Category Archives: story

Review: 100 Episodes of Night Vale

Welcome to NightvaleFor four years now a surreal horror story has been broadcast over the tangled nodes of the internet. The podcast Welcome to Night Vale has appeared in twice-monthly installments since June 2012, making it one of the longest running fictional podcasts around. The 100th episode has gone live, which is a good excuse to talk about it. This show has everything: Battles, intrigue, revenge, subterfuge, love, philosophical ruminations on the nature of existence, and interns.

The genius of the show is its format. It’s presented as a radio show, which makes Welcome to Night Vale one of those rarest of fictions – a second-person format that works. As a listener, you are presumably within the isolated town of Night Vale, and affected by and involved with everything that happens there. The format lets the story wander between third-person reports of events in the town and first-person commentary by Cecil, the presenter. Although eminently likable, he is an untrustworthy narrator, projecting his emotions and judgments onto whatever he is reporting. It’s fun hearing the monologues of other people in the town and getting completely different perspectives — it’s a good storytelling technique to have people present their own versions of the truth instead of a monolithic narrative agreed to by everybody. The format also allows for repeating segments, such as the existential nihilism of Traffic and the musical tones of the Weather.

Night Vale is a Poeish and Lovecraftian place, ruled by hooded figures, terrorised by glow clouds, invaded by cities hidden under the bowling alley, and generally harassed by secret government agencies. Anything that happens in an episode, no matter how throw-away a punch-line or bizarre a revelation, is maintained throughout the show. The Faceless Old Lady Who Lives In Your Home was introduced as a creepy concept, and Hiram McDaniels, a literal five-headed dragon, was a metaphor taken literally, but they ran against each other in the Mayoral election. This is what allows the show to work – from the viciousness of librarians to the completely forbidden nature of the dog park, everything is retained and becomes a normal part of the Night Vale world.

Cecil is the announcer of Night Vale Community Radio, and it is his dulcet tones which make up the majority of the podcast. The fact that his voice is so nice to listen to is a main element of the success of the podcast. The normal manner of reporting the weird phenomenon is a sublime juxtaposition, used to great effect. He also adds the main personal element to the show, particularly through his relationship with his boyfriend, delightfully revealed in wistful digressions, interviews and phone messages. A good argument could be made that the show is love story.

Like any great fiction, a lot of meaning can be read into Welcome to Night Vale. The show satirises pretty much everything, starting with the terrifying nature of our bosses. For politics there is a huge race for mayor, complete with dirty tactics and outright threats, but the votes are ignored and the winner (spoiler alert) is ultimately decided by pulses coming from Hidden Gorge. There are arbitrary rules of society that must be followed, places that are off-limits for no explained reason, constant manipulation by secretive organisations, and the peppy evil of conglomerating corporations.

All in all, Welcome to Night Vale has a peculiar aesthetic that will enchant fans of folk horror and bizarre circuses … but beyond that it is a marvelous story, that is well-constructed and superbly performed. Start from the beginning and enjoy the show. The podcast is free, with the writers and crew earning a living by touring live shows, selling related merchandise, and soliciting donations. There’s also a book out.

This is adapted from a review I wrote for Radio Monash

Review: Blink

Blink is a dimension-hopping secret agent story. Agent Smith works for the Utility Company, a top-secret US agency that deals with the sort of issues that can’t get reported in more pedestrian secret agencies…you the know the drill. His latest case is the result of one scientist’s successful effort to breach the barriers within the multiverse and allow travel between two parallel realities. One of them starts messing with the other, and the inevitable complicated conflict arises.

This is a fun read. There’s plenty of action and twists and turns to the plot to keep it fresh. It clocks in at 107,000 words so the length is good value – there’s even two interludes, allowing you to relieve yourself the restroom or buy more popcorn if you wish. The main difference between the realities is reasonably well thought out and surprisingly realistic, although the tone may cause non-Americans to roll their eyes.

On the downside, the novel could have done with a good line editor. Also, while complicated plot twists are an inherent part of this genre, some of the twists in this book – especially towards the end – don’t bear scrutiny, to the point where it can break the suspension of disbelief. If you’re willing to dive back into a fun story after a WTF moment – for example, if you like James Bond movies – you should give this book a try.

The Intellectual Property of Language

There is action in the copyright field with Paramount suing a crowdfunded Star Trek fan film for copyright infringement.

That’s old news, but the people being sued asked for specific instances of copyright violation, and Paramount provided them. They include:

–The uniforms – which is valid, since clothing design can be copyrighted
–The appearance of Vulcans – probably valid. Calling a race Vulcans isn’t infringing, and having a race with pointy ears isn’t infringing, but having a star-faring race with pointy ears called Vulcans is infringing.
–Specific characters – probably valid.
–Using Stardate for a calendar – this is getting into dodgy territory. If it was a completely different universe you’d be hard-pressed to call this infringing.
–Phasers, beaming up via transporters, warp drive – absolutely not. These concepts have been around for a lot longer than Star Trek, are incredibly generic in the sci-fi genre, and are fair game.
–The Klingon Language – Now, this one is interesting.

