World Fantasy 2019

by Matthew Lowes

At the mass book signing with Christina Lay and Stephen T. Vessels

I had a great time at the World Fantasy convention with ShadowSpinners Press and some fellow authors in the Labyrinth of Souls fiction series. Can’t say I saw much of LA, since I did not leave the Airport Marriott for three days, but the weather was nice, the conference was great, and the company was outstanding. It is truly a wonderful experience to be in the midst of so many creative and inspiring writers and artists.

The crowds gather in LA Airport Marriott

The ShadowSpinners table had a lively showing in the book room, and I had a great time answers questions about Dungeon Solitaire and the Labyrinth of Souls. I signed a few books, did a reading with fellow authors Christina Lay and Stephen T. Vessels, and managed to get to a few talks and panels. I was particularly interested to learn a bit more about audiobook production and particularly taken with the beautiful art of Reiko Murakami.

The ShadowSpinners table and chief editor Christina Lay

With another successful appearance, we are planning to make an even bigger showing next year in Salt Lake. We’ll have more books, more authors, and more games. Hope to see you there!

Art print by Reiko Murakami (available on her website)

 

It’s Not About The Monster

by Christina Lay

It’s Not About the Monster

Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world. -Ben Okri, poet and novelist (b. 15 Mar 1959)

I just finished writing an entirely different post about the TV Show Stranger Things. Then, after walking away from the computer, it occurred to me that I hadn’t said a single thing about the flashy bits. You know, the monster, the cool other dimension, the ick and awe factor, the “strange things”.

Spoiler Alert – If you haven’t watched Season One yet, you might not want to read this

If you don’t know, Stranger Things is an Amazon original series that I would put in the genre of “Cozy Horror”. It is cozy because our favorite characters tend not to die, and good triumphs over evil, eventually. However, people do die, either at the hands of a rogue government entity or at the ick-dripping talons of the monster.

However, it doesn’t really matter how they die or who/what is chasing our heroes around. The source of The Horror could just as well be an infestation of pissed-off dragons, or powerful magic gone awry, or a swarm of giant ants, or an out of control disease. Personally I prefer monsters. What is important in a show like this is the characters, and how they react to The Horror.

In the first post I wrote, I discussed how we as writers might make up for the fact that we don’t have a three-dimensional Winona Ryder who will leap out of the page and bring our brilliant prose to life for the reader. I’m full of admiration for Winona’s skill and her excellent job of bringing Joyce Byers, the distraught mother in Stranger Things, to life. She is a lot of what makes this show so compelling. So as writers stuck with mere words, we can focus on character development, adding layers and depth to our characters by giving them everything from quirks, gestures, odd habits and facial tics to long and murky histories, skewed motivations, poor coping skills and a smorgasbord of emotions that may or may not control their actions. Winona and the true-to-trope hard drinking sheriff with a murky history, skewed motivations and poor coping skills get most of the action, character-development wise. The true-to-trope gang of nerdy and plucky kids are all great, as is “The Chosen One” with the powerful magic gone awry. A couple side characters like the Princess and The Loner/Outsider have some good moments, and even the good-looking Jock/Jerk gets a shot at redemption. They’re all interesting in their way, adding to the fun by roping us in with their charm.

But it’s Winona as the mom and David Harbour as Chief Hopper who really get to face The Horror, which is what this show, and most stories like it, are all about. In facing The Horror, a character is either destroyed or they prevail. There are so many ways either can happen. One, they can get their head ripped off. That is the ultimate failure. But they can also fail to face their fear, they might run away, they might turn their backs on their friends, they might join the enemy, they might deny the existence of the Horror until it shows up and rips their head off. They might choose to destroy themselves, with alcohol or a supremely reckless act, all the while denying those repressed emotions that are controlling them. The sheriff is drinking and denying in order not to face the emotional truth of having lost a child. The mother, on the other hand, steamrollers her many flaws and actually utilizes them in a supreme effort to save her child. Sometimes, it is an asset to be slightly crazy.

To prevail, one must survive the season (or the novel). Beyond that, the hero must grow, realize her own strengths, identify what is most important, listen to her instincts and intuitions, trust in her allies if they exist, overcome all those cleverly developed character flaws, and defeat the monster. At least for now.

Some viewers might disagree, but I believe this is the key to a successful show, not the cleverness or wow factor of The Horror. Don’t get me wrong, I think the monster in Stranger Things is cool. The Upside Down is a creepy and clever concept that they do well. But it would all put me to sleep if it weren’t for the people who are dealing with, reacting to, dying in the face of, and kicking the ass of The Horror. If those people are one-dimensional, shallow, too true-to-trope to swallow, or just flat out dull, no amount of pyrotechnic evil wizardry is going to keep me tuning in.

