A quick plug for the excellent sf webzine Daily Science Fiction.
Doing exactly what it says on the tin, DFS provides subscribers with new sf and fantasy every weekday, spanning the length and breadth of the genre(s) from traditional fantasy to hard sf and everything else in between.
It's free and only takes a couple of clicks to subscribe.
I've just received word that my short story Thin Blood has been accepted by Aurora Wolf and should be online this weekend. It's a Celtic fantasy and one of my first attempts to use elements of Irish mytholgy in my writing.
It'll be a good start to 2011 and hopefully a good omen for the coming year.
In an act which is probably best described as cultural barbarism, the UK government has cut the subsidy to the UK based book charity Booktrust, taking away some £13 million pounds.
The charity's national book-gifting programmes are well-known and wide-reaching. Bookstart gives a free pack of books to every baby in the UK, Booktime donates a book pack to children shortly after they start school, and Booked Up enables each child starting secondary school to choose a book for themselves. The charity's aim is to give everyone the chance to experience what it calls "the delight and power of books and the written word" regardless of income, literacy skills, disability or culture.
The government's £13m was used to generate a further £56m-worth of sponsorship for the bookgifting schemes from publishing partners and corporate sponsors.
In an age when concerns about literacy levels are increasing every day, and the cost of higher education is becoming prohibitive for all but the well off (or those prepared to start their working lives with debts of more than £30,000) it is nothing short of madness to add to this trend rather than attempt to solve it.
If I was a writer of speculative fiction (and I am) I would see this as the first step towards creating a drone underclass, incapable of anything other than taking orders from those who have set themselves up as their social superiors. Eugenics, anyone? There is a chilling Orwellian taint to this whole thing, mixed liberally with a touch of Aldous Huxley, and a whole helping of Thatcherism.
To my mind it is only common sense to help create a literate, educated population, particularly in a time when traditional industry has all but vanished from the United Kingdom and when we need to look more and more to non-traditional and creative industry but without an educated population we cannot do this.
Our government is a sham, to say the least, caring little or nothing about the working classes, or indeed the middle classes.
Many writers, teacher and librarians have already expressed their dismay and disgust at the withdrawal of the Booktrust's funding, (leading to a partial about-face by the Liberal/Conservative government.) I am adding my voice to this, if you care about the future of literacy in this country, please add yours.
My short story "And Other Such Delights", which appeared in the excellent Beneath Ceaseless Skies earlier this year, has been mentioned in Lois Tilton's Short Fiction Reviews in Review at Locus Online as part of her summary of the best fiction from 2010.
Today I recieved the final edits for my short story, Forged in Heaven, Tempered in Hell, which features in the new Ricasso Press anthology Through Blood and Iron, due in 2011.
Edited by Rob Santa and showcasing heroic fantasy and sword & sorcery in all its action-packed glory, the anthology features a whole bunch of excellent writers including Christopher Heath, Bruce Durham, Nathan Meyer, TW Williams, Steve Goble and many more.
I am, to say the least, delighted to be in such august company.
"I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from [John] Bunyan to [A.S.] Byatt."Michael Moorcock
"I hate those writers who have been terribly influenced by Lord Kafka or Franz Dunsany -big show offs. Personally I was influenced by guys like Clifford Simak and John W. Campbell Jr... A fellow with science fiction writing ambitions should read science fiction." Isaac Asimov.
I recently re-read the above quotes and it got me thinking about my own reading habits. First of all, as I have said many, many times before, I am an unashamed and unabashed lover of science fiction and fantasy literature (quite a lot of movies and TV stuff too, but let's just stick to books for the moment, shall we?) and it makes up a large part of my literary diet. In the last year I have read (or re-read) books and stories by Joe Abercrombie, Robert Silverberg, M. John Harrison, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Tanith Lee, Scott Lynch, Stephen King, Philip K. Dick, Karl Edward Wagner, Jack Vance, Peter Brett, Mark Charan Newton, Michael Moorcock, Andrzej Sapkowski, Brian Aldiss and JG Ballard (to mention quite a few) and thoroughly enjoyed them.
Equally I have read (or re-read) works by Joseph Conrad, Voltaire, Malcolm Lowry, Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Shakespeare, T.S Elliot, William Blake, Jean Paul Satre, Virginia Wolff, May Sinclair, Martin Amis, Wells Tower, Dante, Graham Greene, Charles Bukowski, Daniel Defoe and Christopher Isherwood (to name virtually all of them) and gained a huge amount of pleasure from those as well.
As if that wasn't enough I've also read histories of the Crusades, the Greek and Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian Wars and the fanciful studies of Atlantis and Lemuria by William Scott-Elliot (which are a hoot and a half).
I've also read a fair bit of Kafka and Dunsany over the years, too, so I guess you could say that I read a lot and like to keep it varied.
For me, reading science fiction and fantasy is and always has been a pleasure, but I fully understand that a writer can get stymied by following such a path and runs the risk of disappearing up a literary cul de sac. Michael Moorcock makes a good point, particularly if you are more interested in literary growth than straightforward adventure stories, and is a good warning against simply recycling well-worn tropes and plots. But by the same token, though, I agree with the words of Isaac Asimov in that too much of the overtly literary can alienate a reader (or a writer) who is simply looking for entertainment and, of course, if you are not familiar with the tropes and plots of sf there is always the chance that you will recycle them unwittingly (working for weeks or months on that Grandfather Paradox story only to discover that Robert Heinlein did it years ago).
The truth lies somewhere in the middle, I feel. Opinions on what constitutes good science fiction and fantasy vary wildly, even within one person's own judgement - I hugely admire M. John Harrison's Viriconium sequence, for example, but also absolutely adore the work of Philip K. Dick although he was never a literary stylist in that same way that Harrison is. Is one necessarily better than the other? No, of course not.