The Klingon language is clearly a Star Trek thing – created originally by Star Trek writers and used exclusively by Star Trek media, or by people specifically referencing Star Trek. This would seem to make it clearly their content, yet it is a complete language with a large number of people around the world who speak it – or claim to speak it.

Can you copyright a language, even one for a fictional race? What would be the difference between Paramount claiming copyright on Klingon and an indigenous group claiming copyright on its own language? What if someone invented a word that then became popular…could they sue for copyright infringement for every use of that word?

So I think languages and words shouldn’t be subject to copyright, even if they are completely made up by someone for a fictional group or situation.

Magical Realism Actually Exists

I recently heard an off-hand comment that magical realism was just another term for fantasy, used by people who don’t want to admit they read fantasy. While I agree there are plenty of pretentious people who go through dramatic convolutions order to claim they don’t read genre stories, I don’t think this is the case with magical realism.

The key distinguishing factor of magical realism is that the fantastic elements cannot be proven within the story, whereas in typical fantasy they can be. The main fantasy stories in the general zeitgeist currently are “zombie apocalypse” and “superhero” – both of these are fantasy stories, and for both there is no dispute within the world of the story that the fantastical elements are real. These are a form of alternative universe stories, where the rules are fundamentally different to the rules we accept in the “real” world.

Magical realism, on the other hand, has fantastical elements that are not provable even within the world of the story. For example, in “100 Years of Solitude” Gabriel García Márquez has ghosts, prophetic visions, and people who reportedly live for longer than is realistic, such as a 145 year old brother owner. If they wanted to prove this to the satisfaction of the outside world, they wouldn’t be able to do so. There is a guru in India who claims to be more than two hundred years old, and no-one can really prove that he is or isn’t based on record keeping. In the book there’s a women who ascends into the sky, which would be quite a metaphorical ending for her if it wasn’t written so literally. Again, except for the witnesses all anyone has to go on is hearsay.

Most fantastical elements in magical realism have real-world counterparts, legends or stories which are accepted by some people as true but dismissed by most as fabrications, not because there is any evidence against them but because that’s simply not how we think the world works. But sometimes, the world works in ways that are different to what we expect, and people do experience things that they can’t explain in terms of “the real world”. That doesn’t mean those things have no explanation, of course, but it has to be taken on faith that there is a “reasonable” explanation that is simply unknown.

That is what distinguishes magical realism from other fantasy genres.

Review: Miniature Symphonies

Miniature Symphonies is a book of song-inspired vignettes, ranging from flash fiction to short essays to emotional soliloquies to the occasional rant. The songs range from heavy metal to jazz to rock to rap, an eclectic mix that means you’re bound to recognise and enjoy at least some of the songs, and be left scratching your head over what some song you’ve never heard of must be like to inspire the piece that was written. The same treatment is applied to books about music and musicians, and films about music and musicians. According to the author: “This book is to offer up the idea of inspiration and how close writing, music and film can be.”

F.J. Gouldner has a distinctive voice, and a worldview that is chock full of freedom and individuality and anti-government libertarian anarchism. This comes through in his interpretations of the songs that inspire him, screeds of individualism and fighting-the-power. There’s also a healthy dose of a desire to protect close family and friends. Then there are pieces like Carny, which look at how a life can go very wrong. There is a (seemingly) autobiographical bit at the end which gets downright disturbing, and is a brilliant piece of writing if it’s not completely true.

If you’re into music, looking for short pieces and celebrate freedom, try this book. FJ Gouldner blogs here.

One Day At Home


A short story of mine published on the Yellow Chair Review Blog.

Source: One Day At Home by Quintana Pearce

I follow the trail of yellow flowers until it ends. There’s no-one here. It’s just a dim, grimy street corner, and the xoloitzcuintli that has guided me simply sniffs at a power pole and sits. (continue reading)

Review: If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love

If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky is a second person POV story that works really well. It starts with a tone of wistful reverie – what would the world be like if you were a dinosaur? What would my life, our lives, be like? It flows nicely from this to show nonjudgmental love, and then to accepting that sometimes you have to let people go.

The reverie is illustrated with a poetic tactic, starting each paragraph by musing on the final sentence of the preceding paragraph. For example:

They’d work until they’d built you a mate.

If they built you a mate,

This works as a poetic device to add cadence to the musing, but is also very useful in showing when the musing ends; the sudden abandoning of this trick coincided with considering actual past events, rather than completely imaginary hypothesis.

