Month: October 2015

Spooks and Speculation: Stories For All-Hallows Eve

Those of us who aren’t 100% occupied with writing books or blog posts may want something suitable to read by the fireplace between visits by trick-or-treaters. I recently found myself thinking about stories of ghosts and the unexplained, and decided to come up with a list for the blog.

I read most of these stories years ago but had no trouble remembering them. Looking in the anthologies in which they live, I see many other stories that have left no trace in my memory. Maybe that speaks ill of said memory, but I prefer to think the stories I remember are more readworthy than the others.

Two come from a book rescued from a dumpster, its spine ripped off. It’s called 50 Years of Ghost Stories, and was published by Hutchinson of London in 1935 (1959 printing). “The Rosewood Door” by Oliver Onions (1873-1961) is played out in the civilized setting of an English country house. A curious door salvaged from a house being demolished seems like just the thing, but it comes with a disturbing history that meshes tragically with the lighthearted atmosphere of an early 20th century gathering of upper-class Londoners. Oliver Onions is also the author of “The Beckoning Fair One,” a story of quietly growing horror and ruin.

Another story from the battered book is “The Library Window” by Mrs. Oliphant (1828-1897). This is a poignant tale of a girl’s first love, that happens on a visit to an elderly aunt in a quiet Scottish town. The story is full of atmosphere and emotion, with beguiling descriptions of long summer evenings in which almost nothing happens. Except there is a window in the College Library across the street, and a room behind it, and a young man… Or maybe not. This is one of those stories that lingers in memory long after it’s read.

Now to a fat anthology called Black Water, edited by the Canadian man of letters, Alberto Manguel. It’s packed with a wealth of “fantastic literature,” as the subtitle states, but the story I recalled from it most vividly is “How Love Came to Professor Guildea,” by Robert S. Hichens (1864-1950). A professor who has no use for affection finds it inflicted upon him in a disturbing way. The nature of the phenomenon is never precisely defined, which makes it all the more intriguing and sinister, and a parrot plays a unique role in the revelation.

No selection of scary stories is complete without at least one mention of Stephen King. He is a master at creating real, memorable characters who are far more than vehicles for a plot. He then visits these people with sorrow and horror. A prime example of this is his novel Pet Sematary, but a story with the same flavour is “Sometimes They Come Back,” from a 1979 collection called Night Shift. A high school English teacher turns to black magic after a devastating loss that echoes a similar loss in his childhood. King’s experience as a teacher comes through strongly in this story. In the same collection is another well-crafted tale called “Strawberry Spring.” It vividly conveys the atmosphere of a New England college town where a serial killer is at work, complete with a slap-in-the-face surprise ending.

There are many collections of supposedly true ghost stories around, many with a geographical focus. Such is a slim volume called Ghost Stories of Saskatchewan by Jo-Anne Christensen. Having lived in that Canadian province for twelve years, I bought the book out of nostalgia. One story is incredibly creepy. “Mystery at the Moose Head” tells of multiple strange incidents in the early 1990s at the Moose Head Inn, a popular dine-and-dance spot on Kenosee Lake. The number and frequency, and the fact that many people experienced these things (noises, electrical malfunctions, locks and doors acting up) attracted attention from newspapers and television stations. The owner and his girlfriend lived in an apartment upstairs. After an especially disturbing manifestation, the girlfriend moved out. The owner stayed on, however…

Finally, I must recommend my all-time favourite fear-inducing story: “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951). I wrote a blog post about this tale a while ago, with a plot summary and my thoughts on why it works so well.

A final thought — the word “haunted” is more effective in inducing fear than the word “ghost,” maybe because “ghost” sounds concrete, while “haunted” provokes the question, “By what?”

 

 

Local Author Book Review #8: Across the River from Detroit by Giselle Loeper

In 1956, Giselle Loeper, her husband Bob and their daughter arrived in Windsor, Ontario as immigrants from post-war Germany. Across the River from Detroit is a collection of brief anecdotes about their life in Windsor. Many years later, widowed, Ms. Loeper moved to Victoria, British Columbia and began to write. These stories were originally written for a community writing workshop.

Each chapter focuses on some particular issue or incident, from relations with neighbours to raising children, family vacations, jobs, friendships, triumphs and heartbreaks. Almost any reader would relate to some of these vignettes, drawn from ordinary life and presented in a simple, direct manner.

