Friday, August 27, 2010

Dancin' in the Cemetery

Just a head's up that Cemetery Dance picked up "The Roller Coaster's Heartbeat," my blog post from last weekend. It's over on their Advice For Writer's page, along with articles by folks like Tom Piccirilli, Tim Lebbon, Kealan Patrick Burke, and F. Paul Wilson. There's even another piece by some guy name Partridge -- "Dr. Frankenstein's Secrets of Style."

Anyway, if you're looking to break into the writing game, this is one page on the CD site you should bookmark. Good stuff there... and sound advice.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Inspiration, Perspiration

"You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club."

--Jack London

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Roller Coaster's Heartbeat

When I was a kid, I had a couple of recurring dreams. One of them involved surviving (and sometimes not surviving) a full-on zombie apocalypse. The other involved the Giant Dipper, the great old roller coaster at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

And, yep, for you fans of eighties horror movies, that's the same roller coaster in The Lost Boys. My dream had nothing to do with teenage vampires, though. In it, some friends and I were making the slow, initial ascent along the steep grade at the beginning of the ride, gearing up for the big plunge which set the coaster into overdrive.

Except that's not the way it worked in my dream. Halfway up the track the Giant Dipper started to sway. Quicker than you could scream "Earthquake!", we knew that we were in trouble. Our car stalled out. Old white-washed two-by-fours creaked beneath us like an arthritic skeleton. Nails screamed and boards started splintering. Scrambling, my buddies and I piled onto the track and started pushing the car to the top of the grade, figuring our only chance of survival was getting it over the hump, jumping back in, and riding the roller coaster to safety before the whole thing collapsed like a pile of Pick-Up-Sticks. In my dream we'd put our shoulders to it and muscle that car, and we'd work against gravity, and we'd gain inches and backslide feet and start again. Sometimes we'd make it, and sometimes we wouldn't. In that way, I guess the odds of surviving crumbling roller coasters and zombie apocalypses are a lot alike.

Anyway, the last few days I've been remembering my roller coaster dreams as I work on a novella. At first I thought it would be a short story -- hoped so, anyway, because I had already jumped the deadline -- but then it turned into something bigger. Which is kind of like setting out to build a carny ride and building a Giant Dipper instead. Still, I kept at it, hammering up two-by-fours, slapping on white paint, doing some John Henry action nailing down steel rails... In other words making progress, but a little bit too slowly to make me happy, and with too much uncertainty to let me rest easy at night.

Oh, I'd done all right up to a point. I'd laid track for half the story. The plot was going fine, and the characters were developing nicely. An aside: I'm one of those guys who figures out how to write a story by doing just that -- writing. I don't necessarily know a lot going in. Usually I start off with the seed of an idea, or maybe an opening image enticing enough to start me looking for the tale that goes along with it. I play with those initial bits of inspiration, and I wait for the creative cylinders to fire in my imagination that'll give me more.

Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. If things take off, I settle in and keep at it line by line. I tend to write stories in sections that are two to five pages long, and I craft the early ones as if I'm building a foundation, and then a framework. I outline as I go, jotting notes on 3" x 5" catalog cards I've scavenged from library jobs (yes, I believe in recycling). Most of these notes focus on plot and character. But as I get in further into a piece, I begin to look for something else... something that will stitch together the aforementioned elements and jolt enough lightning into the whole enterprise to make the story's blood start pumping.

I don't like to define what that something else is too exactly. Oh, I could try. I could crank out some terms from Lit Theory 101 and toss them your way, but those always seem a little antiseptic to me. Or too specific. Let's just say what I'm looking for in that something else is the heart of the story. Beating, bloody, and alive. And, hey, I admit that's a little visceral, but that's the way I like it (which is probably no surprise considering that so far in this essay my Metaphorical MixMaster has churned up zombie apocalypses, roller coaster calamities, and even John Henry -- all I can say is, at least I'm sparing you any boxing metaphors this time out).

Anyway, that something else is what every story really needs. Plot is fine, so is character, but the heart is what the story's really about. It's what makes the other elements live and breathe. And while the heart may develop from the plot or the characters, I don't necessarily hear it pumping until I'm well into a tale. Working that way can be kind of scary, like performing an operation when I can't even feel the patient's pulse.

