Guest Interview: Weird West Writer Gemma Files

Gemma Files is the weird west author of A Book of Tongues, one of the novels included in the

gemma-files

Gemma Files

weird west StoryBundle which a reader can purchase at a very low price. I had the opportunity to interview Gemma recently and she was kind enough to allow me to post it on my blog. I hope you like it, and I hope her interview inspires you to check out the weird west collection from StoryBundle.com as well. Thanks!  –Mark

Mark: Hi, Gemma, thank you for the opportunity to interview you about your work. I’ve looked forward to this opportunity for a long time, so let’s get to it. As a writer how do you define the weird west genre? Why did you decide to set A Book of Tongues in this time frame?

Gemma: Hey, Mark, right back at you–I’ve been impressed by your work since I first ran across the initial short stories that would eventually give rise to Haxan online. Like most people my age (I think), I was first introduced to the weird west genre through Joe R. Lansdale and Jonah Hex, both on their own and in concert, though thinking back, I actually believe my first brush with it came through William S. Burroughs’ The Place of Dead Roads and Michael Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid. So for me, it’s definitely always been best defined as “Western with something extra,” whether that something is psionics, black magic, Mexica goddesses, zombies, alien technology, time travel or just a general sort of…spiritual weirdness, an Acid-soaked 1960s hangover, a Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole Of The Law deconstructive Southern Gothic ethos that translates from The Outlaw Josey WalesMcCabe & Mrs Miller and Heaven’s Gate on down to The Long Riders and Unforgiven, Deadwood and Carnivale. There’s also a whole lot of fire and brimstone folk-country/spookabilly rock ‘n’ roll in there, too: 16 Horsepower, Murder by Death, Leonard Cohen, Emmylou Harris, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. That’s the soundtrack that was hovering in the back of my mind as I was writing A Book of Tongues.
As for why I decided to set the book in that time-frame, well…my previous obsession had been Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, so I’d already done a fair bit of research about the 1860s. But at the moment I began writing, I’d just spent basically a year not writing much except fanfic for James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma. So that was the seed everything grew from: a Bible-quoting bad guy in black and the trigger-happy right hand man who was obviously in love with him, with liberal application of other stuff I liked: blood magic, evil dead gods, Pinkerton agents, towns cursed to salt, absinthe, incautious sex, train robbery, wholesale murder. All that.

ABookofTonguesM: A Book of Tongues has many cultural and historical references, some quite obscure or not well known. You kept the western and supernatural elements distinct when needed, or used both to great effect. How did you research this novel, and how did you decide what elements to keep, and what to leave aside?

G: I love history, and I love to know stuff other people don’t. One of my biggest influences was probably either a book called Poe Must Die by Marc Olden, which I got at a rummage sale when I was in my teens and is mainly set in Five Points, New York’s most notorious slum, or Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery, large sections of which are set in the area of London called Seven Dials, which makes an appearance in Hexslinger Series Book Three. Poe Must Die juxtaposes hierarchical black magic and necromancy with “normal” period-specific criminal violence and enterprise, while The Great Train Robbery is about how people’s emotional impulses–venal and otherwise, pre-planned or otherwise–can drive and derail even the most complicated plans. Both were really useful in terms of outlining A Book of Tongues. The other thing that helped was thinking about religion as another form of magic, both in terms of Reverend Rook’s Christianity and the Mayan-Mexica goddess Ixchel’s plans for humanity, especially since both are bridged by various characters’ talent for natural magic–“hexation.” But generally, I just kept the stuff I liked most and threw away the rest, the way I do with almost everything else.

M: A Book of Tongues is the first novel of a trilogy. When you were writing did you know this ahead of time and did it present any problems in structure?

G: I did not know this would be a trilogy, no.;) What happened was that I kept working from exactly the same outline I started with, then getting to 80,000 words out of a potential 100,000 (ChiZine Publications’ official cut-off point) and going: “Oh shit, time to tie it off and write another book.” I like to say it comes from having written screenplays; the three books are like three acts in a classic Syd Field-style Hollywood three-act structure, each sub-divided into three acts of their own.

M: I was wondering what is it about the weird west genre you like? Is there anything you don’t like, or would like to see improved?

