Ink & Bourbon
Tilting at windmills. Because those windmills think they're better than us.

I recently read “The Crystal Void” by John Houlihan.

This was a joy to read. If George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Flashman series had an illegitimate child with HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu series, this would be it.

The main character, Captain d’Bois, relates his adventures in first person in an outrageous French accent and a sense of bombast and humor that is part Commander McBragg and part Pepe LePew.

There is action, horror and humor throughout.

Sit back and enjoy this Napoleonic Mythos mashup.

Recently I got a mediocre review of my pulp sword and sorcery book Broken Crossroads. In and of itself, that’s fine. I’ve survived worse, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and mediocre is better than scathing, so I’m not all that broken up.

But what did concern me was the problems the reader seemed to have. I always read the reviews, good and bad, and try to see what they had to say, and if that issue is something I want to work on. In this case, the things the reader didn’t like were staples of the old pulp sword and sorcery genre as it existed in the days of Leiber and Moorcock. The stories were episodic, the characters’ backgrounds didn’t invite big revelatory resolutions and complications later, opportunities for dramatic callbacks were missed.

I grew up reading the short, episodic tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Elric, Kane and Conan, and the formula was simple. Characters who can have an adventure, then another, without the need for callbacks or dramatic earth shattering changes to either the hero of the world. Adventures that can be read individually, out of order, with no single unifying thread, where the hero tends to reset between adventures, where jewels and riches won “slip through their fingers,” leaving them hungry and destitute for the next adventure, rather than buying a castle and retiring to the country. This is almost certainly the result of the fact that they began life in the old short fiction magazines, such as Weird Tales or Amazing Stories and not as full novels or even collected short stories, like they can be found today. Given the space restrictions and nature of the publication, it was necessary that a reader be able to jump into another adventure with their favorite swordsman or rogue or exiled sorcerer emperor outside an overarching narrative structure.

The closest modern analogy would be weekly detective procedurals, where our hero solves a new mystery every week, without the viewer needing to have seen last week’s episode. Sure there is generally a pilot that sets up the character, and occasional cliffhangers that will be resolved next season, but in general, you can catch and episode of Law & Order or Psych or Supernatural without really knowing or caring which season it’s from or what happened previously.

In fantasy literature today, that’s no longer the case. Even books and heroes which would seem to fit neatly into the old pulp genre, like Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series, or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, both of which clearly show the influence of and affection for Raymond Chandler and Robert B Parker, have a clear story arc which transcends the individual novels, and the characters and world change with each installment. There is no reset to baseline in the old episodic tradition. Likewise Michael McClung’s Amra Thetys books, whose protagonist would be a clear descendant of the rogues of the pulps, quick of wit and of blade, ready to take on a corrupt city or a supernatural terror, follow a story arc.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t read these books. You should. You just shouldn’t read them out of order. The concept of a continuing story, one where characters and setting change and grow by their experiences is valid, and probably makes more sense and may well be arguably better from a pure literary standpoint. But I still miss the old pulps. I have a soft spot in my heart for the lighthearted adventure, swashbuckling derring do, and the comfort that whatever happened, those heroes would be back again,

When I wrote Broken Crossroads or rather, the first story with the characters who would come to inhabit that world, I wanted to write a short story. I wanted to write a love letter to Fritz Leiber’s heroes of Lankhmar. I wanted to create my own team of buddy rogues, who would loot temples, steal treasures, fight supernatural foes and cause headaches to the city watch, then squander their riches off the page between adventures and be ready for the next escapade.

Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s a reaction to the rise of Grimdark, sweeping multi volume epic fantasy, maybe I’ve just had enough realism over the past few years and want to write something light and entertaining. I do know it was a conscious choice to work in that style. And I plan to continue that particular series as the episodic adventures of two platonic buddy rogues who will fail to wisely invest their loot and need to take a new contract whenever I feel the urge to write another adventure for them.

The old pulps might be literary comfort food, but there are times when you’re not in the mood for a seven course tasting menu, but a bowl of mom’s mac and cheese would really hit the spot.

