Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why I Had a Dead Cow in My Shed for Two Years

When I was a first year teacher, I was incredibly eager to please.  I still have a a tendency towards it, but at that point in time I took it to extremes.

The band room at the private school I worked in used to be a morgue when it was a hospital.  There were only two teachers in the basement, myself and the art teacher, Barb.  It was a miserable place to be.  The doors didn't work properly, it flooded twice with rain or freshwater while I was there, and I was only there one year.  I had the better end of the flooding deal.  Barb's room had flooded more than once with sewage, and my understanding is that it's flooded with sewage since I left, too.

One day, Barb and I were chatting.  We talked a lot since we were so isolated.  I had talked to her before about the type of art my grandmother does, which is painting western scenes on bones.  I mentioned in an offhand manner, "Wouldn't it be cool to get a whole skeleton, have a different kid paint each bone, and then wire it together?"

"Yeah!  That's a great idea!"

I thought for a second.  "You know, I think my dad mentioned that he had a cow die a couple of months ago.  I'll see if the bones are all still there."

I called my dad.  "Well, I peeked over there the other day.  It's been picked pretty clean, but all of the bones are there."

"Great!  I'll tell Barb," I said, picturing the sun bleached, slightly scattered bones that I usually find out at the farm.  Barb was thrilled, and I said I would nab the bones the next time I would be out.

I drove out to the farm in our little station wagon.  A pickup would have been better for transporting a body, but I figured I could get the bones in a garbage bag or two.  When we went to go collect the bones, I realized that Dad's and my definition of "picked clean" varied rather drastically.  I felt rather like Brendan Fraser when he popped open the Mummy's sarcophagus.  The head was still swollen and juicy.  The meat was pretty well gone from the rest of the carcass, but all of the tendons and ligaments were still there.

"I, uh, have to take this back in the station wagon," I said. "I was planning on using garbage bags."  We grabbed the biggest ones we could find, but the backbone was too long to fit.

"Oh, I'll just do this," he replied, and cracked it half over his knee.

Resisting the urge to blow chunks, we packaged everything up and threw it in the back of the station wagon.  The carcass didn't smell out on the open prairie, but in the confines of my Saturn, it was...pungent.  The day was warm.  We went to church, and then to lunch at the Shamrock in Wibaux.  Thank God you don't have to lock your car in a small town, because I had every window down to keep the stench from building up.  Dad couldn't resist bragging to the undertaker about my makeshift hearse.

We get it back to my home in Billings, and my husband and I back up to the shed, feeling a little like Ted Bundy unloading a victim.

"When is she coming to get this again?" he asked, a little grossed out by the sloshing sound coming from the bag with the juicy head.

"She said she'd pick it up soon."

So, a month or two pass and Barb never came to get it.  I reminded Barb, and she said she'd grab it, and I think she promptly forgot.  I was afraid to be a nag and ask her again, and it had grown ripe.  We didn't have a pickup to haul it out.  Though we could borrow one, I had no idea where we could dump the body.

Finally, Aaron put his foot down.  I worked at a different school by then, and thankfully Barb was still at the same one.  I called Barb again.  "My God, you still have that thing!  I'm so sorry!  We'll swing by this weekend and haul it out for you."

We loaded the remains into the back of her pickup, and I was just sure the neighbors would call the police.  One of the bags broke open while we were unloading.  Thousands of dead beetles poured out with a rustling hiss and showered my shoes.

We do stupid things because of anxiety.  I was secretly afraid that if I didn't follow through with my word that Barb would look down upon me, and I had always been taught to honor one's elders.  I liked Barb, and didn't want to nag her as it seemed disrespectful.  Dad went out of his way to help me get the carcass, and I was afraid his extra efforts would be for nothing if I just threw the carcass away.  Both fears were stupid, but they were compelling enough for me to force my husband to trip over a juicy cow's head for two years whenever he mowed the lawn.

