Friday, January 27, 2012

Spotlight on my short stories

Short stories.

They're easy to lose track of, and I only just now realized how many I have out there. It's time to highlight all of my short stories published so far for those who may have missed them, in no particular order.




First up are the two stories online at The New Flesh. "Cookie" and "Lion in My Bed" are very short stories I wrote before flash fiction even got its name.

View both stories now via: http://newfleshmagazine.blogspot.com/search/label/James%20Steele

Cookie was inspired by a children's cartoon on Qubo called Dragon. For some reason I was watching it, and it was about Dragon baking Valentine's Day cookies for his friends, but he kept eating them instead. I took the idea and perverted it with some twisted logic. Being an adult is fun. I get to ruin all the kid's stuff now.

Lion in My Bed is a totally bizarre exercise in absurd sleep logic. It's meant to replicate the strange chains of logic I've experienced when half asleep. For example, I remember waking up to my alarm thinking "if I shut my alarm off, I can wake up without all that noise bothering me" and then blissfully went back to sleep. An hour later I woke up again and I'm late for work.

How would the brain react to something as absurd as a lion lying next to you in bed? I think everyone would reach the same conclusion.




Speaking of flash fiction, here's another one, "Sharp Rain."

http://cruentuslibri.wordpress.com/

The challenge was to write a horror story in 100 words or less. I had already written this story years ago. Back then it was about the same length as "Cookie." I modified it for this challenge, and I like the result. It trades the series of events and just cuts straight to the...cutting...



It's based on a little phobia of mine about glass getting stuck in my skin. Splinters, too. This is the ultimate expression of my fear. The collection is coming February 20 available on Amazon! A hundred horror stories all in 100 words or less. This has gotta be worth checking out!




"Don't Feed the Animals" (Amazon link) Now this was a strange story. It was inspired by a youtube video:



When I saw it I thought it was so cool for a fox to do that. From this one little video came the idea of what would happen if the fox kept coming back, wanting food, but the guy resisted because everyone around him kept telling him not to feed the animals (like so many of the comments on his videos).

The story is an exercise in brevity and an experiment in technique. I wanted to prove to myself I could tell a story without describing everything to death. I wanted to build a world and tell a story in that world in less than 10,000 words--something I couldn't seem to do without spending 50,000 words on it back then. I still couldn't keep it under 10K words, but I did keep it relatively short considering the enormous amount of world-building I did.

This is also the only story I sought reader feedback. I gave it to 6 different people over the years. I got back 6 different answers. Some thought the story was about this, some thought it was about something else, still others thought it was very clear, others thought it was too vague and didn't make a lot of sense.

I never knew what to think of it, so I left it alone. I'm still not too clear on what the story is about, but I'm proud to be part of a very solid anthology.




It's early, but I'm introducing an upcoming story right now! "Back Road," coming in May to Allasso volume 2.

http://pinkfoxpublications.net/allasso/

Don't let the publisher's name fool you. Allasso is a very mature, sophisticated publication. I was impressed by Volume 1 so I'm proud to be included in the next issue!

Back Road is a very special story because it's the first short story I ever wrote with professional intent. That dates it to around 2003 or so. It was inspired by my own drive down a back road at night after work. A truck ran a stop sign at an intersection and almost hit me. As I followed him I remember thinking I wouldn't be surprised if that truck hit an animal. Then I realized he'd probably be going so fast he wouldn't even stop, and I would see it happen.

Then I thought about the roadkill fox I found on this same stretch of road months before. My mind connected the chain and I cried the whole drive home. As soon as I got home I composed this tale of what I imagined would happen if I witnessed such a tragedy. I cried the whole time I wrote.




Now for my first printed story. It's of similar length to Cookie and Lion in My Bed, inspired by something the kids in my mom's daycare center did.

That winter in Delaware had been very mild, but Colorado had been pancaked in snow, so the kids had the idea that the snowmen were migrating to Colorado to survive the warm winter. It was a fun idea and I'm glad the magazine's editor thought so, too. Very proud to see this little story in print.

(amazon link)
(homepage)



Next up is a tiny story I did as a gift to my publisher, "Turtle Juice."

