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.

Doctor Who: The Mind of Evil by Terrance Dicks

doctor_who_the_mind_of_evilThe Third Doctor and his companion, Jo, visit Stangmoor prison where a Professor Kettering is using a device on criminals that, it is claimed, drains all evil and negative impulses from their minds. The machine is used on a prisoner named Barnham who, to the Doctor’s horror, is successfully pacified by being turned into a drooling imbecile. But as the Professor tests the machine a string of mysterious and impossible deaths occur in the prison, and when The Doctor approaches the machine he is psychically assaulted with manifestations of his greatest fear – all consuming fire. Nearby the first World Peace Conference is taking place where one of the delegates is acting strange and suspicious. It is revealed that she is being manipulated by The Master, Dr Who’s archnemesis, who it also turns out is the man who invented the machine.

At the prison a riot breaks out as a prisoner who was destined to be next for the machine takes over the prison, capturing Jo and eventually The Doctor. Upon hearing of this, The Master meets with this man and supplies him with weapons and attacks The Doctor with the machine, weakening him. He reveals that it actually contains a dangerous alien Mind Parasite that feeds off mental energies. But the parasite is growing too powerful for The Master to control and he must enlist the Doctor’s help to contain it.

The Master then enlists the prisoners as his army and uses them to capture a nerve gas missile that is being transported nearby – his plan, to launch the missile at the Peace Conference and start WWIII unless The Doctor gives him the component to his TARDIS back. It is discovered that Barnham, having no negative energies left in him, is now immune to the parasite. The Doctor uses Barnham to unleash the alien on The Master while The Doctor sets the missile to self-detonate, destroying the parasite at the same time. Unfortunately, amidst the anarchy and chaos that follows, The Master gets his component back and is able to escape, killing Barnham in the process.

This book is the novelization of six episodes from season eight, aired in 1971. The scripts were written by Terrance Dicks, who also wrote this novelization. This has allowed him to expand on the nature of the relationship between The Master and The Doctor more than what was able to be shown in the show. Unfortunately, because it is six episodes compacted into one short novel, some scenes transpire so rapidly that, what would have been an engaging serial on TV, turns into a rushed mess that jumps all over the place. That aside, it is a very enjoyable book. Having never seen any of the classic series of Dr Who I was intrigued by the concept of Dr Who being exiled to Earth as punishment, working as a Sherlock Holmes type character in a subtle role, as opposed to the hyper-intelligent superhero he has come to be known as in modern serials. An acceptable political drama, but mostly a very decent sci-fi thriller. The twists were predictable, but there were also some ploys in the book that caught me completely off guard, which is always satisfying to be outsmarted by an author. A strong Dr Who story that any fan or layman will surely enjoy.

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.”

StarTroopers: The Final Episode by Ged Maybury

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A children’s adventure tale with surprisingly complex characters and plot. Gripping to the end.

Spencer Sockitt is a huge fan of the science fiction franchise, StarTroopers, and is ecstatic to get to interview the author – Arthur Thorsen – for his school magazine. However, the author is not what he was expecting: he is a strange man who claims that, rather than writing fiction, he has visions of battles in far off space, and he is merely a vessel that writes these down. But Spencer uncovers a conspiracy: the evil Blitzoids are here on Earth and are manipulating Thorsen. They believe that he doesn’t have visions, but is in fact a legendary Imaginor – his words and thoughts and beliefs shape reality around him. The stories he writes become real, and the Blitzoids are dictating his latest novel in their favour. Spencer and his friend Rebecca find themselves embroiled in a galactic battle as the powerful Star Troopers try to overcome the evil Warlord Kruel and his Blitzoid army. But things are never black and white; the lines between good and bad become blurred. In war, good is always merely a point of view…

Those who are familiar with Maybury will know that he is a quirky and outlandish character, and this book fully encapsulates those ecclectic qualities of his. What starts off as typical children’s book fare, with over-the-top names and language to pander to the younger readers and quirky mannerisms to define characters, quickly descends into quite a thoughtful and action packed tale. It is a deeper tale than you realise, as the plot is developed and the story explored from both sides. Maybury presents children with a complex story; the main antagonist has a deep and complicated background and the protagonists are flawed, biased and must overcome their cultural and social conditioning to draw their own conclusions. Ultimately, the book reveals that there is no bad guy, or rather, when it comes to violence and war that there is no real good guy. The growing sense of ominousness comes to a full, complex and satisfying conclusion through investigation and politics. Maybury teaches children that violence and conflict only propagate more violence, and that the only true solution is through understanding and diplomacy. A message that most adults still have yet to learn.

