27 December 2010

Book Review: Don’t Look Now: Stories

Don’t Look Now: Stories (2008)
By Daphne du Maurier. Selected by Patrick McGrath.

I have recently started an immersive journey through Cornwall, although not of the physical variety, since economically I don’t have the luxury of taking myself there. After a few years of vague fascination with the tip of the southwestern peninsula of Great Britain, which reaches out into the Atlantic to terminate in the pincer claw of Lizard Point and the Penwith Peninsula, I started to do harder research into its history and customs that separate it in weird and wonderful ways from the rest of the island that lays east of the river Tamar. My reason for this intensification of interest is, of course, for writing purposes. And if anyone wants to make a journey into Cornwall that involves fiction, he or she will have to spend some quality time with the Grand Dame of the land of tinners and smugglers, Daphne du Maurier.

Du Maurier (1907–1989) achieved enormous success as an author of twentieth century popular literature. On first publication, most of her novels received dismissive critical notices as “romantic thrillers for women,” while they ran through printing after printing to satisfy public demand. However, du Maurier’s novels have managed to escape the dustbin of most bestsellers of yesteryear and they remain in print and popular as ever today. Critical opinion has also turned around, and the author is now respected as an excellent wordsmith and crafter of plots, a literary descendant of Wilkie Collins, and as the twentieth century “voice” of Cornwall.

21 December 2010

Tron: Legacy Disappoints

Tron: Legacy (2010)
Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Starring Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, Michael Sheen.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Disney has sunk a hefty amount of money into the making and marketing of Tron: Legacy as a blockbuster and a future franchise. Given the long-term currency of the 1982 original, this is what you would expect. The IMAX 3D release that coincides with last year’s release of Avatar makes Disney’s scheme of conquest obvious.

And yet, after watching the film, I have to wonder if Disney had any idea what they were doing with this, uhm, strange and mostly airless film. It’s decked with gorgeous neon visuals and special effects, but it is neither an action extravaganza to grab the young viewers nor an intelligent enough follow-up to the heady ideas that Tron smashed around in 1982 at the edge of the computer revolution. It appears that the revolution has not been televised. Or not screened.

Tron: Legacy is no fiasco—it will make a profit and I imagine that international box-office will make up the significant part of it—but it’s only “adequate” all around. Considering that I went into the film with the realistic expectation that it might very well suck, I can say with enormous lack of passion that I am “satisfied.” However, this won’t be a film I’ll want to revisit the way I do its predecessor, nor will it make it onto my DVD shelf. The benefit of the IMAX 3D presentation is significant enough (see it in this format if you can) that my disappointment would increase in its absence.

13 December 2010

The Original Tron Is Still Great

Earlier this year, I marched stolidly at the front of a phalanx to defend the original Clash of the Titans right before its re-make was about to hit theaters. I found the re-make more palatable than I expected, although I have since gotten frosty about it after watching it a second time when the DVD came out; the sucker just doesn’t hold up. Although a sequel to the re-make is now in the works, I think the status of Harryhausen’s 1981 film remains secure. It may even improve.

Now I am facing a deceptively similar situation with this Friday’s looming release of Tron: Legacy. I am here to defend the 1982 film Tron, a movie that balances on a triple-edged knife’s tip of nostalgia, prescience, and ridicule.

However, my position with the new Tron is different than that of Clash of the Titans. The forthcoming Tron: Legacy is not a re-make, but a sequel, and this puts me less on the defensive and instead rezzes me up. The early reviews are lukewarm, but at least Tron: Legacy isn’t trying to override the memory of the first, and it has brought back the original star Jeff Bridges as well as director Steven Lisberger (this time in the role of producer).

During the early stages of the “New Tron movie” development, Disney did consider doing a re-make, but thankfully someone in the Mouse House realized that a sequel was a better plan. Developments in computer technology between 1982 and 2010 provide an opportunity to explore how the world of computers from the original film have changed—how the grid and the primitive Internet have expanded to rule the world and transform into a reality parallel to our own—and that is fertile grounds for a sequel. A sequel almost seems a necessity.

But that Tron: Legacy got made at all is a celebration of one the weirdest, long-term success stories of science-fiction cinema: how a “video-game craze” movie that got a lukewarm reception on its original release turned into a piece of technical prophecy, an oracle of the modern hi-tech zeitgeist.

Yes, but is it a good movie?

I shall answer that question at the full review at Black Gate. . . .

06 December 2010

A Writing Lesson about Pettiness from Poe

In his famous essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944) noir author Raymond Chandler discusses the separation between loftiness of subject in writing and its literary success:
Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writers the stuff, and what he has in him to write with. As for literature of expression and literature of escape, this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.
Chandler’s thesis here also applies to an author’s intention as well as his or her subject matter. Most of us can safely say that anyone who sets out to write “The Great American Novel” or “The National Epic of [Insert Nation Here]” will inevitably fail at that task. On the other hand, an author might produce an enduring work of literature if he or she simply sets out to jab some pins into another author over a petty feud. That may sound dull-minded, like a schoolyard tussle over who was next in line for handball, but if the mind behind isn’t actually dull, then the result could be a masterpiece.

Case in point: “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe. If you haven’t read this 1846 tale of revenge in Italy, than you must have been home sick from school that day in sixth grade.

Read the rest at Black Gate. . . .

02 December 2010

NaNoWriMo Victory 2010—with qualifiers

Hey look, it’s my National Novel Writing Month badge! Third year in a row picking up one of those, although the circumstances were a bit different this time. And honestly, not as fulfilling.

My grand total for this year is 63,728 words (or thereabouts), which is under my total for the last two years, although I reaches the 50,000 word barrier right about on schedule.

However, as I’ve discussed before, I didn’t write a novel this year, but short stories. I completed seven stories and got halfway through a seventh during the last two days. (And that last one was almost an afterthought, and I’m going to start re-writing it from scratch.) The pieces range in length from a 3,400-word short to a 20,000-word novella. Some came out very well—indeed, one of them is already revised and at market—and others . . . well, I’ll see how I feel about them later and if they warrant further work.

I learned a few things from this NaNoWriMo “rebel” experience.

First, I discovered I need to plan my short stories as thoroughly as I plan my novels before writing them. Charging into a short story without a solid outline of the events and a determined ending tends to make me write rambling work that loses my interest. I don’t slavishly stick to my outlines, and frequently come up with different endings, but having one in front of me keeps me moving and gives me an “assignment” each day. Because I crammed the stories together closely for NaNoWriMo, a few ended up not getting enough planning or time to kick around in my head. A few days spacing them out, working on ideas, trying some practice exercises—that seems to be how I operate best with short stories.

Second, I really missed writing a novel during November. I love writing novels; I love the immersion. Short stories can be a thrill, but they provide only a small period of immersion, and writing them in a row doesn’t provide the all-encompassing feeling of a novel. I missed writing a novel so much that I’ve decided I’m going to hold my own personal National Novel Writing Month in February (dangerous, since it’s the shortest month, requiring 1,786 words per day instead of 1,667) and pen a novel idea that came to me during November . . . something I originally wanted to write as one of the shorts, but after a discussion with some other writers at LOSCON, I recognized that the story wished to be a full-blooded book. So I have a two months to work on planning and research, and then I’ll throw myself into the fray again.

In the meantime, I have a heap of revising to do on about ten different stories from the past few months that need to be taken to their final versions. I also have notes for a few new stories to write this month—appropriately outlined, of course.

