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What the hell is a hardboiled steampunk cthulhu thriller?

August 11, 2011 – 11:55 am

THE FANTASTIC MACHINE, a hardboiled steampunk cthulhu thriller about a hotel detective struggling to keep his family & friends safe when an ancient evil is unleashed upon the 1905 World Exposition.

In the tagline above I use a few buzzwords that might not be well known to all comers: hardboiled, steampunk, cthulhu, and thriller. Since these buzzwords figure prominently in the description, I thought I’d take a moment to define my terms.

And by define my terms, what I really mean is: I’ll say a bit about genre and then collage the rest from the internet. What follows is the briefest of introductions.

GENRE — When you ask someone, “What kind of story is it?” You are asking them to categorize the story with a rhetorical label. You’re asking for a genre.

Genre is a hotly debated concept among all artists, especially when they want to be considered unique, or conversely, labeled and god-damn-it labeled correctly.

For our purposes the rubber meets the road when we talk about genre and literature. If a novel has a vampire in it then you might describe it as being a vampire story, right? That’s a genre. But what if it’s a comedy? A tragedy? Has an Indian man living in a flat near Trafalgar square during his first romance in 1867?

Every aspect of the story is fair game for categorization. “It’s a love story.” Bam. Gives you an idea what the story’s about, don’t it. So when I say THE FANTASTIC MACHINE is a hardboiled steampunk cthulhu thriller, what the hell does that mean?

HARDBOILED — The hardboiled detective […] not only solves mysteries [he] confronts danger and engages in violence on a regular basis. The hardboiled detective also has a characteristically tough attitude. (wiki)
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett
The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler
Trouble is my Business by Raymond Chandler
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
The Hunter (Parker Novels) by Richard Stark
Looking for Rachel Wallace by Robert B. Parker
A Stained White Radiance by James Lee Burke
The Black Echo by Michael Connelly
Stumptown by Greg Rucka

STEAMPUNK — I’ll bypass the wiki definition in favor of Airship Ambassador’s below. This genre is quite contested and very much still seeking definition. Some blogs involved in this are listed here:
http://www.doctorfantastiques.com/
http://steampunkscholar.blogspot.com/
http://www.airshipambassador.com/ – Essentially, steampunk is a fictional story set in, or evocative of, the 19th century, often in but not limited to Victorian England, and including real world devices created ahead of their time and/or imaginary devices based on prevailing theories of the era and/or prevalent ideas of the supernatural.
Over at Cherie Priest‘s steampunk-specific The Clockwork Century page her essay Steampunk: What it is, why I came to like it, and why I think it’ll stick around is interesting and informative.
Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon
Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock
The Difference Engine by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
Leviathan by Scott Westerfield
Boilerplate by Paul Guinan, Anina Bennett
Steampunk’d by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg
Steampunk by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer
Mainspring by Jay Lake

CTHULHU — Cthulhu is a fictional character that first appeared in the short story “The Call of Cthulhu”, published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1928. The character was created by writer H. P. Lovecraft. (wiki)
Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by August Derleth and published by Arkham House in 1969, is considered the first Cthulhu Mythos anthology. It contained two stories by Lovecraft […] and several new tales written for the collection by a new generation of Cthulhu Mythos writers. (wiki)
The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft
The Whisperer in the Darkness by H. P. Lovecraft
At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft
Hellboy by Mike Mignola
The Book of Cthulhu ed by Ross Lockhart
New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird by Gaiman, Mieville, Priest, more
Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs

THRILLER — A thriller is villain-driven plot, whereby he presents obstacles that the hero must overcome. – Steve Bennett (as cited from References #6 at wiki)
The Man from St. Petersburg by Ken Follet

Fine. That settles that, right? Okay, maybe not.

A hardboiled steampunk cthulhu thriller is a story set in an alternate history where punches get thrown and zeppelins fly fast, where ancient artifacts herald our destruction and where a woman is sometimes the best man for the job. That’s what you can expect from THE FANTASTIC MACHINE.

