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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Worlds Without End

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Fourteen years ago, I taught my first college-level writing class. Let’s face it, I was verySO-2 green, an adjunct hired to fill an unexpected gap in the wake of a fast-departing faculty member. Whether I did well or poorly I do not claim to know, but of my eleven students, two had their final projects subsequently published, and one went on to get an M.F.A. in creative writing (which means he’s now flipping burgers in your local Mickey D’s, so next time you’re there, be nice).

The other fact of which I’m sure is that my toss-the-feathers syllabus mixed fantasy and literary readings. Yea and verily, it’s a wonder I wasn’t burned as a heretic – but perhaps the resident firemen, Montag & Smaug, Inc., were extra busy that season.

I’m now on my third go-round as a writing teacher and while my reading selections remain whimsically mixed, I do have one fresh challenge on my plate: for the first time, I have a student invested in writing out-and-out science fiction. And not just any sci-fi, we’re talking guns-a-blazing space opera.

By the glowing rings of Saturn, what am I to do?

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The Kick That Did Not Start

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014 | Posted by FraserRonald

Not all Kickstarters will fund. Farewell, Something Lovely didn’t.

That was unfortunate, but it was not a complete loss. Some of the backers hadn’t backed Centurion: Legionaries of Rome, my successful Kickstarter, so I had increased my network. I also learned some lessons which helped me prepare for my ongoing Kickstarter for Nefertiti Overdrive: Ancient Egytian Wuxia. Since I’m a generous guy, let me share my lessons learned with you.

1) Expect failure and you can expect failure.

I went into Farewell, Something Lovely with a strong suspicion that I would fail. I’m not saying that I created my own failure… actually, I am saying that, but not that I gave up on the Kickstarter.

I kept pushing until the end. I wonder, though, if that expectation of failure curtailed my efforts in some way. Perhaps I could have done more if I believed the Kickstarter would succeed.

It’s similar to an explanation of backer psychology I heard: backers will only pledge to a Kickstarter they expect to fund. Just as a backer will create a failure by expecting a Kickstarter to fail, I have a feeling that if you go in with your parachute on, maybe you’ll bail out of the plane before absolutely necessary. Maybe if I had put more effort into the Kickstarter, I could have saved it.

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Doctor Who and the Daemons – the Novel!

Monday, March 31st, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Daemons002 More than once on Black Gate, I’ve heard that the seventies were a dead zone for science fiction and fantasy. For teens in search of readily available genre “gateway drugs,” I suppose this might have been true for many, but my particular experience of growing up managed, against all odds, to be different. Ohio was my home base, a vanilla environment for “culture” of the fantastical sort, but luckily I had a smorgasbord of British relatives. One especially perceptive and sibylline aunt started sending me Doctor Who novelizations.

Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion, that was the first I tried. Next, one of the best offerings in the canon, Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion.  I was in third grade and after facing down those blank-eyed Autons and their Nestene masters, I was hooked.

Note that I wasn’t in any way watching the TV show. In Columbus, Ohio, it simply wasn’t available, not until the early eighties, and then, when PBS did pick up a few random episodes, it was Tom Baker’s roost to rule. The Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, and William Hartnell adventures I first encountered were absent entire.

What Tom Baker’s run taught me is that talented actors can be mired forever in substandard scripts and even worse special effects. This was a total and unpleasant surprise, because the novelizations were fast-paced genre gems, especially those penned by Terrance Dicks.  (Malcolm Hulke was the other regular adapter for the Doctor Who franchise, with a rotating cast of fellow contributors including Gerry Davis, Ian Marter, and David Whitaker.) How could such pacey, adrenaline-filled books arise from such hokey, hamstrung screen material?

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Why We Keep Weaving These Webs

Monday, March 24th, 2014 | Posted by Nick Ozment

uncle hugosMy buddy Gabe and I, when we first met almost two decades ago, we knew — man, we knew our stuff was better (or was going to be better) than just about anything out there. It was the haughty arrogance of youth and ego, plus the fact that we just hadn’t read nearly as much of what was out there as we have now.

Consider, too, the impressions we’d formed in our teen years of what was most prevalent in the various popular-media streams: the (much smaller) fantasy book aisle was dominated by Terry Brooks and many lesser Tolkien imitators churning out derivative high-fantasy formula. Comics were still stuck in stunted-development adolescence, just on the cusp of the revolution when writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman would kick that medium in its juvenile ass. Films were mostly sci-fi knockoffs of Star Wars or B-grade fantasy with special-effects budgets so meager they wouldn’t fund a single episode of a typical SyFy TV show. And television animated fantasy didn’t aspire much beyond Hanna-Barbera cartoons and He-Man.

In short, based on that narrow and selective assessment, any cocksure young tale-weaver could survey that crop and think, “I can do better than that.” But we weren’t the only Gen Xers who nursed such thoughts. Many others could also do better, and they have.

