Friday, March 25, 2016

Music To Write By: Burlap To Cashmere's "Build a Wall"

Why Listen? For modern mythmaking, startling imagery, and unconventional instrumentation.

Next time you find yourself in casual conversation, try steering the proceedings toward the mythopoeic and see what happens. Attempting to discuss Northrop Frye, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Jesus is usually the interpersonal equivalent of potassium nitrate; talk just withers away. Perhaps that’s because few people have any sort of proper conception of myth anymore. I mean, that term has all sorts of negative connotations attached to it. Falsified. Ignorant. Anti-science. But those are wrong-headed associations. Myths are simply stories that purport to tell how the world works at a deep level, to get at the core of reality, to point out the hub around which existence turns. They can claim to be actual historical accounts. Or they can be imaginative, symbolic works that use tangled threads of narrative and association to drag the deep things up to the surface. Burlap to Cashmere’s “Build a Wall” is a good example of the latter.

Founded in the mid-nineties by New Jersey-based singer/songwriter Steven Delopoulos, Burlap to Cashmere broke all sorts of musical rules, melding serious musicianship and unabashedly religious lyrics with ethnic instrumentality and a massive touring band. No sooner had the group achieved a measure of commercial success than it went on a 13-year hiatus, only emerging in 2011 with a rowdy single that had a decidedly mythic cast. “Build a Wall” opens with a troubled woman chasing her woes down the open highway. Her goal? “She was looking for the man with the gun and the hat / Drinking whiskey in the rain and the Bible in his hand.” The verse crashes into a chorus rife with apocalyptic imagery, Greek guitar flourishes sweeping up into the titular allusion:
Shake the light.
Drown the sun.
Close the shades.
Lock the door.
Burn the pages of your life
As your body hits the floor.
And as you weep, you can hear it.
There's an echo of a call.
And through the violent bloody night,
Nehemiah builds the wall.
Can you feel how Delopoulos binds a reference to the ancient, sword-girt Israelite who rebuilt Jerusalem’s broken walls to classic Americana imagery and drives it on with instrumentation that’s anything but native to pop music? It’s a potent blend, one that seems bound up with the very human desire to have someone swoop in to save during times of trouble. Mythic, indeed. Alas, YouTube seems to lack a full studio version of “Build a Wall,” so once you’ve listened to the teaser above, check out the band performing the song live at Guitar Center.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Stross on a Taxonomy of Space Opera Cliches

Over at Charlie’s Diary, Charles Stross (The Atrocity Archives) is in the process of compiling an encyclopedia of clichés related to space opera. Excerpt:
Some of you might remember the Evil Overlord's List, a list of all the generic cliche mistakes that Evil Overlords tend to make in fiction (16: I will never utter the sentence "But before I kill you, there's just one thing I want to know."). I think that it might be a good idea to begin bolting together a similar list of the cliches to which Space Opera is prone, purely as an exercise in making sure that once I get under way I only make new and original mistakes, rather than recycling the same-old same-old.

This is not an exhaustive list—it's merely a start, the tip of a very large iceberg glimpsed on the horizon. And note that I'm specifically excluding the big media franchise products—Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, and similar—from consideration: any one of them could provide a huge cliche list in its own right, but I'm interested in the substance of the literary genre rather than in what TV and film have built using the borrowed furniture of the field.

List follows, below the cut.
Read the whole thing. As I pursued Stross’ list, I found myself puzzling over parts of it. Sure, many of its line items are eye-rollingly overused. “All planets harbour a single apex predator that eats people.” “The only place worse than a Colony World is Old Earth.” “Everywhere on a planet shares a common climate and the same weather patterns.” But others had me scratching my head. Do I really need to concern myself with the length of diurnal periods when writing space opera? Should I worry about intestinal flora when penning descriptions of cryosleep? Ought I to linger over the niceties of supply-chain management and interplanetary shipping? Then it hit me: This taxonomy is more of a breathless love letter to hard SF than a true examination of overused space-opera ideas.

