Words in the world

Cossmass Infinities has accepted another one of my stories! “The Draw of Empty Spaces” will be appearing in issue #3, coming out in September; in the meantime, you can check out their site here.

In addition, I am very pleased to say that PodCastle has accepted “Ink, and Breath, and Spring” as a reprint; that is the novelette which got a couple of favourable mentions in Locus when it initially appeared in issue 40 of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, which I am extremely proud of.

(I’ve never had one of my pieces done as an audio version before, and am very curious to see how it goes! Writing the pronounciation guide was interesting; not difficult, exactly, since I knew what things were supposed to sound like, but an aspect that I hadn’t considered would be necessary.)

Knox, from SerialBox

KnoxKnox is available on Serial Box. The last chapter there comes out next week, so this review is still spoiler-free.

Disclaimer: I received this product for free in exchange for an honest review.

In fact, I was offered this product, and when I read the message part of me thought something like “oh gosh, I have so much I’ve been meaning to read and I’m really not getting to most of it. Maybe I shouldn’t?” In the meantime, the rest of me had parsed “Mythos”, “noir”, and “partly by Bolander” and was typing back something along the lines of “Yes, please, thank you.”

(To be clear: the chapters from Rivera and Iglesias and Moraine are absolutely stellar, I just didn’t know as much of their work going in.)

Knox is a serialized novel set in 1930s Manhattan. Morgan Knox was a nurse in WWI and is now a PI with a knack for dealing with the weird. When the man who committed a series of murders gets shot and falls to his death in the East River, she’s hired to look into who might have set him on the spree, and from there the story unfolds beautifully.

It’s a beautiful blend of noir and horror. We meet Morgan Knox in an extremely dynamic introduction that makes it clear that she is one tough-as-nails bad-ass PI. I’m holding off on getting into spoilers, but I cannot overstate how much Morgan’s reactions to everything she dealt with anchored the world. Both her present-day visions and the past experiences that underpin her life are horrific without being gratuitous[1], and while she keeps going in them, her doing so never feels easy or cheap. Her world-weary familiarity with horror spared me needing to sit through a protagonist who just can’t believe what’s going on as the case takes on more ominous tones; her battered stubbornness and principles made me want to see her succeed so badly. And while the general thrust of an ominous villain was made clear in the beginning, I genuinely was not expecting the details of the reveal, or how the arc of the antagonist progressed. It was creepy and chilling and ultimately damn delightful, for values of delightful that cover horrific entities from beyond our world.

Then there’s the other characters – the people already in Knox’s life and the people she runs into during the investigation (there is some overlap here). I liked reading about all of them, and even those in more antagonistic roles or who only showed up briefly were clearly drawn and distinguishable from each other. Having Knox surrounded by so many well-realized characters keeps the story from being a grim and lonely one, and really brings home how much she holds back. I deliberately took breaks between reading each chapter, and I never had any trouble slipping back into the story or remembering who people were to Knox, and judging by my own reactions at a couple of points I was really invested in them being okay.

(This is my first serial, and I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of the story being broken up that way. I will say that each episode felt well-balanced; the focus differed as the story moved along, and the ending always made me look forward to more, but I was never irritated at the stopping points, if that makes sense.)

As a final note, the story is mercifully not whitewashed or Hollywoodized. I find that when reading or watching noir, especially written-to-be-period noir, there’s occasionally a tendency for the story to have a lot of white straight folks. Knox emphatically did not do that, and I was glad to see that 1930s New York had actually been portrayed as a melting pot.

Recommended for fans of the Mythos (you won’t find name-checks here, but you’ll find some great descriptions and lovely horrific scenes), fans of noir with a rich setting, and anyone who wants a combination of the two with a solid and satisfying character arc.
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[1] Please note that I may have a slightly high tolerance for descriptions of the effects of violence done to others, but this is a blend of Mythos and noir, and I think the descriptions work perfectly in that context.

Take me home.

I’ve just finished a first draft of the novelette (I ultimately didn’t go with the restructuring I was hopping to do, because of time contraints) and given it to my weekly writing group for crit, and this morning I was casting about to find something to distract me from “oh dear god did I actually leave all those things in there they are so goofy.”

Bethesda stepped up.

