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Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Headcases (3)

The floating head goblin encountered throughout South-east Asia occurs in a much more Shinto-friendly sanitized form in Japanese folklore. No pus-dripping entrails here, no blood and childbirth, just an eerie flying head as described by Lafcadio Hearn in Kwaidan:

Gently unbarring the door, Kwairyo made his way to the garden, and proceeded with all possible caution to the grove beyond it. He heard voices talking in the grove; and he went in the direction of the voices, stealing from shadow to shadow, until he reached a good hiding-place. Then, from behind a trunk, he caught sight of the heads—all five of them—flitting about, and chatting as they flitted. They were eating worms and insects which they found on the ground or among the trees. 

Presently the head of the chieftain stopped eating and said, "Ah, that travelling priest who came tonight—how fat all his body is! When we shall have eaten him, our bellies will be well filled. I was foolish to talk to him as I did; it only set him to reciting the sutras on behalf of my soul. To go near him while he is reciting would be difficult, and we cannot touch him so long as he is praying. But as it is now nearly morning, perhaps he has gone to sleep. One of you go to the house and see what the fellow is doing."

Another head—the head of a young woman—immediately rose up and flitted to the house, lightly as a bat. After a few minutes it came back, and cried out huskily, in a tone of great alarm, "That travelling priest is not in the house. He is gone! But that is not the worst of the matter. He has taken the body of our chieftain; and I do not know where he has put it." 

At this announcement the head of the chieftain—distinctly visible in the moonlight—assumed a frightful aspect: its eyes opened monstrously; its hair stood up bristling; and its teeth gnashed. Then a cry burst from its lips; and, weeping tears of rage, it exclaimed, "Since my body has been moved, to rejoin it is not possible. Then I must die! And all through the work of that priest. Before I die I will get at that priest! I will tear him! I will devour him! And there he is behind that tree!—hiding behind that tree! See him—the fat coward!"

In the same moment the head of the chieftain, followed by the other four heads, sprang at Kwairyo. But the strong priest had already armed himself by plucking up a branch, and with that branch he struck the heads as they came, knocking them from him with tremendous blows. Four of them fled away. But the head of the chieftain, though battered again and again, desperately continued to bound at the priest, and at last caught him by the left sleeve of his robe. Kwairyo, however, as quickly gripped the head by its topknot, and repeatedly struck it. It did not release its hold; but it uttered a long moan, and thereafter ceased to struggle. It was dead. But its teeth still held the sleeve; and, for all his great strength, Kwairyo could not force open the jaws.

With the head still hanging to his sleeve he went back to the house, and there caught sight of the other four Rokuro-Kubi squatting together, with their bruised and bleeding heads reunited to their bodies. But when they perceived him at the back door all screamed, "The priest! the priest!" and fled through the other doorway out into the woods.

* * *

Notice that Hearn calls it a rokuro-kubi, rokuro being the Japanese word for a potter's wheel and kubi meaning neck. Technically (if folktales can ever be subject to technical analysis) the word rokuro-kubi ought to describe another Japanese goblin that sends out its head by night on the end of a long stretching neck, like Mister Fantastic, and the proper term for one of these things with a fully detachable head is nuke-kubi. I'm not sure that a Japanese storyteller would bother with the distinction, though. Hearn certainly didn't.

Less viscerally terrifying than the penanggalan this may certainly be, but I prefer it. Like a lot of Japanese folklore it's more dreamlike, less shlock-horrific and so far creepier. Hence it was the nuke-kubi that I used in Lords of the Rising Sun - as brilliantly illustrated here by Russ.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Dirk Lloyd shortlisted for Roald Dahl Prize

Here's an exciting bit of news that I've been keeping under my hat for a couple of weeks, but today it can be revealed. Dark Lord: The Early Years is one of six books shortlisted for this year's Roald Dahl Funny Prize.

(To digress: obviously it disgusts me to have to write the words "Funny Prize" but that's the name the organizers have given the thing. I console myself with the thought that Roald Dahl himself would shove them out the way and correct it to "Humour Prize" with big red pen, chortling derisively to himself all the while.)

