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New eBook Release: When Ai Met Yu

After being published in five parts on my own blog, it's time for this story to come to a wider audience. My first attempts at both a re...

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Lovecraft Follow-up

This post is a follow-up to my piece on my complicated feelings towards the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. I'm returning to the topic based on a reply I got on Twitter from a comment on the subject prior to publishing that post. It ran like this;

While I have no problem with strong female protagonists in fiction, I think your time could be better spent understanding the underlying themes of Lovecraft's mythos and less on making it 'acceptable' for modern audiences. Good luck in your future writing.
That got me thinking. While I'm not going to abandon the original idea or my intent on making Lovecraft's universe to a wider audience that isn't as tolerant of casual racism and elitism as Lovecraft's original readers were, I realise that adopting the deeper themes of his work alongside the complex universe he presents on face value has its merits. As I've said, my usual subjects are as far removed form Lovecraft's own as it's possible to get.

So how do I create a compelling Lovecraft homage without corrupting my own style? Well, first, don't be put off by the very long words and complex expressions the original author is notorious for. In fact, embrace them, glorify them, eulogise them! I've got plans for a key Lovecraftian figure to talk like that as part of his trickster-like persona. Having the contrast between my heroine's down-to-earth way of speaking and the flowery speech of this character should help create an interesting contrast between them in addition to furthering the homage.

Another aspect that must be preserved is the tone. A key aspect of Lovecraftian fiction is the idea that there are forces existing beyond comprehension that make humanity seem insignificant by comparison. While these themes aren't my favourites, I'll still use them when needed and so I can adjust to writing within it. The main thing to remember is this; I can create a world similar to Lovecraft without sacrificing a strong main protagonist that doesn't meet an excessively horrific end by the final page.

Finally, there's that key element to any true Lovecraft narrative; the unreliable narrator, or at least the narrator whose account was made shortly before his untimely death. While this is more than suitable, it's also rather depressing. So I've decided to take inspiration from another author; Agatha Christie. She is best remembered for her lighter detective stories, but she also experimented with unreliable narrators, shifting first-to-third person points of view, and retrospective knowledge changing the perception of events previously clear-cut. While I'll keep the details secret, I can say that this combined with the Lovecraft angle has provided me with a wonderful means of incorporating the unreliable narrator while keeping with a single sane protagonist.

I'm not sure how much more there is to say. I'm still in the early stages of creating this story, and much might change. Hopefully it won't join the small but significant pile of concepts and projects I couldn't complete for whatever reason. As of now, I'll just have to keep writing and planning. And hope for the best.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Review - Movie - Traders

I don't typically like overt violence in movies, and most British small-scale movies have that weird greying effect that makes them look more depressing than they are. But there are a few British movies of that type I've watched and enjoyed. The most recent - and most unexpected - is the Irish-produced Traders. Currently available on BBC3 via iPlayer, Traders is what might be described as an action thriller with a surprisingly dark twist.

The premise is simple; a man named Henry Fox dissatisfied with his low-paying work becomes embroiled in a game created by Vernon, a man he meets by chance. The game is called Trading, and it soon takes in a viral quality. The rules are simple; sell possessions to create a money stake, fight to the death, survivor collects both stakes and arranges it so the victims are presumed suicides with methods difficult to trace and confirm. His first "Trade" nets him 10,000, but the thought of more pulls him into more and more trades, which become increasingly dangerous and violent.

The theme of the movie is the time-worn question of how far someone is prepared to go for riches, but it can also act as a commentary on the modern world and how the internet is allowing the creation of these types of "entertainments". It's one person creating the Trading game, and that one person is causing dozens of deaths. The theme is disturbing to say the least, more so because of a distinct lack of blood and guts. This is where the subdued tone works in the movie's favour; the emphasis on middle to lower-class suburban neighborhoods drives home a feeling of desperation, the fact that those trading probably have problems in their lives that need this money. The ambiguous ending drives the overall message home.

On the whole, the movie looks good. You can tell the budget was low, but the tone and subject matter actually help rather than hinder. The cast, including Killian Scott as the lead and John Bradley as Vernon, does a creditable job of portraying a group playing for high stakes out of desperation or greed. It must be stressed that this movie is not for younger viewers. Quite apart from the disturbing content and subject matter, there's violence a plenty. Most of it is deceptively bloodless, and consequently more disturbing. For me, seeing someone stabbed to death is far less unpleasant than someone getting the life choked out of them. There's also the usual - but thankfully sparse - use of swearing.