G: Like I said above, I think the weird west has an amazing potential for deconstruction, particularly as it applies to some of those old established storytelling tropes which really deserve to be challenged. In a lot of ways, Westerns are a genre of stories America tells about itself to excuse its own actions–the destructive lies behind the idea of Manifest Destiny, for example, of the West as an “empty” frontier, which allow settlers to try to pretend that that emptiness wasn’t achieved by removing indigenous people from their tribal lands, herding them like buffalo, trying to exterminate them. Add in slavery on top of that, and sexual violence, and all the different types of awfulness people perpetrate against each other, and you see that this is a genre ripe for reinterpretation, for being busted down to its component parts and messed around with so different voices–voices other than those of the accepted default–can get a chance to tell stories which imagine themselves as heroes rather than background, or villains. Is it easier to do that when you splice Western DNA with something else, something that cracks the mold a bit? I don’t know. I do know that even in A Book of Tongues, though, I was trying to push those boundaries. I’ve been rightfully called out for not doing it as hard as I might have (the novel’s a pretty shameless bag of dicks, for one thing), but I do think I got a lot better at it by the time A Tree of Bones rolled around.

M: What are you working on now? Can we expect more stories or novels set in the weird west?

G: What I’m working on right now are two contemporary, stand-alone horror tales in the basic mode of Experimental Film, for which I recently won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel. However, who knows? When CZP asked me to write some supplemental novellas for their Hexslinger Omnibus ebook, which collects all three parts of the series, I had the opportunity to revisit this world and those characters in a way that was very satisfying–I wish more people had gotten to read those tales, because they really do form a nice little epilogue of sorts to the whole saga. Since then, however, I haven’t really done much more in the genre, aside from three fairly obscure short stories (“Some Kind of Light Shines From Your Face,” which I did for an anthology called Gutshot, “Black Bush,” which was in Arcane, and “Satan’s Jewel Crown,” for Dark Discoveries #26). I’d eventually like to do another series set in 1880, mainly focused around New York–characters from the Hexslinger series would turn up in those, definitely. I’m pretty sure I’m not done.
M: Finally, the most important question of the interview. What would you like to hear Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke say if you were suddenly transported to the Old West?
G: Okay, what would I like to hear Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke say if I were suddenly transported to the Old West…well, sad thing to admit, but I’ve never actually seen Gunsmoke. My personal vision of ridiculously cleaned-up Old West media acceptance of choice would probably be the so-called “Brat Pack” Western Young Guns (1988, dir. Christopher Cain), in which characters at least got to say a weird-ass version of “fuck” (“farg,” if I remember correctly). I’d like to be welcomed there by a thin, smirking Emilio Estevez and a vaguely poetic-looking Kiefer Sutherland.
M: Thank you, Gemma!
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Weird West Story Bundle

 

 

 

 

Changing the Western (for the better)

While I was attending SoonerCon a week or so ago a writer friend relayed a conversation she had with a family member.Hoover-8

She said the uncle stated he liked to watch westerns because “they were real.”

She proceeded to tell him, No, they were not real, but only Hollywood’s version of the Old West.  What he saw on television and movies was not in any sense “history” or “reality” of what the Old West was truly like.  He was being sold a bill of goods. Period.

I work in the western genre. Not exclusively, but I toil there quite a bit as readers of this blog know. I’ve seen this before. I know mythology and cliche has been elevated to historical status in some areas. Frankly, I find this depressing, because if this is all we have, if things don’t change, then this genre will never change.

And it needs to change.

The idea of the iconic western is an extremely powerful story telling tool. I use it all the time. It’s also the whole frontier mentality that makes much of science fiction accessible to readers and fans alike. But westerns are earth-bound. We can readily identify with that. Hell, even Star Wars was a western, and Star Trek often used western elements.

They are used because they are powerful.

Here’s what I would like to see. I’d like to see a western novel where there were no guns. Historically, most people never owned, carried, or used one. That’s historical fact. I’d like to see stories about that.

I’d also like to see more stories from, and about, women and POC. Because, you know, they actually existed back then.

It’s easy to slipstream behind Hollywood tropes. Cliches are the easy way out. Example: the iconic gun fight a la High Noon.

I agree this all makes for great television. But that’s not how they fought. Gunfighters did not meet each other on the street. They shot each other in the back and through windows. It was gang warfare. No one in their right mind would stand with a gun 15-feet away from another man with a gun in an open street. These weren’t dueling Knights of Old, which is where this myth was appropriated.

