Writers know that the best kind of research is hands-on experience. Something that you have actually done is much easier to viscerally and authentically convey to a reader than something you have only read or watched videos about. Almost as good as doing it yourself is being able to talk face-to-face with an expert. Unfortunately, not everything lends itself to easily acquiring hands-on experience and it is a rare author who has an expert for everything on speed dial.
Enter Writers in the Field (WitF) … a unique two-day event providing us with the hands-on experiences and access to helpful experts that allows us to bring these activities and lifestyles vividly and credibly to life in our work. “It’s a one-of-a-kind outdoor, grown-up field trip filled with experts, new information, and tons of inspiration,” explained Kathryn McClatchy, vice-president of WORD (Writers Organizations ‘Round Dallas), who handles promotions and media for WitF.
After two years off because of COVID, the WitF team is overflowing with energy and enthusiasm for 2022. “It feels like we’re a bit out of practice,” McClatchy admits. “But we’re so happy to reconnect with our community of writers and experts. It is also very exciting to have new members of the team bringing fresh life and new skill sets to the event.”
Programming for 2022 reflects of mix of popular favorites and exciting new opportunities. Some of this year’s highlights, old and new, include:
Becky Burkheart on Horseback Writing (all things equestrian for authors) as well as session on soap making
Detective RJ Hanson on Criminal Investigation: Details and Dummies
Tex Tompson on forensic lock-smithing, lock picking and breaking and entering
“I always think of Writers in the Field as a buffet of skilled professionals,” said presenter and author RJ Hanson. Digging deeply into his law enforcement/investigation career for the Criminal Investigation class, Hanson says the tagline for his presentation should be “Crime and murder, you’re doing it wrong.” He looks forward to sharing aspects of a few real-word cases with attendees and taking questions to help authors with particular issues they’re having . But Hanson isn’t going to let them go without showing they’ve learned something. “I will hand out a statement from an actual kidnapping case, quiz them on it, and show them the technique I used to prove its veracity.”
Writers in the Field also includes sessions on the craft and business of writing. Among this year’s options are “Publishing Wide” by Adam D. Jones, “Scene and Structure” by Keith Goodnight, “Villain Character Development” by Amanda Arista, “Writing in Vivid Color” by Lisa Bell, and “You Got Science in My Fiction” by Rhonda Eudaly.
While there are a few indoor classrooms on site, most of Writers in the Field (as the name suggests) occurs outdoors. In 2022, the event is returning to its traditional location at the Steampunk November grounds in Mansfield, Texas (on the southern edge of Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan area). Camping is available ($25 for the entire weekend, payable at registration) and the weather is supposed to be beautiful (I’m a writer, not a weather god) partly cloudy with highs in low 80s and lows in upper 50s.
If camping is a bit too much “field” in your “Writers in the Field” don’t worry, there are a variety of hotel and AirBnB options nearby.
AT A GLANCE: WRITERS IN THE FIELD
WHAT: Two days of hands-on activities and demonstrations on topics handled (and often mishandled) in fiction.
Of course, there is never enough time on a panel to get out everything you want to say (unless you’re willing to risk becoming one of those panelists), so I thought I’d put some of my extra thoughts into a piece here.
While capers are not my bread and butter, I do have a toe in the genre. My novelette, “A Scandal in Hollywood” is a counter-caper (see terminology, below) featuring actor Basil Rathbone stepping into the shoes of his most famous role, Sherlock Holmes, to thwart an existential threat to 1940s Tinsel Town. “Scandal” is a tongue-in-cheek love letter to Holmes and Doyle that was voted “Best Short Story of 2018 (all other genres)” in the P&E Readers Choice Poll. You can find it in the anthology Silver Screen Sleuths from 18th Wall Productions.
Speaking more to the panel’s focus, I’ve written a Weird West/light steampunk caper novella, The Clash at Crush (which my publisher assures me will be out any day now). Set against the backdrop of H.G. Wells’ War of the Words, “Clash” indulges my fondness for historical cameos with three historical figures among the caper crew and introduces an atypica wrinkle when Martian tripods inconveniently show up as the caper reaches its climax.
Obligatory Note on Terminology
The terms caper and heist are often used interchangeably. But is there a difference? And if so, what is it? Mark Finn posits the difference between the two is that humor is a key element of capers but mostly absent in heists. That’s a division I find both intriguing and useful, and one I continue to ponder. But the one I have used and, at least to this point, continue to use is that in a heist, the target is always a tangible object and material and the crew’s plans emphasize the physical and technological. A heist is, in essence, always a burglary – no matter how fancy. In a caper, however, the crew’s ultimate goal may or may not be a something physical, and elements of social engineering (Con jobs, impersonation, blackmail, whatever.) play a much larger role.
There is also the counter-caper story, where the antagonists are planning and executing the caper and it falls to the heroes to foil them. While one could technically subdivide this into counter-caper and counter-heist categories, I will use counter-caper to serve for both.
My Favorite SF/F Caper Canon (and Horror, too!)
There is arguably a streak of sci-fi even to many capers set in what is ostensibly the modern, mundane world. These stories often involve very-near-future, clearly-on-the-horizon technology or deploy existing technology in creative ways which sometimes stretches credibility. With so many capers showcasing talents, expertise, or technology that stretches the believable, it’s only a short hop to introducing magic and technology.
That been said, many classic caper/heist stories explicitly fall under science fiction or fantasy:
Going all the way back to that foundational classic of the genre, Neuromancer (an assembled crew of criminals and other experts on the margins of society steal the hardcopy of downloaded consciousness), it would be difficult to find a cyberpunk story where a credible case cannot be made for it being a caper/heist.
But Sci-fi capers are not limited to the near future or the morally ambiguous confines of cyberpunk. A New Hope is rife with caper/heist elements: escaping Tatooine, helping Leia escape the Death Star, and the off-screen caper of Bothan spies acquiring plans for the Death Star (which, of course, makes Rogue One a caper story as well – and, while it may not be a great Star Wars story, it’s a good caper story).
Star Trek IV may be one of the most unique caper stories in any genre. Not only does it piggyback time travel on top of science fiction, but its heist object (a pair of humpback whales) is as distinctive as it is unforgettable.
Speaking of Star Trek, the normally straight-laced, goody-goody Next Generation bangs out an incredibly smart, funny caper story with a healthy dose of meta in the season two episode “The Royale:” [Oversimplification Alert] The crew of The Enterprise becomes trapped in a pocket universe created by aliens based on a (fictional) caper novel also called “The Royale.” As their only sample of human culture, the aliens are under the mistaken impression that the third-rate novel reflects humanity’s preferred lifestyle. Ultimately, to escape the pocket universe, the away- team has to successfully pull off the caper referenced in the novel.
Fantasy takes to caper/heist stories very early in its history. Many of Fritz Leiber’s stories of Fafhard and The Gray Mouser revolve around capers or heists. Especially notable in this regard are “Ill Met in Lankhmar, “Jewels in the Forest,” and “Bazaar of the Bizarre.” Similar tropes can be found in Howard’s Conan stories. These are on full display with the 1982 pastiche film adaptation of Howard’s most famous creation, Conan the Barbarian, as Conan’s party (crew?) sneaks into the Snake Tower to steal a legendary jewel and then penetrates Thulsa Doom’s temple complex.
Conan isn’t the only overlap of fantasy and caper among 80’s cinema classics. The Princess Bride is an excellent caper story (and one of the best and most endearing examples anywhere of how “assembling the crew” can become an adventure in its own right). The same, of course, can be said of William Goldmann’s original novel, though I would argue the caper flavor is more explicit in the movie than the book.
Horror also offers us at least one noteworthy entry. Lovecraft’s “The Curious Case of Charles Dexter Ward” is a classic counter-caper narrative with diabolic antagonists Joseph Curwen and crew engaged in multiple capers: their body-snatching and necromancy ring as well as their efforts to keep the Curwen’s resurrection a secret and return him to his former glory. Conversely, the protagonists, led by Marinus Bicknell Willet are trying to thwart those plots (at which they are ultimately successful) and preserve young Charles Dexter Ward’s life (at which they are not).
The Lord of the Stings
More than a few people have argued for The Hobbit as a caper story. I respectfully disagree. True, the whole segment at the Lonely Mountain with Smaug is definitely a caper/heist. However, while that is the company’s ultimate goal, it is only a small part of the story as measured both by page count and emotional journey. It would be like a version of Oceans 11 where the main characters spend the first 90 minutes driving to the casino.
On the other hand, I see a much stronger case for Lord of the Rings as a caper story: the crew spreads out across Middle Earth using stealth, guile, magic (gadgets), and the occasional bit of muscle with the ultimate goal of sneaking the McGuffin of Power through Mordor to Mount Doom.
