STAN LEE (1922-2018)

I owe the lion’s share of my own creative education to three men, all of whom, as of yesterday, are no longer with us. In reverse chronological order, those men are Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing games in general; Harlan Ellison, the greatest American author of all time; and Stan Lee, creator of the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine: Fantastic Four, and an entire universe of science fiction and fantasy that is more popular today than it’s ever been.

Though I worked at TSR, it was long after Gary Gygax had been removed from the company and I’m sad to say I never had a chance to meet him. I wrote here, after the passing of Harlan Ellison, of my brief encounters with him. Now, though I wish it were under better circumstances, I’m happy to share this, my one encounter with Stan Lee.

Just a few years ago I was on my way back home from a writers conference in Los Angeles, waiting at my gate at LAX. I noticed someone else waiting there—he looked familiar, but I tried not to stare. Then it hit me: Paul Dano. There he was, in the flesh, one of the great character actors of his generation and star of a handful of my favorite movies including There Will Be Blood. I surreptitiously took a blurry cellphone photo of him to text to my wife, who didn’t recognize him. But it never occurred to me to approach him, ask if he had a milkshake, or confess that I had abandoned my boy… even after a few teenage girls took a selfie with him. Give the guy his space.

Then the plane arrived at the gate and people started coming off the flight and I instantly recognized Stan Lee. He walked off the plane talking to another man—I got the feeling they knew each other—and he was walking fast. My thought process took all of one second, a “conversation” with myself that could be summed up: “If you don’t shake his hand you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

He was going to walk right past me so I stepped up to him with my hand out and said, maybe a little too loudly,” Stan Lee!” He noticed me, took my hand in a firm grip and smiled—still walking—and I said, “I’m a huge fan.” He said, “Thank you,” and I said, “No, thank you,” and he was gone, never having missed a step.

I think I stood there for a minute or so like some great dork, just basking in the fact that I had an opportunity to thank Stan Lee. I don’t think ever thanked Harlan Ellison, and I know I never had a chance to thank Gary Gygax. I guess I’ll have to content myself with that one out of three.

Stan Lee died yesterday at the age of 95, which goes back to a point I made here a long time ago that there might be something in the life of a science fiction and fantasy author that they live a long time because, like Stan Lee, they’re—we’re—doing what we love.

What else can I say about a man who has had, whether or not you feel superhero comic books should be taken at all seriously, so massive an impact on American popular culture for the past 57 years? When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Stan Lee told the New York Times, “When I’m gone, I really don’t care.”

Well, I do. Excelsior, Stan Lee!

 

—Philip Athans

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THE RAJAH’S GIFT: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 6

Before I even start reading the next story for this series of posts looking back at a ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales, which is available for all of us to read online, I’m getting nervous about what sort of retrograde colonialist ideology is going to launch itself at us from this very short story by E. Hoffman Price—but then, let’s try not to pre-judge, and just dive into “An Oriental Story” from 1925. Ready or not, here we go!

A quick look back at the author first and here we find one of the few in this issue of Weird Tales that had a significant career and is still being read today. The E stands for Edgar and his Wikipedia page identifies him as “an amateur Orientalist,” which certainly shows in this story. “The Rajah’s Gift” was actually Price’s second published short story, so we’re seeing an early example of a career that stretched well into the 1980s. He was a friend and collaborator of fellow Weird Tales author H.P. Lovecraft and received the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984. Not too shabby.

Then a note on the word “Oriental” in this context: My mother is of the generation that used that word in place of the currently preferred Asian, in the same way that my mother-in-law stuck with “Colored” into the first decade of the 21st century. You can take the people out of the times but you can’t always dislodge the times from the people. We also don’t refer to Asia itself as “the Orient” anymore because… it’s a continent named Asia? From what I can find it took until 2016, ninety-one years after this story was published, for the word “Oriental” to taken out of federal law so change sometimes creeps along. Let’s just let this story be in 1925, I guess, but then… hmm… How do we unpack that first paragraph?

It’s hard not to see this for what it is: E. Hoffman Price establishing the rajah as better than the average example of his kind since he’s managed to adopt “a thick veneer of European culture.” God knows you can’t get very far until you’ve got that locked in. So, yeah, it’s 1925 and non-white people might be able to sort of sometimes take care of themselves as long as they get with the colonial program. Gotcha.

As we go into the second page of the story, note this example of telling rather than showing. Maybe in a very short story you have to fall back on this a little, not having the word count necessary to cover this backstory more organically, but even then, I’ll ping Mr. Price on this. He starts off telling us about the rajah and his friend Zaid, then they have a short “inciting incident” conversation then it’s telling us (not showing us) how Zaid met the rajah. If I were his editor I’d ask E. Hoffman to go ahead and give himself the word count necessary to break this up.

But we do learn that Zaid, as a young peasant boy, was awed by “the pomp and splendor” of the rajah’s parade, which gave him the motivation to go out and make something of himself. This I find interesting in the abstract. Is there a moment in your story where we learn—hopefully sharing that experience rather than being told about it like this—in what moment a significant character was set off on the trajectory that puts that person into this story? Not everyone has a moment like this. A lot of people sort of fall into jobs and things like that, but I think many of us can still look back to the moment we decided, the moment we realized, the moment we knew that… What? I’ve said in the past—and it’s still true, of course—that the moment I read the story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison I knew I would tell stories for the rest of my life, that the pursuit of the possibility of putting the feeling I had reading that story into some distant person with a story of my own locked me into this, for good or ill.

