Been busy with this and that, but felt the need to drop in with the news of a couple of recent story sales for those who may have missed the announcements on social media. What do these sales have in common? Both books have really freaking cool covers, for starters!

Terror in 16-BitsFirst off, my brand new 10,000-word novelette “The Drunkard’s Dream” will be showing up behind a pitch-perfect Splatterhouse tribute cover by Peter Lazarski, creator of Halloween Forever, in Terror in 16-Bits from Muzzleland Press and edited by Jonathan Raab. My story is inspired partly by Ghosts N Goblins-alikes, partly by the various coin-operated dioramas from which it takes its name, and heavily from extrapolated autobiographical experiences, albeit not the ones you might expect from the title. Terror in 16-Bits will be making its debut this August at NecronomiCon, and will be for sale to the public soon after.

Meanwhile, my story “Haruspicate or Scry” will be in Ross E. Lockhart’s Tales from a Talking Board, stories of auguries, divination, and fortune telling coming this October from Word Horde. (Also, it’s available for pre-order right now!) Its cover (by the great Yves Tourigny) has the distinction of being an actual working talking board, and I have it on good authority that orders placed direct from Word Horde may come with their very own planchette bookmarks!

As for my story, it involves heavy doses of Scrabble, the skeptical legacy of old-fashioned stage magicians, T.S. Eliot, and more than a dash of Rosemary’s Baby. Also, some autobiographical stuff, because I guess that’s just how I roll these days.

Tales from a Talking Board

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I’ve been having adventures!

Two weeks ago today, I left town to spend a week in Colorado, just a few minutes outside of Denver. I didn’t spend much of my time there sightseeing, though I did visit a cool movie theatre, catch up with a couple of writing acquaintances, and make several trips to the Flatiron Crossing mall where I bought cool shirts, ate delicious crepes, and picked up a vintage Warhammer Armies book complete with Zoats, Fimirs, and really racist Pygmies. Most of the time, though, I was in the hotel room working while Grace was attending an alto flute workshop. I wrote a 5,000 word story in a day, and also caught up on a bunch of freelance projects.

On the way back from the trip, I stopped off at a dinosaur museum in Hays, one that I had passed I don’t know how many times on similar trips but had never visited. It was amazing, though perhaps the best exhibit wasn’t any of the dinosaur stuff but a giant alligator snapping turtle in a tank just inside the entrance. His name was Levi, and he was apparently unusually active that day, and watching him was pretty much exactly like watching a kaiju swim around.

After I got home I had to start playing catch-up on everything that didn’t get done while I was out of town, including finally getting around to buying a new desk and a new laptop. I’m still working on getting the laptop set up and configured the way I want it, so I’m currently still doing work (and typing this) on my old laptop until I get used to the new one. I got a Lenovo Yoga 910, in case anyone is curious. So far I like it, though I haven’t actually done much with it yet. I also made it out to our local cool movie theatre the Screenland Armour to catch a double-feature screening of Creature from the Black Lagoon and the practical suit-monster short film “Shallow Water.”

Catching up got interrupted a bit, however, in order to have more adventures when, for various reasons, Grace spontaneously decided that she wanted to go fishing and rock hunting his past weekend. I tagged along, made friends with a snapping turtle and a bug, explored what was clearly some sort of troll tunnel, found a mess of snakes and a tide pool, wandered among the flotsam on the shore of a big lake, and mostly had a great time. Shortly after I got back from that trip, I found a box on my doorstep containing a whole pile of copies of the first Japanese edition of Fungi, the anthology of weird fungal fiction I co-edited with Silvia Moreno-Garcia. (The Japanese edition is getting split into two volumes, so this one is just the first half.)

As you can imagine, I’m still recovering from so much adventuring, and also still catching up on work, so if I owe you anything, including responses about getting copies of Fungi from Japan for those of you who were contributors, please bear with me.

Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the new Mummy yet. I’ll probably do so this weekend, because I have free tickets, but I doubt I would pay money for it. Here’s why:

It isn’t because the movie looks bad (though it kind of does, and the reviews certainly haven’t been kind). I’ve said before that if the trailers were exactly the same but when the title came up it said Mission: Impossible 6 instead then it would look fine, and I stand by that. No, the problem isn’t that Mummy: Impossible is an inherently bad approach to take to a film, it’s that it’s an inherently bad angle for Universal to take to launch their “Dark Universe” shared monster franchise.

I was talking with some writing friends about the new Tom Cruise-starring Mummy movie on Facebook messenger a few days ago, and Jeremy Tolbert posited that if he were in charge, the story would focus on “a group of kids who had a disturbing encounter with a series of monsters [in 1989]. After that, they dedicated their lives to being prepared to deal with future threats.” Not only does that sound like a better setup, it actually underscores the real problem with the 2017 reboot of The Mummy, which isn’t the dodgy CGI, the (apparently) lifeless characterizations, or the fact that it looks to be a goofy action movie that is largely lacking any horror to speak of.