Now, don’t get me wrong. What Stross has constructed here is which is immensely insightful and most definitely worth your time. But it’s worth remembering that hard SF isn’t an inherently worthier genre than the soft sociological stuff. Not every writer wants to be Kim Stanley Robinson or Arthur C. Clarke, nor does space opera necessarily require it. Similarly, not every readers is looking for finely detailed descriptions of interstellar navigation, extraterrestrial terraforming, or genetic manipulation. By all means, seize tired tropes by their roots and forcibly yank them out of your stories. But don’t think that peppering your tales with technical detail is the only way to do it.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Sweetie187)

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Your Framework Matters (Kill List)

Ben Wheatley's 2012 crime/horror hybrid Kill List earned enthusiastic praise from more than a few fans of extreme cinema, and no wonder. Focusing on a former grunt named Jay, it's alternately poignant and gut-punch graphic. See, Jay's family is on the rocks. He hasn't pulled down a paycheck for eight months, his joblessness owing primarily to a disastrous failed mission in Kiev. The strain has made him into a pressure cooker of a man, all seething with unfocused rage and ready to rupture. His wife wants to leave. His son skulks sourly about the house. And his best friend Gal thinks he needs professional help. Barring that, though, Gal offers him the next best thing: a job. Assassinate three targets for a mysterious client and make bank. Bing, bam, boom. Seems simple enough, right? Well, "seems" is the operative word, because the job soon becomes anything but. It's not that the targets are particularly troublesome. They're docile as lambs and even thank Jay before he murders them. Then there are the dead animals showing up around Jay's house, a cryptic symbol found on the paperwork of one victim, the way the client insists that Jay seal the contract with blood. It seems a very old organization has had Jay in its sights for ages ...

In one way, I can understand why critics and fans alike love Kill List. Wheatley handles the film's domestic and psychological drama with a deft hand, interspersing naturalistic shots of ferocious arguing with truly tender displays of affection, defaulting to subtlety rather than forever feeling the need to explain. And the violence, well, it's downright horrendous, every bit as stomach clenching as Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. Unlike Refn, though, Wheatley obviously isn't in love with gore and grue. The camera doesn't shy away from horrible executions, but neither does it linger there. But Kill List has a more basic problem. It staggers over basic plot structure—and falls hard.

Let's see, how can we discuss this without resorting to spoilers? Suffice it to say that Wheatley divides his film up very deliberately. Each section opens with a splash screen showing the title of the target Jay is supposed to assassinate, stark white lettering splashed against a black backdrop. “The Priest.” “The Librarian.” “The MP.” As the story progresses, the strange group that hired Jay starts to increasingly intrude into the proceedings, and it shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that its members’ intentions aren't munificent. The hunter finally becomes the hunted, and right when you think things can’t get worse for Jay, a new splash screen appears: “The Hunchback.” Fighting by firelight, Jay is forced to go mano a mano with a masked, robed, knife-wielding adversary. When he finally triumphs and pulls away the blood-soaked clothing concealing the combatant’s identity, the revelation as to who his enemy actually was proves as earth shattering as a nine on the Richter. Viewers were stunned. “I have been unable to think about anything else since I watched it,” said Jake Ozga of Zero Credibility. But for many (myself included), rumination over that shocker of a conclusion soon turned sour. Why? According to the film’s internal narrative logic, there was no reason for The Hunchback to be there, no reason for that individual to fight Jay, no reason for the person not to cry out and thus end the confrontation even as it began. It’s a baffling narrative problem that brings an otherwise breakneck story to a screeching halt. When one interviewer noted the incongruity and commented how “Kill List begins to feel as though the events of the film are in [Jay’s] head, like he’s losing his mind,” Wheatley responded by saying, “It's a tricky one isn't it? The classic cop-out ending that it's all just a dream. We wanted to avoid that as much as possible. I'm not denying that this could be the case, of course [emphasis added], but I wanted it to be more direct.”

