Saturday, August 28, 2010


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.

After all, no one writes quite like you.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


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.

Monday, August 16, 2010


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

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Rather Pleased Again

Some nice words from Jonathan Moeller, posted on his site ( about my new Tulun story in HFQ:

"I thought Ancient Shades, by James Lecky, was an altogether excellent story. Alexander the Great, Crusaders, forgotten tombs, sorcery, and ample swordfighting – what more does any story need?"

To say that I'm rather pleased would be an understatement.