Guthrie’s Guitar

Woody Guthrie, and his guitar declaring that music has the power the change hearts and minds and promote justice.

What Can I Do? 

It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot over the past week-and-change as I see concern and frustration for long unaddressed social injustices spill on to the streets of America and, increasingly, beyond.

Sure, there are little things I can and have done to help. But, as a music journalist and music historian, maybe there is one thing I can do better than most. Below, I’ve put together a playlist of my ten favorite protest songs. I hope you enjoy and, please, feel free to share.

If this list provides inspiration, comfort, or even just a means to while away 45 minutes or so to someone, especially someone taking a more active role, then I’ve been able to put my talents to work for the forces of good.

A Caveat: I make no claims this is a list of the best protest songs, they are the are the ones which most move me…but that reflects my age, my geography, and my background (which is to say, this is protest music through the filter of a middle-aged white guy … albeit one very knowledgeable in music). I am very aware that large sections of protest music are either unrepresented or underrepresented here (especially the contributions of hip-hop and folk). If you find this list does not move you, I encourage you to assemble and share your own list.

#10 Fortunate Son — Credence Clearwater Revival

While largely identified with the Vietnam War (to the extent that there are jokes about the requirement it be played during any helicopter scene in movies about that war), its lyrics are explicitly appropriate to any situation where the privileges of the few are built upon the backs of the many.

#9 “Vietnam” — Jimmy Cliff

While another explicitly Vietnam song, its author, Jamaican Reggae virtuoso Jimmy Cliff, has a lifelong record of musical and personal involvement with issues of social justice and anti-colonialism/anti-neocolonialism. No less a personage that Bob Dylan called Vietnam “the best protest song I’ve ever heard.”

#8 “Which Side Are You On” Dropkick Murphys

A traditional labor movement song, written by Florence Reece, an organizer with United Mine Workers in Kentucky during the troubled 1930s. While versions by Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg are better known, this Dropkick Murphys cover better matches my musical taste and, perhaps, the vibe of the moment.

#7 “Do You Hear the People Sing” – Les Mis

Created for the 1980 musical Les Miserables, set against the backdrop of the 1832 Paris Uprising, the song very rapidly gained genuine protest cred, being used in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War as well as for demonstrations in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States, Turkey, Ukraine, and Iraq. But, please, people … why isn’t there a punk cover of this available?

#6 Born in Chicago —  Paul Butterfield Blues Band

An early hit for the PBBB, an Chicago-based outfit that were pioneers in taking blues mainstream (or, more accurately, universally mainstream) the song is condemnation of violence and the poverty, deprivation, and lack of opportunity that underpin it.

#5 “God Save the Queen” – The Sex Pistols

Yes, at the end of the day, no matter how punk rock they were, the Sex Pistols were a pre-fab boy band. That never stopped them from delivering blistering, high-octane criticism of Thatcherite Britain’s social policies (and probably works just as well for Johnson’s tenure).

#4 Rockin in the Free World – Neil Young

While Buffalo Springfield alum Neil Young has a lengthy protest pedigree, this masterpiece of scathing social commentary wasn’t released until 1989; a portrayal of Reagan/Bush I-era America (a period which seems almost quaint today). While, in Britain, such social critique was largely associated with punk; in North America, along with homegrown punk musicians, Heartland Rockers such as Young were powerful voices in protest music.

#3 The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – Gil Scott-Heron

A poet and spoken-word artist as much as a musician, Scott-Heron’s classic offers an almost scholarly yet impassioned catalog and analysis of 1970 America’s social ills (most of which remain with us to this day) set to a feverishly hypnotic beat. No disrespect is intended to Scott-Heron for selecting a video which does not feature his image, I was fortunate to find this video montage with scenes from recent events and felt that took precedence.

#2 This Land is Your Land – Woody Guthrie

If you know anything about me, you know I’m not a big folkie. I like noise, energy, and amplification. But I find it impossible not to like to the modest, soulful poet from Oklahoma who took folk music into the mainstream (and who embossed his guitar with a declaration that music had the power the change minds and promote justice). In many ways, that simple refrain expressed in ten words, “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land,” is the Ur-text of American  protest music. Every else is commentary and expansion.

 

#1 The Man in Black — Johnny Cash

I continue to be amazed how many people I run into, from all parts of the political spectrum, who either don’t know or actively deny that “Man in Black” is a protest song. Not only is it a protest song (a simple perusal of its lyrics will put that issue to rest), for me it is perhaps the greatest protest song of all time. To paraphrase some Wikipedia contributor (who, to be honest, did better than anything this music journalist would have come up with) it is a stinging indictment of the exploitation of the poor by the rich, war, mass incarceration and many other issues – delivered by a once-troubled man who grew into an almost Christ-like compassion for the downtrodden and dispossessed.

A little editorializing: So, do I agree with every sentiment expressed in the lyrics of these songs? Or, for that matter, every image in the videos accompanying them? A fair question. No, I don’t. But I agree with enough of them and, most important, the underlying sentiment behind them to include them here.

 

GUEST POST: The Flower and The Serpent – Official Author Soundtrack

JB’s NOTE: I recently had the pleasure of discovering The Flower and the Serpent by Madeleine D’Este, a remarkable and adult-friendly YA tale straddling the line between horror and supernatural mystery set in 1992 Tasmania. Knowing my fascination with how music and narrative intertwine, Madeleine was gracious enough to sit down and assemble a soundtrack for the story.


Picture yourself in 1992, in Hobart, Tasmania.

These were the days of no internet, when Tasmania was an isolated island at the bottom of the world and new music came from the radio or television – Triple J and Rage or magazines like the NME.

