Cruel to be Kind: Killing Off a Major Character

Occasionally, because I'm not really that smart, I'll put out a call for blog ideas. And sometimes I get one that's so original there's just no way to ignore it. So thanks to Claudia Tucker for asking: "Have you ever been tempted to 'kill' your main characters off and start with a new Hero who might be a an offspring Read more

Interview with Lee Karr, author of The Making of Day of the Dead

In 1986, George A. Romero--one of my heroes--released the third film in his original "Living Dead" trilogy, Day of the Dead (following Night and Dawn). The previous two films were both classics, and popular successes. They were also about as different from each other as two films could be. So I, like every other horror fan, was eager to see Read more

Guest Blog: Melissa Olson on Multiple First-Person Voices

Today my friend, author Melissa Olson, stops by to talk about her new book and the issues of writing more than one first-person series. You can also find Melissa (and me) at her online release party for The Big Keep later today, starting at 5:30 CT. I’d like to thank Alex for hosting me today, especially considering my topic is Read more

7 Questions About My Most Recent Novel

Okay, I was supposed to do this on Monday, but it got away from me. Thanks to Lucy Jane Bledsoe for tagging me in this, and to Melissa Olson and Deborah Blake for agreeing to be tagged for next Monday. Here are seven questions about my most recent book:   1. What is the name of your character? Eddie LaCrosse. 2. When and where Read more

Hans Up, Hans Down: the Villain of Frozen

Warning: SPOILERS pretty much throughout. If you're a parent, particularly of a daughter, then you--like me--have probably seen/heard/experienced Frozen more than you ever thought possible. But this is not a post about the ubiquitous "Let It Go" song, which now even Pearl Jam have referenced. No, this is about the one element of the movie that I just can't make up Read more

The First Drop of Blood: A Dream of Dracula

Posted on by Alex in criticism, Dracula, reviews, vampires, writers | Leave a comment

$(KGrHqZHJBoE8f!SyycBBPOYqGn8(g~~60_35

It’s now possible to find gazillions of non-fiction books on Dracula, novel or historical character or cultural figure. I recommend anything by Elizabeth Miller. But in the early 70s, there was really only one:  A Dream of Dracula: In Search of the Living Dead, by Leonard Wolf.

It’s a long-form meditation on what vampires and Dracula mean to people in the (then) contemporary world. He talks to modern supposed vampires, visits Transylvania and sees an awful lot of movies. His insights are occasionally brilliant but often rather obvious; yet it has to be remembered, he was the first one writing this stuff for a popular audience. It’s like high school students who don’t like Hamlet because it’s full of cliche’s.

Wolf was actually born in Transylvania, and the book is a dive into both the legend of Dracula in popular culture, and into the psyche of Leonard Wolf. One is obviously more interesting now than the other, but even the personal asides and extended vignettes have their entertainment value. Wolf was writing at the end of the Sixties, so some of his interviewees actually use phrases like, “groovy” and “turned on.” He lets us into his sex life, which seems to involve younger women, including students (this was not considered so improper back in the full flush of the sexual revolution). He talks a lot about how his discoveries and insights make him feel. So it’s very much a book of its time.

Leonard Wolf with his writer daughter, Naomi.

Leonard Wolf with his writer daughter, Naomi.

Still, it’s got some value, and Wolf can turn a phrase and make a pithy observation. He calls Vlad the Impaler “a practical joker of agony” (p. 244). Of the heroes of Stoker’s novel, he says, “They were strange, one may suppose, even before Dracula came into the lives of the men” (p. 210). And on contemplating his own mortality in the mirror, he writes, “The man I see in the mirror gets a look of surprised misery in his eyes, as if he heard the flapping of leather wings bearing creatures through the darkness who will converge on the fluorescent-lighted silver rectangle of the mirror where his face is illuminated, trapped” (p. 92). Whew.

Reading it today, and as a fan of the topic, I’m especially swept along in the enthusiasm Wolf has for his subject. He knows, despite the critical consensus at the time, that there’s something valuable here in the conjunction of history and pop art, in the transformation of Vlad Drakul into Count Dracula. He may never quite articulate it, but he gets most of the way there, and he gives later scholars a good spot to start.

