Wednesday, June 30, 2010


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).

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Literary Impulse

I’ve been going through something of a literary phase of late – by which I mean that I’ve been reading outside of my usual genre preoccupations – reading things like Camus The Plague, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (for the umpteenth time), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Patrick Suskind’s magnificent novel Perfume.

Apart from anything else, I think it’s important to have a varied literary diet. My usual reading consists of lots of heroic fantasy/ sword and sorcery, hard boiled crime (with Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and, always, Jim Thompson being particular favourites) the odd western (particularly H.A DeRossa and the westerns of Elmore Leonard) and such gothic novels as Melmoth the Wanderer, The Castle of Otranto and Vathek. But every once in a while I like to take a stroll to the more upmarket side of the avenue and spend some time in the company of the literati.

One of the principal differences I’ve noted between ‘genre’ and ‘literary’ fiction has to do with notions of style, form and content.

A currently fashionable dictum for writers is the notion that everything needs to be couched in scenes, with the attendant preoccupation for description. Thus, for some writers, it’s impossible for a character to do something as mundane as drink a cup of coffee: we are told that the reader must know exactly what the coffee is like – too strong, too bitter, just right, have him/her swill the cup before tasting, only to discover that said beverage is too hot, too cold or, indeed, just right - in order to create the illusion on the page that coffee is being consumed.

To an extent, of course, this is perfectly correct… but only if said cup o’ java has any real significance, otherwise you run the risk of bogging the narrative down with extraneous detail that serves no real purpose other than to bulk out the word content of the story (and given the current proclivity for doorstep-size novels, it’s sometimes an easy option when your searching for those extra five or six thousand words in order to reach the publisher’s required word count). Similarly, the oft-trumpeted rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ seems to me to apply most strongly to genre writing. In Suskind’s Perfume, for instance, we are told right at the very start and in no uncertain terms that the principal character is an evil and murderous man, a statement which subsequent events and his subsequent actions bear out. Similarly, huge chunks of dialogue are rendered quickly by narrative jumps of the ‘they spoke for hours before X was finally persuaded’ variety.

And therein, to my mind, is one of the main differences between the literary and the generic – in a genre story, particularly a contemporary one, that licence to merely say ‘this is so and here’s why’, has been somewhat lost to us. Not only that, but there is a movement posited by certain writing gurus that the word ‘was’ has become somewhat redundant. So no longer is it possible to use the well worn – if bland – opener of ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, now we have to fill every line with hyperbolic description: under the same rules it’s no longer possible to write ‘He was a tall man’, but rather now the writer must find a way of bringing the character through a low door-frame. Not so with the literary novel, where very often efficient rather than layered description is the order of the day.

In part, I think it’s to do with the need for continual action that pervades much genre fiction – the snake men must appear in chapter two, the man with the gun must come through the door every time the plot flags, the cattle need to stampede, or the aliens found to be hostile – something that is not necessarily the case in its mainstream counterpart.

Equally though, it has much to do with the intention of the novel or story in question. Literary fiction is often inward looking, concerned more with the internal rather than external life of the character, whereas genre fiction is outward looking, hence the need for action, for something to be happening in the story to propel it along.

This is not to say that genre fiction cannot or does not aspire to and on occasion succeeds in its own right as literature - after all, good writing is good writing regardless of the marketplace – but we, as genre writers, are very often hidebound by the rules that we impose upon ourselves.

There are exceptions, of course. Writers like Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance, Lucius Shepard, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson and others of their ilk have deftly fused both the literary and genre traditions – simultaneously looking both inward and outward – to create their own singular styles.

Thankfully, writing fads come and go, but the bottom line of fiction, any fiction, is that of a good story well told. And when it comes to that tricky business of show vs. tell it’s perhaps important to remember that the word is ‘storyteller’ not ‘storyshower’.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


With Many Shades, the listings blog which I post as frequently as my schedule and sanity will allow, has just been updated with new details for Innsmouth Free Press, Ideomancer, Niteblade and a few others.

You can find it here:

Friday, June 11, 2010


“Where the great plain of Tarphet runs up, as the sea in estuaries, among the Cyresian mountains, there stood long since the city of Merimna well-nigh among the shadows of the crags.”

Lord Dunsany – or Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett as he was also known – was one of the great Irish fantasists and, arguably, one of the greatest fantasy writers that the world has ever seen.

His stories, lush and stylish, were an influence on, amongst others, H.P Lovecraft Robert E. Howard and J.R.R Tolkien. There is even an argument to be made that his short story ‘The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth’ represents one of the earliest recognisable examples of heroic fantasy or sword and sorcery. The title story of his 1908 collection, The Sword of Welleran also contains many elements which might be familiar to fans of heroic fantasy – a once powerful kingdom reduced to indolence, an invading horde bent on revenge, the return of long-dead heroes and, of course, the titular sword.

The great city of Merimna, once the hub of a far-reaching empire, sits in its sedentary old age – a shrine to past glories where Art has replaced War as the central preoccupation of its people.

