Sunday, April 18, 2021

Rakefire and Other Stories - Review by SE

Rakefire and Other Stories by Jason Ray Carney

S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rakefire and Other Stories's Sum Is Greater Than Its Parts

Rakefire and Other Stories
released July 2020 via Pulp Hero Press. Nine weird adventures span the 216 pages of this grimoire. Penned by emerging thaumaturgist Jason Ray Carney, Rakefire promises to corrupt any reader. So let us get this disclaimer out of the way: the mere reading of this tome may thicken your blood with wonder. Red turning to black, your blood will never bleed the same. Read this review at your own risk.

The book blurb labels this “Fever Dreams of Sword & Sorcery in an Eld Realm of Unfathomable Beauty and Cruelty” and it also contains “enigmatic tales of horror and fantasy in the pulp tradition.” That summary is spot on. Most of the tales here can be considered S&S, but they focus on the sorcery end of the spectrum. The writing style is reminiscent of Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith (full of pregnant shadows and intellectual skullduggery!). Excerpts throughout this review reinforce what to expect.

The majority of the stories (6/9) have been published in various magazines, but reading them piece-meal is like eating random snacks instead of a 5-course meal. The confluence amplifies the lore threading them all together (lore discussed below). Plus, the 3 newly published tales extend the impact. Each is recapped below, and most have excerpts that emphasize the style and common milieu (while avoiding spoilers). This serves as a tour guide into Jason Ray Carney's strange world.

Cover & Title: The cover depicts Mera the Cruelly Beautiful (from story#1, not the witch from #6-Rakefire). I would have expected a red-robed sorceress (i.e., representing the character Rakefire), or, since Rakefire (although a fine story) does not stand apart as being the singular cornerstone, I could actually see this collection keeping the cover and retitling it “Weird Legends of Drossus” (which would sound too much like a David Gemmell work…but the point is: the collection does not revolve around the character Rakefire…but it does have a unified world which is a character unto itself).

Contents:
1. “The Ink of the Slime Lord” appeared in Swords Against Cthulhu II: Hyperborean Nights (2017) & Sword & Sorcery Magazine (Dec 1018)
- Mera the Cruelly Beautiful alone survives a purging of her cult…and goes on a quest to resurrect her bloodline. She’s crazy and attractive (like DC Comic Harley Quinn). She invades Inmor’leh for essential ingredients. Her sister Sasha the Scarred is mentioned a lot in stories #5 and #7. As mentioned above, that’s probably Mera on the cover. Backcover Blurb: A psychotic witch, driven by the spirits of her murdered sisters, seeks out the secret of a ruined city and the formless horror that destroyed it.... Excerpt:
“…along with their prophets, Alesh the Old, Sasha the Scarred, and Mera the Cruelly Beautiful, the cultists were taken to the purple swamps outside of the city. A deep grotto had been prepared there, of roots, mud, and worms. Their crime, writ on the beaten bronze tablet in ancient hieroglyphs, there was verbalized with the sonorous majesty of the High Priest of Atok’s powerful voice. Amidst song and the beating of spears on shields, all of the heads were sliced off the convicted and swung into the hole.”

2. Trigon (new)
-The captain of the Gate Watch investigates and attempts to close the gate which oozes evil. Coincidentally, this journey involves the removal of a sorcerer’s hand (which obtusely foreshadows the next section). Backcover Blurb: "An impudent sorcerer, contemplating the outer beyond between stars, threshes shadowy demons from the lightless outside.... Excerpt:
“The thrall-messenger breathlessly pleaded his case, told the council his terrible tale: high in hubris, the Sorcerer Peroptoma of Dis-Penethor, Duke of Chius, seeking secrets in the stars, had opened a Black Gate, one he could not close, and now shadows poured through it, like black blood from a wound, ravening with hunger for human flesh."
3. “One Less Hand for the Shaping of Things” appeared in Skelos, #1 (2016)
- A weird tale, but not S&S. This is all about Ayolo’s journey and his infatuation with Jessa, a tree spirit who rescues him. The title is cryptic, though a priestly character does mention this verbatim. Note, #5 indicates this title is a line used by the followers of the tree goddess Ral (from the Discourses of Thees). Backcover Blurb: A reluctant scholar, forced to confront his impermanence, abandons hearth and wealth for a doomed passion.... Excerpt:
“[Ayolo’s] thoughts wandered to his wife Shemira and Chamberlain Brocoshio, who had, with clever arguments, convinced him to organize his caravan to the south...If he had any virtue as a merchant, it was due to his shrewdness. He was no swordsman or adventurer and was fully aware of the dangers that plagued the roads through Yizdra. Instead of sublime beauty of alien lands, he’d much prefer the ordinariness of his study, reading correspondence or tabulating accounts by candlelight; or better yet, the poetry of Thees….
4. “A Song in Deepest Darkness” appeared in Cirsova: Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, Issue #10 (2018)
- A weird S&S tale very much in the vein of CAS. This is the most comedic of the bunch, I laughed out loud over the predicaments of the protagonists: Pardew and the warlock, Ka seek out the Hearthfather’s true name and make poor decisions. Callouts to “Rakefire’s Resplendent Roadblock” and “Ink of the doom of Inmor’leh” were welcome. Backcover Blurb: A holy man and a pauper mage delve the devil-haunted maze of a dead wizard of legend.... Excerpt:
“O lightdrinkers!” sung a mellifluous voice as pale lights bobbed behind them. “Listen to how we will treat with you! We will flay you and then bind a Black Book with your skin! We will make a wine pot of your skull! We will read dark verses as your soul writhes in the chest-cage of the Horned One’s breast!”
5. "Her Formless Temple" appeared in Phantaxis #7 (2017)
-Sasha the Scarred is sought after to heal a sick child, Cas. He is worked upon, and he joins up with Lia (his love) as leaders of the tree-loving Ral. Backcover Blurb: A guttersnipe transforms hatred into a force of nature... Excerpts
"Cas of the Sun Disk flourished at his mother’s breast, and when he grew to a hate-filled guttersnipe, he was not killed in the urchin wars that plagued that slum’s youths, nor did he lose his namesake; but, alas, a grippe swept through the slum, and both mother and child contracted it. "
We also learn more about the cryptically named story #3 with this excerpt:
“Most heroes know not themselves .... have fallen deeply... Their joy in questing unselfing like a breath exhaled .... Inflating their mainsails, propelling them beyond .... To strangle lands where the measure of joy is sunlight, lightning, shadow, and mist, and sometimes death: one less hand for the shaping of things.”

