Halloween at the Steins

Halloween at the Steins


Things were abuzz in the Franklin Stein household on Halloween. Franklin’s wife, Mary Shelly, was hosting a party.

Shelly usually did all the work for the soiree herself, but this year she asked her friend Elvira to help. The girlfriends agreed: a sit down dinner was out; a buffet was in, so guests could mingle. No elaborate seating charts and worrying about who wanted to drink the blood or eat the brains of a fellow guest.

And while Franklin would normally be watching football or gardening by moonlight, tonight he made a rare appearance in his wife’s kitchen.

“Shel, do you want cheese on these?” Franklin said.

“Yes, Muenster,” she said.

Franklin poked around in the refrigerator but his hands were so big he couldn’t grab the tiny packet of cheese. He pulled the whole drawer out and dumped it upside down. Packages of meats, cheese, sticks of butter and a plastic sheath of vacuum sealed brains scattered on the counter-top.

Shelly watched him from the corner of her eye as she arranged a platter, determined not to say anything. This is Franklin’s way of helping, she said to herself.

He ripped open the package of cheese and an entire pound of sliced Muenster flew across the counter. He slapped his gigantic palm down to stop it from skittering to the floor. He cut the Muenster into huge chunks with a knife and plopped them on each tongue sandwich. The sandwich tops teetered at strange angles on a large silver tray.

“How’s this?” he asked.

“Cuddle bear, you’re so helpful,” she said. She pulled his arm until he leaned down. She kissed his cheek. “Would you put it on the buffet table next to the fried crickets?”

Franklin grunted his agreement. He walked into the dining room with the tray balanced precariously between his hands.

Shelly started to gather up the spilled items when the door bell rang.

“Trick or Treat Shelly,” the woman on the porch said. The skin tight fit of the woman’s black dress was accentuated by her long black hair and lovely face.

“Vi, it’s great to see you,” Shelly said and gave her friend a hug.

“Hi Vi,” Franklin said. “Love the dress. Where’s D?”

“He can’t make it; he’s working graveyard shift, as usual.”

“Franklin, do you want to watch the game? Vi and I can handle the kitchen.” Shelly said. Franklin grunted and lumbered off to the living room.

Shelly took a pitcher of blood from the refrigerator and poured a glass for her guest. Vi took a sip. “Shel, you know my favorite blood type is B+? You’re such a dear.”

“What are friends for, right?” Shelly said.

She opened the refrigerator and pulled out festive bowls and platters with a variety of treats. There was bone marrow, sliced brains, blood sausage and pearl onions on skewers, hummus and baba ghanoush with pita chips, and a pot of ghoul-ash. Shelly prepared the secret family recipe given to her by Franklin’s mother. She put the stew on the stove to warm it.

Vi took each vessel and arranged them on the buffet table. When she came back to the kitchen, Shelly was stirring the pot with a wooden spoon and crying.

“Shel, what’s the matter?”

“I don’t know…the smell of the stew reminds me of the old country, when Franklin and I first got married. We’ve been together so long, he hardly looks at me anymore Vi. I hold these parties so he can see his friends every year, but I hope he also notices how much I care about him.”

“Oh honey, don’t try to figure a monster out, it doesn’t work.”

“But we used to be so…frisky. At our house in the countryside, we used to play a game. I’d run around the bedroom with a pitchfork and a candle shouting ‘Get the monster!’ Franklin loved that; ever since we moved to the suburbs he’s always going on about football and gardening. Vi, we’re becoming regular people. It’s terrifying.”

“Listen, I’ve been with Drac for 42 years, he met me when I was thirty-eight. I was just a baby. Do you think it’s easy being the seventh wife? No. He’s Transylvanian and I’m American, so there are big cultural differences. But we’re still together.”

“It’s hard with Franklin, he doesn’t talk much. Half the time, I’m trying to decipher his grunts.”

“It’s not easy for anyone Shel, but keep at it. Tell Franklin what you want. He’s not a mind-reader.”

Shelly sniffled. “I suppose you’re right.”

“Well of course I am. Now wipe your eyes girlfriend, you’ve got a party to host.”

The guests started to arrive. Mr. and Mrs. Mummy came first. The ghost of Edgar Allan Poe slipped in the back door and haunted the kitchen for a while. Then there was David the werewolf with his British girlfriend along with David’s zombie friend Jack and Jack’s wife. Finally, the headless horseman made a grand entrance with a freshly severed head, which got a big laugh.


