Monthly Archive: April 2011

Old Man Bars

Kids, here’s an essay that originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of The Inner Swine

Are My Eventual Destination
A World Ignorant of Booze
by Jeff Somers

PIGS, here’s a horrifying scenario: I meet some friends at a local restaurant for drinks. Not a place of my choosing, because despite my best efforts I have not yet been able to bend people to my will simply by focusing my thoughts on them, though research continues. The waitress comes for drink orders and the following exchange occurs:

WAITRESS: What’ll it be, folks?
ME: What whiskeys do you have back there?
WAITRESS: Uh. . .some. . .uh. . .we have. . .er, bottles.
ME: <sighing> Johnny Walker Black, neat.

I’ve come to recognize the sort of fear and blank-minded panic on the faces of waiters, waitresses, and bartenders when I inquire about their booze selections that indicates they either have no idea what’s back there or that there’s not much back there to begin with. Whenever I spot this sort of panic, I immediately give up my quest for single-malt goodness because it will only end in tears, and fall back on either Johnny Walker or Jack Daniels, because there isn’t a bar in the fucking world that doesn’t have those.

Now, there’s nothing really wrong with Johnny Walker. As blended whiskeys go, it’s a fine dram and I can always get by on it. But it has come to represent defeat to me, because I know there are bars, at least in New York City, where you can stroll in and order just about any decent whiskey you can think of and it will be brought to you, posthaste. Having been in such heavenly places, it is always a difficult transition to regular bars, where most people drink wine or beer or mixed drinks, and if they do go for an unadulterated spirit it’s blended Scotch or American Bourbon.

Again, nothing wrong with good old American Bourbon. I like quite a bit of it. But I feel handcuffed in such situations, because, goddammit, I want what I want.


Ancient Book Reviews

Master of the Five MagicsKids, I’m a guy who has a lot of random thoughts on a daily basis. Most of these thoughts aren’t worth indulging; ask my wife The Duchess about it and she’ll launch into a lengthy tale about how I am always suggesting we train our four cats to do circus tricks and then travel the country in a van giving performances, eventually ending up America’s Got Talent and winning it all! So you see I’ve learned over time to ignore most of the things I think of. I could follow the route a lot of people have chosen and tweet my random thoughts, but I suspect that would just erode whatever reputation I still have.

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about all the books I own. I own a lot of books. A lot. Maybe it’s not a record or anything, but I’ve got a house full of books. I never throw a book away, so I have what amounts to a record of every book I’ve ever read. I even have novels bought for college classes. I have everything. So sometimes I walk around the house inspecting the dusty bookshelves and pondering the books I’ve read. Not the important, classic ones, or even the ones that changed my life. No, I contemplate the forgotten ones. Ones I read when I was 14 and haven’t touched since. Ones I read and literally cannot remember anything about. Books by authors who have disappeared off the face of history.

I suppose part of it is morbid fascination: I am now an author of mass market paperbacks, so trolling my cache of MM paperbacks that are now completely forgotten is … morbidly fascinating.

Anyways, I thought I’d start writing about some of these forgotten books. I won’t re-read them; part of what I’ll write about is whether or not the book made sufficient impression on me to still remember decades later. These will mostly concern SF/F novels from the 1980s, actually, which was when I was reading at a pace of about two books a week and just consuming mass market fiction like crack. When I hit college I slowed down, got all fancy, and started reading classics.

Our first book will be Lyndon Hardy’s Master of the Five Magics. More accurately, it’ll be the trilogy Hardy wrote, including the sequel Secret of the Sixth Magic and the finale Riddle of the Seven Realms.

Now, the point of these Ancient Book Reviews will not be an in-depth analysis, but rather whether I remember anything at all about them. That’s what I find interesting here. 25 years ago I was willing to part with what was then a significant percentage of my cash flow in order to buy these books. I then read them and kept them, hauling from apartment to apartment to house, and still have them. Do I actually remember anything?

What I remember about Master of the Five Magics to this day is the system of magic Hardy created. It’s strikingly elegant. Hardy imagines Five types of magic, each with its own guild, its own rules, and its own paraphernalia: Thaumaturgy, Alchemy, Magic, Sorcery, and Wizardry. What makes the system memorable is that each discipline has its own set of rules. For example, the rules for Wizardry, which is the magical discipline concerned with summoning demons, are The Law of Ubiquity (Flame permeates all) and The Law of Dichotomy (Dominance or submission). In other words, you can summon demons through fire (fires built from different fuels will summon different or more powerful demons) and once a demon is summoned, the Wizard must either dominate the demon’s will , or be dominated instead. Simple and elegant.

Twenty-five years after reading the books, I still remember that system of magic even though a lot of the plot and character details have left my memory. Of course, the books are right upstairs and I could re-read them any time I want, and I just might, someday. Right now though, the interesting part is what I remember.

The other aspect of the books that I do recall is the basic structure of the plot: The main character keeps apprenticing in the different magical disciplines but keeps having to leave one and move on to another without achieving any sort of renown – but by the end of the book, he’s the only person in the world who has studied all five magical disciplines, making him one of the most powerful people in history, the Archimage. The progression of the story is subtle enough (if I’m remembering correctly) that this makes sense even though the protagonist’s powerlessness in the world is established in the beginning.

