John D. MacDonald: A Writer’s Writer

Thursday, May 29th, 2014 | Posted by Bob Byrne


That thing he’s using is called a ‘typewriter’

“With sufficient funds to cover four months’ living expenses, he set out and wrote at an incredible pace, providing eight hundred thousand words. Writing for a wide variety of magazines, he kept more than thirty stories in the mail constantly, not giving up on a story until it had been rejected by at least ten markets

In the process he accumulated almost a thousand rejection slips after five months of effort. During this period, MacDonald worked fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, literally learning his craft and gaining the experience of a decade as he went along, which was important for a man who made no serious attempt to write until he was thirty.”

– Martin H. Greenberg, in the introduction to Other Times, Other Worlds.

That is how John D. MacDonald, thirty years old, fresh out of the military in 1946 and with one published short story (which he actually sent to his wife in a letter: she submitted it to a magazine) learned the craft of fiction writing.

One of America’s finest writers (note: I didn’t qualify that with the word ‘fiction’) set himself upon a course that no sane person would have undertaken in that situation.

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Vintage Treasures: Feather Stroke by Sydney J. Van Scyoc

Thursday, May 29th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Feather Stroke Sydney Van Scyoc-smallMy sister-in-law Mary Dechene passed away unexpectedly two weeks ago. She was 52, never married, and lived alone in a small apartment in Madison, Wisconsin. She was also a Black Gate reader and I’ll miss the letters she used to send me after she read each issue cover to cover.

Her funeral was Saturday. Afterwards came the sad duty of parceling out her belongings to various siblings, nieces, and nephews as the family packed up and cleaned out her apartment. Mary was a dedicated fantasy fan — really, it was all she read — and she left behind thousands of fantasy paperbacks dating from the late 80s and on, packed in dozens of boxes. I think many folks assumed I would want them, but I’m already pretty well stocked in fantasy paperbacks from that era and thought it made more sense for them to go to her sister Marty, so I gallantly waved away any claim to them.

At least until I casually peeked in the first box. I discovered that Mary was surprisingly widely read, and in addition to a virtually complete collection of Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Mercedes Lackey, Robin Hobb, and other bestselling fantasy, she had several surprises. In fact, she had dozens of books I never even knew existed. And trust me when I tell you, that doesn’t happen to me very often.

In a matter of minutes, I was secluded in the garage, digging through box after box. While the rest of the family divided Mary’s jewelry and appliances, I was stacking hundreds of paperbacks in neat rows. In addition to being a completest, Mary was also a very careful reader — the books were in great shape. It really was a treasure trove, far more fantasy novels than I’d seen virtually anywhere. And I’ve been in some of the best book stores on the planet.

In the end, I made it through less than half the boxes. I felt a little guilty about pillaging Mary’s collection anyway, especially after her sister had already laid claim to it, but Marty didn’t seem to mind. I didn’t find anything really valuable, but I did fill a great many holes in my collection, and brought home one very nearly full box of Mary’s delightful collection. I settled back with the first one tonight —  Sydney J. Van Scyoc’s Feather Stroke, a standalone 1989 fantasy from Avon with a terrific Keith Parkinson cover.

Written on the first page, in her famously cramped script, are the words Mary Dechene. A reminder of where they came from. Thank you, Mary. We shared a passion for fantasy, and I’m glad fate brought us together for a short time. I’ll treasure these books, and they will always remind me of you. Rest in peace.

Exploring the Royal Army Museum, Brussels (Part 2)

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

A view of the Colonial section.

A view of the Colonial section.

In my last post, we looked at some of the medieval arms and armor at The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History in Brussels, Belgium. The impressive medieval collection is only one part of this huge museum, which covers all periods of Belgian history. The Napoleonic and World War Two sections are extensive, but of most interest to me were the Colonial and World War One sections. You won’t find much about Belgian colonial wars outside of Belgium and the small nation had a unique role in the First World War.

Belgium may have been small, but it had colonies in Africa, China, and Guatemala, as well as economic interests in many other areas. The Colonial hall follows the history of Belgian military interventions in these regions.

