Epic Movie by Catherynne M. Valente


    I didn’t set out to be a writer. I was raised by a single mother, putting herself through grad school typing up other students’ papers for them back when typing skills were rare enough to make this a feasible way to make money. There was a Christmas or two, when I was very young, that we were the recipients of the local Catholic charity tree and presents–you know, the stuff you dump in the bins every other year if you think about it. We were that family. I have memories of staring at dried milk and potato flakes in the store, all we could afford. I stood there in the flourescent-bathed aisle, longing for a real glass of liquid, frothy milk, and a whole potato, with crisped red skin.

    Our lives got better. We moved to California so that Mom could stop typing papers and teach political science at a good university. She finished her doctorate in the sun, with actual glass bottles of organic, cream-top, fresh milk in the fridge, and steaming potatoes wrapped in glittering foil. But I never forgot the taste of Butter Buds and Alpine Aire, the smiling children on their red boxes, how utterly I knew their happiness and healthy smiles were lies. Between those boxes and my mother, her hard life and her very serious lessons on what it means to be a grown-up, how you can never rely on anyone to support you, and that to be self-sufficient is deadly important for a woman in this world, I sure as hell was never going to do anything as risky and low-income as writing fiction for a living.

    It sounds bizarre, given all that, to say that I went to school to study Classics. But I meant to emulate my mother, to teach Greek and Latin to pre-med students until I could get tenure. Then I would be safe, you see. Then I could breathe.

    It was a good plan. If not for epic fantasy, I might have managed it.

    Now, that’s not fair. Epic fantasy didn’t ruin my life. It didn’t lead me to opium dens where elderly, wizened Chinese men passed redolent copies of Tolkien around a room, or to dice halls where you could lose all your first edition Eddingses in a fast hand of Texas Hold ‘Em. But it did teach me that it is practically required for a lost and lonely child without terribly much to eat, growing up without a father, to pursue an impossible and astonishing destiny, to become something wonderful, to strive against odds.

    Who was I to argue with the thousands upon thousands of pages of epic fantasy that I ingested over the course of my childhood? Sure, none of those destined children were girls, and they usually ended up having royal pedigrees I certainly didn’t, but what is inarguably a cliche does serve a purpose, the purpose most fairy tales serve, the purpose of most stories, in the end: now and again to teach a child that there is a slim, but very real, possibility of a world beyond their own dark and frightening kingdom.

    As an adult, however, epic fantasy seems to me to be the most problematic of all fantasy sub-genres, pestilent with the twin orcs of cliche and derivative narratives that flirt with plagarism. But it is that very danger that makes epic fantasy so relentlessly attractive, so ripe for re-invention every decade or so by a new Michael Moorcock or George R.R. Martin. Like any ruined maid, epic fantasy has all the prettiest clothes and all the filthiest morals. No one wants to bring her home, but everyone’s had her, and most have gone back for seconds.

    We love it because it’s broken. And like Henry Higgins, most of us think we’re just the terribly clever kids to fix it. But we always run up against those pretty clothes and those filthy morals, and if you’ve forgiven this over-extended metaphor, then I’m reasonably sure you’ll let me take it just a little further on.

    Worldbuilding is the hoop skirt and the hoop earrings and the feathers in the hair and even the corset that makes objects inside it appear larger than they are. We really can’t be blamed for falling for this kind of thing. Most SFF authors are nerds at heart, and to list, to categorize, to arrange, to label and annotate is essential nerd-activity. Given an entire universe utterly under our own sway, who among us can resist chronicling the geneologies of ticks on the hindquarters of the King’s sister’s least favorite dog? More importantly, if Tolkien himself was addicted to appendices, why should we resist? After all, most SFF readers have a healthy geek-streak in them, too. When I’m asked about worldbuilding, the question most often revolves around how much is too much, how do you know when to stop, where is the line between a believable world and an over-determined one. Behind all of these is the assumption that we are all of us battling the forces of crushing pedantry at every stroke of the keyboard.

    The answers have to do with the whole idea of worldbuilding itself. The idea that as authors of fantasy, we are in the business of creating worlds with unique rules and attributes which must be communicated to the reader before they could ever hope to understand the story they all showed up to hear. It just isn’t so. At best, we create an alternate history to the world we live in, this very one, the one with Butter Buds and kids with poor typing skills and doctorates. Show me a map in the beginning of a doorstopper that isn’t a warped version of England or Europe, or if the writer really went nuts, South America. A world where the basic physics of our own do not hold, beyond standard magical tropes such as flight, trans-substatiation, and giant fireballs. Anything that a first-year alchemy student in the 15th century didn’t figure his thesis advisor knew how to do and would totally tell him if the Magister didn’t have to guard the secret against the grubby hands of plebian society. It’s hard enough to find a fantasy world that doesn’t strictly hew to the gender roles and economic structure of the 15th century, let alone stretches to such impossibilities as twelve-legged horses and government by anything but hereditary monarchy.

