Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Book of the Black Sun II: The Book Collector

Well, I finally did it. The second Book of the Black Sun with all the Book Collector stories. You may have heard "Goon Job" or "Merlin's Bane" at Pseudopod. Well, they're here along with 9 others, two of which are novellas. So far only on Amazon but soon a print version at Lulu and more ebooks at other vendors.





Sunday, April 6, 2014

Check out these eBay Auctions - Stones of Doom

I went to the Harry Potter Exhibition in Edmonton at Telus World of Science and saw all the props and costumes from the movies. They also had How To Build a Monster which was very inspiring. So I've been spending some of my break working on some new Mythos related items. I have four auctions on eBay until April 12. These include two very rare Mythos chapbooks from 1997 as well as a poetry chapbook. I also put together a one-of-kind deluxe set of The Stones of Doom.

Check them out here:

Night Visions - horror flash fiction and a precursor to The Book of the Black Sun

Sundown - vampire anthology with a Mythos novel segment

Triskaideaphobia and Other Mythos Poems - signed and numbered - limited to 25 copies

The Stones of Doom scenario generator for Call of Cthulhu - deluxe set - unique item

Friday, March 14, 2014

Details, eh?

I was reading Loren D. Estleman's White Desert (2000), a Western partly set in Canada. I came to screeching halt when I got to Page 67. His Northwest Mounted Police office has "The maple-leaf flag hanging from a standard in one corner..." They must keep the time machine in the other corner. Canada's maple leaf flag was first presented on February 15, 1965. The Canadian flag, when it wasn't simple a British flag, was red with a Brit flag in the upper, left-hand corner. I'm surprised Estleman missed this.  (Estleman isn't alone. The film Pennies From Heaven (1981) set during the Great Depression has a school in it with a poster of flags of the world. You guessed it. Maple leaf flag.)

Estleman should have watched these videos:


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Otis Adelbert Kline and Edgar Rice Burroughs

I have to admit as a kid I never read Otis Adelbert Kline. Or Michael Moorcock's Burroughs knock-off or really anybody's except perhaps Lin Carter's. Though not the Callisto series. I tried the first one and found it too ... unnecessary.

Edgar Rice Burroughs always pooh-poohed his ability to write, not to entertain but to write. I'm beginning to think he sold himself short.

Right now I'm reading Otis Adelbert Kline's Planet of Peril (1929). It reads like any Burroughs clone would.. there are weird monsters, sword fights when missile weapons would make sword-fighting unnecessary, princesses and kingdoms to be won. Burroughs did it over and over and I never held it against him. I read it here and I sigh -- with boredom. Kline, like all the other imitators are just so unnecessary. Burroughs was a prolific writer and his 69 books are enough for me.

Burroughs never thought himself much of a stylist but Kline seems miles below even Burroughs. His fight scenes are short, unexciting. His romance is stilted and laughable. The transitions he leaps through at times without proper building. I have to believe this book only sold because Argosy couldn't get the real ERB. I ask myself: if there had been no ERB only Otis Adelbert Kline, would the Scientific Romance have exploded as it did after 1912? It might have but someone who was a better writer would have had to take the torch from OAK. As Dashiell Hammett took the private detective from Carrol John Daly and made it more, as Raymond Chandler took it from Hammett and made it more... Edgar Rice Burroughs never needed to pass the torch. He carried it for 38 years and no one did it better. People today still try their hand at writing a Burroughs book ... and fail. Even Joe R.Lansdale, Fritz Leiber and Philip Jose Farmer, all writers I respect, never held a candle to ERB at his own game. The only writer I have ever read who had the same magic is Joel Jenkins in his Dire Planet series.Why Joel can do it I don't know but he can...

