On Lucius Shepard, The Novella, and Weirdness

I’ve become moderately obsessed in the last few months with the writer Lucius Shepard. I was lucky enough to hear his name dropped on a weird fiction podcast, I’ve actually forgotten which, maybe Cromcast. I was initially underwhelmed when I had a look on Amazon – almost none of his work is in print, except in ebook editions whose design makes them seem, frankly, just short of amateurish.

Of course, many of you will know that Shepard was a luminary of sci-fi for a time. But, now that I’ve read a mid-sized sampling of his work, I find the fading of his star since then totally baffling. He was something close to a genius, and he demonstrated with blinding clarity the most profound potentials of weird fiction. His stories melded emotional depth with surreal imagery and supernatural happenings, using effortlessly beautiful and believable language to render the electrified ghosts of Vietnam casualties, a sleeping dragon casting subtle spells, a poisoned jungle plotting to save itself from destruction by man.

He manages the itself-supernatural trick of perfectly balancing finely detailed, realistic and emotionally weighty characters, substantive and propulsive plots, and unhesitant strangeness.

Shepard completely avoids cliche – none of the ghosts or dragons do quite what you expect them to. Even more impressive are the junkies and brain-damaged boxers and construction workers who themselves become implicated in the unreal, who slip into realms beyond and make that transition part of the still very real lives they lead.

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In his heyday, Shepard was hardly unknown – he won a Nebula award and a World Fantasy Award, among others. Yet his work is less visible than the latest “Cthulhu by Gaslight” schlockfest. There are several reasons for this, some perhaps inevitable and structural, but also some that fans and writers of weird fiction should pay serious heed to, if they care about the long-term health of this community.

It doesn’t help that he was an older (and now, tragically, dead before his time) writer, in a genre full of young-ish men and women who are at readings and on Twitter frantically clamoring for your attention. But he’s not, at the same time, old enough to join the mythical pantheon ala Lovecraft, Howard, or Clark Ashton Smith (the last of whom, by the way, Shepard is vastly superior to).

He was awkwardly in-between in another way. Shepard’s obituary pointed out that his taste for writing the novella helped keep him marginal. It’s the perfect length for what Shepard does, long enough to draw a reader into a very detailed dream-like world, to generate empathy for a central character, and to unfold a meaningful plot – but still lean, without, in particular, the novel’s lengthy dialogues.

It’s also, unfortunately, long been a wildly uncommercial form. Now that we live in the heyday of the edited volume, even short stories are far more marketable than novellas – a moderately successful writer and writing coach recently posited to me that 4,000 words is the most salable length for a short story. The best works in The Best of Lucius Shepard are closer to 12,000 words.

But that, I have some hope, might be changing – if not in time for Shepard’s own legacy, then at least for future fans of the novella. The rise of electronic publishing makes the physical dimensions of a book almost irrelevant. And novellas can be easily sold for the appropriate-seeming price of 99 cents or so.

(I’m actually about to experiment with this myself.  Before I had any sense that stories were things you sold, I would simply write them until they felt like they were done – which is how I ended up spending 12 years on and off trying to sell an 11,000-word story now called in night we coax things out of hidden shapes. I will be releasing it as the first Blown Horizonz publication in a few weeks – please sign up for our newsletter for updates and some upcoming giveaways.)

For another underappreciated genius, read here about M. John Harrison.

But there’s another, more deeply worrisome interpretation of Shepard’s marginality – one which might be blamed on one of Shepard’s own most important heirs. Jeff Vandermeer may be the living Weird writer whose command of the intersection of truth and weirdness is closest to Shepard’s. But it was also Ann and Jeff Vandermeer who – for a lot of very good and laudable reasons, and with a lot of laudable results – have really given life to The Weird as a genre. They’d maybe object to that characterization of their editorial project, but it’s essentially inescapable.

And genres, and their audiences, are inimical to writers like Lucius Shepard. He has been often compared to the Latin American writers of Magical Realism, and the contrast is productive. Those writers, from Marquez back to Cervantes sideways to Borges – are part of a tradition, not a genre. They have a command of a worldview, not a set of tropes. And a genre can’t be anything so nebulous or alive, because ultimately it’s a market category. A set of recycled tics and monsters and scenes and gestures. On some level, it’s a shell for mediocrity, in readers as well as writers.

Luckily, I don’t think weird fiction is there yet. There is undeniably a lot of lazy crap out there, in fact an increasing amount of it. But the darkness could be neutered, if we’re not careful. Probably the best insurance against that is to cast skepticism on mediocre recyclings of the predictable, to continue venerating uncomfortable freaks like Thomas Ligotti and Michael Cisco – and to add Lucius Shepard to that list.

