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Arnzen's Weird Newsletter

+++ Vol 1 #11, May 30, 2003 +++

Your Worst Fears


Blather. Wince. Repeat.

Your Greatest Fears

What are your greatest fears? Here's the oft-sited “Top Ten Fears of Americans,” lifted from The Book of Lists:

10. Dogs
9. Loneliness
8. Flying
7. Death
6. Sickness
5. Deep Water
4. Financial problems
3. Insects and bugs
2. Heights
1. Public Speaking

Sound familiar? How many of these are your own? How many of these do you exploit in others? And do you really have to be American to fear them?

Skepticism creeps in when I think about lists like these. I start to think of all the exceptions. Besides, this list clearly was compiled when Cujo was a bestseller. Okay, perhaps not, but it was long before terrorism was bleeping on the cultural radar and I'm sure that today more people fear Al Qaeda than they do Fido.

And then the longer I sit with it, the more the horror writer inside me kicks me in the shins with his razor-tipped boots and tells me that EVERYTHING is – or can be – frightening. To write horror, you have to be inherently paranoid. Even worse: the horror writer intuits these things and then complicates them so there's no escape: If you think “public speaking” is scary, then how about a sick, lonely, bug-infested dog speaking through megaphones about the dying economy as it flies above your ocean liner? The horror!

This topic is on my mind right now because Tanya Twombly, a grad student in the writing program where I teach (, is conducting a survey of people's “top ten fears” for a workshop that she's prepping on societal fears in horror. [And if you've got the courage to share your own top ten fears, e-mail Tanya right away (before June 21st) at:]. Here's the first of two responses I sent her:

10. Carpal Tunnel.
9. Impotence.
8. Blindness.
7. Skin cancer.
6. Rabies.
5. Illiteracy (ignorance in others; losing my own control of language).
4. Old age/Senility/Alzheimer's.
3. Masses/Conformity.
2. Bees.
2.a. A Conformist Mass of Illiterate and Blind Bees that Sting my Cancerous Carpal Tunnel-Riddled Skin and Render Me Impotent until Alzheimer's Sets In.
2.b. Old, Impotent-yet-Rabid Men Who Have Skin Cancer and Collect Masses of Bees.
1. You.
0. And What You're Going To Do With This Information.

As you can tell, I can't make it to ten without being a smart-ass.

Later, she posted the question to a discussion board and in a moment of Lettermaniacal frivolity, I listed yet another ten – this time taking none of it seriously:

10. Fear of numbered lists, bulleted lists, top ten lists, and all corporate forms of communication.
9. Fear of CNN.
8. Fear of Flying. The book.
6. Fear of forgetting how to count to ten.
5. Fear of information gathering, surveys, and so forth, falling into the hands of not only direct marketers, but also Richard Simmons.
4. Okay, I really just fear Richard Simmons' hands. Even in his “slim” phase, they're pudgy in an uncanny and disturbing way. Look at the nails if you don't believe me.
3. Fear of fear itself. Oh wait, I mean “Fear of repeating clichés without realizing it.”
2. Fear of lawnmower noises when you don't see anyone in the neighborhood mowing their lawn.
1. Fear of compost.

By this point, you're probably thinking that you'd never want a sarcastic bastard like me for a teacher. But there are reasons why I can never answer this question about fear straight.

The first is a common one: horror writers are asked “What scares you?” all the damned time. As if you couldn't figure it out from reading our work. Eventually we develop stock answers that mean nothing, like “spiders” or “heights” or “absolutely nothing anymore – I've become a emotionless lump, overdosed on my own gothic angst.”

I used to always say “surprises” scare me. That sounded generic and truthful enough. But it was a boring answer. And I also stopped getting gifts and surprise parties. So now the answer I always give is: “you.” That was #1 on the first list I sent to Tanya. But it's also the stock answer I've given time and again. Because it's honest. People scare me more than anything. The human mind is capable of rationalizing virtually ANY behavior, whether we're talking about the individual psycho or the collective mass mind. Dahmer thought it was perfectly logical to drill a hole in someone's skull and pour hydrochloric acid into his head, in order to create a zombie sex slave. The people who build nukes think they are perfectly safe or even necessary for world peace. Rationalization is what all evil villains and mad scientists do. That capacity in mankind is what scares me – and it's also laughable – and that's why I write about it the way I do.

