Nightmare in Agate Bay-The Trailer

Nightmare in Agate Bay. Whatever happened to Minnesota Nice?

 

Agate Bay, Minnesota. A quiet little town on the north shore of Lake Superior. Or is it?

The US Office of Unidentified Phenomena has sent its best agent, Pierce Mostyn, and his team of investigators, to check out the rumors concerning the little hamlet.

Is it true there is a horrible disease afflicting the inhabitants? Or is it something more sinister?

Mostyn know nothing is as it seems. Nothing. Ever.

So what secret are the good folk of Agate Bay hiding? What threat does the sleepy little hamlet pose for the United States of America? And for planet Earth?

On January 29, 2018 you can find out.

Mostyn and Kemper fighting their way out of Agate Bay, Minnesota
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HP Lovecraft and Pierce Mostyn – Part 3

Office of Unidentified Phenomena Logo

HP Lovecraft was the creator of the cosmic horror subgenre. I find cosmic horror much more terrifying than some crazy axe wielding maniac jumping out of a closet and chopping up someone.

We want to have value. Today’s educational system is busy trying to build children’s self-esteem. “We’re all winners.” “Everyone has value.” “You have a purpose.”

And while those are indeed lofty sentiments, in reality the children taught those sentiments are going to have a difficult time when they encounter their first selfish SOB out in the real world.

When I was in fifth grade, I lived in terror of the bullies who every recess when we were outside pantsed wallflowers such as myself. Those bullies didn’t give a fig about playing nice, or that everyone had value, or that everyone was a winner. They operated on a primeval level. Those who were stronger got their way. They were the winners.

Lovecraft’s point was no different. We humans sit on this speck of dirt and tell ourselves how important we are. That we have intrinsic value just because we’re human. However, the universe isn’t listening. And it isn’t listening because it doesn’t care. We don’t matter. It’s indifferent to us. We have as much value as the ball of ice orbiting our sun known as Haley’s Comet.

Everyone in the tiny Greek city-states was important (if you weren’t a slave, that is). When Alexander the Great suddenly expanded the world across a huge chunk of Asia, those same Greeks were suddenly faced with an identity crisis.

“Who am I in this huge new world?” they asked. The Epicurean and Stoic schools of philosophy arose in response to that question and attempted to provide answers.

Today we are faced with the same question. For the sake of literary convention, Lovecraft personified the universe’s indifference to us in The Great Old Ones. For Lovecraft, the Cthulhu Mythos was an attack on religion and it’s false hope. And the irony should not be lost that Lovecraft gave The Great Old Ones worshipers.

Lovecraft was throwing down the gauntlet. All of our cherished beliefs are false. We have no objective meaning. We are living in a dream world if we think we do.

And the terror comes when we suddenly awake and are confronted with the meaninglessness of reality. That’s why I think The Great Old Ones and their minions are described as insanities, contrary to nature, blasphemous, and the like. They are contrary to everything that we think is normal.

Those bullies on my playground didn’t care about values or artificial constructs of behavior. They were contrary to everything that was considered normal behavior. If they could catch you, they would pants you. That was their reality. And their laughter at your pain and embarrassment was a reminder that the universe did not play fair and did not care.

Lovecraft’s heroes are basically helpless. They can do nothing to stop The Great Old Ones. All they can do is warn us that they are coming.

Pierce Mostyn, then, is not your typical Lovecraftian hero. He fights back against that cosmic indifference. He does so out of a sense of duty. Much like the Stoic who lives his life according to the principles of virtue and duty. Duty arises out of our being part of a whole, and we have obligations to that whole. Obligations that the virtuous person is bound to discharge.

Mostyn doesn’t see himself as helpless, even when facing an entity such as a shoggoth (one of those walking insanities that is a blasphemy of nature). He’s willing to admit there is a lot out there that we don’t understand. And maybe can never understand. He uses reason, and approaches the problems of life rationally. Not unlike the Stoics before him.

Dr Dotty Kemper, Mostyn’s main sidekick, on the other hand is a materialist. She believes science has all the answers. She’s a paranormal skeptic. It is science that replaces superstition with knowledge. Sometimes though she has a rough time of it, especially when science has no explanation.

