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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Book review: The Most Intangible Thing

I'm fortunate enough to have a regular writing partner, and even more fortunate that she's the amazing author and artist Cly Boehs.  Cly, an Oklahoma native with an endless supply of creativity and an ear for lyrical use of language, first hit the shelves with her wonderful novel Back Then, a deft (and at times heartbreaking) portrait of a family trying to make sense of a world changing too fast to keep up.

Her most recent, The Most Intangible Thing, has a different approach.  Each of the stories has a lurking surreality that is reminiscent of the works of Haruki Murakami.  In Cly's stories, like in many of Murakami's, you are invited into a subtly magical realism -- magical not because of what the characters are doing, but because the world they're immersed in exists in that peculiar shadowland between the real and the imagined, where you're not quite certain if what you're seeing has actual substance or is a product of the mind.

And truthfully, how could you tell?  Our fallible sensory apparatus and brain can only deal with the input they get, so how would you deal with a world where Siamese cats seem to truly have nine lives,  where a man defines his life and death with cryptic clues left behind in a coffee shop, where the end of a woman's college experience coincides with an encounter with horses that seem to have borrowed their reality from her mind, where a book club turns to recounting experiences that defy explanation?


In Cly's deft hands, each of these stories draws the reader in, and we believe what the characters are experiencing as readily as we accept Murakami's fractured world with two moons in the incomparable 1Q84.  Each is a vignette into how our stories define our reality -- and how our relationships create the stories we tell.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Happily ever after?

In an online fiction writers' group I belong to, we were discussing how to end chapters and entire stories.  Tie everything up with a neat bow?  Leave loose ends?  End on a cliffhanger?

I suppose we all have preferences, but I like the plot arc, even if a book is part of a series, to have some kind of closure.  My trilogy about the mysterious and terrifying Black-eyed Children, The Boundary Solution (Lines of Sight, Whistling in the Dark, and Fear No Colors), has an overall plot arc for the entire series, but each book wraps up at least a good chunk of what was driving the action, answering a lot of the questions that come up during the course of the story.  But the first two do leave some loose ends -- otherwise, why write a sequel?  (I won't go into a lot of detail because I'd like you to read the books themselves, so sorry for being coy.  I just don't like giving spoilers.)

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Megamoto85, Black eyes by megamoto85, CC BY-SA 4.0]

What about cliffhangers?  Well, for me, it depends on what you mean.  Those "OMG you can't stop here!" moments can work for a story, or completely piss off the reader, depending on how it's handled.  As an example of the former, consider the end of Tolkien's The Two Towers, the middle of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Remember the final paragraph?
The great doors slammed to.  Boom.  The bars of iron fell into place inside.  Clang.  The gate was shut.  Sam hurled himself against the bolted brazen plates and fell senseless to the ground.  He was out in the darkness.  Frodo was alive but taken by the Enemy.
The first time I read that book, I stared at that last sentence, and said, "Wait!  No!  What happened next?"...

... and immediately picked up The Return of the King.  (I have to admit to being pretty damn frustrated when I found out that the final book in the series jumps to what's happening to Pippin and Gandalf in Minas Tirith, and we have to wait until halfway through to find out what became of Frodo and Sam.  I mean, how horrible... leaving them there in the Orc stronghold all that time.  Sheesh.)

But as an incentive to go on, it worked brilliantly.

However, take one of the worst "let's piss off the reader" endings I've ever come across, in William Sleator's book The Duplicate.  (And I am going to give spoilers here... sorry about that, but I need to tell you the end to make a point.)

Now, I'll say up front I love most of Sleator's YA books.  Among the Dolls, House of Stairs, and Interstellar Pig are all absolutely brilliant, combining twisty, unexpected innovation with believable characters and a gripping writing style.  And I thought I'd feel that way about The Duplicate -- until the last line.

What Sleator did, in my opinion, was to create a cliffhanger the story didn't deserve.  The short version of what he did is that the main character, who has accidentally created duplicates of himself (who go on to create more duplicates, with horrifying results), has successfully dealt with all of the various copies -- or so the main characters and the reader think.  So on the last page the protagonist is there, having a celebratory snog-fest with his girlfriend on the sofa, and we think all is well.

"And then the phone rang."

That's the last line of the story.

