Creative Colleagues Roundtable: Horror Fiction

Spooky cover by Dan Scott

Spooky cover by Dan Scott

In the usual Creative Colleagues interviews, I drop five questions on a person involved in stories: writers, illustrators, musicians, nerf herders—you know the type. Yet sometimes I have just one or two questions, and I want a bunch of opinions.

That includes your opinions, so I hope you’ll comment.

Here’s a little incentive: After two weeks, I’ll randomly pick the names of up to six commentators (fewer, if fewer than six people participate). The chosen few will receive a code for their choice of one of the following Pathfinder Tales novels via audible.com: Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, Queen of Thorns, King of Chaos, Lord of Runes, or Elaine Cunningham’s Winter Witch (to which I contributed the back half).

Because ghost stories were one of my first “fandoms,” I often include a little Gothic supernatural in my work, notably in Prince of Wolves. And so for the spooky month of October, I posed a couple of horror fiction questions to some of my eerier colleagues.

Of the many sub-genres of horror fiction, which do you find the most appealing?

David Annandale: The sub-genre I find most appealing at the moment is the ghost story. Roald Dahl said something to the effect that this is one of the most difficult forms of fiction to do well, and I think he’s not far wrong. The ghost story has a fair bit in common with the mystery but has the added challenge of providing a solution that is not just satisfying but—rather than leading to comfort and resolution—makes things even more frightening. I realize this is an oversimplification of both forms, but it does summarize the qualities of my favorite ghost stories. These are tales that linger in the mind, becoming more disturbing the more one thinks about them.

For my money, one of the most perfect of all ghost stories is Edith Wharton’s “Afterward.” The premise is simple—a house haunted by a ghost you do not realize you have seen until long afterward—but there is nothing simplistic in the way Wharton plays out all the awful implications of that idea. The first time I read the story, I thought it was atmospheric, but I was a little disappointed in the payoff. A long time after, I began to understand exactly what had gone on, and it became really creepy. In other words, it was a story that embodied its own premise.

In a way, the same is true of Peter Straub’s terrifying Ghost Story. Here is a tale where the being we encounter is the origin of all ghost tales, and the novel itself is like a compendium of them all while still remaining a unified whole. It is as big and booming a story as Wharton’s is quiet and subtle, but no less layered a masterpiece. So the ghost story can range in tone from the whisper to the scream. As hard as it is to do right, it’s devastating when everything comes together.

Stephen D. Sullivan: I find two sub-genres in the horror/monster area most appealing. One is the classic Gothic Horror setting, which can range from the past right into the present, because it’s more about the atmosphere than the period. My Frost Harrow stories, for instance, are set in the present but can arc into the past.

I’m also way more about the monsters—ghosts, werewolves, undead, etc. or even Cthulhu—than I am about slasher-type fiction. When I wrote my novelization of White Zombie, I didn’t try to jazz it up with too much sex or gore and such; I kept it within the time frame when the movie was made and just hinted a little more strongly at some of the weird subtexts they had in the film. When finally I start working on my Cushing Horrors stories, they’ll probably be more similar to WZ and Universal’s movies—classic monster movie stuff.

My Frost works, conversely, are very modern in their outlook and can have more sex and violence. My two Manos novelizations run the gamut. Manos: The Hands of Fate has the kinky subtext of the film but plays for the comedy and doesn’t delve any deeper. In Manos: Talons of Fate (coming soon), I get to dig into the dark side and bring it out for readers to “see.” In the end, either way I go on the gothic/classic genre, a lot of it is about the monsters for me. Give me Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr., or even The Master, any day!

The other sub-genre I’m interested in is Giant Monsters. I’ve had a great time playing with that in Daikaiju Attack and shorter stories, like “Kaiju vs. Cthulhu” and “Kaiju vs. Kongu.” I have the advantage of being able to play my whole mythos out in advance, something the filmmakers never really did.

But, again, monsters. Give me monsters!

Wendy Wagner: I am drawn back again and again to the ghost story, which gets under my skin the way other forms of horror rarely do. Ghost stories have a wonderful sense of place that is utterly compelling. Moreover, they are often framed around a current of unhappiness that is so strong it has left scars on the surface of reality. What a terrible, powerful idea: that human misery can imprint itself on the world and keep inflicting itself on people who have no connection to the original trauma. A ghost forces the characters in the story to look into darkness. It’s horrible. It’s sad. I’m a determined materialist, but I would not want to live in a haunted house, no matter how fascinated I am by the notion.

