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

"Razormouth"

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 BooksByEric.com
"Going Home" by K.J. Mansfield on KJMansfield.com
"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.

--REPEATING TRANSMISSION--

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)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Shared Storytelling: Advent Ghosts 2015

The mercury is falling, and with it deadbolts drop all across the city, doors swinging shut as frost crawls across concrete. They aren’t closed solely against the cold, a bulwark between us and the creeping chill. Something is different this year. Something stalks the streets in the midnight hour. A few have claimed to see a man in white moving from house to house, apartment to apartment, stooping here and there to trail his red right hand across a sill. Others say they’ve beheld a woman clothed in garments darker than night who simply breathes on late-night theatergoers, on drunkards, on the homeless as they pass, her eyes the color of tarnished silver. Still more whisper of secret experiments gone awry, odd lights in the sky, and a strange sheen no one can quite describe that tints the water sluicing from the city’s faucets. The way things are going, we might not have time to sift the truth from the rumors, the innuendos, the flat-out lies. Airwaves are abuzz with news of a new contagion, news anchors discuss duct tape and plastic sheeting, and online message boards recount crippling fevers, livid pustules, violent seizures—or they were. No one’s posting now. The television is showing cutlery and home exercise equipment. And the radio slides from one pop single to the next.

Is that a tickle you feel in the back of your throat?

Welcome to Advent Ghosts 2015, ISLF’s seventh annual shared storytelling event. Every year, friends of this blog gather to recognize an old Advent tradition. Like M.R. James, Charles Dickens, and countless families around countless hearths down countless years, we share creepy tales with one another in the days before Christmas. But rather than go the traditional route with long stories told on Christmas Eve, we post 100-word drabbles on the weekend prior to the holiday. Everyone is invited, and the details of how to join in are as follows:
1) Email me at ISawLightningFall [at] gmail [dot] com if you’d like to participate.
2) Pen a story that’s creepy or scary or somehow makes your spine want to detach itself from your neck. Just make sure it’s exactly 100-words long—no more, no less.
3) Post the story to your blog on Saturday, December 19 and email the link to me. Hosting on ISLF is available for those without blogs or anyone who wants to write under a pseudonym.
4) Though I’ll never censor someone else’s work, I reserve the right to place a content warning on more extreme tales. Just so you know.
Despite the title, you don’t have to include any ghostly content in your story. Write a mystery. Write a bizarre domestic drama. Write about the farthest reaches of space. Write something so abnormal, accursed, and eldritch that its indescribably foetid loathsomeness would make Lovecraft himself shake in his boots. Just write. Or better yet, start by checking out last year’s event to get an idea of what others have contributed in the past. Who knows what lies out beyond the quarantine’s cordon ...

(Picture: CC 2009 by Loïc Dupasquier)

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Hammering Out an Effective Foil (Tomb Raider)

Gamers of a certain age can’t help but remember the first time Lara Croft strolled onto the screen in 1996’s Tomb Raider. Wearing only micro-rise hot pants, a painted-on tank top, and an over-serious expression, the polygonal pinup seemed the confirmation of every unfortunate gaming stereotype. Despite all the cheesecake, though, the title turned out to be pretty darn good, and its combination of exploratory acrobatics and blasting baddies with pistols akimbo soon made the nubile riff on Indiana Jones a household name. But it wasn’t destined to last. Increasingly mediocre sequels followed, and Tomb Raider’s original publisher shut its doors in the mid-2000s. Although a few moderately successful spinoffs followed, it seemed as though Lara Croft might stay buried forever. Then in 2013, developer Crystal Dynamics decided to completely reimagine the character Guinness World Records declared “The Most Successful Human Virtual Game Heroine.”

And they did so by beating the ever-loving pudding out of her.

While the new Tomb Raider’s prologue isn’t exactly inspired, it sets up the new Lara’s development rather well. Straight from her graduate studies, the fresh-faced archeologist joins the vessel Endurance, an exploratory vessel hired by the shifty publicity-hound Dr. James Whitman. A scholar fallen on hard times, Whitman hopes to find his way back into the limelight by discovering the mythical land of Yamatai. But when the ship breaks apart in a freak storm while sailing through the infamous Devil’s Triangle, the expedition becomes a living hell. Separated from her friends, marooned on a mysterious island, stripped of supplies, and pursued by members of murderous cult, Lara will have to learn how to survive—and how to kill.

If you never played the original Tomb Raider, you have to understand something: Lara Croft was the boss. Cool, confident, and impossible proportioned, she could scramble through traps and make epic leaps with a sardonic sneer on her face. The new Lara, though? She’s exactly the opposite. Callow. Cowed. Quickly bloodied. The game’s first cutscene ends with an antagonist knocking her cold, and she awakes hanging a cave ceiling by her feet. After managing to set her bonds on fire, she plummets to the floor only to impale herself on a protruding spike. Her shriek of pain is just the beginning of Lara’s aural agony. She gutturally grunts after missing jumps, gasps when grazed by gunfire, and screams in pure torment while cauterizing a grievous wound. Successful sorties hardly prove less traumatic, Lara’s petite frame a definite disadvantage during combat with larger male opponents. (Crystal Dynamics has made the new character model only improbably attractive this time around.) She staggers when striking out with a climbing ax, putting her full weight behind each stroke. Enemies nearly drag her off her feet when she attempts to stealthily strangle them with a bowstring. And once she gets her pair of iconic pistols during the final battle, the controls turn wobbly as she struggles with the guns' recoil and weight. I haven’t even gotten to the cringe-inducing death animations. Spastic writhing as a cave in crushes Lara’s skull. A bullet messily blasting through her brainpan when she attempts to wrest a gun from an assailant. A ride down a rushing river suddenly terminating as an extruding branch pierces the flesh beneath her chin and punches out through her head.

You get the picture: The whole thing is upsettingly violent.

Indeed, the Tomb Raider reboot’s grue has drawn the ire of some critics. “The essence of the issue for me is that Lara is entirely reactionary,” says Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw of Zero Punctuation. “So you can kill a man and take a machete like a champ. A concrete block can do that. But you can’t kick one out of the back of a moving truck and call that a character arc.” A fair enough critique, as is the suggestion that inflicting such torments on Lara impugns the developers’ chivalry. But both assertions overlook Crystal Dynamic’s original intent: They were first and foremost trying to create a foil, a character who strongly contrasted with the near-caricature that inspired her. And whatever plot-related or thematic shortcomings that constantly keeping their protagonist bloodied and bruised might’ve caused (and they’ve caused plenty, in my humble opinion), they certainly hammered out an effective one.

(Picture: CC 2013 by Joshua Livingston)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Bell on Becoming a Prolific Writer

Over at Kill Zone, James Scott Bell (Try Dying) discusses how he moved from being a frustrated neophyte to a prolific professional writer. Excerpts:
Got an email the other day from a writer I met at Bouchercon. We’d chatted a bit about the craft, and he wanted to thank me. He’d just completed his first novel and was raring to go on his second. He wrote, “I’m amazed at how prolific you are.”

That was nice to hear, because when I started out that’s what I wanted to be—prolific. I was 34 years old and hadn’t written much of anything for ten years (I’d been told in college that you can’t learn how to write fiction, and since I couldn’t write fiction—fiction that was any good, anyway––I figured I just didn’t have it). So when I made the decision to finally go for it, even if I failed, I wanted to make up for lost time.

Now, according to traditional standards of the writing life, I am prolific. I’ve produced around fifty books, hundreds of articles, several stories and novellas. I’m happy with my output. ...

I heard from a young writer recently who said he was having trouble getting started. He has a wife and young child at home, is working long hours, and when he gets some time to himself he is easily distracted by social media, and is too much of a perfectionist to get many words done.

For those who have these sorts of constraints, let me offer some advice on becoming more prolific, for it can be done!
Read the whole thing. Bell goes on to list some insightful steps for persevering in the writer’s craft, everything from the importance of goals to how to dealing with rejection (which is the one thing that consistently pulls the plug on my own motivation). But I’d like to add a suggestion that riffs off his list, if I may. Bell proposes setting a strict writing quota, and notes that “some writers say they just can’t write to a quota, that it’s too much pressure, that it squeezes the creative juices right out of them.” I’ve been one of those writers. Something that’s helped me move beyond that mindset, though, is content writing. Yes, I produce punchy pabulum for pay, and regularly doing so on short notice not only reinforces the idea that I can write, it reminds me that sometimes people like it enough to give me money. And that perks me up even when I’m feeling like the most melancholy genre hack.

(Picture: CC 2008 by Nic McPhee; Hat Tip: Brandywine Books)