The chapters are arranged in chronological order, taking the reader from the family’s arrival in their new home, through early struggles, the births of two sons, becoming established and making the transition from immigrants to Canadian citizens. Many of the anecdotes arise from the jobs Giselle and her husband worked at over the decades. While he was mainly in the building trades, she turned her hand to food service, retail and housekeeping. Others feature incidents from their children’s lives, from infancy to adulthood.

The stories display a practical attitude to life, not without some quirkiness and a wry humour. They are short, quick reads which would add a thoughtful brightness to a reader’s day.

My rating: 7 / 10 stars.

Unfortunately I cannot find an image of the book’s cover, but a copy of the book is available at the Greater Victoria Public Library.

Spuds on Mars!

This is not a review, merely some thoughts on The Martian by Andy Weir. Lately I’ve written reviews only of indie-published books — but hey! that’s how The Martian started out. So what if it’s since hit the big time, with a movie and everything.

There are about a zillion ratings/reviews of this book on Goodreads, the majority of them 4 or 5 stars, and, in my opinion, well-deserved. A book that presents so many scientific facts and principles without boring its readers — far from it — deserves admiration. The main character’s situation is so dire and his narrative voice so engaging, that it’s almost impossible to stop reading. There are some really funny lines. My favourite is when he says of Mars’s smaller moon something like: “And Deimos is just a little piece of crap that’s no good to anyone.” Maybe it’s the conjunction of a name from Greek mythology with the hearty word “crap,” but thinking about it still cracks me up.

For me, the best part of the plot was — the guy grows potatoes! On Mars! OK, he grows the spuds in a space that’s engineered to be a small facsimile of Earth, but he has to make his own dirt, by mixing the lifeless soil of Mars with… Well, you just have to read the book! The botanist as hero. (OK, he’s also an engineer, but if that was all, he would have had a harder time of it).

Anyway, this is what has diverted me from my purposeful reading for the last week. I intend to get back to books by emerging local authors a.s.a.p.

 

 

Why Not Write a Series?

Good advice from Jo Robinson.The last paragraph may be of special interest to those who find themselves thinking they missed the series boat. Thanks, Jo, for reminding us of the flexibility of being indie!

Lit World Interviews

Series is the new black. It seems like everyone is writing them these days. Having a published series of books is a great way to keep readers interest for long enough to have them remember your name, actively seek you out, sign up for your newsletter, or ask to be advised by Amazon when you publish a new book. I’ll be publishing the second and third books in my series at the same time either late December or early January. In retrospect I think that publishing the first book on its own was a mistake, which is why I haven’t tried to sell it so far. The time for readers to buy books in a series is directly after reading one of them, so it’s better to publish three at the same time to begin with. My book one will really only get properly launched with two and three, so…

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The Boulevard Project

On the north side of my street, for some reason, there are wide sections of municipal land between the sidewalk and private lot boundaries. (The south side has no boulevard, which doesn’t seem fair, but there it is). On most of the boulevards there is some form of lawn, because it is supposedly illegal to grow anything else there, apart from official municipal street trees such as flowering cherries. Ironic, because cherries aside, these are prime plots for vegetable gardens, being sunny and relatively tree-root-free. Hardly anyone waters the grass on their boulevard; in our dry summers they end up looking pretty bad.

The 8 by 12 foot patch of boulevard to one side of my driveway is a small wasteland. There is some sad-looking grass which we mow occasionally, so it qualifies as a “lawn,” but its other denizens are weeds, specifically dandelions (Taraxacum), hairy cat’s ear (Hypochaeris radicata), which I think of as “summer dandelion” or “leathery dandelion,” and some kind of small mallow with rather attractive tiny pink flowers in spring. (A note about the hairy cat’s ears — I have managed mostly to hoick them out of the area with my handy dandelion tool, but my neighbour’s part of the boulevard is solid with the things, so it’s inevitable that a few manage to seed themselves in my patch).

At present, the site looks rather unappealing.

A blank canvas?

A blank canvas?

There is no point in spending much time and treasure to turn this spot into a decent lawn, so my plan is to supplement the existing weeds with more attractive ones. I got the idea from bicycling to work along a trail called the Galloping Goose (after a railway that used to be there; the trail was built where the tracks used to be). Along parts of this trail are attractive plant communities consisting largely of weeds. Some of the shrubs, such as the native Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), were planted deliberately (because the trail is actually part of the regional park system), but the rest just showed up, as weeds do.