I remember visiting the Flats near Fort Griffin while doing research for Quaternity. I came across a first person account of a town sheriff or marshal who jailed a man and then shot him through the bars and killed him because “he was too mean.”

Now I want you to stop and think about that a bit and then get back to me.

To be sure, not every man and woman behaved like this, and it would be ridiculous to assume otherwise. But they weren’t Knights from the Round Table, either. They just were not.

There are three gunfights in my novel Haxan. None of them go according to Hoyle because it NEVER happened the way Hollywood sold it.

I’m also getting a little worn out with the romantic notions that permeate too much of what I see. Men and women of all races, all religions, all creeds, struggled every day to survive in the Old West. Just like they do today.

There’s nothing romantic about that.

Mythology is not history. Cliches are not a foundation to build on. Well, I mean, you can, if you want. If we write the same stories over and over, and don’t push the envelope, this genre will not evolve. It won’t die. As I said up at the top the idea of the western is too atavistic for that to happen.

The western will never die. That’s a good thing, in my opinion because it’s an interesting setting in which to tell stories about people.

But maybe it’s time to step away from the romantic ideals of an age that never existed, either, and write something different. There are many western writers right now doing exactly that. Their voices are few.

I’d like to see more.

“I’m your huckleberry.”

In an old writing group we had an ongoing joke you never “arrived” until you wrote an Elvis story. Many members did, I did not. Doc_Holliday

The same sort of thing might be said of westerns, but with Doc Holliday. This consumptive blue-eyed killer continues to generate stories, ideas, and unverifiable legends. I got to thinking. What if Doc Holliday visited Haxan, the one town in New Mexico Territory known as a vicious killing-bottle. Mightn’t he feel at home?

My “Doc Holliday story” was named “Tombstone” and it appeared in 2010 in The Western Online. Later, people got in touch with me and expressed how much they enjoyed it.

Finally, Holliday’s trademark quip has historical backing*, so that’s why I included it in my story.

Just follow the link if you want to take a peek at it! I hope you enjoy it.

 

TOMBSTONE

 

*Much of what we know about Holliday is shaky at best. I think that is what draws him to readers and writers. Aside from the basic facts regarding his life, almost everything else is a tabula rasa.

Doc Holliday in 1879

 

Shotokan Karate in the Old Takudai Dojo – 1946 Part II

Here is Part II of Kanazawa, Nakayama, Enoeda and many other karateka practicing in a rebuilt dojo after the original was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid.

Great historical stuff here. Part I was posted yesterday if you are interested in seeing that.

 

 

 

 

 

Shotokan Karate in the Old Takudai Dojo – 1946 Part I

Old, historical footage of Nakayama, Kanazawa, Enoeda and others practicing Shotokan in the old Japanese dojo and training outside. This is not the original Shotokan Dojo. The original was destroyed during the war in a bombing raid. But it gives you a definite flavor of what the training was like along with the intensity.

This is Part I. I’ll post the second part tomorrow.

 

My Elevator Pitch for the New Haxan Novel “Quaternity” and Other Philosophical Arguments on Recursive Genre

*Press elevator stop button. Cage jerks to a halt.*

“I can sum the novel up pretty fast. Jorge Luis Borges said man will one day resign himself to new abominations, and that soon only bandits and soldiers will be left. Which is why I’m going to beat the living shit out of you right now.”

*   *   *

Thus, Quaternity.

But this crazy scenario does represent in a stark and frightening way what the novel is all about: the ever-present actuality of man’s violent nature and its necessary place in history. A nature, the book argues, which will never be ameliorated by man himself because it is not in man’s interest to do so, nor is it his fundamental nature to be able to do so, outliers like Gandhi, MLK, and the Prophet Jesus laid aside.

As I remarked before in this blog, Quaternity is unlike anything I have ever written before. I set the bar very high for this novel not only on a literary level but thematically. Of course I don’t go into these arguments within the novel’s context or as story. It would make the damn thing nigh unreadable and pretentious beyond human reason. And, quite frankly, we have enough epidemically overrated books in our midst to last us through the remainder of the decade, and quite possibly the century.

But if I were to say these elements were not present in the story I would also be lying, and I’m not going to do that. They are there if you want to find them. If not, they won’t impact the rest of the novel one bit.

