D.L. Russell Discusses Illuminati at my Door

It’s my pleasure to host a special blog interview on the eve of a new release by one of my favorite storytellers, editors, and publisher entrepreneurs, Mr. D.L. Russell. Almost a decade ago, he started the e-zine Strange, Weird and Wonderful when the idea of delivering magazines via an electronic file download was still new and not in wide use. D.L. used SWW to explore that potential and built SWW’s reputation as a place to find new, talented voices in dark fiction and as an outlet that discarded word count in favor of giving storytellers the room they needed to tell their story. I am proud to be counted among the new voices that first appeared within its electronic pages.

D.L. has since shut down SWW and branched out into themed anthologies under the publishing label Black Books Publishing. It’s first release, 21st century Black Erotica, sets the tone for how D.L. intends to push boundaries and offer his press as an outlet to examine all realms of subject matter.

His latest anthology shows a return to dark fiction with Illuminati at My Door, an exploration of secret societies and those who dare to find them and draw their attention.

FINALCOVERFORGOOGLEPLAYHi, D.L. On the surface, secret societies have been a part of speculative fiction for a long time. Can you tell us why you felt that now is a good time to return to this particular idea? Perhaps it, maybe, seems particularly appropriate to the time we live in?

The main reason is because I don’t feel these stories have been told from an accurate perspective of the common man. This anthology has nothing remotely related to the “last honest man,” constantly looking over his shoulder as he attempts to tell the truth before it’s too late. There are no Fox Mulders in this anthology. In fact, it’s just the opposites, with the main requirement of each story being believe-ability and a straightforwardness usually bypassed in such stories.

In some ways, editing a short story magazine and editing an anthology would be very similar experiences. What makes anthologies a different experience for you? Do you have a different mindset when you consider the submissions? What priorities do you have to consider that differ from magazine fiction?

dl official
D.L. Russell

When we were doing Strange, Weird, and Wonderful, each issue needed to have enough variety to please readers of several of the Spec Fiction Sub-genres. We never had a problem getting the scary stuff, but there were times when it’s all we had to go with and I had to make calls to writers I’d worked with on earlier issues to see if they had any Fantasy or Science Fiction pieces.

With anthologies, it’s the basic or detailed theme of each story that ties the book together. With Illuminati at my Door, the basic theme was if an individual was approached by a member of a secret society, how would they handle it? Especially in today’s world, where secret societies and conspiracy theories are everywhere; almost every major and minor event is branded with its conspiracy element.

Talk about your stable of authors. I know you maintain contact with your SWW contributors. On a new anthology like Illuminati at My Door, how many new names appear in the collection and how many are talents you knew from before who stepped up for you? Did any of the “old guard” surprise you in new ways, or did you discover a new talent that appears in your pages for the first time?

One of my goals as an editor and writer is to maintain good relationships with people I’ve worked with, including other editors, writers, and even artists. We’re all at different stages of our careers, but I think by maintaining those positive relationships, we’re able to cross those career barriers.

There are a couple SWW alums that came on board the Illuminati at my Door project; one was Mary Patterson Thornburg, who is a retired Ball State University English Professor, not only supplied the Foreword, but also has been Copy Editor for every title Black Books Publishing Inc. has done to date.  I’d have to say my relationship with Mary is the best example I could give a young editor to keep your professional relationships positive at all cost.

The other is Matt Adams, who’s an Indy native and appeared in SWW with a story I fell in love with called “Old-Fashioned Police Work.” When I contacted him about the theme of Illuminati at my Door, he liked the concept and wrote “What the Network Wants” relatively quickly.

As for new talent, Ronder Scott, Melanie Williams, Rosie Maureen, and Natasha Cage all had limited publishing experience but their stories show no signs of inexperience. The hardest part about working with a newer writer is getting beyond any hang-ups they may have as far as an editor requesting changes to their work, but every one of these women kept an open mind until we had stories they could live with as writers, and I could accept as a publisher putting together an anthology.

In all honesty, I feel this is the best group of writers I have every worked with on an anthology. I’m very proud of the job everyone did and the professionalism they all showed throughout every stage of the project.

