Conversing with Giants

November 8th, 2012

by Christopher Paul Carey

“Assist the new without sacrificing the old.” This line from Thomas Mann is something I feel in my bones as I write, and I think every writer has to come to terms with the notion, whether it’s confronted consciously or it squirms up unrecognized from beneath the surface. For some, the word “tradition” can connote tired and worn stodginess, but for me it’s the living root that taps the well of creativity, a sort of metaphysical channel to my long-gone peers from the past.

When I was completing The Song of Kwasin—the concluding novel in a historical fantasy trilogy started by Philip José Farmer back in the 1970s—I had some big decisions to make. One of the most important was whether to write in a more modern style and to avoid many of the literary conventions common to novels of the mid-1970s that have since fallen into disuse. I weighed both sides, since at the time I didn’t know whether the novel would sell as a standalone volume or as part of an omnibus of the series. I knew many twenty-first-century publishers wouldn’t grok a book written in the style of 1976 that also unapologetically drew on styles over a hundred years old.

But I stuck with the feeling in my gut: that to respect the work I was about to undertake, I needed to revel in what had gone before. I knew all too well the literary roots of the Khokarsa trilogy. At a young age Phil Farmer had come to love the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard, and so had I. These two authors were the primary inspirations for Hadon of Ancient Opar, Flight to Opar, and the outline and partial manuscript Phil had provided me with so that I could complete The Song of Kwasin. Phil, I knew, had adopted his own gritty, more realistic style in the first two novels, and yet still somehow managed to capture the essence—the fun and wonder—of the pulp tropes employed in the adventure tales of Burroughs and Haggard. Moreover, Phil’s approach subtly mixed SFnal elements with the fantasy of these authors, but did so in an artful way that did not overbear the traditions that inspired the Khokarsa series. So while I worked on the novel, I knew I not only had to account for the pulp tradition, but also for Phil’s New Wave SFF innovations with it. To do this I looked to the body of Phil’s work, in particular themes and sentiments he had used throughout his literary career. I explored how Phil had already laid the groundwork to interplay these elements with the traditions established by Burroughs and Haggard, sowing them into The Song of Kwasin where it seemed most likely they’d organically take root.

Of course, my own innovations grow alongside Phil’s in the book. I don’t know if the modern reader (or even I) can see them, since we’re often blind to the conventions and styles of our own times. But I know they’re there, and that a future reader some thirty-five or forty years from now will be able to see them plainly. Writing is a dialogue that takes place over centuries. As the conversation turns, new topics and feelings and questions and insights arise, all of which are born out of what has gone before. Move the conversation forward, but don’t forget what’s been said.

That’s one of the things that inspires me most when I write: the opportunity to converse with the literary giants of the past, and the potential to carry on the conversation they started into new realms. Who knows how long our species might carry on such a dialogue, or where it might lead? I honestly don’t know. But meanwhile I’m having a grand old time chatting.

About the Guest Author

Christopher Paul Carey


Christopher Paul Carey

Christopher Paul Carey is the coauthor with Philip José Farmer of Gods of Opar: Tales of Lost Khokarsa, and the author of Exiles of Kho, a prelude to the Khokarsa series. His short fiction may be found in such anthologies as Tales of the Shadowmen, The Worlds of Philip José Farmer, and The Avenger: The Justice, Inc. Files. He is an editor with Paizo Publishing on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Chris and his wife Laura live in Seattle, Washington.

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Many Sources

November 1st, 2012

by Maurice Broaddus

The whole idea of inspiration fascinates me. In my quiet moments, I believe that I don’t have much of an imagination. So many of my stories and characters spring from my own life that I often feel that I’m not so much “writing” as I am “transcribing.” Also, I consider myself a spiritual person, thus created in God’s (the ultimate Creator) image, thus I could say that the Holy Spirit is my Muse. So in a sentence, life is my ultimate inspiration and writing is my mission.