6. "Rakefire" appeared in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Q33 (2017)
Qwayas is sought after by the female narrator (the titular Rakefire). She is enlisted by a village to investigate weird sorcery, which has his signature attached. Book Blurb: A nameless sorceress takes a thrall and gains a name...Excerpt:
"...they looked at me, the little quivering wretches, and answered my warning with snarling grins that revealed transparent teeth. Their radiant eyes dilated. I saw their brains bulging, brightening. They threw the force of their poisonous dreams against my ward that repelled them back like a brick wall. In the intensity of their mental barrage, they popped like overindulging ticks, the bloody slime of their brains smearing across the cliff face and undergrowth."

7. “Two Silvers for a Song of Blood” (new)
- An unidentified rogue comes to the rescue of the bard Maur who played a role in #3) from the anti-magic, policing minions of Atok (i.e. those of the priest who slew Mera and her sisters in #1). Excerpt:
“The Rogue slid his dagger into this man; his eyes bulged and bubbling foam spurted from his mouth. The dagger removed, the Rogue slit his throat with a wet slash, hissing, showing stained teeth in a rictus snarl, and then shoved the limp body over a table, scattering wine bowls, gnaw bones, and candles. In a flash, seven swords gleamed trembling in the flickering light of the smoking grease lamps swaying from the rafters. The Rogue leapt to a table, his cloak thrown off, his blade, a curving shiwa, gripped and ready at his dark brow. One of the men-at-arms came forward and died, stabbed through the eye. Another guard came forward and died, his blood spattering the Rogue’s face and bare chest, and thereafter fell like a sack of roots to the ground, his hot blood spurting rhythmically from his wound. The sounds of his gargling and dim death-movements were all that broke a new silence, and the iron aroma of blood blended with the stale musk of fear-sweat.”
8. “Shadows from Shadows” (new)
- Mika protects/rescues the seedling Shela from the necromancer who created her and other homunculi (loriks). Book Blurb: Hope steams as hot blood in the snow...Excerpt:
"I saw them: at the base of the incline were two Loriks, their faces nearly identical, their brains glowing red in grayish, translucent skulls. They gazed up at me with large, lamplight eyes: little naked slime men with undulating lobes like blooming flowers. They chattered something at me in a foul, half-formed language, black tongues slipping out."
9. “The Curio Dealer” appeared in Hypnos, Vol. 6 No. 1 (2017)
- A short piece that reveals the audacity of merchants preying on the poor land of Bel (Yesha valley specifically, where Cas from story #5 is gifted the copper amulet mentioned here).

Themes and reoccurring Items/Places
1) Triangles (a.k.a. trigon, a polygon of 3 sides): in addition to being the title of a story, these appear as icons for witchery, inform the design of amulets, banners, and other insignia.

2) Weird pregnancies: from adjectives describing "gestures" and "shadows" to plots based on foundlings and the creation of homunculi (loriks).

3) Black blood: evil usually bleeds black, whether be from the Slime Lord, the goblin-like granlings' blood, or the evil that pours through Trigon’s black gate. The gran and their Horned One leader are mentioned in at least three stories. Excerpt:
"The gran were elder-lived humans of mysterious origin, sometimes thralls to ancient, tree-tall sorcerers, purposefully stirred to emotional frenzy so that their insubstantial fear, hatred, and rage could be incarnated, extracted, and harvested as a black sap used as a dark fuel for even darker sorceries."
4) The land is shared across all tales, and an excerpt from story#5 best captures some of the names:
Cas and Lia learned much about the world: the Youv to the north marshalled brown-cloaked armies of Porthror axemen and swore to annex Drossus, a northern fief of Griess Volor, peopled by shrewd merchants who flirted with republicanism. The City of Re to the south was plagued with religious dissent; a coven of witches cowed the oligarchy there, a masked priesthood of Atok, a God of a Million Eyes. Even whispers of Yesha trickled into Roa: the devil sorcerer who sat on the throne of that city-state was fashioning a great sphere that gave dark vibrations, and the thrall-nobles who kept his court, bathed in the sphere’s subtle movements, had developed a taste for human flesh and long teeth to tear it. But the worst of these stories treated Yizdra, the forestland Cas and Lia called home, where of recent seasons evil, cavern-dwelling creatures, the gran, had been waxing in numbers and raiding by night. They depleted game, burned villages, and murdered travelers on the ancient roads. … hung brazenly at a crossed cart road, the flyblown, wet skins and bones of the slaughtered, hooked beneath a rude formation of horns and antlers nailed and tied to a stand of weeping trees, and a flapping banner with ancient runes inked with blood and gore, and a single rune, a rendering in an ancient tongue. What, precisely, it meant, no scholar could tell, but its core message was clear: war.


Who is Jason Ray Carney? : If you are a fan of adventure horror, then keep an eye out. I first read his work in Skelos #1..and first saw him (via video) on a Howard Days 2019 Panel on S&S. Recently, he seems to be ever-present in the S&S and Weird Fiction communities, contributing to Goodman Games and to Black Gate blogs with articles on the gothic tradition in S&S and “How S&S brings us life.” He recently edited Savage Scrolls Volume One : Thrilling Tales of Sword-and-Sorcery for Pulp Hero Press and is an editor at The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies and Whetstone: Amateur Magazine of Sword and Sorcery. By day, he is a Lecturer in Popular Literature at Christopher Newport University. He also authored the academic book Weird Tales of Modernity: The Ephemerality of the Ordinary in the Stories of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft.