Cheers to everyone who won NaNoWriMo 2010, and to everyone who tried NaNoWriMo 2010. My one piece of advice for those who finished: don’t start revising yet. Wait until at least January. Write something else, like short stories or a travelogue or sketches for a new novel. Keep busy. But let that new novel simmer a bit.

30 November 2010

LOSCON 37

How I spent my Thanksgiving weekend: Dinner with family on Thursday. And then . . . LOSCON 37 on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday!

After the thrills of going to the World Fantasy Convention in Columbus last month, I was eager to attend another con. Good thing there’s one only a twenty-minute drive away! LOSCON is an annual convention thrown by the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, the oldest continuing science-fiction fan group in the country.

Read my full con report at Black Gate.

22 November 2010

Book review: Conan the Renegade

This week marks my two-year anniversary as a regular blogger for Black Gate. I had already written articles for them before, but it was on 28 November 2008 that I did my first official Tuesday post. And I have only missed one Tuesday since then (but made it up with a bonus post for Robert E. Howard’s birthday symposium).

That first post was a review of a Conan novel by Leonard Carpenter: Conan the Raider.

To celebrate today’s anniversary, here’s a review of a Conan novel by Leonard Carpenter: Conan the Renegade.

See, it’s like bookends, or something. Or it’s circular. Or it’s lazy. I dunno, take your pick.

Anyway, it’s great to see that Black Gate is still thriving after two years of my dedicated attempts to drive readers away with my ramblings!

16 November 2010

The “Saw-the-Story-in-Half” trick

Frederick Faust isn’t only a great writer. He’s a great educator. I always learn about storytelling skills from reading him, much more overtly than from many other writers. But hidden among his letters, the very private writer who hid behind the twenty different pseudonyms (“Max Brand” the most famous of them) offers some interesting direct advice.

So today over at Black Gate, continuing this year’s tradition of Frederick Faust-related posts, I describe and then show in execution an intriguing story-creation exercise Faust suggested in one of his letters. I call it the “Saw-the-Story-in-Half” trick, and practice it on an unsuspecting fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm.

Read the complete post at Black Gate. . . .

14 November 2010

NaNoWriMo Update: Day 14 and I win again

And so I typed past the 50,000 word goal of National Novel Writing Month for the third year in a row.

The thrilling 50,000th word is . . . wait for it . . .

“and”

Thank you Conjunction Junction!

Admittedly, the context of “and” is a bit more exciting: “The armies that had gathered from tribes and alliances across the Najael had all brought new weapons with them . . .”

Reaching 50,000 words in fourteen days—or, a fortnight, as some of us fantasy writers like to say—makes me one day slower than last year, and three faster than the first year. I seem to hover around finishing at the halfway mark. Once again, however, I have to remind myself that the goal is not so much numbers or speed, but making myself keep writing, motivating myself to work every day and put in good chunks of time. Beating myself isn’t the goal; the goal is to give myself concrete objectives and keep the forward momentum. My best first-draft writing comes out of sweep and drive and emotion.

I’m not done yet, and I wasn’t done either of the last two times at this point either. Both previous books rolled on toward the end of the month, with one getting to around 74,000 words and the other to 81,000 words before I typed “THE END.” I’ve been working on short stories this time, and I am currently wrapping up a novella, so those last two words will come much sooner. Probably tomorrow. I may write another story, but honestly there are some revisions I need to do soon on stories that I want to send to some anthologies with deadlines. It looks as though I will end with about 54,000 spread across six different works of short fiction.

Anyway, deep breath, a bit of relaxation, and then back at it tomorrow. . . .

11 November 2010

NaNoWriMo Update: Day 10

Welcome to National Novel Writing Month, Day 10. Or, for me, National Short Story Writing Month.

The progress so far: I’m a bit over 35,000 words and into my fifth story. According to NaNoWriMo’s on-site calculations—a great new feature added this year—if I maintain my current pace, I will cross 50,000 words on November 15. This puts me close to schedule for my last two NaNos: in ‘08 I crossed 50,000 on November 17, and last year I crossed it on November 13. In both those cases, I continued long after until I finished my novel, ending both around 80,000 words.

This year, however, because I’m working on shorter pieces, I’ll end not long after 50,000 mark, whenever my story that crosses the finish line chooses to wrap-up. And I can guarantee it will be the one I started one today, since it is plotted as a novella, I my judgment based on the outline is that it will go around 20,000 words.

So, it appears that my tally of short fiction for NaNoWriMo (uh, NaShoStoWriMo) will be five works: two short stories (under 7000 words), two novelettes (7000–15,000 words), and one novella (15,000+).

One of the reasons that I’ll feel satisfied with stopping once I’ve gone past 50,000 is that I need to do some immediate revision on some of the stories to prepare them for anthologies with deadlines. I’ll spend the end of November doing important re-writing, and it will go into early December. I also decided today to attend LOSCON, a Los Angeles convention for steampunk, SF noir, and urban fantasy that takes places the November 26–28. I’m already itching to get back to a convention, and this one is a twenty-minute drive for me and costs only $45 registration, so why not?

All right, onwards with the novella. I’ve wanted to write this particular story for over a year, but fear of the “touch sell” novella length held me back. To Hades with that, now—I want to write, I’m going to write. Oh, I already am writing. Too late, now I’m committed. (Seriously, I do have some specific plans for it.)

Back as new breaks.

08 November 2010

My convention report on World Fantasy 2010

Now that I’ve had some time to digest the World Fantasy Convention experience (as well as write about 27,500 words as part of National Novel Writing Month—yeah, I’ve gotten a bit ahead of schedule), I can finally write a massively and unwieldy blog post about it at Black Gate.

So go on over and soak in all the neophyte fear.

04 November 2010

NaNoWriMo Update: Day 4 and Pratchett Relaxation

Here it is, Day 4 of National Novel Writing Month, and I’m currently a bit ahead of the Day 8 mark. This is about par for the course for me—I find it hard not to at pound out at least three thousand words a day; I’m just feel like I’m warmed up at 1,667 words. Also, I keep coming back later in the day to add just a bit more, which usually means another thousand words. Thus, I’ve done about 4,200 for today.

Nonetheless, because I’m writing short stories, the momentum is quite different this year. This morning I started on a new short story, a pure sword-and-sorcery adventure. This one is clipping along quite well, although as I’ve learned over years of work, my initial reaction to how well a piece goes down on the page has no direct connection to how it finally ends up. This story may turn out wonderful, or it may need a lot of revision work to get to its best form. Hard to tell at this point. The story I finished last night came out onto the page a touch more grudgingly than some, but I’m eager to take my second look at it in a few weeks and see what, exactly, I’ve got.

02 November 2010

NaNoWriMo Update: Day 2

Whew, the last four days have been a whirlwind, with the World Fantasy Convention bleeding right into National Novel Writing Month. I have written before about how I decided to take a different approach for NaNoWriMo 2010, and I’m already finding the going tougher this year because I’m tackling short stories instead of a full, continuous novel. This means that I can’t plow ahead as freely, since plots need wrapping up and new plots have to start—often in vastly different settings and in different POVs.

The report so far as of Day 2: I’m in the middle of the second story and have reached 7,021 words total. This puts me two days ahead of schedule, and gives me breathing room when I need to plot out some of the upcoming stories.

Day 1 started in Columbus, OH at the end of the convention. I started writing the first story in the hotel bar at the stroke of midnight. The next day, I continued to write in the airport while waiting for my flight from Columbus to Atlanta. That got me to 3,564 words total the first day. I didn’t get any writing done on either flight to Atlanta or Los Angeles, and I was worn out when I got to L.A. I managed to write yesterday’s Black Gate post and then crash on my bed.

