An Interview with Charles Phipps

33971268I have recently read Phipps’ latest novel, The Tower of Zhaal (you can read my review for that here) and was intrigued by the originality of the Lovecraftian Post Apocalyptic world. As Such I felt inspired to ask the man a few questions about the book.

1) Your bibliography is filled with detective stories and science fiction, so exploring Lovecraftian horror is quite a departure. What inspired you to take on the Elder Gods?

I’ve always been a fan of post-apocalypse stories, Fallout and The Walking Dead especially, but zombie stories felt played out. I decided that the coming apocalypse was a constant theme in the works of H.P. Lovecraft but the monsters never actually succeeded. It seemed a natural fit to examine what the world would be like after they rose from their epoch-long sleep. I also drew from Stephen King’s Dark Tower and The Stand while thinking up how I wanted the world to be.

2) I am not an expert when it comes to Lovecraft, but I recognized a large majority of creatures and references. How much effort did it take to craft a universe with so many connections while maintaining continuity?

Lovecraft never really meant for there to be a coherent narrative to his universe and probably would think codifying his universe missed the point. However, I was a lifelong gamer long before I read his stories so it wasn’t that hard to start mentally classifying them and how they all fit together. I could have also drawn from other Lovecraft scholars like the good folks behind  Call of Cthulhu: The Roleplaying Game but decided to go my own way.

3) Of the creatures I didn’t recognize, were they original creations of yours, or did you dig deep into the Cthulhu mythos?

I created a few new creatures in the story as I figure if I’m going to delve into Lovecraft’s works as deeply as I was, it wouldn’t be fair not to add some of my own spin. In my sequel, The Tower of Zhaal, I create my own Great Old One in the Undying Horror as well as his servants in the Faceless Ones. The Cthulhu Mythos, or Arkham Cycle as Lovecraft called it, is really a grab bag he intended everyone to be able to dip into.

4) I recognized many location names and some of the background characters also seemed familiar. It was hard to place a clear setting in my mind. Where did you imagine this story took place?

Well, the apocalypse has occurred so the environments of the Earth have radically shifted. Despite taking place in New England around the Massachusetts area, the land has become a large radioactive desert with ancient ruins brought up from primordial epochs. It’s the Wild East, if you will, with a supernatural touch. Really, the world is so strange and unusual now, it’s arguable not even entirely Earth anymore. That’s what you get when you expose a mortal planet to the Old One’s dreams.

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The latest volume in Charles Phipps’ successful Supervillainy Saga.

5) You have thrown everything in this book except the kitchen sink (or was that in there too?) Were you worried about over-saturating the book with ideas and diluting the impact of the cosmic horrors?

As mentioned, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower was an influence as well as Lovecraft’s own Dream Cycle. I felt this was very much a road trip where they got to see just how terrifying and unusual the world Post-Rising was. I did try to do my best to make sure the supernatural was never “mundane” despite this being a weird post-apocalypse society, though. Encountering even the least of the monsters wandering the world should be a terrifying experience even if humanity is more jaded than the driven-to-madness by rats in the walls heroes of some of HPL’s stories.

6) You have recently left Ragnarok Publications and joined with Amber Cove and Crossroad Press. Most authors sign exclusively or self-publish. What has led you down the road you have taken?

In fact, I wrote for three years trying to get published by Permuted Press which gave me a somewhat substantial backlog of stories to publish. Some of the stories fit with some publishers while others fit with others. I’ve since terminated my relationship with Ragnarok Publications and am moving my books with them to the other two you mentioned but I’m pleased to say they have a good working relationship. Jim Bernheimer (Amber Cove) actually introduced me to David Wilson (Crossroad Press). Also, my frequent audiobook narrator, Jeffrey Kafer, does work for both.

7) When did you discover Lovecraft’s writings? What did you think of them when you first read them?

I was a teenager and a regular gamer so I knew of HPL from the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game as well as Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. I decided my love of horror necessitated me to read his short stories and bought a few anthologies that introduced me to most of them. Honestly, I felt the prose was a bit purple even back then but the stories had a way of sticking with you well beyond works I thought were better.

Like the parasite in Alien, they wrapped themselves around your face and laid eggs in you until you had ideas burst out. I can’t say what my favorite of HPL’s work is but I know every detail of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror, and The Colour from Space. I’m also very fond of some pastiche authors like Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow novels and the Laundry Files by Charles Stross.