Whether I reached the mark I aimed for remains for readers to decide. If it ever gets published, and if there ever are readers.

I don’t pull any punches in this novel. I am loyal to the historical record. This is who these ruthless people were, and not the sanitized and whitewashed (in all respects of that word) romantic history we have been spoon fed by John Ford and Owen Wister and others.*

I have said before I wanted this novel to stand as an anti-western. But now that I have distance from the story I think I can more specifically say,

Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

and with justification, it’s an anti-mythology western.

Not that I am dinging on westerns in particular. Like all other recursive literary genres westerns incorporate semiotic elements which make them immediately recognizable to the reading public. Science fiction has a long and storied history in this regard. This isn’t debilitative to a genre if it’s handled correctly, and if a writer has a natural respect for a genre’s history and its canonical themes and the foundations that were laid down  by other writers. Even science fiction, which by all accounts is at heart a subversive genre, adheres to some of these principles today, at least from time to time. Although, I guess we have to accept that many of them were lost during the New Wave Movement in SF. A movement that was necessary because SF themes had become so incestuous and moribund there had to be a spurt of literary growth or the entire genre would collapse into smoking slag.

But the old themes and cliches were never really lost to us, even though they had been put aside by writers with dangerous visions like Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, Joanna Russ, and John Brunner. Later, they were rediscovered, revived, and thrust again into public consciousness via the Star Wars trilogies.

Again, it doesn’t dilute the field if handled with respect. Which, to be fair, most writers do. I may not hold George Lucas’s writing talent in the highest regard, but I do recognize the fact he had a deep love and respect for science fiction’s past, hoary cliches and all.

I simply maintain there are other writers too lazy or too inept to see the difference which half an hour of homework and research would correct. Google exists today for a reason. But so did Encyclopedia Britannica twenty years ago. I know because I bought a set and I still have it.

Writers who reinvent the wheel and then put their work up as if it’s new and different, when really it’s nothing more than recursive cliches posing as plot devices, hurt growth. Genres, like people, are organic. They must grow and evolve, or wither and die. Writing the same thing over and over doesn’t do any good. Let’s make them grow.

So, all else aside, I obviously cannot use the elevator pitch I started this blog with. So what is the story about? Simply put, it’s about a ten thousand year old demon man who is trying to find himself in a world he cannot understand.

Sometimes, Occam’s razor is the best starting place after all. 🙂

 

*It is to their everlasting credit creative directors like Bud Boetticher, Clint Eastwood, and Sam Peckinpah, along with robust writers like Edward Gorman and Loren D. Estleman have worked to correct this fault.

Segovia’s Master Class

Wanted to share this video with you. As you know I am learning classical guitar. I found this video of Segovia’s master class back in the day. Believe it or not something like this is very helpful to a student learning CG. It’s not only the historical perspective, but as a student I can watch their fingers and how they hold the guitar, etc.

Especially for those tricky barre chords!

I geek out over stuff like this. Enjoy. 🙂

 

Yes, I am going to write The Great American Hobo Novel

I have finally decided I am going to do this for my next big project.

I have been interested in this idea for some time. A bit tongue in cheek, but I have called this idea The Great American Hobo Novel for some time. Mostly as a place holder name. I feel there’s a lot of potential here in this subject that hasn’t been mined. Yes, there have been other novels and films about this subject. I think I have found a way to approach it from a different direction and perspective. I have a plot in mind that may be workable.

That’s the problem. I have a plot. I don’t have a story. Not yet.

Writers will recognize this Catch 22 right away. Usually, we come up with the story first and the plot unfolds from there. This time, I came up with the plot first. But a plot is not a story. It’s a framework of a house. The story is the roof that makes the house.

This can be analogized by a simple plot: A boy finds a dog. He comes to love it. The dog saves his life.. Later, the dog catches rabies and the boy has to shoot the dog.

That’s a plot. Admittedly a recognizable one, but it serves our purpose of illustration. That’s a plot.  It’s  not a story.

So where’s the story in our example? Here: A boy grows up to be a man. That’s the story. The plot can be any framework that reveals the elements of that story. Maybe it wasn’t a dog. Maybe it was a hamster. See? Plots are not stories, and stories are not plots.

Thus, my dilemma.

I have the plot. I don’t have the story. Therefore, these are uncharted waters for me. I believe the story will reveal itself over time as I dig deeper and do more research. But I want to make sure I have it within my grasp before I get too involved with this project.

