A Halloween Story Repost: “Closure”, by MJ Marzo

Much like “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, “Closure” is a story that can be happily read twice a year, Halloween and Valentine’s Day, being both a ghost story and a love story…sort of. Is it superversive? We’ll let you decide.

MJ Marzo is the author of two stories in the critically acclaimed collaborative novel “God, Robot” (be sure to leave a review!), and the assistant editor under the name Mariel Marchetta. You can find her soon as the assistant editor, and co-author of the frame story, of the upcoming anthology “Tales of the Once and Future King”.

And without further ado, “Closure”…

The woman’s house lacked the crystal ball and dim lighting of every other place Robert had visited, which he took to be a good sign. There were no tarot cards, or bowls of powder. The very fact that they were meeting in a living room and not some seedy, back alley parlor was a novelty.

Robert squeezed the hand of the woman next to him lightly, both of them pacing the room while they waited for their hostess to return. The hand was clammy and had a slight tremor. The short blond woman smiled uneasily.

“Bobby, are you sure about this?” she whispered to him.

“What makes you so unsure?” he asked, smiling as he took in his surroundings.

“Well, this isn’t exactly what I pictured when I think of a medium. It’s certainly not like any of the places we’ve been to so far.”

He took both of her hands, looking into her concerned eyes. “That is precisely why I’m so excited Christy! No smoke and mirrors. This is going to be the one. I can feel it.”

His optimism was infectious; Christy couldn’t help but give her fiance a brief kiss, her own confidence rising to match his.

The woman they had come to see–a tall, thin woman in her forties, with streaks of grey running through her hair–walked in rubbing her hands on an apron tied around her waist.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized, “I had to get the cookies in the oven for my  son’s soccer team. Please, sit down, sit down. We’ll get started.”

The woman’s nervousness only added to the authenticity of this experience. Finally, he was going to get answers.

“So…I’m afraid I’ve never done this for, uh…payment before,” She started. “Or for something like this. Usually it’s little things. Favors for the neighbors.”

“That’s perfectly okay, Mrs. Keller,” Robert answered, “We haven’t had any luck with people who call themselves professionals.”

This seemed to calm her down a bit. “Please, call me Edith” she said, smiling. She wiped her hands on her apron once again, finally folding them in her lap.

“Well, why don’t we start with why you’re here?” she asked tentatively. “The advertisement mentioned something about your wife?”

“You see,” Robert explained, “Christy will actually be my second wife. My first wife Sandra, she…” He seemed to have trouble continuing. Christy took out a tissue she kept in her pocket–it was obvious that she had done this before. Robert waved her hand away and ran his hand through his beard.

“She died of breast cancer,” He continued. “Such a wonderful woman, full of life even until the end. I don’t know how I survived without her–until I met Christy of course.” He grabbed her hand, lightly tracing circles on the back with his thumb.

“We met a year later when I decided to go back to school to get my degree and got engaged six months later.” Christy finished.

The back and forth between the couple felt almost rehearsed. Edith could tell that they must have told this story many times before. Robert took a photo out of his pocket and began to tear up.

“And you want me to see if I can help you contact your dead wife?” Edith asked gently. Robert nodded, wiping tears with the back of his free hand.

“I just can’t get married without knowing Sandra is okay with it. That she approves. We’ve been to so many other places that have told us what we wanted to hear, but I just never felt like they were really her–when it is, I’ll know. We’ve postponed the wedding for five years while we’ve searched for someone who could help us. I’ve put my entire life savings into offering a reward–at this point we can’t even afford a wedding. If things go well today Christy and I will just go to the courthouse.”

Edith couldn’t help but be impressed at the patience of his fiance, who looked to be trying very hard not to let her disappointment show.

“Well, I’ll see what I can do. May I see the picture?” Robert placed it gently into her hand. The picture was of a rather plump woman with a short bob of red hair. Despite her size, her dress suggested that she was very confident in her body. Edith held it in her hand and began to concentrate.

The couple sat on the couch, hand in hand, waiting anxiously for only a few minutes, but what seemed more like hours. Robert felt a twinge of guilt shoot up his spine as he watched Edith close her eyes and furrow her brow with effort. Was it really fair to put so much pressure on her?

