Saturday, July 9, 2022

When Did Characters Become Meta?

Scott D. Parker

When did characters in stories become self-aware of all the story tropes they are in and comment on those tropes during the story? In short, when did characters become meta?

I’m not quite sure how to pose this question so let me tell you how I got there.

In my SF book club this month, we discussed John Scalzi’s the Kaiju Preservation Society. It is a wonderful B-movie concept: there is an alternate earth where kaiju (i.e., giant creatures like Godzilla) developed and humans did not. The humans from our earth can travel between worlds and said humans study the kaiju and, well, preserve them.

The story takes place in early 2020 and is populated by a bunch of characters, most of whom are nerds. As such, they say and understand a ton of SF in-jokes, jokes that most of Scalzi’s readers will also get. Not a problem. It’s like writing for the choir.

But one of the book club guys made a point: at no time in the book did any of the characters have a Wow Moment, a sense of wonder moment reminiscent of that scene in Jurassic Park when the characters (and viewers) first see the dinosaurs. He went on to posit that basically up to the 1990s, many characters in movies (and books) seemed to exist outside of the present pop culture moment. That is, many characters didn’t have a handy shorthand list of references to speak about.

For example, in the Scalzi book, when something odd came up, all the characters in the book had to do was reference an existing movie moment and everyone (readers included) would know. (I did the same thing when I name dropped Godzilla a few paragraphs ago.) You could make the argument that Scalzi was not bothering to expound or explain something, but I actually don’t mind the shorthand at all.

We started commenting that many movies in at least the last decade+ are populated by characters like this and we tossed around the idea of when it started. Naturally, we arrived at the first Scream movie (1996) where all the characters knew all the tropes of horror movies and actually riffed on them and tried to overcome the killer by using those tropes. The movies of Kevin Smith are full of references like this, and some of the Marvel films reference Star Wars and other properties.

That got me to thinking about the mystery genre. Were there films, books, or TV shows that fit this type of story? The first thing that came to mind was the TV series “Only Murders in the Building.” I’ve not seen any of season 2, but season 1 had the characters basically do what Scream did for horror: narrate, in a meta way, the story they were in, commenting that in a normal true crime podcast cast, this is where a twist would occur…right before a twist in their own story happened. “Castle” had some of that mainly because the main character was a writer.

So, fellow mystery fans, I challenge y’all to help me out: what are some mystery stories of any medium where the characters basically comment on the story their in using tropes of the mystery genre?

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Beau goes rock hard


This week, Beau takes a look at RHP Magazine, Issue 7.

That stand-up sure knows how to bomb.

Delirium tremors and haunted houses might be a bad mix.

The high end gets down and dirty (and bloody).

The cat and the tattooist and the old lady and the missing man.

With this issue, Rock and a Hard Place takes lucky number seven and uses it as a knife straight to the ribs. Feel the luck bleed out in these stories of bad decisions and desperate people.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Author Websites


By Steve Weddle

Lord have mercy, but some authors have some snazzy websites. Years back I had one over at Squarespace and blogged there, posting reviews and videos and all manner of nonsense. For most folks, the micro-blogging of Twitter and Tumblr and whatever else replaced that. Now, as I understand it, authors are supposed to make a 20-second Snapgram video to put on the TickTock Web. 

It's all passed me by.

But you can Google up "author websites" and you'll come up with lovely sites and tips on who you can pay to make your site lovely. You can find out about having your typography of your site match the typography of your latest book. And you can learn about having the header images on your site match the images of your latest book. Also, something about carousel sliders, which sound fun.

An author's website seems like a great spot for readers to track down interviews and events and sign up for weekly, then monthly, then occasional author newsletters. Those are fun. 

Anyway, I spent the weekend working on my website again, something I haven't done since Hector was a pup.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Escape from a Confined Space, or Die

By Scott Adlerberg

I went to see the film Black Phone recently, and while watching, I couldn't help but think about how that oldest and most basic of story types, the survivalist tale of a single person trying to escape a confined space before he or she dies, remains effective when well-done. Get away from a basement where a child abducting serial killer has taken you, or become the killer's next victim. That's the essence of the story, adapted from Joe Hill's short story (which I haven't read), and it works as a taut suspense tale. 

I'm wondering how far back these stories go.  Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" I would assume is an early example, with its narrator trapped in a pitch-dark room that contains both a pit and a lethal pendulum, and then, after he manages to escape his bonds and the pendulum's blade, walls that become burning hot and move inwards towards the narrator.  The plot boils down to a man having to force himself, after a period of panic and terror, to calm down enough to think clearly to figure out if and how he can escape. In "The Pit and the Pendulum", as in some of these stories, the narrator does not escape himself, but finds a way to delay his death in the room long enough for others to rescue him.  

"A Descent into the Maelstrom" is another great variation on the trope, since it involves confinement and imminent death in what amounts to a freakish confined space outside, an ocean whirlpool.  In the midst of an overwhelming force, a seemingly hopeless situation, the man trapped in the whirlpool uses his powers of observation to discover a way to slow his descent toward annihilation, and in so doing buys time until, after several hours, the whirlpool subsides and he's rescued by fishermen.  
As is usual with Poe, both these stories serve as prototypes for countless stories to come.  A person confined by some means in some sort of space will likely die.  The fear, anger, and despair that come with the recognition of the predicament take over the character for a stretch. But at some point, a determination to escape becomes part of the thinking, and at that point, the story becomes one that foregrounds ratiocination. Under great pressure, the trapped figure realizes that only by using reason and intellect will they have a chance to survive.  

