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IT by Stephen King - Analysis by Horror Author Ashley Holtzmann

A guest author on the blog! Welcome Ashley Holzmann!

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Ashley Holzmann

Ashley Holzmann

There’s a plethora of variety within the horror genre. The goal is to insight tension, fear, or anxiety within the consumer of the medium. The paths to achieving that goal vary wildly.

The horror community at large cannot even agree with itself on what is and is not scary. Horror is subjective; and that’s a good thing, because all stories are interpreted differently by the person hearing or reading or watching the story.

That’s a big part of what I want to talk about here. How we consume horror and how the same story can be told in more than one way. I also want to touch on the nature of fear, the current audiences for horror, and use the new release of IT in movie theaters across the country as a platform for my wild spiel.

This is an analysis of storytelling above all else. It could very well be a discussion of any genre. But Halloween is approaching and I have, myself, recently release a book within the genre, so why not use this as an opportunity?

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The New Movie

I recently went to see the new release of IT in theaters, and while the movie had its flaws, it accomplished what it set out to do: convey fear.

We are lucky that there are three versions of this story out in the world: the recent film, the mini-series adaptation, and the original book the former are based on. By comparing the three, I hope to bring a few thematic aspects of the stories to light, and discuss the successes and shortfalls of attempting to apply those themes to a story.

Summaries of IT can be found throughout the internet. IT and the creator—Stephen King—is so imbedded within society that I won’t explain much of the plot here. The premise, for the uninitiated, is that a group of kids growing up in the suburbs begin realizing there is a creature trying to kill them, and the creature feeds off of their fear.

To be clear upfront, I enjoyed the new film. It is not perfect, but it had to balance a lot of various realities: a direct adaptation of the book was not an option; the new movie had to live up to rose-colored expectations comparing it to the Tim Curry mini-series adaptation; the modern horror audience had to be factored into all of the decisions for the new film.

The movie is also adapting the source material from a book that is so long that its audiobook spans nearly forty-five hours. If you half a half-hour commute to work and you want to listen to IT on audiobook, it will take you a month and a half. Boiling that down to two-isa hours is no easy task.

There is a complicated balancing act when adapting a story, and I personally feel like the writers, directors, producer, actors and everyone else involved did their best to balance all of these factors in the new movie.

In many ways, all creative works are reinterpretations of ageless stories. The Heroes Journey is a timeless trope that still invigorates us. The Coming of Age tale is repeated annually throughout all of our media. The list of archetypes for story structure is not as long or varied as it appears to be when you walk through a book store or scan streaming video services.

What matters is the way a story is told. What aspects are concentrated on. What is thrown away. How the characters interact—characters that are, themselves, often common archetypes.

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A Flaw Of Horror

For the new adaptation of IT, I’d like to address the modern horror-going audience upfront. Today’s horror audiences are conditioned to one type of horror scenario: the jump scare. Jump scares for days.

It’s a familiar set up and execution. The music in the film will tell you exactly when something is coming, leading the audience to anticipate the moment. The music then cuts low, and the jump scare moment manifests with a spike in sound effects. Everyone is surprised briefly, and this is repeated over and over again.

Most horror aficionados are not fans of this tactic. It is cheap and easy to do with a premise that’s sloppily put together. Most horror movies these days aren’t actually very scary. They are just peppered with jump scares.

The new movie adaptation for IT is no different. The disappointing aspect of the jump scares in this movie is that the movie would have been amazing without the jump scares. Because the premise, itself, is absolutely horrifying.

I’m not saying that IT gets a pass on this, but it had to balance the source material with a modern adaptation. And modern horror movies have to do one thing to be successful in today’s market: have jump scares.

I personally believe that IT raking in the box office that it did is because it towed the line on the jump scare. Would it have been justified in leaving the jump scares out? Yes. Absolutely. Would it have been as commercially viable? Hard to say.

It would have been a superior film, but it may not have fared as well with mass audiences. The jump scare was used often, because the movie wanted to appeal to the masses. I understand that, and it is what it is. But the source material from the book is the gold that gave the new movie the ability to use jump scares on top of an amazing concept, which was executed really well.

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Characters

With that out of the way, there were other things this movie had to factor in. The original book had a number of sexual encounters between children that wouldn’t have translated well to film. The script had to tackle half of a massive book, which meant that characters and plot lines would have to be cut in such a way as to not also detract from the overall story and themes. And artistic limitations were abound. Deciding to set the new movie in the 1980s made sense, because the 1950s references in the book would be a hard sell for modern audiences, who wouldn’t understand as many 50s references as 80s references.

This article isn’t just about criticism, though. The new movie does many things right. The child actors are amazing. They are spectacularly well casted and allowed the freedom to move around in the story. They are given a lot of time to bond, and while some are developed more than others, it was in the service to the run time and it makes sense.

The only shortfall I found in the acting for the movie was with the antagonist, Pennywise, played by Bill Skarsgård. Many people are comparing his performance with the original Tim Curry performance and also Heath Ledger’s Joker.

This isn’t fare. Mostly because Pennywise simply has little room to perform. Most of his moments are under thirty seconds, and he’s given one monologue in the film. You could argue that there are two monologues, but that’s a shortfall from the amount of dialogue opportunities that Heath Ledger had in The Dark Knight.

Ledger was given multiple opportunities to verbalize the character of The Joker, and The Dark Knight absolutely benefitted from that.

Bill Skarsgård wasn’t given the same freedom. Did he demonstrate the potential? Absolutely. But most of his interactions with the characters were jump scares, drooling looks, and one-liners. CGI also played a hindering role, in my opinion.

His introduction is done very well, though, and he really explodes onto the screen when given the opportunity.

Bringing it back to the kids, there were several brilliant moments that the movie took with them.

Allowing Beverly to deal with her period was done both tactfully and in a way that conveyed empathy. Of equal importance was allowing the kids to talk as kids do when adults aren’t around.

