Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2015

And what a subpar year for genre filmmaking it looked set to be only a couple of months ago!  Until November, I wasn't convinced that I'd be able to dredge up enough really good films to make this article worthwhile, so many disappointments had the previous ten months offered up.

For a start, we'd had not a single really great superhero movie.  Big Hero 6 was an achingly minor bit of work and the weakest Disney animated movie in years.  Avengers: Age of Ultron flipflopped between excellence and mediocrity often within scenes and generally felt more like an exercise in brand-building than anything that could objectively be called a story.  Ant Man was marred by modest ambitions and even more modest direction.  Fantastic Four was ... well, I was one of the few people who somewhat liked it, but no amount of blind eye-turning could ignore how all that production turmoil had left it short of a functional third act.

Elsewhere, things weren't a great deal better.  The third Hobbit movie learned not a thing from the mistakes of the first two Hobbit movies.  Crimson Peak was further evidence - often stunningly pretty evidence, in fairness - that Guillermo del Toro has abandoned all interest in the telling of coherent or genuinely imaginative stories.  Tommorowland was a crushing disappointment coming from the director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and a flat-out bad movie in its own right.  And Terminator: Genisys turned out to be exactly the film that its stupid subtitle implied.

Still, let's not despair.  Now that I've scraped my top ten together, it's not such a bad list, all told, and 2015 looks a lot better in retrospect than it did at the time.  One cheering fact is the relative lack of sequels and franchise movies; another is the presence of writers and directors who are anything but surefire certainties.  I mean, how precisely did Colin Trevorrow end up helming one of the year's biggest movies?  Strange times indeed...

10) Mr Holmes

One of those movies that seems to have been largely forgotten almost immediately after coming out, Mr Holmes was an intriguing mix of genre and prestige picture grounded in a typically marvelous Ian McKellen performance, but marred by an agonisingly sedate pace and director Bill Condon's determination to suck the life out of his film at every turn.  It's easy to imagine a more satisfying take on the same concept, or even the same material, but that's not to say that the one we got isn't worth a look.

9) Jupiter Ascending

I wish I could defend Jupiter Ascending more, because it annoyed me to no end that people were so quick to jump all over it for daring to be quirky, imaginative, occasionally silly and often flat out weird; apparently in the age of the remake, rehash and reimagining, those are transgressive sins in the eyes of the average genre fan.  Sadly, while often fun and occasionally brilliant - I don't know what the hell that Eddie Redmayne performance was supposed to be, but I want more of it! - Jupiter Ascending never quite managed to find its groove.  Still, in terms of inventiveness alone, it was ten times the movie that a certain other space opera appearing lower down this list was...

8) Jurassic World

In a better year, this wouldn't have scratched the top ten, and given that I don't have a lot of love for the franchise I went in without much enthusiasm, but you know what?  It was dumb fun, and sometimes dumb fun counts for a lot - especially when it's only quite dumb and not, say, Terminator: Genisys dumb.  With a little more of the quirky energy that director Trevorrow brought to his debut Safety Not Guaranteed, I might even have loved it a little.  As it was, it did about what a blockbuster of low ambition should do: it entertained through its running time and didn't hang around afterwards to clog up the memory.

Very nearly great and without doubt fun, The Martian might have done better to not make such a pretense of scientific rigor when under the surface it was only a little bit smarter than the average Transformers movie.  Still, it came a lot closer to proper science fiction than we're generally allowed these days, and did so with a steady supply of wit and thrills, not to mention an impossible-to-dislike performance from Matt Damon, a man who can apparently make potato-growing cool and exciting.  If only it had found more uses for its extraordinary cast, if only there'd been a little more plausibility in there, it might have been brilliant; but in a year like this one, it's hard to moan too much about a good science fiction film that at least pretended to be interested in real, actual science stuff.

6) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

My first thought coming out of Star Wars: TFA, and a thought that's remained largely unchanged by the gushing adoration of just about everyone, was, "that was some technically outstanding film-making in service of a story that had no need to be told."  So however-many years after A New Hope, everything's basically exactly the same but with different names?  And more plot holes?  Well, that's disappointing, to say the least.  But if you can ignore the non-story and a couple of subpar performances - as it seems people are not only willing but eager to do - then, yes, it was pretty great.  Abrams finally got his directing act together, the new characters were a likable bunch, the whole thing looked stunning (not only in terms of Star Wars-ness but on every technical level) and, perhaps most importantly, it was good enough to bode well for the franchise going forward.

5) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

I'm going to miss this series, and I never thought for an instant I'd ever be typing that when I first sat down to watch The Hunger Games.  I'll miss its horrifying bleakness, I'll miss Jennifer Lawrence showing how you can be the star of a major tentpole and still sneak in some of that acting stuff, and I'll miss the fact that a series aimed squarely at teenagers nevertheless managed to tackle real world and very adult issues with more bite and anger than almost any Hollywood movie of the last decade.  There's no getting around the fact that the decision to split the final book in two was a stupid one made for all the wrong reasons, but part 2 suffers less for it than part 1 did; where that was a movie consisting entirely of setup, this one is basically all third act, which turns out to be not such a bad thing at all.

Why aren't more people talking about Predestination?  Well maybe because it technically came out last year and I'm cheating a little, but it was released in the UK in 2015 and anyway, I don't remember it getting much buzz in 2014 either.  Adapting Robert Heinlein's short story All You Zombies, Predestination is basically one of those puzzle movies where your role as viewer is to unravel the knot the filmmakers drop in your lap, except that rather than being a fruitless exercise in self-congratulating cleverness like Primer (there, I said it) it's a rich, rewarding dissection of human nature and gender politics that delights in taking your assumptions, chewing them up and spitting them back in your face.  Take my word ... find a copy, go in with no foreknowledge, let Predestination take you on its weird ride and you won't regret it.

3) Mad Max: Fury Road

What's to say, at this stage?  It was great.  It actually lived up to expectations, even when the expectations were absurd.  It threw traditions of structure and narrative out of every available window and yet somehow managed to tell a compelling story with three dimensional characters.  It angered boy nerds by daring to suggest that a woman could kick more ass than our dear old Max.  It had some of the most extraordinary action sequences ever committed to film.  It looked astonishing.  And ... I found it just a little bit hollow.  Which is not a remotely useful criticism, but there we go.  I loved it, but I didn't love it, and so here it sits at number 3.

2) Inside Out

Just when I'd given up on there ever being another great Pixar film, along came another great Pixar film ... for my money, possibly the greatest, though perhaps it's too early to say that.  At once overloaded with ideas and puritanical in its simplicity - if you think about it, it's never for a moment about anything other than its main character - Inside Out is a masterpiece of making immensely complex themes accessible without dumbing them down, and in particular manages to talk about grief with an honesty and insight that would shame many a miserabilist art house director.

Given Pixar's slate going forward, it's heartbreaking to realise that this might be the last great work of what has unquestionably been the defining voice of western animation in the twenty first century.  But at the same time, Inside Out is good enough that I almost feel okay about all those damn sequels.

