Whether in response to the (in Maine, creeping and slow) green emergence of spring or to some other, more subconscious prompt, it would seem this April has proved to be a steady meditation on resurrections and resuscitations, shaped by startling returns to old work, old haunts, and to the (entirely non-metaphorical) old farmhouse where I grew up. And bookending all of that, two older stories have found new homes and new lives. First the Stoneslide Corrective re-released “Poptimistic” in their first-ever print issue, and now Matter Press (who printed my story “Firecracker” this past fall) has given my very-short story “Pillars” yet another incarnation online.
Says the publisher and editor, Randall Brown:
“If a writer tells you that he’s writing a story that begins with a kid looking at stars, you might suggest a different opening image, one less familiar. Unless of course that writer is Douglas W. Milliken. For a writer using something more familiar, I’ve always thought the stakes were high to find something less commonly found in the image. In that contrast between the stars and the space, between childhood and adulthood, between earth and elsewhere, Milliken finds that profundity, that emotional wallop, that something unexpected in the familiar. So maybe it’s not always necessary to find the odd, rarely seen image/scenario—as long as something remarkable and surprising is found within it. “
Written during a prolific term at the I-Park Foundation in East Haddam, Connecticut, “Pillars” first appeared in Issue 13 of Slice, then again on their “In the Telling” podcast, first as a live reading, then again as a This American Life-style audio piece.
The Stoneslide Corrective No. 1, the first-ever print edition of the self-same online journal and occasional book publisher, is now at long last available. The issue, featuring new fiction, satire, and humor together with some of the Corrective’s more popular content from the past several years, includes my short story “Poptimistic,” a late and bitter chapter in my on-going series of Coleman narratives (Brand New Moon, “Mule & Tourist,” etc.).
This new print edition comes just in time for the annual AWP writing conference in Minneapolis. To celebrate, the Stoneslide Corrective—in collaboration with Publication Studio Hudson and the South Minneapolis Society Library—will be hosting an off-site reading this Thursday, April 9th, at 6:30 pm. Amid the uncomplicated allure of books, beer, and food, I will be reading alongside Libby Cudmore, Joe Ponepinto, and Mark Wisniewski. The event is free and open to everyone.
A brief update for a brief story. “Interrobang,” a swift demonstration of resistentialism in action, appears in this month’s issue of the flash-fiction journal Bide. The new issue is available as both a limited-edition book (which will arrive at your door with a hand-written love letter) as well as a downloadable digital edition. Following Tincture‘s publication of “Arena” last September, this is my second Australian publication in one year.
Last night, a friend told me that my stories remind him of Francis Bacon’s paintings. This makes perfect sense to me, especially when considered in terms of the nightmarishly meaty. This morning, by contrast, I received my comp copies of Cicada, a YA magazine whose March issue features my story “Elephant,” about a twelve-year old boy’s treatise on suffering framed around his search for a missing bike. I don’t think the young adult market was my intended audience when I first wrote this story—in my estimation, “Elephant” walks the same rat alleys as “Poptimistic” and “James Taylor v. the King” (all three of which were written during the same pacific week at the Hewnoaks Artist Colony in 2013)—but then again, I still insist Otis Redding dances like Tim Kinsella and not the other (logical) way around. So make of that what you will.
“Don’t go out there again,” Gramma said, her voice all thick and froggy from ice cream. “You ain’t find no bike today.” In her way, she’d already cleaned her plate.
I bristled a little bit at this. It was too damn early for Gramma to be prophesying. As far back as I can remember, her outlook on the future has never been anything but grim. But before I could shush her, Jodie put the kibosh on this kind of talk. He set down his fork and snapped his left fist into his right palm. It made a smart sound that got his Gramma to jump.
“I will find my bike, Gramma. And when I find the thief who stole it, I’m taping his butt to a chair and feeding him a million donuts until he comes down with diabetes and has to have his feet cut off. Then he won’t be kicking anything ever again.”
His bike had been chained to the mailbox. Whoever had taken the bike had kicked the post down in order to steal it. So that’s something else that happened: our mailbox got ruined.
Details, excerpts, and ordering information for the new issue of Cicada can be found here.
[DISCLAIMER: In the interest of full-disclosure, I’m obliged as well as proud to acknowledge that Brandon Schmitt and I have been friends and collaborators for over a decade. We’ve played on one another’s records and covered each other’s songs. We’ve shared beds and rankled in each other’s stink. We’ve shared meals out of dumpsters and never even flinched. In any other context, this would be indicative of a blatant conflict of interests. However, anyone who knows me and calls me a friend—and at this juncture, there’s probably only three or four despicable dudes who’d openly make that shameful claim—can attest that being my friend does not entitle you whatsoever to any mercy or leeway. If anything, it damns you to the most needling scrutiny. So let this be the preface to what follows: I wanted desperately to hate this record, and as per the norm, I did not get what I wanted.]
Brandon Schmitt’s last full-length record, Send Off Smoke—by turns both rollicking and contemplative without ever abandoning its firm toehold in the foot-worn arena of country-inflected rock—ended with the crippling one-two punch of “One More Sad Song” and “Positively.” The former was a sort of one-last-time-for-the-road act of letting go, like two lovers coming together for a conclusive bittersweet night before parting ways for good. The latter was the next logical step: admission that things have been pretty damn bad but have also been pretty good, too, that this cycle will repeat forever without end so maybe let’s not take it too seriously, okay? This was our point of departure. This was the new manifesto. Not everything has to feel so bad all the time.
