WHEN WE KILLED THOMPSON: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 12

If you haven’t been following along with this series of posts looking in detail at a single issue of Weird Tales, a classic pulp fiction magazine from 1925 that we can all read online, you can go back to the beginning and start here. If you do this, your life will be transformed!

Or, well… you know.

In any case, please feel free to jump in with…

This is a short one—by my estimate only about 2500 words—which is a bit refreshing after a couple of longer stories. It’s interesting to see the variation in length in this magazine. This tends to be true of the majority of pulp fiction magazines of the era, though there were a few single-character magazines that featured (short) novel-length stories of Doc Savage, the Spider, or the Shadow, with maybe a few short stories dropped in as filler. So far we’ve read a novelette, a portion of a serialized novel, and a few short stories of varying length. To me, it’s the variety of experiences within a sometimes loose definition of a single genre or a grouping of related genres, that make these magazines so interesting—that, and the variety of voices.

That said, onward into the short story “When We Killed Thompson”…

Here was my initial reaction to the first line from the earlier post “First Sentences in Detail”:

My, how I used to lie awake nights, staring into the darkness of the attic, wishing we hadn’t done it!

Ah, the classic opener in which we’re told up front that something went terribly wrong then the story circles back to show that play out. This is a bit old fashioned by today’s standards and could be read as a spoiler. Now we know that the as yet unnamed narrator will live to regret what’s about to happen, so at least we know that things won’t work out well in the end—but the bigger spoiler, for my money, is that now we know the end of his/her emotional arc as well. Whatever happens, it ends in regret.

Or that’s what I thought last July—now we get to see if my initial reaction made any sense at all. But first, I’ll try not to vent all of the rage caused by the second paragraph:

By staring a long time with eyes stretched wide, I could see the rafters; and hanging to the rafters near the little partition that turned part of the attic into a room, were his pants—brown-striped they showed in the daylight—and his white shirt.

What in the name of all that’s holy went wrong there?

Lots of things. I need to break that down, but first a little context so you don’t think I’m beating up on Strickland Gillilan. This magazine was published in 1925 and the language has changed quite a bit since then. What we expect in terms of lean sentence structure was not “the norm” in the 20s. And also, authors were paid by the word and were trying to make a living—I know we touched on that before in this series—so maybe Strickland Gillilan was trying to pad a bit.

Deep breaths.

First, I’ll add links to previous Fantasy Author’s Handbook posts that address concerns:

By staring a long time with eyes stretched wide, I could see the rafters; and hanging to the rafters near the little partition that turned part of the attic into a room, were his pants—brown-striped they showed in the daylight—and his white shirt.

Start with movement—when possible. I could see should be I saw most, but not all of the time. And a little while ago I posted a tweet that said:

There are ones of proper uses for semi-colons and millions and millions of people who think they know what those are. Unless you’re 100% sure, just don’t. You don’t need them and your editor will appreciate having to drop a couple in rather than remove dozens and dozens.

…and I stand behind that. We’ll forgive Mr. Gillilan, who was writing many decades ago, but no one who is writing right now.

Is this better?

I stared for a long time with my eyes stretched wide open before I saw, hanging from the rafters near the little partition that turned part of the attic into a room, a pair of brown-striped pants and his white shirt.

I don’t know… better? It’s still kind of a monster sentence. That all said, I’ll now try not to pick every nit out of every sentence of this story.

In the third paragraph, the narrator refers to “he,” and because we’ve read the title we know, or at least have reason to believe, that “he” refers to Thompson. This brings up an interesting point about titles. Was the author consciously referring back to the title? I have no way of knowing, but it does effect my understanding of the story. So then, what does the title of your last short story bring to your readers’ experience of the tale itself? Interesting to ponder at the very least.

This tickled me:

So I held my peace. With the exception, of course, of the one night at supper when I blurted, out of a dead and oppressive silence, “I wish we hadn’t killed Thompson.”

Everyone stopped eating and looked wildly at me. They had not expected me to say this, evidently.

I forgive the author his previous transgressions. What a fun moment.

The first column of the first page sets up that a murder occurred and the first person narrator is guilty about it—a story, with conflict, has begun.

In the second column of the first page we fall farther back in time and get to know how our narrator came to meet Thompson. This is a rather oft-used device, especially in short stories, and in novels, too, though in novels it most often comes in the form of a prologue—and you know I’ve spoken in support of prologues before and still do—so don’t let the fact that this has been a common device for at least ninety-four years stop you from using it if it makes as much sense in your story as it does here.

In the description of the house:

…the gun hanging over the doorway to the living room…

Holy crap, it’s literally Chekhov’s Gun! Let’s see if it ever gets fired! Let’s see, actually, how much, if any, of the description of the inside of the house actually matters as the story unfolds. Here’s my mental inventory:

an old stove in the corner

stairway to the attic near stove

Chekhov’s Gun

big fireplace in living room

back door to porch

firewood

boys’ bedroom

“Rock of Ages” chromo (there’s one to Google as well)

I didn’t focus on the food, which I’m assuming is simply an example of how fine a table they set. And then his description of his mother churning butter is brought back around to the matter at hand:

She wasn’t the sort of woman one would pick out as a conspirator in taking human life, however. But how can one tell? One knows so little of the inner workings even of those with whom one is most intimate.

Was that the author stating the theme of this story, in so many words? Maybe.

If you find the word “imaginarily” in anything I’ve ever written, please… please… kill it with fire.

(Oops—I accidentally sounded like a book critic right then, but still. Kill it. With fire.)

This story is all reading a bit—more than a bit, honestly—like an info dump, but here we see one way around that, or at least, one way to make it less clunky:

He referred to the fact that Thompson and Lewis were two very common names. I thought a great deal about that. It has stuck in my mind through all these years as if there were something really significant or important in the statement.