Turtle Juice on Bizarro Central, May 31, 2011

She wrote a Facebook post about turtles the size of grapes. I had to write a story about that. Was a lot of fun, and it was posted to the site on her birthday. I think we should've gotten a collection together inspired by that Facebook post. A dozen stories about grape-sized turtles--different author's takes on the idea. I'd buy it!




Now for a dreamy, science fictiony story called: "The Witness" on Planet Magazine. Dec 5, 2010

Inspired by that old anime called The Little Prince. I don't remember much about it except that the main character has an entire, tiny planet all to himself. For some reason that image captivated me as a kid and has stuck with me all my life. It took many years, but I wrote a story about it. I've been told it's more of a meditation piece than a short story. I still like the result.

The mood and content were very much inspired by Enigma's Sitting On The Moon. One of Enigma's best songs from what I think is Enigma's best album. The Witness is, in words, what I think the music video should be.






Now it's time to introduce my first published story: "Exotic Pet" on Anthrozine, issue 18.

Inspired by that old childhood idea of a stuffed animal coming to life, my adult mind took it to the next level. Sleep logic comes into play again. It seems to be a running theme in my work, twisting normal logic into weird shapes.




"Pori" is next, published in ROAR v.3 (amazon link)



It was inspired by a story my father told me when he was in the Army, training in Panama. While he was sitting on a hill in full camouflage and BDUs, a hungry hummingbird tried to stick its nose down his ear. This story grew around that.




When it comes to religion, there's a fine line between faith and foolishness. (I'm talking to you, all you people who believed that end of the world prediction in May 2011!). I wrote a story about the two extremes meeting, and what would happen if just once the foolish, ridiculous guy at the pulpit was right.

But that's not why I wrote "Empty Church." The real inspiration came out of this overwhelming lack of control of my life, and no matter what I did, I couldn't seem to make a difference. Old friends I made contact with again on Facebook ignored me. Nobody but me seemed to want to keep old ties alive. I felt like I had so much to say, so much to tell people, but nobody was listening. This story illustrates my frustration, and then became something more.

Very proud to be part of such a high-profile collection.

(amazon link)






That's my short story bibliography so far! More to come in the future!

As a bonus, I want to tell everyone how good it feels to leave an impression on CCLaP. My novel, Felix and the Sacred Thor, made the list for one of the best experimental books of 2011.

And then speaking of gonzo literature (aka "bizarro," aka "strange"), here's a great example of the other major type of novel in that genre, out-and-out fairytales for grown-ups which start like a bad dream and just get weirder from even there. It's deliberately difficult to give a plot recap for a book like this, so I won't even try -- suffice to say that the "Sacred Thor" in question here turns out to be a giant bright-green sex toy imbued with mystical powers, bestowed by an obscure god to a professional horse-masturbator for the purpose of saving the world, which gets us to around page ten -- this is for those who otherwise enjoy things like Juggalos and 4chan (either legitimately or ironically, or perhaps a bit of both), but who still manage to have at least a little self-respect as far as demanding intelligence from their ridiculously obtuse and sexually childish creative projects.


Click here to read the article.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Seek the original: The Fox and the Hound

91% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

When I saw Disney’s The Fox and the Hound, I didn’t know it was based on a book. A contemporary book at that, very odd for Disney. As soon as I heard about it, I had to check it out.


The Fox and the Hound
By Daniel P. Mannix


The life of a red fox over the years as he survives hunters, trappings, hounds, human encroachment, drought, and the hound who’s hunting him.

The story takes places from two points of view: Tod the fox, and Copper the hound. The hunted and the hunter. The book starts with the hunting dog, Copper, as he and his master are enlisted by the police to find a missing man. Copper doesn’t know this, only that he is to track a scent. At the end is a dead body, and the scent of bear. Shortly afterwards, Copper and his pack are enlisted to track down the killer bear, and this leads to a fight to the death. The master is maimed, but Chief, the old dog who is currently alpha, grabs the bear by the balls (literally) and pulls it off the master, giving him time to shoot the bear.

The story then picks up with a family of foxes. A group of hunters finds the den, the mother is only able to save one of her pups and is then ripped apart by a pack of hunting dogs.

This is not a children’s book.