On the whole, this is a great movie of its kind. A very modest scope belies a scenario many might easily compare to Stephan King's original Running Man or Battle Royale, but while not original it's still highly enjoyable in a delightfully disturbing way. Some contrived moments drag the experience down, and the ending might upset some, but on the whole this is worth a watch while it's available.

8/10

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Y'ha-nthlei or bust...; Me and Lovecraft

If you want to see an earlier post about my feelings towards the work of Tolkien, please look here.

My relationship with H.P. Lovecraft is complicated to say the least. My encounters with his work were non-existent until I accidentally heard an abridged reading of At The Mountains of Madness on what was once Radio 7. I later heard another reading, this time of The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Then for my 20th birthday my father bought me a book dubbed Necronomicon; The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft. This large book contains thirty-six stories from Lovecraft's body of work, including his entire Cthulhu-related bibliography, several stories from his Dream Cycle including the posthumous novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and a few other notable stories and poems.

Once I got into Lovecraft, I began seeing his influence in other works I enjoyed at the time, such as Hellboy and The Fifth Element, and later The Scarifyers and Blood-C. I also quickly realised that his writing wasn't the kind the modern world is used to reading in popular fiction. Very long words, exhaustively descriptive and plodding prose, and the use of several archaic phrases and expressions make it a bit of a drudge for modern readers. I also saw some elements that others might look over more readily. These are that none of his key characters were women; and that his enemy characters or the worshippers of his pantheon are described with terms such as "negro", "mongrel", "scum", "mulatto", "hybrid", and other casual racist or elitist epithets. There are some things I'm willing to tolerate, but such blatant and casual degradation isn't one of them. I later learned that his circumstances and the culture he was raised in led him to hold these prejudices, but it's still a bitter pill to swallow.

There was also an extra element; my work focuses on human accomplishment and individual power, in addition to openly critiquing class or race-based divisions in society. Lovecraft's work most famously focuses on humanity's insignificance in the greater scheme of things, and portrays the more successful or enduring races as congregational and caste-based. He often goes into nihilistic territory and frequently relies on insanity (in his time a piteously misunderstood condition which resulted in occasionally terrible abuse in the name of medical care) as a plot development. This allows for some truly disturbing uses of the unreliable narrator, but it also reflects upon Lovecraft's opinion of humanity as a whole and the so-called "oddities" within it in particular.

Thankfully, many authors are in a position to rectify that. Due to a variety of circumstances and events, virtually all of Lovecraft's work is in the public domain. Indeed, he openly allowed contemporary authors to borrow from and incorporate his work into their own, with August Derleth becoming the largest contributor to what came to be known as the Cthulhu Mythos after Lovecraft himself. Derleth, together with Conan creator Robert Howard and successor Richard Tierney, have expanded upon and borrowed from Lovecraft's work. More and more authors have been influenced by the Mythos, with some additions being dead serious and others - such as Neil Gaiman's I, Cthulhu - being more humourous. Now, I think it's my turn. Instead of complaining to myself without end of Lovecraft's defects, I should follow his advice and use his work to create something of my own. Using my style, with my approach to characters and plot, but using an available and beloved fictional universe.

If you want to listen to what I consider a good reading of Lovecraft, listen to this; an unabridged reading of The Call of Cthulhu by actor Garrick Hagon.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Welcome to Reality!

Reality. It can be the bane of the dramatic writer who doesn't know how to work within the laws of the real world to create adventure and mystery. In my latest work, recent finished and now undergoing proofreading and editing, I set myself a real challenge. Writing an adventure story without relying on cheap get-out clauses or improbable events (well, improbable without reason).

The reasons for my strong dislike for those types of scenarios outside very specific situations stems from a natural liking for the realistic. Even in my fantasy worlds, I keep events as realistic as possible. Even in my science fiction, the "science" is based on the real and the possible rather than using Clarke's old tactic of tech being advanced enough for magic (which, while interesting to think about, is something of a cheat when it comes to story writing). But one particular novelist, Clive Cussler, doesn't do any of this. I first encountered Cussler's work through the movie adaptation of his novel Sahara, which I really enjoyed and still enjoy to this day. I decided to buy the original book, and was instantly put off. Any semblance of realism present in the movie was clearly not in the book. My father also reads - or read, at least - Cussler as light entertainment. I tried his other work in Raise the Titanic and Mayday. Suffice to say, these were more than enough to put me of Cussler for life. In reaction to this and my combined enjoyment of and amusement at Dan Brown's novels surrounding the character of Robert Langdon, I decided to write my own story.