    The fact is, there’s no such thing as worldbuilding. Not in epic fantasy. What is happening instead is that the author is playing historian to a world very like our own, where technology is replaced by magic and the VIN numbers have been filed off and replaced by long names with extraneous apostrophes. And historians are fighting pedantry with every step, agonizing over how much they know that the average person could never understand, but is just so cool when it’s just the cool kids–everyone with enough felt to pad an elbow. The historian’s best approach is an easy rule of thumb: assume the reader is basically familiar with how the world works, at least enough to make it from his house to his car in the morning, and provide only as much context as is absolutely necessary for understanding the events at hand, which is usually not terribly much, as everyone groks the basic psych profile at work: wants to stay king/wants to kill king/wants to be king. It’s not exactly complex, and knowing who Ethelred the Unready’s second cousin was is not key or even necessary to understanding the Battle of Hastings.

    The more interesting example, come to think of it, is whether it is necessary to know that the deposed King in question was named Ethelred the Unready. Almost certainly not. However, it provides unbeatable color, interest, and a peek into the mindset of the kind of people who would name their King that and not take his brother aside and ask if he’s ever thought of a career in public service. That detail is not necessary, but it is vital, because it pulls a double shift. It conveys information about the culture while at the same time foreshadowing the conclusion of the battle. It’s also a little hilarious. Any detail that doesn’t do double duty, and preferably triple, should be right out.

    Understanding the historian’s issues is a double-edged (mystical) sword: it means that so long as everything rolls along basically the way earth history does, (or as we tell ourselves it does, because I’ve got news for you: even Trajan’s family took three generations to go from slave to Roman Emperor and they were famous for the speed of their social mobility) epic fantasy holds together, has gravitas, feels muscular, real, solid. But it also means that high fantasy is the least likely of all sub-genres to depart from the political structure of your average game of RISK, and the familiar ups and downs of earth history become just that: familiar, repeatable, dull, predictable.

    There’s a solution to that, and it has to do with filthy morals. Remember the over-extended metaphor?

The thing is, once the “world” is “built,” inevitably, people have to live in it. Fortunately, epic fantasy does not require real people. It comes with a roster of easily-insertable archetypes which were only archetypes when Joseph Campbell was talking about them, and have long ago become robots, androids, machines with deceptive human faces. It is your duty to kill them, for the good of your race.

    The level of ripping-off that goes on is truly epic, and it’s not just Tolkien, who hardly created the most scintillating characters known to man. At this point it’s copies of copies, with massive generation loss. Tolkien was at least riffing off (an important distinction, ripping off and riffing off) of organic, self-replicating folklore. The field today is firmly on the side of the robots, and running Xeroxes of cardboard cutouts. The trouble with the hero with a thousand faces is that once you get four or five of those faces in a room, there are a limited number of stories that can play out, and all of them have been played out before. Again, the double-edged mystical sword strikes for half-damage: archetypal stories are archetypal because they work, way beyond our modern brains’ ability to sniff and seek something more rarified. It’s reptile-brain territory. Your lizard-brain knows absolutely that when the ambitious duke wearing black is dining with the good king wearing white and the king’s kind but soft-hearted son that shit is about to go down, and it starts hollering with all its cold-blooded, atavistic strength for the good guys to run, to save themselves, fly, you fools!

    If you do it right, you can ransom that poor, dumb king with the money you make telling the same damn story over and over, and readers will still be moved to tears, and children will still take strength from it. Such is the power of hard-wired backbrain-narrative, the stories we’ve been telling since we were squatting around a fire on the savannah. But if you blow it, it’s the worst storytelling there is, and frankly, most of us are going to blow it. Backbrain books aren’t easy–in their whole careers most writers manage one book that hits the bone and the heart and the DNA so hard readers can’t catch a breath. Even the big guy, my boy J.R., got one.

    So what’s the solution? How do you do epic fantasy, which thrives and relies on familiar narrative, neither assuming that you have an IV in the universal vein or getting so wrapped up in your precious creation that you miss Hastings for staring at Ethelred’s tapestries?

    So there’s this kid. Grows up in the middle of nowhere. No father, mother’s not around much. Hates the crappy food at home, dreams of something more. One day, the kid turns out to be really good at something, and the world opens up, awful and beautiful and threatening and enticing. Everything the kid thought was desirable and good enough falls away, and something better, something worse, something harder, something brighter, becomes possible.

