Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Spacesuits & Penny Dreadfuls

For more than a year now, Jasper Nicolaisen, Simon Weinert and me have held a monthly reading of out short fiction in the pub tristeza in Berlin. Now, the first collection of short stories from these readings has been published: Raumanzüge & Räuberpistolen (Spacesuits & Penny Dreadfuls) features 9 stories by Jasper, Simon and me.

Jasper's stories are about a little princess who discovers that she has bear's ears and thereupon decides to join the robbers in the woods; about the question why the Jewel of Zaggoth hasn't been stolen after all and what the invention of radio waves, which are something like railroad, only without the rails, has to do with that; and about two boys in a magical boarding school who find out that they share a very interesting hobby, namely masturbation, and that their expertise in this hobby might be the only thing that can save them from certain death in the maws of a zombie ogre. The last one is especially touching, as genuine a teenage love story as they come. I keep comparing Jasper Nicolaisen to Kelly Link (also, his writing brings to mind some of the most brilliant stories by Joe Hill like "Pop Art"), and there's no hyperbole involved of that, but a lot of envy.

Simon has written about a lonely girl waiting for her last remaining friend who has to fight his way through her troll- and goblin-infested dungeon to fix her plumbing, about Death, who has lost his sting and caught a cold, and about a man trying to help the humiliated and offended peoples of this world by sending them expired pharmaceuticals. Simon Weinert is probably kind of notorious for being the least accesible writer among the three of us, but his stories carry a hefty punch once you get into them. Also, he does wonderfully weird things to language, making it cry out in exquisite pain.

My stories are about the commercial exploitation of a species of giant calamari in the 19th century, as chronicled in the letter of English Gentleman Robert Melvin to his dearly beloved. Melvin falls into the hands of pirates who aim to free the calamari from their brutal fate, but their goals may not be as humanistic as it might seem ... The second one is a science fiction love story about two space travellers of different species with inverted metabolical compatibility undertaking a journey in joined spacesuits which allow them to feed of each others excrements. The last one is a fairy tale about a woman living in a haunted mill, where she learns the secret of gunpowder from the devil.

If you happen to read German, you can order Raumanzüge & Räuberpistolen via the publisher Shayol.

Hinterland - 20 sf Stories, inspired by Bowie

In October 2010, Hinterland was released, an anthology of 20 science fiction stories inspired by songs by David Bowie, edited by Karla Schmidt (who, as opposed to Michael Schmidt, actually is a relative of mine). It features short fiction by well-known German writers like Dietmar Dath, Dirk C. Fleck, Siegfried Langer, Markolf Hoffmann and Karsten Kruschel and also by lesser known, but no less impressive authors like Nadine Boos, Jasper Nicolaisen and the editor Karla Schmidt herself.
And, of course, by me. The featured story "The Aggrieved Ray Gun" has been inspired by Bowie's song "Running Gun Blues" from the early album "The Man Who Sold the World". It's a pulp story about Zarkova, a villainous (or possibly heroic) revolutionary, narrated from the perspective of an intelligent and rather squeamish ray gun that she has stolen from Eko Galaxy, Champion of Justice. It's also a story about forbidden love between an AI with a highly sophisticated conscience, a women who thinks that the ends justify the means and a man who believes in other ends, which justify different means.

Of course, the whole book is in German, but on the official website, the publishers will release excerpts in English translation. The first one, from Markolf Hoffmann's extraordinary art-crime-story "Tryptichon", is already online. Also, I'm told that all of the stories have been translated by now and the book might actually be published in English some time next year.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Short Update

Reading: Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delany. Hard work, but worthwile.
Also Reading: Wenn das der Führer wusste (translated into English as The Twilight Men), depressing and hilarious.

Published: Short Story "Die betrübte Strahlenkanone" ("The Aggrieved Ray Gun") in Hinterland, an anthology of 20 fantasy/sf stories inspired by David Bowie. More about that project soon - there's a German/English website with extracts in English.

Also published: Raumanzüge & Räuberpistolen (Spacesuits & Penny Dreadfuls), an anthology of nine fantasy/sf stories by me, Jasper Nicolaisen and Simon Weinert, all from our monthly reading at the lovely pub tristeza in Berlin, Neukölln. More soon.

