The Dead Men’s Shoes Society

(Extra special bonus bragging rights points for anyone who can identify the source of the title of this post–yes, it is a name that I used in The Book Of Lost Doors, but where did I steal it from originally?)

Lately several things I’ve run across on the Interwebz have come together to give me an insight that is less of a logical if-then-thus-and-so sequence and more of a feeling. So I will begin by apologizing for a lack of rigorous historicity in my examples. I know that there are multiple readers of my blog who have a far more comprehensive grasp of literary history than I do. I beg you to have mercy on me and look beyond my ignorance to my intent.

All right, disclaimers one(1) and two(2) out of the way, let’s skip the foreplay and dive straight into the greasy epistemological meat of the thing. Originality is hard.

No, let’s get a bit more messianic. Originality is unnatural. That is to say that it is not the wonted haunts of man. It is not something that we, as a species, do except in extremis.

Creativity and the artistic impulse are as natural and necessary as breathing, but that isn’t the same thing. One can live a vibrant and fulfilling life as a creative artist without ever having an original thought. Nor, I hasten to add, is this the snooty contempt of a True Visionary Artist Of Whom The World Is Not Worthy. I depend on the commonplace creativity of graphic artists and musicians and chefs and architects and groundskeepers all around me.

Originality, though, is something else. It is the last resort of a soul backed into a corner. We are heirs to millennia of storytellers and flutists and potters who have refined their art over generations. It requires painful levels of hubris to discount that hard-won and grave-deep wisdom. Man, as Chesterton observed, plants his roses in the graveyard.

And yet the drunkard’s walk of progress lurches ever onward at the goading of such lunatics who are driven to stopper their ears against the voice of tradition and prick up to the siren song of the pie-eyed singers beyond the vale.

The just and nigh-Dantean punishment of the iconoclast, however, is that they either die a villain’s death or live long enough to see themselves become the hero.

Allow me to elucidate.

Early in the last century a young man in New England found himself backed into the corner formed by the intersection of the Uncanny and the Understood. Science, it seemed to him, was in the process of whitewashing away the shadows in which the Fair Folk dwelt. As a great lover of the fairy tales of Lord Dunsany he found this situation intolerable. Where was there room for the moon-drenched moors in a world where the moon was just a satellite and the moors simply a microcosm?

And so he delved into the scientific literature of his time in search of wonder. And he arose, dripping with slime, with his hands full of alternate dimensions and other worlds. He invented a new mythology of gods with their feet planted in the preCambrian and their eyeless visages raised to the cold, uncaring stars.

Those who came after him, though, were simply creative and not original. What the commonplace artists took from his work was the tentacles and unpronounceable names and overwrought and polysyllabic prose. That was what became known as “Lovecraftian” while the target he was aiming at–science as the tool of Horror, not its cure–was lost.

Another example. A veteran of the Great War, a poet who had a great love for the romantics prior to his enlistment, found himself back into the corner formed by the elegant drawing room murder mysteries of his day and his own experience with the fragrant corpses left dangling in barbed wire following an artillery barrage. He set out to tell stories that would deal honestly with murder–what he called “an act of infinite cruelty”.

And so was born a detective who made the most modern of cities his home but never forgot the blood-stained stone of Cain and the burden of Nimrod, a man for whom the words of Donne were not an aphorism but a toll paid in his own flesh, who was diminished by the death of any man, even the junkies and reprobates and scofflaws.

From his originality, though, came the mere creativity of “Hard Boiled Detective Fiction” and a genre that embraced the superficiality of pacing and jargon, but turned away from his morality.

Chandler wrote, “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.” None of his imitators ever came up with a sentence so chilling, because none of them shared his gut-wrenching horror of bloodshed.

Now let’s flash forward a generation and change to a filmmaker who grew up watching his beloved monsters become laughingstocks, playing second banana to the likes of Abbott and Costello. No one was making scary movies anymore. The cobweb festooned old Victorian manse of Vault Of Horror and Lights Out had taken up residence at Disneyland. To reach his audience he had to take a running leap over the proscenium arch and bring the monster home to where they lived, the modern and bright suburban streets.

What he made was wholly original, a new monster who stalked a town just like yours and blended in, no greasepaint or prosthetics, just a simple mask that wouldn’t raise suspicion. Not on Halloween.

Once again, those who came after missed the deep horror, the central conceit that the boogeyman wasn’t restricted to abandoned mansions on dark and stormy nights. “Slasher Films” rapidly became as formulaic and in many instances as absurd as the American International parodies that inspired Carpenter to break the old mold.

A few years later a young man who loved Science Fiction found himself in a similar corner, and found himself making a similar leap. What he wanted was to bring Science Fiction home to main street, to explore how the changes in technology would impact the lives of ordinary people. What “Cyberpunk” turned into was a stylistic movement, the old Campbellian stereotypes given a new coat of paint and the same old stories trotted out with mood lighting and pop culture references.

The pattern in nigh-inescapable. Howard and Burroughs the Elder set out to celebrate the everyday heroism of a good man in a bad time, what the imitators took from them was bare chests and monsters.