Which means that sooner or later I have to get in there with the literary equivalent of a defibrillator to get things pumping. And that's why -- for me, anyway -- writing the first half of a story is usually a lot harder (and slower) than writing the second half. To get back to my dream of the Giant Dipper, it's like that long and desperate slog pushing the roller coaster car up the grade, muscling it towards that exhilarating race down the other side that ends with this writer's two favorite words: The End. For me, that slog is the hardest work there is in writing, and the most frustrating. Plus, there's no way around it. Either I find the story's heartbeat and muscle my roller coaster car over the hump, or I don't... in which case the tale hits the dead file, making the sad transition from "work in progress" to "story fragment ready to join yesterday's coffee grounds in the garbage pail, along with that tuna-fish can the cat licked out."

That's the uncertain territory I've been charting with this novella for the last week. It stalled out on me, but I kept my shoulder to it and kept pushing. Even in moments when I wasn't rereading the manuscript, the story didn't stray far from my thoughts. I spent several days looking for its heart. Rereading what I'd already written. Thinking about the situation I'd set up. Thinking about the characters I'd created, and who they are, and where they're going, and why. Thinking about sound and fury (because there's a lot of that in this story), and what it should signify, and what an empty deal the whole tale would amount to if I couldn't get a clue about that.

And that's when I started to hear the first murmur of a heartbeat. The story takes place in the old West, and it's about a group of characters looking for a mythical place that may or may not exist... a cave where dead men hunger for the blood of the living and humans are treated like so much cattle. Fifteen pages in, I had my guys sitting around a campfire out in the desert, listening to the youngest among them tell a story about the place. He's the only one who claims to have been there, the only one who knows (at this point in the story) whether the cave is real or not. That's the scene where I hit a wall, and my unlikely band of adventurers sat there for several days waiting for me to push their story forward. The wind whipped around them and the campfire crackled, and I hunted for words right along with the narrator. I thought about those men -- the preacher, the bounty killer, the blacksmith, the dynamite man, and the kid with the scorched face who earns his money telling stories in a bar. And it was that last thing that finally struck home. Because each of those characters had his own story, but for a couple of them those stories were a kind of currency. I thought about that currency, and -- most importantly -- how those two men used it. And pretty soon I began to hear a heartbeat out there in that desert, and that's when I knew I'd found my tale.

Right now, I'm hearing that heartbeat loud and clear. So let me say adios and get back to work. I'm over the hump. It's time to pile into my metaphorical MixMaster of a roller coaster alongside John Henry and those post-apocalyptic zombies, and take it for a ride.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Premakes: The Avengers (1952)

Okay. What if they'd made an Avengers movie back in the fabulous fifties? It might have looked like this. (And, sure, it's a bit of a fudge sliding a sixties gal like Diana Rigg in there as the Black Widow, but you'd have to be more than a little bent to argue a choice like that, wouldn't you? I mean, talk about a woman with Avengers cred!)

So consider this pretty much a "KO 1" assessment by yours truly. I love it. Plus, my geek meter notched into the stratosphere while watching it, because I actually know where most of the clips came from. And while I'm at it, credit where credit is due: I found this over on Josh Reynolds' comics blog, It's Clobberin' Time. Josh's place is a Yancy Street joint which is always worth a looksee -- especially if you're a fan of Bashful Benji Grimm.

And one last thing: Lee Marvin as the voice of Nick Fury? That's perfect. Give me more.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lon Chaney Said It...

"Vanity is a personal parasite that must be fed until it is gorged and renders its victim a failure. I care nothing whatever about fame. The less I have of it, the better for me personally. I work for money and I work because I am interested in the things I do. If I were not, I wouldn't do them."

--Lon Chaney
"Discoveries About Myself"
Motion Picture, July, 1930

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Iron Dead: Free Excerpt

Over at the website, we've posted a free excerpt from "The Iron Dead," an original novella that appears in my new SubPress short story collection, Lesser Demons. As I've mentioned before, "The Iron Dead" is a tribute to the classic pulps -- Weird Tales in particular -- and the kind of characters that were known as "weird heroes" back in the day. And while we don't meet the weird hero of "The Iron Dead" in this excerpt, we've included Kevin Nordstrom's rendering of Chaney, which I'm still digging mightily. Enjoy!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Early Influences: Frank Frazetta, Creepy, and the Cover Story

Being a first-generation monsterkid, I'm old enough to remember a lot of primal Frank Frazetta work hitting the newsstands back in the day. In particular, I have a strong recollection of seeing Creepy #7 on display at the local bottle shop (my mom's polite parental euphemism for "liquor store").

