Archive for April, 2012

…And oh, yeah…

Sorry I completely forgot to mention it… The grand epic Wulf the Freelance trilogy Dark Vengeance is available for purchase on Smashwords at http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/AnthonyPryor. Check it out and enjoy, but be advised that, like all the Wulf stories, it’s so freaking 18-and-over-only it’s not even funny.

The Trouble with Vamps

I’m taking another one of those leisurely weekends, not doing much and enjoying not being sick for the first time in a month or so. Even though I effed up my checking account (I thought I was paid FRIDAY, and I am actually being paid MONDAY), I treated myself to breakfast via credit card and plowed through George R.R. Martin’s great vampire novel, Fevre Dream

On the surface, Fevre Dream seems to stomp around in territory already covered by Anne Rice and a host of others — angst-ridden vampires on a quest for redemption in the Antebellum south, the lush decadence of New Orleans, the casual violence of the 19th century, the usual arrogant vampire blather about their vast superiority to humanity, bloodletting, and lots of baroque sexiness. If one were to dismiss Fevre Dream on that basis, you’d be missing a great deal and possibly one of the best vampire novels ever written.

I’m not really reviewing Fevre Dream here, but I’m using it as an example, and as something of a cautionary tale for myself. You see, I used to really like vampires. I used to really be into the books, the movies, the stories, the imagery and (of course) the sexuality. Needless to say I was never the type who became so enamored that I started buying clothes at Hot Topic or hanging out in graveyards and drinking Clamato, but I wrote some stories and thought they were cool. I enjoyed the Anne Rice stuff when it first came out (yeah, I’m that old). I remember sitting for my mom’s oil painting class and having her students paint me while I sat in a chair reading Dracula. I even got paid a sitting fee for it.

Unfortunately — and I know I’m far from the first person to say this — something bad happened to vampires. They got popular. Of course they’ve always been popular, but I think Anne Rice unintentionally started a stampede of black lipstick-wearing high schoolers and neo-romantics that resulted in the completely emascualted, defanged and un-scary vampires that we have to put up with today. From an icon of evil, amorality, damnation and soulless self-indulgence, vamps have become the perfect prom date.

Okay, oceans of ink and electrons have been wasted complaining about Twilight and how horrific it is, especially for those hard-core vampire fetishists, so I won’t waste any more energy griping when — hopefully — the last movie will come out soon (a day after my birthday, unfortunately), be a huge monster hit dwarfing more worthy flicks like the lamented (and damnably misnamed) John Carter, and be swiftly consigned to the dustbin of vampire history (hey, I can dream can’t I?). If I trash Twilight I’m pretty much preaching to the choir, so what’s the point?

I mention it primarily as a marked contrast to what I’ve been reading in Fevre Dream. George R.R. Martin is one of the best American fantasists ever (and even if one disagrees with that, there’s no doubt he’s easily the most successful), and his writing shines in Fevre Dream. His characters are well drawn and compelling and even if he’s treading on very familiar ground (or possibly swimming in familiar waters, since this book’s about steamboats as well), this book grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. Not that the evil vamps act in any way that’s unexpected — there’s the usual vain, arrogant and overconfident master vampire who bloviates about his human “cattle,” and casually commits acts of unspeakable sadism. There’s the good guy vampire-turned-vampire-hunter and his tough but fair steamboat-captain partner. There’s the expected lush beauty and decadence contrasted with the filth and misery of the period, and so on. Like I said, it’s familiar territory, but it’s written so well I don’t care.

And there’s the rub. I know that exploring new ways of looking at old tropes is a great thing for a writer, and portraying a vampire as (for example) a friend and protector despite his evil nature is a very compelling notion. Hell, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a big Buffy fan, and the way that show explored the clichés was pretty cool. For some reason, I was always rooting for Angel and Spike to find their humanity and save the day, while every time I think about Twilight I want Blade to show up and start chopping off heads (and goddamit, the first Blade movie was freakin’ awesome despite the fact that it was just as clichéd and also borrowed heavily from my old employers’ roleplaying games).

Fevre Dream and the others work so well because even though they all feature relatively “good” vampires, they also spotlight the cruelty and inhumanity of the evil ones. Even though Fevre Dream’s Damon Julian (how can you have a name like that and not be an evil vampire?) acts exactly as I expect an evil master vampire to act, he does so with a relish and character that I can believe. And this is the important part — I really do hate the guy. He’s utterly cruel, selfish, despicable, and god damn do I want to see him with a stake through his heart. In some ways, fantasy fiction fulfills a certain animalistic bloodlust, giving the reader the satisfaction of defeating a particularly cruel and wicked villain without actually risking life and limb or, worse yet, getting put in jail for the rest of one’s natural life. The shackles of ordinary existence and the need to live in a lawful society are released when you read a book like this.

