Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Research - My Bread and Butter

All those years as a historian certainly aren't going to waste--aside from my nonfiction book, The Specter of the Indian, being released by SUNY Press in September 2017 and which I just finished the copyedits for (yay!!), my historian's brain has been hard at work for the past few months researching the ancient world for my novel in progress, Up From the Bog. I'm an American historian by training, but have used that training to become an expert in the supernatural and the gothic in the nineteenth century.

Fairly accurate assessment of the book count. For nonfiction,
multiply by 1000.
Researching as an academic is not fun. It means reading a book a day or more prepping for oral exams, and being held accountable for reading, touching, analyzing, etc. ad nauseum every source, historical and recent, that exists on your topic, and all related topics. That includes traveling to special collections archives, knowing multiple languages to do your own translations, taking serious amounts of notes and building arguments and connections. You can see why I chose a topic like ghosts, to keep my eyeballs from falling out.

Everyone knows the Witch of Endor
The characters in my new book dictated that I be an expert in Egyptology, archaeology, bog bodies, Celtic Druidism, British witchcraft, the Roman occupation of Britain, and general Roman habits--especially those relating to class divisions, social interactions, sexuality, marriage contracts, ancestor worship, and popular theater. AND, the supernatural or occultish trends in the ancient religions of Britannia, Roma, and Egypt more specifically, so I might make distinctions between religion, magic, and witchcraft. Goodie goodie.

So even though I could now write a plausible thesis on such things, I choose instead to imbue my story with the best references and facts, using actual connections and universalisms to give my narrative thematic cohesion. I was so pleased to find details that, alongside the dry but necessary things that help describe environments and behaviors correctly, there were so many wonderful connections that were just too good to be true, that really helped forge a better concept in my head about how my story would progress, and how I could execute the overall tone that I was aiming for--one that broods and toes the line b/w dark fantasy and horror, all resting on ancient and classical themes.

Confidence about progress in fiction is a great feeling-when your outline is so clear in your head that it comes out as a chapter draft on the page-that's a solid day's work. Knowing that in just a few weeks I get a month-long break from the work that gave me the skills to create this story? Even better.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

I Am Most Thankful For...


The Shrouded Dead by Ash Robles

Yes, honestly. As a blogger, the thing I am most grateful for is another blog. And this one has it all--all things Lovecraft, all things weird, grotesque, and beautiful from all over the world. I have filled my home with so many things that I've found here. The genius of Jacob Petersson, Kurt Komoda, Joe Broers, and so many others have found their way into my home because of this collection of the horrific. The things I've gathered from these muses have helped shaped my home as an expression of myself, one that becomes harder and harder for friends and family without keen eyes to miss, since you know, there's like a monster or a corpse in almost every crevice of my living space. And the list of things I see on their page and want just keeps growing. And growing, and growing. Keep it up over there!

The Idol of Nightmares by Christian Alpini

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Modern Gothic at Its Best - The Shadow of the Wind

What a beautiful, beautiful book. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is full of depth, and a wonderful blending of Gothicism and modernity in which the national character of the book, and Barcelona in particular, is ever present.

Perhaps the best compliment I could pay this work is to say that while reading it, I felt it a true descendant of Don Quixote, the pinnacle of Spanish literature, the essence of the novel form, filled with every emotion you want from a great story--love, empathy, hatred, sorrow, fear, cowardice, contempt, shock, reverence, and inspiration.

Let's talk about the style for a minute. It's perfection. Zafon's language is full of magic and mystery, starting the tale off by showing the wonders of the world through the eyes of a child, and bringing all the corners of the city to life through a colorful array of characters. My favorite was Fermin. His dialogue and actions were so real, and he made me laugh out loud. Multiple times, to the annoyance of whoever was around me as I read voraciously. And the humor fell mostly to the intellectual side, even in more provocative conversations-I appreciated that intelligent sensibility immensely.

