Tuesday, December 12, 2017

In the Immortal Words of Granny Weatherwax...

"I aten't ded."

I just feel like it. But after business travel, bad internet, and a touch of the flu, it's time to return to Hawthorne and Moore with tomorrow's post.

In the meantime, here's Razorfist's first video on film noir, the genre synonymous with the pulps, featuring the classic Double Indemnity.



Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Gothic Influences of C. L. Moore

When reading Shambleau and Other Stories as part of the Puppy of the Month Club, The Frisky Pagan, Jon, and I came across pernicious accusations that C. L. Moore's "Shambleau" was essentially a space-western--with all the anti-imperialism that this implies. Since reskinning westerns as space stories was more properly an artifact of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, this appeared to be yet another instance of science fiction critics aggressively forcing old stories into modern molds to find the earliest version of the modern form, a tendency that was already old in the Campbelline era.

To refute this, The Frisky Pagan and I turned to the words of C. L. Moore herself. From "Afterward: On 'Shambleau' and Others," found in The Best of C. L. Moore:
Midway down that yellow page I began fragments remembered from sophomore English at the university. All the choices were made at random. Keats, Browning, Byron— you name it. In the middle of this exercise a line from a poem (by William Morris?) worked itself to the front and I discovered myself typing something about a “red, running figure.” I looked at it a while, my mind a perfect blank, and then shifted mental gears without even adding punctuation to mark the spot, swinging with idiot confidence into the first lines of the story which ended up as “Shambleau.”  
For those who slept through English classes in college like me, Keats and Byron were second generation Romanticists, part of a movement of poets and authors that created, among other works, Gothic fantasies such as The Castle of Otranto and Frankenstein. Browning and Morris were Victorian poets (contemporary with the American romanticists Poe and Hawthorne) that adapted the lyrical and fantasy traditions of the second generation Romanticists into Victorian sensibilities. The distinction between the two periods is minor, as "One has difficulty determining with any accuracy where the Romantic Movement of the early nineteenth century leaves off and the Victorian Period begins because these traditions have so many aspects in common." C. L. Moore had immersed herself in the classics from these men, and was familiar with the melancholy, mystery, individualism, and darkness that embodied their works and would soon be hallmarks of her own pre-Campbelline stories. And, as an avid Weird Tales reader, she would have also read reprinted works from Poe and Hawthorne in its pages. In her Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry tales, Moore would become one of the last flowers of the Gothic tradition in science fiction, writing before Campbell's twin revolutions in science fiction and fantasy removed these Romantic elements from American weird fiction.

But while this passage establishes the link between C. L. Moore and Romantic writers, a firm link between her and Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" has yet to be established by evidence. For that, the next few days will in turn examine "Rappaccini's Daughter" and Moore's "Black Thirst."

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Stray Puppy: Tree of Life

A reposting of my Puppy of the Month Book Club article on C. L. Moore's "Tree of Life". I've been talking about going into more detail on this link to science fiction's gothic past for a while. Time to reintroduce the idea...

Northwest Smith is dry-gulched in a old temple by patrols. As hunger and thirst start playing with his mind, he see a strange alien girl crying about being lost. He decides to help her, leading her towards a tree mural. She then takes the lead, pulling him into a strange, gray land filled with trees. In the shadows, little people murmur, "beware of Thag..."

Once again, Northwest Smith is alone, once again he is in peril, once again he meets an alien girl, and once again, some thing wants to eat him. What should be formulaic still remains fresh on the strength of the monsters of each story. In this case, Thag is a superdimensional being currently shaped like a tree. It is just as predatory as Shambleau and the Alendar, and it farms its food in a similar manner to the Alendar. But it embodied a different form of malice from the other two.

C. L. Moore loves the Poisoned Garden trope. "Black God's Shadow," "Black Thirst," "Tree of Life," and "Scarlet Dream" each feature their own dangerous garden, complete with hidden perils. This trope has a long history in weird fiction, tracing back to at least 1844 when Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote "Rappaccini's Daughter." In it, a young woman, Beatrice, lives among a poisoned garden, guarded by her father and the poisonous plants. Giovanni falls in love with  her, but succumbs to the plants that have made Beatrice poisonous herself. The antidote he made to free her from the poisons of the garden instead kill her. (The text can be found here.) While "Black Thirst" is the purest example of Hawthorne's influence on Moore's storytelling, as it follows the same beats, the influence of the poisoned garden pervades her settings as a key element to the eeriness of her works.

All in all, "Tree of Life" was a solid story, even if Northwest Smith should be locked in a monastery for his own safety.

Check out the Frisky Pagan's take here.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Trends: The Mailing List

This trend in publishing takes us away from Amazon to the comfort and clutter of email. Specifically, the resurgence of the mailing list as part of the the author's toolbox.

It's been a long complaint of writers that the burden of marketing their books has been thrust back upon their shoulders by publishers and distributors. Writer Gene Doucette recently described this in his mailing list email:
As this industry evolves, reaching existing readers is becoming more challenging by the day. This is a point that was driven home to me in a recent exchange with Amazon, for reasons that probably never occurred to anyone who isn't an indie author. 
Some of you (perhaps many of you) follow my author page on Amazon. They provide a nice little button to click on for notification of new releases and what-not, with the problem being, from my perspective, that I don't own that list or have any way to communicate directly with anybody on it. 
I never thought of this as a problem, because I've never had any issue with how Amazon uses the list. Every time I put a new book up on preorder, they eventually roll out a generic blast to my followers, and that's really all I'm looking for. Then I get a decent bump in preorders, and some social media mentions here and there. It's nice.
I'm not sure that's happening any more, though. After two weeks, it doesn't appear that the email has gone out, and Amazon's only direct response to questioning implies that the program I'm talking about is invitation-only. 
Which mean, either they've changed some things over there, or we're talking about two different things. It also could mean something is still going to be going out (if we are talking about two different things) and I'm just being impatient. 
The larger point, though, is that since I don't own the list they've curated of my readers, I can't rely on that list to help promote my books. That isn't really anybody's fault, it's just how this works. (And also why this newsletter exists, actually, since controlling my own list is increasingly the only way forward.) It's just a shame. 
By my count, about 30,000 people bought a copy of The Spaceship Next Door through Amazon over the past couple of years, and I would love to let as many of those people know about The Frequency of Aliens as possible. One of the best ways to do that has always been for Amazon to let some of them know. It appears that they may no longer agree with that.
As a result, Gene and many other writers have turned to methods they control to get announcements of sales and new books out to their fans.Thus the rise of the mailing list, where fans and customers can opt in for such announcements and stay informed on the new releases by their favorite writers.

