Jumping at Shadows

Friend from college and writer of scary stuff Amanda Hard is celebrating National Short Story Month by reviewing / recommending a short story a day. I’m not nearly so ambitious, but her recent entry on a Ray Bradbury story, particularly her mention of the masterful way Bradbury builds tension and dread, instantly brought to mind my own favorite example of Bradbury’s atmosphere / dread-building abilities: “The Whole Town’s Sleeping.”

The story is, honestly, kind of plotless: young woman and friends find dead body, hear about a serial killer, go to the movies, then young woman walks home alone. In terms of “what actually happens,” that’s really what it boils down to. There aren’t aliens or ghosts or monsters or even an on-screen appearance of this rumored serial killer.

And it scared the living hell out of me.

Part of this is Bradbury playing with my expectations. He put the gun on the table, as it were, when he showed me a body and mentioned a killer. I was waiting for it to go off.

But beyond that, or perhaps intertwined with it, Bradbury slowly indoctrinates me with the creeping paranoia building in his POV character (Lavinia). I’m sure Lavinia is safe at first. After all, this is just the beginning. I laugh off the false threats as she encounters them, because, well, I knew those were coming, surely?

Then, of course, I’ve bought in. Because my responses echo Lavinia’s, I’ve become sympathetic even without realizing it. And so as her paranoia builds, so does mine.

As the story builds, I’m not just waiting for something to happen. I’m actively dreading it. Honestly, the last third or so of this story is me as a reader doing the equivalent of the “turn around he’s right behind you!” flailing that you do watching a thriller movie.

Except I can’t see anyone behind Lavinia any better than she can. Everything is built with atmosphere and dread and expectation, and every damn step that young woman takes on the way home is worse than the last for all that nothing goes wrong and nothing goes wrong and…

I literally flinched and sucked in a frightened breath at the end of the story. I had to put the book down (I read this one in Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales). And turn on all the lights in the apartment. And put a comedy on the television.

Evil From the Start

I have an on-again, off-again relationship with Once Upon a Time. I don’t always worry if I miss some of it, but I keep coming back because folklore re-working is one of my wonks (Obviously). I’m in a catch-up phase with the show at present, and found myself pleasantly surprised by the recent episode “Sympathy for the De Vil.” Spoilers follow, since I don’t have a way to talk about this without giving away the primary twist in the plot. You’ve been warned.

I tend to think of it as “the Wicked effect,” myself (TV Tropes prefers Cry for the Devil), as it seemed to surge on the heels of that particular Broadway adaptation’s success, but the narrative for just about any villain in Once Upon a Time generally follows the same formula: after introducing us to the latest in the line of Most Evil Person We’ve Ever Faced characters, flashbacks reveal that once, our cold-hearted villain was a loving, caring soul who was ruined by someone else’s evil. Usually, by someone else he or she (usually she) cared for.

Regina’s evil is from the horror which was her mother, Cora, enacted on the love of her life. Cora’s evil is originally from having her love exploited by a callous, lying lover. Rumpelstiltskin’s father abandoned him and his wife left him. Captain Hook lost his love to Rumpel’s magic. And so it goes.

Given that one of the show’s primary themes is redemption, it’s not a surprising trend. And the recent trio of new villains seem to be following the pattern. Maleficent, we find, has suffered the loss of a child. Ursula, too, found her villainy in the face of betrayal.

The episode focusing on Cruella De Vil started by holding to form. A stern mother and her not-remotely-lovable Dalmatians harrow a poor little Cruella, then Mommy locks her away in the attic. See? Of course she’d have hard feelings about spotted dogs. She was horribly treated by them as a child!

An older Cruella finds a means of escaping from her prison, though, and of gaining new powers (because on OUAT, every villain has magic) thanks to a brave suitor after telling him about how her mother killed all three of her previous husbands (Cruella’s previous fathers). Cruella hurries off, telling her suitor they’ll meet soon and run away together.

Bad Mommy shows up, and I may have yawned, because we’ve seen this before. Repeatedly. If redemption is a central theme of OUAT, another puzzlingly seems to be “family does really messed up stuff in the name of taking care of you.”