(Somehow, I suspect the notion that he might have written a caper story would send Tolkien spinning in this grave).
Meanwhile Back in Our World
And, because it doesn’t really seem to fit anywhere else, two my favorite non-SFF caper stories are both from the world of 90s cinema. A third comes from prime time cartoons.
Sneakers (1992) has a cast that has to be seen to be believed: Robert Redford, Sydney Poitier, Ben Kingsley, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, and Stephen Tobolowsky (you might know him as Ned … Rhyerson!).
Hudson Hawk (1991) is admittedly a tough one to classify. It does have hints of magic (or at least alchemy) and miracles alongside a dose of clock-punk, but takes such a light touch with them that I feel it round up to a real-world, if very cinematic, reality. While technically a ‘90s film, Hudson Hawk, in all its glorious cheese, actually has more of an ‘80s aesthetic.
Two decades later, in 23rd season of The Simpsons, the episode “The Book Job” sees a motley collection of Springfield residents collaborate on a get-rich-quick scheme to publish a young adult novel, which turns into a caper when the group is screwed over by their publisher. An appearance by Neil Gaiman, playing himself as the crew’s Ringer, transforms an already strong story into something truly special.
Why Do We Love Caper Stories (And Why Do I)? The Big Picture
At their most fundamental, caper stories are underdog stories. Crews run the gamut from lovable rogues with hearts of gold to full-blown anti-heroes in all their amoral glory. Exposition sets up social contexts in which there are perceived winners and losers, in groups and out groups, enforcers and renegades, underdogs and overlords. But caper stories play with the ambiguity and fuzzy corners of those worlds. With the right crew, a good plan, and a little bit of luck, the underdogs can come out on top.
Caper stories further endear themselves to us because, rather than brawn or superior resources, in capers the underdogs almost always triumph by being cleverer than their opponents. Most of us don’t have phenomenal strength or martial prowess among our assets, but we like to think of ourselves as clever. It’s enjoyable to see a little of ourselves in the caper crew and wonder “hey, could we do that?”
A final part of the genre’s appeal is the humor which permeates so many of these stories. This emphasis on humor serves several roles: it diffuses tension, it showcases the close relationship between members of the crew, and it gives further evidence of that all-important “cleverness.” It also underscores the underdog and “loveable rogue” nature of protagonists.
Why Do We Love Caper Stories (And Why Do I)? The Details
One of the reasons we all love Caper/Heist stories is that we know them, their tropes, their characters. But that doesn’t mean that every one of those aspects resonates with each personal equally.
For me, the most exciting part of caper stories is assembling the crew, with its rich spiderweb different and sometimes conflicting experiences, backstories, and assumptions somehow all coming together to pull off “the job.” In terms of my personal enjoyment of caper stories, the completion of crew feels like the climax of the story. Everything else is just denouement.
Another joy for me are the social interactions between the caper crew and the forces of law (order, the establishment, whatever you want to call them). That’s one reason I tend to favor caper stories with heavy social engineering/con aspect to them.
But we’re talking specifically about Capers/Heists in science fiction and fantasy. In those genres, on a meta-level, I enjoy seeing how exposition is handled (and sometimes mishandled).
When a caper/heist is set in the mundane present day, or even a well understood historical period, a lot of exposition can be omitted. Readers/viewers already understand the technology, the traps, the weapons, law enforcement, and the social and economic relationships well enough to fill in the gaps. But when the caper is sci-fi or fantasy, all those axiomatic elements are now up in the air. What does magic allow? What does new technology allow? How do law enforcement and the legal system work? What are the social and economic relationships informing the caper?
This is a challenging tightrope for authors to walk. We have to explain how all the caper tropes apply to the world in question so that the plot points feel earned and twists believable … without throwing up giant “Chekov’s Gun” red flags while doing so.
To illustrate that point by going a little ad absurdum, if an author informs us that “the three-headed hounds of Gnarr are the realm’s most fearsome guard animals but, when both moons are full in twain, the hounds are afraid of flying shrews,” the reader can safely assume that’s going to come up later. The challenge is seeding that information so that, when the crew uses the musk of flying shrews to bypass the evil Duke’s three-headed hound, it was not obvious ahead of time but still feels earned when it occurs.
Gadgets are not only a major trope of caper/heist stories, they are huge part of their fun. Unless a caper story is very strong in other areas, the lack of any sort of gadgetry, technical wizardry, or Rube Goldberg-esque silliness is going to be keenly felt. However, for science fiction and fantasy capers, the challenges of exposition go double for gadgets.
More broadly, creators need to balance the sense of wonder gadgets create in a reader/viewer without leaning on them to heavily for support. I would hesitate to utilize more than one major gadget or two or three minor ones in the course of a story. The more heavily a story features gadgets, the more important it becomes to balance the narrative scales a bit. Perhaps the forces of the establishment have gadgets of their own to throw at the crew. Or maybe one of the crew’s gadgets fails, possibly in a spectacular fashion.
Thoughts on Writing Capers
First, to support the genre’s tropes and conventions, a certain level of social complexity and technological development in the world is required – say at least equivalent to earth’s Bronze Age. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there’s no way to write a Neolithic heist or a caper story involving egalitarian hunter-gatherers, but I’d love to read it, because I don’t know how you’d do it. (As I’m typing this, I’m realizing that Quest for Fire is basically a fantasy Neolithic heist story, with fire as the heist object. So maybe treat my preceding statement as a loose guideline).
As with any form of genre fiction, don’t bust your ass trying to come up with something nobody’s ever seen before, because its an almost impossible task. Rather, spend that time thinking about combining the elements you love in fresh and exciting ways. Don’t be afraid of tropes, they’re not necessarily your enemy. After all, those tropes are at the heart of the comforting feel that people seem to like about capers/heists. We know these stories and that’s a big part of why we love them.
With advanced technology and other areas of niche expertise playing such a strong role in caper stories, many authors anguish over the appropriate level of detail, research, and accuracy needed. These are valid questions but, as with so many aspects of writing, don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Write to the level you’re comfortable with. If you’re already published, you know the level your audience will enjoy. If you are not yet published, write to the level of the audience you want.
I cannot stress this enough: Unless you are a world-class expert in cryptography, information security, digital intrusion, etc., no matter how much legwork you do, you are not going to be write to a level that will satisfy every reader. If you try, you’re going to lose a lot of the people you really want, so steel yourself and ignore the handful who will never be satisfied.
Where are Capers Going?
In moderating the panel, Lauren Taffeau made there interesting observation that:
We’re going through a period in history right now where it feels like espionage and other crimes are happening right out in the open instead of all the cloak and dagger from an earlier age.
In light of those developments, Tafffeau posed the question
How have current events changed expectations for writing capers?
This is an interesting and important question, and one where I admit to not having much in the way of concrete answers. We may very well see that kind of open, smarmy malfeasance reflected in the kinds of targets caper crews go up against, using classic caper skills to hit those targets on the back end. On the other hand, it’s possible we may see crews engaging more openly as well. We could see the emergency of the “spin doctor” as a variation on the traditional “face” archetype in crews (for a rather prescient foretaste of what this could look like, check out the antihero crew of the 1997 dark comedy Wag the Dog).
“‘With the Exquisite Corpse we had at our disposal – at last – an infallible means of sending the mind’s critical mechanism away on vacation and fully releasing its metaphorical potentialities“
— Andre Breton
NOTE FROM JB: The Parisian avant-garde, notably Dada and Surrealism, are long standing enthusiasms of mine. Occasionally this fascination finds its way into my historical fiction and on those rare occasions when I indulge in making art other than prose, it leans heavily on those two movements. When I discovered author/creator A.A. Rubin’s Cadavre Exquis project, reviving the classic surrealist concept of Cadavre Exquis (French for “Exquisite Corpse”) , I wanted in. It was a delight to be able to participate in an actual Cadavre Exquis exercise, and it is even more of a delight to have A.A. here to talk about the project.
(TL;DR: Check out the results of A.A. Rubin’s contemporary revival of the Cadavre Exquis, a classical Surrealists’ collaborative artistic exercise, here)
Q: Can you explain the concept of Cadavre Exquis and how did you come to fall in love with it?
A: The Cadavre Exquis is a surrealist exercise wherein an artist would fold a piece of paper, like a letter, and draw only in the top section. They would then send the project to another artist who would continue the piece by drawing on the next section, with no knowledge of what the previous artist drew save for the ends of their lines which are visible at the fold. The process would continue until the paper (sometimes multiple papers stuck together) was filled and the piece was complete.
I had learned about the practice a while ago, but was reminded of it during a recent trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibition. The show had an extensive collection of surrealist cadavres, and a large portion of the initial gallery was devoted to the practice. Reading the excellent gallery cards made me think about how the practice might be adapted to writing, which is my main creative medium.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your Cadavre Exquis project and what motivated you to undertake the exercise?