When I wrote King Maker, the first book in what would become my Knights of Breton Court trilogy, it sprang from those two things coming together. I was a volunteer at a ministry called Outreach Inc, which works with homeless teenagers. I was teaching a creative writing class and was encouraging the kids to imagine themselves in different settings. It became quickly apparent that they could barely imagine themselves surviving to next week. Life had stolen their ability to dream . . . but they still had stories to tell. I threw out the line “you could be anything you want, princes, princesses, knights” and that stuck with me. What if they were, right where they are? From wanting to share their stories, my novel was born. That’s the way it typically goes with me. My stories spring from my life in a bunch of different ways:

-My identity: We all have those existential moments of wondering “Who am I?” Wrestling with that question plays itself out as a theme in many of my stories. From my short story, “Family Business” (Weird Tales), where I contemplated the idea of being “The Other” within my own family; to “Warrior of the Sunrise” (The New Hero, vol. I), where issues of race, spirit, and family collide.

-My faith: Matters of religion and personal faith fascinate me and form a good part of who I am. They play in my imagination and pop out in interesting ways, such as my novella, Orgy of Souls (Apex Books), as I wrestled with the idea of the role faith plays in how we choose to live our lives. Or the idea for my anthology series, Dark Faith (Apex Books).

-My tragedies: Writing is my therapy. Writing allows me to put some distance between me, what’s going on, and what you are feeling. I am able to examine it from a variety of perspectives (not just what the main character is going through but how it impacts those around her/him). I can talk things through using my characters, dig deep within and plumb their hearts and hidden feelings and truths. My story, “Rainfall” (Cemetery Dance), springs to mind as a recent example of this.

-My children: nothing delights and stirs your wonder like listening to your children. As I hang out with them and their friends, I feel the need to memorialize this time in words somehow. I can literally feel the mental gears turning as I think about how to capture their lives and spirit in story.

As writers, we give up our lives. We cut open our emotional veins and bleed all over the page for our readers’ entertainment. There is a certain amount of fearlessness and abandon as we put ourselves out there, exposing ourselves. We are the court jesters speaking truth to power.

I am surrounded by reminders of who the ultimate Author is. In some ways I see myself as joining in His creative work and mission whenever I create a story. I am also keenly aware that I’m often working out my spiritual journey as much through my art as through my faith. Life is wondrous, even the dark sides of it, and there is a beauty not only to Creation but in the act of creation.

Most importantly, I live an interesting life. I meet people, encounter strange situations, and have weird dreams. We all do. So pay attention to the life that you’re living. There are stories all around you just waiting to be told.

About the Guest Author

Maurice Broaddus


Maurice Broaddus

Maurice Broaddus has written hundreds of short stories, essays, novellas, and articles. His dark fiction has been published in numerous magazines, anthologies, and web sites, including Cemetery Dance, Apex Magazine, Black Static, and Weird Tales Magazine. He is the co-editor of the Dark Faith anthology series (Apex Books) and the author of the urban fantasy trilogy, Knights of Breton Court (Angry Robot Books). He has been a teaching artist for over five years, teaching creative writing to elementary, middle, and high school students, as well as adults.

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Not Your Ordinary Sweetest Day

October 25th, 2012

by Brady Allen

I can’t plot out my short stories ahead of time; I like to discover them as I write. Just start with an image and see where it goes. That, for me, is what makes writing wondrous.

Wonder is generally seen as a good thing, of course, though some of it is threatening and dark, and I reckon there are only some of us who can’t help but search for it, darkness, and wonder at it.

I see darkness in a look one student gives another in class when I’m teaching; in the grocery store when some gal tries to get a green avocado near the bottom and sends the whole pile tumbling to the floor; in the shoes tossed over the phone lines and the birds that sit next to them; in the man selling flowers on the street corner on Sweetest Day; in an apparently empty rowboat, or high school band concert, or a can of Silly String, or even a family having a picnic to celebrate the Goodness of the Good in the Good, Good World. Even in a sweet comment my four-year-old daughter makes, and in a bumper sticker that says, “My daughter the honors student can kick your football player’s ass” (okay, I’ve never seen this one, but I’ve always wanted it).

I’m far from a worrywart about myself or things related to me. In fact, I’m probably just a bit too irreverent and unconcerned. But I worry about those closest to me, like my aging parents, and, of course, first and foremost, my two daughters. So, the answer here about how wonder, and more importantly darkness, are part of my creative process, well. . . .

This is far from being my original thought, and Ray Bradbury probably put it better many times, but, consider this: wonder comes with remembering what it was like to be a kid. Kids have a childhood full of “whys” and “hows”: Why does the moon change shapes? Why do we have eyebrows? Why does pencil lead stick to paper? (The last being a question from my teenage daughter when she was in pre-school—she was the master of the Stump-Daddy Question.)