But in the plains and mountains, hostile tribes are stirring against Merimna, still smarting from centuries old defeats. Merimna’s only defense is the legacy of her legendary heroes – men who died many years before but who’s memory is still strong in the minds of Merimna’s enemies. So strong, in fact, that many refuse to believe that the heroes are dead (a belief reinforced by the statues of them that stand on the city walls of Merimna). The truth, of course, is that heroes though they may have been – capable of great feats of arms and cunning – they were simply men and, as each one received his final, mortal wound, he rode to ‘a certain deep ravine and cast his body in’.

During this time, a young man named Rold grows up in Merimna, worshipping both the memory and the magnificent statue of Welleran, the greatest hero of the Merimnian Empire.

When the tribes finally dare to send two condemned prisoners to Merimna to find out the truth, they discover that the heroes are nothing more than marble and that Merimna lies open to the revenge of her enemies.

But when the soldiers of four armies converge on Merimna, the ghost of her long-dead heroes stir once again, urging the men of Merimna to take up arms to defend her. Welleran himself goes to Rold and urges him to pick up his legendary sword and a great battle ensues whereby the men of Merimna rediscover their brutal heritage and the enemy tribes discover that legends sometimes have physical power.

Merimna is saved at a terrible cost in blood and the souls of her dead heroes return to paradise, their names and legends both reinforced and sullied by one more battle.

It is in the final passages of The Sword of Welleran where Dunsany’s power really shows through. For other writers, writers merely content to tell a fantastic and stirring adventure tale, the final battle would have been enough; but for Dunsany it is the chance to twist the narrative knife and to show the true cost of war.

…the sun arising to give new life to the world, shone instead upon the hideous things that the sword of Welleran had done. And Rold said: 'O sword, sword! How horrible thou art! Thou art a terrible thing to have come among men. How many eyes shall look upon gardens no more because of thee? How many fields must go empty that might have been fair with cottages, white cottages with children all about them? How many valleys must go desolate that might have nursed warm hamlets, because thou hast slain long since the men that might have built them? I hear the wind crying against thee, thou sword! It comes from the empty valleys. It comes over the bare fields. There are children's voices in it. They were never born. Death brings an end to crying for those that had life once, but these must cry for ever. O sword! sword! why did the gods send thee among men?'

And the tears of Rold fell down upon the proud sword but could not wash it clean.

Although his writing can be something of a challenge to modern readers – Dunsany’s prose style is dense and sometimes difficult to follow (particularly when compared to, say, H.G Wells who was a model of word economy by comparison – his work nonetheless rewards reading. The Sword of Welleran is a short tale – less than six thousand words – but packs a lot into its pages (enough, perhaps, for some more modern writers to spin an entire Big Fat Trilogy out of its concepts and characters).

Modern writers are always being given the advice ‘show, don’t tell’, whereas Lord Dunsany was an expert at telling, choosing his words so carefully that even the gaps between them are important, allowing the reader’s imagination to flow into those gaps, creating the additional details rather than having the author bombard them.

A master of the fantastic, Lord Dunsany created some of the most glittering short fiction to ever grace the genre. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, The Sword of Welleran (easily available on Project Gutenberg) is a great place to start.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Phantom Queen Awakes

My contributor's copy of The Phantom Queen Awakes arrived today, brightening up what might otherwise have been a dull and rainy Wednesday.

It is, to say the least, a rather handsome object, beautifully put together with a wonderful cover by Reece Notley and equally wonderful interior art by Cecily Webster.

A themed anthology based around the Morrigan - one of the most powerful Celtic gods - the writers involved include Katharine Kerr, Anya Bast, Elaine Cunningham, C.E Murphy and... well, me (with the story The Children of Badb Catha which is set in an alternate time line where the Romans invaded Ireland).

It's both humbling and energising to appear alongside these writers, particularly in such a quality product. And it was a delight to work with the editors - Mark Deniz and Amanda Pillar - who were thoughtful, insightful and utterly professional every step of the way.

Trust me, your life will not be complete until you own a copy of this book.

Monday, June 7, 2010


I’ve been working on a couple of stories recently that I’ve been, in my own mind anyway, referring to as Mythos Sword and Sorcery. Basically it’s my attempt to fuse a bit of Lovecraft with the tradition of S&S and heroic fantasy.

Mind you, it’s nothing new: Clark Ashton Smith did it with his Hyperborea stories (although Smith was adding to the Mythos rather than taking from it), Brian Lumley did it with his Primal Lands stories, Conan in his original, Robert E. Howard, incarnation often encountered creatures that Lovecraft would have known, and sword-wielding heroes have always battled against dark and mysterious forces.

It did get me thinking, though, about how these tales might differ from my other stories (and from the stories of those that have trod this particular ground before me). Hopefully, it’s mood and tone that will set them apart.

In a sense the difference between Lovecraft and his contemporary Robert E. Howard was mostly one of tone. In general, Howard’s work is more up tempo, more optimistic than Lovecraft’s – this is not to say that Howard didn’t write downbeat, pessimistic stories, but as a rule of thumb if you were the hero (particular a series character like Conan) there was a good chance you would make it through to the end and beyond.