Our characters deserve moments like that, don’t they? Is there a character in your work in progress who can honestly say, like Zaid does here: “For twenty years that vision has haunted me. Much has happened since then; much have I seen and experienced, but through it all, this mad desire has persisted.”

Then here, in true pulp fashion, we have a statement of purpose from one character that is immediately batted back in his face by the other—an obstacle has been put in Zaid’s way, a threat of extreme danger, and a reversal of a promise. E. Hoffman Price drops that fast, hard, and without the slightest hesitation. I love that Zaid stays firm on this, though—sort of like I did in my determination to be the next Harlan Ellison. Still, working on that, by the way, but the journey’s the thing!

An aside here regarding the occasionally weird scene breaks in these old pulps. There is no change in time, place, and/or POV between “…you know the result.” and “Suddenly the rajah arose.” So then why the line space and the drop cap? I don’t get it. I wonder if editor Farnsworth Wright just thought we needed a pause there—a pause after so many words, or some number of pages? No idea!

Let’s cleanse our minds of that question with the pure pulp adventure story imagery here:

And Zaid was led through subterranean vaults, treasure vaults full of gilded arms and armor, trays of flaming jewels, great chests of gold, the secreted plunder of a hundred generations.

Okay—I’m back in the story! (Even if Zaid is unimpressed.)

Oh, look, the first (and, it turns out, only) female character to appear in the story is some kind of sex slave. Two things a contemporary story might have done different is to make her an actual character but then still go into more detail on what follows than this:

What allurements, what sorceries, what fascinations Nilofal used to entice the fancy of Zaid during those three days, we shall never know. Suffice it to say that she failed in her efforts to separate the Persian from his madness.

Not exactly Fifty Shades of Grey. But going back over the whole sordid subject of sexism in the pulps, and the cover art that often showed women in bondage, etc., here’s an example of how the content of the magazines sometimes did match the lurid covers (though not the case with this particular issue, which has a rather less than lurid cover) with women portrayed as playthings, victims, or villains, but not too often as, y’know… humans. Deep breaths, people. It’s been a long ninety-three years where feminism is concerned.

So anyway, the rajah has attempted to distract Zaid from his desire for a parade in his honor with threats to his life, treasure, and prostitutes. I’d have relented on the first one, been disappointed to find out I missed my chance to be bought off with the secreted plunder of a hundred generations, and would have proceeded to step three only if my wife told me it was okay. Which means I’d never know what Nilofal had up her sleeve. And let’s be honest: three days? There ain’t enough Cialis in the Orient!

And… moving on…

Despite her best efforts, Nilofal couldn’t seal the deal so now there is a proper scene break, cutting to the next day and Zaid is up on an elephant and ready for his big moment. I like that the rajah gets on his friend’s side at this moment. It shows a certain largesse we don’t tend to see in this kind of colonial fiction, wherein the “natives” are rarely so “woke.” Though as the scene goes on and the rajah makes clear the distinction in his head between people of his own rarified class and ordinary men—suffering over the changes that Zaid has in store for him, changes that can never be properly realized so he’ll be a peasant with a quick trip into the aristocracy. To the rajah, then, it’s better for Zaid not to know what it’s like to be a rajah—it can only make the peasantry feel bad about themselves.

Get over yourself, Rajah.

But then the rajah is a character living his life, cultural baggage and all. On a similar note, in “How Postmodernism Undermines the Left and Facilitates Fascism,” Benjamin Studebaker wrote:

Some people stray outside of left wing frameworks by insisting that we can overcome capitalism, racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression by demanding that individuals not affirm these ideologies. But this is not idealism because it does not recognize these ideologies as systems of belief—instead, it blames and targets individuals for having these beliefs. This doesn’t treat these individuals as part of ideological systems—instead it treats them as if they were independent of these systems. That would deny the core left wing premise. Blaming individuals who participate in systems of oppression for the oppressive ideologies they’ve acquired is no different from blaming the victims of oppression for the oppressive conditions to which they are subject—it treats individuals as if they were outside social systems when no one can be outside the social system.

Does this cover “amateur Orientalist” E. Hoffman Price as well? But in any case, his two characters are locked into a rigidly class based culture, and Zaid is disrupting the status quo by asking the rajah to do the same, though circumstance and tradition have other ideas:

“When indeed they do grant to a man the realization of his dream, they straightaway reach forth to snatch from him his prize, lest in his triumph he become godlike and gaily toss them from their lofty thrones.”

See? And you thought all this pulp fantasy was just about guys fighting monsters with magic.

This, by the way, is how you kill a character:

And the god, who but half an hour before had been Zaid, the Persian, toppled forward in the gilded howdah. The last roll of the gong had masked the smacking report of a high-powered rifle.

And then that final twist to reveal the villain of the story immediately followed by what Lester Dent called “The snapper, the punch line to end it.” Nailed it, E. Hoffman.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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WRITER’S DIGEST NOVEL WRITING CONFERENCE REPORT

Last week I promised a rundown of the conference I attended this past weekend and here it is! The conference was even better than I’d hoped it would be and I’ll reiterate my “thank you Tweets” to everyone who attended and to Writer’s Digest, who put on a fantastic event. I’ll also reiterate my strong recommendation to everyone reading this who hasn’t been to at least one writer’s conference: Go to one! If you can’t get to LA or New York, find one closer to home. They’re all over the place and the one closest to you is just a Google search away.