 

DL and RJ
D.L. and R.J. around 2009

What prompted the changeover from the magazine to standalone anthologies? Was it a personal decision or was it something brought on by a shift in the industry?

It was simply a financial decision. Strange, Weird, and Wonderful was a free ezine, our payments to writers and artists weren’t being covered by the minimal advertising we were generating so Sharon Black and I made the decision to start SWW Publishing. Two years later I wanted to do a few projects that didn’t quite fit under the SWW umbrella, and Sharon had a few things she wanted to work on, so we parted ways, and shortly after that, Black Books Publishing Inc. was born.

The more I think about it, it was publications like SWW that helped put our industry in the financial pit it can’t seem to get out of. Readers have come to expect their stories for free and their novels for 99 cents. We created that monster, and now small publishers and self-publishers don’t know how to fix it. I’ve seen publishers give away thousands of copies in a given advertising campaign and never recoup those sales through actual purchases.

We are the only form of entertainment battling this issue and I think publishers should band together and agree to certain standards when it comes to pricing, and giveaways. If we could guarantee a high quality standard for our work, I think readers would embrace it.

What is the long term vision for Black Books Publishing? The website indicates a couple of exciting imprints coming in the near future.

Long term, I would like to amass a library of books that are well written and entertaining. I’m being picky on purpose, with the titles I publish and there’s a reason you haven’t seen a novel from us yet. The saying, about 1st impressions is true. I don’t know if we’ll ever be a prolific publishing company, but I do know each book published will be the best we could accomplish at that time.

This is defiantly a marathon for us, not a sprint.

When you recall what you had in mind for Illuminati at My Door and considering the finished book, how close did you come to hitting your expectations for the collection?

I think its spot on! I wanted strong writing, good stories, and no “last honest man, looking over his shoulder while trying to get to the truth,” kind of stories. Again, I think this is the best anthology I have ever put together.

Yes, I hope the next one is even better, but this is my best work as an editor and selector of stories to date.

Give us some short one-sentence teasers to some of the stories contained within Illuminati at My Door.

I would rather just tell you each story is based on an actual secret society rumor. Most have been around for years, others have not, but each is based on something that’s already floating around out there. Readers who follow those rumors will easily recognize where the ideas came from and those who don’t follow them will simply be entertained.

You can order Illuminati at my Door now from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, or Directly from the Publisher. Coming soon to iTunes.

Learn all about Black Books Publishing at this link.

Whimsy Preview: Backstage Pass

DWACOW low rezClick here to read the previous entry: “Inner Strength”

“Backstage Pass is, on one hand, a deeply personal story. Released as a “Seventh Star Single” (a 99 cent short story you can still order here, though buying the collection is a much better deal) just a few weeks before Haunting Obsession in 2012, the story was inspired by my encounters through the years steeped in pop music fandom. I tried to channel the general friendliness and surrealism of that group, some of the wacky personalities one can encounter whenever the obsessed gather together to…well…obsess together.

Although I call this a personal story, the tale is full of inaccuracies, exaggerations, and outright lies. The protagonist writes for Rolling Stone, lives in New York, and is part of the publicity staff of the object of his admiration (a southern rock belle named “Fiddle Dee-Dee”).

It was a challenge to capture the tone of these escapades and use those episodes in a sci-fi tale, and I even included cameos of real people by name in what I hope they find flattering representations (“Mary Kay,” whom I told you about in my Fade excerpt, appears in this excerpt) but the story is pure fiction beyond the general truth that people can get lost in their hobbies and obsessions.

However….that said….I thought, for this excerpt, I’d pick the moment from the story that happened very much as depicted (and recalled as best that I could). Though still fictionalized, much of this scene really did happen, with minimal fictionalization to hide the name and identity of the guilty party. I suppose “Tony Stoker” may one day want to speak to me, but probably not. The lesson remains true–don’t act “cray-cray” around a fiction writer. We just can’t help ourselves.