I don’t get the same thrill out of reading Anne Rice. I certainly don’t out of the likes of Twilight, whether or not it features “evil” vampires who are just as dull as its whiney, self-involved protagonists. I’m still in the mindset that if someone transgresses against the life or freedom of others, that person should somehow be punished. To see Rice’s vampires revel in their amorality does nothing for me. And it’s actually worse if they carp and whine about it. Personally I’m of the opinion that Lestat was originally intended to end up as portrayed at the end of Interview, a soulless living corpse suffering through an endless existence in the shell of his old glories. Unfortunately, the character proved so popular that he had to be rehabilitated and his backstory retconned so that he wasn’t REALLY as cruel and sadistic as he seemed to the first book’s narrator.

Apparently all early covers for Fevre Dream portrayed the titular riverboat as a sternwheeler, when she's clearly described as being a sidewheeler. I can understand how Mr. Martin might have gotten a bit frustrated.

(And there’s really nothing wrong with that — the whole concept of an unreliable narrator is awesome, and there are few narrators more unreliable than sad, masochistic, self-loathing vampires. On the other hand, Lestat’s “rehabilitation” into the real hero of the series never worked for me, and I pretty much gave up reading Anne Rice after Queen of the Damned. Mind you, the movie is freaking hilarious, particularly the scene where Lestat climbs up the wall then drops from the ceiling onto the two groupies. Handsome Stuart Townsend is a very good actor, but he appears to have had a string of bad luck in some of his roles, from the aforementioned Queen of the Damned to the unfortunate League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the promising but cancelled Night Stalker revival — see below — and getting canned by Peter Jackson after being signed on to play Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings because he looked too young. I like the guy and hope he gets a genuine hit eventually.)

Anyway, my goal in writing this post (in addition to letting everyone know I’m still alive) was to eventually get to the point where I explain why I don’t want to write about vampires anymore. I’m currently trying to sell my urban fantasy series The Shepherd (two books done, one in the planning stage, more possible if anyone shows interest, given how crowded the genre is these days), and I made a conscious decision not to blunder into Harry Dresden or Anita Blake’s back yards by avoiding the more traditional monsters like vampires, werewolves and fae creatures. I’m going more in a Lovecraft/Barker direction and focusing on extradimensional/cosmic horror rather than the more familiar kind.

Mind you, I wrote the first version of The Shepherd back in about ’95. Then it was called Descending Angel and it had vampires all over the place. It was also a few years before the big urban fantasy movement, and in many ways anticipated it. No, I’m not claiming that I “invented” the genre or anything so stupid, but I am kicking myself for not following up on it and getting in when the whole movement started to pick up steam. Descending Angel really wasn’t that great — it was overlong, it was episodic and it meandered. I sent it out to Tor in about ’96 and justifiably never heard anything back.

The story originally opened with a prolog (actually it had two prologs, the second of which I rewrote into the current novel) in which the main characters kick ass on a party full of arrogant White Wolf type vampires who sneer at their human cattle and do the usual snooty crap. I took great pleasure in writing about the hero cutting them apart with a sword, burning them with a high-powered UV flashlight (yes, I thought of this years before seeing Blade) and setting them on fire with white phosphorous grenades (really the best way of disposing of vamps, I think). It was fun, but unfortunately it doesn’t really fit with my conception of the series anymore, so it’s gone.

(Oh yeah, it also had a good deal of kinky sex. I think I can share that I sent it out as a short story to a Goth fiction magazine, only to have it rejected with a hand-scrawled note from the editor calling it “A sexist denial of women’s desires.” Jesus Christ. You’d think I’d just knocked over Lestat’s wineglass or something…)

Angel’s ancestry can be traced back to a couple of sources — the aforementioned Anne Rice, White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade and (wonder of wonders)Kolchak: the Night Stalker, the lamentably short-lived TV series starring Darrin McGavin as a rumpled journalist specializing in the weird and unexplained. It kind of degenerate into “monster of the week” with Kolchak facing zombies, vampires, werewolves, undead bikers, sewer monsters, evil Aztec priests, mummies and the like. Though its history was tortuous and Mr. McGavin ended up terribly unhappy with the result, the series was strangely compelling, and has a huge cult following even today. I wrote about a journalist who encounters incomprehensible horrors and is eventually recruited to be a Shepherd — guardian of the doorways that lead to other realities.

