It all started, as it so often does these days, with a tweet:

This was probably too glib on my part. I’ve just gotten sick of so many alleged real-life hauntings where people say “We think the place is haunted because there are cold drafts and when you take pictures in the dark with a flash, you see orbs.”

If you take pictures of anything in the dark with a flash, you will almost certainly see orbs. Here’s one I took during a rainstorm in my front yard:

DSCF0318
Orbs!

Anyway, that isn’t the important part of the story. The important part is that Mark Paxson replied to this with a comment about the Marfa lights, a phenomenon which I had never heard of. I’m not sure how, as it’s exactly the sort of weird, Coast-to-Coast AM-ish paranormal Americana that I love to read and write about.

mlWell, Mark has written about them, in a short story called, in fact, The Marfa Lights. I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s a very well-crafted story. It has a memorable narrator and a well-paced plot advanced by gradual revelations.

I haven’t read the other short stories in the collection yet, but I can already tell you that it’s well worth picking up. Partly, this is because the first story is so good. And partly, it’s due to a piece of advice to writers that Mark gives in his brief preface. I won’t say what it is, except to say it reminded me of one of my favorite movie quotes: “There’s a whole world out there of other people’s tales, if you’d just care and listen,” from Jane Got a Gun.

To recap: I made a lame joke on Twitter, but as a result I got rewarded with a story of a weird ghostly phenomenon and a nice new book to read.  That wouldn’t have happened without social media. Mark and I would have no idea of each other’s existence without social media. (Thanks, Carrie!)

I’ve blogged about this before, but this week seemed particularly bad for social media. There were quite a few stories about it being used for lots of despicable things. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Like almost any technology, it has the potential for both good and evil. I keep coming back to this timeless quote from Edward R. Murrow, speaking about television in 1958:

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”

 

Ocean EchoesI didn’t know what to expect from this book. Glancing at the categories and the description, it didn’t match any genre I was familiar with. I figured it would be a romance set on a scientific voyage. And it kind of is that, but there’s way more to it.

The book follows marine biologist Ellen Upton, an expert on jellyfish whose grant money is rapidly dwindling. In desperate need of a breakthrough to save her career, Ellen ventures out on a research ship into the Pacific, hoping to find something that will earn her more funding.

The majority of the novel is told from Ellen’s perspective, and in many ways, her plunge into the unknown depths of the ocean mirrors her journey into her own equally complex and mysterious psyche. I usually don’t like using such lit-crit terms, but that truly is what happens here, and what’s more, it works. It never feels like an overplayed metaphor, but rather an organic marriage of character and plot development.

Ellen has great difficulty feeling close to others, having gone through a painful break-up when her fiancé stole her research ideas for his own. Unwilling to trust others easily again, she loses herself in her work, much to the disappointment of Ryan, her loyal research assistant.

On the cruise, she meets other scientists and students, including one researcher whose skepticism of man-made climate change sparks a friendly rivalry. She and the other scientists also visit a small island populated with a tribe of welcoming natives, and a family whose patriarch has gone missing at sea. Ellen and Ryan later find him on another island that formerly housed a military installation.

The book is filled with strange vignettes that make Ellen’s experience feel more like a surreal journey into a mystical realm than a scientific expedition. From her encounter with a waiter who speaks of ghosts following her, to the magical rituals performed by the islanders, to the antics of one of the students on the expedition who has a penchant for dressing up as a gorilla, the book gradually builds a feeling of melancholy mystery woven from bizarre, dream-like incidents.

When Ellen finally makes the major discovery she has longed for, it is not a triumph, but rather a frightening experience—one that disturbs her so much she questions her own sanity. As did I, I’ll admit. I wondered if Ellen might be transforming into an “unreliable narrator” of sorts, though the book is written in the third-person.

Hurst’s prose throughout is haunting and hypnotic.  The tale unfolds at a slow pace, but the writing is filled with evocative descriptions and intriguing turns of phrase. At times, it reminded me of Steinbeck in the way it dwells upon seemingly minor things without ever becoming dull or tedious. Little details, like the apparent changing expressions of a rock face the islanders believe represents the moods of the sea, stick in the memory to create a beautifully odd atmosphere. (It reminded me of Mal, the demonic face in the trees in Patrick Prescott’s Human Sacrifices.)