The problem is that Universal doesn’t seem to understand what the actual value of its monster franchise is. But Monster Squad did, even while, not being financed by Universal, Monster Squad had to change all of its creatures just enough to avoid getting slapped with a cease and desist. The thing is, Universal doesn’t own the idea of a mummy, it doesn’t own Frankenstein, it doesn’t own Dracula. Which means that the biggest problem with this new Mummy movie, before you even get to whether or not it is any good on its own merits, is that any studio could have made it. It could just as easily have a Sony or a WB logo in front of it as the old, familiar Universal globe. And there’s the rub.

The value in Universal’s monster universe isn’t the monsters themselves, because, with the exception of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, they’re all public domain. The value is in the aesthetics of those original movies. That’s what Monster Squad got and this new “Dark Universe” brand doesn’t. Without those original movies, you’re just making an action film with a mummy in it, and anyone can do that.

Even the Brendan Fraser Mummy from 1999 (which, I’ll admit, I love) knew that, and pulled plot elements, names, and the occasional bit of imagery from the older Universal Mummy sequels (mostly). Hell, even the largely terrible shitshow that was Van Helsing was closer to the mark than this looks to be. How, exactly, you tap into that reservoir of old film aesthetics is up for some debate, but that you have to in order to mine anything valuable out of the intellectual property that Universal still owns seems like a no-brainer.

Or they could always just have the monsters go up against the gang from the Fast & Furious movies, preferably while driving monster-themed funny cars. That’d work, too.

934No one is surprised that I’m a fan of Guillermo del Toro. Even when I don’t like his movies, they’re always full of plenty of creative nutrients for me to absorb and convert into something of my own, and his commentary tracks are, invariably, some of the best in the business, and always worth the price of the movie by themselves. Del Toro and Mignola are two influences that have been with me pretty much throughout my writing career, and both have been huge inspirations for me, not least in how they, themselves, proudly display their own influences and inspirations in their work.

So, of course, I’ve always been intrigued by GDT’s bizarre personal museum Bleak House, and when the opportunity came to get a tour of at least part of it in the form of the At Home With Monsters exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of of Art, I jumped at it. Along with some other local writing friends and colleagues, we piled into a couple of cars and made the seven-and-a-half hour drive up to Minneapolis, just long enough to see the exhibit and head home, pretty much.

It’s probably good that we didn’t budget anything else to do while we were there, because I could have spent all day inside the At Home With Monsters. Walking around the exhibit was a lot like walking around a physical projection of the inside of my own head. The overlap between GDT’s obsessions and my own may be less pronounced than mine and Mignola’s, but there’s certainly still plenty of overlap there, and I was overjoyed to find comics that I owned on the walls of comic books that the collection held.

949More than anything, it felt like a creative space, like a direct conduit between inspiration and generation. Highlights included, well, most of the place, really, but perhaps the most exciting was seeing the actual original sketches of one of Mike Mignola’s original designs for the Sammael creature in the first Hellboy movie, which has always been one of my favorite monster designs. I had seen most of the sketches before, but as is always the case with art, seeing it in person was a world of difference from seeing even a high-quality reproduction.

Speaking of that, there were a couple of original paintings there by Zdzislaw Beksinski, including one (unfortunately, I didn’t get the title) that was so jaw-dropping to see in person that I practically had to reach out and touch it to reassure myself that it wasn’t three dimensional. (I didn’t touch it, because the signs specifically asked me not to, but the urge was certainly there.)

856

 

Godless CoverWell, it kind of crept up on me, but today is actually the release day of my very first novel, so if you always wanted to read a novel by me, you’re into Warmachine, or you just like the idea of devout religious types with big robots burning heretics and fighting monsters, you might want to pick up a copy of Godless, the first book in the Fire & Faith series from Privateer Press! (It’s available in print or digital via Amazon, or you can check the Skull Island eXpeditions website.)

If you had asked me several years ago how and when I would write my first novel, I would not have guessed that it would be a licensed Protectorate of Menoth novel for Privateer Press. Even when I had already started doing various freelance work for them, and wrote what was, heretofore, my longest published piece of fiction–the 30,000 word novella Mutagenesisthe idea of working on a licensed novel never crossed my mind until Mike Ryan at Privateer Press gave me a call. (Godless is just over 90,000 words, so working on it was a big jump out of my comfort zone.)

In a lot of ways, writing Godless wasn’t like writing a novel the normal way. I’ve compared it before to what I imagine writing a novelization of a movie must be like. The Privateer folks gave me a very substantial outline, and I followed it more-or-less to the letter, with input and help from Mike, Matt Goetz, and Doug Seacat every step of the way. Which is not to say that I didn’t put my own stamp in there, both in how the book is written and also in creating some of the supporting cast.