So then, my experience last weekend…

I flew in Friday afternoon, knowing (but not liking) that I would miss the full day of sessions on Friday. After a bit of a delay getting off the ground in Seattle, I finally made the short flight down to Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. If you’ve never flown into Burbank, put it on your bucket list. It’s like arriving at a frontier airport in some tiny desert nation. It’s the only airport I’ve ever flown in and out of that has no jetways. Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture of the sheet metal ramp that puts you right on the tarmac!

The shuttle driver actually picked me up at the airport (not so much on the return trip, but that’s another sad tale of woe and want) and I got to the Westin Pasadena in time to get to see most of Robert Crais’s opening keynote. I was a little frazzled from travel—the way travel frazzles, I think, most people—so failed to take any notes, but I liked the guy. He has a very human approach to writing and I think he’d like my Pulp Fiction Workshop. Anyway, he did inspire me to put his books on my to read list—I want to start reading more thrillers, so why not his?

So now I’m in Pasadena, which, honestly, shares many of the things that I really, really don’t like about LA in general, but it had some character to it, unlike “LA in general.” Anyway, I didn’t come for the sightseeing, I came for the conference and was downstairs bright and early Saturday morning determined to soak up a full day of programming. Hour-long sessions were set up in four tracks: Craft & Character; Inspiration & Idea Generation; Genre; and Platform, Business & Beyond. I figured, if I could, I’d try to get to at least one in each track, but mostly I went to what sounded like it would help me most as a writer—precisely the advice I’d give anyone who’s attending one of these.

I started my day at 9:00 am with The Secret of Mission-Critical Storytelling with Larry Brooks. His message differed from my own “the villain starts the story, the hero ends it,” to rely more on what the hero wants, focusing on “the hero’s problem.” Though that may make it seem as though we’re somehow diametrically opposed—not so. It’s all about motivation for both hero and villain, protagonist and antagonist. With just an hour he couldn’t cover the whole premise of the book he has coming out on the subject, so he stuck with the idea and his interesting take on the difference between or the combination of idea, concept, and premise that asks, or begins to ask, “What’s the mission of your story?” I took a snap of one of his slides that we’ll call a “teaser” for the forthcoming book, which will be on my own to read shelf. During his talk I scribbled quotes like: “It isn’t a story until something goes wrong,” “Enter a scene at the last possible moment,” and “Do something to your story to make it glow in the dark,” which I just loved.

Next, at 10:15 am, I sat in on April Eberhardt’s The Changing Face of Publishing in which she laid out a fairly bleak picture of the publishing world. I have to admit I cringed more than once at her clearly anti-traditional publishing bias. Yes, it’s slow. Yes, it’s (extremely) hard to break into. Yes, they don’t do as much “marketing” (whatever that actually means) as you want them to. But no, they don’t tie up all rights to your book forever. No, they don’t call back advances for books that don’t earn out—if she advised a client to sign a contract like that… yikes. But yeah—though it can and routinely does take years to get through the mill from first query to published book, it’s still well worth a try. Anyway, she had some good, solid advice on indie and co-op publishing and got some smart, direct questions from an audience eager for help.

Also making it onto my to read list was author Erika Mailman, who talked historical fiction in Delving Into the Past. I’ve been in far orbit around an idea for a historical novel for so long you could write a historical novel about when I first got the idea. This session was a lot of fun, especially the hands-on exercise that forced me to work out a very sketchy bullet point mini-outline for the beginning of that book. It was the first time I ever actually sat down and did that with that idea and a character appeared as if by magic that in all this time thinking about this story never occurred to me, then that character’s relationship to another character… wow! This might be the absolute best reason to go to one of these conferences: It’s an inspiration-rich environment,and you never know what’s going to trigger an idea, another idea, a connection, and so on.

Lunch, then Not Just Your Hero Needs a Plan from TV writer Greta Heinemann, which started out feeling a bit—no, a lot Tony Robbins but she’s hilarious and cool and totally pulled it out with real, human, actionable advice on what she called “productivity hacks” and “accountability hacks” to help reprioritize writing in our otherwise busy lives. She also has a book coming out, the Writer’s Productivity Journalthat could really help you if you’re having trouble getting yourself motivated, keeping yourself motivated, and writing.

Another TV/movie writer (it is LA, after all), Erik Bork, was up next with The Seven Elements of a Viable Story Idea, which was heavily slanted toward Hollywood, including a frankly strange warning against originality that I hope no one in the room took to heart, but there’s still a lot to like in his PROBLEM idea:

Punishing (hero “in hell and under siege”)

Relatable (tight POV)

Original (“a fresh twist on the familiar”)

Believable (gain audience buy-in)

Life-altering (big internal and external stakes)

Entertaining (and why not?)

Meaningful (theme, which he downplayed)

Sounds like I didn’t like it right? I liked him—the message, on the other hand, may be all you need to know about why studio movies and network TV shows are so awful. I feel bad saying that, but there it is.

Anyway, I was up next with Writing Scary—again: great crowd, smart questions, and I hope people got a lot out of it.

Saturday drew to a close with Curtis Sittenfeld, who I must admit I had never heard of, but I will seek out her work after her charismatic, snarky, but honest talk. She gets more overtly political than I’ll ever get, actually writing from the POV of Hilary Clinton in both an upcoming novel and a short story. She read from the latter and it was amazing.

Sunday was a short day beginning with the closing keynote by the refreshingly forthright and refreshingly nerdy Nicola Yoon, another author I need to start reading, though a huge YA audience has long ago beat me to her. And here’s another reason to come to these: Writers talk to other writers differently than they would talk to an interviewer for a blog, a magazine, or a newspaper (etc.)—and they answer questions about process and the writing life that can be more informative than any staged seminar with a robust PowerPoint.