But I have other reasons for my sarcasm. Like, naturally, why would I confess my fears to a student who probably fantasizes about torturing me day in and day out as an act of revenge? Why would I give >anyone< instructions on how to freak me out? Doesn't that defeat the very purpose of fear's fight or flight? Sometimes it's a call for comfort to tell people you're afraid (like an airline passenger might say “I'm really scared right now…I've got a fear of heights” when the plane takes off.) But that's also something that can be used against you by the terrorists of everyday life. (“Going up?” your coworkers say with a grin as they press the top button on the elevator panel and block you from pressing anything lower….). Unless you're a masochist or a liar you simply do not confess your fears.

And, secondly, fear is something that's in a perpetual state of flux, isn't it? It's unstable. That's part of what makes it scary. And that's what makes a top ten list different every day. One moment I fear that terrorists are on the plane; the next I fear the pilots are drunk. One moment I fear E. Coli in the sandwich I eat; the next I fear the chemical cleanser I just washed my hands with.

You just can't win.

I'm not paranoid. I just think a lot about possibilities…and anything's possible. So it's hard to whittle fear down to ten easy-to-swallow caplets. Maybe that's why I keep writing fiction and poetry… to struggle with the complexities of fear.

The great Ray Bradbury, however, once recommended this “listing” technique as a way of coming up with ideas for stories. In his article, “The Thing at the Top of the Stairs,” he claims that if you list your childhood fears in the form of nouns, you'll have plenty of titles to get you started on a good story. So he lists things like The Lake, The Night, The Cricket, The Basement, The Baby, The Crowd, The Carnival, etc.

Of course, a crowd of carnival sideshow babies chirping like insane crickets as they shamble wet out of a lake at night would make quite a horror story.

[ Are you afraid to click on unattributed links you get in email? Get over it and click here for the top ten phobias: ]


Lego Death

Lego Torture

Lego Machine Gun

Lego Robotics

Lego Escher

Lego Mysticism


+ A man walks into a convenience store, a bodily organ in his hand (whether it's attached to him or not is up to you). Write the scene from the perspective of the clerk behind the counter.

+ Take the horror cliché, 'makes my skin crawl,' and literalize it. Or, alternatively, dramatize something nasty getting under a character's skin.

+ Brainstorm a list of at least five ways you'd hate to die. Combine two. Imagine the worst. Make it happen in prose.

[Instigation is now a WEEKLY department in Hellnotes newsletter: ]


I'm breathless from reading Lance Olsen's new short fiction collection, Hideous Beauties, in one extended sitting. It's a dark, dynamic, exploratory and ultimately experimental work of fiction that – in a phrase – refuses to look away. And that made it very difficult for me to put down.

The oxymoron in the title, Hideous Beauties, defines what thematically binds these twelve short stories together: an attraction for that which would otherwise be repellent (and vice versa). It's an aesthetic that the freak show and the horror genre are fundamentally built upon, but Olsen's book is more than any mere freak show, more than any simple collection of tall tales. It's an exploration of ugliness that refuses to look away until it pins down the truth. In fact, it actively gets us to look closer than we otherwise might at the grotesque.

Like many of Olsen's books, HB audaciously bends the rules of language and form, playing with structure on a journey toward fresh insights the way an experimental artist might mix media. The structuring device of this collection is a little reminiscent of his most recent slipstream collaboration with artist (and his significant other) Andi Olsen, a novel called Girl, Imagined by Chance. In Girl, the Olsens created a series of rendered photographs, which sequenced the novel like a family album or child's scrapbook, each image followed by a chapter that was in every way about the photograph – if not photography itself. In that novel, the narrative traces the way a couple deceives a distant grandmother that they have had a child – and themselves in the process – when in fact, they've only manipulated photos of kids and send them back to Granny. It's a masterful novel, at once a touching love story and scathing indictment of “compulsory parenting” in our culture, in addition to being, among other things, a spiritual autobiography, a work of art criticism, and a bound exhibit of Andi's work.

In Hideous Beauties we're treated to a similar conceit: each short story is inspired by a work of grotesque art (most of which is only referenced in a dedication to the artist, not actually reprinted). The art of the opening and closing stories is generated by Andi Olsen's brilliantly twisted imagination, and it's merged with Lance's writing in a collage of words and images. These pieces (which have appeared in Fiction International and Yellow Bat Review) can best be called a “surrealist illuminated manuscript,” which is what this book as a whole in many ways purports to be. In other pieces, we get direct reference to famous paintings, like Two Children Menaced by a Nightingale, which opens by actually discussing the color patterns in Max Ernst's famous collage of the same title before launching into a nightmarish tale about a father and daughter. At other times, the poetic layout of Olsen's writing mimics the structure in the artwork referenced, as in the dual columned story, “The State Hospital” (inspired by a strange alien/comic book piece by Edward Kienholz). The same can be said about the radically over- organized “Sketch of A Flying Machine” (you guessed it: by DaVinci) which is presented in outline form, numerals and all. From typography to narratology, text is an artistic playing field for Olsen's verbal gymnastics, combining his background in literary theory with his (or is it our culture's?) fascination for the spectacle of the strange. As the epigraph suggests, “Freaks are just like us, only more so.”