1) Ex Machina 

I've seen this amidst a few end of year lists, which is heartening because for a while it seemed like it might go the way of Predestination and so many other great movies that didn't have the marketing budgets of those mega-franchises up there.  My expectations were muted by the fact that I've never much liked - and occasionally hated - director Garland's work in the past, so it came as all the more surprise when it turned out that he'd made ... oh hell, let's just go there, the best science fiction film of the decade so far.  Smart, intricate, challenging, unexpected and subversive, buoyed by tremendous acting from all four leads and some of the finest and most well-used digital effects work I've ever seen, Ex Machina is still fresh in my mind months after I saw it, and a few of its more potent images are probably seared there forever.  

Sunday, 20 December 2015

The Life and Times of Digital Science Fiction

So once upon a time I sold a story called Black Sun to a new pro-rate market named Digital Science Fiction, and it appeared in their debut issue, an anthology by the appropriate name of First Contact.  It turned out to be a strong collection, considerably better and more professional than first issues are wont to be.  And so soon after that I sent them a second story, Across the Terminator, which was scheduled to appear in their fifth collection ... until circumstances got in the way and DSF was forced to close its doors.

This was a bad thing.  Not actually directly for me, since I eventually resold the story to Clarkesworld, but nevertheless, in the wider publishing-cosmology sense, a solid piece of bad news all round.  Good, well-paying markets don't exactly grow on trees, and even in a brief space of time DSF had shown itself to be something exciting and valuable.

Then, a few months ago, publisher Michael Wills got in touch to tell me that he was bringing Digital Science Fiction back in a new and improved format, and would I be interested in letting him reprint the story that would have appeared in anthology number five had it happened all those years ago?  Of course I said yes, because money obviously, but also because Michael had always been a pleasure to work with and the whole thing just felt right.  He'd been immensely positive about Across the Terminator back in the day and, as nice as it had been to have it in Clarkesworld (it really was nice) it still somehow felt like DSF was where it belonged.

Since then I've sold a couple more reprints to Michael: The Painted City came out a while back on its own and is now collected as part of the Infinity Cluster collection, out this weekend and on special offer until the end of today.  And Dancing in the Winter Rooms, originally published way back when in Electric Velocipede, is scheduled to appear in the not-too-distant future as a solo e-book and then, some time later, as part of anthology number seven, to be known as Ctrl Alt Delight.

Anyway, putting aside as much as I can the fact that they've published a fair bit of my work, I heartily recommend taking a look at what Digital Science Fiction - and for that matter its brand new sister company Digital Fantasy Fiction - are up to.  I've read all of their output so far and enjoyed, I would say, about eighty percent of it, which is considerably above what I'd normally expect, hard to please git that I am.  There's a definite leaning towards solid storytelling above overbearing style, and yet within that, an impressive range of approaches, subjects and attitudes that keeps any two books from feeling overly alike.  And on top of that, there's an appealing Pokemon-esque quality to the fact that these things are coming out weekly; it's weirdly addictive to keep picking them up, never quite knowing what to expect.

For that matter, I'd also recommend DSF and DFF as markets to fellow authors.  There aren't that many places that will pay for reprints, and there are considerably fewer that will do anything so lavish as putting them out as individual e-books with their own shiny covers.  All told, Digital Science Fiction feels to me like an interesting new corner of the genre publishing world, one excitingly different from anything else out there, and I suspect that if it gets embraced the way it deserves to then it's only going to grow in strength and scope over the next few months.

Oh, and if you should fancy a read of any of the works listed, all titles link to their respective stories / anthologies on Amazon...

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight: Caretaker in the Garden of Dreams & A Twist Too Far

A brief note before we begin: I was recently reporting The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories as to be out earlier this month, and the attentive will notice that it hasn't materialized yet.  The new release date is, touch wood, the 15th of January, with the hardback edition due by the 15th of April at the latest...

The thought that first springs to mind in regards to Caretaker in the Garden of Dreams is that it came out of the same bout of insomnia - or maybe, rather, waiting-to-fall-asleep-weirdness - that produced my first novel Giant Thief, and so its sequels, and so basically my entire career as it now stands.  Which is quite a lot of emotional weight to lay on one fairly short short story!

Of the two, though, Caretaker is without a doubt the piece that feels like it was cobbled together out of random bits of cerebral flotsam on the very verge of sleep.  Which is to say, it's downright odd; so odd that I find it odd and I wrote it.  It was a late addition to the collection, added in when I was thinking that maybe a few more thousands words wouldn't go amiss and realised that, hey, a freakish Dark Fantasy story based on a nearly-dream wouldn't be altogether outside the parameters of what I had in mind.

A side note: isn't one of the cool things about horror is that it's where the monsters get to have a voice?  I think maybe that's so.  Certainly the pleasure of writing this one, other than how fundamentally strange it is, was that I got to describe some horrible things from a perspective so divorced from our own that you barely realise how nasty much of what happens is until you step back and think about it.

Of A Twist Too Far, I feel like all I should really have to say is, how creepy are contortionists?  I mean, not as people, I'm sure they're lovely people, or at least only creepy in the normal human ratios of creepiness to non-creepiness.  But as a medium of entertainment, contortionists are pretty creepy.  And it's plain amazing that there aren't more horror stories written about them.  Which, perhaps needless to add given all the introduction and that title, this one is.  It sprang out of some similar impulses to The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper's Karma, in that once again the narrator is a Watson to the protagonist's Holmes, looking on in awe, bafflement and eventually in horror as they go further and further beyond the pale.  In a A Twist Too Far, however, the object of the narrator's fascination is a genuinely extraordinary individual - and one who only gets more extraordinary as the story progresses.

Here's a sample:
Fortesque took it upon himself to educate me on the intricacies of contortionism: of the subtleties of frontbending and backbending, of enterology and the professional's disgust at dislocations and other such cheap tricks.  I soon discovered that contortion, like any trade perhaps, has unfathomable depths beneath a surface of simplicity.  I learned too that even then, amongst his peers, Fortesque was an athlete of remarkable ability.  It wasn't for nothing they called him the Human Knot.  He could flow like water in a breeze; rearrange himself as though his limbs were some puzzle carelessly manipulated.
Yet he was not happy.  I saw that the moment we met, and the certainty only grew upon me.  His eyes were haunted.  His moods were fiercely changeable.  He would drink, sometimes, as though he fervently wished to be dead.
I would try to question him, of course.  "Frederick, something bothers you."
"What?  No Victor, just this miasmal London weather."
"You seem perturbed."
"I'm nothing of the kind."
Fortesque, it struck me, was a man in great need of a confidant.  Yet however much I probed or expressed my concern, he did not confide.  I had lost a brother-in-law to monomania some years before, and knew enough to recognise the symptoms.  He was in the grip of a commanding fervour, and I felt earnestly that without my aid it might consume him.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 7

Ha!  I bet you thought I'd given up on these, right?  Yet here we are at part 7!  I'd say this had got silly, but clearly we're well past that point.  I distantly remember pledging to only review things that were actually some good this time around, but of course it hasn't entirely worked out like that - though this is probably as close as we're ever likely to get.

Without further ado, then, this time around we have: Macross Plus the Movie, Armitage III: Poly Matrix, Bio Hunter and Gunbuster.

Macross Plus (Movie Edition), 1995, dir: Shôji Kawamori

If there was ever a testament to the power of editing then Macross Plus: the Movie is it.  For those who haven't been following along with these articles, this is the film version of an OVA series that I was underwhelmed by all the way back in part 1.  It was visually striking and hugely promising in places, but in the end it disappointed badly, especially given its considerable reputation - and I was hardly overeager to revisit it.

