Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Shared Storytelling: Advent Ghosts 2016

Winter, summer, autumn, spring—the season hardly matters here. The only significant difference between them are the smells. Cold dampens the reek of cabbage, of unwashed flesh, of the acrid stench of polyamides from the government-run factories that stipple the blocks. But days always run to gray across the obdurate cityscape, the concrete tenements uniform only in their ugliness. Even an arrival only five minutes fresh from the train could chart the rise and fall of a dozen administrations in the architecture itself. The squat bunkers from the war years. The crowded clusters of multifamily high rises sprouting brown lines of laundry like fungus. The trapezium arcology that the central planners failed to foresee, a desperate amalgamation of old offices and older scrap that started to accrete once the administrative cordon appeared. No one dares cross the cordon. It isn’t just the acrid stench of ozone shed by the buzzing perimeter of pylons. There’s something about the guards themselves, about the shape of their helmets, those irregular, bulbous shells without any obvious ports for sight or sound. But even the guards are preferable to the things that skulk around the city’s outer walls. Only the old roaming trader will ever hint about their unholy forms. There he is in the corner, the one with the patch on his eye, the man who goes where he will and sells luxuries like soap and tissues and socks without the sanction of any officially sanctioned price sheet.

Go on. Buy him a drink. See what he has to say—if you dare.

Welcome to Advent Ghosts 2016, the eighth annual shared storytelling event at ISLF. In the spirit of Charles Dickens, M.R. James, Neil Gaiman, and countless other writers down the years, a group of us gathers each year to swap eerie tales immediately prior to Christmas. We aren’t so doctrinaire as to insist that stories go up on Christmas Eve itself. Neither are we elitist in the least. Everyone is welcome, and our only rules for participating are ...
1) Email me at ISawLightningFall [at] gmail [dot] com.
2) Pen an eerie tale that’s exactly 100-words long—no more, no less.
3) Post the story to your blog on Saturday, December 17 and email the link to me. Hosting on ISLF is available for those without blogs or anyone who wants to write under a pseudonym. (Don’t worry, you’ll maintain copyright.)
4) Understand that while you have the freedom to pen as extreme content as you’d like, I reserve the right to place a content warning on any work that I think necessitates it. Just being upfront about it.
So get thee to your pen or word processor and share a story with us. Don’t worry about the genre. While it can be a ghost story à la the title, we love every genre. Go for SF or crime fiction. Write a bizarre romance or a weird western. Try traditional poetry or experimental prose if you’d like. Write what you like just so long as its slightly scary. Want more info? Check out our 2015, 2014, and 2013 events, and discover what horrors wait for you in those ancient, long-buried vaults.

(Picture: CC 2016 by Adam Jones)

Monday, October 31, 2016

"The Everlasting Arms"

Note: The following was written as part of ISLF friend Eric Douglas’ Halloween-themed 100-word-story challenge. Please visit Books By Eric for more spooky tales.

Jeffrey’s mother chucked up the covers and groaned, “What the hell?”

“Monster,” Jeffrey said. “In my room.”

“You’re too old for this.”

“The monster—”

“Damn it, go to bed, you little bastard.” Her breath smelled of juniper.

Jeffrey went. He lay weeping as the room filled with the odor of rotting violets and a sickly light welled from beneath his bed and an encircling score of squelching tentacles slowly squeezed him to his mattress.

“I WILL ALWAYS BE HERE,” The Voice said from everywhere and nowhere.

“I know,” Jeffrey said. And he hugged the pseudopod’s squamous surface in return.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

NOS4A2 Would Make Chekov Proud

Genre tropes get long in the tooth so quickly, turning into hoary monstrosities that still shamble onto bookstore shelves long after they ought to have been buried. Sometimes they owe their demise to oversaturation, the same old staggering off to market again and again. For example, consider zombies and their cranium-crunching cornucopia of gory stories, movies, and comics that have infected pop culture. (An aside: Would any of you be forlorn if an international diktat forbade the creation of new zombie yarns for a few years? I doubt it.) Other times, though, conventions die an iterative death, one slightly altered work following another until the concept gets so far afield that it jumps the proverbial shark. I think this is where the good, old vampire stands. Forget Stoker’s suave Count. In recent years, creatives have transitioned to prepubescent horrors, rock-and-roll revenants, and those notoriously sparkly denizens of the night. No wonder people got tired of Anne Rice’s old standbys. They hardly resemble vampires anymore. So when I saw that Joe Hill planned to visit the idea with his novel NOS4A2, I wanted to see what twist he’d work into the old legend—and I can honestly say that his take was the last thing I expected.

