’s recruited into a cult of beautiful women in her workshop that dress like little girls, eat miniature food, hug for hours, braid each other’s hair, and call each other Bunny.

Naturally, a cruel obsession lurks beneath the glossy cupcake frosting. In an MFA program fixated on the concept of ‘the body’, deconstructing it in their workshop to the point of meaninglessness, the Bunnies have summoned the power to create life, to create a boy, from a bunny. Though not exactly boys, they’re rough work, malformed drafts. Built to serve until required to ponder a sense of self and then they unravel (or explode, in the more gruesome scenes). They seem to think that Samantha, their unrefined, emotionally wooden newbie, has what it takes to do better, to create a real boy.

In this bizarre story described as The Secret History meets Mean Girls, the juxtaposition of the saccharine with the sinister evokes a dreamlike dread that’s hard to shake. Samantha is more disturbed that you think. The Bunnies, more hollow. The drafts, more calamitous. Make no mistake, this is a horror novel, an erotic horror novel, masquerading as literary fiction.

One of my favourite things about Bunny is the mythic references. We’ve got swans, lambs, wolves, and rabbits. The best part is the complete lack of subtlety. I mean, they go to Warren College for Christ’s sake, and there is almost literally a big bad wolf. Lit fic values nothing so much as metaphorical murk and obfuscation, and to see it explicitly splashed across the page in such an outsized way is terrifically fun. She also refers to poets as Lizard People. Seriously Mona, I feel seen.

And the end, oh the end! No spoilers, but the climax bricked me right in the heart. Let’s just say there are worse things than someone you love dying. And the more beautiful the lie, the more tragic the truth.

For this reader, Bunny was not about mean girls. Or classism. Or the ridiculousness of MFA culture. It’s about desire and loneliness, and the lengths we’ll go just to be loved. Without sentimentality, Awad suggests that perhaps that’s all we’re made for.

5/5

Detonation #7 – Smart Resolutions

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

***

So, it’s that time again, the commencement of yet another cycle around the sun, marked by a semi-arbitrary date that doesn’t quite align with cosmological anchors. Like how hard would have been to just set New Years on the Winter Solstice? It’s the sort of thing that grinds Noggy’s OCD something fierce. And don’t get him started on why months have their fluctuating number of days.

Fucking Romans.

It’s a happy time none-the-less. A chance to wash away the sickly stains of a cursed life with overpriced and underwhelming champagne. Maybe reminisce about the highlights you captured with your goddamn selfie stick. Eat loads of crap. Socialize with friends, enemies, frenemies, or in all probability, yourself, pantsless and eating pie in the backseat of your Pontiac Aztek or garbage filled K-car.

Call it what you want. Tradition. Ritual. Self-loathing and/or self-reflection. It’s a transition, that’s the important part. From one oozing nugget of time to the next. When you crawl out of your cocoon sometime early January, you know it’s a clean slate, you know that everything that came before is last year’s news. You made it. And this year will be different.

Special.

Energized.

Productive.

You heard right. Productive. Whatever writing or editing or design or marketing or publicity or publishing you did last year, you’ll surpass it this year. More. Faster. Better.

Why?

Because you made a fucking New Year’s Resolution, that’s why.

You’ve resolved one or possibly many things. It may be a vague decree like “I’m going to write every day”, or more explicit, like “I’m going to a thousand words every day.” Or it might be ambitious like “I’m going to write and publish three novels this year.” Or ethereal like “I’m going to procrastinate less this year.”

Kinda bullshit.

I’m not saying those aren’t worthy goals, because they totally are. They’re just soft. And squishy. Moist even. Soft resolutions are like ideas. Everyone has a billion of them, but at the end of the day, rather small and limp.

The concept of “I’m going to write more” is pretty vague, and the more vague and fuzzy the resolution, the harder it’ll be to stick with. What is “more”? What is “less”? If you can’t quantify progress, if you just jam your thumb or tentacle or mating appendage in the air and guess that you may be doing more of what you said you’d do, you’ll rapidly fall into the same old lull you’ve always fallen into.

Imagine meeting up with your writing partner at the end of January.

“How’s the novel going,” asks Lola, stuffing a grinning orifice with crisp Kale salad. “You talked big at NYE before I left you rotting in the dumpster.”

“Meh,” says Noggy. “My resolution was to write more than last year. I’m spitting out words.”

“How many more?”