From a reader's perspective, this is useful. Not only will the mailing list keep you from losing track of your favorite writers' new releases in the ever growing sea of novels published every day, the more aggressive marketers will often offer discounted prices on their books on a regular basis. And authors want you to find their mailing lists. Many even give away a novel for free just for signing up. Some even offer exclusive stories for members of their lists. For instance, want to read Galaxy's Edge: Tin Man? (And if you are a Galaxy's Edge fan, you do.) The Galaxy's Edge mailing list is currently the only method of obtaining that short story.  Finally, writers are starting to cross-promote each other, recommending their own favorites as well as their own books.

One particular mailing list should be at the top of every science fiction fan's list: Sci-Fi Bridge. Every season, this mega-list offers four free ebooks as part of a contest for 25 ebooks, which also lets you sign up for Sci Fi Bridge and the lists of every one of the participating authors. It is a curated list of writers intended to introduce science fiction fans to quality content. And, in my opinion, they deliver. I have read many new releases from Sci-Fi Bridge-associated writers, and have found the list's recommendations and membership to be an excellent indication of a good read, just as Baen's label on a paperback used to be. (I rely on these lists when making Castalia House's New Release Roundups.) Sci-Fi Bridge has been a major contributor in making 2017 the year where indie and self-published science fiction became the mainstream. If there is just one critique I have of Sci-Fi Bridge, it is that it is difficult to see who is associated with them outside of one of their contests. Oh, and fantasy fans need not be left out. The minds behind Sci Fi Bridge have spun up a sister list just for you at Fantasy Bridge (Check out fantasybridge.com. I'd link directly, but Blogger is broken.)

It is almost certain that we will see more mega-lists as writers continue to market each other to help themselves. (Just look at how a small clique of tradpub writers dominate the discussion on many science fiction and fan sites. When asked for their recommendations, they always recommend each others' works.)

For writers who have yet to dive in, but are interested in learning the benefits of mailing lists and mega-lists from a writer's perspective, here is an interview with Jason Anspach, one of the founders of Sci Fi Bridge.



Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Scorpion: The Devil's Mark




As Armando Catalano, a holy relic dealer, raids the underground tombs of 18th century Rome for the bones of martyred saints, a prince of the Church plots with a Gypsy poisoner to murder him. For Armando bears the mark of the scorpion on his shoulder, a devil's mark identifying him as the son of a heretic who was burnt alive for seducing a priest from the church and Christian beliefs. While the poisoner toys with him, Armando sets out to learn the name of the cardinal who torments him, the reason for the enmity, and the truth behind his mother's death. Along the way, he stumbles across an ancient conspiracy from the days of Rome and a plot to murder the Pope. Digging deeper, Armando, known to all as the Scorpion, discovers a stolen Vatican archive in Cardinal Trebaldi's mansion. These papers deal with his mother's trial and execution, leading Armando to believe that he is the illegitimate son of the Pope. Can the Scorpion save his presumed father from the assassin's blade?

Written by Stephen Desberg and illustrated by Enrico Marini, The Scorpion follows Armando as he seeks to unravel the conspiracy, challenge the power of Cardinal Trebaldi, and discover why his mother's execution lays at the center of both. Following in the footsteps of Zorro and Alexandre Dumas, this Scorpion is at home in high society and in the gutters, a dashing, cultured swordsman and scholar who will not rest until he brings down the men behind his mother's death--no matter how powerful they might be. The first book offered in English, The Devil's Mark, serves up the first two volumes of the Scorpion's adventures, The Devil's Mark and The Pope's Secret, taking readers from the discovery to the end of the Papal conspiracy in one sitting.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Doc Savage - the Man of Bronze: Radio Play

The WCRS Radio Players recall the Golden Age of Radio with the production of an unproduced script for the pilot of the 1934 Doc Savage radio series.






Monday, November 20, 2017

The Awful Truth About Forgetting Launch Party

Come one, come all and join in the wonder!
Rachel Griffin and Sigfried the Dragonslayer invite you to a Facebook Launch party for the fourth Book of Unexpected Enlightenment: THE AWFUL TRUTH ABOUT FORGETTING. 
Festivities will included: games, giveaways, meet the characters, guest authors (TBA), and one Spoiler in response to reader’s questions (the person who submits the winning question will receive a set of four Unexpected Enlightenment bookplates signed by the author and illustrator.


Coming from Wisecraft Publishing, the YA Imprint of Superversive Press, the fourth Book of Unexpected Enlightenment: THE AWFUL TRUTH ABOUT FORGETTING
The launch will take place on Tuesday, November 21st on Facebook from 2:30 to 5:50. There will be games, giveaways, a video reveal of the book trailer made by Superversive’s own Ben Zwycky and lovely singer Sarah Koolbeck, and conversation with Rachel Griffin and Sigfried the Dragonslayer.
There will also be a Spoiler reveal, so get your questions in early!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Audiobook: The Horror from the Mound

Another audiobook pulp tale from Tales of Weird, this time from Robert E. Howard:

There is a secret held inside an Indian burial mound, only a few know the secret and they have been sworn to secrecy… until someone became greedy, deciding that there must be treasure hidden in the mound…

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Discarded Image Today

One of the more novel thoughts to come out of C. S. Lewis's The Discarded Image is the idea that stories teach people by example what the proper response to various events, such as love, treachery, and anger. No medieval or pre-Enlightenment audience would think that Lucifer was the hero of Paradise Lost, for instance, since a hundred other contemporary stories taught them to be able to identify and respond to heroism and treachery. Rather it is today's audience, steeped in anti-heroic realism, materialistic naturalism, and narcissistic post-modernism, who no longer grasp the traditional responses to the great betrayal of Lucifer and enshrine him as a hero. In short, story teaches social behavior, and a change in story can change a society.

