Hope – the candle within otherwise dark tales

“At the heart’s core of fantasy literature lies the infinite possibility of dreams. Whether it presents alternate worlds in outer or inner space, alternate forms of life beyond humanity, alternate realities beyond our own, this genre speaks not to the limited self but to the limitless spirit. The well from which it draws its inspiration – be it established myth or the capacity for myth-making – is that which Joseph Campbell calls ‘the lost forgotten living waters of the inexhaustible source.’”
O. R. Melling

Bad things happen to good people every day. We cannot deny this. Good things happen, too, but when they happen too often in fiction, the author is likely to be criticized for his or her story’s Hollywood ending.

One of the reasons I read and write fantasy literature is, as Melling says, the hint that no matter how dark the tale, dreams contain infinite possibilities.

I don’t think this means fantasy is escapist fiction or that it helps people deny reality. I’d rather say that it helps readers nurture the innate glimmer of hope that burns (or, perhaps, hides) within every human heart.

When we read about real-life heroes in the news, their heroism not only says something about their values but about the fact that they defied an apparently hopeless reality and changed it. News stories about animals being saved from icy ponds and raging rivers, about platoons that make it back to headquarters from a hellish battle, and first responders who rescue people from burning buildings tend to catch our attention and turn into the things we share with friends on Facebook or around the dinner table.

Life is, I think, fueled by hope, and so it is that stories in the newspaper and the TV evening news about hope fulfilled resonate with us. This is the key to fantasy literature that people read and re-read and talk about.

Perhaps we think, “If the real person in the news item or the protagonist in the story can conquer an obstacle, so can I.”

As authors, our primary role is telling a good story, not making people feel good about themselves and their future. But for those of us who agree with Melling that “as long as the spirit is intact, nothing is broken irreparably,” writing fantasy is a natural outgrowth of the way we see the world.

When he “get the story right,” our readers feel that way, too, by the time they get to the end of the book.

Malcolm

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Perhaps we’ve lost too much of the magic

“‘The ancient world was full of magic,’ writes novelist C.J. Cherryh.  ‘Most everyone north and northwest of the Mediterranean believed that standing barefoot on the earth gave you special knowledge, that the prickling feeling at the back of your neck meant watchers in the wood, and that running water cleansed supernatural flaws.'”

–On Myth and Magic in Terri Windling’s post

Since we, as a world, have grown up, most people no longer believe this; or, if they do, they don’t admit it.

Ignorant superstition or pagan religion: that’s how such ideas are often categorized.

fantasyartIn one of my novels, I said that we’d exchanged magic and wonder for science and technology. Goodness knows, there have been benefits to some of that. But it seems a little skewed to me.

Too little magic. Too much technology. Some say, that our technology will one day rule us (literally, not figuratively as it does now) and will become so self-aware that it (the computers and machines) will decide that humans are no longer needed.  Kind of like the Terminator movies.

I’m subversive when it comes to magic. I put it in my fantasy novels where it seems almost natural enough to be real. I hope some readers think it’s real by the time they finish the books. If not that, I hope they are willing top ponder the question of its reality with open minds.

Perhaps we’ve most too much of the magic because we never believed enough in ourselves as individuals. Did we assume scientists, inventors, governments and corporations knew more about everything than we did? Did we see ourselves as too small to trust what our hearts suggested to us?

Hard to say. The magic discussion can get very circular because it’s often said, you won’t find magic if you don’t believe in it. That may be true, but it’s also convenient because it’s a false method of trying to prove a point.

Maybe we don’t have to believe in magic to find it. Maybe all we have to do is entertain the possibility that it’s there. It’s not too difficult to walk barefoot across a field or a beach and see what happens. Naturally, doing that with our arms crossed and our minds cynical isn’t going to help. Better to play. To dance there or enjoy the scenery with all of our logic on hold.