This is the setting of my latest novel, The Flower and The Serpent, a supernatural mystery set during a high school production of Macbeth.

To help you immerse yourself into the world of The Flower and The Serpent, I’ve curated an official author soundtrack. It contains a selection of songs my characters would have liked around the early 90s and a few atmospheric pieces which inspired me during the writing process.

Don’t Go Now – Ratcat

A poppy breezy Australian early 90s classic, Ratcat was a permanent fixture on the stereo at teenage parties in the early 90s.

 

Tomorrow Wendy – Andy Prieboy

A dark depressing song for the teenage bedroom angst.

 

Connected – Stereo MCs

At a time when electronic music left the clubs and re-entered the mainstream.

 

Hieronymus – The Clouds

Another indie music Australian classic with a little more of an intellectual edge.

 

Leave Them All Behind – Ride

An epic shoegaze classic.

 

Higher Than The Sun – Primal Scream

Perfect for skating through the empty suburban streets at night with a joint in hand.

A Forest – The Cure

The classic Cure track which conjures up dark forests and spooky things within them.

 

Wardenclyffe – S U R V I V E

Readers have likened The Flower and The Serpent to Stranger Things, which is interesting because I didn’t make it past episode 1 of the TV show. Perhaps the similarity is due to the music. While writing the book, I avidly listened to S U R V I V E and two of the members of the band are responsible for the Stranger Things soundtrack.

 

Titel 2 – Bohren & Der Club of Gore

1992 was also the era of Twin Peaks and Bohren & Der Club of Gore continued the ‘doom jazz’ spirit of Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack with their own languid dread-laden jazz.

——————–

The Flower and The Serpent – Modern day Shakespeare meets supernatural mystery with this nail-biting young adult horror.

Who am I?

Madeleine D’Este is a writer, reviewer and podcaster from Melbourne, Australia. A lover of folklore, black coffee and dark synths, find out more at www.madeleinedeste.com or connect with her on Twitter at @madeleine_deste.

 

 

One Nation, Fifty Faces of Horror

As both a writer and a reader, I am very excited about Horror USA, the ambitious new anthology series from Sotiera Press. They envision a fifty volume series, with one anthology decidicated to horror stories set in each American state.

Their California anthology (both from a thematic and a marketing perspective, a wise place to start) was released on December 13th and has already generated substantial buzz. And it’s a 560-page monster, offering readers great value for the price.

I’m pleased to have one of my own tales, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Eats Its Children,” included in the collection. Drawing on my background in music journalism and music history, it’s the tale of an ambitious young  music journalist from L.A. who uncovers a forgotten bit of musical history  and follows the trail to an ill-fated Salton Sea community … and into darkness.

“Too Greedily and Too Deep,” with apologies to Tolkien.

And I’ve signed contacts for stories to be included in their next two anthologies, Texas and Washington State, scheduled for release in March 2020.

I think of “Darker than Black” as H.P. Lovecraft meets Cormac McCarthy: a tale of isolation, madness, and what happens when a rig crew “delved too greedily and too deep” during the West Texas oil boom of the 1920s.

Washington State’s best-known missing person turns up in “Rapture of the Birdman.”

While I eschewed anything involving the Sasquatch (figuring the publisher would receive a bigfoot-sized pile of submissions involving the Northwest’s favorite Cryptid), “Rapture of the Birdman” draws together one well-known bit of Washington Forteana with several lesser-known pieces of history and folklore into a story with influences as diverse as Deliverance, “The Most Dangerous Game,” Pet Semetary, and 1980s sci-fi/time travel film “The Final Countdown,” with the obligatory nod to Twin Peaks.

The ill-fated Salton Sea

Of those three, “Rapture of the Birdman” is the one of which I am most proud. Having spent most of my four+ decades there, I was perfeclty comfortable with the Texas story. With “Rock ‘n’ Roll Eats Its Children,” by revolving the tale around music journalism and setting 95% of the action in the Salton Sea region (an area I arguably know better than most Californians), I was able to control the parameters of the story to keep myself on comfortable ground. With Washington State, however, I had no such assurances. Sure, I could (and did) do my research, but I couldn’t really know it rang true.  Apparently it did (at least enough).

Even aside from reasons of self-interest, this is a series I wish Sotiera Press all luck with. The concept is as fabulous as it is ambitious, an opportunity to showcase the tremendous diversity both of the horror genre and of America itself.

And, yes, I intend to continue submitting. I don’t know if I’ll try my hand at all 50 anthologies but I do know the next states they’re opening for submissions are Lousiana, Alaska, and Hawaii. I already have notes for all three.

Writers in the Field 2019: Coming Up & Up and Coming

As writers, our craft constantly takes us to parts of the human experience we, personally, know little about. Sometimes, these are niches of the modern world, the lifestyles of cops, convicts, hackers, or aviators. Others are hard to be had under circumstances in 2019: black powder weapons, Renaissance etiquette, or gathering food from nature.

rubio_writes 4Writers in the Field (WitF) is a two-day event dedicated to giving us the hands-on, personal experience we need to bring these things vividly and credibly to life on the printed page.

I sat down with the unstoppable Arianne “Tex” Thompson, writer extraordinaire and one of WitF’s “associate instigators,” for a Q&A about the event.

SPOILER ALERT: WitF is next weekend, October 12 & 13. So, if I’ve piqued your interest, don’t say “I’ll come back and read this later.” There is no “later.” If you need the TLDR, jump to the event’s schedule and ticket info.

And, in case you’re wondering, I’ll see you there.