A: When I saw the Surrealism exhibit, I immediately began to think about how it might be adapted to writing. In a way, it reminded me of the old John Gardner collaborative writing exercise where one person begins a story and then passes the story to the next person in the group, and so on, the obvious difference being that in the surrealist cadavre, the second (and subsequent) artists had little-to-no knowledge of what the previous artist has done. The other, less obvious difference is that in the Surrealist exercise, the composition is done in private, where the creator is alone with their subconscious.
I wrote a blog post on my website detailing my encounter with the surrealist at the Met, and put out a call for other writers to undertake it with me as well.
The basic idea was to adapt the Surrealist Cadavre for writers. I came up with the idea to have each writer compose a paragraph continuing from the last line of the previous writer. Writers would only have knowledge of that last line, and would send only their last line to the next writer.
When the surrealists did their cadavres, they mailed their physical drawings to each other. For this project, I decided to use modern technology like email and google docs. Each writer emailed their final line to the next, and pasted their paragraph into a group google doc where the full story was compiled. The writers were instructed not to peek at the google doc with the previous paragraphs until after they had completed their own. This required the writers to be honest to experience the true effect of the exercise, but it is really no different than the original cadavre project, where the surrealists relied on the honor of fellow participants not to unfold the paper and peek at the previous drawing.
Q: How were the participants in the project selected?
A: As mentioned above, I put out a call on my website and promoted it on through my social media platforms (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook). I asked writers for a statement of interest and bio. There ended up being enough interest for three groups. I had originally conceived the project as a prose writing project, but I got some interest from poets as well. We ended up with two prose groups and one poetry group.
I divided the writers into teams randomly, and then selected each team’s “batting order” randomly as well. I also decided to participate in each group myself. I was hoping to experience the exercise from each position, and while I got to be in the middle and at the end, I never got to lead off (and I didn’t adjust the random order in my favor).
Q: What are your thoughts on the completed exercises? Were there any things which surprised you? Any things that precisely met your expectations?
A: I think the exercise went well. People seemed to enjoy participating, and everyone completed their work in a timely manner. I was a bit worried about it becoming unwieldy, but it was surprisingly cohesive, at least in process. I think the pieces came out well, too. The various paragraphs are divergent in style, as one would expect, but there’s still a coherence to them, and they read well.
I am pleasantly surprised by the talented writers who chose to join me for this project. When I put out the call, I did not know who would respond, but, considering this was basically a shot-in-the-dark, it’s amazing to me how many really strong writers chose to join me in this endeavor. I am grateful to them all.
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself, when you’re not invoking the serious games of the surrealists, and about your past and future writing projects?
A: I write everything from serious literary fiction to comics, formal poetry to science fiction and fantasy and almost everything in between. My first published work was a short story back in 2002, and I’ve been publishing pretty consistently ever since. I’ve had recent pieces in Ahoy Comics, Love Letters to Poe, and Flying Ketchup Press, among others, and I am currently working on two novels as well.
I am a teacher by profession, but I am currently on a childcare leave. I am also an experienced martial artist with a blackbelt-level rank in multiple styles.
You can find out more about me by visiting my flowpage.
Q: Do you have any plans for future surrealist activities?
A: You know, when I first chose my social media moniker, @TheSurrealAri, it was a bit of a joke. At the time, twitter was relatively new, and there were many fake celebrity accounts. “Real” celebrities would often choose handles that began with @TheReal before their name to differentiate themselves from the fake accounts that were taken (and held unless the celeb paid an exorbitant price). I came into that environment and said, I’m not going to be “The Real Ari,” I’m going to be “The Surreal Ari.”
Over time, however, I’ve come to embrace the surreal moniker. The surrealist project, which involves accessing the subconscious mind through art, meshing the real and dream worlds, and a heavy use of symbolism actually meshes with much of what I do pretty well. Some of my recent writing has had a decidedly surrealist bent.
Q: Has your experience with the Cadavre Exquis project catalyzed broader realizations or observations?
A: Only that there is a great value to working on art for art’s sake. Not everything has to be commercial and/or marketable. This was a weird project, one no one got paid for, and one that was definitely unconventional and weird, and yet each of the the writers who participated got something out of it, had fun doing it, and connected with like-minded artists whom they may not have known before. There is a value in the strange and the uncomfortable (a very surrealist thought) and it is fun to try something new. Too often today, art is treated as a business, but there is a value to making art that goes beyond the commercial. Make art; get messy; be weird. You’ll grow in ways you couldn’t possibly have imagined.
Q: How can my readers find the completed Cadavre Exquis pieces from the project?
I’m honored that my story “Pioneer House” has been voted Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy Short Story of 2021 in the annual Critters Readers’ Choice Poll. My heartfelt thanks to all the fans and friends who made this possible.
Set in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, “Pioneer House” brings big Stranger Things energy to a classic weird-fiction tale inspired by Lovecraft’s “Strange High House in the Mist.” It is my third published story to be set in Junzt County, a fictional Texas Hill County country that is my answer to Lovecraft’s Arkham.
Told through the eyes of Essie Parr, an archetypical ‘80s small-town Texas girl who dreams of escaping the narrow confines of her small town and the life that seems foreordained for her there, “Pioneer House” is story of her closest friend, Gavin Sadler. One of those sublime creatures who is in the world but not of it, possessing an uncannily broad vision even as child, Gavin finds an unlikely kindred spirit in Pioneer House, a local landmark wrapped in mystery. The structure becomes Gavin’s true passion and obsession.
And what about Pioneer House, the ‘strange, high house’? In the 1830s, when the non-native settlers first arrived in what would become Junzt County, Pioneer House was already there. The Georgian-style mansion, two and half stories tall, with its steeply-sloped roof, wrap-around porch, and diamond-paned windows, sits empty atop Brockenburg, a lonely granite dome towering over the surrounding hills.
As Gavin and Essie dig deeper into the riddle of Pioneer House, they discover a legacy of ghost lights, anomalous fog, strange electrical effects, and unexplained disappearances. Along the way, they confront high school bullies, gatekeeping librarians, janitors with mysterious pasts, and an enigmatic man donning the attire of centuries past – building toward a climatic encounter with the ultimate threshold guardian, Pioneer House itself.
Behind the Story
Junzt County originated as the setting for a Call of Cthulhu campaign I ran in 2014. I wanted a fictional setting in a region I know well (in this case, the Texas Hill Country) that I could populate with people, places, and folklore that felt authentic in the same way Arkham feels authentic. While, over time, I found Junzt’s County’s own distinctive flavor and heartbeat, my earliest strokes of world-building following strongly in Lovecraft’s footsteps. Inspired by the eponymous dwelling in Strange High House in the Mist, Pioneer House became one of the first data points to appear in my mental map of Junzt County. But, other than a name and image, Pioneer House took years to flesh itself out in my mind – the details, the history, the enigmas.
Brockenburg, the granite dome that is home to Pioneer House, is based on Enchanted Rock, a real-world geological formation in Gillespie and Llano Counties, Texas. Of course, having the chance to remake it in accordance with genre conventions, I made it bigger, lonelier, weirder.
When I began writing fiction in 2016, I realized Junzt County made a very natural setting for a certain kind of story. To date, I have about ten Junzt County stories published, penned, or in progress. While the original Call of Cthulhu campaign that birthed the region was set in the ‘80s, the Junzt County stories’ settings range from post-Civil War to the present day.
The ‘80s also felt right for “Pioneer House,” contemporary enough that most of its elements of childhood and adolescence would feel familiar to readers, yet enough removed from the present to allow it a certain dreamlike or fairytale quality. On a more pragmatic level, technology available in the 80s and early 90s allowed some interesting narrative possibilities…but not so many possibilities as to make the protagonists’ task too easy.
Currently, Pioneer House is available in “Pizza Parties & Poltergeists,” an anthology of ‘80s-themed supernatural and horror stories from 18th Wall Productions. Later in 2022, it will be rereleased as part of a collection of Juznt County stories, also from 18th Wall (I’m very grateful for their ongoing support for my Junzt County endeavors). In addition to “Pioneer House,” the collection will contain two previously published stories: “Totmann’s Curve” (now expanded to novel-length) and “So Lonesome I Could Die.” It will also feature three new stories: “The Eyeteeth,” “Family Style,” and “Everybody Needs a Friend.”
(TL, DR: Check out the Kickstarter for That Which Cannot Be Undone, an exciting anthology of Ohio-themed horror upcoming from Cracked Skull Press)
Note from JB: Although I’ve lived most of my life in Texas, my earliest years were spent in Ohio – born in Columbus and toddling around Mansfield. I remember feeling overwhelmed and unnerved by the imposing Romanesque edifice of the Ohio State Reformatory (not that, as a four year-old, I was using phrases like “imposing Romanesque edifice”), still in operation at that time.