Anyway, the important thing is that the genius of the book, which I believe is Jamie's greatest work to date, is being recognized. And if Roald Dahl himself were one of the judges I have no doubt it would win. As it is, we must rely on Dirk Lloyd's talents for self-promotion and social networking. I asked Dirk for a quote and he said:
"The Roald Dahl Funny Prize? Shouldn’t that read the Dirk Lloyd Funny Prize?"
So, in the bag then.

While opening Jamie's cage to throw him an extra scrap of rancid meat as a reward, it occurred to me that credit is also due to the wacky drawings of Scrawny Earth Girl (aka Freya Hartas), depicted here in the office where her father Leo and I work on our epic comic saga Mirabilis, wearing a jacket given to her by my wife Roz. Put like this, I guess it sounds like our lives are driven by the same kind of incestuous cronyism that pervades modern politics and business, only in our case without the vast wealth and the freebie honours.

I know I'm biassed, but Dark Lord really is one of the funniest books I've ever read. I was laughing out loud all the way through, and how many books can you say that about? Pick it up in the USA from October 2 at the link above, or in the UK on Amazon here.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Sky scraping

Big news tomorrow. Yes, it's this big, but the picture is a clue in another way too. Can't say more - too excited. Drop by tomorrow, when I'll have had a cuppa to steady my nerves.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

A shark going forward

I'm used to the idea that most visitors to this blog are really only interested in Fabled Lands news, maybe with a side order of 1990s gamebooks - and hey, I'm not knocking it. It's nice to have your work appreciated, even if it is sixteen-year-old work. But I didn't retire or anything, and naturally I think I'm a better writer now than I was back then, so I hope the hardcore gamebook fans will allow me the occasional indulgence of talking about what I'm working on nowadays.

One such project is of course Frankenstein, which came out earlier this year on iPad and iPhone. I'm right now working with Spirit Entertainment (the new FL app developers) on Kindle and EPUB versions of that, which should be published by Profile Books this autumn. And next year there might even be a print edition - which is not easy, because this is an interactive novel rather than a gamebook, so telling the reader about the characters' degree of alienation or trust is not exactly conducive to the literary experience. But I'll see if I can figure something out.

And then there's my ongoing comics epic Mirabilis: Year of Wonders, created with Leo Hartas and Martin McKenna. This is my labour of love. The work that I would still do if I was stranded on a desert island with no one to read it.

Recently Mirabilis was released on the NOOK and in the iBookstore, but the important scoop du jour is that it's just out on Kindle and for this week only the first two issues are discounted down to - oh, absolutely free. Well, how about that. There's never been a better time to try it out. And if you like it, let me know. Writers are more like cats than sharks, you know. We like to be stroked.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Headcases (2)

Most gruesome of the disembodied heads of folklore is the spirit known variously throughout South-east Asia as the penanggalan (Malaysia), the leyak (Bali), the krasue (Thailand), the kasu (Laos) and the ap (Cambodia) - at least, in the unlikely eventuality that Wiki is to be believed. John D Gimlette, in Malay Poisons and Charm Cures, characterizes it as a disease-inducing spirit - "a horrible, partially disembowelled wraith from the lying-in room who comes to torment little children" - apparently taking his cue from Sir Hugh Clifford's description in his book In Court and Kampong:

"I had told them of the Pĕnangal, that horrible wraith of a woman who has died in child-birth, and who comes to torment small children, in the guise of a fearful face and bust, with yards of bloody trailing entrails flying in her wake; of that weird little white animal the Mati-ânak, that makes beast noises round the graves of children; and of the familiar spirits that men raise up from the corpses of babes who have never seen the light, the tips of whose tongues they bite off and swallow, after the child has been brought back to life by magic agencies."