View all my reviews

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Alchemical Muses for Hell and Heroika


Perseid Press Author Spotlight on

 S.E. Lindberg: April 15th, 2021

With the release of Mystics in Hell,  Perseid Press is rotating a spotlight on its authors. This week it's on me, eh gad! I wanted to capture my post here as well, adding some extra links and ensuring my blog has a record of how I infuse Alchemy into the Heroes in Hell and Heroika series: 

Alchemical Muses:

Strange muses have had inspired my creativity for decades. I’m fascinated with the intersection of science, art, and spirituality (alchemy essentially) and have turned toward writing as a medium to learn. Since 2014, I’ve also interviewed authors on the topic Beauty in Weird Fiction to explore how others approached such inspirations (for this crowd, I recommend Death Panelists, when is it O.K. to go to hell?). By education and trade, I am actually a chemist. For Perseid Press, I’ve contributed five alchemy-inspired tales to date (three for the Heroes in Hell series and two for Heroika).

Alchemy in Heroes in Hell:

I’ve adopted the duo of Howard Carter (renowned archaeologist and looter of King Tutankhamun’s tomb) and Ernst Haeckel (discredited evolutionist and original ‘ecologist’) as tour guides. Their motives contrast: Carter adores material, artificial wealth as much as Haeckel is fascinated with nature’s riches. They roam the Egyptian world of the dead, Duat. Their story arc continues in the just-released Mystics in Hell.

1)     “Curse of the Pharaohs” in Pirates in Hell

·       In the Egyptian realm of the dead of Duat, many pharaohs wait to be judged by Anubis; yet, he has been in absentia for centuries. As the piratical Sea People threaten to come ashore, the meddling duo of Carter and Haeckel unearth Anubis’s Hall of Two Truths. Eleven anxious Rameses risk leaving the shoreline unprotected to chance judgment (and a chance to exit Duat!). Read this teaser interview to learn more: Ernest Haeckel Interview (Hell Week 2017, Pirates in Hell).

2)     “Lovers Sans Phalli” in Lovers in Hell

·       Surviving Pirates in Hell’s “Curse of the Pharaohs”, the lovers Hatshepsut and Senenmut depart Duat toward hell proper, Anubis having removed their hearts and broken their toy phallus. They find Osiris, missing the penis he requires to retake the realm from Satan’s influence. Carter and Haeckel quest with the Egyptians, seeking to make everyone whole again by stealing genitalia from the Undertaker’s Mortuary. Listen to this teaser interrogation of Carter and Haeckel as higher powers seek out the location of a stolen artifact: the phallus of the Egyptian god of rejuvenation: Osiris. Hell Week 2018 – A Day in the Life of Haeckel and Carter.

3)     “Fool’s Gold? in Mystics in Hell

·       The Egyptian god of mysticism, Thoth, seeks conspirators to retrieve the Philosopher’s Stone; with it, Thoth could usurp Satan’s control of the realm of Duat. Taking up the charge is Carter and Haeckel. They discover that King Midas’s alchemical ability to transmute flesh into gold relies on the stolen Philosopher’s Stone, and Midas is producing hell’s new gastro-currency: buttcoin. Yes, rejoice, there is a gold-rush in hell! Mine for a price. At your own risk.


Alchemy in Heroika:

For this series, I track the mystical Emerald Tablet (a.k.a., the Philosopher’s Stone) through time. Read these and experience the birth of chemical warfare. You’ll see that Thoth and Osiris make appearances here too.

1)      “Legacy of the Great Dragon” in Heroika 1:Dragon Eaters

·       Legacy of the Great Dragon fictionalizes the Hermetic Tradition, presenting the “Divine Pymander–Great Dragon” as being the sun-eating Apep serpent of Egyptian antiquity (a dragon who ate the sun each day from under the horizon, in the underworld). Thoth, physician of the gods (the Father of Alchemy), helps Horus to find power to avenge the death of his father, Osiris, at the hands of Set. This is a wild piece, with a cosmically huge dragon and gods fighting inside of it.  Learn more: Library of Erana Interview.

2)     “The Naked Daemon” in Heroika 2:  Skirmishers

·       “The Naked Daemon” pits the mystic Apollonius of Tyana (deceased ~100 CE) against zealots who destroy what remains of the Alexandria Library. In life, his principles had been aligned with those of the pacifist gymnosophists (a.k.a. naked philosophers); hundreds of years past his death, Apollonius finds himself reborn as a daemon empowered with Hermes’s Emerald Tablet. He observes the Roman oppression over pagan scholars and is challenged with an urgent need to defend knowledge. Will Apollonius rationalize war by unleashing the power of alchemy to do harm? Will he become an angel or demon? How will alchemy transform The Naked Demon? Learn more: Heroika: Skirmishers – Witness the Birth of Alchemical Warfare

 

S.E. Lindberg Bio:

S.E. Lindberg resides near Cincinnati, Ohio working as a microscopist, employing scientific and artistic skills to understand the manufacturing of products analogous to medieval paints. Two decades of practicing chemistry, combined with a passion for the Sword & Sorcery genre, spurs him to write graphic adventure fictionalizing the alchemical humors (including his independently published “Dyscrasia Fiction” series). With Perseid Press, he writes weird tales infused with history and alchemy (Heroika: Dragon Eaters & SkirmishersPirates in Hell, Lovers in Hell, Mystics in Hell). S.E. Lindberg is a Managing Editor at Black Gate and co-moderates the Sword & Sorcery group on Goodreads.

  S.E.’s Amazon Page   /    Perseid Press Author Page  /   Sword & Sorcery Group on Goodreads

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Eda Blessed: A Ki Khanga Adventure - Review By SE

Eda Blessed: A Ki Khanga Adventure by Milton J. Davis

SE rating: 5 of 5 stars

Omari Ket, an Agency of One

Eda Blessed: A Ki Khanga Adventure is all about Omari Ket. The collection chronicles his rise from street-rat to god-marked mercenary (a Mikijen). “Agency” is a term for the capacity of a character to act independently, and Omari Ket is an Agency onto himself. He is as suave, cunning, and as lethal as James Bond, but Omari reports to no one, really; he is a survivor more than a spy, so he approximates a Han Solo rogue who is happy to join a large melee (for a price). And woman-in-power and upper-classes adore him! He’s the bad boy of action.