From the experimentation with form to the bright imagery, Olsen's writing begs to be read as art – or to have the reader at least contemplate how art produces meaning – at every turn. Its imagery – “hideous” as it might be – seduces the senses with its precision and honesty. No one describes colors like Olsen. Words are paint on his palette and his choices are just right. In the opening tale, “Village of the Mermaids,” we're given “warm smudged air green-blue as sadness” and “whitewashed mountains beyond the cocaine-white beach in the distance.” In another story, colors become verbs as air “lilacs” around the protagonist.

But it's not just poetry and an imagistic fascination that marks this book as unique. The surrealist plotting and humorous tone are very rewarding, too. My favorite story in the collection is inspired by the fragmentation inherent to the uncanny image of Hans Bellmer's twisted “The Doll,” which inspired Olsen's tale, “The Doll, or: What the Dead Think About at the End of the World.” To explain this hilariously dark story would be to give away too much of the fantastic and surprising plot. But let's just say it's Stephen King's “Survivor Type” meets Kubrick's turned love story, as a couple's desire for something new in their banal relationship takes a disastrous turn. And it will definitely have you rethinking your relationship with your pinkie toes.

You can still catch a few excerpts from this book online – and when you read the collection, I recommend calling up the art referenced in the book on the internet, too. Visit Lance and Andi Olsen's freaknest at to see just how strange and hideous this beautiful book really is. Highly recommended for those who are truly on the lookout for something radically new. That's why you go to the freak show, isn't it? Searching for something unique in a world that requires the courage to never look away.

Hideous Beauties by Lance Olsen. Eraserhead Press, 2003. Trade paperback. Color cover and interior illos by Andi Olsen. 200 pgs. $13.95

GORELETS: Unpleasant Poems

Checking Out

No lines at our express check out.
Here you would impulse buy many
lively products if you still had a pulse.
Our gum is far staler than you but the
fashion zines advertise nothing new –
the same old glamorous zombies.
Paper or plastic? Want change?
Our afterworld market is open 24 hours
a night and perpetually pretends you
can take it with you, for a price.
But you're also always discounted:
Half off here, half off there, before
you're all sold out, before you're all


“The Darkly Gothic Crossword”

This is one tough – and blasphemous - - little puzzle, brought to you by the dark comedians behind the Dead Lounge and Sarco's Blood Bar and Grill. “The Darkly Gothic Crossword” is an online puzzle where every answer is taken straight out of the jargon of Goth culture and, literally, from beyond. It's designed to torment you with what it calls “the most depressingly perplexing morbid- minded crossword puzzle known to our darkened world.” It will have you digging around in your Dictionary of the Dead, or turning – dare I speak it's name? – to the damned pages of the dread Necrosswordicon, in search of answers to its arcane and Eldritch clues. I doubt you'll be able to score more than 15 answers from memory. But it's worth a stab, anyway. (Don't worry – they give you clues…).

My only complaint? No entry for 666 Down.

[Requires the Macromedia Flash 5 Player – it will auto-install if you don't have it already (you probably do)].


+ SPORTUARY is the name of a new poetry collection I just finished writing that Cyber-Pulp will be publishing later in the year. This e-book will feature surreal color artwork by the illustrious Marcia Borell and contain poems with titles like “Satan's the Catcher,” and “Fearleader Camp” and “Shockey.” (A few haiku from this collection appeared in the very first Goreletter last September). Check out the sneak preview page at

+ Gorelets: Unpleasant Poetry is now slotted for an October release from Fairwood Press. And I'm happy to announce that Double Dragon Publishing will concurrently release an e-book version…with twenty-one bonus Gorelets, on top of the other fifty-two!

+ “Julia, Daughter of…” is the clever title of an anthology, edited by G.W. Thomas of “FlashShot” fame. It presents interpretations by various poets of an epitaph found on an old tombstone in a forgotten country cemetery. My interpretation of what Julia might be a daughter of is in my contribution, entitled “Hate Clone.” Go figure. This e-book is hot off the ether from Cyber-Pulp. (I'll also appear in their upcoming antho of dark road stories, Wicked Wheels, in the near future):

+ If you liked the free “Gentle Monsters” chapbook illustrations at Sidereality, you'll LOVE Matt Schuster's DAILY sketches of even more monstrous monstrosities! Check this artist out and share your horrified reactions in his new live journal.