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New Treasures: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 8, edited by Jonathan Strahan

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 8-smallHurrah!  The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 8 is in the house.

You’d think that after seven outstanding previous volumes, one more would be a slam dunk. But no. There was drama. The original publisher was in peril and no one knew if there would be an eighth. Well, maybe somebody knew, but it wasn’t me. And I’m the one with 9 column inches to fill every day.

At length, cooler heads prevailed and Volume 8 reappeared on the schedule from a new publisher, Solaris Books. It’s been redesigned so it looks slightly funky standing next to the uniform previous volumes, like a red-headed stepchild at a family reunion. But looks aren’t important to us here at Black Gatewhich explains our love for Paul Giamatti and five dollar haircuts.

Well, enough superficiality. What’s in the book?

28 stories by some of the best writers at work in the field today, including multiple Hugo and Nebula award nominees — such as “Selkie Stories are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar (Hugo and Nebula nominee), “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” by Ted Chiang (Hugo), and “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket,” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Hugo). See the complete table of contents in our previous article.

(And while we’re on the topic of Hugos, editor Strahan is on the ballot this year for Best Professional Editor, Short Form. You go, Jonathan! We’ve got ten bucks on you, buddy.)

Strahan’s Best of the Year volumes include both SF and fantasy, and year after year are some of the best values in the industry. If you’re not reading them, you’re missing out on some of the finest new writing in the field.

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 8 was edited by Jonathan Strahan and published by Solaris on May 13, 2014. It is 614 pages, priced at $19.99 in paperback and $7.99 for the digital edition. We last covered Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year with Volume 7.

One of the Best Serials Ever Made: The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Chapter Two: The Guillotine

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014 | Posted by Thomas Parker

Captain Marvel Episode 2  Lobby card-smallHave you found your seats? Are you sufficiently equipped with licorice whips, popcorn, and Nehi Soda? Then let the lights dim and settle in for Republic Pictures’ 1941 serial, The Adventures of Captain Marvel. We opened last week with Curse of the Scorpion. Today, Chapter Two: “The Guillotine.”

Our chapter  opens with helpful title cards summarizing events for those who couldn’t scare up a dime last Saturday. “Rahman Bar – Attacks the camp of the Malcom Expedition in reprisal for the theft of the Golden Scorpion.” “Billy Batson – Radios for troops from Fort Mooltan.” “Malcolm – And the rest of the party try to escape with the lenses.” “Captain Marvel – Tries to warn them that the bridge across the gorge is mined.” There – all caught up. Now say the mystic word and be transformed!

We now get a quick two minutes from last week’s cliffhanger ending. We see Whitey and Betty stuck on the bridge as the dynamite explodes and the bridge collapses. The car tumbles into the river, taking the helpless occupants with it. Observing from a boulder where he has just landed, Captain Marvel executes a very nice high dive and, swimming to the not-quite-yet submerged station wagon, pulls the unconscious Whitey and Betty to the safety of the river bank.

By the way, as cliffhanger resolutions go, this is quite honest. All serials did some cheating in their cliffhangers (the looney Undersea Kingdom with Ray “Crash” Corrigan might be the worst offender in this regard), but The Adventures of Captain Marvel usually plays it fairly straight.

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Going Home

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014 | Posted by James Maliszewski

PHBI’ve lived away from the house where I grew up since I went off to college at the age of 17. That was only a couple of years shy of three decades ago (yikes!). Since then, I’ve lived in three different cities, including one in another country. By any reasonable measure, I’ve spent more years living somewhere other than that house than I ever did under its roof. Yet, no matter how long it’s been since I last lived there, no matter how long it’s been since I last visited it, whenever I return, I’m home. Indeed, when I talk about my parents’ house and the city where it’s located, I reflexively use the term “home” for both, this despite the fact that I’ve now lived with my wife as long as I ever lived with my parents.

It’s a strange habit of mind, one I doubt is unique to me and that manifests itself in other ways. Since high school, for example, I’ve studied four different foreign languages. Just last week, I started learning a new one. Even though I attained a reasonable degree of literacy in all of them, I never gained significant verbal fluency, in large part because I never learned to think in another language. I am always thinking in English and mentally translating from it to whatever other language I am attempting to speak. In short, I continue to be an English speaker, even when I am trying to speak French or German.

