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Fences

Fences are useful things. You can put them around things. And put things around them.  Fences can be made of many materials: wattle, wood, concrete, barbed wire and others.

Fences can be white or black or white and black and everything in-between.

In many ways fences provide some kind of protection. We put a fence around our house to keep our family safe. We put a fence around our chicken pens to keep their eggs safe.

We put a fence around a prison to protect us from them.

But fences, by their very nature divide. Separate.

Let me tell you about the fence around my house. It’s not great, if I’m being honest. It’s unpainted, slow-rotted (the sad version of slow-roasted) and worst of all, looks quiet dreary. So I was glad when the owner of the property decided to strip the whole thing down and put up some new posts.

You know the interesting thing about fences? They give you neighbours. Or at least the modern definition of what we call a neighbour. The person over the fence.

Now I’ve had good neighbors and I’ve had bad, and I’m guessing you’ve got your stories too.

But fences keep them out of your business and you out of theirs. And it never really occurred to me how strong something like a fence can change social interactions.

With the fence taken down at 9AM I now have a backyard shared with the folks on either side. And despite the noisy cutting of wood and beeping of trucks there’s been more interaction between us than I’ve seen since the time I first moved in four years ago.

Suddenly the fence construction was much less interesting to me than simply watching as people wandered in backyards not their own sharing a coffee or tea with the ‘neighbour’.

I can understand why anyone reading this is confounded by this seemingly obvious revelation about modern suburbia. For me, however, it was an eye opening experience revealing how the physical barriers we put up, with usually good reason, change the environment around us, and by extension the way our social interactions evolve, or in a more negative take on it – devolve.

By the end of the week, a new fence will be up, bright and fresh. And once more it’ll block out the people around me, and this time even more efficiently.

 

 

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A Writer’s Reflections: Lovecraft and Describing the Indescribable

I read Lovecraft quite late in my journey through fantasy and I’ve been thinking about him more and more these days because I believe Lovecraft is a very interesting case of an author finding his voice and maturing his style.

To take a can opener to Lovecraft’s work and general strangeness you need to look quite deeply at the man’s childhood, his upbringing, literary influences and many other factors. And while that is of some importance to what I’m talking about here, that would take a good amount of time to unpack. So to keep this post manageable and concise I just want to talk about two main aspects I find interesting in his evolution as a writer, those being empathy and description.

This first point, empathy, is probably the most related to his personal circumstances and life. Suffice to say while the ‘shut-in racist’ is a crass way to sum him up, it does have some truths to it. That being that he was awfully suspicious of the ‘other’ and due to his own literary preferences and a longing for an old aristocracy. He was in many ways, trying to live the life of a ‘gentleman’ but in our words would have been called something far less glorious – unemployed.

Much of his woeful, close to penniless existence, can be blamed on his own choices, and his choices being a product of his childhood/upbringing… you get the idea.

Due to this we see from his earliest works to around the middle of his career very few characters who have many meaningful relationships with other characters, and God forbid, relationships with members of the opposite sex.

In the Shunned House there is a slight shift here, where the main character has great affection for, and also a on the page interaction with, his dear uncle. Obviously things don’t end well in the story for either, but we can see a shift in Lovecraft’s writing.

Let’s move on to one of his later works. At the Mountains of Madness is one of his more well known pieces, and also it’s my favorite Lovecraft story. I feel that this is the work in which he really came into his own. In this novella we see more emphasis on human relationship. We see the companionship of Dyer and Danforth along with the trademark stress and horror of classic Lovecraft.

But I bring up At the Mountains of Madness for another reason. The monsters in Lovecraft are probably one of the more memorable aspects of his work. Who can forget Cthulhu, the enigmatic elder god, whose face often pops up come election time?

Fun fact: if you think that name is unpronounceable, then you’d be right. Lovecraft wanted a name that mere mortals would struggle with.

Lovecraft’s monsters are terrifying, beyond human comprehension and decidedly frightening. But here in the icy wasteland of the Antarctic the archaeologists stumble upon something at first frightening and deadly but also as the story goes on something that is described in a humane way. This once frightening monster becomes this creature we can empathize with.

