Friday, July 28, 2017

Grave Gate Sample

Many years ago I began work on a sword and sorcery novel I entitled Grave Gate. Unfortunately, other projects moved it aside and I suspect it will be years, if ever, when I return to the world I created. Allow me to share the opening segment of the first chapter with you.

Grave Gate
by Alan Loewen

The sudden outburst of laughter from a group of very drunk men at a far table jarred Brant’s concentration. He looked up from his game of Maladar to take a quick glance around The Green Man Pub. When one lives their life by the sword, the cost is never ending vigilance unless one enjoys the feel of cold steel between one's ribs. Satisfied that the laughing men, lost in their cups, were no threat, he returned his attention to the game table.

“Are you going to move or concede the game?”

Brant ignored his opponent, his concentration intent on the arrangement before him. Long ago, the lines and tiny squares of a Maladar board had been carved into the stained wood of the table and the colored stones that made up the playing pieces lay scattered about. On the playing field itself, the pieces lay in a very specific and precise order.

He chewed his lower lip in thought. Four copper ducats were riding on the outcome of this little entertainment and his work to construct a pattern of Four Horsemen In The Field was being stymied by his opponent's attempt to construct Dragon In Repose.

In his mind he suddenly saw the possibility of a new pattern. With a sudden grin, he placed a yellow stone on the table, the stones about it affected by its presence creating a ripple effect of colors cascading across the table top.

“Very nice,” his playing opponent said. “Forest Glade in Autumn. I have not seen that pattern in a long time. “However ...” A big, broad hand swept over the table to place a green stone in an empty hole. Again, colors flowed across the board. “Dragon In Repose, sir. I believe the wager was four ducats?”

Brant laughed and shook his head at his own defeat. “Melek, I have no idea how you did that.”

Brant's companion smiled, a rare event, and leaned back in his seat. “The way of a true warrior is to see many moves ahead and be aware of all possible moves by his opponent. I can't talk my way out of troubles like you do.”

Feigning a nonchalance that he did not feel—losing always stung his pride—Brant reached for the small leather pouch he kept in his shirt and took out four coppers.

“Better idea,” his companion said, waving Brant’s proffered hand away. “Buy the next round.”

Brant motioned for a serving girl. “You're too good a winner.”

Melek shrugged. “Only because we're playing Maladar instead of playing at swords.”

“Melek, you’ll never change.”

“Somebody has to keep us alive.”

Brant nodded at one of the serving girls and pointed to their almost empty mugs. After receiving a quick nod in response, Brant looked over at his friend who was busy keeping an eye on the crowd. “You’re also one of the grimmest devils I know.”

Melek shrugged. “I’m still alive.”

Though alert to the quiet activity around them, they were relaxed in each other’s company as only old friends can be.

The opening of the front door suddenly caught their attention and a figure—the hood pulled way down over the face—entered the pub.

“It’s a woman,” Brant said.

Melek nodded his agreement. “The movement gives her away. She’s too graceful. If she’s trying to hide her identity, she should slouch more.”

The barkeep looked up from his attempt to swab the top of the bar in order his guest. He immediately turned visibly pale.

“And she’s rather special,” Melek added, watching the barkeep’s reaction.

The barkeep listened as the figure spoke, his eyes wide with fear, then quickly pointed to where Brant and Melek sat.

“Business or trouble?” Brant asked his companion as the figure turned to look at them.

“Both,” Melek replied.

The figure made its way through the maze of tables, a few patrons looking up with curiosity and then turning back to their personal business. One man, sitting in a position that he could see under the figure’s hood as it passed, made a sign for protection from evil and quickly got up to leave.

“I’m starting to think more trouble than business,” Melek added as his hand crept toward the pommel of his short sword.

The visitor stopped in front of them. Two graceful hands appeared from the sleeves of the voluminous robe and swept the hood away from the face.

The two men stared in surprise.

The hair was long and carmine, the color of a fox’s pelt, framing a face of such absolute perfection the two men wondered if what stood before them was truly real or the craft of an expert sculptor. Overly large violet-colored eyes studied them carefully.