As we get older, we have to keep the why/how part of us but also let it blossom into the “what if” stage. This is where invention comes in, how we progress and adapt and evolve. It’s also how we start to worry, and how we cause ourselves to have to face the darkness, the Unknown, if you will. What if ________, whom I love dearly, gets sick, gets hurt, disappears, or, God forbid, dies?

For fiction writers, especially speculative fiction writers, our job is in the equally maligned and loved What-if Business. Those folks who don’t write, or at least read, fiction may not understand. Those of us who like to write and/or read dark fantasy fiction, or horror fiction as we should call it unless we’re afraid of the stigma, well, our what-ifs tend to be the kind that make some folks shy away, I reckon. You see, I believe that what-ifs are further probes toward honesty. If hows and whys lead to “facts,” what-ifs lead toward deeper exploration, something beyond facts: truths.

If facts deal with science and logic, truths deal with what it’s like to be complex, sometimes disturbed, confused organisms called humans. So truths deal with humanity beyond a biological level. These truths are in the darkness, they are the Unknown, and that’s what we’re striving for.

Fiction is all a big humpin’ WHAT IF.

What if one of my students has noticed a tiny, hairy, naked woman climbing behind another student’s ear while carrying a spear? What if the gal who dumped the avocados all over the floor leaves them there, and then me and the other shoppers find her in another aisle later and she is trapped, her face in a silent scream just beneath the surface of a newly sprouted but already dead-looking avocado tree in the cereal aisle? What if the birds are the ones that steal shoes and string them over power lines? What if the Sweetest Day flower salesman has a thorny rose where his penis should be? What if worms fill the bottom of the rowboat, and they have teeth and someone desperately needs to get off the shore? What if a fire alarm sounds during the school band concert, the auditorium is evacuated, and the firefighters and rescue squad go on an ax-murdering rampage?

What if?

The wonder is in the form of imagination for the writer. And imagination can only come from memory. We draw upon things in our mind already and put them together in new ways. No one could have written about a flying ship . . . if a ship and knowledge of flying were not already there in the ol’ brain, in other words. And dark fiction likes to work in fantastic imagery, which often serves intentionally or unintentionally as metaphor.

The tiny, hairy, spear-carrying woman might stand for jealousy. The face in the avocado tree might represent selfishness. The shoe-stealing birds might stand for mankind’s inadequacies. And the flower peddler’s anatomy might represent greed or secret lust.

Wonder for me—dark wonder, so often in my work—is in saying, in wondering, “What’s the story behind that?” Going from the concrete, which is the literal imagery in the story, to the abstract, which is, really, theme.

It’s in seeing and showing the world in vivid detail and in discovering what humanity’s place is in it by witnessing human struggle. And in knowing that if you see Silly String scattered and sprayed all around the end of someone’s driveway and mailbox, it surely has to do with a mail carrier who is struggling desperately in his relationship with a rodeo clown who is haunted by dreams of a psychic bull that can predict the immediate future.

About the Guest Author

Brady Allen


Brady Allen

Brady Allen is the author of Back Roads and Frontal Lobes, a collection of 23 tales in the genres of horror, crime, the road story, soft sci-fi, dark fantasy, surrealism, existentialism, the weird tale, and even some plain ol’ realism. He has published numerous short stories in magazines, journals, and anthologies in the U.S, England, and Ireland and has received honorable mentions for a couple of them in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror volumes from St. Martin’s Press, as well as an Individual Artist Fellowship in fiction from the Ohio Arts Council for three others. He loves Reds baseball on a transistor radio, and the sound of a train in the still of the night calls to him. Allen teaches writing at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and lives in Dayton with his two daughters.