What the hell does that mean?  Is one of the duplicates still alive, and called to say "neener-neener"?  Are the police calling to talk to him about some of the dubiously legal stuff some of the duplicates did?  Is it his girlfriend's former lover, calling to find out what the hell he thought he was doing, making out with her on the couch?  Is it the PTA calling to see if he'll donate some cookies to their next bake sale?

No way to know.

So that's an undeserved cliffhanger, and one that didn't create a sense of suspense and a desire to know what came next, it created a sense of anger and a desire to hurl the book across the room.  (And no, he never wrote a sequel to it.)

It's not necessary to tie up every last thread.  Life isn't neat and tidy.  But if there's no sense of closure when you shut the back cover of the book, something has gone seriously wrong.

It's a balancing act sometimes, to create an ending that's ragged enough to be realistic and at the same time brings the plot and character arcs to a satisfying conclusion.  I hope I hit that balance most of the time.

Or at least don't piss you off enough to hurl the book across the room.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Character study

A friend asked me a couple of days ago who my favorite characters from books were.

"My own books, or other people's?" I asked.

"How about both?" she replied.

A discussion ensued that I thought would make an interesting blog post, so here are my favorite fictional characters (not including movies & television), starting with the ones from other folk's stories.  In no particular order:
  • Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien.  It's been said, and I think it's the truth, that Sam is the real hero of the story -- not Frodo, not Aragorn, not Gandalf.  Over and over the point is made that it's the simple, sweet things in life that the whole War of the Ring was being fought to preserve and protect, and Sam embodies that, as well as a hefty dose of pure courage and loyalty.
  • Aomame from Haruki Murakami's 1Q84.  An enigmatic woman with a mission that pulls her between compassion and retribution, Aomame lives in the surreal space Murakami creates -- a world that on first glance is just like ours, but only intersects reality at the edges.  Murakami's book is a tour de force, and Aomame is a brilliant, puzzling, fascinating character of the kind only he can bring to life.
  • Hazel from Richard Adams's Watership Down.  If I had to pick one character from fiction who displays the qualities of a true leader, it's Hazel, who leads his intrepid, ragtag band out of one danger and into a greater one, inspiring loyalty from his comrades and in a quiet, understated way bringing out the best in each one of them.  Yes, I know the characters are rabbits.  Doesn't make a difference.  If you haven't read this book, put it on your list.
  • Aziraphale and Crowley from Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  I'm hard-pressed to pick between them, because they're a bit like figure-and-ground, complementary opposites who have come together to save the world.  Aziraphale is the angel with a deep compassion for and understanding of human foibles, and Crowley a demon with a heart of gold he tries (unsuccessfully) to hide.  This is one case where the television adaptation is as wonderful as the book -- Michael Sheen and David Tennant as (respectively) the representatives of heaven and hell are absolutely brilliant.
  • Speaking of Pratchett, Sam Vimes, the head of the police force in Ankh-Morpork and the right hand man of the Lord Patrician of the City, the machiavellian Havelock Vetinari, in a number of Pratchett's wonderful Discworld series.  Vimes is the stalwart, common-sense-ful anchor of the cast of oddballs that make up the rank-and-file of The Watch, Ankh-Morpork's police, and he navigates political intrigue and the odd assassination attempt with a weary, almost-but-not-quite-cynical deftness.
  • Brother William of Baskerville from Umberto Eco's murder mystery The Name of the Rose.  A fourteenth-century monk with a flair for observation, he's a medieval Hercule Poirot without the little Belgian's overinflated ego.  Brother William is faced with the superstition and fear of the time, and always comes back to rationality -- there is a natural, logical cause for everything, and the world is understandable to anyone who is willing to put some effort into learning about it.  Even when monks are mysteriously dying all around him, and the abbot is blaming the Forces of Darkness, Brother William never deviates from his determination to solve the case through reason and hard evidence.
Now, a handful of my own creations:
  • Whenever the question of my favorite character from my stories comes up, the answer is always Callista Lee, the brilliant, eccentric telepath from The Snowe Agency Mysteries (starting with Poison the Well).  Callista is constantly bombarded with others' thoughts, and as a result, shies away from people -- her gift gives her a unique window into the human condition and at the same time pushes her away, leaving her deeply alone.  Her character arc over the entire series is one of my favorite creations.
I always thought that if the Snowe Agency Mysteries were ever made into movies, Tilda Swinton would be perfect as Callista. [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, Tilda Swinton (28352184350) (cropped), CC BY-SA 2.0]
  • Doctor Will Daigle, from Whistling in the Dark (the sequel to Lines of Sight, and hitting the shelves next week!).  Will is funny, quick, smart, and profane, but his genial temperament covers a huge heart and a tremendous compassion.  Which is why -- no spoilers -- what he has to do about a third of the way through Whistling in the Dark is one of the most poignant (and difficult!) scenes I've ever written.  I won't tell you more, you'll just have to read it for yourself.
  • Tyler Vaughan from Signal to Noise.  If I had to pick the character whose temperament is most like mine, Tyler would be the odds-on favorite.  A socially awkward biology nerd who'd just as soon spend his time ear-tagging elk in the Cascade Mountains, Tyler finds himself the center of a terrifying mystery -- and is forced into the role of Unlikely Hero completely against his will.
  • The Head Librarian, Archibald Fischer, from Lock & Key.  Fischer (forget he's named Archibald unless you want to be the target of his ire) is the sarcastic, Kurt-Cobain-worshiping, f-bomb-dropping director of the Library of Possibilities, where every possibility for every human on Earth is catalogued and monitored.  The repartee between him and his assistant, the imperturbable Scot Maggie Carmichael, is some of the most fun I've ever had writing.
  • Last, Jennie Trahan from my novella "Convection," in the collection Sights, Signs, and Shadows.  Jennie may seem like an unlikely choice -- from the beginning she's the bitchy, eye-rolling foil to the other characters' attempt to stay alive in a Category Five hurricane.  But she's the character who while I was writing the story grabbed the keyboard from my hand and started telling me about why she was so irascible -- and became one of the most compelling, sympathetic characters in the story.
So there you have it, a smattering of characters from different sources who have really resonated with me for one reason or another.  So let's hear your take on this -- who are your favorite characters from fiction?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The ten best

