A True Story of Frog-Gigging and Disappointment

I wrote the following piece for a memoir class taught by Michelle Wildgen, best-selling author of Bread and Butter and You're Not You (soon to be a movie starring Hilary Swank). When I was a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, my dad determined that I would follow in his footsteps and leave a trail of dead small animals behind Read more

For Halloween, Try EXORCISMUS

Every year around Halloween I try to recommend a horror movie you might not have seen, something off the beaten path and all the better for it. You can read previous recommendations here and here. This year, I worried that I wouldn't find anything. Then I discovered the 2010 film, Exorcismus. No, I can't explain the title, either. Yes, it's an exorcism movie, Read more

The Great Rock and Roll Secret

Suppose the great rock single had flickered over the airways just once, on the night you had passed out in the back seat?  Probably not, but still...rock and roll has always had this sense of possibility.  --Dave Marsh, Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, page 93 I originally read the above quote in the 1980s, when the first edition of Read more

Review: The Making of Day of the Dead

When I heard there would be a book entirely about the making of George A. Romero's third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, I was surprised. The movie had not been a financial or critical success at the time, and while its reputation has risen since its 1985 release, it's still nowhere near as well-known as its predecessors, Night Read more

The Manic Pixie Pout-Pout

Since I now have another two-year-old, I'm back to reading the simplest books to her at bedtime. Most of these books are innocuous, if occasionally incompetent (i.e., Big Snowman, Little Snowman, a Frozen tie-in book that probably takes longer to read than it did to write). A few are brilliant, such as Room on the Broom. But I'm here to talk Read more

The Next Big Thing blog tour

Posted on by Alex in authors, Burn Me Deadly, Dark Jenny, dragon, Eddie LaCrosse, fantasy literature, fiction, film noir, King Arthur, movies, novel, release date, Robert B. Parker, Shakespeare, Tor Books, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writers, writing | 3 Comments

My friend from the Heroic Fiction League on Facebook, Violette Malan, graciously invited me to participate in The Next Big Thing blog series. Each author answers the same set of questions, and passes them on to five more authors, who post their answers the following week and pass them on to five more authors, and so forth.

You’ll find Violette’s answers here, and my list of invited contributors at the bottom of this post. My answers begin right here.

What is your working title of your book?

It’s currently called He Drank, and Saw the Spider. I’m batting .500 in my initial titles making it to print (for example, Wake of the Bloody Angel was originally called The Two Eddies), so we’ll see how this one does. This time, my title is both a line from the book, and also a shout-out to the source material.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It was inspired by The Winter’s Tale, one of Shakespeare’s last and most complex plays. It’s a genre-bending story of betrayal and reconciliation, and a real head-scratcher the first time you read or watch it. It’s best known for one of its stage directions: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

My initial idea was, “What if Eddie was dropped into the Autolycus role in the plot?” The final book is considerably different, but that was the inspiration.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s sword-and-sorcery, but crossed with a healthy dollop of pulp detective fiction; “sword noir,” I guess. One reviewer called it, “Sam Spade with a sword.”

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I’ve said elsewhere on this blog that the ideal casting for Eddie LaCrosse is Alien-era Tom Skerritt.

But otherwise, I prefer not to lock down the images of the characters. Each reader will have his or her own ideas, and I don’t want to get in the way of that. I’ll worry about it when an actual movie deal happens.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

As a young mercenary, Eddie LaCrosse saves an abandoned baby from a bear; sixteen years later, now a private sword jockey, he has to save her again, this time from a complex plot involving magic, murder and an insane king.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It will be published by Tor in 2014.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About eight months. A lot of that was research, reading up on Shakespeare, rereading his plays and internalizing a lot of Shakespearean scholarship. It may seem simple to take a plot or character from Shakespeare, but to do it justice you also have to understand what that character means, and how he or she functions in the play. For example, there’s a character loosely based on Caliban from The Tempest; Caliban has been used to represent everything from Irish bog people to a half-human fish monster to the plight of third-world citizens under Western occupation. If you’re going to put someone like him in your book, you have to decide what he represents for you, and how that affects the story and the other characters.