Another big compliment I have to pay - The Shadow of the Wind is the best iteration of the Gothic that I have read in a long, long while, including actual gothic works and more contemporary literature that plays on its tropes. The things we know and expect from Gothicism--dilapidated houses, ghosts and demons, family drama, dire secrets and the quest to reveal them--all these are done here in a way that is fresh, and urgent, and unpredictable, making this immensely enjoyable, breathing new life into ways of storytelling that have been sadly formulaic and drab in so many attempts at the Gothic. Part of the success of Zafon's gothicism is its intimate connection to his setting. Postwar Barcelona is so well-developed and believable, and it's the perfect place to deal with Gothic tropes of things that are hidden coming to light--in a city torn apart and changing in the wake of a war that left its mark not on the nation, but on its people. The city is in flux, and it's an ideal juxtaposition.

I have two quibbles, the first of which is Fumero, one of the villains of the story. I saw the depths of his villainy, felt his malignant presence in every scene, without making him larger than life in a super-villain, charicatured sense. It reminded me very much of the villain of Pan's Labyrinth, another beautiful story set during the Spanish Civil War. But his motivations for his acts? That fell on the weak side. He did not seem as intimately involved in the impetus of the events for which he plots his revenge.

An adaptation of Shadow of the Wind like this would make my life complete.

My second quibble: towards the end of the work, there's a confusion of voice in the lengthy narrative of Nuria Monfort, a character on whom our protagonist Daniel relies to find the truth of the past. The lengthy exposition of all that Daniel and Fermin have been working to uncover felt so much like the weighty explanations at the end of many Sherlock Holmes stories, and did not carry the immediacy and urgency that Daniel's narrative had. I desperately wish that it had. There was a slight question of how she was telling things she admittedly did not witness, so there was a little bit of head-scratching involved, but overall, it came back together for a page-turning finale.

This is a book whose power will stay with me for a while, and only increases my affinity for Spanish writers, and international writes more broadly. I feel really blessed to have read it - a real contribution to art, literature, and all that is beautiful in this world. The best part? There are two more books in this series.

K Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ripper Street - Ripping Great Fun!

I did not consume the British TV program Ripper Street in a single sitting, but rather savored it over the course of weeks and months as I watched lots of other things in tandem-Marco Polo, Stranger Things, Broadchurch.... but now that I have finished the first season,  I could not be more pleased with the result.

What drew my attention to Ripper Street is the same thing that would draw most in: mention of the infamous Ripper of Whitechapel. I'm no stranger to cinematic renditions of this, and was wary of yet another telling of whodunnit, until I realized that's not with this show is about at all. It uses the Ripper killings merely as it setting-Whitechapel after the spate of grizzly murders, where the Ripper has fallen silent, never to be named. But not all is silent on Ripper Street. This show tells the tales of crime in the wake of the notorious Ripper, with varied and unique plots dealing with American pinkertons, shipwrecks, human trafficking, the first erotica on film, and much, much more. The show has a sharp wit and innate authenticity, taking itself seriously when it must, but always bursting at the seams with high-octane action and hearty doses of comic relief. Relief that comes mostly from seeing the backlot of Game of Thrones flitting in and out of episodes. Bronn is one of the leads, Inspector Reid's right-hand-man, and Jorah Mormont and Roose Bolton had showcase roles. Tonight at the season finale, I got surprised by Hodor, and Juan and Cecilia from The Borgias, a show I am currently watching and will review in very short order.

Memory of the Ripper as backdrop, not plot? Genius.
Ripper Street expertly balances being episodic and having an overarching narrative. Criminal investigations are, for the most part, contained within each episode, but treated with enough depth to be compelling and unpredictable. Yet you are equally drawn in by the deeper plot threads woven throughout the episodes regarding the investigative trio, their origins, temperments, and home lives.

Special touches are places where other Victorian trends like photography, emergent cinematography technology, and charity houses are concerned. These are things of immense interest to me as a scholar of the period, but get so little shrift in our media. To see them showcased here, and so well, was a pure delight for me. So too was the treatment of prostitution. There are plenty of working women on this show, but their active participation and society and their interactions with the police in particular are a master stroke, and elevates this common media type above its standard, flat stereotyping. Prostitution was a bigger portion of society in those years than most people realize, and they did not live as lepers--they were living, breathing members of a community. For a show ostensibly inspired by a whore-killer, to un-objectify them is one of the show's greatest triumphs.