The fox pup (named Tod) is raised by compassionate humans. Eventually he starts feeling his oats and runs off after the scent of a female in heat. Now the fox lives in the country on his own. He comes across Copper and Chief’s pack. Chief breaks off his leash and chases the fox. Unable to shake the dog, Tod leads Chief across the railroad tracks just as he feels a train approaching. The train kills Chief, and from then on Copper’s master wants Tod dead.

For the rest of the book, Tod is hunted and chased, his family is murdered twice, and the hunter tries to trap him, but he survives. Copper is eager to accompany his master on the hunt, but it’s not out of vengeance. It’s not a vendetta that consumes his life. From Copper’s point of view, he simply enjoys being with his master, being useful to him. This is farm country, and foxes are a nuisance in general, so the master is called upon to exterminate the fox population. Copper is eager to help hunt and kill because it means he gets to be useful, earn his master’s favor, make him happy by tracking scents and finding prey. It’s his entire world.

Over the course of his life, Tod loses all his children and both mates to the hunters. Meanwhile the world changes. The farm country is developed and suburbs take over. Through it all, with his wit and ability to learn from successes and failures (both in himself and those around him), Tod survives. He lives on the razor edge of his senses, and using those senses to survive the dangers around him is satisfying. It’s his entire world.

The story is difficult to read in many places because it’s so densely packed with expressions that don’t connect with anything visual. Such as: “own the line” (finding the scent). “Give tongue” (hounds sounding off). “Windfall” (fruit that’s fallen from trees). “Hounds in check” (hounds sniffing around trying to find the scent again). These phrases are strange and didn’t help me visualize what was happening.

There are very long, dense passages that frequently use expressions like these instead of describing what’s going on and where we are. Nothing much happens. It’s all narration that just plods on and on without much relevance to the story. Then, finally, something starts happening, visuals lock in place again and the story becomes exciting!

The most interesting thing about the book is the animals don’t talk. They don’t reason. They don’t communicate. They are natural, wild animals. Only the omniscient narrator weaves their thought processes into something humans can understand. We see the world the way Tod and Copper see it, in monochrome shades colored with pure scent. We get to know how they think, and see the chain of logic that leads them to conclusions an animal would come to.

Copper just wants to make his master happy. He feels no vengeance for Chief’s death, or hatred for his prey. Scenting prey makes him useful to his master, catching prey makes his master happy, and he does it to bond with him. He enjoys being with his master. Tod, however, just wants to survive. He doesn’t kill Chief out of anger or spite. He doesn’t really comprehend that his actions led to the old dog’s death. He was just running for his life and saw an opportunity to get the dog off his trail. There’s no anger on his part for years of being chased, watching his family killed, as well as his entire world destroyed. Neither he nor Copper hold a grudge against the other. They can’t because they are animals. They don’t comprehend such things, and the book shows this very well.

The ending is... Wow... It’s quite depressing because it just ends. There’s no moral, no reason for any of this to happen. It’s a tale of animal perspective. It presents an animal’s motivation from the animal’s point of view, showing us: this is how they live. This is how they see the world. This is how they learn, how they adapt, how they deal with these problems. This is how the bloodhound sees the hunt. This is how the fox sees the hunt. Completely in animal terms. It’s an insightful look into the world and thought processes of animals.

Compare that to...



The Fox and the Hound
Disney (1981)


Remember my review of How to Train Your Dragon? Remember how the movie was so completely different from the book they may as well not bother calling it an adaptation? Remember how much better the movie’s story was compared to the book’s? Well, that’s the exception. The Fox and the Hound is the rule. Now that I’ve read the book I have to wonder whose idea was it to turn Mannix’s book into a family movie? There is nothing in the book that makes me squeal “ohhh, that would be so cute to show the kids!”

The Disney version is about a red fox and a hunting dog who befriend each other as puppies only to become enemies as adults. I expected to read a stronger, more adult version of this tale in the book, but to my surprise, it’s not there. Not at all. In the book Tod and Copper don’t know each other as pups, so from the very start the movie has nothing to do with the book.

But the idea is pretty powerful. Friends as kids only to become enemies as adults. There’s a lot of story potential in the concept, and when I first watched it I wondered how it would play out and yet still be Disney.