When I’m writing a story for myself or even for an anthology invite, I generally have almost total freedom. An invite may demand that a story adhere to a certain theme, but within that theme I have an awful lot of creative wiggle room. Working on this novel–and, indeed, everything I’ve done for Privateer Press–was a different sort of challenge, because instead of deciding what happened, I already knew what happened, and had to decide how, and how to sell the beats that I knew the story needed to hit.

From that (very detailed) outline, I wrote Godless in just under two months. (I believe it was 57 days when I turned in the first draft.) Add in another few weeks for revisions, and my first novel was done. While I was able to turn it around in that time, and I think with help from Matt and Doug and everyone the finished product is pretty strong, I also learned some valuable lessons for the next novel, including that two months isn’t enough time to write one, especially if you’re also trying to do your normal freelance work and recovering from a tonsillectomy. So next time we’ll try to take it a little slower.

So what’s the book about? If you’re coming to it from my weird/horror short stories, you’ll find that it’s a big departure, but maybe not as big as it at first appears. This is a fantasy story about war and faith, about knights, robots, monsters, and epistemological uncertainty. As someone who’s been a fan of the games and the settings for years, I’m not sure how much the novel will mean to anyone who isn’t at least passingly familiar with Warmachine, the Iron Kingdoms, or Privateer Press’s line of products. But for those who are, or those who want to learn more, well, Godless is available right now.

I recently got back from a trip to Atlanta for the first (annual?) Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, where I was one of a handful of panelists who talked about “The Weird Monster.” While the panel (and, indeed, all of the Symposium) is intended to show up as a part of The Outer Dark podcast sooner or later, I wanted to share a few thoughts that came about independent from but related to the panel.

For one thing, the discussion of the subject among the panelists began (as such things so often do) at the bar the night before the Symposium actually started, and continued throughout the weekend, ranging far and wide. On the flight to Atlanta and back, I started reading John Langan’s The Fisherman, and had I finished it then, I could certainly have brought it up as a modern novel that tackles the “weird monster.” (Not to mention a great contemporary example of the “weird novel,” which was the subject of another panel at the Symposium.)

As is often the case, however, while we talked about monsters in literature, many of our examples were drawn from movies. Because, while we have sometimes read the same books, we have almost all seen the same movies. Throughout the weekend, subjects returned with an almost uncanny regularity, including (probably because of the proximity of Alien: Covenenant) how angry we all still were at Ridley Scott’s Prometheus for being so unforgivably terrible (with the exception of a handful of dogged defenders).

One subject that came up a couple of times was Kong: Skull Island, which I had recently seen, and which we discussed, along with the whole backlog of Kong and Godzilla and other kaiju cinema through the lens of the weird monster. I’m not really here to regurgitate any of our theories on that, though no less a personage than Caitlin R. Kiernan has made a pretty good argument in the past for consideration of the original 1933 King Kong as a Lovecraftian tale.

One thing I didn’t get to talk much about, except with kaiju enthusiast and Symposium co-organizer Anya Martin on the car ride back to the airport, is a subject that I have been meaning to bring up in re: Skull Island, but that I wanted to wait until the movie had been in theatres for a few weeks so as to avoid spoilers. Still, fair warning, there will be a few in what follows, so heads up.

I liked Skull Island well enough (you can read my thoughts about it here), but one thing that really struck me about it is something that I haven’t seen anyone else talking about, though I’m sure they have. Kong: Skull Island was packed to the gills with monsters, and while those monsters may have varied somewhat in execution, I saw in most of them a sort of kinship with monsters from previous Kong and Godzilla movies. The big spider that shows up in Skull Island looks an awful lot like Godzilla’s sometime-nemesis Kumonga, while the scene of Kong fighting the squids or octopi could easily be a nod to the scene when Kong fights the giant octopus in King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Those are pretty minor, though. More significant are the skull crawlers. These bipedal lizard-like creatures are the main antagonists of Skull Island, the subterranean horrors that Kong’s presence helps protect the rest of the island from. Their design has received both praise and derision, depending on the person, but virtually everyone I’ve seen talk about them has discussed them as though they are a wholly new addition to the giant monster canon, but for me, at a glance, I saw something else entirely.

As anyone who is reading this probably knows, the first cut of the original 1933 King Kong contained a famous (and famously lost) sequence in which the protagonists fall into a “spider pit” and are attacked by all sorts of weird creatures. Over the years, a couple of shots that are supposedly from this sequence have surfaced, but the sequence itself remains one of the most famous pieces of lost film in history. When Peter Jackson remade King Kong in 2005, he not only added the “spider pit” sequence back into his narrative, he also “restored” a version of it using stop-motion animation and incorporating footage from the original film. (You can watch that here.)

