The Nameless Horror

What I’m saying is, a large number of men have lost their ruggedness. Maybe they never had it. I believe to be a man is to be tough mentally and physically. To have a small set of skills to survive from day-to-day when needed. Like lifting weights or boxing in a dust and spider-web-infested concrete shed with a tin roof.

A few buried half-kernels of parenting-related material aside, I am almost convinced this is satire.

Also: I heard half of it in Leslie Nielsen’s voice.




A Parachute Not Opening That’s a Way to Die

Buried

In my post on The Desperate, The Dying, And The Damned I mentioned that there were reasons I still hadn’t completed a re-edit of the final Penguin book, Burial Ground. And there are, beyond merely being busy (I’m now writing/editing a trade mag freelance as well as working on a novel short-version-working-titled PORTAL, and, y’know, childcare, chores, other things). What they come down to is what happens when you gut a story.

In theory, BG should be an easy edit. The published draft has some improvements over the original - smaller cast list, clearer motives - and a lot of total balls. The book reviewed poorly on Amazon, but not for this reason; my editor included a comparison to Agatha Christie’s Ten Little N— I Mean, Indians/And Then There Were None on the back jacket and as far as I can tell, this novel of swearing, corpse-crawling and relatively frequent violence was bought primarily by Christie fans. And, well. Anyway, it deserves its general poor reviews. It’s at best OK, at worst a bit of a mess. Doesn’t make sense in places. That sort of thing. It was always a bit of an odd beast in terms of the overall series; by this point I really wanted to be doing a standalone instead, and this was as much of a prod in that direction as I could manage within the confines of an ongoing character.

I have the original draft on computer. (A draft which, incidentally, is probably closer to Christie’s story, even though it’s based mostly on survival horror tales like The Thing.) It’s a bit first draft-y, sure, but it’s more consistent in its story. I originally conceived it under the working title of Twelve - “12 people. 12 hours. 12 secrets.” Sweet, no?

But. But.

Cleaning up the bits that don’t work, including trimming the cast list (which is unwieldy when you’re writing in first person), means that it’s a bit… bony. I’ve got the skeleton of a book there somewhere, but there are gaps. Fleshy, squishy gaps. The sort of gaps that determine what a story looks and sounds like. And whereas with The Touch Of Ghosts most of what I had to do was excise unnecessary material and then sew the incisions shut to leave a much leaner, cleaner rebuilt model standing there, here I’m basically reconstructing a dinosaur from its constituent parts. I know what the story was supposed to be and how it was supposed to work, but I don’t have the faintest idea if I actually have enough here to achieve it. Or, indeed, to achieve anything at all. It’s certainly not horrible enough to be survival horror, not without putting some redshirts back in to die in horrible ways, and then what’s the point of that? Is it criminal enough to be a crime? Is it even likeable?

It may be a case of doing something radical with either the presentation of the story - perspectives, order - or else shifting the whole thing into one of the other forms it so nearly resembles but not quite. Both options represent a lot of work, and I’m not sure which is the right choice. Until I know that, other things take precedence.

The Mad Detective

Good morning! Here is a book! It is an Alex Rourke story, but it’s not the writer’s cut of Burial Ground. The (thoroughly undramatic) reasons for that we’ll get to in a post tomorrow, but today - hey, here’s The Desperate, The Dying, And The Damned!

The full story blurb is at Amazon US and UK, but this novella picks up several years after the novels with Alex scraping out a living as the only investigatory outlet for those with no better or more legitimate channels to turn to, in the occasional company of a young woman with plenty of dark patches in her own background.

The Desperate, The Dying, And The Damned

Kayleigh gave me the phone back. “I don’t have to ask why he won’t go to the cops with this, do I?”

“Even bad people are still people, K. They still need help at times, and where else are they going to go?”

“Alex Rourke: last resort of the desperate, the dying, and the damned,” she said and shook her head. “I suppose I shouldn’t complain; it’s rent week.”

It’s a proper, real, actual PI story. No thriller overtones. No ‘he will kill again!’ stop-the-baddie nonsense. And it was a lot of fun to write, especially Alex’s working relationship and the dialogue therein.

(Aside before I forget, as I always do - the cover image is this one by Luis Hernandez, cc-by licensed. Changing it to make it rainy - it’s near as damnit from a scene in the story - was much fun.)

The principal reason for Alex’s fall from respectability is something that was hinted at in the earlier stories and in his background (he had, for those who’ve never read any of them, a psychotic episode/breakdown following a run of Bad Things back in the past. This breakdown was the reason he left the FBI to go private). The tricks of his vision and the weird goings-on in The Touch Of Ghosts? The sense of disconnection and obsession in The Darkness Inside? The full-blown hallucinations in Burial Ground?

Not just cheap tricks and jump scares, my friends. Alex is suffering from a serious psychotic, schizophrenia-type mental illness. He is, to use the vernacular, mad as a bag of weasels.

Not in a kooky/melodramatic/UNHOLY. ACTING. TALENT. way, though. Or at least I hope not. His mental state was slowly degenerating over the course of the novels and the illness is now an ever-present in his daily life. Which is to say: he lives with it. This is years after it became a chronic thing, and obviously he’s still functioning. Life goes on. Controlling it in part with medication and in part by deliberately and carefully separating reality and hallucination as he encounters it. So that, like a migraine or a limp or whatever, it’s something you manage and you put up with because you have to. Backdrop, rather than story center.

