Wounded EagleThis was a tough review to write, because this book is part two of a series, and part one ends on a massive cliffhanger. The majority of part two is therefore about the protagonist, Captain Robbin Nikalishin, dealing with the repercussions of that cliffhanger.

I don’t want to get into the specifics of plot, for fear that people would stumble upon this review without having read part one, and it would be spoiled. Normally, I’m content to give spoiler warnings, but in this case I don’t even want to risk that.

Many of the things I said in my review of part one still apply: The story is still engaging, the characters are still memorable and vivid, the world-building is impeccable, the prose is still crisp, and Capt. Nikalishin is still a brave man who nonetheless can be profoundly irritating in some respects. His stubborn pride remains, although it kind of morphs into something else as he grapples with the consequences of the events at the end of the first book. And his relationship with his mother continues to make me want to grab him by the shoulders and say, “Grow up, you big baby!”

And, as I said in my review of the first book, none of these latter points about the captain’s character should be interpreted as negative comments on the book itself. Quite the contrary. Even more than the first, this book is a character study of Nikalishin, and he is certainly a very interesting, multi-faceted personality. 

Again, no spoilers, but one of the central plot elements in Wounded Eagle involves Nikalishin being forced to choose whether to reveal certain information to punish a particularly despicable character, but at the cost that revealing this information will be deeply painful to an innocent third party. Nikalishin’s choice, and the reasoning behind it, are very well thought-out and described, and was satisfying to read, even if I can’t honestly claim I’d have made the same decision.

Read my review of the first one, and if that doesn’t make you want to go out and read this series, I don’t know what will. It’s a sci-fi epic that focuses on human drama, with lots of interesting world-building, as well as some deep philosophical and religious ideas woven into the story, in the form of the “Mythmaker Precepts”—the philosophical pillars at the core of Taylor’s 28th century society.

Now, with all that out of the way, I want to have a word about my favorite character in the series: Prof. Anezka Lara. She’s not actually in this book as much as she is in part one, but when she’s around, she’s a lot of fun. Her gruff, no-nonsense personality reminds me of several academics I’ve known, and frankly, I adore the way she bluntly tells Nikalishin what she thinks. It’s especially nice in this book where—and here I’m straying close to spoiler territory—he’s kind of a big deal, and most people are treating him with kid gloves. Not Lara. She’s never one to mince words.

Again, if you like sci-fi at all, read this series. Even if you don’t like sci-fi, there’s a good chance you’ll be captivated by the narrative Taylor weaves. 

Now, I’m off to write some fan-fiction about Prof. Lara and…

JUST KIDDING! That is a joke; don’t worry. But if you want to understand the joke, you should read the series. 😉

CGThe Cursed Gift is a fantasy novel about a young woman named Leah, a warrior in training and daughter of the King of in a place called Orenheart. Leah’s day-to-day life of combat drills, horseback riding and the drama of being young and in love is disrupted after brigands attack her family, and a mysterious figure named Shalyer appears to threaten the kingdom.

Shalyer is an unfortunate soul, whose tragic past leads him to make a deal with a sinister supernatural beings, the leader of whom is known as Belosh. Belosh is a demon lord who toys with the fates of mortals, chiefly through granting them the power of magic, which the gods have long forbidden them. Belosh drives Shalyer and Leah into conflict, ultimately leading them into a showdown.

As Leah tries to resist the temptation of the dark powers the Demon Lord has granted her, the kingdom increasingly becomes threatened by brigand gangs. Meanwhile, the youthful romances, indiscretions and heartbreaks among Leah’s fellows begin to cripple them, leading to misunderstandings, fights, and worse.

Eventually, Belosh creates a situation where Leah is forced to choose between saving her family or resisting the allure of giving herself fully to the Demon lord. There are more brigand attacks, an extremely memorable funeral scene for a fallen warrior, and, of course, a dramatic final confrontation.

While high fantasy is not a genre I read often, I enjoyed this story and the world in which it is set. One thing that really stood out to me was the description—or more accurately, the lack thereof. Fantasy (like Science Fiction) usually requires a good deal of background and world-building, which means lots of description. But that’s not the case here—there was very little, and that was fine with me. I was impressed at how easily I could visualize things without having to have it all spelled out. It made the book an easy, accessible read. 

I admit this might not be to everyone’s tastes—my rocky relationship with description in fiction is well-known, and perhaps other readers will wish for more detail about Orenheart, Kurabar, and other locales in the tale.

Personally, what I wanted more of was detail about some of the supporting cast. Leah is a strong character, but so are many of the others, especially Shalyer, and I would have liked to know more about them. Also, there is one sub-plot involving King Edmon which never seems fully resolved. (It’s not that it’s unclear—we readers know the whole story, but some of the relevant characters don’t, and it seemed to me like something that would need to be discussed.)

Still, it’s clearly meant to be Leah’s story that’s being told here, and in that regard Spicer definitely succeeded. While preparing this review, I came across this post on Spicer’s blog in which she discusses her process in writing The Cursed Gift. She wanted to write a fantasy that didn’t feel overlong or dragged-out the way so many of them do, and that’s exactly what she did.  It’s a tight, well-paced tale that doesn’t bog the reader down with minutiae. I definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy or adventure novels.

On the face of it, it hasn’t taken me that long to write any of my books. The long short stories are very quick: I wrote the first draft of 1NG4 in about three days last year, and had it published in a couple of weeks. Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival took about two weeks to write, and about a month before I finally published it.

As for novels, I started writing The House of Teufelvelt in mid-February, and had it finished by late July or early August. And The Directorate, my longest book, as I have recounted before, I started on August 17, 2017, and finished a first draft by October 5 of that year. For the next two months, I did revisions and gathered feedback, before publishing it in January.

Looking at the start and end dates of when I began writing something and when I finished, it seems logical to conclude that a long short story takes about a month to produce, and a novel takes maybe 4-5 months. Not too bad, right?

Except this is deceptive. Because when I first began putting down the words on what would eventually become a recognizable first draft of something is not really when I started working on it. 