By midnight, the guests had consumed most of the food and everyone had found their chatting partners for the evening. The doorbell rang again. Shelly was preparing the desserts, so she asked Vi to get it.

Vi opened the door to find the Jersey Devil with a half-empty bottle of tequila dangling from his tapered red claws.

“Vi, you look amazing.” He kissed her on the cheek and lingered there. “C’mon baby,” he whispered, “admit it – you’re glad to see me.”

She opened the door wider and stepped away from him. “Come in Virgil. It’s just like you to show up after dinner when you’re invited to a dinner party.”

“Yeah, uh, sorry,” he said and shucked off a coat he draped over his wings. He threw it on a nearby chair. “I stopped in Atlantic City for a few games of roulette. When I hit the Turnpike I ran into traffic. You know me baby, I gamble big. Where’s Shelly?”

“Did you know the headless horseman is here?” Vi said, diverting his attention.

“No way, where is my best dude? I’m here, so we can get this party started!” He shimmied his shoulders and his wings shook as he made his way into the living room.

“Okay Virgil, whatever. Clearly you need no invitation.”

Vi came back into the kitchen and rolled her eyes. “Shel, it was my ex! I didn’t realize you invited him?”

“I’m sorry Vi, I should have warned you. Franklin insisted. But Virgil is so unreliable, I never thought he’d make it.”

“No, no, it’s fine. I’m over him and his wild ways. I’ll say a few ‘Serenity Now’s’ and move on. But it’s a good thing Drac’s not here.”

“I keep telling Franklin our ‘special’ friends should be invited to the house separately, but he won’t listen.” Shelly sighed. “I hope Virgil doesn’t break anything. When he and the headless horseman get together…”

“I know,” Vi said. “I can’t believe I used to live with that devil. My life was chaos. It makes me so thankful I’m with Drac.”

Shelly pulled out a silver cloche covered plate from the refrigerator. “This might cheer you up, Vi. I got a dessert especially for you.” Shelly removed the cover and revealed a plate of lady fingers.

Vi clapped. “You shouldn’t have Shel, they look fantastic.” Vi took one of the lady fingers and proceeded to crunch away. “I love how you decorated the fingernails in orange polish, it gives them that extra textural element.”

The two friends cleared away all of the dinner plates with nary a fried cricket left. In the living room Virgil and the headless horseman led opposing teams in a game of charades. Edgar Allan Poe’s ghost was miming the 1958 movie title I Married a Monster from Outer Space but no one could understand him. Mrs. Mummy kept shouting Monster! Monster! but Poe was already on the word space.

Vi pulled Franklin aside and chatted with him. Shelly watched them talking. Franklin did his usual grunting and nodding. When they were done, Vi gave Franklin a hug, and he grinned like a little kid.

Shelly set out the desserts. But before anyone could dig in, Franklin stood up to his full seven and a half feet and said, “I want to say something.” The room quieted.

“Honey, thank you for a wonderful evening, you’ve outdone yourself this year. Let’s raise our glasses to my incredible wife Shelly,” he said.

“To Shelly,” the guests said in unison, raising their goblets of wine or blood.


As Franklin saw the guests off for the evening, Shelly and Vi washed the dishes together in the kitchen.

“Vi, you didn’t have to coach Franklin to make that speech tonight.”

“Shel, I knew you would think I put him up to it, but I didn’t, I swear. I told him you two were lucky to be so in love after all these years. He said those things on his own.”

“Come on, really?”

“Yes, really Shel. He loves you,” Vi said.

“You know, Franklin still surprises me sometimes. He may be a big oaf, but he’s my big oaf and I love him too Vi.”

“I know you do hon. It’s getting early, I’m going to try and catch D before he climbs into his coffin. Call me tomorrow.”

Shelly wrapped the left over lady fingers for Vi to take home. The two friends hugged and Vi left. Shelly began to dry the dishes when Franklin came into the kitchen and leaned down to nuzzle her ear.

“Did Vi tell you what she and I talked about tonight?” Franklin said.

“That she was impressed we were still in love after all these years, I know,” Shelly said.

“Shel, of course I love you, but that’s not it. First she said you’re the best friend she’s ever had. Then she said it was time for you and me to rekindle our flame.”

“That was sweet of her, I’m glad you had a good chat,” Shelly said.

“It wasn’t just a good chat, it was great advice. It reminded me of something we used to do.” He went to the drawer and pulled out a candle and matches. His mouth spread into the boyish grin Shelly knew well.

