What Comes Before

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I caught a couple of new prequels this week. You might have heard of them, even though they are small, indie movies: Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, and Star Wars: Rogue One.

You know, it’s really hard to make a good prequel. A lot of them fall flat on their faces for a variety of reasons. When you make a prequel, the odds are already working against you:

  • You’re probably basing it off a beloved, or at least popular and profitable story, and it will be compared to that story right off the bat.
  • Everyone is presumably going to know what happens at the end of your story, or at least most of it.
  • If you have referenced events in the original story, you’re competing directly against the audience’s imagination and you’re probably going to lose.

So seeing two prequels back to back that I actually really enjoyed is kind of an oddity. I generally don’t like them, they come off as cash grabs most of the time and I find that even the best typically aren’t as good as the original stories.

I liked these, though, and I’m going to say why without any spoilers:

  • They add depth to the original story instead of width. There isn’t a feeling that they’re trying to outperform their respective parent stories. They’re not necessarily flashier or edgier. Instead they make it so that small things in Star Wars or the Harry Potter films suddenly have a lot more weight to them, small references are going to conjure up visuals and stories where they might have originally been filler.
  • There’s more of a focus on the characters, because both films acknowledge that you know what happens later. The Rogue team does not destroy the Death Star. Grindelwald will get locked up and eventually killed by Voldemort, and Newt will publish his manuscript and become very well known in the wizarding world. I will say that Rogue One didn’t measure up as well here simply because it threw so many characters at you in rapid succession, but the characters of the rebel alliance and the empire themselves were evolving over the course of the story. You can see the rise of one from ragtag cells to a movement, and the descent of the other from authoritarianism to fascism.
  • They married the old and the new. If you take a prequel and try to retell the original story or place it in a similar setting, you’re going to fail because it will seem like a pale shadow. Tweak the genre and turn it into, say, a travelogue in early 20th century postwar America or a military thriller with elements of the original story sprinkled in? That’s good.
  • Not too many injokes. Because, dear god, have I developed a hatred of blatant self-referencing over the last few years. I get it, you’ve got a shared universe of some sort, you want your stories to acknowledge one another, but revisiting iconic quotes or trying to be ironic with them every fifteen minutes is grating on the nerves.

They were both good and I’d recommend seeing them on the big screen, they qualify as spectacles worthy of being viewed via huge projector if you have the opportunity. If you’re a Harry Potter fan you’re probably going to love Fantastic Beasts – I went in with somewhat cynical fellow fans and we all walked out talking about it being better than expected. If you’re a Star Wars fan you’re probably going to love Rogue One, but interestingly, I think if you weren’t very impressed with The Force Awakens you’ll like this much more. I’m admittedly a huge Gareth Edwards fanboy and I’ve seen Monsters and his Godzilla more times than I care to admit, but I think he really did a good job here by looking at the old SW universe through a new angle. It’s absolutely the same place but it has strange shadows you’ve never seen before.

Getting back to new fiction books, finally, I just finished a great one today.

Well, new as in over 50 years old and recently made available to the wider public.

Tolkien_aotrou_itroun.jpgI speak of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, by the one and only JRR Tolkien, released by Harper Collins last month. It is a 500+ verse poem in the format of a 15th century Breton lai, a particular kind of adventurous poem borrowing heavily from the stylings of German and French narrative poems popular a couple of hundred years prior. It follows a man who is so devoted to a woman that he sells his life to a witch/fairy in order to be with her, giving up what essentially makes him human to try and fill the gaping wound in his heart. I will say the book is not for everyone. It’s dry, and it’s incredibly archaic, and the main reason to read it is to pick up on the ways that this particular style of poem – and this lay specifically – influenced the way Tolkien approached the penning of his elven/human histories. You can see direct ties between it and The Tale of Beren and Lúthien, or The Lay of the Children of Húrin. It’s probably one of the darkest pieces of prose that Tolkien ever laid his hands on, it deals with the utter destruction of a man and his family at the mercy of powers beyond their comprehension, something that is echoed in the far more glamorous Fëanor stories.

A man being beguiled by otherworldly women is a recurring trend in Tolkien’s stories and the roots stretch way back before this particular piece, but you can see it strongly here. It’s hard not to read the negative messages in that. I choose to take it less as Tolkien himself expression misogyny as him romanticizing the fairy tales of the land, many of which were misogynistic in nature and meant to warn young men off dallying with sexually adventurous women. I think it’s fair to say that Tolkien’s body of work has a common theme drawing from this tradition, although he never gave me the impression that he himself believed it. You can see the most pleasant representation of it in Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, or Aragorn and Arwen, or even Beren and Luthien themselves.

Hell, you can see elements of it in the way he described his wife and the way he used to watch her dance in fields of flowers to draw inspiration for his work. He always describes her in such beautiful, otherworldly terms and their romance as a thing beyond the bounds of earth, like in this letter he penned shortly after her death and shortly preceding his own, when he sought to explain that he did not nickname her Lúthien so much as draw Lúthien the character from Edith the woman:

I never called Edith Lúthien, but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, and I am left.

