Friday, 25 July 2014

Gothic and Fairytale: The Roots of It All

As I think I've mentioned, I'm looking at applying for PhD this year (though it's slipped back a bit to take into account my other work, my tendency to fart arse about on the internet - yes I know, I need to vanquish that - and the fact that the black bug room's* doors have been flapping about like the entrance to a saloon in a cheap spaghetti western). In the meantime I've done some reading, though not enough to feel I can commit to the actual creation of anything official. This blog post sort of serves as a way to throw my ideas up and see if they stick, so please bear with me.

At the heart of my theory is the thought that fairy tale and the Gothic are intimately connected. In fact they are in many ways the same genre, sharing a great deal of their forms and conventions. They contain ideas like 'topsy turvey', to misquote the film based on Gilbert and Sullivan's works; that is to say that within the bounds of both fairy tale and the Gothic the real world is set aside in preference for story logic; things get turned on their heads and strangeness is allowed to run riot for the duration of the novel or story before everything is righted at the end. For fairy tale that usually means the protagonist gets married or that evil is defeated and the hero goes on their way back into the patriarchal world. In Gothic the same is true, the danger is defeated and the normal world resumes.

This perhaps does not seem so revolutionary, it is after all the foundation of so much fiction: things happen and the characters enter the world of the quest to pursue their goals and it is only after this is done that the 'real' world returns. This is the basis of the Hero's Journey and we see it everywhere from Norse Sagas and Greek myths to The Hobbit, Dracula and Star Wars. Whilst we must never confuse the tones and moods evoked by the Gothic with these other forms there is little denying that much popular storytelling derives from them.

We must however consider who was reading these forms as they were shaped at the end of the 18th Century. These were in the main young people in the newly cemented middle classes. Fairy tales were losing their universiality as they were transformed by the Brothers Grimm and others into stories designed to mold children into an idealised vision of model citizens. Sex and horror were slowly stripped out and the stories were reframed and politicised as improving texts. We can see this creep in different editions of Grimms' Fairy Tales; Zipes shows us in Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion how in the space of two years, between 1810 and 1812, the Grimms' version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves the text describing the bargain Snow White strikes with the dwarves becomes much more prescriptive and controlling. It adds detail and clarity but also makes the role Snow occupies in the dwarves' lives much more restricted. In addition. the punishment for failing in her duty becomes far harsher, bringing the idea that work is a necessity not a choice and cementing the concept of 'woman's work'.

Gothic was aimed solidly at a newly formed set of readers, young middle-class women who had the leisure time to read for pleasure. As such it served as both a break from their lives and a reinforcement of them; something to draw them away from the chores they had been set, and to imagine some sort of agency, but which drew them back into the role reserved for them by patriarchy. Sensation fiction from the very beginning set out to provide a distraction but served as a way to educate the readers in a very conservative form of thought; one cloaked within a revolutionary facade.

Both genres share elements, even if many of these are largely superficial. Early Gothic frequently takes place in an imagined past, or connects to it via the shadows disturbed by the characters.  Similarly fairy tale takes place long ago and far away, which serves as a distancing tactic but also as a way of establishing a sense that the story's moral is universal.

In a similar fashion both rely upon stock characters, recycled characters that serve to be familiar enough to connect readers to the story almost automatically. These figures are frequently epitomes of gender essentialism and present normative ideals of what men and women, and boys and girls should be. In fairy tale these normative ideas are often held up against the 'animal bridegroom'. These figures reflect the idea that women are civilised and have a 'taming' influence on men. The depiction of many male figures in the Gothic males shares this idea. They are bestial and controlling, whilst never being in control of their appetites: Heathcliffe and Dracula are both cut from this cloth.

In contrast figures like Jonathan Harker resemble the fairy tale heroes the Grimms, and later Hans Christian Anderson, promoted. Harker is openly middle class, hard working, honest and faithful. In Dracula Dr Seward does not fall too far behind Harker in this order of respectability; acting in contrast to the more exotic natures of Quincy Morris and Arthur Holmwood (Lord Godalming). Notably neither of these latter figures are depicted as entirely trustworthy, Morris has too much of the wild man in him, whilst Holmwood is depicted as almost frivolous at the start of the book, only gaining gravitas after his father dies. We should not take too much notice of Dracula for the purposes of comparison with fairy tale however; it was written at a time when Gothic's touchstones were largely set and in many cases creeping into cliche and fairy tale was being transformed even further by Oscar Wilde and George Macdonald. Dracula was created far from the turbulence that engulfed the 1790s, when the genre was finding its feet and is a bearer of that tradition rather than a work that carves out new territory. Even the Count fits a pattern of predatory masculinity: one with its roots in Polidori's The Vampyre.

