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I was inspired to write this after reading Audrey Driscoll’s post on the same subject. Audrey lists the music that influenced her writing, some of which she worked into her books, and some of which, as she puts it, “lurk[s] unseen, despite its huge influence”. It’s a good post, and I encourage you to read it.

I don’t usually listen to music with lyrics while I am in the act of writing. That would just distract me. Sometimes I’ll put on a little atmospheric instrumental music that suits the mood, but that’s about it.

But as any author knows, writing a book is more than just the time spent hitting the keyboard. You spend most of the time “writing” a book thinking about it, mulling over plot intricacies and character motivations in your head. And then is when what you’re listening to really plays a role.

I didn’t listen to much music for The Start of the Majestic World, but I did listen to quite a bit of the radio show Coast to Coast AM while I was planning it. That definitely influenced the story. A few times while writing, I did cue up the soundtrack to Deus Ex, because that game was just the right vibe of weirdness I was trying to get in Majestic World.

The Directorate also has relatively few musical influences. I listened to “The Captain” by Leonard Cohen almost daily while I was writing it, as well as assorted military songs and marches, including “Heart of Oak” and “The British Grenadiers”, which probably influenced the militaristic tone of the novel.

For my current work-in-progress, I’ve been listening to Western music and soundtracks from Western films. Also, the folk song “The Bonnie Earl of Morey”, which I currently have referenced in the book itself, though I may yet cut that.

For the most part, in all my work, music is a minor influence. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’m not very knowledgeable about music, and so don’t think about it that much. I couldn’t write about it the way Audrey does, for example.

But there is one other story I wrote that was much, much more influenced by music than any of the rest. It’s the super-dark tale I alluded to in this post. 

First of all, during the process of writing that one, I was listening over and over again to Kay Starr’s performance of “The Headless Horseman” song. It’s a children’s song, so it’s more cutesy than scary, but for some reason it was running through my head constantly when I wrote this book. I don’t know how to explain, but the light-hearted handling of a rather frightening subject somehow fit very well with my mood.

Then, while I was writing the story, a friend played Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” for me. I thought the unnerving blend of romance and death was exactly the sort of eerie dissonance I was going for in my book, so I included a reference to the song.

Coincidentally, on the same album that includes “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, there is also a song called “E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)” that references The King in Yellow, which was a major influence on my book as well.

But the weirdest part of what was already a surreal writing experience didn’t become apparent until nearly a year after I had already finished writing the story, when I heard the song “The End” by The Doors.

I had heard the beginning before, in the film Apocalypse Now. But when I heard the full, uncensored version, I was immediately stunned by how well the disturbing imagery Morrison used in his lyrics matched the tone of my book. Images and motifs in each fit together eerily well, as did the song’s general feeling of a slow descent into madness. I felt like Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell could have had a field day with it.

What about you? When you write something do you listen to music, or otherwise let it influence your writing process? Any examples of a song that really fit your work?

mlI blogged about Mark Paxson’s story The Marfa Lights a while back. This week I finally got around to reading the rest of the stories in the collection, and I enjoyed them tremendously. I think my favorites were the post-apocalyptic poem (bonus points to Mark for his use of the excellent word “gloaming”) and the sci-fi tale laced with David Bowie references. All the stories are quite good.

Some of the stories have a bit of a Twilight Zone-like feel to them, which I liked quite a lot. Like Phillip McCollum, Mark has a knack for setting the reader up for a surprising ending in a subtle and economical way.

Branded-Book-Cover-e1531246444684Speaking of Phillip, I blogged about him recently as well, and since then he’s just kept on putting out more terrific stories. Branded and Halfway are two of his most recent works that I’ve enjoyed lately.

Both Phillip and Mark are very adventurous in their writing. While there are certain themes that recur, they are always experimenting–trying on different voices, styles and genres, and it never fails to make for an engaging read.

Ever since I first started dabbling in the writing business, I’ve read numerous people claiming that short stories aren’t read much outside of schools and small literary circles. If you want wide acclaim as an author, goes the conventional wisdom, you’ve got to write novels.

Halfway-Book-CoverThis has always baffled me. Modern audiences are famous for their short attention spans. If anything, you’d think they would be more interested in a short tale that can be finished in a few minutes or an hour than a long, drawn-out novel. (Or, as is even more popular, series of novels.)