I’m ok with that.

If you are too, please feel free to check out Broken Crossroads, which is cheap on Kindle or free on Kindle Unlimited. If you want something meatier, read Brust or McClung. I won’t complain about that. I’ll just be over here with my mac and cheese.

I’m going to take a moment to talk about the recent murder of George Floyd, and how it’s part of a continued trend, and try to take a swipe at one of the pillars of the problem.

Pretty much everyone can agree that Floyd’s murder was beyond the pale. That it was deliberate and totally unjustified and the officer responsible should be punished. That’s not a radical opinion. Officer Chauvin has been fired and charged with murder, and those who stood by and did nothing while George Floyd died begging for his life on the sidewalk have also been fired, and will probably be charged. So that’s something.

But I doubt that would have happened without the video. The same with Ahmed Aubrey, where his murderers weren’t even charged until video surfaced. It seems that only when the public sees the murder first hand is there any chance that there will be consequences, and even then maybe not, as Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and Walter Scott’s cases demonstrate.

I could go on.

Sadly, I could go on.

But while nobody is denying there’s a problem, the excuse that I hear is that this is “not all police” and the work of “a few bad apples.”

I’m a paramedic. I’ve been in public safety for over two decades. I’ve worked in some rough cities, and worked closely with the police. I’ve definitely been protected by the police, and felt safer for their presence in certain circumstances. So I’m not anti-police. I just want accountability for the police

I know it’s not all cops. Anybody who is engaged in reasonable discourse knows it’s not all cops. It may very well be a minority of cops. A few bad apples.

But the rest of the saying about bad apples is that a few can spoil the bunch.

The problem won’t go away while the police shield the bad apples, make excuses for the bad apples, defend and cheer when bad apples are acquitted or fail to be indicted. As long as the establishment closes ranks and circles the wagons around the shitbags, they will continue to give the whole institution a bad name.

This is a tendency of organizations, to cover for their mistakes. But it makes them complicit. Just like the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts should have to answer for covering up the crimes of their people, so must the police.

If you truly want to claim that these “bad apples” don’t represent all cops, the whole organization needs to demonstrate that. We give tremendous power and authority to the police. We arm them and give them broad powers to detain and arrest people. But that power should come with responsibility. And part of that responsibility has to be the removal of those who would abuse that power.

If the police want to claim any integrity, they need to cut the cancer from their ranks.

Or those few bad apples will spoil the bunch.




Not a post about writing, today. Just something I need to say.

For all the people urging the reopening of the economy and ending social distancing in the Covid 19 pandemic because “we can’t let the cure be worse than the disease,” citing damage to the economy, lemme just say this.

The economic damage is temporary. Or it can be if the government prioritizes people rather than corporations. Most industries can recover given reasonable policies for rebuilding loans and restructuring debt. Factories will reopen, good will still be produced, consumers will still consume.

On the other hand, dead is dead.

And, not just in the abstract. That isn’t just hyperbole. My friends and I who work in health care are at risk, and I fully expect to bury people I work with. A few doctors have already died. Relative young ones, so this isn’t just about not making grandma sick..

So if a few more billion dollars of fake money in the stock market vanishes temporarily, or Goldman Sachs has to float people another month of paid time off so that more of us can live, I’m ok with that.

So maybe ramp up production of PPE and ventilators, stay home and suck it the fuck up, so that I can live to see my kid graduate high school.

Recently I have noticed theme among reviews of my books. A number of recent reviewers gave them 3 to maybe a grudging 4 stars and called them things like entertaining, quick, fun, a pleasant time filler, but dinged them for not really “delving deeper” into things.

And I’m fine with that. I don’t think there’s any shame in writing the literary equivalent of a popcorn movie. Entertaining, fun and quick aren’t always bad things. I’ve certainly been called worse. Most of my favorite books are fun and entertaining and quick. The very best might have some insight mixed in, but if it’s not fun and entertaining, I’m not interested.