In a sense, the Pierce Mostyn Paranormal Investigations aren’t pure cosmic horror. Because in the face of the universe’s indifference, and I do agree with Lovecraft on that, I think Marcus Aurelius provides us with a ready answer. Namely, that life is opinion. Or, if we expand the translation, life is what you make it to be.

I hope you enjoyed this little discussion of Lovecraft, cosmic horror, and Pierce Mostyn. The series, Pierce Mostyn Paranormal Investigations, launches in 3 weeks on the 29th. So mark your calendars!

The emblem at the top of this post is the emblem of the Office of Unidentified Phenomena (OUP), which is part of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, which is a child agency of the US Department of Homeland Security. But don’t Google it, or check Wikipedia. You won’t find it there. Maybe if you went to the dark web…

Comments are always welcome, and, until next time, happy reading!

Dr Dotty Kemper trying to prove the efficacy of this dimension’s lead bullets and physical laws versus the physical properties of other dimensional beings.
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HP Lovecraft and Pierce Mostyn – Part 2

Cosmic, or Lovecraftian, Horror

Cosmic horror is largely, if not solely, the creation of HP Lovecraft. Of whom Stephen King said he “has yet to be surpassed as the Twentieth Century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.”

There are certain themes that differentiate Lovecraft’s brand of horror from other horror subgenres. Let’s take a look at some of the key themes.

Humans Are Insignificant

It’s a big universe out there. And we don’t know even a fraction of it.  As Lovecraft commented often (and I’m paraphrasing), we are an insignificant species on a fly speck. And if there are in fact multiverses, then that fly speck just became innumerable times smaller.

Philosophically, Lovecraft was basically a mechanistic materialist. We exist, but that doesn’t mean we’re more important than anything else. In fact, the universe is indifferent to us. We aren’t objectively special. For Lovecraft, we definitely weren’t made in God’s image. There’s no God, for starters. Rather, he was inspired by the atheistic Epicureans and the theory of evolution.

Therefore, in the typical cosmic horror story there is little focus on characterization. The main character is usually the story’s narrator. We get to know something of him, although sometimes he’s an unreliable narrator.

The focus of the story is on the gradual revelation of that which is hiding behind the narrator’s (and our) illusion of reality. That which is greater than us and views us as we view ants on the sidewalk.

The Great Old Ones, at least for Lovecraft, didn’t actually exist. They were literary devices to convey our position in the vastness of the universe and that the universe doesn’t give a fig about us.

The Heroes Are Loners

The hero of the cosmic horror tale has affinities with the punk hero. He is socially isolated, and therefore frequently a loner. Occasionally an outcast. He is often reclusive, and possesses a scholarly bent.

This puts the cosmic horror hero in the unique position of being able to peel back the veneer of what we think is reality to see the real reality behind it. Often at the expense of his sanity.

Pessimism, or Indifference

Lovecraft insisted later in life that his philosophy was not pessimistic, but rather led one to indifference. A fine line there. Basically, though, there is nothing in the universe that cares about us or values us. We humans are alone on a tiny speck of dust. We are dwarfed by the vastness of space. The very vastnesses of which Whitman sang so positively and eloquently about. For Lovecraft, there is nothing positive about them.

In this, Lovecraft was very much in line with the ancient Greek Epicurean philosophy. The universe was simply chaos. It provides us nothing. We must focus on ourselves and find pleasure and happiness in intellectual pursuits away from the madding crowd.

The Great Old Ones of Lovecraft’s invention aren’t so much malignant or malevolent as that they just don’t give a fig about us. We are inconsequential to them.

However, to us their indifference might seem to be malevolent or evil. But in reality, like us, they just are. They’re doing their thing. If we suffer as a result, well, do we care about the ants we step on?

Therefore the hero in the cosmic horror tale is often incapable of doing much to thwart the cosmic forces ranged against him. The best he can do is warn us of the truth that is out there.

The Veneer of Reality

We live in a dream state, as it were. Lovecraft was fascinated by dream worlds. In The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath he postulates a parallel world only attainable by means of dreams.