Fallout 4 is Fundamentally Broken, Thanks to One Huge Writing Mistake.

Note: This was originally written back in December, when this game was actually new. I managed to not actually publish it at the time. Whoops.

 

In the past two years or so, I’ve devoted a lot of energy to studying and practicing plot mechanics. They were a problem for me as a writer for a long time, but I’m finally really getting into the swing of things. It’s with that recently-polished insight that I approached the new Fallout 4, and I’ve found that, as a mechanism for delivering a coherent experience centered around character and plot, it has some serious problems.

I really, really wanted to like Fallout 4. So badly, in fact that I bought a Playstation 4 so I could play it. But now, after having the game for less than a month, and playing for around 40 hours (at least), I feel no urge to continue. In fact, I think continuing to play it would be bad for me – it leaves me feeling empty and drained.

On one level, I shouldn’t be too surprised. I’ve been playing the Fallout games for nearly 20 years (Jesus . . .), and was pretty disappointed with Fallout 3 – it felt lifeless and boring compared to the first two games. And while Fallout 4 shares a lot of problems with Fallout 3 – a combat system that’s no fun, inventory management that’s just a boring hassle, enemies that are boringly samey, and a setting so visually boring it could be used to prep patients for oral surgery – It’s that sense of lifelessness, and even pointlessness, that feels the most familiar.

In other words, the writing sucks.

This is, of course, the same thing a lot of us said about Fallout 3 – and it was mostly true then, too. When Bethesda got the rights to Fallout from Black Isle in the early 2000s, there was a lot of skepticism – the tone of the first two Fallouts was just too different from Bethesda’s heavy Elder Scrolls fantasy RPGs. And for the record, I really loved the writing, including plotting and characters, on Skyrim – that was a game that gave you purpose, and led you through a series of small and large, but always meaningful, goals. The tone was right for the experience (also, Skyrim looks amazing. Fallout 4 looks like someone spilled brown paint).

But Fallout has always been a more human, more mature, and more subtle story than The Elder Scrolls – at its best, both a satire of the worst parts of our own culture, and a meditation on the experience of total loss. But Bethesda never truly picked up those threads from the original Fallout games, with Fallout 3 really feeling like a rote exercise, especially in the humor department – Bethesda don’t seem to get satire.

That continues in Fallout 4, while the story seems even more lackluster (though my memories of Fallout 3 are themselves getting mercifully scant at this point). Moment to moment, the story totally fails to give any meaning to your actions. Critics basing reviews off the first five or ten hours of gameplay seem to have been baited into thinking the exact opposite . . . but before I go there, let me just tell you about a minor quest I just finished up.

While wandering the wasteland, I found the corpse of a soldier, with records suggesting I should find, and maybe help, his fellow squadmates. I traced a handful of distress signals, and ultimately found the sole survivor of the expedition, holed up in a bugout bunker. He offered to let me have any of the junk in his bunker.

And that was it.

There was no final challenge. There was no twist – for example, it didn’t turn out that the survivor had double-crossed his squadmates. There was, in fact, very little payoff at all to give meaning to my play experience (and, just for the record, the ‘play experience’ of this quest, the actual stuff I did, was extremely unremarkable). I didn’t learn much, except that this world is dangerous. I wasn’t clear why these people were conducting a dangerous operation, or why exactly (the most interesting thread) they had to destroy some of their most valuable munitions.

That’s a pretty representative taste of the lost opportunities that abound in the stories here.

The characters are no better, residing mostly in the world of cliché or total nondescription – a guy who wants to help people, a reporter who wants to get the scoop, a super mutant who wants to be . . . stronger, I guess? The most interesting person in Fallout 4 isn’t a person, but a cyborg detective, whose possession of an actual personality almost seems like a satire of how boring all the humans are.

(In fairness, there’s another character, a mercenary, who is interesting. But you literally kill him before you find out he was interesting. You basically get to spend fifteen minutes with him).

But back to that opening sequence. The story of Fallout 4 is set up as an effort to humanize a central character who, in the previous games, was a bit of a blank slate. The setup (and I think this is the same for male and female protagonists, but I might be wrong) has the main character tricked into a state of suspended animation, from which he wakes up just briefly and witnesses his son being kidnapped. When you wake up, you immediately set out to find your son, moving relentlessly towards this crystal-clear goal.

Oh wait, NO YOU DON’T.

