Dark Fantasy: is it suitable for the servants?

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darkcitadelThis week’s post is a guest article by Jane Dougherty, the author of the wonderfully grim fantasy novel The Dark Citadel. First in a series, it tells of a future religious/fascist dystopian society sheltering beneath an immense dome, around which prowl demons and creatures of legend. It’s refreshingly sinister and pulls no punches in its depiction of oppressive brutality. It also raises questions about the categorisation and censorship of books for young readers. In the old days no-one told teenagers what they should and shouldn’t read, now we have a whole industry devoted to producing ‘suitable’ fiction for those transitioning from childhood stories to ‘grownup’ writing. Is this just another example of our modern obsession with ‘appropriatness’ and control freakery? Read Jane’s excellent post and see what you think.

Dark Fantasy: is it suitable for the servants?

Since my first book, The Dark Citadel, was released at the beginning of October it has received several reviews pointing out the dark, violent aspects of the story, and its unsuitability for children. All fair comments—it is dark, and I never wrote it for children. But why write dark in the first place? What is its appeal?

After my youngest child was born I was kept more or less housebound in the winter with a rare condition, one of the symptoms of which is severe chilblains. Sounds funny but it wasn’t. The older children would bring armfuls of fantasy books back from the library and, not being able to choose any of my own, I read theirs. One series left a mark—Orcs, a particularly grim story by Stan Nicholls, with relentless violence set in an unspeakably awful world. It left a mark exactly because of the unremitting awfulness of it. What was an eleven year old doing reading this kind of stuff? Simple—our local library put all fantasy in the children’s section.

A few years later when I set to work on my first novel to please teenage children with epic fantasy indigestion, I had already decided that I wasn’t interested in talking animals, fascinating princes and forlorn or swashbuckling princesses. I was going for gritty fantastic realism, if that makes sense, not with monsters and endless battle scenes, but with true evil. There is so much more satisfaction to be got out of a really evil character than a good one.

Good versus Evil Cecil B. DeMille style

Good versus Evil Cecil B. DeMille style

So, my story was going to be dark. But what kind of darkness? There’s the Dark Lord type of darkness, the bloke who exists just to be evil and who must be fought with lots of bloodshed by massed coalitions of assorted un-evil peoples. This darkness smacks of cop out to me being simple sword-swinging with no moral consequences. If your enemy looks like something out of a freak show and comes at you in unfairly large numbers, there isn’t much to discuss.

I was much more interested in the Hannah Arendt notion of evil: its banality. In The Dark Citadel, the bumptious little Protector and the oppressive rules and strictures of the Elders’ theocracy are closer to Eichmann and the Taliban than to Sauron and his army of Orcs. Their evil is more chilling than the king of the demons who is after all only running true to type. Abaddon only exists and draws his strength from the real evil that the nasty regime has brewed without any prompting from him at all.

The Green Woman series is dark; unpleasant things happen, the world is ugly, and while some individuals make a stand against the ugliness, the majority are either tacit supporters or fully paid-up party members. As I see it, that’s pretty much how life is everywhere when your society is powerful and brutal. Do I think this kind of darkness makes suitable reading for young adults? Yes, I do. Without wishing to sound preachy, I believe that facing moral dilemmas and making the right decisions for the right reasons is part of becoming an adult, and writers who take that responsibility away from their young protagonists have created not heroes but selfish, immature human beings.

Evil as committee

Evil as committee

A case in point is The Hunger Games. For all I can appreciate the skill of the writing and the interesting storyline, I dislike the way the author is careful to avoid situations where Katniss has to take moral decisions. She kills children dammit, but the reader is expected to believe they deserved it, or else it was self-defence or a sort of accident. Katniss is deprived of the possibility of being heroic, and we know that for her credibility’s sake it’s just as well, because she wouldn’t have risen to the occasion.

Dark and nasty, but there is light at the end of the tunnel

Dark and nasty, but there is light at the end of the tunnel

The world of The Green Woman is not unadulterated darkness, and I haven’t done away with heroes, but they are the kind of heroes I admire: the partisans, the underdogs, the people who take risks to save others. None of them is handy with a sword, and there isn’t a single fledgling prince among them either.

If I had tried to pitch The Dark Citadel at an adult market, the elements of violence and evil would not have posed a problem. But the main protagonists are teenagers; therefore, according to the great god of marketing, this is a young adult novel. And when you’re talking about young adults you can forget the adult bit. We are talking here essentially about old children, and children are not supposed to be able to handle unpleasantness, even though they see far worse in visual images every time they turn on the TV.

This idea that the transition from Dora to Kafka will not take place naturally, and that without proper guidance, disastrous psychological damage may result, has opened the way for publishers to go to town on book categories. There was a time not so long ago when there were books for children and books for everyone who could understand or imagine what it means to be an adult. Children decided for themselves when they could handle something a little more edgy than Pooh sticks. Which did not mean that they immediately leapt for the Marquis de Sade. Kids read what they enjoy and understand.

Is there a limit to the kind of dark young adults should be expected to deal with? The answer, in my opinion is that if it’s good enough for adults, it’s good enough for young adults. I’m not a defender of gratuitous violence, violence used simply to titillate, but it has its place in a story about a brutal totalitarian regime. In fact, Providence without violence would not be credible. No more credible than an evil regime without opponents.

I didn’t write a totally dark story. True, it gets worse before it gets better, but there is hope in a better world, not just a return to the old one. Wherever there is evil there will always be resistance, otherwise humanity may as well just turn off the lights, put the key under the door and stumble off into oblivion.

Jane Dougherty

Jane Dougherty

You can buy The Dark Citadel from Amazon.com here and from Amazon.co.uk here I can also highly recommend Jane’s blog where she talks about writing, poetry and her life in France.

Visualising Ragged Claws in 3D

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Raggedclaws3

The first draft of my next novel and sequel to Thumb, Ragged Claws, is now finished and tucked safely in a drawer for a month. It’s hard not to keep re-reading and tinkering, but I know from experience that if you’re not careful you end up reading what’s in your head, not what’s in the manuscript itself. So to keep myself occupied I’m spending the next few weeks creating the artwork and for that I’ll be using the 3D animation software Houdini 13, which was released last week. Normally a full licence for this would cost anywhere up to $9,000. That’s if you are one of the big studios who uses it for movies like Thor: The Dark World or Gravity. For people like me there’s the ‘starving artist’ edition which is a mere $99, which is incredible really because it’s no different to the full version. The only difference is if you use this on your Hollywood blockbuster, SideFX’s lawyers will pull your toenails out.