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All the Stories I Remember

October 18th, 2012

by Christopher Shearer

When Will Horner asked me to contribute to the “Awakenings” blog, I had to think about it, and when I thought about it, I realized I needed to think more. You see, the point of the blog is to talk about what “awakens your wonder,” and if I’m being honest with you and with myself, the answer to that would be everything. I don’t think there’s a single thing that happens that doesn’t make me feel something or leave an impression that someday might turn into a story. And that’s the way it works with most (possibly all) creative types. We are inspired by and reflect the world around us. Not just a part of it. All of it. But that’s not an acceptable answer. I can’t sit here any type “everything” and be done with it. How does that reveal anything? It’s too vague to hold any real meaning, no matter how true it may be. This left me searching for something more specific, something inside that ephemeral “everything” that I could latch onto and explore, but what? That question lead me to a rereading of many of my stories, and I discovered something there. I discovered a piece of “everything” that I seem to return to again and again, unknowingly until now. I discovered my memories there, in every story, just below the surface or sometimes blow-by-blow as things happened. But that discovery made me pause, because is that an acceptable answer? What’s special about memories? And aren’t they in themselves stories?

They are stories, I think, because what we remember is never exactly what happened. It can’t be. Our perception is always skewed by our desires, by our wants, our needs, by our lives and hopes and dreams. By us. What we remembered is never truly factual because it’s our memory of it, our interpretation. We place emphasis on certain things; we see things from angles specific to us. Our memories are part of us. They are our story, but is that story something that truly “awakens our wonder”? It is.

Thinking about it, I remembered many of the stories of Harlan Ellison, especially the novellas All the Lies That Are My Life and Pretty Maggie Money Eyes. Both of these, he claims, were straight out of his memories. And then I remembered an interview I watched once with Ray Bradbury, where he talked about the story that changed his life. That story, he said, was “The Lake,” which he based on a memory. He did the same, he claimed, with every story after it. Then I picked up Richard Matheson’s new novel, Generations, which is overtly autobiographical, and I realized this was something I could talk about, because if it’s good enough for the greats, then why wouldn’t it be good enough for me?

Looking over my stories, I realized it’s the common thread. My first published story grew out of my parents’ custody battle, my first Pushcart-nominated story grew out of an early morning walk in Columbus, Ohio’s Park of Roses, when I watched the snow melt. You see, even that moment was special, at least the way I see it. I wasn’t just wandering while stuff dripped around me. I was thinking about my life. I was feeling the cold and the wind and the wet, and that was making me feel something, face something. And when I think about it, every memory is like that. Maybe it’s because of its importance that I remember it or maybe everything that happens in life is that important. I don’t know. But I do know that nothing is simply a “fact.” There’s always more to it. There’s always us inside of it, and we see that, we know that in what we remember. We don’t—or at least I don’t—always notice it as it’s happening, but I do when I look back. And that’s where stories come from. They come from moments that are more than they seem at first glance, that carry more in them than you’d expect.

When I was little, probably two, maybe three, my family lived on a small farm in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, and I used to go out back and sit on this large rock that waited by the edge of the forest there. I’d sit there and think, and I remember seeing the shadows stretch and then take hold of each other. I remember the yellow eyes of beasts hidden in those trees. I remember the sounds and the smells, and I remember the way it made me feel. Now, is what I remember what happened? In one sense I know it isn’t. I was just a toddler sitting on a rock. But in another sense, it is, because it’s how I lived those moments. And stories come from what I lived, not from what necessarily was. And you only get that—get the full sense of that—in memories.

About the Guest Author

Christopher Shearer


Christopher Shearer

Christopher Shearer’s writing has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Horror World, Big Pulp, From the Fallout Shelter, the all-star anthology Dark Light, and many more. In the past five years, he has received three Penn State University Best Short Story Awards, a Demon Minds Best Short Story Award, and two Pushcart Prize Nominations. He works as an editor with Cemetery Dance Publications and reads for John Joseph Adams’s magazines, Nightmare and Lightspeed, as well as his upcoming anthologies. Chris is also a featured book reviewer on fearnet.com and co-chair of the Bram Stoker Award Long Fiction Jury. He attends Seton Hill University’s MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction where he is mentored by Tim Waggoner and Lawrence C. Connolly, and he is finishing his first novel.

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Beneath the Surface

October 12th, 2012

by F. Wesley Schneider

Part of my job is to fill a world with terrible things. As one of the creators of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and the realms where its stories unfold, I commission and help supply an endless stream of horrors to a ravenous readership. To that end, I spend an unusual amount of time considering monsters, torture devices, traps, tragic ends, and other terrible things. Monsters are particularly inspiring, though. Each implies its own story simply by existing, stories that vary wildly based on all manner of possibilities, powers, and ghoulish agendas. My favorites are always the frightening ones, though—the masterminds, the overwhelmers, the sanity-breakers, the hero-killers. Many factors contribute to what makes a monster frightening—appearance, size, weapons, horrific means of reproduction—but a certain few have something else, something that makes them disturbing beyond bloody claws and kill counts. I’d call this sort of terrible je ne sais quoi “infamy.”

Mothman

Let me tell you about the faceless stalker. It’s a fleshy doppelganger that can make itself look like anyone by sculpting its own body like putty. It’s mean, it’s gross, and the variety of intrigues it might instigate creep readily to mind. But there’s not much else. It’s a fantasy monster, a thing for fantasy characters to be afraid of—not us.

But that’s not always the case.

Mothman

Mothman statue in Point Pleasant.

I could tell you about Mothman, but I probably don’t have to. Maybe you don’t know about what happened in Point Pleasant, West Virginia in the late 60s. Maybe you haven’t heard the stories, read the eyewitness accounts, or seen the film that starts with the shaky print reading “This story is based on events which occurred. . . .” This isn’t just some monster story, this is the subject of an investigation with confessions from people who are legitimately scared—and who make us wonder if we should be scared too.

That’s infamy. It’s the momentum that blurs the line between fiction and reality, that makes us wonder if there’s something we don’t know, a glimpse through the secrets to truths that aren’t as simple or safe as we’ve been led to believe.

Even though Mothman is a relatively recent example, monsters don’t need the trappings of modern investigation to become infamous. In fact, what often contributes most effectively is the absence of proof compounded by the haze of time and hearsay. In urban legends, folktales, and myths, such half-truths abound, with a story’s survival through generations implying value if not veracity. An arm-sprouting horse’s head that dangles from a haunted tree might seem ludicrous were I to read about it in a collection of stories, but as soon as it’s connected to the tales of Japan’s yokai it gains the support of centuries of cultural belief and believers. If the fears that spawned such a thing still echo through the centuries, its stories transitioning from the spoken word to the page, that suggests it possesses some cachet greater than what a single strange description implies.

Family tree of Basque mythology

Family tree of Basque mythology by Julie Vicario-Weber.

I regularly search out troves of such “real” monsters, either to inspire my writing or to find something I can give a modern interpretation. If you haven’t done the same, look up “Basque mythology,” “Orkney folklore,” or “yokai” some time. These are just the tips of considerable icebergs, rich with deities, monsters, heroes, and villains. These figures transcend fiction, being members of pantheons ingrained in the psyches of their creator cultures. Many are whimsical and fascinating, but among them are cultural fears given shape. This horde of half-remembered monstrosities, these things that terrified our ancestors and still lurk on the edges of memory, they’re still out there, as ominous, hungry, and worthy of fear now as in centuries past.

Conspiracies, mysteries, ancient secrets, buried truths—they all contribute to my sense of dread, my uneasiness that I’m only getting part of a story; the idea that there’s something more, something terrible, being hidden from me. In truth, there might be nothing, but answers are finite and they’re rarely as exciting or awful as all the possibilities a secret implies. Folklore and urban legends are full of secrets like that, they’re not complete stories, they’re open-ended—Mothman doesn’t go to jail after the bridge collapses, Bloody Mary isn’t consoled and put to rest, the dullahan doesn’t reattach his head. Many of these tales came into being for deliberate reasons, to explain the unexplainable or serve as warnings—sometimes as basic as “don’t go into the forest at night.” While the world that spawned such stories may have changed or disappeared entirely, nothing ends mythology. The pieces persist, the heroes slipping into obscurity, the monsters receding into shadows. They still remain, more real, more infamous, and more threatening than the safe things we invent to fear.

About the Guest Author

F. Wesley Schneider


F. Wesley Schneider

F. Wesley Schneider is the Editor-in-Chief of Paizo Publishing, co-creator of the Pathfinder campaign setting, and co-designer of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. He is the award-winning author of numerous RPG adventures and sourcebooks, including Rule of Fear, Book of the Damned Vol. 1: Princes of Darkness, Seven Days to the Grave, Artifacts & Legends, and the serial novella Guilty Blood. He lives just outside Seattle where he spends his nights and weekends writing stories about terrible things, designing new ways to kill heroes, and reading things that scare him.

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