Yeah, I had vamps. I had evil ones and good ones. I had an old vamp who had been a cardinal under Rodrigo Borgia, and had actually killed him. The old vamp lamented his evil ways and sought to make amends and eventually, after centuries, took Communion and in the process his humanity was restored. Catholic readers can make of this what they will — I thought that the power of a ritual in which you consume both the flesh and blood of a god was more than enough to cure vampirism, if it was taken with the proper humility and faith. That was actually one of my favorite parts of the book, but in the end I didn’t quite know what to do with it. I consider Angel to be an ambitious failure, and soon the real-life horrors of divorce, unemployment, loss of home and family, bankruptcy and chronic illness shot down my plans to rewrite and market it.

Fifteen years later, Angel is back in an entirely new form, with the focus on demons and alien horror. I took the original story’s prolog (about 50 pages or so) and expanded it to full book length (now about 350 pages and 106,000 words), using the same basic characters and events, adding and expanding until I got something that I’m actually fairly proud of. Every rereading reveals new glitches and the odd tweakings, but overall I think the novel works and would make a fine addition to the current crop of urban fantasy tales.

So why drop the vampires? Well, first off, everyone is writing about vampires these days. They’ve become the shaggy dogs of horror. I don’t want to write about vamps unless I can bring something original to the game, and it seems to me that almost every variation has been explored. We have psychic vampires, bestial animalistic zombie-vampires, good vampires, evil vampires, romantic vampires, cruel vampires, nice vampires, sexy vampires, repulsive vampires, ugly vampires, pretty vampires, cute vampires… Vampires, vampires, vampires. Enough already. I’m not jumping on a bandwagon that’s so crowded it looks like an Indian passenger train.

Werewolves are a little less exploited, and I think more interesting. Wizards/sorcerers are cool too but they’re also kind of overexploited. Given all the wizards named Harry that we’ve got running around lately, I think that’s territory I’d best avoid myself, as the character is in talented hands already. Zombies are also so overdone that they’re tired and weary and falling apart, but I think they’re so generic that no one will care if I use them.

But then again, werewolves and wizards and zombies are also familiar. And so familiar as to be almost comforting in their horrific familiarity. We know what to expect from a werewolf. We know that a zombie’s going to lurch around moaning for brains. We know that we need silver bullets for werewolves and we need all sorts of firearms and machetes for zombies. Familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt.

Okay, okay... There's ONE other reason for liking vampires...

It was actually a rather difficult decision (one member of my writing group who had read Descending Angel was disappointed, and told me that she’d really liked my vampires, which definitely gave me pause), but I decided I wanted to put traditional monsters on the shelf for a while. The Shepherd does feature some undead, but they’re peripheral to the story — a symptom rather than a cause. But I think that vamps and werewolves and the usual stuff of our nightmares as featured on Dark Shadows and Buffy and Supernatural probably need a nice rest in their respective lairs — from my attention anyway. I’ll leave them to others, whom I’m sure will do them more justice.

So there we go. Vampires need to sleep in their coffins for a while. They’re really, really, really tired. They’ve been staked, burned, decapitated, disintegrated, dissolved and dismembered quite enough. They’ve been hated, admired, loved, adored and lusted after enough for one cycle. They’ve gone from creeping creatures of nightmare to well-groomed, sad-eyed, poetry-spewing emo boyfriends. They’ve got fan clubs and t-shirts. They used to burn and now they fucking sparkle.

And they’re sick of it. I’m going to give them a nice long rest.

My, my it’s been a while.

I’ve been lax, haven’t I? I think being sick for a week (then sick again for another week or so) threw my rhythm off. If this blog is going to go anywhere I need to make sure I stay current.

(BTW, I’m probably going to stop doing the Zeitgeist writeups… I’m having a ball with the fiction and the game is going well, but the fact is I just don’t have enough time to write the chronicle… It was a nice idea tho, and I kind of hate admitting defeat on that particular project, but oh well…)

Click the damned link or they'll yell at me for using their artwork!

That said, I’m sitting down to a nice breakfast of turkey bacon and scrambled eggs with red pepper and aleaea seasalt — my focus has been on protein all week since I fell slightly off the carbohydrate wagon a couple of weeks ago. I admit to eating 1.5 Voodoo Donuts at work this week, since the principal of the school I work at bought the IT guys a couple of big pink boxes full. It’s very hard to resist glazed donuts covered with breakfast cereal, min-m&ms, marshmallows and bacon. Not all at once, mind you, though that might be an interesting flavor.