This is minor, but makes a huge impact on the audience because everyone viewing is able to immerse themselves just a little more. Kids swearing is relatable. The more the audience buys into the story and characters, the more they are able to suspend disbelief and also feel fear when the characters are in scary situations.

Allowing some of the racial moments from the book was also important. The new movie does this better than the mini-series did.

The book makes the racial tension a large part of the story, and to great effect. The new movie would have benefitted from bravely incorporating this more, but I can understand that the filmmakers wanted to concentrate on a few themes. The missing children being one of the larger concentrations of the movie, and the relationship between the kids, Beverly, and the bullies of the town.

Why does this matter to storytelling, though?

Because a story that is grounded in various aspects of human nature is a story that will speak to the audience. Surface level stories achieve little. Stories that allow subtext and strive to include deeper meanings are the stories that last.

Stephen King wrote IT decades ago, and the story the book conveys is still relevant. Partially because of the characters, but also because of the subtext and themes. That is why Beverly’s period matters, and the racially charged moments matter. Because those are themes worth discussing.

In the context of horror, these themes ground the story to make it more than just a tale of a creepy clown. It becomes a story about being a kid, growing up around racism, reaching puberty, and friendship among the plethora of other themes repeated through the book and subsequent screen adaptations.

At the center of all of this were the characters.

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Why Is IT Scary?

IT is scary for a variety of reasons.

I want to look at all three iterations of the story for this section.

The original book was set in the 50s and played off of the children’s fears of the monsters of the era. There were mummies and werewolves and lepers and other monsters.

The mini-series was able to incorporate a lot of this, but also had something amazing on its side: the performance of Tim Curry.

Something the new movie lacks that the mini-series had in spades was the variety in the character of Pennywise. Tim Curry was given the chance to be funny as often as he was allowed to be scary.

There’s something unsettling underneath a performance that allows people to see both humor and horror from the same character.

What IT really provides in all of the iterations is diversity throughout the experience. It’s a coming-of-age story, in the middle of racially charged suburbia, where deviant sexual encounters are common and a creature that can represent anyone’s darkest fears is targeting children. That’s a lot of layers to what makes IT scary. Add to that the cosmic elements, and the disconnect between the children and the adults, and IT is easily one of the most diverse examples of the genre to exist.

Most stories stick to one or two themes to repeat the horror of the story alive. IT goes for broke.

This pays off in a lot of ways when it comes to the book, because there’s something inside those pages that will reach almost every horror consumer.

The screen adaptations don’t have the benefit of dozens of hours, so they have to stick to a few of the themes.

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Consuming Horror Alone

IT was very popular when it was published. There were scenes that buzzed and got people talking a lot.

Stephen King was hailed for being fearless. And for good reason.

He put in a lot of sexual deviance, as well as violence against children in that book. Some of this has already been discussed.

It was his love story to Lovecraft, too, who had so influenced him as a child. Stephen King is a huge reason for the recent resurgence in interest with Lovecraft.

The fearless aspect of the book wasn’t King’s ode to Lovecraft though. It was the aforementioned scenes of deviance.

I’m labeling it was deviance here as a catch-all, but that encompasses a variety of moments in the book. From children masturbating, sexual encounters, to first time kisses, and even inappropriate relationships between father and daughter.

This resonated with people who read the book and drew them in. Again, this book is massive and comes with whole segments that were not translated into the screen adaptations.

I believe the reason is deeper than trying to argue that audiences wouldn’t accept such scenes on a screen.

We consume books intimately and are far more accepting of books as a source material. If it’s on a page, we aren’t announcing to the world exactly what words we’re reading.

A book is consumed alone. And when left by ourselves we are very willing to explore our more deviant sides. We do embarrassing things, think embarrassing thoughts, and we often later experience cognitive dissonance when confronted with anyone publicly expressing the same thoughts we’ve had ourselves. We would rather those thoughts be kept within.

This is one of the reasons IT is so effective as a book. It really plays off of countless fears. As I’ve already mentioned, IT is not just a story about an unknown creature, it’s a story about the fears of our childhoods, the lack of adult intervention, and the depths children will go in the direction of cruelty. IT is all of those things.

But it works because of the way IT is written and consumed. Much like 50 Shades of Grey works better on the page (ask anyone who was a fan of the books). There are levels of deviance that we have difficulty enjoying in groups.

Watching a movie in a theater with a group of friends and strangers is inherently more social and more announcing. You are announcing to a portion of the world that you are experiencing this moment in the movie, and everyone around you knows you’re experiencing it.

I couldn’t imagine watching a perfect adaptation of the book in the same room with my parents. I think most people would rather not think of such possibilities.

But if my parents knew I read the book. That’s different.

It is for this reason that I believe the decisions to exclude certain elements were very crucial in the film. Every decision felt planned in the case of the recent film.

The decision to set it in the 80s was cool and retro.

The 80s retro stuff is hot right now. Stranger Things, Ready Player One, Rick and Morty being a tongue in cheek riff on Doc and Marty from Back to the Future.

It felt like the decisions to make changes were artistic/creative decisions and not just for the sake of watering down the story. So I can admire the new movie for that. The way the sets were designed, the actor’s blocking—the movie did a really good job. And while the jump scares were innumerable, I still found myself enjoying the experience.

I'm looking forward to the next one.

 

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Story And Writing

How does all of this relate to the craft? I’ve discussed how important I feel the decisions of the book and the screen adaptations were. How the way characters interact is significant.

There’s a lot to learn from the story of IT. I truly believe that the story is made all there powerful because the audience is actually invested in the decisions of the characters, and believe that this movie does an excellent job. The book does an even better job. The older mini-series does a better job during the first half than in the second half.

Another significant thing that King often does well is his characters stay true to themselves. A curious character makes curious decisions. A scared character is consistently scared. He often incorporates character arcs, but the arcs don’t always play out the way we believe they will. Even when they don’t, the characters stay true to themselves above all other things.