Respectfully, the two men stood and nodded. The pub had become as quiet as a grave. Some of the patrons closer to their table began making their way either to tables further away or even towards the door.

“My lady,” Brant said. “We are honored to have one of the Fox People grace our table. How may we serve you?”

Brant hated the fawning tone he used, but life had just taken an unpleasant turn. Rumor said you did not act rudely to one of the Foxes unless you wanted to die.

Or worse.

“I am Arul of the Serinthels, what you call…” she paused for a moment as if the phrase created a foul taste on her lips, “the Fox People.” With a graceful move, she pulled out a chair and seated herself, motioning for the two to join her. “I am in need of assistance.”

“Would you like food or drink?” Brant asked as he took his seat.

“Yes,” their visitor replied. “My journey has been hard.”

Brant motioned for the serving girl who turned visibly pale at the thought of approaching the strange creature, but the lure of copper coins Brant tossed in his hand overrode her reluctance.

Melek swept the Maladar stones into a leather pouch, clearing the table.

“Please bring the lady bread and whatever fresh greens you may have,” Brant ordered.

“Of course, good sirs,” the serving girl said, “and may the lady be wanting some nice, hot …”

Brant’s hand shot up for silence. “Bread. Fresh greens. Water, if you cannot find wine that isn’t already vinegar. That will be all.”

To her credit, the girl had enough intelligence to keep her mouth shut and scurried away to fill the order. Legend stated that one does not offer Serinthels meat and they take great offense at slights real or imagined. It is also said they have long, long memories.

Brant and Melek nursed their drinks waiting for their guest to speak.

“I come from Brathe,” she said after a few moments of silence, her musical voice low and sweet. “It is one of the clan-towns of the Serinthels. Two full moons ago we received word that one of our clan-towns fell to an unseen enemy. Shadows from the night sky descended on the town covering it completely. Since then, the shadows have swallowed up Northross, Celandine, and others.”

Melek raised two fingers from where they rested on the weathered table top. “Are there survivors?" he asked. "How were they attacked? Can you describe the enemy?”

The Fox woman paused for a moment, a flash of irritation sweeping over her perfect face at the interruption. “Few survived and those were the ones fortunate enough to be outside the walls when the towns were attacked. The shadow I speak of is not poetic language. It is a true shadow. When the shadow lifts, the city is littered with the dead.” The voice faltered. “The dead are without wounds. The appearance is that they died where they stood, unaware of the fate that fell on them. Large, unblinking violet eyes clouded over with memory. “Finally, we received an emissary from our enemy. In the terms of surrender, a Serenthelian delegation was ordered to appear before an ancient barrow for a parley. I stood before its entrance just three days ago.”

She waited in silence as the serving girl brought a wooden trencher covered with small hard, black bread rolls, some limp turnip greens, and a mug filled with water.

“Begging your pardon, ma’am,” the girl said, anxiety making her voice break, “this is all we got.” With trembling fingers, the serving girl sat the board in front of the fox woman and immediately turned and fled.

Arul picked at the greens, sniffed her contempt, and then took up a roll and broke it in half. Steam came from the center, and Brant and Melek heard their guest sigh with contentment. They helped themselves to their mugs as Arul broke her fast.

“You said you had been to this barrow?” Brant asked.

“Not alone,” Arul said between delicate bites. “My companions still remain there.”

“Waiting for you?” Melek asked.

“Yes,” Arul nodded. “That is what the dead do best.”

Brant and Melek exchanged glances.

“And you want our help…how?” Brant asked.

“Word of the Free Academy has even reached the ears of the Serinthels. I knew you were homed here in Rollas, and when I asked the barkeep for the leaders he pointed at you.”

She paused waiting for an answer.

“My lady,” Brant said, “we are not an army. The Free Academy only has four members. The work we are hired out for is more…subtle.”

“Yes,” Arul nodded in agreement. “When I and my companions approached the barrow, we did so in pomp befitting Serinthels. We paid greatly for our lack of discretion. Now, I need to return with those who understand subtlety.”

Melek rolled his shoulders from the growing tension, the popping of joints sounding like river ice snapping during a quick thaw. “Before we commit to anything, does this barrow have a name in our language?”

