Tag Archives: horror

“The Air Gap” in LampLight 5.4

A quick note that my sysadmin horror story, “The Air Gap,” is now available in LampLight Magazine, volume 5, issue 4. It can be purchased from the following fine ebook retailers (list will be updated as it clears its way through various systems)








Making the Unseen Seen

I have a lot of opinions (surprise!) about a great many things.  Cheesesteaks, for example, or how so few people on the west coast seem to know what the word hoagie means or what does and does not constitute steampunk in the realm of fiction.  It should not be a shock, therefore, that I have opinions on H. P. Lovecraft and by extension Lovecraftian fiction and (Cthulhu) Mythos stories.

On a recent visit to a local bookshop, I ran across The Lovecraft Anthology: Volume 1, a collection of Lovecraft’s stories as interpreted by various comic book artists and writers.  Now I’m all for a well-illustrated weird tale–I absolutely love Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics, which I find to be a perfect blend of compelling characters, interesting storytelling, and perfectly atmospheric art–but something just felt a bit off to me about this collection.  While a picture may be worth a thousand words, there are some words that a picture just can’t capture.  This, I’ve found, is the case with Lovecraft’s stories.  So much of the horror in Lovecraft’s fiction stems from what the audience cannot see, and to attempt to capture those things with pictures seems like it would diminish the impact to a greater or lesser extent (depending on the story).

This is the part where I confess that I only leafed through the book, rather than giving it a thorough read, even for a single story.  I did look through the table of contents, and I was happy to see that they hadn’t touched some of my favorite stories, though I suppose that that does deny me the opportunity to complain about their ruining something I like.  On the other hand, there’s always the possibility that they would do a good job–lots of things are possible.

In the end, the thing I most object to in this collection is the same thing that annoys me about many of the movie adaptations of books that are out there–the pictures that other people are showing me are the ones that they have in their heads, and those don’t always mesh with what I’ve imagined.  I find this especially problematic in the context of Lovecraftian horror because static pictures of monsters don’t scare me that often, and in a graphic story, pictures are, by definition, the main way that information is conveyed.

Howard Tayler, in a recent episode of Writing Excuses on the subject of death, related how, when he draws a character’s death in Schlock Mercenary, he usually draws that part of the scene in silhouette, which allows the readers to fill in the details of the death, making the event that much more graphic.  Lovecraft, when writing about the monsters in some of his stories, does the same things with his language, using words to outline the monster and making his readers fill in the details with their minds.  While this technique may retain some of the impact of Lovecraft’s original words, I still think that something gets lost in the translation to a graphic story.  You cannot draw the unseen, and unless you want to fill your comic with walls of text (which you don’t), it’s difficult to convey the unseen effectively.

For all that I’ve written up to this point, I don’t think that this collection, or its sequel, are bad.  For many who are already fans of Lovecraft’s work, they could be a nice companion and a glimpse into what Lovecraft’s stories mean to the various artists featured.  These collections could also serve as a good gateway drug for those who may have previously found Lovecraft’s (rather dense) text to be inaccessible, and hopefully some percentage of the previously uninitiated will go on to read Lovecraft’s stories as they were first introduced to the world.


Though I’ve covered creatures before, I thought that zombies deserved a bit of special attention, partly because they have a special place in my heart as my first movie-monster love.  Other creatures may be pretty good, but nothing quite says horror to me like a shambling reanimated corpse.

Those of you who have seen the original Dawn of the Dead will remember that the movie opens in the projects in north Philly.  The movie then gets away from Philly (though staying in PA), but let’s just imagine that rather than following survivors to a mall, we stay in the city.  Where would be safest?  Where would an initial outbreak be likely to spread?

When I consider the prospect of a zombie outbreak in Philly, I think time and again that the most secure place stay, at least for the short term, would be Eastern State Penitentiary.  Certainly it’s creepy as all get out in there, but the place is built like a castle.  Yes, the primary purpose was to keep people in, but it was also important to keep people out of the place.  Another advantage is that the guard towers are good vantage-points from which survivors can track zombie movements on the surrounding streets and, if worst comes to worst, a decent location for a heroic last stand.

There are other places which would be fairly secure spots throughout the city.  The federal detention facility on 7th and Arch is another such location, although it does have the disadvantage of being full of prisoners, for it is an active facility.

When considering places where an outbreak would spread quickly, it’s a bit hard to know where to start.  Cities are terrible places for surviving a zombie outbreak because you’re at such close quarters most of the time.  This does give some clues as to the places to avoid most if you or one of your characters is trying to avoid the living dead.  The subway, especially the concourses around Suburban Station and Market East Station, is a really good place to become zombie food because there are relatively few options for escape.

Abandoned buildings, especially those which play home to vagrants, are another likely place for an outbreak to spread, and they’re one of the places where an outbreak is likely to go unnoticed for a time.  In general, anyplace which is generally ignored by much of the city except when it becomes a problem is a good place for the outbreak to spread.