I wasn't quite eight years old when that issue came out. I was barely buying comics -- mostly Batman. My older brother and I were allowed to go to the bottle shop to get our monthly fix. The comics rack was near the front door. Sixties prices were twelve cents a pop for great stuff like The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and Tales to Astonish, or a quarter for a summertime King-Sized Special (as a kid, I loved those DC Giants featuring Superman or Batman... though just laying eyes on Bob Kane's version of the Joker was guaranteed to give me nightmares). Anyway, when all was said and done, my brother and I could have a lot of fun for fifty cents. Toss in a couple extra dimes, we could each grab ourselves a Frosty Root Beer or an R. C. Cola, too.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that the comics rack at the front of the bottle shop was one of my favorite places in the world. But I wasn't allowed to visit the magazine section. There were a couple rows toward the back of the store, and that's where they kept stuff like Playboy, and Gent, and Rogue. Of course, that's also where they kept the Warren magazines like Creepy and Eerie, which I was desperate to buy -- even though they seemed astronomically priced at thirty-five cents a pop (i.e. only one penny short of THREE Marvel comics!). But though I tried to explain to my mom that the Warren mags were just comic books like the ones I bought off the turnstile rack, she wouldn't go for it. No way was I getting to the back of that store to thumb through those things... or anywhere near those products bankrolled by Hugh Hefner or some other guy in silk pajamas.

Still, I got a peek at Creepy and Famous Monsters and the other Warren stuff every now and then (usually when my grandfather, who'd been a fan of pulp magazines, took us to the store). But I didn't get anywhere near Creepy #7 the month it was out. I only saw that cover, with the great Frazetta painting of a werewolf battling a vampire in the ruins of a castle. "Duel of the Monsters" the cover screamed. And, yep, it got me excited. How could it not? By then I'd watched a few of the old Universal Monster Rallies. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. I thought Lon Chaney, Jr. was the coolest thing ever, because he was both a monster and a hero rolled into one. And Glenn Strange as Frankenstein's Monster? Man, I thought he was the scariest thing on two legs. He made the Joker look like a pussycat.

So I loved the Universal classics -- especially the dust-up battle royales between the monsters that would inevitably spell the climax of the later films. Those movies were probably at least partly responsible for the images the cover of Creepy #7 sparked in my head. Of course, spurred by Frazetta's art, what I saw was wilder than a Universal movie. And more violent. And a lot bloodier. Somehow much scarier... and, at the same time, much more real.

After all, Frazetta's werewolf was obviously a badass. He was cut, as the bodybuilders say -- a killing machine with plenty of tooth and claw on him, ready to clean house and stock a butcher shop single-handedly. And that vampire was no slouch, either. Frazetta's Count was all sharp features and sharp fangs. One look and you could see that the undead blood-sucker had chewed a layer of skin off the lycanthrope's arm, shredded it right down to muscle that looked as red as anything you'd find in a cutaway anatomy illustration.

Of course, I wasn't even eight years old. I didn't have the words to articulate my attraction to the cover of Creepy #7 in quite that way back then. But it certainly captured my imagination. Right away, I wanted to know what started that fight -- who that werewolf was, who the bloodsucker was. I wanted to watch their battle unfold in the shadow of that ruined castle. And I wanted to know how it all turned out once the battle was over.

I guess all that is another way of saying that Frazetta's painting set off some fireworks in my imagination. And that's true. The cover of Creepy #7 did just that. I never forgot it. For years, I wanted to track down that issue so I could read that story and answer those questions. When I bought Creepy as an older kid (Mom finally did relent on that score), I'd look at the tiny picture of Frazetta's cover on the back issues page and think about getting a copy. I never actually ordered one, but I thought about that cover a lot. Those same questions would stir in my imagination, and it wasn't long before I tried to build my own answer. I didn't know it then, because I figured I wasn't doing anything more than looking for a story that already existed. But really I was doing something much more valuable -- I was learning to build a story of my own.

And, as I'd already begun to understand, that process started with questions. Why was the werewolf after the vampire? Was he there to settle a grudge? Had the vampire killed someone he loved? Was that it? Had the werewolf tracked the undead leech to his lair in that ruined castle so he could settle the score? In my mind, it seemed that had to be the reason... or part of it, anyway. Each time I thought of Frazetta's painting, I'd think of that story. I'd add a little bit to it, then add a little bit more. And I'd see it all unfold in my head, marvelously rendered just the way Frazetta would have done the job.

