Fantasticland

FantasticLand by Mike Bockoven will naturally be compared to Lord Of The Flies, and there are some similarities. Bockoven’s novel, though, is more nuanced and complex, and, honestly, far more frightening.

To get my one gripe out of the way right off the bat, this story demanded a significant investment from me in terms of willing suspension of disbelief because of my background. I’ve done physical security and facilities maintenance most of my adult life, and I know too much about how such systems operate in the real world to buy some of the premises of the novel.

That having been said, I will go on to say that the author did a very good job of negotiating the terms of the novel in the first sections. He lays out the rules right off the bat. You have to be willing to accept that the characters were cut off from all civilization for an extended period without being able to either leave the area or contact the outside world.

Give him that, though, and he takes you on one hell of a ride.

The novel is presented as a series of interviews, and the conceit works very well. I listened to the audiobook version, which is what I linked to above, and the two voice actors, Luke Daniels and Angela Dawe, did an outstanding job of giving the characters unique voices–but that’s because the written voice of each character was very distinct.

The story is deceptively simple. FantasticLand is a theme park in Florida–not one based on an existing park. The very first interview is with the historian who wrote the definitive history of FantasticLand and its founder, Johnny Fresno. The park has it’s own feel, which Bockoven maintains consistently through the book.

A hurricane is predicted to hit the Florida coast in the general area of the amusement park and the park management decides to employ a skeleton crew to remain on site during the hurricane to protect the property. The hurricane ends up being far more damaging than anyone expected, and the park is cut off by flooding, leaving  the employees stranded with food and water, but without power or any way to contact the outside world.

What follows is a breakdown of society and a descent into savagery, but what elevates this story to something more than a simple survival tale is the way it is told. A series of eyewitness accounts, without independent corroboration, becomes a kind of jigsaw puzzle. Some of the pieces match up–yielding some fine ah-ha! moments when one interview explains a mystery laid out in an earlier one–but large sections are missing. Sometimes events are described in different ways by different witnesses, without having any clear way of telling which version of events–if any–is the accurate one.

In addition, the witnesses are very real characters–not caricatures or stereotypes. Bockoven has the rare gift of writing from very different perspectives, without judging and without setting up straw men. With one very notable exception, the survivors of the events in the park are not separated into good guys and bad guys–no one is entirely innocent, and all of them present a case for their actions being justified.

All in all, a very thought-provoking novel that asks some very hard questions and refuses to give any easy answers. Highly recommended.

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Life Is Just A Party And Parties Aren’t Meant To Last

When I was putting together the stories that comprise Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts I wanted to include some kind of supplemental material from the world of Dracoheim. It seemed to fit the feel of the work, like the map at the beginning of the book. A kind of echo to Dragnet‘s “The story you are about to see is true…” opening.

I settled on an epilogue, a bit of a rundown on Erik Rugar as told by the Lord Mayor. As I was writing it I realized that it was important for the story that I close out Erik’s life–the epilogue is a eulogy, the mayor’s farewell to a loyal officer.

“Erik served me faithfully and well. He deserves to tell his story in his own words.”

This may seem like a spoiler, but it shouldn’t be. The entire theme of the story is that Erik is just a man, a fragile, fallible, mortal man. That’s my teaser pitch, that it’s hard to fight wizards and demons when all you have is a gun and a badge.

The whole issue jelled for me today when I received a message from a reviewer complaining (in a complementary way) that I had written into the book my intention not to write a sequel. Erik’s story, going against the modern trend, has an ending. 

That’s deliberate and intentional and I think the book is stronger for it.

I have talked before in this blog about my distaste for series fiction, and I think this is a big part of why.  Integral to the human condition is the quality of ephemerality. We are mortal, we experience time and change over time and we will, some day, die.

A character who is eternal is, in a very real sense, less than human.

And yes, I understand that a series of novels can easily take place over the course of a human lifespan. The actual time involved is not the issue. The narrative lifespan is the issue.

And now that I think about, I think this issue is connected, in a way I can’t quite put my finger on, to my other big pet peeve, the Personal Growth Character Arc. Maybe that’s a way to try to overcome the lack of mortality? A way to make a character relatable, to show that the protagonist is not entirely immune to ravages of time?

All human stories have an end, and the end is always the same.

The sun will rise tomorrow and you will not be here to see it. Your home will be empty, your steed will stand unmounted and your weapons will gather rust in the corner. Those who are left behind will take your mortal clay and put it into the ground, with mourning or thanksgiving, and it will not matter to you because you will not be here.

We, the readers, need not see that part of the story. But it must be assumed. There has to be a point at which the author says, either overtly or covertly, “This is the end, there is no more story to tell.” Without that the story is unfinished, it just stops when the author reaches a certain word count.

And and I think with the trend in the last few decades of series that go on forever–or at least as long as they keep selling–authors need to be fairly overt.

