Such Carcosa, Very Yellow: A Review of The King In Yellow

I first heard about The King In Yellow from a review of True Detective that mentioned the book was basically required reading for viewing the show. I’d been interested in seeing True Detective since I first saw the ads and trailer for it because there is really nothing I like more than a good bleak noir story. Unfortunately I don’t have HBO, so I have yet to see the show, but in preparation for the day when I have that opportunity, I decided to read up on the companion book.

The King In Yellow is a collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers. It served as a major piece of inspiration for the legendary horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. However, what some of you may not know (and I certainly didn’t until I did some research) is that both Chambers and Lovecraft were highly influenced by the work of Ambrose Bierce, most specifically his short story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” from the collection Can Such Things Be?

This story provides the first mention of the legendary city of Carcosa as well as the philosopher Hali, which figures largely (or is at least often mentioned) in both Chambers’ and Lovecraft’s stories. Bierce’s story “Haita the Shepherd” is also the first time that the god Hastur is mentioned in literature. In the story he is an agrarian god, but Hastur, also mentioned in Chambers’ work, has evolved to become a major god in the Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos.

The first for stories of The King In Yellow all feature a fictional play by the same name. We never see the play in its entirety, and we only ever get to read a couple of snippets from it. All that is known about the play is that the first act is rather bland but the second act drives those who read it insane. For that reason, it is banned in most countries. The characters in the stories all end up reading the play at some point, and it has some larger impact on their lives.

If what you’re looking for is some insight into the symbolism that appears in True Detective, then I believe you don’t have to read past the first four stories, as those are the ones that pertain to the Yellow King. I will say that these are not stories that are like any of our current pop literature. Those who are looking for the character or plot driven stories with overt symbolism or meaning might be disappointed. Not that the stories don’t have good character or plot development, but I think they lean more into the literary and symbolic than more modern fiction tends to. Personally I like this because it gives me the opportunity to research the stories, the influences of them, the possible meaning behind the symbols being used, and so forth. In short, it pleases the English major in me.

The second half of the collection features stories about American artists who have moved to Paris to go to school and practice their craft. Of course many of them end up fooling around with or falling in love with Parisian women and through these relationships learning more about themselves and the world. Many of these stories also have overlapping characters that appear repeatedly, which I like. It makes the little artistic community Chambers writes about feel more real, and we as readers get to see these characters in different scenarios and learn more about them than a singular short story would afford.

While I read the book for the first set of stories, I ended up finishing the whole thing, and I have to say that I enjoyed many of the later stories. These tales are also a bit more straight forward than the Yellow King tales, which I think require more study and literary analysis to really get the most out of. The stories about these artists are more about the characters and the discoveries that they make about themselves as they spend time in Paris, whether that be flitting about after women or (as in the story “The Street of the First Shell”) fighting alongside the French army to defend the city from invaders.

All-in-all I’m glad I took the time to read this book, and I’m excited to see True Detective whenever I get the opportunity. I feel like I have a better idea of what I’ll be viewing, now that I’ve read about Hastur, Hali, Camilla, Cassilda, the masked stranger, and the songs that Hyades shall sing in lost Carcosa.

Dawngate: A MOBA with a Story

I said in my last post that most of the games I play these days are of a competitive nature rather than a narrative one. To be more specific, I’ve mostly been playing MOBA games. The most famous of these are DOTA 2 and League of Legends (my personal vice), but there are a lot of MOBA games being released this year. While at PAX East last weekend, I went to see a panel about Dawngate, one of these new MOBAs and one that I’ve been part of the beta for.

I’m not going to touch on the gameplay mechanics here, suffice it to say that there are some really neat elements that make the game different from competitors in the genre. As this blog focuses on storytelling and narrative, the main thing I want to point out is the Dawngate team’s commitment to creating a living world with characters and lore that are part of a greater story.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with MOBA games, the acronym stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. Players are put onto teams and then each one picks and plays a character who fulfills a certain function on the team. I think of MOBAs as more closely linked to sports than many other types of games, and sports don’t have storylines that are part of the game, or at least the storylines that exist in sports are created by the teams and the players and are not part of a larger construction derived by an author. At the end of the day people who play games like League of Legends are attached to characters they enjoy playing or maybe like the look of rather than characters that they know a lot about because of their narrative history.