The Setup: In the hours following the brutal murder of pop star “Fiddle Dee-Dee,” avid fan Jared Price discovers, to his horror, that he’d actually met and interacted with her murderer months before. As the realization hits him, Jared flashes back to…
—–

The original ebook cover designed by Stephen Zimmer
The original ebook cover designed by Stephen Zimmer

Ten months earlier—Chicago, October 29, 2010 
Jared stood near his friends, Mary Kay, Jamie, Rick and Michelle, still seated at the table where they’d viewed the track-by-track live performance, essentially loitering in the club after Dee’s jazz album release party. While Dee handled the official press backstage―such as it was―they waited for the coast to clear to hold a private meet n’ greet with Dee.

Tony Stoker (dubbed by Dee’s fans as “Stoker the Stalker”) also waited, his camera with its telescopic lens hung from one shoulder while he cradled a huge scrapbook against his chest. His gaze darted to their table, around the room, and back again. Tony frequented the newsgroups, so he knew their names. And he knew they had special access.

But they knew his name, too. And they knew he didn’t have special access. At this stage in her career, Dee often showed her few devoted fans incredible consideration, but if she bothered to keep a blacklist, Tony Stoker’s name would occupy the top slot.
Jared knew Tony Stoker by name, but not on sight. As they shook hands, Tony exclaimed, “Oh, you’re Jared Price! I’m Tony Stoker. You’ve been doing her website, right?”

Later in the story, my regular series character Rebecca Burton makes an appearance. Art: Bonnie Wasson
Later in the story, my regular series character Rebecca Burton makes an appearance. Art: Bonnie Wasson

Jared broke eye contact and stared into his drink. Damn! Now what? “Dee … Fiddle Dee-Dee … is just one of my clients. I write a syndicated music column. Recently, Rolling Stone and Billboard invited me to submit some reviews.” He braced for Tony’s next question.
Tony didn’t disappoint. “So … you guys going to meet with her tonight?”

“Nope, definitely not,” Jared answered, hoping he didn’t sound as much a liar as he suspected.
Tony’s arm fell across the back of Jared’s shoulders. “Buddy, can I tell you something?”
Jared flinched at the man’s piercing, brown-eyed stare―the look of someone who operated on a different plane from the rest of the world. “I think Dee-Dee is a goddess,” he oozed. “Her voice has the power to heal, to hurt, to affect our world. Maybe that’s intense, but that’s how I feel.”

Unfamiliar with how to handle whack jobs, Jared hoped understatement was the proper way to go. “Yeah, uh, that comes off a bit intense.”
Stoker the Stalker thrust the scrapbook at him. “I’m a professional photographer, but this book is just my Fiddle-Dee-Dee shots.”

Backstage Pass features the first appearance of Rebecca Burton's nemesis Sparkle, as drawn by Chris Garrison and sipping from a Rebecca Mermaid Mug
Backstage Pass features the first appearance of Rebecca Burton’s druid nemesis Sparkle, shown here sipping from a Rebecca Mermaid Mug as drawn by E. Chris Garrison

Opening to a random page, Jared saw eight consecutive shots of Dee on stage, virtually an identical pose, taken rapid-shot. Why display so many shots of the same moment?
Because he’s a whack job. Still, can I really judge another’s level of fanaticism?
Jared flipped the page. “Here’s one of her coming out of her hotel in Wisconsin last year. I waited in the lobby for six hours.” His finger dropped to a photo of Dee, a large canvas hat over her head and dark glasses hiding her eyes. Tony caught her mouth open in a frozen snarl aimed at the cringing blonde next to her. Lisa.

Jared knew about the fight, but few others did. He wanted to slug the slimy leech.
The Stalker’s voice droned on. “After about four hours, the bellboy asked me if I wanted something to eat. I told him I was fine.…”
“Everything okay here?” His “date,” Mary Kay, wandered over from their table. Though Mary Kay was “very gay,” they play-dated at concerts.
He read the questioning look in her eyes. “Just fine, MK. I was telling Stoker here,” he emphasized the name, “that Dee’s calling it an early night.”
“Yep!” She ran with the lie. “We were talking about hitting a dance club. Chicago’s got a wicked night life, and we wanted to do something positively sinful.” She flashed a mischievous smile.

