Tag Archives: short stories

The Crow’s Word

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I try not to put real people in the stories I write, especially not the fantasy bits. That doesn’t go for real places though. “The Crow’s Word” is my latest published novelette, which appears in the current issue of Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show. The setting is the town where I went to college and currently reside. If you’re from around here, you’ll recognize several of the places. Those that are not actual places I’ve been to are places that almost certainly exist here nonetheless.

“The Crow’s Word” is a surrealistic piece about a young man, a crow, and Queen Mab. It’s about fantasy bleeding into real life, I think. This story was purchased by the first market I sent it to, which is a personal first for me, though it was mislaid for a while along the way. It’s also my first sale to the InterGalactic Medicine Show, but if the fantastic illustration it garnered is their standard treatment for fiction, I’ll definitely be sending them more pieces. (The artwork is by M. Wayne Miller.)

Check out that guy, his bird, and a fairy queen. Very cool. You can read the story (which is behind a paywall, but supporting the magazine means supporting the writers!) here.

First Fleet

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I’ve dropped some hints before, but here’s the official blog unveiling: the first two installments of my novel, First Fleet, are now available through Retrofit Publishing!

Go to there! See it! They’re doing some pretty exciting stuff over there, and I’m humbled and delighted to be a part of it.

What business have I, you ask, who have never ventured beyond the short story or occasional novella, in writing a novel? I place the blame solely on the shoulders of my editor, who liked one of my published stories enough to contract for a novel based on the premises I started exploring in that first bit. And that first bit, retitled Bones (the awesome cover of which you see above), appears now as the teaser/intro to the novel proper, setting the stage and presenting the initial mystery of the First Fleet. The tone is Lovecraftian horror in space. The plot involves technology used to regenerate soldiers in a war going suddenly very badly.

You can (and should) download Bones. It’s free, and you can get it direct from the Retrofit website or from places like Amazon or Smashwords.

Wake (cover below) is the first installment of the novel proper, which follows the narratives of two women who get entangled in the mystery of the Fleet. I had a lot of fun building these characters and these worlds, as well as the technological systems that support them, and sending them off to solve the Fleet’s mystery. (I talk a bit more about the plot in a recent blog post at Retrofit.)

Besides the process of writing the novel itself, I’ve been blown away by how Retrofit has marketed and promoted this. The editing and formatting has been top-notch, and seeing the covers they designed (capturing perfectly the “old timey” pulp feel of the paperback novels I grew up reading) has been among the coolest parts of the process.

Take a look at the first two installments if you get a chance. If you’re a reviewer and you want a review copy of Wake, please let me know. It’s pulp scifi– with all the pulpy goodness of aliens, catastrophe, military espionage, and space ships you’d expect. If you’ve read my other pieces, you know short-form fiction, veering toward fantasy realism, has been my forte so far. This was an exciting and rewarding (and challenging) departure.

Descent, the second portion of the novel, is done and is due out in April. And I’m working on final edits to the third portion, tentatively titled Memory, as we speak.

Or I will be, as soon as I post this.

And maybe bathe the kids.

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The Wizard’s House

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I like the idea of flying castles. I’m a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (not technically a flying castle) and Castle in the Sky. I love the idea of something so heavy and earthbound given levity, drifting through the sky like a cloud. (There’s a flying castle at the beginning of Wolfe’s Wizard Knight series as well.)

That idea was the germ for writing “The Wizard’s House.” I wanted to play in a landscape similar to that of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (another Miyazaki film). I wrote this piece about a young man and his search for a wizard’s flying house, and then I wrote the second installment, called “The Unborn God.” It was the second installment that was picked up first and ran in an earlier issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, garnering a positive review from Locus. Now the “prequel” has appeared, and you can read it here.

I’m not sure how I’d categorize these stories. BCS publishes “literary adventure fantasy,” and that probably fits pretty well. I might also affix descriptions like “surrealist” or “magical realist” to these. I try to describe the fantastic elements in as concrete, everyday language as possible, as they would appear to the characters. And I’ve had quite a bit of fun with these characters: the timepiece, the wizard, and Sylva.

These were enjoyable stories to write, and I hope you enjoy reading them. My favorite parts are the descriptions of the clouds through which the characters pass on their travels. I love watching the skies from airplane windows; the shifting cartography of clouds and the landscape below. That’s what I’ve tried to capture here.