This could be described as foreshadowing, I suppose, or a specific cue that this detail will or does matter—but in this context, in terms of redeeming an info dump—we get a sense of the emotional or even intellectual reaction on the part of the first person narrator to a set of details, or as in the earlier description of his father as “a great pumper,” the source of or reason for the details. It’s not just a list of bullet points, all this is revealing something of the characters (read: people) involved.

At the end of this page we learn that forty years has passed since the fateful visit of Mr. Thompson. Add that to my mental inventory!

This came as a surprise:

We never saw Thompson again.

A twist—I like it! I thought Thompson was the victim of a family murder plot—and he did leave his pants behind when he went to Jackson… Hmm… This is good! I’m wondering what’s going to happen next.

So then now it seems as if the kid—our narrator—is only assuming Thompson was killed and that because he and his family were the last to see him, they might be suspected of a murder he doesn’t actually know happened. This story really flipped upside down and I love that. I take back all of what I worried about with the first line being a spoiler. This is what you want to do, yes? What we all want to do: surprise our readers!

Why is this now reminding me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time?

It is.

Oh, and Making a Murderer

So then what of my mental inventory:

an old stove in the corner

stairway to the attic near stove

Chekhov’s Gun

big fireplace in living room

back door to porch

firewood

boys’ bedroom

“Rock of Ages” chromo

Not a single one of these things ever came into play. Just the pants and shirt hanging in the attic.

But here’s where the whole Chekhov’s Gun thing gets tricky: The whole first half of this story was a red herring set-up for the reveal that no one in this family actually killed Thompson.That means all of these details, some of which were clearly intentionally meant to suggest their part in a murder: a gun, the stove at the bottom of the stairs that Thompson could have fallen down and hit his head on, firewood that could be used to clobber him or burn his body in the big fireplace… the religious picture that explains our young narrator’s guilty conscience… The fact that none of these potential murder weapons or crime scenes paid off is not just explained by the revelation that there was no murder in the first place but that hanging mental inventory makes that twist all the more surprising and effective.

This was such a clever twist… unfortunately blow to smithereens by the everything-turns-out-okay-in-the-end ending, which is a bit out of character for Weird Tales. Strickland Gillilan really had me there for a minute, I wish he’d left it with me still on the hook.

Still, though, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by this story and Strickland Gillilan, though known as a poet, had some “weird” murder mystery skills. I found an interesting bio of Strickland Gillilan online, but the accompanying list of stories makes no mention of “When We Killed Thompson.”

If this exercise helps anyone rediscover Strickland Gillilan, that would make me happy.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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WHY I GIVE EVERY BOOK I READ FIVE STARS ON GOODREADS

First of all, if you aren’t on GoodReads, go get on GoodReads, and hook up with me there.

If you poke around on my page, or if you notice tweets from me generated by GoodReads every time I finish a book, you may notice that I absolutely adore every single book I read. And you might then be tempted to think I have no opinions at all, that I’m astoundingly lucky that everything I choose to read isn’t just pretty good but maximum-remarkable, or that I’m trying to suck up to authors (many of whom have been dead for decades or longer) by giving them five star reviews so they’ll… what? I’m not sure. Hire me to (posthumously) edit their books?

You might even think I don’t understand what these star ratings are supposed to accomplish.

Those are all easily enough dismissed:

Of course I have opinions of my own, I just don’t always think everyone wants or needs to hear all of them all the time.

I wish I was so lucky that everything I read is maximum-remarkable, but everything I read is at least slightly educational, even if it comes down to “yeesh… never do that!”

I love authors and if that sounds like sucking up, well, that’s fine.

And at last, I do, indeed, understand what the star ratings are meant to do—and that’s what I’d like to talk about today.

First, though, here’s what prompted this discussion this week.

I keep a folder of bookmarks on my Internet browser called FOLLOW UP ON THIS, where I save links to things that catch my eye on any give day, then take maybe half an hour each morning to read through a couple and (maybe) post them on Twitter. This morning I got to a post from GoodReads entitled “How Books Earn Five-Star Ratings From Readers” and as I started reading through it I realized I couldn’t just post a link to this and run. This, I had to talk about in more detail.

Now, of course we all want a bunch of maximum-number-of-stars reviews wherever stars are available to count—we want people to like what we write and to tell their friends. I’m not, generally speaking, either opposed to or immune to that thinking, even though I steadfastly refuse to read reviews of anything ever and advise all authors to do the same—especially reviews (positive or negative) of our own work. Reviews exist for the reviewer and no one else. Give them power, one way or another, and I promise you’ll live to regret it.

And here’s a place where that regret might begin.

This post gives us authors “advice” (at least, I think it’s meant to be advice) for how to get five-star reviews that range from the cogent:

“It means the characters came to matter to me; they were authentic; they drew me in and I came to care about them. A five-star book has changed me in some way that I can’t even necessarily name.” says “Gracie.”

…to the absurd:

It cured my depression, cleared my acne, and aligned my chakras,” says “Brooklyn.”

Thankfully the list is quite short so unlikely to cause any serious damage to either authors or readers, but still, authors who try to alter their own writing to fit into anything here, or anything like this—lists of “what people like”—are in for a long and painful journey. And I mean longer and more painful than writing can already be (though no, writing doesn’t have to be either of those things!).

I give every book (with a very few exceptions*) five stars on GoodReads because I do know how the star ratings are actually used by GoodReads/Amazon, and other online communities and services like Netflix. They want to know what I like and don’t like so they can feed me things they think are the same as or similar to the things I told them I liked while pushing things that are the same as or similar to the things I told them I didn’t like off my screen.

But I don’t want to read the same or similar book, watch the same or similar TV series or movie, over and over and over again. Not to mention trust in these mysterious algorithms that are gleefully overridden by anyone who pays for the privilege.