Meanwhile, it’s not like I’m lying fallow. I am getting prepared to attend several SF/F conventions this year, write more short stories, schedule readings at local libraries, and get more stuff out with Argo Navis Publishing.

A full plate by any standard. But times have changed and writing isn’t only writing anymore. Today writers have to be editors, publishers, marketers…God help us. I don’t like it, but I can’t pretend it’s unnecessary.

All the same I am getting excited about this project. I have been thinking about it for over a year and the idea has held up under scrutiny. That’s not always the case, either. Sometimes I will have an idea and after I study it a while I determine it’ s not worth the attention. I’m very picky and choosy about what I do and do not write nowadays. A lot of that comes with experience, a lot of it is having the belief in yourself to make the right judgments.

Because of the time frame you might expect there to be flappers, a particular subject I am interested in and have blogged about before. I don’t think so for this novel, however. It isn’t coming together in my mind to be that kind of novel. Not yet at any rate.

But it’s early days yet. There is a lot of history and culture which I need to start digging into.

Which is why I need to get started now. 🙂

Fado

For a long time I have been trying to think of the name of this music. Then, out of the blue, one of my writer friends J. Kathleen Cheney Fado, painting by Jose Malhoamentioned something about Fado. Kathleen has been working on stories set in Portugal, I believe, and has even go so far as to begin to learn how to speak the language. She’s a good writer and if you haven’t given her stuff a try then you should. She brings an incredible attention to detail and authenticity you don’t see enough in fiction.

Anyway, that was the name and style of the music. Fado is often mournful and the themes reflect the sea, or the poor, or longing and resignation. There’s a culture around this form of music I like a lot, too. Fado is traditionally sung in a dim, unadorned café. When the performer is singing everyone is required to stop eating and sit very still and quiet so she (or he) can concentrate.

I had a scene in an unpublished novel called Red Widow where a Russian-American spy sat in a Lisbon bar listening to fado. That was years ago, and I didn’t feel like going back and pouring through the manuscript to see what it was called. But I couldn’t remember the name of the style.

All this time I had been wracking my brain trying to remember it, haha. Thanks, Kathleen!

Anyway, here is some fado for you by Amália Rodriques, one of the best fadistas ever. Enjoy!

Apsostate of the Plains

When I was working on the novel Quaternity I came across an old picture from the 19th century of a Texas Ranger. Despite what some people may think now, Rangers weren’t held in great esteem back then. Many viewed them as rabble. I thought it was a good representation of Abrtexas-ranger-mexican-waram Botis, one of the characters in the story who brings them to the Llano Estacado. They are searching for the mythical city of Cibola, just like Coronado tried 300 years earlier.

I had fun writing this novel. Despite the setbacks and false starts which I blogged about before. Any time I write I always enjoy the research phase most. That’s the fun part for me.

The Value of Research. Or, riding the horse of serendipity until it bottoms out.

Heh. The value of research.

In my WIP I had the main characters visit Abilene before they went into Fort Griffin. Except, this novel takes place circa 1869 and Abilene wasn’t founded until 1881. Oops.

So I did a little digging and found out Buffalo Gap was a staging area for hunters during their winter camp. They kept their meat, hides and horns there before transporting it to Fort Griffin.

This works for me on a lot of different levels. I was of two minds about having these bandits and killers go into Abilene in the first place. They are somewhat avoiding population centers at this moment in the book. Well, because they are bandits and killers. Not a concern. I don’t mind changing my plot when it is necessary. I also began to feel I didn’t want them in Abilene because this is meant to be an anti-western.

But it all worked out because Buffalo Gap  is a much better setting since it has deeper trading ties with Fort Griffin. I like this a lot better. 🙂

You gotta love serendipity as a writer. Despite what some writers think, luck does play a part in this profession from time to time. The professional part on the writer’s behalf comes when you recognize that fact, and then jump all over it like a monkey on a football.

Violence in Haxan

While attending Chicon 7 I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussing violence in fantasy and how much was too much. Or if there was such a thing as too much.

The usual things you expect to be said on such a topic were said.

But I was surprised, genuinely surprised, no one seemed to really get it. I mean they kept saying things like “Violence is terrible and we don’t know why humans are so excited by it. It must say something fundamental about the human experience.”