I was gleeful to start with, and then someone pointed out that at 0:29, you can see a date on the PIP-Boy, and that the year is 2102. In-universe, this puts it 25 years after the Great War and 159 years before the first Fallout.

It’s not that I don’t love the Fallout setting, and the way the institutions have grown up over time (and yes, still ridiculously pleased that the Khans survived New Vegas; they’ve been around longer than the NCR!), but I love the Fallout world, too, and am very curious to see what it was like a mere generation after the bombs fell.

I am so very much looking forward to this.

That thing where the person thought you knew the context of the thing.

Vaguely related to my last post, I suppose–that was about how one story can be dressed up in the shape of a different kind of story, and this is about how one story can be dressed up as itself but be misread as to what that is.

I saw Wonder Woman. (Not recently, and I mean, I think everyone saw Wonder Woman.) And I was discussing it with someone else who’d seen it, and they mentioned that they’d thought the movie hadn’t explained enough of the story. I thought the movie worked fine for explanations, but I figured that I have some cultural-background-radiation familiarity with Wonder Woman, and am generally pretty happy to sit back and watch for world-building anyway, so I asked for clarification.

They felt that if the movie was going to reference existing Greek myths about the Amazons and Themiscira, and use those as the basis of the story, they should include more details. For example, since they put time into bringing up the story about Themiscira being protected from the outside world, that was obviously something that should have mattered, and they should have explained why and how it was that way so that it wasn’t jarring when everyone got through the protection.

(This was when I started re-examining my casual assumptions about how much of what I knew about Wonder Woman was general-culture background radiation, and how much of it was my-specific-subculture background radiation.)

I mean, on the one hand, it certainly makes sense; if a story establishes something, you expect it to come back to that thing. That’s basic stuff, Chekov’s Gun sitting right there. And yet no-one else I personally know assumed that the story of Themiscira was about things that were supposed to come up; it was just a story about things that were.

I think every genre has this, to some degree. In an office romance, the annoying co-worker’s horseback-riding hobby may not signal that she is going to try to trample anyone. In a mystery, the police sergeant’s impeccable grooming may never be a plot point. Some things establish setting and character, and some things are a hook for action; the two don’t have to overlap, although they can.

(It’s like in Escape from L.A. The gizmos that Snake gets given all come up as plot points throughout the movie. On the flipside, the evangelical moral purity of America and the catchphrase “Call me Snake” do not; they establish the setting, but they aren’t keys to the events.)

((I can’t believe I’m discussing Wonder Woman and Escape from L.A. in the same post.))

I haven’t quite figured out exactly what signals the difference between establishing points and action points to the viewer, and clearly it’s subjective, but I’m turning it over; if I can figure it out, it’ll be useful for being able to convey a story’s promise more clearly.

(And I’ve just gotten my first rejection of the year! The quest for centiBrads continues.)

That thing where the thing looks like another thing but isn’t.

I’ve been watching Riverdale (a fact which has prompted a little self-analysis of what exactly I like in a movie or TV show, but that is neither here nor there), and a recent episode did something that I’m sure there should be a term for.

(Spoilers follow. Oh yes.)

Riverdale, for those of you who don’t watch it, is a pulpy neo-noir crime soap teen drama thriller with a faintly retro feel. It’s clearly fond of classic movies (every episode is named after one, usually crime or thriller but sometimes horror). It’s not quite real in a couple of subtle ways. All the main characters are juniors, but they’re also seventeen years old, for example.

One of the patterns (not hard rules) is that leaving Riverdale doesn’t quite work. In the show, three people have done so. One is Jason Blossom: he died. One is “Mrs Grundy”; she made it to Greendale, but was murdered. One was Joaquin, who left by going on a bus to San Junipero – that’s the eponymous town from an episode of Black Mirror which is actually a fictional world where people’s consciousnesses are uploaded after death. (Before the show began, there was also Archie’s mother, and Hermione Lodge – in the context of the show, they both start outside Riverdale and come back to it.) Archie’s mother gets to leave again, but overall, the pattern you see again and again is that people don’t leave Riverdale, and if they do they die.

So. The episode I’m thinking of was called “Tales from the Darkside” and told three short related stories.

In the first, Jughead owes someone a favour, so he needs to deliver a crate to Greendale. He doesn’t have a car, so he asks Archie to drive his, and while they’re en route a tire blows out. A truck driver comes by; he says he’s going to Greendale, he’s got room for one of them and the crate if they pay him, and Jughead agrees to give him all his money ($18) in exchange for the ride.

The first thing the driver says, once they’re moving, is that for a minute he thought Jughead’s friend was Jason Blossom. The driver (played by Tony Todd) then starts telling Jughead about the Riverdale Reaper, a mass murderer from fifty years ago. They stop for gas, and Jughead discovers that the guy has a dead deer in the back of his truck.

Meanwhile, Archie calls a repair service, gets his tire replaced, and drives on. He reaches the point where the sign on the road says

<- RIVERDALE
GREENDALE ->

and stops for a second. A deer crosses the path, strolls straight across the road, and disappears into the woods behind the sign.

And, alright, practically speaking, it’s not that anyone actually can’t leave. Archie catches up with Jughead and they make the delivery.

But in terms of subtext…

  • Jughead gets a ride from someone.
  • This person, in a show that loves and references movies, and which is specifically referencing horror movies with this episode, is played by the actor who played the urban legend/killer/living story from Candyman, and who was Death in the Final Destination series.
  • The first person the driver indicates he knew is a boy whose defining characteristic throughout the show has been that he’s dead. It drives the entire first season.
  • The first name the driver brings up (and he never brings up his own) is that of the Reaper.
  • This man demands all of Jughead’s money in exchange for ferrying him across the border.
  • We see a living deer as the creature that walks along the border between Riverdale and elsewhere.
  • We see that this man has a slaughtered deer in his truck; literally, the thing that marks the border, destroyed and made powerless.

This is absolutely the story of Jughead being stuck delivering a questionable substance to repay a favour. You know he’s not going to come to a Tales from the Crypt terrible ending. He’s got to stick around. We know this.

But it is also the story of someone being taken across a border by a stranger who is all but wearing a T-shirt saying “Ask me about my role as the Grim Reaper, Guardian of the Threshold and Ominous Bringer of the End.” And we know that as well, and we can enjoy the beats of that story even as we are sure they will never happen. And the beats of that story both exist and shape our expectations of what will actually happen.

There’s a word for this, isn’t there? Telling one story, but telling it in the shape of another?

Interpretation

One of my favourite pairs of earrings is “Deciphering As Art“, by Elise Matthesen (whose other jewelry you can currently find on Etsy). They’re pretty simple; tiny squares of striated grey stone, with a grey fiber-optic bead dangling under them. They’re a beautiful, simple reminder of the process of taking something you’re actually presented with that  has a quality or a tendency,

I have been thinking about this a bit lately. I had a very long discussion about reconciling  Deadpool’s Rule (thank you, Foz Meadows) with calling out queerbaiting recently. The two points which came out of it were:

  • It’s reasonable to look at a character’s actions and interactions and draw the conclusion that said character is not straight without them explicitly naming themselves as such. (Deadpool’s Rule)
  • It’s reasonable to look at a creator (or creative team) that consistently refuses to give non-straight characters or interactions commensurate page time, screen time, and/or validation, and get frustrated and angry.
    (You might feel like you want to throw something at the interrelated shows which have a couple hundred episodes between them and have had canonically gay characters for nearly three years and have two married gay couples and still haven’t ever managed to have two guys kissing onscreen. Just as a for-instance.)

I generally assume interpretation of a character is going to be done in good faith. I may not agree with it, and in certain extremely rare cases[1] I may conclude that you are bringing some very specific preconceptions to the text, but I will assume it is being done in good faith. But just because you read a character as having a marginalized identity, it doesn’t mean you can’t want the work in which you found them in to do better.

Seeing something in a work that resonates with you doesn’t mean that the creator stood behind what you’re seeing. (It can! It often does! But it can also mean you’ve picked up on something the creator didn’t intend or didn’t want to showcase.) It doesn’t mean you’re endorsing the creator. And it’s okay to call out shortcomings, and to expect better.
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[1] Like the time someone told me I should keep in mind that Gregor Clegane had been bullied as a child for being the biggest and the strongest.

Westworld

First: I am not impartial about this show. It is beautiful, both visually and in terms of each episode’s construction. It is richly nuanced. It is thoughtful. Unless it takes a sharp right turn off a high cliff, I think it is going to be the best science fiction show I’ve seen this year.

Second: I have not yet seen more than the second episode, and it’s the second episode I want to talk about. (Of course, this might be the kind of thing people have already established in cast interviews, or something, but I’m going to put it under a cut for spoilers anyway.)

Continue reading “Westworld”

Of fine bookery

Orrin Grey’s excellent collection, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, is coming back into print! There’s a Kickstarter currently running for the new edition, so I am going to have two copies of it, and one of them will come with an extra story and some e-phemera. The stories in this book are lovely; I may have mentioned “The Seventh Picture” before, and I continue to live in the hope that someone will someday make a movie out of that one.

My review of the initial edition is here, but I figured I’d yank a partial paragraph:

There’s horror here, yes, but that’s not all that’s important here; Never Bet the Devil would be an impressive but rather cold book if it was. The infinite strangeness of the supernatural, that was what I was having trouble defining, and a love for the strange and supernatural elements of the genre. The stories, taken together, are stories of horror, and loneliness, and madness, and mystery. And they still manage to convey a sense of wonder. Not overwhelmingly so; I don’t think it’s possible to come away from them thinking cheerful thoughts. But dammit, reading stories like this, stories that have these things in them… this book makes me happy, and the reading has improved my days.

Overall it comes out to less than $2 a story to get a digital copy, and these are some really, really lovely stories, even without the illustrations. Worth checking out.

Red and gold.

It astonishes me to realize that, for all that I adore the show The Flash, I’ve only mentioned it here a couple of times. So, in the name of breaking the week-long quiet streak that has resulted from travelling home, landing in a snowstorm, and shortly thereafter getting extremely sick, I am going to discuss the show that is currently my comfort watching.

When I started watching, I knew very little about the Flash. I knew that he was a speedster from DC comics; I knew that he worked with Superman sometimes; I knew that DC speedsters ran off something called the Speed Force, a kind of platonic ideal or Ur-speed that inhabits speedsters to a greater or lesser degree. And from cultural background radiation, I apparently knew that liquids floated as if they were in zero-G in the presence of the speed force, although I didn’t know I knew this until the light of my life showed me the promo trailer.

(Seriously. There’s more than a minute of this kid called Barry, and lines about being fast enough and having a good heart, and a man in a ball of lightning, and it’s all nagging faintly at me like I should recognize something, but what tips me off to it being a Flash trailer is the liquids in the lab getting all floaty.)

I also knew that I didn’t really like DC. I would take at least a look at any Vertigo comic, and I liked the Batman collection I had (which was actually a Joker collection), and I loved Kingdom Come. But overall the whole superheroes-as-gods thing didn’t hugely appeal.

But I watched the first episode of The Flash, and… okay, it had a bit of pilot-itis, and what looked like an extremely generic unrequited-love thing, but there was this kid. This really kind, hopeful kid. And as cool as his powers were he wasn’t in control of them so I wasn’t getting the “speed god will solve every problem” vibe. And… honestly, I came out of the first episode thinking “He’s like Peter Parker, except his job actually helps people.” And he didn’t have the ‘got powers, was painfully selfish until someone died’ thing going that Parker did, and…

He was hopeful. The whole show was hopeful, a four-colour major-key paen to saving people and supporting each other and powers as attribute embodiment and the ways tech is awesome and interesting and can be used to help people. He was… inspirational, I guess?

I gushed about this a little to the light of my life, and he pointed out to me that there was a reason Barry Allen had been chosen as an avatar of hope in DC comics. (Which was something else I didn’t know.)

This is, I think, discussed in greater detail with better construction and more coherence by Eric Burns-White (a guy who seems to have an excellent grasp of certain essentials of pulp-printed fiction, and is a hell of a lot more articulate than me), in his essay “My name is Eric Burns-White, and I have almost always hated Barry Allen.” Which I’m recommending as someone who adores the Barry Allen she’s seen to date, and can completely understand why the Barry Allen described would be an extremely annoying character.