“Let’s make our own fun for Halloween this year,” he said. “I think the pitchfork is in the closet…”

Shelly laughed. “Oh Franklin, you say the most romantic things.”


What is Compressed Fiction – at Journal of Compressed Creative Arts

Hi all,

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts wanted to post my statement on “What is Compressed Fiction?” on their blog.

If you want to read it, click here:


As usual, I’ll put a permanent link to this in the published works area on my blog so you can find it easily.

Thanks and enjoy!


Reading Oscar between the lines

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Since that post was a few days ago, I’m no longer half-way through the book, I’m a few pages from the end. The book has been an interesting read, and enjoyable to a degree, but it’s not a book I’d put on a personal favorite list.

One of the things I find off-putting about the book is Diaz’s heavy use of Spanish throughout the text. I am not a Spanish speaker so many of these lines are lost on me. I feel excluded from the text because I’m a gringo Americano and I’m unfamiliar with the phrases and cultural references used. Considering how many footnotes are in this book (I think David Foster Wallace has started a posthumous trend – footnotes in fiction) it’s surprising that Diaz doesn’t offer up translations of these lines there. I can only assume he was fine if readers “get it or not” but that’s a tough line to draw on your reader, isn’t it? If the reader is missing some percentage of the references, how does that affect the overall experience of reading the book? Is Diaz saying it doesn’t matter?

Secondarily, there are also references to science fiction and fantasy role playing games along with numerous references to New Jersey. In both of these areas I’m familar with the subjects (I went to Rutgers University in the late 80’s, I played Dungeons and Dragons as a kid, I spent my time watching Star Trek, blah blah) so I got a lot of the references…still, not all of them. But I don’t think the sci fi / fantasy references added much to the book. As a reader, I get that Diaz wants to show us Oscar is a nerd, while mixing a strange set of influences: going to college at Rutgers New Brunswick, science fiction, Dominican culture and Spanish phrases.

Regardless of whether or not I think the book is fully successful as a novel, the way Diaz wrote the book is a sly between the lines kind of experience. If you come to the book with all of the references he provides, you’ll get the full experience he wrote about. If you know only some, or perhaps even none of the references, your reading will be a somewhat more superficial understanding of the content covered in the book.

If you’ve read the book, I’d like to read comments you have about the experience. Most specifically, what did you think about the non-linear narrative aspect of the book? What did you think about the layers of references, and ultimately did the book stack up for you as a worthwhile read?

Truthful and Honest…Fiction

I promise to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth…except when writing fiction?

Elena Kagan (L) is sworn in as the Supreme Court's newest member as Chief Justice John Roberts (R) administers the judicial oath, as Jeffrey Minear (C) counselor to the chief justice, holds the Bible at the Supreme Court Building August 7, 2010 in Washington, DC.

Elena Kagan swears in for her duties on the Supreme Court

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, and it’s been challenging for me to find the right angle of approach. This posting is intended to be an interactive discussion with you, my readers, because I’ve always found it helpful to understand how you are approaching things in your writing too.

How much truth is needed to write good fiction?

When I began writing short stories seriously, after taking a refresher class at Gotham Writer’s Workshop in Manhattan in 2009, I started out by writing stories at a distance. What I mean to say is I looked writing stories as the craft of creating fictional people in situations that had no resemblence to me personally or my life.

In the case of Red Tide, (a piece I’ve already written about on the Blog in a posting called Where Writers Find Inspiration for Stories,) I took two news items and crafted a story using elements of both as ingredients. It was the first story I got accepted for publication by the Aroostook Review. It felt easier for me to write from a distance because I didn’t have to ante up my own deepest fears, pain, rejection, love, joy, or happiness – even though the story I wrote was emotional and dealt with sickness and death.

It’s taken me over a year to begin breaking down the wall between my personal feelings/experiences and my writing. For me, this has been the most difficult aspect of producing meaningful work. (Reading the works of humorists Fran Lebowitz and David Sedaris have helped me find the courage to embed more of myself into my work.)

Let me give another example. I had been submitting 200 word shorts to Barry Graham over at Dogzplot for months. Each item I submitted was rejected. Since the rejection notes tended to say things like: “It didn’t work for me” or “I’ll pass,” I was left to my own devices to figure out how I was going to create a meaningful short that would be clear the bar of Barry’s editorial sniff test.