Because we are in a dream, as it were, what we see and think to be reality isn’t in fact reality at all. It’s Dorothy in Oz. Only we see a nice old man until Toto pulls back the curtain and reveals the monster at the controls.

The real reality is too horrible for us to comprehend. In our dream state we believe we have value — when in reality we have no value at all. We have no significance in the universe. And by extension nothing else has any significance either.

That is the true terror of cosmic horror: the revelation and realization that we are living a lie. It is the literary portrayal of the Nietzschian coming to awareness of who and what we really are.

That realization is also the basis for the “leap of faith” to find meaning for our existence. Epicurus sought meaning in intellectual pleasure. Nietzsche sought meaning in the pursuit of art; that is, creativity. The Existentialists made that leap to whatever might have meaning for them as individuals. And argued that we do the same.

Not unlike the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius’s statement that “life is opinion”. That is, life is what we think it is. Although, for the Roman emperor, the statement was more an affirmation of the contemporary saying, It’s all in your ‘tude. Because Stoicism is inherently a much more positive philosophy.

Fear Of The Other

We have an innate fear of that which is not like us. This goes back to the very beginnings of the human species when we existed in family units and tribes. Anything that was not us, was to be viewed with suspicion — if not outright fear.

Lovecraft is frequently criticized today for being xenophobic and racist. By today’s standards he was — but in his own era I’m not so sure he was any different than most of his peers. There is a danger in judging the past by other than it’s own standards.

Even today, Western views of what constitutes xenophobia and racism are not universally shared. Which means the question must be asked, what makes Western views any more valid than any other views? That, though, is another discussion.

One thing is for sure — the xenophobia and racism we see in Lovecraft’s stories feeds on our own innate and latent fear of those people and things that are different from us and of our fear of the unknown in general. They feed on our own tribal mentality. The primeval us-them dynamic. The dynamic that made us who we are today: too often judgmental, critical, and suspicious. We and our opinions are good. Everyone else and there opinions are bad.

Throughout most of our history as a species, the tribal mentality allowed us to survive. The problem being that as we developed civilization, many of those survival traits became a hindrance to our working together in a genteel environment. Hence the creation of religious moral codes and cultural mores and folkways to control those “undesirable” traits.

As Will Durant noted, “Every vice was once a virtue, and may become respectable again, as hatred becomes respectable in war. Brutality and greed where once necessary in the struggle for existence, and are now ridiculous atavisms; men’s sins are not the result of his fall; they are the relics of his rise.” Do note that every vice may become respectable again. Something to think about.

In Lovecraft’s worldview, the Other consists of all the impersonal cosmic forces that exist. In his fiction, he personified these impersonal forces as The Great Old Ones. Inter- or Other-dimensional beings who have moved into our territory.

Just as we give little thought to mosquitoes, or gnats, or ants, so The Great Old Ones give little, if any, thought to us. To repeat, they aren’t so much malevolent, as they are indifferent to our existence and survival. Just as we are indifferent to the survival of mosquitoes, gnats, or ants.

Lovecraft is simply positing that cosmically speaking — we aren’t necessarily at the top of the food chain. Something to think about as we venture into outer space. Which was cleverly addressed in The Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man”.

In light of the above, the Pierce Mostyn adventures may not be pure examples of cosmic horror. But we’ll look at that next week.

Comments are always welcome! And until next week, happy reading!

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HP Lovecraft and Pierce Mostyn-Part 1

In a few weeks I’ll be launching a new paranormal series: the Pierce Mostyn Paranormal Investigations. The books were fun to write and I’ve gotten positive feedback from my beta readers. I’m totally psyched about Mostyn!

There were three major influences in the creation of Pierce Mostyn and the uber-secret Office of Unidentified Phenomena (OUP): The X-Files, Stranger Things, and HP Lovecraft.

The X-Files, influenced by the earlier Kolchak: The Night Stalker, takes us into a world of paranormal phenomena, aliens, and government cover-ups. The conspiracy nut within me loves that stuff.

Stranger Things, the exceedingly popular paranormal show from Netflix, riffs on Lovecraft’s premise behind the Cthulhu Mythos and secret government projects.