Many many years ago (1974) BBC 2 did a series called ‘The Do-it Yourself Film Animation Show‘ which showed people how to make their own cartoons, with the help of famous animators like Terry Gilliam of Monty Python, and Bob Godfrey who was responsible for the hysterical he’s-eaten-too-many-jelly-tots cartoon Roobarb. In those days the technology stretched to cut out bits of paper, felt pen and biro (which gave Roobarb it’s unmistakeable psychedelic vibe) and for the really ambitious, acrylic paint on acetate (Disney). I built myself a rostrum with bits of wood and paint cans, bought a second hand ex-Wermacht (probably) Standard 8 cine camera and made a few films. It was great and I fell in love with animation.

A couple of Vipers I built using the 3D package Lightwave.

A couple of Vipers I built using the 3D package Lightwave.

I saw Tron in 1982 and like every other geek on the planet my jaw hit the floor with a loud clang. Even though the actual animation in the film is under 20 minutes, the potential it had for creating entirely believable fantasy and science fiction worlds captured my imagination. Over the next thirty years I tinkered on and off with different 3D computer packages, creating landscapes in Bryce 3D with its ground-breaking terrain generators, and learning how to build Battlestar Galactica Vipers in Lightwave which, for a short while, was the program of choice for budding 3D animators. The special effects in Babylon 5 and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica were both done in Lightwave.

There are essentially three levels of 3D software for those interested in having a go. At the bottom end Daz3D and Poser are used by many to populate Uncanny Valley with thousands of unfeasibly-breasted fantasy mannequins. These programs operate a bit like an Action Man or Barbie set – get a standard human figure, pull it about a bit to turn it into a character, dress it up and plonk it in a pre-designed landscape. Bingo, Thongar the Barbarian rescues Princess Mammaria from a giant Steampunk Robot. You can actually get very good results if you put in the time and effort, though it’s pretty easy to spot artwork from this end of the spectrum because of the doll-like sameness of a lot of the images (and the slightly, er, adolescent subject matter).

Houdini demo reel

There’s not as much available mid-level any more, although the wonderful free program Blender is still around. This is because 3D animation has now reached such a level of sophistication that in order to achieve the quality expected by most production houses you have to go for one of the high end professional packages. In the past these cost an arm and a leg. A lot of companies realised that this was counterproductive if they wanted to make sure that each new generation of artists were adequately skilled in their software. So they started making student editions available, which is great news for the rest of us who baulk at stumping up $9000 a licence. The professional 3D animation world is dominated by Autodesk’s Maya, and Houdini, which is odd because you will very rarely hear about the latter in 3D forums, despite being used on just about every major movie. Opening credits to Skyfall? Big splashy whale in Life of Pi? All done in Houdini. The problem is that the software uses a completely different paradigm to all the other packages, which makes it both incredibly powerful but also a bit of a challenge to learn. Once the penny drops, though, it’s fantastic to work with.

At the moment I’m working on the back cover for the book. Without giving too much away I wanted to show some strange vehicles making their way over a weird blocky landscape in an empty universe. As I mentioned before, the overall aesthetic I wanted to aim for was somewhere between the art of the German Expressionists, and the very early SF covers of the 1930s, especially those of Frank R. Paul and Wesso. I didn’t want to make it look like a super realistic vision of the future – partly because I see too much of that in movies, and partly because it takes huge teams of software engineers months to make it look good.

Test render of the strange Expressionist caravan.

Test render of the strange Expressionist caravan.

So here is the strange vehicle. It had to look sinister, and slightly distorted, like a child’s toy that’s gone a bit grotesquely mad. Without going into too much technical detail, Houdini uses a procedural system that allows you to work at any stage of a model build so you can revisit earlier parts and make fundamental changes without impacting on the details you add later. In this case I decided to fatten up the wheels and angle them a bit more, to make them look reminiscent of a bug’s legs.

An early test render for the mysterious vehicles.

An early test render for the mysterious vehicles.

The next thing I wanted to create was the landscape. It’s the skin of a man-made mannequin five hundred thousand miles long, built from debris and scrap brought from the distant past. Up close it’s a wilderness of blocks, shapes and lights flung together. I’ve built a routine in Houdini that allows me to randomly generate huge swathes of this landscape. Here’s an initial render of the landscape to allow me to check the geometry of the scene.

Test render of the surface of the titan's skin. High above the atmosphere.

Test render of the surface of the titan’s skin. High above the atmosphere.

At this point it’s worth stating the number 1 Golden Rule of 3D.

THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR IN A 3D IMAGE IS THE LIGHT

It’s also the bit that’s often ignored. After spending months building, rigging and texturing a model a lot of artists just bung in a couple of lights and end up with the kind of unmotivated and flat illumination that plagues many 3D images. Obviously with the scene set in the eternal night at the end of the universe I’ve got to get the balance right between showing a landscape plunged into darkness, lit here and there with a few guttering lamps or mystic light sources, and making sure enough of the scene is visible and recognisable. Here’s a draft of the final image, with the vehicles added to the landscape.

Raggedclaws3

The whole thing needs a lot more work, but as a first pass I’m quite happy with the results.

Pards and Manticores – A Medieval Bestiary

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Manticore from a 13th Century Bestiary. Check out that cool hat.

Manticore from a 13th Century Bestiary. Check out that cool hat.

Herodotus the father of history divided knowledge into three types. Things he saw with his own eyes, information people told him which he could verify as true, and things he couldn’t verify and might easily be completely made up. He visited Egypt, and so when he writes about its manners and customs we can be assured that his descriptions are more or less accurate, if a bit quirky. Gold-hoarding giant furry ants living in India were clearly the deranged invention of someone he met in a pub

Medieval monks faced the same problems but magnified. Herodotus got about a bit. Your average Brother in 13th century Lindisfarne rarely ventured further than the monastery herb garden, and so their understanding of nature follows the same pattern as Herodotus’s writings. They can confidently talk about dogs, cats, mice and jackdaws but once they’re asked to describe creatures a bit further away they struggle. Lions, camels and elephants they can just about manage – after all Biblical tradition is full of those – but they rapidly come unstuck with Rhinocerii, Chameleons, Manticores and other fabulous creatures. This didn’t stop them having a go, especially in England where we have a unique tradition of beautiful illustrated catalogues of medieval creatures. One of my favourite books is the Folio edition of a Medieval Bestiary from the Bodlean Library in Oxford. It dates from round about the thirteenth century (the time of King Edward I) and is full of wonderful illuminated miniatures of the animals it describes. Bestiaries are a fantastic window onto the medieval mind.