So then how do I avoid ending up in Algorithm Hell? If I give everything one star, GoodReads’ computers will think I hate everything and end up recommending nothing. That’s no good, especially sense I don’t want anyone to think I hate everything. So I decided to give everything five stars so the algorithm won’t have a list of what I don’t like. And since I do actually read over a fairly inclusive spread of genres and categories, it will then be forced to push through… everything. Anything.

And from that pool of (non) recommendations I can then engage my own individual agency and maybe read another book in a series I like or by an author I’ve read in the past… or I might just try something completely new, completely unknown to me. I might discover my new favorite novel of all time. Or, I might discover my new least favorite (though I also have an aversion to lists like that).

Either way, it gets five stars.

If you think this sounds like me trying to defeat a system designed to help me, I hope you’ll pause before you comment and ask yourself, “Am I willingly marching into the Algorithm Dystopia with the rest of my culture?”

End of sermon.

 

—Philip Athans

 

* I will admit to the occasional moment of emotional weakness in which I… just… couldn’t… Nobody’s perfect!

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SOME THOUGHTS ON RESEARCH

This is another subject too big to cover completely in a single blog post, but let’s look, at least, at a few basic ideas around the subject of research.

I think authors of fiction can be easily separated into two groups: one that loathes the very thought of doing anything resembling research on any subject ever, and the second that adores and even wallows in research, sometimes for years and years, until they’re the world’s foremost thought leader on that subject and are assured that every last detail in their novel is exactly perfect.

There is no in between, and both groups are doing it wrong.

Okay… you know what I mean.

Why would someone who is writing fiction—and especially fantasy—have to do any research at all?

Author Edward P. Jones asked a similar question in his essay “Finding the Known World” from the book The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write:

After the novel (The Known World) was finished, my editor suggested that we put a few lines inside—maybe on the opposite of the title page—saying that none of the characters were real, that they were not based on any real people. And I told her, and I tell other people, that there shouldn’t be any need for that because on the front of the book it says, “a novel.”

Fair enough, but readers will come into your work with an infinite variety of experiences and expectations, including detailed knowledge or uneducated assumptions regarding some detail you thought inconsequential, but whose perceived “wrongness” will ruin their experience of the story. This is not something you can predict and chasing after that degree of perfection, especially since some number of those “expert” readers are actually wrong and you’re right, or you’re both wrong, or you’re both a little wrong and a little right… I’m already exhausted. But still, 2+2=4, and if your book says differently, you better have some fun, plausible fantasy built up around why that is.

I won’t belabor the whole plausibility vs. realism thing again—it’s pretty much all over everything I’ve ever written about writing fantasy, science fiction, and horror. If anything, a little research will help you avoid what I sometimes too safely refer to as “the Giggle Factor”—a fact that’s not that big a deal but is wrong in some way that makes everyone in the know giggle. Unless you want readers to giggle at a particular moment in your book, that can really mess you up.

For me, though, the most important reason to do basic research is that it can provide fresh ideas—things you never thought of that all of a sudden bring a scene to life, alters what you thought a character might say in a particular situation that propels that character to a whole new level, and so on. You never know what gems are waiting for you in the next Google result or the next book on the library shelf.

(I know you aren’t going to the library, but let an old man dream.)

When writing genre fiction in particular, some initial choices in terms of your sub-genre and general approach will start to reveal how much research you have in store for you or how little research you can get away with. If your fantasy world has magic you can explain away an awful lot with that one mechanic, for instance. Historical fantasy and alternate history or “hard” science fiction will require significant research. Contemporary science fiction (it’s 2019 and the aliens invade Earth), urban fantasy (it’s 2019 but the private detective is also a wizard), and almost all horror can require very little research, especially if you’re setting the story in your home town. Created or secondary world fantasy like the Lord of the Rings or the Forgotten Realms world, or far future or alternate reality science fiction like Dune and Star Wars will make their own demands in terms of research. Frank Herbert and J.R.R. Tolkien both put considerable research efforts into their worlds. George Lucas did little or no research at all, leaving it to the writers of the movie Solo to retrofit the whole parsec problem.

But in any case the question only you can answer for yourself and your work in progress is:

What do I need to know?

I brushed up against the concept of research when I talked about naming things. And I stand by my previous statement that naming things is 90% of worldbuilding. But if you are adopting a real world historical setting or using that as a basis for your otherwise created fantasy or science fiction world what do you need to know about, say, behavior and social expectations? Try asking someone already living in that occupation—or the closest thing the real world has to it.

[When doing research for fiction,] start by identifying subject matter experts and do your best to get an interview with them—it’s a fun way to research and get real info. (And make sure you introduce yourself honestly. It can take courage and self-confidence, but it makes sure everything is above board.)

…wrote author Chris Stollar.

What do you need to know regarding science and technology?

Jeff VanderMeer said in an interview with Writer’s Digest:

Well, I’m looking right now at my research, which is, literally, a desk piled with like 200 books on various things to do with nature, and climate change and whatnot. And one thing I realized before Hummingbird Salamander was just simply that I’d already been doing this since the ’80s in terms of talking about climate change in my fiction, more or less. But I’ve not been doing so directly. When I looked at all these books that I’d already read, I realized I had already done all the research.

VanderMeer further touches on the process of research and how it folds into the actual writing of the story:

But my approach to research is pretty much this: I think about a story for a long time because that gives me the leeway to do the research early on, and then let it become just kind of organic in the back of my head.

