Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Guest blog: "The Friends of Eddie LaCrosse"

Today I'm a guest at Erica Hayes' blog, discussing the influences behind Eddie LaCrosse, hero of The Sword-Edged Blonde. Stop by and leave a comment!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Now in paperback: The Sword-Edged Blonde

The mass-market paperback of the first Eddie LaCrosse novel, The Sword-Edged Blonde, hits shelves tomorrow, June 30. Included is a preview of the next adventure, Burn Me Deadly, due out this fall from Tor.

Watch for giveaways of signed copies soon!

Monday, June 22, 2009

What lives in Blackheath Woods?

I'm fascinated by the fae. Not the Tinkerbell kind of fairies, Disneyfied out of all ambiguity, but the elemental, primitive spirits believed to exist in pre-industrial times. They don't often make it into popular media unprocessed for mass consumption, but occasionally one slips through, as in this brilliant short film by Ciaran Foy:

(apologies for the Portuguese subtitles; it's the only copy I could find online. Posted here with the filmmaker's permission.)

I spoke to Irish filmmaker Ciaran Foy (seen below directing actress Katie Keogh) about this film, after reading that it originated as a reaction to the 1997 film Fairy Tale: A True Story.*

Alex: What about that film specifically inspired this very different, and much more brutal, take on the fae realm?

Ciaran Foy: I think it was the whole prissy tone of it. You know, the prim and proper upper class English girls wide-eyed in awe at the "ever so beautiful" and benevolent Faeries. It just felt wrong to me. In Ireland the Faerie or Sidhe (shee) race are not depicted like that at all. Quite the contrary. There are many parts of the country that still very much believe in their existence and one thing you do not do is disturb, anger or insult the Sidhe. In fact they are quite feared. In folk belief and practice, the Sidhe are often propitiated with offerings. With this in mind it was thought best never to name them directly, so they were referred to in euphemisms such as "The Good Neighbors," "The Good Folk," "The Little Folk," "The Gentry," or simply "The Folk," in the hope that if humans describe them as kind, they are more likely to be so.

In other words I wanted to take the Victorian cliché of little girls and angelic faeries and make it clash with the Celtic myth. Essentially taking something esbablished in the public conscious, and turning it on it’s head.

Was the belief in faeries part of your experience growing up?

I grew up in Dublin city, so on a day to day level, no. But we had relatives in the countryside where it was very much part of the experience and whenever we went to visit we would hear about it. There was a small bridge on the way to my aunts where it was considered bad luck if you didn't say, "Good morning faeries," whilst going over it. There was a farmer who lived near them who claimed that three of his sons had died because they had "been messing" at a faerie ring. Another local woman would always leave her front and back doors open at all times, to allow the Faeries a path way through. It's just part of the vernacular. The faeries are to be feared. The Bean Sidhe or Banshee (which means, faerie woman) was someone who you heard wailing before a death would occur. The person who didn't hear the wail was usually the victim. They say the doomed DeLorean car factory in Lisburn was warned it was being built on a faerie mound, etc. So relating faeries to notions of benevolence and innocent frolicking was just not heard of! You have to remember, occurrences like the burning of Bridget Cleary were scarily common in the 19th century. Ideas get passed down and in isolated communities they tend to remain in one form or another. In researching [his new film] The Shee, it was made obvious to me that there are still pockets of the country where these beliefs are staunchly held. And to suggest to them that their beliefs are just silly superstitions is like suggesting to a dogmatic Christian that their beliefs are but the same - some people will even get angry at you. So it's still there.

That all said, the believers tend to be from older generations, so it's possible this may be the last or one of the last generations of believers. The world is becoming a smaller place.

Was the design of the faeries dictated by the time of year in which you filmed, or was it the other way round? What else influenced the design?

Well the design of the faeries was by Olwen Kelleghan. She’s amazing at coming up with psychologically freaky designs. I asked her to create a faerie that was vicious yet felt real. She did a number of sketches and one of them was like a cross between some twigs, an insect, and a concentration camp victim. It was horrible yet felt very organic. I’d never seen anything like it on screen before (this was way before Pan's Labyrinth) and I wanted to use it. One integral part of the design was that they had these rotting autumn leaves for wings. So in a static state they would look just like leaves while resting on a tree. In fact, for the final shot in the short, I initially wanted Melissa to back away and we would reveal a full tree behind her that was literally 'brimming with faeries' – we just couldn’t afford to get it done. So the design of the faeries came first. We shot in April and just graded to be autumnal looking.