With our generation, speculative fiction has entered into what seems a golden age, borne out in all those mediums — books, comics, film, television (and add another medium that was just emerging from its nascent stages when we entered the fray: video games). Individuals with tastes and perceptions kindred to our own are drawing on the best of the past like never before, fusing with modern sensibilities what they mine from those rich veins to create some of the finest work the genre has ever seen.

And they’ve infiltrated all levels of the creative business. When I watch old He-Man and She-Ra reruns with my kids, I get the impression that those writers were just lazily phoning it in for a paycheck and couldn’t give a damn about the words they were putting to paper or the stories they were slapping together. Contrast that with the short-lived He-Man relaunch (2002-2004). It wasn’t a stand-out show by any means, but it was heads above virtually anything that cynically aired in the early ‘80s to sell us toys from Mattel and Kenner and Hasbro. Yeah, that particular corner of the market still exists to sell toys — to our kids and grandkids now — but the people who are creating the product were kids like Gabe and me, who thought, “Man, if I could have a job writing that show, I would make it so cool.” And they do have those jobs, and they are.

So where does that leave us, web-weavers in a surfeit of webs?

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The Gargoyles of St. Wulfram’s

Monday, March 17th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

DSC00165_2Of all the freakish critters in the original hardback Monster Manual, the one that always made the most intuitive sense to me was the gargoyle. Having seen perhaps more than my share of gargoyles by the time I entered the role-playing realms, I already knew them to be fierce, frightening, toothy, amply clawed, and sometimes winged. It stood to reason that they’d be crafty, pernicious opponents.

What made no sense was why the D&D variety weren’t made of stone, as nearly all true (read: real) gargoyles surely are. To this day, I still have no explanation for that decision on the part of the Monster Manual’s creators, Mssrs. Gygax, et al. They certainly had no intrinsic objection to stone beasties: consider the stone golem or that durable tri-form oddity, the xorn.

In order to better address this incongruity, I have abandoned my regular offices deep in Black Gate’s vast Indiana Compound and taken up residence at Harlaxton Manor, an out-of-the-way 1830s edifice set in the rolling hills of England’s Lincolnshire. Is it haunted? Probably. Not only did one of its previous owners conduct regular séances in the cozier of the two libraries, but the manor has been used in several eccentric movies, including The Ruling Class (1972) and the truly execrable remake of The Haunting (1999).

Are there gargoyles? Yes. But only two.

Luckily, just down the road, in the struggling industrial town of Grantham, an astonishment of gargoyles awaits on the walls of St. Wulfram’s, a mid-sized Anglican church that dates back to the 1200s at least.

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Adventure On the Page: Genre Fiction vs. Joyce Carol Oates

Monday, March 3rd, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

36314The more I write, the more opprobrium I feel for categorical definitions of fiction, notably “genre fiction” and “literary fiction.” I like to think I practice both, and that most readers read both. Crazier still –– lunacy, truly –– I suffer the apparent delusion that often the two categories cannot be separated, except by book vendors aiming to simplify or streamline the shopping experience.

Not long ago, I delved back into Joyce Carol Oates’s introduction to a delicious anthology, Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, and I came across this passage:

However plot-ridden, fantastical or absurd, populated by whatever pseudo-characters, genre fiction is always resolved, while literary fiction makes no such promises; there is no contract between reader and writer for, in theory at least, each work of literary fiction is original, and, in essence, “about” its own language; anything can happen, or, upon occasion, nothing.

Now –– and I say this as a long-time and self-avowed fan of your work, Ms. Oates –– them’s fightin’ words.

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A History of Godzilla on Film, Part 4: The Heisei Era (1984–1996)

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Godzilla 89Other Installments

Part 1: Origins (1954–1962)
Part 2: The Golden Age (1963–1968)
Part 3: Down and Out in Osaka (1969–1983)

The Underwhelming Comeback: The Return of Godzilla (1984) and Godzilla 1985

After an absence of nine years, Godzilla smashed back onto screens in 1984 in a film simply titled Godzilla (Gojira) in Japan, but marketed as The Return of Godzilla to English-speaking markets. In modern movie lingo, The Return of Godzilla is a reboot. It wipes from continuity all the previous G-films except Godzilla ’54 and fashions a new continuity: The Heisei Series.

The new movies developed a recognizable style, but The Return of Godzilla looks different from the installments that followed. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka aimed to capture the somber tone of the 1954 original and transplant the Godzilla nuclear metaphor into the 1980s Cold War. The monster, having somehow survived Dr. Yamane’s Oxygen Destroyer thirty years past, heads back toward Japan, squeezing the island country between the nuclear superpowers of the U.S. and Soviet Union. Scientists and the Japanese Self-Defense Force race to find a way to stop Godzilla before a greater nuclear confrontation arises.

