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.

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Memes Shouldn’t End Like This

So, my bestie Laura tagged me in a “what books do you love” meme over on the Facebook, and I didn’t have especially good ideas for my Friday post, so I was working on doing that for this little-read venture. One of the books I wanted to talk about was the first in the Guardian of the Flames series by Joel Rosenberg,1 but I couldn’t remember its title. Off to the Google I went. Which is how I discovered that Rosenberg died two years ago.

Dammit.

The thing about the Guardian of the Flames series that was both lovely and frustrating was that it hooked me with what seemed like a bit of a Mary Sue concept, then managed to take it both entirely seriously and in directions fairly unexpected.

The high concept of the series is that a group of Dungeons & Dragons type players are thrown into the bodies of their characters and the world of the game. It sounds like the cheeseball 80’s cartoon (which I love for entirely different reasons), but I found the whole thing engaging for Rosenberg’s continued tendency to un-magic his world.

Some of this was the kind of grimy add ons that aren’t entirely unexpected: pointing out, for example, that most commoners in medieval settings would have no formal education, so a bunch of college students find themselves suddenly illiterate. Or noting the utter lack of things like dentistry. You know, the little details which flesh things out, but which escapist, fantasy gaming doesn’t usually concern itself with for obvious reasons.2

The other thing that Rosenberg does is take on the very notion of preferring elements of the fantastic. It starts in the first book, as a wizard character has to choose whether to keep his magic or save his friend’s life. No one will probably be surprised by the choice he makes. As it turns out, his engineering knowledge (he majored in it in “real world college”) becomes its own kind of magic in the medieval setting.

More importantly, this choice begins a recurring trend in the books, as characters are faced with big, magical power, and have to ultimately decide if it’s more important than the mundane. The end result, thematically, is a series which is firmly couched in magical fantasy while simultaneously working to undermine the power of magic and flash, making it clear that fireballs and floating globes of light and all these things which are amazing are ultimately unimportant. Or, at least, far less important than people.

It’s a move that takes some chutzpah. I mean, in a genre built around the flash and the sizzle,3 to use that to pull folks in and then say “you realize this is all a trick, right? That you don’t need this?” could backfire so very harshly, but I think Rosenberg pulls it off.

So, yeah. It’s more than worth the read, and even if I’m horribly late to knowing about it, I’m sad to discover the man who pulled off that particular magic trick won’t be pulling off any more.

1.I’d lost track of Rosenberg a while ago, when some casual Googling told me he and I probably had more than a few political differences. What I found was mild enough not to put me off, but I didn’t want to find worse and have him turn into my own, personal Orson Scott Card, so I stopped looking. His work resonates with me, and I wanted it to keep resonating. So, fair warning if you do your own searches.[back]

2. I’m sure there are folks who have wonderfully entertaining gaming sessions predicated on a quest to find The First Dentist for the party’s half-orc barbarian who’s broken a tusk (and now I kind of want to write that story), but in general, such details are usually hand-waved in favor of flashier options.[back]

3. Two genres, actually, since the high concept is clearly built to appeal not just to general fantasy fans, but to RPG folks, as well.[back]

Powerblog: On Recommending Good Novels

This one is probably less comics-related than a lot of other bits, but it continues to speak to the many influences Power Pack had on impressionable, younger me. 1

I mentioned previously that Julie Power was one of the characters I related to almost instantly, largely due to her thorough love of fantasy and science fiction books. It wasn’t something that just sort of cropped up in the first issue and disappeared, either. Julie was quite often found reading long into the night, or into the day. She found literature of the fantastic just as engrossing once her life had become a fantastic narrative of its own as she did when she thought it was all pretend.

Mind you, Julie’s choices had a tendency to reflect those real life fantastic elements. So, shortly after her encounter with Dragon-Man, she was found in her next adventure reading–and name-checking–Anne McCaffrey’s dragon books.2

When I found out that McCaffrey was an actual author who had written actual books about dragons, that I could be reading the same book Julie was raving about, there wasn’t really a question about tracking them down.

Mind you, I read them a bit backwards. The dragonrider books proper were for quite some time always checked out when I was in the library, but the Harper Hall Trilogy was available, so I started there. So while most folks saw the Harper stuff as a side narrative, in my head the dragonriders were always a background element for the story of Menolly and the Harpers, whose lives were eventually fleshed out in Dragonsdawn. That’s probably why I feel the series sort of ties together into a poetic conclusion when the original Master Harper from those books passes away.

In any case, never let it be said that comics can’t lead to outside interests, I suppose. Also: dragons are cool, but fire lizards are more fun.

1. Older me is still pretty impressionable when it comes to those damn kids, but at the time, I had the excuse of youth, so I’m taking it while I can. ;) [back]

2. Incidentally, this was also my first exposure to Brent Anderson, who always brings the awesome to Astro City.[back]