The creature seems to be a sort of Oriental vampire, which during the day presents itself as a midwife but by night detaches its head from its body and flies around with its entrails dangling below it. In other (probably earlier) variants it makes no claim to humanity, but instead is a kind of harpy that, attracted by the sounds of a woman in labour, perches on the roof and makes a cacophonous screeching. The liquid that seems from its entrails can cause the newborn child to sicken and die. Or maybe it drinks the baby's or mother's blood. That's the wonderful thing about folklore; it's not a Monster Manual.

My HeroQuest book The Screaming Spectre was supposed to be titled The Singing Skull, except a suit at Hasbro thought that singing wasn't scary enough and skulls were too scary. Stolen heads still featured in the story, though, and as I chose South-east Asian folklore as inspiration for the gamebook section of the book, the penangga-lan inevitably made an appearance:

"A group of disembodied heads hang hovering in the air of the vestibule. Their eyes blaze greenly from deep-set white sockets and their long fangs are bared eagerly in anticipation of the blood-feast. But most ghastly of all is the tangle of slimy entrails which hangs from the stump of each severed neck, twitching and coiling like snakes as the disembodied heads circle around you."

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Headcases (1)

While going over a lot of my old books in preparation for next year's gamebook initiative, I've been noticing what a lot of creepy disembodied heads I've used as monsters over the years. Funny, I never thought of it as a particular obsession of mine, but apparently it's been there as a hangnail in my subconscious all this time. This one is from Necklace of Skulls and is based on a real (and magnificently nightmarish) creature of Mesoamerican folklore, as described in this excerpt from Tobacco Use by Native North Americans: Sacred Smoke and Silent Killer, by Joseph C Winter:
'Tobacco acts to seal off the demon's transformation from its human form. For example, the Charcoal Cruncher might possess a woman who then detaches her head so that it can roam the forest at night, eating charcoal. The demon is supposedly trapped by putting tobacco, garlic, and salt (all "civilized" creations of mankind) on her severed head. Another local demon, the Split-faced Man, can be killed only when he is thoroughly saturated three times with tobacco, salt, and other ingredients.'
If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say this monster has the stamp of a debased deity about it, and therefore probably arose after the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish. If so, it wasn't a creature that a young warrior of the classic Maya period would fear to meet at night. But who knows? Here's how the thing is introduced in Necklace of Skulls:

'Nightcrawlers are disembodied heads that live in calabash trees and descend to glide through the air in the dead of night,' the fenman tells you. 'They find their way into houses through the roof, and can sometimes be heard crunching the charcoal beside the hearth. I myself once woke after a night of disturbing dreams to find my stock of firewood had mysteriously vanished.'

'These nightcrawlers are mischievous creatures, then,' you reply. 

He gives a snort of grim laughter. 'I prefer to think of them as steeped in evil, in view of the fact that they also smother babies.'

'I shall be sure to keep a weather eye out for flying heads,' you assure him. 

'Oh, they are more cunning than that! A night-crawler will sometimes latch onto a human neck, sinking tendrils into the host in the manner of a strangler fig taking root in another tree. In that guise, they may use trickery and guile to entice you off the road into the swamps.'

'Presumably the presence of two heads on a body is a sure giveaway, though?'

He shrugs as though this had never occurred to him. 'Salt is the only remedy,' he maintains. 'Night-crawlers are repelled by salt. Farewell to you, then.' He strolls off towards his house and you are left to mull over his advice as you continue your journey on foot.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Worth a thousand words

Fabled Lands
I was totting up the number of sections in the FL books the other day. It comes to 4369 "paras", as Jamie and I refer to them - almost the equivalent of eleven Fighting Fantasy books. It's a wonder we didn't get brain hernias. (Really, 'cause that's a thing.)

Anyway, it set me to thinking... How many major quests are there in the first six books? How many recurring non-player characters? How many different locations? If it was a CRPG, how long would it take to play through?

And doesn't it make you wish there were another six covers on that infographic..?