And he isn’t the only one who kept stacks of books and copious notes, who was essentially always “researching.” In her biography of pulp author Lester Dent, Bigger Than Life: The Creator of Doc SavageMarilyn Cannaday wrote:

Between, around, and through Dent’s travels and his many roles wove threads of an endless supply of stories. It was all material. He was a voracious reader. He searched out plots and characters and kept scrapbooks of clippings and notes—a storehouse of ideas for settings and scientific gadgets which Doc Savage and his troupe would use to extricate themselves from their many predicaments. Dent seemed to mix his reading and actual experiences with the very air he breathed, spinning them into episode after episode. He hardly knew where his life left off and writing began.

Reading Doc Savage, though, it’s clear that at some point—pretty early in the process—the research gave way to the imagination. This is fiction, after all, so there does need to be some end point to your research, some beginning point to your writing, and just like I’ve advised you to keep yourself open to knew, better ideas as you’re writing, the same goes for staying open to setting aside fact in favor of fiction, or as Richard Gilliam put it in his essay “Honest Lies and Darker Truths: History and Horror Fiction” in the book On Writing Horror:

There is, though, a danger that the fictional image may overwhelm the historical one. Certainly there are many examples of inaccurate propaganda being advanced to further unworthy political or social agendas. It’s a dangerous game to tamper with history for the sake of convenient storytelling. Still, every work of fiction in some way must deviate from objective history; it is the very nature of fiction to do so. Each writer must determine individually the standards and limits for abstractions from the objective world.

There’s an old saying: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I don’t think that’s true. Our imaginations kick the shit out of reality on a day to day basis. Let facts help you, but don’t let facts suppress your imagination. We read fiction in celebration of the latter.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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RED AND BLACK: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 11

If you haven’t been following along with this series of posts looking in detail at a single issue of Weird Tales, a classic pulp fiction magazine from 1925 that’s available for all of us to read online, go back to the beginning and start here. Or, of course, just jump in with…

…“Red and Black” by Irvin Mattick: Yong Lo Was a Reptile with an Artist’s Soul (or so says the contents page)!

…and so says the first sentence of the story. I think that’s worth noting right away. If the first sentence of your story can also be used as a compelling tagline, you’re doing something right. This also seems to lend credence to my own assertion that “the villain starts the story, the hero ends it” is all the story structure you really need to know. Based on the first sentence at least, it seems that author Irvin Mattick is beginning with his villain, the reptilian Yong Lo.

First, though, who is this Irvin Mattick fellow?

Well, the blog Tellers of Weird Tales comes to the rescue again with a little background information on author Irvin Mattick, who died the same month I turned five (September, 1969). It appears he only wrote five stories in his apparently part time career as an author, two of which were published in Weird Tales: this story and “The Headless Spokesman” (November, 1925). The earliest story is 1923’s Detective Tales feature “The Mystery at Eagle Lodge” and the last seems to be “The Gold of Feather Canyon,” which was published in the August, 1926 issue of The Popular Magazine. Speaking, as I have just recently here, of authors with “day jobs,” according to Tellers of Weird Tales Mr. Mattick supported his wife and two children “as a linoleum salesman, a clerk, and a writer for a telephone company.” Here’s hoping that our own efforts keep us publishing for more than the span of three years and only five short stories, but this is yet another example of just how open the old pulp magazines were. For every prolific author who went on to greater glory there were dozens if not hundreds of authors who might better be described as “hobbyists.” I’m loathe to use that word for anyone who’s been published at all, but there has to be some explanation for why Irvin Mattick started publishing at age 31 then seemed to give it up at age 34 and lived to the ripe old age of 77, almost 78. Of course, he might have written a few dozen or even a few hundred other stories under a variety of pseudonyms, which was a common practice in the pulp era. A mystery in itself, eh?

So, then, on with “Red and Black”!

The whole snake metaphor for a guy who squeezes money out of people via gambling is fun but a bit tortured. I have a feeling that sold this story in 1925, but wouldn’t in 2019. Still, it’s charming as can be, especially if you keep in mind that the content of Weird Tales was intended to be fun. This is fiction for the purpose of entertainment, and there was nothing wrong with that in 1925 and there’s still nothing wrong with that in 2019. Nor, I submit, will there be anything wrong with that in 2125 or 2219. Don’t be afraid to have fun telling a fun story. There should be a component of play to writing fiction—especially genre fiction. Look for a post devoted to that subject in the weeks ahead.

Getting into Yong Lo’s clandestine casino drips with 1920s speakeasy chic, while at the same time it drips with what can at least be described as “cultural insensitivity,” describing Asian people as “yellow,” and the stereotypical accent: “Man want see Yong Lo.” I’m getting the feeling this is going to be an issue with this story, so let’s pause to remind ourselves that the study of pulp fiction is not meant—at least by me—to be some effort to dial back the already slow moving clock of social progress but to understand the cultural norms of the time and culture in which these stories were written and look at the writing itself for things like pacing, what I previously mentioned about a sense of fun and play in the writing, and so on. This is not permission to call Asian people “yellow” any more than the rest of these stories, or my online Pulp Fiction Workshop, should be seen as encouraging the sort of institutionalized sexism and casual racism evident in a lot—but, significantly, not all—of the source material.

Anyway, the narrator has passed us through the front and into Yong Lo’s casino using another device you might not get past a contemporary editor: the vaguely second person use of “you” in “First you entered a low, wobbly store that helped to demoralize Hop Alley.”

I’d have liked to have been introduced to a POV character by now—and this is before the end of the first column of the first page of the story. Let’s see that POV character make his or her way through the secret door, not the vague “you.”

On that score at least, this whole opening “scene” is almost a master class in what not to do. Though I love the evocative descriptions, here’s a full-on info dump that describes the secret casino and its master in great detail, but with no action. Nothing is happening to anyone or because of anyone—it’s just scene setting.

Don’t do this!