 

Q: Paint us a picture of what the event looks like when it’s in full swing.

22491504_1880788718604888_1755187028283507904_nAt any given moment, there will be projectiles of some sort being lobbed or shot across the back meadow (bullets, arrows, atlatls, etc.) Over in the garden grounds, our dyer will have her students shouting ‘gardy-loo!’ as they heave a few dozen gallons of water into the ditch during their mordanting lesson. Someone will be leading a craft demo with small, fiddly bits – leatherworking or jewelry-making or the like – over in the Saloon, while someone else demonstrates bullet fragmentation or GPS tracking or bone analysis in the Mead Hall, and a small foraging expedition goes in search of edible plants in the trees behind it.

Somewhere on the grounds, a lone writer will have lost the plot entirely, and be squatting down to take pictures of a flower, or maybe some kind of larva. That is always our favorite person, because we were all ‘that kid’ on the field trip.

 

Q: What is the idea behind WitF and how did it came to be?

Well, it started when my friend Bud Humble introduced me to Shane Richmond, a professional stuntman, bladed combat maestro, and the mastermind behind Steampunk November.

“Honestly,” Shane said, “I’m not a writer. I’m a reader. But I read things like ‘and then Conan hefted his ten-pound broadsword up over his head’ and the thing is… he didn’t. Because broadswords top out at 2.9 pounds. So I was wondering if writers might like to come over and handle some swords, so they can write about them more effectively.”

“You know, that would be a pretty neat idea,” I said.

“Oh, and we could also do wine tastings,” Shane said. “Do writers like wine?”

“Sir, I believe we have ourselves an event,” I said.

And the rest is history.

 

Q: What were some highlights from last year’s event?

Carrie ClevengerFor me, the highlight was the tornado. There was a massive ‘run for cover’ operation to herd everyone to safety in the Mead Hall, about twenty minutes worth of impromptu ‘networking session’ while we all wrestled with the life-choices that had led us there, and then – JUST as the tornado warning lifted – the margarita machine was delivered. A ragged cheer went up from all assembled as we gave thanks for life, health, and ‘ritas. Honestly, it was like Christmas in October.

 

Q: Tell us about some of the presenters and activities on offer for this year.

This year, we are really excited to have Larry Enmon and Sam Simon coming out to join us. Larry has retired from the Secret Service, and Sam is a former FBI agent with extensive experience in counterterrorism and weapons of mass destruction. It is always a treat to bring out folks with the kind of life experience most of us only ever see in the movies!

On the other side of the grounds, we’re also really psyched about Becky Burkheart and Tamara Woodcock, who are bringing their horses and MANY years of award-winning riding and driving experience to share with us. Becky is the author of The 33 Worst Mistakes Writers Make About Horses, and a writer herself. We love it when an expert knows what it’s like to be the one behind the keyboard, too!

 

Q: How does WitF benefit writers?

Joanne TurnerWell, writers tend to worry a lot about the “one wrong detail” that will expose them as a total fraud. (Your credibility can go out the window pretty fast if you have a character cock a Glock, for example.) And those are a real concern. But even more than that, we like to provide our attendees with the one RIGHT detail – the smell of black powder fired from a musket, the warmth of your palms after you start a fire with a hand-drill, the way the last pin tumbler feels right before the lock picks open – that will utterly convince, amaze, and enthrall the reader. And you can’t get that from a YouTube video.

 

Q: Give us a bit of background on you.

Okay, but we can skip over most of my priors, right? 🙂

Tex Thompson

Arianne “Tex” Thompson demonstrates “Practical Locksmithing for Authors,” also on offer at Writers in the Field.

The short story is that I started in the traditional writing world. I am tremendously proud to have an agent and three beautiful fantasy-Western novels published by Solaris. These days, I am much more in the business of organizing literary events and working to build up the North Texas writing community at large. And for some reason, I have lately been turning into a passionate apprentice locksmith, with a concentration in investigative locksmithing. I figure it’s important to be able to get into AND out of trouble with equal facility!

 

 

One Night in SixesQ: Tell us about your favorite publication credits and current projects you’re excited about.

Now that’s an easy one! My great ‘passion project’ was the Children of the Drought trilogy – the aforementioned epic fantasy Western series from Solaris. It is a dense story, beautiful and strange, and I’m not sure it will be everyone’s cup of tea. But I am terribly proud of it, and I hope it will continue to find its way in the world. I also have a short story coming out next year in Baen’s Straight Outta Dodge City anthology – I’m looking forward to that!

 

Q: What is your position within the event?

Hmm, that’s a good one. “Associate instigator”, I suppose. We kind of have a triumvirate going. I have the local writers’ network we need and a good-sized literary megaphone to promote with. Shane has the world-class venue and a HUGE Rolodex of performers and instructors. And Bud is the one truly ambidextrous person who could bring us together – the ever-patient master of both pen and sword who engineered this unlikely union to begin with!

 

rubio_writes 2Q: Anything else you want people to know about WitF?

Dearest reader, if you can’t make it out to Writers in the Field this year, but want to cast your vote for this event and others like it – please say so with your outside-voice! The good news is that we are young and hungry for absolutely everything – ticket sales, yes, but also sponsorships, references, publicity, likes, comments, shares, the whole nine yards. The default setting for EVERY new-thing-maker is “cosmic yawning indifference” – and anything more than that is manna from heaven. Thank you so much for helping us take our Field game to the next level!

Also, for those from beyond DFW, improved camping is available onsite and there are several hotels in the vicinity.

AT A GLANCE: WRITES IN THE FIELD

WHAT: Two days of hands-on activities and demonstrations on topics handled (and often mishandled) in fiction.