“In our language, we call it Ororc. In your language…” She paused to think. “Yes, I believe it is called Grave Gate.”

Brand laughed in spite of himself, making already-interested eyes and ears around the tavern even more curious as to why a Serinthel sullied itself by walking in the world of humanity. “Grave Gate? My lady, even if it is possible, you don’t have the ducats we would demand for such an undertaking.”

The fox woman reached into her tunic and pulled out a small stone the size of an egg and placed it on the table. “Would this cover the cost?”

Brant and Melek stared at the stone, a perfect ruby the likes of which no man had ever seen. Its heart seemed to beat with scarlet fire even in the dim light of the pub.

“And back to the original question,” Brant said, his own fiery heart in his throat, “what exactly would you have us do for such a bauble?”

“Simple. Walk with me into Ororc as shadows seeking a greater shadow. And when we find it, we will kill it.”

Brant stared at the ruby as it gleamed. “Come, Melek,” he whispered as if he were in a temple, “we must go talk with the others.”

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

My Shrine War Word Cloud

A word cloud of The Shrine War. Will be using it to make a glossary when I release the novelette as an eBook. I used Wordle to help in its creation.

Monday, July 17, 2017

My Favorite Short Genre Films (Viewer Advisory)

I am becoming more and more impressed by the quality of the short genre films I am finding on the Internet, especially on sites such as Vimeo and YouTube. Below, I have listed some of my favorites.

Note that if I post a warning about the content, I'm not being facetious. Some of these films are quite disturbing and you should exercise wisdom and take personal responsibility for clicking on the link.

The Gate is actually a public service announcement with body horror warning the viewer that purchasing pharmaceuticals over the Internet can be fatal and maybe even worse. The calmness of the meeting where they are discussing certain incidents is in sharp contrast to the scenes of what happens to those poor unfortunates who purchase performance enhancing drugs from a non-regulated website. Not for children.

Robot and Scarecrow is a combination of science fiction and fantasy telling the story of a love affair between a robot who performs at music festivals and a living scarecrow. Well done with excellent special effects. The video above is only a trailer. The title link takes you to the full film on Vimeo.

An animated series, Betsy Lee's No Evil follows a rich, many times confusing, story line about anthropomorphic spirits who guard the world against evil. The simple animation hides complex characters and a wonderful example of fantasy world-building. I would recommend you watch the series with closed captioning on as sometimes the dialogue can be a little muddled.

Oats Studios is Neill Blomkamp's venture to create experimental films. None of them are for the squeamish as they all feature graphic body horror. Zygote is no exception and it displays one of the most creative, frightening, and disgusting monsters I have seen on film in a long time. Dakota Fanning plays Barkley who, along with one other survivor of a mining enterprise in the Arctic Circle, attempts to survive a monster who is composed of dozens of body parts cobbled together by other miners who were possessed by the entity. Rakka and Firebase are two other films available and all feature top name actors like Sigourney Weaver and Steve Boyle. These three films are not for children.

What can you say about David Lynch's film, Rabbits, that dozens of other people have not written about at length in a desperate attempt to understand the film? Here's my advice. Don't try to understand it. Just watch it.

Friday, July 14, 2017

I Hereby Give You Permission To Write Total Crap

Want to know the secret of being a good writer? It's really simple.

Write a LOT!

And when you write, the finished product will stink to high heaven.

Just keep writing.

And slowly, it gets better.

And then you make your first sale.

I know many an artist who has incredible potential, but they simply are afraid of looking at their first works and seeing utter garbage.

Don't worry. That's what it's supposed to be. That's its job. Its only purpose is to give you real life experience and as the late Bob Ross would tell you, you're not making mistakes...just happy accidents.

So, I give you permission to produce regardless of its quality. Ignore the critics both internal and exterior and keep plugging away. It works and I do not say this as a paid salesman, but as a satisfied customer.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Break Out the Torches and the Pitchforks!