Then I did and it blew me away.  It's no exaggeration to say that the film cut addresses every issue I had with the OVA, in a way that I found almost impossible to believe even while I was watching it.  I mean, just to put that statement in context - whilst heroine Myung is rarely much shy of a victim in the OVA and at her lowest points little more than a trophy for the two equally unbearable male leads to fight irresponsibly over, here it's hard to walk away with any reading where she isn't at least the co-protagonist.  It's impossible to exaggerate how much this rebalances the story, breathing life into scenes that once fell flat and giving the material the spine it originally lacked.  Somehow pushing Myung to centre stage even makes the men tolerable, in that we're viewing them at least partly from her more sympathetic perspective.

It goes much deeper than that, though; it's staggering, really, how boldly Macross Plus has been overhauled.  Certainly things get sacrificed along the way, but to my memory there was nothing lost that doesn't amount to an improvement - and what was great, such as Yôko Kanno's lush score, remains great.  The only possible shortcoming is that some rather stunning action sequences from early on wind up cut, but even then, the one that really stuck with me gets partially edited into the climax - and I'd gladly swap mindless action early on for sequences with real punch later.  As such, Macross Plus: the Movie falls into that relatively tiny category of works that I'd recommend even if you couldn't care a damn about nineties anime; it's a fine science fiction film in its own right.

Armitage III: Polymatrix, 1997, dir: Takuya Sato

It's hard to shake the impression that Blade Runner was even more impactful in Asia than it was in America and Europe; sure, most every American sci-fi film of the following two decades would appropriate its aesthetic, but there's a rather wonderful Korean film that's practically a direct sequel, and for our current purposes there are no end of anime that picked up its themes and ran hard with them.

Needless to say, Armitage III is one of those.  A brief but relevant aside: this isn't the third Armitage movie (though it is another compacted version of an OVA, and more on that in a minute) but a film titled Armitage the Third, and if that isn't sufficiently confusing, consider that its sequel is titled Armitage: Dual Matrix*.  This makes Armitage III the only movie I can think of where logic would dictate that its sequel is in fact its prequel, and damn but that makes me love weird anime titling conventions a little more than I already did.

Anyway, we were talking about how Armitage III owes one hell of a debt to Blade Runner - but coming back to that point, it occurs to me that it's not that big a deal.  You could certainly take Armitage III as a retread of that ridiculously seminal movie, but with the genders swapped and a buddy-cop dynamic thrown in - human cop pairs up with secretly-robot cop - and you absolutely wouldn't be wrong, yet the end result would still be a tremendously solid film: not a masterpiece, maybe not worthy of its influences, but a perfectly fine slice of nineties anime.

Now I say that with one caveat: the only version of Armitage III that's readily available is a US feature film adaptation, with Kiefer Sutherland as the male lead, Ross Syllabus (a depressing bit of whitewashing, but otherwise pretty good news) and Elizabeth Berkley as Armitage (less awful than you'd think.)  This means that approximately half the plot has vanished into the ether, and damn it shows.  Another half hour, a bit more time for the story and relationships to cook, and we might really be looking at a classic.  Then again, that can't entirely take away from what we get: solid, distinctive animation, bold design, an unusually fine dub and - lest I forget - a marvelous electronic soundtrack by a composer, Hiroyuki Namba, who would go on to do not much of anything.  At any rate, while it's maddening that the OVA version is so hard to find, I'm still happy to give this one a definite thumbs up.

Bio Hunter, 1995, dir: Yuzo Sato

Describing something as of its time is a largely futile statement to make when you're talking about nineties anime, but nevertheless, boy but is Bio Hunter of its time.  The involvement of Ninja Scroll's Yoshiaki Kawajiri is a good indication of what to expect: Bio Hunter is transgressive in all the ways that so much of the anime to make it over to the west around this time was, which is to say, lots of nudity, lots of bared breasts, lots of gore and bloodshed and general weirdness, but none of it feeling half as troubling as it probably should.  I mean, Bio Hunter opens with a sex scene that climaxes with a woman's breast morphing into a demon and chomping her partner's hand off, and even that doesn't raise much more than a faintly amused, "Ewwww."

Basically, Bio Hunter is defused at once by its goofiness and its seriousness, sometimes even at the same time.  It is, for example, quite tricky to take that aforementioned scene at all seriously, or to find it particularly horrifying, let alone titillating.**  On the other hand, there's a great deal of cod-science squeezed awkwardly in, the art style is more realistic than is typical of most anime, the backgrounds are lavish and whenever violent and / or bloody things aren't occurring, the pace is strangely languid.

Viewed through the lens of decades, Bio Hunter is obnoxious in its attitude towards women - its female protagonist is quite spectacularly useless - and in its twee desire to shock.  But it's certainly no worse than, say, American horror from the period, and at least it's made with some genuine artistry.  In the end, you probably have a fair idea whether or not you like this kind of thing, and there are plenty worse examples out there.  Bio Hunter is at once overly silly and overly serious, and its sixty minute running time leaves it feeling like a series pilot, as for all I know it was meant to be; but it's cheap to pick up and its high points warrant at least a sit-through if you find yourself curious.

Gunbuster, 1988, dir: Hideaki Anno

And here I go, breaking every rule I've set myself by reviewing an OVA from 1988 that's all but impossible to buy now.  But 1988 is awfully close to 1990, you can watch Gunbuster on legal piracy site Youtube if you don't find their shameless abuse of intellectual property objectionable, and they're my own stupid rules and I'll break them if I like.

The thing is, Gunbuster is a classic - now a largely lost classic - and, again, I promised myself I'd talk about some really good anime this time around.  To put that in context, here's Gunbuster's pedigree: it's what studio Gainax did to follow up from their staggeringly fine debut Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise and what Gainax's brightest star Hideaki Anno made to warm up before making the studio's most famous release, Neon Genesis Evangelion, frequently considered the greatest anime series ever created.

Which, if you have only a passing interest in nineties anime, may be so much word salad.  The short version: Gunbuster is the product of immensely talented people near the peak of their powers, and it's pretty much an insult to the medium of animation that it's all but impossible to track down a legitimate copy these days.  All of that said, history is full of lost classics that don't hold up, and anime suffers more than most mediums, so bound is it to technology and so restricted by budgets.

Gunbuster is of its time, without a doubt.  It has colossal space ships.  It has giant robots fighting in space with batons, and even bigger giant robots that combine into an even bigger robot.  It has a great deal of gratuitous partial nudity.  But then, within those brackets, it remains something pretty extraordinary.  From a light-hearted beginning it only grows in scope and ambition, and it says a great deal that though the money largely ran out by episode six and Gainax couldn't afford to colour it - or to animate a key sequence - it still packs one hell of a punch.  Also, it's based loosely on The Forever War, and that old rule about "if you're going to steal, steal from the best" has rarely been more true.  Put all that together, and although perhaps the result isn't indispensable - it veers closer to familiar territory than Honneamise before it or Evangelion after - it's something really damn special.