If you want to describe how fancy the roulette wheel is because you want to convey that this isn’t some seedy barroom but a high class joint, then have your POV character place a bigger bet than she can afford then watch in desperate anticipation as the wheel decides her fate. In that way, the wheel matters to someone, not as something. Stories are about characters—always—and about things only in how they interact with the characters!

And this keeps happening, with an arm’s length one-paragraph dissertation in the apparent voice of an unknown, “omniscient” narrator on the discovery by Butch Killian that Yong Lo is cheating. This needs to be an actual scene—conveyed through either Yong Lo’s or Butch’s tight POV, so we experience him experiencing this revelation—feeling his way through it, rather than the storytelling-via-bullet-points—this happened then this happened then this happened, etc.—that we see here.

For what it’s worth, right now, I really didn’t want to just complain about this story. But come on, Irvin Mattick, get it together, man!

At least, as we get into page 69, Yong Lo begins to reveal himself as the POV character, fading in in place of the narrator that’s been trash talking him so far. Hope springs eternal!

Kind of a fun bit with the letter revealing Lee Gow’s conspiracy with Butch Killian, even if it comes a little easy…

Hmmm… Looks like everyone is a bad guy in this story, and I respect that. Have you read R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen yet?

That said, it’s Lee Gow who has committed the one most unpardonable crime of all:

“Na—na—na—they find me. I kill white girl—I hide in cellar hole.”

What can I say? It took another seventy years for someone to get away with that.

Oh, and then we get to “the C word.” I actually wasn’t expecting that. Still, it’s in character for Butch Killian to say that, but would he say it to another Chinese person? Maybe, in 1925. Think about this sort of thing—language you hopefully don’t use yourself—as another example of letting your villains be villainous, like we talked about with Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones. That word doesn’t make Irvin Mattick an asshole for writing it, it makes Butch Killian an asshole for saying it—and the story requires Butch to be an asshole, or as Yong Lo himself says: “Butch Killian big boob.”

The torture of Butch is pretty gross, but for our purposes look at how sloppy the POV is. With no thought whatsoever we get a glimpse of what Butch looks like, which only Yong Lo can see: “Butch’s neck turned black.” Then a description of sensations only Butch’s POV could provide: “Rushing noises swooped down upon him.” And both in a single paragraph. This passed muster in 1925 but even in short stories where we can give ourselves and each other more leeway on POV, getting into and staying in the habit of one scene, one POV will be worth the effort.

This scene gets pretty gross—an object lesson for those of you who think that gory fiction or media in general is some kind of new invention: “…his thighs seemed to take what belonged in his torso.”

Yuck!

Whoa—spoiler alert: everybody dies!

And that’s okay… everybody in this story deserved to.

I have my legitimate gripes with the writing but the story came together in the end with some wildly imaginative, almost crazy-gory aplomb. This was a rough one, but I think we learned from it. If anything we’re getting a great look at the up and down, good and bad nature of the stories packed into these old magazines.

Can’t wait to see what weirdness Weird Tales gives us next.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

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ON THE ACCIDENTAL GENIUS OF ETERNAL PESSIMIST H.P. LOVECRAFT

Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” first published in The Wolverine in 1921, is a story often held up as an example of Lovecraft’s overt racism since it plays on the “terror” of racial or genetic impurity—a horror story for the era of eugenics. But in this passage we see the roots of a building sense of the human species as not just inherently villainous to each other, but a danger to the world itself—our curiosity threatens all, starting with ourselves.

Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous. Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species—if separate species we be—for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world. If we knew what we are, we should do as Sir Arthur Jermyn did; and Arthur Jermyn soaked himself in oil and set fire to his clothing one night.

If I may, for a moment, conflate the words “science” and “technology,” the Industrial Revolution that Lovecraft was experiencing as he wrote this story has led us to the same conclusion reached by Arthur Jermyn, especially when we’re confronted by one study after another that lend inescapable truth to his assertion, like the study described in the USA Today article from November 19, “Climate change to trigger widespread hazards to Earth and humanity—many at the same time“:

“Greenhouse gas emissions pose a broad threat to humanity by simultaneously intensifying many hazards that have proven harmful in the past,” (Camilo) Mora said. “Further, we predict that by 2100 the number of hazards occurring concurrently will increase, making it even more difficult for people to cope.”

For example, in New York in 2100, people will endure four separate climate hazards, including drought, sea-level rise, extreme rainfall and high heat. By that time, Los Angeles will deal with three.

Although the scientists discovered few positive or neutral effects, the overwhelming majority of climate impacts are detrimental to humans.

“If we only consider the most direct threats from climate change, for example heat waves or severe storms, we inevitably will be blindsided by even larger threats that, in combination, can have even broader societal impacts,” study co-author Jonathan Patz of the University of Wisconsin said.

I’m not prepared to light myself on fire yet, but even as a generally pro-science, pro-technology person, I can’t pretend that the Industrial Age hasn’t come at a severe long term cost. I don’t think H.P. Lovecraft had any sense that carbon emissions in 1921 would pave the way to disastrous climate change only detectable half a century in his future and disastrous half a century in ours, but maybe, like Mary Shelly before him, we could have listened to people who were at least asking that we be a bit more cautious in the stuff we invent and even more cautious of the machines we put into massive, wide-scale use having no idea of their long term impacts.

In his most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft wrote:

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

In this case, I tend to disagree with Lovecraft. I think the smarter we are the better. But a general fear of science has been around for, really, all of human history. Religions are founded on the concept of “ignorance is bliss”—that it’s better to repeat feel good stories than to know just how little the universe cares about us, not to mention all the ways in which it’s lined up to destroy us—and in Lovecraft’s lifetime only a few of the many extinction level events lurking in the black seas of infinity were known.

