Afterwords to “Worshipping Small Gods”

These are the afterwords/author’s notes I wrote for the stories in my second collection, Worshipping Small Gods. They didn’t appear in the actual book for two reasons. 1) There wasn’t room and 2) They hadn’t been written yet. I think the second reason is probably the one that matters. Some readers are interested in this kind of thing, some aren’t. If you fall in the “aren’t” category, you can bail now. Fair warning.

There’s a good reason to call these things “afterwords,” as most of the reflections below really had nothing to do with the process of writing that particular story at the time it happened. As I’ve said before, I don’t think up stories–I recognize them. It’s only later, when I’m trying to make sense of what they were, and why they worked, that I can tell what the story was about. At the beginning I usually have no more idea of what they’re about than a reader would. What follows is pure ego and hindsight, but no spoilers, in deference to those who haven’t read the stories yet. Those with delicate constitutions or unsettled stomachs might want to look away.

“Kallisti,” Realms of Fantasy, April 2002

It all started with the scene between Eris and Ares, but I had no clue where it was going. So I don’t claim any special insight about it here. I just always felt that both Paris and the Goddess of Discord got a bum rap on that whole golden apple, Trojan War business, especially when so much of it was predestined. I wanted to give them, if not an out, at least a chance to tell their side of it. I’m a storyteller. I can do that.

“The Penultimate Riddle,” Realms of Fantasy, August 2005

We have this tendency to seek out what is greater than ourselves. Mysteries, transcendence, power. Maybe we’re just frightened little apes searching for the Alpha Primate, but I don’t buy that. I mean, yes, it’s true as far as it goes, but it’s a symptom, a signpost, not the goal itself. Many of us never quite sort out what the goal is, and many more accept the prefab notions of various religions for want of a better idea. I thought it would be nice, at least once, to follow someone who knew exactly what he was looking for, and more to the point, where he might find it. the reviewer Don D’Ammassa calls this story one of my best. I wouldn’t argue.

“Yamabushi,” Realms of Fantasy, December, 2003

This one is mainly due to my being a serial obsessionist. I’ll develop an intense curiosity about a subject, a curiosity that can last for months, years. While I’m so immersed I’m not consciously looking for stories, but I usually find them. In this case it was the battle of Dan-no-Ura in 1185AD, a sea battle between the Heike (Taira) and Minamoto(Genji) Clans at the end of the Heian Period that ended the Genpei Wars and marked the ascendancy of the new samurai class. Enyo is one such, and what he went through in that battle convinced him that he didn’t want to be a warrior anymore. For someone of his class, the only real alternative is to take holy orders and become a monk, which Enyo doesn’t want to do either. So now what? “Yamabushi” is the story of how he works that out. With the help of a thoroughly confused tengu.

A note about the so-called “Heike Crabs”: off the coast of Japan, fishermen catch a species of crab whose carapaces resembled the grimacing faces of warriors. Legend has it that this was caused by the spirits of samurai killed at the battle of Dan-no-Ura, and whose flesh was eaten by the crabs. When I first showed this story to my old writing group,  Mark Hoover said (paraphrase) “You’ve gotta work in a reference to the Heike crabs.” “But they don’t fit,” I said, until I thought about it for a while and realized that they did fit. So now there’s a neat little bit about the Heike Crabs in the story. You can thank Mark for that.

“Worshipping Small Gods,” Realms of Fantasy, August 2003

The title story is based on an early Buddhist legend. The story has it that a Buddhist missionary to Japan commanded one of the indigenous gods to build a bridge between two mountain peaks. The god agreed, with the condition that he be allowed to work at night, since he had a rather poor self-image (he thought he was ugly) and didn’t want to be seen in daylight. This rather innocuous request so offended the priest that he turned the god into a stone and left him that way.

I thought that kinda sucked. And I thought there had to be more to it. “Worshipping Small Gods” is the “more to it” part.