Why the call-outs to Bond and Solo (and not Conan)? I wanted to emphasize that Omari Ket feels like a non-stereotypical Sword & Sorcery hero. In fact, his testosterone-rich aura is expected from a Secret Agent Man. Omari is not a spy, but he is a ladies’ man in a dog-eat-dog world. If you like a cut-throat, libertine, action-oriented protagonist then try this out. You’ll enjoy the action set in an alternative African continent called Ki Kanga.

Omari earns a role in the band of mystical Mikijen mercenaries granting him Ngisimaugi tattoos; these enable his boldness and ability for his body to rejuvenate. He confronts all sorts of conflicts, from tomb raiding, chaotic skirmishes, and battles with strange centaur-like creatures that are “amalgam of man and beast; their bodies that of the great grass antelopes, their torsos man-like, their heads crowned with horns.”

Omari appears to be an anagram for Imaro, the original Sword & Soul champion created by Charles Saunders (that alternative Africa was called Nyumbani). The author of Eda Blessed, Milton Davis, is a Black Speculative fiction writer and owner of MVmedia, LLC, a publishing company specializing in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Sword and Soul…including Saunder’s works. Milton writes other characters as well, in other universes, including the Changa's Safari series (Changa is an action hero of historic Africa), who has a polar opposite personality to Omari).

More Ki Khanga: Ki Khanga has its own anthology (Ki-Khanga: The Anthology) and RPG game world to immerse yourself in. Read the books, then play the world. There are other spinoffs too, including two with leading heroines Priestess of nKu and The Bene's Daughter: A Ki Khanga Novel. And Eda Blessed II (~10 more tales) is due out imminently (Spring 2021)

Contents (Eda Blessed I)
-Kept
-A Better Deal
-Second Chance
-The Skin Man (Originally published in Skelos II)
-The Ngola’s Promise
-Assassin’s Choice
-Old Habits (Originally published in Griots: Sisters of the Spear)
-Simple Math (Originally published in the Ki-Khanga: The Anthology)


View all my reviews

Monday, March 29, 2021

Sword & Sorcery Group Poll for May-June 2021 Group-Read Topics

 Goodreads Sword & Sorcery Group

Join us May-June for our 2-month, 2-topic Group-Read.  Currently, we are homing in on topics! Vote!

Friday, February 26, 2021

“Behind the Scenes with Skull & Friends”

Saturday 2/27 at 10AM EST. ~1 hour. 
 “Behind the Scenes with Skull & Friends.” 




Join us Saturday, February 27 at 10:00 am EST on Goodman Games Official Twitch Channel

"The exalted Skull, lord of all things sword & sorcery, has sent a selection of his minions and interns to satiate the mortal desire for sword & sorcery discussion while they breathlessly await issue #6 of his magazine of superlative greatness.

Join Chief Editorial Minion and interns #12, 34, and 657 to learn more about the ongoing open call for sword & sorcery fiction, tips and tricks for writing great fiction, and just a good discussion of what books we’ve been reading. Intern #78 will fill in if any other interns meet their demise prior to screen time."








Sunday, February 21, 2021

Mar-Apr 2021 Group Reads: Nostalgia And Appendix N: Eldritch Roots of D&D



Sword & Sorcery Group On Goodreads



Our Spring 2021 (March-April) groupreads will have a "rebirth" theme to our two topics. Please join us!

Nostalgia TOPIC FOLDER: Share, reread, and review the books that lured you into the Sword & Sorcery genre.

Appendix N: Eldritch Roots FOLDER LINK. The anthology "
Appendix N: The Eldritch Roots of Dungeons and Dragons" exhibits the weird roots of Sword & Sorcery, and was a hot topic delayed from our Jan-Feb Anthology topic (book release was moved to late Feb).



Banner Credits, L --> R

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Tears and Crimson Velvet - Guest Post by A. L. Butcher

Today we host a guest blog from fellow Heroika and Heroes in Hell author, A. L. Butcher. She has a new entry out now for her Legacy of the Mask series of short stories (Historical Fantasy). Tears and Crimson Velvet is the sequel to Echoes of a Song, and you'll hear from a key protagonist in this guest post.  This is also part of a blog tour via Silver Dagger Book Tours and includes a giveaway (info/ below).


A L Butcher's character Lise Giry gets interviewed. Learn more about the character, and the historical fantasy exhibited in the award-winning Legacy of the Mask short story series:

Lise Giry, how did you find yourself in your current predicament/on your current adventure?

Years ago, I took pity on a young man – he was caged like a beast, beaten, starved. He was a prisoner, because of the face he wore. Never had I seen the like of him – thin and wiry, ugly as the devil, but his voice… oh that voice. The moment I heard Erik sing my soul rejoiced, for it was a heavenly sound. No mortal should be able to sing like that – not even the greatest of the Opera singers. It was so full of joy, and yet so terribly sorrowful. That day I heard the Angel of Music and brought the Angel of Death to my door.

Can a man be an Angel and a devil in one? Yes. He is the best of men, and the worst.

I found him in my husband’s barn, cold, bleeding and desperate. I should have turned him in, but I did not. I brought him food, tended his wounds and clothed him. I could not know than how that act of Christian goodness would shape my life. I could not know who he would become, or indeed, who I would become. No one had ever been kind to him. His life was pain, darkness, hatred and fear. Poor Erik.

Erik was my secret, my first lie. After my husband died, I was left with nothing, my stepchildren saw to that. My daughter and I would have starved, but ‘opportunities’ appeared, like working at the Opera House. I thought about him, not every day. Not then. I wondered what had happened to the frightened boy I had helped, sometimes I heard fantastic stories about a wizard who built palaces for kings, and sang like no one else.

What is your moral code? How does it compare with the general moral code of your area?

I was raised as a Catholic. France is a religious country, and it is expected one follows the teachings of Jesus. I pray to God, he doesn’t listen, but I pray nonetheless. Do I believe, truly? I believe in angels – for I have met one. He is terrible, enchanting, captivating and mysterious. I used to believe no one is beyond redemption, no one is truly damned – and now I question that. I have spoken with an angel in hell, a man truly damned.

To others I am the prim and proper dance mistress of the Opera Populaire in Paris. I live quietly, I tell no tales, do not gossip, attend Mass and don’t flaunt my body – although at my age that would be a sin indeed.