Now in OAK's defense, this is his first novel. But compare it to A Princess of Mars and I fail to see how being a first book matters.  Burroughs had it coming out of the gate. I can only hope they get better as I read on. Kline was the first ERB clone, writing while Burroughs still worked. The two never really corresponded or took much notice of each other. There is no evidence of the ERB-OAK feud that some fanzine editor cooked up. Kline did not like to be told he was a second-rate Burroughs imitator, but if the shoe fits...

I will keep an eye out for anything original in the Venus books as I work my way through them. Here's hoping...

Friday, October 25, 2013

Romance: Dwelling in the Genre Ghetto

The word Romance has changed in the last 500 years. Its original meaning was a tale from the Roman, being tales of love and intrigue told in the Romance languages. These date back to Medieval times when French troubadours spun fantastic stories of King Arthur, Amadis of Gaul, Charlemagne and Roland. Then the Renaissance came along and ruined everything.

During the Age of Enlightenment (that the Renaissance put in motion), Romance became associated with anything fanciful, unrealistic, unscientific, as those tales of old certainly were. A Romantic notion was anything unsupported by Science. The Fantastic had fallen on hard times. One had to look to parodies of the fantastic for any kind of fancy.

But you can't keep a good Romance down. All that logic and reason had to give and it did in 1765 when Horace Walpole got Gothic literature under way with The Castle of Otranto. But it didn't stop with spooky tales of castles and Scooby-Doo endings. Inspired by Walpole and German writers like E. T. A. Hoffman, the Romantic Movement gave us Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats and a new love of everything old, mystical and fantastic. Art movements followed with the Pre-Raphaelites and the modern Romances of William Morris.

By the 1800s Romance was anything that ran counter to the accepted scientific norm, so a tale like H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines was considered a Romance. Any story that involved ideas like "True love wins out", "You can't keep an honest man down", "Crime does not pay", "Honesty is rewarded", all were seen as unrealistic and only suited for tales of Romance. If you didn't want that kind of thing there was the Realist school that shunned all such ideas and sought a journalistic, fatalistic, and largely bummer-ness some like to call "The Human Condition".

So now fiction had been split into realistic fiction (following Sir Walter Scott, then Henry James and on to modern writers like Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce.) and genre fiction bursting with lovely loads of "Romance". But Romance was still pretty general. Consider that the novels The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsey were all considered "mainstream reading" in their day but today such books would be classified as Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy and would not be read by "Mainstream" readers. Genrification was starting in the 1800s but it had not yet arrived.

The magazine explosion of the late 1800s largely drove the creations of genres. Magazines like Dickens' All the Year Round and Household Words promoted ghost stories. The Strand created the vogue for "detective stories" with Sherlock Holmes, Pearsons ran most of H. G. Wells novels, along with many other general magazines using all kinds of fiction and non-fiction. By the turn of the century, magazines were still general audience with titles but things were changing. With the creation of Argosy by the Munsey Co. in 1882, fiction magazines took two tracks, the Pulps and the Slicks. The Slicks were expensive magazines published on 'slick' paper thus their name. The stories they promoted were largely of the realist school or a very watered down Romance, while their pulp paper poor cousin, the Pulps, were dedicated entirely to genre fiction in bold, garish varieties. Romance had at last found its home.

By the 1920s, all those general audience magazines such as All-Story (that published Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs side-by-side) were under attack by specialized genre magazines. In a matter of a few years every genre had its own special magazines. There were Air, Railway, Boxing and Sport Stories, secret agents, super hero, jungle stories, Science Fiction, horror tales, Westerns as specific as Ranch Romances. The modern meaning of that word "Romance" had finally arrived. The meaning that equated it with a later Radio term "Soap Opera", a tale of the emotional travails of individuals. No longer did it mean traveling across unknown Africa to find a lost city as it did in 1885.