Up early-ish today, I ran a few post-vacation errands, and then headed to the Beverly Hills Public Library, where I finished the first story. This means that the entire 4,600-word work was originally typed on my Alphasmart NEO. Man, I love that machine.

Tonight I attended my first Write-In, one of the busiest I’ve seen, at the Novel Café on Ocean Park in Santa Monica. I started my second story here, and got it up to about 2,400 words while having an iced latté. (It’s too warm in L.A. right now to drink the hot variety.)
So, over the course of the day, I switched from a first-person contemporary tale set mostly along mid-Wilshire, to a third-person story set in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar. You can get whiplash from doing this. At least I’m ahead of schedule . . . some of the upcoming stories promise to make life during November even weirder.

More news as it develops.

01 November 2010

How David Drake helped me write my first novel

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

As I write this, I am just now sitting down at my computer in my apartment after coming back home from the World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, OH. I’ve literally tossed down my suitcases on the bed moments ago. My lips are chapped. I am tired.

I will have a lot to say about the con in my post next week, where I’ll give my impressions as a first-time convention goer. There’s no way I could get anything coherent out now with the experience so close to me—there’s a lot to sort through. But I do have one story from World Fantasy that contains a good piece of writing advice. I had mentioned this story to John O’Neill while we were sitting at the Black Gate booth in the Vendor Room (yes, I got to meet the Black Gate fellows for the first time in the flesh!), and he told me I should write a blog about it. He’s right, and it’s a good enough convention story to hold you and me over until next Tuesday.

This is the story about the best piece of writing advice that I ever received. It came from science-fiction and fantasy author David Drake, and because of it I was able to complete my first novel ten years ago. This weekend, I got to meet Mr. Drake in person and tell him what that means to me. He signed a copy of the book that I like to use as “evidence” of my learning curve. It was a great moment for me, and David Drake was about the coolest, nicest guy I could have imagined, and I think he was flattered that I felt so indebted to him.

What was this piece of advice?

28 October 2010

Halloween excuse: The World Fantasy Convention

If you read my blog on a regular basis, you’ll know that I like to post my Halloween costumes as I develop them each year. But you wouldn’t have seen any photos so far in 2010, and that’s because I don’t have a costume this year.

Now why in the world would I skip out on having a Halloween costume? Isn’t this my favorite holiday?

Yes it is, but as I stated earlier this month concerning altered plans for National Novel Writing Month, I’ve also had to shift my Halloween plans. I won’t be in Los Angeles for Halloween weekend, since I’m leaving early tomorrow morning to go to the 2010 World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio.

This is my first time going to one of the “Big Cons.” I should have started going to conventions much sooner, but most of my SF community friends live spread across the country, and it wasn’t easy (or monetarily feasible) to attend. This year, however, Howard A. Jones at Black Gate convinced me to come out to Columbus as part of the magazine’s contingent.

I’m excited and a bit nervous—this is a major con with a lot of big names and heavy topics. I’ve never been much of a “social writer,” but making friends and contacts in the business is important, so this something of an “open declaration” for me—a small one, but one that matters a great deal to me personally.

I’ll be reading an excerpt from one of my Ahn-Tarqa stories that is slated for Black Gate, “The Sorrowless Thief," (the first Ahn-Tarqa story I finished), on Saturday night around 9:30 p.m. in the Madison Room on the second floor of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Should you be at the con, please swing by. I’ll also be at the Black Gate table in the Vendor Room on and off during Saturday and Sunday.

I’ll probably go the World Fantasy next year as well, since it will be in San Diego, a three-hour drive south for me.

And, in case you haven’t heard, the next Batman film finally has a title: The Dark Knight Rises. I’m not thrilled about the title, but I’m sure it will not affect the movie’s quality.

26 October 2010

Because I Can Always Say More Re: Bride of Frankenstein

I will be one of the Black Gate team present at the World Fantasy Convention this weekend, so if you are there as well, just look for the guy who appears lost. (I’ve never been to one of the big conventions before.)

Two weeks ago I discussed the key Hammer Horror film for Halloween, Dracula (1958). It would be a grave omission not to discuss my key Universal Horror film for Halloween—especially since this year is that movie’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

This is going to be a “strolling” review, in which I walk through an entire film and simply point at things. It’s a good sort of October stroll, I think.

Three-quarters of a century ago, on April 22nd, Universal Pictures released the long-rumored, delayed, and awaited sequel to their 1931 smash hit adaptation of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Bride of Frankenstein. The world of Gothic film has never been the same. Bride is the highest achievement of the Universal Horror series, the best film ever from director James Whale, and a defining moment in the cinema of the fantastic, weird, and grotesque. Every viewing of the film is an unfettered joy and a voyage through the dark imagination.

(Promotional materials advertise the film as The Bride of Frankenstein, but the actual on-screen title eliminates the definite article, and I’m a martinet about these things.)

Universal in the 1930s built their House of Horrors on the twin success of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. A later successful double feature of the two would create the Universal Horrors of the 1940s. And it was the director of Frankenstein, British import James Whale, one of many theatrical directors who were given film directing jobs in the new world of the “Talkies,” that the studio pegged as their great hope not only for horror, but to put the studio on a competitive level with MGM. Whale wasn’t only a sure hand with horror movies like Frankenstein, The Old Dark House (1932), and The Invisible Man (1933), but also produced successful stylish comedies, musicals, and murder mysteries for the studio.

20 October 2010

La Brea Tar Trip

I had the day off from my job today, and with a major writing project recently finished, I wanted a break. My kind of break: a trip to the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries in Hancock Park. A.k.a. “The Page Museum” or the plain old colloquial delight, “The La Brea Tar Pits.”

The Tar Pits is one of my favorite spots on the planet, and it reaches back to my earliest history of living in Los Angeles. The museum opened in 1977 to display the finds of Pleistocene mammals and birds found in the asphalt pits on Rancho la Brea. That was also the year my family moved to Los Angeles from Augusta, GA, when I was four years old. (No, I was not born in Georgia, by the way, but in Washington, D.C.) I probably first visited the Page Museum in 1978, so it’s quite fair to say that the museum and I grew up together—although it would also be fair to say that the museum hasn’t really grown, since as I walk through it today, it looks almost identical to when I first came in 1978. The words on the displays are still the same, even though some contain outdated information. One of the guides mentioned to me today that the skeleton marked as an “American lion” may be, according to the museum paleontologists, really an enormous jaguar.

I return to the museum at least once a year. I probably came three times a year when I was child; I could not get enough of the ancient mammals, and often begged my parents to take me. I loved dinosaurs obsessively (most children do, it is a genetic condition and probably necessary for our survival to adulthood), but it never disappointed me that the Page Museum had no dinosaurs, but instead mammals from a much more recent era: 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. However, the museum apparently worried that many children would feel disappointed to find no dinosaurs in the museum (the website even has a page devoted to this apparent “absence”), so a special theater was set up to show a loop of a video about dinosaurs. The “Dinosaur Theater” is no longer there, nor the animatronic carnosaur outside, and the theater shows a film about the La Brea excavations. I think the change happened many years ago, however—this isn’t the first time I’ve seen the diorama of a saber-tooth cat attacking a Shasta groundsloth that is currently standing outside the theater.