Lovecraft expounds on this in the following excerpt from At the Mountains of Madness:

Poor devils! After all, they were not evil things of their kind. They were the men of another age and another order of being. Nature had played a hellish jest on them—as it will on any others that human madness, callousness, or cruelty may hereafter drag up in that hideously dead or sleeping polar waste—and this was their tragic homecoming.
They had not been even savages—for what indeed had they done? That awful awakening in the cold of an unknown epoch—perhaps an attack by the furry, frantically barking quadrupeds, and a dazed defence against them and the equally frantic white simians with the queer wrappings and paraphernalia . . . poor Lake, poor Gedney . . . and poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last—what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!

It’s a great look into how his stories evolved. It’s a captivating piece of writing even if one might find the text too dense and the prose too convoluted. Toward the end of his writing Lovecraft managed to empathize with his humans, and his monsters.

The second thing to show this apparent evolution is the way Lovecraft changed or modified the ways he would describe things. His early works contain a near endless stream of vagaries in his descriptions. Eldritch, unnameable, abomination, etc.

Lovecraft would often create an image where one might glimpse a scaled limb, elbow or eyebrow but he would refrain from most descriptions that would, in any way, be helpful for the reader to understand what that particular anatomical feature looked like.

Take this example from Dagon:

Then suddenly I saw it. With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.

However his later works spend a lot more time expounding on these monstrosities and I think the stories fare much better for it and lose none of their tension.

Original cover for At the Mountains of Madness in Astounding Stories

This is the final ‘monster reveal’ near the end of At the Mountains of Madness:

But we were not on a station platform. We were on the track ahead as the nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence oozed tightly onward through its fifteen-foot sinus; gathering unholy speed and driving before it a spiral, re-thickening cloud of the pallid abyss-vapour. It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter. 

While it might seem a small difference, we’re given some dimensions of the terrifying shoggoth, a creature as horrifying as any Lovecraft had created before it. But instead of passing it off as a ‘mass of indescribable eldritch terror and hideousness’ we get more specifics. The bubbly mass, the multiple eyes that appear and disappear and size comparison to a subway train. It’s great stuff and is a clear showing of how Lovecraft improved on his craft.

Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror all owe Lovecraft a great deal. It is a shame that he died at the age of 46, just as he was coming into his own as a great writer.

There are lessons to be learned from his writing and I hope that this post has been helpful, shedding a dim light on some aspects of his work and maturation as an author.

 

If you want more Lovecraft in your life you can find much of his work here – http://www.hplovecraft.com/

 

A Writer’s Reflections: Cultural Appropriation

Author’s Notes: For those wondering why this is coming out of the woodwork, let me take a few lines to explain. Generally I find that commenting on the latest social issue isn’t quite what I’m interested in.

Storytelling. That’s what I care about.

But I think it’s time to break my silence on a few topics, since I find they are starting to impact our ability to tell stories and our ability to provide intelligent critique about them.

This was a topic that I chatted about at the recent Continuum festival here in lovely ‘ol Melbourne city on a cool Friday night. I never cease to find nights in the city any less mesmerizing even after several years.

I’ve taken my scant notes from the panel and expounded them.

Remember, the only way we move forward as a society and seek to do better is to listen to all voices. Not just the loudest ones.

And here we go!

There’s a great article by Rukksana Khan in which she describes that, “many ethnic authors felt that an author foreign to their cultural tradition did not have the familiarity and respect to do their culture justice. Some also felt that mainstream authors were ‘honing in on their territory’ as if one’s culture amounted to a piece of turf that had to be protected from invasion.” She goes on to say “I’ve come to the conclusion that voice appropriation and writing about other cultures is inevitable. In fact it’s done all the time. Every time a writer writes anything that is outside their immediate field of experience, when a male writer uses a female protagonist or vice versa and especially when a writer writes historical fiction – they are writing about another ‘culture’.”

She goes on to say that when writing about cultures you should do your research and respect the culture you’re writing about.

Great article and you know the thing I love about it? Not once in that article is the word ‘racism’ used, even when she brings up examples of writers that have made mistakes in their research or have assumed certain aspects of a culture that is not correct.

And sometimes when we are ‘co-opting’ real world cultural elements into a fictional setting (sci-fi, fantasy) the pond gets even murkier.

While the cultural iceberg has some issues, I find it a good way to illustrate how authors seek to take and mould aspects of culture, especially within speculative genres. The image below is one rendition of this iceberg.