Also published: "Im Himmel" ("In Heaven"), a Lovecraftian (or maybe Barronian, if there is such a word) short story, in Zwielicht 2, the second Horror anthology edited by Michael Schmidt. (despite having the same surname, we're not related.) More soon.

And soon to be published: A Hungarian translation of my short story "Auslese" ("Selection") at sfmag.hu. The first time one of my stories gets translated into another language! more (including a link) in January.

Yay - I wrote a blog post!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Nomination for the "Vincent Preis"

For the first time, one of my stories has been nominated for an award, and I feel like sharing - even though most readers of this blog will not be able to read either the story or anything about the award it has been nominated for, since it's all in German.

The Award (as far as I am aware) is the only German Award for Horror literature and artwork, and it's called the Vincent Preis - which means "Vincent Award" and is of course a pun, because it sounds like "Vincent Price". It's really kind of a groaner, but a charming one. The Vincent Preis has only been around since 2007, but it is an audience award with a relatively large number of voters contributing.

The title of the story ("Eine andere Wildnis") translates to "A Different Kind of Wilderness". It's a werewolf story which becomes a dog-were story, and its probably the most romantic thing I've ever written. I'm very proud of it and a little bit ashamed for a few moments of sentimentality that snuck in.

The story has been published in the Anthology Zwielicht, edited my Michael Schmidt (not related).

The winner will be determined sometime in September 2010.

Follow the link for the Vincent Preis blog, featuring an interview with me

Sunday, 16 May 2010

K.J. Parker Nightmares

I've just started reading "The Escapement", the last volume of K.J. Parkers brillantly wry and disturbing Engineer Trilogy. I'm planning to write an extemsive post on the trilogy, "The Company" and "Purple and Black" as soon as I finish reading "The Escapement". Until then, I just wanted to share that last night, I had a gruesome nightmare about the dangers of melting steel, which was a direct lift from "The Escapement". I had to make a steel rod with a machine that melted metal down to a clear, ultra-hot, water-like fluid which burned its way straight through the two-inch-piece of wood that I tried to catch it with. Obviously, I must have done something wrong, and I ended up all mutilated by hot, spattering metal for it ...
Just to give an impression of the strong effect these amazing books have on me!

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Laird Barron, Occultation

A couple of weeks ago, Laird Barron was so extraordinarily kind to let me have an advance look at his second story collection, Occultation. I noticed his first collection, the Imago Sequence, when visiting Judith and John Clute at their beautiful home in London in 2007 (great eerie cover art by Eleni Tsami!), and I just knew I wanted it. When I finally got my hands on the TPB edition, it pretty much made me an instant fan and forced me to buy a bunch of Horror anthologies (most of them edited by Ellen Datlow) to get my hands on more Barron stuff, which lead to me reading the work of a bunch of other authors included in these anthologies, which lead to buying more of their stuff ... to put it shortly, Barron's stories forced me to re-discover modern horror, which has become quite an expensive undertaking. (Thanks a lot!)

If you've already read The Imago Sequence, you can probably skip right to my review of Occultation in the next paragraph. If not: Imago contains nine stories, most of them rather long and rather scary. Thematically, most of these are pretty straightforward horror stories in a Lovecraftian tradition, but without any Cthulhu-Myth trappings. Also, while the motives are similar to the Cosmic Horror of the later Lovecraft stories, Barron has a totally different style. His imagery is vivid, but often created by short, slightly psychedelic flashes - moments of sudden, intense escalation. These stories are shocking not because they are drastic (although a lot of them are drastic), but because of the way in which reality becomes unhinged for a moment, never quite recovering. One story in Imago, "The Procession of the Black Sloth", is a sublime series of these types of concussive shocks. After each one, the world has more trouble realigning, until the protagonists physically and psychically disintegrate along with their worlds.
The process of the desintegration of the protagonist is the process of the stories in Imago: Most of them are propelled by drugs, alcohol and psychological stress, held together only by their self-destructive momentum. They are falling apart (sometimes literally) from the first page. "Black Sloth" and "Hallucigenia" are the most relentless stories in this regard, and the latter is also a central piece in the horror mythology that spans some (though not all) of Barrons stories.