Then there’s HPL himself. His notion of the insignificance of human beings vis-a-vis the vastness of the universe is the foundation of the cosmic horror sub-genre, which he created. His stories often hint at cover-ups, usually government, to protect people from the truth. And just as often there is a whistle blower to let us know what is really going on.

Lovecraft modernized the old gothic tale by expanding the scene from an old haunted house to the entire universe. The Great Old Ones are about to wake. Their worshippers are keeping the light on for them. And us? Why we are inconsequential. We don’t matter.

The horror lies in our insignificance; not the grotesque insanity that is a shoggoth, or the obscene un-naturalness that is Cthulhu.

This is very much like Nietzsche. For he noted in The Birth of Tragedy that science can only bring us to the point where we see that we are nothing when compared to the vast universe. We have as much significance as does a grain of sand on the beach. And the result of our coming to this realization of our insignificance is a profound and sustained nausea.

The terror in cosmic horror is the simple realization that we have no meaning in the grand scheme of things. We just think we do.

Nietzsche made the leap to art to give us meaning. Art, the act of being creative, like the gods, is what gives us humans meaning.

Lovecraft, in an effort to find meaning in the meaningless, retreated into antiquarianism and racial and cultural identity.

Religion, rejected by both Nietzsche and Lovecraft, is nothing more than an attempt to give humans meaning by means of rituals to help insure entrance into a good afterlife, where there is meaning. But not meaning for us as us. Only meaning in relation to something greater than us. That which is called by us God.

Cosmic horror, however, has power because in spite of our belief in God or rituals, we so very often feel as though nothing makes any sense and that we truly have no meaning or purpose in this life. That is true terror: that we will die and everything we’ve done won’t have mattered, because in the end we don’t matter.

Lovecraft created the Great Old Ones to visualize the uncaring of the universe. They don’t care about the humans on this planet they’ve invaded. We are as significant to them as ants are to us.

These are the influences that played upon the creators of The X-Files and Stranger Things and also played upon me in the creation of Pierce Mostyn.

We see in The X-Files that there are things out there, the truth, that are bigger than us. We are living deluded lives, because the truth is being hidden from us.

In Stranger Things, a hole is ripped in the fabric of our dimension as a result of a secret government spy program. The rip allows an interface between our world and the beyond. And what becomes crystal clear very early is that we don’t matter to the other dimensional entity. We are simply another meal source. We are simply ants on the sidewalk.

In the Pierce Mostyn Paranormal Investigations, Mostyn’s (and the OUP’s) job is to get rid of testimonies to our insignificance — all to protect the good people of the USA and the world. Which makes Mostyn something of a superhero and a trickster god (like Loki, or Dionysus, or Kokopelli).

Next week we’ll take a closer look at the cosmic horror sub-genre. Which I think is more terrifying that some grisly hacker/slasher story.

Comments are always welcome, and, until next time, keep telling yourself you have meaning. Oh, and happy reading!

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We Are The Boss

no masters only you the master is you
wonderful no?

—Ikkyū (trans by Stephen Berg)

The past two weeks we’ve been learning life lessons from Zen poet and monk Ikkyū. Two weeks ago we learned we are happy. Last week we learned we are the truth. This week Ikkyū let’s us know we are the boss. We are the boss of us. No one else is.

Today’s poem is simple. Ikkyū first tells us there are no masters, only us. Last week we were told to put aside the books of the masters because we are the truth — not them, nor their books. Today we see that there are in actuality no masters. Let me repeat that. There are no masters. Only me. Only you.

There is no authority. There’s only me. Only you. There’s no teacher. Only me. Only you.

As Zen master Tetto Giko put it:

The truth is never taken from another.
One carries it always by oneself.
Katsu!

There is no truth outside of us. Katsu! (The traditional cry when one achieves enlightenment.) That’s why there are no masters, because in truth there’s nothing to teach. There are people who think they are masters. But they can’t teach you or me anything, because the truth is already inside us. You and I are the masters. No one made us masters. We’ve always been masters. We just never realized we were. And that’s why we let others be the masters.

We aren’t free because we are always looking for some authority to tell us something, or give us permission. We aren’t free because we don’t realize we are the authority we’re looking for. We’re the master we’re searching for.  We are the one to tell us something, to give us permission. We are our own authorities.