(From a writing standpoint, it does allow me to get all unreliable narrator if I want to, and I’m sure that’ll come out in time. And, for what it’s worth, it doesn’t come up that much this time out, enough to establish it, sure, but not so much that I front-load with The Weird.)

I had something like it in mind way back when. It always struck me as a reasonable path for a series character who has to face the amount of horrible stuff as your average crimefighter. (And the “turn to drink to drown the awfulness” thing had been done to death, often schlockily.)

Fictional investigators have to face the most outlandish - and often the most improbably personal - terrors on an astonishingly regular basis that you’d assume some of them would lose it somewhere. PTSD, MPD, some kind of dissociative disorder, anything really. And yet not everyone with such mental illness is non-functional. In many cases, you adjust, and struggle on. Alex was always a guilt-driven character. I liked the idea of seeing him trying on the one hand to keep a grip on his fractured psyche while still, futilely, trying to make the world a better place in some small way.

The aim - and I don’t know if I’ll stick it out or not - is to do six novellas to make one full ‘season’ of a wider story. The second is half written at the moment. But first we need a beginning.

So this is that.

“Home.” I climbed out and stumbled round to the passenger side while she slid between seats.

“This thing’s a heap,” she said, grinding it into first gear. “It’s full of trash and the steering’s like a shopping cart. You should ditch it for something better. Like a skateboard, or a hobby horse.”

“The car’s fine.” I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t have to watch the horror unfold in the streets.

“It’s falling apart.”

“You get used to that,” I said.

One Chance

I got to talking round a mate’s last night about storytelling and emotional investment in games (we’d started at films and then moved on). I won’t bore you with the entire conversation, but I was reminded of - and brought up - the excellent little Flash game One Chance. In this, you’re a scientist who has cured cancer, and true to form, the cure threatens to wipe out all life on Earth. The game - which I won’t spoil - gives you a fairly simple set of choices; spend time with your family or work hard on the cure, bunk off work to flirt with the pretty woman in the lab or play nice. (Worth noting: at no point does a big red flag appear saying ‘YOU HAVE PICKED BASTARD MODE’ like so many moral karma systems in games, which is always good.) It only takes ten minutes to play through, but be warned that it can, intentionally, only be played once. (You can, and maybe should, get round this by playing in private browsing so the Flash cookie used to store the “has played” data doesn’t get kept.)

Go and do that now because I’m about to describe a minor spoiler and I wouldn’t want to ruin anything.

Good. So, as it progresses and becomes bleaker (and does so very nicely), the choices do too. In my favourite ending, you’re sick, your daughter is sick, the world’s dead or dying around you and it’s the last day of the seven. You can either take her into work with you to try one, last, futile attempt to find a cure, or else take her to the park for the final time before you both die.

Harsh. Very harsh. Whitt recommended The Walking Dead for a similar set of emotional choices and I might check it out.

Post apropos of nothing much. Am working. Head down. Noise at grindstone level. Atomic turbines to full power. Ramming speed. Etc.

The Observer On Self-Publishing

From Anna Baddeley’s piece:

I find it very unlikely that someone looking for their next read would think: I want something by a self-published author. It would be like logging on to iTunes to buy some music and selecting, instead of rock/pop, a category called “songs recorded in people’s bedrooms”.

OK, so it’s only a micro-column, tied to Apple’s addition of 'Breakout Books' to the iBookstore. (Not, as Engadget reports, just its US incarnation.)

But that… doesn’t she know how bands go from unsigned to signed? That people actively seek them out in preference to something else? That, yes, people do buy the music of such musicians out of preference, if it’s good enough.

Or:

"Discover emerging authors at great prices" promises an email from the iBookstore. "Browse some of our favourite titles from rising stars in this hand-picked collection of independently published books." Except "hand-picked" turns out to mean books with high customer ratings and high sales. The usual selection of soft porn and mediocre crime.

I’m looking at that section of the store in iTunes at the moment. It runs in rows of categories (the same as other chunks of iTunes): What’s Hot, Fiction & Literature (a sort of general fiction category more or less the same as what you’d find in a bricks ‘n mortar store), Romance, Crime & Thrillers, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, and lastly a self-help section for writing called “Become An Author”.

In short, while I don’t doubt they’re mostly flagged by review and sales rank, this is hardly just a hodgepodge of 50 Shades knock-offs and serial killers.

Front spot on the ‘What’s Hot’ line is taken by Autumn Dawn’s The Charmer, which is SF/F (albeit of the were-creature paranormal romance variety). Other SF/F titles - J R Rain’s Moon Island, Chanda Hahn’s YA wolf fantasy The Steele Wolf - also appear on the 13-strong list with the crime and romance titles. The SF category also features Jeff Noon’s Needle In The Groove, which is hardly likely to be mediocre (and, worth noting, has no ratings as yet at all so presumably has been plucked from the lists by some other process), and a fair number of the offerings look properly done (to judge a book by its cover).

So yes, there might be a bunch of toss there (so much self-pubbed stuff is, sadly) for all I know, but while I know she generally hates self-published books, Baddeley’s dismissal of it out-of-hand (and a description hinting at only cursory research) is equally shoddy.