(Artwork above by Takeshi Oga.)

Drying Grass Moon

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Last week was a good one as far as publication go, as I had two stories go live in two different online magazines. The first appeared in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, a quarterly magazine in which one of my previous stories, My Bicycle, 4500 A.D., appeared a few years ago. One of the cool things about having a story in AE is that each one is illustrated, so I get the treat of seeing how an artist interprets what I had to say. (The illustration above is by Al Sirois.)

I wrote “Drying Grass Moon” on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, which is when a lot of my writing seems to take place: sitting in bed with the kids playing upstairs and my wife napping beside me. Like many of my stories, it was based on a fragment I had sketched out in one of the voluminous free-write files that I try to keep regularly with varying degrees of success. The title itself, an old Native American (I think) designation of one of the full moons, had stuck in my mind. I wanted to play with that image, imagining settlement and abandonment on the lunar surface.

One of the challenges was trying to write about the passage of time on the Moon, about what that would actually look like. The Moon is tidally locked with the Earth, so the Earth remains motionless in the lunar sky. Your location on the Moon determines the Earth’s position in your sky, and that position does not vary over the course of the month-long lunar day. The Earth would, however, go through phases in its fixed spot in the sky. I wanted those realities to be the background of the story, as well as the developing reality of exoplanetary discovery and how that might transform the way we view human expansion into our own planetary system.

The twist in the story is about old age, youth, companionship, and– of course– sexbots. I’ll let you tell me whether or not you found it effective. Read “Drying Grass Moon” here.

Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?

Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add? by R.A. Lafferty

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gene Wolfe has said of writing short stories that it is not enough to simply show people your ideas. He uses the analogy of a lion-tamer. A writer can’t just say to people, “Hey, look at this lion” and expect them to be impressed with her skills at showing them a lion. A writer has to do something with the lion, preferably something daring and unexpected. Wolfe says that the writer has to put her head in the idea’s mouth.

For me, that is the most difficult part of writing. Often I simply want to show people my ideas– an interesting imaginary place, for instance, or a character or device or image– but finding that narrative twist and plunge that makes the idea spark and come alive as a leaping, writhing story is something very different.

As important as Wolfe’s advice is though, I don’t feel like his requirement applies to R. A. Lafferty. There are in his stories– and specifically in the stories of this volume– rarely those unexpected twists that make you feel as though the bottom has fallen out of the narrative. In many of the stories that make up this collection, a reader can feel the end coming, can get a sense for the ultimate trajectory of the story, within the first few paragraphs. Part of this is because Lafferty does not craft those literary artifacts called short stories. Instead, he tells fables, and most fables have been told in some form before. But I think there’s also something deeper going on here with Lafferty and Wolfe’s lion-tamer analogy.

To return to Wolfe’s image, Lafferty does not need to stick his head in the idea’s mouth. Lafferty is the lion-tamer, but he’s a lion-tamer saying, “My God, it’s a lion. No, you haven’t ever really looked at a lion before. And you haven’t seen a lion like this. Look at it. This is the lionest lion that ever lived; this is the Ur-lion.” And then the lion– which, you realize, is indeed wilder and more savage and yet more merry than any lion you’ve seen before– rips out the lion-tamer’s throat and eats it with a wet chuckle, and both lion and lion-tamer have a good laugh together because that’s what lions are and that’s what lions do.

The story “Golden Trabant” in this volume is a good example of this approach. Narratively, the story is incredibly simple and has indeed been told many times before: a man discovers the El Dorado of asteroids, a rock not far from Earth formed completely of gold. What happens next? Exactly what you would expect. Pirates lay claim to it and become fabulously rich. Earth’s economy becomes unbalanced by the sudden influx of off-planet gold. The pirates build a kingdom with their new gold, sail the high skies hauling back their treasure in ship-loads, and ultimately turn each other. The asteroid becomes an irradiated waste haunted by a ghost. It’s every lost treasure story you’ve heard before with only the (now-blasé) element of being set in space. Maybe that was a new wrinkle when Lafferty wrote it, but beyond that there’s no unexpected twist that makes the story leap up out of the page like a living thing.