This splintering of genres into their own little ghettos has been applauded by some genre critics like Lester Del Rey, who sees the ghettoizing of Science Fiction after 1926 as a necessary incubation period, where SF could grow without influence from other kinds of fiction, to establish its own rules and its own aesthetic (rules by which it is judged), and now it can emerge like a butterfly from its cocoon. I'm not so sure. This might be true for SF but it certainly isn't for horror. The same silly ideas about horror that critics of the Gothics had (that they promote idolizing bandits, killers and madmen that will only end with you becoming a Satanist) in the 1790s remain today. Are we truly at the point when the genre is just a label that booksellers put on the spins so minimum wagers will know where to place the books at Chapters?

Genre has had its bestsellers. In Science Fiction Frank Herbert's Dune series, in Fantasy, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, in horror the novels of Stephen King, in Mystery and Suspense Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs, in Westerns, Larry McMurty's Lonesome Dove, in Romance, Diana Galboldon's Outlander series, to name some specific titles. This isn't even to mention those odder hits like Richard Adams' animal fable Watership Down or the vampire romances of Stephanie Meyer. Ranch Romances, well, you can't win them all. The Romance spirit of H. Rider Haggard lives on in popular writers like Michael Crichton and James Rollins.

I don't see the old meaning of Romance ever returning but it truly is the spirit which fuels all my own writing. I'm a genre guy. I know that's the kiss of death in publishing. But I'm also a horror guy and "the kiss of death" is not unfamiliar to me. Romance on, my friends.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Public Domain and the Secret of Eternal Fame

With the relatively recent one hundred mark for Edgar Rice Burroughs (2012) and L. Frank Baum (2001) these authors have moved into a new phase in their fame as writers. Let's call them "Legacy" writers. (Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and a host of others all have this status too. Burroughs and Baum are the latest.) As Legacy writers, they have survived long enough in the tastes of reading public that two things have happened: 1) their creations have become icons (think Tarzan, Dorothy and Toto, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, etc.) and 2) their works are no longer controlled by the heirs who inherited them. For the last 75 years or so, the grandchildren of the authors have decided what adaptations have been allowed (and royalties collected, of course). The descendants of ERB run Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. I'm not sure who controlled Baum's estate (and still do for the later works of authors such as Ruth Plumly Thompson). All that's in the past.

With the advent of their creations moving into the public domain, new "unauthorized" creations are springing up. This can be a big budget film like Tarzan (1999), John Carter of Mars (2012) or The Great and Powerful Oz (2013) (all cases of Disney waiting until copyright has lapsed to avoid paying royalties) or it can be less obvious fare. With the popularity of zombie rewrites like Pride and Prejudice with Zombies (2009) by Seth Grahame-Smith, writers are coming up with some unusual ways to enjoy old classics again. The Steampunk writers have taken a shine to Baum's post-Victorian fantasy and turned some new tales out of the stuff of Oz. And this is great, for let's be honest, both Burroughs and Baum are great storytellers (largely unappreciated by critics up to recently) but their works are a century old and a little dated. A new spin on old novels gives modern readers a way to enjoy the innocent favourites of childhood or teen years. It also gives you a way to go back and enjoy new stories in familiar places if you read all 26 Tarzan novels, all 41 Oz books, or the 11 Barsoom sagas.

An aside I must point out: it strikes me as hilarious that the books that seem to be surviving into the "Forever Club" are not those that critics and librarians of old would have chosen back in the 1930s or later. Baum's Oz books were kept out of libraries when they were originally published because they were seen as ephemeral trash. Thank goodness, they were sold as annual Christmas books and were loved by millions. Burroughs had similar struggles until the 1960s paperbacks came along and made Ballantine wealthier. No one can predict who will survive to become a legacy writer. No one. Hollywood can help or hurt. Some writers have bad or unpopular  films made from their work and would seem to be hurt by this, but survive. (Think The Golden Compass.) I hear Alexander Skarsgard is the next Tarzan. Will it hurt Burroughs after all those Johnny Weissmuller films? I suspect not.

