Some Thoughts About Familiar And Unfamiliar Locations In Fiction – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d ramble about the subject of familiar and unfamiliar locations in fiction. But, I’m going to have to start by talking about art and television for a little while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious soon.

Anyway, I ended up thinking about this topic because (although I haven’t watched it at the time of writing), I happened to read about a TV series that is set in an amazing town called Aberystwyth, where I lived for about four years.

This is a town that I have a lot of good memories of, and it turns up in my creative works quite a lot. For example the setting of my occasional webcomic is loosely-based on it and I also still make nostalgic paintings about it every now and then, like this upcoming painting:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 1st December.

Yet, when I read about the fact that there was an actual TV series set there, I suddenly realised that I’d never seen a scripted TV series or a feature film that was set anywhere that I’d lived for any length of time. Even the few full-length novels that are set in really familiar places (eg: for Aberystwyth, this would be Niall Griffith’s “Grits” and Louie Knight’s novels) have been languishing on my gigantic “to read” pile for literally years.

It’s this last point that really made me think about familiar places and fiction. Because, logically speaking, I should have read these books at least once by now. I should have already watched that TV series I mentioned earlier several years ago (either when it was broadcast on BBC Four, or on DVD). Yet, at the time of writing, I’ve still got to get round to looking at these things.

In part, I guess that it’s because I’m worried that they might not live up to my memories of these places. But, in a lot of ways, it’s because the idea of reading or watching a fictional story (by someone else) set somewhere really familiar seems deeply alien to me. After all, throughout most of my life, stories are things that happen in other places. They’re a way to see other places, to daydream about other places, to escape the boringly familiar… or to transform it into something more interesting.

I mean, when I actually lived in Aberystwyth, I happened to read a novel that was set in New Orleans and North Carolina (and, no, I’ve never been to America). After I read this book, I couldn’t help but think of an awesome pub/nightclub in Aberystwyth called “The Angel Inn” as being similar to a (fictional) bar from the novel called “The Sacred Yew”.

Likewise, after reading/watching a couple of other things set in New Orleans, a balcony on an old house I saw near the coast in Aberystwyth suddenly made me think of a gothic version of New Orleans:

This is a photo, that I took in 2009, of a street in Aberystwyth (with number plates redacted). The balcony on the house on the right-hand side of the photo reminded me of an imagined gothic version of New Orleans.

Plus, after I read several novels about New Orleans restaurants by the same author and happened to see a few pictures of that city, a green building on Aberystwyth high street suddenly made me think of New Orleans (even though I’ve never been there):

This is another photo of Aberystwyth that I took in 2009. The building that reminded me of New Orleans is the green one with the turret in the middle of the photo.

Rather than being unsettlingly bizarre, these daydreams about an unfamiliar place (New Orleans) made a familiar place (Aberystwyth) seem ten times cooler than it already was. They added a bit of additional depth and interest to somewhere that I thought of as “ordinary” at the time. And, maybe this is one reason why fiction set in unfamiliar places is so interesting – because it makes you think about familiar places in new ways.

But, more than all of this, another cool side-effect of not seeing/reading many stories set in familiar places is that it makes you want to create your own.

I mean, although I occasionally wrote (unpublished) stories set in Aberystwyth when I was actually living there, the reason why it’s a recurring location in my art and comics these days is because I’m really nostalgic about it. If there were hundreds of films, novels etc… set there, then I’d probably get my nostalgia fix from these things instead of creating stuff. Likewise, if I still lived there, it would still just be “ordinary” and I’d probably want to make stuff about other places.

So, yes, not seeing really familiar locations in films, books, games etc… isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It widens your imagination and it also prompts you to be more creative too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

English: An Open Source Language – A Ramble

Well, the night before I wrote this article, I happened to read some fascinating BBC articles about the inconsistencies in the English language and about how handwriting can vary from area to area. So, I thought that I’d talk about the English language today.

One of the really interesting things about the English language is the way that it evolved from several different languages (eg: Old English, Norse, German, Latin, French, Greek etc..) and how many English words are phonetic transcriptions of random words from various languages (eg: the word “alcohol” comes from the Arabic “al-kohl”, a term that originally meant “the eyeliner”).

This evolution also added depth to the language by giving English formal and informal vocabularies, based on different linguistic origins. Generally, words that are considered informal tend to come from German and Norse and more formal words tend to come from Latin and French. For example, most current English profanities are just Anglicised German/Norse words for the “polite” words a Latin speaker would use when talking about copulation, anatomical organs and bodily secretions.