As readers we take away different things from different writers, regardless of the genre in which they work (given that we can refer to 'literary' fiction as a genre), something that is doubly so as a writer: lessons about structure, point of view, handling the narrative, characterisation etc. I
It's healthy, I feel, for a writer to read both within and outside of his or her chosen genre, adapting techniques to suit their own writing, using literary experimentation when it suits or fits. After all, the world of books is a huge one... why limit yourself?
Some very kind words about The Song of Tussagaroth and Innsmouth Free Press from Deborah Walker at Skull Salad Reviews where she describes the story as "reminiscent of Clark Ashton Smith". (Wheeeee!)
To say that I am delighted would be the understatement of the season, particularly since The Song of Tussagaroth was/is my attempt to do a story with a Hyperborea vibe to it and is the first of a series of sword and sorcery mythos tales that I've been tinkering with over the past while.
I must confess that I haven't read much by Gahan Wilson, which considering the quality of his writing is a terrible admission, but in my opinion The Sea Was Wet As Wet Can Be - first published in 1967 - is an almost perfect short story.
Chilling, clever, poignant and touching, it is as story about how we can sometimes lose ourselves, merely existing rather than living, about how the fear of being alone can lead us to make wrong decisions, about how the incongruously inane can suddenly become terrifying.
And it's about vampires. Sort of.
Taking his inspiration from Lewis Carroll's 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' Gahan Wilson paints a remarkable picture of a group of people who's fractured lives are as expertly portrayed as anything in say, The Great Gatsby or The Beautiful and the Damned. In fact, most of these characters and their cruel hedonism would not have been out of place in the Jazz Age or cavorting around as Bright Young Things with an undercurrent of self-loathing never far from the surface.
“I felt we made an embarrassing contrast to the open serenity of the scene around us. The pure blue of the sky was unmarked by a single cloud or bird, and nothing stirred on the vast stretch of beach except ourselves. The sea, sparkling under the freshness of the early morning sun, looked invitingly clean. I wanted to wade into it and wash myself, but I was afraid I would contaminate it. We are a contamination here, I thought. We're like a group of sticky bugs crawling in an ugly little crowd over polished marble. If I were God and looked down and saw us, lugging our baskets and our silly, bright blankets, I would step on us and squash us with my foot.”
Not-so-fresh from an all night party, Phil and his companions decide to extend the revels and propose a beach picnic, urged on – or ordered to – by “Good old, mean old Carl.” the “greatest little drink pourer in the world. He used drinks like other types of sadists used whips. He kept beating you with them until you dropped or sobbed or went mad.”
Oddly and ironically, if any of the characters here most resemble the common view of the vampire it would be Carl. Leader, employer and chief torturer of the group “On the surface, with his eyes, with his face, with the handling of his entire body, Carl was a master of animation and expression. From sympathetic, heartfelt warmth, all the way to icy rage, and on every stop in-between, Carl was completely convincing. But only on the surface. Once you got to know Carl, and it took a while, you realized that none of it was really happening. That was because Carl had died, or been killed, long ago. Possibly in childhood. Possibly he had been born dead. So, under the actor's warmth and rage, the eyes were always the eyes of a corpse.”
Such is the accuracy and vividness of Gahan Wilson's writing that he creates living, breathing characters with a few sentences - “ Irene was particularly sensitive about seeing people alone because being alone had several times nearly produced fatal results for her. Being alone and taking pills to end the being alone.” “He was tall and bald and he had a huge Adam's apple and, like myself, he worked for Carl. I would have felt sorrier for Horace than I did if I hadn't had a sneaky suspicion that he was really happier when grovelling.” - and a large part of the fascination of “The Sea Was Wet...” comes from watching these poor, damaged creatures flail around.
But a simple examination of damaged lives, no matter how expertly done, isn't the be all and end all of this particular story.
“They were far away, barely bigger than two dots, but you could tell there was something odd about them even then...I watched the two approaching figures. The one was tall and bulky, and he moved with a peculiar, swaying gait. The other was short and hunched into himself, and he walked in a fretful, zigzag line beside his towering companion... We sat quietly and watched them coming closer. The nearer they got, the odder they looked. "For heaven's sake!" said Irene. "The little one's wearing a square hat!"
"I think it's made of paper," said Mandie, squinting, "folded newspaper."
"Will you look at the moustache on the big bastard?" asked Carl. "I don't think I've ever seen a bigger bush in my life."
"They remind me of something," I said. The others turned to look at me.
The Walrus and the Carpenter … "They remind me of the Walrus and the Carpenter," I said.”
And it is with this bravura twist that “The Sea Was Wet As Wet Can Be” becomes something utterly different, fascinating and frightening. For you see, the resemblance of the two newcomers to Lewis Carroll's oyster-hunting philosophers may not be entirely coincidental.
Weaving the text of Carroll's poem throughout the rest of the narrative, what begins as a friendly chat and drink on the beach soon changes into something darker despite (or rather precisely because of) the words on the page.
"Be that as it may," said the Walrus, patting the Carpenter on the flat top of his paper hat, "this is Edward Farr, and I am George Tweedy, both at your service. We are, uhm, both a trifle drunk, I'm afraid." “Then the big one smiled, and everything was changed.... The smile of the Walrus did what a smile hasn't done for me in years—it melted my heart. I use the cornball phrase very much on purpose. When I saw his smile, I knew I could trust him; I felt in my marrow that he was gentle and sweet and had nothing but the best intentions. His resemblance to the Walrus in the poem ceased being vaguely chilling and became warmly comical. I loved him as I had loved the teddy bear of my childhood.”
Even a passing familiarity with the original poem will probably hint at the ending of “The Sea Was Wet...”
"I would have sworn you were looking for oysters," said Carl.
Again, Tweedy appeared startled.
"O Oysters, come and walk with us!" The Walrus did beseech … "Oysters?" he asked. "Oh, no, we've got the oysters. All we lack is the means to cook 'em."
" 'Course we could always use a few more," said Farr, looking at his companion.