In truth I live a lie and have done for many years. The secrets I keep could bring a man to the executioner or could have saved a man’s life. The truth I know is not that of others.

How many crimes have you committed?

I have harboured a murderer, fed him, clothed him. I have remained silent whilst the bodies pile up. I have been complicit in extortion, theft, deceit, and even kidnap.

Sins – many of those have been committed. Every day he lives. Every day I live.

What is your greatest achievement? 

My daughter, Meg. She is a talented dancer, and despite our hardships and our strange life she has done well.

What is your greatest failure? 

I could not save his soul.

If you could live your life again would you make the same choices? 

Yes.

Have you ever loved/been loved? 

I loved my father, I loved my husband, in a way, and I loved Erik.

Tell us about your family. I have a daughter Meg. 

My other children are with their father in heaven. I have no family other than that.

How does your society deal with those on the edges? Do you approve of this?

Those who are poor, infirm or disfigured often find themselves at the mercy of others. There are those who are different, feared, hated for no reason other than they ARE different. I wonder what Erik would have become if he had not bore the face he had. If a man lives in shadows, he becomes a ghost.

Women, especially widows, often find life a struggle. It’s a man’s world – and we must conform or be outcast. Many resort to crime to feed hungry bellies, I have seen failed dancers, abandoned my patrons, often pregnant, starving in the streets or selling their bodies for bread.





Giveaway & Blog Tour

Follow the tour HERE for special content and a giveaway!

  • $20 Amazon giftcard,
  • Free Audible edition of both books (UK, US, DE),
  • Signed print copy (or large print - winners choice) of either book,
  • Free copy of Kitchen Imps and Other Dark Tales (fantasy) in either ebook, signed print edition or audible.
  • 1 winner each!

 About the Author

British-born A. L. Butcher is an avid reader and creator of worlds, a poet, and a dreamer, a lover of science, natural history, history, and monkeys. Her prose has been described as 'dark and gritty' and her poetry as 'evocative'. She writes with a sure and sometimes erotic sensibility of things that might have been, never were, but could be.

Alex is the author of the Light Beyond the Storm Chronicles and the Tales of Erana lyrical fantasy series. She also has several short stories in the fantasy, fantasy romance genres with occasional forays into gothic style horror, including the Legacy of the Mask series. With a background in politics, classical studies, ancient history and myth, her affinities bring an eclectic and unique flavour in her work, mixing reality and dream in alchemical proportions that bring her characters and worlds to life.

She also curates speculative fiction themed book bundles on BundleRabbit - for the most part the Here Be Series

Alex is also proud to be a writer for Perseid Press where her work features in Heroika: Dragon Eaters, Heroika Skirmishers - where she was editor and cover designer as well as writer; and Lovers in Hell - part of the acclaimed Heroes in Hell series. http://www.theperseidpress.com/
Awards: Outside the Walls, co-written with Diana L. Wicker received a Chill with a Book Reader's Award in 2017.

Website  * Blog * Facebook * Twitter * Instagram * Bookbub * Amazon * Goodreads


 


Monday, January 25, 2021

God, Darkness, & Wonder: An Interview with Byron Leavitt

 This post is synchronized with a simulcast on BlackGate.com (Jan 25, 2021 posting).

Art & Beauty in Weird/Fantasy Fiction

It is not intuitive to seek beauty in art deemed grotesque/weird, but most authors who produce horror/fantasy actually are usually (a) serious about their craft, and (b) driven by strange muses.  These interviews engage contemporary authors & artists on the theme of “Art & Beauty in Weird/Fantasy Fiction.” Recent guests on Black Gate have included Darrell Schweitzer, Sebastian JonesCharles Gramlich, Anna Smith Spark, & Carol Berg. This one features Byron Leavitt, novelist and game-author for Diemension Games. 

Byron Leavitt is also the author of the bizarre children’s novel The Fish in Jonah’s Puddle (To Say Nothing of the Demon) and the non-fiction book Of Hope and Cancer: One Man’s Story of God, Darkness, and Wonder, as well as the story content for the board game Deep Madness and its accompanying book Shattered Seas (recently reviewed on BlackGate). Byron is currently working on the storybooks for the forthcoming Deep Madness prequel Dawn of Madness, a story-driven horror experience in a board game.

“Darkness. Light. Wonder. Beauty. God. Tentacles. Those who know me best would say that pretty well sums me up.” - Byron Leavitt

Interview Table of Contents/Links

  1. WHAT’S THE SCOOP WITH YOUR ICONIC FEDORA?
  2. BODY HORROR, MUTATIONS & CANCER
  3. FINDING BEAUTY IN DARK PLACES
  4. DO YOU THINK GOD ENJOYS HORROR?
  5. RELIGION IN WEIRD ART
  6. YOUR CHARACTERS
  7. WORKING ON A TEAM, IN A SHARED UNIVERSE
  8. WHAT SCARES YOU? IS IT BEAUTIFUL?
  9. OTHER DARK ARTS, YOUR DRAWINGS
  10. MOVIE INFLUENCES
  11. FUTURE WORKS

(1) WHAT’S THE SCOOP WITH YOUR ICONIC FEDORA? IS IT HIDING TENTACLES?

BL: Definitely. Actually, I never used to like hats. But then one of my characters, who I thought was a really cool guy, wore a fedora, so I decided maybe hats weren’t so bad. I bought a fedora on a trip and have been wearing them ever since. I suppose that’s an instance of life imitating art.

Dawn of Madness - Emily Hawkins Mutations

(2) BODY HORROR, MUTATIONS & CANCER

SE: You went into remission from recurring Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and a bone marrow transplant, which you discuss in your book Of Hope and Cancer. Considering that, and your penchant for mutating characters in Deep Madness (in which characters mutate into tentacled creatures) and Dawn of Madness (in which every character/wanderer has three alternate versions of his or herself; see inset images of Emily and Lynas’s malformations), we have to delve into how your condition affected your writing. Please tell us how your cancer experience shaped your art (nightmares)?