Think about it: when it comes to other entertainment, most people watch sit-coms or hour-long episodic dramas. A sizable but somewhat smaller audience goes to two-hour movies. And only hardcore artsy types go to sit through really long movies or, for the truly committed, operas. Why is this situation reversed when it comes to literature?

Maybe in the past you could have said it was because novels were all that was widely available, but the internet changed that dynamic in two ways. The first is simple economics–you can get a good short story collection like The Marfa Lights for ninety-nine cents on Kindle. Phillip publishes his work on his blog. You can get good writing while spending less of your time and money than a novel requires.

The second thing is that the internet makes it easy to discover authors that big publishing outfits haven’t taken yet because they are too risk-averse. I would never have read the work of Mark, Phillip, and other terrific indie authors if not for the internet.

So why aren’t the short, independently-published stories flourishing? Talented writers are all around us and easier to find than ever. The big publishers’ stranglehold has been broken, just as the major traditional news outlets have lost out to bloggers and independent, specialized news services. What is holding so many readers back?

In a way, novels from big-name authors and publishers are like major Hollywood movie franchises, in that they are a relatively safe investment. Audiences go to them because they know pretty much what to expect. Similarly, when it comes to novels, people feel like they can be confident about what they’re getting–especially once they know a certain genre or author. And moreover, once you get into a novel, you (usually) don’t have to worry about changing gears and getting reintroduced to a new situation and set of characters with every new chapter.¹

Short story collections, by definition, can’t be like this. There has to be variation in them, or reading the collection will be a slog. For that matter, writing such a collection would be a slog. Almost every writer likes to try out different things now and then.²

So consumers are still playing it close to the vest with their entertainment choices. Most of them would rather invest in novels from major authors and publishers, from which they think they know what to expect. (Ironically, consumers of news couldn’t wait to jump at any excuse to ignore the traditional news outlets. They’re more careful with how they invest their entertainment budgets than who they trust to tell them the news.)

Don’t be like typical consumers. Give independent authors and short stories a shot. Reading is like anything else in life–if you want better than average return, you can’t just do what everyone else is doing and hope someone will give you exactly what you want. You have to be willing to be different if you want the best.


1. Lest anybody misinterpret what I’m saying here, I’m not claiming that novels are somehow intrinsically inferior to short stories. Some stories really do need to be 40,000 words or more in order to be told well. My point is just that I can’t see why novels should attract more readers than short stories. A satisfying story is a satisfying story, regardless of its length.

2. The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers, which contains one of my all-time favorite short stories, “The Repairer of Reputations”, is a good example. Chambers loosely tied the first four stories together using the sinister title character and some other elements, but the later stories gradually turn away from the weird and more to the romantic. But all the stories contain elements of weird horror and fin de siecle romance, so the reader is always a little uncertain of what’s going to happen next. That’s what makes it good.



Robert W. Chambers, author of “The Repairer of Reputations”

As long-time readers know, I love the story The Repairer of Reputations, by Robert W. Chambers. I wanted to write an analysis of it, but it’s such a carefully-constructed story that I didn’t know how to do it without quoting huge sections at length.

Then I had an idea. The story is in the public domain. (It was published in 1895.) So, I thought, why not post the story with my comments included? That will be an easy way for people to read the story and for me to comment on specific things that I think make it work so well.

So that’s what I did.  It’s so long that I put it on its own page rather than do it as a blog post. You can read it here. I hope it’s useful to anyone who wants to write weird fiction.

As I’ve written before, one problem I see in horror movies, novels and such is the tendency to over-explain everything, to try to tie up the loose ends in the story. This is a problem because it robs the horror of that most terrifying attribute mystery.

It’s understandable why this happens, though. Works in most other genres are better if you tie everything together neatly. For example, I find there is something immensely enjoyable about watching all the plot threads tie together in comic novels like the “Jeeves” books or A Confederacy of Dunces. In a good humor book, even seemingly trivial elements have a role to play in the story, and the result is to tie them all, humorously, into a funny situation. Similarly, in a mystery story, the big payoff requires Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot or whoever to explain everything at the end. Failure to tie things up neatly is a huge flaw.

But the horror genre is different. You must not have that kind of effect in horror, to preserve the uncertain elements, to preserve the sense of fear that must exist for the reader.

I was thinking of this as I was re-reading Robert W. Chambers’ “The Yellow Sign”, which along with his “The Repairer of Reputations”, makes The King in Yellow my favorite weird fiction work ever. As I read, I realized that Chambers was doing things that in most other genres would be unforgivably vague, and render his story incoherent. For example, the principal characters are explicitly noted to be Catholic, yet how this matters to the story, I can’t really say. It doesn’t really seem to be an important element. This would be a problem in most stories, but here it just adds to the wonderfully bizarre feeling of Chambers’ world.

