Swords, Sorrows, Satire

ByChanceOrProvidence-1I love fantasy novels and comics. I talk about them a lot, probably not as much as I talk about horror or crime writing or punk rock, but I love it. It’s such a deep-rooted part of me, back to the beginnings of my love of reading. As I’ve said, before punk rock and horror, fantasy was there, and it’s always stuck around in some way in my life.

It’s kinda weird to find any these days though to me that I can genuinely enjoy because of how a lot of it, to me, comes across. So much of modern fantasy fiction seems to fall into one of two extreme camps these days, either being “A Game Of Thrones” grimdark or satirizing the genre in a humorous way, which bothers me. Here’s this great genre wish so much flexibility and muscle in it treated as either a bad video game or a joke about DnD.

I know that the good stuff, the groundbreaking work is coming out as we get new and fresh voices more and more unafraid to push boundaries (I’m trying hard to get to that work and get back in the loop), but I feel like signal-to-noise when it comes to what I grew up on VS what doesn’t interest me is overwhelming.

Maybe I just don’t look hard enough?

Which is…fine. It’s fine. I mean, a genre should be flexible, should be reaching to far ends of the spectrum its on in terms of attitudes and whatnot. To be bound to the absolute middle of the whole thing is a dangerous precedent that creates the limited and arguably conservative mindset that can ruin a literary genre and make it an unfunny and unfriendly sort of place. Fantasy (like a lot of genre work) already can be an unfriendly and conservative sort of place, so the pushing of those boundaries outwards is welcome.

Still (and I say this primarily as a person who knows the privileges of representation in his fiction and all that entails when he talks about enjoying more “classic” or traditional genre fiction), sometimes the work I see in fantasy these days is JUST at those two ends, with the middle being almost immediately dismissed as too conventional or conservative (something I’d wholeheartedly disagree with). There’s such a huge range that fantasy can and pull from (re-reading Raymond E. Feist’s “Serpentwar Saga” recently definitely made me think about fantasy fiction being used to discuss the impacts of war on non-“special hero” types and surrogate families coming together in really interesting ways), and that includes horror. Real deep bone-hungry horror, something from the edges of the world that you barely even knew one stalked the land you now lived in. So much fantasy is set in pre-industrial and historically-influenced settings, and I think those sorts of things can have amazing approaches to scary stories. It’s frustrating

Part of it is probably the critical  literary desire to say that great work rises above the genre it’s in when in fact saying shit like that does a disservice to the work and to the genre itself. After all to act like something is “too good” for the conventions of genre (horror has the same issues) basically spits on the genre as well as making a lot of assumptions about the work of the author.

Anyway when I was in Canada a few weeks ago I bought this and recently got to read it finally. I read Becky Cloonan’s collection By Chance Or Providence, collecting her haunting and emotional historical fantasy comic shorts like “Wolves” and they’re so amazing while still easily-recognizable as “fantasy fiction”. Ancient gods and swords, but also the sweat of a man in a horror story, of a woman at the end of an unholy bargain. It’s horror, but also drama and doomed romance. And yet, those are all things that can be in the overall umbrella of “fantasy” and I don’t really know just how rare this is in fantasy. Arguably, a lot of Tolkien is almost Lovecraftian horror (his elves are eternal eldritch beings of frightening nightmares, no matter what anyone says about ethereal beauty and all that), but most of the time when horror and fantasy cross it tends to, again, go back to that “grimdark” viewpoint of horror (the literary equivalent of gorefests or torture porn, I guess), Cloonan’s work is more haunting that scary, in that it’s trying to evoke a sense of low constant dread.

Also, the balance of outright fantastical and grounded in her work, which yeah, feels very manga-influenced but is also working hard to humanize flawed and malleable characters (they feel like the flesh they’re made of, rather than the adamant we feel these types of characters sometimes seem to be), with dirty armor, notched sword blades, and fatalistic attitudes that don’t rely on heavy-handed and nihilistic life outlooks. There’s a weight to the world, to the stories, but it’s not an overbearing one.

A thing from my childhood that I loved, Marvel’s big black and white THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN THE BARBARIAN (hell, most Conan stories, actually) touched on something from fantasy that I don’t think, post-Tolkien, we really use much, which is the idea of worlds with no real overarching “mythology.” That is to say, places where there is no larger-scale of deities or curses or belief structures or myths tying it all together, simply a chaotic world full of monstrosities and nightmares held at bay, barely, by walls. Though the stories in this are obviously drawing on folklore and myth, the fact is that in the worlds where they happen, they JUST happen without too much (or really any) insistence on creating an elaborate and intricate mythology, is something I appreciate.