Another change I’ve noted on this trip: the case with “La Brea Woman” in it, the only human skeleton excavated from the pits (probably a victim of homicide), has vanished. I wonder why. Inside the museum, it is easy for visitors who know little about the Pleistocene to miss the fact that there were humans, fully evolved Homo sapiens living among the megafauna by around 12,000 B.P. These were the ancestors of all Native North American tribes, given the hypothetical name “The Clovis Culture.”

But most everything else is still here, and still in the same spot. The mural that decorated the original small museum in a high school greets you as you enter, and then looming right before you is the first skeleton, the Harlan’s ground gloth, and next to it the Antique bison. A twelve-foot Columbian mammoth still towers in the rotunda at the second turn of the square exhibit, made more magnificent by the great loops of its tusks that stretch out over the wall surrounding his exhibit. The tusks seems much smaller to me as an adult, although still impressive. As a child, they were like the arms of giant reaching out across the whole museum.

Perhaps my favorite site in the museum hasn’t changed at all: a wall, orange back-lit, of four hundred and four dire wolf skulls (Canis dirus), a sample of the sixteen hundred of the animals found in the pits, the largest number of any animal discovered in Rancho La Brea. (The Antique bison has the best representation of herbivores.) I adore wolves, they are my favorite extant animal, and so the larger and heavy ancestors with the killer name of “dire” hold an immense fascination for me.

What the Page Museum represents, above all, is a reminder that it is only a geological blink of an eye between modern Los Angeles, and a Los Angeles resembling something out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. Only 12,000 years ago—nothing in the great time span of life on earth—North America was filled with an amazing biodiversity. Paleontologist Peter D. Ward describes the world that the La Brea discoveries reveal in his book The Call of Distant Mammoths:
. . . there were great beasts in plentitude: saber-tooth tigers and wild horses, giant ground sloths and camels, hippos and lions and enormous scavenging condors, great bears and giant wolves—a vast diversity of a kind associated only with Africa. Most splendid of all, the urban metropolis of Los Angeles was then populated by great herds of giant, now-extinct mastodons and mammoths. The area was thus home to some of the largest land mammals the world has ever seen, the biggest animals to walk the earth since the time of the dinosaurs.
All of the animals in that list appear in the Page Museum’s exhibits, by the way.

And then, somewhere between 12,000 and 10,000 B.P., this megafauna went extinct. Climate Change? Or Overkill? The debate goes on. But in North America we live in the shadow of a recent extinction of enormous scale. The closeness of this world, its astonishing and almost fantastical environment, and its rapid elimination, make for one of the amazing tales of life on this planet.
Unfortunately, the museum seems to need a bit more funding; places on the wall, floors, and within the exhibit cases have started to look shabby. Some of the gleam is off over the thirty-plus years. I don’t advocate changing much to the museum’s exhibits or even its layout: the square design, the access to the paleontology labs through windows (“The Fishbowl,” which had a staff of about seven at work today), and the quiet and non-distracting architecture are perfect. But some refurbishing would give it a new gloss. Most of the “new” material here are just posters tacked to the walls—more evidence to me that the museum doesn’t have the funding that it once did. That it should have.

There were no school groups in the museum today, which surprised me, since a Wednesday in October would seem to be the perfect time to bring elementary children in to show them the rich ancient history of their home city. It was sights like the Columbian mammoth, the “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion of a skeleton of a Smilodon californicus changing into a sculpture of what it may have looked life in the fur-and-flesh, the diorama of ranging Dire wolves woven amongst the actal remains that fired my imagination as a young boy . . . and definitely contributes to what I write today. Think of all the other careers that an early love the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries has led to over thirty-three years.

Ah, the Merriam’s Giant Condor is still hanging from the ceiling in the same place! I can still see my young self staring up at in amazement.

18 October 2010

Time element

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The false motivational poster I posted yesterday was a reward to myself after a week of tough self-disciplined writing, aided by the simple power of time awareness. As I finished my enormous work on late Sunday evening, I celebrated my triumph with a small but exquisite waste of time, creating one of the many “demotivational posters” that travel around the ‘net as humor or an approximation of humor. Better than LOLCats, at least. This is my deep inner Tolkien Geek, who has always wondered what the Lord of the Nazgûl thought as he died under Éowyn’s blade on the Pelennor Fields. My guess: “Damn fine print!”

It’s little time-waster rewards like this that make getting through heavy writing projects just a bit easier.

But the real writing-aid VIP for me, and which has been a tremendous help since I started using it about two years ago, has been a time log. I’ve written previously about how I did revising “on the clock” for National Novel Editing Month (a March event—edit for at least fifty hours during the month) by turning on a desktop stopwatch whenever I sit down to do any writing or editing. I hide the clock, and have it set to chime at the half-hour. I use Apimac Timer, a Mac OS X application, for the stopwatch. For specifically timed exercises, I use a countdown on the same timer. After each work day, I record in a notebook how much time I’ve spent working, and my word count (if applicable). Apicmac Timer also also you to record a log on the program and not lose count of the time you spent

Nazgûl Should Read the Fine Print

It’s been a long week and longer weekend of some serious work. Now I need a break, so I finally gave in and made one of my own “de-motivational” posters. This one is just for Tolkien fans:
I wonder if there are any manufactures of “real” motivational posters anymore. I remember seeing them at the last business I worked at (for six horrible years), but anyone who manufactures this bilge now must have to do it with their tongue pretty much buried in their cheek.

Anyway, the Lord of the Nazgûl wouldn’t have had this problem if he wasn’t so sexist and unable to realize that “. . . and not by the hand of man will he fall” didn’t mean the whole human race. Just men. As in, “males of the species.” Chauvinist loser.

14 October 2010

Next quarter of Writers of the Future winners announced

I’m obviously quite interested in seeing who else will be sharing The Writers of the Future, Vol. XXII with me. Until today, only the first three had been announced. But now, the winners of the second quarter are unveiled:
  • 1st Place: Patty Jansen of New South Wales, Australia
  • 2nd Place: Ben Mann of West Australia
  • 3rd Place: Van Aaron Hughes of Colorado
As you can see, some sort of karmic geographical balancing has taken place here. Last quarter, two of the winners (Brennan and I) were from sunny California, America’s Vacation Paradise, only a sort drive from where the Writers of the Future Awards Ceremony and the writing seminar are held. Now, we shift across the globe to two winners who will need a—what, seventeen hour flight?—to get over here. Patty has never even been to the U.S. before, according to her.

I’m thrilled that I won the contest, but I’m not going to get the globe hopping experience here, will I? Just Hollywood traffic. And if you’ve ever experienced that, you might think a flight from New South Wales much more relaxing.

Anyway, congratulations to Patty, Ben, and (semi-local) Van. See you at the seminar.

11 October 2010

Classic Hammer: Dracula (1958) a.k.a. Horror of Dracula

Dracula/Horror of Dracula (1958)
Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribbling, Carol Marsh, John Van Eyssen.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

October films come in two flavors for me: Universal and Hammer. I have affection for almost any Gothic horror films these studios produced during their Golden Ages (1930s and ‘40s for Universal, 1950s and ‘60s for Hammer), even the lesser entries. The studios have such opposite visual approaches to similar material—the black-and-white shadows of Universal, the rococo lurid colors of Hammer—that they create a perfect Yin and Yang for Halloween, a Ghastly Story for Whatever Suits Your October Mood.

And what suits my mood best, most of the time? Hammer’s 1958 Dracula, released in the U.S. as Horror of Dracula. This isn’t my top-pick of the Hammer canon—I lean toward two 1968 films for that honor, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and The Devil Rides Out—but it is the film I turn to more than any other when the calendar changes into the deep orange and serge hues of the Greatest Month.