Now you may be tempted to write your own Tarzan novel. I know I've thought about it a few times. Look at all the Sherlocks that have been written since 1987. There could be a mad rush of new jungle adventures appearing on Amazon already. Tarzan of the Apes with Zombies. John Carter of Mars versus the Sparkling Vampires. I'm waiting. I won't read them but it wouldn't surprise me. What I hope to see is something more like the works of Guy Adams who writes post-Wellsian novels like The Army of Doctor Moreau (2012) or J. W. Schnarr's Shadows of the Emerald City (2009). There is a movement under way right now in which writers are playing in other people's backyards. It's exciting, but it is also ... a little dangerous. It's great if it drives new readers to old classics. This will cement the fame of these centurion writers with new generations and continue their fame into the 21st Century. It's dangerous if it floods the Kindle shelves with very poor hackjobs and juvenile fan fiction (though I have to wonder, what is the difference between "fan fiction" and an "unauthorized" work. Not much outside of court perhaps.) The result could be a muddying of the waters that results in a lack of interest. But I don't worry about this too much. Four million bad Lovecraftian pastiches and an equal number of bad Howardian Conan copies haven't blunted their swords. The Cthulhu Mythos and Sword & Sorcery are as healthy as ever. (Cthulhu and Conan are in a kind of grey area copyright-wise and we'll see them join the Legacy crowd in a decade or so.)

Reader sophistication is really what we're talking about. You can read the original Tarzan of the Apes, appreciate how it broke new Pulp ground, how it's a little racist by modern standards, scientifically impossible, not quite Science Fiction but appeals to SF fans anyway, etc, etc. How you enjoy it is up to you. You can also then read Tarzan and the Valley of Gold by Fritz Leiber (1967) or Joe R. Lansdale's Tarzan: The Lost Adventure (1991), a book that is 25% Burroughs and 75% Lansdale, the last two authorized pastiches, (or Philip Jose Farmer's The Adventure of the Peerless Peer (1977), an unauthorized one!) and you can decide if they hold up against ERB's wonderful storytelling. And now you can plunk down $4.99 and buy that latest novel, Tarzan and the Pyramid of Blood by Wryter B. Anonymous or I. Wright Kindles or whoever, and see if Tarzan pastiche is worth the time. (Personally I would grab it if it was written by Joel Jenkins, the only writer I know who has captured Burroughsian excitement without slavish imitation. His Dire Planet series is as much fun as Barsoom.) Your sophistication allows you to enjoy the Burroughsian or Ozian novel from a standpoint of connoisseur, as co-conspirator in a literary game that promises some new fun in old places.


The Curse of Hemingway or Ornate Or Not Too Ornate

Certain kinds of stories seem to set their own agendas as far as style is concerned; you ignore the demands of the material at your peril. If you write a story about princesses, dragons and magic rings in the style of Ernest Hemingway, for example, you may have an interesting story, but it is unlikely to feel much like fantasy.

                                                -- Lisa Tuttle in Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction (2001)

Can simple language be used to effectively tell a Fantasy tale? I wrestle with this every time I write what I consider Sword & Sorcery fiction. My style tends toward the modern, unadorned and fast-moving. I call this the curse of Ernest Hemingway because he is usually acknowledged as the writer who simplified 20th Century diction. F. Scott Fitzgerald also gets credit. Personally, I think it happened in the Pulps with writers like Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner and Cornell Woolrich, but WHO is not as important as the fact that it happened. Suddenly, wordy meant Victorian, and therefore old-fashioned. Tolkien, Clark Ashton Smith and many earlier writers get dinged for being poor stylists (style being defined by Hemingwayites, of course.)

David Gerrold in Worlds of Wonder: Writing Science Fiction (2001) says:

Your writing style, whatever you choose, whatever you create, whatever you evoke, will determine what effects you can create. Style becomes the flavor of the story...But most of all, the language should always be clear. Short simple sentences convey meaning.