Pages from a medieval bestiary.

Pages from a medieval bestiary.

To understand why they came up with stuff that seems ludicrous to us now, it’s useful to know some of the basic principles of medieval alchemy. To begin with everything had a secret name that concealed its true nature. When Adam named the animals he used the original language of Eden, which monks thought to be the language of God. This was lost when God destroyed the Tower of Babel and mixed all the languages up. If an alchemist could rediscover the true names of things he would have power over them. Bestiaries go to great lengths to determine the etymology of animal names – even if they’re clearly making stuff up again (“The name mule comes from the Greek, because the beast is yoked by the miller to the heavy millstone”).

Secondly medieval learning was founded on reasoning through association. If objects appeared similar in the great scheme of things, it was because they had real relationships that could be manipulated. To give a simple example – the sun is the greatest celestial object, the king is the most powerful man, the lion the strongest animal and gold the noblest metal. Therefore these four items are linked through mystical relationships that, if discovered, can allow them to be controlled. It’s all complete nonsense of course, but it was central to the medieval mindset.

Gryphon eating a pig.

Gryphon eating a pig, or dancing with it.

Finally knowledge came from ancient books, not from reality. Plato and Aristotle received their wisdom more or less from God, even if they were pagans and it came to them in a slightly roundabout way (involving the Egyptian God Thoth, and Moses). So what they said was divine truth. If a monk looked out of the window and saw something different (e.g. a bear giving birth to something obviously a little bear, instead of an amorphous lump that it subsequently licked into shape) then nature had probably got it wrong, which was understandable because it was corrupt, sinful and messy, whereas God’s wisdom as described by Aristotle was eternal and true.

Bestiaries were essentially religious books. Medieval scholars would often misread animal behaviour by awarding it moral qualities. Thus if an ape “bears twins, she will love one and hate the other. If she happens to be pursued by hunters she will clasp the one she loves in front of her and carry the one she hates on her back.” Nearly every animal echoes a lesson from Scripture. The basilisk, which can kill a man by looking at him “signifies the devil, who openly kills the heedless sinner with his venom”. Often the desire to force an analogy leads to the good brothers dispensing misleading, if not fatal, advice. The lion, we are told, represents Jesus and is therefore filled with mercy and kindness. This is “confirmed by numerous examples: they will spare men lying on the ground, and will lead captives whom they meet to their home.” They also have sex face to face, as do the lynx, camel, elephant and rhinoceros – so perhaps the Can You Feel The Love Tonight bit in Disney’s The Lion King wasn’t so wide of the mark.

Because Lions are like Jesus they won't attack pilgrims who lie down. Honest.

Because Lions are like Jesus they won’t attack pilgrims who lie down. Honest.

The Bodleian Library Bestiary cheerfully wanders all over the known world in a fairly random fashion. Ethiopia gets mentioned a lot, probably because it hosted one of the earliest Christian churches and so there were well-established lines of communication between it and rest of Christendom (by medieval standards anyway). The common language of Latin united religious communities in a wide-ranging network of information exchange, even if the information itself was often muddle-headed, apocryphal or just plain wrong. Outside the known world we are firmly in the realm of Bored Monks Making Stuff Up. The chameleon looks like a one-eyed multicoloured deer. The amphisbaena “is so called because it has two heads, one in the right place, the other on its tail. It goes in the direction of both heads, and its body forms a circle” and the manticore is bright red with a human face and three rows of teeth.

You have to admire the imagination of the monks, not least for the stunning illustrations, and we have them to thank for considerable chunks of the D&D Monster Manual. It’s a shame that manticores don’t exist, and that lions are a slightly less accommodating than their cuddly medieval counterparts. On the other hand there’s less chance of an unwary traveller being eaten because he lay down in front of a enormous hungry African carnivore hoping it would be all meek and mild like Jesus

Things to Come (1936)

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Things to Come PosterIn 1936 Alexander Korda, flush from his success with The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), collaborated with H. G. Wells to turn the writer’s future history The Shape of Things to Come (1933) into a movie, ending up with what is probably the first attempt to make a serious SF film. What emerged is one of the most fascinatingly bizarre movies in science fiction film history, one which gives a stunning insight into just how prescient, and how completely misguided, Wells’s vision of the future was, especially in the context of what was happening in European politics at the time.

The first thing you notice when watching the film is the poor quality of the images, (few decent prints survived of the movie) and everybody’s accent. The ordinary British people portrayed in Things to Come make the inhabitants of Downton Abbey sound like the Sex Pistols during one of their more incoherent moments. This goes beyond posh to Utterly Alien Noises. Cut-glass stage accents of the 1930s do almost sound like another language, and effect is compounded by the extremely stagey performances of the cast. Raymond Massey and Edward Chapman play three generations of the same characters, Cabal and Passworthy, and their conversation around the Christmas tree circa 1940 goes something like this:

CABAL: “WOOOORS and ROOOOmers of WOOR, wetivir will heppen to es oorl?”,

PASSWORTHY: “Bet Kebel, the lest WOOOR wesnt as bed as sem peeple meik art”

CABAL: “Pisswirthy – If we do net end WOOOOR then WOOOOR will end es!”.

It takes a bit of getting used to, but thankfully the sacchirine vision of 1930s Christmas round the tree ends when the unnamed ‘enemy’ bombs the town flat, ushering a montage showing the World War lasting from 1940 to 1966 by which time civilisation has collapsed and toothless hicks throw boulders at each other until an epidemic called ‘the wandering sickness’ brings the conflict to a halt.

'Nye lick haar, Mr. Aviator'. - Ralph Richardson looking about 16 as the 'Chief'.