Considering how poor my memory is, that ain’t bad. I mean, I can’t tell you what I did yesterday, much less what I did 25 years ago, so remembering anything about a book two-and-a-half decades later is pretty impressive. I don’t think Lyndon Hardy ever published another novel, which is a shame; if anyone knows of more Hardy novels out there, send me a note!

Interview with Sean Ferrell

Numb by Sean FerrellBecause he keeps showing up at my house with a boom-box and reenacting the scene from Say Anything, I finally gave in and spent some time with author Sean Ferrell, whose first novel Numb was published by Harper last year and whose second novel is about to be announced. The resulting evening was recorded for my own security, and I decided to turn those tapes into an interview for the KGB lit magazine. Boiling 18 hours of binge drinking and forbidden dancing into a 1000-word interview wasn’t easy, but I am, after all, a genius.

Go read Under the Umbrella here. GO NOW.

Black Death

Black DeathYet again, I find myself watching middling movies at 1AM and then feeling moved to comment on the writing. I don’t think there’s much demand for such services, yet here I am. Once again: I have little regard for spoilers, so if ye fear spoilers, go watch the movie before reading this. I am sloppy with the spoilage.

Black Death surprised me a little. I was intrigued by the premise and some good reviews I saw on random blogs – good reviews on random blogs (GRRBs) are not a good way to judge a movie’s overall quality, but they are a great way to detect otherwise hidden gems. Hidden gems have a lower bar in my mind – they can be bad movies, but with interesting moments or innovative ideas. So, I took a flyer on Black Death, and I was pleasantly surprised. Mildly, but still.

The first fifteen minutes or so dimmed my hopes, honestly. You start off with a date title card announcing it’s 1348. Add in an ominous voice-over (egads!) and a series of rather standard middle-ages images (filthy people, because people in the middle ages were filthy; monks in a monastery; dead bodies piled up like cord-wood everywhere) and you’re on a slippery slope. Throw in poor Eddie Redmayne playing a young, troubled monk (for what seems like the one millionth time), and then, my sweet lord, the ever-suffering Sean Bean playing Sweaty Man in Chain Mail with Conflicted Heart again, and it started to look like something made for pennies, possibly constructed entirely from outtakes of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Pillars of the Earth.

I mean, really, Sean Bean as a troubled, violent knight? The poor man. I like Sean Bean, and find him to be a charming actor. And yes, he looks good in chain mail with his dirty hair in his eyes, but can’t we give him a different sort of role sometime? When will his suffering end? HAS NOT SEAN BEAN SUFFERED ENOUGH FOR YOU JACKALS?

Ahem. Things, improve, though, once we get into the story. Which, in a nutshell, is: In the midst of the Black Death, a group of knights are sent to a remote village to investigate why the village has not seen a single case of the plague. They believe a Necromancer is using Dark Arts to protect the village, and the lead knight Ulrich, played by Bean, is determined to discover the necromancer’s identity, try them, and execute them. And possibly everyone else in the village, if he determines they are in league with the devil. They take a young monk (Redmayne) from a local monastery to be their guide through the marsh that makes the village so remote and difficult to access.

I won’t go into all the details of the story. What I will say is that the story is actually refreshingly straightforward and tight. We take our time at first, traveling with the knights and the monk for a while, which gives us a chance to actually identify them as characters. We see two encounters along the way which inform us as to their personalities, and establishes that the knights, for all their faith, are pretty savage, hard-bitten soldiers. And the characterizations are consistent – no one turns out to be the super secret bad guy at the end, no one has any sudden Complete Inexplicable Transformations at the end. The characters by and large behave as you would expect based on how they are introduced to you in this slow beginning section. Sad to say, this alone sets Black Death a little above most movies these days.

Once they arrive at the village, things get creepy. Ulrich pretends they are merely travelers seeking refuge, in order to suss out the Necromancer. The evil necromancer, a hot blond chick, manages to trick them all and capture them, and then turns the tables on them by torturing them and offering them their lives and freedom if they renounce Christ in a wonderfully perverted reflection of exactly what Ulrich planned to do to the villagers. If I have one quibble with the story, it’s that these battle-hardened knights who believe they’ve just entered a village awash in satanic power are pretty easily duped by the villagers in a way I saw coming five minutes before I started watching the damn movie; but while that part is pretty lazy writing it’s actually the only part of the film I would complain about, which ain’t bad.

The resolution of the story is nicely streamlined – there are no special effects, no bizarre twists. There are some twists, but in this debased age where M. Night Shyamalan has forced every movie of the last 15 years to have a Huge! Twist! Ending! That! Makes! No! Sense! these mild twists were actually organic to the plot, completely believable, and not even twists in the sense that you could have deduced them simply by paying attention. It’s also a pretty heartbreaking ending. Not shoot-me-I-can’t-stand-the-pain heartbreaking like the end of The Mist, but depressing enough.

The lack of special effects and horrible inexplicable twists was wonderful. The moment you hear there’s a “necromancer” in the story you might expect all sorts of bullshit effects, but Black Death takes a nicely realistic approach, imagining a village that is free from the plague because it is so remote, an evil, charismatic woman who takes advantage of the gullible villagers with just her personality and some basic pharmacological skills, and creates an atmosphere of dread from it.

It also manages to suggest that perhaps there is no difference between the faith of the villagers in their Protecting Witch and the faith of the knights in their protecting God, which is a nice bonus for an unassuming movie.

Overall, worth a viewing, I think. Especially if you’re a fan of Sean Bean at his most sweaty and dirty-looking.