I recently subscribed to Weird Tales (and you should too!) and along with my first issue, Summer 2010, I also got two old issues of H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror. The Spring 2011 issue arrived in my mailbox a few weeks ago … I was feeling overdue for some seriously weird reading. The magazines include more than fiction, but it’s the fiction I’m concerned with, so I’ve left out the other bits (reviews, interviews, etc). There are 30 stories in this review, so I’ve put them after the jump.
The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words DROWNED or CANCER or OLD AGE or CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN. It let people know how they were going to die.
The problem with the machine is that nobody really knew how it worked, which wouldn’t actually have been that much of a problem if the machine worked as well as we wished it would. But the machine was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark, and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. OLD AGE, it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death — you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does. (More at http://machineofdeath.net/about)
I picked up a copy of MACHINE OF DEATH about a month ago, in a bookstore which was closing (but now, isn’t) in another state while wandering around my favorite small town. “I’ve heard good things about that,” the man I was with said to me, looking down at the antholgy. I picked it up, trusting his judgement about books. It was thick and had a lot of names on the back and was edited by a couple of guys I was certain I’d never heard of, but a dystopian collection of short fiction about a machine which ironically predicts the exact manner of your death? I was sure I’d love it.
Turns out I was only right about one of those things.
MACHINE OF DEATH was at least 1/3 edited by Ryan North, based on an idea he’d put into one of his comics a while back. While I couldn’t place the name of the guy, the name of the strip was DINOSAUR COMICS and upon realizing that I did a happy little dance. I love T-Rex and Utahraptor and Dromiceiomimus! and follow them on Twitter and I even tolerate the regular appearance of GOD, who in this comic is usually high anyway. (What, no one else thinks that? It’s just me? Hmm.) I belatedly remembered the strip in which the idea appeared, where T-Rex decides he’ll eventually write a story on the idea that a machine can predict your death, which in the case of cows just means there were a lot of prediction cards which read MADE INTO DELICIOUS CHEESEBURGERS.
It could have stayed a joke. It could have, even after submissions started rolling in and the idea became an anthology, stayed funny, and maybe even veered into ridiculous.
MACHINE OF DEATH is, when you get down to it, pretty brilliant. There are a few funny stories and a few silly ones and a few which take an alt-history view of the world but for the most part this is our Earth and our frail and brittle humans and a machine which does only one thing but does it perfectly. What do you do then, when you know how you’ll die? When everyone everywhere knows how, but almost never when they’ll shuffle off this mortal coil (and to be honest those perfectly right predictions are vague in a sort of unhelpful way)? Whether the characters hide, plead, bargain, grieve, and refuse to live what time they have left, or use it as a way to live recklessly by indulging in every whim except the one attached to their prediction slip, the stories in this collection show you something worth thinking about.
What if you knew? What would you change about the life you’re living right now?
In a way, I think that’s the best part of this anthology. It acts as its own memento mori, holding up its artifice and saying, “Remember your death – it’s coming,” but by shrouding it in fun and whimsy, you get to feel safe about it. It’s almost like getting bad news while being wrapped up in comfy blankets, snuggled with your favorite person/pet/stuffed animal, while cookies bake in the oven, and knowing that if you don’t like the news, you can always put it back on the shelf and look at it again later when you’re ready. We all die, kids, most of us faster than we’d have liked, and it’s refreshing to be reminded of it every so often. It could be CANCER or LOSS OF BLOOD or a CRASH of some kind or even something interesting like MURDER or EXHAUSTION FROM HAVING SEX WITH A MINOR but one way or another, we all go. No matter who you are, there’s a death in there for you, and a story which will make you consider your own choices.
And if you’re not up for that, there’s always FLAMING MARSHMALLOW.
As the “being sick” portion of the program has gone over the scheduled performance time, I don’t have much writing or editing to report. In between lots of sleeping and thinking about the things I’ll be doing once my brain, you know, works again, I have been getting some reading in. Several graphic novels and some short stories this week:
Unwritten Vol. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity; Mike Carey (author) and Peter Gross (illustrator), Vertigo, 144 pages. In a world where Harry Potter was, at least for a while, the King of All Media, it’s no surprise that someone would write the “our wizard is better and also very similar but better because he’s really real!” story. And yes, you can say it’s analyzing the way our society reacts to the creation of the classic boy hero archetype blah blah blah. It doesn’t matter. Whether Carey is ripping off (or being inspired by) Potter or Timothy Hunter or Luke Kirby or T.H. White’s Wart, it doesn’t matter. Carey pulls in literature and alt-history possibilities and a league of extraordinarily bad men, and puts his own spin on the whole adventure. What you get, then, is a book that is literate and almost delicate in the way the pieces slide together. I loved it, and can’t wait to get the rest of the series.
Locke & Key Volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraft HC [Hardcover]; Joe Hill (author) and Gabriel Rodriguez (illustrator), IDW Publishing, 152 pages. Beautiful, brilliant, and oh yeah, fucking dark. I mean, let’s start the story with some gruesome murder, shall we? And, while we’re at it, let’s throw in a bunch more. In between the loss and pain and moving across the country and (by the way) there’s a creepy thing in the well, Hill’s written a mad masterpiece. You just know that everyone he brings into this tale is going to die miserably, but the story is so good, you’re kind of willing to make that trade. They die, you’re entertained, and you’ll keep coming back for more.
