The Genre Game

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015 | Posted by Sarah Newton

Dostoyevsky comicsLike many people, I have mixed feelings about genres – those pesky labels we use to sift and sort writing into neat little silos, isolated and bubbling away in incestuous fermentation. Both as a reader and a writer, I’ve never seen the world that way.

In some ways, thinking about genre reminds me of the “Honk if Pluto is a planet” campaign. For some, it’s a major, emotive issue if Pluto is categorized as a “planet”, or a “dwarf planet”, or a “Kuiper Belt object”, or something else entirely. But, ultimately, the designation affects nothing outside the minds of men: Pluto continues in its long, elliptical orbit, completely oblivious to the impassioned squirmings of one subgroup of carbon-based lifeforms on the third planet; it’s still beautiful, cold, distant, mysterious, regardless of the “planetary genre” we decide, in our assumed omnipotence, to place it in. It ain’t gonna vanish if we all look the other way.

So, genre. Is it hard science-fiction? Is it cyberpunk? Is it space opera? Dystopian? Maybe it’s all four? Or more? It’s a truism, but every written work stands on its own merits. You can sell it at Borders, Barnes and Noble, or Walmart; you can call it dark fantasy, low fantasy, heroic fantasy, swords and sorcery: it’s still the same book, even if the observers and surroundings differ. Genre is something which shelf-stackers and catalogue creators love – it neatly segments the literary world into easy-to-digest packets, with no ambiguity, a black-and-white demarcation of the soul. Like people trying to get their five pieces of fruit a day, it seems to make sense – until people start fighting over what a “piece of fruit” really is. Oranges – whole or segmented? Melons? How big’s a slice?

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The Worst AD&D Spell Of All Time

Monday, July 27th, 2015 | Posted by markrigney

Arcana UnearthedSo there we stood, surrounded. Demons in all directions, converging fast – and we’re not talking garden variety patsies. Even for our major league party, the future looked bleak, bloody, and painful. On the plus side, we had our pizza in place, our dice at the ready. Beers and sodas hovered with popped caps and bated breath, anticipating action.

“Initiative!” cried the DM.

We each rolled. One of the demons, which just happened to moonlight as a spell-caster, moved first — and what did that pipsqueak no-good blackguard cheat of a demon cast our way?

Chain Lightning.

At fifteenth level.

Two hours later, with the pizza cold and stiff, the beers stale and the sodas flat, we finally finished adjudicating the effects of that single spell. We were in shock, and grumbling to beat the band. The DM, equally weary and perplexed, said, “Okay. Still first round. Who gets to take the next action?”

That I no longer recall, but this I know: we won the battle, and the demons lost. So did Chain Lightning. We made a solemn pledge that very day to never again allow that spell to eclipse the glory of our triumphant campaigning. Banned it was, all but ripped from the pages of the rulebook. And good riddance, too.

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Hugh Hancock and Why Geeks Love Lovecraftian Magic

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015 | Posted by M Harold Page


If you like the short film, you might enjoy his — NSFW– Carcosa Lovecraftian web comic.

How come geeks like Lovecraftian magic so much?

Writing on Charles Stross’s blog, Hugh Hancock, Machinima guru turned live-action filmmaker and web comic — um – maker(?) who — disclaimer! — has been a mate since he threw me through a pile of chairs, thus curing the suspected RSI in my shoulder — thinks it’s because Lovecraft pings the things that horrify geeks:

What if too much knowledge really was bad?

What if there were no life hack to divert the apocalypse?

What if the Inquisition were right?!!?

Obviously he’s onto something. It is all pretty horrifying and creates a wonderful double bind; we readers simultaneously want the protagonist to satisfy our curiosity, and at the same time want them to flee the horrid fate that will result.

However, I think there’s more than Horror at work.

Before I go on to explain why, go and watch his short Lovecraftian film HOWTO Demon Summoning so we have a common reference point (and because it’s funny and horrific, and makes surprising use of CGI given Hugh is an indy filmmaker).


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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Sherlock Season 3 – What Happened?

Monday, July 13th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Whathappened_Christmas1Now, it’s certainly possible that I’m clueless (and I do LOVE Without a Clue), but I don’t think I’ve got the following all wrong regarding BBC’s Sherlock.

Except for the grumpy old man contingent (‘Get Sherlock out of modern day!’), fans of Holmes, including scholarly geeks like me who make their own newsletter, overwhelmingly liked this new show and the three episode season one.