8) What is your favorite eldritch being? I am a fan of the Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath, and also Nyarlathotep. It’s fun to say, and “Black Goat of the Woods” and “Crawling Chaos” are such brutally evocative names.

I have to say Cthulhu himself as he remains an iconic monster for good reason. I admit, though, I actually have the crazy theory that Lovecraft created Cthulhu as Squid-Dragon Jesus. Think about it, he’s a dead god who will rise from the grave to end the world and is worshiped by people across the world from every walk of life. People who are eager for his return and believe (rightly or wrongly) they’ll be saved from his wrath. I’m also a huge fan of ghouls and think of them as a much better creature than the Deep Ones.

9) How would you survive the Cthulhu apocalypse?

I wouldn’t but if I was able to find a Silver Key somewhere, I’d journey to Ulthar and hunker down there in the Dreamlands. Seriously, screw Earth, that place is full of monsters and things which go bump in the night. The Dreamlands might not be much better but it has a few safe places if you know not to hurt a cat.

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Once again, I thank Charles Phipps for taking the time to answer these questions. The Tower of Zhaal is available now on Amazon. For more information on Charles Phipps or any of his books, visit his site on WordPress today. Visit here to read my review of The Tower of Zhaal.

 

The Heart of Stone by Ben Galley

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The Heart of Stone is Galley’s eighth novel, and is my introduction to his writing. Task, a four hundred year old stone golem, has been killing on the field of battle for centuries. It was what he was built to do, and he does it well. But he is also an intelligent and empathetic being, and the years of war have chiseled away at him, eroding his humanity.

Task’s personal story is one of redemption, but the overarching theme of the book is about free will. Task must learn to break his magic bonds and do what is right. Lesky must learn to break the bonds of fear and rank and follow her own path. And the armies and generals must learn that, sometimes, you might just be the bad guy without knowing it and you have to choose not to obey your own orders.

This is also a book about faith. Not religious or spiritual faith, but a deeper, more personal faith in ones self and in those around you. Task must learn to trust people – people he has been systematically programmed to kill – and the people around him must learn to trust him – despite their fear of what he could do. Lesky and Task both have to rely on their instincts and rely on their hearts to make the hard, but correct choices – they must have faith, that when all around them say they are wrong, that they are right.

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When he isn’t writing award winning Dark Fantasy novels, Ben also runs a highly successful self publishing consultancy.

It was the protagonists that made this book work for me. I loved Task’s little rebellious moments where he was able to push his boundaries and display some resentment. I genuinely rooted for the character. Despite being a Dark Fantasy novel, and one set in the midst of a raging war, the highlights for me were the more subdued moments. Those were where Galley shined the brightest. The moments when Task made friends in the camp, joining in their card games, or his developing friendship with Lesky, a girl who tends the stables. In fact, if anything, the book would have been better if it had focused almost solely on Task and the girl – their relationship was the best part of the novel.

One area that the book could have used more work on, I felt, was setting up the overarching conflict of the book. The antagonists fell flat, especially with the Countess. Her motivation wasn’t clear which I found distracting the first few times she was talking to the ‘enemy’, unsure of how she got there. The first time she killed someone, it was so out of the blue, and ritualistic, that I was seriously confused. Not shocked or surprised, but just confused. The military general, a typical Bully-in-charge type character, didn’t feel enough of a real threat to me, and in fact, the main villain of the story wasn’t particularly clear until much later in the novel. Instead of being a sudden reveal, it felt more like a random change in direction. If there had been foreshadowing leading up to this reveal it may have had more impact and even amplified the tone of the world.

Speaking of world… though he has a well crafted fantasy world, he missed opportunities to let us, the reader, share this knowledge. Fantasy animal names were used without once describing them, and I found this both frustrating and distracting. It took me out of the moment when I had to stop and decipher from the context what sort of creature was being mentioned. And it wasn’t just the animal names I found distracting. Nomenclature, in general, does not seem to be Galley’s strongest asset. The names of characters and places felt a little too quickly put together, and though some of these names do get an explanation, it isn’t until towards the end of the book.