In my stories, I suggest magic is there waiting for characters to see it. Some do, some don’t. Maybe those who see it are crazy fools, but what if they’re not? If we dismiss things out of hand, we’ll never know.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the upcoming folk magic novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”

Review: ‘The Kingdom of the Sun and Moon’

The Kingdom of the Sun and Moon, by Lowell H. Press, Parkers Mill Publishing (September 10, 2014), Ages 10 and up, 316 pages.

Starting with the cover, this is a beautifully crafted book.
Starting with the cover, this is a beautifully crafted book.

Lowell H. Press has written an inventive novel about a hierarchy of mice living in the gardens and secret interior spaces of a castle inspired by the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria.

The colony’s king cares little for his subjects and is mostly interested in taking the food they save throughout the year for his own use during the winter months.Two brothers, Sommer and Nesbit, discover that all is not what it seems, including the king’s purported fear of a pending invasion of the colony by a massive army of woodland mice.

Sommer, who is drafted by the king’s minions for a suicide mission on the colony’s behalf and Nesbit, who insults the king and flees into the dangerous forest, take different approaches to survival and justice. Sommer becomes a cadet commander, while Nesbit becomes known as either a worker of magic of an exceptionally lucky mouse.

Set in a 1700s world, The Kingdom of the Sun and Moon is a delightful story with well-drawn characters and an underlying culture and myth that will charm young readers while keeping their parents engaged whenever this derring-do yarn is shared around the dinner table or at at bedtime.

Press used his visit to the Schönbrunn Palace to great advantage in developing a setting for his story that is well suited to the mice colony’s culture and history as well as to the people and cats who appear throughout the tale for better or worse.

Sommer and Nesbit of the Long Meadow Colony are tiny, as mice go, but they make up for it in bravery and guile.

–Malcolm

Hello Florida Readers: Need fantasy, magic and ghosts?

One of my contemporary fantasy novels, three paranormal short stories and a collection of three folk tales have Florida settings. I grew up in Tallahassee and explored most of the state’s panhandle, so I enjoy going back for story locations.

  • The Seeker: (Tallahassee, Panacea, Carrabelle, Tate’s Hell Forest) – Contemporary fanntasy novel about a perfect love gone horribly wrong between a young man from Montana and a young woman from Carrabelle who meet on a summer job in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Misunderstandings arise after the young woman is assaulted on a dark, Tallahassee street.

    Paperback, Kindle and Audiobook, and they are family friendly.
    Paperback, Kindle and Audiobook, and they are family friendly.
  • Emily’s Stories: (Tallahassee, St. Marks) – This three story set of magical paranormal stories features a 14-year-old girl who talks to ghosts and birds to solve problems. She doesn’t want a housing development in her favorite woods, sees a bear stalking her father on a Montana vacation, and wonders why her grandmother loves the sweetbay magnolia tree in her back yard so much. The audiobook was narrated by actress Kelley Hazen who makes you feel like you’re right there in the stories.
  • Cora’s Crossing (Marianna) – In this paranormal story, two college students driving home on a stormy night find their route oddly detoured across an ancient, haunted bridge north of Marianna. What they find there, and the danger it gets them into, will make them truly believe that Bellamy Bridge is haunted. The bridge, which is still there, is closed to vehicles but can be reached by a trail.
  • Moonlight and Ghosts (Tallahassee) – An abandoned and purportedly haunted mental hospital attracts the attention of a young man who used to work there. Something or someone wants him to return and, as it turns out, solve a crime in progress. Needless to say, this is a paranormal story, but it also ties into my experiences years ago as a manager at a center for the developmentally disabled.
  • Spooky Stories (Marianna, Tallahassee) – This two-story set bundles “Cora’s Crossing” and “Moonlight and Ghosts” together in one volume. This edition is also available as an audiobook.
  • Kindle and Audiobook
    Kindle and Audiobook

    The Land Between the Rivers (Tate’s Hell Forest) – This three-story set of folktales features Panther, Snakebird and Bear at the dawn of time as they make their way through the wetlands and flatwoods between the Apalachicola and the Ochlockonee rivers. I camped and hiked throughout this area when I was growing up, so it’s a favorite of mine–one that still needs the determined efforts of those protecting Florida’s endangered species of plants and animals in the state’s at-risk ecosystems.