4EGSm00

Surface culture, is that which can be seen and identified easily and deep culture is the more obscured or hidden part of the iceberg. The surface is usually made up by very easily identifiable things. Things like food, holidays, entertainment, art, literature, language etc. Whereas deep culture is often more nuanced and harder to recognize. How do people interact? What are their mannerisms, their conceptions of beauty, of justice, right and wrong. Is it a sin culture? A shame culture? How do they treat their elders and their young people. What roles do men and women play in society?

Often as writers within these speculative genres we pick and choose elements from cultures we may ‘like the look of’ as it suits a certain kind of narrative. More often than not, we pick and choose elements from the surface culture and at times deep culture (this can also depend on how much we focus on internal vs external struggles. Another topic entirely!).

I find that writers that are accused of cultural appropriation usually steal from the surface bucket with little from the deep dish. People have ‘Indian’ sounding names for no other reason than it being different. Foreign people eat spicy food (and that’s meant to be exotic). The dark skinned character wears a Dastaar, a turban worn by Sikhs, (for no other significant than being a cool hat, ignoring the real world culture which it is part of).

And this is considered wrong? I wrote a story where I simply plucked a monster out Scottish folklore (the Wulver) but I’m sure I won’t get too many claims of racism because I’m ripping off something that is part of ‘white’ culture. So it’s fine. I get off scot(no pun intended)-free.

But maybe that’s fine. Art is about play. Fantasy certainly is. A lot of fantasy is about mashing things together and creating something that is at once familiar by using touchstones of our reality but remixing it to create something new entirely.

But now, our play is regulated, considered whether it is culturally appropriate. We are setting invisible rules for writers today and that’s something I find concerning.

Art that doesn’t provoke or engage any emotion is uninteresting. Do we really want neutered stories where our primary concern is that we do not offend anybody? And then, as we are often wont to do today, judge the author of being ‘racist’ or ‘insensitive’?

When the religious right policed what we could produce, what we could talk about, write about or think about all the good liberals stood up and said that such an egregious invasion of freedom of speech and expression was wrong.

But now we’re being asked to censor ourselves once again by the very people shouting for freedom of speech and expression! But it’s fine, because they have the definitive views on what’s right and wrong.

And we have to go along with it, right?

On a side note…

It’s worth mentioning that any kind of conversation regarding social issues will always be a deeply emotive one. And discussing issues within the deep tissue of the arts industry will be doubly so.

I think however it is just as important to look at facts. To sober our emotions and analyse decisions not by the heady haze of personal bias, but try and remove that as much as possible and consider things rationally.

We make a very large fuss about casting choices in film today. Let’s look at what comes out of Hollywood these days. They cast predominately Caucasian actors and actresses with a few roles going to African Amercians and Hispanics while other ethnicities get the shorter end of the stick. These three cultural groups often end up even playing roles in which you would not expect to see them.

Now I would love to get into the concept of an actor or actress translating a story to the audience and not necessarily having to be a 1:1 mirror of who he or she is trying to portray, but that’s a huge topic that goes into the very heart of acting and performance. I’m hardly qualified to dig into the intricacies of that.

What I can do is give you some facts that are born from what commercial film projects are most interested in.

Money.

Trying to create something everyone on earth is going to enjoy is a task that is probably the biggest of all the labours of Hercules. Knowing your audience and appealing to them is key.

The MPAA’s Theatrical Market Statistics (2015) has some interesting stats. Let’s look at the split in regards to the ethnicity of moviegoers for that year.

60% were Caucasian, 19% were Hispanic, 12% were African American and 9% makes up for every other ethnicity.

Remember what I said about the ethnicities most often seen on screen for Hollywood productions? Can you see why?

Conclusion

I’m a classical liberal, I think discussion and having a marketplace of ideas is better than an echo chamber which removes dissenting voices for the ‘greater good’, this moral code that we, in our infinite wisdom, think we should enforce.

Most of us have been subjected to some form of discrimination and racial discrimination is something I have experienced personally.

I think for a lot of people, it is because of these experiences they find bones to pick in the media they watch or read, frightened out of their wits that perhaps ‘racial stereotypes’ can be enforced by a piece of fantasy. Short of book burning, we’re happy to simply slander the author and bandy words like ‘racist’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ so lightly these days. In our ‘feeling culture’ those words are lovely sound bites that will often convince people more than a thousand salient points that are presented in any rational manner.