Are you faeries intelligent and therefore vengeful, or do they attack Melissa instinctively?

Hmm… I’ve never been asked that before… I guess they are mostly instinctive, as I wouldn’t imagine you could ‘reason’ with my faeries. The same way if you disturbed an ant hill, you would expect instinctive attack. But that said, do you consider ants intelligent? Well, they builds cities, farms, raises animals, and organize themselves into a complex society complete with social ranks such as nobles, soldiers, workers and slaves. I guess it depends on ones definition of intelligence.

Do you feel Melissa deserved her fate?

Yes and no.

Yes, in the sense of the fable like ‘fairy tale’ feel of it. Like the best of the Grimms Fairytales – a character learns a lesson the hard way. “Do what your Mother says” – Melissa doesn’t. “Don’t mess around with things you don’t know about,” “Looks can be deceiving,” etc. I also cast a young actress who had a kind of humorous brat like quality to her – so we would be able to stomach her demise that little bit easier!

No, in the sense that she is just a curious child who innocently follows a faerie. But that’s also the point in a way. The best deaths in horrors, certainly the most shocking ones, happen to characters who don’t truly deserve it.

Many thanks to Ciaran Foy for taking the time to answer my questions. Watch for his upcoming film, The Shee, in the near future.

*Full disclosure: I have a soft spot for this film. Then again, I also have a soft spot for Godzilla Vs. Megalon, so take that under advisement.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Rediscovered: John Barry's score for King Kong (1976 version)

I was 13 when I saw the Dino De Laurentiis version of King Kong. That's how it was promoted, and how it's remembered: few people recall the actual director (John Guillermin), or the cast besides then-newcomer Jessica Lange (Jeff Bridges played the hippie hero and Charles Grodin the comic villain). Instead of the Empire State Building, the poster showed Kong astride the towers of the then-new World Trade Center:

I didn't really like the movie--too much goofy romance, not enough monster-on-monster fighting--but I recognized the musical score as something special. Composed by John Barry, it had the majesty and scale entirely missing from the expensive but cheap-looking film. I bought the soundtrack album, one of the few ways in the pre-VHS era to take a movie "home" with you, and played it over and over. But as music delivery systems changed from vinyl to digital, a few gems were lost, among them Barry's score for King Kong.

John Barry wields a big baton in the movie music world. He essentially created the James Bond theme, though legal maneuvers kept it credited to Monty Norman. He scored most of the classic Bond films, as well as Born Free, Out of Africa and Dances with Wolves. He also scored some dogs: Raise the Titanic, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, and Howard the Duck. But even when working with utter drek, his scores never pandered: his music for Disney's dire The Black Hole captures more of the wonder and mystery of space than anything since the solar system lined up to "Also Sprach Zarathustra."

And his music for King Kong--briefly released on CD back in 2005, and now commanding collector's prices on Amazon--is even better. His opening theme hammers home Kong's stature, then shifts into a spooky section that promises suspense and danger. In his detailed liner notes for the CD, Stephen Woolston refers to this track as "a cloud of doom," but I'd call it a shroud of mystery: what I've always heard, in every track on the album, is storybook magic as opposed to monster-movie bombast. Barry's innovation--considering the girl Dwan as the main character, and her emotional relationship with Kong the true subject--was so brilliant that James Newton Howard also used it when scoring the recent Peter Jackson remake.

Above: Cover of the original vinyl soundtrack album circa 1976. Below: the main title music.

When I spoke to Woolston about the album he said, "I became a huge film music and John Barry fan when I was a teenager, largely due to my love for James Bond films. So, I started collected Barry's albums and seeing films scored by him whenever I could. I first came across Barry's Kong score on the original Arista LP, which I bought from 'Movie Boulevard' in Leeds in the '80s, probably back when it was still called 'Discount Soundtracks.'

"I actually like Barry's score more than the classic Max Steiner score for the original. I know that's heretical in soundtrack circles, but I feel Barry brought a real majesty, mystery, romanticism and tragedy to that score."

