Monthly Archives: October 2017

Your Monster

“Hello Father,” Alex said. “What are you going to do about your monster?”

Adam Godwinson squinted up at the solid deck of grey clouds that covered the sky that morning and tried to think about how to answer such a question. He reflected that he should have become used to fielding odd queries from Alex Sloan over the years, first as a curious-minded child at Adam’s parish of St. Michael’s, and then on through the years as they both left the church, following different paths but connected by shared friends and, Adam hoped, still-shared affections.

Despite all the years, Adam had never gotten entirely used to the strange twists and turns that Alex’s mind could sometimes take, and the unusual things that might lead him to say. Long-ago doctors had indicated that some of this was the result of the mental disorder Alex experienced, but even before the doctors and the pills, Alex’s imagination had always been vivid, intense, and strange. Perhaps the two were related, and perhaps they weren’t.

None of this helped Adam understand the question before him. “Good morning, Mr. Sloan,” he replied gravely. “I wasn’t expecting a visit, but it’s good to see you. Would you like to come in?” Perhaps this would, if nothing else, be a chance to persuade Alex into a proper meal. He had never responded well to any kind of supervised care or group living situations, and inevitably drifted back into Ottawa’s streets and parks, making his own restless way in the world.

“No,” Alex responded shortly. “It’s not important. But what are you going to do about your monster?”

Adam sighed. Sometimes it was possible to deflect Alex away from the ideas he seized on, or created. Sometimes it wasn’t. “I don’t know what you mean, Alex,” he said gently. “I don’t have a monster.”

Alex’s head rocked back, almost as if he had been struck. For one painfully slow moment, Adam thought he would simply turn and go, and scrabbled for some way to keep him from leaving.

“Of course you do,” Alex replied instead. “Everyone knows.”

“Do they?”, Adam said. “Well, they haven’t told me. Why don’t you come in and tell me all about it? Then we’ll decide what to do.” Perhaps this would turn out to be one of Alex’s stories, which tended to be long, intricately-woven with fine details, and very hard to understand.

Many times, when Adam had been a young priest, presented with the fruits of Alex’s creativity, he had been able to muster no better response than ‘Good for you, Alex. Good for you.’ As praise he had always felt it was rather hollow, but Alex had a particular sensitivity to counterfeit cheer and approval, so Adam never offered more than he could feel genuine about. Good for you. I appreciate the effort, even if I do not understand the results.

“There’s no time, Father,” Alex said, making one quick shake of his head. “I know where it is now. We have to go. You have to do something.”

Adam sighed again, suppressed an upwelling of impatience with an effort. He had planned a peaceful morning of coffee and crosswords, and then perhaps a walk in the fragile warmth of an autumn day. Instead there was this. And yet a friend was friend, Alex was evidently in earnest, and it was also true that his curious intuitions had sometimes turned out to see things more clearly than anyone.

“Just let me fetch my keys, then.”

A few minutes later they were making their way, at Alex’s brisk pace, through the heart of the city’s downtown. Adam tried to fish for information as they walked.

“What is this monster, anyway?”

“You know, Father,” Alex replied impatiently.

“How did you hear about it?”

“Everyone knows, Father. Everyone knows you have a monster,” this said in the way most people would observe that it was cold out in January, or that the traffic would be bad in rush hour. Adam tried to make sense of it. Had Alex been talking to some of the other young people from his old parish? He couldn’t imagine anything that they might have said that would have created this idea of a monster in Alex’s mind. It might perhaps be some spiteful bit of rumour spawned by Matilda Damory, or another member of the Sunrise Foundation whose ire Adam had earned, but it seemed a singularly useless thing to have done.

“I’m afraid I still don’t understand,” Adam said finally.

“You’ll see,” Alex predicted. He was, Adam considered, unusually reserved. Usually Alex bubbled over with frothy torrents of words, and the challenge was drawing some shape out of the great mass of expression. Today his attention seemed to be mostly elsewhere, and conversation with Adam seemed a distraction that he was trying to avoid.