“Well, more… Way more… I think. It feels like way more at least.”

“So, you’ll be done by summer?”

“I have absolutely no idea. How about you? I sort of recall you mentioning you had serious resolutions of your own this year.”

Lola slides her tongue under her lip to clear out a yard of astroturf, swishes her mouth with rosé. “Yeah, got some killer ones. Turning the hot tub into an alcoholic sex cauldron three times a week for six months and drowning anyone who doesn’t like it. Then, I’m going to ruin two marriages by seducing spouses in Japanese love hotels. Targeting one every three months, but I’ve built in a month overlap contingency.”

“Uh, I meant writing resolutions.”

“Exactly. I’m taking copious notes for my book, which will be done by year’s end. Next tub is Monday by the way, you should come.”

***

Noggy can do better. If he can stimulate his Bourbon soaked brain cells for two minutes, he’ll realize he just needs to be smart like Lola is. That’s smart as in SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. While maybe the concept has been around forever, George Doran, Arthur Miller, and James Cunningham first formalized it in the November 1981 issue of Management Review. The exact definition of each element has shifted over time, but SMART goals tend to have these elements:

Specific – Pick an unambiguous writing/editing/publishing objective.

Measurable – Make it something you can quantify with a number and keep track of progress. Spreadsheets baby!

Achievable – Make sure you can actually do it. We can go into BHAG’s, Big Hairy Audacious Goal’s, in another time and space, but don’t set yourself up to fail. And don’t include qualifiers that are out of your control – specifying that you want to sell X number of stories or novels is grand, but perilous since that’s in the hands of someone else.

Relevant – It should be an actual writing/editing/publishing goal. Sometimes I wonder about Lola…

Time-based – Choose an end date, and/or dates to measure progress by.

***

Boom!

It’s not rocket science. It’s not even literary science (which, if that isn’t already thing, it is now). Now repeat after me:

“I’m going to write at least three hundred words a day for the next month.”

“I’m going to write six short stories this year and submit them to markets until they are sold.”

“I’m going to complete my novel by the end of May, have it edited by August, and query a dozen agents by year end.”

Rinse and repeat.

***

So, call them what you want. Resolutions. Goals. Objectives. Just remember to be SMART and don’t be caught with your pants down in the back seat with only pie for company. We won’t judge unless it’s Saskatoon Berry.

The Arby's S'mores Milkshake Experience

Sometimes Lola Silkysocks wants to go where nobody knows her name and the feature milkshake is orange. Where Picasso prints line the walls, an annoyed shift worker slouches behind the counter, and the place is usually a graveyard. Until it’s not.

After the Garlic Butter Steak Sandwich catastrophe, I’d learned my lesson to not experiment at Arby’s, to just order my goddamn beef n’ cheddar and enjoy the fuck out of it under the sallow cubist gaze of the deserted dining room.

I do not peruse the menu. I know what I want. Noggy and I place our orders. The bored cashier asks if there’s anything else. I swear it’s another voice coming out of my mouth.

“I’ll have a S’mores Milkshake.”

As you may or may not know, Noggy has two glares. There’s affectionate exasperation or I suffer you to live, and they’re functionally identical. Though after the way I carried on about the buttered steak, you can guess which one this was.

How to describe the S’mores Milkshake? It makes you wonder things you never wondered before, like, “What are marshmallows supposed to taste like?” When a marshmallow forward milkshake prompts this question, you know you’re in shark infested waters and Terry is about to offer you a shrimp.

I slurp some more. There are chunks. I’m 60% sure they’re graham crackers. A vague thrill of chocolate runs through the whole business, though little more than it takes to lull you into a false sense of trust.

Meanwhile people are wandering into Arby’s by the dozen. Boomers ordering coffee, bougie boxing week shoppers, a mom berating her small child like she’s his parole officer. Arby’s employees leap into unprecedented levels of animation. The meat trays empty and full baskets of curly fries sizzle in their vats. Metaphysical laws are being broken. This is Arby’s. The very gates of Purgatory. No one comes here intentionally. But it is the season for Deadly Sins, and I’m heavily distracted by this confusing confection that is the S’mores Milkshake.

Eventually it had to happen. “Hey Nog, try this.”