Take 1NG4: I’d wanted to do a weird, cyberpunk-ish story full of mystery and conspiracies for years before writing that. My 2014 novella Start of the Majestic World is a primitive forerunner of it. The November before I wrote it, I wrote a complete first draft of another story full of weird conspiracies and hints of the paranormal. And I was completely unsatisfied with it. Only one line from it lives on in 1NG4.

Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival is another example: I’d been obsessed with doing a story about a mysterious cryptid living in rural hill country since reading Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness in 2009, and doubly so after discovering the Mothman legend in 2013. A lot of the scenery and descriptions came from trips to West Virginia and Southern Ohio made in 2012 and 2015. (Again, my less-successful attempts at these ideas appear in Majestic World.)

With novels, it gets even more dramatic: The House of Teufelvelt was also the title of a short unpublished novella I wrote in 2013. It also featured a character with a dark past named Roderick Teufelvelt, a place called Leviathan State University, and a few other shared story elements. But it was very different in a number of ways, and I was a not happy with it, even after reading every bit of Gothic literature I could find for inspiration. I had to let it simmer a bit, and come back with a fresh perspective.

Taking this more expansive view, the true “production time” on 1NG4 goes from two weeks to at least five years, Teufelvelt’s goes from six months to six years and Vespasian Moon’s goes from one month to ten years.

And then, of course, there’s The Directorate. I’ve discussed this before, but to recap: In 2002, I tried making a stop-motion film with action figures about a station, accessible by a space elevator, that had an ulterior purpose unbeknownst to most of the occupants. In 2007, I made another animated film around the same theme. In 2012, I wrote yet another outline of the same plot, but eventually abandoned it.

I essentially kept playing with the same idea for fifteen years before I finally told the story in a way that satisfied me. I didn’t realize this until after publishing The Directorate, but in retrospect, it looks as if I was on a schedule where I would try telling a new version every five years. That wasn’t deliberate, though; it just worked out that way.

In summary, while the time from when I began writing might seem short, in reality there is a much longer, less obvious stage of storytelling, during which ideas get generated, examined, changed, and in some cases, thrown out and replaced with new ones. 

This isn’t a huge revelation. Indeed, it may seem quite obvious to creative types. But to their audiences, it may be completely invisible. This, incidentally, is probably why sequels are almost never as good as originals, and why artists so often “burn out” at some point in their careers: they amass a stock of ideas they work on in the back of their minds for years, and finally are able to mold them into a coherent whole, which they are able to show to the world. And if their work is popular, people immediately want more, not realizing that what they have just enjoyed is the result of years, or perhaps decades, of the creator tweaking various aspects of a concept. 

It’s commonplace to hear of creative people being “out of ideas” or feeling like they’ve lost their creative energy. I wonder if this is actually because it’s not obvious, even to them, how long it takes their mind to create ideas. I know I didn’t realize how long I’d worked on some ideas until I made a conscious effort to remember. An analogy: if you were used to going out to harvest the crop from a flourishing garden, and then one day you arrived to find that it was all gone, it would be kind of a shock, especially if you’re not aware of how the growing process works.

Generating ideas—for stories, for music, for art, for new inventions—takes a long time. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that our brains do it best when it’s not their primary focus. The idea of a flash of inspiration is largely an illusion—but it’s a powerful illusion, because the moment the “missing piece” clicks into place and you have a great idea is so exhilarating that it feels as if it just came to you all of sudden, rather than being the last step in a long, laborious process.

So if you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, a good cure can be to revisit old ideas you hadn’t thought about in a long time. If you’re a creative person, and I think everyone who reads this blog is, you very likely have some. In fact, you might even have some you didn’t remember you had. While I was working on this post, I suddenly remembered the existence of a short story of mine that I had completely forgotten about. It’s an uncanny feeling, reading something you know that you wrote, and all the time wondering Why did I write that? 

But uncanny is good.  It means you’ve found something interesting. Which is why it pays to revisit your old ideas—it’s the best way our minds’ have of looking at something from the perspective of the creator and the audience at the same time. 

It’s a gloomy, wet, unseasonably warm night here in Ohio. It feels like a good night to write a story, although I’m not sure what it would be about. But it set me thinking about how the immediate environment can influence one’s writing.

For example, I’ve never been to sea. I was on a boat in Lake Erie a couple of times, and I’ve been to the beach twice. So when I wrote 1NG4, I mostly used my imagination–but I did go down to a bridge over a river the day I wrote the first half of the story. I stood around, soaking in as much detail as I could. Doing that helped me write some of the description of the sun reflecting off the water.

Another example: for the scene in Vespasian Moon that takes place inside the title character’s cabin, I purposely stayed up much later than I normally do, turned out all the lights except for a flickering jack-o’-lantern, and then wrote the scene. That helped me with describing the way the shadows on the wall moved in the candlelight.

As someone who has long struggled with writing description, I’ve found this is a helpful trick. Of course, it has its limits. I doubt I’ll be traveling to any other planets to get the vibe I want for my science fiction stories.

[How many people still use the term “bleg,” I wonder? Andrew Sullivan used to use the term a lot, but I haven’t seen it lately…]

At the risk of becoming repetitive: please, please, please go read the latest short story by Noah Goats. It’s free to read on his blog.

I love all Noah’s work, as you know, but this is a departure from his usual humorous style. It’s much more in the realm of speculative fiction or even horror, depending how you look at it.

It’s everything I think a short story should be: concisely evocative, moving, and open to multiple interpretations. Noah is turning out great stories at a nearly McCollum-esque pace. I’m hoping he will collect them all in a book at some point. At any rate, his work deserves to be widely-read.

The_Outer_Worlds_cover_artThere’s a moment, maybe a bit more than halfway through the main story arc of The Outer Worlds, that really sums up what the game is all about. On the planet Monarch, there are two rival factions who are fighting for control of the planet. I was acting as intermediary. 

I was trying to decide which side to support, which was difficult because there were people I liked on both. In fact, there was really just one hardliner who seemed to be causing the problem. I wished I could get him out of the picture and bring the two sides together.