This has also led to lots of other interesting phenomena, such as the fact that there are different “standard” English spellings in Britain and America – with standardised spelling itself being a relatively recent invention (before dictionaries were created, people just spelled words however they thought each word sounded).

Likewise, the evolution of the English language also means that if you’re an English speaker and you travelled back in time more than a couple of centuries, you would have a difficult time understanding the English language. I remember having to look at a medieval Middle English text when I was at university, and one of the things that surprised me was that the English in the text was barely recognisable or comprehensible by modern standards.

Unlike, say, the Académie française in France, there is no formal body that controls the English language. In addition to being a brilliant way to wind up people who are ultra-pedantic about grammar (and, yes, you can split infinitives and begin sentences with “And”), this lack of an official body also means that the language is free to evolve quickly and naturally through common usage, and to adapt the best parts of other languages.

In short, the English language has a lot in common with open-source software. In other words, it is something that people can freely adapt, alter and use in different ways. It is something that belongs to everyone who uses it rather than to any specific organisation. And this is one of the language’s greatest strengths.

Generally speaking – rules, words and spellings that actually serve a useful purpose tend to stick around (eg: the order of words in sentences) whereas those that don’t tend to fall by the wayside. For example, the term “pen” apparently used to just refer to the nib of a pen, with the whole pen being called a “pen and pen-holder” or something like that. Of course, when pens became more available and widely-used, it became easier to just use the word “pen”. So, like open-source software, the English language is optimised for efficiency.

So, why have I spent so long talking about English? Simply put, to show the utter absurdity of being too uptight about things like grammar. If you love the English language, then you should love the fact that it is something that is constantly changing, adapting, optimising, expanding and improving itself. After all, the only true authority on the English language is however the vast majority of speakers are using it at any given moment.

Not to mention that it’s even sillier when people use the English language for the purposes of nationalism. If it wasn’t for words derived from other languages, English would be a very limited language. English is such a rich language because it is an open language.

So, yes, English is an open-source language, with no owner other than the millions of people who speak it. And this is awesome 🙂

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Good Horror Shouldn’t Linger – A Ramble

A while ago, I ended up thinking about the purpose of the horror genre after doing some research into an interesting-looking computer game (that is way too modern to run on my vintage computer, but which made me curious nonetheless) called “What Remains Of Edith Finch”.

From what I heard, the premise of the game is that you play as a character called Edith Finch who is investigating her abandoned family home in order to uncover information about a family curse that has doomed all of the members of her family to bizarre, untimely and/or horrific deaths.

Intrigued by this macabre premise, I read reviews, looked at some gameplay footage and even read the TV Tropes page for the game. Yet, even without playing it, it had a surprising effect on me. Even though a lot of reviews I read claimed that it wasn’t a horror game, I was filled with a lingering sense of despair, unease and nervousness for at least a couple of days – just from thinking about the game!

Of course, never actually having played the game, my imagination probably made it a lot worse than it actually is. Yet, the themes of the game (eg: the inevitability of death, danger lurking in everyday locations, bereavement etc…) really didn’t have a very good emotional effect on me. It was kind of like how watching the “Final Destination” films tend to make me feel extremely paranoid about everything for a fair while afterwards.

It was then that I remembered why I don’t tend to look at as much stuff in the horror genre as I used to. Or, rather, I only really tend to look at more “light-hearted” things in the horror genre these days. Things like horror-themed comedies, cheesy monster and zombie movies, stylised gothic stuff, silly paranormal thriller TV shows, retro horror games with unrealistic graphics, cyberpunk-influenced sci-fi horror, horror-themed action games etc…

This, of course, made me think about the role of the horror genre. I would argue that the role of the horror genre isn’t to make the audience feel more afraid. Yes, it should scare the audience temporarily sometimes, but the audience needs to be able to “disconnect” from the horror fairly soon afterwards. As soon as something in the horror genre starts adding fear to the audience’s everyday lives (even just for a day or two), then I would argue that it has failed.

So, if the horror genre isn’t supposed to make people’s everyday lives more scary, what’s the point of the horror genre?

Thrills, enjoyably silly melodrama, emotional catharsis, cynical laughter, escapism, retro nostalgia, atmospheric locations, artistic experimentation, something to accompany the heavy metal music you’re listening to, feeling like a badass because you aren’t scared by the silly monster on the screen etc… I could go on for a while.

The point of the horror genre is to allow us to look at “horrible” things in a safe way. To laugh at the things that frighten us, to cheer for the main characters, to feel tough because we don’t faint when we see silly monsters and/or copious amounts of stage blood, to distract us from the very real horrors that greet us every time we watch the news, to make us feel smarter than the characters on the screen etc…

As paradoxical as it sounds, good horror might scare us for a while but it should leave us feeling less afraid afterwards.

