Friday, July 17, 2015

The Weirder Side of Pluto

It's pretty hard not to get excited about the recent images of Pluto and Charon captured by NASA's New Horizons space craft.  Even more so if you happen to be an aficionado of weird fiction.

Pluto, one of three dwarf planets within the Kuiper Belt at the edge of our solar system, is better known to fans of H.P. Lovecraft as Yuggoth, the far off outpost of the alien fungoid monstrosities, the Mi-go.  Lovecraft first mentioned the inscrutable fungi from Yuggoth in his story, "The Whisperer in the Darkness":

"Yuggoth... is a strange dark orb at the very rim of our solar system... There are mighty cities on Yuggoth—great tiers of terraced towers built of black stone... The sun shines there no brighter than a star, but the beings need no light. They have other subtler senses, and put no windows in their great houses and temples... The black rivers of pitch that flow under those mysterious cyclopean bridges—things built by some elder race extinct and forgotten before the beings came to Yuggoth from the ultimate voids—ought to be enough to make any man a Dante or Poe if he can keep sane long enough to tell what he has seen..."

"The Whisperer in the Darkness" was written in September, 1930, just seven months after Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh the previous February.  The discovery of what was believed to be a ninth planet in our solar system had to have appealed strongly to Lovecraft's imagination.  He was well read in scientific developments of his day and many of his stories reflect the cutting edge of contemporary science.  Einstein's work, most notably his 1915 paper on general relativity, influenced many of Lovecraft's ideas about the nature of reality, and the notion of non-Euclidean geometry was a recurring theme in many of his stories. Indeed, the existential horror of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos is no less than a reflection of society's fear of the philosophical ramifications of the theory of Natural Selection, which shattered the notion of mankind's ordained supremacy in the universe.

Lovecraft grew up in a golden age of science.  Born in 1890 at the tail end of the Victorian era, he was witness to many of the ground-breaking discoveries that fundamentally reshaped our perception of the universe and our place in it.  While many of his contemporaries basked in the optimistic potential that future discoveries would deliver, Lovecraft speculated upon the risks that unfettered knowledge might bring, and the opening paragraph of his 1926 story, "The Call of Cthulhu" reflects these misgivings:

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.  We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of the black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.  The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

While it's doubtful that the New Horizons craft's voyage upon the black seas of infinity will reveal any terrifying vistas of reality, lets hope that the next images of Pluto don't feature any cyclopean black monoliths...

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Eating Crow and Reading E-books

I'm an unapologetic technophobe.  I don't own a cellphone and my computer is more than ten years old.  I'm also a bibliophile, and by this I don't just mean that I like to read.  I love books.  I love the smell of them, the feel of them, the weight of them, and I consider a well-bound book to be a treasured possession, not just to be read but to be displayed on a bookshelf, like a painting in a gallery.  Such was my disdain for e-books that it was only reluctantly that I decided to publish the Libram Mysterium anthology series in digital as well as print formats.

These things considered, you'd think I'd be the last person to buy an e-reader.  I certainly thought so.  Turns out I was wrong.  My unwholesome dalliance with digital books was initiated by the alarming groans of my overladen bookshelves and the realization that I was quickly running out of places to install more.  My bedside table has become the permanent repository for a stack of books I'm no longer reading for lack of anywhere better to put them, and leaning towers of literature are stacked precariously about the house just waiting to topple over and crush the cat.

Simultaneously, about a year ago I started experiencing chronic eye pain every evening, which made reading a grueling ordeal instead of a relaxing escape.  I went to the optometrist for a check up and he assured me that my date of birth was to blame.  To put it simply: reading bring pain.  Great; yet another reason to pine for the '80's, as if rugby pants and ZZ Top weren't reasons enough.

So week by week, month by month, the idea of an e-reader festered in my brain like a cancerous tumour.  E-readers use e-ink technology that makes the screen look just like a printed page, which can be read even in direct sunlight, and you can adjust font size.  Also, with gigabites of memory I could store an entire library on one device without any threat to the cat.  The tumour reached critical mass last week when a coupon for $40 off the Kobo Aura arrived in my in-box, and I decided to take the plunge.