And as it turned out, because I’d done a lot of legwork beforehand, and built a good reputation with both sides, I could. The game let me oust him, and put his more practical second-in-command in charge. It was incredibly satisfying, after hours of combat and long, dangerous treks across Monarch, to see two characters who I really liked hammering out their differences at the bargaining table.

There are many moments like this in The Outer Worlds, but this one best illustrates two of the game’s defining qualities. First, there’s the ability to make creative choices to solve problems in unexpected ways, rather than the simple Good/Evil binary we see in many games. And second, there’s the fact that, with a few exceptions, most characters in the game are really likable.

The Outer Worlds begins with your character being roused from cryo sleep aboard a spaceship called the Hope, by an eccentric scientist named Phineas Welles. Welles is recruiting you to fight against the mysterious “Board”—the controlling entity that governs the various corporations in the Halcyon colony.

Shortly after Welles’s rescue, you find yourself stranded on the world of Terra 2, where you have to make your way to the starship Unreliable. At least, that’s what the game pushes you to do. But, not being one to follow directions, I had my character instead make her way to the nearby settlement of Edgewater—a struggling company town. And the game, to its credit, let me do that.

The Spacer’s Choice corporation runs the show in Edgewater, and we soon see a glimpse of how dehumanizing the corporate policies are: before even entering the town, I met a grave-digger asking for help collecting gravesite fees from the populace. This is a good introduction to the politics of the Halcyon colony—the status quo that the outlaw Welles seeks to destroy by reawakening colonists on the Hope.

The advanced promotion for the game had pushed the theme of corporate dystopia pretty hard, so I was expecting that much. What I wasn’t expecting was how skillfully the portrayal is done—nobody, even the town boss in Edgewater, is a caricature. In the beginning, I thought it would be an easy choice between him and the refugees hiding deeper inland, but when it came down to it, both sides are presented as earnest people, struggling to eke out a living on a remote frontier. 

The Outer Worlds has been touted as the spiritual sequel to Fallout: New Vegas, and rightly so. The nuance and well-meaning nature of many of the characters put me in mind of J.E. Sawyer’s New Vegas add-on Honest Hearts—another story about basically good people trapped in a harsh and desolate land that forces them into making hard choices.

The hallmark of Outer Worlds, like New Vegas, is giving the player freedom to do as they wish, and letting the consequences play out accordingly. You can, as the marketing materials say, play it as a psychopath if you want to. But why would you, when it’s infinitely more satisfying to do things like help the struggling colonists, or spend time aiding your companions in overcoming their own personal challenges?

Ellie.jpg
Ellie also rocks.

Whether it’s helping the sweet, shy Parvati overcome her nerves and ask out the woman she loves, fighting side-by-side with the hard-drinking huntress Nyoka to honor the memory of her fallen comrades, or talking the spiritually-troubled Vicar Max out of revenge and into finally finding the inner peace that has eluded him all his life, The Outer Worlds has some of the best companion quests I’ve seen since Knights of the Old Republic II. You can’t romance companions, which initially was a little disappointing—but in a way, that just made their quests that much more satisfying. They weren’t just notches on a virtual bedpost for experience points; they’re well-rounded characters with fully-developed personalities.

Personality is something that The Outer Worlds is brimming with. The graphics have a splendid visual style, from the towns to the corporate advertising plastered everywhere, right down to the loading screens, which even out of the context of the game are retro-futuristic masterpieces:

Loading_Screen_Ad_Terror_ad

Even minor details like quest and weapon names (e.g. the first quest is “Stranger in a Strange Land” and there’s a unique flamethrower named “Montag”) have a sense of science-fiction fun about them.  Everything in this game screams that this is a work of craftsmanship, made by people who cared deeply about it.

Speaking of craftsmanship, the crafting system in this game is wonderful. If you remember my Mass Effect: Andromeda review, you may remember that I said I don’t normally get into crafting, but the mechanics in that game made it fun. The Outer Worlds is like that, too—I would check every shop and vending machine in every town for new weapon mods that I could use to give myself a better arsenal. 

Actually, Mass Effect: Andromeda is a pretty good comparison for Outer Worlds generally. Andromeda was also about building interstellar colonies and forging new homes for humanity in the cosmos. The spirit of optimism and adventure that I noted in my Andromeda review is also present here. The thing Andromeda was unfortunately (and in my opinion, somewhat unfairly) denigrated for was its bugs and technical glitches. I’m pleased to report that there are almost no such issues in Outer Worlds. A couple times, I got stuck between rocks on particularly treacherous terrain, but that could be solved with fast-traveling. The game auto-saves frequently, so even if it had been a problem, there seems little chance of losing much progress.

I have really only two complaints about The Outer Worlds. The first is about one minor quest on Monarch where you have to find someone who disappeared. He was delivering a package to a group of people in the wilderness, and when you track them down, they seem extremely—even excessively—polite, and ask you to stay for dinner.

Now if this is your first time playing an RPG, you might be surprised by what happens next. If, however, you remember the Andale quest from Fallout 3, or the White Glove Society from Fallout: New Vegas, or the inn from Jade Empire, you will not be shocked to learn that the people are, in fact, cannibals, and that the upcoming dinner and the fate that befell the unfortunate delivery person are related.

I’m sorry, but polite people who are secretly cannibals has been done to death in RPGs. I saw it coming a mile away. Now, it’s such a minor thing that I suppose you could say it was a nod to the great RPGs of yesteryear (as those three I listed undoubtedly are) but it felt too rote and by-the-numbers. But perhaps it only seemed so because all the other quests are so original and fun.

The second complaint isn’t even really a complaint; even though it strikes at one of the thematic pillars of the game. It’s more like a philosophical quibble.

As I mentioned above, one of the key parts of the game’s identity is that it’s supposed to be a satire of corporations. The corporations run Halcyon and that’s precisely, the game implies, why it has become such a mess, driven to the very brink of extinction by corporate drones who care more about filling forms, spouting ad copy, and following inane, inhuman policies rather than actually serving the needs of people.