In short, I would recommend this to a wide audience: those who love Victorians as much as I do, but also to those who like procedurals, actions, historical fiction, or even biting social commentary. There is something for everyone on Ripper Street.

K Rating: 9/10

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Blow Up - It's No Deep Red

I had high hopes for Blow Up, the giallo-esque film by Michelangelo Antonioni. It stars David Hemmings, who also played the lead in Dario Argento's Deep Red, a triumph of the giallo style and arguably Argento's masterpiece. I was just talking about its greatness at the blog Fantasy Literature, and knew that this earlier film had a similar premise--a young man realizes he's seen a murder, this time through his photography.

Image resultThis title fell short for me in a lot of ways. For one, it was agonizingly slow. It leaned very heavily towards the artsy, which is not necessarily a problem, but there are some European filmmakers out there who think that showing things happening at a snail's pace make them magically more interesting. This, unfortunately, was one of those cases. But what really happened was--well, not much, as the premise of the plot is essentially all you get-just the idea that the photographer inadvertently captured a murder while he thought he was capturing an adulterous couple. The female subject of his shots comes to his studio, desperate to collect the negatives once she discovers she's been filmed, and only in developing those shots does Hemming's character realize what she was actually looking at. 

The photographer goes back to the scene of the crime, but for some inexplicable reason does not shoot pictures of the body he finds there. When he goes back later, the body is gone. So the film does have something going for it, because it makes you wonder what, if anything, Thomas and the woman saw. When he blows up the pictures to get a better look, they're too enhanced and grainy to see anything, so there's a trick of the mind there at play--or possibly. And the photos themselves in the long shot are gorgeous. 

Spoiler Alert! Profundo Rosso
It has other hallmarkers of gialli - the modern backdrop, for example. But in this case, I feel like that's almost all I got. If I wanted to know anything about mod culture, I don't anymore. It was overkill, and nearly swallowed the plot whole.

But something I consider essential to gialli is missing: the reveal of the killer. This revelation is usually the crux of those issues about memory, reality, sexuality, selfhood, and all the lovely undertones that make gialli so powerful and culturally relevant. And of course, blood. No blood. None. Very, very sad. Any redeeming virtues this film has, I'm sorry to say, are done better in Deep Red. So just go watch that.

K Rating: 6/10

Friday, November 11, 2016

Trick r' Treat - A Delight!

Slightly off from Halloween itself, but the horror box that I created for October and beyond pulled up Trick r'Treat. What great fun. This is an anthology film: separate little concepts pulled together by the common theme of Halloween and the age-old practice of trick-or-treating. What was unique about this anthology was the frame story that connected each segment was an integral part of the film, and so the pieces were part of a continuous whole. The film records a Halloween night in a single community, and each piece was a focus on different individuals or groups. Some of my favorites were the murderous schoolteacher and the crochety neighbor, represented by Dylan Baker and Brian Cox. I was surprised to see such well-known actors in this popcorn blockbuster, but each played their role so very well. Anna Paquin was a sorority girl in a segment played all too well, which harkened back to Ginger Snaps, a fantastic film about female sexuality and the monstrous. We get a prank gone wrong, too, as well as an urban legend. All the high points of Halloween in middle America.

It's not often that a horror film makes you laugh out loud, but this one hit that mark multiple times. It was a perfect blend of grotesque and well-shot special effects with black humor, so you're disgusted and tickled at the same time, which is really quite an accomplishment for the writers and director. The film is reminiscent of things like Tales from the Crypt, which horrified audiences with a good dose of sinister entertainment.

Word to the wise-don't buy what he's selling.
The way the stories weaved together was very thoughtful, giving glimpses of how different characters are connected to each other. That's something that other anthologies that I've loved, like the Amicus collections starring greats like Peter Cushing couldn't do, because of the separate nature of each of the tales. These tales were all happening at the same place at the same time, a master stroke.

