Leaping at Thorns: Fifteen Impalements Penned by Andrew Cooper arranges 15 of L. Andrew Cooper's experimental short horror stories into a "triptych" of themes--complicity, entrapment, and conspiracy--elements that run throughout the collection.
The stories span from the emotionally-centered and violence-mild "Last Move," about a mother and son whose cross-country move might be complicated by a haunted U-Move truck, to the almost unthinkably horrific "Charlie Mirren and His Mother," also about a mother and son, but their lives take a turn that might be traumatic for readers as well. While "Worm Would" offers a psychosexual fantasia on the sheer grossness that is a flatworm, "Tapestry" uses absurd, sometimes comic violence to take Jessica, the young professional protagonist, into a political nightmare. The absurd reaches dark extremes in "Lachrymosa," a story of almost pure hallucination, and stretches back toward the comic in the brain-and-tongue-twister "Heart on a Stick." The 'conspiracy' panel of the triptych, from "The Fate of Doctor Fincher" to "The Special One," is a series of standalone stories that each adds important details to the fictional world and grand scheme of Dr. Allen Fincher, who also lurks in the background of Cooper's novels Burning the Middle Ground and Descending Lines.
Leaping at Thorns (BlackWyrm, 2014), collects 15 unpublished horror short stories that originated in moments throughout my adult life so far—the first draft of the oldest story in the book I wrote when I was 19. Until published, and sometimes even after, I continued to revise, edit, tinker… so the stories, as well as the book as a whole, have almost twenty years of development. To discuss what I learned over that time period (which includes my entire post-secondary education and career as a professor first of English literature, then of writing and communication, now of film and digital media) would tax the patience of a tax attorney. So, below, I've focused on a few things I've picked up during the final phase, getting the book out to the world.
1. It’s okay to be a sick son of a bitch.
My publisher presented me with a certificate granting me the honorific status of “Sick Son of a Bitch” for having written and published Leaping at Thorns, which is indeed a brutal and sick collection of tales. I am genuinely proud of this certificate, prouder of it than most of the honors I’ve been lucky enough to receive in my life. First, I’m proud because it means I’ve found a niche and a community where the stuff I’ve been producing my whole life—with no idea, until a few years ago, if I’d ever really publish my fiction—is not only tolerable but actually exciting because it’s sick. And while I don’t think my publisher had this dimension of sickness in mind when he created the certificate (he’s far too kind and sensitive), the truth is, the nasty edge of many of these stories comes straight from my own history of clinical depression and possibly much deeper (untreated but resolved) mental illness issues that arose in my early twenties. My writing really comes from two places—dealing with sickness in my head, something we all have to one degree or another, and dealing with sickness in the world. I abhor violence anywhere but in fiction, but in my fiction, the violence really ought to put people in messed up states of mind. The book isn’t for kids, but for adults, this experience can be profound and productive, or so I’ve heard—and so it’s okay that this particular sick son of a bitch named L. Andrew Cooper is providing it.
2. For writers who refuse to follow trends, short story collections are awesome.
While I’m hoping for more reviews (the book has only been out for a month), most reviews and interviews related to Leaping at Thorns so far have pointed out that many of the stories, which I label as “experimental,” carry a significant “WTF” factor. I don’t really believe in realism, and I think editors who insist on rational character motivation and conventional narrative resolution tend to take a lot of the horror out of horror—few things are more horrific than phenomena that frighten us but defy logical explanation. Some of my stories, therefore, don’t fit into mainstream magazines and such that demand for authors to provide readers with more conventional experiences of stories with easy-to-follow characters and beginnings, middles, and ends. For my genre, horror, I’m also risky in avoiding pre-sold character types. Don’t get me wrong—I love me some good zombie, vampire, werewolf, and ghost stories, and some of the creatures that show up in my stories are arguably variants on these monstrous archetypes—but nothing in Leaping at Thorns speaks directly to these pre-existing horror markets. So again, one of these stories by itself is a homeless oddball. But with 14 friends, each story in the collection has a context where the absence of the more familiar trappings of contemporary horror is a unifying factor. The stories work better in a collection because the collection creates trends within itself.
3. Present-day me and years-ago me are different people.
I revised and edited all the stories in Leaping at Thorns in the months prior to publication, so they’ve all been filtered by my present-day brain, which belongs to a publishing author who thinks about things like audience accessibility—i.e., I think about the fact that readers might benefit from some WTF but at least need to have something to hold on to while they read. However, the me that first drafted many of these stories, particularly the oldest stories in the collection, didn’t give much thought to audience because he wasn’t thinking about publication. My 19-year-old self, for instance, was still obsessed with William Faulkner, stream of consciousness, sentences that go on for pages without full-stop punctuation and with embedded phrases locked inside other embedded phrases… a lot of that sort of stuff had to go because it would do a disservice to my audience. However, certain moves I see myself making in stories like “Hands” and “Light,” both older, I know I would never make in writing a story now, but they’re moves I would have no problem with another author making. So in preparing this book, I had to learn to draw a line between audience-unfriendly prose that had to go and narrative moves that another me made that deserved to stay.