Speaking of which, I helped close out the conference with my robust PowerPoint for Act of Villainy, which built out from my online tutorial and broke down motivations for villains/antagonists into three layers of motivation. Who knows, maybe you’ll see that covered here in the weeks to come. But what you won’t get here—not in the same way, anyway—is the chance to ask questions and get an immediate answer and then hear the answers to other questions. This is one of the few advantages this old recluse can think of to being out there in real life—the occasional directed, purposeful, but honest and inspiring interaction with like-minded fellow travelers.

Get out there, writers!

 

—Philip Athans

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GETTING READY FOR THE WRITER’S DIGEST NOVEL CONFERENCE

It’s Tuesday, October 23, and in three days I’ll be on a plane headed south to Pasadena, California for the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference, which is happening this weekend, October 26-28, 2018. I’ve got two sessions on the schedule this year and my PowerPoints are done, my airline ticket is locked in, and the hotel has confirmed my reservation. I even pre-paid for a shuttle from the airport. I know what book I’m bringing with me to read on the plane and in the downtime that always happens on any business trip. (For the record, it’s Dune: House Atreides by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.) I’m ready! I’m excited to speak there, but I might even be a bit more excited to be attending the conference.

I’ve been working in one capacity or another in the publishing business since 1986—that’s a long time—and I make a pretty swell living dispensing wisdom on all things writing, but there is no way to perfect this, there’s no way to know everything. I certainly make no such claim. I’m pretty much constantly reading about writing: books, blogs, articles, scholarly papers… whatever I can get my mitts on. So when I’m invited to an event like this, I try my best to soak up as much wisdom from the other speakers and from everyone attending through their questions, side conversations, meet-and-greets, and whatnot. Conferences like this one are “wisdom rich environments” that recharge my batteries better than anything else—any book or blog post or anything I write myself.

Check out the schedule here. I don’t get in until Friday afternoon so unfortunately I’m going to miss pretty much all of the Friday programming, but I should get there in time for Robert Crais’s opening keynote. Still, I plan on a full day Saturday starting with:

The Secret of Mission-Critical Storytelling

Larry Brooks

Sooner or later in the process of taking a story from idea to finished draft, the author must commit to something. Advanced authors understand that the larger context of that commitment is really the sum of numerous and unique sub-sets of the narrative, each of which presents discreet sets of criteria for character and drama. And thus we are presented with unique blocks of narrative that allow writers to exist within the big picture and the microcosm of their scenes at the same time, flourishing with artistic freedom as they seek to optimize each subset. This workshop will make this advanced perspective accessible to all writers willing to embrace the mission-driven criteria that make our stories work, one scene and one narrative block at a time.

Then, at 10:15, I’m torn between:

Enrich Your Characters with Real-Life Experiences

Rachel Howzell Hall

Just because you’re writing a mystery series doesn’t mean that your characters must stay the same. Learn how to look for the interesting—in setting, voice, dialogue, in your own life and the lives of others to keep your characters dynamic and the reader turning the page.

…and…

The Changing Face of Publishing: What All Authors Need to Know

April Eberhardt

In this illuminating session, literary change agent and publishing consultant April Eberhardt will lead a candid discussion of the pros and cons of the full range of publishing options available to authors today. In addition to traditional and self-publishing, models such as hybrid, partner, cooperative and craft publishing are increasingly attractive to many authors. We’ll discuss the personal, practical and financial implications of each and how to choose the best publishing path for you.

Then I’ll make another “game time decision” between:

Enrich Your Writing with Vivid Imagery

Jordan Rosenfeld

Start spicing up dull, lagging scenes in your novel. In this session you’ll learn how to transform serviceable sentences with arresting prose and sensory images that convey emotion and theme with subtlety. You’ll learn to mine the depths of your characters, and examine contemporary examples as you tease apart metaphor and simile. Writers will come away from this workshop with a visceral, clear understanding of “show, don’t tell.”

…or…

Delving in the Past

Erika Mailman

Research can be fascinating, but can also lead to distraction and becoming overwhelmed by details. In this workshop, historical novelist Erika Mailman talks about how to sort the wheat from the chaff and create an outline that focuses on a strong story, augmented by the historical background. Come prepared to wrestle an idea into submission and build a loose outline for a novel.

…because I’m still toying with that historical novel idea.

After that… any recommendations for a good quick lunch in Pasadena?

Back from lunch at 1:45, something tells me I would benefit most from:

Not Just Your Hero Needs a Plan

Greta Heinemann

Not just your hero needs clear goals and plans to propel their story forward. Without structure you, the writer, will get lost on your creative journey. This session will discuss tools from Greta’s upcoming Writer’s Wright Journal which help writers make their creative passion a priority in their every day life. Following simple steps writers will outline their own inspiring… not intimidating… career plan and leave the session with tools to hold themselves accountable as they take next steps in their focused, inspired and always productive writing journey.

At 3:00 I’m thinking…

The 7 Elements of a Viable Story Idea

Erik Bork

Multiple Emmy and Golden Globe-Winning screenwriter and producer Erik Bork (HBO’s Band of Brothers) will present the keys to a viable and marketable story idea in any genre and medium, based on the principles in his new book The Idea. Every story idea at its essence is about a problem that needs solved, and Mr. Bork uses the acronym PROBLEM for his 7 Elements: Punishing, Relatable, Original, Believable, Life-Altering, Entertaining and Meaningful. He will highlight the importance and provide specifics on each element, and discuss why writers should focus more on the concept development process than they typically do, ideally vetting their ideas until they have one that professionals would deem “worth writing.”

