New Avalon: A Review of Neal Litherland’s Steampunk Noir

I don’t read a lot of stories with tragic endings. Strange thing to say considering I read a great deal of horror. Somehow in those stories, I don’t feel sadness because there is a positive aspect to the tale. Maybe the final girl survives the evil—possibly only to face it again later, but still she struggles forward. Even though several people have been killed or gone mad in the story—many not deservingly—a small amount of hope usually glimmers somewhere.

At times, the story is a “the monster wins” sort of tale, but my reaction is typically more along the lines of “That’s really f’ed up.” Then I reach for the nearest book in my Calvin and Hobbes collection and read a few pages to bathe my mind.

I wasn't thinking about this version of Tragedy when I started writing this post, but now I am.

I wasn’t thinking about this version of Tragedy when I started writing this post, but now I am.

Rarely do I read anything that have what is considered a tragic ending. It isn’t something I come across much. It seems it isn’t in vogue right now: People want happy-ish endings, even in their mystery and horror.

Me? The last time I read a tragedy was in school. Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, most likely. When tragedy was considered a genre people flocked to see on the stage. Classic tragedy—think Shakespearean is a genre which has a noble, yet flawed, protagonist who is placed in a stressful heightened situation and ends with a fatal conclusion. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Modern tragedy is focused on smaller characters—not nobles or royals or anything so grandiose—with smaller aspirations who act out of impulse, which becomes their downfall. Some of the modern works shelved as tragedy in Goodreads, The Kite Runner and The Hunger Games, I don’t see as tragic. Others, I agree fit the modern tragedy definition: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Damage by Josephine Hart.

Then there’s Neal Litherland’s New Avalon: Love and Loss in the City of Steam. New Avalon cover

New Avalon is a collection of Steampunk Noir stories. I was warned that each of the stories in this collection of shorts would end in some kind of tragedy. But I like to spread my wings beyond reading horror, romance (yes, I read it and write it too), mysteries, and classical literature. (I enjoy the classical literature, but it also helps with getting the answers right when I watch quiz shows.)

So I read it. I didn’t cry—must be made of some strong stuff—but they did impact me. I tended to pause at the end of each story to absorb each final scene. Litherland’s stories are mixed with strength and beauty, which serves to make each ending more pronounced in its tragedy.

I enjoyed the stories greatly, but knowing that they’d end in some sort of tragedy, I was bracing myself the entire time. Many of the tales resonated with me as I’d grown to like and understand the characters—a feat for an author to achieve in itself.

Also, I appreciated the diversity in characters. They were portrayed non-stereotypically and it showed me that there didn’t need to be a lot of attention called to their inclusion in the stories. Each character fit seamlessly into the world Litherland created—one of dark city streets, gunslingers, and mechanical leading men taking the stage…

These are the streets of New Avalon. Beware...

These are the streets of New Avalon. Beware…

These tales are extremely well written, but they have sad and despairing endings. Make sure you’re ready for them.

My favorites are: “Flight of Icarus”, “The Legend of Black Jack Guillotine”, and “The Understudy”.

And I liked the Steel Necktie. He’s a great character I hope Litherland makes sure we see more of him.

Neal granted me an interview recently to talk about New Avalon, tragic tales, and making diversity work in fiction.

 First of all, thank you for granting me this interview. Tell us a bit about yourself and your writing style.

Well, I guess I’ll begin at the beginning. I’m an author who currently lives in Northwest Indiana, went to college once, and I always seem to have something I’m either working on or putting out. My writing style changes a little from story to story and genre to genre, but it’s largely inspired by gritty thrillers and film noir. When I feel like being clever I call it “metaphor as a weapon.”

What inspired you to write New Avalon? How did you choose the stories to include?

The inspiration came with the character The Steel Necktie (whose origin story is included in the book). The original idea was to write a series of novels, but I realized that creating my own imaginary city was going to take some work. I wrote the first story, “Love is a Broken Clock” in response to a call for steampunk short stories, and the others just sort of came. After the third story I drew a map of the city, and decided to center one story in each district as a way to build the city with stories.