So what to do? How does a writer know when they have evoked enough of the "Fantastic" or if they should just get on with the story? Let's consider the opening paragraphs of my latest flash-length tale, which I call "The Story of Vorn". Here is the first draft, simple, unadorned:

The grasslands beyond Akton had a bad reputation. None who ventured into those swaying waves of grass ever returned. No one.

Vorn looked out over the expanses and smiled. He was ready. He had his long sword, Skullcracker, to deal with any skrulkings who might lurk there. (The old folks said there were no skrulls there.) Vorn had his crossbow to ventilate any winged drakons who came from above. His throat was decorated with the claws of such beasts. (The drakons dwelt in the mountains, the old men said.) And in direst measure, Vorn had his enchanted wand, cut from the hand of a undead sorcerer, containing an elder stone of jet black.

My intent was to set up the reputation of the grasslands and establish Vorn as a character. Here is Version Two, what I call the "Poet's version" with an eye on augmenting the language to create a more vibrant picture. Some readers may find it too elevated, too self-conscious? It certainly slows down the pace:

The wind-grazed grasslands beyond the village of Akton had a bad reputation, one whispered about in dark corners and over glowing campfires. None who ventured into those swaying waves of grass ever returned. No one.

Vorn, the slayer of wolves and warriors, the pillager of palaces and strongholds, looked out over the expanses and smiled. He was ready. He had his long sword, Skullcracker, four feet of razor-sharp steel, to deal with any skrulkings who might lurk there. (The old folks said there were no skrulls there.) Vorn had his crossbow, a weapon so powerful most men could not draw the string into place, to ventilate any winged drakons who came from above. Vorn's thick throat was decorated with the blackened claws of such legendary beasts. (The drakons dwelt far away in the mountains, the old men said.) And in direst measure, Vorn had his enchanted wand, a rod of blood-ash cut from the hand of a undead sorcerer, containing an elder stone of jet black.

This process of bejeweling can go further and you end up with what I call the "Clark Ashton Smith version":

The zephyr-blasted moraines beyond the solitary village of Akton had a morose reputation, one whispered about in shadow-filled corners and over coal-glowing campfires. None who ventured into those swaying, monotonous waves of verdure ever returned. No one.

Vorn of the Vroskayne tribe, the slayer of dire wolves and deadly warriors, the pillager of jewel-encrusted palaces and sword-filled strongholds, looked out over the grey-clouded expanses and smiled with grim, scarred lips. He was ready. He had his grandsire's long sword, Skullcracker, four feet of ebon, razor-sharp steel, to conquer any skrulkings who might lurk in the vertical shadows. (The old grandfathers said there were no skrulls there.) Vorn had his ram-horn crossbow, an engine of death so powerful most men could not draw the elk-gut string into place, to ventilate any winged drakons who came from cloud-scudded skies above. Vorn's thick throat, a tattooed appendage, cut criss-cross with white scars, was decorated with the desiccated and blackened claws of such legendary beasts. (The drakons dwelt far away in the white-topped mountains, the old men said.) And in direst measure, when all hope was fled, Vorn had his enchanted wand, Shadowcane, a rod of blood-ash hacked from the shrivelled appendage of the undead necromancer, X√†ltuun Shu, containing an elder stone, of Kh'rr,  a jet black orb the size of a child's fist.

I would never write in this mode, for me it feels too much like a parody of another writer's style, but for discussion purposes I wanted to present it. There are times when I think editors want this. They don't, but I think they do.

Orson Scott Card in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (1988) says:

However, there is great danger in trying for elevated diction-primarily because it's so easy to overdo it or do it very badly. You have to read a lot of brilliantly written formal prose before you're able to handle it well and there isn't much of it being written these days..."

It's well known most editors want stories around 4-5000 wrds. and perhaps even shorter now with Internet publishing. There is only so long people are willing to sit in front of a screen and read. (Though this is increasing now with Kindles, etc.) So if we are shooting for 4000 wrds (let's say) then how are you to get all that world-building stuff in and still have room for a story? 

***Artwork by the wonderful Harry Clarke, of course!