So though I do tend in my horror tastes towards the dark and extreme, this was a supremely enjoyable experience, and one I could recommend to horror afficionados trying to share their passion with the less initiated.

K Rating: 7/10

Thursday, November 10, 2016

All My Scottish Children - Outlander Season 1

Following my reading of the first Outlander novel by Diane Gabaldon, I looked to the Starz adaptation to see if they could fix some of the flaws I laid out in my earlier review. Namely, bad characterization of the protagonist Claire.

I don't know if I could call the show better or worse, simply because it adhered so strictly to the book's plot. Very little was changed, with the exception of one or two welcome scenes that showed what her 1940s husband Frank Randall is doing in her absence. It gave us a hint about how the veil of time might be thinned near Craigh na Dun, the standing stones that send Claire back to 1743.

Image result for outlander showThe actress playing Claire showed emotion, which was an improvement upon her cold telling of her life in the book. And watching the show was enjoyable--very nice production values, good art direction, and an opening theme that was magical in its own right. But watching all the episodes in close succession, the flaws of the book that we see replayed in the show only got sharper. The chemistry between Claire and Jamie, her new Scottish husband, is scant, even though the physical relationship is not. It leaves you questioning both their motives towards each other, until the end, where they seem to start caring about each other beyond physicality. That's a major flaw in characterization, because it stops me from seeing every turn in their relationship with the power that it should have.

Seeing how faithful the show was left me with a choice--to continue watching the show in lieu of reading the books, or not at all. I never do this, but I have no time to waste on bad writing, and I was told that was the case with the later books. So I looked up the plot synopses of the later books. What little I could understand of that convoluted summary sounded like a soap opera at the height of ridiculous, where you can't understand the choices that characters make. I have no desire to see those stories in their own words. So I'm done with Outlander in all its forms. Gabaldon had something there, to be sure, but she didn't know how to handle it, or else is drawing inspiration from melodramatic forms I don't value, turning what should be solid fantasy into a trashy read. Being popular, unfortunately, doesn't make it smart writing. But in a new world where Trump is the President-elect, I shouldn't be surprised by that.
Image result for somewhere in time movie
The handsomest man that every lived

For better time-travelling romance, try Somewhere in Time, a Richard Matheson novel brilliantly adapted into the cult classic starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.

What is a very smart read is the one I'm working on now, The Shadow of the Wind. More on that soon.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Friday, November 4, 2016

Blurbs and Elevator Speeches-A Necessary Evil

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time."

Image result for letter writingThat is exactly the problem I think all writers face when attempting to present their work to the public. This is not just true for self-publishers, who are responsible for every word written about their books. For my upcoming nonfiction with SUNY Press, I was asked to provide copy as well. When it was still a work in progress, my classmates and I rode the elevator up and down practicing our perfect speeches for employers and grant funders.

If I could say everything in a few sentences, I would not have written the book. 

That's the impulse that stops us from creating compelling back copy and Amazon descriptions that rope in prospective readers for said book. Brutal criticism is, I find, essential in this process of taking your writing and turning it into a fifth-grade math problem, where the most important task is picking out the essential information and chucking the rest.

Add to that there are different blurbs for different audiences. Agents for traditional publishers don't want any surprises, so you have to lay all your cards on the table. But if a reader can imagine the whole story from the blurb, why bother reading it? Then you as an author get attached to words and phrases that become meaningless in your new context. 

I tried out what I thought was an "ok" back copy for A Vision in Crimson on my Facebook groups, and the response ranged from "totally awesome" to "I'm not buying that." It's a minefield. But, if you go in eyes wide open, knowing you're going to get blown up, then what you sift from the ashes could be the best possible version of yourself. 

So here's what I've got so far, after many self edits and proffered suggestions. Whether this is what makes the cover, well, how should I know?