WHEN: Saturday and Sunday, October 12 & 13, 2019.

WHERE: The Steampunk November Grounds, 492 Cordes Dr., Mansfield, TX 76084

HOW: Tickets

WHY: Because it’s awesome (have you not been reading all this?)

INFO: WitF Website

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Review Puts “Totmann’s Curve” in the Winner’s Circle

“I’ve only recently encountered fiction from Mr Black, it’s made a serious impact on me…”

“It’s a cracking story, distinct and engaging with a great cast of three-dimensional characters, and really evokes the 1950s atmosphere that the anthology has as its theme.”

“…deftly creates a multi-layered atmosphere of adrenaline, paranoia, ritual and family…”

“…the heart of the story is the race itself, the heart-thumping, gut-clenching, gear-crunching duels between drivers, and these are beautifully written…”

Those are a few of the choicer words I found in a review of my novella-length Mythos-tinged supernatural mystery “Totmann’s Curve” by the Sci-Fi & Fantasy Reviewer (as part of a broader review of Sockhops & Seaces, an anthology of 1950s-themed horror and supernatural tales published by 18th Wall Productions).

Koenigsburg hot-rodders park on the town square before going for a burger and a malt (actually, Kerrville, Texas)

“Totmann’s Curve” is a fast-paced tale of ghosts, teenage hot-rodding, and evil sorcerers serving dark entities set against the backdrop of the 1950s Texas Hill Country.

I have, of course, presented the entire text of the review of “Totmann’s Curve” below.    And I’ve written in-depth about the story elsewhere.  You’ll find the Sci-Fi & Fantasy Reviewer’s full review of Sockhops & Seances here.

The anthology closes with a novella-length tale from Jon Black, Totmann’s Curve. Although I’ve only recently encountered fiction from Mr Black, it’s made a serious impact on me; especially with his tale The Green Muse in The Chromatic Court, a Cthulhu Mythos anthology also from 18th Wall Productions. The background to Black’s latest story is illegal hotrod racing in the hills of a backwater Texas county, and the complex spiderweb of relations between the key drivers and racers in this small community. Black expertly develops these relationships within the various groups that exist within the racers, and deftly creates a multi-layered atmosphere of adrenaline, paranoia, ritual and family; all of which constantly blend together into a complex mishmash as races take place. Black does all of that exceedingly well, but the heart of the story is the race itself, the heart-thumping, gut-clenching, gear-crunching duels between drivers, and these are beautifully written; Black gets into the heads of the drivers, their hopes and fears, while also writing some incredibly tense racing sequences. Then there’s also the grim mystery of the titular Totmann’s Curve, and the strange girl suddenly appearing during races. To near-fatal effect to the drivers who encounter her during races. It’s a cracking story, distinct and engaging with a great cast of three-dimensional characters, and really evokes the 1950s atmosphere that the anthology has as its theme. It’s a great way to end the anthology.

My FenCon Five … and then some

FenConI should be sleeping. In about six hours I need to get up. Two hours after that I need to be caffeinated and on the road to FenCon, Dallas’s SFF Literary Convention.

Instead, I’ve been awake, obsessively researching the programming schedule and guests bios  It will be great to see (and learn from) some old friends. And there are some truely awesome panels this year.

Here are Five  (in no particular order)  and a few more that I’m really excited about.

Image result for LankhmarThe City as Character (Saturday, 2 p.m., Southlake Room): Oddly, I’ve had a lot of conversations on this topic over the past year. My conclusions? First, the city as character is the critical innovation necessary for urban fantasy to exist. Second, it really begins relatively late, with Fritz Leiber. While the great cities in SFF have always had character (e.g. Lovecraft’s Arkham), I think Leiber’s Lankhmar is the first true city as character. I try to pay attention to the power of place in all my stories (and have earned a fair bit of critical praise in this capacity), so I look forward to learning even more for this panel.

Table-Top Gaming Over the Years (Friday, 4 p.m., Gravevine1 Room): I’m a gaming nerd. Image result for d20Have been since I was ten years old back in the benighted year of nineteen-*cough, cough* And I did TTRPG writing and game design professionally before I ever turned my hand to fiction. I had the pleasure of serving on a similar panel (also moderated by Aaron de Orive) at this year’s ArmadilloCon. Similar, but not identical, the Austin panel focused on writing for TTRPGs (as a bit of shameless self-promotion, here is a summary of my remarks). While it’s hard to argue with utility of that, it’s not quite as fascinating as looking at the history of the hobby/industry/obsession. I’m anticipating lots of great anecdotes and references to games I haven’t thought of if 20 years!

Lock-Smithing 101: (Friday, 4 p.m., Frisco Room): You know how it is, ever Con there’s one time slot where there are two sessions your absolutely dying to attend. Opposite the Gaming panel is this little gem from Tex Thompson. Two things that seem to come up repeatedly in my stories are picking locks and hotwiring cars. Unfortunately, I know almost nothing of either. But, really, the topic is only part of the attraction here. Tex’s wit, wisdom, and larger than life personality could make a presentation on watching paint dry seem awesome.

Mark Finn as Toastmaster (Saturday, 11 a.m., Southlake):  Whether it’s Robert E. Howard, the beauty of maps, or whatever, I just dig listening to Mark Finn talk. I’m sure he’ll make an amazing toastmaster.

Image result for wood cut of the devilContracts You Shouldn’t Sign (Friday, 5 p.m., Galleria 4): We all want to focus on the fun parts of the Con and attend panels about the happier side of our craft. But we shouldn’t forget to prepare ourselves for the darker side, too. We’ve all got that one friend who is a cautionary tale about this. I’m looking forward to learning what pitfalls and traps to watch out for.