"I suppose we could, at that," said Tweedy thoughtfully.
I won't give the game away any more than I already have other than to say that the denouement of “The Sea Was Wet...” is as perfectly formed as every other aspect of the story and that the sense of desolation that Gahan Wilson creates, both in his characters and the landscape that surrounds them, is almost palpable. Not a pleasant read, perhaps, but a memorable one nevertheless,
Do yourself a kindness and read this brilliant short story, which you can find here (as long as this link is still working)
Yet more sad news as the director Irvin Kershner passed away on 27 November aged 87.
Probably best known to genre fans as the director of The Empire Strikes Back, Kershner also directed Robocop 2 and the James Bond film Never Say Never Again, which marked Sean Connery's return to the role. Other films of genre note included the psychological thriller The Eyes of Laura Mars the Eliot Gould/Donald Sutherland comedy S*P*Y*S and the revisionist western The Return of A Man Called Horse.
Best known for her appearances in a number of British horror films in the 1970's, Ingrid Pitt has passed away at the age of 73.
Although she only stared in a few films for Hammer and Amicus (most notably CountessDracula where she played a thinly veiled (and somewhat 'vamped up') version of the infamous Elizabeth Bathory, Ingrid Pitt was nonetheless closely identified with the horror genre for most of her career.
Apart from Countess Dracula she also appeared in Hammer's The Vampire Lovers – based loosely upon Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla – The House That Dripped Blood for Amicus (more or less playing a version of herself this time) and, briefly, in The Wicker Man.
The legendary film producer Dino De Laurentiis has passed away aged 91.
In a career which saw him produce almost 150 movies since 1940, his output contained many things of interest to genre fans including Barbarella, King Kong, Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer,Red Sonja, The Dead Zone, Dune, Evil Dead 2 & 3 and, perhaps his finest (certainly campest) contribution to sf/fantasy cinema, Flash Gordon.
To say that they don't make 'em like Dino anymore would be an understatement of sorts.
Some good news this week, my short story Bride of the Waters has been accepted for the April 2011 issue of Lacuna, Megan Arkenberg's very fine ezine of historical fiction. A Lovecraftain tale set in renaissance Venice, it's part of a series of fantasy/ s&s tales I've been dabbling with for the past little while. Lacuna can be found here: http://lacunajournal.blogspot.com/
Also this week, the short interview I did for Innsmouth Free Press a while back is now up. It relates fairly directly to my short story in IFP, The Song of Tussagaroth, and do I do get to namecheck some of my favourite writers in it. http://www.innsmouthfreepress.com/?p=9045
Any new market that welcomes Sword and Sorcery is always welcome, even if - as in this case - it's a non-paying one.
"Almost all types of fantasy will be considered, from horror to heroic fiction, sword & sorcery, urban fantasy, steam-punk, supernatural, surreal, weird fiction, and noir crime. No hard science fiction, erotica or stories designed to gross out."
Welcome to Wild Stacks: the Library of the Imagination, the online magazine that is home for stories that explore and expand the imagination. Wild Stacks is published quarterly by The Alchemy Press. Issue 1 is due shortly. Meanwhile, for Issue 0 we're proud to present stories from Allen Ashley, Mike Chinn and Anne Gay.
In writing terms it's not been a great week with a bunch more rejections landing in my inbox - one a day so far, and it's only Wednesday.
Still, I have a relatively thick skin these days and always do my best to remain sanguine about such things and have already started to think about other markets to submit the stories to. I rarely think of a rejection as being a damning indictment of my writing or story-telling skills - good stories get rejected as well as bad ones, after all, and there are many reasons why a particular tale doesn't fit a particular market.
It has prompted me to get serious about novel writing, though, bolstered by a great piece of advice in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction by Cory Doctorow and Karl Schroder (which is a witty and rather handy book) "one way to write a novel is to commit to producing one page a day, every day". Three days in and I have three pages, no more and no less, but I have found myself itching to get back to the keyboard and continue on where I left off. I've taken it to the extreme of letting half finished sentences hang so that when I come back to the story I have somewhere definite to begin. Will this method work? Ask me in 365 days (or approximately 90,000 words) and I'll tell you (though to be fair, I have plotted the first third of the story and am adding to that as I go along with many notes and some ideas that didn't have a home elsewhere).
So, yes, there have been more swings than roundabouts this week, but at least the roundabout I'm currently on is a fun ride.
Posted on the RoF website is the sad news that Realms of Fantasy is to close once again.
"Realms of Fantasy has ceased operations as of 10/18/10. Please do not send your manuscripts to us. We would love to consider them but can no longer offer them a home. We wish you luck finding a home for your stories elsewhere. Thanks so much for your support over the years."
Last week my old laptop - affectionately refered to round these parts as Vincent - made a grinding noise and breathed its last. It was a pain rather than a problem as I am constantly backing up my files, emailing story drafts to myself and am generally rather paranoid about losing my work (- lost maybe a day's work which would be about 1,000 odd words of various things. And thankfully, Vincent chose to expire at a time when I had enough 'disposable' cash to afford a cheap-n-cheerful replacement. So on to E Bay it was.
I struggled on manfully for a few days, writing by hand and using the other computer in the house, but my productivity has slowed rather substantially due to the lack of technology.
Let joy be unbounded, however. since Vincent's replacement - Boris - arrived today (and this little piece of pointless prose is his first official act).
It did get me thinking about my own working practices. Most advice to writers tells you that you should set aside a particular portion of the day to work, sticking as closely as possible to your schedule. This is, of course, extremely good advice and something that I try to stick to (my writing hours tend to be first thing in the morning (my work schedule permitting) and, more often, quite late at night.
There are those writers who only write when the muse strikes them but I've never been able to do that, most of my writing is dragged kicking and screaming from the ether - at least initially - and only really when the process has begun (say, the first two or three pages) do I start to let the muse dictate things. By that I mean I start to wonder why the characters have found themselves in this particular situation, how they can extracate themselves from it and what might happen to complicate things.