This is the same approach I’ve used for my other Eddie LaCrosse novels. Burn Me Deadly, for example, is about dragons, so I researched what people thought of them back when it was believed they really existed. Dragons were never simply animals, they were embodiments of beliefs and supernatural powers. If I wanted my dragons to carry that same weight of “believability,” I had to decide what they embodied in the world of my characters.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

My Eddie LaCrosse novels are always compared to Glenn Cook’s “Garrett, P.I.” novels and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. The influences I’m most conscious of are two Bobs: Robert E. Howard and Robert B. Parker.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

One of the consistencies of my Eddie LaCrosse series is that each book embraces a set of existing tropes; Dark Jenny, for example, is Arthurian at heart. In this one, I wanted to put Eddie into a Shakespearean story, so I looked for the best one to drop him into. I chose The Winter’s Tale because there’s a mystery at its heart.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s a fun and funny story. Eddie’s girlfriend Liz once again plays a major role, the first time since Burn Me Deadly. There’s action, suspense, magic and romance. There’s a mad king, a sorceress, and sheep. Lots of sheep.

Thanks to Violette for including me in this blog trail.  Now, here are my five awesome and talented writer friends who will be posting their answers next week.

Teresa Frohock, author of Miserere.

Kelly Barnhill, author of Iron Hearted Violet

Jen K. Blom, author of Possum Summer

Matt Forbeck, author of Amortals and Carpathia

Kelly McCullough (pending), author of Bared Blade and WebMage

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 Wicked Day: the weight of legend

Posted on by Alex in King Arthur, Mary Stewart, Wicked Day, writers, writing | 2 Comments

It’s no secret that my new Eddie LaCrosse novel Dark Jenny (which hits stores tomorrow, March 29) draws its inspiration from Arthurian sources. So on the eve of its release I’d like to write about the straight Arthurian novel that’s so good, I wish I’d written it: Mary Stewart’s The Wicked Day.

Stewart’s first three Arthurian novels (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment) were about Merlin, who I find the least interesting of the major characters. There’s something ineffably smug about him as he toys with destinies and then fails so spectacularly he takes Camelot down with him. In a sense he’s the Karl Rove or James Carville of the Arthurian world (or maybe Lee Atwater, if you want to stretch a point), and a novel with that approach might be fun. As it is, and despite Stewart’s skill, after three books I was ready to seal Merlin in a cave myself.

But Stewart switches gears entirely for The Wicked Day. This novel is about Mordred, Arthur’s bastard son by his half-sister Morgause. Unlike the first-person narration of the prior books, this one is in third person, so all the characters we’ve previously seen through Merlin’s eyes are now shown from a different perspective. Stewart makes Mordred a complex, driven but honest young man who both fights his destiny and embraces it. His relationship with his father is fascinating, since both know of Merlin’s prophecy that Mordred will bring down Arthur’s kingdom, and yet they forge a close friendship.

The first time I read the book, I admit I was disappointed in the ending. Not that it was a surprise: it’s the ending that the Arthurian legend must have, one way or another. But up until then Stewart had fleshed out the characters and situations so well that the inexplicable events actually came to make sense. And then comes the final battle at Camlann, where Arthur and Mordred meet, and die. Instead of giving us their final confrontation, held in a futile attempt to make peace, she retreats and falls back on:

None of those watching was ever destined to know what Arthur and Mordred spoke of.
(first edition, p. 302)

This sudden distance from the climactic moment is jarring, and when I first read it, it well and truly pissed me off. I felt cheated, all the more so because I loved the rest of the book. For years I called it “99.9 percent of a good book.”

But as time passed (and I made my own run at Arthurian-ish characters) I realized her choice made sense. No matter what she came up with for this climactic scene, it pales next to the weight of a thousand years of legend. By leaving this moment to the reader’s imagination, she gives the story the sense of inevitability and tragedy that a more literal depiction could never have done. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what they said, because the end of the story was written by Fate long before either Mordred or Arthur came along.

So I’ve come to fully love The Wicked Day, to the point that I’ll probably never attempt a straight Arthurian novel. And besides, Dark Jenny covers all the bases I wanted to touch. It’s my Camelot, skewed and tweaked to fit in the world of Eddie LaCrosse, sword jockey.

Lancelot du Lac: hiding meaning in plain sight

Posted on by Alex in King Arthur, Lancelot, Robert Bresson | 2 Comments


Recently I blogged about how John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur awakened my love for Arthurian stories. And while I continue to adore that film, I’ve also grown to love its polar opposite, an Arthurian film so minimal, as stark as Excalibur is voluptuous, that it’s hard to believe they basically tell the same tale: Robert Bresson’s 1974 film Lancelot du Lac. I grew to love it during the time I was researching and writing Dark Jenny, so you might find its influence in my latest Eddie LaCrosse novel.

Bresson, like Boorman, created a cinematic body of work notable for its extremes. He seldom used real actors, instead looking for faces that expressed the soul of his characters (he termed his performers “models”). Then he bled any sort of overt emotion from their performances, resulting in flat, declarative line readings. This may sound boring, but it’s actually the opposite: with so much space between the words’ meaning and their expression, the viewer is drawn in, supplying the emotions the film deliberately omits.