What becomes a Genre is today’s writers walking around in the shoes of dead men, trying to imitate the footprints left by giants without looking up from the ground to see where the path is leading and what drove their forebears to tread there. Bruce Sterling had one of the characters in his disturbingly ground-breaking The Artificial Kid describe it thus, “You point at the sun and they spend years discussing your index finger.”

What are you taking from the great inspiring works of the past (however you define them)? Is it the distant horizon, the new vistas opened up by trailblazers?  Are you exploring new worlds outside of the beaten paths?

Or are you just trying to imitate their footprints?

 

 

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Wild Frontiers: Mystery Train

An excerpt from my story in the Wild Frontiers anthology

Davetopia

We continue our ride through Wild Frontiers with an extract from Misha Burnett’s ‘Mystery Train’, the tale of a man who discovers sometimes you don’t have to be good, you just have to be good enough.

The cover of the Wild Frontiers anthology, showing a woman in a sheriff's hat riding a horse through a cloud of dust“Did you see much action during the war, Mr. Moriarty?” Isaiah Cotton, the Salt Lake City stationmaster asked.

Sean Moriarty frowned. “If you’re referring to the War Between the States, sir, I was thirteen years old in ’65.”

The old man raised bushy white eyebrows. “Thirteen in ’65… that would make you thirty-one today?”

“Yes, sir,” Moriarty agreed.

“You look older than that,” Mr. Cotton said. “Where are you from?”

“Illinois, sir. Town of Wood River.”

“A Yankee, then.”

“I prefer to think of myself as an American.”

“So how does a man from the great state of Illinois end up as a federal marshal?”

Moriarty shrugged. “I needed a job. I went out…

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May

This is my writing calendar as of today.

Not much new content since last month. I spent a lot of time doing business/publishing things rather than writing, but that’s okay. Also the stories that I have written have been on the long side.

Current Stats:

* indicates stories written this year

Stories Published: 

Stories accepted: 

  • “My Foe Outstretched” (3,800 words, Science Fiction)
  • “Fragile” (4,600 words, Science Fiction)
  • “She That Was So Proud And Wild” (4,700 words, Dracoheim Universe Fantasy)
  • “The Hopeful Bodies Of The Young” (4,200 words, Dracoheim Universe Fantasy)*
  • “Replevin” (1,000 words, Memoir)
  • “What Lola Wants” (3,200 words, Crime Noir) *
  • “The Darkest Hour Of The Night” (3,500 words, Weird Horror)
  • “The Irregular” (3,700 words, SF Military)  *

Stories Out On Submissions: 

  • “The Lord Of Slow Candles” (3,700 words, Modern Fantasy)*

Stories Complete and Available:

  • “Conessa’s Sword” (4,500 words, pre-Industrial Fantasy)
  • “Watchman, Mark The Tide” (3,700 words, Weird Tale)*

Incomplete Stories: 

  • “The House Of Spectral Discipline” (10,000 words, Horror/Erotica)
  • “The Mad Fishmonger” (4,400 words, Kaiju Romance)
  • “A Dreadful Feast” (6,600 words, Zombie)*
  • “A Murder In Plague Town” (2,000 words, Medical SF)*
  • “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go” (2,200 words, Time/Alternate Universe Travel SF)*
  • “This Green And Pleasant Sky” (3,100 words, SF for an upcoming project)*
  • “To Wound The Autumnal City” (Outlined, Dracoheim Universe Fantasy)*

You’ll notice that a number of stories have dropped out of sight entirely, that’s because I have two projects currently in the early negotiation stage. Many the slip ‘twix cup and lip, of course, but I feel confident about both of them. Fans of my short fiction may have two different collections in late ’19 to early ’20. But until things are a bit more firmed up I don’t want to list them.

About 95,000 words written so far this year, which works out to about 19,000 a month or 4,750 a week–I’ll count that as being within a close approximation of my goal.

Some personal stuff that has gotten in the way of the work, it happens. But for me the important thing is to keep getting up and putting the words down and not worry about the coulda shoulda woulda.

Fortune Favors The Bold! 

 

 

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Saddle Up for the Wild Frontiers

A Western anthology that I am in.

Davetopia

Wild Frontiers: Nine Stories of the West is now available in ebook and paperback. Pick up a copy from your favourite retailer here.

The cover of the Wild Frontiers anthology, showing a woman in a sheriff's hat riding a horse through a cloud of dust ©Dave Higgins (Based on an illustration ©Brian Konutko)

The Frontier: the line between civilisation and the unknown where pioneers rely on a strong will and a dead eye not big city laws.

A land where the sweat you shed makes a place yours, whatever lines the government draws on a map; where everyone knows putting on a badge doesn’t make a sheriff better than everyone else; where the divide between legend and reality isn’t always where it seems.

From ageing settlers who miss the days when the town only had one street to decent folk who become gunslingers, from lawmen who find the solidity of the railroad is no protection from the devil to practical men who discover some monsters are more than heathen superstition, these…

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Session 19 of “Liberation of the Demon Slayer”

In my defense, I thought the computer was bluffing.