Of course, years later when I was a teenage comic book dealer, I actually tracked down Creepy #7 at a con. I remember sitting in a hotel room and reading the Archie Goodwin/Angelo Torres tale, "The Duel of the Monsters." While it was a fun little twist-ender, it wasn't anything like the story I'd imagined. That wasn't an unfamiliar feeling. As is the story with a lot of comics and paperbacks, often the cover art is far superior to the story you'll find inside the book. And while I'm sure others might come to a different conclusion when sizing up Creepy #7, I've got to admit I was disappointed in a tale that seemed pretty tame in comparison to the wild one Frazetta's painting hinted at.

So, yeah, I was disappointed. That was the emotion I focused on then... and it's what I focused on for a good long time when I'd remember Creepy #7. But I've been thinking about it again in the shadow of Frazetta's death a few months ago, and what I focus on now is the cover itself and the wonderful gift Frank Frazetta gave me when I first laid eyes on it. If you want bang for the buck, that cover was more than enough. It was a spark that kindled a story of my own before I really understood the magic of that process. That's what counts, and that's what I'd like to thank Frazetta for tonight... and too many other fine cover artists to mention.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Webslinger and The Bird

Just a note that ace webslinger Minh Nguyen is getting things all spiffed up over at my website, And, yep, that's the two of us above at the World Horror Con a few years ago. Minh's the guy whose youth has expired (but obviously not his multiple addictions to music, movies, graphic novels, and good horror). Me, I'm still more of a rockabilly guy than a punk guy, and I don't plan on expiring anywhichway anytime soon.

Anyway, we took a little hiatus over at the webstite during the last couple months, but with good reason -- Minh was busy planning his wedding, and he and his lovely bride were married just a few weeks ago in Hawaii. Congrats to the newlyweds!

A few words about the website updates -- the front page of the site will mirror American Frankenstein to some extent, posting the publishing news but not commentaries, interviews, opinion, and all the marginalia you'll find here on the blog. In the next couple weeks, we'll be updating other sections, including the bibliography, free fiction, and free nonfiction. So tune in and stay tuned. There will definitely be a few surprises comin' at ya along the way.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Demons on Revu

There's a new review of Lesser Demons over at SFRevu. In part, Drew Bittner has this to say about the collection: "Norman Partridge delivers hard-hitting, visceral horror like a flurry of gut punches in Lesser Demons, a collection of dynamite short stories. Like Joe R. Lansdale and Howard Waldrop, the man has a knack for delivering powerhouse chills with an economy of language and a surgical precision... Strongly recommended."

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Barron Weighs In

Over at his blog Domination of Black, Laird Barron has posted a list of twenty horror writers worth reading. Both my bride and I are pleased to have made the list... and I'm also glad for the nudge to order up books by a few folks whose names are becoming increasingly familiar to me but whose work I've not yet sampled.

Cracking the spine of an unread book, discovering a new and vibrant voice waiting there on the page... that may be a little moment when you stack it up against life's big picture, but it's one that always sends a jolt up my spine.

Of course, sometimes it's the kind of moment that makes me want to break my pencils, too, but that's the risk you take when you you're a writer and you read the really good stuff. You can't help but stack up your own work against it. And, in the long run, that can serve as motivation to raise the bar on yourself a little bit -- or try, anyway -- which is a great approach to getting the job done.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Vampires in Love

Yanked open the mailbox today and found a contributor's copy for Vampires in Love, edited by Rosiland and Martin H. Greenberg. One look at the cover and I wasn't sure that I was secure enough in my masculinity to be included in this book, as I don't think I've ever had a tale wrapped up in anything resembling a bouquet before -- even a bloodstained one. (And just so you know: I'd insert a little yellow balloon-headed winky right if I could bring myself to do it, because I'm definitely kidding around.)

Seriously, my contribution to the anthology, "Do Not Hasten to Bid Me Adieu," is a personal favorite that's still close to my (admittedly dark) heart. A riff off Stoker's Dracula, it imagines what might have happened had vampire-hunter Quincey P. Morris returned to his native Texas along with his dead lover, Lucy Westenra. I originally sold this one to Poppy Z. Brite for her ground-breaking anthology, Love in Vein. Accepting it, Poppy wrote: "...the story contains some of your best writing I’ve seen yet — the third paragraph on page 2, with the description of the West Texas night sky, choked me up with the sheer beauty of the prose in a way that only Lucius Shepard can usually do. Goddammit, Norman, you just write so goddamn pretty."