The film is in French, appropriate for a story of Lancelot, who was added to the Arthurian canon by French writers. It begins with a series of ridiculously over-the-top conflicts involving blood that spurts like it’s being shot from a hose (and yes, a possible inspiration for Monty Python’s “Black Knight”), followed by a stirring, martial main theme:


(The first three minutes of the film.)

This is kind of a bait-and-switch, though, because the film proper is almost inert by comparison. The Knights of the Round Table return to Camelot after failing to find the Holy Grail, and Lancelot attempts to break free of his love for Queen Guinevere. Guinevere insightfully tells him, “It was not the Grail. It was God you all wanted. God is no trophy to bear home.” But this is little consolation for the decimated, downhearted knights, and before long Lancelot and Guinevere are back in each other’s arms.

Everything in the film is low-key, and that’s a crucial part of its effectiveness. The knights wear their armor constantly, and the soundtrack is alive with its creaks and clangs. Horses whinny in terror, whether from new frights or memories of the Grail quest. The central action scene, a jousting tournament, is shot using shadows and oblique angles so that the individual knights fail to take on any individuality. Books could be written on what all this means symbolically (and certainly chapters in books have been, as well as many scholarly articles), but they add up to probably the bleakest Camelot ever put on film.


(Lancelot [Luc Simon] and Guinevere [Laura Duke Condominas])

And yet the relationships at the core of the story remain true to what we’ve come to accept as the legend. Arthur is still king, Gawain is still torn between loyalties, Mordred skulks in the shadows plotting treason. Merlin is long dead, and there’s no Morgan le Fay, but this isn’t a movie about that kind of magic anyway.

Instead, to me it’s a film about hiding: behind armor, behind vows, behind despair. Lancelot competes in a joust wearing a disguise. The failure of the Grail quest leads Arthur to hide behind prayer. Guinevere hides her love for Lancelot. And Bresson hides the story’s tragic heart beneath the flat performances and skewed frame of his brilliant film.

Thirty years of Excalibur

Posted on by Alex in Excalibur, King Arthur, movies | 4 Comments


Thirty years ago the Arthurian myth first grabbed hold of me when I saw Excalibur on its initial release. Prior to that, I’d encountered King Arthur only through the Disneyfied Sword in the Stone, or the bloodless Technicolor epic Knights of the Round Table. John Boorman’s 1981 film was different: limbs were hacked off, breasts were bared and there was a timeless sense of a blood-and-thunder past throbbing with life. Sure, it was stiff in places, and the acting was stylized to the point of ridiculousness, but it was still a movie in the pure sense, loaded with unforgettable images.

Thirty years on, I still love the film, and not just for sentimental reasons. There’s a sure hand at work, one that knows exactly what it wants to accomplish with every shot and sequence. Boorman, who’d once tried to wrangle Lord of the Rings onto the screen as a live-action epic, is a fearless filmmaker as notable for his daring successes (Deliverance) as his audacious failures (Exorcist II: The Heretic). He depicts Arthur not as a neat or elderly monarch, but with the long hair and scruffy beard of a biker. Guinevere is an earthy princess who knows herbal remedies as well as courtly dances. Lancelot, in gleaming silver armor, has the curls and square jaw of a laid-back surfer. Boorman uses green backlight to give even the metal armor a hint of the organic, most beautifully during the emergence of the sword from the lake. The actors don’t perform so much as embody their roles, as the film tends to show them only at moments of high emotion.

But the wild card is Nicol Williamson as Merlin. Whatever the behind-the-scenes process that arrived at this interpretation, Williamson is both the focal point and the most entertaining thing in the film. Using every possible range of his voice, clad in a silver skullcap and black ragged robes, he’s a buffoon one moment, a sage the next, and never less than enthralling. Whenever the film seems about to take itself too seriously, Williamson saves the day with a pratfall or a goofy line reading.

I can understand why contemporary viewers might find it overblown and silly. In an age of ironic detachment, when everything has a wink-wink element, the worst offense is to take something seriously, and to unapologetically present a unique vision.

Excalibur does exactly that. And if you let it cast its spell (which goes something like, “Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha”) I think you’ll find yourself watching it again in another thirty years, too.

Brother Blue (1921-2009)

Posted on by Alex in Brother Blue, George A. Romero, King Arthur, Knightriders, storytelling | 2 Comments

Brother Blue passed away earlier this month at age 88.