I agree. Steiner's original score is rightly regarded a classic for its Wagnerian use of leitmotivs and orchestrations. Perhaps Howard's score for the Jackson version will someday be as highly regarded, but I doubt it. I don't recall a single moment when that music gave me chills, or opened up a sense of wonder, or brought an unexpected tear to my eye. Barry's score did, and still does, all those things, in spite of accompanying a rather dire version of the story.

Buy the soundtrack here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Send a friend to GenCon with a copy of Blood Groove

The good folks at the Flames Rising horror webzine are running a cool contest: send a friend to GenCon in Indianapolis.

That's right, you don't enter the contest for yourself, but for a friend. And in addition to a four-day GenCon pass, the winner will receive a prize package that includes a signed copy of Blood Groove.

To enter a friend and find out more details, go here.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Interview: Mary Jo Pehl of MST3K and Cinematic Titanic

When The Sword-Edged Blonde was released in hardcover in 2007 (it'll be out later this month in paperback; see sidebar for more info), its high-concept idea--sword-and-sorcery fantasy written as hard-boiled detective fiction--led a lot of people to think it was a parody of its two genres, using one (detective) to mock the other (fantasy). This was never my intent. Although I hope there are some humorous moments, I wanted to tell a serious fantasy story, about larger-than-life characters and events, in a way that let the emotional moments reach past any genre tropes and thus truly affect the reader.

Mary Jo Pehl has faced this same issue, in a much more public way. As a writer and performer on one of my favorite TV shows ever, Mystery Science Theater 3000, she helped bring cutting mockery to new heights. As part of the Cinematic Titanic cast, she has continued this. But she's also written a book, a play and a one-man show (literally written for a man).

She was kind enough to talk to me about how having a knack for comedy affects her more serious intentions, and the way the writing process changes depending on the format.

Alex: You have a lot of experience with "comedic deconstruction" (i.e.,
making fun of things); what sort of effect has that had on your other

Mary Jo: I think it’s taught me to be more analytical. With that, I think my writing has become more honest, both intellectually and psychically. Sometimes I can’t enjoy things at face value, because my mind is busy knitting on how a joke, situation, or denouement was set up and how it paid off. It’s heightened my sense of irreverence. It’s also made me take care with paying attention to my own voice; I try not to be snarky just for the sake of being snarky.

Do you consider your theatrical writing to be essentially comic in nature, or serious with comic elements? And is there an underlying theme that links your writing?

You know, I don’t think I’ve done enough theatrical writing to sense a trend. All writing, to me, is a grand experiment. I’ve only written two or three short pieces for other performers, and a couple of solo shows. In considering them, I think they are serious with comic elements. But I love bathos and pathos, which, to me, is life. Many people have said that my writing has made them both want to laugh and cry. I don’t know if that’s a compliment, and I don’t know if it’s due to ineptitude or actual skill!

Do you worry that your public persona as a comic performer influences the way audiences and/or readers comprehend and accept any serious intent you might put into your work?

I used to worry about that, but then the fretting only got in the way of my work. I think you start short-changing your work when you start worrying about who might think what about it. It’s a just a version of “The Editor” we all have. The creativity starts to be hassled and crippled by the demons of what will people think. But yeah, I suspect I have been passed over for grants and awards because I’m viewed as a comedy writer, and comedy can’t be seriously on its own merits. I’ve written about very serious topics, some of which have had some honest, dark humorous things happen as a part of them, and I feel like they might have been dismissed wholesale because I’m a “comedic” writer.

Oh, well.

What's different about writing material strictly to be read ("I Lived with My Parents"), for yourself to perform ("Here, There and Underwear") and writing for others ("Man Saved by Condiments")?

I don’t know if I know exactly, because I’m not sure I’ve succeeded! Like I said, it’s always a work in progress. I think when you’re sitting alone with a book and words on a page, your head takes it in differently than when you’re in a live performance environment, so I try to write accordingly. I get more specific and illustrative in language, because I want to try to bring the reader into what’s happening. It’s an attempt at verbal 3D, I suppose. In performance, obviously, you can use body language, intonation and facial expression to get a point across or to illustrate a situation. Writing “Man Saved By Condiments” was difficult because I was writing it for a male, and I got really hung up on how a man would speak, act and react to something. Then I realized men were human, so I used that as a starting point!