With a computer to hand this isn't a bad way of doing things for me - I'm always moving back and forth in a story changing things to suit narrative and/or character shifts - but when the process involves constant crossing out, tiny additions in my already difficult-to-read scrawl and sometimes wholesale changes in tone and perspective, it can become a chore.
But since Boris appears to be a friendly and efficient helper I can hopefully get back up to speed in the next few days.
Ah, the joys of technology (and may all those dieties who may nor may not exist bless E-Bay where Boris was purchased at a very reasonable price).
The British film director Roy Ward Baker has passed away at the age of 93. Probably best known for his 1958 film A Night To Remember, which recreated the sinking of Titanic, he also directed many fine horror movies for Hammer and Amicus.
His Hammer output included Scars of Dracula, The Vampire Lovers, The Anniversary, the slightly bonkers Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, the even more bonkers Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires and the brilliant Quatermass and the Pit.
For Amicus he directed the portmanteau films Asylum, The Vault of Horror and The Monster Club as well as And Now The Screaming Starts, a rare attempt by Amicus to take on Hammer’s gothic horror mantle.
Once described as 'the grand old man of British horror', Baker was never a stylist in the same way as, say, Terence Fisher or Freddie Francis but his horror output was never less than entertaining - particularly given the budgetary restrictions imposed by Hammer and Amicus - and he always took the material seriously, even something as downright strange as The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, a Kung Fu/Hammer crossover that really has to be seen to be believed.
The world being what it is and the internet being what it is, things sometimes get lost - links get broken, copyright expires and other such things.
That being the case, I have put together a companion blog to Tales From the Computerbank to rescue some of my older (and not so older) fiction from limbo, for anyone who cares to read them.
There are a few stories on there at the moment and I hope to add to it as time passes, mostly with stories published in the UK small press in the 1990's: as and when I can find them and retype (possibly even re-write!) them.
In the meantime, if you're interested, here it is:
Issue five of the very fine Lovecraftian e-zine Innsmouth Free Press is currently online for your reading pleasure and contains my short story The Song of Tussagaroth.
The story itself is, at least in part, my homage to the great Clark Ashton Smith and forms part of a series of mythos sword and sorcery tales that I'm dabbling with. The others, mostly at the notebook and/or half baked stage at the moment, currently rejoice under the umbrella title of Thule Before The Ice and, again, are my attempt to follow in the footsteps of CAS (but never to try and fill his shoes).
The new issue also includes fiction from Kenneth Yu, Paul Jessup, Tom Hamilton, Martin Hayes, Jarrid Deaton, Julio Toro San Martin and Cheryl McCreary.
Check it out for Dagon's sake (It's even got my name on the front cover!)
A decent review of the new issue of Jupiter is currently up at SFRevu, calling The Earth Beneath My Feet 'a nice little tale'. Reviewer Sam Tomaino also has good things to say about Rosie Oliver, Emma Knight and Nigel Fisher.
A new issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly is always a cause for celebration and issue 6 has just been released. For those who don't know (and if not, why not?) HFQ is one of the best venues for sword and sorcery/ heroic fantasy fiction out there.
The new issue contains fiction from David Pilling (Heart of Man) and Robert Rhodes (The Sea Wasp), as well as poetry from Charles Saplak (Ambition, Purpose, Outcome) Shennandoah Diaz (The Dance) and stunning artwork from Mariusz Gandzel.
As if all that wasn't enough, HFQ also has a new addition to the editorial team as I will be helping out over the next few months to ease the burden on the already overworked editors ("At my signal, unleash hell!")
The first issue of editor Jesse Dedman's new sword and sorcery ezine, Iron Bound, has gone live and unleashed.
It contains stories by Ty Johnston (Behold Now the Behemoth), A.D Dawson (The White Rabbit/ The Mole Hole/ Rose's Baby), Jesse Dedman (Moranet's Rebirth), David J. West (Sailing to Valhalla) and, ahem, James Lecky (The Cold Legions).
All writers go though troughs, I reckon, and I've been going through another one of mine recently, with a few rejections in my inbox over the past couple of days. Mustn't grumble too much, though, as at least one acceptance has also landed in and I've also done a mini-interview for Innsmouth Free Press, chatting briefly about my upcoming story The Song of Tussugaroth which is due to appear there early next month.
Also next month, the first issue of a new sword and sorcery ezine, Iron Bound, is due to go live and will contain my short story The Cold Legions (which explains the wintery landscape on the right).
... on behalf of Nathan Meyer, whose new novel is currently available from Mirrorstone.
Aldwyn's Academy: A Companion Novel to A Practical Guide to Wizardry
Enter a school for magic where even the first day can be (un)deadly...On the very first day of school at the world-famous Aldwyns Academy for Wizardry, fledgling wizard Dorian Ravensmith finds himself immersed in a mystery. White wolves have been attacking incoming students. Ghosts are haunting the Snapping Dragon Gardens. And the professors lurk in the halls, whispering about a shadowy wizard who seems to be behind it all.That night, Dorian spies a figure creeping into the Snapping Dragon Gardens and and he follows, certain that with the help of a few magic items and simple potions, he can catch the culprit by daybreak and return a hero. But as hobgoblins, banshees, and a terrifying dragon try to stop him at every turn, Dorian discovers that he's stepped into an (un)deadly trap that could not only destroy his future as a wizard but also the beloved wizardry school.
Courtesy of the SF Reader Forum comes news of a new bi-lingual webzine, Onirismes. Published in both English and French, Onirismes is ‘dedicated to publishing short fiction and poetry that belong in the fields of speculative and fantastic literature (Fantasy, Science fiction, and all kinds of interstitial experiments).’