I am going to pontificate on writing.
(An aside: This is written somewhat tongue in cheek and I make suppositions that are not hills I will die on. Keep that in mind before you go all snowflake on me.)
Have you noticed that most of the characters and narrators of my stories are female? Have you ever asked yourself why?

Of course you haven't! You never noticed until I just mentioned it!

But I'm going to tell you why anyway and then I'm going to tell you how all female literary characters in the world are boiled down to just two stereotypes.

And who might they be?

Wait for it ... wait for it ...

They are Alice in Wonderland and Little Red Riding Hood.

At this point you are now screaming at your computer monitor, spittle dripping down the screen as you express your precise thoughts on my lineage, but hear me out because it's true.

But first, let me tell you the reason I enjoy writing about female characters is because females are much more fascinating characters as they have a greater range of response to their environment.

Let's take Little Red Riding Hood for a moment (but not too far as she is going to be a major topic in a few moments).

When the hunter meets the wolf, his reaction is to kill it. That is what most men do in the literary genres in which I write. They approach a conflict and beat on it until it lies down and assumes room temperature.

Red on the other hand, females have a potentially greater range of interesting reaction. Case in point:

"All the better to eat you with!"

"So many available choices here," Red thought.
At that, Little Red Riding Hood:
... screamed in terror before disappearing into the lupine maw.
... begged for mercy trying to negotiate for her life.
... pulled the stiletto out of her garter belt and gave the wolf a second grin from ear to ear.
... grinned maliciously and said, "Not if I eat you first."
Then suddenly, the woodman burst through the window and
... beat the wolf with his axe until it lay down and assumed room temperature."
 Give me Alice or Red any day; you can have the woodman, but moving on ...

Now, as I said, all female literary characters are either Alice in Wonderland or Little Red Riding Hood in one of their thousand plus disguises.

First, though, I submit to you that you do not know these characters at all. First, it is possible you haven't really read Lewis Carroll's loving tribute to Alice Liddell and think the sanitized Disney version is "close enough for government work." Well, you're wrong. You don't know Alice like I know Alice.

And as for Red? I'm not talking about the sad moral pastiches from Charles Perrault or the Brothers Grimm. Oh, no, no, no. I am talking about the primal story where Little Red is not a nice little girl at all. You don't know Red like I know Red.

Let's compare the two, shall we?
Alice is the embodiment of innocence. Red is as guilty as sin.
Alice is wise and intelligent. Red is smart enough to get out of trouble, but gets in trouble easily enough.
Alice ponders moral dilemmas. Red says, "Morals? Morals? Aren't they a type of mushroom?"
Alice is the prim and noble embodiment of upper class Victorian morality. Red says, "If it's got at least two legs, it's mine!"
Alice is discerning. Red is gullible.
Alice lives by an external standard of what is right and wrong. Red is into "situation ethics."
Alice is basically courteous and kind. Red is so self-centered, she borders on pathology.
Now, at this point you're once again screaming at the computer monitor accusing me of being a bit harsh on poor Little Red, but please remember that I am talking about the original stories. It really does boil down to one simple, succinct sentence:

Alice is a good little girl. Red is a bad little girl.

But let me tell you the real story of Little Red Riding Hood, not the sanitized versions of Perrault or Grimm, but the first story of Little Red that has never been told to children, the primal oral tale as it was first told many, many years ago:
A woman had finished her baking, so she asked her daughter to take a fresh galette (French cake) and a pot of cream to her grandmother who lived in a forest cottage. The girl set off, and on her way she met a a werewolf.

The werewolf stopped the girl and asked, "Where are you going? What do you carry?"

"I'm going my grandmother's house," said the girl, "and I'm bringing her bread and cream."

"Which path will you take?" the werewolf asked. "The Path of Needles or the Path of Pins?"

"I'll take the Path of Pins," said the girl.

"Why then, I'll take the Path of Needles, and we'll see who gets there first."

The girl set off, the werewolf set off, and the werewolf reached Grandmother's cottage first. He quickly killed the old woman and gobbled her up, flesh, blood, and bone—except for a bit of flesh that he put in a little dish on the pantry shelf, and except for a bit of blood that he drained into a little bottle. Then the werewolf dressed in Grandmother's cap and shawl and climbed into bed.