People have occasionally asked me why I like to bang on about literary theory, especially since it seems so removed from the stuff of actual storytelling. Well, consider Kill List to be Exhibit A in the case as to why your critical framework matters. When you run into a storytelling question that you can’t seem to answer, you don’t want an author to equivocate, to coyly offer possibilities, to deny any special authority over the proceedings. You want a word from on high. You want the difficulty explained. You want to know what happened. Some have argued that making meaning dependent on the reader is the humblest course of interpretive action. That’s well intentioned. Yet when the shroud is stripped away, it’s also anything but satisfying.

(Picture: CC 2012 by felixtsao)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Girl Isn't Original—It's Something More

Do you ever stop to think about what various cultures value in their stories? Honestly, I haven't read widely enough to draw more than the most tentative conclusions, but I think it's pretty obvious what Americans hold dear in their narratives—novelty. How did the Hollywood revival of Shakespeare on the big screen get started in the nineties? Not with finely nuanced performances, but rather by having Aussie auteur Baz Luhrmann slip handguns and hyperactive cinematography into Romeo + Juliet. Literary types certainly go in for Shiny New Things, and I suspect that most honest readers of James Joyce's Ulysses will admit that the novel owes its place at the peak of the academy's most ivory tower more to its wildly experimental style than its rather simple themes. (Fun fact: Joyce's magnum opus contains depictions every fluid that the human body can produce!) And genre fans are by no means immune to the allure of the unique and original. I couldn't help but be reminded of that as I read the back-cover blurbs for M.R. Carey's The Girl With All the Gifts. "Original, thrilling and powerful." "As fresh as it is terrifying." "The most original thriller you will read this year." All of this is rather funny, because while The Girl With All the Gifts is many things—most of them good—it's anything but original.

Melanie likes school. She likes learning about math and science, history and literature, myth and religion. She likes how she always does well in evaluations, usually scoring better than anyone else in her class. Most of all, she likes Miss Justineau, the pretty teacher who always gives her students extra attention, always treats them like people. The same can't be said for Sergeant Parks and his men. Every day, they strap her into her wheelchair and cart her from her cell to the classroom. They unstrap an arm so she can write. Some days, they take her to the chemical showers. Then she gets wheeled back to her room. Cell, corridor, classroom—those are almost the entirety of Melanie's life. But one day scary Dr. Caldwell is going to call for Melanie, and she'll get to experience the wide world itself in a most unexpected way.

Okay, in that previous paragraph, I tried to mirror the tone of the dust jacket copy, which makes Melanie's predicament sound kind of mysterious. But if I were to simply mention a couple of titles—let's say, oh, 28 Days Later and The Last of Us—that mystery evaporates like mist struck by summer sun. Indeed, Carey basically "spoils" his own setup within the first three pages, which must've sent the marketing division into apoplectic fits. I imagine them murmuring, "How are we going to sell this thing if everyone knows from the onset it's a retread of horror tropes?" Well, they might've started with Carey's masterful use of language, the way he blends literary style with genre action. When a grenade explodes, "the peristaltic shudder of the shockwave" rocks nearby combatants. After fighting off a fungal monster with a shard of broken glass that flays her palms to ribbons, a desperate researcher "rummages in her pockets, leaving dark red Bézier curves of blood on her white lab coat." While saving Miss Justineau from an assailant, Melanie "sensed the artery singing to her through folds of flesh and fabric." Yeah, Carey can write. He also has a masterful command of myth, turning the story of Pandora (which literally translates into the novel's title) into a tale both bleak and heartening. Though you can see the ending coming for the last few chapters, the lack of surprise does nothing to lessen its piercing pathos. There are truly greater virtues than novelty.

(Picture: CC 2009 by Michael Hensmann)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Music To Write By: Mastodon’s “Blood and Thunder”

Why Listen? To hear how artists simultaneously subvert and affirm genre conventions; for literary inspiration turned up to 11.

Heavy metal and all its manifold subgenres don’t exactly have a high-brow reputation, and it’s no wonder why. The thunderous offspring of Malcolm and Angus Young tend to bifurcate when it comes to subject matter, either veering off into grim personal ruminations or indulging in violent fictional narratives extreme enough to make even Stephen King blanch. (Think of, say, Slipknot for the former camp and Cannibal Corpse for the latter.) But one thing almost always remains true no matter a band’s approach: Heavy metal lyrics major in surface-level angst with little room for subtlety of style. Although note my choice of the word “almost,” because many rules have exceptions and Mastodon’s “Blood and Thunder” from the 2004 concept album Leviathan is one of metal’s biggest.