A lot could be said with that. When movies of all genre are released even today and characters make irrational decisions for the sake of the plot instead of the sake of the characters, that says a lot. IT does not have trouble with this.

Character dynamic is huge in IT, as well, and I’ve touched on it. Stranger Things has been recently cited as being inspired by the book IT, and Stephen King is known for being able to produce the relationships that children have without adults really well—Stand By Me is another great example of a film adaptation that plays off of this gift that King has.

When it comes to writing, the best thing to do is allow characters to make decisions that make sense. Human nature is normally consistent. Is that disappointing sometimes? Yes. But it’s easier for an audience to immerse in a story if the characters in the story are scared.

It’s harder to care about characters who get naked and take a shower when a serial killer is on the loose. Instead, everyone says phrases like, “oh, come on.”

That simply isn’t something a person would do. They’d do anything else besides that.

For me, the biggest thing to take away from the new movie, and of course the book, is that there is diversity to a genre. There are no limits. Stephen King is often referenced as a horror author, but he writes in many genres. Whatever a story needs is how he approaches it.

IT is no different. There are really touching moments of childhood innocence that ground the story. The kids in the story are amazingly well balanced as a group. Then there are scenes of gore and horrific moments of over-the-top murder. It gets wild.

And at the center of it all is a goofy clown that wants to eat the protagonists. If you really try to simplify the story of IT, it can come off sounding pretty silly. Really, the best way to experience it is to simply read the book. Deep dive into a story that will truly affect you.

For my fellow writers out there, if you haven’t read the book, I would like to really encourage you to. Not everyone clicks with it, but most people do. And if you walk away from it with criticisms, that’s not a bad thing. It’s an achievement, regardless of any of our opinions.

When it comes to being creative, there aren’t rules. There are just people out there who say there are rules. Ignore those people.

 

Working with professional editors

My friend edits books. I pay her. She's professional, right?

Probably not.

Just because someone edits books for money doesn't necessarily make them professional. And yes, I know that just getting paid technically elevates one from the amateur to the pro status level, but that's not what this article is about.

The difference between someone who edits full time and someone who edits as their side gig:

  • Part time editors are typically very cheap (in comparison) as they need a high volume of clients to build their name and portfolio. For the part time author, that might work out just fine. But for serious writers looking to replace their day job income, we need to look elsewhere.
  • I've read dozens and dozens of stories of part time editors missing deadlines, returning less than ideal quality of work, and ghosting clients altogether. That's obviously unacceptable.

So a full time pro editor won't do that?

Nope.

Here's the difference I see more often than anything:

  • Working with a full time editor means your project is how they pay their bills. That means your work gets done, and it gets done on time and with a high standard of quality the first time. 
  • Life can't "get in the way" for a full time editor like it does so often with part time editors. I've read countless stories of people saying things like, "my editor took 6 weeks to return my book, and I found 22 typos in it! Help!" or "my editor got sick for 2 weeks and can't work on my project, who should I send it to now?"
  • Full time editors certainly have things come up in life. Death in the family, tattoo got infected, lost all their teeth in an MMA fight, whatever it might be, but that doesn't slow them down for weeks and weeks like it typically does to a part time editor. That's the main concept I've seen a lot of entry-tier writers getting confused. If you want quality work done on a professional timeline with no random delays and a 0% chance of ghosting, you have to go with someone professional. Also, the quality should just be better. But that's a topic for another day.

Writing Strong Female Leads with Stephen Zimmer!

Guest Author Stephen Zimmer

Strong Female Leads

There have been a lot of very compelling female warrior characters in both the book world and TV/Film realms, from Red Sonja, to Xena, to Katniss Everdeen and Wonder Woman.  It so happens that a strong female warrior character has become my favorite character to write, and in many ways become an inspiration to me.  That character is Rayden Valkyrie.

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The foundation of Rayden Valkyrie is that she is a strong person.  She has a personal honor code that she lives by.  She is trustworthy and will put her life on the line rather than break her word.  Raydenhas compassion for those who are oppressed, or in a state of weakness, and she has the courage to step forward to help such individuals. 

 

Rayden is also a dedicated warrior.  She trains regularly, honing her skills with weapons and hand to hand combat.  She is always open to learning new skills and techniques, wherever she travels, and she does not use her high level of ability as a warrior to bully, intimidate or prey upon others.

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These kinds of characteristics have nothing to do with her being a woman or a man.  They are things that individuals of both sexes can embrace. 

 

Yet the fact remains that Rayden is a woman, and that allows for some wonderful areas of development with her in things that are traditionally regarded as more feminine in nature and expression.  Feminine qualities, in my eyes, are capable of demonstrating strength every bit as masculine ones. 

 

In this area, I have been fortunate to have a number of shining examples of strong women in my life.  I often think of my own mother, who was one of the strongest women I have ever known.  Her interior strength was something to behold, wherever it manifested in her actions as a mother, a nurturer (to both family and friends), and as a true partner through and through with my father.  Compassion, affection, wisdom, and encouragement flowed through my mother in her dedicated path as a wife and mother. 

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She was a true bedrock for our small family when my father passed away unexpectedly, helping all of us through that trial while shouldering her own great burden.  She demonstrated incredible interior strength during that time. 

 

These kinds of inner strengths, reflected in a motherly kind of atmosphere, are present in Rayden.  Her reactions to children in need demonstrate a strong protective and nurturing side that is often very mother-like in nature.  Her ability to hold up others while enduring trials herself demonstrates those kinds of strengths further.

 

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Her mother-like empathy and compassion for those in need are strengths just as powerful as her formidable fighting skills.  I've often said that Rayden's interior strengths are what make her the most compelling, as when her interior strengths combine with her other strengths, she becomes a force of nature. 