In its main thrust, I suppose, the confined person story is related to the classic mystery story.  Are there any other genres that elevate the sheer use of reasoning to such a high degree?  But the trapped person story is the inverse of the ratiocinative mystery.  In the mystery, the detective uses logical reasoning to make sense of something puzzling and unresolved.  The main bad things that happened in the story happened to someone other than the detective, so at some level at least, even though the detective character faces dangers, that character has a certain distance from the people most affected by the dire events.  The goal, of course, is to discover truth, stakes that are high enough, but the detective could in theory (and sometimes does) fail to reveal the entire truth (or even any truth) and still live afterwards. In the trapped person story, it's use reason to think up something that works for you or you will actually perish.  The stakes are the gravest imaginable.  There is no detachment obviously, no room for error, for the person in confinement.  But even in stories where luck plays a part in helping the confined person survive, the victim's chances primarily hinge on an ability to apply orderly logical thinking in the way a detective on a complicated case would.  Against all odds, when everything seems beyond hope and after bouts of delirium, you might remember, knowledge and intellect winning out, that blood is a very slippery substance, and that if you cut your own handcuffed wrist with a piece of the water glass within reaching distance, if you can then bear the pain of peeling back the slashed skin on your wrist, you'll be able to free that wrist of the handcuff and get happens, so memorably, in Stephen King's Gerald's Game, one of my favorite escape or die stories of the past several years.

In Black Phone, there is indeed a mysterious black phone that allows the  killer's previous victims to communicate with the trapped boy, Finney.  It gives Finney advice on how to deal with his predicament and exploit weaknesses in the captor's basement dungeon.  So perhaps that's a bit of an uncanny element, but the phone calls effectively serve as an impetus for the trial and error that Finney employs in his escape attempts.  You could say the phone calls dramatize what is going on in Finney's mind as he reasons with himself, fights his fears, and learns to stand up for himself -- all of which enable him to prolong the time he remains alive and improve the chances that in the end, he will get out.  And as happens "The Pit and the Pendulum", or that CSI episode from years ago, "Grave Danger", in which one of the team, Nick Stokes, is buried alive in the middle of the desert, the longer the person confined can keep themselves alive, the better the chances that someone outside or those working specifically to find you will be to assist in your deliverance.

Such a simple story template, but a timeless one that keeps on working.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Books for Parents of Children in Transition

 By Marietta Miles


Description automatically generated

Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay 

Award winning Michael C. LaSala, PhD, LCSW is Professor and Director of the Doctorate of Social Work Program at Rutgers University. During his tenure at Rutgers, Professor LaSala has been a practicing family therapist and teacher for over 35 years, and his research and clinical specialties are the couple and family relationships of gay men and lesbians and the role of family influences on the sexual behaviors of gay and bisexual youth. His book, Coming Out, Coming Home provides the findings of a National Institute of Mental Health funded study of sixty-five gay and lesbian youth and their families. Other examples of Professor LaSala’s work can be found in over thirty journal articles and his blog for Psychology Today. He is also a recipient of the American Family Therapy Academy’s 2017 Distinguished Contribution to Social Justice Award.

Coming Out, Coming Home features sixty-five gay and lesbian youth and their parents. Their words and experiences are emotional and honest, helping to solidify the importance of family in a time that may be very lonely for a child. Coming Out shows the social realities of the ostracism, shame, and rejection our children face in this chaotic world. With true examples, the reader will identify the emotional gravity of accepting their LGBTQ+ child and, in turn, the tragedy of prejudice. This book and the innovative study is an outline and provides steps and processes to help families traverse this challenging time in their lives. 

Professor LaSala has worked with families and their gay and lesbian children for years and uses his experience to write a caring and kind-hearted book born of a desire to help and guide. His study and the easy presentation offers readers real and sincere stories of how gay and lesbian people cope with the acceptance or rejection from their families. The book illustrates how parents and siblings work to love and protect their offspring. 

It takes compassion and patience for families to manage their way through this rite of passage, but they will emerge stronger and more honest than ever.

Graphical user interface, application

Description automatically generated

This Is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids: A Question & Answer Guide to Everyday Life (Book for Parents of Queer Children, Coming Out to Parents and Family)

This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids is an easy to digest manual for accepting parents of gay children who may have questions about the process. Authors Danielle Owens-Reid and Kristin Russo are uniquely experienced to answer parents' questions and share insight and guidance on both emotional and day-to-day topics. 

Owens-Reid created the blog "Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber,” which led to their running social media for Virgin Mobile’s on Tour with Lady Gaga and co-founding the LGBTQ+ youth organization, Everyone is Gay. This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids was released by Chronicle Books in 2015. Dan has spoken at universities throughout the US and Canada, led training and consulting seminars and collaborated with artists and large companies to further their social media presence. Dan Owens MGMT is a talent company focused on managing creatives who are working toward active change in queer, trans and racial justice.

Kristin Russo first arrived on the scene as a Tumblr presence when they began providing advice for LGBTQ+ youth's questions. In 2013, Russo and Owens-Reid began My Kid Is Gay, a revolutionary online resource for families and educators of LGBTQ+ people. They went on to co-author My Kid Is Gay, which provides advice from parents, youth, and experts about topics related to gender identity and sexuality. 

This is a wonderful book for parents looking to learn more about the LGBTQ+ experience and discover more ways to support and raise their gay child.