Revealing a New Project: the Red Reaper

Posted on by Alex in authors, conventions, creativity, criticism, Eddie LaCrosse, fantasy literature, fiction, gender roles, heroes, Kate Beckinsale, movies, novel, Red Reaper, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writers, writing | 1 Comment

Back in November of 2009, I stumbled across a teaser trailer for the fantasy film, The Legend of the Red Reaper. It promised to be an action-adventure fantasy, and starred an actress I’d never heard of at the time, Tara Cardinal. As I watched the trailer, I realized that whatever the standard fantasy tropes on display, this was also something new and compelling. Here’s part of what I wrote to Tara back then:

“One of the things that bothers me most about fantasy films is the persistent notion that wispy, willowy girls can stand up to large, large men in a physical confrontation. I’m all for strong women characters, but at some point you have to acknowledge the laws of biology and physics…In the trailer, you look like you can stand up to the male warriors. You’re not the size of a pipe cleaner, your arms aren’t sticks, and you’re not dressed like an S&M show refugee (not that there’s anything wrong with that). You’re depicted as a warrior, and from what the trailer shows, you behave like one.”

Screen-shot-2012-10-23-at-1.13.08-AM

If you’ve read this blog for very long (or endured one of my rants at a convention), you’ll know that one of my pet peeves is fantasy’s version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, namely the Ass-Kicking Waif. Buffy is probably the best known, but there’s also Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element, Summer Glau in Serenity, Scarlett Johansen in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, Kate Beckinsale in Underworld, and so forth: all tiny, busty, girl-women who appear to have just graduated from high school. Individually these characters are valid within their worlds, and there are always justifications for them (supernatural power, science gone amok, etc.). Cumulatively, it seems like this is an excuse for male creators to have their feminist cake and eat it, too. So to speak.

For my own fantasy writing, I’ve been careful to avoid that. In my Eddie LaCrosse novels, I’ve featured women who are actual adults, and if they’re depicted as warriors, they have the physique for it: they’re tall, they’re visibly muscular, and they don’t need excuses like supernatural power. And to me, that doesn’t make them any less attractive. Check out Jane Argo in Wake of the Bloody Angel and decide for yourself if I did it well.

This is the long way around to my announcment that I’m writing a prequel novel to The Legend of the Red Reaper with its creator/star Tara Cardinal.

522976_463872430301844_1375134850_n

Tentatively it’s titled, The Cave of Archerode: A Red Reaper Novel, but as always, that can change. This is a spec adventure simply because I like the material and admire its creator’s vision. It’s also new territory for me, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading about our progress.

Keep an eye out for more updates as we go. You can read an earlier interview I did with Red Reaper’s director here. And watch for the release of The Legend of the Red Reaper later this year.

Response to the NYT: Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?

Posted on by Alex in criticism, fantasy literature, fiction, Hamlet, pop culture, tennessee, Teresa Frohock, Tufa, writers, writing | 7 Comments

Recently in the New York Times, writer and editor Paul Elie bemoaned the lack of depictions of Christian faith in modern fiction. He trotted out numerous examples of past masters (Flannery O’Connor, Anthony Burgess, etc.) and then mentions how current literary novelists simply don’t, apparently, have faith in Christianity. They don’t depict it because they don’t believe it.

In part, he said:

Now I am writing a novel with matters of belief at its core. Now I have skin in the game. Now I am trying to answer the question: Where has the novel of belief gone?

Well, to be blunt, it’s gone to those genres you look down upon. You know, the books people actually read: fantasy, science fiction, horror and romance.

Elie adds, The most emphatically Christian character in contemporary American fiction is the Rev. John Ames, who in Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Gilead” [published in 2004, and winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize--AB] writes, in old age, to his young son as he prepares for death in 1957.

Illustration from Paul Elie’s NYT essay.

Really? I mean, I can instantly think of two other examples of Christian faith depicted, rather emphatically, in recent fantasy novels that meet all Elie’s vague criteria. One is by me: in The Hum and the Shiver, from 2011, I have Craig Chess, a young Methodist minister new to his post and faced with the task of reaching out to a group of people who don’t believe in the same things he does (they have beliefs, but that’s another topic). Craig’s Christianity is genuine and heartfelt; further, he uses it as the touchstone for all his actions. He is content to let his Christianity show by example, not by proselytizing or haranguing. And this gets results: the novel’s protagonist, a young woman known for her past sexual exploits, is willing to honor his beliefs in their courtship. He neither demands nor expects her to change, and because of that, she both loves and respects him (and importantly, doesn’t change just to please him).

