First Appeared: Torn Pages Anthology
Published: May 1, 2015
Byline: Paul A. Hamilton
Edited by: Brandon H. Bell and Christopher Fletcher
Permanent Link: amazon.com
Content: Rated PG-13, Thematic Elements, Mild Terror, Violent Acts
Behind The Story
Originally this story was written for a contest which had the theme or prompt of, simply, “winter.” My first inclination in thinking of a story for this theme was that everyone else was going to do something with snow and sleet and sub-zero temperatures. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, our winters aren’t typified by frozen rain or woolen mittens. Temperatures get down to the 40s, maybe the 30s. It rains more (usually). I wanted to highlight a kind of winter that was familiar to me.
Sadly, the only other concept I had to go along with that notion was a place where death was industry, or a physical presence. I started writing blind and the notion of a rain-heavy winter and corpses bloating in a basement dovetailed into a slice of world building. I ran with it for a bit. I got stuck at a point, and let it sit for a while. I didn’t come back to it until I remmebered I had never really done a literal take on Tolstoy’s “someone comes to town” story archetype, so I dug back in.
What I’m describing here is the discovery-writing process, sometimes called “pantsing” (as in, writing by the seat of your pants). Usually I do some of this when I’m writing short fiction because for anything less than 8,000 words doing a lot of outlining and pre-writing feels (to me) like overkill. But most of the time when I start a short story I have either a flash of inspiration that just starts the words flowing or I have a pretty clear sense of what story I want to tell, even if only in my head. I may detour along the way, but mostly I’m either trying to keep up with the ideas as they flow into my head or I’m trying to tell a specific story I came up with.
With Wet Rot, though, I was just putting things in there, seeing what might happen. The folksy tone and secondhand account is a by-product of this, as are the third-hand source interludes that pick up the story when the narrator wouldn’t have been present. When it came time to introduce the protagonist, I thought that a good foil for a place with a peculiar relationship to death would be a medium. Originally Ursula Calhoun—who would eventually develop into one of my favorite characters I’ve ever concocted—was a sort of cruel sorceress type. She essentially terrorized the town of Edberg until they revealed their secret. The first hint of the story Wet Rot would eventually become materialized after I got stuck about halfway through with this version of her. So I went back to the beginning and found the line I’d written about Ursula whispering into her mule’s ear like a lover.
I started thinking then of Ursula as a character who would come into town and change everything, but who wouldn’t walk away unscathed. It necessitated a lighter touch on her part, so I reconsidered the arc. From there, the second bookend became clear in my mind and I was able to fill in the middle portion much more easily.
Revising Wet Rot took a long time. By the end of the first draft I felt the story had strayed too far from the original contest theme (even though winter plays a certain role in the piece, it’s a minor motif more than a real driving element), but I wasn’t sure what I had on my hands. It wasn’t a straight fantasy story, although it had some high fantasy elements; it wasn’t really magical realism nor fable though it harkened somewhat to those, too; it contained some horror trappings but didn’t feel much like it would fit into most of the horror markets.
It is here that I have to specifically call out a couple of my critique partners, because without their help, I don’t think the story would have come to exist in its current form. Heather Boyd took a pass at a very early draft and identified a whole lot of the initial version’s logical inconsistencies and pushed me to find a clearer way to convey the point of the story. After I refined it a few more times, Steve Haddon took a deep and insightful look at it and helped me to hack away a lot of fat I had lying around from the first discovery-written effort. He is directly responsible for any success that may be present in the climactic scene. Originally that sequence descended into heavy melodrama and a lot of over-the-top speechifying by Ursula. I think her fury and disgust is far more palpable now, yet she is left with only a handful of words to say.
When I started submitting the piece, a lot of the concerns of “what kind of story is this, anyway” returned. I tried some of the more esoteric markets, and I tried some straight horror magazines and even a couple of places that publish fantasy stories. None were interested. After a few months I stumbled across the Torn Pages Anthology call for submissions. I read the essay that described where the concept for the anthology had originated and I thought very long and hard about whether Wet Rot fit into their call.
I’ll be honest: I have no idea how other authors handle these situations, but I feel very conflicted about themed submissions. It feels a little disingenuous to submit something to a themed or prompted call that I didn’t write for that express purpose. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that Wet Rot felt like it was trying to say a lot of the things the guidelines were asking for. I hadn’t intended to write something for that purpose, but I had inadvertently done so anyway. No sense acting like it wasn’t a good fit just because it wasn’t a fit I had planned. So I shipped it off.
Obviously the editors at Weird Bard Press agreed that Wet Rot fit their vision, and for that I’m profoundly grateful and pleased.