First of all, let me point everyone reading this to my friend Chris’s blog, THE BUZZING OF DESERT INSECTS. I’ve worked with Chris on a variety of writing and editing projects before and I think we complement each other pretty damn well. He tends to veer toward the darker side of weird literature while I explore the more fantastical elements, and there’s a good amount of overlap and devil’s advocacy in the middle of our Venn diagram. If you like my stuff I’m pretty sure you’ll like his.
Life in Australia continues along. I experienced my first controlled burn smoke earlier this week, the Blue Mountains region was burning off excess underbrush and the haze lent an unearthly quality to the city for a couple of days. I’ve spent a decent amount of time familiarizing myself with the train lines and breaking in my shoes with long walks. The local grocer has started stocking my favorite flavor of Monster as an import from the states and I’ve relegated it to a reward drink that I keep a few of in the fridge and only give myself for finishing a draft or meeting a chapter quota for the day.
That important stuff out of the way, I thought it would be nice to talk about writing and music. If you go online you will find that every single author has a particular kind of music that works for them, and there’s a good chance that exact combination of sounds will not work for anyone else. I kind of love that. Some people need the buzz of a crowded coffee shop, some people throw on white noise, some people crank up baroque orchestral arrangements.
I really, really like sludgy stoner metal. I like grinding, meandering bass and guitar riffs stretched to the agonizing brink. I like them because distorted lyrics mean that I’m not listening to the words, I’m listening to the sounds. When I listen to the words I tend to find that they work their way into my writing, and as funny as it is to realize I’ve zoned out and typed a Nine Inch Nails song into the second half of a paragraph it gets old fast and becomes distracting. I love stuff that I can’t quite make out, it fills the void of white noise while being a lot faster paced. It gets my adrenaline pumping and lets the words pour out onto the page easier.
One of my favorite things about the extreme metal genres is that the song titles hit a certain descriptive tone that make me think of stories. The stories may be completely unrelated to the song beyond being inspired my the title. Bands like Clutch that trend more toward the hard rock side of the spectrum are great for this. Sometimes I don’t even need the music itself for inspiration, just looking over the track listing on an album revs my brain. Our Lady of Electric Light. Behold the Colossus. Smoke Banshee. The Guild of Mute Assassins. I could take that random collection of track titles I just listed out and churn out a pretty decent short story from it because the image they collectively conjure is so vivid to me. Imagine a busted old turn of the century city where huge walls separate the civilians from giant, lumbering grey shapes in the perpetual fog of the outside world, where the only church left worships a mangled statue of a woman presenting an eternally glowing light bulb because it is now dangerous to burn things, for the smoke coalesces into screaming and murderous figures. Where tongueless men from the Guild patrol the streets to make sure no desperate soul lights a fire for warmth and inadvertently summons the banshees.
Nile is another great band for this. Their albums are incredibly nerdy pieces about the Egyptian gods locked in perpetual struggled with Lovecraftian-scale cosmic entities now sealed beneath the earth. They’re great atmospheric music to play while writing spooky cult scenes. They have song titles like What Should Not Be Unearthed, Papyrus Containing the Spell to Preserve Its Possessor Against Attacks from He Who Is in the Water, and To Walk Forth From Flames Unscathed. Half their songs sound like Satan trying to puke up his own lungs but that kind of works when they’re supposed to be long forgotten scrolls full of forbidden spells and chants that could awaken horrible elder gods imprisoned beneath the pyramids by benevolent but murderous animal-headed beings that have long since vanished.
The last band I’m going to bring up here is my favorite for inspiration. They are called Scar Symmetry and they were one of the first “hard” metal bands I ever got into, although a few years later I’d consider them pretty damn melodic in the grand scheme of things. They do a lot of really trippy science fiction themed songs and they’re another one where the titles have provided more than a little inspiration for stories. The Consciousness Eaters, Frequencyshifter, Artificial Sun Projection, Three Dimensional Shadow, The Kaleidoscopic God, Seers of the Eschaton. Their latest album, The Singularity, is basically a rock opera take on William Gibson’s Neuromancer, if that tells you the levels of dorky I’m going with here.
Now that I’ve added to the list of writers who feel the need to share their musical tastes with the rest of humanity, I should probably talk about my reading and writing.
Of late I’ve been trying to diversify my reading a little bit. I fell hardcore into the steampunky fantasy trap for awhile with the second Mistborn trilogy and then Aeronaut’s Windlass. They were good but I run into the problem where if I read a lot of one genre I start wanting to write in that genre, and there just aren’t any steampunk stories I want to tell right now. In an effort to stave off the osmosis I churned through The Ballad of Black Tom for a brilliant take on the integral racism of HP Lovecraft’s Horror at Red Hook, IE Oh My God, Black People And Jews Walk Among Us. I read China Mieville’s latest, This Census Taker, which I think will go down as an underappreciated classic and a perfect example of how to tell a completely mundane story in a fantastical setting. I grabbed Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, and it was by sheer virtue of having a bunch of other books on my backlog that I didn’t immediately mainline the rest of his Craft stories. I can’t sing the praises for that book enough, if I wasn’t already climbing back on the writing horse it would have prompted me to. Then I read Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless, a take on the Koschei legend that sits beside Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and The Golem and The Jinni upon the shelf of delightful historical fantasies where the magic serves to accentuate the events of the time rather than outshine them. Intensely human books about inhuman happenings.
For writing, I’ve been juggling a ton of stories. The novel is going very well, I’ve long known how I wanted to end it but now I know how to start it and the drafting has flowed very smooth. I’ve begun work on several short stories for another project, including my requisite I Am A Writer From Maine, Let Me Do A Quasi Horror Story Set In The New England Woods piece. This is the first project I’ve contributed to without a particular theme running through it, so I’ve been stretching my creative muscles and trying to do some really weird stuff. I’ve got period pieces with just a hint of supernatural activity, I’ve got one story where the magic is cranked up to 10 and the narrative is more about exploring what constitutes as banal in that particular setting, I’m trying to do a piece that tackles urban fantasy conventions from a Jewish perspective featuring a PI who considers himself ethnically rather than religiously Jewish and routinely makes use of magic drawn from the Sephirot and the Qlipoth spheres. I am both pleased and slightly terrified by all of this stuff and if the writing will actually be able to live up to the pictures in my head, but that’s about the norm for me.