Waystone Games, the studio behind Dawngate, looks to change this approach to the MOBA genre by focusing a lot of their effort on the lore and backstory of the game and the characters involved, and I think this is one of the biggest things that could separate them from their competitors. If you want an in-depth look at some of the things they have planned, you can check out the developer diaries that explain their approach, but I wanted to at least touch on a couple of the cool things they are doing or planning.

Currently the primary medium for the Dawngate story is The Dawngate Chronicles, a webcomic that tells the story of the different characters (known as Shapers) featured in the game. Multiple comic panels are planned to be released each week so that readers can be continuously engaged in the story and not have to wait very long for new content.

As you can probably tell from my webcomic reviews, I am a big fan of the medium, but I think it is also a great choice for telling Dawngate’s story. One of the other unique aspects of the game is its art design. Inspired by the art of Miyazaki, Dawngate is visually beautiful, and I think it has a higher standard in art than other games in the genre, most of which have a more cartoonish feel. Telling the game’s story through a comic is a great way to capitalize on that aspect of the game.

The medium isn’t the only thing to talk about in terms of the game’s story. Waystone wants Dawngate’s story to be dynamic and full of, what they’ve termed, “living lore”. Their plan is to have the story affect the game, but also to allow players to affect the story by voting on the outcomes of certain scenarios (most likely through playing specific shapers in-game). What the players choose will steer the course of the story, and this will open up things in the game like story-related skins for the shapers, in-game banter between shapers that reflect what they’ve experienced together, and even new shapers that people will be able to play.

I think Waystone’s attempt to bring story to the MOBA genre is admirable, as most other games in the genre simply feature these heroes fighting each other in an arena for some unknown (or very loosely described) reason. I think their ground-up design of story and art influencing the feel of the game is really great, and you can see it as you play.

Dawngate is now in open beta, and the game is free to play, so if want to check it out I definitely recommend it. You can also check out the webcomic (which has just started, so there aren’t many entries to catch up on) and see if the story entices you. If it does, then maybe the game is worth looking into. Personally, I’m a big fan of the game, and I hope it succeeds. I’m definitely curious what Waystone will be able to do in regards of story, and if they can deliver on all of the plans for the lore that they have laid out.

The Art of Pitching

PAX East 2014 (plus) 026

I spent this past weekend up in Boston for PAX East, which (for those of you who don’t know) is one of the largest gaming conventions in the country. I love gaming, and I believe that gaming is a very powerful medium for delivering stories, as we’ve recently seen through games like Mass Effect. However, most of the games I play these days focus on competition rather than narrative (though there are some interesting developments there I will write about tomorrow). As such I didn’t explore some of the more story driven games that were featured at the event.

So instead of talking about any specific game, I thought I would relate some things I learned from a panel I attended called “How to Pitch a Great Gaming Story” that was about pitching game and story ideas. The panel was moderated by Greg Tito, the Editor in Chief at The Escapist. The other panel members were Susan Arendt, the managing editor of Joystiq; Nick Chester, a publicist at Harmonix Games; Rob Daviau, the President of Ironwall Games; and a freelance writer named Julian Murdoch.

Most of the tips presented by the panel were directed towards pitching game ideas or pitching gaming articles, but the art of pitching an idea is something that is useful in any industry, especially writing, regardless of the specific content. Authors are familiar with the concept of the “Elevator Pitch” where they try to sell their story in one or two sentences, and some of the tips here could help with that.

The first set of tips come from Rob Daviau. They were originally more specific to pitching a game idea to a company, but I’ve adapted them to be a little bit more generic in tone.

