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 Tower of Zhaal by Charles Phipps

33971268Phipps’ sequel to Cthulhu Armageddon, The Tower of Zhaal is a dark and forlorn tale; a hybrid of cosmic horror and weird-west. For those unacquainted with cosmic horror, it is a sub genre, also known as Lovecraftian horror, inspired by the works of Late Victorian-era author H. P. Lovecraft. Known for it’s philosophy called cosmicism, this style of writing focuses on philosophically intense horror based on the occult or the unknown, almost always with the dominant themes of helplessness or hopelessness.

The Tower of Zhaal does not shy away from it’s nihilistic roots. Henry Booth, our protagonist, is slowly transforming into a monster. When cultists from the University approach Booth and his lover Mercury, they offer to save him in return for one task; they must hunt down a rogue cultist who is determined to release the last Great Old One, an ancient cosmic deity that exists outside of time and space.

In the tradition of weird-west epics such as Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, Charles Phipp’s The Tower of Zhaal is a milieu adventure filled with as many creatures and concepts from Lovecraft’s works as you could imagine. A dark world that your imagination paints with roiling black clouds across apocalyptic orange skies, rusted and corroded buildings, dead trees and wastelands in every direction.

Not bogged down by plot, it is a strong character-driven tale. The new threat to an already desecrated world doesn’t motivate the heroes; they are literally only concerned about Booth’s transformation. His character arc is the driving force behind the entire book – without his growing disability he would never venture forth, nor have been contracted to save the world (or have been capable of the deed.)

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Phipps’ previous novel: Cthulhu Armageddon

I found that the book’s main weakness was it’s assumption that the reader was familiar with the first book. Many elements felt rushed: characters, locations and events cropping up from the previous tale and being mentioned only in passing. As a first-time reader of Phipps’ work I feel I would have enjoyed the book more if he had slowed down and spent some time reminiscing for the reader’s sake. Also, the book reached a point where, instead of feeling dread or anxiousness for what was going to happen next, I became tired with the introduction of more, and more, and more creatures. Sometimes less is more, and I think this book could have used less villainous creatures and given the remaining ones more impact.

But these aside, the book was very enjoyable. There have been many high profile authors try their hand at Lovecraftian horror – the most notable being Stephen King or Ramsey Campbell. The difference being, most writers try to craft an intense story set in our world, facing the threat of cosmic horrors… Phipps has challenged himself to make the heroes of those books fail, to allow the darkness to swell over the Earth and corrupt it. As the past decade’s obsession with zombies and Y/A dystopias starts to wane, it is a treat to read a more unusual version of the end of the world.

Recommended for those who enjoyed Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, David Gemmell’s The Jerusalem Man, or Robert McCammon’s Swan Song. You can read my interview with Charles Phipps about this book here.

The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham

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When the carnivorous bio-engineered plants that can walk and communicate to each other, known as Triffids, are accidentally released into the wild they quickly begin breeding and spreading around the world, their spores born in the wind. They are farmed and harvested en masse for their valuable extracts, but when a mysterious meteor shower renders those who witness it blind, the Triffids are free to escape and breed more prolifically.

Bill Marsden is a biologist who specializes in Triffids. He is attacked by a Triffid while working and gets venom in his eyes. Exposure to immature venom in his youth have given him a resistance to the venom’s usual fatality and he is rushed to hospital. This is where the story begins. Bill wakes up in hospital, bandages over his eyes, and notices that the world is silent. He wanders through a crippled and chaotic London and learns that most of the world is blind; people are huddled in terror or crawling everywhere, calling out for their families. He quickly learns that it is dangerous to let people know he can see as the blind swarm him like drowning men scrabbling on a life-raft. He also quickly learns the harsh reality that he is unable to help anyone and that to survive he must leave everyone else to their fate. Bill befriends and becomes infatuated with a young woman, Josella, who can also see, and the two follow a beacon light on a hill and discover a small group of survivors who intend on setting up a colony in the countryside.

Like most apocalyptic fiction, this book is pretty standard fare – groups of gangs and raiders, slavers and militant types. Modern post apocalyptic fiction is considered to have first been published in 1826 by Mary Shelly in her novel The Last Man, in which a group of people struggle to survive in a plague-infected world. H. G. Wells re-invigorated the concept in the late 1800’s, but the genre rose to prominence after World War II, with the focus being on nuclear or bio-engineered cataclysms. Where Wyndham stands out is in the constant ominous overtones and the almost biblical images of the blind crawling, and eventually, rotting in the streets. The book does not take place after the apocalypse, it watches it painfully unfold and literally decay. Thematically, the major focus is in man’s meddling with nature and how ultimately nature will reclaim from humans. Gardens and countryside grow wild, streets are ruptured with weeds and shrubs and buildings crumble as plants rip through them.