This is the thing that makes Fallout 4 seem totally pointless. In the previous games, the first hours were spent discovering the world, understanding your place in it, and answering questions about your own identity. Killing stuff and talking to people was part of that process, giving it all some clear forward momentum.

But in Fallout 4 you know exactly who you are, and exactly what you should be doing – but the larger game doesn’t want you to focus too much on the thing the story has so clearly set up as the most important thing for your character.

For the first thirty hours of the game, while I spent a good bit of effort advancing the main storyline, I was also cajoled by the game into spending a LOT of time on a series of fetch-and-kill missions connected to building a kind of municipal defense network, and a bunch of other peripheral missions that had no apparent connection to finding my son.

What father, in a real or fantasy world, would dawdle around with any of this bullshit after he found out that his son (spoiler alert) had been kidnapped by some kind of evil cyborg gang? When it so constantly encourages you to pursue side-quests that distract from the key goal, the game makes your character feel meaningless and without motivation. If it were true to its own premise, 85% of the content in Fallout 4 would have to be trashed and rewritten, because you’d just be doing the seven or eight quests that led directly to your key goal. But then it wouldn’t be ‘epic,’ I guess.

All of this makes me really suspicious that the whole “kidnapped kid” angle was added at the last minute, or was some sort of political compromise. Bethesda is good at setting up open-ended, open world experiences, where the player feels, in an odd way, motivated to do nothing – at least, nothing specific. In addition to playing the first two Fallouts, I played Daggerfall and Morrowind on release, too – and loved those games on their own terms. (Oblivion is another story).

So, now I’m weighing whether to keep or sell Fallout 4. It’s a boring game. Frankly, the most fun part of it is the new crafting system, which means I have – in another bit of meaning-destroying absurdity the game thrusts on you – probably spent more time improving my guns than trying to rescue a boy that is the only living testament to my beloved dead wife.

Who doesn’t get mentioned one time after the opening sequence, by the way.

David Altmejd is all of you weirdo hipsters’ daddy.

Early last week, I was visiting my brother in Houston, but swung by Austin, where I lived when I was a good bit younger. I bought some records at Waterloo, and then swung by a place I’d never visited before – Farewell Books. For some reason, the Yelp review set off my “awesome shit” spider-sense – and it wasn’t wrong.

Farewell is in the former Domy Books space, and was actually taken over by former Domy employees when that awesome, awesome project wrapped up. It’s now technically four businesses – the bookstore on one side, the equally rad Las Cruxes avant-clothing/jewelry/record shop/gallery on the other, and two I was a little less clear on somewhere in back. I was reminded just how great Austin can be when I ran into the critic George Elkind and, along with Farewell intern Jori (sorry dude, I forgot your last name!) went down several rabbit holes’ worth of conversations about comics, movies – and, finally artists.

I seriously mulled picking up Farewell’s copy of a complete Cremaster compendium book which, at $120, was an absolute steal. But then Jori got me to take a look at a David Altmejd book, and I instantly saw it was the more interesting choice.

Altmejd’s work does everything I so badly want someday to accomplish with my writing. He takes the fantastical and the grotesque and refines it to its absolute peak, making it impossible to say it’s not ‘art’. He is to studio art what Thomas Ligotti or Michael Cisco are to fiction, what Matt Brinkman or Charles Burns are to comics, what Alejandro Jodorowsky is to film, what True Detective Season 1 was to TV. He takes outre, low-brow ideas and formalizes them to a powerful sheen, explores their depths to find what really makes them tick – but without intellectualizing or sucking the life out of them.

I’ve just discovered the guy (shamefully), so I haven’t seen these works in person. But even on the page they are staggering, mind-bending, specific yet visionary. His creatures transcend anything that Tolkien ever cooked up, instead having more in common with the horrific beauty of ’70s extremists like M. John Harrison or Michael Shea (or their godchild, Jeff Vandermeer). These are things that most people aren’t creative enough to cook up even in their wildest nightmares.

He first came to prominence with a series of monster bodies and heads encrusted with crystals, which seemed to grow on them like mold or mushrooms. If you recognize the crystals, you might be a certain sort of witchy hipster, living a realm where the otherworldly has become at least a little bit more relevant. It’s unclear to me whether the chicken or the egg came first (crystal imagery has been around in hipsterworld for a long time), and saying that Altmejd’s work influenced the design of a few tops at Urban Outfitters is pretty insulting anyway.

