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Author Archives: Kristopher Kelly

There are a lot of genres out there currently vying for the honor of Most Overdone Genre Ever. Sure, you got your zombies, your vampires, your teenage girl caught betwixt two adoring suitors. Yet there is one genre that, for me at least, stands far above any of these.

My last post was about how the Alien franchise lost its way when it changed Ripley from an ordinary, strong woman into a mythological hero. What I failed to do in that post was fully convey my total exhaustion with plots centered around the mythological superhero, commonly referred to as … “The One.” It is this genre of story that bores me more than all the others combined.

I am so sick of all these goddamned special heroes. These stories positively reek of American exceptionalism — egocentric, megalomaniacal bullshit!

Please. Please. For the love of all things, can we just stop it with this crap? I mean, okay, I’ll grant you — The Matrix was a great hero’s journey. But I think everyone, on some level, knows why the sequels didn’t work. It was because NEO — hamfisted anagram that he is — is a total freaking bore once he realizes he’s basically Computer Jesus. There’s no reason for any conflict anywhere after the first film. To pretend that that story ends in FISTICUFFS!?! Seriously?

But hey, okay, maybe you want to cite Star Wars as an example of a great myth, rousingly told, and point out that no one’s more special than the Skywalker clan. Sure. You could do that. But it’s not true. Until the prequels, there wasn’t anything truly intrinsic to Luke Skywalker himself that an ordinary person couldn’t hope to achieve as well (especially if you stick with the original film, which was really just the simple story of a farmboy doing WAAAAAAAY better than anyone thought he would). The Force used to be democratic. Then it became hereditary. Wasn’t it more fun when it could’ve been you using the Force to make that shot?

It was for me. Cuz the doc tells me my midichlorian count … too low! Sigh. Now I’ll never achieve my Jedi dreams!

To paraphrase a George R. R. Martin line, I have a deep affection for cripples, bastards, and broken things. Even Orson Scott Card’s military genius Ender Wiggin was hobbled by his youth (and the bloodthirsty jealousy of his peers), and Card re-upped to an even bolder degree with the parallel story Ender’s Shadow, detailed from the perspective of the even more frail Bean. Sure, Ender and Bean were both examples of characters exhibiting vast traces of one-itis, but they were still overwhelmed enough to bring the story back into a more naturally dramatic state. Hell, even freaking Beowulf is basically the story of a really old man, who inadvisably goes out to fight once more after having listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” one too many times.

Yet still, I feel like a lot of these are examples of characters that want to have it both ways — they want to play the overwhelmed overdog, and that shit is just getting as bone-achingly tired as any of your old-timey Scandinavian heroes.

The deluge of characters who either discover or start as part of some exemplary race or group of “specials” disturbs the living shit out of me. Doesn’t it smack of a distasteful love of supremacy? Isn’t there anyone out there who wants to write about ordinary people facing overwhelming problems? Isn’t that more the ordinary state of regular humans? What in the name of holy fuck is with this unrelenting trend of superheroes? There’s a reason I relate to Ripley in the first two Alien films and don’t relate to her as much (or at all) in the sequels. There’s a reason Tyrion — the dwarf without any real hope of defending himself unless he can convince someone else to take up a sword on his behalf in most situations — is my favorite character in Game of Thrones. 

They’re freaking normal. They’re not “the One!” They’re a whole lot like you and me.

So the next time you find yourself out there thinking how to make your character cool and extraordinary … maybe just go the crazy route.

Maybe just make them fucking normal.

 

As the release of the upcoming video game Alien: Isolation creeps slowly closer, I find myself loving everything the developers say about the project: they want to stay true to the original Alien film (in my opinion, still the best) and focus on horror over action, period detail over fancy sci-fi wizardry. A recent dev diary even detailed how they were running the video game footage through mangled VHS tapes to make it more authentic.

I’m pretty sure the results will be right up my alley. Even if something preposterous happens and the game turns out not very good, I applaud the team for their perfect intentions.

Like nearly all the video games ever made based in the Alien universe, a lot has been lost along the way since 1979. Recently, I read a great post on Tor.com about the difference between the original Die Hard and most current superhero / Hollywood tentpole blockbuster action-fests. Basically, the point boils down to the difference between fairy tales and myths. In myths, your hero is special, ordained with gifts other mere mortals do not have. In fairy tales, the characters are ordinary, and their fates are often grimmer. As I grow increasingly impatient with the onslaught of “the One”-style stories, I’ve come to realize that my sensibilities — and the reason I like the horror genre above all others — is that I find fairy tales far more compelling.