But all of a sudden it changed. Edith relaxed, her eyes opening slowly. She placed the picture, very carefully, on the glass coffee table in front of her.

“Robert?” She said, her voice different. It became deep, with the slight rasp of a habitual smoker.

Robert’s mouth dropped open. It amazed Christy that after all this time, he still had that initial reaction. “Sandra?”

Robert. Oh my god, I didn’t think I would ever see–”

She stopped, her eyes flitting to his and Christy’s hands clasped together. “Who is this?” she asked, her smile now forced.

Unlike Christy, Robert was oblivious to the poison dripping from that seemingly innocuous sentence.“She’s why I wanted to talk to you. This is Christy. She’s my fiance–”

“YOUR WHAT?!” She got up from her seat, throwing her hands in the air. Robert put his arm around Christy protectively and pulled her closer to him. Christy thought that leaving might have been the better option.

“You’re engaged?” Sandra screeched. “Why the hell did you think I wanted to be dragged here for that?”

“I–I–I just thought–” the man stammered.

“What, that I wanted to be her bridesmaid? When did you decide this was a good idea?”

“We met a year after you were gone,” He muttered, but unfortunately his words did not escape the scorned woman’s tongue.

“You mean I was barely cold in the ground,” She snarled, “And you’re already with this…this…skinny bitch!”

Excuse me?”

“Christy, please don’t–”

“YOU STAY OUT OF THIS!” The two women screamed.

Robert shrank as far into the couch cushions as he could, praying no one in Edith’s family was returning soon.

“I would rather be skinny than some fat-assed cow, I saw your picture, how Bobby ever found you attractive I have no idea–”

“At least I have a chest, people are going to look at you and think my husband is gay!”

“You mean my fiance!”

“No. MY husband!”

At this point the two women were leaning into each other, their hands resting on the glass coffee table.

“Girls, maybe we should calm down.” Robert suggested weakly.

With an unholy screech of anger, Sandra flipped the coffee table to the side. It flipped over their heads, hitting the wall and shattering. Reflexively Robert tackled Christy to the ground, guarding her from any shrapnel; it was a miracle none of them were hit.

When Robert looked up, Sandra was only glaring at them. “You protected her and not me?” she huffed.

Robert couldn’t even find words. He only opened and closed his mouth like a fish.

“I know when I’m not wanted.” Sandra answered simply, and with that she had disappeared. Edith stumbled backwards and fell back into the chair she had started out sitting on.

“Did it work…?” she asked weakly, her voice back to normal. “Did you get to speak to your wife–oh my God, what happened in here?” she gasped. seeing the remnants of the coffee table scattered throughout the room and Robert and Christy huddled together on the floor.

“That was absolutely ridiculous!” Christy shouted, getting up from under Robert and smoothing out the wrinkles in her skirt. Robert got up as well and stayed silent.

“Robert and I have been to dozens of these people–five years–the most humiliating scam we’ve ever been subjected to–flipping a coffee table? We could have been killed!”

Edith looked absolutely confused. Christy put a hand on Robert’s arm. “Bobby, I’m so sorry it didn’t work out. Get your coat and we’ll get out of here.”

But Robert was not leaving; in fact, he had moved away from Christy and sat down. Taking a pen and his checkbook, he began filling out a check.

“I’m very sorry about the table,” He said evenly. “But you’ll have plenty left over to buy yourself a new one.”

“You’re giving her the money?” Christy exclaimed. “I mean, I want to marry you Robert…But what about finding someone who could actually talk to Sandra?”

Robert ripped the check out of the book and gave it to Edith, who took it with trembling, disbelieving hands.

“Yes,” He said, the tension gone from him body, looking more tired than ever before, “I had forgotten. But that’s Sandra all right.”

He took Christy’s hand and left without saying another word.

“Robert, I’m so sorry–” Christy began, but was stopped when Robert grabbed her around the waist, spinning her around and laughing.

“We’re finally getting married!” he exclaimed.

“But–But Robert–You’re not upset?”

Upset? Why would I be upset?”

“What about everything you said? About wanting her approval?” She held her head lightly, growing dizzy. Robert had, at this point, spun her three times.

