Category Archives: Random

Building Better Mountains

Making Magnificent Mountains

Coal Belly, my current project, is a sprawling steampunk-ish adventure novel that spans the mountains, cliffs, and ridges in a world of interlocking rivers. To keep track of characters and locations, I began maintaining a map. The story takes places in a technological era similar to the post-reconstruction United States, around the 1890s. Because of that, I wanted my map to capture the styles of maps from that period. The sort of thing a cowboy would have in their saddlebag. Which meant I spent some time on Old Maps Online.

While researching, I noticed there was a shift in the late 1800s in how cartographers drew mountains. Earlier in the century, most mountains were rendered as illustrations. Cartographers would draw little adorable ranges as a representative of the mountains. It’s a common enough style, and one I’m sure you’ll recognize. You can see this style in this map from 1832.

Map of the Western State (Detail), Daniel Adams, 1832
Western States (Detail), Daniel Adams, 1832

This is a standard approach and one appropriated by most fantasy cartographers today. It’s a style I’ve used in past maps. It works well and definitely lends a touch of antiquity to a piece. But, Coal Belly is more modern than that. When I started looking at mountains in maps made later in the century, I noticed there was a shift. Cartographers moved away from the illustrated ranges and towards an early topographical style. You can see the shift in the maps below.

United States (Detail), David Burr, 1875
United States (Detail), David Burr, 1875
Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia (Detail), A. J. Johnson, 1886
Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia (Detail), A. J. Johnson, 1886
Kentucky, Tennessee (Detail), Samuel Augustus Mitchell, 1886
Kentucky, Tennessee (Detail), Samuel Augustus Mitchell, 1886

It’s a fascinating change and one I really liked. Since most of my own fantastical cartography work is done in Adobe Illustrator, I began experimenting with creating brushes. Each of the maps above was drawn by hand so recreating a similar feel took a lot of experimentation. Different brush styles and widths. Eventually, I settled on pattern brushes based off a series of random strokes. I feel like I got really close. You can see my handiwork below.

Sample of my 19th Century Mountains brushes in use.
Sample of my 19th Century Mountains brushes in use.

I made twenty brushes, with a variety of line styles and densities. They tend to work best as separate strokes and then tightly grouped together. And because they’re vector based they can be adjusted for any size project. There’s a lot of ways to adjust the overlaps for corners and such. They’re quite versatile and can be blended and combined in numerous ways.

Quick sample using the brushes — with more time I'd focus on typography and color to give the map an antique look
Another quick sample made in Illustrator and Photoshop using the brushes

I ended up scrapping these mountains for the Coal Belly map, as they interfered with the map’s legibility, especially on eReaders. But, I think they would be the perfect fit for the right project. Which is why I’m giving them away for free. Just click the download button below and you can use these mountains brushes in your own project.

Download 19th Century Mountain Brushes

No Illustrator? Download the Photoshop Brush Set1

These brushes are designed for Adobe Illustrator and are licensed under a Creative Commons 4.0 International License. So they’re FREE to use for personal or commercial work, and I’m not looking for any attribution. That said, I would love to see how others end up using these brushes. So please reach out and let me know! I’m not looking for any payment, but if you want to support me consider buying one of my books.


1 It needs to be mentioned that the Photoshop brushes are significantly limited compared to the Illustrator version. These brushes were designed to work along paths so the mountains will look hand-drawn. While you can use the brushes in Photoshop there will be limitations. They’ll look more stamped and less custom.


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

Advertisements
H.P. Lovecraft and his pumpkin pal

H.P. Lovecraft’s Halloween Poem

When he wasn’t writing cosmic horror about indescribable beings, H.P. Lovecraft considered himself a poet. I’ve mentioned his Christmas poetry in the past, and since today is Halloween, I thought it’d be fun to take a gander at another holiday poem.

Hallowe’en in a Suburb was originally published as In A Suburb in The National Amateur in March of 1926. The poem was later renamed. I spent some time researching why the name was changed, but I couldn’t find an answer. The poem stands on its own without the Halloween association, but there is a definite fall/harvest feel with reflection on sheaves and chill winds. Perhaps it was marketing?


Hallowe’en in a Suburb

The steeples are white in the wild moonlight,
And the trees have a silver glare;
Past the chimneys high see the vampires fly,
And the harpies of upper air,
That flutter and laugh and stare.

For the village dead to the moon outspread
Never shone in the sunset’s gleam,
But grew out of the deep that the dead years keep
Where the rivers of madness stream
Down the gulfs to a pit of dream.

A chill wind weaves thro’ the rows of sheaves
In the meadows that shimmer pale,
And comes to twine where the headstones shine
And the ghouls of the churchyard wail
For harvests that fly and fail.

Not a breath of the strange grey gods of change
That tore from the past its own
Can quicken this hour, when a spectral pow’r
Spreads sleep o’er the cosmic throne
And looses the vast unknown.

So here again stretch the vale and plain
That moons long-forgotten saw,
And the dead leap gay in the pallid ray,
Sprung out of the tomb’s black maw
To shake all the world with awe.

And all that the morn shall greet forlorn,
The ugliness and the pest
Of rows where thick rise the stones and brick,
Shall some day be with the rest,
And brood with the shades unblest.

Then wild in the dark let the lemurs bark,
And the leprous spires ascend;
For new and old alike in the fold
Of horror and death are penn’d,
For the hounds of Time to rend.


It’s not half bad as far as creep poetry goes, and it’s certainly better than his cat-centric silly Christmas poetry. The very talented Andrew Lehman cut a record for Cadabra Records where he reads several of Lovecraft’s poems including this one. The record doesn’t appear to be available anymore, but you can listen to Hallowe’en in a Suburb and The Cats below.