As the writer states: “… Myths are badass. Fairy tales are hard core.”

Which brings me back to my favorite film of all time: Ridley Scott’s original Alien film. Since the rise of the franchise, it’s become as much the myth of Ellen Ripley as it has been a series of encounters with Xenomorphs. And that’s exactly where it went wrong.

In the first film (if you can forget the arc of the sequels) you might notice a curious thing: for all intents and purposes, Tom Skerritt’s Captain Dallas is the protagonist of the movie. Ripley becomes the main character only as the others die off, but it’s in no way obvious that it’s her movie in the beginning. Dallas talks to Mother first. Dallas has the final say in key decisions while he’s around to do so. Ripley, the science officer, has her authority questioned by nearly every single character. She’s not “the One”; she’s just the one who lives.

Even in James Cameron’s excellent, world-and-myhos-expanding sequel, she was not without significant vulnerabilities. She most certainly was not a badass soldier; she did her best to contribute and earn the respect of the crew, where and how she could. It’s this vulnerability that makes her so compelling in the first two films, and it’s this vulnerability that she in rather literal terms loses from the third film on.

It all hinges on that moment in Alien 3 when the alien snarls right next to her face … and backs away. That’s the moment when Ripley ceases to be an average person in a series of horrible situations that require everything she has to survive and becomes a queen. She becomes “the One” — the one human with a vaguely mystical connection to the alien. In a lot of ways, the aliens respond to her as Hannibal Lecter responds to Clarice Starling, in seeming suggestion that she alone “gets it” and “is worthy” … of whatever.

Which is only born out further by her Jesus Christ-style resurrection in … oh yeah: Alien: Resurrection. First the Christ pose as she falls into the fire in Alien 3, next the rise from the darkness in Resurrection. And that’s where the franchise died. It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, really, when Prometheus proved a full-on religious revenge story about some overgrown zealots beating humanity in the face for murdering their Space Jesus two thousand years ago. Only thing worse than making Ripley a mythic figure was making everyone on Earth a mythic figure, directly tied to the Engineers and the creation of the alien itself.

Ridley Scott has said that when he made Alien, it was in part a response to the glossiness of a lot of sci-fi he’d been watching at the time. He wanted the crew to feel like “truckers in space.” Bravo. It felt like it. It felt like these were people no one — not even their employer — truly gave two shits about. They weren’t as interesting or as important as the thing they’d found that was killing them off. Their lives were cheap.

No one on the Nostromo was “the One.” No one was even in the running.

And man did that ever make that film work!

Somehow, Prometheus made the alien seem entirely too close to home. All the great atmosphere created by the silence of the Nostromo in the beginning of Alien, the foreign quality to everything they encountered, and the sheer sense of isolation — all of that was forgotten by the closing credits of Prometheus, as the myths squashed the last remnants of the franchise’s fairy tale origins.

So color me heartened by the title of Alien: Isolation. I’m looking forward to agonizing over the vulnerability of the protagonist.

I’m looking forward to returning again to the roots of a story that started with average people, in overwhelmingly terrible situations.

I’m looking forward to another fairy tale.

Next
Next by Michael Crichton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So I used to really love Michael Crichton. Pretty much until he wrote the screenplay for Twister and things started to go downhill. The sequel to Jurassic Park was dreck. Timeline was borderline unreadable, and then he denied the influences of human activity on climate change in State of Fear. Oh, heavens. Crichton had lost his mind, it seemed to me.

Prey was okay. Kinda liked that one.

But whatever. Life goes on. Time passes. And I came to miss his peculiar blend of cardboard characters and crackling plots, infused with his brilliant gift for turning science into mental candy. So, okay, I picked up Next, hoping it would at least be fun.

And … what a mess! Readable, sure. But WOW! It’s certainly not a one-star book, given it’s convincing views on genetic research and patent law. It also features a subplot that I feel was stolen by the recent film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It didn’t bore me, either — hell, it barely stuck to a single plot-line long enough to do that. But the characters are so numerous (this thing actually has no main character), I was still waiting for the thing to start when it ended, more or less arbitrarily. Crichton said he was trying to model his book after the human genome, where the various plot strands were genes, and you never knew how important they were or what they were actually doing there.