The story flows on, naturally becoming more melancholy, until the situation that started this wistful reverie is revealed. It is disturbingly mundane, which emphasises that it is the mundane that we should truly fear, not the fantastic.

It is the language that makes this story good, the ideas that crop up in the daydream, the poetic use of words. A couple of favourites:

  • “deceived by the helix-and-fossil trappings of cloned dinosaurs”
  • “decanted their lives”
  • All in all a good read, to the point where I’ll be following the links at the bottom of the story to read her other work.

    Review: Things You Can Buy For A Penny

    Things You Can Buy For A Penny by Will Kaufman has a number of interesting features about it. The point of view is a sort of second person – the voice is one of a storyteller narrating the tales to an audience. The storyteller has a slightly superior tone, as if the tale is meant to be instructional.

    The story has a good rhythm and good foreshadowing, starting by talking about stories that would later appear, working through them backward (with each story influenced by the one that is set at an earlier time) and then forward again through the protagonists. I liked that structure and thought it was effective at maintaining interest, and linking the disparate tales.
    As for prose, it is fairytale lyrical, a very good choice for this type of story (after all, fairytales are exactly odd stories that are meant to be instructional).

    I felt as if there was something lacking from the story, something that stopped it being great, but I can’t figure out what it is. It could be that the story seems very familiar, either because I’ve read it before or because I’ve read something very similar. I knew how each story would go, and how the overall story would end, so maybe it lacked any surprise for me. Also, maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t so tired and stressed when I read it.

    Review: Candy Girl

    Candy Girl by Chikodili Emelumadu is the other story I am to review for my writing course, and I didn’t like it nearly as much as We’ll Be Together Forever. It deals with much the same subject matter in much the same way, and the writing is poetic enough, so it took me a while to work out why I didn’t really like it. After my first reading I could only say that it seemed less believable – which is an odd criticism for stories about functioning magic – but on rereading it I realised the problem was the characters.

    The main man in the story, Paul, the villain, does not seem like a real person. He has a long list of negative qualities – weak, obedient, obsequious, self-serving, tries to force his way into another culture, arrogant, entitled – and absolutely zero positive qualities, except maybe attractive toes. Personality-wise, he is more like a puppy that no-one finds cute than a human. He certainly does things that a puppy would do but no man would do.

    The other characters are also cookie-cutter characters but less fleshed out. What we know of the main character Muna (not really the protagonist, she doesn’t do much) is that she can’t tell the difference between zombies and mummies, even when the name of one of them is in the movie she’s referencing, and is apparently stupid enough to date a man with every type of patheticness and absolutely no redeeming qualities.

    Her cousin, Ginika, is only slightly better. We know she’s hyper-violent, visits Nigeria a lot, and is smart enough to get a scholarship to a posh school. Then there’s the magic-user Ozulu, who is a generic magic-user who despises those who don’t understand the forces they’re playing with.

    Bearing all this in mind, particularly that the most fleshed-out character was Paul, the story reads as nothing more than an attack on the kinds of men the author doesn’t like, all wrapped up into a single character. I suspect it was published because the setting is exotic; the descriptions of the Nigerian town are beautiful and evocative.

    To be fair, it’s possible I may have found the plot more interesting if I hadn’t just read another story with basically the same plot. If I’d read Candy Girl first I may have been less interested in We’ll Be Together Forever, but it wouldn’t change the fact that I find the characters in the latter far more believable than the characters here.

    Review: We’ll Be Together Forever

    I’ll start by saying that We’ll Be Together Forever by Joseph Allen Hill is the best story I can remember reading in Lightspeed Magazine*. It’s a magical surrealist story looking at the way two people relate to each other in a relationship that probably should have ended a fair while before the story starts.

    The characters and their relationship are fleshed out in the first tenth of the story: The man who wants to push the relationship to the next level irrespective of the wishes of the woman, who has inferiority issues; the woman who is passive-aggressive and doesn’t seem to really care about the man but is to lazy to end the relationship and strike out on her own. The relationship is basically the man nagging the woman into having the deeper relationship he wants while the woman distances herself from the man to keep the relationship shallow, the way she wants.

    The story could be read as an allegory for the most likely outcome if these people stay together – he absorbs her completely so she no longer appears to exist, but she controls him from inside the relationship so he never really does what he wants to do.

    It’s the magical surrealism of the story that kept me hooked. The absurd and peculiar turns the story takes, getting creepier and more disturbing, until finally the end arrives with the promise that, for the characters, the horrorshow will continue for the rest of their lives.


    *There probably have been others – I have a hard time remembering what magazine my favourite short stories were in – but the preferences of John Joseph Adams often don’t mesh with my own.