In my defense, he didn’t have to drink the whole thing. But he did, and he can tell you the rest…

It should be obvious, if you’ve been paying attention, that Lola has this thing about trying ‘new’ and ‘possibly interesting’ items on the menu at our vintage Picasso adorned local Arby’s. Undeterred by the nightmare that was the Garlic Butter Steak Sandwich, and ravenous after running for thirty days straight, she swore they couldn’t possibly fuck up a milkshake.

Yeah.

I should have known something was up when Lola had a couple sips, pushed it across the table, and said “Try this.” She had that look in her eye. That glazed look. The kind you get when you’re teetering on the edge of a coma. And it wasn’t so much an offering, as a challenge. Sadly, I can’t resist a challenge, or any eatable substance jammed in my face.

Well, I’m going to come right out and say it. It’s not that it’s… bad. And not that it’s… good. It’s just… sickly sweet. Like you used a Christmas elf to clean your teeth with and then washed it down with liquid marshmallow juice. While it does taste vaguely S’more’ish (as any combination of graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallow tends to) it’s a pale imitation of the actual heavenly camping staple.

Regrets? So many. Within minutes, my stomach began to gurgle. Within an hour, I was little more than a perturbed sea cucumber, nastily expelling both my stomach and twenty feet of large intestine, while hastily scrawling my last will and testament on three sheets of toilet paper I couldn’t actually spare.

Will I drink it again? Uncertain. I guess that depends on if she thrusts it in my face next year.

Noggy and Lola went back and forth on a flame rating and ultimately split the difference between the not totally terrible flavour profile and post-shake warp core ejection.

2/5

Season's Meatings

On behalf of the Purgatory Towers tenant’s association, Gary would like to wish you an Incendiary Solstice and Saturnalia.

We love a delicious Yuletide tale, so consider this our gift to you. Snuggle up with us on The Seventh Terrace and let this letter to Santa toast your wee hearts this winter’s eve.

Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals!

xoxo

Rob & Sarah

The First Wife

Dear Nicholas,

I promised never to write this letter.

If you still read the letters at all, you might be clutching mine in your hand, tempted to throw it in the fire. Are the flames hot on your bare toes? Or perhaps, like me, you wear socks now, and shoes, proper clothing all around. Perhaps there aren’t any more fires.

After so long, I’m sure you’ve changed. They say you got fat. A neutered animal has a way of going soft, I suppose. Still, I remember the way you were, the way we were. Do you ever think of that time? Before?

~

Arctic air tore at our throats like fangs. The bone runners of our sled shrieked over snow and ice as our laughter filled a black sky. Sealskin robes, clean and pliant when we departed, crimson-splashed and frozen stiff on our return.

On those nights, we owned the world. The Germanic cowered at our names. Others knew us only as death. They terrorized their children with our stories and left lavish offerings at their hearths. In the hopes that we might pass over.

Much as I loved the frost on my face and the burn in my veins, my favorite part came at the end of the hunt. At the top of the world, we’d descend into the ice. In that tiny burrow, deeply suspended, the surface ceased to exist. Blood-drunk, we’d stumble about building up a fire that would burn all year round. Then we tore away the sealskins with greedy hands and teeth. Our bodies, robed in firelight, were sculpted renderings of immortality. Your beauty left me speechless. Not that it mattered. In those moments, words were a waste of our mouths.

In our dark cocoon, time blurred into a fevered dream, sifting and drifting while we’d whisper and sing and fuck and sleep endlessly; eternally. Until the hunger quickened – calling us to the surface with the promise of a child’s whimper at our shadow filling his bedroom door.

~

The happiest time of my life. Before her.

How she came to you, I still do not know. I do know she taught you a word. A word in her language that had no equivalent in ours.

Sin.

She insisted that a life of savagery had corrupted your soul. She spoke of Jesus, the fisher of men. Give back, she said. Make amends. Repent. How could she poison you so completely against yourself? How could you let her? My love, you and I took only what was in our nature to take. Deviants, she called us. Base and depraved. I argued that denying one’s true self was the purest form of depravity, the very definition of deviance. You wouldn’t listen. She urged you to rise above your nature.

From the beginning, I knew she wanted you, that apple-cheeked cunt. Fool that I am, it never occurred to me that you might want her.

God will forgive, she said.

God?

What could we possibly have to fear from this God? What Hell could He create that we had not already wrought upon His earth? I wonder, has rising above your nature changed what you are, my love? Has this farce of an existence sanitized your soul?

