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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.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.


October 1, 2011 – 11:29 am

Andy McGee really messed up. It’s not his fault, though, not really. That honor goes to the goons at the Shop, the secret government agency tasked with protecting America. Andy’s mistake was participating in that double-blind psych experiment back in college.

About a dozen students got dosed with the Shop’s mysterious and experimental Lot Six, including Andy and Vicky, the woman Andy would later marry and together have a baby girl named Charlie. When the Shop sees that Charlie shows talents beyond those of her parents, well, they’re not about to let a thing like that slip away, right?

Stephen King’s FIRESTARTER is Charlie McGee’s coming of age story. It’s a thriller. It’s the origin story of how she grows from a child afraid of her scary pyrokinetic curse into a young woman with a responsible command of this powerful talent. It’s also Andy McGee’s story–Lot Six made him a telempath who suffers each time he “pushes” someone into feeling a certain way. Together these two protagonists keep the story full of tantalizing possibilities.

King covers a lot of ground in this novel and throughout it he keeps the story taut. It opens on Andy and Charlie shuffling down New York City streets hotly pursued by Shop agents. While they’re on the lamb, King works their backstory in with scenes rich in detail and complimentary in tone (and sometimes foreshadowing) to the drama unfolding in the present time-line.

One of the ways King makes this such a rich read is his attention to secondary characters like the hard-ass Shop agent Orville Jamieson. OJ’s visceral hatred for all the small towns of rural New York (wonderfully explained) makes him one sympathetic bastard. He’s a bully with a badge and a foil for Charlie’s power.

When he runs from her in terror at Manders’ farm, OJ helps establish the man-on-the-street perspective of her terrible ability. And later, when he runs from her again, I had to laugh. “That bastard knows what’s up,” I thought. By hooking me into OJ’s motivation, King ups the tension. He’s saying, “If this guy’s running, then the shit’s about to fly.” He’s whetting my appetite. King let OJ grow and then used him to reinforce the plot, wringing the most out of this side-character.

I enjoyed FIRESTARTER for the mixed protagonists (father, daughter,) tertiary characters, and their distinct voices, and for the thriller and super-hero genre elements. Most of all, it’s just a well written solid novel.