So here's my take on the Kobo reader for anyone who, like I was, is on the fence and/or deeply suspicious of new technologies like horseless carriages and such:

After a few days to get used to it, I am completely enamoured with my Kobo; it is the single solution to all of my problems.  It has 4 GB of memory - enough to store a very large library, and if that's still not enough, there is an SD card slot for extra storage.  I was initially concerned that a mishap might destroy my entire library, but there are several levels of redundancy to keep your collection safe.  Any books bought from Kobo can be permanently archived on their cloud and accessed at any time - you can even move books off your reader and onto their cloud if you need to free up space.  Furthermore, you can store books on your computer, using Adobe Digital Editions to manage your collection.  Also, most sellers of e-books, such as Smashwords, will allow unlimited downloads of previously purchased books so if you do drop your reader in the toilet you can easily replace your library.

Reading with the Aura is a real pleasure.  I find it easier on the eyes than a printed book, and I can read for much longer without needing to take a break.  One of the great features of this model is the adjustable back-lit screen, which allows you to read comfortably at any lighting level so I can keep reading in bed long after my wife has turned off the lights and gone to sleep - something I've been wanting to do for twenty years.

Another neat feature of the Kobo readers is their compatibility with Pocket, a browser add-on that allows you to save web pages to your reader.  I like reading blogs, but reading at the computer makes me bleed out of my eyes until my head explodes.  Now I can save blog posts to my reader and peruse them in comfort and ease, which will make for a much pleasanter experience.

Kindle vs. Kobo?
These are the two main readers in Canada (Nook isn't available here), aside from third party readers like Sony.  You can get equivalent models of each, but the difference lies in their supported formats.  Kindles only read Amazon's proprietary Kindle format, which means you can only use their reader to read books purchased from Amazon.  They are supposed to be able to read PDFs, but most users report difficulty doing so.  Because Kindles only read their proprietary format they cannot be used to read library books, which are in epub format.  Kobo, on the other hand supports epub, mobi, pdf, rtf, etc so you can borrow books from the library, and buy books from anywhere except Amazon.  The only real disadvantage of the Kobo is that you cannot buy books from Amazon, which cuts you off from a pretty large seller.  Nonetheless, being able to borrow books from the library without ever leaving the house or worrying about late fees (the books automatically delete themselves from your reader after the loan period) offsets any possible advantage the Kindle might offer.

E-reader vs. Tablet?
Tablets are another popular device for reading electronic documents and both Amazon and Kobo make tablets as well as e-readers.  Tablets have the advantage of a colour display, which is better for reading magazines and newspapers.  But they do not have the e-ink technology used by readers, so reading for long periods of time on a tablet will be just like reading on a computer (ocular hemorrhaging  and wall splattered with grey-matter) and glare makes them difficult to read outdoors.  So if you plan to read books, then the e-reader is the device of choice.

So there we have it: I love my Kobo reader and I've taken my first tentative steps into the digital age.  But I'm still not buying a cellphone.

Monday, September 22, 2014

It's Coming!

I've just finished designing the cover for Libram Mysterium Volume 2, an all-horror issue that should be out in time for Halloween (but, really, isn't any time a good time for horror?).  This volume features stories by Libram alumni Garnett Elliot, Josh Graboff, Alasdair Cunningham, Alex Christy, and Matthew Bottiglieri as well as stories by authors new to the fold: Lisa Buckley, Mary Quijano, and S.M. Okeyb.

It's been a lot of work, but I think this anthology will rival or even exceed Volume 1, and I can't wait to get it out the door.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Read The Tomb Robber's Tale in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly

I just wanted to let everyone know that my recent short story, The Tomb Robber's Tale, is published in the current (August 2014) issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (follow the link above to read it for free).  If you aren't familiar with HFQ, it's a fantastic online magazine that features the best in weird fantasy fiction and anyone interested in the genre should definitely be following it.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Review: The Whitechapel Demon

Readers of Libram Mysterium will undoubtedly recognize Josh Reynolds as the author of the excellent short story, Mordiggian's Due.  Josh is an incredibly prolific writer who, in addition to numerous Warhammer and Warhammer 40K tie-in novels for Black Library, has written a huge number of short stories, many of them featuring the exploits of Charles St. Cyprian, the Royal Occultist.