Katelyn knows her magic is risky, but Icaryan light is fading fast and she is desperate. Returning to Earth, she crosses paths with Luca, a rogue vampire hybrid. Their weary hearts sparked by passion, Luca forsakes his own quest to root out his father, diving headlong into a world teeming with magic and danger.

But his father has not forgotten him.

A Vision in Crimson is the first installment of a new epic fantasy blistering with romance and Gothicism.

I'm happy with that right now, which is always a good thing. More suggestions are always welcome--it's never finished until it's on the cover, and even then...

The more we read and edit each other's blurbs, the better we'll all be at it. So please, if you have a blurb you want to test with me or other readers, please add it to the comments!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Magician's Guild - Inhaled It!

Image result for black magician canavan
After many movies and books that left me wanting more in recent months, thank the heavens for Trudi Canavan's The Magician's Guild, Book One of her Black Magician Trilogy.

This is the second work I've read of hers, the first being Thief's Magic, Book One of the Millenium's Rule Trilogy. The second book, Angel of Storms, was recently released, and I've been doing all I can to restrain myself so that I can give the other authors on my shelf a chance. So I cheated just a smidge and picked up her other series. Best decision ever.

The Magician's Guild begins with the premise of a young girl from the slums miraculously breaking through a shield forged by an entire guild of magicians, without knowing how. The volume follows Sonea as she tries to hide herself from the Guild, using up favors with factions all over Imardin, until she realizes her unfettered magic may spell doom for her city, her family, and herself.

Canavan does something wonderful with her fantasy writing. She has such a sense for world-building, and really shines in demonstrating the structure of her societies, particularly with regards to class divisions, wealth and poverty, urban planning, the relationships between different neighborhoods, social factions, and artisans of a city, it really is something beautiful to behold. And all this done in the most integral and organic of ways--through action, plot, dialogue. No lengthy expositions from an omniscient narrator. She has a great knack for naming as well--from something as simple as interesting and thoughtfully crafted character names to renaming everyday things like rats and alcohol. She even included a glossary in the back of the book. A cute idea, but unnecessary because of the writing. I know that a fen is a spider, because she uses other identifiers, so I get the image in my head that I should, but also the sense of its uniqueness. I'm given the impression that it is spider-like, yet it can still be a fen, and not a spider. Truly great descriptions. I wish her environments were described with similar power, and it's not for lack of trying, but my mind does fill in most of the gaps on that front. It's my only quibble with her overall style as a writer.

Some of the things I loved about Thief's Magic are present here too--the class divisions, as I just fawned over, sharp dialogue and writing structure--noticeably so. And a genius approach to the romantic threads in her stories. These books are by no means romances--they are straight fantasy. But love is one of the many experiences her characters have, and she does it in such an underplayed, subtle way, until of course, she throws romance conventions to the wind and absolutely breaks your heart, that the result is quite beautiful. Without divulging too much, her broken and flawed relationships are far and away the best iterations of love I have seen in texts, most likely because of its many tribulations under her hand. It pains me to break the hearts of my own characters, and I'll admit, it's made me cry sometimes as I'm writing. I can only imagine what those days are like for her.

Also done particularly well in both series is her description of magic and how it operates in the world. Here, we had lots of interesting segments dealing with magic on an intellectual plane--as related to guided meditation. I have done guided meditation before, and found her explanations clear and extremely interesting. Talking mostly about the amount of mental control required was, for me, unique interpretation of magical systems, and overtly intuitive. The Millenium's Rule series did much the same, approaching magic from the rare perspective of an energy source, and one that can be easily overextended and thus requiring varying degrees of regulation. What makes Canavan such a fantastic writer, in my view, is her ability to take resonant, urgent issues of our own universe--race, class, energy, bureaucratic power--and bend them to her will to provide exotic and intriguing worlds that are well fleshed out and comprehensible as much as they are foreign. Her characters, in other words, and the emotions she puts them through, are hauntingly real. My highest scores go to her as an author, and to this particular title, which was consumed voraciously and will be boiling at the back of my mind until Books Two and Three show up in my mailbox. Yep. That good.

K Rating: 10/10