I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand then and I don’t understand now. Violence is human. It’s who we are. It does define us. We can pretend otherwise, but the fact remains we are a violent species. All you have to do is open a history book of you don’t believe me. We respect and elevate and revere people like Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King. But they are the outliers. The norm is much more base, more cruel, than that.

This is important because I feel as writers what we do is we write about the human condition. There is violence in my stories, especially the Haxan stories. I don’t describe every splatter of blood and drop of gore. That’s not violence. That’s torture porn. Violence is cold and brutal and fast and hard and often unexpected. It’s over in a flash and it leaves a cold empty place in your gut. In Haxan, which I use to reflect not only western mores but human ones as well, that’s how violence is presented. It’s real and it’s part of us and it’s not going away.

Human beings are very violent animals. And that’s the key, I think. We are still animals despite all our laws and culture and architecture and mathematics and striped toothpaste. Do I wish it were otherwise? Of course I do. But I also recognize we don’t live in a sane world because we ourselves are not sane. We never have been, and sometimes I think we never will be. Then again maybe we are as sane as our natural violent tendencies allow us to be.

Either way, as a writer I will continue to shine a light upon all the facets of the human diamond. So. Everything considered, why is this important?

Because I have no respect for the “safe” story. I guess when you get down to it I never have. I like stories that push the edge of the envelope. I want stories that question ourselves and how we look at others and why we do the things we do. That doesn’t necessarily mean a story has to have violence or violent words in it….but it has to be true to the human condition and the human experience. Not a reflection of how we want the world to be, but a reflection of how the world is.

Like I said, I will let others write those stories. They will do a much better job than I ever could. Nor do I argue stories like that have no place in the genre. But that’s not what I write.

I probably read too much Nietzsche. I plead guilty. But I think he sees deeper into the human heart than many other people have the stomach to endure. I don’t care for blow by blow descriptions of violence in stories and I don’t write those scenes. But I don’t go around pretending humans beings are warm happy puppies living in sunshine, either.

The truth, just like real life, is much more cruel and cold and distant….and violent. That’s what I try to do with the violence in Haxan. That’s how I try to portray it.

 

Edit: This got me to thinking about writing dangerous stories as opposed to safe ones. Maybe someday I will blog about that, too, but I think most of the points I could make about it are also covered here, even if they don’t rely on violence per se.

“Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price

As a writer I am fascinated how small and seemingly insignificant events have, through oral repetition, come to play an important part in our culture.

One of these events is the (very real) murder of Bill Curtis by Lee Sheldon, also known as “Stag” Lee.  Down through time his name has become corrupted into Stagger Lee, or Stagolee, sometimes Stackalee, or any other variation you might think of.

I don’t know about you but when viewing this through the lens of a writer I find it fascinating. The acts are so simple and yet they carry so much power. This is a good lesson for a writer, I think.  Here we are with a barroom brawl, and a Stetson hat in 1895, and it becomes legendary in our culture and a mainstay of music.  Wow.  I just can’t wrap my head around that.

Most of us know this song either from the 1995 Nick Cave cover, or the 1959 hit by Lloyd Price. Speaking for myself I prefer the Lloyd Price rendition.  It’s more evocative and much the better constructed narrative.

Un Ballo in Maschera: Beautiful Opera Music Marred by a Poor Storyline

Un Ballo in Maschera (The Masked Ball) is one of those operas in which the music is better than the story.

It’s about the assassination of Gustave III of Sweden during a masked ball. That much is historically accurate.  The rest of the opera…not so much, even down to the last scene when the king is dying and forgives his assassin. Moving, yes, but not accurate. It’s one of those operas that can succeed or fail on the performance of a single character. In this case it’s the aria of the gypsy witch Ulrica who prophesies the king’s death. If she’s believable the opera rocks.

This opera was written by Verdi. It has all the usual Verdi touches: forbidden love, flashes of humor, jealousy, assassination, plans within plans.  And it’s not a bad opera. It’s just not all that great. Except for the extraordinary music which blows you away.

It’s the music that makes this opera memorable. It’s as beautiful as anything Verdi ever wrote, and that’s saying a lot.