But more importantly, his work expands on and delves deeper into what those trifles are just barely brushing the surface of – a certain kind of intense wonder, sometimes stomach-turning as much as brain-bending, that we experience in contact with that which is truly, deeply different. Altmejd’s figures are often vaguely humanoid, but nothing about them works according to rules we would recognize – gravity, biology, chemistry.

The fact that they gesture strongly towards the human, of course, makes them all the more astounding when they go a drastically different direction. They open up, turn inside out (both, admittedly, shortcuts to the uncanny), grow things, fall apart. They’re the wrong color, with the wrong affect – most often, none at all.

I’m just getting to now him for the first time, but just as much as Matthew Barney or William Burroughs before them, I can already tell that David Altmejd is sure to be that worst and best of things – an inspiration who is also an intimidation. A fragmentary dream of what I would like to achieve, but maybe never will.

‘True Detective’ brings together Burroughs and Lovecraft to make the darkest television ever.

“Death made time for what it kills to grow in.”  That’s the dialogue thought-bomb Matthew McConaughey dropped near the end of Sunday’s True Detective. I knew I knew the line. It comes from William S. Burroughs, from Cities of the Red Night, from a passage celebrating Ah Pook, The Destroyer.

True Detective is already getting attention for its references to weird legends like Thomas Ligotti and Robert W. Chambers and, indirectly, H.P. Lovecraft. And now it’s making references to William Burroughs. That connection hasn’t been widely made, but it’s one that has always struck me. The putrescent aliens and rabid gore and giant centipedes of Burroughs’ Interzone echo the body horror that pervades Lovecraft, and True Detective, with its nihilistic, degraded detective protagonists and its degenerates running through the woods worshiping demons, brings the two worlds together in a way that gets at the heart of both.

Both Burroughs and Lovecraft saw that the world was something to be feared and hated – Lovecraft, through his maladjustment, Burroughs, through his cynicism and superiority. Cohle, the darkly damaged figure at the center of True Detective, carries Burroughs’ world-weariness, and moves through a world, like Lovecraft’s, ruled over by powers he can’t see or fight.

The explicit references are one thing, but above all, the tone and message of True Detective are more faithful to the weird than any Guillermo Del Toro spectacle.  There are no tentacles in True Detective (at least not yet), but there are monsters. It trades in one of Lovecraft’s great tropes, pitting the forces of order against a chaos personified by the poor, downtrodden, and in this telling, irreparably corrupted.  But True Detective takes this easy dichotomy and tumbles it, by making its protagonists not just broken or weak, but in their own deep ways malevolent.  That’s the Burroughs talking.

This show is dark beyond dark.  For Lovecraft, for Ligotti, for Chambers, the malevolent world beyond the veil often hunts ciphers, investigators who stand in for our own uncertainty. True Detective forces us to wrestle with figures of ourselves that are not simply neutral, but, Like Burroughs’ junkies and murderers, bear the malevolence of the indifferent universe within them.

Interview with William Cardini – The Hyperverse, Alt-Fantasy, And Adult Weirdness

William Cardini is the master of the Hyperverse, a dark science-fantasy world dominated by gods and monsters who do constant battle. He makes alternative comics about the world he created.  We hooked up on twitter a while ago when I presumptuously recommended that he read some of my half baked artsy-weirdo-fantasy fiction, where I’m trying very tentatively to do something similar to him, in a different medium. I decided to ask him some questions, and he answered. This is a lightly edited version of what he had to say.

Page from William Cardini, Future Shock #5

Ill. William Cardini, Color Josh Burggraf.

 

David Z. Morris: What’s Your Background?  Art School?

 

William Cardini:  I’ve been drawings comics and reading sff books since I was in elementary school. In fourth-grade I self-published my first comic book, a story about a half-man, half-pterodactyl cyborg. I started off reading Calvin and Hobbes, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics published by Archie, and the Silver Surfer, then got into Jim Woodring and Ron Rege Jr in high school, around the same time I started reading Nietzsche and the Existentialists.

 

I went to the University of Texas and majored in Studio Art and English [Holy shit, we were probably in the English program there at nearly the same time! – DZM]. Not quite the same experience as my friends who went to private art schools but when I talk to them, I realize how much I needed an analytic focus on literature to balance out my creative explorations.

 

I focused on performance and land art in college. I only took a couple drawing classes but I sporadically drew comics for the student newspaper, the Daily Texan. I feel good about that because the Daily Texan also published Chris Ware and Berkeley Breathed. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had really good friend-collaborators who’ve pushed me to where I’m at now–Jeff Hipsher AKA Jak Cardini, Chuch, Totally Wreck, Anthony Romero, William Sellari, Josh Burggraf, Sean T Collins, and my wife Glade Hensel.