I don’t know too many Holmes fans (other than GOM group: see above) who disliked this show. Even those who were moderately approving seemed pleased and intrigued with it and willing to tune in for another season.

So, season two came along, and more huzzahs and approval. I don’t remember Holmes friends of mine thinking it was going south. I certainly didn’t: I thought the first two seasons were brilliant and fun updatings of the great detective. I found cool references to Doyle’s tales all over the place.

Once again, no comments that it jumped the shark. Folks were absolutely looking forward to seeing how Holmes survived his Reichenbach Fall. It was one of my five all time favorite tv shows and probably battling Justified for number one.

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Damon Sasser on 2015 Howard Days

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

HowardDays_HouseI’m not sure there’s quite anything like Howard Days, held each summer in Cross, Plains, TX. It’s a weekend celebration of all things Robert E. Howard and it’s helped to keep Howard’s legacy alive. Though I lived in Austin, TX for a few years, I never made it to Howard Days. So, I turned to the best fan journal (newsletter/fanzine…) I’ve ever come across, REH: Two-Gun Racounteur.

And founder Damon Sasser (2014′s Featured Guest) was kind enough to write a post about the 2015 Howard Days, which also featured a healthy (or perhaps, unhealthy) dose of H.P. Lovecraft as well. Thanks, Damon!

This past month on June 12th and 13th the annual Howard Days celebrating and remembering Robert E. Howard was held in Cross Plains, Texas. Even though it is a two day event, fans start drifting into town early in the week, with Thursday afternoon being sort of a soft kick-off for the weekend. The Howard House Museum was unofficially open allowing fans to wander through it and visit the gift shop.

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Adventures In Cards: Munchkin!

Monday, July 6th, 2015 | Posted by markrigney

Munchkin coverHow was my day, you asked? Well, I’ll tell you. My Halfling wizard and I spent the last hour fleeing from a Gazebo, leveling up by way of a Drooling Slime, and staying alive by means of the Kneepads Of Allure and a (basic but useful) Huge Rock.

What on earth could cause such havoc and silliness? Surely not Dungeons & Dragons?

Nope. It’s D&D’s hell-spawn little brat of a brother, the card game Munchkin. Now possibly I’m late to the table on this (I often am), but Munchkin has to be the geekiest, most asinine, not to mention juvenile, card game going. It’s also a diverting homage to AD&D, and better yet, it makes both kids and grown-ups laugh.

Consider Munchkin’s very own press: “…the mega-hit card game about dungeon adventure… with none of that stupid role-playing stuff.”

Of course D&D remains a clear progenitor, and possibly Munchkin owes something to Magic: the Gathering, but it strikes me that Munchkin’s most direct sire is a horse of a very different color, the irreverent and insouciant Killer Bunnies, which, if you’ve never played it, is a must for any gaming fan’s bucket list.

That said, you’ll need a lot of patience (or a sensai) to figure out how to play Killer Bunnies. But. Once you’ve “mastered” this obscenely complicated, impossible-to-predict killing spree of a game, enjoyment and strategy abound. I’d even be willing to state in a court of law, no less, that killing rabbits has never been so pleasurable, or so downright wicked neat. After all, who wouldn’t want to do in a (purple) Congenial Bunny while wielding a piece of flying burnt toast?

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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Sidney Paget Draws the Great Detective

Monday, July 6th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne


Australian Phil Cornell is perhaps the finest modern Holmes illustrator. Here he gives us Sidney Paget

Last month, I mentioned that it was illustrator Sidney Paget who first adorned the head of Sherlock Holmes with a deerstalker. Along with Frederic Dorr Steele, Paget is certainly one of the two most significant illustrators of the great detective.

Baker Street Essays is one of my two, free, online newsletters. The most recent issue (#5, February 2014) contained my essay, “The Illustrated Holmes.”

Strongly influenced by Walter Klinefelter’s excellent (though black and white) book, Portrait of a Profile, I believe it to be the best look at the history of illustrators of the Canon you’ll find on the internet (it’s not exactly a crowded field!).

Today’s post, with a bit of fiddling, contains the Paget portion of that essay. Did you know Sidney was chosen by mistake? The Strand Magazine meant to hire his brother, Walter, who ended up modeling for Holmes! And Doyle thought that Paget made Holmes too handsome!

A few illustrators, including the author’s own father, Charles Altamont Doyle, had provided drawings of Holmes for the first two stories, the novellas A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, without making much of an impression.