It’s very Howard-esque, basically, which is metal as all hell and very much up my alley. Despite Howard’s hack-heavy and hamfisted takes on writing (at times, arguably), his work and his impact on fantasy has always fascinated me, caring less about the complexity of the world’s mechanics and more on an immediate experience surrounding whatever the conflict or adventure he came up with for that particular point. Tolkien’s work is creation story, epic saga. Howard’s work is all forward action and motion, one immediate foot after another, sword or axe always at the ready to hack your way through a confusing and dangerous world that doesn’t care what you want to do, it just wants to kill you and eat you.

By Chance or Providence is a lot like that, in this overarching reminder that the world was ancient before we got here, and that under the surface of civilization, it’ll be here and ancient after we’re long-gone.

 

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Welcome To Point Pleasant (Check out my short story “Devils Moths Owls”)

I wrote this short for a horror-themed publication but I recently discovered thanks to my paranoia (long story) that said pub actually went under, so I reached out to them and officially told ’em I was taking it back from them in case they somehow wanted to come back from the dead. I wrote it specifically for that pub/project (a ‘zine basically), so I don’t have the inclination to shop it around to anyone/anywhere else (also it’s relatively short). Anyway, here it is with a slightly-more polished ending, enjoy.

“Devils Moths Owls” by Costa Koutsoutis

“Ahhh, ladies and gentlemen, this is your driver, just letting you know I spoke to one of the officers from the accident up ahead and we should be mov…”

Ty woke with a start, wiping drool from his chin, the old man next to him on the bus still knocked out. The bus was dark, unmoving, and he looked at his watch, groaning.

They’d been on the road for hours trying, and he was already half a day late getting to his parents’ house in south Jersey. They’d left upstate New York hours ago, and were barely a third of the way there, somewhere on the Jersey Turnpike barely out of New York, in the dark in deadlocked traffic. He turned to look out the bus window, into the darkness of the trees on the other side of the turnpike barrier, a blackness darker than the dark of the sky.

Something red blinked at him from within the trees, wide and oval, like a squashed stoplight. And another, and another…another, another.

There was a cluster of them, red pairs, occasionally blinking, watching the bus through from the darkness of inside those woods, the masses on the sides of the Jersey turnpike that no one ever looked into, looked at, thought about, the spaces between townships, lining the roads, the highways, the state. No one else on the bus seemed to see them, just Ty, the bunching almost directly across from his window as the bus sat there, unmoving, unable to drive past this one dark spot.

Ty stared, rubbing his eyes. This couldn’t be right. “What the hell?” he muttered softly in the dark of the bus, looking right at the cluster of red, as one pair after another blinked periodically. It didn’t seem real, but they had to be. Could it be some signs? Some kind of red light that was for sensing speed or something? No, it couldn’t, they were in the middle of nowhere.

One set of the red eyes disappeared, and the tops of the trees, darker against dark, seemed to shake and shudder. Ty looked up, his face pressed against the bus window, seeing…something, emerge from the tops of the trees. It was hard to tell, some kind of tall bulky body with no head, just a fat bump, shoulders bulky..no, not shoulders.

Wings.

Giant, feathery…maybe, feathery? Not like, dragon wings, but, bird wings. Giant bird wings.

The rest of the eyes, red and periodically blinking in the cluster of the center of the darker-on-dark of the trees still stared out at him, and even through the distance and the window of the bus, Ty shivered. It wasn’t something stupid like the Jersey Devil or whatever, more like, like a bird. Like an owl or something, an owl nest, just a trick of the light. He looked back up at the treetops, at the one…owl…that was up there now, an owl, just looking bigger because of the night, the lack of sleep, with the fat round head and giant wings…and long torso and humanlike legs.

No. No, that’s not right. He stared harder, at this point face directly against the glass, his breath fogging the window, at the tall headless figure with the bright red eyes and massive wings perched on impossibly-long legs on the treetops, looking like it was switching between preening its wings and staring down at the bus, staring at him, a headless man with large folded-back wings and red glowing eyes from a face in that broad chest, just like the clutch of eyes from within that darkness below from the trees.

It was some kind of giant owl, an owl-man, maybe, Ty thought, groping for his phone in his pocket, afraid to look away but knowing he had to, had to look it up, look up something that was tickling at the back of his brain along with that other thing, the old fear. The impulse to hide from a predator that prey feel, an automatic chemical thing that humans had long ago lost. His fingers worked without his eyes breaking away from the window as the giant at the top of the trees stretched out those large wings, spreading wide and blacker-on-black against the sky.