Rainer Maria Rilke told the young poet in his first letter to him that we must look deep inside ourselves for the answer. If I want to know if I’m a poet, or a writer, I must find the answer within. No one outside of myself can tell me if I am or not. And that goes with anything, not just writing.

Any authority figure only has authority because we give it to him or her. And it doesn’t matter who that authority figure is. Granted, it may be expedient for me to grant someone temporary authority. But if I grant someone full and complete authority over me, I’ve just made myself a slave.

Ikkyū is telling us we’re the master. Not the slave. We are free. We don’t have to be anyone’s slave: mentally or physically. We don’t have to be in bondage to priests, or ministers, or gurus. We don’t have to be in bondage to governments, or employers. We don’t have to be in bondage to parents, or spouses. We are free. We are the masters.

But with freedom, with being a master, also comes responsibility. And it may be expedient to not always exercise our freedom, to be the master.

Advent is the celebration of God coming to his people to be in them in the New Covenant. In effect, the New Testament writers are saying the same thing as Ikkyū. There are no masters, because I am the master.

If God is for us, who can be against us? And since God is in us, then we ourselves are surely the masters. Truth is in us. Authority is in us. Power is in us.

And that’s why Ikkyū tells us “wonderful no?” Of course it’s wonderful. I’m free from the masters. You’re free from the masters. Because there are no masters. You and I are the masters of ourselves.

May this holiday season be a time of enlightenment for you.

Comments are always welcome, and, until next time, remember — you’re the boss!

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We’re A Razor

forget what the masters wrote truth’s a razor
each instant sitting here you and I being here

—Ikkyū (trans by Stephen Berg)

Last week Ikkyū told us we are already happy. We don’t experience that happiness because our minds are focused on a whole lot of crap. Stop focusing on the crap—that which has no value in our lives—and we’ll be happy.

This week, with a little help from our Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, we’re taking a look at truth.

Ikkyū detested the conventional. He thrived in an environment that was free, stripped of authority. That was probably why he left the monastery and frequented the tavern and brothel. Life was more honest there.

Forget the Masters! Their dry, dusty tomes contain no truth— for truth’s a razor.

What does Ikkyū mean “truth’s a razor”? Let’s start with, first of all, the razor. Ikkyū is talking about a good old-fashioned straight razor. Basically a knife. A razor is very, very sharp. Razor-sharp is as sharp as it gets. Truth cuts.

Those dusty old tomes of the Masters cut nothing. They make good doorstops or paperweights. They’re dull and thick and perfunctory. The razor cuts. It can cut those old books into scrap paper.

But the razor’s edge can also divide. And it does so with an exceedingly fine line. Truth separates. It forms two camps. However, in Ikkyū’s mind these are not equally valid camps. And this can be seen when the razor is put to work shaving. It cuts away the facial hair. Truth is discerning. It cuts off that which is false. In a sense, that which is not me.

Which brings us to the second line. What are we to make of what Ikkyū is saying here? I think the best way to understand Berg’s rendition is to understand he’s using enjambment.

Let’s re-cast the poem this way:

forget what the masters wrote:
truth’s a razor, each instant sitting here—
you and I being here

In other words, we are the razor. We are the truth. You and I, together, cut off the dead crap of the authority figures. They are not the truth. We are. Which makes us the real masters.

Advent celebrates Immanuel—God with us. But that’s only half the story. Because the whole point of the New Covenant that Immanuel brought with him, was that the law would no longer be an external master—it would be written on our hearts.

That’s something to think about. Forget the masters. Forget the rule makers. You and I being here, we are the razor. We are the truth.

That’s why Ikkyū left the monastery after nine days of being abbot. It was all crap. He told the monks if they wanted to find him, he’d be in the tavern and the brothel. Where the real people were. Where the razors were. Where the truth was. And still is.

Comments are always welcome, and, until the next time, do some truth cutting!

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You’re Happy

self other right wrong wasting your life arguing
you’re happy really you are happy

—Ikkyū (trans. by Stephen Berg)

Ikkyū (1394-1481) was an eccentric Japanese Buddhist monk. He’s one of my favorite poets. His poems are direct, poignant, and laden with wisdom. He was very much an individualist and legends about him abound.

