Author's new 'Tales for Children' not child-friendly

By Daniel K. Davis

Alien invasions. Man-eating trolls. Ghosts, genies and the undead. Perhaps these are not what most readers would expect when cracking open a book titled "Practical Tales for Children and Other Stories" - until they notice the box on the cover that reads: "Warning: Not for Children."

These tales of horror and science fiction come from the mind of San Francisco author Mark Romyn. While the stories may contain adult content to be kept away from the eyes and ears of small children, they are filled with humor and poignant moments sure to appeal to more mature readers. His themes are "conformity, how do we work in the world, and how we are essentially alone." His books contain bizarre situations, outlandish characters and comic encounters.

Romyn grew up in the Richmond District reading the likes of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Ray Bradbury. He has been writing fiction to scare and delight since his childhood, when he made up horror stories to tell his fellow Boy Scouts around the campfire. He now lives in the Sunset District but still goes backpacking with some of those original fellow scouts, and he still entertains them with creepy campfire yarns.

These days he has another audience for his stories as well, as host of the Thursday Night Combo Show at the EXIT Theatre. He first got involved with EXIT in 2004, and this relationship led to his book being published by the theater's EXIT Press. Romyn starts off every Combo Show by reading one of his own works. He often "writes fresh things (for the show), trying to force myself to keep writing."

Staying disciplined about writing is crucial to Romyn, and he has devised several tricks to help out. One is to come up with annual stories, such as a different Halloween tale every year. In the '90s he edited and wrote a dive bar review for Hopeful Monster, a literary zine that kept him in the writing habit. A pair of stories from "Hopeful Monster," as well as some of his annual Halloween narratives, made it into "Practical Tales for Children."

Romyn's regimen involves waking up and writing before he has even had breakfast.

"I find when I eat something, the process of digestion, and then wanting to take a nap or something like that, breaks up the flow," Romyn said.

He likes to write outside, heading to the park or the beach with his clipboard and pen and writing until a story is finished.

"Most of my stories are very short," Romyn said. "They usually just take one sitting to get most of the story out. And then of course the rewrites take a lot more time."

In choosing the stories for "Practical Tales for Children," Romyn had decades of material to draw from.

"I figured I'd choose some of my more provocative stories," he said.

While he went back as far as 1989 for the stories in this collection, he also "wanted to do stuff that's a little bit closer to who I am now, so I included a few of my more recent works."

The process of picking stories and putting together the book turned out to be a laborious one for Romyn. One consideration ended up being choosing stories that did not require him to re-type the whole thing.

"I would basically have to re-write everything, just because the program, everything it's saved to, isn't compatible anymore."

The result is a book of sometimes eerie, sometimes macabre, but almost always funny stories involving, for instance, a battle between James Bond and Santa Claus; or an alien that assumes the form of pants (to better observe us humans undetected); or a doctor finding a magical fairyland during an otherwise routine colonoscopy.

The stories toward the end of the book, including the colonoscopy fairy-tale, can be surprisingly touching.

Romyn continues to pump out new material and still has plenty of old works he would like to collect into a book. He has a novella called "Tired of Waiting," which he originally planned to include in "Practical Tales for Children" but had to cut due to length considerations. He hopes to include the novella, a comic end-of-the-world story set in Mill Valley, in his next book.

For more information about the Thursday Night Combo Shows, go to the website at