This definitely explains why America, while barreling to the Singularity, is awash in nonsense from both the left and the right, from the religious and the pseudo-scientific, leading National Geographic to ask: “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”

We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge—from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change—faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts. There are so many of these controversies these days, you’d think a diabolical agency had put something in the water to make people argumentative. And there’s so much talk about the trend these days—in books, articles, and academic conferences—that science doubt itself has become a pop-culture meme.

This leaves us with anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, flat-Earthers, and anti-GMOers diving headfirst into their own new Dark Ages, all while watching the current measles outbreak run through Seattle, the climate actually changing now fast enough to see and feel, driving to their flat-Earther convention using the GPS on their phones that only works because of satellites in orbit around the spherical planet, all while happily munching organic foods and either pretending or somehow actually not knowing that being anti-GMO means they also have to be pro-starvation, especially for developing nations facing a rapidly changing climate.

Science has opened up such terrifying vistas of reality that it now feels like mythology. The universe around us was always assumed to be pretty weird but every day it’s getting weirder and weirder, and that weirdness is being revealed to us faster and faster. It’s now gotten so difficult to keep up that whole groups of otherwise smart people are falling off the speeding locomotive of scientific and technological progress somewhere along the way.

It can be drawn out of a careful reading of his fiction, but in a letter to Farnsworth Wright dated July 5, 1927 (Selected Letters II, 1925-1929, quoted in In the Dust of This Planet by Eugene Thacker) Lovecraft just came right out and admitted that…

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all… but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

I understand if not everyone is comfortable with the idea that there’s nothing terribly special about humans, or worse, that a lot of what we pat ourselves on the back for (technology) is actually killing us and taking innocent fellow creatures down with us while we’re now smart enough (science) to know that we’re stuck to a whirling ball of rock adrift in the black seas of infinity and the killer asteroid, coronal mass ejection, or gamma ray burst that murders us all without malice of forethought is literally an ever-present danger.

There’s scary shit out there, and the smarter you are the more of it you’re confronted with, and the more you’re confronted with it the closer you get to the point where you just fucking crack.

At least, according to H.P. Lovecraft.

But how about this idea: In the same way that American conservatives were wrong, in the 1960s, when they said to the hippies: “America, love it or leave it,” when our Founding Fathers set up the Constitution under the general heading: “America, love it or fix it,” we can either freak out at the icky feeling that food made in a laboratory might conjure, flail about for someone to blame for random occurrences like autism, or keep burning fossil fuels because it’s cheaper and easier and anyway the oil companies won’t let us stop, than it is to think that maybe the same spectacular creativity that came up with the internal combustion engine and the atomic bomb could come up with the means to fix the mistakes—some of them innocent enough—of previous generations.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB (MAYBE, EVER)

I read a report on Publishing Perspectives regarding a report from the Author’s Guild, that the average income authors derived exclusively from writing has fallen by 42% since 2009. That’s a huge number, actually, and really terrifying—at least on the face of it. But as I continued reading the report on the report, that number came more and more under suspicion. From Publishing Perspectives:

There is what appears to be a brighter spot. Authors identifying themselves as full-time, when reporting “all writing-related activities,” showed a median income that was up 3 percent over 2013, coming in at $20,300. The guild points out, however, that this is still substantially lower than the $25,000 median income that class of writer reported in 2009.

This, to me at least, begs the question: Who is an “author,” anyway, and how has that definition changed since 2009? Surely there are more indie and self-published authors now than there were then—and only a precious few of them are managing a full time living from writing. I still know, personally, very few authors (of fiction, at least) who do it full time, or derive the majority of their income from their writing—and I know a lot of authors, believe me.

And let’s be honest, if the average full time author is making $20,300 a year…? Well, that’s not going to cover my $32,000 in mortgage payments every year, so I’m not sure where these people are living, but it ain’t anywhere near Seattle, let me tell you.

So then if the minority of professional full time authors have gotten a 3% raise since the end of the worst of the post-Bush Depression, an easy explanation for the overall drop of 42% is that there are a lot more people making very little money each.

And though of course I would love it if everyone out there with a story to tell and the will and passion and education to do it well, and the professionalism, drive, and ambition to do it for a living are at least able to make a decent living from it, the reality is that most likely none of us are going to get rich (whatever that means), or even achieve that coveted status of “full time author” anytime soon.

Is that some sign of an impending Bookpocalypse?

I’ve been warned of that before.

Or is this, in fact, the lot of the midlist, first time, struggling, and aspiring author (I’d bet that accounts for more than 90% of authors in any case) since time immemorial?

In her LitHub article “William Faulkner Was Really Bad at Being a Postman,” Emily Temple wrote:

Faulkner would open and close the office whenever he felt like it, he would read other people’s magazines, he would throw out any mail he thought unimportant, he would play cards with his friends or write in the back while patrons waited out front.

Faulkner, asked to defend his actions, replied, by letter:

[October, 1924]

As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.

This, sir, is my resignation.

You go, William.

The history of the written word is full of stories like this, authors frustrated by terrible day jobs, suffering under the yoke of the Man while desperately trying to pursue their literary careers. But now that we know how hard it is, how uncommon it is, and how long it takes to make a living from writing, what are we left with? Are we all stuck serving “at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp”? Or is there some reasonable alternative?

In the book Tribe of Mentors by Timothy Ferris, author Soman Chainani wrote:

Too often. aspiring artists put pressure on themselves to make their creative work their only source of income. In my experience, it’s a road to misery. If art is your sole source of income, then there’s unrelenting pressure on that art, and mercenary pressure is the enemy of the creative elves inside you trying to get the work done. Having another stream of income drains the pressure on your creative engine. If nothing comes of your art, you still have an ironclad plan to support yourself. As a result, your creative soul feels lighter and free to do its best work.

I love this—and not just as some kind of excuse for not living my best life, but as some confirmation that I actually am living my best life. The trick isn’t trying desperately to claw your way out of a horrible day job on the strength of your writing—or art in general—but to claw your way out of a horrible day job and into a better day job, while still pursuing your writing.

