Saturday, 22 May 2010

Cosmos Magazine 32 and Alien Life

Often I get my inspiration to write science fiction stories from articles I read in popular science publications. Last week I devoured the latest issue of Cosmos Magazine, Issue 32, which is a SETI special with all kinds of cool articles on alien life. Now my head is full of ideas on what to write next.

One article in particular, "Alien Safari" by Lewis Dartnell discussees what extra-terrestial life could be like on other planets. Two examples that he comes up with inspire the imagination: (1) plants that produce hydrogen filled bladders so they can float in the atmosphere to capture sunlight while vines tether them to their roots, and (2) worlds with really heavy gravity, the atmosphere becomes dense enough so that aliens the size of elephants could actually fly. Then Dartnell goes on to suggest that if they have six limbs, they might adopt biplane configured wings.

Of course reading all this, and what I'm learning about extrasolar planets astronomers are finding every day, I'm becoming more and more convinced that Earth-like worlds are pretty rare, especially Earth-like worlds that can remain stable enough for complex life to evolve. Did you know that if Jupiter and Saturn were just a little bit bigger, their gravity would have consumed all the other planets in the solar system by now. But if Jupiter wasn't as big as it is to suck in passing space rocks, Earth would be bombarded by comets and meteorites at such a rate no life could evolve much past the primordial soup phase. Jupiter is just right. Still, I'm thinking life is everywhere in the universe, and probably not to dissimilar to what we have on Earth. On our world it seems to survive everywhere there is liquid water.

As for intelligent life I'm convinced it's out there, but it's likely to be such a rare event that any intelligence life is too far away to contact, in both space and time. I'm suggesting other galaxies, which are millions of light-years away.

Getting back to what I started discussing, Cosmos Magazine, it is also great for its fiction. I can't say I've read all the stories they've published in the magazine or online, but generally I like most that I do read.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Cthulhu’s Dark Cults: Cover Art by Steve Gilberts

In my ongoing series of journal entries on how Cthulhu’s Dark Cults came to be, today I am focusing on the cover illustration, which was undertaken by the very talented Steven Gilberts.

Steven has been producing artwork for the small-press industry since 2003 starting with Space & Time Magazine. Since then he has been concocting odd cover and interior illustrations for a diversity of companies including Elder Signs Press, Apex Book Company, Cemetery Dance Publications, Chaosium Inc., and Shroud Publishing. Steve is going from strength-to-strength, and I’m sure it won’t be long before he’s illustrating covers for the bigger publishing houses.

I’m grateful that Steven did the cover illustration, as he captured perfectly the theme and the style of the book.

I’m also privileged in that Steven has illustrated one of my stories, “Solvent Hunger”. I’ve included the illustration here which appeared with my story in the Book of Dark Wisdom #5. The same illustration appeared on my chapbook Cthulhu Australis Part 1, where “Solvent Hunger” was reprinted.

Steven says the following about his illustration for the cover of Cthulhu’s Dark Cults:

“The basic concept for the cover was outlined to me by Dustin Wright [editor at Chaosium]. A group of figures dancing around a statue of Cthulhu in a swamp or woodland setting.

“I opted for the figures to be (tastefully) unclad and possibly attractive. After all, just because you worship a snoozing undead cephalopod creature dreaming deep beneath the Pacific Ocean doesn't necessarily mean you are homely.

“The statue of Cthulhu needed to be lit from underneath to indicate the fire that the cultists are dancing in front of. To be on the safe side I opted for a photo reference to be sure that I would get the shadows and highlights positioned correctly. It was Play-Doh to the rescue as the sculpting medium for the model to be photographed. Following in this vein I suppose I'll need to render an illustration in crayon one of these days.

"On a related note to shooting reference shots of the stature, the dancing figures were based on images from a reference source of models for artists to use. So no, I did not have a group of nudists cavorting around my studio, at least not for this particular assignment.

"I went with bright colours and a starlit night for the background to create a scene of (hopefully) ethereal beauty. As with the figures I reasoned that, though the subject matter is dark, the overall setting could be lovely. Perhaps with good looks and scenic settings the cultists would be apt to collect more members and victims alike.”

Photo of Steven Gilberts © 2009 Michael Morris.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Cthulhu’s Dark Cults: “Sister of the Sands” by David Conyers

My story rounds off the Cthulhu’s Dark Cults collection, with a tale set in Egypt, a land which for me is at the heart of all things Lovecraftian and Outer Godish. I’d always felt that The Masks of Nyarlathotep supplement for the Call of Cthulhu game was the best supplement ever produced, even if one considers that it came out more than 25 years ago. It’s a global adventure with an excellent back story, and like the Cthulhu Mythos, its central location is Egypt. The cult that features in my story and in Masks of Nyarlathotep is the Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh, what I considered to be the perfect example of the cults I wanted to portray in this collection.

An extract from my story follows:

SISTER OF THE SANDS
David Conyers

In the many eyes of the Outer Gods, a failure to understand one’s self-capacity for evil is the greatest of all sins. - Sharinza, The Masked Messenger

White Desert, Egypt, 1933

Unfazed the strange woman strolled from the deep desert, the hot winds whipping at her tatters, presenting her as an ominous crow. With a scalp shaved bald, she was covered only in blood and a dirty white wrap loose about her thin figure. Beneath the red ichors reflected a skin that was dry and pale. If her face were not so cold to gaze upon, I would have thought her beautiful.

“Are you hurt?” I asked, as she stood before me, her back arched and head held high. Under normal circumstances, I would have expected a woman in her state to collapse from exhaustion, or to beg for water, but this enigma requested neither. She just stared though and beyond me, into nothingness, as if eternity was all she could fathom. “Do you require assistance?”

Only then did her eyes find mine. Grey and deep, as if the soul they hid stretched to the beginning of time. She opened her mouth to speak, and did so gutturally in a language that I not only failed to understand, but one that I failed to even recognize. Our spooked and tethered camels responded differently, obtusely, by grunting and baulking with terrified agitation.

“You are in shock,” I blurted concerned that she might be babbling from sunstroke. I offered a hand of support. I saw that her shroud was drenched in so much blood I knew it could not all be hers. So I examined her as best I could without compromising modesty, until I was certain she was not wounded. “Here, let me take you to my tent,” I offered. I presumed she must have escaped some terrible ordeal, and probably required a space of her own to feel safe again.

At my words she offered her hand daintily, as if she were the Queen of the Nile and I her undeserving servant. Her bone-cold fingers in my grip, we rushed to my tent, more my urgency than hers. I had a supply of medicines locked away, and a cot for her to lie upon.

“Lieutenant, who is this?” called Karim Ibn-Shadar. The chisel-face man frowned despondently through a tight-lipped grin, for my long-suffering assistant from the War Office often thought me brash and unconventional. Appearing with this strange woman in tow would only add to his concern. “Where did she come from?” His eyes grew wide as he took in the bloodstains. “Praise Allah, what happened to her?”

“I don’t know, but she walked out of the desert, over there.” I pointed, across the salt-colored gypsum outcrops and gravel plains of the White Desert, deceptively likened to a snowfield frozen in time, except these sands were blisteringly hot. Karim and I both understood that there was nothing in that direction for thousands of miles, only the arid heart of the merciless Sahara.

“Is that possible?”

“Well, obviously not impossible.”

“And so much blood.”

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Albedo One 38 Released

Just received notice that Issue 38 of Albedo One is back front the printers and available for purchase in print and low-cost pdf formats.

This issue's fiction is by Bruce McAlister, Aaron Polson, Priya Sharma, Matthew F. Perry, Martin Belderson and a story from Allison Francisco, which was placed third in the Aeon Award 2008 contest.

Issue 38 also features an in-depth interview with Jim Gunn, as well as book reviews from regular columnists Juliet E. McKenna and, yes, that's right, me. Further review contributions come from Peter Loftus, John Kenny and Peter McClean. My reviews are for Zima Blue by Alastair Reynolds, Saturn's Children by Charles Stross, The Opposite of Life by Narrelle Harris and Horn by Peter M. Ball.

The cover is truly excellent, one of the best speculative fiction pieces that I've seen in a long time, by U.S. artist Jacob Probelski. Check out his folios here, here and here.

I'm proud to be member of the Albedo One team. I don't do much but write reviews and the occasional interview, well one inteview. I think it is a top notch magazine regardless.

Cthulhu’s Dark Cults: “The Nature of Faith” by Oscar Rios

In my forth profile on the various stories appearing in Cthulhu’s Dark Cults, I’m going to focus on Oscar Rios and his tale “The Nature of Faith”.

Oscar is probably today’s most prolific writer for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. He has appeared in several Chaosium monographs including his own Ripples from Carcosa and The Ravenar Saga. He then appeared twice in Miskatonic River Press’ first publication, Tales of the Miskatonic Valley. He was then asked by Miskatonic River Press to join the team as a staff writer and associate editor, and ever since he has been churning out material at a phenomenal speed.

Oscar lives in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut tri-state area. By day he is the assistant manager for a crematory in Astoria, Queens. He is also a happily married husband and father of two.

“The Nature of Faith” is Oscar’s first foray into fiction writing. In his novella he takes us into the haunts of Lovecraft Country and the town of Dunwich. His inspiration was the Keith Herber classic gaming supplement, H.P. Lovecraft’s Dunwich. Oscar has this to say about his contribution:

“I was thrilled with the opportunity to be a part of this collection, but I wanted to explore a different aspect of the traditional mythos story. I wanted to write a love story because who does that? I also wanted to explore one of the most harmless cults in the Cthulhu Mythos, the Believers of Dunwich. Lastly, I wanted to delve into the struggle between modern and ancient, between urban and rural, between scientific discovery and metaphysical balance. The main characters in this story are people firmly grounded in one of these two camps; one a professor of ancient history and the other member of the Believers cult.

“The inspiration for this story came when I was in Catholic grade school. In science class we were learning about evolution and two periods later we learned about creation in our religion class. Our young minds struggled to decide which was right. The title of the story, “The Nature of Faith” is something said by my science teacher at the time while discussing this difficult topic.”
An extract from the story follows:

THE NATURE OF FAITH
Oscar Rios


Dunwich, Massachusetts, United States, 1927

The spring storm swept up the coast, covering all of New England in thick clouds and pouring rain. In the hills of Dunwich this was a good thing. Farmers had smiled as they looked out over their newly planted fields of pumpkin, corn and wheat, reassured that their crops would get a right proper soaking. As the storm raged through the night, some of that smile faded as they moved to lock their doors. Strange things sometimes moved out of the Dunwich Hills on nights like this.

Visible only in the infrequent lightning flashes, a filthy, ragged creature stood motionless in the pouring rain. After a moment, it shook itself off, eyes darting about in confusion. It muttered to itself, then crept out of the wilderness and entered Dunwich Village.

With long white hair matted to its body, claws caked with earth, the creature moved with purpose, stealthy on its bare feet towards the home of Andy and Mildred Tanner. Rattling the back door but finding it locked, it nimbly scaled a nearby tree, climbed across an overhanging branch to a window on the second floor. Effortlessly, it reached out, opened the window and shimmied into the darkened room, closing the window behind it.

Once inside, the creature let out a long sigh, shaking out its soaking wet hair with its hands, and began fumbling for the light switch. Crash! Down came a ceramic shaving cup and the straight razor beside it, shattering loudly as it struck the floor.

Down the hall the sleeping couple sat bolt upright. They listened, hearing the sounds of movement from their bathroom. Andy Tanner crept out of bed, moved to his closet and loaded his shotgun with salt shot. He waved for his wife to remain in the room. She shook her head mouthing the word “No”. Together, hearts racing, they crept down the hall.

They halted, hearing water filling the sink. Holding the weapon steady Andy cried out. “Al’rite now, ye come outta there this instant. This here’s private property. No funny business now, I’ve got a gun.”

Slowly the door opened. In the lit doorway was a girl, soaking wet in a filthy sundress. Her white hair matted, her pale skin splattered with mud like some crazed feral thing. Then she smiled, her ice blue eyes shone with mirth. “Yer not gunna shoot me, are ye Andy? Beside, it’s just rock salt. It won’t really hurt me, just sting like the dickens.”

The shotgun instantly lowered, the pair relaxed for a moment, but only for a moment.

“Damn it Gerdy, I couldda shot ya! What the hell are you doin?” Andy asked.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Interviewed in Shroud Magazine, Issue 8

Jeff W Edwards informed me today that the interview he conducted with me last year has just been published in Shroud Magazine, Issue 8. We even made the cover.

In the interview I talk about how I got started as a writer, the experience of writing Secrets of Kenya and The Spiraling Worm, collaborations, how my marketing background has helped my writing and promoting my work, on the good and the bad of running writing workshops, and some background information on Cthulhu's Dark Cults, so the interview is well timed. Jeff did a wonderful job at making it all happen.

If you wish to purchase a copy, buy it here.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Cthulhu's Dark Cults: "Requiem for the Burning God" by Shane Jiraiya Cummings

The longest story in Cthulhu’s Dark Cults was penned by Shane Jiraiya Cummings, a novella of 18,000 words which involves a sinister global corporation that featured in the Call of Cthulhu gaming supplements Day of the Beast, At Your Door and Unseen Masters. Shane’s tale, “Requiem for the Burning God”, like “Devil’s Diamonds” by Cody Goodfellow and my “Sisters of the Sand”, is a tale written in pulp adventure style with lots of action, suspense and intrigue. I put all three stories last, as the energy and pace picks up in these tales compared to the more subtle and personal horror of earlier tales. I also did this because the later tales are more in line with the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game’s Pulp Cthulhu style adventuring, if that supplement is ever released.

Shane Jiraiya Cummings is one of the most active members of Australia’s horror writing communities, and in the small press, one of our countries more successful writers with more than sixty short stories published in Australia, the United States, and Europe. He is the Vice President of the Australian Horror Writers Association and an active member of the US Horror Writers Association. Shane has won the Ditmar Award twice, and has been nominated for over twenty other awards. Recently moving into longer works, Shane's recent books include Shards (Brimstone Press) and Phoenix and the Darkness of Wolves (Damnation Books). He is currently working on a Japanese fantasy series and other novels.

Shane said this about his story, “As a Lovecraft fan, I've always wanted to write a Mythos-inspired story, and when David Conyers invited me to contribute to Cthulhu’s Dark Cults, my dream was realised. I wasn’t very familiar with the Call of Cthulhu game, but David gave me the scenario and – Peru, early 1930s – and the rest of the story leapt onto the page. “Requiem for the Burning God” soon became an epic that incorporated my fascination for biplanes, zeppelins, and the corpses of mysterious gods.”

An extract from his story follows:


REQUIEM FOR THE BURNING GOD
Shane Jiraiya Cummings


Callao, Peru, 1932
Part I

A week at sea was one thing; a Pacific storm adding a day to the voyage and wobbling Max’s sea legs was something else altogether. Used to the constant downpour, the gloom, and the isolation for seven very long days, he was caught off guard by the glare of the dawn sun and the noise as he disembarked the gangplank onto the Callao docks.

A man with ferret features pushed through a knot of wiry, brown-skinned dock workers. “You Calder?”

“Who’s asking?”

“The name’s Neville.” He extended a hand, which Max shook with the curtness of a professional. “C’mon. The others are in the truck.” Neville thumbed at an open-backed truck parked on the dock. The paint job looked fresh, with a prominent New World Incorporated logo emblazoned in red on the door.

The four men sitting in the back, all white, wore uniforms that matched the newness of the truck. Three clutched rifles. The Peruvian dock workers circled wide of the truck. For their part, the NWI men watched everyone with suspicion.

“Those are German rifles, right? Mauser carbines?” Calder asked.

“Very good, Mr. Calder.” Neville stroked his chin. “You know your guns.”

“That’s what I told your man in San Francisco. That’s why I’m here, I guess.”

“Yes, yes. Tell me, Mr. Calder, are you a Max or a Maximillian?”

“I’m a Maximillian but Max will do.”

“Very well then, Max. I can’t place your accent. South African?”

“Displaced British, actually.”

“Displaced?”

“Yeah.” Calder kept his eyes ahead, studying the NWI recruits who in turn studied him as he approached.

Neville waved a hand at the truck. “Up you go, Mr. Calder. Make yourself as comfortable as possible. The trip to the mountains is long and bumpy to say the least.”

As Max tossed his backpack up into the truck, Neville opened the passenger door and stepped up. “A word of advice, Mr. Calder.” Neville paused on the threshold of the cabin. “Keep your eyes open for trouble. President Cerro’s government may welcome New World Incorporated but some of the locals are less enthusiastic about our presence. These are difficult times and you know why you’re here.” As if to emphasize the point, Neville pivoted to reveal the handle of a Colt .45 auto jutting from his belt.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Cthulhu’s Dark Cults: “Perfect Skin” by David Witteveen

Here is the extract from Cthulhu’s Dark Cults, this time a story from fellow Australia author David Witteveen with his short story “Perfect Skin”.

