Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Necessary Darkness

When people learn that I write, they often ask who my favorite writers are and who has influenced me. The answers to that question change often and can depend on what sort of writers we're talking about. For a blend of science fiction and fantasy I'd probably mention Roger Zelazny while more science-based SF brings Asimov to mind. Fleming gets credit when it comes to espionage material and Doyle was the detective master of the 19th century and Chandler's work, which came a little later, certainly makes the list. Then there are all the comics creators that made an impression on me, guys like Stan Lee and all his co-conspirators like Kirby and Ditko and the mighty Buscema. But when I think about influences, one thing comes to mind: the fact that most of those writers are people whose work I encountered before I began writing myself. They had an important role in shaping my imagination when I was a kid and was more able to get lost in fantasy worlds than adults can. While I still enjoy reading many authors' works now, there's a difference when a writer reads and there is a certain sort of analysis that goes through the mind, mostly subconsciously, but which makes it harder to get completely pulled into the story and lose the awareness that one is reading the work of a person. There are not too many writers whose work has made a big impression on me in recent years. But I thought I'd write about one very big exception in today's blog.

Several years ago, I finally got around to reading the works of an author who I'd been aware of for years but had never sampled. Yes, I knew of his vast influence and I knew the basics of what he had written about, so I thought I knew what to expect and I was quite prepared to not be impressed. I was wrong. For the first time in many years, I found myself truly sucked into a very effectively constructed world of stories that has had a massive impact on my own work and is, as far as I'm concerned, unique among fiction writers whose work I've read. The man I'm talking about has inspired many imitators and influenced many writers for many decades, but I don't think anybody else can really do what he did the way he did it. That man's name was Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and he's now way up there on my list of favorite writers. I'm going to attempt to explain why.

Some of the creative people who have managed to impress me the most over the years have done something that very few writers or directors can do successfully, they've created entire universes in which a reader or viewer can get so completely absorbed in as to feel like they have entered, for the duration of a book or movie, a different world. George Lucas did it with Star Wars, as anybody who was a kid in the 80s can testify, and Tolkein certainly did it too. Those two built dreams, worlds where things were wonderful. Yes, the Star Wars universe and Tolkein's Middle Earth held bad things too, but they were optimistic places, places where good succeeded eventually through bravery, perseverence, hard work and grand struggles. Dreams are great things, but they are only one side of the experience of being human and so are only one side of the possible contents of the imagination. Somebody has to craft the other side, the side we don't usually want to face but eventually must, the nightmare side. That's where Lovecraft comes into the equation. Lovecraft's work is the counterpoint to the heroic epics of both mythology and modern heroic fiction and in that respect, he was the best.

Lovecraft was not "just another horror writer." His work goes beyond that because it dares to go where others won't. Ask people to name a horror writer and they will often come up with the name of Stephen King. I like King well enough and I've read a handful of his books, but he is, for the most part, what you might call an optimistic horror writer. Yes, terrible things happen to his characters, but one of his primary themes is hope. There is usually some safety at the end, some survivors and some chance of normalcy after all the insanity and terror. Most horror stories have boundaries, borders, points where things have gone as far as they can and that's it. Lovecraft had no boundaries. His characters went where they never expected to go and in most cases did not come back, sometimes physically and almost always mentally. King, for example, sends us to strange places but always with a frame of reference of normalcy and with the familiar still intact. You can return to the waking world from a Stephen King nightmare, but Lovecraft won't let you come back. If you go where his characters go, there is no path upon which to return. The familiar and the safe is wiped away forever.

Lovecraft has had his share of critics. People complain about his "excessive" use of strange adjectives, but I like it, for those words, that phrasing, creates the seperation from the familiar and mundane that makes HPL's work what it is. His words are like shadows that slowly build up the darkness and the mystery and the sense of dread around us like a thick forest that we slowly drive into and soon find ourselves surrounded by those menacing trees before we even realize we've begun to get lost. And there have been complaints too that Lovecraft often follows a simliar formula in many of his stories. That may be true, but you know what? It works. We know the protagonist is going to find out the hard way about some incredible secret and we know he's never going to be able to look at the universe in the same way again (if he even survives) and we know how the thing is going to progress and we still can't help being dragged along the path that will drop us into that bottomless abyss. It always starts out slowly and then it just builds and builds and builds and the agitation grows and we're going on that trip of no return whether we want to or not. Lovecraft was relentless, mercilless, uncompromising.

