Saturday, July 31, 2010


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.

You can find out more about the magazine here:

Monday, July 26, 2010

My Favourite Short Stories: The Graveyard Reader by Theodore Sturgeon

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."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


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.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Return of Flashing Swords

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.

You can find out a little more here:

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


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.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Where Will It End?

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)

Thursday, July 1, 2010


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!