Archive for May, 2013

I recently reviewed Dope Thief by Dennis Tafoya, which I regard as a prime example of a classic setup played off right. As such, it’s an illustration of what I like about genre fiction in general.

Note the term “classic setup.”

The plot of Dope Thief revolves around a small-time thief who pulls what’s supposed to be a routine job, and unexpectedly finds himself in possession of a huge wad of cash. He realizes too late that he’s stolen organized crime money, and that some very dangerous characters will be coming after him to collect.

Variations on that setup have been done plenty of different times. But Tafoya throws in plenty of overt and covert references to classic crime fiction, communicating he’s well aware of this.

Sometimes, I hear people complain about genre fiction, saying that it’s essentially the same thing being done over and over.

To me, this is tantamount to complaining that the the classic song structure of verse-chorus-verse is inherently hackneyed. And yeah, there’s plenty of derivative crap on the radio. But plenty of vital, innovative music follows the verse-chorus-verse structure is still getting released, which means that isn’t the quality that makes a song derivative crap.

The classic song structure remains viable because:

1) It works, and

2) Part of the appeal is seeing what new variations songwriters get out of that configuration.

So let’s look at, say, the classic hard-boiled detective story. (more…)

Remember the Drunken Comic Book Monkeys? Now they have a blog. Hide your daughters.

AckleyDanielle Ackley-McPhail is an author and editor of the award-winning Bad-Ass Faeries anthologies. So what is Bad-Ass Faeries? Basically, it’s an attempt by Ackley-McPhail and her collaborators to revive the original depiction of fairies in old folklore, where they were far more likely to be dangerous and scary than sparkly and cute. I reviewed her novel The Halfling’s Court here.

Can you talk a little bit about your personal background, and how you got into writing?

I am the youngest of five children. By the time I grew up, most of them had already moved on to their adult lives. We lived in a brand-new housing development so there weren’t many kids. Consequently, I turned to reading for entertainment. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on … to my occasional detriment. Eventually I was so comfortable with the written word and storytelling that becoming a writer was a natural progression I didn’t even need to think about.

What exactly is the whole Bad Ass Faeries phenomenon, and how did it come about?

This series is our attempt to de-Disneyfy the faerie. Basically the concept came out of a chance encounter with an artist and a failed author event. I met Ruth Lampi at Albacon, where she showed me her sketches for warrior faeries. They were just pencil drawings, many of them on lined paper, but they were really good. I ended up commissioning Ruth to work on a number of projects with me. We had a local event at a friend’s store and the timing was bad. It conflicted with some other event going on and not many people showed up. We sat there for most of the day entertaining each other. During the conversation the question came up of how we met. That topic lead to speculating about the sad state of faeries in fiction, which lead to an anthology proposal of tough faeries that were more in line with the actual legends. From that, Bad-Ass Faeries was born!

Do you feel you’re correcting some mistaken perceptions people have about faerie lore? And could you talk a little bit about that lore?

Oh, most definitely! Up until very recently … say the last ten years, faeries had for the most part been pacified by popular media. Not by everyone, but by the majority. See, in traditional faerie lore and legend the fae were mischievous, malevolent, or warriors. Very few were kind or sweet. They were known for stealing children and tormenting livestock, for tricking travelers and murderous deeds. Yes, a few did helpful things, but the fae were to be respected because you never knew which way things would go. Literature and the media had for the most part lost respect for them.

What’s the reaction been to the Bad Ass Faeries books?

Oh my … talk about can-of-worms. They either love it or hate it … I get broad smiles or disapproving frowns, but seldom anything in between. It is by far our best-selling anthology to date, with thousands of copies sold just in the first year. It is the first book of mine that has a public awareness all its own.

In recent years, it seems fairies have become kind of a hot topic. There are festivals and even magazines devoted to them, and they’re popping up all over the place in speculative fiction. Do you think there’s any particular reason for this renewed interest?