Maybe it’s just because I saw the film adaptation so recently, but the book also put me in mind of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Like VanderMeer’s nameless biologist, Ellen’s seemingly cold reserve and preference for biology over human interaction mask a wounded soul with deep emotional scars. And also like Annihilation, Ocean Echoes depicts nature as simultaneously dangerous, mysterious, and eerily beautiful; all while weaving an environmentalist warning of humanity’s potential to unwittingly cause unimaginable harm to our own planet.

Does the book have flaws? A few, yes. Some of the scientific exposition sounds a bit awkward as dialogue, and I swear that a couple times some background information about jellyfish was repeated almost verbatim. Also, the above-noted slow pace of the book may not be to every reader’s taste. If you have a strong preference for fast-paced action, it might not work for you, at least early on.

But even then, I still encourage you to give Ocean Echoes a try. It’s a weird, haunting, hypnotic mystery of a book, a love-letter to the ocean, written with respect for its dangers and fear for its fragility. When it rambles, it rambles in the way the best novels do—with love and understanding of its theme that commands the reader’s attention.

It’s very bold to write and publish a book that doesn’t easily fit into any pre-defined genre, and that goes double for an indie author. And yet some of the greatest works of fiction ever created defy categorization. So I admire Hurst tremendously for going through with it and taking the risk to write this mesmerizingly weird and thought-provoking tale. It may not always be what you expect—but then, what better reason could there be to read it?

The creator of the paranormal/conspiracy theory-themed radio show Coast to Coast AM passed away yesterday.

I enjoyed listening to Coast to Coast when Bell hosted. I hear the show has become politicized now, but in Bell’s time, it was focused on weird and otherworldly subjects instead of political ones. The government was always covering things up, but it was always assumed to be the whole government.

Needless to say, the show was great for a lover of weird fiction. Nothing gets the imagination going like listening to people telling ghost stories late at night, especially on or around Halloween.

The guests and callers seemed to be largely a mix of crazy people and hucksters. Maybe some of them really had seen unexplained phenomena, but it was never easy to tell who was who.

But Bell didn’t judge. He let his guests and callers speak their minds, and unless they were obviously lying as a prank, he wouldn’t silence them. I don’t know what Bell’s beliefs were, beyond the fact that he obviously had some general belief or interest in the paranormal and the supernatural. He would accept his guests and callers on their terms, and let them speak their minds.

I really admired Bell’s interviewing style–he wouldn’t talk over his guests or try to impose his own views on the subject at hand. He would just ask and let them have their say, even if he didn’t agree.

Now, you might argue that all of it was insane, and that Bell shouldn’t have given airtime to such outlandish claims in the first place. But part of what made his show great was the feeling of being able to kick around weird ideas. If you want to try to think of novel ideas, you have to be willing to think of things that sound crazy. And most of them are crazy, but a few might actually be useful.

You would think this sort of attitude would be more common now that we have social media, but in fact the opposite seems to be true. You generally don’t want to try discussing new ideas on Twitter, for example, because it can very quickly devolve into a back-and-forth of argument and ridicule. Instead of being liberating, the censorious nature of social media makes people more careful about what they say. (Unless of course they are a troll. Which creates the problem that thoughtful people are afraid to speak, and thoughtless people aren’t.)

When it was great, Coast to Coast reflected Bell’s personality: eccentric, but very independent and open-minded. Actually, these last two are probably the most important traits for a talk show host or interviewer: a willingness to admit that you don’t have all the answers, and to listen to things that most other people would automatically dismiss. It’s bound to take you to some pretty weird places, but it’s also a good way of learning new things.

More media personalities and hosts should study Bell’s style. If mainstream talk-shows were willing to approach politics and current events as thoughtfully as Bell approached subjects like cryptids and ghosts, they might be more informative.