Jared took her hand. “I like how you think. But first, I need to find the restroom.” He turned toward Stoker, who looked miserable. “Want to go clubbing?”
“No … I don’t think so. Maybe I’ll hang out for a few more minutes.”
“Suit yourself.” He headed for the Men’s Room.

Once alone, he pulled out his phone, found the D. Pat Cell entry and hit Talk. He kept Fiddle Dee-Dee’s name entered under an abbreviation of her little-known birth name, Deana Patterson. Last thing he needed was to lose his phone and for someone to find her name and number.
“Hello?” A familiar southern drawl.

“Dee? It’s Jared. Sorry to bother you.” He always apologized. Fiddle Dee-Dee deserved the proper respect. “We’re down here, but a guy named Tony Stoker latched onto us. He’s not taking the hint. Tony is―”
“The creepy photo guy?”
“Uh … yeah. Should I tell him we’re meeting later?”

He heard her sigh. “Shit, no! I don’t need to deal with him tonight. Look, I’m almost done with the reporters. I’ll send the bouncer down. He’ll pretend to kick everyone out. You wait behind, and after Stalker-man leaves, the bouncer will escort you upstairs. The bouncer’s name is Lenny. He knows your name. I told him he can trust you to point out who’s in our group.”

She trusts me. A childish flush flowed over him. “Sounds good.”
The ploy worked.

Next: Whimsy Preview: Starter Kit
Click here to go to the dedicated ordering page of Darkness with a Chance of Whimsy.

Whimsy Preview: Inner Strength

DWACOW low rezClick here to read the previous entry in this blog series: Able-Bodied.

Inner Strength (subtitled for this collection “A Rebecca Burton Short Story” referencing the recurring character of my paranormal thriller series) was the second story written for Strange, Weird and Wonderful magazine. Whereas the first time, Able Bodied was selected from a slush pile, this time D.L. Russell invited me to write an original story for an issue in which I would be featured. Being a naturally humble person, I took him up on his invitation immediately.

This is also the only story where I recorded an audio version of me reading the entire thing. I have no idea where that file is now, and thinking back, I’m fine with it being lost forever. Few things are more awkward than trying to read a bedroom scene that you wrote yourself. Now you know.

The story was later reprinted in the magazine’s Best of collection A Big Book of Strange, Weird and Wonderful, Volume II. I am very proud to have been a part of that magazine’s short history and lament its passing. Fortunately, D.L. continues his efforts as the editor in chief of Black Books Publishing and as a brilliant author in his own right. I look forward to seeing what’s next for him.

Setup: This scene is the second one in the story. Todd Burton had his daughter “Becky” Burton for Halloween overnight as part of his visitation arrangement, and it’s the next morning. (During the first scene, Becky dances to a Fiddle Dee-Dee song and that’s not the last time you’ll hear about Dee n this series) He must now drop her off at his ex wife’s house, and as he does so, he is wallowing on his failed marriage and current circumstances.

Artwork that introduced the story in the Winter 2011 issue of SWW
Artwork that introduced the story in the Winter 2011 issue of SWW

Todd Burton maneuvered the van down the narrow side streets of their neighborhood. Her neighborhood. He had not so much as stepped up to the front door in eleven months, but he still often thought of it as their home.
If this was still our home, I wouldn’t be dropping Rebecca off in front of the house and heading on to run errands on my own. I’d gather everyone up and we’d head off to a movie, just the three of us.
He shook his head, clearing the melancholy. He spent little enough precious time with his daughter, and he hated when runaway thoughts dampened that time. He adjusted the reflector attached to the rearview mirror, allowing him to look all the way to the back of the van. Rebecca no longer sat in the middle row of seats. Since the separation, she preferred to go all the way to the back of the van, the couch-like seat at the rear, and stretch along its entirety, eyes locked on her video screen.