They had made their way down the path by the Rideau Canal locks and the Bytown Museum, and along the gentle curves of the pathway by the river, behind Parliament Hill. It had formerly been one of Adam’s favourite walks in the city; since the events of a few years ago he had far more mixed feelings about the place and went there only seldom.

“Where are we going, Alex?”, he asked. “I would have come for a walk by the river, if you had asked.

“No, Father,” Alex insisted. “Your monster is here.”

Finally they reached a little tributary of path that curled out and around the gold sun and stone slab of the Royal Canadian Navy Monument, and then under the Portage Bridge. And it was there, from a patch of dark and gloomy concrete, that Adam heard a soft skittering sound that he had trusted and believed he would never encounter again.

It sounded like the rustle of leaves over hard ground, or perhaps fingernails trailed playfully over a table top. But there was neither wind nor leaves, only stillness, and shadow, and although Adam tried very hard to insist that it was not happening, he could see now that the shadow moved, or that something black as the worst part of the night moved within it.

“The Piece of Shadows,” he said. “But it can’t be.”

Alex was silent beside him.

The Piece of Shadows had been, as far as Adam had understood it, a swatch of living darkness, conjured into the world somehow by Matilda Damory, as a weapon to set against her enemies. Its slightest touch withered and killed, and Adam and his friends had only barely escaped the thing. He had believed the thing had been destroyed, swept into nothingness, or back into it, by a fortunately passing set of headlights. And yet here again the darkness rustled, and Adam knew what it was, although he wanted very much to deny it.

“How is it here?”, he asked. “How did you find it?” As far as he had understood, the Piece of Shadows had been Damory’s creation, did not and could not exist in this world without her will behind it.

“They told me where it was,” Alex replied quietly. “I had to ask, but they told me.”

“How is it here?”, Adam asked again. Had Damory created another, called another into being? Had someone else learned whatever bizarre rite or skill or formula was necessary to draw these things into, or out of, the darkness? Was this the unfolding of some new or renewed machination that would have to be uncovered, understood, and undermined?

“Father,” Alex said firmly, “it’s yours.”

“Alex,” Adam shot back, “you know it isn’t. I’m not the one who makes these things. I don’t even know how.”

“Maybe,” Alex said, “but this one is yours. You know it is, everyone knows it is.”

There was at least enough light in the day to keep the thing restricted to a fairly small shadowed area under the bridge, Adam considered. As far as he had been able to learn, light was fatal to the things, which were therefore free to move and strike only at night or in dark places. And yet it was surely far too dangerous to simply leave it here. The path was not an especially busy one, but the consequences for any passer by that did come this way today were all too likely to be fatal.

Adam stepped a touch closer to the border between daylight and shadow, turning Alex’s words over in his mind. The gentle skittering responded. From what he could see in the gloom, this Piece of Shadows was considerably smaller than the last one he had seen. That one had been large enough to envelop several people at once, this one was a scrap of darkness only a few feet across.

Or was it, some part of his mind suggested, not a different Piece at all, but all that was left of the first one? What if Damory’s tool had only been damaged by the light, with this remnant left to lurk reduced in shadows, cut free of its purpose? As soon as the idea formed, Adam knew that it was true, apprehended it on some undefined and unspoken level.

“Alex,” he said softly, “we have to get rid of it.” Perhaps if he brought a powerful flashlight, or the flares from his road safety kit, it could be destroyed. But would the thing still be here after the time it would take to fetch these things, and return? Was it sufficiently trapped by the day, or would it melt away somehow? It had evidently survived a long time already. Even if it was no longer directed to kill by Matilda Damory, it was still a lethal threat, an utterly unanticipated accident waiting to happen.

“Yes, you do,” Alex agreed.

“You keep saying that it’s mine,” Adam replied. “You know that it isn’t.”

“No, Father,” Alex replied, sounding more than a little impatient. “I know that it is.”