But these issues are minor details. The most important aspects of any book are the protagonists and the writing itself. With the main character being a literal stone war machine, I was impressed that Galley was able to avoid turning the book into a splatterpunk farce – though the gore was visceral and dripping, it was used sparingly and spread throughout the book… just like Task’s victims. The rationed violence, and the fact that Task was a complicated and reluctant destroyer, gave weight and depth to the fight scenes that many novels lack.

Despite having flaws, they were not significantly detrimental to the story or to my enjoyment of it. Ben Galley created complex characters that faced real problems, inside and out, and the dialogue was well-written. I was carried along with Task, right to the end of his journey, and I enjoyed the trip. A very good book, and an excellent addition to any Dark Fantasy lover’s bookshelf.

You can purchase The Heart of Stone on March 30th 2017, or you can pre-order it now. For more information visit Ben’s website.

The Dark Tower by C. S. Lewis

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An unexpectedly dark and unsettling tale of inter-dimensional travel, monstrous creatures and alternate realities. A powerful read that grips you right to the end.

C. S. Lewis is renowned worldwide for his children’s fantasy novels, especially the Chronicles of Narnia, but his less known works include a trilogy of science fiction novels plus an unfinished fourth (The Dark Tower.) An intended fourth entry to The Cosmic Trilogy, it was never finished or published. It was discovered among paperwork being destroyed after Lewis’ death by the lawyer of his estate and, despite evidence suggesting that segments of this work were read at the famous gatherings of The Inklings (a group of literary enthusiasts, including Tolkien, who were mostly associated with the University of Oxford who met and read excerpts and discussed fantasy and science fiction literature) there was controversy around the authenticity of the writings.

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Less well-known are C. S. Lewis’s science fiction novels.

It is estimated that this story was written in the early forties, predating his more famous fantasy works (and some elements from this story seem to make their way into the Chronicles of Narnia which wasn’t published until the early fifties.) The intriguing nature of this story is how it starts off with several scientists discussing the nature of time travel and ends up being a gothic-horror story about inter-dimensional travel.

One of the academics, Orfieu, discloses to his companions that, as time travel itself is impossible he has focused his research into simply viewing time, and has created a machine called the chronoscope. This device lets the men view a fixed but undisclosed place they call ‘The Othertime’. It is a dark and oppressive place, where The Stingingman (a man with a large, seeping horn growing through his skull) stabs volunteers in the stomach, injecting them with venom and transforming them into willing automaton-like slaves called Jerkies (because of their movements) who are laboring to complete construction of a great but dark tower.

Orfieu’s assistant, Scudamour, discovers with horror that he has an exact double in this Othertime, who as the story progresses, is imprisoned and mutates into the next Stingingman, replacing the previous one. One of the other academics observes that this incomplete building is actually a replica of the new Cambridge University Library, where the men are presently situated as they observe all this.

I shall leave any plot discussion here so to avoid spoiling the story. There are a few twists and a few genuinely unsettling moments. Stylistically, this story is unlike anything of Lewis’s that I have read, and this is also the basis as to why the authenticity is still debated by academics. The story is dark and uncomfortable to read – the setting is unidentifiable (possibly set in post-war time) but feels like it could be a Victorian gothic story, with the sense of growing dread and nihilism common in H. P. Lovecraft’s works. The characters, though underdeveloped due to the unfinished nature of the story, are suitably sympathetic with clear motivations.

I was thoroughly enjoying this story and was sorely disappointed when it came to an abrupt, unfinished end. The Dark Tower and Other Stories discusses the story in more depth, and pre-warns readers that it is missing sections and unfinished, but this does nothing to diminish the feeling of disappointment as such a gripping and dread-inducing tale is suddenly ended.

For fans of Lovecraft or C. S. Lewis or cosmic-horror in general, this story is a great look into the creative prowess of a man who could write for children and adults alike, a man who refused to be categorized as a genre writer.

The Sovereign Hand by Paul Gilbert

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An epic adventure of High Fantasy and High Stakes; deserves a place next to Pratchett or Goodkind.