This has come to mind repeatedly over the past week or so.

The first case involves a Twitter spat between conservative pundits and Superversive writers over a request to promote a Trump-focused fiction anthology. Dawn Witzke took the pundits to task:
They claim that they want the culture to change. There are a ton of nonfiction books scolding the society for the state it’s in and ranting about how it needs to change. There are commentators on the radio and television going on and on about how horrible things are today in society. Well, what do they expect?
The Right cannot ignore art and literature and then expect the culture to change. Politics alone will not do that. You can’t legislate morality. You have to change society through many different avenues, politics being only one of those. 
When you neglect society, eventually, society changed the laws. Which is exactly what has been happening over the past 50 years. We went from a society with cohesive traditional values and work ethic to a hedonistic society where “if it feels good do it” and individuals aren’t responsible for themselves. 
So why conservatives think that ignoring culture, art and literature in favor of ranting about politics is going to somehow miraculously change society? They’re daft. 
Last year, when I was at the National Diaper Bank Conference in Philadelphia, the keynote speaker talked about influencing moms in regards to caring for their children. She sited statistics that showed fictional television programs did more to change what people do than fact based PSAs. Mom’s emulated their favorite characters on the shows.
The emphasis here is mine, but it shows the power of story over culture. People do get programmed on acceptable behaviors through story.

The second case illustrates this more clearly. I was not going to touch the Hollywood scandals here, but Diversity & Comics on YouTube pointed out something strange about the Hollywood rape and assault scandals. Each man accused followed a similar script in his assault, a script that followed the tropes of seductions shown in bad 1970s movies.

Finally, and less politically charged, I have been working my way through Brandon Sanderson's Oathbringer. This has been difficult, not because Sanderson is a bad writer--at one time he was enough of a favorite to commit fanfiction in his worlds, but because I've changed along the way. Between the previous Book of Endless Pages and this one, I got swept up in reading the pulps and similarly inspired stories. Now I no longer recognize the characters in Sanderson's book as properly human. They act wrong to me. The responses to treachery, violence, and even attraction in the story are off. For instance, the killing of a traitor who betrayed one's father should not be followed by an almost Steve Urkel like "Did I do that?" As such, it wouldn't surprise me if this latest Book of Endless Pages finds itself discarded.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Quoth the Razor

Razorfist returns, yet again, to The Shadow to discuss how the current reinterpretation by Dynamite Comics misses the mark. In doing so, he makes a case for a hero with black and white morality in a gray world.
The Shadow doesn’t serve the Law. He serves Justice. And on occasions when the Law has run afoul of it, he’s been unafraid to turn his twin .45s on them as well. He serves a binary morality. And while he will make an effort to redeem the legitimately reformed? (He even has an agent devoted to the reformation of former criminals) Once someone has shown themselves beyond redemption, their fate has been assured. It isn’t always destruction (in many cases, he leaves enemies to the police, or leaves them in an even more elaborate personal Hell) but it’s always just, and invariably of philosophical importance. 
More than anything else, that’s what Si Spurrier’s atrocious Shadow comic lacks. In today’s age of gray morality? All he’s done is add touches of gray to a character who, today, would be far more interesting… the LESS ambiguous he is. These flourishes of pseudo-complexity come across as stilted and forced, because that’s precisely what they are. 
Imagine the controversy, the outrage, and the SALES… if The Shadow was in a modern comic… willing to execute a corrupt or racist police officer… and… a BLM/New Black Panther activist who crosses the line to murder, as the Dallas shooter did? If he did so without personal conflict, asserting his moral prerogative, and giddily cackled of the evil in their self-righteous hearts all the while? This is a character who could have a profound relevance today, but instead, Spurrier’s dated attempt to ‘update’ the character… have left The Shadow somewhere around the year 2006. 
The Shadow gets more contemporary, the closer he is to his original incarnation.
Incidentally, the Destroyer series filled part of this role in the 1970s. And it looks to be time for another such hero to arise. Look for him in indie, though.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Third Cry of Legba

The glare and the clatter died at the same time throughout the Club Samedi. Even the buzzing crowd-noise suspended in expectation. Behind the orchestra sounded a gong. Once. Twice. Thrice...

The master of ceremonies intoned:

'Midnight. The witching hour. And Illyria!'

The gong chimed on to twelve and stopped.

*     *     *      *      *

From his table on the floor of the Club Samedi, John Thunstone watches an authentic voodoo dance with his date, Sharon, Countess Montesco. Rowley Thorne, another occult enthusiast, introduces himself to Thunstone and Sharon. He declares himself to be patron of the voodoo dance, an invocation to the gateway god Legba. It's a polite introduction, but while Thorne dances with Sharon, Thunstone slips away to question the dancer Illyria. Her account of Thorne's patronage aroused Thunstone's suspicions. He returns the next night, and at the stroke of midnight, Illyria dances again, but she is not alone. Some thing dances with her in the shadows. After the strange ritual, Thorne lets slip that he has designs on Sharon. Furthermore, Thunstone is studied enough in the occult to recognize that Legba is never summoned alone. Strange plans are underfoot, and Thunstone must ready himself for the third cry to Legba.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Xenogenesis

Once again, fandom sinks to the familiar lows described by Harlan Ellison's "Xenogenesis".