The thing is, none of these flaws are unique to corporations. Any sufficiently large, complicated organization run by human beings will inevitably devolve into a bumbling bureaucracy. Things like governments, universities, and non-profit organizations, after all, are hardly innocent of the flaws that The Outer Worlds mocks in corporations.

In fact, the game seems to almost tacitly admit this by the later stages, when you reach the decadent city of Byzantium, where the wealthiest members of Halcyon society live, gossiping about aetherwave serials and fashion, in a bubble insulated from the horrors of frontier life, like Prince Prospero’s court in The Masque of the Red Death. There are a couple quests where you have to visit the Parcel Delivery service, and in each instance, are given a classic “That’s Not My Department”-style bureaucratic runaround. It’s a hilarious parody of red tape run amok, and one of the greatest examples of satire I’ve ever seen in a game. 

But think about what they’re making fun of here: the post office, a government-run organization. It’s not just capitalism that’s being mocked.

In fact, all the talk about it being a satire of corporations actually understates just how ambitious The Outer Worlds is: they’re not making fun of corporations only, but all big organizations. That’s why it resonates so much—because it pokes fun at the flaws of dysfunctional entities in general, whether they are mega-corporations, late-stage communist governments, or federally-mandated services. 

That’s why I can’t call this a complaint, exactly, because as a satire, it’s extremely good. It’s like the original Deus Ex in how it makes you think about the structures of society itself, and leads you into questioning just how the world around you really works.

I do have a theory about why the game seems so superficially focused on corporations however; although it involves a digression about the inner workings of Obsidian and a lot of speculation on my part. Feel free to skip the following five paragraphs if you don’t care about game industry inside baseball. (Or I should say “tossball,” the main pastime of the Halcyon colony.)

There have been a lot of rumors about Obsidian Entertainment, many of which involve the departure of founding member Chris Avellone. Avellone is a legend in the gaming industry, as the genius behind titles like Planescape: Torment, Knights of the Old Republic II and the Fallout: New Vegas add-ons Dead Money, Old World Blues and Lonesome Road. He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest storytellers alive, and his work is a big reason I fell in love with role-playing games.

The details of his departure from Obsidian are difficult to describe, and every account is inherently unverifiable. But it’s safe to say he did not leave on good terms. Avellone has not been shy about discussing his differences with management, nor about his critiques of the game industry generally.

I bring all this up because, if I didn’t know better—that is, if he hadn’t personally confirmed his non-involvement with Outer Worlds many times—I’d have thought it was an Avellone game. It bears so many elements of his signature design style: player choice, reactivity, an irreverent sense of humor… it’s basically the greatest game Chris Avellone never made.

This is purely speculation on my part, but I think it’s an interesting series of events: Avellone has a far-from-amicable departure from Obsidian, after which he vocally expresses his views on management practices in the game industry generally and at Obsidian in particular. Then, a few years later, his fellow game designers make a game about corporate (mis-)management destroying people’s lives. And it’s not just any game, but a game that is clearly the descendant of some of Obsidian (and Avellone’s) greatest triumphs.

Does it mean anything? I don’t know. It may all be just a weird coincidence. In any event, though, this much is known: Avellone remains friendly with Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, the co-designers of The Outer Worlds, and while it may be a pipe dream, I would love to see him work on DLC for it. The universe of this game is a big one, and it feels like it has room for more stories, especially ones written by MCA himself. Like Phineas Welles, I’ll cling to any hope, however slim.

You may have noticed I’ve made comparisons to lots of other games throughout this review. That’s quite deliberate: The Outer Worlds feels like a culmination. I don’t play games much anymore because they require such a big time investment. But when I saw this game billed as the successor to some of my all-time favorites, I had to give it a shot. And as I played it, I felt like I was experiencing an epic symphony composed of all my most beloved games. 

The smooth, easily-flowing gameplay and careful world design of New Vegas, coupled with a rich art style at times reminiscent of Borderlands, Dishonored, and BioShock, but with its own, unique flavor; the mounting tension of rallying the crew for the attack on the Collectors in Mass Effect 2, combined with the hopeful, pioneering spirit of Mass Effect: Andromeda; the cyberpunk rage against the elite machine of Deus Ex, along with the personal tale of introspection and self-discovery that was Planescape: Torment—all these happy gaming memories came to mind as I journeyed through Halcyon.

And yes: there are echoes of Knights of the Old Republic II; the epic that got me hooked on RPGs in the first place, with its story of the lone exile returning to a galaxy on the brink of collapse, with the choice to let it die or fight to save it—it too came to mind as I played The Outer Worlds. Both games are ultimately about something very simple and very important; something that everybody knows but too few really understand: the fact that our decisions matter; that whether the world we live in thrives or perishes depends on the consequences of people’s choices.

It seems so obvious, and yet so many people seem to forget it. But it’s a point that games as an art form are uniquely equipped to make, because they allow for audience participation to such a profound degree. All the great games demonstrate this truth, and that is why, as it stands on the shoulders of these giants, The Outer Worlds is an all-time classic.  

h-_p-_lovecraft2c_june_1934
H.P. Lovecraft

First, a disclaimer: I’ve said this before, but it’s necessary to reiterate every time I talk about him: H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a very good person. He was a racist. He was an elitist. He was a Nazi sympathizer. (To be fair, he died in 1936; before the worst of their crimes would have been known to the world.) Anytime Lovecraft gets praised for anything, it has to be qualified by mentioning these facts.

When I was in college, I used to go to the library in between classes and hang around reading collections of Lovecraft’s letters. And while this meant having to suffer through his frequent bigoted rants, it also exposed me to another side of Lovecraft: the man who assembled a group of like-minded authors, and offered friendly advice, criticism, and encouragement.

Because despite his general fear of other people, Lovecraft was famous for the circle of friends he amassed—mostly fellow writers who were all trying to publish offbeat stories like the ones he wrote. He corresponded with many of the authors who wrote for the aptly-named pulp magazine Weird Tales. The most famous example of this is probably his letters to the teenaged Robert Bloch, who would go on to fame as the author of the extremely un-Lovecraftian horror tale Psycho.