Then there are odd bits from my family’s history, more than a few of them touched by the mysterious or the horrific. My maternal great-great grandmother, the automatic writer – a devout Methodist fearful her hand was possessed by the devil himself. My paternal great-grandfather, hanged by his brothers and sisters from the barn door (supposedly because he’d gone to bat and then refused to play the field in one too many games of cornfeild baseball — but I’ve always suspected there is more to the tale), his father returning from town and cutting him down in the nick of time.
Several years ago, I had the pleasure of being involved with Soteira Press’ Horror USA project. Since then, I’ve had an appreciation and affection for state-themed horror anthologies. Combined with the personal history outlined above, I was delighted to discover Cracked Skull Press’ That Which Cannot Be Undone project. They were kind enough to make the time to talk with me about the upcoming anthology.
Q: Cracked Skull Press is a new publishing house. Tell me a little bit about the press, its team, and how it all came together.
A: Cracked Skull Press is comprised of Ohio-based horror authors David Day, Randall Drum, Ray Pantle, and Rami Ungar. The press was formed because each team member shares a desire to promote horror literature and raise awareness of lesser-known talent within the horror community. The team came together through shared connections in the (horror) writing community.
Q: Your first publication, scheduled for release in October of this year, is an anthology of Ohio-themed horror stories entitled That Which Cannot Be Undone. Tell me how the idea for that anthology came about and what the title means in this context.
A: We wanted our first anthology project to feature horror authors who were born in, or currently live in, Ohio, and it made sense that Ohio should be the setting for each story. We had several concepts in mind, but what really resonated with us was the theme of “that which cannot be undone.” We feel this provides our contributing authors a lot of space to exploit a theme that does not put in place any limitations. In this instance, the theme also makes for a compelling title for the collection.
Q: What are some of your favorite bits of Ohio folklore and urban legend (ghost stories, cryptids,creepypastas, eerie locations, whatever) which inspire you and that you might be hoping will make an appearance within the anthology?
A: Ohio has no shortage of dark legends and equally creepy locations. Legends such as the melon head children–disabled children who were experimented on and now live in the woods outside of the Cleveland area–have provided inspiration for many tales destined to frighten and mystify readers.
David: I have a special love for The Moonville Tunnel and The Ridges, both in Southeast Ohio. I spent several years living in Athens while in school at Ohio University, and have visited both locations on several occasions. I’ve never had any kind of supernatural experience, but the mood and tone of both places are very evocative.
Rami: I’ve been to several haunted locations in the state, and I experience stuff all the time. My own story takes place at the Ohio State Reformatory, which I can attest to is haunted to the brim. And the Bellaire House in southeast Ohio has a really nasty feel to it. Anyone who goes there is likely to come away a little changed. And there are so many more worthy of writing stories about! Hopefully we’ll see some of them in the anthology.
Q: You already have some excellent authors lined up for the anthology, tell me a little bit about them and, if you’re willing, maybe a few hints about what we’ll see from them in That Which Cannot Be Undone.
A: Ohio has a grand literary tradition and we’re fortunate to have so many wonderful horror authors who made themselves available for our first collection. While we can’t provide a full bio for each author here, we do have several Bram Stoker Award-winners, such as Tim Waggoner, Lucy Snyder, Gary Braunbeck, and Gwendolyn Kiste. We do not yet have the submissions from our contributors, so we can’t provide any insights to their stories.
Q: This year, Michigan beat the Buckeyes 42-27. Can your authors come up with anything more terrifying than that?
A: Challenge accepted!
Q: The Kickstarter for That Which Cannot Be Undone has some really unique incentives, especially at the higher levels. Tell us a little bit about that.
A: We are really grateful for all of our contributors who have helped us create some very special rewards and incentives for pledging. Many of them have promised signed copies of their work, such as Tim Waggoner’s novelization of the recent movie “Halloween Kills.” But our favorite might be the Baphomet Bash reward, where you and a plus one can come to our release party in October and hang out with the authors who made this anthology possible. Talk about a horror fan’s dream!
Q: Has Cracked Skull started looking beyond That Which Cannot Be Undone? If so, what’s on the horizon for you?
A: Our focus right now is doing everything we can to put together the highest quality collection of stories we can, with equally high quality put into the production of the anthology. Beyond this first collection, we anticipate our future in publishing to include collections, novels, and more in print and online.
Q: It takes so many things to bring an anthology like this together, what’s been the key to success for That Which Cannot Be Undone?
A: We are grateful for the support we have received from our friends, families, and most of all, our backers on Kickstarter. We hope they are as excited as we are about “That Which Cannot Be Undone” and the future of Cracked Skull Press.
Q: How can my readers engage with Cracked Skull Press online?
A: At this time, Cracked Skull Press can be found on Facebook,Twitter (@CSkullPress) and Instagram (@crackedskullpress). Our online presence will expand later this year.
Check out the Kickstarter for That Which Cannot Be Undone, and look for more great things in the future from Cracked Skull Press.
It was true pleasure to moderate a panel of delightful guests such as Julie Barret, Tim Morgan, and Sue Sinor for the FenCon “Alternative History” session.
It’s funny, I spent a week preparing for this panel and telling people I’d never published AH – before realizing I had. But, because of the filters of perception, it took me until the night before the session.
In 2019, I have the honor of contributing to Defending Earth: The Adventures of Sarah Jane Smith, a charity anthology of Dr. Who stories revolving around the eponymous companion, raising money for cancer research in memory of the late, great Elisabeth Sladen. My contribution, Swinging Londons, involves the space-time around London becoming dangerously unstable, shifting into alternate versions of itself every couple hours. Sarah Jane and the Doctor have to navigate their way through a panoply of Londons, some delightful, some demented, some dangerous, as they attempt to identify and halt the disturbance.
So, as it turns out, I’m going into moderating this panel significantly more qualified than I thought.
The Greatest Hits of All Time(s)
So, let’s talk about a couple of AH titles that have really influenced me both as a writer and a reader.
Lest Darkness Fall: “Rome Never Falls,” is one of the most hackneyed, cliché divergence points in AH. And yet this 1939 classic from L. Sprague de Camp doesn’t suffer for it in the least. There are several reasons for that. First, its focus is on why and how the Empire is preserved. Second, it takes as its starting point the late Roman Empire, when Gothic influence is already strong and a variety of Christian sects battle via polemic (and occasionally via pommel) in the streets, which is a very different beast from the “Salad Days of the Caesars” Rome that dominates AH. Third, while technically retro, its tone of innocence and clear-eyed optimism feels fresh and novel and against a genre that is often gritty and pessimistic. Finally, of course, with a 1939 publication date, the cliché that Rome Never Falls later become doesn’t really apply to Lest Darkness Fall (except, perhaps, for being such a brilliant book that it spawned countless imitators). (Bel NEMETON)
The Difference Engine: Often considered the first great Steampunk novel, or at least the first to successfully marry critical acclaim with commercial success. Some purists reject the idea of Steampunk and subset of AH because it often utilizes (or at least implies) variant physical laws rather than a possible (in not plausible) divergence point. The Difference Engine offers neat refutation of that argument for at least some steampunk. Its divergence point is a simple matter of a plausible invention that did not work in our world being designed just a little bit better: specifically, what it Charles Babbage’s “analytical engine” had worked, thus creating an effective mechanical computer in the 19th century. The Difference Engine’s world is understated, looking much like the Victorian Era we knew rather than the self-aware, over-the-top aesthetic that has come to characterize much of steampunk. For all that, I find the question of “what if the Victorians had the same ability to collate, process, and analyze data that we do?” much more provocative and far reaching than “What if airships were everywhere?” (And, no, I’m not hating on airships – they’re awesome).
Harry Turtledove: Okay, normally when I hear an author described as “The Master of” anything, I role my eyes and take it with a grain of salt. But the “Master of Alternate History” earns his stripes. Most of his oeuvre could justly claim a place on a list of The Best of Alternative History. His Worldwar series and Timeline-191 series are remarkable achievements in AH, rivaled only by Eric Flint’s 1632 series. Turtledove’s Crosstime Traffic AH series, while well-crafted YA, pulls no punches either intellectually or emotionally.
To cite a lesser known but fully worthy stand-alone title. Ruled Britannia is tale of intrigue, occupation, and … theatre, in an England where Spanish Armada was victorious and Britain is now a Spanish possession. The tale unfolds largely through the eyes of each power’s greatest dramatist, William Shakespeare and Lope de Vega. As characters, they are wonderful and their interactions with each other are delightful to behold.
Anatomy of an Alternative History
Every AH has two components.