Monday, November 6, 2017

"Thunder Jim Wade"

[Thunder Jim Wade] called himself a trouble-shooter. But he had a habit of seeking trouble, and smashing it with a cold, ruthless fury that had given him both name and reputation. His past was shrouded in mystery. Years before he had flashed on the scene like a comet—a comet whose mission was to destroy such men as Duke Solent.
Many had wondered whence Wade had come. But not even “Dirk” Marat and “Red” Argyle, Jim’s aides, knew that. Red was a burly giant with gnarled hands like knotted oak roots, and incredibly deft fingers. And Dirk was a small, innocent-looking chap with blond hair and black eyebrows, and one great passion. That was for cold steel. He could handle guns, but preferred to work with knives.
They helped Wade in his work—which was to smash crime and evil. Together they had wrecked opium rings, slave trades, pearl thievery, and a hundred other unscrupulous activities. 
Kuttner, Henry. Thunder Jim Wade: The Complete Series (pp. 11-12). Altus Press. Kindle Edition.
*     *     *      *      *
In his namesake novella, Thunder Jim Wade arrives at Singapore to discover the whereabouts of his missing agent. During his investigation, he discovers that the agent was kidnapped while snooping into the disappearance of an archaeologist. After freeing the agent, Wade learns that criminal mastermind Duke Solent had captured both men and is on his way to Africa to find a mythical city and a missing treasure. From the clues, Wade discerns that the city in question is his childhood home, the last city of Cretan civilization hidden from the world inside a lost valley. Now Wade and his friends must foil Solent’s designs before this lost city is destroyed.
The Shadow’s breakout success in the 1930s spawned a new genre, the hero pulp. Filled with incorruptible men of vengeance and adventure, these heroes quickly spread throughout the pulp magazines. Except one. When Weird Tales published the adventures of Paul Ernst’s Doctor Satan, the readership revolted, driving out any story with so much as a hint of the hero pulp to it. However, in 1941, Henry Kuttner, one of science fiction’s grandmasters, turned to the genre, penning five novellas about Thunder Jim Wade, a South Seas hero in the mold of Doc Savage, despite the cape and tights that Thrilling Adventures‘ cover artists depicted him in. Unfortunately, the audience of the time considered Thunder Jim Wade to be a cheap Doc Savage knock-off, and Kuttner’s hero never found the sales needed to justify further adventures. 
The “cheap Doc Savage knock-off” accusations are not entirely without merit. Like Doc, Thunder Jim Wade is a man of science, action, and justice. His pals Dirk and Red resemble Doc Savage’s close friends Monk, Ham, Long Tom, Johnny, and Renny, but while Doc’s team combine technical expertise with brawn, Dirk and Red are blue-collar bruisers by comparison. A Pacific island serves as Jim’s Fortress of Solitude, conveniently lifted from Doc’s inventory, alongside the treasure of a lost civilization that enables Thunder Jim Wade’s war on crime. And it is no coincidence that Thunder Jim’s first adventure, like Doc’s The Man of Bronze, sent him to a lost valley civilization.But the comparisons to Doc Savage are low hanging fruit, for Kuttner also mined The Shadow for material. Like Kent Allard, Thunder Jim spent time living among an isolated people, learning their ways and sworn to their protection from outside threats. Thunder Jim learned hypnosis and other mental arts from an exotic Asian people, employs disguises as convincing as The Shadow’s, runs an extensive network of named agents, and is as skilled an aviator as the Knight of Darkness. And Wade’s attitude towards the criminals he fights leans closer to The Shadow’s retribution than Doc’s rehabilitation.
But these strong resonances to these pulp heroes weighs lightly on Thunder Jim, little more than trappings instead of actual substance. Kuttner’s major innovation was to move his pulp hero out of New York, closer to the exotic lands of adventure of the Pacific, Asia, and Africa. In the process, Kuttner’s Singapore, likely no more real than a China Marine’s lurid sea stories, has a verisimilitude that the common underworld pulp tale–and the novella’s Cretan civilization–lacked. At the same time, Thunder Jim is diminished compared to his inspirations, merely human compared to the larger than life Doc Savage and the Shadow. Despite having a wide variety of knowledge and skills at his disposal, Thunder Jim relies instead on the direct approach and muscle-power. Among the many features emulated from Dent, Kuttner did not mimic the constant refrain of how peculiar and exemplary his hero is, and thus Thunder Jim seems to be ordinary for a pulp hero if not outright miscast, a two-fisted street detective that wandered into the wrong magazine. Also missing is the stage magic-inspired misdirection of the hero pulps; the realism and anti-Gothic tastes of Kuttner’s Campbelline circle of friends did not lend itself to the dramatic tricks that filled the hero magazines, as Babette Rosmund’s later editorial stints in charge of Doc Savage and The Shadow would prove.
But Thunder Jim Wade might not be entirely Kuttner’s creation. In 1941, he was newly wed to Catherine “C. L.” Moore, and, by merit of being the more prolific of the two writers, the breadwinner for their family. Thunder Jim Wade was not the first of his departures from science fiction to more lucrative writings, nor would it be his last, as science fiction in the 1940s was not a large enough market to support full-time writers alone. (Like many Campbelline era science fiction writers, Kuttner would turn to screenwriting, and eventually leave the genre entirely..) And entering the potentially lucrative hero pulps meant becoming a hired gun as a writer. Even Walter Gibson and Lester Dent worked with committees to develop their heroes’ adventures, and the editorial constraints of the lesser magazines could be even tighter. It is likely that the more derivative elements were editorial diktat.
Likewise, it is also probable that the contributions of his wife and frequent collaborator Catherine were minimal, too. Which is a shame. A touch of the stylings of Northwest Smith, akin to those in her story “Black Thirst”, would have livened both Thunder Jim Wade and his foster Cretan home.
Although competently written, as a hero pulp, “Thunder Jim Wade” adheres closely to the tropes and formulae of the genre but misses the spirit. As such, the novella satisfies neither fans of the genre or fans of Kuttner’s science fiction and fantasy. But it still occasionally shines with flashes of brilliance, and none more brightly than its opening setting of Singapore.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Trends: Reviews

This next trend was inevitable in hindsight. Since most of the major review sites tend to neglect indie books, the Editorial Reviews section can be a little sparse for most authors. The solution many authors use is to pull quotes from their Amazon reviews into the Editorial Reviews section. For an example, look at the page for Dark Space Universe, by Jasper T. Scott:

I've provided an image capture, as science fiction indies experiment a lot with presentation. This will likely have changed in a month or two.