Tonight, I finally resolved a major anxiety, and I look back at all of the years that it grasped my heart in an ice-cold fist.  I can't believe how stupid I've been.  Almost all of my anxiety is about what other people think. It is a hungry monster, and it grows if you feed it more fear.

Do yourself a favor.  Starve the little bastard.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Discord's Apple

I just finished a book, Discord's Apple, by Carrie Vaughn.  Without writing any big spoilers, let me say that she made some religious assertions in the story with which I could never agree, but one part of the plot made me ache with longing.  King Arthur returned.  (Though he is not the main focus of the story.)

It took me quite a while to figure out why I longed so much for the return of a mythical King.  It's not like I knew the guy, though the character was written well enough to make me feel as though I did.  After some soul-searching, I found that I've been falling into our collective despair, praying that God would send someone, anyone, to deliver us from troubled times.  Why not Arthur?  He's cool and has a sword forged from pure awesome.

As I think on it longer, no matter how seductive the concept of an invincible crusader for righteousness may be, it's really a fool's errand.  The world doesn't change when a hero slays its dragons.  It changes when those who've had enough stand up and make it change.  Personally, I'd rather slay the dragon.  It may try to rip one's head from one's shoulders and vivisect one's liver, but it won't play games with a person's life, toy around with nukes, or profit from the deaths of millions.  With a dragon, the battle is over as soon as it's dead.  Real change requires years of shouting upon thousands of deaf ears before even a few minds are changed.

Is that why we write speculative fiction?  To better a world of our own creation the only way we know how?  Are we taking the easy way out?  If only a certain someone, and I'm not talking about Arthur, would return and allow us to escape our responsibilities to the world.

I want to effect change, but I doubt my ability to do so.  I pray that someday I can be effective.  Somehow.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Defining Urban Fantasy

I noticed that there have been several conversations on Twitter lately that have been trying to define urban fantasy.  I just attended a session that tried to do just that at the World Fantasy Con in Columbus, OH.  The panel was comprised of authors Holly Black, Michele Lang, Cinda Chima, and Stephanie Robertson.

To sum things up, urban fantasy:

  • holds hands with paranormal romance and contemporary fantasy.
  • is often influenced by the mystery genre.
  • takes place in the modern world or in the future.
  • is comprised of weird stuff in the real world.  (This is the most broad and my favorite.)
  • can have an open or closed world.
Much was said regarding open or closed worlds in urban fantasy, mainly because the very heart of the genre involves blending the real with the imaginary.  The authors defined an open world as one in which the general population is aware of the supernatural/magical elements of their world.  A good example in my mind would be Kim Harrison's Dead Witch Walking.  She supplies an alternate history of our world in which the we all become aware of most magical and supernatural phenomena, and that also makes everyone afraid of tomatoes.  Poor bastards.

Closed worlds are worlds in which the general populace is unaware of such elements, often chalking fantastical events off to overactive imaginations, intoxication, or symptoms requiring a good dose of Haldol.  The average citizen in the Harry Potter series is closed to the idea of magic, leaving millions of Muggles hopelessly ignorant that they were this close to being Voldemort's bitches.


The type of world an author chooses to use greatly affects the nuances of effective world building.  One of the panelists remarked that books with open worlds that have no explanation for how everyone knows about werewolves, witches, and vampires makes for a less believable plot.  "Yes, Virginia, there is a Dracula."  I appreciate the irony of trying to make the unbelievable believable, but there has to be a sort of logic in one's world to set up the willing suspension of disbelief in one's audience.

Some other genres that came up during that panel, and several other panels, that seem related to me included steam punk, cyber punk, weird western, rural fantasy (AWESOME), and mash-ups.  I'm having trouble placing my book in an appropriate genre.  The definition of a book is critical.  It guides consumers towards what books they may like to try.  Placing a book in the wrong genre feels like a bait-and-switch to readers, and understandably pisses them off.