The bus started to move suddenly, a jump forward shifting into an accelerating glide forward, and the view began to shift. Ty turned, as much as he could, backwards to look back at the eyes, watching them continue to slowly blink out of existence in the dark of the side of the highway, the one last pair, the largest, up on the top of the trees, continuing to watch like red pinpricks against the darker-on-dark of the woods by the side of the turnpike.

Ty slumped against this bus seat, realizing he was drenched in cold sweat, like he’d just avoided something, unspeakable, horrible. He looked down at his phone, hands automatically having typed something in, the search results for “giant owl red eyes” loading, ready to be seen just by scrolling the down the phone’s screen.

The bus rolled on, and the whole time, his hands rested on the phone, never looking down, preferring instead, he thought, closing his eyes as the darkness out the windows was replaced by the artificial brightness of street lights and restaurant windows, a comforting shield against whatever was behind those eyes.

Rattle Antlers Rattle Bones

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One of the classes that I teach is titled “Masterworks of World Literature,” and it’s meant to be a broad coverage of a variety of older canonical work that very loosely encompasses the start of what we now know as Western literature. It’s not necessarily the most fun stuff to read, although everyone gets a kick out of “Lysistrata” and “The Tale of the Wife of Bath” from The Canterbury Tales. It tends to be a small group though, and since it’s an elective class, people tend to take it because they want an English/literature elective that sounds vaguely interesting (Also I’ve apparently begun to get a bit of a reputation as a “good” teacher according to one of the current students in the group, so I guess people also take it because they hear I’m good, or whatever). I try to make it an interesting class with mostly discussion and essay responses, and try to maybe incorporate some media in there to make things interesting. I show clips from 1999’s The 13th Warrior and 2007’s Beowulf when we read the original “Beowulf” poem…in the best (i.e. easiest) translation I can find, that is.

It used to be (the first time I did it) a book course, with a range of short novels. We did, among others, Things Fall Apart, Crime and Punishment, and Dracula. However, the second time I got it, the new syllabus asked me to rely on open-sourced readings, which made for some interesting choices. I rely a lot on Project Gutenberg, for example, and now have a collection of shorter works that can be grabbed for free online to make a fairly comprehensive collection of stuff for this class. Since it’s a “Masterworks” class, the most recent work we actually have is the Atlantic’s publication of a lost Shirley Jackson short story and “Dracula’s Guest” (the short that’s some kind of prequel/early draft of Stoker’s novel). This term though, to give an example of the wide range of where literature has gone since the earliest examples we see in “Lysistrata” and “Beowulf,” I introduced a fairly short and new piece in the reading list. We actually looked at “So We Beat On, Antlers Against The Current” by Aaron Burch (published in the only literary magazine Whiskey Paper, at whiskeypaper.com).

Brando yelling Stella, Robin Williams’ barbaric yawp. I used to think no one had heard anything so equal parts frightening and inspiring, so full of both terror and joy, in real life and so had to go to pop culture for comparison. Now I wonder if everyone hasn’t heard their own version of that yell but it’s too personal to share; they go to movies and songs so as to not have to cut themselves open for me, to compare our insides.

It’s a weird read.

However, it’s interesting to read because it’s so weird. It’s a completely-nonsensical situation that, when my students read it, caused nothing but delighted confusion as they struggled to figure out exactly WHAT was going on. It is also probably the peak of what I like to teach, though there are threads in my other work stuff. Last year I taught Gabriel Garcia Marquez and “magical realism,” (I’ll probably do it again this term) the forefather of what we’d probably call “weird fiction” nowadays but to me just reads like regular speculative fiction (the broad umbrella of genre as far as I’m concerned), and that’s initially what Burch reminded me of, though that’s not really the point here.

Rather, it’s the whole point of realism and the role it can ultimately offer, especially when it comes to what I actually read for. It’s surreal fiction that both manages to exist in the real world and also have an air of fantasy (or science, because all good sci-fi is just another facet of fantasy) and the blasé acceptance of it into the fabric of the “realism” gives it enough absurdity to be able to stand out from what would get labeled “literary fiction.”