Valerian_and_the_City_of_a_Thousand_PlanetsThis movie is based on a French sci-fi comic series called Valerian and Laureline. I’m not sure why they didn’t just call the movie that, because Laureline (Cara Delevingne) gets at least equal screen time with Valerian (Dane DeHaan).

The film begins by showing the aforementioned “City of a Thousand Planets”–a massive space station where millions of species, including humanity, all coexist. This is followed by a lengthy sequence of primitive, peace-loving aliens frolicking on a beach and collecting pearls, only to be interrupted by missiles and burning spaceships falling from the sky. A few of them manage to seek shelter in a crashed ship, but the alien Emperor’s daughter doesn’t make it, and he watches in horror as she perishes in the fiery destruction of the planet.

Agent Valerian wakes up suddenly, having apparently just dreamt the apocalyptic scene. He and his partner (in both the romantic and professional senses) Laureline are assigned to retrieve a “Mül converter”–a small alien creature which Valerian saw on the doomed planet of his vision.

After much bickering and flirtatious banter, Valerian and Laureline arrive at a trans-dimensional market where a deal for the converter is being done. Along with a team of soldiers who looked like they were auditioning to be in a Borderlands movie, they get the converter and escape from the gangster who was selling it.

As they examine the creature, they learn that the planet Mül was destroyed 30 years before, although the details of this are classified. Mysteries!

On returning to the City of a Thousand Planets, Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) informs them of dangerous radiation growing within the station. The Commander is attending a summit of the species on the station to discuss the threat, but is kidnapped by aliens similar to the ones Valerian saw in his vision.

Valerian gives chase, but falls into the supposedly deadly radioactive area himself. Laureline eventually manages to track him down through performing what I can only describe as “fetch quests” that are too complicated to explain here. She eventually finds Valerian, but is then captured herself by another type of alien, which then forces Valerian to rescue her, which is another fetch quest that involves watching a shape-shifting alien named Bubble (Rihanna) perform a pole-dance.

As Dave Barry would say, I swear I’m not making this up. But it might not be as bad as I’m making it sound.

Maybe.

Anyway, they eventually get back on track and manage to find their way to the center of the station, which turns out to be not irradiated at all. They meet the aliens who kidnapped the Commander Filitt , who explain that their world was destroyed when Filitt fired powerful missiles at an enemy ship, annihilating both the planet and the enemy fleet. He then classified the data to cover up his war crime.

The Emperor also tells them that his daughter’s spirit has been reincarnated in Valerian, which is why he received visions guiding him to this point, where the few survivors of the attack were taken in the remains of a damaged ship, and have since been working to build a new vessel that can recreate their homeworld. All they need is the Mül converter and a pearl–both of which Valerian and Laureline provide.

The kidnapped Commander–who has been unconscious to this point–awakens and Valerian and Laureline confront him for his crimes. Unrepentant, he defends his action as necessary for humanity and orders his personal robot guards–who, along with the rest of the military, have surrounded the alien ship–to attack and kill everyone.

Valerian and Laureline fight off the robots, and escape along with the remaining aliens. The Commander is left behind for the military authorities on the station to arrest. The Mül aliens part ways with Valerian and Laureline, leaving them to enjoy a romantic interlude while await rescue as the credits roll.

It’s a goofy, weird, often campy, but still fairly entertaining movie. Even if I hadn’t known it was based on a comic book, I probably would have guessed it–everything about it feels like a comic book, from the action scenes to the art style.

About that art style: there are tons of CGI shots in this movie. Sets, characters, backgrounds–huge swaths of it are digitally created. And it’s kind of obvious. In all but the most distant scenes, the graphics are, in my opinion, pretty fake-looking. There were some scenes that looked like Playstation 2 games.

If you’re a fan of high-quality graphics, this may be disappointing. But since the whole story felt like a whimsical comic book adventure anyway, I was able to write that off as just part of the style. Comic books are known for bold colors and fantastic scenery, not photo-realism; so I could live with it.

The acting from the two leads was nothing special, but it was mostly passable. A few of the bit parts (especially Alain Chabat, who plays a submarine pirate named Bob) are pretty well done, although they don’t get much screen time.

One final note for weirdos like me who are fascinated by movie weaponry: the mixture of guns in this film was very strange. Some of the soldiers seemed to have plain old AR-style rifles, like present-day Earth armies use:

obvious AR 15 is obvious

But other times, the weapons were a bit more bizarre:

fake sci-fi guns

(And yes, that thing Laureline has is a weapon, even though it looks like a bottle of water.)

I’m not sure why this was or if it was even a deliberate choice, but I found it odd. It instantly surpassed the question of why people are always getting knives in Ghost in the Shell as the big movie weapons mystery of 2017 for me.

Anyway, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is far from a great movie. It may not even be a good one. It’s simultaneously very weird and extremely predictable, which is kind of amazing in its way. But as a light bit of silly science-fantasy fun, it gets the job done. It’s more fun to watch something weird with a little new flavor than to just watch yet another installment in an established franchise.

Sometimes you have story ideas that don’t work out. They seem like brilliant ideas at first, but then they just slowly die.  It can take a while to even realize your story has died–I know I’ve kept working on some long after they’ve passed on.

Last month, the Economic Security Project had a contest to write a short story about Universal Basic Income. I tried my hand at it, but didn’t get far. I thought readers might be interested in seeing an example of a story that died.

(more…)

When I was a lad, I used the family video camera to make all sorts of crazy movies.  I wanted to be the next George Lucas or Steven Spielberg.

Naturally, being a young boy, my preferred genre was action/adventure. My main stylistic influences were Star Wars, The Terminator, and the James Bond movies. (Yes, I know I had no business seeing those so young, but there it is.)

I had several long-running series that I added to whenever I could get the camera and a new tape. (For readers under the age of 25: tapes were something that we used back then to record data.)

There was the “James Monkey” series–a collaboration between me and a friend which starred us as members of an elite secret agent team led by a toy monkey, whom we dubbed “James” for the parallel with James Bond.

Then there was the “Secret Agent Boy” series, which starred just me as an elite secret agent who operated alone, against enemies who were either invisible or strongly resembled plastic Halloween skeletons. (I was an only child.)

But my most elaborate series was a convoluted stop-motion epic I made using pretty much all of my action figures and other toys.  It was a franchise crossover-laden multiverse, involving figures from Star Wars, The Terminator, Metal Gear Solid, Pokémon and many other random figures I had, led by the unlikely duo of Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm, from the Richard Scarry Busytown series.

(Some background: Huckle and Lowly were my favorite characters as a little kid. Naturally, I read all the books and then asked my Dad to make up new stories involving them.  Dad’s stories were typically a darker take on the Richard Scarry canon–for example, one involved Huckle and Lowly running away to join the French Foreign Legion.)

The point here is, if you were wondering at what point in my life I first started creating weird fiction, the answer is “pretty early”. In fact, looking back, I realize nothing I’ve written as an adult is half as weird as some of the stuff I dreamed up when I was 10 years old.

Anyway, the reason I bring all of this up is that the other day I happened to find an old box with DVDs of my movies.  Most of them are too long and too incoherent to post in full, but I found a few sections that I thought I’d share for your amusement.

The first is a car chase scene.  If you can’t tell–and I’ll be very surprised if you can–what’s supposed to be going on is that a bad guy shoots out the tires on our heroes’ car, causing it to flip over and skid off a ramp–but not before it crashes into said bad guy.

I was so proud of those special effects when I was a kid.  Hours of work for a few seconds of absurdly incomprehensible screen time.

The second clip is the opening title sequence to the same movie. (I’ve blurred the credits to avoid embarrassing any family members.) It’s called “Dr. Maybe”, because all my movie titles were parodies of Bond film titles. Also, to explain the first title card: the Buhwumbabumbas were another invention of my Dad’s–a warlike species of aliens who would frequently invade Earth to steal our supplies of their most prized commodity: baked beans.