Well, ok, then. Mission accomplished, I guess.

This book had the curious effect of endearing me to its author, if only for how gloriously off-the-rails he’d gone. This book is one strange mutant of a pop-science novel.

Good news is that last year the US Supreme Court invalidated gene patents. Who knows what role Crichton’s writing played in the formation of that decision, but it’s sad that he wasn’t alive to see it.

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Well, that was fun.

Six days ago, Midnight Echo sent a form rejection in for “The Broker.” Three days ago, I learned that a screenplay I co-wrote, “Bad Apples,” missed the semi-finalist cut in this year’s short screenplay Shriekfest competition by one freaking spot (cheers to the first loser!). Over the last two days, two other stories were rejected in a single day by two other magazines, and then … well, and then today.

First, my 211-day wait ends with a rejection from Cemetery Dance, where “Sprachlos” failed to pass by the keen eyes of Mr. Norman Prentiss himself, and then about five or so minutes ago, I received a form rejection for “Seal” from Fearful Symmetries. 

Banner week, my friends. All this while I’ve been coding like a fiend at work under deadline pressure, then coming home and working until three or four a.m., trying desperately to finish typing, editing, formatting, and publishing my grandmother’s book, so I’ll have a copy to hand her next weekend when I go up to visit. Call me crazy, but the closer to completion that thing gets, the more I fear a sudden turn in her health. I’d originally promised to have it done last Christmas, but I procrastinated. Now I don’t want this whole thing to turn into a bad joke where the good-for-nothing grandson delays just-too-long to do what he’s promised until finally making good on the promise … one day too late.

But the way this week is going? Shit, I’m glad I don’t have a dog, because it would probably get hit by a car during a week like this.

But okay, okay, enough crying into the whiskey. All of these markets (and Shriekfest) are tough ones to break into. The odds were never in my favor. Fearful Symmetries received 1,100 submissions for two open slots. Cemetery Dance, well–they publish people like Stephen King and Dean Koontz and Clive Barker, and it’s a lucky day when they even open for submissions. The other markets I targeted were all equally high-end. It would be the height of hubris to expect anything other than a rejection from such places, even if every horror writer out there would be out of his or her mind not to try. Aim high, but keep in mind you are aiming high.

What is actually shocking is that I made it as close as I did. “Sprachlos” made it past the first readers at Cemetery Dance, and then it survived until the final twenty or so among the eight hundred stories submitted during the two months they were open. And Shriekfest? Man, that was close, too!

I’d like to add here that Brian James Freeman, who moderates the Cemetery Dance forums and is the managing editor of Cemetery Dance, was surprisingly approachable and forthcoming about the behind-the-scenes goings-on during the incredibly long and agonizing wait for my rejection. I have nothing but good things to say about the guy. He really did his best to reach out to us and ease our anxieties and shed light on what was happening. I’m so thankful for his responses, both via e-mail and the forums. The guy rocks.

As far as the other places go, sure, the form letters are lousy, but they’re also to be expected. I can’t lie to myself and say that I didn’t see any of this coming, because I certainly did. Hell, last night I sent out two submissions, because I had a feeling that I was about to get down to the felt again, and I made a promise to myself that I’d never let the responses catch up to my submissions — which would have happened if I hadn’t sent anything out.

Too close. That was way too close, and it tells me that, despite how many response I’ve received this week, I’m still not really sending out as many pieces as I should be.

If nothing else, the book I’m putting together of my grandmother’s old columns from the local paper is great. It’s going to be beautiful, and it’s almost done.

And it will be published (self-published, sure, but hell with it–it’s something), so there. I’ll have accomplished something real this week, rejections be damned. I don’t want to discount my own tales of misery and terror, but I do think that book’s completion is far more important than any of the rest of this crap.

So, tonight, back to the grindstone.

Tomorrow, work work work. These rejected pieces of shit don’t edit themselves.

Sunday I’ll be at the Black and White open mic on E. 4th street to read something. Something new, I hope. Because the best way to get over a rejection is to write something new.

Or something like that, right?

Long overdue, I suppose, but here is the video log I made depicting my adventures trying to finish the last draft of Daukherville by going to a cabin without power or running water for five days and five nights in the bug-infested wilderness of my home state of Maine.