 

Rayden lives her life with great passion too, and is very confident and secure as a woman in her sexual experiences.  She is swift and fierce when a man tries to objectify her in a tavern or other such setting, but she is highly sensual toward those she chooses to embrace in a physical manner.  She is truly comfortable with herself and with her body in every way. 

 

Another aspect I find important to Rayden is that she is not a wielder of magic, or imbued with superpowers.  She is a human being, imperfect, and with some vulnerabilities.  She wrestles with sadness and anger at times.  Rising above vulnerabilities and shortcomings also demonstrates genuine strength.  Whatever the situation facing her, she has to reach within herself in the same way that any human being has to, in order to have a chance to prevail. 

 

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Rayden has a lot of dimension and is able to balance a number of strengths and attributes.  She is a warrior inside and out, able to nurture and care for a young child while still primed to wield sword and axe with fury.  She lives in a harsh world and cannot hesitate for a moment when a threat manifests, but has not lost her heart and emotional depth along the way. 

 

Rayden is a blend of strengths, as a person and as a woman.  She is every bit of a woman as much as she is a warrior.  She is a human being, with all the limitations that come with being one.  This comprehensive balance, in my eyes, is what makes her a strong female warrior character.


Check out the awesome trailer for the upcoming TV show!

 

Some guidance when editing

A COUPLE WORDS ON EDITING

A two part series on editing and working with an editor.

 

Part 1: The debate between 'track changes' and comments.

Alright, so if you've worked with multiple editors, you've probably seen multiple styles. The first pro editor I ever worked with used track changes. The manuscript was trash (my first novel. It was honestly horrid.) so there were just thousands and thousands of corrections. The editor used track changes, which gives you a quick option to simply 'accept' the edit or not. You click a button and the edit is made exactly how the editor made it on the manuscript, then you move on. For my first manuscript, one riddled with errors, I spent about 2 days applying the edits. I read most of the changes before I clicked 'accept' on about 99% of them. Long story short, the novel still sucks.

Using comments: you've seen the little comment bubbles next to a manuscript. Google Docs and MS Word both support the exact same format. My second professional editor used comments, and that's all I will accept from an editor now. Let me tell you why.

Comments taught me how to be a better writer. 

When I used track changes, I just sort of mindlessly hit 'accept' on almost everything. Then when I wrote my next book, I made all the same errors again. The same damn errors.

When I read comments from my editor, I have to read the whole comment to understand what the issue with the sentence is. Then I have to read the sentence I had written to figure out where / what the error is. Then I have to make the correction myself and delete the comment. It takes far longer to do, and that's great. When I see the 4th comment correcting the same comma error, for example only using a comma before a coordinating conjunction if the following clause is independent, I learned how to write correctly. Now I don't make that mistake in my manuscripts. Well, ok, I make it every now and then, but not often. 

Learning how to be a better writer is the #1 most important thing you can gain from working with a pro editor. 


Part 2: A couple pet peeves I see in a lot of indie writing.

You might recall an article I wrote a long time ago regarding the word 'this.'

Here's an expansion of my thoughts from that article. Consider the following sentences:

1. She laughed at all this and walked on.

2. They fell into his trap. He had planned this to happen just the way it did.

3. They crested the hill by the lake. Now he had them in his sights.

4. Sixteen penguins pecked savagely at the helpless hunter. He tried to defend himself from this, but it didn't work.

5. Trump and Obama finally found the lost WMD in the cave they were currently exploring.

We'll take these sentence one at a time. It should also be said that I made all of them up off the top of my head. Obviously. They're terrible. I would never write that garbage into a book. Well, maybe something close to #4, but that's it.
 

Sentence 1: If you're a good storyteller, the reader should know why she is laughing. She knows Hillary just lost the election. You mentioned the TV in the previous line, right? Saying "at all this" is just redundant. We know why she's laughing! A better line 1: "She laughed, turning her back to walk on." - Still not wonderful, but you get the idea. Don't tell the reader everything. Tell them just enough.

Sentence 2: You don't want to say: "He had planned the trap" or anything like that because "trap" would be repetitive. As it stands, "this" is redundant with "his trap" in the previous sentence. You have a couple options with sentence 2. Perhaps try something like: "He had planned everything flawlessly." You get the idea. We already know about the trap, so don't tell us about the trap again.

Sentence 3: A little deviation from 'this' commentary. Time stamps. Unless you just finished with a memory / flash back / flash forward / something else similar, you don't need to time stamp events. Of course it is happening currently, I'm reading it currently! Just cut the time word 'now' and you have a better sentence. 

Sentence 4: Another instance where 'this' (plus 'from') could be cut to drastically improve the writing quality. I'm not going to point fingers, but I saw that exact construction in an indie horror novel I read recently.

Sentence 5: Another redundant time expression. Unless you have the story being told by Sarah Palin as a memory of that spelunking expedition she did with Trump and Obama, it doesn't make sense. Just remove the time expression and you improve the sentence. And yes, I read something almost identical to #5 not too long ago. Different characters though. Sadly...

Hopefully everything here makes sense. Oh, and do a quick Ctrl+F search on 'this.' You won't find it outside being specifically called out. You can write good fiction—and non-fiction—without using the word. 

An excerpt from my new LitRPG series!

Check it out! A new LitRPG! Part one is just about finished, and part two should be ready soon!
 


Chapter 1

 

“How many more pigs could you possibly need?” Jaerth exclaimed. He watched his master, a raven-haired woman named Bokta, slaughter a pen full of pigs and dump their innards into a boiling vat. The woman wasn’t preparing the pigs to be eaten, as evinced by the hexagonal star drawn in salt on the ground beneath the pot.

Bokta shot Jaerth a crooked glance. “Summoning requires great patience and great sacrifice,” she told him for the hundredth time.

“Yes, but have you ever been successful?” the insolent boy asked. He was only fifteen, and he didn’t quite know his place.