“The Plum Blossom Lantern,” Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #12, June 2003

Storytelling is part of an ongoing conversation that the human race is having with itself, a way to link past, present, and future with our common humanity. Yeah, that does sound pretentious, doesn’t it? But I believe it’s true, and that belief informs nearly everything I write. And “The Plum Blossom Lantern” is a clear example of that. It’s based on a 17th Century Japanese story, “Botan Doro” (Peony Lantern), which is in turn based on an earlier Chinese story of human intercourse with spirits. The earlier story was part of a series of Buddhist tracts on karma. The Japanese version was that and a good ghost story, which the Japanese loved, especially during the Edo period. This one, often told in the streets by professional storytellers called rakugoka, was wildly popular (the root word, rakugo literally means “fallen stories.” I love that). My version is about looking at the matter from the ghost’s point of view, and adding that aspect to the conversation. That’s all. It remains one of my favorite stories. (Note: soon to be reprinted in Ghosts: Recent Hauntings from Prime Books.

“Fox Tails,” Realms of Fantasy, June 2005

This was the first of the stories involving my Heian-era down at the heels aristocrat, Yamada no Goji. The difference between this series (aside from setting, tone, character and, well, everything else) and the Eli Mothersbaugh series is that I knew right away that “Fox Tails” was just the beginning.

“Fox Tails” is based on the legend of Lady Kuzu-no-ha (her name means “arrowroot leaf,” not that this has anything to do with anything). She’s a kitsune, a fox in human form who, depending on which version you read, either duped a human into marrying her, or actually fell in love with him and tried to make him happy, but her fox nature kept betraying her until she finally realized she could no longer keep her secret and had to leave. Well, when I learned about this legend my first thought was, “that’s not a story. That’s the beginning of one.” The scene with Yamada and the ghost Saita at the bridge came to me immediately.

I hardly knew who Yamada was at that point, but while searching for the voice of the story I thought it would be fun to do what was essentially a noir detective tale set in Heian Japan, with a missing wife (Kuzu-no-ha) as the mystery Yamada thinks he’s there to solve, and that’s what I had in mind. Some reviewers noted a difference in tone between this first Yamada story and those that followed, especially “Moon Viewing at Shijo Bridge.” It’s true. The character quickly evolved past my original concept, but vestiges of the noir elements remain, for those who take the trouble to notice.

“A Hint of Jasmine,” Asimov’s SF, August 2004

This one was a bear to write, for a lot of reasons. There was a long, difficult scene between Eli and his father that I needed to write for my own understanding of where the character’s head was. Then I cut it, because I was the one who needed it, not the reader. While I don’t consider myself a “Southern Writer,” as the term is commonly understood, I am most definitely a Southerner and that shows up in my stories in ways both subtle and not very. In the Eli stories that fact is a little more obvious and in this one in particular it’s more blatant than usual. As for the impetus, well, nearly every one of us has loved and lost at some point. Eli’s no different.

“Voices in an Empty Room,” HAUNTED HOLIDAYS, DAW Books, 2004

Terrorism. Tragedy. Loves lost and, at least for a moment, regained. Emotional scars and potential healing. What more do you want in a story? An explanation? Can’t help you there. I have no idea where this one came from.

“Hanagan’s Kiyomatsu, 1923,” First Publication

About the only thing I have in common with Eli Mothersbaugh is his hobby: collecting Japanese woodblock prints, especially artists of the Shin Hanga movement of the early 20th Century. Most of the artists mentioned in the story are real, save for Kiyomatsu himself, of course. I made him up. Pity. I’d love to see “Girl With Teacup.”

One odd thing about the timeline, though: When I’m doing a series I generally tend to write them in the order they happened, at least so far as my inner chronological sense places them. This one actually follows the early events in “Diva” next in the collection, and ends before the events portrayed after Dean Wilson’s retirement. I wrote the first section of “Diva” first, then this story, then realized I was nowhere near done with “Diva” itself and expanded it to novelette length.

“Diva,” First Publication

This started out as a short story and was later expanded to a long novelette, as I mentioned above. Marshall Hall is based on a building on the campus of Athens State University, which Carol attended for a while when we were living in Decatur, Alabama. She took a parapsychology class there and attended a séance as part of her coursework. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence. If you believe in that sort of thing.

I’m not saying that “Diva” is the last Eli Mothersbaugh story. I don’t know that. But I left him in a pretty good place and he seems content to stay there. (Afterword to the Afterword–This story was expanded yet again, and is now included in Ghost Trouble: The Casefiles of Eli Mothersbaugh. For the record, it wasn’t the last Eli story. Just almost.)