That’s what I’ve done all my adult life. I’ve had jobs I loved—at least when I was in my twenties—like record store manager, until I found the one job that perfectly blended with my writing ambitions: editor.

And guess what, “editor” is still my “day job.” And though my own writing took a bit of a back seat while I established Athans & Associates Creative Consulting in the couple years since leaving Wizards of the Coast, I’ve found my way to exactly what Soman Chainani was describing. I don’t write for money, under strict deadline, anymore. No more Baldur’s Gate’s for me. I love writing again, because I love my day job.

Can’t quit your day job, and that makes you miserable? Instead of desperately clawing after impossibilities like surfing trends in YA publishing, or trying to hack the Amazon Kindle algorithms… spend a few months getting a better day job while, of course, writing!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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THE REST OF WHITE MAN’S MADNESS: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 10

I don’t want Fantasy Author’s Handbook to become a blog only about what we might learn about the art and craft of genre fiction by reading one 1925 issue of Weird Tales, but let’s just finish up on the novelette we started on December 18

The story thus far: Martin has travelled to the Peruvian Andes in search of treasure and after being abandoned by his native guide and drunkenly wandering away from his travelling companion and their pack mule, he fell into a ravine and was rescued by indigenous people who have taken him in and cared for him, so he can lust after the gold and emeralds they’re wearing and plot some means to seduce the treasure away from the young woman who has been nursing him back to health. “White Man’s Madness,” indeed.

We left off at the end of Chapter 2, so boldly pressing on into the treasures hidden within Chapter 3 we find Martin’s thoughts filled with his own pain, his senses gradually coming back. Can we hope he’ll snap out of his Colonialist greed frenzy? He definitely seems to be “catching feelings,” as the youth of today might say, for the native girl, and based on…

Under his ardent glances, her eyes drooped and a dusky rose crept into her cheeks.

…the feeling is mutual.

This is good place to pause, already, to remember that even if a story isn’t, or isn’t meant to be, a romance, per se, that romantic elements aren’t just occasionally found in, but are almost always integral to stories in any other genre. Finding the line between a fantasy story and a fantasy-romance can be, frankly, impossible. Though, in retrospect, I gave the subject short shrift in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, I stand behind this, at least:

Both fantasy and science fiction require fully realized characters, and that usually includes some form of romance. People have done extraordinary things in the name of love [or lust], both positive and negative. When you’re developing your characters, it’s important to know whom they go home to every night—or whom they hope someday to go home to, or whom they used to go home to but can’t anymore.

And as I said, there’s more to it than that. And it isn’t all about “the male gaze,” nor is it some kind of all-or-nothing acceptance or rejection of explicit sexual content. People like, love, and lust after each other, and your characters will not be people unless and until they do that, too.

Things advance as Martin continues to recover, and only when he loudly professes his love for her do we learn the young woman’s name is Taia. That’s an oversight you’ll want to avoid. People tell each other their names. I’m notoriously bad at connecting names and faces, myself, sometimes embarrassingly so, but when you’ve been living with someone who’s been taking care of you for a long time… He knew her name before this, obviously, and since Martin is our POV character, we should have, too!

Let’s just sit back from a remove of ninety-four years and soak up the gender and race assumptions this scene of Martin and Taia proclaiming their love for each other brings up—on both sides.

But then there’s this reveal that there’s a greater layer to the whole thing than just that he’s a white man and she’s… not. Taia is the One Set Aside, which, by the way, is a title that I really like.

But can I just say, as both a reader and an editor, that any paragraph that begins:

“Listen,”  she continued, seeing his perplexity. “I will tell you how it is.”

…gives me pause. Or maybe more accurately: stress-related sweats? Petite mal seizures? If you’re still struggling with the distinction between show vs. tell, when a character actually says out loud “I will tell you how it is,” that’s telling.

Yes?

Okay, Taia, the One Set Aside, let’s hear it…

And so follows a little info dump that tells the sad history of Taia’s people, their own internal struggles, and their misuse at the hands of the white man—told, can I say, with some sensitivity. Here, in 1925, the myth of the heroic European explorer bringing the light of Christendom to the savage frontiers of the New World is getting at least this small voice in opposition. Maybe some real understanding of the history of the Americas isn’t such a new phenomenon as some of us would think—or most pulp cover art would have us believe. Well played, Ms. Chaney.

But then quickly back to traditional gender roles in which Taia sees no alternative but to give up her important role as the One Set Aside in order to be with Martin, those two things (like the careers of most women in the 1920s) being mutually exclusive, by unwritten caveat.

The lesson from all this, so I can stop harping on every example of how we’re all so much more enlightened here in the 21st century, is this:

Try as you might, you (and me, and all of us) will end up having written a story that, ninety-four years from now, will in some way or another come across as dated, quaint, even racist, sexist, or disturbingly retrograde. This story, and the rest of the stories we’re reading in this old issue of Weird Tales, aren’t ever going to be shining examples of how the art of fiction can or has been perfected. They are, like everything we’re going to write, ourselves, in 2019, a product of our time and culture—whatever that is. So though I’m sure I’ve come across as poking some fun at Lenore E. Chaney’s “quaint” assumptions regarding race, gender, language, and so on… don’t worry, I’ll get mine soon enough.

We all will.

Back to the story then, and a recurrence of Martin’s “White Man’s Madness” when Taia’s story “brought not a vision of a spiritual teacher, but dreams of the capitals of Europe, whose innermost portals would be opened wide for him if only he could lay hands upon this treasure.”

Oh, Martin, we wanted so much more from you.

Remember when we talked about theme? I think this is to be a story about greed, and how bad it is. I bet you’ve picked up on that, too.