Bokta laughed, her youthful voice displaying all the arrogance her status as a blood witch afforded her. “It will work, little one,” she demeaned, though she was only seven years older than her assistant. “Just wait. In due time I will have the demon in my grasp, enslaved to my will, and he will obey my every command.”

“As long as I get paid,” Jaerth muttered. He herded another pair of small pigs into the room from their pen outside. He felt bad for them, but a job was a job, and he didn’t often complain. Needlessly killing a few pigs was pretty far from the worst act he had seen the self-proclaimed blood witch perform in her constant pursuit of some demon or other equally crazed machination.

“Bring my scrying mirror,” Bokta commanded, and the boy complied at once. The mirror was covered in many layers of filth and grime, with only the very center left clean enough to function.

Bokta sprinkled a few grains of powdered sulfur over the surface, bringing it to life. In the center of the crusted mirror, she watched her target - the demon she would summon into the world and bind. His name was Maxkrannar, and he was mighty indeed. Bokta had been watching the demons in their realm ever since she learned how to scry with her mirror, and they fascinated her day in and day out. She knew all their adventures, all of their heroic tales, and most of all, she knew which demons could command the others. Maxkrannar was one of the most highly respected beings she had ever cared to follow. His exploits were known through the demon realm, bringing reverence and obedience with it in droves.

“When will you be able to summon the demon?” Jaerth dared to ask.

Bokta brushed a strand of her black hair from her face. “You will know when I am ready,” she answered. “For now, we must continue to prepare for the demons coming. The components take a long time to make ready.”

“What does the demon eat?” the boy wondered aloud. “I bet he’ll be hungry when he gets here.”

Bokta put a thoughtful finger to her chin. “I have only seen him eat one thing, a dry biscuit,” she said curiously.

The image on her scrying mirror swirled and manifested before her eyes. Maxkrannar was at the center of a great battle, slaying strange lizards and massive hornets with impunity. He wielded a mighty war cleaver and wore what looked to be hundreds of pounds of gleaming, golden plate protecting his body. Sometimes, if Bokta was lucky, she would watch the demon use his own magic. Maxkrannar could throw great thunderbolts through the air to strike his foes, but she had only seen him do it on a few occasions.

The blood witch watched on with rapt intensity as Maxkrannar slaughtered wave after wave of vicious beasts. She tilted her mirror to get a look at where the demon was going, but she already knew the goal of his quest. There was a powerful queen at the top of a temple in the distance, a hideous being with six arms and two heads who could spit acid with less than a thought. Bokta had watched the demon kill the six-armed woman dozens of times. The method of the six-armed woman’s revival still eluded the witch, though she was confident her demonic champion would put an end to the wretched beast once and for all.

She watched as Maxkrannar ordered his four companions, heroic warrior demons in their own right, and the group gained a foothold into their adversary’s sacred temple. Beams of fire shot down on the group from towers holding enchanted lanterns, adding a warm red haze to the entire scene. As he had done many times before, Maxkrannar called out a command, and one member of his team began to glow with a pale blue aura that extinguished the flames.

Bokta’s heart caught in her throat when a new development, one she had not seen before, appeared in the scrying mirror. In the midst of combat, another group of demons charged in, and they seemed determined to bring Maxkrannar to his knees. The newcomers were similarly clothed, but they carried different banners attached to their armor. Bokta knew their sigil. She had seen it before, but only once, and never when her beloved Maxkrannar was on such an important mission.

The two groups fought and spells flew through the air, accenting the constant ring of metal on metal. After the briefest of moments, the clash was resolved. Two of Maxkrannar’s companions were dead, and the sudden attackers had all been routed. The three remaining demons stood still for a long time at the entrance to the temple. They stood often, sometimes not moving for hours, and Bokta had a theory about why. They must communicate without speech, she surmised, though if it was true, she would have a much more difficult time controlling the powerful demon when she finally summoned it.

Eventually, some half an hour later, the three remaining demons faded away into nothing. Bokta watched a moment longer before she tilted the mirror vertically and dumped the sulfur onto the ground. The image swirled away, leaving behind a sour smell in the air that matched Bokta’s ruined mood.

“More pigs!” the woman barked.

Jaerth brought three more into the small room and led them to side of the cauldron. “This is all that’s left,” the boy said.

“Fine,” Bokta spat. “It will be enough. Slit their throats and drop them into the mixture.”

Jaerth shivered in disgust, but he picked up the knife anyways. “What exactly does this accomplish?” he asked.

The blood witch whirled on him. “This is a demon I am summoning, not some basket full of kittens!” she yelled. “The demon will require lubricant to make it through the rift between our worlds! He will expect to be welcomed with a shower of blood and gore!”

“Fine, fine,” Jaerth relented. He slid the knife across another pig’s neck and threw it into the bubbling pot.

“Tomorrow,” Bokta said with a hiss. “I’ll summon the mighty demon tomorrow…”

 

Chapter 2

 

“Fuck this. I’m gonna be late,” I mumbled. My keys were somehow never where I left them. In fact, nothing in my shitty apartment ever seemed to stay right where I left it. I pushed aside a few empty beer cans that had been building up on the only counter space in the room and heard my keys jingle on their way down to the floor. Apparently, one of the beer cans was still half full.

“I’m never getting the deposit back on this place,” I needlessly reminded myself. I flicked the switch to turn off the lights on my way out the door and nearly tripped over a package waiting in the hallway. It had probably been there since yesterday. I checked the label to make sure the box held my new gaming headphones, then tossed it through the door behind me.

My car, a beat up ‘08 Ford Taurus with dents in all four doors, was parked just slightly over the line in the parking garage next to my apartment. As it turned out, that was good enough to earn my seventh parking ticket in the past two months. Ratchet bitches always giving me fines… I crumpled the ticket and threw it in my cluttered back seat with all the others. My car doesn’t really ‘peel out’, but it certainly squeaks as I mashed on the gas to get to work.