What did he mean? Adam’s experiences told him it was probably important, Alex’s insights had been in the past, but how could he believe the Piece of Shadows somehow belonged to him? Adam had been attacked by it, had thought he had destroyed it, turned Damory’s nihilism against her circle of followers and tore it into scraps. He had not created this, did not control it, and did not truly even understand it.

And yet, was it not true that every since, in moment when he had felt alone, or sad, or doubted himself, had he not seen, in his mind at least, the Piece of Shadows? Whenever he had wondered whether he knew what he was doing, or if there was any right thing to do, had he not heard the skittering and felt the patch of dark creeping up on him, or through him? This dreadful thing had prowled the background of every bleak moment and flickered through every grim thought that Adam had lived in the years since their encounter. Perhaps that meant, or created, some manner of connection. Perhaps it had made the monster his.

“What do I do?”, Adam asked.

Alex was silent beside him.

Connections can be made, sometimes without us noticing them. They can also be broken, and at times that is for the best, and perhaps that was the answer. “It’s all right,” Adam said to the darkness. “You can go, now. I’m going to let go of you. I’m letting you go.”

Nothing and no-one spoke. The skittering died away, and Adam did not see the Piece of Shadows in that place any longer.

Alex crouched down beside him, looked over at Adam with a lopsided and somewhat brittle smile, and then for the first time in many years, threw his arms around Adam in a tight embrace. “Good for you, Father. Good for you.”

That night, after Alex had eaten some supper and gone off on his path into the darkness, Adam had looked out into the darkness and seen nothing but the night, and heard nothing but leaves in the wind. He left the kitchen, walked down the short hallway to his bedroom, and smiled as a tiny patch of shadow unfolded itself and followed him. He sat on the bed, opened his book to read, and a black shape jumped up into his lap, curled into a little pool of midnight, and commenced to purr loudly.

“There,” Adam said, “you little monster.”

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Libraries

Since I don’t really know what to write about this week, I’m going to take inspiration from Lesley Donaldson (whose blog on the same panel is here) and spin out some of my thoughts from a Can*Con panel a couple weeks ago on books in stories. This is something I have thought about a fair bit in my history research, and I’ve continued to do so as part of a course I teach about the history of the book at Algonquin College.

I want to think a little about libraries.

As writers or readers, libraries are some of our favourite places. They’re the place we go to find stories! I certainly encountered a lot of authors I would come to be a fan of and stories that I would love at the public library in the town where I grew up. I think I worked my way through just about every book they had under ‘science fiction’ and ‘fantasy’.

The library as we think of it today is (among other things) a place we go to access things. The library is where the stories are, it’s where the information is, where learning and study happen and also (as libraries have embraced their role as providers of internet connectivity) a place where we can make connections to the world. Within certain fairly broad limitations, anyone can use it. It’s a space fundamentally about access.

But the library or the archive doesn’t have to be a space like that, and hasn’t always been. On the Can*Con panel I touched on the idea of the library – a space where a bunch of books are stored – as a containment system for knowledge. It can be, and historically sometimes was, a space where access was restricted. Only certain people allowed past the doors, to look at the books, and gradations of clearance within that. The idea here that knowledge might be dangerous, used for the wrong purposes, or that something read by the unprepared or improperly trained mind might cause harm.

The library thought of this way is not a space about access, or at least not in the same way. It’s about controlling access, and making sure that only the ‘right’ people get in touch with certain kinds of book. When I’ve travelled around as an academic, one of the comforts has generally been that I can walk into a library most anywhere and find what I’m looking for, because they’re designed to make that task easy, with classification schemes that are well-understood and tools to help you in your search.

We look at libraries that are not that way – that have no finding aids, and used their own private systems of classification and organization – and wonder what was going on. It would have been exceedingly difficult for an outsider to go into such a place and find what they were looking for, especially unaided. But that’s part of the idea, and part of the containment system. It’s not a place for strangers, it’s a place for those who are known to have been properly trained and vetted and prepared to encounter all the things that might be on the shelf. If you can’t find the book, you’re not ready to read it.