It’s been…a rough year, for obvious sociopolitical reasons, and while my personal life has been on the uptick, it’s been a lot of work that has kept my brain sort of on a perpetual upswing/downswing, trying to be aware and conscious and active but not wanting to always be mad. So I’ve been throwing myself back into reading more and more (something I’ve fallen shamefully behind on), and trying to find the comfort in reading that I used to with ease. It’s coming back to me though

So far, it’s been working honestly. Mostly because I’ve been trying to read less “realism,” letting myself just read more and more stuff that is not necessarily grounded in anything realistic (which includes nonfiction). It’s a weird thing because I feel incredibly guilty in some ways, but in others, it’s also part of that whole “taking care of yourself” thing, and I take care of myself by reading to distract myself. Still, wanting to find some level of relateability at times in my reading is why “weird/speculative” stuff like Burch’s story hits a note with me. It’s that mix of realism and tragedy as well as the bonkers escapist elements of fantasy/scifi/”speculative” (fuck I hate that word for some reason) that allows you to recognize another world in the pages/on the screen.

I know I’ve talked about it before but I tend to read to escape and distract myself, rather than seek out any sort of connection or similarities. Admittedly as a white guy that’s a VERY privileged thing I’m able to do (because so much literature revolves around Guys Like Me, white men with no real life skills and terrible sense of humor), but honestly, I consider it a privilege to use to be able to maintain some level of sanity and relaxation. Reading was always my thing, my one thing, even as I got older. I still remember reading at a punk show once, when I should have been working the door and watching the money…don’t worry, I didn’t let anyone steal it. Jeez.

I’m looking forward to teaching this short story again next semester.

 

Some Kinda Darkness

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Gary Oldman as the eponymous character in 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, arguably the best page-by-page adaptation of the Stoker book 

I recently finished my more-or-less-yearly reread of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, something I like to do mostly because I still think it’s fascinating the impact this book has had. Also, there’s the usual “I discover something new every time” thing. It’s such a dense read, that I feel like every time something new sticks out to me.

Usually I can point to “We want no proofs. We ask none to believe us!” as one of my go-to great lines from the book, though, to go back to the idea of new things hitting you with each re-read, this time, Renfield’s casual and quiet warning to Dr. Seward right before the horrific events leading up to the attack on Mina, saying that he hopes the doctor remembers Renfield trying to warn them all to flee…reading that this time for some reason gave me a shudder, however slight, that I still went “Huh” at.

What I tend to find myself usually really fascinated with though for the most part about Dracula is what’s ultimately come out of it. Post-grad school it’s always seemed to actually be a work all about the dangers of hypersexual foreigners and solitary, predatory strangers who exist outside of the post-Enlightenment western European barriers considered the edges of acceptable behavior. That’s why the post-Anne Rice post-Vampire: The Masquerade world that has spun out of Stoker’s book is so strange to me, although weirdly a lot of Rice’s work is much more heavily-tied to Stoker when it comes to certain things.

Even though I’ve consumed a lot of horror, like zombies, vampires were never a horror thing I really enjoyed as much as say werewolves or other kinds of monsters (I am an early-in-life and perpetual fan of the Gill-Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon). I’ve seen a ton of vampire movies, especially Sir Christopher Lee in the golden age-Hammer Horror “Dracula” movies, and I’ve read a bunch of Anne Rice stuff (I’ve read a lot of horror books about vampires, actually). I never played V:TM, though I knew of it and the heavy gothic underpinnings of it. It was later on that I realized how much of it heavily influenced that weird “coven” element of meatspace vampire subculture that sees it as an intensely-romantic thing with large groups coming together as sub-communities, in direct comparison to the Stoker aspects that emphasized the lone nature and non-communal elements of the vampire as predator. Yes, Dracula has a connection to pack animals like wolves, but unlike wolves, he’s an unholy creature who craves singular domination and power, so a large “coven” (a word that didn’t actually appear in the English language until like 1921-22 and is arguably a variation of “covin,” or “deception” as well as related to the verb “convene”) just…it just doesn’t make sense.

Considering the xenophobic elements surrounding Dracula as a pervasive and infectious element (a singular one that is a metaphor for larger groups), to view him as a representation of just repressed sexuality kind of takes away the rest of the things that he can potentially represent. He’s a holdover of pre-Enlightenment/pre-age of revolution Europe (something that Stoker touches on and that Jeanne Kalogridis addresses as well in her books), believing in absolute rule, serfdom, and divine right. The vampire arguably does “adapt” to blend in (in the manner of a conqueror or a stalking predator, as Van Helsing notes in the book) but only as a means to an end. There is no “coven” or community to build, only servants to make.

Anne Rice started her stuff in the 70’s, V:TM came out first in 1991 (as did the pre-Twilight teen novel series “The Vampire Diaries”), so a lot of that definitely explains the root of the 80’s/90’s interpretations of the sexual and social aspects of Dracula. I feel stupid thinking about a lot of them though, because yes, even though I do know that technically any interpretation with the right evidence is a good one, and yes, a lot of the more modern academic readings of Stoker’s life indicate he was working through a  lot of repressed sexual issues in his own life through his writing. Does that mean that my own readings of Dracula are tainted, that I can’t recognize what seems to be just an internet joke, that the book is about a vampire who wanted a threesome with a husband and wife?