Once again, this is probably totally mystifying to anyone who isn’t me.  It’s supposed to depict the Buhwumbabumba ship landing on Earth. How I ever thought it actually conveyed that is beyond me.

One thing I am still proud of is that musical score.  Composed by me–a person with no musical talent or training whatsoever–using my electronic keyboard.  Maybe I’m crazy, but I think it holds up pretty well.

250px-planescape-torment-box[Last week Beamdog released an enhanced edition of Planescape: Torment for modern desktops and tablets. In honor of this occasion (and hopefully to drive more people to play it) I decided to post a full-length review of the game, which I’ve somehow never done despite going on about my love for it all these years. Be warned: some spoilers ahead!]

What always strikes me first about Planescape: Torment every time I start a new game is how weird it is.  Your character –called “the Nameless One”–wakes up in a mortuary, apparently as an amnesiac zombie, and is greeted by a floating skull who proceeds to read a message written on the Nameless One’s back.

And that’s just the opening few minutes of what’s at least a 20- to 30-hour game.  It doesn’t get less weird after that.  You meet a whole host of bizarre characters: a chaste succubus, a living suit of armor, a man who is eternally on fire, a living cube with crossbows… the list goes on.  And that doesn’t even address the weird setting–an indescribable world of twisting labyrinths and cities that shift both in physical space and across different planes of reality.

All in all, it’s a strange and disturbing universe that the Nameless One must traverse in order to complete his quest.

And yet, for all the outré creatures and situations you encounter, it always remains possible to relate, even if it’s only in some twisted way, to the humanity of the characters. That is the first piece of genius that points to the heart of Torment’s brilliance: though it is surreal, it is also real on an emotional level–more real, in fact, than many other games that strive for super-realistic graphics and gameplay.

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Gameplay screenshot via Planescape.com

There is a heart to Torment‘s characters, and a logic to its locales and events, because they are all connected by a unifying theme: their relationship to the Nameless One, and how his actions impact all of this is the thread that weaves all these fantastical elements together into a coherent whole.

The fundamental feature of all video games is interactivity.  What differentiates games from other art forms is that the intended audience is meant to actively engage with the game.  It is not merely a passive experience, but one in which the audience is meant to take some action which in turn advances them towards a goal.

In games with narrative–what we might call “dramatic games”–the player’s actions are supposed to advance the story.  By performing an action, the player sees what happens next.  In more sophisticated games, the player has some choice of what actions to perform, and these affect the course of the larger story.

The full potential of this storytelling style is seldom realized in most dramatic games. Generally, most stick with the tried-and-true formula of the player advancing a straightforward narrative by performing a set of actions. But in Torment, the concept of interactivity is wedded to the story of the game itself.

One of the central themes in Torment is the idea of “consensus reality”–the idea that by agreeing to believe in something, it becomes effectively “real”. This is also tied to the game’s famous recurring line: “What can change the Nature of a Man?” (In some endings, the Nameless One can argue that “whatever you believe can change the nature of a man, can.”)

With its relativistic approach to “reality” (that is, the reality of the game world) Torment acknowledges a little-noted but integral truth of gaming: that the game-reality is subject to the manipulations of the player.  In other words, since the player is interacting with the rest of a pre-programmed world, it is ultimately their “reality”, to shape as they see fit.

This is technically true of any game. When you play anything, from Pong to Minecraft to Fallout 4, you are interacting with a virtual world and manipulating it according to your desires.  The difference is that Torment is implicitly aware of this, and it makes the player character’s relationship to the world mimic that of the player themselves.

It is this subtle, critical point that makes Torment an all-time classic that’s still being played nearly 20 years since its release.

Nearly everything that happens in the story, and every character who appears in the game, either has previously been or currently is affected by the Nameless One’s actions. The entire game-world is (or can become) a reflection of the Nameless One’s character, either in his current life or in previous ones.

The architect Louis Sullivan famously wrote that “form ever follows function.” He meant this not merely as an architectural philosophy, but as a wide-ranging principle of design.