Now your satchel is full when you enter, and empty when you leave. You are a giver. Yet, they still leave offerings. Their ancestral memory quivers, and subconsciously, they are afraid. Does it tempt you? A tender throat relaxed in sleep. Does it make your jaw ache? Just a taste, after all – you’ve brought them so much joy. You said you’d lost your appetite for the kill. Who were you trying to convince with your lying?

I remember a time when there were no falsehoods between us. A time when I laid my head in your lap and you twisted my hair into a thousand slender braids, one for each blood-drenched December. You swore to love me always. Now, your eternity yawns, filled with the adoration of legions. But none of them know you. She doesn’t know you. I felt your every thought and deed as if they were my own. I loved you brutally and without end.

Sin.

Before her, it didn’t exist.

Are you happier, now that it does?

I sound bitter, don’t I? A woman scorned. The first wife. A joke. This is the letter I promised I wouldn’t write: a letter to Santa. You bring gifts for good boys and girls, don’t you? I’m not entirely good – we can’t all be saints – but I believe I’d still make your ‘nice’ list, if only for old time’s sake. Now I want to ask for something.

Your Mrs. Claus.

Bring her to me.

Lay her under my tree like a sweet, ripe plum, and I will show her what you are. We’ll show her together. Then, if she can kiss your mouth, wet with her blood – if she will yet offer up her flesh to her defiler – if she can forgive, as her God would; then I will release you. I will keep my peace, knowing you are loved for who you are.

Burn my words if you must. In writing them, I’ve done what I must. You have my heart, Nicholas – the only heart that has ever known you – the only heart like your own.

Love eternal,Krampus

Detonation #6: Hustlers

NAVIGATING LIFE IN A LITERARY MINEFIELD

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

Recently I watched a YouTube video of Jennifer Lopez taking pole dancing lessons in preparation for her role in the movie Hustlers. I learned that the only thing I have in common with J.Lo is…well, nothing. She’s a goddess. I’m a goblin. Moving on.

Let’s talk about the money. Makin’ it rain as a writer. You’re good at this wordsmithing stuff, and you work really hard. Is poverty inevitable? Is there a way to use your skills and ambition to make a bit more cash than it takes to buy a second helping of gruel?

Some writers make bank off their writing, we’ll call them Darryl, and they can go directly to Hell. Others, like Noggy, are gainfully employed in a day job where they go to an office, do business, get regular paychecks that are more than three digits, and can afford to get their kids teeth unfucked. I both respect and resent that, but I’m not talking about them either. I’m talking about Lola, and those like her. The freelancers and part-timers, Frankensteining an income through several different writing adjacent streams. I’m talking about the writerly side-hustle.

Here’s the thing. A Lola is nothing if not an opportunist. She’s been fortunate, strategic, and manipulative enough to do work that dovetails with her writing career. Like Lola, I coordinate literary events at an indie bookstore, teach creative writing, and freelance edit. I’ve also written articles, done one-on-one mentoring, and ‘assisted’ young people with their college admission essays (all ethics are situational). It’s a juggling act I perform on top of my own writing projects, publishing, running in the woods, attending to family and friends, and other…interests (see the Six Lives Theory).

I’m grateful to be a professional creative, but it didn’t just fall into my tentacles. When Auntie Octoclot was just a baby mollusk, slinging ink and dreaming of one day maybe, maybe, seeing my work in print, someone gave me some very good advice. GET INVOLVED. The writing community is not just a group of people doing what you do, they are a resource, a pool of limitless opportunity. So, I took classes, went to events, volunteered, collaborated, and worked hard at building real relationships. Finding kindred monsters is its own reward, but beyond that, when paying work comes up, so does your name, and when it does, you gotta be ready to say yes.

Jennifer Lopez is the original Lola. A creative role model. An artist with an appetite for experience and an eye for opportunity. Dancing, singing, acting, and learning to kill on a pole at fifty freaking years old. I bet both her kids have Invisalign. Making a living off your writing is great, for Darryl, but if I did that, I probably wouldn’t have the drive to do and learn all this other cool stuff, like planning burlesque literary salons, singing, acting in plays, and posing as a corpse for someone’s book cover. My writing is better for the experimentation, and while I may not be J.Lo, I’m definitely a hustler, and my back porch ain’t half bad. Just sayin’.