Well, all things go in cycles and I think this just the faerie cycle. The primary genre characters never do go away, really, but the audience gets tired of it and moves to the next one in a perpetual circuit. The same goes with vampires and shapeshifters and zombies … anything with a cult following eventually gets another shot at the spotlight. Besides, people are rediscovering their sense of magic and wonder, and where best to turn than to the fae?

I know that some fairy aficionados prefer their wee folk on the benign and cuddly side. Has the Bad Ass series drawn any appalled responses from that crowd?

You know, I get more negative comments about it being too tame. Of course, I already mentioned those disapproving looks we get from time to time strictly in reaction to the title. But for the most part people either pick it up because it’s fun, or because it promises something they are looking for, so there has been a lot more positive response. Even the children’s education director at my church just thought it was funny, more than anything else.

When you’re writing about the nature and capabilities of the fairies, about how much of that is invention on your part, vs. elements lifted directly from the folklore?

For me it depends on the series. A lot of my fiction deal with the faerie folk. The Eternal Cycle series, which are my Irish novels, stick pretty close to the legends, with the inventiveness coming in just to fill in the gaps left by lost knowledge since the Celts had an oral tradition. On the other hand, my biker faerie novels, the Halfling’s Court and the Redcaps’ Queen, based on my short stories in the Bad-Ass Faeries series, are a bit more inventive since I’m not drawing on any particular legends there. Of course, I do use details from the myth and legend when I mention something specific, like Avalon. With everything I write, though, I tend to extrapolate from the information available and get creative from there. You would be surprised how often I find research later that substantiates things I thought I made up!

What are some of the things you’ve done to market your books?

Well, for the Bad-Ass Faeries anthologies specifically I commissioned faerie themed art for raffles I held at the launch party for each book. I also made faerie wings by hand for my street team to wear as they passed out flyers and tons of pixy styx. Eventually I created a dedicated website and a blog specific to the series and grab every promotional opportunity I could get. In fact, for about the last five years I’ve volunteered as a story teller at the Maryland Faerie Festival and I was a part of the very first Faeriecon, Faerieworlds annual East Coast convention.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to discuss?

Dark Quest Books just released The Redcaps’ Queen, the second of my Bad-Ass Faerie Tale novels, as well as Three Chords of Chaos, by James Chambers, the third book in the series that originated from stories that appeared in the Bad-Ass Faeries anthologies. Speaking of which, in the beginning of June we will resume production on the fourth Bad-Ass Faeries anthology, titled It’s Elemental, where the theme is all faeries affiliated with one of the five elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit. That should be out sometime in 2014.

Doc SavageSo I’m reading this book called Wanted Undead or Alive: Vampire Hunters and Other Kick-Ass Enemies of Evil by Jonathan Maberry and Janice Gable Bashman. I intend to do a more lengthy review of it presently, so stay tuned. But I just wanted to mention one thing.

The book has a chapter on the pulp magazines from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which mentions “Doc Savage.” The Doc Savage adventures were really popular back in the heyday of pulp. They featured the titular square-jawed hero who traveled the world with a cadre of brainy tough guys, putting a stop to various evil-doers.

The author, “Kenneth Robeson,” was actually a rotating stable of writers. I read a few when I was a kid. They weren’t great in retrospect, in the manner of other pulp material from writers such as H.P. Lovecraft or Ray Bradbury. But they were a fun read. And to be fair, that’s no more and no less than what they aspired to.

But the books did have a lasting impact on me as a reader, in the form of one important lesson.

See, when I was about 13, I was reading one called The Sargasso Ogre. It features a scene where Doc Savage is interrogating a couple of criminals.

At one point, one of them defiantly answers Doc Savage’s questions with “Phooey on you!”
As a kid, I thought that was hilarious. This is a dangerous criminal. A very bad man, the story makes clear. And he says “phooey on you?”

When I thought about it at greater length, though, I realized what was really going on. The words “phooey on you” might as well have an asterisk indicating a footnote from the author. And that footnote would read as follows:

“Look. Both you and I know that the guy didn’t really say ‘phooey on you.’ What he said was ‘fuck you.’ But I’m writing this in 1933, and there’s no way in hell I’d get away with writing that. So I’m going to ask you, the reader, to use a little effort and fill in what he actually said in your mind, OK?”