The Whitechapel Demon is the first novel in The Adventures of The Royal Occultist series, and was my first introduction to Charles St. Cyprian, an occult sleuth who holds the office of Royal Occultist, which was established in the sixteenth century by Elizabeth I for John Dee.  Put simply, it is the duty of St. Cyprian and his apprentice, Ebbe Gallowglass, to counter supernatural menaces that are beyond the conventional scope of His Majesty's government; a duty that pushes them to their limits when cultists of the Whitechapel Society attempt to call up the spirit of Jack the Ripper and instead attract the attention of something far worse: a demonic entity that wriggles its way through non-Euclidian angles and into our world.

The Whitechapel Demon fires on all cylinders and has everything that I love in a story: mad cultists, sinister demons, compelling characters, and frequent dashes of humour.  Josh deftly balances setting and pace, firmly grounding the novel in 1920 London while carrying us from scene to scene maintaining dramatic tension along the way.  This is no easy thing to do, but the story is so eloquently written that it is easy to forget you're reading a book and not careening through the streets of Whitechapel in the rumble seat of St. Cyprian's car with the hounds of hell breathing down your neck.

The characters are equally well-written.  St. Cyprian is a suave and charming Oxford man, an occult scholar, and veteran of the Great War who has his own inner demons to battle in addition to those conjured up by malfeasant miscreants.  His counter-part, Ms. Gallowglass, plucked from the mean streets of Cairo, is quick on the draw with sarcastic remarks, vulgar gestures, or lethal volleys of gunfire as circumstances demand, and she is an excellent foil for her mentor: a pugnacious and irascible Watson to St. Cyprian's Holmes.

It occurred to me while reading this book, that The Whitechapel Demon might especially appeal to lovers of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game.  While the book only dances on the fringes of Lovecraft's mythos, St. Cyprian and Gallowglass are archetypal mythos investigators, particularly in campaigns that are focused more on keeping the forces of darkness at bay than on nihilistic existentialism.  In any event there is enough common ground here that fans of Lovecraftian horror are likely to also enjoy the Adventures of the Royal Occultist.

Learn more about the Royal Occultist by visiting Charles St. Cyprian's blog.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Berni Wrightson: Master of the Macabre

One of  my many (too many?) hobbies is drawing.  In fact I had once considered pursuing art as a career, having studied it throughout high school and even in University.  While my life ultimately took a different path, I have maintained an interest and although it has been decades since I've done any painting or sculpting I do continue to draw.  Pen and ink is one of my favourite drawing mediums, although lately I've been rediscovering the pleasure of brush and ink as well.  I don't want to bore you or embarrass myself by posting my own amateurish drawings, but I would like to show off some of my favourite pieces by one of my greatest inspirations, Bernie Wrightson.

Wrightson is best known for his comic book illustrations and his career has spanned decades.  He gained a great deal of prominence illustrating Warren Publishing's Creepy and Eerie magazines in the 1970's and also worked for DC and Marvel comics as well.  I first became aware of Bernie Wrightson's work by way Swamp Thing, the character he created for DC comics back in the '70's.  I was only a child at the time, but I really dug the creepy and tragic story of Swamp Thing and while I didn't really appreciate Wrightson's art on the same level then as I did in later years, it definitely put him on my radar.

It probably wasn't until 1983, when I bought the Marvel illustrated edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, that I truly came to appreciate Bernie Wrightson's artistic genius.  I was seventeen when this edition was published and just the right age to be influenced by the meticulous detail of Wrightson's drawings and his macabre aesthetic.  The pen and ink drawings in this edition were completed over a seven year period and Wrightson wanted them to look like period pieces - to resemble wood cut or steel engraved prints instead of hand-drawn illustrations.

I recently purchased Dark Horse Books hardcover collection of Bernie Wrightson's stories from Creepy and Eerie magazines.  Among the many stories that Wrightson wrote and illustrated for Warren Publishing, this collection includes Wrightson's wonderful adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe's The Black Cat from Creepy #62 (May, 1974) and H.P. Lovecraft's Cool Air from Eerie #62 (January, 1975).

The illustrations shown above are only a tiny representation of Bernie Wrightson's prolific career but they are some of my favourite drawings, the ones that both inspire me and remind me that I have no talent, whatsoever.  That's okay, because the world only needs one master of the macabre and that master is Bernie.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Auspicious Beginnings

The most important part of a story is its first paragraph.  If you don't grab the reader's attention right away, chances are they aren't going to stick around, and writing an evocative and intriguing hook is a sure way to make them turn the page and keep reading.