Good horror shouldn’t be a razor-sharp sword of Damocles constantly dangling above our heads, it should be a thick iron shield that we can use to protect ourselves against any fears that we encounter in our everyday life.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

What An Old Metal Album Reminded Me About Writing Plot Twists – A Ramble

Although this is a rambling article about foreshadowing plot twists in fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about music (or, rather, my reactions to music) for a while. As usual, there’s (sort of) a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A while before I wrote this article, I was looking through my CD collection for an Offspring album I bought in 2008, but which continues to elude me. However, in the course of searching for it, I dug up my old copy of Nightwish’s “Century Child” album. This was an album that I bought when I was about sixteen because I really liked three songs from it (“Feel For You”, “Dead To The World” and “The End Of All Hope”).

Looking at it again, I happened to notice that one of the songs on it that my sixteen-year-old self had ignored was none other than “Ever Dream”. This has been one of my favourite songs ever since my early-mid twenties, when I first discovered it on Nightwish’s “End Of An Era” DVD/CD boxset.

Although I already knew that a studio version of “Ever Dream” existed, I didn’t think that it could compare to the transcendentally brilliant live version on “End Of An Era” (or even the more modern live versions and cover versions that can be found on Youtube). Still, out of curiosity, I decided to listen to it. It was a surprisingly emotional moment.

It took me a while to realise why I’d had such a strong reaction to hearing this version of the song. It was because had been there and ready for me, silent and unnoticed, for many years before I actually needed it.

It was also very possible that my younger self had listened to this song and either failed to remember it or failed to grasp the significance it would later come to have for me. Suddenly, it almost felt like fate. Like, somehow, it was meant to be. Like there was some kind of hidden order or structure to the story of my life.

In other words, it felt like a real-life plot twist. Or, more accurately, it felt like a real-life example of a plot twist being foreshadowed.

One of the easiest and most emotionally-powerful ways to foreshadow a plot twist in fiction is simply to hide it in plain sight. To show the audience something that just seems like an ordinary background detail, but which takes on a much greater level of significance later part of the story.

This can either be something that has some historical significance to one of the characters (where the plot twist is about why it is so significant) or it can be something that isn’t important in the earlier parts of the story, but which becomes incredibly useful or significant to the characters later in the story.

So, why are these types of plot twists so emotionally significant?

Simply put, it’s because they create a sense of fate. They show the audience that the writer has carefully planned the events of the story (eg: the whole idea of “Chekhov’s Gun). They also tap into the fascinating idea of astonishingly brilliant things hiding in plain sight, which is something that some of your audience might be able to relate too.

For example, unknowingly owning a copy of my favourite song 5-6 years before it became my favourite song is hardly the first time that something like this has happened to me. I saw copies of my favourite novel (“Lost Souls” By Poppy Z. Brite) semi-regularly in the horror section of bookshops for about 6-7 years before I actually read it. Likewise, my first encounter with the cyberpunk genre (eg: reading “Tom Clancy’s Net Force Explorers”) happened, and was forgotten about, quite a few years before cyberpunk became one of my favourite genres.

So, yes, hiding essential parts of your plot twists in plain sight can pack a real emotional punch if done well.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Should You Use Lots Of Different Art Styles? – A Ramble

A while before I originally prepared this article, I happened to watch the final episode of the BBC’s “The Big Painting Challenge”. One of the interesting things about the episodes was that the tutors often seemed to try to get the artists to paint in different styles. For example, in one part of the show, they deliberately gave a couple of the artists larger brushes than they were used to working with.

And, this made me think about my own art. In particular, how incredibly annoyed I would be if someone tried to get me to make art in a style I wasn’t accustomed to. This might be a slightly old-fashioned view, but part of being an artist is finding, developing and refining your own unique style.

Yes, there’s nothing wrong with being influenced by other styles (in fact, being inspired by several different styles is essential if you want a unique style) , but the idea that an artist should be some kind of robot who can paint or draw in literally any style just seems kind of wrong.

An artist’s style is kind of like their handwriting, it’s a slightly unique and personalised way that an artist conveys information to an audience. It’s something that has developed organically over time in accordance with the artist’s own preferences and sensibilities.

For example, my own style is rather cartoonish (inspired by various western cartoons and some elements from anime/manga art). I tend to work best with drawing-based mediums (eg: I only started painting after I discovered watercolour pencils. Traditional painting would seem ludicrously imprecise to me). I also prefer making smaller works of art relatively quickly. I like to make art using a mixture of traditional and digital tools.