Image result for Q james bond

Wait, wrong “Q”

DS9 at 25 (Sunday, 11 a.m., Galleria 4): Can we all just agree that DS9 was the best Star Trek? As Casablanca in Space, it somehow pulled off gritty space noir while remaining felicitous to Roddenberry’s vision of a heroic techo-socialist Utopian. Also, Sisko was the best captain. He punched Q.

How to Approach, Talk To, And Get a Literary Agent (Sunday, 3 p.m., Southlake Room) I’ve really been dragging my feet on this (contrary to what you might think after reading this post, I don’t especially enjoy talking about myself or self-promotion. But, I do feel like I’ve reached the point in my career where this is a logical next step (and, yes, the fact that the wife has been after me to do it doesn’t hurt). I will say, FenCon, it has been noted that this even has been scheduled late on Sunday … when there is little time after to put our new-found skills to work and the agents can enjoy the Con in peace. 😉

Image result for sheraton dfw airport hotel

The Sheraton DFW Airport Hotel.

Got Filk? There is some great SFF-driven music throughout the weekend. This former music journalist is looking forward to performances by The DoubleClicks, Bland Lemon and the Lemonaides, and many more.

Okay, I should try to grab my five hours of sleep. See you all there!

 

Not Blue About Review for “The Green Muse”

“An enthralling and disturbing story in equal measure,”

“… opens with a hook that grabbed me immediately.”

“It’s intensely atmospheric writing…”

“….a detailed and fascinating look at pre-1914 Paris, with Black deftly bringing to life a city of duality; a snobbish and charming exterior that has a chaotic underworld, one full of artists, pimps, anarchists and a thousand other types.

Those are a few of the choicer words I found in a review of my Mythos novelette “The Green Muse” by the Sci-Fi & Fantasy Reviewer (as part of a broader review of the anthology The Chromatic Court, published by 18th Wall Productions) back in April.

While I’m disappointed it passed without my notice when first published, it was a wonderful surprise to stumble across such an effusive review by accident. And I can’t tell you how oddly happy it makes me that someone finds my work “disturbing.”

I have, of course, presented the entire text of the review of “The Green Muse” below.    And I’ve written in-depth about the story elsewhere on this site and I invite you to read an excerpt  You’ll find the Sci-Fi & Fantasy Reviewer’s full review of The Chromatic Court here.

“Following on is The Green Muse by Jon Black, another story that opens with a hook that grabbed me immediately. A rash of murders in early 20th Century Paris attracts the attention of the media; but the murders are of cubist painters, people who produce a type of art reviled by more conservative lovers of art. An art journalist is assigned the job of doing undercover and learning more about the murders, with the aim of producing salacious, gossipy articles that will discredit cubism forever. That’s an amazing concept, and I loved the snark in the opening pages about various types of artist, the (real-life) snobbery to be found in the heat of competition between hierarchies of artists, and the conferring of respectability.

“But of course this is Cosmic Horror and not mere historical crime fiction, and it soon becomes clear the dead artists had stumbled into something eldritch to do with their paintings. As the investigation begins, we get a detailed and fascinating look at pre-1914 Paris, with Black deftly bringing to life a city of duality; a snobbish and charming exterior that has a chaotic underworld, one full of artists, pimps, anarchists and a thousand other types. It’s intensely atmospheric writing, and makes the weird, unsettling nature of the murders feel somehow integral both to the nature of the Cubist artists, and the city’s anarchistic culture at that time. I really enjoyed the central mystery that unfolds, becoming more eldritch and unsettlingly ill-defined as time goes on, and the way that Black is able to make the theoretical underpinnings and philosophy of Cubism so central to that mystery. There’s even a cameo from the previous story, The Man in Purple Tatters, which is much appreciated and helps build a shared universe between stories. An enthralling and disturbing story in equal measure, The Green Muse is another stand-out tale in the anthology.”

Welcome to Junzt County, Texas, Population: Weird

Lovecraft has Arkham…

King has Castle Rock…

Campbell has his unique take on the Severn Valley…

Invariably, those who write horror seem to want their own creation they can revisit time and time again. I am no different. This August, my creation, Junzt County, comes out and takes a walk in “Totmann’s Curve,” a 35,000 word novella included as part of Sockhops & Séances, an anthology of horror set in the 1950s, from 18th Wall.

Texas Hill Country

If you ask me, the part of Texas best suited for rich, atmospheric horror is neither the broken deserts and vast plains of the lonely west nor the impenetrable pine forests and swamps of the “boy, you got a pretty mouth” east. Rather, it is the rolling hills, shadowy valleys, and dark-fairytale woodlands of the Hill Country. Stretching about 100 miles west from Austin and San Antonio, many groups, most notably Germans and Eastern Europeans, settled there … each bring their own traditions, folklore, and whispered fears about what haunts the dark. The place feels old, older than anywhere in Texas has any business feeling.

Spme of the Hill Country’s German settlers cut loose and clown for the camera.

So, that’s where I brought Juntz County to life, lovingly populating it with it everything needed for my macabre purposes. Brockenberg, the legend-shrouded vast granite dome rising over county’s center.  Goethe College, an ivy-covered institution established by scholars fleeing an academic schism at the University of Gottingen (and bringing the more, um, unusual parts of its library with them).  Koenigsburg State Hospital, mysteriously burned in the 1980s and many of its patients never accounted for. Thale, a tiny village deep in the hills, perpetually surrounded by ill-rumor and tragedy. And, of course, burger joints, honky-tonks, auto shops, local radio station KJZT, and all the other infrastructure of “normal” everyday life.