That moment of realization comes back to me whenever I’m reading a book from a bygone era, and the writer has to obliquely hint at what’s going on.

I’m not one of these people who subscribes to the idea that graphically presenting something is akin to bad writing. I find that attitude naïve and a bit childish. Good writing is good writing, whether a faithful film adaptation would merit a rating of G or NC-17. And if the material calls for a lot of F-bombs, by all means get ‘em in there.

Still, there’s something impressive about reading – or watching, in the form of screenplays – writers from the past managing to convey through subtle suggestion what they can’t state overtly.

Case in point. I’m in the process of reading Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, published in 1898, for the first time. (SPOILER ALERT!) And the scene where Mrs. Grose reveals Quint’s nature as a sexual predator and pedophile is all the more disturbing for her unwillingness – and James’ inability, given the time he was writing – to state it overtly.

It’s all a bit more subtle than “phooey on you” in lieu of … you know. Still, I thank whichever incarnation of Kenneth Robeson penned “The Sargasso Ogre” for giving me that early lesson in reading between the lines.

Just goes to show that you can glean insights into literary interpretation from just about any source. Don’t agree with me? Go phooey yourself.

So why was Ray Harryhausen, the special effects pioneer who died today at the age of 92, such a revered figure? I could write about that for hours. But let’s keep it simple. In 1963, he created a skeleton army for “Jason and the Argonauts” and it looked like this. (FYI: The guy who posted this apparently added his own soundtrack. Whatever.)

In 1999, with far more advanced technology and a shit-ton more money at their disposal, the special effects team for “The Haunting” created a CGI ghost. And it looked like this:

Any questions?

Dope ThiefDope Thief by Dennis Tafoya is about a couple of guys who rob dope dealers for a living, and have to go on the run from some dangerous characters after they mistakenly pick up a big stash of organized crime loot.

Except it’s really not.

I mean, yeah, that’s the basic plot. But the book is really about how our past has a way of haunting us at every turn, and our attempts to escape from that. It’s also about the question of whether we can shed our family history. And whether — for all the emotional baggage and misery it can bring us — we’d really want to.

The protagonist, Ray, and his partner are a couple of bottom feeders in a criminal community extending into Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey. They make their living disguising themselves as DEA agents, ripping off small-time drug dealers, and making off with their money and dope.

In a clever twist, they’re able to get away with it because they provide a kind of service to the larger operations — getting rid of small-time dealers who might eat into profits.

Yet Ray isn’t a violent man. Or a bad guy, for that matter. He had an alcoholic father and a troubled youth that included some jail time. He just kind of went along with where his life was taking him, much the way another young man might go the college-and-career route without even considering other options. For him, the whole theft operation represents the path of least resistance — a chance to get money for a minimum of effort.

But he’s not getting any younger, and knows he can’t keep it up forever. Inevitably, that wake-up call comes when a job goes bad, people get killed, and he and his partner end up the unwilling possessors of some New England bikers’ money.

It starts out in pure thriller territory. An initial car chase from the scene of the original botched operation is particularly suspenseful.

From there, the story takes some unexpected directions. And I’m not talking about plot twists — though there are a few of those — so much as emphasis and pacing.

Tafoya doesn’t let up on the suspense. But for stretches, the central plot fades into the background as Ray comes to grips with the chain of circumstances that led him into this predicament. Sure, he knows he’s made some bad decisions. But he finds himself facing the question of whether his life experiences left him equipped to make any better ones.

More importantly, does he have it within himself to rise above those experiences and decisions, and make something better of his life?

Tafoya addresses those questions in a surprising extended coda, where minor characters and circumstances that would merely serve as color in another crime thriller turn out to be vitally important.

Crime thrillers often get criticized for piling on the slam-bang action, at the expense of characterization and deeper insights. With Dope Thief, fortunately, it’s not an either/or proposition.