Opera is funny. You don’t have to listen to a lot of them or watch very many to get a feel for what the art form is about. There aren’t that many operas anyway so if you listen/watch to about a dozen or so you develop an appreciation for what’s being done artistically. Unfortunately, Un Ballo in Maschera isn’t a beginner’s opera. You would do better to watch Aida or Tosca or maybe  Madame Butterfly if you’re starting out and want to learn about opera.

But if you already know something about it, or have been exposed to opera on some level, I think you will appreciate Un Ballo in Maschera.

Give it a peek.

Ulrica prophesies the death of a king....

The Saga of Ragnar Greenkirtle and the “graskinna” Loki

One of the things I like about being a writer is how I can do research about topics that interest me and use that information to generate story ideas. I have always been interested in Viking culture and when I read the Sagas I was taken with the voice used to tell their stories.

Being a writer I only steal from the best so I decided to steal from the Sagas. I wrote the story “The Fire Egg” and liked the result. There are a few twists and turns in the story and I’ve had people remark on the ending because it is so stark, and because it shows Man in his one true form.

I also don’t pull any punches about the Viking culture in this story. I now write mostly westerns but I see the same problems in both genres. People would rather depend on cliches and what makes them feel safe than admit what these cultures were really like. Vikings have become romanticized over time but the truth is much more brutal and bloody. When all is said and done the Viking people were not very nice people, even among themselves. Even less when they came across a stranger from an unknown culture.

This is another short story being offered by Argo Navis Publishing on the Kindle. I hope you give it a look and maybe a review if you feel so inclined. Thanks!

A story from the Viking Sagas you might not have heard, or imagined, before.....

Product Description: This, then, is the tale. In the waning days of the Viking age a lost soul falls from the distant stars to the barren shores of Iceland. There Ragnar Greenkirtle, explorer and practitioner of Greek logike, finds and protects the alien called Loki. As cultural forces build, Ragnar is forced to face the true meaning of his existence and question whether a violent and savage culture deserves to survive…or evolve into something beyond the present ken of men.

“Mark Hoover is a writer who never hesitates to go deep, to try to find the core of what it means to be human and take a good hard look. If he has to stare down a nightmare or two along the way, well, that’s just fine.” —Richard Parks, author of the Lord Yamada series

Violent Love and Quick Death with a Beautiful AI Construct in Star City, Russia

Mark here. My story “The Bonebreaker” has a strange germination. It grew out of my first novel  Fevreblau in that I cherry-picked a few parts from the book and expanded them into a story. Writers do this a lot in case you didn’t know. We write a story about a character and then we might go back and write another story that revolves around a secondary character. It’s a good way to generate new ideas and themes. I use it often. You simply have to be careful you are not telling the same story over and over again.

Another nice thing about this story is I set it in Russia. I have always been fascinated by Russian history because there is so much to work with there. I have written a lot of stories set in Russia and I think it might have helped my sales a little in this regard. It’s a setting you don’t see all the time so it has an exotic flavor to it, especially among western readers. Anything that might make your story stand out to the editor always helps, and I think having written stories in this Future History of Russia definitely helped me.

The story was first published by Challenging Destiny in September, 2005. It has been reprinted by Argo Navis Publishing on Kindle. I hope you like the story! 🙂

The Bonebreaker -- a SF short story set in Star City, Russia

Product Description: As the Russian regime crumbles, a grim man who destroys AI simulacra for a living travels to Star City. There, he traps a young woman seeking freedom. Battered and betrayed by all sides, the Bonebreaker and the newly freed AI called Natalya fight to escape the reprisals and executions emanating from Moscow…and together find a new life in an Archipelago of worldlets orbiting Earth.

“Hoover never hesitates to go deep and find what it means to be human.” –Richard Parks, fantasist & SF author

Little Big Man: A Classic Novel of Lies and Counter-Lies in the Old West

My review of the novel Little Big Man by Thomas Berger has been published by The Western Online. Here’s the link, and I hope you enjoy reading what I have to say about this classic work. I tried to approach the review from the orientation of both an armchair historian and a writer working in the western genre. Thanks, guys! 🙂

 

Little Big Man: A Classic Novel of Lies
and Counter-Lies in the Old West

On the Banks of the Clear Fork

This is the middle of the Clear Fork of the Brazos. This was the main water supply for The Flat and Fort Griffin. As you can see the water level is very low due to the drought. I’ve never stood in the middle of a river before. Now I can say I have.