Here’s the kicker, originally I created Junzt County not for narrative fiction but table-top roleplaying. It came to life for a Call of Cthulhu campaign I ran the better part of a decade ago, pitting a party of college students all enrolled in the same local folklore class against a mysterious amulet, the supernal forces tied to it, and the (obligatory) cultists trying to recover it. It was a great campaign (thanks, especially, to some great players) and, even at the time, I grasped the location’s potential as a setting for fiction.

Western Swing, Hill Country Style

Before there was “Totmann’s Curve,” there was “So Lonesome I Could Die.” My first published Junzt Country story, in the anthology Descansos, was a musically-themed Texas Gothic ghost story set during the Great Depression. While “Totmann’s Curve” is an entirely self-contained, stand-alone narrative, anyone who has read “So Lonesome I Could Die” will discover several Easter Eggs revealing what has become of some of the earlier story’s characters … and hinting at the resolution to one of its biggest mysteries.

Koenigsburg hot-rodders park on the town square before going for a burger and a malt (actually, Kerrville, Texas)

What of “Totmann’s Curve,” then? It’s a faced-paced 1950s tale of ghosts, teenage hot-rodding, and evil sorcerers serving dark entities. After the tragic deaths of two teens during an illegal road race, increased police attention forces the local hot-rodders to move their activities farther into rural parts of the county. At first, the new race route seems perfect. But the roads have a history of their own … and fender-benders caused by a pretty blonde ghost wearing a white wedding dress are only the beginning of the racers’ troubles. Something in the deep hills is very unhappy about the kids being there.

Oldsmobile “Rocket 88” belonging to Hot-Rodder Jack “Jockey” Groce, Junzt County Historical Society Museum

Can good-natured all-American hot-rodder Sam Granger, his gearhead friend Joe Tegeler, egg-headed cousin Eleanor, the ghostly dreamboat Helene, and the rest of their gang figure out what’s going on in time to save the Saturday races … and their own skins? That is the question.

Are there other Junzt County tales? Yes. A half-dozen, scattered across a variety of time periods, are in various stages on completion. But three others, one set in the ‘40s, another in the ‘80s, and a third in the present are already finalized and resting in my computer, awaiting only a sympathetic publisher.

Sockhops and Seances, from 18th Wall, is available here.

AramadilloCon: Music, Your Novel’s Sountrack

Thank you for attending the Music: Your Novel’s Soundtack session at ArmadilloCon 41. I appreciate our moderator Sandord Allen and fellow panelists Holly Lyn Walrath, Michael Wolff, and Cassandra Rose Clarke. Below are some key thoughts I may or may not have shared during this session on music in fiction. But, first, a bit of shameless self-promotion of my most heavily music-themed work:

Gabriel’s Trumpet (scheduled for release later this month): an expansion of the award-winning short story,  this Jazz Age supernatural mystery that spans the country from the Mississippi Delta to New Orleans and the deep bayous to Harlem at the height of its renaissance. Gabriel’s Trumpet is steeped in the era’s music / music scene, including historical musicans and industry figures.

“So Lonesome I Could Die” (part of the anthology Descansos):  Texas Gothic meets the classic ghost story in this tale of music, love, betrayal, and more music set among the country and western swing scenes of the Depression-era Hill Country.

 

Chupacabra vs. Rougaraou (scheduled for release in 2020) A struggling punk rocker and a down on his luck bull rider may be all that stands between humanity and ultimate extinction, as a showdown between two cryptids in a small Louisiana town proves to be so much more.

And, for any gamers out there, a large proportion of my writing for rolepaying games is conntect with music in some way, feel free to check it out here.

Long before I turned my attention to fiction, I worked as a music journalist and music historian, specialized in blues, county, and punk. I am best known for my original research into seminal blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson, my chronicling of the Louisiana Hayride, in-depth biographical pieces, and festival coverage.

 

 

Why Music in Writing?

Music is a universal human experience.  Anthrolopolgists know of no human culture that that does not have some form of musical expression and it has been part of our species for a very long time. The earliest known instruments are simple birdbone flutes found in Germany and dated to around 40,000 years ago. More complex instruments (silver pipes found in a grave in Ur) date at least far back as 2,500 BCE, with the earliest written musical notation arising about the same time (also in Mesopotamia). This universality  helps readers connect with characters, backgrounds, and situations radically different than their own, or even completely fictionally. 

Bone flute, Germany. c. 40,000 years ago

So Retro!

Music can be especially effective for writers of historical fiction and historical fantasy. Many books emphasize the sights of the past to  the exclusion of other senses (excluding the now obligatory passage about how bad the past smelled). Music is a great way to insert the sounds of the past. Referencing Verdi, the Doors, or medieval troubadours immediately provides expositive shorthand regarding location and setting. It helps build mood and atmosphere. Because sound is so visceral and people often have very personal reactions to music, it puts readers right there in the story.

A Quick Glossary

Diegetic Music: (also known as source music) music that actually occurs in in a book (or film): the cassette tape played the protagonists as they leave on the Great American Road Trip, the War Hymn sung by the Battle Maidens of Koth, the Nursery Rhyme repeated over and over by the creepy hitchhiker, etc.  For the purpose of the work of art in question, diagetic music is “real” it can be heard to and reacted to by chracters.

Incidentdal Music: Music intended to enhance a viewer’s experience of a movie (rarely, for obvious reasons, in a book). It exists only for the viewer and is not real from the perspective of the work’s characters.