The Divergence Point, is the moment at which the world’s history begins differing from our own.
The Affect (not the Effect) is the world which results from changes accumulating and compounding since the divergence point which the author wishes to portray in their story.
Stories about the Divergence Point itself, merging Divergence Point and Affect into a Singularity, are certainly possible: Lest Darkness Fall and Turtledove’s How Few Remain are examples that immediately come to mind.
The two main approaches to developing Alternate History stories are derived from the relationship of these components.
Approach #1: the author starts be selecting a Divergence Point and then extrapolates out the Affect.
Approach #2: the author already knows the Affect they want a retro-engineers a divergence point that plausibly brings it to pass. All my AH work, published or allegedly in progress, has used this approach.
Running Out of Steam?
From my perspective, steampunk has become to AH what zombies have become to horror. While there is still really good, ground-breaking work being done in the genre, it has become something of a “default setting,” leading to a field crowded with unimaginative offers retreading the same well-worn tropes. Some of the most exciting work I see being done in the genre mines the potential of settings and times away from the clichés of Victorian Britain, the American West, etc. For example, the Antics of Evangeline, by Madeleine D’Este, uses the very Steampunk-friend but underutilized setting of Melbourne, Australia at the height of the Australian gold rush as the setting for a series of fresh-feeling YA steampunk novellas.
I like steampunk, but I still don’t entirely understand why it became such a phenomenon. I am curious whether any of the AH “baby punks” (atomic punk, clock punk, deco punk, diesel punk, steel punk, stonepunk, etc.) can or will become a literary and cultural phenomenon akin to steampunk. Personally, I hold out hope for clockpunk and diesel punk because I like the aesthetic (Brenden Carlson’s Night Callis an excellent recent example of diesel punk, with noir-ish nods to Blade Runner, American Gangster, and the Untouchables). Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been toying with ideas for a clockpunk series. Want a teaser? It…get ready for it…involves Da Vinci (wasn’t I complaining about over-worn tropes just a paragraph ago?)
And continuing on that theme, what of the three tired old monarch of divergence points: Confederates Win, Nazis Win, and Rome Never Falls? Given that, in addition to being cliché, two of them are potentially problematic if handled improperly, is there still a future for them in AH. For at least two of them, I think the answer is yes.
Amazon Prime’s adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle shows there is still a public appetite for examining the grim consequences of Axis Victory. I am, however, more interested in the possible future for the other two.
We are seeing a reckoning and frank reexamination of the history of race and racism in America. The stories we tell ourselves about the Civil War is perhaps the fulcrum of the debate. Some intriguing work has already been done in the area. After his stand-alone novel Guns of the South (arguably as much a character study as an alternative history), Harry Turtledove’s Timeline-191 takes a brutally frank look at the consequences of a Confederate victory, extrapolating it to an absolutely dystopian conclusion in the modern day. But I feel the current reexamining and awakening opens even more possibilities for AH on this theme. There will no doubt be some AH “Lost Cause” apologies offered in the mix, but I hope the vast majority of new works will reflect the more honest accounting we are seeing emerge.
With America’s place in the world changing, and seemingly changing very fast, Rome Never Falls store have a new relevance. As a generation of US global hegemony seems to be fading into a world where America is just one superpower among several, I wonder if we are going to see a flurry of new “Eternal Empire” AH. And I wonder how many of these will be the vessel for some a kind of thinly-veiled FTFY narrative about American’s changing stature; and how many will be genuine if allegorical examinations of the choices available to us, and their consequences.
The Paradox of Alternate History
While ostensibly about the past, AH is really about the present in future. When authors chose divergence points and design effects, we are really commenting about what we believe is significant in the present, and broadcasting our hopes and fears about the future. Moving toward the close of 2021 and the birth of 2022, what trends do I see for AH in the near future?
First, yes, lots of pandemic and disease stories. Look for a plague (ha-ha) of Black Death stories, but also some potentially cannier AH outliers about the 1917 flu, the plague of Justinian, malaria, cholera, maybe even one where the 1970s Swine Flu outbreak proved as bad as few experts predicted. Oh, and if anyone wants to write a story was St. Vitus’s Dance was actual contagious disease…I will read the hell out of that.
And, of course, look for widespread use of themes of alienation, political and social division, unrest, and tyranny.
I would love to see a move away from political, military, and technological divergence points toward a greater embrace of social and cultural divergence points. Some of this can already be seen at work, Apple TV’s For All Mankind, while using the space race as the inciting event, is really an AH about gender roles, inclusivity, and diversity. But my poor little music journalist heart is always asking “Okay, but what does this alternate history sound like? Does it have a good beat? Can you dance to it?”
But my biggest wish for AH would be a broader and deeper range of voices contributing to the genre. Even when the divergence point or effect are not explicitly Western (as with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt or Harry Turtledove’s Through Darkest Europe, AH authors remain overwhelmingly of European descent and predominantly male. It would hard to refute allegations that the genre skews Eurocentric. All genres benefit from increasing the range of voices among their authors, but I believe such diversity would be especially valuable (and is especially needed) for AH.
It was great pleasure to moderate FenCon’s “Liminal Spaces” session for two pannels as eriudite and insightful as Mark Finn and Carolyn Kay.
“Liminal Spaces” and “liminality” are powerful words, ones we often seem to appreciate intuitively rather than consider rationally. Despite, or perhaps because, of that, it can mean many different things to different people, especially depending on one’s primarily lens into liminality. With that in mind, here are some discipline-specific definitions:
Anthropology: The quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete” – Victor Turner.
Psychology: A space in our lives where the old self-narrative does not fit any longer and the new narrative has not yet emerged. – Dr. Vincent Deary
Architecture: …the transitional threshold between two fixed states in cultural rites of passage or between two dissimilar spaces in architecture … from which principles can be drawn for the design of a transformative space. The characteristics that define liminal space include layering, dissolution, blurring, and ambiguity and have the ability to transform the occupant of that space as they move through it… – Patrick Troy Zimmerman
Western Magical Tradition: Witches walk between the worlds, with one foot in the world of force and the world of form — The Gardnerian Librarian
Literature: “The state of being on a threshold in space or time” – A Handbook to Literature
Popular Culture #1: On the surface, liminal spaces can be defined by their in between-ness. Places like airports, hotels, and train stations can be described as liminal, but it can also describe existential feelings of being neither here nor there. In the context of the pandemic, liminality takes on a metaphorical meaning, as we sit in our homes contemplating what life was like before and what it will become again in the future. – Günseli Yalcinkaya
Liminality: The history of an Idea
The term liminality (From the Latin, limen, a threshold) was first used in 1909 by ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep in his book Rites of Passage, focusing on liminal rituals in small-scale traditional societies. This strong focus on liminality in the context of Rites of Passage continues throughout its early anthropological use.
The concept was reinvigorated by British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, who began exploring its role in other kinds of societies (for which Turner coined the term liminoid, a distinction which has not generally caught on) and examining its impact on those experiencing liminality in a way which prefigured its adoption by psychology. Anthropologist Agnes Horvath further refined the use of liminality in the discipline by pointing out problems with the concept as used by Gennep and Turning, including identifying liminal/liminoid as a false dichotomy and questioning their portrayal of liminality and liminal experience as universally positive phenomenon.
Jungian psychologists (and to a lesser extent, other schools of psychology) were quick to pick up on liminality’s applicability to individual, internal growth and development as well as external social relations. Once seeded in two academic disciplines, to concept of liminality rapidly spread to other academic disciplines including folklore, literature, and architecture.
While the ideas of liminal space and liminal experience had already been filtering through to popular culture, the internet drastically accelerated the process, to the point that in 2021 liminality is broadly understood concept even if its release into the wilds of popular culture has expanded or muddied (your preference) its meaning – including the idea of a liminality as aesthetic and a focus on mood and atmosphere. It has found an especially potent home in the realms of urban folklore and creepypasta, most notably the “Backrooms” and their purported (liminal) ability to be reached by no-clipping through regular reality.
Perhaps it’s only because the other panel I’m moderating at Fenon this year is on Alternate History but, I wonder in particular about a modern understanding of liminality might have impacted the world of two well known scholars.
For Jung, liminality was an individual phenomenon, the process in the psyche’s development when it could not return to what it had been…but did not yet know what it would become. Jung passed in 1961. I would be very curious what he would make of the word’s evolution over the following half-century, and why kind of conceptual leaps he might have made with the word’s greater flexibility.
The anthropologist Sir James Frazer died in 1941, and his most fertile period was around the turn of the century when “liminal space” wasn’t even a blip on the radar. I am very curious what he might have done with the concept of liminality if could have been part of his mental universe while compiling The Golden Bough.
Liminality as Storytelling
Liminality is inherent to most of the major models of storytelling.
In Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” liminal space begins when the threshold his crossed (notice that Campbell uses the term ‘threshold,’ from which its Latin equivalent WORD, liminal is derived) and arguably does not end until returning across the threshold. Though a case could certainly be made that the liminal period of the Hero’s Journey ends with the rebirth/renewal event.
In Victoria Lynn Scmidt’s “Heroine’s Journey,” liminality begins with the phase of descent/passing the gates of judgment and does not end until either rebirth or returning to the world with new eyes.
“Rules” of Liminality?
Unlike mundane space, in liminal space there are very few rules. Gennep posited that liminal experience or ritual had three distinct phases:
Preliminal: A kind of metaphorical death, as old statuses and ways are broken and left behind.
Transitional: The truly liminal moment of transition, when an individual undergoing liminal experience is neither one thing nor the other.
Postliminal: When the individual is reincorporated into society reflecting their new status or experience gained through undergoing the liminal rite.
Note that the idea that liminality is simultaneously destructive and creative (like the dance of Shiva and Vishnu) is inherent to Gennap’s three phase model.
The model for liminal event or rite is easily portable to liminal space, with two boundary zones wrapped around a core area of pure liminality.
In formal Rites of Passage, rituals and order events are rigorously detailed and may occur under the supervision of an elder or master of ceremonies with almost dictatorial powers. In some ways, the role of therapist/psychologist in liminal psychology mirrors that role. In broader usage of liminality, however, the idea of a prescribed order of events or master of ceremonies may be irrelevant or even nonsensical.
That there are few rules to liminality only makes the ones that do exist even more important (notice that the punishments for violating the few rules of ancient liminal festivals such as Saturnalia were often incredibly harsh).
Varieties of Liminal Space and Experience
The Natural World: Caves (Think of “The Goonies,” where the characters’ quest takes them on descent into the underworld that is inexorably linked with a Rite of Passage toward adulthood. Natural Springs, Running water, shores.
“We’ve Got to Close the Beaches” If the shore is considered a liminal space, “Jaws” can be seen as quest to defend liminal space, and those who use it for their vacations (itself a modern kind of liminality), from an external threat that could otherwise create a hard border between the realm of land and sea.
Artifacts of Human Agency: Borders, Bridges, Crossroads, airports, bus terminals, hotels, theaters and performance spaces (more about that one later).
Borders do not get enough attention as liminal spaces. This includes between “civilization” and “the wild” (the frontier, etc) but also borders between political or socio-cultural groups. The treatment of these as liminal spaces in science fiction and fantasy is so ubiquitous that we often don’t even think of it as such. These borders between worlds of the mind are where new ideas and possibilities emerge, where danger and opportunity can be found, and where ADVENTURE! happens.
Seen from this perspective, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, almost the whole damn things, from the first footstep outside of the shire until the return, are liminal journeys. Which raises a curious question, if liminality persists long enough with no clear end in sight, does it cease to be liminal and, instead, become the new normal. Is that why, in Tolken, peaceful interludes like the visit to Rivendell or Beorn’s freehold feel like liminal spaces within liminal spaces?
Astronomical Phenomena: Solstices & Equinoxes, Dawn & Dusk (literal “twilight zones”). Comets and meteor showers (interruptions of the established order of the nighttime sky). Eclipses (the intrusion of darkness into daytime is extremely liminal…and possibly terrifying).
Holidays: In almost every calendrical system, the equivalent of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are seen as liminal (the period between the death of the old year and the birth of the new). Other holidays have strong liminal aspects. These include the great pre-Lenten festivals (Mardi Gras, Carnival, Fiesta de las Flores y de las Frutas, Fastelavn, etc.) where the border between the regular year and the restrictions of Lent are marked by a celebration of excess. It also includes days when the barrier between the living and the dead is thinned or removed (All Souls’ Day, Dia de Los Muertos, Midsummer Night/St. John’s Day, Twelfth Night, Walpurgisnacht). Some of those are also seen as periods of liminality between the mortal realm and the Lands of the Faerie (or equivalent).
Phases of Life: Adolescence is a prolonged period of liminality, trapped awkwardly between childhood and adulthood. Teenagers are trapped in prolonged liminality. I believe this is why “coming of age” stories are so popular. And I think may at least in part explain the popularity of YA beyond its titular demographic: coming of age stories are liminal stories.
In art as in life, the liminality of adolescence is often paired with liminal Rites of Passage. In The Hunger Games, the Games function as a Rite of Passage of the most absolute sort, with the only outcomes Adulthood or Oblivion. In Shadow & Bone, the Unsea (in the books) or Shadow Fold (in the TV series) is a tangible and very lethal liminal space separating the world’s nations from each other. Of course, this is YA, so as the young protagonists brave the perilous journey through the Unsea/Shadow Fold, it also become a (guess what?)… Rite of Passage into adulthood.
High School, a four year long Rite of Passage, is fertile ground for storytelling, and especially long-form storytelling (everything from Freaks & Geeks to Glee to Buffy).
I think there is another island of liminality in the human lifetime, middle age: that period between adulthood and old age. It does not received as much attention as adolescence in media, but it is still there. It is why we thrill at seeing Henry Jones Sr. acting as foil to his son Indiana, why we have a love-hate relationship with Walter White – who subverts the norms and expectations of his age, and why we are so fascinated by Hobbits (to say nothing of Dwarves and Elves) whose longevity is so different from our own brief spans.
Performance Spaces: Cinema, the stage and music venues are all extremely liminal. Places with no permanent residences, they are a place apart from daily life where a transient population comes and goes to interact with a diversity of stories (many of which are themselves liminal).
Liminal Technology? Looking at liminality in the context scifi, and specifically Star Trek, is the transporter liminal? What about the Holodeck?
Relationship Between the Liminal and the Supernatural in Folklore and Fiction
Because liminal spaces are places where the normal order is suspended, things can happen there that can’t happen anywhere else (summoning the Devil, or various trickster entities at the crossroads, for example). Conversely, liminal spaces can hinder or even bar the supernatural for exercising powers it would otherwise normally possess (vampires’ inability to cross running water).
Most of supernatural horror’s enduring archetypes are liminal. Vampires, ghosts, and other intelligent undead are neither truly living nor truly dead. Werewolves are neither fully human nor fully beast. Frankenstein’s Monster and its countless analogs inhabit the liminal uncanny valley occupied by the imperfect creation of an imperfect creation.
The only real exception I can think of are zombies, at least in their modern post-Night of the Living Dead incarnation. Traditional zombies are different matter. If you want a pre-NotLD zombie flick that oozes liminality, check out 1943’s I Walked With a Zombie.
Vampire fiction seems especially aware of its inherent liminality. Whether something to be sought or something to be avoided, “the embrace” is often portrayed as Rite of Passage, a moment when on is neither truly human nor truly vampire, the death of an old life and the beginning of a new. Anne Rice does a very good job of capturing this in The Vampire Chronicles. So, too, does True Blood/The Southern Vampire Mysteries (which is very good at capturing the liminality of the supernatural in general). Though, in my opinion, the TV series highlights the sense of the liminal better than the books.
In Cosmic Horror/The Mythos, it can be argued that space between the first hint that “all is not as it seems” and the final, horrible, madness-inducing revelation, represents a journey through the liminal. Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow sometimes reads like one giant liminal space…and therein lies both its glory and its downfall. Lovecraft’s “Dream Cycle” uses liminality in multiple, sometimes interlocking ways.
Faith and the Liminal
Just starting with the Abrahamic Faiths, liminality and liminal space are central to their foundational accounts:
Moses climbing Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and establish the covenant.
Jesus spending 40 days in the desert before formally beginning his mission.
Mohammed visiting a cave to hear the Quran dictated by the Archangel Gabriel.
Purgatory is a liminal space. So is the soul’s journey to the afterlife in Pharaonic mythology. In many cultures, the souls of the dead are believed to linger on earth for a period of time before transitioning to the afterlife. Persephone is more than a liminal character, she is the embodiment of liminality itself. Mystery Cults made use of physical liminal spaces like caves for Rites of Passage such as initiations.
Religious ritual is often a liminal space itself. And many religions treat places of worship as liminal spaces, separate from and subject to different rules than, mundane space. While he does not explicitly use the terms liminality or liminal space, Mircea Eliade’s landmark book The Sacred & The Profane is an excellent examination of this phenomenon.
Is the Internet a Liminal Space? I don’t know. From a retro-futuristic angle, the internet as conceived by Gibson, Sterling, ‘80s-’90s ttrpgs, etc. certainly was. But the internet we know and live with? I think that is more of a question. It is certainly interstitial. But has it become too ubiquitous and too mundane to truly qualify as liminal space.