Today, I’m going to do a brief meditation on the above poem. I think it appropriate for Advent season, which began this past Sunday. After all, it’s difficult to have peace on earth if there’s conflict — especially conflict within us.

Let’s begin by looking at the second line of Berg’s rendering, which has a bit of ambiguity to it. The line could read:

You’re happy. Really. You are happy.

or

You’re happy, really. You are happy.

or

You’re happy. Really, you are happy.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter how we read the line — because Ikkyū’s point is that we are already happy. Happiness is our natural state.

If that’s the case, then why are so many of us not happy? The answer is found in the first line.

Self-Other. Us-Them. The old tribal mentality of “we are right and everyone else is wrong”. Why is everyone else wrong? Because they are not one of us. They are “them”. And “them” is bad. “Them” challenge us. The others are a threat because they think they are right and we are wrong. Of course, we know they are wrong. Because we must be right. If we aren’t, what is our reason to be?

Ikkyū moves from the self-other dichotomy to the right-wrong dichotomy, which is the natural outcome of self-other thinking, which I noted above.

When we feel we must always cast things into the right or wrong mold, it is then that we have problems. And the biggest problem is conflict. Conflict without and conflict within.

In the third part of the line, Ikkyū bluntly tells us that we are wasting our lives in arguing.

Why is this happening to us? Because we’ve set up these dichotomies, these artificial constructs that lead to arguing and fighting and no happiness. How many friendships end over a fight about something that is actually not important? How many marriages break up because the spouses are constantly arguing over who is right and who is wrong? Too many.

We can look at Ikkyū’s poem this way:

Unhappiness = self other right wrong arguing

Happiness = You

In other words, we, in and of ourselves, are happy. Happiness is our natural state. Happiness, though, disappears when we set up us-them dynamics, because they lead to arguing and arguing leads to unhappiness.

This is why we are advised to cultivate an attitude of inclusiveness. “And the second commandment is like unto it: treat your neighbor as yourself.”

When we treat others as we ourselves want to be treated, the self-other distinction breaks down. Right and wrong breakdown. We cease wasting our lives in arguing — and we come back to our natural state: happiness.

One day, when I was still working, I tried an experiment. I went to the office and smiled at everyone, wished them good morning, and was exceptionally pleasant. I listen to their complaints, told them things could be much worse, and pointed out the sun was still shining. I treated everyone that morning and successive mornings as I wanted them to treat me.

Sure, I got a few looks. But I also noticed I was much happier throughout the day and that I continued to treat others in a very positive manner. Positiveness flowed from the initial act of being positive. And for a little while at least I even saw some of my sour-faced coworkers smile.

If we set aside that which causes conflict, the ego (self) and the other (them), then we eliminate the cause of arguing and are free to treat others as we ourselves want to be treated. And when we do that, then we might see a little bit of peace on earth.

We can only control ourselves. But if we actually do that, control ourselves, we’ll find life to be pretty doggone wonderful.

Comments are always welcome, and, until next time, be a rivulet of peace.

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Winter Reads

Winters in Minnesota can be very long and very cold. They are perfect for curling up by the fire, wrapped in a blanket, and with a good book in hand.

Next week the weatherman is saying that our warm spell is over. Our highs in the Minneapple will only be in the 20s Fahrenheit. That is some chilly weather with which to start December, and that means out come the books.

I have a couple stories I intend to re-read during the Yuletide season. They are Lovecraft’s “The Festival” and Crispian Thurlborn’s A Bump in the Night. Both are excellent holiday reads by master craftsmen of the written word.

As for new (to me) books, I have on my list the following:

Mannegishi by Ben Willoughby. Mr W is a very fine storyteller. He truly deserves a much wider audience.

Ganbaru by Michael Cormack. I met Mr Cormack on Facebook quite incidentally. I’m glad I did. He writes post-apocalyptic books just how I like them: cozy catastrophes in the manner of John Wyndham, John Christopher, JG Ballard, and George R Stewart. I’m almost finished with his Don’t Dream It’s Over. A superb read. Mr Cormack very definitely deserves a much wider readership.