Furniture Music (a term coined by French avant-garde composer Erik Satie) diagetic music occuring in the background (the string quartet at a Ventian masked ball, the endless loop of “Girl from Ipanema” inside a stuck elevator, etc.). Furnitue Music could be said to be part of the scene, not part of the story and, as such,  kind of straddles the line between diagetic and incidental music.

 

Video Killed the Radio Star

When in the late 19th century or beyond, don’t forget the possibilites created by recording, playback, and broadcast technologies. Consider the following sentences:

  • After cranking the Victrola, she delicately set a phonograph record on the platter.
  • Jamming a cassette in the car’s 8-track player, she slammed her foot on the accelerator
  • Flipping through her phone, she wanting to share the album she’d downloaded just hours ago.

Each sentence suggests an entire scene, a defined character, and an unmistakable time period. Indeed, it’s not hard to go from there to plot and motivation.

STEAL THIS PLOT TWIST:  Speaking of recording technology, if you’re looking for an unusual way to challenge protagonists, stick critical information on some obscure pre-phonograph  recording technology (cylinder, wire recorders, etc.). Now, send them scrambling to find a way to play it!

Broadcasting technologies, especially radio, also deserve special mention as a great vehicle for exposition. Between ads, DJ chatter, and news breaks, authors can convey a wide range of information to readers.  It can establish era or setting (a news story about the eruption of Mt. St. Helens), provide local color (don’t forget the annual Strawberry Days festival this weekend, come on down and see the crowning of the Strawberry Queen), or advane the plot (a hook-handed killer has just escaped from the nearby institute for the criminally cliché).

Players Only Love You When They’re Playing

As long as we’re talking about music, lets talk about musicians … and their advantages as supporting characters, foils, or even protagonists.

Jazz pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith , one of many musicians performing in Gabriel’s Trumpet.

Archetypal musicians are colorful, larger than life, flout social conventions, and have interesting backstories. In other words, they are precisely the kind of characters that most authors like to write.

While, historically, often considered somewhat disreputable, musicians come into contact with people from all classes and walks and life. That makes them a great vehicle for providing information that protagonists might otherwise have difficulty accessing. That musicians often travel widely offers similar benefits.

Musicians are often portrayed with unusual (and frequently shady) backgrounds.  It is easier to believe that a down on his luck punk rocker knows how to hotwire a car than an CPA. Or more likely that the grizzled old Meistersinger knows the high passes out of Hapsburg lands than a simple peasant.

In sort, because of the enduring and portable archetypes we associate with them, the romantic and liminal musician can be played as something of a wildcard.

Great Fiction About Music / Using Music

Dragonsinger by Ann McCaffrey: In Pern, musicians are the true king makers, the power of their music letting them say others’  thoughts and emotions. The young Menolly,  an apprentice harper, must overcome gender bias in addition to the standard trials and tribulation before blossoming into a formidable talent.

Dr. Faustus by Thomas Mann: Faust meets Robert Johnson, in this retelling of the classic legend, the titular character is a musician/composer bargaing his soul for musical brilliance.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornsby: Sure, we’ve all seen the movie. But do yourself a favor and check out the book.

Idoru by William Gibson: The definitinity novel about AI celebrity musicians.

“Incommunicado” by Katherine MacLean: Good luck finding a copy of this decades- ahead-of-its-time story of AI musicians and musical mind control, featured inthe June 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.

Kamikaze L’amour by Richard Kadrey: In the near future, a burned-out rock icon fakes his own death and journeys to southern California, which has all become rain forest for some reason, where he falls in love while rediscovering himself as well as a passion for music for music’s sake.

Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux: Seminal novel of both horror and music ficition about masked weirdo stalking a talented starlet.

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason: Middle-aged piano tuner recruited to travel  to (what was then) Burma, make his way through the jungle, and tune the piano of an eccentric Royal Army doctor. Through his musical talents, he ends up getting dragged into intrigue and skullduggery, with a bit of a “music as a universal language” theme at the end.

I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive by Steve Earle (yes, THAT Steve Earle): Southern Noir meets Magical Realism in this mystery where the ghost of Hank Williams is major chracter.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: a post-apocolypic novel about a traveling symphony trying to keep music alive in a shatterd world.

Tolkien, obviously (though I am old enough to be traumatized by the music in the 1970s Rankin-Bass cartoons)

The Vinyl Detective Series, by Andrew Cartmel: Fanatical British vinyl collectors kill each other over rare records.

ArmadilloCon: Writing for Computer, Roleplaying, & Board Games

Thank you for attending the Writing for Computer, Roleplaying, and Board Game session at ArmadilloCon 41. I appreciate our moderator Aaron de Orive and fellow panelist D Chang.  Below are some key thoughts I may or may not have shared during this session on writing for tabletop / pen & paper roleplaying games (we’ll just go with TTRPG for the rest of this post) as well as some useful links. I also invite you to check out my roleplaying writing credits here.

1) The State of the TTRPG Industry in 2019

Image result for d20The TTRPG industry looks a lot like the world of fiction publishing in 2019,  in many ways dominated by a few companies (Wizards, Paizo, White Wolf, Chaosim, Games Workshop) with formidable resources. Beyond that sphere are a wide range of mid and small size, often niche, publishers as well as self-publishers. While that is very good for the range and diversity of projects coming available, resources as scant. The extent to which TTRPG products are now crowdfunded gives an idea of exactly how much money is floating through most of the industry (not much). Margins are generally low and publishers are resistant to backing a project that can’t prove its market.