Victoria McQueen—dubbed “The Brat” by her rough-around-the-edges father and mostly shrieked at by her neurotic mother—has a special talent: She can find things. Forget about change between the couch cushions or missing keys, though. Vic can suss out more important stuff, things like beloved heirlooms or lost pets, pretty much anything she wants. Her talent is less impressive than the way in which she implements it. Vic conjures a long-demolished local bridge out of thin air and pedals her bike across it. Viola! Instant transportation to the missing item. But like many gifts, it comes with unanticipated consequences, real downsides that manifest themselves in Vic’s very body. Raging fevers. Debilitating headaches. Mysterious bleeding from one eye. Still, it’s a gift that Vic will need to use very soon. She’s about to come face to face with one Charlie Manx, a hundred-year-old child abductor who says that he isn’t stealing kids at all, oh no. Rather, he claims that he’s ferrying them to a magical paradise called Christmasland.

Even given the brevity of the above description, you can probably guess that Charlie Manx is NOS4A2’s titular vampire. What might surprise you, though, is that he bares no fangs, bites no necks, fails to transmogrify into a single bat. Rather, Manx’s vampirism restricts itself to the realm of the mind. Like Vic (and this is hardly a spoiler), he has a talent, only his gift feeds on the psychic energy of children. An interesting enough idea on its own, but Hill doesn’t develop it further, and that makes for pretty thin genre sauce, especially given the richness of vampiric lore. Wordy passages and crass asides—including a scene where (I kid you not) a pigeon defecates into the mouth of a fervently praying supplicant—only detract further. But where Hill excels, really excels, is in his plotting. He strews narrative firearms left and right throughout the book’s early stages, not a single one of which remains unfired by the end. Chekov would be proud. NOS4A2 may not exactly advance vampire fiction, but it’s an enjoyable read all the same.

(Picture: CC 2014 by Rodolfo Polanco Casasola)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

These Compelling Beasts Aren’t for Kids

I doubt that the 1998 Wesley Snipes vehicle Blade lands high on anyone’s “best of American cinema” list. Broad and bloody, it somehow spawned a franchise with an increasingly steep decline in quality that ended in a TV version dubbed (appropriately enough, I guess) Blade: The Series. Still, one quote from that first film has stuck with me over the years. Early on, the titular vampire hunter has saved a doctor from a supernatural assault and explains that existence isn’t the simple, naturalistic thing everyone believes it to be. “You better wake up,” Blade intones. “The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping! There is another world beneath it—the real world.” Not the most elegant metaphor, but I like it because it encapsulates the fundamentals of urban fantasy. Fiddle with it however they may, authors of the sub-genre keep returning to the world-beneath-the-world idea, and Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s episodic graphic novel Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites is no different. It cleaves to that basic idea like honeymooners to one another on a Caribbean getaway. What distinguishes it, though, is how it replaces typical urban-fantasy protagonists with a cabal of adventuresome house pets.

You see them every day, scampering down the street, scarfing down kibble from their bowls, barking and whining as they beg and bicker. They’re frank Pugsley and brave Ace, kindly Jack and occasionally cowardly Rex—the neighborhood’s dogs. (Oh, yeah, and the Orphan, but he hardly counts since he’s a cat and all.) You hardly take note of them, which is to be expected since you’re only human. But this motley, mostly canine crew does more than simply howl at the moon and chase each other through the woods. Evil forces skulk around the periphery of the community (and sometimes even beneath it), and the only thing standing between you and destruction is often that furry member of the family whom you took for a walk this morning.

Beasts of Burden is a great example of a concept that improves with every iteration. The first tale, “Stray,” clocks in at a mere eight pages and feels more like a plot treatment than a proper narrative, a way to roughly graft classic ghost tropes onto a canine world. (I imagine the pitch going something like, “But what if it was a haunted doghouse?!”) “The Unfamiliar” mars an otherwise serious story with goofy humor and a silly looking main monster. But Dorkin and Thompson started ratcheting up the horror in subsequent issues, and the compilation ends up better for it. Poignant sacrifice turns stale zombie conventions into something compelling (“Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”), grue lends added impact to a werewolf riff with a surprise ending (“A Dog and His Boy”), and a grim beauty inhabits a dog’s search for her missing puppies (“Lost”). That being said, vivid watercolors make the blood really seem to splash, so consider yourself forewarned: As compelling as they may be, these Beasts aren’t for the after-school set.