Ultimately, it’s probably just because I hate nerds and weird fandoms that make these immense connections based on tenuous, almost nonexistent threads and use those threads as the root structure for something huge to lean their lives against entirely. It’s not necessarily bad per se (one of these days I’ll write about learning how punk rock scenes were bullshit as the root of learning to always criticize fandom and subcultures), but man can it get fucking annoying.

Anyway, I still like re-reading Dracula.

 

Happy Halloween 2017!

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Hey, it’s my favorite day of the year, so here’s a list of all the spooky/weird stuff I’ve written!

Buckles & Straps

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Parade Armor of Henry II of France, ~1554

In the heat, people get sweaty.

I’ve been reading Ordination by Daniel M. Ford (a Twitter buddy) and very smart dude. It’s his debut novel (followed by Stillbright and an upcoming third in his “Paladin” trilogy”), a fantasy story with some D&D and Tolkien-esque trappings that, so far, is very good. I’m loving it, especially enjoying the protagonist, a knight in full plate armor, relying on a hammer as his primary weapon, acknowledging he’s better with that versus a traditional knight’s weapon, a sword, mostly because it comes down to efficiency and ease of use.

Also, he sweats. A lot. It’s summer, and Allystaire, our hero, sweats in that full suit of armor and gambeson padding (basically a coat/shirt made up of stuffed quilt material) underneath, and Ford brings it up to emphasize the strain and lack of comfort that comes from wearing metal body armor. While it’s a protective shell that does turn him into a veritable walking tank, it’s A) not impenetrable because it’s meant to be flexible and wearable and B) a pain in the ass to put on, take off, and wear while sweat trickles down your body because you’re basically strapped into a microwave that adds 20 to 40 pounds to your overall weight.

I know the SCA and LARPers/cosplayers can debate the pro’s and cons of the flexibility and historical accuracy of certain types of armor until the fucking cows come home in the field they’re all playing dress-up in (I kid, sorta)

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The kinds of illustrations I remembered as the root of visuals for fantasy fiction as a kid.

It’s a little thing, really, but, it’s true. It reminds me of this scene from TV’s Game of Thrones, about the realization you can’t get out of armor to piss. I know that the root of the show (and the books, which I have mixed feelings about) is in adding a level of realism to fantasy worlds and storytelling, but that tends to get lost, I think at times, in the show’s overall drama and “dark fantasy” elements (which is fine, as a TV I really like it). Still, Jorah Mormont talking about being bolted into his armor for most of a day and that his main thought was how he realized he couldn’t get out of it alone is a funny moment. This, more than anything in the books or the shows or the culture around both, encapsulates to me what that whole series is about. Realistically, medieval wear and battle sucked, they were full of screaming and dying and people either running around in terror or plodding up and down a field for hours at a time, wishing they could piss while dust choked out the sky.

I’ve been diving back into genre more and more for pleasure reading, (including a re-read of William Gibson’s work, but that’s another story), thinking more and more about the limitations but also the flexibility of fantasy (in stories, games, etc) to range from completely bonkers-out there to almost boringly realistic. The visuals of fantasy as a kid, to me, were almost rigidly-antiquated, pulling straight out of my history books, as well as influenced by the outlandish looks on the covers of the books I read. Some of them, like early editions of Tolkien’s books or the versions of CS Lewis’s Narnia books I had as a kid, would have spot illustrations within that helped you create a visualization, just as the King Arthur, Ivanhoe, and Robin Hood stories I read did (which would be more historical fiction to me, but I’m digressing). Then of course the illustrations from Magic: The Gathering cards and card packs, Warhammer promotional imagery came into play as well, which helped too.

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Googling “fantasy book cover” gets…a lot of washy tones/colors.

That was where i got my mental images from. Those years, the mid-1990’s to early 2000’s were when I was fully immersing myself into genre, are, arguably, a bit of a flux for fantasy. Baldur’s Gate (1998) and Baldur’s Gate II (2000) were popular games at the time, though the visual differences in character designs between the two is a little shocking, and then of course there was 2001’s first LOTR movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. Baldur’s Gate II and LOTR were definitely a bit of a visual shift at that point in in fantasy, changing the overall aesthetic of the “field,” so to speak. The armor was drab and everyone, even people who technically could afford better-looking or brighter stuff, didn’t wear it.