Set amidst a backdrop of steam and coal smoke, high magic and complicated politics; the bustling metropolis of Thorn faces an impending evil and only a group of five heroes, summoned by fate, can stop the cataclysm. The sovereign hand is a masterful work of depth and breadth. Paul Gilbert has created a deep backstory and a rich world, often seen lacking in most fiction, that is on par with Game of Thrones or Sword of Truth. Various races and species co-exist in a noisy city rife with politics and crime and culture, and it is from these crowded streets that our five heroes are chosen by fate to become The Sovereign Hand; a select group of individuals trained to fight against evil.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book filled with many classic D&D or Pratchettesque tropes; goblins, kobolds, lizard-men, minotaurs, wizards, priests and thieves. Some of these elements are severely under-used, and other’s feel out of place and forced; the book starts with the integration of the Taurean peoples and the end of conflict, and this idea is followed for many chapters before being completely abandoned. It has little-to-no bearing on the plot and is more of a distraction than a neccessary part of the book; in fact the first half of the book (particularly the first quarter) is so heavy on uneccessary world-building and exposition that it was difficult to become emotionally connected to the world or the characters; I had no clue what was going on or who the story was talking about. The language was overdone in the first half as well – obscure allusions and similes that don’t work and just leave the reader confused and distracted. The raw talent of Gilbert is buried and drowned beneath the verbose excess; this is one of the most over-written books I have ever read.

However, once into the second half of the book things began to pick up. Suddenly there was a clear plot; I knew who characters were, they had clear goals and even, eventually, an antagonist. By this point, however, I had had little investment into the characters, so motivations were vague and confusing and important elements of the book seemed to spontaneously erupt onto the pages, leaving me lost and confused. The climax was excellent – though there were unanswered questions and unfinished plot-points which left the ending of the book feeling flat and unsatisfying, with an unfinished feel.

This is Paul Gilbert’s first book and shows incredible potential to be a top-shelf competitor in major bookstores in the future. Hopefully the next book will be more tightly written and won’t meander as aimlessly as The Sovereign Hand often did, leaving the reader feeling lost and wondering if the author knew where his book was going. 7 / 10 stars.

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The Factory World by Joseph Edward Ryan

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An imaginative work that is equal parts intriguing and disturbing.

The Factory World is very similar to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Tad Williams’ Otherland series, or the screen adaptation of Mutant Chronicles. With dark and gritty tones, vivid and unsettling imagery, a mixture of science fiction, fantasy and horror elements and a milieu-based story structure, The Factory World draws inspiration from thirty years of slipstream cross-genre novels.

Ten year old Simon wakes up in an outflow pipe in an abandoned factory in a dark and strange world, where purple meteors rain down and scour deep black holes through the earth. He is dressed in a Lion costume from a play of The Wizard of Oz and meets a nameless stranger whom he calls The Tin Man. Together, they roam an eerie and ominous world and encounter strange and terrifying creatures and wondrous technologies, all in the search for a way to return home.

The post-apocalyptic fantasy setting immediately felt like I was reading Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, and as the Wizard of Oz elements started showing up I felt like I was reading King’s Wizard And Glass. Normally, it would be a compliment to be compared to something as epic and masterful as Stephen King’s magnum opus, but in this instance Ryan falls flat. The author’s voice and ideas are lost in the comparison to King; The Factory World is too similar and disappears beneath the shadow of a greater work. Ryan’s world has many brilliant ideas and concepts which are unfortunately often glossed over when they should have been expanded; despite the vivid and fantastic imagination the world lacks a critical depth that makes it feel real and cohesive.

There wasn’t enough characterization to make me care for the protagonists; any initial emotional connection I felt was soon lost as the book progressed. However, luckily for Ryan, the protagonists weren’t the main characters. The true hero of this book is the world itself; it is a reflection of our own subconscious, a dark and confusing and scarred entity struggling to survive.

#Warning: the following part of this review contains spoilers and will majorly disrupt your enjoyment of the novel if you have not read it. Please do not read any further if you have not yet read this book and intend to.

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The ending of The Factory World was a severe disappointment. After what builds itself up for a powerful and climactic ending, the author ends with an epilogue showing us that it was, in fact, all a dream. Seriously. It’s the same ending that we all used on our creative writing assignments at school when we were eight years old. This ending killed any enjoyment of the book for me – what could have been a fantastic and intriguing journey was suddenly halted by a lazy ending that is offensive to the reader. However… this ending could have worked, if Ryan had foreshadowed it in the book correctly. It is true, the characters question if anything is real – just as we all do at some confusing and distressing point in our lives – but this merely humanizes the characters, it doesn’t justify the cop-out ending. For a “dream sequence” to be valid, it must be integral to the plot. Even without embedding meaning and metaphor into the book, Ryan still could have linked the ending to the beginning of the book by changing the very first line from:

“Simon woke in the drainpipe and was cold all over.” to:

Wake up. Simon woke in the drainpipe and was cold all over.”