With Lovecraft, though, it’s rare that his characters escaped unscathed – either physically or, more usual, psychologically – and the worlds he created are darker than Howard’s, a purgatory rather than a playground.

Now I’m fully aware that some of my own work tends to look on the darker rather than the lighter side of things but, as a rule of thumb, I rarely try to push a story in any one direction, preferring to let it unfold naturally.

But in the Mythos S&S stories I’m taking a leaf out of HPL’s book: for the characters, doom is not only inevitable but unavoidable and the universe cares little for the affairs of human beings. It’s not so much a sense of inbuilt pessimism rather than an acknowledgement that the heroes cannot win.

In a way, I suppose that is one of the fundamental differences between horror and fantasy – in horror the protagonist is almost always doomed to fail (or to die or be tortured or discover that he is the heir to a terrible secret), whereas in (heroic) fantasy the hero is almost always doomed to succeed (or marry the princess or defeat the dark lord or have his destiny fulfilled).

It’s interesting to start a story knowing that the hero can’t win, since the normal way in S&S is for the hero to cut his way (often literally) through any obstacle; he may have the occasional setback, if only to add to the dramatic tension, but there is literally nothing that his wits and sword cannot overcome. But for the hero of a Mythos S&S story every setback is just another step along the path to his own destruction, every obstacle serves to obscure the truth of his situation until that final moment of terrible realization.

Of course theory and practice don’t always coalesce but in the few stories that I’ve been working on (one of which, The Song of Tussugaroth, will appear in an addition of Innsmouth Free Press later this year) have fitted the concept extremely well so far.

So Nameless Horror is just a state of mind after all.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


I can’t remember when I first read Harry Harrison’s The Streets of Ashkelon, but it was a long time ago – possibly in the Brian Aldiss edited Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus under the story’s variant title An Alien Agony – but it is a story which has stayed with me ever since and one to which I return time and time again.

For me, it’s one of those stories that does what SF does so very well, shining a light into those murky places where mundane fiction either will not or can not go: asking difficult questions about the nature of faith, belief and pride (and taking a few well aimed and accurate shots at the nature of colonialism along the way).

On the backwater planet of Wesker’s World, trader John Garth has found what he believes to be an idyllic place where the native inhabitants – furry little amphibians known as Weskers – live a primative life in a state of primal innocence with neither belief in nor need for religion. As Garth says ‘They have ugly little gods, taboos or spells to hag-ride and limit their lives. They are the only primitive people I have ever encountered that are completely free of superstition and appear much happier and sane because of it.’

This idyll is shattered, however, by the arrival of a Christian missionary, Father Mark, who has come to bring the Weskers to God (or indeed to bring God to the Weskers). The clash between the two men forms the theological spine of the story – faith versus humanism – but also leads to its ultimate tragedy.

Whereas Garth has been teaching the Weskers about the material world – bring knowledge in exchange for their exquisite art – Mark seeks to teach them about the unseen and the power of faith. In their own way, each man seeks to exploit the highly intelligent and inquisitive Weskers, each believing this is way is the Right Way. But for the Weskers the clash is a more personal one, and they are creatures for whom Blind Faith alone is not enough.

Requiring nothing less than a miracle to bring them to God – and reasoning that one miracle is not so much to ask in order to bring an entire planet to worship at God’s Throne – the Weskers set their mind to the ultimate miracle, the miracle that brought humanity to God in the first place.

‘… everything had been constructed down to the last detail, following the illustrations in the bible. There was the cross, planted firmly on top of a small hill, the gleaming metal spikes, the hammer. Father Mark was stripped and draped in a carefully pleated loincloth. They led him out of the church.’

In crucifying the missionary, the Weskers believe implicitly that God will bring him back to life and thus provide the necessary miracle they so desperately seek, but have in fact brought about a state of sin from which they will never be released.

“He will rise, won’t he, Garth?”

“No,” Garth said. “he is going to stay buried right where you put him. Nothing is going to happen because he is dead and he is going to stay dead.”

The rain runnelled through Itin’s fur and his mouth was opened so wide that he seemed to be screaming into the night. Only with effort could he talk, squeezing out the aliens thoughts in an alien tongue.

“Then we will not be saved? We will not become pure?”

“You were pure,” Garth said in a voice somewhere between a sob and a laugh. “That’s the horrible, ugly dirty part of it. You were pure. Now you are…”

“Murderers,” Itin said, and the water ran down from his lowered head and streamed away into the darkness.”

Beautifully crafted, The Streets of Ashkelon is a perfect example of what SF at its best can do: its theology and its human characters in particular fully rounded and realized.

Bizarrely, though, it remained unpublished for a number of years in the USA - although it appeared in New Worlds the UK in 1962 – its themes and questions proving themselves too difficult for editors at the time.

Since then, the story has gone on to appear in many anthologies and is rightly held up as a classic of the genre. Simply wonderful.