This is a view of the Clear Fork from a higher elevation. When The Flat was here I am thinking all these trees were gone and the river banks were denuded for building material and firewood. Many of the trees that grew along the banks at the time were cottonwood trees, not mesquite. People used cottonwood to put up buildings, but it is a poor wood for that. It’s soft and doesn’t last long. It wasn’t until people “civilized” the country when the mesquite took over.

This was a pretty little sun drenched glade on the banks of the Clear Fork. Again you can see it is dominated by mesquite trees, though. I was surprised to see how green everything was, though, given the parched look of the rest of the landscape.

As you might guess water was very important in the west. Water is important wherever people live. There is no way the Clear Fork can support 5000 people on The Flat now, but it did at one time, and it really brings home how much water is being used up river for other things, and the price of the drought that is parching all the southwest right now.

The Flat: 5000 Buffalo Hunters, Ranchers, Prostitutes, Drunks and Criminals in One Place

While researching Fort Griffin and The Flat we came across a little town being rebuilt in the old western style. The owner claims he is going to turn it into a tourist trap when he completes it all, haha, but it is open now for anyone to browse around. So we took advantage of it!

At one point in time The Flat had over 5,000 people living there. Wyatt Earp met Doc Holliday there and Big Nose Kate also used to hang out at The Flat. Once there were over 200,000 buffalo hides piled up at The Flat. The ground was soaked with blood. It was a real western boom town…and now it is trying to be recreated by historians and Old West buffs alike.

The only thing that exists from the original Flat is this jail cell. Everything else is gone, but this has endured. What a monument! But the ground itself is full of old square head nails and rusted bolts and whatnot. We picked some up. One word of warning, however, they really don’t want you to go out there with a metal detector, which makes sense. They don’t want the land being dug up by amateurs.

There is a good story associated with this jail. (Though not necessarily this cell.) There are a lot of police records kept from that time and one of them from a sheriff says something along the lines of, “I arrested a mean buffalo hunter and put him in jail. But he was so mean I had to shoot him.”

That was the real Old West, my friends.

Ah, the personal conveniences of the Old West. I get tickled when I see movies that show western streets from that era. They are so clean and straight and level…when in reality they were little more than mud pits filled with refuse and filth. Do you doubt me? Cram 5000 unwashed people in a small area and then get back to me on that one….

You can tell the men working on this town are doing so from a real labor of love. You can walk into many of these buildings and they are even decorated on the inside with furniture, paintings, etc. It is an amazing accomplishment and they haven’t even finished!

I thought the wagon yard was amazing. The guy built this stone fence himself. Back in the day there were a lot of stone fences because the mesquite trees weren’t as thick as they were today, and the cottonwood trees along the Clear Fork had been felled to raise The Flat. But, being cottonwood, it didn’t last and the buildings fell apart and disappeared over time. But by then the boom was over anyway and The Flat was a ghost town…and then not even that.

I was personally fascinated by these wagons. I leaned over the stone fence and stared at them a long time, trying to get a feel for what it was like to use these things everyday of your life. I wondered who had used them, and why, and what their lives were like. For a writer it was a great experience. I can’t wait to get back there. I loved it.

Lambshead and Daws Crossing on the Clear Fork Comanche Reservation (1855-1859)

This is Lambshead, one of the oldest ranches in the area. It was first built by J.A. Matthews. It lies south of the old Butterfield Stage Route. You could get from St. Louis, MO to San Francisco, CA in 25 days using this route.

This is Daws Crossing where Robert E. Lee signed a peace treaty with the Comanche…for as long as that lasted. It was the site of the main Comanche village at that time. Unfortunately, nothing of the old village is left. This is also where cattle crossed going north on the Western Cattle Trail up to Dodge City. We had a picnic lunch right here on the banks of the river and as we ate we thought about the long violent history of this place.

Part of the Comanche Reservation and Lambshead. The main reservation was mostly north of Lambshead but encompassed Daws Corssing.

The country side is very different today than it was back then and a western writer has to be aware of that. At one time all this was open prairie with an occasional mesquite tree grove. But as the land become “civilized” all the prairie dogs were killed. They used to eat the green mesquite shoots before they became trees. Also, farmers and ranchers started to put out prairie fires. Fire was  a renewing force which kept the prairie open. Now you are hard pressed to find good open prairie anywhere in the vicinity of Fort Griffin or Lambshead.

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