It was also very likely Lovecraft’s correspondence with other writers that saved his work for future generations. August Derleth, another of Lovecraft’s pen-pals, was key to getting many of Lovecraft’s stories published after the author’s death. Lovecraft himself showed next to no interest in the commercial side of writing. I think he considered it beneath his dignity. But Derleth preserved and published the stories for a wider audience, to the point that now Lovecraft has an entire sub-genre named after him.

The ironic thing about Lovecraft is that, for me, most of his stories aren’t particularly scary. With a few exceptions, most of them are fairly obvious and sometimes downright tedious. He had good concepts, but only so-so ability to actually execute them.

But the reason Lovecraft is such an important figure is not his fiction, but that he was a conduit. As his famous essay Supernatural Horror in Literature demonstrated, he had a vast knowledge of the work of his predecessors, and kept alive the memory of masters like M.R. James and Robert W. Chambers to pass on to a new generation of horror writers. And in turn, the new generation that Lovecraft introduced popularized his writings, and his style.

Lovecraft wasn’t a great writer, but he had an ability to find people who were. He was like a beacon, assembling people who wanted to write a certain kind of horror, and introducing them to other authors who had tried similar concepts in the past.

(Side-note for Lovecraft fans: I’ve speculated that Lovecraft must have felt some sympathy for Joseph Curwen, the unnaturally long-lived sorcerer in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward who, through necromancy, confers with great minds of the distant past.)

Lovecraft had an uncanny ability to bring people together, and it was that ability that allowed the sub-genre that bears his name to exist. As the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society wrote in tribute to him, in one of their more sentimental Lovecraftian song parodies, “Mythos of a King”:

He was hardly famous, and never rich

Unless you count his friends.

But his Gothic pen has inspired men

And his vision still extends.

For all his flaws—and there were many—this was the thing Lovecraft got exactly right. To me, nothing illustrates this better than Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom. LaValle is an African-American author who enjoyed reading Lovecraft at an early age, even despite all of Lovecraft’s disgusting racist sentiments. LaValle wrote a splendid weird tale both inspired by and in rebuke to Lovecraft.  Someone Lovecraft himself would have looked down on was able to build on the foundation of his tales, and make something better than the original.

***

Another one of those old dead snobs that I used to read in my youth was an author named Albert Jay Nock. Nock, like Lovecraft, was an autodidact, and also a self-described misanthrope. He was an early proponent of libertarian thought, although I have to believe he would find modern libertarianism entirely too crass. Nock, as we’ll see, had a pretty high opinion of himself.

Nock wrote an essay called Isaiah’s Job, about the Biblical prophet charged with warning the people about God’s wrath. While Isaiah is at first discouraged that so few believe him, God explains that His message is for what Nock called “the Remnant”: a select subset of the population who will understand it.

Nock obviously, and with characteristic arrogance, saw himself as a figure similar to Isaiah. His message was meant for a small group of people, people whom the messenger himself may never even personally meet, but who will nonetheless receive it and take appropriate action. Or as Nock put it: “Two things you do know, and no more: First, that they exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties, working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness.”

Lovecraft’s function in the world of horror was similar: he put out the message about weird fiction, and became a kind of touchstone for everyone interested in it. Sherlock Holmes famously said to Watson, “You are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light.” Lovecraft was a conductor of darkness—dark fiction, to those interested in the genre. His own stories are almost superfluous to his real contribution: he united people who otherwise would have remained apart. 

The Omen posterThis film is the apex of horror for me. It’s about an American diplomat named Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) who gradually comes to believe that his son is the antichrist. As eerie events surrounding the child escalate, spearheaded by the mysterious governess, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), he eventually becomes convinced he has to take drastic measures to save the world from Satanic annihilation.

This film was made as part of the 1960s-’70s spate of what MAD magazine called “Devil Flicks”—demonic horror movies kicking off with Rosemary’s Baby and most famously represented by The Exorcist. People often call the latter one of the scariest films of all time, but in my opinion, it’s just a distasteful exercise in gross-out scenes and cheap parlor trick special effects.

The Omen isn’t like that. Oh, sure; it still involves a child who is somehow an agent of Satan, but what I like is that nothing he does is clearly supernatural. The most action we ever see Damien take is throw a tantrum when he is near a church. But even that isn’t necessarily unusual behavior for a small child.

The horrific things are what unfold around Damien—the mysterious black dogs that appear, the way other animals seem to fear the child, and of course, Mrs. Baylock, the seemingly sweet but also sinister woman who cares for the boy.

Think about the level of confidence this takes. It’s easy for a writer to make the villain a winged demon, or a hideous ogre, or some other well-worn theatrical manifestation of evil. The on-screen antagonists in The Omen are (1) a five-year-old kid (2) a quiet, polite woman and (3) some dogs. That doesn’t sound particularly scary, but they make it work—thanks in large part to Whitelaw, who was a terrific actress capable of conveying subtle menace with just a look.

Now, while the film isn’t a gore-fest, there are still some violent scenes. The most shocking is probably the suicide by hanging early on, though perhaps the impalement midway through or the decapitation or the death by plunging from a tall building close to the end are worse. But while these are powerful and disturbing, they aren’t what make the movie scary. What makes it scary is the slowly growing feeling of menace as Thorn, with the help of photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner), gradually pieces together the eerie coincidences and unsettling circumstances surrounding Damien’s birth. Starting with the scene in the obsessed priest’s apartment—wallpapered with Bible verses and newspaper clippings, like any good conspiracy theorist’s would be—there’s a part of the film that’s basically a horror road picture, culminating in what might be the creepiest revelation of all, set in an Etruscan cemetery.

And the soundtrack! I’ve talked about this before; but I can’t overstate how terrifying it is. Just the opening theme by itself is scarier than all but about a half-dozen of the horror films I’ve ever seen. It’s bone-chilling.

Now, there’s the elephant in the room: the religious themes of this film. It’s about the Antichrist, so naturally, the film is filled with references to scripture, in particular the Book of Revelation, and it tracks fairly closely with the prophecies recorded in the final book of the Bible. 

Ha! Gotcha!

Did I say “tracks fairly closely?” Sorry, no—what I meant was, hasn’t really got much of anything to do with it at all.

The main prophecy that the film wants us to believe Damien is fulfilling is this poem, which Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) quotes to Thorn:

 When the Jews return to Zion

And a comet rips the sky

And the Holy Roman Empire rises

Then you and I must die.

From the eternal sea he rises,

Creating armies on either shore,

Turning Man against his brother

Till Man exists no more.

He says this, and then adds, almost as an aside to himself “The Book of Revelation predicted it all.” Troughton really sells this line too, like the Biblical scholar just can’t get over the uncanny way events are playing out just as scripture foretold.

He says it so convincingly that I totally believed it. It was decades before I discovered that the poem is, in fact, completely made up for the movie and has basically nothing to do with the Book of Revelation. In fairness to me, I saw The Omen for the first time as a 12-year-old kid who most certainly would never win any prizes for scripture knowledge. (And yes, I know the movie is R-rated and a 12-year-old really shouldn’t see it. But that is also exactly why 12-year-old me just had to see it!)

The only real ties the movie has to anything Biblical is the quote from Revelation 13:18 at the very end: “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the Beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is six hundred threescore and six.” And, as we’ve just seen, Damien has the mark of the Beast on his scalp.

So, yeah. A number. That’s basically all they used from the Bible—that, and of course a bunch of religious imagery. Damien is scared of churches. A church steeple gets struck by lightning. Damien’s shadow forms an inverted cross in the opening credits. There are a bunch of references to the Christian religion and symbols, but really none of it feels integral to the plot. In principle, I think you could, without too much effort, make Damien an avatar of Nyarlathotep or some other “generic” evil instead.

You see, fiction writers love prophecies. I think it’s because it can help to give your story weight if you say it’s all the fulfillment of something foretold long ago. But you have to be careful, because if you just make up a prophecy out of nowhere, it feels contrived and silly. (Hello, Anakin Skywalker, the “Chosen One!”)  

The Omen’s fundamental trick is to take a prophecy that has rather a lot of cultural clout backing it up. Christian texts are so familiar to virtually everyone in the United States, Christian or not, that it gave the movie instant weight. You don’t have to be Christian to know 666 = Bad News.

I can see that Christians might be offended by this, since this film is essentially trading on their holy texts in order to give extra weight to the apocalyptic plot. And, weirdly, I can also see how non-Christians might be offended because the film seems to implicitly endorse Christianity… kinda.

I tried reading the Book of Revelation as a kid after I saw The Omen. Couldn’t make heads or tails out of it, even though I think the Biblical Beast is supposed to have lots of both. Although I think that might be a metaphor? Anyway, you see what I’m saying: I was not cut out to be a Biblical scholar.    

But getting bogged down in ecclesiastical scholasticism is just not what this movie is really about. The religious imagery is just a convenient shorthand for Good and Evil. 

The Omen is really about a child who, for various reasons, a bunch of people believe is going to destroy the world. The child himself never does anything especially out of the ordinary. And this fact lends itself nicely to my personal hobby: alternate interpretations of movies.

Come on; you knew it was coming.

Father Brennan thinks Damien is going to destroy the world and tries, in his own cryptic, abrasive way to prevent it, in the process bringing all sorts of bizarre ideas to Thorn’s attention. Mrs. Baylock thinks Damien is going to destroy the world, and is all about keeping him alive so he can do it. All of this triggers a weird and ultimately tragic series of events, but at no point does Damien deliberately do anything evil. (He does seriously injure his mother, but that is obviously orchestrated by Mrs. Baylock.)

Now, as much as I would love to argue for this being one of those unreliable narrator deals where there’s nothing supernatural going on at all, there’s just no way to make that case. There’s no rational way to account for stuff like the weird images that Jennings captures in his photographs or six Rottweilers showing up staging an ambush in an ancient cemetery. Clearly, some sort of unseen malevolent power is at work in this universe.  But is it really Damien? Or is he just an innocent kid, caught up in events beyond his control that make people around him do insane things? The film doesn’t say.

Well… okay, this film doesn’t say. But The Omen was a box office success, and that of course meant they just had to make a sequel. And so we have Damien: The Omen II.

The Omen II It's Still The Antichrist

I haven’t actually seen this film, so don’t take this to be a review of it. But I have read a summary with spoilers, and I know the basic plot of it: it follows Thorn’s brother, Richard, who gets custody of Damien after the events of the first film and…

…wait for it…

…gradually pieces together bits of evidence which ultimately lead him to believe that…

…are you ready?

…DAMIEN IS ACTUALLY THE ANTICHRIST.

Yes, the plot of the sequel is just the first one over again. Now Damien is older, and now there are different prophecies involved, but… yeah, it’s the same thing.

Watching a guy gradually come to believe that his son is probably the Antichrist was interesting the first time. Watching another a guy come to believe that the guy we already discovered is probably the Antichrist is still probably the Antichrist is boring. But when movie producers know they have a title that they think is a safe bet to sell tickets, they’ll milk it for all it’s worth.

So, yeah; the first film in the Omen series was interesting. The second seems to be just a re-hash of the first. I don’t want to comment on it beyond that, because I don’t think it’s very fair to discuss a film I haven’t seen. I’ll just conclude with the simple fact that they made a sequel to a film I loved, but it had a premise so lackluster it couldn’t convince me to see it.

The Omen III The Antichrist Now Has a Hat

Ugh. Make that two sequels.

Right then, Omen III: The Final Conflict. I’ll keep it short, as I have also not seen this film. Damien is still the Antichrist after all these years, and has now become the ambassador to Great Britain, just as Thorn once was. However, this time, after the good characters once again uncover that the Antichrist is, in fact, the Antichrist, they take decisive measures, bringing an end to “the Omen trilogy.” This is, after all, the final conflict.

Omen IV The Antichrist on Ice

ARE YOU KIDDING ME????

I can’t even follow the synopsis of this one… there are two Antichrists, I think… one of them is a girl, maybe? It seems like they did come up with a different plot for this one, replacing “people gradually realize someone is the Antichrist” with “a bunch of weird Devil-type stuff happens.” I don’t know, and I don’t care.

I want to make it very clear that I don’t have a problem with sequels as such. If you’ve created a world that is so rich it has room for more than one story in it, then by all means, tell all of those stories across multiple installments. Likewise, if you’ve created a sprawling, epic tale best told in episodic format, then sequels are completely fine. 

Neither of these things can be said about The Omen. The first film was a simple concept well-executed, with good writing, intelligent direction, and strong performances from a good cast. But that’s all it was, or needed to be. To me, the thing that proves beyond a doubt that this parade of Antichrist movies was driven by studio executives is the fact that they clearly didn’t even understand what made the first film good. 

If you’re going to make a sequel to a successful film, it’s logical to include the central character from that film. And Damien isn’t the central character of The Omen.  I mean, sure; he’s the center of the plot, but he might as well be a McGuffin as far as what he’s required to do from an acting perspective.  Which is smart, by the way. You don’t want a child actor to have to carry the movie. 

Baylock.jpg
Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock

And no, Robert Thorn isn’t the central character either. I’m sure Gregory Peck got paid the most for being in the film, but that’s just because he was Gregory Peck. The central character of The Omen is Mrs. Baylock. She’s the driving force of the whole thing.

Or, maybe more accurately, Billie Whitelaw’s character is the driving force. If they were going to make more Omen movies, they needed to bring Whitelaw back as a similar character. Or just straight-up give Mrs. Baylock the Captain Phasma treatment. But she had to come back in some form for any sequels to work. Having a sequel to The Omen without Mrs. Baylock or someone like her is like having a sequel to Star Wars without Darth Vader. It just reduces the series to an uninteresting mess.

But the original Omen will always be memorable to me. It remains the most scared I’ve ever been of a film. I first saw it on the day before Halloween, and I will never forget lying in my bed early that Halloween morning, worrying that there might be demon dogs breaking into the house. (This pales next to my mom’s experience of the film. She saw it in theaters when it originally came out, and the next morning, she stepped outside her apartment to see, standing around in the morning fog, a bunch of Rottweilers.)

So, bottom line, it will always be a favorite horror film of mine, no matter how many uninspired sequels they may have churned out. The original is good enough that it can survive that. The only thing worse than unnecessary sequels is second-rate remakes produced solely for the sake of a marketing gimmick like releasing on a specific date. 

It Never Ends This $41T

🤦

VMFAC
On Amazon and Smashwords

Available as an e-book on Amazon here and, for the first time ever, I’m experimenting with distributing using Smashwords as well. On the latter, I’ve set it up so you can choose your own price. The economist in me is fascinated by this option, and I’m very curious to see if the results of this natural experiment match my expectations. (On Amazon, meanwhile, it’s $0.99)

A bit of background: I got the idea for this story in mid-September, and since it’s obviously a seasonal tale, it was a bit of a race to finish it before Halloween. But, I had a huge amount of fun writing it.

The basic outline of the story, believe it or not, was that I wanted to write a romantic comedy. But of course, it’s a romantic comedy done my way, meaning that the chief obstacles the couple faces come in the form of conspiracies, paranormal mysteries, and a strange man operating an autumn festival in a poor rural county.

It’s 18,710 words, or slightly longer than 1NG4. As far as content, I’d say it ranges from a hard PG-13 to a mild R. There’s sex, profanity, some violence, and references to drug use, but with all that said… it’s not meant to be a dark or gritty tale. It’s really intended as a bit of fun.

The tale was heavily influenced by the Mothman legends of West Virginia, as well as the 2002 film about the same, entitled The Mothman Prophecies. Other influences include H.P. Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, the video game add-on Point Lookout, and of course, The X-Files.

Despite all this, I don’t think of it as a horror story by any stretch. It’s really my love letter to Halloween, and to autumn generally. I’ve attempted this in passing before a few times, but with this one, I was really striving hard to capture what I love about this season. And, personally, I feel I was finally successful.

A word to my beta readers: there were more of you than I’ve ever had before, and I’m very grateful for your help, especially because the first draft was in such rough shape when I sent it out. I really appreciate that you waded through all the typos and other odd glitches.

Note that I did not incorporate every suggestion that every beta reader made. Please, please, please do not take this to mean I don’t value or appreciate your feedback. I absolutely do, and I read and am appreciative of every comment that each of you made. All of your suggestions are logical and well-considered; in the end, I just have to make the story work as best I can given my vision of it, which means not every suggestion can be incorporated. But one thing I always do for everything I write is to take the feedback and use that as the foundation for new stories. I’ve already got something else in the works based on the comments I received on this one.

As always, I am incredibly thankful for the support of each and every one of my readers.

Eagle AscendantThis book is a science fiction coming-of-age tale that tells the story of Robbin Haysus Nikalishin, who from an early age dreams of voyaging to the stars. Set in the 2700s, on an Earth that has been remade after a series of catastrophic wars. A new government has arisen, as well as a new set of moral precepts designed to reconcile as well as supersede the core tenets of the old religions. 

Additionally, the passage of time has gradually changed the spellings and phrasings of the English language—itself now called “Inge.” So, the United States of America has become Midammerik, India has become Ind, and so on. The spellings are clever—different enough to convey that the world has changed, but similar enough that the reader knows what’s what.

Cleverly, the book is framed as an official biography written to commemorate Nikalishin, but with the twist that the notes at the beginning suggest the officials who commissioned it are less than pleased with how the author has chosen to depict the subject.

Nikalishin’s life is driven by his determination and unrelenting desire to be a spaceship captain. He studies physics from some of the best professors in the world, and also attends a military academy, all in order to prepare himself for the job of starship captain. He and his good friend Kolm MaGilligoody rise swiftly through the ranks, ultimately joining an experimental program known as SkyPiercer.

Nikalishin’s other interests besides space travel include birdwatching and, of course, sex. He has many romantic encounters with various women he meets throughout his remarkable rise to worldwide fame as a daring space explorer. Some of the relationships last, some don’t, but all of them influence him in one way or another. The romance sub-plots are well done and always are both integral to the plot and right for the characters.