Eddy Webb: I think ghost stories endure the longest. In some ways, vampire stories are a version of ghost stories, because they both relate to the human fascination with death (and indeed, some older ghost stories present the dead as if they were tangible). The idea that people can somehow exist beyond death and still affect this world is both appealing and terrifying, and that’s why so many versions of the undead exist in horror fiction. Death is, as Shakespeare put it, “the undiscovered country,” although horror allows us a chance to glimpse its horizons for a short time.

Movies and radio excel at the “Lewton bus,” or what these days we call the jump scare. What special form of fear can writing produce that theatrical performance generally can’t?

Stephen D. Sullivan: One of the strongest types of fear that writing can invoke is that of building fear or existential dread—the type of thing that plays on your mind rather than something that’s physically revolting or startling.

H.P. Lovecraft was the master of this technique, and that’s one of the reasons his works are so admired to this day. How many times reading an HPL story did you want to say to the protagonist: Stop! Don’t go any further! You won’t like what you find! And yet, both the lead character in the story and we, as readers, stumble blindly forward, only to be cast into a black pit of fear and despair at the story’s end.

Whew! Thank God that didn’t happen to me! we come away thinking. And then we read another one.

As authors, we can build that suspense throughout a story to an extent that other productions can’t. Writing is communicating mind-to-mind, after all. Something bad is going to happen—but what, when, and to whom? And when it finally does happen, we can get a really strong emotional reaction.

Wendy Wagner: Some other great examples of mounting dread in short fiction is in Caitlín R. Kiernan’s story “Rats Live on No Evil Star,” where an odd man’s Fortean ramblings slowly begin to resolve into something we readers can see and understand, and “Sight Unseen,” by Joel Lane, a story about a man tidying up his dead father’s estate and trying to cope with his uncomfortable memories of childhood. That story builds to a really uncomfortable crescendo that left me with goose bumps.

Eddy Webb: Writing allows for a sudden but natural shift from physical horror to psychological horror in a way that is trickier for visual media to do. It’s certainly possible, and some classic horror films have done so to great effect, but writing is much more flexible in that regard. Here’s an example from my upcoming short story, “Blood on the Walls,” that illustrates that point (although I did cut part of the quote, as it contains a spoiler). Notice how, in a short space, the narrative goes from action to an examination of a character’s mental state and back to action.

“I need to calibrate the electric pentacle to counteract her vibrations!” I said. I realized I was shouting as the dripping sound had become louder, so loud that it drowned out all other noises in the room. “Stay still, Mr. Davidson! Don’t touch the pentacle!”

But my words were in vain. Here is a father, stricken in grief and broken by war. His mind survived only because he believed he could provide a better life for his surviving daughter  He crawled along the floor, his hands so damaged that he didn’t even feel the energy flowing through the wires as he tore them up.

This Month’s Roundtable

David Annandale

David Annandale write fiction in a variety of genres: SF/Fantasy, horror, thrillers. He writes non-fiction about film and video games and teaches courses on film, games, literature and creative writing. www.davidannandale.com.

Steve SullivanStephen D. Sullivan has been a monster kid all his life and a professional one since 1980, when he joined the creative team for Dungeons & Dragons. Steve is a frequent guest on Monster Kid Radio. His recent books include Daikaiju Attack, White Zombie, and Manos: The Hands of Fate. www.stephendsullivan.com.

Wendy N. WagnerWendy N. Wagner is a Hugo award-winning editor whose latest work is the Queers Destroy Horror! special issue of Nightmare Magazine. She is also the author of close to three dozen short stories and the novel Skinwalkers, a Pathfinder Tales adventure. Her website is winniewoohoo.com.

Eddy Webb

Eddy Webb is a writer, designer, producer, and consultant for video games and RPGs. His career spans over a decade, and even includes some awards. His story “Blood on the Walls” will appear in Ghosts in the Cogs by Broken Eye Books. There’s more of his ramblings at eddyfate.com.

 

If you’re an opinionated writer, artist, or other story creator and would like to participate in a future Creative Colleagues Roundtable, drop me a line.

 

Listen to Radovan & the Count

Did I happen to mention the first wave of Pathfinder Tales is now available at audible.com? That includes all five of the Radovan & the Count novels, as well as Elaine Cunningham’s Winter Witch, to which I contributed the kissy bits.

You can see all of my Pathfinder, Forgotten Realms, and Iron Kingdoms books on Audible right here. And here’s Winter Witch.

And if you come back to this page tomorrow, you may have a chance to win one of the Pathfinder Tales audio books.

 

Pure Speculation Festival

The most exciting aspect of this year’s Pure Speculation Festival is that it’s safely nestled in October, when we seldom experience a monster blizzard. The weather forecast suggests a cool and cloudy weekend, perfect for staying indoors, taking in some panels, and hanging out with your fellow geeks.