Owing to a marvelous stroke of luck I got a great deal on a hotel room and was able to attend Norwescon after all. I roomed with Tev, my buddy and drummer, and had a great time overall. As Beth wasn’t feeling great, it was my intention to call it an early night on Saturday, but Tev and I fell under the malign influence of another female friend of mine and we ended up party hopping for quite a while.  I am quite pleased with myself as last year I drank to excess, which led to an overall loss of inhibitions, which then led to me eating waaaay too many cookies and chocolate, which then led inevitably to a vexing diabetic crisis, and as a result I was sick for about a week. Not this year. This time I drank to excess (hey, ya gotta have some fun), but maintained sufficient willpower that I only had a half a cookie and half a cupcake. We ended up in the hotel hot tub and I enjoyed watching my friend attempt to seduce the two other female con-goers who were there. She did not succeed (not that I saw anyway), but it was fun to watch. I still think women can get away with outrageous behavior toward each other that would get a man arrested or at least thrown in the pool, but this is the way of the world and I’m not in any position to change it.

The other stuff was fun too, with panels on the future of gaming, upcoming movies (saw some great trailers, but none for Prometheus, dammit — prequel/spinoff/addendum, whatever to both Alien and Blade Runner? I am so there…), and a nice long session with successful UA writer J.A. Pitts answering all of our burning questions about writing and the writing lifestyle. Unfortunately, I need to remember next year that if I’m attending a two hour seminar that goes right through the dinner hour I need to bring power bars, or else what happened this year will happen again — i.e. stumbling out of the panel early and slouching into a seat at the restaurant, staring blankly at the walls and drooling while Beth, angel of mercy that she is, says “Oh dear… We need to feed you, don’t we?” Diabetes is a harsh mistress sometimes.

(And I also had my cell phone go off in the middle of the panel, earning me a very dirty look from the great Jay Lake… My habit of either inadvertently offending or acting like a complete assclown around famous authors continues. I’m so very sorry…)

This week I completed a 12,000 word assignment for Paizo Publications, which will be coming out soon as part of their popular monster series for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game (which I consider the REAL 4th Edition) and I’ve  fired off a message to the head of Crafty Games about writing for their FantasyCraft series (no reply yet — I’ll rattle his cage again soon). I finished the first draft of a Steampunk story that I want to submit to Irene Radford’s next anthology — I’m up in the air about the setting. I don’t know whether to set it in a “Post Civil War-Like” world that resembles the US in the 1880s or set it in a “Steampunk USA” that uses all the same names and places as the US so that the reader will recognize it. The imaginary setting has the advantage of no historical or political baggage, but requires more exposition, while the “real” Steampunk USA will be more familiar, but will require some nods to real-world politics and touch subjects like slavery. I’m leaning toward the “real USA” model even though the story is the first “USA-like” setting, but we’ll see what my readers think. I truly want to put some work into this story and make it as good as I possibly can, as I love the whole steampunk thing and I’d love to be in a new anthology.

I think I’m ready to post the next three Wulf novels at Smashwords, now that they’ve settled their conflict with Paypal. It was a touchy situation, and it might have affected a couple of Wulf stories, even though the matters at-issue were touched on only obliquely. In short, Paypal had demanded that Smashwords remove erotica that contained pedophilia (which Smashwords has never, ever sold and never, ever will… I find the whole concept horrific, creepy and unbelievably nasty), bestiality, incest or rape.

While I think everyone can agree on the first matter (ecch… ugh… disgusting… etc.), the other three aren’t especially pleasant, but certainly can be included in fiction and be appropriate to a story. I have one scene of a villain doing it with a wolf, but it’s not especially erotic (I don’t think anyway) and it’s used to demonstrate how utterly perverse the character is. And when it comes to fantasy, where do you draw the line? Werewolves, minotaurs, dragons? Is sex with an imaginary creature bestiality, or what? Like I said, a slippery slope indeed.

I think incest is pretty icky too, but I wouldn’t prevent someone from writing about it, especially if everyone’s consenting adults. And for crying out loud, rape is all over the place in romance fiction, which is written and read almost exclusively by women. A lot of it is what a friend of mine called “aggressive seduction” which is kind of like the scene (which numerous women of my acquaintance have told me is incredibly romantic) in which Rhett Butler carries Scarlett O’Hara, kicking and protesting, up the stairs, presumably to be ravished in the bedchamber. A lot of it is pure fantasy, utterly unconnected to real world crime. Numerous well-intentioned people have tried to make the connection between adult entertainment and sexual violence, and as far as I’m concerned they’ve failed — for proof just look at the horrific things done to women in countries with tightly-controlled media and no access to adult material.