    Is this a story about a boy on a farm who discovers he’s meant to wield an ancient sword and restore a fallen kingdom to its rightful ruler? Or is it a story about a girl who gagged on Alpine Aire Dry Skim Milk and dreamed of a quiet tenure until she found box after box of books with ancient swords on the covers? What you know about the farmboy is vague, archetypal, serviceable, generic. What you know about the girl is specific, culturally indicative, a little pathetic, even. It’s the same story, the difference is only in the worldbuilding–the boy doesn’t live in a world, he lives in a Campbellian holodeck. The girl lives in this world–and to any character ever constructed, the world they live in is this world, just their own world, the only possible world, it doesn’t have a fancy name any more than we call our world Gaia, and it cannot, by definition, be filled with the generic and the vague.

    The moral is: you get one. Either an archetypical story or a derivative world. For the other, you have to ante up. You use something personal, something that tastes bitter in your mouth, that’s hard to write. The most successful series of recent years took all the familiar tropes and changed one thing, whether it’s killing main characters like there’s a fire sale on tombstones or using the word “fuck” a whole lot. But you have to pick something you can sell as real, true, honest as milk, gritty as all hell, because readers want to both be comforted and feel that they’re edgy, erudite consumers of literature. It’s either a girl who hates the taste of Butter Buds and loves ancient Greek verbs who finds the sword and deposes the wicked king or it’s a farmer’s blandly blond son who grows bitter and angry over the lack of mystical weaponry on his land, learning the name of every sheep in the county, until he smothers his family in a night of grief and rage and misplaced destiny. Either one of those is a hell of a lot better than yet another shepherd turning into a king, which is just a Jesus riff, in the end, and I hear he’s got a nasty team of copyright lawyers.

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Heliotrope Issue 5 Contributors


Lou Anders is an 2008/2007 Hugo Award nominee, 2007 Chesley Award nominee and 2006 World Fantasy Award nominee, and is the editorial director of Prometheus Books’ science fiction imprint Pyr, as well as the anthologies Fast Forward 2 (Pyr, October 2008), Sideways in Crime (Solaris, June 2008), Fast Forward 1(Pyr, February 2007), FutureShocks (Roc, January 2006), Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film (MonkeyBrain, December 2004), Live Without a Net (Roc, 2003), and Outside the Box (Wildside Press, 2001). In 2000, he served as the Executive Editor of Bookface.com, and before that he worked as the Los Angeles Liaison for Titan Publishing Group. He is the author of The Making of Star Trek: First Contact (Titan Books, 1996), and has published over 500 articles in such magazines as The Believer, Publishers Weekly, Dreamwatch, Star Trek Monthly, Star Wars Monthly, Babylon 5 Magazine, Sci Fi Universe, Doctor Who Magazine, and Manga Max. His articles and stories have been translated into Danish, Greek, German, Italian and French, and have appeared online at SFSite.com, RevolutionSF.com and InfinityPlus.co.uk.

Hal Duncan is the author of Vellum and Ink, the former being nominated for the World Fantasy, Locus, and British Fantasy Society Awards. His novella Escape From Hell was published by Monkeybrain Books last year.

You can visit Duncan at his site notesfromthegeekshow.blogspot.com

Neil Gaiman is a NY Times Bestselling novelist and has garnered the Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, Eisner, and World Fantasy Awards for his novels, short fiction, and/or comics. He was also the 2009 Newbery Medal recipient. Among his film work are adaptations of his novels Stardust and Coraline.

You can visit Neil Gaiman at his site www.neilgaiman.com

Rhys Hughes – Maliciously maligned in his home land, Rhys Hughes’ books have found success amongst the far more discerning and fruit-favouring folk of the Iberian Peninsula. Also, his ears are spoons. His book, A New Universal History of Infamy, has recently been published in Spanish.

You can visit Hughes at rhysaurus.blogspot.com

Paul S. Kemp is the NY Times Bestselling novelist, most of which taking place in the Forgotten Realms setting. He is currently writing a forthcoming Star Wars novel entitled Crosscurrent.

You can visit Kemp at his site home.earthlink.net/~paulskemp/paulskempshomepage

Chris Roberson is a multiple time World Fantasy Award finalist, and a winner of the Sidewise Award for his fiction. His novels include Here There and Everywhere, The Voyage of Night Shining White, and Paragaea: A Planetary Romance. He is also writing a spin-off miniseries to the popular Vertigo title Fables called Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love.
You can visit Roberson at his site www.chrisroberson.net

Bryan Talbot is the Eisner, Eagle, and Inkpot awarding winning creator of projects like Luther Arkwright, A Tale of One Bad Rat, and Alice in Sunderland

Catherynne M. Valente is the author of such novels as Labyrinth, Yume No Hon, The Grass-Cutting Sword, Palimpsest, and the Orphan’s Tales duology. She is a Tiptree Award winning author and Rhysling Award winning poet.

You can visit here at her site www.catherynnemvalente.com

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All Stories, Articles, Poetry, and Previews moved over

Thanks to everyone for holding tight, while we moved everything over to the new site.  Issue 5 will be coming very soon, check this space for updates!

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Heliotrope Issue 4

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Heliotrope Issue 4 Contributors


Ian R MacLeod has been writing in and around the area of what he still likes to think of as speculative and fantastic fiction for many years. He’s published five novels and three short story collections, has been widely anthologised and translated, and has won or been up for most of the major awards. His latest novel, Song Of Time, is due out very shortly from PS Publishing, and he has new stories due out in several markets, including a couple upcoming in Asimov’s and in two new Steampunk anthologies. He lives in the riverside town of Bewdley in England, and he divides his time between writing, trying to write, and not writing at all. His website is at www.ianrmacleod.com.

Nick Mamatas is the author of two novels. The Lovecraftian Beat road novel Move Under Ground was nominated for both the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild awards in 2005. The satirical novel of neighborhood nuclear supremacy, Under My Roof was recently nominated for Germany’s Kurd Laßwitz Preis for translated science fiction. Much of his recent short fiction will be collected in You Might Sleep… in July 2008. Nick lives near, but not in, Boston Massachusetts.

Sandra Ruttan was born June 2, 1971 in Etobicoke, she grew up in Muskoka. As a child she devoured books, including Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, CS Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, and had her first newspaper column at the age of 13.

After high school she spent time living overseas and witnessed the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Over the years she has traveled to over 25 countries on four continents.

She studied journalism at Loyalist College, took communication studies from Simon Fraser University and worked in special education. She also completed a creative writing diploma, which was when she began her first completed manuscript.

Sandra lives in western Canada.

Catherynne M. Valente is the author of the Orphan’s Tales series, as well as The Labyrinth, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams, The Grass-Cutting Sword, and four books of poetry, Music of a Proto-Suicide, Apocrypha, The Descent of Inanna, and Oracles. She is the winner of the Tiptree Award and the Million Writers Award and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the Rhysling and Spectrum Awards, and the World Fantasy Award. She currently lives in Northeastern Ohio with her partner and two dogs.

Jeff VanderMeer is currently working on three stories sure to make him obscure: “Juan Mandible Sick-Eyes,” “The Quickening,” and “Mormeck.” For other news, visit his website at

Anna Tambour’s next novel is Crandolin.

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Letter From the Editor Heliotrope Issue 4 – Jay Tomio

Issue four is a bit of a transition for us though we have carried over a couple of the features that we debuted in our last issue. I am pleased to be able to present another of my favorite writers in general – but particularly his short fiction – Ian R. Macleod to continue the virtual anthology kicked off by Jeffrey Ford last issue. A bit of staple at Heliotrope now, Jeff VanderMeer returns from gardens of forking paths to suggest quality shelf space decisions for those of us readers who may mistakenly feel we have all the questions. Our poetry for the issue is penned by the delightful Anna Tambour, continuing our tradition of attracting wandering muses – this one from down under. Returning to our pages for the first time since our first issue is the newly crowned Tiptree Award winner, Catherynne M. Valente. Cat’s been busy spinning a tale to what is oddly enough one of the great epic fantasies we have seen, though it is not so in a way we have come to perhaps falsely define. She reenters the small stage with what is hopefully the first of her columns we will be the venue for. Some will say we have less fiction this issue, I am sure the author of that piece will tell you he can stick it in a pillowcase and beat you to death with the weight of his story while he screams G-O-O-D-B-Y-E.

This editorial, compared to the last, will mirror the issue, a bit short, still sweet, but a doorway to yet another bigger door. Our next issue will be a bit of a deviation, but one you will not regret answering the bell to. Expect news of it coming soon as we retool Heliotrope and pass out new keys to our well of locks.


– Jay Tomio

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Succession At Quandong Creek by Anna Tambour

Old Ron’s house by Quandong Creek
with a cockatoo shriek and a pop of sinews snapping
(loud reports lost under a barrage of rain on tin)
      fell down one night.
Flung down its useless arms, popped hips to flop
and in one last bony sag died cursing
      bloody oath!      surrenderless

But this was no surprise.
For years there, at the tendrilled valley’s end
it listed, crouched in a rhomboidal sway,
gazed at its nail-stubbled often-streaming face,
in ever-nearness peered in that trick mirror of jokey waters.
Stubborn, but pushed and jerked in play –
the windswirl devils had their way with it,
their whistling joys.

. . . and those few nails as possible bought in 1938
didn’t help to pin the joints.

Ron’s house kept company with its own reflection,
watched vines grow over bones of wood and other.
Lived through the end of claps of axemen, crashing
death replies. Saw bullocks strain till sold, or dead.
Ron’s house watched Ron sprout grey.
Watched Ron just lately hold his own
in house-like dignity, at people-devils.

Young costumed “hippies” now swirl naked,
joyful on their stage – this tangled creek
to the huffing, twisting stare of Ron
who always fills his electric kettle there
to make his tea and dinner on the fire he will make
from the cast-off limbs of eucalypts.

Ron’s cows drink from the creek there, too.
Old Crooked Horn, their queen, and all the rest
who spend hot days hock-cooled in contemplation,
chewing cuds, plops counterpointing
water ripple-breeze.

Ron’s cat Witchy kept the house rat-free,
but as for the tree that overhangs the house
those mangoes have a siren-scent so loud
that nightly drop-plops split the scurried air –
added to indignities of age and buffeting.
  Bombing mangoes dropped upon the roof
hit bang all night on headached windpushed tin
and the frame did more collapsing with each bash
  like a face   its teeth deserting.

Happily for Ron,
too many bushrats for Witchy-cat,
too many mangoes for the rats,
so Ron always gets a few.
He shares them with Ruby,
the dog who also eats his stew.

That was the second of Ron’s houses to collapse,
    and there’s one more to go.

All built to the jangle of empty pockets –
“goat farmers” everyone called the scoop-eyed vets
who vanished rent-unpaid from dreamless rooms
whose footprints melted under other trampings
who traded their present for parcels of
      flyblown white elephants!
    Say that again, mate, and . . .

government land.

High and wild, the hills and vines.
Hack a new life – the fixed-jaw assertions.
Amateurs at farming, experts at the hard life
the hardest men of all then,
too spare to shed a tear, to whinge at fate,
to mourn the friends who’d “fallen”

men who hacked their rusty laughs at euphemisms
led their straw-haired cow-eyed families
with no sweet homilies, but a harvest-full
of heavy open-handers
to the not-much-promised land.
      Never word-bakers,
their best hopes rose of pasts just burned;
they put no faith in this poppycock of Maker.

With those few nails, and his kin all hanging
like a swag of ticks on the jerking wagon’s hide,
Ron’s father’s long tongue-lashings and rougher whip
tore strips off the new-bought bullocks, who mild as milk,
forever uncomplaining, pulled the family up and up and
through the new man-dwarfing tunnels of lantana –
that carnivale-coloured migrant then making rampant
pinkflowering mountains in those hills

in those hills
where lovely lawyer vine that grabs and rips
tall rappling liana rope
slow-clutching strangler fig pouring its suffocation from the treetops
and leeches clinging fat, making sores hard-put to heal
and false valentine leaves earning axes for the giant stinging tree
and fat harmless pythons curling sleepy on the river stones
where buttresses of trees and roots turning under humus
caught your feet at every step and made your ankles burn

    The Jungle
as men called its alienness then
jungle smug as gravity,
old as wind
as forest fire
      crouched in waiting
as a hibernating fern.

Jungle, stoic as the bullocks
Jungle, displaced and something to be
warred against,
as Ron’s own Pa had sat
in trenches,
             to return.

Jungle just sat beside itself, its soul unbent
just hunkered down to watch men’s follies fall upon
themselves, as nail bites into wood, and rust in nail,
Jungle waited
to earn its place again
winding its wildness on the never-settled earth.

Today, vines twist around the dreams of ’38.
There’s one house left, and one old man, old cows,
and a flock of parrot-people in full flightiness –
but all that’s only a crack in the wood in time

house and nails and plans and flings of wailing winds
and skins of dreams all rotted by the damp.
Jungle doesn’t care, indelible as fate. It crouches in no
cramp. It staked its claim long before the bullocks and
the nails, before lantana tried to be conquistador.
This jungle that was here before is sure, and knows its
primacy. It hunkers, like the last house shoved.
It doesn’t need to wait and see.

One house to go.

For the playful windswirl devils,
a too-short game.
      But the jungle,
used to lying low

in a bullock-patient
certainty of


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The Devil and Ms. V by Catherynne M. Valente

I firmly believe that one of the circles of hell consists of a single endless undergraduate poetry workshop. They are harrowing by intent and design, so it should be unsurprising that your humble narrator was scarred by one or two in her time, and in times of extremis, draws out the lessons of those humiliating jungle-years with which to instruct and terrify. This is one of those times. Hearken, children! For what I have to say will chill your heart.

The devil of my early writing was man I shall henceforward refer to as Dr. S.

Dr. S was obsessed with the idea of Cliché. I capitalize it because he did—you could hear it in his speech, the awe and fear with which he regarded it. It was a word that came to haunt me, a floating neon noun ready to pounce on my carefully-typed pages and scald them with accusations. It was his main criticism of anything he did not like, lines, images, subjects. He was as vigilant against it as a savvy hunter against hidden panthers—Cliché may leap upon you at a moment’s notice, burrowing into your verse without pity or hesitation, and if you are not so well-read that you say your night-prayers not to God but Ginsberg, you will never even know it is there. Dr. S outlawed an entire index of words from our available poetic vocabulary at the beginning of the semester. I will not reproduce it in full, but among them were: “ocean,” “tears,” “love,” “gossamer,” and “blood.” These are necessary tumors to remove from the undergraduate body, of course.

In later years it seemed odd to me that a man so feared of cliché in poetry could embrace it so in his person. For Dr. S was particularly fond of the following activities: elbow-patches on corduroy jackets, writing poetry about his fatherless childhood in the Midwest, running the campus literary magazine like his personal Chilean junta, and sleeping with his students. It is entirely possible that there is a factory somewhere deep in the wilds of Iowa where such men are stamped out by the dozens and neatly shipped to educational institutions across the world.

Needless to say, Dr. S hated my work. Poetry should be about parental issues, edgy sex, and the Midwest, not magic or myth, after all. Eventually he threw up his hands and declared that if I wasn’t going to change for him, I wasn’t going to change for anyone, and I might as well just do what I do and languish in the purgatory of the unpublished. My response was, I believe, unprintable in such an august venue as the one in which these words abide.

However, despite my personal differences with the dastardly Dr. S, his phobia of Cliché was communicable, and I inherited it full-force.

It is a valuable phobia to have. In poetry, you cannot hide. Your words are naked and unprotected: if you dare to say a woman’s skin was white as snow, you will be caught out and arrested, and no judge in the world will remain steadfast at your side. It’s no more than you deserved, really. And because poetry is so vulnerable, so unguarded, most poets of any quality have figured out how to avoid it, or at least to slow down when they see a critical patrol car in the distance.

But in fiction, you can hide.

A novel consists of so many words that you can get away with murder, so to speak. And if you did not bend under the whip of Dr. S, if you did not discover along the way a phobia, nay, an allergy to Cliché, you may toss about as much snow-white skin as you please, and be forgiven for it. And as I have begun to review books as well as write them, I have come to believe that Dr. S did not make a small hell of enough young writers’ lives.
What is a Cliché, you might ask, so that I may identify it in the wild? A Cliché is something repeated so many times in so many pieces of media that it has lost all ability to move or impact the audience, and is therefore utterly useless to the writer. “Get away with murder,” for example. No one who reads such a sentence is really struck dumb with the raw unfairness of such a thing, the injustice, the violence condoned, the amoral, godless universe implied by such a phrase. Nor is it funny. Yet it is used and re-used as though it carried some kind of mantric power. This is silly, slovenly writing, and I shuddered to type it. Nevertheless, especially in genre literature, such proliferate like foul mushrooms. Not because the writers who use them are bad, or lazy, or anything of the sort. They simply are not poets, and have never been strip-searched for unoriginal phrasing. After all, in a work of a hundred thousand words, what does it matter if a thousand or so have been chewed to death by three millennia of decomposing authors?

It mattered to Dr. S. And it matters to me. The world could do with a little phobia, and if novels could be as naked an accountable as poems, we would all have to endure far less rubbish.

As a start, allow me to fire the following items from the English Author’s lexicon: “vise-like grip.” “His/her blood ran cold.” The word “eldritch,” applied to anything, unless you are Terry Pratchett and therefore making a joke, or H.P. Lovecraft, and therefore dead.

Skin may be any color, however, it may not be compared to: snow, milk/cream/any dairy product, ebony, porcelain, chocolate, coffee/café au lait/any caffeinated beverage.

Eyes, especially if they are green, may not “flash.”

A heroine may have red hair. If you pay a tax, it may even be “flowing red hair.” However, if she does, she may not be “fiery” a “spitfire” or any other combustible substance. She may not be spunky, sassy, or in any other way defined entirely by her hair color. If she has flowing red hair and a fiery personality, under no circumstances may she be named Molly. Or Kate. Or Annie, for god’s sake.

A sword may be many things. It may slice, dice, and julienne. It may cut tin cans and tomatoes with equal ease. Try hard to resist giving it a lineage, or allowing it to be of dwarven/elvish/eldritch make. Or glow. In fact, try writing a fantasy novel without using the word “sword.” It’ll be good for you.

If a hero is spunky or sassy, like his redheaded friend Molly, if he is a scrappy, clever, tricky type, he may be named anything but Jack. If he is an orphan, Oliver is right out.

This one may seem too easy, but like smoking certain vegetable substances, we rarely narc on each other, even though we know it is illegal: if a certain young man is destined for great acts of heroism, he may be raised anywhere but a farm.

The phrase “genre hack” was created for addicts of this sort of thing. This is only a beginning. Search inside yourself—you know others lurk there, panther-like, ready to pounce. They lurk in me, too. Our vigilance must be tireless. It is not that any of the above are bad in and of themselves. But they have been done so many times before—why would you spend precious time that will be counted against you at the hour of your death creating more of it? Life, and the warranty on your wrists, is too short for unoriginality.

If this sort of thing continues much longer, I shall have to institute a Neighborhood Watch. And you know, Dr. S just doesn’t have the vacation time.

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A Virtual Anthology: Weinachtabend by Ian R. MacLeod


A sleek Mercedes glides through falling snow towards the lodge gates of a sprawling country house. Inside, Diane, a beautiful woman, and Richard, the man she once loved, head towards their fate. In the Christmas weekend that follows, which is filled with tinsel and pine and fine whisky and presents and the joy of the hunt, they will fall in love again. And one will betray the other. And neither will survive.

Weihnachtabend made an immediate impression on me, and reading it again now as I have done many times over the years, that impression remains. It isn’t the idea around which the story is framed — even to me as a teenager when I first encountered this story, the idea of an alternate England which the Nazis had succeeded in invading was hardly ground-breaking — but pretty much everything else about Roberts’ story still feels both vivid and groundbreaking. Heartbreaking, as well.

Roberts was an artist as well as a writer, and the strong visual sense is one of his great strengths. The sense of that car moving through the snow at the start of the story, and then the country house at which it arrives, and the whole lovely idea of a firelit Christmas, the smooth luxury and easy indulgence of the privileged few in a dictatorship, is brought deliciously to life. The beautiful women, the guns, the cars, the powerful men and the fine wines, are all superbly undermined by the sort of genuine unease which action writers rarely seem capable of achieving. And the action in this story is subtly achieved, and thus made all the more compelling and, ultimately, horrific.

I used to wonder when I first read Roberts how it was that he was able to make the colours in his best work seem so vivid, the feelings of his characters so real, the sense of place so intense. Now that I’ve read a lot more widely, I understand that Roberts cared about aspects of writing which are often neglected in the genre. His choice of words, the way he reveals and describes things, how he lets his characters talk and react — all these things are accomplished with a verve and precision which is rare in any kind of literature, and especially in SF. Above all, though — or moving subtly below these strengths — is an almost preternatural ability to envisage things as if they were real. I’m not simply talking about the brisk solidity of his descriptions, or his fine attention to telling detail, although these are amongst Roberts’ characteristic strengths. What I’m really attempting to describe is that deeper sense of real people facing real choices in a world which seems even more vivid and complex, and yet ultimately as inexplicable, as our own. There are no simple remedies, no easy answers, no magic bullets or handy escapes. Above all, in his best work, there’s Roberts’ almost supreme ability to write about women, and about love, and about sex.

Amongst male writers, Thomas Hardy’s women would be the clearest parallel to what Roberts achieved; characters such as Tess D’Urberville and Bathsheba Everdene. Roberts also loved and commemorated the same landscapes that Hardy did, and had a similarly mordant view of God and humanity, and the shocks and ironies of chance. Although both writers could sometimes fall victim to cutesy wish-fulfilment, their passion for beauty and their anger at the world’s wrongness gives extraordinary power to their best work.

The key scene in Weihnachtabend which lingers in the mind — in part, I’ll admit, because I first read it as a male adolescent — is the love-making between Richard and Diane. As always with Roberts when he’s at his best, he approaches things in ways which are poetic, sensual and oblique. He fragments the moments into disassociated images and feelings which come back to haunt Richard as the story develops. Much, indeed in the manner of Nicholas Roeg’s film Don’t Look Now; for me, another key influence.