If you’re in the area, I hope our paths cross this weekend. I’ll probably show up for the pre-Festival mixer on Friday evening and maybe to the party on Saturday evening. Otherwise, it’s panels, a game, and a Blue Pencil Massacre.

SATURDAY, 23 OCTOBER
1:15 Stealing History (discussing both historical and fantasy fiction)
5:30 Ungodly Horror (discussing religion vs. Atheism in horror fiction)

SUNDAY, 24 OCTOBER
10:30 Call of Cthulhu for Beginners (create a character and play a classic scenario)
2:45 Funny Ha-Ha (discussing humor in fiction)
4:15 Blue Pencil Cafe Massacre (bring me a few pages of your current work, and I’ll crush your hopes and dreams… or possibly offer advice and encouragement)

Creative Colleagues: Chadwick Ginther

Chadwick Ginther, photo by Rachel Himelblau

Chadwick Ginther, photo by Rachel Himelblau

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

If memory serves, I first met Chadwick Ginther at the When Words Collide festival in Calgary, where we chatted in the atrium bar. It’s possible we bumped into each other at World Fantasy or Pure Speculation before that, and we’ve run into each other at cons and readings ever since.

You meet a lot of folks who are “working on a novel” at conventions, but Chadwick’s Thunder Road soon materialized, grew with the sequel Tombstone Blues, and concludes this month with Too Far Gone.

  1. Since we first met, you’ve published your first book and two sequels, completing a trilogy. How has your writing life changed in that time? Do you outline differently (or at all)? Is your daily routine evolving?

Well I’m still working a day job so that part, hasn’t changed. I did, however, change day jobs which forced a complete change in my daily writing routine. Replacing a five minute walk to work with a forty-five minute bus ride definitely left me scavenging for more writing time. I wrote books one and two of the Thunder Road trilogy back to back, and then waited to draft book three until I’d sold the series, so in the intervening couple of years, being published had also brought with it more of a need for a social media presence, so I found the business side of writing also eating into my writing time.

Too Far Gone was written (at least in first draft) longhand in notebooks during my bus rides to and from work, and on my coffee and lunch breaks. There was no conscious decision to avoid the keyboard, but that was how the book was coming out, and so I just rolled with it. Transcribing also gave me a free editing pass!

My daily routine is still evolving even though the new day job is over two years old at this point. Lately I’d found that coffee and lunch break writing was getting less and less words on the page, so I’ve been dragging myself away from bed an hour or so early for dedicated writing time before I start work.

The closest I usually come to outlining is to make a soundtrack for the story consisting of twenty or so songs that capture how I want the book to feel. With Too Far Gone, I did an outline for my second draft, as the first draft was written in very short spurts of between 250-1000 words at time, and in no particular order. I wrote out every scene on index cards and then tried to assemble them into a story after the fact, but it’s not my usual method.

2. Other than your living there, that compelled you to combine Norse mythology with the prairies (and oil fields)? What made them a perfect match?

I grew up reading Norse mythology. D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myth was a hugely formative book for me. As was TSR’s Legends & Lore resource for Dungeons and Dragons. Those books solidified a love of all mythology, but the Norse stories in particular. Even when I wasn’t writing stories directly influenced by Norse myth, elements of it would creep in around the edges. So when I decided I wanted to write a very Norse story, I went looking for how it could work in Manitoba—I couldn’t afford a trip to any of the Nordic countries, and I wanted it to take place in our world, not an invented one.

Manitoba has a huge Icelandic community, and an awareness of that was definitely in the back of my brain when I sat down and started to write Thunder Road–the town Gimli’s name comes right out of mythology, but the more research I did, the more such connections I found. There is a rural municipality of Bifrost in Manitoba, for example. Added in with the local flavor were sasquatch sightings that could be my giants, lake serpent sightings that could be my dragon (or Jormungandur, the Midgard Serpent) and Winnipeg’s notoriously “haunted” downtown.

The Alberta connections were a little murkier, but no less important. I knew I wanted my protagonist to be an outsider. It would make it more fun to comment on local attractions through new eyes. My earliest imaginings all had a blue-collar protagonist, because I love combining the magical and the mundane, and I thought there’d be interesting conflict in a very practical, down-to-earth person getting thrown into huge world shaking events. At the time, I had a friend who was working in Northern Alberta and whenever we got together he’d share some stories of his time up north, so Alberta became my go to place to give Ted Callan a home.