Now, this particular layout is common to the Sci-Fi Bridge authors, combining a long list of reader reviews with bold text that shows off the choicest phrases of the review. And, as long as this one is, with 12 reviews, I have seen even longer sections that easily double this.

Now, as I said, I think using customer reviews to advertise books was inevitable. Not only because of the blind spot that major review sites have towards indie and self-publishing but because Amazon has changed the game to where customer reviews matter more than critics to the buying reader. I think this trend is clever, but it is running to excess.

As mentioned, there is a tendency to squeeze as many reviews into the Editorial Reviews section as possible. This has three drawbacks tied to length.

First, the sheer can length can (and does) provide an annoyance to customers trying to scroll past the wall of text to get to the actual reviews.

Second, as, mentioned, the wall of text makes it easier for that outright clutch pull quote to get lost in the shuffle. The Sci-Fi Bridge approach attempts to mitigate this by bolding text to draw your eye, but if the bolded part of the review is the important part, perhaps the unbolded phrases could be cut. Also, readers tend to really only register the first and last sentences of a paragraph, especially when speed reading, so perhaps it might be best to lead and close with the most memorable quotes.

Finally, to achieve length and give the impression that many people are talking about their books, some writers are less picky about the quotes used than they should be. I've seen multiple quotes fill this section while saying the same idea in slightly different words and none in a particularly memorable way. This is length without meaning and promotes skimming. And try not to repeat quotes as well. Not only does this provide length without new meaning, it reflects poorly on an author's proofreading and professionalism.

I expect to see more experimentation in this section of the Amazon page as the more marketing savvy writers figure out how to create the most impact from reviews. While I think it will boil down to using the six most memorable and punchiest quotes an author can find, we'll soon see how this trend shall develop.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Tales from the Magician's Skull Kickstarter ends soon:

The Tales from the Magician's Skull kickstarter ends in mere hours. I'm impressed by the layouts and the updates and essays provided, such as this:
I’ve thought long and hard about what it is that makes sword-and-sorcery special to me, and that has an awful lot to do with the qualities I outlined while I was attempting to define the genre at the beginning of this Kickstarter. Great sword-and-sorcery is usually moving at a fast clip. It takes you somewhere interesting in the company of fascinating characters, exposing you along the way to scenes of dread and wonder. There are great action set pieces that actually count for something, entertaining side characters and villains, surprises and sometimes twists, and a conclusion that satisfies. 
If a sword-and-sorcery tale has a message it doesn’t smack you over the head with it. Most times it may seem to lack a message entirely, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing redeeming in a story where characters are shown overcoming a terrible challenge with wit and brawn. Sword-and-sorcery is part and parcel of the mythic cycles we’ve been sharing around the campfire since the earliest days of our species. We’d hear how our ancestors chased down the elusive stag, or fended off the clawed thing in the dark, or guided the tribe to safety through a land of enemies. In listening, we were inspired to emulate courageous action and to not stand idle when times were dark and all hope seemed lost.
If this spirit sounds appealing, consider checking out this Kickstarter while you can.


Monday, October 30, 2017

Razorfist presents: The Shadow: DANGER IN THE DARK

After last year's success in recreating the Alfred Bester-penned episode of The Shadow Radio Show, The Immortal Murderer, Razorfist is back for Halloween with Danger in the Dark, the THIRD EVER, Orson Welles-era episode, until now, lost to the mists of time! This episode sees The Shadow match wits with an emerging supercriminal, whose blindness allows his other senses to function at peak efficiency!



This episode is dedicated to Emer Prevost (1982-2017), who played the Announcer.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Trends: Covers

I page through a lot of Amazon pages to put together the New Release Spotlights and Roundups over at the Castalia House blog. And while I am constantly playing catch-up in keeping track of the sheer volume of titles released every week through Amazon, this allows me to find and follow the ways authors use their Amazon pages to try to drive sales. Currently, I see three trends: covers, customer reviews, and featurettes. I'll look at each in separate posts:

Covers

Ebook artwork has matured from its early days, where covers like these two could often be found:


Both are great stories, by the way, and The Dark Wing cover is for a release after Tor gave up the rights. For comparison, here's Tor's cover from the mid-2000s:



Now, let's take a look a sample of recent science fiction and fantasy ebooks:



The arms race of artwork for ebooks has elevated the covers to a level that can compete with those of traditional publishing. To stand out, an author now needs to place as much effort into cover art as the story. There are many sites that will provide technical advice for an author, and there are many debates over whether a portrait or an action scene is preferable. Meanwhile, tradpub is turning to the abstract:


If there is one bit of advice that I would give prospective authors, it would be to spend the time and money to find the art that best sells a story. Before a customer can read the blurb, the reviews, or the new featurettes, they have to have a reason to click on your page. An excellent cover gives them that reason. The challenge these days is to stand apart from the other excellent covers crowding the Amazon page. The bar has been raised.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Fotoboekies: South African Pulp

In addition to providing an introduction to Hindi pulps, Paul Bishop at Bibliorati also shines a light on South African pose-books, also known as poseboekies or fotoboekies, a mix of pulp, comics, and photography:
Recently, I came across an interesting short documentary on YouTube celebrating South African fotoboekies kultuur—which translates as pulp photo story culture. I also came across a trove of covers for a photo-book series named after its gorgeous title character, Tessa, a platinum blonde who battled evil in the jungles of urban South Africa clad only in a bikini and high heels. Clashing with sinister looking individuals wearing bad suit and sunglasses, Tessa always came out on top, with not a strand of her bottled blonde hair out of place. 
To her ardent continent-wide fans, Tessa, the bikini-clad, Karate kicking government agent, was akin to a goddess. Every 30,000 copy issue of Tessa sold out almost instantaneously on the newsstands—creating a lucrative secondhand market. Those 30,000 copies in today’s Internet savvy market would equal numbers to put the Kardashian’s Twitter followers to shame.
 