SFCrowsnest has a good review of the current issue of Jupiter currently online. Reviewer Rod McDonald singles out Nigel Fisher's debut story 'Oil on Canvas' for particular praise (and quite right, too, it's an excellent story) but also has nice things to say about my own contribution to the issue The Earth Beneath My Feet.
Without doubt the greatest popular novelist of our time, Stephen King is also one of the biggest champions and finest exponents of the short story. In an age when we are constantly being told that the short story is dead as the dodo or that short story collection simply don’t sell (but then, I’m fairly certain they never did in any real quantities) Stephen King constantly bucks the trend.
More importantly, the man has a real love for the short form, which is evident in both the introductions to his collections and the story notes which appear in them. His 1978 collection Night Shift is probably one of the best single-author collections out there (and contains such stories as Children of the Corn, The Mangler, Sometimes They Come Back, Quitters Inc and the wonderfully Lovecraftian Jerusalem’s Lot (a prequel to ‘Salem’s Lot).
1985’s Skeleton Crew doesn’t have quite the same ratio of instantly brilliant stories but does contain his wonderful novella The Mist and a clutch of SF shorts such as The Jaunt and Beachworld that are perhaps atypical of King’s work but are nonetheless entertaining reads. The real jewel in the crown however is Survivor Type, one of the finest gross-out tales ever written. Not that the story is particularly graphic or bloody (certainly not when compared to the ‘splatterpunk’ of Clive Barker or the early novels of James Herbert) but its central question – how much of himself can a man actually eat? - is a nicely shuddersome one.
Written as the diary of Richard Pine (aka Richard Pinzetti), a skilled surgeon although less than wholesome individual who finds himself marooned on a coral island with no food and only, “four gallons of water. A sewing kit. This book I’m writing in… two knives, one dull and one fairly sharp, one combination fork and spoon… two kilos of pure heroin, worth about $350,000, New York street value.”
Dr Pine, you see, has never had any qualms about selling blank prescriptions, or diet pills. Or Librium. Or in this case transporting two kilos of heroin from Thailand to the USA, a last-gasp business transaction when he finds the authorities on his trail.
But with the sinking of the liner that was taking him home and a hasty, selfish escape, Pine finds himself on a barren island “190 paces wide at its thickest point, and some 267 paces long from tip to tip.”
Starving, but savagely determined to survive, Pine kills and eats a seagull (raw) but his second attempt to catch a bird results in a broken ankle: “a compound fracture. It went like a gunshot. The pain was unbelievable.”
Unable to move and with the risk of infection setting in, Pine decides that the only course of action open to him is to amputate his own foot, using a generous amount of heroin as anesthetic. “And as wretched as I am I still want to live. I remember what Mockridge used to say in Basic Anatomy… Sooner or later, he’d say, the question comes up in every medical student’s career: How much shock trauma can the patient stand?... Cut to its base level, gentlemen, he’d say, the answer is always another question: How badly does the patient want to survive. I think I can bring it off. I really do. What follows thereafter is as gruesome as it is inevitable: “I was very careful. I washed it thoroughly before I ate it.”
As hunger and regular snots of heroin begin to take their toll, Pine comes to accept that “…that the only help I could look to in the matter of replenishing my sapped vitality was my own body.”
Systematically, like a mechanic stripping an engine, Pine begins to literally devour himself from the feet upwards. And as the nature of the narrator changes so too does the nature of the narrative.
Initially lucid and straightforward, the diary begins to change tone as Pine records his thoughts, mixing hallucination, fever dream, pain and the rush and withdrawal of heroin addiction. “Took the other leg at the knee. Sleepy all day. “Doctor was this operation necessary?” Haha. Shaky hands, like an old man. Hate them. Blood under the fingernails. Scabs.”
“Am I insane yet? I must be. I’m a monster now, a freak. Nothing left below the groin. Just a freak. A head attached to a torso dragging itself along the sand by the elbows. A crab. A stoned crab… Hey man I’m just a poor stoned crab can you spare me a dime. Hahaha.”
There are a number of factors that make Survivor Type a great short story. First is the sheer audacity of its central idea – that of self-cannibalism – second is the character of Richard Pine himself; despite the fact that he is utterly unlikeable, King manages to inject a certain sympathy into the character so that rather than hate we come to grudgingly admire Pine (for a while anyway). Third is King’s writing, which shifts Pine’s voice effortlessly from clarity to near-madness, to self-pity to bullish thug, to, well, the survivor type.
“Who cares, this hand or that, good food good meat good God let’s eat.”
With Stephen King as its protector the short story is in good hands.
One of the most common pieces of writing advice is, ‘murder your darlings’ (or ‘kill your darlings’ depending upon which version suits you best). First ascribed to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and later to William Faulkner, it is a solid and dependable piece of advise which more or less means, don’t be afraid to be ruthless with either your prose or characters, or, to quote Strunk and White, ‘Omit Needless Words’ (and, by extension, needless characters, scenes or plot lines).
Of course, the definition of ‘needless’ in any given situation can vary but in a sentence like: “He roughly, savagely, violently grabbed at her”, its fairly obvious where the needless words are. But when it comes to something like:
“Zobal the archer and Cushara the pikebearer had poured many a libation to their friendship in the sanguine liquors of Yoros and the blood of the kingdom's enemies.” (The Black Abbot of Puthuum – Clark Ashton Smith)
“Liane merged himself with the shadow of a wall, and stood watching like a wolf, alert for any flicker of motion.” (Liane the Wayfarer – Jack Vance)
It becomes much less obvious where the needless words might be, short of rewriting both sentences to make them much less elegant. On the other hand the lean and efficient prose of a writer like Hemmingway
“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.” (A Farewell to Arms)
has a rhythm all of its own. Most distinctive writers have a recognizable cadence to their prose, that way of putting one word after another to create a particular mood or atmosphere (some are more extreme than others, of course, and a writer like Clark Ashton Smith can quickly lose a modern reader with its twists and turns).