And yet it’s a fantastic story. Like so many of Lafferty’s, it simply works. The whole thing is alive. This is the case with many of the stories here. In some, it’s unclear what exactly is happening or has happened, plot-wise. “About a Secret Crocodile,” “Nor Limestone Islands,” and “Boomer Flats” are examples of this. “Boomer Flats” and “Maybe Jones in the City” in particular I found a bit frustrating, but the richness and jollity of Lafferty’s tone always wins me over eventually, even when they seem spun around nothing. If the bones of the story are a bit hollow, you still get Lafferty telling them. And that’s what you want. I’m convinced that had Lafferty taken it upon himself to re-write a phone book, it would be fun to read.

To be fair, there are stories with twists. There’s one at the end of “In the Garden” and “This Grand Carcass Yet” and “The Ultimate Creature.” “The Weirdest World” is all twist, and it may be one of the funniest Lafferty stories I’ve read yet. But the twist is secondary; the story is not built around it. And you probably saw it coming anyway. Moreover, the twist is usually twisted: this is a volume that highlights Lafferty’s brutal, grotesque humor, which is especially ripe in “This Grand Carcass Yet,” “Pig in a Pokey,” and “The Ultimate Creature.”

An annoying and puzzling (though easily ignored) feature of this volume is the needless division of the stories into those related to “Secret Places” and those about “Mean Men.” The stories in this work alternate back and forth between these two headings. In my edition of the book, this is even reflected by stories under each division having a differentiating font. Lafferty (not surprisingly) offers no explanation for this division, but it’s unlike Lafferty to offer much explanation for anything.

The reason the division doesn’t work though– or at least seems unnecessary and arbitrary– is that all of Lafferty’s stories are in some sense about secret places, and they’re all in some sense about mean men. They’re stories about the hidden, real world lurking just below the skin of this one and about the god or the devil lurking just below our own skins. That’s why their twists aren’t wholly unexpected: we feel them in our bones. We catch hints of them when we we’re not asleep.

If you’re new to Lafferty, this is as good a place to start with him as any. It’s hard to know what angle to approach his writings, but wading out into his short stories and learning how they rise and fall is easier than diving into one of his novels. Because, to be fair, you might not like his bright and bloody world. You might not want to get too close to that lionest of lions and hear its throaty chuckle. With his short stories, it’s easier to run away.

Strange Doings

Strange DoingsStrange Doings by R.A. Lafferty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to certain interweb sources, R. A. Lafferty is making a comeback. There are several new (and very well done) websites dedicated to him and his work, a new journal just in time to celebrate his 100th birthday, and (finally) a series of his collected works that might make it incrementally easier to read some of his stuff that’s been out of print for years. Though not much easier. That first volume of his collected works, for instance, is published by a specialty press and is already out of print. It’s so difficult to get one’s hands on, in fact, that even my heroes– the interlibrary loan librarians at my university– couldn’t get me a copy. Instead, they found a few early Lafferty collections for me to read.

Lafferty shines brightest in his short stories. His romping, boisterous, almost drunken exuberance comes across better in these than extended across an entire novel. I’ve read plenty of Lafferty novels, but they’re more of an acquired taste. You have to go into them knowing what you’re going to get and prepared to weather the storm. Because Lafferty’s novels are like riding out the storms at the core of a gas giant: there’s a good chance diamonds are going to be falling, but there’s also a good chance you’re going to get turned inside out before it’s done.

His short stories are a bit easier, not because they’re more muted or less powerful but simply because they don’t last as long. What is it about this guy? He’s not simply a science fiction writer, though he has plenty of stories about humans on new worlds. He’s even less a fantasy author, though there are fantastic elements in almost all his stories. What he is, is a story-teller. He’s someone who tells tall, sweating, shambling, horrifying, and beautiful stories– who tells stories like they used to be told when the world was a lot younger– and at the time he was writing it was only in the fantasy and science fiction and horror pulps that stories like this still found a home.

The pieces in this particular volume seem to cluster around a theme. They are stories of breaking out, of some new, larger reality breaking into the world. They’re stories of superhuman genius (“Rainbird,” “The Man with the Speckled Eyes,” “The Transcendent Tigers,” and “Aloys”) and of making contact with transcendent creatures or transcendent places (“All but the Words,” “World Abounding,” “Entire and Perfect Chrysolite”). Lafferty writes stories of phase transitions, of tipping points, of new or unseen (and sometimes horrifying) worlds breaking in on this one (“Continued on Next Rock,” “Once on Aranea,” “Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas,” “Dream”). They aren’t always the most narratively dense or developed; they don’t necessarily have tight plots or stunning plot twists. What they all are, however, are huge, rollicking yarns told in Lafferty’s unmistakable voice.