Have a happy and safe Halloween everyone! Remember that today is the last day to get FREE SHIPPING on any signed paperbacks from my store. Just use the code BFCMONTH on checkout. You can see all the details in this post.


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

American Horror Story's Main Titles Ranked

Ranking American Horror Story’s Title Sequences

I have a love/hate relationship with the ultra-stylized American Horror Story. On the one hand, it has legitimized horror and has helped bring the genre to the small screen. But, on the other hand, I’ve tried watching it a few times, and it hasn’t yet drawn me in. So, while I’m not a ravenous fan, I do appreciate its existence, and I dig its style. Especially, its title sequences.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I am a fan of title sequences. For years, I’ve been a Patreon supporter of Art of the Title—a site dedicated to the artform. (They do good work, and you should support them.) So, it will come as no surprise that I unabashedly love AHS main title sequence. Part of its draw is that it changes. It’s different each season. There are connections between each, most notably the amazing AHS theme music—the heavy notes remain constant as do the harsh buzzes that rasp as players get introduced. As a set, they’re remarkable, and a few stand out as truly great. Since it’s the month of Halloween, I figured it would be fun to rank the American Horror Story title sequences. Let’s start at the bottom.


7. Roanoke (Season 6)

Of course, this will be rated dead last. Roanoke had no title sequence. In her piece American Horror Story: 7 Seasons of Title Design for Art of the Title, Alexandra West asks AHS Executive Producer Alexis Martin Woodall and Title Designer Kyle Cooper why it was missing. (Go read the article. It’s good.) Their answer is interesting and valid, but since this is a list ranking sequences, Roanoke will remain an aberration and at the bottom of the list.


6. Hotel (Season 5)

Hotel lacks subtlety. It’s brash and over the top. It comes across as silly, and to me, it doesn’t set the mood the way other sequences do. The heavy-handed neon Ten Commandments do not help, although they are a neat visual juxtaposition. However, it’s the repeated thing-in-the-mattress motif that loses me. It’s creepy at first, but its impact falters after the third, fourth, or fifth flash. It’s not that it stops; it’s used at least nine times.


5. Cult (Season 7)

This year, AHS returned with Cult, and it doesn’t improve on Hotel’s failings. Americana interplays with odd and sometimes violent scenes that are common in the series. This, however, is less horror and more gore. Modern political instability is channeled and rightly so, and the classic AHS music mixes with a fife and drum sound that is reminiscent of national anthems. It’s a nice touch, which lifts it higher than Hotel.


4. Asylum (Season 2)

Building off the success of the first season, Asylum took the style from Murder House and turned it up a notch. It’s darker, it’s grittier, but it’s less nuanced. Some of the impact from Season 1 is lost, and it feels a little samey. Murder House works so well because it was unexpected. Especially for television. Horror isn’t about the “thing”; it’s the emotions and the anticipation, and I had anticipated Asylum’s title sequence well in advance.


3. Freakshow (Season 4)

The stop-motion stylization was a nice change of pace, and I think it sets the tone well for a series involving an evil circus. There is an evocation of a corrupted childhood at play here, toys behaving in a way that is unexpected which puts the viewer on edge. It’s was an excellent choice to move into a different direction, and it helped Freakshow stand out.


2. Murder House (Season 1)

The first opening title sequence for AHS channels a raw homemade style that works perfectly. I’ve never had high hopes for television horror, but this was a welcome surprise. Cesar Davila-Irizarry’s theme music stunned me and instantly became one of the most memorable themes. The visuals hint at the underlying concepts of the show without revealing too much, and it really nailed the mood.


1. Coven (Season 3)

Mood and tone abound in the season three opener: gritty black and white shots, strangely animated woodcuts, weird stop-motion, and the creepy hooded figures! (Which yes, totally remind me of the gargoyles from my Bell Forging Cycle.) A good story doesn’t ignore tropes. Instead, it bends them in new and exciting ways. You see that at play in Coven’s title sequences: all the expected visuals are there, but things are unusually bent. The quick cuts to uncomfortably close shots introduce story elements in a way that adds to the sequence: the revelations only help to enhance instead of detracting. I will admit that my design sensibilities lean in a similar direction, and there is a bit of bias. But to me, Coven is the gold standard, the perfected AHS title sequence.


It’s great to see a series play so much with the opening title sequence and elevate the art. I know that the fans appreciate it, as well. (The reactions to Roanoke’s missing sequence were…uh, vocal.) So! Now that I’ve finished my list, why not tell me what you think? How would you rank the AHS title sequences? What did I get wrong? What did I get right? The comments are open! Let me know!


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. Alexander to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

Ibn Battuta

It Leaves You Speechless

“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

Ibn Battuta, maybe Ibn Juzayy, potentially someone else


So, I am a big fan of this quote for obvious reasons. However, among scholars, there is some doubt that Ibn Battuta actually said or wrote this. He didn’t take notes on his travels, and much of his work was dictated long afterward to Ibn Juzayy (who plagiarized.) If you want a synopsis of the controversy, I recommend checking out the “Works” subsection of Ibn Battuta’s Wikipedia page as it does a decent job summarizing.

Plagiarization or not, a great many travel blogs still attribute this to Ibn Battuta without so much of a note of doubt. Due diligence is necessary even for quotes, and often the story behind the quote can be more interesting than the quote itself.

Okay, all of that said: controversy-schmontroversy! The quotes still rad and travel is enriching. Get out there. Breath the air. Immerse yourself in worlds beyond your own. You’ll never know what you find.