Of course, I couldn't ask for a better editorial response than that. I'm glad to see "Do Not Hasten..." appearing again, especially alongside the work of some really fine writers: Charles de Lint, Charles L. Grant, Nancy Holder, and my good buddy Ed Gorman. You can grab a copy at Barnes & Noble, or order it online. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"When Bad Things Happen to Badass People"

That little sliver of a quote is just a taste of a choice Lesser Demons review posted over at Macabre Republic. This one's a new site designed for lovers of All-American Gothic Lit by writer Joe Nazare, and it looks like a keeper (i.e. any blog that uses a twisted little hunk of Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" as its Constitution is okay by me).

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Early Influences: THEM!

Them! was one of the first monster movies I ever saw. Needless to say, I loved it... and not just because it featured an army of giant ants invading New Mexico. I remember thinking James Whitmore was the coolest cat ever as the star of the show. And, hey, he did look pretty frosty as a New Mexico State Patrolman in a black shirt -- and he acted cool, too. Whitmore's Sergeant Ben Peterson was a guy who took care of business. Trouble reared its head and he jumped in the middle of it instead of asking questions or waiting for someone else to take the lead. Yep. Whitmore was the guy who rescued the little mute girl in the desert and got her to safety after her family was wiped out. He grabbed a Thompson submachine gun and ventilated the first giant ant that showed up onscreen. And later on he climbed down into a king-sized ant hill and went to work with a flame thrower, toasting the giant queen mama's eggs long before the space Marines from Aliens (or Sigourney Weaver) ever dreamed of their first big bug hunt.

I've got to admit -- all that shot my Heroics Meter into the red when I was a kid... and I'm not ashamed to admit it still does today. I was probably seven or eight when I saw Them! for the first time. When the giant ants finally cornered Whitmore in the L. A. storm drains, I cried like a baby. I remember my mother saying: "Norman! We're not going to let you watch these horror pictures if they upset you so much!"

I watched Them! again a couple nights ago, and I've got to admit I puddled up a little when ol' JW bought the farm. The older I get, the easier it is for that to happen -- hey, I bawl like a baby at the end of Gladiator, too. But mostly, I was struck by how strongly Them! influenced me. It really seems like a template for a Norm Partridge story, starting off in the New Mexican desert with a couple of cops investigating a pair of strange murders. Them! is heavy on the shadows in the first twenty minutes, and it could easily have morphed into a noir film if those ants hadn't shown up... which of course isn't surprising when you realize that this was Warner Brothers' take on a monster movie. The studio definitely tossed in a few buckets of darkness left over from those old Bogart and Cagney pictures along with the giant ants.

People talk about crime/horror mash-ups these days like the idea is something new. I've been interviewed by young guys who think hardboiled horror is something I invented until I have a chance to clue them to writers like Robert Bloch, plus some of Bloch's contemporaries who wrote for radio shows like Suspense and Inner Sanctum. And now I can add to that list the gentlemen who cooked up Them! for Warner Brothers, plus serve up the movie itself as another example of what I'm talking about.

All in all, I'm not quite sure how Them! would play for modern audiences -- it's definitely quaint when it comes to special effects (though I love those king-sized puppet monsters) and certain bits of characterization date it -- but those opening twenty minutes are still a stone cold wonder for me. The kickoff of Them! is a fine balance of crime and horror that works perfectly; the matter-of-fact police investigation suspends audience disbelief as it unfolds, so that when that first giant ant comes creeping over the hill we instantly buy into its reality. That's a wonderful bit of misdirection, and a trick I've pulled a time or two in my own fiction. Or to put it another way: If anyone ever put some money behind a story like "Road Dogs" or "The Big Man" and came up with a slice of black & white goodness like Them!, I'd definitely be one happy camper.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Swarm of Locus

The new issue of Locus has a great review of Lesser Demons, singling out my new novella, "The Iron Dead," for praise: "The one previously unpublished story, 'The Iron Dead,' is a tour-de-force of narrative drive and imaginative horrors. Set during the Prohibition Era, it begins like a hardboiled crime story, with a truck full of rumrunners running afoul of a nemesis, but it quickly turns into something much more intriguing and imaginative as that nemesis reveals itself to be something horrifically alien. Partridge doesn’t waste time explaining it or its motives. Instead, he conjures a hero as weird and wild as the monsters, amps up the firepower, and draws gangsters and gunmen together in an uneasy alliance against an formidable mutual enemy. The story has the energy and audacity of a superhero comic, and would make one helluva graphic novel or movie adaptation. It’s Partridge firing on all cylinders, and it’s the perfect finish to this very fine compilation."

Can't ask for a better nod than that. There are a few copies of the limited edition of Lesser Demons still available from SubPress, or you can grab the trade edition over at Amazon (it's sold out from the publisher).