First Appeared: Schlock! Webzine, Volume 6, Issue 22 (#177)
Also Appears In: Schlock Bi-Monthly, Issue 6
Published: August 3, 2014
Byline: Paul Hamilton
Edited by: Gavin Chappell
Permanent Link: amazon.co.uk
Cost: £0.99 (Kindle Archive Webzine); $5.98 (Printed Bi-Monthly)
Content: Rated R: Thematic Elements, Rude Language, Violent Acts
Behind The Story
In September of 2012, I was reading a book of short stories that were inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and set in a modern era. Edited by Jim Turner, Cthulhu 2000 was a book I found to be a little uneven (short story collections being prone to that), but overall quite good. Except, and I complained about this to my friend Mike who recommended the book to me, there were very few stories that I felt were the kinds of stories Lovecraft would have written if he were contemporary. In fact, many of the authors’ take on the theme seemed to be to directly reference Lovecraft and/or his work, putting the author into his own canon. I thought this was a strange decision.
Instead of lamenting that there weren’t enough Lovecraftian stories in modern settings, I sat down and wrote one myself, called The Coffee Can Of Doom. It would up being a 12,000 word novelette and featured a gay couple living in a rural location who buy a can of imported coffee from the corner store and have a quarrel on the way home about the narrator/protagonist’s smoking habit. The narrator offers his boyfriend a cup of the coffee as an apology and it changes/zombifies the boyfriend, who then leads the narrator into a trap where he is dragged to a city below the lake near their home and subjected to a bizarre ritual before narrowly escaping. It ends with the narrator setting out on a quest to discover what happened to his partner and what kinds of forces are in play beyond the veil of reality.
What I realized quickly is that the length of the story was going to be a huge roadblock to getting it published. Finding a home for a Lovecraft homage of any sort is not the easiest thing in the world, and relatively sprawling tales like this one had basically no chance. So I cut the story down by almost half. In the process I lost the coffee can (there goes the title!), and I began questioning how much the specifics of the characters’ relationship mattered to the story. I still thought of them as a gay couple, but after the edits, the narrator’s gender became much more ambiguous. I decided to run with that, continuing a trend or habit I have of very blank-slate first person protagonist/narrators.
Then I ran it through my beta readers and writing groups.
I think, with their help, the story became as good as it was going to be. It settled in at almost exactly 7,000 words and had the kind of pulpy vibe I was trying for. For a long time I had re-titled the shorter version “Dale’s Song,” which I wasn’t too happy with but could never find a better name for. After a few rejections, I tried “Lakesong” which just sort of came out of nowhere and abruptly the story was picked up in a matter of days by Schlock! Webzine. Make of that what you will.
I do regret somewhat that so much of what I thought was unique about The Coffee Can Of Doom ended up in the trash. I like the shortened version of the story, certainly, and there’s no question it’s tighter and faster paced (which is a sort of funny thing to say about a “short” story that only qualifies by a small margin, but let’s gloss over that). I tend to grumble when people critiquing my work make suggestions about length, especially when they’re telling me, “You could totally expand this and make it into a book!” To me, a novel is not a short story idea you’ve padded and belabored to the point where it meets a certain word count requirement. But when a couple bits of feedback mentioned that this felt a little like an excerpt, I had to admit that such was the case. Because that’s exactly what it was. There is more story to tell before Lakesong starts, and there is lots of room to develop the narrator’s character and follow his journey along.
The question is whether I’d have any interest in doing such a thing. I do enjoy playing in a Mythos-inspired setting. But Lakesong, though it began as an excerpt from a longer work, developed on its own and in the process left behind much of what it was when I lifted it out of The Coffee Can Of Doom. Re-integrating the newer short into the original novelette would be a lot of work. They are, at this point, different enough that they don’t quite fit together but similar to the extent that they couldn’t exist side-by-side.
What I have toyed with—in that abstract, daydreamy way of writers—is revisiting the setting with different characters, particularly those who were cut from the longer version. That’s the kind of thing lots of writers do but I haven’t toyed with very often. Creating the setting and characters is part of the central enjoyment of writing for me; developing them at depth appeals on a theoretic level, but I’m easily distracted by the next brand new idea. However, if I intend to graduate from short stories to novels at some point, this is a skill I’ll need to master. For now, I’m happy to have told a spooky story, and happier still if others enjoy the ride.
After the story ran on the webzine, the editor contacted me again and asked if he could include the story in their bi-monthly anthology that collects the editorial staff’s favorite webzine pieces from the previous two months of weeklies. So now the story can be purchased in a nice print-on-demand edition with other “best of” stories from the summer of 2014.