Likewise, I tend to use a slightly limited colour palette these days (inspired by the use of colour in these “Doom II” levels) and, for quite a while, I’ve had a rule that at least 30-50% the total surface area of each of my paintings must be covered with black paint (since it creates a high level of visual contrast that looks really cool). This is a style that I’ve spent several years developing and it’s a style that will probably gradually change slightly as time progresses.

But, even in the days where artists were only expected to make realistic portraits, or realistic paintings about historical and/or religious subjects, artists still managed to have their own unique styles. For example, Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper (1498)” is a world apart from Caravaggio’s “Salome With The Head Of St. John The Baptist (1607)”. Yes, these two “realistic” religious paintings were made a little over a century apart, but they both come from an age where attitudes towards art were more traditional and restrictive. Yet, each artist still had their own unique style.

So, an artist’s style is an important thing. It’s the thing that makes the work of an artist instantly recognisable.

Whilst artists can learn to add things to their own style by practicing with other styles, another thing that annoyed me about the “Big Painting Challenge” TV show was the subtly-expressed idea that there was a “right” type of art style. There isn’t! Some artists thrive when making loose, impressionistic artwork. Some artists thrive on making minimalist art. Some artists thrive on making hyper-detailed art. The idea that there’s a “right” art style just doesn’t reflect reality.

I don’t know, this whole attitude reminds me of how – in the past – many people were trained to write in various formal types of script. Yes, they look very ornate and fancy, but you can’t really tell who wrote anything. It’s as impersonal and anonymous as the computer font that this article is displayed in.

Yes, when I’m not using block capitals for lettering in comics/cartoons, my handwriting looks like a series of tiny, barely legible scribbles (and, yes, I’m left-handed). But, this is the style of writing that tends to work best for me, it’s the type of writing that feels quick and spontaneous. I love how I can cram lots of writing into a relatively small space and how, if I write really quickly, my writing has an extra level of privacy to it since I’m often the only person who can decipher it. It’s a style of handwriting that developed because it was right for me.

The same is true for art styles. Generally, an artist’s style develops the way that it does for a reason. It reflects the artist’s aesthetic sensibilities and their inspirations. It reflects the types of art that made them want to become an artist. It reflects their attitudes towards making art. It’s something that develops alongside the artist. It’s the type of art that an artist thrives at when they are making.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Can Creative People Have Rare Works These Days? – A Ramble

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Although I have a vague feeling that I might have written about this subject ages ago, I thought that I’d revisit it since it’s a really interesting topic. I am, of course,talking about rarity (with regard to art, writing, comics etc…) and the internet. But, I’m going to have to talk about music briefly first. Don’t worry, there’s a point to this…

This article was mostly prompted by a random memory of a few bizarre bootleg CDs that I saw in a market stall about a decade ago. Basically, some random person had cobbled together CDs of “rare” songs by various bands (eg: obscure songs only available on vinyl, bonus tracks from Japan etc..). At the time, this seemed like a really fascinating thing and then I remembered that, these days, there’s no such thing as a “rare” song any more.

After all, if you want to hear a super-obscure song by your favourite band, there’s a good chance that an obsessive fan has posted it on Youtube. Or, more likely, at least three of them have. One of the videos probably has “BEST VERSION” written beside it in all-caps too.

In the age of the internet, there’s literally no such thing as rarity any more when it comes to creative works. I mean, the Mona Lisa is an extremely rare painting (there’s only one of it!) – but you can see it right now just by clicking here. So, rarity is something that only seems to reside within physical objects. The Mona Lisa itself is extremely rare, but the actual image of it is extremely common.

In a lot of ways, this is probably a good thing. After all, it ensures that things that would have faded into obscurity have a new and current audience. It still allows collectors to treasure rare physical objects whilst ensuring that the actual creativity itself is still available to everyone. Even media companies are starting to realise this – which is why you occasionally see things like out-of-print books being republished as e-books, obscure “abandonware” games getting a proper commercial re-release on game sites etc..

But, that said, there’s a certain something about rarity. A certain thrill that comes from seeing something that not that many people have seen. And, as silly as it sounds, it can somehow make otherwise mediocre things seem considerably better. I mean, I’ve found one or two out-of-print novels in charity shops over the years and – well- many of them went out of print for a reason.

Yes, having something slightly rare and obscure is really cool, but the actual thing itself is often slightly mediocre when seen on it’s own merits. Often, the “wow” factor comes from the fact that you’ve got something from one of your favourite writers that you wouldn’t normally have read if it wasn’t for sheer luck. It’s like bonus content of some kind or another.