  • My work in progress is a folk magic story set in Liberty County in the 1950s. The characters include a conjure woman, her cat, her customers, and some really nasty people who need to be jinxed. More on this later.

Malcolm

New Personal Note: The HVAC Georgia Summer Blues

On location: Glacier Park’s Iceberg Lake

I used Glacier National Park’s Iceberg Lake in “High Country Painter,” of the three short stories in my family-oriented e-book/audio book Emily’s Stories.

Where Is It?

icebergmapIceberg Lake is a 5.9- mile hike from Many Glacier Hotel on the east side of Montana’s Glacier National Park. The lake, which is frozen over during the winter months, is named for the chunks of ice that float in it throughout the summer. It’s one of the most popular trails in the area.

En route to the lake from the hotel, the elevation increases 1,200 feet, however most of the uphill sections of the trail are gradual. For those who haven’t yet gotten used to the elevation or long walks, the hike provides a half-day of exercise.

In his book The Best of Glacier National Park, Alan Leftbridge lists Iceberg Lake as one as one of Glacier’s seven best day hikes. His level of difficulty for the hike is moderate. Hiking in Glacier calls the hike strenuous. (I guess it depends of whether or not one is out of shape!) If you don’t have a hiking guidebook, this web site provides a good overview of the trip.

How I Used it In the Story

Trail to Iceberg Lake - Photo by GlacierGuyMT
Trail to Iceberg Lake – Photo by GlacierGuyMT

Young Emily Walker and her family travel from Florida to Glacier National Park for a family vacation. She accompanies her father on the hike while her mother spends the day around  the hotel. Since she occasionally talks to birds and spirits, she knows something unusual will happen at the lake.

Why I Used the Lake

Iceberg Lake
Iceberg Lake

Emily and her father are used to the sinkhole lakes and blackwater rivers in the Florida Panhandle. I wanted to put them into a new environment. The arête in the picture is called the Garden Wall and it not only provides a lot of ice and snow to look at, but frequent mountain goats as well.

The lake sits in a cirque, a carved-out bowl left by ancient glaciers, and since it’s such a popular spot, hikers will  almost always find ground squirrels and chipmunks there begging for food. The lake sits in bear country, so it’s always good to check with the rangers for to see if there have been any grizzly bears in the area before you begin your hike.

The hike also features many wild flowers as well as some very different views of the mountains than one sees from the hotel. There are good views of many rock formations and other features of glaciation,

The first mile of the hike is on the paved road that connects the hotel complex to the camp store and the campground; park your car at the store to save a bit of walking.

Excerpt from Emily’s Stories

Available on Kindle and as an audio book
Available on Kindle and as an audio book

The horizon was hidden by a grey wall of rock which, according to the pack, also concealed incoming storms; now, carrying rain jackets on a sunny day made sense. By the time they passed the noisy waterfall and strolled through lacey-white bear grass (without bears) and scattered Indian paintbrush that gentled the grey rock (“limestone,” her dad said, descriptively), Emily was ready for lunch.

Deep snow lay hard-packed around the lake’s far shore where the limestone wall created a playground for mountain goats running across their grey and white world as nimbly as Southern chameleons ran along the Walters’ brick house. Sunny Florida was, as advertised, sunny and hot, but here deep summer had only melted the ice off half of the lake’s surface.

“I am astonished,” said Emily, dropping her knapsack on the ground and running down to the water. The water was as cold as it looked.

“Punkin, ‘astonished’ is a new word for you,” her dad said. He knelt down and splashed water over his
face.

Summing Everything Up

My teenaged protagonist talks to birds and spirits, so her stories are always set outdoors. Like other visitors to the hotel, the hike to the lake is one she would probably take. It provides great scenery for Emily to experience with her father as long with the possibility a bear might appear.