The South African publishing company Republican Press was the low-budget force behind the phenomenon of the photo comics Tessa and Kid Colt, as well as the Playboy knockoff Scope. At its zenith, Republican Press was printing 20 different fotoboekies a month. Grafting Western influenced literary myths onto African settings, fotoboekies were most often written by authors based in Johannesburg—many of them black South African students working for minimal pay—then photographed by white professional shutterbugs using a team of black actors in Swaziland. 
 The actors were mostly locals from working-class neighborhoods. While the top poesboekie models were paid 25 to 30 rand a day—which at the time was a lucrative way to pay your rent—most appearance fees were negligible. The recognizable main male actors were generally consideredeccentric, hard-living, womanizers. Working quickly, an entire book could be shot in one to three days depending on the complexity of the simple sets. 
There were also army heroes—Swart Luiperd, Wit Tier, Kaptein Duiwel, Grensvegter (Black Leopard, White Tiger, Captain Devil, Grantsman) and others. They were most often depicted out in the jungle clutching their wooden machine guns, killing cigar smoking Cuban clones. Almost always, the villains held the proverbial disheveled damsel in distress captive after her convoy/aircraft/helicopter/hospital was invaded/crashed/broke down. The real South African soldiers who read these outrageous tales figured they could go back to civilian life if only these heroes existed outside their fervent imaginations.
Make sure to check out that documentary.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Hindi Pulps

Although the pulps in America effectively died out in the fifties, their spirit still lives on in the world. Previously, I've looked at Japanese light novels and Chinese YY novels. The pulp spirit is not contained to just East Asia, as Paul Bishop dives into the world of the Hindi and Tamal pulps over at Bibliorati:
Known as the father of Hindi pulp crime fiction, Surender Mohan Pathak has written close to 300 novels, including 60+ standalone thrillers, 120+ adventures of crime reporter Sunil, 22+ investigations of the Philosopher Detective Sudhir, and 42 of his anti-hero Vimal crime thrillers.

While working a full-time job in Delhi with Indian Telephone Industries, Pathak began his writing career in the early 1960s translating Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and the works of James Hadley Chase into the Hindi language. His first original story, The Man 57 Years Old, was published in 1959, followed by his first full length novel, featuring his crime reporter series character Sunil, in 1963.

The character Sunil is a suave and principled investigative journalist working for the daily newspaper Blast. He lives in the metropolitan city of Rajnagar located on the coastline. Both the newspaper and the city are fictional, much the same as the city of Isola in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels.

Sunil has a weakness for damsels in distress, who seem to drop into his life with the regularity of the rising sun. In his 30s, Sunil is willing to go to any lengths in pursuit of justice. He is aided by his best friend, nightclub owner Ramakant Malhotra. Every strong character requires an equally strong nemesis. In Sunil’s case it is iron-rodded, incorruptible Inspector Prabhudayal, who is in charge of the homicide division of the Rajnagar Police.
Pulp fiction has long been fascinated with the full breadth of the Asian continent as setting and source for its mysteries. It is fascinating to see how Asia reveres and reinterprets the pulps.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Millhaven Press: Amateur Pulpsters Wanted

Reprinted from Books of the Broken (h/t: Misha Burnett):
Today I am foregoing my usual Saturday Spotlight feature for something a little different.  Every Saturday I feature a pulp story from the past to shed a little light on some of the nearly forgotten authors.  Today’s entry is almost the exact opposite.  I am featuring a new idea by Millhaven Press.
Millhaven is seeking short stories from amateur writers in the hopes to put out a quarterly pulp inspired print magazine.  We think there is enough interest in these types of stories to make this idea feasible.  We miss the print pulps of yesteryear and want to bring some of that back.
Amateur writers are encouraged to submit their stories (millhavenpress@gmail.com) for consideration.  We will also need some art (even cover art) for the magazine.  All the relevant details are to be found at the Millhaven Press website.  Just click the link:
Millhaven Press Website 
Here’s to making this idea a reality (and fingers-crossed).

Monday, October 23, 2017

Invincible, by Kit Sun Cheah

In an Empire beset by internal rebellion and ferocious yaomo, the elite Shenwujun stand ready to defend human civilization. Among the Shenwujun there is none finer than Ensign Zhang Tianyou, who earned the nickname Zhang the Invincible. During a mission to quash a nascent rebellion, a Shenwujun detachment discovers evidence that the Grand Union is supporting the rebels. Zhang is tasked to investigate and destroy this new threat.

But will Zhang the Invincible meet his match at the hands of the rebel called Han the Demon Sword?

With this summary, Kit Sun Cheah (an alias of Castalia House author Kai Wai Cheah) introduced Invincible, his serialized novella that won an Honorable Mention at the Q1 2017 Writers of the Future contest. Through its seven chapters, he brings the fantasy genre of xianxia to English-speaking audiences, mixing generous portions of pulp action and military fantasy into the Chinese setting.

Most xianxia fantasies feature magicians who cultivate their internal energy to perform a dazzling array of magical and martial feats as they ascend a near infinite ladder of power levels, most far beyond the reaches of mere mortal cultivators. The primary drive for these characters is to gain more power, through such means as making contracts with magical beings, raiding treasure houses, or clashing with bandits and rivals. This leads to proud and selfish protagonists taking what they want because no one can stop them. Invincible's Zhang uses some of the same techniques, as he draws on the purifying methods of cultivation to remove fatigue, enjoys the blessings of his contract with the celestial phoenix Hong Er, and has earned his reputation as a skilled magical warrior on the battlefield. But Cheah upends the usual wish-fulfillment fantasies of xianxia by placing Zhang under military discipline. Duty, not power, becomes the driving force for Zhang, who must fulfill the duties to his country, his regiment, and his celestial partner as he pursues monsters and men who might as well be monsters. For each duty may grant privileges, but also demand obligations in turn. And, as Zhang finds out, sometimes these obligations conflict with each other.

Friday, October 20, 2017

"War Lord of Many Swordsmen"

The war lords and bandits of Western China thought all visitors were fair game—until they ran into Norcross and his hard-boiled black army from the American Expeditionary Forces.