He also dared to do what few writers have dared to do with regard to the mythology that he slowly built up over the course of his career. Sure, we've all heard of Cthulu and the other god-(or demon)-like things (characters?) that populated the depths of the seas and the distant reaches of space and the nightmare segments of our own minds in Lovecraft's work and those things can seem a bit cliched because of their use by so many imitators  over the years since the original author's death, but let's think about his portrayal of gods. As humanity has founded its many religions over the course of many centuries and the myths of humankind have accumulated, one thing has been a constant: man likes to make his gods look and act like him. The Greeks, the Romans, the Sumerians, the Norse, the Egyptians (to some extent) and certainly most modern religions have given human characteristics, personalities, and often faces to their deities. For the purpose of religion, I suppose this makes sense to create a frame of reference and an understandable point of view when pondering the mysteries of the universe and our existence within it. But, if we really think about what a god would be, maybe it's not something so human. Maybe it is, whether "good" or "evil," if those terms can even have any valid meaning when it comes to someting so far beyond mere humanity, something that can't really be explained in human terms at all. Lovecraft understood that. A Lovecraftian god is truly alien. It's not human-faced and semi-familiar, but just barely within the borders of what we can imagine with our very limited senses and minds. Lovecraft's characters, when they realize the existence of his cosmic entities, truly face something far, far beyond anything they ever expected to have to attempt to perceive or interpet. That's powerful stuff.

Having said all that, there's one key element that really, I think, glues all the pieces of the Lovecraftian puzzle together and makes it all the more frightening and intense. When a fictional universe is created, it's often portrayed as seperate from the world in which the reader or viewer lives. Stars Wars took place not only in another galaxy, but also a long, long time ago. Tolkein's world may be our own, but it's very far in the past as was Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age. Lovecraft provided no comfortable seperation between our world and his. All the cosmic secrets, all the mighty forgotten gods, all the horrors and shadows and things that must not be spoken of are right here, inches away from us as we sit and watch TV or go to work or try to live our simple little mundane lives. Lovecraft's monsters (and "monsters" seems like too mild a word) are right there, maybe even in the room where you're reading this blog, but hidden in the little folds in time or in the spaces between the spaces that we think we can perceive and understand. A Lovecraft story starts with the familiar and when the not so familiar comes jumping out and changes everything, it was right there all along, down the road we've passed but never turned down or on that one dusty library shelf that we've never browsed before we heard the title of a certain obscure book whispered. As alien as Lovecraft's horrors might seem, they are very, very close to us, and that makes them even more disturbing.

If anyone reading this loves fantasy and horror but hasn't read HP Lovecraft, if you think you've heard too much about it or been exposed to too many things he's influneced for the original to still have an impact, ignore that feeling and try it anyway. Turn out all the lights except the one you need to see the book. Eliminate all background noise. Turn off the TV! Be alone with that book and let the master take you on a trip. Just don't expect to ever come back.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

See More Evil, Hear More Evil

I was thinking about technology today and how it's changed during the past few decades. I'm all in favor of new technology as long as it's used responsibly and doesn't cause more headaches than it's worth. As far as modern conveniences go, like cell phones for example, they have their uses, but people also grow to rely maybe a little too much on them too quickly. On one hand, I'm glad I have a cell phone. It helps to be able to communicate when needed, no matter where you happen to be. It's one of those things that has made communication so easy and made the world a little smaller in some ways. But it has its downside too, since it seems that the easier it is to communicate, the more some people do it when they shouldn't or don't have to. It's made movie theatres less enjoyable. I get aggravated  with the background chatter during movies or the awful glare caused by people who just can't resist the urge to text while the film is playing. I kind of feel sad for kids too. I see kids in the store with their mothers and  see the poor children being ignored while Mom is shopping and on the phone at the same time. I see a lot of teenagers and young adults too who never seem to put the phone away. They treat it like it's a sixth finger! Personally, I don't have any need to have a phone within reach every moment of every day. I like the occasional privacy, the times when nobody knows where I am and nobody can find me. When I was a kid and we went on long drives, I fought boredom by looking out the windows and watching the scenery, the cars passing us, the people walking along the streets, the cows on the farmland. I learned by watching and it made me ask questions. It makes me sad now to see kids in the backseats of their parents' SUVs staring at TV screens during the ride, oblivious to all the interesting sights outside the windows. Those kids are missing things. So technology, I think, has its advantages, but also subtracts something from the experience of needing to find things to keep the mind occupied.

All that being  said, I was also thinking about how the ease of communication in the present day has had an effect on writers and made it neccesary to keep certain things in mind when plotting a story that takes place in the current era. The first few mystery stories I wrote were period pieces. Sherlock Holmes takes place right on the dividing line between the 19th and 20th centuries and my pulp stories about Dan Fowler and Hound-Dog Harker and the Black Bat all take place in the 1930s. There are no cell phones, no computers, no easy instant access to people or information. The easiest any detective in fiction of the first half of the 20th century had it when it came to communication was Dick Tracy with his 2-way wrist radio (which became a little TV later on). That was created by Chester Gould as a story element that was ahead of its time and it certainly made Tracy's life easier, but not in any way that made it too easy or became an obstacle to putting the detective in perilous situations. The balance now though may sometimes seem like it's swung too far in the opposite direction.
When I began writing modern mystery stories, one difference I noticed immediately is that instead of finding ways for my characters to get the information they needed, I sometimes had to figure out how to make it HARDER to get it. Does the character have to be isolated, trapped, cut off from calling for backup? Then I have to have his cell phone lost or taken away or destroyed or have the character someplace where there's no service. Does a robbery take place and the cops have to figure out who did it? Then some mention probably has to be made of a building's security cameras and how the crooks managed to either disable or evade those cameras. In a world of cell phones, email, cameras, GPS, and all sorts of other technological advances, the work of a detective may have gotten easier, but those who have to write stories in which the detective is challenged are often challenged too!