And then, there are the Triffids. They almost come as a surprise – the book focuses so heavily on the destruction of civilization and on the journey of the protagonist, that you forget about these amazing creations. Until Bill sees Triffids Stalking him in the bushes. Attacking people in the streets. Eating their flesh. As their numbers increase the Triffids become a more and more significant threat. Similar to how in The Walking Dead the zombies are attracted to other groups of zombies, Triffids communicate and attract more Triffids. Soon the protagonists find themselves trapped in their countryside retreat, fighting at the walls and fences in a futile battle against a threat that is constantly and literally growing.

The Day of The Triffids is a complex apocalypse story set in an uncertain era of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the dawn of The Space Age, the beginnings of a truly global market and burgeoning genetic sciences. All of these things have influences in the book, and most have a direct impact upon the story itself. Though aesthetically it is a science fiction survival story, at it’s heart it is a snapshot of post-war Britain; a social commentary of the concerns and fears of a generation that had just survived the greatest and most horrific war in the history of mankind. The war had shaken people’s faith in the world and the notion of peace and security, and these fears play out in the book on a global, tribal and personal level.

A thrilling and suspenseful survival story garnished with some truly creepy and terrifying moments. A classic novel that I highly recommend, and that truly deserves the title given it by Arthur C. Clarke of “an immortal story.”

Survivors by Terry Nation

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A daunting vision of the apocalypse and a compelling journey of survival and struggle.

In a matter of a few weeks a virus has spread across the entire planet, killing off almost all of the human population. The remaining survivors are in a silent world with no electricity or society or infrastructure. They form together communities and try to outlast the chaos as the world begins to fall into disrepair; scavenging, evading raiders and gangs and even surviving each other’s own madness and paranoia and panic. But foodstuffs are running low in the towns, and winter is coming. Now, those who once lived in luxury and convenience must return to the fundamentals and learn to farm and hunt and fish and build. The human race must struggle to survive against the weather, nature, and the human race itself.

Survivors is a novelization of the cult 70’s post-apocalyptic TV series of the same name. Penned by Terry Nation. Terry Nation was an accomplished British Screen Writer who wrote for over thirty television series; his biggest contributions being to Survivors (38 episodes,) Blake’s 7 (52 episodes,) and most notably, Dr Who (70 episodes,) where he is the accredited inventor of Daleks. This book is a unique experience as most novelizations are contracted to genre-authors to interpret a script: Survivors is novelized by the scriptwriter, and as such, offers some fantastic insights into the intentions of the TV series that any other author could not have achieved.

Lauded as a visual story teller when it comes to screenplays, his narrative becomes somewhat over-written in places which can be limiting to the imagination. This is important as the theme of survival should be one every reader can personally relate to: the fear of being cold and hungry and vulnerable; and unless a detail is especially important to the plot, most should be left somewhat vague to allow the reader to imagine themselves in the place of the antagonists and be more intimately immersed in the story.

But aside from this minor knit-pick, and despite being a TV serial novelization, this book is an excellent read. It is imaginative and daunting, and in a genre of over-the-top apocalyptic scenarios, it is a refreshingly restrained vision of humanity and it’s struggle to survive. Most characters are relatable and are sympathetic, while secondary characters can sometimes be two-dimensional and clearly written as a TV plot device. Their plight is intriguing and, unlike a lot of apocalyptic stories, there is no symbolic savior in the guise of army or fortified township or the like – there is only the slow decay of the world: time moves on and buildings, roads and even social conventions and moral boundaries begin to fall apart.

A fantastic read, as it is a great precursor to the popularization of post-apocalyptic stories that are so common today. Though some argue the genre is pessimistic, it is actually one of the more optimistic settings for a story. We live in a world filled with untruths and trivialities – in the end days we become equalized. Every person is important because every action they take has real and clear consequences; everything one does is for the greater good of ones self and for mankind. This comes through clear in Terry Nation’s book: the old way of life is left behind and the new way must be learned, and though it is a road filled with struggles, ultimately it is a journey of hope and inspiration. An apocalyptic drama highly recommended to anyone who enjoyed Z for Zachariah, No Blade of Grass, Day of The Triffids.

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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After the Plague by Jean Ure

d3b2b0d82912fb18c2d376fbd4ce1a98The second entry to her Plague Trilogy, After the Plague (originally title Come Lucky April) follows a young boy, Daniel, as he explores the wastelands in search of the diary of his great grandmother. This is his first time outside the safety of his village. April, a young girl who finds an injured Daniel in the wastelands, brings him back to her village where he is perceived as both a curiosity and a threat.