As predicted, I arrive at Hefner, Deen, and Anderson Accounting, LLC exactly twenty one minutes after I was supposed to. And yes, I know my accounting firm is named after three porn stars. The old guys that founded the place had totally mundane names themselves, and they thought it was some huge joke to slap a risque name on the front of the business. Unfortunately, most of our clients are old ladies who inherited their money from their late husbands, so none of them ever get the raunchy joke.

“You’re late,” my boss droned, a short and portly man named Jim. He stood next to my cubicle like a little gnome, a sly grin on his face and an overly large coffee mug in his hand.

“Yeah, sorry, I’ll stay until six tonight,” I told him.

Jim let out a comically long sigh for effect. “This is your third time being late this week, Steven,” he chided.

“It’s just ‘Steve’,” I told him again. How many times will he refuse to use my name? Only my parents call me Steven, and they basically stopped calling altogether after I quit repaying the student loans I took out in their name back in undergrad. That’s reasonable I guess, but it still sucks.

“I’m not sure how much longer Mr. Barnes is going to want your kind here,” Jim said cryptically as he walked off, inexplicably humming some annoying tune into the rim of his coffee mug.

“Hey,” my only friend said, peeking his face around the corner of my little prison. His name is Brayden, a name I despise, but he’s actually a cool guy.

“What’s up?”

“You’re not staying until six tonight, right?” he asked.

“Fuck no,” I replied. “We’re raiding tonight.”

Brayden stuck out his fist for me to bump, just another of the wildly ‘bro-ish’ things he does to live up to his frat-boy name. “There’s my man!” he said with a laugh. “We can’t expect to stop the spectral invasion without our fearless raid leader!”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Just help me get this audit report typed up so I don’t get fired. Realm of Crafted War isn’t free you know, and neither is my rent.”

“Dude, Realm is only thirty a month, you could make that begging for change on the street,” he said. I’m not sure if he’s serious or not. Brayden often concocted some of the world’s dumbest ideas.

“What about my rent?” I asked. To be honest, the prospect of never returning to this hell hole was somewhat intriguing. Maybe I’ll just keep buying lottery tickets.

Brayden’s face lit up like I’ve just suggested the best thing he has ever heard. “Dude, come live with me!” he basically shouted. “You can crash in my basement!”

“You mean your parents’ basement?” I clarified.

“Yeah man, Bill and Nancy would love you. You’re right up their alley,” he went on, completely uncaring that he’s a thirty year old with a full time job still living at home.

“Right up their alley?” I repeated. “What, am I joining their sex club?”

“Eww, man,” Brayden said with mock disgust. “Get outta here with that shit.”

I turn back to my work and press the power button on my monitor. “Just type half this report for me,” I told him. “If you get it done before lunch, I’ll give you an extra loot roll tonight.”

I could practically hear Brayden’s fist pump from his cubicle. “Yeah man, if those magic regen shoulders drop, I’m totally rolling on them,” he said.

“Yeah, get typing,” I commanded. I grabbed a manilla portfolio from a plastic tray on my desk and tossed it over the cheap barrier separating our computers.

 

*****

 

Five O’clock didn’t roll around soon enough. It never does. The time just ticked slowly away, taking my will to live with it. Finally, after several coffee breaks, several bathroom breaks that took far longer than necessary, and a twenty minute foray to the vending machine that resulted in absolutely nothing since I had no cash, most of the office began to leave. I waited for Jim to appear fully engrossed in whatever graph was displayed on his massive monitor in his corner office, then ducked out a side door that lead down to an emergency exit.

Back at the Pineview Terrace Apartments, I threw some nasty pre-cooked meat pocket thing into my microwave and fired up my computer. My desktop computer was the only thing of value I owned in the world. I built it myself, and I was damn proud of it. My computer launched faster than most people would even be able to find the power button which was discretely hidden behind a white, unlabeled panel.

The microwave beeped, and I grabbed the hot paper plate from the little rotating tray inside and sat down to raid. The login screen took painfully long, but I used the time to open my new headphones. They weren’t the best, and the mic isn’t even fully posable, but they’ll work and they were cheap. Plus, they had a good bit more red LED lighting than my last pair, just in case an errant female happened to wander into my room and be impressed by a slightly overweight nerd with pretty lights over his ears. It hasn’t happened yet, but I never give up hope. I’m an optimistic kind of guy.

“Welcome to Realm,” a voice I know all too well chimed. For whatever reason, Snowstorm Entertainment had updated literally everything about the game over the last ten years, but the soft, female intro voice had never changed. I even made it my ringtone once, but that was back when I was in a rather dark place.

As always, I took a minute to admire my character on the selection screen. I had hundreds of different characters spread across multiple servers, but Maxkrannar was my pride and joy. He was my first character, the epicenter of my online addiction, and I’d probably die in real life if his data ever got somehow cleared from the server. He stood tall amidst a generic city of ruin, his two huge swords held easily in his muscled hands. He had horns that spiralled up from his forehead and marked him as an Oathbreaker, a class of fallen paladins that used to defend the Realm but now seek to destroy it. Oathbreakers were hard to play, and some said they’re overpowered, but I picked it for the lore. If I’m going to sink thousands of hours of my life into something, I want that something to be thoroughly badass. Some people had cars they work on every night, other people shoot heroin into their bodies until they die, I have Realm.

I clicked the enter button which starts another loading screen, this one displaying images of the great battle that has been raging ever since the last patch came out. The Oathbreakers have finally established a beachhead at Citadel Deathgaze, and enemies have been pouring out to meet us every day.

My voice-over interface ringed, and I clicked the little green phone icon that spliced me into the team chat. “Hey guys,” I said, accepting the party invite on screen as well.

“Sup.”

“Hey man.”

“How’s it going?”

“We gonna finish tonight?”

“I finished your mom last night.”