The first is not to get too deep into the nitty-gritty details of what you’re pitching. Game designers like to expound on the new mechanics their games offer, and authors like to talk about the world building or storytelling techniques that make their work unique, but during a pitch none of that is important.

The second thing to remember is who you are pitching your idea to. Research beforehand and have an idea of who will be interested in the idea you’ve come up with. Know how the idea will be relevant to them and their audience, and know how your idea is different or unique so that you can easily explain why the thing you’re pitching is worth their time.

Finally, the point of a pitch is to deliver an emotional hit, not a technical one. As I previously stated, getting into all of the technical details of why the game, story, or article is unique won’t help with the pitch. You should make the person who is listening to the pitch emotionally invested in your idea, or at least emotionally invested enough to ask more questions about it, and later on you can start to explain some of the more technical aspects of the work.

Julian Murdoch agreed with Daviau’s points and enumerated a few more that apply more specifically to pitching an article to a new editor.

- Give a 2-3 sentence taste of the style of the article
- Explain exactly what the editor can expect in terms of word count, style, format, etc.
- Give a sentence explaining how this article is relevant to the outlet’s readership
- Give a sentence explaining how far along the article is
- Don’t be too pushy, and make it easy for an editor to accept or reject your article (basically don’t burn bridges by being difficult or obnoxious)

After hearing from the two members of the panel who have spent most of their careers pitching work, we got to hear from the people who listen to pitches. Susan Arendt said that there are only two things she is really looking for from a pitch:

1.) What is your story idea (and is it any good)?
2.) Can you execute it?

I found it refreshing to hear that editors aren’t necessarily looking for the most experienced writers when they accept article ideas. Of course providing examples of previously published work gives them a better idea that you can execute your story, but even personal blogs or unpublished article examples can give them what they need to determine whether or not you have the follow through and skill to complete the article.

I should also note that for anyone out there looking to pitch a webcomic or film, having examples of the art or filmed scenes is important. Anyone receiving a pitch has to have an idea that you can do the work, and even if it isn’t polished to professional quality, they need to see that at least the basic ability to execute is there.

Nick Chester spoke about working with publicists when trying to get interviews from people in their companies or writing articles about their companies. One major thing he spoke about (and other panel members added to) was following up with a publicist or others after doing any kind of interview. The panel members suggested following up with anyone you interview for an article, even if the article never gets sold. Let them know what happened, be honest, and thank them for their time. Being straightforward about what is going on will make it much more likely that you will be able to contact these people in the future and get interviews or help from them then.

Additionally, if you are worried about following up with an editor after you’ve submitted a piece, the panel suggested sending a follow-up after two weeks without any word (unless the content is time sensitive, in which case follow up as needed). After another two weeks, they advise looking to shop the article elsewhere. However, they also suggested that you send an e-mail to the editor and let them know politely that you are withdrawing your pitch and looking to sell it elsewhere.

Also, unlike with short stories or novels, it is bad etiquette to pitch an article to multiple outlets at once. Pitch to one at a time until someone accepts or rejects it. Coming from the fiction writing field where writers generally submit their work to multiple outlets, I found this an interesting thing to know about pitching articles.

All in all I found the panel interesting and very helpful. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed some of the tips I’ve passed on here, and they can help you with any pitches that you have to make in the future.

A Short Film Review: “Francis”

Not too long ago the NPR radio program This American Life asked six writers to come up with short stories with the theme of “adventure” as their prompt. Dave Eggers, who is probably most well known for his memoir A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, came up with a fireside tale that could easily be retold to scare young campers. That story was called “Francis”.

The story is about a girl who is camping with her family in Quetico Provincial Park. The girl, Francis, is a bit of a rebel and decides at night to take a rowboat out onto a nearby lake by herself so that she can get a better view of the stars. However, once she’s out on the lake, things start to go wrong.

Eggers’ story was turned into a short film which was directed by Richard Hickey and narrated by Cameron Kelly. What I found interesting about this adaption was that they didn’t take the story and try to flesh it out by adding characters and dialogue or anything like that. Instead they just set images to the story as it was written. I don’t think this is an approach that can be taken all the time (especially for a story that is of any length), but I thought this adaption did a nice job of emphasizing the power of the original narrative by highlight and enhancing it with some great imagery.