Also also, its sequel Diebuster, made a whole decade and a half later, may be my favourite OVA of all time.  And if you don't eat your 1988 anime greens then you don't get to enjoy your 2004 anime pudding.


Well, that could have gone worse.  Two stone cold classics, one of them even fairly easy to lay your hands on, a really likable cyberpunk movie and a weird little horror short that certainly warrants a watch if you like horror and weirdness.  And given my recent watching, the next batch are turning out fairly solidly as well.  Though, with a considerable amount of actual writing stuff going on, it may be a fair while until I get to talk about them...

[Other reviews in this series: By Date / By Title / By Rating]

* It is, however, a rather disappointing and obvious sequel that fails to entirely capitalize on its pedigree, let alone its brilliantly silly naming convention.  Also, Juliette Lewis actually manages to be a worse Armitage than Elizabeth Berkley, which is just plain weird.

** There's an awful pun there, and I think I just inadvertently made it.

Monday, 7 December 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight: The Door Beyond the Water

The Door Beyond the Water is at its core another early tale, from the period when I was very much in the thrall of Lovecraft and Poe and Machen and weird tales in general - a time that provided the backbone and impetus for what would eventually end up being The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories.  Like The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper's Karma, it first appeared in a brief-lived and little-read market called The Willows way back when, and like The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper's Karma it got something of an overhaul before I felt it was ready to stand alongside more recent work.

In the case of The Door Beyond the Water, however, that work had already been done beforehand, and had been a whole lot more comprehensive.  I originally rewrote it when I was approached by editor Eric Guignard to provide a story for his anthology Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations.  (Eric, incidentally, would publish another story from the collection, Prisoner of Peace, in his next anthology.)  I had nothing new to offer him, and as a compromise I offered to revise an older piece under a new title, with the understanding that it would be a substantial enough revision to actually warrant the change of name.  Eric was okay with that, so I went back to the story - it was The Gate in the Jungle at that point - with an excuse to really set about tearing it down and building it back up again, and the goal of having something by the end that I'd feel comfortable setting alongside the kind of stuff I was producing then.

It worked out well, all told.  I was fond of the original, but I think the revision brought the things I liked about it into much sharper perspective.  I said in an earlier one of these posts that the impetus for a lot of these stories to was to write slantwise homages, pieces that stayed true to the weird tales of the early decades of the twentieth century whilst finding new ways into them, in some cases ones that maybe weren't quite so alienating to a modern sensibility.  In that sense, The Door Beyond the Water was me locking horns with the assumptions about race, and about civilization, that are prevalent in so much work from the period.  It's a tale of that classic Victorian educated white chap coming into a situation he doesn't even slightly understand and making one unholy mess of things, basically - and also, now that I think, an excuse for my to play around with some of the shamanism stuff that came out of studying Elizabethan witchcraft for my post-grad degree.

Here, anyway, is an extract:
The message came to him in dreams, before the second moon of the season: A man comes to free the imprisoned one. Nothing more than that.
But for Cha Né - who was shaman, who saw beneath the mystery of things - that sentence was enough to darken his heart with fear such as he'd never known.
The next night he confronted his spirit-guide with the inevitable questions.  "Who is this man who comes? Is he of the mountain people? Is he from the hollow tribe?"  It hardly seemed possible, unless the ancient truces had been somehow corrupted.  "I must know, Shanoctoc."
The feathered guide had hesitated long before answering.  "He is Montague Evans.  He is not of the three tribes, nor of the lands between the water and the mountains.  He is a white man, of the tribe of Henry Johnson.  He will arrive before the third moon."
Then Cha Né’s guide, his one companion in the Otherworld, sank into the waters of the lake - was swallowed amidst shivering liquid tendrils.
Cha Né knew, without knowing how, that it was the last time they would ever meet.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight: Prisoner of Peace

A hard one to talk about, this, since I don't want to give too much away about a tale that I suspect is best encountered with as little preliminary knowledge as possible.  I suppose I can safely say that it's a ghost story - the second in the collection after The Burning Room - and that it was originally published in the Stoker-award-winning anthology After Death, before being podcast soon after in Pseudopod.  And I perhaps shouldn't say, but will anyway, that it's my favourite of the horror stories I've written.

The reason for that is that it falls most closely in line with my own tastes in horror.  Ever since I played the video game Silent Hill 2, for me one of the masterpieces of the genre in any medium, I'd been wanting to try and capture in my own work some of what I'd found most effective there: the combination of overt violence and grotesqueness with more complex psychological subtexts and the studied build-up of a profound, almost instinctive sense of dread.   There's something fascinating for me in the way that the Silent Hill games make the deepest fears of their protagonists tangible in subtle and yet often immensely twisted ways.  They're hellscapes of the mind, basically, and while that isn't exactly an original notion, I've never seen it done quite so effectively as here.

The impulse to try and incorporate that into a horror story had been with me for a long while, but I never found the right project for it, and I certainly didn't want to end up with something that was only an imitation or pastiche.  Nor was I particularly inclined to include the blood-and-gore side of things, it was definitely more the puzzle box aspect that appealed to me, the idea of a story in which the external trappings only make sense once you come to appreciate the character's interior world.

I don't know how much those Silent Hill genes show through in Prisoner of Peace; it's a more subdued affair, sad rather than horrifying, not even really intended to be frightening or disgusting but just to try and creep inside the head and scratch away there.  It deals in tragedies both individual and societal, and the ultimate horror it finds is an all too real one from the past, one that's always haunted me as a nadir of what we as a species are capable of.

And on that note, here's a sample:
There is a tapping coming from the next room.  
I call it a room, but I know it is a cell - just as I know that my room is a cell.  The tapping is irregular, arrhythmic, and I think it is the sound of someone trying to communicate.  A pipe runs along the bottom of my wall.  If I were to strike it, just so, with the heel of a sandal or a stone perhaps, it would make a noise like the one from the next room.
But I have no sandal, no stone, nothing to rap against the pipe.  Nor do I know what the noises mean, if they mean anything at all.  If the tapping is a message, it is one I cannot understand, can't reciprocate.
I realise now that I have heard the noise before - and sometimes, other noises too.  On occasions, there is a sound of heavy, booted footsteps.  They approach from the near distance, pass my door, continue a little way and then return, recede, approach again.
It can only be someone patrolling the corridor, and I think sometimes to call out.  There are many things I could say, many questions I could ask.  The footsteps remind me that there was a time when food was left.  A bowl was placed inside my door, and later, removed.  There was rice, always, and less commonly, thin vegetable stew, a little fish.
It seems a very long time since I tasted any of these things.
Perhaps this is why I never call out.  Perhaps it is why the sounds from the neighbouring cell fill me with nothing but unease.  What frightens me - more than tapping or the echo of pacing footsteps - is the thought of the answers I might receive.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight: The Sign in the Moonlight & My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy Aged 7

Finally, the title story!  Though - a small confession - it wasn't always intended to be.  That honour was originally meant to go to The War of the Rats, as the longest and newest work.  But since our artist Duncan Kay, who had by this point produced interior illustrations for every story in the collection, couldn't get the picture for that particular tale to a point he felt was cover-worthy, we all eventually agreed to go instead with one he'd already produced an absolutely stunning image for.  It turned out to be one of those decisions that felt right as soon as it had been made; now it's almost impossible to imagine how anything else could have gone on the front of this book.