Everyone’s drab, everyone’s in variations of the same three outfits regardless of social status, with little regard for “fashion,” a thing that really would have been a concern. Raymond Feist, for example touches on this in Talon of the Silver Hawk when the titular character talks about a style popular amongst men in a particular kingdom, a glorified arming jacket cut to be purposely worn half-on, half-off, supposedly so that you can draw a sword easier. It’s such a dumb-sounding thing that no matter how many times I’ve read that book I still can’t completely picture it. The LOTR films also arguably influenced a lot of other little things since then, from the looks of protagonists (I’m gonna say it, no one ever really does “elves” right, though Tolkien’s Galadriel is arguably the closest in her perpetual near-Lovecraftian otherworldliness) to the way we depict “bad guys” and otherworldly/nonhuman villains as having distantly non-Western or non-human (but still weirdly vague) “tribal” looks, with rough armor, body painting and armor, and piercings. Their exoticism is always painted as outward signs of their villainy, but that exoticism is smoothed-over, giving it a bit of a generic feel.

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This is what comes up when you search “modern DnD rogue” and…OK? Is he a ninja? Is that Egyptian armor he’s wearing? Is that a sword on the back? How do you get to that? Looks badass, I guess.

The new vibe is one that puts a lot of effort into making characters, visually at least, seem “badass.” I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the leaps and bounds that art seems to have made and with art for fantasy no longer just relying on traditional medieval/historical recommendations and inspirations (which, to be fair, can be stifling and a little racist). Overall fantasy fiction (as a genre) is one that is trying really hard to change and show a level of interesting growth, but in doing so sometimes it feels like it’s continuing this odd tradition of not really going anywhere at all. Heroes are still somehow magically pulling swords from over their shoulders in one fluid move, everyone’s a sniper with a bow and arrow, and no one ever needs to take a piss in the middle of a battle but can’t because they’re basically bolted into their metal pants.

Fantasy as a genre’s always struggled to avoid falling into the traps of genre (catering to the same slowly-shrinking fanbase, not unique to fantasy alone but a rampant nerd/subculture thing in general) and, overall, I really think that it’s overall done a good job in terms of making itself both appealing to traditional or long-term fans as well as having ins for people who want to jump in. I’ll rag on everyone having tribal tattoos or the same-looking “exotic” armor on the cover of something, but in a way if that’s the trade-off to get more people and more different types of people into fantasy, then it’s a trade-off I feel like is OK to make.

Complaining about the covers seems small and in the long run, like I just said it’s a not that big a deal compared to the strides in terms of representation with characters, story, and readership. Also I recognize how much of this is also tied into my own nostalgic attachment to fantasy fiction as a kid who was absorbed by so much of it, nose buried in pages to escape.

Sometimes I think we still lose sight of the actual realism in our more realistic but also visually-interesting (arguably?) fantasy. You sweat in armor.

Ch 2 Of “PIONEERS” Is Now Available

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So the next chapter in my text-based RPG style Twine thread/game, PIONEERS, is finally up! It’s been a while since chapter 1, but chapter 2, titled “Holes In Walls,” is now up in the PIONEERS story.

Game writing like this is definitely a different form of writing, but I like doing it. I hope you enjoy playing it,  lemme know what you think. I think text-based games are a fun exercise in scripting stuff and writing overall, so I want to try to keep doing it.

Anyway, there’s more and different stuff coming from Nightmare Party Games in the upcoming year, so stay tuned.

Awkward Scene, Everyone’s Fault pt.7

Alkaline_Trio_-_From_Here_to_Infirmary_coverFun Costa Fact!

I was in Manhattan during the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center buildings. I was on my way to my Tuesday philosophy lecture in my first year of college, and I think I had a job interview later that day as well.

So I came aboveground from the subway, headphones on, crossing the big street, Lexington Avenue, to get to my campus. I went to Hunter College, and I remember people looking down Lexington towards downtown, someone yelling something about a plane. Hunter College is at 68th Street on the East Side of Manhattan, so it’s a bit of a ways up from WTC. I went into the building, I was late, and got up to the 3rd floor of the main building and headed to my lecture hall, where people were crowded around the TV’s that, back then (they don’t anymore I believe) were broadcasting the local news. People cried, tried to make phone calls and comfort each other, I worried about a friend of mine from high school who was Muslim and I later found out didn’t leave the house for three days because Queens can be white trash as fuck. I almost walked over the 59th street bridge to get back into Queens that day, ate like four Snickers bars for lunch, and ended up meeting up with my dad and we took the subway.

