In school holidays, my parents would take us out into the country, where friends and family lived. We would get up in the dark (you had to make good time, you understand, and we could not afford a night in a hotel) and we would pile into the car, two adults, two kids, and a dog. They would take us out into big, dry empty pieces of land along roads that had no gutters and ended in ragged bits of tar on the side of the road. The trips would take anywhere between eight to twelve hours and my parents had a collection of cassettes that would rotate through the tape deck of the car, and it is there that I learned about American country music, and where I first encountered Johnny Cash.
He was never just a country musician, of course, but my father, who if left to his own devices would alternate Johnny Cash with Australia’s Slim Dusty, didn’t really care about that crossover shit.
Cash followed me a little through the years and when I wrote the first of what would be called ‘Dead American’ stories, it probably wasn’t a surprise that he ended up in there, a figure to juxtapose against the image that the States was presenting to the world under the Bush administration. ‘The Dreaming City’, which appears before ‘Johnny Cash’ both in this collection and in publication, was really a prototype of the Dead American stories, but ‘Johnny Cash’ was always the first.
The form of the story, however, owes itself to the great British writer, J.G. Ballard, and a short story he wrote entitled, ‘Answers to a Questionnaire’. His story as longer, and in the grand scheme of authors who read something that their betters have done, I thought that by cutting it in half I could make a stronger form of it. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but you ought to check out Ballard’s story as well. For the completists of this tale of inspiration, the very excellent Lucy Sussex then went and used the format in her piece ‘Robots & Zombies, Inc’, if I remember the title right, and for a moment I thought the form had reached a new popularity. By all the magazines our faces graced, you can see how it worked out.
‘Johnny Cash’ was originally published in Shadowed Realms, an online flash magazine of dark fantasy and horror, edited by Angela Challis and, I think, Shane Cummings (the latter only did so for a while, if I remember right, and I can’t remember if he had stopped by then or not). It was a fairly high end ‘zine for the time, and Challis and Cummings would launch a few high end horror things later, but the kind of horror that they ultimately wanted to champion had, I suspect, done its dash for the time being, much like Westerns. Eventually, the two faded out much like a lot of small press publishers. Still, ‘Johnny Cash’ started there on Shadowed Realms, and it did fairly well for a little story inspired by Ballard and Cash.
No prizes for guessing today’s soundtrack, though.
(This is a story note for my collection, Dead Americans and Other Stories, which is available now. The song is part of an illusionary soundtrack that I am putting into each of the posts for amusement, but if you owned the book, you could listen to it in the final moments of the story, if you were so inclined. If you don’t own a copy of Dead Americans and Other Stories and you haven’t read ‘Johnny Cash’ then you should follow the links and buy a copy, because otherwise Jesus died for nothing.)