In fact, I'll go further: I don't know that there's a tale in the collection that sums up its spirit quite as perfectly as The Sign in the Moonlight - originally published, by the way, a couple of years back in Nightmare Magazine.  It's absolutely a weird tale, one that might even have creeped out Lovecraft himself, what with his notorious phobia of the cold.  It follows a party of mountaineers that is itself hot on the heels of an expedition which included notorious British occultist Aleister Crowley - a real and documented historical event, by the way - and finds more than it bargained for upon the slopes of Mount Kanchenjunga.  I've said this before, but it was almost creepy how this story came together, and how much my research threw up real life details that fit perfectly, not only with the narrative I was constructing but with each other.

By comparison, My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy Aged 7 is a wee slip of a thing, written with little forethought in one mad splurge: a joke, really, though one that's either rather sad or kind of cruel, depending on how you decide to look at it.  I got one of my nicest ever reviews for this story, which acknowledged just how difficult it is for a grown man to write in the style of a seven year old girl.  Yet the truth is, it wasn't that difficult at all.  I don't often talk about characters finding their own voices and all that nonsense, but Daisy certainly did, and she went on to more or less write her own story, which required next to no editing and which I'm still entirely happy with nigh on a decade later.  I guess it's just a shame that she couldn't have come up with a happier ending for herself!

Here's an extract from The Sign in the Moonlight:
You will have heard, no doubt, of the Bergenssen expedition—if only from the manner of its loss. For a short while, that tragedy was deemed significant and remarkable enough to adorn the covers of every major newspaper in the civilised world.
At the time, I was in no position to follow such matters. However, in subsequent months I’ve tracked down many journals from that period. As I write, I can look up at the wall to see a cover of the New York Times I’ve pinned there, dated nineteenth of May 1908, bearing the headline, “Horror in the Himalayas: Bergenssen five reported lost in avalanche.”
In a sense, I suppose, it’s a spirit of morbidity that draws me back to those days upon the mountain and their awful finale, which I failed to witness only by the purest chance. Equally, there’s a macabre humour in the thought that to almost all the world I am dead, my body shattered and frozen in the depths of some crevasse. But what draws me most, I think, is the memory of what I saw after I left Bergenssen and the others—that knowledge which is mine uniquely. It’s without disrespect to the Times that I say they know nothing, nothing whatsoever, of the horror of Mount Kangchenjunga. Likely, there is no one else alive who does.

Friday, 27 November 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight: The Desert Cold & The War of the Rats

I suppose the main thing I have to say about The Desert Cold is that it was my first ever professional sale, almost seven years ago now, and to the then fairly new web-zine Flash Fiction Online.  Needless to say, I was still finding my way in those days, perhaps a little blindly, and this slender tale came together by a long and awkward route: it began as a vignette, more of a scene-setting exercise that a story, that would become the core of the first two thirds of the finished piece.  Strangely, though, I think that benefited it, ultimately; it still basically ended up being a mood piece, but one with a nasty little sting in its tail.

As for the The War of the Rats, the one new story in the collection and the longest, it came directly out of the research for my recently finished novel To End All Wars, and my frustration at the fact that there was so much I wanted to say about its subject, the First World War, that I knew I wasn't going to be able to find a place for.  Principally, I didn't have an outlet within the novel for all the anger and revulsion I felt at reading so many stories of lives cut short and disfigured, or for the sheer grotesqueness of much of what I'd come across.  It was ideal fare for a horror story, but not so much so for a science-fiction novel set largely away from the trenches.

So all of that got poured into The War of the Rats, a novelette that dived deeply into the most hellish aspects of WW1 and found there, to my surprise, a love story of sorts.  I think the responsibility for that came from one particular book that I was reading at the time, the memoirs of a soldier named Harold Chapin, released as One Man's War.  Which, thinking about it, also led to one of my greatest fears in writing both novel and novelette, which was that I'd inadvertently end up trivialising the whole subject.  The conclusion I came to was accepting how to an extent that's unavoidable; the more you research, the more the awfulness of the First World War defies imagination, and any work intended as entertainment is going to be trivial by comparison.  All I can say is, I did my best.  And on the plus side, I can guarantee that nothing I wrote is more repellent than the reality - which given how repellent things get is saying something.  It's certainly fair to say that The War of the Rats is the closest the collection comes to pure, unadulterated horror.

On that note, here's an extract:
A rat.  A rat!  The word chimed in my mind.  It was all the sense I could make of the situation.  There is a rat, my hysterical thoughts protested uselessly, crawling up my leg.  Yet behind that immediate, enormous fear - so huge that it seemed to eclipse even the possibility of sensible thought - there lay another, deeper terror.  I just couldn't, wouldn't admit it to myself.
The motion stopped.  The whiskers gave a slow, exploratory twitch.  I knew what it had found; what it had been seeking all along.  Oh god ... I'd have given anything for the strength to just kick my leg.  Here was that profoundest fear, which I'd been unable even to acknowledge until then.  For he was at my bandage.  Sniffing.  Nuzzling. 
I've seen the way they get at dead men, Emily.  A wound to them is nothing but an entrance to somewhere warm and safe, or else a place to eat.  That was the terror I could hardly let myself think of.  Whenever I'd seen rats scurrying about the dead I'd gone profoundly cold, averted my eyes and clammed up for a while, sinking into a sort of stupor.  I'd always counted myself lucky it had gone unnoticed.
Now there was no hiding.  No stupor would protect me.  I heard his teeth before I felt anything, a tender chatter interspersed with pauses that seemed almost thoughtful.  As he continued to work, however, I could feel the pressure of his head, as when a dog pushes for attention.  He toiled with steady determination.  He knew what he was looking for, and knew that with patience he'd have it.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories: The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper's Karma

I'm not proud to admit that I wrote The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper's Karma on a dare.  And I'm even less proud to admit that it was a dare I dared myself.

Yet that's about the size of what happened.  The core concept - of a man who takes it upon himself to direct the course of his own karmic rebirth, with one very specific goal in mind - came out of a chance remark I made, followed by some bloody-minded part of my brain pointing out that it might just conceivably work as a short story, and hey, wasn't that just the perfect reason to give it a go?

Probably not.  But as it turned out it wasn't an altogether terrible one either.  Perhaps the reason for that was that it came together with another, equally odd concept that was then batting around my brain, though I'm not sure I quite realised it at the time.  Looking back, though, and put briefly, it was this: what if Sherlock Holmes was only a genius in John Watson's mind?  What if all the crazy was real but the rest of it less so?  What if - and I can't be the first Holmes fan to suspect this - it was Watson who was the real brains of the operation, or at least the only one with the requisite number of marbles?

From all of that came a story about friendship and sanity, and the toll that the years can take on both.  For something conceived as a joke, it also wound up as being quite serious, though of all the stories in the collection this one probably has its tongue wedged most firmly into its cheek.  It was originally published in a magazine called The Willows for very little money, at which point I'd imagine it was read by all of about a dozen people who weren't my mum.  One of the nicest things about the existence of this collection is that these older tales get to reach a (hopefully!) wider audience than they did the first time around.

With that in mind, here's a brief extract:
As I said, I've known Algernon since early childhood, since our schooldays.  Even in his youth, he was markedly eccentric; but perhaps these things pass unnoticed more easily in a child.  For my part, if I observed any signs of strangeness it was only as further evidence to justify my commitment to my friend, for I regarded Algernon with endless approval.  He was a source of constant fascination, of ideas both unique and, it seemed to me, impeccably wise.  He was also charismatic, witty and remarkable in appearance; he viewed the school’s drab uniform with contempt and chose to dress instead, from about the age of seven, in the manner of a man in late middle age.  It didn’t concern me in the least that I was his only friend, his only sympathiser.  Though Algernon's classmates and even his teachers viewed him with evident distrust, I reasoned that this was nothing more than further proof of how detached from the common herd my companion was.  
Of course, I could never have imagined then that he would go on to prove me right in so spectacular a fashion.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories: The Burning Room

I'm a sucker for ghost stories.  Simon Marshall-Jones is also, I suspect, a sucker for ghost stories; after all, he is running a publisher called Spectral Press.  So it's probably appropriate that there are (depending on which edition you buy) potentially three of the things in my forthcoming Spectral collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories.

The first of those is our opening tale, The Burning Room, originally published some years back in the excellent Bull Spec.  I have a theory that most ghost stories are essentially mysteries, and that's certainly true of this one: it plays out, basically, as a detective story, with the principle difference being that the crime in question is dramatised night after night, as a female tenant finds herself confronted by the tragic history of the suspiciously cheap room she's begun renting.

One impetus with many of these stories was to take a traditional genre - say, the Victorian ghost tale - and try and modernize it or otherwise upend it in some way that I found particularly interesting.  In this case, that meant giving my female protagonist a little more voice and leeway than she might have had in tales from the period.  The estimable Miss Taversham isn't one to be frightened away by things going bump in the night; instead she'd rather interpret the horror she encounters as a problem to be solved, one to be seen through to its decidedly bitter end.

Oh, and the title was meant as a reference to H. G. Wells's The Red Room, a big tonal influence and perhaps my favourite ghost story of all time.

Here's a brief sample of The Burning Room:
For all her strangeness, Mrs Faraday seemed like a blessing.  She interviewed me in a small, drab kitchen, claustrophobically gloomy with the heavy curtains drawn.  There were indications of poverty, but signs of former comfort also: the tablecloth, though faded, had once been fine; the chipped crockery in the cabinet was china of a more expensive sort. 
"I wouldn't let it," she said, "if I weren't very desperate.  I've put it off these past years since I lost my Daniel, Lord knows I have.  But times are hard."
So she was widowed.  That explained the odd mixture of penury and luxury.  "I'll be quiet, and no bother," I replied.
She stared at me.  I couldn't have hazarded a guess at her age.  Her hair was grey, her eyes seemed washed of vitality, but her skin was unlined and seemed to belong to a much younger woman.  She ran her fingertips down the swathe of crimson scarring that ran from her cheek to beyond her collarbone, and said, "Miss Taversham, it isn't myself I'm worried for.  Do you sleep deeply?"
"I imagine so.  It isn't something I've considered."
"Then probably you do.  Will you see the room?"
"I’d like to."

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories: Coming Soon

I've been a little quiet on the subject of my forthcoming short story collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, what with one thing and another, but that all changes as of now.  Because not only do we have a finalised cover - see? - but we have a release date, and it's soon.  Like real soon; like beginning of December soon.

As such, I won't be shutting up about this book - my first ever collection! - for the next few weeks.  My plan is to talk through each of the stories in turn, to give a little taste of what it's all about, but in the meantime, here's the basic table of contents:
  • The Burning Room
  • The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper's Karma
  • The Desert Cold
  • War of the Rats
  • The Sign in the Moonlight
  • My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy Aged 7
  • Prisoner of Peace
  • The Door Beyond the Water
  • Caretaker in the Garden of Dreams
  • A Twist Too Far
  • The Way of the Leaves
I say basic because it's set to vary a little depending on which edition you get, the idea being that there should be some reward for splashing out on the paperback over the e-book edition, or - for the ultimate Sign in the Moonlight experience - on the sure-to-be-delectable hardback version.  So the paperback comes with The Untold Ghost as an extra, and the hardback includes both A Stare From the Darkness and the seasonally (in)appropriate A Study in Red And White, all of which also are accompanied by their own unique illustrations.

Because, oh right, illustrations!  See that gorgeous cover there?  That's by superstar artist-stroke-Scotsman Duncan Kay, and he's produced something equally spectacular for every single story.  We also have an introduction from one of the finest Fantasy writers writing today, Mr Adrian Tchaikovsky, because why do things by halves?  I mean, who knows, maybe I'll get eaten by termites tomorrow and this will be the last short story collection I ever get to do, and while that remains even the tiniest risk, I wanted to throw everything at this book.

So there we have it: The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, by me, with art by Duncan Kay, edited by Simon Marshall-Jones and due for release in early December from award-winning publisher Spectral Press.  Expect to hear me talking about it a whole lot between now and then.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Book Ramble: All That Outer Space Allows

It would be silly by this juncture to suggest that I'm actually reviewing Ian Sales's so-called Apollo Quartet of conjoined novellas, or approaching them with anything that could be considered impartiality.  Ian is a friend and I can't pretend to be anything other than an admirer of his work.  And it's fair to say that my reviews of the previous books in the series - Adrift on the Sea of RainsThe Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself and Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above have only been growing more gushing as they've progressed.

Nevertheless, if I'd hated All That Outer Space Allows I certainly wouldn't have kept quiet about it.  I mean, maybe I wouldn't have gone and blogged about it, but Ian would certainly have got an earful, because there are few things more frustrating than urgently wanting to read a book and actually knowing the author, and then having month after month of them narrating ever single infuriating delay.  Of which there were a fair few in the case, as a planned novella blossomed (or possibly exploded) into what would eventually become the short novel it is now.

Needless to say then, since I am talking about it, I didn't hate All That Outer Space Allows.  But before we go any further than that, let's get the premise out there.  And because I'm lazy and it's a rather fine bit of writing in and of itself, here's the official blurb:
It is 1965 and Ginny Eckhardt is a science fiction writer. She’s been published in the big science fiction magazines and is friends with many of the popular science fiction authors of the day. Her husband, Walden, has just been selected by NASA as one of the New Nineteen Apollo astronauts… which means Ginny will be a member of the Astronaut Wives Club. Although the realities of spaceflight fascinate Ginny, her genders bars her from the United State space programme. Her science fiction offers little in the way of consolation—but perhaps there is something she can do about that… Covering the years 1965 to 1972, when Walden Eckhardt lifts-off aboard Apollo 15 as the mission’s lunar module pilot, this is Ginny’s life: wife, science fiction writer, astronaut wife… because that is ALL THAT OUTER SPACE ALLOWS.
Well doesn't that sound worryingly straightforward for an Ian Sales novella?  But there are wrinkles, of course - though less, I'd suggest, than in the three previous volumes.  I would go so far as to say that ninety percent of All That Outer Space Allows is in fact a particularly straightforward narrative, by the convoluted standards Ian's set for himself but by any others as well.  It's a character study, in essence, and though that study is transparently a way into a great many wider themes and events, it's never less than central.  This is Ginny Eckhardt's story from beginning to end, or something less and more even than that: a slice of her life treating ordinary and extraordinary events with approximately the same degree of interest.  And Ginny is a splendid protagonist, a being of flesh and blood and believable needs and wants, of her time while almost-but-not-quite transcending it, fascinating even in her smallest actions.

So that's the ninety percent, but that still leaves ten, doesn't it?  And those aforementioned wrinkles?  Which brings us to the point where All That Outer Space Allows, seemingly, has proven itself divisive amongst fans of the series.  (Though if you'd got this far into the Quartet without expecting to be screwed with then, honestly, I worry for you.)

Anyway, some reviewers have been put off by the fact that, at points in the narrative, Ian interrupts his story to comment directly, discussing points of research, inspirations, even openly stating and deconstructing his own themes.  Ian himself has suggested, perhaps jokingly but probably not, that this was an active effort to mess with his audience's expectations.  Yet - and this is the thing I find most fascinating - for me the intrusions had precisely the opposite effect.  They didn't break the narrative but strengthened it.  The author that elbows himself into All That Outer Space Allows is as much a fictive construct as Ginny herself, and ultimately a less persuasive one.  It's an extraordinary thing, but being told by a voice that was recognisably and yet not the author Ian Sales that Ginny was unreal actually made me believe in her more.  Bit by bit I began to doubt that this intruding voice was Ginny's creator.  And if they weren't then who was?  Was anybody?

There are many nice things that you can say about Ian's prose, but for me, above all, it's sturdy; it has an immense solidity to it.  And the more it tried to assure me that I was being lied to, the more I found I was persuaded by the lie.  This is crucial, because in its last third, All That Outer Space Allows moves on from trying to deconstruct itself and begins deconstructing the entire notion of the Apollo Quartet, in ways I've no intention of spoiling - except to say that if that prose weren't so sturdy, if Ginny weren't so believable, they would bring the whole game crashing down.  As it is, it's fascinating to watch a narrative trying to break itself from the inside, but what's most satisfying is seeing it fail.

By this point, it should hopefully be clear that I loved All That Outer Space Allows.  Whether it's my favourite of the four is too early to say, it's a toss-up between this and Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, and the virtues of each of those books are so different that it becomes largely meaningless to compare them anyway.  One thing's for sure: now that the Apollo Quartet is complete, there's no question but that it's something extraordinary.  Like I said above, my obvious bias is really no bias at all, because I could just as easily have kept my mouth shut.  But this is great work, perhaps the pinnacle of a great series, and I'd feel remiss if I didn't recommend it without reservation.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Short Story News, October 2015

Okay, I realise it's not October, but this is mostly October news so let's just close our eyes and pretend.  Except, wait, you can't read with your eyes closed and I'm not convinced I could knock out an entire blog post that way.  Um.  Let's just think October thoughts, shall we?  Maybe pretend its not quite so dark and horrible and nearly-wintery outside?  That should do it.

Now I mentioned back in my September round-up that I hadn't quite covered all of the short fiction news on the horizon, but I certainly didn't anticipate the flurry that would come almost immediately after that post went up.  But hey, flurries are good!  We like flurries.  I mean, when they're good flurries, like this one has been.  Not when they're flurries of snow.  Or fish.  Or razor blades.

Firstly there are now a few more things out there with my short stories in them.  The Coven anthology from Purple Sun Press finds the discombobulated royal guardsman from my No Rest For the Wicked (as published in the Death God's Chosen collection) on another, even weirder case, this one involving an apocalypse cult that may actually be onto something.  I can't comment much beyond that since my contributor copies literally arrived this morning, but I adore that cover image and I seem to be having a good year for anthologies, so odds are this one will be worth a look.

What I have seen copies of, because they arrived all the way from the snow-bound lands of Canadia, is Second Contacts from Bundoran Press, the cleverly-themed anthology that contains my grim but heartfelt science-fiction tale Free Radical.  Basically the idea of the collection was to foreground not stories of humans meeting aliens but how those interaction might work out ten or twenty years later, a fun notion that - based on the stories I've read so far - succeeds very well indeed.  And Free Radical, a tale of well-intentioned but ill-considered occupation with some obvious real world parallels, seems to have proven a nice fit.

Speaking of things I've actually read, I recently got through Gaia: Shadow and Breath vol. 2 from Pantheon Magazine, containing my The Hair of the Hound, and enjoyed it a great deal.  Will Manlove's A Bare Bones Outfit is, I think, the best short story I've read this year, one of those pieces that takes an idea you thought had been worn out entirely and offers it completely afresh, all wrapped up in some splendid prose.  Joshua D. Moyes's The Temporary Freedom of Clockwork Birds was another standout in a collection not exactly lacking standouts.  I'd definitely recommend this one, and it's a real shame that Pantheon aren't pushing it a little more (or, apparently, at all.)

Meanwhile, Jenny's Sick has been seen before, in Lightspeed and then the Lightspeed Year One anthology, but with all due respect to one of my favourite science-fiction 'zines, it's never been behind quite such an outrageously lovely cover as this.  It doesn't entirely show up in a flat image, but that there is a metal-inlaid hardback and this book - along with its companion volumes, Chilling Ghost Short Stories and Chilling Horror Short Stories, is something special indeed.  I mean, I don't know how it was made, though I suspect the involvement of magic, but it's indescribably lovely.  Oh, and also huge, and crammed with fantastic sci-fi stories, with a roughly half and half split between genre classics, (the whole of Flatland is in there, along with writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne and Mark Twain) and more recent work.

Back in the present, I'm in this month's Urban Fantasy Magazine, both with an interview - performed by the goodly mister Pete Sutton - and a reprint of my story Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place, which originally appeared in the 250th issue of Interzone.  I confess that I floundered for a while in coming up with a story of mine that could be classed as urban fantasy, that not being a genre I've dabbled much in, but this one certainly fits - unless it's urban science fiction, which the more I think about it probably isn't a thing.

Last only because I've already talked about this particular story and this particular market recently is Across the Terminator, which was recently made available, (and still is available), as a self-contained e-book and now is also out as part of the rather gloriously named Cosmic Hooey anthology from that selfsame publisher, Digital Science Fiction.  This one I feel entitled to speak highly of, because I've read most of the stories in their individual e-book forms and enjoyed the majority, and because Digital Science Fiction are doing something extremely fun, and because it's called Cosmic Hooey, goddamnit, what more could you realistically need?

Phew!  That's a lot of stuff out in a relatively teeny piece of time - which probably means there's a drought a-coming, that being how it tends to go, but it was a good deal of fun while it lasted.  And at least I have a few bits and pieces still scheduled.  Digital Science Fiction have picked up another story for e-book release, The Painted City, as originally published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine issue 43.  And on the new stuff front, my Afghanistan-set, Arcade Fire-inspired near future horror tale Great, Black Wave is set to mark my second appearance in John Joseph Adams's marvelous horror 'zine Nightmare.

All told, it hasn't been a bad year for short fiction.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

FantasyCon 2015

My first thought about this year's FantasyCon is that it was a whole 'nother experience going with friends - and, I've got to say, a wholly better one.  Last year at FantasyCon I met Andy Knighton and Charlotte Bond for the first time and this time around we all went together, and if nothing else I say here conveys a useful sense of what makes this particular convention stand out then that alone should do it: one year I made new friends, the next they were good enough friends that we were all comfortable with the idea of hanging out together for large portions of a weekend.  FantasyCon is a hit and miss affair, there's no doubt about that, but at its best, its somewhat smaller scale and more intimate vibe achieve great things that the bigger conventions frequently lack.
Me, John Connolly, Matthew Blakstad, A K Benedict, Guy Haley, Debbie Bennett

2015, it's fair to say, was FantasyCon at its best.  Not the perfect venue, by any means - the horror stories regarding food and drink were almost Nine Worlds-worthy! - but other than that, it's hard to pick on anything that wasn't either good or very good or really kind of marvelous.  And before I go any further, a shout-out to Richard Webb who did ninja work putting this stuff together well in advance.  And also, while I'm thinking, to those redcoats folks, who never once responded to my befuddled queries with "why the holy hell are you asking where room X is when you're standing right outside of room X and there's a big sign that says room X?"*

Soooooo ... even though we were there pretty much from the start, I only made the one panel on the Friday, and then it was mostly because I had friends on it, but Fae-Fi, Folk-Fum: Faerie & Folktale turned out to be an hour well spent, with a broad range of opinions bringing some new perspective to a rather well-worn subject.  (This, by the way, sums up all the panels I attended nicely: no mind-blowingly original topics, but an interesting range of panelists and some productive debates.  In my ideal world, panels would be a lot more like Tarantino movies, but I realise that's not likely to happen any time soon.)

With the remainder of Friday largely taken up by being lazy and hanging out with friends and listening to karoake - no, that wasn't me singing along to Let it Go, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar - I managed to get to bed at an only slightly stupid time.  Saturday was the closest I had to a work day, which as it turned out, wasn't that close at all.  I'd been quite chilled about my panel Is It Legit? Crime in Fantasy, Horror and SF until I realised that I was moderating in the largest (by quite a margin) of the three rooms and that THERE WAS NO COFFEE TO BE HAD ANYWHERE IN THE CONFERENCE CENTRE.  There wasn't much anyone could do about the former, but at least I was saved on the latter front by the magnificent Peter Newman, who basically made it his mission to save my coffee-starved life.  (He must never know that immediately afterwards I discovered that there was free coffee in the green room, and that it was much better than the slush the hotel were selling for ohsomuch money.)  Anyway, once I was suitably caffeinated, my panel seemed to go well enough.  And by the end I was particularly grateful to superstar guest of honour John Connolly, who can talk the legs off any quadruped mammal you could possibly throw his way but is also polite enough to let other people have their say, which from a moderating point of view basically makes him the perfect panelist.  (Though everyone, it has to be said, did sterling work.)

Having spent a large part of the remainder of the day loitering in the bar recovering from the very mild trauma of persuading authors to talk about author-stuff, I braved some more panels in the afternoon - YA: Why, eh? and Robots, Beasts & Humanimals: Writing Non-Human Characters, in close succession.  They were both solid, but two panels in a row turned out to be my limit for sitting in a room listening to people who aren't me talking, so I took a fresh air break, which frustratingly meant missing Tea and Jeopardy for about the thousand time running.  (One day I will experience Tea and Jeopardy.  This I swear upon the bones of someone or other's ancestors!)  Instead I ducked out to hunt up some food that wasn't microwaved by apathetic bar staff and then wandered back in time for my reading - which nearly no one turned up for, despite my copious hinting.  (Needless to say, thanks to the little circle who did.)  From there I moved on to the Undertow Publications book launch to celebrate the launch of Skein and Bone, the debut collection by V H Leslie, who I'd met over breakfast that morning.  This turned out to be an unexpected highlight, since not only was everyone involved really nice, there was free sangria.  That done, I drank an unwise amount and hung out with many more tremendous people, some of whom I knew and some I didn't, and finally staggered off bedwards.

Sunday morning saw me torn between Andy Knighton on the Chained to the Desk? The Writer’s Life Under the Microscope panel and Ian Sales on The Future of the Future, and in the end I opted for the former because it was Andy's first F'Con panel.  Then I decided to ask the question I'd prepped for Ian on Andy's panel, despite how it wouldn't have made a damn bit of sense.  Then I wimped out and asked a sensible question instead - well, one about juggling, at any rate.  Still, it was a good discussion, and no one mentioned going to work in a dressing gown, so perhaps we're progressing as a society.

And that was about the end of it.  If I were to grumble about one thing, and this is me so of course I am, it's that Sunday at a FantasyCon always feels like a bit of a wash-out.  It occurred to me for the first time that there's something slightly horrid and divisive about the notion of ending a conference with a banquet that half the attendees can't afford to go to, and I live in hope that that whole thing will die a death in the not too distant future.  But in this case it was a small deal indeed, because we wanted to get off early and the fact that the programming had finished and almost no one was around by one in the afternoon made that inordinately easy.  Which in turn meant getting back at a sensible time, which in turn seems to have alleviated the usual Con' lag and left me - after two days of considerably too much alcohol, too little proper food and definitely too little sleep - with much more energy than I had before.  Weird but true.

Meanwhile, next year brings FantasyCon back to the hallowed fields of Yorkshire, in the shape of FantasyCon by the Sea, and this of course is an immeasurably good thing.  I'll hope to see you there.

* There wasn't actually a room X.  I would have forgiven the venue everything, even their weird notions of what to put on pizza, if there had been.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

My FantasyCon 2015 Schedule

FantasyCon 2015 is less than two days away.  How did this happen?  I'm looking at you, the linear progression of time!  And I'm scowling in a fashion that should make you deeply ashamed of your behaviour.  Anyway, needless to say, I'm wholly unprepared - largely due to the necessity of having to work like a nutter for the last two weeks to buy myself a whole two days in a row off, which weirdly becomes a lot more complicated when you're setting your own schedule.

But now it's time to get my act together!  Which means a lot of planning, a bit of printing off, a dash of stapling, (apparently I own a stapler!) and also writing this here blog post telling anyone who might curious what it is I'm going to be doing.  Which, as it turns out, wouldn't have taken that long at all if I'd just got on with it.  After all, I'm on precisely one panel - which is more than enough because I'm moderating the thing.  It is...
Sat 24 Oct 11.00 am  Is It Legit? Crime in Fantasy, Horror and SF
Room:  Conference Theatre
Crime has proved fertile ground for fantasy writers and vice versa and the evidence of increasing crossover into the crime-scene is more than circumstantial. Our identity parade of suspects considers some of the issues around depicting crime, criminals and the law in genre fiction.
And my interrogatees - um, fellow panelists - are Alexandra Benedict, Debbie Bennett, Matthew Blakstad, Guy Haley, and a certain Guest of Honour whom you might have heard of, the prodigious Mr John Connolly.  So no pressure there not to ask ridiculous questions then.

Also, I have a reading slot booked, on the Saturday, at 7.40 pm.  Since it's literally inconceivable that anyone could have anything better to do at a conference at twenty to eight on a Saturday night, I shall expect droves on people; in fact, probably best to turn up at least fifteen minutes early.  And as a little added incentive, I'm planning to read the strangest story I've ever written.  I mean, it's really strange.  Even by my standards.

You should totally come.