Even so, the idea of “rare works” seems to be a relic of a bygone age. I mean, if I’d somehow travelled back in time and written this collection of cyberpunk-themed Christmas stories in 1986 rather than 2016, then they might have ended up being published as a chapbook or in some magazine or anthology somewhere instead of being posted on this site for everyone to read. Yes, I love the fact that I can post stories online just like that. But, on the other hand, I kind of miss the romanticised idea of it eventually becoming some kind of hyper-obscure rare work.

The closest thing that any modern creative person has to “rare” works are unpublished works. And, these aren’t really the same thing. They’re usually unfinished, low-quality etc.. things that were never really meant for public consumption.

So – as ironic as it sounds – in the age of the internet, rarity is the only rare thing when it comes to creativity. And this is probably a good thing, even if it means that both creative people and their audiences miss out on the cachet of knowing about something that very few people do.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

The Individuality Of Art, Webcomics And Prose Fiction – A Ramble

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One thing that always amuses me is watching videos and reading articles about how Hollywood films portray reality in unrealistic ways. How large numbers of major films can make the same kind of “unrealistic” mistakes as each other, because “it’s what the audience expects”.

Likewise, it always amuses me when I read articles on major sites complaining about “comics” (or enthusing about them) for the simple reason that they’re almost always writing about just one well-publicised genre of comics (eg: American superhero comics). There’s often nothing about manga, webcomics, horror comics, newspaper comics etc… it’s literally like comics are only about superheroes, even if that’s blatantly untrue.

So, why have I mentioned this? Well, it’s to illustrate one of the strengths of art, webcomics and prose fiction. Namely that, since they’re often made by just one or two people, they can often contain a lot more individuality and creativity than things made by larger teams of people do.

Because there’s a much smaller number of people involved in creating these things, then they tend to reflect the imaginations of their creators a lot more vividly.

For example, a webcomic like Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” is set in a slightly surreal version of Canada and it features a strange cast of characters (including a sphinx!) who often like to talk at length about all sorts of introspective and philosophical topics. The comic is both incredibly realistic and incredibly unrealistic in it’s own unique way. There is quite literally nothing else like it in the world.

Likewise, an absolutely amazing writer called Billy Martin (who wrote under the pen name of “Poppy Z. Brite” before retiring) set most of his stories in a “realistic” version of America. But, the locations in his stories are often depicted in an extremely vivid, descriptive way that almost makes them seem like something from a comic or a painting. He’s written gothic fiction, splatterpunk fiction, surrealist stoner cyberpunk beat literature and heartwarming romantic fiction and yet all of these vastly different stories still seem to come from the same unique imagination. Again, there’s nothing else quite like these stories in the world.

Yet, I can’t imagine Hollywood ever adapting anything from these two amazing people. Yes, both of them have had their work adapted (eg: Winston Rowntree wrote and made the art for an animated web series called “People Watching“, and one of Martin’s short stories was adapted for an episode of a TV series called “The Hunger”), but this has often been done by smaller or slightly more independent outlets.

The interesting thing is that this gulf between individual creativity and mass media wasn’t always so wide. I mean, just look at Clive Barker – he makes really unique-looking paintings and writes very imaginative and distinctive horror/fantasy fiction. And, during the 80s and 90s, he got to direct several Hollywood films (eg: Hellraiser, Nightbreed and Lord Of Illusions). Yet, it’s very unlikely that he’d be able to direct a major Hollywood film today without it being reduced to some kind of bland, mass-market, CGI-filled, focus group-designed “PG-13” rubbish that contains at least one superhero.

Ironically though, this historical trend can also be seen in computer games too. Back when “mainstream” games were the only games out there, there was a lot more creativity and innovation. But, thanks to gaming becoming more popular and the internet allowing independent studios to distribute their games cheaply, games seem to have split into two very distinctive “types”.

There are the major large-budget games that seem to require the absolute latest hardware and which seem to focus on both a few simplified types of gameplay and on flashy hyper-realistic graphics. Then, you’ve got lower-budget indie games which sometimes tend to run better on older systems and often display the same level of variety, innovation, complexity, uniqueness and creativity that used to be standard in computer games.

Yet, art, (non-superhero) comics and prose fiction have rarely seen these kinds of changes. And I think that it’s all because of individuality. In all of these formats, there isn’t really a large team involved. Likewise, actually writing a story or making art costs considerably less than, say, making a film or a game does.

So, I guess that the rule here is that the more money and the more people are involved in creating something, the less creative it will be.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