And then they went and surprised me. Because, you see, despite all the same trappings every other of these little flashbacks has had, despite a title telling me about the sympathy I’d feel, it turns out Cruella lived up to her name without any external influences.

Yup. Cruella killed her own father. Then did it to her mother’s next two husbands. It wasn’t even revenge, really. Cruella, it seems, was just plain old evil. She killed because she liked it. So far as I can tell, Cruella is your standard issue psychopath.

Which, given the normal direction of the show, was oddly refreshing. That, finally, UOAT for a brief moment offered up the idea that some people really are just plain evil.

And I got excited, because what would all these “you can be good if you really want to be” heroes do in the face of someone who would never, ever make that choice? Who wasn’t corrupted by a nasty history, couldn’t be restored to the love and light from which he or she originally sprang. Who was fully, unarguably, irredeemably evil? Oh, this could be really delicious.

Mind you, it seems the writers didn’t think there was quite so much potential in that particular moral quandry. I suspect the real reason for Cruella’s “born evil” origin was due to what happens in the “present” of the episode immediately afterward. Cruella’s thrown off a cliff, and while we’re shocked and all, we did just find out she’s evil to the core.

And just when I started to love her. Hopefully this heartache doesn’t send me on the path to villainy.

Tales Oft-Repeated

Bearded Scribe Press has put out another slate of mini-interviews with contributors to Twice Upon A Time: Fairytale, Folklore, & Myth. Reimagined & Remastered. (which includes my story, “Tall”). Like last time, rather than inundate with a week’s worth, I’m taking the consolidated approach. Click one name, click all, click as your little heart desires. And if your little heart decides after reading that you want yourself a copy of this not-so-little anthology, click the link I put on the title of it above, or on the sidebar. Look at all these fun options the world gives.

Bo Balder (“Bog Trade”)
I just loved [Jack Vance’s] ironic details and grotesque imagination. I wanted to be just like him…all my teenage work is one big Vance pastiche.

AJ Bauers (“The Screw-Up”)
When you get that first bad critique, don’t hide from it. Embrace it. It’s going to hurt like hell, especially if it’s the first time you ever show your work to someone, but it’s going to make you and your work stronger.

Tracy Arthur Soldan (“Sinobrody 0.9.8″)
It was unusual for a small rural library in 1969 to have a section for speculative fiction, and I think I read just about everything that had a rocket ship or atom symbol on the spine. The first book I can clearly recall is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin; I was the first person to check it out when a copy arrived in the summer of 1970.

Can You Fanart Yourself?

I’m not always inclined to take a crack at my own characters, largely because I hate disappointing myself by coming up with a visual which doesn’t remotely match the character in my head.

That said, I’m pretty happy with how Acaja (From “At Her Fingertips,” up in the current issue of Betwixt magazine) turned out, so I figured I’d share:

I will admit that the coin she’s flipping wound up there because what I couldn’t manage to draw to my own satisfaction was the sidestep unit which is so essential to Acaja’s plans. I’m still generally under-impressed with how I render tech.

Instead, she’s got anachronistic physical currency. We’ll say she found it in the scrapyard.

Adventure Epics About Intrepid Grease Monkeys

Ten fingers, ten toes. That’s the baseline for a healthy kid, right? You’d have thought I’d be a bonus, what with eighteen fingers. Guess they all have to function before you count them.

As Deficiencies go, mine’s not so bad. The Skew was a hell of a thing, and everyone on the Rim’s still feeling it. I knew a guy once had a fully formed jaw down around his nuts. I only wish I was kidding. On the upside, the hinge didn’t work, or it would’ve been a nightmare sitting down.

Cover art: The Woods by Boudewijn Berends
Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0) license
Image edits by Leland Spencer

“At Her Fingertips,” goes live today over at Betwixt magazine. This is another story set on the Rim — the asteroid colonies / ghettos populated by victims of the genetic plague known as the Skew — which first appeared in “Detritus.” If you haven’t read that first story, don’t worry; this is a different asteroid, a different protagonist, and a story intended to stand on its own.1

Acaja is a skilled pilot, talented mechanic, and surly piece of business. She’s also a dreamer and a romantic, but if you tell anyone, she might just beat you to a within an inch of your life. A lady has a reputation to keep.

