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Short Story Sunday: Leiningen vs the Ants, Carl Stephenson

Leiningen vs the Ants, Carl Stephenson

My dad loved this adventure about a stubborn plantation owner in the Brazilian wilds facing Read the rest of this entry


A neighborhood near Books on the Square, in Providence, RI, inspired my short story "Paisley Surprise."

I love reading short stories which take place in areas with which I’m familiar; it’s almost like I’m in the story rather than reading it. That’s part of my attraction to the Akashic series of noir collections—among them Bronx Noir, Baltimore Noir, and Miami Noir; all places I’ve been, all places I love.

This winter’s holiday chapbook for friends was “Denigrating David,” and in its introduction, I talked a little bit about how fascinating it is for me to read about where writers get their story ideas—in other words, what specifically inspired a particular piece? I even made an open comment to writer Daniel Pearlman, who’s on my list: ‘But that’s the good stuff. That’s what people really want to know. I’d love to hear the specific roots of Alison Lurie’s “The Pool People” or Daniel Pearlman’s “What Rough Beast.”’

Dan did answer me via e-mail: ‘As to “What Rough Beast,” it was the news report of an attempted interspecies mating (a moose—or was it a New Zealand sea-lion—with a cow?).’[1]


The year before that, the chapbook was “Paisley Surprise.” Which many people really enjoyed—and although several asked me where the story idea came from (and obviously Carl Stephenson’s “Leiningen vs. the Ants” was an inspiration), there was more to it than that: surprisingly, it was not a place where hordes of flesh-eating ants even exist: a small neighborhood near Books on the Square in Providence, Rhode Island—five houses on a tiny cul-de-sac off Angell Street between the Taylor and Wayland Street intersections.

I was on my way to the book store with members of the Newport Round Table for a group reading and signing of our anthology Walls & Bridges in April, 2009. If you live inProvidence, then you know that, just like many cities, parking isn’t always the easiest thing to find. My friend Heather and I parked a few blocks away, and on the walk to the book store, we passed this quaint grouping of five houses or so that I just couldn’t resist photographing, thinking it would make a great setting for a short story.

What’s funny is, the second I was done photographing the place, the entire piece “Paisley Surprise,” from start to finish, with characters and back story and everything, popped into my head.

Because where my stories came from seemed to be of interest to so many people, I thought, just for the heck of it, I’d take you on a tour of the neighborhood and tell you how it figured into the story.

If you’d like to read “Paisley Surprise” first, it’s available in two places: in my website’s store, where you can get a limited-edition copy of the chapbook: …or in Static Movement’s Inner Fears Anthology, available on Amazon here:


First off, none of these houses are of the architectural styles I describe in the story. I was trying to capture the flavor and feel of this cool little neighborhood, not necessarily its exact look.

This brown house was in my head when envisioning the home of Ruth’s neighbors, Nick and Jess. The covered front porch also served as the inspiration for Ruth’s porch.

Another shot of the chocolate-brown house (in the very first draft, I described the color of each house as well as the style in the opening paragraphs; the colors were cut because I felt it made the prose too heavy and really didn’t advance the story). This, in my mind, was the view that Ruth might see from her bathroom window when she is in the tub.

A shot of the house next to the chocolate one; in my mind, this was the position of Ruth’s house.

The front of that same house. I know, it looked bluish-gray in the last picture, but on closer view, it was tan. I had a very old digital camera at the time and it often confused colors, especially in sunlight.

This one house was so unique—so totally different from anything else on the street. In my mind, this was the color and style of Ruth’s house, only with a porch on the front. It was easy for me to envision this house, out of all the ones in the neighborhood, being the most shabby-looking—the exterior wasn’t done in siding or wood, it was more like an adobe you’d see in the southwest. Kind of weird for New England, and maybe that is what made me think that this color and material, in the harsh northern winters and fluctuating temperatures the rest of the year, would take a beating.