The society has pieced itself back together, using fragments of newspapers, books and other media to reinterpret the past. Unfortunately, as is evident in modern media, violence towards women, factual and fictional, is abundant, and this society is brought up on the belief that, based on these newspaper and book fragments, that the pre-plague civilization was abundant with rape and violence, and thus all the problems in the world, including the plague, are a direct result of men.

Men are believed to be incapable of controlling their violent and base urges, and are thus ritualistically castrated and are mentally conditioned to be subservient in all aspects. Men and women live in separate accommodation from each other and breeding is seen as a duty and chore. The male anatomy and the physical act of love is considered vile and disgusting.

It is never clear in the book how specifically this society breeds: it is implied it is through basic artificial insemination techniques. Another unanswered idea is that these people live in a homosexual society. The women have ‘mates’ that they share beds with and have emotionally intimate relationships with, but it is never stipulated if these relationships are phyiscal as well. It may be that this society is asexual and their relationships are merely homosocial – in which case this book becomes even more progressive by extending itself beyond straight or gay relationships and into relatively unvisited territories.

The anti-male rhetoric can come off pretty thick in this novel. This is okay, as this society is built on this ideology, but when Daniel from outside this society debates with women their different lifestyles, he fails to come up with any arguments to defend himself. Sadly, the best quip he can muster is to suggest that all the evils that befall women are because they failed to defend themselves adequately, or because they allowed men to make the decisions.

In what seems like a progressive book strong with feminist overtones, the decision to make Daniel blame women rather than defend men actually propagates both misogyny and misandry at the same time. A more balanced approach would have had Daniel defend the virtues of mankind while still acknowledging the blames of mankind, instead of pleading ignorance and blame shifting.

But these social justice issues were not as vocal or prevalent in the 1990’s, as social media had yet to take over the way the world functions and these issues were not discussed as widely. This makes the progressiveness of this book more important, within that context, as it would have created a talking point. Based on many opinions found online, it was a very polarizing and controversial book and achieved sparking the debate before it was trending online.

The characters are well written and a lot of young adult tropes are successfully avoided (like the plague), or re-examined in a different context. The story line itself is very basic and doesn’t offer a lot, but the enjoyment of this book is the ideas and ideologies and the character interrelationships.

A highly recommended book for both adults and teens.

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POD by Stephen Wallenfels

POD stephen wallenfels promo copyWhen the Cataclysm arrives, Megs, a 12-year-old streetwise girl, is trapped in a hotel parking garage in Los Angeles; and 16-year-old Josh is stuck in a house in Prosser, Washington, with his increasingly obsessive-compulsive father. Food and water and time are running out. Will Megs survive long enough to find her mother? Will Josh and his father survive each other? These are the questions that must be answered when giant black spheres appear in the sky and start disintegrating any people that are unlucky enough to be outside at the time.

The book shares many elements in common with Stephen King’s Under The Dome where the main antagonists are other people and the alien/supernatural event is merely the backdrop behind the story. And, like Under The Dome, POD is focused around survivors trying to fend off starvation, dehydration and the savage nature of humanity.

The main flaws in this book are, despite adequate narrative, somewhat hollow characterization and a weak alien entity. The PODs only attack people whom are outside, but never once attack those hiding inside buildings. Perhaps Wallenfels could have covered this by having a character discuss the nature of aliens, suggesting that anything patient enough to travel across the universe can wait a few more weeks while the human race starves to death or tears itself apart, making for a much more efficient invasion to follow (as intergalactic travel would be very costly in terms of resources and fuel.) Unfortunately any suggestion of justification never comes up in the book, and instead of coming across as ominous and mysterious the PODs merely seem ineffective and underwhelming.

Also, having two points of view doesn’t offer us any new insights or opinions, instead just rehashing what we have read in previous chapters. Though the tone is good and the pacing adequate, Wallenfels missed an opportunity to have a third point of view from a military/political/scientific character to provide needed exposition and paint a more vivid image of just how hostile these aliens really are.

POD is Wallenfels debut novel and, despite it’s flaws and plot holes, is still an enjoyable read. It does make a nice change to have a character-driven alien apocalypse instead of the typical Hollywood guns and explosions treatment. The reality is, when the apocalypse occurs, the majority of people are going to just try and survive, not become warriors overnight. Humans are an adaptive survivalist species, we are primed to flee before we fight, and it makes for a decent and moody story to explore this element of an apocalypse.

Wallenfels has written a sequel titled MONOLITH, and hopefully, he has fine tuned his craft somewhat for this second installment so we can get some questions answered. I eagerly await getting my hands on a copy of this book so the characters and I can get some proper closure.

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