Rebecca caught his gaze upon her and smiled. She wiggled her fingers lazily at him and returned her attention to the game in progress.
At least she seems happy. He pulled up, parallel to the curb, and stared across the lawn to the modern suburban home. Two stories, three bedrooms, plus a loft, the perfect home in which to grow a family.

Todd sighed. He just wished he knew what he could do to change things. He heard the words, heard the excuses, watched the love of his life shake her head and shrug. “I just don’t love you anymore.” How does that even happen?
He always figured there was someone else, though he never saw any indication, and Rebecca never revealed anything about a new “Daddy” in her life. But the alternative—that their life together was a lie from the start—was too devastating to face.

BB2SiteSmallCover  Todd released a deep breath, swung open the driver’s side door, and stepped onto the street. His gaze traveled across the front porch, over the driveway. The gray Ford Taurus sat peacefully in the two-car driveway, the usual oil stains spotting up the pavement of the space next to it, without so much as a telltale drop of fluid or tire track to indicate the comings and goings of someone new.
Eyes still on the house, he stopped in front of the passenger door and popped it open. He thought perhaps the blinds behind the windows shook just a bit, indicating someone inside had noticed their arrival. He braced himself to hear the familiar voice of his soon-to-be-ex wife offer some sort of awkward greeting from the porch.

Todd flashed back to another time, long ago, when Olivia normally drove the “Errand Runner,” a name Todd had affectionately dubbed the reconditioned green van during one of his geekier moments. Settling into the passenger seat, Todd channeled his best Harrison Ford voice. “Firing up the sublight engines on the Errand Runner, honey.” Olivia would roll her eyes and shake her head, inserting the key and waking up the grumpy engine, but she always flashed him an affectionate smile that warmed his heart. The same smile that made him fall in love with her in the first place.

Now, Todd waited for Rebecca to emerge, knowing she needed a few extra seconds to disengage herself from her Nintendo DS, but time stretched beyond the norm. Annoyed, he called into the dark quiet of the van. “Come on, Rebecca, save your game and let’s go!”

He knocked insistently against the solid steel siding, knowing the noise would penetrate her concentration, even through headphones. He listened for any answer.

Silence.

“Becky?” The silence alarmed him. No thumping of feet from the back of the van, no telltale “bleeping” of electronic noise to indicate the obvious preoccupation of his little “nerd in the making.” Not even her usual cry for patience, “I’m saving, Daddy!”

“Hey, string bean, save and quit, girl! Now.” Though relatively roomy, Todd hated struggling his 6’2” and 240 lbs of bulk around the middle row to the back of the van. Maybe she just didn’t hear me? Did she fall asleep? Maybe she found it a bit too comfortable today.

Todd placed a foot onto the first step and shoved his head into the compartment for an un-obscured view to the back.

Or so he thought.

Instead of the back seat, he saw a fantastic, unreal image—and froze.
Hovering in mid-air was a large, gaping “maw” of a portal, surrounded by a border of green glowing energy. The wavering oval gaped open about four feet high and perhaps two feet wide, encompassing what looked like the mouth of a cave, lit from within.

Click here to go to the Darkness with a Chance of Whimsy order page.
Click to continue to Whimsy Preview: Backstage Pass (A Rebecca Burton Short Story)

Whimsy Preview: Able-Bodied

DWACOW low rezClick here to see the previous post in the series: Fade.

“Able-Bodied” was the first story I wrote specifically for a market. In this case, an ezine had launched out of Ft. Wayne, IN, called Strange, Weird, and Wonderful. “Able-Bodied” was written after pondering the meaning of the magazine’s title for several months. The submission led to an acceptance and a dialog with the editor-in-chief D.L. Russell. D.L. is a hell of a writer in his own right, and we have since become friends and he’s a valued colleague. Click here to check out his short story collection Hell is An Awfully Big City to see a cover that helped influence the cover to my own collection.

Able Bodied appeared in the January 2010 issue of the publication. It was also featured among the first Best Of anthology A Big Book of Strange Weird and Wonderful, Volume I.

Setup: None. “Able Bodied” is a story that best unfolds from the beginning, so here are the first words of the tale.