Now, make no mistake, while the book has strong characters and a great plot, it’s not simply an epic space opera. That is, it’s not one of these affairs where space travel is taken as an unexplained fact-of-life to be explained by hand-waving. This is a “hard” science fiction book, and there is plenty of in-depth discussion about the quantum physics involved with making interstellar jumps. But it never feels heavy-handed or dry; indeed, the discussions about physics punctuated by Nikalishin arguing with his professors are quite enjoyable.

That’s the thing that dazzled me most: how alive and organic the whole world of the book feels. It would have been so easy to make it the literary equivalent of a video game on rails: Robbin Nikalishin meets character X who gives him Y so he can advance to the next stage and ultimately be a space hero.

But Taylor didn’t take the easy way. She did the hard, meticulous work of world-building and fleshing out all the supporting characters. I’m in awe of how every character, from Nikalishin’s mother to his best friend to his lovers and even down to the ship’s janitor, are fully-realized and well-described. This isn’t a book, it’s a whole universe rendered in prose.

Oh, and I haven’t even touched on how much I love the depiction of religion. Kolm and his family follow a strain of religion clearly descended from Irish Catholicism. They don’t even fully understand some of the meaning of the symbols and terms of the rituals, but they follow them even so, and it brings them spiritual comfort. I loved the way this was handled—neither stridently preachy nor cloyingly condescending; it felt real.

Now we’re at the part of the review where I typically mention typos in indie books. I know from reading Taylor’s blog that she self-edits her books, and that’s typically verboten for indie authors. Do you know how many typos I found in this book?

Two.

That’s right, two typos in the whole thing. I don’t have a word count for this book, but I know Amazon estimates the length at 510 pages. My longest book is 308 pages, and it was about 67,000 words, so approximately 217 words per page. If that’s the same here, that means Taylor wrote about 110,670 words, self-edited, and came out with only two minor errors. 

That’s insanely good. In the novel, the characters have to make precise calculations, correct down to like the millionth decimal place, before attempting an interstellar jump, or they risk disaster. Taylor obviously has a knack for care and precision that makes her fit to serve aboard one of her own starships! 

If you can’t tell already, I absolutely loved this book and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Taylor built a fascinating world, populated it with rich, believable characters, and told a brilliantly paced story about them. This is sci-fi at its best.

Now, I want to talk a little bit about something somewhat spoiler-y. It’s not giving away too much, as it concerns something that happens less than a quarter of the way into the book, but it has ramifications for the rest of the story. Feel free to skip this if you want to go in completely unspoiled.

Nikalishin’s parents divorce when he is a young boy after his father physically abuses him and his mother, Sterling. Sterling raises her son on her own, and makes every effort to see that he achieves his dream of becoming a starship captain.  

At some point, in his late teens, Robbin learns that Sterling has been working as an escort for wealthy men in order to pay for her son to attend the schools and take the classes he needs. Robbin is horrified by this revelation, and ever afterward, his relationship with his mother becomes strained. He feels, somehow, that everything he achieves and his relationship with her are irrevocably tainted. They have a falling out, and later a semi-reconciliation, but he can never quite achieve a healthy relationship with her, even when he leaves to risk his life on dangerous space missions.

This made me dislike Robbin. He seemed quite ungrateful towards his mother, after everything she’d done for him. He even, for lack of a better term, slut-shames her at one point, which is ludicrous given that he himself seemingly sleeps with every other woman he meets. (More than one character calls him out on his hypocrisy, but he doesn’t seem to take it to heart.)

In a way, his initial feelings are kind of understandable. We get it, Robbin; you had to think about your mother sleeping with someone, and it grossed you out. But after that moment of revulsion, an adult should realize that parents are just people, and that these are the kinds of situations that happen in life, and then get past it. After all, as Sterling repeatedly tells her son, she did it for him.

Even as a world-renowned heroic starship captain, Robbin Nikalishin really is profoundly childish in many ways. He has extremely limited ability to understand the feelings of women. He’s stunned to discover one of his acquaintances is a lesbian. He doesn’t mind it, per se, he just acts like the concept is completely new to him. 

He also has an incredibly bad temper. He is sometimes justified, but even then, he tends to explode in rage at the slightest provocation. Admittedly, the primary antagonist, who does not appear until relatively late in the book, is quite infuriating. But Capt. Nikalishin gets bent out of shape when someone so much as mispronounces his surname. I was rooting for him, but there were still times when I wanted to sock him right in the belly of his beloved military uniform and tell him to grow the hell up.

To be clear, none of this is a complaint about the writing. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a credit to Taylor that she was able to craft such a complete character, that a reader could both cheer on and simultaneously find extremely irritating. Too many writers make their heroes one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, or worse, heroes with one painfully obvious flaw tacked-on just to make them Not Perfect. Capt. Nikalishin is a flawed hero, and better still, he’s flawed in the way that real heroic figures often are. Think about the philosopher Carlyle and his so-called “great men,” who often were impulsive, emotional and obsessed with crafting their own image as flawless paragons. Nikalishin is what I suspect a real-life “great man” is like—which is to say, quite maddening to know personally.

And of course, I should stress that this is only part one of the series. The book ends with an absolutely epic cliffhanger, and I’m eagerly looking forward to finding out how things develop from here.  

It’s funny: even though I like writing sci-fi adventures, most of the indie books I’ve reviewed have not been in that genre. I haven’t consciously avoided them; that’s just how it’s worked out. Audrey Driscoll recommended this to me, and I’m so grateful that she did. It was fun to read a book in roughly the same genre as I primarily write—especially one as marvelous as this one. I’m guessing that if you enjoyed my novel The Directorate, you are very likely going to love this book. It’s a brilliantly thought-out and well-executed science-fiction epic.  

As one indie sci-fi author to another: Ms. Taylor, my hat’s off to you. This is a really great novel, and for me, it ranks right up there with the best by the likes of Asimov, Clarke, and the other All-Time Greats of science fiction.