4. Same stories + different me = easier publication.
One could say that my marvelous present day skills at revision and editing make all the difference. I don’t believe that, though. While some of the stories in Leaping at Thorns had never seen the light of day, I did send a few off to rejections. I eventually stopped submitting stories almost completely, as there’s little money and a lot of time involved in the revolving submissions processes. However, once I had a couple of novels, some good reviews, and a bit of a following, I started sending out some stories again… some of the same stories broadly rejected before… and got picked up immediately. I’m not famous or anything, but I’ve climbed a few rungs. This is just to say to other aspiring writers: if you’ve ever suspected that the quality of your writing is not at issue, rather your market position, you might very well be right.
5. Maybe, just maybe, I don’t have to consider “L. Andrew Cooper” to be a fictional character.
I’ve been very fortunate to work with BlackWyrm Publishing, a small press that lets me publish my grim stories—my novels Burning the Middle Ground and Descending Lines—my way. Each of those novels is politically charged, a bit more intellectual than standard horror fare, but chock full of brutal violence and page-turning suspense. With each, though, I felt worried that I had to keep my inner nerd at bay. The novels are, plainly put, less experimental than Leaping at Thorns. The recent short story collection is the biggest risk I’ve taken so far in terms of actually letting my deep nerd side come out and play with the sick son of a bitch side, and in that sense, it’s more who I am, both the past me and the present me, than anything I’ve published. The result is that Leaping at Thorns is simultaneously the sickest and most intellectual work of fiction I’ve published. And so far the reaction seems to be not only that this revelation of me-ness is not only okay but perhaps the best work I’ve ever turned over to the public. So maybe when I’m wearing my horror writer hat, I don’t have to pretend that I’m not also a complete geek for the history of philosophy and virtually every form of art our species has invented. Maybe the sum of the me-s is a viable author figure for the body of work I’m building. So maybe being “L. Andrew Cooper” can be the same thing as being myself—whatever that means.
L. Andrew Cooper thinks the smartest people like horror, fantasy, and sci-fi. Early in life, he couldn't handle the scary stuff--he'd sneak and watch horror films and then keep his parents up all night with his nightmares. In the third grade, he finally convinced his parents to let him read grownup horror novels: he started with Stephen King's Firestarter, and by grade five, he was doing book reports on The Stand.
When his parents weren't being kept up late by his nightmares, they worried that his fascination with horror fiction would keep him from experiencing more respectable culture. That all changed when he transitioned from his public high school in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia to uber-respectable Harvard University, where he studied English Literature. From there, he went on to get a Ph.D. in English from Princeton, turning his longstanding engagement with horror into a dissertation. The dissertation became the basis for his first book, Gothic Realities (2010). More recently, his obsession with horror movies turned into a book about one of his favorite directors, Dario Argento (2012). He also co-edited the textbook Monsters (2012), an attempt to infect others with the idea that scary things are worth people's serious attention.
After living in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California, Andrew now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he teaches at the University of Louisville. Burning the Middle Ground is his debut novel.
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Praise for LEAPING AT THORNS
"Reading Leaping at Thorns takes me back to my childhood, and those sleepless nights of reading Stephen King’s Night Shift and Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. Cooper can scare, shock, and more than that, get you to think about things you never considered before, and perhaps, were frightened to even contemplate. A real triumph!" — Michael West, bestselling author of Cinema of Shadows, Spook House, and The Wide Game
"Leaping at Thorns, a new collection of short stories from L. Andrew Cooper, will leave you paranoid! The stories make even the bravest souls cringe in shock and horror. For fans of the genre, this is a rare and fantastic treat, sure to give you gooseflesh and nightmares!" — John F. Allen, author of The God Killers
"Once you start an L. Andrew Cooper story, you can’t stop, even if you have to squint between the fingers of your hand as it covers your face. Here’s a collection of 15 such stories. Modern horror at its best, Enjoy." — R.J. Sullivan, author of Haunting Obsession
"Cooper both frequently and brilliantly focuses on the human element in his tales with the protagonists’ flaws and pains exposed for the reader to vicariously revel in while the darkly delightful antagonists/archfiends of all shapes and sizes often take a back seat in the storylines, which many would argue is the hallmark of great writing. Highly recommended!" — G.L. Giles, author of Water Vamps
"Each story reads like a frightening nightmare from which you don’t want to wake." — Christopher Kokoski, author of Dark Halo
"Cooper’s imagination delves into the bizarre, creating horrific images through windows in our minds to view." — Brick Marlin, author of Land of the Dead
Note: I had the pleasure of getting to know Andrew Cooper two ways, one, he reviewed my TRANSPORT (Book One) short novel for Seventh Star Press, and interviewed me a bit after the fact. Two, I met him at the Imaginarium writers convention in Louisville KY 2014. I had the opportunity to talk to him and sit in on his LEAPING AT THORNS book launch. His publisher, BlackWyrm, gave out all sorts of free goodies at the launch. I even acquired a "tapeworm" as Andrew has a story in the book that involves a tapeworm.
Andrew is a very nice gent, and very talented. I recommend his book. (Plus a book of short stories is always fun because if you don't necessarily enjoy the piece you are reading, there is another one a few pages down.)
PJW Nov 2014