riot

Yes, It’s Happening in Books

For a while now, in light of the recent string of tragedies we’ve seen in the world, I’ve watched fellow authors make a particular comment. (Most of the time on social media.) It can be paraphrased as such:

“None of the things happening in the world right now are happening in books.”

Okay, I can understand where they are coming from, but such a blanket statement feels a touch fantastical. Yes, the violence, destruction, hatred, and bigotry in books have little impact on the real-life lives of people, and yes, there is a solace there. But, to say those things don’t happen in the pages of fiction feels a little naive. Fiction deals with challenging topics all the time. Look at many popular book series on the market today; nothing is off-limits.

Take J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which began as a children’s book; it danced with bullying, bigotry, racism, and the aftereffects of murder. Harry Potter himself suffers, at the very least, mental abuse at the hands of his aunt and uncle (you could probably argue physical abuse as well.)

The world of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, a darling of the YA genre, is horrific. The children of an enslaved populace are forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of a wealthy, hedonistic society and its corrupt government. It’s not a pleasant place.

George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, which is the most mature of these examples, deals with the consequences following a myriad of tragedies. You name it, and it’s there: violence, rape, murder, torture, war, slavery, incest, rebellion, terrorism, bigotry, regicide, patricide and on and on and on and on. The novels are laden with grim events.

That is how it should be. It is what makes fiction so great. Fiction is a safe space that lets us confront those problems; fiction lets us experience both the beautiful and the terrible. It allows us to see different perspectives that we may never face in our daily lives. That kind of intellectual experience hones us as people. It makes it possible for us to build up generous amounts of empathy, so when real-world problems confront us (and they will, believe me), we will have the tools to face them. As Neil Gaiman so eloquently explained in his essay Little Triggers,

“There are still things that profoundly upset me when I encounter them, whether it’s on the Web or the word or in the world. They never get easier, never stop my heart from trip-trapping, never let me escape, this time, unscathed. But they teach me things, and they open my eyes, and if they hurt, they hurt in ways that make me think and grow and change.”

It does a great disservice to hand-wave away the terrible and sometimes disturbing themes of fiction. If anything, I believe that they should be celebrated. The personal value brought on by these perspectives is unmeasurable to us as a society, and thankfully—unlike real life—if a book ever gets to be too much, we can always close it for a little while.

Vince Lombardi

If We Chase Perfection…

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

Vince Lombardi


Saw this quote posted over on The Passive Voice today, and I knew I had to share it here. Great advice from one of the greatest NFL coaches of all time. Creative pursuits are always a struggle, but the only way to lose is to quit. Chin up. Shoulders forward. Press through. You got this.

Unrelated: I cannot wait for football to start.

Where in the World was K. M. Alexander?

Trails of the Broken Road

Kari-Lise and I spent some time wandering the trails of the Broken Road (yep, it’s based on a real place) over the long holiday weekend. I shared a little collage on Instagram, but I wanted to post the larger pics here. Enjoy.

Everything here was shot with my iPhone 6S and processed with VSCO.

The Masonic Gunboat

The Masonic Ironclad

Recently, I have found myself researching the American Civil War for my “riverpunk” project, Coal Belly. I have always been drawn to that era, the division of the United States was dramatic enough, but couple that with the rapid advances in technology and it makes for a strange world. Since Coal Belly is primarily a Weird Western that centers around steamboats and rivers, I was doing research into the riverboats of the Union Navy during the Civil War. That, in turn, led me to pictures of ironclad gunboats, which brought me to the USS Baron DeKalb.

USS St. Louis later renamed the USS Baron Dekalb
Commissioned as the USS St. Louis, this gunboat was later renamed the USS Baron DeKalb

It’s an intriguing photo that displays the tank-like aspect of early naval gunboats; because of their half-submerged shell-like appearance you can see how they got the nickname “pook turtles.” Usually, I file away images like this into an “Inspirations” folder, but before I could do that, I noticed something strange in the picture. There is a small, odd object hanging on the spreader bars between the DeKalb’s stacks. Let’s zoom in a bit closer…

Masonic Symbol hanging between the stacks of the USS Baron Dekalb
Is that a Masonic symbol hanging between the stacks of the USS Baron DeKalb?

Look familiar? That certainly appears to be the Freemason Square and Compasses hanging above the boat. There’s even a ghostly “G” fixed in the middle. Now, there have been are many books (fiction and nonfiction works) and loads of silly conspiracy theories written about Freemasonry’s ties to the founding of America. It is common knowledge that many of our founding fathers were involved in fraternal organizations. So while seeing a Freemason device hanging on the spreader bars of a US naval vessel did not come as a surprise to me; I was intrigued.

