Archive for science fiction

Short Stories 3: Lovecraft and looking death in the eye

Posted in book, fantasy, review, richard kunzmann, short stories, speculative fiction, Uncategorized, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Lovecraft Bloodcurdling Tales “I’m writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more.” Dagon, H.P. Lovecraft

LovecraftAside from the fact that H.P. Lovecraft has a name that perfectly suits the horror genre, and a peculiar look about him which suggests he’d jumped straight out of the story A Shadow over Innsmouth, the man’s short fiction is, if not profound or incredibly skilled, then certainly imaginative and unusual.

Continuing with my list of favourite short story writers, Lovecraft is one of the few authors I go back to over and again. He has been hugely influential in horror and science fiction, even though many of his stories read like Sherlock Holmes tales. What makes his work so enduring is the nature of the horror to which his protagonists are ultimately exposed. Invariably, his characters epitomise the enlightened man – rational, intellectual, calmly inquisitive – who comes into contact with some mystery which unleashes an awesome truth that reveals to our hero the fragility of his own existence and ultimately leads to insanity or death.

Lovecraft Dreams of TerrorLovecraft’s single obsession is a universe that is fundamentally unknowable and destructive, no matter how far our sciences and religions purportedly develop us as a species. It’s a paranoid and pessimistic vision, much in tune with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer’s philosophies, but it’s one we must admit is as accessible as it is frightening. The fear and horror Lovecraft writes about goes well beyond the pain of death or torture, so heavily portrayed these days in crime fiction and dreary splatterporn films like Saw,Hostel and Frontier(s). His work challenges us to think more deeply about the moment of death when we have to face up to the fact that there is no afterlife, that we’ve been lying to ourselves all our lives, and when we die we cease to exist and return to entropy.

If Freud is right, and we as a species derive as much creative force from death as we do from life, Lovecraft must surely be a high priest of the death drive, or Thanatos – the ancient Greek personification of death, but also a word just as easily plucked from the Cthulhu mythos for which this strange author is most famous.

Lovecraft Tales of the Cthulhu MythosSo many people to whom I’ve lent his books quickly return them with a look of wretched disgust on their faces. It’s a universal law that you either love or hate Lovecraft. His dialogue can be sickly, his style often clunky and littered with such overused and abused terms as “cyclopean”, “antediluvian” and “eldritch”, to name but a few. His misogynist views and racism are also well documented (and glorified by other misogynists like Michele Houellebeque), while the plot lines remained fairly standard throughout his writing career.

But all of these criticisms miss the point.

Lovecraft Road to MadnessI personally feel his outdated prose lends itself to the stories he writes, and like J.G. Ballard and Mitch Cullin (Tidelands), or photographers Diane Arbus and Roger Ballen, Lovecraft is an artist who as turned away from what is traditionally accepted as aesthetic pure, and beaten his own strange path to create something hauntingly enduring.

Mythbusters:

Contrary to popular belief the Necronomicon did NOT first appear in Evil Dead films, starring Bruce Campbell, and it isn’t a real ‘lost’ tomb. It was invented by H.P. Lovecraft who credited the fictional “Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred” with its writing. It’s a theme he kept coming back to, just like the Miskatonic University in Providence.

My essential reads (roughly in order of favourites):

At the Mountains of Madness
The Dunwich horror
The Rats in the Walls
The Music of Erich Zann
The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath
The Colour out of Space

A number of authors have paid tribute to Lovecraft, of which my favourite story must be Stephen King’s Jerusalem’s Lot, August Derleth’s Dweller in the Darkness, and Robert Bloch’s various stories appearing in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Reputed famous fans:

Guillermo Del Toro
Neil Gaiman
Clive Barker
Joe R. Landsdale
H. R. Geiger
Alan Moore

Gaiman also who wrote a pretty good Lovecraftian story called Shogoth’s Old Peculiar – probably a cheap shot at an unusual but tasty beer called Theakston’s Old Peculiar, which is now associated with the Harrogate Crime Festival.

Read here what others have said about his books on Goodreads and Amazon.