So maybe it comes as something of a shock (although anyone who happened to catch Schmitt’s 2012 split-cassette with Blind Pelican probably could’ve seen this coming) that Red Blood Blues is an amazingly dark record. Not just lyrically but in its overall mood and execution, layered rich and terrifying with wailing feedback and the (very) infrequent rumble of drums. It’s unsettling to say the least. Like Schmitt’s been somewhere outside this world and has somehow made it back to report what he’s seen beyond the pale. It reminds me of the opening pages of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, wherein the unnamed main character awakes from a dream about wandering
[…] in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granite beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell.
I have no doubt that the songs on Red Blood Blues were recorded in this loveless cave, on the lipping shores of this ancient lake. The sightless beast—spider-egg eyes and glass bell skull—is the session band in total, crouching and moaning low over the record’s every song. Schmitt traveled alone to this place, and he brought a mic and a guitar. What results in an album that doesn’t bother trying to sugarcoat the truth because the world doesn’t contain enough sugar to cover up the bitter taste. Its desolation is matched only by its seethe. All of which leads to the overwhelming question: What the hell happened to thinking positively? Maybe Schmitt forgot that these were supposed to the good times. More likely, life gave him a not-too-subtle reminder: he was wrong. The good days come and go. But the bad days are here to stay.
All the songs on the record, at their core, carry the unmistakable hexmarks—the chord progressions, the rinse-repeat lyrical patterns—of the oldest sort of blues (although “Wolf Mountain” bears the distinct sound of a California roadhouse country outfit made up entirely of shambling reanimated skeletons). But everything spiraling madly from that anchor of genre is straight out of a nightmare. There are references to blood burning into thick beads of smoke and references to white holy pine singing the shadow heart, treacherous serpents and rivers on fire, spooky details made all the more spooky—more real—by the intermittent concrete detail: Schmitt admitting to living in his car (again), that the last time he saw his grandmother, her eyes were closed (the delivery leaves no room for doubt: she’s dead), the almost threateningly plaintive, “I heard you got a new friend in town.” These direct depictions of human life in the human world are the pinions locking this record firmly to the ground, reminding us whenever we need the reminder that, as end-of-days scary as these songs get, all of this—from the beast slouching in the cave to the lamplight flickering wetly off flowstone—is unmistakably real. A flesh-and-blood man singing the songs of our brick-and-mortar world. Which might be the most terrifying part of all.
Yet, as much as this record might feel like a departure, this is by and large classic Schmitt, expanding his distinctly unusual landscape by means of a well-established symbolic language of thickening skin and blood and bones and nearly everything burning up into an ineffable lexicon of smoke-signals and swaying shadow trees. What’s new is Schmitt’s abject lack of hope. Or anyway, near-lack, for even at the record’s darkest moments, Schmitt acknowledges that he’s wandered from the path, that he’s seeing things all wrong. It’s a humbling moment—you can feel his humility—in “Black Smoke Blues” when he sings,
I keep this lamplight burning
until just the embers shall remain—Oh
let it go.
Well I need to let it go.
There’s a palpable exasperation in the way he interrupts himself. You can tell: he’s remembering his earlier promise of no more sad songs, of thinking positively. In this dark and sterile cave, he’s holding the last bit of light that remains in all the world. He’s holding it high. But the flame is sputtering. It’s almost out. Schmitt knows just how he wants to be. But at the end of the day—the end of every day—the world just will not let him go.
This anthology, which will blend new material along with some of the “greatest hits” of the past three years, is slated for release this April. To help curb the substantial up-front printing costs, the Stoneslide Corrective is holding a Kickstarter campaign starting today. At its most basic level, this is a great way to pre-order your copy of what is proving to be a gorgeous, strange anthology of stories, satire, and photography. At the other end of the spectrum, your donation can earn you a large-size print of any photo in the journal, a Stoneslide T-shirt, and an editorial consultation on your own work.
Published in the final seconds of one year and just in time for the next, “A Rich Man’s Knees” gives 2015 an auspicious beginning.
John walked through the backdoor and for a while things got quiet, then there was a shot and John came out the front with two guns in his hands, his and his brother’s. He held the guns in the air like he was surrendering in his brother’s stead, or maybe was showing us the evidence of what he’d just done, and there was a tense and unified silence before finally, everyone raised their hands and cheered. In the back of the crowd, the band struck up a round. We could finally have our goddamn funeral.
My first overt foray into (what at least in my imagination is) the Western genre, this story is dedicated to the musician Brandon Schmitt.
Praise for TO SLEEP AS ANIMALS
"[...] it is impossible not to be the weird kid in Milliken's Reno. To Sleep as Animals is a mystery about characters succumbing to their spaces, how such a rugged landscape sustains so many strange and dangerous lives."
"A disturbance of a very specific flavor...Milliken's writing is urgent yet finely considered--a literate pleasure."
~Carl Skoggard, author of Walter Benjamin's Berlin Childhood circa 1900.
"A distinctive and often vertiginously frightening psychological landscape... bracingly disturbing."
~Megan Grumbling, author of Persephone in the Late Anthropocene.
Praise for BRAND NEW MOON
"[T]hese stories...glow with some sort of holy light, as if every moment were magic, like footage of your family picnic on super 8."
~The Portland Phoenix
Praise for WHITE HORSES
“Douglas W. Milliken takes his time unveiling the savoring of the moment in a narrative of extremely gracious intimacy. The dignified personal. Expert surreal grounded prose. Pragmatic poetics that serve the whole. This man is a master of simile. And it never gets old because the associations are always complex and unexpected. Worked accuracy but seamlessly so. Wow throughout the heartbreaking sensuality. Its core a felled forest of need. The title story, ‘White Horses,’ cannot be improved, which is another way of saying it is perfect.”
~Melody Sumner Carnahan, co-founder of Burning Books.