David lives in Melbourne, Australia. He won the inaugural Australian Horror Writers Association's Flash Fiction Competition. His other published Mythos work includes the story “Ache” in Hardboiled Cthulhu, which was reprinted in Australian Dark Fantasy and Horror Volume 2. By night he writes, drinks absinthe and wears cravats. By day, he does something dull with computers. He’s a very talented author and I’ve always admired how he can say so much with so little words.

David and I are long time friends, having met in high school. For a time we shared a flat with another friend, and backpacked through Africa and the United Kingdom together. We’ve also collaborated, on the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game supplement Devil’s Children and more recently in a short story appearing in Macabre from Brimstone Press, out later this year.

“Perfect Skin” is set in Istanbul featuring the cult that is central to the Call of Cthulhu campaign Horror on the Orient Express. David was inspired by two things when he wrote this story, as he explains, “The first was the factoid that President Ataturk banned the fez from Turkey in the 1920s. He wanted to transform Turkey into a modern, Western country rather than a traditional Oriental one. As part of that, he wanted Turks to wear Western clothing. But not all the citizens felt the same way, and there was a black market that smuggled fezzes in from other countries.

“The second inspiration was Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies. It's the definitive novel about the Bright Young Things. I love how the dialogue is so breezy and witty, but it's very clear the characters are all terribly sad underneath.

“The honeymooners Charles and Evelyn in "Perfect Skin" are my humble attempt to write something similar. And like Vile Bodies, my story starts off being quite light-hearted and amusing, and ends up somewhere very bleak.

“Something else I enjoyed about writing this story: there's not a squid-headed monster or unpronounceable name in sight. Lovecraft’s Mythos are a rich and deep platform for telling stories, and there’s a lot more that can be done with them than just the usual clich├ęs.”

An extract from the story follows:


PERFECT SKIN
David Witteveen
Istanbul, Turkey, 1922

The sun rises in the east. Five hundred years ago the Ottomans swept out of Istanbul into Europe as a tide of Islam and blood. Now Europe sends its revenge –- a dozen luxury carriages, drawn by the very latest thing in steam locomotives. The Orient Express, a luxury hotel on rails, carrying smiling tourists to holiday in the city where the Sultans once plotted war.

Come into the dining car. Breakfast is being served.

Businessmen and diplomats sit side by side with gangsters and flappers. Look there by the window: newlyweds Charles and Evelyn Drake are sharing a meal. Such a handsome couple. His suit is expensive, his skin tan, his smile rakish and charming. And Evelyn -- slim and blonde, skin white and fresh as milk, her blue eyes wide with excitement.

“How long until Istanbul?” she asked.

Charles flicked back his sleeve to check his watch. “Another hour yet, darling.”

Evelyn watched the brown hills flicker past the window. She was a London girl, born and raised. The landscape out the window was as alien to her as the moon. Charles, who made business trips here six times a year, barely glanced up from his omelet.

“Where shall we go first?” she asked. “The bazaar?”

“If you like. They sell monkeys there, you know.”

“Really? Monkeys? Will you buy me one?”

“Of course. Nothing says ‘I love you’ quite like a small hairy mammal.”

Someone coughed behind Evelyn. She turned, thinking it was the waiter come for her plates. And her breakfast lurched back up in her throat.

A man stood there. Half his face had melted. The skin was rippled and scarred like the wax on the side of a candle.

Evelyn tried to swallow, but the food was stuck in her throat.

“Charles Drake?” asked that horrific face. “My name is Colonel Phelps, British Embassy. We need to talk.”

Charles stared up at him coolly. “You’re scaring my wife, Sir.”

“My apologies. But I insist that we talk.”

“Insist away. I’m having breakfast.”

“It concerns one of your clients in Istanbul, Mr. Drake.”

“We’re here on our honeymoon, Colonel. This trip is strictly pleasure.”

“Sir...”

Charles sighed and put down his cutlery. “Look. You’re scaring my wife and you’re spoiling my breakfast. If you want to talk, go talk to a mirror. Otherwise I’m calling the waiter.”