When the girl arrived, the werewolf called out, "Pull the peg and come in, my child."

"Grandmother," said the girl, "Mother sent me here with a galette and a cream."

"Put them in the pantry, child. Are you hungry?

"Yes, I am, Grandmother."

"Then cook the meat that you'll find on the shelf. Are you thirsty?"

"Yes, I am, Grandmother."

"Then drink the bottle of wine you'll find on the shelf beside it, child."

As the young girl cooked and ate the meat, a little cat piped up and cried, "You are eating the flesh of your grandmother!"

"Throw your shoe at that noisy cat," said the werewolf, and so she did.

As she drank the wine, a small bird cried, "You are drinking the blood of your grandmother!"

"Throw your other shoe at that noisy bird," said the werewolf, and so she did.

When she finished her meal, the werewolf said, "Are you tired from your journey, child? Then take off your clothes, come to bed, and I shall warm you up."

"Where shall I put my apron, Grandmother?"

"Throw it on the fire, child, for you won't need it anymore."

"Where shall I put my bodice, Grandmother?"

"Throw it on the fire, for you won't need it anymore."

The girl repeats this question for her skirt, her petticoat, and her stockings. The werewolf gives the same answer, and she throws each item on the fire. As she comes to bed, she says to him, "Grandmother, how hairy you are!"

"The better to keep you warm, my child,"

"Grandmother, what big arms you have!"

"The better to hold you close, my child."

"Grandmother, what big ears you have!"

"The better to hear you with, my child."

"Grandmother, what sharp teeth you have!"

"The better to eat you with, my child. Now come and lie beside me."

"But first I must go and relieve myself."

"Do it in the bed, my child."

"I cannot. I must go outside," the girl says cleverly, for now she knows that it's the werewolf who is lying in Grandmother's bed.

"Then go outside," the werewolf agrees, "but mind that you come back again quick. I'll tie your ankle with a woolen thread so I'll know just where you are." He ties her ankle with a sturdy thread, but as soon as the girl has gone outside she cuts the thread with her sewing scissors and ties it to a plum tree. The werewolf, growing impatient, calls out, "What, have you finished yet, my child?" When no one answers, he calls again. "Are you watering the grass or feeding the trees?" No answer. He leaps from bed, follows the thread, and finds her gone.

The werewolf gives chase, and soon the girl can hear him on the path just behind her. She runs and runs until she reaches a river that's swift and deep. Some laundresses work on the river bank. "Please help me cross," she says to them. They spread a sheet over the water, holding tightly to its ends. She crosses the bridge of cloth and soon she's safe on the other side.

Now the werewolf reaches the river, and he bids the women help him cross. They spread a sheet over the water—but as soon as he is halfway across, the laundresses let go. The werewolf falls into the water and drowns.
And there we have it: a sordid tale of cannibalism complete with strip tease and strong sexual overtones.

You'll never read Little Red Riding Hood the same way again will you?

And here, Alice meets a psychopath.
As for Alice, she, on the other hand, is a very smart and very good little girl even when Humpty Dumpty threatens to kill her ...

What? You say you don't remember that part? Well, it's there, but it is so subtle, it's easy to miss:
Alice felt even more indignant at this suggestion. `I mean,' she said, `that one can't help growing older.'

`One can't, perhaps,' said Humpty Dumpty; `but two can. With proper assistance, you might have left off at seven.'
 Keep reading it. You'll get it eventually.

I confess that almost of my young ladies are Alices. I have to deal with so many Reds that they all get rather tawdry and boring after awhile. I think the only time Red has ever showed up in my stories such as The Pond, The Furry Con Murder Mystery, and Sheila.

The rest are all squeaky clean as befits my literary daughters.

You are now free to clutch your head and scream, "Paul, you are out of your mind ! Your great learning is driving you mad." (Acts 26:24)
(Side note: I once was asked on a panel why I wrote so many female characters as if I did not have any right to do so. I confess I was puzzled at the question and I did not give a satisfactory answer. I give one now.

The reason so many of my characters are female is that the tale would simply not work if the character was male.)