Starting in 2015, Altus Press has rereleased the stories that filled the first and the greatest of pulps, Argosy Magazine, with its Argosy Library line. With over thirty volumes, stories by well-known pulpsters such Lester Dent, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, Max Brand, and Abraham Merritt have returned to print for the first time in years. Alongside these more familiar authors, Altus has introduced new generations of readers to George F. Worts, Loring Brent, Victor Rousseau, and many, many others, drawing from 96 years of pulp adventures and packaging them with the gorgeous covers from the pulp age. And it was the striking painting of a Manchu princess standing in front of her army that drew my attention to War Lord of Many Swordsmen, the first collection of the adventures of John Norcross by chinoiserie enthusiast and former lawman W. Wirt. Within its pages are two short novels detailing the adventures of Norcross, his infantry company of black soldiers, and his adopted sister, Princess Ch'engyuan.

The first adventure, "War Lord of Many Swordsmen", interrupts Norcross's pursuit of a legendary lost Zulu impi regiment into China. A wealthy donor hires his company of black WWI veterans to retrieve a sealed cylinder from a Chinese fortress city. Along the way, they rescue the exiled Princess Ch'engyuan and her betrothed, formerly of the same fortress city where Norcross's treasure lies, ousted by a warlord supported by the same Russian and British spies sent to frustrate Norcross's mission. Ch'engyuan and Norcross forge an alliance. He will help liberate her city and she will help him find the cylinder. But before they can reach Ch'engyuan's city, Norcross's company must first march through the Chinese hinterlands, with Russian Cossacks, Manchu bandits, and the Zulu impis barring his way.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Advice from Orson Scott Card

Star Trek Discovery recent revelry in the dubious honor of being the first Trek to dip into George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television" sent me reaching for an old interview with Orson Scott Card where he addressed the recurring tendency towards shock in science fiction:
"But unfortunately, most of these arts are practiced by people who have not grown out of the adolescent stage of wanting to shock people in order to seem cool -- even though, like adolescents, they can't think of a single new way to shock anybody, so nobody is actually shocked at all, they're just embarrassed or bored ... or, if they're marginal personalities, excited in a sick way."
As I read further, I found a wealth of writing advice:
"In truth, the secret to all characterization for me is expressible in two maxims: Every character is the hero of his own story, and You don't write characters, you write relationships. In practice the first maxim means that you must let characters have their own purposes and agendas, not just do what the plot requires, and the second maxim means that nobody is the same person to everyone -- who they are depends in large part on whom they're with."
including a refutation of the first version of Whedon's Law, where as soon as a character turns evil, the grow in intelligence and thus interest:
To paraphrase Tolstoy: Good people are endlessly fascinating, but wicked people are all weak, cowardly, or evil in the same old ways. I don't find evil fascinating. I find it predictably self-serving. But good people are the ones who struggle to balance their own needs with the needs of loved ones and the communities to which they have given allegiance. The result of this attitude of mine is that, with rare exceptions, I don't create "pure" villains.
He also addresses the common writing vices of our time, the inward focus on the self and the move towards dialogue instead of action to reveal character:
There is only the life of the individual in relation to others. Inner life is a myth, and a harmful one at that. Studying yourself teaches you nothing about yourself, just as trying to build your self-esteem does nothing for your self-esteem. Only turning outward -- and I mean only turning outward -- gives you a life worth living and a reason for self-esteem and an understanding of what and who you are. I say this as a confirmed introvert (grins). So when I see other writers exploring a person's "feelings," I get impatient. Feelings can be chemically induced; they come and go; they're not any kind of guide to who a person is. Only what a person chooses to do can tell an observer or himself who he is. And since we become different people in every relationship we have, the only way to get any kind of understanding of my main character is by showing him in juxtaposition with many other fully-realized characters. In fiction as in life, we are what we do to others.
And finally:
Don't even think about writing sf or fantasy unless you've read every story in: The Hugo Winners, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions.

These stories are the root of the field. If you don't know them, you will try to reinvent the wheel; and since the readers do know them, it will kill your work. Besides, you can't learn the tools of the trade without being familiar with how they've been used and developed. Science fiction is more demanding than literary fiction, and is harder to do well; the reward is that science fiction and fantasy allow you to tell any story that can be told in li-fi, and far more that can't.
A solid recommendation to which I would add Appendix N to the list to round out fantasy.

Catch the entire interview at Writers Write.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

More on Fan Fiction

Earlier this year, L. Jagi Lamplighter tackled the same idea of what distinguishes fanfic from homage that I did yesterday. Now, the idea of playing in another person's sandbox has a long and distinguished history, already old when Shakespeare penned his plays. (Jagi points out that, if all it took to earn the label "fanfiction" was to use someone else's work, "we would have to refer to Mid-Summer’s Night Dream by Shakespeare as “Huor of Bordeux fan fiction.”)