The mystery did not stop there. I spent more time poking around and found a few other interesting tidbits. One site noted the odd similarities between this photos of the USS Baron DeKalb and the USS Carondelet. It’s pretty uncanny. In fact, you could argue they are the same picture, just edited ever so slightly. The forward flag has changed between the images, and the Carondelet seems to have an inverted star in place of the Masonic symbol, but a lot of the photo is identical, even the trees in the background.

USS Carondelet (Left) and the USS Baron Dekalb (Right)
USS Carondelet (Left) and the USS Baron DeKalb (Right)

I also found an article reposted from the Scottish Rite Journal that suggested that one of the Dekalb’s captains was most likely a Mason, which could explain the symbol. Additionally, General Baron DeKalb—the riverboat’s namesake—was also a Freemason. So it’s possible the device was hung out of respect for him.

What does this all mean? I don’t know! Nevertheless, it is an entertaining little mystery and one I was happy to stumble upon. Many of my loyal readers know that I am a collector of American folk art that stems from American fraternal organizations and secret societies (particularly the Independent Order of Odd Fellows,) so it is always fun when I find bits and bobs like this during research. It’s a good example of how rich and complex our history can be, and how little details can lead to expansive stories in their own right. Plus, it was just too much fun to keep to myself.

BABC

A Weird Fiction Cover Design Intervention

On Twitter this April, I went on a rant about cover design, specifically targeting indie authors and small press houses within the Lovecraftian and weird fiction genres. Both are genres of which I am proud to be a part, but as of late I’ve found myself disappointed when it comes to the quality of the book cover designs. Fellow author S. Lee Benedict suggested I expand on this topic here, and it’s a good idea…

...and here we go.

This isn’t the first time I have written about cover design; you can read my previous post, ‘Building A Better Book Cover’ over here. Cover design is something of a passion for me. I’ve been a professional designer for 16 years working on everything from software, branding, advertising, book covers, and a variety of promotional materials. I believe good design is important, and I know it’s important to fans and readers.

So, here’s our situation. I feel like Lovecraftian and weird fiction literature needs a cover design intervention. Honestly, that statement could apply to much, much more than just those two categories; but these days I am closest to those genres, so they get the brunt of my focus. I’m not fond of publically shaming. So, don’t expect me to call out specific examples of bad design. However, with a little searching, you can easily see what I mean.

It’s not that indie authors or small publishers start out with a desire to make awful covers. Sit in on any self-publishing panel at a convention and every author will readily admit it’s worth spending the money on an illustration for your cover. And, many books with terrible covers start with a great illustration. They’re on point for tone and mood, and often a good step in the right direction, but they completely miss the mark when it comes to typography and design. Strange font choices abound, bad effects mar legibility, and bizarre distortions plague the shelves. At best it’s boring, at worst it’s completely illegible. (And it tends to skew towards the latter, unfortunately.) It’s like someone put all their effort into illustration and completely forgot that paying attention to the cover’s typography and design is just as important as having great art. Those three concepts are the pillars of good design. Everything in a book cover plays off of one another; bad typography can forever mar a beautiful illustration.

“…paying attention to the cover’s typography and design is just as important as having great art.”

If indie authors and small presses were more honest with themselves, they’d know when a cover is done vs. done right. It’s not hard to compare; solid examples are everywhere. And it wouldn’t take much to improve; basic typography operates under a set of rules, and a few typography classes at a local college would go a long way to learning the ins and outs. If that’s hard to swing, sit down with a Skillshare class. Jon Contino, the illustrator who did the lettering for my books, offers a Skillshare class on Illustration and Lettering: A Hands-on Approach to Label Design that is excellent. If you’re looking for books on the subject start with The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. It’s commonly called “the Typographer’s Bible,” and it’s a good (if not dense) place to start. Also, look into Ellen Lupton’s fantastic Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students; it’s a practical guide on the rules of typography and how to break them effectively and creatively,

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst

As I mentioned in my post, ‘Building a Better Book Cover,’ Chip Kidd, one of the greatest book cover designers living today, has said, “A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku of the story.” I love that quote. He’s not wrong; bad cover design does a disservice to the writing it represents. It detracts when it should enhance, it lies when it should entice.

But there is a silver lining! I know quite a few authors who have taken the time and put in the effort and have made strides in cover design. Word Horde is a great weird fiction press that does wonderful work, and Laird Barron’s novels often have fantastic covers. Recent strides have been made by larger print houses as well; Victor laValle’s Ballad of Black Tom (Tor) and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft County (Harper) were recent standouts in the genre. So well designed covers in weird fiction are out there. Publishers, designers, and authors should study what those books do right and strive towards emulating their successes.

Weird fiction book covers

I believe weird fiction is one of the most exciting and imaginative genres to be writing in today. It pushes at the edges of speculative fiction as a whole and continues to broaden its reach. It’s only reasonable to desire that the covers of the great work being produced should live up to the potential within the pages. We all want these books to continue to attract new readers for decades to come, and a well-designed cover goes a long way to doing just that.