 

DZM: Your comic is pretty firmly based in fantasy themes, but with a very distinct twist.  Where did you first get familiar with this sort of setting – and when did you start to realize it could be fucked with?

 

WC: My parents have a large library of sci-fi and fantasy books from the 60s and 70s and encouraged me to read them. I devoured the Lord of the Rings and all of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books in elementary school and became obsessed with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.

 

It didn’t take too long for me to move on to more subversive novelists. Philip K Dick and Stanislaw Lem opened my mind to the psychedelic, truly alien possibilities of sci-fi, while Robin Hobb’s Farseer books, Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, and Elizabeth Lynn’s Dragon’s Winter were my first exposure to tortured antiheroes. What really got me in the gut, though, was when my friend Juan Cisneros brought a copy of Kramer’s Ergot 6 into our performance art class at UT and I first read a Mat Brinkman comic. Up until that point, my only exposure to the Fort Thunder school of comics had been Brian Ralph’s Cave-In and easily overlooked bits in SPX anthologies.

 

My comics for the Daily Texan were surrealist, sometimes Jim Woodring-style adventures, sometimes more Ron Rege Jr-, Krazy Kat-, or Marc Bell-style super formalist poem-like comics. But that Mat Brinkman comic showed me I could use my raw, ink-drip drawing style to tell the kind of psychedelic sf stories that I loved. I took a character I’d been using in my performance and video art, the Miizzzard, and made the Miizz the protagonist for my comics. Because of Robin Hobb’s Farseer and Herriman’s Krazy Kat, I made the Miizzz a shape-shifting, gender-fluid being.  Because of Lem, I made the Miizzz an unknowable alien. From Kirby, I took the giant space-gods in outrageous outfits vibe. From Brinkman, I adopted the melting monsters and contemporary, slangy dialogue. From the Wheel of Time I took the epic, mountain-leveling magic battles. I love all of these things, from the most adolescent and cringe-y to the most self-aware and progressive.

 

DZM: There are definitely other artists comic creators who work at the connection between fantasy themes and a punk attitude  (maybe the two most prominent being Skinner and Jesse Moynihan).  Do you feel like you’re part of a ‘scene’? 

 

WC: I think there’s two scenes that you could say I’m in. There’s the scene of people I talk to and trade collaborate with, and then there’s a larger scene of people that critics might group me with. I see Skinner’s paintings and Jesse Moynihan’s comics as a plateau that I’m still striving to reach. They were doing what I want to do before I really got it solidified. But sometimes when my work gets reviewed I get compared to my influences and then I get a nice warm feeling of belonging. Like when Robert Boyd put out an article on his art blog The Great God Pan is Dead grouping me with Moynihan and Jesse Jacobs because of our shared Jack Kirby influence.

 

DZM: Why do you think that approach is coming along at this particular time?

 

WC: This is a tough one for me to answer. I don’t feel like I have the authority to say why other people are into it. I can only speak for myself. But for me, it comes from processing a lot of the pop culture that I was really passionate about as an adolescent and trying to translate it into something I can still enjoy now that I’m an adult weirdo.

 

Adult Weirdo.  Embracing that is what this blog is all about.  Take William’s inspiration and get out there and nerd the fuck out, smart people. And be sure to visit the Hypercastle, and follow @williamcardini on Twitter.

 

-David

Best Android Diablo Clone? Dungeon Quest.

I’m pretty philosophically opposed to Diablo and Torchlight-style games, for most of the reasons Action Button told me. But sometimes we all need to turn our brains off, right?  And since I do most of my gaming these days on my Nexus 7 (I’ve been a casual gamer for years.  I’m only just beginning to accept it), I’m always on the lookout for pleasantly frictionless dungeon crawlers and light RPGs.  They’re surprisingly hard to find.

Dungeon Hunter is overserious, grindy, and frankly pretty graphically inappropriate for the platform.  Worst of all, it takes the psychologically exploitative nature of the Diablo model and attaches it to real money.  Bit Dungeon is fantastic, but very limited in scale.  Ravensword 2 is pretty great for plane rides (and its accessible scale is what games like Oblivion SHOULD be), but it’s still not quite ‘casual’.

Dungeon Quest Android Game Screenshot

Dungeon Quest, though, hits the mindless-pleasure sweet spot.  It’s easy to play in bite-sized chunks and has charming, lightweight design – but it also has TONS of loot, character depth, and great controls.  It’s also still under very active development, so who knows where they’re going next.

Highly recommended.