Though Dungeons & Dragons was my first roleplaying game and a staple of my hobby for more than a decade, by the mid-90s, I’d largely stopped playing it. The reasons for my doing so are several and not very important. Shortly before Wizards of the Coast released its new edition – Third Edition or 3e – I was working as a writer at a games magazine and was given early access to the forthcoming rulebooks as background for an article I was tasked to write. I did not expect to like the new edition, let alone like it enough that I’d come back to D&D after a prolonged absence, but I did. I owe Wizards of the Coast a big debt of thanks for having helped me to fall in love with Dungeons & Dragons again.

Over the next six years or so, I played Third Edition intensely. I got to know the game and its rules very well, so well, in fact, that I started to find them ponderous to the point where they were getting in the way of the kind of tabletop experience I wanted. This led me to start to think seriously about what I liked in RPGs and how I could best get it. Ultimately, that thinking led me back, ironically, to the games I’d played in my youth, including the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

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The Shout of a Young Man Who Finds the World a Complicated Place: The Eternal Champion by Michael Moorcock

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_272267fTHTh1HnWhen I was a kid, all my friends read Michael Moorcock’s sprawling Eternal Champion series. Endlessly resurrected and reincarnated, the Eternal Champion exists to right the balance between Law and Chaos. According to Moorcock in the introduction to the 1994 edition of the novel, The Eternal Champion:

I use the ideas of Law and Chaos precisely because I am suspicious of simplistic notions of good and evil. In my multiverse, Law and Chaos are both legitimate ways of interpreting and defining experience. Ideally, the Cosmic Balance keeps both sides in equilibrium. By playing “the Game of Time”… the various participants maintain that equilibrium. When the scales tip too far toward Law we move toward rigid orthodoxy and social sterility, a form of decadence. When Chaos is uppermost we move too far towards undisciplined and destructive creativity.

Seemingly deep stuff for teenagers to be reading, but I think it was part of the series’ appeal. Teenagers are constantly pushing boundaries and trying to get a grip on right and wrong. I think many of them are as suspicious of supposedly “simplistic notions of good and evil” as Moorcock was. It appeared to be presenting a more nuanced way of looking at the world.

Most of the guys (and it was all guys) I knew who read swords & sorcery back in the 1970s and early ’80s were SF/F geeks, potheads, or metalheads and there was a lot of overlap amongst those groups. In my experience, gaming had a lot to do with bringing those tribes together and we all loved Moorcock’s stories and heroes.

Most preferred the morose albino, Elric, of doomed Melniboné. Dressed in black armor, wielding the evil soul-drinking sword Stormbringer, and riding a dragon — I totally get it. A few liked Dorian Hawkmoon von Koln and his adventures across post-apocalyptic Europe and America better. Personally, I did and still do enjoy the two trilogies about Corum Jhaelen Irsei, last of the Vadhagh. Steeped in Irish myth and a gloomy Celtic miasma, I think they’re the most intense and beautiful books in the series.

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Compiling The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014 | Posted by Lawrence Schick

The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure-smallGreetings, Black Gate readers! You may be familiar with my work as the game designer Lawrence Schick – possibly from role-playing material like the White Plume Mountain D&D scenario, video games such as Sword of the Samurai, or my recent work as Loremaster for The Elder Scrolls Online.

But I also write, edit, and translate historical fiction as Lawrence Ellsworth, and in that capacity I have a new title coming out from Pegasus Books, an anthology called The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure. Our friends at Black Gate asked me to write an article about compiling that anthology, and here it is.

I’ve been reading and collecting swashbuckling adventure fiction for many years – my whole life, really. A couple years ago, while in the middle of a long (and still uncompleted) translation project, it occurred to me that I probably knew enough about the subject to be able to compile a pretty interesting anthology. The more I thought about the idea, the better I liked it, so I sat down and starting making notes.