Acaja wants off her asteroid colony, Rixzah, out of the literal garbage dump she works in, and into the arms of … oh, but that would be spoilers.

Part caper, part romance, all complicated-and-surly protagonist, and totally free to read. Though, of course, if you enjoy it, consider buying the ebook or dead tree versions via the Betwixt site. And maybe think about picking up “Detritus” (link on the right or on my bibliography page) for more weird stuff from the Rim.

1. Folks who have read “Detritus” may recognize at least one character here, and pick up one or more other easter eggs, mind.

Click. Read. Enjoy.

I’ve a longer post in the works, but need to clear a few things first. In the meantime, here’s the short version:

“At Her Fingertips,” a new story of the Rim (from “Detritus”), is now live over at Betwixt magazine. It’s free to read, so everyone’s out of excuses. If you’re reading this post, you have everything you need to dive in. It’s the story of a frustrated mechanic who wants a lot more out of her life, and is determined to change her luck if she has to build that change with her own genetically-off-model hands.

Why are you still here? Click it, read it, then tell everyone you like to do the same. You can even tell people you don’t like.

Pulling Back the Curtain

This past Saturday, I was finally able to marry the man I’ve been with through eight years and (some not insignificant legal) change. It’s been a long time coming, and it was a lot of wonderful things. My husband (!) designed a crazy-spectacular steampunk wedding with what shouldn’t have been nearly a large enough budget, and melted my heart in all the right ways. He knows that, and if he doesn’t, then I’ve got work to do, but that’s marriage, right?

Wonderful, too, were all the people who worked their effing butts off driving U-hauls or carting set pieces or tying strings for lanterns or, honestly, showing up and being there. Every little bit helped and mattered and there aren’t enough letters on the keyboard to express my thanks.

I’m not going to spend more time gushing about the awesome, though, because let’s be honest: that just winds up sounding like bragging, anyway. I’m not here to make everyone who wasn’t there jealous that they couldn’t be. Quite the opposite.

For several personal reasons that I’m not going into (this post may be a lot more open about my personal life than others, but I’m still a private person), when the legal window opened in Florida, we wound up with a short timetable for planning and pulling off a wedding. If we had any hope of getting anyone at all there, we had to invite quite quickly. But because of the same restrictions that meant we were rushing out invites, our guest list had to be painfully short.

There are a lot of people in the world we love, and whom we know love us. Extended family members and friends whom we knew would be ecstatic for us, the sight of whom would make us ecstatic. And we couldn’t have them all.

Back when I taught, we used to talk about how a heavily-edited paper was “bleeding” from the red pen. Our invitation list felt a lot less metaphorical in its bleeding. You can’t see it, but every name we crossed off to make it possible to have our wedding at all was like slicing off our fingertips. Some people understood and some people didn’t. I think more of the former than the latter, but I’m not a telepath, so I suppose I’m just guessing.

Whether it’s people you couldn’t invite or people who couldn’t attend for schedule or financial reasons or — because we’re human — people who couldn’t be there because they’ve passed, no matter how long you can make your guest list, there will always be someone missing.

We had oh so many of all those folks. That they weren’t lined up in chairs back further than the horizon ached just below our chests and stung the corner of our eyes.

But we saw and felt at least a bit of them in loaned props and set pieces, in original creations crafted with amazing talent and skill, in vendors we only found from recommended phone numbers and names they let us drop. They were there from the remnants of their strong hugs when we ran into each other out in the world. They lingered in every verbal or virtual “congratulations.”

That wedding wasn’t just three months in the offing. Or even eight years.

You helped make it happen if we ever met you. From every small or large interaction, good or bad, that eventually steered the two of us together, kept the two of us together. If you think this is about you, it is. You’re why and how this happened.

And we can’t thank you enough.