And this is what makes them work. There is a grotesque jollity about Lafferty. For him, the world is a bloody, beautiful, terrifying place– but never simply grim or grey. He is more than a little drunk on the world. This is a huge, holy brutality similar to but rowdier than Chesterton and far less tidy than the subdued mysteries of Borges. Wolfe has this in flashes, like shots of light through his stories’ elaborate puzzles. But in Lafferty it’s all there on the surface, naked and undistilled.

If you want to hear Lafferty’s language, head over to Daniel Otto Jack Petersen’s blog, where he regularly lays out slabs of Lafferty prose in all their bloody, dripping glory for passers-by to admire. Besides his language, Lafferty has a strength in creating characters, but his characters are like his stories– super-humans, larger than life, more alive than alive. I’m reminded of the sort of things people say about van Gogh, that he saw colors more vibrantly than other people. When I read Lafferty’s stories, I can’t help but wonder: is this how he saw the world? Is this how he saw people? It’s as though someone was living as Chesterton wrote in Manalive, with a certainty that the world was more gruesome and deep and joyful than could be properly grasped. There’s nothing slow or sedate or studied in his character sketches.

The stories that are the most effective in this particular collection are the ones that attempt the least. “Rainbird,” which opens the volume, tells the story of an early American inventor and the way he did– or did not– shape the modern world. It has all the pieces of Laffertian excellence in an easy-to-swallow morsel: the language that takes an obvious delight in lists and the bright mundanity of the workshop in all its sawdusty glory, the hint of the fantastic and the ease of the impossible that makes the entire, simple time-loop drama shine. And then there’s “The Ugly Sea” near the volume’s end. Again, something as simple as a tale of how a man falls in love with a woman and with the sea– and yet nothing could be more significant. This is what Lafferty does. He tells stories, but they are the stories that live down deep in the bones of the earth. He’s a grave-robber, and he does it all with a deep-throated laughter and terrible bright eyes and words that are thick with soil.

The Unborn God

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I love to fly. When I get on a plane, I try to get the window seat, and then I spend a good portion of the flight with my nose pressed against the smudged glass studying the clouds. I took a weather course at some point, and I just read a book about the classification of clouds, but I can never remember all the different types or their physical explanations. They fascinate me though, especially the tumbling towers of cumulus that rear up and fall apart like temporary mountains. There’s an entire cartography up there that’s constantly changing and being re-written.

It was vistas like these I wanted to capture in a story I wrote called “The Wizard’s House” about a boy who lives under these skies and finds his way up into them. Then I wrote a sequel to that story called “The Unborn God” that talks about what the boy and the wizard have to do with their floating house. As these things sometimes work out, I sold the second story first, and it appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies (my fourth story in that publication) this week.

Give it a look. I had a lot of fun writing it. After you read my piece, check out the other stories in this issue (which is a special double-size issue in honor of it being BCS’s 150th). Richard Parks has a sharp tale of demonic imprisonment and lost opportunities. “The Black Waters of Lethe” by Oliver Buckram is a brief, haunting vision of oblivion. I haven’t had a chance to read Adam Callaway’s piece yet, but his story “Jonah’s Daughter,” which appeared alongside mine in the Sword and Laser anthology, was one of the best and most pleasingly bizarre in that collection.

The prequel to “The Unborn God,” “The Wizard’s House,” is forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It’s been a good summer for sales. I also have a story appearing soon in Daily Science Fiction entitled “What the Elfmaid Brought.” Lest you believe I’m getting too prolific though, here’s a list (in no particular order) of pieces I’m still trying to sell:

“Gold, Vine, and a Name”
“Flame is a Falling”
“The Gunsmith of Byzantium”
“Bone Orchard”
“When Cold Man Went to Hell”
“Drying Grass Moon”
“The Crow’s Word”
“Polycarp on the Sea”

Big news though, and more on which soon: I’ve signed a contract with Retrofit Films to write a novel based on a previously-published short story. The story (retitled and reworked a bit) will be released soon, and then the novel will be published as a series of three novelettes. I won’t say much about it now beyond that it’s a science fiction thriller we’re calling Dead Fleet.

In the meantime, you can read “The Unborn God” here.