A friend of mine posted a link to one of those "Ten Best Books Ever Written" things, where someone sets him/herself up as the arbiter of taste for the whole English-speaking world.  I tend to cast a wry eye any time someone says "these are the best ever" in some kind of definitive way.  Yes, there are standards for storytelling and writing mechanics and so on, so there are books that would undoubtedly fail on a variety of levels; but when you start looking at why one book resonates with you, but it leaves someone else completely cold, you're launching into matters of taste, which are not only highly individual, they're not true in any kind of absolute sense.

I get really impatient with people who ridicule people's taste in books, music, and art.  You know what?  If (to grab a particularly apt phrase from the Quakers) it "speaks to your condition," it's good.  Never mind if I don't like it.  You do, and that's that.  If I like Nickelback and your tastes run more to Tchaikovsky, that's just the way it goes.

(Nota bene:  I do not, in fact, like Nickelback.  Put away the damn pitchforks.)

(Nota bene again:  I also do not particularly like Tchaikovsky.  Put away the damn pitchforks.)

Anyway, it's an interesting question as to why different people like different works of whatever.  My favorite painting, for example, is Édouard Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère:

[Image is in the Public Domain]

But I would be hard pressed to say why, exactly.  All I know is that it has a deep poignancy for me, so much that when I finally got to see it for real at the Courteauld Gallery in London two years ago, it brought me to tears.

On my other blog, Skeptophilia, I've dealt with the issue of musical taste, in particular how specific music effects people's brains -- resulting in the feeling of chills we get when we hear music that moves us emotionally.  Of course, showing that this happens and showing why a particular person resonates to a particular piece of music are two different things -- and the research into the former isn't getting us any closer to finding the reason for the latter.

That said, I thought it would be interesting to return to the literary, and see if I could come up with my ten favorite books.  I limited it to fiction (although there is non-fiction I love as well; maybe I'll deal with that in another post).  Here's what I came up with, in reverse order:
10. The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula LeGuin)
9. 1Q84 (Haruki Murakami)
8. Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien)
7. And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie)
6. Good Omens (Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman)
5. Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman)
4. The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)
3. Watership Down (Richard Adams)
2. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki (Haruki Murakami)
1. Foucault's Pendulum (Umberto Eco)
I'm sure if I sit and think longer, I'll go, "Wait, I forgot ______!" and revise the list, but this was my first pass at the task.  These are all books I keep returning to over and over, some of which I first read a long time ago (my first reading of And Then There Were None was when I was twelve, and it hooked me on murder mysteries for life -- and Christie's approach to a whodunnit significantly influenced my own mystery series, The Snowe Agency Mysteries).

