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I recently picked up a copy of Poets & Writers from my local Newsstand Store (it’s not actually a stand!), part of an ongoing effort to get myself being creatively productive. And since there’s a whole blogpost that follows from that one action, and reading an article, I think it’s working.

“Spilling Blood: The art of writing violence” is the article that caught my attention. Appearing in the section “The Literary Life,” it’s by Benjamin Percy and Aaron Gwyn and is an excellent review of violence in fiction, especially in ages past. It freely flips between cinematic and literary references, providing an excellent overview of the different ways that violence has been portrayed in popular media.  From the famous shower scene in Psycho and the lopping off of the cop’s ear in Reservoir Dogs, to Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant and chilling “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and the use of Gore in Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, the two men do a great job of describing how violence best works as a literary and story-telling device.

But about midway through the article, I found my stomach churning. Not at any hardcore violence which they discussed, though a summary of a bit of Chuck Palahniuk’s “Guts” (pretty, eh, gorey, click with discretion and not at work) did that for me.  My stomach churned at the hardcore prescriptivism they were pushing.

They dismiss Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis with a comparison to an elementary school bully – dubbed “Cody” for reasons that I’m sure speak to trauma in either Percy or Gwyn’s past – who would threaten to punch you, then when you flinched away, shout “two for flinching!” They close this section with “Don’t be a Cody. Nobody liked him.” Saying, almost directly, “Nobody likes Chuck Palahniuk.”

Except that people do like Chuck Palahniuk. That’s why, as they say in the article, that his “latest blood-spattered, feces-smeared novel [is] on the best-seller lists.”  They are dismissing this entire genre (or sub-genre?) and, by extension, its fans, as no good. They are saying that Palahniuk’s style is wrong. The rest of the article is excellently balanced, explaining why cutting away from violence is more effective. But this section doesn’t say “Palahniuk’s work is less effective.” It doesn’t even quite stop at saying “Palahniuk’s a bad writer.” It’s saying “Nobody likes Palahniuk.” It dismisses the droves of people who buy, read, and adore his books as “nobody.”  It ignores the actual facts – that lots of people do like this, and that perhaps there is a place for it in our society – in order to say “do it this way, always.” And prescriptivism has little to no place in creative writing*. Had they left out the “Don’t be Cody” section, this article would have had me nodding solid all the way through.  Instead, I lost my focus on their “descriptivism with tips” and came away with nothing more than a distaste for prescriptive elitism.

That’s why I prefer this blog post over at Judy Black Cloud about the difference between “horror” and “shock”.  It doesn’t declare that no one wants to read about meaningless evisceration; it just says that this meaningless evisceration isn’t horror. (And that it’s probably going to be confusing to most readers.)

Huh. I found and read both of those in the same day. I guess the world wants me to write some violence! I’ll get to work on my “Ballad of the Berserker Poet”

*Prescriptivism does have a place, and fairly large at that, in learning to be a good writer; E.E. Cummings knew how to write traditional poetry.  I and my fellow writers of “free verse” back in high school, well, didn’t.

“He’s always been very…  flexible.”

Unfortunately, this line does not set the tone for Space: 1999, because every single other line in the premiere episode “Breakaway” is simply agonizing rather than hilarious.  Though the show as a whole remains hilarious.  From the insistence that the problems could be the result of a “virus infection” (when “virus” or “infection” could certainly have sufficed) to Dr. Russel’s wooden acting and silent voice, it is impossible to discover what is actually going on in the show.

Dr. Russel’s complete lack of emotions suggests that, at some point in the series, it will be revealed that she is actually a robot.  Her Data-like immobility, her electrically sparkling eyes (which, I must admit, afflicts all members of the Mooncrew)…  She is clearly just waiting to begin barfing milk through a newspaper.  Even the computer does not trust her; as she watches over a deceased crewman through a monitor, her face reflects eerily in the image of his shoulder.  She spins over to ask the computer a question, and appears to threaten it with a prop identical to the gun we saw used moments ago!  The computer is well aware that this woman cannot be trusted, and will only work when she forces it to with force.  We can presume that she also threatens it with utter obliteration should her secret be revealed.