I was in bed one night (while in New Orleans) thinking about this and I bolted upright, went to my computer, and wrote Mice in one sitting. Mice exposes my paranoid self, the part of me that cycles through thoughts while trying to sleep and winds up with insomnia instead. I sent the piece to Barry that night because I felt in my gut it was good enough. He sent his acceptance the next day along with his fantastic edits. (By removing 7 words and adding punctuation he tightened the piece immensely.) I am convinced that Barry’s editorial nose is attuned to this kind of honesty, and I understood in order to jump the hurdle I was going to have dig deeper than I did with previous submissions.

To be clear, I’m not saying short stories should be an accounting of an author’s personal life to be good. But I’m (probably) saying in order to have emotional authenticity, it’s important to have an underlying base of real emotion and real experience that comes from a true place inside the writer to inform the work.

I’m continuing to strive for emotional honesty in my stories, and I hope my upcoming pieces in 2012 will showcase that evolution.

How much of your own emotion and personal experience do you use when creating your stories, poems or novels? Do you sense internal resistance to using these feelings, and if you do, how did you (or are you) overcoming that?

As always, thanks for reading and I look forward to your comments and interactions on the blog.

The Artist’s Tuning Fork

Today was a gorgeous day in New York City, and I spent a few hours this afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art to see the William De Kooning exhibition. Now don’t get the wrong idea, I’m actually not a big fan of the artist, but I am very interested in Abstract Expressionism and I wanted the opportunity to re-think some of my ideas about this painter.

As per the MoMA website:

The exhibition, which will only be seen at MoMA, presents an unparalleled opportunity to study the artist’s development over nearly seven decades, beginning with his early academic works, made in Holland before he moved to the United States in 1926, and concluding with his final, sparely abstract paintings of the late 1980s. Bringing together nearly 200 works from public and private collections, the exhibition will occupy the Museum’s entire sixth-floor gallery space, totaling approximately 17,000 square feet.

Despite my internal resistance to the way De Kooning merges traditional body forms with abstraction in his most famous paintings like Woman I,

De Kooning's Woman I - part of the permanent MoMA collection

I really did like his later works in the last two decades of his life, none of which I’ve seen before. These works were much more graphic in nature, brightly colored, with lots of white background to provide space to the drawn forms and lines that marked these canvases.

Regardless, the De Kooning work I have the strongest resistance made me think about my favorite Frank O’Hara poem Why I am Not a Painter. It goes like this:

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

This led me to think about De Kooning’s “positive” and “negative” series including paintings like Zurich, which are all black and white and have words or letters embedded in the paintings. Or his piece called Attic, which De Kooning said had “everything in it.”

I’m not sure why, but all of this led me back around to thinking about the end of De Kooning’s life again, and the last two decades that he painted even though he was in ill health. I thought about how he was unable to paint for at least the last seven years of his life, as his health continued to decline in his late eighty’s and early nineties. It made me wonder if he felt trapped inside his body, with ideas still coming about how he wanted to paint, but his body would have been unable to comply with the demands of the work.

There’s a story in that idea somewhere. I feel that instinctively. And if you’re wondering where all this rambling is leading, I do have a point so bear with me just a bit more.

Yesterday I went to an open air art show where painters, sculptors, potters, and photographers gathered to show the best of what they had to offer. I met a sculptor there, named Brianna Martray of Denver, Colorado. She was displaying a piece called Lighthouse Keeping which really intrigued me. I sensed a feminine energy to her work, and this piece in particular strongly reminded me – not in form but in feeling – of a Dale Chihuly’s installation at the New York Botanical Garden which I saw in 2006.

             Image above courtesy of Brianna Martray



                   Chihuly installation of small glass works at the New York Botanical Garden

This weekend was, for me, an opportunity to become inundated – even over-stimulated if you like – with the ideas of other artists. All of these things keep me “in tune” as a writer, with other aspects of art that lead towards a highly diverse set of expressions.

In my short story, Lancaster, the main character comes into close contact with an artist and that experience changes him in some way; it makes him want to strive to be the self the artist has depicted of him, a self that he sees as “other” and yet some possible alternate self to his current way of living.

So, as you sit down to do some reading, whether it be a collection of short stories or a novel, you should also consider using the artist’s tuning fork and get out to see an exhibition of paintings, sculpture, installation art, arthouse films or anything else that intrigues you. While writers are notorious observers of other people, sitting next to them in restaurants, in trains, or elsewhere, we shouldn’t overlook the opportunity to tap directly into the veins of artistic expression and mainline directly from other masters of expression – words are optional.

There are so many possibilities to be inspired by other artists… who do you find yourself most in tune with, and why?