While several stories in Occulation are pretty much in the same vein as the ones in Imago Sequence, he also shakes some stuff up with his second collection. And while occassionally, I feel that this diminishes the disturbing effect, it must be said that Occultation is a more diverse and even more impressive collection overall.
The two most haunting pieces are "The Lagerstätte" and "Strappado". In both cases, Barron concentrates on the psychological desintegration of his protagonists but strips away most or even all of the supernatural elements he employed in The Imago Sequence. Both are relatively short and highly intense and deal with survivor's guilt.
In "Strappado" the protagonist is on a business trip in India when he runs into a an ex-lover, and both take the opportunity to renew their acquaintance. The affair grants both of them temporary asylum from the emotionally draining environment that consists of European and American money people, who are conducting business by day and looking for short-lived kicks by night. Both of them join a bunch of these people on a small trip to an obscure and probably illegal performance art event, which turns out very ugly ... The most haunting thing about "Strappado" how it shows people that allow themselves to be victimized simply because they cannot acknowledge the reality of the situation they got in. It's all so unbelievable that the impending catastrophe seems like an illusion (and hence, there's no need to panic and make a scene), and at the same time, it all makes so much sense that the catastrophe seems inevitable (and hence, there's no point in resisting) - a true dialectic of terror ... The story doesn't put it that way (it works in far more subtle and striking ways), but it's all about the failure to deal with a situation that is impossible to deal with, and about how it irrevocably breaks the people involved.
It's been a while since I've read "The Lagerstätte", so I'll let it suffice to say that it felt very much like "Strappado", but that I remember it as a little less shaking.

Another truly great story that is more in the vein of the previous collection is "--30--", which is about two scientists and ex-lovers watching strange animal behaviour out in the wilderness. Nature is becoming abject in small ways and infecting humans. There's a highly disturbing, vaguely pornographic scene about tufts of wasps that I would really prefer not to dwell on ... The whole thing is not as psychologically complex as "Strappado", but it's shaking on a physical level, driving home the notion that man is a part of nature in one of the most disturbing ways imaginable. While it is unlike anything Lovecraft would have ever written, thematically it is pretty close to stories like The Shadow over Innsmouth.

Talking about Lovecraft, we have the very Whisperer-in-Darkness-like "The Broadsword", which picks up the quasi-Lovecraftian mythology of alien terrors developed in some of the stories from Imago Sequence. In essence, it's a well-told, moody ghost-story, and it's grumply-old-man-protagonist is a nice change of pace and injects some humor. However, it suffered a little bit from re-using too many motives already known from Barron's previous stories.

The story in the collection that is most clearly steeped in Lovecraft and in Barron's own mythology is "Mysterium Tremendum". It starts with something that is nearly, but not quite a Lovecraft reference (a mysterious, occult book hinting at secrets that might shatter the sanity of anyone who dares to delve deeper), then peaks with a disturbing scene of intense, but totally mundane violence, before it finally returns to the motive of cosmic horror. While it is the longest story in the collection (about 50 pages), I think it might have benefited from being longer. The characters could have used some more fleshing-out, and in terms of mythology, the story pretty much ends where several other's have ended before, hinting at terrors that feel al little to familiar by now without adding some new, more disturbing dimension to them. It's a good story, but I feel that it could have been pushed further, maybe even to novel-lenght.

Finally, to my surprise I found that there a three stories which are quite funny in this collection. The title story "Occultation" is mostly a dialogue piece about a couple lying awake at night in a dingy hotel room, smoking and drinking and specualting about a black blotch on the wall that can't quite be made out in the dark and that might be moving. In essence, it's another horror-of-nature piece like "--30--", but told in a totally different voice. "Catch Hell" is a story about the devil playing with the vanity and pettiness of human beings and pretty much giving them what they deserve. It has nothing to do with the impersonal horror most of Barron's stories are about. Evil has a face here, and even a somewhat likeable personality. "Six Six Six", the last story in the collection, is a mean little piece about satanism that's strangely funny, although I can't quite put my finger on it ...

I left out the first story in the collection, "The Forest" - I've read it nearly two years ago in an anthology, and I vaguely remember that it was pretty moody, that it somehow tied into the mythology and that I liked it.