I worked at the hotel as a bellman for two summers and walked up to this lake many times. Using it in the story is an example of a writer writing what he knows.

Malcolm

‘The Sun Singer’ and ‘Sarabande’ are temporarily out of print

GlacierBearGrassWhile my contemporary fantasies The Sun Singer (2004, 2010) and Sarabande (2011) are momentarily still displaying on Amazon and other bookseller sites, the novels will soon be out of print.

These are the first two books in a planned trilogy and will reappear at a later date. Meanwhile, work continues on the third book which will wrap up the story lines of Robert Adams, Sarabande, Tom Elliott and Gem.

Thanks to all of you who have read and enjoyed the books and often left reviews out on Amazon. The third book will also be set in Glacier National Park. Stay tuned.

Malcolm

Kindle Edition
Kindle Edition

Review: ‘Return of the Raven’ by Sue Coleman

ReturnRavenBritish Columbia artist Sue Coleman (“An Artist’s Vision,” 1989) brings her knowledge of the Canadian west coast and its First Nations into her magical first novel Return of the Raven (FriesenPress, July 12, 2013).  The novel begins with the Haida creation myth about the role of Raven at the dawn of time in teaching the fledgling humans how to live in the world.

Now, in modern times, Raven–who traces his lineage back to the days when his father and his grandfather talked to spirits and practiced the art of transformation–notices that the world has become a rather sad place of sickening land, dilapidated villages and humans who no longer believe in the spirits. Raven thinks the spirits had fled. He’s afraid to attempt any transformations because, as the old family stories remind him, the magic began to backfire on his father more often than not.

The other animals–including Raccoon and  Otter–have little respect for Raven, seeing him as greedy, manipulative and always hungry. Why can’t he do something valuable with his life? After hearing this question more than once, his feelings are a bit hurt and he begins to wonder why the land and water are sick and whether or not something can be done about it.

Inadvertently, Raven saves the life of a frog who begrudgingly agrees to help him track down the sickness in the water. He has no idea how he saved the frog, but it was very definitely a transformation. While Raven finds it hard to push back his pride in his accomplishment, the very fact that it happened suggests that the spirits haven’t fled and that magic is still possible.

Raven’s quest to find what’s harming the land is a hero’s journey story. En route to the answers he seeks, he interacts with gulls, geese and eagles who have wisdom to share while wondering what manner of bird this is who seems to be changing before their eyes from a greedy, self-indulgent trickster into a creature with compassion. Raven begins to suspect that his father’s magic backfired when greed got in the way.

Return of the Raven is a well-told folktale that shows its author’s sensitivity to coastal British Columbia and its wildlife. The environmental and transformation themes come across as wondrous fantasy and deep truth. Raven returns twice, first from his figurative hibernation since the dawn of time, and second as a bird on a quest who can either give up and go back to his lazy habits or, like the triumphant heroes of human myth, return to his own kind with a prize of great value.

Coleman’s lighthearted approach blends old myths and transcendent themes into a charming re-creation story.

Malcolm

emilyaudibleMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy novels, including “The Seeker” and paranormal stories, including his Emily’s Stories collection about a young girl who fixes what’s broken by talking to birds and ghosts.

Writers, what brings you feelings of awe?

“The heart of it all is mystery, and science is at best only the peripheral trappings to that mystery–a ragged barbed-wire fence through which mystery travels, back and forth, unencumbered by anything so frail as man’s knowledge.” – ― Rick Bass, The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness

Montana thunderstorm - photo by chrisdat on Flickr
Montana thunderstorm – photo by chrisdat on Flickr

We often use the phrase awe-inspiring to describe sunsets, powerful storms, scenic mountain vistas, our favorite music, heroes and heroines and all manner of other things that are larger and more wondrous and more powerful than ourselves.

Before we can tell memorable stories, we need to discover what in our lives is awe-inspiring and then hold that close in our hearts and celebrate it and allow it to flavor our writing. When we do this, we link up to the readers’ on-going search for the kinds of plots and themes and characters that add magic and wonder to their lives.