I'm making an observation about this difference, but I'm not complaining (well not much anyway) because it's fun to be able to create stories in two diferent eras that are so close together and yet so far apart. People are the same, the clothes we wear are not much different than what we wore 50 or 75 years ago (styles change but function remains the same), we still drive cars that are the same basic shape, and we still experience the same emotions, fears, hopes, joys. It really is a different era though. Those of us who are my age or a little older are lucky to have been able to experience both those eras, before the very-connected world and during the very-connected world. And those of us in that age range who write are lucky too, because we have, in a way, two different worlds in our memories and sets of experiences from which to draw inspiration.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Welcome to my new online home!

My name is Aaron Smith. I'm a writer and this is my brand new blog, Gods and Galaxies! The title of the blog is also the title of my new novel, my first full-length novel, published by Wild Wolf Entertainment. It's a tough book to categorize, even the publisher said so. It's a science-fantasy story with a romantic plotline running through it, some philosophical stuff, a lot of action and violence, and even a little sex. If that sounds interesting, check it out! You can find it on Amazon or at Barnes and Noble's website by following one of these links:

As for my other work, I've had a bunch of stories published by a wonderful company called Airship 27 Productions, which is devoted to bringing back all the fun and excitement that used to be found in the great pulp fiction of the first half of the 20th century. You can find all the Airship 27 books on Amazon too, or by going to their online store:

Working with Airship 27 has given me the opportunity to work with many of the great pulp characters of the past, heroes like The Black Bat, Dan Fowler:G-Man, and the World War I flying aces The Three Mosquitoes. It's also given me a chance to live one of my dreams, getting to write stories about one of the greatest of all fictional characters, Sherlock Holmes! That was an incredible experience and I hope my work on that project managed to capture the spirit of the character and didn't set Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spinning in his grave! You can find my first Holmes story in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective Volume 1

After that first Sherlock Holmes book (and there are more to come) I was given another great Holmes-related opportunity. I wrote a short novel featuring Holmes's companion, Dr. John Watson. The book is called Season of Madness and as far as I've been able to find out is the first time anyone's written a book to feature Watson without Holmes! In Season of Madness, Watson teams up with another literary doctor of the time, John Seward from Bram Stoker's novel Dracula.

In addition to working on all those classic characters, my editor at Airship 27, Ron Fortier, has encouraged me on several occasions to create some new characters that, I hope, fit in well with the period piece pulps we publish (say that fast ten times! I think I have too many P's in that sentence). There's Hound-Dog Harker, partially inspired by the old character Bulldog Drummond, but he also happens to be the grown-up version of little Quincey Harker, the child of Jonathan and Mina who Bram Stoker mentions at the end of Dracula. As an adult, Harker works for the British government. He's a World War I veteran and 1930s British agent whose adventures usually manage to intersect with the worlds created by some of the great adventure, mystery and science fiction writers of the early 1900s. In a way, I guess you could say that Hound-Dog Harker's world is my tribute to some of my influences, like Bram Stoker (obviously!), Conan Doyle, HG Wells, Jules Verne, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The first Hound-Dog Harker story, "Attack of the Electric Shark" can be found as a bonus story in Season of Madness. And there will be more Harker stories coming very soon.

I've also created The Red Veil, a character in the tradition of the Shadow and the Spider, a ruthless pulp vigilante, but this one happens to be a woman. The Red Veil is Alice Carter, a young woman who takes the law into her own hands after her husband, a police officer, is killed and the real reasons for his death are covered up by some crooked cops. The Red Veil's first appearance was in the Airship 27 book Mystery Men (and Women) Volume 1.     

 Besides writing pulp stories for Airship 27, I also write short pulp stories for the magazines published by Pro Se Productions, a great little company run by editor Tommy Hancock, who seems to somehow have more than the usual allotment of 24 hours in his days, judging by the amount of pots he has on his creative stove at any given time. My stories have been showing up in the magazines Fantasy and Fear, and Masked Gun Mystery. Those can be found through Pro Se's site.

In the first two issues of Masked Gun Mystery, you'll find the first two cases of my modern day homicide cop, Detective Lieutenant Marcel Picard, a former NHL hockey star who now hunts down killers.

In Fantasy and Fear issues 2 and 3, you'll find the first two parts of my vampire series. The first story is called 100,000 Midnights and the second is A Study in Shadow. That 3rd issue also contains another of my short stories, City of Nevermore, which is sort of my tribute to HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe.

If anyone reading this decides to check out any of the books or magazines where my stories appear, I'd love to hear what you think about them, so feel free to comment.

I've never had a blog before and I'm looking forward to posting here and putting up information about new projects and talking about whatever happens to be on my mind. I hope anyone reading this enjoys it too.