I decided the anthology had to meet four criteria. First, it would need to catch the attention of contemporary readers, which meant including recognizable, marquee names, of both characters and authors. Second, it would have to be attractive to mainstream publishers, which meant inexpensive to produce (works in the public domain), and couched in a familiar, saleable format – in this case, a “Big Book,” a fat collection of at least 200,000 words. Third, for variety I wanted a good mix of pirates, cavaliers, and outlaws – and they all had to be cracking good stories that would hold the attention of modern readers. Fourth, not just any stories would do – I wanted carefully hand-picked works that weren’t overly familiar and would re-introduce some of my favorite forgotten authors to the 21st century.

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The Weird of Oz Weighs In: Go Go Go Godzilla!

Monday, May 26th, 2014 | Posted by Nick Ozment

“History shows again and again / How nature points up the folly of man / Go go go Godzilla!” — Blue Oyster Cult

photo-9Our intrepid reporter on the kaiju beat, Ryan Harvey, has done a masterful five-part chronicle of Godzilla’s 60-year film history for Black Gate. Last week, he topped it off with his review of the American re-launch of the venerable franchise, which you can (and should) read HERE. I’m not going to retread what he has covered, but I think the return of the King of Monsters is big enough to warrant two commentaries! I find myself in virtual agreement with Harvey’s review, so I’ll just be adding a few random observations. Here are some of my thoughts after seeing the film . . .

First, take a look at the marquee I snapped a pic of while in line to buy my ticket. See the third film from the bottom? God’s Not Dead — no indeed, and just underneath you’ll see that he’s back in 3-D!

Okay, some may take that little joke as sacrilege, but you know I couldn’t pass up that juxtaposition. I also find it interesting that the first two films are Spider-Man 2 and Captain America 2. This week you can add the new X-Men film to the line-up — jeez, Marvel is ruling at the box office. Seems like they are the box office. So this is where it may be amusing to note that Godzilla, too, was once part of the Marvel world.

Marvel Comics licensed that other big green goliath from Toho back in the ‘70s, but they didn’t just do a spin-off comic like with many other independently-owned franchises (G.I. Joe; Star Wars): no, they worked him right into Marvel continuity! He battled the likes of the Fantastic Four. S.H.I.E.L.D. was on his trail as he rampaged across the United States. Spider-Man even had a brush with the atomic-powered lizard! A couple years back, Brian Michael Bendis (the guy who pens, like, half the Marvel comics in recent years) made the wry observation that, although Marvel no longer has the license to the character, they never wrote him out of continuity. In other words, Bendis noted, Godzilla exists in the Marvel Universe to this day. So up there on the marquee with all those Marvel superheroes, he is in familiar company.

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Event Report: The Last Unicorn Tour

Monday, May 26th, 2014 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Last UnicornIn 1962, Peter S. Beagle began writing a fantasy novel he called The Last Unicorn. Published in 1968, the book was both serious and whimsical, a kind of extended fable about a unicorn who found she was the last of her kind and adventured through a medieval fantasyland, possibly Irish and possibly not, in search of the wicked king holding all other unicorns captive. The tone embraced both the comic (one of the major characters is an incompetent magician named Schmendrick) and the dreamlike (as in the terrifying Red Bull who emerges as a crucial antagonist). The book’s a tremendous accomplishment, a vivid working-out of classic fantasy themes.

In 1982, Rankin/Bass Productions released a film version of the book, with a screenplay by Beagle. The designs had a nice touch of art nouveau, the voice cast was strong (including Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, Jeff Bridges, and Christopher Lee) and the plot was remarkably faithful to the book. That approach had its strengths and weaknesses: the fable-like quality of the original story was lost. On the other hand, the literalness of the adaptation gave the film a quality of strangeness of its own — by maintaining the shape of the book, it created a shape unlike most other movies.

Beagle is currently touring with a digital 2K print of the Last Unicorn movie, presenting it at showings with a question-and-answer period and an opportunity to buy Beagle’s books and Last Unicorn-related merchandise. The tour will go on through April 2016 and will visit Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Ireland, the UK, and Germany, as well as cities across North America. An extensive Canadian leg of the ongoing Last Unicorn tour has just wrapped up; I saw a showing of the film in Montreal, on Sunday, May 18, and took a few notes.

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