Sorry, I rant.

Anyway, I think my point is that most of these items that Paypal was so upset about can be included in works of fiction and that one person’s unacceptable obscenity might be someone else’s harmless entertainment. I’m very glad that Paypal and Smashwords have worked out their differences. I would have kept my books on line, but I might have had to make some minor bowdlerizations, essentially censoring my work to suit the whims of a faceless corporation.

And yes, the Wulf website is almost done. I’m being a wimp and using GoDaddy’s web authoring tool, so the site looks a bit generic. I also discovered that it doesn’t handle big files well, so I’ve split the Wulf “books” up into their component short stories. The first three books (Heart of the Lion, The Demon Crown and Stormking) are ready to go, but I’m going to have to work a bit to split up the Dark Vengeance trilogy. However, I’ve delayed starting this site so long I think I want to get published asap, and I’ll announce it here when I go live.

There’s band practice this afternoon, as we continue to hone and develop our new guitarist, molding him like clay into the image of what we want. Actually, I’m learning to play along with him (though the bass remains my true love), but I’m fearful we may not have new material or our requisite talent developed in time to perform at Orycon this year. It’s okay really — I know it’s going to take time and I’m patient. Rhia and I will need to get together and work on our Celtic Lament song (“The Springtime Rains” possibly? Not sure about the title), we’re trying to up the tempo and metallize our zombie song, which I think sounds WAY too tame and jazzy, and I want to suggest coming up with a “fast” bridge f0r our hit single (note that all chart listings are approximate) “Black Pony.” Given the recent popularity of ponies, I think this song has real potential, even if it’s actually about an evil pookah spirit that only pretends to be a black pony, taking young people for horrific breakneck rides to hell. I think it’s ironic (and possibly in a good way) that our song, about an evil spirit that rides headlong across the land at terrifying speed, is actually a rather slow song… A fast bridge in the middle might be a very good way to capture the essence of what the song’s about.

And while I’m on the subject (don’t worry I’ll connect the dots), I went to my beloved and awesome daughter’s 22nd birthday get together at Portland’s own monument to sci-fi kitch, the Space Room last night, bringing her a Miskatonic University Library Sciences t-shirt which I picked up at Norwescon, and just to see what kind of reaction I’d get, wearing my own “Brony” t-shirt which I’d bought at the same time (yes, I bought the HP Lovecraft t-shirt that represented cosmic horror and nightmarish revelations about an uncaring universe for my daughter, and I bought the t-shirt with cartoon characters originally intended for the entertainment of six-year-old girls for myself). Upon seeing the shirt, Devon was thrilled, telling me that she’d been very concerned that I’d make fun of her for watching “My Little Pony” episodes on my Netflix account.

I admitted to my fondness for the show, especially as an antidote to recent depressing and soul-crushing events at work and in the world at large, as well as against general ennui and sadness about the past, the frailty of our existence, the fleeting nature of love, time and the universe, and the unutterable dread of oblivion that all men feel. And in the end, the hopeless horror and crushing loneliness of HP Lovecraft doesn’t really stand much of a chance against the power of friendship, love and tolerance, does it?

Now I’ve moved on to rich Colombian coffee and the stack of literary agents at my elbow is growing larger and larger in my mind. I’m going to toddle off soon and get back to work on stuff that might actually pay some bills. Oh yeah, and I’m going to work on my arpeggios and my root-five 9ths.

One final note, I just saw the Joss Whedon-penned “horror” movie The Cabin in the Woods, and to quote Mystery Science Theater 3000, not everyone will get it, but the right people will get it. I cannot recommend this movie enough, assuming you have my literary tastes, you understand the concept of satire, you have a sense of humor, you love a good horror movie (and there are so few of them) and you have a relatively strong constitution (though the gore and grue in this is considerably less than many films I’ve seen lately). See it, and tell me what you thought of it.

Okay, the coffee cup is growing empty and I need to start looking up agents and maybe even putting novels up on Smashwords. Just a few hours left til I have to go pick up Daniel and Rhia for practice. Another weekend, more endeavors. More to come. I’m thinking of putting up a review of The Sword and the Sorcerer or Beastmaster next. Waddya think?

(And next time I do a panel with J.A. Pitts I’ll bring food and turn off my cell phone. Promise.)