That simple addition would have made the audience read the ending and go, “Ohh, I see,” instead of saying, “Really? That was it?” None the less, still a mostly entertaining read. The most important parts of a book are the first and last chapters, and unfortunately such a weak ending heavily impacts the overall feel of the book. 4/10 stars.

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Sephirot by Gordon Bonnet

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Drops the reader into a dark metaphysical journey full of intrigue.

 

Our main character is Duncan Kyle, a man of indeterminate age or origin who one night falls through the floor of his apartment and finds himself in a dark and mysterious world, one of many within the Sephirot that he must journey through and return home. This is a standard Voyage and Return type plot; Our hero wanders aimlessly in a strange land, having adventures and drawing wisdom and revelation through his experiences before returning home. In Kabbalah the Sephirot is ten different emanations/revelations of God. Each contains a different characteristic emotion or virtue, and through attaining enlightenment of any one of these levels one brings their self closer to the divine knowledge of God. In Bonnet’s book the Sephirot are represented by different fantasy realms that must be physically journeyed through; and with the Sephirot being a creation of the hero’s own mind, it is thus a journey to attain an enlightened knowledge of his self. Unfortunately, Bonnet fails to give as much thought to characterisation or setting as he does to concept or structure; ironically, crafting a journey that is, instead of being enlightening, one that feels hollow.

We don’t know anything about the protagonist and, only towards the last half of the book do we discover things about our hero, but then it is too late. The story is about the hero’s self discovery, not the reader’s discovery of the hero, and in this it is hard to find an emotional connection to Duncan Kyle or to emotionally invest in his journey. As well an uninteresting character, the conflicts he faces are resolved quickly, or avoided completely via last-minute portals opening and allowing him to escape into the next realm. Another over-used cliche is the quick discovery in every realm of the ‘mysterious helper’ archetype: a potential foil or background character who dispenses knowledge and advice and assistance to Duncan at almost every step of his journey. The impact of these story devices is that the tension is stripped from the book; any dangers presented to the main character are aesthetic and offer little tangible threat.

Despite these flaws, it is an enjoyable read with some interesting ideas and varied and interesting settings. I would have liked to have spent more time getting to know the different worlds, and the book could have benefitted from more consistent pacing, but the general direction of the book kept me intrigued. 6/10 stars.

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Mansfield With Monsters by K. Mansfield with Matt & Debbie Cowens

 

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A dark and unsettling collection of stories in the tradition of Pride and Predjudice and Zombies or Android Karenina, set in Edwardian New Zealand.

Mansfield with Monsters is a post-modernist interpretation of classic Victorian literature, introducing gothic and supernatural elements to pre-existing stories. This transformative subgenre has become increasingly popular since the early 2000’s withnumerous best selling books and film adaptations proving hits in theaters. Mansfield with Monsters draws from Katherine Mansfield’s vast collection of literary works, rewriting select stories and introducing horror and gothic elements from similar works of the time, such as Poe, Crowley or Lovecraft.

I approached this book with no previous exposure to Katherine Mansfield’s work or any understanding of who she was. She was a hugely progressive individual who’s influence was both cultural and literary. Mansfield with Monsters captures the late Victorian/Edwardian tone of post-colonial New Zealand and successfully expands of the predominant themes of class and social division. The horror elements are masterfully woven into the narrative and are drawn from pre-existing elements in the original texts; it is a comfortable fit that feels natural to read. This, coupled with the general unsettling tone and uncomfortable word usages in the stories, creates a book with a very dark and very real atmosphere.

Some stories are not for the faint-hearted, with some scenes of graphic and implied violence, and others have awkward and unsettling sexual connotations which adds to the air of discomfort when reading them. Elements included range from the cosmic nihilism of Lovecraft, to Victorian classics such as vampires or Frankenstein-esque creatures, flesh-eating zombies and ghouls and there’s even a story featuring giant insects and steampunk mech suits.

A fantastic post-humorous collaborative effort, and a brilliant example of New Zealand literary talent. 8/10 stars.

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