(“The Repairer of Reputations” also has many similarly unexplained elements, perhaps even more, all of which Chambers miraculously made to “work” together.)

Perhaps all this is obvious to most people, but I had never thought of it this way before; that perhaps what is a flaw in most genres can be a good thing in others.

Strange news about a so-called “Ghost city” in China. You can see pictures of it here, as well as an explanation of how the scene supposedly came to be. It’s difficult to tell exactly what is real and what is not here; I’ve seen comments on the Daily Mail site to the effect that the story is mis-translated, and the mist is all that is strange, but other stories indicate the whole thing is a reflection. I think it’s just some sort of weird refection of a much further away city. Then there’s also the possibility of it being a hoax.

I ordinarily shy away from mentioning stories like this, but in this case there is something remarkable about it to me: the image, whatever it is, looks shockingly like the image that is always conjured up in my mind’s eye when reading the lines from The King In Yellow:

“Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
  In Carcosa.”
No particular significance to this; I pictured an otherworldly city, and this mirage was of a city given an otherworldly effect. (Which, as I think about it, the similarity makes it almost seem more likely this is a hoax.) Moreover, there’s nothing explicitly in those lines from the poems that evokes anything about a city, but nevertheless that is what I pictured. 
Anyway, it was kind of weird to see this, especially so soon after I wrote a post about that book. 

“Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.
Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.
Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.”
         —The King in Yellow, Robert W. Chambers. 1895.
As I’ve said before, The King in Yellow is one of the better works of weird fiction I have ever read. (The first four stories, that is.) Chambers creates a bizarre atmosphere without ever letting it become tedious or over-explaining it. 
The way he establishes all the disparate characters, only to reveal them to be linked by the mysterious play, is a rather ingenious way of slowly creating a sense of dread in the reader. It is also interesting to me how the symbols of decay that crop up throughout the stories add up to give it a very pessimistic tone. It feels to me more like something that would’ve been written in the 1920s, not the 1890’s. I suppose that’s why it appealed to Lovecraft.
But enough of my babbling! The point is, it’s a good story to read around Halloween, in my opinion. 

There are some artworks, pieces of literature and forms of entertainment that lend themselves to being enjoyed in particular seasons, weather conditions, or times of day. For example, the book The King in Yellow that I posted about the other day is, in my opinion, best read on a sunny, pleasant, late summer day. This is sort of unusual for a work of weird fiction, but the horror of the book is primarily psychological, and is sometimes offset by a a peaceful, pleasant setting.

Sometimes the natural environment most complementary to a story is obvious; Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark must be read in a lightning storm because a lightning storm is central to the story. Others are less obvious; the movie Lawrence of Arabia is more fun to watch at night than on a hot summer day–though perhaps overheating is the reason.

As I’ve already pointed out on this blog, I find the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Sorcerer lends itself to being listened to on warm, gray days. (And Ruddigore, obviously, is a natural for Halloween.)

Then there are some things that lend themselves to various seasons. In my opinion, you haven’t read Harry Potter till you’ve read it while sitting outside on a cool October evening. And I’ve found that some video games–like both Mass Effects–are most fun to play on dark winter nights. (Though, of course, that could be because they require a big time investment, and there few distractions in winter.)

One of things that was great about the sport of football was how it used to be played on either a beautiful fall afternoon, a dreary November evening, or a cold, snowy day (or night). These are all memorable, dramatic settings; and much more enjoyable to watch, I think, than the sterile setting of a dome which we see more and more of.

On the other hand, of course, these are just my personal preferences and may not be shared by anyone else. I have no particular point in this post other than to set you thinking if there’s any particular work of art, piece of entertainment or sport that is best under certain natural conditions. It’s quite a fun thing to experiment with, in my opinion. But I’m weird that way.

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers.

I was re-reading this book the other day, and I had forgotten just how good it is; particularly the first story “The Repairer of Reputations.” I first came across it about a year ago while reading about H.P. Lovecraft, and I must admit that, while Lovecraft’s ideas are more carefully thought out, Chambers’ writing is actually superior to Lovecraft’s, and his overall technique makes for some of the best weird fiction I have ever read, period.

If you happen to like that sort of thing, check it out.