BL: That’s an excellent question! To be perfectly honest, though, I don’t think my experiences there influenced me that much. I know that’s a boring answer, but I was pretty weird before I got cancer. Plus, I really can’t take credit for a lot of the ideas in Deep and Dawn. Roger Ho, Cherry Li, and the Diemension Games team formed the basics for most of the characters before bringing them to me to flesh out.

I can think of one area that may have impacted me, though – or at least skewed me even further in a specific direction. I’ve always loved monsters and felt a strong connection to them, but I think my experience deepened those feelings. People tend to treat you differently when you have cancer (or likely any serious disease or condition). Or, rather, they don’t know how to treat you. You become diseased, unusual, and scary to them. You transform into an outsider, and others lose all sense of how to handle this “new you.” They don’t mean anything by it, and it’s not even necessarily a conscious action, but looking at you is just too close to staring at their own mortality. So, in a sense, you become a monster to them: a cautionary tale that is easiest to deal with if avoided, or a dark specter they know is real but which they want to put out of their minds. I think it’s very likely that this influenced me, drawing me even closer to empathizing with those on the fringes: the outsiders – and the monsters.

(3) FINDING BEAUTY IN DARK PLACES

SE: I post an excerpt from your book Of Hope and Cancer in which you describe finding beauty from places everyone else runs from. Given this, and your passion for horror, can you speak on the appeal of art that many may feel is repulsive? What joy do you get from playing in bloody rain?

Beauty in the Rain: Oftentimes when it begins to rain, I will decide it is time to go for a walk. I will put on my coat and my hat, and as everyone else flees indoors I will step out into the downpour and tumult to begin the trek down our long gravel driveway. I smell the freshly cleaned air. I hear the rain colliding with the leaves, the branches, the road. And I feel the beauty of something greater than me. I find myself steeping in awe, being consumed by wonder. … Don’t get me wrong: I know that the rain is wet and cold and at times even oppressive. I understand why people would want to avoid it. I even do myself sometimes. But I also think that by not stepping out into the rain, by not taking that chance of getting wet, we sometimes miss out on the beauty that is as fresh as a glistering raindrop on a flower.” - Byron Leavitt

BL: I have a dirty secret: my main goal is not to scare people with my writing. (Except for Dawn of Madness – though even that one has layers.) I am much more interested in taking readers to places they’ve never been and filling them with a sense of wonder and awe. Then, any other emotions or feelings accompanying those two sensations are a bonus that comes with the territory. I have heard other authors and creators who I respect say something like this as well. Junji Ito comes immediately to mind (who everyone should read whether they like manga or not.) In the realm of film, Guillermo del Toro has expressed similar sentiments. I think Lovecraft himself must have felt similarly to some degree, which is one reason why I believe his stories still resonate with people despite all the hang-ups and roadblocks that now exist between him and new readers. He took you to places you had never seen before. He stole your breath away first with the setting, the adventure, and the dazzling, wondrous “what if.” Then he crushed your lungs with the massive, incomprehensible otherworldliness of it all when you finally realized what was going on. This is the kind of horror that really gets me: the stuff that causes its reader to say, “Whoa…” before it makes her yelp, “GAH!” And if the two can be intertwined along the way, all the better. (The movie Annihilation is one of my favorites for this very reason.)

I am implacably drawn to awe. I feel like my life’s mission is, in a sense, to cultivate wonder. And I think these emotions are almost always tied to discovery, which very often plumbs life’s uncharted dark fringes. Exploring the unknown can be a truly exhilarating, life-changing (or affirming) experience. But it’s also one of the things that scare us the most. A massive chunk of horror revolves around the fear of the unknown and what exists in that nebulous, uncharted place – whether that place is the woods, the ocean, another planet, a long-forgotten temple, or just in the darkness itself. What exists beyond our solid, everyday walls of concrete and steel? What happens when you peel back the skin of what we perceive as reality and peer underneath? It’s very easy when exploring to find something absolutely breathtaking. But, at the very next moment, that same beautiful discovery can reveal its wild unearthly underbelly and send a thrill of terror shivering down your spine.

Dawn of Madness - Lynas Gershwin Priest Character

(4) DO YOU THINK GOD ENJOYS HORROR?

SE: You have written that you see God as “co-authoring” your destiny/fate. So it seems you have a spiritual god/muse who likes to write. Many may laugh at that, and it is funny I suppose, but many horror writers are not promoting violence or wishing fear on others.  So why would God want to write in the horror genre?

BL: Writing is a form of creation, and the Judeo-Christian Bible starts with God doing just that: creating. And I don’t personally think he was just forming what we would typically consider beautiful: He was fashioning the dark, squirmy things like the angler fish, the eel, and the spider. And I consider that a comforting thought. In fact, when I was growing up, the two things that made me think I wasn’t wholly deranged were deep-sea life and the book of Revelation from the Bible.

Some things are absolutely terrifying to us without being innately evil or devious in themselves: they’re just not a part of our framework or within our comfort zone. For example, the book of Revelation is chock full of uncanny, horrifying beings – and most of them are the good guys. Actually, the stuff in there (as well as in other places, like Isaiah and Ezekiel) is so extreme that some people think I’m borderline blasphemous when I discuss it with them. For instance, there are angelic beings (possibly the Seraphim or their relatives, though they aren’t explicitly named) who are entirely covered with eyes. As in, they have dozens (or hundreds) of eyes blinking all over their bodies and six wings. Plus, only one of them has a human face, and I’m not sure any of them has a human shape. Then there’s Jesus, who is depicted in several ways. One is as a lamb who has been cut open – who also happens to have seven eyes and seven horns. He takes and holds a scroll, too, making me think he must have hands. And it further seems likely to me that he must be standing on two legs as he opens and reads the sealed scroll. Then, in another place, he has white hair that glistens like snow, eyes that burn like flames, a face as bright as the sun, and a literal sword for a tongue. He holds seven burning stars in his hand and, when he speaks, his voice is as loud and layered as multiple rivers rushing at once. “Meek and mild” my butt.