Music to read by:
Judas Priest’s Blood Red Skies
Diary of Dreams
Check out this blog talking about Lovecraft’s influence on metal.

Watch this rather comical movie trailer for a period short film of Call of Cthulhu

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Short Stories 2: The perfect mood of Edgar Allan Poe

Posted in book, crime fiction, fantasy, mystery, review, science fiction, short stories, speculative fiction, thriller, US writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Hit PLAY on the YouTube cast and read on.

Previously I made a case for rebranding short stories and giving them the luxury publication they deserve. If you hang on through this series of comments on my favourite short story writers and the editors who’ve compiled them, I have some ideas on how that might be achieved. But for today, let’s share short story favourites.

First off, I have to admit, my tastes lean heavily towards the weird and grotesque, probably because I followed my dad around emergency wards when I was young and saw things kids don’t ordinarily see, and because of a hundred year old tomb I inherited from my grandmother when she died, called A Century of Creepy Stories.

It’s inside the covers of this monster that I first discovered Edgar Allan Poe.

edgar alan poe “And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” – Masque of the Red Death

Depending who you speak to, Poe has been credited with inventing just about any of the modern sub-genres of fiction – the mystery, detective fiction, science fiction, horror to name but a few – but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. What these attributions do attest to is how influential he has been in reshaping how we approach the modern novel and short story. Personally, I’m more infatuated with his macabre prose and the way he deftly crafts suspense than the themes of his finest works.

His writing is always ominous, the ebb and flow of the poetical narration often building into a crescendo that perfectly reflects the ideal form of the modern thriller, hardly ever dropping off into lengthy dénouement. The themes of his best known works often revolve around death and being buried alive, guilt and fear, murder and its consequences, and of course the supernatural. His choice of words is almost always in perfect harmony with the atmosphere he is attempting to create – surely a result of his being a poet first and foremost. His densely packed narratives are imbued with such rich textures that they lure the imagination into a realm where you forget it’s just a … short story.

An excellent example of this skill is his surreal description of the masked ball in The Masque of the Red Death , where the revelers are doing their utmost to pretend that they are not mortal and a mysterious plague cannot touch them. It’s the desperate act of embracing life and hope that ultimately makes them as ugly as any demon painted by Hieronymus Bosch. Hieronymus Bosch

My essential reads (roughly in order of favourites):

1.The Masque of the Red Death (for an excellent reading, download at Librivox here)
2. The Pit and the Pendulum
3. The Cask of Amontillado (for an excellent reading, download at Librivox here)
4. The Fall of the House of Usher

Fans reputedly include:

Bob Dylan, Stephen King, H.G Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, H.P. Lovecraft

Check out what others thought of Poe’s writing at Goodreads and at Amazon.

Best read to the music of:
Lycia
Preisner

Adapting book characters to films: talking to Christopher Priest and Michael Marshall Smith

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Prestige 2006 It was over lunch at Si Italy in Hastings that I asked Christopher Priest about the film adaptation of his book, the Prestige. He’d spend a significant amount of time researching the lives of stage magicians and learning how their tricks were done, and so I thought a lot must have been at stake for him when the film was made, creatively speaking.

“It was so strange watching the film, I later wrote a book on the experience,” Chris reflects. “Some of the scenes were great, others a bit disappointing; like, why would Scarlet Johansson’s character give Angier (Hugh Jackman) Borden’s (played by Christian Bale) diary, if she’s fallen in love with Borden and knows what’s going to be done with the diary? And the ending, it was nothing like the book and rather weak.”

Scarlett Johansson aScarlett Johansson

Chris seemed to have mixed feelings about the film, but I could also detect a certain amount of pride that it was made. His reaction was nothing like Anne Rice’s famous denouncement of Interview with a Vampire (She originally wanted Rutger Hauer, not Tom Cruise).

Tom Cruise Rutger Hauer

But what about the choice of actors, I asked. Did you like them? “Hugh Jackman was far too beautiful,” Chris laughed. “His character in the book was a sly, sharp-faced man.”