+ I'll be attending the Horrorfind Convention in Baltimore, August 15-17. If you're anywhere near Poe's former haunt, my reading is on Sunday afternoon.

+ “FREAKCIDENTS TRANSCENDS HORROR…What is so brilliant about this collection is how Arnzen uses literal outside descriptions of the freaks to describe the internal alienation and awkwardness of humans.” – Mike Purfield,

Feel the fiend. Touch the terror. Caress the carnage. Go to DarkVesper Publishing or and order Freakcidents: A Surrealist Sideshow today:


Things I Said When Hyped Up On Krispy Kreme Donuts and Coffee, 5/25

“Why don't Americans trust people in bow ties? I'll tell you why. Because pets and clowns wear them, that's why.”

“You've heard of the glass ceiling, no? Well I have an ass ceiling and I hit my head on it often.”

“Hear that song? That's The Loving Spoonful. But what does the Hating Forkful play? That's what I wanna know!”

[ Thanks to Becca Baker, the best note taker I've ever met, for actually transcribing when I wasn't looking. ]


EIGHTY of you took me up on my offer last issue to include links on as a way of saying thanks for reading. You're entitled to have a mention on my site just for indulging me with this newsletter. So send me an e-mail request with your name and your URL and I'll add you!

I encourage you to surf these pages… you might be surprised by the people who are on this list!

Naturally, I'd appreciate a link back to To add a “button” on your page, include this HTML code:


Instigated this month by a prompt from The Goreletter:

“Rhymes Kill” by John Edward Lawson

Likewise, in an homage to my chapbook, Paratabloids, poet Terrie Leigh Relf reports that a poem she wrote based on a Weekly World News headline – “Bigfoot Captures Sexy Camper for his Love Slave” – will be published in a future issue of I recently read Terrie's new e-book, Metro Madness, and enjoyed it quite a bit. Relf shows a flair for delivering foreboding concepts and twisted images in tight little packages like this haiku:

ancient mating ritual
two enter the cocoon
one emerges

Simple, no? But one >what< emerges? Her book is full of dark snippets and snapshot images of terror. And the accompanying art features twisted children's drawings and simplistic clay figurine photos that lend the whole book an unsettling tone. Relf's dark side is black as charcoal and she's a poet to watch. A disturbing read!


It actually pays to scroll this far down.

FLESH AND BLOOD PRESS Your response was so strong last month that Flesh and Blood Press is now making a knockout NEW exclusive offer to readers of The Goreletter: get all available back issues of Flesh & Blood magazine for 30% off and any of the F&B book titles for 35% off. Free shipping and handling on all purchases. Please send payment made out to Jack Fisher with a note mentioning this discount to: Jack Fisher, 121 Joseph St., Bayville, NJ 08721

DARK ANIMUS MAGAZINE One of the best new horror magazine's of the year – Dark Animus – will give you $3 off a postage paid subscription (from Australia). That means a year's worth of dread for only $15! DA contributors have included myself, Graham Masterton, Mark McLaughlin, Tim Curran, and others. You can begin your sub with back issues, too. To get your discount, include the phrase “goreletter” in your correspondence or order form available at:

SHOCKLINES BOOKSTORE's exclusive coupon for this month is a real treat for fans of the classic Weird Tales magazine and the works of HP Lovecraft. Through July 1st, visit and if you enter coupon code GOREMASTER when you check out, you'll get $4 off the already discounted hardcover edition of Arkham's Masters of Horror! Here's a direct link for more info:

FICTIONWISE E-BOOKS's 15% off page for Goreleteers is updated weekly. This week's features include free – FREE! - - Hugo Award nominees in ebook format, along with stories by dark fiction writers Tim Waggoner, Bruce Boston, Mark Sanchez, and more:

CEMETERY POETS ANTHO Take 10% off the new hardcover book, Cemetery Poets, by visiting this hidden exclusive ordering page on my site:

WRITE AGAIN SOFTWARE Are you a writer? Try Write Again manuscript organizing software and get a 10% rebate when you register if you tell them that Arnzen's newsletter sent you! A very practical product.


All material in The Goreletter is: © 2003 Michael A. Arnzen, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to forward the entire contents as a whole, without alterations or excisions. For reprint permissions of individual pieces, please contact

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“A man is not completely born until he is dead.” – Ben Franklin (died 1790)

* Due to the temporary nature of internet URLs, some websites mentioned in back issues of the Goreletter may no longer be live, or may also point to unscrupulous web servers. I will denote these with overstrikes as I discover them, but if you encounter a dead, changed or unscrupulous link, please feel free to inform me.
* “Boo Coupons” are expired in all but the current issue.
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