I read in another interview that "Bartleby the Scrivener" is one of your favorite books. I couldn't tell if that was a joke, but if it's true: why?

No joke -it is one of my favorite stories ever. Two reasons: I’m a big Melville fan, and, for starters, I think it’s an especially interesting from him because he is mostly known for his adventure stories. It’s both quite spare and very evocative; I love the economy of language. But here’s this story about an office worker, from the perspective of someone who’d seen the high seas and remote islands, the life of an adventurer to be sure.

Second, there is something about Bartleby and his situation that I very much identify with. There’s a real absurdist quality in it, and a subversive response to the capitalistic and industrial forces that were coming to bear in that age. While I still continue to contemplate the story, I completely understand Bartleby’s response: “I would prefer not to.” And by the way, if you get a chance to see Sam Ita’s Moby Dick, do. Astonishing.

Thanks to Mary Jo Pehl for taking the time to answer my questions.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Belatedly, WisCon 33

WisCon 33, held over Memorial Day weekend in Madison, WI, was a somewhat skewed experience for me since I was simultaneously moving (as in U-Hauls and second-hand boxes) from one Madison suburb to another. This meant I wasn't around for much of the social scene. But I did attend several panels, both as panelist and audience.

I missed opening ceremonies on Thursday and arrived Friday around noon. First I attended a YA reading by Aiden Beaverson, Patricia Cumbie and Deborah Lynn Jacobs. Then I had a late lunch with the amazing Ekaterina Sedia (The Alchemy of Stone) and Genevieve Valentine of Tor.com. That was pretty much all I accomplished, except for packing my car full of stuff at the old house and carrying it to the new one.

Saturday morning was my first panel, at 8:30 A.M. Since I have a 16-month-old who gets me up at 5, this was not early for me. The topic: "Where is the Goddess These Days?" i.e., where is the goddess figure in contemporary speculative fiction? Other panelists were artist Catherine Anne Crowe, writer Melodie Bolt and moderator Rhianna Moore. The nice thing about these first-thing-in-the-morning panels is that the folks who attend, if they're willing to get up that early, are usually fully engaged in the subject.

I had lunch with the lovely folks from Tor, and made it back just in time for my one o'clock reading with Mark Rich, Forrest Aguirre and Robert F. Wexler. Since, as Mark put it, I was presenting "sex, gore and violence," I closed the show, reading from Blood Groove, as well as the upcoming Burn Me Deadly. Thanks to everyone who came out to listen.

Saturday night featured a dinner gang that included SF legend Jack McDevitt, Richard Desk, Monica Valentinelli, and alternate-history author Steven Silver. Alas, once again I was forced to abandon the festivities early to move another carload of belongings, and so missed the Tiptree Auction and all the cool parties.

Sunday morning, again at 8:30, I was on the panel "Is Regionalism Dead?" along with David J. Schwartz, Catherine Cheek and Rich Novotny. Once more the crowd made up in energy what it lacked in numbers. Lunch was spent with a contingent of Tennessee folks, including Shira Lipkin and SJ Tucker.

At 1:00 was "The Care and Feeding of your Vampire," a panel organized and moderated by Fred Schepartz, author of Vampire Cabbie. Besides Fred and I, panelists were Suzy McKee Charnas (The Vampire Tapestry), Jordan Castillo Price (Channeling Morpheus for Scary Mary) and Alaya Dawn Johnson. As always with vampire panels, the sheer breadth of the topic made for some fascinating digressions into what the vampire means to society then and now.

Finally on Monday came the Sign Out, when all the authors congregated in one room to sign copies of their books for the fans. I shared a table with Kelly McCullough and John Joseph Adams, who received a zombie-themed Valentine from a fan. I met Delia Sherman, whose next book trailer is being done by Lisa Stock, the filmmaker behind the Blood Groove promo film. I also reconnected with Lynne Thomas, curator of the SFWA archives at Northern Illinois University (where my own papers are housed).

WisCon is always fun for serious-minded writers and fans, where the craft of writing gets as much attention as the fannish aspects. It's got one of the higher writer-to-fan ratios, and the people who attend are ones who take their writing seriously. I look forward to next year, when hopefully I won't have any major life-changing events scheduled for the same weekend.