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Stress, Stoicism and the Adaptable Beast

As the great Joe Walsh once wrote, life’s been good to me so far.

I am just past ten months in Australia and I feel like I’m still adapting to it, but the last few weeks in particular have made me really hyperaware of just how out of water a fish I am. Prior to picking up actual work outside of writing, I’ve existed in a bubble of expat friends and Australians who are generally very familiar with America/Americans, so I haven’t had to go out of my way to explain things to them and they get my references.

Working outside of that bubble? I think I’ve spent a good quarter of my work time explaining stuff about the states. Not even the election and fallout, which is very obviously a major topic of discussion here along the lines of “what the hell is wrong with your country” and flipping out at those who consider Australia completely removed from the situation (not like it’s a continent notable for being the canary in the coal mine regarding climate change and sitting in China’s backyard should saber rattling between the other world powers occur). There’s been a lot of that, and as a political junkie I’ve been more than happy to explain things as best I can, but there’s an interest in cultural stuff I took completely for granted stateside.

My current long term contract has me running data administration and analytics for a children’s cancer care project with a pretty sizable coverage area. It’s a cool group of people from all walks of life, and almost all of them have been curious about everything from my prior jobs and working conditions back in the states to the shock of moving from a frozen wasteland to the subtropics.

Kittery_Point,_York_County_(Maine).jpgMy go-to at this point when asked “What’s Maine like?” is something along the lines of “you watch Game of Thrones, yeah? Beyond the Wall, but with less ice zombies and more moose. My hometown had under two thousand people at its peak, I lived a good half hour’s drive from anything resembling civilization, and I worked with a lot of people who took pride in never venturing outside of the state because home had everything they needed.”

It’s weird, because I’ve been put on the defensive about some of the things that bother me the most about the USA. There’s a definite element of “I can call it shitty as much as I want, I grew up in it and I understand why it’s shitty, but if you’ve never been there you’d better pump your breaks.” A lot of my time has been spent explaining why some terrible old social remnants exist into the modern day, even when I despise them myself. I have to explain the problems I see with the education system and how it doesn’t absolve people of blame for doing bad things, but it shows why they think that way beyond pure malice like many people see.

One of the big ones is when I was asking a couple of coworkers about leave, reimbursement, things of a financial nature. They were quizzing me on how it was at my old job and were utterly horrified when I told them about the pay rates, overtime policies, health coverage… one of them said it sounded like the third world and that she wanted to give me a hug at one point, and asked how I didn’t go completely mental over living that way for years and years.

And… It got me thinking. It got me thinking, as most things do, about writing and characters and adaptability. One of the oldest and most tired, worn-out tropes I love is that the human racial trait is the ability to be flexible and live anywhere, make anything the norm, and just deal with it. It’s an exceptionally lazy trope used to differentiate mankind from fantasy or alien races and is completely unrealistic because if we encountered elves or dwarves, if they had flourished at all as a people they would have had to adapt to different environments and social situations to meet localized customs. If nothing else you’d have, I don’t know, ice dwarves mining things in the polar regions and tropical dwarves living along the baked equator, and the difference in environment would necessitate different social norms and rules and whatnot.

But nonetheless, humans are usually the ones who get completely rounded stats and the most freedom for how you build them in roleplaying games, and are presented as something like the cockroaches of many sci-fi strategy games. Give us enough time to dig in and get used to something and we’ll treat it like it’s totally fine, what are you complaining about, of course I took my twelve doses of radiation medpac before going out onto the Belts of Zondarr to harvest glo-gems.

We are a remarkably adaptable people and I only see how stressful my life was in hindsight. When I was living it, well, I made ends meet. I recognized that things could be better and I worked towards that, but in the meantime I did what I had to in order to survive and meet my goals as best I could. I mean, I’m someone with chronic medical issues that I control through very strict, disciplined regimes I’ve had to develop since I was 17 years old and had to have multiple major surgeries ripping my large intestine out and reconstructing the ruins in my abdomen. I was, at any given time, even on a decent-if-overpriced health plan, a couple of bad cases of pouchitis away from bankruptcy. I worked 10 hour days and weekends for over a year just to be able to move here, to make a fraction of what I’m making now for similar work.

I’m sure there are a lot of things that go into it. I try to be a woke, feminist dude but I’ve been bombarded by toxic masculine ideals my entire life and I’m sure that I’ve absorbed enough of them to keep a death-grip on my emotions a lot of the time; I simply don’t let myself panic and I bury my stress in a shallow grave. I come from the New England region where a lot of the societal norm is based around stoicism and not complaining about your lot in life. During the brief time I worked outside of New England, anyone who had worked with other people from the region tended to treat me like some kind of viking-golem who they could point at work and I would ponderously hack away at it until it was gone or I was, and that’s what I did.

It’s not a bad thing, but it’s one of those ones where you don’t realize just how ridiculous the situation was until you were out of it. I look at my health coverage here, the kind of money I could make from entry-level stuff or short term temp work if I walked out of my job tomorrow, and I have no idea how I didn’t go insane from the stress of not having the options I do now.

I think that a lot of that shows up in my writing. I try not to do author avatar characters unless they’re well-hidden in the background or bit parts or I’m poking fun at myself, but there’s an element of that stubbornness that seeps into most of my main characters. And, weirdly enough, I feel like I’ve learned from them as well. There’s an incredibly bizarre kind of osmosis and reversal that happens to some writers, a bloc of which I feel increasingly part, where I really attach a good chunk of what makes me me to a protagonist (or antagonist, because I can also be an asshole) and throw them out into the vast ocean of fiction, and when I reel them back in at the end of the story I collect a lot of what they’ve learned.

It’s a bit like the old conundrum of how you write a character who is smarter than you, or better at you than something. You research it meticulously and you end up a bit smarter or better yourself. It’s one of the things that drew me to writing in the first place, more than any other creative form in the world.

My characters tend to be very adaptable, because when I read fiction that’s what I myself enjoy seeing. No one likes seeing a character who just gives up in the face of overwhelming odds. No one should ever feel like they need to be that character, either. Take advantage of the hoary stereotype of the incredibly adaptable people and let it be a wellspring of strength for you, and create these situations where you stand between the mirrors of real life and fiction and let both enrich you. I try to maintain the adaptability of the characters in my own life, in my case through sheer bullheadedness.

I don’t advocate bottling things up quite as much as I do, of course. It’s not for everyone. It’s probably not that healthy for me and it’s something I’ve tried to work on for much of my adult life, but I recognize that it’s there and I can harness it when I need to. Your flaws can become strengths when you look at them just right. It’s like a much less violent version of Sam Vimes’s The Beast from the Discworld novels, particularly Night Watch:

Vimes felt his hand begin to move of its own accord–

And stopped. Red rage froze.

There was The Beast, all around him.

And that’s all it was. A beast. Useful, but still a beast. You could hold it on a chain, and make it dance, and juggle balls. It didn’t think. It was dumb. What you were, what you were, was not The Beast.

Self-indulgent wankery and shoehorned Pratchett worship aside, I need to get back to book recommendations beyond just re-reading the old Stephen King novels out of a misplaced longing for my homeland!

Rather than fiction I want to recommend one of the very few writing advice books I enjoy and have found helpful.

Now, I don’t have any personal hatred for writing advice books. I recognize that everyone needs to make money, it’s easier to sell shovels in a gold rush than the pan for gold yourself, and that many of the books contain really good advice, but I tend to look at them more as tools I can keep in a very large cabinet and fish out when I run into something that I can’t handle with my own homemade items.

Generally I like advice books that take almost a narrative form, like King’s On Writing or Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing, or some of Chuck Wendig’s collected essays. Authors talking about how much they love their craft does more for my brain than lists of how to do certain things or how not to do them.

41-+2jvwWJL.jpgOne of the very few exceptions to that is The Art of War for Writers by James Bell, written just a few years ago. There have been a billion business variations of The Art of War over the decades, all boiling down to strained “don’t be an idiot on the battlefield / don’t be an idiot in the boardroom” similes, but this is the first time I’ve seen it applied to storytelling. It presents the structures of a story as troop formations, the “enemy” as the reader, and winning the battle as battering down their defenses and capturing their attention fully enough that they not only buy your book but actively look to buy more. It’s split into helpful sections devoted to everything from narrative hooks to character development and how to foreshadow a compelling plot twist, and it does it with wry wit that is genuinely enjoyable to read on its own. You can’t use it as a blueprint for a story, nor should you because then it wouldn’t be your story or your voice, but it gives you a very useful tool that you can pull out when you find yourself in a bind or butting up against writers block. The snippets are, if nothing else, inspiration and story seeds for when you’re having a bad day and your head is feeling cloudy. It’s not going to hold your hand through writing a bestseller, but it can allow you to frame your own story from another angle and sometimes that makes a difference.

More Tyranny, Mindfulness, and Derry, Maine

I’m a bad person who has fallen completely down the gamer hole on Tyranny since my last post. Everything I raved about the other day? Pretend I did that twice as hard. I don’t think I’ve fallen in love with a game this much for years. I haven’t even touched Dishonored 2 yet or thought about picking up the new Final Fantasy, two other franchises I adore, because I’m too busy planning out future playthroughs and alternate paths through Tyranny.

Last time I talked at length about the morality of the setting, and how you need to approach it as alien to our own. This time I want to talk a little bit about the magic and how it differentiates itself from anything else I’ve played in the genre, or even in similar games like the Dark Sun series.

The magic of the game is sharply divided into three different tiers. At the top you have Edicts, which are the native power of Kyros the Overlord; proclamations that have a delayed or immediate effect on the world. Prior to the game’s start he could melt and entire nation into slag by having someone speak his Edict out loud, and the historians of the game tend to define eras by the Edicts proclaimed in them. We don’t really know what limitations they have, if any, and a large part of the game is prodding that. They seem to be open to interpretation and rules lawyering in a fun way. Here’s a small spoiler for how you can break the first Edict you encounter:

The game starts around the 20th of the month. The Edict you are sent to proclaim will take effect on the 26th of that mont once spoken. If you proclaim it on the starting day, you’ve got about a week. If you proclaim it on the 25th, you have one night. What I discovered was that if you buy up camping supplies and stay away from the settlements until the 27th, and then speak the Edict, you have a year until it takes effect. It will come down on the 26th of that month the following year, and you have what feels like infinite wiggle room. Not only that, but I found that characters actually have unique dialogue for if you break the game like this.

20161126205836_1.jpgIt’s really fun and you can either play it straight or be a sneaky bastard and get around the rules by interpreting them broadly. I think that adds a cool element to the game, where you aren’t just playing fantasy Judge Dredd who must enforce the letter of the law at all times. You can choose to make yourself into someone who interprets the spirit of the law and judges based on that, and you have a capacity to really stretch the boundaries.

The next level of magic is what the Archons have available, and to be honest I’m still exploring that a bit. One of them can shield his loyal followers from harm no matter how far away he is, another can devour the bodies of captives and add their minds to his, one can walk through shadows, so on and so forth. I’m just now entering the part of the game where I’m starting to poke and prod at how these interact with the world and if they’re permutations of the Edict or of the magic most readily available to the player:

Sigils.

Sigils are a little bit Morrowind-esque, which is already a massive point in their favor from me. I love them because they’re kind of like magic based on poetry or writing. Each spell is a miniature essay or argument against reality that you craft by hand.

You have a Core Sigil which represents your theme, your thesis if you will. Expression Sigils are the structure of your argument, how you channel your theme. Accent Sigils append your Expression, and Enhancement Sigils are kind of like citing other sources to draw additional effects. You could create a core sigil of frost, expressing itself in projected force, with accents of ricochets and enhanced residual decay. You’ve just created an ice lance that bounces around and leaves a ticking poison effect on each enemy struck, and within the context of the game, it’s because you’ve successfully argued reality itself into submission and twisted the new reality through your essay into a powerful magic attack.

I fucking love it. I usually don’t play casters in games – typically a bard or a ranger is the furthest I go – but in Tyranny I do find myself drawn hard into the spellcrafting system because it revs my imagination up like crazy. I get the feeling that Sigils are going to tie into the higher tiers of magic somehow, and I can’t wait to find out how.


Speaking of revving the imagination up, I’m almost done with my (admittedly very slow) re-read of IT. Man, I forgot how long this book is, and it’s not really one I can blaze through because I get caught up on details.

Details are what I want to talk about briefly here, in the context of mindfulness.

If you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s something that has been around for awhile but has become affiliated with a lot of… I guess new age-y philosophical sects and there are a billion different permutations on it. Some people take it super-seriously as a lifestyle, others try to incorporate a few minutes of it into their daily routine, others only use it as a stress relief or pain management thing.

I tend to tap into it as a writer, particularly when I’m gathering information as an observer.

One of the core attributes to mindfulness is that you acknowledge things happening around you without judgement, accepting the good and not taking the bad personally. You don’t get upset at the red light, you just see that it’s turned red and you wait. You try to make yourself intensely aware of things like plants growing in cracks, or people smiling, or whatever else is happening immediately around you. There isn’t any focusing on the past or worrying about the future, you’re trying to fill your mind with the present without letting it have a negative impact.

You can see how this would be tremendously useful for writing.

It’s something I have to force myself to do, honestly. I tend to fidget about the past a lot, and spend the rest of the time daydreaming about the future (even if it’s just future story ideas), but that’s the equivalent of breathing out constantly. You have to remember to breathe in from time to time.

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you’ll float, too

King, I think, really gets that. You can see it in any of his books, but IT is probably the most solid example. His narrative voice is mindful and not passing judgement, which makes it stand out all the more when you zoom in and see something through a protagonist’s eyes with their thoughts coloring things one way or the other. It’s how his country town settings are densely populated with some of the most believable characters I’ve ever read. Never mind that, on the surface, they’re rarely more than caricatures. Every one of these characters has a certain level of realism, honesty even, that most authors can’t capture in a novel. Sometimes there are authors who can’t capture it in a series. King regularly captures it in a paragraph. He gives you just enough of a realistic frame that you can fill it all in with people you’ve known.

I think in many novels, in many stories – mine included – the bit characters can become objects knocked around by the protagonists or the antagonists. By being mindful of the fact that every single bit character is a fully realized human with all the unpredictability that entails, King is able to flip that around and have the main characters get knocked off their feet by the bit characters. Their actions directly influence the course of the overarching story, because each of them has their own parallel story that may intersect with it at the most random time.

I also like that the stories make it all the more clear that Pennywise isn’t necessarily the main villain of the piece. We don’t really know for sure whether he made the soil of Derry for fertile for atrocities or if it was like that and he settled down to plant his proverbial crops. Just like Salem’s Lot, IT represents the massive ugilness just beneath the surface of some small towns. A shape-shifting cosmic horror is almost unnecessary when you’ve got an entire town of damaged and abusive adults pretending that they know how to raise a generation of kids and failing miserably. If anything, the monster is a welcome reprieve because you know that in a fairy tale these 12 year olds stand a good chance of beating the dragon, at least better odds than preteen Beverly has of winning against her physically abusive father or Eddie has against escaping his helicopter mother.

When the narrator is talking in a neutral, mindful tone of all the little details in Derry, it makes the horror stand out all the more when we’re seeing those things through the eyes of one of the protagonists. The dispassionate description of a homemade dam becomes a totem of hope and unity for the Losers when they realize it’s brought them together and made several of them the first friends they’ve ever had, and the nonjudgemental descriptions of decay in an old apartment become creepier and creepier when viewed through the eyes of those same kids when they realize that what we disregard as water damage might be a true monster getting its claws in the world and manifesting through things falling apart. Be that buildings or relationships.

It also does something that I strongly admire King for, which is being kind of a time capsule of progressive thought for different eras. For a novel written in the 80s, it opens with a truly horrific gay-bashing and it’s explicitly portrayed as a very bad thing, to the point that it is tied in to the awakening of a fear-eating monster that kills everyone on both sides. You can see all the prejudices of everyone in the town in a way that’s completely realistic, like the cops who talk about how they “hate fagolas” but that doesn’t mean they want the guys to get beaten to death walking home together. Just by mindfully presenting the casual homophobia, racism, sexism, domestic violence, torture, extra-judicial executions… the ugly parts of American history and still very much parts of America now, he presents them as inexcusable and something to stand against, because in addition to being atrocities in their own right they often point towards a sickness under the skin where they manifest.

Clowning Around

satgdsg.pngDamn, I’ve been neglecting this blog of late. I’ll try to remedy that; the contract I was working ended up getting extended twice over and I’ve been very carefully juggling priorities outside of work. I’ve even had to cut back on reading a little bit, or at least doing a better job of balancing work and pleasure reading so that I’m not just reading “fun” books all the time at the cost of my crunchy history texts that I actually draw on when I start writing.

I did, for the first time in awhile, pick up and start re-reading a book from ages ago.

IT, by Stephen King.

A classic, obviously. Some consider it a bit overhyped, others think it is underrated compared to The Shining or ‘Salem’s Lot. I liked it a lot the first time I read it, sometime in my late teens, and I’m enjoying it in brand new ways reading it as an adult who has done more and more writing and analytical reading.

I’m really starting to think that, moreso than the rest of King’s library, IT is a book that you should look at if you want to learn to play to your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, because the entire core concept of the book ended up doing so for him. I think that’s one of the reasons it endures as well as it has for several decades running, well enough to justify an updated remake and continual book sales.

First and foremost, it’s about a monster that hunts and attacks its prey by drawing upon their memories, their bad experiences, their emotions. I really can’t think of a better antagonist to put in a King book, because one of his biggest tics as a writer is that every single character, no matter how minor, inevitably gets several paragraphs devoted to their past, to their personality, to their little neuroticisms. Here you actually end up needing to know all of the fluff in their history because that’s what the monster is going to use to gruesomely murder them, so when you read their flashbacks for the first time you’re filled with a certain sense of dread that these things are going to be twisted into a weapon and used sometime in the future.

It’s brilliant, and it’s not something I caught onto as a kid. I have a huge appreciation for it now.

Second, you know how there’s a common trope of writers always writing about writers (because, to be fair, it is a bit of an antisocial profession and if you’ve grown up wanting to write what you know, what better than writing a fellow misanthrope into being)? It’s on full display here but in a way that works for the story on multiple layers.

It presents a pretty great central protagonist in Bill. Bill is obviously a King figure in a lot of ways. He’s an author who writes pulpy stuff and seems to have lucked his way into stability and a loving relationship, and who doesn’t take any of that for granted. He has a stripe of contempt for people who think that you have to pull every story apart and that you can’t just enjoy it on the surface level of being a story. More importantly, and more than almost any other King novel (besides Misery, obviously), the protagonist being a writer is so absolutely integral to how the plot works.

Bill becomes a writer to better hone his mind into a weapon, becoming kind of a foil to Pennywise. Pennywise tells stories to hurt and kill people, but Bill tells stories to empower and strengthen; he’s a horror writer who writes about monsters to show that they can be killed in the end, even if they seem overwhelming. I love the section very early on where he’s struggling with what exactly he wants to write, and he’s drowning in the opinions of people who only want to concern themselves with literary analysis: he ends up reaching deep inside of himself, tapping into his own past traumas and bad memories and ripping them out onto the page as a horror short. When he starts writing it, he becomes like a man possessed:

…his head seems to bulge with the story; it is a little scary, the way it needs to get out. He feels that if it cannot escape by way of his racing hand that it will pop his eyes out in its urgency to escape and be concrete … after ten years of trying he has suddenly found the starter button to the vast dead bulldozer taking up so much space inside his head. It has started up. It is revving, revving. It is nothing pretty, this big machine. It was not made for taking pretty girls to proms. It is not a status symbol. It means business. It can knock things down. If he isn’t careful, it will knock him down.

I mean, come on. I love that. I love the simple, brutal poetry of the piece. Ironically enough, in a story that lashes out at people who analyze, I love what it means underneath the surface.

I think that if you’re a writer, not even a published one but someone who is serious enough about writing to sit down and do it and finish a story, you’ve had an experience like that. You find something that clicks in the narrative and all of a sudden it’s 4am, you want to die from exhaustion, and you have something resembling a first draft cobbled together in front of you because you’re afraid to stop in case you can’t start again.

That’s basically what happens over and over to me. I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure of going up against a cosmic clown monster in the sewers to fuel my work, but more and more I’ve started pulling out bits and pieces of historical lore I stored away in the recesses of my brain, mixed them with various personality traits of mine, and ended up wanting to at least finish the story before I stopped to look at what I was doing.

Doesn’t happen with every story. In the recent anthology I think it only happened for a few. Others I really mapped out and planned to the hilt, and they were good and I feel good about writing them, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the ones I’ve been most heavily complimented on are those that I couldn’t stop writing when I started, because the story absolutely needed to be told and I didn’t think I could tell it as well if I paused in the middle.

Also, on the trail of all this and on an intensely personal note, I didn’t realize it so much when I was younger but Christ did King manage to nail the feeling of Bangor, Maine when he wrote Derry. I read about Derry and I can just imagine walking down the Bangor versions of those streets, looking at those bridges, seeing the peeled paint and the flood damage. My own hometown was probably a lot closer in tone to Durham, King’s childhood home and the basis for Jerusalem’s Lot (probably why Lot is the King book I always gravitate back to) but I spent plenty of time in Bangor growing up and seeing the subtle nods through adult eyes is really mind blowing. It makes me feel weirdly homesick even though the entire book could be seen as a treatise on the unimaginable evil lurking just below the surface of country towns like that.

The Week So Far: A Triptych

Panel the First – Two Skeletons Collapsed At the Base of an Altar, Upon Which Rests a Kindle

51BmHrGNVKL.jpg The book is selling well. I know, this is obnoxious. I promise I’m only going to mention it a couple more times, it’s just that the first week is incredibly important to spike up there in terms of marketing and trying to rake in sales, and solidifying it in the Amazon search stuff. Some reviews are beginning to roll in and, unless they’re blowing smoke up our asses, they’re good. The themes are coming through to other people, that’s a big thing that I always worry about. So far it’s doing way better than the last book did in terms of ranking, and while I know ranking is mostly a vanity thing that doesn’t translate accurate sale rates, it still feels really nice to see something shoot from the four digits into the lower three digits practically overnight and then stay there for more than a day. Both Chris and I have really tried to stop being shy nerds and have done a lot more networking and research this time around, and I feel like it’s paying off. A big part of that is you guys who are sharing my blog posts(s) about it. I can see you, even if I don’t know who you are. It shows up under my tracking stats as no referring link, which usually means it’s being sent over messenger or e-mail. If you’re doing that, I give you sincere thanks. If you aren’t doing it, but you enjoy the words that come out of my fingers, consider doing it? Just this week, at least. Don’t make a continual pest out of yourself. I suspect sharing my posts constitutes a breach of the geneva convention.

 

Panel the Second – Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones Ascending to Heaven, With Shades

MEN-IN-BLACK.jpgI’ve started working again. Just temp stuff for now, it pays the bills, it gets me out of the house, it forces me to interact with other people. These are supposedly good things, but we’ll see. I’m okay with temp at the moment, it’s not something I’ve really worked before but it feels refreshing after holding down a single job long term, it’s letting me broaden my experience a bit and the networking potential is nice. Plus, it gives me a little flexibility and freedom to continue writing, which is how I’ve started outlining my Big Novel And/Or Series Story, which I will probably get into sometime soon. It’s also gotten me to break my work clothes out of hiding.

Can I be completely honest with you? As a teenager I thought suits were stuffy and dumb and overrated. I still think they’re a bit stuffy (ask me about wearing dark fabric in the Australian summer) and deeply rooted in some gross socioeconomic strata (fun fact, the tie was originally meant to show off that you didn’t work around hazardous machinery that maim or murder you if it caught on loose clothing), but at the same time? It’s kind of empowering and fun. It really changes how people treat you, which changes how you treat yourself. I essentially fool myself into being more mature when I wear it, and from a writer’s perspective it’s like creating a garment out of an unreliable narrator. It’s stiff and stylish and a little intimidating, but I can leave cracks in it to let the weirdness pop out. Bright socks or strange ties so that the attentive people understand that I’m just a weirdo underneath it all.

The Men in Black were completely right in how it’s the most important piece of equipment, even more so than any ray gun they were able to steal from an alien smuggler: it gives you the power to act authoritative and have people at least start to listen to you, even if you have no idea what you’re doing.

 

Panel the Third – Books Strewn Across A Smoldering Hellscape

514DLmSeGmL.jpgI’m playing mega catch-up on my reading list right now. I have some good stuff I want to review in the near future but the final burst to get all the final work for the anthology done, and then work and doubling up on Halloween stuff and you get the idea. I just finished up with Hammers on Bone during my commute yesterday and absolutely loved it. It’s a tightly paced and plotted little novella with some fascinating twists on what are completely archetypal cosmic horror tropes. It plays around with your expectations and nestles you securely in what seems by-the-numbers before upending that in ways I’m not going to spoil here. Besides that, it’s just a damn good detective story with a cool setting, and that’s all that I ask out of a book.

Launch Day for The Shadow Box

Well, today is the day. The Shadow Box is available for public consumption now. I’m never really sure what to do for launch day posts, everyone does them a bit differently. I’m going to talk about the book broadly, and then my own contributions to it (I’m sure Chris will have a similar post up) and some plans for the future.

The Shadow Box Cover Final.jpg

The Shadow Box was a real labor of love for both of us. Chris and I last collaborated on That Weird City (which we have dropped the price on for a combo deal kind of thing, if you haven’t read it) back in 2011-2012. We both knew each other from some writing and gaming communities prior to that, and we’d seen publication in the same magazine a couple of times, so we decided to throw together an anthology of weird horror stories that we’d had kicking around. It was very much a new author book with all that entails. Some formatting errors, some typos that slipped through, one story where the initial upload was a draft instead of the finished copy in the rush to get it up and ready for the self-imposed deadline. We actually just uploaded a kind of remastered version of the collection this weekend to coincide with the new launch, utilizing a lot of things learned over the years.

We have both learned a lot since City came out. We’ve both made a huge effort to expand the scope of our reading. City was very much a couple of New England dudes who grew up reading too much Lovecraft and associated mythos authors. Going back over it for the recent edits, I’m honestly kind of shocked at how little I cringe away from the narratives but also at how many new ways I would have expanded those stories if I’d written them today. My voodoo-tech support would be way, way more enmeshed with contemporary New Orleans Voodoo and all the social and cultural depth that entails, instead of being a convenient magical system for my white protagonist to use while fighting off evil spirits. I also would have leaned way, way less on the cosmic evil antagonists that popped up in many of the tales. I’m also very aware that five years from now I might look at that story and figure out a way I would have written it differently. Writing is never being satisfied with what you put out and knowing you can do better, but still making your best available while pursuing the higher goal.

Hindsight is 20/20. I walked away from the revision thinking that I played it really safe, and it was okay, but I want to do better than “okay” in my writing.

The Shadow Box is an attempt to push ourselves outside of the comfort zone. We may dip into the mythos for some trappings, but we’ve decided to twist them into new shapes and new directions. Chris’s work is tackling themes of masculine insecurity and testosterone poisoning, or art criticism and the idea of the creative zeitgeist as a force outside of our world entirely, or looking into the future-that-wasn’t of cyberpunk and marrying our current corporate dystopia with the trappings of the 80s. I’m shoving myself out of my own culture and upbringing to look at other things; I’ve got stories more approaching fantasy and dark fairy tale than the new weird, I’m trying to incorporate settings that don’t get a lot of attention otherwise, and I’m trying to be hyperaware of the ways that stories can be misconstrued if you aren’t careful with them. I have some stories on immigration and refugees that I went back over three, four, five times to make sure they were written right, because when you’re blending real world issues with the fantastic there’s so many ways to do it wrong.

I think it came out okay. I hope it came out okay. We’ve sent these out to beta readers of all genders, creeds and colors and we haven’t had anyone come back with “you insensitive assholes” yet. We gave ourselves a much more flexible deadline this time around and I think it paid off. There were many cases of finishing a draft and basically just taking a core element and a few characters to rewrite them from scratch. There was one where I had to stop it a few pages in and then work on another while reading several hundred pages out of a historical textbook to make sure I was getting a bunch of details right when they weren’t on Wikipedia.

Now it’s out there and if you decide to pick it up, I hope you enjoy it. If you do, or even if you don’t, the reviews help. Even a couple of lines on Amazon bump it up in the search and sorting algorithms. If you like it, maybe recommend it to some friends. Lend it to them on kindle – I mean, the spiced rum money is nice but the point of writing is to get it into a lot of hands – and throw a “hey this isn’t awful” post up on FB if you are so inclined. It’s incredibly helpful and appreciated and allows us to keep doing this kind of stuff.

Speaking of. I have no doubt that we’re going to put another anthology out sometime in the next couple of years, but with this having gotten us back on the writing horse we’re both working on our respective novels/series. Chris has some crazy-cool stuff brewing, I’m hammering out what started as a bit of a murder mystery and is now growing in scope with every history book I read and take notes on. Hell, when I finished a few of these short stories going “I want to make a novel out of these characters or this setting,” and I’ll probably take a stab at that as well. Doubly so if there are reviews from people saying they liked reading them in particular. Hint hint.

Okay, I’ll stop now.

Off to read a treatise on turn of the century Cairo.

Making Monsters – Grab Bag

It’s very weird seeing so much Halloween stuff available here in Australia, particularly after I have spent the last couple of years being told by many of my Australian friends not to expect much in the way of costumes or celebrations down on the sunburned continent. On a rational level I recognize that it’s because American media output is ever-increasing and more and more kids are growing up with Halloween special episodes of our shows, and Halloween-themed horror movies, and things like that. The businesses here notice this, and they go “hey, we can make some cash off of the craze if we convince them to buy costumes and candy with orange wrappers instead of the usual colors, and we can probably jack the price up because everything in Australia is more expensive.”

But it kind of feels like the holiday followed me here, and that’s nice. I doubt I’ll even do anything this year – I’ve been busy as hell and haven’t even thrown a costume together, and the Halloween parties nearby look like they’re going to be incredibly crowded and focused more on gimmick cocktails than anything else – but it’s nice to know I’ll have the option next year and beyond. It also lets me stay connected with my American friends a little better when they’re posting about trick-or-treaters and I see some down here too, instead of feeling completely cut off.

Enough about my life right now, though. I’d like to talk about monsters some more. If you’ve been keeping up on my articles throughout the week you’ll probably notice a trend of what I look for in a well-written monster: I like them to be scary, I like them to have their own motivation and rules they adhere to (even if we, as the audience, don’t know) and I like them to have a cool aesthetic. The latter of these is purely subjective, I like camp and body horror and beauty stretched into the uncanny valley, while some people may prefer realistic gore and things showing off the banality of evil and the thin veil hiding monstrous things from us.

My approach to monsters is honestly very similar to how I view religions, mythologies and folklore: a window into how other people think. It makes sense because monsters are intimately tied to those stories. Sometimes they’re the wrath sent down to punish people for breaking rules, or they’re placed there to force people into breaking unjust rules and changing society. You can learn a lot about a culture or a people by seeing what they’re afraid of, how they approach that fear, how they handle it. Are the monsters something that can be fought and beaten? Or are they beings that need to be avoided at all costs because humans can’t beat them?

Pictish_Beast_Maiden_Stone.jpgAre they stand-ins for nature, for the raw and untamed, uncaring wilderness? Something like the Scottish Kelpie myths, a living warning that you stay the hell away from fast-moving rivers or you’ll be taken away and killed horribly by the waters? A combination of two normal, everyday things (horses, beautiful women) with a dash of the otherworldly to tie them together? Or, underneath the river motif, maybe a cultural reading of misogynistic views that women are tempters who will lead men to ruin and death? Both are probably true and both tell you a lot about the people who came up with these stories. They lived in a land with a lot of hostile, watery environments and wanted to warn people from getting too close to the rivers or lakes. They were fairly patriarchal or at least placed emphasis on chastity and fidelity, especially when you combine the Kelpie stories with other Highland (and if you go far enough back, Pictish – that picture is from the Maiden Stone carving and is widely thought to represent a kind of proto-Kelpie figure) tales about men being led astray by beautiful women who are not what they seem. Double so with monstrous, handsome men seducing maidens.

baku_traditional.pngAre the monsters more like the living nightmares of the Baku myths out of Japanese – and early, Chinese – folklore? Beings that seep into your head and eat you from the inside out if you aren’t a good person in the waking world, because being a good person is what attracts the Baku, a protector spirit who feasts on bad dreams and protects the virtuous in their slumber? Bakus are still monsters, but they’re friendly ones if you treat them with respect and honor, and that tells you as much about the people who thought them up and revered them as the Kelpies said about bewaring the rivers and the seductive strangers. A Baku is a monster you can befriend and one who will protect you from the kind of monsters you can’t reason with, the ones born out of all the bad things you’ve seen in your day to day life, the stuff that lodged itself in your brain to be summoned back up once you nod off.

Whenever I’m coming up with monsters for a story, I try to keep this in the back of my mind. In our world monsters are what we come up with to serve as cautionary tales, and I think that when you create a fantasy or horror setting where they actually do exist in the flesh, you need to incorporate some elements of that for them to ring true. For us, the Irish Clurichaun fairy is a warning not to act like a drunkard, because if you do and dishonor your household he will show up and spoil your wine. If I wanted to write a story about them, I’d probably add a backstory to the fairy and why it does what it does. Maybe they are men and women who once drank wine of the fairy world and feel driven to “protect” their old towns by tormenting anyone who they believe might go down the same path, until those victims give up drink entirely, even if the Clurichauns don’t recognize the horrible collateral damage they’re inflicting with their mischief. If I were to dip my toe into Latvian lore, I might bring up Lausks, a spectral lumberjack who tests the integrity of houses by smacking them with his axe and whose presence causes cheeks to turn blue. In our world a pretty obvious explanation for why wooden structures sometimes creek, groan and settle in the winter as the moisture trapped within expands or contracts to match the temperature. In a setting where he actually exists, though, you have to start asking why he feels the need to test random houses by hitting them, what his motivations are as a monster. You can still have houses settle and groan from natural means, but perhaps a whole cult has sprung up where people in those houses rush to pay him tribute or burn offerings on the stove even when he isn’t present because better safe than sorry. You could do a cool little backwoods cult out of that if he stays in a small area, and imagine a traveler stumbling into that situation and trying to get to the bottom of it.

Basically, what I’m getting at here is that fictional monsters are awesome and deserve our respect as readers and as writers, and shouldn’t be treated as disposable plot devices when you could make them into characters in their own right. If they’re too nebulous to be characters they should still represent something more than a scary being that kills its way down the cast of human characters to create tension.