Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent Ghosts 2013: Little Lambs

[Note: this is my latest entry in Loren Eaton's wonderful Advent Ghosts series, where writers gather to swap 100 word visions on cold winter nights.]

Little Lambs

The drone operator watches as a too-small body cools to invisibility on infrared.

Other corpses lie besides the child—including the target. Lives were saved, the operator whispers. Lives were saved.

He longs for family, food, Christmas. He sleeps alone.

He dreams: of a poor infant in the mediterranean region, body doomed, crushed as propitiation for the sins of the world. For the operator’s sins, as well. For America’s.

He showers, ablating skin in a desperate attempt at penance. The water is cold when he finally shaves.

In the mirror, he sees a face not his own.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Advent Ghosts 2012: Silent Night

[Note: this is my latest entry in Loren Eaton's wonderful Advent Ghosts series, in which a variety of writers gather to swap chilling stories in the bleak midwinter.]

Silent Night

“Daddy, we’re waiting! It’s CHRISTMAS!”
You almost curse. Damn girl could’ve died, running like that! Too much rubble. “Darling, some things are important,” you explain. But could she understand the so-called Wenceslas slaughter? She doesn’t know a thing.
And your wife! The bitch is down there singing, of all things, along with all the freeloaders who fled to your home. Cooking, too. What the hell use are guns if you let so many in?
Bells sound—Mrs. Smith leading “Silent Night.” You almost stop to listen. Then you forget, spying out the corpse-strewn wasteland surrounding your home, waiting.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Advent Ghosts 2011: "Incarnation"

Note: The following 100 word story is part of Loren Eaton's 2011 Advent Ghosts fiction contest. Please follow the link to check out the other wonderful snippets of fiction he's made available.

If my wife took another, I would understand.

The idea was promising, once. Reborn on silicon circuits into godless eternal life.

Waking on frosted metal, I didn’t shiver. Didn’t warm myself with my wife afterwards. Didn’t understand her fear of death.

She remained, aged, kissed my ever-young body, caused no pain or pleasure.

Phantom sensation arrived. Not pain—never pain—just a lack. Remembrance.

The media loved me. Would’ve laid down palms. Women, too, for a season.

Then only my family was left: loving, uncomprehending.

Incarnation’s a bitch. An ageless spirit, helpless as a babe on long winter nights.

Friday, December 24, 2010


saw a man, weeping, leading his pregnant fiancé through the snow. It was only a moment before they vanished, but she swears it was true.

The box of wine fell from her hand, bloodied the snow creeping to the edge of her porch. She didn’t remember stumbling inside, found herself in front of a fire made of week-old newspapers. It wasn’t cleaned—smoke slunk through her home—but she didn’t care.

Her rosary was in her hand, as well. What a jacked-up life, she thought. Jealous of the god-damned Big Man Himself, and unable to ever know his ever-virgin wife.

The rosary pointed outward where it met the bulge of her womb. She sobbed uncontrollably, cursing the lover who discarded her, praying for the strength to live out her own involuntary perpetual virginity.

(This story is part of Loren Eaton's Advent Ghosts flash-fiction contest. See others at

Monday, August 30, 2010

Cliches: Two test-cases

I haven't been on the blog for a while, and don't necessarily intend to. Still, I comment on various blogs (mostly about writing genre-fiction), and one comment grew large enough I feel I have to link to it.


Cliches are, or at least can be, the backbone of excellent writing. The problem is when they aren't recognized as cliches, that is as potential problems.

Patrick Rothfuss recently wrote a book about (Warning: minor spoilers):

1) An orphan
2) Who goes on to be the greatest poet/fighter/wizard of all time
3) In a fantasy setting with a deep history, told in sparse, poetic, mythographic language
4) Who fights a dragon
5) Who has a mysterious love interest
6) Who goes to a wizard's school, where he is taught by an eccentric-to-the-point-of-insanity wizard
7) Who gets into the wizard school on scholarship, having been a poor beggar literally pages before
8) Who has a legendary instrument
&c. &c.

His book was preceded by two pages of the best writers in the SF/fantasy field praising his originality, his merit, and the sheer wonder and goodness of his story. It is also full to the gills of cliches--the most obvious, post-Tolkien cliches of fantasy literature.

At the same time, there was another author, Joe Abercrombie. He wrote a trilogy in which (major spoilers hidden, highlight text to reveal):

1) One of the main characters is a crude, bitter, violent cripple and torturer
2) The nearly omnipotent wizard supporting the forces of civilization turns out to be both cynical and ruthless, happily killing thousands of innocent people for the greater good
3) The characters go on an epic quest for a magical item, which they fail
4) One of the most beloved characters dies horribly outside of battle (of cancer)
5) One of the most sympathetic characters tends to kill his friends
6) The young, idle, philandering prince stays a young, idle, philandering prince despite ruining the life and reputation of his one (lower-class) true love
7) The most honorable character in the trilogy gains a promotion as a result of a horrible breach of trust--rashly murdering his king.
8) The evil artifact of doom is not destroyed, but used to save civilization.
&c. &c.

In short, the difference between the books is one of their use of cliches. Whenever Abercrombie finds himself about to voice a cliche of fantasy, he runs away, to the point where his quite-serious trilogy reads, in summary, like an inverted spoof of The Lord of the Rings. Whenever Rothfuss finds himself brushing against a cliche, he often embraces it. Conventional wisdom would say that Abercrombie would be the better author: more "serious," more "original," more engaging. Conventional wisdom is wrong on all accounts.

The reason is that Rothfuss has a better ear than Abercrombie for cliches, and plays on them as if they are a musical instrument--in a variety of keys, with unexpected syncopation, and with the slight differences of a master. Many of the "cliches" in Rothfuss's list are put into play in absolutely original ways (the dragon, for instance, is unlike any dragon I have read about), while others are played straight (does anyone doubt that the protagonist in a book called The Name of the Wind will learn, er, "the name of the wind," which no-one has known in a thousand years?) Rothfuss loves cliches, but he is not a slave to them--sometimes he serves them straight, sometimes slanted, sometimes he hints at a cliche before turning away from it entirely. But always he remembers something simple and obvious--most people started reading fantasy because they loved it and felt its cliches meant something, despite the cheesy sense of emptiness caused by excessive repetition.

Abercrombie, on the other hand, actually comes to seem the less original author by his rejection of cliches, and his books drop off in quality as he works his way to the inversion of the expected "heroic fantasy" climax. For moments (and strangely enough these moments often coincide with his unironic use of fantasy cliches) the human complexity of his characters place him at the top of his category. One is refreshed to see a party of diverse people where tensions are real, for instance, and to see them joined together by bonds and hatreds (however tenuous and uncomfortable) that feel infinitely more richer than those found in almost any other writing, in any field. But this is only true for stretches--as the story goes on, one gets the dominant impression not of human, suffering characters but of "hey, wouldn't it be cool if what happened was merely the opposite of what you expected?"

The problem with cliches, one begins to think, is just as strong if one tries to avoid them blindly as it is when one follows them blindly. Instead, perhaps they should simply be used.