So my intended plants include: chicory (its sky-blue flowers will look great with the yellow hairy cat’s ear flowers), red and white clover, Queen Anne’s lace, St. John’s wort, beach pea, and a tough form of aster with light purple flowers. The chicory and white clover bloom even when mowed quite short, so will occupy most of the space. The taller plants will be at the back, forming a transition zone to the bed on my side of the property line. From July into October, I envision this area as a tapestry of blue, yellow, white, pink and purple in varying degrees. Much better than balding lawn and hairy cat’s ears.

Imagine all those colours here.

Imagine all those colours here.

There are already a couple of chicory plants I grew from seed spreading their seeds over part of the boulevard. I plan to introduce the others over the next 6 months.

Just to avoid ending with a depressing sight, here is the main perennial bed in the front garden as it was before a recent heavy wind-and-rain storm.

Purple aster, pink nerines and ornamental grass "Little Bunny"

Purple aster, pink nerines and ornamental grass “Little Bunny”

The Many Species of Author Advice

Does anyone else get annoyed with all the bloggers offering advice to writers?

The Opening Sentence

Inspired by a recent article on Mathew Wright’s blog (‘Why All Who Write Should Think of Themselves as Writers. Period’) I started to think again about advice in the literary world. Advice in the literary world is one of the reasons why I’m metaphorically as bald as an egg; tearing out my hair has become an affliction that shows no sign of getting any better.

As a form of therapy I’ve decided to categorise all the various advisors you’ll come across on the internet, so next time you see a blog post entitled ‘#5 sure fire ways of #increasing your #Kindle #sales’ you’ll be able to get out this handy guide and spot which species of Charlatanus literi purpurea it is.

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Promo Results: Using Free Promo Services

Helpful information, even for the marketing-averse like me.

Nicholas C. Rossis

You may remember my recent promotion of Infinite Waters and The Power of Six. For five days, the former was available for free. The latter has stayed on 99c for a little longer, as I didn’t want to interrupt its downloads.

Go Free

From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books From timashton.org.uk

In the past, I’ve used paid services to announce my sales to the world. I usually spend between $50 and $100 per promo. Depending on the season, this generated between 300 and 3,000 downloads. The former was far more common though; that last one was a bit of a fluke, as it was Christmas, and I was accidentally helped by someone posting on Reddit about it (you can read all about it in my A-Z post).

This time, I went (almost) all free. Capital controls are still imposed in Greece, which means that I’m pretty restricted as to spending money abroad. So, I…

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Writerly Pursuits

 

Looking at my current Things To Do list — specifically Writerly Things To Do (I also have such lists for the house, the garden and my day job) — got me thinking about activities that characterize the writing life. In no particular order, here is the list:

  1. Read and review the three books from the Emerging Local Authors Collection that are sitting on my bedside table.
  2. Finish writing a story (provisionally) called “The Ice Cream Truck From Hell.” Then post the story to my blog.
  3. Look through my file of stories that have never seen the light of day and select a couple to post on the blog. Then post them.
  4. Read closely and comment on three contributions to my critique group in preparation for a meeting on October 20th.
  5. Format for print publication within the next 3 months the second and third books of the Herbert West Series.
  6. Write some other stories that have been incubating way too long, before the ideas that inspired them wither and die.
  7. Prepare to write another novel — a sequel to the Herbert West Series — set in Egypt, specifically at an archaeological excavation in the 1960s. “Prepare to write?” You know — research, brooding, making notes, visualizing scenes, making more notes, etc.
  8. Read and occasionally comment on the daily stream of posts from the blogs I follow.
  9. Post to my blog at least once a week.
  10. Come to grips with the idea of marketing.

Thinking about this, it occurred to me that this is the real stuff of Being A Writer (except the marketing bit, maybe). It’s the 21st century analogue of what writers used to do in pre-computer days — getting together in cafes and bars, gossiping and arguing about the meaning of it all, writing letters, taking walks in the country and thinking about what to write next, mingling in literary salons, scraping away with their quill pens or pounding their typewriters. Nowadays much of the connection and exchange of ideas is done through social media, of course, but the dynamic is the same.

And, of course, there’s #10 on my list — marketing. Now as in the past, there are businesslike writers and those to whom that is an alien notion. Today’s indie authors don’t have to look far for reminders that to succeed, they must regard their writing and publishing as a business. Any who do not do this must resign themselves to failure.