Then, at 4:15, I’m up with:

Writing Scary

Best-selling author and veteran editor Philip Athans, author of Writing Monsters (Writer’s Digest Books, 2014) and The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction (Adams Media 2010), gets into some hands-on techniques for using wordplay to build suspense, evoke fear, and thrill your readers with a satisfyingly good scare. We’ll look at how people read and how to use that to the best effect. Recommended for authors in any genre that depends on at least the occasional scare: horror, thriller, mystery, science fiction, and fantasy.

Then the central keynote with Curtis Sittenfeld at 5:30 and I’ll end the day by actually showing up to the Halloween Themed Reception and Book Signing even though the older I get the less I like parties (and I never really liked parties). But going to a conference is also about getting out of your bubble and out of your head, and like I said, I’m going there to learn, too, and not just from the formal seminars.

Finally, a short day on Sunday with Nicola Yoon’s closing keynote followed by my second seminar at 10:30:

Act of Villainy: Breathing Life Into Your Protagonist

Focusing on the Three Ms of writing compelling characters (Motivation, Motivation, and Motivation), best-selling author and veteran editor Philip Athans takes authors of all genres beyond the mustache-twirling, black hat-wearing “villain” to dig deeper into why people do bad things—and power, money, or revenge are not deep enough.

After that I’ll have a few hours to kill before I have to get back to the airport and thanks to Google Maps I’ve already spotted a groovy-looking bookstore in the neighborhood.

I know it’s probably impossible for anyone who doesn’t live in the greater Los Angeles area to suddenly decide, “Screw it, I’m going!” with this whopping two or three days’ notice, but then if you are in LA already or have immediate access to a private jet, here’s a discount code, at least for the former group:

But I hope you’ll at least take a look at the web site, the schedule and speakers list, read up on the various sessions—then put a writer’s conference on your to do list for 2019.

You don’t have to fly to LA or New York (site of the bigger Writer’s Digest event—and lots of others). There are at least half a dozen annual conferences here in the Seattle area and I’m sure this is true of any and every major city in America. Just Google it, for goodness’ sake: “writers conference [your city]” and you’ll get something, and probably something really amazing.

Then, sign up!

And… go!

You will not be sorry. I never have been.

 

—Philip Athans

 

P.S. Expect a full report next week!

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AS OBLIGATED: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 5

Not that I feel obligated to continue this series looking back at a ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales that’s available for all of us to read online… it’s the title of next story!

I’m going to start my look at the short story “As Obligated” by Armstrong Livingston with a little research into the author. If feel as though I’ve been a bit remiss in that area so far, though at least one of the previous authors seemed to be a rather mysterious figure. And though Armstrong Livingston isn’t exactly a household name anymore, it turns out that he had a fairly long and reasonably successful career, though as I discovered in “Mr. Livingston, I Presume? Armstrong Livingston (1885-1948) and the Murder Racket” that:

By the depressed 1930s, however, Livingston’s writing career, like that of the admittedly more high-toned F. Scott Fitzgerald, had taken a downward turn, with only a few more novels by him ever appearing in print. By the time of his death, on February 7, 1948, when he was only 62, his occupation was given as “retired author.”

At first I puzzled over “retired author,” struggling with understanding that there could be such a thing. Then realized I know at least a few retired authors myself. Though I assume I’ll at least be scribbling some mad rantings on my deathbed… I guess you can retire from anything.

Livingston’s background reminds me of William S. Burroughs, himself the scion of wealthy family that did not like his chosen profession one bit, though Burroughs took “bad boy” heir to new levels—way beyond just writing the occasional popular crime novel. The fact that Armstrong Livingston’s father was a prominent criminal attorney surely fueled young Armstrong’s interest in the criminal underbelly of early twentieth century America. This is interesting to consider, the question of where authors come from and how that inspires the genres we’re drawn to. I touched on that here, for myself. If this gets you thinking “Why fantasy?” or “Why horror?” and so on—good! You might just find that bit of introspection of value.

For what it’s worth, I love that Livingston’s wife’s name was Gladys and in the story Sir Geoffrey is married to Henrietta. There are two names you don’t see much anymore. Looks as though the author’s marriage didn’t last, though, much into Livingston’s career as a crime author. According to that site, he published fourteen novels between 1922 and 1938, placing this 1925 short story toward the beginning of his sixteen-year career.

Looking into the author before reading his story makes me wonder how that will affect my enjoyment of it, or how I’ll interpret it, and so on. Will knowing he was a “poor little rich kid” push me into one idea or the other?

I don’t know. I do try to separate the art from the artist—at least when it comes to artists who lived and worked in the distant past, and for me at least, the better part of a hundred years ago tends to be distant enough. But even then, I’m not the type to be suspicious of anyone because their parents had a lot of (or a little bit of) money.

I don’t know… let’s read the story!

Okay… starts with a bald guy. I’m on his side already.

Hey. You have your biases. I have mine. Bald is beautiful!

Question: Do you really have to describe a tub as “his porcelain container” in order to avoid using the word “tub” twice in one sentence? No. No, you sure don’t, and you didn’t in 1925, either. What you do is remove the unnecessary semi-colon and make that two sentences, which is what they are already. Grammar lesson complete!

Ooh—he has a heated towel bar and at least two housemaids—here’s Livingston’s privilege right up front, eh? Well, it is Sir Geoffrey we’re talking about here.