I’d argue that good design in narrative isn’t so much a matter of form “following” function, but simply form and function being in harmony.  In drama, you might decide the “form” (the medium/genre in which you will tell your story) before the “function” (the content/theme of your story), but they had better work well together.  That’s why it’s tough to write an action movie that glorifies pacifism, for example.

In Torment, form and function complement one another perfectly: the gameplay involves the player making decisions that alter the world, and the story is about how the Nameless One’s decisions alter the world.

Of course, Torment’s story and dialogue are brilliant on their own merits, and even in another form (it was adapted into a book, after all), the writing hits all the right notes: witty, moving, disturbing, clever and deeply philosophical.

But what makes the lines so powerful, and the intensely introspective storyline so memorable, is the fact that the player is able to make the game their own through their choices.  The player and the player character effectively merge, in a way that transcends (I used that word deliberately) the usual emotional distance between player and avatar.

It’s a difficult in any game to get players to really connect with the characters or the setting.  They intellectually know it’s all just pixels drawn by a bunch of zeroes and ones. And besides, how much can in-game choices “matter”, if you can just reload and try again if it doesn’t work out?

What’s truly amazing is that Torment should theoretically be less accessible than the average game. The strange setting and characters, forbiddingly odd even by fantasy standards, adds another barrier to the player’s ability to relate to it.

And then there’s the fact that the player character’s “death” means even less than in typical games.  He’s immortal; so it doesn’t matter if he gets killed in a fight; he just wakes up again afterwards.  In theory, this should make every conflict less emotionally-charged than it otherwise would be.

The designers stacked the deck against themselves, and then overcame the odds to deliver one of the most emotionally compelling games of all time. And so Torment‘s weirdness is not a flaw, but a strength–it adds to its unique flavor.

Throughout this review, I’ve said relatively little about the specifics of the game itself. That’s because the game defies description–and I think that’s because it’s like a mosaic: I can’t explain why it’s beautiful by showing just one tile–you have to see the interconnected nature of the whole thing to understand it. The best I can do is describe the sense I got from looking at it.

If you like dramatic, narrative-driven video games and you like to think, give Planescape: Torment a try.  You’ll never forget it.

“Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.” [He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.]Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. Aphorism 146

On June 6, 2014, I was struck with the inspiration for a novella.  It came to me in a flash as I was riding in the car.  I had just begun work on what would become The Start of the Majestic World a few weeks earlier, but the idea for this other book came to me so close to fully-formed that I felt compelled to write it down.  I finished the first draft in August of 2014, and then spent the next year editing it.

What was remarkable about the experience was how easily it all came to me.  Normally (for me, anyway) writing a story is a difficult and tedious process.  I have a general idea what I want to do, but filling in all the details is a long, painful ordeal.

Not on this one.  90% of it came to me in the space of a day.  Everything from a detailed plot structure to the characters to minor bits of description and lines of dialogue appeared ready-made.  It was almost as though the book wrote itself. Not only that, but I very quickly became convinced it was the best story I had ever written.

So why, given that, haven’t I already published it, since I wrapped it up over a year ago?

Well, the thing is, it’s really, really dark.

Most of my stories are horror, or at least have horror elements.  I’ve written stories involving human sacrifice, murder, torture, demonic possession, and all sorts of other disturbing things. So it’s not like I’m a stranger to grim subject matter.

But this was different.  It was creepier than even some of the stuff that Colonel Preston did in Majestic World that I ultimately cut for being too disturbing.  And the ease with which it all came to me only made it more troubling.

I did a lot of soul-searching after writing this book.  That sounds dramatic, but I really did start to wonder about what kind of mind would come up with this kind of story.

A lot of things have changed in my life since I first got the idea to write it, and for whatever reason, I haven’t felt the same desire to write horror since I finished it.

I was thinking about this recently, ever since the calendar turned to October.  I still love this month, and Halloween, and spooky stories–but I think I want to return to writing less intense stories; more on the order of The Revival, that stresses atmosphere and mood. And maybe I’ll dabble in other genres as well.

With all that said, I am thinking of publishing this book soon.   I spent the time to write it, so I think it is worth putting out into the world.