06 October 2010

The NaNoWriMo plan is different this year

I have to make two explanations about two upcoming annual events that are usually a key part of my life every year. This year they are going to be treated a bit differently. I’ll discuss the first now, the second on a later post. (Which means I’ll get more posts up this month and make my blog look a bit busier.)

04 October 2010

The Halloween Tarot

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

October has come, my favorite time of the year. I have my special rituals during this season, such as reading classic weird tales (Algernon Blackwood and M. R. James are among my top picks for seasonal fun) and evenings watching Universal and Hammer Horror films.

Another tradition I have is dragging out of the sock draw my Essential October Totem: Kipling West’s The Halloween Tarot, published by U.S. Game Systems, Inc. If I ever needed to describe to someone all the wonders of my favorite holiday, all of its joys and sensations and beauties and cross-cultural marvels, I would simply hand them this deck of seventy-eight colorful cards with their black-and-orange silhouetted backs and say, “Look through that. Then you’re ready for October. Now, where’s the candy? You got Pixy Stix? Okay, then I’ll take a Baby Ruth.”

30 September 2010

Signing the agent contract

I usually tend to wait at least a week before announcing major news on my site. Call it caution, or perhaps the need for time to process what happened, or simple modesty. (Also, I don’t “write publicly” on my website; I keep my writing under wraps until it’s ready for the big show—publication.) When I won the Writers of the Future contest earlier this year, I waited a week before making the announcement; however, in that case I needed to wait for Author Services, the literary agency that runs the contest, to make their official press release. Even if that weren’t the case, I wouldn’t blast the information onto my site the moment it happened. Time to process, time to decide how to break the news. . . .

So here is the big news of two weeks ago, in a continuing Very Good Year:

I have signed with the Bob Mecoy Literary Agency in New York.

Which means that I am an “Agented Author,” represented by an excellent professional agent with a few decades of publishing experience who will work with me to advance my career. Bob has a extremely impressive resumé, knows story and structure better than many authors I’ve spoken to, and represents two great friends of the Black Gate family: Scott Oden and Howard Andrew Jones. I didn’t need much more than Howard’s recommendation to agree to sign the contract with Bob to have him represent me. Of course, Bob’s enthusiasm for my novel and my future plans helped as well.

What does this mean in the immediate future? Well, I’ll let you know . . . two weeks after the fact. Caution again.

However, I can tell you how this came about, and a lot of the credit must go to Howard A. Jones for helping me out. Howard wrote a great article on how he got his first publishing contract, and in it he describes how important it is to develop friendships with other writers and become part of a community. This isn’t “mercenary,” it’s simply that writing is a pretty lonely job: it’s something you do in your home/apartment/hotel room onto a piece of paper or a computer screen. Finding paths to meet other writers is a great way to open up your world: you learn from others, you find common ground, and, yes, it might help your career.

Taking part in the last two National Novel Writing Months was a good way to make writing a more social experience for me, and the first one pulled me out of a novel-rut that had lasted over a year. But even more important for me is my association with Black Gate magazine, which has gone on for four years now and has brought me into contact with a number of phenomenal writers with similar tastes. I never stepped into the Black Gate world imagining it as purely some portal to authorial success—I simply enjoyed writing for the magazine. But if you enjoy something enough, and enjoy it with the right people, some amazing things might happen.

Down to specifics. . . .

Last year for NaNoWriMo 2009 I wrote the first draft of a novel called Turn over the Moon. It takes place in my science-fantasy setting of “Ahn-Tarqa,” which I had already used for a number of stories, two of which I had sold to Black Gate (“The Sorrowless Thief” and “Stand at Dubun-Geb,” issue dates to-be-announced). I had not originally planned to write an Ahn-Tarqa novel—at least, not yet. I had some idea of a distant, epic adventure about the strange continent, but it seemed years away from happening. However, ten days before the firing of the starting gun of National Novel Writing Month ‘09, I suddenly tossed away the idea I had been working on for two months and decided to instead write a novel as a follow-up to an Ahn-Tarqa story I had recently finished. (Bill Ward gave me the idea that this story might expand into a novel, so I must give him the credit for starting me off this happy direction.)

So during November I wrote Turn over the Moon, and was very pleased with the results. But was this the novel I wanted to send out when I tried to approach publishers and agents in 2010? I wasn’t sure. I had three other novels in states of revision that I thought also might make good candidates, including the NaNoWriMo 2008 novel Orphans of Fenris, and really had no idea where I should start. I began 2010 working at short stories, making a resolution to keep more short works at market to build up my name. At the time, I had forgotten that I had submitted one of my Ahn-Tarqa stories, “An Acolyte of Black Spires,” to the Writers of the Future Contest. I didn’t think I was going to win; like most markets, I considered it simply an opportunity, and didn’t attach myself to it actually getting accepted. (I try to make submitting my work fun, and don’t fret about rejection.)

Then, in March, I got the phone call: I was a finalist, one of nine (usually eight), for the first quarter of the Writers of the Future Contest. Suddenly, it was serious. I calmed myself, however. The nine stories would now go to the panel of judges—some of the biggest science-fiction and fantasy writers in the world—and only if “An Acolyte of Black Spires” was picked for one of the three top slots would I be a “contest winner” and appear in the yearly anthology.

I went back to writing and revising more short stories, working even more diligently now.

Then, in June, I got the phone call that told me “An Acolyte of Black Spires” had placed third. I was a winner of The Writers of the Future Contest.

I’ve posted about this before: it was an astonishing moment. It was a great validation of the fifteen years I had worked at writing both fiction and nonfiction. And it made me want to work even harder.

And, thankfully, it also gave me a push that told me what I should concentrate on. Howard Jones’s editor at St. Martin’s Press contacted me through this blog to congratulate me, and to also mention he would be interested in seeing a novel in this setting of Ahn-Tarqa when I had one.

Well, I did have one: Turn over the Moon. But it was still in first draft state. I told the editor I wanted to revise it, and then I would send it to him. Of course, this meant that I now knew which novel needed my energies. Immediately, I put most of my free time into revising Turn over the Moon into the best work I could make it. You may have noticed the substantial drop in my regular posts here during the summer; this coincides with the attention to the book.

Two weekends ago, on a Sunday after I had spent two straight days never leaving my apartment, I at last finished a touched-up third draft of the book . . . and felt good about it. The structure hadn’t altered much from the first draft, but the characterizations, the themes, the relationships, and the style had all improved. But I still wanted some outside opinions on it before I did one more run-through. So I emailed it to Bill Ward and Howard Jones.

The next day, Howard asked me if he could send it on to his agent, Bob Mecoy, to see if Bob could give me any advice on it. I said, “Sure.” I wasn’t going to turn that down. But I was calm about it; I reasoned that, best-case-scenario, Bob Mecoy would return with some ideas for changes and a guarded, “I’ll take a look at it when you’re done.”

Wednesday morning, Bob Mecoy called me. He had read the book overnight. We had a long talk about visions, ideas, backgrounds, the business, Miles Davis . . . and at the end he sent me the contract to sign. I immediately started work on the proposal that would make Turn over the Moon Book I of a trilogy, as we had discussed.

And there is where I stand right now. It’s been a long journey to this point. There’s a long journey ahead. I hope to have many more great news items to share with you in the future. Right now, I just feel so thrilled that I’m a writer and I’ve stuck with being one.