I love the goofy little predicament Sir Geoffrey finds himself in at the end of the first paragraph. Don’t check to make sure there are towels out before you get in the tub or anything. What does this tell us about Sir Geoffrey?

“That’s one to Hodgkins!” he murmured good-humoredly. “I must tell the old chap about it the next time I see him. He’ll be tremendously bucked.”

Bucked? Have to look that one up.

Is this what he means?

3 [with object] informal make (someone) more cheerful: Bella and Jim need me to buck them up| [no object] (buck up) :  buck up, kid, it’s not the end of the world.

He’ll be “bucked up”?

Writing any version of historical fiction including alternate history? This is why you read fiction from that era if you possibly can. You’ll find little colloquial gems like this—if you’re lucky!

And if you’re not sure how a class-driven capitalist society works:

Of course the task of executing them had fallen to the lot of Hodgkins, the village plumber. Any other arrangement would have been manifestly improper. Hodgkins was a tradition. Ever since plumbing had been invented a Hodgkins had been plumber for a Coombe, just as a Stubbs had always supplied the meat and a Smith the groceries. The system worked excellently for all concerned: the village profited by the patronage of the Hall, and the Hall benefited by good meat and groceries and plumbing. Traditions, properly adhered to, have a practical as well as sentimental value.

Sure.

You can always tell a tradesman by his “sadly maculate” fingers. Look it up—I had to!

Okay, so if the last story was a sort of early version of “torture porn,” this story is shaping up as a sort of “house porn” mystery. They need to turn this into the first HGTV Original Movie!

Now a letter from the Psychical Society. Hmm. Do go on…

I especially like that both Geoffrey and Henrietta are going into the whole concept of spiritualism with a healthy skepticism.

Is the little chapter title: 2. The Bell Bewitched a spoiler? I’d have cut it, myself, for that reason, though I suppose it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination that having put so much loving detail into the presence of the buzzer then introducing the Psychical Society that those two elements, in strict accordance with the principle of Chekhov’s Gun, will come together soon enough.

This little scene where Sir Geoffrey asks after the repairs to his bathroom bell is rich with gender and class bias that tells us a lot about these characters and the world they inhabit, though I’m not quite sure that was Livingston’s intent in 1925. Having established that Sir Geoffrey is rich, all this just kinda plays out as expected, but reading it in 2018 the old man comes off as kind of a prick. I was delighted to see the reaction from Mrs. Smith, though, on page 30 when he goes off on her and she’s offended, though doesn’t stand up for herself in the moment. And Henrietta let’s him have it, too. We’re seeing Sir Geoffrey’s true colors in time of stress and the ladies in his life aren’t having it… at least, not entirely.

But still, even if you were writing a story now and these were your characters and this time and place your setting, the conversation would really have to follow along similar lines, wouldn’t it?

Anyway, here’s where the story obviously turns:

“I was thinking of your Psychical Society,” she said dryly. “I thought you might like to tell them about your bathroom bell, because Hodgkins swears it is bewitched!”

This is an interesting if a bit ham-fisted example of how sometimes it works to allow a character to say out loud that thing that transitions from one plot point to the next. This is a sort of sequel scene—and I’ll recommend an interesting article on that concept by K.M. Weiland—where characters discuss some bit of action (the bell not working, then the letter, then the bell still not working despite efforts to fix it) that has happened then formulate some new “plan” in response, thereby moving the story to the next plot point.

The story does take an unexpected turn along with the turn in Sir Geoffrey’s health. It fFelt, to me at least, like a well-timed twist—and Hodgkins is dead! Shocked!

I’m being flippant, but honestly, that bit did actually surprise me. I see you, Mr. Livingston. Keep ’em coming!

So then Sir Geoffrey is called out on the mat by the widow Hodgkins, who has convinced herself her husband essentially died of embarrassment at not being able to fix the baronet’s bathroom buzzer. There’s a guilt trip, eh?

Ooh—nice. The creepy reveal of Hodgkins having heard the bell ringing as he died—the same night Sir Geoffrey fell ill in the bathtub and tried to ring the bell. What to make of that? These men are spiritually linked in some kind of elemental master/tradesman bond? That’s… weird.

Ooh, It’s a Weird Tale.

Get it?

(Sorry.)

Love the call-back to the Psychical Society with the letter at the end. And all in all I found “As Obligated” to be a fun, very old school, kinda gimmicky “surprise ending” story that keeps the supernatural elements in check, with everyone maintaining what I just called the persistence of the logical pretty much throughout. The “punchline” even hints that after a bit of a shock—maybe a brief case of the willies, Sir Geoffrey and Henrietta put the question of the plumber’s ghost out of their minds forthwith:

Sir Geoffrey, a little shaken, stared at the letter. He continued to stare until his wife reminded him that the eggs were getting cold…

Thank you, Mr. Livingston, wherever you are!

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

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THE PERSISTENCE OF THE LOGICAL

Yesterday I took an extra long lunch break and finally got a chance to watch the movie Annihilation, which I have to admit (like most movies) I missed in theaters—and yes, I haven’t read the book, either. We can’t all read all the books after all… But that aside, I liked the movie and one part of one scene in particular got me thinking…

With at least a partial spoiler alert, Annihilation imagines that a meteor brings some kind of life form or physical effect to Earth that causes a growing zone of weirdness they call the “Shimmer.” All efforts to explore or explain this thing meet with disaster, so of course a new team—scientists this time instead of soldiers—is sent in. The team eventually finds the abandoned building used by the previous military team as a base camp and there’s a video card there that shows one soldier cutting open another soldier’s stomach to reveal what appears to be his intestines moving inside his body like worms or snakes—as if they had a life of their own.