I definitely recommend checking out the film, and since it’s only about seven minutes long, there isn’t really much excuse not to. So what are you waiting for?

The Webcomics I’m Reading and You Should Too: Dangerously Chloe

The last two comics I reviewed were pretty serious stories, so if you’ve been waiting for something more comedic, I’ve got a suggestion for you. Dangerously Chloe is the story of a succubus who is trying to save the soul of her would-be victim. How’s that for a premise?

The story opens with Teddy, a nerdy high school student, accidentally making a blood pact with a demonic totem figure, promising his soul in exchange for a girlfriend. Enter Chloe, a succubus who is sent to be his girlfriend and take his soul. So when Teddy finds out that consummating the relationship with his new found friend will result in his death and eternal damnation, he doesn’t want any part of it. Swayed by the pleas of Teddy’s little sister Abby (as Teddy is the only family she has left), Chloe decides to help Teddy get out of the Satanic contract by finding him a girlfriend to take her place, which would exploit a loophole in the contract.

Unfortunately, as a succubus, Chloe’s powers are mostly only useful for doing bad things and trying to be helpful isn’t her forte. Her quest to help Teddy seems to only get him in deeper trouble, and though she means well, none of her plans work out right. In fact that seem to universally fail in disastrous and hilarious fashion.

The story reminds me a little bit of Tenchi Muyo as well, as Teddy starts to have to interact with other demons and angels who are part of Chloe’s world. While they aren’t all pursuing his affections the way they do in Tenchi, there is still the comedic element of the normal guy interacting with a variety of strange and powerful women who bring unexpected disruptions to his life.

Dangerously Chloe was created by Gisele Lagace and Dave Lumsdon who are mostly in charge of the story with editing help from T. Campbell. The story is clever and continuously humorous, with great comedic scenarios as well as some solid running jokes. There are a lot of dialogue exchanges that I could actually see working really well in a film or on TV, which I think is impressive. Often things you think of that would work when delivered by an actor don’t quite work in writing, but the writers for Dangerously Chloe seem to have found a way to make it work.

The art, by Cassandra Wedeking, is quite good. It is similar to manga in terms of its style, which in my opinion, makes it a cut above the average comic strip’s art. She does use a little bit of the Chibi style art early on in the run, which I’m not as big a fan of, but the longer the series goes, the less it appears (either that or I just totally stopped taking notice of it).

For those who don’t know, Dangerously Chloe is also sort of a sequel to the comic Eerie Cuties where Chloe first appears as a character. I have never read Eerie Cuties, so I can say that you aren’t going to be confused or lacking in information if you decide to jump right into Dangerously Chloe, but those of you who want start from the very very beginning should keep that in mind.

All-in-all I highly recommend this story. It is tons of fun and a very quick read. In fact, I can’t wait for more updates!

Exploring Self and Meaning in a Melancholy World: A Review of Sorry, Please, Thank You

Sorry, Please, Thank You is a collection of short stories by Charles Yu. They range from humorous and absurdist tales like how a store clerk helps a zombie woman get ready for her date to more experimental pieces like a list on how to troubleshoot your life. All of the stories have a whimsical, magical-realist feel to them with fantastical elements that are rarely explained. In the end it isn’t these elements that really influence what the story is about. Instead it is the introspective and self-evaluating nature of the characters Yu creates, almost all of whom question themselves, their purpose, and the meaning of things, that carry the stories.

In the stories “Hero Absorbs Major Damage” and “Yeoman” we find satires of nerdy media. In the former story, a video game character involved in a long and ongoing fantasy quest questions the meanings of his actions and tries to figure what his purpose is as he strives to inspire his group of followers to continue onward with him. The latter follows a Yeoman on a starship stuck in a series of rerun adventures who struggles to come to terms with his inevitable fate as a disposable member of the ship’s away team. These stories successfully poke fun (good naturedly) at the genres they come from and make us look at the medium or setting from a different perspective.

