Harlan Ellison’s ‘Blood’s A Rover’

harlan_ellison

The genius piece of fiction titled “A Boy And His Dog” and I go WAY back. In fact, I was probably 12 or 13, on a rainy day in Chattanooga at the library and trolling the science fiction section for something to pass the time. I’d asked my mom to just drop me off, so I was feeling particularly independent.

Buried in a hardback anthology was this story by a guy I’d never heard of, Harlan Ellison. It was post-apocalypse, a kid and a telepathic dog. I loved the idea because my older brother and I were very much into the ‘Logan’s Run’ movie. Had a bit of a crush on Jessica and embarrassingly, wanted to be a Sandman. Forgive me, seems a bit cruel now to aspire to executing dandies who were just looking to escape certain death by thinking outside the ‘box’. (There’s a pun there; but you’d have to be as much of a nerd as I am to catch it, so I’ll just let it lay there.)

So this story though: ‘A Boy And His Dog’. It was naughty. The hero wasn’t heroic, and was doing things you weren’t supposed to do. I was caught off-guard because I usually read Arthur Clarke and Larry Niven, where everything was sanitized and shiny and clean. And mostly about machines and whatnot. This Ellison guy was a potty mouth and had a dirty mind. But when you’re 12, that’s all very…very cool.  I read it. Then I read it again, right then.

In fact, I’ve read that story more times than I could tell you. Also embarrassingly, that summer (and likely other summers), when I was riding my bike down to the gas station to play ‘Car Wars’ and buy a Mountain Dew or coasting down my parent’s sloping front yard, I’d pretend post-WWIII mutants were chasing me and my telepathic dog. Yeah, I did that. Point being, that story was incredibly influential to me.

I’ve followed Ellison ever since, of course. Like a lot of people, I never wanted to meet the guy in person because he was scary and uptight and temperamental. Yet the dude was among the finest speculative fiction writers who’ve ever put their minds to the task. I’ve got a substantial portion of his work on my shelves because you have to mine that kind of genius when it’s out in the world. He’s one of the voices I hear in my head when I’m writing (metaphorically, don’t judge me). He says to write about people, because that’s the only thing worth writing about. He says to stop being boring, stop explaining. He says to do something shocking, something different from the garbage on the bestseller lists.

So a very long time ago, some say as far back as 1970, Harlan said he planned to expand ‘A Boy And His Dog’ into a novel. He was coy for years about that. At one point, he got fed up with people asking and wrote a follow-on story where he killed the hero to put an end to it. In fact, a few years ago when I checked some interviews to gauge what was up with that, I read where he claimed to have written the bulk of the story and was waiting on the right price. It was maddening how long I waited for the rest of this particular story.

And now the best we’re going to get is on Amazon now.  Mr. Ellison has sadly passed away; and his health was failing in recent years. Ironically, he had a stroke only a few pages in to what was going to be his first return to new and related material (a story to be called ‘Lying Doggo’.  I really don’t want to hear from anybody reading this about how he groped Connie Willis at WorldCon because I won’t apologize for the guy. He was an ass. He was just a genius ass. And he’s a part of me.

Do yourself a favor and buy this and read it clean through. It isn’t perfect. Part of it’s in screenplay form, which annoys. But it’s the story…an incredibly powerful and resonant story that has shaped the way many people think in a lot of ways. After all this guy did for science fiction, as hard as he worked to put new things into the world to shatter crappy and retreaded ideas, he deserves that.

And somebody get a kickstarter rolling to have this thing filmed, for goodness’ sake!

Advertisements

Coming In Winter 2018: ‘They’re At The Window’

Lower Bob

Yes, it took me seven years to write my first book. Don’t mock me. I plotted it in fine detail, then promptly let it take a different course because I didn’t know any better. Then I began writing my second novel, thinking how cool it would be to move quicker…

because of how smart I was now.

I figured one year was enough to capture what was to be a linear, straightforward fantasy thriller. I suppose now that it’s two and a half years later, I’m learning that just isn’t how my mind works. It’s a much more exciting story now, peopled with characters I want to hang out with (or smack in the face), that twists in sizzling ways I’d not originally considered. Tough love, I suppose.

To the folks who’ve been asking – look, I’m sharpening this badboy up for you so that you’ll get stung by it. I promise. Just hang with me a little longer.

You might remember seeing Christians in orange jump suits getting beheaded on a beach a few years ago by Isis.  It blindsided me, the notion of everyday people trying to stand up to terrible evil with precious little hope of winning. Around the same time, I was watching the anime series, ‘Attack On Titan’. Hajime Isayama is the guy who wrote and illustrated the manga that series was based on; and he makes a very twisty, turning story with holy-crap moments on every other page. I knew I wanted that too, to have every chapter end on a cliffhanger. I decided on 3,000 word chapters to keep it tight and moving quickly.

Somewhere in the gargantuan Time-Life book on World War Two in my study is a picture of marines on a landing craft in foaming waters headed for the hail of gunfire on the beach. The couple of faces you can see aren’t panicking or crying. In fact, one guy is half-smiling. I knew I wanted that.

Same book, different page, is the picture of Neville Chamberlain holding up the peace treaty signed by Hitler promising no more aggression. That was the other side of dealing with bullies. I wanted that too.

I dug for a long time to find a pair of representative quotes with which to open the novel. I needed two that resonated together, and said something important about facing blood-chilling fear, about what history demands of you when you’re staring down something merciless and wicked and hungry. I hope you like them.

Capture

See you soon.

 

 

 

 

Constructing The Puzzle Box

puzzle box

It was a bit of a bummer to me to learn a couple of years ago that book cover artists don’t actually read your book. Those folks who’ve been grailrunning with us a while know how we feel about inspiring imaginations – especially visionaries who build incredible imagery. I tried running an art campaign at the first book’s launch, hoping to draw in excited digital and traditional painters who’d put form to the concepts and key scenes from the book. I got some entries; but none related to much in the book at all. It got me thinking – just how can you draw those talented folks into your world?

When I stumbled across the dude who wound up making the cover to TEARING DOWN THE STATUES, I was fairly pumped about it. He’s easy to work with and very good. Drop me a note if you want a referral. I sent him a few juvenile pieces I’d put together in Photoshop, the text for the back cover, a bulleted list of major scenes and characters in the book I thought would be iconic for a cover, and tried to relax and let his process happen. I hoped he’d read the book, so I sent him the pdf. He did a fantastic job; and a lot of you have commented on that cover. But he didn’t read the book.

So it’s part of my process now to try and forge my own concept art when the book is taking shape. It helps with the cover artists; and it honestly helps me as well – just to see how the book might be best positioned when it hits the shelves. Maybe one day, I’ll be a Photoshop artisan whose work can just go right on the cover. You can have a free copy of the first hardback art book. I can dream, right?

Above is my first shot at a promotional teaser for the upcoming flash fiction collection. No way is that going to be the cover because I don’t know what I’m doing visually. But it’s the kind of thing that’s in my mind to try and visually narrate what the collection is going to be, based on the stories and the framework.

I know, there’s supposed to be a dark fantasy thriller…urban horror…kind of thingie coming out this summer! Why am I not writing that?!

Patience, please. Life happened, and keeps happening. I’m 60k words in and have all mysteries solved in my mind, major plot points hedged out, and know how it ends.  All the characters are popping, and the dialogue sounds real. It’s getting there, just not as close as the story collection. If you’d like to beta read a few chapters and see some of the concept art, just drop me a note or comment here. 

Have a great start to your summer!

 

 

Wheels Within Wheels: The Embedded Philosophy of The Salt Mystic Series

LensLook at the diagram. Let’s chat about people.

The ones who enjoy change and excitement, say they’re far along the upper arrow. The people who more appreciate stability and equilibrium, say they’re farther along the lower arrow. The ones who burn, they like different faces and different streets, to shake things up for the sake of doing so. Their counterparts farther on the lower arrow do what they have to in order to keep the waters calm – sometimes changes even make them physically ill.

The horizontal arrow describes how these two very different types of people will approach their preferences. On the right-hand side, some of us prefer to think about people and can recall names of wives and children. Those along that arrow have spent their lives filing away personal details so they can use them. Alternately, the people farther along the left-hand arrow focus their attention on tangible things like tasks and goals and machines. Emotions and relationships are among the last things those along the left-hand arrow would think of.

Okay so far? Let’s go around the diagram and see what shakes out.

FIRE/BONE – Inspiring change in their surroundings by focusing on tasks and goals. They’re bold and dominant, often misunderstood as unreasonable.

FIRE/FLESH – Inspiring change in their surroundings, by focusing on people and relationships. This is the guy who puts a smile on your face as soon as he walks in the room. If he wants you happy, you’re happy. If he wants you upset, he can do that too.

FLESH/ICE – Seeking to keep things the same, but by focusing on people and relationships. This is the lady who pats you on the back and tells you everything will be okay, that you can get through this. “This too shall pass”.

ICE/BONE – Seeking equilibrium, by focusing on tasks and goals. These folks like spreadsheets and accounting and math, things that are predictable and controllable. They like solving puzzles.

Nothing earth-shattering yet, right? Maybe you’ve even seen this before. But none of these people are on an island alone. Forces arise when you put them together. For example, the dominant FIRE/BONE person will grow quickly impatient with the ICE/BONE guy when he starts going into the details and assumptions behind his calculations. ‘Get to the point’, right?

Spend enough time thinking this through, applying the axis to circumstances, you find at least ten key types:

Capture

If you scale that up, what are the implications?  Place these character types in specific circumstances; and dynamics arise. 

I can place a Libertine in a position of high authority and prestige and make predictions about what he will do, because we’ve seen that power corrupts. Alternately, I can place a Tinker at the head of a brewing and suffering crowd and spark a revolution. I can see a Strongman blindly forging his empire but being stabbed in the corridor by the group of Whisperers he was unaware were plotting. Do you see how the patterns are the familiar?

We can in fact recognize at least two pairs of forces arising from circumstances:

Capture

That’s for each type; but if you place different types alongside each other in a set of events, the dynamics get more complicated. We can say a type is in one of three orientations to these forces:

Capture

And all of this leads to the biggest influencer of human events there is. MOMENTUM. All fortunes, good and bad, have momentum. If you start winning, you’re often going to keep up the streak. If you start losing, it seems to happen in clusters. You can see it in sports when a team gets ‘psyched out’ or ‘freezes up’. You can see it in life. And you can see it on a large scale in human events with major cultural zeitgeist shifts such as the ever-predictable shifts from EXCITEMENT and OPTIMISM to ENNUI and FATIGUE. Go ahead and examine the last 2,000 years to see the obvious pattern of EXPANSION and CONTRACTION like waves on the shore.

The first book of the Salt Mystic series is titled ‘TEARING DOWN THE STATUES‘. In it, a mystic stumbled out of the salt flats two millennia prior to events and said something like this:

“I thought of the momentum of history as a fast ship on the sea, the wake of decisions rippling through the future as inset circles fluttering on an island pond…the awesome, secret structure of coincidence tying designs from behind the hanging tapestry, and pulling back…like standing to appraise a chalk drawing, the whole of it falling into wheels within wheels…a clockwork of events the scale of mountains and yet also the fuzz of an insect stumbling drunk from the flower. And suddenly I saw the shape of history in all its wonder.”

She saw the patterns and the types, the forces and players, and wanted to steer events towards better futures than she imagined were coming. Very much unlike Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov’s fantastic ‘Foundation’ series, the Salt Mystic knew that people and events are chaotically sensitive to initial conditions and quite unpredictable. So she provided a set of symbols and rules for simulating a given set of types and circumstances – an event reading – that will clearly show how those sorts of patterns almost always resolve given the patterns of history. Characters in the book attend an event reading to discover a major twist in the story – it’s in Chapter 5.

More importantly, the Salt Mystic engineered a safety mechanism should things veer far enough in the wrong direction throughout history. She spread carefully engineered myths and fables, precisely suited to particular patterns of types and forces, that carried enough embedded details to inspire a guardian to arise. The guardian could be anyone, even you or me. The fables were ones everyone knew; but in the right time and place and with the right person, miracles would happen.

While it took two years to finally happen, I’m happy to say people are at last asking about the philosophy behind the book. That’s why I wrote this article, in fact – thanks to a children’s book writer who sat next to me on a plane trip from Dallas to Kansas City. It’s based loosely on DISC and Meyers-Briggs personality profiling as well as Belbin types – although the expansion into circumstances and human events is original.

The bit about engineering guardians into fables, I’m working on making that real. Will keep you posted on how that’s going.

 

 

Grailrunner’s Flash Fiction Puzzle Box

philadelphia-experiment-173-w636-h600

Believe it or not, the story behind the Philadelphia Experiment is more interesting to me than the story itself. I’m not going to get into the conspiracy nonsense about the disappearing destroyer, the government experiments, and sailors reappearing inside solid metal. If that’s news to you, go read up on it. There’s something slicker going on you should know though.

The source for the story was an enigmatic drifter named Carlos Allende, who sent an annotated copy of Morris Jessup’s ‘Case For The UFO’ to some folks who dug it. The fact that those folks happened to have secretive jobs in the military made it seem like they were hiding something. My point today is the annotations…the stuff Allende scribbled in the margins. Here, see what I mean.  If that link stops working, get yourself a copy on Amazon – make sure it’s the Varo edition.

The story was nonsense. Never happened. Nothing in those annotations even makes sense, honestly. It’s apparently, if you pay close enough attention, a running dialogue between three mysterious figures – three personalities – who talk like they know something about a secret history of the world. Some quotes: “mother ship, home-fleet, Great ark, great bombardment, great war, force-fields, deep freezes, undersea buildings, scout ships, magnetic and gravity fields, vortices, sheet diamond, dematerialization”. These three figures scrawled their notes helpfully in different colors in the original sent to Admiral Furth, Chief Of The Office Of Naval Research.

The Philadelphia Experiment that has grown such wings sounded originally like this: “U.S. Navy’s force-field experiments, 1943, October produced invisibility of crew & ship. Fearsome results. So terrifying as to. Fortunately further research halted!”

Anyway, this is a deep well I go to sometimes to steal things from. (I had to have ‘sheet diamond’ – I used it in Tearing Down The Statues.)

Let me come back to all that.

The only reason I suffer through social media is for the hope that there are cool people out there who dig science fiction and mind-expanding ideas, and who don’t whine incessantly. There is a disappointing majority who will argue whether some inane TV show is science fiction, who will viciously insult hapless posters only looking for conversation, mass vomiters of their ad banners, and the social justice folks who weaponize every topic by steering it into politics. Those people can bite me. It’s sad when someone is looking for inspiration and they get that kind of noise shoved at them.

A while back, I started posting flash fiction on a few sites to try and keep up a base of people who recognize my name even though it takes me years to write a book. The thought was if the stories are quick with open hooks good for pondering afterwards, and are accompanied by intriguing images, then maybe some other grailrunners will show up. I’m really happy to say I’m not alone after all this time. Recently, one very cool dude named John put a massive smile on my face by suggesting he’d like to read the books behind all those stories. I told him I would too, maybe someone should write them.

But it got me thinking, I really would like to see all those stories printed and in my hands, ready-made for seizing off the shelf for quick inspiration. Then I remembered the Varo edition.

I’m up to about 25k words, targeting probably 40k in all. I’m anxious to string them all together in sequence, letting my subconscious find the evolution of the various parts of it all. Shockingly, it does tie together into themes that tell an overarching myth. I’m planning to let some mysterious figures comment on blocks of the stories to help unlock the mystery behind the entire collection. Like a puzzle box.

Honestly, I can’t wait to see it packaged and ready for you!

 

 

 

Experiments In Immersive Storytelling (and procrastination)

warmachine tableI’m supposed to be finishing a novel. Really, it’s three quarters of the way done. And to the people asking where’s the sequel to Tearing Down The Statues, it’s so cool that you’re asking. And I’m sorry that I’m not even done with the one I’m working on to start that one. So forgive me for this article; but look at that tabletop there! That’s cool, right?

It started around Halloween. My birthday’s in November; and I coerced my wife and kids into playing Dungeons & Dragons with me as my present. Haven’t played since before college, no idea what I was doing. Just thought it would be awesome. I crammed on the game mechanics with Critical Role (thanks Matt Mercer, you’re a gifted genius!) Then when we needed some figurines for the tabletop to help me keep track of what was what, we went to a gaming store and something magical happened.

Some dudes were in the back staring intently at a grassy landscape with trees and steampunk robot miniatures playing some kind of game. I asked the guy helping me what they were playing. He described it as like chess only more complicated and with steam powered robots and magic. Warmachine. I was about to go deep and didn’t know it.

The D&D game went fantastic, by the way. There was a mysterious box with a kraken egg inside, goblin attacks, and three riddles you had to solve before a crushing room at the inn squeezed them into pancakes. They set loose the last baby kraken at the end. Was amazing. But Warmachine, though. Tell me more about Warmachine.

A dude named Matt Wilson started Privateer Press with a couple of friends around 2000, to ‘create expressions of his own original property concepts’. Sounds pretty liberating. I’m glad he did it. Warmachine and its ugly sister, Hordes, are his masterworks. What attracted me was the notion of clashing strategies with steampunk robots on gorgeous scenery, an all-out war in miniature on a tabletop played like a gentleman’s game of chess. Maybe not so much the storytelling side of it, though that will come, but the blend of art and reason.

IMG_8361Since it was Christmas and New Years, and too miserable cold and snowy outside to do anything else, I made some Papercraft houses and started watching videos on making terrain. You should watch this guy. He’s a miracle worker!

I got some sawdust from a guy named Kenny at Lowe’s that cuts lumber, sifted it to a fine powder, and stirred it in with green egg tempera paint. The kids had to step over it on the paper in the garage as it dried out. When it’s glued on primered foam, it looks amazingly like grass. If you get into this sort of thing, you should google ‘drybrushing’. Super easy.

IMG_8364I twisted some wire strips together and bent them to look like limbs, then stuck that into holes I drilled in an old flagpole dowel glued to wooden bases from Hobby Lobby. After I hot-glue-gunned the crap out of them and primered them, I pulled and stretched on some steel wool to make netting. I drybrushed the trunks with brown and white and sprayed the steel wool with spray adhesive. Then I dunked them upside-down in a tub of the dyed sawdust. Boom! Trees. Honestly, you should see them in person. Not bad at all.

IMG_8363I carved out a cavity in a flat piece of insulation foam and coated it with joint compound, glued some rocks I picked up when I was walking the dogs, and glued some dyed sawdust to it too. The bushes were made just like the trees. I drybrushed the lake bottom, then poured some clear resin from Hobby Lobby to make the water. The stuff reeks, but it looks pretty good when it cures. I messed up and put brown paint in it. My daughter said it looked like Willie Wonka’s chocolate pond.

IMG_8366

The game is played on a 4ft x 4ft tabletop; and I was avoiding learning how to assemble and paint miniatures anyway, so I took a stab at the wargaming table. The textured surface is gritty sand poured on plywood, sprayed a bajillion times with watered-down Elmer’s glue, and then painted with browns and greens using a ripped sponge. My daughter picked out the dark stain for the wood. Nice choice.

IMG_8367I can’t paint. Never have I been able to paint. It’s bad, seriously. Wish I could. I avoided putting those models together and painting them like it was the plague. Then it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. I used some metallic paints my wife picked up on Amazon and the good stuff Privateer Press puts out. That made up for the scarcity of talent.

The rules are a bit thick. Clear and well structured, yes. But there’s a lot to it. So I had to study it before game day. My son, who’s 15 and grumpy and doesn’t like anything even promised me a game – “because you’ve worked so hard on it”, he said. My wife agreed to one. My daughter didn’t. My daughter’s boyfriend, however, is fascinated although she won’t let him near me when I’m talking about it.

And so game one, entirely solo so I could learn how to play, is over! My approach was to hit the other side as hard as I could with the best and most dangerous strategies possible, then trade places and do the same on the other side. It was an experiment in immersive storytelling, particularly for an intriguing clash of two armies in a custom landscape. I’d like you to live it with me, because it went quite well.

Don’t worry about the rules, just follow what happened. Assume it’s all dice rolls and stats on cards to see what happens when you try something. Let’s dive in! (View the pdf instead of these pics if that’s easier)

warmachine 1

warmachine 2

warmachine 3

warmachine 4

warmachine 5

warmachine 6

warmachine 7

warmachine 8

warmachine 9

warmachine 10

warmachine 11

warmachine 12

warmachine 13

warmachine 14

warmachine 15

warmachine 16

I can’t believe I’m still not working on the novel. It’s been an amazing diversion; but it’s really time to get back into the action. Everything I do affects my writing, so I’m sure something will be different this weekend when I get the ball rolling. Maybe more action, maybe the introduction of a slightly different aesthetic, or maybe a character that likes wargames. I don’t know. The characters are in a difficult bind right now, and trapped. I think maybe I need now to be a little more strategic in what they do next.

Or I could just build some cool ruins and play another game.

 

 

Using Text Analytics In Your Writing

CaptureA while back, I used a wordcloud on the text of my own book to tune and get insights into my writing style. Here, see what I mean. The idea is to try and take an objective look at your work in progress, a book you’ve got cooking and that you probably think is awesome (of course!) using text analytics rather than your brother or your dad.  Go ahead and blast me as a nerd, tell me machine learning will never take the place of emotional impact, and blah blah blah. I zoned out on you. What I’m suggesting is a supplemental tool to get another set of eyes on what you’re creating to go deep into it, and make it the best it can be.

You can wiki ‘text analytics’ with the link above; but the short version is to break down the raw text with software into just its individual words, ignoring common words like ‘and’. Typically, you’d also ignore capitalization and punctuation. Once it’s just a bunch of the remaining words, you can count their frequencies and display them in a way that highlights that. Wordclouds like the one in the header here just make them bigger if they repeat more than others. You could as easily chart them. I used the R programming language with ‘tm’ and ‘wordcloud’ packages for mine – here’s the code if you want it:

Capture

I won’t go into the deets on what that cloud tells me – I covered that sort of thing in the other article. Quickly though, I do see I’m consistent with similes and the mindset in my narrative style of trying to think like a movie camera. This book I’m writing now is a much more intimate book, less bombastic grandiose scale than my first one. Since it’s more visceral and up-close with the characters, I’m seeing even support character names showing up in the cloud. That surprised me. I actually went back to earlier chapters and shifted who was acting and speaking to even out the balance when I saw one of the main characters dominating.

I am experimenting with something called ‘sentiment analysis’, which also sounds useful. I couldn’t make it work, or I’d be writing about that right now. Sentiment analysis relies on lexicons (there are three of them out there that I know of) which contain a crap-ton of English words with assigned scores for positive/negative sentiment or emotional content. For example, the NRC lexicon scores ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for a word for positive, negative, anger, anticipation, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise, and trust. That means you can get a rough measure on the emotional content of the storyline, even chart the course of the book and see when things started getting more hopeful, sadder, or whether you overdid the foreshadowing. If I can get that into something meaningful, I’ll share it with you here and tell you how I did it. The book I’m referencing is called Text Mining With R.

Anyway, that’s the thought. Maybe the real advice for me isn’t that I need another way of getting feedback on what I’m writing, but rather just to stop getting distracted by shiny things and sit down and write it?! Yes, I don’t need software to tell me that. I’m two and a half years in on this one, though I had dreams of finishing in a year. I feel good about it; and it’s going to be a sharper, fresher work because of all the time I’m spending on it for sure.

Still, I’d like to see it on my bookshelf!

Merry Christmas, guys!

 

 

Raindancer: Little Things That, Now, Only You Know

raindancerSay you’re standing somewhere, bored, and glance at your phone to pass the time. Is there some bit of news you can imagine reading there that would hit you hard enough to make you lose your breath, fall back to sit down, and just crowd out the world while you process it? That happened to me a week ago. In a small way, this post is a celebration and a way to grieve. More than anything though, I’m looking to make it a cyberspace memorial for somebody who deserved that.

At the height of the noisy disaster that was the 2016 political season, when you couldn’t read the news or watch late night television without hearing somebody’s views on how much you suck no matter what you believe, I wrote this:

CaptureLook, I’m not a great guitar player. And I don’t sit around writing music anymore. But when I needed some sanity and a calm, happy place, this memory of a guy named Tim who you would have loved dearly just did it for me. I wish you could have met him. He’d  have made you laugh, would have gotten you talking about something you love. If you’d been lonely and scared in a junior high cafeteria staring at all the strangers and being told you were sitting in somebody else’s seat, he would have sat beside you and started talking about AC/DC. That was Tim.

If you had been there in, say, 1988 in my bedroom with us playing weird noises on those guitars, you’d have seen Tim’s eyes drift off while he dreamed up crazy lyrics. I wish I could have heard them now. Maybe he knew how sad he was going to get without telling anybody. Maybe he was sad then. I don’t know, he never told me anything about it. We called each other best friends for 30 years; but he never told me he was sad enough to kill himself with a shotgun. I want that image to go away. And I only want to see him there strumming that acoustic guitar beside me wearing his stupid straw panama hat. On my dad’s patio in the summer sunshine, right before we head out to some antique malls or to the lake.

I want you to think of someone you know who might be alone, right now. Even if it’s awkward and has been a while, I want you to call them. See how they’re doing. Dig.

It’s a beautiful world; but it can be a mean world too. That’s why there’s a bunch of us. If you’ve used your mind’s eye as you read this, then in a way that’s very, very important to me, you know something only me and a guy named Tim knew. Now it’s like you were with us back then.

I’d appreciate you remembering.

Love Letter To ‘The Repairer Of Reputations’

king in yellowI imagine you’ve heard of the King In Yellow by Robert W. Chambers; but if not then I have a birthday present for you. An 1895 book of short stories – only four of which matter – by a dude who wrote bohemian romance stories and historical fiction and whatever else would pay the bills. Somehow, in a sizzling flare of genius very early in his career, this Brooklyn artist wrote one of the most intriguing, ahead-of-its-time, white-hot weird stories ever put in words. This guy:

Robert William Chambers.jpg Don’t take may word on this – the basis of these four stories has inspired writers you’ve read or at least heard of: HP Lovecraft, James Blish, Lin Carter, Charles Stross, George R R Martin, Neil Gaiman, blah blah blah. Seriously, google it. Core concepts pop up in True Detective as well, if you’re into that show.

Go listen to Peter Yearsley read The Repairer Of Reputations on YouTube. You can hire Peter here if you need a voice actor – this guy has a voice and delivery ideally suited to give you chills in the sunshine. That’s the key story I want to talk about – the one that opens the collection. If you’d prefer to read it, the book’s also on Gutenberg.

Did you do it – all the way? Man, is that creepy or what?

The story opens with a bang, outlining a 1920’s New York imagined in a 19th Century European style and following a war with Germany. Government sponsored suicide chambers are being christened throughout the city. The narrator casually mentions a fall from his horse a few years ago and speaks of his doctor like somebody he needs to kill:

“At last he decided that I was well, and I, knowing that my mind had always been as sound as his, if not sounder, ‘paid my tuition’ as he jokingly called it, and left. I told him, smiling, that I would get even with him for his mistake, and he laughed heartily, and asked me to call once in a while. I did so, hoping for a chance to even up accounts, but he gave me none, and I told him I would wait.”

A banned play circulating in bootleg copies is mentioned, titled ‘The King In Yellow’. You can get away with reading Act 1 and only go a little crazy. But read farther into Act 2 and you’re nuts – maybe you’ll kill people, maybe you’ll scheme and wait for the mysterious ‘yellow sign’ to rise up in revolt, maybe you’ll blubber like a lunatic in the corner.

“It is well known how the book spread like infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in ‘The King in Yellow’, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked.’

A bit of unintended magic happened here. Since Chambers wrote this before the turn of the century, what is an alternate history now was just an extrapolation of pre-WW1 Europe reproducing its pageantry and courtyards and brightly plumed soldiers on horseback in the new world. Every time I read this, I imagine Miyazaki’s alpine city in Howl’s Moving Castle. Except with suicide chambers and lunatics roaming about.

Steampunk didn’t exist when this was written; but now that’s what it is. An unreliable narrator. Meta-style self-references. Larger-than-life, scheming caricature grotesques right out of Dickens or Gormenghast. Gentle, wicked hints at the looming threat instead of blatant noise like many popular hacks writing today. Chambers made absolute magic happen; and he probably didn’t even know how he did it. And unfortunately, he never matched his success either.

Rather than me ruining it, do me a favor now. Here at Grailrunner, we try to show you something that inspires…things that are awesome and want to steal your attention long enough to make an impact that will last forever in how you think. ‘The Repairer Of Reputations’ will do that for you. Have patience with it. Let Peter Yearsley’s creepy voice work its hoodoo on you.

Go meet the eerie Mister Wilde and his stalking, vicious cat that tears at his face. Follow the panicked, desperate Vance into the shadows on his mission for the King. Sit with Louis and his cousin at midnight in the park by the suicide chamber and read ‘The Imperial Dynasty Of America’. See if you think it’s a shining crown in a safe or a pasted tinsel in a biscuit box.

If all of that is unfamiliar, I envy you.

And if you’re a wordslinger, maybe you’ll do like so many before us and steal from Chambers something that strikes you as too good to leave alone. Something that needs to change shape and whisper in a different way, but with the same fascination.

I envy that too.

 

The White City Devil: How To See Through Nonsense

518tlzBdM8L

Read this and tell me what’s wrong with it:

“Born in 1861 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, H.H. Holmes was one of America’s first serial murderers. He took over a Chicago pharmacy and built it into an elaborate maze of death traps to which he lured numerous victims during the 1893 Columbian Exposition. He was eventually captured and hanged in 1896.” link

I have a thing for wanting to know things other people don’t know…I want to really know nonsense when I see it, especially if the crowds are stampeding in the other direction. Not sure why that is. It’s just how I think. I read The True History Of The White City Devil recently; and it got me thinking about this side of me again. I’ll get back to the Holmes thing in a bit. Stick with me.

A few years ago, after reading a book about the Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story Of The Mary Celeste And Her Missing Crew, I compiled a few rules for how modern myths develop, which I’ll share below. At the time, it struck me how so many of the “unsolved mysteries” I grew up fascinated by were probably benign and dull in fact, but made salacious by people with agendas and a need for good gossip to spread. In this Mary Celeste book, the traditional view is a ship’s crew disappeared with warm food on the table and no log explanation or damage to the ship. Gone – into thin air. Google it; and you’ll read about black holes and aliens and teleportation. I’m not sure you’d buy and read anything that just suggested fumes from burst barrels of alcohol drove people to the lifeboat and subsequently got them separated from the ship in a storm.

Arthur Machen’s introduction to his story “The Bowmen” captures this myth development process in its tracks. Go read that – it will blow your mind.

Have a look at the convoluted history of the Voynich Manuscript and see if you don’t agree this thing is just a hoax. People see what they want to see. The 2016-2017 political climate should make that point as loudly as anything I can tell you here.

Here are the rules I’ve distilled regarding myth development:

  • The story needs a new or interesting hook to rise to critical mass in the first place
  • Often, the story suits or in some way encapsulates its era, or symbolizes a way of life (like Jack the Ripper’s foggy London)
  • Confirmation bias is the first sign of critical mass – contrary evidence starts getting ignored
  • Major players involved in the story’s propagation have agendas (like selling books or their story to news outlets, career advancement)
  • Details begin to accumulate and attach, which aren’t true but fit well with the original kernel

Back to the book about H. H. Holmes, the problem with the statement I provided above is it’s basically not true. The reviews for “The True History Of The White City Devil” said in a big way that the book is bland at times because it’s so well researched. In fact, I adored this book because of that. No junk here – the author cuts through the noise and has spent countless hours dredging through microfiche and dusty library stacks to bring us truth. It’s a lot less sexy of a story than the traditional view of a lusty villain in his murder hotel luring innocent visitors to the World’s Fair into their dooms. It’s the story of a pathological liar and con man who got himself stuck in his schemes and wound up doing away with a small handful of people to clean up the mess. In fact, no one at all may have even rented a room in what has come to history as the “Murder Castle”. Fascinating.

I put this myth development concern at the heart of my first novel, envisioning a mystic who manipulated myth development to guide history.

There’s a TV show on now presenting a relatively popular theory that Holmes was in fact also Jack The Ripper. It’s a theory being propounded by a great-great-grandson of Holmes himself. What’s presented as evidence is actually just crackpot talking heads in a lot of cases. Anything working against the theme is waved off as an obstruction to the truth. It’s absolute nonsense; and I’m not even going to give you a link to it.

Anyway, if you’re into truth and can appreciate a well-researched study done by someone who cares about cutting through the noise, pick up a copy. It’s worth your time.