Maybury is a New Zealand writer. New Zealand, being a British colony like so many other nations, has a past that is speckled with racial and cultural injustices. And even though New Zealand has been a nation to quickly embrace equality with women and the indigenous Maori having full voting rights by 1893 (irrespective of status). Despite this, there is still colourful debate and controversy surrounding the initial land purchases made of the Maori people by the British Government in the 1800’s. This can be a divisive issue for modern New Zealanders.

This history would seem to serve as inspiration for the villains backstory, and Maybury approaches the topic from a neutral point of view. He doesn’t favour any one side and presents both sides as being wrong (a bold and contrary stance to make on an important issue that affects the cultural heritage of both Maori and Europeans.)

The language is colourful and infused with plenty of sci-fi technobabble that will surely entertain and impress the younger reader. For the older reader it can be over-cooked and often unnecessary, but it is also used very deliberately as a colouring method for the universe he has created and gives it a depth and an age found in franchises like Star Wars, and this helps to ground and normalize the more fantastic elements that are introduced.

I was apprehensive about reading a children’s book featuring an alien race called ‘Blitzoids’, and also based on the artwork of the cover. Childrens fiction tends to pander too much to children, or it ignores them completely and forgets they are the target demographic. Maybury has successfully written a tale that treats the young readers with a bit more respect; he isn’t afraid to throw in large confusing words or complicated concepts: StarTroopers is both colourful entertainment and also an intellectual challenge for children. This is exactly how it should be. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and for lovers of children’s science fiction, or New Zealand fiction, I highly recommend StarTroopers.

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.

Space: Above and Beyond #1 The Aliens Approach by Easton Royce

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A fast-paced and exciting read set in a complex multi-faceted future.

In the mid 21st century humans have begun to colonize other worlds. But mankind soon learns it is not alone when an unknown alien force destroys the settlement, and humans quickly finds itself in a race to defend the Earth and all of humanity against this new blood-thirsty foe.

Based on the failed TV series (despite winning 2 Emmy awards, a Saturn award, and being ranked by IGN in the top 50 sci-fi shows) this book is a teen novelization of the first episodes in the series. The story centers on three main characters – Nathan, Shane and Cooper. Nathan finds himself being sent to a different colony to his girlfriend, Kylen, and tries to sneak aboard her ship but is caught and is kicked out of the colonization program – now his only chance to be reunited is to join the Space Cavalry and hope he can find her. Shane, forced to watch her parents killed during the AI wars, enlisted, vowing to avenge her parents deaths; and Cooper is a synthetic, created in a test-tube in a lab and, as a member of a undesirable social class with little rights, finds himself punished for a crime he didn’t commit: being sentenced to the military.

Space: Above and Beyond follows these three as they are enlisted, train, and encounter the alien menace on their first mission on the surface of mars. The prose is sharp and well-paced, designed for a younger audience: it effectively leaves enough ambivalence in the description to let the younger reader imagine as much or as little as they want to, without either pandering to their age or being vague or obtuse. The plot, however, suffers from being rushed. Many episodes were written into this book and as a result sometimes it feels more like an extended training montage than a novel (and it is a short novel, at 138 pages and has a slightly larger than average type-face size). Novelizations are supposed to expand on the film or television source, but this book feels a little flat when it comes to characters, and though I have never seen the show, can surmise that it may actually be the superior product.

The over-all feel of the book, though, is something with spectacular potential: AI wars, racial tension, politics of war and hard core action – I would definitely read the rest of the books in this series to discover more about this universe. In terms of tone, it is similar to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Busby’s Star Rebel, or even Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. An entertaining teens book that can be enjoyed in several sessions by adults as well. Highly recommended to those who enjoy the aforementioned authors, or those who are fans of classic sci-fi franchises like Star Trek or Battletech, or series such as Firefly or Babylon 5.