27 September 2010

Animated Dark Knight: Batman: Under the Red Hood

batman_under_the_red_hood_poster
Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)

Directed by Brandon Vietti. Featuring the Voices of Bruce Greenwood, Jensen Ackles, Neil Patrick Harris, John DiMaggio, Jason Isaacs, Wade Williams.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Warner Bros. Animation’s series of straight-to-video PG-13 releases set in the DC Comics universe has been a great success. Starting in 2007 with Superman: Doomsday (which completely embarrassed the previous year’s live-action Superman Returns) the team at Warner Bros. that originally kicked off the DC Animated Universe with Batman: The Animated Series has turned out high quality, adult-slanted fare that has even excited me about characters that I don’t usually care much about, like Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern.

But, no surprise, much of the new DVD series has featured Batman, the hottest property in Warner Brothers’ DC catalog because of the huge success of the Christopher Nolan-directed movies. Batman got his own compilation disc with Batman: Gotham Knight (set in the Nolan-verse and featuring a round-robin of top anime-directing talents), co-starred with Superman in Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (an adaptation of the Jeph Loeb-written arc in the popular Superman/Batman ongoing comic), and played a major part in Justice League: The New Frontier and Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.

Now Batman has his second solo-starring release in the series. Based on a recent popular storyline in Batman’s eponymous comic book that tied into the mega-crossover event “Infinite Crisis,” Batman: Under the Red Hood brings PG-13 to the small screen in a big way. In fact, the film flirts with a “soft R” rating, and it’s definitely not for children—unless you don’t mind your children watching not one but two brutal beatings with a crowbar.

20 September 2010

Book Review: Conan and the Amazon

Conan and the Amazon
John Maddox Roberts (Tor, 1995)

You may have noticed that in my series of reviews of Conan pastiche novels, I have yet to review an entry from Roland Green.

That is correct. I have not. Noted. Moving on. . . .

Of the authors of the long-running Tor series of novels, which started with Robert Jordan’s Conan the Invincible in 1982 and concluded with Roland Green’s Conan and the Death Lord of Thanza in 1997, with Harry Turtledove’s Conan of Venarium as something of a “coda” in 2004, John Maddox Roberts is the most consistently entertaining. (I love the novels from John C. Hocking and Karl Edward Wagner, but as each man unfortunately wrote only a single book, the sample is much smaller.) Roberts was the first new author to take over when Robert Jordan retired from the series after seven books published over only three years. In the eight novels that Roberts wrote, he shows deft ability with storytelling and action scenes, and a thankful tendency not to overplay his hand and try to ape Robert E. Howard’s style. His first Conan novel, Conan the Valorous, is one of the best of the Tor series, and shows a superior handling of the barbarian’s homeland of Cimmeria than Turtledove would achieve in Conan of Venarium.

However, Roberts had his down moments, and alas he stumbled at the finish line.

Conan and the Amazon is the last of Roberts’s Conan novels. It’s also his poorest, although a plot description, the salacious promise of the title, and a great cover with a super-croc would indicate it has sword-and-sorcery joys aplenty inside.

Read the rest at Black Gate. . . .

13 September 2010

Book review: Imaro: The Naama War

Imaro: The Naama War
Charles R. Saunders (Sword & Soul Media, 2009)

Here we have the long-awaited fourth volume in the “Imaro” series of sword-and-sorcery novels set in a fictional fantasy Africa. Imaro: The Naama War brings to a conclusion the many character arcs and plotlines that have built through Imaro (1981; revised 2006), Imaro 2: The Quest for Cush (1984; revised 2008), and Imaro: The Trail of Bohu (1985; revised 2009). The third book (the first written specifically as a novel instead of a collection of novellas and short stories) moves the tale of the Ilyassai warrior Imaro into the territory of the grand epic, threatening to plunge all of the continent of Nyumbani into a battle between the gods and the kingdoms they support, with Imaro as the fulcrum point. The novels ends on a cliffhanger, with the war about erupt.

Now at last we have that great battle of gods and men, which Saunders started writing back in 1983. And it’s Epic. Big Capital “E” Epic. Charles R. Saunders more than rewards readers’ twenty-five years of patience with the single best installment in the saga of Imaro. This is sword-and-sorcery beauty, with all its bloody rage, bizarre magic, pounding battles, horrific monsters, and intense emotion. It is one of the best fantasy novels I have read over the past five years—and I’m actually glad I came late to reading the Imaro stories, because it means I didn’t have to wait so long to read the last and the best.

Imaro: The Naama War is the sort of fantasy trip I love to take, and I’ll admit that I felt an enormous rush of emotion and nearly came to tears during the thirty page wrap-up, where Saunders refuses to let the reader go from the passion of the story and the characters’ dramatic journeys. The escalation from the beginning to the unexpected conclusion is pitch-perfect. It is almost a textbook for how to build suspense and keep readers reeling with surprises while also maintaining their belief in the story’s inner truth.

So, yeah, this is kind of a good book.

Read the rest at Black Gate. . . .

08 September 2010

Book review: Imaro: The Trail of Bohu

Imaro: The Trail of Bohu
Charles R. Saunders (Sword and Soul Media, 2009)

I will be presenting a review of Imaro: The Naama War for Black Gate either this week or next, but it wouldn’t feel right to jump to that book without reviewing its predecessor, Imaro: The Trail of Bohu. I reviewed the second Imaro book at Black Gate, and since Bill Ward has already offered a fine review of Imaro: The Trail of Bohu at the site, I’m offering up my humble look at the third on my personal site. I’ve got to post some original things here, right?

Charles Saunders’s third book about the Ilyassi sword-and-sorcery hero Imaro (and the first written specifically as a novel, instead of collecting previously printed stories and novellas) was first published from DAW as Imaro 3: The Trail of Bohu. Here it is now, in a revised version, from print-on-demand. Unfortunately, this has been the way of the Imaro series; although superb work with a huge impact on modern sword-and-sorcery writing with the way it made the genre racially inclusive, Imaro has never had good fortune in the publishing industry, where snafus and marketing messes have made the hero’s journey an arduous one.

Imaro may not be getting out to the masses, but at least he is getting out.

06 September 2010

The Weird of Cornell Woolrich: “Kiss of the Cobra”

No, this isn’t a review of the Ken Russell film The Lair of the White Worm. The poster just fits so well with Cornell Woolrich’s 1935 story “Kiss of the Cobra” that I had to use it. You would almost think Russell was adapting Woolrich, not Bram Stoker.

My three previous installments exploring the fantasy and horror tales of suspense author Cornell Woolrich have all looked at classic works from his typewriter: “Jane Brown’s Body,” “Dark Melody of Madness,” and “Speak to Me of Death.” However, Woolrich was a prolific pulpster, and sometimes he pounded out sub-par work because the hotel room bill had to be paid. Any Woolrich fan can whip out a list of the writer’s suspense stories that simply made him or her cringe—and not positively. I’m as hardcore a Woolrich aficionado as you will likely find, and even I have to admit that some of his lesser stories are dreadful. His exploration of vampires, one of his potentially intriguing sidetrips into the supernatural, “Vampire’s Honeymoon,” is the most clichéd story about vampires I’ve ever read. Only the staking of vampire using a broken hockey stick is remotely interesting. I can’t imagine Woolrich spent more than two hours clanking it out and then sending it off. It’s an indication of the power of Cornell Woolrich’s name on the front of pulp magazines of the time that it sold on first try.