‘Nye lick hyaar, Mr. Aviator, ‘Eym thi boorrss rynd hyaar!’. – Ralph Richardson looking about 16 as the ‘Chief’.

In the second part of the film, set in 1970, local upstart dictator ‘the Chief’, played by Ralph Richardson, finds his power challenged by the arrival of Cabal sporting black leather and flying a futuristic airplane. Cue lots of theatrical marching up and down and declaiming as the pompous tyrant of the ‘Indipindint sivirin steyt et WOOOR’ is faced down by the representative of Wings over the World – the new world order of black leather-clad scientists who finally roll up with a massive fleet of bombers to put the Chief in his place by dropping sleeping gas on everyone (the Chief, however conveniently dies because there is ‘ner pleys for his sert in the New Werld Erder’). By this time the modern viewer starts thinking ‘hang on a sec..’ as the leader of quasi-military Wings over the World, surrounded by men dressed like SS officers complete with brylcreemed hair, sets out his vision of a Scientific World of Tomorrow.

CabalWingsovertheWorld

The arrival of Wings over the World in nice black uniforms and slightly impractical helmets.

Next comes one of the most visually impressive parts of the film as a montage of special effects and model work fast-forwards us through the scientific advances of the next sixty six years and the building of the new Everytown underground. For some reason early visions of the 21st century had us all flouncing around in neo-classical gowns and flip flops, so thankfully the cod-Luftwaffe uniforms have been replaced by capes and togas. Man stands on the eve of his greatest triumph, as Cabal’s great grandson. (again played by Massey) prepares to fire his daughter and Passworthy’s son at the moon with the Space Gun. Sadly, despite the triumph of science, rebellion still lurks in the form of Cedric Hardwicke’s Theotocopulos (don’t ask) whose thundering performance makes the previous hour look like an essay in Martin Scorcese-directed method acting. His objections to the Space Gun seem to be founded on nothing more than an artists’s suspicion of science and a desire to return to a time when ‘LIFE (raise fist to heavens) WAS (march up and down) HOT (flare nostrils and boggle eyes) AND (flip cloak dramatically over shoulder) MERRY!!!! (exhale and strike a pose). Despite an absence of any content or cogent argument, other than bellowing variations on ‘WE DON’T WANT YOUR PROGRESS!’ he whips up the inhabitants of Everytown into rent-a-mob in about two minutes flat and they all charge off to destroy the Space Gun.

At the Space Telescope

At the Space Telescope

The last exchange between the descendants of Cabal and Passworthy as they watch the progress of their offspring via a giant telescope is worth quoting at length (you’ll have to imagine the accents this time):

PASSWORTHY: “But we are such little creatures. Poor humanity. So fragile–so weak.”

CABAL: “If we are no more than animals–we must snatch at our little scraps of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more–than all the other animals do–or have done.” (He points out at the stars.) “It is that–or this? All the universe–or nothingness…. Which shall it be, Passworthy?”

Cue heavenly chorus belting out ‘WHICH SHELL IT BEEEEEE?!’ over the credits.

Wells got the future spectacularly wrong, which is not so surprising. What is surprising is how the film manages to get the present completely wrong as well. It shows such a misguided understanding of the state of things in the inter-war period that it becomes hard to understand why Wells was seen as such a profound political thinker at the time. To be fair, English culture during this era wasn’t known for its subtle perceptions of the movements of history. There was England and the Empire, and then a lot of irrelevant stuff like France and Germany in between.  Many English writers and film makers subsequently had their gaze locked firmly inwards and Wells and Korda were no exception. Hence the movie cheerfully echoes images and ideas lifted wholesale from Italian and German fascism (world domination by a ‘scientific’ elite, progress as nothing more than the manifestation of Nietzchean will, kinky black leather uniforms) without being aware that it’s doing so. The villiains of the piece are cartoon straw men conjured from the Home Counties or the pages of Richmal Crompton’s Just William – Richardson’s Colonel Blimp ‘Chief’, Hardwicke’s Oscar Wilde look-a-like pampered Bohemian, both quickly vanquished by Wells’s rhetoric.

It’s easy to see how later writers like Orwell grew impatient with what they saw as Wells’s dangerous naivety. To be fair, Wells was not alone in his blinkered understanding of what was really happening around him. Right up until the mid 1930s fear of communism trumped disquiet about fascism, and British papers like The Daily Mail happily praised Mussolini, Franco and Mosley’s British Union of Fascists while moaning about Jewish immigrants fleeing Nazi persecution. Efficient leaders that sorted out the world’s muddles, kept the wrong-headed in their place and got things done in a scientific way were to be admired. In the first half of the 1930s only a few astute loners like Churchill realised where this thinking would, and did, end up.

H. G. Wells on the set of Things to Come

H. G. Wells on the set of Things to Come

Despite its faults Things to Come is a wonderfully fascinating film to watch. It’s stagey and bombastic with zero characterisation. The actors are nothing more than mouthpieces for Wells repetitive speechifying about Progress vs Ignorance and much of it drags, especially at the beginning. But some of the montages and set pieces are brilliantly staged. As a piece of science fiction film history and an example of the wrong-headedness of much 1930s UK political commentary it’s a treat to watch.

Not surprisingly the real world betrayed Wells’s utopian dream. Having being lauded as a profound political thinker and future prophet, he travelled the pre-war globe to talk with world leaders, famously asking Stalin what he intended to do about world peace. Yet within years World War II had taken his Utopian dream of a global empire ruled by efficient scientists and turned it into a grotesque nightmare. The extent of his disillusionment is clear from the title of his last book, The Mind at the End of its Tether (1946).

Things to Come can be watched on YouTube here

And here is H. G. Wells’s script for the film.

The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

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bookmanscoverLike a moth to the flame I find myself once again drawn into the strange world of the Shakespeare authorship question, though this time it’s through the entirely charming and entertaining novel The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett. This is a thriller aimed at antiquarian book lovers, and as such falls somewhere between The DaVinci Code (it’s much better written than Dan Brown’s book), and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Like a  modern-day William of Baskerville, mild-mannered nerdy book lover Peter Byerly finds himself caught up in a mystery framed by the question – what ancient volume would contain marginalia so explosive as to lead to treachery and murder?