That kind of sounds like a line from a bad movie, but this kind of thinking about information, as something with potential dangers that needs to be contained and controlled, underpins a lot of our ideas about books in fantastic literature and the way they show up in our stories. Those dangerous grimoires that can scour the sanity from your mind, possess your soul, or corrupt your spirit are all these old philosophies about information taken literally.

All of this somewhat inevitably sounds negative to the modern mind, given our positive view on knowledge (more is always better) and learning (always good!), so the libraries of the past often seem ‘worse’. I’m not convinced that’s true, and perhaps I can add yet another perspective on information that I didn’t get to in the panel that might help a little.

You can also think of a library – that place where all the books are – as a place that preserves knowledge, as a lifeboat for information. We’re not used to thinking of our information as fragile; most books that we’re interested in have hundreds or thousands or millions of copies, and most of what we care about even a little bit also exists digitally in potentially as many ‘copies’ as we need it to. The idea of a story we used to have, or something we used to know, being ‘lost’ is hard for us to get our minds around. As a student first getting to grips with archival research, I struggled a bit with the idea that no, there wasn’t another copy or another version that I could check. What was there was there, and that’s all there was.

Libraries in the past were, at times, literally the place where the disappearance of books and knowlege were prevented. This was part of their reason for being; for example, it was part of the reason why keeping a library and copying books was seen as a suitable task for a medieval monastery. The preservation of knowledge was a good end in itself. Producing new copies of a book to increase the chances of it surviving for the future was a worthy purpose.

If this is your mission, the library isn’t necessarily about being easy to access or how many people you can get in the door. The primary mission is for the collection to survive. This is a slightly more comprehensible point of view when you remember that books used to be made by hand, a labour of months just for the text, each a unique physical object created from scratch almost certainly by a series of artists and craftsmen. The frustration of copyists that had to return their exemplar before their were finished is still (to me) palpable on their not-quite-finished pages.

Again, these books that were precious objects are the foundations of the books in many of our stories, I think. The idea of the book as the initiator of a quest, as something to be treasured or fought over or prized or stolen all comes from periods when all of those things would have been true. The copy of a book in a library might be the only copy of that text in all the world. It’s almost impossible to put a value on such a thing.

Libraries of the past were these places of preservation, they were knowledge containment systems, and they were too places where this information could be accessed, albeit in a far less public fashion than we would expect. Most were some kind of compromise with all of these functions, and perhaps modern libraries are as well. The constant across the ages seems to me to be the recognition that the place where all the books are is a place of considerable power. How we approach that power and how we feel about it varies, but it always seems to be there.

There isn’t an ‘and therefore’ for this, just a bunch of thoughts out loud, or on the page, as the case may be. I’ll try to have something a little more directed for you next week.

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Can*Con 2017

Can*Con is over for another year and we are all getting some rest. (for ‘rest’, read ‘back at our “real” jobs’) Notwithstanding a few minor crises, the weekend went really well and it was truly very gratifying to hear from so many people that they had a good time at the con and enjoyed what we had to offer on the program. I was personally very proud of some of the panels we put together, and it was wonderful to hear that people liked them and to see that so many of them went well.

I think the whole Can*Con team is doing a fantastic job not just running an entertaining, compelling SFF convention for readers and writers, but also reflecting the diversity of the fans and creators of the stories we love in the people we have as guests and the programming we do. It’s still very much a work in progress, but I think every year gets a bit better and it meant a lot to hear people say they were happy with what we had for them this time.

I always come away from Can*Con excited about writing and about my writing in general; it’s very affirming to be surrounded by people who thing that fantastic stories are important and valuable, and that writing is important and valuable. What I need to do now is make sure that I convert that excitement into words on the page/screen, but it’s an invaluable boost right at a time when I feel like I’ve cleared a major obstacle on the current WIP.