I love Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve read his books An Artist Of The Floating World and The Remains Of The Day. I’ve also seen the movie versions of The Remains Of The Day and Never Let Me Go. So I’m thinking I might start with his first book A Pale View Of Hills and then go on to read Never Let Me Go.

The older I get the more I find that I truly enjoy reading traditional mysteries. At first I pretty much limited myself to private detective mysteries. But recently I’ve found myself branching out into the realm of the amateur sleuth. And I’m enjoying the foray. So I’ll probably add a few mysteries to the pile. Perhaps a couple Nero Wolfe novels. It’s been a long time since I’ve read any Nero Wolfe and he’s long overdue for re-reading.

I’ll also probably spend a little bit of time looking at those free books that I’ve downloaded over the past year and haven’t read. There will probably be a gem or two that will make for fine winter reading.

Do you have any favorites you will be revisiting over the winter months? If so, do let me know what they are in the comments below. I’m always on the lookout for a good book.

Until next time, happy reading!

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Be Thankful

This Thursday, just two days away, here in the US, we will celebrate Thanksgiving. I love Thanksgiving and am sad to see it become a lost holiday. What with Christmas shopping being pushed earlier and earlier — why Black Friday deals are already being advertised — and the day itself morphing into Turkey Day — the whole point of a day devoted to being thankful is pretty much lost.

The beauty of Thanksgiving is, in my opinion, that it is a secular holiday devoted to giving thanks for the good things that we have. And especially here in the States we have a lots of good things for which we can be thankful.

It’s easy to piss and moan. We humans are natural complainers. It’s much more difficult to be thankful.

I love America. It’s the best place to live. Sure, we have problems. Nevertheless, we also have a surfeit of blessings. Good things abound in the United States. And I have been blessed richly and abundantly.

So this Thursday, all you here in the States, don’t worship the turkey. The day isn’t Turkey Day. It’s Thanksgiving. A secular holiday set aside so we can count our many, many blessings — wherever they come from.

‘Tis true I’ll feast on a turkey. But what I’m really thankful for is not the turkey but that I have plenty of food and the money to buy more. I’m rich, even though I’m not. Which is the blessing I’m most thankful for.

Be thankful. It’s the best feeling. Right there with being happy.

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Today’s Frenetic Pacing

We read for two reasons. Information or entertainment. Informational reading has no competition. The various media do, but not the reading itself.

On the other hand, recreational reading, entertainment reading, has an ever increasing array of competing activities. Video games, computer games, board games, TV, Netflix and Amazon streaming, movies, sports activities, plays, concerts, and the list goes on.

Today’s writers, particularly indie writers, it seems to me, feel the need to compete with today’s cinematic pyrotechnics, and the ever increasing graphic sex and violence the visual entertainment media are portraying.

Today I just want to focus on pacing. I’ll talk about sex and violence another time. Of the books I’ve recently read, the pacing falls into two distinct camps. I’ll call them thriller-paced and literary-paced.

Thriller-Paced

Everywhere we readers look, we see books advertised as fast paced, as page turners, or that the pages even turn themselves. The thriller is everywhere. It’s taken over the mystery field, it’s gone into outer space, it’s pervasive in science fiction, and it’s even moved into horror.

Frenetic pacing is in. To the detriment of the reading experience.

Recently I read a space opera by a supposed USA Today bestselling author. I say “supposed” because writers are scamming the system by riding to “Bestseller” status in boxed sets where their name doesn’t even appear in any of the advertising.

Anyway, I read an advanced reader copy of Book One of the series, which had recently been rewritten and expanded, with the intent that I’d write a review. I’m not sure that I will, because I don’t have much good to say about the novel. And Book Two wasn’t much better. I eventually just stopped reading it.

I can’t say either book was bad. But I can’t say either one was especially good either. The writing, on a technical level, was fine.

What torpedoed the reading experience for me were the characters. They were flat, insipid, and pretty much lackluster. To the point where I didn’t really care what happened to them.

The author spent the entire book doing nothing but piling on crisis after crisis. There was no breathing room. And his paltry attempt at trying to establish a romance element fell flat on its face for me because even that seemed to be nothing more than following the  “insert romance here” point on the plot outline.