It’s an ambitious, admirable premise. The actual movie fails to live up to it, either as a serious tale or as a monster show. While the Cold War background is intriguing, the human action is bland and no character stands out. The exception is the Japanese Prime Minister, whose scenes dealing with the U.S. and Soviet envoys evoke a true sense of Japan’s awareness of it legacy in the atomic age. Otherwise, the time spent away from Godzilla is a stodgy bore of people sitting around talking about all the things they aren’t doing, handled with workman-like direction from series newcomer Koji Hashimoto.

The effects scenes are hit-or-miss. The Return of Godzilla was Toho’s most expensive SF film at the time, and it gave VFX supervisor Teruyoshi Nakano his only hefty budget for a kaiju movie. This translated into a few spectacular sequences, such as Godzilla’s first engagement with the JSDF in Tokyo Bay, and the monster’s showdown with the movie’s special-tech weapon, the flying tank Super-X. Godzilla concludes the fight by toppling an entire skyscraper onto the Super-X. Now that’s how you do it!

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The Adventure Continues: the Return of Renner and Quist

Monday, February 17th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Sleeping Bear coverWhen I first dreamed up my odd-couple pair of Renner & Quist, one of the many goals I had in mind was to write their stories specifically and consciously as adventures. This was not perhaps the most sensible decision, given a literary market polarized between nominally realistic “grown-up” fare and the highly fantastical tomes aimed at teens. (I shall not deign to even mention Romance; call me biased, go ahead. I can take it.) Nor did my conception of Renner & Quist allow for them to don armor, wield swords, or inhabit some far-flung or alternate world. No, these two, Reverend Renner being a Unitarian Universalist minister and Dale Quist a former P.I. and ex-linebacker, required a contemporary setting; to emplace them elsewhere would be to guarantee that any stories woven around them would be untruthful.

This is not to say that I’m against high fantasy; quite the opposite. I’m here, aren’t I? For further proof, take a gander at my Black Gate trilogy concerning Gemen the Antiques Dealer.

But not all ideas trend that direction and with Renner & Quist, I knew I had nearer waters to chart. Now that their second novella, Sleeping Bear, is out in the world, and with their first proper novel, Check-Out Time, very much in the production pipeline, it seems high time to explore what remains, in the 21st century, of that cracking good term, “adventure.”

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In Praise of Little, Big

Monday, February 3rd, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Little Big-smallOne of the great pleasures of adulthood is stumbling onto those unexpected moments when the world reveals that it still has secrets to impart. John Crowley’s novel Little, Big provokes in me exactly that response.

Those who have read the book fall into two distinct categories. The first group raises baffled eyebrows and perhaps does not even make it through Book One; when this group sat down to order, this is clearly not the meal they expected or wanted. The second group adores Little, Big, and can barely speak coherently about it for fear of needing to sit down suddenly or perhaps burst into a gully-washer of hand-wringing tears. I belong to the latter crowd and what I love best about Little, Big (1981) is that I have only the most limited understanding of why the book affects me as it does.

Let’s face it, I read books now as a writer, which means I am in the business of unpacking the techniques and hidden machinery of every tome I plunder — sorry, not plunder: read. I really meant to say “read.” Plunder is for pirates.

My point remains: the better the book, the more I want to plumb its mysteries, vivisect its wildly beating heart, and fully behold what makes it tick.

With Little, Big, I remain largely in the dark. In the dark, and in tears.

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Adventure On Film: Paperhouse

Monday, January 20th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

By and large, if I had to drop one decade from the annals of cinema, it would be the eighties,SK-Paperhouse-1-334x500 but that period did come up with its share of winners.

One of the eighties’ forgotten gems is the fantasy-horror hybrid, Paperhouse (1988), a British release that did its best to compete with flicks like Heathers for Cineplex space, and failed. U.S. gross, according to the internet movie database, was just over $241 thousand. Sad. Paperhouse deserved better, much better.

Spoiler-free, the plot follows Brit tween Anna, curious about lipstick but not yet ready for boys, as she succumbs to a severe case of glandular fever.  The disease leaves her prone to vivid dreams, all of which stem from Anna’s crayon drawing of a bleak, lonely house. Whatever Anna adds to the house manifests itself in her dreams, and what starts out as a bit of a lark (think Harold and the Purple Crayon) quickly turns sour. Hardly twenty minutes in and it becomes clear that Anna may well have planted (or drawn) the seeds of her own destruction.

Having just read Violette Malan’s piece on John Gardner (On Moral Fiction) right here at Black Gate not a week before sitting down to re-watch Paperhouse, I couldn’t help but be struck by the film’s parallels to Gardner’s own arguments in favor of “moral” art and criticism. But what Gardner posits in his book he pursues by Socratic argument, in essay form; Paperhouse cleverly crafts those same questions into a cohesive dramatic whole.

Yes, the movie can be enjoyed on a purely surface level, without ever ceding the floor to philosophy, but make no mistake, this little chiller has a great deal more on its mind than things that go bump in the night, which is why it holds up so well, twenty-five years on.

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