I don’t envy authors who spend years on a novel, painstakingly crafting a character so that the body reflects the mind and vice versa, only to have Hollywood carve it all up for a ninety page script that stars actors who are all muscles or cleavage. It’s great for the audiences, but a shambles for character development and an author’s perseverance. The best characters in fiction are hardly ever beautiful silver screen creatures. Instead, their bodies are often as deeply flawed as the rest of them.

On the other hand, sometimes you read a book and an actor immediately springs to mind as the character. This probably has to do with the fact that we are increasingly geared towards visual impressions as a species, and can quickly retrieve an actor to fill the imaginary space in our minds – a lazy heuristic trick, no doubt.

MMSI once asked Michael Marshal Smith which actor he would cast as Zandt, the brooding and dangerous ex-policeman from the bestselling Strawmen thriller series. He thought James Woods would make a great double. I was stunned. Up to that point I’d clearly imagined an older Scott Glenn in the role – playing pretty much the same bastard as he did in Vertical Limit. It left me with a sense of vertigo, that the author should have imagined an actor different to mine. But it was a stark reminder why reading and imagining is such an intensely personal yet fragile experience.

James Woods Compare actors who might have starred as Zandt in the Strawmen series.
Scott Glen

Occasionally, a director casts actors who perfectly capture the characters of a book. Peter Jackson did an incredible job casting the entire Lord of the Rings list. In fact, he did such a fine job, my mind now refuses to conjure up anything but Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood and Christopher Lee. It’s a little sad that the intimate two-way relationship between the reader and author can be wiped out by a good film. Lord of the rings

In Peter Jackson’s case, I can’t hold it against him because his work, I feel, has ultimately added to my reading experience. But in the case of that horrible reinvention of Hellblazer, starring Keanu Reeves as John Constantin, I firmly believe the director and his pack of producers should all be shot at dawn for their blasphemy. I refuse to watch the film, precisely because I know it would ruin the ephemeral ghosts of my imaginings, rather than give them form.

John ConstantinSpot the difference in anti-heroes. Keanu Reeves

Review: Veniss Underground, Jeff Vandermeer

Posted in book, fantasy, lord of the rings, review, science fiction, US writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , on April 15, 2009 by richardkunzmann

veniss-underground Any crime writer or reader that thinks nothing can be learnt from writers outside of the field, particularly in other sub-genres, has sorely missed the joy and necessity of reading widely. Jeff Vandermeer shows how a sense of place completely alien to the world we know can be rendered with absolute clarity and wonder at the same time.

Nicholas, a washed-out holo artist, is desperate to secure the patronage of a mysterious man only known as Quin who, through biological engineering, creates fantastic creatures to serve the city-states of Veniss. When Nicholas disappears, his twin sister Nicola launches a frantic search for her brother which brings her and her former lover Shadrach ever closer to the ultimate truth behind Quin and the dank subterranean world of Veniss Underground.

Many years ago I happily walked away from fantasy, thinking the genre had reached its pinnacle with Lord of the Rings and was now deadly repetitive. But Vandemeer’s vision debunks all my preconceptions and exposes my hubris in thinking the genre has nothing new to offer. Mixing fantasy with science fiction and adding a hefty dash of the Kafkaesque, this author produced a haunting and beautiful tale. It helps that he has kept the story short; if it had been any longer one’s willingness to suspend belief would have been sorely pressed. What makes this novel especially intriguing is the author’s style and language: it is playful and poetic, while remaining streetwise and gritty. There isn’t a lot of character development – a problem that’s endemic to a genre that focuses on place – but Vandemeer has more than enough made up for it with a breath-taking and phantasmagoric world.

Review: The Third Person, Steve Mosby

Posted in book, crime fiction, Michael Marshal Smith, review, science fiction, speculative fiction, Steve Mosby, thriller, UK writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2009 by richardkunzmann

third-person1Steve Mosby published his first book at about the same time as me, and at about the same age, around 26. When I read The Third Person, it left me gobsmacked and not a little jealous. If he can keep up the raw energy of his debut, he could develop into a dangerous writer. Very dangerous. I haven’t read anything this dark since Michael Marshal Smith’s Spares.