It was a terrible day, one that didn’t really sink in with me until maybe later that evening, and then for a brief moment the next morning when I woke up and started to get through my morning routine. I looked at my mother and asked her if maybe it was a bad idea to get on the subway again. She scoffed and told me it was fine, not to worry about it, and to get to my Wednesday classes. So I got on the bus, headed to the subway, and put my headphones on while I had my portable CD player in my bag, and pressed play on From Here To Infirmary by Alkaline Trio.

Alkaline Trio were pretty essential to college-aged Costa as a bitingly-dark and gothic punk trio that mixed fucked-up gothic lyrics and imagery with Jawbreaker earnestness and riffs, so of course I jumped all over it. I think they were the first band I experienced that did the “two vocalists” thing really well also. From Here To Infirmary was the first of their records I got, but within like six months I went out and got all their other records. It’s a little heavier and more densely-produced then their previous work (again, Jawbreaker comparison here with JB’s Dear You as the analogous record here), but I kinda consider it, to this day, them at their peak. It’s still in rotation semi-regularly for me. I’ve always liked balances of rawness and nastiness with melody, and it was part of the shift at the time in what I listened to, less California skatepunk bands singing about hating authority and either more hardcore punk (faster, angrier, stupider) or darker sarcastic & moodier stuff (like Alkaline Trio). It’s a fine line between emotional and sappy, between spineless and legitimately earnest, which is a line that college-aged punk boys tend to do poorly with half the time, honestly. Cutting it with evil-looking iconography and sarcasm definitely helped.

I’m listening to the record now as I write this, actually.

But anyway, so it’s September 12th and my mother convinced me to go to my classes, because after all, she and my Dad went to work, so why shouldn’t I go to school? I agreed, shook off any fear or anxiousness, got to the 7 train to get out of Queens and into Manhattan, and hit play on the CD. The first song on the album is called “Private Eye,” and the first few lines go;

I drag this lake, looking for corpses

Dusting for prints, pried up the floorboards

Pieces of plane and black box recorders don’t lie

And I started snickering, out loud, on a quiet subway car full of other people, other New Yorkers also on their way to school or work, quiet and not really talking because it’s the day after a disaster. It was such a surreal moment to me that on the day after terrorists flew hijacked airliners into buildings in my city, I was listening to a dark punk-ish love song that literally starts off describing picking through the crashed remnants of an airplane.

Side-note, for a while after this fun story I legitimately thought I was a sociopath for finding this funny.

Of course it got better, because, in 2001, email was in its nascent infancy as a form of communication (for me at least) and I didn’t have a cellphone. That meant that when I showed up to campus…every door was locked. The buildings were all locked down, and I sorta just stood there dumbfounded for a good five minutes before a security guard inside saw me through the door, and came to let me know I was a dummy for not checking my school email, because campus had been closed and locked down for two days. It’s strange nowadays to look back and not yell at my younger self “why would you think there’d be classes immediately after something like that? And why wouldn’t you check?” but, as we’ve established, A) I was and continue to be kind of dense about cues like that and B) I had literally just started college two weeks before, and the idea of that level of responsibility on my part to stay up-to-date just…eluded me, I guess?

It was an hour-and-a-half commute between my house and my college campus back then, so I basically turned around and went back home, still listening to From Here To Infirmary in the CD player in my bag, headphones snaking out to my ears. Now, ever time I listen to it, when that first song kicks in and Matt Skiba starts to sing, I think about 9/11, about the day after, and about trying not to laugh out loud about plane crashes on the subway.

Awkward Scene, Everyone’s Fault pt. 6

Oh good, we’re at the embarassingly-heavy memories phase of this…

WonderyearsupsidesBack in the early 2000’s I was in graduate school and I started seeing this girl who I met online after a drunk night cruising the Internet. I ended up doing that real stupid thing guys do, where they make minor fights with their friends into huge blowouts, and then basically drop off the face of the earth to just spend time with that girl. In 2010, we moved out of New York after living together for about a year or so because she’d lost her job and wanted to get out of New York City.

I figured I’d be OK wherever we landed since she wanted to go back to the Midwest where she was from, and I knew her home state had a lot of colleges. I was starting to teach and was still making a little money and exposure through writing, so I said why not? Why not move away from my support networks and friends and family to a city where I had no job waiting for me with a girl that I’d already had a few intense fights with about dumb shit like whether or not we should even be in a relationship, or whatever it was we fought about and I’d just apologize to stop it?

You can see where this went.