The other example is Miserere: An Autumn Tale, by Teresa Frohock. In this novel, she creates a cosmology that incorporates all the world’s religions, and more, shows them working together. The only place they don’t get along, in fact, is on Earth. In this universe, prayer functions as a real power that gets real results, and the strength of a prayer is measurable and crucial. Hell is a real place, and so is Heaven; and free will, the ultimate gift from God, has consequences. But there’s also redemption, God’s other ultimate gift, available to those who want it bad enough to truly change themselves and embrace the standards they have sworn to uphold.

I asked Teresa her thoughts on her approach to religion. She said, in part:

“I had to abandon the group-think mentality in order to write Miserere. I also want to be very clear: when I see or use the phrase “Christian belief,” I think of the teachings of the Christ and I automatically eliminate from my mind the trappings of doctrine and dogma, which were essentially organized and formulated long after the Christ’s death. Christian belief—as in love being the one rule of the law, protect the weak and those who stand outside the mainstream—those were the essential teachings of the Christ, and those beliefs heavily influenced Miserere.”

So, Mr. Elie, perhaps you should not bemoan quite so loudly. “Emphatically Christian” characters are all around you, just not in your myopic view of literature. Or, to paraphrase: there are more things in heaven and earth, Mr. Elie,* than are dreamed of in your limited literary philosophy.

*I was unable to find any website or contact information for Mr. Elie. I would love to include his response, if any.

Five Great Movies About Writers

Posted on by Alex in authors, criticism, fiction, John Carpenter, movies, novel, originality, pop culture, storytelling, trivia, writers, writing | 7 Comments

Anders Danielsen Lie (l) and Espen Klouman-Høiner in Reprise.

Writers aren’t that exciting to be around when we’re working. What we do–staring into space, muttering to ourselves, typing then backspacing and typing some more–isn’t exactly dynamic. It might be why there are so few good movies about writers actually writing. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of good movies with writer characters in them; that’s fairly common. But the movies that show accurately what the writing life is like, and how it affects the writer and people around him, those are rare indeed. Here are five of my favorites (notice I didn’t say, “best”).

In the Mouth of Madness

Writers figure in a lot of horror films, most of them courtesy of Stephen King (Misery, The Shining, Secret Window).  This isn’t a Stephen King adaptation, or a Lovecraft one, but its story of writer Sutter Kane (Jurgen Prochnow), who writes like Lovecraft and has a fan base like (and the same initials as) King, carries the idea of the “best seller” to a demented extreme. With Sam Neill as an insurance investigator and director John Carpenter’s sure hand, it takes us into a world where people are willing to give up their own dreams for the common nightmares of someone else. I can only wonder, if it was remade today (which I’m sure it will be), will King be the model of success, or will it be Stephanie Meyer or EL James?

Paris When It Sizzles

Williams Holden is on deadline to produce a script, and Audrey Hepburn is the secretary who both challenges him and keeps him on task. Holden, like a lot of us, knows when his story’s gone off the rails, so the stopping and starting over becomes part of the fun. Add to this scenes from the work-in-progress acted out by those two, plus a slew of dead-on cameos, and it becomes the kind of creative process we all like to think we have in our heads.

Reprise

A masterpiece–there, I said it–from Norway about two friends who submit their first novels on the same day. One gets rejected, one becomes a best seller, but their friendship doesn’t suffer in the ways you might think.  An amazing cast, down to the smallest parts, and a perfectly-judged emotional pitch make this one way too close to comfort in some ways. But a brilliant film nonetheless. And bonus cool points for using Joy Division under the titles.

His Girl Friday

“Writing” can include reporting, and in fact, it used to: some of our best writers, and even me, started out as journalists back when that word meant something. Here it means Rosalind Russell as the ace reporter and Cary Grant as her fast-talking editor, who’s also her ex-husband determined to get her back. It’s a romantic comedy, to be sure, but director Howard Hawks also includes scenes of Russell doing her job, including an expert interview with a mousy convicted killer. And when the other cynical reporters take a look at what she’s written, their respect and silence–in a movie overloaded with the fastest dialogue you’ll ever hear–tells you all you need to know about her skill.