The team’s medic, Anya, refuses to believe that the soldier’s guts are moving on their own, and passionately argues—desperately argues, you might even say—that it was a trick of the light, an optical illusion, a sign not of physical but psychological changes in the soldiers. The rest of the team urges her to believe her eyes—almost demands that she accept the unacceptable, that she embrace the impossible.

In that moment, though, I liked Anya’s explanation better. I suppose this could be because I’m a committed rationalist myself. You’d have to work really hard to actually get me to believe in ghosts or monsters or… gutimals? Intesticreatures?

But then these women are in this clearly weird, rules-breaking “Shimmer,” so… should Anya start to believe her eyes? Or should she continue to hold to her intellectual understanding of the world around her, supported by hands-on experience as a paramedic?

Watching Annihilation bumped into my own recent researches deep into the nature of horror literature in preparation for my Advanced Horror Workshop—reading into the rules and tropes of the genre and what horror does for and/or to us as readers, as writers, and as a culture.

This, for me, is a primary question in terms of horror as a genre and effective horror in general. I like to call it the persistence of the logical.

This is when characters—at least some of the characters—in a horror story maintain a logical or mundane explanation for whatever weirdness is going on, sometimes even past where that logic might hold up.

As Annihilation shows, though, sometimes this steadfast adherence to the logical can get in a character’s way. And more often than not—as is the case with Anya—the characters who do try to convince people that no, in fact, this house is not haunted or there absolutely is no such thing as werewolves, ends up either the first to die, or acts as a villain or antagonist, holding back the hero’s efforts to deal with what in the Advanced Horror Workshop we call the One Weird Thing. And that refusal causes additional trouble for everyone else.

In “The Peril of Being Disbelieved: Horror Fiction and the Intuition of Women,” Emily Asher-Perrin drills down to a particular trope in which not just a character, but a specific character—a young woman—is not believed:

Why didn’t you believe her?

She told you she heard something, or saw it out of the corner of her eye. She told you she was scared, that she didn’t want to go into that boarded up house or creaky old cabin, that she didn’t want to keep making out, that she didn’t like this corner of the woods. She told you she was scared and you laughed at her. She told you she had a bad feeling and you thought it was adorable. She whined at you and she tugged at your sleeve and sometimes she even begged you to leave it, to just go home deal with it all later. You thought that made her a wet blanket, or worse, a tease. As though that somehow mattered more than the sanctity of her life. Or yours.

But she was right. And you were wrong. And if you had just listened…

In these cases (and Emily Asher-Perrin is absolutely correct in her assessment that, particularly in horror movies, there are lots of cases of this character being a woman dismissed) the persistence of the logical is a bad thing. It’s a way to impose order not just on a disordered world, but on women who are then marginalized as “hysterical.”

Though there’s no reason for us to continue the gender bias that Emily Asher-Perrin rails against, there are good storytelling reasons, especially in horror, for characters of any gender to begin with a healthy skepticism, and even continue being skeptical even past the point at which that stops being helpful. After all, we aren’t always helpful.

In her article “Our Age of Horror,” Pam Weintraub touches on the idea of characters as living, breathing, mistake-prone people who sometimes do exactly the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time:

Horror has always made good use of our deep aversion to what Lovecraft called ‘the oldest and strongest kind of fear’: the unknown. This is one of the ways in which horror (like the folktale) can display a sort of archetypal conservatism. In general terms, the best way to survive a horror setting is to be supremely, boringly sensible: don’t talk to strangers, don’t stay the night in a foreign town, don’t go to the aid of anyone who looks sick, don’t go into that crumbling old building. If a very attractive stranger tries to seduce you, it is almost definitely a trap. Respect tradition, do not commit sacrilege, listen to the advice of elderly locals. At the heart of a lot of horror is a conservative craving for the predictable and the known. The unpleasant atonal dissonance you’ll hear in every horror score reflects, through the collapse of harmony, the disintegration of familiar and comforting patterns out there in the world.

God forbid everyone make the smartest decisions at every turn. Where would a story come from if not for the mayor refusing to close the beaches in Jaws, or people immediately and completely adapting to the chaos of the Shimmer, or no one being driven insane by the unspeakable horrors of the impenetrable cosmos?

You need skeptics like me to tell you there’s no such thing as vampires, right before one of them rips my throat out. The case has to be made for a trick of the light, swamp gas, or hoaxes. The more something defies or knocks back logical explanation the more unsettling it is when it’s finally made clear that this house really is haunted, there really is a monster from outer space in the high school gymnasium, or the Shimmer really is mutating everything it touches.

I don’t believe in anything. Work me into your horror stories, then punish me accordingly.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXIII: ON WRITING HORROR

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy (and science fiction and horror and all other) authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for any author, so worth looking for.

 

After being asked by Writer’s Digest to put together a new online course called Advanced Horror Workshop (which starts up for it’s inaugural run on October 11, just a week from this Thursday) I went out into the world, as I tend to do any time I’m asked to write or speak on a given subject, to do some homework and gather some added wisdom. After all, I don’t have all the wisdom.

My shorter Horror Intensive course is specifically built around the writings of Stephen King, and his brilliant On Writing—a book I adore, by the way—but for this course I wanted to get a wider view on the genre and was delighted when I ran across On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association (Revised Edition), Edited by Mort Castle.