So -- those are my top ten.  What are yours?

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

A teaser from "The Communion of Shadows"

Writing is a funny business.  Sometimes it seems like just getting a few pathetic little words on the page is a near impossibility, and sometimes it's close to effortless.  I had one of those lovely latter moments this morning, while working on my work-in-progress, The Communion of Shadows.  The story, set in rural Louisiana in 1850,  is about four friends, stuck inside during a thunderstorm, who have spent the night recounting their experiences with ghosts and the supernatural.  In this scene, one of them -- Leandre Naquin -- has just told the others that he is under a strange bargain his mother made with the Angel of Death, the upshot of which is that Leandre will only live until his thirtieth birthday.

Which is three days away.

W. A. Foster, The Angel of Death (1897) [Image is in the Public Domain]

The three other men, understandably distressed, try to come to grips with the impending loss of their friend.  The following scene ensues.

*************************************


Leandre shrugged.  “In any case, I didn’t mean to upset all of you.  But you can see why the subject of ghosts was on my mind.”  He stopped, listened for a moment, then got up and threw open the shutters of the single window.  “The thunderstorm seems like it’s moved off.”
A light breeze of rain-washed air relieved some of the stuffiness in the little room.  There was a distant, faint flash of lightning, and the deep roll of thunder was far behind it and almost too soft to hear.
“Always the question at night.”  J. P. gave his friend a smile.  “Leave the shutters open for the air, or close them because of the mosquitoes.”
“I’m voting for the air, at least for a little while.”  Leandre propped his hands on the sill and leaned out, looking into the darkness.  It could only be a couple of hours before sunrise, but there wasn’t even a hint of pearl in the eastern sky.
“Aren’t you scared?” came T-Joe’s voice from behind him, after a moment’s silence.
“Scared?  A little.”  He paused.  “It’s like when I was a child, and I used to climb an oak tree that leaned out over the bayou.  You’re there, hunched on the branch, nothing but the empty air between your naked body and the water’s surface. It looks like it’s a hundred feet down.  You think, ‘I can’t do it.  I can’t jump.’  Your hands cling to the branch, your heart is pounding, you’re dripping sweat.  You know once you jump it’ll be all right, you’ll swim to shore and in a moment be ready to do it again.  But in that instant, it seems impossible.”  He paused.  “I’m once again that skinny little boy in the tree, looking down at the bayou, and thinking I’ll never have the courage to leap.  I know I can do it, and that it’ll be okay.  Think of all the people who have passed these gates, endured whatever death is and gone on to what awaits us beyond this world.”  He turned around with a broad smile on his face.  “If they can do it, so can I.”
A stubborn note came into T-Joe’s voice.  “Even our Lord Jesus Christ asked that the cup be taken away from him.”
Leandre laughed.  “Very well, my friend, when the Angel of Death shows up, I will make certain to ask.  But I suspect I will meet with the same success that the Good Lord did.”

****************************

As far as what happens to Leandre and his friends afterward, you'll just have to read it when it comes out.  All I'll say is what a friend once commented about my books in general: "If you think you know what's going to happen, you're almost certainly wrong."

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Struck by lightning

Something I get asked a lot, and for which I have no particularly compelling answer, is "Where do your ideas come from?"

The most honest answer is "damned if I know."  Usually, something pops into my head completely unbidden, then I have to write the story to find out what it's all about.

Like what happened to me a couple of days ago.  My wife and I were vacationing in Cape May, New Jersey, chilling on the beach and enjoying the sunshine until Thursday, when we had to make the seven-hour drive back home.  It was while I was driving, and my wife was dozing in the passenger seat, that the following came to me.  I've cleaned up the wording a little, but it's substantially as it came to me:
Claver Road doesn't end.  It withers away.  First from potholed asphalt to dirt, then to a pair of parallel wheel-ruts, finally fading into a tangle of blackberry, osier, and scrub willow.  If you tried following it any farther, you'd soon find yourself lost in the deep forest.  The only paths there are deer trails, and those are few in number.  Even the animals shun those woods.  The whole place is sunk in silence, stillness, and shadow, where a whisper sounds like a shout, and any humans foolish enough to go that far make sure to leave before nightfall.
Okay, so where'd this come from, and what does it all mean?