Overcome by the death of his floaty Pre-Raphaelitesque wife Amanda, Peter flees to the UK to hide from the world.  He discovers what seems to be her portrait in an old book shop in Haye-on-Wye on the Welsh border. The only problem is that the picture is a Victorian watercolour. Not only that but in trying to track down the picture’s origins Peter rapidly finds himself stumbling across an even more astonishing find which, if shown to be genuine, would prove once and for all that jobbing oik William Shakespeare from Stratford was indeed the author of at least one of his plays. Of course such a volume treads on the toes of enough nutters to prompt betrayal and violence throughout the centuries, and Peter finds himself caught up in a tangle of plot and counterplot that stretches back to the early 17th century.

It’s a very entertaining novel, especially for someone like me who both loves old books and Shakespeare. Lovett has precisely captured both the seductive attraction of browsing old bookstores (and the pleasure of the real ‘find’) and the often convoluted and bizarrely over-intense world of book collectors, dealers and forgers. This is not surprising given that Lovett himself is a book collector and ex antiquarian bookseller, and it’s clear that much of the novel is written from his own experience. Indeed the narrative itself often sounds like the mildly obsessive but charming pedants who run the second hand bookshops I love to visit.

Not surprisingly then, The Bookman’s Tale shines in its descriptions of old books and the meticulous process of restoration, especially in the chapter where Peter rebinds an edition of George MacDonald’s classic Victorian children’s tale At the Back of the North Wind for Amanda. Her character is clearly constructed as a shy academic’s fantasy. She’s beautiful, bookish, indescribably fey and sophisticated. Naturally her response to being given a lovingly hand-bound and personalised copy of an antiquarian book is to tear her clothes off in gratitude for the first of a series of bouts of unrestrained shagging on (where else?) a library floor. At this point the author’s own personal fantasies get a bit too obvious, but the scenes still manage to capture a real sense of affection between the two socially inept bookworms that redeems the daftness.

Charlie Lovett

Charlie Lovett

The Bookman’s Tale is also occasionally hampered by its academic subject matter. Lovett’s desire to slip in as much historical and technical information into the scenes can come across as a bit laboured. At times it feels as if every mention of a historical character has to have a quick lecture tossed in for good measure. In half a page’s wander through an Elizabethan tavern we get potted histories of Thomas Nashe, George Peele, John Lyly, Christopher Marlowe and of course the upstart glove maker’s son Shakespeare. Later on in the book Peter mentions W.H. Smiths and we are treated to a quick aside about how the newsagents was founded by a First Sea Lord under Disraeli who was the inspiration for Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. At points like this the novel sounds a bit like a Mastermind contestant specialising in antiquarian esoterica but it does actually work, in rather an odd way, because when it happens the narrative voice echoes the obsessive introspection of the main character Peter. It’s quite an achievement to make a painfully shy, fusty young fogie rendered even more self-absorbed with grief into an interesting lead and yet Lovett not only manages to do this, but charts the man’s re-emergence into day to day life with convincing sympathy.

Beyond the world of books and scholarship the book is less assured and occasionally relies on cinematic cliches apparently channeled in from movies like Sleepless in Seattle and (in one odd scene) Play It Again Sam. In this chapter Peter is on a dinner date with a possible love interest and seems to see the ghost of Amanda appear in the restaurant to regale him with a bit of chat-up advice (“‘Tell her about the opera,’  Amanda mouthed to him, before fading away.”). Fair enough, though at the end of the anecdote not only is the hero and his date in tears, but Ghost Amanda is also having a bit of a grizzle. Scenes like this, that might just work on the screen, end up being a wee bit ridiculous in the book.

But these are minor quibbles as The Bookman’s Tale is clearly intended to be nothing more than a very sophisticated and elegant intellectual mystery story by and for people who love old books and bookstores. Compared to Dan Brown’s nonsensical churnings it’s well written and scampers back and forth through the ages without losing the plot or getting too much caught up in potted lectures on the admittedly labyrinthine genealogy of old volumes. It certainly had me gripped. Perhaps its frequent leaning on Hollywood imagery represents a big hint to those who might think it had the makings of, at least, a mid-level romantic mystery starring (at a guess) Jude Law and Emily Blunt. We’ll have to see.

The book is available from Amazon.co.uk here

and from Amazon.com here

Charlie Lovett’s website is here.

First Draft in 30 Days – Karen S. Wiesner

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wiesnerI’ve always been very suspicious of books or computer programs that offer up a system for writing, as you can probably tell by my comments on Dramatica Pro. The methodologies proposed often claim to have nailed the perfect story structure, or character arc, and guarantee success if the writer sticks to the process described. Dramatica Pro‘s surreal madness is at one end of a spectrum that includes such programs as Contour (“Your main character’s journey is explained through archetypal themes”) and books like The Plot Whisperer (“STEP 16: How Do I Plot the Protagonist’s Rediscovered Gift?”). Admittedly, a lot of these formulaic methodologies are aimed at people trying to write the next Hollywood blockbuster, but I’ve got an innate distrust of any process that claims to reduce the infinite variety of the novel down to a set of archetypes.

The problem started with Tzevtan Todorov and his Morphology of the Folktale (1928). Widely held as a classic of the Formalist movement it was an attempt to apply rational principles to the study of literature by categorising Russian fairy stories and looking for common elements. Todorov ended up with a scheme that looks remarkably similar to a lot of writing systems touted around today – casting characters as types and having them follow pre-determined story arcs (‘The Seeker Agrees To or Decides Upon Counteraction’). Todorov tried to turn this approach into a fully-fledged scientific method – here is his formula for the folk tale called ‘The Swan Geese’ (honestly!):

Todorov

I can’t imagine why Todorov’s method never caught on, but he sowed the seed for approaches that claim to encapsulate every possible story (or at least most of them) in a piece of software or a book, and tell you that if you follow their steps you’ll end up with a small but perfectly formed and infinitely sellable novel. Personally I think it’s snake oil. Todorov analysed a specific group of folk tales that follow a set pattern, so its not surprising that the same ideas keep cropping up. But apply that approach to, say, Kafka’s The Trial, Asimov’s The God’s Themselves and Tolstoy’s War and Peace and it all falls apart, which is probably why Formalism ran into a dead end very quickly, and stopped being used as a method of literary analysis.