THE BLACK ECHO – review

October 5, 2011 – 4:41 pm

The hardboiled detective story is as American as apple-pie. The main character is an average Joe (or Jane) tasked with upholding justice in a world that stomps all over him. He does this not because it’s his job, but because it’s his moral imperative. Despite the short-cuts others might take, this hero walks the walk.

One of my favorite complications in any story is the damnable inconvenience of a moral imperative. It’s where the character we’ve come to know and understand is faced with a choice: do it the hard way or take the easy route. Obviously the hardboiled detective chooses the hard way, but when it hurts you as much as it hurts him, then you know you’re reading a good book.

Michael Connelly’s THE BLACK ECHO is a perfect hardboiled detective story. Yeah, that’s right. Perfect. I’m not going to spoil anything here, but you’ll never find a cop on the force who’s more of an outsider than Harry Bosch. Poor bastard.

Who he is, what he’s been through, it’s there on every page of this novel, it’s there in the way the others treat him and the way he treats himself. Los Angeles Police Department Detective Hieronymus Bosch comes fully stocked with complications and references to his past that are neither backstory nor superfluous. This is not an origin story, it’s just another rough day in his life, the difference is that this day could be his last.

I sure don’t love Los Angeles–I did a little time in Lakewood back in the day and couldn’t get out fast enough–but I love reading about it, especially from someone who knows how to write it and Connelly knows how to write Los Angeles.

It’s hard not to give anything away here since one of my favorite things about this novel is how it ends. But where the novel really excels is in the writing. Every scene matters and the close 3rd person narrative gives us the right level of access. From the first sentence to the last, it’s a good read. It’s a crime book but it’s not gruesome or gross or gratuitous. As an example of the genre, it’s perfect, top shelf all the way.

Bosch has got to do the right thing. It’s who he is. He’s not a sucker or a sap, he’s the last lonely sentinel in the dark. He may not like everybody, but it’s clear that he believes in justice for all.

Southern Gods – review

January 13, 2012 – 10:00 am

He nailed it. That’s my take on John Horner Jacobs’ novel Southern Gods. He f*cking nailed it.

There are two main characters here. First we’ve got Bull Ingram, a WWII vet dispatched to find the secretive, strange musician broadcasting his devil music from some unknown pirate radio station in the murky American south; second is Sarah, fresh from leaving her deadbeat husband she returns home with her daughter and rediscovers her family’s past. Yeah-yeah, but what’s it about?

A lot of strange stuff happens in Southern Gods from terrific access to the southern culture of backwoods Arkansas in the 1950’s to a supernatural horror and violence that sets the bar high for modern Lovecraft-interpretation. While none of it is cutesy and some of it is gross I have to say I am impressed that the violence is not gratuitous. Jacobs uses those opportunities to explore deeper emotional pains for his characters. Ingram, who survived the war, is dragged through a madness more horrible than any mere boogie-man, and Sarah has the curtain pulled back on some hard truths and in some ways has the more interesting journey of learning how to stand on her own two feet. Both of these characters get through it–if you can call it that–not because they are tough but because they just haven’t given up, not yet. So then I guess if you’re the kind of person who wants to pigeon-hole a novel by asking, What’s it about, then the answer you deserve is probably: Hope.

It’s a dark novel about hope, about putting one foot in front of the other. But reading this novel is also like taking a vacation into the hot deep south. Jacobs writes about place as lovingly as he writes about people. He’s got chops, no doubt about it. He’s got a solid handle on the hardboiled genre and Southern Gods proves he knows how to bring a little Cthulhu into the modern world.

What I find particularly interesting about Southern Gods is also something of an embarrassment to admit. You see, I just graduated with an MFA in creative writing from Portland State University. For my thesis I wrote a novel, a hardboiled Cthulhu novel set in 1905 Portland. My book’s antagonist is built from some of the same source material Jacobs uses and frankly there are similarities. They’re totally different books, totally different characters, but I saw enough similarities that I was a bit crestfallen at how well Jacobs accomplished his story. Not daunted, just impressed, especially since I’m creating a similar tapestry.

In my review of Jacobs’ short story The Dream Of The Fisherman’s Wife I mentioned that he first caught my attention when he contributed to The Big Idea. Look for his second novel coming out in summer 2012, This Dark Earth.