I had a goddamn blast, for what it’s worth, and I pride myself on this adventure, thanks to my father telling me that, as far as he knows, I lasted the longest anyone in my family has ever lasted at the cabin.

The Redlaw Daukherville Expedition

Epilogue here.

The Dark Man: An Illustrated Poem
The Dark Man: An Illustrated Poem by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A beautiful volume, full of dense and dark and menacing illustrations by Glenn Chadbourne, this short poem tells the story of a creepy wanderer, who inspired the character of Randall Flagg, a familiar figure for anyone who has read The Eyes of the Dragon, The Stand, or The Dark Tower cycle.

While the poem itself runs only a few lines (and could probably fit on a single printed page), it was a real treat for a hardcore fan of King’s work such as myself. Perhaps too slight a tale for most readers, it’s a welcome treat to have this one on the shelf between The Secretary of Dreams and my Dark Tower hardcovers. Cemetery Dance (once again) has done a wonderful job turning a horror book into a work of art.

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The good folks over at Bizarrocast have given the audio treatment to my short story, “The Night Light,” taken from my collection I Held My Breath as Long as I Could. 

If you find yourself with a few minutes to spare, stop on by and have a listen. It’s also available on iTunes.

A very big thanks to Chris Boyle and Bizarrocast! This is the first for-pay sale of a story I’ve ever made.

Acceptance. It feels nice.

Sooo … I was re-watching The Sopranos tonight. I’m on Season 3 of my RIP-James-Gandolfini memorial viewing. The show continues to hold up, it’s still outstanding over a decade later, and two things occur to me: James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano is one of the best characters ever, and Meadow Soprano is wrong when she drops the popular interpretation that Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is about death.

Sure, sure. It’s about a man thinking about sleep and woods and darkness and solitude and snow. Yep. I’m with you there. But suicide and death?

Here. Read the poem again with me. Done? Ok, cool.

So I’m guessing that a lot is made out of a couple ideas here. “The darkest evening of the year” turns into a line about the narrator’s depression. “Miles to go before I sleep” is ambiguous, given that he might well be walking straight off into the woods to die of hypothermia. “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep” could well be a man talking about his lust for sleepy death. Sure. Could be.

But really? I don’t buy it. I blame it on the harness bells.

The horse is harnessed and represents the forward march of obligations, of continuing on with the things one is doing. The owner of these fields lives in some village, presumably a place of more activity and hustle and bustle. Frost’s snowy woods are somewhere removed from all that, and the narrator gets off the horse and pauses for a moment to stop and smell the snowflakes.

He also doesn’t appear to be a man who’s done with life, as there is a palpable sense that he loves this world he’s looking at. There’s a celebration here–not of the village or the harnessed lifestyle, but the one where someone might just stop and enjoy nature for a moment.

The repetition of the “miles to go” before the narrator sleeps seems to me the sad acknowledgment that he has obligations left undone. Work still needs to be done. He’s not home yet. His day isn’t done yet. And it’s already incredibly late.

Tired? Yes. Suicidal? C’mon.

Now Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” — THAT’s a poem that’s secretly about suicide! Tell me — how do you go down a long slide from a high window, huh?

See what I’m saying?

(It’s okay. The college poetry professors didn’t buy that read, either. But what do they know.)

But speaking of miles to go, it would seem I’m procrastinating.

Stopping by blogs on a summer evening, with methods to code before I sleep.

North American Lake Monsters: Stories
North American Lake Monsters: Stories by Nathan Ballingrud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nathan Ballingrud’s debut collection of short stories sank its claws deep into my brain and refused to let go until I’d read the whole thing. He writes clear, powerful tales, where the monsters in question flush out his characters’ humanity in traumatic clarity. Most of these don’t end well, but they’re all gorgeous pieces.

Often, the obvious monster of the story is not the worst monster. Take, for example, the story “Wild Acres,” where an early, bloody attack suggests an obvious sort of supernatural tale. Yet Ballingrud doesn’t go down that road, instead taking the reader through the emotional consequences of surviving the ordeal and the choices made during such an event. Or the eponymous “North American Lake Monsters” itself, where an unidentifiable beast washes up on the shore of a lake and yet remains only a lightning-rod metaphor for the things going on within the family that discovers it.

[Personal note here: I read that story with a mixture of adoration and sadness, as I recently submitted a story that featured almost exactly the same situation. Ugh. The outcome in my tale was far different, but it’s still quite frustrating to be scooped on a story I really liked.]