From Tom Gauld - You're All Just Jealous of my Jetpack

From Tom Gauld – You’re All Just Jealous Of My Jetpack

So it was with some suspicion that I came across Karen Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days. This was shortly after getting the first cut of Thumb back from John Jarrold. I was faced with a significant rewrite and scratching my head about how to start. I’d always been a pantser, rather than a planner. I’d have a strong opening, a rough idea of where it was all going, and I’d start writing, hoping that like a walk in the fog, the vague shapes ahead would resolve themselves as I made my way along the path. For all the reasons John had outlined, this approach wasn’t really working. Then I saw that The Guardian newspaper was running  a series called How to Write a Book in 30 Days, as part of NaNoWriMo 2012. So I thought what the heck and decided to give it a go. It turned out that the article was exaggerating a bit. It was based on Karen Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days, and at the end of it you would have a fully-defined outline with all the plot, characters, research and background in place, ready to fill up with the actual words, rather than a finished book. I quickly found that, for me, the approach she was advocating actually worked and I’m now a committed planner following a bastardised/simplified version of the Wiesner method, despite years of standing in the corner and laughing cynically whenever someone ran into the room waving the next copy of ‘Desmond Throckle’s Epic Story Crafter 2.0′.

Chandler's Law - if you get stuck have a man come through the door with a gun.

Chandler’s Law – if you get stuck have a man come through the door with a gun.

So why am I hooked? To begin with Wiesner doesn’t really advocate a structural methodology – there’s none of this ‘Make sure your Contagonist enhances his feeling of Becoming before the Option Lock’ bollocks. The only approach she suggests is building a plot on a series of crises, failures and re-alignments, i.e. Heroine tries something, Heroine Fails, Heroine Thinks of Something Else, Heroine Tries Again, Heroine Fails  - rinse and repeat until Heroine Succeeds in the penultimate chapter. You don’t have to follow this – but it gives you a prompt to keep the tension going if you are writing an action thriller or similar. This helped me tick off one of John’s cast iron rules of fiction, that there must be clarity and pace at all times.

Essentially my version of Wiesner’s approach is as follows:

1) Sort out your characters (I work on about 6 main characters, legacy of when I wrote film scripts and the main driver was keeping costs down – fewer actors to pay)

2) Sort out your locations

3) Decide your main plot

4) Toss in half a dozen subplots (including the romantic tension one)

5) Do your research/world building

6) Write a short outline – in my case if it’s a 120,000 word novel, then I aim for an initial precis of 120 sentences.

7) Rewrite the outline, each time expanding it to encompass plots and subplots, until you’ve turned your 120 or so sentences into a stack of ‘scenes’, each of  which will end up roughly 1000 words long in the final book.

And that, more or less, is it. It’s actually very simple, but if you stick to this approach you end with your story laid out in synopsis form, with all the plot wrinkles and character interactions sorted out before you start to write the actual words. As Wiesner points out, if you find out something is not working and you only have a synopsis to change it’s a lot easier and less traumatic than having to go back and rewrite massive portions of the actual novel itself.

Edgar Rice Burroughs dictating a novel.

Edgar Rice Burroughs dictating a novel.

So, for Ragged Claws I have a synopsis divided into 120 1000 word scenes, and each scene has its own description (250 – 500 words long) saying exactly what happens, who does what to who and how they feel about it. The beauty of it is that the stress and chances of writer’s block are hugely reduced. If I get stuck on a scene I can skip it and write one further down the list, knowing that because the story is already worked out I’m unlikely to bugger up the continuity or development.

Wiesner’s book consists of a load of forms to fill in to achieve a fully formed synopsis, along with a day by day calendar showing what to write and when. In her world you end up with a giant folder full of paper for each book. I just bunged all her templates into Scrivener and used that instead. This makes things more efficient because you can search and filter, and use colour tagging to keep track of characters and subplots.

Like many systems, there’s the inevitable tension between designing something simple and easy to use and ensuring people buying the book don’t feel they’ve shelled out $19.99 for a process you can fit on the back of an envelope. So Wiesner’s book suffers from a tendency to over-complicate her approach. But if you can extract what’s useful (for me, it’s the seven steps above) and combine it with software like Scrivener to handle all the admin, then I can highly recommend her planning methodology.

The ultimate plot of anything, ever, with a topless Pirate Queen as well

Seriously, what more do you need? The ultimate plot – with pirates.

If you want to have a look before you buy the book then the pages on the Guardian website are an ideal place to begin.

Wiesner’s Write Your Novel in 30 Days is available from Amazon.co.uk here, and Amazon.com here

Tom Gauld does brilliantly witty cartoons on literature (SF in particular) and writing. His website is here.

His latest book of cartoons – You’re All Just Jealous Of My Jetpack is available from Amazon.co.uk. here, and Amazon.com here

Elysium (2013)

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Felysiumposter

Beware – mild spoiler alert.

It’s a truism that, on the whole, film and TV sf lags behind the written genre by twenty to thirty years. With Elysium we’re firmly back in mid-90s Cyberpunk territory. Elite super-rich live in their Tory/Republican paradise on the orbital structure Elysium, while the proles endure short miserable lives in the squalor of earth-bound shanty towns, forbidden from going anywhere near the space habitat. Throw in rebel hackers, enhanced cyborg mercenaries and an array of weaponry designed to blow people to bits in imaginatively gory ways and the end result is a tightly-paced, gritty political thriller that seems centred around the thorny issue of public health care. While the elite cure their cancers by lying on a super medical sun bed for thirty seconds (and getting a couple of cool tats thrown in for good measure), for the poor down here on Earth it’s a race between waiting lists in squalid under-resourced public hospitals and inevitable death or disablement. Having given apartheid the once over in District 9, Neill Blomkamp turns his attention to Obamacare.

Matt Damon plays Max Da Costa, an ex car-thief on parole in a factory making the police robots who are programmed to cheerfully duff up any proles who step out of line (one of them breaks his arm at the start of the film for being a bit lippy). A major health and safety incident on the assembly line leaves him with five days to live and so he decides to try and get to Elysium to be cured. He falls in with a bunch of hackers who fly dangerous refugee runs to the space station and they agree to help him if he steals the data carried in one of the elite’s heads (William Fichtner’s wonderfully sneery John Carlyle), which will give them flight access codes for the space structure. Damon ends up with more than just a set of passwords and the rest of the film is a race between him getting himself (along with ex-girlfriend and her daughter suffering from leukaemia) to Elysium and a squad of shadow assassins who want to pull his head off and hand it over to the villain so she can use the information inside to pursue her nefarious schemes.