Planetary Vol. 1: All Over the World and Other Stories; Warren Ellis (author) and John Cassaday (illustrator), WildStorm Productions, 160 pages. Oh, Warren Ellis, you’re so meta. A comic book about superheroes who don’t act like superheroes but find out our world has been mixed with other worlds where comic book things have happened? And their superheroes want to fight ours? And Asian men talk about their testicles while worrying over the corpse of Mothra? *sigh* So far, I’m not in love with the series, but it’s interesting. I do like Ellis’s work, and the writing isn’t bad (the art’s lovely too) so I think I’m just having a hard time with the HA HA HA IRONIC USE OF TROPES of it all. There are moments where I think I might be too well read, and reading PLANETARY isn’t helping.
Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die; Ed. by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, David Malki, 464 pages. From the first story, I loved this collection. The premise, first bandied about by a cartoon T-Rex, is that a couple of guys create a machine which tells you, often in one word, the manner of your demise. From the first story (“Flaming Marshmallow”), which tells how such a machine can change the social structure of a high school lunch room, to stories about how the machine can make you afraid of love and death and sex and the machine itself, this anthology says something about the human reaction to such perfect news of our mortality. The machine is, after all, never wrong – it’s just a little vague, as in the story where death by SUICIDE doesn’t exactly mean you’re going to kill yourself. Definitely recommended.
I’ve also been keeping up with the daily offerings at Everyday Fiction. They’re not always great but the flash-length stories are new every day, short enough to be read on a break from work or while dinner’s cooking, and it’s good exposure to a wide variety of writing styles. Bonus: a better idea of what does or does not work in terms of storytelling under 1000 words.
I talk about being a writer here because that’s how I primarily see myself. I write fiction and non-fiction, creating stories on spec for open markets and writing essays and articles by request for a couple of different places, so that makes sense. But I also work as an editor, both for Dagan Books and for (more recently) another publisher. I’ve edited newspaper articles, academic essays, short fiction pieces, novels, book-length anthologies, poetry … As much experience as I have, when it comes to my own work I try very hard not to be my own editor.
Most writers will tell you that having someone else read your work is an absolutely necessity, a thing which must happen before you submit it to a market. This is because a new pair of eyes will often catch things that you missed. A common problem for writers is that we know what we meant to say, so we don’t always notice if it isn’t what we did say. Leaving a word out of a sentence? I do that. Using the wrong word, dropping off a letter (I did that tonight, using “to” instead of “too”) or starting one word but ending it with the end of the next word. Well, that one might just be me.
This is the obvious use of an editor – read and fix. This isn’t the main reason that I need one. Continue reading
When you win:
1. Post the picture above to your blog. You can link here if you want. It doesn’t have to become part of the permanent clutter of your sidebar. Goodness no.
2. List at least three writers who you feel live up to the “write hard” spirit. Think: writers who work at their craft, writers who never give up despite the odds, writers who constantly turn out quality work. Writers you admire. Optional: explain why you think they are awesome.
3. Include these rules or a link to them.
4. Notify said writers of their victory. Ask them to pass on the torch.
5. Continue being awesome.
I was nominated for this and since I’m both pleased and rules-abiding (when it suits me), here are my picks:
My three choices aren’t the only hard-working, ass-kicking writers I know, but they have the distinction of being both writers I like as people, and writers who’re working on an upcoming Dagan Books project of mine. All three talk about the process of writing on their own blogs, and they tweet about their day-to-day writing stats and struggles as well. They’re not afraid to be seen as writers who still have something to learn and they’re generous in sharing what tricks they do pick up. All three are committed to working on their craft not just when the muse strikes them but as often as necessary to become the kind of writer we all want to be.
1. Simon C. Larter – is charming. You might not know this but meet him in person and you quickly realize he’s just as fun and easy to be around as you’d hope for. His writing is the same kind of fun – energetic, a little sexy, a little cocky, entertaining and accessible. If you read Larter’s twitter feed you probably already know that he’s married, working a day job, and finding time to write around his life as a father of a couple of small children. What you may not know is that his conversational style of writing isn’t as spur of the moment as it might feel… he actually reads and researches and re-writes as necessary to make his writing work. He also spends a considerable amount of time networking, talking to writers (new and experienced), sharing his thoughts, recommending work to his colleagues, and supporting us in times of need. He’s a better person than he’s probably willing to admit.
2. Don Pizarro – reads voraciously, adores indie writers, and bases his work in a strong foundation of research. He writes slowly and carefully, willing to retool his work until it’s perfect, no matter how long it takes. Pizarro is persistant in his determination to be a writer worth reading – writing nearly every day, making time on his lunch breaks and after work and on weekends – more than almost any other writer I know. I met him when we both found out we were appearing in the RIGOR AMORTIS anthology together, and got to work with him as an editor when he submitted to Cthulhurotica. He turned in a story about romancing a cultist that was both overtly sexual and extremely subtle, implying its Lovecraftian origins instead of smacking you upside the head with it. If he can do that with a piece of weird erotica, imagine what he can do with more serious writing. Follow him on twitter and find out for yourself.
3. K. V. Taylor – should probably be in a all-girl punk-pop band, but instead she’s a writer, and we’re all lucky she turned out this way. She’s quick witted, cheerful and enthusiastic on a regular basis. Her twitter feed is full of blog posts and music references and her obvious penchant for the strange and offbeat. Yes, my friends, this girl writes well, quotes fabulous lyrics, and likes monsters. If you’ve met me, you’d know this makes her awesome in my book. Also, she’s literally been awesome in my books – her story “Transfigured Night” appeared in Cthulhurotica, “Chennai 5” will be in IN SITU, and since she’s going to be included in our next book as well, Taylor has the distinction of being the only author to appear in all three of my company’s first three titles.