One final place which is a likely breeding-ground for an initial outbreak is any of the wooded regions of Fairmount Park.  There are miles of trails in the city limits alone which run through wooded areas where someone could easily disappear or be attacked and bitten, and the woods are a good place for zombies to hide.  Remember the initial outbreak in the outskirts of Raccoon City (which, according to some versions of the back-story, is somewhere in central PA)?


While reading some pieces for workshop shortly after my last post, I stumbled into inspiration.  The piece which inspired me was a choose-your-own-adventure-style retelling of several fairy-tales with a more mature twist, and it got me thinking about those times when a single, currently named genre is not an adequate descriptor for a piece of fiction.  What happens when you want to blend genres, and what are the pitfalls to avoid?

The biggest pitfall that should be avoided is obscuring your story with setting.  As I said in an earlier post, a story can only support one fantastical element.  If you are writing an urban fantasy/steampunk story, you cannot effectively focus on both the fantastical creatures and the clever steam technology that you’ve come up with.  You may try, of course, but your story will suffer as you try to go in too many directions at once.  Better, continuing with the uf/sp example, to use the steampunk as nothing more than a backdrop which could, with little effort on your part, be swapped out in favor of a spaceship, an underwater city, an alien planet, or the “real” world.  On the other hand, you might wish to focus on the steampunk, using the urban fantasy elements as little more than a backdrop.

The second pitfall to avoid is trying to blend disparate genres.  Certain genres lend themselves to being blended with other genres: romance, for instance.  In these cases, the one genre is a sort of template which is laid on top of the other.  Likewise, there are some genres which take the addition of templates well.  Fantasy and science fiction both serve well as bases upon which other genres may be laid.  Common sense should tell you when two genres are unlikely to play nice with each other before you have invested too much time with an idea.  For instance, it’s unlikely, though not impossible, that you’ll be able to write an effective romance/horror story.

When it comes to the bending of genres, the thing to remember is that you can’t make a genre something that it is not.  But that’s the point of genre bending, you say.  Not quite, I say.  In bending a genre, you are trying to make change the shape of the genre in question to accommodate the story that you’re telling.  If you bend the genre too far, though, you’re going to break it.  If that happens, then you were trying to use the wrong genre as a foundation, and you would be better served by another genre.

So how does this apply to urban fantasy?  Let’s run with the steampunk example I was using earlier.  Both genres work well as templates, so it’s a matter of deciding which one will be the base of the story.  Since this blog is ostensibly about urban fantasy in Philadelphia, I’ll say that urban fantasy is the base, and that steampunk is the template.  What I now have is Philadelphia, circa an alternate 1894, where the Reading Terminal is also a sky platform for airships, and automatons, rather than poor laborers, do menial and dangerous tasks.  This forms the backdrop for a story in which werewolves are overrunning the city, and it is the job of a Gentleman Adventurer to stop them.

Throughout this post, I have assumed your familiarity with steampunk, however, if you don’t know anything about the genre/subculture or you want to know more, the Brass Goggles steampunk blog and forums are one of the best places to start.

Abandoned Places

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, as far as I’m concerned, set the groundwork for urban fantasy.  The area known as “Lovecraft Country,” encompasses both countryside and urban areas, and anyone living in the north-eastern United States has, undoubtedly, passed through Lovecraft Country at least once in his or her life.  Even those who have haven’t read any of Lovecraft’s works (and if you have an interest in urban fantasy and horror, you really ought to stop reading this right now and not return until you’ve read some Lovecraft) have likely gotten a bit of the uneasy feeling that Lovecraft communicates to his readers when passing through parts of rural New England.

But Philadelphia isn’t in New England; what does this have to do with anything?  Plenty.  Some of Lovecraft’s best pieces have to do with abandoned places, and any city is bound to have its share of abandoned buildings and other areas.  Focusing on Philadelphia, two of the places that spring to mind are Eastern State Penitentiary and the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry.  Just thinking about going into either of these places gives me the heebie-jeebies.

These places, of course, are just two of the better-known examples of abandoned places in Philly.  Another abandoned area in the city that I discovered through the magic of Wikipedia is the Reading Viaduct.

Visiting, or simply seeing pictures of abandoned places can help you capture the sort of atmosphere that is essential for urban fantasy.  Everything you can do to establish the total other-ness of a world that is both known and unknown will help your work and help you immerse your readers.

In the course of my research, I also found a listing of abandoned and interesting places in and around Philadelphia.  Even if you don’t go off and explore these places for yourself, the pictures alone should be inspiration enough to get your creative juices flowing.

One of the problems that I have with such research is that my principal urban fantasy arc is concerned with Philadelphia in the mid-70’s, so I often find something really interesting and inspiring, only to learn that it didn’t exist, or didn’t exist in its current incarnation, at the time that my stories are set.  I sometimes find it frustrating to write about an earlier era when such problems arise, but I find it rewarding because I don’t have to worry about modern technology mucking things up.

I would like to note, before signing off, that although I have posted links to sites concerned with the exploration of abandoned buildings, some of which may be located on private property, I do not endorse trespassing.  If you get hurt or arrested exploring a really cool abandoned building, don’t come crying to me.

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