(Picture: CC 2014 by Isengardt)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Girl Is Doggone Good

When you’re an employed parent of two, you have precious little time for hype. In the time it takes you to teach a tot how to tie his shoes or to not tackle his sister over a toy-related disagreement—no, really, stop that right now, young man—fads have already sloughed off their waxen wings, plummeted oceanward, and filled the gullets of hungry fish. So small wonder that I missed out entirely on the phenomenon of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I knew that it sold well, soaring to the top place on The New York Times bestseller list for weeks on end. I knew that it racked up plenty of praise from popular and literary critics alike. I knew it got made into a successful movie starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. What I didn’t know, though, was that it deserved every bit of adulation it received—and then some.

Once upon a time, Nick Dunne had ... well, not exactly everything. But more than a few men would’ve gladly traded lives with him. An admirable career as a pop-culture writer with a major magazine. An impressive home in downtown New York. A beautiful wife with a big bank account. Yes, his spouse, one Amy Dunne, owes her fortune to the Amazing Amy series of children’s novels penned by her parents, quasi-biographical books cribbed from her childhood. Or at least she did until the books stopped selling. And her trust fund ran out. And Nick lost his job. And Nick’s mother got diagnosed with cancer. In a flash, the locus of Nick’s life shifts from Manhattan to Missouri, from penning articles to pushing beer across a bar top. It’s not exactly a glamorous existence—and it’s about to get a whole lot less so. See, on the morning of Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary, Nick’s going to call the cops. Someone will have broken into the house and Amy will have vanished. An upsetting turn of events. So why won’t Nick appear the least bit bothered by it?

Let me say one thing right off the get-go: If you haven’t blundered into Gone Girl yet, do not—do not—read any more plot synopses than what I’ve detailed above. Go into it as cold as an abominable snowman in Antarctica. See, Flynn excels at blending literary stylings with genre plotting. You’re reading along, thinking the whole time that she’s carefully detailing the emotional ups and downs of this attractive couple, gradually unspooling their preferences, peculiarities, and peccadilloes. Then you oh-so-slowly realizes that those literary details aren’t really literary at all. Rather they’re important elements of the story, each carefully woven into the next, catching characters in lies, revealing just what unreliable narrators they are ... But I’ve said too much. Indeed, the only spoiler I really want to drop is this: The ending is as nasty as it is calm, a grim conclusion that reminds me a little of Grifter’s Game, so simultaneously cruel and carefully crafted that you almost enjoy feeling miserable after closing the cover. But don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself. Girl is doggone good.

(Picture: CC 2014 by TunacanJones)

Monday, July 18, 2016

McCue on Giving Up on Your Ideas

Over at 99U, Matt McCue talks about the value of jettisoning your precious, precious ideas. Excerpt:
Growing up, I had a Winston Churchill quote on my desk: “Never, never, never give up.” It served as a daily reminder to continue pushing forward, especially when things were rough.

Persevering against all odds certainly helps in the creative industry where you have to convince art directors and brand managers to buy your abstract and experimental ideas and bring them to life in the real world. However, looking back, I realize that the mentality to keep going at all costs can be an inefficient approach to work. In other words, there are merits to giving up.

I’m not saying give in at the first sign of a struggle. But what if we thought of our ideas less as precious commodities (and battles to be won) and more like stocks we can invest in and cut loose depending on how the market –project managers, clients – feel about them at given times? Things we like and feel are promising, but aren’t married to, should our position become weak or we find a more favorable opportunity.