Detonation #5 – Ending It, One Way or Another

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

If you’re a rational human bean you undoubtably spend more than a trivial amount of time contemplating the end. It’s inevitable, right? Everything has a beginning and an ending. Everything. It’s a fundamental law. The universe began with a singularity programmed by an alien basement dwelling nerd and will succumb to painful, spasmodic, heat death, billions of years in the future.

Entropy is a bitch, and there is no appeasing her.

So yeah, everything ends, and the literary landscape is no exception. Books have beginnings, middles (we’ll delve into those horrid soggy messes another day), and endings. When you spend your ill-gotten lucre on that piece of trash dead tree, recommended by someone you’ll never trust again, you’re invested. You dive in, praying you can figure out what the fuck those metaphors actually mean, and crawl along, double checking the back copy every fifteen minutes to make sure you’re actually reading the right book. Maybe you’ll put it down so you can re-enter your pointless existence for minutes, days, or in rare cases, years, but you will eventually finish it. You will! Unless it blows chunks, or the book is Alan Moore’s Jerusalem. At twelve hundred and sixty-six pages, you’re likely to kill yourself first.

And the end, after you’ve put in so much time and energy, has an excellent chance of not meeting your expectations, and in many cases, just plain disappointing. There’s a ton of reasons for that of course, the primary one being that writing awesome finales is hard. Like brutally hard. Authors are vicious, emotionally conflicted monsters when they write, and unless they’re pumping out four shitty, cookie cutter books a year, they want their books to be award winning masterpieces from start to finish. But, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they’re capable of doing just that.

Here are a few bits we dislike about endings, in no particular order except metaphysically.

It’s better to Burn Out than Fade Away: Chuck Wendig swears even more than Noggy, and that’s saying something, so when he talks about the third and major climax of the book needing to hit Holy Goatfucker Shitbomb! magnitude we tend to agree. Too many endings fall short by not exceeding what came before, ramping down instead of up. The last thing a reader wants to find when they’ve clawed their way to the top of Mount Doom is that the eagles got there first and those idiot hobbits could have retired to the Prancing Pony for ale and weed.

John doesn’t Die in the End: You’ve set the stakes high. The moment arrives where everything is on the line and you pull the punch right before it lands, striking a glancing blow or missing all together. On purpose. WHY? A poet-musician has to die, or at least be brutally maimed, or your reader is going to break the spine and use the pages to line their neurotic parrot cage. If your book says Poet John has to die, you better bloody well kill the bastard.

Too much of a Known Thing: Noggy and Lola step out for ice cream. One thing leads to another and they’re racing down the blacktop, police cars and angry spouses and various aggrieved parties hot on their trail, a famous yet poor life choice thriller writer bouncing around in their trunk. And then? Off the preverbal cliff, nose diving two thousand feet into the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The end of the road, both figuratively and literally. Everyone suspected it would end that way, hopefully with some inspired screaming.

Entertaining? You bet. Unexpected? Not at all. You, the reader, knew they were going to going to be eating fireball sandwich the moment they snatched the drooling lush from his opulent digs and roared away in their Pontiac Aztek. At least set the damn story in Gloucestershire with a subplot involving a cheese wheel race for god’s sake.

Overstaying your Welcome: While the climax and end of your story aren’t technically the same thing, we’re in the camp that feels they should be close together. If your heroine slays the dragon and gets the girl and then goes home and bakes cookies for a hundred pages, there better be something sinister about those cookies. Just because Tolkien got away with it at the end of Lord of the Rings doesn’t mean you can. After a world spanning adventure of epic proportions, he earned it (though the movie version destroyed a generation’s worth of bladders).

Best to leave the bar before they toss you out.

Ends that Aren’t Ends: While standalone books need hard, satisfying endings, the current genre writing trend is trilogies (which, contrary to the laws of mathematics, can comprise anywhere between two and fourteen books) where endings are often just transitions to the next episode. This is often extremely unsatisfying. Every book should stand on its own, with an ending that wraps up the story the book is telling, even if there is MORE ending at the absolute end. And don’t get us started on cliff hangers if there’s a better than average chance of abandoning your baby, or dying of old age before you write the next one (I’m talking to you George. And you, Lola…).

***

Call us negative Nellies if you must, but yeah, so many bad endings. Can we explain what makes a good one? Sure. Avoid writing a bad one. As we said, not easy, but honestly, not THAT difficult. There are eight million stories in the naked city, and every one of them has potential for a horrible, gruesome, unhappy ending. So get writing.