Larger than life characters are part of the mix. So, too, exotic locations, the dangers of wind and sea and storms, tranquility and peace so dear one can almost touch their source, memorable choices that place characters at risk, and love in many forms.

If you, as a writer, feel awe as you think about the subject matter, location, plots, themes and characters of a prospective story, you have a better chance of connecting with readers than you would if everything about the project seemed rather flat and monotonal.

Your story need not be something over the top like Lord of the Rings, The Da Vinci Code, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Game of Thrones to inspire awe as you write it and as readers discover it. Quiet moments can also inspire awe; so can low-key plots. The awe comes from you and on how you react to the world.

If mountains inspire you, then you will write of mountains. If children inspire you, they will find their way into your stories. If something attracts and holds your attention and “asks you” to contemplate its beauty, mystery and power, then you will end up the best kind of nourishment for writers.

Malcolm

I find awe and wonder in mountains. I cannot help but write about them. You will find mountains in The Sun Singer, Sarabande and The Seeker and, I hope, a dash of awe. They also contain magic, but you expect that because they are contemporary fantasies!

A Glacier Park Novel
A Glacier Park Novel

Speculative Supernatural Novels and the Growing Fantasy Genre

CowanToday’s guest post by Laura K. Cowan (The Little Seer) examines speculative supernatural fiction and its relationship to fantasy. As authors, we often like to push the envelope, so to speak, and explore new realms. Speculative fiction of all kinds has been a popular arena of late.

It’s difficult to sort through all the variables that make for good fiction as new genres and sub-genres come on the scene, but one important consideration is the readers’ comfort level. Some fantasy readers stick to one area, while others see all the colors and hues of fantasy as a tempting smorgasbord. I’m always tempted to try new treats. How about you?

Speculative Supernatural Novels and the Growing Fantasy Genre

The fantasy genre is a diverse one, from the elves of high fantasy to pookas and werewolves at the intersection of fantasy and fairy tales, all the way to the dark fantasy of authors like Neil Gaiman with mainstream appeal. But a growing number of writers not satisfied with the status quo is beginning to write a new sub-genre called speculative supernatural. What is it and why should fantasy readers care?

Well, as a speculative writer, I suppose I’m biased, but I think readers of fantasy will embrace the speculative supernatural genre for one reason: it’s never boring! In a similar way that science fiction takes a “What if?” question of technology or science and stretches it into the future, speculative supernatural takes a “What if?” question and pushes into the spiritual or supernatural. Everything from weird ghost stories to spiritual warfare novels with warring angels and demons, to the cosmological stories that explore the physical and metaphysical nature of the world can fall under speculative supernatural, and that can take a reader and a writer down a very deep rabbit hole indeed. Isn’t that where all the best fantasy fiction goes?

Angels, Demons and Dreams

SEER FINAL V 2013-FrontThis week, my debut novel The Little Seer was pushed to the top of the Amazon Bestseller lists for free fiction when I made the first book of the novella trilogy, Exodus, free for 5 days. We all love free, but what I think really made this book an instant hit with readers was the premise. The story follows a young girl who wakes from a nightmare that her church is destroyed by a tornado and her pastor orders crows to peck out her eyes, only to discover deep cuts on her arms where she was attacked. And it only gets stranger from there, as her dreams unfold in her waking life and she finds herself the focus of a spiritual war over her life and town that could decide the fate of millions.

The supernatural angle of this book is obvious: angels, demons, and a behind-the-veil look at heaven as it manifests itself in our minds and around us at all times. But in order to make this story really gripping, I had to bring the supernatural into the natural in a literal way. “What if your dreams could really hurt you?” I asked myself. “What if what appears to be the safe choice spiritually could not only devastate your soul but risk your life?” “What if God wasn’t who you were told he was, and neither were you? How would you find the truth? ” And suddenly my character was an armchair theologian no more. She found herself diving deep into symbolic prophetic dreams and the depths of her own mind to seek answers to pressing questions, even as her family and church and community fell to pieces.