From the story: “—the only people she knew in Providence were those who lived on her block, which had only five houses and ended in a cul-de-sac around a pachysandra-choked fountain.” Two comments: I loved this tiny island, especially with what looked like a dead tree in the middle. I wanted something more in the center, though, than just a flagpole—I wanted something creepy that could be taken as slightly neglected, and also a type of plant that would not only imply that same neglect but also convey a sense of claustrophobia. I figured a fountain would echo the pool in Ruth’s back yard. And pachysandra? I hate that stuff. My father had it all over the property and not only did it take over everything, you couldn’t control it. Anywhere pachysandra was looked like it hadn’t been weeded in fifty years. The house on the right is what I had in mind for her sister, Laurie, who is noted as living in “The Colonial” (close enough, right?)Mostly it was the color that made me envision this as Laurie’s house—she’s described in the story as “the type that tossed leftovers after twenty-four hours and still believed in Winter White after Labor Day,” so of course she’d have some trendy kind of sea-foam green paint (it always makes me think of Martha Stewart). The house to the left is what I envisioned The Cruellers living in, even though I housed them in a Victorian.

From the story: “That left the man who had just moved in to the shabby ranch partially obscured by overgrown forsythia.” Yes, I know this isn’t a ranch at all, but this house, because of its simplicity and plain appearance, looked like it didn’t belong with the rest of the houses on the block. So I figured George would live in this house.

This is actually behind George’s house and fronts Angell Street. For the story, I moved this structure, in my mind, directly to the right of George’s house—and made that the mental location of Laurie’s house.

The parking lot on Angell Street between the house behind George’s and another house almost exactly like it. Actually, I think both these “houses” are businesses.

In my mind, Laurie’s house, even though I noted it as a “Colonial.” George’s house is described as “obscured by overgrown forsythia.” Well…guess where I got that from?

[1] Daniel Pearlman, in e-mail to author, 2 February 2011.


“Crossing Guards” is in a new Table of Contents at Pill Hill Press and a slightly different version of “Paisley Surprise” is in print at Static Movement.

The beauty of anthologies is that there’s one for every taste, and so I’m pleased that “Crossing Guards” appears in vastly different collections. Millennial Concepts’ Walls & Bridges anthology offers pieces for every preference—there is poetry, there are literary pieces, there is horror, there is memoir, there is romance.

“Crossing Guards” is also now available in Pill Hill Press’ Haunted anthology—which focuses on scary stories set in haunted structures. If you love a book packed with spooky stuff, Haunted is for you.

“Paisley Surprise” is now in print with several other fine frightening pieces in Static Movement’s Inner Fears anthology.

With Halloween around the corner, it might be time to treat yourself to something scary…and although it’s only September, if you’re anything like me, you might already be considering Christmas. An anthology makes a great gift for a special reader in your life!

Ordering information is below.

Haunted (Print):

Haunted (Kindle):

Inner Fears:

Walls & Bridges (Print):

Walls & Bridges (Kindle):


My short story “Paisley Surprise”—a version of which I printed in very limited run in 2009—was recently reviewed and recommended in BoneWorld Publishing’s From the Marrow Issue #79 (June 2010). It got the thumbs up!

In From the Marrow, BoneWorld’s publisher John Berbrich reviews, recommends, and provides ordering info for his small press picks in everything from horror and speculative to poetry, philosophy and beyond. John, a poet, is also Editor-in-Chief of Barbaric Yawp.

Berbrich gave “Paisley” high marks—and recommends many other fun reads (I’m definitely planning on purchasing a copy of something called Chum). You can read the blurb here (it may only be up for a couple of weeks until he posts the next issue) and while you’re at it, check out everything else on the list, including Puddinghouse Publication’s Love in the time of Electrons (about an Internet romance) and Superiority Complex Press’ poetry collection The Book of Nate.


I used to keep all of my journals and short stories in these battered suitcases. I find it interesting some stories of mine went all the way to India in suitcases, too!

Recently, a colleague went to India on business. She loves to read, and she asked if she could take several of my short stories with her. I was thrilled and promptly loaded two manila envelopes, thinking that she probably wouldn’t really enjoy them, that perhaps she was just asking to be polite.

Yesterday she came up to me and told me that my stories had saved her life.

Before she goes on any trip, her husband buys her a book to read. For this trip, he’d given her the latest novel by her favorite author, one he was sure she hadn’t read. Ecstatic, she decided to read the novel on the long flight and stowed my envelopes in her checked luggage.

After the plane was in the air, she eagerly cracked the new book—then got to the end of page one and realized she had read it. She could have read it a second time, she said, but frankly, she hadn’t really enjoyed it that much the first time.

When she finally arrived at her hotel, she was wired. “I thought, ‘what the hell am I going to do with myself?’ and then I remembered your stories and I was so excited!” She had her favorites—for those of you who are curious, she loved “Red Circle,”[1] “Crossing Guards,”[2] “Paisley Surprise,”[3] and “Doors”[4] the most—and went into detail about how they affected her, or what they made her think. “Every night at the hotel, I had them all spread out on the bed, and I’d pick one to read. Sometimes I read two, and some of them, I even read twice. I would have gone nuts over there if I didn’t have them.”