The brain damage is the result of a radiation attack.  In a scene following Robowoman’s revelation of this, we see a massive Radiate consuming the screen!  — Oh, wait, sorry, that was just a dramatic closeup.  In fact, radiation does not attack.  It’s rather disappointing.

Apparently, in space, no one can here you talk.  Everyone is always whispering for no clear reason, or shouting for just as much clear reason.  They shout most often when speaking into the comms; my best explanation is that they don’t really realize that the comms are there, and believe that they are shouting across space itself to each other.  Considering the physics involved in the launch of the moon from orbit…

Martin Landau asserts that there was a time that the colonists had no centigrade radiation covers (oh noooooo, our temperature can be measured!  LIKE AN ATTACK!), which is followed immediately by a RADIATION ATTAAAACK.  We can tell that radiation is attacking the rainbow-flag-armed Redshirt because he twitches.  Twitching in space means certain doom.  Everyone knows this; it’s a shame that he was working alone.  After a commercial break, he remains alone, and begins sweating and apparently attempting to pull his own face off.  Yet, the slow-moving space-walkers who run gradually into their car confirm that there is no radiation to be attacking anything.  Unless the MAD MAN who has been ATTAAAACKED into TWITCHING is actually radiation.  He begins slamming his helmet against the window.

One would be disappointed to learn that the windows on the space station on which one works can be cracked by being smashed into by a space helmet.  Whether we want our helmets to have more integrity than our space windows is unclear to me; I suspect the preference would be to have neither able to crack the other.

The best moment may be when we discover that one of the station’s engineers is none other than hit musician Bjork.  She, as the other scientists, cannot understand how there can be heat without any radiation!  While in a very real sense this is true (heat moves from hot objects and locations to cooler ones), they are clearly referring to radiation radiation.  The kind that attacks.  WITH LIGHTNING.  ON THE MOON.  The lighting arcs at a ship which they send out to investigate for no clear reason.  During this sequence, our dear Dr. Robot wanders the bridge, clearly making everyone else uncomfortable.  Are perhaps the other crew members aware of what she is?  Or does she just make them nervous, with her vague sociopathic tendencies?

Our balding friend determines that the heat and brain damage was caused by magnetic energy.  Which goes a long way to explaining the lighting, I suppose, but we’re all quite disappointed that the magnets aren’t ATTACKING.  Our heroes discover that their bizarre attempts to determine what the problem is and fix it, with no real rationale behind them, have turned the moon into “the biggest damn bomb mankind has ever created.”    Or maybe it’s the situation itself which as done that.  It’s very hard to tell.  It’s not even clear what the magnetic whatsits are, except that while they are doing damage, they are not capable of attacking.

Finally, though, the magnetic junk does attack.  It attacks the moon itself, creating a jet flame (somehow!) which very slowly pushes the moon out of orbit.  Although mere minutes after the acceleration begins they begin to “decelerate” (well of course they actually just lose g’s, meaning that they have only ceased to accelerate), and the earth appears to be the same size as the moon from an over-the-moon’s-shoulder shot, there is no chance for the crew of Moon Base Alpha to return to home.

The shot of a news reporter describing the incident, and its repercussions on Earth, with no concern for the thousands of lives surely lost in Italy and other places particularly named, suggests that perhaps the robotism is a plague affecting earth somehow.

The credits which follow announce that Gladys Goldsmith was in charge of continuity.  If I bother to review or you bother to watch the very next episode, you will see why I prefer not to acknowledge that my ancestry contains Goldsmiths.  Curse you, Gladys Goldsmith.

In the show’s defense, it does have amazing set design and the occasional quality special effect.   Disregarding the fact that our hero, who is aware of the previous commander’s….  flexibility… has two giant glass, ahem, spheres on his desk, that is.  Other than that, everything looks very very sciency.  It had a massive special effects budget, which really only barely shows.