To actually answer your question, though, I don’t know that God so much likes to write in horror as that he just specializes in the strange and unexpected. Having said that, I have often felt like watching horror has brought me closer to God, or at least made me consider the world in a different way. I know that sounds patently ridiculous, but hear me out. Horror is, in my opinion, the genre most likely to step beyond the bounds of normalcy – even more so than science fiction or fantasy (though both of those can and do.) And it’s outside of that space where I am most likely to experience something beyond myself. So, I am more likely to see or consider something that makes me look at things in a different way while watching horror. (This is not always the case, obviously, and it might not even be the truth most of the time. No one has ever had an epiphany while watching a Jason movie, for instance.) It also doesn’t hurt that many horror movies have what I would call a spiritual component. Some are more blatant – and more of a gut punch – than others. The Conjuring films come immediately to mind, and so does The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Or the indie movie Ink. Or the Japanese picture Re-Cycle. Even The Exorcist itself (and certainly The Excorcist TV show.) There’s also the Showtime show Penny Dreadful. Alternatively, in books, many of Stephen King’s works have a spiritual aspect, such as The Stand. I’m not saying these things are common in horror, but they may be more common than in any other genre right now.

Light is most discernable in darkness. So, in my mind, the darkest genre can be a wonderful place to find (or create) sparks of light. I guess I’ve always just seen “wondrous” and “terrifying” as siblings, or two sides of the same coin – much like light and dark. And I can easily draw one out of the other. Furthermore, if the Bible is to be believed, then so can God: “…Darkness was over the face of the deep… And God said, ‘Let there be light.’”

(5) RELIGION IN WEIRD ART

SE: Sticking with the religion theme. Your website has a tab for Weird Church that is awaiting content, and Shattered Seas features an Irish priest with Connor Durham...and Dawn of Madness will feature Lynas! Please discuss how/why you feature religion in your work?

BL: Religion is a huge part of me, and so is weirdness. I felt for a long time like I was living in two worlds: in one I had to fit in a square hole, and in the other I was pushed into a round one. The problem is, I’m more of an octopus shape. Octopuses are good at squeezing into a variety of spaces, but every once in a while they just want to be an octopus. So, Weird Church is going to be my attempt to unite those two worlds. A lot of my writing, too, is really me trying to merge those two realms, or at least play in both at once. I don’t think they have to be exclusive domains. In fact, I think in many ways they are surprisingly complimentary.

Lynas actually was a creation of the team, so I can’t take credit for him. Connor, however, is entirely mine. Whether I create them or not, though, I usually seem to find anchor characters in most projects I work on who can kind of ground me in whatever I’m doing. Connor was that character in Shattered Seas for me. Samuel was that investigator in the main Deep Madness game. And Lynas is probably that wanderer in Dawn of Madness. Beyond that, though, I often try to interweve themes into my stories like redemption and sacrifice, or things that will offer glimmers of light in the claustrophobic emptiness. Those foundational Judeo-Christian bedrocks are what often makes a character and a story compelling to me. That doesn’t mean things always go well: actually, it seems like they normally go pretty terribly. But having those flickers of hope in the darkness and seeing how the characters respond to adversity is, for me at least, what gives the work a depth it would otherwise lack.

There is a mystery, a sacredness, that I feel is missing from our world today. We have lost that weighty sense of Other in our largely empty materialistic lives. I find the wonder, the beauty, we have lost in religion and myth. That isn’t to say I discount science or anything of the like: I love studying science. But I do have a major problem with materialism. It is very hard for something to nourish the soul when it doesn’t believe or acknowledge that the soul exists. I believe religion and the sacred fill that cavernous void left by the yawning emptiness of our materialistic worldviews.  

(6) YOUR CHARACTERS

SE: Which character do you identify most with? The writer in Dawn of Madness?  Connor Durham or Lucas Kane from Shattered Seas? And I need to learn more about Dr. William West who emerges as the most interesting non-playable character and even antagonist in Shattered Seas, the core Deep Madness story and its Oracle’s Betrayal expansion. He obviously resonates with you. Tell us about him.

BL: There’s a little bit of me in most of my characters, and I love just about all of them for different reasons. My favorite for Shattered Seas is probably Connor Durham, though Charles Ryan (the closest I’ll likely ever come to combining Jason Momoa and a Bioshock Big Daddy) is definitely up there, too. After them, probably Min Wang and Mitsuko Takenaka, and then maybe Regan Waite and William West.

William was a creation of the team (as were all of the Deep Madness investigators,) and they had the basic structure for him in place before I came along. But he’s definitely a fun character to play with. Roger Ho (Diemension’s lead designer/creative director/CEO/fearless leader) was a little surprised by how evil William ended up being in Shattered Seas, but he’s always been that level of monster in my mind. It’s always a kick playing with a character who is simultaneously brilliant, deranged, and deluded like William. It’s also fun playing with characters who are in more of a grey area, like Regan Waite. I don’t think I’ve really done more than scrape the surface with her. I’m honestly still not entirely sure if she’s good or evil, and I think that’s probably a good thing.

(7) WORKING ON A TEAM/SHARED UNIVERSE

SE: With Shattered Seas Leavitt extends the world created by the Diemension Game team (with designers Roger Ho, Cherry Li, Chauncey, and Yichuan Wang, whom Byron dedicated the book to… in addition to the KS backers).  How does the creative process work with the team (game designers, artists, writer/you, your backers)? Like, do you have any input on character design or creation, or just the story? Can we expect more novels associated with Diemension Games?

BL: Working with Roger, Cherry, and the gang is fantastic. It’s certainly the best experience I’ve had working on a team. Most of the time, the characters are created by Roger and Cherry and then sent to me to flesh out. I work closely with Roger to make sure the stories are in-line with their vision, and usually put a bit of my own spin on it. One barrier we have is that we live in different countries, so it can be difficult for us all to follow along with every step. But we manage.

As for if there will be more Diemension Games novels, I certainly hope so. We have a lot on our plate right now between Dawn of Madness and Celestial, but I would certainly love to dig deeper into our different worlds in the future if the chance presents itself.

(8) WHAT SCARES YOU? IS IT BEAUTIFUL?