Although I was, of course, flattered by all these compliments, that’s not why I’m sharing this. I’m sharing this because during the course of the conversation I was struck by how many times I’ve doubted my career choice: as in, ‘why am I a writer? What’s the point of all this?’ I know other writers feel this way sometimes, too, although from sharing with my friends, most of us agree that it’s because we can’t not write—it’s born in us, something we have to do or we go crazy. This is usually followed by shop talk: what good writing is or is not, whether or not something we wrote is technically perfect, the minutiae of submissions, the state of the publishing industry or academia. We get all tangled up in the business, where we fit in it, and how it will judge us.

I had an epiphany when I was talking with Karen. That sometimes we forget the other reason we’re writing: our readers. Part of the job is providing them with an experience: we can allow escape, entertain, spark laughter, encourage thought, inspire change. It’s not all about us. It’s about others. Any piece of work we write—even if it’s not perfect—could heal someone, change his outlook, teach him something. That—not selling millions of copies at the bookstore or getting tenure in an English department—is the true measure of success.

Before we parted ways, Karen said she was going to pass the pile on to one of her colleagues.

I wonder what my stories will do next.

[1] “Red Circle” was first published as “The Red Circle” in The Adirondack Review’s Fall 2002 issue and is still available online for free here. It was reprinted in Mudrock: Stories & Tales’ Winter 2005 issue.

[2] “Crossing Guards” was published in Millenial Concepts’ Walls & Bridges Anthology in 2008. It’s available in both paperback and Kindle formats.

[3] “Paisley Surprise” will appear later in 2010 in Lame Goat Press’ Inner Fears anthology.

[4] “Doors” was just written while I was in Ptown in January and still has some minor clean-up to undergo before it gets submitted. If you’d like to read what inspired it, however, you can visit here.


For those of you who don’t know I’m back from P-Town. It was the most productive month full of interesting adventures! Re-adjusting to the real world will be a long, slow process. It’s all good. And so is my recent news!

“Paisley Surprise” was accepted to Lame Goat Press’ upcoming Inner Fears Anthology due out a little later this year.

“Punctuation” is now available in the Winter 2010 issue of ESC! Magazine. If you’d like to read the story, you can click this link and read it for free:

I do, however, encourage everyone to support the small presses that give writers’ works a home. If you’d like to purchase a hard copy, you can head over to this link here:


I’m proud to say that so far, 2010 has been the best year yet! So what’s new?

“Screams of Autumn”

My short story “Screams of Autumn” has just been accepted by Spilt Milk, the Literary Magazine of Warm Milk Press. I’ll keep you posted on its availability.

Read Short Fiction

I’m honored to have been asked to serve on the staff at Read Short Fiction (, which is headed by Rob Mayette. We’ve reviewed several submissions over the past few months, and our first three acceptances (there are more in the queue, but they haven’t gone out yet) are now posted: “Hippie Market” by Tom Mahony,  “Handy Man” by David Landrum and “A Christmas Eve Story” by Milan Smith are all a lot of fun. Head on over there and check it out—and see Rob’s video introduction to the ’zine.

Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony

I’m already here and finally settled! In fact, I did scads of work today. I will have some access to e-mail, but as I’ve got a whole novel to write, a couple of short stories to revise, and a few book recommendations to take care of for “Dead Letters” on the The Ghostman & Demon Hunter Show, I don’t know how much I’ll be online. I do plan, however, on keeping my website updated with some occasional blogging and photos about my experience—I’m usually good for about seven or so hours of writing a day, and then I need to switch gears. I’ll be back at home on February 1.

“Paisley Surprise”

If you’re on my (postal) mailing list, this year’s exclusive story chapbook, “Paisley Surprise,” will arrive soon. (Although I will note this: they’re expensive to mail, so I’m going to mail out a few each week.) Only 225 copies were printed. If you don’t think I have your postal address and would like to receive a copy, just e-mail me or use the contact form on my website. While I’ll soon join the ranks of writers everywhere and send PDFs through e-mail or post them to SCRIBD, I won’t discontinue my chapbook editions. Nothing’s as magical as getting a cool little printed and hand-bound book to put on your shelf!

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