Is New Avalon is considered grimdark? Define the grimdark genre for us.

I wouldn’t actually consider it to be a grimdark book, but if people want to put that label on it I won’t argue too strenuously against it. The genre requires three things: a dark tone, a sense of realism, and agency of your characters. This is a pretty broad umbrella, and grimdark comes in varying shades of gray, though the easiest example for people who want one is George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

 For you, what makes a great dark tale? What do you like to read?

My reading tastes are all over the board. I love private detective stories, whether they’re Sherlock Holmes mysteries or Dashiell Hammett novels. I’m a big fan of horror stories, I love fantasy series, but I won’t turn down anything I like the taste of.

As far as “dark” stories go, I’ve got a pretty high bar. The story needs to be subtle with its darkness, and it needs to go slowly in order to pull me in. Heavy-handed torture scenes or lazy “his life was falling apart” setups that are meant to hammer you just make me roll my eyes. Shadows are not powerful things, unless you really start making your audience wonder what could be lurking in them.

 What research did you perform for New Avalon or are the characters and scenes fictionalized versions from your own experience?

New Avalon is made up whole cloth. There are no real people, places, or experiences put into that collection.

 Why short stories? How do you make an emotional impact in only a few pages?

I didn’t actively decide to make a collection until I’d written the first three stories, and at that point I figured if I was going to really write ten stories then I might as well use them to test the waters to see if readers wanted more of this place.

As far as making an emotional impact in a few thousand words, it’s something that takes practice. The first story, “Love is a Broken Clock” has a short wind up, but when you get to the end it drops on your heart like a nine-pound hammer. Other stories, like “Flight of Icarus” take their time whistling and looking anywhere but at you, and just when you think you’re safe they sink a knife in your back.

I noticed that you incorporate characters from diverse backgrounds smoothly into your work. How can other authors succeed in what is called “writing the other”, whether it be women, people of color or people of a different religion or creed?

Practice, and taking a page out of George R. R. Martin’s book. People are people, and you’re the one with creative control. Gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. these are traits of a character, but no one is defined solely by these things. An easy way to do it is to create characters who have one aspect you don’t understand (say you’re a white writer who wants to create a black character), and other aspects that you do (said character might have a career the author understands, or be from an area of the country that author is familiar with). A great example in my experience is military fiction precisely because of the way people are supposed to be integrated into a single whole (there are huge problems with this in reality, but for fiction the melting pot idea works pretty well). No matter who you are or where you came from, you’re all in the army now.

 What’s your next project? Is there a subject you refuse to touch?

I’m currently working on a novel tentatively titled Old Soldiers. It’s an expansion of two previous short stories (“Heart of the Myrmidon” now out-of-print, and “Gods and Heroes” which should be coming out in the Golden Age anthology from Long Count Press in Fall 2015). The short version is that it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where mankind has been driven underground by the fallout of its first war with an alien race. It follows Pollux, one of several experimental soldiers designed to fight the Hyperion, as he tries to cope with a world where he doesn’t seem to have a purpose. Until, that is, people start trying to kill him. It quickly becomes a race against time and the resources of a shadowy conspiracy as Pollux and his allies try to figure out what it is they’ve uncovered before it’s too late.

As far as subjects I won’t touch, if my name is going on it the project has to be up to my standards. I’ve written for a huge variety of genres though, and I’m not shy about crossing those lines if that’s what the next project calls for.

 I found your characters and their situations to be relatable and therefore, more sympathetic and tragic. How can authors prevent falling into the usual stereotypes when creating characters and plotlines in their stories?

I almost ran into this with “The Steel Second” when I realized it was quickly becoming a disposable woman revenge story. The best way for you to avoid stereotypes and cliché is to make sure you’re aware of them so you don’t put them into your stories without thinking about it (spending a few dozen hours on TVTropes.com is a great help with this). As far as making good characters you need to dig deep and make sure they’re real people, with goals, aspirations, quirks, etc. If you find yourself creating “hard-nosed cop” ask yourself why. Why is the most powerful question you have, and you should always have an answer.