This weekend, happening to stop by a comic shop on my way home from failing to sign a lease, I discovered a new Lovecraftian comic book entiled “The Calling: Cthulhu Chronicles.” Despite that rather ridiculous title with its awkward allusion to “The Call of Cthulhu” I was somehow… drawn to this dark covered tome before any others. Published by Boom! Studios, it’s an intertwining story of… Well, so far it’s not really clear. There are two primary perspective characters as of the first issue: Clay Diggs, a pharmaceutical rep who is slightly ruthless, though kind, in his trade, and seemingly a great family man. His sister has gone mad, due to some strange phenomenon which I’ll get to later. The other character, who is less important in the first issue, is Paige Brees. Her husband was on a boat called the Paradise, on which every single human being mysteriously died. But the main character is clearly the as yet unnamed child, spoken of so far only as “baby” by his mother and “her son” by some elderly people who appear to be her parents. He is also told he is chosen by some culitists. Clay Diggs’s sister, Azilee, has been stalked by a strange, hooded man, who seems to only appear in photos. She seemed unaware of him until well after he began whispering to her; her boyfriend’s Polaroid camera is the only source of his sight. The big twist at the end is that, dun dun dun! The investigating Clay is now being stalked by the strange man. So, the story is pretty basic fare. Quality horror, scary, unknown goings-on; yet so far, every single character is clearly human or humanoid. This is something that frustrates me about most Post-Lovecraft Lovecraftiana; the “enemy” is imbued with far too many human(ish) characteristics. If this review interests you, I am sure you are familiar with August Derleth’s recasting of Lovecraft’s “gods” as forces of good and evil. This seems, so far, to be what is happening in this comic. The cultists are not dark and spooky; they’re the sort of people who will kill a child’s loving mother right in front of him mostly just for the hell of it. Perhaps it’s essential to their Dark Ritual that he suffers so; but even that isn’t very much in keeping with Lovecraftian themes. We can only hope that it will turn out that they do not understand what they are truly doing; that they are merely sadists who want to summon something terrible because they have nothing better to do; rather like Ladd Russo’s gang, we hope that all of them are of the understanding that, sooner or later, they will all be killed by that thing they follow. The narrative is quite intriguing; the story winds in and out of itself, intersecting with elements which are clearly the main story, yet are shunted into the background, while the main story is also at the forefront. It’s intertwining stories, with clear focus points – though it is unclear which, if any, is THE focus point. Clay so far has great provenance over Paige, but their connection to the dead ship Paradise makes it certain that Paige will not simply fade into the background. Had lovecraft himself written it, we would get the whole of Paige’s story at once, without the ominous visit to the dying Paradise at the beginning. This is not an issue at all; simply a stylistic difference. The art is good. The dead bodies are suitably inexplicable, but there is a strange overuse of shadows. Deep sunken eyes are far too deep sunken; perhaps the Cultist Leader will turn out to be inhuman. The strangest is when Azilee’s boyfriend, the photographer, is suddenly veiled in shadow in his well lit living room. He isn’t even saying something particularly spooky, for his narrative. I also cannot help but note one police officer’s disturbing resemblance to Axe Cop, despite his lack of mustache, axe, or villain-genocidal expression. Overall, though, the art is rather non-notable. Good, I would like to see more, but ultimately… non-notable. In brief, then: I look forward to future issues of this series, but I am not ready yet to recommend this. If you are the sort of person who voraciously consumes all Lovecraftian work, regardless of quality, then this is for you. No that tI would need to tell you that. Same if you feel this way about horror or Strange Mysteries. But for most people, I reserve judgment.

It may seem distasteful for someone who has never been published to review the fiction of others.  Even I’m feeling rather antsy about it.  but I feel I have to start somewhere.  Fantasy & Science Fiction’s July/August issue contained, among other things which I would like to review or at least respond to, a little story by Rick Norwood entitled “Brothers of the River”.

F&SF usually, at least since I got a subscription, carries primarily quality work.  Of course, I’m in what I suspect is the minority who adores Ramsey Shehadeh’s “Epidapheles” stories (which I will review at a later date or hour!), so maybe I’m not the best universal judge of such things.  Then again, what is universal about taste in fiction?  Oh look there I go getting rhetorical.  The original intent of this paragraph was to say that, while the stories in F&SF are usually pretty awesome, or at least at the best end of mediocre, this one was at the worst end of mediocre.  I hesitate to say awful, because the writing itself was fairly skillful, though nothing to write home about.  Nothing to especially write a blog about, either, so that’s likely to be the last I’ll mention it.