In my relatively limited travels at the time, I had been to Edmonton, and had really enjoyed my time there. I liked the feel of the city. It also had the added bonus that I had some friends living there who could help me with any details that I’d need. Alberta had some strong Icelandic connections of its own, which I discovered as I started to do my research for book three, so that was a happy coincidence.

Cover by Jamis Paulson

Cover by Jamis Paulson

3. Many authors have reinterpreted the Nordic gods in recent decades (notably Neil Gaiman in The Sandman and the various writers of the Marvel comics and movies). For those who haven’t seen your books yet, what’s your special take on the characters? What makes your Nordic gods your Nordic gods?

There are so many variations on the Nordic stories depending on your source material. I chose to hew as closely as possible to the Icelandic sagas, especially given the Norse connection to my setting. I used to collect Thor comics, and I loved Walt Simonson’s take on the character and the Nine Worlds, but when I started drafting the first two books, there was no inkling that we would ever see a Thor movie. I think Iron Man had been released, but I never would’ve dreamed that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would’ve become as sprawling and as awesome as it is now. Thor has faced Ragnarök probably three or more times in the comics (and has another time coming up in the movies, if the title of his third film has anything to say about it) and while I enjoyed those stories, I loved what came after. I knew the story of Ragnarök, so whatever the writers chose to do after, I had no inkling of where the tales might lead, and I always found the different takes fascinating.

That’s why I chose to set my books in a post-Ragnarök world that looks a lot like our world, so most of the gods, Thor, Odin, Freyr, etc. are dead. There are remnants of magic and monsters lurking about (especially in Canada, where we’ve got the room to hide them) held back only by the remnants of the ancient fence Odin built around Midgard (Earth). But no fence is perfect, and once you’re exposed to magic, you become a part of the Nine Worlds. Usually you don’t live too long after that and so the secret world of magic and monsters stays mostly secret. In setting the books post-Ragnarök, all of the stories the fan of Norse myth already knows have happened. I’m not changing or taking away anything that they loved, but hopefully given them something different but of a similar flavor.

My big cheat was keeping Loki alive, but Loki’s a big cheat himself, and I figured if there was anyone who could wriggle off the hook of his doom, it would be him.

4. Music and song titles are obviously a big inspiration on your story. How much of that is likely to carry over into other novels by you? And are these the songs you’re listening to while writing?

Music is a huge inspiration to me, even if I’ve got a terrible singing voice, and never got much past four chord blues progressions while trying to learn to play guitar. I always listen to music while I write. The chapter titles are necessarily what is on the story soundtrack I listen to while I write the book, but many of them are. I think there will always be nods to music I like in my fiction, but it might not be as overt as it was in the Thunder Road Trilogy.

5. On that note, what is the Awesome Mix Tape for the trilogy?

  1. “When the Levee Breaks”—Led Zeppelin
  2. “Apocalyptic Modified Blues”—Corb Lund
  3. “Little Miss Fortune”—The Now Time Delegation
  4. “Six-Sixty-Six”—Frank Black and the Catholics
  5. “There She Goes, My Beautiful World”—Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
  6. “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)”—AC/DC
  7. “Hell’s Bells—AC/DC
  8. “Shake the World”—Motorhead
  9. “Roughest Neck Around”—Corb Lund
  10. “Hex”—Neko Case
  11. “Comin’ Home”—Murder By Death
  12. “Great Expectations”—The Gaslight Anthem
  13. “Immigrant Song”—Led Zeppelin
  14. “Earth Died Screaming”—Tom Waits
  15. “The Red Headed Stranger”—Willie Nelson

Keep tabs on Chadwick Ginther at his website.

Creative Colleagues: The Next Generation

While I’ll continue to post the occasional Creative Colleagues blog focusing on one subject, I’ll soon add a variation that asks fewer questions to more writers, including those I’ve not yet met.

Thus, even if we don’t know each other well but you’re a writer with whom I’m connected on social media, and you’d be interested in participating in an occasional roundtable interview, please send me a message with your email.

And if you’re not a writer but you enjoy these blogs, please comment with your requests for questions, general topics, or writers you’d like to see included in these roundtables.

Look for the first Creative Colleagues Roundtable on October 28.

 

Creative Colleagues: Daniel Hodges

Daniel Hodges

Daniel Hodges

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Sometimes I lament the distance between home and the game conventions I attended so regularly in the 90s. When I worked at TSR and Wizards of the Coast, I visited half a dozen cons annually. I got spoiled into thinking conventions always involved hundreds if not thousands of people and included panels and a vast exhibit hall. Yet big conventions don’t spontaneously appear; they grow out of little ones.

So I signed up to play a couple of games at one of our little local events, IntrigueCon. The name of the man responding to my email looked familiar, so I poked about and discovered he produces a podcast called Penny Red (currently on hiatus, but with an enormous selection of past episodes). He has also designed two roleplaying games, Victoria and Faith, with two more under development, Nimbus and Das Sonenrad, which explore the costs of selflessness over self-preservation during wartime.

Originally from New Zealand, Daniel teaches high school here in Edmonton. We won’t actually meet until the convention, but I couldn’t resist asking him a few questions in hopes that his replies will entice some of you to join us at IntrigueCon.

1. Give us a quick origin story for Intriguecon, including its early challenges and triumphs.

I can’t claim to be the only one behind the wheel of IntrigueCon. Clint, Rob, and another Daniel (he would claim to be the original Daniel), are really co-founders. We’ve gamed together for about seven years, and one evening it just occurred to me that we could probably run a con for ourselves. I’d been to lots of cons and thought, with a population of about a million folks, there was no reason we couldn’t have one here.

We got it off the ground only a couple of months after having the idea, with only the notion that we could bring some folks together who liked roleplaying and that we didn’t want to lose a lot of money. We achieved half of those goals.

Fortunately we did a better job in the second year and now moving into the third year we’ve actually gone from two to three days. We’re already looking to next year and eyeing up larger venues and a more diverse schedule.

The challenges for something like this are, mostly, only what you make them. I think the key is to start tiny, and build. It’s sometimes hard to not to lose sight of the fact that GenCon is a long term goal not a template.

One serious hurdle is reaching folks. With the internet being where the majority of books are bought and groups being fairly insular there’s not really a nexus you can use. Word of mouth is your best friend, that and social media.

2. What’s a good mix of roleplaying games for a convention, in your opinion?

I think the key is to have recognizable titles from a broad cross-section. You’d be making a statement if you didn’t include Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder among your games. Part of running a con is offering attendees the opportunity to try something new but not forcing them to. It’s their leisure time.

That said, Sean Nittner’s Big Bad Con in Oakland is my favorite con, and you’d have to look hard to find those games on the schedule.

3. As a game designer, what do you learn from convention play that you don’t from your home sessions?

Whether your game does what you hope it will. An established group will have all kinds of shorthand and assumptions it’s sometimes hard to factor out. Playing with strangers makes you fill in all the gaps, and sometimes that’s what it takes to realize just how big those gaps are.

Intriguing gamers

Intriguing gamers

4. Tell us about your best or most unusual convention game session as a player or GM. Or a disastrous one!

I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great experiences. My best game was a session of Witch the Road to Lindisfarne, and years later I’m still chasing that dragon.

Because game enjoyment is so subjective I don’t really have a worst experience because of a game. Worst people though are a little easier to identify.

I once played with a man who’d bought his daughter and wife with him to the table. They were “players,” but not really. He told them their ideas were wrong and really early on began playing their characters for them. It was heartbreaking to see the daughter so excited to play and then not being permitted to. The rest of us were pretty uncomfortable.

I couldn’t sit by and watch it but confronting him might have caused him to make them all to get up and walk away from the table.  So, I had my character call the police and “accidentally” cause his character and mine to be arrested. The GM was the real MVP though because, first of all, they played along and arrested us, but then proceeded to stifle everything he said after that with “You’re not there. You can’t say anything.” I hope it made a difference for his wife and daughter.

5. What is the most challenging aspect of a character for someone to play, especially in a 4-hour convention slot? And what tips would you offer to overcome that challenge?

In a convention game I feel like it’s the GM’s job to make the players feel like they’re being those things that their character is good at. A little reframing, a few hints, and little positive reinforcement goes a long way. It’s also important to gain trust and a good way to do this is to positively spin failure. For example a player that’s not naturally charismatic but playing someone who is could have their failures occur because of things beyond their control. For example, “The reporter reaches for their notepad and is just about to write down the number of the dead guy’s wife for you when they get a call. The reporter turns away to answer it and, before you know it, has hopped in the car and driven off down the road. You’re going to have to get the number another way.”

For players I’d just say give it a go, give the GM the chance to help you out. For other players I’d say, if you can see what the other characters are good at try to feed each other some spotlight in the scenes. Be a cheering squad not just a group of folks waiting for their turn to talk.

If you’re a power gamer that’s okay. Some people are that way because in their personal life they may lack any real power. Catering to this is being a good GM. What’s not okay, if you’re a power gamer, is not allowing other people some spotlight. That’s not being a selfish power gamer that’s being a selfish person.

 

If you’re within range of Edmonton, come join us at IntrigueCon. It’s a paltry $20 for the entire weekend, and I’m going to need someone to comfort me during “The Plantation” on Saturday evening.