And as we know, those two books didn’t do very well. It was the short story format that Doyle applied to Holmes for The Strand Magazine that turned the world’s first private consulting detective into an enduring literary and pop culture icon. And there we meet the first (and arguably foremost) Holmes illustrator…

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Dave Gross on Pitching and Pinching

Sunday, June 21st, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Pathfinder Tales Lord of Runes-smallYou know, of course, we love us some Pathfinder (the role playing game, not the Viking-American Indian movie) here at Black Gate. And I don’t just say that because Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones has written two novels (with a third coming in October) for their excellent fiction line, Pathfinder Tales.

There have been 30 novels in the series so far. The first (Prince of Wolves), the most recent (The Lord of Runes) and three in between (Master of Devils, Queen of Thorns, King of Chaos) have come from the prolific pen of Dave Gross.

With his tales of half-elven Pathfinder Varian Jeggare and his devil-blooded bodyguard Radovan, Gross has successfully blended the fantasy and mystery genres. Dave has taken some time out of his busy schedule to share some thoughts. Of course, I love the ‘Holmes and Watson’ references.

You can find more info on the Pathfinder Tales line here, including free web fiction. And here’s a link to some Black Gate coverage of the line, including The Lord of Runes. Check out the fine fantasy writing that’s taking place in Pathfinder’s world of Golarion. Take it away, Dave…

As a writer, I hate throwing what Hollywood calls elevator pitches — you know, those snappy “X meets Y” descriptions of a screenplay. We do the same thing in publishing, often still referencing movies rather than books. “It’s Star Wars meets Sixteen Candles,” or “Ocean’s Eleven meets Ghostbusters,” or “Casablanca with orcs as the Nazis.”

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The Camera Can Lie: FairyTale: A True Story

Monday, June 8th, 2015 | Posted by markrigney

Cottingley FairiesNews flash: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, having created literature’s greatest rationalist in the form of Sherlock Holmes, spent his later years heavily invested in the occult, the supernatural, and the possible existence of (yes) fairies.

Of course, people have always evinced a desire to believe — sometimes in this, sometimes in that — and so it is perhaps not so surprising that Conan Doyle played a large role in one of history’s great photographic deceptions, that of the so-called Cottingley Fairies.

In fact, he was one of those most willing to champion the trumped-up, cheap-looking fakes (black and white stills of young girls posing in shrubbery with paper cut-outs of highly Romanticized winged fairies) His role in this debacle (the girls only recanted decades later) is the subject of a FairyTale: A True Story (1997), a film well worth revisiting given our drone-happy, GPS-driven, target-rich world.

You see where I’m going with this, yes? Given our present era of photo manipulation and computer generated graphics, our collective ability to dupe the unwary has never been greater, and just like statistics, images lie.

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A Modest Proposal to Improve the Hugos

Thursday, May 28th, 2015 | Posted by Rich Horton

The Hugo AwardIn thinking about the recent unpleasantness (regarding the Hugo ballot, I mean), it occurred to me that one source of the issues with the Hugos right now has nothing much to do with slates or bloc voting or Sad Puppies or Social Justice Warriors or even taste (that much). It is simply this: there are a lot more SF stories published now than there were in the past. That makes it really hard for any reader to even come close to reading them all – something that was quite possible, I am told, back in the 1960s. I can testify: I used to try very hard to read every SF story that came my way, and there were years I read over 2000 stories. And every year I missed hundreds, at least, and some of those very good.

In a way this is one function of ballots and shortlists (and, indeed, recommendation lists): to try to condense the mass of stories published each year to a manageable set of the “the best.” My Best of the Year anthology every year serves that function (secondarily – the main function is to give readers a great book to read). So does, for instance, the Locus Recommended Reading list. But even there, note that our lists are by no means inclusive. Indeed, I signal that (as do other Best of the Year editors like Gardner Dozois and Ellen Datlow) by including a long list or recommended stories in addition to those in my book. And the Locus list is painstakingly cut from a much longer list of recommendations by all the contributors – a list that highlights the problem I cite, as all of us realize that our fellow recommenders have seen outstanding stories we have missed.

Though, I ask myself, why do I use the word “problem?” Surely it is a feature, not a bug, that there are so many stories published each year that are worthy of our attention? Indeed it is, but a result of that, I feel, is that if we want the Hugos to represent the very best stories of the year, we are failing, in the sense that it’s easier than before for a great story to slip under the radar.

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