If you know of him at all, it’s probably from the George A. Romero film Knightriders.

In this Arthurian story of jousting motorcyclists, Brother Blue played Merlin, advisor to King William (Ed Harris). He was the troubled king’s lone confidante, and the one person who understood William’s desire to maintain a chivalric code against the world’s materialistic temptations. If this blog post does nothing else, I hope it encourages you to seek out Knightriders for yourself.

I met Brother Blue in 2001, as part of his main gig as a professional storyteller. The National Storytelling Festival, held every year in Jonesborough, Tennessee, attracts yarnspinners from all over the world and gives them a large, respectful forum for their talents. Brother Blue was not listed as an official participant, so when I saw his distinctive form–a bald African-American with butterflies painted on his face, in a blue robe and carrying a walking stick–I thought I was mistaken. But no, it was him, Brother Blue, Merlin from Knightriders.

Eventually I worked up the nerve to say hello. He was tremendously gracious, and when I told him how much I loved the film, he said I reminded him of Romero. I thought he meant that, like Romero, I was a big guy with a beard. But he told me differently, and while I don’t feel comfortable sharing exactly what he did say, the memory of it is a treasure.

But that wasn’t all. A week later, when I got ready to do the laundry from my trip, I found his card in a pocket. I know he didn’t give it to me; he must’ve slipped it there when I wasn’t looking. Or was it magic?

To me it was. And is. And although I never saw Brother Blue again, I still feel as if I met Merlin.

Of Kings and Nobel Laureates

Posted on by Alex in Guinevere, John Steinbeck, King Arthur, Lancelot | 3 Comments


King Arthur is the vampire of fantasy.

By that I mean that everyone has written about him, and he’s come full circle from vicious Dark Ages battle leader to tragic romance hero to YA fantasy fixture. To write about King Arthur is to stand in a line that starts in 1136 with Geoffrey of Monmouth and shows no signs of ending:

Still, most Arthurian revisionists don’t bring the chops that John Steinbeck did.

Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer, and the United States Medal of Freedom. He wrote The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, and East of Eden. So when he decided to delve into Arthuriana, it was significant.

Alas, he didn’t live to finish it. Begun in 1956, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights was based on the original Arthurian novel, Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. Steinbeck did massive amounts of research into Malory, intending to retell the stories without losing the flavor and atmosphere that had so affected him as a young reader. And he got it right…mostly. Its unfinished status means it’s hard to know if what we now have is truly the manuscript Steinbeck intended. He retells seven tales, beginning with the life of Merlin and ending with Lancelot and Guinevere’s first embrace. But in only the final two stories do the characters, events and moral themes really come to life.

In “Gawain, Ewain and Marhalt,” three questing knights meet three women who specialize in leading knights on quests. The adventures themselves are exciting and action-packed, but what’s really intriguing are the relationships between the men and women after they pair off. Each knight learns something about themselves without consciously realizing it, and each lady demonstrates the power women could wield even when denied swords and shields. The final line of Marhalt’s adventure, in fact, sums up the gender issues with bone-shuddering succinctness.

But it’s Ewain’s adventure that finishes the chapter, and rightly so. An untried knight, he finds that his questing lady, though older than the others, is also a brilliant tactician and trainer. She schools him in technique and discipline, and presciently warns him that the longbow, a weapon easily obtained and mastered by commoners, will spell the death of the knights and their feudal society. Then she accompanies him on his first battles.

The final chapter, “The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot,” brings the world’s best knight front and center. We learn what kind of man inspires such a fearsome reputation, and we see how his best intents derail him toward the tragedy we all know is coming. The story ends, in fact, with the first irrevocable step on that path, and it strikes the reader’s heart almost as vividly as it does Lancelot’s.

These two tales alone make the book worthwhile, and with the exception of Mary Stewart’s The Wicked Day, are the best contemporary Arthurian stories I’ve read. Oddly, in both Steinbeck and Stewart Arthur himself is a supporting character. But while Stewart chose to tell her story through Mordred (and in her earlier trilogy, the tiresome figure of Merlin), Steinbeck adopts Malory’s tactic of jumping wherever the action is.

I disagree with Steinbeck when he says, as quoted in a letter, “Arthur is not a character. Perhaps the large symbol figures can’t be characters, for if they were, we wouldn’t identify with them by substituting our own.” To me Arthur is the character, and all the others exist only to illuminate aspects of his personality. As Christopher Reeve once said (apropos of playing Superman as a fairly normal guy), “You can’t play the king; the people around you play to you being king.” Those people need the king as much as the king needs his people.

Who wrote (or played) your favorite King Arthur?