I have no frickin' clue.  Even the name "Claver Road" came to me along with the rest of the description; there is, to my knowledge, no Claver Road anywhere near where I live.  I'm the least superstitious person around, but this sort of thing very much feels like I was struck by creative lightning, the images and words jolted into my brain from an outside source.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Iain Thompson, Spooky Woods in Dalbeattie Forest - geograph.org.uk - 392901, CC BY-SA 2.0]

It has a Lovecraftian sound to it, though, doesn't it?  I'm certainly going to use it as the opening paragraph of a story of some sort, but whether short story, novella, or novel I have no idea.  My guess is it'll have something to do with a poor foolish unfortunate who went into the woods at the end of Claver Road and did stay past nightfall, but what happens thereafter, I guess I'll have to find out as I go.

And as far as what monsters live in this forest -- I'll probably be as surprised and terrified by them as my character is.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Tell me a scary story....

I just finished reading a book of Victorian ghost stories I'd picked up at a used book sale, and it so happens that my current work-in-progress is a ghost story itself.  This got me thinking about the topic of scary stories in general, and I thought I'd write a few recommendations for some of my favorite Tales of the Supernatural.  I'll be curious to see what my readers think -- and to hear what their favorites are. Always looking for new stories to read...

I have fairly definite opinions about reading material (okay, to be truthful, I have fairly definite opinions about most things).  To me, a good horror story is one that is evocative, in which there is a subtle touch – the imagination, I find, is far more powerful than the written word in creating frightening imagery.  It's as scary, often, to leave the door closed and let the reader spend the rest of his life speculating about what was behind it than it is to actually open the door and reveal the monster.

This is why gruesome stories really don't do much for me.  A story about a murderer with a chainsaw might disgust me, it might incite me to check to see if my doors are securely locked, but it doesn't give me that thrill of fear up the backbone that is what I'm looking for in a good spooky story, what the Scots call "the cauld grue."  Sheer human perversity doesn't fill the bill; there has to be some sort of supernatural element, to me, for a story to really cross the line into the terrifying.  Reading about homicidal maniacs simply is neither very appealing nor very scary (however scary actually meeting one would be).

All this is rather funny, because (as any reader of my other blog, Skeptophilia, knows well), I don't actually believe in the supernatural, and I obviously do believe in the existence of homicidal maniacs.  The fact that something that doesn't exist can scare me far worse than something dangerous that does exist is probably just evidence that I'm not as highly evolved in the logic department as I often claim to be.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

In any case, if you're curious, here are my top ten choices for the scariest stories of all time.  Let's hear what you think -- if you agree, disagree, or if you were prompted to find and read any of these.  Could make for an interesting discussion!

These are in no particular order, and there are no spoilers -- just a brief idea of what the plot is.

"What Was It?" by FitzJames O'Brien.  A house is haunted by a real, corporeal creature that also happens to be invisible.  And insane.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.  What would you do if you were the last human alive on earth -- because everyone else had become a vampire?  Don't watch the movie -- read the book!

"The Mirror" by Haruki Murakami.  If I had to vote for the single best-crafted short story I've ever read, this would be a strong contender.  A group of friends gets together for an evening of drinking and chatting, and someone notices that the host's apartment has no mirrors, and asks why.  Reluctantly, he explains.  You'll see why he was reluctant...

The Shining by Stephen King.  Once again, skip the movie and read the book.  You'll never look at a bathtub, or an old-fashioned elevator, or a long hotel hallway the same way again.

"Oh, Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad" by M. R. James.  A regrettably little-known story which is one of the eeriest things I've ever read.  A British tourist finds an antique whistle half-buried in the sand on the beach, and blows it.  He shouldn't have.

"The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs.  The classic example of not opening the door.

"Afterward" by Edith Wharton.  If this story doesn't scare the absolute shit out of you, you're made of stone.  A story about... a retroactive haunting?

"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson.  Not a supernatural thriller, as per my original description (so sue me).  But still a classic of horror fiction.

"August Heat" by William Fryer Harvey.  What if you happened upon a stranger, a maker of marble monuments, and he was making a headstone -- with your name, and today's date, on it?

"Ligeia" by Edgar Allan Poe.  One of the earliest stories of possession.

So, those are my top ten.  Agree?  Disagree?  Any additional that you would recommend?  What stories have chilled your blood, that would be appropriate to sit in front of the fire with, late at night, when no one is awake in the house but you?