Once again, my intent here is not to take swipes at fans writing stories of their favorite characters. I'd be a hypocrite if I did. Like Jagi, however, I recognize similarities in many of today's published stories to the worst excesses of fan works. But her example better illustrates the faults unique to fan fiction that might not be present in other fan works:
Marvel has replaced all the original heroes we love with new heroes of the same name who are different. This might not too bad, if the characters were noble and heroic, but they are not. The new set of characters emote. They stand around while others admire or adore them, and they do easily tasks that the real heroes found difficult. 
There was something familiar about this kind of writing. I had seen it before. But it took thinking about it for a bit before I sat up and exclaimed, “Oh, I get it! They’re writing Marvel fanfic!”
An excellent writer and editor, Jagi explains further:
[Jason Rennie, publisher of Superversive Press] defines fan fiction as “doing violence to the [fictional] universe.” What does he mean by that? What is the kind of violence that is usually done? 
The first kind of violence is emotional. 
I mentioned the tiny porthole through which a single candle passes as an analogy for the emotions showed by some stalwart characters. They act out of duty or purpose and do not let their emotions come between them and their goal. Only rarely, at moments of high tension, do they occasionally reveal the single crack in their fortress-armor. 
Fan fiction rips open that crack and makes the whole story about emotions—emotions that the character would never ordinarily express. 
After prohibition ended in America, it became popular to have movies that glorified drinking, such as Philadelphia Story, where partway through the story, the dignified main characters would drink too much and suddenly blurt out what they were really thinking. 
Or they would kiss someone that they would never otherwise have kissed. 
Emotional fanfic treats the our characters as if they are perpetually drunk…or worse…so that they act without inhibitions, saying or doing things that the real character—the one that has to live with the consequences of their actions and who, usually, has some modicum of dignity—would never do. 
Fanfic characters blurt out their loves, hates, romantic longings, and fears…personal things most characters would never reveal come pouring out of their mouths. Even worse than never reveal, things they would never feel come gushing out. 
Other types of violence include: 
Talking about nothing real—conversation limited to things like relationships, how awesome they are, and other simplistic conversations 
Overly simplistic relationships: everyone is so buddy buddy, without the real differences of personality that every human relationship faces. 
Super-cool wow wonder—a lot of time is spent on how much other people admire the character. 
The ability to easily beat anything…quickly.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with most fan fiction pieces.
The emphasis is mine, focusing on the signs of the greater problem. This is how the inward focus of narcissism manifests in story. It is not a surprise that as geek culture got normalized and then popular, that more of this style of writing appeared on the shelves. As yesterday's World Class Bullshitters video on toxic fandom mentioned, today's fandoms have an "incessant need to...rewrite entertainment to fit their psychological needs." Jagi's above list shows the scars caused by the ensuing violence to the universe. (As an aside, message fiction often carries the same scars because the story is also distorted to fit a pre-shaped mold. Again: see Marvel.) And as the delineations between fan works and published works continue to blur, we will see more of this writing. (More on that subject in a future post.)

Fortunately, there is a way to avoid this popular trap, as Orson Scott Card said:
There is no inner life of a person in isolation. There is only the life of the individual in relation to others. Inner life is a myth, and a harmful one at that. Studying yourself teaches you nothing about yourself, just as trying to build your self-esteem does nothing for your self-esteem. Only turning outward -- and I mean only turning outward -- gives you a life worth living and a reason for self-esteem and an understanding of what and who you are. I say this as a confirmed introvert (grins). So when I see other writers exploring a person's "feelings," I get impatient. Feelings can be chemically induced; they come and go; they're not any kind of guide to who a person is. Only what a person chooses to do can tell an observer or himself who he is. And since we become different people in every relationship we have, the only way to get any kind of understanding of my main character is by showing him in juxtaposition with many other fully-realized characters. In fiction as in life, we are what we do to others. Jesus was not playing paradoxes when he said that to find your life, you must lose it in the service of others. Nothing is more empty than a person who lives only for himself and seeks to find himself through examination of that empty room.
And it is this approach, of character revealed through action, which is one of the vanishing secrets of pulp writing. Of good writing.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Homage, Pastiche, and Fan Fiction

I've been lately trying to understand where, why and how the grand profaning of imagination, or making the awesome ordinary, came to be that's defining mass-market media right now. It's easy to name call, to say that's just SJWs or fujoshi or convention goers. But I find that it is more beneficial to address the dearth of imagination in terms of vice than identity.

The following musing is only one of these attempts to understand what's going on. Let me first state that I've read fan fiction, edited fan fiction, and even written fan fiction on and off for most of my adult life. There's nothing wrong with fans exploring the world of a beloved story. But recently, many original and franchise books, movies, and games have shown a certain resemblance to fanfiction and other derived works. This is not a description of quality, but of attitude. And it all comes down to what's being celebrated, the work or one's self.

*****

What is the difference between homage, pastiche, and fan fiction? And why does it matter?

Homage: Something created or done in honor, admiration, or celebration of someone or something

Pastiche: A work of visual art, literature, theatre, or music that imitates the style or character of the work of one or more other artists. Unlike parody, pastiche celebrates, rather than mocks, the work it imitates. In literature usage, the term denotes a literary technique employing a generally light-hearted tongue-in-cheek imitation of another's style; although jocular, it is usually respectful.

Fan fiction: Typically used to denote derivative works written by fans, the original definition from the pulp era is "fiction about fans, or sometimes about pros, and occasionally bringing in some famous characters from [science fiction] stories". As this is the particular group of stories which has given rise to the Mary Sue, the self-insert, the author avatar, the original character, shipping stories, and the meme fic, current fan fiction maintains this focus on the fan, with guest appearances by the canon characters. Where pastiche celebrates the original work, fan fiction is narcissistic, fans celebrating themselves and using the trappings of the original to do it.

Not all derivative work is fan fiction, even if written by fans. Some few attempt pastiche and homage. But the great bulk is wish fulfillment and the celebration of fans, fan-inspired in-jokes, fan theories, or more often, a single fan. I personally think fan fiction is an early stage in a writer's development--mapping closely to the "chuunibyou" self-importance of pre-teens. Most writers outgrow this phase, and most fans put aside this type of writing as they mature in favor of other fannish pursuits.

I've noticed that geek culture tends to celebrate itself over the works it "loves" (hence the rise of "toxic fandoms"). And when icons of geek culture get into creative industries, their works, even with the blessings of the original creators and license holders, never rise above fan fiction. J. J. Abrams has done this with Star Wars and Star Trek, with both now more about the winks to the fans than telling a proper story. Characters, setting, and mood are sacrificed for fanservice. It's the nerd bet of the hardcores all over again, with the creators betting on geeks instead of reaching out to the audience. And, rather than being panned, this narcissism is celebrated and passed on to the next generation of creatives. Thus the rise of stories where the only bit of wonder is not from exploring a strange and wonderful world, but the self.

Frankly, our creative classes need to grow up and get over themselves.

*****

It is fortuitous coincidence that the same day I wrote this, that YouTube channel World Class Bullshitters addressed a similar idea in a video about Toxic Fan Culture. A quote relevant to the above musing is; "Interaction is great and it can be a lot of fun, but when the property takes a backseat to Joe Blow's ego, we have a problem." And there's more in the video: