Monday, October 26, 2015

Guest Post by Stephen Zimmer author of Hellscapes:Volume II

Dimensions to Hell

The Hellscapes collections of short stories are very aptly named, as they involve various conceptions of Hell and the experience of it.  I’ve always found the ideas of Hell found in all kinds of religions to be very fascinating, ranging from the more uniform kinds of Hell found in Judeo-Christian faiths to the more individualized ones found in many Eastern faith traditions  (and a more Eastern concept of Hell is shown vividly in my Rising Dawn Saga, in the 4th book, The Undying Light). 

I’ve always gravitated toward the idea of a more personalized, or customized Hell, where the punishment fits the crime, so to speak.  This notion is not just relegated to religions, as it also has a powerful foundation in literature with Dante’s Inferno and the nine rings of Hell, where the condemned souls are assigned to places and torments that relate to the kinds of sins they committed in their lives.

The idea of a Hell being designed from the ground up in a personalized way is not absent from John Milton’s Paradise Lost either.   Satan gathers the fallen angels within what is essentially an infernal wilderness and sets about building up a new kingdom shaped directly to his will. 

Writers in the modern age have definitely explored these kinds of concepts, whether it be a novel like God’s Demon, by Wayne Barlowe, which I found to be truly amazing and very visual/cinematic in its conception of Hell, or the time-honored Heroes in Hell anthology series spearheaded by Janet Morris.   So, the idea of a personalized hell for those who dwell in it is certainly is not new and has a history from past to present.
For me, as a storyteller, working with a range of visions of hell, or levels of hell, gives me the ability to construct a story that is visceral and macabre, yet still has purpose.  The characters reap what they have sown in life, in an even more individualized way than you find in Dante’s Inferno.  Monstrous creatures might be spawned from the actions of the condemned character, and sometimes there are figures, who are given names like the Stranger (in Hellscapes Volume I, in “The Smallest Fish”), or the Hustler (from “The Club” in Volume II), who play the roles of guides in bringing the characters closer to the horrific realization of their situation and fate.

The personalization of the experiences, situations, and environments allows for a limitless scope in the kinds of stories and depictions included in these collections.   Like Dante’s Inferno and the various circles of Hell, it also allows for a variance in the intensity of the characters’ experiences.  Some face very brutal violent fates, while others face an unrelenting torment that is more psychological in nature than it is physical pain.  
In a given volume like the first or second, that variance among stories allows for a range so that the reader is taken through and ebb and flow rather than keeping everything at the same intensity level all throughout.    These kinds of dynamics make the harder-hitting moments hit harder, and the more reflective moments sink deeper, in my view.

Therefore, the levels, or variations, in the depictions of Hell serve a dual purpose.  Within the story they provide personalization to the particular characters.  In the creation of each tale, they become a powerful asset for the art of telling the story itself. 

The personalization of the various visions of Hells suits both character and plot in a much more organic way, and in the end I think results in a better story overall.  I invite new readers to adventure in the Hellscapes and see if they enjoy reading these various depictions as much as I enjoy bringing each and every infernal variation to life in writing them.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Author RJ Sullivan of Darkness With a Chance of Whimsy Guest Post

RJ’s Top Ten Favorite Collections and Anthologies

First of all, thanks to Shell for letting me guest-post today in support of my new release, Darkness with a Chance of Whimsy, my fourth Seventh Star book and my first collection of short stories. What seemed most appropriate was to briefly discuss favorite anthologies and short story collections that I have on my own shelf, that have touched me as a reader in some personal way. So without any further delay, let’s get to it.

1. Nightfall and Other Stories by Isaac Asimov: The first author I dove into after breaking away from a strict diet of Star Trek and Star Wars media. What can I say, he had me at Nightfall. An incredible idea, told well, in which religion and science clash in theoretical alien society (or not so alien society) on the eve of an apparent apocalypse. If you’ve never read it, I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say there is a reason people still talk about this stories over 70 years after its initial publication. There are other gems in the collection, but Nightfall is worth the price of admission. Runners up from this author include the seminal I, Robot and the Foundation Trilogy (Actually eight collected short stories, novelettes and novellas divided into three parts)

2. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr. A career-spanning collection of powerful short stories from the author many readers and industry leaders presumed at the time was a man with unusual empathy toward women. The stories, as the world now knows, were penned by a sensitive recluse named Alice Sheldon. Sheldon’s often apocalyptic visions make her, in my opinion, one of the earliest  and most successful visionaries to blend SF with horror into a potent blend of stories that I compulsively revisit. The novelette The Girl Who Was Plugged In shows us a future in which physical beauty and product marketing are all that matter to a shallow future society (huh!) and how one plain jane consumer jumps at an opportunity by a corporation taking unfair advantage of her. Besides the premise, the story taught me how to find an internal “pulse” in narrative fiction to drive a story forward. “Houston Houston Do You Read” and “The Screwfly Solution” are just two chilling possible futures that look at gender inequality with horrifying consequences.