Liminality in the Time of Covid (with apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez). The pandemic meets the definition of liminal space in a surprising number of ways, even conforming to more academic definitions of a Rite of Passage…with behaviors, prescriptions, lexicon, and even “ritual garments” that can be fully understood only in the context of the liminal event.
“Do you like getting right up in a monster’s face and giving it what for? Do you prefer to stand waaaay back and throw fireballs or shoot arrows? Or maybe healing up your comrades is more your style? Let’s discuss how to choose the right personality for your RPG character.”
It was a great honor to participate in FenCon’s “What’s my Role” panel with Chaz Kemp and Rie Sheridan Rose. Special thanks to Sarah Brigdon for successfully wrangling a panel whose passions ran to so many different yet worthy aspects of roleplaying.
Conversations along the lines of “Okay, I’m the frontline fighter. You’re the rogue. But we need a caster. And who is going to play the cleric?” are as old as gaming itself. Yet, the more analytical approach of party composition and conflation of combat role with personality is relatively recent, only making its way into the gaming community in the past 15 years or so (yes, my friends, against the long history of gaming, that qualifies as “relatively” recent).
Fourth-Edition D&D gave us the terms “Controller, Defender, Leader or Striker” and the part breakdown of “The Tank, The Damage, The Healer, The Support, The Control, The Face, The Scout” has become pretty ubiquitous. Sometimes, MMO terminology like DPS even makes its way into table top gaming.
That this is a recent development is the more curious as, over the long line of gaming history, there is clear trend toward less time in combat and more time in other activities/challenges. There are, of course, exceptions. In seeking to emulate online gaming, 4E D&D was very much a throwback — and certain systems, including Traveler and the various Warhammer RPG products, can lend themselves to combat heavy games. But, for most gaming in 2021, it is important to look at PC roles beyond combat. Below, I take a brief look at three alternate lens for this issue.
Functionality: This lens considers a PC’s preferred approach to problem solving. Cyberpunk 2020’s use of “roles,” is a good example of this. A given “role” provides skills, experiences, and abilities reflecting an attitude and approach to the meeting the world on the PC’s terms. To cite a few examples: Yes, solos are “kill it with lead and monofilament katanas” kind of people. But there are fixers who, if they can’t do something or find something, know someone who can. Techies believe if a machine can’t solve your problem, any problem, it’s to sit down and build a better machines. Conversely, nomads feel there is no problem than can’t be solved by inviting along another sibling our cousin. This lens ensures party are well covered for a variety of challenges and settings, not only combat.
Archetypes: This lens considers the internal landscape and emotional constitution of PCs. One of the most obvious examples is the Nature/Demeanor system from White Wolf’s World of Darkness universe. Players chose both a nature (true self) and demeanor (exterior persona) from a large preset list of archetypes (Autocrat, Bon Vivant, Child, Loner, etc.) for their character. These are more than just guides for roleplaying, acting in accordance with one’s nature and demeanor is the main method for regaining Willpower, which is important in World of Darkness. Having diverse natures and demeanors in the party helps ensure that someone is always regaining Willpower. Even in systems where this is not explicitly rewarded through game mechanics, there is a qualitative advantage to party of diverse mental states and emotional constitutions to respond to a variety of situations.
Narrative Dynamics: Roleplaying is collaborative storytelling. So it is little surprise many of the tropes and dynamics that are effective in other forms of storytelling work in roleplaying as well. The right party dynamic, or even dynamic between two or more players within a party, can really bring an adventure to life. The dynamics between characters in other media can serve as inspiration or conversational shorthand for party composition. I’ve seen a party who, six sessions in, realized their Call of Cthulhu campaign was a cosmic horror Scoobie Doo. I’ve seen Shadowrun street samurai who might as well have been Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. I’ve seen two Vampires go “Winchester Brothers in reverse,” tracking down hunters in a black van with blacked out windows. I’ve even seen a concept campaign inspired by Sartre’s “No Exit,” with characters designed to hate each other but be unable to escape each other. Nobody wanted to push it beyond three sessions, but those sessions were fascinating and entertaining.
No one of the lenses discussed above is inherently superior. And, yes, even in combat light games, the combat lens still has its place. Most parties will get the best results from using a mix of all of them, and the doing what sounds fun. These lenses are means to an end, not ends in themselves. The goal is to create compelling characters with rich stories that allow them to engage with the world on multiple levels. Whether they gel in combat is not trivial, but is a secondary consideration. As a GM, I would happily taken on trying to design fights for a party that is sub-optimized for combat if it means I have a party full of compelling, three-dimensional personalities that let me create opportunities for rich and meaningful collaborative storytelling.
With so many types of characters to choose from in RPGs, does playing a character that is different from your real self give you empathy for that type of person in Real Life?
In 2015, a study administered the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a standard psychological instrument for measuring empathy, to 127 frequent roleplayers. These gamers significantly outperformed a control group.
I suppose it should be little surprise that gaming can correlate to high levels of empathy. That, I think, is part of roleplaying’s appeal for many of us – the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes for a while. And, while people have different baselines for empathy, it is a learnable skill that strengthens with use.
Psychology and counseling make extensive use of free form roleplaying. Frequent uses include confronting phobias and managing stress, anxiety, or trauma – with the goal of patients gaining insights or experiencing emotional catharsis. In Relationship Counseling, role reversal is often used to promote exactly those kinds of insights and sympathy – the building of empathy.
Of course, just because roleplaying can build empathy, doesn’t mean it always does. Most gamers have stories about “That one player” or “The GM who delights in torturing their players.” If you’re lucky enough not to, or just want to indulge in some top quality schadenfreude, Google “Worst D&D player ever” (or equivalent), makes some popcorn, and settle in. Or, if you want more curated account of gaming with terrible human beings, check out Al Bruno III’s roman a clef “The Binder of Shame.” (TWs for just about everything).
Multi-classing: Yay or Nay? And Why?
Somewhere between a “provisional yes” and “it depends.”
Personally, I enjoy multi-classing because my character concepts often do not fit neatly into the boxes of class-based which system (which is why I often gravitate to classless systems like FATE, Savage Worlds, or GURPS which are on a point-build or concept-build rather than a class-build.
But there are things to consider before creating a multi-class character. I think the biggest one is to be sure that it’s actually your character concept…rather than that you have two concepts you’re having difficulty choosing between. In my experience, splitting the difference between two competing concepts through multi-classing is an emotionally unsatisfying compromising, giving too little of what attracted me to each class in the first place.
And while this, in itself, is not a reason to say “no,” it is worth remembering that, in many systems, including D&D and Pathfinder, a character who is Level 5 in two things is less capable that a character who is Level 10 in one thing.
But, for all my high-minded “only do it if it feels right,” rhetoric, sometimes multi-classing is a choice that is forced on you. When you’ve got two or three people around the table for a D&D game, it may make sense for someone to be the cleric/rogue.
How important is it to “stay in your lane”? Do you play your character as just a healer? Or do you try to pick the lock with the metal wire you happened to find on the ground?
Honestly? Those are the moments roleplayers live for.
When the fighters are unconscious on the ground and the wizard is out of spells but manages to land that last blow, knocking the giant unconscious with a staff.
When the Dex 8 cleric evades an entire castle of guards to find the treasure room.
When the Barbarian is the only one who remembers the words to the secret chant.
Those are the kind of gaming stories that keep getting told…
In the best case scenario, such moments can serve as catalysts foe new directions of growth and development – enriching the charter, the party, and they player’s experience.
It only becomes a problem when it turns into what my gaming group always called “stepping on someone’s shtick.” Players want time in the limelight for their characters, that’s one of great appeals of roleplaying. Each PC having things they are uniquely good at helps ensure everyone gets the spotlight. So, when the party’s rouge suddenly starts dumping points in diplomacy, which, until then, has been the bard’s shtick, it can create tension and reduce enjoyment unless handled very carefully.
Six words constitute the highest praise one author can pay another: I wish I had written this.
Edward Erdelac’s Rainbringer: Zora Neale Hurston Against the Lovecraftian Mythos is rooted in a well-researched and multi-dimensional biography of the eponymous writer, anthropologist, and leading light of the Harlem Renaissance. It then reimagines that biography to include eight encounters with the Cthulhu Mythos occurring at various points in Hurston’s life, from relative youth to literal deathbed, all united by a broader metanarrative.
The tales track Hurston’s real-life wanderings, from New York City to other points in America, Haiti, and Central America – as well as a Mythos-obligatory Dreamlands sojourn. Erdelac’s narrative unfolds in an engaging style that might most properly be called “magical realism with a Mythos twist” rather than horror or supernatural mystery.
