The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

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The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996) is a really funny fantasy dictionary/atlas with a playful meta structure. Jones builds her work as if fantasy quests, or, more meta-fictionally, every fantasy story ever, is a tour arranged by Management.

Each entry (including such topics as DARK LORD, THIEVES’ GUILD, or WARRIOR WOMEN) is a  brilliant cataloguing of generic fantasy tropes and clichés that she provides a logical and often hilarious explanation for.

There are dozens and dozens of references and in-jokes towards popular works of fantasy, as well as the scores of hackwork that fester in the field. (Especially seems to be poking fun at the ’80s publishing landscape.)

Tough Guide is a brilliant idea and well executed. The visual design is well-done, as well, from the cover to the map to the little icons on the margins of each definition. I especially am in awe of her how her concept allows her the privilege of not necessarily having a hard joke every time – the definitions that aren’t funny are just accurate – thus you never feel cheated or bored.

It’s like a fantasy The Devil’s Dictionary or a proto-TV Tropes and, much like any humorous compendium of disparate entries, best enjoyed slowly.

Humor Piece Self-Promotion Initiate

 

My new humor piece “Cup of Bro’s: The Coffee Shop For Regular Dudes” is up at Little Old Lady Comedy.

It’s kind of a commercial for a douche bag alt-right (same thing) coffee shop. I like writing in that fake commercial format even though I know prose isn’t necessarily the best way to do it.

However, I am lazy and lack good video/audio editing software (and know-how) so still I try.

I dedicate this piece to Broomwagon Coffee + Bikes in Lexington, KY. They inspired me with their fine coffee, not by having abhorrent political views. They’re a combination bicycle/coffee shop, so, of course they’re progressive as fuck.

The House of Souls by Arthur Machen

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The House of Souls (1906) is a collection of four near novellas of the supernatural by the Welsh fantasist and sometimes horror writer Arthur Machen. These stories are set in an England beset by hidden worlds and pagan cultists and gently mad upper-class scientists.

“A Fragment of Life” – More like A Fragment of Novel. By that, I mean, it very much reads like a novel Machen was trying to write but more or less gave up on. It pretty much stops out of nowhere, reaching only the most generous reader’s definition of any kind of conclusion. However, what is here is a really intriguing mix of naturalism and mystic yearning in this tale of a tender married couple and the emotional and spiritual journey of the husband who hears the call of a far off land.

“The White People” – A very weird fantasy, playing on fairy tales and witch myth and paganism, that is not quite a horror story although there are several horrific elements. An unreliable narrator writes of an almost psychedelic dark fantasy. In some ways it feels like another novel cast-off like “A Fragment of Life” but this one exists much more satisfactorily as a short story.

“The Great God Pan” – The first true horror story in the book. It plays with many of the same elements as the previous two: ancient paganism and hidden worlds and such but takes a decidedly more sinister approach. A story of stories within stories and discovered documents in the grand turn of the century horror fiction tradition. An experiment reaps bad. Machen describes a monster here that is mostly off-screen yet terrifying. Ends with a burst of vivid body horror. The only downside is how driven by coincidence this story seems. Machen is very good but his stories are somewhat haphazard and seemingly cobbled together – – – there is nothing tight here plot-wise. It’s all in the mood and hints and flourish of the prose.

“The Inmost Light” A final tale of esoteric knowledge and upper-class occultists, with an even more vivid off screen monster. There’s a very mysterious circle of pagan conspirators who dance at the corners of this tale but much of their purpose is left obscured. The little brother of “Great God Pan”, especially with its rogue scientist and female test subject.

The House of Souls is throughout very interesting, and pleasant to read, if rarely actually horror, as Machen’s reputation seemed to me. Line by line, Machen moves with a beautiful eye for landscape, a fine attention to characterization, and a throbbing heart of wild weirdness.

Death of an Unnecessary Pseudonym

I created a pseudonym for the classic reason: not enough markets. There several prose humor markets but not many in the grand scheme of things and sometimes I’m sitting around waiting for my various submissions to move through the slush before I can submit again.