On the whole, I'd say that while The Imago Sequence had a greater number of stories that truly unsettled me, Occultation is the more interesting and diverse collection - and "Strappado", "The Lagerstätte" and at least the first two thirds of "Mysterium Tremendum" are as unsettling as anything in the previous collection. Another interesting thing about Occultation is that Barron tries out new types of protagonists - while most characters in The Imago Sequence are emotionally broken, usually addict and often violent men, here we have anything from happy couples to old, largely content geezers. It feels like he is consciously broadening his scope, and quite succesfully. I can't wait for his novel - and I'm pretty confident it will deliver what I felt was missing about "Myterium Tremendum", and then some.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Greg Stolze at Kickstarter

Greg Stolze is pretty much my favourite Author of RPGs. He's also a pretty good short fiction writer - you can find his short story collection "Scary Face" at lulu.com, which contains a good mix of sf, weird fiction, dark fairytales and postmodern fantasy fun.

At the moment, a new short story by Greg is up as a project on Kickstarter. For those of you who don't know how it works: Kickstarter is a platform that allows individuals to collect pledges for their projects. If the pledges amount to a certain threshold, then the money is collected, the project is carried out and the product is sent out to the pledgers. If the threshold isn't reached within a given timeframe, no pledges are collected, no one pays or gets anything and the project is called off.

As far is I can tell, it's a pretty good system for semi-professional creative work. It grants the author full control and it's pretty much riskless for all involved. The only thing I don't like about it is that it goes through amazon payments and that therefore, amazon get's a little share of the profits. While I don't think that amazon is the devil incarnate (as some booksellers seem to do), I'd still rather see my money go somewhere else ...

Friday, 26 March 2010

Resolution, Biologism and "The Devil's Alphabet" by Daryl Gregory

I took a long time getting into this novel by Daryl Gregory (who wrote the astonishing novella "Second Person, Present Tense"), but when I finished it yesterday, I really would have liked it to go on for another 200 pages. That's something that happens to me very rarely - normally, I'm kind of relieved about having finished a book, because another dozen promising books is waiting for me. I'd say that "The Devil's Alphabet" is a great novel, but also one that left me with a desire not only for more, but for a more satisfying resolution. However, the latter is probably the reason why I don't feel at odds with the book and why I'm able to embrace what I'm reading into it as its "message" despite the fact that Gregory is obviously so fascinated with biological determinism.

"The Devil's Alphabet" is about Paxton Martin coming home to his Smalltown of Switchcreek after fifteen years (or maybe it was ten - something along the lines). Shortly before he left, Switchcreek was afflicted by a weird illness that killed nearly a third of its pupoluation, turned most of the others into three different subspecies (or parallel-species) of humankind and then just stopped. Paxton is among the few who haven't been turned. i won't go into details on the story itself; let it suffice to say that Gregory has written a great, small cast of very flawed and relatable characters and a very quiet, unagitatet and moving story.
Among the central concepts if the novel is the question of how the changed people of Switchcreek, as well as the unchanged Paxton, are governed by their bodies. The "Betas", for example, procreate by parthogenesis and are therefore slightly a-social and totally focussed on their offsprings - most of the consider abortion a sin worthy of death. The giant, predatory "Argos" seem to develop a dangerous temper. And the montrously obese "Charlies" seem to have a complex biological strategy of mate bonding negotiated by the elders which is facilitated by means of some kind of psychotic drug that Charlies of a certain age sweat out (yeah, it's a little icky). It's made very clear that the transformed people of Switchcreak have been transformed in all regards, that their psychology is fundamentally altered by the biological changes.
It seems kind of deterministic. But before I'm getting to the question if this is really the case, let me outline what my problem with biological determinism is: While I wouldn't consider myself the hardcore deconstructivist I once was anymore (the one who read Foucault, Freud and Lacan only filtered through the perspective of Judith Butler), I still think that the insistence that certain kinds of behaviour are in some way biologically ingrained is more often than not a thinly veiled form of moralism that tries to prescribe to people how they should behave because it is supposed to be natural for them. Even in its less prescriptive forms, determinism seems to me mostly as a way to avoid a more complex evaluation of one's own behaviour ("Hey, it's not my fault I'm a rapist. It's my genes trying to force me to procreate.")
On the other hand, I'm absolutely in favour of acknowledging that we are our bodies, and that all of our behaviour, all of our options are in principle rooted in our bodies. I just insist that this relation should neither be charged with some form of determinism ("We have no choice but to behave in a certain way because we are automatons programmed by nature") or moralism ("we ought to behave like nature intended us to"). I also believe that Richard Dawkins is fundamentally wrong when, at the end of his "The Selfish Gene", he inverts this moralism and suggests that we should emancipate from our selfish nature (thereby reintroducing the idealist body/mind-duality he wants to leave behind). I think we should consider ourselves bodily creatures with a mind which is rooted in an evolutionary history as well as in the social interaction with other bodily creatures (who are the product of evolution themselves). I think evolution knows no goal and therefore, it's products (our social, bodily selves) can't be used "right" or "wrong" in any meaningful way. "Right" or "wrong" are ethical categories, and they are highly important because humans are social and self-aware creatures capable of empathy. However, nature knows no right and wrong, and trying to project these categories into nature are usually a conscious or unconscious attempt to close the debate about these categories and tell other people how to behave.
These beliefs admittedly put me in a difficult situation. I consider it important to acknowledge the importance of our physicality, but I get wary as soon as someone makes an argument based upon what we know about our physicality. So I'm not only on the fence, I have also already decided that I don't want to get down on any side of the fence.