But some of Woolrich’s mid-level work deserves attention, and “Kiss of the Cobra” falls solidly into his opus of “weird stories.” It explores the concept of “foreign other” with fantasy displays that hint at black magic, contains richly sensual prose, and has a liminal sense of a were-creature. The suspense and hard-boiled crime aspects are also well executed. Much greater work was to come, but with all its flaws (such as the standard pulp era’s Euro-centric view of India and a protagonist given to generic wise-crack dialogue) the story remains worth visiting for horror and suspense enthusiasts.

Read the rest at Black Gate. . . .

30 August 2010

Get wasted in the desert, Mad Max-style

No deals . . . I want to drive the truck.

I love to study the Middle Ages, but I don’t participate in the Society for Creative Anachronisms. I am a Godzilla and kaiju movie fanatic, but I have no interest in collecting Bandini toys and other figurines. I am all for free artistic expression and community, but I wouldn’t go to Burning Man.

However . . . I might wander out into the wastelands, into some blighted and desolate place, to learn to live again . . . if it means post-apocalyptic cars, Bartertown, and the re-creation of the tanker chase from The Road Warrior.

Somebody finally figured out that there’s a market out there for the Mad Max fanatics and other folks who decided that Burning Man doesn’t blow up enough crap or feature enough motorcycle marauders and crushed limbs. In fact, the article that originally brought my attention to this celebration of geekdom gone decidedly deadly is titled: “Screw Burning Man: This Year’s Greatest Desert Festival is a Three-Day Mad Max Reenactment.”

29 August 2010

Writers of the Future Awards Ceremony 2010

I could just post the picture to the above and say, “Look, it’s a photo of me with Tim Powers!” and that could be the whole post. But you are owed a bit more of an explanation.

Last night I attended the 26th Awards Ceremony for The Writers and Illustrators of the Future Contest. In case you haven’t wandered around my blog recently, I am one of the winners of the contest for 2010. However, our ceremony won’t be held until next year. (In fact, only three of the twelve writer winners for this year have been announced so far. Amazingly, two of us live in So. Cal—and both have the last name Harvey. Brennan Harvey was at the ceremony last night as well. Sorry you couldn’t be here, David, but we will see you next year!)

The ceremony congratulates the twelve winners from last year, who have come to Los Angeles for the week for an intensive writing workshop, book signings, and the gala extravaganza last night where they were presented with their statues. The event is also the official release of the anthology Writers of the Future, Volume XXVI, which includes the twelves winning stories and illustrations from the winning artists.

Since I live a whopping fifteen minutes drive (half an hour with traffic) from the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel where the ceremony is held, it was easy for me to accept the invitation to attend this year’s celebration and get a taste of what will happen to me next year. (I’ll get the truly weird experience of going on a week-long vacation in my own city, a short drive from my apartment.)
I can’t say enough about the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, first of all. Built in 1927, it’s a marvel of the greatest era in Los Angeles architecture. It’s the Old Hollywood glamor of the Golden Age packed into one place, under Spanish arches and Art Deco ceilings. The first Academy Awards Ceremony was held here, in the same Blossom Room where the Writers and Illustrators of the Future Ceremony was held.

24 August 2010

Book Review: Under the Mountain

Under the Mountain (1979)
By Maurice Gee


 Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Although not a household name outside of New Zealand, Maurice Gee is one of the island nation’s most prominent and respected novelists. Born in Auckland, Gee established himself as an author starting in the 1960s with his novels A Special Flower, In My Father’s Den, and A Glorious Morning, Comrade. His later acclaimed books include Plumb and Crime Story. All these novels are mainstream adult works, but Gee turned his hand to books for younger readers and made a parallel career in the field of the young adult science fiction. It started with Under the Mountain in 1979, which gained popularity outside of New Zealand with a television mini-series released in 1981. (For more about the mini-series, read my post on its appearance on the Nickelodeon program The Third Eye.)

Why did Gee decide to write a science-fiction book for younger readers? The author explained his choice in 2004 upon receiving the Storyline Gaelyn Gordon Award:
It all began with having two red-headed daughters—not twins though. Then there was my desire to write a fantasy—get away from the real world of my adult novels—but set it in a place New Zealand children would recognise, so that they might get “our story” feeling. What better place than Auckland’s volcanic cones? It was seeing Mt. Eden looming in the mist one morning that really got it started. Everything, monsters and all, followed from that.
It ended up as his best-selling book, never out of print in its home country. But, unfortunately, not so easily available in the U.S. It struggled even to get published in New Zealand in the first place, and finally ended up first released by the Oxford University Press. It has had a long home with Penguin since then.

16 August 2010

Feathers on the Waves

Today at Black Gate I’ve gone on a little personal journey to look at how I discovered the world of Greek mythology, and consequently the world of “Great Storytelling.” Amazingly, this isn’t about Clash of the Titans. That was the event that made me a faithful student of the Hellenic legends, but it wasn’t my first encounter with them. My earliest memory of any story from the Greek cycles is that of the fate of Icarus.

Beware, I’m going to quote Ovid.

Read the article here.

I promise, by the way, to eventually post something else here aside from Black Gate article. I’m so busy with working on revising my novel and turning out new short stories that I have had to sacrifice the blog somewhat. I miss it, and once I can work out a better schedule or learn how to manage my time better (both may be impossible) I’ll get more than one post up a week.

10 August 2010

Book Review: Conan of the Isles

Conan of the Isles (1968)
By L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

So far in the entries of my informal tour through the Conan pastiches—with a great guest shot from Charles Saunders on Conan the Hero—I’ve focused entirely on the “Tor Era,” the longest and most sustained period of new novels about Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age hero. Because of the sheer volume of books in the Tor line, which ran uninterrupted from 1982 to 1997, as well as most readers’ and reviewers’ indifference toward them, the Tor Era provides fertile ground for fresh criticism. It contains a few gems as well among the factory-line production schedule.

But I’ve neglected the earlier Conan pastiches, from publishers Lancer (Sphere in the U.K., later Ace in the U.S.) and Ballantine. Before Tor started its Conan factory with Robert Jordan’s Conan the Invincible, the world of Conan pastiches rested mostly in the hands of two men: L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. They filled in a “Conan Saga” that they had imagined through a constructed timeline, and this framework extended into the Tor Era as well, although turning more overstuffed and inconsistent as the books piled up and eventually the whole series put itself to sleep and Howard burst back into print.

One of the results of de Camp and Carter’s addenda to Conan’s history is the odd, uncharacteristic, yet hypnotically entertaining Conan of the Isles. Years ago I wrote a detailed review of this 1968 novel for a forum posting. I’ve pulled up that old review and done some dusting, revising, and re-thinking to present the first “Pastiches ‘R’ Us” installment that examines the controversial First Responders of the neo-Conan world.

02 August 2010

Let’s go climb The Mountains of Madness!

Last week, I posted about the news that Guillermo del Toro would write and produce a new movie version of Disney’s The Haunted Mansion. Perhaps he would direct it. . . .

Ah, but now we know he won’t, because he’s announced his next film, and it’s the long hoped-for adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. This double-punch of horror love is the best genre news I’ve heard since the new U.S. Godzilla announcement.

Go to Black Gate to read more gushing about this.

26 July 2010

Even Nickelodeon Can Scare You: The Third Eye

I don’t keep track of what cable network Nickelodeon does these days (I don’t have children), but even with the new logo I can’t imagine that the channel has altered much from the manic “no adults in the room” style that it started to specialize in during the mid-‘80s. That was the point when Double Dare and its profusion of goo heralded a rethinking of the channel’s former “education-and-imports” format it had used since its launch in 1979.