I often cite Keith Roberts as an inspiration for my work (and life) as a writer, and Weihnachtabend, as much as anything he ever wrote, is the reason why. I first encountered this superb short story back in my teens; an age when the place where I bought or borrowed each particular book, and then where I read it, often ended up almost as engraved upon my mind as the actual words on the page. So, for the record, I should say that I bought my paperback copy of New Worlds 4 from a carousel at a newsagents on the high street of Shirley, my home town, and that I read Weihnachtabend on a coach trip to the Cotswolds on what I think was my fifteenth birthday. And I still have it now. Many books are disposable. Some aren’t. Some stories you can loose or forget about. Others follow you into your thoughts and hopes — your fears and dreams.
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The Shadow Cabinet: Spotlight on Dedalus by Jeff Vandermeer


If the Surreal-Decadent section of the Shadow Cabinet has a publisher as its champion, that champion would have to be Dedalus (http://www.dedalusbooks.com). Based in England, Dedalus has produced edgy, inexpensive trade paperbacks of classic reprints, anthologies of translated fantasy from continental Europe, and even originals by the obscure writers of today. Given Dedalus’ current financial problems, and need for reader support, I thought it appropriate to spotlight a few interesting titles that, if not for Dedalus, wouldn’t be in print or, in some cases, never brought into print. Although Dedalus is most famous, perhaps, for its many anthologies of translated Surreal/Decadent or just plain phantasmagorical fiction, I have chosen to concentrate on novels…

The Other Side by Alfred Kubin (original publication, 1908) – Perhaps most akin in tone to parts of Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone, this novel by a major graphic artist of the Twentieth Century (1877-1959) tells of a mysterious city deep in the heart of Central Asia and the traveler who visits it. The city has literally been brought to its current location by its inhabitants. Over time, strange rituals and aberrations have sprung up. The relatively modern aspects of the novel—American tourists, etc.—are perfectly integrated into a timeless, festering milieu. Unease and unseen horror form the emotional foundations of this original and disturbing novel.

Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf and Confessions of a Flesh-Eater by David Madsen (Dedalus originals, 1995 and 1997) – Madsen takes on sexual taboos and deviations in Memoirs and cannibalism in Confessions, with equally fascinating results. The titular dwarf of Memoirs serves in the court of Pope Leo during the Renaissance—in fact, Leo’s backside is described in horrifying detail at the beginning of the novel. What follows is a clear-eyed view of a decadent Papacy, complete with all manner of degradation. As a narrator, Peppe the dwarf is endearing, disgusting, and a sturdy guide through the flagrant excesses of the period. Confessions, by contrast, is a more intimate affair, narrated by Orlando Crispe, who protests in the novel’s opening paragraph, “I did not kill Trogville. No matter what they say, I did not kill him. I introduced a mild narcotic into his glass of whisky; I subsequently stripped him naked, laid him face down on the parquet floor…but I did not kill him.” True, perhaps, although as the reader soon finds out, Crispe, more of a dandy and poseur than Peppe, has plenty else to answer for. Both novels approach the extremes of the grotesque while being fast-moving and, at times, darkly humorous.

Primordial Soup by Christine Leunens (Dedalus original, 1999) – Deceptively breezy and light, but descending into a special kind of darkness, this novel is narrated by Kate Lester, a meat-hater (due to the bizarre views of her mother) who turns to sex in adolescence as a way of achieving a kind of normalcy. Unfortunately, in college, she begins to mix sex with a sudden hunger for meat: “I spent those afternoons marinating Professor Ranji in my mind, in lassi and rose petals.” Satirical, unflinching, and an antidote to the more cloying choices from the Oprah Book Club, Primordial Soup isn’t without its flaws, but in terms of updating Decadent themes in a modern setting, it’s well worth reading.

The Mysteries of Algiers by Robert Irwin (original publication, 1988) – A very dark comedy mixed with philosophical discourse, Irwin’s novel blew me away when I first read it. Set in 1959 in Algiers during a last stand by the French against a liberation army, Mysteries follows Philippe, a desert intelligence officer bent on understanding the mind of the enemy. The plot is labyrinthine, Philippe’s actions grotesque. Unflinching, contemporary, and surreal, it’s a minor masterpiece of mood and condensed writing. Extreme? Certainly. But, then, some of the best writing is extreme. (I also highly recommend Irwin’s The Limits of Vision, an unclassifiable minor masterpiece.)

The Book of Nights by Sylvie Germain (original publication, 1985) – Compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude because of its generations-spanning events, this is a melodramatic, at times hyperbolic novel that showcases the grotesque and bizarre in describing a century of Franco-Prussian conflicts. The Book of Nights follows the Peniel family’s adventures, triumphs, disappointments, and suffering. The elevated language and almost saga-like rhetoric can at times be tiresome, but if you allow yourself to enter this stylized world, there’s an unmistakable power to the narrative. But: in tone and approach, it’s not at all like Marquez. Readers who buy the novel expecting a similar experience will be disappointed. (Germain’s Invitation to a Journey, also published by Dedalus, is a more personal novel, although not as good.)

If any of these novels pique your interest, I would also recommend seeking out The Man in Flames by Serge Filippini, Memoirs of a Byzantine Eunuch, and Alembert’s Principle by Andrew Crumey. Of course, Dedalus has many other titles, in and out of print, and almost all of them are worth your serious consideration.

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