I’ve written here before on the subject of how I make notes in the margins of books I read (at least sometimes) and how I tend to see every book as research for something or other. In this case, starting into a book that I knew I was specifically reading for research, I practically covered it in red ink. Quotes from a number of essays have found their way into the online course, but I also ended up with bits tagged BLOG POST! and PULP. And throughout, notations like: FIND THIS BOOK or READ THIS!

This is my old school manual hyperlink system in action.

The book itself is a collection of essays written by members of the Horror Writers Association, and have appeared on their web site and other places, brought together by editor Mort Castle and published by our pals at Writer’s Digest Books in this revised form way back in 2007. That does mean there are books, movies, and games from the past eleven years or so that are skipped over, but that I can forgive, as can anyone who reads books. That said, I didn’t find any part of On Writing Horror in any way dated. What made a horror story scary in 2007 will make a horror story scary in 2018.

Contributors to the book include mega-stars like Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Harlan Ellison; horror mainstays like Ramsey Campbell, Joe R. Lansdale, Jack Ketcham, Yvonne Navarro, and Bruce Holland Rogers; and I found a lot of wisdom in essays by authors newer to the scene (at least in 2007!), authors (like Richard Dansky) that I’ve read (and worked with) in different genres, and authors I’ve never heard of but whose essays prompted me to write READ THIS! next to the titles of their books. Reading On Writing Horror is a process of discovery, on a number of levels.

For starters, here are the essays I pulled out for recommended readings for the four sessions of the Advanced Horror Workshop:

Session One—The Nature of Horror: What Scares Us and Why

  • “Going There: Strategies for Writing the Things that Scare You” by Michael Marano
  • “Reality and the Waking Nightmare: Setting and Character in Horror Fiction” by Mort Castle
  • “Innovation in Horror” by Jeanne Cavelos

Session Two—Characters: Heroes, Villains, and Victims

  • “Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death” by Ramsey Campbell
  • “Such Horrible Things” by Tina Jens
  • “More Simply Human” by Tracy Knight

Session Three—Monsters: Things That Go Bump in the Night

  • “Take a Scalpel to Those Tropes” by W.D. Gagliani

Session Four—Writing Scary: Techniques for Maximum Horror Effect

  • “The Dark Enchantment of Style” by Bruce Holland Rogers
  • “A Hand on the Shoulder” by Joe R. Lansdale
  • “Keep it Moving, Maniacs: Writing Action Scenes in Horror Fiction” by Jay R. Bonansinga
  • “Splat Goes the Hero: Visceral Horror” by Jack Ketchum

If you’re considering taking the course and that sounds like a lot of reading over a month, well… I said it was “advanced.” Be ready to work!

And those were hardly the only eleven essays I culled from. I found something of value in all forty-eight essays (yes—there are that many), including the foreword and editor’s introduction, which, yes, like prologuesyou should read!

Here are some random gems I pulled out:

 

To make the unnatural seem natural gives the writer the chance to explore new layers of allegory, irony, and even satire, within the complex arena of dark fantasy. The essence of our genre is not solely to tell a scary tale, but also to deeply unsettle and disturb the reader.

—Tom Piccirilli “The Possibility of the Impossible”

 

Writing about evil is a moral act, and it won’t do to recycle definitions of evil—to take them on trust. Horror fiction frequently presents the idea of evil in such a shorthand form as to be essentially meaningless—something vague out there that causes folk to commit terrible acts, something other than ourselves, nothing to do with us. That sounds to me more like an excuse than a definition, and I hope it’s had its day. If we’re going to write about evil, then let’s define it and how it relates to ourselves

—Ramsey Campbell “Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death”

 

Horror fiction deals in aberrations—aberrations of nature and circumstance, of fate and destiny, of the cosmic and the exquisitely human. Of these facets, the most memorable and compelling are the human beings who populate the writer’s fictional world. Through their eyes, the reader is able to behold existence from a unique and unexpected perspective. The reader is able to live another human’s endeavor in order to understand, avoid, or defeat an unimaginable reality, a loathsome monster, or a mind-bending situation.

—Tracy Knight “More Simply Human”

 

It’s also important—and this goes for realism, too—to engage all the senses. Not just sight and sound—these are the easy ones—but smell, taste, touch. Remember, we’re dealing with somebody’s pain here; we’re engaging the reader in someone’s experience of pain. And you can’t do pain properly without touch. The reader has to feel what the character feels when the blade touches the body, presses into the body, invades the body, and then finally roots around in there. In this kind of writing, it’s every inch of the way or nothing at all.

—Jack Ketchum “Splat Goes the Hero: Visceral Horror”

 

Horror is more than what makes a pulse race. There are other sources of horror besides fear; some are far worse than fear, and far harder to write about. I spoke to a horror writer I admire about a scene he’d written that was so full of anguish and loss that it had made my wife cry. He told me that the scene had been so brutal for him to write, he had cried at his keyboard while writing it. It can be dangerous to capture in words what skulks in the Mirkwood of your head. The nineteenth-century French writer Guy de Maupassant was tortured by what he imagined, and died crazy… a year and a half after trying to slit his own throat.

—Michael Marano “Going There: Strategies for Writing the Things that Scare You”

 

Whether or not you sign up for the Advanced Horror Workshop, if you’re writing horror or any genre that brushes up against horror, that calls for suspense or “scary parts” at all—fantasy, thrillers, mysteries, science fiction—this is a book you need to read, mark up, absorb, and reference.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

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