3. The Martian Chronicle by Ray Bradbury. The classic collection takes 27 short stories related to Mars and presents them as a loose (and often contradictory) timeline. Each story is amazing in and of itself. Bradbury stood as one of the great soft SF authors that stood alongside Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein. Bradbury looks at human impulses and selfish desires and how those desires can often get in the way of doing the right thing. It’s been awhile since I’ve read this one (I will probably remedy that soon) but I still remember the final moment from ”The Million Year Picnic” that closes the collection, when little Timmy discovers “Real Martians” for the first time.

4. The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology by Joseph W. Campbell Jr. Before Astounding Magazine under the editorship of Campbell, SF was mostly seen as trashy pulp. This collection documents the change to the more thoughtful genre it became beginning in the 40s, presenting many key works by the authors that helped bring about that change. Blowups Happen by Robert A. Heinlein; Vault of the Beast by A.E. Van Vogt, Nightfall by Isaac Asimov J, plus stories by Murray Leinster, L Sprague DeCamp, Eric Frank Piper, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester Del Rey, and more. While there are other collections perhaps more thorough that look at the same era, this one has a little underappreciated story by an obscure author called Meihem in ce Klasrum by Dolton Edwards, a short spoof essay that looks at English rules and projects “common sense” changes to grammar (and then applies the change to the paragraph that follows) so that by the end of the story, the reader is faced with nonsensical gibberish they can read with perfect clarity. Whether that’s a good thing or not if left up to the reader, but it’s a delightful piece.

5. The Hugo Winners Vols I and II collected by Isaac Asimov. Another anthology which serves to track the change in SF from its hard science foundation of the 40s into the 60s and 70s when a new generation of authors (led by Harlan Ellison to no small degree) challenged the old school to push the genre further.

6. The Complete Illustrated Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle While you can find plenty of Holmes short story collections, with many more complete than this, the oversized hardback edition by Castle Books (still in print, you can it NEW from Amazon at a steal for ten bucks!) collects the complete Strand Magazine run of stories. This includes the Hound of the Baskervilles in serialized form and 37 short stories! What makes this collection special is that it reprints the actual page layouts from the magazine with the Sidney Paget illustrations, mastheads, the original typography, and more. It must be seen to be believed. Although I love my Kindle, this makes the strongest argument for me how paper collections are still a vital part of certain reading experiences.

7. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. I mean....yeah. Do I really need to explain this?

8. Reel Future. Edited by Forrest J Ackerman and Jean Stine. As a classic movie fan, this is a really nifty set of 16 stories that inspired major motion pictures, including Empire of the Ants by H.G. Wells, Who Goes There by John W Campbell Jr. (The Thing), Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates (The Day the Earth Stood Still) The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) and more.

9. Skull Full of Kisses and Other Stories by Michael West Yes, I gotta show my publisher and one of the authors I most respect a little love here, because this was a collection I bought within minutes of meeting Mr. West (He has that effect on people). As you can probably tell from this list, I don’t go for much straight-up horror, but this collection, with its theme of love, relationships, and longing running throughout, is as awesome as you may have heard. Although I haven’t picked it up in a couple of years, my mind still frequently returns to moments from Jiki, Trolling, Einstein’s Slingshot, For Her, and the amazing Goodnight.

10. Back Roads and Frontal Lobes by Brady Allen. Another small press book by an author I have the privilege to know as well as read. Again, I don’t read a lot of horror so your mileage may vary. In my blog review, I photographed myself wrapped in a blanket cowering while reading it, and my jokey hyperbole was taken in the spirit intended. But I was only half joking. Like Michael’s collection, images and impression from this book continue to haunt me over two years later. From my review: “This collection defines what the term “edgy” storyteller really means.... In this collection, Brady Allen makes 23 attempts to take you somewhere unique and exciting. Someplace you have never gone before. A handful of those times, he won’t quite get there. Most of those times, he will. What Brady will never do is play it safe. Never. And that’s what I admire... .” That was in 2013, and today, I still stand by those words.
So those are ten favorite collections that have touched me in some personal way and that I still love to revisit. Thanks for listening.