A Viable Fantasy Sub-Genre

The books I’m working on for the next few years all contain a similar thread of speculative thought and supernatural themes, but I’m excited to see how this work doesn’t fit in a box. It’s too out there for the Christian market even when it does contain angels and demons, but it’s too spiritual for a mainstream market. I think fantasy is the ideal home for my work, because my next novel Music of Sacred Lakes deals with a mystical connection with nature through a haunting that saves a young man’s life, and my upcoming short story collection The Thin Places: Supernatural Tales of the Unseen actually takes 30 separate speculative “What if?” questions and spins them in all directions, from modern mythology to the marriage of fairy tales and time travel. Like I said, never boring, and who knows interesting stories better than fantasy fans?

Welcome to the speculative supernatural genre. Let’s jump in together and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

rabbitOn February 19th, Amber McCallister, who often reviews speculative fiction, will overview The Little Seer and provide an excerpt on her Wonderings of One Person weblog. Erin El Mehairi will be interviewing Laura on February 20 at Oh for the Hook of a Book! 

The Little Seer is available on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.

You can also find Laura at her website and on Facebook and Twitter at @laurakcowan. And, I would like to thank her for stopping by Malcolm’s Round Table today.

–Malcolm

Briefly Noted Novel: ‘The White Forest’ by Adam McOmber

whiteforestAdam McComber’s The White Forest (which I’m currently reading when I should be working) introduces protagonist Jane Silverlake, a young lady with an affinity for man-made objects that transcends psychometry. It’s as though they have souls and agendas that are much more than simply the traces of those who made them or owned them.

The novel is set in Victorian England at a time when some people are interested in the latest frontiers of spiritualism while others think anyone with odd talents is a witch. Jane has only shared her talent with two close friends and, soon after the novel begins, one of them disappears. Jane’s best friend is distraught as well as suspicious, and the police are looking at everybody.

From the publisher

In this hauntingly original debut novel about a young woman whose peculiar abilities help her infiltrate a mysterious secret society, Adam McOmber uses fantastical twists and dark turns to create a fast-paced, unforgettable story.

Young Jane Silverlake lives with her father in a crumbling family estate on the edge of Hampstead Heath. Jane has a secret—an unexplainable gift that allows her to see the souls of man-made objects—and this talent isolates her from the outside world. Her greatest joy is wandering the wild heath with her neighbors, Madeline and Nathan. But as the friends come of age, their idyll is shattered by the feelings both girls develop for Nathan, and by Nathan’s interest in a cult led by Ariston Day, a charismatic mystic popular with London’s elite. Day encourages his followers to explore dream manipulation with the goal of discovering a strange hidden world, a place he calls the Empyrean.

A year later, Nathan has vanished, and the famed Inspector Vidocq arrives in London to untangle the events that led up to Nathan’s disappearance. As a sinister truth emerges, Jane realizes she must discover the origins of her talent, and use it to find Nathan herself, before it’s too late.

Praise from the Chicago Sun-Times

“What sets “The White Forest” apart from other contemporary novels is Adam McOmber’s careful attention to language. While it is the Columbia College professor’s first full-length novel, “The White Forest” is written with an imaginative and haunting prose reminiscent of H.P Lovecraft.”

Praise from Kirkus Reviews

“Teeming with as many twists and turns and shadowy characters as the narrow Victorian streets in which the tale is partially set, McOmber creates a . . . supernatural mystery that bombards the senses with rich dialogue and imagery.”

Opening Lines

“When Nathan Ashe disappeared from the ruined streets of Southwark, I couldn’t help but think the horror was, at least in part, my own design. I’d infected him, after all, filled im up with my so-called disease. The rank shadows and gaslight in the human warens beyond Blackfriars Bridge did the rest. Madeline Lee, my dearest friend, would come to hate me for what I’d done.”


This well-written mystery/historical/fantasy has lured me into another world.

Malcolm

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