As the 1790s was also the period that the modern fairy tale was shaped in, this is where I wish to focus the majority of my research. It was a decade of great change in the real world and Gothic sits in the centre of it, decried as both a revolutionary force and one that does little to change anything, even at the time.

The animal bridegroom and the concept of the 'bad king' who must be shown the error of his ways appears in both genres too, often mingled together and in Gothic frequently conflated into one figure.  These are not the only archetypes to make appearances and I suspect it is not possible to tell if their presence across both forms is something deliberate Gothic simply appropriated them as part of its osmosis of sources. As Mary Shelley says in her foreword to Frankenstein, it is important to remember that the genre took things that already existed and repurposed them into a new form. Gothic's composite nature allows it draw on history, legend and story; delving into anachronistic forms. Initially it embraced medievalism, following the pattern set by Walpole's Castle of Otranto and the shadow of the medieval hangs over much of the genre in Britain and Germany. Later works would be firmly set in the then modern age (i.e. the 19th Century from 1830), but the medieval shadow remained, even in a diminished form.

 I have a few other areas where I'm still processing ideas, the importance of geography in both genres for instance and the way geography is used to convey fear. Then too there's the useof horror, though I feel I should tread carefully with that subject. Many fairy tales only started to have their horrific elements expunged in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods; early revisions often concerned the removal of sex from the stories. So whilst Rapunzel's hair was carefully relocated to her head, it was still acceptable for step children to be cooked in a pie.  This in itself may link back to the idea of the improving tale. Sex would only encourage immoral thoughts, whilst horror would be sure to keep children in line. Within the  Gothic of course many of the supernatural elements are proved to be bunk and where they are real they take a more morbid tone than those in fairy tale. Ghosts and vampires are the focus in the main, rather than wolves and witches. It is interesting to note however that both forms are interested in arming their protagonists against the evil and the strange in similar ways.

So at present, my thoughts are leading me to base this on structure, the implementation of borgeious morality and socialisation and the use of stock characters, particularly the animal bridegroom. Which feels pretty thin. I'm hoping further reading will throw up more touchstones between the two forms.  On the other hand, at least its a start. There's more reading to do, and more notes to take as I put things together. I think that Septemer may turn into a bit of a scramble to get this done but... I will hesitantly say that I think there's the germ of an idea here.

*To explain, the black bug room is the term I use for that bit of your head where you keep your self-loathing, hatred and the part of yourself that loves nothing more to pick apart your life, look at it and 'not much is it?'.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Edge Lit 3

Yesterday was Edge Lit 3 up in Derby at the Quad. Its a nice little convention and always worth a visit and this year was especially attractive as one of my favourite authors, Charles Stross, was going to be there. I can't write about everything as there's always a lot going on and because a night of bad sleep and the bad weather led to us leaving early (at about 4.00pm).

We got there a little late and slipped into the first panel, which was about ghost in modern horror. The panel talked about the ghost story in general, and felt that short stories were the ghost's natural environment; struggling to sustain suspense for a whole novel as they work with one single trick. The authors also felt that mood was the most important part of the story and that a sign of a good writing session was if they had creeped themselves out. There was some discussion about the ways the different writers founded their stories; some working from images and working around them whilst characters and plot came first for others.
During the proceedings, people were encouraged to put forward to their own experiences with ghosts and wound around those experiences.  For instance, one woman's experience prompted a discussion of children in ghost stories and the fact that in fiction the ghosts are usually at least a century dead. Perhaps the most impressive experience was one of the panel's who had seen a Roman Legion march through his bedroom when he was sick as a child.

Books were recommended - Roger Clark's Natural History of Ghosts and Andre Norton's Small Shadow Creeps.

The Science Fiction panel was ostensibly about how much science you need to write SF. This was perhaps something the panel was not qualified to answer, as none of the authors had a hard science background; to the extent that Charles Stross, who was one of the authors standing in for John Courtney Grimwood, said they were 'all imposters.'  There was a discussion of their backgrounds, and how important they had found science in their writing. In general, they agreed that it was far more important to be internally consistent and have good writing than perfect science, as long as there was some research going on.

In addition, the issue of keeping up with scientific developments was discussed. Rod Rees said he had issues with imaging a plausible future because he felt that by 2050 humanity would be so different that we might not recognise our future selves. To say that the rest of the authors disagreed was an understatement. Tricia Sullivan said that she never tries to project a future because she's always writing about today's issues, whilst Jaine Fenn said that was the attraction of writing about the far future because she could use her own baseline.