Other stories like “Standard Loneliness Package”, “Designer Emotion 67″, and “Adult Contemporary” explore how corporations sell us our lives. In these stories lives and emotions can quite literally be bought and sold, but we can see that Yu is ultimately addressing the way that companies market themselves and sell a lifestyle, ideal, or image that goes along with their product. At the same time (and maybe more importantly), the stories, especially “Standard Loneliness Package” and “Adult Contemporary” play on the idea of how people wait for their lives to really start or believe that they will only be living when they reach a certain milestone that they’ve set.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, there are some stories with interesting or experimental narrative techniques. “Designer Emotion 67″, for instance, is actually written as a speech that a company CEO is reading. “The Book of Categories” catalogs the different properties of the mysterious Book of Categories while also conveying some details about the life of a man named Chang Hsueh-liang who is the only person to have ever been in possession of this particular book more than six times. Then there is “Troubleshooting” which provides a users guide to troubleshoot problems with a device that grants its owner’s desires.

Throughout all of the stories there is a common thread of loneliness and a search for some greater meaning and purpose in the world. What is our purpose? Why are we here? What is it that we even want? The protagonists (or narrators) seek some kind of greater purpose or understanding in a chaotic, dreary, and unfair world. They ask the kinds of questions we ourselves ask all the time, even when we’re not in some strange, unearthly place.

Perhaps the best example of this is “Inventory” a story where the narrator keeps on waking up in different places every day. This constant state of displacement leads him to question his purpose and his existence and what is happening in his life.

“What if I go through my life and never ask that one key question, that one what-if that I am supposed to be asking myself?”

He eventually finds that he is some strange alternate version of someone else, someone living a normal life. He also finds a woman he thinks he loves, but it’s hard to know or stay on top of things when he keeps changing locales every day. In the end he comes to a conclusion about how he is going to move forward, despite the unique difficulty of his existence.

“…the first thing I do, doesn’t matter where I am, in the ocean, on the moon of some minor distant planet, doesn’t matter where, doesn’t matter if she knows who I am or if I know who she is or how strong gravity is or if I feel terrible or if the world is logically impossible, the first thing I do if she’s there, is I tell her how nice it is to see her.”

Oftentimes, as in this story, it seems that the protagonists do find meaning in some fashion or another, but it is not always the kind of meaning they expected, and usually it doesn’t make the world any better. But, it’s the kind of meaning and fulfillment we are used to settling for in our own lives, a kind that is very human.

Kickstarting a Restoration

Writers draw their inspiration from a lot of different places, but I’ve found that many, especially sci-fi and fantasy writers, draw from history when they are thinking about stories to write. History class was always one of my favorite classes to attend in high school because learning about all of the different things that happened in the past gave me ideas about how to develop histories in my own worlds. I think that there are more practical reasons to study history, but my interest in it was always for narrative or world building purposes. For that reason I think that preserving our past is an important endeavor.

Currently the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum in Reading, Pennsylvania is holding a Kickstarter to help fund the restoration of a P-61 Black Widow fighter jet from World War II. There were 750 of these planes made during World War II. It was the first “night fighter” created by the US Air Force, and its use of radar allowed it to operate at night, allowing more strategic movements by the Air Force during the war. To throw in a fun trivia fact, the final kill credit for the war was picked up by a P-61 pilot. Following the war the plane was decommissioned, and there are only four left today, and all of them are used as display pieces.

The plane that the museum is working on was found in New Guinea where it crash landed during a mission. If successful, their restoration will lead to the only P-61 still in existence that is capable of flight. This will allow people, especially pilots, to have continue to have insight into what flying planes from that era were like, and what it might’ve been like to fly combat missions during World War II.

If this project has piqued your interest, you should check out the Museum’s Kickstarter campaign and put in a donation. There is less than a week left until the campaign ends, so don’t wait around for too long!