“From her? Christy, I got something better! I’ve realized how lucky I was to get out of a marriage with that bitch!”

With that, he finally stopped spinning her around. Taking her hand again, the happy couple set off towards the courthouse.

NEW ANTHOLOGY SUBMISSIONS OPEN: Tales of the Once and Future King

  • Submission Period: May 16, 2016 – July 16, 2016
  • We will accept .doc and .docx submissions ONLY
  • Only standard manuscript format accepted
  • Payment: Pro Rata depending on the number of stories accepted – an equal percentage of royalties will be split
  • Word Count: Anywhere between 500-10,000 words
  • Poetry WILL be considered
  • Send stories to kingarthuranthology@aol.com
  • E-mail subject: SUBMISSIONS/Story Title

Calling all writers! As of today, I am opening up submissions to a new anthology: “Tales of the Once and Future King”. This will be an anthology of juvenile stories about King Arthur and all things Arthurian related. Juvenile is a broad term that can mean anything from a “Chronicles of Narnia” reading level to the later Harry Potter books.

The guidelines are very broad. Since it’s juvenile:

  • No sex
  • No unnecessary gore
  • No nihilism

HOWEVER – “juvenile” is not the same as “sanitized”. So:

  • There CAN be romance
  • There CAN be fighting
  • Things CAN get dark

We don’t want to see stories that talk down to children. Children are young, not morons.

No stories that insult the Arthurian tradition. This means nothing like “And King Arthur was really a BAD King and later scribes changed it!” or “Chivalry is sexist and horrible and the knights were all misogynist pigs”. This is one that’s more on our end than yours – if you think it might work, submit it, and we’ll see what we think.

Stories that insult Christianity probably won’t be accepted. I have no problem if you’re more interested in things like Druidic mysticism or Paganism than Christianity, it’s just flat-out insults I’m not really interested in. Once again, if you’re not sure, submit it and we’ll make the call.

“Arthurian” is a broad term. If any of the knights are mentioned, or the Holy Grail, or Merlin, we probably will count it. If you’re not sure, submit it and cross your fingers. The stories can be set literally anywhere or any time. If you want to submit a story where Arthur and his knights are fighting Lovecraftian Eldritch abominations, or Arthur is a pirate, or they’re all cave men, go to town.

The anthology will be edited by myself and my assistant editor, Mariel Marchetta. It will be released in September. Simultaneous submissions ARE permitted so long as you tell us IMMEDIATELY if you decide to go with another publisher.

Now go crazy! This should be fun.

Free Short Story: “Closure”, by MJ Marzo

Less than a week away from Valentine’s Day, here is my gift to you: The short story “Closure”, by MJ Marzo.

MJ is a young, up and coming author who will be making her professional debut in the anthology/collaborative novel “God, Robot”, with two short stories to her name. “Closure” is what can be called a “paranormal romance”…but with a twist. I think you’ll all really like it.

And without further ado…:

The woman’s house lacked the crystal ball and dim lighting of every other place Robert had visited, which he took to be a good sign. There were no tarot cards, or bowls of powder. The very fact that they were meeting in a living room and not some seedy, back alley parlor was a novelty.

Robert squeezed the hand of the woman next to him lightly, both of them pacing the room while they waited for their hostess to return. The hand was clammy and had a slight tremor. The short blond woman smiled uneasily.

“Bobby, are you sure about this?” she whispered to him.

“What makes you so unsure?” he asked, smiling as he took in his surroundings.

“Well, this isn’t exactly what I pictured when I think of a medium. It’s certainly not like any of the places we’ve been to so far.”

He took both of her hands, looking into her concerned eyes. “That is precisely why I’m so excited Christy! No smoke and mirrors. This is going to be the one. I can feel it.”

His optimism was infectious; Christy couldn’t help but give her fiance a brief kiss, her own confidence rising to match his.

The woman they had come to see–a tall, thin woman in her forties, with streaks of grey running through her hair–walked in rubbing her hands on an apron tied around her waist.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized, “I had to get the cookies in the oven for my  son’s soccer team. Please, sit down, sit down. We’ll get started.”

The woman’s nervousness only added to the authenticity of this experience. Finally, he was going to get answers.

“So…I’m afraid I’ve never done this for, uh…payment before,” She started. “Or for something like this. Usually it’s little things. Favors for the neighbors.”

“That’s perfectly okay, Mrs. Keller,” Robert answered, “We haven’t had any luck with people who call themselves professionals.”

This seemed to calm her down a bit. “Please, call me Edith” she said, smiling. She wiped her hands on her apron once again, finally folding them in her lap.

“Well, why don’t we start with why you’re here?” she asked tentatively. “The advertisement mentioned something about your wife?”

“You see,” Robert explained, “Christy will actually be my second wife. My first wife Sandra, she…” He seemed to have trouble continuing. Christy took out a tissue she kept in her pocket–it was obvious that she had done this before. Robert waved her hand away and ran his hand through his beard.

“She died of breast cancer,” He continued. “Such a wonderful woman, full of life even until the end. I don’t know how I survived without her–until I met Christy of course.” He grabbed her hand, lightly tracing circles on the back with his thumb.

“We met a year later when I decided to go back to school to get my degree and got engaged six months later.” Christy finished.

The back and forth between the couple felt almost rehearsed. Edith could tell that they must have told this story many times before. Robert took a photo out of his pocket and began to tear up.

“And you want me to see if I can help you contact your dead wife?” Edith asked gently. Robert nodded, wiping tears with the back of his free hand.

“I just can’t get married without knowing Sandra is okay with it. That she approves. We’ve been to so many other places that have told us what we wanted to hear, but I just never felt like they were really her–when it is, I’ll know. We’ve postponed the wedding for five years while we’ve searched for someone who could help us. I’ve put my entire life savings into offering a reward–at this point we can’t even afford a wedding. If things go well today Christy and I will just go to the courthouse.”

Edith couldn’t help but be impressed at the patience of his fiance, who looked to be trying very hard not to let her disappointment show.

“Well, I’ll see what I can do. May I see the picture?” Robert placed it gently into her hand. The picture was of a rather plump woman with a short bob of red hair. Despite her size, her dress suggested that she was very confident in her body. Edith held it in her hand and began to concentrate.

The couple sat on the couch, hand in hand, waiting anxiously for only a few minutes, but what seemed more like hours. Robert felt a twinge of guilt shoot up his spine as he watched Edith close her eyes and furrow her brow with effort. Was it really fair to put so much pressure on her?

But all of a sudden it changed. Edith relaxed, her eyes opening slowly. She placed the picture, very carefully, on the glass coffee table in front of her.

“Robert?” She said, her voice different. It became deep, with the slight rasp of a habitual smoker.

Robert’s mouth dropped open. It amazed Christy that after all this time, he still had that initial reaction. “Sandra?”

Robert. Oh my god, I didn’t think I would ever see–”

She stopped, her eyes flitting to his and Christy’s hands clasped together. “Who is this?” she asked, her smile now forced.

Unlike Christy, Robert was oblivious to the poison dripping from that seemingly innocuous sentence.“She’s why I wanted to talk to you. This is Christy. She’s my fiance–”

“YOUR WHAT?!” She got up from her seat, throwing her hands in the air. Robert put his arm around Christy protectively and pulled her closer to him. Christy thought that leaving might have been the better option.

“You’re engaged?” Sandra screeched. “Why the hell did you think I wanted to be dragged here for that?”

“I–I–I just thought–” the man stammered.

“What, that I wanted to be her bridesmaid? When did you decide this was a good idea?”

“We met a year after you were gone,” He muttered, but unfortunately his words did not escape the scorned woman’s tongue.

“You mean I was barely cold in the ground,” She snarled, “And you’re already with this…this…skinny bitch!”

Excuse me?”

“Christy, please don’t–”

“YOU STAY OUT OF THIS!” The two women screamed.

Robert shrank as far into the couch cushions as he could, praying no one in Edith’s family was returning soon.

“I would rather be skinny than some fat-assed cow, I saw your picture, how Bobby ever found you attractive I have no idea–”

“At least I have a chest, people are going to look at you and think my husband is gay!”

“You mean my fiance!”

“No. MY husband!”

At this point the two women were leaning into each other, their hands resting on the glass coffee table.

“Girls, maybe we should calm down.” Robert suggested weakly.

With an unholy screech of anger, Sandra flipped the coffee table to the side. It flipped over their heads, hitting the wall and shattering. Reflexively Robert tackled Christy to the ground, guarding her from any shrapnel; it was a miracle none of them were hit.

When Robert looked up, Sandra was only glaring at them. “You protected her and not me?” she huffed.

Robert couldn’t even find words. He only opened and closed his mouth like a fish.

“I know when I’m not wanted.” Sandra answered simply, and with that she had disappeared. Edith stumbled backwards and fell back into the chair she had started out sitting on.

“Did it work…?” she asked weakly, her voice back to normal. “Did you get to speak to your wife–oh my God, what happened in here?” she gasped. seeing the remnants of the coffee table scattered throughout the room and Robert and Christy huddled together on the floor.

“That was absolutely ridiculous!” Christy shouted, getting up from under Robert and smoothing out the wrinkles in her skirt. Robert got up as well and stayed silent.

“Robert and I have been to dozens of these people–five years–the most humiliating scam we’ve ever been subjected to–flipping a coffee table? We could have been killed!”

Edith looked absolutely confused. Christy put a hand on Robert’s arm. “Bobby, I’m so sorry it didn’t work out. Get your coat and we’ll get out of here.”

But Robert was not leaving; in fact, he had moved away from Christy and sat down. Taking a pen and his checkbook, he began filling out a check.

“I’m very sorry about the table,” He said evenly. “But you’ll have plenty left over to buy yourself a new one.”

“You’re giving her the money?” Christy exclaimed. “I mean, I want to marry you Robert…But what about finding someone who could actually talk to Sandra?”

Robert ripped the check out of the book and gave it to Edith, who took it with trembling, disbelieving hands.

“Yes,” He said, the tension gone from him body, looking more tired than ever before, “I had forgotten. But that’s Sandra all right.”

He took Christy’s hand and left without saying another word.

“Robert, I’m so sorry–” Christy began, but was stopped when Robert grabbed her around the waist, spinning her around and laughing.

“We’re finally getting married!” he exclaimed.

“But–But Robert–You’re not upset?”

Upset? Why would I be upset?”

“What about everything you said? About wanting her approval?” She held her head lightly, growing dizzy. Robert had, at this point, spun her three times.

“From her? Christy, I got something better! I’ve realized how lucky I was to get out of a marriage with that bitch!”

With that, he finally stopped spinning her around. Taking her hand again, the happy couple set off towards the courthouse.

Blast from the Past Story Review: “To the Moon”

In honor of being named a top ten gaming blog by Jeffro of Castalia House, here is a review I wrote a year and a half ago about a sci-fi game titled “To the Moon”. It can best be described as a cult classic – fiercely loved by a core of die-hard fans (I would be one of them), and basically unheard of by everybody else. I cannot recommend it enough.

This particular review focuses on the story, and you’ll see why – there isn’t much else to focus on. Except, of course, for the soundtrack…but let’s not get distracted. I’ll wait for you to finish.

Ready?

And without further ado…

It’s the Steam summer sale, and that means literally hundreds of games are going on sale from prices ranging from as low as 10% off to as high as, occasionally, 99% off. So of course this means that by June 30th I’m going to end up with some cool new stuff to try out.

But honestly, though I’m still looking for deals, I’m not sure why I’m even bothering now that I’ve found and finished “To the Moon”, a little-known gem of an indie game with one of the best stories in a game I’ve ever seen – possibly THE best. Story-wise, it rivaled the experience I get after reading a great book. It was that good.

And a good thing too, because there’s almost no gameplay. It was made in an RPG (role-playing game for those who don’t know) engine, but it’s more or less an interactive novel. Gameplay involved collecting objects, a simple tile-flipping puzzle, and a hilarious but brief plants vs. zombies spoof at the end of the game. But that’s it – you’re here for the story and the story only. There isn’t even voice-acting, just written down dialogue. Basically, it’s an interactive novel.

I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers, but it won’t be easy. I’m doing that because I encourage everybody who likes good writing in general to play this game, not just gamers. These are the sorts of games that should be getting publicity, not the ultra-violent affair that was BioShock Infinite.

“To the Moon” stars two scientists, Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts. They form a classic “odd couple” dynamic, with Neil as the goofball who makes a joke out of everything and Eva as the serious, professional one who’s always rolling her eyes. Their banter is entertaining and you grow to like them and root for them very quickly. Their job is to go into dying people’s heads and change their memories so that they believe, before they die, that they have achieved their greatest wish. And their patient Johnny’s wish is, of course, to go to the moon.

The story is creative, well-written, at times hysterically funny, and at times profoundly moving. It moves at exactly the right pace and handles its serious subject matter with the perfect mix of humor and pathos. It is also, in its own way, an excellent mystery.

I’m going to get this out of the way here to avoid shoehorning it in awkwardly later: The game is really, really funny. I mean, hysterical at times. It’s probably the funniest game I’ve played besides the Portal games. Neil is the comic relief and he gets a lot to play with. The comic highpoint is a montage of Neil and Eva going through Johnny’s head and trying to “plant” a desire to go the moon inside of his memories, a totally ridiculous sequence that had me laughing out loud. It has everything from dumb puns to smart pop culture references (done badly they can be cringe worthy, but the game pulled it off), and all of it inserted in exactly the right places to keep the serious undertones of the game from descending into melodrama.

Taking its cues from movies like “Memento” and “The Matrix”, the game (I nearly wrote “movie”) follows Neil and Eva as they journey back in time through Johnny’s memories, searching for a way to link his desire to go to the moon from his later memories to his early ones. Early on the story sets up a LOT of mysteries, some of them really bizarre (“What’s with all the origami rabbits? What does a hackysack have to do with any of this?”). I was worried they were writing themselves into a corner, but with time and patience the mysteries are all solved in a more than satisfactory way.

The story focuses mostly on the relationship between Johnny and River, his late wife. Early on we learn that there’s something a little…”off” about River. We follow Johnny and River’s relationship backward through time, starting with River refusing treatment for the disease that ultimately killed her all the way down to their awkward first date back in High School. River never reacts to the world quite the same way everybody else does, and while Johnny means well one of the overarching themes of his life is his difficulty understanding River and empathizing with her feelings. As much as he loves her he’s obviously out of his element.

What’s up with River is a plot point I don’t want to give away, but it’s part of the reason the game is so great. It’s probably the most realistic and respectful portrayal of a mental disorder (I use this for lack of a better word) in the history of video games. It knows its subject matter well, and it neither sugarcoats it or makes it out to be overly destructive. It’s a fact of life that everybody involved with River (and, of course, River herself) has to deal with, and one of the tragedies of Johnny’s life is that he never really learns how.

The relationship makes up the core of the game, and of all the mysteries the biggest one really is “What on EARTH does any of this stuff have to do with going to the moon?”. Well, by the end of the game, you learn, and what happens after is absolutely heartbreaking.

The game isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions. If you could have the one thing you wanted most in the world, would you lose your memories to do it? How much is worth bearing to be with the one you love? And let’s not even get into the morality of the whole concept…that’s a post for another day, and an idea that I’d love to see Dr. Feser tackle [Author note – I am referring to the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher Dr. Edward Feser, who did tackle a subject similar to this in his article “Self control”, about the movie “Memento” and the Phillip K. Dick short story “Paycheck”].

So what we’re getting here is really a relationship put under a microscope. It’s a story that starts out complex but slowly progresses into a very simple tale of a man in love with a woman he can’t quite understand, trying to deal with tragedy but not sure how. The ending is profoundly touching, and I must say that by that point the player is EXTREMELY invested in Johnny and River’s happy ending.

If gaming is ever going to be accepted as a serious art form and not just something for nerds we need more ambitious projects like “To The Moon”. The story took an incredibly original concept and instead of taking it and going off in a cliche direction they took the opportunity to explore the effects of dealing with a loved one who suffers from a mental disorder. And on top of that, they handled their difficult subject matter in an extremely mature way. River was a complex character and her disorder was portrayed realistically, without exaggeration or sugarcoating. The humor and emotion of the game worked together in a pitch-perfect way, and when the emotional beats hit, they hit like sledgehammers. Oh, and by the way, it had the best original soundtrack for a game I’ve ever heard.

The video game world does not need “Half-Life 3”, or “Final Fantasy Billion”, or “Uncharted 4”. What gaming needs are games like “To The Moon”, games that aren’t afraid to go off in new directions and tackle the serious subjects. If games like this aren’t the future of gaming, they should be.

Two thumbs way up, and I urge anybody who likes a good story, and not just video games, to go and get this game. For three dollars, its sale price on Steam, it’s a better experience then you’ll get out of most books, and for the ten dollars it normally is it’s still a bargain. You can be sure that I will be following this developer from now on and eagerly awaiting the game’s sequel [Author note – since this review was finished the developer, who is working on a major sequel, did put out a mini-sequel set in the same universe, as well as a couple of DLC’s. For the curious, a brief review of the mini-sequel can be found here].

Somewither by John C. Wright

Somewhither

It’s covers like this that make me regret reading on a Kindle.

I feel like I need to disclose this right off the bat: John C. Wright is my favorite author. That may or may not taint my review of his newest novel, Somewither, which may or may not descend into slavish fan boy ravings.

You can probably tell how I feel about this book already, but I’m going to break it down anyways. Somewither tells the tale of one Ilya Muromets, the homeschooled son of a man who does a mysteriously military job for the Vatican. Early on, Ilya receives a text message from his boss, one Professor Dreadful, curator of the local cryptozoology museum, asking him to thwart an invasion and save his daughter. It seems that Professor Dreadful has managed to open a gate into another creation and accidentally prompted an extradimensional invasion orchestrated by the Tower of Babel. Hilarity ensues, and by hilarity, I mean more dismemberment than you can shake a stick at. Ilya, as it turns out, is from another world altogether, and is a type of subhuman that cannot be killed. The cast is comprised largely of people who come from different aeons– what most writers would call alternate universes, ignoring the etymology of universe– each with their own special tricks and abilities. The Tower of Babel is a fearsome force that has leveraged super-precise astrology to conquer dozens of other aeons.

Wright has a knack for making good characters, but as often as not, his settings are just as memorable– if not more. The Dark Tower– Babel– is one of the most convincingly evil empires I’ve seen in a very long time. They speak the Ursprache, the language of Eden, and can thus understand all other languages; their astrology, powered by Babbage machines, is unfailingly and frighteningly accurate. There is a chilling sequence in the first third of the book in which Ilya is captured and tortured in the only way that one can torture an unkillable immortal: killing, wounding, and starving him, inflicting pain upon pain in ways that would kill anyone else. Ilya is trapped in a cell for days with an open hole opening on a 40,000 foot drop to the Earth below; all one has to do is leap out in order to be free from their imprisonment. As one of the Host Who Yearn for Death In Vain, Ilya will survive the fall; but the astrology of the Dark Tower means that they know exactly where his mangled body will land, and after every fall, Ilya wakes up back in his cell. This is the enemy with which Ilya and his enemies must wrestle: a cruel and seemingly undefeatable foe.

Somewither is the first book of a series, and it’s a long’un. It’s hard to tell just how long ebooks are, but I’m guessing that this sucker is close to 700 pages. This means we get a lot of detailed fight scenes, plus the twists and turns that are one of Wright’s selling points. It also, however, means that sometimes passages will drag on longer than one might like. For instance, there’s one diversion examining Ilya’s relationship with Professor Dreadful’s daughter that bogged me down a little bit, coming in the middle of far more manly things, like stoicism in the face of hideous torture and promising to tear down a tower that, near as I can tell, stretches to the moon.

My only other complaint is this: Wright has a very distinctive voice. That’s not a bad thing, but telling the story of a 16 or 17 year old boy in first person means that the boy feels more educated than even the homeschooled son of a special ops warrior-chaplain ought to be. Ilya just seems to know more than he should; he’s schooled in pop culture, scifi, hand to hand combat, and traditional academic pursuits. I get it, but I’m thirty-four years old with three-quarters of an M. Div. and twenty-five years or so of reading primarily science fiction under my belt. If I were critiquing this in a writing group, I’d point Wright to that exemplar of first person narratives, Gene Wolfe, but I’m not. Also, I’m a shmuck with a handful of stories under my belt and a novel that’s six months past its deadline, and Mr. Wright has written, what, twelve novels now?