“A Time For Heroes,” THE SHIMMERING DOOR, HarperPrism, 1996

This is the oldest story in the collection. Older, even, than its publication date suggests. The original story that eventually became “A Time For Heroes,” was written in 1983, two years after I published my first “pro” story in Amazing SF, but a good ten years before I sold my second. Usually if a story doesn’t work — and this one did not — I set it aside and there’s a chance I’ll come back to it, but usually it’s better to write something new and just keep going. This one I kept coming back to, time and again. Revising. Rethinking. It wouldn’t leave me alone, perhaps because at the time I just loved the premise so much: What if everything you knew about the stereotype “evil magician” was wrong? It was the first appearance of Tymon the Black, later to appear so prominently in The Long Look. I’m still trying to sort out the correct way to spell his name.

I finally sorted the story itself out in 1991, according to my notes, but it was still three years before it sold, to Jo Clayton, who was working with Katherine Kerr on the SHIMMERING DOOR anthology. It was my biggest sale at the time and gave me a huge boost. I still like it. And I still miss Jo Clayton.

“Death, the Devil, and the Lady in White,” Realms of Fantasy, April 2005

This story was based on a folklore notion that there are places where the veils between this world and another are ragged and thin. Specifically, places where the barriers between earth and Hell are so threadbare that you can hear the Devil “riding to hound” at night, hunting souls instead of foxes. I liked the image, but it wasn’t a story. Until I was thinking of a separate subject, the infamous White Ladies who haunt ponds and streams, enticing and destroying anyone who dares to come near. Two separate and distinct notions, which combined, make a story. All I had to do at that point was add one of my own embellishments: an apparently sane protagonist who does an apparently insane thing. Like a non-hero who deliberately seeks out a sphinx. Or a rather ordinary man falling in love with a White Lady. At that point the story didn’t literally write itself, but close enough.

“The Right God,” Realms of Fantasy, August 2004

I like to think of this as my “What if faith was impossible?” story. What if god (in the generic sense. It’s a title, not a name) manifested in ways that were undeniably obvious? What would change? My personal opinion is “not much,” but that’s beside the point.

See, I like to think of the story that way, but that expansive notion really had nothing to do with it. That’s what I thought the story was about when I started writing it, after the image of all the gods manifesting physically all at once came to me. I was wrong. I am, often as not. They story had its own ideas, and I not only allow that, I encourage it.

“The Wizard of Wasted Time,” First Publication

This is the final story in the collection, and the third original. It’s a little unusual in that I can tell you exactly what the genesis of this story was, and when. It all started at DeepSouthCon in Birmingham, Alabama in 1998. It was only a small regional con, but to this day it remains one of my favorite conventions of all time. I got to hang out with online buddies Terry McGarry, Kurt Roth, and Diana Rowland, plus it was the convention where I met David Coe and Andy Duncan. Kurt, Diana, Terry, David, and I got to hang out a lot, talking shop, talking nonsense, and basically having a blast. David, a New Yorker originally, was inducted into the Honorable Order of Bubbas, and we all got exposed to the concept of “Foxy Lady” (not the song) but that’s a separate story that will not be told here. None of this may have anything to do with “The Wizard of Wasted Time” as such, but I doubt it.

See, downtown Birmingham, AL, is an interesting place. Besides brew pubs and other nice hangouts, there’s a park. And in the middle of that park is a fountain, and in that fountain is a statue. It’s called “The Storyteller”. It has the body of a man and the head of a goat, and it’s reading to a group of children gathered around.

I knew the first time I saw that fountain that I wanted to write a story about it. So I did. And it wasn’t about the fountain at all. Wasn’t even the same fountain, by the time I was done. I don’t suppose that’s a surprise to anyone. But it all started with a statue called “The Storyteller.”

I didn’t promise insights, which is a good thing. But those are the stories. And the stories about them.

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4 thoughts on “Afterwords to “Worshipping Small Gods”

  1. Great sharing of the author’s thinking about the points in his stories–sort of back-stories, as it were. And I also love that B’ham, AL fountain, “The Storyteller”. I love that whole part of the city, as a matter of fact. So different from the willful ignorance (out of fear) practiced in the boonies of NW Alabama!

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