First off, I needed a protagonist. She's someone I've tried to get into stories for a long time. Inspired by my love of independent and sassy female heroines (think Lara Croft meets Adele Blanc-Sec with touches of the 1980s Red Sonja and Aeon Flux). I've tried her in fantasy, then in science-fantasy, and neither worked. I think it's because I was using a third-person narrative for a character who deserved a first-person spotlight. She's essentially a version of me, so I was able to write in a convincing way I haven't quite managed with my other works to date. It also enables me to slip in some constructive criticism of genre tropes without it sounding odd or awkward. It's just someone commenting in the narrative on their situation.

Next, I decided to keep my story squarely in reality. I love Lara Croft and Syndey Fox, but you've got to admit the idea of massive temples and tombs with still-working traps after thousands of years does stretch the suspenders of disbelief to breaking point. There's also the modern world problem of where to find undiscovered ruins that aren't either buried under a large amount of jungle (as in completely overgrown and unexplorable) or have been reduced to their foundations. The obvious solution is to make them underground temples and tombs, but then you need to find an area that can accommodate it in the real world. No point putting an underground temple of some scale into rock that's too hard to mine with the tools its builders would have used. Someone will always call you out. So yes, I can hide an ornate tomb in the desert, as long as it's a subterranean structure built into sandstone.

I also wanted to put in some genuine archaeological or historical locations without turning them into surreal "for the reader and for drama" incarnations of their real-world counterparts. I think you can guess what I mean - Egyptian tombs with working traps and vast conveniently lit catacombs, huge undiscovered Khmer ruins with deep catacombs and complex locking systems... Basically what a lot of adventure stories tend to incorporate. My locations eventually included (not strictly in this order) the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia, the Scavi beneath the Vatican, the Gilf Kebir in Egypt, Pere Lachaise Cemetery the Carriere de Paris, the Cambrian Mountains in Wales, and several minor locations that can be visited today. As to why she's going to all these places, that's part of the story, so I'm not telling you anything here.

All of these places and associated locales had to be meticulously researched, realistically portrayed, and where needed embellished in such a way that it only requires a minor stretch of the imagination and not total suspension of disbelief. It also provided a wonderful opportunity to slip in a few in-jokes at the expense of the very authors I'm emulating. Such as.... a complex locking system on a door breaking due to rot when Helena tries to use it, and in the end all the door needs is a few kicks to get through one of its rotting panels. Yeah, that happens. And she's more than vocal about the fact that ancient locking mechanisms always seem to work in the movies...

Basically, it took five months of alternating between writing and research to complete what I fully consider to be a first draft. There's still editing, proofreading, formatting, and other such tasks to complete. I want it to be as readable as possible. But that's the future. Now, I can enjoy my victory. My first full-length novel written without a scrap of magic or science fiction in its pages.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Review - Book - The Picture of Dorian Gray

Note: This review is based on an unabridged 8-CD reading by CoverToCover.

Oscar Wilde is most widely remembered for his comic plays, which act as social satires of his time and contain some of the greatest witty dialogue ever put to paper. But Wilde's body of work also covers essays, short stories and novellas, the latter including classics such as The Canterville Ghost and Lord Arthur Savile's Crime. But one book has had a profound legacy outside his traditional sphere of work; the Gothic philosophical novel this review is dedicated to. It has been adapted multiple times for radio, television and the movies, but aside from a very few, they all seem to miss the point of this story.

The figure of Dorian Gray and his vaguely implied Faustian pact has cast a long shadow over Gothic and horror fiction, elevating the character and concept to a fame the original book has struggled to match. I'm sure most people know of Gray, but fewer know of the book itself. They know the character through the movies, where erotic elements have been added to appease a sex-hungry public in an age where many might consider romance to be dead. But this novel is so much more; it's a biting commentary on the society of the time, but without Wilde's traditional wit. This turns it into a far darker offering than his comparably fluffy plays.

The basic synopsis is well known and well worn. Gray, in the full flush of youth, curses a recently-completed portrait which captures a beauty which will inevitably fade. Through a disastrous romantic escapade with an actress, Gray sees the painting begin to change in a subtly unpleasant way while he remains pristine. This is the basic premise, but what many people will fail to grasp is the principles behind Gray's actions over the course of the novel. In his affair with the actress, there is nothing sexual; he falls in love with her acting ability, which brings life to the Shakespearean roles she performs. Later, when he resolves to use the painting's "gift" to experience life as never before, it is focused on the aesthetic wonders of life and experiences that heighten his sensations of the world (which, yes, includes the popular drugs of the time such as opium). We're never given exact details of his pursuits beyond his passing passions for music and jewels, but it's never stated once that he does anything sexual. It's all about the aesthetic beauties of life and gratifying his senses, in addition to a streak of experimentation that I'm sure most people will understand in some way. He also, at several points in the novel, exemplifies the Victorian upper class stereotype (and often reality) of never wanting to talk or thinking about things that were not "nice".