And the wonderful thing about Gregory's book is that - for me - it articulates about how it feels to sit on this fence. Because the protagonists of the book constantly struggle with their bodies, and not in simplistic mind-over-matter sense. They struggle to understand and to position themselves within the fears and desires generated by their bodily situation and within their social desires and their sense of continuity as an individual. There are clues to what is what in this entaglement, but no certainty. And their struggle is never about finding meaning in biology or in rejecting biology, but about finding a way to negotiate the different aspects of their situation. It's not about finding the final answer about who these characters are, but about emphatically taking part in their ongoing process of self-definition in the face of new bodily and social realities. I even think Gregory explicitly comments on the futility of finding meaning in a biologically deterministic model of one's own self towards the end of the novel (you'll certainly know what I mean when your read it). I could be totally wrong and Gregory might not be sitting on the same fence as I am after all - but the beauty of it is that wherever he stands, his examination is so thorough and thoughtful and veritable that it is approachable from all kinds of positions.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Surprised ...

... how good Torchwood is. I watched the first seven episodes and was slightly put off by the alien-of-the-week formula (althoug it happened to be the fairy of the week or the hillbilly of the week in some cases), but episodes 8 and 9 were totally different, challenging, occasionally brutal (both in terms of visuals and psychologically) and fun.

Ep. 8, "They keep killing Suzie" - Dark stuff. A grim story about ressurection and being absolutely terrified of death. I think most people will be able to connect to the notion experiencing a crippling, totally rational fear of death, but it's not often spelled with such force. The black humor of the whole thing is nearly overwhelmed by the sense of existencial dread.
However, I think they took the easy way out with their depiciton of Suzie. The final actions of Jack Harkness would have been much more disturbing if she hadn't been such a villain.

Ep. 9, "Random Shoes" - Beautiful. Also about death, but in the funny, humane, wistful way. Narrated from the perspective of a "failure", an unsuccesful geek who tries to sell an alien artifact on ebay. More accurately, from the perspective of his ghost, after his death. We never quite find out if this is only a narrative device or if his ghost is "really there". It's interesting because it follows the same basic notion about life and death as the previous episode ("life is all there is") but gives it a serene spin. Some parts of this episode are a little to sentimental, but overall, it succeeds wonderfully in telling the story of the loser-as-hero without doing anything to aggrandize the protagonist. Okay, it does so in the end - but that only shows how delightfully unafraid Torchwood is of breaking its own rules. You can't really take the last few minutes as the episode as something happening in the same universe as the rest of the series. Instead, it's a touching little comment on how stories are allowed to give us what we want (as opposed to the Whedon-ish "giving us what we need", which seems to be the more dominant mission statement in Torchwood).

It's a wonderful series, and although people tend to say that this is the wrong comparision, it still reminds me of Buffy-Spinoff Angel. It has another rhythm and approaches its characters differently, but the conflicts these series are about (living with a job that threatens the core of your humanity - but hey, is there a job that doesn't?, and trying to meaningfully connect to people within this job situation) are pretty similar.