Despite this assertion that you didn't need much science in S.F. the conversation turned to which authors were best at getting science into their books. Of the panellists both Tricia and Sullivan and Charles Stross were praised, whilst Madeleine Ashby's Company Town was praised along with Paul McCauley's Evening Empire books.

Nonfiction books were also mentioned, in the form of  Thomas B Stafford's book on the Apollo programme, and a book about algorithms which looked at how professions would be changed by reliable computer algorithms (something we're starting to see now).

Finally, the panel gathered together advice for new writers, which was broadly about keeping writing, not worrying too much about science and focusing on good fiction not good science as long as it's not completely implausible and hangs together all right. Tricia Sullivan said that you didn't even have to worry about originality, pathfinders seldom sold as well as people working in established niches.

After this my friend Theresa Derwin underwent a head shave for a breast cancer charity, so we went to that before dashing out to get lunch.

14.00 saw a reading and Q&A with Charles Stross. He read from the Annihilation Score, the sixth Laundry Files book which comes out next year in hardback (seriously get these books, they're brilliant). He talked about his writing process, the Merchant Princes novels and the way the Laundry is shaping up. All in all he was clever, pithy and full of good comments, literally rubbing his hands together as he discussed the way his new Merchant Princes novels were a post Edward Snowden satire.

Finally, we attended the 'new era in fantasy' panel, where a group of authors discussed whether a new fantasy era was on the horizon. This was the hardest panel for me. Eve nodded off during it and the fact that two members of the panel weren't really fantasy writers kind of leeched the discussion a bit. I felt that it needed a few more heavy hitters to give it some weight and whilst I like Young Adult and vampire fiction, they cropped up a bit too much for my liking. Joe Abercrombie, he who writes from 'deep truth', was a good panellist, but there was very little dissent to his opinions which was a shame and some sort of debate would have been nice.

The last part of the day was getting some books signed by Charles Stross prior to heading into the rain and dodging the carnival (which was too damn loud, making it unpleasant and difficult to speak to people). A good day and hopefully next year it'll be even better and I'll catch up with people like Rob Harkess!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

More GMing Musing: the Three Games

Something that occurred to me recently is that there are three versions of every roleplaying game in existence.

First there's the game as written. This takes the form of the main rules, supplements, adventures and so on. In many cases, there will be some sort of discussion of tone, mood and so on (especially in games after the 1980s). This is where the game designers vision of how the game will be run is laid out and is perhaps the most artistic part of the proceedings.

Then there is the game as envisaged by the GM, how they put their interpretation on the rules and setting. Again this can be quite artistic, certain parts of the game will call out to the GM for exploration and those are the bits they'll focus on. This (usually) involves creating a story or at least situations and having an idea of where the game will go. In truth this is probably the most tenuous part of the process because the game here only exists as notes and ideas as opposed to a rulebook or something that is played. Nonetheless, its an important part of the process and in my opinion counts as a game in its own right.

Sometimes this is going to be the same, or if there are tweaks they'll be quite minor. If you're interesting in playing Dr Who, its unlikely you're going to move the game too far from the TV show, because that would defeat the point of playing at all. On the other hand, a game like Vampire the Masquerade has managed to produce many different forms of campaign, from the high game of underhanded politics to dark superhero games with Desert Eagles and fangs.

Lastly, there is the game as it is played. And this is the game that really exists, if only because its the one that makes contact with the real world.

The three games tend to be quite different. The game might read as something steeped in the Gothic. The GM might envisage something where players' choices can damn them as they are dragged into the dark mysteries that confront them. In play, well 90% of the time it seems to resemble Monty Python's Holy Grail on crack: with a higher body count. 

This situation can lead to problems, just from the way gaming works. Information is vital here and one thing we need to remember is that whilst a mode of gaming is implied in the name of a game it doesn't necessarily follow that that's what the GM is bringing to the table. Dungeons and Dragons implies going into dungeons and killing, looting and burning your way to wealth. But the game of it could also involve a group of watchmen in a fantasy city dealing with the local underworld (the game, of course might eventually lead to a trek through the sewers, killing, looting and burning your way to wealth, but the framing is different to plucky adventurers out for a quick buck).

For example, if I say I'm running Dr Who, but that tells the player nothing about the intentions I have for the game. It doesn't communicate the idea that there'll be adventures throughout London's history, from Weeping Angels in Roman Britain to the near future where an aging population is dependent on servants grown from the Flesh for their day to day care. This might create dissonance between GM and players - where the GM wants to run a tight series centred on the mystery, the players want to bop about the cosmos doing not very much apart from getting into trouble. With these two conflicting ideas in place the game will stutter and burnup in a matter of weeks.