The move ended up being a terrible idea, probably one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done because not only were the two of us really not right for each other (which means that the wedding we were half-assed planning was a dumb move) but we were both miserable with life in general and probably shouldn’t have even moved in together. We fought constantly about money and responsibilities, and we both had a lot going on in our 20s that were clear indicators neither of us should have been in a relationship. Still, when you’re a lonely idiot with a terrible streak in dating and a passive-aggressive “nice guy” compliant attitude just to keep the peace in relationships, you do dumb things and jump into bad situations. The last few months, where we’d technically broken off the engagement and were basically housemates, were supposed to coast by but ended up just being really ugly and we both said things out loud that we really shouldn’t have.

It was a wast of almost five years of my life, a gap I still regret. Still past shaping you and all that, yada yada, and about two months before we moved I started listening to The Upsides by The Wonder Years.

The Upsides came out in 2010 and I got my hands on it as a review copy, back when I still got those things in the mail. I wasn’t really reviewing much then but didn’t really let promo guys and editors know that much, because I kinda was trying to still do it on my own for my own site as well as basically milking free books, comics, and music from people. Still, I wasn’t much in the mood to review music then. Also the older I got the weirder I felt about nasal and upbeat-sounding pop punk rooted in suburban angst and nice-guy-why-won’t-she-like-me-isms, but I’d had a good experience with The Wonder Years (following that grand tradition of late early- to mid-aughts pop punk bands naming themselves after 80’s and 90’s pop culture milestones or jokes) so I decided to give it a go.

In the end though I remember being pleasantly surprised, because it ended up being a record with a thematic element to it about moving away from one place, about being in a confused place in life, and what to do next. It felt to me like it was a record about stagnation, and I felt, somewhat stupidly, that I was stagnating in life. Also, I’d burned so many fucking bridges by the time we were moving when it came to not just fiends but also freelance writing contacts (mostly because I had to tell some people to stop asking if I could go write about NOFX in Brooklyn on a Wednesday night for free or whatever because I was in the middle of finishing my Master’s thesis) I was kind of delusional telling myself that leaving New York was a good thing, and this record definitely played into that.

I mean, it’s a good album, though listening to it now 7 years later it doesn’t really hold up to me, that sweet earnestness now just sounding like sappy mewling to me. It definitely sounds like something that was meant to connect with a confused 20-something right out of graduate school, and that was me at the time. I was confused about what constituted a healthy relationship, I was confused about who my friends really were, and I was confused about what I wanted in life.

A lot of times I tell people I missed out on a lot of the crazy “finding yourself” stuff that people do in life when they’re teenagers or whatever because I was a fairly milquetoast kid. I never really got in serious trouble, I mostly read or listened to music or occasionally went out to ride my bike or skateboard. I dabbled in underage drinking and  huffing (not really my proudest moments) and was into trashy violent stuff like comics and horror and punk rock, but I never got arrested (almost, once though, for skateboarding), I never ran away, snuck out, did anything terribly dangerous…at least not until I was older, anyway. Still, the fact that I basically cut and dropped everything and moved to another city and managed to make it work for a year or two (work-wise, the first six months was a battle, then there was a good year, then those last six months were a slow burn towards awful)…I feel like it’s kind of a crazy thing to do.

Granted I ran back with my tail between my legs to spend some time living with my family again (because I ran out of money), which made me feel even more like shit, but still, kinda wild, right?

The dumb and weird thing is that a few years after I moved back to New York I found out that The Wonder Years had released two more albums (that were quite good!), and listening to them had a weird eerie synchronicity with what was going on with my life then as well, but that’s another story.

Buy Me A Cup Of Coffee, Maybe?

I started a Ko-Fi page, where you can donate a tip (buying me a cup of coffee, because it works in $3 increments) if you like my writing.

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Check it out, and if you like my work you can maybe show your appreciation. It’s basically a tip jar, a halfway point in my constant desire to be left alone and wanting to try and monetize my writing in some way. I don’t feel like I have the energy or the output (or the fanbase) to have a Patreon page and regular updates and special tiers or however it works.

Anyway you can click the link in the sidebar on my site, or subscribe/save my profile directly, whatever works best for you.

This way, it’s more like a show of appreciation for my work in general, or for something in particular you liked that I did. I’ve felt dumb about doing something like this for a while because it partially feels like a “hat in hand” sorta thing, hustling for money, but also because I genuinely never feel like I’m doing enough actual writing and publishing (even though I do have a full-time teaching schedule). But you know, self-doubt and imposter syndrome and all…anyway, don’t take this as an obligation, simply a reminder, a notice that it’s there, and that you’re under no obligation to use it.

Anyway, semi-regular broadcasts returning soon, check it out and lemme know if this is or isn’t the worst idea I’ve ever had.