Art by David Burton and used by SWW to introduce Able-Bodied in the magazine.
Art by David Burton and used by SWW to introduce Able-Bodied in the magazine.

Police detective Todd Harding stood over the sprawled body. Today was The Whiz Kid’s turn to die.
Brad “The Whiz Kid” Zither lay on his stomach, brains leaking onto the polished oak floor, a look of slack-jawed stupor frozen on his youthful profile. Inches away, a ground-stone paperweight in the shape of the state of Indiana laid on the floor, the bumpy border of Lake Michigan smeared in crimson. The polished surface reflected a bright red stain―brighter than the crushed section on the back of the Whiz-Kid’s skull, which already began turning a gelatinous purple.

Ten years ago, The Whiz Kid exploded onto the technology scene, growing a “freeware add-on” office assistant program into a multi-million-dollar computer software company.
Tonight, The Whiz Kid had barricaded himself in the extravagant personal library of his luxurious mansion on three acres of the most secured, private woodland just north of Indianapolis, but that couldn’t save him from death.

Able Bodied is included in the Big Book of SSW Volume I
Able Bodied is included in the Big Book of SSW Volume I

In a few hours, The Whiz Kid would lie out on a slab alongside the homeless vet who died tonight of exposure in White River State Park, worth no more and no less.
The crime scene assistants hovered, anxious to clear away the body and start bagging evidence. Detective Harding shook his head, waving them off. He gave the study a quick preliminary glance. On the wall, the safe door hung open, exposing an empty metal pit.
The noise of a scuffle at the entrance broke Harding from his reverie. An angry slender blonde stormed through the door, followed closely by the rookie Rodriguez—his dark skin beneath the stubble of his shaved head glistening, even in this low light. He shot the rookie an annoyed glance. “What the hell, Rodriguez! I said no one enters the crime scene.”

“Sorry, Detective. She surprised me.” Though almost a foot shorter than the athletic woman, Rodriguez gripped her upper arm through the worn, ratty-looking knitted-blue sweater draped over the distraught woman’s shoulders. Her hair lay helter-skelter, as if she’d just woken up.

The woman pushed at the rookie’s hands. “I’m not ‘no one!’” she snapped, grammatical structure apparently the least of her concerns. As if fighting a draft, the woman crossed her arms over her chest, hands balled into fists at opposite shoulders, entwined in the knotted yarn of her sweater. Her right hand had clawed a large hole into the left shoulder of the tattered garment. “I’m Lauren Zither. This is my home, too! I want to know what you’re doing to find my husband’s killer.”

Detective Harding, usually the tallest and bulkiest person in the room at over 6’ and 240 lbs, knew he could create a considerable and intimidating presence, aided by his burr haircut, when the need arose. He stepped toward her, and noted with satisfaction how the confident anger soon melted from the young woman’s face. “Mrs. Zither, we’re examining the crime scene―which you seem intent on contaminating. You need to leave the way you came. Besides, there’s nothing you want to—”

She reached both hands to her mouth to stifle her shock.
Detective Harding placed a reassuring hand on her trembling shoulders, sinking his fingers into the tattered sweater, feeling the trembling of her shoulder. Couldn’t she afford a new sweater? That thing’s about had it. “I’m sorry. You don’t need to see this.”

She moaned into her hands, now pliant to the rookie’s guiding pulls toward the double-door entrance. “Who could have done this? It’s so … horrible!”
Harding watched Rodriguez usher the grieving widow out of the room. “Keep the room clear, Rodriguez! Crime team only.”

Harding placed his hands on his hips and surveyed the room again. He didn’t like it. Not one bit. It’s too … perfect. Too theatrical, too dramatic. Like a middle school stage play rather than the scene of an actual crime. Harding had examined dozens of murder scenes in his five years on the force, many more gruesome, a few more sterile, but he’d never before seen one so obvious. Whoever killed the Whiz Kid might as well have set up a neon sign flashing “Interrupted Random Burglary. Don’t look too closely.”
———
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Next: Inner Strength (A Rebecca Burton Short Story)