BL: A number of things make me cringe or tense up, but I think the thing that actually scares me is probably the idea of oblivion: Specifically, the idea that, behind everything, there is ultimately nothing but true unending emptiness. I think it’s an easy thing to romanticize and treat as beautiful, and I’ve seen many people attempt to do it. But to me it’s not. By its very definition, it would be cold, empty, and void. It would be anti-being. The very idea of beauty is meaningless there, and so is everything else. I think this should scare every intellectually honest person, and if the nihility itself doesn’t then the lines of thought birthed from its implications certainly should.

(9) OTHER DARK ARTS: YOUR DRAWINGS

SE: Do you practice other arts other than writing (spellcasting counts)? If so, can we share them (i.e., images of fine or graphic art) or mp3s/videos (of music). Likewise, can you discuss how art can from one medium can inform/inspire another?

BL: Ha! I don’t know that I’d call anything I’ve done “fine art.” I create a lot of different things, but the only one I would consider myself even halfway passable at is writing. What makes it even worse, perhaps, is that most of my work outside of writing has been the product of necessity. I don’t know, maybe that makes it more forgivable, but regardless, I’m definitely all about that guerilla DIY and duct tape.

Having said that, I do many things (even if not very many of them well.) I love creating in whatever form presents itself at the time. I’ve dabbled with art, mixed media, book design, web design, graphic design, sculpture, miniature painting, and other stuff. I sing, but I don’t have any instrument that I can say I’m particularly good at. I would love to get significantly better at many of these things I’ve mentioned. I guess time will tell if I succeed or not. Having said that, you asked, so here are a couple of sketches I made for my upcoming book The Fish in Jonah’s Puddle (To Say Nothing of the Demon). Like I said, they’re pretty mediocre. But hopefully the subject matter will at least be interesting.

As far as how different mediums can influence one another, I find that I’m an awful lot like a sponge. When I’m writing, I absorb stuff from wherever I can and then squeeze it back out into the story. Sometimes it’s from a board game miniature, or an art book, or a movie, or a video game. I can’t tell you how many items I ”sponged” for Shattered Seas, but there were a ton, including the video game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings, a book of sketches used in Alien: Covenant, both the movie and the book Annihilation, the movies Silent Hill and Prometheus, bits and bobs from Guillermo del Toro, the news (part of it was written during the pandemic’s early days), and a bunch of miniatures (both Diemension Games stuff and others.) Furthermore, I’m constantly listening to music when I’m writing. Interestingly, when I don’t listen to music, my output is almost always significantly lower than when I am. It’s almost like I must have something going in to get something out. I know there are some writers who have to work in utter quiet. I am not one of those writers. In fact, I almost can’t do it.

(10) MOVIE INFLUENCES

SE: Reading Shattered Seas, there is a scene that evoked the 1980 Superman 2 movie with Christopher Reeve. The villains (General Zod, Ursa and Non) were banished from Krypton into a 2D plane called the Phantom Zone. Also, the exhuming of the mysterious, submerged Sphere in Deep Madness reminded me of the 1987 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s “Sphere.” How have movies affected your work?

BL: Oh, man. I almost can’t quantify to what degree movies have influenced my work. They’re huge for me – and for the rest of the Diemension Games team, too. I don’t know that anyone actually has an accurate count of the number of references and influences there are in the Deep Madness board game. I think we regretted some of them later on, specifically when we decided we wanted to go in a more serious direction and expand the game’s setting into its own universe. But it doesn’t change the fact that those influences are all over the place.

Personally, I’m influenced immensely by a variety of directors and films. My favorite director is Guillermo del Toro, not just for his films but also for his take on monsters and some of his views on life and art. I think of him as a kindred spirit in many ways. I’m also influenced by many other directors and films. I love Darren Aronofsky, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, and anyone or anything that is weird and awesome. The list of movies that have inspired me is too long to write down for this interview.

As for Sphere, that reference is certainly intentional, though I’ve tried to steer us away from straight-up mimicry of it. (Whether I’ve succeeded or not is up to others to decide.) Sadly, the Superman 2 similarity is purely coincidental, as I’ve never seen it.

1980 Superman 2 Movie Snapshot

(11) Future Works

Outside of Diemension Games, your website mentions a world of Alayaka, and has a tab for Weird Church. Do tell! Or perhaps stay in the Diemension Games scope and tell us about your part in Celestial or Twisted Fables.

BL: On the personal side, Weird Church is currently a little Facebook group I’m starting for those geeks, artists, nerds, and weirdos who also want to pursue God, wonder, weirdness, and something beyond ourselves. It’s not actually a church, but it is definitely weird. Apart from that, the next novel I’m going to release will be the previously mentioned The Fish in Jonah’s Puddle (To Say Nothing of the Demon), which is a very strange, quirky little book about a boy named Jonah and a talking salmon named Stuart who strike out across the dimensions to stop the demon responsible for eating Jonah’s parents. After that, I hope to release my epic novel Alayaka, which is kind of a cross between dark fantasy, steampunk, body horror, and The Chronicles of Narnia. (A lot of writers have that one book they’ve obsessed over for years, and Alayaka is that for me.) I also have a bunch of short stories I’d like to get out if I can, including one of my favorite stories called “The Dance of the Krakens.” We’ll see how all of that goes.

On the Diemension Games side, our big projects right now are Dawn of Madness and Celestial. Dawn of Madness is a story-driven horror game that we hope will actually scare people (which I’m writing a bunch of books for), and Celestial is an epic game for 1-2 players that I like to describe as a cross between Chinese mythology, cyberpunk, steampunk, Lovecraftian horror, and Game of Thrones. Twisted Fables is a smaller 2 or 4-player fighting game that features reimagined fairytale heroines such as Red Riding Hood the cybernetic assassin and Little Mermaid the harbinger of the Kraken. It’s currently being manufactured. We’re also hoping to expand on our first game, Deep Madness, in the near future.

If you’d like to learn more about Diemension Games’ projects, you can find us on our website at https://diemensiongames.com or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/diemensiongames. If you’d like to follow me specifically, then you can find me on my website at https://byronleavitt.com or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ByronCLeavitt. You can also email me at byron@diemensiongames.com. I’d love to hear from you.

Last of all, I just wanted to say thanks, Seth, for the chance to do this interview. It’s been a blast!

Thank go to you, Byron, for sharing!