Chinese Coffee

You probably haven’t heard of this one. It started as a vanity project by Al Pacino, who wanted a filmed record of a play he loved appearing in. Pacino and Jerry Orbach star in this essentially two-person film, adapted from Ira Lewis’s play, about a writer (Pacino) and his friend (Orbach), who feels the writer has stolen from him: not plagiarism, exactly, but more from his real life and personality. It’s good because the actors are so good, and Pacino’s direction is unfussy and solid. Plus it’s an issue every fiction writer will encounter at some point.

Any other suggestions?

George Lucas and Elvis: Echoes from 1977

Posted on by Alex in corruption, creativity, criticism, Elvis Presley, fantasy literature, filmmaking, home, movies, music, originality, pop culture, science fiction | 1 Comment

Thirty-five years ago, two things that fundamental changed my life happened in the same summer.

In May, Star Wars was released.

In August, Elvis Presley died.

The arrival of Star Wars turned the thing that everyone in my small town mocked, that had gotten me teased and beaten up, into the hippest thing in the world. Spaceships, aliens and robots were suddenly cool. Everyone went to see the movie, and multiple times, too. I learned a great deal of the dialogue by heart, something my kids have made me promise not to demonstrate when their friends are over. I collected everything I could find about the movie, desperate to understand what made it so awesome. Even then, I knew I wanted to be a creator, not just a consumer. My friends all wanted to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker, but I wanted to be the next George Lucas.

On the other hand, Elvis was something that was practically in the water. We lived an hour north of Memphis, and so I’d heard Elvis all my life. The album I recall listening to the most (and we’re talking vinyl album here) was 1970′s Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada. It included live and rather self-mocking versions of his greatest hits, along with covers of the Bee Gees hit, “Words.” Yes, Elvis covered the Bee Gees. He was a fact of life for me, and when he was gone, it created a vacuum that, to this day, occasionally strikes me anew with its poignancy. It’s not that I don’t understand what happened–believe me, I’ve read enough books about him to grasp the tragedy that his life became–it’s that his fall was so immense, and so thorough, and happened so young (he was only 42 when he died) that its full scale takes a long time to be fully appreciated.

As I sit here listening to Elvis (specifically, to the awesome collection Greatest Jukebox Hits, the CD I’d recommend to anyone looking for a one-disc sampler of what made the King so great), I suddenly wondered what George Lucas thought of Elvis’s death back then. Did he glimpse his own future in it? Because except for the drug abuse and dying young, he’s pretty much done the same thing.

Consider:

Like Elvis, George is financially successful, even now. Elvis packed arenas until the day he died.

Like Elvis, George’s later work is derivative and shallow compared with his earlier breakthrough creations.

Like Elvis, George’s original fans consider themselves betrayed by what he’s become*.

Like Elvis, George refuses to listen to critics. Elvis had manager Tom Parker always preaching the easiest, least challenging path. George was his own Colonel Tom.

Like Elvis, George is willingly insulated from the outside world by his wealth and position of power.

And, the most obvious,

Like Elvis, George has become physically fat and morally complacent.

Both men are legends. Both men changed the world.  But if he’s not careful, George will become as big a punchline, as big a joke, as Elvis (consider the recent Gotye parody).

And both men, ultimately, brought their sad status on themselves.

*This didn’t really happen during his life, true. But once he died, and we began to really assess what he’d given us in those last years, the backlash was, and is, enormous. That’s why fat, Vegas-era Elvis is such an easy punchline. 

The Betrayal of Arthur and the scent of disdain

Posted on by Alex in criticism, Dark Jenny, King Arthur, Sara Douglass | 2 Comments


About five years ago, when I was first thinking about the story that became Dark Jenny, I began looking for books that dealt in a critical and scholarly way with the meaning of Arthurian stories. I’d read the basic, classic fiction texts–Le Morte d’Arthur, The Alliterative Morte Arthure, The Once and Future King, The Mists of Avalon, The Wicked Day–but I wanted to understand what about these stories kept them in society’s consciousness for over a thousand years. This lead me to Sara Douglass’ The Betrayal of Arthur.

Finding the book in a local used bookstore was utter serendipity, since it’s never been officially released in the U.S. Douglass, a noted Australian fantasy author (The Axis trilogy), is also a scholar and brings both perspectives to bear on the Arthurian tales. She traces them from the eariest oral traditions up to the present (or rather, 1999 when the book was pubished). As her title implies she sees betrayal as the central theme, but not in the simple way you might expect. She acknowledges the Lancelot/Guinevere duplicity, but sees it as just one more example of a life sunken in perfidy. From the moment of conception–Uther Pendragon raping Ygerna, whether by deception or force–Arthur’s life is doomed. Sexual betrayal becomes the central theme. She explains why the various eras have responded to Arthur, how and why they’ve changed it to suit their times, and what it means to them.