Monday, 3 September 2012

How Russ got his briefs

Right from when I started writing gamebooks, I wanted Russ Nicholson as one of my artists. That wasn't because he illustrated Warlock of Firetop Mountain, oh no. I'd been a fan long before that, on the basis of his work in White Dwarf and, years before I started reading that, in the brilliant British magazine Fantasy Tales, edited by Stephen Jones. Here's his illustration in issue one (Summer 1977) accompanying Michael Moorcock's self-parody "The Stone Thing":
Thanks to Mr Jones, I tracked Russ down to the jungles of Papua New Guinea, where he was helping a super villain build his lair, and persuaded him to do the illustrations for Eye of the Dragon - not the Fighting Fantasy gamebook; I'm talking about the original one. Since then we've worked on a lot of projects together, but few more ambitious or creatively successful than Fabled Lands. Let's face it, without Russ's images, the world of Harkuna would feel like it was just made up or something. Illustrations like the one here of the canals of Metriciens (below: colourized version from Megara's art team) reach out and drag you into another world. It's not only Coleridge's definition of poetic faith we experience when Russ is on top form; it's the willing commitment to belief.

Enough preamble. This is all by way of saying that, while engaged in the 21st century version of clearing out the attic - to wit, sorting through old folders on my computer - I came across the original art brief I sent to Russ for Fabled Lands book 2. And for the sake of historical interest, here it is - sent by snail mail, of course. We didn't have no fancy international network in those days:

Hi Russ - the maps look great. I love all the detail on the forests - it takes me back to reading The Hobbit and LotR, wondering over the maps. Just what we wanted. The city of Metriciens is missing off the colour map, but that may be because I forgot to put it on the original. (Not all cities from the detailed colour maps will necessarily fit on to the large global map, of course.) 

Also, herewith are the first batch of Fabled Lands illustrations. Phone me to discuss once you've looked through them. I've established generic formats for the pictures: 

Widescreen: 186mm wide by 73mm high
Quarter Page: 88mm by 110mm 
Sixth Page: 88mm by 73mm 
Vignette: 88mm by 55mm or less 

The illustrations for Book Two are:

2 The city of Ringhorn (widescreen) 
A vista of the city, which is a typical medieval city located on a river. This could be done like a medieval map, or as a picture of the city with an inset map and city coat-of-arms, or whatever you like.

25 Castle Ravayne (widescreen)
"The white turrets rise above the treetops. White puffs of cloud float in the sky. From the topmost tower flutters the black lion banner of the Ravayne Clan."

48 The city of Metriciens (widescreen)
The main mercantile port, probably much like Venice at its height. How about a picture showing a palace built along a plaza like those old Canaletto pictures or whoever it was? (Like Ringhorn, you could have inset flag, coat-of-arms or little map if you want.)

71 The town of Wheatfields (quarter page)
"A market town of some size, in the very heart of the fertile farmlands of central Golnir." This can be a view as you approach, street scene, whatever...

94 The Monastery of Molhern (quarter page)
A monastery devoted to the god of learning and crafts. The monks combine hard physical labour with academic study - just like monks in the middle ages were meant to, I suppose. This is set at some remote spot in the countryside.

125 The Temple of Nagil (quarter page)
"Nagil, god of death, is often shown as a cowled figure. Paradoxically, his temple is no stately mausoleum, but a wide high-towered building from whose minaret the priests sing a haunting melody at dusk." This is in a city.

145 The shops of Conflass (widescreen)
"Conflass market consists of tiers of shops surrounding a pleasant square in the middle of the town. You reach the higher shops by means of stepped walkways." I was thinking of the shops in Chester, by the way.

185 Hermit's cottage (quarter page)
A sprawling single-storey cottage in the heart of dense black forest. In front is a man in a homespun tunic who is drawing water from a well.

208 Caught in a spider's web (sixth page)
Typical giant spider descending to gobble you up.

217 Wishport (widescreen)
"Wishport is a picturesque town set at the back of a bay rimmed by white cliffs." To make this a bit different from the other town/city pictures, it could be seen from out at sea. 

255 Ships in Ringhorn harbour (widescreen)
Ships moored, perhaps with bridge to show how wide the river is. I'm thinking of something like the Pool of London in olden times, in that this is a wide sheltered estuary so there is no need for a harbour wall or whatever.

282 In the mountains (sixth page)
"High jagged peaks... As you climb a steep trail, you see a small waterfall gushing from high above."

303 Enchanted waterfall (quarter page)
A wide pool below a large waterfall. Fine spray hangs in the air like mist (goodness knows how you'll show that!) and very faintly it seems that figures are outlined in the mist, but it's impossible to be certain.

330 Waterfront tavern (quarter page)
Typical tavern (whatever a "typical tavern" looks like in the world of Harkuna) where sailors drink and wait to be employed or press-ganged.

360 Smugglers on the beach (quarter page) 
At night, from a vantage point on the cliffs, you see smugglers coming ashore with barrels in a small boat.

386 Pirates at sea (quarter page)
Pirates sail towards you. These pirates are actually privateers of the Kingdom of the Reavers, identifiable by the jagged pennant they fly.

400 Sprites at the roadside (quarter page)
"You are on a lonely stretch of road. Suddenly a bunch of misshapen sprites with grotesque faces emerge from a hedge. They amble over and prod you with gnarled fingers."

428 Tricked by the devil (quarter page)
You are on a country lane. The devil (in the guise of a young bard) has challenged you to deliver a sermon good enough to convert all the local cats. Naturally the cats are milling about taking no notice, at which the young bard seems quite amused.

455 Castle dungeons (quarter page)
A jailer is looking in on you in the gloomy castle dungeons, straight out of Prince Valiant I guess!

473 Storyteller (sixth page)
A storyteller is sitting on a grassy hummock beside a leafy lane, regaling the local children with his tall tales.

514 Samurai in the fens (quarter page)
"On an island in the fens, you are startled to come across a swordsman in exotic armour sitting beside an empty chest. His curved sword is across his knees and he leaps up angrily as you approach."

540 Estragon the Wizard (quarter page)
A crazy old wizard in his laboratory, deep under Castle Ravayne. He's looking annoyed at the bad news you've just brought him. In fact, it looks like he's casting a spell at you!

573 Wraiths on the river (quarter page)
"Just after nightfall, a punt carrying ghostly figures drifts around the bend in the river. The wraiths beckon for you to come aboard and join them." This is out in the middle of nowhere.

599 Damsel in a high tower (sixth page) 
While travelling cross-country, you see a woman who calls down to you from a tower where she has been imprisoned by an evil knight.

621 An eerie inn (quarter page)
"At dusk you are forced to seek shelter from the rain. You go towards a light, finding an inn. An old peeling sign swings in the wind. As you approach, the door opens and the innkeeper invites you in." 

646 Three knights of the death-god (quarter page)
"Three mounted knights encounter you on the road. They wear white tabards and their shields bear the holy symbol of the death-god Nagil." 

677 Fools of Gotham village (quarter page)
Seven simpletons (not all need be shown in the picture!) are trying to convince a cow to climb up a ladder onto the roof of their thatched cottage.

704 A stranger at dusk (quarter page)
"A fellow in grey robes sits on the steps of a caravan by the side of the road. He is playing a flute with a bulb in its stem. As you draw near, he looks up and grins, teeth flashing like pearls in the light of the rising moon." I imagine the flute looking like a snake-charmer's pipe.

741 A charging bull (sixth page)
A bull charging angrily at you for having the temerity to take a short-cut through its field.

765 A country fair (quarter page)
Typical country fair with tents and stalls set out on the village green. Jugglers, pedlars, dancing bears, songbirds, acrobats, musicians, villagers and so forth.

You could also add a few vignettes that will be used as fillers, so can vary between 20mm and 55mm high and one column (88mm) wide. These can illustrate typical "travel" paragraphs in open country, stone road, woodland, riverside, fens, cliffs by sea, or whatever you like - or more usual fillers such as swords, wands, compass and sextant, etc, if you'd rather. We should only need four or five for each book. All for now.