Somewither a great ride, and probably John C. Wright’s strongest fantasy novel since the Everness books. Highly recommended. 11/10. Would regrow organs again.

The Mind Job: dystopian sci-fi

Since the theme of the week is “Dystopia”, I present a link to my short story: “The Mind Job” in OmniReboot.com. The basic premise involves the continuation of the surveillance state, and it’s implications for justice when taken to an extreme.

https://omnireboot.com/2015/fiction-the-mind-job/

 

 

Transhuman and Subhuman Part V: John C. Wright’s Patented One Session Lesson in the Mechanics of Fiction

writing mechanics

“I am eager to share my trade secrets,” says John C. Wright in his essay on writing mechanics–the fifth in his Hugo-nominated collection Transhuman and Subhuman. “…more science fiction writers means more science fiction readers, a larger field, and more money in the field.”

Step 1: stare at a blank page for four hours.

“If you want to be a fiction writer, you must learn to stare at a blank page with nothing but your name on the top without flinching, without weeping, without getting up to get a beer to fortify your faltering courage.”

How does one fill the empty page? Wright asserts that the answer is a matter of craft.

First, every work of fiction begins with a conceit–a make-believe idea. Wright dismisses the cliche of asking where writers get their ideas, since no one really knows, and ideas are abundant anyway. The difference between wannabes and pros is that pros write down their ideas.

The next item of business is revealing the plot. Every plot consists of someone who wants something having to overcome obstacles to get it. There are two entry windows for any plot: at the beginning, or in medias res. Getting readers engaged in the plot requires a “hook”–a hint of what’s to come that entices the audience to read on.

Wright identifies the most powerful hook as curiosity and notes that it is capable of sustaining the entire mystery genre. The key to maintaining curiosity is giving readers sufficient time to ponder a question before providing the answer.

Humor, says Wright, is a vital lubricant that helps readers slide into the story. A writer must make a sustained effort to help readers suspend their disbelief. In works of speculative fiction, setting elements that differ from the primary world must also be introduced early and with care. Here, demonstration serves better than exposition.

The same rules for establishing setting apply to characters. Readers should be given clues to deduce character traits; not told them straight out.

Regarding tone, Wright advises, “Selecting
tone is a matter of judgment. The only general rule is that the tone should
reinforce the general tone of the story. Don’t start a horror story with a
joke; don’t start a joking story with a horror.
” Due to the often subjective nature of humor, writers must exercise consistency and good judgment when setting tone.

Because so much of storytelling relies on nudging readers’ imaginations to paint the images the writer intends, using stereotypes is inevitable and indispensable.

“What the reader wants not to do is to be asked by the writer to use the stereotype in his head in a tired, trite, shopworn, or expected way, because then the reader notices, and is rightly put off, by the trick being pulled on him.”

Wright thus counsels authors to employ two contradictory stereotypes to describe each character. Bilbo Baggins is a retiring country squire and a supremely accomplished burglar. Kal-El is both mild-mannered reporter and Superman. The tension between these contradictions creates depth.

All of the aforementioned mechanics converge on pacing. Wright likens proper story pacing to a striptease or a magic trick. The author entices readers with a question, but makes sure to pose another question before answering the first–and then only partially. The key is balancing the interval between asking and resolving questions to maintain reader interest.

“It is a simple pattern with many variations: question, distraction, second question, first answer, second distraction, third question, second answer, and repeat. The longer the pause between question and answer, the longer the reader is kept lost at sea.”

Of course, the question of whether the hero will attain his goal must be asked in the first chapter, and the full answer must be saved until the last. How long a reader can stand being left in suspense depends on his genre preferences.

“Science fiction readers…like the sensation of being lost at sea and not knowing what is going on, and will wait with the patience of Job to be allowed to figure out the unreal reality, provided, of course, that you play fair with them, and actually have a real unreal reality to figure out.”