In another standout piece, “Crevasse,” about a sled team in Antarctica running into trouble, Ballingrud manages to concoct a Lovecraftian story that challenges even the best of Lovecraft’s work.

My favorite story in the collection is, unexpectedly, “Sunbleached,” which is a story about a young kid’s relationship with a vampire in his basement. I’m sick to death of vampire tales, and yet this one bowled me over. The details were captivating, and I still can’t shake the ending.

This collection represents some of the finest literary horror I’ve read since devouring Shirley Jackson’s short stories. I’m an instant fan of Ballingrud, and North American Lake Monsters is a powerful, disturbing beast.

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I’ll be announcing some good news shortly (pretty much as soon as I can provide a link for it), but in the meantime I thought I’d post again with some thoughts on how things have been going this summer.

I’ve been writing. Actually, I’ve been re-writing. It started with Daukherville, but that mountain still seems steep to me. Ed at Eleven has reclaimed my attention, and for once the editing is going well. I’d love to have a draft finished by October, and it looks like it might actually happen.

Most importantly, it would be a real second draft, rather than yet another first draft. Have I learned how to edit? Has dedicating myself to shorter fiction served the purpose I’d hoped it would? Could be.

In the meantime, while I’ve fallen off my target of twelve stories in twelve months (I’ve hit four in six so far, so there’s still hope for catch-up), I still have three of the pieces out in the wind, awaiting rejection.

“Sprachlos” (a detective story involving literary forensics) has made it past the first readers at Cemetery Dancewhich is delightful news in and of itself. I continue to wait for the form rejection, but Brian James Freeman, the managing editor of all things Cemetery Dance-related, has told us that anything rejected from this point on will have been seen by all the editors. Holy fuckballs, Batman. For me, Cemetery Dance is nothing short of a pie-in-the-sky market that I’ve dreamed of seeing a story in for decades. That I’ve made it this far really and truly is an honor.

“Seal” (about a nice day on a lake) has been submitted to Ellen Datlow’s Kickstarter-funded anthology Fearful Symmetries. As of their last update, 20% of the stories have been rejected, 4% have been kicked up to Ellen Datlow herself, and 50% have at least been read. The editors have stated that they plan to have all responses sent out by the end of August.

Finally, I submitted my most recent story, “The Broker,” based on an idea Amanda gave me about two ne’er-do-wells and their real estate broker, to Midnight Echowhich could be considered the Australian equivalent to Cemetery Dance, for their ghost-themed issue #10.

All three were written this year, and I believe in them all. Whether the markets above take them or not, I have a lot of hope that I can sell these pieces and step away from the lead balloon of my self-publishing efforts.

In other news, I’ve also collaborated with a talented filmmaker, Brian Lillie, on a screenplay for a short film that we submitted to this year’s Shriekfest.

As far as reviews of books go, you might have noticed a drop-off in frequency (i.e., that they’ve pretty much stopped altogether). I’ve made the decision that to do them (and do them as I was, with no fear of posting negative reviews) is no longer professionally acceptable. I will still post a review if I read something I truly love, or if something is the work of an old master, no longer publishing, but my negative thoughts I will now keep to myself (and immediate friends, who no doubt will hear all my rants).

Also, I’ve been reading a ton of short stories from a lot of writers I like, but I haven’t been able to claim that I’ve finished many collections or anthologies or even magazines, as I tend to skip around like a madman. (Mandler asks: Do madmen skip around? I say: Ah, go fuck yourself.) I’m seeking out a lot of great voices that are new to me, and I’ve found a few (Sarah Langan, David Nickle, Laird Barron, Livia Llewellyn, Helen Marshall, and Nathan Ballingrud to name a few of my new favorites from the last year and a half or so), but I’m pretty much in the middle of all their books. I never desired to speed read, and I never made the effort to learn, so I still read rather embarrassingly slowly, probably just slightly faster than someone reading it aloud. Maybe that makes me a bit of a numbskull, but hey–I like sticking close to the words. I see little reason to rush through sentences.

So that’s where things stand. I’ll update as the rejections make their way in, but for now it looks like the waiting game is the game for me.

The waiting game … and the writing game.

I promised myself last year that I would never let the total number of rejections catch up to my number of submissions.

It’s a promise I’ve kept ever since.

Call it progress.