When I finished the first book I was so exhausted from the pacing, I almost wished everyone would die just so I could get some relief.

Now I know a writer must make his characters suffer, otherwise there is no story. But ask yourself this: how often in real life do you have days where not a single thing goes right? I’d hazard a guess they are darn few. So why in these “thrillers” are we asked to accept an entire book where the good guys have nothing but bad hair days for days and days and days on end? Because even on bad hair days something usually goes right. But not for the fictional characters.

Quite honestly, I don’t really care about plot. If the characters are interesting — real people, with real problems — whatever the story is, it will be the story of the characters. Ray Bradbury said, create your characters, let them do their thing, and there’s your story. Why don’t writers follow this?

Instead, they focus on trying to write a well-crafted plot and then insert the characters into it. The end result is that the characters are no better than marionettes and even less interesting.

Today’s plot-driven thriller is wooden and uninspired and, frankly, exceedingly boring.

I’ve made a deal with myself. Thrillers and USA Today bestselling authors are off my reading list. The books I’ve read by bestselling authors and those marketed as thrillers are mediocre at best. And why read mediocre or bad books when so many good ones abound?

Literary-Paced

What I’m calling “Literary Pacing” is normal pacing. The pacing employed by Isaac Asimov, Rex Stout, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Lawrence Block, and Edgar Allan Poe. Or the pacing you’ll find in such books as Costigan’s Needle, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, When Worlds Collide, The Handmaid’s Tale, Hidden World, and The Day of the Triffids.

The above mentioned authors and books (and the list barely scratches the surface) have one thing in common — characters we care about. Comte Saint-Germain. Archdeacon Grantly. Scrooge. Nero Wolfe. Matt Scudder.

Literary pacing doesn’t mean there’s no excitement. There may be fight scenes, or car chases, or gun fights, or tense escape scenes. These, however, are scattered throughout the story. Occurring naturally as the characters go about their business of telling us their stories. And that’s the key: the characters are telling us their stories. Not the author.

Literary pacing occurs when the writer writes character-based fiction. It’s not about the plot. Good fiction is never about the plot. It’s about the characters.

We don’t remember Gone With The Wind for the thrilling plot. We remember Scarlett and Rhett. “Hills Like White Elephants” isn’t remembered because of the plot. It’s the characters that make the story. We don’t remember The Lord of the Rings because of the plot. It’s a ho-hum quest story. We remember the book for the characters — both good and bad. Because both the good guys and the bad guys in The Lord of the Rings are memorable.

Plot-Driven vs Character-Driven

Many of today’s indie writers are so concerned about cranking out the next book, all they focus on are the story beats and the outline. Making sure they’ve hit all the plot points at just the right time. The resulting fiction is mechanical at best. A fast-moving piece of mediocrity. An eminently forgettable book.

On the flip-side, even mediocre character-driven stories can stay with you for decades.

Who remembers the 1956 sci-fi novel Tomorrow And Tomorrow by Hunt Collins (aka Ed McBain)? Yet that book has stayed with me ever since I read it when a kid some fifty-plus years ago. Why? The world Collins created and the characters. Especially the characters. I don’t remember their names, but I remember them.

Recently I read the Dave Slater mysteries by PF Ford. I like Dave and his sidekick Norman Norman. They are “people” I care about. And what makes the stories good is that they are the stories of Dave and Norman.

Ford’s novels aren’t just plots into which he plunked down some characters. No, he did the Bradbury thing: created his characters, let them do their thing, and the result was their story.

The late Elizabeth Edmondson’s A Very English Mystery series is the same. Real people doing their thing — and we get to read the delightful tales as a result.

I think today’s rash of thrillers is the result of indie authors trying too hard to make a buck. It seems to me they think if they can just throw more action, more sex, more blood at the reader they’ll get more fans and more money.

Unfortunately for them, this reader has been turned off. Anything labeled fast-paced or thriller won’t get my buck. Neither will anyone spouting off they are a USA Today bestselling author. The books are disappointing and my time is too valuable to waste.

Comments are always welcome, and until next time — happy reading!

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