 What’s missing in fiction? What shape would you like to see the future of dark fiction to take?

Aside from minor nit picks and style differences, I’d like to see people stop pulling their punches. I think all too often we get caught up in action scenes or sex scenes, but we don’t stop to ask about the real impact those things have and what they say about a character. If you can kill four men, whether it was self defense or not, and go on with your day what does that say about you? If you can enjoy partners without any emotional connection, why is that? Too often we’re caught up in spectacle without asking what the fallout of that spectacle should rightly be.

Who is your main inspiration?

I’ve been inspired by a lot of different authors over the years, but I think the finishing touch and the one who helped me find my voice was Simon R. Green.

What’s the most difficult part of writing for you?

There isn’t any one thing. Each project has different challenges unique to it, and overcoming them is part of the satisfaction that comes with the job.

Thank you for the interview. Is there anything else you like to mention?

Just that while authors are the ones with the magic, the readers are the ones with the power. They’re the ones who make what we do worthwhile, and without them we’re just telling stories to ourselves.

Pick up a copy of New Avalon: Love and Loss in the City of Steam on Amazon

So You Think You Know Horror?

I am lucky to have the multi-talented horror queen Emerian Rich as a guest poster on the blog today.  Emerian is an author, editor, artist, and vocal talent who I’m pleased to have worked with on the new release The Horror Addicts Guide to Life. Without further ado, heeeerrre’s Emerian!

So You Think You Know Horror?   Night's Knight cover
by Emerian Rich

As a horror writer and hostess, I pride myself on seeing the world through zombie-colored glasses. I figure, I can riff on anything horror related and have a better-than-average grasp of horror topics. So, when I first contemplated creating a horror almanac to be included in our Horror Addicts Guide to Life publication, I thought…no sweat, right?

Wrong. The thing us horror addicts forget is that for most of the year we are pretty useless to the general public. Sure, we are cool to invite if you want a spooky campfire story and always called upon for costume advice, but when Thanksgiving rolls around, we’re utterly forgotten.

My task was to find something to say about every month. Tasks to do, events to attend, people to celebrate. 365 days becomes a daunting task when you have to fill every single day with horror content. Holidays can be punked, horror birthdays can be found, but what do you do on a month like August when there is absolute nothing going on?

In the beginning, it was fun. I started with October because that is the beginning (and end) of a true horror addicts calendar. I got six months filled without hardly a backwards glance, but then, the dreaded blank page stared back at me, mocking my ignorance for the task and my cocky belief that I could tackle every day of the year horror-style.

My first solution was to ask my horror friends and staff. When that turned dry, I asked non-horror people, then I scoured the internet for fun horror facts. But still, all of this left gaping holes in a calendar that I live every year and should have been a piece of Devil’s food cake. Having exhausted all my sources, I took a deep breath and had a talk with myself.

Cover of The Horror Addicts Guide to Life.  Because who doesn't need a little help with the horror?

Cover of The Horror Addicts Guide to Life.

“Listen, Emz, this shouldn’t be so hard. You live the horror lifestyle. Calm down and think about what you do each month, each day, that makes your life happily horrific.”

And that’s when the blood started flowing. The almanac was done in no time at all once I tapped my inner horror addict, the silly, zany, spooky gal inside that likes to tell ghost stories and play corny zombie board games.

Inside the Horror Addicts Guide to Life, you will find twelve months of awesome horror addict-ness. What do to, what to wear, what to celebrate, as only a true horror enthusiast would. For just a little taste, I’ll share April’s to do list with you:

  1. Plan your epitaph.
  2. Appreciate your bat.
  3. Stock up on garlic (except for vampires).
  4. Stock your laboratory for World Lab Day (23rd).
  5. Tell a spooky story.
  6. Recycle, the spooky way, for Earth Day (22nd).

Don’t forget, April is contains a lot of spooky holidays such as Be Kind to Spiders week, the 1819 publication of the first vampire story, The Vampyre by John Polidori. It’s also home to Walpurgisnaught, the holiday quoted in Dracula, 1931 as the night of evil.