On first listen, “Blood and Thunder” does little to dispel prejudices. Jackhammering speed-metal drumwork and guitar riffs so blistering they seem almost unhinged nearly drown out lead singer Troy Sanders. But eventually you start to catch the four words comprising the chorus: “White whale, / Holy Grail.” And you begin to think, “That sounds an awful lot like ... No, no, it can’t be. But I’d almost swear that they’re talking about Moby Dick.”

You’d be right.

Every song on Leviathan references Melville’s magnum opus, with “Blood and Thunder” giving ferocious voice Captain Ahab’s obsession with the titular whale, especially when guest vocalist Neil Fallon of Clutch contributes a howling bridge:
Split your lungs with blood and thunder
When you see the white whale.
Break your backs and crack your oars, men,
If you wish to prevail.
This ivory leg is what propels me.
Harpoons thrust in the sky!
Aim directly for his crooked brow,
And look him straight in the eye.
Is it overreaching to call the song brilliant? Yeah, probably. Still, it manages to simultaneously subvert and affirm genre conventions. Literary yet intense. Fictional yet personal. Aurally careening yet carefully composed. Few artists manage such a feat—especially when the volume is dialed up to 11.

Saturday, December 19, 2015


Dexamethasone. Coumadin. Aspirin. The substances keeping Chuck alive thinned his skin to tissue. So when Maureen heard Honey's yelp at the bright sound of an ornament splintering, she whirled, snapping, “Careful, dammit.”

Blood sluiced from Chuck’s hand. “I didn’t—” he began in shocked tones.

Thirty years offers ample opportunity to strop one’s tongue. Infection. Inconvenience. Idiocy. Maureen berated him for each.

“But it was—”

“Are you stupid or just making a special effort? Clean it.”

Alone in the bathroom and examining the half-dozen new slashes on his arm, Chuck finally finished the sentence: “The dog, Maureen. The dog.”

Advent Ghosts 2015: The Stories

The shaking starts not long after dusk, an insistent shuddering exponentially distributed across the long dark, each minute a febrile agony vaulting the threshold of what you previously believed you could bear. It shivers the sweat from your body, chatters your teeth in a palsied contrapuntal rhythm—and the dreams. You can’t call them by such a quotidian word, these ragged-edged visions. A face in a mirror has no eyes, no eyes and yet it somehow still sees everything. A storm-smote mountain crowned with a cloudy firmament of sapphire, and lo! the plague is loosed in the camp. Then there’s the scratching, the interminable scratching above, below, beside, between everything, and it skritches and scrapes on and on and on ...

And then, sometime in the empty hours, the sickness breaks.

You sit up in bed. And the friends who’ve kept vigil by your side stir, smile, murmur approvingly. The worst is through, but dawn still lies across a sea of night that seems nigh impassible. Then one of the group hesitates, says, "I ... have a story."