The Mixed GM

Here is the full party:

James Blaylock = Elven Ranger PC
Exardell = Mystic PC
Duffles the Unfortunate = Mage PC
Joan the Ogre Slayer = Fighter NPC
Sherry = NPC Cleric
Glevina = NPC Elven Ranger
Broon the Smart Hobgoblin = Hobgoblin NPC who carries a torch / manages finances
Cassandra = Former Slave / Elven Spellsword / NPC
Zana = Former Slave / Bard / NPC
Samantha = Former Slave / Fighter / NPC
Rodolpho = Former Slave / Mage / NPC

Hans = Fighter PC (player is unable to join for a while, so he is sitting at the tavern and visiting the horribly wounded former adventurers)

Session Report

The party picked up the middle of combat with the minor demon lord Kordath and it wasn’t going so well. Exardell, the wielder of the anti-demon sword Kalthalax, was the target of most of the demon’s ire and…

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Session 18 of “Liberation of the Demon Slayer”

I’ll admit, I expected betraying the NPC adventurers, since one was already down, but the bit with the other demon prince took me by surprise.

The Mixed GM

Here is the full party:

James Blaylock = Elven Ranger PC
Exardell = Mystic PC
Duffles the Unfortunate = Mage PC
Joan the Ogre Slayer = Fighter NPC
Sherry = NPC Cleric
Glevina = NPC Elven Ranger
Broon the Smart Hobgoblin = Hobgoblin NPC who carries a torch / manages finances
Cassandra = Former Slave / Elven Spellsword / NPC
Zana = Former Slave / Bard / NPC
Samantha = Former Slave / Fighter / NPC
Rodolpho = Former Slave / Mage / NPC

Hans = Fighter PC (player is unable to join for a while, so he is sitting at the tavern and visiting the horribly wounded former adventurers)

Session Report

We skipped Mother’s Day, so this was the first session in two weeks. The party was back and READY FOR BLOOD!!!

rip_and_tear We play over Roll20 and don’t use webcams, so I am forced to assume that this is…

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A Wheel On Each Corner

I spent yesterday afternoon doing the brakes on my 2014 Ford Fiesta, which turned out to be such a simple job that I’m kind of ashamed that I put it off for so long. The front brakes on this car are the easiest pads I have ever replaced–I love working on machinery that is well designed.

But that got me to thinking about how things have to work together to make a complex mechanism operate, and since I tend to view the world through mechanical metaphors, I’m applying this thought to my ongoing musings about the state of indy genre publishing both in general and specifically how it relates to my own career trajectory.

In order for a movement to be successful it needs four things–artists, publishers, critics, and fans. All four are vital, and while there will be a certain degree of overlap between the groups, I think that it’s important to see the groups as distinct, with different roles to play in the promotion of a quality product.

The four groups need to be in the proper relationship to each other–a wheel, as it were, on each corner.

Artists create. They make the product–fiction, graphic arts, music, whatever–that the movement is all about. Many artists are also publishers, but they should keep the roles separate, because they have somewhat different focuses. Some artists also have the skill and temperament to be critics, but in my experience it requires a rare combination of talents to do both well. Lastly, artists are usually also fans–but with the caveat that a fan, in the sense I am using it here, is more than just a casual consumer of media.

Publishers curate. This is more than just publishing, it is choosing what to publish, and how to package it, how to promote it, what audience will best appreciate it. They need to be able to look past their own personal tastes to see the market as a whole, to anticipate what will satisfy the current fans and what will bring new fans into the market.  This requires perspective, the ability to see past the merits of the individual work and see it in context, which is why it is difficult for many artists to take on the role of publisher.

Critics evaluate. This requires being passionate enough to care deeply about the work while being dispassionate enough to judge it objectively. Critics must be independent to be credible–which is not to say that they cannot have working relationships with artists and publishers, just that their first loyalty must be to the readers. All readers, not just the subset that I am calling fans below.

Fans support. Financial support in terms of buying the product, but also emotional and social support. Fans are the best promoters because they will be honest–they spread the word, both good and bad, because they care about the work. Their investment is time and passion and should always be free to say whatever is on their minds. In the end, they are the force that drives the movement, and are beholden to no one.

I am a writer, and a pretty good one. That is my focus and that is where my talents lie. But I also accept that my particular mindset makes me a lousy publisher, a bad critic, and at best a mediocre fan.

I can’t do it alone. I can’t look past my own work to see the movement as a whole. My own vision is too tight, my artistic sensibilities too specialized.

I need publishers who will judge my work in terms of marketability, who know how to get the right story to the right audience.

I need critics who will judge my work in terms of quality, who aren’t afraid to tell me when I’ve lost the plot, and who care more about what readers think of them than what I think of them.

Most of all I need fans who will judge my work in terms of enjoyment. Are they getting good value for their money, is my name one that they can trust to deliver a quality product, and will they speak up if I start slipping?

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