For more fun facts and horror-ific things to do year-round, check out the Horror Addicts Guide to Life.

********

Horror hostess Emerian Rich.

Horror hostess Emerian Rich.

Emerian Rich is the author of the vampire book series, Night’s Knights. She’s been published in a handful of anthologies by publishers such as Dragon Moon Press, Hidden Thoughts Press, Hazardous Press, and White Wolf Press. Emerian is a podcast horror hostess of HorrorAddicts.net. To find out more about Emerian, go to: emzbox.com.

The Horror Addicts Guide to Life: A Release and Podcast

*Best studio announcer voice*

Do you love the horror genre? Are normal people concerned about your love of the macabre?

Worry no more.  The Horror Addicts Guide to Life is now available, chock full of horror news, reading, and scary fun.  This book features articles, artwork , interviews with Midnight Syndicate, Valentine Wolfe, and The Gothic Tea Society.

Oh, and an article written by me about what it’s like to be a horror editor.  *Tremble*

Grab your copy here.

Cover of The Horror Addicts Guide to Life.  Because who doesn't need a little help with the horror?

Cover of The Horror Addicts Guide to Life. Because who doesn’t need a little help with the horror?

As a bonus, Horror Addicts have dedicated an episode of their podcast to the contributors to The Horror Addict’s Guide to Life.

Listen to Episode 111, in which I read an excerpt from my dark fantasy novella, “Containment” at 44:59, but the entire podcast is well worthy of your attention.

Podcast for the Ages: Running and Screaming and Giant Frogs

I love podcasts.  There’s something about them–maybe the fact that I can walk around and do other things while listening to them. So rare for me lately to not be tied to a computer screen. It also gives me a back in the day sort of feeling, listening to the radio while doing chores.

There’s a radio show on BBC Radio 4 called The Unbelievable Truth, that I also enjoy listening to. It’s a quiz show with comedian David Mitchell in the chair– love that term– and is described in the program’s introduction as “the panel game built on truth and lies.” The object of the game is for the participants to lie on a subject, while trying to include the truth without being detected. The other contestants have to spot the lies to win points. You can find episodes of it on You Tube. I used to listen to it while washing dishes, kitchening, packing, or daydreaming about what I need to write.

This... this is what I need to finish writing.  I mean, It's going to be released in another month or so.

This… this is what I need to finish writing. I mean, it’s going to be released in another month or so.

I also find not having the visual to focus on more stimulating to the imagination. If you’ve never listened to a podcast online, I recommend Crucible of Realms. It’s fun and crazy and geeky and always makes me laugh.

Some of the comments made are enough to inspire stories on their own.  I mean, check the title of this podcast:

Running and Screaming and Giant Frogs.

So listen to the latest Epoch iteration on the fantastic Crucible of Realms.  To quote the podcast: “Go out there and create something. The world needs more stuff.”

Disclaimer: There’s a little bit of a skip toward the end of my reading, but I don’t think it distracts from the excerpt.

Graveyard Shift Sister: Janet Eckford

The next installment of my interviews with Black female horror authors includes the multi-genre author Janet Eckford.

Janet is also a successful romance author as well as a horror author. Her collection of dark stories is called “Whispers in the Dark”.

WhispersInTheDark

Disclaimer: A few days before this post was to go live, I found out from Janet Eckford, the author of the collection “Whispers in the Dark”, that her contract with her publisher was over and she was removing the book from sale. Since this was after I’d read the collection and interviewed her, I was at first needless to say, surprised, then disheartened. I asked her if she’d found another publisher, but she said she didn’t have immediate plans to re-publish.

She asked if that would pose a problem. Honestly, I wasn’t sure. I wanted this series of posts on women writers in horror to be a way of recognizing what we as women of color are doing in the industry (and possibly making a book sale or two.) Also, me going on and on about a book that the readers of this blog can’t buy is a bit of a bait and switch.

After discussing it with Ashlee Blackwell, the founder of Graveyard Shift Sisters, I decided to move forward with posting this book review and interview. Partially because I want to support Janet’s work as a female writer of dark fiction, but mostly because I’d love for her to re-release this collection for all to enjoy.

While Janet pulled her book for personal reasons, I think this is a great segue into why it’s important to give authors your support. Buy their books, leave reviews, send them a message on social media to say you enjoy what you do.

It’s difficult as a writer sometimes to stay motivated. Few reviews, precious little feedback, sometimes even smaller financial compensation. Some Black women horror writers I’ve spoken with also have to contend with family and societal pressure because we write dark fiction. We come across a lot of: “Girl, what’s wrong with you?” and “You need to go to church more.”

To those people, I say, “Learn to separate the author from their work.” Writers are creators of worlds. We conceptualize, we imagine, we ask the what ifs. If there’s a murder down the road from you, more than likely your friendly neighborhood horror author isn’t the culprit. We’re hard at work with our noses to the screen writing the next big thing. But we’ll probably use it in a story somewhere down the line.

With that I’d like to extend my best wishes to Janet with placing and/or updating her collection of horror short stories. Visit the Graveyard Shift Sisters site  to read the full  post I wrote for “Whispers in the Dark” by Janet Eckford. I’ll keep you updated for when the book becomes available again.

The Big Bad II: A Release

It’s finally here!

My short story, “Voodooesque” is seeing the light of day in the anthology, The Big Bad II.

Ever find yourself rooting for the bad guy? Are you pulled toward the darkness and all of its charms? Then the second edition of The Big Bad brings you more to love! There are some fantastic authors featured in this collection–I know several of them– and I’m pleased to say female authors and authors of color are represented.

Love the cover of this anthology.  Someone *has* been very bad...

Love the cover of this anthology. Someone *has* been very bad…

From the Dark Oak website, here is the description of the book:

A collection of best-selling fantasy and horror writers brings you twenty-four all-new tales of vampires, demons, ghosts, zombies, and the most terrifying monsters of all – humans. Crack open the pages, if you dare, and explore two dozen tales of humor and horror by some of the brightest names in the business!

Here’s the list of titles and authors.  I encourage you to pick up some of their other works as well.  After you’ve finished The Big Bad II, of course!

The Tales:

Mercy’s Armistice – J. T. Glover

A Family Affair – Selah Janel

Old Nonna – Gail Z. Martin

Letters to Logroth – Jason Corner

Skippin’ Stones – S. H. Roddey

The Sea Witch – Kasidy Manisco

A Day in the Life – James R. Tuck

Overkill – Sara Taylor Woods

Voodooesque – Eden Royce

A Fitter Subject for Study – Sarah Joy Adams

Ghosts and Sands – Jay Requard

Teacher of the Year – Riley Miller

Feels Like Justice to Me – Edmund R. Schubert

Portrait of the Artist as a Psychopathic Man – Stuart Jaffe

The House on Cherry Hill – Emily Lavin Leverett

Sticks and Stones – Bobby Nash

Sweet Tooth – Nicole Givens Kurtz

Just Pretending – Linden Flynn

Phone Home – E. D. Guy

I Think of Snow – J. Matthew Saunders

Little Gods – Neal F. Litherland

Drawing Flame -4 Misty Massey

The Witch Hunter – M. B. Weston

The Cully – D. B. Jackson

Buy your copy for The Big Bad II for Kindle or in paperback or in hardback—two print versions!—at Amazon.

If you missed book one, you can get it here: The Big Bad

#Chooseyourhorror

So, I’m crazy.

(According to my mother, since I think I am, I must not be. Cold comfort, but I digress.)

A writer friend of mine, Nicole Kurtz, approached me and asked what I was doing for Women in Horror Month this year. I hadn’t decided anything at the time and she suggested a collaboration. I agreed.

Then came the time to decide on the project. We both wanted to write something horror centered, but different from any other work we’d done. Not thinking it would fly, I suggested doing something in the old school Choose Your Own Adventure style. And Nicole thought it was a great idea.

 

My #chooseyourhorror banner.  Aww... so cute!

My #chooseyourhorror banner.
Aww… so cute!

Not long after that, I came across an article of how difficult these types of books are to write. Then I looked at my list of projects that need to be finished in 2015 and I worried I’d taken on too much. Add on top of that the dreaded second person point of view—it’s frowned upon by publishers now, certainly not popular like it used to be—most of these stories take and I wanted to recant. Run!  Run away!

Enter Twitter.

I thought a good idea might be to involve the Twitter-verse with helping Nicole and I with our ideas on where to take the story. During 2015, we’ll be posting flash fiction on our blogs and giving readers a choice of which path they’d take if they were in the main protagonist’s situation.

Graveyard shift Sisters has posted our project idea on their site, along with one of our banners. Here’s the other:

 

Nicole's #chooseyourhorror banner. So much creepier than mine...

Nicole’s #chooseyourhorror banner.
So much creepier than mine…

 

As Black female speculative fiction writers, Nicole and I are in a minority. There is an idea in the field of horror that woman—especially women of color—don’t enjoy horror. In our circles, that isn’t true. We wanted to give a voice to women that enjoy reading horror: What do you want to read? We’re looking to involve you in a storyline to give us an idea of what female readers of horror are looking for in a tale.

To give you an idea of what we mean, here’s a short flash piece I wrote:

 

You walk down the deserted basement hallway toward the last room on the left, your confident strides from earlier in the day things of memory. B302. Labored, ragged breathing emanates from under the heavy steel door and your hand trembles on the knob as you turn it.

The lamp on the bedside table is covered with a scarf and it colors everything in the dank room with a pale amber hue. With a subtle sniff, you determine the odor of decay emanated from the hospital bed in the far corner.

“Welcome to my humble home, Doctor.” The woman in the bed sneers, her words a seductive hiss. The woman’s papery skin looks moist, her greying hair is lank and greasy, but her eyes are vividly green and wild. You notice she is secured to the bed with wide leather straps across her arms and legs. The way she is bound briefly reminds you of a mummy.

“Good evening, Ms. Costa,” you reply, doing your best to keep your voice steady in spite of the disgust you feel. “I’m Doctor Abrams and I—”

“I know who you are.” Foul-smelling watery discharge seeps from her nose and mouth, but she makes no move.

You check the readings on the beeping monitors along the wall, an unusually long distance from the bed. “I need to check your vitals, Ms. Costa.”

“It’s ‘Miss’ Costa. And call me Marilyn. I’d like for us to be on a first name basis. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

“I’d prefer to keep our relationship professional.”

“Because of my condition?” The woman’s bone-white hands search the bedcovers blindly. Soon a whirring sound severs the quiet and the bed raises her to a sitting position. She watches you closely.

“We’ve run a number of tests and they’ve all come back conclusive,” you tell her.

“I’m pregnant.” Her laughter is hoarse, as though she’s been screaming for hours.

“Miss Costa, this is serious.”

Marilyn laughed without mirth. “Oh, I’d say my case is most definitely serious. I’d go so far as to say it’s a permanent condition, not a terminal one. Terminal means you’ll be released from your suffering at some point.”

“Advances are made every day. There might be—”

“Give me a break, Doctor. We both know that curing me isn’t on the American Medical Association’s list of priorities. Seems they’re more concerned with keeping eighty year-old men with full heads of hair and their willies pointing north.”

 

Your assignment here is to take a blood sample from Marilyn. Do you:

  • Treat her as you would any other patient and tell her your intent?
  • Try to get the sample without warning her beforehand?
  • Come back when you think she’s asleep?
  • Try to drug her and get the sample?

What would you choose in this situation? Or would you do something else? Each choice will lead down a different path. (Some will lead you in a circle. Others to a dead end.)

Check out the full information on our project on the Graveyard Shift Sisters website. Then tweet me @edenroyce and Nicole @nicolegkurtz using the #chooseyourhorror hashtag and tell us what you’d do.