That’s right: for people who weren’t watching Nickelodeon during its debut years of the early 1980s, it may be hard for them to believe that the mega-children’s brand was originally educational programs done in the mold of Sesame Street and The Electric Company, and most of the show were imported from Canada and overseas English-speaking countries. Nickelodeon had very little original programming in the early years, and it purchased UK and Canadian shows to fill out its schedule. Some of these shows did break the educational format, such as a number of bizarre animated shorts and the trippy parody Brit-toon DangerMouse (which attracted many adult fans). And then there was the oddball Canadian sketch comedy starring a mostly young cast, You Can’t Do That on Television!, which proudly contained no educational content at all and instead dumped slime on people . . . The Shape of Nick to Come. (And borrowed, no doubt, from Bunny Rabbit pouring ping-pong balls on Captain Kangaroo.)

That newborn Nickelodeon was at the bottom rung of the ratings, but it really was a strange place, weirder for not actually trying to be weird. But why am I bringing up the cable network here, on Black Gate? Don’t I have Conan pastiches to shred apart?

The reason I bring up Nickelodeon at all is that hiding in the shadows of its young years was a genuinely creepy dark fantasy and science-fiction program called The Third Eye. It ran for only a brief time on the network, but I’m amazed how much I recall about it. Aside from DangerMouse, it’s the only show I remember fondly from my time watching the network when I was in elementary school. It was smart, clever, and scary. Kids who would later grow up on Goosebumps have no idea of what genuinely cerebral terrors they missed out on.

Read the rest at Black Gate. . . .

23 July 2010

Grim Grinning Guillermo del Toro

News flies fast out of the events at San Diego Comic-Con, which has turned into a film industry roll-out show for genre properties. So far, the most exciting news I’ve heard, aside from how great the Tron Legacy footage looks, comes the lips of one of my favorite directors working today, the prolific and brilliant master of the phantasmagoric and lover of H. P. Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany, Guillermo del Toro.

Del Toro was attached to direct a film adaptation of The Hobbit with Peter Jackson as producer—a prospect that thrilled fandom, and me in particular. But the legal problems of MGM have put The Hobbit into Purgatory, along with the James Bond series and a number of other projects such as the Red Dawn remake (which can stay in Purgatory as far as I’m concerned). Del Toro gracefully exited from directing in Middle-Earth.

Although I would have loved seeing del Toro’s vision of the monster-packed Tolkien novel, I wasn't upset to see him leave. He’s got too many great project ideas lined up to waste time waiting for MGM to officially just kill itself. And although I’m as hardcore a Tolkien fan as exists, The Hobbit isn’t as much a priority for me in the Professor's canon as The Lord of the Rings—and we've already got that. I can wait for The Hobbit, and it means del Toro is free to do . . .

19 July 2010

Movie Review: Inception

Inception (2010)
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Tom Berenger.

You expected a review of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, didn’t you? I respect Dukas and Goethe too much for that. As apparently does the rest of the nation, since over the weekend the film made roughly the amount of change found in the lint catcher of the dryer.

Inception right now is the movie conversation. No matter what else occurs in cinema during 2010 (Tron Legacy! So hyped for that), this will known as the year of Inception. Even if We Make Contact. Inception is guaranteed to become a speculative-fiction classic that will sit on the same shelf with Metropolis, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, The Terminator, The Matrix, et al.

What? Did you think I was going to go against the grain of critical and viewer opinion that has almost cased and mounted Inception in the Hall of Fame?

I’m not. I can’t. The movie deserves every accolade it has received. I don’t even think there can possibly be a fan-backlash against it like there was with Avatar. Inception is as good as you’ve heard it is, and for many of you, it might even be far better.

But don’t walk into the theater with expectations, or even that much knowledge about it. Writer-director Christopher Nolan remained closed-mouth about the film in the build toward its premiere, which was the perfect approach. Inception isn’t exactly a “twist” movie (Bruce Willis was dead all along!), but it is a film of the constant escalation of surprise. Its story continues to plunge deeper and deeper, turning more complex with each passing scene, where the stories of most movie strip away complications as they head toward their finales. It’s a reversal that recalls Nolan’s second movie, the breakthrough Memento, but Inception is much more intricate in design. Hell, it makes Memento seem linear! Therefore, even though Inception can’t be spoiled with a single sentence the way you might spoil The Crying Game, it’s still best if you know as few details about the plot as possible or any of the specific scenes before you go in.

Read the rest at Black Gate. . . .

12 July 2010

Words Dungeons & Dragons Taught Me

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

I belong to the first generation of tabletop roleplayers. In fact, I’m probably among the youngest of that generation, since Dungeons & Dragons first started to reach popular culture when I was about seven, and my friends and I were playing it regularly by the time we were eight. We didn’t really know what we were doing—the rules for the game at the time, spread over various manuals and sets, could often be confounding to adults—but rolling the funny dice and fighting monsters was what our imaginations craved, and for us it became the equivalent of a previous generations “Cowboys n’ Indians.”

None of our parents understood what we were doing, and when the anti-D&D campaign hit the magazine circuit with its fundamental mis-understanding of roleplaying, we got some grief. Most older people thought that Dungeons & Dragons was a big waste of time, even if they didn’t think it was outright dangerous or unhealthy.

I don’t play Dungeons & Dragons any more. When I do play RPGs, which is rare these days, I only use Fudge, which is simply the greatest roleplaying system I’ve ever encountered . . . simple, flexible, and brings out great storytelling skills. And any game adapts to it. But I don’t regret one moment of my youth with D&D. Because I believe Dungeons & Dragons helped prepare me to become a fantasy and science-fiction reader, and eventually a writer as well.

I could go into great detail about how RPGs expand the imagination, but I’ve got more concrete and simple evidence: the words I learned for the first time from Dungeons & Dragons. My vocabulary expanded at an enormous rate for an eight-year-old because of this game, and not until I started learning Latin did I experience such a jump again in my personal lexicon. Some of these words are non-genre terms, others specific to the fantastic but useful for a writer. Going off the top of my head, here are words (and two suffixes) that I’m certain I first encountered in the roleplaying instructions and modules of Gygax, Arnenson, et al.:
  • requisite
  • prerequisite
  • charisma
  • constitution
  • initiative
  • polyhedral
  • alignment
  • chaotic
  • cleric
  • portcullis
  • acolyte
  • deity
  • footpad
  • longevity
  • cutpurse
  • necromancer
  • undead
  • retainer
  • encumbrance
  • wight (helpful when reading Old English texts)
  • berserker
  • troglodyte
  • bugbear
  • platinum
  • electrum
  • pseudo-
  • neo-
  • wyvern
I could keep rolling them out all night, and if I looked at my old manuals I’m sure even more would pop out at me, but that’s a good solid list.

And, thanks to the first edition of Deities & Demigods, I first encountered the weird, unpronounceable word “Cthulhu.” However, it would be many years before I came across the word in a context where I could make the most of it.

One of these words would later have an important impact on my life: Acolyte. In original D&D terms, this is the title of a 1st level Cleric. The dictionary definition is an assistant to a priest in a ceremony, or any sort of apprentice. Something about the term impressed itself on my young mind: I thought it a very beautiful word, with aural power and a sense of mystery. I started to encounter the word later in my fantasy reading, particularly Clark Ashton Smith’s work. (“Acolyte” is just his kind of medicine.) Eventually, I wrote a story where “acolyte” seemed the right word to use for a class of apprentices, and the word got into the title as well: “An Acolyte of Black Spires.” And this is the story that won The Writers of the Future Contest.

The morale of the story: I’m glad I wasted my time playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid.