Friday, December 30, 2011
Horror was my genre of choice for most of my teen years. Nothing was too scary. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, , Richard Matheson, Clive Barker... they were my heroes. I read the classics-- Dracula, Frankenstein, Poe's short stories and poetry. I saw all of the horror movies. The Evil Dead, Rosemary's Baby, Burnt Offerings, The Omen, The Exorcist... I loved them all. Unlike Charlotte, there were a couple of horror novels that did scare the bejesus out of me, most notably King's Pet Sematary. Holy freakin' crap, that book scared the hell out of me. I had to put it away for a couple of weeks and the only way I could finish it was to read it during the daytime. ::shiver::
I have become a big 'fraidy cat in my old age. I don't watch many horror movies anymore. Even those grainy trailers for the Paranormal Activity movies freak me out. I won't see anything that has children in it. Children in horror movies = terrifying. But it's not just children in horror movies that scare me. It's anything kid related that has been used in a horror movie. I'm afraid of baby monitors. Seriously. I rarely use the one we have because the quiet static is creepy and every sound is amplified to a nerve wracking level that reminds me of a horror movie. I'm terrified that I'm going to dream about one of the babies whispering, "I'm coming to kill you, mama," and wake up from the nightmare to discover it isn't a dream. Ahhhhhhhh!
When I lost my taste for horror films, I started avoiingd the movies that involved supernatural elements-- demons and ghosts and the like. Then I stopped watching anything seemed like it could happen because, hey, it could happen. Now I even stay away from the horror that's seems more like over-the-top blood fest than horror. A coworker loaned me the first Saw movie several years ago and I returned it to her three months later, unwatched. Just the concept freaked me out. I really have no idea how realistic/scary the Saw movies are. I just can't watch them to find out. Sigh. I'm a wimp now.
My Barnes & Noble has done away with the horror section and books that were once considered horror have been reshelved in general fiction or fantasy and science fiction. There seems to be a lot of Young Adult horror. I suppose there just aren't many writers writing horror anymore? Or has the fantasy genre simply been expanded to include horror and sparkly vampires and anything that isn't grounded in reality? Or is it the horror genre that has become so diluted and vague that it no longer fits its own description? I really don't know. I still read horror or horror-ish stories, but I rarely realize that what I'm reading is horror until I'm well into the story. Probably for the best--otherwise I would miss some really great authors.
The thing that always stood out to me about horror was how few women horror writers there were (are?). I have no explanation for that, either. It's just one of those things that has always puzzled me. Is it a gendered thing-- men won't read horror written by women? Women are perceived as being too "soft" to write good horror? Women aren't interested in writing horror? (I know better than that.)
I am delighted to know three women authors who have sent a few shivers up my spine. One is our own Charlotte Stein, whose story "Dolly" in Red Velvet and Absinthe gave me chills the first time I read it and I still read it two more times. Charlotte is one of the funniest writers I know--but she is also one of the best at creating dark, descriptive pieces that leave me with goosebumps.
Then there's Kristina Lloyd, whose story "Living Off Lovers" in my anthology Dream Lover, was described by one reviewer as "probably the creepiest" story in the collection. And it is! But it's also erotic as hell and worth more than one read. Trust me.
The best horror story I've read in the past several years (straight horror, with no erotica or romance chaser to give my poor faltering heart something else to focus on) is Shanna Germain's Trill. This one will stay with you, folks. It's truly... horrific. Seductively so. I've read it several times, trying to pinpoint the exact moment when every muscle in my body goes tense. The moment when I want to stop reading. That moment seems to start earlier and earlier every time I read Shanna's story, but yet I still have to finish reading it. Again. Every time. Even though I know how it ends and that I will not like it even though I love it. Read it and tell me I'm wrong. Read it and try to stay relaxed and not hold your breath and not cringe and not squirm in your seat with discomfort. The kind of discomfort that starts as a little bug crawling on the hairline at the back of your neck and ends with you clawing at your own flesh just to make it stop.
Whew. I may not read (or watch) much anymore, but I still love horror. And I hate that I love it.
Now that I have blood under my nails, I think I'll say good night.
Thursday, December 29, 2011
I admire horror writers who can pull readers into their disturbing imaginary worlds, but I rarely venture into that territory, probably because I'm afraid I might write something unintentionally funny (not scary enough) or too repellent for readers who might like my other stuff.
However, I'm sometimes inspired by unlikely sources.
The following is an excerpt from "Roots," my lesbian horror story which was featured in Monsters, an anthology from Torquere Press which was launched on Halloween 2004.
(There is some head-hopping in this story -- I hope it's not too confusing.)
The actual backstory: while looking up info for a concordance on the work of U.S. fiction writer Ntozake Shange (& while teaching her work to first-year university students), I discovered that according to historical records, a better, stronger (i.e. commercially viable) indigo plant was developed by 17-year-old Eliza Lucas in the 1740s on the family plantation in South Carolina. Her father was governor of Antigua and he was often away from home. Eliza's mother was a semi-invalid, and Eliza seems to have been an only child. The family plantation would have been worked by slaves, & in that era, at least some of them might have been brought directly from Africa as adults.
My guess is that someone with a knowledge of plant-breeding developed the better indigo plant, but since that someone had no legal rights, credit was given to Miss Eliza because she was the only white adult (loosely speaking) who was present and healthy at the time.
In any case, the indigo trade helped the American colonies become economically independent, Miss Eliza married well and became the foremother of a line of prominent politicians in her state.
Indigo was originally a kind of wild grass native to the American South. Who really bred a hardier version that could be used to dye all the blue police and military uniforms of the time? Perhaps the plant-breeder still bears a grudge, long after death. Perhaps both the knowledge and the grudge were passed on to a descendant. Where could a botanist be found in our own time? In a greenhouse or flower shop.
Welcome to a most unusual store . . .
The florist shop looked and smelled exactly as Rosa expected. The perfume of ripening flowers was like a melody over a bass line of wet earth. Sunlight poured through the windows to spotlight leaves in all sizes, shapes and shades of green, from deep-forest through emerald to fresh lime. The light glowed on the smooth features of a mahogany face that never changed expression while two sets of long, gloved fingers pressed the spongy soil around a newly-transplanted begonia. A nametag pin identified the woman as Lily.
In spite of the sweetness of sunlight on flowers, Rosa shivered. She had often passed by this place on her way to and from work, but something about it had discouraged her from coming in before now. She felt sure she had met that woman before, that she had felt those competent fingers on her own skin.
“You’ve come,” remarked Lily, the owner, “to find flowers for a special occasion?” She had a faint accent that Rosa couldn’t place, and her full, insinuating smile implied a lifetime of intimacy.
Rosa’s normally-tawny face looked bloodless. She hated feeling like a slow learner, but something was clearly happening that her conscious mind couldn’t grasp. She had awakened in the morning with a vague but strong conviction that she had to go to the florist shop immediately after work to find something she needed – something living and growing, which might be lost if she waited too long.
“No,” stammered Rosa, wanting to gain control of the conversation. After all, she was the customer. “I just – I need a new houseplant.” She glanced around as though looking for a particular type, genus, species and form.
Lily stood up, and Rosa noticed that she was over six feet tall. Her name suited her surprisingly well; she had the regal grace of one of the newer, richly-colored and curly-petaled hybrid lilies. Her breasts looked heavy on her willowy frame, and they bounced slightly with her movements under a loose green shirt. Her hair was done in neat cornrows that showed the elegant shape of her head. Rosa was embarrassed by her impulse to throw her arms around Lily and press herself against her.
“There are so many beautiful plants here,” purred the owner of this indoor garden. The gleam of her teeth did not inspire trust, but it added to Rosa’s excitement. “Let me show you.”
Rosa barely heard the names of annuals and perennials, succulents and hostile-looking cacti, flashy tropicals and plants like precocious little girls: baby roses, lily-of-the-valley and gerbera daisies. None of them spoke to her in any language.
Turning away from Lily, Rosa was startled by the impression that the tall, solid woman had disappeared. She was nowhere in Rosa’s peripheral vision. Rosa turned her head quickly, and Lily abruptly sprang back into view. “I need a low-maintenance houseplant,” the customer blurted, smelling her own sweat mixed with the smells of other life all around her. “The ones that need special care always die on me.”
The stare that Lily fixed on her made it impossible for Rosa to look her straight in the eyes, especially since this would have required looking up. When not studied closely, Lily’s skin looked exactly like polished wood, poreless and immobile. “Uh,” remarked the expert. “Their needs are simple compared to ours. And they give us so much. Would you want to live in a world with no green things in it?”
Rosa mumbled something that sounded like “No, but.” She felt both guilty and resentful, like a smug white donor to a tax-deductible charity who has been called on her unacknowledged prejudice toward races, cultures and neighbourhoods other than her own. On a deeper level, she was afraid.
Lily wrapped a cool, strong arm around Rosa’s shoulders like an old friend. Rosa shivered, but didn’t object. “These are my children,” Lily told her. “You must see the ones that need special care. I keep them in the greenhouse at the back.”
Chills were still running down Rosa’s back from the places where she had been touched as Lily strode to the front door and locked it. “Come,” she ordered softly, directing her customer’s attention to a door in the back that looked too small to accommodate modern adults.
Rosa was guided forward with a hand on her waist. Despite being shorter than average, she had to duck to pass through the opening. The narrow width made her uncomfortably aware of her fleshy body; she thought she was too fat but couldn’t resist comforting herself with food. Followed by Lily, Rosa had an unsettling sense that the taller woman had shrunk at will.
The greenhouse was humid and cool, full of rustlings and the gentle hiss of moisture on plastic walls. Rosa noticed several large-leafed plants and potted trees that looked exotic, wild and sentient. She was afraid to touch them, and she wondered if they were really for sale.
“My father studied plants all his life,” Lily explained. “I learned a lot from him, but some kinds of knowledge must be gained directly from them.” Rosa vaguely remembered reading an old story about an obsessed botanist with a beautiful, poisonous daughter. She had thought the plot was based on the author’s fear of everything beyond the limits of Victorian, white Anglo-Saxon respectability.
Rosa told herself that she had nothing to fear. By now it was clear that Lily wanted her, that anything could happen between them. Rosa was eager to discover the depth of the other woman’s passion as well as her own because she believed that this adventure wouldn’t count. Random sex with strangers would never have to be part of her official life-story as long as there were no human witnesses or mutual friends, and no commitment between her and the momentary lover except to keep the encounter buried in silence. For the present, Rosa reminded herself that plants are the least aggressive life form, and that women lack the piggish assumptions of men.
Rosa didn’t call herself a lesbian, or even bisexual. For years, she had told her parents that she would marry and give them grandchildren once she had found the right man. In the meanwhile, she kept losing boyfriends. She preferred to blame this on her weight than to admit that her air of self-sufficiency and her relationships with women, sexual or not, made the men in her life feel like mannequins in a store window.
Moisture trickled through soil to nourish roots, and trickled into Rosa’s panties as her heat rose. “My dear,” purred Lily. “Let me introduce you to the guards.” She gestured toward several large plants near the entrance. “They are related to the Venus Fly-trap, and they keep this place almost free of insects. Don’t put your fingers in them.” Rosa couldn’t be sure she was joking.
“And see this,” Lily went on. The tub of murky water that held some kind of wild grass looked unremarkable compared to the other inhabitants of the greenhouse. “Indigo,” the expert named it. “Incredibly valuable when it was the only source of blue dye. American indigo was inferior to the French kind until my father bred a stronger strain, more productive. Economies rise and fall by such discoveries. Who knows what America would be today if not for these little plants that used to grow wild? Yet my father is never mentioned in history books. His work was credited to those who owned him, according to the law.”
Lily looked like a woman of her time, but she seemed older than civilization. With a flash of panic, Rosa wondered if the storyteller knew that commercially-viable indigo for dye was developed on a colonial plantation before American independence, long before the lifespan of any human being in living memory. The woman had to be lying or deluded, probably the latter. In Rosa’s mind, the voice of her common sense screamed: Get out now! But she wanted to stay and learn all she could. She told herself that she would never have to come back.
(Warning: the conclusion of this story is gruesome. If you want to read it, ask me for a copy or find the whole story in the Torquere Press anthology, Monsters.)
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
I’ve just walked home from school where my teacher has humiliated me in front of the class for drawing cartoons of Top Cat and Yogi Bear on the back of these wet mimeographed worksheets, after sniffing the purple ink for several minutes, and Jeannine Williams who I have a huge crush on and am terrified to speak to but want to kiss passionately bent over backwards like in the movies, has borrowed my pencil and chewed on the end of it and her tooth marks are now a treasured religious relic in my Lone Ranger pencil box. I will stash this pencil in my underwear drawer with my aging Halloween candy and once in a while take it out and suck on it rapturously.
As I push open the screen door mom is off with my baby brother Dave somewhere, maybe yakking with the Arnolds across the street. I give my baby turtle Patches some dried flies from a little tin, take down some cornflakes and fix up a bowl with some milk and go right to the TV. The TV has a huge gray eye, two knobs, and some gawky rabbit ear antennae on top next to a ceramic panther lamp. In the back are vacuum tubes and capacitors that I have been sternly warned never to touch because my brains will fry and my hair will catch on fire and I will die a horrible grisly agonizing electric chair death, not like in the cartoons where people’s skeletons just light up, and instead of feeling sorry for me everyone will say how stupid I was after having been dutifully warned by my parents but the idiot kid never listens to anybody, what can you do with him, Jesus H Christ? Dad always lets me have the vacuum tubes when they conk out and I zoom around with them making whooshing noises and pretending they’re rocket ships.
I turn the bottom knob until it clicks and give it some volume. I sit down cross legged with my corn flakes and wait. The screen makes a crackly sound and I turn the knob on top –thump-thump-thump- to KCCI out of Ames and wait for the Mel Jass Matinee Movie (“with me your host – Mel Jass!”). And sure enough, there it is.
Like a recurring nightmare there’s this one movie that shows up about once a month.
Planets and stars move by, a spooky choir goes “wooooah ” and a paternalistic baritone voice speaks ominously about planets and higher forms of intelligence. In a nice house a boy exactly my age jumps out of bed to squint through a telescope at “Orion in zenith which won’t happen again for 6 years! Gee whiz, Dad!”
His parents are awakened by his big wind up alarm clock. These are perfect story book parents such as nobody ever had, who sleep in pajamas in twin beds chastely separated by a nightstand. The mother is a Teutonic, perfectly goyische blonde shiksa such as would turn Jewish boys into pillars of salt if they lusted for her, and speaks in cultured, meticulously cadenced tones, addressing her husband as “darling” while smiling. The father is a broad shouldered and generically handsome lovable lug, incapable of irritation or coarse desires. After he goes back to his own bed, definitely not Mom’s (who might have gasped, “Goodness, darling, what’s gotten into you?”) a lightning storm wakes up little David who sees a flying saucer land in a field of sand. He goes after Dad who doesn’t believe him but will take a look in the morning. Dad goes out and promptly disappears in the sand. He comes back, changed. Glowering, glassy eyed and tyrannical. As soon as the kid gets on his nerves he smacks him one across the mouth hard enough to flatten the little brat. And so it goes.
A pair of cops go to investigate the kids desparate phone call. They come back grim eyed and mean. Then Dad escorts Mom to the sand pit and she disappears. Finally the boy sees his playmate Kathy go to the sandpit and disappear. He runs to tell her mom (Kathy’s father is a physicist. We’ll get back to him.) then Kathy shows up with a tell tale scar on the back of her neck, an evil eyed zombie demeanor and a handful of flowers for mom. So the boy is discredited, no one believes him when the house is set on fire and he says Kathy must have done it and then takes off like hell.
Still with me? Hang on.
He scurries off to tell the Chief of Police and is stuck by the bureaucrat at the front desk until the Chief shows up. But the police chief has joined the zombie people too and throws the boy in a cell until they can bring in his parents. A lady psychiatrist named Dr. Blake arrives on the scene and believes his story enough to think they should consult an astronomer – he’ll know.
When the parents arrive at the police station, Mom is much changed. The Stepford Wife milk and cookies veneer is gone, and she’s a fierce, icy eyed bitch severely dressed in black with a plunging neckline like Dracula’s Daughter. One can definitely imagine having sex with this woman, along with a bull whip and hand cuffs.
Dr. Blake says the boy is running a fever and she suspects polio (this is the 1950s) and won’t hand him over. She brings him to an astronomer, Dr. Kelston, who believes him totally and explains about UFOs while whacking a map of the solar system with a briar pipe, and and even knows about an atomic rocket project the Martians are worked up about. Soon they’ve got the Army involved.
Okay, that’s enough.
There’s some high minded silliness with infra red rays and “mu-tants” and a battle and the Martians are defeated and so it goes.
Now if you’ve been patient this long, here’s the pay off. This cheesy sci fi flick gave me terrible nightmares for years as a child. I dreaded it. It made me vomit. Yet as often as it came around, I could never look away. It was an icon of my development as a fiction writer and one of the very few movies which ever sincerely scared the fecal matter out of me, not once but many times.
Let’s get out the tool box, unscrew the back and have a look at how this stuff works when it works so very, very well.
Freud said this amazing thing about the unconscious mind. He said the unconscious does not distinguish between fantasy and reality. That’s what the conscious mind is for. I’ll repeat that, the unconscious mind does not distinguish between fantasy and reality. If a man sees a picture of a naked woman and imagines going at it with her hot and heavy, he gets hard, because the unconscious doesn’t distinguish between fantasy and reality. If a woman reads a romantic, erotic story and gets wet down there, it’s because the unconscious doesn’t distinguish between fantasy and reality. Jung carried this further by saying the unconscious speaks in the language of images, even universal images passed down genetically.
So here’s how it works. I saw this movie when I was a little boy, about the same age as the kid in the movie, so the movie kid is an image my unconscious vividly connects with. In this movie, nice mom and nice dad turn mean and don’t love him anymore. The authority figures in his world don’t believe him and try to chase him down and imprison him. Little Kathy Wilson, his friend turns evil. And did I mention she gets killed?
She collapsed suddenly off stage from a brain hemorrhage, “keeled over as if she’d been pole axed”. The Martians exploded the zombie gadget they drilled into her brain and pulled her plug by remote control. Zap. Now, her father is working in his laboratory doing like, you know, scientist stuff. Taking a test tube and dripping something important into it from an eye dropper and holding it up to the light and scowling thoughtfully and putting it away and moving to the next. A lab coat munchkin comes in and remarks on how sorry they all are about little Kathy. Wouldn’t he like to knock off work early and go home and, like, maybe grieve or something? Without even looking up, Daddy Wilson responds with “No, thank you Brannon. I always work at night. Must go on, you know.” And he goes back to what he’s doing. Aw shit, the Martians got him already! No, it turns out he’s not a zombie, just an asshole. He really doesn’t care, that’s all.
So you have a kid, me, who’s instinctively terrified his mom and dad are going to get divorced someday. He hears the fighting, the shouts, the smashing dishes, the slamming doors, mom crying and sulking and locking the door. Daddy, the lovable lug who takes him fishing and squirts him with the garden house and shows him how to catch fireflies in a jar in the cornfield, sometimes takes down the belt or the hair brush and lets him have it good.
A little girl dies and Daddy goes on working because he doesn’t love her and doesn’t give a shit. Authority figures are out to get you. Grownups don’t believe you. The world is full of mysterious creatures who want to snatch you out of bed and take you away and maybe pop your brain like a balloon, and nobody will even come looking for you because you’re a crappy kid and nobody loves you anyway and they’d probably have a big party if you died. Hello?
The specific elements for me in 1962 and the present have changed, but the underlying night terrors are still the same terrors. What terrors are universal? If you want to write horror fiction you should spend some time on this question. Stephen King said the most frightening novel he’d written, the one he almost stopped writing was Pet Semetary. This was a novel in which a perfectly adorable little boy is killed and comes back as a murderous monster. I would imagine the poor parents of the kid who shot Senator Gabby Gifford, or the parents of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris would find that book very, very hard to read and enjoy.
And this raises another question. What if I, as an artist, were clever enough to convey that fear effectively to you? This isn’t fun fear, sexy vampires and werewolves fear. This is the real stuff, the stuff that can happen to you, the stuff that hurts until it isn’t fun anymore, where you realize in your gut how illusory and fragile your domestic happiness is, and someday that can be your child on the evening news? Should I do that? If I could bring you real horror, the kind that destroys your happiness, would you want to pay money to read that?
What about horror fiction’s slutty cousin, erotic fiction? Male triggers and female triggers?
The individual fetishes may vary widely, even sexual orientation is much more a mark on a spectrum than a fixed compass. But some things are more or less universal. Women are excited and eroticized by fictional male heroes who are strong and protective even supernatural. They like their men confident and sexually dominant, with high wealth and social status. Sexually aggressive bad boys, but with a tender hidden spot of authentic sensitivity that can be elicited only by the magic hoo-hoo of the heroine alone. A woman fantasizes of being sexually irresistible and adored even by several men at once. Even strong independent women want that man who will make them weak in the knees, seduce and dominate them in the bedroom. Men want that woman who is vulnerable, who can be brought to a full surrender, and validate their mighty male potency. If women want the relationship and intimacy, a man can walk through a plate glass window, have great sex two minutes later and then go look for pizza and beer. Men are fine with anonymous sex or a variety of sexually aggressive partners and then moving on. Part of what a prostitute is paid for is her disposability.
Recently I read a discussion on whether there was any such thing as forcing a woman to orgasm, a common feat in erotic stories, usually the ones written by men. I don’t think such a thing is possible, but this is still a universal male fantasy, to render a woman helpless with his sexual prowess so completely that she must cave under the onslaught of his superior potency, and be forced to ecstatic surrender. This is a common element of BDSM fiction. Real life? I’ll believe it when I see it. Meanwhile writers who incorporate these formula elements in their stories do very, very well commercially.
Which brings up one more, slightly squicky element I got from this movie, sitting there in the past with my bowl of cornflakes. There is a scene in the movie when nice Dr. Blake is beaten and captured by the Mu-Tants and they’ve got her strapped down on the table, laying ass up on her tummy, and the big brain drill is descending with its fatal implant that will turn her into a gimlet eyed robot. A beautiful mature woman, her blouse revealingly torn and vulnerable, who in a moment will exist only to slavishly obey her master’s whims. Any whims, darling. Watching wide eyed as the brain drill descended and the choir “woooahh”ed and the woman looked so tranquil as The Very Bad Thing was about to happen, I remember clearly and distinctly being not afraid but - very turned on.
A little kid with a pencil with a girl’s fresh tooth bites, hidden away in his underwear drawer. I’ve always wondered -
What in the world was he thinking right then?
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
So forgive, my fellow glorious post writing Grippers. Forgive me, readers. I'm just going to do a quick list of my top five fave horror movies.
Here we go:
1. Ringu. A girl comes out of the telly. A GIRL COMES OUT OF THE TELLY. It remains the only horror movie I was too afraid to watch the end of on my own, as an adult. I had to wait until Husband came home.
2. 28 Days Later. I had to watch this one until the end, because unfortunately I made the mistake of watching it for the first time at a cinema. People cried when I shit my pants.
3. IT. Yes, I know it's just a crappy made for TV serialisation of a Stephen King novel. Yes, I know that this usually equals total disaster. But Tim Curry as Pennywise is actually and literally responsible for the pervasive modern day fear of clowns. He just is. I was in a caravan full of friends when I first watched this, and I still hid my eyes whenever he came on.
4. A Nightmare On Elm Street. So terrifying that I couldn't even look at the main bad guy's face, as a kid. And still, today, when Husband does Freddy Krueger's voice, I scream.
5. Fright Night. I'm putting this on the list because it's one of the few truly great comedy-horrors, but unlike most comedy-horrors, it also happens to make you shit pants when her face is all wrong at the end.
And that is my list. I was going to do a list of horror books, actually, but then I realised - I never find books half as scary as movies. Weird, huh? I mean, I've never put a book down because I was so scared - not even in IT when he pinches the kid's arm.
Maybe horror just has to be more in my face, to really get to me.
Monday, December 26, 2011
Like Lisabet, I'm not a huge fan of horror. The problem is too much imagination. A good writer gets a grip on me that I can't shake even when the story is over, and I can spend nights jumping at noises. Movies get me too. It took five times to get through just the opening sequence of John Carpenter's The Thing before I could brace myself to see the whole movie. It's the music in movies that creeps up my spine. I learned that long ago when my oldest sister wanted to watch Frankenstein when we were alone one night. She lowered the sound and put on Carpenter's music so I could stand to watch it with her. Knowing that it's the music doesn’t make it any less effective.
Horror and erotica are closely related. More than any other genres they try to provoke a physical response from the reader. Both want your heart to race and use a lot of sensory detail to make it happen, but to different ends. L.A. Banks, who passed away earlier this year, talked about how to use that sensory detail to make a horror scene work at a writer's convention years ago and I still find her observations useful although I turn them from horror to erotica.
The odd thing is that I have no problem reading or seeing horror in manga and graphic novels. I'm eagerly awaiting the next issue of Chew. In it, the main character can see the entire past of anything he tastes, which makes eating food a real problem. One taste of bacon, and he can see the pig in the slaughterhouse. This unusual ability comes in useful when solving crimes, although, yes, it means tasting part of the victim. So it's gross out horror, and yet, I love it.
Another manga series I follow is The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. A group of college students with differing abilities are brought together by an enterprising and not terribly ethical female student to find bodies and (with the help of one of their group) reanimate them long enough to try to figure out how to make money from helping the spirit with any unfinished business. They run into some other unsavory types, including a funeral home that reanimates murderers so that the victim's family can extract revenge, usually in the form of torture. As with most horror, it's a hard look at society and never features easy answers. Unfortunately, since I'm not Japanese, I know that there's some subtext that I miss about how their way of making a living puts them outside society, which is very much a part of the continuing story arc through the episodes. The drawings can be gruesome, but that doesn’t bother me.
I want to like horror. I'm sure that horror writers are just barely on the rung of respectability above erotica writers. But the good horror writers do their job too well. I'm spooked for days by the atmosphere created in the story. At night, shadows in the corner of the room take on sinister forms, sort of like seeing shapes in clouds but not nearly as fun. Imagination, it's a writer's best friend, but as a reader, I wish I could crank it down a few notches.
Sunday, December 25, 2011
I'm not much of a horror fan, in film or in literature, partly because the genre tends to evoke unpleasant emotions. Poorly conceived or executed horror just seems silly and useless, a waste of my precious time. Horror written or filmed with skill and subtlety scares the bejesus out of me and can trigger nightmares. I don't seek out either extreme, though occasionally I'll end up subjecting myself to something gory, gruesome or terrifying by mistake.
There are two exceptions. One is Edgar Allen Poe. In Poe's hands, horror become poetry, and my literary appreciation overcomes my aversion to fear. The other is H.P. Lovecraft.
During my undergraduate days, someone introduced me to Lovecraft's work. In turn, I introduced my father. Together we devoured the Lovecraft oeuvre: “The Colour Out of Space”, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, “At the Mountains of Madness”, “The Dunwich Horror”. Through Lovecraft's tales, dad and I prowled the streets of Arkham – modeled after a Massachusetts city not far from our home - and roamed the wild. stony hills to the west, where ancient horrors lay buried under the still waters of the modern reservoir – never named but obviously the Quabbin. We joked about altars to Cthulu; we contemplated the ghoulish music of Erich Zann. For decades, dad and I would return to Lovecraft again and again. My current volume was a Christmas gift from perhaps a decade ago, only a few year years before his death.
Why did Lovecraft's work hold such appeal? From the perspective of craft, the peculiar recluse from Providence, Rhode Island didn't begin to match Poe. Lovecraft's stories seem flowery and over-written, especially by today's standards. His complex, meandering prose is studded with polysyllabic adverbs and self-conscious inversions of structure. Nevertheless, somehow, Lovecraft managed to capture a true sense of dread – to hint at an impenetrable darkness underlying the banal realities of every day life. And that, it seems to me now, is the essence of horror.
Explicitness is one notable characteristic of today's horror. Last week Charlotte talked about “Alien”. In the one scene I recall (perhaps from a trailer – I'm really not sure), a parasitic alien creature forces its way out of the chest of a character in which it has been growing. You see every detail of ripped flesh, every disgusting inch of the emerging monster. Horror these days means geysers of blood erupting in the wake of a slasher's axe, or the corruption and decay of a long-dead body - rotting intestines, eyes torn from their sockets, white bone glimpsed through rifts in blotchy, diseased skin.
Lovecraft's horrors are more often glimpsed, sensed, or intuited than fully revealed. Even when the protagonists are finally confronted with the awful truth, the horrors they face are “indescribable” and “unimaginable”, too monstrous to be more than imperfectly captured in human language. Then, too, Lovecraft often wrote about inner terrors – the threat of madness looming over us poor humans as we try impose some order on a chaotic, evil-infested universe. “Inchoate dread” is one of his favorite phrases – incipient, formless, hovering on the edge of being, but nevertheless a shadow one cannot escape.
Lovecraft skirted the edge of madness himself – and so have I. I spent months in a state psychiatric hospital as a teenager. The shambling, zombie-like walk of my drugged fellow patients still haunts my dreams. Actually, I discovered Lovecraft only a few years after that stay – perhaps the recognition accounts for my perverse attraction to his work.
Quite a while ago the Erotica Readers & Writers Association had theme challenge on their Storytime list: parody. I ended up writing a tale that captures the flavor of Lovecraft's prose, while including a great deal of (pretty horrible) sex. The title is “The Shadow Over Desmoines”.
My hand trembles as I pick up the pen to begin this chronicle. Every fiber of my being recoils from the thought of reliving the events that led to my incarceration in this house of madness. However, my doctors here are convinced that writing about my "delusions", as they call them, will help to purge me of them. I have my doubts. The lights here in the hospital burn day and night, and we are always attended, but this does not dispel the irremediable darkness in my soul, nor assuage my awful loneliness.
Still, I will make an effort.
It began six months ago. I moved to Iowa to make a new start, after my dear wife passed away and I suffered a moderately severe heart attack. I had been a newspaperman in our small New England town, but my cardiologist recommended that I retire from that relatively demanding occupation. After Evelyn's passing, I was troubled by nightmares, distorted melanges of disturbing imagery suffused with a indescribable sense of horror. In coming to Des Moines, I sought peace, a respite from my grief-induced visions. Iowa, I reasoned, would be the essence of normality, sanity, midwestern friendliness and common sense.
How mistaken I was in my sanguine rationalization.
I purchased a pleasant, sunny bungalow on a quiet, maple-lined street near the bus line. Once I had settled in, with my books and my records neatly stored, I looked forward to days of reading and contemplation, interspersed with an occasional fishing trip, and tranquil nights. At first, it seemed that I had achieved my objectives. I slept soundly and dreamlessly. I took long walks, and made a start on the book that I had always planned to write. I became friendly with Horace Farmer, the librarian at the neighborhood branch, who I discovered enjoyed a game of chess, a beer, and a philosophical discussion as much as I did. Though I am nearer fifty than sixty, my heart problems have left me somewhat frail. I welcomed the opportunity to relax and appreciate the deliberate pace of midwestern life.
I met Leonora Gratsky two weeks after I moved in. She appeared at my door with a home-baked blueberry pie and an irresistible smile. Though properly, even primly, dressed, and extremely well-spoken, she radiated some indefinable quality of carnality that made me distinctly uncomfortable. Leonora was petite, with sharp elfin features. I could not refrain from noticing the voluptuous curves of bosom and derriere under her high-necked blouse and calf-length skirt. Her gray-streaked black hair was pulled into a conservative bun, but when I looked into her dark eyes, I saw an untrammeled sensuality that simultaneously attracted and appalled me.
We conversed in a neighborly fashion for several minutes. Apparently, she inhabited the house across the street, a dwelling somewhat larger than mine but equally neat and ordinary. Perhaps the gardens surrounding it grew a bit more wild and rank than was typical on our street, but the place appeared to be in good repair. I told myself that different people have different standards, although somehow the lush vines tumbling over her fence and creeping across the sidewalk engendered an inexplicable uneasiness in my soul.
She lived with her nephew Frederick, she told me, a strapping young man of twenty five year who, unfortunately, had the intellect of a child of seven. He was a comfort, managing the heavier tasks around the house and never causing any trouble. Since her husband passed on two years ago, she was especially glad of Frederick's company.
Leonora encouraged me to drop by and visit anytime, but I doubted that I would take advantage of her offer. Shivers ran down my spine as I watched her swaying hips retreat down my path and across the street to her own dwelling. Nevertheless, I found my body reacted to her as if I were fifteen intead of fifty four. I had to spend a quarter of an hour reading Popular Mechanics before my tumescence subsided.
I tried to forget my curvaceous and disturbing neighbor. Despite my best intentions, I found myself looking over toward her house from my window, both night and day, straining to catch a glimpse of her. I never saw her, though occasionally I discerned a hulking male figure shambling around the place, dragging heavy black bags of trash. I assumed that this must be the feeble-minded nephew. I like to think of myself as compassionate toward those less fortunate than myself, but something about his fleshy form and beetling brow repelled me.
You can read the rest of the story on my website, if you're so inclined. It's pretty funny, in considered opinion, but I'd like to think it captures a hint of the terror Lovecraft, at his best, evokes – indescribable but nevertheless real.
Saturday, December 24, 2011
Foreign words become part of English every day. We don't look twice at words such as café or fiancé, and everyone seems to understand what a double entendre is. Yet café, fiancé, and entendre were all foreign words at one time. Alien, in fact.
When I began writing Science Fiction, I studied the concept of how to build a world. What steps did I need to take to make my worlds real to my readers? How could I blend reality and the Tarthian Empire? One way was to create at least a smattering of words in an alien language. For my Kin people, feline humanoids, I wanted something catlike, but which humans could speak. I named it Felis.
I would need it to be easy to pronounce, and not look too alien to readers. I knew that using copious amounts of alien words would result in what my mother quaintly referred to as the Wheelbarrow Syndrome. When she'd come across a foreign word that she couldn't discern from the context, if her ever-present dictionary didn't help, then she substituted the word "wheelbarrow" and kept right on going.
I began my quest for a new language by studying how languages are formed. I read articles, watched documentaries, and pored over books by other SciFi authors. Certain words and sounds are formed by the placement of tongue against teeth; that led me to wonder how fangs would affect speech. The letter B seemed the least likely to be used, based on studies I read, so I decided to leave that letter out of Felis.
Languages go two ways. They develop from society, and in turn, they change society. What would the world be like if we did not speak different languages? Certain cultures place more emphasis on family, or independence, or the assumed/assigned gender of non-living items. In French, for example, most words ending in -ble have a masculine connotation, with the exception of table.
Over the last six or seven years, I've developed well over 650 words, plus a number of phrases. I also created customs, family relationships and meanings, and a history of the people. Because the Kin were genetically designed, I used a smattering of human languages to create theirs. Words were taken from English, French, Latin, and Cherokee (Tsalagi). I used phonetic spellings, kept -ing, -ed, and the traditional English -s and -es for plurals. I then incorporated the sounds of cats in the way they form words. Words use the letter H to indicate a breathy pause, with two Hs meaning a longer pause (hheenah means sexual). Kin are never in a hurry to speak. Their language takes time, much to the chagrin of fast-talking humans.
As an aside, the human language in my books is referred to as Etymis, from the word etymology, or study of languages. In the Tarthian Empire where my current books take place, Etymis is the trade-standard tongue.
Here's a brief excerpt from the book Surrender Love, in which the hero, Luc Saint-Cyr, speaks with one of his Kin employees. Mynkoh Ceeow is the aunt of Luc's as-yet-unmet new lover. The scene portrays a traditional Kin greeting ritual.
“Welcome, Mynkoh.” Luc indicated a white leather chair and came around to stand before the matching one.
The sleek Kin female looked lithe and exotic in her tight black leather skirt and gleaming boots. She’d left her white shirt open, unfastened to a point below her breasts. She draped her black leather coat across the arm of her chair. “Hook leather” matched hair color, which, among the Kin, was an honor permitted only to warriors.
Mynkoh laid back both her ears and bowed only enough to be polite.
He bowed in return, using the ritual Felis greeting. “Dok cho, sten neeleesah?” Hello, how is your family?
After a pause, she answered with the same formality and a deeper bow. “Seeyoo, skah, yl tu?” Fine, thanks, and yours?
She lived alone, as did he with Wulf gone. Hardly an appropriate greeting for two bachelors like themselves, but it was the Kin way and she always seemed to expect it.
The enjoyment of creating an alien world, a language, and customs are some of the reasons I write Science Fiction. Developing those aspects along with a sensual plot is why I enjoy Science Fiction Romance. It's the big picture mixed with the intimate look at a character, whether human, immortal, alien, or some combination of the three.
Readers who want a deeper taste of Felis are welcome to visit my website, where a PDF lexicon of words may be downloaded. http://kayelleallen.com/Felis_Glossary.html A tour of the Tarthian Empire is also available. http://kayelleallen.com/TTC-Home.html
About the Author
Kayelle Allen's motto is "romance lives forever." She enjoys hiking, movies, reading, and SciFi conventions. A multi-published, award winning author with character-driven, plot-heavy SciFi Romances, her world-building skills include alien languages and 10k years of future history. Kayelle is known for unstoppable heroes, uncompromising love, and unforgettable passion. You will find her on the web in these places:
Romance Lives Forever - Group
The Edge of Peril - World of the Immortals
LINK to Surrender Love: http://www.loose-id.com/Surrender-Love.aspx
Friday, December 23, 2011
Oh woe! You want me to write about science fiction? Science fiction?? Argh!! Not my genre. I have read some science fiction, of course. Though I always get confused between what is science fiction and what is fantasy. Science fiction has spaceships and fantasy has unicorns, right? Or can there be unicorns in science fiction? I mean, there are wookies and ewoks in Star Wars and that's science fiction. (Right?) Oh sigh. In this week filled with holidays--Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Christmas--do we have to talk about science fiction?
Fine. I will tell you what I know about science fiction:
I have written one and only one science fiction story. I wrote it about twenty years ago so my memory is fuzzy, but it involved a woman who was desperate for a baby. She purchases a fertilized embryo and grew it in an artificial womb, much like a terrarium. Ultimately, she discovered motherhood is not all it's cracked up to be. I submitted the story to only one market, a major science fiction magazine. I received a pre-printed rejection letter, the kind that says: "Dear Author, Thanks for letting us consider your work. We regret we will not be able to use your story." That was disappointing in itself, but some editor had taken the time to scrawl in the margin of the form rejection, "This topic has been done to death and done better." Ouch. I still have that letter somewhere.
I read some Robert Heinlein in my formative years. The problem with reading science fiction that was written in a previous era is that the contemporary conventions of the time often creep into the narrative no matter how impressive the world building skills of the author. I found his work strangely discordant--his futuristic worlds seemed contrary to the sexism I perceived. But Heinlein did give me reason to consider the benefits of alternative relationships, including polyamory.
Hmm. I'm wracking my brain for other science fiction I've read. Does The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood count as science fiction or fantasy? Brilliant (and frightening) book. I also read and enjoyed Suzette Haden Elgin's feminist science fiction novel Native Tongue for a women's studies class called Women, Language and Power. I've read some Alan Dean Foster and have fond memories of his novel Flinx in Flux, mostly because I was reading it on a visit to my soon-to-be husband.
I'm running out of science fiction anecdotes to share...
I'm a reluctant fan of the original "Star Trek" series. My favorite character was Spock and my favorite episode was "The Trouble with Tribbles." That is the only episode title I know, actually. I have only seen bits of the other "Star Trek" series, but I have seen all of the Star Trek movies, always at the suggestion of other people. (I'm a movie slut, I'll go see just about any movie. Really. Even stuff with Adam Sandler.) My favorite Star Trek movie was the last one, but I don't remember the title.
I've seen all of the Star Wars movies, too. Both the first (middle) trilogy and the second (first) trilogy. I always found that confusing, but whatever. I preferred the first trilogy, despite the low-tech special effects. I was never much interested in the Death Star or light sabers or storm troopers or any of that. I was interested in the relationships. I was interested in lurve, as Charlotte might say. I thought Luke and Leia belonged together and that Han Solo should travel through time and marry me. Sadly, that was not to be. In a soap operaish turn, Luke discovered he had made out with his own sister and that his father was the ultimate Bad Guy. Poor Luke. But Leia got Han (and a skimpy harem girl outfit) and all was well. And then George Lucas went back to the real beginning and introduced a bunch of new (old) characters and completely lost me. Poor Darth Vader. So sad.
And that concludes my knowledge of science fiction. Oh, I forgot, I've also seen Firefly and Serenity, though I can't remember which was the series and which was the movie. Personally, I prefer Nathan Fillion in Castle, even if he does look amazingly hot with a gun strapped to his thigh...
On that note, I leave you with a science fiction tribute to the season. Happy Holidays to you all!
Thursday, December 22, 2011
Consider the Reno Effect.
Jean Roberta is Not at Home. This does not mean she is a Victorian socialite who chooses to snub certain callers by sending word that she is not to be disturbed.
She is actually not living in her home at the moment. She and her spouse are currently staying in a motel for a few days.
This is part of the Reno Effect: homeowners disappear temporarily.
The entire second floor of their house had to be vacated so that a reno crew could come in to take down the wallpaper (even though it put up a good fight), repaint the walls and remove the off-white wall-to-wall carpeting. (Actually, it was slightly off-white in 1999, when Jean & spouse moved in. It has since become very off-white due to the presence of 3 little dogs. The cats are neater & prefer their litter-box.)
The floor will then be covered by laminate flooring and a few throw rugs.
Disconnecting a computer can cause the home-owner to appear invisible to those not in her immediate physical vicinity when she is off-line. You can test this out by trying it at home.
The renovations are planned to be completed by Christmas Eve, but then all the furniture has to be replaced in the second-floor rooms where it belongs.
Quite a few of the books in Jean's voluminous library are scheduled for disappearance. She is not willing to move them all again in this lifetime. The books to be removed will undoubtedly reappear somewhere else (Value Village, a second-hand book store, or the hallway outside Jean's office at the university, where there is a tradition of offering books to all interested takers this way).
Completed home renovations are said to make the inhabitants more visible once the dust has settled, since an appealing environment helps to inspire thinking and writing. Time will tell whether the experiment is succussful.
Meanwhile, Happy Holidays from the invisible blogger, sending you this mesage from another dimension.
:~) :~) **** ^^^^^
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
The lady down the row from us fell asleep during the last hour which was all full of loud gunfights and car chases. She must have been really wiped out. I suspect that some people these days may come to the movies to get some shut-eye, just like years past people went to the movies in the summer to get some good air conditioning. That’s how Dillinger got himself shot.
“What was the question?"
My son leans in and yells over the closing credit music. “She’s asking how the movie ended. She fell asleep.”
The dim house lights come on and we all get up and I look down at the floor to make sure nothing’s dropped out of my pockets and we head for the lobby.
This little theater will someday be a dear part of my kid’s childhood memories of Augusta. It costs two bucks. When we first moved here, tickets were one buck, but everything goes up. This little place called Masters Cinema is easy walking distance from the famous golf course where they hold the Masters Golf Tournament with Tiger Woods and those guys. It used to be a bowling ally, and then it became a dollar theater. This is where movies come to die. A new movie has its day in the sun at the big Regal theater over at the shopping center, where its ten bucks a head, and it stops here one last time when its star begins to fade towards that lonely afterlife as a DVD. There aren’t many movies out there I would want to pay ten bucks a head plus popcorn to see. But it turns out there are a lot of them I’d pay two bucks a head to see, and “In Time” is one of them.
My wife and kid and I are walking with the lady, a cuddly middle aged woman with wire glasses, bright and intelligent, who has a very educated vibe but likes to dress in dumpy sweaters like Albert Einstein in his old photos. She sees movies alone, which suggests her husband and kids probably aren’t around anymore and maybe like someone a little down on her luck but living exactly as she wants other than money. And probably pretty wiped out from whatever job she does, if she can sleep through a movie like that.
“During the movie I was thinking about Occupy Wall Street and the thing with rich people these days.” I say as we all walk beside her.
“Yes!” she says, “I got the metaphor right away. Except that in the movie time is money. Literally.”
“The wealthy get to have all the time and the other ninety nine percent only get twenty five years to live,” says my kid.
“And they get to have all these fun lines,” I say, “Like ‘don’t waste my time’, and ‘I had enough time to buy this gun’.”
“I love that,” she says, which makes me appreciate her even more.
“Stephen King wrote this book,” I say, “It was a non-fiction book called ‘Danse Macabre’ which was all about the history of horror fiction including movies and TV. In this book he says that movies are the dreams and nightmares of a nation at a given time in its history. Like in the fifties and sixties the science fiction movies were all about giant bugs and monsters that were created by nuclear bombs back in the years of the cold war when everyone was scared of nuclear armageddon. These comic book heros you see in the movies, like Spiderman and Fantastic Four all have their super powers from radioactive accidents. The Hulk even got his powers because he was this scientist who was exposed to a test blast from a big nuclear weapon. So these are the nightmares of the early sixties and fifties.”
“Right now there’s plenty of anxiety going around about money,” says the woman “and so there’s going to be more movies like this about one percenters and ninety nine percenters.”
“Don’t be surprised if they do a remake of ‘Soylent Green’ too ,” says my kid.
By now we’ve reached the parking lot and its cold outside. The woman laughs and waves goodbye and disappears among the rows of parked cars. My wife wants to go to the Publix and pick up some bread and cat food.
In the aisles of the Publix my kid and I keep talking. He wants to have a career in the movies someday, working with the film part of it.
“I liked it,” he says, “but it had a lot of logical inconsistencies.”
“I always think of those as ‘holes’,” I say “I try to avoid them when I write. Sometimes you can’t.”
“Like the phones. Its supposed to be the future, but they don’t even have cell phones.”
“Yeah,” I say “and the cars. They were stealing cars all over the place. Even today they have technology you can buy that connects your car’s computer to a satellite. If someone steals your car and the cops are chasing them, they can send a signal to a satellite and the satellite will tell the car’s computer to shut down the engine. So you have to figure in a repressive future like that, the cars would all have those. Bingo. Shut down. End of chase.”
“’That’s a bingo!’ “, he says, quoting the Gestapo officer in “Inglourious Basterds”. Movie language is already becoming a cultural code for us.
“The fact that the holes don’t bother you anymore means you’re learning how to watch movies better. Like you didn’t like “Dragon Wars’, you thought that was dumb.”
“It was dumb.”
“That’s cause you didn’t know how to watch it. Like the Japanese science fiction movies of the ‘50s, those were all about nuclear weapons too, and that was just a couple of years after American turned Hiroshima and Nagasaki into parking lots. You have Godzilla which is this giant lizard that walks around kicking buildings over, and then you have Mothra which is this giant moth with little flying fairy girls hanging around him. If you watch that as a scary science fiction movie you’ll pull your hair out. But if you watch it as a metaphor or a fantasy, it’s a lot of fun. You have to watch it the right way.”
“So holes don’t matter?”
“They matter sometimes. It depends on the movie. It depends on what the story wants to do. The story is The Boss. That’s the rule.”
“How is the story the boss?
“There’s ‘hard’ science fiction and there’s ‘soft’ science fiction. Soft science fiction doesn’t try to explain everything. It’s just an anything-goes platform for telling what you really want to tell.”
“So this movie was soft science fiction, because they have holes and they don’t explain anything.”
“Right,” I say, “Like take time travel. Ray Bradbury wrote this short story they made a movie of called ‘A Sound of Thunder’. These safari hunters go back in a time machine and hunt dinosaurs. It’s about how little things change history.”
“Like stepping on a butterfly.”
“Yeah. Bradbury doesn’t explain the time machine because he doesn’t know and he doesn’t give a shit. He wants to get to the dinosaurs so they all just go ‘zap’ and a miracle happens and there they are hunting dinosaurs.”
“You said ‘shit’.”
“Yeah, but –“
“You won’t let me say ‘shit’.”
“You probably say ‘shit’ when I’m not around.”
“I’m the grown up. I pay for everything, so I get to say it, and you don’t. Listen. Now you take Michael Crichton, he writes ‘hard’ science fiction. He wrote a time machine story too called ‘Timeline’ and he spends the first three chapters explaining quantum physics and how the time machine works through quantum foam, whatever the hell that is and – “
“You said – “
“Shut up. And with quantum foam there’s multiple universes which is interesting to think about if you like that kind of thing. He just has to tell you how it all works, like ‘Jurassic Park’ using DNA, because that’s part of his style and brand. It’s what readers go to him expecting to read. Bradbury started out in the old sci fi pulps in the ‘40s, where your number one job was to tell a ripping good story and forget the science. When you read Bradbury you won’t get any science but you’ll get a good story. Writers have a style and a unique brand after awhile that people look for when they pick up their books.”
“The other thing I noticed about ‘In Time’ was that no one used computers or the internet.” my kid says, “It wasn’t really about this world. The whole movie was a metaphor. I keep hearing about ‘HAL’ in 2001 Space odyssey – “
“Which is a classic movie you need to see, 2001 is hard sci fi all the way. People used to watch that movie on acid.”
“But they didn’t have cell phones or Internet in that movie either.’
“ ‘2001 Space Oddessey’ was made in 1968 by Stanley Kubrick. It was a landmark movie, because it was the very first respectable, big budget science fiction movie ever made. It was made by a big name director, with a big name hard sci fi writer – Arthur C Clarke – and it tried to show the future and the next step in human evolution. Of course they got the technology all wrong too. You were around in 2001. We had the internet and cell phones, but no manned space flights to Jupiter because we never had the money or political will to develop the technology.”
“Which is depressing.”
“Very depressing. But you see the other side of this too. People used to think by the year 2011 we’d be like Buck Rogers flying around in jet packs and living on the moon. But none of that happened. Politicians have to go around pretending they don’t even believe in science now in order to get elected. Nobody predicted the rise of computers because for a long time computers were these boring number crunchers that filled up a whole room. Then transistors were invented. And that all runs on quantum physics. Nobody saw that coming either. My car out there has more onboard computers in it than the Apollo 11 moon lander. That's a fact. That’s how the future really works. It’s all based on caveman values.”
“What the hell’s that?”
“You said it first.”
“Caveman values means people want technology that appeals to our basic monkey nature. People will never fly around in jet packs because flying is scary and dangerous. But social networking is an extension of tribal nature, sitting around the fire in the cave and telling stories, so that will always catch on. And pornography of course. And of course lots of food, even artificial food that makes people fat. Successful technological innovations are almost always connected to cave man values. Values a cave man would understand."
“Why would you write a sci fi story instead of a regular story?”
“The sci fi stuff I’ve written, and sci fi in general is about ideas. That’s what good sci fi is. Its not about getting the future right, because you never will. You’ll only get part of it right. ‘Brave New World’, ‘Fahrenheit 451’, and ‘1984’ all got stuff right when they were dealing with big ideas, based on cave man values. Brave New World is about using eugenics to create priveleged, elite social classes. That’s happening right now. ‘Fahrenheit 451’ is about a society distracting its citizens with shallow entertainment while things fall apart around them, and that’s happening right now. ‘1984’, which really isn’t science fiction, is about how language and ideas are manipulated to keep a totalitarian government in place and that’s happening right now too. All those ideas are real. But there aren’t any jet packs. That’s why when you approach a movie or a story like ‘In Time’ you have to ignore the holes and think about the ideas that are being noodled on.”
We’re standing in the check out line by now and I swipe my debit card. It’s rejected. No dough.
I start thinking about the lady in the movie theater. I pull out a credit card. That’s new too. You don’t have to starve when you’re broke. I wonder how she’s doing now. I hope her kids come see her. In real time. For Christmas.
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Some drab drama about gritty things happening in political situations? Nope. The latest gore-fest installment in the Mutilation Is Orsum franchise? No excitement from me. Some comedy starring what's his face and a cut-out love interest? I was too busy rooting through my pic and mix to be interested.
But give me some spaceships and aliens and other worlds and time travel machines and I will at the very least pay rapt attention to the trailer.
And to this day, nothing affects me more strongly, film-wise, than the Alien franchise.
No movie has invaded my dreams more intensely than the those three films have. No movie has informed my idea of what a strong heroine should be as clearly as those three films have.
And I know all of this now, more than ever, because of my response to the trailer for the new Alien movie, Prometheus.
I swear to God, summat happened to me when I heard that music. When I heard some woman saying we're sorry, we were wrong, so wrong. I'm not even sure why that voiceover resonates with me so strongly, and reminds me so definitively of the Alien movies.
But try as Ridley Scott might to deny it's not really a prequel, those things tell me it is. It's like the DNA of a true Alien movie has imprinted itself on my psyche, and everything about that first trailer awoke that DNA inside me. I watched it over and over, greedy for more details, for more of the iconic imagery I so love - the horseshoe shaped ship, the agony of that obscene birth, the space docks and the confined spaces and Noomi Rapace's beautiful face.
I hope they don't waste her, in it, because they couldn't have picked a better woman to take up Ripley's mantle. As Lisbet Salander, Rapace cut a jagged swathe through Dragon Tattoo, and all while maintaining a kind of gentle woundedness behind her eyes.
That's what I want. I want my heroine, fierce and sharp and still a woman all at the same time. I want the true Alien movie of my childhood again, to remind me of why I started loving science fiction, in the first place.
I love it because of Alien. And when I see that sci-fi trailer on the big screen, that's what I always dream and hope for: Ellen Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.
Monday, December 19, 2011
Such a lovely topic, but where to begin?
"Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop." The King of Hearts to the White Rabbit
Solid advice indeed.
In grade school, our assigned reading included short stories of travel to the moon or mars, none of which interested me too much. I loved Disney's version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea though so I borrowed every Jules Vernes novel I could from the library. It never occurred to me that they were science fiction though because most of what he'd written about was, by then, technological fact. The book that made me realize I was a science fiction fan was Frank Herbert's Dune. Asimov's Caves of Steel sealed the deal.
I could make long lists of science fiction books that keep me enthralled: David Brin's Kiln People. Gordon Dahlquist's Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. Liz Williams The Poison Master. Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness. Richard K Morgan's Altered Carbon. The manga series Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa. China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. Dragon Riders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey. Everything by Lois McMaster Bujold and Octavia Butler. But lists don't explain why these stories creep into my brain and wrap themselves comfortably around my imagination. They don't explain why I'm so sad to leave those worlds when I've read the last page of the story.
A solid world-builder makes such a difference. I have to feel as if I could peek around the façade where the action is taking place and see everyday people living everyday lives in a complete, full-functioning world. It has to seem as if there are other stories waiting to be told. After all, there isn't just one story about earth! If I sense an unsustainable economy or rules of magic that defy physics or anything that can't continue to work in the long run, the story will disappoint me.
What matters the most though, as with any genre, are the characters. Even if it's an alien species, there has to be a sense of humanity. I want to feel that the heroine or hero has bad days, family pressures, obligations that s/he'd rather not have to deal with, enjoys friendships, loves, cries, and even on occasion enjoys beauty in silent awe. It's wonderful when the villains show some of that too. Dual-natured characters are like complete worlds instead of decorative facades.
While I get why, given the current state of the world economy, dystopian futures are all the rage right now, I like a sense of hope. I'd like to think that trying to change things for the better isn't an entirely futile effort. A scientist once said that the reason people like Star Trek is that it depicts the universe as full of interesting places to see and people to meet, while in reality, it's vast nothingness. Yes, I get the reality, but there's nothing wrong with hoping that out there somewhere there's something to reach for. Science Fiction promises that there is.
Sunday, December 18, 2011
By Lisabet Sarai
Almost as soon as I could read, I started reading science fiction. I couldn't have been more than seven or eight when I discovered Eleanor Cameron's Mushroom Planet books. At this point I don't remember the plots at all, only my emotional reactions – an overwhelming sense of wonder and excitement. (It's fascinating to read adult reviews of these books on Amazon. Clearly I wasn't the only child thus affected.)
Then came Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. When I was perhaps twelve or thirteen, Asimov was a guest on a local radio talk show, and I called in to ask him some question about the relationship between modern politics and the world of the Foundation trilogy. This might not seem surprising unless you knew that I was the shyest child in the world, absolutely terrified of making telephone calls.
Meanwhile, I suspect that Stranger in a Strange Land, which I devoured when I was fifteen or so, may be partially responsible for my personal attraction to polyamory.
My husband introduced me to Philip K. Dick. I started with The Man in the High Castle, Dick's subtle exploration of an alternative world in which the Japanese and the Germans won WWII. I used to think I'd read everything Dick ever wrote, but new titles keep coming to light. Just a few months ago I finished the weird, apocalyptic and sexually charged Dr. Blood money. (I supposed I could have omitted the adjectives “weird” and “apocalyptic”, since they apply to most of Dick's oeuvre...)
In the eighties we joined a science fiction reading group. Every month a dozen of us would get together for wine, potluck, desserts and discussion. We read Sheri S. Tepper, Olivia Butler, Greg Bear, Harry Harrison, John Barnes, Pat Cadigan... a whole new universe of authors. After a year or so, the group fizzled, but not before it had rekindled my early love of the genre.
Recently I discovered Jonathan Lethem. He might not characterize his own work as science fiction, but Gun, With Occasional Music, in which farm animals have achieved a near-human level of intelligence and individuals require custom blended drugs to survive, certainly fits my criteria for the genre.
I'll read almost anything that calls itself scifi, but my favorite tales focus more on people than technology – so-called “soft science fiction”. The best books, in my opinion, start with a relatively simple premise and then explore its societal implications. I read a book in the eighties by Kate Wilhelm, which is an ideal example. (Unfortunately, I can't seem to find the title. Sometimes things that predated the Internet seem to drop into a black hole.) The world passes through a cloud of interstellar dust. At first it appears that there are no negative effects, but soon people begin to die. It turns out that the dust causes water to become more viscous. Since humans are mostly composed of water, exposure to the dust is fatal – and the thickening produces a variety of other consequences as well. Society begins to fall apart, in a most convincing way
As you might expect, I also have a particular fondness for speculative fiction that plays with changes in gender and sexuality. The 1997 Circlet Press anthology Genderflex is my touchstone in this area.
So, now I'm a writer. Given my love of science fiction, one might ask why I don't write some sci fi of my own.
Well, I'll be honest. With all the fantastic models from a lifetime of reading the genre, I'm just plain intimidated. Science fiction demands a level of imagination that I'm not sure I can deliver. I've read so much scifi that all my own ideas feel stale or derivative.
Furthermore, it's not enough to create a vivid, surprising, different alternative universe. Your fictional world must also be at least somewhat plausible, and internally consistent. In science fiction, details matter almost as much as they do in historical fiction. Indeed, writing historical fiction might be easier, because you can consult external sources when you get stuck.
Writing sci fi is hard. I know because, finally, I just finished my first science fiction novel, and it required a level of pain far beyond anything I've experienced with any other book.
Actually, I'm cheating a bit here. Quarantine is sci fi erotic romance, not “pure” science fiction. It will be judged as much on its sex scenes and the bond between its heroes as for the dystoptic future it presents. So in fact, it doesn't feel quite real. Nevertheless, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't somewhat proud of the book. For one thing, it focuses on changes in society and their implications for the characters – the sort of soft sci fi that I personally enjoy.
Quarantine is set some thirty years in the future, after a plague has decimated the population of America. The epidemic had its start in the gay community before spreading to heterosexuals, and thus gays are blamed. All surviving men with a genetic marker for homosexuality have been rounded up and sent to remote quarantine camps in places like eastern Oregon. (If you've never been through eastern Oregon – it's flat, empty, dry and desolate – and that's before the effects of global warming.) One of the heroes is an inmate who has been imprisoned in the camp for seven years. The other is a camp guard, an ex-gang member sent to work at the camp in lieu of a prison term. The inmate seduces the guard, who helps him escape. They both end up as fugitives, hiding in Plague-ravaged San Francisco where they are forced to help the queer underground in its battle against the homophobic, nationalistic Guardians of American Greatness.
Ugh. When I describe the book, it sounds like a million other stories. And indeed, it's not such a stretch of the imagination to move from today to my imagined future, which seems all too plausible. Oh well. I suspect that my erotic romance readership will enjoy it anyway. It's likely that most of them did not cut their reading teeth on Bradbury and Heinlein.
I had planned to conclude with a brief excerpt – but I couldn't find one that was obviously science fiction. My fictional world is too much like our own. Instead, I'll give you a snippet from the only other sci fi I've published, a novella called Bodies of Light. This is a bit of space opera (with plenty of sex thrown in), but even so, it's no more than half a century in the future. I guess I don't dare boldly go where no one has gone before!
The bridge was as silent as the suspension bay. However, a survey of the blinking panels and rotating 3D displays revealed that the ship still had power. The pods had been some kind of anomaly. Relieved, Christine settled into the pilot’s chair (Sven Harlsson, gone like all the rest) and searched the cluttered controls until she found the viewport activation button. The curved shields slid open, revealing a hemisphere of blackness. For the first time, Christine gazed out into the emptiness of interstellar space.
Terror tightened her throat. She was falling into the immense void before her, drowning in the utter absence of light or form. She closed her eyes, trying to summon the scientist within her. No one had seen this before, the vast reaches of the universe outside Earth’s solar system. She was the first.
She forced herself to peer into the darkness, pressing against the transparent carbon-crystal of the viewport. As her vision adapted, she found she could see faint glowing clouds that must be galaxies and pinpricks of light that were distant stars. The universe was not totally empty, after all. She swallowed her fear and tried to speak.
“Request interstellar coordinates.” Her long-unused voice came out as a croak, but Archimedes understood her command.
“359˚ 56’ 39.5’’ galactic latitude, -2˚ 42’ 46.3’’ galactic longitude,” the ship replied crisply.
“Request distance from Sirius cluster.”
“Approximately thirty-four-point-seven light years.”
“What?” That was farther away than they’d been when they started! “There must be a mistake! Recheck your calculations.”
The ship’s computer hesitated for a fraction of a second—almost as though it were offended, Christine thought. “There is no error. Current position is 34.68643 light years from Sirius, 41.321966 light years from Terra. Current speed is .917 c. Heading is 22˚ 13’ b by 9˚ 2’ l.”
Forty-one light years from Earth! Had they overshot their goal? Of course, a tiny miscalculation in their initial trajectory would be magnified into an increasingly large discrepancy the farther the ship travelled from its starting point. “How long has it been since departure?”
“Four years, sixty-two days, four hours and twenty-two minutes,” the ship intoned.
Only four years? “That’s not possible,” Christine objected. Given their maximum velocity, they could not have travelled anywhere near this far. Something was very wrong.
“Run full self-diagnostics,” she ordered. “Report any faults.”
The computer was silent for about ten seconds. Christine stared out of the viewport, wondering whether any of the faint, flickering points of brightness might be Sol.
“Self-diagnostics completed,” Archimedes announced. “No faults detected.”
Christine leaned back in the padded chair with a weary sigh. Pain pounded in her temples. Her usually nimble mind felt stiff and rusty. She had to figure this out.
Once again, she saw Ravin’s blank, lifeless face. She had not loved him, but she had respected him, and he had given her pleasure during their pre-launch familiarisation exercises. She found that she missed him. “The crew are all dead,” she murmured to herself. “I’m the only one left, and I’m lost in space, billions of kilometres off course.”
“All suspension pod power was terminated,” the ship commented. “A collision with unidentified debris damaged the electrical distribution cables in the hull. Backup systems failed to engage.”
“What? How long ago did this happen?”
“Sixty-two hours and seventeen minutes ago.” Less than three days! If she had awakened a bit sooner, she might have saved them. The impact must have triggered the reactivation sequence in her own pod. Or perhaps the backup had kicked in to handle the life support for her pod alone.
“EVA is recommended to repair the breach,” Archimedes added. “Probability of atmospheric loss over the next twenty-four hours is point-four-six.”
Christine collapsed on to the control panel, her face buried in her hands, squeezing her eyes tight to hold back the tears. The ship wanted her to risk her life, venturing outside to patch the hole before the air escaped. But why should she bother? She was dead one way or the other.
The vastness of space weighed on her, even when she was not looking at it. The unending blackness threatened to smother her. She felt as empty and hollow as the universe stretching into infinity on every side.
Saturday, December 17, 2011
Around the holidays, it's easy to over-indulge. There is so much delicious food and drink beginning at Thanksgiving and going all the way through the New Year. Everywhere you turn, there are holiday parties and cookie exchanges, candy canes and fruitcake. A toast or two, followed by another, and we all seem to be indulging ourselves. But there are other ways to indulge yourself, ways that don't affect your waistline. As I get older, I find that my daily schedule is mostly at the mercy of those around me: work, children, spouse. I have to fit in the grocery shopping and the Christmas shopping, paying the bills and ordering the photo greeting cards. I forget about the things I need until it's late and I'm tired, too tired to do anything about it.
The most important way I've indulged myself this fall is to make time for my own needs. I wanted to commit more time to my writing, so I gave up the weekly coffee with my friends, rescheduled the exercise classes and gave myself a stern talking to about facebook and boingboing. I told everyone I was going to keep office hours. 9-12, M-F. And for the most part, I've managed to do so. It felt strange at first, to realize that people were holding off calling me or expecting me to do things in the morning, because I'd declared I was busy. That in itself was empowering and I got a great deal of writing done. Two thousand words a day on average. Faster than Nanowrimo pace and while I wasn't working on just one piece, it was exciting to be cranking out the words.
Another need that I had been neglecting was my own desire. I'd boxed it up and put it in a closet, waiting for a day when I had more time. That was a mistake. Despite my obligations and my age, I still have strong sexual desire and when I started making time for it, I found it blossomed in ways I never expected. My body is different now, older and wiser, perhaps. The rush I feel isn't the quick lust of youth, something that once built to enormous circuit-blowing fireworks. Now, it's slower to enflame, but it burns longer. I have discovered a plateau of pleasure that is altogether more satisfying than jumping off the cliff of my youthful orgasms. Now, the orgasms are many and varied, more subtle but also more frequent. And while they take more attention to begin burning, I can stay on the plateau once I get there. This is a change that was definitely worth waiting for and worth paying attention to.
Age and experience have shown me that there are many more things that arouse me, many more ways in which that arousal is expressed. Happily, however briefly, I found it to be an easily renewable resource. So, I indulge myself by writing and by looking to my own pleasure, and hopefully, it will outlast the holiday season and become a habit.