That got me thinking about my earliest reading. I grew up before fantasy was mainstream, and long before there was anything like today’s YA fantasy. You can probably count The Hobbit, and maybe Lewis’ Narnia stories or Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, but there was nothing like the vast amount of YA fantasy available today. What was readily available for my young, impressionable mind, were Big Damn Adventures for Boys.

I devoured stories of Robin Hood, King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes, Dumas’ Three Musketeers, Jules Verne, H G Welles. and the like. But the first real book I remember reading over and over again in all its glory, not as a watered down adaptation for kids, was Treasure Island.

For ten year old me, Treasure Island had it all. Pirates, buried treasure, mutiny, swordfights, battles, escapes, betrayals, rescues, dark secrets, a real honest “x marks the spot” map with an actual skeleton left as a marker, one of the greatest ever villains turned allies but maybe not and the basis for most pop culture pirates to come, Long John Silver, all told from the perspective of a young boy who goes along as cabin boy on a grand adventure, onto whom it was so easy to project myself.

I still have a soft spot in my heart for the book. Because it was fun and entertaining and filled with action. It certainly didn’t delve into deeper issues. And while there was all the violence and horror a ten year old could hope for, it wasn’t dark or heavy. It was the violence of Saturday afternoon westerns, nobody died kicking and screaming in agony or begging for it to end. There’s no gore or viscera. Death is something that happens mostly to bag guys or to extras. The action is just enough to make a young reader’s heart beat faster, but not enough to scar.

Which brings me to the second half of the post. While the book was all my ten year old heart desired, there are some things it wasn’t. The writing certainly wasn’t very sophisticated. Stevenson admitted as much. There isn’t a whole lot of character arc or growth. Even our young protagonist starts out as a brave young man, and ends up as a more experienced brave young man. Silver is nicely multi faceted, he’s charming and appealing even as a villain, and he does turn into an ally, but whether that’s a real change of heart or just a pragmatic instinct for being on the winning side isn’t ever really clear.

And, to look back at the title of this post, it was a book for boys. Not for children. Stephenson wrote it at a time when it was expected that adventure fiction would be read by boys and not girls in the same way Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women for girls. Women more or less don’t exist in Treasure Island. The family of Jim Hawkins, the protagonist, runs an inn where he meets an old pirate an begins his adventure, and after his father dies, his mother continues to run it, but I think she may be the only woman with a speaking role, and it’s not much of a role. The book isn’t misogynistic in any active sense, it just doesn’t bother to include any women. It also avoids sex. Not just active sex or the mention of sex, but any hint that sex is a thing that exists. There are no tavern wenches, the pirates never speak of women, only of wealth and ease and rum, there isn’t even a chaste love interest that our hero hopes to return to. Certainly no sex between the pirates, which one wouldn’t expect to see in a book written in the Victorian age, but something a cabin boy in the ages of sail might well find out about. Again, that was fine for ten year old me. I would have been the grandson in The Princess Bride, suspicious of any kissing books.

And while I’m not going to defend Treasure Island’s lack of female characters, I will ask if anyone can make a list of female characters in The Hobbit. Adventure stories had yet to grow into a place of inclusion until I was well out of my childhood.

There is also no cultural diversity. There’s no real racism, it’s just that everybody in the book is white and British. And while a few characters make the occasional disparaging remark about the French, that just seemed authentic for a British character in the 18th Century. It certainly wasn’t enough to bother me, and I’m Franco-Irish, a people not known to be the biggest fans of the Brits.

So I will be the first to admit the book has its shortcomings. It’s not representative of a lot of people, and there’s no attempt to address and social or political issues. Young readers today have a lot more options, and that’s a good thing.

But it was a revelation to me. It showed me that reading can be fun. It kindled a need for adventure fiction. It’s what propelled me toward fantasy and s/f. As far as its impact on literature and culture as a whole, its been adapted countless times, and it’s served as inspiration for every pirate story that followed.

And it did all this despite the fact that it was never grim or dark or political. It was an entertaining, fun, quick read. I’m sure I internalized that. I’m sure in some way, I’m trying to capture that kind of magic in my own writing.

So fun, quick and entertaining isn’t really a terrible thing to be.