“Guys,” I interjected, getting my four closest friends back on track. “Are you ready? We need more potions than last time. Hey Cro, did you get any more herbs? I’ll need like… six of those regeneration potions.”

“Yeah man,” Cro answered. He opened a trade window with me and handed over a stack of red potions. “Let’s just hope we don’t get ganked like yesterday. That was bullshit.”

“Yeah,” everyone agreed over top of each other.

“Did anyone check the message boards last night?” I asked. “I bet it was one of those lame guilds from New Zealand that’s always posting gank videos online.”

“Yeah, I checked,” Cro said. “If it was them, they haven’t posted anything yet.”

Our characters mounted up on various beasts of burden to head toward Citadel Deathgaze, and a strange smell in my apartment made me look around for its origin. “Ugh, it smells like ass in my place,” I said over chat. “Give me a minute guys, it smells like I left the stove on or something. It smells like sulfur.”

I sat my new headset down on the side of my desk. The stove wasn’t on, and nothing was backing up in the bathroom. I made sure my only window was shut and locked, but it always was. I thought it might actually be painted shut. I glanced up at the smoke detector in my small kitchen. A little red light slowly blinked on the front, and I guessed that was a good sign.

“What’s carbon monoxide smell like?” I asked once I had my headset back over my ears.

Brayden’s voice answered me. “It doesn’t have a smell, dipshit,” he graciously chimed in. His character, ‘strongwarrior43’, had a little speech bubble over its head. He emoted, making his character bend over in digital laughter.

“No, it smells like almonds. I saw it once in a movie,” Cro added.

“Then why would you need a detector for it in your house?” Brayden countered. He had a point.

“Because almonds smell good, you jackass!” Cro fired back. “Who’s gonna walk home, smell fresh almonds in their kitchen, and bail out? Everyone likes almonds. They’re gonna stay, and then they’re gonna die.”

I had to admit, Cro had a point as well. “I’ll look it up later,” I told them. “But if I suddenly disappear during the raid, you’ll know it was carbon monoxide. And Brayden, I’m leaving you nothing in my will. All I own goes to King Halfthor, the mighty leader of the Oathbreakers!”

“You’re so lame,” Brayden said. Again, he had a point.

We reached the base of Citadel Deathgaze, and then everything went quiet. A few low level Oathbreakers were fighting boars a ways behind us in the noob area, but other than them, no one was nearby. “Looks like its just us, boys,” I told my party.

“Woot!” Cro said. “More loot for me!”

“Alright, let’s get the buffs rolling. I can’t be late again to work tomorrow, so I need some sleep tonight. We need to be finished by two, two thirty at the latest,” I said.

The smell grew stronger in my apartment. I tried to wave it away, but it clung to the stagnant air. I didn’t have a ceiling fan or I’d turn it on. Maybe it was time to open the window.

“One second guys,” I said, my frustration starting to grow. “I’ve gotta figure out what the hell this smell is. Its driving me nuts.”

I checked the bathroom again and flicked on the fan, leaving the door open to hopefully vent the place. It took the efforts of two different kitchen knives, but I managed to get the old window near my couch to slide up a few inches before it abruptly stopped for no reason at all. The outside air was fresh and clean smelling, unlike every single object in my apartment. Sadly, there wasn’t enough airflow to get the wretched smell out of my raid space.

“Whatever,” I said, defeated. “I guess just call the cops if I die.”

My raid mates laughed, and it looked like we’re ready to begin our assault. Strongwarrior43 issued a magical shout, granting us each a power buff for the next eight minutes. It wasn’t enough time, but if we planned it correctly, the two minutes of downtime while the skill was on cooldown would come right during a lull in the fighting.

Something in my chest made me take my hands off the keyboard for a moment. “Guys, for real, I think I might be poisoned,” I said into the mic.

“Cleanse incoming,” Cro replied automatically. A blue haze washed over my character, clearing away any negative magical effects, of which there were none.

“I’m talking about real life,” I said, and the group chat got a little quiet. We cleared a wave of trash monsters in front of the citadel and stopped. “No seriously, I think there’s carbon monoxide in my apartment.”

“Dude, you alright?” Brayden asked.

“I—I don’t know.”

The crushing sensation increased on my ribcage. I tried to stand, but it was like a thousand pound weight had been strapped to my chest. I couldn’t move. “Guys, this is fucked up. Something’s wrong.” I could barely breathe.

“Uh, should we call the cops?” Cro asked, his voice ringing with concern, though I couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or not.

“It fucking hurts!” I yelled through gritted teeth. The fake leather of my cheap office chair squealed in protest as I was pulled down toward the ground. The little pressure thing that kept the chair up to the desk height crumpled, and the whole seat dropped about ten inches.

“What the fuck is happening?” I yelled, thankful that my headset was still on. I couldn’t move my hands away from the armrests on the chair, and I couldn’t even stretch out my fingers. All the blood in my body was being sucked into my center. I felt like I was about to crash through the floor.

“Dude, Steve, come on man, what the hell are you doing?” Brayden shouted through the voice program.

“Come on, Steve, let’s just do the fight,” Cro added. That loser didn’t believe me.

“Guys…” I struggled to speak. “Call the cops. I’m gonna die.”

The invisible weight increased, and the rest of the chair beneath me shattered in a violent spray of cheap plastic. I had a few extra pounds around my waist to be sure, but I wasn’t even close to the ponderous size of some of my coworkers at the accounting firm, and I used the same chair here that we had at work! I knew it was exactly the same, mainly because I stole it from an empty cubicle a few months ago.

Lying on the floor, I could barely think. The headset had fallen from my ears when I had hit the floor, but I could still hear my party talking frantically through the speakers. It sounds like one of them was in the process of calling the police.

Good. I didn’t want to die in such a shitty, smelly apartment. Not before I finished my endgame build on Maxkrannar at least.