First, a curious TL;DR. Presumably most people reading my blog are at somewhat familiar with my work, including Gabriel’s Trumpet, my supernatural mystery revolving around the 1920s jazz scene. Rainbringer and Gabriel’s Trumpet are very different stories, but they play in the same sandbox and I feel confident in saying that anyone who enjoyed Gabriel’s Trumpet will enjoy Rainbringer as well.
Using a historical figure as a protagonist is a daring move that requires both formidable research and exceptional skill. If I may be forgiven one more comparative, I have some familiarity with the required chops via my pulp-mystery novella “A Scandal in Hollywood,” a tongue-in-cheek love letter both to Sherlock Holmes and Hollywood’s Golden Age. “Scandal” required considerable research and notetaking on actor Basil Rathbone. Erdelac’s portrayal of Hurston, however, goes beyond a competent mastery of the facts of Hurston’s life, moving in the direction of intuitive understanding. It feels as if he somehow has a relationship with Hurston, even if such a relationship can go only one direction in time and space. Rainbringer works because Erdelac breathes life into Hurston, makes readers believe her actions and reactions even in the face of cosmic terrors.
I also appreciate Rainbringer’s approach to the Mythos. Erdelac is clearly comfortable and familiar enough with the source material to wield it adroitly throughout the work. Readers should be on the lookout for a delightful Easter egg offering a retelling of one Call of Cthulhu’s seminal arcs…from a very different perspective (but you will need to pay close attention, Erdelac doesn’t set up a neon sign). Just as importantly, he is also comfortable and familiar enough to adroitly deviate from canon, adding his own compelling touches and engrossing sub-mythologies. Of particular note is one of the most innovative, evocative uses of Yig I’ve ever encountered.
Rainbringer showcases more than a layperson’s knowledge of Voodoo and hoodoo, and is careful to delineate the two, even diegetically delivering a short primer for unfamiliar readers. Drawing on various strands from Voodoo, Abrahamic traditions, and the Mythos, the story weaves a seamless, and delightfully unsettling, cosmology.
There was a special delight for me in Rainbringer. In Erdelac, I feel I have finally found an author who enjoys a cleverly-executed historical cameo as much as I do. The rendering of a young Orson Welles at the height of his creative prowess and iconoclasm is especially memorable. And, with my background in music journalism, the appearance of folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax warmed my heart.
While there are no weak vignettes in the collection, each reader will no doubt have their favorites. For me, three tales truly stood out:
Ekwensu’s Lullaby sees Hurston participating in a WPA field-recording expedition to the Gullah communities of St. Simons Island.
The Shadow in The Chapel of Ease plays with the ever-delightful question of what happens when the conventional religion gets caught up in the Mythos.
But, in my opinion, King Yeller is the collection’s crown jewel. If Erdelac is taking requests, I would certainly not shy away from reading a novel-length treatment of this story…and there certainly seems to be enough material to support such an expansion. The premise is delightful: what do you do when writing a Mythos story about the vibrant theatre scene of the Harlem Renaissance? Drop in a copy of TheKing in Yellow, of course. The devil (or the Great Old One), of course, is in the details and the delivery. And King Yeller, set against the backdrop of the Federal Theatre Project’s performance of Macbeth (one of the most celebrated productions in the history of the American stage) shoots for the moon…and hits.
As a side note, several remarkable incidents in King Yeller, including Orson Welles being attacked by a razor-wielding assailant only to be rescued by boxer-turned-actor Canada Lee and the death of theatre critic Percy Hammond shortly after a cast member stuck pins into a Voodoo Doll of Hammond, are the province of history, not fiction, which Erdelac deftly incorporates into the narrative.
As a final note of praise for this Rainbringer, Erdelac should be commended for his frankness in portraying the many layers to issues of race and racism experienced by Hurston throughout her life. He remained steadier in addressing this challenge than I did with Gabriel’s Trumpet.
Rainbringer: Zora Neale Hurston Against the Lovecraftian Mythos builds a remarkable set of stories around a remarkable and very real protagonist. It will be a worthy addition to the collection of any fan of horror or Mythos, but will be especially welcomed by those whose interests also include 20th century American History, The Harlem Renaissance, and American literature or anthropology.
(Rainbringer is available for Kindle and in paperback from Amazon. Find Edward Erdelac on his website on or Twitter. Remember to rate and review your favorite authors’ works on Amazon, Goodreads, or wherever you review books.)
[NOTE: I had intended to get this out days ago but Mother Nature decided to drop a world of hurt on Austin and, after 80 hours without power, here we are.]
Paradoxes & Possibilities is a new time travel TTRPG offering storytelling as broad and deep as history itself via a unique game engine emphasizing fun, fast-paced, dynamic play that unleashes the creativity of players and gamemasters alike.
The Paradoxes & Possibilities kickstarter was fully funded in less than two hours. Since then, its stretch goals have fallen like dominos unlocking new character classes, technologies, and adventures. I had the pleasure of sitting down (virtually speaking) with P&P co-creators Sophie Iles and James Bojaciuk for a Q&A about their endeavor (for readers who may not be familiar with their previous work, short bios can be found at the end of this piece — also check out my note about its next Stretch Goal).
Q: How did the idea for P&P come about?
A: (Soph) I was interested in creating an RPG, and as I had been playing RPGs game with friends over lockdown I really wanted to try. As James’ interests and mine align, with being time travel fans from Back to the Future to Doctor Who and beyond, I wondered if there was a way to make a specifically time travel RPG for anyone and everyone, which was easy to start with, and with some cool modifications.
Q: As someone who has authored content and designed supplements for TTRPGs, I know how intricate and even brutal it can be. I can’t imagine undertaking building an entire game system from scratch. Talk to me about that process and how the two of you divided responsibilities.
A: (James) When it came to Paradoxes & Possibilities, the artist and the mathemagician took very different tracks. Soph handled the writing and the art, and ran with character creation. I took hold of what we’ve playfully called mathemagic–all the rules and math that keep the show running. Between that and the admin stuff, which I can do with my brain tied behind my back, I was able to join in on creating the game without slowing down anything else on my plate. I am very thankful for that! I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this for the world! Thank you, Soph!
Q: As P&P progressed, you brought other talent into the project (myself included) to develop content, including pre-generated adventures. Tell me a little bit about that.
A: (James) We got the chance to work with some fantastic writers–and I’m really proud of the work they’ve done. M.H. Norris, Kara Dennison, Dana Reboe, Jon Black, and John Dorney have made our game something real, and I can’t wait for people to play their adventures. I’m endlessly impressed by their creativity, and they’re going to throw players into some unusual situations.
Q: Part of P&P’s appeal is its unique engine and the streamlined, flexible rule set. Will you give us a sneak-peek at how it all comes together?
A: (James) The rules are perfect for introducing new players to the hobby. They’re easily grasped without sacrificing depth. Too many games leave new players to flounder. We worked hard to make something which is easy to learn, but difficult to master.
Q: Now that the hard part is done and your highly successful Kickstarter is in its final days, how do you feel about the experience?
A: (James) It’s been a lot of fun! I would love to do this again! We floated everything from an Arthurian game to a 1920s mystery game, before we settled on something we could easily boil down to essentials for a zine. Those may return in the future.
Sophie Iles is an artist, author, and once-upon-a-time animator who has a love for the Arthurian legends, RPGs, 80s movies, and Doctor Who. Her writing includes “A Single Wolf, Grey and Gaunt” (found in 18thWall Productions’ Sockhops and Seances) with a novel trilogy currently in process, featuring a historical sequel to the Holy Grail Legend. She has also written for Big Finish Productions. Her Doctor Who Short Trip “Master Thief” was released in October 2020 featuring the first incarnation of The Master and she also recently wrote for the Bernice Summerfield Christmas Collection. She has been a regular writer for Doctor Who Magazine as of January 2020. Sophie’s art has found internet acclaim after creating an A-Z Doctor Who Charity Stream on Twitch in support of FareShare UK and raised $4,762.
James Bojaciuk is CEO Duobus of 18thWall Productions. Obsessed by history, mystery, and the hidden corners of our world, it was perhaps inevitable he would co-create something like Paradoxes and Possibilities. He is responsible for too many short stories, a handful of novellas, and the forthcoming novel The New Adventures of Iris Wildthyme: The Vampire Mutations from Obverse Books. He won Best Steampunk Short Story from the 2017 Preditors and Editors Readers Poll. He has previously written TTRPG material for Glittercats Fine Amusements and ATB Publishing.
[NOTE: Talking about Stretch Goals, as of the time of writing this post, the P&P Kickstarter is just $116 shy of its next goal: an original adventure by yours truly, taking players to 1816 and the shores of Lake Geneva, interacting with some of the 19th century’s leading lights of Gothic and Romantic literature and poetry as characters attempt to stop a rogue time traveler from corrupting a beloved literary genre at its inception.]