Apart from Peter Jackson’s recreation, the closest we’re ever likely to come to actually seeing the original “spider pit” sequence from Kong is a cave sequence in the 1957 film The Black Scorpion, for which Willis O’Brien did the special effects. (You can watch a portion of that here.) According to rumor, the models used for the cave sequence in The Black Scorpion were repurposed models from the original “spider pit” sequence.

Dore Spider PitLike all of the original King Kong, the “spider pit” sequence was heavily influenced by the artwork of Gustave Dore. You can see some obvious “spider pit” seeds in a couple of Dore’s illustrations for Don Quixote and Orlando Furioso in particular. (There’s an entire thread devoted to Dore’s influence on the “spider pit” sequence that you can read here.) In Dore’s illustrations and Jackson’s recreation of the “spider pit” sequence, you’ll find odd lizard-like creatures that have only front legs, which transmutes, in The Black Scorpion, to a sort of giant worm with bifurcated tentacles mounted near its head. These bipedal lizards are, I would argue, at least potentially, perhaps subconsciously on the part of the monster designers, the ancestors of the skull crawlers from Kong: Skull Island.

This isn’t really an attempt at a defense of those critters. If they didn’t work for you on screen, chances are they still won’t, and I’ll be honest when I say that I’m not entirely sure how I feel about them, even now. (Their design seems at once boringly modern while at the same time oddly weirder than it needs to be; it took me a while to notice that they had eyes mounted behind the eye sockets of their skull-like heads.) But it was something that I noticed and (obviously) wanted to write like a thousand words about, so there you go.

[Edited: Thanks to Outer Dark host Scott Nicolay for reminding me that the weird bipedal lizard does, in fact, show up in the original King Kong, and that I hadn’t just hallucinated it there because I knew about all this other crap.]

IMG_20170310_145038_633No remake can ever live up to the original King Kong. Luckily for Skull Island, it’s smart enough not to try.

From its largely unnecessary opening sequence (because we’ll get it all exposited to us again later), Skull Island is a lot sillier than I was expecting from the trailers. Not just in a “giant monsters smashing each other” kind of way, either. In a “Tom Hiddleston slow-motion chopping up pterodactyls with a katana” way. Pretty much top to bottom, this takes place in what is fundamentally a comic book universe without superheroes. Which is fine for Kong, and especially fine given that this is basically the first step in creating a shared universe with Gareth Evans’ 2014 Godzilla, to be exploited first in Mike Dougherty’s forthcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters and then later in a planned Godzilla vs Kong.

While Skull Island never even aspires to anything more substantive than what is essentially the pilot for a particularly brutal Saturday morning cartoon, it learned the lessons that Godzilla had to teach, even if it then goes on to make its own mistakes along the way. Where Godzilla didn’t spend enough time on the titular monster, Kong is all over this film, along with piles and piles of other monstrous denizens of the eponymous island. (Including the Best. Stick insect. Ever.) Your mileage on individual critters may vary, but at least there are lots of them, including a few nice visual nods to other giant monster movies that I may or may not have been reading too much into.

And while the human characters here may be just as thinly drawn as those in Godzilla, they replace any attempt at “normal folks” with a collection primarily composed of outsize archetypes, ready made for Saturday morning syndication. While most of the actors aren’t given a lot to do, John C. Reilly and Samuel L. Jackson steal the show, with the latter playing Ahab to Kong’s Moby Dick.

A quick skim across other reviews shows lots of people complaining about the screenplay, and while yeah, we could all have probably wished for something with a little more heft there, nobody really comes to a movie like this because of the screenplay, right? The biggest problem that Skull Island actually has is that the (frequent) monster battles too often feel like exactly what they are: nothing but a bunch of pixels. No matter how good they look, there’s a weightlessness, a lack of physicality, that keeps them from having the punch that you want from seeing Kong wrestling with a giant octopus or some weird, surprisingly gross skull-headed lizard monster.

Before I walked into the theatre, a friend basically texted me to say, “I hope it’s good!” And I replied back that I was pretty sure it would be what I wanted it to be; and it was. On the spectrum of modern giant monster movies, it’s situated firmly below Pacific Rim, which is certainly the contemporary benchmark, at least for me. But it’s also a big step up from my recollections of Godzilla, and a huge improvement on Peter Jackson’s 2005 attempt to remake Kong, if only because it never makes the mistake of trying to replicate the original’s success.

Instead, Skull Island is a fun, cartoonish movie with lots of giant monsters fighting one-another while humans played by good actors mostly narrate things that just happened. Chances are that’s all you’re going in for, which is good, because it’s all you’re gonna get. (There’s your pull quote, in case you need one.)