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In The Year 2020

Okay, so writing 2020  as the date is probably going to freak me out all year.

But let’s leave that aside and talk about my intentions for the new year.

Last year I set my goal too ambitiously and I ended up burning myself out trying to reach it. I still managed to produce a respectable body of work for the year. Both in terms of quantity and quality, I think it was my best year as a writer so far.

This year I am going to halve last year’s goal–I am aiming for two stories a month, semiweekly instead of weekly. I made that for December, so I’m on track.

I also want to publish three short fiction collections in 2020. I have two already in the works, one Hard Science Fiction, and one Dark Fantasy, with two different presses. They each contain a mix of previously published and new material. I have several stories that would fit the general category of Horror, if I build on that I should have my third. Once I have it fleshed out a bit more I’ll shop it to another small press.

Moving past myself and into the Indie Genre Press Community as a whole, I see some very exciting things happening. Individual projects have come and gone, some doing well, some not so good, but the upshot of all this experimentation is that a shared knowledge base is growing. At the start of the decade we were all more or less flailing around, with predictable results.

Now, though, we have a growing body of experienced editors and publishers who are pooling their know-how. We are learning, often at the cost of not just money lost, but blood, sweat, toil and tears.

No matter what happens with my career as an author, or the fortunes of the editors it has been my privilege to work with, the landscape has changed. It’s a new game, with new rules. The get-rich-quick jokers are moving on to new scams, what remains are those of us who are in it for the long haul.

The future is going to belong to the folks who are willing and able to do the hard work of building it, and God willing, I intend to be one of them.

Fortune Favors The Bold!

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One Hundred Five Thousand Seven Hundred

Yesterday I posted a list of my 2019 publications.

Compiling that list was an interesting experience. For one thing, it was more than I had thought I had done–I tend not to spend much time thinking about what I’ve done, I focus on what I’m doing next. (Part of why I’m so bad at promotion, I’m sure.)

But this is the time of year for looking back and I want to take a moment to discuss each of my stories and see if maybe I can find some  pattern to my year’s production.

“The Summer Of Love”  Time Travel/Alternate History SF. Told from the point of view of a man in the world brought into existence when a US soldier from 1968 goes back in time to kill Adolf Hitler before he can grow up. I took the idea that without Hitler Germany remained allied with the Soviet Union, and as a result the League Of Nations became a Communist World Government. It is not a happy story.

“The Blacklight Ballet” Thriller/Horror. A building engineer sent to survey an abandoned shopping mall finds a cult of cannibal clowns squatting in it, and must fight them to escape and rescue their captive. Nothing explicitly supernatural is going on in this story, although I do kind of hint that the leader might be something other than human.

“These Were The Things That Bounded Me” Survival SF. A young man in a wheelchair has to find ways to survive after a plague wipes out the population of his small town, joined by a young woman blinded by the disease.

“Mystery Train” Historical Fantasy/Horror. A railroad employee set to guard a body being transported cross country is confronted by a supernatural creature intent on claiming the dead man’s soul. I wrote this from a Catholic perspective and I think it works–I asked a number of practicing Catholics to read it over to vet the theology.

“The Bullet From Tomorrow” Time Travel SF. A detective in 1965 Los Angeles is visited by a man from the future who enlists his aid to prevent a nuclear accident during the Watts Riots. I really like this story, I had a lot of fun with the chemistry between the characters. If I were to suggest any of my published works be nominated for a Hugo Award, it would be this one.

“My Foe Outstretched” SF Action. Sometime in the future two men enter a modified subway tunnel to duel to the death. The story is constructed around a Tales From The Crypt style poetic justice ending.

“Replevin” Memoir. A mostly true story from when I worked as a repo man. Very short and rather atypical for me.

“Whatever Lola Wants”. Crime Fiction. A first person thriller about a man who is blackmailed by a figure from his past, and how he deals with the situation. I was going for a particular Pulp Crime style with this one, and I guess I nailed it because Switchblade Magazine bought it.

Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts. Fantasy Noir. The project that ended up dominating last year, writing the stories and then working with Lagrange Books to edit it together into a collection. More than an anthology but not quite a novel, the stories fit together–I think neatly–to paint a picture of the protagonist Erik Rugar.

“The Lord Of Slow Candles” Weird Modern Fantasy. Taken from my days working the night shift at a convenience store, I tried a Tim Powers style Magical Realism piece, taking the odd behavior of a bag lady and inventing a rationale for it. I had fun with it and I think Grace’s story is bittersweet and strangely moving.

Looking over this list I see a common thread of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. This pleases me. I suppose if I have a message in my fiction, it would be that we never really know what we are capable of until we are tested, and you can’t find out what you’re made of without losing a little skin.

It’s our choices that make us who we are, and, I suppose, it’s the hard choices and the dark places we stumble into that reveal who we are.

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2019 in Review

This past year I published the following stories:

UPDATED: I forgot one. 