Space Habitat Elysium, home of the .01%

Space Habitat Elysium, home of the .01%

Jodie Foster does an interesting turn as Elysium’s uber-Fascist Secretary of Defence, cheerfully destroying shuttles full of crippled children making a desperate bid for the space station’s medical facilities. Her performance is convincing, if curiously mannered, and I haven’t a clue what accent she thinks she’s doing. At some points of the film it almost seems that her lips are out of sync with the noises coming out of her mouth. She sounds more like her old self when speaking in French (Jodie Foster is fluent). They speak a lot of French on Elysium,  clearly a sign of utter evil. Her exit from the film is anti-climactic, as though having built up such a magnificent villain Blomkamp didn’t really know what to do with her, other than have her order nutters about and stare at computer screens chewing her lip as her plans for world domination unravel.

Jodie Foster as the cool, French speaking, uber-babe villain

Jodie Foster as the cool, French speaking, uber-babe villain

Elysium owes a lot to the 1995 Cyberpunk film Johnny Mnemonic, scripted by William Gibson from his short story of the same name, and staring Keanu Reeves as a data courier who stores information in his head. In both cases cyber-enhanced heroes have data to change the world embedded in their minds (though poor Keanu had to use a memory doubler to increase his brain capacity to a whopping 160 GB, losing most of his childhood memories as a result and suffering a nose bleed in the process). They are then pursued by a demented corporate mercenary disguised as a monk. That turned into one of the film’s OMG moments as mild-mannered clerk Wikus (Sharlto Copley) from District 9 turns up with bits of an Airfix kit glued to his face and a Rasputin beard as deranged cyber warrior Kruger. He’s completely bonkers and magnificent to watch, uttering a stream of surreal matey banter in a sarcastic South African accent. Johnny Mnemonic just went daft at the end, Elysium finishes with a climactic chase and battle through the corridors of the habitat. There is a slight sense of ‘ho hum here we go’ as super-enhanced warriors lay into each other in a riot of that sepia-tinted blurry camera-work everyone uses these days, but the fights are livened up by Sharlto Copley’s irreverent Jo’burg bar quips.

And a bit of a Mad Max tribute for good measure

And a bit of a Mad Max tribute for good measure

The visual imagery is fantastic, a lot of it reprising the cool newsreel style of District 9 as battered shuttles coast over mile after mile of dusty shanty town. Elysium itself is designed by the famous futurist artist Syd Mead (who worked on, among other things, Blade Runner), very much in the style of 1970s and 80s architectural illustrations – cold and ascetic with a retro yuppie feel.

Back from chasing 'Feckin Prons', Sharlto Copley does Rasputin in Technical Lego

Back from chasing ‘Feckin Prons’, Sharlto Copley does Rasputin in Technical Lego

All in all it’s an entertaining movie. Inevitably comparisons are being made between it and District 9. As is often the case when a quirky new director is given loads of money to go mainstream the results can be disappointing as the barmy tongue-in-cheek anarchy of District 9 makes way for a more po-faced and conventional Matt Damon action thriller. Even so the grungy feel of poverty-ridden and overcrowded Earth is fantastically atmospheric, and most of the actors rise above their typecast roles.

There are some wonderful little touches scattered through the movie – Matt Damon’s robot parole officer with its face covered in graffiti by disgruntled clients, William Fichtner’s factory boss telling his foreman to cover his mouth when he speaks so he doesn’t have to smell his breath, and mad Sharlto Copley singing a nursery rhyme in Afrikaans. Republicans have denounced the film as socialist (like they did with Wall-E). What better recommendation do you need?

Flatland 2: Sphereland

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FlatlandSpherelandFlatland 2: Sphereland is the sequel to the movie Flatland which I mentioned in a blog post last year. It’s a charming 36 minute animated short based on the original novel by Edwin Abbott, and one of the book’s own sequels Sphereland: A Fantasy About Curved Spaces and an Expanding Universe, written in 1965 by the Dutch mathematician Dionys Burger.

The story takes place twenty years after the original, in which the Flatlander Arthur Square (Martin Sheen) and his daughter Hex (Kristen Bell) discovered the third dimension with the help of Spherius, a denizen of that realm voiced by Michael York. Her grandfather is now dead and Hex is ridiculed by the inhabitants of Flatland who still refuse to believe in the existence of dimensions beyond their own. Outcast from society, she waits for the return of the portal that will lead to the higher realms, and Spherius who has disappeared. At the same time the Flatlanders are preparing to launch a spaceship to take advantage of a rare alignment of planets in their flat universe.The ship will fly in a parallel line to the worlds so the crew can make observations.

The Flatlander's rocket ship

The Flatlander’s rocket ship

However one of the navigators, Puncto, has found an anomaly. Whenever he triangulates the position of distant planets his triangle’s angles add up to more than 180 degrees, and the discrepancy gets bigger the further the planet, the implication being that the parallel course plotted for the ship may end up being anything but. Anyone with a familiarity with maths and geometry can probably figure out the reason why. If not, it’s another reason to watch the movie. The discovery about the true nature of the Flatland’s universe coincides with the return of Spherius and the revelation that there are even more dimensions beyond the third.

Hex and Puncto discuss the triangulation anomaly

Hex and Puncto discuss the triangulation anomaly

Flatland 2: Sphereland is aimed at the educational market, and so it’s very much a kid’s film punctuated by brief, but clear, explanations of fundamental principles of geometry. The felt need to make it appealing to contemporary students occasionally grates, although there’s less of the more irritating modern elements that crept into the first film (Flatland skateboards, the King of Lineland shouting ‘Dude you’re freaking me out’ when Arthur Square enters his world). The simple story has enough pace and tension in it to keep the audience engaged and the visual feel of the film is fantastic. Flatland is especially stunning and I loved the retro diesel punk rocket its inhabitants are sending into space. Indeed Flatland is more impressive than the third dimension, which serves up a fairly standard pageantry of abstract and semi-organic 3D landscapes.