As with the writing rules that also abound on the internet, the real situation is more complex — a compound of financial realities, creative impulses, expectations and motivations. Many self-published writers display a truly businesslike attitude, with (I assume) varying degrees of financial success and personal satisfaction. Many others do not. (Guess which of these groups I belong to. Just guess).

That’s really a side issue, though, the “marketing” aspect of being a writer. The core of it is whatever leads to new creations — writing. Whether the ferment of ideas and inspiration comes from face-to-face conversations with fellow writers, or electronically around the world, it must lead to sitting down and stringing words together. Otherwise, what’s the point?

The Year of the Dog

One year ago, we added a canine element to our household — a 2-month-old Newfoundland puppy named Nelly.

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She has certainly made a difference both to house and garden.

Here is Nelly at 4 months checking out the area around the pond.

Nelly by the pond

Nelly by the pond

It quickly became obvious that free access to all parts of the garden was not going to work. A 20-pound puppy bouncing around in the fall is one thing; a 50-pounder among the tender shoots of spring is another. Then there is the whole “potty patrol” issue.

A whole set of little fences was rapidly constructed. I can’t say they improve the appearance of the place, but considering the alternative, they are acceptable.

The New Look

The New Look

 

Movable fence (and vintage plastic chairs)

Movable fence (and vintage plastic chairs)

The wooden picket fences are easily removed to permit lawn mowing and access to the adjacent beds. The wire fence around the circular lawn is nearly invisible, but the posts holding it up are not. I plan to replace them with more uniform and less visible wooden or metal posts.

Just now I am re-edging that circular lawn so the edge is outside the fence. Maintaining the edge is an exercise in frustration with the wire and posts in the way. For me, clipping lawn edges has a meditative quality, and a nice edge is crucial to that well-kept look, so something had to be done.

Re-edging under way (and another plastic chair)

Re-edging under way (and another plastic chair)

Then there is the dog pee issue. (Living with a dog certainly brings one close to the basic elements of life). Even though it rains quite a lot here in most winters, the three small sections of grass in the back garden soon started to acquire brown patches. Dog urine, it seems, has the same effect as a fertilizer burn. Now I’m not a big lawn aficionado, but if a lawn is present in a garden it should look better than leprous. Not being in a position to rip it out and replace it with brick paving, I am now engaged in lawn repair — seeding with a mixture of fescues, perennial rye grass and clover, which are said to be  urine “tolerant.” Thing is, since the existing lawn is already a pretty tough, mongrel mixture, including clover, but still died out in large patches, the repairs may not work.

The local sparrows, moreover, have discovered the smorgasbord of lawn seeds and descend in flocks every morning to hunt and peck. I have raked some fallen leaves over the seeded areas to cover the seeds. Once they have sprouted, I will remove the leaves. Then I’ll have to figure out how to protect the new grass and clover plants from The Dog.

Probably the worst episodes, the ones that brought the gardener in me to near-despair, were several instances of digging. Left to her own devices for a couple of hours, Nelly dug some fair-sized holes in the beleaguered lawns, ripping up tree roots to chew (commendable, if destructive) and, of course, earthworms. Sections of wire fencing and chicken wire, laid flat and weighted with rocks, prevented further digging. So (I hope) has the passage of time, but we’ll see what happens next winter and spring.

Garden, gardener and dog have survived the year. Newfoundlands are reputed to be among the most placid of dogs. Once they’re fully grown, they have a tendency to turn into canine couch potatoes and need encouragement to be active. Nelly’s favourite activity now is going for walks to the local off-leash park and nearby beach (from October to May only), where she can play with other dogs. But she likes to play at home too, with a bit of encouragement.

Playing in the garden

Playing in the garden

 

More playing in the garden

More playing in the garden

Happily, the small fences, which are only 18 inches to 2 feet tall, continue to be effective in protecting the beds from unwelcome visits. Nelly could easily jump over them, given sufficient incentive, but so far hasn’t been motivated. We did have to make sure there were no fallen apples to provide that incentive.

Garden and Newf coexisting (but note the barrier to the pond area)

Garden and Newf coexisting (but note the barrier to the pond area)

Fortunately, the senior animal in the household has adapted to Nelly’s presence. I can’t say they’re friends as yet, but Zeke the 18-year-old cat and Nelly the Newf are getting along.

Zeke the Cat

Zeke the Cat