I feel my book is closest to urban fantasy in its structure and style, but it doesn't take place in a city, and it has a few aspects of weird westerns.  I want to fight for that urban fantasy label, if I can ever land an agent, because urban fantasy is booming right now.

What do you think?  Do you have anything to add to the discussion?

Say Hello to The Portal's Newest Reviewer!

I wasn't able to post about it the other day, but I am one of the newest reviewers at the Portal.  For this month, I'm working on reviewing the current issue of Crossed Genres, and so far, I'm enjoying the hell out of it.  I'll be posting my review on the 21st of November.

Stop by and visit the site!

The Portal

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Art of Leaving Things Out

On the last day of the World Fantasy Conference, I attended a panel regarding the art of leaving things to the reader's imaginations.  Some of the comments got me to thinking, and I knew this was an important topic for me, as I usually try to hit my audience over the head with whatever point I am trying to make.  Repeatedly.  With a big-ass hammer.

When I was a kindergartener, I suffered from chronic nightmares.  While my sister dreamed of watchdog rocks that blew her on the butt and scrambled her like a TV screen, I don't remember much of what I dreamed.  I only remember that it terrified me and occasionally gave me glimpses of Armageddon.

I loved to poke around in my dad's library in the office, which sounded grand, but it really consisted of a shit-ton worth of books on bowed bookshelves.  Most were pretty heavy-duty, consisting of dad's college texts from his chemistry degree, his chemistry set, and Step-Grandpa Art's artificial kidney.  There were range management journals and a bunch of very old National Geographic issues, which soon came to include the most awesome issue ever:  the one with the holographic Australopithecine skull on the front.  Totally legit.  But I digress.

Also contained therein were my grandfather's college texts, mostly from his med school days at the University of Tulane.  He went to med school in the 30's, before the advent of gigantic CSI units, and doctors were often expected to serve as forensic pathologists and crime scene investigators.  One of his texts was simply titled Homicide Investigation.  It covered how to remove a bullet from a body without damaging the grooves left by the gun's barrel, how to handle advanced decomposition, etc.  If you've ever seen the Brad Pitt movie Seven, the old black and white pictures in the serial killer's journal were cut from this book.  Despite the grisly content, I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame.

At some point, my older brother was angry about something and threatened to run away, and so my dad whipped out that book to show him what happens to runaways.  There were horrible photos; there was a kid who had multiple axe wounds to the face, a little girl who had fallen down a well and had her face eaten off by a turtle, and a guy's neck that had nearly been severed, among many other things.  In a weak moment, Dad let me thumb through the book, and keep it for further examination.

My nightmares stopped.

It made no sense for a long time.  Thinking back on it, I was almost as sheltered as the Amish, but was a deeply anxious kid.  Nebulous thoughts of bad things that could happen floated around in my little head, but never fully materialized, making them even more terrifying in their intangibility.  Looking through that book cemented in my mind the worse thing that could happen...an axe murder...a reptile eating your face...and it was a comfort.  The unknown was known and could be faced.  I slept soundly.  Do I advocate showing photos of mutilation to your kids?  Absolutely not.  I'm lucky it didn't make things worse.

One comment made by the panel at the WFC was that, by leaving key details out of a narrative, the dark shadow in the corner can be far scarier because it leaves details to the individual reader's imagination.  What pushes my scary button could be vastly different to what pushes another's, and when left to fill in the blank, we all imagine something that scares us individually.  My scary button, even as a kid, was not pressed by reading about mutilation, though, as an adult, injuries to kids bother me on a very fundamental level now that I have one of my own.

It's a lesson I need to keep in mind as I revise my novel's draft.

Monday, November 1, 2010

I Freakin' Love Hyperbole and a Half

Sadly, it sounds as though Allie has moved from Montana.

Gladly, she still runs her blog.  This post brought me joy as I waited for my delayed flight back from the WFC.