The problem is that the story itself is so tepid and derivative.  It’s the story — not to spoil anyone on this gripping, wild story! — of two brothers who lived “[m]any thousands of years before the flood.”  They are twins with individual personalities; both good people but in different ways!  Tiger’s exceedingly kind (“if he had two honeycakes, he would give them both away to a stranger”) but also very vengeful; Shallow is “a shrewd trader,” rather selfish but also always keeping his word.  They have a perpetual rivalry, but a friendly one.  Everyone thinks they totally rock, and even moreso once they gain the “old magics.”    Later, they challenge each other to a race!

Norwood is clearly attempting to establish his own little corner of a myth cycle here.  The problem is that it feels so much like every other myth cycle ever that there’s no point.  Two brothers, become godlike, help people all over the world just because.   The only time the story nearly becomes interesting is when the brothers stop in a couple towns to help people out.  First, Tiger helps a small beggar boy with magic bread made of mud!  Then he hears rumors of a terrible winged lion, so he slays it and hands the credit to the same child.  Or, rather, hands the credit for being the one who watched Tiger slay the beast to the same child.  Okay, that wasn’t interesting.  Shallow hangs out in the same town with some prostitutes.  Still boring, for a god-like character.  But in the next city, Shallow gambles away all his money, then gets it back by telling them to become a casino city, so as to outdo their nearby Religious city which has super-hot temple prostitutes.  Are they Sodom and Gomorrah, maybe?  Who knows, because absolutely no character, location, or entity in the story is named save the brothers.  Which is a nice touch.  And this was almost a nice touch too, this event; it was an interesting little plot point, which was then moved on from within half a page of its introduction.

There is never any tension in the story.  Although I am sure that Norwood meant for the climax to be exciting and nervewracking, wherein the “Old Dark Gods” decide to punish the boys (at the end of their race) for thinking that they were on par with gods, it comes nowhere near.  Oh no.  How ever will Shallow stop being a dung beetle.  I can’t wait for this climax to be over in less than a page.  I was actually excited by the presence of “Old Dark Gods,” since I adore H.P. Lovecraft and thought that I was about to see something cool.  but the creepiest element of these hooded figures is that they (gasp!) spoke without their mouths moving!  Oh and they can turn god-like men into beetles.  Scaaaaaaaary!  Tiger arrives after Shallow and immediately figures out what has happened.  I half-expected him to just zap the nasty mean ol’ gods with his super powers before they could turn him into a beetle.  But no, Norwood opts for something even more tedious: Deux Ex Machina.  Tiger sees the situation and immediately…  prays.  He calls upon the “Young Bright Gods!” (oh my god uuuuuuuuugh) who….  come out of nowhere with absolutely no description and obliterate the Old Dark Gods and turn Shallow back into a guy.  How…  Exciting.  I sure am glad you didn’t put me on the edge of my seat, Norwood, because the whiplash from the shock of that solution would have given me cause to sue you.  Because wow, that was….  yeah, really exciting.  So exciting I lost my exclamation point key.

KJ Hannah Greenberg says in her review of  the entire issue for Tangent Online, “I experienced ‘Brothers of The River,’ as a chewy bit flavored by exquisite settings and wondrous actions, and as an intellectually nutritious morsel able to posit our needs to conquer our inner worlds. Well written to a word, this story delivers an important message.”  I would like very well to know what that message is, and how these boys conquered their inner worlds.  All they did was run around, help some people, and then ask the “young bright gods” (did I already say UUUGH?) to kill the “old dark gods”.  Then they turned into rivers.  What in the world is the message?  Pray to solve your problems?  Gambling is awesome when you have something that you can use to win back your losses, especially if that’s more gambling?  Brothers rock?  Rivers rock?  Were the dark old gods supposed to represent our inner worlds?  And for Shallow’s sake, how the Tiger did anyone in the story conquer their INNER worlds?

I am going to look for some other works by Norwood though.  I have this indefinite sense that there is a broader world behind Tiger and Shallow.  Plus, his writing style suggests that he could do some good things.  He just needs better stories and more tension.  Maybe he’s had such before; I don’t know!

(On another note, I’m noticing that a lot of responses for this issue of F&SF are from about a month ago.  Yet I just received my copy this week.  I’ll go ahead and assume that these are all from advance copies, but I’ve come across a small number of amateur reviews like mine as well.  Shall I forever be nearly a month behind on this magazine?  Oh, the drama!)