I tried to lift my head from the dirty floorboard, but my neck snapped back down painfully, holding me crippled in place. Then the floor began to crack as well. The wood splintered all around my body, and everything went black.

Another teaser for Shadowlith: Book One of the Umbral Blade

So I hate reading poorly written fight scenes in fantasy books. Whenever my characters fight, I try to make it as realistic as possible. Here's how you write a concussion:

 


Holt caught a glimpse of a flanged mace heading right for the side of head, breaking his momentary confusion and forcing him to fall to the ground to avoid being killed in a single blow. The edge of the mace caught his helmet with a loud crash, instantly disorienting him and replacing all the sounds of battle with a harsh, screeching ring in his ears.

Luckily, his attacker overbalanced in the assault, and Holt wasn’t simply obliterated by a second blow from the fearsome weapon. Clutching his stolen axe like a cane, Holt pulled himself to his feet and tried to steady the spinning world. He felt drunk, overwhelmingly drunk, and a wave of nausea crept into the back of his throat as he failed to get his bearings perfectly straight.

The mace-wielder turned back, a wide grin splayed across his unarmored face. He slapped the head of his weapon in his open palm, and Holt saw a few streaks of blood rub off on the man’s skin.

The captain tore his helm from his head and tossed it aside. The fresh air seemed to calm his roiling stomach, but only by a fraction. When he looked ahead, he could barely focus. Everything was blurry around the edges. The man came forward again, swinging his heavy mace from left to right. Holt raised his axe to block, and the mace head shattered his weapon’s shaft into a hundred splinters.

“Now you die!” the attacker bellowed. The man’s teeth were yellow and jagged, and his breath smelled like vomit.

Holt stifled a chuckle when he realized it was his breath that carried the pungent stench of stomach acid, not his attacker’s. Still spinning helplessly in his own mind, he tumbled back to the ground unarmed, heaving the contents of his gut across the stones at his feet.

The captain fell onto his side with a sullen whimper, waiting for the killing blow to quickly bring an end to his scrambled senses. After a few seconds, he realized it likely wasn’t going to happen.

He wanted to open his eyes, to see what fate had befallen his attacker, but he knew it would be useless. Even with his eyes shut, all he saw was a shifting field of slowly spinning color blotches that made him scream in agony. The screaming brought on another round of painful vomiting, and then everything finally, mercifully, went black.

A trip to Iron Wind Metals!

I had a pretty cool experience today. The tabletop miniatures game I write for invited me up to their factory to sign some rulebooks being mailed out this week which feature stories I've written to help develop the lore of their world. (For more, check out this blog post or you can head over to the short stories tab to read the lore). 

Thankfully, the great guys at Iron Wind Metals were kind enough to give me a tour of the place and let me take some cool, behind-the-scenes pictures. Here it is!

Getting all the figures together for a shipment this week. Most of the figures on the table here are bee cavalry (yes, cavalry riders on bees!), treants, a winged beast, and some armored bears. They look awesome.

Getting all the figures together for a shipment this week. Most of the figures on the table here are bee cavalry (yes, cavalry riders on bees!), treants, a winged beast, and some armored bears. They look awesome.

A big bin of hero figures. The orange disc are silicon molds used to make those figures, and the brown boxes to the side are older figures which have since been discontinued. Above the box, you can see some of the design concepts on a clipboard.

A big bin of hero figures. The orange disc are silicon molds used to make those figures, and the brown boxes to the side are older figures which have since been discontinued. Above the box, you can see some of the design concepts on a clipboard.

Some resin molds used for casting figures.

Some resin molds used for casting figures.

Shelf after shelf of finished miniatures waiting to be shipped. Thousands of different models, hundreds of each.

Shelf after shelf of finished miniatures waiting to be shipped. Thousands of different models, hundreds of each.

These discs are silicon molds used to make the pewter figures. Iron Wind Metals has been around since the 70s, so they have a ridiculous amount of these molds.

These discs are silicon molds used to make the pewter figures. Iron Wind Metals has been around since the 70s, so they have a ridiculous amount of these molds.

These shelves are full of 'master molds' which are like the blueprints for making miniatures. A lot of them are used to the make the miniatures used in Chaos Wars!

These shelves are full of 'master molds' which are like the blueprints for making miniatures. A lot of them are used to the make the miniatures used in Chaos Wars!

The inside of a silicon mold. So much detail! These things are really cool.

The inside of a silicon mold. So much detail! These things are really cool.

This mold makes wings for dragons. It was at the active pouring station where I got to see some weapons poured into molds and made before my very eyes. It was awesome!

This mold makes wings for dragons. It was at the active pouring station where I got to see some weapons poured into molds and made before my very eyes. It was awesome!

Stacks of pewter ingots waiting to become fantasy miniatures. Each one weighs about 15 pounds and can craft about 100 individual figures.

Stacks of pewter ingots waiting to become fantasy miniatures. Each one weighs about 15 pounds and can craft about 100 individual figures.

Some finished miniatures, expertly painted and on display.

Some finished miniatures, expertly painted and on display.

The T-Rex is my favorite.

The T-Rex is my favorite.

Goblins!

Goblins!

These dragon riders are really cool.

These dragon riders are really cool.

That thing is sick!

That thing is sick!

A limited edition dragon.

A limited edition dragon.

More cool dragons.

More cool dragons.

And the best part of the whole trip, getting a chance to see my story in the rulebook before it ships!

Lina Arias is something of the champion of this edition of Chaos Wars. The daughter of Estria's king, she threw away her birthright in order to make a name for herself - as a vampire, a summoner, and a necromancer. 

Lina Arias is something of the champion of this edition of Chaos Wars. The daughter of Estria's king, she threw away her birthright in order to make a name for herself - as a vampire, a summoner, and a necromancer. 

I hope you enjoyed the Iron Wind Metals factory tour! It was a pretty cool experience I'll always remember.