So there's a responsibility on both sides. The GM has responsibility not only to have an interpretation of the rules but also to communicate what he or she wants to do with the game. The player has a responsibility to take that on board and to say what they want to do. I know it can be argued that sometimes knowing what you want in a game takes time, you have to get to know your character; learn what they can do and orientate yourself in the setting after all. But, surely you as a player know where your interests are in terms of game play unless its your first game (and even then, you know what you like in terms of other media)? Having played games where at least 50% of the game was combat, and I felt sidelined because my character wasn't particularly fighty*, I can say that's not for me and if I were a player in a new game one of the first questions I asked would be about how much combat the GM was planning to introduce. As a GM I'd expect my players to do the same, if only because there's nothing worse than a game where the players act like knots on a log.

Players also have a responsibility for making sure their character fits the game; no point in playing if you're not going to buy into the basic ideas the GM is using. And GMs have a responsibility to check the character proposed is right for the game, not just in the sense of looking at how much damage they do, or if the build** is broken, but in the sense of whether the character concept fits into the campaign. Returning to our city watch campaign, a character whose dump stat is Charisma might not be such a good idea for example and its the duty of the GM to call the player on it and ask them to rethink the scores they've assigned.

This is why I think Session Zero is so important now; I've become acutely aware of the pitfalls associated with the human element of roleplaying. Never mind system queries and quibbles, what derails games is people (disclosure: I'm not proud of it but I've got my share of game kills). Whether the GM heads straight into the campaign without explaining what its about and gets the tone horribly wrong, or players design a character that are just wrong for the style of game, sometimes wilfully, lack of communication is the chief culprit to games expiring too soon.

Getting a good groundwork in early and keeping communication flowing are the only ways I can see to reconcile the three games into something workable. It's something that should be as natural as deciding what film to see or where to go to eat. But... we're dealing with gamers here and sometimes even the most determined efforts fall flat. Players can be frustratingly 'nice' and pass the buck, or feel that its not their place to suggest things because the GM's 'meant' to do the work or might use their ideas against them. In contrast GMs might not want to share ideas because it will ruin the 'surprise' or make things difficult, even when the most sensible course of action is to get players on board (and these days I feel that it is always a good idea to do that).

The fact that communication breaks down so much (and looking at the various killer GM and when players don't get it threads on fora, this is something that plagues the hobby) suggests that the hobby is still pretty adolescent, working around the idea that the GM is the person who puts in all the work rather than it being a team effort where everybody contributes equally. As time gets tighter and other media become more sophisticated (I'd argue that computer gaming is already in a position to make the traditional dungeon bashing campaign obsolete but that's another column), gamers will have to adapt and make sure that everyone at the table is happy with what's proposed before the first dice tumble.

* In the unlikely situation of me playing with that GM again I'll be playing a clever combat monster and throwing in non-combat skills as play progresses.

** If such things are important to you, I'm not super keen on them but at the same time, I can see the point especially in some games. Again, talking to the GM about whether a build is important is a good idea.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Songs that Make me Smile

No real reason for this, just fancy doing it.

Professor Elemental: Cup of Brown Joy

Cup of Brown Joy is great - and it always makes me think of my friends Geof and Emma, who love tea as much as the Prof.

Mr B: Just Like a Chap

I love the juxtaposition at the heart of Chap Hop and Mr B is just stupendous.

Scary Bitches: Lycanthrope on the Bus

Scary Bitches aren't a huge band and only have a few videos. Sadly I couldn't find a video for this song - so only posted the link.

The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing: Brunel

So raucous and unadulterated and fun.

Mitch Benn: Bouncy Druids

I love Mitch Benn at the best of times and this just makes me laugh.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Black Wall and Resolutions

As with so many things this year feels like its a case of one step forward and two steps back.

The last few days have been pretty bleak, because for reasons that I don't fully understand all my self loathing decided to unpack itself and I found myself staring at a situation where I've achieved very few of my life goals and, at 37 (nearly 38) I feel like my life has pretty much been a waste for the past twenty odd years. This isn't helped by the fact that I keep saying I'm going to do things and then failing to.

I know this isn't an uncommon feeling, but I must admit to looking at pretty much my entire life with a sense of disappointment; and feel that I can count the successes on one hand. Obviously, things have to change, I'm just not sure how and frankly I'm getting tired of this dance.

In an attempt to make changes I'm going to set myself 3 tasks for this time next year - using my birthday as the very end point. The goals have to be things I can control and don't rely too much on luck or other people to achieve.

First, I want to finish Fatal Thirst. Not get it published or even find an agent; just finish the thing. The novel has mutated readily over the years I've been writing it and grown longer (what was going to be a standalone novel is now slated to be a trilogy) and whilst I'm half way through volume one I do need to get on and finish it.

Second I want to have found a new job or got a place on a PhD course and be moving away from working as an administrator into a field I actually look enjoy (no offence to readers who are admininstrators and enjoy their work, but its not a job that fills me with joy).

Third... honestly I have no idea.  I think, tentatively, that it might need to be something about getting out and socialising but I'm simply unsure at present. Suggestions are welcome, though.

 After this, I get to the tricky bit - it's fine to say 'I wanna be different' but it means nothing if I don't put the ground work in. Some of its obvious, stay off the internet, write as much as I can,  and reconnect with the novel to build the rest of my story to fill out the best parts of it whilst getting rid of the weak links. Easy, right?

The job thing is more difficult, I'm unsure what I want to do. I like the idea of teaching at higher education level, having discovered that despite my bookish, frueqently shut in nature, I'm rather fond of interacting with people over short stretches of time but I don't know if its a realistic idea. Outside of that, I have no idea and suspect that a lot of the notions I have about working in a library or resource centre are simply romantic.

As to the third... well we'll see when I work out what it is.

Whatever it is the wind is blowing in the direction of better time management and using it more productively.

Right, pity party over... gotta get to work... Bring it on.

(and no I'm not posting the video - I don't want gold lame hot pants on my blog).

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Review: The Girl With All The Gifts by Mike Carey

A devastated world, an outbreak of something that drives people to become horrific, cannibalistic monsters; a society that has through stupidity and ineptitude managed to engineer its own collapse. A group of plucky individuals who have to survive against all costs.

These are the stock ingredients of the zombie apocalypse novel, so frequently used now that they have become cliches in their own right across all of post apocalypse fiction but especially for stories concerning zombies. Many people have tried to do something different with them, few have succeeded. Carey, with Girl with All the Gifts may well have done. This novel has all these elements within it and works within their boundaries, but its no common zombie apocalypse story; indeed the word 'zombie' never appears, even though the monsters - the 'Hungrys' - are obviously that. 

Despite this the story is skillfully told, keeping a tight on the characters, initially at the military base they inhabit and then on the group of survivors as they escape an attack by savage scavengers to try to make their way to  'Beacon', a place we never see in the novel and which has a talisman like quality for the protagonists. Beacon is safety and home, as much as those things can exist in a fallen world. Nothing else really gets a chance to be explored, and allows Carey to develop the pasts of the four adult characters, establishing who they are, how they came to be at the base and how they relate to the 'Girl' - Melanie.

Melanie is the key figure in this; it is her story and she serves as the protagonist and the catalyst for the events of the narrative. Her nature is in flux throughout the tale, shifting as she grows along with her world. There is an element of hero worship on the author's part; Melanie does not seem to have any real flaws, those are left to the adults. Given her eventual role in the story this may be an attempt to fit her role to a mythological rather than literary structure, but it is never quiet clear if this is intentional or not. Nevertheless she is an interesting character to read, and watch develop as she becomes less victim and more leader. Carey adapts her relationships to the other characters well, allowing her to bond with the soldiers who make up the male contingent of the group, whilst her relationship with the women is complicated and in places contradictory. Melanie's role is also one where she can change the world around her, ultimately bringing a sort of end to the status quo the world has fallen into, albeit one that means that the world will change forever.

The world building feels similar to Margaret Atwood's, albeit without the crazy cults and the slow disintegration of society. The revelation about the cause of the pandemic and its eventual 'cure' I found rather reminiscent to the end of Year of the Flood. The background of the story feels very much in this vein too, with capitalism being outright identified as one cause of the crisis that led to society's collapse; it does feel a little as if the author is wearing his politics on his sleeve. Whilst the novel will undoubtedly be marketed as horror I feel the tone and pace of the work makes it more akin to a post apocalyptic science fiction story than anything else.

In all this is a well written, well realised book even with its few flaws. If you enjoy zombie fiction I recommend it and if you don't but want to try something different then it may be worth a look. Whilst Carey does not reinvent the wheel he includes enough new ideas to raise this above the usual level of this kind of novel and with careful handling provides a book that is not just another run of the mill zombie story but something with heart.