Oh, friends, come and share them ...
"Trying to be Brave" by Rhonda Parrish on Rhonda Parrish
• "Naughty List" by Peter Stein (see below)
• "While All Things Were in Quiet Silence" by David Llewellyn Dodds (see below)
"The Slaying Song Tonight" by Lars Walker on Brandywine Books
• "The Elders Said They Would Come" by William Gregory (see below)
"Black and White" by Simon Kewin on Simon Kewin
"He Sees You When You're Sleeping" by Phil Wade on Brandywine Books
• "In That Dark December: An Audio Exhibit of Solar Digital Transmission, ca. 2515" by B. Nagel (see below)
"Elf" by Craig Scott on CS Fantasy Reviews
"Beneath the Decoration" by Paula Benson on Little Sources of Joy
"Their Painted Eyes" by Rachael K. Jones on Rachael K. Jones
"Baby Doll" by Simon Cantan on Simon Cantan: Science Fiction and Fantasy That Moves
"I Saw Mommy Kissing ..." and What If?" by Eric Douglas on
"Going Home" by K.J. Mansfield on
"The Gift of the Magi" by Patricia Abbott on pattinase
"Hospitality" by Jason Jones on Catchy Title Goes Here
"Comfortable Truths" by David Higgins on Davetopia: Fragments of a Curious Mind
"The War on Christmas" by Paul Liadis on The Struggling Writer
"The Fire Is Slowly Dying" and "Figure Eight" by John Norris on Pretty Sinister Books
"The Christmas House" by Sandra Seamans on My Little Corner
"A Deal is a Deal" by Michael Morse on by Michael Morse
"Christmas Magic" by Lester D. Crawford at Lester D. Crawford Blog
"Three, Wise" by Scott G.F. Bailey on Six Words for a Hat
"Razormouth" by Loren Eaton on I Saw Lightning Fall
"Apotheosis" by Scott Garbacz on Advent Ghosts: Short Theological Fictions for the Dead of Winter
"Advent" by Bon Steele on The Process
"Together Again" by Leanne Stowers on Write On
* * *

"Naughty List"
By Peter Stein

I had outgrown Santa rather young. As a child, I found his constant surveillance eerie. As a parent, you find yourself making concessions. When my daughter Lily told me to sit with her on Santa’s lap, my husband Steve laughed and said, "Come on! Where’s your Christmas spirit? Give the old retiree something to be jolly about!" I reluctantly gave in and stepped forward, sitting on his knee. He leaned close and whispered,

"I see you when you’re sleeping. I know when you’re awake. I saw it when you cooked the books, and I saw what you did with Jake."

("Naughty List" copyright 2015 by Peter Stein; used by permission)

* * *

"While All Things Were in Quiet Silence"
By David Llewellyn Dodds

Sleepless, desperate, he thought. "Prostitution is legal. Slavery is legal. But what would the people at Church think? That rich young Nikolaus, for instance—what a name, ‘Victory of the People’! But sell my oldest daughter as a sex-slave? And the younger ones, too, if necessary. Hey, it’s not like they were Baptized, yet. ‘Necessary’. Isn’t anything better? Begging? Other slavery? —No! It’s the best solution—I’ll do it!"

Then, "What’s that noise? Housebreakers? Murderers? Retribution? —so swiftly? Demons?! —to drag me away?!"

The shutters burst open. "That clank! Chains!"

"Not chains …" Gold glinted through the burst in the pouch.

("While All Things Were in Quiet Silence" copyright 2015 by David Llewellyn Dodds; used by permission)

* * *

"The Elders Said They Would Come"
By William Gregory

Thwack, thwack, thwack …

The blade penetrates every vein, every fiber of my core.

Thwack, thwack, thwack …

Pain! The pain is excruciating! They say this is the hardest part.

Thwack, thwack, crack!

The rest a blur—disorientation, constriction, suffocation. Dragging, the relentless dragging.

Then that wind. I remember that wonderful wind. I was the wind!

Stillness again.

An unexpected release. My limbs re-finding their form.

Who are these creatures? Their breath so sweet and nourishing.

I feel so numb. So disconnected.

Thirsty. I’m so thirsty …

"Daddy it’s so beautiful! I can’t wait to decorate it!"

"Honey, mommy will be home soon."

("The Elders Said They Would Come" copyright 2015 by William Gregory; used by permission)

* * *

"In That Dark December: An Audio Exhibit of Solar Digital Transmission, ca. 2515"
by B. Nagel

... on Earth be of peace and goodwill to all mankind. Good Merrimass to you all, and bright hopes for tomorrow.


My fellow citizens,

I want to thank you all for the bravery and resilience you have demonstrated in the last four months of invasion and occupation. Even now, I am receiving reports of valiant resistance to the Hourde all along the fringes.

But advisors have confirmed the latest reports. The motes in the God's Eye Nebula are Hourde transporters, ETA unknown.

So tonight, on what may be our last night, let your last thoughts on Earth be of...

("In That Dark December: An Audio Exhibit of Solar Digital Transmission, ca. 2515" copyright 2015 by B. Nagel; used by permission)