In Duel Visions (February 14th): “The Summer Of Love” 6,400 word short story and “The Blacklight Ballet” 7,600 word novelette (the other three stories, “Black Dog”, “The Silk Of Yesterday’s Gown” and “We Pass From View” were originally published prior to 2019)

In Challenge Accepted (Mar 29th): “These Were The Things That Bounded Me” 8,000 word novelette

In Wild Frontiers (May 31st): “Mystery Train” 6,300 word short story

In Cirsova: Summer Special (Jun 3rd): “The Bullet From Tomorrow” 12,000 word novelette

In StoryHack, #4 (August 13th): “My Foe Outstretched” 3,800 word short story

In Bloody Red Nose (Sep 13th): “Replevin” 1,000 word short story

In Switchblade #11 (October 3rd): “Whatever Lola Wants” 3,200 word short story

In Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts (October 16th)“Worth The Candle” 11,000 word novelette, “In The City Of Dreadful Joy” 4,700 word short story, “All The Kisses In The World” 10,000 word novelette, “Cards For Sorrow” 7,000 word short story, “A Pause In The Day’s Occupations” 11,000 word novelette, and “To Wound The Autumnal City” 10,000 word novelette (“Grand Theft Nightmare” was originally published prior to 2019)

In Sins Of The Fae (November 22nd): “The Lord Of Slow Candles” 3700 word short story

For a grand total of 105,700 words of original short fiction, 15 pieces all together, 8 short stories and 7 novelettes (using 7,500 words as the dividing line.)

It turns out I was more productive last year than I realized.

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From All Of Us To All Of You A Very Merry Christmas

Duel Visions is on sale from now until New Years day.

2019 saw the publication of two projects that I am very proud of.

I pitched Duel Visions to Cirsova at the end of 2018. It was an experiment.  Two authors, both working in Weird Fiction but stylistically very different, with five stories from each of us.

A lot of people have remarked that stories seem to be variations on the same theme, but that wasn’t intentional–there are just certain themes that lend themselves naturally to a blend of Fantasy and Horror.

So we each have a story about transformation: “The Silk Of Yesterday’s Gown” and “Sinker, Sailor”. We each have a story in which Death is personified as an animal: “Black Dog” and “Selena”. We each have a story about urban predators stalking their prey, “The Blacklight Ballet” and “Ragged Angels”.

But here it breaks down. One could maybe stretch the definition and classify  “The Green Truck” as an alternate history (something sure the heck “alternate” is going on there, anyway) and pair it with “The Summer Of Love”, but “The Statue” and “We Pass From View” don’t have much in common except that they are both set in the past.

Or maybe “The Green Truck” should be paired with “We Pass From View”, since both are an existential–even epistemological–horror. Which puts “The Summer Of Love” with “The Statue”. And that could work, too, since we don’t know exactly where and when “The Statue” is set.

But, as I say, that wasn’t intentional. I like Louise’s work and I wanted to do a project with her, showcasing New Wave or Weird Tales or Slipstream or whatever that blended genre is.

From a literary standpoint I think it’s a success.  I like all of the individual stories and I think the aggregate effect is powerful. There is a dreamlike quality to the collection that lends a delicious feeling of unreality. It’s a glimpse into a world that’s just like ours, but stranger.

From a commercial standpoint… eh, not so much. It’s a hard book to sum up in an elevator pitch. The reviews have been very positive (we could always use more) and I think most people who have picked it up have been pleased with it.

There just aren’t that many people picking it up.

So here’s the deal. The Kindle edition is on sale for 99 cents through New Years Day, and I’d really appreciate it if you all would share the word–and maybe pick it up yourself, if you haven’t already.

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Cirsova 2020 Lineup

Cirsova

2020 is going to be huge

Spring

  • Return of the Dark Brotherhood, by Adrian Cole
  • Alpdruck!, by Michael Reyes
  • The Golden Pearl, by Jim Breyfogle
  • Lest Darkness Wreck the Stars, by Robert Zoltan
  • Pour Down Like Silver, by Cynthia Ward
  • Praying to Thasaidon, by Tais Teng
  • Adeste, Fideles, by Scott Huggins
  • Slave Girls for Sacrifice, by D.M. Ritzlin
  • My Name is John Carter Part 8, by James Hutchings
  • Outside the Outside? A review of The Tingleverse and Feast of Legends, by J. Comer

Summer Special

  • Just Don’t Open the Door, by Mark Pellegrini
  • The Greenery Has Come Again, by Paul Lucas
  • The Sarcomancer, by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt
  • The Last Day in Iram, by James Hutchings
  • The Joker Files, by Schuyler Hernstrom
  • The Fourth Gift, by David Skinner
  • Shakespeare Among the Stars, by Jill Hand
  • Sail Safe, by Vonnie Winslow Crist
  • How I Spent My Summer Vacation, by Tony Beaulieu
  • Shallow…

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