Spherius visits the fourth dimension

Spherius visits the fourth dimension

Part of the story revolves around the discovery of even higher dimensions than the third. Spherius is visited by a denizen of the fourth dimension, an Oversphere (voiced by Voyager captain Kate Mulgrew). At this point the film becomes a little unstrung and confusing. Obviously the biggest problem is representing the Fourth Dimension, which Spherius visits. Apart from telling us that he can see the inside and outside of everything simultaneously, and showing us a lot of fluorescent floaty seaweed, the film avoids tackling any of the mathematics head on. Instead it gives us tantalising views of a Tesseract and a Clifford Torus before taking a left turn into the more science fictional world of the Multiverse, with multiple copies of the spaceship appearing each from an alternate time line. It may be that the filmmakers decided that multidimensional geometry was one step too far for its young audience and decided to go for the Sense of Wonder angle instead. It’s not a bad call, but it would have been nice to have had at least one mathematical principle of four dimensional space explained with the same clarity as the trigonometry lesson earlier in the movie.

All in all Flatland 2: Sphereland is a great little film, beautifully designed, very clever and adept at explaining most of the maths behind its straightforward but entertaining story. Unless you are a teacher looking to buy a school-wide license for $149.95 you’ll probably be content with the personal edition. This can be purchased as a DVD ($24.95) or digital download for instant viewing ($19.95) from the website here.

Weird Tales

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Weird Tales Issue 361. Fairy Tales Issue.

Weird Tales Issue 361. Fairy Tales Issue.

I’ve had a treat this last couple of weeks, working my way through the latest issues of the resurrected magazine Weird Tales. The first issue of the original predated the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, by three years, launching in 1923. It then went on to become the mainstay of that singularly American genre, Weird Fiction, publishing stories by such grand masters as Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft himself. The magazine’s heyday was in the 1930s under the editorship of Farnsworth Wright, responsible for discovering both Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard, as well as the artists Virgil Finlay, Hannes Bok and Margaret Brundage, whose wonderfully kinky semi S&M vamp covers became a controversial hallmark of the magazine.

Its latest incarnation dates from 2011, and after a slightly shaky rebirth it’s now firmly on track in familiar Weird Fiction territory. The editors have hit on the idea of running themed issues. I have numbers 360 (Lovecraft) and 361 (Fairy Tales). It’s a nice idea because it allows readers to explore different takes on specific subjects by different authors, and it avoids same-issue blandness that can set in when the contents of a magazine are unvaried. The only problem I can see is whether the magazine can think of enough themes to keep the conceit going. Fortunately Weird Fiction now encompasses such a massive range of writing and sub-genres (from Magical Realism through Horror and SF to New Weird) that there is plenty of potential for future publications.

Weird Tales 360. Cthulhu issue.

Weird Tales 360. Cthulhu issue.

Issue 360 (Fall 2012) is a Lovecraft tribute, with a short section in honour of Ray Bradbury who died while the magazine was being prepared. I must confess to feeling a bit Cthulhu’d out at the moment, despite being a huge fan of Lovecraft. There are only so many ways you can re-craft the  narrative of the unwitting stumbling across the final Awful Revelation and few people have matched the power of the original mythos stories. In this issue, however, the magazine offers both a solid, entertaining yarn by one of the few successful Lovecraftian writers Brian Lumley, and a couple of inventive takes on the standard tropes of an M.R. James style first person dead narrator (‘The Runners Beyond the Wall’ by Darrell Schweitzer) and cultish sacrifices to subterranean horrors, (‘Momma Durtt’, by Michael Shea). It’s an entertaining, if comfortably familiar, read. My only real beef is the illustrations – on Facebook Weird Tales has been posting some fantastic pictures. I miss the same range of weird imagery in the magazine itself. The cover shows a man’s face covered in mini-octopii. To someone who lived in Japan for ten years it looks more like a great night out at Sukiyabashi Jiro than a true reflection of the gibbering horrors within. What is really interesting about Weird Tales 360, though, is the inclusion of an early version of Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Exiles’, in the tribute section added to the end of the magazine. In this H. P. Lovecraft is one of the exiled writers destroyed by the book-burning earth men who turn up on Mars.

The theme of Issue 361 is Fairy Tales and it sports a faintly Hannes-Bokish cover showing an ogre attacked by fairies. With a greater range of material and some strong stories by writers like Peter S. Beagle, Tanith Lee and Jane Yolen, it’s an interesting collection deftly navigating its way through post Angela Carter territory without falling into the trap of either being too twee, or serving up more ‘it’s all about teenage sex really’ cliches. There are some great retellings or re-imaginings of faerie folklore, including a quasi-Dunsany story, ‘The Flowers of Tír na nóg’ by J. R. Restrick, as well as tales from further afield. It would have been nice to have had more non-European tales to accompany the Thai-based story ‘Suri and Sirin’ by Court Merrigan, for example. From my own personal experience I know there’s enough material in Asia to fill several more folk-tale themed issues. I wasn’t so sure about the article about the artist Tessa Farmer who specialises in macabre sculpted tableaux of fairies fighting bugs, stuffed animals or each other, or picking apart rotting corpses of woodland creatures. While I appreciate the idea, the results often look more mangy than epic, especially the elf version of Saving Private Ryan that seems to be being re-enacted around a stuffed fox that’s seen better days. The close up photo of ‘Fairy Forcing Ruby Tailed Wasp to Oviposit on Fox’s Nose, 2007′ I could do without. Nevertheless this issue contained a very enjoyable collection of varied tales.

Classic Margaret Brundage cover from 1936, for Robert E. Howard's famous Conan tale - Red Nails.

Classic Margaret Brundage cover from 1936, for Robert E. Howard’s famous Conan tale – Red Nails.

So all in all the new Weird Tales is a great magazine with some solidly entertaining writing and I can highly recommend it to anyone into the weird. I really hope it continues to range across the whole field of Weird Fiction, in all its myriad forms, and avoids the trap of focussing on a specific type of post-Lovecraftian horror. The indications are that this will be the case, which is great news. The layout nicely recreates the two column look of the original pulps, though this makes it a bit of a bugger to read on an iPad. My only real beef is the lack of some really cool imagery to complement the contents and sometimes the artwork lets down the stories, but these are minor quibbles.

Details on how to subscribe or order single issues can be found on the website weirdtalesmagazine.com

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