This brings us to the question of why we do this to ourselves. Why do we like to watch clever, likable, heroic characters be tortured and tested in this way? I think the answer is pretty simple, and it’s why we tell stories at all. We all have a Horror in our life, maybe several. Maybe they’re small horrors, but the world is full of big horrors and it takes very little imagination to conceive of The Horror being visited upon ourselves. A cozy horror TV show like Stranger Things allows to process some of that pent up fear, and it lets us watch “ordinary” characters take the bull by the horns and defeat The Horror. Yes, it is cathartic, and it is just scary enough to let off some of scream steam and, possibly, allow us embrace the happy for now ending and the hope that good not only can but will triumph over evil.

Now Non-cozy Horror, where everyone dies? I don’t know what’s up with that. Liz?

 

 

 

 

 

When Furry Fiction Meets Dark Fiction

By Mary E. Lowd

I like animals, and so I write about them.  Early on, I tried to keep the animals under control, off to the side, with plenty of human characters for readers to identify with at the center of my stories.  Eventually, I discovered that there’s a whole genre of fiction for people like me who want to read and write about animals — it’s called furry fiction, and it changed my life.  I stopped trying to shoehorn humans into my stories and fully embraced my desire to write animal characters.

There are a lot of advantages to writing furry fiction.  In 2005, I started writing a NaNoWriMo novel about a down and out tabby cat and the dog goon who’s hired to get rid of her but turns out to have a heart of gold.  It was inspired by watching my dog Patrick bark at my cat Heidi.  It was supposed to be a quick and dirty novel to get the pump primed, and then once I had the animal characters out of my system, I’d move on to writing some serious science-fiction.  Ten years later though, I’m still exploring the world of that novel because it turned out to be so rich.  My fourth novel in that setting, Otters In Space 3: Octopus Uprising, should come out some time in the next year.

When you write about animal species, they’re fun and easy to picture, so a story is almost automatically colorful and compelling on a shallow level.  This is why so many cartoons and animated films feature animal characters.  Animals are fun to look at; animal characters are fun to think about.  But more than that, each different animal species comes with its own quirks — some are predators, some are prey; some live in desserts, some are aquatic; they can have bushy fur, scales, feathers, or even skin that changes color.  Antlers, wings, giant ears, long tails?  So many options.  And all these differences lead to different needs and different priorities.  So, if you take your animal characters seriously, you can end up with a really rich world really fast.  If you’ve seen the movie Zootopia, then you know what I mean.

But ShadowSpinners is a blog about dark fiction, so I want to steer this toward the intersection between dark fiction and furry fiction, because something really interesting happens when those two flavors combine.

Furry characters give the reader a feeling of safe distance — “That couldn’t happen to me; it’s happening to a cartoon character.”  Wile E. Coyote can blow himself up, fall off cliffs, and be crushed by anvils all day every day, and it’s funny.  George Orwell’s 1984 is terrifying, but Animal Farm is cute.  The Netflix show BoJack Horseman delves deeply into the truth of depression.  And Art Spiegelman’s Maus stares unflinchingly at the reality of Auschwitz.  This is a powerful tool.  But there’s a flip side, a double standard if you will.

People will cry over animals like they’ll never cry over other humans.  I have a series of short stories about a tabby cat who constantly runs afoul of his owner’s household appliances — these are lightweight, fun, adventure romps with a supernatural twist.  Yet, I’ve had these stories rejected (once by a YA market that lists The Hunger Games as the type of fiction they like) on the grounds that a cat killing a mouse is too dark.

Is there any way to twist the knife in a story more powerful than killing the dog?  Sure, you can “kill the dog” without writing furry fiction.  But furry fiction gives you a lot more dogs to kill.

If you want to write something truly, deeply dark, imagine combining both halves of that double standard.

I’ll let that idea sit for a moment.

It’s like the salty, nutty taste of peanut butter, undercut by the intense, bittersweet flavor of chocolate.  Complex on the tongue and totally addictive.  Lure the reader in with happy animal characters and make them feel safe — twitching noses, fluffy cottontails, and long ears.  Then leave the poor bunny with its hind foot caught in a snare, twisted and bleeding to death on the floor — hitting the reader harder than they’ve ever been hit before.

The magical blend of furry fiction and dark fiction lends a unique opportunity to dark fiction writers.  If you want to explore the possibilities for fitting furry characters into your own fiction, check out my essay “Writing Furry Speculative Fiction” on Jester Harley’s Manuscript Page where I break down all the standard tropes of furry world-building.  For more information about furry fiction in general, check out the Furry Writers’ Guild website — among other things, the FWG keeps a listing of furry markets and hosts a forum and Slack group with a very active community of writers.

Furry fiction is an exciting and growing genre.  We’d love to welcome more dark fiction writers into our ranks!

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Mary E. Lowd writes stories and collects creatures. She’s had three novels and more than eighty short stories published so far. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish. The stories, creatures, and Mary live together in a crashed spaceship disguised as a house, hidden in a rose garden in Oregon. Learn more at www.marylowd.com, or read much of her short fiction at www.deepskyanchor.com.