Thus Glenn Woods was born. Well, the name Glenn Woods was born a long, long time ago as a potential pseudonym. My grandparents lived in Glenwood Hollow and it seemed like a nice Stephen Kingian name for potential pulp horror stories.

I used the pseudonym twice. The first time I used it to submit to an online magazine a friend of mine co-edited (I didn’t want to only get accepted because she knew me). Ultimately, I used my real name when it was published. That story is “The Hoop” on The Ginger Collect.

The second (and last) time I used Glenn Woods was for an online humor magazine in which I’d already been published two times in basically that many months. I didn’t want to seem like I was hogging all the space. That piece is “How About You Or You Or You” on The Dirty Pool.

But then I found out there was another writer named Glenn Woods and that was the end of that. I’ve got another pseudonym I haven’t used yet but I’ll keep it secret just in case. Sometimes I write things so horrible I don’t want my name attached to it, both in content and quality. Maybe I should’ve done that with this blog post.

My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber

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My Life and Hard Times (1933) is a pleasant, gently funny but fairly slight batch of autobiographical reminiscences. Thurber focuses his very short book (115 pages in this paperback) on his childhood and does a vivid job of bringing to life early 20th century Colombus, Ohio.

The book is really a series of very short stories, almost family tall tales, with a couple more essayic pieces. The entire work is very diverting and entertaining but does not stick around the mind all that much. Thurber and The New Yorker, of which he was a staff writer and cartoonist, referred to works like these as “casuals”, and that is how they feel in both ease and impact.

Two pieces really standout in reaching the heights of almost screwball farce: “The Night the Bed Fell” and “The Day the Dam Broke”. But even the less substantial stories are delightful in their view of Thurber’s madcap family, especially his quasi-senile Civil War Union veteran grandfather. Thurber illustrates scenes throughout in his scratchy cartoonist manner.

 

The Kestrel by Lloyd Alexander

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The Kestrel is the second novel in the Westmark trilogy, and, like many good sequels, it deepens the themes and muddies the morality from the first book. Theo, the printer’s devil and main protagonist of the series, has been exploring the kingdom to get an honest feel for the people and the land when an assassination attempt is made on his life. Meanwhile, a faction of Westmark noblemen and military officers conspire with the king of neighboring Regia to invade Westmark and force Queen Augusta, the Beggar Queen, from the throne.

War breaks out and it’s a nasty, tough business – even if this is more or less a children’s fantasy novel. Things get truly dark as Theo joins with the partisan troops of the democratically-minded Florian. Alexander doesn’t flinch from the sins of the soldiers, even the “good” characters, the ones whose aims we sympathize with. There is a toll to the violence and a growing amorality as tough decisions are made and callousness in the name of their cause prevails.

The conflict between monarchy and the rights of commoners – a burgeoning democratic spirit – deepen, as well. This is a story with a lost princess reclaiming her throne that did not end there but instead asks if she even deserves a throne in the first place. I’ve never seen this element in a fantasy series before and I admire it greatly. Alexander is asking some tough ethical questions here in the frame of a children’s story and he doesn’t force feed any trite answers down our throats.

The Kestrel may be a darker sequel but it still has plenty moments of fun and is entertaining throughout. If Westmark is to Star Wars then The Kestrel is to The Empire Strikes Back. It remains to be seen whether The Beggar Queen is this trilogy’s Return of the Jedi. P.S.: this is a secondary world fantasy series without one ounce of magic! It’s truly doing its own thing.

My Sexist Father Married A Good Female Driver

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My new humor piece “My Sexist Father Married A Good Female Driver” is up at Pickle Fork. It’s a character monologue/essay as if from a fourteen year old girl. It was a lot of fun to write.

Three choice jokes from it:

My dad is the sort of person that thinks cheerleaders are the croutons in the salad that is the male gaze.

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Sheila’s father was a mechanic and her mother is a gender studies professor, which means the combined influence of her parents is pretty much my father’s worst nightmare in a woman.

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She’s a bit of a snob except she reads Clive Cussler novels so she’s also a hypocrite.

It’s pretty short if you have some time.