Alongside Gray are two characters that must not be forgotten. Lord Henry Wotten, an unrepentant and opinionated hedonist who influences the impressionable Gray, is arguably the one responsible for the events of the novel, even though he knows little of Gray's true nature. Basil Hallward, the painter who creates the eponymous picture, is Lord Henry's antithesis, being humble and morally upright. He is also gradually undermined by his complete infatuation with Gray as his ultimate muse (those who wish to see otherwise in Hallward's proclaimed "love" may do so, as I'm sure many at Wilde's indecency trials chose to). These two characters pull Gray in different directions, and provide mediums against which to compare Gray.

From a simple reading perspective, the prose can get a little difficult to swallow as Wilde goes into long philosophical expositions on Gray's inner thoughts, and a large portion of the central book is dedicated to explanatory time-skipping. But parts actually form part of the experience, and key pieces of the narrative are scattered in among them. Without that additional exposition, you wouldn't understand Gray's progress through life half as well. Wilde's style, in contrast, helps convey the emotion of situations expertly and succeeded within a few lines of turning my sympathy for Gray into utter disgust - that's something a very few books have ever managed to do in my experience.

The story as a whole is highly enjoyable, and I recommend that you seek out a complete edition of the book rather than any abridgment or any but the most fanatically faithful adaptation. But for those who have seen Wilde's plays and expect light comedy and titter-worthy lines, be warned. There is little to no comedy in this novel, it's biting satire and mature philosophising people won't typically associate with Wilde. But in doing this, I'd say that Wilde created one of his finest works. and a true piece of literature. Regardless of its influence in horror, its place in the canon of fiction should not be ignored. In an additional note, the complete reading upon which this review is based - with narration by Edward Petherbridge - is top-notch and a worthy edition to any CD or audio collection. If you can find it...

9/10.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Story Construction - The Line Between Influence and Cribbing

Note: Sorry if it's rather short compared to other posts, it's rather short notice.

Taking inspiration from those that have come before is common practice for any author, whether it's the scholarly writer of non-fiction, or a writer of the most outlandish fiction imaginable. But where does inspiration end and cribbing begin. To be exact, when I use the word "crib", I'm talking about plagiarism, that career-destroying sin authors commit when they either take heavy inspiration from or lift word-for-word from another work without acknowledging their inspiration/source. This is a problem with me for a very particular reason; with some exceptions, I don't have a good original visual imagination.

Yeah, that was quite a mouthful. I'll try to explain it. In some respects, I've an extremely active and visual imagination, as I'm an avid fan of visual media such as comics, movies, television and video games. In contrast, my spark of invention lies primarily in the written word, meaning the images in my mind are more akin to placeholders for the characters I create than actual visions of what they look like from the book. From characters created by artists to the visages of notable actors and actresses, I copy-and-paste to ensure I've got something there for when I create the scenes in my head. This tends to go hand in hand with how I can find sudden inspiration while going through something completely different from my story that's got a strong visual motif. Example; much of Crystal and Sin has a tone that took inspiration from both the anime series Cowboy Bebop and the American live-action series Firefly.

But that presents a very real danger. Where does inspiration end and cribbing begin? There's always the risk that the unwary author will take too much of something and run the risk of being seen as too derivative. Of course everything's been done at some point, and phrases or names will inevitably slip into our subconscious to be filed away for future usage. But when they begin intruding on your own thoughts and wishes, it becomes a real problem. I've abandoned more story ideas than I can count because they're just too derivative. Other ideas have needed massive modification due to the same reason.

Example: I have a wonderful idea focused around a world where humanity has become sterile, and its population is mainly replaced by artificial humans whose only difference is a slight blankness of look and are ruled by the last six surviving "true humans". The main plot is the mystery why one of the surviving humans is trying to kill the others. Sounds great. Except that I was inspired by the video game Drakengard 3 and the book series by Sean Russell starting with Beneath the Vaulted Hills, which have a very similar premise (a key figure related to something bringing an end to that same something). If the premise is strong enough, which I believe this is, it could be carried through. But if it remains verbatim, then I'll never be fully comfortable with it.