In discussions and classes on the subject of worldbuilding, I’ve often said that your story will tell you what part of the world it’s necessary for you to build, citing the possible necessity for a funeral as one such occasion. Here, Lenore E. Chaney gives us her fictional tribe’s wedding ceremony:

Without another word the priest turned and left them, motioning them to await his return. Presently he came back again, followed by the two brothers of Taia and several of the Indians of the village. Joining the hands of the two, he went rapidly through a sort of ritual, of which Martin could understand only a word here and there. Then he took from around Taia’s slim throat a golden chain, from which hung the familiar golden disk, and this he hung around Martin’s own neck, and lifting Martin’s right hand he laid it upon the girl’s bowed head.

“You are now one,” he said. “Walk together in the law. Take heed lest sorrow come through fault of your own, since sorrow earned is sorrow doubled.”

Another example of what not to do, at least if you can at all help it: “he went rapidly through a sort of ritual.” This is telling again. We came to this story for the exotic and, literally, weird, didn’t we? Show us the exotic wedding ceremony! Now, that doesn’t mean it has to overwhelm the story with pages and pages of ritual minutiae, but even a few sentences describing what the priest was talking about? Show us his face and demeanor, not to mention Martin’s and Taia’s. There are a few details before and after, but this could have been brought to life more fully.

Chapter 3 ends on the dramatic moment at the end of the wedding where it’s clear that Taia is not as happy as one might hope a blushing bride would be immediately following her wedding. The transition immediately to: “The days that followed were the happiest days that Martin had ever known,” is a chapter transition counterpoint that, to my mind, really worked, even if the paragraph goes on to show that Taia has shed at least a good portion of her gloominess following the wedding.

Now Martin goes back to work on her—trying to discover the location of the hidden treasure—and the blush is off the rose in three weeks. Martin goes into full creepy manipulator mode, solidifying his role as the story’s villain, which is well conveyed by the things he does and says, even if Ms. Chaney lays some of Taia’s innocence on a bit thick. But then love is blind, even in the uncharted reaches of the Peruvian Andes.

What follows in this longer conversation is a bit condensed, from a storytelling point of view, but is interesting in that the method Martin thought to use to get closer to Taia is exactly what’s keeping him out of the temple. As soon as he married her, she became unable to fork over the treasure, even if she wanted to—and she clearly doesn’t want to. Keep this in mind as an example of how story often comes from a character screwing up, making a bad decision, failing at a goal, etc.—but then climbing back up on the horse and trying again from a different angle.

You can refer back to what I said about a character telling another character the whole story for the big part of Chapter 4 in which Taia unloads the rest of the story behind the hidden treasure. Seems strange to me, at this point, that Martin hadn’t already asked about this or Taia hadn’t thought to tell him all this. It isn’t just about avoiding info dumps, but being careful to give characters (and through them, your readers) information as it’s needed to push your story forward, but also when it’s logical that a character would ask, or seek out that information, or know better than to proceed without it, and so on. Suspense comes from an imbalance of information—you’ve let your readers in on some important bit of information the current POV character doesn’t know—but if there’s one character, like Taia, who’s been generally forthcoming, and another, like Martin, who’s extremely interested in any and every detail of a subject he knows she knows all about, and somehow months go by before anyone thinks to say, “Okay, here’s the reason for the thing…” Well, that just feels… forced? Illogical? Implausible? A storytelling device instead of a thing that a person might do?

All of the above.

Anyway, armed with this new information, Martin strikes out on his own to try to figure out the location of the hidden treasure temple—and this is good. Characters, including villains, should be actively working toward the furtherance of their goals!

This is interesting—fascinating, really: the way Lenore E. Chaney wrote her way around this act of child murder:

The boy quivered and shrank away from the menace in Martin’s voice, but he did not speak.

Then the long pent-up fury burst forth, for the man had gone mad through the passion of thwarted desire. For all the centuries of civilization have but served to lay a thin veneer over the cruelty of the savage, and, given sufficient prodding, the beast within breaks forth now and then, either in organized fiendishness, as in the public Inquisition, or in private deviltry that finds no historian ready to record it.

An hour later, spent and a little sick, Martin staggered down the trail alone, and he did not yet know the secret of the path. As he went along he thought of what Taia had said of the madness in the white man’s brain. It had seized upon him, Martin, even as it had seized upon Pizarro’s men, five hundred years before.

When you’re choosing your level of violence or gore, or the degree of explicit sex you include—or choose not to include—in your story, your comfort zone wins over any feeling you might have for what “they” expect, either way. And by “they” I mean whoever you might be tempted to turn creative control over your work to—before “they” have even read it: agents, editors, readers, critics… whoever. Describe this murder? Too much for Ms. Chaney. And that’s perfectly okay—and the fade out might just be more effective, more impactful than any blood and guts she might have cringed her way through.

Heck of a way to end Chapter 4.

Good to see Martin suffering through the guilt of his crime—the recognition of his obsession, now turned murderous. Is there a moment in your work-in-progress where the villain has this moment of doubt and pain? It’s not a requirement but it can be effective, as it is here. Even if he gets over it awful quick!

The scene in which Martin finally discovers the temple is wonderfully described, but can I sigh in disappointment at the ending, in which Martin’s greed is his final undoing? Because… is it? I guess so—if he hadn’t attempted to raid the temple in the first place he wouldn’t have fallen for what’s clearly a booby trap. And this seems to say that they—at least the priest—knew all along what Martin was up to, what he was working toward, and let him go ahead and hang himself… except that he murdered the boy in the meantime. That was quite a risk, leaving this foaming at the mouth victim of “White Man’s Madness” to roam freely amongst the tribe.

Anyway, justice was served, and we’ve all been warned: Stop raiding indigenous peoples of their resources!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

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