Jason’s fiancé disappeared four months ago. The police say she left of her own accord, but he knows differently. Perhaps it had something to do with the macabre sites she’d been visiting on the internet; or maybe with his spurious infidelity. When a woman he met on the internet delivers his first solid clue as to what might have happened to his girlfriend, Jason decides to take matters into his own hands and begins to hunt for the murderers, rapists and art collectors who came into contact with Amy. The truth that our protagonist unravels isn’t pleasant, not pleasant at all, mostly because Jason’s story is entirely plausible if you’ve looked into the darker corners of your own soul and the internet.

I’m glad to see that Mosby hasn’t allowed himself to be chucked into a box. This book is part crime fiction, thriller, but there’s a distinctive speculative fiction undercurrent, with a dash of horror and science fiction added to the mix.

The maturity with which Mosby explores the demise of Jason and Amy’s relationship is exemplary. Maybe I think that because I was going through a really bad break up at the time I read it, and I saw my relationship mirrored in the pages, but it was more than that. My copy of the book is full of highlights where sentences capture fresh metaphors, complex emotions, and unique insights into our dark halves. Mosby uses interesting conventions to build a tense novel, and at ever corner there’s a sense of impending personal doom for our protagonist. It reminded me a lot of 8mm with Nicholas Cage; you kinda know this is all going to end terribly, but like our detectives you must have the answer before you can rest.

Every now and again there is some confusion in the logical flow of the unravelling mystery, but this in no way should digress from a superb debut novel. Note to self: Buy more books by this twisted bastard. I mean that as a compliment.

Review: Pandora’s Star, Peter F. Hamilton

Posted in book, Peter F. Hamilton, review, science fiction, South Africa, UK writers, writing with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2009 by richardkunzmann

bcs_hamilton_pandorasstar Let me take some liberties once in a while in posting to this blog, which is supposedly dedicated to crime fiction, but in reality also to the things that I’ve enjoyed and which have influenced me to a greater or lesser extent. If you’re still clamoring as to why I’ve posted an SF review here, there’s a cracking murder investigation running through this complex story, as is an investigation into terrorist organisations.

With Pandora’s Star, Hamilton embarks on an 880-page deep space science fiction epic. In the year AD 2380 humanity has colonized over six hundred planets using a technology developed by two stoner student physicists called Wormholes. The society of the Intersolar Commonwealth is peaceful and wealthy, if plagued by an occasional attack by the Guardians of Selfhood. When the astronomer Dudley Bose observes the sudden disappearance of a star over a thousand light years away, the Commonwealth is anxious to discover what happened. In order to reach it they must build the first ever faster-than-light starship. The fact that something imprisoned an entire solar system with a massive force field does not bode humankind well at all.

AD 2380 and the Commonwealth are both alien and strangely similar to our terran societies. Wormhole trains are the major mode of transport between planets, while rich enough people live for hundreds of years using genetic rejuvenation. Illustrious family enclaves, including the powerful Mandelas from South Africa, control entire planets.

The author examines a richly inventive universe through the eyes of numerous characters on various planets, and builds his plot at a leisurely pace that allows us to get to grips with his expansive universe. It is a well-crafted novel, though some of the characters seem somewhat flat and some of the worlds over-simplified. In places it drags a bit and you’re left rather frustrated, but at no point did I feel I can chuck it aside. Is this taking suspense to the extreme? The author has obviously made certain trade-offs to present a comprehensive tale that does the many themes it explores justice. The stretch where Hamilton explores the evolution over time of a hostile alien intelligence that ultimately cloaks its star is an impeccable and thrilling piece of imaginative science and biology, and cleverly plants an “against the clock” element to the building of the FTL spaceship.

This book had me quailing for more, and now, with more new SF under the belt, I realise exactly how exemplary this book is. I also finally have all three editions in hardback and can’t wait to get started at the beginning and end at the end, as Einstein once advised.