Another one barely worth a mention was a planned series that stank so much of the Earthsea and Inheritance books I dumped it after fifteen chapters, utterly unable to continue writing something that derivative. It led to the creation of something else slightly more original and promising, but its original form is dead and buried. And good riddance.

These are just two instances. There are dozens I can only just remember because the ideas came within a few days and left in just as short a time, or were modified that their initial derivative forms are lost for good. And a good thing too. The last thing I want to feel like is a copycat...!

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Using a Genre; Straight, Satire, or Deconstruction - Part 3

In this series of blog posts, the first in some time due to a variety of factors, I've decided to focus on the three major ways people use genres in general; playing them straight, satirising them, and deconstructing them. Each has merits, and none are set in stone. That's what lovely about them!

This time, for this final post, deconstruction is the order of the day. So what is deconstruction, when not applied to Lego or philosophy that is? Well, it's generally applied to stories in various media which take the tropes of a particular genre and examine them with a critical eye and the aim of understanding its interior workings. While satire does something similar, deconstruction tends to be far darker. The word "deconstruction" has been associated most recently with anime, which has become notorious for relying on genre tropes to the point of exasperation, but many of these deconstructions don't actually count as such. They're just dark or violent takes on those same tropes without actually deconstructing them.

It's difficult to pin down what counts as deconstruction, so it may surprise you what I've picked out as fine examples of it. For books, I think one of the best examples for its time is the work of H. P. Lovecraft. Yes, his weird fiction may be a common subgenre now, but in its day it was groundbreaking. While most stories at the time focused on humans overcoming impossible odds, Lovecraft takes completely the opposite approach, using typical story beats of his time, wrapping his distinct and near-nihilistic views on humanity around them, and creating stories that can be seen as a commentary on how these stories are typically told, and how their protagonists are portrayed. Of course every book can have deconstruction in it somewhere, but there are very few which have it as a major part of their narrative.

The same can be said of movies and television, although there it seems to be spread even thinner on the ground due to...reasons. But there are plenty out there. Shrek, in between its bouts of comedy and genuinely moving romance, deconstructs multiple fairy tale tropes people take for granted, accomplished by making its lead character an ogre, a being typically portrayed as a villain or antagonistic minion. A series that I think does this well is Firefly and its movie conclusion Serenity. While it has the usual allowance of sci-fi tropes and concessions, its people are more real than most other sci-fi casts, facing its extraordinary circumstances with down-to-earth responses. A special shout-out must be given to Whedon's writing as he makes characters real even in the most outlandish situations.

In anime, deconstruction has sadly become more of a buzzword than an actual description of the anime's contents. Shows like School Days and Puella Magi Madoka Magica are labelled as deconstruction without actually understanding what a deconstruction is. In my view, they're just ultra-violent or downbeat takes on a genre's tropes without actually deconstructing them. There can be deconstructive elements there, but it's not like the whole show deconstructs the genre. One show I think is often overlooked in the deconstruction line is Neon Genesis Evangelion. It stands as both a prime example of the mecha genre, and a brutal examination of what real teenagers with real problems would do and how they would react when stuck inside a giant mech and forced to fight merciless monsters dubbed Angels.

Video games have a far richer field of view for deconstruction due to their interactive nature. But again it's an industry averse to taking risks, even more so than the movie and television industries as they focus more on high returns than art. The setting I most associated with deconstruction is Yoko Taro's seminal Drakengard/Nier franchise. On the surface a Medieval high fantasy world, its dark twist on multiple RPG-based storytelling tropes from the hero with animal companion and love interest (here a sadistic soldier with a racist dragon and a sister holding secret incestuous love) to the righteous cause of the main character (androids sent to Earth to defeat monstrous machines, only said machines aren't nearly so monstrous and their leaders not nearly so honest as they seem). One part dark fantasy, one part cautionary tales about prejudice and the nature of killing, one part deconstruction of what games are, this franchise is unique in the gaming world. And that's saying something!

Closing Note;
Playing it straight. Satire. Deconstruction. Each has merits. Each has pitfalls. I'm not telling you which to use or which to ignore, only showing what they have to offer. I hope you've enjoyed what I've shown you as examples of these three approaches.

Shameless plug time ;)
If you want a cheap sample of non-violent deconstruction, then why not take a look at When Ai Met Yu: A Modern Japanese Romance, my take on the LGBT-focused yaoi/bara genres.

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