The only other thing I want to say is of a more personal nature. I think a lot of times we can feel like we’ve got roughly a billion connections to people through all our technology, and perhaps naturally, since they light up and/or make our devices make noise, they demand a lot of attention, and it’s hard to tell which are the connections that matter. I was reminded this weekend that the people who even at a moment when they’re super tired and have their own things they should be focusing their last reserves of energy on, will take some time to sit down with you and help you get your ship righted and feeling better about yourself, those are the connections that matter. Those are the people who are really ‘with’ you in a sense that has some significance, and those are the connections where our energy should go rather than some other stuff that isn’t anything.

Some people did that for me this weekend and I am truly very grateful. Perhaps I’ll pay my debt some day.

Thank you to everyone who came out to Can*Con and made the weekend a great success. It was great to spend time with everyone that I got to spend time with, and for those that I didn’t cross paths with, my apologies and we’ll do a better job of it next year. We’re already kind of excited about 2018. You should join us if you can.

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Busting Through

Another short one today, I fear – I am a little pressed for time as (among other things) we get geared up for Can*Con this coming weekend. It has been a lot of work (and I didn’t even do most of it!) but we’re very excited about the con this year and I’m personally very proud of what we’ve put together for our guests this year. I’m really looking forward to it (although I’m gonna be exhausted for Monday) and I will hopefully remember enough of it to write something reasonably coherent about it all afterwards.

For now, though, the main thing I achieved in the past week was finally breaking through the logjam on the WIP. Basically the problem was that I got to a point where I realized there needed to be some pretty major rewrites or at least reworks of even the incomplete first draft that I had done so far. To make the plot work I had to move some things around, create some entirely new material and then figure out where to add it in.

This is more or less the kind of thing you always have to do when working on a story, especially when hammering together the first draft, but the scale of this particular rework was pretty daunting, and the first couple of times I sat down to try to do it (way back in August) I couldn’t figure out how to make it work and ended up just sort of walking away. This happened a couple times, and I would come back to try to write some other parts of the story, but always had the ‘yeah, but you need to do that rewrite’ hanging over me and it never went very well.

I started to think about other stuff that I could write instead. New projects always seem fresh and exciting and it’s often tempting to switch. I got to thinking that maybe this whole project was flawed at its core and that I should just junk it. William Gibson said that the process of writing is, in part, overcoming your revulsion for your own work, and mine got pretty palpable over the past few weeks.

So, basically nothing got written through September, which got me to feeling that the work was Not Going Well, which is kind of discouraging in itself. I tried very hard to remind myself that this happened with Bonhomme Sept-Heures, and it got written, and it really happened with King in Darkness, which I basically did give up on until a friend talked me out of it. So I think this just is a part of the process, or at least my process, and as much as it’s not fun it’s a stage that I need to drag the whole mess through.

This past weekend I had part of an afternoon to myself, and so I told a couple of people that I was going to Solve The Problem (thus committing myself), sat down, and figured out how to make it work. In terms of actual number of words written, it wasn’t a lot for several hours work, but in terms of things moved around and plot restructured it was a successful major surgery. I now know (I’m pretty sure) where all the major pieces need to go and I feel like I can press on creating without the cloud of ‘this is fundamentally a mess’ hanging over me.

So that was a good weekend’s work. I mostly write this as a reminder to Future Me when I’m working on whatever the project after this will be that for whatever reason, this is a stage I seem to go through, and that probably the sooner I just grimly push through the apparently insurmountable issue, the better. Possibly some of you reading have similar issues and maybe this will be helpful. I think it’s very easy to get negative about ourselves and our work, and it’s good to remember that the whole thing doesn’t have to flow in an unending effortless torrent of smoothness. Sometimes it’s a struggle, and that doesn’t mean anything other than that writing is hard.

I am reminded of something someone told me about running once (sorry) – if running half-marathons was easy, everyone would do it. It’s not, it’s hard.

If writing novels was easy, everyone would do it.

The important unspoken part of that is that even though it’s hard, we can still do it.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. See you after Can*Con.

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Straight into Darkness

Yesterday, Tom Petty died. The frantic media rushed out with the news, then walked it back, and now finally confirmed it. I am tremendously sad at the loss of this artist whose work I have loved.

I’m not the right person to speak to his place in musical history, but in my own story his part looms large. With The Tragically Hip, his tunes were the ones I played most often all through university and have continued to listen to right up to the present day. I think I like him for many of the same reasons I like the blues – most of his songs are about things we all have experience with. Feeling like an outsider. Being let down by people you care about. The world being a place that keeps pushing you around. Petty’s lyrics are clever and fun to listen to, his music strikes me as more down to earth than anything else, and he has been among my musical companions through a lot of good and bad times.

Music has, at times, a special ability to make good times feel better and bad times not feel so bad, and Tom Petty has done that for me time and time again. Thanks for the tunes, Mr. Petty.

——

Even as the artists we love sometimes leave us, there are always new ones out there to discover. I have recently started reading The Bone Mother by David Demchuk, and although I’ve hardly cracked the thing I’m already very impressed by the quality of the writing, his skill with creating mood and conveying a sense of a time and place. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this book and need to stop myself sitting up stupidly late reading it.

Demchuk’s writing is also, undeniably, horror. From time to time I stray into thinking that what I write could be considered horror, too. Then, I will read the work of a real artist of the genre (among which I feel perfectly safe including Demchuk, already) and be reminded, that no, it really isn’t. ‘Supernatural thriller’ is a pretty fair label for my books, perhaps even ‘urban fantasy’, but they’re not horror. I hope they’re entertaining, and I hope perhaps there are some scares in there, but the stories are not horror stories.

What do you need for a horror story? It’s hard for me to really put my finger on it. In some ways, it is one of those ‘you know it when you see it’, or read it, moments. You will never have any doubt when you are reading a horror story, or watching one, or in one. It goes beyond just being frightening (because fantasy and SF can both cause fear, without being horrifying), and it doesn’t necessarily involve gore or violence. (Some good horror does, lots of stories splash blood everywhere without being the least bit horrifying.)

It’s very hard (for me, anyway), to define usefully. One thing that I think good horror has is a disturbing quality. There’s something about the characters, the situation, the resolution in a horror story that is pervasively unsettling. It challenges your comfortable assumptions about people and the world. It makes you question things that you wouldn’t ordinarily question. There are, of course, almost inevitably monsters, but the monsters may not be the real problem; it’s what the monsters reveal about ourselves and the worlds that we have built.

I think good horror makes us look at places that we’d prefer not to. That’s why it’s unsettling so much of the time; a good part of your being is telling you to look away, and you’re resisting that. Horror fiction makes you think about things you ordinarily wouldn’t.

Now, the scares are there, too. Part of the joy of horror stories is the joy of the roller coaster: the feeling of danger while knowing, ultimately, that you’re safe. The ride will end. You can close the book.

Where I think really good horror hits hard, though, is that it takes you to places, and makes you think about things, that don’t entirely go away when the book is closed. It’s made you at least reconsider some things that you would have preferred to consider immutable. It’s made your mind wander down a couple of dark and twisty paths that you would have preferred not to tread.

I’m not sure that I’ll never write a horror story, but reading The Bone Mother reminds me that no, I haven’t done it yet. I do love reading them, though.

——

Of course, the real horror story is what happened in Las Vegas on October 1st. I have, I think, nothing at all to say except that the violence is awful and the loss of life overwhelmingly sad. I don’t think I will ever understand the ‘thing’ America has with guns, and as an outsider it’s not a debate I can usefully be part of. There are lots of points of view that I disagree with, but I can at still understand where they’re coming from, and thus have some idea how to start to engage with them. In this case, though, I see people posting on friends’ social media that ‘you’ll never take our guns, and God help you if you try’ and I just don’t understand it at all. I think gun violence in the United States can never really be solved as long as that mode of thinking stays so vital to so many people, but I also just feel, as I always do, that we have to stop killing each other.

——-

S.M. Carriere wrote a lovely review of The King in Darkness. You can read it here.

We’re under two weeks away from Can*Con! I’m so excited about this and looking forward to what I think will be a fantastic weekend for readers and writers of SFF. Details and registration here.

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