There are lots of ways to write a compelling first paragraph; some stories begin in media res, others rely upon evocative description to set the tone, or to introduce the protagonist and their dilemma right from the outset, but however it is done, the goal is to immerse the reader in the story immediately.  The wrong way to do this is to lead off with a lot of exposition.

This is probably one of the most common mistakes made by inexperienced writers (and sometimes, unfortunately, by experienced ones, too).  I would say that at least 80% of the stories submitted to the Libram Mysterium anthology series begin with a history lesson.  I think that there is a misperception, especially among writers of speculative fiction, that you need to thoroughly explain your setting and its history before the reader can make sense of it.  This is wrong: the reader doesn't need to know everything right at the start, doesn't want to know everything right at the start, and shouldn't be bombarded with an information dump when they are still in the 'getting to know you' stage of the relationship.

Imagine you're at a party and you've just met someone that you might like to get to know better.  If they immediately launch into a lengthy and detailed narrative of their life history with all sorts of intimate and personal details are you going to want to stick around and continue the conversation, or are the chips and dip starting to look really attractive?  It's too much information too early in the relationship.  This is all stuff that you'll probably want to learn gradually as your friendship deepens, but learning all in the first five minutes is weird and awkward and it will bore the crap out of you.  Instead, when trying to impress a new acquaintance you should try saying something witty and interesting, maybe even something controversial so that, instead of tuning out, they respond by saying 'what do you mean by that?'

Being a writer is a bit like being a stripper.  Your job is to entertain by teasing and titillating your audience; you show them a brief glimpse of what lies beneath with a promise of revealing more as show progresses, and it is that promise that keeps them in their seats.  If you walk out onto the stage stark naked and shake your naughty bits in their faces they have very little reason to stick around for the rest of show and they might even be turned off by the crassness of it.  There is a reason that level of exhibition is left for the finale when the audience is primed for it.

Here is the opening paragraph from a book called Dragonfly by Frederic S. Durbin.  It is probably the best opening paragraph I have ever read:

Bad things were starting to happen again in Uncle Henry's basement.  These were things that had happened before, when the wind swung round, when the trees all felt the blood rush to their leaves after the exertion of August and the idling of September; when the chuckle-dark harvest moon shaped pumpkins in its own image, brought its secret wine flush to the scarecrow's cheeks; when the rich bounties of the land lay plump for the taking and the light left them alone for longer and longer at a time.  But when the trouble started before, I was too young to remember.

This paragraph is pregnant with promise.  The very first sentence, 'Bad things were starting to happen again in Uncle Henry's basement,' is a powerful hook.  We know that bad things are happening.  They are are happening in Uncle Henry's basement, and they have happened before.  Those first eleven words are loaded with implication; immediately you want to know what the bad things are.  You want to ask Durbin what he means by that.  You want to learn more.  Durbin has hooked you.  Then, while you're still wondering about that he hits you with some evocative imagery that not only sets the scene but also hints at the nature of the bad things, which we can guess take place around Halloween.  We do find out in the subsequent pages what happened in Uncle Henry's basement years before, which is great because by the time Durbin tells us we are already invested in the story and are dying to find out.  If he'd begun the story by telling us what happened in Uncle Henry's basement we wouldn't have cared and probably wouldn't keep reading.

Handling exposition in a story can be tricky; the information is important, but you need to exercise restraint when doling it out, just like the person at the party.  It is better to reveal information little bits at a time instead of dumping it all at once, which can overwhelm the reader, and as a general rule it is better to show the reader the information than tell them.  This can often be achieved through dialogue or activity, but be subtle.  Don't resort to the heavy-handed 'as you know, Bosworth' type of forced expository dialogue that lazy television and movie writers inflict on us.  Reveal the information slowly and naturally and don't be afraid to let the readers fill in some blanks for themselves.  Part of the fun of reading a story is figuring out what is going on from the hints rather than being told.

But however you decide to write exposition remember these guidelines: 1) not too much, 2) not too soon.  And whatever you do, use your opening paragraph to entice your readers, not to bore them.  Be the stripper; get us worked up and aroused by taking your clothes off a little at a time instead ripping them all off at once.