In case you were unaware, I’m of Indian heritage. It’s hard to tell with all these black and white photos on the site, but what can I say, I’m a fan of that colour palette!

Why do I have to point this out?

Because it almost seems a necessity in today’s society. We are obsessed with an arbitrary, and often times, imaginary privilege scale that ironically prevents people from contributing to discussions based on race.

But you should rest easy.

I’m not white! I suppose you can take me seriously now!

A Writer’s Reflections: The Fight/Flight of Fish

What are you thinking right now as you read this title wondering to yourself why another writer should bother to preach to you about positivity. That word. Doesn’t it just send unconscious shivers down your spine? Oh you don’t want it to, I understand that. But it happens. Because you feel like you’re failing. And that feeling is unjustified, because life fails all the time. We get older, cells start dying, reminding us that we have limited time.

Our bodies defy positivity.

And as writers, when we are staring at a manuscript which is going every which way but the way we want it to, we wonder to ourselves if we’re wasting time.

And then it starts, the feeling that you’re just pretending. Pretending to be a better writer than you actually are. You look at those few words on your screen or pad and then snatch up any book close by and wonder why there is no magic in your hands. Why can they do it and you can’t?

I’m not going to bring up the usual speel of some famous writer who put in x amount of submissions and finally after x amount of years he/she gets accepted with x amount of dollars attached with the letter.

You don’t need that because you’ve heard it all before.

I believe, from the process of observing and talking to other writers combined with heavy doses of self examination, that the life of a writer is like a fish swimming upstream.

There is just a need to do so. A need that almost defies rational sense.

And that need is to write.

The frightening reality is that you need to enjoy the process of that swim. That hard, bloody, sweaty swim if you ever want to carry on life as a writer.

I know this feeling well.

I’ve started on a first draft of a novel, a novel which is set within a genre that is populated by fantastic writers whose names could eclipse the artistic sun. It’s difficult because the temptation to compare my writing to those writers is an intense one.

Positive statements others have made sound hollow, because you don’t believe them. You think their words are tainted with sentiment instead of rational honesty. And even if for some reason you believe them to be honest you then question their taste in books. Freddy thinks my book is good but he also thinks x book is good, ergo his opinion is worthless. We all know a Freddy.

What about constructive feedback? Even if the word ‘constructive’ means many things to many people.

They tell you a character doesn’t work, or that your dialogue is too stilted. First, you’ll start wondering if they’re right. Then the other side takes over and tells you they are wrong. And then there’s the third, which is a bit of a mesh of the two. You think they are right because they didn’t get what you were trying to do. And the reason they didn’t get it is because you didn’t write it well enough.

You’re back to square one.

Take a deep breath.

Start swimming back up.

Quick Update

Hi Guys and Gals

Hope you all are enjoying A Final Portrait, and if you haven’t checked it out yet you can download it for free on this site. Just thought I’d post a quick update on what’s coming up.

If you didn’t notice from the ending of AFP, Daniel Roth will be continuing his adventures in the near future, so stay tuned for the date of his next adventure. However before he makes his return there should be another character popping up on the radar shortly in about a month or two. I understand this is rather like an announcement of an announcement but hopefully you’ll be able to bear with it. The audiobook version of AFP is coming along slowly and I should have more to say about that in a few weeks.

Also, in case you are interested in the progress of Legends of Eisenwald you should check out their Twitter. We had a great first impressions video from Ryan Letourneau which you should have a look at if that interests you.

Following on, some news in the literary department. Two great writers, Lucas Di Quinzio and Kezia Lubanszky are starting up a online literary journal for emerging writers. You should check the Morning Bell on Twitter. Filling the world with beautiful writing never seems like a bad idea!

As always keep writing, keep reading and keep playing along!

A Final Portrait

A Final Portrait

A Final Portrait delves into a world of high society and a mystery that starts with the crack of a gunshot.
Daniel Roth has returned home after ten years of war with one less arm and more problems than is at first evident. The fires of industry burn in Redmark, fueled by the war and the profit it brings. But as Daniel arrives in his home town of Derring he is thrust into the maelstrom of a murder investigation. He comes across a troubled painter, a grieving widow and an Inspector sent from the Capital.
A Final Portrait is a hark back to the mysteries of old with an emphasis on character and set in a world of glamour, intrigue and murder.

To purchase the ebook version you can get it on Amazon and Kindle. For the free audiobook version you can download it below:

cover