Now, taken to its most extreme conclusion, the notion of murdering one’s darlings and omitting those needless words can rob any piece of prose of its freshness, its originality and, of course, of its individual style.
So perhaps its time that we learned to nurture our darlings, to be proud of that particularly fine turn of phrase that we’ve just written, to give a little leeway to those characters of whom we have grown overly fond – after all, if Ian Fleming had chosen to murder his particular darling early on then James Bond would be nothing more than a footnote in the history of espionage fiction rather than the global brand that he is today.
I should point out that this is in no way a clarion call for self indulgence, (there are and always will be certain darlings that need to be clubbed over the head and left to rot in a shallow ditch) but rather the suggestion that its okay to trust yourself as a writer, to actually be proud of what you have written and the characters you have created.
Robert Bloch (1917 – 94) was, quite simply, one of the giants of fantasy fiction. Probably most famous as the author of Psycho, he also wrote many other novels, screenplays and some of the finest short stories ever committed to paper: Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper, That Hellbound Train, The Opener of the Way, Edifice Complex, The Man Who Collected Poe, The Cloak and many, many others.
Ranging from Lovecraftian cosmic horror to clever and thoughtful SF to urban horror and, on occasion, the downright bizarre (particularly with his Runyanesque Lefty Feep stories) Bloch’s work was frequently underpinned with a deadpan and genuinely funny sense of humour (check out the carnivorous huts of Edifice Complex for evidence of that).
Talent, first published in 1960, shows Bloch at his dark and playful best. The story of a foundling child, Andrew Benson, who has an unnerving knack of mimicry, Talent takes Andrew from his discovery on the steps of St Andrew’s Orphanage to the moment when… well, to the moment when Robert Bloch delivers a killer of a final line and suddenly the enormity of the preceding tale becomes apparent.
Mute and withdrawn until the age of six, Andrew only emerged from his self-imposed cocoon after seeing a screen of the Marx Brothers’ Love Happy at the orphanage:
“And it was then that he talked.
He talked immediately, he talked perfectly, he talked fluently – but not in the manner of a six-year-old child. The voice that issued from his lips was that of a middle-aged man. It was a nasal, rasping voice, and even without the accompanying grimaces and facial expressions it was instantaneously recognizable as the voice of Groucho Marx.”
Thereafter, Andrew continues to expand his repertoire depending upon which movie he has just seen - Jack Palance, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre – with a particular fondness for horror films and for playing the bad guys. Naturally, his talent takes him onto the stage where he is nothing short of a sensation.
More sinisterly, it seems that tragedy and death follow Andrew wherever he goes, particularly for people who get in his way. His adoptive parents die in a boating accident – ‘you’ve probably seen something just like it in the movies a dozen times’ – his attorney is the victim of a hit and run accident after making certain allegations about young Andrew, a number of school friends suffer bizarre if non-fatal accidents, all of which have a distinct cinematic theme and five young women die in a brutal way after a reissue of the Universal Wolf Man movies.
Still, Andrew’s reputation as an actor and performer continue to grow, to the extent where movie stardom begins to beckon. But not everyone is particularly pleased about his meteoric rise or, indeed, the sinister import behind it.
“I don’t think the kid is even human, for that matter. Just because he turned up on those orphanage steps, you call him a foundling. Changeling might be a better word for it… it’s probably a more accurate term than the narrow meaning implies. I’m talking about the way he changes when he sees those movies… Yes, I mean he undergoes an actual physical transformation. Chameleon. Or some other form of life. Who can say?”
Related as a report rather than a more conventional ‘scene by scene’ narrative, Talent has a chilling distance to it, one that leads inexorably to its brilliant climax when Andrew is introduced to the joys of science fiction ‘creature features’ and suddenly realizes what he has been searching for all his life.
“Max Shick sat there in his chair and watched Andrew Benson change.
He watched him grow. He watched him put forth the eyes, the stalks, the writhing tentacles. He watched him twist and tower, filling the room and then overflowing until the flimsy stucco walls collapsed and there was nothing but the green, gigantic horror, the sixty-feet high monstrosity that may have been born in a screenwriter’s brain or may have been spawned beyond the stars, but certainly existed and drew nourishment from realms far from a three-dimensional world or three-dimensional concepts of sanity.
Max Shick will never forget that night and neither, of course, will anybody else.
That was the night the monster destroyed Los Angeles…”
A wonderful story from a writer whose imagination was a boundless as the many worlds he wrote about.
Some more nice words about Ancient Shades (which you can read in the current issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly) from the Philippine Online Chronicle which has described it as 'a fun, action-filled read' and (thankfully) has completely understood the various fantasy tropes that I utilized in the story ("the story does take advantage of the plot devices we know so well... the language used is beautiful.")
The reviewer also has good things to say about Aldrom by Matthew Wuertz, Christopher Wood's No Two Stones, Vonnie Winslow Crist's Before the Battle and Megan Arkenberg's What Sieglinde Serpentsayer Said To The King.
A good review all round and proving once again why HFQ is essential reading for anyone who enjoys S&S and Heroic Fantasy
I don't write a lot of science fiction these days, most of my output falls very broadly into the heroic fantasy or sword and sorcery mould. But one of my rare ventures into SF appears in the current issue of the rather splendid magazine Jupiter, edited by Ian Redman.
The story in question is called The Earth Beneath My Feet and it's a love story of sorts.
Jupiter issue 29 also features new fiction from Rosie Oliver, Emma Knight, Mike Wood and Nigel Fisher, with excellent cover art by Greg Hughes.
Some writers can stun you with the brilliance of their prose, others with the brilliance of their idea and some – a precious few – can do both. Theodore Sturgeon could do both.
Stories like Microcosmic God, The Hurkle is a Happy Beast, Yesterday Was Monday and The World Well Lost are wonderful pieces from what could be called the Time When Science Fiction Grew Up, that period when SF was doing its best to shake off the lingering smell of the pulps and evolve into something new, something literate, something relevant rather than merely escapist. Theodore Sturgeon was one of the writers in the very forefront of this movement.
The Graveyard Reader (1958) is probably a minor addition to the Sturgeon canon (although it was one of Boris Karloff’s favourite short stories and, indeed, I first read it in a tattered copy of The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology) but, to my mind, is a dazzling display of writing by a virtuoso.
Like some of the best stories in the world, the set up is deceptively simple: the unnamed narrator has recently been widowed, his unfaithful wife dying in a car crash with her latest lover. Distraught by her death and furious at her infidelity he has elected to leave her grave blank, refusing even to have an inscription on the headstone that was ‘included in the price of the plot’.
While visiting the grave he meets a mysterious, bland man – the Graveyard Reader of the title:
All I got out of him (just then) was a pleasant smile. He had a sort of anybody’s face, the like of which you might encounter anywhere, which is to say he had the kind of face you wouldn’t be surprised to see visiting a cemetery. I’ll say this for him; he was harmonious; his voice and clothing exactly suited his face, and though he wasn’t an old man, the things he said were hard to figure, coming from a man like that. You could tell he was experienced.
More than simply experienced, the man has a strange and unique talent… the ability to read graves:
“… what you’re trying to tell me is that a person who can read graves can stand in front of one and read it like a book.” “A biography.” He nodded. “And get out of it everything that person ever did.” “Or said, or thought,” he agreed.
Initially sceptical, the narrator comes to accept the truth of this and, more than that, want to learn to read graves himself – if only to understand how and why his wife lived and died as she did.
I guess at that point I stopped talking out loud, because it all turned into a series of swift pictures, one after the other, inside my head, too fast for words, and too detailed. What’s the matter? I’d be saying, and her, kissing my hands, looking up at me with tears in her eyes: Can’t you see? And again, me yelling at her, Well if what I do makes you unhappy, why don’t you tell me what you want? Go ahead, write the script, I’ll play it. And the way she’d turn her back when I talked like that, and I’d hear her voice softly: If you’d only and I’d just – and then she’d stall, inarticulate, shake her head. She never talked enough. She never said the things that… that… world of feeling, spectrum of sensitivity, and no words, no dammit, dammit words. Picture of her smiling, looking off, out, a little up: I say, What are you so happy about?
After studying for a year, beginning with the graves of infants (“You don’t use Dostoyevsky as a first reader.”), the narrator learns this macabre new skill. In the end, though, he elects not to use it and allow his dead wife to rest in peace.
As a literary meditation on grief, The Graveyard Reader has rarely been surpassed in speculative fiction and the narrator’s inarticulate rage fairly leaps out at the reader. But it is Sturgeon’s writing that really lingers in the mind.
Controlled, precise, its cadence and rhythmic structure is nothing short of remarkable for what is ostensibly just another macabre story.
My hands got all knotted up and then seemed to get too heavy, pulling my shoulders down into a slump. I sat down on the edge of an iron pipe railing at the edge of the next grave and let the heavy hands dangle down between my thighs. I hung my head down so I could watch them while I talked. Watching them didn’t tell me anything.
A superb and chilling little tale from the man that Kurt Vonnegut called "a master storyteller."
I have a theory (one of my many theories when it comes to writing) that all stories, regardless of length, will eventually reach a point of no return. What I mean by that is that there is a place in any story where the writer simply has to keep on going. It works for readers, too, but since this particular ramble is about writing, let’s just focus on that.
In part it analogous to the old Louis L’amour ‘I want to see what happens next’ aspect of storytelling, but equally it’s to do with how a writer can become wrapped up in his own work to the point of near-obsession.
It happens regardless of how much you plan or don’t plan the stories you write. Preparation is important of course, but equally there is a joy in just setting off on a particular fictional path and seeing where it leads you.
Regardless of this I think there is a tipping point in any narrative that pulls you along, further and deeper into the tale you are writing. It’s not to be confused with narrative climaxes, plot twists or any of those other aspects of the writing process, nor is it simply that desire to write which exists (or should exist) in every writer regardless of how or what he/she writes. Nor, indeed, is it to do with any snow-balling aspects of the narrative or a tipping point in the story.
So, now that we know what I’m not talking about, the question remains ‘what exactly am I talking about?’
It’s difficult to explain, but it’s to do with that feeling that the story has reached critical mass, that everything that will happen from this point onward is a result of that moment. Again, it’s not necessarily a narrative convention – it could be something as simple as a phrase, a description, a word, the way a character reacts to a given situation within the narrative. It’s the moment when things start to flow.
For me that moment can come at almost any time – and not necessarily when I’m sitting at the keyboard – linked with that whole notion of forebrain and backbrain thinking. Sometimes I’m lucky and the critical mass of a story happens close to the start of a story, more often, though, it requires slogging my way through the story to a point where suddenly everything I’ve written up to then suddenly becomes clear (and, often as not, requires a certain amount of re-writing in order to make everything fit with the new narrative or character concepts).
As a writer I think it’s to do with whether or not you think the journey is worth the destination – personally I think that it is – or whether you are determined to keep your characters and narratives on a tight reign and pre-determine every step of the journey.
Characters, particularly those characters in whom you have invested something (the protagonist or antagonist rather than the unnamed guard who exist solely for the purpose of dispatch) have a way of heading towards that point of critical mass under their own power and there is nothing quite like that moment when a character makes exactly the right decision without your conscious help.
All stories have a point of critical mass. It’s up to you to find it. Or let it find you.
A little bit of good news in these otherwise uncertain times...
The late and lamented Flashing Swords is set for a comeback. The magazine was at the forefront of the Sword and Sorcery revival of a few years ago - publishing a wide range of S & S writers including Steve Goble, SC Bryce, John C. Hocking, Nathan Meyer and TW Williams - but suffered from a number of problems that ultimately resulted in its cancellation.
But thanks to print on demand (and, hopefully, reader demand) it looks like FS is coming back from limbo.
There are rules when it comes to writing short fiction, particularly genre fiction. Or so perceived wisdom would have it.
There must be characters, obstacles for them to overcome, quite possibly a sub-plot or two and a goal – either physical or emotional – for them to achieve. By the end, the protagonist should have learned something, if only not to play with dragons. To use the old three-act maxim, it’s exposition, complication, resolution, and many, many fine stories have been written using some or all (or indeed more than) the above.
But then again there are certain stories that simply throw such preconceived notions out of the window and concentrate instead on mood, form or comment. Such a story is Rene Rebetez-Cortes 1971 tale The New Prehistory.
In an unnamed (presumably South American) city the inhabitants suddenly begin to physically bond together, forming either serpentine creatures or vast, amoeba-like masses. Gradually all but a few individuals remain and the new mass of humanity, rapidly adapted to deal with the new state of things, go about the process of evolution ushering in a new age of monstrous creatures or, more accurately, the new prehistory of the title.
Told in a rather matter-of-fact style by an anonymous narrator, The New Prehistory breaks many of the ‘rules’ of short fiction, particularly the ‘rules’ of science fiction and fantasy. The cause of the catastrophe is never discussed or discovered, the protagonist of the tale is an observer rather than an active participant, there is no struggle, no obstacle and no grand revelation at the end.
Yet despite – or indeed because of – all this, The New Prehistory is a powerful and shocking piece of fiction. On one level it could be taken as a comment on consumer society, that ability we have as a society to blindly follow trends, or on another level it could be regarded as a warning against political conformity, with the serpents and amoebas representing extremes such as communism or fascism.
Whatever the individual response, it’s hard to ignore the often visceral power of the story:
“A restlessness came over the line. Like a huge centipede waking up, the monster slowly began to move down the street, hundreds of arms waving desperately. At the head of the column was a red-eyed man whose mouth was awry in a painful rictus. He was followed by a girl who had been proud of her beauty, her makeup dissolved by tears, she moved like a sleepwalker. Then came a boy, his face pale with terror, the Metropoulos, my old friend, one more vertebra of the monstrous reptile… Gradually the movement grew faster, more erratic and frenzied. The long queue was like a string of carnival dancers, twisting and turning, performing a demonic conga in the street.”
Yet despite the utter destruction of human society – “they have renounced forever the old way of life. It is impossible for them to live in rooms as they did before, to use elevators, sit in chairs, sleep in beds, travel in planes or cars” – there is a palpable sense of evolution by the end of the story, that whole notion that, regardless of circumstance, life will find a way and intelligence re-emerge at some point in the future.
“I suspect the day is not far off when they will build their own airplanes and limousines, as long as railway cars, or rounded and flat like flying saucers. The time will come, too, I have no doubt, when they will play golf.”
However much things change, at least according to The New Prehistory, they will always stay the same. Like HG Wells’ The Country of the Blind, it is those who cannot or will not adapt who suddenly discover that they are the freaks, hunted and either absorbed or killed and in the end, the narrator is alone, sitting in the ruins of the city while in the distance the new prehistory continues apace.
I must confess that I know very little about Rene Rebetez-Cortes other than the fact that he was a Colombian writer, part of the magic realism tradition of South America that boasted such writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Jorge Luis Borges, writers who made the mundane fantastic and the fantastic commonplace, with The New Prehistory Rebetez-Cortes achieved both with deceptive ease.
This may be the old fogey in me coming to the fore, but I suspect it's probably the (mildly tortured) artist in me wanting to blow off a little steam.
My opinion of the recent mash-up trend in fiction has been previous documented - I'm against it - and I cannot wait until the day when those poor, innocent public domain novels are left alone and we see the end of those opportunists who insist on cramming zombies, werewolves, sea monsters and vampires into Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, H.G Wells, Louisa May Alcott and anyone else too out of copyright to do anything about it.
But things are getting worse, I think. An alarming new trend is the 'gender switch' whereby an old tale is given a 'new' twist by simply changing the gender of the protagonist. So we have Norawest Smith, Conyn the Cimmerian and Erica Joan Stark to name but three (trampling all over the legacy of C.L Moore, Robert E. Howard and Leigh Brackett).
When - or worse, where - will it end? Erica of Melnibone? Jerry of Joiry? Samantha Spade? The Continental Post-Op?
We're through the looking glass here people. (Alistair in Wonderland)
The new issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly is up and live and features new fiction and poetry from Matthew Wuertz, Christopher Wood, Vonnie Winslow Crist, Megan Arkenberg and me (a new Tulun of Birjand story called Ancient Shades).
This not only marks my second appearance in HFQ but also the magazine's first birthday. Long may it run!
For those who might be interested, I have a few new short stories due to be unleashed upon the world shortly.
Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, the new issue of which should be online in a day or so, features Ancient Shades and the return of my middle-eastern sword and sorcery hero Tulun of Birjand. The story is a companion piece to The Black Flowers of Sevan which appeared in the first issue of HFQ.
The July issue of Jupiter SF will contain The Earth Beneath My Feet, one of my increasingly rare forays into science fiction and is a love story (of a kind) centred upon the idea of psychic travel.
Later in the year Innsmouth Free Press will feature The Song of Tsuggaroth, my homage to Clark Ashton Smith and the first of a projected series of 'Mythos Sword and Sorcery' tales which I am currently working on (the most current of these, The Dreamer in the Abyss, is tantilisingly close to having its first draft completed and is mentioned here primarily for the purposes of giving both myself and my muse a metaphorical and much needed kick-start).
After that, Forged in Heaven, Tempered in Hell will be part of the Ricasso Press anthology Through Blood and Iron also due later in the year. A tale of swords, redemption of a kind and blind-savant gods, it comes replete with lashings of the old ultraviolence and red, red kroovy.
Something for the whole family, then (depending on what your family is like).