The movie starts off with Tod’s mother shot by hunters off camera, and Tod raised by an old woman as a pet. Meanwhile on the farm next door, the hunter brings home a new puppy named Copper, and the older dog, Chief, is annoyed having to tolerate this kid. Both pups wander off and meet. They’re kids, so they don’t know they’re supposed to be enemies, and they do normal kid stuff together.

After two scenes and about 3 minutes of screen time together, Tod and Copper are separated. Tod grows up into a sneaky fox, and Copper is trained to be a hunting dog.

Here’s my problem with the movie: it doesn’t establish that Tod and Copper become friends. They have two scenes together, and the second scene is less than a minute long. They jump in a pond, and as soon as they meet, Copper has to go home! It’s the only time they’re together, and they don’t do anything! If the theme of the story is their friendship, you’d think Disney would go out of its way to show them being friends. You know, kid stuff in the country like cow-tipping, chicken-harassing, bird-chasing, howling at the moon. Anything you could do on a farm to show they’re having a great time together, but they don’t do any of this. They meet twice, do nothing together, and then they’re adults. We’re told over and over they had good times as a kids, but we never see it.

The whole point of the movie is to show two childhood friends becoming enemies as adults, but the movie totally fails to get this across. So when Copper has to hunt Tod at the will of his master, there’s no sense of tension or remorse for them. As far as we know, they were never close, so they may as well be strangers.

The only scene from the book that made it into the movie is the scene where Chief is hit by a train. Ironically, this could have been the moment they become enemies, and the movie tries to use it in this way, but it still fails. In the book, Tod knows there’s a train coming and intentionally leads Chief onto the tracks just as it does. In the movie, Tod is running for his life and the train happens to come by at the same time. Copper hates Tod for what happens to Chief, but the anger is misplaced because it really isn’t Tod’s fault. It’s an accident. As if that weren’t weak enough, Chief doesn’t die in the movie, but is merely injured. Why did Disney soften that? It’s not like Disney hasn’t killed off characters before, and it would’ve given Tod and Copper a real reason to become enemies. It comes across as a flimsy way to make enemies out of old friends.

The rest of the movie wastes so much time with absolutely unfunny scenes of Tod being released into the wild and making a complete idiot of himself because he doesn’t know how to survive in the wild, or how to act in front of a vixen. And is it just me, or did Mickey Rooney phone in his performance as the voice of adult Tod? He is so unconvincing and his voice is so unsuited for the role I’d call him a bad actor if I didn’t know who he was. He barely has any lines, too.

Meanwhile Copper and his master are hunting Tod and his new girlfriend out of vengeance. The chase scenes are well-animated, and kudos to the background artists and animators for creating an environment that feels as far out in the country as anywhere in West Virginia. But again, because we’re not convinced they used to be friends, and the reason they’re enemies now is mostly accidental, there’s no tension between these two.

I actually felt worse for Tod and the old lady when she leaves him in the woods and drives away. That relationship is built up a lot better than the one between Copper and Tod. It isn’t possible to watch that scene with a dry eye.

Finally, Tod saves Copper’s master from a bear, and because of this Copper convinces his master to spare Tod’s life. This undermines the point of the whole movie. Their alleged childhood bond doesn’t come into play at the end. Tod’s recent act of attacking the bear is what convinces the hunter to spare his life, not friendship. It’s a very weak climax to what could have been a very powerful conflict.

What does the movie have to do with the book? Almost nothing. I suspect someone read the second chapter of the book, saw that Tod did make friends with the household dog briefly before running off into the wild, and thought it would be so cool if that dog and Copper were the same. It would have been cool. I can see the potential there, even if it changes the entire theme of the book.

It actually makes me wish the book had told the Disney story in a stronger way, because it could have been great. The book shows the struggle of survival from the point of view of Tod, and the thrill of the hunt from the point of view of the dog, keeping their animal perspectives in tact. The movie does the exact opposite, humanizing them completely and putting them into a very human situation. If it were done right, it would have been an improvement on the story, but nope. Book is still better, if for no other reason than the very believable way it portrays animal logic.

The Disney version had the potential to tell an even stronger story than Mannix’s novel. It could’ve been like How to Train Your Dragon, surpassing its source material, but it falls totally flat. The book, however, portrays an animal’s perspective on things in a very realistic way and on the whole is much more interesting than the watered-down, half-done story the movie tries to tell. Skip the movie. Read the book. If you can find it.