In summary, the industry is wide open for new innovative ideas. But, if writing for TTRPGs is your “get rich quick” scheme (or even your “get rich slow” scheme) you probably want to rethink that.

2) TTRPG Trends   

What is Old is New Again:  The biggest trend in TTRPG matches one at the movies. Many of the most successful and early anticipated releases in recent years have been new installments or reboots of familiar properties (Vampire: The Masquerade, Lord of the Five Rings, Pathfinder 2nd Ed., ongoing new properties for D&D 5th Ed.).

Which is not to say that no one is putting out new properties. Some recent release that have received buzz include the high-concept fantasy Overlight, the space-opera Tachyon Squadron, and the dark Sword & Sorcery Forbidden Lands.

Image result for runequest murphy's laws

From Murphy’s Rules, c. Steve Jackson Games

Keep it Simple, Sorcerer:  In terms of new properties, we see a continuation of the decade-or-so old trend toward greater simpler game mechanics emphasizing quick set ups, flexibility, and speed of play. This can be seen in the popularity of games that use engines like FATE, Savage Worlds, and the Gumshoe System. (Of course, in TTRPG, anytime you talk about a “trend,” at least one counterexample will immediate present itself. This year saw a re-release of Runequest, a game once (in)famous for its complexity.

Along with the trend toward simplicity, comes a greater fondness for open or collaborative storytelling, in which all participants and not just the GM have some ability to shape the broader world beyond direct PC action.

Every Game is now Cyberpunk 2020:  Finally, the continuing popularity of play by post, the increasing popularity of live streaming, and the rapidly expanding number of apps on online resources is slowing blurring the lines between TTRPG and computer RPG.

3) Six Tips for Breaking into TTRPG Writing

Where my first RPG writiing appeared…

Play TTRPGs:  And then, when you’re sick of them, play more TTRPGS. Just like the best writers are voracious readers, the best TTRPG writers are compulsive gamers. Also, when I say “play TTRPRGs” I really mean “DM/GM TTRPGs.” Only by being in the driver’s seat to really get the 360-degree experience of what goes into a published product and develop an intuitive feel for what works and what doesn’t.

Begin by Freelancing:  Publishers/designers are much more likely to take a chance on you if you have a portfolio you can show the,

 

Be cautious about entrusting your content to open source market places.

Practice the Craft of Writing:  It’s not enough to have great ideas, you must be able to communicate them in writing clearly and succinctly. It’s not at all sexy to think about it this way, but TTRPG writing is essentially technical writing.

Network, Network, Network:  In the interest of full disclosure, I’m terrible at this one. But, compared with fiction publication, I’ve found the TTRPG to be informal and heavily driven by “who you know.” So, how do you get to know the right people. First, hit the chatrooms and social media. Make intelligent comments and astute observations. Second, become a presence at local cons and beyond (think GenCon, PaxEast, etc.). Not only is this great way to meet people, it helps you stay abreast of industry trends. Third, look for volunteering opportunities. The industry has an endless hunger for playtesters, rules reviewers, game reviewers, etc. those are excellent opportunities to make connections and favorable impressions!

Take Your Ego Out of It: Remember, the proximate goal for TTRPG publishers is producing a coherent, compelling, marketable product. Their ultimate goal is making a profit. If you can’t suborn your artistic vision to the publisher’s needs, you’re not going to get very far.

5) Streaming/Live Play Games

The emergence of gaming is a spectator sport is something, I admit, I don’t fully understand. But, clearly, I’m in the minority there … and building a following there certainly could help one’s career in TTRPG writing … so this post would be remiss without addressing the issue. Plus, I’ve finally drunk the Kool-Aid, next month I’ll be playing the Hygiene Officer in live-streamed Paranoia campaign.

To be clear, I’m not speaking from first-hand experience here, but from reading and conversations with others, here is what I can offer on successful streaming/live-play.

Production Quality: An engrossing game is essential to be successful … but it will not in itself ensure success. You need to think of this as full on video-production and treat it accordingly, giving full consideration to camera placement, quality of audio, sound effects, even gimmicks like dry ice or puppets.

The Interactive Experience: Unlike a traditional video production, the level and nature audience interaction is another aspect needing consideration. Some groups find it both convenient and effective to appoint a single individual to take point on this. While the DM feels like the intuitive choice for this, I’ve heard reports that assigning a player or even recruiting a “host” for these duties is very effective.

Allowing chat members to directly impact the game, by choosing a character to receive an automatic critical success/failure, vote on an encounter monster, or even name an NPC or tavern is an effective way to engage and involve viewers. Obviously, any form of audience impact is something that needs to be agreed upon by DM and all players beforehand. Some groups monetize audience interaction by putting some or all of these features behind a paywall.

Give Murphy Murphy His Cut:  Finally, manage your expectations. First, things will go wrong. React with patience and good humor, maybe even try to bring the audience in on the “joke.” While there are stories of instant streaming success … for most mere mortals audience growth is a slow process.

6) Jon, what are your favorite RPG systems?

GURPS (of course), D&D 3.5E, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, Paranoia, 2300 AD, MegaTraveler, and Earth Dawn. Thank you for asking.

7) Useful Links

Five Tips for Breaking into the RPG Industry

So You Want to Write RPGs: Tips for Becoming a Freelancer (an older article, but the most of the information is still good)

Five Tools that Will Help You Create a Gaming Broacast (another older article, some of the technical info is outdated but the general advice and prodcution checklist remains solid)

Five Tips for Steaming a Game on Twitch

An Online RPG Writer Workshop (This is not an official endorsement … but I have heard positive feedback).