I was so fascinated by all this the first time I read the book that I missed what is actually a sizable undercurrent: her utter contempt for anyone since T.H. White who has dared to write about Arthur. From Marion Zimmer Bradley to Rosemary Sutcliffe, she implies that these authors simply lack the capacity to understand the material with which they’re working.

On her web page, she devotes a fair bit of space to describing the process behind this book. Even here, her disdain for modern versions of the story is plain:

“Firstly (and uncomfortably for our modern age which doesn’t like such things), the Arthurian legend as it was developed in the medieval period was a moralistic tragedy…Secondly (and this is bound to be an unpopular theme), Arthur failed because he was himself a flawed king and man.”

There are other examples, but if the disdain is so thick it comes through in the author’s own web page synopsis, you can imagine how it permeates the book.

And that annoys me, both because I’ve written my own “Arthurian” novel, and because despite being a modern fantasy author, I feel quite capable of understanding any aspect of folklore or mythology that interests me. I have no doubt Ms.Douglass would dislike Dark Jenny for several reasons (that I can’t go into because they’re spoilers). But the elephant in the room that she seems to miss is that we (contemporary authors) are doing the same thing Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Malory and TH White did in their times: creating Arthurian tales for our audiences. We may not recite ballads around campfires, or perform with lutes for royalty, but we know our readers as well as those great storytellers of the past knew theirs. In a thousand years, who knows which current works will be held up alongside Malory, et.al.? Bradley certainly seems well on the way to standing the test of time.

In the conclusion of her webpage synopsis, Ms. Douglass says, “The Betrayal of Arthur is not a sop to popular culture, expectations or needs.” No kidding. It remains, for me, a classic and a crucial step in the development of Dark Jenny. I wish it didn’t also, after my recent re-read, leave such a sour aftertaste.

The Best Thing Ever! (and a side order of WTF?)

Posted on by Alex in Battlestar Galactica, criticism, Dr. Who, Shakespeare, Tor.com | 1 Comment

Recently I read a review of the Doctor Who season premiere that suggested the show is essentially creating an entirely new nonlinear form of storytelling. With all respect I think this is excessive praise, much like the folks who claim Ron Moore reinvented SF television. But whether or not you agree with this idea, I’m more interested in the critical subtext that insists any currently-fashionable genre permutation must be the best thing ever!

I love Doctor Who, and I trust that the show will eventually explain most, if not all, of the nonlinear moments the series premier gave us. But this nonlinear (i.e., WTF) quality of the episode “The Impossible Astronaut” is certainly nothing unique in SF, especially British SF that makes it to America. The first season of Space: 1999 is my touchstone for WTF, and that was done thirty years ago. In fact, for many years, when SF was being produced for fans but not by them, the attitude was most definitely, “It doesn’t have to make sense! It’s science fiction, they’ll swallow anything.” (An example: the unapologetic interview with screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr., included on the special edition DVD of 1980′s Flash Gordon. Semple, a veteran of the Adam West Batman TV show and the 1976 King Kong remake, seems astounded and a little insulted that anyone would expect him to take a subject like Flash Gordon seriously.)

So what’s behind this desire to overpraise whatever is currently popular? The need to instantly comment on and review things in the internet age is part of it, since these reviews are often written in the full flush of ardor following a new book/movie/TV show. More to the point, in many online critical commentaries there’s a definite urge to preach to the choir, which means that the critics mirror rather than challenge the enthusiasms of their readers (which, after all, is how you keep readers coming back). And ironically in an era when the great works of the past are more accessible than they ever have been, there seems to be a real need to establish that the Next Big Thing is also the Best Thing Ever (witness the lavish praise heaped on the reboot of Star Trek).

And that’s the opposite of real, thoughtful criticism. One purpose of critical evaluation is to remind readers that the Next Big Thing may not, in fact, be the Best Thing Ever. For example, Elizabethans experienced Macbeth as the Next Big Thing, but calling it the Best Thing Ever looks foolish when you realize Shakespeare wrote Hamlet three years earlier.

So whatever the Next Big Thing is, perhaps we need to wait until we have some critical distance before claiming it’s also the Best Thing Ever.