Ideas, though, are treated with far more care. We often apply a “buy and hold” strategy to them, especially the bigger ones, like building a company or developing a new product. I think it’s because our ideas are often tied to our dreams, and what we’re really unwilling to give up on is the dream itself.
Read the whole thing. If you’ve been a beta reader for any length of time, you know what it’s like to review a piece so fundamentally flawed that you end up thinking, “Okay, I like this part, and that section over there shows some promise. But what this writer really needs to do is bulldoze the whole thing and start over with a whole new foundation.” And if you’ve ever handed over your compositional babies to beta readers, you’ve doubtlessly mused at some point, “I don’t know why people are so down on this piece. I just need to revise it once or twice (or four more times), and it’ll be fine.” I’ve found my portrait blazoned on both sides of that coin, my opinion as indelibly stamped as Lady Liberty on a slab of silver. But as time continues its inexorable march forward, I find myself falling more in line with McCue’s opinion. Ideas are as common as weedy wildflowers, and actually following through with them isn’t as rare as many would have you think. The real dilemma lies in bringing conceptualizations to full fruition that actually work. Letting go of unfruitful options might seem tough at first, but any writer with a well-thumbed commonplace book will soon find he has more ideas than he can possibly hope to flesh out.

(Picture: CC 2007 by Daniele Marlenek)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Grace Is Fantasy Fit for Royalty

Anyone find it apropos that George R.R. Martin’s initials nearly spell out the tone of his books? As the reigning king of postmodern epic fantasy, GRRM has founded his throne on grimly plotted tales where intricate intrigues meet a willingness to rub out any character, no matter how likable. A tongue-in-cheek bumper sticker sums up his uncompromising approach: “Guns don’t kill people. George R.R. Martin kills people.” Of course, uncompromising really isn’t the right word choice, is it? Perhaps evangelistic would be better, because Martin seems to like to preach to readers that the world is (in the words of Stephen Hunter) “a stainless steel rat trap with a 4,000 pound spring.” That’s part of the reason why I’ve never really gotten into the A Song of Fire and Ice series. Sure, critics like to bring up the fact that the books are modeled after The War of the Roses, but having a historical basis doesn’t necessarily imbue a work’s themes with greater verisimilitude. Betrayal, murder, and rape are no more real than valor, love, and sacrifice. Chinese-American author Ken Liu seems to understand this. His debut novel, The Grace of Kings, is equally committed to both virtue and violently executing figures that readers have come to know and love.

The archipelago of Dara has never been a peaceful place. The six nation-states situated on the big island have squabbled for centuries, their conflicts fanned to a fever pitch by a petty pantheon of eternally squabbling gods. But that was before the arrival of Emperor Mapidéré, a Xana king with a grand vision for unifying the islands through the military might of his fleet of airships. And he succeeds, but the resulting empire has more in common with Hoeryong and Piaskowy than Plato’s mythical republic. An iron-handed centralized government. An impenetrable bureaucracy. Cultural colonialism enacted by royal diktat. Plenty of people have reason to hate Mapidéré—as do the gods themselves. Divine disagreements are about to engulf the entirety of Dara in pitched conflict, and the contest for conquest will come down to two men: Mata Zyndu, a ferocious giant of a man who’s the last heir of his noble clan, and Kni Garu, a small-time gangster whose criminal deeds shroud his surprisingly gracious temperament.

The first thing you’ll find after opening The Grace of Kings is a map—a big map awash with colors and names, everything neatly drawn to scale and put in its proper place. Soon after, you’ll discover a pronunciation guide and then three full pages of major characters. None of these things reassured me. I typically read at night, yawning my way through chapters, and the thought of trying to keep a skein of subplots from getting tangled typically just makes me more tired. But Liu does something rather brilliant: He structures the book as a series of interlocking vignettes with the main characters popping into and out of them from time to time. Make no mistake, The Grace of Kings is a beast of a book, so chock full of detail that only the most obsessive readers will manage to puzzle every piece together. But it’s also remarkably easy to page through a chapter after a long day, a refreshing development in a genre whose tomes too often turn plodding after the first few chapters. I found the book’s themes equally engaging. Not only does Liu give even the most seemingly despicable characters a sympathetic twist, often making them downright heroic in unexpected ways, the proceedings also appear to hint that fiscally restrained, democratic, laissez faire governments best respect the needs of the common man. Less welcome is the idea that infidelity can make for a happy marriage or that Mapidéré might have been justified in forcibly quashing local distinctives. Of course, The Grace of Kings is only the first entry in the series, so Liu has plenty of space to unspool such musings even further. Add in epic fight scenes, magnificent shifts in plot, and the surprising sacrifice of character after character, and Grace is fantasy fit for royalty.

(Picture: CC 2013 by jason train)